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There is a really weird sensation about rolling up the start line of a race and being the only person there, I suppose this would make me the both first and last finisher in the race I was runningbut the Pike and Back (Virtual) Half Marathon had much more meaning than just a run, this was a run that filled with history, emotion and of course mud.

I left my home in Scotland at about 7am with the aim to start running around lunchtime and hopefully avoid those who might be considering running the virtual race on the course at the original designated time – it’s about a four and half hour journey and I broke this up with a swift stop at a McDonalds for a ‘nourishing’ breakfast.

I was driving the little car as it was just me travelling and as the sun beat down on the car I thought it was going to be a scorcher for the run, something I had not counted on when I had been packing my kit (I was all waterproofs and survival blankets). I arrived bang on time despite a couple of little mis-steps in my directions.

The man in the car next me glared as I pulled up next to him he tossed his cigarette out of the car and wound his window up – presumably because he believved I had arrived to lick COVID 19 all over him which couldn’t be any further from the truth.

Anyway I had a Tesco pastry and a bit of chocolate milkshake to make sure I was fully energisted and then quickly got changed into my kit. I had vague memories of Moss Bank from my childhood, although I’m not from Bolton I do know the area quite well from visits as a child and Winter Hill is a well known landmark but I couldn’t remember ever being allowd to go up it (we were not a very active family). We also used to come here when I was child to a restaurant called Smithhills – it was a dickensian themed place and for our birthdays my grandparents would take us there as a treat. This event, virtual or not was loaded with memories for me and on the day before I led the funeral to my grandmother  this was rather a poignant thing I was doing (you could read about this in a separate blog post here).

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I set up the navigation on my Suunto and started to amble around aimlessly looking for the start (this did not bode well for following the route). Eventually after a few minutes of groping around the park I came to a small opening in the bushes which looked like the kind of place that a race might begin – Suunto agreed and so, after a couple of pictures, we set off.

Now lets be fair Suunto and the breadcrumb trail is at best, ‘not bad’ so as I ambled up the hill towards what I considered to be the route I figured quickly that I had made a mistake – what gave this away was that I found myself launching my poor, knackered body off a wall and onto the street below and then around a few narrow winding streets and then some steps where I finally picked up what was probably the route. There were clues that this might be the route, the first was the winding river and the trail in the distance, the second was that my watch finally looked like it was going in the right direction and thirdly two fellow virtual half marathiners came thundering past me.

Aha I thought I have found my way.

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Now I really hadn’t done that much research about the race or route, I’d left it to the rose tinted specs to assume that this would be something I’d like to do. I’d glanced at the elevation profile which looked like there were two small hills at about the mid-point of the route and the rest of it was pretty flat. It was only as I was about 600 metres in that I realised I had rather misjudged the situation and I had rather misjudged the route. Effectively the route was made actually made up of two tough climbs on a variety of surfaces and then in reverse it was made of a couple of hanrd going downhills and one really tough as old boots uphill that really sapped every last bit of energy you had!

The first three and bit kilometres of the route were mainly tarmac, quiet roads (or they should have been given the COVID-19 trouble), the elevation felt really tough. The toughness wasn’t just the route, this was very much a combination of a long drive from Scotland and a lack of training in recent weeks, my lack of training has been in part to COVID-19 but mainly due to the stress of work and my grandmother dying and having to do all the arrangements from this and now I was feeling it.

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The road seemed never ending and I did for a moment wonder if this was a trail half marathon but then glinting in the distance I saw the outline of a gate and a route on to the rolling trails around Winter Hill and Rivington Pike. I crossed the gate and bade the cyclists a good morning as I passed by them and then continued onward and most importantly upward. At this point we had moved from the tarmac to hard packed and stoney trail. I bimbled along, stopping only to allow past me, faster moving traffic and to take pictures of the truly spectacular surroundings. In the distance I now had clear sight of the Winter Hill transmission mast and realised that I despite having been here many times before I had probably only ever seen this at a distance.

I pressed on across the rocks, the mud and the water, the route had now gone from a bit of a slog to being genuinely fun and I was finally enjoying the route – especially as the sun was shining but also lovely and cool, a perfect running day. My feet for the first time that day felt free to unleash a little bit of pace inspite of the uphill – this is why I run I thought. I found myself feeling rather jaunty depsite the situation we all find ourselves in and I could simply revel in the reason I was here – to pay a small tribute to my departed (but much unloved) granny.

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I skipped down the stony path and alongside the transmittor and marvelled at the scale of the structure that had once (and may well still) send out things like the signal for Granada Television, I felt like a young boy in the back seat of grandfathers car as a ran beside the mast, the only thing missing was the twinkling red lights that adorn it as the lights go down.

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I assumed that Rivington Pike could not be that far from the mast and in the distance I could see a small structure which I asssumed was the destination and turnaround point. I therefore joined a narrow piece of tarmac and wended my way downwards and started arching away from the small structure, that was not Rivington Pike – oh dear. In the distance I could see a flurry of people around what looked like a small fortification or castle – that was Rivington Pike and I was what looked like several miles away from it. Thankfully this was now downhill but my knees don’t much like tarmac and they were feeling the stress of the pounding they were taking and although my Lone Peak 4.0 are well built they aren’t suited for sustained running on tarmac.

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I ran down and down, and down and down and then weirdly what felt like more down and down, yet, and this was the strange thing – Rivington Pike was up – totally in opposition to my descent.

However, eventually my downward spiral stopped and I returned to hard packed trails – here it felt very busy, lots of people travelling up to the Rivington Pike and dusty hard packed trails gave the illusion that everybody had a dry and dusty cough. It was rather interesting to watch as people covered up their faces as they walked past you or as I ran past them. I mean yes I was breathing more heavily than most of the people there but then I was exerting more pressure on my poor old body. I was mostly being sensible and passing people at a distance but one couple, who were wearing face masks, moved away from me at 90 degrees and zipped up their heavy duty winter jackets to fully cover their mouth – which I felt was a little excessive given that I was never closer than about 20ft away.

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Anyway I hurled myself on to the final climb of Rivington Pike and chatted (at a safe social distance) to a local cyclist, both of us wondering why the hell we were here. I waved at him as I left him behind and continued my climb to the top which was awash with people. I stopped long enough to take a couple of pictures and then made a swift sprint down the front of the Pike knowing that an absolute shit of a hill was waiting for me.

I’ll be perfectly honest, not a lot of running was done back up the hill, my legs were absolutely cream crackered and all I wanted was to be back at the car and maybe stop at the ice cream van who was awaiting customers in the park. I was also very keen to relieve my bladder of its contents but given the throngs of people that were festooned around the route and the lack of any cover meant that I really had to tie a knot in it and hold on. It was here that I noted I had probably made a routing error on the way out and added several hundred metres to my journey as my beloved Suunto insisted that I head across the wet boggy trail. Of course this was music to my ears – get off the tarmac, get back in touch with nature and as cold mud sprayed up the back of me and my feet found themselves submerged I thought, ‘bliss’. I came across a father and son who were clearly not geared for this kind of trail and looking rather unhappy at the prospect of having to continue through this but they managed a cheery smile as I ran by them.

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Soon though I was back on the path and facing the Winter Hill mast, I waved goodbye to it as I turned away from it and pushed on as fast as I could knowing that it was mostly downhill all the way home. However, as I’ve indicated the route was hard going and even in a downhill situation if you’re undertrained and exhausted then it is ging to be hard. But with the wind on my back and surprising cheeriness in my heart I ran happily off the hill and back to road which seemed so long ago now.

When I arrived back to the gate it felt like I had really achieved something and I gently ran down the road, attemptin not to punish my old nears any more than I needed to. I was so close now and in the distance I could see the park where all of this had started. Down, down, down I went – bit like a first date that has gone too well – and as I arrived back to the point I met the earlier virtual runners I felt a tremendous sense of relief. Yes I’d been slow but I’d had good reason not to rush this one – I had time and I wanted time to be able to reflect on everything that is currently going on both personally and globally. I crossed the finish line to the sound of silence, or rather the sound of nature and actually rather enjoyed it.

I’d completed the Pike and Back Half Marathon and I was pleased to have done it.

Distance: Half Marathon
Type: Virtual (due to COVID-19)
Ascent: Bloody Hell
Date: March 2020
Location: Bolton
Terrain: Very mixed
Tough Rating: 3/5

Conclusions
I would traditionally write a full breakdown of the event but that is impossible given the nature of this one in its virtual format. What I will say is that full credit goes to the team of Time2Run Events for allowing runners to complete the event virtually – they could simply have said ‘cancelled’ but as many Race Directors have done they have looked for alternatives and we should be grateful for that.

The route was really tough, the elevation was challenging, the mixed terrain meant that shoe choice was a nightmare and if you really weren’t prepared for this then you were going to have your arse handed to you and mine was handed to me gift wrapped.

Had I not been attending my grannies funeral, and referencing the race in the eulogy I had written for the following day, then I probably wouldn’t have come down for the race I would have transferred my entry to next year, done the training and actually run much better but there was something special about this, about doing it alone, abour forcing myself to push on. I’m an ultra runner really and the half marathon distance is my least favourite race length so to come here and really enjoy myself is really quite wonderful.

There was also something joyous about finishing the ‘race’ first and last – that’ll make me laugh for the rest of my days and I feel like this is a medal I have really earned. I will looking forward to receiving the medal knowing that whenever I look at it with all the others at the top of my staircase that it will bring back a smorgasbord of feelings and that is the sign of a great thing.

The one thing I did notice was how friendly people were in comparison to the Scottish races I run, up here almost all the runners, hikers, walkers, etc have time to smile or have a laugh and a joke with you but despite smiling and saying hello to everyone I went past there was something of a lack of response. Now some of it I’ll put down to COVID-19 but I was rather surprised that the north of England, famed for its friendliness, was a little less than I’ve gotten used to in Scotland. That said, those people that did wave back or say hello or smile back at me were warm and wonderful, I was just surprised by how many people simply didn’t bother.

If you’ve never run this race before then can I urge you to look up Time2Run Events and sign up to this most wonderful of race – even if like me you have to travel down from Scotland to do it, I will certainly be considering entering again for next year.

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img_2097This is less a review and more a thank you to the Millar Foundation for putting on a truly awesome Superhero Fun Run this weekend.

I’m sure that many of my fellow geeks, nerds and coolios will recognise the name Mark Millar from excellent comic books such as Kick Ass, Kingsman: The Secret Service and Superior as well as more instantly recognisable names such as Spider-Man.

Beyond comics though he founded the Millar Foundation with the aim of providing transformative opportunity and community in the place he grew up. What a thoroughly decent idea and well worth an internet search to articles about the projects the Foundation is involved in or click here to see the photographs from recent events

This latest event was just the kind of thing that a running and comic book obsessed father and daughter would be very attracted to. And so we went along.

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When we rolled up to Drumpellier Country Park the sun was shining wonderfully but thankfully it wasn’t too hot as being in superhero garb was a little different to my Ronhill and La Sportiva technical tops. We had traded in our usual monikers for a crack at being Supergirl and Mister Incredible (some might say that’s no change for me – I jest) and we delighted in a bit of cape swooshing as we left the car park.

As we ambled along the path we were picked out by the local press photographer for a quick snap and then directed to the registration point. All was lovely, everybody hugely welcoming and there was some delicious fruit juice, bottled water and bananas available to the runners pre-race. Awesome.

We were half an hour early so Supergirl and I sat enjoying our fruit juice and admiring the many wonderful costumes on display.

As it was ‘Batman Day’ (The Caped Crusaders 80th birthday) there were lots of dark knight detective themed characters but there was a significant amount of Captain America, Hulk, Supergirl, Wonder Women, Spider-Men and Supermen ready to race. I did catch sight of a couple of Deadpool runners and even one Gecko from PJ Masks, it was an eclectic and wonderful mix.

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Before long it was race time and after a bit of a warm up from the team at the local gym we were thrust on to the course. The race kicked off at about 11 and I had taken up my customary position at the back of the pack and had instructed Supergirl to take it steady as this was her longest race to date.

As the gaggle of superheroic runners set out we began to find our stride and it wasn’t long before we began overtaking all manner of caped competitors. The key for me, in the run, was that Supergirl maintain a sensible pace and run consistently throughout the distance. Many of the young people running were prone to bursts of speed and then being forced into walking as they had expelled all their power. No such issue confronted us and we gently ambled our way through the field and down the tarmac path with it’s wonderful views across the lake.

It was about a half a kilometre in when the tarmac turned to woodland trail and both Supergirl and Mister Incredible were much happier – both of us kicked on a little bit and started to target runners ahead of us, picking them off one by one. Occasionally a runner from behind would overtake us and we enjoyed watching the spirited displays of running from the young and old. The effort was really very inspiring and that was such a great message for my daughter to take away. There is something powerful about seeing kids, not much older than her, both succeeding and struggling but fighting for that finish and the reward of the medal.

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As for the course – the news was good – for all the runners as the path was lovely and dry with a mildly spongy feel to it which gave wonderful bounce as you ran. Had Supergirl not been with me I’d have happily done half a dozen loops here. But instead as a dynamic duo we steadily ran through the woodlands and said hello to many of the other runners and as we approached the turnaround Supergirl put on a little spurt – determined to claim her medal as quickly as possible.

The distance to the finish was quickly disappearing and we were flying. I was incredibly proud of her performance and then all of a sudden, as happens with ASK, she lost concentration for a second and was sent sprawling across the trail.

We immediately stopped running and tears fell down her little face and I took right hold of her in a big hug and said the thing I always say when she falls, ‘what do we do when we fall over?’ To which she always replies, ‘we get back up and keep going’. I dusted her down and checked that there was no serious injury or bleeding and checked she was fine to continue…

She was.

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With the tears dried we picked up the pace – Supergirl though wanted to hold my hand – she was keen not to fall again – so together we came to final turn and the sound of the finish line PA system blared music in our direction. The lovely volunteer at the final corner made note of my delightful backpack that I was sporting (I was carrying a teddy bear on my back brought home from school for the weekend to go on adventures – and my daughter wanted the bear to race).

Supergirl decided that now we were back on tarmac she no longer needed the company of Mister Incredible and hit the afterburner. With around 250 metres to go Supes started her sprint finish, both feet off the ground and arms pumping – my little superhero crossing the finish line to collect a most well earned medal.

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Great racing, great event.

  • Distance: 2.5km (2.7km GPS measurement)
  • Time: 18 minutes of moving time / 3 minutes of crying and dusting ourselves off

Conclusion
Thanks must go the Millar Foundation but also the Drumpellier Park Parkrun team who made the event happen – the volunteers of the Park Run team really worked hard to make sure everyone had a great time and it was.

The nice thing was that the whole event was free and there was a lovely sense of community and that will certainly have helped to bring people out but given how many people got dressed up I feel this was simply the kind of event that draws families out to do something fun and active, together.

I hope this runs for many years and I hope it inspires other towns to run similar events –  they don’t have to be free – they just have to be on. The fun run at the recent West Lothian Running Festival (read about it here) for example was a lovely and well organised event too and these things really do bring people together. I feel it important that our children and young people are able to participate in events like this to ensure that being active is a habit and not a chore.

And in closing I’ll simply say that I look forward to donning a bit of spandex next year for this wonderful event.

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img_1777In times of turmoil we seek summits and points of vantage to gain clarity of vision.

When I was younger I would go to the Lake District to climb a hill and breathe clean air and give myself greater clarity. Given I didn’t drive (or ride a bike) I would often find myself in places you could reach by public transport and so Ambleside was a popular choice for a young man with a busy mind.

Roll forward a decade or two and my mind remains busy but I’ve added both a driving licence and an ability to ride a bike and so when I saw the inaugural Ambleside Trail 60 on the ultra event calendar I decided that this was for me.

The race was being organised in conjunction between the long established The Climbers Shop (find out more here) in Ambleside and charity The Brathay Trust (find out more here) – both well respected pillars of the community.

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I therefore had high expectations for the event.

When looking at the Ambleside Trail 60 on paper you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s rather easy and with a tad under 2,500metres of climb it all seemed perfectly respectable. The problem comes is that when deciding to do this I had conflated the shortness of the distance and relatively low ascent numbers to think this was going to be easy. How wrong can you be?

But anyway let me add a bit of context to proceedings – I’d had an excellent July, training had gone well and I’d come off the Ben Vorlich Ultra feeling pretty good and without injury. The truth is I’d felt so good that I’d returned to training the following day and was looking forwarding to maintaining my running mental strength by taking part in the Thieves Road Ultra. In typical fashion though disaster struck and I took a nasty tumble running up a hill and put a bloody big hole in my knee and this was supplemented by a shitty infection that I couldn’t shift. However, with August 10th approaching I knew that momentum was on my side and I’d be okay(ish) to race but it seemed my August ultra curse was set to continue and the race was cancelled due to the potential for adverse conditions.

What happened next was that race was reorganised for two weeks later, my illness got worse and on race day I spent about 8hrs on the porcelain throne. This time it was me cancelling the race and so I rolled up to the Ambleside 60 with very little training but a lot of chocolate eating done.

As I’ve said I’m a huge fan of The Lake District and Cumbria, it’s a truly spectacular place and so I was very happy to be there on a beautiful morning watching the world go by.

Strangely for an ultra it was taking place on a Sunday which meant I’d had the luxury of bimbling around the Lakes the day previously taking in the delights of Ambleside and registering with the event organisers at The Climbers Shop. Registration was both quick and easy and the lovely organisers were on hand to answer all of my ridiculous questions. I was also mightily impressed that race sponsor Rab (I assume) threw in a warm beanie which is likely to make its race debut later in the year. It was here that I bumped into Ed, a fellow competitor from Ben Vorlich and it was lovely to ‘chew the fat’ with him for a few minutes and catch up about what had happened at the race end. However, we soon parted and I found myself at a loose end but with lots of wonderful outdoor stores strewn across the town – I decide me to make hay while the sun shone. Lunch was a delicious spicy chicken baguette with a slab of honeycomb cake and this was followed by short trips to Kendal and Keswick to make the most of my stay.

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I had the luxury of having a six berth dorm room all to myself at the waterside YHA in Ambleside and I went to bed early to try and get as rested as possible. Kit was prepared, breakfast readied and I knew where I was going in the morning.

The organisers had suggested the pay & display car park in Ambleside, which given it was a few minutes from the start, made good sense. With water bottles now filled I headed to the start in Rothay Park and silently soaked up the friendly, banter atmosphere. I’ve grown rather accustomed to knowing runners at races, wherever I am, both here and abroad – so it was something of a surprise to not see any faces I knew. I wandered around a little bit before setting amongst the throng of ultra runners all keen for the start.

We were all instructed to dib our chips at the start which had been attached to us at registration. I found these mildly intrusive as they never felt very comfortable around the wrist and I fretted about them working loose and ending up in a puddle of mud somewhere on a hill. Thankfully it never did work loose but I found it uncomfortable compared to some of the alternatives that I’ve had to wear. That said the system was simple enough to use and the setup both at the start and at checkpoints was well thought out.

With an 8am start looming we were all corralled into the starting area and after a short briefing and some words of encouragement the 175(ish) runners burst forward and out of Rothay Park and into the wilderness. It’s fair to say that a number of ‘trail’ races that I’ve been part of have actually had quite significant amounts of road or tarmac involved but this experience was very different. From the near outset there was trail and nature surrounding the runners.

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As we wound our way through the first few kilometres it was clear that this was going to be s tougher day than I had originally imagined and as I looked down at my faithful Suunto I could see the elevation metres quickly stacking up. Those first few miles were easily the simplest on the route and with excellent route marking even I couldn’t go wrong. We wended our way through the variety of trails, up and down hills and along some of England’s finest scenery. For the most part I was making good time against the other runners – using my preferred tactic of ‘go as fast as you cN for as long as you can and then death march it in’. I made sure I was taking on board regular fluids and even a little food from early in proceedings as this would ensure I could still take on everything late in the event. I topped up my intake with some Active Root, which is about the only electrolyte style supplement I can stomach, and this kept me level and stopped significant dips – something to consider if you’re running well.

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I ran the first 15km pretty consistently and covered around 600 metres of climb – despite the recent rains the ground was in good condition and the route was runnable. Although I had poles with me I had decided that I would refrain from their use until I really needed them and despite the ascents I didn’t feel I needed them in the firs quarter of the event. The views were delightful and this was very much The Lake District of my youth – some places dragged up long forgotten memories and it was a very pleasant experience. It was here that I met Deborah – about 2.5 miles from the first checkpoint. We chatted for a while, as we bounded forward and this was such a pleasant experience that I barely noticed the run into the checkpoint.

Checkpoint one was brilliant with the marshalling team all dressed as chefs with big chef hats, the team were incredibly well drilled – timer, water, food, out, out, out! I was very impressed with the team and the organisation of the event on the whole, if I were to take a guess this was not their first rodeo. The quality of the food on offer was brilliant and as I left the checkpoint I felt buoyed by the energy the team have thrust upon me. In the distance I could see Deborah disappearing and continued my journey alone.

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The second section was going to be tougher with the first 600 metres climbed this meant that there was still around 1700 metres to climb and around a marathon to do it in. 2 hours down – 12 hours to go. I knew that the first significant climb was soon to be upon us and in the distance twinkling like little neon and Lycra clad stars were a succession of slow moving runners as the route moved up a gear in toughness.

It was now that the route threw challenge after challenge at us, the trail had moved from being mostly runnable to being filled with big lumpy rocks, it was wet underfoot and it changed from soaking to dry making your shoe choice irrelevant in the face of the varying conditions. I threw open my poles for the first time and began the slow journey upwards, happy in the knowledge that I had built up a reserve of time in the early stages of the race. However, as I looked ever upwards it was with a deep sense of foreboding – this was the first and easiest ascent and it was far from easy.

I decided that given I still had some strength in my legs I would do the climb in bursts and so would have a short stop and then powered up the next couple of hundred metres, stop and repeat. This technique helps me with the fatigue my legs get from the constant ball achingly monotonous striding of hiking up the hills (something I knew I would be forced into later in the day). My lack of training in the last month and the over eating was also playing a significant part now in my performance – runners were passing me as I struggled with the up hills and the beating my feet were now taking. However, I knew that on the downhill as long as the path was relatively runnable I would be able to make up some ground. Where some runners are guarded about running downhill too quickly for fear of a fall I am usually pretty surefooted and confident in my own ability. Therefore once the peak was reached I felt that I had little choice but to open up the taps a bit and go for it.

 

My descent was as quick as my ascent was slow and I found myself able to catch some of the runners that had managed to overtake me and I felt with nearly 1,000 metres of ascent done and about 20km in distance done I was feeling confident and then the ridiculous kicked in – I slipped. Bang down – on my back, on my arse, on all my weakest points. The two young runners ahead of me turned and shouted to find out if I was okay and I waved them on but I was far from alright. My back, which is troubling at the best of times, had shooting pain running through it and I had cut my hand open in several places and was bleeding. I picked my muddy form off the floor and cursed my own stupidity – I ran down to the little stream and put my buff in the water and wrapped it around my hand attempting to soak up the blood. I had been very lucky, within a few minutes the bleeding had stopped and I managed to clean up the various gashes that now covered my left hand – the realisation was dawning upon me that this route was going to give me a good kicking before it was finished.

I pushed onwards through the next few kilometres, slowing a little to account for the worsening running conditions, the rocky terrain became incredibly hard going and in my opinion it felt more like fell running than it did ultra trail running but it all added to the complexity of the challenge of finishing. I finally reached the halfway point and was greeted by the most welcoming committee of marshals, supporters and runners. Given I was so far from the lead it was no surprise to see my fellow racers in various states of distress, I grabbed a bit of grass and threw my bag to floor and motored over to the food table and stuffed my face with the delicious sausage rolls with the amazing pastry (I’m going to assume veggie but don’t want to know as they were so delicious it would disappoint me to know I’d been eating something mildly healthy). I drank as much tea as I could handle, grabbed a bit of soft chewy cake, filled my water bottles and then followed the other runners out of the checkpoint.

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It was here that I would make the relationship that would see me cross the finish line, though it did not begin well but I’ll get to that later.

From CP2 we were presented with a climb up Stake Pass, a beautiful climb and no mistake but a technical, rocky ascent that required maximum concentration all the way and its windy nature meant that you felt progress was even slower than it actually was. I used my brutish bursts of power to push myself up the pass and once more in the distance before and ahead of me I could see the swathes of runners slowly climbing to the summit. I kept telling myself that this is something I enjoy when moments of doubt would creep into my thinking but the reality was that my feet were burning from the damage that rocks underfoot where doing.

My feet are brittle at the best of times but the damp conditions coupled with the rocks were crippling me, the only plus I could find was that my Lone Peaks combined with Injinji liner and Drymax socks and my beloved Dirty Girls Gaiters were working overtime in protecting me from the worst of the route.

About halfway up local legend Keith passed me with his wonderfully consistent pace and all I could do when he went beyond me asking, ‘alright?’ I responded with, ‘had better days’ but Keith may have misinterpreted my joke for sincere annoyance and he simply shrugged his shoulder and pushed on. I thought nothing more of it really but like the cut of his pace and thought if I could keep up with him I might well be alright – but he, like many before, was soon gone.

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I retreated the comfort of the nearest rock I could find and grabbed some food from my race vest and looked longingly into the middle distance as dark and detrimental thoughts crept across my furrowed brow. ‘More than halfway’ I thought, ‘but my feet are bruised to buggery, my race vest is heavy and worse than that my back and arm was on fire from injuries both old and new’. However, the sight of runners closing in on me made me get off my backside and hurl myself up the hill and eventually I made it to the summit. I could see some of the runners who had made it past me and so I picked Keith as my target – if I could catch him before the arrival of the next checkpoint I would continue.

The route off the pass was as unrunnable as the route up with rocks jutting up from every angle and care required about just where the hell you were putting your feet. If you were less cautious you might have avoided the path  and run straight down the hill – but given I had no idea where I was or how far behind the next runner was – I did not fancy falling off Stake Pass. With all due care I made it to the bottom and leapt through the thick nasty smelling mud and crossing streams with all haste attempting to keep my feet as dry as possible. In the distance I could hear the clatter of Keith’s running poles and I realised I was catching him – having a target to aim for had made the journey much more focused and much easier and as I caught him I opened with the much cheerier line, ‘I’ve been chasing you down for ages – thanks for the incentive’ and from here a new race friendship was forged.

Keith was a bit of a running veteran and with 20 more years on the clock the than me he had well earned the right to legend status. He strode purposefully through the route, questioning the runability of some of the course but all the time remaining strong in his continuous push forward – I like Keith very much and over the next few miles we got to chatting and getting to know one another a little. But as is the rule in ultra marathons you run your own race and he reminded me of this several times as he suggested I not wait for him or that he would be waiting long for me. However, we were both moving at about the same speed ad so it turned out neither of us could shake the other one.

Something I was very glad of.

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The road to CP3 was hard and long, we had come off the hill and now it was just finding the checkpoint, hoping that we would make the cut-off and then pushing through as fast as we could up the biggest ascent on the course – Lining Crag. While we both looked and probably felt a bit shitty we both also seemed to gain a newfound mental strength from each other – I certainly did from him and when I started to leave CP3 Keith joined me for some further adventuring.

The strange thing was that despite our low speed we were starting to catch people again and in the close distance we could see runners who had long left me behind and, though I shouldn’t, I was buoyed by seeing other runners finding this a challenge or perhaps I was simply developing a second wind that might carry over the Crag.

Sadly my second wind was very short lived and as I began the ascent I felt every bone in my body scream for mercy, even with the first few hundred metres being relatively gentle this was a climb of false summits and false hope.

