Three sleeps to go until the Ultra Scotland 50 will be well underway and the question is no longer will it go ahead (hopefully) but will this middle aged numpty make it to the finish? I think it is fair to say that we have all hoped that races, in particular for this blogs audience, ultra marathons would start again – because it is what we adore doing.
In recent weeks I’ve seen the Bonnie Prince Ultra, the Loch Ness 360 and the Pennine Bridleway be postponed again and so with the Ultra Scotland taking place just a couple of weeks after the restrictions were lifted it was a big ask that it would return. However, GB Ultras cautious optimism seems to have paid off and the event will go ahead as planned and I’ve committed to running it in those few days time, because ultimately if racing gets stopped again I’d love, just once, to get back out there and feel the wind on my back and a race number on my front.
The only trouble is that the moment I submitted my marathon PB, as requested by the race organisers to sort runners into waves, my hamstring went pop and has been a little shit ever since. So now, despite all the training and weight loss I’ve managed in the last year all of that may be useless because I’ll be hanging on for dear life just to finish.
So it’s going to be a ‘hello there’ from me to racing and a ‘hell here’ from racing to me.
I don’t live in the Highlands, so this isn’t a post about surviving the big snowy, icy, wet conditions that can be had up there, I’m not Scottish, so this isn’t a post about a lifetimes experience of the Scottish Central Belt and its regularly changing weather patterns. No this is a post about how I run through the winter in the Central Belt of Scotland with the minimum of fuss.
Now let’s be fair, I’m an odd guy, I’ve been described, often, as idiosyncratic , weird, a fucking nutter and all sorts of offensive and less offensive things. So what might be right for me might not be for you but this overview of how I do a Scottish winter running might be a starting point to keep you going out through the year. I’ll also be listing kit with this overview to try and show that you don’t have to have lots of fancy gear or for it to cost a fortune to get you out there year round.
History I moved to the Central Belt of Scotland nearly three years ago after the ridiculous English voted to leave the European Union (politics over). In that time I feel I have grown rather accustomed to the unpredictable and yet rather serene nature of life north of my former location.
So head to toe this is how I get ready to face the outdoors in the chillier months!
HEAD | Buff | Hat The head is the easiest bit to get right and I have a couple of items that make sense in surviving the winter here in Falkirk.
Buff Buff Traditional | £10-£30 The first is obviously a buff (or similar), it is possibly the most versatile piece of running gear that you own, intend to own or want to own. It’ll wipe your nose, it’ll wipe your arse, it’ll keep your face covered or it’ll act as a hat. I have several types for winter running – so if I’m going on a long run I’ll often choose the Buff Visor because as well as having a neoprene peak which is very soft and flexible you can still use it as a conventional buff and even still chuck it round your wrist. The peak though is the thing that gives you longer running protection from wind and rain in your eyes and can be wrung out if it gets wet! Perfect.
For shorter running more traditional buffs are used and I tend to carry a couple as they are so versatile.
Hat Big Bobble Hat £20 I’m also very keen on a hat – not always because you need one to keep your little head warm – the buff will do this but because the bobble hat always makes me feel nice. If you get a medium weight running hat then that would cover almost all scenarios and if it isn’t too heavy or bulky it will nicely scrunch up and can be tossed in a pocket of a jacket or a running vest. The Big Bobble hat pictured does not scrunch up so well but it is lovely and toasty and you’ll never say, ‘I didn’t see you coming’ while I’m wearing it.
Alternatives Rab Beanie Hat £15 | Oddballs Bobble Hat £15 | Kalenji Running Hat £6
BODY | Long Sleeved Shirt | Short Sleeve Shirt | Gilet Running hot is a nuisance sometimes, especially during the warmer weather or even on those milder winter days and so I need to have a solution that allows me to be both warm and well ventilated. The solution, as with all things for me, is layering and the three layers I discuss below offer the benefit of being easily removable, wicking and protecting me across a range of runs and a version of this would be used as my race day kit.
Long Sleeved Shirt Ronhill Core Long Sleeved Shirt | £25 A popular choice as a next to skin layer would be something like a compression top but I have never fared very well in these and prefer something that I have a little more control over and so I’ll wear a long sleeved Ronhill top. The benefits of this as my base layer means I can easily roll my sleeves up if I’m warming up too much, I can un/tuck the top into my shorts to minimise the amount of cold air that comes into direct contact with my skin and as it is usually neon in colour it offers a good level of visibility.
Alternatives Salomon Agile LS Shirt £30 | OMM Flow LS Shirt £40 | Kiprun Care LS Shirt £20
Short Sleeve Shirt Oddballs Training Top | £17 Over the long sleeved top I’ll wear a shorter sleeved shirt, usually something very lightweight to account for the fact I have two tops on and I’ve found that the Oddballs training shirts are the ideal combination of weight and durability against the various weather conditions that I’ll face. No they aren’t waterproof but they dry quickly and they have a good fit for a standard shaped man and so there isn’t a lot of spare fabric flying around to catch pools of water in. The best thing though is they are available in a range of batshit patterns and colours, are relatively inexpensive and are a perfect companion to my long sleeved top. If Oddballs ever do a long sleeved training tops I’ll be buying some!
Alternatives Salomon Agile SS Shirt £30 | La Sportiva Advance Shirt £45 | Alpkit Vayper SS Shirt £29 | Kalenji Dry + Feel £6
Gilet WAA Gilet | £45 If it rains while I’m out then the training shirts will dry out pretty quickly but for winter running you should have some form of waterproof or water-resistant cover for moist days – cold will cut through most materials in winter when it is wet and if you’re up a hill or out for several hours then even the hardiest of us will begin to feel the chill.
There are lots of options that you can go for such as a wind/water resistant jacket that will offer a little bit of protection from the elements, a full on waterproof jacket that would be best suited to those long days in the rain or for passing a race kit check but for my day to day winter running I usually take with me my WAA running gilet. The gilet offers just enough protection from the elements combined with a tiny form factor to make it great for distances up to about 13 miles or a couple of hours of running. The front of the gilet is single piece of fabric which means that the wind won’t pass through you too easily but on the back there are mesh panels that allow your body to breathe. Sadly I don’t believe they make this any longer but it was a great piece of kit when I first purchased it about 5 years ago and remains a great piece of kit. Oh
Alternatives OMM Sonic Smock £60 | Soar Ultra Running Gilet £135 | Alpkit Arro Vest £35 | Kalenji Run Wind H £10
HANDS | Overmitts | Gloves | Watch The hands are something that I never had to worry about until I arrived in Scotland and even up here it isn’t a major issue beyond the first few minutes of a run. However, those first few minutes are crucial in determining whether it is going to be a good run or not.
Wind/Waterproof Mitts Decathlon Overmitts | £15 The Decathlon overmitts are both waterproof and lightweight and have a tiny size in both form and weight. One of the key things about keeping warm is that you keep the wind out. I tend to find when running that I don’t need insulation as much as I need to keep the chill from passing through me. The overmitts provide a perfect wind protection layer until my hands have heated enough to be self supporting against the conditions and at about £15 a pair they are much more inexpensive than the nearest rivals.
Gloves WAA Gloves | £15 I’ve had a number of pairs of gloves over the years and most have been rubbish but the WAA gloves offer a thin level of insulation and combine this with still being able to use your fingers (a common problem with any level of insulation in gloves I find). There is no option to operate a phone with these gloves but I find this to be a benefit – it means I leave my phone in my pocket – but the fingers are usable enough to allow me to operate the action camera buttons should I need to. The WAA gloves are also the easiest on and off gloves I have ever bought – handy when you only wear them for a very short period of time, sadly these are no longer available at the WAA website but there are alternatives…
Watch Garmin Fenix 6X Pro | £550 A watch of any description is quite a handy thing to have – yes I happen to be using the rather fancy Garmin Fenix 6X Pro but something much simpler would be more than sufficient. I find that I don’t always track my running with the GPS or record it (I don’t use or like Strava) but I do like to keep an eye on how long I have been out for and also what kind of elevation I am running or hiking at. The watch allows me to do these things but I am not a slave to it and in winter I find it useful to remind me that I have or haven’t been out long enough.
The Fenix 6X Pro was bought as the replacement for my Ambit 3 Peak (a much loved multisport watch) with ultra marathons in mind but the alternatives offer many good features at significantly lower price points. The Polar impresses in particular and my partner has this watch because of its smaller size and lower weight as well as its many activity features.
LEGS | Shorts Whenever I post new running content to either Facebook or Instagram it will be adorned with the hashtag ‘shortsallyear’ because for me there is simply no better feeling and because my body can handle it. Not everybody can handle the cold as well as I do and therefore I can fully appreciate why you might opt for running leggings or even winter running leggings. Legwear is the most complex choice I think as they are difficult to change when you are out on a run and it’s the thing that you are most unlikely to carry a spare of so you’re stuck in whatever you choose to go out in.
Shorts Ronhill Tech Revive Twin Skin Shorts | £35 In the decade I have been running I have owned just 7 pairs of training shorts and given that I run on average a little over 300 days per year that is a lot of running for just 7 pairs of shorts. To be fair 2 of those pairs have been in the rotation for just a couple of months and 2 of those pairs have been there since 2018 – so for nearly 8 years I used just 3 pairs of Nike twin skin running shorts (no longer available) and I wore them in every possible condition. The latest additions to my running shorts armoury are Ronhill because they are good fit for me and I have had many happy adventures in their tops.
I wear twin skin shorts as a general rule because the brief style shorts are a bit like trying to fit a 500ml bottle of cola into a space designed for a 330ml can of fizzy drink. It also means that my legs mostly stay dry even if the outer fabric takes a bit of a pounding from the wet or the mud. In the cold I appreciate the next to skin layer especially given that I have a tendency to be nut sack high in wet muddy trails and worse icy waters.
FEET | Drymax Socks | Gaiters | Trail Running Shoes The feet represent my weakest point and therefore this is the area I pay most attention to during the winter months, I rotate my shoes on a daily basis and often have at least five different pairs going at once – this allows each pair to dry out fully before they are next used. Beyond this it’s about management of my feet to ensure they stay in reasonable condition for the next run
Socks Drymax Socks | £10-30 I recently wrote a piece about how I’ve evolved the set up of my kit for racing with specific reference to my feet (read about it here) and a key component of that are the Drymax socks. I’ve pretty much gone from only using Drymax during races to using them in anything other than warm, summery conditions.
The key benefit of Drymax is the warm while wet approach that means that even if your feet take a serious dunking the socks will keep your little footsies warm and relatively toasty. During a Scottish winter of running it is not inconceivable that you’ll come across snow, ice, freezing water, oodles of gooey mud, oodles of sticky mud and worse and so the socks need to be robust enough to handle all of the above and more.
During winter I tend to wear higher up the leg socks rather than the crew length ones I opt for in the summer and this also helps to keep the crap of the trail or ice away from skin which can an absolute bastard if it slices into you. If there’s one thing I want protected it’s my feet and these really help.
Alternatives Injinji Toe Socks £10-25 | Hilly Off Road Socks £10-20 |
Trail Running Shoes Topo Athletic Terraventure | £120 My first choice running shoes for the winter are my Topo Athletic Terraventure followed by the Inov8 Trail Talon 290, these two workhorse shoes will do everything and they are bombproof, they will go everywhere and nothing can hurt them. Both pairs of shoes will eat up tarmac if they are asked to but they are designed for the trail and that is where they will have the most fun and where you will get most benefit.
Footwear choice is, of course, very personal and you should only wear the shoes that are suited to you but these are the ones suited to me.
I would suggest that whatever shoe you wear during the winter that it is suited to the conditions that you are facing, If you do lots of tarmac then you don’t need aggressive lugs but if you are facing mud and hills on a daily basis then you’ll need something that can dig into the terrain. One thing that has seen me invest in is some specialist equipment for the ice and I’ll discuss this in the extras section.
Shoes don’t need to be super expensive or a super popular brand but go to a retailer (when we are allowed) and try them on, get a feel for them and listen to your feet. It took me a long time to find shoes that worked consistently but issues with my feet are no longer caused by the footwear I choose, just the conditions I run in! Do your research and you will be rewarded.
Alternatives Altra Lone Peak 5.0 £140 | On Cloudventure £150 | Kalenji Evadict TR2 £50 | More Mile Cheviot Pace £30
Gaiters Topo Athletic Gaiter | £15 Let me start by saying that the Topo Athletic gaiter is not my favourite gaiter, that award goes to the Dirty Girl gaiters that have been following my adventures since my first ultra marathon. However, I own the shoes so I might as well own the gaiters with the correct fitting for the footwear. The gaiters during winter provide added protection from the trail, there is nothing worse than stones, grit or other flotsam and jetsam getting involved with your feet. A pair of gaiters will instantly improve your running experience especially, if like me, you’ve got weak feet.
CARRY | Waterproof Jacket | Overtrousers | Light Year round I wear a running vest, I prefer it to a running belt or the Freetrain phone holder, I feel that a running vest or bag is designed to hold stuff and distribute weight across you better than any of the alternatives. Plus as a former Runcommuter I am very used to the idea of running with a bag on my back and in winter I believe that running safely requires the carrying of a few kit extras.
Waterproof Jacket Montane Minimus Waterproof Jacket | £140 I always come back to this jacket for one reason and one reason only – it has never, ever failed me. I own two of these but I mostly wear the one I have owned for nearly a decade, it doesn’t age, it doesn’t show signs of wear and its a beautiful green colour.
The Montane Minimus comes with me on those longer runs or when I head into the hills or if it really is chucking it down – how often do I wear it in the winter? Not that often, but occasionally if I’m having day where I feel a bit shit and frail then I’ll chuck it on and feel that bit more secure about going out and facing the trails.
Overtrousers Montane Featherlite Trousers | £50 This may surprise some readers but even I need a bit of help in the leg department occasionally and the thing that I carry with me are my much underused Montane Featherlite Trousers.
Now let me start by saying that these are not waterproof trousers they are water resistant and wind resistant and this is the key to why I like them so much. They are so light but never let my legs overheat and they dry incredibly quickly meaning that if I have had to resort to putting them on they are going to provide the kind of layer that I need. I own a much heavier pair of waterproof trousers that I use for hiking – the brilliant Berghaus Deluge but these would only be suitable as running cover in the most unpleasant of race situations (say something like the Spine).
This winter I haven’t worn my Featherlite Overtrousers because the lockdown has kept me relatively close to home and therefore away from the hills but in previous winters whenever I go near an area that might leave me a bit isolated these are straight into my running bag and the best thing is that they scrunch down into a tiny little stuff sack.
Light Olight Baton | £90 First off let me assure you that I paid a lot less than the price on the Olight website for a light that is the same length as my thumb (I have small thumbs). However, the important thing is that you are going to want a light if you are running through the winter – in the Central Belt it can be dark for up to 16 hours a day and that means the hours of daylight are likely being taken up with things like childcare or work or watching Netflix.
I have a number of headtorches that all work very well but I wanted something handheld as I find wearing a headtorch is a little uncomfortable (something I’m happy to put up in race conditions but not on my pleasure runs), they interfere with action camera footage and of course it can create the tunnel vision effect that can make running in the dark a lot less enjoyable.
The Olight baton benefits from being tiny in size, as already mentioned, but also incredibly powerful in terms of its beam (up to 2000 lumens) and there are three brightness settings available. Battery life is reasonable even on the brightest setting although in race conditions I think this would only ever be a spare light. The good news is that the Olight Baton can be recharged on the go with the use of an external battery pack and has a very secure magnetic charging cable that means you could chuck it in the back of your pack and leave it there to charge until you need it.
I use this extensively on my local trails if I am running late at night as there is very little moonlight that penetrates the canopy of my trail and so each step is in total darkness – this light really does lead the way. A very worthwhile purchase.
EXTRAS | Spikes | Survival Bag | First Aid Kit | Water Bottle
There are things that I have had for a very long time that form, part of my running kit and there are a few extras I have bought to face the Scottish winters – the first thing I bought as an extra was a pair of running spikes.
I am fortunate to live close enough to my local trails that if it ices up I can manage the few hundred metres of tarmac in spikes to get to the trail. Spikes aren’t the only solution to running on the ice and they certainly are not perfect but they let me keep going out even when others have been sidelined by the weather. Because I have rather large hobbit like feet I bought the Altra Golden Spike which are both surprisingly cushioned and grippy. The alternatives include the excellent YakTrax Pro or the rather expensive studded running shoes from VJ Sports, Inov8 and Icebug.
I have a plethora of water bottles that I use with my absolute favourite being the first generation hard bottles from Ultimate Direction, those bad boys have been hard to beat over the years and despite the advances in the technology and taste of the soft bottle I still prefer these beauties. That said I use my Salomon 150ml soft bottle for runs in winter up to about 21km and anything after that I’ll use a 300ml soft bottle because they are more flexible and fit better alongside the action camera that often accompanies me on runs.
I would always recommend carrying a survival bag of some description, I’ve never had to use one but on the day I do I will be extremely pleased that I have it with me. If I am going off trail or will be on my own for any length of time then this is an essential piece of kit that might well save my life and my life is probably just about worth the £10 that you’ll need to spend to get your hands on one of these.
As for a first aid kit I’m a bit skinny with this, I take a small used Compeed pack and put in it some plasters, a needle, painkillers, blister plasters and a small dressing and keep this at the bottom of my bag – again I have never had to use it while out training, although I did use it while racing on the Isle of Skye and that kept my feet in one piece until the end of the race (I say one piece my feet were fucked – you can read the race review here).
WHAT’S ESSENTIAL? I would say that of the kit listed above the essential bits are the buff, the long sleeved top, legwear, running shoes, socks, gloves and a water resistant or waterproof jacket – the rest I could have survived without but they made my daily jaunts to the trails much easier.
In 2011 if you’d have looked in my running gear drawer this is what you would have found the following;
my old ASICs trail shoes that I ran on roads and trails in | £27
my 3/4 length Nike running tights |£17
a couple of pairs of white cotton M&S socks | £3.50
a black buff that I stole from my partner who used to wear it while visiting farms | Free
a second buff I bought from a Rat Race event | £5
a pair of Saucony running gloves that fell apart after about 5 minutes | £14
a sale Adidas wind resistant jacket | £19
a long sleeved Ronhill running shirt that I still wear to this day | £21
a couple of short sleeved Rat Race overstock t-shirts from previous RR events | £10
It is also worth noting that these days I tend to run daily, especially in the winter and therefore I need a bit more kit to see me through otherwise my washing machine would never be off.
Only you can really decide what is essential for you to go running during the winter but for a relatively small investment you could probably have all the essentials that you need for running regularly and safely.
I tend to invest because my view is always that I’d rather have kit that does the job and does it for a long time and I like good value. My Montane Minimus is the best example of this, I bought the waterproof jacket many years ago for about £80 and it will probably last me another decade or more if I continue to look after it – that’s value for money and I’ve discovered value for money rarely means cheap. That said my £3, 18 year old Kalenji running base layers are still going strong and get worn often, get washed even more often and are super useful for running and other activities, so good value isn’t always expensive either!
WHERE? Where do you get stuff like this? Well that will be down to you but I like to use a mix of independent retailers, direct from manufacturers and online resources.
To make it clear I am NOT sponsored by any of these (or anyone else), I purchase all the products I use and nothing is ever taken for free or testing.
If I am looking for well made and inexpensive kit then I will always look at Decathlon because as well as having a significant shop presence I think they’re brilliant and then places like Cotswold Outdoors and Runners Need will always have something useful that the others can’t cover.
I NEVER buy from Sports Direct.
TOP TIPS I should point out that the kit and products I have listed I own and have used extensively in the cold of Scotland’s winter months, sometimes over multiple years.
The alternatives that I have presented here are merely examples of the things that I might own, might have researched or looked up as alternatives specifically for this blog and if you like the sound of them then get your research hat on and start deciding if it’s right for you. You are the best decision-maker for what will fit and work best for you, not some bloke on a blog or someone answering a Facebook/Twitter question.
And the reason I am posting this towards the tail end of the winter running season? Well it will soon be time for retailers to dispose of their AW20 kit and you might pick up a bargain or two that will be perfect for AW21.
FINALLY I do hope though that you realise that is possible to run all year round and that while you can spend an absolute fortune you really do not have to, the combination of excellent sales and the increase in the UK visibility of places like Decathlon means that choice has never been better and the quality of brands like Crane (via Aldi) has much improved in recent years. The sad thing is that the last couple of years has seen the loss of a couple of excellent independent running stores and these will unlikely be replaced – therefore please support local or independent running/outdoor stores were you can.
Most importantly of course is, enjoy your winter running and do it safely.
I wasn’t going to review the Harrier Run ‘Ultra’ bundle but after several months of use I felt it would be churlish of me not to jot down my thoughts for you to consider whether this is something that might be useful for you.
I shan’t bother with an incomplete history of Harrier as others have done this better than I will but it’s suffice to say that they are new on the block and something of a disruptor in, what has fast become, an overcrowded market. The company and its founder have, in an impressively short space of time put together a product range of running kit suited to the ‘couch to 5km’ runner all the way to the adventure/ultra marathoner and beyond. For this we must applaud the team who must work tirelessly.
I decided that although I did not need a new running vest that the Harrier Kinder 10 litre looked like something I wanted to try and with its low price point I was happy to purchase one and if it was ‘great’ then that was a bonus and if it was only ‘okay’ then it would go into the rotation and that would be fine too.
I didn’t purchase it straight away though, it was after I’d seen one in use at the Ultra North event that I ordered it. Having seen it in person I felt that it would be a useful addition in my running armoury. And so while literally travelling back to sunny Scotland from a very wet Northumberland I put my order in but not for the vest – for the ultra bundle.
The Ultra Bundle The ultra bundle provides an excellent value packed array of gear designed to ensure that you, the runner, have all of the basics and a few key extras for your big adventures. So what’s in the ultra bundle?
A choice of 10l (Kinder) or 5l (Curbar) race vest (includes whistle)
2 x soft water bottles
2 x soft bottle long straws
1 x hydration bladder
1 x snood
1 x collapsible heatproof cup
1 x collapsible cup
1 x Emergency first aid kit (not available at the time I purchased the bundle)
1 x Survival bag
1 x dry bag
Perhaps the amazing thing is the variety within each item. The main event, the running vest, comes in two different colours in the Curbar and Kimder, there are four fit sizes. There is also an extra large for the bigger framed runner called the Stanage. Options don’t end at the race vest, in fact they barely start there – each of the water bottles and cups comes in a range of funky colours, the drybags are two colours and two sizes, the snood is available in blue and orange and even the running poles are available in multiple sizes and two different materials. It is an enviable amount of choice that the major manufacturers either don’t or can’t offer.
Choice Sometimes choice can be a bit overwhelming and the trouble I had when putting my ultra bundle together was how do I co-ordinate? The answer was I couldn’t really – I wanted big bold and bright colours and these didn’t always match across the various products. I would quite happily have had everything in pink or purple but this wasn’t an option so I mixed and matched a little bit and after a little while I found what I believed was the perfect set up.
My only gripe was in the colour of the race vest itself which was much more muted than the rest of the options – that said the blue colouring that I chose was actually very pleasant but if there had been a pink or purple or batshit colour then I’d have chosen that. It may come as no surprise then that when both the Curbar and the Kinder became available in less discreet colours I ordered both the Orange and the Red.
Bundling The company have the bundle system for lots of good reasons I imagine, if you’re starting on your ultra or long distance running journey then you may need a reasonable amount of kit and a bundle that offers a very healthy discount would be much appreciated. The bundle presumably also allows Harrier to get rid of stock that might not be as swift as seller – so hydration bladder and water bottles might not be bought at the same time but if part of a bundle then you’d take both and use whichever better suited your adventure that day. The bundle, because of the cleverness of Harrier, allows you to easily identify what kind of kit it is that you are going to need – there’s no research involved, you just buy a bundle and put it on and you’re on your way to thrill seeking.
Experiences Experience with the Harrier Run Ultra Bundle will vary but the reception has been overwhelmingly positive but it can be difficult to judge something until you’ve been trying it out on a daily basis for several months and that is something that I have been doing. Almost all of the items in the ultra bundle have seen some running and most have been used multiple times – they key elements such as the vests, the poles, water bottles and drybag have been a near constant companion since they arrived and I feel very comfortable about being able to assess whether they are good for me or not.
Kinder Running Vest I like a larger than necessary race vest because, ‘you never know’ and I have been known to start a run or a race with what some might describe as, ‘the kitchen sink’. The Kinder would still be at the smaller end of my race vest sizes even at 10 litres but I felt having seen it in real life that it looked acapable of supporting the amount of kit I traditionally transport in an ultra marathon.
So what does the Kinder have?
10 litre capacity
Lots of pockets across the vest
7 x front pockets
Pull through back pocket for waterproofs
Deep mesh side pockets
Zipped phone pocket
Multiple connection points for running pole
Race number toggles
Adjustable sternum straps
Dedicated bladder pocket
Substantial bladder clip
Multiple bladder hose configurations
Bungee pull on the back for tighter fit
Main compartment zipped closing
Figure hugging fit
Toggles and straps across the vest to keep kit tidy
Choice of colours
Curbar Running Vest Despite liking a larger capacity running vest I have to say that since the Curbar arrived a couple of months ago I have worn nothing else as a running bag (the Curbar was not part of the bundle, but bought separately along with a second Kinder). I have found a huge amount of running comfort and joy in the Curbar as I have been improving my training and ultimately improving my running.
