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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.

They bet me I couldn’t down a pint of whiskey and still be sober later – I downed the whiskey and next remember being in a police cell being offered sausage and eggs covered in my own vomit and probably my own piss. Needless to say the first thing I did upon my release was to head over to the house of the girl I fancied and ask, ‘what the bollocks happened…’

She told me I should go home and shower.

I did.

I never dated that girl.

That was one of the many anecdotes I told as I bimbled and bumbled around the Silkin Way Ultra this last weekend. It was a funny race and something I was completely unprepared for but it was all good fun in the end. But before we reach the conclusion we need the journey and this is what happened.

It was 2am when my alarm went off, I’d gotten to bed at around 11pm due to having run out of printer ink and needing to handwrite the narrative route instructions, so when I awoke I wasn’t in that great a mood. However, a shower and a thick slathering of Vaseline’s finest around my nuts offered the usual level of excellent preparation. I had to two large coffees and a bowl of Cornflakes before I left the house at 3am and took position behind the wheel of Spusm, my little Toyota Aygo. I wished us both well because a) it was 3am in the morning b) there was heavy rain and c) this was my first significant drive without anyone else in the car with me and I was about to drive 3 and a half hours to Shropshire.

Vroom! Vroom! Thankfully aside from trucks and roadworks the motorways up to Telford were pretty quiet, my only real concern was the rain and I surprised myself when I rolled into Telford Services pre-6am (and pre Burger King being open). This though offered the opportunity for the coffee I’d had earlier to perform its magic and relieve me of my inner poo turmoils and yesterday’s delicious homemade spiced Indian meatballs. With no second breakfast options I headed over to the Village Hall in Coalport and took a wander down by the river as even the race organisers hadn’t arrived.

Denzil and the guys arrived not long after me and began setting up, I did offer to help but they had everything under control and so I returned to the relative comfort of the car and looked out for the other runners coming in. I chatted with several lovely Marathon and ultra regulars – all of whom were new to me, which was one of the benefits of being so far from home at a relatively small and quite new event. I chatted with others mainly about upcoming events and my fears about the Fellsman in four weeks but more immediately – how the hell you drive home after an ultra marathon!! Anyway with all the guff and gubbins done we ambled to the start and with a lovely low key start Denzil sent us on our way.

I ambled up to the Silkin Way and started to pick out my position in the instructions – with no GPX file I’d be reliant on these and the very handy chalk markings (thanks to Jon I believe) on the route. I started out at far too fast a pace and got rather caught up chatting with future ultra star Emily who bounced around the route like the Energiser Bunny but I knew her pace was going to outstrip mine and so about 5km I said adios and watched as she thundered off into the distance. From there I was able to ease off a little as it became clear to me this wasn’t going to a trail race and it’s been a very long time since I’d even tried to run long distance on tarmac and paths like this. Within 7km I could feel my knee, groin and hamstring in my left leg and by 10km I was in pain, however, if I slowed now I knew that I’d be getting back at the top end of the eight hour time limit and I really didn’t want that – so I pressed on.

The route itself was pleasant and we passed through sections of Telford that gave a nice impression of the area and harked back to much of the towns heritage. The route and the Silkin Way had many people out walking, though it was never too busy to be congested and we passed several big lovely parks and open spaces that the locals were using. On a nice morning like this it was lovely to see. I’d only been to Shropshire once previously where I went fruit picking with some old friends (although my hopes had mainly been in the seduction of French girls rather than pulling Gooseberries all day). This trip to Shropshire was for an entirely different kind of loving – my love of running.

However, as much as I love running with only 20km done I was feeling the burning heat of pain in my groin and I was grateful a couple of miles later when I reached the second checkpoint. This wonderful stop was rather handily was in one of the organisers homes – a novel and very friendly way of doing it I thought. I grabbed some cola and a few jelly babies before heading back out.

With the second half of the event now under way I was hoping that given this was effectively an out and back I’d be able to avoid the route mistakes I’d made earlier in the race but sadly no – I was still able to get bits wrong. Thankfully the mistakes were smaller and I wasn’t clocking up large extra miles.

