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There was a point where I believed I might never run again and if you’d be around me over the last six months it was very much like I was never going to run again. After my success at the Chicken Run I went on to stunning failures at The West Highland Way Challenge and The Trail de Haut Koenisbourg. This was coupled with not even bothering to start The Fellsman, The Ochil Ultra, The Ultra Trail Scotland: Arran Ultra and a back injury that refuses to clear. Thankfully there was of good decent reason for all of this… I’ve been slowly moving to Scotland.

I’ve been safely north of the English border for exactly a month now and  I decided that I needed to return to running, but rather than do some training I opted for rocking up to the Jedburgh Three Peaks Ultra.

The reputation of the race certainly precedes it and after a starring turn on the Adventure Show a couple of years ago meant that it showed up on my radar. However, I could not make 2016 because it was the same weekend as a friends wedding and 2017 was taken out by injury and so when I saw a little while back that the ultra ‘was almost sold out’ I put in my details and a place was secured.

I decided to travel down early on race morning – a 90 minute journey from where I am now based – which is a lot more achievable than driving up from London. I rolled into the small border town at a little after 6am and grabbed myself a delicious haggis and bacon bap and then drifted over the registration – which it turned out wasn’t open until 6.30am and I was jovially shoved back out the door. Post Haggis and coffee I slipped into the back of the car for a bit of discretion and changed into my race kit and headed out to grab my number and get used to the chilly wind that was whipping around the town.

Registration was quick and simple and I was largely impressed that they did ask to check my photographic identification. There was also an excellent range of facilities, lots of toilets, changing rooms and enough space for most people to try and stay warm. I was very grateful for all the facilities as one thing that hasn’t changed during my racing hiatus has been the uselessness of my bowels in pre, during and post race scenarios.

The pre-race overview was both swift and amusing and the round of ‘Happy Birthday’ for one of the lovely volunteers was a delightful touch. Post briefing we all ambled outside and soon headed to the start line to have the YMCA thrust upon us. Thankfully I had a GoPro and therefore excused myself from the dancing – though when the race started with the song still going I was somewhat caught unawares and found myself fumbling for the ‘on’ button on my Suunto.

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I had no idea what to expect from Jedburgh – the overview suggested that it was about 85% trail but I’ve been disappointed by races before that make such claims. However, I am very happy to report that if anything the organisers had probably underestimated the amount of trail and this started after just a few minutes of running from the town.  The GPX looked like it was going to be a pretty easy bimble but experience tells me that it very rarely is and the undulating nature of the route was tougher than it looked. Despite being late October the route was mostly dry which meant that the runners could get good traction though the falling of leaves had meant that every single root and branch that awaited to take our legs was hidden in plain sight.

The first stage was about 15km long and in that section I was running better than expected given my lack of training and long term injury woes. What struck me was how picturesque the route was and I found myself really enjoying it – this might be one of favourite landscapes that I’ve run in and provided just the shot in arm to reinvigorate my love for the trails. There were terrifying moments such as the wobbling bridge which just shook the turd out of me as my feet barely touched it as I bounced along it with the other runners.

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Throughout the course there was an excellent standard of volunteers and support and there was never a moment where you felt truly isolated but that is not to suggest that the route was busy – it wasn’t, it was never overcrowded. However, the sprinkling of medical and volunteer support was just at the right points and offered the right words of encouragement and checking that the runners were okay.

Once out of the first checkpoint the route did start to flatten off though and for a while I was concerned that it might stay this way. Uphill, downhill or bounding trails suit me very well but flat is my nightmare scenario. I decided to slow the pace down once alongside the river and the golf course as I knew that I should save myself for challenges later in the route. Once back on to the trail I loved it as the route went up and down and around, in the distance I could see the three peaks that we were set to climb.

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Having not read the details of the handbook too closely I wasn’t 100% sure if the next checkpoint would be before we began climbing or after – it turned out that the checkpoint was prior and I decided to stock up on the delicious Active Root (ginger energy drink) which was a little bit like a flat ginger beer.

I also took the opportunity for a little visit to the loo as I had been having stomach issues for several miles – it was not a pleasant experience and simply reinforced the problems that had been apparent earlier in the morning. I had to hope that things were relatively cleared out otherwise the climb over the hills might be a real struggle.

I waved the cheery volunteers a goodbye and headed further downwards (sure that the climbing had to begin soon) and was greeted by something that was both welcomed and also surprising – kit check! You often hear that there will be kit checks on the route but here they made good on the threat – thankfully I had the three items of kit prepared and once cleared I started the first of three uphills.

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Here I ran into the wonderful Neil MacRitchie that I first met at the Skye Trail Ultra and we chewed the fat for a few minutes as we climbed the first ascent – in typical fashion though he was much stronger than I as he powered his way up the hill. Saying this though I managed to push forward at a reasonable pace but also wanted to soak in the environment that I was in. The views were amazing and it was such a clear day that you could see as far and wide as the eye could see – this was spectacular.

Once at the top I took a further few moments, making jokes with passing walkers and hill runners and then prepared to climb the second of the hills, this I was told was the hardest of the three – but actually I found this one easier than the first and enjoyed the scrambling over the trail. However, the downhill was hard going, steep and technical. All the runners ahead of me were taking it easy and I saw no reason to adopt anything other than a cautious approach. Once at the bottom I pushed on to the final much smaller climb and as I reached the top I decided to keep going rather than soak in the landscape ahead of me – I knew this was the turning point and I was now on the way home.

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It was also here that I met Melissa – a lady that would very much define the second half of my Jedburgh experience. We got chatting, as you do, on started the long journey back together – we were both going okay – I mean neither of us were going to win, but we were steady. However, during the next few miles an injury that she had picked up got progressively worse.

The miles that we had been crunching down at an even pace started to slow and while we joked about what could and not be considered a hill I realised that she was going to find this hard work and being her first official ultra I was concerned that she might decide to DNF. For a long while we left it unsaid but unless she insisted I would probably hang fire and travel the last 17 miles or so. We made it back to the next checkpoint in pretty good time and Melissa was still forcing herself to run bits of the route but at each point I reminded her that we didn’t want to make it any worse and her limp was not improving.

Still the sun was shining and we had time, we just needed to be consistent.

It was with some sadness for both of us that dozens of runner passed us, proof positive that we had actually been running quite well but that was put firmly out of mind – we had a job to do. Time was now an ever growing pressure and I wanted neither of us to miss the 7 hrs 30 cut off for the final checkpoint. I realised that once we had arrived back at the golf course that we would actually be fine but Melissa still wanted to be back at the finish before the 10hr cut off and preferrably by 9hrs 30.

I said we’d do our best.

Onward , reversing all our steps from earlier in the day I could feel the mental fatigue kicking in with my comrade and I felt it was important to try and provide the distraction necessary to stop her thinking about the injury she was carrying or the distance remaining. We were down to the last few miles and came across a posse of ladies all out in support of Melissa – these voices and this support was just the tonic and it gave Melissa a lift that only a friend can. I did a bit of bum wiggle and joked my way through the throng of friends before I pressed us on to the final half dozen kilometres.

