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muddy trails

I remember when I started running I knew that the training would be the worst bit, not the actual bothering to do it but finding the time to do it. I committed to the idea of the runcommute and stuck to this religiously but in order to do this I needed a running bag.

Now I might not be the biggest fan of running but I am a huge fan of shopping and I’m pretty good at it which is why I now own so many bloody running vests and bags. Below is a brief history of my running pack history and how my over buying across the years might be able to help you out a little bit. I’ll be honest though if I could have my time over I’d still buy them all again!

But where did it all begin?

OMM
I tried all sorts of bags but none of them worked until I came across the OMM Classic 25. When I put this on, I never looked back.

I bought the OMM Classic 25 in 2011 and I still use it on a regular basis. When the OMM Classic 25 was my only running bag I used it every single day both in runcommuting and in training. During the week it carried my changes of clothes, laptops, kit, paperwork, lunches, etc – it was brilliant and during the weekend it would carry waterproofs, snacks and fluids.

Classic 25
The key things that I loved about the OMM Classic 25 were;

  • The huge amount of available space
  • The incredibly comfortable fit
  • The large top pocket
  • The spacious hip pockets
  • The stuff pocket on the back of the bag

After owning this bag for nearly a decade I can serve as witness to the truly amazingly durable nature of OMM products and the fact I’ve gone back to them time and again means I trust their products.

Over the course of the next decade I added in a variety of larger and smaller options from OMM, the Ultra 15 was the bag I used on my first ultra marathon, the Classic 32 and the Adventure 20 are both used for fast packing, run commuting, hiking and races and the Phantom 25 was purchased with the intent of using it at the Montane Cheviot Goat Ultra marathon.

Perhaps the most interesting purchase is that of the OMM Ultra 8 which I have purchased in 2020 for my 6 year old daughter. I want her to have the best kit that it is possible to have and although she is not currently a trail runner she is a hill/mountain hiker and sometimes she needs to carry her own kit. The OMM 8 is a brilliant fit for a young adventurer and will grow with her. Perhaps my more melancholic side wonders if the bag will outlive me and remind my daughter of good and bad times in the mountains.

Visit the OMM website for further information on their products

Oxsitis
When I was looking for something more vest like than my OMM running bags I turned to Salomon. The French sportswear company looked like they had products that were very simple and easy to use, however, my experience with Salomon was confused and difficult. The fit was never comfortable on my back and the arrangements of pockets felt less well thought out than other bags and so I moved on pretty quickly. During this period I experimented with my first UD vest – the PB signature series and loved it but in 2014 as I moving into Hoka running shoes for the first time I stopped by their London Marathon stand and came across a little oddity that Hoka were not selling – a running bag.

Let’s be clear Hoka do not make running bags and so I assumed this was some sort of expo special that the stand staff could wear to promote the brand but to my surprise these were production models of products that Hoka would be releasing. But when? The man on the stand suggested that it might be some time before this pack hit UK shores, however, he did let me try it on and have a proper look and it was amazing.

It turned out that the Hoka bag was actually made by a French company called Oxsitis and the model at the expo was their rebadged Hydragon Ace 17. After the Hoka test I decided that I needed to have one of the Hydragon 17 and so immediately got one sent from France at 160 euros it wasn’t cheap but it did things that no other running bag was at the time and to this day I doubt you’d find a race vest that had a pocket organiser in the main compartment.

Hydragon Ace 17
The key things that I loved about the Oxsitis Hydragon 17 were;

  • 17 litres of space
  • The incredibly comfortable fit
  • The internal organiser
  • The pole carriers
  • Great design

I loved and still love my Oxsitis 17 (so much so that I bought two of them, I also added the larger capacity Enduro 30 and the Hydrobelt). The level of comfort afforded by all my Oxisitis running bags is better than anything I have with before or since and there were a number of clever innovations beyond the main compartment organiser such as the pole holders, the large velcro adjustment system, the magnetic number holder and the phone specific pocket.

The Hydragon Ace was amazing as a race vest but it was also a tremendous commuter.

The 17 litres of storage and the internal organiser made it perfectly suited to carrying work clothes or food, drinks and even on occasion a small laptop. The ripstop material that made up the bulk of its construction was strong and robust and also crucially more waterproof than anything I had in my arsenal. However, it was not waterproof but it stayed drier longer than my OMM bags and if your clothes were in a semi decent drybag then anything behind it in the organiser would mostly stay dry in all but the worst downpours.

