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Lone Peak 2.0


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

Key points

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Attending an inaugural running event can be a dangerous thing, the route may not be fully tested, the organisation might not be quite as slick as when the event has been running a while and the atmosphere may be dampened by the attracting of fewer runners than a more established event…

Thankfully we then have the Hockley Trail Challenge which was blighted by none of the above, in fact I think it’s fair to say that this looped course deserves nothing but high praise and return visits! But let me rewind to 10 days before the race and recount another sorry tale from my personal pantheon of running tales.

I was recounting the story of the week before the Green Man Ultra in 2016 and how I’d been pushed into the road on New Bond Street and been hit by a car mere days before the Bristolian 45 miles. I joked that I hoped that didn’t happen again, it seemed however, that fate is a cruel mistress and as I was bounding along New Bond Street a plethora of tourists refused to get out of my way and I was forced into the road, pulling a muscle in my calf as I landed awkwardly.

Boom! Lightning can strike twice.

I hobbled home and almost immediately cancelled my 49 mile Milton Keynes to London run and sat for hours with the TENS machine and the bastard rumble roller I own – there was Hockley Woods to get ready for! I decided rest was the order of the week and reduced my running to the bare minimum did nothing over the weekend and managed to see my physiotherapist the day before the event (never ideal). Anyway patched up and rested I rolled up to Hockley Woods in good spirits and a desire to have an amble round a new location.

By the time I arrived at 8.30 a few runners had congregated round the registration but many were hiding in their cars avoiding a pre-race soaking. Number collection was swift and smooth and I ran into Cherie and her husband who I met at the Ridgeway last year and we exchanged banter about our various abilities to do directions!

I soon returned to the family who had decided to join me so that the hound and the GingaNinja could get a few miles round the woods in before departing for a morning of trampolining pre-race UltraBaby and I bounded round on the Unirider chasing ThunderPad and the GingaNinja. However runners were soon called over for a short but useful race briefing and we all lined up for six hours of trail shenanigans!

I took up my customary position at the back of the course but as the start was called I quickly made my way forward through the other eventers, quickly catching the front four or five runners and settling into a very pleasant stride.

As I often do on looped events I look for markers and note conditions underfoot so as to try and see where problems, challenges or faster sections will occur later in the race and this one the course was replete with challenging conditions, grinding up hills, gnarly trail and the odd speedy downhill.

I quickly realised that the use of the word challenge in the title was very appropriate.
Regardless I pressed onwards, enjoying the spray of mud that had erupted all over my legs and I thundered through the first lap in under 30 minutes despite the reasonably heavy rain. The second lap went in an even faster time despite a stop to speak to UltraBaby who had been chasing round the woods after runners and our Spaniel, when lap three dropped at a similar pace my thoughts turned to a sub 4 hour marathon time for the first time in ages and a little over 4 hours for the eight laps I had targeted.

I took a few minutes at the checkpoint to gather myself for another lap and then set out again, still making good time and looking at a little over 2hrs for the first four laps.

I was about halfway round lap 4 when I came across a horse riding teen, I’ll assume parent and dogs. Having been kicked by a horse in the past I know instinctively to give them a wide berth and I’d noted that the Collie looked nervous and I felt best I give it some space too. Sadly the dog decided to run between my legs and, in my efforts to avoid giving it a thoroughly good kicking, upended me – forcing me down badly and heavily on my groin.
I managed to hobble away, there was no word from the owner, an acknowledgement or even apology might have been nice but still. I knew I’d pulled something quite painfully and so felt around to see what was tense but it was just sore. I pressed in some thumbs and then moved on gingerly.

At this point I hoped I could run it off but all running was doing was aggravating it. I stopped periodically to stretch my leg out which would give a minute or two of relief but the Hockley Trail Challenge as a race, for me, was over.

I moved into the fifth lap looking grim faced and eventually telephoned the GingaNinja asking for advice, however, having already decided that I wasn’t going to give up I pushed on despite her wise words. I found myself now being overtaken and in some cases lapped which simply irritated me but there was nothing for it I had made my decision and you don’t DNF the marathon distance when you’re so close to home.

Thankfully I was still managing to run some sections of each loop which kept both my sanity intact and my timings reasonable given the pain I was in and I was fortunate to meet some lovely people as I ambled along (most notably Joe, a lovely, hardcore ultra running chap from Tipperary!) who provided excellent distractions.

Reaching the eighth lap I stopped at the checkpoint for a few minutes and ate some chocolate raisins, looking longingly at the medals, thinking ‘I should have had one of those hours ago’. But with these thoughts put out of mind I pushed on for one last go round Hockley Woods. With the rain long behind us, the sun out and the knowledge that I was less than 6km from finishing I continued to run/walk these last few steps.

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As a very pleasant surprise though my little daughter UltraBaby was waiting for me a couple of hundred feet from the finish line (thanks to the lovely volunteers for the picture). She jumped out to ‘scare’ me as she is prone to do and then joined me for those final metres. We bimbled towards the finish as UltraBaby told me we were racing and we crossed the line to much applause from the amazing volunteers. Sadly for me UltraBaby stole the medal, little sodding monster – thankfully only one of us ended up coated in mud and it wasn’t her!

Key points

  • Distance: 5.5(ish)km loops
  • Profile: Undulating
  • Date: March 2017
  • Location: Hockley Woods, Essex
  • Cost: £30
  • Terrain: Muddy trail
  • Tough Rating: 3/5

Route
The route was much harder than I had imagined, hillier than I was expecting and conditions on the ground and the lapped nature of the course meant it got cut up pretty quickly. That being said once the rain stopped and the runners thinned out the course quickly returned to being more runnable for the most part. In truth despite the hills and mud this was a good running course with more than enough interest to sustain you for as many laps as you can manage. Hockley Woods looks like a really good training ground and if you’re local I’d recommend banging a few miles out.

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Organisation
The organisation was brilliant, the route was well marked, there were photographers and floating volunteers on the route and the checkpoint was well manned, well stocked and well protected for any gear that we had left behind. The volunteers were always on hand to provide the wrist bands to count our laps and there was always a lot of love and cheers as you rocked up to the checkpoint.

Awards
Medal and goody bag. The medal was big, heavy and has a fun feeling to it, the goody bag had Maltesers in (and other stuff) and that’s more than good enough for me. The real award though was the event and I think this was the general feeling from the runners I spoke to during the day.

Value for money
£30 seems like a very fair amount for a race this well organised.

I saw a Facebook post that suggested that £30 was too much but actually look at what you’re getting. A glorious loop on a glorious course with a big bespoke medal, an incredibly well stocked aid station/checkpoint and a really good atmosphere all supported by a wonderful team of volunteers who never stopped smiling. I’ll put it like this, I’ve paid a lot more for a lot less (I’m thinking East London half marathon and even the Royal Parks Half Marathon).

Conclusion
The Ranscombe Challenge (read the review here) has always held a special place in my heart as my favourite ‘laps’ marathon/ultra but the Hockley Trail Challenge has replaced it. I know that my experience was marred by getting injured but that doesn’t detract from the brilliance of this event. I would highly recommend running it’s a great experience and I know that I for one will at some point be back to add an ultra amount of laps to marathon amount of laps!

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I was going to review the Lone Peak 3.0 but then realised that actually the more useful thing to do might be to look at my experience of running across the Altra trail range. This review and comparison will look at the Altra Superior 2.0, Olympus 2.0 and Lone Peak 3.0 in which I’ve run at least 200 miles in each across a wide variety of terrain and conditions.

My introduction to the Altra trail experience 

Superior 2.0 It was a warm day in June when I first put my Superior 2.0 on, I’d bought them as a speedier alternative to the Lone Peak 2.0 – where the LP felt plush these felt more like moccasins, something you might find Native Americans wearing in the Old Wild West! As is often the case with Altra they sent the UK the boring colour way – grey with a hint of green and there was an air of wearing old ladies Hotter shoes rather than the latest innovative low profile trail running shoes.

Anyway I was at one of my usual haunts and set off on a short 10km trail run (a trail run that I put all new shoes through) and we danced across the logs, bounded across the dry, hurtled through the damp and came unstuck in the wet mud! Uphill they were kind to my toes and grippy and downhill they felt stable enough but with a backend that needed a bit of control.