Melissa after a few miles had figured out her route to success which was a surprisingly speedy march through those last few miles and despite runners still catching us we were more consistent and could maintain our pace. The mental fatigue that had plagued some of the earlier miles, when running was no longer an option, seemed to have disappeared amongst the desire to finished and the consistency of our travel. Melissa was now chomping at the bit to start running again but I suggested we hang fire and to finish strong.

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I knew the finish line would be a wall of noise as we approached and I hoped that this would drive her forward and across the line to a truly stunning finish and as we entered the funnel to the finish line we were greeted by unicorns and all manner of hallowe’en themed characters as well as other runners and well wishers. It was a truly spectacular finish line to cross – especially so late into the day. Late in the day it might have been but we beat the cut off – what a great day.

Key points

  • Distance: 38 miles
  • Profile: Deceptive
  • Date: October 2018
  • Location: Jedburgh
  • Cost: £40
  • Terrain: Trail
  • Tough Rating: 2.5/5

Route
Without doubt this was a lovely route, the landscape around you, ahead of you and in the distance is spectacular and you will never be bored. The variety found in the route is exciting and in the good weather conditions that  we experienced the views across Scotland were spectacular. The peaks themselves were challenging but completely runnable for those fit enough and if you’re a fast ultra runner than 5 or 6 hours is totally achievable. For those more mere mortal types the route is probably more like 6-10hrs but it is a route that is suitable for all levels of runner. Highly recommended.

Organisation
There are not enough positive words to explain just how brilliant the organisation and the organisers of the Jedburgh Three Peaks Ultra are. I also very much enjoyed the whole charitable aims of the event and the fun that the organisers injected into every section. There was an enthusiasm that ran through the organisation and it didn’t matter where on the route you found the fabulous volunteers they all had a massive smile and a delightful cheer to send you on your way with.

Awards
An awesome medal and a goody bag filled with beer, Active Root and a Tunnocks wafer (delicious).

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Value for money
Are you kidding? £40 for a brilliant route, a decent goody bag, a great medal and some of the best support I’ve seen at an ultra. I cold have lived without the YMCA but only because my best dancing days are behind me! Maybe I’ll practice my moves for next year.

Mentions
As with all ultra marathons there are lots of people that deserve mentions but the organisers Noanie and Angela have a spectacular event and deserve all the praise that they receive. I’d also like to thank Melissa, she is an inspirational runner who held on to record her first official finish and provided me with lots of good humour and great company. It was my pleasure to be allowed to join her for her ultra journey and I hope she continues to run events all over Scotland and beyond (Maybe see you at Kielder!).

Conclusion
I had a truly lovely time, I loved the Jedburgh Three Peaks Ultra and would recommend this race to novice and seasoned runners alike. While I may not have done ANY training for this I’m glad I decided to turn up and I’m glad to have rediscovered a love for the thing I most enjoy doing and I will return.

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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.

It’s been a weird week, I’ve had so few hours sleep that I can barely see straight, I’ve been working round the clock to meet my commitments at work and to get ready for job interviews in preparation for a move Scotland. Too this add the last ten days being dedicated to the final part of my beloved Spaniels life and well let’s say it’s not been the easiest period we’ve ever had. Theres been no running since the 28th January and to be fair I just haven’t felt like putting on my shoes and getting out there.

The problem was Vigo, my favourite race, my favourite route. However, I really wasn’t prepared for it physically or mentally. With every new thing that layered itself in life outside running pushed me further from the start line. However, when ThunderPad died I knew running Vigo would be a fitting tribute both to him (he loved mud and that part of Kent) and to pay homage to a race that I might be running for the final time (Scotland is a long way to come).

Seems I’d sold it into myself – back to the Vigo Tough Love 10 mile(ish).

Let’s briefly discuss the registration process which had a few issues. It seems the database and the numbers were the wrong way round – it was an admin error and I hope that anyone who ran it could see that guys worked tirelessly to get things working. Yes we started 40 minutes late but that time allowed the organisers to get on top of everything and also for the runners to get better acquainted. Stuff happens and these guys really pulled it out of the bag to get us running. Well done chaps.

But the race…

Was it still the stuff of legend? Was it still the race that I pencil in first when I’m planning my next years running? Is it still the best value and best fun event in the calendar?

I can save you the trouble of reading further and say, oh yes! You’ll never have more fun in your life than doing this tremendous race!

Here’s the overview

  • Pre-race despite the problems with registration the whole team pulled together to get the runners ready as quickly as possible. Well done
  • Arrived and immediately ran into the salty sea dog Gary!
  • Wonderfully wet route
  • The most enthusiastic and determined marshalling team
  • The uphills and the downhills are still the best around and they really do grind you to pieces
  • Beautifully clear Kentish views
  • A fabulous course
  • Mud everywhere
  • My Topo Athletic Terraventure were truly brilliant in the mud once again
  • The 10km runners were split off from the 10 milers pretty early which helped avoid to many pacing problems
  • Cool medal and another mars bar!
  • Incredibly well organised despite the hiccup at registration and there was regular communication from the organisers – they did everything right given the challenges.
  • Very well supported
  • Really excellent value

But the devil is always in detail and this is why it’s still my favourite race.

After the organisers had managed to successfully get everyone through the registration process we were mere minutes from starting. I took up my customary position at the rear and when the sound to go went off I slid my way forward with the other foolhardy souls.

The amble around the rugby field is an opportunity for some to burst forward, usually those who have never run it before or those going for the win. I was quite happy sat in the middle of the pack enjoying watching the surroundings go by. The thing about Vigo though is that if you let it then it will bite you on the bum and as early as the first leap over a log you could tell conditions would be treacherous but runnable.

The rain earlier in the week had sat heavily on the course and made the top layers of mud pretty damn slick and as I looked to avoid the worst of the first puddles I realised this was going to be futile and so sank my foot into the thick wet, muddy water. Woohoo I thought as I felt the freezing cold water pass through my Terraventure.

Splish, splash, splish, squelch, squerch I thundered across the ground watching the runners ahead of me and seeing the sections I should avoid. The good thing about going through the water is that it is probably the most stable section of the course – yes you run the risk of losing a shoe or two but it’s quicker than trying to go round the edge. Despite a bad back, no sleep, a week to forget and the toughness of the route I was making pretty good time and I passed through the 5km mark within 30 minutes.

Parts of the route were also dry enough to run through more quickly and here I made up time for the sections were conditions had caused delay. As I passed the many wonderful marshals I offered my own assessment that they, ‘hadn’t made it any easier since last year’ but with the downhills kicking in it felt like I was making swift progress across Kent. It wasn’t much later – probably 8 or 9km in that I felt the last few weeks really catching up on me and when I hit a fast downhill I knew that I didn’t have full control of my jelly like legs – that didn’t stop me thundering down though but the big road climb in the route did bring me to a stodgy halt.

