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experience

Every time we go hiking in the hills of Scotland i insist that we take the necessary gear to ensure that should trouble arise, we will survive. Now until recently I have always carried the bulk of the safety gear because my rather slender and lightweight daughter would have struggled to carry it. But at the age of 7 and with dozens of hill hikes under her belt it was time to let her carry her own safety gear.

Head torch, survival bag, midge net, warm layer(s), waterproof gloves, trousers & jacket, whistle, diets aid kit, spare buff and the lost goes on, at various points she has or will be carrying these. She is also equipped with some basic mountain survival skills to ensure that should myself or my partner have a serious accident or die that she would know how to survive until help came or better still she would know how to attract help.

Winter hiking though brought a whole new dimension to the fore – icy conditions and this meant that if we didn’t want to get forced off a mountain or similar then we needed to add to the kit (I’ll talk about the ice axes in another post on another day) and that meant microspikes because there was no doubt in my mind that the YakTrax we all own would not be up to the hiking I had in mind.

I had recently bought some Kahtoola microspikes for myself so that should the Cheviot Goat be an absolute icy mess I stood a chance of still being able to keep going but I didn’t think it necessary to kit out both the GingaNinja and ASKadventurer at the same time because the hills we generally climb in winter are reasonably sedate.

That all changed though when a couple of weeks ago we decided to hit the climb up to Schiehallion.

Now on the face of it Schiehallion isn’t a particularly challenging climb, the route is straightforward, there is a path for much of the way up and it’s not really that much climbing – about 800 metres to reach the 1089 metre summit. What gives this particular munro a bit of challenge is the negotiation of the boulder field that makes up the last couple of kilometres of climb.

Our effort though was snowed off before we got started, the snow that had started to come down thickly as we closed on the hike meant we were concerned about getting the car out. However, this did give me pause for thought about what we do if we reached a reasonable height and found ourselves in difficulty without some form of spikes and so I set about doing some research.

At this point the only spikes I really knew of where the ones from Kahtoola but then I came across the Icegripper website which had a broader selection of options for hiking in tougher, icier conditions. I was intrigued by the options and the better price points. Experience has taught me though often means, ‘buy cheaply, buy twice’. However, with the Kahtoola options all sold out anyway (and very few places having them) I wanted to make sure that I could get both the spikes for GingaNinja and ASK from the same place (easier for ensuring delivery and any possible returns I suppose).

This meant that for the GingaNinja I purchased the Icegripper Trek+Work micro crampon and for ASK I went with the Veriga ice track snow and ice chains – why didn’t I get the same for each of them? Simple, the Icegripper spikes don’t go down small enough and the Veriga where a mere £15 which seemed like an absolute bargain. Delivery was excellently speedy and they arrived well before we aimed to go back to Schiehallion a few days later.

Veriga v Icegripper v Kahtoola

Before we look at their performance we should look at some of the specifications for the three spikes that were in use; these specifications and descriptions are taken from icegripper.co.uk.

Veriga ice track snow and ice chains

Veriga Ice Track Snow and Ice Chains feature high quality heat treated steel points for an efficient grip. Simply slip them onto your footwear and go!

Features

  • 8 x 10mm teeth per foot means great grip on snow, ice, crud and soft wet ground
  • Elastomer harness makes them suitable to wear with a variety of footwear types, but best on boots
  • Velcro ‘bridge strap’ to prevent losing in deep snow
  • Complete with a polyester blue and orange drawstring bag for storage when not in use
  • Colour: Blue
  • Packed Size: 150mm x 100mm x 200mm
  • Not suitable for high altitude trekking or extreme mountaineering

Icegripper Trek & Work

Icegripper Trek and Work are a new breed of micro crampon adaptable and tough enough to be used for both leisure and work. You will experience solid grip on packed snow and ice from 13 x 15mm spikes per foot. Whether you are an avid winter trekker/hiker or a farmer these ice grips are the answer to your winter traction problems. Unashamedly tough.

Features

  • 13 steel spikes per foot for rock solid traction
  • Specially designed, articulated front spike section enabling some spike contact with the ground in demanding conditions
  • Increased grip when traversing
  • Rugged stainless steel link chains
  • Flexible silicon elastomer outerband for quick on and off
  • Reinforced silicon eyelets to avoid tearing and increase longevity
  • Colour: Blue
  • Removeable bridge strap
  • 600D polyester storage bag with polyester yarn mesh side to allow snow melt.
  • Pack Size: 130mm x 80mm x 180mm
  • 12 month Icegripper manufacturer warranty

Kahtoola Microspikes

Whether you are trekking on icy winter trails, exploring winter woodland tracks, dog walking, or just popping to the shops and back , the new Kahtoola Microspike should be your first choice ice grip. Although best worn on Boots and Activity Shoes, they’re easy to use with almost any type of footwear and come with a 2 year manufacturers warranty. Kahtoola Microspikes offer confidence inspiring grip, even on sheet ice. Here are some more reasons to consider them.

Features

  • Storage Tote Sack with each pair of Microspikes
  • 3/8 Inch (1 cm) stainless steel spikes
  • Newly engineered under heel quad spike assembly
  • 12 Spikes per foot on all sizes
  • Spikes made from heat treated 400 series stainless steel for longevity
  • Welded stainless steel chains
  • Patent pending eyelet reinforcements
  • Low profile elastomer harness, light and strong, easy on and off
  • Suitable to be worn with any type of footwear
  • 50% less bulk and 13% harness weight reduction means Microspikes are more suitable for winter runners than ever before
  • Pack size: 125mm x 75mm x 50mm
  • 2 year manufacturers warranty

Quality
The first thing I can say is that I have been mostly impressed by the build quality of all three of the microspikes that we had out on the hills and there was actually very little to choose between them. The spikes feel robust and well made, as do the chain links and none of the spikes tested feel like they would be prone to easy breaking.

It is worth noting that the spikes on the Icegripper feel denser than the Kahtoola and as a result are heavier overall which makes the Kahtoola the lighter weight option and that might be worth factoring into your thinking – especially if you’re the kind of hiker (or runner) for whom every gram counts.

It is also worth mentioning that both the Veriga and the Icegripper use a much thicker elastomer harness over the shoe than the Kahtoola and this ultimately leads to the heavier feel of the Veriga and the Icegripper – that said none of these microspikes are very heavy at all and aren’t going to make a significant dent in your winter hiking pack.

Fit & Comfort
This is a interesting one as they are clearly all designed for being worn over hiking boots and shoes but with the amounts of styles, shapes and weirdness that can now be found in footwear it could be described as a challenge to develop products that will cover all shoe types.

ASK currently wears Scarpa boots for hiking and Altra Koriki & Lone Peak for trail running and the size 1-3 in the Veriga works very well on all the shoe types, it fits neatly and soundly despite the fact the she is at the smaller end of the sizing.

The issue that could have been a problem is that both the GingaNinja and I wear Hoka One One hiking boots which tend to be very wide on the sole (and for me in the forefoot). I did have some trepidation as to whether the elastomer outer band would stretch over these super wide boots – especially the Icegripper because of the thicker, wider band.

Thankfully, even with cold hands it was relatively simple to slip into the spikes and then pull them around the heel and toe. There was a surprising amount of give in the bands of both the Icegripper and the Kahtoola but once on they both remained snug and well fitted.

Ultimately I think all three microspikes would be able to fit a broad range of footwear.

The one difference worth mentioning is that both the Veriga and the Icegripper came with a velcro strap fastening for across the foot and although I don’t think is essential it did offer the opportunity for an even more secure and dialled in fit.

The benefit of a well fitted microspike is that they are comfortable and all three of the tested microspikes were perfectly comfortable as we hiked. I wondered if they might dig in as we moved across the icy boulders but, either because of the maximal cushioning on our boots or because the spikes are spread in such a way so as not to cause pressure underfoot, the spikes stayed comfortable. The overband was also perfectly fitted on all three of the shoes although it would be fair to say that the least intrusive would be the Kahtoola because it is made of that thinner material – the overband much like the spikes also stayed in place and didn’t move around the foot, therefore there can be no complaints on fit or comfort.

Performance

What I was quick to note was that ASK who was wearing the Veriga was instantly transformed on the ice from a slow moving 7 year old to some form of spritely mountain goat. The same could be said for the GingaNinja and I who, once we donned the spikes, were able to move around with greater assuredness on the ice and across the rocky trail.

The rocky nature of the route up Schiehallion was of mild concern while wearing the spikes though and I feared damage to the spikes as we ascended but the truth is that all three sets of spikes came away unscathed and in turn each of the hikers for the most part returned to the bottom unscathed too.

The one thing I did note that I hadn’t expected and perhaps should have was just how much additional grip the spikes gave me and when leaping from a small ledge I remained connected to the ledge and took a bit of a tumble – but this was certainly down to my own stupidity and lack of experience rather than anything to do with the spikes.

We removed the spikes once we were clear of the slippier rocks and the ice and it was only then when we ran across small patches of ice that we realised just what a difference the spikes made. The level of care that is required while traversing ice is immense and you really don’t want to take a tumble and I feel that had we not had the spikes with us then we would not have made it to the top of Schiehallion in the conditions that we faced.

Carrying

Carrying spikes can be a bit a nuisance as they are sharp, once worn they can be wet and dirty and ultimately they are a bit of an arse ache. However, each of the spikes came with a little bag. The Kahtoola bag is a simple soft fabric drawstring bag and offers decent protection from the spikes pocking through the material. The Veriga bag is a heavier weight fabric bag but with a drawstring that broke pretty quickly – thankfully the nice chaps at Icegripper gave us a couple of their own drawstring bags which are ideal for this kind of thing. The thing I like about the Veriga bag was that it was blue and orange and therefore easier to see in the bottom of a dark bag. Perhaps the most interesting bag was the one that the Icegripper spikes came as it had a zip and also a mesh that would allow debris and moisture out – had it come in neon yellow then I would have said that this was perfect instead of just very good.

A system for storing and carrying your spikes is a small thing but given that they’ll more often than not stay in your bag I’d like to know they aren’t going to be rattling around and snagging items of expensive outdoor clothing.

Value for money

Are microspikes worth the money? In my opinion they are because if you get halfway up a mountain and discover there is a load of icy path to negotiate or worse just ice you probably still want to try and make it to the top. The Kahtoola were about £55, the Icegripper £35 (£50 as of February 2022) and the Veriga were £15 (on sale, normally £35) and in terms of value I think they are all pretty good value.

The Veriga were obviously especially good value at a mere £15 but I would still pay £35 for them because they fitted nicely on a child’s boot and they offered ample stability to a reasonably fast moving child across difficult terrain.

The Icegripper at £35 with an excellent carry bag and a good set of spikes felt like excellent value for money and the GingaNinja was pleased with the performance and the fit. Would the Icegripper be as good value at £50 which puts them in direct competition with others brands price points? I think so yes, the main difference is the layout of the spikes, the weight and the length of warranty and this is going to be something of a personal preference when you’re doing your research on spikes.

What I will say is that I will be watching their performance closely over the next few months of hiking as I am likely to want a second pair of microspikes that are solely for hiking and these would certainly be under consideration.

The Kahtoola are excellent and the benefit for me over the Icegripper is the weight and so for running across ice in winter ultra marathons then I would go with these. However, if I were looking for a spike that would be good for just hiking then I’ll be considering the Icegripper – partly because I actually prefer the spike layout and so maybe I’m just convincing myself to get that second pair already.

Whichever one you choose and wherever you end up spending your money rest assured that having microspikes in your pack for winter hiking, especially in the hills, is essential.

Recommendations

What I would recommend you do is do some research, things like YouTube are a great starting point if you need some advice but then start looking around at the various manufacturers and independent retailers in your area.

Obviously if you can go to a shop and try them on with your specific footwear then even better but that isn’t always possible and so we look at online retailers. I bought the Veriga and the Icegripper from www.icegripper.co.uk and I managed to source my Kahtoola from www.trekitt.co.uk both of whom provided excellent service and information.

My other recommendation is to make sure that you buy the right gear for the activity you are doing.

If you just need something to commute through the city streets in then microspikes probable aren’t right and a pair of YakTrax would suffice but if you’re winter hiking in the hills then microspikes or even full blown crampons might be in order – consider your activity and buy appropriately and of course most importantly don’t go into the hills unless you are prepared.

Enjoy.

It’s worth noting that I have no affiliation with Icegripper or Trekitt am not sponsored nor have I been paid to write this review – this is 100% independent (and probably unwanted).

‘When we get back you can kick his right gonad in and I’ll kick his left one in’ … this was part of a conversation I had with fellow runner Sonya as we ascended the final climb of the Winter Wipeout from Cold Brew Events about one of the race organisers, Barry ‘Brilliantly Sadistic’ Kemp.

What a race; what an event! I do hate a half marathon but this was an absolute cracker.

But to fully understand why both Barry’s gonads deserved a bloody good whack with a large blunt instrument and why this was an absolute ‘must run race’ you really have to roll back about 6 hours or so.

In the car at about 4.45am I set off from a rather chilly Falkirk down towards Ingram and the race registration. All was going well, 90s dance music was playing loudly in the car, I was being mindful of both speed cameras and road conditions and I hadn’t eaten all the remains of the festive sweeties I had brought with me.

Life was good.

I’d successfully negotiated all but the last couple of miles of the journey when I felt the backend of the car flip out from behind me. Check 1, anything coming towards me? No. Check 2, anything behind me? No. Check 3, anything hard and wall like that I might be about to hit? A wall!

Thankfully I hadn’t been going too fast because it was clear this back road was rather icy and so I looked to the side of the car and simply moved with it allowing it to touch the grass verge that it was heading for and as it gently mounted it I tapped the accelerator around the tight corner.

What I can confirm was it was a brown trousers moment and I felt, had I been in dire need for a poo, then it is almost a certainty that I would have sprayed that brown goo all over the drivers seat.

For the remaining 1.9 miles of the journey I glued open my eyelids and gave it the obligatory 110% concentration arriving into the parking a little before 7am with very sweaty palms and a bladder ready to pop.

The parking was pretty quiet save for a few T5s and similar and I enjoyed the peace and quiet as I quickly slid out of driving clothes and into race clothes. As the minutes slowly rolled by I was sure that soon a massive influx of runners would arrive but by 7.30 it was still really quiet and so I wandered off to register.

Outside the cafe there was a gazebo with a very friendly chap and a young girl, probably not much older than my own daughter handing out race numbers. No razzmatazz – just hand your name in, get a number, pick up some pins – perfect. I was very impressed by the young lady handing out numbers, as it was pretty chilly at that time and she kept smiling even though I suspected she would much rather be inside.

I headed back to the car with the smell of bacon sandwiches on my nostrils from the cafe but I knew I’d soon return and this time armed with a few quid to turn the smell into the taste of bacon. Before I could get my wallet though one of my fellow competitors said, ‘don’t suppose you could help move my van could you? Got stuck in the mud when we arrived last night’.

‘Of course’ I replied and we took a side each while what I assumed was his wife attempted to reverse but despite rolling it and rolling it the van refused to budge and when the gent conceded defeat I wished them well and set off for coffee and bacon.

Coffee and Bacon were delicious and even better was an opportunity to speak to Barry Kemp, the man, the legend, the tormentor – it was nice to see him again – but I was sad not to see him in his tiny running shorts as he was the first time I met him at the start line of the Skye Trail Ultra in 2016. I think all Winter Wipeout competitors should be treated to a glimpse of a Barry in his shorts.