It was a few kilometres further in that I would meet the runners that would define my race – there was no doubt I was struggling but people like Nick, Rob and Karen provided fresh inspiration to keep going at a reasonable pace. There was back and forth with these small pockets of runners but I noticed that when I was on my own or they would go past me that I would immediately slow and give in to the voice that said, ‘you’ve ruined yourself, save it for another day’. However, the jollification and support offered by being alongside other runners outweighed the negative thoughts I was having and so I did my best to keep up.

As the miles were counted down I could feel a sense of relief washing over me and when we were given a little bit of trail respite my hamstrings, knees and groin called out in gratitude – these kilometres were my favourite of the day but there simply hadn’t been enough of them to make much of a difference to the pounding the lower half of my body had taken and so I continued to slowly amble merrily along.

We were however soon back on the pavements and being sent across the mighty Ironbridge, sadly for us this glorious structure is undergoing major renovation and restoration work and was therefore completely covered. That said I can certainly say I crossed it and enjoyed the views across the town and river. From here I started clock watching or to be more accurate GPS watching, converting kilometres to miles and trying to figure out just how far was left, the trouble was I’d gone wrong in direction enough to make this futile and turned my gaze to the river and the fact I was on the side opposite to the finish line. Bugger.

All of the runners I was with had a small wobble about halfway before the actual crossing but it was with renewed vigour that we all pressed on for the final mile. Buoyed by the sight of the final directional arrow I burst forward a little ahead of the others and bounced through the car park to the finish.

There was no fanfare, simply Denzil manning the bacon butty wagon. Perfect.

Key points

  • Distance: Ultra 50km
  • Profile: Nothing too severe
  • Date: March 2018
  • Location: Telford
  • Cost: £50
  • Terrain: Mixed (but mainly tarmac paths)
  • Tough Rating: 1/5 (very accessible ultra)

Route: The route had a number of interesting bits, lots of bridges, lots of heritage and passed along some good scenery but that was tempered by the running through some really rather dull sections. The Silkin Way markers were a really nice touch and being made up of good paths the route lends itself to being fast – if you want it to be. The trail sections for me where the best part (though I believe these were off the Silkin Way) but there weren’t enough of them, however, that’s the trail runner in me talking. Ultimately I think you’ll find that this is neither the best nor the worst route you’ll ever do but has more than enough positives to make this a worthwhile run.

Organisation: This was my first time with ‘How Hard Can it Be’ and the hugely enthusiastic team were incredibly professional and wonderfully supportive. It was a relaxed atmosphere and everything was organised perfectly – just the kind of race organisation I enjoy.

Support: Aid station 1 and 3 were the same one on the out and back with aid 2 being in one of the organisers homes which was very nice and my desire to take a seat was sorely tested. Three aid stations was enough albeit the positioning was probably just a wee bit off as you had the final ten miles with no race support (although there was nothing stopping you nipping into the local shop for a bottle of water and/or a snickers!). The aid stations themselves were suitably stocked for the shorter end of the ultra distances with jelly babies, jaffa cakes, crisps, cola and water in abundance. Nothing wrong with the support.

Awards: The medal was weighty and a lovely memento of a challenging event. I also very much liked the design for the race numbers, made a pleasant change from the black number against white background. There was also the post race photograph to look forward too (or grimace at) – as per usual I look terrible!

Value for money: The route, the medal, the experience, the support and of course the cost all come to mind when I’m looking at value – how does this stack up against its contemporaries?

It comes out pretty well – primarily because of the positive experience you’ll have running the Silkin Way and different people will take away different positives from this. For me I got to run an ultra marathon in a new part of the UK, in a friendly, small field of runners with an ace medal and that means I got excellent value for money.

Conclusion: Is this the best ultra marathon in the UK? No it’s not, but is it a really good early spring shakedown ultra that will set you up for races later in the year? Oh yes!

I’d say this race is especially good for road runners who want to dip their toes into ultra marathons but who want to avoid laps or want to avoid mud. It would be excellent if you were looking for a challenging but fast 50km. Would I do it again? If I were looking for a race at this time of year I would certainly consider running this again (although I’d prepare a bit better for the tarmac) as I enjoyed myself more than the pain in my legs suggest. The fact is that races like this draw out, in my opinion, the ultra runners I want to run with and I’ll continue to support races like this for as long as lovely race directors like Denzil (and the team) put them on. Good work guys – you can check out their races at http://www.codrc.co.uk

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

Sadly the second half of 2017 was a disaster.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can’t say fairer than that can you?