I stomped up to the top and the water point, wishing I was closer to the finish. I had fluids and a jelly baby followed by a stern talking to myself before I set off again – legs exhausted and a minor hamstring pull. As I pressed on I enjoyed the views and the slightly slower running. It was about 3km later when my Vigo running buddy caught me up and grabbed me from behind saying, ‘let’s get this done buddy’ but even as we pushed on together I knew that I didn’t have the legs – still that didn’t mean I wasn’t going to put up a fight. I flew with all the dignity I could muster through the downhill and into the next field but the sight of the final climb in the corner of my eye made me poo myself just a little bit and I said goodbye to Mick.

The final couple of miles are spent in the knowledge that you’ve got the final ball busting hill to ascend and in the distance you can see a slow and slowing procession of exhausted runners making the best of it that they can. I took my time getting there as I knew there was no way I was doing it quickly and when I arrived I had a little joke with the marshal before giving it about five seconds of thrust! I descended quickly into a slow death march to the top but strangely even though I was going relatively slowly it was pretty consistent and conditions on the hill were such that this was a reasonable ascent. Lovely. As I reached the top I muttered to both myself and volunteers, ‘four times I’ve done this! You’d think I’d learn. Never again’ – there was laughter.

Last year I reached the top and gave it some welly but this year I was in pieces – my legs stumbled to get back into position and once we were moving it was fine. I knew that I was probably less a kilometre from the finish but I wanted to finish strongly and so ambled casually into the undergrowth of the final few turns. Here I met a lovely volunteer who got behind me and gave me a push when I looked like I was about to give up and from here I hit the afterburner – leaping across the log and into the home stretch. In the distance I could hear the sound of Mick shouting out my name and there was a runner about a hundred metres ahead of me. I flew like my life depended on it to try and catch him but he crossed the line a second before me. My sprint finish wasn’t quite as brilliant as it so often is yet unable to stop I charged towards the volunteers – coming to a less than dignified stop some metres beyond the finish.

What a race!

Caked in mud I shared an embrace with my long standing running friend Mick, his brother and also met his friend who described how he kicked on to take the race win a whole half an hour earlier than either I or Mick. Lovely chap and a very deserving winner.

Key points

  • Distance: 10 miles
  • Profile: Hilly, sharp ascents and descents
  • Date: February 2018
  • Location: Vigo, Kent
  • Cost: £20 (£25 on the day)
  • Terrain: Muddy, hilly
  • Tough Rating: 3/5

Route: It doesn’t get any better than this, the first mile or two is absolutely amazing whatever the conditions – you’re flying or falling through the thick oodles of mud. It drains you, it feels heavy but with every fibre of your body you know that this is the kind of race you’re going to adore based on this first section. The rest is simply a succession of ball busting up and down with very little respite but what it takes out you it gives back 10 fold and more. If you love running you need to do this route, preferably in this race.

Organisation: No complaints – even with a bit of an admin error (for which they massively apologised) the team got on with the job and made it happen (and as far as I can tell the chip times look pretty good). I hope nobody thinks different as they really bust a gut to get the race underway as fast as possible. In other terms the race start, the execution of the on course support, the finish line and the pre race marketing and social media meant that actually the race seemed even better organised than ever.

A special mention goes to the wonderful marshals and volunteers at Vigo Runners and the Harvel Hash Harriers who make this happen. I know that some complained a bit about the muddy parking but let’s put a bit of a spin on it – there was free parking and there were awesome cadets and other runners who helped push out the cars when we got a bit stuck! This race had a real air of community spirit – don’t change a thing!

Awards: Pretty cool medal, Vigo also had something different, my first one was pretty generic, the others a little more themed – this latest one looks like it could be a sex toy (if you look at it in the wrong light! Ha).

Conclusion: This remains my favourite race, the SainteLyon runs it so close but this has a place in my heart that just edges it ahead. The ten mile (and new 10km) distance mean this is a very accessible race. The route is hellfire tough, brutal in places but also super fast in others. It’s a race that can be whatever you want it to be and I hope this continues long after I have slipped off this mortal shell. Sadly my move to Scotland means I doubt I’ll be down for every running of this race but I suspect I’m not done with Vigo – my heart will draw me back. If you’ve run it you’ll hopefully know what I mean and be drawn back too and if you’ve never run it then you need to.

In memory of Thai: In my final words I’ll say that I ran this partly in memory of my beloved Spaniel who we lost earlier in the week – he loved the area and no matter how hard the race was I knew that if Thai were running alongside me (during a training run – race sadly not really suitable for Cani-X) he’d have been complaining that we weren’t reaching the next muddy puddle quickly enough. Thanks for keeping me going out there ThunderPad, miss you.

It’s such a cool experience being on the supporting side of a race that I don’t know I haven’t done more of it! ASK and I love shouting, ‘hurry up mummy, we’re cold!’ as incentive to the GingaNinja to get round a bit quicker.

This weekend the Team UltraBoy found themselves at Alice Holt near Guildford for one of the self proclaimed ‘Brutal Runs’. A 5km bimble through some pretty nasty boggy trails and waist high waters. Having recently passed my driving test I decided that I’d do the driving to the event and try and experience what my OH describes as the slightly dull task of being chauffeur and main cheerleader. However, I found the drive to Alice Holt rather pleasant and we parked up nice and early so a toilet stop could be had and a bit of a warm up.

ASK and I ran round the muddy fields, through some of the trails on the Unirider – for a bit of a laugh – spraying muck all over ourselves and found a playground to play on. The GingaNinja meanwhile had collected her number and was waiting for the start.

At about 11, post warm up we all headed to the start line. ASK and I ran to the bottom of the starting hill to get a few photographs. Then they were off. BOOM – 120 women ran past us and as the ginger one ran past us our daughter shouted out with all she could muster, ‘run mummy run, run faster!’. With the race now we’ll underway the child and I jumped beck on the Unirider and headed off into the mud and to find a suitable waiting location.

We took up residence at the 4km marker where we had a clear sight of the runners coming towards us and we could holler support for several hundred metres. It was here I met Joe, from Bournemouth with whom I had a delightful chat about parenting, running , eventing and a life outdoors – he too was awaiting his partner but we took it upon ourselves to cheer the runners as they came round.

With his other half having passed by he made his way back to the start and we were left to await the arrival of the GingaNinja and we were soon rewarded when I saw her in the distance. I told ASK I’d seen mummy and before the sentence was finished she was already shouting, ‘I can see you, come on mummy!’

She looked in surprisingly good form and cleaner than I imagined she would look as she passed by with less than a kilometre to go. There was lots of waving and cheering from us before we got back on the Unirider and thundered after her. The final ascent was tough going but the runners were pushing themselves and the GingaNinja hurled herself to the top. At the final turn there was a nasty final dip into the waist high water which I didn’t fancy with the child so we flew down the trail to find a shallower crossing and although we managed it we missed the finish at the line by seconds!

