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Lone Peak 3.5

Have you ever had one of those days where you think that if the ground opened up and swallowed you whole to be digested over a thousand year period that your day was probably about to improve?

Then you, dear reader, have some idea about what my day at the Yorkshire Three Peaks Ultra was like. Rest assured though, and for those that won’t be reading to the lengthy end, the Y3PU is a stunningly brilliant event, so whats the story?

Read on…

Beep, beep, beep, thwack, ugh, I’m up.

There I was in my bed dreaming about being Luke Skywalker when the series of noises above meant it was about 2am and I was getting up to head to Hawes in Yorkshire for the second of four races in the Ranger Ultras Grand Slam.

As I stood in the shower I felt resolute about the 100km race I was soon to embark upon, what I felt a lot less resolute about was my confidence in my the hip flexor injury that I’d picked up at the Pennine Bridleway, a few weekends earlier, that was getting worse and not better.

Dressed, I headed downstairs for a breakfast of champions – chocolate milkshake, coffee and Shredded Wheat (not all in one bowl). I’d have liked a few minutes to relax but I focused instead on trying to push out that pre-race dump but having had three or four days of the galloping trots there was nothing doing. So, after kissing the family goodbye and having a final kit check whilst hiding under the boot of car from the hurtling rain, I departed.

Yes I departed only to be met by a closed motorway… oh joy I thought as I swung off the motorway and followed the ridiculous directions from Google. Still despite my false start I was still primed to arrive a little before 7am and if I gave it a bit of welly down the M74 I’d probably have enough time to have a second crack at that pre-race poo.

I’d usually opt for some serious singing or big happy tunes on the way to a race but for a change I was listening to BBC 5Live because it’s sometimes reassuring to listen to people mad enough to call in to be on the radio in the middle of the night because they’re even less sane than those of us who choose ultra marathon running as our sport.

Anyway, after a couple of hours of listening to insomniacs that call talk radio I swapped the fast quiet motorway driving for a spot of relatively busy dark country lanes. Now armed with about a litre and a half of strong coffee in my veins I moved swiftly, albeit it nervously. It was quite a long way from Tebay (my motorway turn off) to Hawes and I didn’t enjoy it and when the tight country lanes finally abated at the entrance to the picturesque town of Hawes I was very grateful.

I parked up in the excellent local facility and grabbed myself a bit more rocket fuel and a pouch of Icelandic superberry yoghurt! I know how to live don’t I? Thankfully now as fuelled as I was going to get I slipped onto my Japanese mattress in the back of the car and began the ‘dance of the lube’.

The ‘dance of the lube’ is where I try and squeeze my running lubrication stick in a variety of body shaped holes in order to reduce the problem of chaffing whilst simultaneously contorting my body into shapes I didn’t know it could make to ensure the lube stick didn’t end up stuck in one of my body shapes.

Ah success, my nipples, nut sack, toes, arsehole and everywhere else should once more be free from the threat of chaffing. I chose to wear kit option one for today because although it was chilly and there was moisture in the air it didn’t look horrendous. So it was bamboo base layer, long sleeved ronhill top, omm 3/4 leggings, some dirty girl gaiters, Drymax socks and an old friend to accompany on one final ultra marathon – my Altra Lone Peak 3.5 – I was dressed.

The one thing I did seriously consider though was the choice of race vest.

There were two things, the first was should I wear the Salomon ADV Skin 12 which might have been responsible for some nasty, nasty chaffing at the Pennine Bridleway 55 and second should I bother packing it at all given that Ranger Ultras seem to take kit checks very seriously and I’d only end up unpacking it all anyway.

In the end I decided to wear the ADV Skin 12 and pack it to race – both would be a mistake!

I got chatting to a lovely, and tough as anything I’d surmise, chap called Chris who was in the car next to me. We shared a bit of chat about the race, locality and the mistakes we had both made in pissing off our respective other halves. It was good to know it wasn’t just me. But with time ticking on we went our separate ways and I ambled down to the welcome and hustle and bustle of the village hall.

This was so very different from the Pennine Bridleway 55 which had been very casual, very intimate – this was a bigger event and yet despite being bigger it felt warm, cosy and like you’d arrived at your grans house where she’d put the kettle on and laid out some fruitcake. However, be under no illusion that’s where Ranger Ultras and a pleasant elderly lady comparisons end, because in the background and behind the warmth and smiles it was all action.

I was directed to the correct number collection and then warmly welcomed by the remarkably jolly Race Director Stu Westfield. I like Stu, he embodies the positive attitude that I’ve always associated with ultra running. He then directed me over to the kit check where I was asked to show my map(s), waterproof jacket, headtorch and bivvy bag.

Now I’m all for a kit check, I believe it is vital to ensure that runners going out into potentially difficult conditions have at least the basics covered but I should have learnt by now – don’t pack my kit before the check. I started emptying my race vest all over the table in search of the four key items, the interesting thing was then that when I finally managed to get my waterproof jacket out the lovely and rather thorough gent then took it out of its stuff sack to check for both the taped seams and the hood.

Having cleared number collection and kit check I took up residence at one of the tables set up in the hall to begin putting my kit back together, fold, twist, squeeze, crush, pack and relax. Some minutes later I found myself sat quietly watching the hall fill up with runners bimbling around doing their thing. I chatted to a few of the others including the lovely Shaun who had travelled about as far as I had to test himself at the Yorkshire Three Peaks Ultra and Danny who had the finest of moustaches and was celebrating his 30th birthday.

I noticed that much like the Pennine Bridleway 55 there was a big kitchen accessible to the runners and individual breakfast bits to chow down on pre-laid out for us – I didn’t partake of any of this but I know lots of the competitors did. I enjoyed this period of watching, listening and chatting – the calm before the storm I suppose you might describe it as but the storm was coming and so as the 9 o’clock start approached the RD started to gently organise the runners into the Pen-Y-Ghent 50km competitors and the Y3PU competitors and suddenly it felt like we were off.

Brilliant.

Well it would have been brilliant if I hadn’t done something stupid with my Garmin and managed to not set it up properly and found myself running down the beautiful little main street of Hawes attempting to correct my technical error so that the watch could guide me from here to the end. Thankfully I wasn’t suddenly and unexpectedly required to navigate via the map that I had securely stowed in my pack – no, I had managed to get the GPX up and running and I was away.

Brilliant.

Well it would have been brilliant if I hadn’t found myself as part of a tunnel or sausage roll of runners trying to get through a tiny little gap in the path – I know someone local will know what these are called but I don’t. I joke, actually it was nice to have a moments to look up and finally see the Yorkshire in all its misty, moist glory.

But to the running, the competitors, made up of all shapes and sizes jumped, leaped, stepped and meandered through the series of little gates and across fields, paths, mud and trail and suddenly we were in a race. What I knew was that there was a decent stretch, probably about 10 miles or so that made up the outward section to our first of the three peaks and this meant that post the three peaks there would be 10 miles or so to run back to the finish. Basic maths then puts me in for about 20 miles or so of hills and that meant there should be lots of trail and not too much tarmac – yummy!

What I hadn’t expected, because I am in no way familiar with the area, was how tough that outward section would be. I found myself daydreaming to a few hours in the future and what I might look like as I wearily wended my way back. However, I was also having a lovely and busy time meeting runners on the route, recounting tales of misery and woe to all who wanted listen and some that didn’t. The route really was a trail and it was amazingly beautiful, even on a day when the weather had closed in all around us I could really appreciate the magnificence of Yorkshire.

What I knew was that the ground was mostly firm and running conditions were perfect and I really took advantage of this in the early stages of the race, pushing as hard as I could and remembering the advice of ultra running legend Traviss Wilcox, ‘get through the first half as fast as you can and survive the second half’. I took this advice to heart and was sticking to it dogmatically as I pushed up the climbs as fast as I could. I gave no ground in these early stages and made good progress through the field and when we hit ground that was a little flatter I put on what I would refer to as a bit of a spurt.

Brilliant.

Well it would have been brilliant if I hadn’t had my hip flexor give up the fight at about 1km in. I was injured, there was no doubt about it and so when I reached the flat and pushed the accelerator I was fully aware that the pain that was running through my groin, leg and hip was only going to get worse as the race wore on.

The lovely thing though was that I was really enjoying myself – something that has been largely missing from my running in recent times and with the grand slam still in play I wanted to leave nothing out here and that required me to keep my spirits up and remember why I love this.

The straight stretch seemed to go on forever but in the distance I could see signs of life and what looked like a checkpoint, no time to stop and no need either – my bottles were for the most part full and I still had a good amount of food on board so I waved at the volunteers (one of whom recognised me from the PB55) and then looked into the face of the first major descent.

This is how the Yorkshire Three Peaks Ultra really fucks with you, it lulls you into a false sense of security, for example the descent here looked pretty benign and a bit banal and without much to think about but when you considered that you would be coming back up this slow, long, ascent then it looked pretty cruel. I remember thinking that on the descent that my quads were feeling it and that I wished I had my MTN Racer on instead of my Lone Peaks because I’d have been more inclined to run harder downhill in them rather than accept the soft pillow-like feel of my Altra.

I was running with Gareth and Paul at this point and they had been excellent company and excellent navigators, if memory serves both had been here before and knew what they were talking about. As is the way though with ultra marathons you really must run your own race and so although we reached the checkpoint together I don’t really remember seeing much more of them, they must have sped away from me and that was just fine.

At the checkpoint I realised this was the last stop before the first of the three peaks and I had no intention of going up without filling the water bottles, topping up the active root and also having something to eat. I stuffed in my big fat gob a couple of the big purple ones from the quality street and a strawberry cream to help wash down the nuts.

I thanked the volunteers, left and caught sight of the viaduct that dominates the landscape on this part of the route. At 400 metres long and with 24 arches the Ribblehead Viaduct is an imposing and impressive sight amongst all the greenery and I very much enjoyed running alongside it. However, the sightseeing was put to one side as the route moved gently upwards and around, all the time moving towards the first peak of Whernside.

As you approach Whernside it really doesn’t look like much at all but it is a bit of a knacker kicker really. First of all there’s the long lonely path, punctuated only by a succession of hikers all wondering why they are out and about in the rain. I trundled along perfectly merrily albeit rather slowly, my hip was at its worst when going uphill and even the presence of my running poles wasn’t enough to mitigate the effect on my pace. Runners who had been minutes behind me were now catching me and despite my best intentions I didn’t feel like I had it in me to push.

The sight of a fellow runner just below me, Michelle, was a nice break and for a few minutes chatted about running and life and I genuinely found this the perfect antidote to the climb – if I didn’t say it at the time, ‘thanks’ it was really appreciated.

Eventually though my companion disappeared into the mist and I continued upwards and eventually was rewarded with a summit full of young adults snd a rather wet gentleman attempting to assert some control. It was here that Danny, he of the moustache, ran past…

Brilliant.