So what does the Curbar have?
5 litre capacity
Lots of pockets across the vest
7 x front pockets
Pull through back pocket for waterproofs
Deep mesh side pockets
Zipped phone pocket
Extra back pocket
Back pole holders
Race number toggles
Adjustable sternum straps
Dedicated bladder pocket
Substantial bladder clip
Multiple bladder hose configurations
Figure hugging fit
Toggles and straps across the vest to keep kit tidy
Choice of colours
When wearing either of the race vests it probably most resembles either a Salomon or early Ultimate Direction Signature series pack – that shouldn’t be considered a negative as the UD in particular was an exceptional race vest. It has a figure hugging shape and moves with you rather than bounces around and this is where the Harrier shows that it is superior than the old UD PB1.0. When moving side to side the vest has enough give that it comes with you but without ever feeling slack and yet is tight enough that when running it moves along with you rather than bouncing around in your mid lumbar region.
From fabric through to fit this is very, very comfortable running vest experience
If movement is an impressive feature of the Harrier vests then it is matched in impressiveness by the amount of available space. Both the 5 litre and the 10 litre have lots of upfront space and the pockets are cavernous. In fact this brings me to a favourite feature – for the first time ever in a race vest I can have my action camera stored upfront while at the same time as having two 500ml water bottles there too. I am sure that the makers did not consider the needs of the action camera user when designing this but the fact my DJ Osmo Action and my Insta360 One X2 both fit perfectly mean that this race vest will often jump to the front of the queue for racing. The rest of the pockets are equally excellent but each one has a purpose – so those front mesh pockets are ideal for a buff or a pair or gloves while the phone pocket is okay for a phone I find it better for a small amount of wallet or keys or basically something you aren’t going to use – there are better pockets for a phone.
The side pockets are as massive as their front siblings and also much more accessible than many of its rivals and the springiness of the fabric makes everything deceptively spacious.
On the reverse the space inside the back of the pack is mostly excellent but if you’re used to something like an OMM backpack or even a UD race vest then the Harrier vests will feel more confined and the mild tapering towards the bottom of the vest mean that the way you pack your kit may need some consideration – I don’t feel like I can just throw stuff in here.
The Curbar has a neat ‘through pocket’ where wet or dry waterproofs could be stowed and also has an extra pocket that sits at the bottom of the vest – I’d be tempted to keep only the lightest of gear here as I feel using it might unbalance my weight distribution – but remember that whatever you store in here should be in a small 2 litre or smaller drybag just incase you caught in a bit of precipitation.
The Kinder meanwhile benefits from a bungee cord rather than a through pocket and this is welcome addition as it offers flexibility to connect whatever you need to carry there and it also allows the vest to be cinched down if you aren’t carry much kit – something that the 5 litre vest doesn’t need. It is worth noting though that the Kinder runs just as well as the Curbar if it is empty and not cinched down.
One thing to keep in mind is that neither are waterproof and although when I’ve gotten soaking in it the back mesh, and therefore my back, for the most part stay dry, the outer layers will wet through and aren’t as quick to dry as say a ripstop material. What does this mean? It’s simple – you’ll need drybags (and don’t worry Harrier have you covered there too).
From here the Harrier mostly goes straight into party mode with little flourishes and finishes that will simply make your running life that bit easier – from multiple points of connection for your poles on the Kinder to back pole holders on the Curbar. The race number holder, the easy pull zip cords and multiple points of attachment for your bladder hose as well as those front pockets being more secure than the average through to the plethora of hoops, loops and bungees that can tie down pretty much anything – it’s almost like an S&M party on these vests – these vests have it all.
I do have a bugbear and it is quite a big one – the fastening system for the front. Once its fitted that is lovely and it is great but if you need to adjust the height of the chest straps then it is a bit of a bugger, if you needed to do that with freezing cold or wet hands then it would be a nightmare. It reminds me of a lighter, less good version of the crossover system that Salomon employed on some of their bags a few years back (and my well still do). It’s not the worst but nor is it the best. The other thing, directly related to the chest straps is that they come loose as you are running, not massively and not all at once but you will find yourself regularly tightening these up. You might say it’s the sizing or what I’m carrying but I have both medium and large sizes and both the 5 and 10 litres and have tried them all in different configurations and the chest strap just loosens much more than say my beloved Raidlight Olmo 20.
Is it a big issue? Not really I just pull it tight as I run (and it super easy to adjust on the move).
So bugbear aside I think the Curbar and the Kinder are astonishingly good value and brilliant kit even if there were double the price. For less than £60.00, at full price, you simply won’t get better.
Running/Hiking Poles I’ve used my Black Diamond Z fold for several years now and never had a moment where I thought, these aren’t good enough, they were expensive but they’ve lasted and they felt like they would last from the moment I bought them. The poles from Harrier (at a mere £69.00) arrived to much online fanfare, lots of the runners who had tested them out had lots of good things to say about them. The thing for me is that I tend not to use poles outside of the more mountainous running events like MIUT but again as part of the ltra bundle it seemed silly to turn my nose up at this bargain.
When you pick the poles up they aren’t as light as some of their more expensive alternatives, however, the difference in weight (209g) isn’t really very noticeable and should certainly not be a deterrent to ownership. That slightly heftier feel though contributes to a sense that these are built to last and during my tests I have not once worried that the poles might snap, something I have seen happen to other poles during events. The handle is soft and runs long down the shaft with an easily adjustable and strong wrist loop. The poles are ‘z fold’ rather than telescopic which I feel suits runners better, once out of your pack you just fling them in front of you and lock them in position – no faffing around.
Are they as easy as my Black Diamond poles? No, not quite – the tightening flip lock clamp at the end of the handle means there is an additional step compared to my Black Diamond poles. However, this lock, I feel will give them a greater longevity and also allows a certain level of adjustability in height – another improvement over some of the competition. Add this together and with the reduction in the amount of little metal locking buttons, which are a potential place for water or grot to sit and cause damage, then you’ve got a product that is both practical and innovative. The Harrier alternative to the metal locking buttons are locking discs which sit at the end of each section of the pole and simply clamp together – easy.
The poles do follow some conventions though and have such as a coated metal inner cord to ensure that the pole has strength when you are running and doesn’t just come apart. A spike at the end to help you grip in the worst of terrains, mud basket and a rubber tip cover should you suddenly find yourself on the tarmac.
What I can say is that I’ve used these for about 30 miles of running since they arrived, I have bounced around the muddy trails on them, I’ve run on the ice using them (without Yaktrax) and I’ve hiked several of the Ochils (when I was allowed to go there) and they have been superb.
As for the fitting around you when you are racing, well if you’ve bought the ultra bundle then there are lots of places that the poles can go and the race vest(s) have all been given consideration to how a runner may way to run with poles. That said these poles would fit almost any race vest, I’ve used them in my Raidlight Olmo 20 and my UD PB3.0, they’re unobtrusive and they’re right there when you need them most.
And the best thing? Well for the money you’d think you were perhaps only getting one pole but no, you’re getting a pair. I would really struggle to find any criticism of the Helvellyn poles – but if you think that the £69.00 isn’t quite worth it and you don’t mind a little bit more weight then they have now produced an aluminium version called Catbells these will set you back a mere £39.00 at the time of writing and although I haven’t used them myself can you really argue with this kind of pricing?
Soft Water Bottles (500ml), Standard Caps and Long Straw Caps There are very few soft bottles that enhance the flavour of water, most of them make it taste a bit shitty to be honest. Thankfully the big brains at Harrier seem to have it sorted, the taste of the soft bottles is better than most (perhaps the only better one I’ve used was the 350ml Hydrapak soft bottle which was a little bit special). These soft bottles work incredibly well in the context of the Harrier vest and the long straws and wide opening makes them very easy to use. When the race vest is full it can be a little bit of a faff to get them in and out but then this is where the long straws come in handy and you could (if being careful) fill bottles without removing them from the pack (and yes I have done this, although not when exhausted in the middle of the night on an ultra marathon).
The range of colours and options is exceptional and there is something for everyone, mine are the 500ml option and might be purple, although they look very pink, however, regardless of the colour, I think they’re fantastic. These bottles have so far been zero leak and zero problem. Even if one of the bundles isn’t for you then perhaps when you’re looking for new bottles these will be on your list for consideration.
Hydration Bladder I mostly stopped using a hydration bladder when I bought my first UD Signature Series race vest – the revelation that you could have front mounted water bottles seemed so revolutionary back them, however, given the smaller form factor of the Harrier vest I felt the need to try out their bladder (and it was part of the ultra bundle). The bladder itself has a good quality feel to it, the mouth piece is easy to use when on the move and it fits well inside both the Curbar and the Kinder. The vest has a dedicated space for the hydration bladder and it all feels very secure when it is locked in via the clip at the top of the pocket. The length of the hose is more than adequate and perfectly suited for being cut to a size that suits and there are multiple configurations for wrapping the hose around yourself and the vest.
What I did note though was that when filled the bladder sits deep in the vest and takes up much of the available space at the bottom of your race pack, now although you can work around this I find this is the space that I use to keep my waterproofs in (in this or any other race vest) – therefore I want easy access to them but in the Harrier vests I find I have to choose between storing my waterproofs at bottom of the vest or having the bladder in.
My biggest gripe about the bladder though was that it leaked. I took it out on a first run on a very chilly December morning (about 6am) to discover that by the time I gotten to the bottom of my hill my back was soaked and starting to freeze up – I turned around and headed for home. Thankfully I’d caught it in time to stop myself getting to cold and changed all kit and went out running but this was a disappointment. Having looked over the bladder the leak is somewhere near the seal between hose and bladder and therefore this makes it unusable (this was the only piece of kit that got one outing).
Snood Snood, buff, neck gaiter, wrag, scarf, arse wiper – whatever you want to call it, the Harrier version is very pleasant, a little more taut than some of its Buffwear alternatives and fits nicely. The two colour options and designs are very nice, I preferred the blue design over the orange and this piece of fabric I imagine will be as much a life saver as the other 50 I own.
I wonder if I’ll ever need to wipe the old rusty bullethole on it though? Hmmm something to ponder dear reader.
Collapsible Cup With an increased need for events to be more sustainable and environmentally conscious we have seen a huge reduction in single use plastics and difficult to recycle materials. This has meant that the use of a refillable cup is now often a requirement on kit lists of longer races. It’s a simple thing, a scrunchy, weigh next to nothing cup that can easily attach to a race vest.
The Harrier collapsible cup comes in a range of excellent colours and works as well as any other cup of its type, the one downside of these cups is that they can’t really sustain hot contents and in the middle of a loooong race that might be something you want to consider but the good news is that Harrier has something for all you tea and coffee lovers too…
Hot Collapsible Cup I’ve seen collapsible hot mugs before but they’re often heavy and unwieldy, found in the handbags and shoulder bags of the ladies and gents who shop in Fenwicks or on Bond Street and need to be seen to be environmentally supportive but regret that their skinny latte is creating a stench in their overpriced handbag or might drip on to their overpriced ripped jeans. The good news is that the Harrier option is far removed from being a fashion item. Truth to tell it is actually a bit ugly but then I’m no oil painting myself so do I care if my hot collapsible mug wouldn’t walk the runways of Milan and Paris? No.
The hot collapsible cup is sturdy, robust and surprisingly small given the size it can reach when fully erect (I’ve heard that said about myself boom-tish). It’s useful, practical kit for running, fast packing and more general hiking days where space might be an issue.
Drybag I think I’ve owned every type of dry bag in every size over the years; Lomo, Decathlon, Osprey, Exped, Alpkit… the list goes on. Of all the dry bags I’ve used the Alpkit was, and remains the best but be assured the Harrier drybag runs it a close second. Once more the kit is available in a couple of colours and sizes, you’ll want some of these if you intend to use the Harrier running vests because they are not waterproof. I’ve been out for less than a couple of hours in my Harrier vest and the kit on the inside while not soaked through haven’t been dry either. The slim 5 litre drybag is an excellent fit for most key kit and the smaller 2 litre drybag is better for things you want quicker, more immediate access to.
If racing in the Harrier vest and living in Scotland as I do, I would 100% want a series of smaller drybags to supplement the vest and make sure my kit was dry when I needed it.
Survival Bag & Whistle A second whistle in the bundle (the first is attached to the race vest) and a proper survival bag in case you’re totally fucked on a mountain somewhere – much better than a foil blanket and might just save your life, £8.00 seems like a bargain
Fit Now this was a nuisance as I sit between a variety of the Harrier sizes. With the poles I’m 5’9 and therefore could have gone for the large and set them to the minimum sizing or gone for the medium and set it for the longer setting. In the end I chose the medium because I felt that having poles that extended beyond my height would be of little value but having slightly shorter ones might have an application. It turned out I was right and I have found the ability to shrink the poles down a little very useful for going uphill.
When ordering I was shrinking my waistline at a reasonably rapid rate, I’d moved from a 34 inch waist to 32 inch and my chest had started to shrink a little as had my middle and I was facing the annoyance of being between a medium and large. Both sizes fit me but the medium is better though when carry larger amounts of kit I find the large is a good fit too – basically, if you’re right in the middle of a sizing it might be worth going with the smaller size, at least this is my experience with the Harrier race vests and poles.
How much has it cost? That’s a difficult one I bought came without the first aid kit and this was reflected in the price, in total for everything in the ultra bundle it was £170.00 and some change – the bundle saving was around £30.00, so this should have been around £200.00. The second Kinder race vest was a further £59.00 and the Curbar was £54.00. Delivery times were amazingly swift and after ordering it on a Thursday I had it by the weekend and was testing it out on the Sunday morning. Can’t say fairer than that.
Buy or Not? On the trail or on the road this kit performs superbly but it’s not all sunshine and sweet cheeks and we need to understand that no matter how good kit is, there can be issues and Harrier is no different. You have to take into account the value that is in the ultra bundle though and that value is VERY HIGH, you can’t deny that Harrier have gone all out to produce bundles that really do tick every kit list box.
Obviously some of the things in the bundle will be of more use to than others but then on the day you need it, you need it and it will already have been covered by this excellent market disruptor.
It’s worth noting that there aren’t really any alternatives to the ultra bundle, bigger companies will make you buy all the things individually but there are alternatives to the individual items and you should do a comparison before purchasing – because it isn’t ever one size or rather one brand fits all. However, I bought the ultra bundle because it looked great, it was well reviewed and it was at a price point that it almost didn’t matter if it was a load of old shit – but it wasn’t a load of old shit and it has been my joy to be running in it and I expect to get many good years out of most of it.
So to buy or not to buy? That’s for you to decide.
The end of January is almost upon us and for the majority none of us will have raced for quite some time.
Now in the context of the pandemic this is a very minor thing but with glimmer of light in the distance and much hard work being done by so many to return humanity to a more traditional lifestyle, I am led to wonder about running races again.
For me the last race I did was Ultra North in September 2020, nestled between what many of us thought was the beginning of the end for COVID 19 and the ramping up of restrictions as the pandemic worsened across the globe.
2020 races, as of April, all got cancelled, some were moved on a number of occasions in an effort for events to happen but most simply didn’t take place. This means that those event organisers who have thankfully survived have moved their events to this year (2021) and this is where we can then only speculate. Is there a value in speculation? Perhaps not but I feel it helps me to write down how I’m feeling about this in order to remain focused in getting ready for the races I am aiming for.
Sadly a few days back I received my first postponement email telling me that the Pennine Bridleway has sensibly been moved from April to September. On top of that I’ve made the decision to pull out of the Quebec Mega Trail in July because I’m convinced my trip to Canada will not happen and therefore I have cancelled the flights and aim to go in 2022. It’s all starting to feel a bit 2020.
That said I’m one of the fortunate ones – I’ve got a lot of races booked in and therefore my racing agenda is set and all I can do is wait. For organisers, participants and those involved in the running events supply chain there are stresses, frustrations and disappointments coming from all directions and you can’t help but feel for everyone.
The 2020 that should have been My 2020 had been billed, by myself, as the year of the comeback. I’ve spent a lot of time treading water and running events at the back of the pack but I had assured myself that now I was settled in Scotland I could finally focus on running again and so even entered my first ultra marathon grand slam. So with that in mind my 2020 looked pretty good, with lots of variety, interesting routes and ball breakers, take a look below;
Tyndrum 24 / January (Completed)
Vogrie Park 5km / January (Completed)
Falkirk Trail 8hr Ultta / February (Completed)
F50K / March(DNS)
Skull Trail Race / March (Completed)
Pennine Bridleway / April (Postponed)
Bonnie Prince Ultra / April (Postponed)
To the Pike & Back Again / April (Postponed)
Chacefield (3 race series) / March / April / May (Postponed)
Ultra Scotland 50 / May (Postponed)
Loch Ness 360 / May (Postponed)
John Lucas Memorial / June (Postponed)
Quebec Mega Trail / July (Postponed)
Run the Blades / July (Postponed)
Ultra North / September(Completed)
Yorkshire Three Peaks / October (Postponed)
Dark Peaks / November (Postponed)
White Peaks / November (Postponed)
Cheviot Goat / December (Postponed)
I had loaded my 2020 calendar for the year end when I had assumed I would be fittest and more ready for the challenges that awaited me and to be fair by the time October and November had arrived I was much fitter than I had been when I raced at the Tyndrum 24. Who knew that I wouldn’t be getting to showcase my new found fitness! I think that most of us hoped that by the time December and therefore The Cheviot Goat had come around that the opportunity to race would have been restored.
As we all know though 2020 would end without the resumption of running events.
It couldn’t be helped and I was very much of a mind that I would rather have tighter restrictions for a significant period to allow all governments globally to get the pandemic under control rather than the half hearted restricting and easing that had been par for the course in the previous 6 months.
Feelings? The running community seems to have been sympathetic to the plight of race organisers, especially the smaller, more intimate events that have gone over and above to do their best for the wannabee participants.
I know there have been exceptions to the above statement and that some events have been found wanting in terms of communication, etc but organisers must have been dealing with enormous logistical, financial and commitment issues and so hopefully there can be some level of forgiveness if communication, rearrangements and the like were not as swift as it could have been.
Virtual Many runners have taken to engaging with the virtual events that almost every organiser has put on and this will presumably help in a small way to recover costs the organisers incurred in amongst other things venue rental, insurances and the production of 2020 materials such as medals and shirts.
Sadly, I fell out of love with virtual events some years ago and therefore found myself less inclined to do virtual runs. The only one I took part in was the ‘To the Pike & Back’ half marathon but this was because I was in the area on race day and was able to run the route at the time the event was supposed to take place.
Had I been running this at home in Scotland rather than in Bolton I would have felt like I had cheated the race and wouldn’t have been able to put the medal with my collection. Odd isn’t it? Maybe it is a little like a t-shirt I have from an event I DNS’d some years back (shirt was posted out pre-event) I don’t ever wear that shirt but I keep it as a reminder of being a knobhead and to stop doing stupid runs the day before a race.
Refunds, rearrangements and re-entry When I received the medal and the shirt a few weeks later it wasn’t with any real elation and this was perhaps the confirmation I needed to say that I would instead focus on training over virtual events. This may seem a little selfish, being unwilling to spend money on the virtual events to help keep organisers going -especially given the amount of benefit I’ve had from racing over the years, but having already spent nearly £1,000 on events and a lot more on extras I was keen not to spend money on things that I had little interest in.
However, I also had no interest in trying to recover any of the money from the events that were being cancelled and postponed because I want these businesses to survive, racing is an important part of my life and I remain happy to participate whenever racing returns. To this end where refunds have been offered and if I couldn’t do the rearranged date I simply donated my entry fee because the money was already used and I had moved on from it.
For example I donated my fee to the Quebec Mega Trail because my Canadian trip had been cancelled, when I rebooked the trip for 2021 I simply re-entered the QMT and now even though my trip has been cancelled again I will not be asking for a refund. Most importantly when we rebook our trip for 2022 I will then enter the QMT again and pay a third entrance fee.
I will continue to support events in my own way.
2021 The other reason I don’t feel particularly guilty for not doing the virtual events is that the moment there were 2021 races to enter – I started entering them. I had wanted to run the Moray Trail Series but given the hold overs from 2020 I could only run the long form of the Speyside Way, I entered within seconds of the event opening. I am hopeful that other opportunities will arise, not perhaps in ultra marathons (I’m pretty much fully booked for that) but in other smaller more community led events – 5 & 10km races, maybe the odd half marathon (to give myself a real challenge). I will happily enter as many of those as my old body will allow.
2020 was a tough year for everyone and 2021 looks like being little better as it stands but there are glimmers of hope, what I remain confident about is that most of us would like race organisers to survive this difficult time and bring racing back (whatever your distance preference).
How and when do I believe they will return? Well nobody has a crystal ball but you’ve got to remain optimistic and believe that during the second half of the year that some level of conventionality will have reached us but nothing is guaranteed, 2020 most certainly taught us that.
What I do believe though is that for a while racing will feel different, if my experience at Ultra North is anything to go by I think that events both running and non-running will be a little more nervous and perhaps lacking some of the confidence that is exuded from a great race environment. I also feel that the mass participation events will perhaps still struggle to operate – think of the amount of people that are involved in the major events, not just the runners, but everyone and you have to wonder if it is perhaps a risk that organisers, supporters and even the runners will be unwilling to stomach.
As for what 2021 should look like? Well my calendar is below and you can see that there are no real mass participation events, I’d say that some of these events would be as low as 50 participants while most will be in the low hundreds taking part. I live in hope that most of these events will go ahead but as I said earlier the first has already been postponed from April to September and one I’ll definitely be DNS’ing the QMT because I’ve now cancelled my flights to Canada.
My Calendar So, my race calendar looks a lot like last year;
Pennine Bridleway / April (Postponed)
Chacefield (3 race series) / March / April / May
Bonnie Prince Ultra / April
Ultra Scotland 50 / May
Loch Ness 360 / May
John Lucas Memorial / June
Quebec Mega Trail / July (DNS)
Run the Blades / July
Speyside Way / August
Yorkshire Three Peaks / October
Dark Peaks / November
White Peaks / November
Cheviot Goat / December
Going forward What would I like to see going forward, well that’s easy, I want to see rewarding running events that are safe (from COVID) but not safe from danger. I would like to see runners returning in big numbers to events that have brought them joy year on year.
I would love to see the return of the little events that litter the running calendar each year that draw the community together and often involve little old ladies handing out race numbers and giving you a little twinkle of their eyes to suggest that they still hold the course record.
I’d like to see event organisers having the confidence to put on new events to replace the ones that will inevitably have been lost and I’d like to see the running community supporting them.
Perhaps a positive of the various lockdowns and the pandemic is that we’ve seen a greater uptake in activity of all types and we’ve been exploring our local routes. What would be awesome is if some of those who have taken up running during the pandemic joined in with these wonderful racing celebrations of running. Races and the race experience cannot be replicated by a virtual events or even (in my opinion) by wonderful things like Parkrun, both of these do serve a very real need in the running community but they don’t do what racing does.
I’d like to think I’d even consider starting my own race or race series, though having seen the struggle of race directors during the good times to organise and fill an event, I’m not sure I’m ready to join their ranks just yet (if ever). But it is something I have been considering for quite a while and also something I feel that my natural organisational skills would be well suited to.
What have I been missing? Before I sign off I want to try and remind both you and myself about what racing does for me and maybe you’ll recognise some of this yourself.
Racing brings me nerves and anticipation, that anticipation leads to a dry mouth, clammy hands and sometimes sweaty nuts. Mostly it leads to a case of the epic shits (something I have detailed many times).
As I approach a start line I can feel the hairs on my arm standing up awaiting the order to race and as I barge into the throngs of runners ahead of me, trying to edge forward in the pack even before the race has started, I feel excited.
As I set off and my legs feel tense and yet like jelly I’ll find a rhythm and I’ll push as hard as my body will allow. I can hear the pounding of my feet on the floor, I can hear the sound of the different terrains, crunching through the leaves, sloshing through the rain and drumming deeply on the pavement. I can feel and hear the wind, it makes teeth chatter, it makes eyes narrow and it whistles across my face drying the sweat into salt that will later melt into my eyes.
But what I’ve missed most is seeing a Neil MacRitchie, Fiona Kirkaldy or Michael Hrabe, a face I know ahead of me and that feeling in my gut that is so desperate to catch them and overtake them that I feel the blood pulsing around my body and giving me that one final injection of speed. I never do catch them of course, I’m old, fat and ruined but I cross that finish line with aplomb and a little flourish.
No amount of lovely training and lovely muddy, hilly or wet running can replace that.
I used to believe that I was a creature of habit, especially regarding my running, however, increasingly I find myself evolving all aspects of my running.
This evolution has manifested itself in lots of different ways, my attitude to training for example was once that it was a necessary evil in order to reach races now I consider it the gift that keeps on giving.
I once considered that a running watch was a taskmaster that should not be nourished by your ever watchful eye but instead something to be feared, now however, I consider a watch a genuinely useful tool that informs on my progress and is nothing to fear, albeit with the caveat never to get too obsessed by numbers as the story they tell is far from complete.
I once considered myself to be a size 8 narrow fitting shoe only to realise that after many, many blisters, I am in actual fact a size 10 with hobbit width feet and it is in feet that my latest change has come about.
Fear not long time readers there shall be no pictures of my feet.