However, many hugs were awarded to the quite stinky GingaNinja who really had earned them. Well done.

As for the event, I’d recommended the Brutal Run as I had so enjoyed the Brutal Enduro a year or two back and this event proved just as well organised, just as well supported and just as brutal. The organisers should be very pleased with the events that they put on and the medals are wonderful.

Keep up the good work guys.

There have been a number of excellent blog posts this year about running and photography. I think my favourite was the ‘Mind Over Matter’ blog (read the original post here) about the subject and it got me thinking about the way I photograph and are there any tips I can impart that may help you to tell more compelling visual stories?

The Mind Over Matter piece suggests that blogging is big business and that photography has (in some cases) gone ‘business’ too with professional photography being bought in to create that more refined look. However, the post continues by arguing that this all looks very ‘samey’ and I couldn’t agree more.

For me photography is the capturing of a genuine moment in time and not the creation of a set-up, now that’s not to say that I haven’t put a camera on timed and attempted to capture me going in full flight but if I do it’s for my own amusement or the amusement of Instagram and the running was still genuine. If anyone had ever seen the tail end or start of my running videos then it’s usually me dropping camera on the floor followed by dipping down to collect it as I run past again. Basically what I’m saying is I’m more likely to disengage with something I consider contrived and overthought than something genuine (a word to the wise for the big brands methinks).

Therefore I’ve looked at the things I do based on 20 years of professional creative experience and also my experience using a variety of cameras in ‘action’ scenarios to create a series of tips as to how you might try taking action (but in particular) running footage.

Angles. The simplest trick you can add to any photograph (running or otherwise) is to change the angle you are shooting from. Shooting at face height has a tendency to all look the same – so use your camera to shoot from the sides, below and above.

Tip: Gorilla grips let me quickly hang my camera from above or to attach to difficult to reach places or to act as a tripod, they are relatively inexpensive and incredibly useful for finding more exciting angles.

Motion. A photograph should have a focus and in running photography that focus is usually the runner but that leaves the rest of the shot to convey that you are moving. Landscapes behind that are slightly softer in focus or in some cases dramatically softer in focus can help better capture your experience.

Locations. If you want to you can take your running photos in dog turd alley but will it give you the kind of photograph you wish to share or keep? Always look up and around and when you see a location that will enhance your photograph then capture it.

If you’re taking photographs with social media in mind then maybe consider you want to highlight new and exciting things – I found that seeking out new things even on my shorter RunCommutes helped keep things interesting both in exercise and photography terms.

Tip. If like me you are London based then photographs of me running past Big Ben aren’t as interesting and nuanced as discovering a new sculpture down a hidden street or finding another of those little blue plaques that London is filled with. New locations, new directions, new trails, new backdrops – keep it exciting, keep it fresh.

Stability. How far do you want to go in your investment in order to produce incredible steady footage? A gimbal is an expensive item generally and it’s going to be a personal preference as to whether you like them or not. I’m not really a fan and believe you’re better grabbing more realistic footage that shows the movement of the subject.

Tip: a reasonably steady hand and a willingness to experiment are the key requirements here. In my opinion a series of short bursts of photographs or video will mean you end up with a more compelling and action led visual story than if you shoot dozens of minutes of gimbal stabilised footage.

Safety. Photography while running can be a bit like using your mobile phone while driving – it is a distraction. On more than one occasion I’ve seen runners on the Southbank taking selfies running into people and I myself nearly brought the Skye Trail Ultra to a swift conclusion when attempting to get my GoPro out I took a nasty tumble down the ridge – breaking my selfie stick and slicing my leg open in the process

Basically take photographs when it is safe to do so or as a memory from my childhood pops into my head, ‘Stop, Look, Listen’.

Enlist help. Having someone to press the button as you’re flying by is perhaps the best way of capturing running photographs. When the GingaNinja attends races she becomes my unofficial race photographer and has learned to dip down at the race line, to capture me when I’m in full stride and to grab surrounding/background shots for blog posts. One could argue that’s the sign of true love.

Tip: Run with your dog? Strap a harness on them, cool angles and madness ensue!

Don’t worry. So you’ve just done 10 good miles, weather was great, conditions were lovely and muddy and the route was fantastic – but you didn’t take any photography because you were in the moment. That’s no problem – there will be other occasions.

Tip: If you feel like it you can always add an extra few hundred metres of sprints, hills, mud, whatever to give more consideration to camera position and how you wish the running to be portrayed.

Tip: If running selfies/running photos are your thing then don’t be intimidated by people around you. Whip your camera out, point and click happy!

The right camera. There’s not much point using your GoPro for finish line photography – that isn’t what it’s designed for, nor would it be really appropriate to whip out your DSLR at the 75 mile point of a hundred miler.

Small compact cameras are awesome for taking with you as they’re thin, lightweight and have good battery life. However, if you have a modern smartphone that’s going to cover most needs.

However, smartphone photography come with the cost to your battery, the potential for damage by dropping it and how effective your waterproofing is. Running saw the destruction of no less than three iPhone 5s because of moisture (both rain and sweat) I’m hoping that iPhone 8 will be a little more resilient.

Timers v Video Snapshot v Bluetooth button. Modern telephones and action cameras have a variety of useful aids to help you capture specific moments.

iPhone for example has a 3 and 10 second timer which will capture 10 shots of you across a short period of time – this is excellent once you’ve learnt to filter out the rubbish photographs this generates. However, if you’re moving like poo off a shovel it will struggle to focus.

The shutter speed of the iPhone (your mobile phone shutter speed will vary) is often not quick enough to capture a well focused and crisp image in anything other than perfectly lit conditions and then there is the setup. The possible solution is a discreet Bluetooth camera button (available for most phones for about £15) – this has the capacity to help you activate your camera without the need to use the timer and therefore have a greater degree of control.

Ultimately it’s all a hit and miss process but practice makes perfect.

I find the action camera setup is generally much quicker – drop harness/grip/stick in position, click camera to film and then spin back to enter frame as you’d envisioned, grab image in post production later and if you are shooting on a 4k (or even lower HD) action camera then the output should give you something to work with for most of the formats you’ll be using the images in.

Tip: If it’s raining when you’re shooting then wipe your camera lens down to avoid water droplets on your shots

Lighting. This can be challenging as you’re on the go and you have to work with what’s in front of you. But consider things like the position of the sun as you’re grabbing a selfie, it’s annoying if you’ve got the face right, the action right and the background looking cool if you then shoot into direct sunlight and burn everything out or shoot in such dark shadow that nothing shows up.

Tip: Alter the times if day you ‘photorun’ to use the differing light levels, this can make even your ‘go to’ route seem quite different.