One of the great things about Keith was his wide and varied local knowledge, this meant that he was able to be accurate in his assessment of our situation, so when we approached the scramble up to the crag I knew that this was not the summit and that there were further smaller climbs to come. The scramble was actually surprisingly simple and the change of pace on the legs was welcome, I enjoy scrambling although I don’t do it very often as I am terrified of heights. So I finally reached the safety of solid ground that wasn’t going to try and kill me I was very grateful. We  made good time as we crossed the high ground and started to overtake people again and other runners came past us as they picked the pace up a little. On reflection it was nice to know that we were still in a race, often at these type of events you’ll find yourself alone for hours and hours and not knowing where in the race you are, here the numbers were just right to be able to have significant time alone but also know that you could still catch someone.

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We knew that the final checkpoint was at about 53km in and so it was with a little dismay that the ascent to the top of the crag had pushed us forward a mere 2km of the 12km we needed to run. Running remained hard going over the rocky paths and went as fast and securely as we could but both Keith and I were losing our footing at regular intervals and many of the runners had soggy bottoms but perhaps none got the soggy bottom in the way I did.

While crossing a boggy path I lost my footing and into the mid thigh depth mud my leg went, the trouble was that my other leg followed me in and as I fell in my whole body lurched backward in some attempt to create the muddy equivalent of a snow fairy. Keith turned to face me, barely disguising his amusement at the predicament that I found myself in. I managed to stand in the mud and could feel the vacuum attempting to suck my shoes in but I carefully extracted one leg and then the other with no significant loss.  I was caked in mud from head to toe but I had clearly picked the right kit for the event and my wonderful new Runderwear long boxer shorts and Raidlight Freetrail shorts soon dried off and despite being in 3 foot of wet, shitty mud my feet remained warm and toasty.

After picking myself up we headed along the remainder of the route down to Grasmere with little further incident, but we were aware that the final climb and descent had taken much, much longer than anticipated and I was keen to finish as I still had hours in the car driving back to Scotland.

I noticed that both Keith and I were rather quiet as we landed in Grasmere, tiredness was clearly playing a part but seeing the race organisers at the final checkpoint gave us a bit of a life and knowing that we were less than 10km from the finish was the mental nourishment we needed.

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We had been quite quick in the checkpoints up until this point but we stayed a little longer in Grasmere as Keith knew both of the guys from The Climbers Shop (I’m going to go with Mike and Gill but could be wrong). Gill had been at the registration and she clearly remembered my idiotic face from the previous day and the warmth with which I was greeted felt genuine and heartfelt and for that I was very grateful. They tried to stuff our faces with all manner of food and drink but we were so close to the finish that I actually wanted just my water filled and then off and the guys obliged.

Keith and I were very keen to see off the race before the dark became impenetrable and with all the speed we could muster we set out from Grasmere. This final section had a few light climbs on it but it was mainly tarmac that we were following and there was nothing to concern ourselves with – I seem to recall that we spent most of the time on these final few miles being rather jolly and looking forward to food, drinks, showers and in Keith’s case being reunited with his wife and the lovely Border Colllies.

I remember Keith commenting that at this point he had one speed and although I had recovered a little bit and probably could have run this final section I had no desire to leave my companion behind and in truth I’d have only managed to get about a dozen metres ahead before he would have reeled me in again. Meeting Keith made the experience of the Ambleside 60 much more pleasant than it looked like it might have been given the struggles I know he played a huge part in me finishing on Sunday.

We rolled up to Rothay Park and the dark had finally arrived, we thanked the marshalling staff at the final corner and as is my way I tried to have a cheery word/joke and thank you for the guys who were stood there waiting in the cold ensuring that we didn’t take a wrong turn at the final point. In the dim distance I could make out the large finish line inflatable and in front of it were two dibbing points so that we could get a final time. It took me an age to get my bloody dibber in but once I did we were ushered into a tent and given medals, beer and times.

Keith’s wife was there with the dogs and I joined them briefly to thank him and to thank his wife for loaning me such a wonderful gentleman for the day.

We had made it, I had made it.

Overview
Distance: 60km
Cost: £65
Location: Ambleside
Date: September 2019
Tough Rating: 3.5/5

Route
What they said about the route…

starting from Rothay Park, the Ambleside Trail 60 is a 60km loop made up of some iconic Lake District running. From the park, participants will make their way up and over Loughrigg towards Skelwith Bridge, Tarn Hows and from there onwards towards Coniston. Before reaching Coniston, the route climbs above Coniston Coppermine and toward Lad Stones. Continuing onward, the route makes its way to Little Langdale and after a short but punchy climb reaches Blea Tarn. Runners then make their way up Stake Pass and then follow the Langstrath Beck before climbing back up Lining Crag, the biggest climb on the course. Runners descend into Grasmere and slowly wind their way back toward Ambleside..

I’ve run over 50 ultra marathons and I’ve run across some of the toughest trails in the crappiest conditions and I can honestly say that the route of the Ambleside 60km was a bit of a terror. I mentioned earlier that this felt more like an ultra distance fell race than a trail race. Although the path was defined it was, in parts, brutal – despite the shortness of the distance this was a route that really threw everything at you and there was a procession of the walking wounded on the course as the Ambleside 60 took no prisoners.

This is not a route for the inexperienced and had the weather conditions been worse then this would really have given the competitors a challenge that even more might not have finished. What I will say though is that the Ambleside 60 route gave so much back in views and beauty that you really can’t complain about the temporary pain inflicted by the course.

The climbs were tough, the variety was welcome and the route marking was exceptional – just a few less rocky roads would have made this a more complete running experience. Don’t misunderstand me though this was a brilliant route and I feel fortunate to have seen parts of the Lake District that only become accessible if you are willing to put the effort in. The highlight of the route for me was the second climb up Stake Pass, which as well as being as tough old boots, had the wonderful sound of gushing water on both sides of the pass, it had majesty all around it and there was a eeriness about it as you could see nothing of modern life as far as the eye could see – wonderful.

So, perhaps a few little tweaks to make sure that this doesn’t become an ‘only suitable for the mountain goats’ and the route cold be a real winner for everyone wanting to take part.

Organisation
The organisation was 100% top notch, from registration to the near army of marshals that were posted on the course – this was some of the best organisation I have ever seen. The route marking for the most part was fantastic, the little map we received at the start was perfect as a guide and the pre and post race information was concise and informative. A huge thank you should go to all the organisers and especially the marshalling and medical staff who offered friendly faces all over the day. Races like this do not happen without the support of lots of people behind the scenes – and it was clear that the work they had put in here had really paid off.

Kit
I go mountain running most weekends and I go hill running after work and I know what kit I need to carry with me, I know how to be safe in the mountains and in adverse weather conditions and to that end I felt that the mandatory kit list was a little over complicated. I understand completely that safety comes first and that not all runners are experienced in the hills but there does need to be a balance. I did note that a number of the runners had very small amounts of kit with them and you had to wonder how where they fitting all the mandatory kit into such a small space?

Given my back issues carrying all the required kit was always going to be one of the main challenges I faced during the Ambleside 60 and I have a preference to carry specific things that help my individual race needs. For example I have my ridiculously weak feet so spare socks are a must and I’m known to take a picture or two so spare battery is also an essential. But rules are rules and it is important that we all adhere to them – they are designed to ensure your safety isn’t compromised, might just be worth looking next year about a little more flexibility between the mandatory and recommended kit.

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Goodies
Having great sponsors like Rab and Ultimate Directions mean that sometimes there are excellent goodies and this time there was a delightful Rab beanie available pre-race and post race there was some Hawkshead Brewery beer, which if you’re a beer drinker is a great reward for a job well done – obviously as a teetotaller the beer is less relevant to me but I know someone who’ll drink it for me. The medal was nice and understated, which seemed very much in keeping with the whole ethos of the event and I appreciated that. I wore my medal proudly all the way home to Scotland and as I crawled up the stairs to my bedroom upon returning home I made sure that it took its rightful place with its brother and sister medals at the top of the stairs.

Value
I’ve said it before and I’ll repeat it, the value for money aspect is very much down to personal opinion about your experience. I very much believe that the Ambleside 60 was excellent value for money at £65 and to be fair if you’d charged a little more it would still have represented good value for money. The little goodies, the excellent event staff, the support both before and after, the photography and the challenge of the event itself mean that you have to say you really did get bang for your buck. Some people might bemoan the lack of race T-shirt but the truth is I would rather have had the beanie – it’s always nice to get something useful that most races don’t think about.

Special Mentions
I owe this finish to Keith – I would not have made it without you. Thank you.

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Conclusion
Is this a great race? Not yet.

Does this have the potential to be a great race? Oh yes!

2019 as its inaugural running was a damn fine event, it gave the best views of Ambleside and its surrounds that I’ve ever had the honour of laying my eyes on. The Ambleside 60 has much to recommend it and if you’re lucky enough to have a clear day as we did then you’ll bear witness to a visual treat. The medal for this one really  is worth earning and you will feel like you have accomplished something truly spectacular when, or perhaps more appropriately, if you cross the finishing line. The organisation of the race, for me, makes this one stand out in the memory too – there was genuine care for the runners and that should be recognised, nobody got anything less than 100% from the excellent team.

However, this isn’t perfect I’ve mentioned that it felt like a long distance fell run in places and the course was incredibly hard going at times, even in good conditions. I genuinely believe more responsibility should be on the individual regarding kit choices and I’d probably prefer to see the race run on a Saturday to give runners the Sunday and a chance to rest for their weary bones before a return to grindstone of work on a Monday (I found the drive back to Scotland really tough and Monday was weird in the office). However, if nothing changed, if the race came back next year in exactly the same format would I run it again? The answer is 100% yes, there is something special about the Ambleside 60 and it deserves its soon to be well established reputation as a tough as old boots brilliant ultra marathon.

So if you’ve read this and thought, he sounds likes you had a horrible time, then you’ve misunderstood me, there was no misery for me just a real ball busting challenge – which is primarily what I look for in an ultra marathon and if it is what you look for then you’re going to have a mighty fine time.

Check out the race details here

As I ambled around the Vigo Tough Love 10 I spent my time contemplating just how I might start this blog post and I could find no appropriate way to say what I was feeling and so we are starting like this.

There’s never an easy way to say goodbye and Vigo almost had me in tears (at miles 1 through to 9 and of course at the end) but that’s more about the course than the emotional end that Vigo Runners provided.

However, let me roll back 450 miles and a day or so earlier to when I was hammering down the M6 to the south with thoughts of my final days in the Kentish sunshine and another ding dong with the mud of the Vigo Tough Love 10.

The last year has left me a tad overweight, incredibly unfit, brutally broken and with nothing left in the tank – so the thought of driving a 900 mile round trip, loading up a van full of the last vestiges of our life here AND running the greatest race ever conceived seemed to be a cruelty that I did not need to put my body through. However, the Vigo Tough Love 10 has provided years of joy to me and one last opportunity to run it seemed like the ideal sign off.

We rolled up to the familiar sight of the Vigo running club on Sunday morning not in the best of moods – sleeping on a child’s picnic mat for the previous evening, having to make a pre-race trip to the local tip and then smacking my head into a car door were not ideal preparation. However, I was greeted in the warmest possible way when the race organiser called out ‘ultraboy’. Somewhat surprised by the recognition I found myself having a lovely chat and suddenly the day felt warmer as I waxed lyrical about my love of the event and my sadness about this (probably) being my final visit.

Post chat I took my place in the queue for number collection and I was surrounded by familiar faces both well known and less so but all welcome sights and I could feel myself getting, as the GingaNinja puts it, ‘totsemosh’. The efficiency of number collection was brilliant by the way, the very minor problem of the previous year had been ironed out – so well done guys.

All I could do really was to take in my beautiful surroundings and the lovely weather but most importantly was the wonderful atmosphere that seems to have grown year on year.

I love small races and small fields – yet even as this race grows it retains all the joy and friendliness that I have associated with it since I first took to the start line in 2014.

Anyways 10.30am rolled around (yes a nice time in the morning for a race!) I ambled to the back of the pack and listened to the safety briefing and sponsor gubbins and this year the bang of the cannon was finally replaced by a sound not so cannon like! But we were off and I started to gently pick my way through the field of runners.

We ran the traditional route round the rugby pitch and even here I could feel my poor old feet and lungs burning – today, I could tell, was going to be a long day. I was very grateful when we came across the first of the log leaps and there was a short queue and here I came across a runner who last year I had met as he was limping bloodied and injured about halfway in – lovely to see him back and looking strong.

The brief stop prepared me for the lovely first stretch of mud and for my part I looked lovingly over the oozy mud. Sadly Kent must have had a patch of good weather as the route was very runnable and probably the most runnable I’d ever seen it. However, let me assure thrillseekers that despite the excellent conditions there was still plenty of filthy action to get you aroused!

It still amazes me though that some runners had chosen to run in road shoes, I (relatively sensibly) had opted for the Altra King MT and I had full confidence that they would handle pretty much anything.

And so it was.

While others picked there way through the sides of the mud I simply bounded through it like a puppy. I was a literal pig in muddy poo, oh how I could have simply lain in the muddiness!

My mood was improving dramatically with every step and I delighted in dancing through the trails and chatting to the runners – mostly me talking at people, mocking my own stupidity for attempting this with so much else going on. But the V10 is the kind of race where you do chat to fellow runners and you do share your trail running stories, it’s all part of that very friendly vibe that reverberates through every level of the event.

As the miles passed by I was reminded once again how Vigo feels so open and crammed in all at the same time – one second you’re in tight woodland and then suddenly you’re in great expanses of green and for miles and miles you feel like you’re in the trail maze. Uphills become downhills and vice versa – it’s an unending smorgasbord of beauty and brutality on your legs and your wits and it will catch you out if you fail to respect it.

It’s a brilliant route and I have lots of respect for the V10m.

But it wasn’t going to be my day in terms of good running so I hiked quickly the harder hills and gave it ‘the beans’ where I could. Vigo really was going to test my mental, emotional and physical endurance today.

The good news was that as the naughty thoughts of failure flickered across my mind my favourite downhill was upon me! The downhill sits around halfway through the race and I always feel you’re entering a tunnel of trees – here you see the cautious not wanting to risk anything but as an old hand I could turn the volume up to 11 and simply go.

And go I did.

More than usual I really hurtled down the trail and found myself coming over the log at the bottom with such enthusiasm that you’d have thought there was a 4 pack of cream eggs waiting for me!

Instead, at the bottom, was another of the brilliant marshalling team. I carried on through the open field and saw the climb up to the halfway hill of horror, weirdly behind me I could here the sound of runners – running! ‘Running?’ I hear you cry, ‘up a hill?’

I’ll be honest I knew that walking up this hill would save me for later in the race and both knees and feet would thank me for not running up the tarmac climb. But I was mightily impressed that many at the back of the pack where showing a lot more grit than I was!

Once clear of the summit I returned to running and cut gently through the swathes of delicious Kentish countryside while grabbing greedily at the proffered jelly babies (nice ones too – haribo rather than bassets I reckon). The only problem was that conditions were a little too warm for me and I’d already dispensed with my undershirt but the ground, due to the glorious conditions, was much tougher than anticipated and therefore my King MT in the final 5km were a little hard going and my Lone Peaks might have been a better on the day choice.

Still I bounced merrily along the final downhill and prepared for the long, slow slog up the final hill. Most might call this heartbreak hill or some other such valentines related nonsense but I simply refer to it as, ‘friend’. The final hill reminds me of the many good times I’ve endured clambering to the top, breathless with joy, exhaustion and excitement, it’s a fine climb and one that gives this race a special place in all our hearts.

As I slowly clambered upwards I laughed and joked with the other runners and recounted my history with the race and just how happily willing I was to travel from Scotland for this event.

Near the top of the hill there was a tremendous amount of encouragement for all the runners and as ever there was a marshall to give you that final shove if the hill had gotten the better of you.

At the top I shared a slurp of water with another runner and we both set off – having a little chat and bimbling our way to the finish. Then with less than a mile to go my toes curled in under my foot and the worst cramp I’ve ever experienced – I’ll admit I let out a series of howls and expletives. I tried running but there was nothing, I stopped to try and stretch but the magnificent pain just forced itself deeper into my foot.

Bloody hell I was so near – it cannot end like this.

I stood for a few moments and started to stretch my toes out but the little buggers were like claws and refused to open. Sod this I thought as a marshall approached and asked if I needed help – thanking him I said, ‘no’ and with one final effort I pushed the afterburner button and thrust myself forward into the trees. I knew I was going to make it but the question I had to ask myself was ‘how do you want to make it?’

The answer I concluded was with a roar.

In the distance I could see the two young cadets guarding the entrance to final run in and despite their warnings of the log I hurled myself over it – all prepared for one final blast down the runway to the finish line.

But then I stopped.

There was my family and the GingaNinja said to me, ‘she wants to run with you’.

Let my assure dear reader – this was going to be the perfect end to my Vigo journey. ASK grabbed my hand and told me, ‘we’re going to win dad’.

I’ll be honest I could have come last and I would have won today – this was brilliant and in the distance I could hear the call of the PA system cry out my variety of known names but on a race day, on a day like this, I’m definitely ultraboy!

ASK and I hammered those final couple of hundred metres home, I watched as she strode across the line and behind me and all around me I could hear the cheers of the remaining runners and the gentle congratulations of my daughter. Cuddles ensured and photographs taken and a medal was placed proudly round my daughters neck.

I may have run like the old man I’ve become but this remains the greatest race in the UK, my greatest race and what happened next is proof of that…

But we’ll get to that later.

Key Points

Distance: 10miles (10km option available)
Profile: a hilly calf destroyer
Date: Valentines weekend
Location: Vigo, Kent
Cost: £20
Terrain: Muddy and damn fine fun
Tough Rating: 3/5

Route: I’ve written several times about the route and I’ve waxed lyrical about the up and down nature of running around Vigo and this lovely part of Kent. I suppose the reason I really love this route is that in February it has everything, it’s wet and it’s dry, it’s hard and soft, you’ll come out of the event covered in mud, maybe even a bit bloodied if you get lucky and you’ll not have a single minute when you’re bored. This is a route that you’ll finish and immediately want to go back to again.

Organisation: I’m sure that 2018 will one day be remembered as ‘that year’ where there was a bit of a mix up with race numbers. However, having done this a five times now I can say that the organisation has always been first class and 2019 was no different – the team from Vigo Runners and Harvel Hash Harriers really do know how to organise a race and race number collection this year was better, faster and smoother than ever.

The marshalling points are all perfectly placed for directions and support, you always receive knowledgeable people guiding you and there’s a friendliness from all those involved in the organisation that makes this truly welcoming.

Support: The rugby club at Vigo which hosts the start line and provides the facilities pre-and post-race is a great way to ensure that there’s a good level of support to send the runners on their way plus the club itself shows its ongoing community spirit by allowing a load of stinky trail runners in through its doors! The indoor facilities such as the toilets, food options and changing rooms (and ample toilet roll) make this a comfortable wait for the runners, there no standing round in the cold – it’s simply catering well to a runners pre-race needs!

As mentioned the marshalling team are all top notch and you can’t fault them and you can’t praise them enough.

Value for Money: Value for money is always a difficult thing to measure but with Vigo you are getting both an awesome experience as well a mars bar, some love hearts and a really decent medal. Thrown in some really excellent support, a couple of water stations and a route to die for and you get brilliant value in your race.

Social Media / Communication: I’ve started looking at the way races communicate with it’s runners and how it advertises them (and I admit some bias here as my previous blog posts about the event get recommended to be read in their comms sometimes). Vigo Runners get the balance snooty right between too much and too little but I’d love to see more video content, more interaction throughout the year to help further build this ‘must-do’ race. The good news is though is that they don’t do it all through Facebook – they still do email race instructions and this I feel is a positive as not everyone likes or has social media. So basically I hope they keep doing exactly what they’re doing and will continue to build up this aspect of the race advertising.

Post Race Mentions: After I crossed the finish line there was a blur – lots of congratulations (despite this being my slowest ever Vigo), there was me congratulating other runners and there was ASK disappearing from my sight as I had my tuning chip removed and crying as she couldn’t find the GingaNinja.

I was starting to head out when a runner (the name eludes me but then it’s been a mad weekend) spoke to me and we briefly got chatting about her taking on the awesome upcoming Green Man Ultra. Weirdly we also had a selfie moment which was surprisingly odd – as it felt a little too much like celebrity – especially when it was followed by the race organisers coming over and saying, ‘we’ve been calling your name for ages’. I limped over to the starting area and there was the Vigo & Harvel top brass with a trophy and a HAGGIS! To say thank you for the support I’ve shown over my years running with them.

Now firstly, I love Haggis, secondly I love this race and thirdly – thank you so very much for this. I really don’t write the blog for reward, I write it because I want people to go to races that I’ve really enjoyed. And I’ve consistently said this is my favourite race and if this is to be my final time at Vigo then I’ll both be very sad and very grateful for the opportunity of running it and writing about it.

Conclusion: My apologies for this intentionally gushy and rather emotional post about the Vigo Tough Love 10 Mile. In 2019 I loved it as much as I loved it when it was all new in 2014 – it’s an event and a race that will bring you joy and if you are local or from further afield you should make the effort to join in – you will never be disappointed by running the Vigo 10. And while I say this will be my last time, my fifth time will never feel like enough and who knows – maybe next year I’ll discreetly turn up and run a decent time. We shall see. However, if I leave a Vigo legacy it this – I hope that some of you will be inspired to sign-up because you wanted a bit of the joy I felt when my feet slurped through that mud.

Thank you to everyone involved and keep doing what you’re doing. Brilliant event.

They bet me I couldn’t down a pint of whiskey and still be sober later – I downed the whiskey and next remember being in a police cell being offered sausage and eggs covered in my own vomit and probably my own piss. Needless to say the first thing I did upon my release was to head over to the house of the girl I fancied and ask, ‘what the bollocks happened…’

She told me I should go home and shower.

I did.

I never dated that girl.

That was one of the many anecdotes I told as I bimbled and bumbled around the Silkin Way Ultra this last weekend. It was a funny race and something I was completely unprepared for but it was all good fun in the end. But before we reach the conclusion we need the journey and this is what happened.

It was 2am when my alarm went off, I’d gotten to bed at around 11pm due to having run out of printer ink and needing to handwrite the narrative route instructions, so when I awoke I wasn’t in that great a mood. However, a shower and a thick slathering of Vaseline’s finest around my nuts offered the usual level of excellent preparation. I had to two large coffees and a bowl of Cornflakes before I left the house at 3am and took position behind the wheel of Spusm, my little Toyota Aygo. I wished us both well because a) it was 3am in the morning b) there was heavy rain and c) this was my first significant drive without anyone else in the car with me and I was about to drive 3 and a half hours to Shropshire.

Vroom! Vroom! Thankfully aside from trucks and roadworks the motorways up to Telford were pretty quiet, my only real concern was the rain and I surprised myself when I rolled into Telford Services pre-6am (and pre Burger King being open). This though offered the opportunity for the coffee I’d had earlier to perform its magic and relieve me of my inner poo turmoils and yesterday’s delicious homemade spiced Indian meatballs. With no second breakfast options I headed over to the Village Hall in Coalport and took a wander down by the river as even the race organisers hadn’t arrived.

Denzil and the guys arrived not long after me and began setting up, I did offer to help but they had everything under control and so I returned to the relative comfort of the car and looked out for the other runners coming in. I chatted with several lovely Marathon and ultra regulars – all of whom were new to me, which was one of the benefits of being so far from home at a relatively small and quite new event. I chatted with others mainly about upcoming events and my fears about the Fellsman in four weeks but more immediately – how the hell you drive home after an ultra marathon!! Anyway with all the guff and gubbins done we ambled to the start and with a lovely low key start Denzil sent us on our way.

I ambled up to the Silkin Way and started to pick out my position in the instructions – with no GPX file I’d be reliant on these and the very handy chalk markings (thanks to Jon I believe) on the route. I started out at far too fast a pace and got rather caught up chatting with future ultra star Emily who bounced around the route like the Energiser Bunny but I knew her pace was going to outstrip mine and so about 5km I said adios and watched as she thundered off into the distance. From there I was able to ease off a little as it became clear to me this wasn’t going to a trail race and it’s been a very long time since I’d even tried to run long distance on tarmac and paths like this. Within 7km I could feel my knee, groin and hamstring in my left leg and by 10km I was in pain, however, if I slowed now I knew that I’d be getting back at the top end of the eight hour time limit and I really didn’t want that – so I pressed on.

The route itself was pleasant and we passed through sections of Telford that gave a nice impression of the area and harked back to much of the towns heritage. The route and the Silkin Way had many people out walking, though it was never too busy to be congested and we passed several big lovely parks and open spaces that the locals were using. On a nice morning like this it was lovely to see. I’d only been to Shropshire once previously where I went fruit picking with some old friends (although my hopes had mainly been in the seduction of French girls rather than pulling Gooseberries all day). This trip to Shropshire was for an entirely different kind of loving – my love of running.

However, as much as I love running with only 20km done I was feeling the burning heat of pain in my groin and I was grateful a couple of miles later when I reached the second checkpoint. This wonderful stop was rather handily was in one of the organisers homes – a novel and very friendly way of doing it I thought. I grabbed some cola and a few jelly babies before heading back out.

With the second half of the event now under way I was hoping that given this was effectively an out and back I’d be able to avoid the route mistakes I’d made earlier in the race but sadly no – I was still able to get bits wrong. Thankfully the mistakes were smaller and I wasn’t clocking up large extra miles.

It was a few kilometres further in that I would meet the runners that would define my race – there was no doubt I was struggling but people like Nick, Rob and Karen provided fresh inspiration to keep going at a reasonable pace. There was back and forth with these small pockets of runners but I noticed that when I was on my own or they would go past me that I would immediately slow and give in to the voice that said, ‘you’ve ruined yourself, save it for another day’. However, the jollification and support offered by being alongside other runners outweighed the negative thoughts I was having and so I did my best to keep up.

As the miles were counted down I could feel a sense of relief washing over me and when we were given a little bit of trail respite my hamstrings, knees and groin called out in gratitude – these kilometres were my favourite of the day but there simply hadn’t been enough of them to make much of a difference to the pounding the lower half of my body had taken and so I continued to slowly amble merrily along.

We were however soon back on the pavements and being sent across the mighty Ironbridge, sadly for us this glorious structure is undergoing major renovation and restoration work and was therefore completely covered. That said I can certainly say I crossed it and enjoyed the views across the town and river. From here I started clock watching or to be more accurate GPS watching, converting kilometres to miles and trying to figure out just how far was left, the trouble was I’d gone wrong in direction enough to make this futile and turned my gaze to the river and the fact I was on the side opposite to the finish line. Bugger.

All of the runners I was with had a small wobble about halfway before the actual crossing but it was with renewed vigour that we all pressed on for the final mile. Buoyed by the sight of the final directional arrow I burst forward a little ahead of the others and bounced through the car park to the finish.

There was no fanfare, simply Denzil manning the bacon butty wagon. Perfect.

Key points

  • Distance: Ultra 50km
  • Profile: Nothing too severe
  • Date: March 2018
  • Location: Telford
  • Cost: £50
  • Terrain: Mixed (but mainly tarmac paths)
  • Tough Rating: 1/5 (very accessible ultra)

Route: The route had a number of interesting bits, lots of bridges, lots of heritage and passed along some good scenery but that was tempered by the running through some really rather dull sections. The Silkin Way markers were a really nice touch and being made up of good paths the route lends itself to being fast – if you want it to be. The trail sections for me where the best part (though I believe these were off the Silkin Way) but there weren’t enough of them, however, that’s the trail runner in me talking. Ultimately I think you’ll find that this is neither the best nor the worst route you’ll ever do but has more than enough positives to make this a worthwhile run.