My feet are, if you’ll excuse the error, my Achilles heel. If something is going to fail me on either a run or a race it will be my feet. They simply give in and have always been prone to this, now while I can and do push through pain there’s a point where my feet tell me to fuck off and say ‘that’s enough Ultraboy’.
For anyone that has seen my nasty little hobbit feet you’ll know that even on their best day they look like someone has just run a tank over them – and let’s be frank – good days are rare. They are always encrusted with blood, goo and filth and my nails, what remains of them, are bitten (yes bitten) as far down as is possible and that’s quite far down.
It took me a long time to devise a system that would allow me to successfully run ultra marathons and I have deviated from this recipe so few times because although not perfect – it works most of the time (about 93% of the time based on DNFs).
The layering on my feet has been very simple – a light layer of a Compeed stick based lubricant on and between my toes followed by a pair of Injinji toe liner socks followed by a pair of Drymax socks (thickness being weather dependent) and encased inside a pair of Altra Lone Peak and topped with a pair of Dirty Girl Gaiters.
Each element serves a particular purpose and has done since I devised the system.
The result after running an ultra marathon with my feet dressed in this manner is that my second toe (the one next to my big toe) would invariably blister at the end, filling with fluid and peeling off a few days later but with very little pain and that was it. And since I adopted this format for my feet in races I have accepted this result as the price to pay for finishing the race.
I can only think of two significant failures of the system – the Skye Trail Ultra where my feet took an absolute battering over 28hrs and the Ridgeway where the heat and moisture played havoc with my poor little foot digits. In both instances I feel that any significant change to the system would have no different a result, just a different way of experiencing it.
Change? So why am I considering evolving the system? Well tastes change, as does product fit and product quality but perhaps it is experience that is the key here. The good thing about evolution is that you are not throwing the baby out with the bath water and what has worked for so many years will remain the basis for my feet going forward.
The Compeed remains my lubricant of choice and Dirty Girl Gaiters will remain as my top layer (they continue to be one of my favourite pieces of running kit and have never, ever failed me). However, there are changes elsewhere – my shoe choice has moved away from Altra towards Topo Athletic and I have been extensively testing running without the Injinji layer – especially in wet and muddy conditions – something that my new home of Scotland has in abundance.
Altra Let me explain a little further, I still very much love Altra running shoes and when I first put them on in 2015 they were a revelation.
Since that first pair of Lone Peak I have owned more than 30 pairs of Altra, mainly in trail but occasionally in road. Many of them have been brilliant but enough of them have had serious durability issues and some have had comfort issues (looking at you Escalante and King MT). The breaking point was the £130 Lone Peak 4.5 which were both too soft and lacking the kind of longevity that I demand out of a long distance pair of shoes. They felt a bit too much style and not enough substance.
I don’t plan on dumping my Altra as wide fitting footwear are hard to come by and have in fact just ordered a pair of Altra Golden Spikes for use in XC and the occasional icy conditions.
Altra though will move to my second choice shoe – this means they’ll be for training, shorter ultras and sub ultra races. To replace them I had a recent investment splurge in Topo Athletic after finding them to be a good mix of comfort, responsiveness and importantly – durability.
The MTN Racer, the Terraventure 2, Hydroventure 2, Ultraventure and Trailventure will form the spine of my race shoes for the next year or two but having also enjoyed training in Topo for several years they are displacing Altra as my ‘go to’ shoe for running shits and giggles.
Injinji The removal of the Injinji socks from the footwear set-up is perhaps a bigger change than replacing Altra because the Injinji have been there since my first ultra marathon – they were on my feet when I ran my first marathon but they only became a layered sock at the St Peter’s Way in 2014 and there is an emotional connection to the physical benefit I perceived they brought.
But I am less and less convinced by the physical benefit in my layering system.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the Injinji liner sock and currently own 12 pairs of them (thank you Castleberg Outdoors for your buy three get one free offer). The Injinji liner sock provides a very comfortable, soft, durable material between the outer sock and your foot. The liner is a delight and the fact it separates your toes out is a nice feeling after a long day on the trail. However, I’ve been running tests with my Injinji liners recently both alone and in conjunction with my Drymax socks and once the Injinji sock is wet it doesn’t respond as well as the Drymax.
The Drymax almost instantly warms the feet when wet but the Injinji liner does not and in the time it takes the liner sock to dry out (which to be fair isn’t very long at all) the damage is already done. If my feet take several soakings that means that the next to skin layer is almost always going to be wet or at the very least damp and I believe that I can reduce some of the fatigue my feet are feeling by removing the liner.
The Drymax sock is so good that it really has never needed anything else I was just such a creature of habit that I kept the Injini liner because of sentiment. What this means though is that I’ve had to increase the amount and variety of Drymax socks in my collection to cover the various seasons and race types (thanks to the Ultramarathon Running Store for stocking all the socks I need).
But what of the dozen pairs of Injinji socks?
Oh that’s easy – they will become my summer running socks and having just purchased my first pair of running spikes I suspect they will be the perfect companion for them.
The lesson of the sock There is a lesson here and it’s a pretty simple one, don’t be afraid of change – at a time where things are batshit crazy, making changes is okay. Whether it’s the way you protect your feet during a run or something that’s actually serious. Change can be positive, let’s hope that’s how my feet feel after their next race.
Please note this post is entirely my own opinion, I have no brand affiliation and I pay for ALL my own gear! Which is why I get to say fuck so much and talk about poo.
The pandemic has given many of us time to reflect on how we live our lives and the things that are important to us. For me there has been a good deal of introspection and observing myself in ways that I haven’t done for a long time.
For example I observed that I’d become an apologist for my weight gain and I’d become drab in the way I presented myself. The truth is that I have always been a bit drab in the way I presented myself, even in my raving, disco dancing heyday I preferred to be neutral, sombre, hiding in plain sight but in more recent years I’ve been keen to be more outlandish but without the body confidence or personality to pull it off.
The weight gain had become a real issue during the early days of the pandemic and I found myself finally willing to do something about it (and still am, 18kg down, 6kg to go). The running became more structured and there was the addition of paddle sports, roller skating, cycling and weight training. There was something though that gnawed at me and it was the desire to be more outwardly outrageous. Hmmm.
I’ve always enjoyed mildly batshit coloured running shoes but have rarely extended that to the rest of my running attire so how could I go about my makeover?
First I started growing some ridiculous facial hair – within a month it was suitably long, straggly and insane but I liked it. I bought a collection of new footwear including the MTN Racer from Topo Athletic and I finally imported the awesome (also Topo Athletic) Terraventure 2 in a lurid yellow that I have long coveted. Then I went that little bit further I started buying multi-coloured, swirly patterned running tops, orange and bright red running vests, big rainbow bobble hats and pink Drymax socks. I realised I had hit my personal zeitgeist as far as running fashion was concerned when I ordered a pair of mirrored shades with which to put this all together.
It was awesome.
I figured I might well look like a giant prick but I just didn’t give two flying fucks because I was kind of giant prick I wanted to be.
Being happy in yourself is important because it is really, really hard to help other people be happy if you aren’t. It is important to stress that the way we look is not the most important thing and that shouldn’t be the takeaway from this, the takeaway is that I needed to be myself and express my own individuality, even if it is only while I’m bombing along a trail somewhere. The pandemic has provided the luxury of time for me to identify the kind of person I want to be going forward (subject to surviving the pandemic of course). So if you see me in a race or running along somewhere looking like a bona fide bellend, remember this, I’m loving it.
So be yourself, express yourself and ultimately as long as you’re not shitting all over someone else’s life then it doesn’t really matter what you do to achieve your own happy.
I remember when I started running I knew that the training would be the worst bit, not the actual bothering to do it but finding the time to do it. I committed to the idea of the runcommute and stuck to this religiously but in order to do this I needed a running bag.
Now I might not be the biggest fan of running but I am a huge fan of shopping and I’m pretty good at it which is why I now own so many bloody running vests and bags. Below is a brief history of my running pack history and how my over buying across the years might be able to help you out a little bit. I’ll be honest though if I could have my time over I’d still buy them all again!
But where did it all begin?
OMM I tried all sorts of bags but none of them worked until I came across the OMM Classic 25. When I put this on, I never looked back.
I bought the OMM Classic 25 in 2011 and I still use it on a regular basis. When the OMM Classic 25 was my only running bag I used it every single day both in runcommuting and in training. During the week it carried my changes of clothes, laptops, kit, paperwork, lunches, etc – it was brilliant and during the weekend it would carry waterproofs, snacks and fluids.
Classic 25 The key things that I loved about the OMM Classic 25 were;
The huge amount of available space
The incredibly comfortable fit
The large top pocket
The spacious hip pockets
The stuff pocket on the back of the bag
After owning this bag for nearly a decade I can serve as witness to the truly amazingly durable nature of OMM products and the fact I’ve gone back to them time and again means I trust their products.
Over the course of the next decade I added in a variety of larger and smaller options from OMM, the Ultra 15 was the bag I used on my first ultra marathon, the Classic 32 and the Adventure 20 are both used for fast packing, run commuting, hiking and races and the Phantom 25 was purchased with the intent of using it at the Montane Cheviot Goat Ultra marathon.
Perhaps the most interesting purchase is that of the OMM Ultra 8 which I have purchased in 2020 for my 6 year old daughter. I want her to have the best kit that it is possible to have and although she is not currently a trail runner she is a hill/mountain hiker and sometimes she needs to carry her own kit. The OMM 8 is a brilliant fit for a young adventurer and will grow with her. Perhaps my more melancholic side wonders if the bag will outlive me and remind my daughter of good and bad times in the mountains.
Oxsitis When I was looking for something more vest like than my OMM running bags I turned to Salomon. The French sportswear company looked like they had products that were very simple and easy to use, however, my experience with Salomon was confused and difficult. The fit was never comfortable on my back and the arrangements of pockets felt less well thought out than other bags and so I moved on pretty quickly. During this period I experimented with my first UD vest – the PB signature series and loved it but in 2014 as I moving into Hoka running shoes for the first time I stopped by their London Marathon stand and came across a little oddity that Hoka were not selling – a running bag.
Let’s be clear Hoka do not make running bags and so I assumed this was some sort of expo special that the stand staff could wear to promote the brand but to my surprise these were production models of products that Hoka would be releasing. But when? The man on the stand suggested that it might be some time before this pack hit UK shores, however, he did let me try it on and have a proper look and it was amazing.
It turned out that the Hoka bag was actually made by a French company called Oxsitis and the model at the expo was their rebadged Hydragon Ace 17. After the Hoka test I decided that I needed to have one of the Hydragon 17 and so immediately got one sent from France at 160 euros it wasn’t cheap but it did things that no other running bag was at the time and to this day I doubt you’d find a race vest that had a pocket organiser in the main compartment.
Hydragon Ace 17 The key things that I loved about the Oxsitis Hydragon 17 were;
17 litres of space
The incredibly comfortable fit
The internal organiser
The pole carriers
I loved and still love my Oxsitis 17 (so much so that I bought two of them, I also added the larger capacity Enduro 30 and the Hydrobelt). The level of comfort afforded by all my Oxisitis running bags is better than anything I have with before or since and there were a number of clever innovations beyond the main compartment organiser such as the pole holders, the large velcro adjustment system, the magnetic number holder and the phone specific pocket.
The Hydragon Ace was amazing as a race vest but it was also a tremendous commuter.
The 17 litres of storage and the internal organiser made it perfectly suited to carrying work clothes or food, drinks and even on occasion a small laptop. The ripstop material that made up the bulk of its construction was strong and robust and also crucially more waterproof than anything I had in my arsenal. However, it was not waterproof but it stayed drier longer than my OMM bags and if your clothes were in a semi decent drybag then anything behind it in the organiser would mostly stay dry in all but the worst downpours.
Oxsitis still make amazing kit and I am sure that I’ll revisit them when I’m looking for a replacement for the Hydragon in the future.
Ultimate Direction When Ultimate Direction came along the ultra marathon scene just seemed to be hitting the mainstream and I’d been running these longer distance races for a little over a year. UD seemed to catch lightning in a bottle and ride this explosion of interest in the sport with the release of the ‘Signature Series’. They signed up three of the best endurance athletes out there Scott Jurek, Anton Krupika and Peter Bakwin and got them to ‘design’ the kit that they would use on adventures. I think every ultra runner, wannabee ultra runner and parkrunner got one of these running vests – I know I did.
Experience of racing and commuting had taught me a couple of things – the first was that ‘there are racing bags/vests and there are running bags/vests’ and the UD Signature Series was part of the former and not the latter and so when I bought it I knew that this was going to be for racing rather than day to day running (which at the time was mainly commuting).
Even the largest of the vests (PB) was a tiny form factor but could store a huge amount of kit and was the perfect racing vest, the bottles it came with were a revelation and it was the kind of innovation that you thought would let you finish that hundred miler with ease.
I delighted in rolling up to races such as the South Downs Way 50 or the St Peters Way wearing this and feeling confident that I had the perfect partner. We ran lots of races together, at every distance – no longer would I be reliant on the water aid stations – I’d simply carry my own supply.
The bag had a large volume main section, a very useful stretch mesh back pocket, little pockets littered the front of the vest and the side and everything felt very robustly built. This was also the race vest that made me stop using hydration bladders, something that I have not returned to because the UD PB14 taught me the value of knowing how much water you’re carrying!
Signature Series PB (v1) The key things that I loved about the Signature Series PB were;
14 litres of space
The tiny overall size
The level of adjustability
The ability to carry poles with ease
Great build quality
Some say that the version 1 had a few quirks with the quality of the materials but I never found this and I’ve had mine now for more than 6 years, the first 3 of those this was just a racing vest but afterwards it became an every day road and trail running pack that has done thousands of running and fast hiking miles. My Signature Series vest shows no sign of giving up anytime soon and you’ve got to love kit that just refuses to be replaced. Perhaps to highlight how much I love this running vest, despite mostly retiring it from racing service, I will still on a race morning pick this old friend out and check my kit in the back and go and race a marathon or a shorter ultra and it never lets me down.
UD have had some great vest and bags in the years since and I did buy the Signature Series (v3) of this pack which remains part of my racing and training rotation and had a number of truly excellent upgrades including the Burrito pocket. I’ve also use the original Fastpack 20 and Fastpack 15 – both of which have been excellent on things such as the Skye Trail Ultra, commuting and longer fastpacking adventures.
UD though seem to suffer periodic dips in form in terms of design and quality and it is always worth waiting a little while to ensure that their latest ‘innovations’ are actually improvements – for example I found the tightening systems on their last couple of adventure vests to be a little difficult and so avoided them. However, I would have no hesitation in buying more things from this well regarded brand, but I’d always want to test it first.
Raidlight I came to Raidlight because I had this dream that one day I’d run the UTMB. Now, although I’ve subsequently relinquished that dream in favour of running more interesting races I did during my trip to the CCC discover the Raidlight brand and I fell immediately head over heels in love.
At the time though I had no need for a new running vest. I just purchased my first Hydragon from Oxsitis and I still had lots of others that were in perfectly good working order. So I returned to the UK and many months went by before I thought about Raidlight again. It was while walking up from Charing Cross to Oxford Street that I saw a gentleman wearing what I would later learn was the Raidlight Olmo 20. I chased this fully laden runner down the street in my shirt and trousers and ran alongside him quizzing him.
I decided that the Olmo 20 was too large for me and so that very evening ordered a Raidlight XP14 which was such an odd running bag and wildly unique. I really enjoyed this as a commuting bag as it was taller, slimmer and more nimble that some of the others which tended to be more squat in order to ride higher up the back but I was never a fan of the belly band, for vanity reasons rather than anything else, they make me look even fatter than I am! However, despite this not being the perfect bag it did inspire me to consider other options from Raidlight and when my back started giving me issues in 2015 I looked for something that would ride high on my back and that I could carry more load in pockets and higher up the bag – enter the Olmo 20 and for shorter races enter the Revolutiv 12.
Olmo 20 The key things that I loved about the Olmo 20 were;
20 litres of well considered space
Front carrying system for poles that kept out of the way
Sits high on the back
Lots of adjustment potential
I feel that Raidlight are a bit of a marmite brand whichever way you look at them, detractors say the quality isn’t up to much and the fit can be weird in all their kit but their fans are equally vocal about what tremendously well thought out kit this is – I think the reality is somewhere in between. Sometimes the build quality has let them down (although I’ve never had any problems) and the fit can sometimes be weird (the i love trail series of shorts come to mind) but on the whole Raidlight makes stunningly interesting and useful kit and should never be dismissed from your purchasing thoughts. The Olmo 20 is a very special case in that I bought it to help keep me running through the various back pains I’ve had over the last few years.
When it arrived I was surprised how snug it all was but that it felt like everything was build like a circle around the runner and aside from the main pocket you could pretty much access everything you need while on the move or without needing to take the vest off.
Materials were varied and designed to be used in the places they were needed – so a harder stiffer material on the bottom for when you hurl your race vest on the floor to the super comfortable and quick drying vest harness. There are an abundance of pockets that litter the front, the side and the reverse of the pack and internally there is some compartmentalisation to make it simpler to know where your kit is. It’s simple but it is clever. I find this a very easy vest to use.
The Olmo 20 remains one of my key race vests because of the level of comfort it affords me and the flexibility of the pack is almost unbeatable. It’s a shame that Raidlight no longer make it but then I do also own the supremely brilliant Revolutiv 12, so I suppose there’s hope that their gear going forward will be as brilliant as the gear of the past.
HARRIER Harrier are the new kid on the block and what in modern parlance would be described as a disruptor that is taking aim squarely at Ultimate Direction and Salomon. If you’re a long distance runner, fell runner or ultra marathoner then the chances are you own one of the big brand racing vests but with Harrier you’re being offered a genuine alternative at a price point that is impossible to ignore. I had zero need of another running vest – the above running bags and vests are almost all still in active service and therefore Harrier would have to be something amazing to make me buy it.
During the summer months I found myself in full research mode about the brand and became fascinated with Kate Mackenzies drive and determination to develop the Harrier brand and bring well crafted and priced gear to the running community. However, still not needing a new race vest in any way shape or form I didn’t order one.
Then I ran the Ultra North race in my trusty Olmo 20 with both of us performing brilliantly in shit conditions and there I saw it, the Harrier Kinder 10l attached to a slow and steady runner who had it jammed to the rafters. Despite being full to the brim my fellow competitor commented that it was the most comfortable running bag she had ever used.
Upon my return to Scotland I ordered the ultra bundle – something that I will be reviewing in the near future.
However, I can give you this advanced preview and tell you that the Harrier Kinder 10 litre running vest is one of the best running packs I have ever worn. I immediately made a tremendous friend in the Kinder and we have been adventuring on a daily basis ever since she arrived.
Kinder 10 The key things that I loved about the Kinder 10 were;
Big split rear carrying section
Well positioned pockets
Excellently located straps to keep things strapped down near to your body
Lots of adjustment potential
A pocket seemingly perfectly designed to carry a DJI Osmo Action or GoPro
I won’t spoil the details of my in-depth review which will look at the Harrier running vests but for the money they are brilliant and to be fair to them if they were double the price you would be hard pressed to complain. They really do feel like the child of a Salomon and UD vest but with many of the mistakes from both of those manufacturers ironed out. Don’t get me wrong it is not a perfect piece of kit but it’s as near as any race vest is ever going to get when it needs to fit such a wide variety of runners. I’d commend Kate and Harrier for producing such brilliant kit (not just the race vests but all the other stuff too) and I loved the Harrier Kinder 10 so much that I bought a second just this week and then added in one of the 5 litre Curbar options – this time I went for their bright more batshit colours because that’s the kind of runner I am.
Mistakes, I’ve had a few, as the song says… below are some of the ones that I never really got on with.
I love the kit of WAA but the UltraBag was an expensive mistake – despite its reputation as the ultimate MDS bag I found it to be poorly thought out and worse, badly executed. The bottle holders on the 2017 version I had didn’t cinch down very well, the bottles themselves were terrible – leaking everywhere as they bounced around on my chest. The bag no longer came fitted with the Sherpa strap which was a feature I desired and the ability to add additional pockets was poorly made and sized and simply didn’t fit anything very well. The worst thing though was when the chest pouch attachment simply fell apart and the zip slid straight off the end during its first run.
I know some people love it but I didn’t and was very disappointed. In hindsight I should have returned it to the ultra marathon running store but I didn’t and so now it gets used as a bag for biking with – but it’s not the trusted companion that many other of my race vests became.
My Camelbak XT01 (I think) was an impulse purchase and one that I should have thought more carefully about. Although sold as a running bag it had all the hallmarks of being a better bag for biking. The low volume combined with a fit that didn’t feel geared to a no bounce experience made this feel unpleasant to run in. The vest was also made of heavy material and susceptible to taking in water without ever drying so all in all this was a fail and I’ve never considered a Camelbak again.
I genuinely don’t think you recommend a running vest or bag to a runner any more than you can recommend a pair of running shoes and say, ‘these will be perfect for you’.
A running pack is such a specific thing and the fit is not universal and nor are your individual needs. With the high street rapidly disappearing though it is becoming increasingly difficult to try kit on and therefore you are required to make expensive purchases before potentially having to return them and incurring delivery charges which simply makes things even pricier.
If I had some tips for you I would say;
Where you can try on the running packs, the more you try on the better you’ll understand what is right for you.
One pack might not do all scenarios – so for example you might want a bigger pack for commuting than you do for racing.
Think carefully about what size you need, is it something simply to carry your phone and jumper or will you be carrying water, bottles, poles, etc? There is a big difference between the OMM Classic 25 and the Raidlight Revolutiv 12
Think carefully about features you would like – pole holders, gear rails, lots of straps, vest fitting, whistle, key clips, stuff sack, hydration bladder compatible.
Look at online reviews of the specific pack you are considering, check social channels too and especially look for those reviews that give details of fit. For example I am 5’9, 38″ chest, 32″ waist, 70kg and the Kinder 10 litre fits me perfectly but my second purchase of the Kinder is a large to allow me to better fit larger amounts of kit in the pack and wear layers for winter racing.
Don’t spend a fortune until you know what is right – consider the excellent range of Decathlon race vests and bags have. These tend to be significantly cheaper than Salomon, UD, etc and are generally excellent quality. The Harrier running vests are also at such a good price point that these feature packed bits of kit must be a contender for good quality, good value packs (perhaps less good for commuting though).
Buy last years kit – there are always sales on the previous iteration of the main brands running packs and bags, you really do not need the latest colourway.
Avoid Sports Direct (this is a general point but also good advice for running packs).
Borrow another runners kit, I realise in these COVID infused times that is more difficult than usual but I have loaned out my running bags before and would happily do so again in the future.
WHERE CAN I BUY?
There are lots of retailers who will do an excellent range of running kit, below are a few URLS to help get your research underway. To note I’d like to say that I have purchased all the running packs that I own, nobody sponsors me and the links I am providing above are for your reference and research only. I currently have 23 race packs, that’s lots of user testing gone on and hope it’s helpful.
Do also remember that there are lots of other great brands to try out and just because I didn’t get on with something or haven’t written about it doesn’t mean that you won’t love it – brands that you could consider researching include WAA, Ronhill, Nathan and Salomon (there are a plethora of others too).
I’ve tried most of running brands one way or another and I’ll guarantee you’ll eventually find something that works for you but it can be a minefield and so don’t rush into an expensive purchase until you are ready.
I’ve been asked a million questions on ultras and I’ve asked a fair few too, some are quite individual to a person while some are really good openers to get a conversation started with someone you’ve just met and might well be running with for quite some time.
Below I’ve listed a few of the questions I’ve asked or been asked and also some of the odder responses that I’ve heard and been heard to say. Having time to finally finish this epic post is one of the few benefits of self isolation.
Do you rock up to Parkrun in an ultra t-shirt to show off, then get your arse kicked by a 6 year old? This was a question I asked when I was recounting the time I had just completed the Thames Path 100 and wanted to show off by a) wearing it to the Tunbridge Wells Parkrun and b) wearing it while running with the buggy. I remember running past two guys who shouted, ‘that blokes just overtaken us while pushing a buggy’. My rather dickish response was to say, ‘ read the back of the t-shirt for the reason why!’ What an arse I was.
Do you want to be on the 100 marathon list or would you rather be on the 100 ultra list? I remember getting to about 20 marathons/ultras and suddenly thinking I could probably get to a hundred and then when I hit about 40 marathons/ultras I realised that it didn’t matter and when I finally reached 50 I knew that I no longer wanted to be a member of the 100 marathon club. Seeing people hammering out lap after lap of looped marathons to me felt like the wrong way to go about it. I knew that if I ever reached 100 I would want to do it by going and running at really awesome place and facing down routes that would really test me.
Do you have more running clothes than day to day clothes? I very quickly stopped buying day to day clothes in any significant manner once I was running enough to justify running purchases. From there I realised that I would be much happier in kit that was designed to do the thing that I love like hiking and dog walking
Whats the biggest lie you’ve told to justify a running purchase?
I’ve told a few half truths over the years in order to justify a purchase or two. I did however need to sneak a couple of pairs of shoes in once and when the GingaNinja asked why my bag was so heavy I claimed there was work in there. When she saw them a few weeks later I simply told her that I’d bought them months ago. I’m confident she has never believed a single one of my lies. I do regular knock £20 off the price of a pair of shoes.
You know Neil MacRitchie too?
