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Frustration

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

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

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

Welcome to the Testway Ultra.

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

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

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

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

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

Well for the first miles…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a day.

Key points

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

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

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

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

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

Value for money: £50? Bargain.

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

 

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

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

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

After the South Wales 50 I wrote about how, mostly, my first half of 2017 had been pretty good with positives driving me forward towards my endgame and even the failures provided really useful information for future planning.

Sadly the second half of 2017 was a disaster.

I suppose the year unravelled when my partners mother passed away in early August and it all went a bit downhill from there.

I just didn’t turn up to the start line of the London to Brighton because of injury and exhaustion but had recovered enough in time to make hard work of the RunWimbledon Marathon. That proved to be my only September running at all and so my preparation for the Isle of Arran Ultra was woeful.

Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise when the race was cancelled less than 90 minutes in? But I had been making quite good progress and felt strong even if not amazingly so, despite my lack of match fitness. I had hoped that Arran and the running and hiking in Scotland would give me the lift I needed to commit to improving the second half of the year and even with Arran’s cancellation I enjoyed my Scottish running adventures going across numerous bloody enormous hills.

However, upon our return to Kent my running was sidelined by the worst chest infection I’ve had in years and while I battled through the first week of it the rest of October was a write off and I had to defer my entry to the Rebellion Ultra Marathon – once again through a lack of readiness. However, by the middle of November I had finally cleared the chest and I could resume some training and with less than 2 weeks before the SainteLyon I started to run again.

With a couple of biggish weeks in the bag I went to France and despite some truly hideous and in places dangerous conditions I ran the SainteLyon with all the gusto I could muster. It was a great feeling to be back in Lyon but even the joy of this outstanding race couldn’t hide my disappointment of a mere 2,000 miles run and a lot less racing than normal over the year.

However, though my 2017 ultra running ended in France there was to be a final run out as a family at the Mince Pi: A run of two decimal places. The GingaNinja had asked if we could find a race to do say 5km – the trouble is that to run together requires us to run with the toddler. Thankfully in Wacky Events we found an RD willing to allow us to race with our daughter being pushed on the Unirider!

This wonderful event proved to be the right year end to running, it involved my two favourite people, it involved trail running in winter and it has provided a bit of inspiration to the GingaNinja to kick on with her own personal fitness goals.

Can’t say fairer than that can you?

Highlights

  1. Returning to the SainteLyon
  2. Returning to Scotland for both racing and training
  3. Meeting Pete and Ryan at the South Wales 50
  4. Racing alongside ASK and the GingaNinja at the Westminster Mile
  5. Attempting MIUT and not letting failure break me

Lowlights

  1. The death of my partners mother
  2. The broken Petzl headtorch debacle at UTBCN
  3. The cancellation of the Arran Ultra
  4. Missing London to Brighton and The Rebellion
  5. Being ill or injured most of September through to November

So that was 2017 but what about 2018?

2018 looks like a very complex year in that we are going to try and move to Scotland for a better work life balance, the bonus for me will be proximity to the hills and mountains I love so much. However, the downside is that I need to not be racing so much – which is a disappointment.

The year has started well enough though with a New Years Day shakedown at the Lamberhurst 5km and the first weekend will bring the East Hanningfield trail marathon and there is a January 100 mile virtual challenge which should ease me back into bigger and bigger monthly miles.

February will be a return to the Vigo 10, which with a move so far north on the cards, may be my final return to my favourite race and then we have space in the calendar.

Thankfully I’ve put my bank account to damn fine use and entered the West Highland Way Challenge Race in May and The Rebellion will follow in November (as will a second crack at the Arran Ultra subject to it running again).

There are things I won’t return to though such as my reduction in racing/running over the summer, although it aided me in avoiding the sun I used it as an excuse to stop training and that wasn’t the idea.

The first half of 2017 had been so positive and I wonder if I hadn’t halted the momentum I had gained would my second half have been better – even given family circumstances at the time?