Well it was brilliant, Danny had a real zing about him, his voice was soothing and his words were kind and as we began the descent I realised he was going to be much stronger than me and I wouldn’t be able to match his pace but that didn’t stop me trying because the benefit of running with someone so wonderfully positive might lift my darkening mood. Now I’m a terrible runner but the one thing I’m pretty good at is foot placement on a downhill and so with all the vim and vigour I could manage I started punching well above my actual ability and thundering my way down the rather rocky, muddy, slippery, step laden and mildly technical downhill.

This was a wonderful period for me and despite the pain I was in I was finding the route, the views and the whole experience absolutely amazing – the trail was wonderful but as the downhill flattened out I started to slow and the runners that I had caught overtook me once more followed by more yo-yo-ing with my fellow competitors. I pulled into the next checkpoint not long after and the sight of the Ranger Ultras signage was most welcome but I saw something that sent a real chill down my spine, a competitor who had withdrawn from the race – bloody hell and it was followed by another one who was having groin problems – it made me think of my own issues and would I find myself sat in the back of a camper waiting to be taken back to the start?

Negative thoughts are a nightmare and with two peaks still to go I needed to try and put them to the back of my mind and so filled my water bottles once more and headed out. You don’t realise how tough it is on your legs all the up and downhill until you stop for a moment and then have to get going and let me assure you that my legs did not want to get going again.

In the distance I could see Ingleborough and knew instantly that this climb would be something of a beast to overcome.

The one big positive though was that I was managing to consume food and actually was really keen on eating, I had yoghurt and kids fruit smoothies as well as some other bits and pieces to support the Active Root. The thought that occurred to me was that I wouldn’t have enough of the food I craved to get me round the course! The yoghurt and fruit smoothie pouches are especially handy as they are aimed at kids and tend not to be quite so sugary or filled with things that might upset my stomach – but they wouldn’t be available at the checkpoints. I decided I would have one of each going up Ingleborough and then the other going up Pen-Y-Ghent and then eat whatever else I had as the need arose.

I was slow going up to the steep climb of Ingleborough, slower than I had been at the first peak and I found myself carving out a path that would get me up as safely and pain free as possible. Ahead of me there were small figures dotted on the face of the climb and below me there were small faces looking up seeking a route up.

Step by step, stone by stone I clambered my way along until I overcame the first of the false summits and as I turned and saw nothing for miles but mist my heart sank a little but I was fortunate to meet a gentleman at this point, much like Danny before him, who would share some of his time with me and would play the yo-yo game for many miles. I’m sure we exchanged names but the truth is that from this point my head was really mashed and my focus was much more on the route than retaining the names of the many wonderful runners that help define my race. However, his advice was excellent and he reminded me that it’s all about, ‘see what happens at 70km’.

I’d explained about my hip pain and how it was becoming increasing excruciating to run but quite rightly he reminded that there’s no point worrying about what happens in the future – that will sort itself out as and when it comes. He clearly understood the mental issue I was having and with about 40km left to go I needed not to consumed by a desire to give up. It was therefore with an enormous sense of relief that the real top was reached and there were runners who had gone past us now retreating from the depths of the moist ahead.

‘You’re nearly at the top’ came the call and just a few metres ahead I could see the poor volunteers who had drawn the short straw of being at the top of Ingleborough to ensure runner safety. Oddly despite the wind, the cold and the moisture (I also presume they saw a share of rain up there) the guys were pretty jolly and that’s the mark of great marshalling, they could have just marked our number down but actually they were incredibly enthusiastic as they sent us on our way to the trig point a few hundred metres away.

I had intended to stop for a few minutes at the trig point but given the weather conditions and the lack of visibility there seemed little point and so I headed straight back down the alternative path and on my way to the bottom.

The descent off Ingleborough was tough going but reasonably quick but even though I was moving well and there was a small group of runners all moving together my problems continued to mount. In addition to the hip I could feel a burning in my lower back that didn’t feel like the usual back pain I get from wearing a race vest.

Bugger.

I’d had some rubbing of my race vest at the PB55 which had seemed really odd as it lay lower on my back than the pack sat. I was fortunate at the PB55 in comparison though because my slow moving had meant that the rubbing wasn’t too severe, however, here, now, with sweat dripping off me, my back burnt like inside of a pizza oven after a 12hr Saturday shift at Dominos! I really was having a day of two halves!

Onward and onward the little band of runners moved and much to our surprise the mist that had dogged almost the entire day started to lift and the sun started to poke its little face out. Now, as regular readers will know, the arrival of sunshine might be greeted by most of the great unwashed as a welcome sight but for my money the sun can sod off and I found myself shaking my fist in its direction, under my breath I even heard myself say, ‘oh feck off or it’s the Glasgow kiss for you’. Clearly it heard and the sunshine soon abated, although it would be back a little later.

Eventually we pulled into the next checkpoint and I ate a couple of spring rolls and as some Cadbury’s Heroes but I was feeling sick and my stomach was churning – not good but I needed to try and eat something. I downed my yoghurt and smoothie pouches for a boost and to try and settle my tummy. We would see if that would help. I filled my water bottles once more and topped up the Active Root, I felt like I was going to need it.

As I left the checkpoint I called to amassed marshals, ‘you’re the best checkpoint since the last one!’ and they were indeed brilliant and they handled the large group of runners who all arrived together incredibly well.

The little band of runners who I had been running with naturally disbanded at the checkpoint and I found myself amongst other runners, some I had already met, others that were new to me. It was here during the start of the steep climb to Pen-Y-Ghent that I was reacquainted with Graham, who despite being in lots of pain had decided against a DNF at the last checkpoint, and was pushing through.

He was a very inspiring runner to be around, as well as only being a runner for six years he was also in the midst of completing the Hardmoors Superslam, holy shit! His grit and determination was special and his climbing speed was much quicker than mine and so I clung on to his coat tails for dear life.

Up and up we climbed, slowly and steadily, being careful not to misplace our footing but a bit of a light scramble was just what the doctor ordered. As I started upward, attempting to see the summit I caught sight of a man I thought might well be Santa Claus, or perhaps Satan Claws coming to collect my dying body and soul. I called up, ‘I love your beard’. In response he raised his camera and tried to catch my fat side! Ha.

This was another amazing marshal, sat on high, up the peak, not only taking pictures but also ensuring our safe ascent to the top. Ranger Ultras clearly take the safety aspect very seriously indeed and I know all the runners were grateful for that.

Graham and I made the top and then began our descent, this was going to be tough but we were making reasonable enough time but Graham was going quicker than I was now and he started to power ahead a little bit. I started losing ground to a couple of other runners who were on the yo-yo too and as I looked back I realised I would soon be on my own and I feared that given my mental state.

I decided it was time to pull on the big boy pants and give myself the wedgie I so clearly needed!

‘Come on Ultraboy you can do this’ I thought.

I picked my feet up and started to move faster, Graham buddy I’m coming to find you – it was just about then that a young lady overtook me wearing the same coloured Salomon pack that I was, mud splattered all the was up her legs, I wondered if I looked the same from behind. I think her name was Min but I’m not 100% sure, as I say, my brain was pretty fried. For a little while she ignored me and thundered onward but I was pretty sick of being overtaken and so I set off chasing both her and Graham and within just a few hundred metres I could smell the mud beneath the lugs of their shoes.

‘Evening,’ I said as I reintroduced myself.

When you’re feeling like shit, you can’t eat, your back is burning from the rubbing of your race vest and you’re injured what you really need is some good chat with lovely people that have stories to tell. My companions were gracious enough to be both engaging, interesting and most of all willing to share. For miles we pushed to find our way back to the main path and then to the finish but such was my delight at the company I was keeping that I remembered to enjoy myself. We eventually of course did find the path and looking upwards we remembered the downhill we had all enjoyed/endured earlier in the day. My memory must have been a little bit fuzzy though because I was thinking this climb up to the checkpoint was probably no more than about half a mile.

Bugger.

Yes, my mind had played a cruel trick on me because the climb to the final checkpoint felt like the hardest slog of the day, just steep enough to be un-runnable when you’re absolutely ruined but not steep enough not to try. Our little trio moved as quickly as it could but the climb was draining our enthusiasm and all we wanted was to reach the checkpoint. The darkness had also surrounded us and we hurled our respective light sources on and ran by torchlight, I remembered that I hadn’t run like this since the Ultra Scotland and I have always found myself developing tunnel vision quickly when running by headtorch and so I moved between my hand and head light to ensure that I avoided the problem.

I felt that the three of us were searching the horizon for the twinkling of the marshals lights and then as we reached the tarmac I made out a slither of light and maybe the top of a car, we had reached the home strait.

I punched the afterburner button and ran with all haste into the checkpoint, there were a couple of lovely marshals there who would be out in the cold until around 1am – they really were incredible. I was hugely grateful to see John, one of the marshals I met at the PB55 again and he provided words of comfort and advice. He provided the verbal cuddle that I needed and sent me on my way armed with enough water to see it through.

My competitors had managed to get out of the checkpoint quicker than I and as I watched their headtorches running into the distance I felt a little wave of sadness, I stood on the trail for a moment stretching my back and gingerly wiping sweat away from the large angry and bloody wounds that were reaching right around my back. With my final adjustments I set out once again, this time along the flat but rocky and damp trail, I approached the trail with a surprising surefootedness and worked hard to catch the next set of bobbing lights because I had no wish to miss the turn off the trail and on to the downhill.

The running gods must have been looking down on me though as I saw what looked like a series of buzzing fireflies in the distance, at what it seemed was the turning point – yes a selection of the runners were either wondering if this was the right way or returning from the wrong way to get back on course. The GPX file confirmed that this was the point to move from the trail and I joined this posse of runners, there were so many familiar faces and there was a bit of a party atmosphere but I wanted to move a little bit quicker and so battered down the trail as quickly as I could – I could smell the finish and see the town of Hawes ahead of me.

Of course my brain being mashed I knew that there would be some more shit to deal with and I arrived at what looked like a crossroads and I didn’t fancy going wrong and so I waited for a few minutes until the party bus arrived and of course they immediately headed down the obvious direction!

Oddly the group started running, presumably because they had arrived on tarmac, oh what the bollocks. Bloody hell, my body doesn’t like tarmac at the best of times and this was not my best of times but there was a beat that we were hitting and each member of the group was pressing. There was still the challenge of the little gaps in the walls that we had to negotiate and this time I served as a bit of a doorman to allow the other runners quicker access along the route, I suppose this was my way of saying thank you to the crew who, like me, were just keen to get home.

And then out of nowhere I knew were I was, past the pub and back onto the main street of Hawes, ahead of me there was a runner or two and because I’m a complete and proper dick and there was an attractive lady who had come out of the pub to cheer us on, I put on a final, painful sprint but this time it was to the finish.

Pound, pound, pound. I could hear the sound of my feet against the pavement and I could feel my lungs burning and chest thumping as I passed the runner ahead of me and leapt up the stairs of the hall and into the light.