The Superior feel like fast footwear, you don’t forget you’re wearing them despite having the same upper comfort levels of other Altra shoes – perhaps it’s the more tigerish feel of putting on a pair of runners that you know are built to go a bit quicker.

Lone Peak 3.0 I opened the box and looked down and went ‘wow’. Altra has finally delivered a shoe I could simply look at and think ‘OMG’. The LP3.0 was a big departure from the second series. Yes, I’m not made keen on the blue or the black colour ways (the only ones available in the UK) but I wanted to ensure they were bought from an independent UK retailer.

I knew I’d be delighted to take them out for a spin but it turned out that the first chance I’d get to use them would be on race day at the Chislehurst Chase. Now we all know the thing about not wearing them straight out of the box for something like a race but I felt confident in them and I knew the route as it used to be an old stomping ground of mine.

Within seconds of bounding our of the starting line I realised that the Lone Peak was an improvement and a half on the previous editions but it would it replace the LP2.0 as my Altra of choice?

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Olympus 2.0 Riding high like Zeus above the mere mortal men on the trail here I came in my mighty Olympus 2.0 (or so I thought). I had bought these with the Skye Trail Ultra specifically in mind. The Olympus it turned out were not the best choice for this race but they have proved to be a prudent choice for less gnarly routes.

The Olympus were as difficult to find in the UK as the Lone Peak 3.0 and in this instance I really did want an exciting colour and so bought them from France as they had the blue and neon yellow version. The most interesting advance in the Olympus over previous versions (and the reason I was willing to give them a go) was the Vibram outsole and more aggressive approach to the lugs.

Hitting the trails you could instantly see that the new, more cultured outsole was going to be of benefit and the level of comfort from all the A-bound technology sitting between you and the trail was ridiculously sumptuous.

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So what do Altra say about each of their footwear?

Superior 2.0
Why mess with perfection? Last year’s award-winning favorite is back with the same look and feel as its predecessor, but with new color options and sidewall reinforcement. The FootShape™ toe box lets your toes relax and spread out in uphill and downhill trail conditions while the fully cushioned Zero Drop™ platform helps you maintain proper form across long distances. TrailClaw™ outsole technology features canted lugs beneath your metatarsals for ultimate gripping in gnarly terrain. A removable StoneGuard™ rock protection plate protects your feet from sharp rocks and is removable for use on less demanding terrain.

  • Sizing: Slightly Short
  • Weight: 8.7 oz./247 g.
  • Stack Height: Height: 21mm
  • Sizes 7, 8–13, 14, 15
  • Cushioning: Light
  • Ideal Uses: Trail Running, Hiking, Backpacking, Off Road Racing
  • Designed to Improve: Running Form, Toe Splay, Stability, Push-off, Comfort, Traction
  • Platform: Natural Foot Positioning: FootShape™ Toe Box with Fully Cushioned Zero Drop™ Platform
  • Midsole: EVA/A-Bound™ Blend with InnerFlex™
  • Outsole: TrailClaw™ Sticky Rubber Outsole
  • Insole: 5 mm Contour Footbed with Removable StoneGuard™ Rock Protection
  • Upper: Quick-Dry Air Mesh
  • Other Features: GaiterTrap™ Technology

Lone Peak 3.0
Named after eleven thousand feet of pure Utah peak ruggedness, the Lone Peak 3.0 is the latest version of the trail shoe that started it all for Altra. We added additional protection to the upper for increased durability and protection when the trail starts to bite back. The outsole has been re-designed and spec’d up with the all new MaxTrac™ outsole, offering more grip in all conditions. The StoneGuard™ has been sandwiched between the midsole and outsole to offer extra protection from those rocks trying hard to go after your feet. And your toes will be loving life in the luscious FootShape™ toe box up front. The legend continues with the Lone Peak 3.0.

  • Weight: 9.7 oz. /275 g
  • Cushioning: Moderate
  • Stack Height: 25mm
  • Ideal Uses: Trail Running, Hiking, Fastpacking, Trail Racing
  • Designed To Improve: Running Form, Toe Splay, Stability, Push-off, Comfort, Traction
  • Platform: Foot Positioning: FootShape™ Toe Box with Fully Cushioned Zero Drop™ Platform
  • Last: SD6
  • Midsole: EVA with A-Bound™ Top Layer
  • Outsole: Altra MaxTrac Sticky Rubber with TrailClaw™
  • Insole: 5 mm Contour Footbed
  • Upper: Quick-Dry Air Mesh
  • Other Features: Sandwiched StoneGuard™ Rock Protection, Natural Ride System, GaiterTrap™ Technology, No-slip Sock Liner Design

Olympus 2.0
You asked, and we delivered. Our popular, max-cushioned trail shoe returns with a completely revamped Vibram® Megagrip outsole and a softer, more flexible upper. The new outsole dramatically enhances traction in uphill and downhill terrain while maintaining the max-cushioned feel you love. Traction and durability improvements have also led to a reduction in weight over its predecessor for a faster ride. An impressive 36mm stack height runs evenly from front to back and features an A-Bound bottom layer to add a spring to each step and EVA™ top layer to take the bite out of the rugged terrain. And like every Altra shoe, the FootShape™ toe box keeps your feet happy, relaxed, and stable through uphill climbs and downhill descents.

  • Improved Traction
  • Less Weight
  • Sizing: True to Size
  • Weight: 11.0 oz./ 312 g.
  • Cushioning: Max
  • Stack Height: 36mm
  • Sizes: 7, 8–13, 14, 15
  • Ideal Uses: Trail Running, Hiking, Fastpacking, Trail Racing
  • Designed To Improve: Running Form, Toe Splay, Stability, Push-off, Comfort, Traction
  • Last: SD6-M
  • Midsole: Dual Layer EVA with A-Bound™ Top Layer
  • Outsole: Vibram® Megagrip
  • Insole: 5mm Contour Footbed
  • Upper: Quick-Dry Trail Mesh
  • Other Features: Natural Ride System, GaiterTrap™ Technology

 Much has been made of the foot shaped toe box and the zero drop, both intended to enable a more natural running form and having been a runner who has run extensively in zero drop shoes and Vibram Fivefingers I can tell you that the Altra way has helped me achieve a better style of running form, especially when I’m tired – I don’t breakdown nearly as quickly.

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Superior Opinion?
The Superior are a great shoe, I use them for XC and shorter distance races (10, 12 miles) I don’t run ultra marathons in them even though I probably could. The lower profile offers the greatest connection to the trail but it also offers the least protection and you can feel this. Everything has been stripped down from the tongue right through to the upper – this is not a criticism but an observation. In my opinion the Superior benefit greatly from this more stripped down approach as they really do feel quicker than their trail siblings and have a lot in common with the Inov8 Trailroc.

The fit is generous around the toes  – as you might expect – this being the Altra USP, the heel cup is a little loose (a problem some find with Altra), the trail gaiter remains a great asset and the grip is reasonable.

The upper is an improvement on previous versions of the Superior but is still not amazing, the overlays in the latest version of 2.0 seem to have addressed this a little but I expect that Altra will need to consider a bit of an overhaul once again. The upper is remarkably comfortable though (again much like the Inov8 Trailroc 235) and it does feel like a lovely pair of slippers as you run round the trails. The upper drains and gets nice and dry quickly too which for someone like me is a real bonus.

The issue I think most will have will the Superior 2.0 is the grip – in the UK were things like rain and mud exist the Superior struggle to get traction and can become a little bogged down. However, in the dry or through the moist trail they’ll confidently take on everything that you thrown at them and you’re feet will feel like they’ve enjoyed the experience.

In terms of longevity and durability you might find that these aren’t going to last like an old pair of Walsh – they are far from bombproof. This could be said of both the upper and the tread as both will ear down pretty quickly. My boss who owns a pair of Superior says that the tread has already started to peel away after only 100 miles and my pair once they reached 200 miles looked a little abused. There was also soome gentle fraying on the upper by 200 miles and given the mileage I will put in this makes the Superior seem like an expensive shoe.

However, they remain fun and lots of it.

Best for: Cross Country, shorter trail running, dry trail, faster trail running

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Peak Opinion?
The Lone Peak are the trail shoe that have saved my feet, I realise this is a big statement but its true. I started with the Lone Peak 2.0 (several pairs) and loved them to bits.I ran the Thames Path 100 in them straight out of the box, having never tried Altra before and never looked back. Lots of runners, including the excellent review ‘Ginger Runner’ suggested that the Lone Peak 2.0 felt more like a skater shoe than a pair of running shoes – he had a point. However, the upper, support and overall feel as well as the visuals of the LP2.0 were stunning. My first pair ran well in excess of 1,000 miles before they even began to consider retirement (they still run today but only on training runs).