After a brief chat with Barry I sauntered back to the car to finish my coffee, finish getting ready and then sit back and watch the newly arrived throngs of runners.

Ah, kit watching time I thought to myself as I put the seat back and half closed my eyes.

Time though soon disappeared and I headed back to the registration area, queued for a wee and awaited the race briefing from Drew, who managed to joke about the councils role in the demise of the 2021 Cheviot Goat – something that, quite rightly, clearly was still chaffing his arse.

The race brief was clear, short but succinct, most of the people grouped at the starting line had done stuff like this before and knew what to expect but the Cold Brew Events crew made sure we were all aware of the way things would play out.

And then with as little fanfare as the registration we all set off into the Cheviots to face bogs, ice, wind and… sunshine?

I was in my usual place – at the back and was thoroughly enjoying myself as we all squeezed along the little path to the road. There was a very cosy atmosphere as runners began jockeying for position and to find their feet within the race. I like everyone else did my fair share of jockeying and manoeuvring around the ice and all the time I was taking in the beautiful scenery that surrounded me.

Amazingly I’d never really been here, certainly never as a runner and I couldn’t believe that I had been missing out on this untamed wilderness for all these years. After my disappointment at the views of the Peak District my love of the English outdoors was being restored by Northumberland. But this was only the start and I now fully expected to embrace the wilds even more as I raced along the route.

The tarmac that we were running on for the first little bit was soon replaced by trail and the Winter Wipeout looked like it was going to earn a big star as a genuine trail run. We were greeted at the turn to the trail by a marshal who pointed us onwards and upwards and I was pretty sure that there was a wicked smile on his face as he sent us to meet our fate in them there hills.

From here it was a steady climb across the hills and conditions were absolutely wonderful, it was cold, it was dry, the wind was nowhere to be seen and although there was ice it was reasonably runnable. In my head I wondered what all the horrific conditions warnings had been about and I continued to make steady progress.

Despite the hustle and bustle of the runners I felt a lovely tranquillity about running here and I had lots of time to soak it in as I slowly climbed the route.

The uphill was hard going and the impression given was of a chain gang or wagon train heading ever onwards and upwards – runners were strewn all over the place in a sweaty, heavy breathing messes. In the distance you could sometimes see a neon jacket or the reflective strip of a bag from a runner who was that bit further on and you wondered why just over a 1,000 metres of ascent was feeling so damned tough and what was it going to take to get you to the next bit of hill.

I was loving it and I spoke briefly to lots of the runners who were either going past me or I was going past – little conversations that made the whole experience very friendly indeed. Half marathons are my least favourite distance and I’ve long avoided them, returning only briefly last year at the boring as buggery, Tour of Tameside Heroes Half – but this was a completely different beast – this was magnificent.

I remember looking down at my watch at about the four and half kilometre point and thinking that, although challenging I was making decent time and I figured if my progress continued like this I’d be on my way back to Scotland by about midday. The route of course though had other ideas and suddenly the runners found themselves moving from gentle climbing to calf grinding, thigh burning uphill and with a increase in both the wind and the general chilliness of the day.

I rolled my sleeves down and covered up a bit as we passed the marshals and mountain rescue guys who were huddled behind a big rock watching us make our merry way up the icy trails.

There was more chat as we went on and I kept meeting people who had migrated from places I’d lived in to Northumberland and hearing their stories, albeit in brief, was a real delight.

Had opportunity arisen it would have been lovely to have chewed the fat properly with runners but you took every chance your body gave you on this course to run because the ice, as we got higher, was making progress slower.

It was on the first major climb that I ran out of puff and began stomping through the undergrowth to keep my feet beneath me, this was hard work as the undergrowth was cutting you to bits while simultaneously sapping all your energy away. I pushed as hard as I could but knowing that there was likely to be another even more difficult climb over this little peak.

Thankfully the path started to flatten out for a while and then rolled into a downhill, I knew that there was a risk that if I hurled myself down here that I might end up injured, covered in shit or dead but with the wind on my back I made my MTN Racer 2 do exactly what they were made for – go fast on the trails.

Boom!

I thundered down that hill until my lungs or arsehole where about to burst. I’d kept my feet beneath me and I wasn’t covered in shit – life was good. The little burst of pace though meant i meandered gently over to the fence line via the ice rink as the peak wasn’t going anywhere and I didn’t feel the need to rush.

I started up the final ascent before the turnaround and was greeted by the front runners – all of them foolishly hurling themselves down the course. I had no idea what these people where thinking, I knew that I would not be hurtling down this ‘slide of doom’, I’d be lazing back and strolling down the hill, much as I planned on strolling up it.

Conditions on the hill were considerably worse now and visibility was poor – lots of the runners were clearly grateful for the many layers that they were wearing. Although I had a full set of waterproofs and a proper thermal in my pack I decided to instead use a piece of kit, that although I’ve owned for nearly 6 years, I’ve never used – my Montane Fireball hat.

I’ve never used it because it makes me look like a prick and while I’m usually happy to look like a bit of dick this hat takes it to a new level, but here, near the summit of Hedgehope, I found myself dropping to my knees and putting on the hat. I also managed to get my waterproof overmitts on because these are perfect protection against the wind which ultimately is what was making my hands chilly.

Anyway with my kit updated I pressed on over the icy, boggy and now rocky ground. Runners were literally moving in all directions looking for safe passage through the route. Eventually, with the wind and conditions battering my body I saw the summit and two little beacons of red next to the trig point.

I felt so sorry for mountain rescue guys who were seated behind a little wall trying to escape the worst of the very chilly wind. I thanked them as I touched the trig point and then began my assault on the return.

Now I had intended to stroll back down but instead I did exactly what lots of the other runners did – I hit the turbo and started hurtling down from Hedgehope Hill with all the gusto I could summon into my legs. I took a mildly different route to most of the runners I had seen sliding down the ice earlier – I stepped into the undergrowth and just pulled my legs up, leaping across the landscape as fast as I could.

Two young ladies behind me would occasionally make some ground up on me and I advised them that they were going to have to work to overtake me and then I would put a little spurt on to put some distance between us. That back and forth would continue for quite some time yet and the two young ladies would easily, eventually overhaul me but having someone sat on your shoulder really does inspire you to perform a bit better.

As I completed the last of the icy uphills I stopped for a moment to just enjoy the lack of wind and the sunshine, removed my hat and gloves and then once more set off, noting that the young ladies were closing fast and the ice had departed in favour of becoming bog – so now it was time for my beloved Drymax socks to keep their reputation in tact. I dove feet first (thankfully) through every icy puddle on the route and battered down towards the rocky outcrop that housed the other pair of Mountain Rescue crew. I was mostly flying but I could also feel the exhaustion in my legs and as I passed and thanked the safety team and here I slowed down and allowed the two young ladies behind me to get ahead of me.

From here I continued to press on but my efforts had left me bereft of energy and there was still 142metres of climb apparently as well as a river crossing. I hoped that the river crossing was at the very end and that the remaining climb would be spread evenly across the remaining kilometres. Oddly the organisers must have been able to read my mind as they decided to do exactly the opposite of what I was hoping for and witnessed this first hand as I started down the final bit of trail and back to the road where the race had really gotten started.

In the distance I could see more marshals and mountain rescue types and so followed the arrows to join them at the river crossing. With much enthusiasm I exclaimed that this was the bit I was most looking forward to – albeit I hadn’t counted on that bloody big hill I’d have to climb afterwards.

And then with as much energy as I could manage I hurled myself into the water and then flailed about as the cold caught me – it was absolutely wonderful and upon getting to the other side I proceeded to jump back in the water snd splash about a bit more exclaiming that, ‘you really need to go nutsack deep to appreciate this’.

The young lady about to enter the water, Sonya as I would later discover, replied, ‘I don’t have a nutsack’. I hastily retreated from the water and began to climb, very slowly and very steadily. Had this been the tale of the Hare and the Tortoise then I was one of the lamest Tortoises ever to have raced but I was still moving. It was here that I was joined once more by the lovely and very friendly Sonya, she was the kind of runner that really perks you up and makes you feel like you’re the best runner in the race and I was grateful that she joined me.

We climbed the final hill together, both vocalising our displeasure with the very naughty Barry Kemp for making us do this final hill and we expressed this to the lovely marshal at the top who simply laughed at us.

From the top we could see Ingram and therefore the finish and so we both pushed what remained of our running and headed out, well until Sonya decided to take what looked like a heavy fall, but awesome runner that she clearly is, she dusted herself down and got right back up – impressive,

I’d have stayed down and waited for someone to carry me home!

We chatted a bit as we went and I hope we encouraged one another to keep going, I especially had a bit of a wobble as we entered Ingram but my running buddy put the metaphorical arm round my shoulder and told me I could do it – and she was right.

With the finish within touching distance I urged us onward to a bit of a sprint finish. It’s the one thing I always remember a man named Jimmy McKenna saying to me, ‘always finish well, no matter how the rest of the race went’ and so as we came to final few hundred metres I pumped my arms and thundered toward the finish but Sonya, who had been so instrumental in these last couple of kilometres, was not there and so I slowed, so we crossed the line together.

I’ve never been so happy to see a finish line but nor have I ever been so keen to go straight back out on the course again. It was absolutely wonderful.

Overview

  • Distance: Half Marathon
  • Ascent: 1000 metres (approx)
  • Date: January 2022
  • Location: Ingram, Northumberland
  • Cost: £33
  • Terrain: Icy, Boggy, Trail
  • Tough Rating: 3/5

Route
This was brilliant, it had just about everything, it was wet, it was muddy, it was winter, it was just the perfect bit of trail for some ridiculous winter fun running. I mean yes it was a bit brutal in places and the chap I saw running in road shoes must have had balls of steel to take this on in them but the only thing you really need to know about the route is that it will bring you joy, laughter and tears in equal measure.

Organisation
What can I say, other than the organisation was brilliant – from the parking, to the facilities, to the people who were there to ensure you had a safe and brilliant day out. This was an event with a lot of moving parts and Cold Brew Events made it run like clockwork. Great job guys.

Value for money
It’s not the cheapest half marathon I’ve ever run but it is the best value for money half marathon I’ve run and a great value packed event. I’ll be honest I’d hope they’re charging enough to ensure that they keep this brilliant event just as it is because I know I’d be happy to pay a little bit more for such a tremendous event.

Support
I’ve mentioned how sorry I felt for the guys at the top of Hedgehope – they must have been frozen but huge thanks to them. However, really it’s a huge thanks to every single person who was involved in making this happen, Cold Brew Events, the team at the cafe, the volunteers – including the young lady at number collection, each person really made this feel like a well loved and supported event. Of course there were also the ton of runners and runners friends and family who gave the whole event a really warm atmosphere – wonderful.

Awards
Great medal, nicely made mug, hot soup. Thank you very kindly that’s just grand.

So many races have got a bit puritanical about giving out medals and awards and I understand that not every runner wants or needs them and that races are attempting to become less wasteful and more environmentally friendly but some of us love a medal and a mug and I applaud Cold Brew Events for giving us great ones!

There is perhaps something to learn here – if you’re going to do a medal then do it properly, as Cold Brew Events have, and then, in my view, it’s not a waste – it’s race treasure.

My Race
I had such a great time, I didn’t come last, no fresh injuries and I came away from the race wanting to do it again. Yes I could have been fitter and carrying less festive fat and therefore run faster but I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it any more than I already do.

In terms of kit, my Topo Athletic MTN Racer 2 were the perfect shoe for the race but I carried too much kit in my pack and didn’t need my thermal layer or extra socks – what I didn’t carry too much of though was food and I found myself, just before the summit of Hedgehope, stuffing my face with about a dozen chocolate bars – something I’ll remember for when The Goat finally comes around. Waterproof over mitts were incredibly useful (much more useful than warm gloves I was carrying and remained unused) and I was very happy to finally use my Montane Fireball hat, albeit briefly. I will also once more praise my awesome Drymax socks, which when I discovered them about 7 years ago I wasn’t sure about but then really do keep your feet warm when wet and on a day like this that is very valuable.

Conclusions
I dream of running The Spine Challenger but until I’m ready for that then I’ll be coming back to this, year after year. The Winter Wipeout has restored my faith in the half marathon distance, but it has taken a very special event to do that and I’m not going to start signing up for lots of halves. This race has something for everyone that is excited by running trails and while it feels incredibly challenging it never feels so tough as to be unmanageable.

When you add in the amazing organisation, the wonderful support and a dreamy winters route then you’ve got magic.

Cold Brew Events know how to throw a trail party and I’ll be back for more of their filthy fun soon! I’d go so far as to say that the Winter Wipeout might have cracked my top 10 favourite races and is probably within touching distance of my top 5 – which isn’t bad when you consider I’ve run about 250 races. I really do recommend taking a crack at this, it was awesome.

The 2023 edition of the Winter Wipeout is open now and you can enter here or you can check out the other Cold Brew Events here.

Importantly, if you happen to see me there next year, looking like I’m dying on the route, don’t worry that’s just me having fun.

See you out there.

I hope I give good ultra running advice, hints and tips because I’ve shared them far and wide with runners from first timers to the grizzled and battered. I’ve had every kind of experience in ultra marathons, desert, trail, mountain, ice, long distance, short distance, DNS, DNF and even the odd finish and each one has given me an experience that I’ll mostly never forget.

Here’s the thing though, I don’t learn from my experiences and I don’t listen to my own advice and when I declared at the registration of the Ranger Ultras White (South) Peaks 50km that I was likely to be the worst runner there, that was not an exaggeration.

I am the worst ultra runner I’ve ever met and I’ve met a lot of ultra runners.

This is the story of why I’m both the worst and most idiotic ultra runner I’ve ever met, welcome to the Ranger Ultras Peaks Double Review, well half a review…

I had lots of titles vying for the dubious honour of being on the top of this blog post but I think the chosen one, 2 races, 1 start, 0 medals cuts right to the heart of it and summed it up best. The truth of it is, I made a mistake in attempting to run last weekend and it looks like it will prove to be a costly one in terms of running over the coming weeks and months. In my haste to return to the awesome Ranger Ultras events I have left myself broken and there is only person responsible for that – me, which is exactly what I said to the lovely nurse who was looking at me on Monday night.

Now while this blog post is intended to be supremely self indulgent, as all my posts are, there is also the event to discuss. Now for those of you who’ve read about either my Pennine Bridleway 55 (read about it here) or Yorkshire Three Peaks Ultra (read about it here) reviews you’ll know that I’m a massive fan of the people and the events at Ranger Ultras and I’m pleased to say that after my Day 1 White Peaks 50km my opinion remains steadfastly the same.

All the things that I loved about the earlier events were replicated here; friendly, cosy and professional but I’ll add another descriptor here that I perhaps haven’t used previously – family.

Ranger Ultras feels like family, and not the kind you want to strangle over the festive turkey, the kind that helps, supports and nurtures, and though this may sound odd when you’re for the most part, surrounded by strangers, it feels like the best description of the experience you get at one of their events.

However, I’ve jumped forward a little so let’s head back to 10.48pm the previous evening as I tried to get to sleep before my alarm would go off at 11.42pm for a 12.20am departure. I couldn’t sleep, I tossed and turned a bit, but it was that thing where no matter how hard you try you just can’t get to sleep and so a few minutes before my alarm was destined to go off I got showered and readied myself. My late night pre-race travel routine consisted of said shower, having a chocolate milkshake, some Skyr super berry yoghurt, drinking a shitload of coffee, making a 2 litre flask of caffeine laden rocket fuel and sitting on the porcelain throne hoping to have a clear out of the delicious but rather spicy homemade lentil dahl I’d spent most of the previous four days eating. Well the consumption part of this routine was fine but much like the wolf who tried to blow down the piggies brick built house I wasn’t having any success and I so I left the toilet free of a splattering.