I’d made it, I’d made it. No DNF today.

When Stu Westfield asked if I was going back out, I gave a silent but firm, ‘no’ and so my grandslam effort would come to a rather sad end but at least I was still alive, something that I wasn’t sure I would be at various points during the event.

Injured, sick, bloodied and bruised but I had the finishers coaster to cherish, just not the 100km race finish.

Overview

  • Distance: 70/100km
  • Ascent: 2400 metres
  • Date: October 2021
  • Location: Hawes, Yorkshire
  • Cost: £50
  • Terrain: Trail
  • Tough Rating: 3.75/5

Route
I’m always on the hunt for a beautiful trail race, one that minimises the tarmac and one that is filled with aching beautiful vistas and challenge. Well I am very pleased to report that the Yorkshire Three Peaks Ultra from Ranger Ultras is right up there with the best of them. The whole route was a joy to behold, some might argue that better weather would have made this more scenic but I take the opposite view – there was enough clear sky to enjoy the sight of the massive loop that awaited you but there was also something mystical and majestic about the mist, the low visibility and also the little gems such as the viaduct.

Each of the little chocolate box villages that we passed through made this feel like we had stepped back in time and Hawes was simply an exceptionally pretty place to start the race. The route had something for everyone, if you like elevation it had that, if you like technical trails then it had some of that, if you liked big stone steps (nobody does) then it had a shitload of them, if you like steep, wet, muddy, scenic or fast descents then it had all of them too.

Yes it was bloody tough but it was equally beautiful and that makes it worthwhile doing.

Organisation
Last time I was rather lavish with my praise for the organisation of the race, well let me gush some more because the guys at Ranger Ultras under the leadership of Stu Westfield are amongst the best in the business. They make the logistical challenge of an ultra marathon look like child’s play and it really isn’t. I’ve witnessed what a shit show looks like in terms of organisation (looking at you Thames Gateway 100, 2013) and Ranger Ultras are anything but, they are just brilliant.

Value for Money
I genuinely don’t know how they do it – the Rangers Ultra races are some of the best value events around. If you haven’t entered one yet then just do it, you will not be disappointed. These events not only quality but also amazing value, I can’t praise the value for money enough – at about £50 entry this is possible one of the best value events in Englandshire (maybe second only to the Fellsman?) and the fact they offer you a ‘free’ 30km at the end of the race seems both brilliantly cruel and oddly generous.

Awards
As regular readers will know I love a medal, they are the main reason I do these ultra distances but Ranger Ultras are moving to wooden coasters and despite them being an absolute bugger to display they are much nicer than the medals. They are beautifully designed and nicely made. For those who are fast enough there are rewards to be had with trophies and the like but I’m never going to trouble those. I realise we are moving to more sustainable racing and it was excellent to see another cupless event being held but I would kill for a bit of Ranger Ultras merchandise, I mean I’d buy the hoodie and the shirt because I get the feeling that the team would make the right decisions about the kind of quality and sources they were getting them made from – just incase you’re reading this team I really like the Sheepish hoodies, one of those with a Ranger Ultras branding on would be perfect.

Volunteers and Support
Everyone was 100% amazing, from the first to the final person – the volunteers and marshals showed nothing but enthusiasm and energy and as an exhausted runner that can’t be underestimated. I will say a special thank you to John, who rescued my race at the final checkpoint and who made me laugh at the Pennine Bridleway 55. I know how challenging a stint volunteering can be and I can heard to say as I run past volunteers sometimes, ‘you guys have the hardest job’ and I really do mean it. However, in the case of Ranger Ultras we must doubly mean it because we had marshals and safety crew at all the major potential stumbling points and at all the key locations that a runner would really need some support. Brilliant.

Runners
I met so many runners during the race, probably more in this race than any other I have done in recent time and that may have something to do that I managed to perform a bit better than usual and so was higher up the pack than usual before dropping off. For the purpose of the blog and also politeness when you are chatting to someone for a little while I try to get the names of my fellow runners and also try and remember them but here names just dropped out of my brain like water through a sieve.

What I do know is that whether you had travelled far, were running your first ultra, were a little mountain goat, had run dozens of ultra marathons, had awesome facial fuzz or were concerned that hippy hikers might have gotten the magic mushrooms before you did, all of you played a massive part in me reaching any kind of finish line – I did not deserve to get to 70km, I wasn’t good enough on the day – but you, my fellow runners were and I thank you for my 58th ultra marathon finish.

My Race
I’ve outlined my race above but between my hip, feeling sick and my back I did not deserve to finish and that’s how I view my race. That’s a shame because I had a truly great time on the route and with Ranger Ultras and am sure as time passes I’ll only remember these positives but right now I feel a bit sad about the way I raced and not finishing the 100km.

What did I learn? Well the stomach issue was just one of those things that can happen to anyone and I’m sure that next time it won’t be in play. The back issue – well there are two issues, one is the general pain I get which the physiotherapist is helping me resolve but then there is the fact that my Salomon ADV Skin 12 chaffed the skin from back and then helped my body sweat straight into it – I won’t be wearing it again, or at least not over these kinds of distances. The hip though is is the big one, especially with the Double Peaks weekend coming up, am I going to make it to the start line well there’s some question marks about that.

The Grand Slam
And so because I failed to complete the 100km and only finished the 70km race I, like everyone else, bow out of the grand slam and I am very, very sad about this. I went into the Y3PU hoping that my hip would hold together for just a short 100km hop but instead it crucified me for mile after mile after mile. So with the grand slam gone I have thoughts and options that include

  1. Not running any further races this year
  2. Not running the Dark Peaks / White Peaks Double Race Weekend in favour of a longer recovery for the Cheviot Goat Ultra
  3. Running the Dark Peaks, the White Peaks and the Cheviot Goat

I mean I think I know where this is likely to end up and the chances are I’ll be sitting on the start line for at least the first day of running in the Peaks but the question is unlikely to be truly answered until the night I need to head down.

I also know that Kate Allen will be at the Peaks weekend and do I really want to disgrace myself in front of a runner I have much respect for? Ha!

Conclusions
There is a huge logistical challenge in my attending the Ranger Ultras events, the distance is one thing but there are lots of other factors that get in the way, not being local means I really have to think about whether I want to do it, are they worth the arse ache? Was it worth the hours of driving and the miles and miles on terrifyingly dark back roads from Tebay to Hawes? Was the wooden trinket worth needing all that coffee that would eventually come galloped out of my arsehole a day later? Was it worth pissing off a potentially nasty injury so you could enjoy the misty views over Yorkshire? 100% Yes.

This was a bold, brutal and beautiful event and for all my griping I get to sit here, writing this a week later, reliving my joy at some of those most exquisite moments I’ve had as an ultra marathoner. I fell very fortunate to have run the Yorkshire Three Peaks with Ranger Ultras because it was a classy event and the team that put it on are a class act.

Yes I’m annoyed at lots of things about this, but none of them are to do with the event – that was glorious. The issue, as always, is me, what I can tell you is that this race, much like its sibling the PB55 is highly recommended, especially for those of you who like your running hard and trail. You can find out more at the Ranger Ultras website here or take a look at their Facebook page here.

And finally if I haven’t convinced you to take the plunge on this wonderful event, well shame on me because that means I haven’t praised it hard enough. However, let me share with you a final little thing, I have now attempted 68 ultra marathons, I have completed 58 of them, I have run over 200 races in the last decade and of those 200 this one, the Ranger Ultras Yorkshire Three Peaks Ultra is most certainly in the top 10 of my favourite events. That is high praise because it shares that top 10 with great events such as the SainteLyon, the Skye Trail Ultra, MIUT, the Vigo Tough Love 10 and the Green Man Ultra, its tough to get to me to consider putting a race so highly on my list of all time favourites but the Y3PU instantly joins the club.

See you out there.

It’s worth noting that I have no affiliation with Rangers Ultra am not sponsored nor have I been paid to write this review – this is 100% independent (and probably unwanted).

Stood on the beach as the other runners ambled down I could feel that sensation you get when you know that you’re about to do something brilliant. Having recently run the Frostbite 5 with wonderful Trails of Fife, at Lochore Meadows, I was confident that I was in for another belter of a race.

And let’s be fair what more do you want from a race other than to have to run out into the middle of the surf and stare down a giant red lobster? More on that later.

I had made the relatively short hop across from sunny Falkirk to an equally sunny but also rather windy St Andrews, a place I had not yet managed to get to. Therefore, when the Splash & Dash came up and I had very little planned I knew I had to finally pay St Andrews a visit and this would make a great starting point for an epic week of running.

With a marathon to run the next morning I knew that this evenings event should be taken as easy as possible and so as the start line was being set up I made my way to the back of the hundred or so runners. I had no intention of sprinting off like a startled gazelle, no sir, I was going to sit at the back, come last and bloody well enjoy myself.

As these thoughts were running through my head a fellow runner with those, ‘can’t see your eyes’ sunglasses on approached me and asked, ‘do you have a running blog?’

Now occasionally I might have said something to piss someone off in my blog writing so I’m rarely swift to admit being the author and because I couldn’t see the young ladies eyes she was difficult to read but I figured it would be fine and so I carefully answered ‘yes’.

Turns out she had read the Frostbite 5 posting, the previous race I did with Trails of Fife (you can read that here) and I ended up chewing with fat with her little group for a couple of minutes – mostly extolling the virtues of running up Benarty Hill.

I must have gotten rather caught up in chatter though as I barely noticed the start of the race and I found that my legs had assumed control and decided to thunder away with the rest of me. The afterburner was spent pretty quickly though and I had just enough juice in the engine to catch up with local legend Fiona. It is always lovely to see Fiona, she’s one of my favourite runners and a genuine inspiration – I was also very impressed with her choice of top for the race (I’ll be looking that one up and making a purchase if I too can get it in orange!) But now it was time to press on and I slowly managed to pull away from Fiona and the group of runners behind me, not something I can usually do but I thought I’d put a bit of effort in before the old hamstrings gave in.

But here’s the thing – I couldn’t find my groove and the hamstring that has given so much woe since March had clearly been pulled and the tightness was impressing on me, the need to slow down. However, there was a problem – I had picked up a shadow in the form of another runner and she was sat right in my blind spot but I knew that at least for a while I could try and use her as my own personal pacer. Therefore, every time she got within a few metres of me I would open out my stride and pull ahead of her again. I must have done this about 10 times on the run back to the start line of lap one – I’m sure she could have cheerfully put my head in one of those sandy pools and drowned me but instead she simply ran a superbly consistent pace and it was hugely impressive.

At one point I turned to her and said, ‘you can overtake me but I’m going to make you work for it’ but really what I meant was, ‘chase me, I’m desperately trying to stay ahead’. In the end of course I was overtaken but it was a fun game to play even as the sand sapped all the energy from my legs.

