I looked over my shoulder just beyond the escape point to see if the Crow was following but much to my delight its beady eye was watching north – little did I know that my winged nemesis used more than vision to stalk its prey.
Escape from Meriden, the prison break was on. But let me roll back a little to explain the race and why I was running it. EFM is the brainchild of those sadistic types at Beyond Marathon – turn up at the centre point of England and at 23.59 you run as far from Meriden as you possibly can in 24hrs. No aid stations, no support (unless you bring it yourself) and no defined route (unless you’ve planned one). Then comes the both the carrot and the stick – your finishing point (or final resting place) will be ‘as the crow flies’ from Meriden and there are three distance level up points you could be rewarded for 30, 60, 90 miles.
The crow and the race would be a very cruel mistress and that’s why I wanted to be involved. Unsupported I wanted to experience the challenge of facing myself, my own route and whether I had it in me to get over the 60 miles (as the crow flies).
I’ve already mentioned in my race preview that given I would be off to South Wales in a few weeks that I would drop my distance at Meriden but not by much – I dropped down from about 92 to 75 miles but I’d also run less time (somewhere around 18-20hrs) and instead of heading to London I’d amble along to a small village in Oxfordshire/Wiltshire.
I had a clear and well defined plan. It sounds like my race preparation was going well doesn’t it? The trouble is my prep was going anything but well. Lower back/kidney pain has been a constant companion since about March, left footed heel pain has been nothing but a nuisance and a groin tear that makes any movement a possible lighting pain inducing experience / the annoying thing is that none of these were caused by running but they made my ‘Escape’ seem downright impossible.
So what happened?
Well I ambled up to Birmingham International (£8 single, advance), jumped into a taxi (£12) and arrived into Meriden to see small pockets of runners ambling around. I joined them at the Methodist Church Hall were I was greeted by familiar faces from my SVN eventing – nothing better than a couple of friendly faces when you’re feeling a bit nervous. I grabbed my number, tracker, coffee, biscuits, t-shirt and a dark corner to get changed.
The hall was now packed with a wonderful array of runners, hikers and their supporters and the atmosphere was exactly as I like it, friendly, relaxed but filled with a buzzing anticipation. Being completely alone in terms of my race approach made me feel slightly more nervous than usual but when the call came out to head up to the start line I was quite ready. I hurled on my waterproof jacket as the rain had started to come down and then plodded up to Meriden marker.
I don’t know what I expected from the start line but as everyone set off in every possible direction I stopped to look around and take it all in. To describe it you’d say it was less of a prison break and more rats jumping ship… drowned rats too but we were off.
With GPS on I was determined I would follow the route as closely as possible – ensuring I didn’t get snared into a mis-step by following another runner or taking what might be considered a short cut – Escape from Meriden was not about instinct it was going to be about following rules – perhaps this was my mistake.
I drifted through the first few miles, merrily keeping myself to myself and even with the rain becoming heavier I decided to dispense with the services of my waterproof jacket, I felt it better to be damp than overheating.
For a while I watched as the miles started to be clocked up, I even logged into the drone website so I could see the progress of my fellow runners but the sheen soon wore off as the reality of the rain kicked in. However, despite the weather I knew that I needed to make maximum progress while it was dark as the heat of the day was likely to wipe me out. I passed through small villages and hamlets throughout the night and delighted in the peace and tranquility of my route. This was punctuated only by the roar of ‘boy and girl’ racers using the dead of night to test how fast their Alfa Romeos and souped up Corsas would go. Light was much earlier than I expected arriving for me around 4am and the arrival of light always brings with it renewed hope – strangely though rather than hope it brought hunger.
I had munched my way through much of my very limited supplies and therefore when arriving into the towns on my route to the discovery that everywhere was closed proved mentally challenging. I was hungry, very hungry, my choices were limited to stopping for more than an hour and wait for the garage to open or 2hrs 15 for the Co-operative to open or I could continue and accept the hunger.
I chose the latter and pressed on
Thankfully as a distraction from my hunger there was an unspecified pain across the top of my foot, which I unwisely ignored. Had I been brave enough to stop and look I’d have seen a massively swollen right foot with a tenderness that really shouldn’t have been run on. Ho-hum! On the positive side of distraction though we had Riccardo from Italy who epitomised the ultra running spirit – carefree, spirited and determined. His company for several miles made the early morning meandering much more palatable. The issue of food had not been resolved though and without any support or checkpoints this was going to start becoming an issue as my water supplies were lowering too.
I rolled into the next town to discover a Co-op that was open about 7.30am. I could smell myself from sweat, rain and mud and wanted to restrict my human interaction – I find trying to explain ultra running quite a chore when I’m mid event.
I picked up some chocolate milk and some Lucozade and asked the lovely Co-op ladies if they knew of a local cafe or bakery that might be open – they just laughed. Hmmm, if this had been France I’d probably have had the choice of half a dozen bakeries and eaten my own body weight in croissants but as it is the UK I had to have chocolate milk and Lucozade. I hoped that later stops might furnish me with something a little more delicious… well you’ve got to have hope right?
Feeling refreshed, my bag rearranged, night time kit locked away and starting to finally dry off I pressed on a little quicker heading out of Shipston with all the effort I could muster. The day was now in full flow but the heat hadn’t yet set in so it was worth it to try and get as far beyond the 30 mile point as possible. Despite passing through 50km I still hadn’t crossed the 30 mile ‘as the crow flies’ line but it surely couldn’t be far?
Daylight brought me into The Cotswold and an area of the country that I’ve not really been running round very much. What I discovered was large swathes of beautiful British countryside and farmland and I finally understood why people move out to places like this.
It had been some time that my foot had been an issue during Escape from Meriden but I remembered to take some pain killers but now my back/kidneys ached and my groin strain was shooting the lightning bolts of pain up and down my leg that have been synonomous with my running in recent weeks. Having gotten through the 30 mile point I did seriously consider stopping – but I had come here with an objective and that objective was the 60 mile ‘as the crow flies’ marker and that was still at least 30 miles away.
More and more small villages were run through and the pain I was in grew worse and worse but I felt having committed to not stopping that I had to make the effort count.
At 12.47pm I ambled into a town with another Co-op, this could have Wychwood, it could have been anywhere but I sat tired and sore on a park bench with some houmous, baguette and more chocolate milk (I also replenished the Haribo), a wise choice having learned that The Cotswold effectively has no retail presence!