Organisation: This was my first time with ‘How Hard Can it Be’ and the hugely enthusiastic team were incredibly professional and wonderfully supportive. It was a relaxed atmosphere and everything was organised perfectly – just the kind of race organisation I enjoy.

Support: Aid station 1 and 3 were the same one on the out and back with aid 2 being in one of the organisers homes which was very nice and my desire to take a seat was sorely tested. Three aid stations was enough albeit the positioning was probably just a wee bit off as you had the final ten miles with no race support (although there was nothing stopping you nipping into the local shop for a bottle of water and/or a snickers!). The aid stations themselves were suitably stocked for the shorter end of the ultra distances with jelly babies, jaffa cakes, crisps, cola and water in abundance. Nothing wrong with the support.

Awards: The medal was weighty and a lovely memento of a challenging event. I also very much liked the design for the race numbers, made a pleasant change from the black number against white background. There was also the post race photograph to look forward too (or grimace at) – as per usual I look terrible!

Value for money: The route, the medal, the experience, the support and of course the cost all come to mind when I’m looking at value – how does this stack up against its contemporaries?

It comes out pretty well – primarily because of the positive experience you’ll have running the Silkin Way and different people will take away different positives from this. For me I got to run an ultra marathon in a new part of the UK, in a friendly, small field of runners with an ace medal and that means I got excellent value for money.

Conclusion: Is this the best ultra marathon in the UK? No it’s not, but is it a really good early spring shakedown ultra that will set you up for races later in the year? Oh yes!

I’d say this race is especially good for road runners who want to dip their toes into ultra marathons but who want to avoid laps or want to avoid mud. It would be excellent if you were looking for a challenging but fast 50km. Would I do it again? If I were looking for a race at this time of year I would certainly consider running this again (although I’d prepare a bit better for the tarmac) as I enjoyed myself more than the pain in my legs suggest. The fact is that races like this draw out, in my opinion, the ultra runners I want to run with and I’ll continue to support races like this for as long as lovely race directors like Denzil (and the team) put them on. Good work guys – you can check out their races at http://www.codrc.co.uk

This is a story two years in the making as the moment I finished the SainteLyon in 2015 I knew I had found ‘my’ race. My experience was so incredibly positive that I knew I would return and when entries opened in April I was waiting with my debit card to hand ready to sign up. Experience had taught me that this was unnecessary but I wanted my place confirmed as quickly as possible and within a few hours I had also uploaded the medical certificate from the UTBCN, booked my flights and begun the search for accommodation.

For more detail on how you go about the logistics can I recommend you read the 2015 report, which goes into much detail about that kind of thing.

The first half of my running year had gone quite well, finishing with a great finish at the South Wales 50 and despite failure at MIUT I was feeling tremendously positive overall going into the summer race break. However, the death of my partners mother, illness and injuries to my back meant that my return to training and racing was hampered quite badly. I didn’t show up for the return of the London to Brighton, although I rocked up to the start of the Ultra Trail Scotland: Arran this was cancelled mid race due to terrible weather conditions and I deferred my place at The Rebellion because of a hideous chest infection and a lack of preparation. This all meant that my return to the SainteLyon was incredibly undertrained in fact only just returned to training and in no way ready to face this wonderful course.

Regardless I wasn’t going to miss out and on Friday, 1st December I ambled along to the hideous Luton Airport and took the short flight to the delightful Lyon St Exupery Airport a short hop on the Rhône Express took me into the centre of the city (30mins), I bought a 72hour combined Metro, Tram and bus ticket (€15) and took the 3 minute metro ride to Saxe Gambetta where I would find my small but perfect AirBnB accommodation just two minutes from the station.

I dropped my bags down to be greeted by the sight of a Nespresso machine and some Belgian waffles and chocolate crepes! Merci Diep (the host). I grabbed a few bits like my passport and registration confirmation before heading straight out to the hall to collect my number. Another short hop on the metro and I was a five minute walk from where I needed to be – awesome.

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Security was still quite tight in France and there were bag and body searches before entry to the hall – which in light of recent history both in France and across Europe -makes sense. But once in the hall it was like a Mecca for all things trail running and I slowly wandered round deciding what I would spend some pennies on. It was lovely to see Oxsitis with a big stand and lots of products on show and while I may not wear them any longer Hoka also rolled into town with a decent showing.

Collection of my number was easy this year and I used my incredibly handy French phrase, ‘je ne comprends pas francais. parlez vous anglais?’ and I found that my French hosts once they knew I was English simply switched languages (something I am in awe of) though I did use my French language skills wherever possible. With my number collected I headed over to get some SainteLyon socks and my new much loved Buff!

And from this point I actually had some free time. I headed over to the huge shopping centre and picked up some provisions, did some late night sightseeing and then continued in this vein the following morning – touristing before settling down to an afternoon nap before the race. I then engaged in my now infamous pre race coffee ritual for a full bowel clearance and eventually I’d get round to loading up my kit up! It all seemed to be going far to smoothly.

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At about 6pm I headed down to the bus pick up point and joined the queue for one of the many buses to St Etienne. I remember in 2015 the bus was warm but the window had a drip running down it and I’d worked hard to ensure I didn’t get wet! This year the bus was a little chillier but the window didn’t leak and we arrived in good time and without incident. Security was speedy but thorough and as I had time to kill I grabbed some of the pre race snack goodies and went into the smaller of the two halls to see if I could catch a bit more sleep or at least rest. The hall was warm and filled with people but I had little trouble finding space and I folded a buff up and lay my head upon it – but I couldn’t sleep. The SainteLyon was effectively my Christmas present to myself and like a young boy I was desperate to open my present and get to running! Much like a Christmas Eve the following three hours dragged like the Hundred Years’ War! Still the hours did give me a vantage point for kit and people watching – the most interesting outfit I saw was a teenage mutant ninja turtle with full shell and this chap (as far as I know) ran the whole thing dressed like this. The STL though doesn’t attract a great deal of runners like this, they’re quite rare I would say. Most runners rock up in their favourite or best kit and I was pleased to note that many of the runners were wearing Oxsitis, Raidlight or Kalenji bags, undoubtedly the French appreciate these brands being reasonably readily available on the high street and support local brands. Shoe choices were equally local with most seeming to opt for Salomon or Kalenji – the good thing for me was I saw no Karrimor!

I’d chosen Altra for footwear and my beloved Oxsitis Hydragon for my back with a variety of OMM and Ronhill kit making up the rest, perhaps it was the kit that made me stand out as English as anyone that approached me spoke to me (generally) in my native tongue – clearly to the other runners I was not French!

Anyway to the race! The SainteLyon in its current form is a 72km race from St Etienne to Lyon, taking place the first weekend in December and setting off around midnight, you can read more about it here at Wikipedia. At around 11.30pm I drifted slowly to the start knowing that I would be starting near the back of the field but this would allow me to pick off runners later on (if I had any capacity to do so).

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The organisers though were releasing the runners in waves which meant that as I was at the back I would be one of the final runners to depart St Etienne. I could feel the cold setting in and I was geared for minimal warmth as I knew that during the race I would overheat with too many layers. I rubbed my arms periodically to retain warmth and hugged myself, while gently jigging on the spot – stopping sporadically to take photographs and make social media checks.

40 minutes later and, as promised, bang on time the music played, the horn blew and thousands of runners were released into the night. It was as magical as I remembered it, only this time there was no @kemptomslim to share the moment with and so I turned to look at the arch I had just run under and said ‘au revoir’ before turning on my heel and running into the Rhône Valley night.

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The first few kilometres are along the roads and lack any really interesting things to note other than the opportunity to catch some ground in the runners ahead of you or perhaps make some alliances to allow the hours to pass more pleasantly. I decided on the former rather than the latter and pressed firmly ahead knowing that conditions underfoot later in the race might slow me down. Perhaps the big clue as to the conditions was the fact that many runners had loaded up crampons to their race vests in preparation for cruddy conditions but at this early stage even those in their Kalenji Road shoes were running fine.

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While my French is limited I could feel the ambience of the race and the runners and there was a generally positive, goodwill feeling that swelled up around the runners in these early stages and you couldn’t help but be carried by this. For my part I darted between runners and ambled towards the trail which kicked in at around the 6km mark.

From here the light snowfall that we had seen on the sides of the road was replaced by much thicker, more dangerous, not so grippy snow and I recall as I headed down the trail that ‘bugger, this isn’t going to be as easy as last time’.

However, I am confident in my footwork and I was able to press on a little faster than those in front of me and as the kilometres marched downward toward the first checkpoint I started to feel very confident about running a good time. Despite a lack of training in the lead up to the race I was feeling surprisingly spritely too and as I hurled myself up and down the trails I was enjoying myself.

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I felt like I was in a good place and set myself up for cruise control to allow me some breathing room and to take photographs and simply to take joy from the experience. About 13km in, not long before the first checkpoint I looked behind me to see the procession of runners all twinkling behind me and then I really remembered why I love this race so much.

However, with underfoot conditions worsening I was glad to drop upon the first checkpoint and it was here that I stayed the longest of all the checkpoints – maybe 5 minutes, this was mainly due to the amount of people and partly because I actually wanted food. But it was still a short stop and thankfully they had full fat Coca Cola on offer and I enjoyed a cup full before heading out – no Rolo Cola this time @kemptonslim

I remembered that post checkpoints I was freezing cold for the first few minutes and so covered my fingers with the mitten part of my gloves and pulled my neck buff up and my head buff down and headed out. Weirdly though my nose was freezing and when I felt the front of my buff the snot and hot breath had frozen into a cold and icy mess. I folded it down a little and it was better but this would be the first buff to be replaced a few more kilometres down the trail.

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It was from here that you started noticing people putting crampons on as conditions underfoot deteriorated further and there was a visible increase in the amount of runners who were losing their legs beneath them, I was keen to go as fast as I could but knew two things;

  1. Falling would hurt
  2. I’d forgotten to buy ultra marathon sports insurance

and so I ran were it was appropriate and walked as quickly as possible everywhere else. It was about the 20km mark that I heard the sounds of an Australian accent behind me and for a short while I’d met someone who spoke English natively and we had a lovely brief chat before we went our sort of separate ways. This was her first ultra marathon and her French friend felt this would be a great introduction to ultras and when I saw her she looked the business taking her fast marathon form into the STL. I would see a little more of her later.

The second section unlike the first had a greater degree of pure Trail and both my knees and back appreciated this. The trail was incredibly variable with some being good clear trail, other parts moist but most were snow and ice covered and progress remained slower than I would have liked but still not bad. The STL though has a very interesting aspect to it that say something like the CCC does not – overtaking. Although the route is busy with runners the potential for overtaking is enormous and you find yourself gearing up past runners all the time and then being overtaken by them! This has benefits for the relay runners who are undoubtedly fresher than the full distance runners and even for the Express (44km) runners that you might meet.

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I found myself hitting some decent running in this section and engaging in lots of overtaking and being overtaken and it was fabulous hearing the phrase ‘a gauche’ or ‘a droit’ – I can’t tell my left from my right in English so I had to concentrate hard to get it right in French!

Although not clock watching I was very aware that my time was better than it had been in 2015 and some basic mental calculations suggested I could shave off around two or three hours from my previous outing and despite an injury and illness hit few months I was giving it as much welly as the ground would allow. However, all of this was to grind to a halt and all the good work undone. At about 23km in the ground became so icy that runners couldn’t even walk on it and in front of you a plethora of bodies were strewn across the trail.

A runner would fall and the phrase ‘ca va?’ would be called the two or three runners that would stop to pick up their fallen comrade. I brought my own race to a stop to assess the conditions and decided that I would use what visual clues I had before me, track the steps of the runners ahead of me and go as carefully as possible. Sections were becoming so severe that runners were sitting on their arses and pushing themselves down the trail on their hands.

I witnessed bloodied and bruised runners ahead of me but their tenacity meant that most would get up. My problems intensified though when at 26km my trusty Altra gave into the ice and I was thrust skyward and came down with a thud. I’d broken the fall with my back and smashed my headand although I got up straight away I was in pain – my recent back troubles suddenly came rushing back and my head felt woozy. I knew that Sainte-Catherine was only a couple of kilometres further on and so I followed the crowd, walking now and not in a good place. I slipped and slid more, desperate to keep my feet but I fell a further three times before the second checkpoint and when I crashed in I felt like death.

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I took a few minutes and ate emmental and salami to help get something in me and for both the first and last time I wondered if I should stop and seek medical attention. The answer was ‘no’ and with that I set off again. I tried to focus on the trail and ran reciting song lyrics and poetry to myself as I’ve often found this works to stop me thinking about more painful distractions. The various falls though and those to come had given me s kicking and perhaps had my head taken a worse knock than it did I would have had the common sense to stop – but I didn’t. The trail continued to worsen and we were now into the coldest part of the night and at the highest, often most exposed points, when the wind whipped through it passed straight through me but I refused to put additional layers on knowing that this would simply infuriate me.

Upon reach Inge the highest point of the race I felt something of an achievement, despite having run it before I convinced myself that the rest of the course was downhill but this was ridiculous and actually the most dangerous Running was just around the corner.

I could see the pack starting to gather ahead of me, the ice, once again so bad that runners were sat on the floor dragging themselves down and the mountain rescue, aided by quad bikes were going back and forth collecting runners from the trail. In my head I refused to sit down and drag myself along, I refused to bow, in my head I could here Terence Stamps, Zod calling out, ‘kneel before Zod son of Jor-el’ and although I’m no Superman i knew that the moment I gave in I would death march this home.

My decision to stay stood cost me a couple of falls and a fellow runner came sliding into the back of me taking me out at one point. My already broken body didn’t have the required agility to jump straight back up this time but my fellow runners pulled me to my feet quickly and set me on my way. I was hurting now in lots of ways but the mild delirium kept me on the straight and narrow!

Ha!

I dragged my sorry arse into the checkpoint and found a quiet spot to change head torches and power my phone up after the cold had simply switched it off. I didn’t bother with food or drink here – I was feeling sickly but I hoped this would pass if I quickly got out of the checkpoint and avoided the dreaded DNF.

I was a marathon or so in and light would soon be upon these beautiful French lands and with it I felt conditions would improve if only because I’d be able to see but the news was a bit better than that – the closer to Lyon we got the better the trail conditions got and icy conditions became more sporadic. My head was also starting to clear a little bit and despite the physical pain I could feel myself running more and more with confidence returning that I could control both my ascents and more importantly the descents.

Finally after the drama and trauma of the night I was back in the race – although the slow progress through the ice had ensured that there was no way I was going to run faster than the previous attempt.

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We were also on the countdown to the finish ‘SainteLyon 25km arrivee’ I pushed on as fast as I could, walking the hills as quickly as possible and staying steady across the flat and downhills. I stopped briefly to top up my calories with a couple of caramel Freddo and some icy water and took a look back to realise that there still many, many runners behind me – this was clearly proving a hard slog for everyone.

With 20km to go I pulled into the next checkpoint and pulled out again quickly – I’d been keeping tabs on the young Australian girl and her friend who I’d inadvertently been playing overtaking tennis with and decided that I could use her as my pacer – the aim? To beat her to the finish. The final 20km are much more road based which doesn’t really suit my running style nor my injury record, however, it did allow me to push on without too much concern for what was happening at foot level.

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about 5km in to the final 20km I saw my new target drift ahead of me – still looking strong and here I thought it was all over, I didn’t have a race in me – or so I thought. With just over 10km left I entered the final checkpoint had arrived at the outskirts of Lyon. I saw the two runners I was trailing and asked how they were getting on, they described a tale of woe in the icy conditions and my internal Schadenfreude said, ‘hehe’ but instant karma paid me back by making me bite down hard on my own finger instead of the cheese and salami I was holding. I base them farewell and wished them a good final push but I knew I could get there before them.

Boom!

Finally the sun was warming, I removed my buffs, my gloves and rolled my sleeves up. I knew the route from here, I could smell the finish line in the distance and even the good awful climb into the city I flew up much to the amusement of runners behind me. There are steps on the descent into Lyon and the finish – lots of them and ahead of me I could see runners gingerly hobbling down them but I pushed hard knowing that I could continue to climb the rankings.

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Off the steps, down to the river, up the winding steps, over one bridge, fly past the musee de confluences and over the final bridge, cheering supporters shouting, ‘Allez!’ And clapping calling out, ‘Bravo! Bravo!’

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I had decided on my finish routine long ago for this race and I ambled along to the final 200metres, I could see runners ahead of me and at the right moment I pressed my feet into the floor and like a rocket I blasted off much to the surprise of the crowd who whooped and hollered as I hit full pace. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 runners down, runner number 6 with his hands in the air smacked me in the head but I was in full glorious flow and I hurtled towards the final turn – taking it wide to ensure I could cross the line flat out! I passed a couple of final runners at the line and I was over.

It was over! I was over!

  • Distance: 72km
  • Ascent: +2000 metres
  • Location: Lyon
  • Cost: £65
  • Runners: 7,000 (15,000 over all distances)
  • Terrain: Mixed, icy, rocky, hilly, tough
  • Tough Rating: 3/5

Organisation
The STL is possibly the best organised race I’ve ever run, but then after 64 editions perhaps that is to be expected. However, they clearly keep on making minor corrections to the system to ensure that runners know what’s going on and what they have to do. Things like transport to the start for thousands of runners is slick and well rehearsed and the checkpoints although busy are all easily accessible as a runner.

As a French classic there isn’t much information in English but Google translate is helpful and the volunteer army was amazing in helping me with questions I had.

There was also excellent social media connectivity and the tracking was quick, up to date and working unlike at so many events (yep I’m thinking of you UTMB). The STL scores incredibly highly for organisation.

Volunteers
All volunteers are amazing but the SainteLyon volunteers are out in some freezing cold conditions for a very long period and they remain hugely upbeat – they are a credit to the race and to European Ultra Running. There should also be a special mention to the many people who came out on to the course to support, whether they had a runner or not, truly special.

Route
The route had something for everyone whether you’re a trail lover, a road hog or somewhere in between. The ascents are sharp and the descents technical in places but it’s fun and the route is mostly wide enough for easy overtaking. The views for this route are strange in that you are in the middle of the night so it’s dark but the lights of the runners illuminate things around you and in the distance and that’s a beautiful sight. I feel very much the reason I love the STL so much is because the route is both challenging and fun, this time it really did show me it’s tough side but that doesn’t change my opinion that this is an everyman course and with a bit of tenacity you can do it.

Awards
I would love, love, love a SainteLyon medal but solo finishers are presented with a T shirt instead – a nice technical shirt but still not a medal. This year pre-race they also supplied a snood/buff and a pair of STL branded warm socks which are excellent. There were all sorts of other goodness such as the post race and pre race food (I didn’t bother with either but I heard good things about it). All in all the awards are great but I’d love a medal (take the hint organisers).

Costs
To give an indication of cost I paid around £85 return flights (London Luton – Lyon). £22 for the return express train to Lyon from the airport and about £85 for three nights Airbnb in the centre of Lyon as well as £60 for the race and transport. Other costs included a couple of technical SainteLyon t-shirts and a bobble hat (total cost £27). All in, transport, race, goodies, tourism and food £300.

Logistics
I’ve written in my previous STL about logistics but Lyon is 1hr 25mons from London and Lyon Airport is 30 mins from the city centre. I used AirBnB for accommodation which was lovely and the race itself provides buses to the start for €13 and this is easily the best way of arriving fresh at the start. The organisers and Lyon/St Etienne are very well prepared for this event and as far as I could tell it runs smoothly and logistically brilliantly.

Value for money
Value for money is a very subjective thing, for example some people even believe that OCR events are good value but this is a different kettle of fish. Entry is €63 – this includes the €3 service charge and what you get is not only a truly glorious event but also tremendous support (be that through volunteers, cheering supporters or food at checkpoints), most importantly though you receive a brilliantly organised event and having some events not this well set up I can tell you I appreciate the value of a good team delivering on their promises.

Favourite moments
This year was a little different to 2015 but it had no fewer highlights, below are five moments that really made a difference to my race.

  1. The start line, such an icon of the race and filled with all sorts of emotion. The moment the runners all started hugging and patting each other on their backs just made me feel connected to my fellow competitors
  2. Standing at various high points of the route and looking back to see the procession of lights running to catch me and the people ahead of me.
  3. The two young children and their mother offering water, coffee, goodies and support in the darkest hours of the race
  4. The cries of Allez! Allez! Allez! and Bravo!
  5. My sprint to the finish line

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Conclusion
Going back to the SainteLyon after 2015 was never in doubt. I had loved the idea of it and loved the execution of it. After being busy with Haria Extreme in 2016 I knew I would be returning to Lyon this year but what I hadn’t been prepared for was a hugely different experience.

In truth, as I look back on it, I enjoyed this year even more than my first time because of how close I came to failing and yet still clinging on. However, it wasn’t just that it was also the fact I got to enjoy the race, to watch the landscape move before my very eyes in a procession of light and because the SainteLyon continues to tease, ‘come back UltraBoy you can run me faster’.

Going back to the SainteLyon is a certainty because there is something special about it that no other race I’ve done has given me the feeling I get here. It might have left me broken into a thousand pieces but I would rather that it was body broken than my heart. SainteLyon 2017 – I loved you.

You can learn more about the race at www.saintelyon.com and below is a gallery of images taken during the 2017 event!

 

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I have been struggling with the start of this blog post about the South Wales 50 for a couple of reasons, the first is that some of what happened shouldn’t ever be aired again and remain confined to the trails it happened on and the second is that the race was so amazingly awesome that it is actually rather challenging to put into words.

However, as a regular reviewer of races I want you all to consider this monster, step back, think carefully and then probably enter and here is why…

Several months ago I had decided that my hundred mile effort for the year was going to be the SW100, described as brutal with a mere 30% completion rate. In my effort to tackle more and more brutal races this had all the appeal I needed and with training going well in the first four months of the year I was feeling pretty good about going up against this beast. Sadly in the wake of MIUT, Marlborough and Meriden my body took a series of nasty blows – bad injuries to my groin, my heel and my back and none have truly settled, especially after the mauling I took at Meriden three weeks ago. I therefore decided to request to be dropped down from the hundred mile to the fifty, I explained that I felt as though I at least stood a chance of getting around the 50 whereas I felt the hundred would probably annihilate me.

Joe and Ben couldn’t have been nicer and moved me over to the fifty but with trains already booked I was going to be arriving for the hundred anyway and so offered my services for a few hours as a volunteer. So at 5am on the Friday with a rucksack that weighed the same as a tank I set off on my journey to Radyr. Thankfully the GingaNinja was visiting her parents and I was able to grab a lift as far as Swindon in the relatively luxurious new wheels we had picked up the day before and after a quick spot of lunch (KFC) I hurled my bag on my back and trundled to Swindon train station for an hour long journey to Cardiff followed by a short hop to Radyr – half a mile from the start.

So far , so simple
The problem was I was pretty exhausted – the stupidly hot week we had just experienced had meant I’d managed only a few hours sleep all week and I didn’t fancy my chances of a good night in a jam packed tent with no roll mat. Regardless of these concerns I unloaded, set up my camp and then went to offer my services as a volunteer.

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A bit of volunteering never hurt anyone
Joe handed me over to Sian on race number duty and together we spent the next few hours handing out race numbers, maps and shirts to all that wanted to risk their lives against the Welsh valleys. It was an amazing insight and something of a spectacle and of course it is a favourite thing of mine to do – simply to admire the every type of person who believes they can do this distance. Every type of person was represented here from the silly to the serious, the young to the old, the seasoned to the newbie, it would be interesting to see who would finish and importantly why people might stop.

I really enjoyed registration and felt like I’d gotten into the swing of things after a while and genuinely enjoyed the company of the other volunteers, especially Sian. After the 100s had finished registering I called it a day, they had more than enough volunteers to cope it seemed and I needed food, sleep and prep.

It was closing on 8pm when I left Radyr in search of food and the drizzle had already begun, I’d managed to cook some dirty noodles on my stove but having forgotten a fork I had to wet wipe one of the metal tent pegs to eat it – my hunger was far from sated. The nearest reasonable town was only a mile or so away and so I threw caution to the wind and headed out. Whitchurch it turned out had a number of eateries but I didn’t fancy sitting alone so I found a truly delicious fish and chip shop grabbed the ‘homemade fish cake and chips’ for £3.20 and meandered back towards the Tesco Express, while chowing down on my hot delicious treat, to pick up some essentials such as chocolate milk, a Turkish Delight and two packs of pulled pork pastries.

By 9.30pm a little wetter but much happier I settled down in my tent knowing that in the morning I’d be taking on an uncompromising 50 mile route. Sleep though was far from easy to find and it was an uncomfortable night filled with a drizzle that normally would aid my rest, but this night simply heightened my anxiety. I got up at about 5 and fiddled with kit for a bit and decided the best course of action was shower and a chocolate milk breakfast.

Pre-race
It was big communal rugby showers which warmed wonderfully across my exhausted body and I felt fresh afterwards as I slapped on liberal amounts of Vaseline to my knackers. My only concern was that I spilt a whole cup of tea on my runderwear the night before and despite keeping them in my sleeping bag they hadn’t dried and so my troublesome balls were a little looser than I might have liked but there was nothing for it but to accept it. It was here that I would meet the first of two gentlemen that would define my race. I met Pete in the shower room and we chatted a little about races, children and the days event, we’d had a bit of a laugh and as I left the changing facilities we wished each other well. I thought little more of it.

I proceeded up the stairs and grabbed an empty table as I didn’t really want to intrude on the couple of small gatherings and cracked open the chocolate milk – tidied up my drop bag and watched as a succession of weary looking warriors trundled in. Pete joined me at my table and behind me sat another gentleman runner, Ryan – we were joined by Gari (who it would turn out I already knew via Twitter and was speedy as buggery round the course) and a couple of others that helped to create a warm and friendly bantering atmosphere. It was mainly old race and kit chatter interspersed with amusing anecdotes. The time waiting for the bus to take us to the start simply flew by; I hadn’t had a start to a race this good in years.

As I left to get on the bus I found myself behind Ryan and as we’d already become acquainted I asked if he minded a bit of company for the trip to the start line. I was very grateful to learn little tidbits about his life and happy to share bits of mine – little did I know that he would be the other person who really would define my race.

But upon arrival at the drop off point and near the start of the race at Pen Y Fan I knew it was likely we would say our goodbyes and so it was with mild surprise that we continued to hang out together, Pete too popped up and we joked with some of the others, perhaps it was the sense of impending doom but even with only 50 people starting it felt a tight knit race.

And they’re off…

The awesome Joe kicked proceedings off and with a light flurry we all hit the first climb and were on our way back to drizzly Cardiff via the Brecon Beacons.

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I’d done as I often do in races and started with my waterproof jacket on. I’d brought my Montane jacket rather than the rather inadequate Ultimate Directions waterproof I also own but within a few hundred metres I was dispensing with the jacket and it wouldn’t come out again. The climb up to Pen Y Fan was no world beater, it was a rather busy trail and surrounded by mist with limited visibility but this being Wales it felt magical or perhaps like a scene from Monty Pythons Holy Grail. Ryan had caught me up while I was arranging my bag and we bimbled along for a while overtaking one another and chatting as we went.

