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marathon ultra

I used to look on at the ultra marathoners who completed the Centurion Running Grandslam with a little bit of jealousy but never fancied doing it myself despite really wanting to test myself in a series.

Why?

Well I rather fell out of love with Centurion Running and stopped racing with them – no skin off their noses, they’ve got ultra runners and ultra running wannabies banging down their door to get in to their races. I never felt like it was a community I was comfortable in, now this isn’t to say that Centurion don’t put on good events – they do, really good, but they stopped being for me, a socially awkward introvert.

So, given that Centurion was probably the biggest UK Grandslam in the south of England I probably wasn’t going to get to do a series of races in this format.

Fast forward 5 years and much has changed I’m living in Scotland and a driving licence has been achieved which has brought access to all sorts of lovely new race opportunities including Hardmoors and GB Ultras. Now while the first 18 months here have been about getting settled, buying a new home, etc I’ve become determined that after a rubbish running in 2019 that 2020 would be a year of interesting race opportunities.

And so my road to a grandslam began.

Late in 2019 I came across Ranger Ultras who race in and around the Peak District and they immediately caught my eye. It was after my failure at the Ochil Ultra that I signed up for the Y3P (Yorkshire Three Peaks) that Ranger Ultras put on. However,  it turned out that injury and illness would conspire against me and so on the day before the race I pulled out.

However, the description of their event intrigued me and there was something rather ‘old school’ about them that I really liked.

I put them on my ‘must look into for 2020’ list of race providers, though by this time 2020 was pretty well formed with 5 or 6 ultra marathons already booked in. But I figured I’d like to go back and give the Yorkshire Three Peaks a bash given I’d missed it just a few weeks earlier.

Roll forward to the start of this year and there are positives starting to show themselves – I’ve been running a bit (woohoo), I’ve finished four races of which two were 50km each – not bad for a bloke, who if he were a building would be described as condemned or at the very least dilapidated. I kept sourcing new events to do this year and interestingly kept managing to squeeze them in – but not in the months that had the races of the inaugural Ranger Ultras Grandslam. Hmmmm.

In my head I began working out the logistics – the Peak District is a reasonable distance from Scotland and with a large family trip to Canada this year I  wouldn’t have oodles of annual leave to use up in travelling to and from events.

The races needed to be of a distance that I could travel down to after work on a Friday night and still be fresh enough come Saturday morning to race – as criteria that precludes anything over about 60 miles.

Thankfully the first race was 57km along the Pennine Bridleway – a perfect distance as I look to build up again, a perfect time of year as it should be rather windy and wet without too much sunshine and with a reasonably generous time allowance it should be both achievable and challenging.

The second and third race are then not until nearer the year end which again works for me (mostly). The Yorkshire Three Peaks takes up October and at 100km will serve as an excellent test of my running in preparation for the year ending Cheviot Goat.

Missing the Y3P last year was a real annoyance as I had entered late in the day and had to pull out even later and I feel that as a runner who has covered a lot of ground across the UK this iconic route should have been done at least once.

Maybe that’s why it is this grandslam over some of the others – The Peak District is a place that is relatively unknown to me, they’re new and I like the challenge of new. I like the adventure of seeing the sun go down on a new horizon, I enjoy the feel of a new ground below my feet though I am confident that by the time I have run the weekend double header of the white and dark peaks at the end of November I will be fully sated and probably and bit angry at The Peaks but I will hopefully feel that I fully adventured there (at least for a little while).

This adventure is very much about continuing my journey to find out who I am and who I want to be.

I moved my life from London so that I would be able to do stuff like this, so that I could fill my boots with things that make me smile and things that can inspire me to consider joining races like The Spine or The Race Across Scotland. I have need to push myself to limit of my physical ability and perhaps more importantly my mental ability – both have which have being a bit lardy over recent years.

I feel that the grandslam will make me work harder and keep my mental endurance on track – vital for both my running and my day-to-day life.

If I do get through the first challenge of the PB57 I will know that I then need to get through, amongst others, the Ultra Scotland and the Loch Ness 360 because these will form the basis of my fitness to take on the rest of the series. Each completion will hopefully build confidence going into the next – the tough times will come if something goes wrong in one of these events as it did last year and I will be working hard to stop one bad event unravelling the rest of the year.

But let’s look for positives…

The bad news is that attempting to scratch the grandslam itch may only make that itch worse – I can feel it. Success here (and by success I mean completing it) will make me want to take a crack at the Hardmoors series of races. However, I have no idea if I will achieve the Ranger Ultras Grandslam, my failure rate suggests that there is a good chance that something will go wrong during at least one of the races but I am hopeful that the risk of missing out on the grandslam finish will push me onward towards some form of glorious end.

Ha.

Check out Ranger Ultras here and get involved

Related & Recent

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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‘I’m not a people person, it’s fair to say I mostly don’t like people – which I guess is why I’m here and not on the South Downs Way 50 today – I wanted a race where I can be mainly unknown and anonymous’. A comment I made to one of the runners at the wonderfully fun Testway Ultra this weekend – a race I’m very glad I attended, despite the state I find myself in now.

Let’s roll back to about 5.57am the morning of the race as I jumped behind the wheel of ‘Spusum’ my little Aygo with ASKruns and the GingaNinja in tow. As we thundered out of Kent I remember saying to myself that ‘I mustn’t let the trauma of driving force my shoulders up around my ears’ but that didn’t happen, I recall saying to myself ‘lucky that my cold had cleared up for the race today’ it hadn’t and at the first gear change as I felt my hamstring a bit I remembered how destroyed the Silkin Way has left me. Let’s say that I had a few concerns about my appearance at the Testway Ultra.

However, with the Fellsman a mere three weeks away, the West Highland Way Challenge only seven weeks away and the Arran ultra only ten weeks away I felt I needed to take the risk of running a reasonable distance event that had a decent element of toughness.

Welcome to the Testway Ultra.

On paper (or rather GPX) this doesn’t look tough at all, there’s more than enough trail (although a couple of significant tarmac sections), the elevation profile suggested that although not flat there were no hideous climbs, conditions were a bit muddy but nothing that any trail marathon or ultra runner wouldn’t have seen before and so you’d go into this thinking that it was a pleasant 44 mile trot.

Ha! The Testway Ultra has a few surprises up its sleeves though to ensure that you were getting good value for money and in short, I can happily report that this was awesomely good fun.

When I arrived at the start I grabbed my number and then went and hid on the back seat of the car away from the rain, dipping out only when the toilet queue had subsided enough to squeeze out a pre race number one, but sadly not a number two (a problem that would come back to bite about 15 miles later in the race). The start was well organised, very efficient and all the runners were slowly marshalled to the start line at the top of the hill on time and in good order. Here I met the amazing runner @TonySharkey who I’ve known a bit through Twitter and I find it’s always lovely to meet the people who you look at with great admiration. He was clearly going to hammer out a time that would make me look like I wasn’t moving but we chatted for a few minutes and when the start came we wished each other well.

For the record he did hammer out a fantastic a time!

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As for me I set off at an unusually swift pace and given that my training has taken something of a nosedive of late this seemed an odd choice. However, the beautiful setting and the rolling vistas ahead of me ensured I was in good spirits as I bimbled my way through the miles. The weather was being cool but dry or as I would like to say, the weather was being kind and the route was very runnable. This was a far cry from the tarmac trails of two weeks ago, my hamstring and groin were in seventh heaven…

Well for the first miles…

I’ve come to the conclusion that I must have a self destruct button somewhere as about five miles in I felt all the angst of pain running through my back simply explode. There wasn’t an ‘ache, ache, ache, bang’ – no there was just ‘bang’. I looked around at my surroundings and pressed heavily into the area where there was pain – it was tender, it was sore and the resting on my back of my last comfortable race vest was causing shooting pains of agony. Bugger.

I looked down at my watch and saw that the number of kilometres run was a mere 8.56 – some way short of the required 70(ish)km. I slowed for a while to gather my thoughts… injury, Fellsman, West Highland Way, another DNF, pain, early into the race…

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I decided that I had to at least checkpoint 1, if nothing else rescue would require longer than it would take to hobble to a limp CP1 finish. I did however promise myself that if I arrived into the checkpoint in good time then I would push on through to CP2.

Of course, I ended up arriving into the first stop in good time and after two cups of cola I headed out quickly (basically before I convinced myself to DNF) and issuing a million thanks to the volunteers and supporters. The issue here was that the first checkpoint wasn’t 10 miles away from the start, it was about 9 miles and second checkpoint wasn’t 10 miles either this was at least a couple extra and this resulted in a problem.

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Checkpoint 1 to checkpoint 2 was where it started to heat up, temperature wise and trouble wise. The cold I’d been recovering from added fuel to my already injury laden self. I was taking on lots of fluid but I soon realised that my 600ml wasn’t going to be sufficient and began rationing myself. Thankfully I had the lovely course to encourage myself with and a lovely runner called Dave, who would be my sometime companion over the next few miles but with my back in pieces, water running low I did wonder what the hell else could go wrong! It seems that in my head somebody was listening and decided that, about 15 miles in, that I needed a loo stop but with no really discreet place to go I decided to amble ever forwards – a decision I would regret long into the night as my efforts in the Vaseline department had been left rather wanting and lets put it like this the rusty bullet hole seemed more like a fresh shooting had happened in the chaffing department.

However, all this said my spirits were surprisingly good and this was mainly because I knew that I would reach checkpoint 2 long after it was sensible to continue – sadly I didn’t. I was well within the time I had allocated to myself and as I arrived at checkpoint 2 I felt a pang of, ‘oh god I’ve still got another marathon to go’. The great thing was that the company I’d been keeping to this point had been lovely and the ace guys and gals at the checkpoint were amazing – listening to my endless list of aches of pains as I munched my way through their jelly beans and cola.

Still the weather was fine, I had survived my water shortage and it seemed rather silly to drop out now. For a little while I picked up the pace again to see if a different stride pattern might help alleviate the stress on my back (it didn’t) and I bimbled my way past another lovely volunteer (all of whom I tried to have a little joke or three with as they clapped and cheered me on). I strode purposefully up the hill where I found another lovely volunteer giving me directions down towards a river section, ‘6 miles of flat canal like running’ he promised. I’m sure he meant this as a kindness but to me the flat would be a killer and as I stomped off down the hill I began a slow and steady trudge towards the third checkpoint.

I decided that as time was on my side and I wasn’t going to be winning any prizes for my pace I’d slow down for this section and save my legs for what I suspected would be a more difficult back end.

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This turned out to be the first really good decision I had made and I strode purposefully through the route with bits of running thrown in for good measure and though there had been a few miles of running by a river and busy roads the route remained mostly reasonably interesting and there were enough passers-by offering thumbs up to feel like a nice atmosphere on what was fast becoming my sweaty evening stroll.

Soon though I drifted into the third checkpoint, the bad news was that cola was in short supply and but I had thankfully arrived before the glut of runners behind me (sorry guys it was me who finished the cola off). It was here that I met the runner who defined the remainder of my race and helped ensure that I finished my latest foray into the ultra marathon world. However, first let me mention the lovely Louise (a lady I had met at the start of the event) and we crossed paths again when she caught me up at around mile 30, we found ourselves running together for a little while and chewing the fat over the ridiculousness of our race schedules and the silly things we often find ourselves doing. However, somewhere along the line I lost Louise as I had also been chatting with Kain and Francesca (I did check the spelling of the names of both of my fellow runners!) the other two runners who I’d fallen in with.

As I said earlier at the third checkpoint I’d met the runner who would pretty much define my race and this was the very wonderful Francesca. A lady with a quick wit, a cheery and chatty personality and a desire to finish. It seemed we were both travelling at roughly the same speed and so found ourselves developing a groove through the tough final stages. Our chatter and laughter pushed us through the worst of the mud and the water and whenever things would get a bit tough we’d throw out a bit of a funny line or words of encouragement. I’ve been Francesca – new to the ultra world but keen and determined to finish, she reminded me a little bit of Elaine, that I ran the latter stages of the Green Man Ultra (read about that here) with and that race and that partnership had been a real favourite of mine. This experience wold turn out to be just as rewarding, hopefully for both of us, I can certainly say that having the support of a fellow runner and somebody to take my mind off the hideous pain my back was in gave me all the drive I needed to push on. It’s fair to say that my running improved alongside Francesca and I found myself willing to push on that little bit faster whenever we were able. It is also true that the latter stages of the race though were my favourite as I love nothing more than sloshing about in the mud and the crap, picking my way through the route and bouncing through the worst of the mud, sending it cascading up and down my legs!

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As the miles came crashing down we once again felt that the accuracy of the checkpoint locations wasn’t quite as up to scratch as the rest of the race! We rolled into the final checkpoint with Suunto reading as less than 3km to the finish but with the volunteers reporting that there were 3 miles remaining – the truth is that it was somewhere in between, but when you’re tired and sore all you want is some assurance that you need to go no further than is absolutely necessary. Once more at the checkpoint I played the roll of flirty jester, offering a nod and wink to the lovely volunteer with the wonderful beard and twinkled my smile at the lady I’d joked earlier could have taken my place in the race – there should always be time for a bit of fun with the volunteers.