The amount of times I’ve run into people in the Scottish Ultra scene that know Neil MacRitchie is unreal – I sometimes wonder if he is actually real or instead some form of urban legend. We tend to run lots of the same events and his name often comes up and he is a much loved and respected face on the scene. It was delight to meet him nearly 5 years ago and it remains my joy to know him now.
Which races would you immediately recommend? When a first time ultra runner asked me this I said, ‘Skye Trail Ultra (review), SainteLyon (review) and MIUT (review)’. I told him that if he liked being brutalised these were the races to aim for.
Do you ever get sandwiches (or any other foodstuff) stuck on the roof of your mouth at checkpoints? It’s weird I was running on the St Peters Way and I had eaten a sandwich and the crustless bread connected with my upper palette and refused to move. I ended up putting my filthy, sweaty fingers into my mouth and scrapped the sandwich out, it was horrific as the butter and ham sloshed about in my mouth. This remains one of my worst moments when racing, which is weird considering the amount of poo stories I’ve got in the locker.
Have you ever made a mud fairy?
I was running the Ambleside 60 (read about it here), my 51st ultra and I was about 45km in and I took a mis-step into a thick pool of mud, normally I would correct myself but for some reason I simply allowed my foot to sink further and further into the mud until the cold wet mud was tickling my testicles (low slung?) Anyway gravity soon took over and I found myself lurching backwards into the filthy brown stuff and while there I felt the delusions of the day come upon me and simply started making a mud fairy. It wasn’t impressive as a fairy but it was a lot of fun.
Ever felt you were in genuine danger during a race?
There have a couple of times were I’ve felt in real trouble, the first time was on a ridge in the dark on the Isle of Skye with quote a severe drop to one side of me. I leaned heavily into the side where I was more assured of safety. The only other time I felt in danger was when I was running past groups of men in the shadows of the canal section of Country to Capital – now as far as I am aware no runner has ever been attacked but you’re running through some pretty shitty sections of London on that route and the canal was clearly a Mecca for those wanting to do drugs or have illicit sex – I definitely overheard the moans and groans of more than one fat sweaty man down on the canalised as I was running.
How do you cope with mental fatigue?
At around the mid point of a race I can sometimes start to struggle mentally – doesn’t matter the distance it is always at about the midpoint. There are so many tricks that you can adopt to try and get through it – some people will listen to music or podcasts others will focus on their surroundings but I find myself during moments of mental fatigue to benefit from company. This can be such a hard thing though that you become reliant on the generosity of another persons mental strength to help pull you through. There have been innumerable runners whose positivity and mental security have seen me across a finish line, from Anne-Marie at my first ultra at the White Cliffs 50, to Andy at the Skye Trail Ultra, Neil at Tweed Valley through to the amazing Elaine at the Green Man. I remember these people and more because when I was feeling down, when I was ready to give up they showed me that there was another way. This highlights perhaps why my successes at ultras on mainland Europe have been so rare – the language barrier can make it harder to get that lift from your fellow runners, funny really.
Which is you favourite running shop?
I love running shops, they’re awesome and sadly we’ve lost a fair few of them recently including the awesome Likeys. Independent running shops are the life blood of the ultra running community and we should always support them – I don’t have a favourite which is why I try and buy from all of them but my usual go to places are Pete Bland Sports, Castleberg Outdoors, Northern Runner, The Climbers Shop and occasionally I’d dip in to Runners Need. The one place I refuse to buy from though is Sports Direct and there are so many goo reasons why I won’t
What’s the best tip you’ve ever been given?
I have a list of the best tips I have ever received and I’ll give you my top three, the first is ‘walk the hills’ the second is ‘walk the hills as fast as you can’ and the third top tip is ‘never sit down’. I mostly stick to these rules.
How rapey do you think I look?
This is a question that comes from the fact that during a race a fellow runner in the middle of the night approached me and said, ‘do you mind if we together? You don’t look too rapey’. Now as an opening gambit it is both ballsy and memorable. Jo turned out to be a fabulous runner who just need a bit of support during a tough moment on the Thames Path 100 but that question has stuck with me and it is a tale I enjoy telling on the trail with all the obvious embellishments of mock horror in my reaction.
Do you have a spreadsheet at home with race data on it?
Lots of runners I know have spreadsheets with race finishes, I do not but what I do have are countless Moleskine notebooks with race notes, kit lists, runs I’ve done, blog ideas, etc.
What’s the best tip you’ve ever given?
Don’t forget to take tissues
How much do you get respect from your family for your running adventures?
Almost zero, even my daughter who used to think I was the mutts nuts or running now tells me she is a better runner than I am
Do you do the whole social media running thing?
I have a bit of. a love hate relationship with running community and social media, I found myself becoming part of little ultra running groupings and I started to not enjoy being part of that and so I came off for a while and when I returned they had moved on and I felt much better about my participation in the social media running community. I like to think I have positive control over social media, posting only when I have something to say on a subject or to reply to those who might contact me. I suppose the other thing that really annoyed me about social media was the amount of people you would be talking to and you couldn’t determine whether you were talking to a person or talking to the mouthpiece for a brand – that really chaffs my arse about social media in the running community.
Do you think races are too expensive?
Yes and no. Rat Race are too expensive by a country mile but then The Falkirk Ultra is too cheap. Some RDs really aren’t making any money from putting events on and that saddens me. Ultimately if you’re putting in all the hard work to make something a success for other people then there should be some form of reward at the end of it. On the other side of it there is no doubt that things like Race to the Stones are too commercial and overpriced but there are also lots of races in the middle. I suppose the message is that there is something for everyone regardless of your budget be it big or small. Me personally I’m not dogmatic about ‘the race must be less than £1 per mile’ but I do look for value for money and for my money I want a great route, an interesting medal and good organisation – then I’m happy my money has been spent wisely regardless of the cost.
Have you ever done one of the Rat Race events?
I have actually done a couple of the Rat Race events, I think the first one was The Survival of the Fittest 10km running around a obstacle course in the grounds and the structure of Battersea Power Station, an exciting experience but even in 2011 it was about £50, I went on to run my second ultra marathon with them, The Wall – another expensive one but the value for money here was better and I was grateful of their support throughout the race.
What’s the most expensive race you’ve done?
This is a difficult one because there are so many ways to measure the cost of race – so the cost per mile is a popular way of looking at it but I tend to look at the broader cost implications when calculating the costs. So for example travel to the race, accommodation costs, kit specific to that race, entry fee, etc. I also like to add in a cost for enjoyment – so the more I enjoyed a race then the less I will be bothered by the financial impact of an event. When I add all these together then the most expensive race I’ve ever been involved in was the CCC from the UTMB series of races and the truth of the matter is that it is also the race I enjoyed the least.
What do you do if you shat yourself?
I’ve asked this question several times to several very lovely runners – almost all of whom had a story to tell either about themselves or someone else. I’ve never quite shat myself but I’ve come pretty close on more than one occasion – it was either the Testway Ultra or the Mouth to Mouth and I’d been running painfully for about 5km because there was zero cover and I was desperate for a poo. I eventually found a single thorny bush at the top of a hill and ‘hid’ as best I could. At least five runners ran past me in the 30 seconds that I was perched and I had to clean up my own mess as best as I could – I hoped nothing ever dug that monster up!
What’s the most ridiculous reason for injury you’ve picked up during a race?
I had just gotten back from a week in the lovely Budapest and had as usual done zero training, we arrived back into London at about 2.00am and my next race was less than five hours away. I quickly packed up a load of kit and bumbled along to the race start of a lapped ultra on the Cyclopark in Gravesend, Ken. I was looking to keep my distance to the minimum so was keeping close to the inside edge when I slipped off the track and onto the grass – twisting my ankle in the process. I was about 20km in to a 100km race and made the immediate decision to drop down to the 50km distance. I remember hobbling for about 10km before I gingerly tried a bit more running – it took months to recover from my own stupidity and maybe I was never the same again.
To pole or not to pole? Is that even a question?
I met an older runner at a race some years ago who was bimbling along quite nicely and I asked him why he wasn’t using the poles he was carrying in his pack, especially given the terrain we crossing. He stopped and turned to me and said, ‘I don’t use them to run with, I use them to the whack the tourists who are in my way’.
What’s the worst blistering you’ve ever had during a race?
There are some horrendous tales of blistering – mostly feet based but I’ve witnessed runners who have had skin tore from their bodies from race vests that have rubbed or T-shirts that aren’t as silky smooth as they should be. During ‘The Wall’ my feet were really struggling, at mile 42 I took my shoes off and looked at my feet – I counted more than a dozen blisters on each foot and treated the worst offenders with Compeed second skin solutions, I burst a couple of them that I knew I could contend with for the remaining 30 miles and the rest I was just going to have to put up with.When I stopped at mile 62 my feet were one big bloody mess and I finally changed my shoes. I had run the first 62 miles in a size 8.5 Adidas, narrow fitting, trail shoe and the last 7 in a pair of size 9, soft, supple Inov8. What I can tell you is this, in later years I discovered that I was not a size 8.5, nor a size 9, I am actually a size 10 – but a wide fitting size 10, hence why I now wear Altra and Topo Athletic as my first choice shoes. I have a feeling that the blistering I experienced during The Wall was very much down to my footwear choice that day.
Ever tried to run with carrier bags on your feet after you look like you’ve already got trench foot?
While volunteering on a hundred mile ultra I saw feet in the worst possible condition but there was a Frenchman I met who had what looked like trench foot. He was pretty ruined at mile 76 were I was stationed and after a short rest in the dry of the tent he said, ‘I will put my feet in these’ and handed us two sealed plastic bags and he insisted that we gaffer tape the bags to his legs and then he inserted them back into his shoes. We advised him that his feet would be like boil in the bag rice and that the pain he was in would be nothing to the pulled pork effect he was going to be suffering from later down the line – his response to us was, ‘I am French’. I don’t know anything further about the man other than he finished the remaining 24 miles in the horrid, hot, wet, summer weather.
What are your bad running habits?
I want to say I don’t have any bad running habits but the truth is I have thousands and I’ve been told about a few too. A lady I was running the Testway ultra was telling me about how she would always carry one spare buff with her – for the front and back wipe scenario, she went on to say that she would of course the same buff for keeping sweat out of her eyes or even wiping her nose and keeping her face warm. I was both disgusted and heartened by this. N.B. I always carry at least 3 buffs with me.
What inspires you to do the training?
Sadly very little but if there is one thing that will force me out is the guilt of over eating and getting a bit lardy. A great running experience comes a close second
Favourite podcast to listen to when you’re running?
Without a doubt ‘My dad wrote a porno’ it is the single least erotic but filthiest listening material you’ll ever come across and often has me in belly laughs. I tend not to race listening to anything but if I’m running and hiking in the hills alone then I will invariably listen to something like that. The other great listening material is Matt Fforde’s Political Party which I find fascinating and revealing. Both highly recommended.
Did Lindley Chambers ever let you stroke his beard?
I’ve never met anyone who was fortunate enough to stroke his beard but I’ve known a lot of people who have wanted to. He has a face that seems to suggest he would not enjoy his face being stroked.
If you knew you were going to die out on a trail one day which one would you choose?
I’d choose Skye I think on the ridge where I nearly died in the baking sun as I shat myself stupid while also puking my guts up
How many miles a year do you run?
I’m always amazed when fellow runners go, ‘3,000 miles’ or even ‘2,000 miles’ and then I realise that in a decent year I probably run around ‘2,000 miles’. Some of the runners you meet are truly special in the awesome distances that they can run but then I’m in awe of most people who get out there.
What’s the best race T-shirt you’ve ever gotten from a race?
So many race T-shirts have meaning, not just mine but everyones. The shirt I got from Escape from Meriden (review) is a personal favourite of mine
Do you enjoy enjoy the overnight running?
I’ve spoken to lots of runners about running through the night and I’ve met a lot of runners who like me find that bit of the night between about 2am and 5am – the coldest bit of the night – really tough. The bit when you are desperate for the sun to come up to relieve the claustrophobia that you’re feeling. I’ve seen runners wrap up and cover themselves for the night time duration but this is something I tend to avoid as I’m not a fan of changing my kit unless absolutely necessary, we all have our little tricks to survive the night but I think we are all glad when it is over.
Do you forget that you’ve done certain races?
I never thought it was possible to forget races but I met people early in my career that could barely remember some of the races they had competed in. I realise that some races are more memorable than others but I couldn’t imagine a time when this would happen to me – now though, more than 200 races in and I can barely recall the ones I did last year never mind the races I did nearly a decade ago. Worse than forgetting races is the fact that I also now mix up races and certain bits from one event get inserted to the timeline of another, maybe that is the reason I write about them – so I can bloody well remember them.
If you were to wax your pubes would this itch during a race?
This question came up twice in quick succession at two different races, once with a lady and once with a gentleman both of whom gave a full and frank account of racing post waxing your bits. The lady said that it needs to be done a few days before to give it time to all calm down a bit and feel nice and lovely smooth against the lycra. She told me that she found the experience of trimming her bush back rather painful as the hairs then had sharp ends and could cause pain as she was running. She did indicate that if you were prone to excessive sweating or it was very hot then it could be a less pleasant experience if you are hairless down below. The gentleman I met who was discussing this issue explained that he had once waxed his entire body about two weeks before a race during a stag party – he didn’t go into the details about how he ended up being totally waxed but I’m confident it wasn’t a usual routine. He explained that the itch was unbearable and that wearing his Compressport gear was making it ten times worse. in the short time I ran with him he must have itched himself about a million times and I can only image he was desperate to grab hold of his nut sack and give it good old scratch. Poor bugger. The lesson is be careful if you’re a fan of hairlessness
How far off the route do you go for a poo?
I’m a bit of slow coach so if I go too far off the route I’ve simply got to make that distance back up, therefore I try to go far enough not to be seen, or worse, smelt and also somewhere with enough cover that nobody will ever come across it and I can bury it to some degree. I once had a situation where I was into the last 10 miles or so of a 100 mile race and to my surprise I had a bit of a turn of pace, it was early in the morning and the first light of day was coming through. The trail was winding and fun and I decided to enjoy this first light by running a bit harder than I had through the night. As I cam tearing around the corner I saw a fellow competitor, naked from the waist down, sitting atop a branch with his milk bottle legs dangling down and poo evacuating his bottom. I ran past him with nothing more than a, ‘nice morning for it’ and smiled at his companion who had been guarding the trail from the other direction. I never saw him again but what I did see – the milk bottle white legs, the poo evacuating his bottom and his penis – was quite enough.
Have you ever thought you’ve seen an apparition on the trail?
No, they don’t exist
How many shoes have you lost in bogs?
I’ve never lost a shoe in a bog but I once saw a runner at one of these OCR races – I think it was the Grim Challenge walking slowly back to the start barefooted – he had lost both his shoes and one of his socks. This was a sad sight as it was the middle of December and he just looked miserable.
What’s the weirdest thing you thought a shadow was?
It was at the Challenge Hub 24 and on each lap in the dark I imagined hat this branch was a snaked trying to bite me – the truth is that it was a combination of the wind and the branch that kept trying to bite me. Weirdly though during the daylight hours I did see a couple of grass snakes on the route – maybe that was playing on my mind in the darkness.
How many days will you use the same kit for before washing?
I need clean kit everyday – I mean I could just about manage to wear the same running kit on my commute in to work and my commute home but I would even then sometimes have a clean top. But I know runners, especially ultra runners who have worn the same kit for a week before they’ll even consider it dirty enough to hit the washing machine. One woman who shall remain nameless said she wouldn’t wash her kit until it was crusty enough to put a crease in it. Nasty.
Why do you think we believe we are interested in each other?
I’m curious as to why I find myself revealing the contents of my life to complete strangers while running when in real life I am a very private person and won’t share my address, my date of birth, the names of my loved ones, etc. I often wonder what it is about being alongside someone who is a complete stranger to you that makes you tell tales that you would normally take to the grave with you. I know I’m not alone in doing this either – I’ve come across people who just natter for hours on end and often with a specific focus on personal events in their life. I find it fascinating and I also find it wonderful. I’ve never managed to get the bottom of why we believe we are interested in one another but I have a theory – I’ve assumed that we know the chances that we will meet again are remote and therefore we can share things we might not normally share and that there is a joy in someone who will listen or support from a brand new perspective. I’m always grateful for those people that listen to me witter on and I’m equally grateful to those that witter right back at me. I remember people like Francesca at the Testway Ultra, Elaine at The Green Man, Grant at the Snowdonia Marathon, Anne-Marie at the White Cliffs, Andy at the Skye Trail Ultra or Neil at any number of events – these people and many, many more have often made events for me and their chatter has been the thing that has gotten me through and I hope in some small part that my chatter helped them too.
Do you ever wonder why you blog for so few readers?
I was speaking to a fellow running blogger a few months back and they said that they get maybe 200 views per month and a few more if they post something interesting and I asked why they continue to do it and they gave the answer that I gave when I would get asked that and my numbers were tiny. “I write it for myself’. Now when I started out with my first blog about a decade ago I had lots of posts and a small number of visitors, maybe 50 or 60 per day. These days the blog is still small numbers probably 5,000 or 6,000 per month but I enjoy writing for myself, recording my own history and providing good references for the races I’ve done. I go through periods where I don’t have time or can’t be arsed with blogging but mostly I find it a significant part of my outdoor life experience.
Does your partner always know about the races you are entering?
Holy fuck, no – she would murder me
Would you rather be caught having an affair or entering another race?
Difficult, I think I’d be more likely to be forgiven for an affair than another long distance race. You have no idea how many holidays I’ve booked only to then inform my family about the race I’ll be running while we are there. I’m never very popular in my house.
Which comes first running or the family?
I’m not the only person that says that running offers positive mental health benefits and I’m probably not the only person that could admit to putting my racing concerns ahead of family matters but when push comes to shove I’d probably (just about) say that family wins out over running.
What was your most expensive piece of kit?
I don’t have tonnes of uber expensive kit but I do have lots of kit. I operate with an average of 50 pairs of running shoes – most of which cost between £80 and £150, I have around 25 running vests and bags most of which cost over £100. There are three GPS watches and at least four Montane waterproof running jackets. Running has turned out to be a very expensive hobby but it is my only hobby – I don’t drink, smoke or do drugs – so I need a vice!
Can you spot a first time ultra runner?
I remember being at my first ultra race (The White Cliffs 50) and all the nice people I met, I remember having a bag that looked like it was twice the weight of every other runner and I remember a man who was sat next to me, gaffa taping his shoes up and he said time, ‘first time?’ to which I replied that. ‘yes it was’. It has always struck me that he sort of knew that this was my first time even though I was there in my Hoka and my OMM kit. Nowadays I browse the throngs of runners and I wonder who is here for their first time, I’m not very good at spotting them but I know they are there.
If your nipples were bleeding would you notice?
This is question best prefaced by a terrible tale of your own because otherwise it might look like very dark flirtation. I often tell people about my second crack at the Royal parks Half Marathon. I was wearing a light grey Nike vest and unusually I was attracting a lot more attention than usual – more applause and cheers – I made my sprint for the finish line as is my want and collected my medal. I crossed the line in a respectable but not blistering time and passed through the crowds of people to my medal and the exit. From St James Park to Charing Cross Station is a reasonable distance – not miles but far enough and what I will say sums up my experience of London. Not one of the fuckers who walked past me said, ‘Hey mate you’re nipples have bled right down your vest, are you okay?’ I had my medal round my neck and it wasn’t until I sat on the train and looked into the reflection of the window that I saw the two full length of my vest streaks of greasy, sweaty blood. Awesome.
What makes you cry during a race?
It’s always the GingaNinja – I can hold it together until I speak to her or my daughter. If its going badly and they aren’t there I will often have a big fat cry.
Ever swallowed an insect while running?
I’d heard tales of people puking up flies and the like but it had never happened to yours truly. I even saw a man who I believed to be choking stop infant of me collapse to his knees and start coughing his guts up while injecting as much water as he could. I had already started to pull my phone out ready to call for the paramedics. Thankfully it was just an inset of some description. I managed to avoid the taste of live insect until one sunny day running through the Lake District at the Ambleside 60 in 2019. It was a beautiful day and my gob must just have been open that little bit too much and what felt like a giant insect hit the back of my throat. In my mind I could feel it moving as I swallowed it – this was one of the single most disgusting things I have ever experienced. The taste was like you imagine shit to taste (it was an insect in the countryside) but it was the movement of the creature that made me really queasy – I dare say it was no picnic in the park for the insect but I hope that the copious amounts of Active Root and jelly babies that I consumed straight away consigned him or her to a sweet end.
Can you trust an ultra fart?
I believe you can but I have known other runners that would say you can’t. One gentleman who was running The Ridgeway Ultra had clearly experienced what happens when the ultra fart double crosses you. He was wearing light 3/4 running leggings (Sub4 I think). and he ha clearly had some form of watery explosion at his rear end. He was quite happily running along but the massive juicy stain at the back of his leggings wasn’t just damp through sweat it was brown through anal evacuation. I was behind him for some time and all I could feel was sorrow for the gentleman and this reminds me that no matter what never buy light coloured running bottoms.
Where’s the oddest place you’ve turned up in your running kit?
I’ve turned up in my running kit almost everywhere and I did threaten to turn up to my Grannies funeral a few days ago in my running gear as I knew this would have rightly pissed her off. However, I did once turn up to an evening performance of Aida at the London Coliseum in my running gear – I wasn’t very sweaty as I was planning on running home from the performance rather than arriving to it having run. I could see that there were some people looking at me like I was in the wrong place but then an older couple approached me and said, ‘we need more people like you at the opera’ and walked off. What I can say is that I had a very jolly time.
When you run along ridges and high places do you imagine your own demise?
Who doesn’t occasionally wonder if one day they’ll take the mis-step that hurls them hundreds of feet to their doom?
What kind of pre-race jitters do you get?
For me the pre-race jitters I get are always stomach related, usually poo related and always unpleasant. My solution is a flat white coffee about 2 hours before the race kicks off and this clears things out for me – the only trouble is that it only works about 50% of the time and you’ve got to sure that there are adequate toilet facilities around you when it does come.
Do you ever wish the runner next to you would just fuck off?
Only once have I ever wished that the runner next to me would fuck right off and she just about managed to annoy me in every single way possible. I didn’t see her again after a race where she joined in the loops despite her not being in the event – she wasn’t there to support, she was there just to pick my brains about a race she was going some months later. I was busy at the time trying to run my own race and she simply wouldn’t let me – I’ve never forgotten that experience and I try to make sure that when I’m chatting to a fellow runner I make it clear that if they’re going faster than me then they should crack on.
How soon into a race do you start counting down the miles to the finish?
Usually from about the halfway point for me, I love to conduct maths in my head as I’m running – so converting kilometres to miles of how far I have left to go, calculating my average speed based on my times checkpoint to checkpoint, etc. I really do find that the maths side of thing helps me to stop thinking about the shit that is really going on in my body.
What happens to your medals?
When I bought my first house I would come home from races and climb the stairs either to go the toilet or clean my mud stained body post race. I would always reach for the post at the top of the stairs to help with the last few steps, especially if it had been a hard or long race. It was this post that I decided I would put on my medals on so that as I jingled past them every time I ascended or descended the stairs I would hear what became known as the ‘sound of success’. Eventually the GingaNinja would have enough medals to use the other post and although she had a fair amount of neckwear for the post it was significantly less then my own collection and I would refer to this as the ‘sound of opportunity’. When we moved to Scotland I looked for a house where I could replicate this set up and in addition we have ASKs collection of medals which are referred to as the ‘sound of potential.’
When you’re road running do you run silently behind people and then terrify them as you fly past?
If I’m honest – yes I do occasionally – especially teenagers
Ever fallen asleep while you’ve been running?
Yes. I was running form Sheffield to Liverpool and in the middle of the night while I was so exhausted that I could barely stand – near a place Calle Penistone (yes really) – I found my eyes closing over and I was clearly running asleep. I have almost zero recollection about the events that transpired ahead of me but the runner I was with at the time said he had no idea that I was asleep either and it came as something of a surprise to him, what happened next. As I was running along the street narrowed into one of those old Lancashire villages with beautiful stonework everywhere, there were cars mounted on the curb and the walls of the cottages were low and jagged. My companion and I were set to turn left into the next street but for me this never happened and I simply pressed on forwards and ran straight into the low wall across the road and head first into the garden – waking as I fell. My race companion followed me across the road and whispered through his titters, as it was about 4am, ‘what happened? I’ll say this as I said then, ‘I think I fell asleep’.
Has running ever cost you a relationship?
Not that I’m aware of.but running has been a serious bone of contention over the years.
Do you get annoyed when people tell you running is bad for you?
Yes. Running has done so many wondrous things for me, better physical and mental health, I’ve seen so much of the world that is inaccessible until you’re willing to run or hike it and I’ve met so many wonderful, wonderful people over the years. Running has been nothing but kind to me – even in the times it has given me a bloody good kicking.
Does your doctor understand you?
I seem to be one of those people that must look unfit and unhealthy because my doctors will never ever sign off my medical forms for international races, in recent years I’ve had to have huge numbers of tests, gone to private doctors and worst of all I’ve had to sign the declarations myself – risking being banned from races that I love. I just wish one doctor would say, ‘ oh 53 ultra marathons and you can’t be arsed training? Sure I’ll sign this because if those buggers won’t kill you then neither will this.’
Do you overshare? Yes – this blog post is proof of that.
What brought you to ultra running?