Fed and watered I set off again but this time in search of a toilet – as you can imagine if shops are hard to come by then public toilets are even harder and I didn’t feel it appropriate to use the local publicans facilities. However, I was lucky enough to find a delightful and discreet field where I could release the contents of my bowels all over the countryside. I have to say I’ve become something of expert at this and my process is now so well rehearsed that my hands are washed long before there’s any whiff of indiscretion by an ultrarunner.
The next 40km were probably the worst of the race, very limited resources for water, hot and very busy ‘A’ roads.
I was as careful as it was possible to be and for the most part drivers were very considerate of a runner using the side of the road. However, I remained vigilant and was mindful to move out of the way of larger vehicles, stepping into the grass verges or nettles when required. The trouble is that there were many drivers with their soft top sports cars out speeding through the countryside, flexing their machismo and then there was the red Nissan Almeria driver who refused to move from driving too closely to me, despite there being no traffic on the other side of the road, clipping me with his wing mirror and then hurling abusive language at me for using a road we were both perfectly entitled to be on.
Given I was tired this played on my mind – he might have killed me and it forced me to rethink a little bit for rest of the event. However, the clock was ticking and I had promised the GingaNinja that I would arrive at my finish point near her parents house as close to bedtime for UltraBaby as possible. In order to do this I had to negotiate the slightly terrifying remaining busy Saturday A roads.
No further incident was had in this section and in my head I was making calculations for a course correction. My route could be altered to go straight past her parents house and then onwards, albeit uphill about 4 miles and through the 60 mile barrier. The GingaNinja and UltraBaby being so close chose to come and cheer me on, which was a welcome distraction, although she had no kit I could use or food I could eat she could take my race vest which was no longer of any real use. I removed the tracker, my phone, battery pack and a water bottle and explained my plan to the GingaNinja hoping that I’d be able to finish the last 15km in the next 90(ish) minutes.
My arrival at Faringdon was short lived and although there was finally a wide and varied selection of places to eat and drink I was no longer in the mood, nor did I feel I had the time and simply pressed on.
The climb out of Faringdon isn’t much but when your feet are ruined and your nerves on edge then it feels very steep but despite this I made it to the main road and I nearly had a heart attack – it was the main road between Swindon and Oxford – Holy Shitburgers.
The road was incredibly busy on both sides and the traffic gave you no quarter – the grass verge was massively overgrown and so I had little choice, having picked this route but to tough it out. In the gaps between the cars I would sprint as far as I could before leaping back onto the relative safety of the overgrown grass and nettles. Each time I did this my nerves jumped back to the knife edge from where the car had clipped me earlier, but despite tiredness creeping in and having now been awake for more than 45hrs, and running for the last 18 of them, I felt very focused and managed to weave my way down this horrible, horrible road.
Eventually I found a diversion through a place called Longcot where traffic wasn’t an issue and slowed down, slowed my heartbeat and calmed myself. I was angry at myself for changing my route – this was stupid – and all to save no more than a mile.
From here it was a quiet climb up to Ashbury, a small village, I assume in Wiltshire. I watched for a while as the sun bled from the sky. I watched as my little dot on the drone tracker finally passed the 60 mile marker, but I had run around 73 miles to achieve this.
I felt broken but also nervous – had I done enough? I still had around three hours I could have used to progress further but I wasn’t going to get 90 miles as the crow flies and so there seemed little point and UltraBaby told me it was bedtime.
With my body having taken a beating during this event I felt it deserved a few hours off.
I escaped Meriden and I reached all my targets and yet I feel like I failed Meriden. I guess I’ll just have to return to prison and see if I can get out again.
- Distance: as much as you can in 24hrs
- Profile: you decide
- Date: June 2017
- Location: Meriden
- Cost: £35 (plus food)
- Terrain: Whatever you like
- Tough Rating: 3.5/5
My normal criteria for judging an event doesn’t really apply here simply because the conditions are really quite unique. However, I’ll apply some logic and try and give a fair representation of EFM.
Organisation: First class, there was good pre-event communication, an active social media community, a fair exchange of places policy, a well run, smooth and comfortable registration process. What more could you ask for? The race drones were a nice touch to make the event ‘cheat proof’ and it didn’t need to be any fancier than it was. Brilliant.
Route: I hold my hands up to making a huge mistake – I thought I could run the roads and the tarmac but it’s been years since I did more than a few miles like this. I’m conditioned for trail, built for trail and love trail. When I go back I will show the same level of detail to the route as I did this time but instead focus wholly on finding a decent trail route out of Meriden. My route, for a ‘as the crow flies’ was a good one and it had lots of lovely views but it hurt my feet and caused my existing injuries nothing but misery.
Value for money: £35 (plus food on the route) a bargain, plain and simple. I bought the tech T-shirt too so it was about £50 with another £30 for transport and food – this is one of the best value events around. The fact they throw in a decent looking medal too means if you’ve got no room for complaint! Ace
Who is it for? That’s easy, this is a tough as buggery event but it is achievable by anyone, a decent walker could get a long way in an event like this and a good runner – well the sky is the limit. I like events that are inclusive like this – I’d recommend it to everyone.
It didn’t go as well as I wanted and that was down to being injured before the event and then possibly breaking my foot early on during the event. I also selected a route that wasn’t right for my ability and I’d urge you that if you’re running this PLAN, PLAN, PLAN your route!
However, this being said the event was amazing and I would return in a heartbeat and if anyone can’t use their winter place I would purchase it happily. This is one of those unique challenges that deserves its well regarded reputation and I’ll be back for more Beyond Marathon events (probably next year now) because they really do know how to put on an event.
I sat, eating delicious sugary sweets and drinking slightly too warm Coca Cola as the last shaft of light dropped away from northern Spain. I tried my Petzl one final time in the hope that it could power me round the final 32km.
But it was dead.
I’d prepared so hard to face down the UTBCN but I’d neglected something very important and yet based on my previous experience, superfluous – a second powerful head torch.
As I prepare to return to mountainous terrain with climbs in excess of 1,000 metres and a total elevation of more than 7,000 metres I need to ensure my preparation is more meticulous than ever.
(This was written prior to MIUT and my result there. A report of my experience will follow in the coming weeks once I’ve properly processed the event).
