Archive

Getting Lost

Before I start I should write that I realise that given the state of the world that my ‘problems’ discussed here are small fry and I lead both a fortunate and charmed life.

Still I hadn’t written a blog in a while and I’d gotten to be an unfit fatty!

Undoubtedly 2019 was my worst year of running since I began in 2011 and that’s a sad thing to consider given how relatively well 2018 had ended. I can’t deny that there were moments were I believed that I was turning a corner but it turned out that each corner proved to be another slap in the face from a different assailant.

Now normally I fill my blog with tales of injury woe and there was some of that but this year was more complicated.

The move to Scotland continued and although the whole family was now safely north of the English border we needed to find a house to buy and this proved more challenging than we had initially hoped and I had perhaps naively assumed that I could continue with my rather torturous race schedule during this hectic time.

THE WARNING SIGNS & A FALL FROM GRACE
The truth was that I could not continue as I had before and I got a very early warning of this when I travelled 450 miles to run the awesome Vigo Tough Love 10 (and pack up the remainder of the house). I felt every last inch of the race in my legs and the cramp that nearly killed me at mile 9 was horrendous. This should have been a warning to me but my general excitement about being in Scotland amongst all of these nice new races meant I went a bit mad.

My second warning that things were not going to go well came at the start line of the Highland Fling, here I ran into Andy O’Grady – the man who saw me to the finish line at the Skye Trail Ultra. ‘You’ve piled on the beef haven’t you?’ he said casually – he was only joking around with me but for a man who has poor body image issues this was something of a blow. However, it was also confirmation of something I knew very well – the trips up and down to Scotland, the lack of training, the lack of running and activity, the over eating and the living on my own for three months had taken their toll on my body – I’d gotten fat and lardy, both mentally and physically.

The same day as Andy poked fun at my fatness I found myself in the misery of the 9hrs of heavy rain and an unpleasant fall on Conic Hill at The Highland Fling. I withdrew from the race about mile 35 – a little over a half marathon from the finish – I was distraught.

How far I felt I’d fallen.

At the checkpoint where I threw in the towel I could see the excellent Scottish runner ‘Rhona Red Wine Runner’ somebody whose blog I have been a big fan of and periodically chatted to via Twitter over the years. We’d never met but I’d become so ashamed of my performance and appearance that I hid in the corner of the room I was waiting in hoping she neither noticed or recognised me.

The injury from the fall was relatively easy to recover from but the mental side of it was difficult to get over, even though I was just about ready for it I pulled out of the Balfron 10km and pulled out of the Ultra Trail Scotland for the second time.

With the final house move the weekend after my Fling effort I began to  feel that I was simply pushing too hard too fast. However, rather than rest properly I decided that once the house move had concluded and my body had recovered a bit I gave it some welly and started training again, returning to ultrarunning with the relatively simple but challenging Ben Vorlich Ultra.

I found Ben Vorlich tough as my fitness was still somewhat lacking but there was an overwhelming sense of joy that accompanied it and I started to feel like I could make some progress ater successfully completing the race and so immediately went home and entered the Thieves Road which runs across the Pentlands near Edinburgh. Sadly on race morning I awoke with a terrible case of the Gary Gritters and this kyboshed my attendance – sensible as I spent most of the day on the toilet and given the temperatures recorded I would not have finished anyway.

Still I had the Ambleside 60 upcoming in early September and so I retained my focus and actually I managed to continue training once the illness had passed and although the Ambleside 60 was even tougher than Ben Vorlich I managed to get over the line. I was finally feeling something of a bounce and with an effective if unconventional training regime (running up and down the West Lothian Bings and hiking in the Ochils). I was beginning to feel ready but once again I was about to get a kick in the guts and one that would end my year.

During the Ochil Ultra my stomach gave me all sorts of problems and I was vomiting from early on, I managed to push on to about the 20 odd  mile point but as I came into the checkpoint I simply collapsed on the floor and lay there thinking about my latest failure – this year was being rubbish. I felt at that moment the least like an ultrarunner that I have ever felt, I felt like a failure and that the runner who had earned nearly 200 medals, 50 of them in ultramarathon distances was coming to the end of his running career.