Oxsitis still make amazing kit and I am sure that I’ll revisit them when I’m looking for a replacement for the Hydragon in the future.

Visit the Oxsitis website for further information on their products

Ultimate Direction
When Ultimate Direction came along the ultra marathon scene just seemed to be hitting the mainstream and I’d been running these longer distance races for a little over a year. UD seemed to catch lightning in a bottle and ride this explosion of interest in the sport with the release of the ‘Signature Series’. They signed up three of the best endurance athletes out there Scott Jurek, Anton Krupika and Peter Bakwin and got them to ‘design’ the kit that they would use on adventures. I think every ultra runner, wannabee ultra runner and parkrunner got one of these running vests – I know I did.

Experience of racing and commuting had taught me a couple of things – the first was that ‘there are racing bags/vests and there are running bags/vests’ and the UD Signature Series was part of the former and not the latter and so when I bought it I knew that this was going to be for racing rather than day to day running (which at the time was mainly commuting).

Even the largest of the vests (PB) was a tiny form factor but could store a huge amount of kit and was the perfect racing vest, the bottles it came with were a revelation and it was the kind of innovation that you thought would let you finish that hundred miler with ease.

I delighted in rolling up to races such as the South Downs Way 50 or the St Peters Way wearing this and feeling confident that I had the perfect partner. We ran lots of races together, at every distance – no longer would I be reliant on the water aid stations – I’d simply carry my own supply.

The bag had a large volume main section, a very useful stretch mesh back pocket, little pockets littered the front of the vest and the side and everything felt very robustly built. This was also the race vest that made me stop using hydration bladders, something that I have not returned to because the UD PB14 taught me the value of knowing how much water you’re carrying!

Signature Series PB (v1)
The key things that I loved about the Signature Series PB were;

  • 14 litres of space
  • The tiny overall size
  • The level of adjustability
  • The ability to carry poles with ease
  • Great build quality

Some say that the version 1 had a few quirks with the quality of the materials but I never found this and I’ve had mine now for more than 6 years, the first 3 of those this was just a racing vest but afterwards it became an every day road and trail running pack that has done thousands of running and fast hiking miles. My Signature Series vest shows no sign of giving up anytime soon and you’ve got to love kit that just refuses to be replaced. Perhaps to highlight how much I love this running vest, despite mostly retiring it from racing service, I will still on a race morning pick this old friend out and check my kit in the back and go and race a marathon or a shorter ultra and it never lets me down.

UD have had some great vest and bags in the years since and I did buy the Signature Series (v3) of this pack which remains part of my racing and training rotation and had a number of truly excellent upgrades including the Burrito pocket. I’ve also use the original Fastpack 20 and Fastpack 15 – both of which have been excellent on things such as the Skye Trail Ultra, commuting and longer fastpacking adventures.

UD though seem to suffer periodic dips in form in terms of design and quality and it is always worth waiting a little while to ensure that their latest ‘innovations’ are actually improvements – for example I found the tightening systems on their last couple of adventure vests to be a little difficult and so avoided them. However, I would have no hesitation in buying more things from this well regarded brand, but I’d always want to test it first.

Visit the Ultimate Direction website for further information on their products

Raidlight
I came to Raidlight because I had this dream that one day I’d run the UTMB. Now, although I’ve subsequently relinquished that dream in favour of running more interesting races I did during my trip to the CCC discover the Raidlight brand and I fell immediately head over heels in love.

At the time though I had no need for a new running vest. I just purchased my first Hydragon from Oxsitis and I still had lots of others that were in perfectly good working order. So I returned to the UK and many months went by before I thought about Raidlight again. It was while walking up from Charing Cross to Oxford Street that I saw a gentleman wearing what I would later learn was the Raidlight Olmo 20. I chased this fully laden runner down the street in my shirt and trousers and ran alongside him quizzing him.

I decided that the Olmo 20 was too large for me and so that very evening ordered a Raidlight XP14 which was such an odd running bag and wildly unique. I really enjoyed this as a commuting bag as it was taller, slimmer and more nimble that some of the others which tended to be more squat in order to ride higher up the back but I was never a fan of the belly band, for vanity reasons rather than anything else, they make me look even fatter than I am! However, despite this not being the perfect bag it did inspire me to consider other options from Raidlight and when my back started giving me issues in 2015 I looked for something that would ride high on my back and that I could carry more load in pockets and higher up the bag – enter the Olmo 20 and for shorter races enter the Revolutiv 12.