Highlights

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

Lowlights

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

So that was 2017 but what about 2018?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mince Pi Photographs: Hayley Salmon

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!

 


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Key points

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

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

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

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

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

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

I looked over my shoulder just beyond the escape point to see if the Crow was following but much to my delight its beady eye was watching north – little did I know that my winged nemesis used more than vision to stalk its prey.

Escape from Meriden, the prison break was on. But let me roll back a little to explain the race and why I was running it. EFM is the brainchild of those sadistic types at Beyond Marathon – turn up at the centre point of England and at 23.59 you run as far from Meriden as you possibly can in 24hrs. No aid stations, no support (unless you bring it yourself) and no defined route (unless you’ve planned one). Then comes the both the carrot and the stick – your finishing point (or final resting place) will be ‘as the crow flies’ from Meriden and there are three distance level up points you could be rewarded for 30, 60, 90 miles.

The crow and the race would be a very cruel mistress and that’s why I wanted to be involved. Unsupported I wanted to experience the challenge of facing myself, my own route and whether I had it in me to get over the 60 miles (as the crow flies).

I’ve already mentioned in my race preview that given I would be off to South Wales in a few weeks that I would drop my distance at Meriden but not by much – I dropped down from about 92 to 75 miles but I’d also run less time (somewhere around 18-20hrs) and instead of heading to London I’d amble along to a small village in Oxfordshire/Wiltshire.

I had a clear and well defined plan. It sounds like my race preparation was going well doesn’t it? The trouble is my prep was going anything but well. Lower back/kidney pain has been a constant companion since about March, left footed heel pain has been nothing but a nuisance and a groin tear that makes any movement a possible lighting pain inducing experience / the annoying thing is that none of these were caused by running but they made my ‘Escape’ seem downright impossible.

So what happened?
Well I ambled up to Birmingham International (£8 single, advance), jumped into a taxi (£12) and arrived into Meriden to see small pockets of runners ambling around. I joined them at the Methodist Church Hall were I was greeted by familiar faces from my SVN eventing – nothing better than a couple of friendly faces when you’re feeling a bit nervous. I grabbed my number, tracker, coffee, biscuits, t-shirt and a dark corner to get changed.

The hall was now packed with a wonderful array of runners, hikers and their supporters and the atmosphere was exactly as I like it, friendly, relaxed but filled with a buzzing anticipation. Being completely alone in terms of my race approach made me feel slightly more nervous than usual but when the call came out to head up to the start line I was quite ready. I hurled on my waterproof jacket as the rain had started to come down and then plodded up to Meriden marker.

I don’t know what I expected from the start line but as everyone set off in every possible direction I stopped to look around and take it all in. To describe it you’d say it was less of a prison break and more rats jumping ship… drowned rats too but we were off.

With GPS on I was determined I would follow the route as closely as possible – ensuring I didn’t get snared into a mis-step by following another runner or taking what might be considered a short cut – Escape from Meriden was not about instinct it was going to be about following rules – perhaps this was my mistake.

I drifted through the first few miles, merrily keeping myself to myself and even with the rain becoming heavier I decided to dispense with the services of my waterproof jacket, I felt it better to be damp than overheating.

For a while I watched as the miles started to be clocked up, I even logged into the drone website so I could see the progress of my fellow runners but the sheen soon wore off as the reality of the rain kicked in. However, despite the weather I knew that I needed to make maximum progress while it was dark as the heat of the day was likely to wipe me out. I passed through small villages and hamlets throughout the night and delighted in the peace and tranquility of my route. This was punctuated only by the roar of ‘boy and girl’ racers using the dead of night to test how fast their Alfa Romeos and souped up Corsas would go. Light was much earlier than I expected arriving for me around 4am and the arrival of light always brings with it renewed hope – strangely though rather than hope it brought hunger.

I had munched my way through much of my very limited supplies and therefore when arriving into the towns on my route to the discovery that everywhere was closed proved mentally challenging. I was hungry, very hungry, my choices were limited to stopping for more than an hour and wait for the garage to open or 2hrs 15 for the Co-operative to open or I could continue and accept the hunger.