I went home that day and ate Dominos pizza and probably quite a lot of sweet things, I felt rubbish, I was rubbish and from here the dark gloom that came over me felt very tangible. Every race from here to the end of the year was thrown into jeopardy by this running breakdown. Race after race started to be cancelled as I realised that I was never going to make the start line, never mind the finish.

Benarty Hill Race, The Yorkshire Three Peaks Ultra, The Rebellion and finally The Cheviot Goat – significant cost (best part of £500 across those 4 races and hundreds more spent on maps and kit for these events.

However, the money was less significant than the cost to my mental wellbeing.

As the days dragged on beyond the Ochil Ultra I found myself enjoying retreating to a position of rest that involved eating biscuits, playing with my family and catching up on movies I’ve been waiting to see for an absolute age. There was a need for a physical break after all our efforts over the last year and work was being brutal in the run up to a significant project launch so maybe this stoppage was something that was needed.

However, running has always been my release and is inextricably linked to both my mental and physical wellbeing – so was there going to be a price to pay? Something I should have given more consideration as I sit here writing this in January.

Racing had now dropped down my priority list, something that had not happened in all the years since I began ultrarunning in 2013. A nasty illness in November also came at the wrong time and when I had been considering getting back out there in order to race The Goat and meet up with outstanding ultra runner Ryan Flowers.

However, I was sidelined for the best part of a month in the run up to The Goat and had no choice but to withdraw in the days leading up to the event. Thankfully I recovered in time for the a first family Christmas in our new home and our second in Scotland and while this was very enjoyable and relaxing I realised that I had relaxed too much, I’d put on significant weight over the past year and I was hiding in baggy clothing and finding it embarrassing being me.

And even as I added cream to another coffee and opened another packet of biscuits I still was struggling and it was only when I realised that my new found laziness was affecting things like my breathing that I decided it was time to pull on the running shoes and get back out there.

MEDAL COLLECTION INSPIRATION
The sad thing is that my medal collection hasn’t been giving me any joy or providing the inspiration to earn more medals – it has simply become a historical record of achievement rather than a living breathing thing which grows and evolves.

When I lived in the South East of England I found that every time I ascended my steep staircase I was greeted by my medal collection, it demanded that I added more but now it doesn’t do this, it is a decoration – therefore I’m going to find a new home for those medals so that they provide the inspiration I clearly crave.

Perhaps several medals in quick succession will help to build the desire again or if not medals then at least finishes – the benefit of the T24 and the Falkirk 8hr is that they are both loops and so I can’t fail to finish – subject to completing at least one lap and the F50K is running around Falkirk which is pretty well known to me now and should be within my ability. I was planning on adding in a few shorter distance races on the in between weeks too – so ASK and I are off to Edinburgh to run the Winter Family Run (1mile). I may also  consider a couple of 5 or 10km distances too – just to hold the precious piece of metal in my hand and bask in personal success – believe me I know how idiotic I sound. However, I have long associated the medals with me being in a good place, even if the state of me as I first clutch a medal is pretty ruined!

ANOTHER RETURN?
Let me assure you it has not been easy to bother with another return. Scotland and it’s notoriously foul weather has been in full evidence over the last few weeks and yet I have still found myself throwing on my shorts and doing little bits of running that will form the basis of my training.

5km most days isn’t really marathon territory but it’s a start. There has been lots of elevation added across these short distance and as a family we are resuming hill walking at the weekends and enjoying the great Scottish outdoors that we moved up here for regardless of what the weather looks like.

It is slow going, very slow and I am both the fattest and unhealthiest I have been in years and I am not finding it fun but I am doing it.

I don’t really enjoy these periodic rebirths and the themes in them are, sadly, reliably consistent, which gives me caution when I pin my hopes on another go at getting fit and healthy. The spiral that I seem locked into perhaps require some form of significant event to kickstart me into action – something akin to a heart attack or a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes. I realise that this sounds ridiculous but when you find that you can wake up regardless of your fitness and still force out 30, 40 or 50 miles and get the medal then the attitude can still afford to be, ‘well I can still do it’.