Mental, Physical, Technical Preparedness. I’ve spent much of the last year taking time to think about what I want from my running and as a consequence have changed so many things and while there have been a series of hiccups along the way I’m generally happy with how it’s all panning out
Physical. In physical terms I’m faster than I have been for years, I’m sub20 at 5km again and on the right (downhill) course I’m closing in on the low 40s for a 10km. My endurance is better too with 60-70 mile running weeks more achievable than ever and 15 mile hilly buggy runs are a regular occurrence and have been helping prepare for elevation efforts. I’ve been taking my body more seriously too, dropping a few kilograms in weight and not ignoring injuries and all of the above is paying dividends.
However, it’s not all positive, several years of under training, over racing and ignoring injury have left me with scars that my body is unlikely ever to recover from. And so I’ve gone from top 25% of the field runner to a mid/back of the pack runner and in the races I’m now committed to I’m happy just to be able to go to them because I’m a novice and still learning.
When I go and stand on the start line of the MIUT I know that I’m not one of the mountain goats or one of the winners and that I’m there for the experience (and hopefully a finish) but I know that I’m headed there in better physical shape than say, six months ago, when I took on Haria Extreme.
If you can learn anything from my experiences I hope it’s that you need to develop – give yourself the time to rest, recuperate, train and absorb information from all available sources. This will improve your competitiveness and physicality as you approach those races you’ve always dreamed of facing.
Mental. I was stood at the base of Como Lumpido in Lanzarote with a difficult ascent ahead of me – some runners were coming down the climb having decided that this wasn’t for them.
There was no doubt I was going slowly but having only just returned from injury this race was going to be a test and this climb was a bit of a shit. When I reached the top I looked out into the distance and stood for a moment to grab a photograph or two and heard myself cry out ‘woohoo’.
All you need is… I hadn’t felt like this since the Skye Trail Ultra six months earlier when I’d nearly shat myself coming down one of the very steep sections. This hilly running sent goosebumps running up my arms and shivers down my spine
I was in love.
For the next 25km of Haria Extreme I had my foot to the floor such was my joy and while there are circumstances that stopped me continuing at around 80km I came away from Lanzarote knowing I had so much more to give.
Dealing with the downs? I’ve often suffered with post race blues and an inability to draw the positives from the racing I’ve done, instead focusing on where it’s gone wrong and how I MUST improve but after Haria I was sure that my decision was the right one and I felt mentally positive about my failure.
However, in the fiasco of my Barcelona failure I’ve been much less positive and actually this has affected to some degree my preparation for Madeira. Having accepted I needed to give myself a bit of a kicking I’m relatively back on track and go to the Portuguese island clinging on to positive thoughts.
Don’t say ‘edge’. My key concern though isn’t my occasionally negative feelings about ability, no.
My key concern is that I’m scared witless of heights and having viewed many YouTube clips, instagram feeds and twitter timelines I can assure both you reader and myself that the elevation, the climbs and the sheer drops are something I’m terrified of.
I can’t imagine taking these sections with anything other than an arse quivering fear and no experience is making me feel better about this. At Skye there was hard elevation and cliff edges to negotiate as there were at the CCC, SainteLyon, Barcelona and Lanzarote but this is a whole new level.
I’ve worked hard to focus on the running so that I don’t look down too often and I’ve faced numerous long dangerous hikes over the last couple of years to get me prepared for this – I feel I should no longer be worried, but I am.
I’m advised that a healthy fear of these sections is sensible and respectful and while I know that’s true I wonder how I’m feel when I’m faced with them in the dead of night.
Why do I worry about ultras abroad so much? It’s true that I go to these foreign ‘A’ races and worry about them much more than I do say something like the TP100 or the Ridgeway.
I’m convinced that some of the pressure I have been exerting on myself has been setting me up for failure. So, kit issues, physical condition, training, having family around, not having family around, lack of suitable locally sourced nutrition and foreign languages all contribute enormously to my stress levels that blow tall and mighty.
It’s a strange set of circumstances that probably come mostly from simply being out of my comfort zone.
By golly Holmes! To aid in the resolution of this I’ve taken some very simple steps a) pack early b) lists c) anything missing can usually be sourced locally and finally d) don’t be afraid to say ‘I’m not going to run it, I’m undertrained/injured/whatever’.
This approach has served me quite well at Haria and the UTBCN where both my failures to finish were because of circumstances outside of the norm. I’m hoping that with the two factors that blighted these events no longer being an issue (fingers crossed) and despite the harshness of the course, I can complete MIUT.
I’ve come a long way in my running preparation, especially the mental side of it and although it’s far from perfect – it’s improving.
I have to understand that should I ever want to reach the final race of my running career though I’ll need to develop a still greater tenacity to post race blues and I’ll need to improve my mental agility regarding perceived failure.
However, my love of the mountains and the peace I find in them make racing there so alluring that my deficiencies in mental strength can be overlooked enough to commit to an increasing number of elevation stacked races.
Technically. Fail to prepare, prepare to fail – I wish this were a true statement but I’m living proof that failing to prepare doesn’t prepare you to fail, however, the success you achieve is unlikely to be as great as you would hope for.
The above statement is not an excuse for my often woeful lack of preparedness but a statement of fact.
However, when you start preparing to run on the trails, going up hills and climbing mountainous regions, then you suddenly find that the better your running technique, your pre-race research and understanding of your equipment is then the better time you’ll have and the better you’ll perform.
But I adore throwing my love spuds on the fire! I’ve rocked up to a few races with ill fitting shoes, not taking into account the days conditions, no idea of the route, no idea the elevation and barely any idea what race I’m in. It will come as no surprise to runners that these are the events were I have mostly performed badly. I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count the races that could have gone so much better had I prepared in a more fitting manner.
I finally began preparing better for races at the SainteLyon 2015 because I was going to France alone, there would be no rescue, no backup, it was a race in the middle of winter, in the middle of the night.