Olmo 20
The key things that I loved about the Olmo 20 were;

  • 20 litres of well considered space
  • Front carrying system for poles that kept out of the way
  • Sits high on the back
  • Lots of adjustment potential
  • Incredibly comfortable

I feel that Raidlight are a bit of a marmite brand whichever way you look at them, detractors say the quality isn’t up to much and the fit can be weird in all their kit but their fans are equally vocal about what tremendously well thought out kit this is – I think the reality is somewhere in between. Sometimes the build quality has let them down (although I’ve never had any problems) and the fit can sometimes be weird (the i love trail series of shorts come to mind) but on the whole Raidlight makes stunningly interesting and useful kit and should never be dismissed from your purchasing thoughts. The Olmo 20 is a very special case in that I bought it to help keep me running through the various back pains I’ve had over the last few years.

When it arrived I was surprised how snug it all was but that it felt like everything was build like a circle around the runner and aside from the main pocket you could pretty much access everything you need while on the move or without needing to take the vest off.

Materials were varied and designed to be used in the places they were needed – so a harder stiffer material on the bottom for when you hurl your race vest on the floor to the super comfortable and quick drying vest harness. There are an abundance of pockets that litter the front, the side and the reverse of the pack and internally there is some compartmentalisation to make it simpler to know where your kit is. It’s simple but it is clever. I find this a very easy vest to use.

The Olmo 20 remains one of my key race vests because of the level of comfort it affords me and the flexibility of the pack is almost unbeatable. It’s a shame that Raidlight no longer make it but then I do also own the supremely brilliant Revolutiv 12, so I suppose there’s hope that their gear going forward will be as brilliant as the gear of the past.

Visit the Raidlight website for further information on their products

HARRIER
Harrier are the new kid on the block and what in modern parlance would be described as a disruptor that is taking aim squarely at Ultimate Direction and Salomon. If you’re a long distance runner, fell runner or ultra marathoner then the chances are you own one of the big brand racing vests but with Harrier you’re being offered a genuine alternative at a price point that is impossible to ignore. I had zero need of another running vest – the above running bags and vests are almost all still in active service and therefore Harrier would have to be something amazing to make me buy it.

During the summer months I found myself in full research mode about the brand and became fascinated with Kate Mackenzies drive and determination to develop the Harrier brand and bring well crafted and priced gear to the running community. However, still not needing a new race vest in any way shape or form I didn’t order one.

Then I ran the Ultra North race in my trusty Olmo 20 with both of us performing brilliantly in shit conditions and there I saw it, the Harrier Kinder 10l attached to a slow and steady runner who had it jammed to the rafters. Despite being full to the brim my fellow competitor commented that it was the most comfortable running bag she had ever used.

Upon my return to Scotland I ordered the ultra bundle – something that I will be reviewing in the near future.

However, I can give you this advanced preview and tell you that the Harrier Kinder 10 litre running vest is one of the best running packs I have ever worn. I immediately made a tremendous friend in the Kinder and we have been adventuring on a daily basis ever since she arrived.

Kinder 10
The key things that I loved about the Kinder 10 were;

  • Big split rear carrying section
  • Well positioned pockets
  • Excellently located straps to keep things strapped down near to your body
  • Lots of adjustment potential
  • A pocket seemingly perfectly designed to carry a DJI Osmo Action or GoPro

I won’t spoil the details of my in-depth review which will look at the Harrier running vests but for the money they are brilliant and to be fair to them if they were double the price you would be hard pressed to complain. They really do feel like the child of a Salomon and UD vest but with many of the mistakes from both of those manufacturers ironed out. Don’t get me wrong it is not a perfect piece of kit but it’s as near as any race vest is ever going to get when it needs to fit such a wide variety of runners. I’d commend Kate and Harrier for producing such brilliant kit (not just the race vests but all the other stuff too) and I loved the Harrier Kinder 10 so much that I bought a second just this week and then added in one of the 5 litre Curbar options – this time I went for their bright more batshit colours because that’s the kind of runner I am.

Visit the Harrier website for further information on their products

RUNNING KIT Mistakes!

Mistakes, I’ve had a few, as the song says… below are some of the ones that I never really got on with.