Google indicated my arrival would be pre 6am with no stops and so I kept my foot on the floor and listened once more to the insanity that is early hours of the morning BBC Radio 5 Live. Topics included; sum up your weekend in three words, the rental market crisis and men’s mental health – in the end I turned it off in favour of singing along to Benny, Bjorn, Angneta and Frida on ABBA Voyage; very enjoyable.

Despite closures on the M6 and several accidents, rain and general exhaustion in my driving I did indeed arrive pre-6am to the Edale car park and home of the Ranger Ultras HQ for the duration of the weekend. Once there I made quick work of the pay and display and even quicker work of getting changed into my race day gear because it was bloody freezing in the car park. What I didn’t do was make the mistake of getting all my gear tightly packed up as I knew that there was likely going to be a proper kit check.

With registrations open I made my way inside where I was to be greeted by the ever sprightly and wonderfully warm RD Stu Westfield who reminded me of my position on the points total leaderboard and attempted to lure me to the 270km Pennine Bridleway and I had been considering it prior to the Yorkshire Three Peaks Ultra and it’s something that remains tempting, but that’s for later.

Anyway kit check done, I loaded up the new race vest, the Montane Gecko VP+ 12, my replacement for the Salomon ADV Skin 12 which rubbed the skin off my back at the Three Peaks and the Bridleway, and the damage had only just healed in time for this double race weekend. However, I hadn’t had the opportunity to test the race vest in the time since it arrived due to trying to get my hip flexors rested enough to allow me to run these races – it was all a bit bum squeaky tight in trying to make the cogs fit together for this weekend and then a balancing act to make sure I’d also get to the start line of the Cheviot Goat in 2 weeks time – more on that later.

This race also offered me the opportunity to reunite with one of the sweepers who I’d last seen having a giant dump on the West Highland Way Challenge Race. His little head had been bobbing up and down behind some ferns, but we had enjoyed a decent amount of running together at the WHWCR and it was lovely to see him again and given he was sweeping I’d expected to be spending most of the day with him! I also came across Kev again, a wonderful chap I met at the Pennine Bridleway and I finally figured out who he reminded me of, he was a bit of a Clark Kent, you know mild mannered and lovely but put him in some lycra and he’s superman! I ended up seated next to this superman on the bus and we chewed the fat covering all sorts of topics, it was a genuinely lovely way to get things underway.

However, we eventually arrived at the start after winding our way on a very pleasant coach journey to the start in Ashbourne and there was a small flurry of runners dashing to reach the customer toilets at the local Sainsbury’s presumably to offset the need to go ‘bear like’ and shit in the woods.

I spent the remaining minutes pre-race chatting with Kev and Pete and generally taking it all in. The organsiers corralled us all together to try and get a group photograph but being cunning I hid behind Kev because he’s tall and, despite the plethora of selfies that appear in my blog posts, I don’t like being photographed so hiding at the back seemed a perfectly sensible thing to do.

And then it was just a couple of minutes to go, fingers of runners moved to the poised position of ‘Garmin ready’ and suddenly there was the blaze of bleeps as we were sent on our way. The throngs of runners all setting out at their preferred pace and quickly spreading out onto the course.

Within a few minutes we came across a very welcome sight, a toilet!

Holy buggerchops I thought I could stop here for a dump, but with so many runners just behind me I didn’t want to stop for my emergency poo and so I sped up a bit in the hope that there might be another poo stop a bit further along and I could be in and out before the sweepers went past me.

What worried me though was the path that we were running on – it was some sort of disused railway line, and a wonderful path but also incredibly hard packed and even in the earliest of kilometres I wondered how long my body would tolerate this before it gave up on me. However, as it stood I was making good, steady progress, my new race vest was mostly comfortable and I was in overtaking mode. I battered my way through cool tunnels with creepily flickering lights and enjoyed the views that littered either side of the path.

From behind though, as I slowed up a touch I heard the sound of Clark Kent ripping open his shirt and Superman Kev ambled past me accusing me of ‘sandbagging’ which I assumed meant that I had been crying wolf about how shitty a runner I am. When I next saw Kev I believe I proved how rubbish I was, ha! But it was lovely to see him going great guns and he would undoubtedly be once more troubling the front runners, I wished him well and watched jealously as he charged forwards, outstanding runner and lovely chap (having seen his subsequent social media postings he did indeed trouble the front of the pack – huge congratulations).

Despite being left in the wake of Kev’s awesome running there was good news – a second toilet opportunity did indeed appear and I dipped inside to discover the single cubicle unoccupied and so I fired off a small noxious volley that while not the full payload should be enough to stop me having to go ‘full bear’ somewhere on the well used course.

I set off again and recognising a couple of guys from the registration point I made a joke of explaining my brief disappearing act into the bogs and then ran off.

Not much further along I saw two horses and riders on the path and witnessed them struggling with their horses who clearly found runners a bit of an issue. Thankfully the competitors from the race were all pretty respectful, they all slowed and gave the horses as much room as possible and many of us walked past so as not to antagonise the horses any further.

The thing was, as I approached them they’d been trying to walk side by side which meant most of the path was taken up and they’d found themselves stopping regularly at the side to let people through, which had clearly pissed them off and I’d seen a runner (not part of the race) speedily run past them and give the horses a bit of a fright.

I felt for them but also recognised that this was a public path and her reaction, at least to me, as she asked who was the organiser, was rather annoyed. Anyway as I cleared past the beautiful horses I began running again, hoping that I didn’t have any further problems today – but I rarely have that kind of good fortune and today it seemed was not going to be one of those good fortune days.

I remember looking down at my GPS at 8.19km in and thinking, ‘so this is how long it’s taken my hip flexor to start burning… an extra couple of kilometres more than usual’. The pain that had killed off my enjoyment of running recently was back but it was treating yours truly to a special dose of ‘don’t you dare visit the physiotherapist again’ medicine.

My entire hip was on fire and there was pain in the flexor and lower in the groin, a double whammy. Well 42km to go was the thinking and I wasn’t going to DNF such a short race – I did though have a plan and immediately began stretching as shown by my physio and then used whatever mental capacity I had to just power it through and hope that it would ease.

The good news was that I was just a short run from the first checkpoint and in the distance I could make out the green of my favourite jacket, the Montane Prism – only I have the blue version but I covet the green one. As I got closer I saw the blur of bright red lipstick and then I realised it was @peaksprincess.

I’ll be perfectly honest, with my hip in absolute pieces and pain searing down my body I’d have paid good money for it to be anyone else on the checkpoint. Don’t get me wrong I adore Kate but I didn’t wish to caught struggling so badly, so early on by someone I have a great deal of respect for.

Thankfully two litres of coffee, a shitload of pain and my ability to be rude and offensive at any given moment all converged to run my mouth for me and I left the checkpoint behind without doing all the stretching I needed to. Runners pride is a funny old thing.

The good thing though was that there were a relative abundance of checkpoints, located around at about 10km apart and this would mean that I could always DNF at the next one. And so I was into the second fifth of the race and here I found myself trying to enjoy the route as well as stretch my hip flexors as often as possible but I noticed that I was being hampered by a sharp pain in my left foot.

Bugger I thought, right hip knackered and left foot gone, all I need now is for my back to give up and I’d have the triple crown of injuries. Thankfully the new race vest was doing its job and my back was certainly no worse for wear than expected and I ambled along the route being overtaken by a succession of runners and also engaged in bits of chat here and there. Save for the pain I was in it was turning into a perfectly pleasant meander through The Peak District. The much trailed and expected rain was nowhere to be seen and as late autumn / early winter ultra marathons go this one had near perfect conditions.

What I remember most about the second 10 kilometre stretch though was that I barely remember anything about it at all. That’s the funny thing about pain it makes your focus rather inward and you stop experiencing the beauty around you because you’re devoting yourself time to the important task of holding yourself together. What I recall rather vividly though was pulling into the checkpoint and seeing the plethora of runners all gathered round the wonderful volunteers all filling water bottles and gorging themselves on sweet treats. For my part I saw heaven in a carton and reached for some orange juice and gulped this down as quickly as I could – this was to be something of a lifesaver across the race as I ate almost nothing during the event. I left the checkpoint quickly knowing that time (and the sweepers) were catching up to me and as much as I would have loved to have been the naughty schoolboy at the back of bus laughing and joking with the mop up crew of sweepers I was aware that I had to press on.

I ran out of the checkpoint and came across new and little interesting nuggets of sites, there was a little stone hut that reminded of those places in Finland with big roaring fires, coffee and reindeer skins strewn about the place and there were remnants of the old railway line that we were running along.

Having pulled my big boy pants on a bit I managed to try and start enjoying what I was seeing and this was aided by some lovely company throughout the event and it was in this section of the route that I came across a gentleman that would define my race and also make sure that I made it to the end.

Shaun if you’re reading this then I am going to start by saying, ‘thank you’.

Thank you because from the moment we met you had my back and because just as we met I was about to go significantly off course and he pointed me in the right direction something I was very grateful for.

What I can tell you is that on first glance my new companion was a bit of a ruff and tumble kind of a guy but it would have a mistake and misjudgement to assume that there wasn’t a lot more to him and as we covered many kilometres together I came to draw inspiration from this one man mission to live life to the fullest. I’ve met a lot of truly brilliant ultra distance runners, I’ve met a lot of brilliant ones during the time I’ve spent with Ranger Ultras too but Shaun was most certainly one of the best and just what I needed.

Neither of us were benefitting from the hard pack trail and I think both of us were suffering a little bit and I hope that we both benefitted from the general chitty chat that passes between runners because I found him to be warm and engaging. We came from very different places and yet as we spoke I could find many commonalities and as he expressed his approach to living every moment of his life I felt a genuine kinship. We met other lovely runners too though including Chris, Luke and a non eventer called Fiona (not one of the racers but was just nice company for a few minutes) and they helped to keep it light and fresh.

As the kilometres counted their way down the route started opening up a bit, for which I was thankful and although it was too late for my bruised and battered body I was grateful to see some slightly less hard packed trails. Hard packed, disused railway lines are wonderful for running faster and more consistently but they can be hard going on the legs and especially if you have a disposition to injury. The more genuine trails of the Peaks that we had now found were much more to my liking and I could really enjoy this time, albeit that I could barely run because of searing pain at the top of one leg and searing pain at the bottom of the opposite leg.

Good fortune seemed to be favouring us though when we were afforded the opportunity of a little bit of downhill trail and for the first time in what felt like a long time I was running a bit more, I mean it was more like hobbling but for the purposes of the blog post we’ll call it running. My usual surefootedness though had been replaced by an unease not to inflict further misery on the underside of my left foot and so I dared not run as fast as Shaun, Chris or Luke who were pressing on ahead but oddly there was an elasticity to us and we found ourselves all getting together again and this remained very much the case until we arrived at the third checkpoint were once more I saw @peaksprincess this time armed with the Mac who was clearly on guard duties. Woof.

I don’t remember much of our discourse, except telling her that I wished my dog would get cancer because he’s a bit of a bell end and she suggested that Mac should stop swinging his dick and was soon to have his nuts off, hearing Kate use the word dick was like reading one of her tweets – it was odd. I’ll be honest it wasn’t an obvious conversational topic but then I think that’s the way it always goes. I do offer good news for her though in that when she rocks up at The Montane Cheviot Goat in a few days time she probably won’t have to listen to me because I suspect I’m out of the running for that 😦

But I digress, Kate sent me on my way telling me to get it done, which is the kind of tough love I usually respond to, but today I was just feeling the fire of injury and the tough love just felt tough.

As I left I spoke to Luke and Chris and asked where Shaun was and the answer came that they thought he had simply powered through the checkpoint and I was actually a little bit sad about this as he had been such good company but then it is the way with ultra running that we tend to make connections and then lose them very quickly because two peoples pace are different or strategies for finishing aren’t aligned and so I hoped he was thundering up and down the course to a nice fast finish.

Anyway we starting climbing again and Chris and Luke both had more in their legs than I did and so looked like they would soon push on beyond me but as I looked up I saw a runner I recognised leaning against a gate, vaping. Now I can’t quite tell whether Shaun was waiting for us or whether he had simply stopped to admire the view but whatever it was, the effect was the same, it meant that there was a little gang of us travelling together and while we would eventually split into two pairs of competitors it was lovely to share this scenery and this event with such wonderful people.

Now for all the complaining I have done about injury and my mental state what I can say is that I knew that with significantly under 20km to go there was a good chance we might make it to the finish before dark and this was a positive thought that helped enable me to push harder than I had before. I was also aware that I was once more running on bits of the Pennine Bridleway that I recalled from my first Ranger Ultras race and that familiarity brought a level of solace. My Garmin also indicated that there wasn’t much more than another 100 metres of climbing across the last few miles of the course and so despite everything it looked like we would make it and all we could do was guess which of the little lumps ahead of us would provide the last metres of climb.

We ambled along and in these final few kilometres The Peak District really roared into life and there was lovely trail and little hilly mounds to admire. But all of our admiration had to be put aside to ensure that we did indeed crack that daylight finish and so we thundered along looking for Edale and in the near distance we could see the chocolate box village.

I urged Shaun to run those last few metres into the car park, because well, that’s what you do isn’t it? There was a round of applause from some of the other runners and there were faces that I recognised from earlier in the event. But I felt drained and as I tripped over the lip of the uPVC door into the race HQ I felt this summed up the kind of race I had run and I just dropped to the floor, pleased to have finished but sad not to be starting tomorrow.

I lost Shaun at the end but if you are reading this I must apologise for missing you at the finish, my head was ablaze with thoughts of going home (but I did as you suggested and looked up your brother by the way) and it was such a wonderful experience to meet you and be rescued by you. Thanks buddy.

And so ends the tale of the Peaks South 50km

Overview

  • Distance: 50km
  • Ascent: 850 metres
  • Date: November 2021
  • Location: Edale
  • Cost: £55 per day (£85 for both days)
  • Terrain: Hard packed trail
  • Tough Rating: 2/5

Route
Routes are such a personal thing and for this one there was a lot to like but also much to consider. The Peak District have done a wonderful job of providing a route that can be run or cycled with relative ease along what looks for the most part like a disused railway line and in terms of an ultra marathon it offers easier navigation and good conditions even for a potentially nasty weather early winter ultra marathon. It would serve as an ideal introduction to ultra marathon trail running and for the more experienced runner then it is an opportunity to stretch the legs a bit faster than usual because there is less mud to battle.

The route was relatively busy but not heaving and there was more than ample room for everyone, plus it was actually lovely to see members of the public out and giving the runners a little cheer. My favourite being the little Springer Spaniel about 3 or 4km in who was taking his owner for a jog and he seemed so happy.

It is worth saying that the first section is incredibly runnable, but that care should be taken in shoe choice, there is no doubt that even in crappy weather the hard packed trail would easily suit good comfortable road shoes and if the weather wasn’t horrific you could probably run the bulk of this in road or certainly road to trail footwear (but do remember the mandatory kit does say trail shoes). It is not a route that lends itself to aggressive lugs, even in the most trail of sections – so something to think about, basically you are not going to want your Walsh footwear on.