So I prepared a little like this
- Researched previous years events on social media and running websites
- Used only the local (French) language site as this was more up-to-date than the English language version
- Got my medical certificate done as early as possible
- Booked flights and accommodation early
- Got to know the local public transport network before I arrived
- Brushed up on my French
- Printed maps
- Printed race documents
- Got happy with race kit options before leaving the UK, avoided last minute purchases, but…
- Knew where a local sports shop was for emergency race purchases
- Got to bib collection early
- Rested pre-race for the midnight start
- Big poo pre-race
- Packed kit for an ultra with no backup
- Knew my route back to my accommodation
I had with me for the SainteLyon options for clothing but my race kit (vest, nutrition, head torch, waterproof, etc) were all decided long before the race started and this helped me to settle down, not worry so much and have the best race experience I’ve ever had. The SainteLyon should be my model for how to prepare for a race.
Subsequently I’ve tried to replicate the process and it’s mostly gone okay but there is always the potential for problems but you learn to adapt. I do the ‘headless chicken’ routine a lot less than I used to.
The CCC. For example in the run up to the CCC we were advised that temperatures meant we should be carrying significant amounts of extra fluid, my response to this was to find a matching race belt to my bag with a 500ml bottle – but it had to be matching (my need for order overtaking my need to have a pleasant holiday in Chamonix). To say I was a bear with a sore head for most of this trip is an understatement, but it was all ridiculous race related pressure that I was heaping upon myself.
The resolution is that now I carry a spare 350ml soft bottle as an addition to my other hydration options and on a race day I choose the most appropriate ones depending on weather conditions.
Preparation of the organisational and technical elements of racing have helped me very much and contributed significantly to finishes at Amersham, Green Man, Skye and the Vanguard Way and without being prepared I wouldn’t have gotten nearly as far as I did at Haria and Barcelona but it’s not the be all and end all.
Preparation, I’ve discovered, is not the key to finishing but it is the key to starting successfully and that in my opinion is half the battle.
So whether you’re a first timer or a bit of an old salty seadog like me, there will always be things that you can do to reduce anxiety and build confidence.
Facing MIUT. If I had to place in order how I value the three aspects of my running preparation I’d say that Mental is the most important followed by Technical/Organisation with my Physical readiness the least important. Ultimately if my headspace is fucked I’m not getting to the start line, I’d just stay in bed on race morning. If my kit, organisation or transport to the start line is wrong then my stress levels go up which affect my mental attitude and we have a cumulative nightmare. However, if my body is a bit worse for wear, if I haven’t slept properly, if all my hypochondria rears it ugly head I’ll still start and mostly I’ll put up with it (unless it’s serious).
So when I go to Madeira and the midnight start in Porto Moniz I’m just going to take it easy because I have prepared properly, I have tested all my kit and I am trying to stay positive, albeit a nervous positive. Finish or fail it matters not, I just know I’d rather be challenging myself at MIUT this weekend rather than something I know I can do.
- More than 200 miles run (mostly race miles)
- Completed the Hockley Woods Challenge despite injury early in the event
- Completed the outrageously fun Amersham Ultra
- Nasty bout of food poisoning gave me a week off running – that’ll teach me for eating slightly mouldy muffins!
- Withdrew from the UTBCN at the three-quarter point due to a kit failure in my brand new Petzl head torch
- The effect of a race failure caused by things outside of my control has meant I haven’t felt like running at all since
- Weight loss was slowed to allow me to eat more in preparation for the three races in March – 0.5kg dropped.
- I dumped Petzl in favour of Black Diamond head torches after the UTBCN. Fingers crossed my new choices don’t fail
- Kit tested my new Oxsitis Enduro and Ultimate Direction PB 3.0 both of which are outstanding pieces of kit – expect reviews in the coming months
- Yesterday UltraBaby told me we had to go for a run! Cool!
So it wasn’t a good March all in all – it’s not a disaster but after several months of geverally forward progress this feels like taking steps backwards and being unsure how to resolve it with a big race on the horizon doesn’t fill with me anything other than trepidation.
Importantly though, for those that read this and feel I require a ‘man up’ or a ‘go for a run’ then please allow me to spare you those well meaning sentiments – they don’t help. I’ve already had quite a lot of well meaning but ultimately generic help from both real people and social media and actually this is just something you need to resolve yourself, or at least that’s how I need to do it.
I hope everyone else has had good running over the last month and that Apri is awesome too!
I’ll keep it short;
- I bought a brand new Actik head torch for use at the UTBCN
- I gave it a one hour test run pre-race
- I switched it on at kit check, it came on for a second then failed
- I changed the batteries immediately – no response
Thankfully I had my Petzl e-lite (as backup), a 25 lumen head torch, which mercifully passed kit check and meant I wasn’t immediately disqualified, I knew this probably wasn’t good enough to get me round any night section I might face but at least I could start.
And so at 68km, 12hrs in, daylight finally faded and I began running using the e-lite, my iPhone torch and trying to use the light of the runners ahead of and behind me.
Not cool Petzl, not cool.
The UTBCN was a tough technical up and down course and even in the 4 or 5km I ran with limited lighting I was in trouble – unable to see where I was going, unable to see the ground clearly never mind the trail ahead. I tripped several times in this short section, more than I had done for the rest of the race!
And so at 72km I decided to stop, too embarrassed to say my head torch had failed I simply said my back was sore but the truth is I was running well with a likely finish time of under 16 hours.
The failure of my Petzl Actik therefore was the cause of my failure at the UTBCN and I’m pretty angry about it.
What do you have to say Petzl?
When I wrote my first A-Z of running I knew that I had much more to talk about and that for certain letters I probably had dozens of examples, so this is part 2 of my A-Z.
I’m 40 later this year and in many ways this doesn’t bother me one iota, I don’t feel the need for a mid-life crisis and it will probably pass much as the previous 39 did – with little or no fan-fare.
There is something with regard to age and running, well for me there is.
In my youth I was a short distance track sprinter, 100 and 200 metres, I was explosively fast but as I entered my later teens and early 20s I drifted from running and didn’t bother much, preferring fast girls and night clubs – I suspect a recurring theme in the adolescent community. However, by my mid 20s I had started to amble back to running, 1 mile, 2 miles, etc until in 2004 I entered the Preston 10km aged 26 and thoroughly enjoyed it. Still though I ambled around this kind of distance for years and didn’t race again. I enjoyed running but never saw it as a way of expressing myself.
Perhaps it took a little maturity and, dare I suggest, age to give me enough perspective to realise that lots of the good things in my life were directly related to running and at the end of 2010 I finally started the journey that I write about now.