The route up to the summit (and the Beacons) had been described to me as like a motorway and I could sort of see that but perhaps I’d have romanticised it a little more by suggesting it was like the yellow brick road and we were on our way to the Emerald City. Perhaps it was when the cloud and mist broke open and The Valleys appeared that I could get a sense of how truly magnificent South Wales is. I was very glad to be here and on the Brecon Beacons going up and down the trails I was having a lot of fun – this has been described as the harder sections of the route but actually I found these early stages much more to my tastes and would have been very happy stuck up here all day and night.

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That said some runners looked like they found these first climbs hard work and I’d certainly say they shouldn’t be underestimated but they were much less severe than some of the later up and downs. Ryan and I passed by some of the hundred milers about three quarters the way up Pen Y Fan and congratulated them on their efforts so far – they all looked really strong and had hit the halfway point at around 15hrs – more than enough time to get to the finish.

The summit of Pen Y Fan was busy and both Ryan and I decided not to hang around for obligatory selfies but pushed on through Cribyn for the first of the compulsory clips and here I picked up my first injury. The clip was broken and so in the howling wind I found myself rather than stabbing the paper I stabbed straight into my thumb – the views from here were rather spectacular and I headed over to the cliff edge for a wee look before we pushed onwards to what I was reliably informed called ‘Big Fanny’. Now ‘Big Fanny’ (sniggers like a teenage boy) provided the second compulsory clip point and the route provided a non-stop succession of up and downs.

It had its wild moments too such as the descent from Fan Y Big – I decided I was going to let gravity do the work down a rather steep descent and within seconds realised that despite reasonable sure-footedness this was going to get my legs out from under me. I was pretty certain that above me, being slightly more sensible in their approach to the descent, that Ryan and Ann (a lady we had just met) were laughing themselves silly at my antics. Having stopped my body dead in its tracks I waited for them to catch me up and simply referred to myself as an ‘over-eager tit’. Ann ran with us for a little while as she explained she had been feeling a little nauseous but was still chatting and running, and we were happy to have another face on our ‘fun bus through Wales’. She explained she was due to hit the North Downs Way 100 later in the year with Centurion and for the while we ran with her she looked in good form. It was a kilometre or two later that I lost the pair of them – I saw a seriously fun looking descent down towards Talybont Reservoir and hit the afterburner. ‘Wee’ I heard myself cry as I pushed on knowing that the checkpoint was only a few hundred more metres away and with the reservoir to my right and the wind slapping me in the face I thundered down the beautifully flat tarmac and into the waiting arms of the checkpoint staff.

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Now normally I’d say three minutes and then out but I was in no rush and so had a couple of glasses of cola and as many purple jelly babies as were available. In the distance I could see Ryan and Ann but decided that I was slow enough on the ascents that they were undoubtedly catch me. I thanked the checkpoint staff and cried ‘tally-ho’ as I ambled my way upwards.

Beyond the first checkpoint
Now if the first section had been fun the second section was a little chewier. I ambled up the steep track into a section of undergrowth and thought, ‘hmmm have I taken my first wrong turn?’ Running up the track I wondered if I could catch sight of some of the other runners, the GPS was still saying roughly and I was keen to go back down the hill as much like the Grand Old Duke of York I’d end up coming back up it! It was at this moment that I saw the incredibly friendly face of Ryan but sans Ann.

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Sadly she had retired at the checkpoint, Ryan suggested that she had taken a downward turn after I’d left them briefly to hurtle the descent into CP1.

‘Thank fuck it’s you’ I called out, ‘I think it’s up here but I’m not sure’. Ryan assured me that crossing the style and heading across was the right thing to be doing – sadly he was only half right and we set off away from the next climb but quickly corrected ourselves when we spotted a couple of very weary looking runners about 500 metres (vertically) away from us.

‘Oh bollocks’ I thought as we stopped for a jimmy riddle behind some windswept trees. ‘I like to fire the stream into the wind and see how far it’ll be carried’ I advised Ryan, he was on the same page.

Noting that I’d had an epic pee I decided to crack open the tailwind bottle I’d prepared earlier and upon taking several large gulps felt almost immediately better – though this was short lived once I realised what we had to climb.

With the help of some other runners we realised we had ended up in the wrong field and as there was no gate we very carefully and safely supported one another across the barbed wire and into the road before heading up one of the steepest ascents on the course. We had regular stops, both I think pretending that we were admiring the view rather than gathering our breath and we ploughed on. I couldn’t tell you how long we ambled upwards here but it was long enough to feel like hard work and when we reached the summit and the clip point we decided that a windy sit down was in order.

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Ryan unfurled a breakfast bar that had been attacked by both the shape of his body and the sweat of the day. I did much the same only for me it was the sweaty Haribo option.

The wind was harsh up on the summit and so we picked ourselves up and set off quickly downwards to find a little bit of respite and warmth. With the skies now completely clear too it was a lovely day and I should have thought to sun cream up like I was hiding from the sunlight but I didn’t and I would pay a high price for that later. This was pleasant running though and generally we were still running – our legs felt pretty good and both Ryan and I, although no speed goats, were making good enough time to finish somewhere between 17 and 19 hours. However, it was here that we lost our way a little as the course zig zagged around and the GPS file didn’t quite match the road book we needed to stop and take stock of our position.

We encountered a couple of other runners in a similar predicament and as we wound our way around and down we realised we might be a little off. In the distance above us I saw Pete (and his posse) and waved enthusiastically – probably a little over friendly if I’m honest and rolled my arm nonchalantly around my head attempting to disguise my greeting – phew got away with it.

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These miles proved to be interesting as we ambled through – not taking anything too seriously and spending most of our time doing knob and fart gags. The posse spread out here and there with different people choosing slightly different directions but often doubling back, it was to the collective credit of the runners that they always attempted to aid one another to ensure the right route was being taken. Ryan and I between us were actually doing rather well in navigation terms and as we dipped down to Trefil Village we had much to be pleased about.

The hard rough road into the village felt like an excellent place to slow down and this gave Pete a chance to catch us up and turn a duo into a trio. It occurred to me that this looked like a scene from ‘The Three Amigos’ but the bad news was that I was clearly being cast as Martin Short to Ryan’s Chevy Chase and Pete completing the line-up as Steve Martin. However, this felt right and as we listened to Ryan tell us about his £450 Ford Granada Funeral Car ‘Party Bus’ we simply howled our way into the next checkpoint.

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Checkpoint 2 and the start of the real race
‘Hotdog lads’ came a cheery voice, ‘tea, coffee, fill your bottles?’ Upon entering CP2 we found ourselves in the midst of the best reception we could have hoped for, our drop bags awaited us but also importantly there were hot dogs on the menu and we all greedily ate them and washed it down with a cup of sweet tea. I continued to stuff my face with food from my drop bag and drank the chocolate milk I had been dreaming of but mostly I left my kit in my bag – no spare shoes or socks were required.

I’m not sure how it came about but the checkpoint volunteers ended up describing us as the smiliest runners they’d seen all day and I can see that being true but as I said, ‘we pay to do this, might as well enjoy it!’. Much banter was passed around the checkpoint and I told the tale of how a female runner, in the middle of the night asked me if we could run together telling me, ‘you don’t look too rapey’. Quick as a flash from the crowd came the response (and I’ll paraphrase) ‘she was wrong wasn’t she?’ Genius!

The guys at checkpoint 2 were magnificent and they sent us on our way truly refreshed and rather cheery about the next section and with only 500 metres of ascent we thought this would be a nice easy section – how wrong we were proved.

We ran across the first field and saw a small stream to cross and by the Power of Greyskull we did it, but this led us into boggy fields and we found that the tall grass made progress slow. Each of us took turns to go as lead risking the possibility of wet feet but we survived and hit the tarmac before conversation turned to much loved movies, quotes from Flash Gordon, Labyrinth, Bond movies littered liberally around and how many filthy film titles could you think of; Pete was pretty good as he shot from the hip a number of classic titles including ‘Shaving Ryan’s Privates’ before we hit a low when ‘Confessions of Window Cleaner’ and ‘On the Buses’ got a mention. Ryan was no slouch either in the humour department as the ‘teenage boy toilet humour’ dominated the miles.

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This though provided respite from our travails across the swamp and as we headed into Parc Bryn Bach we were feeling okay and also finally starting to pull away a little from the group behind us. We pushed on using the momentum we’d developed using a combination of running and pretty swift hiking to cover the miles, stopping only for photo opportunities with the enormous remains of cars and vans that littered the South Wales countryside (somewhere is a photograph of me sat in one of these seats). It felt like we were starting to lose the light as well but actually it was simply getting overcast but regardless given our height we would manage to avoid head torches for several more hours.

However, mentally this was probably the most draining, the least interesting and the toughest section to get through and this was where my comrades were at their most valuable. We’d discussed whether we should stay together and agreed that given the bollock crushing nature of the course, the navigation and our general good feeling for one another that seeing this journey through together would be a good idea. So it was with a flourish that we each entered the third checkpoint and maintained our cheery approach…

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‘It’s no North Sea Hijack’ I exclaimed to one of the wonderful volunteers as we began flirtation via Roger Moore. His riposte was composed of Roger Moore-esque fashion suggestions, ‘…cravat? perhaps teamed with a pastel coloured safari suit..?’ Ha!

More wonderful back and forth banter which in turn earned each of us a freshly BBQed delight. Delicious!

I had the peppered steak in a cheesy bap (because as Ryan said ‘everything tastes better with cheese’ (though I’m not sure he’d thought it through as I hear oral sex with a cheesy whiff is quite unpleasant) while my running buddies ate heartily of a pork belly bap.

Anyway after a few minutes of scoffing bacon frazzle & Jaffa cake sandwiches we all felt much better and we’d now reached about 29 miles of running or as it would turn out ‘halfway’! We doffed our caps to the awesome volunteers and bade them a fond farewell and headed once more into the Welsh Wilds!

It wasn’t far into the next section that another eating opportunity arose and as we approached the Co-op I offered the option of stopping for an ice-cream at the outer edge of Bargod. Pete chose the delicious flake cone, while I selected a strawberry cornetto and an Irn-Bru but Ryan decided to dip out of this in favour of a bit of a kit check and fix up. The cool slightly melting iced joy danced on my palette and I devoured this little treat as we continued on our journey.

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Despite this little stop we had decided that we’d like to try and get through to the next checkpoint before full darkness consumed us but it was only a mile or two down the road as the trail darker that we decided that it was worth bringing illumination to the darkness we found ourselves in. Despite having now been running together for many hours we still had much to be upbeat about and even as the reality dawned on us that we were slowing down a bit we knew it was important to keep our spirits up as the night brings new and often unwanted challenges.

It was in this section that we started to pass considerable fly tipping which while it can offer amusement of it’s a car seat is actually quite disgusting and disappointing and really did spoil some of the views across the Welsh landscape as the sun disappeared from sight.

We were now fully at the mercy of the Welsh night and although it was calm I was glad for the companionship of Ryan and Pete. Humour dried up a little as we passed single file through rougher more overgrown trail – my exposed legs were taken quite the battering and I sliced myself many times across the legs, arms and head but we continued making progress and occasionally one of us would remember that this was the fun bus and shout ‘arse almighty’ or ‘you’re pulling my plankety plank’.

It was around here that Ryan’s heel blistering was becoming bad and my lack of Runderwear had gotten to my testicles which were now the size of watermelons, even Pete looked a little worse for wear, although clearly in the best shape of the three of us.

I’d chosen to make a hasty testicle hanger out of my ‘Anton’ Buff and despite his heel pain Ryan too pushed on and our power hiking was making good progress. If we could just avoid any more bracken and thorns we might just survive this! However, the race was turning against us and applying thumb screws we believed we’d left behind on the Beacons. More and more unpleasant undergrowth attacked us and conditions underfoot varied in quality so there was simply no respite from the challenge of completion.

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The three of us pulled slowly into CP4  a while later to see a couple of very important things – the first was the availability of hot tea and pizza but also the pair of young ladies that we had been periodically running near since early on. Elise (one of the runners) looked in a pretty grim way and had apparently been lying down to try and get some life back inside her. We did the only thing we could which was offer some support and as much advice as our weary heads could work. Ryan though offered some caffeine soaked shot bloks and this seemed enough to get them ready for leaving. While they prepped we sat for a little while eating pizza and trying to regain the enthusiasm for the race. However, I was very aware that staying inside for a long period would bring about a DNF and so we pressed on and headed toward a narrow overgrown passage despite a local gentleman attempting to guide us off course.

As we stood looking over the map we saw the two ladies pass us by and knew to follow them. Sadly the route was now becoming a little bitty but there was still Caerphilly Mountain to conquer and I hoped for some interesting trails to run across – thankfully the trails did become suitably gnarly for a while and despite pain in all sorts of places we continued forward searching for what the next clip point. Pete was now mostly in charge of navigation, although I was keeping a very regular check on the GPX route to ensure we had a consensus for direction but wrong turns were few and far between as we headed to the final checkpoint. A minor blip meant that we came up a road rather than a trail for about 250 metres and nearly missed the checkpoint entirely but we simply wanted to continue on.

However, at the final checkpoint and at around 4.00am I got to see my fellow registration volunteer Sian – who looked as fresh as she had about 36hrs earlier! She was sensibly wrapped in a dry robe and upon looking me over realised who I was and came over to say hello. The volunteer team were as awesome as ever but with only six or seven miles left we needed very little and strode out from the CP pretty swiftly.

I won’t lie we looked in a pretty bad way by the time the sun came up, both Ryan and I had rusty bullet holes that you could have cooked eggs on, my testicles were on fire and we both had serious blister problems. Pete it looked like was suffering from cramp and was using the slower pace for regular stretching. We had all started to get a little grumpy too and the mood although never unpleasant was quieter and more sombre than it had been at any point in the night. However, it is fair to say that we all checked on each other – no man was being left behind and when the blisters under my feet burst the guys gave me the required time to steady myself and pick up a head of steam.

The hardest part here were not the uphills – in fact the minor uphills were a nice distraction – the main problem was the downhill to the riverside run home on the Taff Trail. Each of us struggled with this section in his own way but upon making it down we made the best effort we could to get it over the line without being overtaken further.

However, in the final few hundred metres we were overtaken by a couple of ladies – we all agreed that fighting for a placing really wasn’t worth the agony and we crossed line just as we had travelled it – together.

Distance: 50(57) miles
Ascent: +3486 metres
Location: Brecon Beacons
Cost: £70
Runners: 60
Terrain: Mixed, boggy, rocky, hilly, toughTough Rating: 4/5

Route
The route was an interesting one, the best of it was at the start and in the first 25 miles but that’s not to say the second half didn’t have appealing features because it did. The route was also incredibly tough. It is fair to suggest that this would be one of the tougher 50 milers you will face in the United Kingdom – it’s also fair to say that you’ll almost certainly need to do some extra miles – the route claims to be about 53 miles but my GPS file and that of those around me was more like 57/58 miles which is a significant percentage increase on the 50 that are advertised in the title of the race. However, none of this detracts from the fact that the route really is very special, albeit not one of the fastest around. I felt, having never really explored South Wales in any great depth, that this tour of the Brecon Beacons and the road into Cardiff gave me a desire to search for more in the region and I’m now very much looking forward (with a hint of trepidation) to The Rebellion in November.

Awards
Great t-shirt and pretty, good quality medal – do you need any more?

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Companions
What a holy trinity we proved to be. Myself, Ryan and Pete (I hope for them as much as me) proved to be a great match for banging out some exciting miles in South Wales and thank you very much for all your support. It was my honour to run alongside you and I hope to do so again soon. I hope you both conquer your awesome upcoming challenges – the TDS and the RoF.

Volunteers
I’ve had the good fortune to meet some amazing volunteers over the years I’ve been doing races but the guys at the SW50 were amongst the best. Special mention must go to Joe and Sian who I worked with during the registration but also to the guys who made me laugh so heartily at CP2 and the bearded chap with his Roger Moore comments and the hug at the finish line).

Organisation
Top notch and in every respect – if you decide to run this then it will feel smooth and well oiled and even during the bit of volunteering that I did I got the impression that Joe and the organising team were all over it like the proverbial ‘car bonnet’. Each of the CPs was well drilled and they handled the runners with respect – which hopefully they received back in genuine thanks. Ten out of ten!

Value for money
£70 for this? a bargain in any book – this included the camping, the transport to the start, tech shirt and the tremendous organisation. I would heartily recommend this race if you are looking for a proper ballbuster, it might not be for the novice runners and it might not even be for some of the seasoned ultra runners but there are a huge amount of you out there that would love this.

Check them out www.runwalkcrawl.co.uk

Favourite moments

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  • Caught by a farmer: ‘Shot or bummed which way do you fancy dying?’ I think I suggested shot while being ‘bummed’ as I really wanted to avoid the farmers ‘cum face’. In truth he was a very helpful man and all we needed to do was show a little humility for our minor mistake.
  • The button mushroom: ‘Does your cock shrivel up like a button mushroom during an ultra?’ asked Pete. Insightful was my first thought, however, both Ryan and I simply reached down to our respective ankles to scratch the end of ours to give him the answer!
  • My comrades: Ryan and Pete, two men I’d never met before who were simply amazing. Let’s put it this way we didn’t need the sheep that night 😉
  • Fixing my bollocks: the poor young ladies who were running next to us for various bits possibly having to witness me fixing my beloved Anton buff round my testicles on more than one occasion.
  • The things we learned about each other: Needless to say one of us shared too much but the ‘titwank’ story and the tale of the ‘sensible car purchase’ will be retold many times I suspect
  • The Flintstones: Being outvoted on the Betty/Wilma debate and just how manly is Fred Flintstone? I swear neither Ryan or Pete understood the real ‘Wilma’ or that Barney was a probably a sensitive caring lover for Betty.
  • Favourite insult: I like ‘cockwomble’, I’m a fan of ‘used cockbag’, ‘well I don’t think you can beat cunt’. I shan’t tell you who said what.
  • Upon finishing: Joe asks, ‘can we get you anything?’ ‘Hookers,’ I replied. ‘I think all the rugby guys have gone home sadly…’

Conclusions
This isn’t my favourite ultra – it would have to go a long way to unseat the SainteLyon and the Skye Trail Ultra – but that said this was an amazing race put on by people who really know what they’re doing and I would urge you to take a look at this for next year – you may well decide it’s not for you but for those that it is for will come away having being battered and bruised but feeling elated. So instead of signing up for the same old, same old maybe give this a go – I did and it really paid off.

As for my race? Well I was a couple of hours slower than I had hoped but I had a great time with two amazing guys and lots of other awesome runners. South Wales 50 is a race that will live long in the memory and although the 100 might be off the table for next year I suspect I will be back to give it a crack sooner rather than later and who knows maybe I will end up taking on the 100 next year.

Post race? I’ve eaten all the biscuits and my testicles have calmed down but the blisters on my feet are some of the worst I’ve had in ages and will take a few more days to heal – but the pain is well worth it.


This is a blog post that pains me to write but because I’ve written glowingly about the Altra Lone Peak 3.0 but feel it is important to provide an update to a problem encountered with my favourite running shoes.

Let me give some context to this post, I’ve purchased three pairs of Altra Lone Peak 3.0 (from Running Warehouse, London City Runner and Northern Runner).

The pair I coveted most were the burnt orange option (Running Warehouse) as I find Altra send the muted colours to the UK which doesn’t fit my running tastes profile.

I fell in love the moment I put them on and more than a couple of hundred kilometres in and I remained in love. It was at this point that I wrote my comparison review of the three main Altra trail running shoes. I couldn’t praise the changes enough, better fit, more robust, interesting design and a polish that had been missing in the 2.5 – these were brilliant.

The other two pairs (bought from independent UK retailers) were saved for racing as I train in Inov8 and On Running shoes mostly. Therefore I went to Haria Extreme with shoes that had just 3 miles on them. Thankfully unleashed on the Martian like terrain the LP3.0 returned nothing but notes of joy as they sang across the race.

What a shoe.

The morning after the race the day before: The day after the race though as I was performing my post race kit clean up I noticed that the toe bumper had come loose – this was unexpected. A total of 85km had been done in the shoes and that didn’t seem much. However, if I’m honest I was more interested in having a nice post race holiday and so packed them away (individually wrapped as ever) and thought no more about them.

For my final races of 2016 – Mouth to Mouth and the Mince Pi – I use older shoes like my Inov8 Race Ultra 290 and Lone Peak 2.0 which have lots of life in them but aren’t in my normal day to day shoe rotation so the LP3.0 stayed packed away well into the new year.

Therefore when 2017 did come calling I still hadn’t given my LP3.0 much consideration and it wasn’t until MIUT rolled round in April that I got them out again to run in.

However, looking at the damage to the toe bumper made me concerned about how they would protect me on the steep descents, more importantly might this damage provide a hazard during the more technical sections?

Being positively minded though I assumed that I had simply had one bad pair and decided to unbox my third pair and rocked up to MIUT in them. This time I was quite aware of the possibility of problems with the shoe and therefore was keen to keep an eye on them. With MIUT though the course was so ball breaking that I soon forgot to check my shoes.

It wasn’t until 50km in with daylight creeping over the horizon that I thought about my footwear and as I was shedding my night time kit and reworking my pack that I noticed that the toe bumper had started to work loose on a fresh out of the box pair!

Not cool. Not cool at all.

It was a massive disappointment because the shoe was so incredibly brilliant as it worked up and down the trails – such a tiny thing was going to ruin my experience.

Three pairs of LP3.0 and two of them failed within 50 miles and while some might argue that you can still use them I don’t feel you can use them for some of the nastier technical trails I was running earlier this year.

What next? I contacted Altra and their care team to tell them of the failures I had experienced, noting the distance I’d run in them, the terrain and as much other information that might help them provide a response.

The care team wrote back swiftly advising that they take this kind of thing seriously and hope that feedback can inform improvements later down the line and that I should in the first instance contact the people I bought the shoes from, which seemed perfectly sensible.

I very much appreciated the response from Altra USA and the reply struck the right tone for a brand on the way up.

As suggested I contacted both Northern Runner and London City Runner who were both very helpful and both offered suggestions as to why they may have failed

  1. ill fitting shoes
  2. washed in a washing machine
  3. temperature of the races I do

Sadly none of these seemed to be the case as I was fitted by Altra people for my Lone Peaks, they’ve never been in a washing machine and neither Madeira or Lanzarote were in extreme temperatures (24-26 degrees).

Northern Runner simply replaced them after seeing the damage on a series of photographs I supplied but because I’d lost my receipt and it had been many months since I’d purchased them it was more difficult for London City Runner – although the Altra supplier did say they would see what they could do*.

I’d like to stress the point that you really can’t fault the customer service, support or help in trying to find a resolution. Altra, Northern City Runner and London City Runner should be commended for dealing with me quickly. Though, it should be noted that it wasn’t replacement footwear that was at the forefront of my thinking, I just wanted to understand if there was a known issue.

The £115 a pair question! The crux of the issue and the thing I couldn’t get an answer for was ‘is this a known problem with the LP3.0?’

Understandably nobody seemed keen to answer this but if the shoe is prone to this particular failure then I simply won’t buy them anymore as at £115 for 50km running that’s a very expensive shoe.

Now it is possible I’m the only person to have suffered the toe bumper coming away but I’m not sure my running style is so distinct as to make me the only person this has happened to.

So the question now being posed is ‘Has anyone else had this problem?’ I’m interested to hear if others have faced this issue or other problems that I’ve been lucky enough to avoid.

The next version? I live in hope that the Lone Peak 3.5 resolves this very minor but hugely inconvenient problem as I’m an Altra fan and a big advocate for giving them a go. I don’t want to start looking around for new brands – it took me long enough to find this one. And in truth despite the durability problems the Altra Lone Peak 3.0 is a buggeringly good running shoe.

So Altra, get it fixed, I’ve got trails to conquer!


*Despite good initial conversations I never got round to visiting London City Runner and returning the original shoes to solve this issue as I got caught out with bouts of illness, injury and racing! Very much my own fault and I would very highly recommend all the retailers mentioned in this post.


…and when I head up to Meriden in a couple of days time I will be crapping myself about what I’ve let myself in for at Escape from Meriden.

Previously on UltraBoyRuns: The year was going so brilliantly, I was training well, running well and dropping weight – I was on it like the proverbial ‘car bonnet’. However, failure at Barcelona albeit for technical reasons and clearly not being good enough to finish Madeira affected confidence and although there was the palette cleanser in the Marlborough Downs I’ve been pretty injured since then and hardly run at all.

Injuries while attempting escape: Neither my heel or my groin injuries have settled but I’ve discovered that the heel pain can be offset by wearing supportive shoes (Altra Olympus please step forward) and my groin seems to be at its worst when I lie down (so I’ll try not to lie down).

Perhaps my major injury concern is my back/kidneys which I haven’t been to get checked out – primarily because I asked to come off my doctors register due to their greedy narrow minded approach to healthy people and I’ve yet to source a suitable alternative – my bad.
The trouble is that whenever I’m running with a race pack for anything over about 8 or 9 miles (regardless of weight and now regardless of bag) my back/kidneys feel like they’re being punched repeatedly. It’s some of the worst pain I’ve ever been in and certainly contributed significantly to my failure at Madeira but now I’m concerned it’s going to ‘rain on my Meriden parade!’

On the run again: My first foray back into running has been the Westminster Mile and while it’s one of my absolute favourite races and favourite distances it does nothing to prepare me for Meriden. There’s no time to catch up on training now and in truth I’m not ready to return to training, I’m only doing this event because I won’t need to compete in the traditional sense. I know I can probably hike the route I’ve got planned inside the time limit and that would be a good test ahead of SW100. 

The original escape plan: Meriden is something new for me with its lack of support and ‘go anywhere’ guide to routing and originally I had planned to be powered through it by a succession of 24hr Tesco and McDonalds. As for the route I was going to lumber out of Meriden and head straight for Charing Cross train station in Central London (which just happens to be outside the 90 mile black medal radius) and pretty much a straight line if you don’t take into account my little diversion across Hampstead Heath and Primrose Hill.

Bish, bash, boom, job done. 

Then I entered for the South Wales 100 which takes place a mere 3 weeks after Meriden and I needed a Plan B.

The revision: Knowing that the GingaNinja would be visiting her mum that weekend I considered a slightly less torturous distance – 123km (74 miles).

I once again planned a pretty straight route down into sunny Wiltshire and found a good stopping point not too far from her parents and also well outside the gold medal 60 mile radius.

The only problem is that this route is not so replete with 24hr supermarkets and fast food joints on every corner. It’s fair to say the route is crammed with beautiful scenery and patisseries but the kind that are only open for about 3hrs a day. I jest a little, there are ample smaller supermarkets but I was hoping to find something open in the middle of the night section for water resupply and this is worrying me a bit. 

However, a trick I picked up on an ultra some years ago suggested that often graveyards will have a drinking water tap… what is an issue is that I’m not sure if there’s something wrong with ambling around a graveyard in the dark looking for water or not – to say my moral compass is conflicted on this should come as no surprise. Survival or creepiness, hmmmm?
Still with no training since Madeira nearly 6 weeks ago I’m figuring I’ve got bigger problems than whether I’ve got enough water.

I’m going to Escape Meriden: This is hardly the Shawshank Redemption but the positives are that I’ve got a planned route, my kit is tested and ready to go, my train is booked and I’m actually looking forward to this new type of truly unsupported running.

Am I genuinely worried? Yes a little bit – most other races I’ve run have people, aid stations and a safety net this strips all that away and gives you just one thing – yourself. But in reality I’m not trapped on Everest or in the middle of the jungle – I’m in the middle of England where the most dangerous thing I’ll come across are Tory voters.