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With the 3.0 though the Lone Peaks have undergone something of a transformation. More overlays, less heel cup (so less skater shoe feel), revised grip, Abound material for support but with all the things you previously loved. The visuals have also gone for a more Americanised look, throwing out some of the more understated ‘European’ feel of the 2.0 and 2.5.

The rewards for this effort can be felt almost immediately on the trail. The LP3.0 is lighter, faster, better fitting and better at dealing with muddy terrain than ever before. It’s the shoe you always wanted from Altra and so far none of the problems (other than its a bloody expensive shoe).

I’ve committed to several hundred miles in this shoe since I bought them (the moment they arrived in the UK) and each run has given me comfort and pleasure in a way that not even my much loved yellow LP2.0 could. It’s things like the attention to detail I love, the little clip for the gaiters on the front of the shoe and obviously the trail gaiter trap on the reverse, the removal of the ridiculous rudder continues and the graphics lifted partly from the 1.5. What’s not to like?

The shoe also now comes in a pertex and a booted version. The boot version looks like it’s going to try and take on the Hoka Tor series and the Pertex version of for those of you that are insane enough to wear them – seriously who wears waterproof shoes, once it’s gone over the top its like your feet have gone for a swim and aren’t getting out the pool!

With the right marketing and supply chain these shoes should be taking over the trail running world but Altra seem to have an issue, especially in the UK with both its communication and its stock levels (this needs to be cleared up because growth through word of mouth alone will not overhaul Hoka, Inov8 and Salomon).

Great shoe, more of the same please.

Best for: Ultra distance, long slow trail runs, hiking, mud and mayhem!

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© Gareth Jones

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© Fiona Rennie

MIghty Olympus?
The Olympus are pictured above taking on the demands of the first 30 miles of the Skye Trail Ultra and what a great pair of shoes they are. Not perhaps the best choice for the first 30 miles of Skye but my word they’ve covered themselves in glory ever since – especially during the Brutal Enduro and several very long training runs on and around the North Downs Way. Having not tested the earlier versions I had no comparison for the Olympus but the main issue seemed to have been with the 1.0 and the 1.5 was that the grip was shockingly rubbish.

So Altra gave us a Vibram outsole! In the picture below you can see the toe bumper and the depth of the lugs on the Olympus 2.0 – you’ll also see the new leg pattern from the LP3.0 (wouldn’t mind seeing a vibram version of this!) There’s a couple of different compounds too which do much the same job as say Inov8’s Tri-C but basically its got hard and soft sections to deal with the different types of terrain you’ll be facing.

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The Olympus has a big stack height (36mm) so its clearly built for the long slow journeying rather than the faster more trail intimate experience of the Superior but that’s not to say that you don’t get feedback from the route because you do – just not quite so telling on the feet as with a less supportive shoe.

The good news is that after several hundred miles both the upper and the outsole are wearing well. I have yet to find any significant durability issues and believe me I enjoy taking my running shoes through the nasty kinds of trails and I’m always on the lookout for wet mud and hills (preferably both) to give them a good test. The grip is impressive mostly (other than in the thickest mud, but very shoes deal with this well) and overall the Olympus are a kick arse pair of shoes.

As a previous wearer of Hoka I can tell you that Altra (rather than Hoka) have got the maximal shoe right (for me at least). Stable, fun, faster than you expect and they look the business rather than like clown shoes!

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Best for: Ultra distance, long slow trail runs

So which would you go for?
For me that’s really easy – I’d have all three but if I was only going to have one then I’d go for the classic Lone Peak 3.0, a tremendous shoe.

However, each of the Altra trail shoes does something quite unique and I like having them all for both training and racing.  I still believe that Altra is a niche product and not suited to everyone so I’d always advocate a try-before-you-buy if at all possible but if you are looking to dump the Hoka because they don’t feel stable enough, your feet have been bruised to buggery by the lack of cushioning on your Inov8 or you simply want a change from the black and red of Salomon then these might be the choice of shoe for you.

Remember too that while I’ve been looking at these very much from the ultra running perspective they are equally at home on the shorter trails

Where can I try Altra?
There are a number of stockists including (other stockists are probably available);

Do Altra (or their stockists or anyone) pay you or give you kit to write this?
Thankfully no.

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I became a convert to the Altra way of running long before I knew what Altra were, I’d been using minimal zero drop shoes from Vibram and Merrell but had given these up in favour of Hoka as I was looking for a resolution to my feet being crucified during ultras. Hoka were never the answer due to the narrow fitting of their footwear so when @borleyrose suggested for about the 50th time that I consider Altra I decided to give them a whirl. Now a little over a year on I own six pairs of Altra, four different models and this is the review of the Altra Olympus 2.0

I didn’t wear either the 1.0 or the 1.5 so have no real comparison but if I were suggesting a shoe it reminded me of to look at then that would be the Hoka Stinson ATR. But what do Altra say about them?

You asked, and we delivered. Our popular, max-cushioned trail shoe returns with a completely revamped Vibram® Megagrip outsole and a softer, more flexible upper. The new outsole dramatically enhances traction in uphill and downhill terrain while maintaining the max-cushioned feel you love. Traction and durability improvements have also led to a reduction in weight over its predecessor for a faster ride. An impressive 36mm stack height runs evenly from front to back and features an A-Bound bottom layer to add a spring to each step and EVA™ top layer to take the bite out of the rugged terrain. And like every Altra shoe, the FootShape™ toe box keeps your feet happy, relaxed, and stable through uphill climbs and downhill descents.

  • Weight: 11.0 oz./ 312 g.
  • Maximal Cushioning
  • Stack Height: 36mm
  • Ideal Uses: Trail Running, Hiking, Fastpacking, Trail Racing
  • Designed To Improve: Running Form, Toe Splay, Stability, Push-off, Comfort, Traction
  • Midsole: Dual Layer EVA with A-Bound™ Top Layer
  • Outsole: Vibram® Megagrip
  • Insole: 5mm Contour Footbed
  • Upper: Quick-Dry Trail Mesh
  • Natural Ride System
  • GaiterTrap™ Technology

Weight?
In terms of weight these are rather pleasant, yes it’s no size zero (at 312g) but you really don’t feel the shoe dragging you back when you’re out on the trail. However, if you’re sensitive to the weight of your shoe then this might be a consideration. While I compared them in looks to the Hoka Stinson I’d say in weight they feel more like a Challenger ATR (v1) and I found both the Olympus and the ATR to feel light on the feet despite the numbers.

Fit?
There’s no doubt about it, Altra have yet to perfect sizing. There are complaints with every iteration of any of their shoes that they fit differently. The Olympus 2.0 suffers with the same complaints but not from me. I’m normally a 9.5 UK but in all Altra I’m a 10 UK. There’s some truth in that the toebox is less spacious than say the Lone Peak 2.0 but even to someone with Hobbit like feet I’ve got room to spread my hairy toes. The heel cup is also significantly better than say the Lone Peak 2.0, it doesn’t feel as bulky and is much more akin to the Lone Peak 2.5 – basically it fits nicely at the heel and midfoot but with room to breathe for the toes. These should feel a comfortable ride straight out of the box.

Comfort?
This is where the Olympus 2.0 starts to really shine. This shoe is like wearing really big slippers, because the fit is more secure while retaining its spacious feel you are rewarded with a shoe that feels right. The upper doesn’t rub and the heel has enough give in it to make it supportive rather than overly firm – like a memory foam pillow.

Maximal?
The maximal aspect of the Olympus 2.0 is one of its big selling points. At 36mm it certainly is a maximal shoe – there’s lots of cushioning from the squishy foam that sits under your feet. It’s an incredibly comfortable ride without feeling so soft that you’ve got no feel – on the contrary it’s got a good connection to the trail considering its so maximal. What I would say though is that unlike something such as the Hoka Stinson which had a firmer ride the Olympus 2.0 would benefit from a rockplate – the soft pillow like approach has made them more vulnerable to impact over longer distances. I genuinely don’t believe they need firming up at all because the ride is excellent but a rockplate might be the answer.