Still new year, no point moping about what has been and it’s now the 3rd January and I’m already 18.6 miles of running into my January 100 mile Virtual Challenge, woohoo!Having been reading lots of blogs and the like recently about the variety of adventures you’re all going in it looks like there’s some good stuff about to happen. Mostly I read them because I’m always keen to hear about your own adventures so I can try them myself and I’ve found some of my best experiences because I tried something you suggested to me or suggested to me I your own writing – so keep it up please!

Anyway, enough of this jibber jabber, it’s raining outside and blowing a gale so, ‘Let’s crack on and enjoy adventuring’.

Mince Pi Photographs: Hayley Salmon


Some days you’re really up for a marathon and other days you simply aren’t.

Thankfully I’d really been looking forward to the Suunto RunWimbledon marathon as it was a chance to properly test myself after a few months out and also test the back injury that has been plaguing me since late last year.

For the first time in ages both the GingaNinja and ASK rolled up with me to the start line near the Windmill Museum and we sat on the grass in the early autumnal sunshine having some lunch and bimbling round on our balance bike (the toddler, not me). The race village was excellent and served as the hub for runners coming in and out of the event. Suunto had a significant presence as the events main sponsor but otherwise this was as low key as you like.


Prior to race start I had the good fortune to bump into @Totkat – fresh from her self supported adventuring from Lands End to John O’Groats. It seemed we were both there for a bit of Marathon tomfoolery rather than going out hard. That said when the horn went off at 2pm I found myself pushing out on to the trail and following my tried and tested method of flooring it for the first half and then dropping off or exploding for the second half.


The route was four laps of winding in and out of the trails of Wimbledon Common and there was a combination of lovely downhills to get your feet moving, a couple of minor uphills to let you have some hurt and some duller connecting trails to keep you on track – all in all not a bad route given the size of space being worked with.

I pressed on through the field, trying not to pace myself against anyone else as I knew that many of the runners were liable to be a) relay marathoners or b) just better runners than me and every time I felt myself speed up I tried to calm myself down and slowwwwww up.

About 3 miles in it became quite clear that I hadn’t had my pre-race dump but this, for a change, didn’t concern me too greatly as I knew that at about 4 and a bit miles in there were portaloos. However, when I arrived into the race village there was a significant queue and I was running pretty well so I pressed on into the second half of the lap. I think it would be fair comment that the second half of the lap was significantly less interesting than the first half but it did give some nice long stretches of path that allowed you to open the taps a little. 15 minutes I was back in camp and looking towards the loo.

Once more though my hopes were dashed and with a quarter of the marathon run in a little over 50 minutes I was keen to get going again. I stopped for water and a bottle refill but there was no time for the loo – I’ll deal with this on lap 2! I drifted around the course attempting to maintain my pace but with my already listed toilet problem this was becoming a challenge. However, an option presented itself on the lap – the Wimbledon Common cafe had a toilet that was only a couple of hundred metres off the route and if there was still a queue when I got to the halfway point then I’d try that!

Of course there was a queue! And so with the clock ticking I pressed quickly to the spare toilet a mile or so away. Needless to say I lost some time and when I came out of the facilities some 20 minutes later I knew that a good time was looking beyond me. I ran into the race village feeling much relieved in the bowel region but had now begun to notice that my groin was groaning from a distinct lack of fitness and my back was aching from what could have been the start of my injury seeking revenge. Effectively I was slowing and not even the smiling ASK and GingaNinja could lift my spirits – I was just going to have to grind this out.

The one thing the race was missing on the support table were some sweets or slices of fruit and so I was very glad I had my own reserve and took onboard some Haribo and a children’s fruit pouch. The third lap was my worst and I just couldn’t get going and no matter what my heart was saying my head was saying the opposite but as I crossed the trails and heard the sympathetic applause of several dog walkers I determined that I must make a better effort and so I stopped – massaged my groin for several minutes and lay on the ground to stretch my back. This had enough of a desired effect that as I set off on the final lap I actually felt better. Mentally I was back in the game and while my groin was pretty knackered I was running consistently! There were now very few runners out on the course – there hadn’t been that many to begin with – but I found it in myself to overtake a couple of people and get round. Even the hill overlooking the race village was mounted with relative ease and I pressed downwards to the final couple of miles. ASK was awaiting me and I had to explain I would be back shortly but she could run the last few hundred metres with me if she wanted (in training for her race the following day). We had a little cuddle and she told me she would, ‘still be awake dad, it’s getting dark but it’s not bedtime yet’.