As I tow the start line of Meriden my thoughts will be on people like Ian Brazier and Gareth Jones who last weekend completed their own awesome race efforts at GUCR and Skye Trail Ultras respectively. I’ll be contemplating how hard UltraBaby worked for her Mile medal and I’ll be drawing on 4 years of ultra running experience to get my safely to my finish line.


What happens if the clutch stops working and one of the wheels fall off your car and you’ve still got two thirds of your journey to go? The answer is you get my experience of the Marlborough Downs Challenge.

I felt surprisingly fresh at the start line despite having had a long day at work on the Friday, a long bus journey to Swindon and a sleeping situation that involved a very cheap child’s mattress in cramped conditions in a house that was much to warm with my daughter inches away from me. In my head this one read as a 33 mile amble but my legs said ‘hehe, let’s rock this one out’.

And so as the runners kicked off my legs dictated a pace my head was telling me I’d regret later on. The key thing though was to ensure you were through the 9 mile checkpoint before the 2hr cut-off to ensure you were not thrust on to the shorter route.

But I’m getting rather ahead of myself, something my head would remind my legs as they were forced around the supermarket later that day.

There were probably about a hundred runners on the start line, most looked like seasoned ultra runners but it turned out, having spoken to many of them that the field was a wide and varied mix of ages, experiences and abilities. It had a really nice homely feel and was a comfortable race to be around, UltraBaby was made to feel very welcome and it reinforced my belief that I’m better off avoiding the bulk of the mass participation events as this kind of thing is exactly where I want to be.

Anyway I set off at, what was for me, an almighty pace. I wasn’t doing my normal jogging along I was actually running and though there was never likely to be any issue with me troubling the front runners I was pushing hard.


The route was ambling, rambling and delicious but all the while heading uphill and while the elevation profile wasn’t too severe there was enough to make you realise that this 33 miles was going to be a bit of a test – especially if you were still feeling a bit leggy from your Madeira adventuring.

I’ve spent a lot of time in sunny Wiltshire and Oxfordshire but never really appreciated just how amazingly beautiful it actually is. The Marlborough Downs Challenge resolved this omission in my visual enjoyment and as I pressed on there was still enough time for a few photographs and intakes of breath as I admired my surroundings.


Checkpoints started to fall quickly and I was actually having a tremendous out of fun, there was only one small problem and that was my legs were tired, sore even but the joy of the route was keeping me going. The problems became more troubling when I pulled something in my knee and my groin and while I knew these issues would leave me ruined at some point I decided to push ever onwards.

With checkpoint 3 passed I stopped for a slightly longer jelly baby and photo opportunity, one of which is the image that opens this blog post and from here I came across what was to be my favourite part of the route and a fast downhill section with a series of fast up and down bumps that I could launch myself along – glorious.


The race was now starting to open up and despite making good time the injuries and lack of match fitness were catching up with me and some of the runners I had passed earlier were starting to catch me up and a good finishing time slowly started to ebb away. However, a good finish time had never really been the intention but would however have been a real bonus. More checkpoints fell and I met several very lovely runners, several new to the ultra running scene and several veterans, all extremely interesting and each with stories that would help pass the miles by. Alison, Marc, Liza and many others contributed to a grand day out and I recounted my many tales of stupidity as an obsessed ultra runner and a ridiculous parent.

Into the latter sections I started to chow down on larger and larger handfuls of dolly mixture and jelly babies and insisted on a ‘free hug’ from one of the lovely volunteers at the race – who duly obliged to both myself and one of the other runners.

It was this combination of experiences that reminded me very much why I love eventing, it’s the comaraderie that sweeps through races like the Marlborough Downs Challenge that keeps me going back and risking life and limb.


The fact that I’d sweep my way past one of the beautiful Wiltshire white horses and drift through the delightful Avesbury stone circle simply confirmed this as a very scenic event. By Avesbury though and with 11km still to go I was shot to pieces and I was grateful to reach the final checkpoint and pick up some runner support for the finish push. My companions and I trundled down the final descents and back into Marlborough discussing the delights of the Lake District and running with (grand)children – thank you very much guys, especially Liza who made those last 2 miles much easier.

As I approached the finish in the distance, a few hundred metres to go I came across UltraBaby who waved wildly as she caught sight of me. I turned to Liza and said I’d catch up to her at the end and I drifted off to run the final section with my family. I crossed the line, delighted to be finished at this glorious event.

Key points

  • Distance: 33 miles
  • Profile: Hilly but runnable
  • Date: May 2017
  • Location: Marlborough
  • Cost: £30
  • Terrain: Mixed trail
  • Tough Rating: 2/5

Route. The route was interesting and filled with historical delights including Avesbury Stone Circle. The hills and the trails were truly exceptional, I had expected them to be like the South Downs (which I find a little dull of I’m honest) but actually the Marlborough Downs are often spectacular and deserve much recognition for this. The route was very dry which I’m sure many will consider a bonus but I found it hard underfoot even with well supported shoes and those in road running trainers probably made the right decision. My only criticism would be the amount of gravel paths which is a personal thing as I find it difficult to run on, preferring muddier trails but this is very much the nature of the area rather than a criticism of the route. It’s a route you’ll enjoy when you decide to sign up and will live long in the memory.

Awards. A hand made mug inscribed with the event name – delightful and I chose a short and stout one in white to contrast against a similar mug I received at the High Weald 50km last year. They are lovely mementos of a lovely race.


Organisation. Absolutely faultless, from start to finish and with people positioned at key difficult crossings – perfect.

Volunteers. I have only good things to say about the awesome army of wonderful volunteers who laughed and joked with runners as they ambled their way around. Thank you very much to all of them, especially the lady with the giant bag of jelly babies and the free hugs!

Value for money. It’s a small event, run locally but with a more than good enough reputation to draw people from far and wide and I have no idea how they put it on for such a low price. Excellent value for money and with a delicious hot meal at the end who could ever complain (well me as UltraBaby ate my Macaroni Cheese!)

Conclusion. Fun route, good awards, well organised and great value for money. You’d be mad not to give this a go – but don’t underestimate it, the route is runnable but challenging and is festooned with many a photo opportunity that will inevitably slow you down. I thoroughly enjoyed the Marlborough Downs Challenge and if I were looking for a late spring race in beautiful surroundings this would make the shortlist every time.


In 2017 these are the brands that litter my wardrobes: Altra, Montane, OMM, Raidlight, Drymax, Rab, Ronhill, Decathlon, Ultimate Direction, Buff, Oxsitis, Raidlight, Runderwear 

But in 2011 at the start of my running journey the brands that I was using looked quite different: Adidas, Nike, Asics, Marks & Spencer, Rab, Decathlon, Buff, OMM 

And it made me wonder why I’ve evolved from certain brands to others and have I become something of a running kit snob?

The accusation and the defence. I have been accused in the past of being more interested in the kit of running than the running itself and while I was deeply offended by this statement there was a whiff of truth about it.

There is no denying that I love checking out new kit and usually buying far too much of it but I rarely buy things I don’t need and there has been a constant evolution in what I buy to accommodate the needs of the races I run. 

For example the SW100 requires as part of its kit a thermal mid layer and this has required lots of research, lots of testing and in the end the purchase of two hybrid jackets and one synthetic down jacket. However, I’m in no doubt that my (already owned) Rab Powerstretch thermal layer would have done the job perfectly well. But I wanted new kit.

I remember running my first marathon and my kit consisted of a neon orange vest, a pair of Adidas Adios racing flats and a pair of 5 inch Nike shorts (with mesh brief) and the piece d’resistance, a pair of cotton M&S socks, I thought I was the bollocks, sadly, I wasn’t.

These days I roll up to a marathon wearing much more kit, two tops, tights, liner socks, wicking outer layer socks, a race vest/backpack, sunglasses, buff, tissues, compeed, gaiters but at least I now know I’m not the bollocks.

Have I changed, has running changed or have brands simply switched on to the depth of the pockets of this market? 

I wonder if we all go through the kit gears, especially those of us who bang through the disciplines looking for that challenge that fits? Did we all go to a Sweatshop or a Sports Direct for our first pair of trainers? Did we all listen impatiently as the store staff ‘advised’ us? and did we all trawl round the high street shops looking for stuff that wouldn’t make us bulge in new and weird ways? I suspect we did.

Feeling a little uncomfortable. I recall being in John Lewis and trying on a pair of full length tights – Asics, black with blue trim – very understated. However, because it showed the clear shape of my gentleman’s region I refused to step out the changing room. The GingaNinja told me I was being foolish and that you couldn’t see anything (which obviously made me feel SO much better!) but that started me on a journey that has cost me a small fortune one way or another. 

A trinity of trouble. However, how did I go from the high street to really quite niche brands and kit? The answer to that is three fold, the first part is racing, the second part is social media and the third part is ‘I love shopping’.

Turning up to my first race after I returned to running (The Grim Challenge) I wore the aforementioned plain black tights with blue trim, a black t-shirt and some grey with orange trim Asics trail shoes (size 9). I did not feel out of place in this gear, many of my fellow racers had cotton shirts on and worse. However, my eye was drawn to several names I’d never seen before, ‘Zoot’, ‘Inov8’, ‘Camebak’, ‘Montane’ and ‘OMM’. My eyes were agog attempting to process all of this information – Sweatshop and the like had nothing like this and I resolved to find out more about my kit options.

It was around this time that I joined Twitter, the blogosphere and even developed a lazy relationship with Facebook – here I developed community relationships with my fellow runners, cyclists and triathletes who were providing a near infinite amount of new touch points for brands and kit.

But neither of these would have provided me with the drive to develop my unhealthy obsession with kit unless I loved shopping – and I have always loved shopping. Long before running I’ve adored bimbling round shops both for research (looking) and buying and weirdly it could be any kind of shopping too – shoe, clothing, craft or even grocery shopping.

This trio of elements left the perfect conditions for fostering an obsessive love of kit. Adidas and Nike apparel was quickly replaced by OMM, Ronhill, Rab and Montane. I tested dozens of sock types, changing my allegiance as new distances and challenges would change my race needs. It was in the shoe department though that I blasted through many types until I finally settled on Altra with hints of other brands. Vibram FiveFingers, Hoka, On, Scott, Salomon, Pearl Izumi, Brooks, Saucony, Inov8 and many more have been tested to destruction or been deemed completely inappropriate for my feet. I’ve owned more pairs of running shoes in the last five years than I have owned ‘normal shoes’ across the whole of my life.

Even when it comes to running equipment I make my selections only after extensive research and testing. When I first decided I would start RunCommuting I purchased half a dozen bags I thought might be suitable but none of them were ever quite right until I bought the OMM Classic 25 and the OMM 15 both of which still run a little bit today (though the 25 is definitely in its twilight years after being extensively abused). Recently I decided to look again for a RunCommute pack and while the OMM 15 was mostly perfect for my needs I felt the materials now used are nowhere near as good as it was 5 years ago and the classic has had the bungee cords removed from the side therefore removing a very useful component (in my opinion).

I started my research in December 2016 and bought a Raidlight XP14 in mid February 2017 after searching through every foreign language review I could find and then one day when I saw a runner wearing one (and I was in work gear) I gave chase. I caught up to him somewhere in Mayfair and drawing level I said ‘excuse me is that the Raidlight XP14?’ His reply initially was ‘what that fuck??’ but upon realising I was asking about his kit he stopped and let me try it on – very nice of him on a cold February morning. Job done, research over, purchase made.

Understanding yourself. What I’ve learned over the last five years is that the right kit is essential and that the right kit for each person is very different.

However, it’s important to note that the UK high street isn’t really equipped to deal with runners needs and that by expanding our search and looking at the brands that we might associate with outdoor adventuring rather than running and you’ll often find equipment more tailored to you – even on the high street.

It’s a shame that we can’t learn a lesson or three from our European neighbours who appear to have high quality high street sports stores much more readily available. (But the UK and it’s attitude to all things European is a contentious issue currently).

Should you be brand loyal? We also need to be wary of brand loyalty. Just because you love a particular item doesn’t mean you should buy everything they make! You’ll see brand ambassadors ‘head-to-toe’ in a manufacturers garb but the reality for us mere mortals is that we should be testing everything and always questioning whether something is right for us – none of us want draws full of ill fitting, unused kit just because Anton, Scott or Elisabet was seen wearing it!

Undoubtedly my kit choices cost me more and I could buy things much more cheaply but not necessarily more cost effectively. Cheap rip-offs from Sports Direct (and similar) are pretty much just that – put a Salomon shoe next to a Karrimor shoe and while they might look like siblings I believe you’d find the experience very different (and that is a test I’ve done). I could also do things more cheaply by not buying from independent retailers but I value the contribution and advice that these awesome retailers provide and want them to be there in the future.

Providing value for money. I should point out though that not all cheaper brands are bad. One high street brand name that has remained constant from day one of my running is Decathlon – the lovely French brand that covers just about every sport going. Decathlon proves quite simply that you don’t have to pay a fortune to get high quality, well developed and long lasting kit and it certainly gives a kicking to many of its more expensive rivals (though you don’t always have to ape Salomon in your race vests chaps!). I’d also give some credit to ‘Crane’ from one of the discount German supermarkets, though the lack of availability and sometimes questionable longevity make this kit a little hit and miss.

Importantly though, I don’t want to be unkind to major high street names like Asics, Adidas and Nike – they have their place.

In truth I still love my Nike commuting shorts (4 pairs, 3 still going strong) which I’ve worn pretty much every day for five years. I’m simply suggesting that there’s a great big world of exciting kit waiting to be discovered – don’t limit yourself.

The snobbery question? Am I kit snob? I like to think not as I try to find the kit that works – it’s true that I would love to see Sports Direct closed down because I feel they provide a path of least resistance to runners who can’t be bothered to look for more effective kit. So if despising Sports Direct makes me a snob then so be it.

So what am I asking you to take from this?

  1. Research extensively 
  2. Test extensively
  3. Evolve your kit and knowledge
  4. Ask questions…
  5. …but remember you’re only getting an opinion
  6. Question brand loyalty
  7. Support independent retailers
  8. Buy cost effectively not cheaply
  9. Avoid Sports Direct (it’s associated stores) and Karrimor

There was a huge doubt in my mind as to whether I’d turn up to the start line of the Amersham Ultra. The reason? Well on race morning, having been upended by a nervous dog a week earlier, I was still carrying the bulk of a groin strain and the arse end of a hamstring pull having refused to DNF! I really shouldn’t have rolled up to the school hall at 8.15 on Saturday 11 March but I did and I’m very pleased that I did.

Let’s do the short version for those of you desperate to know how it was… basically if you enjoy the following; oozy mud, an undulating route, a great atmosphere and beautiful countryside then the Amersham Ultra is for you. If you don’t then I wonder how you got this far 🙂

And now to the rambling version of events. The start was located inside a school hall which, as you might imagine, brought about a bevy of long repressed memories. XNRG had arranged things for a swift registration process and there was a registration desk, T-shirt collection point, a tea and cake table, Apex Sport and some information about Humanity Direct (the charity who would be benefitting from our entry fee and running).

I was joined in the hall by the usual eclectic mix of runners and of course by UltraBaby and the GingaNinja. UltraBaby sadly was a bit ill and was mildly more manic than normal, which was to the amusement of some and annoyance to others – but ho-hum! However, it’s always a delight for me to be waved off to the two ladies in my life but my beloved hound had decided to sit this one out and he remained in bed – catching up on the 5Live I suspect.

Anyway…

Clocking in at around 30 miles this is at the baby end of the ultra running world but that should not detract from it being a very worthwhile event. I know from having done the first half of Country to Capital around these parts that there can be some tricky sections and that the Amersham Ultra while advertised as ‘for everyone’ should not be underestimated.

And with that thought and a few well chosen words from the organisers ringing in my ears we set off.

The course it is fair to say is mighty, undoubtedly runnable for the most part despite the mud and varied, it’s fair to say that there is a bit of tarmac involved but actually rather than me moan about this I’ll instead say that this was the connective tissue between the trail sections – it felt like a well considered course.


Lots of the runners set out at a good pace even though we were the 9.00am (slower) group and overall there was a genuinely positive atmosphere that passed through the groups. For a change I was mostly keeping myself to myself, trying to focus on the running rather than the chit-chat and this was working wonders except for some over heating!

By about mile 3 I realised I was wearing one layer too many and by mile 5 I was over heating. I stopped, threw off my tops and discarded one to the bottom of my much loved original UD PB vest. Now in just a t-shirt I felt much livelier and set about catching the dozen or so people who had overtaken me.

Still feeling strong I did indeed catch the runners who had overtaken me a little before checkpoint 1 but I was also aware that I could feel my hamstring and if I didn’t back off I might not make it to checkpoint 2. I had decided that I would use my ’90 second checkpoint rule’ for this race and so gulped down some orange squash and buttered malt loaf before hurling myself into the void of the second section.

I’ll make a minor tangent here to mention the truly brilliant aid station and checkpoint crews. As mentioned this is a baby distance ultra but the checkpoints and the runners were treated with the utmost respect – good, well prepared food with a good range available. The crews were upbeat, focused and never missed a beat. Absolutely superb – I understand why XNRG are so highly regarded in the ultra community.

Having now slowed a little bit I could start to think about the problem that had been pestering me since near the start and that was the epic ‘gut rot’. Thankfully I was a) still capable of running and b) fully armed with poo roll and I took full advantage of a hilly wooded area to relieve some of the enormous pressure that had been building. Relieved but with more than 10 minutes lost I set off again but noting I had managed to slice open the lower part of my shins and sweat was seeping into the open wounds.

For the third time in the race I stopped, this time to clean up the slices, then off again.

With my drama quotient filled I arrived into checkpoint 2, refilled my water and ploughed on. CP2 to CP3 would be the longest of the sections but at about 14km still was reasonably short and there was more fun to be had, although I know I got lost a couple of times which didn’t help my time but it did offer me some discreet cover for a second delivery of epic ‘gut rot’. I’ll be honest I was feeling pretty ill. However, relieved, I once again pressed on despite feeling that either my guts or my hamstring injury were going to get the better of me.

Despite my troubles I couldn’t help but delight in the route – it was for the most part very special. I met several runners throughout the day indicated that this was a ‘warm-up for the SDW50’. For me, being honest and having done the SDW50 a couple of times, Amersham was more fun, more exciting and better looking.

Anyway, with checkpoint 3 reached I had about 10 miles to go. I gulped down some lovely cola and hit the afterburner hoping to get round in as respectable a time as possible. Sadly this section brought my final trip to natures toilet (and the use of my last tissue) but I was ‘cleaned out’ to use an appropriate gambling term.

Feeling better than I had for much of the race but increasing pain through my hamstring I knew I should stop at the final checkpoint but I’d loved this route so much that I was determined to see it through.

More lovely trails greeted me as I wound my way to the finish and a glorious climb into Amersham was just reward for my efforts. Here I was joined by the delightful Sharon and I delighted in her company as we inspired each other to the finish line. As we turned into the final field and back into the school we looked around a little lost and some kindly supporters waved us towards them, we were going to make it! I could now see the finish a few hundred metres away and I turned to Sharon and said ‘end of the cones we give it a bit of welly’ and we did – crossing the line to the same beautiful support we had received all the way round.

What a bloody brilliant event! and I’ll be joining XNRG again for many more of their events I reckon – check them out here.

Key points

  • Distance: 31 miles (ish)
  • Profile: Mildly undulating
  • Date: March 2017
  • Location: Amersham
  • Cost: £48
  • Terrain: Muddy trail
  • Tough Rating: 2.5/5

Route
I feel as though I’ve already discussed my love for this route, it was a wonderfully eclectic mix of challenges that with effort could be achieved by anyone. For those that might question the value of shorter distance routes I’d say that what it lacked in big distance it provided in character and challenge – one not to be underestimated but one you’ll fall in love with. Recommended, especially in the earlier part of the year when conditions underfoot make it ‘real’ trail!

Awards
There was a truly delightful medal and an awesome t-shirt that perfectly matches my new down jacket. In addition there was tea, coffee and cakes at the beginning with free photographs thrown in just for good measure (I’m told there were prizes too but I’m too old and slow to win one of those!). You really would struggle to criticise the goodies that were heaped on this race. Excellent.


Horses
So having discussed my mid race gut rot I’ll briefly mention the horses on the course. Somewhere between the start and checkpoint one a huge herd of horses ambled politely around either side of the track, others had run through and the track itself was clear. I slowed as I approached and when they got too close let them wander past me, then it happened, like clouds on a mountain – they surrounded me.

I nearly ‘shat’ myself. Inching forward more horses came to face me down, several surly looking beasts snorting as they strode past me and then I saw my escape, a decent sized gap and I walked sensibly to the edge of the horses.

Clear(ish). I turned as I exited their thrall and what I saw next was terrifying – scores and scores of horses in a stampede across where I had been standing seconds earlier.

Had I been in there I’d have been dead but thankfully (for me at least) I wasn’t. Note to self, two races, two weeks, two incidents involving horses – a pattern?

Charity
Perhaps the nicest thing about the Humanity Direct Amersham Ultra was the charitable element. Your £48 bought you much more than a race as XNRG were donating all of the entry fee to Humanity Direct who do amazing work with those that need it most in Africa.
The race organisers, I can only assume, absorb the costs of putting on this event (medals, t-shirts, food, logistics, etc) in order that this worthwhile charity benefits from such a spectacular event. It’s fitting to say that I’m in genuine awe of the guys at XNRG and can understand were the excellent reputation they have comes from.

If you want more information about Humanity Direct click here to check out their website

Organisation
Perfect, if anything went wrong then you didn’t see it – this was a very knowledgeable team delivering a great event.

Volunteers
Having volunteered a few times at different races I know a little of what it takes to support runners and it’s fair to say that the XNRG volunteers and teams know a lot more than I do. Everyone seemed so well catered for at the start, at the checkpoints and at the finish. Every single person I met under the XNRG banner was really outstanding. Top notch.

Value for money
£48? Smallish field but never lonely, beautiful and challenging route, great medal and perhaps the best organisation I’ve seen at an ultra marathon with the added bonus of the money going to Humanity Direct. This to me is a real bargain and one of the best value for money ultras around – no it’s not £1 a mile or less but there are some very significant mitigating reasons. Everyone should be adding this to their list!

Conclusion
As you’ve read I can’t praise this race enough. For myself I ran better than expected but not as well as I would have liked given my hamstring and ‘crotchal’ region proving that this was perhaps a bit too far after the previous weeks exploits (read about last weeks race here). What I liked was that at no point did I become bored by the surroundings, at no point did I really want the race to end and thankfully it wasn’t a brutaliser. Instead of brutalising it was an excellent test of your marathon pace over tough conditions and a few spare miles to give you a fright. What the Humanity Direct Amersham Ultra gave me though was a big dollop of confidence to face down the UTBCN in two weeks time (subject to injury clearing – wish me luck!)

All in all, top marks for a top event, check it out!

 

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January feels a very long time ago in running terms and it has very much been a year of two halves. One half, excellent, one half was pretty bollocks – literally. I also raced a lot less than usual too after taking a little bit of advice from my physiotherapist with only 20 races attempted rather than my usual 30+ per year.

  • Country to Capital
  • Green Man
  • Ranscombe Challenge
  • Ranscombe Ramble
  • Hillsborough to Anfield Run
  • Run for the 96
  • Skye Trail Ultra
  • City of London Mile
  • Brutal Enduro
  • Endure 1250
  • Vanguard Way
  • Darnley Challenge
  • RunThrough London Greenwich
  • Ridgeway (DNF) (55/86 miles)
  • Chislehurst Chase
  • Chislehurst Chase Fun Run
  • High Weald 50km
  • World Vegan Day Run
  • Haria Extreme (DNF) (80/102km)
  • Mouth to Mouth

Race Overview
When I look over the race list and two DNFs it tells a slightly sorry story but actually the reality is very different. Yes this year has been hugely disappointing in results terms but there are other ways to measure your year.

However, there are a couple of disappointments such as the way the Hillsborough to Anfield run went and my subsequent falling out with my father (something I haven’t chronicled but am considering) and my pulling out of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal 130 which in part was caused by the events at the H2A. This left me without a hundred mile (plus) race for 2016 and that’s disappointing. There was also the pulling out of TransGranCanaria, I had signed up this when I got over excited at the CCC but hadn’t considered what a long distance mountain race might do me so early in the year. Not going to TransGC was a good decision though as it meant not overextending myself before I was ready. On the positive side though I stuck to my guns and avoided the easy option of going back to Centurion events and will carry this through to 2017 as I look to continue my search for smaller, more intimate racing.

The Planning
When I was planning the year out I placed the marker races in March, May, August and November so as to spread them out and I chose races that I felt would give me new ultra based experiences. Those races were The Green Man Ultra (heavy mud), the Skye Trail Ultra (mountainous), Leeds to Liverpool Canal Race (distance) and Haria Extreme (hot mountainous) – this seemed like a year to kill for but there were changes that were needed due to injury, family problems and a lack of training after Skye and so I dropped the Leeds to Liverpool Canal and replaced it with the excellent but shorter distance Ridgeway 86.

What happened?
It was very much a year of two halves with the first half of the year going brilliantly and the second half of the year being pretty much a write off with a few positives thrown in. I started the year by joining the Wonky Wanderer at Country to Capital (read the review here) for her first ultra. Having convinced her that she should run it I was compelled to join her on the start line and it proved to be one of my most positive ultra experiences ever. Yes C2C isn’t going to win awards for being the most exciting race, but it is varied and challenging while being highly accessible as a first real ultra. Being there to see Emma cross the line in a little over 10hrs will remain one of my most treasured memories long after I finally retire from running.

Country to Capital should have been followed by the Vigo Runners Valentines Run but in 2016 this race was cancelled, much to many runners annoyance.

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Therefore, I managed to pass through February without racing and my next time on a start line was the brilliant Green Man (read the review here) in Bristol. The Green Man has the distinction of joining my favourite races list rather highly, it was muddy, it was tough and the course was an absolute delight. The best thing though was meeting lots of the local Bristol runners, catching up with the amazing Roz Glover and best of all was meeting Elaine who single handedly kept my spirits up to the finish line.

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Racing was replaced by a bit of cold weather training in the arctic circle (partly to see the Northern Lights). I managed to add XC skiing as well as lots of really fun running – the ice, the snow, the cold and the amazing scenery just filled my heart with joy. I took time out of every day I was there to just go off-road and see things that are certainly not on the usual trails (read about the Finland adventure here).

I came back to the UK fired up and ready to train.

With running going surprisingly well I turned up for a double header of running at the Ranscombe Farm and Wild Flower reserve. It’s pretty well known that I love a bimble around Ranscombe and I’d considered this a perfect opportunity to test my body against a bit of elevation prior to disappearing off to the Isle of Skye.

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The Ranscombe Challenge and Rachel’s Ranscombe Ramble (read the review here) offered two different routes around the reserve. Day one was good and strong for me, about 30 miles run but with some mild feeling in an old injury but Day two was pretty terrible with less than 15 miles added to my SVN total. The route around Ranscombe and small field nature of the event makes me a regular there but I wish I had just done the Ranscombe Ramble as this was the tougher of the routes and lots of new fun. I’d love to go back to the Ramble next year but sadly the timings are a little out for me – I’m hoping that SVN might run it later in the year to allow me to test my mettle properly against it.

The injury at the Ramble left me with something of a quandry – it wasn’t a nasty injury but it did require rest and with the Hillsborough to Anfield Run only a few weeks away I actually needed to be training. I chose to do the sensible thing and rest for much of the time before the H2A and then be as sensible as possible during the H2A. Sadly the Hillsborough Run went very badly for me both in terms of distance and what happened with my father in the aftermath. I came away from the H2A event incredibly deflated, sore, injured and ill – this was likely to have an effect on running the Skye Trail Ultra just a few days later and Skye was, as we’ve discussed, one of the big marker races for the year.