Upper?
There are anecdotal reports of the upper wearing too quickly but the seamless upper on the Olympus 2.0 looks in good shape so far (150 miles). That said the seamless upper does leave it vulnerable to assault from gnarly trails and sharp rocks but I’m no floating trail runner, I like to get right in to the bad shit and in all honesty the Olympus 2.0 has come through unscathed. Perhaps there’s a balance to be had between structure/overlays and a supple upper and it could be that the test bed for that is the Lone Peak 3.0, we shall see.

One of the areas that that Olympus 2.0 really excels is in drainage – the upper material, while porous, drains quickly and the shoe will eventually dry out. I had numerous opportunities over the start of the British Summer to get them wet and let them drain.

Ultimately the upper is a discreet delight even if it might not be the longest lasting.

Traction?
And so to the reason I bought the Olympus 2.0 – the Vibram outsole. I’d been hunting a pair of shoes that would road, trail, rock, mud and anything else a race threw at me. The Olympus 2.0 ticks lots and lots of boxes, it grips well through mud, it clings tightly to rocks and it covers the road to trail sections with great aplomb. However, they aren’t perfect, weirdly there’s nothing wrong with them but much like every other pair of shoes they aren’t all things to all terrains – and that’s fair enough. The tread with its multi directional lugs and differing strength compounds are excellent and a vast improvement on the very light tread of earlier versions.

The good news is that mud clears away quickly and despite decent mileage in them there is little show of wear and tear.

Stability?
The problem with all maximal shoes is the issue of stability and ankle rolling – the Olympus 2.0 sadly doesn’t buck this trend. On most surfaces actually there is no issue – generally they’re pretty stable. They don’t roll nearly as much as my Hoka have done.
During the Skye Trail Ultra they banged their way across the terrain without any issues and similarly at the Brutal Enduro they conducted themselves well. The problem seems to be when the grass falls away from you, you hit a dip in the trail, you lose control. The Olympus 2.0 struggles to help contain your fall and will actually accentuate the problem you’re facing. At Skye in the first 5 miles I rolled my ankle a dozen times in thick, tall, wet and boggy grass and during my first ascent in equally overgrown conditions my food didn’t feel well connected to either the shoe or the ground. However, this was one specific incident during a race, after the first few miles the Olympus 2.0 carried on magnificently but were there was seriously overgrown and uneven terrain they didn’t perform as well as the LP2.5 would have.

Visuals?
Altra need to stop sending the UK the wanky colour options – I don’t want black shoes, I want my shoes bright and vibrant. To this end I had to order my Altra from France as they had the awesome blue and yellow option.

The Olympus 2.0 are a nice looking pair of shoes – yes they look bulkier than a pair of Salomon but Altra have kept off weight excess so that you don’t look like you’re wearing clown shoes.

The maximal aspect of the shoe has attention drawn to it with a thick slathering of neon yellow – you certainly won’t miss these. 

Thankfully the gaiter trap has been retained and this remains a discreet addition at the back of the heel – but sitting much higher than I expected.

Sadly you won’t win any style awards for being in the Olympus 2.0 but they are no disgrace on your feet either and I really like them.

Experience?
So far I’ve taken the Olympus 2.0 up and across the Isle of Skye and through several laps of the Brutal Enduro as well as lots of trail running and even a bit of road.

As I’ve described previously at Skye they had issues bit mostly performed well. Through the worst of the rocky ascents and descents they gave solid support – though a rock plate would really have helped to avoid some of the underfoot damage I incurred (something for v3 chaps?).

Despite being soaking wet by the end of mile 1 they continued to perform well until I swapped them out at mile 27 (this had always been the plan). On the downhills I can say that the Olympus 2.0 protected my knees brilliantly and even at full pelt you had a good measure of control due to the enhanced traction underneath and the rolling of ankles is only an issue if you aren’t thinking about the route ahead. One might say it’s more to do with user error than the shoe itself.

Post Skye the Olympus 2.0 have been a good companion – joining me on RunCommutes through London and across lovely trails in the Kent countryside. They’re surprisingly quick as I discovered when I went bombing around local forests and the traction does mean you can leather it and not be too concerned about the surface you’re on. Let’s not get carried away though you aren’t wearing these for Parkrun. No. These are shoes built for going long, long distances – if I were thinking of a race they’d be perfect for it would be the Thames Path 100 and if I think of a race they aren’t suited to, well that would be the CCC.

IMG_1236

Conclusion?
The Olympus 2.0 is a really good and fun shoe but with some caveats – the biggest of which is the price. Are they worth over £100 when there are excellent alternatives such as the Pearl Izumi N3 Trail retailing at about £90? The answer is probably ‘just about’ if you like the wide toebox, the zero drop and the maximal approach then the Olympus 2.0 is what you’re after. I would like to see a removable rock plate added to the Olympus as I think this would shore up its defensive capability without adding to the weight and I’d be interested to see just how long the upper lasts.

However, there’s lots of great things going on in this shoe – the improved grip is very grippy, the upper is very comfortable, the ride is excellent, they’re much improved in the mud and best of all they kept the trail gaiter. When Altra decide to listen to their customers they do it well and the Olympus 2.0 addresses many concerns about the earlier editions but there’s still work to do.

My only other note is the lack of stockists for Altra and the lateness we get the shoes. In London we have one stockist and they don’t carry in store the Olympus. The U.K. as a whole has around 5 or 6 stockists I can find – Altra help me out, expand your reach. If you look at the statistics from WSER a couple of weeks back you can see that the second most popular shoe at the start line were Altra – there’s a lot of UK ultra runners and I think with better in-store visibility we’d see a swift rise in sales and appreciation for this brands footwear.

As with all footwear I’d suggest you try these before buying if possible – they aren’t for everyone but if you have hobbit feet like I do then these might just be for you.

Likes

  • Significantly improved traction
  • Soft supple upper
  • Excellent colour options (if you can source them)
  • Surprisingly quick
  • Surprisingly snug but excellent fit in all the right places
  • Retains the gaiter trap!

Dislikes

  • Price
  • Lack of colourways in the United Kingdom
  • Arrival into the United Kingdom much later than US and mainland Europe
  • Lack of stockists
  • Minor stability issues on certain terrains
  • Concerns over durability of upper


Ultra running at its best gives me a genuine feeling of worth and achievement. I’ve done something that takes courage, spirit and fight, it is something I can be proud of.

I’ve been very careful this year to choose races that I believed would challenge me, force me to work that bit harder and give me that sense of achievement. To this end I was brought to the Brutal Enduro, an 18hr, 10km trail loop with an undulating course, wet conditions underfoot and lots of foolhardy entrants. But was it just up my street?

I arrived at the Minley base camp, near Basingstoke, late on Saturday morning and pitched my tent in one of the heavy showers that had followed me almost all the way from Kent. Ducking inside I avoided the nastiness of a drowning before we had even started and I set about unpacking my kit. I laid out clothing changes, food, drink and in the dark kit – all easily accessible so I could pound the ground for as long as I liked.


As I started to get changed I could hear the sound of the free 1km children’s race and then a few short minutes later the first of the children screaming their way under the finish line. I was too busy rubbing my undercarriage in body glide at the time to go and watch but it helped start off the very positive family atmosphere that would be the hallmark of the event.

At 2pm we all lined up at the start and prepared for the off. There were about 50 or 60 runners on the start line, many part of teams who would be swapping over after a set number of laps to keep legs fresh but I, despite no training, would be going solo.

Ever since Rachel’s Ranscombe Ramble, in early April, where I destroyed my leg I haven’t run much in training or racing – the exception being the mauling I took at the Skye Trail Ultra and the Amba City of London Mile. I’ve been claiming rest but actually I’ve just not had the motivation to run and as the pictures show I’ve eaten a lot of chocolate over the last 12 weeks.

The Brutal Enduro therefore came along at just the wrong time but as I crossed under the start I pushed on to see how interesting the course might be and just what I could manage given the circumstances.

I let most of the speedy runners and team runners bound on ahead – I wasn’t going to get caught in the trap of going too quickly round the route. The first 3km had very limited interest, gentle trail, one notable jaunt through the wicked forest and then out through another field but once you reached the 3km mark suddenly the Brutal Enduro all made sense.