Despite only being a mile down the beach and back twice this felt like a very long loop and as the first lap was concluding we were ushered by the amazing volunteers into a meeting with the race mascot.

In the North Sea there was a vison of red loveliness awaiting us, it’s claws ready to snap at unsuspecting runners and a massive flag stood proudly blowing in the wind. Yes we must face the lobster in the water before the lap could conclude.

In less covid times I would have been very happy to have gone and had a little nibble (cuddle), I mean lobster is delicious, and this lobster looked very tasty indeed. However, the times being what they are, I had to settle for a cheery smile and photograph – but I’d see the lobster again on my run to the finish line.

As I am sure we all know that running through water is a real bum ache, it drains your legs, it drains your spirit and it makes everything feel tough – but running in the sea is also the greatest buzz and gives me a tremendous joy. All the time I’ve spent in the water recently has meant that I’ve become rather adept at moving reasonably quickly through moving water and so while some found it a struggle to get out of the water I was able to make reasonable progress up the beach and in to lap 2.

Lap 2 was much like the first in that the beautiful beach at St Andrews gave us an amazing backdrop whichever direction you were running in and the conditions being warm and windy were absolutely magnificent. A couple of runners passed me by, including a chap who was running barefoot and brushed me aside with ease! I could also sense that I was slowing and bit by bit the pretence of a reasonable time was being eroded. However, once past the volunteers at the far end of the course I started to work my way back – I’d found a bit of a second wind and I got chatting to another young fella who was also clearly feeling the burn. We said hello and exchanged a bit of banter that really gave me some encouragement as we entered the final run back down to the water – speaking to him at the end I think he thought he’d get beyond me but I have my little secret weapon for race days…

Yes I’m a terrible runner but there’s one piece of advice that I have stuck by through the thick and thin of racing, ‘always finish strong’.

So as my feet entered the water I pulled my knees up and cried out my love and thanks to the lobster before blasting through the water to a sprint up the beach. I did give a little half a glance behind me to make sure I wasn’t going to be overtaken by the young fella I’d done those last few hundred metres with, thankfully though but he was a few precious seconds behind, though given how much ground he made up on me he more than deserved to finish ahead of me.

However, I crossed the line and inside all I could do was smile. Absolutely wonderful.

Conclusions
Trails of Fife are quickly becoming my favourite race organiser, I’ve now done two of their races and both were just the most fun filled experiences. For me part of the joy is that they aren’t ultra marathons or long distance races, I can turn up, race and have a bit of laugh. I’m sure some people take this very seriously indeed but when there’s a giant lobster insisting that you run to him in the sea, well you just can’t take it too seriously can you?

The beach setting of St Andrews was amazing and the late start meant that there was lots of parking available and most of the tourist traffic had departed. This certainly helped with the use of the excellent toilet facilities and in fact by having the race later in the day there was a lot less pressure overall I felt – more early evening races I say!

The organisation was as brilliant as my first experience of Trails of Fife and the volunteers were that lovely blend of cheering you on and making sure that you were going in roughly the right direction. The volunteers are always the stars of the show as far as I am concerned and at Trails of Fife they make you feel that enormous warmth that I find comes with these lovely local races. So my thanks to you. However, I must of course say a special thank you to the lobster for whom standing in the sea for the best part of an hour cannot have been as much fun as it looked – the sea gets cold pretty quickly and he didn’t look like he had a wetsuit on under his outfit. His good humour and commitment to the role was outstanding and my only problem was that I didn’t get to take him home and put him a pot of boiling water and have him for dinner – still there’s always next time.

As for the medal? Well Trails of Fife seem to know how to do a damn fine medal – they’re big enough to make them feel special and nicely designed as a lovely memento of your event. I’m a big fan of these races and the organisers should be very proud of themselves for putting on such fine events. Easy collection of race number? Yes. Good facilities? Yes. Beautiful locations? Yes. Amazing team and volunteers? Yes. Cool medal that you’ll treasure? Yes. Really fun route and event? Yes. Any complaints? No.

If this returns with a winter edition I’ll be adding my name to the list because this is a corker and I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for further events from the lovely guys at Trails of Fife.

You can find their Facebook group here and see what’s next.

The only downside about writing this is that you may now feel the need to sign up to their races and I might not get a spot but here’s the thing – I feel everyone who loves running and loves a trail or being outdoors should do one of their events. Being as inexpensive as they are means they are as accessible as races get in cost terms and although I can guarantee you’ll love these events I will say that if you don’t have fun then you’ve probably had your fun bones removed.

Enjoy and see you next time.

Having failed to complete the Ochil Ultra I feel now is a time of reflection – I won’t be reviewing it this year as it would be unfair on the organisers to judge this on half a race. However, I can happily confirm that the (a little under) half a race I did was ball achingly epic and an example of a stunningly scenic Scottish ultra marathon that wasn’t in either the highlands or on the West Highland Way. Give it a go I don’t think you’ll be in any way disappointed – and with a couple of the loveliest RDs around.

What I’m looking for is some closure about the Ochil Ultra – sadly that will not be achieved here – only finishing the fucker will deliver that, however, I need to examine what happened and why I am so massively disappointed.

Perhaps the truth is that it’s not the failure that chaffs my arsehole but the way I failed.

I mean I knew things were not going well before the race started and my guts were doing cartwheels. I managed to alleviate this somewhat with the obligatory pre race dump but it still didn’t feel right. Thankfully negative things were somewhat put to the back of my mind by meeting the truly awesome and inspiring Fiona (see enclosed picture) but this was temporary relief and when I lined up at the start I was genuinely worried.

The race was quick to accelerate uphill and I found myself pushing as hard as I could up the first climb to the summit of Dumyat. I was fortunate to be on a route that I knew quite well and the views were truly spectacular. Having been here several times before I was expecting this to be an easy ascent and a relatively easy descent. However, when I reached the top I discovered that the descent was going to be far from easy and several slips and bumps as I went downwards would prove to be my undoing. I made it down to the bottom I tried to have something to eat – one of those baby fruit pouches that are pretty easy on the stomach – however, this was were I discovered that my participation in the Ochil Ultra was going to be short-lived, I started puking my guts up. Everything that I had laid on my stomach to try and stop race nausea came up and it was pretty vile. I crawled away in dismay and started to run again as best I could but on tarmac I could now feel the pain of my back and groin that had taken a pounding coming off that first climb.

I was fucked.

How sad that a race I had been so been looking forward to had come to a conclusion so quickly – but what now? Do I stop at the first checkpoint or do I get as far as possible and hope that everything eased off and I could make it to the last 15 miles or so and push through. Knowing that much tougher races are to come later in the year I felt that I had no choice but to try and push through and see how far I could get.

I pulled into checkpoint one and ate and drank as much as I could stomach, I also opened up the Active Root to see if there was anything it could do to help me ease my stomach issues. I would like to briefly mention the young man who was at the checkpoint and remembered me from Ben Vorlich – he was awesome and helped me get stuff out of my pack so that I didn’t need to take it off. What a great volunteer and he was more than willing to check half a bottle of water over my head!

I decided to head up the hill from checkpoint one and it really wasn’t very far before I was once more on my knees and bringing up the food and drink I had consumed at the checkpoint, chicken and chocolate (yuck). I sat down for a while, who knows how long, but long enough that I had the capacity to get up and continue but I was sort of wishing I hadn’t. It was a steep climb up from here and I made slow progress upwards where a volunteer was looking out for us – I stopped briefly to chat and then pushed onwards.

I looked back at the Ochils and saw a new side to the hills that were one of the great draws that brought me to Scotland. I felt truly grateful to be where I was but I was very much wishing that I did not feel like I did but with gritted teeth I continued through this beautiful and isolated landscape. I came down off the hill to a fisheries on the Glen Devon Estate that I recognised and when briefly I had phone signal I called the GingaNinja and asked her to come and rescue me from checkpoint two – I would be finishing there. The call though was cut short – not by a lack of signal but by having to get across the fast moving stream of water – something that was rather tricky give the state I was in.

Hours seemed to drift by until  I finally  arrived at the Glen Devon Reservoir and around the 30km mark I assumed that the checkpoint and the therefore my finish line would be just at the bottom of the hill I had climbed only a week or so previously.

But no.

I reached the path and saw the arrow pointing upwards to yet more climbing and here I found myself with tears in my eyes. My groin and my back were burning, I had managed to puke for a third and final time and my mental strength had simply evaporated into the ether. I did consider the option of simply walking down to the Glen Sherup car park but knew that there was no phone signal there and felt that the second checkpoint must be nearby. I mean how much elevation could there really be here? The answer to that was revealed as I entered a darkened forest section and noted that the climb looked steep and impossible. However, much as before I simply gritted my teeth and forced my way through the increasingly shitty conditions underfoot. Once I reached the top of the section I saw a sign saying ‘Innerdownie summit 1km’ and noted that we must come back here and make the ascent – something we had considered when, as a family, we were hiking up Ben Shee.

In the distance I could see signs of habitation and assumed that the checkpoint was there and so I gingerly made my way down to the bottom to the welcome of the volunteers and the GingaNinja but all I could say was that those cheers and congratulations were unnecessary – I had failed, totally and utterly and was very sad about that. Perhaps the most annoying thing was that I

The guys at Wee Run Events were tremendous and offered anything I needed and I would like to very much thank them from that. I’ve said it before but the guys really do love what they do and if they don’t then they make it look like they do.

Afterwards & Onwards 
Failing here would normally have sent my spiralling into a pit of my own self inflicted misery and ensuring that I just piled on the pounds eating chocolate and bread products but I’ve been rather than pragmatic than that this time. I’ve decided not to run the Rebellion Ultra as I feel as though it is simply too far for me at this time and have instead entered the Yorkshire Three Peaks Ultra – which at 70km should be a great event and I’ve very rarely run in Yorkshire so its a lovely opportunity.

The injury thankfully has eased off and I’ve immediately gone back to running and so I’m aiming to be ready for the Three Peaks but also more importantly I’m now laser focused on The Cheviot Goat which has been my ‘A’ race all year – so as sad as I feel about the Ochils Ultra it has provided me with renewed focus for my remaining targets this years.

I will still reach ultra number 52 just not at the Ochil Ultra and 2020 will, I am determined, not be the washout that 2019 has been.

Failing to finish, refusing to continue, timed out, did not finish. Doesn’t matter, I did fail but I will return and it is holding on to a positive attitude that will get me through. Some may comment that I was just having a stinker of a day but the truth is that I’ve had too many stinking days at races. I could blame my work stress levels, the sickness on the day or the injuries but ultimately I should only blame myself for my failures – and I do.

So thank you Ochil Ultra, you were awesome and I was shit but I’m coming to get you and next time I will not fail.

img_1777In times of turmoil we seek summits and points of vantage to gain clarity of vision.