To my mind the second half of the route is the prettier section as it brings you closer to the action of The Peak District and this is where much more of the conventional trail running happens. The latter stages therefore are much more my thing and that is just a personal preference but what it means is that you get to experience two sides of trail running during one 50km event and perhaps that is why it is a very accessible event to those looking to transition into long distance trail running.

My enjoyment of the route was hampered by the pain I was in but when I put that aside I can see how I enjoyed this and with interesting sights along the way there really was a little bit of something for everyone.

Organisation
There is no denying that Ranger Ultra offer perhaps the best organised race experience that I have ever been a part of. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, you are in safe, knowledgeable hands that know how to put on a really good running event. Everyone on the team knows their stuff and you really cannot put a price on that. The Ranger Ultras ethos of simple, effective but brilliant eventing is something that I really approve of and I wish other RDs would look closely at what Stu Westfield and the team are doing here because there is lots of good stuff going happening.

As always the pre-race material was comprehensive, the Facebook group was regularly updated and the team supported this with follow up emails to ensure that competitors didn’t get lost in the cracks of everyone using different platforms. On the day there were a lots of checkpoints and each was the right size for the location, the 10km and 40km CPs were smaller than the 20km and 30km CPs and this felt the right decision – give the support and resource where the runners will most need it.

I think the testament to brilliant organisation is that it never feels forced, everything just happens and flows. The team works so hard but always has time for a bit of banter, a laugh, a joke or even some running advice – as was evidenced by the fact I couldn’t be sure which of the many Harvey Maps I was carrying I would need for the Saturday event but the team knew instantly.

When I walked into the registration the team were busy putting stuff together, getting ready for departure to the start line and generally being awesome but the RD made a point of reminding me of my lofty position on the points leader board and my advantage in securing one of the beautiful hand crafted boxes (which are indeed beautiful by the way). He didn’t need to do this, but he did and that is why, long after my injuries are a distant memory and long after I’ve forgotten about my grandslam failure I will remember Ranger Ultras with great fondness.

Value for money
I have come to the conclusion that the organisers must be romantics, because they aren’t doing this for the money, they are doing it for the love of it – at least that is very much how it comes across. They could increase the prices and I don’t think it would have a negative effect on numbers but I suspect they’d quite like to swell numbers a little further and therefore keeping the prices VERY reasonable might encourage others to join in.

The Peaks South or Day 1 was another excellent value for money event and if you sign up I guarantee you’ll come away saying, ‘how the hell do they manage all that for such a low price?’

Volunteers and Support
There is never a moment you aren’t grateful to the team or volunteers and supporters, they make the events happen and they make it so that you will finish. I’m going to reserve special praise for Kate and her vibrant lipstick who despite me being so mean to her didn’t swing a fist in my direction.

All I can say is thank you to each and every one of you for a. not pulling me out of the race when I looked like death warmed up and b. for being there on a cold and windy day in The Peak District.

Runners
I met some amazing people on Saturday and reacquainted myself with others.

Ranger Ultras tends to attract a certain type of runner, these aren’t glamorous events in the sense that there aren’t any flashing lights and blasting music, these are running events for people who enjoy running. Therefore; it makes sense that the people who want to come and test themselves share a similar philosophy as the organisers and that means you have some common ground with most if not all of your fellow competitors. There are too many names to list to say thank you to individually – I mean basically just get me the start list and that should just about cover it but the runners at these events, have been awesome.

Awards
Now as the title says 2 races, 1 start, 0 medals. I assume that given I failed to start day 2 I don’t get a medal for just finishing day 1 and so I can’t comment on them as I didn’t even see them. However, I am going to assume that they are the same as the other beautifully designed wooden coasters that have been seen at the other races and so if you earned one this weekend then well done guys – I’m very jealous.

My Race
Well you’ve read about my race, it didn’t go well and who the bollocks knows how I managed to finish in a reasonable time, well that is mostly down to my companion for the second half of the race. I wouldn’t have finished if it hadn’t been for Shaun and equally importantly a strategically positioned @peaksprincess because as I say I wasn’t going to DNF in front of her – so thanks guys.

I made the rather unwise decision to drive home mere minutes after finishing because I really didn’t want to hang around as I feared I had broken my foot – I knew that I dare not take my shoe off because I wouldn’t be able to get it back on and then driving would be impossible. I was also pretty miserable about the way my hip flexor had gone and not earning the coaster, I was deflated and felt that my own company was probably the only company to have.

By the time I got back to Scotland I could no longer put any weight on my left leg and the right leg was ruined at the hip so it was a difficult time and some tears may have been shed as I stopped for a lentil dahl powered turd at Southwaite services. But listening to happy hardcore for a couple of hours and having the heater blasting at me did at least improve my mood on a very long drive.

Thankfully an x-ray on Monday suggested I haven’t fractured the foot but The Cheviot Goat Ultra looks like it might be beyond me again but I’ll make a final decision in a few days and I’ll mull over my conversation with Shaun about living the moments of life to their fullest.

Points, Grandslam & 270
I’ve stated it many, many times and even reiterated it here ‘I’m a terrible runner and an even worse ultra runner’ and yet because of turning up there I found myself at the top of the points leaderboard prior to this weekends events. I said to Stu that the points system he is employing for measuring the success of the runners at this years events is flawed because I should not be at the top, just because I have turned up is no reason to be lauded or rewarded.

This conversation came up in light of him mentioning that I should be considering the 270km full Pennine Bridleway! Ha.

It is a ridiculous notion, I mean you should have seen me at the end of the 50km, I was absolutely broken, destroyed, annihilated – I finished the race contemplating retiring from ultra running not signing up for two hundred and seventy long, arduous kilometres.

but…

Stu is a cheeky little bugger and I assume the lady I spoke with at the end about the 270km was maybe his wife and I found myself on Monday evening, after discovering that my foot wasn’t broken, looking at the 270km race.

It is a stupid and idiotic idea that I could run it but I’m thinking about it, but just thinking about it and I’m going to need to think about it REALLY hard (like thinking about Michelle Pfieffer when I was 15 and watching Batman Returns) and if there’s too much tarmac or hard packed trail then I know that the things about me that are fragile won’t handle the pounding that they would take, but, I’m thinking about it.

As for the grandslam and my failure this year at the Ranger Ultras events, well I’m pretty annoyed at myself and I’ll be discussing this and the whole grandslam thing at greater length in a season 2 episode of the Ultraboyruns podcast. However, despite my failure, despite the epic driving and logistical nightmare that meant that each pre and post-race was really an arse ache I massively enjoyed my time with Ranger Ultras. I had a brilliant time because each event was made with love and my personal highlight being the Yorkshire Three Peaks.

Conclusions
I stated earlier that I write this stuff to feed my ego but that is only partly true.

I want other runners to read this review and I want them to sign up for one or more of the Ranger Ultras races. There are lots of shit things in the world, lots of things that don’t offer you good value for money, but Ranger Ultras isn’t one of them.

Ranger Ultras is one of those joy filled things that gives much more than it gets.

So if you’ve got a blog, a social media channel, some running friends or even an aged aunty who still owns an old pair of Inov8 that have been gathering dust then tell them about Ranger Ultras, tell them about how they brutalised you, covered you in mud and generally kicked your arse before cuddling you better.

Specifically about the Peaks South event you can say that this is something they should try whether they are seasoned old hands or beginners because this is an everyone route. As I mentioned earlier the mixed nature of the terrain means that you can get a taste for trail running but also have the security of a really good hard packed trail for the bulk of the event. Easy!

My misery was nothing to do with the event itself that was down to my own stupidity so just don’t do it like I do it and you’ll be fine and of course Christmas is now just round the corner and I think if you ask, you too, be you naughty or nice, could get a Rangers Ultra event gift from Santa that will just keep on giving.

Find out more at the Ranger Ultras website here. You can look into the ominous 270km Pennine Bridleway Race here or you can find them on Facebook here.

It’s worth noting that I have no affiliation with Rangers Ultra am not sponsored nor have I been paid to write this review – this is 100% independent (and probably unwanted). I should also point I neglected to check how Shaun spells his name but I found a record of a race I know he ran so have gone with this spelling

Have you ever had one of those days where you think that if the ground opened up and swallowed you whole to be digested over a thousand year period that your day was probably about to improve?

Then you, dear reader, have some idea about what my day at the Yorkshire Three Peaks Ultra was like. Rest assured though, and for those that won’t be reading to the lengthy end, the Y3PU is a stunningly brilliant event, so whats the story?

Read on…

Beep, beep, beep, thwack, ugh, I’m up.

There I was in my bed dreaming about being Luke Skywalker when the series of noises above meant it was about 2am and I was getting up to head to Hawes in Yorkshire for the second of four races in the Ranger Ultras Grand Slam.

As I stood in the shower I felt resolute about the 100km race I was soon to embark upon, what I felt a lot less resolute about was my confidence in my the hip flexor injury that I’d picked up at the Pennine Bridleway, a few weekends earlier, that was getting worse and not better.

Dressed, I headed downstairs for a breakfast of champions – chocolate milkshake, coffee and Shredded Wheat (not all in one bowl). I’d have liked a few minutes to relax but I focused instead on trying to push out that pre-race dump but having had three or four days of the galloping trots there was nothing doing. So, after kissing the family goodbye and having a final kit check whilst hiding under the boot of car from the hurtling rain, I departed.

Yes I departed only to be met by a closed motorway… oh joy I thought as I swung off the motorway and followed the ridiculous directions from Google. Still despite my false start I was still primed to arrive a little before 7am and if I gave it a bit of welly down the M74 I’d probably have enough time to have a second crack at that pre-race poo.

I’d usually opt for some serious singing or big happy tunes on the way to a race but for a change I was listening to BBC 5Live because it’s sometimes reassuring to listen to people mad enough to call in to be on the radio in the middle of the night because they’re even less sane than those of us who choose ultra marathon running as our sport.

Anyway, after a couple of hours of listening to insomniacs that call talk radio I swapped the fast quiet motorway driving for a spot of relatively busy dark country lanes. Now armed with about a litre and a half of strong coffee in my veins I moved swiftly, albeit it nervously. It was quite a long way from Tebay (my motorway turn off) to Hawes and I didn’t enjoy it and when the tight country lanes finally abated at the entrance to the picturesque town of Hawes I was very grateful.

I parked up in the excellent local facility and grabbed myself a bit more rocket fuel and a pouch of Icelandic superberry yoghurt! I know how to live don’t I? Thankfully now as fuelled as I was going to get I slipped onto my Japanese mattress in the back of the car and began the ‘dance of the lube’.

The ‘dance of the lube’ is where I try and squeeze my running lubrication stick in a variety of body shaped holes in order to reduce the problem of chaffing whilst simultaneously contorting my body into shapes I didn’t know it could make to ensure the lube stick didn’t end up stuck in one of my body shapes.

Ah success, my nipples, nut sack, toes, arsehole and everywhere else should once more be free from the threat of chaffing. I chose to wear kit option one for today because although it was chilly and there was moisture in the air it didn’t look horrendous. So it was bamboo base layer, long sleeved ronhill top, omm 3/4 leggings, some dirty girl gaiters, Drymax socks and an old friend to accompany on one final ultra marathon – my Altra Lone Peak 3.5 – I was dressed.

The one thing I did seriously consider though was the choice of race vest.

There were two things, the first was should I wear the Salomon ADV Skin 12 which might have been responsible for some nasty, nasty chaffing at the Pennine Bridleway 55 and second should I bother packing it at all given that Ranger Ultras seem to take kit checks very seriously and I’d only end up unpacking it all anyway.

In the end I decided to wear the ADV Skin 12 and pack it to race – both would be a mistake!

I got chatting to a lovely, and tough as anything I’d surmise, chap called Chris who was in the car next to me. We shared a bit of chat about the race, locality and the mistakes we had both made in pissing off our respective other halves. It was good to know it wasn’t just me. But with time ticking on we went our separate ways and I ambled down to the welcome and hustle and bustle of the village hall.

This was so very different from the Pennine Bridleway 55 which had been very casual, very intimate – this was a bigger event and yet despite being bigger it felt warm, cosy and like you’d arrived at your grans house where she’d put the kettle on and laid out some fruitcake. However, be under no illusion that’s where Ranger Ultras and a pleasant elderly lady comparisons end, because in the background and behind the warmth and smiles it was all action.

I was directed to the correct number collection and then warmly welcomed by the remarkably jolly Race Director Stu Westfield. I like Stu, he embodies the positive attitude that I’ve always associated with ultra running. He then directed me over to the kit check where I was asked to show my map(s), waterproof jacket, headtorch and bivvy bag.

Now I’m all for a kit check, I believe it is vital to ensure that runners going out into potentially difficult conditions have at least the basics covered but I should have learnt by now – don’t pack my kit before the check. I started emptying my race vest all over the table in search of the four key items, the interesting thing was then that when I finally managed to get my waterproof jacket out the lovely and rather thorough gent then took it out of its stuff sack to check for both the taped seams and the hood.

Having cleared number collection and kit check I took up residence at one of the tables set up in the hall to begin putting my kit back together, fold, twist, squeeze, crush, pack and relax. Some minutes later I found myself sat quietly watching the hall fill up with runners bimbling around doing their thing. I chatted to a few of the others including the lovely Shaun who had travelled about as far as I had to test himself at the Yorkshire Three Peaks Ultra and Danny who had the finest of moustaches and was celebrating his 30th birthday.

I noticed that much like the Pennine Bridleway 55 there was a big kitchen accessible to the runners and individual breakfast bits to chow down on pre-laid out for us – I didn’t partake of any of this but I know lots of the competitors did. I enjoyed this period of watching, listening and chatting – the calm before the storm I suppose you might describe it as but the storm was coming and so as the 9 o’clock start approached the RD started to gently organise the runners into the Pen-Y-Ghent 50km competitors and the Y3PU competitors and suddenly it felt like we were off.

Brilliant.

Well it would have been brilliant if I hadn’t done something stupid with my Garmin and managed to not set it up properly and found myself running down the beautiful little main street of Hawes attempting to correct my technical error so that the watch could guide me from here to the end. Thankfully I wasn’t suddenly and unexpectedly required to navigate via the map that I had securely stowed in my pack – no, I had managed to get the GPX up and running and I was away.

Brilliant.

Well it would have been brilliant if I hadn’t found myself as part of a tunnel or sausage roll of runners trying to get through a tiny little gap in the path – I know someone local will know what these are called but I don’t. I joke, actually it was nice to have a moments to look up and finally see the Yorkshire in all its misty, moist glory.

But to the running, the competitors, made up of all shapes and sizes jumped, leaped, stepped and meandered through the series of little gates and across fields, paths, mud and trail and suddenly we were in a race. What I knew was that there was a decent stretch, probably about 10 miles or so that made up the outward section to our first of the three peaks and this meant that post the three peaks there would be 10 miles or so to run back to the finish. Basic maths then puts me in for about 20 miles or so of hills and that meant there should be lots of trail and not too much tarmac – yummy!

What I hadn’t expected, because I am in no way familiar with the area, was how tough that outward section would be. I found myself daydreaming to a few hours in the future and what I might look like as I wearily wended my way back. However, I was also having a lovely and busy time meeting runners on the route, recounting tales of misery and woe to all who wanted listen and some that didn’t. The route really was a trail and it was amazingly beautiful, even on a day when the weather had closed in all around us I could really appreciate the magnificence of Yorkshire.

