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‘I’m not a people person, it’s fair to say I mostly don’t like people – which I guess is why I’m here and not on the South Downs Way 50 today – I wanted a race where I can be mainly unknown and anonymous’. A comment I made to one of the runners at the wonderfully fun Testway Ultra this weekend – a race I’m very glad I attended, despite the state I find myself in now.

Let’s roll back to about 5.57am the morning of the race as I jumped behind the wheel of ‘Spusum’ my little Aygo with ASKruns and the GingaNinja in tow. As we thundered out of Kent I remember saying to myself that ‘I mustn’t let the trauma of driving force my shoulders up around my ears’ but that didn’t happen, I recall saying to myself ‘lucky that my cold had cleared up for the race today’ it hadn’t and at the first gear change as I felt my hamstring a bit I remembered how destroyed the Silkin Way has left me. Let’s say that I had a few concerns about my appearance at the Testway Ultra.

However, with the Fellsman a mere three weeks away, the West Highland Way Challenge only seven weeks away and the Arran ultra only ten weeks away I felt I needed to take the risk of running a reasonable distance event that had a decent element of toughness.

Welcome to the Testway Ultra.

On paper (or rather GPX) this doesn’t look tough at all, there’s more than enough trail (although a couple of significant tarmac sections), the elevation profile suggested that although not flat there were no hideous climbs, conditions were a bit muddy but nothing that any trail marathon or ultra runner wouldn’t have seen before and so you’d go into this thinking that it was a pleasant 44 mile trot.

Ha! The Testway Ultra has a few surprises up its sleeves though to ensure that you were getting good value for money and in short, I can happily report that this was awesomely good fun.

When I arrived at the start I grabbed my number and then went and hid on the back seat of the car away from the rain, dipping out only when the toilet queue had subsided enough to squeeze out a pre race number one, but sadly not a number two (a problem that would come back to bite about 15 miles later in the race). The start was well organised, very efficient and all the runners were slowly marshalled to the start line at the top of the hill on time and in good order. Here I met the amazing runner @TonySharkey who I’ve known a bit through Twitter and I find it’s always lovely to meet the people who you look at with great admiration. He was clearly going to hammer out a time that would make me look like I wasn’t moving but we chatted for a few minutes and when the start came we wished each other well.

For the record he did hammer out a fantastic a time!

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As for me I set off at an unusually swift pace and given that my training has taken something of a nosedive of late this seemed an odd choice. However, the beautiful setting and the rolling vistas ahead of me ensured I was in good spirits as I bimbled my way through the miles. The weather was being cool but dry or as I would like to say, the weather was being kind and the route was very runnable. This was a far cry from the tarmac trails of two weeks ago, my hamstring and groin were in seventh heaven…

Well for the first miles…

I’ve come to the conclusion that I must have a self destruct button somewhere as about five miles in I felt all the angst of pain running through my back simply explode. There wasn’t an ‘ache, ache, ache, bang’ – no there was just ‘bang’. I looked around at my surroundings and pressed heavily into the area where there was pain – it was tender, it was sore and the resting on my back of my last comfortable race vest was causing shooting pains of agony. Bugger.

I looked down at my watch and saw that the number of kilometres run was a mere 8.56 – some way short of the required 70(ish)km. I slowed for a while to gather my thoughts… injury, Fellsman, West Highland Way, another DNF, pain, early into the race…

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I decided that I had to at least checkpoint 1, if nothing else rescue would require longer than it would take to hobble to a limp CP1 finish. I did however promise myself that if I arrived into the checkpoint in good time then I would push on through to CP2.

Of course, I ended up arriving into the first stop in good time and after two cups of cola I headed out quickly (basically before I convinced myself to DNF) and issuing a million thanks to the volunteers and supporters. The issue here was that the first checkpoint wasn’t 10 miles away from the start, it was about 9 miles and second checkpoint wasn’t 10 miles either this was at least a couple extra and this resulted in a problem.

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Checkpoint 1 to checkpoint 2 was where it started to heat up, temperature wise and trouble wise. The cold I’d been recovering from added fuel to my already injury laden self. I was taking on lots of fluid but I soon realised that my 600ml wasn’t going to be sufficient and began rationing myself. Thankfully I had the lovely course to encourage myself with and a lovely runner called Dave, who would be my sometime companion over the next few miles but with my back in pieces, water running low I did wonder what the hell else could go wrong! It seems that in my head somebody was listening and decided that, about 15 miles in, that I needed a loo stop but with no really discreet place to go I decided to amble ever forwards – a decision I would regret long into the night as my efforts in the Vaseline department had been left rather wanting and lets put it like this the rusty bullet hole seemed more like a fresh shooting had happened in the chaffing department.

However, all this said my spirits were surprisingly good and this was mainly because I knew that I would reach checkpoint 2 long after it was sensible to continue – sadly I didn’t. I was well within the time I had allocated to myself and as I arrived at checkpoint 2 I felt a pang of, ‘oh god I’ve still got another marathon to go’. The great thing was that the company I’d been keeping to this point had been lovely and the ace guys and gals at the checkpoint were amazing – listening to my endless list of aches of pains as I munched my way through their jelly beans and cola.

Still the weather was fine, I had survived my water shortage and it seemed rather silly to drop out now. For a little while I picked up the pace again to see if a different stride pattern might help alleviate the stress on my back (it didn’t) and I bimbled my way past another lovely volunteer (all of whom I tried to have a little joke or three with as they clapped and cheered me on). I strode purposefully up the hill where I found another lovely volunteer giving me directions down towards a river section, ‘6 miles of flat canal like running’ he promised. I’m sure he meant this as a kindness but to me the flat would be a killer and as I stomped off down the hill I began a slow and steady trudge towards the third checkpoint.

I decided that as time was on my side and I wasn’t going to be winning any prizes for my pace I’d slow down for this section and save my legs for what I suspected would be a more difficult back end.

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This turned out to be the first really good decision I had made and I strode purposefully through the route with bits of running thrown in for good measure and though there had been a few miles of running by a river and busy roads the route remained mostly reasonably interesting and there were enough passers-by offering thumbs up to feel like a nice atmosphere on what was fast becoming my sweaty evening stroll.

Soon though I drifted into the third checkpoint, the bad news was that cola was in short supply and but I had thankfully arrived before the glut of runners behind me (sorry guys it was me who finished the cola off). It was here that I met the runner who defined the remainder of my race and helped ensure that I finished my latest foray into the ultra marathon world. However, first let me mention the lovely Louise (a lady I had met at the start of the event) and we crossed paths again when she caught me up at around mile 30, we found ourselves running together for a little while and chewing the fat over the ridiculousness of our race schedules and the silly things we often find ourselves doing. However, somewhere along the line I lost Louise as I had also been chatting with Kain and Francesca (I did check the spelling of the names of both of my fellow runners!) the other two runners who I’d fallen in with.