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Anyway, we set off for home, the knowledge that we would make it before dark was also handy as one of us was short of a headtorch and I was concerned how we might fare if we lost the light before the end of the race. Thankfully we ran across the wooden path over the marshland in excellent time and took a few seconds as we re-entered civilisation to ensure we were going the right way. A gentleman began walking towards us, very nicely dressed I noted and gave s a hearty thumbs up and welcome, ‘300m and you’re there’ – I could have kissed him, instead I simply hugged him.

As we headed off I recounted the tale of Jimmy McKenna, the only person that ever served as running coach to me (I was a mere 7 years old) and one lesson has always stuck with me, ‘it doesn’t matter how you’ve run, always finish strong’ and so with uncharacteristic ease I slipped into full throttle mode with Francesca and we hurtled towards the finish and ensured that we crossed the line together.

What a day.

Key points

  • Distance: 44 miles
  • Profile: Deceptively challenging
  • Date: April 2018
  • Location: Coombe Gibbet
  • Cost: £50
  • Terrain: Trail (and a some tarmac)
  • Tough Rating: 2/5

Route: The route was really lovely in places with nothing unpleasant (well except for a flat six miles in the middle but I think most people would enjoy this as a respite for the undulation). The views in parts were beautiful and the trail was mixed up enough that it never felt like it was going to get dull. The excellent thing about the route was that the good parts were spread throughout the route and the less interesting parts were equally spread. Sometimes a race can have all of its excitement in a very confined space but the route of the Testway is fun and varied. It is also much tougher than the GPX file suggests and I saw many a tough race shirt on the start line (Dragons Back, Centurion and MdS finishers) so go into this expecting a fun and rewarding day at the office.

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Organisation: Organisation can be a tough one to get right, especially on a point to point when you have to ferry runners to the start early in the morning but Andover Trail Runners showed real skill in handling the event and the runners. Number collection was easy and the on the course volunteers who manned all the major road crossings were awesome. The provided GPX file was a welcome addition to the race pack and the on course markings were pretty good mostly (although it was noted that towards the end there were significantly less of them to aid direction – though signs do get removed by scallywags periodically).

Support: The team at the start, the finish and on the course was excellent, thank you to all of you. The volunteers were amazing and the support crews were in fine cheer for all the runners not just their own. The checkpoints were pretty good with a decent selection of savoury and sweet items, the only minor downside was the running our of cola, but I’m sure this will be rectified for the next running. The only other comment I would add is that it might be worthwhile considering adding water stop(s) to some of the road crossings – on a hotter day 10+ miles between checkpoints can be a long distance to go if you’ve run low on water and the road crossing guys were perfectly positioned as a spare water stop – just a thought.

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Awards: Lovely medal, some awesome photographs and a great day. What more do you need?

Value for money: £50? Bargain.

Mentions: I’m not normally one for special mentions however thanks to Tony, Dave, Louise, Rachael, Louise and especially Francesca who made the Testway Ultra a really fun event for me. Oh and thanks to Sam Arnold (and the other wonderful photographer whose name eludes me) who was taking photographs of the runners and captured me doing my, ‘staring into the middle distance’, ‘moulding of a fool’, ‘Hamlet cigars advert’ and ‘Heavy Landing’.

 

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Conclusion: I’d run this again, I’d want to train a bit better for it but the whole experience left me with a generally positive feeling, the distance wasn’t so far for it be a main spring ultra marathon but it would serve as a truly great warm up for a 75 or a 100. It wold also be a great step up for trail marathon runners who fancy a nice big meaty step up. The guys at Andover Trail Runners deserve a lot of credit for putting on an event that gave so much joy and I hope it runs for many years to come. Check out Andover Trail Runners at their website

Now the big question is will my back and other issues recover enough in time for The Fellsman and the West Highland Way Challenge? Well that remains to be seen – until next time, adios and have fun running!

Gallery: Now available at ultraboygallery.wordpress.com, my photographs (and those from the race photographers) from the event.

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

She told me I should go home and shower.

I did.

I never dated that girl.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key points

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sadly the second half of 2017 was a disaster.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can’t say fairer than that can you?

Highlights

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

Lowlights

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

So that was 2017 but what about 2018?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mince Pi Photographs: Hayley Salmon

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  • Running poles making ascents and descents easier
  • GPS to making navigation a doddle
  • Compression kit to reduce muscle fatigue

What do all these things have in common? These are all aids many of us use to help complete long distance endurance events.

I use running poles when allowed, I almost always use a GPS device even if a map isn’t loaded on to it and before I realised compression kit was causing all sorts of injury problems I would often be found in ridiculously tight fitting attire.

There are two aid types though that I wonder about, the first I don’t use, the second I do (when I can convince the GingaNinja to rock up to a race registration).

Pacers and Crews: The aid I don’t use that I’m referring to are pacers and it was after seeing some amazing finishes at hundred milers and the like that got me wondering if using a pacer increases the likelihood of a finish and whether by using them are runners on a level playing field?

The other aid are crews – which I do, on occasion, use and I believe that in the early days of my ultra marathoning I really wouldn’t have gotten very far without a crew and the support they offer. But do they give me and others who use them an edge on race day?

Reading lots of recent race reports and talking to runners it’s clear that there is an appetite for the use of both pacers and crews but does it take away something of the challenge? Increasingly my view is becoming that yes, these things are taking away from something that, at its best, in my opinion, is a solo sport.

Perhaps if they’re going to be in play there should be greater scrutiny about how a crew and pacers can be used as I’ve witnessed some things during recent races that has made me wonder if too much crew access and too much pacing is creating an unfortunate imbalance in ultra marathons.

I met a Spanish runner at about 30 miles into an unsupported race recently and we ran together for maybe 12 miles. I enjoyed his company very much but the curious thing was that his crew met him at five different points along the route during the time we were together. Each time he would stop, chat, change kit, have a nibble, check his route, have a sit in the warm vehicle etc. It felt like the spirit of the race was not being adhered to and there were others too during this particular event that had cars literally following them down the roads – with family members joining in for a few miles as pacers – picking up food at McDonalds, etc. I’ve met people who’ve run past their homes or near enough to detour and been witness to them going indoors, changing wet or filthy kit, filling up food and then simply popping back on the route – all I should point out, within the rules of the race. I don’t begrudge this level of support – hell, if I could get it my DNF percentage wouldn’t be so high! However, though I’m far from a purist in running terms I do feel this takes some of the shine off the effort required.

The pacer question is very much a personal choice and are often subject to specific race rules but for me these are an aid that detract from one of the most important aspects of a race – the mental challenge. I could pluck an arbitrary percentage out of the air but I’d suggest that most endurance races are won and lost in the mind and not in the body. The pacer therefore can have a real, tangible effect on a racers performance and we are back to the point about imbalance.

All this said though I’ve been known to buddy up with runners on a route in order to ensure a finish although always with the agreement that if the pacing didn’t match we’d say goodbye and good journey. That changed a little bit when on the South Wales 50 when myself and two other runners joined up on the course then formalised our pacing/team running strategy to ensure that we all finished. It was perhaps this more than anything that got me wondering about just how much of a difference a pacer can make. Now to be fair Ryan, Pete and myself were all pretty ruined by the time we’d hooked up and it was as much about surviving the night as it was pacing but it gave me an insight to what a fresh pair of legs or a fresh attitude can do for a very tired ultra runner.

These days I’m much more a social ultra runner rather than a competitive one and I tend not to think too much about my position in the field, preferring to concentrate on taking in my surroundings and having a lovely time. However, this has got me wondering just how much better I might be if I had a team right next to me pushing me forward?

The purity argument: The reason I suppose I don’t do that and put together a team to get me through these things is simply because of my belief in the solo element. I probably would be a better runner if there was someone in my ear for the final 50 miles pushing me that little bit harder or if I had a crew with lots of kit ready and waiting. However, for me ultra running is being out there, facing myself and a trail and although I can very much respect other people’s decisions for using pacers and crews it’s less and less suited to me. Perhaps evidence of this was that the last time the GingaNinja crewed for me was the Thames Path 100 in 2015 – here she met me several times armed with chocolate milk, kit options and a regular stern talking to but since then she’s mainly been at starts and finishes if there at all and in truth I prefer this. Although it’s scary to think you’re on your own it really does heighten the elation (for me) upon completion.

All this said I’ll still be using poles (periodically) and GPS – I’m not giving those up anytime soon, I mean I’m not completely stupid! Therefore am I a hypocrite for suggesting pacers and crews detract from a level race but I’m perfectly content to gain an edge by using kit that some call ‘cheat sticks’ or by buddying up inside an event? I suppose it’s an individuals view and more importantly a race directors view and if you (or perhaps I) don’t like it well then I don’t have to sign up to that race.

And so… I’m curious about your views on pacers and crews, do you feel they offer you a better chance of finishing well? Do you think they give some runners an advantage that others don’t have? Would you consider them a hindrance? Or are they simply part of your ultra running armoury?


Those of you that believe that bodily fluids and especially bowel issues are something that should be neither seen or heard should probably move on from this post because it’s all about poo!

To begin I’ll draw attention to one of my top 10 list of ‘pieces of running advice’ I’ve collected over the years and at number 8 is ‘never trust a fart‘.

Damn fine advice if you ask me.

The expulsion of wind for a runner can lead to stopper being popped and the ‘trail runners supernova’ erupting all over our finest scenery.

Many of us, as trail runners, will have been caught short out on a deserted trail and will have squatted behind the nearest bush to evacuate our insides. As regular readers will know I’ve been caught short a few times, in fact quite a lot of times and therefore feel quite well informed about what causes these problems, the types of problem and the resolution.

However, I’m not all knowing and so in the last two years I’ve been doing a little research and quizzing runners about their terrible poo related tales, you guys are so willing to share! So in the interest of sharing aha furthering knowledge I bring the 10 most popular poo types on the trails.

In the interest of privacy no names (other than my own moniker) will be used.

Scoring*
As a sidebar to this post I’m curious which of the ten you may have encountered yourself, if you recognise up to and including 3 poo types you’re probably still an amateur, 4-6 would suggest you’ve been around a bit and are quite a competent trail pooper and anything beyond this suggests you’ve got rotten guts and may need to seek medical attention.

The Squirter
It was one of my first ultra marathons – Rat Races The Wall that I first encountered the notion that ultra runners shit in the woods. The gentleman I’d be running with for a little while (I say running, we were both hobbling by this point) advised he needed to stop and relieve himself. He told me to go on but we both knew that neither would make it as we were clearly using one another as a crutch to make it to the finish. So he nodded an agreement and headed off into the bushes alongside a quiet road for what I thought was a jimmy riddle.

The next thing I heard was what I believed to be the sound of a car back firing. Sadly no, it was my companion the back fire was followed by a noise that could only be described as ‘fountain like’ and something I wouldn’t encounter again until my 1 year old daughter projectile shat all over the GingaNinja.

Within a few minutes it was all over, I heard the groans of a man wiping himself on dried leaves and hoping his finger didn’t break the brittle natural loo roll. He returned and mumbled an apology to which I replied something along the lines of, ‘better out than in’. 

While I didn’t see the offending release, I did note that his lower back carried the hallmarks of poo splatter that had not been there previously and he was clearly in some distress as it shouldn’t be that yellow.

Just remember if you’re going to squirt – don’t get too close to anything – you do not want bounce back.

The Breach
I’ve recalled, in my race report, the moment on the Mouth to Mouth where I simply had to stop, spiking my arse on the only bush for miles in the process. I’d run several kilometres knowing that I couldn’t squeeze my arse cheeks tightly or there would be messy consequences and there is no feeling worse than having your guts be tumbling around as you’re in desperate need of a quiet spot and yet still trying to race. I ran Mouth to Mouth really quite well but this unfortunate stop cost me a decent time but when you’ve been torpedoed by your own lack of bowel control what can you do?

The Lightning Strike
In the distance I can hear the sound of Brian May playing some awesome guitar solo from Flash Gordon but the lightning attack is when you get an urgent need and an immediate stop is required followed by a single lightning quick unloading of your bowels. If the process from shorts down to concluding your business takes more than 30 seconds chances are this isn’t a Lightning Strike

The Double Ender
I lay baking in the midday sun, around a metre in front of me was a spray of chunky vomit and behind me – about the same distance away was a ‘Dr Octopus’ putrid green and stinking, liquid diahorrea. I genuinely thought I was going to die and was to die having experienced what has been called the double ender. During the experience I had bodily fluids pouring out of every orifice and all at the same time – my muscles didn’t know how to react to the need to lurch one way and then the next.

I should have DNF’d that day but I picked myself up, carefully avoiding the vile radioactive anal and oral offerings and make a decision that I wasn’t going to quit this one!

There are number of lessons you need to learn from my experience, the first is ‘be careful of the water you drink from in Scottish Highland streams’ and secondly ‘remove enough of your clothing that you don’t get them covered in either ends of your distress’. Had I got so much as one iota of nastiness on my race clothing I would have DNF’d there and then.