Falling in love with running and devoting myself to it at an older age means I’ve always been focused on it (not always the right focus but focused). I moved quickly through the discipline/distances to find the area I most enjoyed – no time wasting (5km to 100 mile ultra in 2.5 years).
Ageing and getting older has also allowed perspective on the nature of achievement and that actually the human body is amazing and that actually our limit is determined by our will. Seeing men and women much older than myself running and often beating me to a finish line is inspirational.
In truth I’d love to go back and teach younger me all the lessons I’ve taken on board over the years so that I could start at a younger age but he wouldn’t listen. The truth, in my opinion, is that age is not a barrier to good running but actually the key.
B. Body image
I wonder how many of us love our body? Probably very few of us are 100% happy but mostly we get by. I’ve always struggled with the idea that I’m fat, now rationally I am aware that I’m not fat, I’m mostly average but mentally, when I catch sight of myself and I see a fat UltraBoy staring back.
Running hasn’t honed my physique particularly and I’m not comfortable in the gym, you won’t catch me weight training but you will see me bench pressing many a mars bar. Undoubtedly I’m my own worst enemy, when I assault the biscuits or crisps or houmous I can hear myself saying ‘hey fatty, how you doin’?’ But I still eat it – I have an unhealthy relationship with food and this makes my body image problems worse. Some of you who know me in real life will have heard me use the term the ‘Compressport diet’ which is not a diet but both a joke and a way of living.
Effectively I eat less and run more in an effort to one day fit into my Compressport top and not look like a totally fat bastard.
I see lots of runners posting on social media platforms about how awesome their weight loss has been and while they should be hugely proud of this I do wonder what the original motivations were – I suppose because I know mine are ultimately down to a huge insecurity in the way I look and I suspect that no matter what weight or shape I achieve I’m always going to struggle.
Cycling is back on the agenda and I’m fancying a triathlon. Sensible? probably not
I will run the UTMB, I will run the UTMB, I will run the UTMB – then I went and attempted the CCC and thought, this is rubbish.
I believe we need a direction in our running, something to aim for – it could be a new bigger distance, a better time, a new race, weight loss, whatever, but having a driving force makes us better runners.
For a long time the direction was missing from my running and it wasn’t for the want of looking for one. I thought that achieving the start of membership to the 100 marathon club would be an aim, but I found myself put off by those doing things like the 10 in 10, which to me has always seemed like ticking off numbers rather than running great events (though no offence to those that do these intended). Then I finally found the road I’d been looking for and I decided to start going about things the right way and (as I write this in March 2017) I’m directing my energy towards, distance, elevation and tough as fuck events as I aim for my own ultimate challenge in the coming years.
E. Endangered Races
I am bombarded daily with emails, social media and other suggestions for ‘races you might consider’. Running is a multi-billion pound operation from kit, to gym membership, to nutrition, to therapies to the races but there is a saturation point for all of it. For example we’ve recently seen Pearl Izumi pull the plug on it’s well regarded running line because (I suspect) too much competition and, if we are honest, a confused marketing and naming strategy. However, the big issue for me is the amount of races – every weekend there are dozens (if not more) of races all over the country and a limited supply of runners – I’ve turned up to some amazing races to find numbers nowhere near capacity in recent years and while this is great for it not feeling too cramped, it’s doesn’t aid the longevity of events or the atmosphere. Anecdotal evidence points to events such as the Yorkshire Marathon, which sold out very quickly in its first running, still having room for runners looking for a northern marathon.
I’d like to see the major events such as the London Marathon, GNR and other mass participation races offering support by only accepting applicants from those who have run an equivalent distance in the year prior to their application. We should be fostering a culture of running and racing that is sustainable both for participants and for the businesses that run them – something to think about UKA?
F. Facing fears
Do something that terrifies you every single day (words I try to run and live by)
I know runners with GoPro and action cameras look like tits but I don’t care I find carrying my GoPro Hero4 Session a reliable and efficient way of capturing memories and helping to tell my blog stories after a race. So while it’s not an issue to carry it I shall continue to do so.
H. Holding on (at races)
White Cliffs 50: mile 14, broken foot, lost. The Wall: mile 62, crying, 20 blisters. Saltmarsh 75: mile 35, crying, glutes destroyed. St Peter’s Way: severe chest infection, crying. Mouth to Mouth: undertrained, severe GI distress. Skye Trail Ultra: unfit, undertrained, vomit, GI distress, dozens of blisters
I’d like to think I’m a reasonable fun runner but the reality is I’m actually a terrible runner but with a decent amount of tenacity. The above races are simply a snapshot of the every event occurrences that dog my racing.
The annoying thing is that it doesn’t seem to matter what I do I can’t shake this monkey and it delights in giving me a good kicking in different ways at different races.
Even this year when I’m actually training, running properly, losing weight and preparing for races in an organised fashion I’m still being short changed (as proven by the Hockley Woods dog incident – read about it here). If I believed in luck, fate or karma I’d assume I was being singled out for some special sadistic treatment but I’ve simply come to accept that I’m never going to be a Scott Jurek or Tobias Mews.
What I do know though is that I can hold on when things go wrong (if it’s important enough to me) and maybe that’s my skill.
Not much of a skill is it!?! 🙂
Is it a great big con or not? I’m not sure but what I do know is that for about £10 per foreign race I can use the Activity top-up service at Sports Cover Direct and it gives the GingaNinja peace of mind for the day when I finally do fall off a mountain.
I suspect we’ve all heard stories of adventurers needing to be rescued and ending up with enormous bills from foreign medical suppliers and nobody wants to get caught in that trap. Ultimately ultra running can be dangerous, at its best it’s an extreme sport and therefore I’d rather be covered than not.
I written before about how your job can affect your running. I mean let’s be honest who doesn’t occasionally have a stinker of a day and then let’s off steam by pounding out a few miles pretending each step is on Alex Keith’s face.
My problem in the relationship between work and running is that because the job preys on my mind long after it should and I find it either stops me wanting to run or worse sends me angry running.
I recall an issue of the comic Guardians of the Galaxy from many years ago where the phrase, ‘an angry opponent is a sloppy opponent’ was used in the dialogue and when I’m angry at work it makes my running angry, and worse it makes it sloppy, risky and often just plain stupid. Guardians of the Galaxy were right – but I bet they didn’t know they were talking about me.