Climb, roots, rocks, mud, descent, repeat, jump, lift, spin, bound, sprint – the final 7km of the course had it all in abundance. I turned into the 3km marker and remarked to myself ‘coolio’ I bounded up the hill, then through the mud and onward – the descent from 4km to 5km was deeply vicious and I saw many runners treading carefully but I prefer to a launch myself into this – it’s why I enjoy trails. I bounded down the rutted and rooted trail, bouncing across ditches and sprinting to the exit and the sight of the camp and the toilets for the 5km mark. My first half lap was worthy of mention because I also needed to stop for my pre-race bowel motion (or rather in-race bowel motion) and the positioning on the course of the loo made this very achievable – thankfully.


Anyway the 5km mark was at the edge of the camp and offered the opportunity to fill up water bottles or visit your tent but I was happy to knock out the first 10km and get some distance under my belt.
This wasn’t going to be a fast course due to the nature of the up and down as well as the overall conditions but I pushed a little harder through the next 5km which continued the trend of being quite exciting and I was very glad to be running this in the light so I would stand a chance of knowing what might get me in the dark. I started to make mental notes like ‘hmm that hole looks Altra shoe sized’ or bloody hell I’ll be wearing my arsehole as a necklace if I jump into that’.

As at 3km there was a lovely, fast and spongy uphill climb at 6km and I bounced up the hill going past a couple of my fellow runners and from here on in it was just a series of opportunities to have fun picking exciting routes through the woodland. I hadn’t had this much fun since Skye.


However, I was acutely aware that my own body was rebelling against me – mostly because I simply hadn’t done any miles to get me ready for this. I took stock of my situation over some chocolate milkshake before I headed out for lap 2 and ambled along the first 3km again before giving it a bit more welly for the last 7km.

During the run I was fortunate to meet lots of lovely runners too – as happens I suppose on a looped course, the most notable where Ellen and Kerry who I ran with a different points during the event.

Kerry who lives and works in Jordan was in the UK for a few weeks and had taken the opportunity to complete the Race to the King and the Brutal Enduro because that’s what you do on holiday! Ellen meanwhile was looking to run her first marathon distance. Both provided delightful company, excellent respite from my own thoughts and helped me complete the laps I ran with them. The better news for me was that both would achieve, with relative ease, the targets they had set themselves.


For me though I knew the only way I was going to get to or around ten laps was by taking it easy but then my regular ultra curse struck – stupidity!

It was on lap 5 with dusk approaching that I twisted my knee, something I’d done on the Thursday before the race but had ignored in favour of hoping it would be okay. In truth it had held up pretty well but as I landed awkwardly, in one of those mentally noted trail traps, I knew I’d troubled it in a way that I didn’t want to run on it.

I came into the checkpoint and wandered off to my tent – my intent had always been a kit change and hot food at this point but I used it as a longer opportunity to rest and see if I could get back out on the course.
I found my way gingerly into clean and dry kit, charged my phone and ate some dirty noodles as the burger van had closed down for the night.

I felt in better spirits post food abs clean clothes but nearly 2 hours had passed since I had last been out and it was late. However, my knee didn’t seem too bad so I left the relative comfort of my tent and went back to the route. What was immediately apparent was that I wasn’t going to be running – I could feel the knee moving uncomfortably and my self imposed tent rest had also indicated that my feet (still not recovered from Skye) had taken another nasty beating. I began running the scenarios in my head – I could do another three laps and get to 80km or try and hobble five laps and make the hundred. What I realised was that there was no point, I wasn’t going to set a new distance record for myself, I wasn’t going to set a new fastest time, I’d done the marathon distance for the purposes of the 100MC and all I was ultimately doing was making Endure 12 in ten days time that much more difficult.

And so I trundled around the course in the dark, enjoying the company of Kerry, whom I’d found on the route again and decided this would be my final lap. Kerry was again in sparkling form and we chatted once again, regaling one another with anecdote after anecdote. An hour or so passed in this delightful state and we caught sight of the final ascent. I gave a gentle sigh – resignation at my overall failure and then trundled over the finish line.


I bade goodnight to Kerry and another runner who was waiting for her partner to complete his lap and I trudged to my tent, my knee glad I had shown some common sense, my heart thinking I had enough time for the other laps. Oh well maybe next year.

Key points

  • Distance: 10km loop
  • Profile: Undulating
  • Date: July 2016
  • Location: Fleet, Hampshire
  • Cost: £50
  • Terrain: Mixed, boggy, rocky
  • Tough Rating: 2/5

Route
The route was overall pretty good fun, even the slightly dull first couple of kilometres had some moments but there was a great joy in the other 7km. The mix of terrain, the bogginess and the route in the dark really gave this route a bit of an edge over similar looped trail events I’ve completed.

Organisation
The organisation was good, everyone seemed to know what they were required to do and they did it, registration was swift and the event set off on time and with the minimum of fuss. I liked the roving marshals in the night – they were a nice and useful addition to ensuring our safety and ultimately Brutal ran what appeared to be a tight and tidy ship. As is always the case with these events the volunteers were tremendous and there was always a cheery smile from someone in a neon gilet.

Checkpoints
There was really only one real checkpoint which was the main one and there was water, squash, tea, coffee bananas and oat bars – the rest was up to you. For £50 I think this was fair and I preferred catering for myself as it meant I only ate things I really wanted to.

Goodies
Good quality t-shirt and a bespoke medal – more OCR style than ultra but in keeping with their branding and it hangs proudly next to my other medals! Let’s be honest do you really need anything else?

Again
Would I do Brutal Enduro again? I probably would, but mainly because it’s a good fun course, not too many people around you, room to run and because it’s well organised (even with the tent peg mis-adventure, but that’s a story of the MoD – check the Facebook group for details). I probably wouldn’t pick this over something with big, big hills or a good quality point to point racing but even when stopping due to injury I still could see I’d had a good time and it as enough for me to consider a return in the future.

Conclusions
Cost effective, fun, friendly and in a great location with good organisation. If you’re looking for a run to complete that is challenging but achievable then this might just be for you or if you’re looking for a bit of test for slightly harder core trail races then this is an excellent warm-up (he says with one eye being cast to the Ridgeway Challenge…)

Further information
More information can be found on their various events at www.brutalrun.co.uk

‘Have you got any Haggis left?’ I inquired. It was 9 minutes after midnight and the lady responded by saying ‘we’ve stopped serving’. Looking crestfallen the chef responded in a thick Scots accent ‘aye’. Five minutes later I was chowing down on a tasty tray of Haggis, neeps & tatties – this was when my adventure to The Isle of Skye truly began.

Key points

  • Distance: 74 miles
  • Ascent: +4500 metres
  • Location: Isle of Skye
  • Runners: 14
  • Terrain: Mixed, boggy, rocky, tough
  • Race Director: Might be Santa
  • Tough Rating: 4/5

A week earlier I’d had a bad day of running at the Hillsborough to Anfield Run where the implications and costs have proved incredibly high and I wasn’t even sure if I was going to make it to Skye. A recurrence of injury and the arse end of my chest infection made it all seem highly unlikely. However, intensive work on my glutes and hamstring had helped to ease the problem and my chest infection was more a gloopy mess than anything serious. I heaved a sigh of relief as I slung my giant filled Macpac rucksack on my back and departed to Euston on Thursday evening.

I’d chosen the Caledonian Sleeper journey for travel for a number of reasons but the most important one was that I wanted to experience the overnight train and watch Scotland go by in a hazy blur and it was delightful, I caught up on some movies, read a book, wrote my blog piece about the EU Referendum and chatted to other passengers. At about 2am I finally drifted off to sleep in the comfort of my chair (standard class is still pretty good) and found myself dreaming of hills.

I opened my eyes about 5.30am and saw we had crossed the border, I was in Scotland – all I could see were hills and green, it was lush and fresh. The problem was I felt travel sick, my head exploded and I rushed to the toilet to try and puke my guts up but one toilet was broken and the other was blocked. My cosy journey was turning into a nightmare, I got a cup of sweet tea from the food carriage and sat back down, began breathing deeply and tried to stay calm. Eventually arriving into Inverness I had 25 minutes before my bus arrived and so I stormed around the city seeking headache tablets and more water. With both in hand I boarded and say at the back, curling up into a ball concerned that my race might be over before it started.

Despite everything I held myself together and tried to enjoy the latter part of the bus trip as we crossed the Skye Bridge from Kyle and as I hit Broadford my mood further improved and the fresh air gave me just what I needed. I stood motionless outside on the high street, taking in my surroundings and then gingerly walked up to my accommodation – I had arrived.