When I see social media material about Transformation Thursdays or Reframed Fridays or whatever these stupid names are I can see that there was a significant issue going on and that the person has done something about it – usually gotten fitter, cleaner, lighter, healthier. I’ve never quite managed to get to the point where the problems were so significant that the doctor or other person was saying, ‘listen mate you’re one Mars Bar away from ruining yourself forever’. That conversation doesn’t take place and so I find myself excusing my poor food behaviours and finding new ways to justify continuing them.

That is a difficult set of mental blocks to overcome and even as I write this I am struggling with it.

SECRET EATING
Those months of secretly eating Bernard Matthews Mini Chicken Kievs and Belvita Filled Strawberry bakes has not given me any joy – in fact these actions, this eating has made me very sad indeed. I’ve spoken before about over-eating, secret eating and the negative effects that this has but whereas before I was using running to combat it I’ve found that this time I was simply destroying years of work in bowls of processed and sugary treats.

It is a sorry state of affairs that I’ve been  secret eating food I don’t even want but at least I can admit it and hopefully now do something about it.

CONTROL & ATTITUDE
But I’m only at the start and I have yet to get control of the eating but at the very least I have enough control to be doing the exercise that can negate some of the impact of my foul food behaviours.

There is also the question of ASK, one I’ve mentioned before, my food behaviour should not be allowed to rub off on her and I am aware that sometimes I fail in this aspect of parenting and it is an area that I need to work on harder. Even if I can’t eat vegetables and fruit I should still be actively promoting these to her. In fairness she is not the glutton I can be and has a very healthy enjoyment of positive food choices – seeing things such as chocolate as a treat rather than seeing them as I do, as a food group that requires 5 a day.

The physical activity is also helping to get a better balance mentally – I feel more decisive and clearer in vision when I’m fitter and as I hiked around the delightful Falls of Clyde last weekend I could feel myself wanting to go further, be active and it was delightful – the trouble is that tonight’s running was torrid and tough – the battle is clearly only just beginning.

But control of my attitude towards health is going to be key to regaining overall control and ensuring that the enjoyment I’ve had through being healthy continues through my 40s and beyond. With control, will come the respect that my body deserves after serving faithfully for the last 42 years and in that respect I will create the kind of person I want my family to see.

I’m hopeful that I’ll finally make a decision regarding a recognised running club which I feel will offer a greater ‘herd mentality’. Being around other runners does provide a greater sense of purpose and direction, especially to me, and although it is not something I have ever done I feel it will create a support network I can both draw from and feed into.

My experiences with Parkrun, The London Social Runners and The Linlithgow Running Buddies all had lots of highs but ultimately none were quite the right fit for my running needs (although I retain huge respect for them all) and I feel the right running club would help keep me on the straight and narrow.

Sadly one thing that I did try to help inspire me was Strava. I had hoped that joining Strava would provide new local running connections but the truth is that it hasn’t – save for the lovely Fiona (hello if you’re reading this, nice to see you the other night) and despite my local area being full of runners and sporting types I haven’t found organic ways to make connections that might benefit myself and equally them. Therefore I have probably given up on Strava, though never say never and if you find my activities making their way onto your app screen – do think kindly of the fat bloke running around Falkirk.

SO NEXT NEXT…
This weekend brings me to the first race of the year at the Tyndrum24 – a looped 24hr event where I plan on going super slowly and super steadily and taking so much kit with me that my body shouldn’t have to take too much of a hammering from the conditions (lots of shoes, lots of waterproofs). I’d like to come out of T24 with around 50 miles completed – which might not sound like much but given that the furthest I’ve run since the Ochil Ultra is 7.5km then 50 miles sounds like a big ask. If I can achieve the 50 mile mark I’ll be very happy and this will hopefully give me something of a momentum launch into a busy year of events with the Falkirk Ultra following 2 weeks later and the F50K 4 weeks after that.

I really want the T24 to help me rebuild the confidence I am going to need to complete events such as the Loch Ness 360 and the Ultra Scotland 50.

Don’t get me wrong I don’t want to be fat, unfit or unhealthy – I want to be none of these things and I desperately want to get back to being a healthy icon for my daughter – who I encourage to be active at every available opportunity. As I write I find it amusing that this may sound like I consider 2019 to be an unhealthy nightmare and a waste of time but the truth is far more complicated than that – 2019 was actually a really very positive year filled with much joy and fun times.