What I knew was that the ground was mostly firm and running conditions were perfect and I really took advantage of this in the early stages of the race, pushing as hard as I could and remembering the advice of ultra running legend Traviss Wilcox, ‘get through the first half as fast as you can and survive the second half’. I took this advice to heart and was sticking to it dogmatically as I pushed up the climbs as fast as I could. I gave no ground in these early stages and made good progress through the field and when we hit ground that was a little flatter I put on what I would refer to as a bit of a spurt.

Brilliant.

Well it would have been brilliant if I hadn’t had my hip flexor give up the fight at about 1km in. I was injured, there was no doubt about it and so when I reached the flat and pushed the accelerator I was fully aware that the pain that was running through my groin, leg and hip was only going to get worse as the race wore on.

The lovely thing though was that I was really enjoying myself – something that has been largely missing from my running in recent times and with the grand slam still in play I wanted to leave nothing out here and that required me to keep my spirits up and remember why I love this.

The straight stretch seemed to go on forever but in the distance I could see signs of life and what looked like a checkpoint, no time to stop and no need either – my bottles were for the most part full and I still had a good amount of food on board so I waved at the volunteers (one of whom recognised me from the PB55) and then looked into the face of the first major descent.

This is how the Yorkshire Three Peaks Ultra really fucks with you, it lulls you into a false sense of security, for example the descent here looked pretty benign and a bit banal and without much to think about but when you considered that you would be coming back up this slow, long, ascent then it looked pretty cruel. I remember thinking that on the descent that my quads were feeling it and that I wished I had my MTN Racer on instead of my Lone Peaks because I’d have been more inclined to run harder downhill in them rather than accept the soft pillow-like feel of my Altra.

I was running with Gareth and Paul at this point and they had been excellent company and excellent navigators, if memory serves both had been here before and knew what they were talking about. As is the way though with ultra marathons you really must run your own race and so although we reached the checkpoint together I don’t really remember seeing much more of them, they must have sped away from me and that was just fine.

At the checkpoint I realised this was the last stop before the first of the three peaks and I had no intention of going up without filling the water bottles, topping up the active root and also having something to eat. I stuffed in my big fat gob a couple of the big purple ones from the quality street and a strawberry cream to help wash down the nuts.

I thanked the volunteers, left and caught sight of the viaduct that dominates the landscape on this part of the route. At 400 metres long and with 24 arches the Ribblehead Viaduct is an imposing and impressive sight amongst all the greenery and I very much enjoyed running alongside it. However, the sightseeing was put to one side as the route moved gently upwards and around, all the time moving towards the first peak of Whernside.

As you approach Whernside it really doesn’t look like much at all but it is a bit of a knacker kicker really. First of all there’s the long lonely path, punctuated only by a succession of hikers all wondering why they are out and about in the rain. I trundled along perfectly merrily albeit rather slowly, my hip was at its worst when going uphill and even the presence of my running poles wasn’t enough to mitigate the effect on my pace. Runners who had been minutes behind me were now catching me and despite my best intentions I didn’t feel like I had it in me to push.

The sight of a fellow runner just below me, Michelle, was a nice break and for a few minutes chatted about running and life and I genuinely found this the perfect antidote to the climb – if I didn’t say it at the time, ‘thanks’ it was really appreciated.

Eventually though my companion disappeared into the mist and I continued upwards and eventually was rewarded with a summit full of young adults snd a rather wet gentleman attempting to assert some control. It was here that Danny, he of the moustache, ran past…

Brilliant.

Well it was brilliant, Danny had a real zing about him, his voice was soothing and his words were kind and as we began the descent I realised he was going to be much stronger than me and I wouldn’t be able to match his pace but that didn’t stop me trying because the benefit of running with someone so wonderfully positive might lift my darkening mood. Now I’m a terrible runner but the one thing I’m pretty good at is foot placement on a downhill and so with all the vim and vigour I could manage I started punching well above my actual ability and thundering my way down the rather rocky, muddy, slippery, step laden and mildly technical downhill.

This was a wonderful period for me and despite the pain I was in I was finding the route, the views and the whole experience absolutely amazing – the trail was wonderful but as the downhill flattened out I started to slow and the runners that I had caught overtook me once more followed by more yo-yo-ing with my fellow competitors. I pulled into the next checkpoint not long after and the sight of the Ranger Ultras signage was most welcome but I saw something that sent a real chill down my spine, a competitor who had withdrawn from the race – bloody hell and it was followed by another one who was having groin problems – it made me think of my own issues and would I find myself sat in the back of a camper waiting to be taken back to the start?

Negative thoughts are a nightmare and with two peaks still to go I needed to try and put them to the back of my mind and so filled my water bottles once more and headed out. You don’t realise how tough it is on your legs all the up and downhill until you stop for a moment and then have to get going and let me assure you that my legs did not want to get going again.

In the distance I could see Ingleborough and knew instantly that this climb would be something of a beast to overcome.

The one big positive though was that I was managing to consume food and actually was really keen on eating, I had yoghurt and kids fruit smoothies as well as some other bits and pieces to support the Active Root. The thought that occurred to me was that I wouldn’t have enough of the food I craved to get me round the course! The yoghurt and fruit smoothie pouches are especially handy as they are aimed at kids and tend not to be quite so sugary or filled with things that might upset my stomach – but they wouldn’t be available at the checkpoints. I decided I would have one of each going up Ingleborough and then the other going up Pen-Y-Ghent and then eat whatever else I had as the need arose.

I was slow going up to the steep climb of Ingleborough, slower than I had been at the first peak and I found myself carving out a path that would get me up as safely and pain free as possible. Ahead of me there were small figures dotted on the face of the climb and below me there were small faces looking up seeking a route up.

Step by step, stone by stone I clambered my way along until I overcame the first of the false summits and as I turned and saw nothing for miles but mist my heart sank a little but I was fortunate to meet a gentleman at this point, much like Danny before him, who would share some of his time with me and would play the yo-yo game for many miles. I’m sure we exchanged names but the truth is that from this point my head was really mashed and my focus was much more on the route than retaining the names of the many wonderful runners that help define my race. However, his advice was excellent and he reminded me that it’s all about, ‘see what happens at 70km’.

I’d explained about my hip pain and how it was becoming increasing excruciating to run but quite rightly he reminded that there’s no point worrying about what happens in the future – that will sort itself out as and when it comes. He clearly understood the mental issue I was having and with about 40km left to go I needed not to consumed by a desire to give up. It was therefore with an enormous sense of relief that the real top was reached and there were runners who had gone past us now retreating from the depths of the moist ahead.

‘You’re nearly at the top’ came the call and just a few metres ahead I could see the poor volunteers who had drawn the short straw of being at the top of Ingleborough to ensure runner safety. Oddly despite the wind, the cold and the moisture (I also presume they saw a share of rain up there) the guys were pretty jolly and that’s the mark of great marshalling, they could have just marked our number down but actually they were incredibly enthusiastic as they sent us on our way to the trig point a few hundred metres away.

I had intended to stop for a few minutes at the trig point but given the weather conditions and the lack of visibility there seemed little point and so I headed straight back down the alternative path and on my way to the bottom.

The descent off Ingleborough was tough going but reasonably quick but even though I was moving well and there was a small group of runners all moving together my problems continued to mount. In addition to the hip I could feel a burning in my lower back that didn’t feel like the usual back pain I get from wearing a race vest.

Bugger.

I’d had some rubbing of my race vest at the PB55 which had seemed really odd as it lay lower on my back than the pack sat. I was fortunate at the PB55 in comparison though because my slow moving had meant that the rubbing wasn’t too severe, however, here, now, with sweat dripping off me, my back burnt like inside of a pizza oven after a 12hr Saturday shift at Dominos! I really was having a day of two halves!

Onward and onward the little band of runners moved and much to our surprise the mist that had dogged almost the entire day started to lift and the sun started to poke its little face out. Now, as regular readers will know, the arrival of sunshine might be greeted by most of the great unwashed as a welcome sight but for my money the sun can sod off and I found myself shaking my fist in its direction, under my breath I even heard myself say, ‘oh feck off or it’s the Glasgow kiss for you’. Clearly it heard and the sunshine soon abated, although it would be back a little later.

Eventually we pulled into the next checkpoint and I ate a couple of spring rolls and as some Cadbury’s Heroes but I was feeling sick and my stomach was churning – not good but I needed to try and eat something. I downed my yoghurt and smoothie pouches for a boost and to try and settle my tummy. We would see if that would help. I filled my water bottles once more and topped up the Active Root, I felt like I was going to need it.

As I left the checkpoint I called to amassed marshals, ‘you’re the best checkpoint since the last one!’ and they were indeed brilliant and they handled the large group of runners who all arrived together incredibly well.

The little band of runners who I had been running with naturally disbanded at the checkpoint and I found myself amongst other runners, some I had already met, others that were new to me. It was here during the start of the steep climb to Pen-Y-Ghent that I was reacquainted with Graham, who despite being in lots of pain had decided against a DNF at the last checkpoint, and was pushing through.

He was a very inspiring runner to be around, as well as only being a runner for six years he was also in the midst of completing the Hardmoors Superslam, holy shit! His grit and determination was special and his climbing speed was much quicker than mine and so I clung on to his coat tails for dear life.

Up and up we climbed, slowly and steadily, being careful not to misplace our footing but a bit of a light scramble was just what the doctor ordered. As I started upward, attempting to see the summit I caught sight of a man I thought might well be Santa Claus, or perhaps Satan Claws coming to collect my dying body and soul. I called up, ‘I love your beard’. In response he raised his camera and tried to catch my fat side! Ha.

This was another amazing marshal, sat on high, up the peak, not only taking pictures but also ensuring our safe ascent to the top. Ranger Ultras clearly take the safety aspect very seriously indeed and I know all the runners were grateful for that.

Graham and I made the top and then began our descent, this was going to be tough but we were making reasonable enough time but Graham was going quicker than I was now and he started to power ahead a little bit. I started losing ground to a couple of other runners who were on the yo-yo too and as I looked back I realised I would soon be on my own and I feared that given my mental state.

I decided it was time to pull on the big boy pants and give myself the wedgie I so clearly needed!

‘Come on Ultraboy you can do this’ I thought.

I picked my feet up and started to move faster, Graham buddy I’m coming to find you – it was just about then that a young lady overtook me wearing the same coloured Salomon pack that I was, mud splattered all the was up her legs, I wondered if I looked the same from behind. I think her name was Min but I’m not 100% sure, as I say, my brain was pretty fried. For a little while she ignored me and thundered onward but I was pretty sick of being overtaken and so I set off chasing both her and Graham and within just a few hundred metres I could smell the mud beneath the lugs of their shoes.

‘Evening,’ I said as I reintroduced myself.

When you’re feeling like shit, you can’t eat, your back is burning from the rubbing of your race vest and you’re injured what you really need is some good chat with lovely people that have stories to tell. My companions were gracious enough to be both engaging, interesting and most of all willing to share. For miles we pushed to find our way back to the main path and then to the finish but such was my delight at the company I was keeping that I remembered to enjoy myself. We eventually of course did find the path and looking upwards we remembered the downhill we had all enjoyed/endured earlier in the day. My memory must have been a little bit fuzzy though because I was thinking this climb up to the checkpoint was probably no more than about half a mile.

Bugger.

Yes, my mind had played a cruel trick on me because the climb to the final checkpoint felt like the hardest slog of the day, just steep enough to be un-runnable when you’re absolutely ruined but not steep enough not to try. Our little trio moved as quickly as it could but the climb was draining our enthusiasm and all we wanted was to reach the checkpoint. The darkness had also surrounded us and we hurled our respective light sources on and ran by torchlight, I remembered that I hadn’t run like this since the Ultra Scotland and I have always found myself developing tunnel vision quickly when running by headtorch and so I moved between my hand and head light to ensure that I avoided the problem.

I felt that the three of us were searching the horizon for the twinkling of the marshals lights and then as we reached the tarmac I made out a slither of light and maybe the top of a car, we had reached the home strait.

I punched the afterburner button and ran with all haste into the checkpoint, there were a couple of lovely marshals there who would be out in the cold until around 1am – they really were incredible. I was hugely grateful to see John, one of the marshals I met at the PB55 again and he provided words of comfort and advice. He provided the verbal cuddle that I needed and sent me on my way armed with enough water to see it through.

My competitors had managed to get out of the checkpoint quicker than I and as I watched their headtorches running into the distance I felt a little wave of sadness, I stood on the trail for a moment stretching my back and gingerly wiping sweat away from the large angry and bloody wounds that were reaching right around my back. With my final adjustments I set out once again, this time along the flat but rocky and damp trail, I approached the trail with a surprising surefootedness and worked hard to catch the next set of bobbing lights because I had no wish to miss the turn off the trail and on to the downhill.

The running gods must have been looking down on me though as I saw what looked like a series of buzzing fireflies in the distance, at what it seemed was the turning point – yes a selection of the runners were either wondering if this was the right way or returning from the wrong way to get back on course. The GPX file confirmed that this was the point to move from the trail and I joined this posse of runners, there were so many familiar faces and there was a bit of a party atmosphere but I wanted to move a little bit quicker and so battered down the trail as quickly as I could – I could smell the finish and see the town of Hawes ahead of me.

Of course my brain being mashed I knew that there would be some more shit to deal with and I arrived at what looked like a crossroads and I didn’t fancy going wrong and so I waited for a few minutes until the party bus arrived and of course they immediately headed down the obvious direction!

Oddly the group started running, presumably because they had arrived on tarmac, oh what the bollocks. Bloody hell, my body doesn’t like tarmac at the best of times and this was not my best of times but there was a beat that we were hitting and each member of the group was pressing. There was still the challenge of the little gaps in the walls that we had to negotiate and this time I served as a bit of a doorman to allow the other runners quicker access along the route, I suppose this was my way of saying thank you to the crew who, like me, were just keen to get home.

And then out of nowhere I knew were I was, past the pub and back onto the main street of Hawes, ahead of me there was a runner or two and because I’m a complete and proper dick and there was an attractive lady who had come out of the pub to cheer us on, I put on a final, painful sprint but this time it was to the finish.

Pound, pound, pound. I could hear the sound of my feet against the pavement and I could feel my lungs burning and chest thumping as I passed the runner ahead of me and leapt up the stairs of the hall and into the light.

I’d made it, I’d made it. No DNF today.

When Stu Westfield asked if I was going back out, I gave a silent but firm, ‘no’ and so my grandslam effort would come to a rather sad end but at least I was still alive, something that I wasn’t sure I would be at various points during the event.

Injured, sick, bloodied and bruised but I had the finishers coaster to cherish, just not the 100km race finish.

Overview

  • Distance: 70/100km
  • Ascent: 2400 metres
  • Date: October 2021
  • Location: Hawes, Yorkshire
  • Cost: £50
  • Terrain: Trail
  • Tough Rating: 3.75/5

Route
I’m always on the hunt for a beautiful trail race, one that minimises the tarmac and one that is filled with aching beautiful vistas and challenge. Well I am very pleased to report that the Yorkshire Three Peaks Ultra from Ranger Ultras is right up there with the best of them. The whole route was a joy to behold, some might argue that better weather would have made this more scenic but I take the opposite view – there was enough clear sky to enjoy the sight of the massive loop that awaited you but there was also something mystical and majestic about the mist, the low visibility and also the little gems such as the viaduct.

Each of the little chocolate box villages that we passed through made this feel like we had stepped back in time and Hawes was simply an exceptionally pretty place to start the race. The route had something for everyone, if you like elevation it had that, if you like technical trails then it had some of that, if you liked big stone steps (nobody does) then it had a shitload of them, if you like steep, wet, muddy, scenic or fast descents then it had all of them too.