As I said earlier at the third checkpoint I’d met the runner who would pretty much define my race and this was the very wonderful Francesca. A lady with a quick wit, a cheery and chatty personality and a desire to finish. It seemed we were both travelling at roughly the same speed and so found ourselves developing a groove through the tough final stages. Our chatter and laughter pushed us through the worst of the mud and the water and whenever things would get a bit tough we’d throw out a bit of a funny line or words of encouragement. I’ve been Francesca – new to the ultra world but keen and determined to finish, she reminded me a little bit of Elaine, that I ran the latter stages of the Green Man Ultra (read about that here) with and that race and that partnership had been a real favourite of mine. This experience wold turn out to be just as rewarding, hopefully for both of us, I can certainly say that having the support of a fellow runner and somebody to take my mind off the hideous pain my back was in gave me all the drive I needed to push on. It’s fair to say that my running improved alongside Francesca and I found myself willing to push on that little bit faster whenever we were able. It is also true that the latter stages of the race though were my favourite as I love nothing more than sloshing about in the mud and the crap, picking my way through the route and bouncing through the worst of the mud, sending it cascading up and down my legs!

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As the miles came crashing down we once again felt that the accuracy of the checkpoint locations wasn’t quite as up to scratch as the rest of the race! We rolled into the final checkpoint with Suunto reading as less than 3km to the finish but with the volunteers reporting that there were 3 miles remaining – the truth is that it was somewhere in between, but when you’re tired and sore all you want is some assurance that you need to go no further than is absolutely necessary. Once more at the checkpoint I played the roll of flirty jester, offering a nod and wink to the lovely volunteer with the wonderful beard and twinkled my smile at the lady I’d joked earlier could have taken my place in the race – there should always be time for a bit of fun with the volunteers.

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Anyway, we set off for home, the knowledge that we would make it before dark was also handy as one of us was short of a headtorch and I was concerned how we might fare if we lost the light before the end of the race. Thankfully we ran across the wooden path over the marshland in excellent time and took a few seconds as we re-entered civilisation to ensure we were going the right way. A gentleman began walking towards us, very nicely dressed I noted and gave s a hearty thumbs up and welcome, ‘300m and you’re there’ – I could have kissed him, instead I simply hugged him.

As we headed off I recounted the tale of Jimmy McKenna, the only person that ever served as running coach to me (I was a mere 7 years old) and one lesson has always stuck with me, ‘it doesn’t matter how you’ve run, always finish strong’ and so with uncharacteristic ease I slipped into full throttle mode with Francesca and we hurtled towards the finish and ensured that we crossed the line together.

What a day.

Key points

  • Distance: 44 miles
  • Profile: Deceptively challenging
  • Date: April 2018
  • Location: Coombe Gibbet
  • Cost: £50
  • Terrain: Trail (and a some tarmac)
  • Tough Rating: 2/5

Route: The route was really lovely in places with nothing unpleasant (well except for a flat six miles in the middle but I think most people would enjoy this as a respite for the undulation). The views in parts were beautiful and the trail was mixed up enough that it never felt like it was going to get dull. The excellent thing about the route was that the good parts were spread throughout the route and the less interesting parts were equally spread. Sometimes a race can have all of its excitement in a very confined space but the route of the Testway is fun and varied. It is also much tougher than the GPX file suggests and I saw many a tough race shirt on the start line (Dragons Back, Centurion and MdS finishers) so go into this expecting a fun and rewarding day at the office.

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Organisation: Organisation can be a tough one to get right, especially on a point to point when you have to ferry runners to the start early in the morning but Andover Trail Runners showed real skill in handling the event and the runners. Number collection was easy and the on the course volunteers who manned all the major road crossings were awesome. The provided GPX file was a welcome addition to the race pack and the on course markings were pretty good mostly (although it was noted that towards the end there were significantly less of them to aid direction – though signs do get removed by scallywags periodically).

Support: The team at the start, the finish and on the course was excellent, thank you to all of you. The volunteers were amazing and the support crews were in fine cheer for all the runners not just their own. The checkpoints were pretty good with a decent selection of savoury and sweet items, the only minor downside was the running our of cola, but I’m sure this will be rectified for the next running. The only other comment I would add is that it might be worthwhile considering adding water stop(s) to some of the road crossings – on a hotter day 10+ miles between checkpoints can be a long distance to go if you’ve run low on water and the road crossing guys were perfectly positioned as a spare water stop – just a thought.

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Awards: Lovely medal, some awesome photographs and a great day. What more do you need?

Value for money: £50? Bargain.

Mentions: I’m not normally one for special mentions however thanks to Tony, Dave, Louise, Rachael, Louise and especially Francesca who made the Testway Ultra a really fun event for me. Oh and thanks to Sam Arnold (and the other wonderful photographer whose name eludes me) who was taking photographs of the runners and captured me doing my, ‘staring into the middle distance’, ‘moulding of a fool’, ‘Hamlet cigars advert’ and ‘Heavy Landing’.

 

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Conclusion: I’d run this again, I’d want to train a bit better for it but the whole experience left me with a generally positive feeling, the distance wasn’t so far for it be a main spring ultra marathon but it would serve as a truly great warm up for a 75 or a 100. It wold also be a great step up for trail marathon runners who fancy a nice big meaty step up. The guys at Andover Trail Runners deserve a lot of credit for putting on an event that gave so much joy and I hope it runs for many years to come. Check out Andover Trail Runners at their website

Now the big question is will my back and other issues recover enough in time for The Fellsman and the West Highland Way Challenge? Well that remains to be seen – until next time, adios and have fun running!

Gallery: Now available at ultraboygallery.wordpress.com, my photographs (and those from the race photographers) from the 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

ASK, the GingaNinja and I were having a pretty damn fine time at the Mince Pi: A Race of Two Decimal Places until at the final 300 metres the GingaNinja offered ASK a choice… and then meltdown occurred. Oh dear

Pre-race the GingaNinja had indicated that a lack of any training was probably going to hinder her progress and she would consider a single lap without stopping a decent measure of success. I suggested that ASKruns and I would accompany her to provide moral support and also earn the toddler another medal, I would then continue to run the marathon or ultra distance.

We arrived at the race registration at just the right time to avoid getting too cold despite having to help a woman move her 4×4 from the slip road of the motorway to the curb – I feel for her husband who left the car without any fuel in it – she was going to be furious with him when she got home., I digress…

Registration was quick and easy, we collected a couple of new Wacky Event buffs and pinned our numbers to our fronts. ASK was excited and keen to get going, the GingaNinja was keen to start so she could get finished.