At about 3pm I attended the early race briefing and met Chris, Kevin, Emma, Barry, John and Allison as well as the man of the hour, Race Director Jeff Smith, who if you described him would be somewhere between Father Christmas and Billy Connolly, he had a good calming presence about him and it was a delight to have him go through the map with us, give us hints and of course do kit check.

The eclectic group of runners were a mix of English, Scots and French and there was a nice atmosphere despite there only being a handful of us.

I left the briefing, continuing to chat briefly with Chris one of the other highly experienced runners – which gave me some concern as I felt, despite nearly 30 ultras under my belt, perhaps I didn’t have the right kind of experience for this.

Back to my room, final kit and drop bag checks, shower and then sleep – in a few hours time we would be off.

At 2am I ran down to the village hall desperate to avoid the heavy rain – although my drop bags were waterproof my kit wasn’t and I didn’t want to get to the start line wet, I suspected there would be enough of that later. But just a few minutes later I rolled in to see Barry, John, Chris and Allison as well as Paul and Owen, everyone was looking a little sheepish but Jeff kept us all jolly with a cup of tea and those delicious Scottish tones!

By 2.45am, with a 3am depart to the north of the island for the start line it was clear not everyone was going to turn up. 30 runners entered, 10 had already had to pull out and a further half a dozen didn’t make it to the start line for whatever reason – there would be only – 14 starters. Yet this didn’t create any sense of missing out, infact it made it all quite cosy and there was chatter on the way to start and we watched as the day gently broke around us. We had arrived at the start of something special.

Out of the fun bus we all ambled around, taking in our new surroundings while Jeff prepared the final last bits. It was all very casual, well oiled but casual and it felt like you were amongst friends and so when we lined up to begin there was no real mad rush to the front. Yes, we had Paul and Owen who set an early pace but once they were gone to battle it out for the win the rest of us settled into our stride and prepared to face the oncoming trail storm!

The first section was a nice piece of uphill gravel track which gave a false impression of the next 73 and a bit miles. Once we had lost this we entered the wilderness and faced off against the boggy, mostly unmarked trail.

People took moderately different paths to begin the ascent up the Trotternish ridge, some choosing a lower path and others a more fulsome climb, I was somewhere in the middle – keen to make the ascent but more keen to stay on track. It was heavy going and already my feet were sodden and the Altra Olympus although reasonable were not built for this and I realised my Lone Peaks would have served me better. However, I made swift progress and battered my way to the top and soon bounded into a run. I pulled out the GoPro to grab some footage and quickly made my way down a fast descent. The Olympus picked up the trail nicely and I was feeling very positive that this was going to be fun.

Then the sucker punch came…

I was busy admiring the scenery rather than being focused on the course and I tripped, breaking the selfie stick and cutting open my leg. I pulled out my arm warmers to stop the bleeding and wipe away the most of the dirt and hurled myself forward. The trouble was I could feel my knee – 4 miles in and I was broken already, all my early bluster seemed just that now – bluster!

Regardless I began chasing Kevin down who was a little in front of me and overtook Chris who had stopped for refreshment, while continuing to delight in the scenery around me. These were the photographic opportunities as well as a good chance to thrash any knee injury out by putting a bit of pace together.

My aim was to hit Quiraing as quickly as I could and although not fast I was making decent time. Kevin remained just ahead of me and in the distance I could see the glint of a camera lense and the deep red of a pair of Race Ultra 290 – it was The Big G or The Boss who had come out to photograph Skye and the event. I thundered toward him and plonked myself down, exclaiming that, ‘bloody hell its hard’. We chatted for a minute but out of the corner of my eye I saw other runners and so put a bit of a spurt on where Jeff, the RD was waiting with some water. I hadn’t really consumed any of the 1.5litre bladder I was carrying but had emptied my 125ml soft bottle so filled this as I knew the real CP was over 20 miles away. With all the energy I could muster I ploughed onwards and importantly upwards (please feel free to correct me if I get names or hills wrong) past Biodha Buidhe and Bein Edra. Both with impressively destructive climbs and equally impressive descents – it was during these sections that I finally started to look around, as much for respite as for the views but I allowed myself time to take it all in and take in the enormity of the task ahead. It was here that I properly met Neil – one of two chaps who would define the way my race would go.

He caught me about an hour after leaving the first mini checkpoint and we ran together for the next few hours – I discovered this was a second crack at it for Neil and he was a seasoned ultra runner with a good humour and a varied repertoire of conversation. Between us we pushed through the uphills and the downhills despite my trepidation, especially on the descents as I was terrified of slipping over an edge or worse but his calming influence was much appreciated. When we reached the bottom of the Storr climb we found a small stream and filled out now heavily depleted water supply and I took this as a first opportunity to change my socks, dry my feet and look at what was happening between my toes.

It was all a bit funky with my feet and I knew I didn’t have the capacity to deal with at the bottom of a hill but the next CP couldn’t be that far. We made the ascent up the hill where The Big G awaited us with his camera and we stopped briefly to say hello but then it was back to it. Neil and I used the downhill to gain some much needed momentum but also once again freshened up in the streams. Moving forward was still feeling pretty good and although my knee was troubling me I felt I had a handle on it.

Another mile fell and then another and we arrived at the final ascent of the ridge.

I could feel my insides doing cartwheels and my legs turned to jelly, my head had turned to mush. I couldn’t think and I was spinning out of control. I had just enough about me to urge Neil on and when he was out of sight I collapsed into a heap. I held my head quietly for a few minutes and tried to focus, I started playing out Star Trek VI in my head as I often do when I need a distraction. Within a few minutes Kevin caught me and asked how I was, I told him I was feeling a bit crap but I’d be alright, I said the same to John as he passed me but as Allison approached I picked myself up and started moving again. For me this ‘final’ hill was harsh, it was steep and it was a scramble. I needed to stop every 20ft, my head still spinning but I knew I needed to at least get to Portree so I could either DNF or sort myself. After about 20 minutes I made it to the top and hurling off my bag I proceeded to vomit all over the grass. I lay there for a while, unable to move but the griping of my stomach was continuing and I found myself in need of a different type of evacuation. Let’s put it this way my arse could have put out the flames in a burning house I evacuated that much liquid shit. I thankfully had all the requirements to resolve the situation in cleanliness terms but I needed to lie down again. It was race over.

If I’d have had signal is have called mountain rescue but I didn’t so I picked myself up and headed onward – regularly checking my GPS to ensure I was going the right way. What I hadn’t realised was that my GPS had stopped working and I was off course, I’d been travelling around 90 minutes through rough ground and places I shouldn’t have been before I found some houses. I followed the road for a while but realised I had no idea where this would end up so I found a field of tall heather and harsh plant life that I could cross, another 40 minutes passed before I finally managed to make it to the road to Portree. By then my legs were sliced to bits and my arms whipped – I’d had enough, the sweepers would easily have gotten past me and the other runners would be ahead – I would surely be timed out.

With some trepidation I approached the checkpoint, I was pretty downbeat. ‘Hi, number 37… no sweepers haven’t been through yet… there’s runners behind you… you aren’t being timed out.

‘I’ve had heather jammed right up my arsehole for the last two hours’ I exclaimed, making light of the fact I looked like death. I was offered a giant pot of Vaseline – but I didn’t fancy the double dip possibility.

I was there for about 20 minutes, change of shoes, socks, dry feet, call the GingaNinja, fix Suunto, take painkillers, learn how to read map, load lucozade into main pack, fill water, change food. I now had a chance, if I could keep my feet dry I might just make it. The guys at the CP were so amazing and supportive and offered a bit of tough love when they felt I was getting comfy.

I set off at a decent pace, fast walking and light jogging, I wanted my feet to recover a little. I also ate a good sized portion of chicken, chocolate and lucozade – all of this combined to continue my recovery and by a mile or three in I was good to go. True another runner burst past me but I wasn’t interested in his race I was interested in mine. The road section allowed me some respite and when I finally got the harder trails again I was ready to commit to them. Here despite the water I kept my feet dry – using the rocks, however small, to ensure I arrived at CP2 with dry feet.