I realise this a problem with the subjective nature of my job and my desire to retain some professional dignity occasionally – perhaps if I cared less about the quality of my work then I wouldn’t be so riled when it gets ridden roughshod over.
I often wonder if others share this issue and how it affects them outside of the work environment?
In my notebook there’s a list of things I despise; ‘my mother’, ‘the people who voted leave in the EU referendum’, ‘the people who voted for Donald Trump’, ‘the knobhead Donald Trump’, ‘David Cameron’ and ‘Jeremy Corbyn’. However, there is one name missing from that list and it covers a wide area and that name is ‘Karrimor’.
I’d recommend looking up Karrimor who have an incredibly sad story, a high quality British brand that was snapped up by hideous ‘businessman’ Mike Ashley. He turned Karrimor into the cornerstone brand of his Sports Direct empire. Now that name is synonymous with poorly and cheaply made outdoor and running rubbish that because of its huge high street presence lures in unsuspecting runners and erodes the market share of the independent running and outdoor retailers.
Basically if you love running then don’t shop at Sports Direct (or associated brands Sweatshop and Field & Trek) because there are so many better and reasonably priced brands that treat their staff and customers with the respect they deserve.
And if you see someone running, decked out in Karrimor gear can I offer you this advice. Run with them for a few minutes, tell them about kit that will support them, tell them of Run and Become, London City Runner, Up & Running, Decathlon, Wiggle, Likeys, Castleberg Outdoors and Ellis Brigham and then go about your business as normal. And I recommend you do this partly to save me from setting all of their Karrimor kit on fire.
L. Lone Peak 3.0
Since I started running I think I’ve worn pretty much every brand and every style of running shoe – or at lest it feels like that. However, there have been a number of stand out pieces of footwear over the years, my banana yellow Vibram FiveFingers Komodo, my first pair of Adidas Adios, my Inov8 Race Ultra 290 but perhaps most notably the Lone Peak version 3. It’s fair to say that I’ve loved all the Altra Lone Peak that I’ve owned but none had the same comfortably supportive feeling that the LP3.0 – visually they might remind me of an American muscle car but underneath they’re all class. The LP3.0 are a reminder to me that having a trusted shoe can make all the difference in running.
I have a loving relationship and it’s not with who you think it might be – it’s with mud and when you love trail running I believe you’ve got to love mud.
N. Negative thoughts
In both running and not running I can be both up and downbeat, it’s the nature of life but I’m lucky that I rarely hit the extremes of high and low. However, when I’m running I do suffer with negative thinking and it’s something I’ve long been working hard to combat.
Outwardly I’ll say ‘you’ve got to run your own race’, ‘I’m just here for a bimble’, ‘I’m just here for the cake’ or whatever. But I like to do well and I like to push myself to do well.
Recently at the Hockley Woods Challenge I thundered through the first 3 laps believing I was on my way to a four hour hilly, muddy trail marathon (and a bit). Then when I was upended by a dog that came out of nowhere and bowled me over I immediately knew I had done something to my groin in the landing. The problem was I was far enough enough to determine that I should complete it but not far enough to do myself some lasting damage.
The thoughts that rolled round my head for the best part of 30km were a little unkind to myself and the problem is that I’ll carry that self loathing and negativity into the Amersham Ultra if I’m not careful.
Thankfully I’ve been using these negative events to try and double down harder on the elements that have been going well and so even if I can’t see it at the time I try and analyse it shortly after to ensure that the negativity remains short lived.
It’s not ideal but I’ve found a negative mental state to be the ruin of my racing and running, much more so than any physical injury I might ever have picked up.
O. ‘Off’ time
When I started running again I wanted to be like Ron Hill with a 50 year RunStreak behind me but what I found happened was that my body simply wasn’t up to it and as I pushed myself further and further my body eventually gave up.
I’ve learnt the lesson of not resting and have now dropped back from races that I don’t need to do – I’ve dropped out of junk miles and I’ve given myself rest periods across the year to allow more time for my body to heal and to train smarter.
For me, the key elements of my ‘off time’ are that I’ve adopted a ‘no race’ policy for July/August which should stop getting DNFs through excessive chaffing and I’ll cap ultra marathons per year at about a bakers dozen. I’m also varying my daily RunCommute mileage from as little as 5km to as much as 25km and ever the occasional rest day thrown in too.
Off time also gives me greater capacity to spend time with the GingaNinja and UltraBaby and might even allow me the capacity to train for a sprint distance triathlon. Perhaps I’ve come to the conclusion that switching off leads to better switched on!
I’m always in planning mode, 2017 was in the planning stage by the time I’d reached April of 2016. Ultra marathons, especially the very popular ones sell out quickly and you have to be ready to catch them – MIUT was done on the day of release for example – and was sold out 5 days later (or so). I have thankfully only missed out on one of the races I was looking at doing and that was the XNRG Pilgrims Challenge, (which I have now left too late for two years in a row – lesson learned) I’ll be aiming to get there next year.
Planning is essential though for more than booking in races, it’s at the heart of training too. I have been heavily focused on hill work, building my strength with buggy running and gently increasing my distances in preparation for all the elevation I have planned. This is because between the UTBCN, MIUT and SW100 there is around 20,000 metres of climb over 360km – so planning is essential. Knowing the races I’m doing is providing an incentive to train both harder and smarter.
For smart running you should always consider smarter planning – something it has taken me a long time to learn!
Stood at the summit of a hill somewhere in rural Kent there was no silence – there was the rush of the wind and the rustle of the leaves shipping around, driving rain pounding my back and my hot deep breath was beating on my ear drums. But I was alone, so very alone – I looked forward to see signs of brightly coloured waterproof jackets but the weather had kept people indoors, warm and toasty. I scanned my surroundings some more and realised I’d found what I was looking for – a little bit of quiet. My breathing slowed, my heart rate dropped and the rain and wind became friends and I just enjoyed a few moments of quiet. I imagined this is what a car feels like in an automated car wash as the mud was hewn from my limbs by the rain, but there were no soapy suds on this hill. My quiet was broken by a sheep creeping up on me but I like to think it was there seeking much the same thing I was and so I vacated my space and gave it to the sheep.
Sometimes I run to find quiet and sometimes I find it.