We ambled along to the start and stood at the back where we knew the Unirider would cause the least disturbance to the other runners and with conditions being both a bit wet and icy I didn’t want to risk losing my footing. There was also the fact that we were playing the role of cheering squad to help the GingaNinja and so we would probably be going a slightly more restrained pace than usual.

ASK and I, as the runners set off, darted ahead of the crowd and hoped that the GingaNinja was following us but the she had been caught in the dozens of runners and so I took my foot of the peddle and let some of the others go past us until we were back together. And we pushed on gently amongst the crowds as they all settled into their rhythm.

The route was exactly the same as last year and I say this as a good thing because there’s lots of lovely little twists and turns as well as some delightful up and down hills. ASK and I shouted encouragement to the GN from a position about 10 metres in front of her hoping to ensure that we kept momentum as the lap progressed and it was progressing well.

We ran through the trail to the first big challenge on the route which is a frosty downhill before an icy and slick wooden walkway. Most of the runners took the steps down the hill but we took the slightly wilder route to the side and thundered down to the bottom. The GN who was now nicely warmed up followed behind us making good progress through the wintery conditions.

One thing to note about running with your toddler is that ‘Scenic’ really helps to keep your toddler happy and the rushing water of the lock, the ducks and the breaking of the puddles of ice with the Unirider served as very happy times as we ran. As we crossed the river bank ASK wanted to do a little bit of running and so she joined both the GN and I and did a few hundred metres before returning to the comfort of her ride. I knew that the ‘big’ hill was almost upon us and given the conditions over the last couple of weeks I suspected it would be slick and muddy rather than a dry and fast climb.

ASK and I took a crack at it and although I knew we could do it the GN behind us was ‘advising’ us to walk and once that happened then ASK wanted to do what mummy had suggested. However, my little toddler powered up the hill with greater aplomb than her penguin outfit suggested she was capable of and we toddled to the top in quick time. With the GN back in tow we headed off to complete the second half of the lap.

Top of the hill, hurry up mummy!

 

From here we had the lovely Tony as company periodically as we kept overtaking one another and ASK would remind her mum that she needed to go faster to overtake people! Perhaps it was the words of our toddler that kept the GingaNinja going but as we approached the final bridge she was looking in good shape and so I broached the topic of a second lap – sadly this was shot down long before I’d even finished my sales pitch and so we pressed on.

Into the final turns of the event and I knew that the finish line was just ahead – ASK had enjoyed herself and she just wanted a final flourish with her mum. I had decided that I would run her in on the Unirider but the GingaNinja unwisely gave the toddler a choice of running the last section and at 300 metres from the end caused ASK to go into a meltdown.

There wasn’t much that could be done at this point other than get her across the line and hope that a medal cured all and in truth it did – well that and a chocolate treat.

In truth I was a little bit annoyed with the GingaNinja (and myself for not making my plans clear) as ASK had mostly had a good time on the route, had enjoyed the challenges of the race, had enjoyed the attention she received from the other runners and supporters, had enjoyed chasing and cheering her mum and had really enjoyed getting the medal. But the run up to the finish took away some of the overall good feeling that had been gathered by this truly wonderful end of year event.

Thankfully post race we got changed and went back out on to the route to cheer ‘hooray’ as runners went past and this returned some of the cheer to my festivities.

Conclusions.
The guys at Wacky Events know how to put on a really good event and I would go back and do this year on year if I wasn’t planning on moving to Scotland before this event comes around again. However, I can highly recommend that you take part. It’s wonderfully priced, it’s a really awesome route, there’s a great medal and a free snood/buff/neck gaiter thrown in and combine this all with a feast of savoury and sweet snacks and you’ve got a winter winner.

For my part seeing my partner back out running and doing it well, albeit over a relatively short distance was really good and despite the mini meltdown that my toddler had we had lots of fun on one of my favourite looped routes. I’d also like to say a huge thank you to the organisers for letting us run with the Unirider during the event and a huge thank you to all of the amazing volunteers and supporters that littered the route with cheers and waves which only encouraged both the GingaNinja and ASK.

And the Unirider?
This was ASKruns and I using the Unirider for the first time at an organised event and it was awesome. We did sensible things such as stay at the back (mostly). Keep clear of the other runners and only do moderately silly things like ride straight through the wet mud and the icy puddles. If you’re a Unirider user and can find races that will allow you to enter then you’ll have a really good time. ASK and I are already on the lookout for our next event (I’m thinking a spring 10km) because she was quizzing me about next race once we had gotten home, so yes she may have had a meltdown, you may have seen her have a meltdown but that hasn’t quashed her desire to run again


I sat, eating delicious sugary sweets and drinking slightly too warm Coca Cola as the last shaft of light dropped away from northern Spain. I tried my Petzl one final time in the hope that it could power me round the final 32km.

But it was dead.

I’d prepared so hard to face down the UTBCN but I’d neglected something very important and yet based on my previous experience, superfluous – a second powerful head torch.

As I prepare to return to mountainous terrain with climbs in excess of 1,000 metres and a total elevation of more than 7,000 metres I need to ensure my preparation is more meticulous than ever.

(This was written prior to MIUT and my result there. A report of my experience will follow in the coming weeks once I’ve properly processed the event).

Mental, Physical, Technical Preparedness. I’ve spent much of the last year taking time to think about what I want from my running and as a consequence have changed so many things and while there have been a series of hiccups along the way I’m generally happy with how it’s all panning out


Physical. 
In physical terms I’m faster than I have been for years, I’m sub20 at 5km again and on the right (downhill) course I’m closing in on the low 40s for a 10km. My endurance is better too with 60-70 mile running weeks more achievable than ever and 15 mile hilly buggy runs are a regular occurrence and have been helping prepare for elevation efforts. I’ve been taking my body more seriously too, dropping a few kilograms in weight and not ignoring injuries and all of the above is paying dividends.

However, it’s not all positive, several years of under training, over racing and ignoring injury have left me with scars that my body is unlikely ever to recover from. And so I’ve gone from top 25% of the field runner to a mid/back of the pack runner and in the races I’m now committed to I’m happy just to be able to go to them because I’m a novice and still learning. 

When I go and stand on the start line of the MIUT I know that I’m not one of the mountain goats or one of the winners and that I’m there for the experience (and hopefully a finish) but I know that I’m headed there in better physical shape than say, six months ago, when I took on Haria Extreme.

If you can learn anything from my experiences I hope it’s that you need to develop – give yourself the time to rest, recuperate, train and absorb information from all available sources. This will improve your competitiveness and physicality as you approach those races you’ve always dreamed of facing.