At night running photography becomes even more challenging – the flash will ruin most photographs but you run the risk of out of focus images if you do it without.

The key to night time photography is being selective and taking your time. By this I mean consider natural light sources, road lighting, headtorch light and the general pace of the action, you can shoot everything and anything if you like but you’ll simply end up with full memory cards and lots of unusable images.

Tip: Dress for photography, black on black is fine but adding a splash of colour will make you easier to spot – especially in low light conditions

My recent trip to the SainteLyon was filled with decent night time race photography (blog suitable at least) because I was conscious of the conditions and was patient, waiting for the right points to grab the shots I wanted.

Post production. This makes it sound like a Hollywood movie rather than a action photograph but having some photo editing software to lighten or balance images just makes things that little bit tidier. For the social media vampires amongst us the various social platforms all integrate reasonably good editing tools. You don’t need Photoshop to ensure great storytelling

Tip: GoPro edit software is really rather good and easy for grabbing snapshots and cutting up your videos into snapshots of your experiences. Other software is readily available – I’m perhaps luckier in that I have Premiere installed on my phone which makes quick work of any video I want to quickly edit together but there’s thousands of great little apps whatever your editing platform.

Anything else?

Tip: Find of way of comfortably carrying your camera kit that allows for easy access but also keeps out of the way. I use Ronhill trail leggings that have two flush to the body stretch pockets on each leg that I put my GoPro in or one of the front pockets of any of my race vests.

Tip: A small charger – carry one! If it’s race day, (especially when you’re going to be out a long time) and you’re carrying a GoPro and your phone you may require a little bit of juice to keep your phone going. I can be bigger for tweeting, photographing and videoing events and I find I burn through my battery pretty swiftly – fine on a 10km but not so cool on a mountain ultra when you may need your phone for location or emergency services. A small charger is about the size of a lipstick and will certainly keep your phone going if you’ve been a little too ‘snap happy’.

In a nutshell

  • Honest photographs – don’t go all fake news
  • Use the right camera for the job
  • Don’t worry if your shots don’t come out
  • Shoot lots, delete the rubbish
  • Get help for race days
  • Photograph responsibly – be safe
  • Most importantly, try new things, experiment, have fun

and in answer to the question in the title, yes I probably am secretly running selfie obsessed – I’ve been accused (via Twitter users) of not taking my racing and running seriously enough, more interested in taking pictures than the event I’m doing. All I can say to that is, ‘caught red handed!’ 😁

ASK, the GingaNinja and I were having a pretty damn fine time at the Mince Pi: A Race of Two Decimal Places until at the final 300 metres the GingaNinja offered ASK a choice… and then meltdown occurred. Oh dear

Pre-race the GingaNinja had indicated that a lack of any training was probably going to hinder her progress and she would consider a single lap without stopping a decent measure of success. I suggested that ASKruns and I would accompany her to provide moral support and also earn the toddler another medal, I would then continue to run the marathon or ultra distance.

We arrived at the race registration at just the right time to avoid getting too cold despite having to help a woman move her 4×4 from the slip road of the motorway to the curb – I feel for her husband who left the car without any fuel in it – she was going to be furious with him when she got home., I digress…

Registration was quick and easy, we collected a couple of new Wacky Event buffs and pinned our numbers to our fronts. ASK was excited and keen to get going, the GingaNinja was keen to start so she could get finished.

We ambled along to the start and stood at the back where we knew the Unirider would cause the least disturbance to the other runners and with conditions being both a bit wet and icy I didn’t want to risk losing my footing. There was also the fact that we were playing the role of cheering squad to help the GingaNinja and so we would probably be going a slightly more restrained pace than usual.

ASK and I, as the runners set off, darted ahead of the crowd and hoped that the GingaNinja was following us but the she had been caught in the dozens of runners and so I took my foot of the peddle and let some of the others go past us until we were back together. And we pushed on gently amongst the crowds as they all settled into their rhythm.

The route was exactly the same as last year and I say this as a good thing because there’s lots of lovely little twists and turns as well as some delightful up and down hills. ASK and I shouted encouragement to the GN from a position about 10 metres in front of her hoping to ensure that we kept momentum as the lap progressed and it was progressing well.

We ran through the trail to the first big challenge on the route which is a frosty downhill before an icy and slick wooden walkway. Most of the runners took the steps down the hill but we took the slightly wilder route to the side and thundered down to the bottom. The GN who was now nicely warmed up followed behind us making good progress through the wintery conditions.

One thing to note about running with your toddler is that ‘Scenic’ really helps to keep your toddler happy and the rushing water of the lock, the ducks and the breaking of the puddles of ice with the Unirider served as very happy times as we ran. As we crossed the river bank ASK wanted to do a little bit of running and so she joined both the GN and I and did a few hundred metres before returning to the comfort of her ride. I knew that the ‘big’ hill was almost upon us and given the conditions over the last couple of weeks I suspected it would be slick and muddy rather than a dry and fast climb.

ASK and I took a crack at it and although I knew we could do it the GN behind us was ‘advising’ us to walk and once that happened then ASK wanted to do what mummy had suggested. However, my little toddler powered up the hill with greater aplomb than her penguin outfit suggested she was capable of and we toddled to the top in quick time. With the GN back in tow we headed off to complete the second half of the lap.

Top of the hill, hurry up mummy!

 

From here we had the lovely Tony as company periodically as we kept overtaking one another and ASK would remind her mum that she needed to go faster to overtake people! Perhaps it was the words of our toddler that kept the GingaNinja going but as we approached the final bridge she was looking in good shape and so I broached the topic of a second lap – sadly this was shot down long before I’d even finished my sales pitch and so we pressed on.

Into the final turns of the event and I knew that the finish line was just ahead – ASK had enjoyed herself and she just wanted a final flourish with her mum. I had decided that I would run her in on the Unirider but the GingaNinja unwisely gave the toddler a choice of running the last section and at 300 metres from the end caused ASK to go into a meltdown.

There wasn’t much that could be done at this point other than get her across the line and hope that a medal cured all and in truth it did – well that and a chocolate treat.

In truth I was a little bit annoyed with the GingaNinja (and myself for not making my plans clear) as ASK had mostly had a good time on the route, had enjoyed the challenges of the race, had enjoyed the attention she received from the other runners and supporters, had enjoyed chasing and cheering her mum and had really enjoyed getting the medal. But the run up to the finish took away some of the overall good feeling that had been gathered by this truly wonderful end of year event.

Thankfully post race we got changed and went back out on to the route to cheer ‘hooray’ as runners went past and this returned some of the cheer to my festivities.

Conclusions.
The guys at Wacky Events know how to put on a really good event and I would go back and do this year on year if I wasn’t planning on moving to Scotland before this event comes around again. However, I can highly recommend that you take part. It’s wonderfully priced, it’s a really awesome route, there’s a great medal and a free snood/buff/neck gaiter thrown in and combine this all with a feast of savoury and sweet snacks and you’ve got a winter winner.