I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the humble RunCommute. When I decided to start running and training for the Grim Challenge all those years ago I knew that running at weekends would never be enough and that I needed to adopt an efficient use of my time – that efficiency was running to and from work. I remember that first time strapping my OMM 25 litre classic pack to my back and running from Regent’s Park to Victoria Station, it was so tough but I felt like a Cram or Ovett.
Until I did it I hadn’t realised just how many people had abandoned or part abandoned public transport and their cars in order, presumably, to improve their fitness.
RunCommuting also brings little cool ‘mini-games’ like Kit Watch, Strava Art, Time Attack, New Route Finder, Race The Bus and a personal favourite The RunCommute PhotoChallenge.
The RunCommute hasn’t always gone to plan and has been at the ground zero of a few injuries over the years but it’s always felt that it has given much more than it’s ever taken and while I probably take it for granted I certainly won’t be found abandoning it.
Jedburgh, The Fling, The Devil, The WHW, Glencoe, Skye, the Charlie Ramsay, Celtman… Scotland has a lot going for it in running terms and I’m considering a change of location and moving north of the border.
I’ve grown increasingly weary of the English and the whole EU referendum makes me disgusted to be English – I am proudly European, defiantly European even. Now my thought is that if I can’t save my own country, because the level of idiocy has pretty much reached its spunk unloading climax, then perhaps I can help the Scottish people to achieve independence and find a new home in the EU.
The benefits are many, I’d get to live in the countryside, be closer to some of the best trails around and I’d be in a country where the majority want to stay in the EU. In running terms though the race scene looks brutally beautiful and that’s a decent sized consideration for me.
I always thought I’d stay near to London but living in Kent has highlighted with tremendous clarity that the future for England is intolerance and trouble and that taking a punt on Scotland may be the opportunity that I, my family and my running have been looking for.
Do you remember training? Training was something I used to do several years ago when I was getting ready for mr first half marathon. Training was something other people did and training was a bit of a waste of my very valuable time. I managed to run nearly 40 marathons/ultra marathons on very limited training over about a 3.5 year period.
Interestingly though I also picked up 3 DNFs, a couple of serious injuries, and any number of smaller injuries and piled on enough weight to consider myself a bit of a fatty. Yes I was doing the RunCommute but I was never committing to longer, more structured, targeted miles, essentially I was coasting and yet still turning up to events wondering why the magic just wasn’t happening.
Since the start of December 2016 I’ve very much been focused on delivering the promises I made to myself and this has required training. I’ve actually been committed to weekly averages of around 40-50 miles, speedwork/fartleks, hills, buggy running and a more co-ordinated approach. However, I remain ‘fluid’ in the way training is achieved and I’m not sure I’ll ever quite be ready for written plans or dogma but at least I’m training properly and I feel fitter than I have done in years.
If you’re a runner and have a child aged between two and six (size dependent) then the Mountain Buggy Unirider is probably the best piece of kit you can own (reviewed here). My daughter and I are often looking for ways to extend our adventures and this single wheel push along ride is an ideal way for the pair of us to go running round muddy, hilly trails and fast, flat roads! There is something really quite fun about watching UltraBaby scream out in excitement as we bounce across gnarly trail, calling out, ‘faster, faster dad’.
V. Vigo Tough Love
If you want to truly fall in love with trail running then this is the race for you – it has a little bit of everything. A ten mile run through Kentish hills this offers nothing but the opportunity to truly enjoy yourself. Up, down, through mud, through water and across the finish line – it’ll never, ever be a fast course but it is an exceptional course and deserving of the high praise it gets. You can read my review of the 2017 event here.
W. Westminster Mile
I have favourite events and I have preferred distances – the Westminster Mile combines the two. The mile, to me, is one of the great unsung heroes of running. With the mile you can be ball breakingly fast and make your lungs gasp for air and you can feel the exhilaration of a race in just a few short minutes. The Westminster Mile allows for both of these things but adds in drama and atmosphere – it’s a great day out with thousands upon thousands aiming to lay claim to a fast time around the course.
Of course the best thing is that it’s a family event and UltraBaby already has one finish to her name and after a year off will return for the 2017 edition. Highly recommended wherever your age, gender, fitness level or even if you aren’t that interested in running.
I was recently on one of my longer runs and was briefly joined by another runner who was going in vaguely the same direction as me, he wanted to chat and I was fine to listen. He was telling me about how he had turned to running after a heart attack at 35 and that he had turned his life around. All very noble I thought and then he got into politics and particularly the EU referendum and perhaps it was were we were running or something about me that suggested xenophobic or mildly racist but he decided to espouse his theories about the ‘fucking scroungers from Europe’.
I kept my cool and told him that I had voted remain, and felt more European than ever because of my belief and research that his statement was simply not true at which point he called me a ‘traitor’ and decided to run off in a different direction.
As a tolerant person (to a point), despising only stupidity, a lack of curiosity and my mother this man highlighted why I dislike running in Kent, why I despair about England and why I love running in Europe.
Our friends on the continent (and north of the border) offer such a tremendous welcome to their countries and their races that this is very much now my preference for running (I’ll race in Europe three times in 2017, UTBCN, MIUT and SainteLyon and possibly in Scotland too).
I don’t want to come across people like the man who ran beside me telling a total stranger about his hate filled beliefs – xenophobia and intolerance have no part in my running community. Running should be the most inclusive of all the sports!
I think some runners will return to races year on year, perhaps because they really enjoyed it, because it gave them a personal best time or because it’s local.
I did four editions of the Kent Roadrunner because it was local to me but at the fifth and sixth time of asking I’d had enough of running round a cycling track in the heat, I simply wanted more out of my racing.
The only race I return to year on year is the Vigo Valentines Run and this is because that’s a very special race that is never the same twice and brings untold levels of joy to me.
I’m curious about the mindset of those who always have to run London Marathon, Brighton or wherever. I suppose for me there’s now so many great races that you can do a new route, meet new people, take on new challenges almost every time you choose to race.
I don’t really want to be critical of a persons choice to do the same thing over and over but I just wonder why you might limit your experiences?
With nearly 150 different races completed I feel that now and again I can go and revisit my favourites (SainteLyon this year, Skye Trail Ultra next year) but this is only because I’ve already done lots of different races. However, I still go looking for new experiences and this year (so far) all but the Vigo 10 and SainteLyon will be new races to me and I can’t wait to be surprised!