I chose the latter and pressed on

Thankfully as a distraction from my hunger there was an unspecified pain across the top of my foot, which I unwisely ignored. Had I been brave enough to stop and look I’d have seen a massively swollen right foot with a tenderness that really shouldn’t have been run on. Ho-hum! On the positive side of distraction though we had Riccardo from Italy who epitomised the ultra running spirit – carefree, spirited and determined. His company for several miles made the early morning meandering much more palatable. The issue of food had not been resolved though and without any support or checkpoints this was going to start becoming an issue as my water supplies were lowering too.

I rolled into the next town to discover a Co-op that was open about 7.30am. I could smell myself from sweat, rain and mud and wanted to restrict my human interaction – I find trying to explain ultra running quite a chore when I’m mid event.

I picked up some chocolate milk and some Lucozade and asked the lovely Co-op ladies if they knew of a local cafe or bakery that might be open – they just laughed. Hmmm, if this had been France I’d probably have had the choice of half a dozen bakeries and eaten my own body weight in croissants but as it is the UK I had to have chocolate milk and Lucozade. I hoped that later stops might furnish me with something a little more delicious… well you’ve got to have hope right?

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Feeling refreshed, my bag rearranged, night time kit locked away and starting to finally dry off I pressed on a little quicker heading out of Shipston with all the effort I could muster. The day was now in full flow but the heat hadn’t yet set in so it was worth it to try and get as far beyond the 30 mile point as possible. Despite passing through 50km I still hadn’t crossed the 30 mile ‘as the crow flies’ line but it surely couldn’t be far?

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Daylight brought me into The Cotswold and an area of the country that I’ve not really been running round very much. What I discovered was large swathes of beautiful British countryside and farmland and I finally understood why people move out to places like this.

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It had been some time that my foot had been an issue during Escape from Meriden but I remembered to take some pain killers but now my back/kidneys ached and my groin strain was shooting the lightning bolts of pain up and down my leg that have been synonomous with my running in recent weeks. Having gotten through the 30 mile point I did seriously consider stopping – but I had come here with an objective and that objective was the 60 mile ‘as the crow flies’ marker and that was still at least 30 miles away.

More and more small villages were run through and the pain I was in grew worse and worse but I felt having committed to not stopping that I had to make the effort count.

At 12.47pm I ambled into a town with another Co-op, this could have Wychwood, it could have been anywhere but I sat tired and sore on a park bench with some houmous, baguette and more chocolate milk (I also replenished the Haribo), a wise choice having learned that The Cotswold effectively has no retail presence!

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Fed and watered I set off again but this time in search of a toilet – as you can imagine if shops are hard to come by then public toilets are even harder and I didn’t feel it appropriate to use the local publicans facilities. However, I was lucky enough to find a delightful and discreet field where I could release the contents of my bowels all over the countryside. I have to say I’ve become something of expert at this and my process is now so well rehearsed that my hands are washed long before there’s any whiff of indiscretion by an ultrarunner.

The next 40km were probably the worst of the race, very limited resources for water, hot and very busy ‘A’ roads.

I was as careful as it was possible to be and for the most part drivers were very considerate of a runner using the side of the road. However, I remained vigilant and  was mindful to move out of the way of larger vehicles, stepping into the grass verges or nettles when required. The trouble is that there were many drivers with their soft top sports cars out speeding through the countryside, flexing their machismo and then there was the red Nissan Almeria driver who refused to move from driving too closely to me, despite there being no traffic on the other side of the road, clipping me with his wing mirror and then hurling abusive language at me for using a road we were both perfectly entitled to be on.

Given I was tired this played on my mind – he might have killed me and it forced me to rethink a little bit for rest of the event. However, the clock was ticking and I had promised the GingaNinja that I would arrive at my finish point near her parents house as close to bedtime for UltraBaby as possible. In order to do this I had to negotiate the slightly terrifying remaining busy Saturday A roads. 