As a family we have developed new facets – especially with ASK starting school and the move to Scotland has proved to be the kind of success I had hoped for – but there is room for improvement. New friendships to replace those we left behind will be important as we go forward and we must be keen to make the required amount of time in our daily routine to ensure we are getting the most out of this wonderful opportunity.

So what’s the plan?

Well there are the dozen ultra marathons which are a very serious consideration and I’ve entered things that I believe will be the hardest possible challenge given the level to which I have dropped, importantly though, with effort, I feel these are  achievable. I remain focused on smaller and inaugural events with the odd bigger event to remind me that ultra running events aren’t completely solo sports.

Tyndrum 24, although my first event back is more than a warm up as I’ve said – this will be the launch pad and building blocks that may make or break the rest of the year. I’ll be following this up with the 1 mile family fun run in Edinburgh where ASK and I will attempt to drive her mile time down even further and I do love running with my daughter.

Then we hit the main thrust of the year from February until the end of July I’m goin g to giving it full throttle, The Falkirk Ultra and the F50K followed a few weeks later by the Peninne Bridelway in what will be the first of the Ranger Ultras Grandslam (assuming I enter) then another 4 weeks before I take to the Southern Upland Way with GB Ultras and then around 4 weeks further before the years longest ultra around the new Loch Ness 360 trail. Less than 3 weeks later I’ll be towing the line of the John Lucas Memorial, which as a more tarmac ultra could be an unmitigated disaster given my relationship with tarmac races and that’s just a few days before spending 3 (hopefully) awesome weeks in Canada, travelling round but also racing the truly awesome looking Quebec Mega Trail (only the 15km but still a first Canadian race seems like the only sensible thing to do) and then when I touch down I’ve got a few days before I’m back in the saddle for The Run The Blades 50km – I suppose something of a warm down compared to the rest of the events in the run up.

Thankfully the summer months are spent in training mode rather than racing as my body hates August and I seem to have a curse regarding races that happen in August so I’ll be skipping this before the winter tests come with the three remaining grandslam races from Ranger Ultras and a first crack but second entry to The Cheviot Goat.

I feel its an unconventional race list, there are no marathons, no big city events, no events that most runners will have heard of, it is a list of grim sounding races filled with elevation or shitty weather or shitty course conditions. It is a race list from someone that wants to get back to running, get back to racing and get back his self respect.

  • January: Tyndrum 24 (24hr loop) (Entered)
  • February: Edinburgh Winter Run (1 mile) (Entered)
  • February: Falkirk Ultra (8hr loop) (Entered)
  • March: F50K (50km) (Entered)
  • April: Peninne Bridelway (57km)
  • May: Ultra Scotland (54 miles) (Entered)
  • May: Loch Ness 360 (80 miles) (Entered)
  • June: John Lucas Memorial (46 miles) (Entered)
  • July: Quebec Mega Trails (15km) (Entered)
  • July: Run The Blades (50km) (Entered)
  • October: Yorkshire Three Peaks (100km)
  • November: White Peaks Trail
  • November: Dark Peaks Trail
  • December: Cheviot Goat (54 miles) (Entered)

The only way I’m going to get near completing these is with a plan and I think I’ve got the key areas I need to consider.

  • Stop overeating
  • Eat more healthily
  • Start running consistently
  • Run for longer
  • Run further
  • Finally pick a running club
  • Get to the start line of the races I have entered
  • Continue exploring Scotland
  • Work on body image issue

I’m clearly not going to fix all the issues any time soon, some are long standing issues that are deeply ingrained in me but as I suggested earlier it is about regaining control and that is something I have done successfully before. It is a very personal, individual experience and one that draws on my failings as a person, my own arrogance and my own falibility but now added to this is a sense of my own mortality. Nobody wants their legacy to be that they slowly faded away – so I’m going to try and not to.

I very much plan on building on the positive things that did take place in 2019 and try and reintegrate the things that worked well from my life before I arrived in Scotland. I am responsible for the mess I have gotten mysef into and by opening myself up to the scrutiny of my peers I hope to encourage myself to be the best version of me.

Best get on it. Adios.