Z. Zippers (UD jacket)
I quite like the Ultimate Direction waterproof jacket but it does have a couple of very serious flaws and the most major one is the really crappy zip – it’s weak, feels like it’s going to break and offers no sense of security. When compared to the zipping mechanism of my 4 year old Montane Minimus there is no comparison – the UD comes a distant second.
So come on UD you’ve improved the Signature Series no end with the PB 3.0 – let’s see you do the same for your waterproof jacket.
Sometimes as ultra runners we are required to prove that we are fit to race, sometimes it’s enough to highlight your experience over a specified distance or terrain and sometimes it’s to prove that you have no health issues that might affect you on the course. I don’t have any trouble confirming that I can run distance and ice covered most of the available terrains now but there is a medical problem and has been since my idiot brother died about 6 years ago.
Let’s not bother with the sympathy about my brother, we did not get along, hadn’t spoken in years and when he died I really wasn’t moved by it at all. Why am I telling you this? Well because from the grave my brother haunts my running and this is how.
It was early 2015 and I needed to get my medical certificate signed for the CCC – I was just returning from a stint on the sidelines it’s some glute problems but this seemed to be working its way into the background. I went along to the doctor and asked if she would sign my mandatory form.
‘I see that your brother died of “heart complications” at the age of 29’ she said. It was here that I knew I was going to have some trouble, ‘and your father has some heart conditions?’
I confirmed that both of these were true but that my brother died because he lived on frozen pizza, beer and a range of unhealthy activities that ultimately lead to him dying young. My multiple marathon running father I explained had developed relatively minor heart problems in his early 60s but was still hiking and running to a reasonable level and had even completed large swathes of a 96 mile walk less than a year previously.
‘You’ll need tests,’ she said and with that sent me on my way.
I assume I’m going to die pretty hideously, a bus smashing into me, falling off a cliff edge, one of the nastier cancers and I’ve always been okay with that because I’ve not waited for life to find me – I’ve gone out and found life. I’ve fought to have my life and in my opinion I’ve earned it but I’ve always said that when my time comes then my time will have come and I don’t need any forewarning.
This doctor wanted me to have forewarning of any health problems I may have, what she failed to realise is that death doesn’t scare me, I’m into making positive life choices that aren’t determined by the boundaries set out for you.
However, she wouldn’t sign the form without the tests and so they ran a decent set of tests and told me to give it 10 days. Turns out, despite abusing my body for years doing all the things I’ve done, I was fine.
Signature, medical certificate and stamp acquired.
With those I disappeared off to the CCC. This same certificate covered me for the SainteLyon as well but had run out by the next time I needed one.
I assumed that it would be a fairly simple process to get a second one signed. Roll up, pay the fee, get the certificate, run. This was not the case. I was told that not signing my medical certificate was not about me, but about the doctor – he didn’t want to be held responsible for approving someone with a heart condition to race.
I don’t have a heart condition
He cited Fabrice Muamba as the reason why – the footballer who collapsed in a game between Tottenham and Bolton. I explained that the echocardiogram he was insisting I have would be no were near the levels of medical care that a professional footballer received, therefore surely we should consider the other more relevant evidence. He stood firm that he wouldn’t risk his career on a man whose family have heart problems.
My immediate thought was to go out the car park and take my fists and the rocks liberally littered around the place to his Mercedes but instead I settled for shouting abuse at him from outside the surgery ‘useless cockbag’ and ‘cunty features’ were certainly issued. The truth is that had he looked at me at all he would have been able to see that I was in no way up to running. I had limed into the surgery as I’d injured my calf pretty badly the week or two previously and I’d put on weight after my retirement. Both of those alone should have been enough to disqualify me from running but no he used the ‘family heart problem’.
I went home and resolved the issue. I signed my own certificate and produced my own stamp – the benefit of being a graphic designer – then I submitted it.
About three weeks before the race start I received my echocardiogram date and of course I went because otherwise I would struggle to get a medical certificate anywhere. They prodded and probed my like I was a lab rat and I lay there angry that I was going to be given information I really didn’t want either way. I’d also missed the cut off for submitting another less fraudulent medical certfiicate and so I was feeling a little down when I left the hospital.
The hospital told me to call my doctor in a day or two. I did so and I did so for a further 12 days until the receptionist said, ‘I’m afraid I can’t discuss this with you, the doctor will need to see you’. By now I was the kind of fucked off that I reserve for those times in my life that I’ve actually had to hit someone and I responded rather curtly, ‘that is unacceptable’. Little Hitler told me the doctor would call me, I said that would be ‘acceptable’.
I don’t sleep well at the best of times but I really didn’t sleep well that night and spent much of it wondering if I would get to see UltraBaby run her first ultra or even her first 10km. I could hear the sound of my heart, I was listening for anomalies and I was replaying in my head over and over the letter of complaint I was preparing.
At 9.07am the doctor called, ‘You’re heart is as strong as an Ox’.
I assumed that was a good thing.
And so in theory I should be clear to have my medical certificate signed for the Madeira Island Ultra Trail and I know that the doctor was only doing his job, attempting to give me peace of mind while at e same time sating his own appetite for security that he was sending me to my doom in the best possible health. The problem for me comes in that I didn’t want to know whether my heart was healthy or not, part of me likes that idea that one day on a trail or a mountain somewhere I’m just going out drop dead and yes that possibility still very much exists but not so much from my heart failing me.
Ultra running and my health are deeply connected but I like to face them as an unknown – too much knowledge really can stifle you and in my case at a time where I am trying to up the ante this medical drama seemed pointless, I don’t feel better for the information that my heart is strong, I feel like something has been taken from me.
I know that the response to this I will receive is that the doctor was simply doing his job and I can accept this but his rationale was way off, he didn’t appear to adequately take into account my experience, training or my own lack of health issues. When I pressed him about the 40+ other marathons or ultras that I didn’t need a medical certificate for he seemed disappointingly nonplussed, he admitted he was covering his own arse and that says a lot about the way the world is these days.
Perhaps we should all be able to take a little bit more responsibility for ourselves and then I/we won’t run into a chain of red tape that was more about filling out forms, crossing ‘t’s’, dotting ‘i’s’ and avoiding legal action than it was about my health. Humph.