And the rock cried out, no hiding place
It was during my fail at Haria Extreme that I had a disturbing thought – I need a dump but I knew that the checkpoint was only five minutes away and this section of the course was heavily marshalled – just to guide you through the vineyard and into the loving arms of the volunteers. ‘Is there a toilet?’ I asked hopefully. The volunteers looked at me in a ‘we don’t speak English’ kind of a way – thankfully a young boy at the back piped up and said, ‘next place, 20km’. This made no sense as the next CP was at 25km and there was no checkpoint 20km from this point. I thanked them and set off

My toilet need wasn’t super urgent but it would become that way if I didn’t resolve it. By the time I reached the next checkpoint it had become the main issue and I once again asked if they had toilets but it was another negative response. Bugger.

In the distance I could see large swathes of open landscape and no cover. Bugger. However, with a ridge in the distance I could use that as cover and indeed I did find a small cave that I could perch over the opening. Phew. I positioned myself carefully and despite needing to keep myself upright using all my upper body strength I managed to begin my business. It was just as the first droppings landed that below me I could hear the scurrying of something alive. Bugger.

I felt my face go red in the middle of the movement and my natural survival instinct kicked in and I fired out a rather difficult ‘lightning strike’ and leapt up with my shorts around my ankles. Clear of the pit I peered back and could see the scurrying of some animal(s) I had disturbed.

To add insult to injury I was now half naked in the middle of Lanzarote, balls out and above me, on the ridge, several runners ran past. Regardless of my own predicament I’m sure the sight of my nudey form did nothing to enhance their experience.

Lesson? Check the hole you’re about to deposit in – especially when it might be an animals home.

The Meconium
Meconium is the tough first, very dark poo your child does and when racing I had cause to stop during my first ultra and learn a very valuable lesson. Thankfully this happened at a checkpoint, on a toilet, in a village hall on the White Cliffs 50.

I had clearly not been drinking enough, was hugely dehydrated and when I needed to visit the little boys room but everything was super difficult to deliver, small, tough, dark and poisonous smelling. It didn’t impact my racing that day but it did remind me of the value of food and drink as I race.

The Galloping Trots
The trots are very different from the ‘Lightning Strike’ and ‘The Gift That Keeps on Giving’ in that you’re completely immobile for quite a significant period of time and there is a small tonne of it. I suppose the lesson to learn from the trots is that you need to give your stomach what it needs rather than what it wants and in the run up to CCC I’d been more socially active than normal and had spent the week eating out and eating lovely, sometimes quite rich food.

I wasn’t running very well at the CCC as I’d fallen quite badly coming off the first descent and this was made all the worse but the revenge of my week long holiday food choices. It was somewhere between CP1 and CP2 that I pulled up to tend my wounds properly and also to deal with my groaning, moaning stomach. I journeyed a little way off the route and into deep bushes – taking my pack off and moving all my kit to higher ground. I could feel the grumbling inside myself and it was pure agony as a stream of solid, then less solid, then liquid materials streamed out of me.

Coming in waves as these things invariably do I would think I was finished only to move and hear my stomach turn again. I was lucky that I was elevated from the ground between two big tree branches and therefore protected from splatter but 20 miles of too hot running, a bit of dehydration and a week of holiday eating had not made my bowels a scent sensation you’d enjoy.

I crept away, as you do, having defiled this sacred trail running ground. Feeling so rough I managed another 30km before the inevitable DNF and believe me my stomach felt every metre.

The Gift that Keeps on Giving
The first time I ever needed to stop on a race was during the South Downs Way 50. I remember I’d been struggling for about 2 miles and had to slow down enough that I felt like I was really losing ground. I was running with a buddy in a very casual way, in that we would hurl abuse at each other as we went by one another but at about 10 miles I needed to find a quiet place.

Thankfully a location rocked up quickly and I disposed of the offending item discreetly and set off again but less than 3 miles later I was pain again. I dug a small hole and delivered again but it still wasn’t enough – in a little over 15 miles I needed 5 stops, each worse than the last and my concern about the amount of toilet tissue I was carrying was growing.

At my first stop I’d been quite generous with my loo roll but as the stops became more frequent I had to ration it and as the releases became less solid I felt I needed more paper – this was a no win situation.

My solution was that I stopped eating before the halfway point and I took very small amounts of water fearing that I might end up in a situation where I’d have to use my much loved buff to wipe. I didn’t, I finished and the Buff survived.

Sugar Loaf Mountain
This is a very specific moment in my running career and there will be people who read this and know the incident I’m talking about. It was 2014 and my first time at Country to Capital – in the gents there are two cubicles. It’s fair to say both were incredibly busy but it’s equally fair to say that only one of them was flushing. Upon reaching the front of the queue I was offered the right hand side cubicle – I headed in and looked down, though not far down as the peak of the poo mountain was creeping over the rim. I stepped back, choking slightly on my own vomit and offered the opportunity to the man behind me and risking the other cubicle.

I’m not sure what disgusted me more – the sight of so much poo or the fact that so many runners were happy to give this a go. Nasty.

The Heaver
I was running in a 45 mile race when I met a lovely lady who offered some insight into what I’ve dubbed ‘the heaver’. The lady in question who told me about this was in the middle of a mountain marathon and had gotten caught a little short, ‘I know what it’s like,’ as I was discussing my concerns about needing a toilet break as we raced.

She had decided to stop at a small clump of bushes and then fell into distress – she says she was pushing and pushing with only the smallest of results but knowing that there was a real need to deal with this . I’ll quote her directly as this has never left me, ‘I heaved and I heaved but the house just wouldn’t blow down’.

After some 20 minutes (according to her Garmin) she had managed to fire off a small pile of rabbit like pebbles – which to her seemed inconsistent with the trouble her bowels had been giving her. Still she did complete her mountain marathon but said I shouldn’t worry if I ever need a noisy poo as she was sure every runner who went past her probably heard her trying to push that one out.

Ah the honesty of ultra runners.

My Solution
There’s no magic wand for issues like this, if it happens you simply need to deal with it but my pre-race preparation now at least offers me a chance of getting it all out of the way before I set off.

The Flat White coffee seems to be the trigger for helping me pass the contents of my innards before a race start. It’s not a perfect solution, it doesn’t always work and if I get the timings wrong then it can cause more problems than it solves but since trying this method I’ve had a greater deal of control out on a route – because undoubtedly I suffer from a really shitty problem (sometimes)!

You’ll all have your own magic treatments and pre-race routines and I’d love to hear them because I’ve seen and been involved in some pretty horrendous states and anything we can all do together to reduce this can only be a good thing.

So please feel free to share…

Lessons

  1. Watch for back splash
  2. Always carry enough toilet paper/tissues
  3. Deal with it quickly, don’t wait until it is a serious issue
  4. Beware small furry animals
  5. Ensure you use the facilities before your run/race
  6. Ensure you are suitably secluded if you need to use the trail
  7. Don’t overburden your stomach pre-race
  8. Never trust a fart
  9. Make sure you are finished
  10. Try not to care what other people think

I hope this post hasn’t distressed or disturbed you all too much and I hope that what you take from this is, ‘be prepared’ and ‘it’s not just bears that shit in the woods’

*Thanks to GCJ for suggesting the scoring system


Your favourite races over time will change and a couple of years ago I looked at which events had given me the most joy but since then I’ve run another 50 races and I thought it was about time to refresh the list.

I’ve limited my list to just a single choice and the previous winner if there was one. The thing is though there are lots of great events that didn’t make the number one spot, the Green Man Ultra for example comes a very close second to the SainteLyon while MIUT, UTBCN and Haria Extreme could all easily take the top spot in their respective categories.

At the other end I hate missing out the City of London Mile and the Bewl 15 but hopefully this list provides an interesting read and a starting point for you to find your own favourite races… and you never know maybe one of these races will become your favourite sometime too.

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Category: Obstacle Course
Winner: Grim Challenge
Previous: Grim Challenge

I suppose this remains my favourite OCR run because I don’t really do OCR anymore. However, having done Survival of the Fittest, the Beast in the East, Xtreme Beach and several others (though never a tough mudder) I’d say that this ‘natural’ OCR still has great character and deserves consideration for some end of year fun. Why do this race? mud glorious winter mud.

View the gallery here

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Category: Timed
Winner: Brutal Enduro
Previous: Fowlmead Challenge

I’ve completed a number of timed challenges, many of them with SVN who provided the Fowlmead Challenge but without a shadow of a doubt my favourite timed event was the 18hrs I spent running around a truly spectacular route near Fleet to the south west of London. There was something quite magical about the tree lined, up and down, 10km lap that really tested the mettle of the runners – it helps I think that it was a relatively small field, a great atmosphere and a thoughtful organising team. I was somewhat dismayed to note that there was no 2017 edition but I live in hope that this great value event returns because I know I can do much better than I did last time. Why do this race? A truly awesome route that never gets boring no matter how many times you do it!

Read the review here
View the gallery here

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Category: Up to 5km
Winner: Chislehurst Chase Fun Run
Previous: Westminster Mile

I’d been trying to run the main Chislehurst Chase 10km for about 4 years when I finally found the time to rock up and hammer out a couple of laps of one of my favourite Kentish routes around Scadbury Park. The unexpected bonus was the children’s 2km fun run which was a nice, tight loop. UltraBaby in her first race to be powered exclusively by her own legs ran well for the first kilometre but then needed some minor cajoling to finish (in a respectable 30 minutes). The huge cheering crowd and the positive atmosphere filled me with joy but also my daughter who only the week before had turned 2. The medal that they placed around her neck remained there all day as she told passers-by of her running success and still she strokes her ‘Chase’ medal when she tells me, ‘my medals are here dad!). Great event! Why do this race? it’s fast, furious and family friendly

Read the review here

Category: 5km
Winner: Xtreme Beach
Previous: Ashton Gate Parkrun

I do love Ashton Gate Parkrun – it’s outstandingly good fun and also the starting point for one of my favourite ultra marathons, The Green Man but when I think of the 5km race that brought me most joy then it had to be Xtreme Beach. I’d been injured for quite a long time when this came up and at the last minute I decided to attend the inaugural event near the Bradwell power station in Essex. It turned out that Xtreme Beach was a looped OCR event through the most hideous smelling crap on the planet with ball busting challenges to face on each loop. I settled for a single loop as I didn’t want to disturb my hip injuries too much and by god it was fun! I came out of the filthy waters around the power station in shades of black I wasn’t aware existed and the squelch from my trainers indicated I’d not shirked my responsibility to give it some welly. Lots of fun packed in to that event – I wonder if it’s still going? Hmmm.

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Category: 10km
Winner: Chislehurst Chase
Previous: Medway 10km

The Chislehurst Chase is a double winner from me as the 10km trail race is an easy choice as one of the best 10km races around. The two lap route around Scadbury Park is windy, hilly, muddy, fast and challenging – it demands that you give every inch of yourself as you wend your way round the course and the rewards are pure exhilarating enjoyment. When I lived near Orpington I would regularly run fast laps around the main trail here and thunder up and down the hills with my spaniel but to get a medal for doing it was a lovely added bonus. Why do this race? a tight, twisty and runnable course finished off with a blistering sprint across the track. Outstanding.

Read the review here

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Category: 10 mile
Winner: Vigo Tough Love 10
Previous: Vigo Valentines Day

The only thing more fun than the Vigo Valentines Day 10 mile was when they made a few minor course changes and turned it into to the stomach churning, arse clenching Vigo Tough Love 10! This is the Kentish equivalent of a fell race and is both fast and furious while being a proper ball busting grind. The race failed to take place in 2016 but with the support of the Harvel Hash Harriers made a triumphant return in 2017 with a few minor course amendments and a superior sprint to the finish line. There is something magical about this race, in any incarnation, but the 2017 version for me is definitive and I’ll be back for a fourth crack next year! Why do this race? because it’s the best race around and at a mere 10 miles and a cut off of nearly 4 hours – anyone can do it… if they show a bit of tenacity.

Read the review here

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Category: Half Marathon
Winner: Summer Breeze
Previous: Summer Breeze

The half marathon distance is the one I run the least because it’s the one I enjoy the least. However, that being said I’ve run a dozen and I’ve never found one more exhilarating than the ‘Summer Breeze’ on Wimbledon Common. It was a hot, muddy, slow run with my former colleague HitmanHarris – I was injured and he was steady – it should have been an awful afternoon but actually it was as much fun as I’d hoped for and will make an effort to return in 2018 to this bimble with the Wombles! Why do this race? you’d do this race because it is so far from what you might expect and that’s a really good thing.