Mental. I was stood at the base of Como Lumpido in Lanzarote with a difficult ascent ahead of me – some runners were coming down the climb having decided that this wasn’t for them.

There was no doubt I was going slowly but having only just returned from injury this race was going to be a test and this climb was a bit of a shit. When I reached the top I looked out into the distance and stood for a moment to grab a photograph or two and heard myself cry out ‘woohoo’. 

All you need is… I hadn’t felt like this since the Skye Trail Ultra six months earlier when I’d nearly shat myself coming down one of the very steep sections. This hilly running sent goosebumps running up my arms and shivers down my spine

I was in love.

For the next 25km of Haria Extreme I had my foot to the floor such was my joy and while there are circumstances that stopped me continuing at around 80km I came away from Lanzarote knowing I had so much more to give.

Dealing with the downs? I’ve often suffered with post race blues and an inability to draw the positives from the racing I’ve done, instead focusing on where it’s gone wrong and how I MUST improve but after Haria I was sure that my decision was the right one and I felt mentally positive about my failure.

However, in the fiasco of my Barcelona failure I’ve been much less positive and actually this has affected to some degree my preparation for Madeira. Having accepted I needed to give myself a bit of a kicking I’m relatively back on track and go to the Portuguese island clinging on to positive thoughts. 

Don’t say ‘edge’. My key concern though isn’t my occasionally negative feelings about ability, no.

My key concern is that I’m scared witless of heights and having viewed many YouTube clips, instagram feeds and twitter timelines I can assure both you reader and myself that the elevation, the climbs and the sheer drops are something I’m terrified of.

I can’t imagine taking these sections with anything other than an arse quivering fear and no experience is making me feel better about this. At Skye there was hard elevation and cliff edges to negotiate as there were  at the CCC, SainteLyon, Barcelona and Lanzarote but this is a whole new level.

I’ve worked hard to focus on the running so that I don’t look down too often and I’ve faced numerous long dangerous hikes over the last couple of years to get me prepared for this – I feel I should no longer be worried, but I am.

I’m advised that a healthy fear of these sections is sensible and respectful and while I know that’s true I wonder how I’m feel when I’m faced with them in the dead of night.

Why do I worry about ultras abroad so much? It’s true that I go to these foreign ‘A’ races and worry about them much more than I do say something like the TP100 or the Ridgeway. 

I’m convinced that some of the pressure I have been exerting on myself has been setting me up for failure. So, kit issues, physical condition, training, having family around, not having family around, lack of suitable locally sourced nutrition and foreign languages all contribute enormously to my stress levels that blow tall and mighty.

It’s a strange set of circumstances that probably come mostly from simply being out of my comfort zone.

By golly Holmes! To aid in the resolution of this I’ve taken some very simple steps a) pack early b) lists c) anything missing can usually be sourced locally and finally d) don’t be afraid to say ‘I’m not going to run it, I’m undertrained/injured/whatever’.

This approach has served me quite well at Haria and the UTBCN where both my failures to finish were because of circumstances outside of the norm. I’m hoping that with the two factors that blighted these events no longer being an issue (fingers crossed) and despite the harshness of the course, I can complete MIUT.

I’ve come a long way in my running preparation, especially the mental side of it and although it’s far from perfect – it’s improving.

I have to understand that should I ever want to reach the final race of my running career though I’ll need to develop a still greater tenacity to post race blues and I’ll need to improve my mental agility regarding perceived failure.

However, my love of the mountains and the peace I find in them make racing there so alluring that my deficiencies in mental strength can be overlooked enough to commit to an increasing number of elevation stacked races.

Technically. Fail to prepare, prepare to fail – I wish this were a true statement but I’m living proof that failing to prepare doesn’t prepare you to fail, however, the success you achieve is unlikely to be as great as you would hope for.

The above statement is not an excuse for my often woeful lack of preparedness but a statement of fact.

However, when you start preparing to run on the trails, going up hills and climbing mountainous regions, then you suddenly find that the better your running technique, your pre-race research and understanding of your equipment is then the better time you’ll have and the better you’ll perform.

But I adore throwing my love spuds on the fire! I’ve rocked up to a few races with ill fitting shoes, not taking into account the days conditions, no idea of the route, no idea the elevation and barely any idea what race I’m in. It will come as no surprise to runners that these are the events were I have mostly performed badly. I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count the races that could have gone so much better had I prepared in a more fitting manner.

I finally began preparing better for races at the SainteLyon 2015 because I was going to France alone, there would be no rescue, no backup, it was a race in the middle of winter, in the middle of the night.

So I prepared a little like this 

  • Researched previous years events on social media and running websites
  • Used only the local (French) language site as this was more up-to-date than the English language version
  • Got my medical certificate done as early as possible 
  • Booked flights and accommodation early
  • Got to know the local public transport network before I arrived
  • Brushed up on my French
  • Printed maps
  • Printed race documents
  • Got happy with race kit options before leaving the UK, avoided last minute purchases, but…
  • Knew where a local sports shop was for emergency race purchases
  • Got to bib collection early
  • Rested pre-race for the midnight start
  • Big poo pre-race
  • Packed kit for an ultra with no backup
  • Knew my route back to my accommodation 

I had with me for the SainteLyon options for clothing but my race kit (vest, nutrition, head torch, waterproof, etc) were all decided long before the race started and this helped me to settle down, not worry so much and have the best race experience I’ve ever had. The SainteLyon should be my model for how to prepare for a race.

Subsequently I’ve tried to replicate the process and it’s mostly gone okay but there is always the potential for problems but you learn to adapt. I do the ‘headless chicken’ routine a lot less than I used to.

The CCC. For example in the run up to the CCC we were advised that temperatures meant we should be carrying significant amounts of extra fluid, my response to this was to find a matching race belt to my bag with a 500ml bottle – but it had to be matching (my need for order overtaking my need to have a pleasant holiday in Chamonix). To say I was a bear with a sore head for most of this trip is an understatement, but it was all ridiculous race related pressure that I was heaping upon myself. 

The resolution is that now I carry a spare 350ml soft bottle as an addition to my other hydration options and on a race day I choose the most appropriate ones depending on weather conditions.

Bingo.

Preparation of the organisational and technical elements of racing have helped me very much and contributed significantly to finishes at Amersham, Green Man, Skye and the Vanguard Way and without being prepared I wouldn’t have gotten nearly as far as I did at Haria and Barcelona but it’s not the be all and end all.

Preparation, I’ve discovered, is not the key to finishing but it is the key to starting successfully and that in my opinion is half the battle.

So whether you’re a first timer or a bit of an old salty seadog like me, there will always be things that you can do to reduce anxiety and build confidence.