When I was younger I would go to the Lake District to climb a hill and breathe clean air and give myself greater clarity. Given I didn’t drive (or ride a bike) I would often find myself in places you could reach by public transport and so Ambleside was a popular choice for a young man with a busy mind.

Roll forward a decade or two and my mind remains busy but I’ve added both a driving licence and an ability to ride a bike and so when I saw the inaugural Ambleside Trail 60 on the ultra event calendar I decided that this was for me.

The race was being organised in conjunction between the long established The Climbers Shop (find out more here) in Ambleside and charity The Brathay Trust (find out more here) – both well respected pillars of the community.

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I therefore had high expectations for the event.

When looking at the Ambleside Trail 60 on paper you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s rather easy and with a tad under 2,500metres of climb it all seemed perfectly respectable. The problem comes is that when deciding to do this I had conflated the shortness of the distance and relatively low ascent numbers to think this was going to be easy. How wrong can you be?

But anyway let me add a bit of context to proceedings – I’d had an excellent July, training had gone well and I’d come off the Ben Vorlich Ultra feeling pretty good and without injury. The truth is I’d felt so good that I’d returned to training the following day and was looking forwarding to maintaining my running mental strength by taking part in the Thieves Road Ultra. In typical fashion though disaster struck and I took a nasty tumble running up a hill and put a bloody big hole in my knee and this was supplemented by a shitty infection that I couldn’t shift. However, with August 10th approaching I knew that momentum was on my side and I’d be okay(ish) to race but it seemed my August ultra curse was set to continue and the race was cancelled due to the potential for adverse conditions.

What happened next was that race was reorganised for two weeks later, my illness got worse and on race day I spent about 8hrs on the porcelain throne. This time it was me cancelling the race and so I rolled up to the Ambleside 60 with very little training but a lot of chocolate eating done.

As I’ve said I’m a huge fan of The Lake District and Cumbria, it’s a truly spectacular place and so I was very happy to be there on a beautiful morning watching the world go by.

Strangely for an ultra it was taking place on a Sunday which meant I’d had the luxury of bimbling around the Lakes the day previously taking in the delights of Ambleside and registering with the event organisers at The Climbers Shop. Registration was both quick and easy and the lovely organisers were on hand to answer all of my ridiculous questions. I was also mightily impressed that race sponsor Rab (I assume) threw in a warm beanie which is likely to make its race debut later in the year. It was here that I bumped into Ed, a fellow competitor from Ben Vorlich and it was lovely to ‘chew the fat’ with him for a few minutes and catch up about what had happened at the race end. However, we soon parted and I found myself at a loose end but with lots of wonderful outdoor stores strewn across the town – I decide me to make hay while the sun shone. Lunch was a delicious spicy chicken baguette with a slab of honeycomb cake and this was followed by short trips to Kendal and Keswick to make the most of my stay.

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I had the luxury of having a six berth dorm room all to myself at the waterside YHA in Ambleside and I went to bed early to try and get as rested as possible. Kit was prepared, breakfast readied and I knew where I was going in the morning.

The organisers had suggested the pay & display car park in Ambleside, which given it was a few minutes from the start, made good sense. With water bottles now filled I headed to the start in Rothay Park and silently soaked up the friendly, banter atmosphere. I’ve grown rather accustomed to knowing runners at races, wherever I am, both here and abroad – so it was something of a surprise to not see any faces I knew. I wandered around a little bit before setting amongst the throng of ultra runners all keen for the start.

We were all instructed to dib our chips at the start which had been attached to us at registration. I found these mildly intrusive as they never felt very comfortable around the wrist and I fretted about them working loose and ending up in a puddle of mud somewhere on a hill. Thankfully it never did work loose but I found it uncomfortable compared to some of the alternatives that I’ve had to wear. That said the system was simple enough to use and the setup both at the start and at checkpoints was well thought out.

With an 8am start looming we were all corralled into the starting area and after a short briefing and some words of encouragement the 175(ish) runners burst forward and out of Rothay Park and into the wilderness. It’s fair to say that a number of ‘trail’ races that I’ve been part of have actually had quite significant amounts of road or tarmac involved but this experience was very different. From the near outset there was trail and nature surrounding the runners.

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As we wound our way through the first few kilometres it was clear that this was going to be s tougher day than I had originally imagined and as I looked down at my faithful Suunto I could see the elevation metres quickly stacking up. Those first few miles were easily the simplest on the route and with excellent route marking even I couldn’t go wrong. We wended our way through the variety of trails, up and down hills and along some of England’s finest scenery. For the most part I was making good time against the other runners – using my preferred tactic of ‘go as fast as you cN for as long as you can and then death march it in’. I made sure I was taking on board regular fluids and even a little food from early in proceedings as this would ensure I could still take on everything late in the event. I topped up my intake with some Active Root, which is about the only electrolyte style supplement I can stomach, and this kept me level and stopped significant dips – something to consider if you’re running well.

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I ran the first 15km pretty consistently and covered around 600 metres of climb – despite the recent rains the ground was in good condition and the route was runnable. Although I had poles with me I had decided that I would refrain from their use until I really needed them and despite the ascents I didn’t feel I needed them in the firs quarter of the event. The views were delightful and this was very much The Lake District of my youth – some places dragged up long forgotten memories and it was a very pleasant experience. It was here that I met Deborah – about 2.5 miles from the first checkpoint. We chatted for a while, as we bounded forward and this was such a pleasant experience that I barely noticed the run into the checkpoint.

Checkpoint one was brilliant with the marshalling team all dressed as chefs with big chef hats, the team were incredibly well drilled – timer, water, food, out, out, out! I was very impressed with the team and the organisation of the event on the whole, if I were to take a guess this was not their first rodeo. The quality of the food on offer was brilliant and as I left the checkpoint I felt buoyed by the energy the team have thrust upon me. In the distance I could see Deborah disappearing and continued my journey alone.

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The second section was going to be tougher with the first 600 metres climbed this meant that there was still around 1700 metres to climb and around a marathon to do it in. 2 hours down – 12 hours to go. I knew that the first significant climb was soon to be upon us and in the distance twinkling like little neon and Lycra clad stars were a succession of slow moving runners as the route moved up a gear in toughness.

It was now that the route threw challenge after challenge at us, the trail had moved from being mostly runnable to being filled with big lumpy rocks, it was wet underfoot and it changed from soaking to dry making your shoe choice irrelevant in the face of the varying conditions. I threw open my poles for the first time and began the slow journey upwards, happy in the knowledge that I had built up a reserve of time in the early stages of the race. However, as I looked ever upwards it was with a deep sense of foreboding – this was the first and easiest ascent and it was far from easy.

I decided that given I still had some strength in my legs I would do the climb in bursts and so would have a short stop and then powered up the next couple of hundred metres, stop and repeat. This technique helps me with the fatigue my legs get from the constant ball achingly monotonous striding of hiking up the hills (something I knew I would be forced into later in the day). My lack of training in the last month and the over eating was also playing a significant part now in my performance – runners were passing me as I struggled with the up hills and the beating my feet were now taking. However, I knew that on the downhill as long as the path was relatively runnable I would be able to make up some ground. Where some runners are guarded about running downhill too quickly for fear of a fall I am usually pretty surefooted and confident in my own ability. Therefore once the peak was reached I felt that I had little choice but to open up the taps a bit and go for it.

 

My descent was as quick as my ascent was slow and I found myself able to catch some of the runners that had managed to overtake me and I felt with nearly 1,000 metres of ascent done and about 20km in distance done I was feeling confident and then the ridiculous kicked in – I slipped. Bang down – on my back, on my arse, on all my weakest points. The two young runners ahead of me turned and shouted to find out if I was okay and I waved them on but I was far from alright. My back, which is troubling at the best of times, had shooting pain running through it and I had cut my hand open in several places and was bleeding. I picked my muddy form off the floor and cursed my own stupidity – I ran down to the little stream and put my buff in the water and wrapped it around my hand attempting to soak up the blood. I had been very lucky, within a few minutes the bleeding had stopped and I managed to clean up the various gashes that now covered my left hand – the realisation was dawning upon me that this route was going to give me a good kicking before it was finished.

I pushed onwards through the next few kilometres, slowing a little to account for the worsening running conditions, the rocky terrain became incredibly hard going and in my opinion it felt more like fell running than it did ultra trail running but it all added to the complexity of the challenge of finishing. I finally reached the halfway point and was greeted by the most welcoming committee of marshals, supporters and runners. Given I was so far from the lead it was no surprise to see my fellow racers in various states of distress, I grabbed a bit of grass and threw my bag to floor and motored over to the food table and stuffed my face with the delicious sausage rolls with the amazing pastry (I’m going to assume veggie but don’t want to know as they were so delicious it would disappoint me to know I’d been eating something mildly healthy). I drank as much tea as I could handle, grabbed a bit of soft chewy cake, filled my water bottles and then followed the other runners out of the checkpoint.

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It was here that I would make the relationship that would see me cross the finish line, though it did not begin well but I’ll get to that later.

From CP2 we were presented with a climb up Stake Pass, a beautiful climb and no mistake but a technical, rocky ascent that required maximum concentration all the way and its windy nature meant that you felt progress was even slower than it actually was. I used my brutish bursts of power to push myself up the pass and once more in the distance before and ahead of me I could see the swathes of runners slowly climbing to the summit. I kept telling myself that this is something I enjoy when moments of doubt would creep into my thinking but the reality was that my feet were burning from the damage that rocks underfoot where doing.

My feet are brittle at the best of times but the damp conditions coupled with the rocks were crippling me, the only plus I could find was that my Lone Peaks combined with Injinji liner and Drymax socks and my beloved Dirty Girls Gaiters were working overtime in protecting me from the worst of the route.

About halfway up local legend Keith passed me with his wonderfully consistent pace and all I could do when he went beyond me asking, ‘alright?’ I responded with, ‘had better days’ but Keith may have misinterpreted my joke for sincere annoyance and he simply shrugged his shoulder and pushed on. I thought nothing more of it really but like the cut of his pace and thought if I could keep up with him I might well be alright – but he, like many before, was soon gone.

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I retreated the comfort of the nearest rock I could find and grabbed some food from my race vest and looked longingly into the middle distance as dark and detrimental thoughts crept across my furrowed brow. ‘More than halfway’ I thought, ‘but my feet are bruised to buggery, my race vest is heavy and worse than that my back and arm was on fire from injuries both old and new’. However, the sight of runners closing in on me made me get off my backside and hurl myself up the hill and eventually I made it to the summit. I could see some of the runners who had made it past me and so I picked Keith as my target – if I could catch him before the arrival of the next checkpoint I would continue.