Read the review here

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Category: Marathon
Winner: Vanguard Way Marathon
Previous: Liverpool Marathon

My first marathon was in Liverpool in 2012 and while it was a fun it was a busy road marathon and pounding pavement, as I would discover, is not what I enjoy, nor does my body. Roll forward a couple years and the 2016 Vanguard Way Marathon – a race with almost universal approval, small field, beautiful trail route and a delightful medal what’s not to like? Well the VWM takes you on a tour of your own limits, you’re guaranteed to do ‘free miles’ as you get lost, the water may well run out at the checkpoints, it’s the middle of August with large swathes of the route held in a bloody sun trap and there’s a couple of arse quiveringly unpleasant hills to climb! I suppose you’re wondering why I’d say this is my favourite marathon then aren’t you? Well that’s easy, any race that tries to kill you has definitely got your respect. I suppose you can only truly appreciate being alive when you stand a chance of not being and the VWM provided that opportunity by the bucketload. Why do this race: the VWM is the UK version of Dignitas, just with a lower success rate. A tough as old boots marathon and in the August heat can be a real killer.

Read the review here
View the Gallery here

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Category: Ultra (up to 50km)
Winner: XNRG Amersham Ultra
Previous: N/A

Because I’ve expanded on the race distances I’ve done the 50km category has made itself available for a winner. Thankfully there was a very clear choice in my mind and that was the event that took in some wonderful trails around Amersham and also gave me my first experience of the wonderful XNRG. There was a certain zip and energy that accompanied this friendly, charity fund raising event and it seemed to me that everyone was up for a bit of a bimble. Now it’s true that I was feeling rough as heck for most of the race as my guts tried to force me into a DNF but I held on to record a respectable finish and have lots of lovely chats with some truly awesome. Why do this race? because it’s for charity, because it’s run by XNRG who are amongst the best in the ultra business and because it’s an amazing route.

Read the review here

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Category: Ultra (50km – 75km)
Winner: SainteLyon
Previous: St Peters Way

I loved the muddy glory of the St. Peter’s Way in Essex but for me the SainteLyon is both my favourite race in this category and also my favourite ultra. It’s the middle of winter, it’s midnight and there’s 6000 other runners all stood in Saint Etienne ready to launch themselves towards Lyon. It has twinkling headtorches as far as the eye can see, it has French locals out with cow bells cheering you on and it has a truly fast finish as you bound under the illuminated archway! It’s an amazing race and an amazing experience. And if you’re running it in 2017… we’ll I’ll see you there. Why do this race? it is simply unforgettable.

Read the review here
View the gallery here

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Category: Ultra (75km – 100km)
Winner: South Wales 50
Previous: N/A

I had no idea that the South Wales 50 would leave such a wonderful mark in my heart and there are lots of reasons for this. The route is compelling and tough, the organisation is top notch and the medal was both excellent and hard earned – however, it’s none of these that make this my favourite race in this category. The real reason is the bond of friendship that drew together the runners – I’d never seen so many quickly formed bonds made. I met Pete and Ryan who I will forever hold in high esteem and have huge respect for (good luck at TDS and RoF guys). Importantly though these type of bonds could be seen all over as people got to know one another on a way I’d never seen before. I would highly recommend the South Wales 50 – but be prepared for a toughie. Why do this race? it’s tough, it’s intimate and it’s great fun.

Read the review here

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© UltraBoyRuns

Category: Ultra (over 100km)
Winner: Skye Trail Ultra
Previous: Thames Path 100

I’ve said many times before that Skye tore me apart, broke me but also gave me one of the greatest race experiences I’ll ever have. Skye showed me ‘I can’ and I made sure I did. This race is as small and as intimate as you like, it’s run by ultra runners for ultra runners and it is tremendously inclusive. But don’t get caught up in admiring too many of the spectacular views because Skye is a ball buster. Enjoy Why do this race? because it’s there and everyone should run Skye.

Read the review here
View the gallery here

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And the rock cried out no hiding place. And it was correct, in ultra marathons there is no hiding place – especially from yourself.

The question I’m asking myself is, have I stopped hiding and am I making forward progress? Well the last six months are the first real test of that question – so how did I fare?

The 2017 halfway point: I love running, I hate running – it’s a perfect balance and 2017 has, so far, given as much as it has taken at the halfway point.

I’m not going to dwell on two DNFs (I’ve done that enough) instead I’m considering the huge positives I can take from my first six months of the year and look forward with enormous pleasure to my second six months.

The good

  • Finishing my third Vigo 10
  • Running on awesome trails in Barcelona and Madeira
  • Completing the Hockley Woods Challenge, Marlborough Downs Challenge, South Wales 50, Amersham Ultra and Escape From Meriden
  • Running the Westminster Mile twice, once with the family, once solo
  • Managing to get a medical certificate signed
  • Being told my heart is in tip top condition
  • Losing 6kg in weight
  • Deciding that, as a family, we need to move to Scotland and be closer to the mountains

The Bad

  • Failed to complete a race purchase therefore missing out on Winter Tanners
  • Let down by failing Altra Lone Peak 3.0
  • DNF at Madeira
  • DNF at Barcelona
  • Petzl head torch failure at the first time of in race usage
  • Put on 3kg in weight

The good stuff has been really, really good and the bad stuff has been a bit ‘meh’ I mean it’s not like the world caved in – it’s just running.

The South Wales 50 probably serves as the ultra highlight for me because I met two wonderful runners, had an awesome time and finished in a reasonable albeit not exceptional time. But the real highlight was having UltraBaby banging out a mile in a decent time and fully understanding the concept of racing and earning her reward – I was both a proud parent and runner at that moment.

The low point was obviously going to be Barcelona and realising I was going to have to DNF on a technicality rather than for running reasons – I was pretty furious and disappointed.

However, despite my misadventures I feel like I’m making positive progress towards my endgame and I knew before I started on this segment of the journey that failures would be fairly regular.

Perhaps my regret in my racing over the last six months is that Meriden killed off any chance I had of taking part in the South Wales 100. But this did set me up for a truly outstanding experience on the 50 with Ryan and Pete. South Wales was also a really good finishing point for the end of the first half of the year as it felt like I have properly succeeded at something and it means that mentally I go into preparations for my coming races and training with a positive attitude.

Upcoming
It’s a bit weird really, much like the start of the year I’m effectively having two months off where I can focus on training and family without the interruption of racing.

Therefore July and August will have a series of long runs on the outskirts of London and across Kent to prepare me for racing again which begins in early September with the return of the London to Brighton race.

The time off from racing will I hope get me through the summer without a case of serious dehydration or further DNFs as I found last summer and the one before to be a dreadful time for racing.

Ultimately I have reduced the amount of racing I do and I am seeing some benefits but there’s still much improvement to make, the challenge now is to improve my results in the second half of the year and continue to have a bloody good time.

Testing myself 

September London to Brighton will be a test of pace. Can I knuckle down enough to complete the 100km in under 14hrs? And can I navigate the course well enough to end up where I need to be. Given that I’ve clearly lost ‘half a yard’ to use a football reference and my navigation skills, although improving, are still not amazing, I will be very pleased to get through this unscathed. 

October Ultra Trail Scotland: Arran was the final race in my 2017 calendar to be confirmed and I can’t wait. At only 75km this should be a fairly simple test but with a little over 5,000metres of positive elevation this is set to be as brutal as the section of MIUT that I ran and anything but simple – the difference is that this will be autumnal Scotland not a pleasant spring day in Madeira. 

November The Rebellion sees me head to Wales again in November for a bit of a bimble through the hills. At 135miles this will be the longest distance I’ve tackled and I’m not intending to be quick but I’m also not planning on using the full 72hr time allocation. I signed up for this after the bitter disappointment of dropping from the SW100 to the SW50. Looking forward to this one.

December SainteLyon is my favourite race and I’ll be returning for more midnight shenanigans in Lyon. I’m sure I’ll still be a giant puddle of mess after The Rebellion but this glorious race fills me with unexplainable joy. I’m hoping to improve on my time from my first attempt but I’ll simply be pleased to returning a city and an event I really did fall in love with.

So that’s my second half of the year – four races left that cover mountains, speed, distance and love – you can’t ask for much more really.

But what about you? How has your running been so far this year? All going to plan? None of it going to plan? What’s left in the race calendar? and most importantly are you having fun? 

Happy running. 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I chose the latter and pressed on

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Key points

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Thanks guys.


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

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

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

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

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

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

Bish, bash, boom, job done. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It seems I had locked the gate after the horse had bolted when I reviewed 2016 as I then went and promptly entered the Mince Pi Run – my preview of 2017 though shouldn’t suffer any such lapses in concentration.

However, 2017 looks like being a challenging year for all sorts of reasons. ‘That’s too much mate’ said a fellow ultra runner, of my 2017 plans, as we meandered through lap 7 of the ‘Pi’. As a seasoned ultra runner he’s obviously entitled to his opinion (of which he had many) but my internal thought, which I didn’t vocalise, was ‘who is he to tell me what’s too much for me?’

I’ve always felt that my motivations and rationale for doing large swathes of ultra marathons was, while not conventional wisdom, very personal. I’m not there to test myself against the best, nor am I there to break any records, I’m not doing it for the fame or adulation and I’m not doing it for the medal. I do have a huge affection for the eventing and seeing new places and being inspired by my peers and this means that to those that believe I turn up to far too many events this is a jovial but considered two fingers to you.

But what about failure? I failed in my key aim for 2016, which was no DNF (actually I failed that aim twice) but as I’ve discussed in my review of 2016 that’s something I’ve come to terms with. What 2016 did give me though was a true understanding of what I want to do as a runner and in that new understanding comes my preview for 2017.

Races in italics have yet to be entered.

  • Winter Tanners
  • (Gothic Challenge)
  • Vigo Valentines Run
  • Amersham Ultra
  • Madeira Island Ultra Trail
  • Jeskyns Challenge
  • (Westminster Mile)
  • Escape from Meriden
  • (City of London Mile)
  • South Wales 100
  • Brutal Enduro)
  • (London to Brighton)
  • (Chislehurst Chase)
  • (Escape from Meriden)
  • (SainteLyon)

Normally my year will consist of a range of distances from zero miles up to 100 miles but this time it’s a little different. Almost all the races will be ultra except for two 1 miles races and a brutally brilliant ten mile race in Kent put on by the Vigo Runners. This is because the 10km race really doesn’t do anything for me anymore and even the marathon I find a bit of a slog mentally, it’s also about availability of time, there really is only so much of it and so I’m looking to maximise it on things that will improve me as a runner, give me the greatest joy and provide experiences I will never forget.

By the end of 2015 I realised I had become a little bit trapped by the ultra running community – starting to go and do the same races over and over again, this was in part because I might know people at an event, it was easy logistically or it felt safe. Sweet Jesus fuckadoodledo – I don’t ever want to ultra run to feel safe!

And so it was after the SainteLyon in 2015, where I saw that it is perfectly possible just to disappear off to a race that none of your peers know or care about and have a great time. It’s true I’ll never get the big kudos or street cred because I avoid the key marker events that the sport is judged by GUCR, Lakeland, Centurion Races, etc. The truth is I don’t need the acclaim that comes from these events which is why I’ve learnt to plough my own furrow – hence Skye, Haria, Lyon and 2017 follows this trend. I may never be cool or popular in my (ultra) choices but that’s me all over.

So in 2017 I’m taking all that I’ve learned over that last five years and I’ve been picking races that are sure get my arse twitching. Winter Tanners, 30 miles of hilly, muddy LDWA goodness, the Amersham Ultra for a bit of a bimble with the XNRG crew but the big race for the first third of the year will be the Madeira Island Ultra Trail. There is more than 7,000 metres of sharp ascent and even sharper descent over about 115km, I will be trained properly for this, unlike Haria Extreme which I was injured for. Much like Haria I am aware that there is a chance I will fail but I feel the only way I’ll improve as a runner is to face my own fears. Post MIUT I’ll go to face the awesome sounding Escape from Meriden – 24hrs of running as far from Meriden as is possible with your final distance not being how far you have travelled but how far you are from Meriden as the crow flies – how awesome? No route, no checkpoints, no hope!

I’ll finish the first half of the year with the tough as bollocks sounding South Wales 100, a race that was described to me as ‘the Welsh version of the Lakeland 100’. Obviously there will be a couple of other races thrown into the mix to help with elevation, mud, speed, different styles of racing, different types of terrain but the next six months or so are focused on ‘The U&D’ (The Up and Down) and I’m very excited.

The second half of the year is very much subject to movement due to circumstances in my non-running life but I’d kill for shot at the revitalised London to Brighton (the running version, not the big charity event) and if the summer version is successful I’ll go back to escape Meriden again but the big one for the year will hopefully be a return to the SainteLyon, my favourite race and one I’d like to take my family to see me run.

Key aims
The nice thing about finally understanding what I want from my running (and knowing what I’m aiming for) is that I can actually avoid things that won’t help me reach my goals – the best thing is no more bloody road marathons! Normally I’ll have a set of key aims that are stupidly over ambitious but my 2017 aims are different – I’m just want to enjoy myself and here are the aims;

  • Stay injury free
  • Have fun
  • Enjoy success
  • Accept failure
  • Run hills
  • Run mountains
  • Inspire others

So that’s my 2017 (hopefully). I’m very curious as to what you’ve got planned and more importantly how you came to pick the events you are doing. Thanks for reading another years worth of my running wittering, it is much appreciated and enjoy your 2017 running.