Facing MIUT. If I had to place in order how I value the three aspects of my running preparation I’d say that Mental is the most important followed by Technical/Organisation with my Physical readiness the least important. Ultimately if my headspace is fucked I’m not getting to the start line, I’d just stay in bed on race morning. If my kit, organisation or transport to the start line is wrong then my stress levels go up which affect my mental attitude and we have a cumulative nightmare. However, if my body is a bit worse for wear, if I haven’t slept properly, if all my hypochondria rears it ugly head I’ll still start and mostly I’ll put up with it (unless it’s serious).

So when I go to Madeira and the midnight start in Porto Moniz I’m just going to take it easy because I have prepared properly, I have tested all my kit and I am trying to stay positive, albeit a nervous positive. Finish or fail it matters not, I just know I’d rather be challenging myself at MIUT this weekend rather than something I know I can do.


February started as January had finished – well, but there has been a recent dip that’s arrived at a most unfortunate time. These are top 10 points from my February 2017

  • A little over 140 miles run.
  • After much trouble I finally got a medical certificate signed for this years foreign ultra marathons
  • I dropped 2.8kg in weight through nothing but eating less and exercising more. This brings my total weight loss for 2017 to 5.3kg
  • I was informed that my entry to the UTBCN was incomplete but after much back and forth I was finally able to complete my registration!
  • I completed my first race of 2017 and my favourite race (even with its mild course alterations) the Vigo Tough Love 10. Awesome (Read the review here)
  • I shaved off my ultrabeard
  • I entered the Marlborough Downs Challenge
  • I pulled a calf muscle on a short central London RunCommute which ruled out my last weekend in February 49 mile training run in favour of trying to heal and protect my running at the Hockley Woods Trail and the Amersham Ultra
  • I caught the Adventure Show about ‘The OMM’ and am more convinced than ever that this is an event I’d love to do – so have started looking for a partner! All offers welcomed (Watch the Adventure Show on iPlayer by clicking here -available until mid March)
  • I bought quite a lot of new kit in preparation for some of this years adventures – naughty UltraBoy!

February has been a mixed bag essentially but it’s also offered a lots of excellent challenges, lots of buggy miles, lots of hills, lots of mud and I remain on track with both weight loss and my relentless desire to prepare for this year and beyonds challenges. However, enough about me – how are your preparations going? 

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Looking back at this race report gives a real indication of how far I’ve come and how much I’ve changed in my approach to running and races. The Wall came about because I needed a new challenge and a new focus and it helped set me on my own road to Damascus and for that I’ll be eternally grateful but as I reflect back I can see that I’d be hard pressed to recommend this race, so much so that when I was asked my opinion of The Wall by a runner considering entering at Endure 1250 I suggested that if they liked trail running they should consider something more exciting like the St Peters Way or the SDW50.

The most memorable thing about this race for me was realising that I’m not a size 8 running shoe and actually a size 10, I finished this race with more than 20 blisters and almost no toenails. The Wall was the last time I wore Adidas and so I should thank it for putting me on the road to Pearl Izumi, Hoka One One and eventually Altra – in a size 10!

New content is italics, my original report is below;

Key points

  • Distance: 69 miles
  • Profile: Gentle
  • Date: June 2013
  • Location: Carlisle
  • Cost: £135 (2013) now even more expensive 
  • Terrain: Light trail, tarmac
  • Tough Rating: 0.5/5, the challenge is in the distance not the course
  • Next running: June 2017

In the beginning
 This all started in October last year (2012), I’d just finished my first marathon and had discovered that I hadn’t got a place at the London Marathon for the third time. I recall tweeting Rat Race saying that if London didn’t want me I’d become an ultra runner and that’s what I set about doing.

In the meantime I added a second ultra (or first ultra as it arrived in March) and managed to break my foot in the process but a swift return to running followed and although I’ve stayed pretty consistently injured throughout the year I’d managed some decent races and knew that I could complete my original challenge – The Wall.

My training hadn’t gone well (something’s never change) until I saw that Juneathon was just around the corner and I threw together a competitive streak of 7 races in 6 weeks and combined this with about 350 miles of running over the last 6-8 weeks adding in a lot of hiking and swimming.

This finally proved to me that actually I could do The Wall and inside the first 2 weeks of Juneathon I managed a little over 200km of running to help me prepare mentally. The challenge then would be to ensure I still had enough in the tank to run well on race day.

The Lakes
I arrived in Carlisle (the start) after an epic week in the Lake District, I ran about 7km each morning and hiked a total of about 60km up some lovely hills adding in about 1500m of positive elevation and some seriously challenging hikes with HP, my dad and our hounds. I also took part in race which rather than a run was The Great North Swim (full report being written) and proved just the antidote to some of my running jitters, a highly recommended race by the way. Carlisle is a lovely place, well from the visitors point of view and after collecting my race number from the castle we headed around the town to check out a few bits, grab some food and walk the dog. Lovely.

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What happened next was quite strange, we entered a small park near the Travelodge we were staying in and there in front of us was a man collapsed in the late afternoon sun. I advised HP to back away and I approached gently, I could see the man was breathing but didn’t want to move him incase there was and injury that I might make worse. I spoke to him but he wasn’t very lucid given that by the park bench was an empty bottle of QC and four cans of Red Bull. HP called the emergency services and swiftly an ambulance turned up, we had kept the man company while the medics arrived and upon catching sight of him called out ‘Hello Stephen’ – he was clearly a minor celebrity in the A&E department at Carlisle. Well good deed for the day done I retired to the hotel and discovered that I had neglected to pick up my timing chip from the registration point.

At nearly 8pm I rocked up again to the castle, not realising I was once again saying hello to @HelzBelz1982 and laughed and joked my way through the registration process again as the Rat Race crew sorted out my last few bits for me. I also took the opportunity to purchase myself a hooded top and some new half price full length OMM running tights as a replacement for my Skins A200s which I have never really found very pleasant to wear.

Back to the hotel, pack my bag, get my kit together and then sleep. I hit the hay about 11.30 but was awake again shortly after midnight, cramp in my legs was giving me all sorts of problems and the heat of the room was a nightmare for someone who needs cold. Windows open, duvet off, sleeping in the shower, sleeping with legs up against the wall – I tried it all but nothing worked. At about 3am HP awoke to beat my calves into submission and I was able to get about 90mins sleep. Not the best preparation but it could have been worse I might have gotten no sleep!

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Breakfast was a little light with just a small tub of natural yoghurt to keep me company but my lack of sleep had proven something of an appetite suppressant and so I quickly got ready, loaded up my kit and carried out the rest of the luggage and off to the start line.

Arriving at Carlisle Castle was a strange feeling, I sensed impending doom as I looked up at the portcullis and thought it might just drop on my head. But I went in and chatted to some of the runners, had a few laughs, drifted around wishing my fellow competitors well.