This was fun running now, I was enjoying myself again, leaping across waterfalls and bouncing down trails – all my strength had returned, though my feet remained an issue and had taken the brunt of the punishment and there was nothing I could do about that.
Into the campsite before CP2, another fording or three of rivers, a cheery hello with a German family and then I was greeted by my name being chanted from the volunteers! Dear god I couldn’t help it but I put in a turn of speed and thundered up towards them rushing across the road to collect my much needed nutrition (yazoo chocolate milkshake) and more dry socks for later in the day.

Just a few minutes in the checkpoint but long enough to tell a few jokes and meet the sweeper who had caught me in the last few metres of the second leg. I was advised he was there more as an aid to getting home rather than the man who’d time me out.

I’ll talk about Andy more later but for now let’s say he was a diamond geezer.

I set off to CP3 feeling pretty okay but with the knowledge that this section was noted for being wet. I’d made the bold prediction just prior to leaving that if my feet took another soaking then I really would DNF but instead I pushed on as fast as I could over the heavily stoned trail and through the Cuillins – I was passing through as the sun was starting to dip and all around I could see the majesty of the island dancing before my eyes. I leapt across the various waters, being mindful not to get too wet and always on the lookout ahead for a more sensible route but always with half an eye on the fantastic views.

Eventually Andy caught up to me again this time when I needed to stop and dress a gigantic blister that needed immediate attention. This particular toe has become a bit of a challenge in recent races, especially where moisture is an issue but a single large compeed sealed it up and I was soon on the move again. A couple more miles of moist track soon became damp bog, passing the bothy towards the south of the island and approaching my next proper cry.

Andy asked how I was with cliff edges. I explained that I was petrified of them and a vertigo sufferer, I didn’t mention that multiple bouts of labyrinthitis had left me with poor balance in situations like that also. We put on head torches and began assaulting the cliff edge – higher we climbed and I could feel the exposure to my right, hear the saline of water beckoning me towards my doom like a Siren calling out to a sailor. I moved as swiftly as I could, tears dripping down my face and Andy a little farther ahead. I’d been told this would be a few miles but that it might take as much as 90 minutes. Andy proved his diamond geezer status by being straight up – he helped by preparing me mentally and never saying ‘it’ll be over soon’ – I learnt quickly to trust him. Eventually we descended down and moved onwards then back up towards Elgol but the route had thinned out and we arrived into the CP to be greeted by the brilliant Karen. Here there was a little shelter, some food, Irn Bru and tea.

‘Two teas please, one with sugar, one without, oooo is that Irn Bru and is THAT a mister Kipling individual wrapped strawberry milkshake cake???’ I changed my socks here for the ones in my race best as I’d foolishly decided against a drop bag here.

My new companion Andy was making haste with clothing and footwear changes and all in all this was a proper stop – 20 minutes probably but it was needed. Here I ran into Barry again, this time thankfully not in his tiny shorts, his race had come to a premature end unfortunately. Had I been a gambling man I’d have said he was good for the win here but a niggle meant he’d taken the safer approach to ensure his was race fit for events in June (check out his events at www.highfellevents.com – these look fun). John and Allison also were at this CP and I got to say hello, how’re you doing, etc and they both looked strong and in good form – this was pleasing to see. To my mind they were well on course to a very respectable finish. Sadly though, the runner (Andy I think) who had stormed past me between CP1 and 2 had blown up and had nothing left, he looked in pain and was pretty miserable. However, he like Barry had clearly taken the sensible decision – I felt I still had this within me, just and I’m not one for common sense.

Andy and I set off in good cheer, having thanked Karen as we left, chatting a little here and there as we went – the next section was a fairly simple 8 miles and thankfully also uneventful save for seeing the sun start to come up and we could discard our headtorches. It was a consistent pace here and we simply watched our surroundings drift from our view, but what surroundings. I’ve been lucky enough to see the sunrise on spectacular views in places like Iceland, Ethiopia and Thailand but this was amongst the most amazing places to find the sun warm your face with its first glow. We felt better, we felt warmer and we soon found John and Allison and together we trudged to the final CP.

The guys were well prepared for us, the kettle was already on and I sat down to change my socks for a final time. Boom! I was going to make it! I could sense it, for the first time in over 60 miles I knew I had it in me despite everything that happened.

The four of us set off together though John and Allison clearly had more in the tank than I and so trundled in ahead. Andy warned that the next section was incredibly rocky, hilly and troubling. He was right.

After a short road section we rejoined the Skye Trail to find that the rocks cut through us like a hot knife through butter. Every step was sending shooting pain from my feet up to my neck. I was in agony, I was desperate to stop but the others were making slow but steady progress. We climbed and climbed for what felt an age, even the views out to sea could not soothe me now and my head was starting to fail me. I could hear myself saying ‘I just need to hold on, just hold on, 10 more miles’ we stopped at a gate to both regroup and discover than Andy’s right foot had exploded underneath – blood or pus we assumed. The four of us looked pretty broken but ultra runners have that weird tendency to say ‘fuck it, let’s do this’ and this was the point we were at. From here we followed the coastal path from Blaven to Broadford, this was a good path and if you were out doing a nice 10 mile run this would be awesome. You could move swiftly on the up and down, over rocks, jumping streams, taking in the smell of freshness all around – but we were slow, methodically placing our feet, trying to minimise damage.

I was frustrated for much of this because my body felt good but my feet offered me nothing and this was playing out as a battle in my head and as we trudged up the final trail ascent I wanted to simply stop and DNF. Andy took the tough love approach ‘well you’ll have to tell Jeff, he’s in Broadford’. Despite the fact I’d given up on myself Andy hadn’t and I tried to hold it together, I pressed on and on and we finally reached the ‘Marble Line’ a white marble gravel track. Andy had promised this would be easier going but the fine dust cut straight my Lone Peaks and caused nothing but excruciating pain.

I urged him to go on ahead – I would make it from here whatever happened but he told me ‘it was more than his jobs worth to leave a runner behind’. I groaned a lot over the last couple of miles as the sun beat down on me and I’m confident Andy could quite cheerfully have throttled me – I would have throttled me. But then I saw the final sign ‘Skye trail ultra’ in big black letters on a little yellow sign.

Less than a mile

I hobbled down to Broadford and Andy urged me to cross the line running. I advised I didn’t have it in me but when all was said and done I couldn’t crawl across the line and I insisted Andy run with me. To be honest it was all a blur, but I picked my feet up and gave what I imagine was my best Linford Christie. The crowd of supporters, runners and volunteers howled with encouragement as I threw myself across the finish and collapsed to the floor. Jeff seeming a little concerned I might be about to die but thanks to the care of my fellow competitors and a little tenacity from me I’d made it.

The route
Have you ever been to the Isle of Skye? If yes then go back, if not then get up there. The route is everything you want from a race, it’s hard, exposed, unforgiving and unrelenting but it pays you back with views that so few people will actually ever see. It’s off the beaten track and it encourages you to think about your environment.

The Harvey’s Map is invaluable but Skye has clear natural markers that you can use to navigate but still it’s not a route to underestimate. That’s not to say that improvements couldn’t be made but if the race route didn’t change you wouldn’t be too worried, it is exceptional.

The Race Director
Jeff Smith is a man with a passion for the outdoors and that shows. His casual style hides his organised side but it’s this casual side that kept his event from feeling forced. Jeff is a dude and a dude who knows how to put on an event! My only complaint was that he shouldn’t have apologised at all for the number of runners, he should be incredibly proud of his achievements. He has produced an event that any race director would be proud of and I hope it grows bigger in the coming runnings.

Organisation
Top notch – from the runners side it was all seamless – organised, early registration, easy transport to the start line, well drilled drop bag system and volunteers who couldn’t have done any more. It wasn’t slick that would suggest corporate nastiness, it was just knowledgable. It felt like it was organised and managed by runners and outdoors people – basically people who knew what they were talking about.

Checkpoints
The first 26 mile section is too far without checkpoints – I understand you can’t have people with drop bags on the hills but this was hard. Even the water stop at 10km while welcome wasn’t enough and if someone went missing here you might struggle to narrow their location.

However, that being said, nobody died and that first section was a mighty and worthwhile challenge. As for the CPs themselves they were brilliant, the volunteers as I’ve said were tremendous. It seemed odd at first to not offer food but actually loading your own drop bags for each CP made sense – I had exactly what I wanted. Often at other events I ignore the food because it’s not what I want – the drop bag system worked well. I can imagine this might be more troubling if you’ve got an event with hundreds or thousands of people though.