In 2011 after several attempts to get into THE marathon and failing I decided that I would move straight up to ultra distance instead – so with just a few half marathons, some 10kms and one marathon (at Liverpool) I hastened to the White Cliffs 50 in 2013.
What would you do if you saw someone littering?
Confront them – littering isn’t cool. I’ve only had reason to stop someone once and they took it much better than I thought they would – which I’m glad of because they would have given me a bloody good pasting if they’d hit me.
Do you watch the Barkley documentary and think, ‘I could do that’?
I’ve watched several documentaries regarding the Barkley, I’ve examined the aerial footage of the area and I’ve studied maps of the surrounding area. I dream of The Barkley Marathons and although I’ll never get in I am allowed to dream.
What’s the most horrendous race you’ve run?
My worst race was probably the Ridgeway Ultra – not because the race was terrible – far from it – the race was amazing but the temperature was absolutely blistering on the day I did it. I knew that I was going to struggle but I couldn’t believe just how bad it was going to get. At about mile 50 my testicles were on fire, I could barely move and what movement I did achieve was done looking like I was a pastiche of John Wayne. The night section of the race was incredibly windy and the temperature had really started to drop but all I could feel was the burning of my balls. I pulled my running leggings down about 4 miles from the checkpoint and looked – my memory suggests that my entire groin was glowing red but that must have been my imagination. I grabbed the tub of vaseline I was carrying in my pack and put the remains all over my scrotum – it was hideous. By headtorch I tried to clean myself up, stop the burning and make it to the checkpoint. When I hobbled in I sat stoney faced for a while, weight up the final 30 miles – I knew I was done physically, I just had to wait for my brain to catch up. That sticks out in my mind as my worst ever race.
Do you still enjoy short distance races?
I love the shorter distances but there are limits. I love the mile, I enjoy the 5k, 5mile and 10km distance but then I really love the 10 mile distance – just long enough to blast it out but without the challenge of holding on as I need to do when I run the half marathon. Weirdly it is the half marathon distance that I dislike the most, it is such an odd distance, it’s neither long or short and I’ve always struggled to set myself up properly for this despite having a just under 90 minute personal best. But yes, I still very much the joy that a short distance race and run bring. I can feel one coming on right now actually.
Do you clean your shoes or let them fester?
Fester – occasionally smack the crustiest bits off. Never put them in the washing machine, just loosens the glue holding them together.
What, for you, is the worst part of ultra running?
My favourite answer to this was at the Skye Trail Ultra, ‘the next hill…’. I don’t agree with that assessment necessarily but it did make me smile as struggled up the next ridge.
What’s the worst chaffing you’ve ever had?
The Ridgeway Ultra and the WNWA96 where I had to create a toilet paper anal plug to stop my arse cheeks rubbing together. Amazing how sharp you can make bog roll if you try.
Ever stopped for a beer or similar during a race?
I was racing along and the three gentlemen who were running alongside me suddenly said, ‘I fancy a beer’ and they all stopped – as a teetotaller and somewhat worried about the cut-offs I meandered on. When. looked them up on the race results they had all finished, albeit with only a few minutes to spare, but they finished – probably pissed as farts!
Do non-runners groan when you tell a running story?
As a pseudo-hermit I’m rather lucky that I don’t speak to many people but those that I do come across often have that glazed expression if I mention running. My grandmother prior to her death would simply cut me off mid-sentence and start a different topic and the GingaNinja just ignores me.
Shall we do a bit of running?
This is a phrase that I hear a lot and have said a lot. Late into a race your feet are mashed, your head equally so and one of the runners you might be with will say, ‘ shall we do a bit of running?’ It rarely looks like anything that most of us would consider running but given you’ve just run up three mountains across 50 miles this feels like you’re Usain Bolt crossing the 100 metre line. Shall we do a bit of running is one of the most useful phrases I’ve ever heard in an ultra and shall continue using for myself and others.
What brought you to this race?
I’m always fascinated by what inspires people to run, especially the longer races and I’ve heard lots of great and lots of mundane reasons why people choose to run ultra marathons. My favourite was a man who when asked this question said, ‘well me bruv died a month ago so I fought I’d come an run this in his memory’. I could see tears filling his eyes as he fought back the emotions. I proffered some pathetic response about my sympathies to which I he turned to me and said, ‘only kidding mate, its my local race’. Didn’t I feel a bellend.
Ever ended up in hospital?
Just once. It was my first ultra and I had broken my foot at mile 14 of the race which was supposed to be 54 miles (turned out to be 60 miles). My whole foot was purple and rotten after the race and I attended the hospital the next morning proudly wearing my race T-shirt. ‘What did you do?’ asked the nurse as she looked at the horrid foot before her. ‘Read the t-shirt,’ was my rather chuffed reply.
Which goes first, head or feet?
In my case during a race the first thing to go are my feet – my head usually stays in play for about 90% of the race, it’s just a mild shame that the 10% it dips out for is about the halfway point and if my feet have gone too then that’s a DNF in the making.
How many toenails do you think you’ve lost?
I know some lucky bastards who lose toenails on a regular basis. I have only ever lost two toenails, both on my left handside second toe – I’ve never managed to lose my big toenails despite repeated attempts to do so.
Are you ritualistic pre and/or post race?
Coffee and a poo if at all possible, if I don’t do these things then it’s not going to go that well.
How often do you visit running websites?
Far too often.
What’s the dream race?
The Barkley of course. Don’t we all dream of meeting Laz at the gate? That said there are lots of races that get recommended to you as you are running or racing – I will often recommend MIUT, the Skye Trail Ultra and The SainteLyon but I’ve had things like Cape Wrath, the Dragons Back and others suggested to me and I know that my list only gets longer and Im not getting any younger.
As a kid did you have a favourite pair of trainers?
I didn’t have a specific pair that I loved but my favourites were always Adidas which is why I suppose I gravitated to them when I was looking for my first ‘real’ running shoe – the Adidas Adios (£67.00 – 2012). I remember a pair of Fila Pump trainers that had this inflatable front section which were cool and I remember my first pair of Adidas Torsion which I genuinely believed would make me go as fast as The Flash.
Do you believe in walking the hills?
Rule number one of ultra running: walk the hills.
Rule number two of ultra running: walk the hills fast
rule number of ultra running: never sit down
You must run you own race right?
It doesn’t matter how far into a race you are you can’t run someone else race with them – yes you can chat while it is suitable to do so but if you try and run at their pace, their strategy then the wheels are likely to come off. Ultra running is not quite the same as its shorter siblings – other races you can run someone else race and I find it often helpful to do so but the chances are you’re only going to be hanging on to their coat tails or holding back for a short(isn) period of time. Imagine trying to keep up with someone for a sustained period, it is not practical – so always run your own race.
Ooooo where did you get that <insert kit>?
Kit jealousy is something I get all the time – I’ll see a pair of trainers I’ve never heard of or a race pack that’s new to me and I’ll often grab a photograph or catch up to runner and ask them what the hell it is. I remember being on the way to work in shirt and tie and suddenly this man came running by and he was wearing one of the Raidlight Olmo vests – it was something that looked so comfortable and so after he was about 100 metres further along I turned on my heel and gave chase. When I caught him he continued running but was at the very least willing to tell me the name of the bag and most importantly how comfy he found it. I’d ordered one before I got to the office that day.
Ever wanted to start up a race?
I have small aspirations to set up a race and lots of the runners I know who started about the same time as me either have the desire to set up a race or have done so. I feel my life remains too busy to allow me to fully commit to the idea of starting a race but I have a few ideas about where, when and distances. I’m not saying I’d be any good as a Race Director – it is a tough job that requires outstanding organisational and people skills. It occurs to me that you need to have a skin as thick as a Rhinos and you’ve got to be ready for any eventuality and to lose money. Despite all of these things I still rather fancy a crack at it and the Scottish race calendar has a few spaces that could make for perfect opportunities. We’ll see what happens.
How often do you buy new kit?
Far too often
What’s your favourite checkpoint food?
Once on a hundred mile race there was houmous at about mile 84 and made all the difference to me finishing.
Where were your favourite volunteers?
All volunteers are amazing – because they volunteer but my favourite were probably the guys at the Falkirk Ultra. That said there have been some other memorable checkpoint volunteers – the St Peters Way teams were incredible and the efficiency of the teams at the SainteLyon was something special but Falkirk had a certain something that no other race had and the event and the volunteers will live long in the memory.
What was your favourite medal?
My favourite medal is always a difficult choice, the first marathon medal is special because of the memories it brings but it is probably trumped by my first ultra medal which always sits proudly near the top of my medal pile. The White Cliffs 50 tore me apart but I survived and afterwards I was set on a road that has brought me a million different memories and experiences.
Do you ever buy kit from the evil Sports Direct?
I love winding people up and I also hate Sports Direct – so I will often ask them if they shop there and if the answer is yes I usually spend the next few minutes telling them all about the benefits of Decathlon and independent sports retailers – usually being able to list the nearest independent running retailer to their location. When I lived in London, if I had time to kill, I would go up to the running footwear section and hang around until a customer service adviser would finish speaking to one of the potential customers – at this point I would pounce and tell the person where they could get more accurate advice, better, cheaper footwear and they should run out of the shop now. I used to do this in their Oxford Street flagship store and their Piccadilly Circus store – I heard so much rubbish spoken about running shoes that I felt it my obligation to send business to other places. This is one of my often shared tales when out on the trail.
If your kids wanted to follow you into ultra running would you advise them to do it?
There is lots of conflict on this one within the running community I think, you talk to people and they say that ultra running positives will always outweigh the negatives and I mostly agree with this but there are people that I’ve met who hope their beloved offspring find something else to do because they understand the pain of injury and absence and lets not forget that many of us, myself included are obsessives about long distance running and/or racing – which isn’t always a healthy thing. However, the thing that tends to get universally agreed upon is that having active and healthy kids is definitely a positive. I do wonder if my little one will one day follow me into what I consider to be the family trade, we shall see.
Who was the first professional athlete who inspired you?
That’s a difficult one because I initially thought it was Steve Cram but that’s probably not true, it could well have been Ian Rush former Liverpool FC striker but then as I carried on thinking about it the answer became very clear – it was Zola Budd. I remember her running barefoot and being diminutive and having this thick curly dark hair. She didn’t appear to be like any other athlete I had ever seen and I admired her and wanted to be her. As I’ve gotten older and you get to know other names like Scott Jurek or Gary Cantrell learn to take bits from each of their own inspirational tales but the story and memory of Zola Budd will always have a special place in my heart.
Do PBs & PWs still matter to you?
The last time a PB or a PW bothered me was the Royal Parks Half Marathon in 2013. I had high hopes that I could break my own time – but I was about 90 seconds out and this was about the same time that I was moving to the super long distance running and so I stopped being worried about how long something took me. These days my main concern is meeting the cut-offs imposed by race directors but even this is less important than having a nice time
Other than the race medal what other mementos do you keep from a race?
For me I keep everything, race numbers, paperwork, trinkets, sometimes a stone from the course
Do you lurk in Facebook groups looking at other runners posts but never posting yourself?
I used to do this but the blog gives me a reason to comment and I enjoy supporting other runners out there. I try not to give advice unless it is something I have direct experience of and am always keen to remind those I would advice to is that I’m a terrible runner and you should listen to me at your peril.
Do you get lost easily?
My special skill in life is to not know where am I, how I got there or more importantly how to get back. I can have an accurate GPS device and an accurate route and I’ll still get it wrong – often by quite some significant way. I once got stopped by a fellow racer who said, ‘I hope you’re not following my mate because I’m lost.’ I had been following him – we both ended up doubling back about 3 miles – that distance was most unwanted on a 50 miler.
Which race pleasantly surprised you the most?
I’m quite picky about the races I do – especially now I can drive, the world is my lobster but there have been a few that have really surprised me by just how brilliant they were compared to my expectations. The most surprising was probably the Medway 10km, a little race in Kent that I rolled up to with zero expectations and it turned out to be an absolute blast. The route was windy, mixed, filled with interest and elevation, the support was magnificent and the track based finish was amazing – especially a sprint against a kid who was about half my age and I spun ahead of inches from the line. You could ready about the Medway 10km here
Which was your favourite landscape to run in?
There is so much beauty in the world that this is a really difficult one to answer. When the snow is covering everything then I would have to say that northern Finland in the arctic circle is truly one of the most spectacular places I’ve ever run. Right up there with that though are the hills of Madeira which are outstandingly beautiful.
How long does it take you to recover enough to eat after a race?
I’m not very good at eating post race – my trick has become finding a McDonalds chocolate milkshake at the earliest available opportunity, who doesn’t like that.
There are things in life that when you come across them that you wonder how you ever survived without them, you wonder why no other genius has come up with this years before you found it, you may wonder but ultimately you don’t care because your life has just gone through a revolution.
For me the thing that changed my life was the Revolutiv 12l from Raidlight.
I realise that some people may believe I am overstating the improvement that my life has gone through since this race vest was posted through my door but you’d be 100% incorrect. The Raidlight Revolutiv 12 litre is a true innovation.
I’ll be honest I like Raidlight – I always have, there is a little bit of quirkiness about them that you don’t get with companies like Salomon or Ultimate Direction, they have that je’ne cest que and they successfully plough their own little furrow and you’ve got to admire that.
To the Revolutiv 12 though and here we have a race vest that is designed for both the elite and the every(wo)man and I say that very much as an everyman runner. I’m not going out there and winning races but I am going out up hills, across mountains and across every type of terrain and over all sorts of ridiculous distances.
WHAT THEY SAY
Raidlight say about this vest that;
Innovation has a name: discover REVOLUTIV, the 2019 RaidLight range. Its 12L capacity allows you to tackle medium and long distance trails.
This year we have developed an ingenious system that allows the upper back pocket to be tilted forward very easily. No need to remove the vest from your back to grab your accessories! You now have access very easily and quickly to equipment that does not fit into the spaces provided at the front of your trail vest.
Weighing less than 200g this running vest will even make you forget that you are carrying it! Yet you will be surprised to discover all of the equipment you can take with you on a trail. Enjoy the amazing features of one of the best trail running packs. Finally, all the storage space is simplified and optimized to allow you to perfect your performance. Give yourself the means to achieve your wildest goals!
The vest is set up for approximately 12 litres of storage but this is highly compartmentalised – a key benefit of the vest. The main reverse section of the Revolutiv is split into two 5litre(ish) parts – wholly independent of each other but when conventionally worn sit one atop each other. This is then all kept in place by two easy lock, spring loaded magnets and they really work. The individual sections of the bag work just as if they were a single compartment with two zips!
It’s when you unclick the magnets that the magic starts to happen, for someone with a perenial bad back you’d think that reaching round to unclick magnets would be something of a chore but thankfully not so. The clever chaps at Raidlight have positioned the clips within easy reach even if you are an old dilapidated fart like me. Once unclipped you can then flip the top of the pack over your head and wear it on the front (reclipping the magnets round the back to make it nice and snug).
Thankfully the party piece doesn’t end here and with a simple unclipping the top section that has just flipped over your head it can be completely removed.
Basically three race vests in one.
You would think that there would have to be compromises to make this work or lots of faffing around trying to get the race vest to the configuration you want but let me assure you there is none of that. The unique selling proposition of this race vest works and works well.
I suppose the whole vest is really stripped back, not a single ounce has been added that didn’t need to be there and there is little doubt that every space age fabric that could be thrown at this has been.
This is not a criticism it is simple a fact and the development team have clearly given consideration to comfort. It could be argued that sometimes these super lightweight vests can compromise on the comfort in order to get weight down or techology in, but here those things are not a problem and it is as comfortable as my beloved (and incredibly silky) Oxsitis Hydragon 17 – high praise indeed.
This fits more like a Salomon vest than anything else – the thin stretchy material hugging your figure while being highly adjustable with the sternum straps and also the wire tightening adjustors on the side to keep it nice and tight
In my experience it doesn’t ride loose very easily either and so as a consequence once you’re in it then you’d be comfortable and happy to be in it until the race ends. The balance of the vest is excellent too and it never feels as though it is overloaded anywhere and I am a runner who tends to overload on kit regardless of the race or the distance.
There are some niggles that I am less keen on about the two main storage sections – they key one being the zips. The zips feel weak and I realise that you’re looking to avoid adding weight but the truth is that if the zip explodes on a trail somewhere then you’re going to be in trouble. It really wouldn’t add much weight to include a stronger feeling zip.
Volume of 12l
Materials 91% Polyester 9% Spandex
Delivered with 2×600 ml EazyFlasks (compatible with all Raidlight bottles),
Chest sizes: S 68-88cm / M 75-100cm / L 90-120cm.
Running vest with 8 pockets, 2 compartments of 6L and 5L at the rear .
Two zipped side pockets
Upper rear pocket flips forward for quick access to items on the move, fixed lower rear pocket for mandatory equipment storage (perfect for Ultras)
2 front shoulder pockets for hydration compatible with all Raidlight bottle systems
Monofiliment Polyester harness for an optimal breathability, resistance and lightness. Compression system with the 2 Freelock® micrometric buckles
Front pole carrying system
Let’s make no bones about this the Raidlight Revolutiv 12l is expensive, when it was launched you were looked at around the £160 price point – in the subsequent months this has dropped a little to be around £130 but that is still a lot of cash to stump up for a niche item.
However, I feel Raidlight have produced something that nobody else is doing – it feels like something Salmon might make but has the capacity and durability of something that Ultimate Directions might make and the reality is that it is neither of these, it is very much its own thing.
The gimmick of the flippable and removable pouch extends the value further and I genuinely believe this to be a worthwhile race vest – albeit with some caveats – lets say I’m looking forward to version 2 where the minor things that bug me would be ironed out.
So what is the Raidlight Revolution 12l suitable for? Well the answer to that is complicated – if you’re an elite runner then it is probably going to be perfect for you for any race – the multi format bag really does allow you to pick and choose how much kit you’re going to take and how heavy the pack will be. Water upfront only might be a bind for some runners but I think a 1.2litre capacity for water should be sufficient for most races and running adventures between refills.
For me as a much slower runner this is a race vest for up to 50 miles and no further just because I need to carry that little bit extra in terms of food and equipment but if you weren’t such a dawdler then you could probably use it for any running distance.
EXPERIENCE & DURABILITY
I’ve run three races in my Revolutiv 12l since I bought it last year, two ultra marathons and a 10km but in addition to that I’ve done a couple of hundred miles with it in training across the Ochils and Pentlands in Scotland. I’ve used it in every weather condition and across all sorts of terrain. The Revolutiv 12 has been a wonderful companion on my most excellent adventures and I look forward to further such adventures.
In terms of durability the race vest shows almost no sign of wear and tear – the one little bit of wear and tear is in the transfer logo on the translucent back panel and this has started to flake – I’ll assume this is more to do with the effort I’ve been putting in and sweat dripping down the back of me. This is an aesthetic thing though and in no way hinders the usefulness of the vest.
You can buy this directly from Raidlight, Northern Runner or Castleberg Outdoors – all of whom are absolutely lovely suppliers of brilliant kit and service. Please always buy from independent retailers or the manufacturers they really do need your support!
There is much to love about this race vest, aside from the multiple formats you can adopt when running it has Raidlights innovative front carrying system for poles, it is super, super light and it fits like a glove around even the oddest shape of runner (I’m an oddly shaped runner).
It feels like expensive kit, it looks like quality kit when its on and it operates like the premium product it is but the price point while high, I feel, is worth it.
I don’t use it everyday but have used it quite a lot for testing purposes and it has yet to fail me – but this is race vest rather than a training vest (I tend to use my old indestructible UD PB v1.0 for that) and that should be factored in when you are considering purchasing it – I feel it would be wasted as a training pack.
If you’re considering the Raidlight Revolutiv or you already use Raidlight gear and fancy an upgrade then I would suggest you consider this, try it if you can though as this might not suit everyone because it is a niche product. However, if you fall into the niche of being an ultra runner than loves quality kit then you’ll be drooling over this awesome bit of kit.
To be 100% clear – I paid for my race vest, I never accept samples for reviews and my review is based only on my experience of a product I wanted to buy.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
I used to look on at the ultra marathoners who completed the Centurion Running Grandslam with a little bit of jealousy but never fancied doing it myself despite really wanting to test myself in a series.
Well I rather fell out of love with Centurion Running and stopped racing with them – no skin off their noses, they’ve got ultra runners and ultra running wannabies banging down their door to get in to their races. I never felt like it was a community I was comfortable in, now this isn’t to say that Centurion don’t put on good events – they do, really good, but they stopped being for me, a socially awkward introvert.
So, given that Centurion was probably the biggest UK Grandslam in the south of England I probably wasn’t going to get to do a series of races in this format.
Fast forward 5 years and much has changed I’m living in Scotland and a driving licence has been achieved which has brought access to all sorts of lovely new race opportunities including Hardmoors and GB Ultras. Now while the first 18 months here have been about getting settled, buying a new home, etc I’ve become determined that after a rubbish running in 2019 that 2020 would be a year of interesting race opportunities.
And so my road to a grandslam began.
Late in 2019 I came across Ranger Ultras who race in and around the Peak District and they immediately caught my eye. It was after my failure at the Ochil Ultra that I signed up for the Y3P (Yorkshire Three Peaks) that Ranger Ultras put on. However, it turned out that injury and illness would conspire against me and so on the day before the race I pulled out.
However, the description of their event intrigued me and there was something rather ‘old school’ about them that I really liked.
I put them on my ‘must look into for 2020’ list of race providers, though by this time 2020 was pretty well formed with 5 or 6 ultra marathons already booked in. But I figured I’d like to go back and give the Yorkshire Three Peaks a bash given I’d missed it just a few weeks earlier.
Roll forward to the start of this year and there are positives starting to show themselves – I’ve been running a bit (woohoo), I’ve finished four races of which two were 50km each – not bad for a bloke, who if he were a building would be described as condemned or at the very least dilapidated. I kept sourcing new events to do this year and interestingly kept managing to squeeze them in – but not in the months that had the races of the inaugural Ranger Ultras Grandslam. Hmmmm.
In my head I began working out the logistics – the Peak District is a reasonable distance from Scotland and with a large family trip to Canada this year I wouldn’t have oodles of annual leave to use up in travelling to and from events.
The races needed to be of a distance that I could travel down to after work on a Friday night and still be fresh enough come Saturday morning to race – as criteria that precludes anything over about 60 miles.
Thankfully the first race was 57km along the Pennine Bridleway – a perfect distance as I look to build up again, a perfect time of year as it should be rather windy and wet without too much sunshine and with a reasonably generous time allowance it should be both achievable and challenging.
The second and third race are then not until nearer the year end which again works for me (mostly). The Yorkshire Three Peaks takes up October and at 100km will serve as an excellent test of my running in preparation for the year ending Cheviot Goat.
Missing the Y3P last year was a real annoyance as I had entered late in the day and had to pull out even later and I feel that as a runner who has covered a lot of ground across the UK this iconic route should have been done at least once.
Maybe that’s why it is this grandslam over some of the others – The Peak District is a place that is relatively unknown to me, they’re new and I like the challenge of new. I like the adventure of seeing the sun go down on a new horizon, I enjoy the feel of a new ground below my feet though I am confident that by the time I have run the weekend double header of the white and dark peaks at the end of November I will be fully sated and probably and bit angry at The Peaks but I will hopefully feel that I fully adventured there (at least for a little while).
This adventure is very much about continuing my journey to find out who I am and who I want to be.
I moved my life from London so that I would be able to do stuff like this, so that I could fill my boots with things that make me smile and things that can inspire me to consider joining races like The Spine or The Race Across Scotland. I have need to push myself to limit of my physical ability and perhaps more importantly my mental ability – both have which have being a bit lardy over recent years.
I feel that the grandslam will make me work harder and keep my mental endurance on track – vital for both my running and my day-to-day life.
If I do get through the first challenge of the PB57 I will know that I then need to get through, amongst others, the Ultra Scotland and the Loch Ness 360 because these will form the basis of my fitness to take on the rest of the series. Each completion will hopefully build confidence going into the next – the tough times will come if something goes wrong in one of these events as it did last year and I will be working hard to stop one bad event unravelling the rest of the year.
But let’s look for positives…
The bad news is that attempting to scratch the grandslam itch may only make that itch worse – I can feel it. Success here (and by success I mean completing it) will make me want to take a crack at the Hardmoors series of races. However, I have no idea if I will achieve the Ranger Ultras Grandslam, my failure rate suggests that there is a good chance that something will go wrong during at least one of the races but I am hopeful that the risk of missing out on the grandslam finish will push me onward towards some form of glorious end.
It was about 5.30am, I’d had a lovely big mug of coffee whilst sitting upon the old porcelain throne and yet no matter how much I jiggled and wriggled – nothing would be released. So with much trepidation I rose from my perch and slapped on a handful of lubricant and squeezed it into every crevice before putting on my running kit – for today was Falkirk 8 hour Ultra day.
Surprisingly I’d been quite relaxed about the race as my week had been busy with a disaster situation over Scotland’s status in the European Union and Saturday had brought me the opportunity to go racing with my daughter and also join a pro-independence rally at Holyrood Park. So the reality is that the Falkirk Ultra came as something of a light hearted surprise to my week.