Yes it was bloody tough but it was equally beautiful and that makes it worthwhile doing.

Organisation
Last time I was rather lavish with my praise for the organisation of the race, well let me gush some more because the guys at Ranger Ultras under the leadership of Stu Westfield are amongst the best in the business. They make the logistical challenge of an ultra marathon look like child’s play and it really isn’t. I’ve witnessed what a shit show looks like in terms of organisation (looking at you Thames Gateway 100, 2013) and Ranger Ultras are anything but, they are just brilliant.

Value for Money
I genuinely don’t know how they do it – the Rangers Ultra races are some of the best value events around. If you haven’t entered one yet then just do it, you will not be disappointed. These events not only quality but also amazing value, I can’t praise the value for money enough – at about £50 entry this is possible one of the best value events in Englandshire (maybe second only to the Fellsman?) and the fact they offer you a ‘free’ 30km at the end of the race seems both brilliantly cruel and oddly generous.

Awards
As regular readers will know I love a medal, they are the main reason I do these ultra distances but Ranger Ultras are moving to wooden coasters and despite them being an absolute bugger to display they are much nicer than the medals. They are beautifully designed and nicely made. For those who are fast enough there are rewards to be had with trophies and the like but I’m never going to trouble those. I realise we are moving to more sustainable racing and it was excellent to see another cupless event being held but I would kill for a bit of Ranger Ultras merchandise, I mean I’d buy the hoodie and the shirt because I get the feeling that the team would make the right decisions about the kind of quality and sources they were getting them made from – just incase you’re reading this team I really like the Sheepish hoodies, one of those with a Ranger Ultras branding on would be perfect.

Volunteers and Support
Everyone was 100% amazing, from the first to the final person – the volunteers and marshals showed nothing but enthusiasm and energy and as an exhausted runner that can’t be underestimated. I will say a special thank you to John, who rescued my race at the final checkpoint and who made me laugh at the Pennine Bridleway 55. I know how challenging a stint volunteering can be and I can heard to say as I run past volunteers sometimes, ‘you guys have the hardest job’ and I really do mean it. However, in the case of Ranger Ultras we must doubly mean it because we had marshals and safety crew at all the major potential stumbling points and at all the key locations that a runner would really need some support. Brilliant.

Runners
I met so many runners during the race, probably more in this race than any other I have done in recent time and that may have something to do that I managed to perform a bit better than usual and so was higher up the pack than usual before dropping off. For the purpose of the blog and also politeness when you are chatting to someone for a little while I try to get the names of my fellow runners and also try and remember them but here names just dropped out of my brain like water through a sieve.

What I do know is that whether you had travelled far, were running your first ultra, were a little mountain goat, had run dozens of ultra marathons, had awesome facial fuzz or were concerned that hippy hikers might have gotten the magic mushrooms before you did, all of you played a massive part in me reaching any kind of finish line – I did not deserve to get to 70km, I wasn’t good enough on the day – but you, my fellow runners were and I thank you for my 58th ultra marathon finish.

My Race
I’ve outlined my race above but between my hip, feeling sick and my back I did not deserve to finish and that’s how I view my race. That’s a shame because I had a truly great time on the route and with Ranger Ultras and am sure as time passes I’ll only remember these positives but right now I feel a bit sad about the way I raced and not finishing the 100km.

What did I learn? Well the stomach issue was just one of those things that can happen to anyone and I’m sure that next time it won’t be in play. The back issue – well there are two issues, one is the general pain I get which the physiotherapist is helping me resolve but then there is the fact that my Salomon ADV Skin 12 chaffed the skin from back and then helped my body sweat straight into it – I won’t be wearing it again, or at least not over these kinds of distances. The hip though is is the big one, especially with the Double Peaks weekend coming up, am I going to make it to the start line well there’s some question marks about that.

The Grand Slam
And so because I failed to complete the 100km and only finished the 70km race I, like everyone else, bow out of the grand slam and I am very, very sad about this. I went into the Y3PU hoping that my hip would hold together for just a short 100km hop but instead it crucified me for mile after mile after mile. So with the grand slam gone I have thoughts and options that include

  1. Not running any further races this year
  2. Not running the Dark Peaks / White Peaks Double Race Weekend in favour of a longer recovery for the Cheviot Goat Ultra
  3. Running the Dark Peaks, the White Peaks and the Cheviot Goat

I mean I think I know where this is likely to end up and the chances are I’ll be sitting on the start line for at least the first day of running in the Peaks but the question is unlikely to be truly answered until the night I need to head down.

I also know that Kate Allen will be at the Peaks weekend and do I really want to disgrace myself in front of a runner I have much respect for? Ha!

Conclusions
There is a huge logistical challenge in my attending the Ranger Ultras events, the distance is one thing but there are lots of other factors that get in the way, not being local means I really have to think about whether I want to do it, are they worth the arse ache? Was it worth the hours of driving and the miles and miles on terrifyingly dark back roads from Tebay to Hawes? Was the wooden trinket worth needing all that coffee that would eventually come galloped out of my arsehole a day later? Was it worth pissing off a potentially nasty injury so you could enjoy the misty views over Yorkshire? 100% Yes.

This was a bold, brutal and beautiful event and for all my griping I get to sit here, writing this a week later, reliving my joy at some of those most exquisite moments I’ve had as an ultra marathoner. I fell very fortunate to have run the Yorkshire Three Peaks with Ranger Ultras because it was a classy event and the team that put it on are a class act.

Yes I’m annoyed at lots of things about this, but none of them are to do with the event – that was glorious. The issue, as always, is me, what I can tell you is that this race, much like its sibling the PB55 is highly recommended, especially for those of you who like your running hard and trail. You can find out more at the Ranger Ultras website here or take a look at their Facebook page here.

And finally if I haven’t convinced you to take the plunge on this wonderful event, well shame on me because that means I haven’t praised it hard enough. However, let me share with you a final little thing, I have now attempted 68 ultra marathons, I have completed 58 of them, I have run over 200 races in the last decade and of those 200 this one, the Ranger Ultras Yorkshire Three Peaks Ultra is most certainly in the top 10 of my favourite events. That is high praise because it shares that top 10 with great events such as the SainteLyon, the Skye Trail Ultra, MIUT, the Vigo Tough Love 10 and the Green Man Ultra, its tough to get to me to consider putting a race so highly on my list of all time favourites but the Y3PU instantly joins the club.

See you out there.

It’s worth noting that I have no affiliation with Rangers Ultra am not sponsored nor have I been paid to write this review – this is 100% independent (and probably unwanted).

As we walked down through the rain and wind from the campsite to the Kerrera ferry I think we all wondered what madness had we gotten involved in, but here we were, as a family, about to be part of the Craggy Island Triathlon from Durty Events.

In a twist to our usual family adventures it was the GingaNinja who was competing meanwhile I and the child would be on volunteering duty at the junior triathlon event. We headed for our crossing to the island about 8.30am and lined up with dozens of other competitors, spectators and volunteers. It was a real electric atmosphere as we waited those few minutes to board one of the many boats that was whizzing people and gear to the registration.

What I can say is that in organisational terms the whole team worked brilliantly and not just Durty Events but also the islanders who help make this happen. Boats moved across the water transporting competitors in a constant sea of movement – it was a magnificent sight and when we arrived on the beautiful Kerrera we were greeted by the brilliant hustle and bustle of the event that was even more electric than the mainland.

Before we had departed the slipway we made our first new friend of the day – a lovely chap called Adrian, who had competed the day before and had come back to volunteer on day two. Myself and ASK chatted with him and others for quite a while as we awaited the beginning of the briefing for volunteers.

At a little after 9.30am (too busy chatting to competitors, so we were a few minutes late) we headed to the volunteer briefing and caught up on where we were supposed to be and what we would be doing. Diane lead the briefing and gave clear and easy instructions and noting any pressure points that might occur during the day. ASK and I had been handed junior stream crossing duty on the bike and run section and we needed to be there for about noon – so we had time to spare and with that we got chatting to other marshals like Linsey and Freya who were both awesome and ambled around supporting the GingaNinja and some of the other competitors as nerves started to get the better of them.

Thankfully the GingaNinja got into the spirit of things and made a few new friends herself including the awesome Pauline and Jane who were competing as a relay team in the triathlon, I had no idea that there would be so many brilliant options for this event and this gave the whole thing a vibe of being super friendly and incredibly inclusive – it had a really welcoming feel that just lifted the spirits even if the rain was bouncing down on top of you.

But with time ticking away competitors needed to head back to mainland for the start of the race – yep that’s right – registration is on the island but the start is on the mainland – you’ve got to swim back to the island to complete the bike and run sections!

What a superb and brutal idea!

Anyway ASK and I took up a spot overlooking the swim exit and cheered everyone into transition while awaiting the arrival of our athlete. The GingaNinja should have been quick in the swim and I was probably expecting a time of about 11 or 12 minutes but as the first swimmers came out and then the next and the next she wasn’t there.

In the water you could see the current was strong and it found swimmers being dragged significantly off course and this was going to be a massive drain on them as they pushed for the slipway. The GingaNinja, who would argue that the swim is her strongest discipline, struggled in the early stages and resorted to breast stroke until she found her footing.

By the time she was in gear and back into front crawl mode she had used up the energy reserves in her legs and lost a bit of the competitive advantage that a good swim would have given her ahead of the sections she wasn’t so confident in.

However, she pulled herself out of the water to a rapturous roar from the crowd, pulled the big girl pants on and managed to jog up the hill into transition where a battle with a wetsuit awaited. ASK and I followed as quickly as we could offering as much encouragement as we could.

ASK and I shouted advice down to her but she looked pretty pissed so I let her get on with it and instead turned my attention to the gentleman who had just approached me. Paul is one of the key organisers of the event along with the rest of the Durty Events team and the awesome Duncan (the wonderful ferryman and also my original co-conspirator in the special reason for being on the island).

What was my special reason for being there? Well, I had contacted the team at Durty Events to ask if they could help me in proposing marriage to the GingaNinja.

On one of of our test trips to the island, in the months before the event, Duncan had identified himself as co-organiser and so when we were there for our final test trip I stopped and asked if he might be able to help. Duncan with his broad smile and a little twinkle in his eye said, ‘leave it with me’.

And now as the GingaNinja was pulling the bike up from the grass to head out on the course, plans were being finalised for me to be able to ask her to marry me front of all her fellow triathletes.

But before any of that could happen there was the business of marshalling the junior race. ASK and I had been stationed at one of the outlier but most beautiful points. So at about 11.45 we, and Adrian, made our way up to our marshalling points, saying hello to the other event volunteers as we went by and cheering the adult race competitors as they hurried past us.

Looking into the sky, the grey had now disappeared and what remained was beautiful, blue sky! This was wonderful and I had no doubt would make marshalling a much easier task (especially with a 7 year old in tow) and also a more mentally enjoyable effort for the juniors.

ASK set herself up by the directional signage, grabbed herself a hot chocolate from the flask I had brought and sat upon her recently purchased inflatable seat (from race sponsor and local Oban outdoor wear store Outside Edge, a really good shop to visit might I add). The only problem, that I wouldn’t discover until we were packing away was that she had planted the seat in the sloppiest sheep shit imaginable!

Could have been worse of course she might have dumped herself in it.

Within minutes of our arrival at the marshal point we saw our first bikers, ASK steeled herself for motivational cheers and frantic arm waggling to inform the athletes the direction to go. I on the other hand found myself a little rock amongst the sea of sodden ground and stood just above the stream of water that the competitors would have to get through to continue onwards.

Adrian would later describe my motivational cheering as like an old style PE teacher on steeplechase or cross-country day as the runners were hitting the water! That said I like to think I was a little more encouraging to those that looked like they needed to hear that they could do it! We whooped and hollered at all the young athletes until both ASK had become rather hoarse.

What is undeniable though is that I was incredibly impressed by the skill, speed and tenacity of these young adventurers and I very much admired their abilities – from the youngest to the oldest they all did an amazing job. ASK also really enjoyed being part of it all and wanting to have a go herself. She called over to me at one point as one of the younger athletes came through and said, ‘that boy only looks about 8, I could do this next year when I’m 8’.

Of course I explained she was a bit too young yet to meet the age requirement but when she is old enough she’s welcome to try – but she’ll need to improve her biking skills first because there’s no way she’d get through the mud with her current bike riding.

What I do know is that while the biking was impressive from the juniors it was the running that really impressed me, those who had perhaps fought with the bike a bit, looked sharp in the run, and even on the boggy, muddy, slippery conditions there was real grit shown from everyone. If I had been wearing a cap as I stood on my rock I would have doffed it in the direction of each and every one of them.

With the race all but over ASK and I ate some lunch, a delicious curry pie for me and a macaroni pie for the child. As we were finishing them and with no athletes having been seen for some time we caught sight of the other marshals heading towards us collecting signs and so we joined them, clearing the field of event signage – leaving no trace.

It was a lovely wander back with some lovely people, good chat and Teddy the black Labrador that had been hanging round the food tent earlier and looking to snack on any tasty treat that a careless athlete might have lost.

But now it was back to the real event of the day for me and that was taking place back at the finish line.

We deposited the race signage at the registration tent and then ASK and I set ourselves up at the finish line hoping that the GingaNinja would be here soon. The Durty guys were keeping a special eye out for her so that they could time things as efficiently as possible and this meant that when I arrived back I knew she had already been out on the run for about 45 minutes.

I spoke to Paul and said if she isn’t back in 15 minutes then they should just go ahead with the prize giving – I had no intention of keeping cold, hungry and exhausted triathletes from getting home but the Durty team seemed very relaxed about the whole thing and just played it by ear.

I however, was anxious, very anxious.

Although the GingaNinja knew the deal we agreed many years ago – complete an ultra marathon, a long distance walk of 100 miles or an any distance triathlon and we would get married she would have little or no idea that I would have roped in the help of the event organisers to force her, through embarrassment, into saying yes!

I kept checking my phone to see if she was in trouble but nothing she was still out there. Other triathletes crossed the finish line to great applause and while I was happy for them I was nervous for her and then Paul came over and said, ‘she’s a few minutes away’. My heart started racing but I got myself together and headed down the final strait so that ASK could finish it with her mum and then with prize giving underway I needed to move the GingaNinja and ASK into position quickly without giving the game away.

I stripped her of her soaking kit and hurled her dryrobe on, I gave the child a camera and with just a minute to spare we were settled at the prize giving at which point I was almost immediately called up to the front of what felt like a million people.

Now I had relayed my story and what was about to happen to lots of the people at the event and almost everywhere I looked I saw someone who knew what was about to happen.

With microphone in hand I began.

‘We’ve been on a million and one adventures together… I wondered if you fancied a million and one more… starting with this one…’

At which point I removed from my pocket a ring that had been specially made for us by a wonderful lady called Sally Grant in Burntisland and moved to the traditional single knee position.

‘Will you marry me?’

The GingaNinja moved from the crowd, looking rather sheepish and then whole world fell silent and disappeared. She came, took the ring from my rather trembling fingers, which would refuse to fit on her triathlon fattened sausage fingers and said yes.

I informed the crowd of the answer and there was a cheer to break the silence and more importantly there was an easing of my breathing. Hellfire I even cried, which is most unlike me.

Holy turd. She said yes.