Ultra running doesn’t have that competitive edge (well not unless you are at the front) and everyone simply wants to survive the experience. As 7am came around you could sense both tension and humour in the group, nervous laughs from the first timers and those with ultras under their belt already.

Start
A short safety briefing and a 10 second countdown brought about the race start and we were off, straight out of the castle, through Carlisle and off into the wild blue yonder. I don’t really remember much about the first stage other than at 15miles I went off too quick, but it was an enjoyable romp with Simon, Keith and another chap whose name eludes me. We stayed together a little while, had a few laughs and then parted just as we came up to the first pit stop. The weather was pretty damp but not torrential and the overcast conditions were making for good running and actually I was really rather enjoying the experience. I completed the first section in under 2hrs 30 and only stopped briefly to chat to a chap called Stuart and the GingaNinja who was waiting with the hound.

We had all been told that stage 2 was tough, probably the toughest stage in terms of ground, elevation and experience and as the weather got worse this turned out to be reasonably but not completely true. The hills came thick and fast and with a mental note to myself that the hills should be walked I slackened my pace and strode purposefully up the hills. Once at the top I could begin to run again and used common sense to pick up other runners who I could chat with and have those few laughs that might get you round to the next stage. As I crossed the large stone steps going up into the second section of this stage it finally dawned on me that this wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought it might be and when the photographer asked for a sprint and smile and I gave a grimace and gazelle like jump. To be fair I was still enjoying this more than enough to take in the stunning scenery on offer and the opportunity to see some of Hadrian’s Wall was fabulous. And as I was heading into the latter phase of stage 2 I came across @bryanwe (now @ultradhc) who recognised me from behind, something of an achievement I think given we had never previously met. And I had just recently been overtaken by David, a fellow Liverpudlian (now in Scotland) who was running a stunning race. All of this meant that I felt very jolly going into pit stop 2. I joked and laughed with all the marshals, grumbling in a semi jovial way about the distance, lack of serious hills and the lack of beer, it costs nothing to be nice to people who would clearly still be stood there showing us the way in the early hours of the morning.

At pitstop 2 we were offered some rather disappointing looking soup, which I’m told was rather nice but the idea of drinking down the hot vomit didn’t appeal, I decided the only sensible solution was instead a hot cup of tea and a couple of Chicken Tikka sandwiches – delicious.

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I chatted with a couple of the Rat Race crew from the day before that i’d had a laugh with and it was nice to be remembered.

Anyway quick change of clothes, new OMM arm warmers, update my food and water stores and a swap round of unnecessary kit and I was away again, 30 minute stop (ha! These days the idea of such a long stop might as well be a DNF), not too bad really. What I should of done though was listen to my body and rather than rush out of the door I should have strapped my toes up which were, even at 32 miles, starting to blister – but I didn’t and this was a mistake.

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Then came the soul destroyer.

It was only a 250m climb from the bottom to the top of the hill but it felt like miles through the undergrowth and upon reaching the top I felt all the energy I had gained in the pitstop drain away and for a few minutes I walked, noting that my feet were sore.

However, with composure regained I headed back out to a running pace, slow running but still running and found my feet again, the weather was beginning to warm but with my hat and sunglasses on I felt I would be okay. I passed through lots of picturesque countryside and chocolate box villages that seemed very inviting as they were littered with little pubs, full of food and beer – yum. But I was still on course for about a decent finish time and therefore I would have to miss the delicious delights on offer and find pitstop 3 and this was were sadly The Wall stopped being a race for me and more about the need to finish.

The End?
I came into the pitstop bang on the time I predicted but the cost had been substantial, the blistering that had started about 15 miles earlier were now crippling. I stripped my feet down and the GingaNinja applied emergency compeed to the key affected areas and also places I suspected would blister. I changed socks too as my first pair were soaked which I suspect had helped bring on the severity of the blistering. At first count there were 10 blisters across my feet.

Nasty but I’d cope.

I left the pitstop wondering if the frailty of my feet with more than 22 miles to go was going to kick in but with nearly 7hrs before midnight I intended to make a decent push for a swift finish

Sadly all of my work began to unravel pretty swiftly and the road became lonely and long, still scenic enough but I felt at the end of my tether and around 8pm I called the GingaNinja and cried. I was failing, but with some comforting words and a gentle push I decided to keep going. But this 17 mile stretch was going to test every last ounce of my mental toughness and when the GingaNinja arrived at the second checkpoint between the pitstops I knew she was worried. What happened next though was a bit of a miracle. No, my feet didn’t heal, but I did discover enough energy to power to the final pitstop. I could see runners slowing around me and felt that I was not alone in my pain and so I came into the final stop, made a final call to change into my Speedcross 3 and use a pair of hiking poles. once this was all sorted I would be off once the medic had cleared me and checked I was suitably visible.

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What I do know is that I was both lucid and determined and as an added bonus one of the other runners asked if we could go together on the final leg. I’d met him earlier and he’d already been puking and making the kind of noises that people do before they give up but credit to him, he had hung on in and it seemed we both needed the company and the support. Sadly for the life of me I can’t remember his name and should have gotten some contact details from him but I didn’t.

The Final Seven
Anyway, we set out about 10.30pm in the knowledge that only a major miracle would let us finish by midnight but it seemed we were both in too much pain to care really and we were both keen to finish. Head torches on we ploughed across the course and through the night, making only relatively minor mistakes, maybe 2 miles worth and enjoyed each others company and as we hit the quayside we looked on in awe towards what we knew would be the finish line.

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However, what struck us first about the quayside was the sheer lack of clothing being worn by the ladies of Gateshead and their use of the word ‘fuck’. I mean seriously these were kids!

Maybe it’s because I’ve become such a middle aged old fart but even I was surprised by the potty mouthed youths that littered the banks of the Tyne.

I digress…

In the distance we could see the winking millennium bridge and I told my new buddy that we would be crossing the finish line running, not speed walking as we had been. He agreed and asked if we should race it but that seemed at odds with the ethos of ultra running and so as we jumped onto the bridge, having a laugh and joke with the marshal and decided we would run the second half as it was downhill.

I don’t really remember very much about the finish, it was all a bit of a blur, I remember the photographer, the GungaNinja, ThunderPad and bright lights. I remember the sense of elation at crossing the finishing line, no pain, no sorrow, just unabashed joy – I grasped my companion and we raced arm in arm to collect our epic medals, delicious post run food and a little chat with the medic.

Sitting in the finishers village there were dozens of runners strewn across the area, some who had finished, some who had given up, one chap gave up at 60 miles, I couldn’t have done that (nearly 40 ultras later I really could do that and have done it), perhaps it took more bravery to say ‘I can’t do it’ than to keep on going regardless. But whether they finished or not the people who were in the finishers village were all winners because they had tried.