The route off the pass was as unrunnable as the route up with rocks jutting up from every angle and care required about just where the hell you were putting your feet. If you were less cautious you might have avoided the path  and run straight down the hill – but given I had no idea where I was or how far behind the next runner was – I did not fancy falling off Stake Pass. With all due care I made it to the bottom and leapt through the thick nasty smelling mud and crossing streams with all haste attempting to keep my feet as dry as possible. In the distance I could hear the clatter of Keith’s running poles and I realised I was catching him – having a target to aim for had made the journey much more focused and much easier and as I caught him I opened with the much cheerier line, ‘I’ve been chasing you down for ages – thanks for the incentive’ and from here a new race friendship was forged.

Keith was a bit of a running veteran and with 20 more years on the clock the than me he had well earned the right to legend status. He strode purposefully through the route, questioning the runability of some of the course but all the time remaining strong in his continuous push forward – I like Keith very much and over the next few miles we got to chatting and getting to know one another a little. But as is the rule in ultra marathons you run your own race and he reminded me of this several times as he suggested I not wait for him or that he would be waiting long for me. However, we were both moving at about the same speed ad so it turned out neither of us could shake the other one.

Something I was very glad of.

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The road to CP3 was hard and long, we had come off the hill and now it was just finding the checkpoint, hoping that we would make the cut-off and then pushing through as fast as we could up the biggest ascent on the course – Lining Crag. While we both looked and probably felt a bit shitty we both also seemed to gain a newfound mental strength from each other – I certainly did from him and when I started to leave CP3 Keith joined me for some further adventuring.

The strange thing was that despite our low speed we were starting to catch people again and in the close distance we could see runners who had long left me behind and, though I shouldn’t, I was buoyed by seeing other runners finding this a challenge or perhaps I was simply developing a second wind that might carry over the Crag.

Sadly my second wind was very short lived and as I began the ascent I felt every bone in my body scream for mercy, even with the first few hundred metres being relatively gentle this was a climb of false summits and false hope.

One of the great things about Keith was his wide and varied local knowledge, this meant that he was able to be accurate in his assessment of our situation, so when we approached the scramble up to the crag I knew that this was not the summit and that there were further smaller climbs to come. The scramble was actually surprisingly simple and the change of pace on the legs was welcome, I enjoy scrambling although I don’t do it very often as I am terrified of heights. So I finally reached the safety of solid ground that wasn’t going to try and kill me I was very grateful. We  made good time as we crossed the high ground and started to overtake people again and other runners came past us as they picked the pace up a little. On reflection it was nice to know that we were still in a race, often at these type of events you’ll find yourself alone for hours and hours and not knowing where in the race you are, here the numbers were just right to be able to have significant time alone but also know that you could still catch someone.

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We knew that the final checkpoint was at about 53km in and so it was with a little dismay that the ascent to the top of the crag had pushed us forward a mere 2km of the 12km we needed to run. Running remained hard going over the rocky paths and went as fast and securely as we could but both Keith and I were losing our footing at regular intervals and many of the runners had soggy bottoms but perhaps none got the soggy bottom in the way I did.

While crossing a boggy path I lost my footing and into the mid thigh depth mud my leg went, the trouble was that my other leg followed me in and as I fell in my whole body lurched backward in some attempt to create the muddy equivalent of a snow fairy. Keith turned to face me, barely disguising his amusement at the predicament that I found myself in. I managed to stand in the mud and could feel the vacuum attempting to suck my shoes in but I carefully extracted one leg and then the other with no significant loss.  I was caked in mud from head to toe but I had clearly picked the right kit for the event and my wonderful new Runderwear long boxer shorts and Raidlight Freetrail shorts soon dried off and despite being in 3 foot of wet, shitty mud my feet remained warm and toasty.

After picking myself up we headed along the remainder of the route down to Grasmere with little further incident, but we were aware that the final climb and descent had taken much, much longer than anticipated and I was keen to finish as I still had hours in the car driving back to Scotland.

I noticed that both Keith and I were rather quiet as we landed in Grasmere, tiredness was clearly playing a part but seeing the race organisers at the final checkpoint gave us a bit of a life and knowing that we were less than 10km from the finish was the mental nourishment we needed.

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We had been quite quick in the checkpoints up until this point but we stayed a little longer in Grasmere as Keith knew both of the guys from The Climbers Shop (I’m going to go with Mike and Gill but could be wrong). Gill had been at the registration and she clearly remembered my idiotic face from the previous day and the warmth with which I was greeted felt genuine and heartfelt and for that I was very grateful. They tried to stuff our faces with all manner of food and drink but we were so close to the finish that I actually wanted just my water filled and then off and the guys obliged.

Keith and I were very keen to see off the race before the dark became impenetrable and with all the speed we could muster we set out from Grasmere. This final section had a few light climbs on it but it was mainly tarmac that we were following and there was nothing to concern ourselves with – I seem to recall that we spent most of the time on these final few miles being rather jolly and looking forward to food, drinks, showers and in Keith’s case being reunited with his wife and the lovely Border Colllies.

I remember Keith commenting that at this point he had one speed and although I had recovered a little bit and probably could have run this final section I had no desire to leave my companion behind and in truth I’d have only managed to get about a dozen metres ahead before he would have reeled me in again. Meeting Keith made the experience of the Ambleside 60 much more pleasant than it looked like it might have been given the struggles I know he played a huge part in me finishing on Sunday.

We rolled up to Rothay Park and the dark had finally arrived, we thanked the marshalling staff at the final corner and as is my way I tried to have a cheery word/joke and thank you for the guys who were stood there waiting in the cold ensuring that we didn’t take a wrong turn at the final point. In the dim distance I could make out the large finish line inflatable and in front of it were two dibbing points so that we could get a final time. It took me an age to get my bloody dibber in but once I did we were ushered into a tent and given medals, beer and times.

Keith’s wife was there with the dogs and I joined them briefly to thank him and to thank his wife for loaning me such a wonderful gentleman for the day.

We had made it, I had made it.

Overview
Distance: 60km
Cost: £65
Location: Ambleside
Date: September 2019
Tough Rating: 3.5/5

Route
What they said about the route…

starting from Rothay Park, the Ambleside Trail 60 is a 60km loop made up of some iconic Lake District running. From the park, participants will make their way up and over Loughrigg towards Skelwith Bridge, Tarn Hows and from there onwards towards Coniston. Before reaching Coniston, the route climbs above Coniston Coppermine and toward Lad Stones. Continuing onward, the route makes its way to Little Langdale and after a short but punchy climb reaches Blea Tarn. Runners then make their way up Stake Pass and then follow the Langstrath Beck before climbing back up Lining Crag, the biggest climb on the course. Runners descend into Grasmere and slowly wind their way back toward Ambleside..

I’ve run over 50 ultra marathons and I’ve run across some of the toughest trails in the crappiest conditions and I can honestly say that the route of the Ambleside 60km was a bit of a terror. I mentioned earlier that this felt more like an ultra distance fell race than a trail race. Although the path was defined it was, in parts, brutal – despite the shortness of the distance this was a route that really threw everything at you and there was a procession of the walking wounded on the course as the Ambleside 60 took no prisoners.

This is not a route for the inexperienced and had the weather conditions been worse then this would really have given the competitors a challenge that even more might not have finished. What I will say though is that the Ambleside 60 route gave so much back in views and beauty that you really can’t complain about the temporary pain inflicted by the course.

The climbs were tough, the variety was welcome and the route marking was exceptional – just a few less rocky roads would have made this a more complete running experience. Don’t misunderstand me though this was a brilliant route and I feel fortunate to have seen parts of the Lake District that only become accessible if you are willing to put the effort in. The highlight of the route for me was the second climb up Stake Pass, which as well as being as tough old boots, had the wonderful sound of gushing water on both sides of the pass, it had majesty all around it and there was a eeriness about it as you could see nothing of modern life as far as the eye could see – wonderful.

So, perhaps a few little tweaks to make sure that this doesn’t become an ‘only suitable for the mountain goats’ and the route cold be a real winner for everyone wanting to take part.

Organisation
The organisation was 100% top notch, from registration to the near army of marshals that were posted on the course – this was some of the best organisation I have ever seen. The route marking for the most part was fantastic, the little map we received at the start was perfect as a guide and the pre and post race information was concise and informative. A huge thank you should go to all the organisers and especially the marshalling and medical staff who offered friendly faces all over the day. Races like this do not happen without the support of lots of people behind the scenes – and it was clear that the work they had put in here had really paid off.

Kit
I go mountain running most weekends and I go hill running after work and I know what kit I need to carry with me, I know how to be safe in the mountains and in adverse weather conditions and to that end I felt that the mandatory kit list was a little over complicated. I understand completely that safety comes first and that not all runners are experienced in the hills but there does need to be a balance. I did note that a number of the runners had very small amounts of kit with them and you had to wonder how where they fitting all the mandatory kit into such a small space?

Given my back issues carrying all the required kit was always going to be one of the main challenges I faced during the Ambleside 60 and I have a preference to carry specific things that help my individual race needs. For example I have my ridiculously weak feet so spare socks are a must and I’m known to take a picture or two so spare battery is also an essential. But rules are rules and it is important that we all adhere to them – they are designed to ensure your safety isn’t compromised, might just be worth looking next year about a little more flexibility between the mandatory and recommended kit.

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Goodies
Having great sponsors like Rab and Ultimate Directions mean that sometimes there are excellent goodies and this time there was a delightful Rab beanie available pre-race and post race there was some Hawkshead Brewery beer, which if you’re a beer drinker is a great reward for a job well done – obviously as a teetotaller the beer is less relevant to me but I know someone who’ll drink it for me. The medal was nice and understated, which seemed very much in keeping with the whole ethos of the event and I appreciated that. I wore my medal proudly all the way home to Scotland and as I crawled up the stairs to my bedroom upon returning home I made sure that it took its rightful place with its brother and sister medals at the top of the stairs.

Value
I’ve said it before and I’ll repeat it, the value for money aspect is very much down to personal opinion about your experience. I very much believe that the Ambleside 60 was excellent value for money at £65 and to be fair if you’d charged a little more it would still have represented good value for money. The little goodies, the excellent event staff, the support both before and after, the photography and the challenge of the event itself mean that you have to say you really did get bang for your buck. Some people might bemoan the lack of race T-shirt but the truth is I would rather have had the beanie – it’s always nice to get something useful that most races don’t think about.

Special Mentions
I owe this finish to Keith – I would not have made it without you. Thank you.

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Conclusion
Is this a great race? Not yet.

Does this have the potential to be a great race? Oh yes!

2019 as its inaugural running was a damn fine event, it gave the best views of Ambleside and its surrounds that I’ve ever had the honour of laying my eyes on. The Ambleside 60 has much to recommend it and if you’re lucky enough to have a clear day as we did then you’ll bear witness to a visual treat. The medal for this one really  is worth earning and you will feel like you have accomplished something truly spectacular when, or perhaps more appropriately, if you cross the finishing line. The organisation of the race, for me, makes this one stand out in the memory too – there was genuine care for the runners and that should be recognised, nobody got anything less than 100% from the excellent team.