I love the kit of WAA but the UltraBag was an expensive mistake – despite its reputation as the ultimate MDS bag I found it to be poorly thought out and worse, badly executed. The bottle holders on the 2017 version I had didn’t cinch down very well, the bottles themselves were terrible – leaking everywhere as they bounced around on my chest. The bag no longer came fitted with the Sherpa strap which was a feature I desired and the ability to add additional pockets was poorly made and sized and simply didn’t fit anything very well. The worst thing though was when the chest pouch attachment simply fell apart and the zip slid straight off the end during its first run.

I know some people love it but I didn’t and was very disappointed. In hindsight I should have returned it to the ultra marathon running store but I didn’t and so now it gets used as a bag for biking with – but it’s not the trusted companion that many other of my race vests became.

My Camelbak XT01 (I think) was an impulse purchase and one that I should have thought more carefully about. Although sold as a running bag it had all the hallmarks of being a better bag for biking. The low volume combined with a fit that didn’t feel geared to a no bounce experience made this feel unpleasant to run in. The vest was also made of heavy material and susceptible to taking in water without ever drying so all in all this was a fail and I’ve never considered a Camelbak again.

Recommendations?

I genuinely don’t think you recommend a running vest or bag to a runner any more than you can recommend a pair of running shoes and say, ‘these will be perfect for you’.

A running pack is such a specific thing and the fit is not universal and nor are your individual needs. With the high street rapidly disappearing though it is becoming increasingly difficult to try kit on and therefore you are required to make expensive purchases before potentially having to return them and incurring delivery charges which simply makes things even pricier.

If I had some tips for you I would say;

  • Where you can try on the running packs, the more you try on the better you’ll understand what is right for you.
  • One pack might not do all scenarios – so for example you might want a bigger pack for commuting than you do for racing.
  • Think carefully about what size you need, is it something simply to carry your phone and jumper or will you be carrying water, bottles, poles, etc? There is a big difference between the OMM Classic 25 and the Raidlight Revolutiv 12
  • Think carefully about features you would like – pole holders, gear rails, lots of straps, vest fitting, whistle, key clips, stuff sack, hydration bladder compatible.
  • Look at online reviews of the specific pack you are considering, check social channels too and especially look for those reviews that give details of fit. For example I am 5’9, 38″ chest, 32″ waist, 70kg and the Kinder 10 litre fits me perfectly but my second purchase of the Kinder is a large to allow me to better fit larger amounts of kit in the pack and wear layers for winter racing.
  • Don’t spend a fortune until you know what is right – consider the excellent range of Decathlon race vests and bags have. These tend to be significantly cheaper than Salomon, UD, etc and are generally excellent quality. The Harrier running vests are also at such a good price point that these feature packed bits of kit must be a contender for good quality, good value packs (perhaps less good for commuting though).
  • Buy last years kit – there are always sales on the previous iteration of the main brands running packs and bags, you really do not need the latest colourway.
  • Avoid Sports Direct (this is a general point but also good advice for running packs).
  • Borrow another runners kit, I realise in these COVID infused times that is more difficult than usual but I have loaned out my running bags before and would happily do so again in the future.

WHERE CAN I BUY?

There are lots of retailers who will do an excellent range of running kit, below are a few URLS to help get your research underway. To note I’d like to say that I have purchased all the running packs that I own, nobody sponsors me and the links I am providing above are for your reference and research only. I currently have 23 race packs, that’s lots of user testing gone on and hope it’s helpful.

Do also remember that there are lots of other great brands to try out and just because I didn’t get on with something or haven’t written about it doesn’t mean that you won’t love it – brands that you could consider researching include WAA, Ronhill, Nathan and Salomon (there are a plethora of others too).

I’ve tried most of running brands one way or another and I’ll guarantee you’ll eventually find something that works for you but it can be a minefield and so don’t rush into an expensive purchase until you are ready.

Gallery

Have fun shopping.

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There is a really weird sensation about rolling up the start line of a race and being the only person there, I suppose this would make me the both first and last finisher in the race I was runningbut the Pike and Back (Virtual) Half Marathon had much more meaning than just a run, this was a run that filled with history, emotion and of course mud.

I left my home in Scotland at about 7am with the aim to start running around lunchtime and hopefully avoid those who might be considering running the virtual race on the course at the original designated time – it’s about a four and half hour journey and I broke this up with a swift stop at a McDonalds for a ‘nourishing’ breakfast.