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I was doing some blog maintenance over the last few days and it occurred to me that a number of the races I’ve done don’t appear as UltraBoyRuns because that was a creation to replace my confused original blogging identity.

Therefore I’m returning to some of my older races and the original reports (with a hint of editing and hindsight) and we start with my first ultra marathon – the one and only Running of the White Cliffs 50(54)(60).

This is what I wrote of the experience;

There is nothing that can prepare you for going Ultra.

I woke up on Saturday morning worried about my first ultra, training hadn’t gone that well and my ankle had been pretty screwed for the past ten days. My kit was too heavy, I didn’t have nearly enough sweeties and I figured I was going to come last but I’d at least then have 2 UTMB points in the bag and a beautiful new medal.

I was up about 5, showered, ready and out the door by 6. The start line was about an hour away and by the time I was sat in the car with the GingaNinja and good old ThunderPad only one thing hadn’t been completed and that was the morning ‘movement’ which for any distance runner is vital but I was hoping that the facilities at the start line would be sufficient (and they were).

We arrived at the hall and I introduced myself to a couple of runners, registered with Mike Jones, the race director and I received the first surprise of the day – no kit check – something I had anguished over for several days, especially the content of my first aid kit. Anyway, I helped myself to a cup of tea and passed on the delicious looking bacon sandwiches (I noticed The GingaNinja grabbed a sly one).

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The race briefing was excellent and the race director seemed to be fully in control of everything that was going on – but in fairness most people seemed to be pretty experienced ultra or at least marathon runners and everyone was just getting ready. There was a real buzz about the place, I got the feeling I was going to like the ultra running community.

The 100 milers set off (about 25 runners) an hour earlier than the shorter distance runners and the 50 milers used this time to prepare themselves – however, I used the time to glean as much information as I could about endurance running on a very cold winters day carrying about 20kg of Sainsbury’s all butter flapjacks. At the back of the start I said goodbye to my crew and set off with the field of about 55 other runners. I had my GPS switched on and my route description in hand and I decided that the best way to get through this was quickly as possible without compromising my ability to finish.

Fast and strong was to be my mantra.

Ah wait … the first problem of the race then showed itself almost immediately – the directions. Within 400metres more than 20 of the runners had gone the wrong way, myself included and we needed to swiftly change tack, head back and hit the thick wet, filthy slope down. I hit the floor a couple of times and covered myself in crap. I had to steady myself on the barb wire fencing more than once and I realised very quickly that this really wasn’t a race, it was an opportunity to survive a race. All the competitors walked the first kilometre or so before we finally hit flat and dry.

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Once there I was in good form, infact very good form, I’d warmed up nicely and felt strong – possibly from not having done any running for a week.

The first 6 miles were full of small innocuous hills and therefore runners hit pretty swift time and most came into the first checkpoint in good spirits, myself included. Grabbing a jaffa cake and quick word with crew was it and I pretty much setting off into stage 2.
Upon arrival at the White Horse of Kent it became even more abundantly clear that this was a tough challenge and despite my energies I had to walk up some of the hill but on reaching the top I returned to moving at a fair pace – noting that there was a trail of runners behind me but I rounded the next hill at full pace and then banged out a swift walk up a nasty tarmac hill and great views of Ashford.

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The run was pretty simple for a while, taking in the wonderful White Cliffs of Dover and several other lovely sights (including my beloved Spaniel) 1 – I was having a great time really and then it happened, the thing that has blighted my running! Stupidity. At about 14 miles my good ankle got rolled over a rock, while I was titting and that was pretty much it.
I contemplated calling it a day at about 18 miles but the lovely Rich from the Harvel Runners (and several others) reminded me that pain is temporary. I therefore increased my pace, hit the aid station and decided to get out of my Merrell Glove and change into my Vibram FiveFinger Komodo. On reflection nearly four years later I wonder how foolhardy this was. It felt like I’d broken something and my thinking was that my barefoot fivefingers would spread my toes and allow my most natural movement. I could also race through icy puddles and keep my foot and ankle effectively ‘on ice’ for the remaining 35 odd miles

I knew that I would have my own crew awaiting me at 38.1 miles, if I could make it this far I would be able to decide if I had enough in me for the last 15 miles – there is a lot to be said for having someone you know at an aid station with a smile on their face.

Stage 3 – 5 were filled with lots of route problems, the directions really weren’t up to the task and a course that was hugely challenging – especially with an ankle that was starting to look like it might be fractured but I’d buddied up with a guy called Chris who was also running his first ultra, add to this Anne-Marie, who was looking for her 2 points towards the UTMB and I had the perfect running pals, the three of us passed through the up and downhills of the next couple of stages.

By the time we hit stage 5 the cold had set in, as had the darkness, the delays had meant that this was a much tougher course than anyone had actually imagined – most now thinking 12 hours for a finish and upon leaving the Stage 5 aid station and into Stage 6 we knew that we were still looking good for a 9.30pm- ish finish and then even more problems cropped up.

We just got lost.

The description and the GPS couldn’t agree – when it would connect, but we were also now in a wooded area with no exit having crossed difficult uneven terrain in the dark. With a little effort we threw ourselves across half a dozen barb wire fences and managed to avoid the river (although why bother when we had run through so much icy water already!).
We arrived to the final checkpoint at about 8.50pm, knowing that most of the final 14km stage would have to be walked given that we were all exhausted and pretty much mentally gone and what little running we were going to do would be slow.

More directional issues followed, especially around the golf course and the BT tower where runners were coming at one another from all directions and chaos briefly ensued. But with renewed resolve and grit we were convinced we were on the right path and having met some of the other runners we could throw ourselves towards the finish line. 6 of us blundered through muddy fields and sheep, defying the pain we all felt.

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Fast walking had become the order of the day but when we crossed the final gate to the road up to the finish and the village I knew I had less than 10 minutes to get my two UTMB points. My foot was in agony and it was only the thought of not finishing that spurred me on But my lack of long distance experience and general gusto meant I did what I do best – my sprint finish and I gave it my all. I tore into the car park and through the doors of the village hall looking up at the wall mounted clock, 54 minutes past the hour – 6 minutes of the fifteen hours allocated to spare. I collected my medal, collected my T shirt and suddenly every ounce of pain and every tear I had been holding back flooded out. I sat on a chair opposite one of the runners and we stared vacantly at one another. The quiet though was broken by the sound of the doors to the village hall crashing open once more and my companions for many, many miles collapsed in – all making the cut-off.

We should have run just over 53 miles but I know that I just completed just under 60 miles with all the extras that were done. But I had completed my first ultra marathon and it would set me on a road that I have never once regretted.

What an experience.

 

Key points

  • Distance: 54 miles (ended up being 60 miles after various route issues)
  • Profile: Rolling hilly
  • Date: March 2013
  • Location: Kent
  • Cost: £50
  • Terrain: Trail
  • Tough Rating: 3.5/5
  • Next running: now defunct

Route
Kent, the Garden of England does not have some of the amazing drama of say Scotland or the Lake District but it is much tougher than you might think and has hills aplenty as well as rivers to ford and challenges to face! The route for the WC50 was fun and engaging and the white cliffs themselves are a joy to run over, the whole thing though was ruined by incredibly poor directions and course marking

Organisation
When I ran this I had no frame of reference for how well organised an ultra should be. Mike Jones the race director was a seasoned and well organised man but he had failed to secure enough volunteers and this really showed as he bussed in people to the later aid stations who had no idea what they were supposed to do or even where they actually where. The worst part for a novice like myself was that the map book and course markings were incredibly poor and so I spent more time stood in fields trying to figure out where I was or watching GPX file on my less than ideal Garmin 410. The volunteers that did know what they were doing were brilliant and I have nothing but the highest praise for them – but it does say something that the GingaNinja as she was driving round the checkpoints felt the need to muck in and help the runners (she earned a volunteer t-shirt for her troubles!)

Support
Aid stations were well stocked with hotdogs available at one of the later ones – you really couldn’t complain about the food

Awards
Great medal, a favourite, lovely T-shirts (and still being worn).

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My Foot
I think the image below tells you all you need to know other than it was several weeks before I could return to running

Value for money
Great value for money, food, medals, cold, mud, hills – what more could you ask for? Well some decent directions would be nice but we did therefore get free miles and a free trip to the hospital to get my foot looked over

Conclusion
I feel for Mike Jones as the WC50 and all the other Ultra Trails (Saxon Shore) races failed to return for a second year. The single running of the WC50 was a tremendous if flawed race. I loved meeting some of the amazing ultra runners, many of whom I’ve kept in touch with and several of whom I’ve race alongside subsequently. I enjoyed the drama of the finish line race, I enjoyed the route, the challenge and most of all I loved becoming an  ultra runner. So thank you White Cliffs 50 for breaking my foot but putting my on the way to becoming a runner I’m actually quite proud of

There’s lots of really good running and fitness blogs out there, some more regularly updated than others, I’m a regular contributor to blogging not because I’m particularly interesting but because I like to keep a record of the things I’ve done and I believe at least some people get something out of my wittering.

When I started blogging (about design related things) I never imagined that I’d end up writing about my running adventures – now five years later the design blogging only happens when I feel the need to change jobs and the running blogging has morphed into a blog about my adventures in life and running. Three and a half years ago I started writing under the UltraBoyRuns moniker and I’ve never looked back, I find it therapeutic and I find it rewarding but the question I mostly get asked about it is, ‘How do you find things to write about? How do you find the time? Why would I write, surely nobody would be interested in what I’ve got to say?’

Everyone will have their own way of doing it, their own things to say – I can’t tell you how or what to do but I can tell you how I go about it. Below are they key stages I go through to bring a blog piece to life. Hopefully you’ll find something useful here.

Read lots: While I have ideas for blog posts that simply pop into my head I also draw on my environment, I read lots of blogs, newspapers, news reports, advertising, social media postings, business reports, research (and not just about health and fitness – that would be quite limiting). This quality research and inspiration time is the foundation of good blogging.

Adventure lots: You’ve got to have something to write about and the best way I believe to have something to write about is to go and do things. So in the last few months I’ve written about Haria Extreme, adventures in ice skating, Lanzarote theme parks, running in the Arctic Circle, trespassing on to the airfield at the Isle of Skye and a whole host of other stuff.

I genuinely believe that life should be filled with and fuelled by cool stuff. Life shouldn’t be a passive experience, it’s for living and your blog will benefit from a life less ordinary

Brainstorm ideas: You’ve done loads of research, you’ve had groovy adventures, you’ve sat down to write about something and it just won’t come. Jot a few ideas down in a list, on some paper, on your computer, watch some TV, listen to music, relax, let all the things you’ve seen and done roll round in your head and a title will come.

Join in social media (Twitter/Instagram/Facebook/Reddit) conversations: Social media isn’t for everyone but amongst the crap there are little gems of ideas, conversations, arguments, very real people discussing serious and silly topics that might give rise to new posts to inspire you or might give you a thought for a post you can bend to your own experience. Twitter I find especially useful for insight into how individuals look at a topic even when expressed over 140 characters. Interacting in these conversations also allows you a mouthpiece to express opinions as well as get them which in turn can have the effect of supporting the building of a readership. It’s not rocket science – you’re engaging in community and the community might want to hear what you have to say.

Photograph your adventures: Nothing offsets a great blog piece better than a quality or narrative enhancing photograph. I very rarely add professional photographs to my site but then in my role as a graphic designer I do quite a lot of photography so I like to think that some of that experience translates. However, the acquisition of an action camera (GoPro Hero 4) and the use of my iPhone 5S have meant that I’m pretty much able to capture all the run and race photographs I ever need and they simply help me improve the telling of my tales.

Note down a list of working blog titles: As part of my working process whenever a new blog topic comes to mind and I’m happy with it I note it down and then add it to my working list to be expanded on and developed later. This can be anything from being inspired by a tangent in a post I’m writing, a post from someone else that I’m reading or something I’ve seen or heard.

Pick relevant blog posts to write about and know your audience: You’ve got to write about things you want to write about but you’ve also got to have a focus. My original blog mixed graphic design, art, running and general gubbins – but that proved too scatter gun and so the audience was never quite sure what they were getting. UltraBoyRuns is all about adventure, that said though, this year I’ve used it to discuss politics, refugees and my ongoing fears about the way Britain is headed. You just have to be careful not to stray too far from your original intention otherwise what you’re saying becomes confused and you yourself will lose interest in what you’re doing

Know where you are headed and understand the value of a structure: Try and know roughly where you are headed with a post otherwise it will ramble and be less coherent. It’s okay for posts to be long just ensure they have a structure and narrative that lead to a satisfying conclusion.

Be Interesting, be passionate: One of the hardest things to do is to believe that your life is of interest to anyone else. But everyone, no matter who they are does and witnesses interesting things. When you write, when I write, I try and look at the finer detail to bring out interest. For example in a recent post I could have written ‘I had 5km of pain and then found a bush to take a poo behind’ instead I looked at the detail of being ‘bent double in agony’ ‘stabbed by the protruding thorns of the bare bush I was cowering behind’. Adding colour and texture, while remaining true means your readers can join you on your adventures, even if they are about poo.