However, this isn’t perfect I’ve mentioned that it felt like a long distance fell run in places and the course was incredibly hard going at times, even in good conditions. I genuinely believe more responsibility should be on the individual regarding kit choices and I’d probably prefer to see the race run on a Saturday to give runners the Sunday and a chance to rest for their weary bones before a return to grindstone of work on a Monday (I found the drive back to Scotland really tough and Monday was weird in the office). However, if nothing changed, if the race came back next year in exactly the same format would I run it again? The answer is 100% yes, there is something special about the Ambleside 60 and it deserves its soon to be well established reputation as a tough as old boots brilliant ultra marathon.

So if you’ve read this and thought, he sounds likes you had a horrible time, then you’ve misunderstood me, there was no misery for me just a real ball busting challenge – which is primarily what I look for in an ultra marathon and if it is what you look for then you’re going to have a mighty fine time.

Check out the race details here

I’d signed up to the Ben Vorlich Ultra on the back of my entry the Ochil Ultra (also organised by Wee Run Events) and to be fair had not really done much research – but I knew that it ran up a mountain I had been keen to climb and when you combine this with a bit of running then how could you possibly go wrong?

I drove down to the Cultybraggan Camp from sunny Polmont to ensure I left the start line at the earliest possible time – so it was an early kick off. Thankfully the roads were clear and I’d gotten up in time to get ready properly and have breakfast – something that often eludes me pre-race and I always pay the price for it later. Sadly my early morning coffee had not worked other things loose so that might become a problem later in the race (but I did have my tissues with me).

Preparations had been somewhat disrupted that weekend by the GingaNinja having to work late on Friday night, my daughter spending the rest of Friday evening puking her guts up and my Saturday being taken up by the purchase and installation of a treadmil in my garage.

Still it was now Sunday morning and I had arrived, registration was swift and clear –  my number, tracker and  timing band were handed over. There were decent facilities at Cultybraggan Camp  (including what looked like the option of showers). The weather was reasonable, so as a consequence the runners were milling around the starting point rather than being huddled in vehicles or hiding in the registration hut.

The race should have kicked out at 7am, with the runners being allowed to leave anytime after this point – the only stipulation being that you were finished by 10pm – there was small delay to sending us out but nothing significant and with the shout ‘Go!’ we were sent on our merry way.

I felt that the pace of the runners ahead of me was going to be significantly faster than I, and I was right. A lack of training, fitness and being overweight meant that I was going to drop back pretty quickly, however, I didn’t really consider this a problem as I knew that my participation was more about completing the event than trying to get a decent time.

The route headed out of Cultybraggan and towards Comrie along a deep dark path along the River Earn – there were lovely tree roots everywhere, there was mud and there was waist high grass, stinging nettles and thorns that on a wet day would give you some strife. I bounded along the route here thinking that if the entire route was like this then we’d be in for a really good time. This lasted for a couple of miles before arring at the delightful, chocolate box town of Comrie, at 7.30 in the morning Comrie was a sleepy village with a few dog walkers out but later in the day the GingaNinja informed me that it very much became a hotbed of English tourists visiting the area – presumably to taste what she described as he best fish and chips she had ever had.

I digress.

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The route wound its way towards Loch Earn via an old railway line, much of which, for the first half, has been transformed to what can only be described as excellent cycle paths, while the back end is a little more hard packed trail but ultimately both sections were very runnable.

I found myself making rather better time than I imagined I was going to given that my longest run since returning to running has been 19km. Although I was near the back of the pack I really did not mind – I was enjoying the moderate solitude of the event and the surrounds were truly stunning and as I hadn’t been to the Trossachs before I considered this a real opportunity.

I bimbled along the route until arriving into the first checkpoint where I was greeted by some of the lovely race volunteers – water, timing point and importantly a toilet where on offer and I was grateful for the water as my own supply was being quickly exhausted by the conditions which felt a little muggy on this side of the loch (and I do poorly once conditions warm up)!

After a lovely little chat with the checkpoint team I headed out again with a greater understanding of the task at hand. Having trundled along one side of Loch Earn it was now time to travel the opposite side and head to the finish – with just the small matter of Ben Vorlich to negotiate.

Where the first section had been the old converted railway line, this track was the road that ran alongside the loch. Even though it was festooned with signs saying this was ‘walker and cyclist friendly’ I was unconvinced and therefore happy, whenever I met a vehicular foe, to step aside into the undergrowth to allow them to pass. This slowed my progress to the climb and had I been either braver or faster I would probably have made life a little tighter for the drivers, but I’m not, so I didn’t.

There was a gentle breeze around the water which made for pleasant running but still I was hugely grateful to see the checkpoint and my drop bag full of goodies. I helped myself to two chocolate milkshakes, a curry pie and a caramel Freddo (yes I know how to live it up) and also caught up with Ed who was looking for his first ultra finish.

He asked, ‘still going up?’

To which my reply was, ‘of course’.

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It was at this point that the race leader flew into the checkpoint and I felt that actually I must be doing okay as he was only an up and down faster than I was! and so with a cheery wave to the volunteers I headed up – little knowing what was awaiting me.

How much I regretted that decision on the way up – but I wasn’t to fully appreciate that until about 20 minutes into my ascent as realisation crept across my brow. As I started my ascent I noted the succession of runners all making their way down, all looking strong, all contenders for the lead if truth be told, whereas I looked out of place and exhausted – but regardless I moved relentlessly forward.

I had also noted that some of the runners where choosing to use poles – something that I had considered but then given I came to Scotland to learn how to race up mountains without poles it seemed silly to use them here, as this was a genuine test of my training in the nearby home hills. However, as I passed the RD by the side of the path, counting us on the mountain and off it, I regretted my poles decision but, I put in all the effort I could and even when the weather started to close in I simply put on my jacket and dug in.

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The path up Ben Vorlich is clear and easy to follow but it’s rocky, technically demanding and unrelentingly steep with a number of little false summits that lull you into a false sense of completion.

I lumbered my way up and around the loose rock, bruising the underside of my feet as I leaped over sections of tricky wet rock and landing upon sharp jagged stones. As each metre was added to my Suunto ascent total I knew I was slowly nearing the top and as the final peak to the top of the Ben presented itself I pushed hard into the mist – determined to make it.

Being scared of heights made this all the more terrifying at the final moment and I bent down to hands and knees as I thundered that final 10 metres of climb to touch the trig point and grab some photographs. I probably spent 10 minutes up there admiring the view before I remembered this was a race and quickly set off. I say quickly but when you look down from Ben Vorlich you realise just how steep it is and you are forced to slow down. Here I saw Ed for what would be the final time and for the first time I realised that if I wanted to finish anything other than last I would have to move quicker.

 

Once clear of the most severe of the descent I pressed harder down the hill, throwing myself at the rocks and refusing to slow until I saw the RD once more. ‘Alright?’ he said. ‘Got what I came for,’ I replied, ‘to climb Ben Vorlich’ and with that I said goodbye and pressed downwards to the checkpoint once more. My legs were like jelly when I hit the bottom but despite this I offered two young ladies (I’ll assume related to the marshalls) a race back to the checkpoint – which while a physical mistake was a brilliant boost mentally.

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I spent a few minutes with the checkpoint guys, again – properly awesome – and then kicked on knowing that the Ben Vorlich Ultra, for me, had gone from a test of the physical to a test of mental strength. My legs were battered to pieces but I knew they would make it – the problem was going to be knowing that I would be retracing my steps back to the finish and knowing that I had finished with the superb views of mountains. However, there was still the remainder of Loch Earn to negotiate and given how my body was feeling this too was going to be testing. I walked a couple of those road kilometres to try and reduce the effect on my back, hip flexor, right calf and bowels but when I got back to the turn for home I knew I had to start running again.

Thankfully it was about here that the rain kicks in properly and I felt quite content jumping back into my beloved Montane Minimus and I adopted the faithful run/walk strategy through the next 12km or so and it wasn’t until I knew I was in the home strait that I was willing to open the taps a little more and on the old railway I began to run. I smiled as I passed through Comrie and I upped the pace a little further through the trails, refusing to slow even when the waist high grass soaked my feet – I could smell home or so I thought.

The GPS route shouted at me, ‘you’re here’ but as I looked around I can assure you I wasn’t! Frantic I looked round for a sign, it looked so familiar but I was in meltdown – I called the GingaNinja and said, ‘I’m at Cultybraggan Farm but I don’t know where…’ and as I turned round I saw the old barracks in the distance. I’ll be honest I let out a little tear and then put my foot on the accelerator – I ran to the gates and saw my daughter waiting at the far end. I dare not disappoint and so I gave it all I had as she gave some welly to the cow bells.

As I approached ASK she asked to run those final few metres with me and so as a family we all crossed the line. Awesome. Never have I been so happy to finish a race.

Damn good but brutal fun.

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Key points

  • Distance: 60km (ish)
  • Profile: Deceptive and killer
  • Date: July 2019
  • Location: Loch Earn
  • Cost: £55
  • Terrain: Very Mixed
  • Tough Rating: 2.5/5

Route
This is an odd one as I really hate tarmac and there was a decent amount of tarmac here but there was also a decent amount of trail, the views for the most part were spectacular and the route would cover most bases for all but the most dogmatic of trail runners. Therefore I have to say I really, genuinely enjoyed it.

Obviously I was there for Ben Vorlich itself and so the low road that ignored it would not have interested me as much but the going up the mountain really makes this a race to do. That said the route without the mountain climb would make for a really good and fast short distance ultra with only a few hundred metres of climb across the 50km. Ultimately the route has a little bit of something for everyone. I’d say if you’re looking to move up from marathon then the 50km is ace, if you like a bit of tough as old boots climbing then the 60km will test you and if you like something else we’ll you’ll probably enjoy it anyway.

Organisation
I was supposed to run the Ochil Ultra last year with Wee Run Events but given I was moving up to Scotland that day I had to DNS. Therefore I was very much looking forward to meeting the guys as I’d heard the Ochils was a really nice, well organised event. It’s worth taking into account this was a first running of the Ben Vorlich Ultra and as an inaugural event though you expect the team to be ironing things out a little as they find their feet but actually it all seemed pretty smooth – yes there was a minor delay in setting off but this served only to make sure that as many people as possible set off together. The checkpoints were sound and there was water at every stop – what more do you need? The route signage was really good, the marshals were all brilliant, the supplied map was okay, there was tracking and a timing chip and most importantly there was a good base camp which meant your supporters didn’t have to freeze to death. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can bestow is that the RDs looked very much liked they cared about the race and the runners.

Awards
Nicely designed vest (would love a technical version of it, even if this was a race extra) and a cute bespoke wooden medal which was really nice. All the Scottish races I’ve done so far have avoided too many frills and this was no exception the focus has instead been on a couple of really nice items rather than lots of rubbish.