The Durty Stuff
But enough of this you aren’t here for the emotional proposal stuff you’re here because of Durty Events. What I can say is that the Craggy Island Triathlon must be a massive logistical challenge but the team make it look effortless. It was smooth, it was brilliantly executed and it seemed to be very elastic, if something needed to adapt then the team could move with that need. Brilliant.

Location
In terms of location I think Kerrera might be a little hidden gem in Scotland’s arsenal of little gems. The place is full of little secrets to uncover as you explore and it is certainly worth seeing the castle and the views across to Mull and the mainland but there’s so much more to the island. The islanders themselves that I met on my various visits were incredibly friendly and welcoming and there’s a real community spirit about the place. Then you’ve got the event route which the GingaNinja described as ‘absolutely glorious’ and you’d have to agree, it has absolutely everything in it, all muddily packaged in to about 22km of eventing and the junior route was equally exceptional – you don’t get this kind of thing everyday.

This is an event worth doing as a seasoned eventer or first timer – it’s something you’ll never forget and never regret.

Marshalling & Volunteering
As for marshalling? Well I definitely had a pretty easy time of it, I answered a few questions from some of the competitors and spectators, then got a fantastic view of the junior race for a couple of hours – it was a truly wonderful experience. What I can say is that it was brilliant and everyone should try and give a bit back by doing some volunteering and let me assure you that you’ll have a great time if you choose to do it in a Durty Events kind of way. Importantly though any kind of volunteering and marshalling makes a difference in any kind of endurance sport and your participation makes it so much easier for events to take place and for athletes to be supported.

Mountain Rescue
It’s also worth noting that this event also serves as a fundraiser for the Oban Mountain Rescue and I can’t think of a service that deserves your support more, you can donate to them at any time (or your nearest mountain rescue) because without their dedication and commitment, events like this wouldn’t really be possible. We might think we’ll never need their aid or their exceptional skills but on the day we do then I’m glad I’ve donated to keep them going.

Thanks
And now to a few thanks, first of course is to Durty Events and team, not only did they provide a triathlon event that my partner was keen to participate in but they made room for me and my little piece of proposal mischief. Paul & Diane especially you have my thanks.

To Duncan, our wonderful ferryman, co-organiser and all round star I must say thank you for being a brilliant support and a real gentleman, you inspired all of the madness of the proposal at the event! Plus being sped from the island by you was the perfect end to a perfect day.

To Freya, Linsey, Adrian and all the other volunteers and marshals – your company, wisdom and videography skills were much appreciated, I hope we one day come across each other in another muddy location.

To the many competitors who took part, especially those such as Jane and Pauline who we chatted to throughout the event it was a pleasure to share the Craggy Island Triathlon with you. Congratulations to everyone who took part you were amazing snd my apologies if I’ve forgotten to mention you.

To my little munky, ASK, the 7 year old marshal and daughter who managed not to moan at all, despite soggy feet and missing her mum. She was a superstar and came away wanting not to be an ultra runner like her dad but be a triathlete like her mum.

And finally to the GingaNinja – thanks for finishing and for saying yes.

And so that’s one of the Tales of Kerrera, what’s yours? And what will your next adventure be?

Durty Events have lots of lovely looking events to get your teeth into (or volunteer at). I know I’ll be signing up to a first triathlon with them (probably Craggy Island) and the GingaNinja is already eyeing up both the Foxlake and Aviemore Tri events. It wouldn’t surprise me if we become not just durty but filthy regulars because these guys know how to put on a splendid event. You can find out more at durtyevents.com and let me assure you I’m not paid or sponsored to say any of this they are just a brilliant events team.

Apologies if I got a name wrong or if I missed anyone out – it has been a mad few days but thank you to everyone and see you again soon!

Covid 19 has created so many delayed and cancelled races with medals having being purchased and monies committed and the Frostbite was probably one of those affected. However, with restrictions eased a little the organisers managed to put on a little 5 mile blast around Lochore Meadows Country Park and it was a real corker!

I happened to be visiting Lochore Meadows that weekend anyway and so the race dovetailed perfectly into my planned weekend of paddle boarding, open water swimming, cycling, running, exploring, kayaking and eating. If you haven’t been to Lochore Meadows Country Park then it is worth looking up and well worth a visit as it offers an abundance of exciting things to do all in a wonderful space.

I woke up in the motorhome park nice and early and went down to the water before the day properly got going and then headed back to Rona for a cup of coffee and the change into my running gear. The day was already scorching and it was barely 8am. By the time I was ready the organisers of the race had set up and were ready to hand out race numbers and medals – presumably one of the Covid secure systems that they had in place to minimise groupings around the finish line.

I gave in my allocated number from the email that had been sent round and excitedly took ownership of number 185 in papery form – it was lovely to be sticking a number on my shorts again. I then bimbled around the start line and the loch for a while before making the short 5 minute walk to the start line down at the golf course.

It was here that I ran into a local Falkirk legend and it was a delight to see her after all this time.

Although I didn’t say it, the last time I ran into Fiona she gave me a proper pasting at the Skull Trail Race and that was 100% fair because I wasn’t fit enough to compete at any distance, but when she came over at The Frostbite 5 to say hello my immediate thought turned to revenge, albeit a very quiet and understated revenge. Actually this isn’t true at all really – my thoughts were around the bloody scorching temperature but keeping ahead of Fiona was certainly in my head as an aim for the day.

And so as 11am approached we all headed down to the start line and spaced ourselves out appropriately, I turned around, as I often do, to look over the other competitors and noted every single one primed with their fingers ready to hit the buttons on their GPS watches. I on the other hand was fumbling around trying to put my camera back into my race vest. I did manage to get myself set just before the off and I even managed to switch on my Garmin and then like a rocket I thrust myself forward around the field that we would circle on our way out to the course.

The course itself was a lovely mix of gentle up and down with well maintained paths offered throughout and the course had been thoroughly marked and was incredibly well marshalled by cheering and presumably overheating volunteers! For my part I felt the heat of the day affecting me but I pushed on with all the energy I could muster and although I was overtaken by a few of the runners I had blasted past in the early stages I was mostly holding my own and found myself at a comfortable pace as I thundered into the main section of Lochore Meadows Country Park.

Knowing this was an out and back meant I was memorising how the course went in terms of where I would need to give it a little bit of a push and as I ran alongside the loch side I knew that the turning point had to be soon – although I had still seen no sign of the returning front runners. On I pressed and into what would be the final straight to the turning point and I could see runners approaching, one then another and another – but not as many I expected. I have very much gotten used to being at the back of the pack and so it was a surprise as I joked with the marshal at the halfway point that I was still running rather well.

I’d now warmed up a bit too and found myself cheering on the runners coming towards me and then something happened to ensure that I maintained my pace.

Behind me I could feel the hot breath of another runner which proved a little dispiriting given I thought I was doing okay and so I casually moved over and offered my breathy shadow the opportunity overtake but he didn’t.

Now whether he was being polite or he didn’t have enough in the legs to shoot past me he remained in my shadow for the next mile. We introduced ourselves and said hello but there wasn’t really time for any ‘ultra type’ chat – both of us where clearly busting a get to get back. John though provided the inspiration I was looking for and I was able to hold my pace and my position ahead of him.

Occasionally I would turn around to see where he was and he was moving from just behind to several seconds behind me and as I approached the field that we had started I had about 10 or 12 seconds on him and knew that this should be enough to get me to the finish ahead of John because I felt a sprint finish in my legs.

The field was long though and I felt myself slowing as the heat beat down upon me and against the short stretch of tarmac I started to slow significantly, I was looking downwards rather than concentrating on what was ahead and so I raised my head, looked forward and pulled myself together for a suitably flying finish.

Bounding to the finish, bouncing along like Bambi I felt amazing and hurled myself across the finish line and enjoying just a little moment of pleasure knowing that for the first time in ages I had run pretty well.

John came in a few seconds behind me and I thanked him for pushing me all the way – I would have slowed down if I hadn’t felt his chasing in the early stages of the second half of the race – really inspiring.

But what of revenge? Well Fiona made it back a minute or so after me and looked as cool as a cucumber, out for a morning stroll rather than a hard race (I looked like a fat bloated and sweaty pig in comparison). I have no doubt that had she had it in mind she would have given me another drubbing but I’ll take a finish ahead of her – just this once.

I ambled back to Rona, the motorhome, taking my medal out of the pocket I had kept it in during the race and put it around my neck, I felt a deep swell of pride wearing it and felt like a million dollars for running on that hot Sunday morning. Awesome!

Conclusions?
What a great race, great location and brilliantly organised. This is one of the first times that racing has felt like it is returning and I’ll be looking forward to more events from the guys at Trails of Fife (you can find their Facebook group here) and I’m disappointed that I won’t be able to do their race at the end of June. It is races like this I feel that really being the running community together, for not much more than a tenner you get a medal, a well organised event, a classy route and the opportunity to run with runners from your community – what more could you ask for?

When I am not off doing ultra marathon events these are the types of races I enjoy the most, relatively short distance with a wonderfully mixed group of runners and an inclusive, friendly atmosphere.

Great job guys.

Video
Below is a short video of the race from my perspective, enjoy.

Running footwear setup for Ultraboyruns

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.

Running kit race set up for feet

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.

Altra Lone Peak 4.5

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 liner toe sock

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.

For further information about the kit I wear you can check out Dirty Girl Gaiters and Drymax at The Ultra Marathon Running Store (I believe the only UK stockist for both). Altra are available widely across the country but more information can be found at their website. Topo Athletic information can be found here and are available at both Northern Runner and Castleberg Outdoors (where I usually buy mine from). Compeed is available from local independent and national retailers, more information can be found here.

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.

Visit the OMM website for further information on their products

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
  • Great design

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.

Visit the Oxsitis website for further information on their products

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.

Visit the Ultimate Direction website for further information on their products

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
  • Incredibly comfortable

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.

Visit the Raidlight website for further information on their products

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.

Visit the Harrier website for further information on their products

RUNNING KIT Mistakes!

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.

Recommendations?

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.

Gallery

Have fun shopping.

Much has changed in the last few months, I’ve dropped over 13kg in weight, I’ve finally grown an ultra beard, I now own two kayaks and a paddleboard, ASK Adventurer turned 6 and oh yes… COVID 19

You’ll all be aware that racing has been off the agenda for most of 2020 due to the pandemic and only in the last few weeks has it really shown any return, albeit, that return, at the time of writing, is in jeopardy.

While I realise that running events not happening isn’t the end of the world, it does effect me, but being so long since my last race I wondered if this enforced absence might have seen my racing love, wane somewhat.

Then along came the lovely Luke Gow who I’d met at the Nocturnal Ultra a couple of years ago (evening geezer) and he suggested that Ultra North in Northumberland might be going ahead and would have spaces. What a cheeky little bugger manipulating me like that…

Well of course I immediately checked out the website and given I’m susceptible to even the lightest race persuasion* I soon found myself stumping up the entrance fee. (*this seems an odd phrase on re-reading, I need to practive my writing more).

Ultra North comes from the same people who do things like The Great North Run and the Great Swim Series – as a larger events organisation I would normally avoid them – because experience suggests that the profit motivation goes before the quality of the event. However, after swimming in a couple of the Great Swim series I had high hopes that this would be one of the better ‘large’ events.

Ultra North was targeting a wide running base in its advertising as it was being suggested as suitable for both speed demons and those of us with more of a snails pace and in this sense it opened its arms to all who were willing to give it a go. With generous cut offs and lots of support – plus two race distances this was, on paper, a good novice ultra event. Perhaps on paper you’d have read this as a road marathoner and thought ‘I could do Ultra North’.

Ultimately I was quite happy that I was signing up to a race that wasn’t to my usual tastes but the question is did it prove to be better than my expectations and dud it reignite my racing fire?

We’ll get there in a minute.

Anyway we drove down to a place about an hour outside of the start in Newcastle called Bellingham and camped overnight – this meant there wasn’t a near 3hr sprint from Scotland to the start line. This enable me to have a much more relaxed approach to reaching the registration point and with all the COVID regulations in place you really wanted to be arriving in a semi relaxed state.

Weather conditions promised heavy rain so the outdoor registration system was a bit miserable but the team behind Ultra North were quick, effective and as enthusiastic as you could hope for. It wasn’t perhaps your typical Geordie welcome but these are unusual times we live in.

I collected my race number and affixed it to my leggings and then lined up, all very simple. The Eagles Arena car park had been set up to give the runners adequate space to social distance and runners were sent off in groups of 3. It wasn’t a race start to write home about – COVID has sapped the energy out of events – but this is to be expected and so as we were sent on our merry way I remembered that this is temporary and that for the first time since the Falkirk Ultra I was racing again.

The route lumbered its way through some very uninspiring kilometres which had me worried, the tarmac was hard and the roads grey and without joy – if the whole event was like this then it was going to be a truly miserable day. However, the runners, many of whom were from the north east had the lovely chatty, friendly personality I had come to expect and COVID had not managed to beat that. I both listened in and joined into conversations that passed me and that I went past. That was lovely and thankfully once we were closing in on the first checkpoint at 13km the route was becoming more interesting I started to enjoy myself.

It was in the last couple of kilometres to checkpoint one that I met the lovely Leanne who was a first time ultra runner and looking incredibly strong. We chewed the fat a bit before saying farewell as we set off for checkpoint two but I had no doubt she had a great finish in her. Her energy gave me the drive to push onwards to CP1 when I might normally have dragged my heels a bit – so thank you!

The checkpoints were very simply laid out with all the bits you could want and it was very much self help (which I prefer), a one way system through the CP and hand sanitising before you tuck in.

Now because I’m on a weight loss fight I decided not to stuff my face, so it was a small amount of cola, one chocolate pancake thing and then gone.

From here we crossed the Tyne for the first time and off for a series of climbs into the ‘wilds’ of Northumberland and the route provided those with road shoes on something of a challenge as we climbed muddy, wet, rocky trails. This was probably my favourite section but I did hear a number of the runners cursing this and describing it as tough (ha! wait until you try MIUT then you’ll know tough!). All the road running was worth these lovely little bits of trail and I was disappointed when the climbing and the mud abated. Still back to the roads and actually as I passed through little villages and lovely bits of England I had never before seen I found a great sense of joy – I’ll be honest this was mildly tempered by the soaking I had taken and continued to take.

I passed by the next checkpoint in good time and was only mildly concerned that one of the marshals offered me the ambulance. He must have misinterpreted my response to; ‘do you need anything?’ To which I had replied, ‘a lift back?

It was in this section that I met Chris (if I’ve got your name wrong my apologies), we chatted for a bit and I encouraged us to a bit of running – he told me that the running we’d done had been the longest he’d done in a while. When I left him to carry on running I was convinced he would make it and sure enough as I was driving home I saw him coming into the final kilometre looking as determined as when I had left him. Good job fella!

I was now into the last 20km or so and was bang on time, not too fast, not too slow. I hit the third checkpoint and was in and out pretty quickly but as I left the checkpoint I noted ASK and the GingaNinja approaching and waving wildly from Rona!

I stopped mere seconds to wave at them and tell them I had to continue – they would thankfully come and see me later in the race which was a perfect pick me up at about 45km.

More tarmac passed under my weary feet and for someone who had weak glutes, no core stength, trail shoes on and very limited training in the bank this was proving a killer, not that I’m looking for excuses, obviously.

There was also the back injuries that have plagued me since about 2015 resurfacing at 20km and made the weight of my race vest feel very heavy and draining indeed. That problem is going to be a very serious issue for The Cheviot Goat in a few weeks time. Here though the problem manifested itself as severe pain across the middle of my back and so I would hoist my race vest higher up my back to alleviate the stress points.