For my part seeing my partner back out running and doing it well, albeit over a relatively short distance was really good and despite the mini meltdown that my toddler had we had lots of fun on one of my favourite looped routes. I’d also like to say a huge thank you to the organisers for letting us run with the Unirider during the event and a huge thank you to all of the amazing volunteers and supporters that littered the route with cheers and waves which only encouraged both the GingaNinja and ASK.

And the Unirider?
This was ASKruns and I using the Unirider for the first time at an organised event and it was awesome. We did sensible things such as stay at the back (mostly). Keep clear of the other runners and only do moderately silly things like ride straight through the wet mud and the icy puddles. If you’re a Unirider user and can find races that will allow you to enter then you’ll have a really good time. ASK and I are already on the lookout for our next event (I’m thinking a spring 10km) because she was quizzing me about next race once we had gotten home, so yes she may have had a meltdown, you may have seen her have a meltdown but that hasn’t quashed her desire to run again

This is a story two years in the making as the moment I finished the SainteLyon in 2015 I knew I had found ‘my’ race. My experience was so incredibly positive that I knew I would return and when entries opened in April I was waiting with my debit card to hand ready to sign up. Experience had taught me that this was unnecessary but I wanted my place confirmed as quickly as possible and within a few hours I had also uploaded the medical certificate from the UTBCN, booked my flights and begun the search for accommodation.

For more detail on how you go about the logistics can I recommend you read the 2015 report, which goes into much detail about that kind of thing.

The first half of my running year had gone quite well, finishing with a great finish at the South Wales 50 and despite failure at MIUT I was feeling tremendously positive overall going into the summer race break. However, the death of my partners mother, illness and injuries to my back meant that my return to training and racing was hampered quite badly. I didn’t show up for the return of the London to Brighton, although I rocked up to the start of the Ultra Trail Scotland: Arran this was cancelled mid race due to terrible weather conditions and I deferred my place at The Rebellion because of a hideous chest infection and a lack of preparation. This all meant that my return to the SainteLyon was incredibly undertrained in fact only just returned to training and in no way ready to face this wonderful course.

Regardless I wasn’t going to miss out and on Friday, 1st December I ambled along to the hideous Luton Airport and took the short flight to the delightful Lyon St Exupery Airport a short hop on the Rhône Express took me into the centre of the city (30mins), I bought a 72hour combined Metro, Tram and bus ticket (€15) and took the 3 minute metro ride to Saxe Gambetta where I would find my small but perfect AirBnB accommodation just two minutes from the station.

I dropped my bags down to be greeted by the sight of a Nespresso machine and some Belgian waffles and chocolate crepes! Merci Diep (the host). I grabbed a few bits like my passport and registration confirmation before heading straight out to the hall to collect my number. Another short hop on the metro and I was a five minute walk from where I needed to be – awesome.

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Security was still quite tight in France and there were bag and body searches before entry to the hall – which in light of recent history both in France and across Europe -makes sense. But once in the hall it was like a Mecca for all things trail running and I slowly wandered round deciding what I would spend some pennies on. It was lovely to see Oxsitis with a big stand and lots of products on show and while I may not wear them any longer Hoka also rolled into town with a decent showing.

Collection of my number was easy this year and I used my incredibly handy French phrase, ‘je ne comprends pas francais. parlez vous anglais?’ and I found that my French hosts once they knew I was English simply switched languages (something I am in awe of) though I did use my French language skills wherever possible. With my number collected I headed over to get some SainteLyon socks and my new much loved Buff!

And from this point I actually had some free time. I headed over to the huge shopping centre and picked up some provisions, did some late night sightseeing and then continued in this vein the following morning – touristing before settling down to an afternoon nap before the race. I then engaged in my now infamous pre race coffee ritual for a full bowel clearance and eventually I’d get round to loading up my kit up! It all seemed to be going far to smoothly.

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At about 6pm I headed down to the bus pick up point and joined the queue for one of the many buses to St Etienne. I remember in 2015 the bus was warm but the window had a drip running down it and I’d worked hard to ensure I didn’t get wet! This year the bus was a little chillier but the window didn’t leak and we arrived in good time and without incident. Security was speedy but thorough and as I had time to kill I grabbed some of the pre race snack goodies and went into the smaller of the two halls to see if I could catch a bit more sleep or at least rest. The hall was warm and filled with people but I had little trouble finding space and I folded a buff up and lay my head upon it – but I couldn’t sleep. The SainteLyon was effectively my Christmas present to myself and like a young boy I was desperate to open my present and get to running! Much like a Christmas Eve the following three hours dragged like the Hundred Years’ War! Still the hours did give me a vantage point for kit and people watching – the most interesting outfit I saw was a teenage mutant ninja turtle with full shell and this chap (as far as I know) ran the whole thing dressed like this. The STL though doesn’t attract a great deal of runners like this, they’re quite rare I would say. Most runners rock up in their favourite or best kit and I was pleased to note that many of the runners were wearing Oxsitis, Raidlight or Kalenji bags, undoubtedly the French appreciate these brands being reasonably readily available on the high street and support local brands. Shoe choices were equally local with most seeming to opt for Salomon or Kalenji – the good thing for me was I saw no Karrimor!

I’d chosen Altra for footwear and my beloved Oxsitis Hydragon for my back with a variety of OMM and Ronhill kit making up the rest, perhaps it was the kit that made me stand out as English as anyone that approached me spoke to me (generally) in my native tongue – clearly to the other runners I was not French!

Anyway to the race! The SainteLyon in its current form is a 72km race from St Etienne to Lyon, taking place the first weekend in December and setting off around midnight, you can read more about it here at Wikipedia. At around 11.30pm I drifted slowly to the start knowing that I would be starting near the back of the field but this would allow me to pick off runners later on (if I had any capacity to do so).

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The organisers though were releasing the runners in waves which meant that as I was at the back I would be one of the final runners to depart St Etienne. I could feel the cold setting in and I was geared for minimal warmth as I knew that during the race I would overheat with too many layers. I rubbed my arms periodically to retain warmth and hugged myself, while gently jigging on the spot – stopping sporadically to take photographs and make social media checks.

40 minutes later and, as promised, bang on time the music played, the horn blew and thousands of runners were released into the night. It was as magical as I remembered it, only this time there was no @kemptomslim to share the moment with and so I turned to look at the arch I had just run under and said ‘au revoir’ before turning on my heel and running into the Rhône Valley night.

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The first few kilometres are along the roads and lack any really interesting things to note other than the opportunity to catch some ground in the runners ahead of you or perhaps make some alliances to allow the hours to pass more pleasantly. I decided on the former rather than the latter and pressed firmly ahead knowing that conditions underfoot later in the race might slow me down. Perhaps the big clue as to the conditions was the fact that many runners had loaded up crampons to their race vests in preparation for cruddy conditions but at this early stage even those in their Kalenji Road shoes were running fine.