I was driving the little car as it was just me travelling and as the sun beat down on the car I thought it was going to be a scorcher for the run, something I had not counted on when I had been packing my kit (I was all waterproofs and survival blankets). I arrived bang on time despite a couple of little mis-steps in my directions.

The man in the car next me glared as I pulled up next to him he tossed his cigarette out of the car and wound his window up – presumably because he believved I had arrived to lick COVID 19 all over him which couldn’t be any further from the truth.

Anyway I had a Tesco pastry and a bit of chocolate milkshake to make sure I was fully energisted and then quickly got changed into my kit. I had vague memories of Moss Bank from my childhood, although I’m not from Bolton I do know the area quite well from visits as a child and Winter Hill is a well known landmark but I couldn’t remember ever being allowd to go up it (we were not a very active family). We also used to come here when I was child to a restaurant called Smithhills – it was a dickensian themed place and for our birthdays my grandparents would take us there as a treat. This event, virtual or not was loaded with memories for me and on the day before I led the funeral to my grandmother  this was rather a poignant thing I was doing (you could read about this in a separate blog post here).

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I set up the navigation on my Suunto and started to amble around aimlessly looking for the start (this did not bode well for following the route). Eventually after a few minutes of groping around the park I came to a small opening in the bushes which looked like the kind of place that a race might begin – Suunto agreed and so, after a couple of pictures, we set off.

Now lets be fair Suunto and the breadcrumb trail is at best, ‘not bad’ so as I ambled up the hill towards what I considered to be the route I figured quickly that I had made a mistake – what gave this away was that I found myself launching my poor, knackered body off a wall and onto the street below and then around a few narrow winding streets and then some steps where I finally picked up what was probably the route. There were clues that this might be the route, the first was the winding river and the trail in the distance, the second was that my watch finally looked like it was going in the right direction and thirdly two fellow virtual half marathiners came thundering past me.

Aha I thought I have found my way.

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Now I really hadn’t done that much research about the race or route, I’d left it to the rose tinted specs to assume that this would be something I’d like to do. I’d glanced at the elevation profile which looked like there were two small hills at about the mid-point of the route and the rest of it was pretty flat. It was only as I was about 600 metres in that I realised I had rather misjudged the situation and I had rather misjudged the route. Effectively the route was made actually made up of two tough climbs on a variety of surfaces and then in reverse it was made of a couple of hanrd going downhills and one really tough as old boots uphill that really sapped every last bit of energy you had!

The first three and bit kilometres of the route were mainly tarmac, quiet roads (or they should have been given the COVID-19 trouble), the elevation felt really tough. The toughness wasn’t just the route, this was very much a combination of a long drive from Scotland and a lack of training in recent weeks, my lack of training has been in part to COVID-19 but mainly due to the stress of work and my grandmother dying and having to do all the arrangements from this and now I was feeling it.

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The road seemed never ending and I did for a moment wonder if this was a trail half marathon but then glinting in the distance I saw the outline of a gate and a route on to the rolling trails around Winter Hill and Rivington Pike. I crossed the gate and bade the cyclists a good morning as I passed by them and then continued onward and most importantly upward. At this point we had moved from the tarmac to hard packed and stoney trail. I bimbled along, stopping only to allow past me, faster moving traffic and to take pictures of the truly spectacular surroundings. In the distance I now had clear sight of the Winter Hill transmission mast and realised that I despite having been here many times before I had probably only ever seen this at a distance.

I pressed on across the rocks, the mud and the water, the route had now gone from a bit of a slog to being genuinely fun and I was finally enjoying the route – especially as the sun was shining but also lovely and cool, a perfect running day. My feet for the first time that day felt free to unleash a little bit of pace inspite of the uphill – this is why I run I thought. I found myself feeling rather jaunty depsite the situation we all find ourselves in and I could simply revel in the reason I was here – to pay a small tribute to my departed (but much unloved) granny.

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I skipped down the stony path and alongside the transmittor and marvelled at the scale of the structure that had once (and may well still) send out things like the signal for Granada Television, I felt like a young boy in the back seat of grandfathers car as a ran beside the mast, the only thing missing was the twinkling red lights that adorn it as the lights go down.