Find your most creative time: The only time I write is when I’m on the train, I’ll occasionally do backend blog maintenance at home but mostly it’s all done on my phone in the 50 minute (plus delays) train ride I have (usually the morning commute). Blogging requires me time and RunBlogging requires quite a lot of me time given that you’ve got to do the time on your feet too. I understand we all have busy lives but you may find that by writing something like this it allows you to blow off steam. Blogging shouldn’t be a distraction from the things you feel you just do but it giving it half an hour a couple of times a week is what I call ‘me time’.

Try not to care who reads it: If you’re writing as a way of getting Salomon to notice you so they’ll send you free kit then this blog post probably won’t be of any interest to you (and it’s quite hard I believe to get the big boys to be sending you kit). I tend to think you should write honestly about real experience and (much like a race) leave nothing out. This way not only do give an honest account of who you are but you’re audience will enjoy it all the more – yes you may never be as popular as Usain Bolt but does that matter? write for yourself and an audience will find you.

But your blogs seem so quick (post race)? My blogging post race may seem quick – usually the following day or two but that’s because I do lots of the preparation work before the race began and I have dedicated time on my commute to use

The writing of a blog post normally takes me between 45 and 90 minutes or two commutes. The pictures will already be on my phone and I will have already worked out the structure of the posting before I start. I still require inspiration to start and that may be an incident in the days leading up to an event or it might be a conversation had with someone or it might even be my thoughts as I’m holding my medal for the first time.

Then it usually just flows from there. 

Tell people: the bit I hate is telling people about my blog posts, I still to some degree assume nobody wants to read what I write, this years ‘hits’ suggest otherwise though and so each blog post goes out to Twitter, Instagram and Facebook (although I think I only know a dozen people of FB so I can’t remember why I bother!). If I’ve posted late at night I might tweet a reminder in the morning so that those interested might see it and I’ll add relevant hashtags but ultimately that’s all I do. I write for me and if someone else is interested then I’m deeply honoured and humbled. You might find more interesting ways of telling people about your site such as in forums and adding it to communities such as The Running Bug but you’ll decide how far and wide you want to branch it out.

Have fun: The most important thing though is to have fun in your adventures and your writing and follow your own path – these suggestions above are just that – suggestions. They work for me but I’d be interested to hear about how other people do it. Enjoy

The key points

  1. Do Research
  2. Do Adventure
  3. Do Brainstorm
  4. Be Organised
  5. Be Passionate
  6. Be interesting
  7. Be True
  8. Be Confident
  9. Just Enjoy

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January feels a very long time ago in running terms and it has very much been a year of two halves. One half, excellent, one half was pretty bollocks – literally. I also raced a lot less than usual too after taking a little bit of advice from my physiotherapist with only 20 races attempted rather than my usual 30+ per year.

  • Country to Capital
  • Green Man
  • Ranscombe Challenge
  • Ranscombe Ramble
  • Hillsborough to Anfield Run
  • Run for the 96
  • Skye Trail Ultra
  • City of London Mile
  • Brutal Enduro
  • Endure 1250
  • Vanguard Way
  • Darnley Challenge
  • RunThrough London Greenwich
  • Ridgeway (DNF) (55/86 miles)
  • Chislehurst Chase
  • Chislehurst Chase Fun Run
  • High Weald 50km
  • World Vegan Day Run
  • Haria Extreme (DNF) (80/102km)
  • Mouth to Mouth

Race Overview
When I look over the race list and two DNFs it tells a slightly sorry story but actually the reality is very different. Yes this year has been hugely disappointing in results terms but there are other ways to measure your year.

However, there are a couple of disappointments such as the way the Hillsborough to Anfield run went and my subsequent falling out with my father (something I haven’t chronicled but am considering) and my pulling out of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal 130 which in part was caused by the events at the H2A. This left me without a hundred mile (plus) race for 2016 and that’s disappointing. There was also the pulling out of TransGranCanaria, I had signed up this when I got over excited at the CCC but hadn’t considered what a long distance mountain race might do me so early in the year. Not going to TransGC was a good decision though as it meant not overextending myself before I was ready. On the positive side though I stuck to my guns and avoided the easy option of going back to Centurion events and will carry this through to 2017 as I look to continue my search for smaller, more intimate racing.

The Planning
When I was planning the year out I placed the marker races in March, May, August and November so as to spread them out and I chose races that I felt would give me new ultra based experiences. Those races were The Green Man Ultra (heavy mud), the Skye Trail Ultra (mountainous), Leeds to Liverpool Canal Race (distance) and Haria Extreme (hot mountainous) – this seemed like a year to kill for but there were changes that were needed due to injury, family problems and a lack of training after Skye and so I dropped the Leeds to Liverpool Canal and replaced it with the excellent but shorter distance Ridgeway 86.

What happened?
It was very much a year of two halves with the first half of the year going brilliantly and the second half of the year being pretty much a write off with a few positives thrown in. I started the year by joining the Wonky Wanderer at Country to Capital (read the review here) for her first ultra. Having convinced her that she should run it I was compelled to join her on the start line and it proved to be one of my most positive ultra experiences ever. Yes C2C isn’t going to win awards for being the most exciting race, but it is varied and challenging while being highly accessible as a first real ultra. Being there to see Emma cross the line in a little over 10hrs will remain one of my most treasured memories long after I finally retire from running.

Country to Capital should have been followed by the Vigo Runners Valentines Run but in 2016 this race was cancelled, much to many runners annoyance.

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Therefore, I managed to pass through February without racing and my next time on a start line was the brilliant Green Man (read the review here) in Bristol. The Green Man has the distinction of joining my favourite races list rather highly, it was muddy, it was tough and the course was an absolute delight. The best thing though was meeting lots of the local Bristol runners, catching up with the amazing Roz Glover and best of all was meeting Elaine who single handedly kept my spirits up to the finish line.

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Racing was replaced by a bit of cold weather training in the arctic circle (partly to see the Northern Lights). I managed to add XC skiing as well as lots of really fun running – the ice, the snow, the cold and the amazing scenery just filled my heart with joy. I took time out of every day I was there to just go off-road and see things that are certainly not on the usual trails (read about the Finland adventure here).

I came back to the UK fired up and ready to train.

With running going surprisingly well I turned up for a double header of running at the Ranscombe Farm and Wild Flower reserve. It’s pretty well known that I love a bimble around Ranscombe and I’d considered this a perfect opportunity to test my body against a bit of elevation prior to disappearing off to the Isle of Skye.

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The Ranscombe Challenge and Rachel’s Ranscombe Ramble (read the review here) offered two different routes around the reserve. Day one was good and strong for me, about 30 miles run but with some mild feeling in an old injury but Day two was pretty terrible with less than 15 miles added to my SVN total. The route around Ranscombe and small field nature of the event makes me a regular there but I wish I had just done the Ranscombe Ramble as this was the tougher of the routes and lots of new fun. I’d love to go back to the Ramble next year but sadly the timings are a little out for me – I’m hoping that SVN might run it later in the year to allow me to test my mettle properly against it.

The injury at the Ramble left me with something of a quandry – it wasn’t a nasty injury but it did require rest and with the Hillsborough to Anfield Run only a few weeks away I actually needed to be training. I chose to do the sensible thing and rest for much of the time before the H2A and then be as sensible as possible during the H2A. Sadly the Hillsborough Run went very badly for me both in terms of distance and what happened with my father in the aftermath. I came away from the H2A event incredibly deflated, sore, injured and ill – this was likely to have an effect on running the Skye Trail Ultra just a few days later and Skye was, as we’ve discussed, one of the big marker races for the year.

So after returning from Liverpool I prepared my kit for the Isle of Skye just five days later. Friday arrived and amazingly I was ready to run, at least mentally I was, physically I was a bit of a mess but I’d give it a bit of welly and hope for the best. I travelled up to Skye on the Caledonian sleeper train and what a tremendous experience it was – it was my first time on a sleeper train and just being there was exciting, eating haggis, watching ‘My Week with Marilyn’ and catching up on Barkley related race reports. The only downside was that I awoke from the journey with terrible travel sickness.

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Thankfully I recovered enough to be race ready 12hrs later and at 5am in the morning on the Saturday I blundered through the Skye Trail Ultra (read the review here) with all the energy I could muster. Skye was as promised, was one of the hardest but most rewarding things I have ever done – it was filled with beautiful views, majestic climbs and terrifying navigation. Skye destroyed my feet and it destroyed my head but what it gave back was massive in terms of belief. I’d recommend the Skye Trail Ultra more than most ultras and it was certainly my favourite race this year and plays second fiddle only to the SainteLyon (read the review here) as my favourite ultra of all time.

UltraBaby and I were next on the running scene, this time joined by the GingaNinja at the City of London Mile (read the review here) and we gave it some fair welly (I did it solo and as a family runner) and this was a great fun event, nice and fast on the roads around Cannon Street, London. If it’s back next year we’ll be signing up and UltraBaby will be attacking this one on foot (rather than sleeping through it in the buggy). This was a lovely community experience and although I didn’t quite run it as fast as I might have hoped I did enjoy it.

And this was the last time that they year went really well or at all to plan.

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By the time we entered the summer the wheels had really started to come off. It started with the Brutal Enduro (read the review here) which was a tremendous event and highly recommended if you’re looking for a  challenging and inexpensive looped event. I really enjoyed the Brutal Enduro because of the variety inside the 10km loop and the fact that it was very inclusive event with a positive atmosphere but by 60km I’d had enough of summertime chaffing and injuries that continued to flare up. So I returned to my tent and caught up on some sleep. What I did know was that I had enjoyed the experience enough to try my hand at another looped trail race and so bundled myself off to the Endure 1250 (read the review here)I should have known though that lightning doesn’t strike twice and Endure 1250 was one of the least interesting races I have taken part in. Where Enduro had views, hills, challenges, excitement and atmosphere this felt flat, dull and lifeless. The worst part of it wasn’t any of this of course – the worst part was the horrendous chaffing I suffered within the first 10km. You might think this was colouring my view of the race but not so, I just didn’t enjoy it and hoped for better when I hit the trails once more.

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It seemed though I had cursed myself because the Vanguard Way Marathon (read the review here) was probably the most serious of the issues I faced while racing. It had been a hot day at the beginning of August and this one had been flagged as being tough, partly from the navigational point of view but also from the undulating nature of the course. In typical fashion I got seriously lost but also had to contend with both serious heat stroke and no water at the halfway point. I had consumed an entire 1.5 litre bladder of water in the first 13 miles along with water at the first checkpoint and had now run out. by mile 14 I was in quite serious trouble as the sun came blazing out. I had collapsed in a heap overlooking the lovely views of the Vanguard way for a little while before I came to and called the GingaNinja – slurring my words. However, I survived back to the checkpoint and managed to refresh my water supply but it felt like a close run thing. All the positives of the year seemed to be disappearing rather quickly but that being said I really loved the Vanguard Way Marathon and would do it again – the views were spectacular and the route was amazingly good fun, even when you add a couple of miles. Knowing what I would have to face would give me a better chance of being prepared for this Croydon bad boy!

The effect of the heatstroke lasted several days, it was really quite severe and so when I lumbered up to the Darnley Challenge (read the review here) less than a week later I was still not quite right but there is (as stated) always fun and chocolate at an SVN event and so taking in some of the delights of Ranscombe, Cobham and Gravesend(?) I ran a decent marathon for the first time in ages as well as adding a medal that was about the size of my head, can’t be bad.

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But my response to the Darnley Challenge could not mask the fact I really wasn’t ready for the Ridgeway 86 (read the review here). I’ve come to the conclusion that you really should not start a race if you’re nervous about whether you have the fitness to finish it and R86 was an example of a race where I was making excuses before I got anywhere near the start line. I suppose there was a clue as to my readiness when my calf simply seized up on at the RunThrough 10km in Greenwich Park a week earlier.

However I did rock up and I ran the first 43 miles in a decent time and even when I reached my final port of call at about mile 55 my body was in surprisingly good shape – what ruined it were my bollocks once again. The terrible chaffing that had been the bane of my racing through the summer had once again struck. My nuts were about the size of a couple of watermelons, fecking hell they hurt! The funny thing is that despite it being a good race I wasn’t really enjoying it all that much, having DNf’d the Winter 100 a couple of years ago this took in some of the same route and I didn’t find it inspired me to continue. A shame as it was a well organised and challenging race and even though I’ve said to myself I’m never returning to it, I’m sure I will.

It was then that my year hit a real low, I argued with the GingaNinja about running and racing, causing my public withdrawl from all running and racing. I ate a lot of pizza, drank a lot of Lucozade and refused to get the physical problems I’d been accumulating looked at. My retirement lasted a mere month but it was a very long month that really took some bites out of me, it kicked my fitness into the ground and I had piled on the pounds, all in all it was a shitty episode that was very public and very horrible. When I returned to racing at the Chislehurst 10km (read the review here) I gave it all the welly I could muster and even though I ran a reasonable time I knew I wasn’t in anyway fit enough to face the High Weald 50km (read the review here) but when did that ever stop me?