July was the first month in a couple of years that I’ve run lots and this is by no means a lot by my own low standards. However, it is a lot compared to how much I have been doing in the last 3 years.

As regular readers will know I moved to Scotland last year and now, being safely ensconsed in my new home, I have the time to dedicate to running. The trouble has been that my body has been ravaged by chronic injury, weight gain and a distinct lack of fitness action and so when the GingaNinja told me that I had finally gotten fat enough, it was decided that I would start to look after myself again and this meant getting fitter.

You may well have read my piece about my poor relationship food (read it here if you like) and my various blogs about a general annoyance at logging every last iota of data from running – I’ve never ascribed to the ‘if it isn’t on Strava then it didn’t happen’ – but this month I did a number of new things;

The first was I put my massive over-eating under control. The second thing was, despite my reservations, I signed up to Strava.

I did a couple of other key things too though, the third thing was I wanted to explore my surroundings and so invested in a few maps and ensured that I sought new and interesting places to run – this was in combination with a subscription to the OS Maps app (highly recommended for easy browsing maps).

I also sought support from my family and asked them to join me on a weekly hike up a hill or mountain within relative striking diatance of home – they heartily agreed and all of this began when we bimbled up to Cairngorms for a week towards the end of June. Now though all I needed to do was commit to the idea of returning to fitness and maybe even getting back down to a weight I could be a bit happier with.

Shaming myself
There was a part of me that felt like being on Strava and Instagram was a form of public shaming and by being more open than usual I would have nowwhere to hide. Those first runs were hard and they were brutal, they lacked any form of pace, my breathing was rubbish and I really was not going that far. Worse than that I had gotten the point where my running shirts were starting to make it look like I’d bought a size too small to show off ‘the goods’ – I hadn’t though. But I was committed to the idea of sharing this information, in part, to highlight to myself how far I had fallen and more importantly how much progress I could make.

Still those first few posts were damning and I hated putting them on Strava and Instagram.

However, as each day passed and I ran a little bit more, with a little more elevation and across harder terrain I could feel the benefits kicking in. Don’t get me wrong I was not going any faster but it was getting easier and I was focusing on climbing rather than distance which made every session I was doing even harder than I would train when I lived in the South East.

To help incentivise myself I added in a few Strava challenges such as the 5km race, the 10km race, 200km in a month and 2,000 metres elevation in a month – expecting to hit only the 5km and maybe the 10km race challenges. There was also the public humiliation of giving over my information to runners I both knew and didn’t know and so logically I began following local, to me runners, who if I knew might be looking at my runs might inspire me to pick up my feet and get round a bit quicker.

Food
The added challenge was that all of this has been run on a diet of around 1400 calories a day and so has been both intense and tough. I love food, especially ‘treat’ food and I’ll reward myself for almost anything. So sticking to a better eating life has been good for me and the whole family. I’ve found myself cooking more again (and enjoying it) and I have generally eaten less – that said my consumption of sugar free Irn Bru has quadrupled (at least). The one thing that has been dropped from my diet is chocolate (not 100% but not far off) and my consumption of sugar has also been drastically reduced – all of this means that I have managed to shed nearly 3kg in weight during July.

I don’t want to make it all sound positive though and there were a couple of bad days where take away food was eaten but I’m trying not to beat myself up about that – these were social occasions and there were more good days than bad, and are that note I can seamlessly segway into the numbers of July…

The Numbers
So how do the numbers stack up for this month?

  • Time on my feet: 29hrs 45 mins
  • Activities: 30
  • Distance: 233.7km
  • Elevation Gain: 4,142 metres
  • Running: 24hrs 16mins
  • Running Distance: 209.6km
  • Running Elevation: 3,332 metres
  • Hiking: 5hrs 6mins
  • Hiking Distance: 22.3km
  • Hiking Elevation: 795 metres
  • Weight: Down 2.8kg
  • Races: 1 (Ben Vorlich Ultra)
  • Instagram Posts: 300
  • Blog Posts: 3

The numbers aren’t amazing but they do show a surge in my activity level and if I can maintain this level then I am sure that I will get faster and continue to get fitter.