And that was it, that was ultra 2, The Wall. There are a few more things to say though before this epic blog post closes.

Organisation
The first is that the level of organisation was very high. Rat Race really do know what they are doing, a corporate events company  who know how to create safe and secure opportunities for wannabes athletes. They’ve had time to get it right, as my partner said they make events that are designed to be finished, they want you to make it and while these things are relatively challenging they are very do-able. 10/10

Community
The runners themselves were pretty much all of a positive mindset, all passing on support or help were needed. Ultra running is like no other type of racing, the only person you are racing is yourself and that’s one of the most difficult concepts to understand as you move from say marathon running to ultra running. In terms of runners I met some great guys, as mentioned the chap who did the last 7 miles with me, David who I met at the hotel the night before and again several times around the town and the course, Stuart who wasn’t competing but there supporting his wife, great advice about keeping your head up and the three great Irish guys who I was jigging along with. There are actually too many great people to mention. Rat Race sometimes takes criticism for being dull routes and overpriced and these criticisms are far too accurate but they are inclusive safe events that allow beginners a taste (albeit an expensive taste) of ultra running.  8/10

Food

Food was generally of a very high quality and lots of it, my only tiny grumble was the vomit looking soup at the halfway point. Unsurprisingly I didn’t actually eat that much and I had a decent amount of my own supplies but it was good to know that I want going to go hungry if I had to stop on a hillside somewhere. I’ve heard in later years since I ran The Wall that the food has become less high quality and much cheaper, I can only confirm that in 2013 it was decent 7/10

Facilities
Toilets were clean, water was plentiful and the pitstops generally had enough in the way of cover and setting should you need them. Vindolanda especially was and example of what you can do with a few tents if you really put your mind to it. 9/10

Signage
For me the best part was that signage was accurate and clear, only near Gateshead did any of us go wrong and this we suspect was the work of vandals or trophy hunters. But the race team answered calls quickly when directions were lost and this was very reassuring. This was the major difference between this ultra and the WC50, the fact that the guidance was already worked out and very accurate meant that we could concentrate on the running element of the ultra. Not to put the WC50 down because actually of the two I preferred the course and much smaller field of runners of the WC50 but The Wall with it’s easy navigation meant you could focus on running . 9/10

Marshals and Supporters
And perhaps most importantly were the marshals and the supporters. The marshals were always happy to see us, or at least smiled and they gave us what we needed, no matter the weather and as for the support, there was just enough to see us through, especially at the key points. For me personally I realised that actually this is a medal that three should share, the GingaNinja and the hound should share it, because without those two and lots of Twitter support I would never have made it. 9/10

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Scenery and Course

The course and the scenery were okay, green, lush and open were often not far away but we were often on Tarmac so didn’t really connect with the trail and I’d have liked a lot more Hadrians Wall – we saw about 40 stones of it. The thing I wanted basically  was more trail, there was a little too much road running, had I known I probably would have worn road shoes as they would have handled most of the course and for the rest my Vibrams were in my bag 🙂 you would run this for some of the scenery, but be aware there were some seriously dull sections as well. But then it can’t all be an oil painting can it? As for the physicality and challenge of the course on paper this one looks pretty simple but it isn’t though nor is it a real ball buster, if you’re looking for genuinely scenic and really touch then this isn’t the one for you. 4/10.

And you
, should you do it?
I’d originally said yes to this but given the cost and lack of trail I’d probably say no – but that’s based on the experience of much better races. The Wall is much like the Race to the Stones/King it’s a safe pair of hands ultra and perhaps a starting pointing for those too scared to try a Centurion or navigation race. It’s too expensive though for what it is but despite this it still attracts people looking to step up their distance. I won’t be going back though. 3.5/10

Heroes
And a final word on a couple of unsung heroes, the medics at 1am who looked at my feet for me, you were brilliant and the ladies who were serving the food in the dining room at the finishers village, you were outstanding and I’m grateful you gave me the beef goulash, yum!

Conclusion
I’ve discovered I’m not an ultra runner yet, oh yes I’ve run a couple but I’m a novice and have lots to learn, I’m going to carry on running them much to everyone’s annoyance and hopefully one day I too can call myself an ultra marathoner. My conclusions about this race stand true today – yes these days I call myself an ultra runner but I’m still a novice, the great thing about this sport of ours is that you never stop learning and I’m grateful for that.

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I was doing some blog maintenance over the last few days and it occurred to me that a number of the races I’ve done don’t appear as UltraBoyRuns because that was a creation to replace my confused original blogging identity.

Therefore I’m returning to some of my older races and the original reports (with a hint of editing and hindsight) and we start with my first ultra marathon – the one and only Running of the White Cliffs 50(54)(60).

This is what I wrote of the experience;

There is nothing that can prepare you for going Ultra.

I woke up on Saturday morning worried about my first ultra, training hadn’t gone that well and my ankle had been pretty screwed for the past ten days. My kit was too heavy, I didn’t have nearly enough sweeties and I figured I was going to come last but I’d at least then have 2 UTMB points in the bag and a beautiful new medal.

I was up about 5, showered, ready and out the door by 6. The start line was about an hour away and by the time I was sat in the car with the GingaNinja and good old ThunderPad only one thing hadn’t been completed and that was the morning ‘movement’ which for any distance runner is vital but I was hoping that the facilities at the start line would be sufficient (and they were).

We arrived at the hall and I introduced myself to a couple of runners, registered with Mike Jones, the race director and I received the first surprise of the day – no kit check – something I had anguished over for several days, especially the content of my first aid kit. Anyway, I helped myself to a cup of tea and passed on the delicious looking bacon sandwiches (I noticed The GingaNinja grabbed a sly one).

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The race briefing was excellent and the race director seemed to be fully in control of everything that was going on – but in fairness most people seemed to be pretty experienced ultra or at least marathon runners and everyone was just getting ready. There was a real buzz about the place, I got the feeling I was going to like the ultra running community.

The 100 milers set off (about 25 runners) an hour earlier than the shorter distance runners and the 50 milers used this time to prepare themselves – however, I used the time to glean as much information as I could about endurance running on a very cold winters day carrying about 20kg of Sainsbury’s all butter flapjacks. At the back of the start I said goodbye to my crew and set off with the field of about 55 other runners. I had my GPS switched on and my route description in hand and I decided that the best way to get through this was quickly as possible without compromising my ability to finish.

Fast and strong was to be my mantra.