Volunteers
I won’t remember all your names but I will remember what you did for me. Thank you guys. There’s also a special mention to The Big G (my boss) who came out to photograph the runners, we were all incredibly grateful for this support and I especially was because seeing a face I recognised was invaluable in those early stages. Thanks fella (in joke).

Competitors
I’ve run alongside some truly great people over the last three years of ultra running and every single one of my fellow competitors was brilliant. But for me personally it’s Neil and Andy who I owe my finish to, thanks guys.

UltraBoyRuns
I paid what I thought would be a heavy injury price for completing the Skye Trail Ultra but there was an upside – my glutes didn’t fire and my hamstring held up. Yes I was sick, had a serious case of the galloping trots, sliced my legs apart and destroyed my toes and feet but when all is said and done I did a near 10 mile hike later on the day I finished. Effectively I was fine and once my feet stop burning and the skin heals I’ll be back to running (hopefully on Saturday, less than a week after the race).

The one bit of pain that won’t heal quickly is the cut in the old undercarriage. I did it when trying to get to Portree and some thorny thistle like crap ripped into my nuts. There’s a nasty cut from my bollocks heading backwards and so there’ll be no running until that’s healed and yes it hurts when I sit and it hurts when I walk – it just hurts! Hopefully this will heal quickly too, but we’ll see (with a complex combination of mirrors i might add).

Goodies
Beanie, medal, trophy, sweeties, alcoholic ginger beer. Jobsagudun. 

Tough Rating
4/5 – given the distance, the elevation, warmth, midges, conditions underfoot I consider this a bit of a ball buster. If you gave it an inch it would take a yard or worse your leg. We had it pretty lucky with the weather but in more wintery or low visibility conditions this would surely be considered even tougher. Do not underestimate what is being asked of you, it might only be 74 miles but they are hard, worthwhile miles.

Improvements
There are things I’d consider to make this an even better experience, the most important would be some minor adjustments to the route if possible – not to fundamentally change it but perhaps to make coming down off the ridge a little easier and descent into Portree more obvious, this would also potentially offer an earlier CP which we would all have been grateful for. Other than that only the trail route to Blaven might get looked at given the opportunity for debris on the trail.

In terms of organisation and everything else it was top notch and communication was good although I was required to re-activate my Facebook account to ensure I didn’t miss anything.

As a final point I think it would be great if the local community were more involved – local businesses, local people – everyone I told about it was fascinated and the community spirit on Skye appears incredibly strong – I think the race could easily harness this just as other events like Celtman do.

Would I do it again!?
I’ll be back, the course chewed me up and spat me out. On the scoresheet it reads UltraBoyRuns 0 – 1 Skye Trail Ultra. I’m unlikely to be back next year given my desire to do new things each year but assuming there is a 2018 I’d consider myself almost certain to be on the start line again. It takes courage or blind stupidity to complete this but if you do enter you won’t regret it, I know lots of you are thinking – dear god this poor sod has a terrible time with all his issues but believe me this race made me nothing but happy and I’m glad that Andy stopped from just sitting down in a field and crying myself into my bivvy bag 🙂

Conclusions
It’s the hardest, most insane race I’ve had the pleasure of doing. It tested fitness, stamina and tenacity. At no point did it say to me you can just call this one in – it demanded respect, it desired my attention.

This event turned me inside out, it made me sick, it made me bleed and it made me cry but it gave me the best memories of running I’ll ever have I think – and that’s high praise. The Skye Trail Ultra joins the SainteLyon at the top of my list of favourite races.

If you’re looking for the challenge of a lifetime, if you’re sick of running on roads, if you fancy getting properly lost inside yourself then this is the race for you. It’s got a little something for everyone and you’ll love it.

The race director might not blow the trumpet of this race but I will. So get your kit on, Skye awaits you but let me assure you with this one – the Skye might just be the limit.

Find out more at www.skyetrailultra.co.uk or search ‘skye trail ultra’ on Facebook (or you could just click the links!

Good luck.

A full gallery of photographs will be added shortly


Love is an overused word in today’s society but when you talk about a SVN event ‘Love’ is the only word that even comes close to describing it and Ranscombe brings with it a special kind of love.

In the shadow of the SDW50 this lovely pair of events take place on the Ranscombe Farm Reserve in the sometimes sunny, often rainy Kent countryside. I’ve reviewed this challenge event before – which you can read about here – so I shan’t bore you with a blow by blow account of the route but I will add a few new bits below;

My opinions have hardly changed on this glorious event except to say that it has gotten even better with the addition of fruit and savoury snacks at the very generous aid station.

With regard to the two (one mildly and one very) different routes Ranscombe should be an event that we all put on our trail running calendars as the trail was challenging, beautiful and a pleasure. Rachel, Traviss and the support crew should be warmly applauded for the care and effort that go into making the Ranscombe experience so wonderful.


The only thing left to mention is my own running! So how did that go? On the Saturday I attacked the course for much of the first 15 miles, running (slowly) most of the hills and banging out the downhills. Even as the ground became increasingly cut up I managed to hold my nerve as I’d picked the excellent Hoka Tor Speed for the job and they responded well to all but the sloppiest of the mud. The addition of a trip to the Darnley Mausoleum was a delight and the final field had been replaced with a run through the Bluebell Woods. I was having a delightful time.

For the second 15 miles I clung on a bit, chatting to Claire, Claire, Lorraine, Elaine, Nick and I think Adam (though I missed his partner Claire, who i’d spoken to via this blog earlier in the week). Apologies to any of the Claire’s who are a Clare or other variation 😀. I even managed a dirty sprint finish which always makes me feel better. Saturday was a good day and I’d really enjoyed myself and felt genuinely energised.

 I went shopping post race and later home in a surprisingly good mood – my legs had held up well, I hadn’t over eaten and I was well hydrated. I knew I’d need to stretch and foam roller but that’s par for the course when you’ve run 31 miles one day and aim to do the same the next.


I therefore rolled up to Rachel’s Ranscombe Challenge on Sunday morning feeling very chipper and said hello to the ever awesome Gary and Karen, who I’d previously met on a couple of Centurion jaunts. The smile was moderately wiped from my face though when I saw a sweating and tired looking Traviss roll up after course marking duty.

Bugger.

It seemed that the brand spanking new 5.25 mile lap was going to be a killer. It seemed that SVN wanted to make sure we all got value for money on the course we ran! Guys you need not have bothered I’d have been happy with something flat 🙂


I’d decided to wear calf compression for the Sunday in the belief that they’d hold me together but as we set off I could feel pain in my left leg which I considered a poor sign. Regardless I ambled along at a reasonable pace, taking it easy through the rolling woodland and even more rolling hills. The route was a brilliant mixture of hills, mud and honest trail, the problem was that I was hobbling at less than 2 miles in. In my head I told myself to keep going and as I meandered up the hills towards the end of lap one I was conscious of every step I was taking.

However, at the aid station I ran into mister awesome himself – Greg. A hundred marathon club member and all round good egg and I motored through the first couple of miles of the course with him and chatted delightfully for a while. However nothing could mask the pain I was in and as we drew up to the flat I bade him farewell.

I made my way gingerly down the hills and slowly uphill – pain shooting up and down my leg. I was never going to make it another 15 miles and I knew it – all I’d be doing would be running races further into the year and that seemed counter productive. Therefore, I made the decision to call it quits. I phoned the GingaNinja and asked her to evacuate me and crawled back to the checkpoint.

I couldn’t have been any more deflated in finishing lap 2, this was worse than my failure at the Winter100 or the CCC and I was grateful for the kind words of Rachel, Dee and Jan who are always awesome. I’m still pretty deflated now as I write this on my way to work.

Of course I received my medal for a paltry 11 miles and I should have been overjoyed as the medal is a thing of beauty but I feel a little bit hollow about how badly I did.

The consolations are that I suspect it was the calf compression guards causing the issue on my ITB – so although it helped on my destroyed right leg it ruined my left leg – something to experiment with.

The course was amazing and I hope this becomes a permanent Ranscombe route as I’d like to get out there and run it again. The medals, especially for the Sunday were spectacular and as I’ve mentioned earlier the improvements of the aid station snacks to include savoury have elevated these events to heights I didn’t think possible!

My thanks to everyone involved and well done to all the participants – you all did exceptionally well. And I promise I’ll be back later in the year to take on Ranscombe again.

 

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