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Physical and Mental Wellbeing
I’ve discussed several times that running keeps me healthy both physically and mentally and that when I don’t run then both suffer and while it is bad for my body to be unfit when my mind is unfit I become a much less decent human being. When I was running through London on a daily basis as part of my commute I found this rather stressful and was often having to reach a point by a certain moment or running to another train station because London Bridge was closed or Cannon Street had been flooded or Dartford  was closed so I would then have to wake up tired legs to run the final leg home. Now I am running for pleasure with the greatest pressure deciding on where I need to run – it won’t always be like this but for the moment I am enjoying the freedom afforded by my job, my drive to work and the locations I pass through – which are filled with rich, luxourious landscapes.

My mental wellbeing is as good as it has ever been, if not better and my life feels lighter – of course nothing is perfect and something terrible could happen tomorrow but I’m working on the assumption that it won’t and so as my physical wellbeing improves through the running so does my mental wellbeing and perhaps I’ll get to a point where I won’t be thinking about the next potential disaster situation and rather be thinking about the next step upward.

The Routes
The routes have been the most spectacular part of returning to running and I’ve explored lots of my little part of Scotland, there have been mountains, waterfalls, hills, lots of mud, some tarmac and head high grass at almost place I’ve run – this has been tremendously exciting. Some of my favourite places have been Polmont Woods& Burn, Blackness Castle & The John Muir Way, Torphichen & the Cairnpapple, Muiravonside & the Avon Aqueduct, The Kinneil Estate, Westquarter, The Union Canal,  Dechmont Law, Ben Vorlich, Dumyat & Castle Law, Miekle Bin, Meall a Bhuachaille, Steall Falls, Ravencraig & The Knook, Greendykes Bing, Seafield Law and Rough Castle & The Falkirk Wheel. I can highly recommend trying out some or all of them – it is true to say that these aren’t The Highlands but they are no less fun. I’ll be continuing to explore over the following months more and more areas, I’ll be spending more hours poring over maps to find places that nobody else goes to and I’ll be continuing to get lost as I increasingly seek the off trail routes (my legs have been stung so much this last month).

 

Highlights
The highlights are actually pretty easy and it has little to do with running and more about achieving fitness – climbing up Dumyat & Castle Law in the Ochils with ASK and the GingaNinja and also the climb up The Law was lots of fun. Hoerver, it was more than that, it was excellent preparation for running up hills and testing myself – forcing myself to go slower with a 4 year in tow up a 700 metre ascent means that I have developed patience. So thanks family for helping me get back on track.

The Future
There is much in the diary already – first up is the Thieves Road in a week but I consider that a stepping stone to more challenging oportunities further down the line. The Ambleside 60 in September will take me back to a true love of mine – The Lake District and to a place I spent many happy days during my 20s – from here though things get a little more serious. The Ochil Ultra at the end of September will be hard and at 50 miles it will be a test of how far I have come and will very much determine whether I race the Rebellion. The Rebellion at 135 miles is the furthest I will ever have run – I will have no support crew and I will need to be on point and fit as I can be. If successful I then have four weeks to recover before my 2019 A race – The Montane Cheviot Goat, I am very much looking forward to this and will hopfully serve as reward for several months of hard work – but we shall see.

But the future is about more than races, the future is about my health and wellbeing and that of those around me.

ASK asks me when I am going to die and the answer I give her is that, ‘I’ll die one day, maybe tomorrow, maybe next year or maybe a long time away’. I always remind her that the reason I run and want an active life for all of us is to make sure that I am, and we are, around for as long as possible and it is the reason I ask that she join me on runs and hikes – so that she will live, in her words, ‘a very long time’. There are things I cannot control but this is something that I can influence.

If we can maintain this as a family then we will succeed and I have learnt that I really can’t do it alone and it is not just the support of family I’ve found the social thing much more useful this time around too.

When ‘the social family’ is sending kudos on Strava or liking pictures on Instagram or reading this blog then know that you are making a difference to ensuring I succeed, but not in the way you might imagine I still don’t really care if anybody reads this and if no Kudos or Likes are received then that is fine – I’m not really needy about stuff like that. But exposing myself to social scrutiny is a valuable lesson for me, in that it ensures I am looking at developing an ongoing healthy relationship with my own honesty towards wellbeing and I’d hate to be dishonest so if everyone ignored it I that’s fine because its for my own self satisfaction. Maybe self satisfaction is what this needs to be about – something for me to think about as August comes around.