No further incident was had in this section and in my head I was making calculations for a course correction. My route could be altered to go straight past her parents house and then onwards, albeit uphill about 4 miles and through the 60 mile barrier. The GingaNinja and UltraBaby being so close chose to come and cheer me on, which was a welcome distraction, although she had no kit I could use or food I could eat she could take my race vest which was no longer of any real use. I removed the tracker, my phone, battery pack  and a water bottle and explained my plan to the GingaNinja hoping that I’d be able to finish the last 15km in the next 90(ish) minutes.

My arrival at Faringdon was short lived and although there was finally a wide and varied selection of places to eat and drink I was no longer in the mood, nor did I feel I had the time and simply pressed on. 

The climb out of Faringdon isn’t much but when your feet are ruined and your nerves on edge then it feels very steep but despite this I made it to the main road and I nearly had a heart attack – it was the main road between Swindon and Oxford – Holy Shitburgers.

The road was incredibly busy on both sides and the traffic gave you no quarter – the grass verge was massively overgrown and so I had little choice, having picked this route but to tough it out. In the gaps between the cars I would sprint as far as I could before leaping back onto the relative safety of the overgrown grass and nettles. Each time I did this my nerves jumped back to the knife edge from where the car had clipped me earlier, but despite tiredness creeping in and having now been awake for more than 45hrs, and running for the last 18 of them, I felt very focused and managed to weave my way down this horrible, horrible road.

Eventually I found a diversion through a place called Longcot where traffic wasn’t an issue and slowed down, slowed my heartbeat and calmed myself. I was angry at myself for changing my route – this was stupid – and all to save no more than a mile.


From here it was a quiet climb up to Ashbury, a small village, I assume in Wiltshire. I watched for a while as the sun bled from the sky. I watched as my little dot on the drone tracker finally passed the 60 mile marker, but I had run around 73 miles to achieve this.

I felt broken but also nervous – had I done enough? I still had around three hours I could have used to progress further but I wasn’t going to get 90 miles as the crow flies and so there seemed little point and UltraBaby told me it was bedtime.

With my body having taken a beating during this event I felt it deserved a few hours off.

I escaped Meriden and I reached all my targets and yet I feel like I failed Meriden. I guess I’ll just have to return to prison and see if I can get out again.

Key points

  • Distance: as much as you can in 24hrs
  • Profile: you decide
  • Date: June 2017
  • Location: Meriden
  • Cost: £35 (plus food)
  • Terrain: Whatever you like
  • Tough Rating: 3.5/5

My normal criteria for judging an event doesn’t really apply here simply because the conditions are really quite unique. However, I’ll apply some logic and try and give a fair representation of EFM.

Organisation: First class, there was good pre-event communication, an active social media community, a fair exchange of places policy, a well run, smooth and comfortable registration process. What more could you ask for? The race drones were a nice touch to make the event ‘cheat proof’ and it didn’t need to be any fancier than it was. Brilliant.

Route: I hold my hands up to making a huge mistake – I thought I could run the roads and the tarmac but it’s been years since I did more than a few miles like this. I’m conditioned for trail, built for trail and love trail. When I go back I will show the same level of detail to the route as I did this time but instead focus wholly on finding a decent trail route out of Meriden. My route, for a ‘as the crow flies’ was a good one and it had lots of lovely views but it hurt my feet and caused my existing injuries nothing but misery.

Value for money: £35 (plus food on the route) a bargain, plain and simple. I bought the tech T-shirt too so it was about £50 with another £30 for transport and food – this is one of the best value events around. The fact they throw in a decent looking medal too means if you’ve got no room for complaint! Ace

Who is it for? That’s easy, this is a tough as buggery event but it is achievable by anyone, a decent walker could get a long way in an event like this and a good runner – well the sky is the limit. I like events that are inclusive like this – I’d recommend it to everyone.


Conclusions: I earned my gold medal, I ran a decent distance, I got to the point I was aiming for yet I feel a little deflated.

It didn’t go as well as I wanted and that was down to being injured before the event and then possibly breaking my foot early on during the event. I also selected a route that wasn’t right for my ability and I’d urge you that if you’re running this PLAN, PLAN, PLAN your route!

However, this being said the event was amazing and I would return in a heartbeat and if anyone can’t use their winter place I would purchase it happily. This is one of those unique challenges that deserves its well regarded reputation and I’ll be back for more Beyond Marathon events (probably next year now) because they really do know how to put on an event.