So after returning from Liverpool I prepared my kit for the Isle of Skye just five days later. Friday arrived and amazingly I was ready to run, at least mentally I was, physically I was a bit of a mess but I’d give it a bit of welly and hope for the best. I travelled up to Skye on the Caledonian sleeper train and what a tremendous experience it was – it was my first time on a sleeper train and just being there was exciting, eating haggis, watching ‘My Week with Marilyn’ and catching up on Barkley related race reports. The only downside was that I awoke from the journey with terrible travel sickness.

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Thankfully I recovered enough to be race ready 12hrs later and at 5am in the morning on the Saturday I blundered through the Skye Trail Ultra (read the review here) with all the energy I could muster. Skye was as promised, was one of the hardest but most rewarding things I have ever done – it was filled with beautiful views, majestic climbs and terrifying navigation. Skye destroyed my feet and it destroyed my head but what it gave back was massive in terms of belief. I’d recommend the Skye Trail Ultra more than most ultras and it was certainly my favourite race this year and plays second fiddle only to the SainteLyon (read the review here) as my favourite ultra of all time.

UltraBaby and I were next on the running scene, this time joined by the GingaNinja at the City of London Mile (read the review here) and we gave it some fair welly (I did it solo and as a family runner) and this was a great fun event, nice and fast on the roads around Cannon Street, London. If it’s back next year we’ll be signing up and UltraBaby will be attacking this one on foot (rather than sleeping through it in the buggy). This was a lovely community experience and although I didn’t quite run it as fast as I might have hoped I did enjoy it.

And this was the last time that they year went really well or at all to plan.

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By the time we entered the summer the wheels had really started to come off. It started with the Brutal Enduro (read the review here) which was a tremendous event and highly recommended if you’re looking for a  challenging and inexpensive looped event. I really enjoyed the Brutal Enduro because of the variety inside the 10km loop and the fact that it was very inclusive event with a positive atmosphere but by 60km I’d had enough of summertime chaffing and injuries that continued to flare up. So I returned to my tent and caught up on some sleep. What I did know was that I had enjoyed the experience enough to try my hand at another looped trail race and so bundled myself off to the Endure 1250 (read the review here)I should have known though that lightning doesn’t strike twice and Endure 1250 was one of the least interesting races I have taken part in. Where Enduro had views, hills, challenges, excitement and atmosphere this felt flat, dull and lifeless. The worst part of it wasn’t any of this of course – the worst part was the horrendous chaffing I suffered within the first 10km. You might think this was colouring my view of the race but not so, I just didn’t enjoy it and hoped for better when I hit the trails once more.

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It seemed though I had cursed myself because the Vanguard Way Marathon (read the review here) was probably the most serious of the issues I faced while racing. It had been a hot day at the beginning of August and this one had been flagged as being tough, partly from the navigational point of view but also from the undulating nature of the course. In typical fashion I got seriously lost but also had to contend with both serious heat stroke and no water at the halfway point. I had consumed an entire 1.5 litre bladder of water in the first 13 miles along with water at the first checkpoint and had now run out. by mile 14 I was in quite serious trouble as the sun came blazing out. I had collapsed in a heap overlooking the lovely views of the Vanguard way for a little while before I came to and called the GingaNinja – slurring my words. However, I survived back to the checkpoint and managed to refresh my water supply but it felt like a close run thing. All the positives of the year seemed to be disappearing rather quickly but that being said I really loved the Vanguard Way Marathon and would do it again – the views were spectacular and the route was amazingly good fun, even when you add a couple of miles. Knowing what I would have to face would give me a better chance of being prepared for this Croydon bad boy!

The effect of the heatstroke lasted several days, it was really quite severe and so when I lumbered up to the Darnley Challenge (read the review here) less than a week later I was still not quite right but there is (as stated) always fun and chocolate at an SVN event and so taking in some of the delights of Ranscombe, Cobham and Gravesend(?) I ran a decent marathon for the first time in ages as well as adding a medal that was about the size of my head, can’t be bad.

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But my response to the Darnley Challenge could not mask the fact I really wasn’t ready for the Ridgeway 86 (read the review here). I’ve come to the conclusion that you really should not start a race if you’re nervous about whether you have the fitness to finish it and R86 was an example of a race where I was making excuses before I got anywhere near the start line. I suppose there was a clue as to my readiness when my calf simply seized up on at the RunThrough 10km in Greenwich Park a week earlier.

However I did rock up and I ran the first 43 miles in a decent time and even when I reached my final port of call at about mile 55 my body was in surprisingly good shape – what ruined it were my bollocks once again. The terrible chaffing that had been the bane of my racing through the summer had once again struck. My nuts were about the size of a couple of watermelons, fecking hell they hurt! The funny thing is that despite it being a good race I wasn’t really enjoying it all that much, having DNf’d the Winter 100 a couple of years ago this took in some of the same route and I didn’t find it inspired me to continue. A shame as it was a well organised and challenging race and even though I’ve said to myself I’m never returning to it, I’m sure I will.

It was then that my year hit a real low, I argued with the GingaNinja about running and racing, causing my public withdrawl from all running and racing. I ate a lot of pizza, drank a lot of Lucozade and refused to get the physical problems I’d been accumulating looked at. My retirement lasted a mere month but it was a very long month that really took some bites out of me, it kicked my fitness into the ground and I had piled on the pounds, all in all it was a shitty episode that was very public and very horrible. When I returned to racing at the Chislehurst 10km (read the review here) I gave it all the welly I could muster and even though I ran a reasonable time I knew I wasn’t in anyway fit enough to face the High Weald 50km (read the review here) but when did that ever stop me?

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At High Weald I was slow and steady but nothing spectacular and that was fine, it was a comeback race but it was far from ideal. I had toyed with the idea of not turning up to this one but I really wanted one of the mugs and the only way to get one, bar stealing one, was to run the bloody race. The good news was I was going to be testing my Altra Lone Peak 3.0 properly on the course and the better news was that the undulating nature of the course meant I was at least going to be doing something I love – trail hills.

During the race I felt like I was being punished a thousand times over for my ‘retirement’ and the sunstroke that got me about halfway through the race was unfair but I really enjoyed another bimble through Sussex and I’d certainly go back and run this one better. The best bit though was that post race I was allowed to have McDonalds chocolate milkshake again (just like after the Vanguard Way Marathon) as it helped to cool me down in the quickest possible way. Thank you McDonalds!

High Weald had given me the incentive to start training properly again and I did start on a programme of good miles, better eating and strengthening – it seemed like I was back on course after some failure but my fate seems to be that I am to write about my misadventures rather than successes! And when one Tuesday evening as I was buggy running with UltraBaby I felt my calf finally give up the ghost and it was ruined.

8 weeks until Haria Extreme. Turd.

For nearly three weeks it was painful to walk and I was resting as much as I could while remaining active by gingerly walking to work and back as a minimum. I thought that rest was the solution – it wasn’t. I called in the physiotherapist and she worked all the magic she could, my physio has gotten my ready for races before when I’ve ruined myself and I trusted her to do so again. The advice was rest, TENS, stretching, heat and physio – hours of it daily and for a change I gave up those hours to rehabilitation.

2 weeks until Haria Extreme. Progress.

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With no training I signed up to the World Vegan Day Challenge (read the review here) and hoped to test my calf for a few miles. As it was a weekday challenge the GingaNinja wasn’t available to take me so I was required to cycle the 13 miles to the race start. When I rolled up to Ranscombe Farm Reserve I managed a rather surprising marathon distance. However, I knew all was not right and trail ride home made me realise I was going to have to up the rehab if I wanted to survive. I stopped running again as I knew that my best chance of reaching the start line of Haria was to stop moving and continue fixing.

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Haria Extreme (read the review here) was the end of the year marker race – I had been looking forward for this for months and I wanted to give my all but knowing that your body may not hold up and that your training had been non-existent meant I was nervous.

However, I drew heavily on experience at Skye to help me overcome the mountainous sections and I remembered that whatever else I did I should enjoy it infact I spent so much time looking up in wonder at the beautifully dramatic landscape that I almost forgot to race. Haria was harder than Skye, it turned me inside out in a much shorter time, the heat hit me, the elevation hit me and the naked ladies hit me (not literally). I finished about 20km short of the finish and that should have tortured me but it didn’t and the reason was I am learning that by taking on harder and harder races I know I will fail more. Haria let me experience failure while giving some tremendous memories back.

I cut my shins quite unpleasantly and my calf muscle pulled me apart again but I learned that despite my lack of fitness I was within a cats whisker of completing Haria Extreme, the weird thing is that I had nearly 10hrs to complete just over 20km, maybe as I sit here reflecting I should have carried on but ultimately I know I did the right thing.

With Haria out of the way though I could then focus on finishing the year and this I did at Mouth to Mouth (read the review here), no pressure, a beautiful race on the south coast that was only mildly troubled by GI distress. I remember thinking as I crossed the line, what a lucky bugger I am

Original aims of 2016

  • Don’t DNF
  • Test yourself on more mountainous terrain
  • Avoid the easy route to ultras by returning to races you’ve done
  • Don’t buy as many pairs of shoes
  • No half marathons, they bore me

How did it finish up? 

  • I bought lots of pairs of shoes
  • By year end I will have run about 2000 miles in 2016
  • I had two DNFs
  • I managed not to run a half marathon!
  • I did run lots of smaller, more intimate races, avoiding mass participation
  • I had several experiences of testicle chaffing
  • I had several experiences of serious GI distress – the south downs have a new hill on them and Skye has a ‘no go’ zone with a half life of about 3,000 years
  • I learned to not worry so much about what other runners think of me
  • I’m still a lard arse
  • UltraBaby got to her sixth race medal

2016 was such a mixed year, it was filled with so many challenges that I overcame and so many that gave me a bloody good kicking. The important thing wasn’t the failure, it was how I dealt with that failure. I was frustrated and angry with myself at both Endure 1250 and the Ridgeway 86 – its fair to say at R86 in fact I was furious. The problems that got me at these races though I believe I’ve resolved (kit changes) but the lesson learned from Haria was to test myself at harder and harder races and accept that not finishing is the price you have to pay sometimes. The whole retirement/injury thing had huge consequences and I’m still trying to get back into shape and only now returning to full time training, so I’ll be trying to avoid both of them going forward but ultimately 2016 I’ll look for the positives and there were many.

Perhaps the most exciting positive was seeing so much more of the UK, trying new types of running, on new trails, in new countries. It was a positive that I raced less and positive that I realised the mistake I would have made by trying to run the LLCR130. I’ll make mistakes going forward but there is something rewarding about being accepting of that.

The one change I think will make a huge difference to me to is that I’ve stopped worrying about what the other runners think of me, I’ve always been a bit fearful of the judgement of my peers – perhaps we all are but it was proving to be crippling. It stopped me entering the Hangman Ultra and also from submitting applications to races where I knew significantly better runners than I would be on the start line. I’ve very much come to embrace that I am me, warts and all. I wish I had learned this lesson so much sooner. There are a couple of my peers who helped me see this and if you are reading this and you think it was you then it probably is.

So without naming names – thanks.

The future
More of the same, more races, smaller and harder races, more running, considered training, hilly runs and some, if not lots, of mountains, certainly thousands of metres of elevation. I’ll be previewing my 2017 plans in the next few weeks which will help me firm up my exact race and training trajectory – but be assured I’m ‘on it, like a car bonnet!’. I don’t even know what that means.

What about you?

  • So how about everyone else’s 2016?
  • Did it go well? Did you avoid injury?
  • Did you achieve thousands of PBs?
  • Did you focus all your energies into Parkruns?
  • What plans do you have for 2017?
  • What races should I consider adding to my calendar?
  • Will I have another year of two halves?

Let’s talk about the run up to Haria Extreme before we get into the nuts and bolts;

  • You’ve run three times since August Bank Holiday
  • You’ve been unable to run since 29 September – (the Vegan Challenge was a reckless mistake)
  • Injury was causing enough concern that you weren’t sure you’d start Haria Extreme
  • Pre-race prep severely hampered by circumstances beyond your control
  • There was more than 3,000 metres of steep climb across 102km
  • …and unsurprisingly you retired from the race
  • however, this was not a failure – far from it

Now the question is, ‘when is retiring from a race not a failure?’ The answer, for me, lies in the thoughts I’ve put together over the last week while bimbling around Lanzarote post race. The journey to HE begins where so many things have done – in my failure at the CCC, while I was in France I came across the HE stall and said to myself that looks like the most brilliant piece of cool and I have to do it. The problem was that it was in November last year and I was already committed to running the SainteLyon. However, HE has stayed in my memory since that day and when applications opened in about April I was first on the list.

Yes please sign me up for your newly enhanced, hillier and longer route, I said with an undeserved air of confidence.

In truth my running had been going pretty well all year and I had good reason to be confident, Green Man, Skye Trail Ultra, Vanguard Way, Country to Capital, Brutal Enduro had all been completed and pretty well – but the wheels started to come off at The Ridgeway when I DNF’d over some severe chaffing and it got worse when my disagreement with the GingaNinja turned into a full blown retirement from running and by the time I was going again I then found a nasty new injury to give me a kicking. That calf injury needed severe physiotherapy, lots of rest and no running – in fact no exercise as there was a point that it was too painful to walk on. With days quickly rolling by I cold see HE slipping from my grasp – I was pretty devastated.

With two weeks before the race I took part in the SVN Vegan Day Challenge and tortured myself round the route, looking back on it with a little common sense I should have realised that this was not a good idea but I needed to test the calf problems and although they held up on the day they never felt very good and the days after the race were some of the most pain I’ve ever been in.

Tick-tock, tick-tock.

We arrive to the day before the flight (Wednesday) and I’m rushing round like a blue arsed fly trying to ensure that everything for the flight, the race and the family holiday were all complete and that it would all be super smooth when we arrived at the airport at 3.30am. Little did I realise that this would be a monumental disaster with UltraBaby, the GingaNinja and I making the flight with mere seconds to spare, it wasn’t helped that the support we received from Special Assistance for our disabled companion was pathetic and so the trip and the race were off to a stinking start.

We arrived exhausted, aching, grumpy and in my case the physical exhaustion came from lugging around the huge amount of luggage we had needed to transport to support an ultra runner, a 2 year old toddler and a disabled traveller – I could really feel my lack of base fitness from the lack of exercise in the previous few months (and this worried me). However, unpacked (roughly) we headed up to Haria to collect my race number and take a look around the event.

There was no doubt that my mood improved but my worries refused to abate, looking again at the race profile and steep climbs it involved had me very concerned. On the positive side number collection was very easy – passport was checked for ID, collected my number and got hold of a giant set of HE kit (compression shirt, compression arm sleeves, neck gaiter and head band – all very high quality). This was a very welcome bonus and for just €30 I added a lurid yellow hooded top which will brighten any cold winter UK day.

The race village didn’t have much in the way of people selling kit but there were a few bits and actually it was all very low key and rather delightful, there was also the live local Canarian musicians which I felt was something a little special for a race that was starting to feel a little ‘buzzy’. I had feared that this would be another UTMB type race but all appearances seemed to be suggesting that this had a much smaller, niche feel to it and I felt vindicated in my decision to run this over attempting TransGranCanaria earlier in the year.

With number collected, Friday was left as a family day and the holiday could finally begin and I enjoyed a day doing swimming, watching animals and generally running riot with my daughter at a number of bits and pieces we had identified and we even dipped our feet for some splashing into the pool at the villa we had hired via AirBnB.

Friday evening though was used to fine tune my kit, Oxsitis bag rather than Ultimate Direction – Ronhill top rather than La Sportiva and Lone Peak 3.0 over Olympus 2.0 – it took quite some time to make final decisions but the biggest choices were in leg wear and nutrition.

For leg wear I selected the excellent Raidlight Freetrail (longer length but very lightweight shorts in a delightfully ridiculous colourway with stupid typography on them – full review to follow). I teamed these with raidlight tights and runderwear pants to maximise my comfort in the heat (just incase there was a repeat of the R86 chaffing nightmare).

Nutrition though was a very different matter – I had chosen to bring Tailwind with me but having never used it I was somewhat worried about how I might react so in typical fashion I had both Tailwind and real food options with me (lots of chocolate). I knew that I didn’t want to pollute my main water supply so my bladder had to remain free of tailwind, instead I carried two 150ml soft bottles that I could easily store in the small waist pockets of the Freetrail shorts. This was the perfect way to take Tailwind for me.

The race
Anyway, the race itself was a 7am kick off to maximise the Canarian daylight. We were due to start out from ‘Timanfaya’ the volcanic national park with the last remaining active Lanzarote volcano. We pulled into the car park at about 6.30am and saw the runners and supporters lining the dark sand and lava gravel track. It was quite a sight next to the huge herd of camels that also lined up alongside them.

I drifted over to the toilet block which was located inside the normally bustling tourist cafe but at this time it was simply a very long queue of runners. I opted not to wait and would hope that the first checkpoint had a toilet stop as I was rather in need. I rejoined the GingaNinja and UltraBaby for the 10 or 12 minutes before the race began and we admired the camels, the sea of volcanic rock and the sunrise – it was all suitably spectacular.

At a slightly later than expected 7.15 the sound issuing us off was given and about 200 hardy souls set off at a fair old whack down into the unknown. For the first 5km we thundered along a rocky and sandy track through the national park – admiring the amazing geology as we went. I unfortunately was allowing myself to be caught up in the moment and being dragged along at a pace that really didn’t suit. However, within a couple of kilometres I settled into myself and looking round realising this would be no follow the leader – you were out there on your own.

At about 5km we turned out of the core Timanfaya National Park and entered the broader volcanic area which I had hoped would make for easier going on the feet but as the gritty sand slipped around your feet you knew this was going to be hard work.

What I hadn’t expected was the ground to be so varied, there was of course the gritty dark remains of lava and black sand but there was also huge swathes of pebbles, big rocks, slippery rocks, jagged rocks, basically lots of rocks. There was no nice easy Kent countryside trail here but thankfully the Lone Peak 3.0 were the right choice for the job and my feet felt well protected from the elements.

I started the first of the ascents after some off-roading through what looked like a well pruned back Canarian vineyard and then into the first serious descent where I allowed myself the opportunity of a bit of respite and I flew to the bottom knowing that the next ascent was several hundred rocky metres and I would need all due care to navigate this. ‘Surely not all the ascents could be like this?’ I asked myself as the track disappeared and we were left to find our own path amongst the course markings. But with every ascent there is a matching descent and here I thrust myself forward once more. This time I was lurching left and left through a vineyard – no trail specifically, just the tracks of my fellow runners. With each step I could feel the black gravel being kicked up behind me and I was grateful for my gaiters which kept the stones and sand to a minimum.

Through the vineyard I passed and by a volunteer who cheered ‘bravo’ and I offered a cheery wave with a solid ‘grassy arse’. In the distance I could see the checkpoint and so with as much energy as I could I bolted to the stopping point.

All the volunteering points were excellent although there wasn’t much English spoken and there were a lot of very competent 15 year olds manning them. I did ask if there was a toilet in my best Spanglish ‘whereas are ass los toiletos por favour’. They smiled politely and told me ’20 kilometres’. I assumed they meant checkpoint 2, it turns out they simply hadn’t understood my brilliant piece of linguistics.

The problem was I was now about 10 miles in with an urgent need for the toilet. Looking around offered no immediate solutions as there was no cover whatsoever – Haria Extreme was pretty exposed and I had no intention of exposing myself here. So onward I moved, taking things sensibly as the day began to warm up. I refuelled at the previous stop on Pepsi and refilled my Tailwind bottles and actually my energy reserves where holding our pretty well. Pushing through the next 10 or 12km was relatively easy despite my urgent need for the loo and as I crossed the car park into checkpoint 2 I grabbed more Pepsi and took the opportunity to admire the view. Although I was clearly near the back of the field I felt that this was being sensible – I knew the heat would be an issue and f I could make it into night then I’d be much more able to make up time on the people in front of me.

With these thoughts in my head I bade the checkpoint ‘adios’ and moved on – in the distance I could see a big hill but I could also see some cover. I therefore looked back about a kilometre and realised I was alone for at least a few minutes and found a discreet cave in which to deliver the problem child I had been carrying for more than 25km – I was very relieved. After quickly rearranging myself I pressed on through a slightly greener Lanzarote but then I realised I hadn’t seen a route marker for quite a while, I checked with Suunto, I was off course.

Ah.

I looked back and could clearly see that there were no route markers nearby – I therefore retraced my steps, after about ten minutes of running I saw a man a couple of hundred metres higher than me at the top of the hill. I was probably about another kilometre back away from finding the point at which the rise started and so I looked up, a near vertical climb – probably 200 metres. I dug in and I climbed. I remember that I refused to stop, I refused to look down and I refused to give up even when my breathing was heavy and hard I was determined to continue and then I reached the summit to be greeted by a volunteer who was pointing me in the right direction.

‘Wrong way!’ I exclaimed. He had clearly watched me climb the vertical and offered me a pat on the back as I ran beyond him.

The route was unrelenting and when it wasn’t punishing you with ascents and descents it was looking for cracks in your kit to place stones, sand and general pain and the road to checkpoint three was no less so.

The interesting thing about HE and in particular the road to Soo) was that you could tell where the checkpoints were long before you reached them because they were found in the towns dotted around the island – which were often isolated pockets of life. As I banged on down to sea level and on to the thick hot white sand I could see my next stop and I knew that my family were waiting for me.

I made my into the town and drifted over to UB who ran towards me with arms outstretched and a stone, presumably for nutrition. A runner sat on the side of the road looked miserable as he had clearly DNF’d but the GN told me I was looking good and that I wasn’t actually that far behind a number of runners. I stopped here for a few minutes to have a mental uplift but then it was back off and on the way to Famara.

This was a tough section for me as it represented the hottest temperatures of the day but I’d been drinking consistently and the route here although hard going through tricky roads and soft sand allowed me to pick up the pace a little. I realised as I was running along that I’d never run in sand before and it wasn’t an enjoyable experience as it finally found a way into my shoes but any problems my feet faced were offset by the bevy of topless and naked ladies who lined parts of this section of the route. I swear I tried not to stare but I’m only human and this wasn’t some British nudist colony this was wave after wave of the beautiful people. I felt somewhat self conscious, especially when a very naked lady walking towards me with her (I’ll assume) husband cried ‘bravo, bravo’. I mean seriously where do you look in that situation? Anyway I thanked them for their good wishes and pressed on.

In the distance I could see the next climb ‘Lomo Cumplido’ which in my head was reading like some form of oral sex act but was actually instead a straight up 600metre climb, this was what I had come for. I wasted no time at checkpoint 4 other than to revitalise my stock of Tailwind and drink about a pint of Pepsi. Still feeling pretty good I began to climb and in the distance I could see runners coming towards me – runners who had decided enough was enough. I wished them well, but wondered what had driven back these very fit looking men from ascending this rock? I made surprisingly good time to the top, stopping only periodically to either drink in the view or rebalance myself and calm down (I’m terrified of heights). As I reached the top I rested on my Poles and thought about how much better a runner I was this time round compared to when I attempted the CCC.

It dawned on me at the top of this monster that I was still very much in the learning phase of running big inclines, descents and bloody big mountains. It was in this moment that I realised that however far I got today I had made significant progress.

I took a moment to check my messages as I had asked the GN to supply me with a list of all the cut-off times for the checkpoints and then I nearly had a heart attack… I was less than an hour from the checkpoint cut-off. I hurried along the ridge as fast as my body would carry me, facing my fear of heights with every step. I stopped at the mini checkpoint and said hello to the people there but quickly strode on to reach the full checkpoint a further 1.5km along.

I stopped here for mere seconds before realising I needed to bag some time or the sweeper would catch me. Zoom, zoom – this was a significant downhill section and I was able to use my sure footedness to power through the loose rocks and gather some much needed time. But it was now getting darker and I didn’t want to stop to grab my head torch and so lit my way along the coast with iPhone. Not the best light for making swift progress but it sufficed and I knew the GN and UB would be waiting for me again.

I ignored the checkpoint other than saying ‘hola’ and instead asked the GN to get my head torch out, I dumped my GoPro and other equipment I no longer needed with her – kissed the family goodbye and insisted I would make the next checkpoint. What I did say about my situation though was that I had cut myself on my shin quite unpleasantly and that my injured calf was sending shooting pains through my leg and both of these combined where making running painful. The good news though was that I had made up time on the clock and I was ahead by more than 90 minutes rather than the 40 minutes I had going spare at the previous stop.

If I could hold my leg together and the next section wasn’t too tough I might make it through. BOOM, onwards – foot straight into the sea! But thankfully the LP3.0 repelled this nicely. With the wrong mental head on this could have been disasterous but not so soon after seeing my family and with the aid of some local children I found my way through the wasteland of the town and crept bent double under the bridge tunnels, more suited to rats than runners!

Then up again.

On paper this section looks easy and filled with lovely respite but in reality it’s a ballbreaker, the climb is hard, unforgiving and filled with loose rocks and undergrowth that simply rip you apart. This was the section that drained my spirit and when the sweeper caught up to me I admit I became a little dispirited – despite him being clear that I was more than 2 hours ahead of the cut off. I was now gaining on people but I was done, I had maybe 5km to think this through but I knew I had come to Haria Extreme and achieved more than I thought I would.

As we passed through the end of the clambering section here the sweeper called out to me ‘bravo’. He didn’t seem the jokey type and so took him at his word as we had made really quite good time and so when we ran into the checkpoint I asked for ‘cinqo minutos’ to go through my thoughts.  I sat down for the first time in about 12 hours with a little under 10 hours remaining and 23km to go. I rubbed my calf a little while the checkpoint staff tried to force watermelon down my throat but I knew that I’d damaged my calf enough to not want to risk it further.

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I went over to my companion of the last few kilometres and said ‘I’m retiring and it’s okay – I’m good, I’m happy’ and I was. I had turned up to Haria Extreme with the hope I would make it to the start line, once I got there I hoped I wouldn’t crap myself somewhere in the first 25km, I hoped I wouldn’t disgrace myself and I hoped I would make it beyond 50km or running. Obviously I hoped I would finish and I didn’t but that’s okay because the experience of Haria Extreme has given me a tremendous confidence boost ahead of MIUT and I know what I need to do to ensure I finish that race.

Key points

  • Distance: 102km
  • Profile: Hilly, sharp ascents and descents
  • Date: November 2016
  • Location: Lanzarote
  • Cost: £55
  • Terrain: Technical trail, rocky, hilly
  • Tough Rating: 4/5

Route
The route was amazing – I can’t praise it enough, from the start in Timanfaya through vineyards and across rocky ascents this had everything. It’s tough too but not impossible and had I been even a little bit fit then this would have been much easier than I have made it look. That’s not to say it is easy though because it really isn’t, it will fight you every single step of the way and just when you get comfortable it will throw up amazing challenges. Brilliant!

Organisation
The organisation is always going to be slightly more difficult to analyse as a foreigner but information was communicated in good time, translations were decent and GPX files and all the other pre-race material was handled very well. In Haria itself number collection was easy and there were lots of English speakers available. It felt friendly but also a little local rather than a huge international race. The other really nice thing was that there was a range of races and distances so if you fancied a marathon or a half marathon or even a 10km there was something for everyone. (And the good news) each route had been clearly and concisely thought out.

Support
Aid stations were suitable for the race but the only food was fruit (which for me was a bit useless) but there was cola, water and electrolytes at every aid station. Most aid stations had at least one English speaker but where there wasn’t one I had a real laugh with the guys trying my best Spanish!