Regardless I pushed onwards as I knew that I was now not going to DNF, even with the back pain I could push through and claim my first medal in months. It was at about 40km though that the dynamic of the race changed for me and I met a young man with a nice beard called Lewis and we got chatting during one of my regular refuelling and walking breaks. We found ourselves chewing the fat over all sorts of topics and I found his company delightful and very distracting from my back trouble.

I could have run on from him as I had the energy to do it, but I made a decision that his speed walking pace was sufficiently excellent, my back was in pieces and if we maintained this pace I’d only be 40 minutes slower than if I were running and so despite both of us clearly stating, ‘please crack on if you need to’ we stayed together and talked (hopefully) about useful, useless and running things for the final three hours of the event!

As we crossed the Millennium Bridge across the Tyne I recounted my last running in Newcastle (Rat Race’s The Wall – review here), I was even able to identify the nightclub where a drunken Geordie lass offered to help myself and another runner up to the finish despite not being able to stand herself – I have no idea if there’s a euphemism in there but there might have been at the time of the original event.

Great memories.

I was surprised that lots of the runners I spoke to were considering or had run The Wall, I’d urge everyone to make sure you’ve looked round at alternatives, The Wall is very expensive for what you’re getting and the north and north east have a lot of great value, great running events. Just saying.

Anyway with the wind on our back and the rain on our faces Lewis and I ambled gently towards the finish. I was now very cold, partly due to an extended stop at the final checkpoint, partly due to a gruelling 8hr soaking, so I was keen to finish but the cold and the speed walking had drained any notion of running the last kilometre.

Lewis and I waited until we could see the finish before we put on a short burst of speed and crossed the eerily quiet finish line and the collection of our rewards.

An odd day, a good day.

  • Distance: 55km
  • Ascent: Around 550 metres
  • Date: October 2020
  • Location: Newcastle
  • Cost: £65
  • Entrants: 109 finishers
  • Terrain: Mixed, lots of tarmac
  • Tough Rating: 1/5

Route
This one isn’t going to win any prizes for being the most scenic but it has its moments, ultimately I think you know what you’re likely to be getting into when the compulsory kit says ‘debit card’ to buy supplies if you need them.

If you’re a fast road runner and fancying the transition to trail this would be a great route to get some testing into your feet or if you’re new to the ultra marathon scene then this won’t come as too much of a shock. The route has a lot in common with the aforementioned ‘The Wall’ in that the amount of road running is quite high. However, if you’re aware of this or have a preference for it then you’re going to enjoy yourself. If you’re an out and out trail runner then this might not be one for you.

These are also a couple of iconic moments on the route too – obviously the run alongside the Tyne is a must see if you’re coming to Newcastle and this brought back a shitload of great memories for me. Running the last bit with Lewis as well gave it a nice social element that we’ve all been missing since racing stopped.

Anyway I can’t actually be negative about the route overall, it is mostly quite good fun (well except for that shitty first few kilometres but every race has a bit like that). I would urge the Ultra North organisers to see if there are any ways to add in some of the lovely trails that lined the roads of the route – I realise this probably means greater organisation and costs but it would make for a more complete route and would certainly draw runners like me back.

Organisation
I would struggle to fault the organisation, it was very well oiled. The checkpoints were well spaced out and well thought out, the marshalls were all well organised and well drilled, all instructions, both on the day and pre-race, were clear and the COVID side of things was handled with all the grace and clarity it could be. Ultra North should be commended for managing to put on a city starting event and yet maintain the required level of protocols.

A special note of course to the marshals without whom these events could not take place, each and every one of them that I came into contact with was doing a spectacular job and while it might not have been cuddles and kisses there was a lot of support and encouragement and no hint of pressure to get out of a CP. Well done guys.

Value for Money
Always a tricky one, this race was about £65 which I consider a fair amount for a race. What did you get? You got a well organised, well supported race across a circular route and a medal and T-shirt where you could see were bespoke. The food at the checkpoints was plentiful, nice and varied and so, yes, Ultra North offered good value for money.

Awards
Bespoke medal and shirt (size medium, that’s what a bit of weight loss will do for you). I liked the medal and shirt, very vibrant, much like the rest of the excellent event branding.

Conclusion
Any runner, and I mean any runner or long distance walker, could find enough good reasons to take part in this.

It’s short enough for a a marathon runner to test their ability on a new distance, mixed terrain runners would enjoy the variety, new to ultra distance runners will find it not too challenging and experienced ultra runners will enjoy the day out in Newcastle not being covered in as much shit as usual.

It’s possibly not the event that you’ll remember as the best you ever did but does that really matter? It was a fun day out as far as I am concerned and remember I was soaking wet for 8hrs. Would I return to run it again? I would certainly consider returning – though I think the October date is much better than the original March date that is pencilled in for this and if the route was made a little more of the trail features found all over this landscape then you’ve got a bona fide hit.

Racing Fire
Did Ultra North return my racing fire? Sort of – I’m now looking forward to The Cheviot Goat much more than I was – but COVID 19 has removed a lot of the fun of racing for me.

gptempdownload-6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aha I thought I have found my way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Why?

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.

Ha.

Check out Ranger Ultras here and get involved

Related & Recent

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

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

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

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

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I therefore had high expectations for the event.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something I was very glad of.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We had made it, I had made it.

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

Route
What they said about the route…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Conclusion
Is this a great race? Not yet.

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

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

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

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

Check out the race details here

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.

I digress.

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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’.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Key points

  • Distance: 60km (ish)
  • Profile: Deceptive and killer
  • Date: July 2019
  • Location: Loch Earn
  • Cost: £55
  • Terrain: Very Mixed
  • Tough Rating: 2.5/5

Route
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.

Organisation
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.

Awards
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.

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Conclusion
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 (and a rusty bullet hole post race that is so hot I dare not go near it) but that has nothing to do with my conclusions about the race I just wanted to ensure that you, dear reader, understand that despite my relative lack of action both in running and blogging I’ll never forget to add a bit of poo to a race tale.

On a more serious note there are improvements that could be made – a bit more trail running on the route in the second half would make it easier on jelly legs and perhaps an FAQ section on the website to answer questions like, ‘can you use poles?’

Both of these I feel would elevate a really good race to an unmissable race. However, take nothing away from this event it was brilliant and it’s small tweaks rather than significant change that I feel would benefit everyone. The one significant change I might consider would be a single start time – I do like the starting with everyone else and think it might make it easier logistically for the race team but then I can see the flip side that it’s not a massive distance and so you are enabling runners from further afield to attend.

Ultimately I’d give this a go, it’s an unusual ultra but all the better for defying expectations and if I can offer one recommendation and that is I’d always take the high road – it really is worth it. And if it’s any measure of how much I enjoyed it, yes I would certainly go again.

You can find out more at benvorlichultra.run

Having run lots and lots of races I’ve come across lots and lots of race organisation. It’s fair to say that mostly race organisation has been really good but occasionally you do find that there are ones that stink to high heaven.

However, this post looks to celebrate the ones I’ve found the absolute best and if good race management and strong organisational skills are your thing then maybe you should consider these guys

Extreme Energy (XNRG)
Organisers of: Pilgrims Way, Pony Express, Amersham Ultra

I’d heard so many good things about XNRG that I didn’t think it could possibly be true. However what I noticed about my running with them was how they had managed to absorb all the ‘friendly’ elements of small, local races where everyone knows each other and scale it up to ultra distance. I recall arriving into the Amersham Ultra and everything being in the right place, it was in a great location and everyone knew what they needed to do and outwardly they showed no stress. Anecedotal evidence from others who have run with them confirm that is pretty much the case all over an XNRG event.

Best things: no fuss, well drilled, experienced team, great attitude
Website: www.xnrg.co.uk

Challenge Running
Organisers of: Monarchs Way, St Peters Way, Stort 30

I ran the St. Peter’s Way in 2014 and it has long left a lasting impression on me – this is partly because Lindley Chambers is a rather unforgettable chap but there were other reasons. I recall rocking up to the SPW and bumping into Ian Braizer for the first time since we’d both crashed out of the Thames Gateway 100, lining up for an actual kit check and a race briefing that felt more like being told off. However, the pre race organisation was on point and the marshalling crews across the course were absolutely outstanding and often old hands at the ultra game. The aid stations were spot on and it all ran with a kind of military precision. There is much to admire about the way Challenge Running do races and if you’re looking for tough, well thought out, well executed but ultimately achievable adventures then they are well worth a look.

Best things: very experienced team, pure ultra running experience, great aid station food
Website: www.challenge-running.co.uk

SVN
Organisers of: Ranscombe Challenge, Viking Way Challenge, Cakeathon

There are people who might (justifiably) suggest that organising looped events is relatively straight forward. 1 aid station, a few direction signs and off you go. I tend to believe that the reason this opinion exists is because race organisers like Phoenix and Saxons, Vikings & Norman’s make a difficult task look easy. When you roll up to a SVN event you’re treated like an adult, Traviss and Rachel are both hugely experienced runners who offer sage words of advice and an understanding of what motivates runners (distance, routes, cake and medals). The SVN events are always a joyful experience and the organisation is the right balance of knowing you’ve got a reasonably experienced group of attendees and the need to ensure nobody gets lost.

The looped nature of the events means aid stations are never far away and the you’re never more than a few hundred metres from another runner who will offer moral support if you’re in need. SVN has community spirit written all over it and this combined with good routes, excellent aid stations and wonderful race directors make this an easy choice to run.

Best things: Community spirit of the events, the medals and the ridiculously overfilled goody bags.
Website: www.saxon-shore.com

Ultra Trail Scotland/Find Your Adrenaline
Organisers of: Isle of Arran Ultra, Arran 25km

If you’re running in autumn or winter, if you’re running up Scottish mountains and if you’re unsure what you’ve let yourself in for then you really want to ensure that the organisers of a race have got your back. Find Your Adrenaline who organised the Ultra Trail Scotland: Arran race proved to be the best race organisers I’ve ever come across. I attended the inaugural event and saw a small team of race organisers bringing together two very different sets of runners (many who had come from Spain and the local runners). I witnessed the organisers going through the route in a variety of languages, the pre race meal was amazing, the support we were shown in putting an easy roof over heads was brilliant and then getting everyone to the start line was a very simple no fuss affair. There were no bells, no whistles, no silly gimmicks – this would be a hardcore race and it demanded the best of its organisers.

We’d been given GPX files well in advance, we’d been talked through the trouble spots on the route and as we all made the climb to Goatfell and light was coming up I think we all felt well supported and like this was going to be a great day out. When race director Casey Morgan though started sending runners back because conditions were so bad this was proof positive that safety was foremost on the minds of the organisers. Nobody could blame him or the rest of the team – nature can be tough. The brilliant thing though was that the support didn’t end here, once we had descended the mountain the team kicked into action and provided food, drink and anything else we could want. I have nothing but the highest of praise for the team under extremely difficult and disappointing (for them as much as the runner) conditions. I’m glad to see they didn’t see this as the end and if you fancy a real challenge then you should consider a crack at Arran this June.

Best things: the routes, runner safety, runner care
Website: www.ultratrailscotland.com

Run Walk Crawl
Organisers of: SW100, SW50, Gower 50

Organised, friendly and well thought out are how I’d describe the Run, Walk, Crawl experience. Because of dropping down to the SW50 from the 100 I had a bit of time to kill and so joined the support team handing out numbers and registering runners. This was an awesome experience and sitting behind the table was almost as much fun as the running. The rugby club that the organisers had hired out was a brilliant location as it meant we had hot showers (pre and post race), somewhere to change and a decent place to camp too. There was a town and a train station a short hop away and it meant that the runners had access to everything they might need. Race morning saw coaches laid on to the start and it all felt easy (which as the runner is something you only appreciate if something goes wrong). On the course there was great support from the crews, food and drink options were plentiful and the route even passed a Co-op for an ice-cream stop (truly something for everyone).

Best things: understanding of runners needs, well organised staff, excellent setup.
Website: www.runwalkcrawl.co.uk

Extra Sports
Organisers of: SainteLyon

I don’t do many mass participation events because I simply don’t enjoy them and feel that they get far too much coverage (looking at you London Marathon). However, the SainteLyon with a total of 14,000 runners over 4 different distances is an exception I make.

The race is a bit of French classic that has been running for over 60 years but despite this the race remains reasonably anonymous in the UK and English speaking countries. And so to why I would consider Extra Sports do brilliant at race organisation, the first is the language barrier – many of the volunteers and staff are well versed in English and other languages, but that isn’t the pleasant surprise – the surprise is the fact that many can spot you as a foreigner before you’ve even spoken and are incredibly helpful. The rest of my experience with Extra Sports and the SainteLyon was equally well organised – the main hall were registrations take place is split between the race village and the number hand out. Identity checks are swift and number allocations equally so but it’s a very human process despite the number of people involved. Then there are the logistics are transporting thousands of runners to the start line, returning bags to the finish line and ensuring that everyone is suitably comfortable, fed and watered in the run up to a race start at midnight in the middle of December. Extra Sports go the extra kilometre.

On course it’s the same brilliant event management – in the icy unmanned sections there are quad bikers going back and forth to help runners who might be injured. Last time I saw a runner being airlifted out (I assume due to injury) and every care was shown here. Aid stations despite being incredibly busy were never once short of food or drink and the people manning these incredibly busy aid stations looked like they were working harder than the runners. Truly epic efforts, truly brilliant.

Best things: Organisation of transport for a shedload of runners, really well considered logistics at start and finish.
Website: www.saintelyon.com

Ultra Running Ltd
Organisers of: The Green Man Ultra

Ultrarunning Ltd, organisers of the Green Man, Malvern Hills and the Midnight Express to name but a few boast a fine reputation for fun, inventive and inspiring ultra marathons that you always fancy a second (or more) crack at. My first experience was a mud soaked bumble around Bristol known as the Green Man Ultra. We were lucky I think that we had a fine day for it which allowed runners to congregate outside the main registration hall. Numbers/colours were allocated according to your distance (30 or 45 miles and whether you were being fed on route or not) a theme that continued into the medals as well.

Once off I found that the course was easy enough to follow and you were never very far from another runner despite the relatively small field. What was a surprise was just how delicious the aid station food was – including the delightful jam butties! The crews were plentiful for this one, this meant that no runner was waiting around for very long for a cup of tea!

I rolled in reasonably late from this one but that didn’t stop there being a tremendous reception and more importantly there was still some of the truly delicious chilli remaining! (a common occurrence when you’re not at the front of the race is that post race food has often disappeared – but not here). Facilities at the end were ace and the lovely certificate I was presented with (with my name written and spelt correctly) was a genuinely lovely finishing touch. This race, the experience, the organisation and the medal will long be remembered

Best things: Food at the finish, food on the course, really enthusiastic volunteers.
Website: www.ultrarunningltd.co.uk

Obviously there are lots of other incredible organisers of races, Vigo Running Club and Harvel Hash Harriers who put together the Tough Love 10 are outstanding, the chaps behind the Marlborough Downs Challenge are incredibly well organised and I’ve rarely met any organisers that have done a bad job. You’d certainly be assured that all race directors go into these things to provide great race experiences because making money isn’t the reason you do it and they want to most of all make sure that you all get round safely having had a load of fun.

You’ll all have your favourite races, you’ll all have your favourite race organisers and my list is just an opportunity to look into something new, in the knowledge that the organisers involved with these companies offer the best race organisation and experiences I’ve had.

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