Let me roll back about three weeks to my status as a very unfit, very overweight, very slow runner who was about to attempt Tyndrum 24 (read about it here). While I had very much enjoyed the event I’d also been left feeling a bereft, missing my fitness and my turn of pace but mostly I was missing my ability to endure. I’d run less than 8hrs in good conditions and managed a paltry 30 miles in that time – Falkirk with forecasted cruddy conditions seemed to be headed to an even worse result.
Still with a coffee inside me and dressed for a race I drove the few short miles to the car parking and then grabbed my stuff with the aim to be at the registration tent nice and early. As I ambled through the park I wasn’t quite sure what would greet me outside Callendar House but I hadn’t imagined that an entire race village would be being constructed – yet here it was, being built before my very eyes.
There were dozens of little tents and shelters going up for groups of clubs and runners and suddenly I realised that there might not be anywhere for the solo entrant to dispense with their stuff, thankfully my fears were unfounded and the registration tent would become the excellent location for drop bags. But I’m getting ahead of myself, I dipped into an empty registration tent at about 6.45am and picked up my bits, including a goody bag. Now normally goody bags are rubbish and when you’ve entered a race that costs £30 you don’t expect much in the way of extras but this was different.
In the paper bag we were given a Tunnocks tea cake, some Brewdog beer but most importantly was a lovely lightweight hoody and a pretty cool buff. I’d requested one of the cowbells too and made an £8 purchase of the race woolly hat. I felt like I was fully loaded on merchandise.
For the next hour I ambled around making a nuisance of myself as runners I knew came in for registration and said hello and had lovely chats with them all. There were a couple of guys from the Tyndrum 24, some local runners that I’ve gotten to know over the past few months and even a few of the Linlithgow Running Buddies that I’d had run with a few times.
The Falkirk Ultra was turning into a bit of an ultra meetup and there is nothing wrong with that.
As light came the little race village that had been built the atmosphere began to grow and then the music started and the PA system kicked in – all systems started to ramp up and then we heard the announcement that we would be kicking off at 8.15am – so take your place behind the line and get ready to go. Here it was that I ran into Frances and Kieron from the Linlithgow Running Buddies – I felt compelled to complain about his wearing of ‘Shites’ (shorts and tights) but before we could get into the rights and wrongs of it we were off.
Now for those of us that are local we will have been well aware that Falkirk had recently enjoyed a healthy dose of rainfall and some snow too – this meant that the course was bound to boggy and with hundreds of runners passing through the route on multiple occasions the surface was going to be churned up extensively. The course itself had undergone some reconfiguration in the days leading up to the race due to the creation of a small temporary duck pond/lake just outside the main house – therefore what the next eight hours looked like were anyone’s guess.
For the first lap I went out pretty hard – I knew that the aim was to produce 1 lap per hour or thereabouts and if I could add in some contingency while my hip and back were in decent shape then I could slow down later without too much concern about finishing. I put myself in the middle of the pack and gently hunkered down to my race strategy, not keen to chat to anyone on the first lap – I barely acknowledged the wonderful volunteers and marshals that were at regular intervals on the course.
I ran to the first and only significant climb on the course and for the first lap made great strides up it, I was determined that I would run up this bugger at least once today and I managed that but no more (I promised myself, it hurt far too much) and it was a decision that a number of runners would make.
As I reached the top of the hill I could see ahead of me the ‘shit show of mud’ that awaited us – on a good day with fresh legs or being a good strong runner you’d eat this up but being neither strong or good I was going to struggle through this – and I did. I enjoyed this section of the course, it felt the most ‘trail’ and despite it being a little bit narrow because the mud was so churned up it was still a delight to see it on each and every lap.
In the early laps I could see runners both slow and fast avoiding the worst of the conditions trying to protect their feet but for me I was confident that my combination of Lone Peaks, Drymax socks and Injinji toe liners could easily go through the worst of it and still protect my rather sensitive tootsies. Infact in these early laps as others went around mud I chose to go straight through it and enjoyed it as it the spray attached itself to my legs. I do love it when you’re absolutely coated in mud before you’ve done your first mile and this reminded of running my beloved Vigo Tough Love 10.
As I came out of the mud and back onto the more traditional country park paths I found myself slowing down a little bit, this was harder packed and therefore less good for my old and knackered hips but still very runnable and much more to my tastes than the harder trails of Tyndrum 24. I bumbled along letting runners go past me and occasionally overtaking a runner and soon found myself heading downwards to more enthusiastic volunteers – possibly the most enthusiastic I saw all day, however, at this point I was still on a mission – how fast could I get round that first lap.
The lap from this point was still headed in a generally downward direction and it was still going through the more heavily wooded area of Callendar Park – this was rather enjoyable and I was confident that I knew were headed to the turn out of the woods before rejoining the park a bit further down and then along the tarmac back to the start.
Sadly I was only half right.
I was right about the downward curvature back into the park but in the distance I saw a procession of runners heading back to the tarmac via a rather dippy, slippy field and even at this early stage you could see runners pretending to be aeroplanes with arms aloft looking for balance.
I reached the turning back on to the grass and moved slowly down it – this was nasty already and I swiftly sought out a return to what looked like a path. I ran along down into the dip and then climbed back out with all the skill of man with no skill whatsoever. This climb down and the clamber up proved to be some of the most comical viewing during the day and would give you a little smile as you watched runners struggling with it and knowing that you’d shortly be the entertainment for some other poor unfortunate!
But it was soon over and we were back on flat, sensible tarmac… but that was not a good thing. I didn’t yet know it but this section of the route would be the real mental test, every looped race has one, the bit you really hate, the bit that makes you think you should pack it all in and for me it was where you hit the tarmac again until you were back at the checkpoint.
Thankfully the Falkirk 8 Hour Ultra had something of an ace up its sleeve and that was the four sets of checkpoint volunteers that saw you through this horrible chore and even on lap one I needed the inspirational words of these lovely people. Ambling alongside the lake for what felt like an age I looked enviously towards the other side of the water to witness runners completing their first lap or in some cases getting well into their second. It wasn’t until I made it to the other side of the lake that I wished I was back on the other side…
Before a single runner had set foot on the checkpoint side of the lake it was already a well churned bog – the runners weren’t going to improve that but it was going to make for an interesting battle between us and sliding feet first in the cold lake just a few feet below us. I crossed the thick oozy mud in good time and propelled myself forward in about 33 minutes but a toilet and food stop made it more like 39 minutes before I set off again.
My stop was probably the longest one I had during the whole event as I’d missed breakfast and wanted to make sure I ate regularly. I chowed down on some kinder chocolate, a couple of delicious Caramel Freddo and a chocolate milkshake before filling up my water with Active Root – damn fine stuff that is, probably stopped me crapping myself!
I soon returned to the drizzle and the course having removed my long sleeved layer in an attempt to stop me overheating. I am led out waving at those who gave a cheery hello or supportive wave and offered encouragement to those coming in – loops makes it easier to wish people well and you’ll sometimes remember those who, like myself, might benefit from a word or three of encouragement.
My second lap was nowhere near as energetic and the first section of the loop was getting muddier and more treacherous with every step, but this I was enjoying and the volunteers at the bottom of the slope seemed to be having fun with it too (well as much as you can have within health and safety guidelines of getting your runners safely through). I continued to stretch my legs until I reached the bottom of the hill and then my body told me that this was it, each loop was now going to be a case of hanging on and seeing if we could get to the magic 8 loops.
What happened next is a bit of a haze of names, hiking and sheer bloody mindedness. I met Ed a few times who was a lovely runner that was having a bit of a day of it – but actually going really rather well, there was Heather who had this awesome hat on that had a charm almost as big as it’s owner and then there was the lovely Susan who I ran a really brilliant lap with having a lovely chat with.
The ever amazing Neil passed me a couple of times – always with practical words of encouragement and Fiona 1 and Fiona 2 both gave me lovely supportive boosts as they too saw fit to pass by me. It wasn’t just people I’ve met before though – there was Julie from Strava that turned round in the registration queue to say hello and I ran into a couple of other runners who shouted out, ‘hey are you UltraBoy?’ To which I of course reply, ‘ sort of…’ and I was either known through this blog or Strava.
The Falkirk Ultra really was a running community event.
However, I did meet one runner that made me laugh every second I was with her and that was Tracy (without an e). I think we were both on lap 5 she was ready to call it a day over an injury concern and I should have been thinking the same thing as my hip and groin were ruined. But some days you meet a person who lifts your spirits enough that you forget about the trauma and you’re reminded that you’re actually going okay.
In the time we ran together I found new energy, I was a bit lighter on my feet and I forget about the previous laps and the tiredness of my legs. I did promise she’d make it into this blog and she makes it in not so much for how brilliant she was (although she was) she makes it in because she said, ‘my mums at the bridge, I’m getting a hug’.
Well that’s a red rag to a bull.
‘I’m getting a cuddle too. What’s your mums name? I’ll ask her does she remember me, dip in for the cuddle and then tell her it was a hot steamy night in ’83 – she had the white wine spritzer and I had the babysham’.
I have no idea what Tracy’s mum must have thought but I hope she understands that what happens at an ultra stays at an ultra (wink, wink – I joke).
Tracy (and mum) were awesome and I am pleased to say that both of us made it back out on another lap.
By lap 7though I was sore, really sore and although I was still well within my strategised time I was hoping the short loop would open soon so I could forget the long loop and I’d probably still reach 50km (a shorter loop opened up at 3pm to allow runners to continue running without forfeiting distance when the bell went for the finish at 4.15pm).
However, I finished lap 7 with about 90 minutes remaining – I felt the need to go and do the big loop one final time – despite having already said most of my thanks to amazing volunteers. It very much felt like the only sensible thing to do… well maybe not sensible but I was doing it anyway.
So steeled for one final battle I headed out and this time with nobody but myself and the clock to run against I found my second wind and started running up inclines, more fool me of course but I was making a much better fist of lap 8 than I had on a couple of the others.
I danced and twirled my way around the course – daring the mud to take me – daring it to cast me groundwards bit it never did. In truth, despite the conditions I remained sure footed throughout but never more so than now. I battled down the hill to a meeting with ‘The Badger’ (more on him later) and onwards toward the finish – there would be no short loops for me.
As I crossed the tarmac in the distance I could see my daughter waving feverishly toward me, and I to her. I picked up my feet and my pace to continue the illusion that her dad is the worlds greatest runner and as she called out I lifted her high into my arms in a display of muscular movement I did not consider possible.
I stopped for a few moments to talk to her but time was pressing and I wanted to make sure this lap counted and so I waved goodbye to my family, thanking the lovely marshal at the turning point and then I headed for home.
One final lurch across the mud and there I saw the finish and most other runners on the short lap – I didn’t want to limply cross that line – I wished to show my mettle and so with the GingaNinja and ASK at the finish I picked up my feet with 100metres to go and raised hell with a sprint that swerved between the short loop runners and crossed the line in a flurry of my own excitement.
I’d actually done it.
I’d made it.
Distance: 3.8mile loop (ish)
Ascent: Nothing hideous – just felt it (under 100 metres per lap)
Date: February 2020
Entrants: 350 (inc. relay runners)
Terrain: Muddy, undulating
Tough Rating: 2.5/5
What do you want from your route? A route that will be predictable or one that surprises you? The Falkirk 8 Hour Ultra has something for everyone to love and something to loathe. I loved it for the most part, the mud was challenging, the inclines & the declines were awesome and the tarmac that threaded it together was minimised.
Even with last minute changes to the route this still felt well prepared and overall you’d be silly not to fall in love with this. Obviously I’m a little biased as I live near Falkirk and run often in or around the park but this route took in some fun bits and even in the grey weather we had it’s still a lovely place to run.
The route was incredibly well marked and heavily marshalled but not in an intrusive way, you just felt secure in the knowledge that the race really did have your back.
My hope is that the route recovers quickly from so many runners racing around it so the event is welcomed back next year – this is a great place and a great place to have a route of this nature on. Scotland needs ultra marathons during the winter to support runners like myself and Falkirk will benefit from the goodwill of runners and a deepening reputation as a place where great events can be held (let us not mention Epic from the week before!)
I’ve been to a few races in my time and I’ve seen good and bad organisation but let me assure you that the organisation, preparation and selflessness of the organisers went so far above and beyond any expectations I had.
The organisers deserve a huge amount of credit for producing an event par excellence!
I was impressed by the race village that popped up (which the organisers might not be 100% responsible for but made sure it was sensibly located, etc), facilities such as toilets were excellent, parking was sensible given we, quite rightly, couldn’t use the main facilities at Callendar Park.
Even the organisation of the short loop, the updates for race timings seemed to be so effortless, it was a joy to behold – you, as the runner could simply get on with the business of dying out on the insanely fun course! Of course we all know that only a lot of hard work makes something like this look effortless, so my huge congratulations.
As a solo runner I was also mightily impressed about the way the big registration tent was cleared down and our bags were elevated off the ground to ensure that we had very easy access to our kit and I found myself very happily dipping in their briefly each lap and then coming back out onto the course to be welcomed by the race supporters – it was really nice.
Value for Money
I normally have to question just how good the value of an event is but I can be effusive in my praise that this is probably the best value race you’ll ever do – £30! Let me put this into perspective – that’s the same as coffee and a toasted sandwich at Starbucks for two – and this race gives you a lot more than any corporate monster will.
Compare this with say the Epic Falkirk race at Callendar Park a few days earlier and you can immediately see the difference.
The route was fun, the time and dedication of the people who put this together was clearly evident. The excellent thought that went into the items in the goody bag was really appreciated and then the bespoke medal – what a corker.
People of Falkirk, people of Scotland, people of the world – this is an amazingly good value event and while I would highly recommend it to all of you could you make sure that I get a place every year as this is my local ultra and I’m going to look forward to it year in, year out!
I promised I would get to ‘The Badger’ and here we are but first I want to say a huge thank you to every single one of the marshalling team, on a cold, wet day at the start of February you stood out and supported hundreds of runners that you probably didn’t know and you gave each and every one of love and encouragement from start to whatever our finish was.
I was particularly fortunate, I got to have cuddles with just about everyone, the lovely ladies who were at the bottom of the hill and gave me both cuddles and the odd kick up the arse. The cowbell ladies who must have had ringing ears by the end of the day and the poor young lady who lost her leopard skin print gloves – amazing. The dancing ladies, the downhill turning point marshals, the chaps as we ran back into the park – all of them had a cheery smile no matter how many times I told terrible jokes.
The guys on the tarmac – couple of lovely beards there (one ginger and one badger), these guys I looked forward to seeing each lap and got lots of big hugs from them. There is something wonderful about drawing big chaps into a cuddle with a fool like me – plus it gives you a lift and hopefully it reminds them just how much they are appreciated.
I’d also like to say thanks to the great ladies who were at the two bridges who accepted my flirtatious charm with all the humour it was intended with.
And then the couple of guys at the run back to the checkpoint, one to advise us to get closer to the water as the ground grew ever more treacherous and one to bang his piece of metal with a drum stick – I may on lap 7 have suggested that I knew were he could put that drumstick… you can guess the rest.
If I missed anyone out, believe me you aren’t forgotten – every marshal and member of the team contributed a massive amount to its success and I am confident all the runners would bow down before your dedication and tenacity. Brilliant, just brilliant.
Lovely hoody, lovely buff, Tunnocks teacake and an awesome bespoke medal. Do I need to say anymore? Brilliant
This looped race jumps to the top of the list of my favourite looped races and just a favourite race in general – toppling the Brutal Enduro for loops and I am sure my enthusiasm for this race will live long. If you have never attempted the Falkirk 8 Hour Ultra then you should consider it, if you aren’t an ultra runner then get involved in the relay as that looked incredibly competitive and you could have all the fun without the pain.
As for me, well I had a lot of fun but my hips will pay the price for that fun – they started to feel pretty crappy at about the 25km mark, this though is a significant improvement on the 5 miles they managed at Tyndrum 24. The important thing for me was that I am starting to improve – it’s true I’m still a shit runner but a shit runner that is getting mildly fitter and with that I’ll hope to improve pace and distance.
I went into the Falkirk Ultra with no expectations but hopes that I would make this my 53rd ultra finish and I managed that – it might have been at the bottom end of the ultra distances but after a rubbish 2019 of running I’m pleased with the way this weekend went. I can now go to the F50K with a bit more confidence (just need to learn to navigate).
Ultimately what can I say other than this was stunning and I hope to see you all next year for a few extra laps.
After four months of near inactivity the Tyndrum 24 (a looped foot race near the West Highland Way) had to be looked at with a bit of common sense. Even before I arrived I knew that running 24 hours was highly unlikely and I had joked that I might sleep 4 hours for every 1 hour of running but that’s getting rather ahead of myself.
For those of you who read my previous blog post (read it here) you’ll know that my training and racing has been almost non-existent since September and even before that it had been sporadic at best. I’d gained a shedload of weight and worse – I’d grown lazy and unfit. The truth is that I’d grown so lazy and unfit that during the 2019 festive season I had very much considered not running the Tyndrum 24.
However, after a short test of the route just before new year I decided that I would put the months of R&R and overating behind me and use the T24 to open my 2020 race account and see just how fall I had fallen.
A mid winter looped race in Scotland is always going to be a challenge – weather likely to be unpredictable, underfoot conditions likely to be grim and the cold… the cold. However, I approached this in a practical kind of way and packed up every bit of kit I could and worked out how I could stop semi regularly and rest so as to not push myself too far and risk injury and avoid failing to turn up at my next event.
In the run up it was confirmed that conditions were set to be kind and as I left the house on Saturday morning I was hopeful that the light drizzle would disappear and we’d have a lovely event.
I drove the back roads through Duone and Callendar up to Tyndrum and enjoyed the snow dusted hills and the dawn rising around me. I find driving through new parts of Scotland and the many little towns one of the delights of being here. I pulled up to the Green Welly about 8.30am and after meeting the first couple of volunteers (talking about you Andrew) I started to set up camp in the car. Here I imagined that I’d come back from the route jump into a sleeping bag – have a snooze, change and get back out – all part of the plan.
I disappeared off for a few minutes to have my pre-race poo and when I came back the window of the car next to me opened and the gentleman in the seat said hello.
Now as regular readers will know I am not a very sociable chap – except in a race scenario and so David and I chewed the fat for a while, especially over our mutual appreciation of the Skye Trail Ultra. Weirdly there was something familiar about him and much as I tried I could not place him but I’m going to guess that he may well be the David I met at the start line of the Tweed Valley Ultra in 2018 – perhaps I’ll never know.
As the clock moved on I suggested we head down to registration – which gave me the opportunity to meet up with the wonderful Linlithgow Runner, Brian.
David and I rocked up the The Way Outside site and headed into registration after a bit of a bimble around the drop bag site and a watch of the other runners milling around as they waited for the start. The site seemed well set up and there was space for runners, volunteers and supporters to move around without pissing each other off – a good move from the race organisers. With time moving on though we headed upstairs to the registration point and were processed both quickly and efficiently (weirdly it could well have been fellow instagrammer Karmac70 that gave me my number but I can’t be sure).
Anyway, ID check was done, number was handed over, car details handed over to ensure any problems could be mentioned to us during the race and then we were sent outside to grab the lap dibber. All very easy, all really well drilled.
On the way to collect the dibber (from the awesomely hairstyled Jeff/Geoff) we ran in to Brian – saved me going to look for the bugger and it was a genuine joy to see him.
Brian and I have gotten to know one another a bit over the last few months as he’s been progressing his distances for bigger challenges to come and was ready to step up again with 12 hours at Tyndrum. We did brief introductions and then headed down to the Real Food Cafe for a cup of tea and a chat in nice warm surrounds. This, for me, was a wonderfully relaxing way to start a race and as we chatted about running and races I looked back with rose tinted specs to all those races were I’ve run terribly. Ha! Still saved me thinking about the terrible running I was about to do.
Post tea Brian headed off to get ready and David and I drifted off to the car park for a final change of kit.
The next hour or so there was mostly hanging around and although friendly and conversational you could feel that runners were keen to set off, there was a nervous energy about the place and even I, the fat hobbit, was keen to set off. However, I managed to fill my time with a few photos and exchanges of strange tales with some of the other runners.
Looking round the checkpoint you could see a broad assortment of runners, mountain goats, road runners, first timers, old timers and misfits (I was in the misfit camp) – it was a real mix that had been attracted and in my experience that makes a for a good time. I’m always fascinated about what brought all of these wonderful people to a looped running event? in Tyndrum? on a cold and chilly day in January? That was something I’d be exploring with the many runners I came across during my time on the course.
After a short briefing from Stacey Holloway, the Race Director, we were off and rather annoyingly I found myself near the front and so immediately set about rectifying this and slowed my pace dramatically. During these first few hours where daylight existed I was keen to soak in my surroundings and enjoy the clear, crisp weather that’s one of the key joys of having this as my main hobby – the opportunity to see bits of the world that others do not and with loops you get to revisit the experience several times over and take in different details each time.
We ambled down the course jumping across the pools of water that had settled and a couple of short water jumps that were included as part of the entry before coming to the main river crossing. Given the heavy rain recently this could have been treacherous but actually it was fine and there were multiple good crossing points.
I was actually rather enjoying myself – I even leapt across the rocks in the run up to the bridge and then broke out into some genuine running before the first major hill that I knew I’d be hiking up. The hill brought many of the runners to a plod, myself included and this was a good chance to chat to people and wave on the speedgoats who would be crossing the hundred mile mark.
I was more concerned that Brian would overtake me on the first lap and so I plodded on – very keen to get the first loop in the bag – he could then overtake on loop 2 (I wouldn’t mind that so much). The climb wasn’t horrendous but it was significant – perhaps not in these early loops but as the day wore on this would increasingly feel hard and I noted that the ground below our feet, throughout the course, pretty much, was hard, unforgiving and unrelenting – this could be a worry given that neither my back or hips have ever responded well to sustained hard trails.
The descent from the high point of the course was going to be equally challenging but both of these seemed in line with expectations – it was the middle part of the course that looked the most challenging to me. Benign undulation and a long relatively dull stretch of path was what awaited the runners – this would be the part that divided opinion either as a rest from elevation or a chore between the interesting bits.
I battered down the mine road towards the (well used, given how many runners I saw going in and out of it) mid point toilet stop and then clambered up towards the final section of the route beyond the highly amusing medics who were preparing the fire and clearly a BBQ! Then it was a relatively single track path back towards the checkpoint which was rocky, undulating, challenging and yet very enjoyable. The short bursts upwards and the fast bursts downwards made for a bit of movement in the legs – something that felt very necessary after the grind of the mine road.
The final burst back up to the checkpoint was a gentle lollop back along the river with a rather cruel loop in the checkpoint before reaching the dibber and our dibber checker.
I rolled into the checkpoint feeling reasonable but not without concern – fitness was obviously a concern but that was feeling steady – the problem was that my groin was feeling like shit. I started on my second lap with a light burning that was going through the same highs and lows as the route but lap 2 was finished within a reasonable time and I was still moving. Hurrah! However, the pain was now fully formed and sending shooting signals down my leg and up into my back.
I started to think about my options, one lap for a medal – well that was done but mentally that would be bad – I had originally aimed for 50 miles but that was rapidly being repurposed to a 30 mile run. In my head that was still going to be a failure but a chat with the GingaNinja reminded me that having not run for months those 30 miles would represent a reasonable return.
By lap 4 those 30 miles looked so far from achievable – I was in a really poor way, this felt like a DNF in the making and not reaching the minimum ultra distance was going to be a DNF to me.
It seemed to me though that on each lap I was going to meet someone that would help me reach the minimum distance. There was a Jennifer, John, Karen, the wonderful long distance walker Paul and many more. Occasionally I’d see Brian, David, Fiona or Neil who would provide a bit of a lift to get me over another hump. There were cuddles and conversation with (I’ll say husband and wife) Andrew and Susan – each one of these people and many more provided the incentive to keep going long enough to get six loops done. I heard amazing stories from the young, the old, the speedy and the slow and each one felt like stardust that kept me going just a little bit longer.
Laps 5 and 6 were well into the darkness and there was the greatest joy as I was able to sample the night sky of Tyndrum and the beautiful twinkling of all the stars in the sky watching over us. I stood at the bottom of the main climb, alone with my headtorch off wishing that I had a decent camera with me to capture this moment – I did something similar on the single track back up towards the start need the little mini loch and felt both the joy and appreciation of freedom I enjoy to be ale to be out here. However, as I swtiched my light on during those last few hundred metres of lap 6 I knew that a decision had to be made.
And it is 100% true that I didn’t make my final decision to halt at six loops until I was almost on top of the checkpoint. I felt sad, I felt drained but this was the only decision that could be made if I wanted to build on what had been done at the Tyndrum 24.
I had very much wanted to continue as the night time running was going to be spectacular and weather conditions were such that the route was going to be good overnight but my injury woes were getting worse and I knew that at some point I would need to drive home – injured.
I hobbled into the checkpoint and saw Jeff/Geoff and his beautiful hair (he let me touch it) and exited the race with a medal and my tail between my legs – there was no pride in my finish or my distance but it was a finish.
Distance: 5 mile loops over 6, 12 or 24hrs
Date: January 2020
Terrain: Hard Trail
Tough Rating: 2/5
Route I’ve already described much of the route but what I haven’t said is that there is a plethora of stunning scenery to delight in and despite being near civilisation you can feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere too – it’s a clever place to put a race like this. However, I felt the hard conditions underfoot took away from the picturesque nature of the route but it is a minor thing yet something some runners might want to consider if you’re thinking about entering. I’d been out and tested the route over the festive period as I was in the area anyway but I’d gone in reverse to the way we ran at T24 and felt that the reverse was easier – but again it’s all opinion and ultimately you’re doing the same elevation whichever way you went.