Awards
The real reason I rolled up to the race wasn’t the medal or the route it was the experience and the experience was amazing. I suppose its lucky I didn’t roll up for the medal given that I didn’t get one

Value for money
Incredible value for money, lots of lovely freebies, lots of great experience moments – yes the aid stations were not exactly brilliantly stocked with lovely houmous, breads and Canarian potatoes but I can forgive that given the brilliance of everything else. The race cost about £60 (exchange rate is difficult to judge at the moment) and there are 10km races in the UK that cost this, believe me this is much better than any 10km you’ll run.

Conclusion
There are races and there are races – this is one of the latter. Haria Extreme is a race I would do year in and year out if it were closer to home – instead I’ll simply consider going back in a few years to ensure that I finish it. My experience, as you can probably tell, was one of absolute delight given that I didn’t think I had it in me to start never mind get to 80km. Basically, you can’t go wrong with Haria Extreme it does have everything and if you decide to seek out a lovely low key but spectacular race this will not disappoint.

Good luck and enjoy those hills.

 

Run Rabbit, Run Rabbit, Run, Run, Run! That’s how it felt, like a rabbit in the headlights – it might only have been 10km but I felt it.

My return to running from retirement was in the form of the infamous Chislehurst Chase.

I hadn’t run at all since my testicles had been consumed by the almighty chaffing fire at the Ridgeway Challenge and my disagreement with the GingaNinja had stopped me running altogether and enforced a diet of pizza and chocolate for about 3 weeks. However, armed with resolution from the disagreement and the High Weald 50km a little over a week later I decided to enter the Chislehurst Chase. It should be noted that the CC was rescued from oblivion by the brilliant people at ‘Bridge Triathlon’ who took it on after it looked like it might not return a couple of years ago. Now sadly I didn’t run it under the previous directorship but I have run a couple of ‘Bridge’ events and so I was very confident I’d have a load of fun.

The race itself takes place in Scadbury Park, an obscure and hidden treasure of a park near Orpington, two loops and lots of hills – both up and down. I lined up with about 300 other runners, waved goodbye to the GingaNinja and UltraBaby and loped gently beyond the start line. As a previous resident of these parts I knew these woods very well and had run them many times on training runs with my beloved spaniel and so I knew what was coming.

The ground was good to firm and the trail was well shaded on a pleasant September day. I bounded along the down hills (of which there were many) and a meandered on the up hills but all the time maintaining a reasonable pace. Sadly I was going to be nowhere near my 41 minute personal best for this 10km route but it wasn’t about that it was about enjoying a delightful race that has been on my radar for several years.

I came out towards the biggest of the down hills and realised that if I wanted a decent time I would need to power down this until we hit the ankle grinding uphill back to the second lap. This I did with great aplomb and powered past my fellow runners, giving me some much needed momentum into the uphill. Thankfully the grass was receding in the gaze of autumn and it had been a few days prior to the race so the uphill had decent traction. In the distance I could see volunteers directing back towards the car park and what I describe as the fun fast section where we split off for a second lap or onto the home mile.

I thundered out for my second lap but my body was now tiring, the lack of running clearly rearing its ugly head but such was the fun I was having that I was happily able to maintain my sensible pace and give it enough riz to reach the final mile.

It was here that I could feel my blood boiling and the dozen or so people in front of me looked like targets. Boom – one, two, three, seven, ten down – all easy. Miss Eleven went with about 300 metres to go but I wanted the dozen. Mister Twelve had 50 metres on me but he didn’t have any momentum, nor an afterburner button.

I drew level with about 100metres to go – he was about my age, local club vest and had clearly given his all. I thankfully hadn’t. BOOM. The afterburners fired and I was flung forward to cross the line with my chest beating and my lungs on fire. BOOM – I was back.

Conclusion: Great route, great race, traditional organisation – felt like a great Sunday morning run. Medal, sweets and water all available and the local cafe as a sponsor provide excellent toilets and an even better pre-race Eggs Benedict.

There was also the added fun of the 2km children’s race, which UltraBaby ran and you can read about here. All in all this was brilliant and if you’re local this is a must-do and if you’re not then it might well be worth the journey for a beautiful September 10km.

‘I’m just going to do one lap – see how it holds up’. These were the words I said to Rob just before the kick off of the Vegan Day Challenge when describing my approach to testing my newly knackered calf.

But let me roll back about 13 miles and a dozen nasty hills – it’s 6.25am on a chilly Tuesday morning – I had taken the day off work to go and run a final marathon before Haria Extreme. Seemed like a very good idea, the only problem is that my left calf has been struggling for a little while now and been getting progressively worse, thankfully I’d done something about it.

  1. Intensive physiotherapy
  2. Intensive TENS machining
  3. Intensive stretching
  4. Intensive strengthening
  5. No running whatsoever

Anyway I digress, race morning I pulled out the mountain bike and set off on the 13 mile route over to the start line. I knew it was quite hilly and I knew the moist fog and leaves had made the ground a little slick but I found it really hard work getting to the start line. I eventually rolled up covered in muddy spray and a gaunt tired expression that suggested I’d be lucky to make 2.6 miles never mind 26!


Regardless I listened to the instructions and the information regarding it being the first Vegan Day Challenge, with a vegan inspired checkpoint – at which point I started dreaming of meaty burritos! Then suddenly the brave souls who had come out to play were sent out to run.

I ambled to the back and gingerly moved forward at an unremarkable pace and every time my heart insisted that I put a bit of effort in my head replied ‘You’ve paid a lot of money to run some Lanzarote trails, don’t arse it up again’ and so I would slow back down. I drifted down the first incline and powered up the inclines and my calf was holding up. I decided to add a bit of welly to proceedings and still my calf held up. However, what was clear was that several weeks of absolutely no exercise and a 13 mile hilly MTB ride was really punishing me and so as I came into the checkpoint I laboured over to the checkpoint food and ate my bodyweight in Vegan Rocky Road and Starburst. I chatted a little with the lovely chaps who regularly volunteer but my mood was pretty grim and I felt like ringing the bell to say ‘finished’ but this is why I like SVN events – you have Traviss and Rachel. Traviss advised me to get back out and I did – only moaning a little bit. I strolled up the tarmac bit to reduce the impact on all my old injuries, once back on the trail I resumed what I dare to call ‘Running’.

The next few laps of up and down at the Ranscombe Farm Reserve were thankfully uneventful with only my own lack of self-belief to battle. However, I urged Traviss to not let me stop until the marathon and both he and all the other superb volunteers made it possible for me to keep going. I knew that once I hit lap 5 of 7 I would make it and so it was simply a matter of holding on.

For my 7th and final lap I was joined by Neil, a very nice young gentleman who provided some much needed guilt to get me to the end. ‘I’m not sure I can be bothered to run the last few kilometres, I might just stroll this in’ I said. His response was that I’d made him not feel like running it either and so, despite having nothing in my legs I said, ‘well I feel bad about that, let’s go…’

And so I finally put together a bit of decent running, picking my legs up, bounding along, eventually leaving Neil a few minutes behind.

Normally I would hit the afterburner for the final few hundred metres but as I saw The SVN team in the distance I was simply grateful and rather than sprint finish I bundled myself home.

Traviss passed over another neck breaker of a medal, quite a cheery one in the midst, or perhaps that should be mist, of November gloom and a delightful vegan goody bag.

Things worth noting?
As always Ranscombe was a fun filled ride, full of up, full of down and hardly any flat. There are some lovely views at Ranscombe and no two runs are ever the same.

The lovely SVN team and volunteers are some of the best people around to bring you a great event experience. I really wasn’t up to pushing myself round the course but thanks to everyone there, be they manning the checkpoint or the treat table I managed to get beyond my pitiful ability. So thank you.

As mentioned, another stonking medal to add to my haul and it has already assumed pride of place at the front of my collection.

And finally… thanks to the other competitors – you were all marvellous, whether I chatted to you or not – I really enjoyed the experience and the Vegan Challenge brought out lots of runners I’ve never met before – which was delightful.

Epilogue
It’s not often I write a ‘what happened next’ but my 13 mile cycle home hurt like hell and felt like it took forever and day – up and downhills and into an unpleasant headwind(y) moist feeling – which attacked my already cooled down body. If you want my advice think carefully before you decide not to get the train home 🙂

And absolutely finally – my calf did hold up to the running but the cycle appears to have kicked off some relatively minor pain in a new place in my calf that I’m hoping will abate in a few days – keep your fingers crossed for me.


I was going to review the Lone Peak 3.0 but then realised that actually the more useful thing to do might be to look at my experience of running across the Altra trail range. This review and comparison will look at the Altra Superior 2.0, Olympus 2.0 and Lone Peak 3.0 in which I’ve run at least 200 miles in each across a wide variety of terrain and conditions.

My introduction to the Altra trail experience 

Superior 2.0 It was a warm day in June when I first put my Superior 2.0 on, I’d bought them as a speedier alternative to the Lone Peak 2.0 – where the LP felt plush these felt more like moccasins, something you might find Native Americans wearing in the Old Wild West! As is often the case with Altra they sent the UK the boring colour way – grey with a hint of green and there was an air of wearing old ladies Hotter shoes rather than the latest innovative low profile trail running shoes.

Anyway I was at one of my usual haunts and set off on a short 10km trail run (a trail run that I put all new shoes through) and we danced across the logs, bounded across the dry, hurtled through the damp and came unstuck in the wet mud! Uphill they were kind to my toes and grippy and downhill they felt stable enough but with a backend that needed a bit of control.

The Superior feel like fast footwear, you don’t forget you’re wearing them despite having the same upper comfort levels of other Altra shoes – perhaps it’s the more tigerish feel of putting on a pair of runners that you know are built to go a bit quicker.

Lone Peak 3.0 I opened the box and looked down and went ‘wow’. Altra has finally delivered a shoe I could simply look at and think ‘OMG’. The LP3.0 was a big departure from the second series. Yes, I’m not made keen on the blue or the black colour ways (the only ones available in the UK) but I wanted to ensure they were bought from an independent UK retailer.

I knew I’d be delighted to take them out for a spin but it turned out that the first chance I’d get to use them would be on race day at the Chislehurst Chase. Now we all know the thing about not wearing them straight out of the box for something like a race but I felt confident in them and I knew the route as it used to be an old stomping ground of mine.

Within seconds of bounding our of the starting line I realised that the Lone Peak was an improvement and a half on the previous editions but it would it replace the LP2.0 as my Altra of choice?

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Olympus 2.0 Riding high like Zeus above the mere mortal men on the trail here I came in my mighty Olympus 2.0 (or so I thought). I had bought these with the Skye Trail Ultra specifically in mind. The Olympus it turned out were not the best choice for this race but they have proved to be a prudent choice for less gnarly routes.

The Olympus were as difficult to find in the UK as the Lone Peak 3.0 and in this instance I really did want an exciting colour and so bought them from France as they had the blue and neon yellow version. The most interesting advance in the Olympus over previous versions (and the reason I was willing to give them a go) was the Vibram outsole and more aggressive approach to the lugs.

Hitting the trails you could instantly see that the new, more cultured outsole was going to be of benefit and the level of comfort from all the A-bound technology sitting between you and the trail was ridiculously sumptuous.

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So what do Altra say about each of their footwear?

Superior 2.0
Why mess with perfection? Last year’s award-winning favorite is back with the same look and feel as its predecessor, but with new color options and sidewall reinforcement. The FootShape™ toe box lets your toes relax and spread out in uphill and downhill trail conditions while the fully cushioned Zero Drop™ platform helps you maintain proper form across long distances. TrailClaw™ outsole technology features canted lugs beneath your metatarsals for ultimate gripping in gnarly terrain. A removable StoneGuard™ rock protection plate protects your feet from sharp rocks and is removable for use on less demanding terrain.

  • Sizing: Slightly Short
  • Weight: 8.7 oz./247 g.
  • Stack Height: Height: 21mm
  • Sizes 7, 8–13, 14, 15
  • Cushioning: Light
  • Ideal Uses: Trail Running, Hiking, Backpacking, Off Road Racing
  • Designed to Improve: Running Form, Toe Splay, Stability, Push-off, Comfort, Traction
  • Platform: Natural Foot Positioning: FootShape™ Toe Box with Fully Cushioned Zero Drop™ Platform
  • Midsole: EVA/A-Bound™ Blend with InnerFlex™
  • Outsole: TrailClaw™ Sticky Rubber Outsole
  • Insole: 5 mm Contour Footbed with Removable StoneGuard™ Rock Protection
  • Upper: Quick-Dry Air Mesh
  • Other Features: GaiterTrap™ Technology

Lone Peak 3.0
Named after eleven thousand feet of pure Utah peak ruggedness, the Lone Peak 3.0 is the latest version of the trail shoe that started it all for Altra. We added additional protection to the upper for increased durability and protection when the trail starts to bite back. The outsole has been re-designed and spec’d up with the all new MaxTrac™ outsole, offering more grip in all conditions. The StoneGuard™ has been sandwiched between the midsole and outsole to offer extra protection from those rocks trying hard to go after your feet. And your toes will be loving life in the luscious FootShape™ toe box up front. The legend continues with the Lone Peak 3.0.

  • Weight: 9.7 oz. /275 g
  • Cushioning: Moderate
  • Stack Height: 25mm
  • Ideal Uses: Trail Running, Hiking, Fastpacking, Trail Racing
  • Designed To Improve: Running Form, Toe Splay, Stability, Push-off, Comfort, Traction
  • Platform: Foot Positioning: FootShape™ Toe Box with Fully Cushioned Zero Drop™ Platform
  • Last: SD6
  • Midsole: EVA with A-Bound™ Top Layer
  • Outsole: Altra MaxTrac Sticky Rubber with TrailClaw™
  • Insole: 5 mm Contour Footbed
  • Upper: Quick-Dry Air Mesh
  • Other Features: Sandwiched StoneGuard™ Rock Protection, Natural Ride System, GaiterTrap™ Technology, No-slip Sock Liner Design

Olympus 2.0
You asked, and we delivered. Our popular, max-cushioned trail shoe returns with a completely revamped Vibram® Megagrip outsole and a softer, more flexible upper. The new outsole dramatically enhances traction in uphill and downhill terrain while maintaining the max-cushioned feel you love. Traction and durability improvements have also led to a reduction in weight over its predecessor for a faster ride. An impressive 36mm stack height runs evenly from front to back and features an A-Bound bottom layer to add a spring to each step and EVA™ top layer to take the bite out of the rugged terrain. And like every Altra shoe, the FootShape™ toe box keeps your feet happy, relaxed, and stable through uphill climbs and downhill descents.

  • Improved Traction
  • Less Weight
  • Sizing: True to Size
  • Weight: 11.0 oz./ 312 g.
  • Cushioning: Max
  • Stack Height: 36mm
  • Sizes: 7, 8–13, 14, 15
  • Ideal Uses: Trail Running, Hiking, Fastpacking, Trail Racing
  • Designed To Improve: Running Form, Toe Splay, Stability, Push-off, Comfort, Traction
  • Last: SD6-M
  • Midsole: Dual Layer EVA with A-Bound™ Top Layer
  • Outsole: Vibram® Megagrip
  • Insole: 5mm Contour Footbed
  • Upper: Quick-Dry Trail Mesh
  • Other Features: Natural Ride System, GaiterTrap™ Technology

 Much has been made of the foot shaped toe box and the zero drop, both intended to enable a more natural running form and having been a runner who has run extensively in zero drop shoes and Vibram Fivefingers I can tell you that the Altra way has helped me achieve a better style of running form, especially when I’m tired – I don’t breakdown nearly as quickly.

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Superior Opinion?
The Superior are a great shoe, I use them for XC and shorter distance races (10, 12 miles) I don’t run ultra marathons in them even though I probably could. The lower profile offers the greatest connection to the trail but it also offers the least protection and you can feel this. Everything has been stripped down from the tongue right through to the upper – this is not a criticism but an observation. In my opinion the Superior benefit greatly from this more stripped down approach as they really do feel quicker than their trail siblings and have a lot in common with the Inov8 Trailroc.

The fit is generous around the toes  – as you might expect – this being the Altra USP, the heel cup is a little loose (a problem some find with Altra), the trail gaiter remains a great asset and the grip is reasonable.

The upper is an improvement on previous versions of the Superior but is still not amazing, the overlays in the latest version of 2.0 seem to have addressed this a little but I expect that Altra will need to consider a bit of an overhaul once again. The upper is remarkably comfortable though (again much like the Inov8 Trailroc 235) and it does feel like a lovely pair of slippers as you run round the trails. The upper drains and gets nice and dry quickly too which for someone like me is a real bonus.

The issue I think most will have will the Superior 2.0 is the grip – in the UK were things like rain and mud exist the Superior struggle to get traction and can become a little bogged down. However, in the dry or through the moist trail they’ll confidently take on everything that you thrown at them and you’re feet will feel like they’ve enjoyed the experience.

In terms of longevity and durability you might find that these aren’t going to last like an old pair of Walsh – they are far from bombproof. This could be said of both the upper and the tread as both will ear down pretty quickly. My boss who owns a pair of Superior says that the tread has already started to peel away after only 100 miles and my pair once they reached 200 miles looked a little abused. There was also soome gentle fraying on the upper by 200 miles and given the mileage I will put in this makes the Superior seem like an expensive shoe.

However, they remain fun and lots of it.

Best for: Cross Country, shorter trail running, dry trail, faster trail running

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Peak Opinion?
The Lone Peak are the trail shoe that have saved my feet, I realise this is a big statement but its true. I started with the Lone Peak 2.0 (several pairs) and loved them to bits.I ran the Thames Path 100 in them straight out of the box, having never tried Altra before and never looked back. Lots of runners, including the excellent review ‘Ginger Runner’ suggested that the Lone Peak 2.0 felt more like a skater shoe than a pair of running shoes – he had a point. However, the upper, support and overall feel as well as the visuals of the LP2.0 were stunning. My first pair ran well in excess of 1,000 miles before they even began to consider retirement (they still run today but only on training runs).

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With the 3.0 though the Lone Peaks have undergone something of a transformation. More overlays, less heel cup (so less skater shoe feel), revised grip, Abound material for support but with all the things you previously loved. The visuals have also gone for a more Americanised look, throwing out some of the more understated ‘European’ feel of the 2.0 and 2.5.

The rewards for this effort can be felt almost immediately on the trail. The LP3.0 is lighter, faster, better fitting and better at dealing with muddy terrain than ever before. It’s the shoe you always wanted from Altra and so far none of the problems (other than its a bloody expensive shoe).

I’ve committed to several hundred miles in this shoe since I bought them (the moment they arrived in the UK) and each run has given me comfort and pleasure in a way that not even my much loved yellow LP2.0 could. It’s things like the attention to detail I love, the little clip for the gaiters on the front of the shoe and obviously the trail gaiter trap on the reverse, the removal of the ridiculous rudder continues and the graphics lifted partly from the 1.5. What’s not to like?

The shoe also now comes in a pertex and a booted version. The boot version looks like it’s going to try and take on the Hoka Tor series and the Pertex version of for those of you that are insane enough to wear them – seriously who wears waterproof shoes, once it’s gone over the top its like your feet have gone for a swim and aren’t getting out the pool!

With the right marketing and supply chain these shoes should be taking over the trail running world but Altra seem to have an issue, especially in the UK with both its communication and its stock levels (this needs to be cleared up because growth through word of mouth alone will not overhaul Hoka, Inov8 and Salomon).

Great shoe, more of the same please.

Best for: Ultra distance, long slow trail runs, hiking, mud and mayhem!

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© Gareth Jones

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© Fiona Rennie

MIghty Olympus?
The Olympus are pictured above taking on the demands of the first 30 miles of the Skye Trail Ultra and what a great pair of shoes they are. Not perhaps the best choice for the first 30 miles of Skye but my word they’ve covered themselves in glory ever since – especially during the Brutal Enduro and several very long training runs on and around the North Downs Way. Having not tested the earlier versions I had no comparison for the Olympus but the main issue seemed to have been with the 1.0 and the 1.5 was that the grip was shockingly rubbish.

So Altra gave us a Vibram outsole! In the picture below you can see the toe bumper and the depth of the lugs on the Olympus 2.0 – you’ll also see the new leg pattern from the LP3.0 (wouldn’t mind seeing a vibram version of this!) There’s a couple of different compounds too which do much the same job as say Inov8’s Tri-C but basically its got hard and soft sections to deal with the different types of terrain you’ll be facing.

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The Olympus has a big stack height (36mm) so its clearly built for the long slow journeying rather than the faster more trail intimate experience of the Superior but that’s not to say that you don’t get feedback from the route because you do – just not quite so telling on the feet as with a less supportive shoe.

The good news is that after several hundred miles both the upper and the outsole are wearing well. I have yet to find any significant durability issues and believe me I enjoy taking my running shoes through the nasty kinds of trails and I’m always on the lookout for wet mud and hills (preferably both) to give them a good test. The grip is impressive mostly (other than in the thickest mud, but very shoes deal with this well) and overall the Olympus are a kick arse pair of shoes.

As a previous wearer of Hoka I can tell you that Altra (rather than Hoka) have got the maximal shoe right (for me at least). Stable, fun, faster than you expect and they look the business rather than like clown shoes!

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Best for: Ultra distance, long slow trail runs

So which would you go for?
For me that’s really easy – I’d have all three but if I was only going to have one then I’d go for the classic Lone Peak 3.0, a tremendous shoe.

However, each of the Altra trail shoes does something quite unique and I like having them all for both training and racing.  I still believe that Altra is a niche product and not suited to everyone so I’d always advocate a try-before-you-buy if at all possible but if you are looking to dump the Hoka because they don’t feel stable enough, your feet have been bruised to buggery by the lack of cushioning on your Inov8 or you simply want a change from the black and red of Salomon then these might be the choice of shoe for you.

Remember too that while I’ve been looking at these very much from the ultra running perspective they are equally at home on the shorter trails

Where can I try Altra?
There are a number of stockists including (other stockists are probably available);

Do Altra (or their stockists or anyone) pay you or give you kit to write this?
Thankfully no.


I was looking for an alphabetic list that could identify how the last five years of running have come to be; it’s one item per letter currently which means there’s loads of great stuff missing but I reserve the right to add additional items to my alphabet run later. 


A: Altra.
At a time where I had literally tried every running shoe going, from Nike to Hoka and back again, I finally found some solace and comfort in Altra running shoes. For a fat-footed hobbit like myself Altra have saved my feet from becoming even more of a mangled mess than they already are. The lesson is to use kit you can trust.

B: Burning Bullet Hole. I’ve suffered the burning bullet hole and other chaffing related issues on more than one occasion but thanks to a liberal use of bodyglide and a pre-race routine that I’m very happy with this has stopped being the issue it once was (Endure1250 aside). I do recall at the WNWA96 that at about 86 miles in the burning sensation was so severe that I sharpened a small amount of toilet roll and created my own personal anal plug to create a soft environment for my arse cheeks to rub against during the final 10 mile slog down the East Lancashire Road.

C: CCC. I started ultra running with the UTMB races as a goal – I was driven by a desire to go to a mountain and test myself amongst some amazing athletes. To come away from the CCC not only injured, not only with a DNF but also with a tremendous sense of disappointment haunts me a little. However, the CCC gave me one great gift and that was the desire to run races I really wanted too and therefore out of that has come the SainteLyon, the Green Man and the Skye Trail Ultra – so not all bad.

D: DNF. The ‘did not finish’ had been heard three times during my racing career, the TG100, W100 and the CCC. For the TG100 conditions, organisation and support were so terrible that a DNF was almost inevitable – of the eleven starters only three finished and you know when race master Ian Braizer pulls out that you probably made the right decision.

The W100 I’ve never really spoken or written about as this one hurts more than any of them. I was a father for the first time – mere weeks earlier, I’d been injured for almost six months in the run up to the W100 and had done almost no training in that time – mainly using races to keep my fitness up.

My physiotherapist had warned against my involvement saying that there was a chance I might never run again if I took part and when I DNF’d at the halfway point I was crying and miserable. My injuries from that period have never recovered 100% and I learnt from the experience – so much so that when I twisted my ankle at the Brutal Enduro a couple of weeks back I almost immediately stopped as an ultra distance was already secured and I saw no reason to ruin myself.

My DNF record has afforded me a clarity of perspective and a sanguine approach to races. Races will always be there and it’s better to survive than destroy yourself. I know some will look at this as a cowardly approach and that you’ve got to ‘man-up’ but I’ve run in pain more than I’ve run without and I can tell you there’s no shame in a genuine DNF.

E: Enthusiasm. I suffer with the post race blues, whether it’s gone well or badly – I’ve just got one of those personalities. So even when it’s going well there’s a bloody good chance it’s all going to fall apart any second.

F: Fartlek. Fartlek is my favourite type of training, lots of fast and slow, obscure distances, running between two trees at a pace that’ll make your lungs burst! Glorious.

G: GingaNinja. The GingaNinja has often been the person who kept me going at races, the person who took me to races and rescued me when it all went pear shaped. Without her my ultra running adventure would never have gotten started – I recall the run up to my first ultra in March 2013 and she let me decimate the house with running kit for 3 months prior with kit laid out and constant chatter about it. Obviously much has changed in the 3 years since but she has generally remained my biggest supporter and I’ll always be grateful for the time and effort she has put in to supporting my hobby.

H: Hills. For a while I couldn’t even walk up a hill without my glutes and hamstring tearing me a new arsehole. I felt that my time running hills was likely to be over. However, it turned out I was averse to tarmac not hills and now I love nothing more than banging my way up and down a trail. For me the truth of it is that there’s something especially glorious about a steep climb, enjoying the vista finished off with a speedy descent down a horrific vertical drop!

I: Injuries. I’ve had my fair share of injuries, some more serious than others, there was the foot I crucified at my first ultra, the glutes and ITB problems I had long before I knew what an ITB was, the broken finger that I never really got fixed properly, a thousand blisters, hundreds of times slicing open my body as I hurled myself into the void of trail running and of course the worst thing – the chaffing injuries – my poor bollocks. The truth is though that these were all self inflicted, I drove my body to self destruction and even though I do look after myself a little better these days I still push it beyond its limits. Injuries have been a recurring motif in my running that I simply now accept as part of the experience, yes you may think I’m blaise about injury but actually I do what I can to keep it under control and I try not to think about them too much – which works for me. 

J: Jenni. My ex-girlfriend who was a bit of a control freak! It was here that my interest in running really kicked off again. I used to go running to stave off going back to the house we shared – especially in the latter days of the relationship. At the time I didn’t really realise how under the thumb I was and it wasn’t until I looked more objectively at the relationship (while out running coincidentally) that I finally realised that this wasn’t a healthy relationship for either Jenni or I and we went our separate ways. However, despite this the running continued and so from adversity came something very positive.

K: Kit. I’m sure a kit whore, kit hoarder and kit lover. I’ve always loved a bit of retail therapy – be it a new piece of technology, hobbyist thing, clothes or craft – when I discovered running gear though I knew I had found my Nirvana. There is no doubt that (shoes included) I could fill 10 x 100 litre duffel bags easily with running kit. There are currently nearly 40 pairs of active running shoes (plus another 50 or 60 retired shoes), more than 50 race T-shirts, over 100 purchased run T-shirts, over 20 long sleeved base layers, 4 GPS watches, 30 pairs of shorts or tights, dozens of socks, 15 Buffs, 10 race vests/run specific bags, 6 pairs of gloves, 3 external battery packs, 3 waterproof with taped seams jackets, 2 action cameras… the list goes on and on and on. The good thing is that I run regularly enough to use most of it. Yes I’ve made a few strange purchases or things that aren’t quite right (Skins A200 leggings for example) but generally I’ve spent my money well, fully researching a purchase before making it. I’ve also used my purchasing as a way of supporting local business too – much of my stuff comes from companies like Castleberg Outdoors, Likeys, London City Runner, MyRaceKit and Northern Runner. However, it’s undoubted I buy too much stuff but I don’t drink, smoke or have any other expensive habits so running it is!