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At High Weald I was slow and steady but nothing spectacular and that was fine, it was a comeback race but it was far from ideal. I had toyed with the idea of not turning up to this one but I really wanted one of the mugs and the only way to get one, bar stealing one, was to run the bloody race. The good news was I was going to be testing my Altra Lone Peak 3.0 properly on the course and the better news was that the undulating nature of the course meant I was at least going to be doing something I love – trail hills.

During the race I felt like I was being punished a thousand times over for my ‘retirement’ and the sunstroke that got me about halfway through the race was unfair but I really enjoyed another bimble through Sussex and I’d certainly go back and run this one better. The best bit though was that post race I was allowed to have McDonalds chocolate milkshake again (just like after the Vanguard Way Marathon) as it helped to cool me down in the quickest possible way. Thank you McDonalds!

High Weald had given me the incentive to start training properly again and I did start on a programme of good miles, better eating and strengthening – it seemed like I was back on course after some failure but my fate seems to be that I am to write about my misadventures rather than successes! And when one Tuesday evening as I was buggy running with UltraBaby I felt my calf finally give up the ghost and it was ruined.

8 weeks until Haria Extreme. Turd.

For nearly three weeks it was painful to walk and I was resting as much as I could while remaining active by gingerly walking to work and back as a minimum. I thought that rest was the solution – it wasn’t. I called in the physiotherapist and she worked all the magic she could, my physio has gotten my ready for races before when I’ve ruined myself and I trusted her to do so again. The advice was rest, TENS, stretching, heat and physio – hours of it daily and for a change I gave up those hours to rehabilitation.

2 weeks until Haria Extreme. Progress.

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With no training I signed up to the World Vegan Day Challenge (read the review here) and hoped to test my calf for a few miles. As it was a weekday challenge the GingaNinja wasn’t available to take me so I was required to cycle the 13 miles to the race start. When I rolled up to Ranscombe Farm Reserve I managed a rather surprising marathon distance. However, I knew all was not right and trail ride home made me realise I was going to have to up the rehab if I wanted to survive. I stopped running again as I knew that my best chance of reaching the start line of Haria was to stop moving and continue fixing.

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Haria Extreme (read the review here) was the end of the year marker race – I had been looking forward for this for months and I wanted to give my all but knowing that your body may not hold up and that your training had been non-existent meant I was nervous.

However, I drew heavily on experience at Skye to help me overcome the mountainous sections and I remembered that whatever else I did I should enjoy it infact I spent so much time looking up in wonder at the beautifully dramatic landscape that I almost forgot to race. Haria was harder than Skye, it turned me inside out in a much shorter time, the heat hit me, the elevation hit me and the naked ladies hit me (not literally). I finished about 20km short of the finish and that should have tortured me but it didn’t and the reason was I am learning that by taking on harder and harder races I know I will fail more. Haria let me experience failure while giving some tremendous memories back.

I cut my shins quite unpleasantly and my calf muscle pulled me apart again but I learned that despite my lack of fitness I was within a cats whisker of completing Haria Extreme, the weird thing is that I had nearly 10hrs to complete just over 20km, maybe as I sit here reflecting I should have carried on but ultimately I know I did the right thing.

With Haria out of the way though I could then focus on finishing the year and this I did at Mouth to Mouth (read the review here), no pressure, a beautiful race on the south coast that was only mildly troubled by GI distress. I remember thinking as I crossed the line, what a lucky bugger I am

Original aims of 2016

  • Don’t DNF
  • Test yourself on more mountainous terrain
  • Avoid the easy route to ultras by returning to races you’ve done
  • Don’t buy as many pairs of shoes
  • No half marathons, they bore me

How did it finish up? 

  • I bought lots of pairs of shoes
  • By year end I will have run about 2000 miles in 2016
  • I had two DNFs
  • I managed not to run a half marathon!
  • I did run lots of smaller, more intimate races, avoiding mass participation
  • I had several experiences of testicle chaffing
  • I had several experiences of serious GI distress – the south downs have a new hill on them and Skye has a ‘no go’ zone with a half life of about 3,000 years
  • I learned to not worry so much about what other runners think of me
  • I’m still a lard arse
  • UltraBaby got to her sixth race medal

2016 was such a mixed year, it was filled with so many challenges that I overcame and so many that gave me a bloody good kicking. The important thing wasn’t the failure, it was how I dealt with that failure. I was frustrated and angry with myself at both Endure 1250 and the Ridgeway 86 – its fair to say at R86 in fact I was furious. The problems that got me at these races though I believe I’ve resolved (kit changes) but the lesson learned from Haria was to test myself at harder and harder races and accept that not finishing is the price you have to pay sometimes. The whole retirement/injury thing had huge consequences and I’m still trying to get back into shape and only now returning to full time training, so I’ll be trying to avoid both of them going forward but ultimately 2016 I’ll look for the positives and there were many.

Perhaps the most exciting positive was seeing so much more of the UK, trying new types of running, on new trails, in new countries. It was a positive that I raced less and positive that I realised the mistake I would have made by trying to run the LLCR130. I’ll make mistakes going forward but there is something rewarding about being accepting of that.

The one change I think will make a huge difference to me to is that I’ve stopped worrying about what the other runners think of me, I’ve always been a bit fearful of the judgement of my peers – perhaps we all are but it was proving to be crippling. It stopped me entering the Hangman Ultra and also from submitting applications to races where I knew significantly better runners than I would be on the start line. I’ve very much come to embrace that I am me, warts and all. I wish I had learned this lesson so much sooner. There are a couple of my peers who helped me see this and if you are reading this and you think it was you then it probably is.

So without naming names – thanks.

The future
More of the same, more races, smaller and harder races, more running, considered training, hilly runs and some, if not lots, of mountains, certainly thousands of metres of elevation. I’ll be previewing my 2017 plans in the next few weeks which will help me firm up my exact race and training trajectory – but be assured I’m ‘on it, like a car bonnet!’. I don’t even know what that means.

What about you?

  • So how about everyone else’s 2016?
  • Did it go well? Did you avoid injury?
  • Did you achieve thousands of PBs?
  • Did you focus all your energies into Parkruns?
  • What plans do you have for 2017?
  • What races should I consider adding to my calendar?
  • Will I have another year of two halves?

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Haria Extreme was without doubt one of the most glorious races I’ve ever run in but I did pay a price. The calf that forced my retirement from the event and the bleeding shin that also contributed to it meant I had needed a rest and our trip to Lanzarote had been many things but restful wasn’t one of them.

I had however, several months earlier, entered the inaugural Mouth to Mouth race – a 28 mile trail race across the South Downs and the south coast. The event hosted by Sussex Trail Events had been on my radar for a little while before entering as it would serve as a nice year ender as well as take my mind off the fact I had not returned to the SainteLyon this year (which took place on the same day). The only problem was it was a mere week after returning from holiday and my calf and shin still felt very tender, on the positive side though training had gone very well in the five days leading up to the race so I figured what the heck and rolled up the chilly Shoreham start line ready to run.

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This was one of those races that the phrase, ‘brave hardy souls’ might apply to the people that turned up. Lots of runners had their legs out, me included, but we had clear skies and a crisp day with which to run – it seemed perfect. Therefore, when the race kicked off I drifted quickly from the back to the middle of the pack and happily stayed there for a while. Not being much of a racer these days I had decided that this would be a pleasant stroll through some wonderful English landscapes. Notably as we left Shoreham I could see in the distance all the finery of the south coast awaiting us and I was very pleased to be here – running somewhere new.

I hadn’t really realised until I looked down at my watch that I was running at around 10/11km per hour, much faster than is normal for me on these kind of events and so I slowed up a little not wishing to blow up later in the event but as 15km came knocking on my Suunto I was still making (by my standards) fabulous time. There was a gentle air of confidence that took over and I could see myself overtaking people, not that often but enough to make up for a slow start and part of me wondered if I might run a decent time.
At around the time I was beginning to swagger and enjoy the race but I also took note of a different issue: my stomach was doing cartwheels and I could feel a swelling in my lower regions that indicated I was in need of some ‘facilities’. Thankfully I wasn’t super desperate but it was worrying. Regardless I ploughed on past the 18km mark, 20km fell before my new found prowess and then, all of a sudden I was stopped by a sharp series of pain in my guts. Bent double I rested on the trail for a minute not daring to sit though as pressure on my arse might just have evacuated the contents.

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A few deep breathing exercises and I was moving again but now I was moving more slowly, I was walking and all the progress I had made was being undone.

I called the GingaNinja to see if she was in the region and could perhaps meet me with some tissue but she was over 50 minutes away and in the queue to see Santa with UltraBaby. So I hung up and started considering my situation – 25km to go, hmmm I wasn’t going to make it like this. Ask Twitter? Good idea. Twitter suggested everything from socks to buffs through to wiping my arse on the great green earth.

I kept looking down at my two buffs, one on each wrist, the first was bought in the glow of my finish of the Skye Trail Ultra and with it I carried many happy memories, the other was brand new but was a gift from my daughter. It mattered not anyway there were too many runners around and nowhere to be discreet. At about 26km in though the situation reaching critical mass. One way or another this was coming out whether I chose to or not. I let a group of runners go by me, another dozen or so and I found a single thorny tree to cower behind and give leave behind a deposit.

I shan’t go in to how I resolved the ’tissue issue’ but let’s say it’ll never happen again that I forget my tissues. With the evacuation complete I figured I’d be able to continue untainted by problems – sadly not exactly. Two new problems arose, mild chaffing and I’d managed to stab myself in the arse on the thorns of the single bush large enough to partially disguise me. The fact my stomach was still giving me a good kicking was of little consequence I had to make a decision a) call it a day at the next checkpoint b) hike it c) try and recover some of the lost time over the last 19km and come home strong.

I chose ‘C’.

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The route had largely levelled off which served the purpose of allowing me to pick up my pace a little again and start to make some progress on those ahead of me. I was pretty furious with my idiot body but now I urged it on. I passed through the third of the checkpoints where a large group of runners had congregated, I stopped for some Cola and headed out at pretty much the same time as then but I was still feeling leaden.

Another short stop followed to let stomach griping pass and then onwards. I saw the next piece of tape and followed it into a wooded section but then the GPX file was pointing me a completely different way. I sprinted ahead to try and catch the runners ahead but they weren’t there, after about 400 metres I turned back and headed to where I had turned in – it looked right. I searched for clues but none were forthcoming. I started off again, but now slightly panicked, do I follow the river or do I follow the tape? Thankfully the decision was taken out of my hands when a runner came bounding towards me and growled, ‘THIS WAY’.

I gratefully gave chase.

Here out by the river I thought the route was at its most beautiful. Trees overhanging, the river around us and an uncomplicated trail. Save for my companion, who had now dropped back, I was quite alone and it felt truly wonderful. But tranquility was at a premium when I remembered to keep running and so I pressed on through to the next checkpoint on the far side of a riverside pub – if only that had been there 90 minutes ago I thought!

I thanked the volunteers for their incredible friendliness and then made haste to home. The route had one final delightful surprise for the runners though and that was Arundel – a picture postcard of a town with castles, Market and all the things that say ‘Classic English’. It could have come straight from an Agatha Christie or P G Wodehouse it was a delight. But then the route threw one last challenge at us, with just a couple of kilometres to go the wind started whipping around us – a headwind.

I pulled my buff around my neck and my spare buff went back on my head. Thankfully neither had been used in my earlier evacuation. With the metres counting down I could see the outline of what could be Littlehampton Marina and this was confirmed by a runner who called over to say ‘about a mile to go, keep running’.

I took his advice and then pressed the pursuit mode as a runner who had gotten away from me was in my sights. We arrived at the car park edge together but with something to prove to myself I hurled myself away from him in a feat of sprinting.

In the distance, with my lungs now burning, I could see UltraBaby and I threw her a big wave or three as I then flew past her. BOOM, I crossed the finish line to whoops and cheers as I sprinted beyond the finish.

I lay on the floor and whined. What a day I’d had!

Key points

  • Distance: 28 miles
  • Profile: Rolling hills, couple of climbs, nothing too severe
  • Date: December 2016
  • Location: Sussex
  • Cost: £40
  • Terrain: Trail
  • Tough Rating: 2/5

Route
I’ve never found the South Downs Way a very exciting place to run but this route was excellent and while it wasn’t as tough as say High Weald 50km or as far as the South Downs Way 50 this had a very real charm with a nicely challenging route that took in some majestic views – you will not be disappointed

Organisation
Everything ran smoothly as far as the runners could see and it was a professional but informal approach. Appearing as relaxed as they did takes skill and making the difficult look effortless appeared like it was second nature to the organisers

Support
Aid stations about every 5 miles and lots of good stuff available – the hot cross buns were a revelation, one of the better aid station setups I’ve seen over the last couple of years. I mostly stucj with Cola but if you wanted sweet or savoury there seemed something for you.

Awards
Medal and some hot foot at the end. Keep it simple, medal was nice, formed part of a interlocking series of medals (I just have the one). It was a low key event and this seemed the right level of reward.