Organisation The organisation was faultless, yes there were challenges – the on route toilet became unusable for a number 2 apparently and there was the occasional headless chicken moment as someone was running round looking to fix a problem but everything was handled well. What felt like an army of (I’ll assume) volunteers and the RD looked effortless on their exertions both at the checkpoint and around the course. The checkpoint layout, the race registration and the lap counting was all super easy and that’s high praise indeed, especially when you consider that this is an inaugural event. Tyndrum 24 should go from strength to strength and I expect it to be well supported in the coming years.
Communication Regular communication across email and social media channels was excellent, I felt it was very important that the organisers did not rely on social media as a number of races now do. The email communication means you are more likely to catch those runners who don’t use these. In the run up there was quite a lot of information being put out – I would expect that in year two this will be streamlined as the issues that cropped up (such as transfers after the deadline) will be ironed out. Great job on the communications and marketing.
Value When you think about this the race is quite expensive but not outrageous at £80 and well within the average price of similar such events – however, I believe it is excellent value for money, especially compared to its peers.
There was clearly a good deal of organisation that went into the event, there was lots of support such as a toilet on the route, ample quality parking, a good spacious checkpoint base, accurate lap timings, what felt like a load of volunteers, kit purchase options, headtorch loans, etc). There were upcycled race t-shirts and wooden medals which were a nice touch too.
Ultimately the money spent by the runners on entering the race felt like money used on the race.
Volunteers The team behind T24 were really exceptional, I’ve met a lot of great people manning checkpoints or standing out in the cold but these guys were right up there. I’d like to mention once again the lovely Andrew, Susan, (their poor daughter for having to listen to my flirting with her dad) and Jeff/Geoff – they all made me laugh.
The guys on the course – especially those by the little bridge must have been freezing but always had a cheery smile, the medics were unapologetically hilarious and annoyingly inspiring with their nice warm fire going and the lady in the big wooly hat – she was so brilliant – mostly just telling me to get a move on. Ultimately it was a great team that came together to give the runners the support they needed.
My thanks guys.
Loop v Loop I’ve run a few looped events over the years – Challenge Hub 24hr, The Ranscombe Challenges, Brutal Enduro, Endure 1250 and how does the T24 compare?
Thankfully the Tyndrum 24 compares very favourably – it felt very modern and forward thinking, it was incredibly runner friendly and supportive and it felt like an event that was put on for runners by runners. Sometimes looped events can feel like an attempt to get your number of completed marathons up (not that there is anything wrong with that) but this felt like a genuinely challenging event in its own right and you needed to prepare for it whereas sometimes lap races can feel like a turn up and give it a crack – I felt with T24 you had to want to do T24 not just another looped event..
I remember running Endure 1250 and felt that was a ‘numbers’ event where I was just putting another number on my ultra total but here I felt like runners, myself included were racing whatever clock they were facing. In another year when I was a little fitter I would feel very confident of running 75 miles or more because I wanted to and I could train for that.
As looped events go this was one of the more fun ones and sits up there alongside the Ranscombe and Brutal loops as a favourite.
Medal The medal design was very nice, and as readers will know I do love a medal, my only concern is that the thickness of the wood suggests that this might not survive much of a bash. When I compare this to say the thickness of the wood of either Ben Vorlich or the Nocturnal I feel both of these will be a little more hardy. I’d have been quite happy to pay a couple of pounds extra for a few more millimetres of wood to ensure that my memento of this event lasts for the duration of my life.
Eco No plastic cups? Wooden medals, upcycled race shirts, local suppliers – all things I can very much get on board with and I doubt you’d hear any runners complaining about this. The race encouraged users to use public transport where possible – going so far as to have a race start time that made this possible (something that just two years ago I’d have been very happy with given I didn’t drive). Issues around sustainability in running is likely to become a bigger and bigger selling point as the years go on and it is good to see a race taking a lead on issues like this.
Conclusion I suppose the conclusions come down to whether I would run the event again and the answer is a well considered yes.
Tyndrum 24 is a strange beast of an event given the location and time of year but it is a much needed addition to the UK ultra running calendar as winter running events in January, especially in Scotland, are nowhere to be found. There is a reason though why this is so and that reason is that Scotland can have hideous weather in January and the possibility of cancellation presumably remains high.
These things are something you will have to factor into your calculations when you consider entering – this year the event was fortunate to have the best possible conditions – but next year and the year after may not be so lucky. How would you feel running in the driving rain up and down hill in the dark for at least 16 hours? Or ploughing though the snow for the same amount of time wearing every last inch of clothing you could manage just to get to 30, 40 or 50 miles? I’ll be interested to see how the event goes on in a year like that.
Perhaps the more important question for you is, should you enter? I feel the answer to that is easy – of course you should. This was a really lovely event with a wild mix of runners from all walks of life and the fact that the organisation was top class only adds to the conclusion that this is a top quality event.
I’d go so far as to say that it is race worth travelling for and 100 miles across the maximum time allowed is very achievable even if you chose to walk speedily the entire thing you’d be grinding out distances near three figures.
I also feel it is worth noting that the race directorship team is new to this and should be given a huge amount of praise for the amount of work they poured into this – it looked like a labour of love and that hard work paid off with a smooth and delightful event.
My own race, as I’ve suggested, was a failure but not totally, 4 laps away from my 50 mile target, I ran for less than 8 hours and I was in so much pain that this throws into doubt my participation at the Falkirk Ultra. Mentally though there was a hint of success – despite my lack of fitness and groin/hip/back problems from less than 5 miles in I managed to hold on and knock out 30 failure lacklusture miles but 30 miles nonetheless.
As I write this on Sunday evening while listening to some made people on the post football chat on BBC 5 Live I can feel the pain rolling around my groin and hip, Every time I stand up I feel it and evry time I take a step I feel it. I made the right decision to pull out. The potential to cause further long term damage was real but I know how to solve it – I need to weigh 15kg less, I need to eat less rubbish and I need to get back out there probably tomorrow, even if it is only for a slow couple of kilometres, probably involving the hill outside my house.
Thanks T24, thanks to everyone involved and who knows maybe I’ll see you next year.
Next Next I prepare for a solid weekend of Scottish fun starting on February 1st at the Edinburrgh Winter Riun where ASK and I will attempt to bring her mile time down a little and the following day I’ll be heading to Callendar Park in Falkirk to run loops again but this time deliverately for 8 hours (both subject to my injuries calmong down a bit).
Before I start I should write that I realise that given the state of the world that my ‘problems’ discussed here are small fry and I lead both a fortunate and charmed life.
Still I hadn’t written a blog in a while and I’d gotten to be an unfit fatty!
Undoubtedly 2019 was my worst year of running since I began in 2011 and that’s a sad thing to consider given how relatively well 2018 had ended. I can’t deny that there were moments were I believed that I was turning a corner but it turned out that each corner proved to be another slap in the face from a different assailant.
Now normally I fill my blog with tales of injury woe and there was some of that but this year was more complicated.
The move to Scotland continued and although the whole family was now safely north of the English border we needed to find a house to buy and this proved more challenging than we had initially hoped and I had perhaps naively assumed that I could continue with my rather torturous race schedule during this hectic time.
THE WARNING SIGNS & A FALL FROM GRACE The truth was that I could not continue as I had before and I got a very early warning of this when I travelled 450 miles to run the awesome Vigo Tough Love 10 (and pack up the remainder of the house). I felt every last inch of the race in my legs and the cramp that nearly killed me at mile 9 was horrendous. This should have been a warning to me but my general excitement about being in Scotland amongst all of these nice new races meant I went a bit mad.
My second warning that things were not going to go well came at the start line of the Highland Fling, here I ran into Andy O’Grady – the man who saw me to the finish line at the Skye Trail Ultra. ‘You’ve piled on the beef haven’t you?’ he said casually – he was only joking around with me but for a man who has poor body image issues this was something of a blow. However, it was also confirmation of something I knew very well – the trips up and down to Scotland, the lack of training, the lack of running and activity, the over eating and the living on my own for three months had taken their toll on my body – I’d gotten fat and lardy, both mentally and physically.
The same day as Andy poked fun at my fatness I found myself in the misery of the 9hrs of heavy rain and an unpleasant fall on Conic Hill at The Highland Fling. I withdrew from the race about mile 35 – a little over a half marathon from the finish – I was distraught.
How far I felt I’d fallen.
At the checkpoint where I threw in the towel I could see the excellent Scottish runner ‘Rhona Red Wine Runner’ somebody whose blog I have been a big fan of and periodically chatted to via Twitter over the years. We’d never met but I’d become so ashamed of my performance and appearance that I hid in the corner of the room I was waiting in hoping she neither noticed or recognised me.
The injury from the fall was relatively easy to recover from but the mental side of it was difficult to get over, even though I was just about ready for it I pulled out of the Balfron 10km and pulled out of the Ultra Trail Scotland for the second time.
With the final house move the weekend after my Fling effort I began to feel that I was simply pushing too hard too fast. However, rather than rest properly I decided that once the house move had concluded and my body had recovered a bit I gave it some welly and started training again, returning to ultrarunning with the relatively simple but challenging Ben Vorlich Ultra.
I found Ben Vorlich tough as my fitness was still somewhat lacking but there was an overwhelming sense of joy that accompanied it and I started to feel like I could make some progress ater successfully completing the race and so immediately went home and entered the Thieves Road which runs across the Pentlands near Edinburgh. Sadly on race morning I awoke with a terrible case of the Gary Gritters and this kyboshed my attendance – sensible as I spent most of the day on the toilet and given the temperatures recorded I would not have finished anyway.
Still I had the Ambleside 60 upcoming in early September and so I retained my focus and actually I managed to continue training once the illness had passed and although the Ambleside 60 was even tougher than Ben Vorlich I managed to get over the line. I was finally feeling something of a bounce and with an effective if unconventional training regime (running up and down the West Lothian Bings and hiking in the Ochils). I was beginning to feel ready but once again I was about to get a kick in the guts and one that would end my year.
During the Ochil Ultra my stomach gave me all sorts of problems and I was vomiting from early on, I managed to push on to about the 20 odd mile point but as I came into the checkpoint I simply collapsed on the floor and lay there thinking about my latest failure – this year was being rubbish. I felt at that moment the least like an ultrarunner that I have ever felt, I felt like a failure and that the runner who had earned nearly 200 medals, 50 of them in ultramarathon distances was coming to the end of his running career.
I went home that day and ate Dominos pizza and probably quite a lot of sweet things, I felt rubbish, I was rubbish and from here the dark gloom that came over me felt very tangible. Every race from here to the end of the year was thrown into jeopardy by this running breakdown. Race after race started to be cancelled as I realised that I was never going to make the start line, never mind the finish.
Benarty Hill Race, The Yorkshire Three Peaks Ultra, The Rebellion and finally The Cheviot Goat – significant cost (best part of £500 across those 4 races and hundreds more spent on maps and kit for these events.
However, the money was less significant than the cost to my mental wellbeing.
As the days dragged on beyond the Ochil Ultra I found myself enjoying retreating to a position of rest that involved eating biscuits, playing with my family and catching up on movies I’ve been waiting to see for an absolute age. There was a need for a physical break after all our efforts over the last year and work was being brutal in the run up to a significant project launch so maybe this stoppage was something that was needed.
However, running has always been my release and is inextricably linked to both my mental and physical wellbeing – so was there going to be a price to pay? Something I should have given more consideration as I sit here writing this in January.
Racing had now dropped down my priority list, something that had not happened in all the years since I began ultrarunning in 2013. A nasty illness in November also came at the wrong time and when I had been considering getting back out there in order to race The Goat and meet up with outstanding ultra runner Ryan Flowers.
However, I was sidelined for the best part of a month in the run up to The Goat and had no choice but to withdraw in the days leading up to the event. Thankfully I recovered in time for the a first family Christmas in our new home and our second in Scotland and while this was very enjoyable and relaxing I realised that I had relaxed too much, I’d put on significant weight over the past year and I was hiding in baggy clothing and finding it embarrassing being me.
And even as I added cream to another coffee and opened another packet of biscuits I still was struggling and it was only when I realised that my new found laziness was affecting things like my breathing that I decided it was time to pull on the running shoes and get back out there.
MEDAL COLLECTION INSPIRATION The sad thing is that my medal collection hasn’t been giving me any joy or providing the inspiration to earn more medals – it has simply become a historical record of achievement rather than a living breathing thing which grows and evolves.
When I lived in the South East of England I found that every time I ascended my steep staircase I was greeted by my medal collection, it demanded that I added more but now it doesn’t do this, it is a decoration – therefore I’m going to find a new home for those medals so that they provide the inspiration I clearly crave.
Perhaps several medals in quick succession will help to build the desire again or if not medals then at least finishes – the benefit of the T24 and the Falkirk 8hr is that they are both loops and so I can’t fail to finish – subject to completing at least one lap and the F50K is running around Falkirk which is pretty well known to me now and should be within my ability. I was planning on adding in a few shorter distance races on the in between weeks too – so ASK and I are off to Edinburgh to run the Winter Family Run (1mile). I may also consider a couple of 5 or 10km distances too – just to hold the precious piece of metal in my hand and bask in personal success – believe me I know how idiotic I sound. However, I have long associated the medals with me being in a good place, even if the state of me as I first clutch a medal is pretty ruined!
ANOTHER RETURN? Let me assure you it has not been easy to bother with another return. Scotland and it’s notoriously foul weather has been in full evidence over the last few weeks and yet I have still found myself throwing on my shorts and doing little bits of running that will form the basis of my training.
5km most days isn’t really marathon territory but it’s a start. There has been lots of elevation added across these short distance and as a family we are resuming hill walking at the weekends and enjoying the great Scottish outdoors that we moved up here for regardless of what the weather looks like.
It is slow going, very slow and I am both the fattest and unhealthiest I have been in years and I am not finding it fun but I am doing it.
I don’t really enjoy these periodic rebirths and the themes in them are, sadly, reliably consistent, which gives me caution when I pin my hopes on another go at getting fit and healthy. The spiral that I seem locked into perhaps require some form of significant event to kickstart me into action – something akin to a heart attack or a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes. I realise that this sounds ridiculous but when you find that you can wake up regardless of your fitness and still force out 30, 40 or 50 miles and get the medal then the attitude can still afford to be, ‘well I can still do it’.
When I see social media material about Transformation Thursdays or Reframed Fridays or whatever these stupid names are I can see that there was a significant issue going on and that the person has done something about it – usually gotten fitter, cleaner, lighter, healthier. I’ve never quite managed to get to the point where the problems were so significant that the doctor or other person was saying, ‘listen mate you’re one Mars Bar away from ruining yourself forever’. That conversation doesn’t take place and so I find myself excusing my poor food behaviours and finding new ways to justify continuing them.
That is a difficult set of mental blocks to overcome and even as I write this I am struggling with it.
SECRET EATING Those months of secretly eating Bernard Matthews Mini Chicken Kievs and Belvita Filled Strawberry bakes has not given me any joy – in fact these actions, this eating has made me very sad indeed. I’ve spoken before about over-eating, secret eating and the negative effects that this has but whereas before I was using running to combat it I’ve found that this time I was simply destroying years of work in bowls of processed and sugary treats.
It is a sorry state of affairs that I’ve been secret eating food I don’t even want but at least I can admit it and hopefully now do something about it.
CONTROL & ATTITUDE But I’m only at the start and I have yet to get control of the eating but at the very least I have enough control to be doing the exercise that can negate some of the impact of my foul food behaviours.
There is also the question of ASK, one I’ve mentioned before, my food behaviour should not be allowed to rub off on her and I am aware that sometimes I fail in this aspect of parenting and it is an area that I need to work on harder. Even if I can’t eat vegetables and fruit I should still be actively promoting these to her. In fairness she is not the glutton I can be and has a very healthy enjoyment of positive food choices – seeing things such as chocolate as a treat rather than seeing them as I do, as a food group that requires 5 a day.
The physical activity is also helping to get a better balance mentally – I feel more decisive and clearer in vision when I’m fitter and as I hiked around the delightful Falls of Clyde last weekend I could feel myself wanting to go further, be active and it was delightful – the trouble is that tonight’s running was torrid and tough – the battle is clearly only just beginning.
But control of my attitude towards health is going to be key to regaining overall control and ensuring that the enjoyment I’ve had through being healthy continues through my 40s and beyond. With control, will come the respect that my body deserves after serving faithfully for the last 42 years and in that respect I will create the kind of person I want my family to see.
I’m hopeful that I’ll finally make a decision regarding a recognised running club which I feel will offer a greater ‘herd mentality’. Being around other runners does provide a greater sense of purpose and direction, especially to me, and although it is not something I have ever done I feel it will create a support network I can both draw from and feed into.
My experiences with Parkrun, The London Social Runners and The Linlithgow Running Buddies all had lots of highs but ultimately none were quite the right fit for my running needs (although I retain huge respect for them all) and I feel the right running club would help keep me on the straight and narrow.
Sadly one thing that I did try to help inspire me was Strava. I had hoped that joining Strava would provide new local running connections but the truth is that it hasn’t – save for the lovely Fiona (hello if you’re reading this, nice to see you the other night) and despite my local area being full of runners and sporting types I haven’t found organic ways to make connections that might benefit myself and equally them. Therefore I have probably given up on Strava, though never say never and if you find my activities making their way onto your app screen – do think kindly of the fat bloke running around Falkirk.
SO NEXT NEXT… This weekend brings me to the first race of the year at the Tyndrum24 – a looped 24hr event where I plan on going super slowly and super steadily and taking so much kit with me that my body shouldn’t have to take too much of a hammering from the conditions (lots of shoes, lots of waterproofs). I’d like to come out of T24 with around 50 miles completed – which might not sound like much but given that the furthest I’ve run since the Ochil Ultra is 7.5km then 50 miles sounds like a big ask. If I can achieve the 50 mile mark I’ll be very happy and this will hopefully give me something of a momentum launch into a busy year of events with the Falkirk Ultra following 2 weeks later and the F50K 4 weeks after that.
I really want the T24 to help me rebuild the confidence I am going to need to complete events such as the Loch Ness 360 and the Ultra Scotland 50.
Don’t get me wrong I don’t want to be fat, unfit or unhealthy – I want to be none of these things and I desperately want to get back to being a healthy icon for my daughter – who I encourage to be active at every available opportunity. As I write I find it amusing that this may sound like I consider 2019 to be an unhealthy nightmare and a waste of time but the truth is far more complicated than that – 2019 was actually a really very positive year filled with much joy and fun times.
As a family we have developed new facets – especially with ASK starting school and the move to Scotland has proved to be the kind of success I had hoped for – but there is room for improvement. New friendships to replace those we left behind will be important as we go forward and we must be keen to make the required amount of time in our daily routine to ensure we are getting the most out of this wonderful opportunity.
So what’s the plan?
Well there are the dozen ultra marathons which are a very serious consideration and I’ve entered things that I believe will be the hardest possible challenge given the level to which I have dropped, importantly though, with effort, I feel these are achievable. I remain focused on smaller and inaugural events with the odd bigger event to remind me that ultra running events aren’t completely solo sports.
Tyndrum 24, although my first event back is more than a warm up as I’ve said – this will be the launch pad and building blocks that may make or break the rest of the year. I’ll be following this up with the 1 mile family fun run in Edinburgh where ASK and I will attempt to drive her mile time down even further and I do love running with my daughter.
Then we hit the main thrust of the year from February until the end of July I’m goin g to giving it full throttle, The Falkirk Ultra and the F50K followed a few weeks later by the Peninne Bridelway in what will be the first of the Ranger Ultras Grandslam (assuming I enter) then another 4 weeks before I take to the Southern Upland Way with GB Ultras and then around 4 weeks further before the years longest ultra around the new Loch Ness 360 trail. Less than 3 weeks later I’ll be towing the line of the John Lucas Memorial, which as a more tarmac ultra could be an unmitigated disaster given my relationship with tarmac races and that’s just a few days before spending 3 (hopefully) awesome weeks in Canada, travelling round but also racing the truly awesome looking Quebec Mega Trail (only the 15km but still a first Canadian race seems like the only sensible thing to do) and then when I touch down I’ve got a few days before I’m back in the saddle for The Run The Blades 50km – I suppose something of a warm down compared to the rest of the events in the run up.
Thankfully the summer months are spent in training mode rather than racing as my body hates August and I seem to have a curse regarding races that happen in August so I’ll be skipping this before the winter tests come with the three remaining grandslam races from Ranger Ultras and a first crack but second entry to The Cheviot Goat.
I feel its an unconventional race list, there are no marathons, no big city events, no events that most runners will have heard of, it is a list of grim sounding races filled with elevation or shitty weather or shitty course conditions. It is a race list from someone that wants to get back to running, get back to racing and get back his self respect.
January: Tyndrum 24 (24hr loop) (Entered)
February: Edinburgh Winter Run (1 mile) (Entered)
February: Falkirk Ultra (8hr loop) (Entered)
March: F50K (50km) (Entered)
April: Peninne Bridelway (57km)
May: Ultra Scotland (54 miles) (Entered)
May: Loch Ness 360 (80 miles) (Entered)
June: John Lucas Memorial (46 miles) (Entered)
July: Quebec Mega Trails (15km) (Entered)
July: Run The Blades (50km) (Entered)
October: Yorkshire Three Peaks (100km)
November: White Peaks Trail
November: Dark Peaks Trail
December: Cheviot Goat (54 miles) (Entered)
The only way I’m going to get near completing these is with a plan and I think I’ve got the key areas I need to consider.
Eat more healthily
Start running consistently
Run for longer
Finally pick a running club
Get to the start line of the races I have entered
Continue exploring Scotland
Work on body image issue
I’m clearly not going to fix all the issues any time soon, some are long standing issues that are deeply ingrained in me but as I suggested earlier it is about regaining control and that is something I have done successfully before. It is a very personal, individual experience and one that draws on my failings as a person, my own arrogance and my own falibility but now added to this is a sense of my own mortality. Nobody wants their legacy to be that they slowly faded away – so I’m going to try and not to.
I very much plan on building on the positive things that did take place in 2019 and try and reintegrate the things that worked well from my life before I arrived in Scotland. I am responsible for the mess I have gotten mysef into and by opening myself up to the scrutiny of my peers I hope to encourage myself to be the best version of me.
Having failed to complete the Ochil Ultra I feel now is a time of reflection – I won’t be reviewing it this year as it would be unfair on the organisers to judge this on half a race. However, I can happily confirm that the (a little under) half a race I did was ball achingly epic and an example of a stunningly scenic Scottish ultra marathon that wasn’t in either the highlands or on the West Highland Way. Give it a go I don’t think you’ll be in any way disappointed – and with a couple of the loveliest RDs around.
What I’m looking for is some closure about the Ochil Ultra – sadly that will not be achieved here – only finishing the fucker will deliver that, however, I need to examine what happened and why I am so massively disappointed.
Perhaps the truth is that it’s not the failure that chaffs my arsehole but the way I failed.
I mean I knew things were not going well before the race started and my guts were doing cartwheels. I managed to alleviate this somewhat with the obligatory pre race dump but it still didn’t feel right. Thankfully negative things were somewhat put to the back of my mind by meeting the truly awesome and inspiring Fiona (see enclosed picture) but this was temporary relief and when I lined up at the start I was genuinely worried.
The race was quick to accelerate uphill and I found myself pushing as hard as I could up the first climb to the summit of Dumyat. I was fortunate to be on a route that I knew quite well and the views were truly spectacular. Having been here several times before I was expecting this to be an easy ascent and a relatively easy descent. However, when I reached the top I discovered that the descent was going to be far from easy and several slips and bumps as I went downwards would prove to be my undoing. I made it down to the bottom I tried to have something to eat – one of those baby fruit pouches that are pretty easy on the stomach – however, this was were I discovered that my participation in the Ochil Ultra was going to be short-lived, I started puking my guts up. Everything that I had laid on my stomach to try and stop race nausea came up and it was pretty vile. I crawled away in dismay and started to run again as best I could but on tarmac I could now feel the pain of my back and groin that had taken a pounding coming off that first climb.
I was fucked.
How sad that a race I had been so been looking forward to had come to a conclusion so quickly – but what now? Do I stop at the first checkpoint or do I get as far as possible and hope that everything eased off and I could make it to the last 15 miles or so and push through. Knowing that much tougher races are to come later in the year I felt that I had no choice but to try and push through and see how far I could get.
I pulled into checkpoint one and ate and drank as much as I could stomach, I also opened up the Active Root to see if there was anything it could do to help me ease my stomach issues. I would like to briefly mention the young man who was at the checkpoint and remembered me from Ben Vorlich – he was awesome and helped me get stuff out of my pack so that I didn’t need to take it off. What a great volunteer and he was more than willing to check half a bottle of water over my head!
I decided to head up the hill from checkpoint one and it really wasn’t very far before I was once more on my knees and bringing up the food and drink I had consumed at the checkpoint, chicken and chocolate (yuck). I sat down for a while, who knows how long, but long enough that I had the capacity to get up and continue but I was sort of wishing I hadn’t. It was a steep climb up from here and I made slow progress upwards where a volunteer was looking out for us – I stopped briefly to chat and then pushed onwards.