Ah wait … the first problem of the race then showed itself almost immediately – the directions. Within 400metres more than 20 of the runners had gone the wrong way, myself included and we needed to swiftly change tack, head back and hit the thick wet, filthy slope down. I hit the floor a couple of times and covered myself in crap. I had to steady myself on the barb wire fencing more than once and I realised very quickly that this really wasn’t a race, it was an opportunity to survive a race. All the competitors walked the first kilometre or so before we finally hit flat and dry.

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Once there I was in good form, infact very good form, I’d warmed up nicely and felt strong – possibly from not having done any running for a week.

The first 6 miles were full of small innocuous hills and therefore runners hit pretty swift time and most came into the first checkpoint in good spirits, myself included. Grabbing a jaffa cake and quick word with crew was it and I pretty much setting off into stage 2.
Upon arrival at the White Horse of Kent it became even more abundantly clear that this was a tough challenge and despite my energies I had to walk up some of the hill but on reaching the top I returned to moving at a fair pace – noting that there was a trail of runners behind me but I rounded the next hill at full pace and then banged out a swift walk up a nasty tarmac hill and great views of Ashford.

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The run was pretty simple for a while, taking in the wonderful White Cliffs of Dover and several other lovely sights (including my beloved Spaniel) 1 – I was having a great time really and then it happened, the thing that has blighted my running! Stupidity. At about 14 miles my good ankle got rolled over a rock, while I was titting and that was pretty much it.
I contemplated calling it a day at about 18 miles but the lovely Rich from the Harvel Runners (and several others) reminded me that pain is temporary. I therefore increased my pace, hit the aid station and decided to get out of my Merrell Glove and change into my Vibram FiveFinger Komodo. On reflection nearly four years later I wonder how foolhardy this was. It felt like I’d broken something and my thinking was that my barefoot fivefingers would spread my toes and allow my most natural movement. I could also race through icy puddles and keep my foot and ankle effectively ‘on ice’ for the remaining 35 odd miles

I knew that I would have my own crew awaiting me at 38.1 miles, if I could make it this far I would be able to decide if I had enough in me for the last 15 miles – there is a lot to be said for having someone you know at an aid station with a smile on their face.

Stage 3 – 5 were filled with lots of route problems, the directions really weren’t up to the task and a course that was hugely challenging – especially with an ankle that was starting to look like it might be fractured but I’d buddied up with a guy called Chris who was also running his first ultra, add to this Anne-Marie, who was looking for her 2 points towards the UTMB and I had the perfect running pals, the three of us passed through the up and downhills of the next couple of stages.

By the time we hit stage 5 the cold had set in, as had the darkness, the delays had meant that this was a much tougher course than anyone had actually imagined – most now thinking 12 hours for a finish and upon leaving the Stage 5 aid station and into Stage 6 we knew that we were still looking good for a 9.30pm- ish finish and then even more problems cropped up.

We just got lost.

The description and the GPS couldn’t agree – when it would connect, but we were also now in a wooded area with no exit having crossed difficult uneven terrain in the dark. With a little effort we threw ourselves across half a dozen barb wire fences and managed to avoid the river (although why bother when we had run through so much icy water already!).
We arrived to the final checkpoint at about 8.50pm, knowing that most of the final 14km stage would have to be walked given that we were all exhausted and pretty much mentally gone and what little running we were going to do would be slow.

More directional issues followed, especially around the golf course and the BT tower where runners were coming at one another from all directions and chaos briefly ensued. But with renewed resolve and grit we were convinced we were on the right path and having met some of the other runners we could throw ourselves towards the finish line. 6 of us blundered through muddy fields and sheep, defying the pain we all felt.

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Fast walking had become the order of the day but when we crossed the final gate to the road up to the finish and the village I knew I had less than 10 minutes to get my two UTMB points. My foot was in agony and it was only the thought of not finishing that spurred me on But my lack of long distance experience and general gusto meant I did what I do best – my sprint finish and I gave it my all. I tore into the car park and through the doors of the village hall looking up at the wall mounted clock, 54 minutes past the hour – 6 minutes of the fifteen hours allocated to spare. I collected my medal, collected my T shirt and suddenly every ounce of pain and every tear I had been holding back flooded out. I sat on a chair opposite one of the runners and we stared vacantly at one another. The quiet though was broken by the sound of the doors to the village hall crashing open once more and my companions for many, many miles collapsed in – all making the cut-off.

We should have run just over 53 miles but I know that I just completed just under 60 miles with all the extras that were done. But I had completed my first ultra marathon and it would set me on a road that I have never once regretted.

What an experience.

 

Key points

  • Distance: 54 miles (ended up being 60 miles after various route issues)
  • Profile: Rolling hilly
  • Date: March 2013
  • Location: Kent
  • Cost: £50
  • Terrain: Trail
  • Tough Rating: 3.5/5
  • Next running: now defunct

Route
Kent, the Garden of England does not have some of the amazing drama of say Scotland or the Lake District but it is much tougher than you might think and has hills aplenty as well as rivers to ford and challenges to face! The route for the WC50 was fun and engaging and the white cliffs themselves are a joy to run over, the whole thing though was ruined by incredibly poor directions and course marking

Organisation
When I ran this I had no frame of reference for how well organised an ultra should be. Mike Jones the race director was a seasoned and well organised man but he had failed to secure enough volunteers and this really showed as he bussed in people to the later aid stations who had no idea what they were supposed to do or even where they actually where. The worst part for a novice like myself was that the map book and course markings were incredibly poor and so I spent more time stood in fields trying to figure out where I was or watching GPX file on my less than ideal Garmin 410. The volunteers that did know what they were doing were brilliant and I have nothing but the highest praise for them – but it does say something that the GingaNinja as she was driving round the checkpoints felt the need to muck in and help the runners (she earned a volunteer t-shirt for her troubles!)

Support
Aid stations were well stocked with hotdogs available at one of the later ones – you really couldn’t complain about the food

Awards
Great medal, a favourite, lovely T-shirts (and still being worn).

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My Foot
I think the image below tells you all you need to know other than it was several weeks before I could return to running

Value for money
Great value for money, food, medals, cold, mud, hills – what more could you ask for? Well some decent directions would be nice but we did therefore get free miles and a free trip to the hospital to get my foot looked over

Conclusion
I feel for Mike Jones as the WC50 and all the other Ultra Trails (Saxon Shore) races failed to return for a second year. The single running of the WC50 was a tremendous if flawed race. I loved meeting some of the amazing ultra runners, many of whom I’ve kept in touch with and several of whom I’ve race alongside subsequently. I enjoyed the drama of the finish line race, I enjoyed the route, the challenge and most of all I loved becoming an  ultra runner. So thank you White Cliffs 50 for breaking my foot but putting my on the way to becoming a runner I’m actually quite proud of

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