With those words ringing in my ears I hammered home those final couple of miles and when I came up to the 200 metre marker she was waiting for me. Given that the ground was uneven i insisted she held my hand but we thundered our way to the line. ‘Faster dad, Faster’ came the familiar line as we raced across the line to the sound of cheers from the volunteers, event staff, and the remaining runners and supporters!

I think ASK was happier than I was at the conclusion of the race as she was awarded a medal for an outstanding sprint to the finish. But ultimately despite the challenges I personally faced on the day this was a damn fine event.


Key points

  • Distance: Marathon
  • Profile: mildly undulating
  • Date: September 2017
  • Location: Wimbledon Common
  • Cost: £35
  • Terrain: Mixed, trail, muddy trail, good paths
  • Tough rating: 2/5

Route
As I’ve already indicated the route was interesting without being spectacular, ultimately you’re in a borough of London – how exciting can you make it? but it was a very well thought out use of the space available. For me the best bits were when the trail tightened up, ran through the dirtier trails and forced you to beware but for many this would have been a lovely introduction to trail marathons. Interestingly despite being a trail event this felt like a fast event with good times perfectly possible – worth noting for the trail speed demons.

Organisation
Those who put on the Suunto RunWimbledon had a good plan and stuck to it. The placement of drinks support was excellent and you passed the table twice per loop and having a race village in the loops middle actually made this a jovial affair. The volunteers were universally excellent and for the most part the organisation was perfectly invisible which allowed the runners to simply get on with the job of running.

Awards
A new Salomon neck gaiter/buff, a decent bespoke medal and drinks – you’d be hard pressed to grumble.

Value for money
£35, 4 loops of a well thought out course, excellent support and little extras like the neck gaiter – yep this one would score highly on good value.

Conclusion
The Suunto RunWimbledon Marathon is an excellent trail running marathon that is well organised and well supported – with the addition of the half marathoners and 10km runners the field felt quite nicely full but never so much as to feel crowded. I’d say that if you were looking for an early autumn marathon near London then this one would have to rate highly in your choices. The question I often ask myself when I review races is ‘would I do this again?’ and in this case the answer is yes.


It would be wildly unfair of me to review the MIUT (Madeira Island Ultra Trail) as I didn’t finish, nor did I get close to finishing and I’d decided I wasn’t going to write anything about my experience until I realised that I want you to understand how amazing an experience this race is and if you want something mind bogglingly tough then you have to do this.

Pre-race
I’d been worried, very worried about all sorts of things like the elevation, the length of time, temperature, etc and upon flying into Madeira my fears proved worthy as I looked at the climb out of the capital city never mind the real mountains! To say I nearly shat myself is an understatement.


My experience
I lined up in Porto Moniz with 750(ish) other runners and when the start came I jostled my way forward a little to look out at the upcoming trail storm. What I was greeted by was the most amazing race I’ve done so far.

From the off set we were climbing, weaving our way out of the town and uphill as quickly as possible. I unfurled my poles within the first kilometre as the realisation of what I was running finally hit me.

The first 1,000 metre climb seemed to be filled with steps and I chose small speedy steps to try and put some distance between me and the cut-off. We reached the real trails within a couple of kilometres and here the runners slowed as the climbing got sharper but I pressed on in what I considered an impressive time and when I reached the top I felt amazing. I stepped briefly to one side to grab some video footage and photographs and listened to the soon to be deafening noise in the distance.


What the hell was it? The answer to that was simple, it was the first of the many small villages and this one happened to be using the acoustics of the valley they lived in to draw the runners to them.