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I assumed that Rivington Pike could not be that far from the mast and in the distance I could see a small structure which I asssumed was the destination and turnaround point. I therefore joined a narrow piece of tarmac and wended my way downwards and started arching away from the small structure, that was not Rivington Pike – oh dear. In the distance I could see a flurry of people around what looked like a small fortification or castle – that was Rivington Pike and I was what looked like several miles away from it. Thankfully this was now downhill but my knees don’t much like tarmac and they were feeling the stress of the pounding they were taking and although my Lone Peak 4.0 are well built they aren’t suited for sustained running on tarmac.

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I ran down and down, and down and down and then weirdly what felt like more down and down, yet, and this was the strange thing – Rivington Pike was up – totally in opposition to my descent.

However, eventually my downward spiral stopped and I returned to hard packed trails – here it felt very busy, lots of people travelling up to the Rivington Pike and dusty hard packed trails gave the illusion that everybody had a dry and dusty cough. It was rather interesting to watch as people covered up their faces as they walked past you or as I ran past them. I mean yes I was breathing more heavily than most of the people there but then I was exerting more pressure on my poor old body. I was mostly being sensible and passing people at a distance but one couple, who were wearing face masks, moved away from me at 90 degrees and zipped up their heavy duty winter jackets to fully cover their mouth – which I felt was a little excessive given that I was never closer than about 20ft away.

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Anyway I hurled myself on to the final climb of Rivington Pike and chatted (at a safe social distance) to a local cyclist, both of us wondering why the hell we were here. I waved at him as I left him behind and continued my climb to the top which was awash with people. I stopped long enough to take a couple of pictures and then made a swift sprint down the front of the Pike knowing that an absolute shit of a hill was waiting for me.

I’ll be perfectly honest, not a lot of running was done back up the hill, my legs were absolutely cream crackered and all I wanted was to be back at the car and maybe stop at the ice cream van who was awaiting customers in the park. I was also very keen to relieve my bladder of its contents but given the throngs of people that were festooned around the route and the lack of any cover meant that I really had to tie a knot in it and hold on. It was here that I noted I had probably made a routing error on the way out and added several hundred metres to my journey as my beloved Suunto insisted that I head across the wet boggy trail. Of course this was music to my ears – get off the tarmac, get back in touch with nature and as cold mud sprayed up the back of me and my feet found themselves submerged I thought, ‘bliss’. I came across a father and son who were clearly not geared for this kind of trail and looking rather unhappy at the prospect of having to continue through this but they managed a cheery smile as I ran by them.

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Soon though I was back on the path and facing the Winter Hill mast, I waved goodbye to it as I turned away from it and pushed on as fast as I could knowing that it was mostly downhill all the way home. However, as I’ve indicated the route was hard going and even in a downhill situation if you’re undertrained and exhausted then it is ging to be hard. But with the wind on my back and surprising cheeriness in my heart I ran happily off the hill and back to road which seemed so long ago now.

When I arrived back to the gate it felt like I had really achieved something and I gently ran down the road, attemptin not to punish my old nears any more than I needed to. I was so close now and in the distance I could see the park where all of this had started. Down, down, down I went – bit like a first date that has gone too well – and as I arrived back to the point I met the earlier virtual runners I felt a tremendous sense of relief. Yes I’d been slow but I’d had good reason not to rush this one – I had time and I wanted time to be able to reflect on everything that is currently going on both personally and globally. I crossed the finish line to the sound of silence, or rather the sound of nature and actually rather enjoyed it.

I’d completed the Pike and Back Half Marathon and I was pleased to have done it.

Distance: Half Marathon
Type: Virtual (due to COVID-19)
Ascent: Bloody Hell
Date: March 2020
Location: Bolton
Terrain: Very mixed
Tough Rating: 3/5

Conclusions
I would traditionally write a full breakdown of the event but that is impossible given the nature of this one in its virtual format. What I will say is that full credit goes to the team of Time2Run Events for allowing runners to complete the event virtually – they could simply have said ‘cancelled’ but as many Race Directors have done they have looked for alternatives and we should be grateful for that.

The route was really tough, the elevation was challenging, the mixed terrain meant that shoe choice was a nightmare and if you really weren’t prepared for this then you were going to have your arse handed to you and mine was handed to me gift wrapped.

Had I not been attending my grannies funeral, and referencing the race in the eulogy I had written for the following day, then I probably wouldn’t have come down for the race I would have transferred my entry to next year, done the training and actually run much better but there was something special about this, about doing it alone, abour forcing myself to push on. I’m an ultra runner really and the half marathon distance is my least favourite race length so to come here and really enjoy myself is really quite wonderful.