Value for money
Top notch, lots of support, lots of goodies at the aid station, a great race, route and organisation – if you paid a few quid more you certainly would have nothing to grumble at.

Conclusion
Did I have a terrible race because of GI distress? No I didn’t, I had a shitty race for about 90 minutes and 5km as I tried in vain to resolve the issues I was facing but the race itself was a stunning year ender and you would hope that it will return in 2017. There was nothing over the top here, it was very much my kind of race ‘by runners for runners’ and in my search for races that have heart this would score incredibly highly.

If you run Mouth to Mouth or any of the other Sussex Trail Events (click this link for their website) I suspect you’ll have a stunningly good time and go back for more – I know I’m going to. Enjoy


ZooooZoooooZoo! This is the noise, the noise of a lightsaber, that I hear when I think of my favourite movie.

Yes, I aware it’s a cliche but Star Wars for me was a defining film, I saw myself as a Luke Skywalker, the kid with nothing except a bit of talent and a lot of rage. However, I’m sure you’ll be glad to read that I’m not going to review a 40 year old movie – no I’m going to be looking at a documentary I saw just a week ago and I’ve been  processing ever since.

Not since I last watched Flash Gordon have I seen a piece of film so full of classy quotes …. I think most people would be better off with more pain in their lives, honestly.I think that, if nothing else, they would appreciate the pain-free times more.

Anyway The Barkley Marathons: The Race that Eats its Young (to give the film its full title) perhaps needs a little explaining to those who might simply stumble across this blog. 

The Barkley is a race, a running race (of sorts), an ultra marathon in deepest Tennessee, an ultra marathon of approximately (or exactly, depending on who you ask) 100 miles, in five loops and it’s 30 year history has had only 17 finishes.

Sounds hideous? Not your cup of tea? Let me explain why you should give up 90 minutes of your life to this story and discover ‘a new hope’ and why ‘The Barkley Marathons’ has more in common with Star Wars than you might at first glance think.

NB. This will be a spoiler free review

The documentary unfolds across the 2012 event with some history from creator Lazarus Lake. The documentary charts more than the history though, it looks at the infamous entry system, the runners who have involved themselves over the years and of course we are witness to some of the more exotic names of the challenges encountered – the ‘testicle spectacle’ and ‘rat jaw’ amongst them. It’s a race that brings together the most eclectic group of runners you could imagine with names as fitting as could be Wouter, Brett, Jared, John, Ed and you imagine there have a been a few people could Buzz or Lance along the way too.

It’s no secret that the failure or RTC rate is sky high and perhaps this is where it is most at it’s Star Wars like best – it’s a rag tag motley crew of the most dedicated taking on an evil Tennessee empire with Lazarus cast as a slightly more benevolent Death Vadar. The trouble is that there isn’t always a Luke Skywalker who can bullseye the Death Star reactor and complete the five loops.

The documentary is filled with amazingly honest interviews, pained moments and genuine distress but at each turn you are willing on the runners to go that bit further – you want them to succeed.

In many ways you want them to succeed because this is one of those great everyman challenges – like climbing Everest or scaling El Capitain. With the right training, tenacity and hard work these things become achievable but then you get there and you realise that while every man could attempt these brilliant challenges not every man will succeed and the Barkley explains in no uncertain terms that it really is the journey and not the finish that matter. Something I believe in wholeheartedly.  

Perhaps the most memorable thing in the documentary for me was this from one of the runners 

There was this focus when growing up to be conservative when it comes to your future and have some good plan for retirement and then travel and see the world and do all this fun stuff when you retire. I was really good about that but then, uh… Yeah, so kind of like in one year I had a series of a few deaths in the family and then I was in a relationship for 10 years and that ended so it was like all this crap just all happened to me in one calendar year. It was awful. I was in a really bad place. One of the deaths in this case involved was my father, who has done just what he told me and saved all of this money for him and my mom to travel the world and he passed away one year before his retirement. That’s when I realized you’ve gotta live. You’ve gotta live your life.

The documentary is a tour de force of the positivity of the human condition. I would urge you all to watch it and hopefully find something in it.

But what did you find UltraBoy? Ah well that’s easy – I found a new focus, I’d like an attempt at this race and as I approach 40 I realise I’ve been working my way up towards it – taking on harder races, more mountainous races, riskier races, races with a greater chance of failure. I was never going to be content returning to races year in year out that I knew I could do.

So why do I want to do The Barkley? Easy. Because it’s there.

Conclusion This is a brilliantly filmed documentary and feels like a piece of classic ongoing American history. The filmmakers appear to have taken pride in producing a piece about human beings will and determination under the guise of a race. It’s a documentary with heart and you’d do well to watch it whether you’re a runner or not.

The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young directed by Annika Iltis and Timothy Kane is currently available in the UK on Netflix but for a more beautiful experience you can purchase the DVD/Blu-ray here.


I’m not a great fan of negative reviews, either reading or writing them because it tends to be about personal experience and that’s so personal it detracts from the specifics of a thing therefore once you’ve read about my experience at Endure1250 you’ll probably think it’s the worst race in the universe and that’s not true. So if you want to read a quick guide to Endure 1250 then try the statement below

Basically Endure1250 is a decent, well organised, good value, low key timed (or distance) trail run. That statement is true but if  you want to know what happened to UltraBoy at Endure 1250 then read on but be warned – my testicles get a lot of ‘airtime’.

As I’m sure you all know summer has magically arrived in the UK which basically means it’s stupidly hot therefore I was glad that Endure1250 wasn’t kicking off until 7pm, it meant that the heat of the day could be avoided and give me a decent chance of putting some quality miles in.

Saturday though started with a trip to the Great London swim and also a browse of all the CosPlayers from the Star Wars Celebration at the Excel Centre in London and by the time I left I was running late making it only as far as Paddington by well gone 2pm. I then added to my woe by jumping on the wrong train and I found myself increasingly uncomfortably hot and sweaty.

Thankfully, despite my detour, I hit Reading a little after 3pm and then Pangbourne (the nearest town to the event) about 4pm. Even with all my camping and run gear on my back I still hiked the couple of miles to the start line in less than 20 minutes and after a swift registration threw up the tent and began unpacking my stuff.

The race village was small but perfectly formed with pretty much everything you would need for a cheery event. I drifted around, grabbed a reasonably priced and very tasty hot dog and browsed the couple of running kit stands. Bales of hay were provided as cheap seating and were located around what would become a campfire later in the day and this was a good opportunity to meet other runners. Therefore with my kit laid out in the tent and a bit of time to kill I decided to get social with a couple of the runners. Sadly there was a general desire, at least at this early stage, to stay within your grouping or with your friends – which was understandable, this wasn’t the socialising hour – I’d clearly missed that!

Post relax I headed back to the tent, armed with a bottle of water and assorted toiletries, in an attempt to resolve a bit of a problem – sweat rash and chaffing.

The heat of the day, lots of running about and lugging my camping gear round had meant I’d picked up this racers worst nightmare – rubby balls! Yes it looked like someone had dropped a tin of red paint down the inside of my shorts and swirled it about.

I carefully, as one can in a small, hot tent, cleaned up the offending area, drying it thoroughly and waiting patiently before applying liberal lashings of bodyglide. It was tender – of that there was no doubt but I hoped that my patch up job would hold for long enough into the race that it wouldn’t be an issue. I believed if I could hit say 35 of the 50 miles of promised myself before it reared its ugly head again I’d be alright.

Kitted up I proceeded to the start line to grab some photographs for this blog post and to revel in the pre-race atmosphere which was now more traditionally ultra – nervous excitement. I listened to the announcer, over the tannoy, inform us that the start would be delayed by a few minutes for safety checks. However, at 7.14pm the horn sounded and several hundred runners set off along the grass path and alongside the camping area passing the many supporters and awaiting relay runners to a multitude of cheers and whoops!

I remembered to tell myself the key thing was to keep it steady and don’t get drawn in to racing the relay runners, the 50 km runners or even the 50 milers – I was due to be here for the next 12 hours.

I pushed through the first kilometre marker in decent time as the loop moved in and around the outside of the camp and the second kilometre was met after some largely uninspiring Tarmac and I hoped the route would improve but the next couple of kilometre were alongside the river with only a few narrow boats to offer support or interest.

However, at 5 km things improved when we re-entered Beale Park and despite being on the road again we could admire the large animal sculptures and pleasant gardens and there was a general upward trend in the run route for kilometres 6-8 as we passed through tree lined areas, a couple of hills and a faster section or two.

I pulled in briefly at the base camp after the first five miles to grab some chocolate milkshake and also to visit the little boys room and there I discovered that the problem I had patched up was going to return more quickly than anticipated.

Even in the dim lighting of portaloo I could see the glowing chaffing hiding in my shorts. How quickly his face had turned to anger, all twisted and contorted with rage. The bodyglide as good as it was could do nothing for this, clearly I applied it too late in the day and should have used it before I even set out for event some 12hrs earlier.

With time ticking away I rejoined the race and cantered around the first few kilometres again trying to get comfortable enough to run sensibly but it wasn’t to be and I completed my second lap in agony and looking like I had some sort of genital itch as I constantly readjusted my shorts.

I came in to the camp at the end of lap 2 and opened up my tent – closing the fly shield just enough to give me cover while open enough to let a breeze in. I kicked off my shorts to inspect the damage – it was pretty severe. I lay back legs open wide and feet pointing skyward letting a cool wind blow over the affected area. I lay motionless like this for some 20 minutes before a plan came to mind.

The return of the buff!
It was generally too warm to be wearing a buff but not around my nether regions! I took the UTMB buff I purchased last year (the one I’m embarrassed to wear given my DNF at the CCC) and I wrapped my nuts in it, carefully placing the excess fabric either side of the inner shorts of my Salomon compression leggings. I’d kept the compression leggings on in an effort to keep things from moving round. Now we would see how a third lap might go.

For me the race had turned to farce but I had travelled a long way and wasted enough money that I didn’t want to leave without achieving the minimum of a marathon distance to at least tick another one off for a step closer to the hundred marathon club vest.
I ran what I could, walked what I had to. I came in at each lap to cool off my buff, change my shorts and generally let things catch the benefit of a breeze.

I was in agony.

At 7.30hrs in, and with the stops to let the chaffing cool getting longer, I forced myself out one final time to get to the 30 miles that would confirm the marathon distance.
I crossed the line about an hour later, my run/walking never really that slow (the stops making my lap times look particularly terrible) and I went and gingerly sat down on the bales of hay. I purchased a cup of tea, watched runners going round and round in circles and then took myself off to bed. Bollocks to this I thought – literally bollocks.

Key points

  • Distance: 8km loop
  • Profile: Flat
  • Date: July 2016
  • Location: Pangbourne
  • Cost: £35
  • Terrain: Very light trail, road
  • Tough Rating: 1/5

Route
The route was probably designed to take advantage of open spaces and Beale Park to provide a fast, very runnable route. However, for me, I found it dull and uninspiring. I know loops are going to get repetitive but races such as Ranscombe Challenge, the Challenge Hub events and the Brutal Enduro all manage to keep the routes varied and exciting – this didn’t have that. However, lots of people enjoyed the route so maybe it was just me.

What I will say on a positive note is that the little lighting effects they dotted around the darker parts of the route were delightful and I enjoyed seeing these very much
Organisation: the organisation was excellent with lots of volunteers on the course and it was well marked. The check-in was quick and equally well organised with very little left to chance. The slightly late start that the race suffered from was due to ensuring the route was genuinely ready – they really wanted runners to have a safe environment.

Checkpoints
The base camp was well positioned on the route and volunteers lined the course about every 1.5km, all cheery and at the 5km mark a water stop. It left had you chosen to you probably could have run this carrying nothing (as many did – despite the heat). The volunteers were also really awesome and not a single one complained about me sharing my terrible chaffing tale!

Goodies
Good quality t-shirt was a purchase rather than included (£7.50) but the bespoke medal was nice even if it doesn’t make clear which race you ran.

Again
Would I do Endure1250 again? No. Unlike Ranscombe and the Enduro I just didn’t enjoy the route. I’m told Endure24 has a much more exciting route with hills and challenges but this wasn’t for me. Perhaps it’s that I’m not nearly as fast as I used to be and I felt this course was built for those looking to collect a fast time over a chosen distance or to claim a big distance over a specific time. I’m not saying don’t do it, not at all – it’s got a decent atmosphere and great organisation but if you’re after something with varied terrain and stunning scenery then this might leave you wanting more.

Conclusions
Cost effective it certainly is at just £35 whatever your distance and it’s a genuinely friendly event. Importantly for decision making – if you’re looking for a fast run at an ultra distance then this could be for you. I suspect the team running is much more fun here and actually watching people still banging out 40 minute laps at the end of the event was exciting to watch. So while Endure 1250 won’t be to everyones tastes this is a decent event and worth testing if you fancy some of the above.


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

Key points

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key points

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then the sucker punch came…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Less than a mile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck.

A full gallery of photographs will be added shortly

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