Like all the runners before me I was exhilarated by the welcome and bounded through the town, chest puffed out and a faster than was recommended run through the the throngs of people. From here it was all uphill again and it was a long slow slog through trails I was glad I couldn’t see clearly as it was obvious that I was facing sheer drops as the altitude grew ever higher.

It was somewhere here in the darkness that I had the first of my three falls – stumbling on some rocks that slipped out from beneath my feet and I cracked down on my left hand side, not too hard but enough to shake me. I stopped briefly and checked for blood but I was okay and so proceeded to the top of the ascent before I kicked on towards the 15km marker and the first of the many potential time out zones.


Arriving into check I had 30 minutes spare but it was clear this one was going to be tight all the way round and so I flew out of check with all the speed I could muster.

There’s no doubt that my failure at MIUT was down to the first 30km which brutalised me in ways that I’ve never had before and if I had decided on the shorter 80km distance I’m convinced I would have finished but from the second checkpoint to the third was a tribute to ascending hell and all I could do was hold on and hope that I could pick up the pace later in the race – if there was to be a later in the race!

Reaching summit after summit I realised I was likely to fail in my latest venture and even though before I’d started out that this was unlikely to end up in a finish I didn’t want to go out like this – weeping pitifully.

And then I caught a break – descent.

While my uphills are a bit rubbish I’m actually pretty good on the down. I can run fast and controlled across difficult and technical terrain and even as MIUT called for sometimes (down steps). I was able to take these hard descents faster than those in front of me and therefore I was catching people up – 20 or 30 were caught in about 5 or 6km and I pressed harder and harder through the night. As checkpoints fell I could see many people retiring and this was inspiring me to keep going.

Therefore, while descent was an option I knew I had to go ‘balls out’ if I was stand any chance of making it into respectable distances. And as I drew into the next ascents I pressed myself until I saw the first chinks of light in the day – I’d made it through the night.

So, in some fresh, fast moving water I washed the sweat and the fear away, sun creamed up I pushed on through the early morning light. I was still laughing and joking and soaking up all the views I could. Maybe just maybe I stood a chance…

But perhaps I was soaking in too many views as I found myself caught by a low hanging branch in the face which took my feet out from beneath me. Ouch.

Landing hard on my already tender back I needed a few minutes sit down to clean myself up and check myself over. Blood around my ankle and also in my hair suggested I’d been cut but thankfully not badly and a bit of spit and polish I was fine to resume my endeavours.


The ascent to Encumeada was tough though and as the morning warmed up I began feeling the day kicking me in the guts. I was unable to eat anything other than lemon and orange slices accompanied by large volumes of Pepsi offering recovery in the checkpoints.

The water from my soft bottle tasted unpleasant and was making me feel sick and stomach issues forced a stop to take the bear like option for a poo in the woods and had it been discovered most would have considered this a big, rather sickly bear.

Returning to my ascent I was feeling tired but had managed to mostly retain the gains in position I’d made into the next checkpoint where warm food and tired runners were in abundance. I needed neither and simply filled my water and drank lots of Pepsi before setting out – the words of a fellow runner ringing in my ears ‘this is the hardest section’.

On paper, this statement seemed absurd as it looked much easier than that which had come before but in practice this for me was the most brutal of the sections.

Within a kilometre I sat down on the side of the trail, poles beside me, wanting to give up. A lady plonked herself behind me – presumably considering a rest stop a good idea and we chatted – I complimented her in the excellent choice of ‘loud leggings’ and we overcame the language barrier as her English was pretty good and I was grateful for the natter. We set off together, climbing the length of the gas pipe that snaked across the trail and into the hills once more. I let the young lady go on ahead, telling her she had more in her legs than me – which was true. I then continued at a slow and steady pace but as I ambled up the hills I took my worst tumble. Misjudging a small leap across some rocks, I slipped, face first into those rocks. I slumped, staring into the abyss below me – realising I really wasn’t very far from oblivion.