Value for Money
This is always very subjective but the Ben Vorlich Ultra was well organised and well executed. The bespoke medal, cheery volunteers and live tracking, for me, ensure this is well on the right side of good value. As runners you don’t always get to see how much hard work goes on behind the scenes but these guys earned much kudos and I have no hesitation in saying you’d feel it was money well spent if you signed up for the 2020 edition of the Ben Vorlich Ultra.

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Conclusion
Interesting route, great mountain to climb and a lovely medal for completing a tough ultra at the shorter end of the distances we run. Don’t be fooled though and do not underestimate the challenge of Ben Vorlich on the high or the low route as it will give you a kicking if you fail to show respect. The organising team and the volunteers were fabulous on the day and deserve a lot of credit for making it a smooth and enjoyable experience.

I had my issues on the day such as a lack of fitness and a tummy that has been giving me some grief recently (and a rusty bullet hole post race that is so hot I dare not go near it) but that has nothing to do with my conclusions about the race I just wanted to ensure that you, dear reader, understand that despite my relative lack of action both in running and blogging I’ll never forget to add a bit of poo to a race tale.

On a more serious note there are improvements that could be made – a bit more trail running on the route in the second half would make it easier on jelly legs and perhaps an FAQ section on the website to answer questions like, ‘can you use poles?’

Both of these I feel would elevate a really good race to an unmissable race. However, take nothing away from this event it was brilliant and it’s small tweaks rather than significant change that I feel would benefit everyone. The one significant change I might consider would be a single start time – I do like the starting with everyone else and think it might make it easier logistically for the race team but then I can see the flip side that it’s not a massive distance and so you are enabling runners from further afield to attend.

Ultimately I’d give this a go, it’s an unusual ultra but all the better for defying expectations and if I can offer one recommendation and that is I’d always take the high road – it really is worth it. And if it’s any measure of how much I enjoyed it, yes I would certainly go again.

You can find out more at benvorlichultra.run

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I’ve long come to terms with the fact I’m not just a terrible runner but a terrible ultra runner – even after half a century of completed ultra events I still find them hard and I still fail at them more than I would like.

With that in mind I had entered the Nocturnal Ultra and had decided to try and squeeze a post marathon distance in with just 6 hours available on the clock.

But lets roll back a week to the previous Saturday when I was full of delirium, cold and with a huge desire to hide inside a big fluffy blanket, running was the last thing on my mind. However, with the last few months having been so hectic I find ultra racing to be a bit of therapy and also provides the necessary bolt right up my arse that will set me up for exhausting period known as the final push up to Scotland.

And so I did no running in the two weeks before the event, instead each night I wrapped up in my big hoody and a waterproof jacket and went walking for an hour or more after work. And so when Saturday came I felt reasonable albeit with even less training done than normal in running terms.

Because the race started at 4pm I didn’t start my kit check and pack until about 11am on the Saturday and there was also a decent soak in the bath to have. Unfortunately there also the worst case of the pre-race shits too – could it have been the large quantity of houmous I had eaten less than 18 hours earlier? Perhaps.

Anyway a series of delays meant that I didn’t set off for the race until quite late and I was clearly rushing down the motorway rather than taking my preferred relaxed bimble. I had largely been hoping to arrive early so that I could avoid the second car park which I knew was going to be in a field of some description and my driving skill is not really that good and I was worried about getting in and getting out of said field. None of my fears were put to bed as I slid the little car around the wet grass attempting not to kill any of the very helpful marshals.

Thankfully with a minimum of fuss I managed to park up and grab my kit – only loosely concerned that the race was starting in 45 minutes and I was still in civilian dress and my kit was spread across a couple of drop bags.

Bugger.

I had never been to Fox Lake before and was surprised by just how much opportunity there was for outdoor fun both on and off water and I suspect I’ll be returning in a non-ultra runner capacity in the future. However, what is more important was that I made the tent for the pickup of my number with more than enough time and the process was both quick and painless. There was also a good number of marshals directing runners and supporters around the race village.

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Perhaps the only real problem of the race village is also one of the main benefits – the fixed Fox Lake facilities are fixed and there isn’t that much room to expand them and the amount of runners in the available space was quite a lot. But the benefits are that there was lots of cover and there were changing cubicles and showers and good food facilities. It’s a difficult balance to get right and the organisers gave a strong showing in moving runners around and getting them to the right place.

I slipped into the aforementioned changing cubicles and found myself hurriedly getting ready – probably a bit too hurriedly and when I strapped myself into my UD PB3.0 I realised I had packed it rather uncomfortably. Still with time against me I’d just have to adjust myself once we had set off – it wasn’t like I was aiming for the win.

There was a very full race briefing prior to the off and then the start line filled up with runners of all types. Seconds later we were off and into the beginnings of night – this was going to be an interesting event.

Much like myself many runners had decided to not run with a headtorch for the first lap presumably in an effort to conserve battery power and also to limit the effects of the tunnel vision that can occur when using a headtorch for extended periods. And in truth there was just about enough light to get us round the first fifteen minutes but when I reached the halfway point of the first loop I pressed the on switch – it was too dark too continue without light.

The lap that would make up the next six hours of my life was really quite pleasant and surprisingly varied, it was all very in and out of tree lined trails with a good dollop of slick mud that was only going to get more wretched the more the runners passed through it. The weather had been mostly unkind in the days leading up to the race but on Saturday the lords of wind and rain had decided to have the day off and so we were left with delightful evening running conditions.

I’m sure I was not the only one grateful that the heavier conditions would only come from the thousands of footprints that would litter the course and not from more wind and rain.

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The route started out nice and dry on good gravel track before sending you through a multi-coloured and illuminated forest section. The switchback then thrust you through a short downhill and along a faster straight section to the only real uphill before you hit the mile of mud as I came to know it. However, once you were clear of this it was mostly a straight run home and into the next lap. Although I shared the same thought of other runners that the final stretch back up to the start point felt much longer than the 800 metres suggested.

I was in good form and ran the first lap faster than I anticipated – very much getting caught up in the excitement of my fellow runners but also probably pacing myself against the relay runners – which is never a very smart idea.

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I had decided that I would stop on each lap and fill up on both Active Root – a drink that I knew wasn’t going to upset my stomach after my experience of it at Jedburgh – and the  Lucozade in my drop bag (which I was jealous of in Neil MacRitchies arsenal at the Tweed Valley Ultra a couple of weeks earlier).

I was being strict in my timings as I knew that I needed 9 laps for the ultra distance and to say that my second and third lap were ‘shit’ would be offensive to the word ‘shit’. Perhaps this is where the idea that I’m a rubbish runner comes from and therefore in my head I knew that I cold’t make it, I was doing the maths in my head – I’m going too slow.

Lap 4 came and went and I had managed to pick my feet up a little and I was taking Active Root on board like it was crack cocaine but I was so behind time that I’d be lucky to hit 7 laps within the time – not even the sound of the music barn was enough to get me going fast enough to put me on time.

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Bob Marshall Photos

I needed some incentive.

At the start of the next I called my daughter and when she asked where I was I replied, ‘I’m in a race.’ Such is the innocence of my four year old adventurer that she followed up her initial line of inquiry with, ‘are you winning? are you going to win a medal?’

‘I’m trying my best’

I knew this was a lie though and I knew that if I was to honestly claim that ultra medal I was really going to have to sort myself out, ‘listen you get to sleep,’ I said, ‘I’ll go and get the medal’.

Push UltraBoy, push!

And I did. I started to do something I haven’t done in years – I started overtaking people, I started to race but not against the other people on the course but against the clock, against my own fragile body. I ran the flats, I ran the mud, I ran the uphills and I opened the taps to give my legs some respite from the general crawl that makes up my ultra pace.

I hurtled through lap 6 and then lap 7 and I arrived on lap 8 with about 69 minutes remaining – all I needed to do was push one last time and I would be through the timing barrier and I could take all night if I needed to for lap 9 and so with thunder in my feet I flew through the HQ tent and pressed onwards to that medal that my daughter wanted me to earn.

It is rare for me to feel strong in a race (especially so late on) and even though the two fast laps had really drained me I was surprised by own invention as I convinced myself that I really had no time to get through to that final lap. I was slower on lap 8 than the previous couple but I was bearing down on the line to that final lap and I knew I would make it.

I stopped once more at the Active Root stand and had another short conversation with the two amazingly lovely ladies there and they simply gave me the thumbs up saying, ‘one more lap and we’ll see you back here in 20 minutes’.

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20 minutes later.
I was out on the course, I was about halfway round the final lap and I was counting down to the final moments of the six hours we were allocated and I was waiting for the fireworks display signal.

I stopped as I heard a countdown in the distance and then the fireworks went off. I had officially made it – all I had to do now was run it in and claim my medal and this I did with some joy in my heart. I ran through the covered forest just outside the race village and as I closed in on the final few hundred metres I raised my knees and committed the best sprint finish I could muster and with the wind in my sails I passed straight over the line and into the waiting arms of my medal!

Delightful.

Key points

  • Distance: 5km (ish) loops
  • Profile: Minor up and down
  • Date: December 2018
  • Location: Fox Lake, East Lothian
  • Cost: £50
  • Terrain: Muddy trail
  • Tough Rating: 2/5

Route
The route was interesting and fun but ultimately it is a loop and if loops are not your thing then this race is not for you. It is worth noting though that the night time nature of the race gives the loop a less repetitive feel than similar daytime events. The added danger of the time and year and the potential for difficult weather conditions means that this route should not be under estimated. As well as an excellent event route this would make a wonderfully fast training route.

Organisation
Great marshals who were well drilled in what they had to and where they had to be.

I also liked the roaming nature of the marshals around the course – being set in the dark means that there is more potential for injury or trouble and the organisation clearly took this very seriously. Overall the organisation was top notch – especially given the occasionally cramped feel of the race village. The one thing that might benefit from some consideration is a slightly bigger drop bag stop for the solo runners as this was sometimes a little crowded but if any delay was had then it was very minor.

I’d also like to say a tremendous thank you to the two ladies at the Active Root table as their inspiring and occasionally arse kicking words really did keep me going.

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Awards
An excellent bespoke medal

Value for money
£50 seems about right for this, there is a lot of support and clearly lots of organisation that goes into making it happen and the medal was one of the more interesting ones I’ve had in recent times.

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Conclusion
10 weeks living in Scotland and 3 ultra marathons done since I arrived, even I can feel pretty good about that.

The Nocturnal Ultra is a fun end of year event to keep you running but that perhaps does it a disservice. This is a great event that might be the culmination of a years hard training and if you’re looking a trail run that is fast and tough enough then maybe this is perfect for you.  The event has a little bit of everything and the six hour time limit really gives it an edge that means you have to keep moving, especially if you’re not as quick as you once where. And the added bonus is that the location was lovely and it was close enough to Edinburgh to be accessible.

So could I happily recommend the Nocturnal Ultra?

Very much so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I said we’d do our best.

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

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

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

Key points

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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