Thanks guys.


…and when I head up to Meriden in a couple of days time I will be crapping myself about what I’ve let myself in for at Escape from Meriden.

Previously on UltraBoyRuns: The year was going so brilliantly, I was training well, running well and dropping weight – I was on it like the proverbial ‘car bonnet’. However, failure at Barcelona albeit for technical reasons and clearly not being good enough to finish Madeira affected confidence and although there was the palette cleanser in the Marlborough Downs I’ve been pretty injured since then and hardly run at all.

Injuries while attempting escape: Neither my heel or my groin injuries have settled but I’ve discovered that the heel pain can be offset by wearing supportive shoes (Altra Olympus please step forward) and my groin seems to be at its worst when I lie down (so I’ll try not to lie down).

Perhaps my major injury concern is my back/kidneys which I haven’t been to get checked out – primarily because I asked to come off my doctors register due to their greedy narrow minded approach to healthy people and I’ve yet to source a suitable alternative – my bad.
The trouble is that whenever I’m running with a race pack for anything over about 8 or 9 miles (regardless of weight and now regardless of bag) my back/kidneys feel like they’re being punched repeatedly. It’s some of the worst pain I’ve ever been in and certainly contributed significantly to my failure at Madeira but now I’m concerned it’s going to ‘rain on my Meriden parade!’

On the run again: My first foray back into running has been the Westminster Mile and while it’s one of my absolute favourite races and favourite distances it does nothing to prepare me for Meriden. There’s no time to catch up on training now and in truth I’m not ready to return to training, I’m only doing this event because I won’t need to compete in the traditional sense. I know I can probably hike the route I’ve got planned inside the time limit and that would be a good test ahead of SW100. 

The original escape plan: Meriden is something new for me with its lack of support and ‘go anywhere’ guide to routing and originally I had planned to be powered through it by a succession of 24hr Tesco and McDonalds. As for the route I was going to lumber out of Meriden and head straight for Charing Cross train station in Central London (which just happens to be outside the 90 mile black medal radius) and pretty much a straight line if you don’t take into account my little diversion across Hampstead Heath and Primrose Hill.

Bish, bash, boom, job done. 

Then I entered for the South Wales 100 which takes place a mere 3 weeks after Meriden and I needed a Plan B.

The revision: Knowing that the GingaNinja would be visiting her mum that weekend I considered a slightly less torturous distance – 123km (74 miles).

I once again planned a pretty straight route down into sunny Wiltshire and found a good stopping point not too far from her parents and also well outside the gold medal 60 mile radius.

The only problem is that this route is not so replete with 24hr supermarkets and fast food joints on every corner. It’s fair to say the route is crammed with beautiful scenery and patisseries but the kind that are only open for about 3hrs a day. I jest a little, there are ample smaller supermarkets but I was hoping to find something open in the middle of the night section for water resupply and this is worrying me a bit. 

However, a trick I picked up on an ultra some years ago suggested that often graveyards will have a drinking water tap… what is an issue is that I’m not sure if there’s something wrong with ambling around a graveyard in the dark looking for water or not – to say my moral compass is conflicted on this should come as no surprise. Survival or creepiness, hmmmm?
Still with no training since Madeira nearly 6 weeks ago I’m figuring I’ve got bigger problems than whether I’ve got enough water.

I’m going to Escape Meriden: This is hardly the Shawshank Redemption but the positives are that I’ve got a planned route, my kit is tested and ready to go, my train is booked and I’m actually looking forward to this new type of truly unsupported running.

Am I genuinely worried? Yes a little bit – most other races I’ve run have people, aid stations and a safety net this strips all that away and gives you just one thing – yourself. But in reality I’m not trapped on Everest or in the middle of the jungle – I’m in the middle of England where the most dangerous thing I’ll come across are Tory voters.

As I tow the start line of Meriden my thoughts will be on people like Ian Brazier and Gareth Jones who last weekend completed their own awesome race efforts at GUCR and Skye Trail Ultras respectively. I’ll be contemplating how hard UltraBaby worked for her Mile medal and I’ll be drawing on 4 years of ultra running experience to get my safely to my finish line.

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