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While my French is limited I could feel the ambience of the race and the runners and there was a generally positive, goodwill feeling that swelled up around the runners in these early stages and you couldn’t help but be carried by this. For my part I darted between runners and ambled towards the trail which kicked in at around the 6km mark.

From here the light snowfall that we had seen on the sides of the road was replaced by much thicker, more dangerous, not so grippy snow and I recall as I headed down the trail that ‘bugger, this isn’t going to be as easy as last time’.

However, I am confident in my footwork and I was able to press on a little faster than those in front of me and as the kilometres marched downward toward the first checkpoint I started to feel very confident about running a good time. Despite a lack of training in the lead up to the race I was feeling surprisingly spritely too and as I hurled myself up and down the trails I was enjoying myself.

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I felt like I was in a good place and set myself up for cruise control to allow me some breathing room and to take photographs and simply to take joy from the experience. About 13km in, not long before the first checkpoint I looked behind me to see the procession of runners all twinkling behind me and then I really remembered why I love this race so much.

However, with underfoot conditions worsening I was glad to drop upon the first checkpoint and it was here that I stayed the longest of all the checkpoints – maybe 5 minutes, this was mainly due to the amount of people and partly because I actually wanted food. But it was still a short stop and thankfully they had full fat Coca Cola on offer and I enjoyed a cup full before heading out – no Rolo Cola this time @kemptonslim

I remembered that post checkpoints I was freezing cold for the first few minutes and so covered my fingers with the mitten part of my gloves and pulled my neck buff up and my head buff down and headed out. Weirdly though my nose was freezing and when I felt the front of my buff the snot and hot breath had frozen into a cold and icy mess. I folded it down a little and it was better but this would be the first buff to be replaced a few more kilometres down the trail.

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It was from here that you started noticing people putting crampons on as conditions underfoot deteriorated further and there was a visible increase in the amount of runners who were losing their legs beneath them, I was keen to go as fast as I could but knew two things;

  1. Falling would hurt
  2. I’d forgotten to buy ultra marathon sports insurance

and so I ran were it was appropriate and walked as quickly as possible everywhere else. It was about the 20km mark that I heard the sounds of an Australian accent behind me and for a short while I’d met someone who spoke English natively and we had a lovely brief chat before we went our sort of separate ways. This was her first ultra marathon and her French friend felt this would be a great introduction to ultras and when I saw her she looked the business taking her fast marathon form into the STL. I would see a little more of her later.

The second section unlike the first had a greater degree of pure Trail and both my knees and back appreciated this. The trail was incredibly variable with some being good clear trail, other parts moist but most were snow and ice covered and progress remained slower than I would have liked but still not bad. The STL though has a very interesting aspect to it that say something like the CCC does not – overtaking. Although the route is busy with runners the potential for overtaking is enormous and you find yourself gearing up past runners all the time and then being overtaken by them! This has benefits for the relay runners who are undoubtedly fresher than the full distance runners and even for the Express (44km) runners that you might meet.

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I found myself hitting some decent running in this section and engaging in lots of overtaking and being overtaken and it was fabulous hearing the phrase ‘a gauche’ or ‘a droit’ – I can’t tell my left from my right in English so I had to concentrate hard to get it right in French!

Although not clock watching I was very aware that my time was better than it had been in 2015 and some basic mental calculations suggested I could shave off around two or three hours from my previous outing and despite an injury and illness hit few months I was giving it as much welly as the ground would allow. However, all of this was to grind to a halt and all the good work undone. At about 23km in the ground became so icy that runners couldn’t even walk on it and in front of you a plethora of bodies were strewn across the trail.

A runner would fall and the phrase ‘ca va?’ would be called the two or three runners that would stop to pick up their fallen comrade. I brought my own race to a stop to assess the conditions and decided that I would use what visual clues I had before me, track the steps of the runners ahead of me and go as carefully as possible. Sections were becoming so severe that runners were sitting on their arses and pushing themselves down the trail on their hands.

I witnessed bloodied and bruised runners ahead of me but their tenacity meant that most would get up. My problems intensified though when at 26km my trusty Altra gave into the ice and I was thrust skyward and came down with a thud. I’d broken the fall with my back and smashed my headand although I got up straight away I was in pain – my recent back troubles suddenly came rushing back and my head felt woozy. I knew that Sainte-Catherine was only a couple of kilometres further on and so I followed the crowd, walking now and not in a good place. I slipped and slid more, desperate to keep my feet but I fell a further three times before the second checkpoint and when I crashed in I felt like death.

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I took a few minutes and ate emmental and salami to help get something in me and for both the first and last time I wondered if I should stop and seek medical attention. The answer was ‘no’ and with that I set off again. I tried to focus on the trail and ran reciting song lyrics and poetry to myself as I’ve often found this works to stop me thinking about more painful distractions. The various falls though and those to come had given me s kicking and perhaps had my head taken a worse knock than it did I would have had the common sense to stop – but I didn’t. The trail continued to worsen and we were now into the coldest part of the night and at the highest, often most exposed points, when the wind whipped through it passed straight through me but I refused to put additional layers on knowing that this would simply infuriate me.

Upon reach Inge the highest point of the race I felt something of an achievement, despite having run it before I convinced myself that the rest of the course was downhill but this was ridiculous and actually the most dangerous Running was just around the corner.

I could see the pack starting to gather ahead of me, the ice, once again so bad that runners were sat on the floor dragging themselves down and the mountain rescue, aided by quad bikes were going back and forth collecting runners from the trail. In my head I refused to sit down and drag myself along, I refused to bow, in my head I could here Terence Stamps, Zod calling out, ‘kneel before Zod son of Jor-el’ and although I’m no Superman i knew that the moment I gave in I would death march this home.

My decision to stay stood cost me a couple of falls and a fellow runner came sliding into the back of me taking me out at one point. My already broken body didn’t have the required agility to jump straight back up this time but my fellow runners pulled me to my feet quickly and set me on my way. I was hurting now in lots of ways but the mild delirium kept me on the straight and narrow!

Ha!

I dragged my sorry arse into the checkpoint and found a quiet spot to change head torches and power my phone up after the cold had simply switched it off. I didn’t bother with food or drink here – I was feeling sickly but I hoped this would pass if I quickly got out of the checkpoint and avoided the dreaded DNF.

I was a marathon or so in and light would soon be upon these beautiful French lands and with it I felt conditions would improve if only because I’d be able to see but the news was a bit better than that – the closer to Lyon we got the better the trail conditions got and icy conditions became more sporadic. My head was also starting to clear a little bit and despite the physical pain I could feel myself running more and more with confidence returning that I could control both my ascents and more importantly the descents.

Finally after the drama and trauma of the night I was back in the race – although the slow progress through the ice had ensured that there was no way I was going to run faster than the previous attempt.