I looked back at the Ochils and saw a new side to the hills that were one of the great draws that brought me to Scotland. I felt truly grateful to be where I was but I was very much wishing that I did not feel like I did but with gritted teeth I continued through this beautiful and isolated landscape. I came down off the hill to a fisheries on the Glen Devon Estate that I recognised and when briefly I had phone signal I called the GingaNinja and asked her to come and rescue me from checkpoint two – I would be finishing there. The call though was cut short – not by a lack of signal but by having to get across the fast moving stream of water – something that was rather tricky give the state I was in.
Hours seemed to drift by until I finally arrived at the Glen Devon Reservoir and around the 30km mark I assumed that the checkpoint and the therefore my finish line would be just at the bottom of the hill I had climbed only a week or so previously.
I reached the path and saw the arrow pointing upwards to yet more climbing and here I found myself with tears in my eyes. My groin and my back were burning, I had managed to puke for a third and final time and my mental strength had simply evaporated into the ether. I did consider the option of simply walking down to the Glen Sherup car park but knew that there was no phone signal there and felt that the second checkpoint must be nearby. I mean how much elevation could there really be here? The answer to that was revealed as I entered a darkened forest section and noted that the climb looked steep and impossible. However, much as before I simply gritted my teeth and forced my way through the increasingly shitty conditions underfoot. Once I reached the top of the section I saw a sign saying ‘Innerdownie summit 1km’ and noted that we must come back here and make the ascent – something we had considered when, as a family, we were hiking up Ben Shee.
In the distance I could see signs of habitation and assumed that the checkpoint was there and so I gingerly made my way down to the bottom to the welcome of the volunteers and the GingaNinja but all I could say was that those cheers and congratulations were unnecessary – I had failed, totally and utterly and was very sad about that. Perhaps the most annoying thing was that I
The guys at Wee Run Events were tremendous and offered anything I needed and I would like to very much thank them from that. I’ve said it before but the guys really do love what they do and if they don’t then they make it look like they do.
Afterwards & Onwards
Failing here would normally have sent my spiralling into a pit of my own self inflicted misery and ensuring that I just piled on the pounds eating chocolate and bread products but I’ve been rather than pragmatic than that this time. I’ve decided not to run the Rebellion Ultra as I feel as though it is simply too far for me at this time and have instead entered the Yorkshire Three Peaks Ultra – which at 70km should be a great event and I’ve very rarely run in Yorkshire so its a lovely opportunity.
The injury thankfully has eased off and I’ve immediately gone back to running and so I’m aiming to be ready for the Three Peaks but also more importantly I’m now laser focused on The Cheviot Goat which has been my ‘A’ race all year – so as sad as I feel about the Ochils Ultra it has provided me with renewed focus for my remaining targets this years.
I will still reach ultra number 52 just not at the Ochil Ultra and 2020 will, I am determined, not be the washout that 2019 has been.
Failing to finish, refusing to continue, timed out, did not finish. Doesn’t matter, I did fail but I will return and it is holding on to a positive attitude that will get me through. Some may comment that I was just having a stinker of a day but the truth is that I’ve had too many stinking days at races. I could blame my work stress levels, the sickness on the day or the injuries but ultimately I should only blame myself for my failures – and I do.
So thank you Ochil Ultra, you were awesome and I was shit but I’m coming to get you and next time I will not fail.
In 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I owe this finish to Keith – I would not have made it without you. Thank you.
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.
July was the first month in a couple of years that I’ve run lots and this is by no means a lot by my own low standards. However, it is a lot compared to how much I have been doing in the last 3 years.
As regular readers will know I moved to Scotland last year and now, being safely ensconsed in my new home, I have the time to dedicate to running. The trouble has been that my body has been ravaged by chronic injury, weight gain and a distinct lack of fitness action and so when the GingaNinja told me that I had finally gotten fat enough, it was decided that I would start to look after myself again and this meant getting fitter.
You may well have read my piece about my poor relationship food (read it here if you like) and my various blogs about a general annoyance at logging every last iota of data from running – I’ve never ascribed to the ‘if it isn’t on Strava then it didn’t happen’ – but this month I did a number of new things;
The first was I put my massive over-eating under control. The second thing was, despite my reservations, I signed up to Strava.
I did a couple of other key things too though, the third thing was I wanted to explore my surroundings and so invested in a few maps and ensured that I sought new and interesting places to run – this was in combination with a subscription to the OS Maps app (highly recommended for easy browsing maps).
I also sought support from my family and asked them to join me on a weekly hike up a hill or mountain within relative striking diatance of home – they heartily agreed and all of this began when we bimbled up to Cairngorms for a week towards the end of June. Now though all I needed to do was commit to the idea of returning to fitness and maybe even getting back down to a weight I could be a bit happier with.
There was a part of me that felt like being on Strava and Instagram was a form of public shaming and by being more open than usual I would have nowwhere to hide. Those first runs were hard and they were brutal, they lacked any form of pace, my breathing was rubbish and I really was not going that far. Worse than that I had gotten the point where my running shirts were starting to make it look like I’d bought a size too small to show off ‘the goods’ – I hadn’t though. But I was committed to the idea of sharing this information, in part, to highlight to myself how far I had fallen and more importantly how much progress I could make.
Still those first few posts were damning and I hated putting them on Strava and Instagram.
However, as each day passed and I ran a little bit more, with a little more elevation and across harder terrain I could feel the benefits kicking in. Don’t get me wrong I was not going any faster but it was getting easier and I was focusing on climbing rather than distance which made every session I was doing even harder than I would train when I lived in the South East.
To help incentivise myself I added in a few Strava challenges such as the 5km race, the 10km race, 200km in a month and 2,000 metres elevation in a month – expecting to hit only the 5km and maybe the 10km race challenges. There was also the public humiliation of giving over my information to runners I both knew and didn’t know and so logically I began following local, to me runners, who if I knew might be looking at my runs might inspire me to pick up my feet and get round a bit quicker.
The added challenge was that all of this has been run on a diet of around 1400 calories a day and so has been both intense and tough. I love food, especially ‘treat’ food and I’ll reward myself for almost anything. So sticking to a better eating life has been good for me and the whole family. I’ve found myself cooking more again (and enjoying it) and I have generally eaten less – that said my consumption of sugar free Irn Bru has quadrupled (at least). The one thing that has been dropped from my diet is chocolate (not 100% but not far off) and my consumption of sugar has also been drastically reduced – all of this means that I have managed to shed nearly 3kg in weight during July.
I don’t want to make it all sound positive though and there were a couple of bad days where take away food was eaten but I’m trying not to beat myself up about that – these were social occasions and there were more good days than bad, and are that note I can seamlessly segway into the numbers of July…
So how do the numbers stack up for this month?
Time on my feet: 29hrs 45 mins
Elevation Gain: 4,142 metres
Running: 24hrs 16mins
Running Distance: 209.6km
Running Elevation: 3,332 metres
Hiking: 5hrs 6mins
Hiking Distance: 22.3km
Hiking Elevation: 795 metres
Weight: Down 2.8kg
Races: 1 (Ben Vorlich Ultra)
Instagram Posts: 300
Blog Posts: 3
The numbers aren’t amazing but they do show a surge in my activity level and if I can maintain this level then I am sure that I will get faster and continue to get fitter.
Physical and Mental Wellbeing
I’ve discussed several times that running keeps me healthy both physically and mentally and that when I don’t run then both suffer and while it is bad for my body to be unfit when my mind is unfit I become a much less decent human being. When I was running through London on a daily basis as part of my commute I found this rather stressful and was often having to reach a point by a certain moment or running to another train station because London Bridge was closed or Cannon Street had been flooded or Dartford was closed so I would then have to wake up tired legs to run the final leg home. Now I am running for pleasure with the greatest pressure deciding on where I need to run – it won’t always be like this but for the moment I am enjoying the freedom afforded by my job, my drive to work and the locations I pass through – which are filled with rich, luxourious landscapes.
My mental wellbeing is as good as it has ever been, if not better and my life feels lighter – of course nothing is perfect and something terrible could happen tomorrow but I’m working on the assumption that it won’t and so as my physical wellbeing improves through the running so does my mental wellbeing and perhaps I’ll get to a point where I won’t be thinking about the next potential disaster situation and rather be thinking about the next step upward.
The routes have been the most spectacular part of returning to running and I’ve explored lots of my little part of Scotland, there have been mountains, waterfalls, hills, lots of mud, some tarmac and head high grass at almost place I’ve run – this has been tremendously exciting. Some of my favourite places have been Polmont Woods& Burn, Blackness Castle & The John Muir Way, Torphichen & the Cairnpapple, Muiravonside & the Avon Aqueduct, The Kinneil Estate, Westquarter, The Union Canal, Dechmont Law, Ben Vorlich, Dumyat & Castle Law, Miekle Bin, Meall a Bhuachaille, Steall Falls, Ravencraig & The Knook, Greendykes Bing, Seafield Law and Rough Castle & The Falkirk Wheel. I can highly recommend trying out some or all of them – it is true to say that these aren’t The Highlands but they are no less fun. I’ll be continuing to explore over the following months more and more areas, I’ll be spending more hours poring over maps to find places that nobody else goes to and I’ll be continuing to get lost as I increasingly seek the off trail routes (my legs have been stung so much this last month).
The highlights are actually pretty easy and it has little to do with running and more about achieving fitness – climbing up Dumyat & Castle Law in the Ochils with ASK and the GingaNinja and also the climb up The Law was lots of fun. Hoerver, it was more than that, it was excellent preparation for running up hills and testing myself – forcing myself to go slower with a 4 year in tow up a 700 metre ascent means that I have developed patience. So thanks family for helping me get back on track.
There is much in the diary already – first up is the Thieves Road in a week but I consider that a stepping stone to more challenging oportunities further down the line. The Ambleside 60 in September will take me back to a true love of mine – The Lake District and to a place I spent many happy days during my 20s – from here though things get a little more serious. The Ochil Ultra at the end of September will be hard and at 50 miles it will be a test of how far I have come and will very much determine whether I race the Rebellion. The Rebellion at 135 miles is the furthest I will ever have run – I will have no support crew and I will need to be on point and fit as I can be. If successful I then have four weeks to recover before my 2019 A race – The Montane Cheviot Goat, I am very much looking forward to this and will hopfully serve as reward for several months of hard work – but we shall see.
But the future is about more than races, the future is about my health and wellbeing and that of those around me.
ASK asks me when I am going to die and the answer I give her is that, ‘I’ll die one day, maybe tomorrow, maybe next year or maybe a long time away’. I always remind her that the reason I run and want an active life for all of us is to make sure that I am, and we are, around for as long as possible and it is the reason I ask that she join me on runs and hikes – so that she will live, in her words, ‘a very long time’. There are things I cannot control but this is something that I can influence.
If we can maintain this as a family then we will succeed and I have learnt that I really can’t do it alone and it is not just the support of family I’ve found the social thing much more useful this time around too.
When ‘the social family’ is sending kudos on Strava or liking pictures on Instagram or reading this blog then know that you are making a difference to ensuring I succeed, but not in the way you might imagine I still don’t really care if anybody reads this and if no Kudos or Likes are received then that is fine – I’m not really needy about stuff like that. But exposing myself to social scrutiny is a valuable lesson for me, in that it ensures I am looking at developing an ongoing healthy relationship with my own honesty towards wellbeing and I’d hate to be dishonest so if everyone ignored it I that’s fine because its for my own self satisfaction. Maybe self satisfaction is what this needs to be about – something for me to think about as August comes around.
Anyway, so see you out there and enjoy your running.
I’ve failed to finish a few ultras – a couple through injury and a couple through stupidity but the thing that has cost me most is my ability, or rather lack thereof, to run in the heat and my ability to sweat like a national champion.
Even on the occasions where I have raced and run in the sun I’ve really struggled – the Folkestone 10km, Bedgebury 10km and the Vanguard Way Marathon. The latter is a prime example of how badly things can go, although I was running with water it was a boiling hot day and the organisers ran out of fluids of any sort at the half way point. At mile 16 I was pretty delusional and heat exhaustion had consumed me – in my own minds befuddlement i could tell I was in a dangerous situation but to my surprise I finished. In the aftermath I remember placing a McDonalds chocolate milkshake on either side of my head to cool myself. Yummy.
These were the experiences that I both survived and finished. However, there were races, mostly ultra marathons that occurred in the heat of the August sunshine where I simply had to give up.
My most memorable failure was probably the Ridgeway Challenge, which when I ran it, was held on a muggy late August afternoon and even before the event had begun I was feeling the effects of the heat. I had my head covered, fully sun creamed up, fully hydrated, fully lubricated and ready to go but within a few short miles I was already struggling.
When I was around 55 miles in I found myself stood atop a hill with my running tights around my ankles and attempting to stop the terrible burning that radiated around my nut sack. I put the family jewels inside a buff and I put tissues inside my Runderwear to stop any further rubbing of my red raw and sweating skin.
I soon crawled into a late night and windy checkpoint and stopped running – I could simply go no further.
This experience was not the only time an August ultra marathon has given me a kicking but after not racing during the summer months for the last couple of years I’ve decided that a move to Scotland may make the possiblity of completing an August ultra marathon a reality.
After completing the Ben Vorlich Ultra on Sunday in warm, but not sweltering, conditions I have begun to feel a little more confident about getting this hoodoo dealt with.
Therefore, I have decided to attend the inaugural Thieves Road Ultra from BaM Racing on August 10th as this seems like a decent opportunity. It will be 40 miles (ish) across the Pentlands and surrounds and will provide a strong test of distance and temperature and while I’m looking forward to it I also have to remember my failings at this time of year.
There are other things that I will be doing during the Thieves Road that I normally reserve for the continental ultras I have participated in and hopefully these little changes will have a big impact.
Using my baggier Raidlight shorts instead of my usual OMM Flash tights – this will hopefully pass greater breeze through the undercarriage to keep things cooler
A single pair of thinner Drymax socks rather than my preferred Injinji toe liner and Drymax trail sock. This will heopfully stop my feet overheating, which has been an issue that causes huge discomfort during events.
A lighter weight race vest with a lower load – I’ve been working down the weight of the contents of my race vest, looking to take only the kit required. The problem with being a middle to back of the pack runner is that there is often a need to have a little more kit. However, I’ve recently acquired the Raidlight Revolutiv 12 which I ran with for the first time at the Ben Vorlich Ultra and found that I was happy to run with a lower load and also found that I ddin’t sweat across my back as much with this race vest on.
A sahara style cap – I’m a big fan of a Buff visor but the cover it provides is not quite enough for the sweltering heat and retaining a cool head is key to finishing ultra distance races.
Reliable consumption of fluid – the new race vest has a minimum capacity of 1.5litres of fluid upfront and I during my latest adventure I found myself
These things combined with all my usual preparations will hopefully finally see me deliver an August medal. Fingers crossed and if anybody has any advice on how to deal with the heat, chaffing, heat stroke and exhaustion, etc then I would be very happy to hear your tips.
I’d signed up to the Ben Vorlich Ultra on the back of my entry the Ochil Ultra (also organised by Wee Run Events) and to be fair had not really done much research – but I knew that it ran up a mountain I had been keen to climb and when you combine this with a bit of running then how could you possibly go wrong?
I drove down to the Cultybraggan Camp from sunny Polmont to ensure I left the start line at the earliest possible time – so it was an early kick off. Thankfully the roads were clear and I’d gotten up in time to get ready properly and have breakfast – something that often eludes me pre-race and I always pay the price for it later. Sadly my early morning coffee had not worked other things loose so that might become a problem later in the race (but I did have my tissues with me).
Preparations had been somewhat disrupted that weekend by the GingaNinja having to work late on Friday night, my daughter spending the rest of Friday evening puking her guts up and my Saturday being taken up by the purchase and installation of a treadmil in my garage.
Still it was now Sunday morning and I had arrived, registration was swift and clear – my number, tracker and timing band were handed over. There were decent facilities at Cultybraggan Camp (including what looked like the option of showers). The weather was reasonable, so as a consequence the runners were milling around the starting point rather than being huddled in vehicles or hiding in the registration hut.
The race should have kicked out at 7am, with the runners being allowed to leave anytime after this point – the only stipulation being that you were finished by 10pm – there was small delay to sending us out but nothing significant and with the shout ‘Go!’ we were sent on our merry way.
I felt that the pace of the runners ahead of me was going to be significantly faster than I, and I was right. A lack of training, fitness and being overweight meant that I was going to drop back pretty quickly, however, I didn’t really consider this a problem as I knew that my participation was more about completing the event than trying to get a decent time.
The route headed out of Cultybraggan and towards Comrie along a deep dark path along the River Earn – there were lovely tree roots everywhere, there was mud and there was waist high grass, stinging nettles and thorns that on a wet day would give you some strife. I bounded along the route here thinking that if the entire route was like this then we’d be in for a really good time. This lasted for a couple of miles before arring at the delightful, chocolate box town of Comrie, at 7.30 in the morning Comrie was a sleepy village with a few dog walkers out but later in the day the GingaNinja informed me that it very much became a hotbed of English tourists visiting the area – presumably to taste what she described as he best fish and chips she had ever had.
The route wound its way towards Loch Earn via an old railway line, much of which, for the first half, has been transformed to what can only be described as excellent cycle paths, while the back end is a little more hard packed trail but ultimately both sections were very runnable.
I found myself making rather better time than I imagined I was going to given that my longest run since returning to running has been 19km. Although I was near the back of the pack I really did not mind – I was enjoying the moderate solitude of the event and the surrounds were truly stunning and as I hadn’t been to the Trossachs before I considered this a real opportunity.
I bimbled along the route until arriving into the first checkpoint where I was greeted by some of the lovely race volunteers – water, timing point and importantly a toilet where on offer and I was grateful for the water as my own supply was being quickly exhausted by the conditions which felt a little muggy on this side of the loch (and I do poorly once conditions warm up)!
After a lovely little chat with the checkpoint team I headed out again with a greater understanding of the task at hand. Having trundled along one side of Loch Earn it was now time to travel the opposite side and head to the finish – with just the small matter of Ben Vorlich to negotiate.
Where the first section had been the old converted railway line, this track was the road that ran alongside the loch. Even though it was festooned with signs saying this was ‘walker and cyclist friendly’ I was unconvinced and therefore happy, whenever I met a vehicular foe, to step aside into the undergrowth to allow them to pass. This slowed my progress to the climb and had I been either braver or faster I would probably have made life a little tighter for the drivers, but I’m not, so I didn’t.
There was a gentle breeze around the water which made for pleasant running but still I was hugely grateful to see the checkpoint and my drop bag full of goodies. I helped myself to two chocolate milkshakes, a curry pie and a caramel Freddo (yes I know how to live it up) and also caught up with Ed who was looking for his first ultra finish.
He asked, ‘still going up?’
To which my reply was, ‘of course’.
It was at this point that the race leader flew into the checkpoint and I felt that actually I must be doing okay as he was only an up and down faster than I was! and so with a cheery wave to the volunteers I headed up – little knowing what was awaiting me.
How much I regretted that decision on the way up – but I wasn’t to fully appreciate that until about 20 minutes into my ascent as realisation crept across my brow. As I started my ascent I noted the succession of runners all making their way down, all looking strong, all contenders for the lead if truth be told, whereas I looked out of place and exhausted – but regardless I moved relentlessly forward.
I had also noted that some of the runners where choosing to use poles – something that I had considered but then given I came to Scotland to learn how to race up mountains without poles it seemed silly to use them here, as this was a genuine test of my training in the nearby home hills. However, as I passed the RD by the side of the path, counting us on the mountain and off it, I regretted my poles decision but, I put in all the effort I could and even when the weather started to close in I simply put on my jacket and dug in.
The path up Ben Vorlich is clear and easy to follow but it’s rocky, technically demanding and unrelentingly steep with a number of little false summits that lull you into a false sense of completion.
I lumbered my way up and around the loose rock, bruising the underside of my feet as I leaped over sections of tricky wet rock and landing upon sharp jagged stones. As each metre was added to my Suunto ascent total I knew I was slowly nearing the top and as the final peak to the top of the Ben presented itself I pushed hard into the mist – determined to make it.
Being scared of heights made this all the more terrifying at the final moment and I bent down to hands and knees as I thundered that final 10 metres of climb to touch the trig point and grab some photographs. I probably spent 10 minutes up there admiring the view before I remembered this was a race and quickly set off. I say quickly but when you look down from Ben Vorlich you realise just how steep it is and you are forced to slow down. Here I saw Ed for what would be the final time and for the first time I realised that if I wanted to finish anything other than last I would have to move quicker.
Once clear of the most severe of the descent I pressed harder down the hill, throwing myself at the rocks and refusing to slow until I saw the RD once more. ‘Alright?’ he said. ‘Got what I came for,’ I replied, ‘to climb Ben Vorlich’ and with that I said goodbye and pressed downwards to the checkpoint once more. My legs were like jelly when I hit the bottom but despite this I offered two young ladies (I’ll assume related to the marshalls) a race back to the checkpoint – which while a physical mistake was a brilliant boost mentally.
I spent a few minutes with the checkpoint guys, again – properly awesome – and then kicked on knowing that the Ben Vorlich Ultra, for me, had gone from a test of the physical to a test of mental strength. My legs were battered to pieces but I knew they would make it – the problem was going to be knowing that I would be retracing my steps back to the finish and knowing that I had finished with the superb views of mountains. However, there was still the remainder of Loch Earn to negotiate and given how my body was feeling this too was going to be testing. I walked a couple of those road kilometres to try and reduce the effect on my back, hip flexor, right calf and bowels but when I got back to the turn for home I knew I had to start running again.
Thankfully it was about here that the rain kicks in properly and I felt quite content jumping back into my beloved Montane Minimus and I adopted the faithful run/walk strategy through the next 12km or so and it wasn’t until I knew I was in the home strait that I was willing to open the taps a little more and on the old railway I began to run. I smiled as I passed through Comrie and I upped the pace a little further through the trails, refusing to slow even when the waist high grass soaked my feet – I could smell home or so I thought.
The GPS route shouted at me, ‘you’re here’ but as I looked around I can assure you I wasn’t! Frantic I looked round for a sign, it looked so familiar but I was in meltdown – I called the GingaNinja and said, ‘I’m at Cultybraggan Farm but I don’t know where…’ and as I turned round I saw the old barracks in the distance. I’ll be honest I let out a little tear and then put my foot on the accelerator – I ran to the gates and saw my daughter waiting at the far end. I dare not disappoint and so I gave it all I had as she gave some welly to the cow bells.
As I approached ASK she asked to run those final few metres with me and so as a family we all crossed the line. Awesome. Never have I been so happy to finish a race.
Damn good but brutal fun.
Distance: 60km (ish)
Profile: Deceptive and killer
Date: July 2019
Location: Loch Earn
Terrain: Very Mixed
Tough Rating: 2.5/5
This is an odd one as I really hate tarmac and there was a decent amount of tarmac here but there was also a decent amount of trail, the views for the most part were spectacular and the route would cover most bases for all but the most dogmatic of trail runners. Therefore I have to say I really, genuinely enjoyed it.
Obviously I was there for Ben Vorlich itself and so the low road that ignored it would not have interested me as much but the going up the mountain really makes this a race to do. That said the route without the mountain climb would make for a really good and fast short distance ultra with only a few hundred metres of climb across the 50km. Ultimately the route has a little bit of something for everyone. I’d say if you’re looking to move up from marathon then the 50km is ace, if you like a bit of tough as old boots climbing then the 60km will test you and if you like something else we’ll you’ll probably enjoy it anyway.
I was supposed to run the Ochil Ultra last year with Wee Run Events but given I was moving up to Scotland that day I had to DNS. Therefore I was very much looking forward to meeting the guys as I’d heard the Ochils was a really nice, well organised event. It’s worth taking into account this was a first running of the Ben Vorlich Ultra and as an inaugural event though you expect the team to be ironing things out a little as they find their feet but actually it all seemed pretty smooth – yes there was a minor delay in setting off but this served only to make sure that as many people as possible set off together. The checkpoints were sound and there was water at every stop – what more do you need? The route signage was really good, the marshals were all brilliant, the supplied map was okay, there was tracking and a timing chip and most importantly there was a good base camp which meant your supporters didn’t have to freeze to death. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can bestow is that the RDs looked very much liked they cared about the race and the runners.
Nicely designed vest (would love a technical version of it, even if this was a race extra) and a cute bespoke wooden medal which was really nice. All the Scottish races I’ve done so far have avoided too many frills and this was no exception the focus has instead been on a couple of really nice items rather than lots of rubbish.
Value for Money
This is always very subjective but the Ben Vorlich Ultra was well organised and well executed. The bespoke medal, cheery volunteers and live tracking, for me, ensure this is well on the right side of good value. As runners you don’t always get to see how much hard work goes on behind the scenes but these guys earned much kudos and I have no hesitation in saying you’d feel it was money well spent if you signed up for the 2020 edition of the Ben Vorlich Ultra.
Interesting route, great mountain to climb and a lovely medal for completing a tough ultra at the shorter end of the distances we run. Don’t be fooled though and do not underestimate the challenge of Ben Vorlich on the high or the low route as it will give you a kicking if you fail to show respect. The organising team and the volunteers were fabulous on the day and deserve a lot of credit for making it a smooth and enjoyable experience.
I had my issues on the day such as a lack of fitness and a tummy that has been giving me some grief recently