L: Liverpool. Much to my dismay I am, by birth, from Liverpool – I say dismay not to offend the northern city but more that I’ve always felt my heart was in the south. But in running terms I made my marathon debut in Liverpool and that set me on course to collide with a love of long distance endurance running. So while I have no affinity with the city of Liverpool and I feel lumbered with its accent I’ll always be grateful for the part it played in my running. 

M: Medals. 130 medals and counting. I do love a medal. The GingaNinja has nearly collected her 20th medal and UltraBaby collected number 6 at the Chislehurst Chase. It’s an obsession with oddly shaped bits of metal.

N: Nuts. I’ve written previously about my dislike of labels and the ‘nuts’ one is my pet hate. Now it’s true I have some leftfield ideas and sprout concepts that might test the limits of convention but when it comes to running I’d ask whether it really is ‘nuts’ or whether sitting on the sofa, eating biscuits, watching Eastenders, waiting for the inevitable heart attack’ is actually the ‘nuts’ thing to do. 

Nuts though also refers to my mental ability to stay a balanced and responsible human being. I originally took up running in response to the end of a relationship – my uncle suggested that it would give me a focus at a time when I was drifting aimlessly. To his credit, in my case, he was right. Running allowed me a little bit of structure, stopped me moping around and provided a way forward which has contributed to having a reasonably successful personal and work life. Running stopped the darker side of my personality from taking hold and sending me down the deepest, darkest rabbit hole. I would always worry that if I stopped running or it was enforced upon me by injury I’m not sure how I would replace it. I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that running has become a part of many of the good things in my life – from base fitness to exciting holiday destination choices – it really does get involved in everything.

O: Over eating. I do have something of a problem with chocolate, cake, sweeties, FOOD – I just love it and lots of it. The only reason I’m not the size of a double decker bus is the running, cycling and hiking that I do. There’s no doubt in my mind that I have a hugely unhealthy relationship with food but it also helps to power my desire to run further because I know that without the running I’d become my own worst physical nightmare.

P: Parkrun. I’ve run 16 times since it started, that’s not really a great deal and while I like Parkrun it’s never quite been important enough for me to make it a habit. Importantly though I believe that Parkrun is a great thing and when I have been I’ve loved it – especially Ashton Court and Tonbridge. The thing that it has been especially positive for is introducing UltraBaby to the running community. It’s a good mixture of people, ages and abilities – there’s a lovely level of co-operation and support that is all pervasive around a Parkrun and long may it (excuse the pun) run.

Q: Quest. Each year I set myself a series of targets – 2016 was the year of the ‘No DNF’ well I blew that with some epic bollock chaffing at the Ridgeway Challenge. However, I did complete the Skye Ultra Trail which was very much at the heart of 2016 and probably my most desired finish. But each year takes a different path – 2017 has been identified as the year I hope to crack the ‘associate’ or ‘wannabee’ member status – so about 13 marathons or ultras needed to reach my first 50. However, I turn 40 next year and I really want to find a race that matches my desires to go a further and harder – the GB Ultra 200 mile is one I’m seriously considering but there are logistical problems with that and there’s the KACR which I’ve been avoiding applying for because I’m not sure my glutes would appreciate canals anymore. So I just need to figure out what my quest is each year and how I go about achieving it. The important thing for me to remember is that it is the route I take and the adventures I have that are more important than the quest itself.

R: Racing. I’ve never run for fitness, to look dynamic or even for glory – I’ve always put my running shoes on so I would have the capacity to race. It’s true that I’ve sometimes turned up to a race injured just to see what might happen (W100, TG100) or it’s not always gone to plan (Ridgeway Challenge, CCC) but despite this some of my favourite moments running have been when I’ve raced. I’d always advocate having a target, such as a race, as I believe it offers a truly wonderful incentive and there is no feeling like crossing the finishing line to rapturous applause. I’ve been very lucky to have raced more than 130 times now and I never get tired of the starting line, I always get start line nerves and I always dream of that little piece of metal that I can hang around my neck. Give it a go.

S: SainteLyon. On the subject of racing I wanted to add in my favourite race and mention what a truly special experience this was and remains (you can read my incredibly long winded review here). The SainteLyon provided me with renewed vigour for foreign races after a rather unpleasant time in Chamonix at the CCC. While the race is a mere 72km it has everything you’d ever want and I’d urge anyone who loves ultra running to check it out. I could quite easily say that I often fall in love with the races I do but it’s an extra special bond between the SainteLyon and I.

T: Twitter. Ah Twitter you little mine field, home to good information, great communication with like minded runners and occasionally a platform for abuse and being abused.

Twitter gave me access to runners I would never normally have met, it allowed me to get to know some of them and vice versa.

It allowed me to grow an audience for my general written running rambles and it offered new avenues for my running in kit and race options.

Twitter was probably one of the greatest influences on my running outside of the activity itself and while it can be a huge waste of time, if used wisely than it can be a very fun tool to improve the overall running experience. 

U: UltraBaby. I’m writing this as UltraBaby turns 2 years old and if truth be told it’s been a manic and exciting time. I recall the first run we did on the day she returned home from hospital, the first time I unleashed the power of the Mountain Buggy Terrain!

Two weeks later we were in our first race, the Dartford Bridge Fun Run and how within 7 weeks of birth she attended her first ultra.

We’ve carried on in this tradition and covered hundreds and hundreds of miles together both on the bike and running together. Though it did take us nearly a year to get to a Parkrun together but now we enjoy nothing more than overtaking people in the buggy shouting ‘Dad go fast!’

In the two years we’ve been father and daughter she’s earned 6 medals and not all of them parent powered. Its going to be a really sad day when she decides that she no longer wants to do it, or more importantly she no longer wants to do it with me. So for the time being I’m just enjoying it. 

V: Vest. I’ve listed this as ‘V’ but covers two very different topics – the first is ‘club running’ and the second is ‘body image’. Many of you, probably most of you will have joined a running club, they’re excellent support networks and offer a real world version of Twitter but I’ve never quite been able to shake the ‘lone wolf’ thing. Now for someone who doesn’t like labels this doesn’t sit well and I have tried many times the more social and perhaps cultured approach to running but it’s just never worked out. Each year I promise myself I’ll try again but each year I don’t bother or I find an excuse not to go. Perhaps 2017 will be my year of the club vest? Or maybe the only vest I’m actually interested in is the 100 marathon club vest and that’s why I’m holding back. Hmmm.

As for body image that’s pretty easy – I stopped wearing vests because I felt fat in them and having low self esteem regarding my physical appearance has meant I tend to dress for discretion. Stupid I know but a reality and it’s not something I think I’ll ever get beyond.

W: White Cliffs 50. Somewhere on an old blog is my record of the White Cliffs 50, but somewhere inside me that ultra will always live. It was my first ultra with only a single paltry road marathon under my belt as comfort – I’d only been doing runs over 20 miles for about the three months prior to the race and yet I rocked up convinced I could do it.

And I did – on a broken foot for most of it. I pushed through genuine agony and I delivered a genuine astonishing result that didn’t look likely to happen. I earned my first utmb points, finished my first ultra and felt like I had died. But that day I knew I would always want to ultra and that desire just doesn’t fade.

X: Exhale. One of the finest things I learnt to do during my early days in running was how to breathe deeply and consistently. This simple act as a run progresses is something many of us forget how to do. I can hear my fellow runners huffing and puffing sometimes as they go past me or vice versa, I use that as a reminder to check my own breathing – in through the nose, out through the mouth, big deep breathes and then shallower breathing for a few moments and then repeat. I’ve found this wonderful for keeping me going and stopping me gasping for breathe and it does allow me to chat as much as I want during a run (possibly not a good side effect).


Y: Yes. 
Never say no. There is nothing that can’t be achieved, believe in yourself and that starts by being positive. I try wherever possible to say ‘Yes’ because it’s a way forward and sometimes you’ll fail, sometimes you’ll stumble but if you don’t try then you can never achieve. I believe it was Ian Shelley who introduced me to the phrase ‘relentless forward progress’ and I do my best to put this into practice.

So say ‘yes’ and be the best of you!

Z: Zippy. I used to be quick, really quick – maybe it was this that made me really fall in love with running. I remember being aged 9 and in the starting blocks for county at the 100 metres – I came second and was distraught. However, in those days I knew nothing about running, even less than. I do now but I had enthusiasm and that translated to pretty damn quick running across track and field. I miss being fast, I miss sub 40 minute 10km times and sub 20 minute 5km times but I wouldn’t trade in the tougher routes I now run for a faster time. For me being zippy is second to the adventure. 


I haven’t run a marathon well since my first crack at the Kent Roadrunner, since then I’ve been in a spiral downwards of injury hit crisis and increasingly slower distance.

Therefore I found myself on the start line of the Darnley Challenge with nothing more than the aim of a bimble round and an opportunity to say happy birthday to one of the race directors.

The conditions, for me, we’re not ideal – it was too warm, it was too sunny and there was going to be a fair bit of Tarmac involved (never good for the knees). I’d also not been feeling amazing over the previous few days, having caught some germs from the GingaNinja and I was still getting over the previous weekends exertions at the Vanguard Way Marathon. I wasn’t in great shape but actually I felt surprisingly okay about being there.

I caught up with Gary, who I bump into from time to time at Parkrun and I met Hannah (who had the air of being suspiciously familiar – turns out we follow one another on Twitter and more recently Instagram) and before I knew it the start was sounded and we were off.

I’d very much wanted to start at the back but had inadvertently started at the front and so I decided to get the first hill out of the way at a reasonable pace before slowing down as I got inside Jeskyns Country Park.

After dropping the pace a little I proceeded to find a steady rhythm and bounded out of the park and headed towards the very delightful Cobham. It’s funny when you live so close to these little villages that you rarely get out to them – still I was here now and took the opportunity to grab some photographs and joke with the locals about the lack of water in the pump! I passed down the high street and headed towards the mausoleum. The trail here was gravel and still hard going on my legs but I ploughed on knowing that a little further on the ground would soften and I could pick up my pace.

The surroundings of Darnley Mausoleum and Ranscombe are wild and often untamed – the reason that despite living in these parts for nearly 5 years it continues to interest me as a run and race route. I dragged myself along the tree lined path until I came to the one point I could turn the wrong way.

I peered down the hill (no runners), I peered straight ahead (no runners) and then thankfully, behind me a lady shouted ‘straight on’ and so I leapt forward now knowing roughly where I was headed. The fast downhill through Ranscombe was lovely and I allowed my legs the opportunity of space to glide down towards the trudge up the field and the halfway checkpoint.

I stayed a little too long at the CP but it was busy with runners and I was thirsty plus an SVN volunteer is always good for a laugh and a joke. Once on the move again though it was business as usual, conversation, running and making the usual dick of myself. I pressed harder here for a while and even made haste into the uphill climb out of Ranscombe. I certainly gave it more welly than I would normally bother for a training marathon.

I was back at the point I had nearly gotten lost earlier and now knew were I was headed and could switch off the GPX and simply watch the time ticking away. I almost never train with a GPS these days – I don’t enjoy watching numbers and I don’t do Strava but a new Ambit means I’ll wear it for about 3 weeks before I get bored. The Darnley Challenge was test 2 and an excellent opportunity to ensure I was doing mapping correctly before I risk the Ridgeway.

I digress… as I reached the Mausoleum on the return journey I met the brilliant Costas and we chatted a while as we ambled down beyond the trail, Cobham and through Jeskyns – he was doing all four of the weekends challenge events and with his triumph of a beard and gloriously long hair I simply marvelled at his excellent tale. We chatted about love, life and Greece, all within a few short miles and encouraged each other through the latter stages of the first lap.

With Costas though now a little way behind me and preserving his energy for the next days race I was back on the Tarmac and I could feel my ITB and knees begin to grumble. However, I shook off these moanings and made good time to the base and the turnaround point.

I stopped for more water, filled bottles and headed out for a second and final lap. The second lap was overall a little slower but there were a number of reasons for this – the first was my own fault, too much messing about taking photographs but the second was brought on by my lack of pre-race visit to the loo.

Having failed to use the facilities when they were available I had little choice at about 18 miles in but to stop, dig a small hole in the ground and fill it with what on a good day could be described as a 4 pack of melted mars bars… given I’m always prepared for this kind of thing I left my offending item and the biodegradable tissue paper suitably buried deep in the route and about 4 inches underground. Thankfully I was hidden suitably off the trail as 2 runners went past me, hopefully unnoticed – but you can never be sure (so if you did see me in a compromising position I can only apologise).

The bad news was I had lost a solid 15 minutes looking for a suitable location and delivering the payload, etc. Still I could now run again as I had been a little worried about shitting myself since about mile 14. I therefore drifted into the checkpoint and out again with no great drama – even avoiding all the delicious looking cake.

With the knowledge I was into the final 10km I took my foot off the gas and told myself I was going to coast this one in. The Challenge event had felt like decent training for the Ridgeway and I saw no point in burning myself out. The hills and heat hadn’t gotten to me – I would finish this largely pain free and my kit testing for the ridgeway had proved mostly successful.

As I came into mile 20 I could see the outline of the GingaNinja and UltraBaby driving to the finish line and so for the final push I hit the afterburner and came storming up to my daughter, arms aloft and waving wildly.

UltraBaby came running toward me, this was the reward I look for these days, but still I rang the bell and concluded my race for another mighty medal.

It had been a good day.

Look at the size of this bloody medal!

Key points

  • Distance: Marathon (8hr timed event)
  • Profile: Undulating trail/road
  • Date: August 2016
  • Location: North West Kent
  • Cost: £36
  • Terrain: Hard packed trail, road
  • Tough Rating: 2/5

Overall?
When Traviss and Rachel you know what you’ll get and that’s a fun route, lots of cake, a chocolate filled goody bag and a medal that’s too heavy to wear – the Darnley Challenge was no exception. Given that RD Traviss was celebrating his 50th birthday it’s no wonder such an effort was made with all four of the events medals and all runners will have gone home very pleased.

SVN events are truly all inclusive events and if you can do a few short miles then you can do one of these and claim a great medal and a giant piece of kudos (as well as cake). If you fancy joining them visit www.saxon-shore.com and get yourself running. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again SVN events are brilliant and I’ll be back (probably later in the year).

 


I’m not a great fan of negative reviews, either reading or writing them because it tends to be about personal experience and that’s so personal it detracts from the specifics of a thing therefore once you’ve read about my experience at Endure1250 you’ll probably think it’s the worst race in the universe and that’s not true. So if you want to read a quick guide to Endure 1250 then try the statement below

Basically Endure1250 is a decent, well organised, good value, low key timed (or distance) trail run. That statement is true but if  you want to know what happened to UltraBoy at Endure 1250 then read on but be warned – my testicles get a lot of ‘airtime’.

As I’m sure you all know summer has magically arrived in the UK which basically means it’s stupidly hot therefore I was glad that Endure1250 wasn’t kicking off until 7pm, it meant that the heat of the day could be avoided and give me a decent chance of putting some quality miles in.

Saturday though started with a trip to the Great London swim and also a browse of all the CosPlayers from the Star Wars Celebration at the Excel Centre in London and by the time I left I was running late making it only as far as Paddington by well gone 2pm. I then added to my woe by jumping on the wrong train and I found myself increasingly uncomfortably hot and sweaty.

Thankfully, despite my detour, I hit Reading a little after 3pm and then Pangbourne (the nearest town to the event) about 4pm. Even with all my camping and run gear on my back I still hiked the couple of miles to the start line in less than 20 minutes and after a swift registration threw up the tent and began unpacking my stuff.

The race village was small but perfectly formed with pretty much everything you would need for a cheery event. I drifted around, grabbed a reasonably priced and very tasty hot dog and browsed the couple of running kit stands. Bales of hay were provided as cheap seating and were located around what would become a campfire later in the day and this was a good opportunity to meet other runners. Therefore with my kit laid out in the tent and a bit of time to kill I decided to get social with a couple of the runners. Sadly there was a general desire, at least at this early stage, to stay within your grouping or with your friends – which was understandable, this wasn’t the socialising hour – I’d clearly missed that!

Post relax I headed back to the tent, armed with a bottle of water and assorted toiletries, in an attempt to resolve a bit of a problem – sweat rash and chaffing.

The heat of the day, lots of running about and lugging my camping gear round had meant I’d picked up this racers worst nightmare – rubby balls! Yes it looked like someone had dropped a tin of red paint down the inside of my shorts and swirled it about.

I carefully, as one can in a small, hot tent, cleaned up the offending area, drying it thoroughly and waiting patiently before applying liberal lashings of bodyglide. It was tender – of that there was no doubt but I hoped that my patch up job would hold for long enough into the race that it wouldn’t be an issue. I believed if I could hit say 35 of the 50 miles of promised myself before it reared its ugly head again I’d be alright.

Kitted up I proceeded to the start line to grab some photographs for this blog post and to revel in the pre-race atmosphere which was now more traditionally ultra – nervous excitement. I listened to the announcer, over the tannoy, inform us that the start would be delayed by a few minutes for safety checks. However, at 7.14pm the horn sounded and several hundred runners set off along the grass path and alongside the camping area passing the many supporters and awaiting relay runners to a multitude of cheers and whoops!

I remembered to tell myself the key thing was to keep it steady and don’t get drawn in to racing the relay runners, the 50 km runners or even the 50 milers – I was due to be here for the next 12 hours.

I pushed through the first kilometre marker in decent time as the loop moved in and around the outside of the camp and the second kilometre was met after some largely uninspiring Tarmac and I hoped the route would improve but the next couple of kilometre were alongside the river with only a few narrow boats to offer support or interest.

However, at 5 km things improved when we re-entered Beale Park and despite being on the road again we could admire the large animal sculptures and pleasant gardens and there was a general upward trend in the run route for kilometres 6-8 as we passed through tree lined areas, a couple of hills and a faster section or two.

I pulled in briefly at the base camp after the first five miles to grab some chocolate milkshake and also to visit the little boys room and there I discovered that the problem I had patched up was going to return more quickly than anticipated.

Even in the dim lighting of portaloo I could see the glowing chaffing hiding in my shorts. How quickly his face had turned to anger, all twisted and contorted with rage. The bodyglide as good as it was could do nothing for this, clearly I applied it too late in the day and should have used it before I even set out for event some 12hrs earlier.

With time ticking away I rejoined the race and cantered around the first few kilometres again trying to get comfortable enough to run sensibly but it wasn’t to be and I completed my second lap in agony and looking like I had some sort of genital itch as I constantly readjusted my shorts.

I came in to the camp at the end of lap 2 and opened up my tent – closing the fly shield just enough to give me cover while open enough to let a breeze in. I kicked off my shorts to inspect the damage – it was pretty severe. I lay back legs open wide and feet pointing skyward letting a cool wind blow over the affected area. I lay motionless like this for some 20 minutes before a plan came to mind.

The return of the buff!
It was generally too warm to be wearing a buff but not around my nether regions! I took the UTMB buff I purchased last year (the one I’m embarrassed to wear given my DNF at the CCC) and I wrapped my nuts in it, carefully placing the excess fabric either side of the inner shorts of my Salomon compression leggings. I’d kept the compression leggings on in an effort to keep things from moving round. Now we would see how a third lap might go.

For me the race had turned to farce but I had travelled a long way and wasted enough money that I didn’t want to leave without achieving the minimum of a marathon distance to at least tick another one off for a step closer to the hundred marathon club vest.
I ran what I could, walked what I had to. I came in at each lap to cool off my buff, change my shorts and generally let things catch the benefit of a breeze.

I was in agony.

At 7.30hrs in, and with the stops to let the chaffing cool getting longer, I forced myself out one final time to get to the 30 miles that would confirm the marathon distance.
I crossed the line about an hour later, my run/walking never really that slow (the stops making my lap times look particularly terrible) and I went and gingerly sat down on the bales of hay. I purchased a cup of tea, watched runners going round and round in circles and then took myself off to bed. Bollocks to this I thought – literally bollocks.

Key points

  • Distance: 8km loop
  • Profile: Flat
  • Date: July 2016
  • Location: Pangbourne
  • Cost: £35
  • Terrain: Very light trail, road
  • Tough Rating: 1/5

Route
The route was probably designed to take advantage of open spaces and Beale Park to provide a fast, very runnable route. However, for me, I found it dull and uninspiring. I know loops are going to get repetitive but races such as Ranscombe Challenge, the Challenge Hub events and the Brutal Enduro all manage to keep the routes varied and exciting – this didn’t have that. However, lots of people enjoyed the route so maybe it was just me.

What I will say on a positive note is that the little lighting effects they dotted around the darker parts of the route were delightful and I enjoyed seeing these very much
Organisation: the organisation was excellent with lots of volunteers on the course and it was well marked. The check-in was quick and equally well organised with very little left to chance. The slightly late start that the race suffered from was due to ensuring the route was genuinely ready – they really wanted runners to have a safe environment.

Checkpoints
The base camp was well positioned on the route and volunteers lined the course about every 1.5km, all cheery and at the 5km mark a water stop. It left had you chosen to you probably could have run this carrying nothing (as many did – despite the heat). The volunteers were also really awesome and not a single one complained about me sharing my terrible chaffing tale!

Goodies
Good quality t-shirt was a purchase rather than included (£7.50) but the bespoke medal was nice even if it doesn’t make clear which race you ran.

Again
Would I do Endure1250 again? No. Unlike Ranscombe and the Enduro I just didn’t enjoy the route. I’m told Endure24 has a much more exciting route with hills and challenges but this wasn’t for me. Perhaps it’s that I’m not nearly as fast as I used to be and I felt this course was built for those looking to collect a fast time over a chosen distance or to claim a big distance over a specific time. I’m not saying don’t do it, not at all – it’s got a decent atmosphere and great organisation but if you’re after something with varied terrain and stunning scenery then this might leave you wanting more.

Conclusions
Cost effective it certainly is at just £35 whatever your distance and it’s a genuinely friendly event. Importantly for decision making – if you’re looking for a fast run at an ultra distance then this could be for you. I suspect the team running is much more fun here and actually watching people still banging out 40 minute laps at the end of the event was exciting to watch. So while Endure 1250 won’t be to everyones tastes this is a decent event and worth testing if you fancy some of the above.

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I became a convert to the Altra way of running long before I knew what Altra were, I’d been using minimal zero drop shoes from Vibram and Merrell but had given these up in favour of Hoka as I was looking for a resolution to my feet being crucified during ultras. Hoka were never the answer due to the narrow fitting of their footwear so when @borleyrose suggested for about the 50th time that I consider Altra I decided to give them a whirl. Now a little over a year on I own six pairs of Altra, four different models and this is the review of the Altra Olympus 2.0

I didn’t wear either the 1.0 or the 1.5 so have no real comparison but if I were suggesting a shoe it reminded me of to look at then that would be the Hoka Stinson ATR. But what do Altra say about them?

You asked, and we delivered. Our popular, max-cushioned trail shoe returns with a completely revamped Vibram® Megagrip outsole and a softer, more flexible upper. The new outsole dramatically enhances traction in uphill and downhill terrain while maintaining the max-cushioned feel you love. Traction and durability improvements have also led to a reduction in weight over its predecessor for a faster ride. An impressive 36mm stack height runs evenly from front to back and features an A-Bound bottom layer to add a spring to each step and EVA™ top layer to take the bite out of the rugged terrain. And like every Altra shoe, the FootShape™ toe box keeps your feet happy, relaxed, and stable through uphill climbs and downhill descents.

  • Weight: 11.0 oz./ 312 g.
  • Maximal Cushioning
  • Stack Height: 36mm
  • Ideal Uses: Trail Running, Hiking, Fastpacking, Trail Racing
  • Designed To Improve: Running Form, Toe Splay, Stability, Push-off, Comfort, Traction
  • Midsole: Dual Layer EVA with A-Bound™ Top Layer
  • Outsole: Vibram® Megagrip
  • Insole: 5mm Contour Footbed
  • Upper: Quick-Dry Trail Mesh
  • Natural Ride System
  • GaiterTrap™ Technology

Weight?
In terms of weight these are rather pleasant, yes it’s no size zero (at 312g) but you really don’t feel the shoe dragging you back when you’re out on the trail. However, if you’re sensitive to the weight of your shoe then this might be a consideration. While I compared them in looks to the Hoka Stinson I’d say in weight they feel more like a Challenger ATR (v1) and I found both the Olympus and the ATR to feel light on the feet despite the numbers.

Fit?
There’s no doubt about it, Altra have yet to perfect sizing. There are complaints with every iteration of any of their shoes that they fit differently. The Olympus 2.0 suffers with the same complaints but not from me. I’m normally a 9.5 UK but in all Altra I’m a 10 UK. There’s some truth in that the toebox is less spacious than say the Lone Peak 2.0 but even to someone with Hobbit like feet I’ve got room to spread my hairy toes. The heel cup is also significantly better than say the Lone Peak 2.0, it doesn’t feel as bulky and is much more akin to the Lone Peak 2.5 – basically it fits nicely at the heel and midfoot but with room to breathe for the toes. These should feel a comfortable ride straight out of the box.

Comfort?
This is where the Olympus 2.0 starts to really shine. This shoe is like wearing really big slippers, because the fit is more secure while retaining its spacious feel you are rewarded with a shoe that feels right. The upper doesn’t rub and the heel has enough give in it to make it supportive rather than overly firm – like a memory foam pillow.

Maximal?
The maximal aspect of the Olympus 2.0 is one of its big selling points. At 36mm it certainly is a maximal shoe – there’s lots of cushioning from the squishy foam that sits under your feet. It’s an incredibly comfortable ride without feeling so soft that you’ve got no feel – on the contrary it’s got a good connection to the trail considering its so maximal. What I would say though is that unlike something such as the Hoka Stinson which had a firmer ride the Olympus 2.0 would benefit from a rockplate – the soft pillow like approach has made them more vulnerable to impact over longer distances. I genuinely don’t believe they need firming up at all because the ride is excellent but a rockplate might be the answer.

Upper?
There are anecdotal reports of the upper wearing too quickly but the seamless upper on the Olympus 2.0 looks in good shape so far (150 miles). That said the seamless upper does leave it vulnerable to assault from gnarly trails and sharp rocks but I’m no floating trail runner, I like to get right in to the bad shit and in all honesty the Olympus 2.0 has come through unscathed. Perhaps there’s a balance to be had between structure/overlays and a supple upper and it could be that the test bed for that is the Lone Peak 3.0, we shall see.

One of the areas that that Olympus 2.0 really excels is in drainage – the upper material, while porous, drains quickly and the shoe will eventually dry out. I had numerous opportunities over the start of the British Summer to get them wet and let them drain.

Ultimately the upper is a discreet delight even if it might not be the longest lasting.

Traction?
And so to the reason I bought the Olympus 2.0 – the Vibram outsole. I’d been hunting a pair of shoes that would road, trail, rock, mud and anything else a race threw at me. The Olympus 2.0 ticks lots and lots of boxes, it grips well through mud, it clings tightly to rocks and it covers the road to trail sections with great aplomb. However, they aren’t perfect, weirdly there’s nothing wrong with them but much like every other pair of shoes they aren’t all thi