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We were also on the countdown to the finish ‘SainteLyon 25km arrivee’ I pushed on as fast as I could, walking the hills as quickly as possible and staying steady across the flat and downhills. I stopped briefly to top up my calories with a couple of caramel Freddo and some icy water and took a look back to realise that there still many, many runners behind me – this was clearly proving a hard slog for everyone.

With 20km to go I pulled into the next checkpoint and pulled out again quickly – I’d been keeping tabs on the young Australian girl and her friend who I’d inadvertently been playing overtaking tennis with and decided that I could use her as my pacer – the aim? To beat her to the finish. The final 20km are much more road based which doesn’t really suit my running style nor my injury record, however, it did allow me to push on without too much concern for what was happening at foot level.

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about 5km in to the final 20km I saw my new target drift ahead of me – still looking strong and here I thought it was all over, I didn’t have a race in me – or so I thought. With just over 10km left I entered the final checkpoint had arrived at the outskirts of Lyon. I saw the two runners I was trailing and asked how they were getting on, they described a tale of woe in the icy conditions and my internal Schadenfreude said, ‘hehe’ but instant karma paid me back by making me bite down hard on my own finger instead of the cheese and salami I was holding. I base them farewell and wished them a good final push but I knew I could get there before them.

Boom!

Finally the sun was warming, I removed my buffs, my gloves and rolled my sleeves up. I knew the route from here, I could smell the finish line in the distance and even the good awful climb into the city I flew up much to the amusement of runners behind me. There are steps on the descent into Lyon and the finish – lots of them and ahead of me I could see runners gingerly hobbling down them but I pushed hard knowing that I could continue to climb the rankings.

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Off the steps, down to the river, up the winding steps, over one bridge, fly past the musee de confluences and over the final bridge, cheering supporters shouting, ‘Allez!’ And clapping calling out, ‘Bravo! Bravo!’

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I had decided on my finish routine long ago for this race and I ambled along to the final 200metres, I could see runners ahead of me and at the right moment I pressed my feet into the floor and like a rocket I blasted off much to the surprise of the crowd who whooped and hollered as I hit full pace. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 runners down, runner number 6 with his hands in the air smacked me in the head but I was in full glorious flow and I hurtled towards the final turn – taking it wide to ensure I could cross the line flat out! I passed a couple of final runners at the line and I was over.

It was over! I was over!

  • Distance: 72km
  • Ascent: +2000 metres
  • Location: Lyon
  • Cost: £65
  • Runners: 7,000 (15,000 over all distances)
  • Terrain: Mixed, icy, rocky, hilly, tough
  • Tough Rating: 3/5

Organisation
The STL is possibly the best organised race I’ve ever run, but then after 64 editions perhaps that is to be expected. However, they clearly keep on making minor corrections to the system to ensure that runners know what’s going on and what they have to do. Things like transport to the start for thousands of runners is slick and well rehearsed and the checkpoints although busy are all easily accessible as a runner.

As a French classic there isn’t much information in English but Google translate is helpful and the volunteer army was amazing in helping me with questions I had.

There was also excellent social media connectivity and the tracking was quick, up to date and working unlike at so many events (yep I’m thinking of you UTMB). The STL scores incredibly highly for organisation.

Volunteers
All volunteers are amazing but the SainteLyon volunteers are out in some freezing cold conditions for a very long period and they remain hugely upbeat – they are a credit to the race and to European Ultra Running. There should also be a special mention to the many people who came out on to the course to support, whether they had a runner or not, truly special.

Route
The route had something for everyone whether you’re a trail lover, a road hog or somewhere in between. The ascents are sharp and the descents technical in places but it’s fun and the route is mostly wide enough for easy overtaking. The views for this route are strange in that you are in the middle of the night so it’s dark but the lights of the runners illuminate things around you and in the distance and that’s a beautiful sight. I feel very much the reason I love the STL so much is because the route is both challenging and fun, this time it really did show me it’s tough side but that doesn’t change my opinion that this is an everyman course and with a bit of tenacity you can do it.

Awards
I would love, love, love a SainteLyon medal but solo finishers are presented with a T shirt instead – a nice technical shirt but still not a medal. This year pre-race they also supplied a snood/buff and a pair of STL branded warm socks which are excellent. There were all sorts of other goodness such as the post race and pre race food (I didn’t bother with either but I heard good things about it). All in all the awards are great but I’d love a medal (take the hint organisers).

Costs
To give an indication of cost I paid around £85 return flights (London Luton – Lyon). £22 for the return express train to Lyon from the airport and about £85 for three nights Airbnb in the centre of Lyon as well as £60 for the race and transport. Other costs included a couple of technical SainteLyon t-shirts and a bobble hat (total cost £27). All in, transport, race, goodies, tourism and food £300.

Logistics
I’ve written in my previous STL about logistics but Lyon is 1hr 25mons from London and Lyon Airport is 30 mins from the city centre. I used AirBnB for accommodation which was lovely and the race itself provides buses to the start for €13 and this is easily the best way of arriving fresh at the start. The organisers and Lyon/St Etienne are very well prepared for this event and as far as I could tell it runs smoothly and logistically brilliantly.

Value for money
Value for money is a very subjective thing, for example some people even believe that OCR events are good value but this is a different kettle of fish. Entry is €63 – this includes the €3 service charge and what you get is not only a truly glorious event but also tremendous support (be that through volunteers, cheering supporters or food at checkpoints), most importantly though you receive a brilliantly organised event and having some events not this well set up I can tell you I appreciate the value of a good team delivering on their promises.

Favourite moments
This year was a little different to 2015 but it had no fewer highlights, below are five moments that really made a difference to my race.

  1. The start line, such an icon of the race and filled with all sorts of emotion. The moment the runners all started hugging and patting each other on their backs just made me feel connected to my fellow competitors
  2. Standing at various high points of the route and looking back to see the procession of lights running to catch me and the people ahead of me.
  3. The two young children and their mother offering water, coffee, goodies and support in the darkest hours of the race
  4. The cries of Allez! Allez! Allez! and Bravo!
  5. My sprint to the finish line

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Conclusion
Going back to the SainteLyon after 2015 was never in doubt. I had loved the idea of it and loved the execution of it. After being busy with Haria Extreme in 2016 I knew I would be returning to Lyon this year but what I hadn’t been prepared for was a hugely different experience.

In truth, as I look back on it, I enjoyed this year even more than my first time because of how close I came to failing and yet still clinging on. However, it wasn’t just that it was also the fact I got to enjoy the race, to watch the landscape move before my very eyes in a procession of light and because the SainteLyon continues to tease, ‘come back UltraBoy you can run me faster’.

Going back to the SainteLyon is a certainty because there is something special about it that no other race I’ve done has given me the feeling I get here. It might have left me broken into a thousand pieces but I would rather that it was body broken than my heart. SainteLyon 2017 – I loved you.

You can learn more about the race at www.saintelyon.com and below is a gallery of images taken during the 2017 event!

 

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