Anyway, so see you out there and enjoy your running.

 

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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.

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Skye Trail Ultra (The Ridge)
‘It’s this way’ I called over to Neil and pointed southwards and then I looked down, the descent was terrifying and amazing in the same instant, being awestruck though was soon replaced by the reality that I had to descend this.

SainteLyon (highest point)
From the viewing point, at 3am on a cold December morning, I stopped to turn back and watch the twinkling of thousands of head torches in the distance gently lighting up the trail. C’est magnifique!

St Peters Way (The final push)
Darkness was upon me and a gale blew me from pillar to post. The gentle final shaft of light cast a foreboding shadow of the finish line and church in the distance. It was the most beautiful finish.

Vigo ‘Tough Love’ 10 (That Hill)
‘Don’t worry, it’s not that bad’ said an older fell running type when describing the final hill of the Vigo 10. With absolute clarity I remember creaking my neck skywards to see the top of the hill, what a sight, what a hill, what a route!

What do all these things have common? Well they were my first experience of some section of a race route and always under race conditions and most importantly the first sight of some of the most spectacular views available.

I’ve often gone back to races I’ve loved – Vigo (favourite race) and the SainteLyon (favourite ultra) are prime examples but no matter how much I love these races none of them will be able to capture the awe, joy and delight I had as I saw the route for the first time. There is something special about your first time, even if it’s not your best result at that race or it doesn’t go to plan – there’s magic in a first go at any race.

Racing fresh
I would be lying if I said I had never done a recce but on the few occasions I have I’ve found that rather than enhance my experience of a race it actually takes something away from it. Perhaps it is that when you live for the unknown, the discovery and the curiosity then having those things taken away in race removes the enjoyment (for me).

The thing is I have a belief that there is nothing better than the first moment I pass across an amazing vista, run an amazing piece of trail, soak myself in a muddy puddle and lightning, in my opinion, never strikes twice.

It’s for this reason that I don’t get running a race route in preparation. I mean why would you?

Obviously…
I understand if you’re at the front of the pack chasing the prize of a win or a high placing – you want every advantage possible and knowing where you are headed and what you’ll face will certainly count as an advantage. But if you’re a bit like me, middle of the pack bimbler, then maybe like me, you’re there for the experience of being amazed and challenged. I wonder if you any of you feel that foreknowledge of a route can deflate the joy of that?

I’m also aware that some do it for the enjoyment and some do it for the feeling of security. But if I did it I would feel as though I was robbing myself of moments I’ve come to cherish.

There is a solution…
For those that want it though there is an obvious solution to save the route while at the same time condition oneself to the terrain you’re running and that’s simply to run in as close to race conditions as possible. When I rocked up to the CCC I went running in mountains that might mimic the conditions I’d face but I didn’t go anywhere near the Monte Bianco until race day.

When I ran The Wall I spent the week prior running in the rain soaked Lake District bouncing around Grizedale, Skafell Pike and others but I didn’t get near the north of the Lakes to tackle the route.

I’d therefore picked up a bit of relevant local information without compromising my enjoyment of the event – but this isn’t always practical when you race a lot or the location is a bazillion miles away. I just don’t worry about it (that said my arse is a bit quivery about having never run on the Brecon Beacons next weekend!)

Why I’ve never run the North Downs Way… I’ve been asked why, despite living so close to it that I don’t train (often) on the North Downs Way and I’ve never really had an answer but as I was reflecting on the writing for this post I realised why – I’m waiting for a single day race to take place there that I really want to do.

Surprise yourself… I guess I’m not suggesting that you give up the preparation for races – that would be silly and counter productive for many but I’ve met lots of runners who get so caught up in the detail of a race that they forget to look up and admire their surrounds and the last time I checked running was supposed to be fun. During Escape From Meriden I met a young gentleman who when I asked why this race, he responded, ‘well you get to see new things don’t you?’. I couldn’t have put it better myself.

So with the weekend upon us, whether you are racing or not maybe go left instead of right, look upwards instead of down and make sure you ‘see new things, lots of them!’

Gabrielle Outdoors

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