Minutes passed before I collected myself together, my legs like jelly from a combination of the race and my fall and the heat of the day was now taking its toll.


Despite still mostly running I knew my race was coming to an end – I simply couldn’t go fast enough and my fall had shaken my already shattered confidence.

Shortly after though I met another runner, a Scottish gentleman who gave me enough of a boost and a focus to press on a little while longer but at the top of the ascent I made the inevitable call to the GingaNinja. I knew that I would miss the cut-off, and so it proved – but only by a couple of minutes but that was enough.

I was well beaten.

I stood in the checkpoint with other deflated runners and drank from the litre bottle of Pepsi – swigging it back like it was White Lightning. I’d run my heart out for this one, I’d left nothing inside but I’d come up short.


What did I learn?
I was listening to John Kelly talk about his Barkley Marathons prep in the aftermath of this race and his words resonated deeply with me, especially when he said ‘do things that you’ll fail at, go and get lost…’ This is the journey I’m on now, learning how to succeed and also how to fail.

Importantly I learned that I need to get faster in the climbs because this is why I was timed out. I’m actually pretty fast on the flat and the downhills where I can hold my own against good runners but my ascending is pretty shocking and so I’m going to be working on this with lots of hiking and hill repeats.

I’m very keen to learn from this experience. I’m determined I am going to use it to get stronger and better at these tougher races. If I commit to do more of them, more of this type of training and if I run in locations like Madeira more regularly I will start finishing these races and hopefully run more competitive times, well improved times.

MIUT was the hardest and most brutal event I’ve ever taken part in – whereas I have no doubt that I failed Haria Extreme and UTBCN because of external, non-race related factors I have even less doubt that my failure to finish MIUT was simply because it is beyond my current experience and capabilities.

Any regrets?
Two – the first was my decision to wear the Ultimate Direction PB3.0, a brilliant race pack that simply doesn’t suit me. It’s caused me a huge amount of pain in my back at both the UTBCN and MIUT, sadly I think this will be being consigned to 30 mile ultra pile. The pain I experienced certainly influenced the outcome of this race but not enough to have stopped my time out – this would have been my end result anyway just perhaps a few miles further down the road.

The other thing I regret was family attendance. I believe taking family to these races is a distraction, you’re focused on neither them nor the race 100% and so as a consequence neither get the best from you. And that’s not fair on either them or the race. Therefore, I’m unlikely to take them to Lyon for my year ending race and while I might consider shorter distance races if they’re going to be joining me in the future I wouldn’t take them to the bigger brutes I’ve been attempting recently – I believe this will increase everyone’s enjoyment of trips away and improve my overall performance at these races.

What’s next UltraBoy?
I’ve got a busy few weeks, off to the Marlborough Downs Challenge for a confidence boosting amble around Wiltshire, followed by a double effort at the Westminster Mile before chasing down about 70 miles at Escape from Meriden. However it will be another ball buster at the South Wales 100 that is currently making my arsehole quiver!


Any conclusion? Just one, go try MIUT for yourself.


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

Key points

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

But it was dead.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was in love.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I prepared a little like this 

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

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

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

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

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

Bingo.

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

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

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

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

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

March started with such promise but ended in a failure from which there seems no escape. Below are the high and lowlights of my March running

  1. More than 200 miles run (mostly race miles)
  2. Completed the Hockley Woods Challenge despite injury early in the event
  3. Completed the outrageously fun Amersham Ultra
  4. Nasty bout of food poisoning gave me a week off running – that’ll teach me for eating slightly mouldy muffins!
  5. Withdrew from the UTBCN at the three-quarter point due to a kit failure in my brand new Petzl head torch
  6. The effect of a race failure caused by things outside of my control has meant I haven’t felt like running at all since
  7. Weight loss was slowed to allow me to eat more in preparation for the three races in March – 0.5kg dropped.
  8. I dumped Petzl in favour of Black Diamond head torches after the UTBCN. Fingers crossed my new choices don’t fail
  9. 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
  10. 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.

ho-hum.

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!

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