There was also something joyous about finishing the ‘race’ first and last – that’ll make me laugh for the rest of my days and I feel like this is a medal I have really earned. I will looking forward to receiving the medal knowing that whenever I look at it with all the others at the top of my staircase that it will bring back a smorgasbord of feelings and that is the sign of a great thing.

The one thing I did notice was how friendly people were in comparison to the Scottish races I run, up here almost all the runners, hikers, walkers, etc have time to smile or have a laugh and a joke with you but despite smiling and saying hello to everyone I went past there was something of a lack of response. Now some of it I’ll put down to COVID-19 but I was rather surprised that the north of England, famed for its friendliness, was a little less than I’ve gotten used to in Scotland. That said, those people that did wave back or say hello or smile back at me were warm and wonderful, I was just surprised by how many people simply didn’t bother.

If you’ve never run this race before then can I urge you to look up Time2Run Events and sign up to this most wonderful of race – even if like me you have to travel down from Scotland to do it, I will certainly be considering entering again for next year.

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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

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Time: 8 Hours
Target: 8 Laps

It was about 5.30am, I’d had a lovely big mug of coffee whilst sitting upon the old porcelain throne and yet no matter how much I jiggled and wriggled – nothing would be released. So with much trepidation I rose from my perch and slapped on a handful of lubricant and squeezed it into every crevice before putting on my running kit – for today was Falkirk 8 hour Ultra day.

Surprisingly I’d been quite relaxed about the race as my week had been busy with a disaster situation over Scotland’s status in the European Union and Saturday had brought me the opportunity to go racing with my daughter and also join a pro-independence rally at Holyrood Park. So the reality is that the Falkirk Ultra came as something of a light hearted surprise to my week.

Let me roll back about three weeks to my status as a very unfit, very overweight, very slow runner who was about to attempt Tyndrum 24 (read about it here). While I had very much enjoyed the event I’d also been left feeling a bereft, missing my fitness and my turn of pace but mostly I was missing my ability to endure. I’d run less than 8hrs in good conditions and managed a paltry 30 miles in that time – Falkirk with forecasted cruddy conditions seemed to be headed to an even worse result.

Still with a coffee inside me and dressed for a race I drove the few short miles to the car parking and then grabbed my stuff with the aim to be at the registration tent nice and early. As I ambled through the park I wasn’t quite sure what would greet me outside Callendar House but I hadn’t imagined that an entire race village would be being constructed – yet here it was, being built before my very eyes.

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There were dozens of little tents and shelters going up for groups of clubs and runners and suddenly I realised that there might not be anywhere for the solo entrant to dispense with their stuff, thankfully my fears were unfounded and the registration tent would become the excellent location for drop bags. But I’m getting ahead of myself, I dipped into an empty registration tent at about 6.45am and picked up my bits, including a goody bag. Now normally goody bags are rubbish and when you’ve entered a race that costs £30 you don’t expect much in the way of extras but this was different.

In the paper bag we were given a Tunnocks tea cake, some Brewdog beer but most importantly was a lovely lightweight hoody and a pretty cool buff. I’d requested one of the cowbells too and made an £8 purchase of the race woolly hat. I felt like I was fully loaded on merchandise.

For the next hour I ambled around making a nuisance of myself as runners I knew came in for registration and said hello and had lovely chats with them all. There were a couple of guys from the Tyndrum 24, some local runners that I’ve gotten to know over the past few months and even a few of the Linlithgow Running Buddies that I’d had run with a few times.

The Falkirk Ultra was turning into a bit of an ultra meetup and there is nothing wrong with that.

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As light came the little race village that had been built the atmosphere began to grow and then the music started and the PA system kicked in – all systems started to ramp up and then we heard the announcement that we would be kicking off at 8.15am – so take your place behind the line and get ready to go. Here it was that I ran into Frances and Kieron from the Linlithgow Running Buddies – I felt compelled to complain about his wearing of ‘Shites’ (shorts and tights) but before we could get into the rights and wrongs of it we were off.

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Now for those of us that are local we will have been  well aware that Falkirk had recently enjoyed a healthy dose of rainfall and some snow too – this meant that the course was bound to boggy and with hundreds of runners passing through the route on multiple occasions the surface was going to be churned up extensively. The course itself had undergone some reconfiguration in the days leading up to the race due to the creation of a small temporary duck pond/lake just outside the main house – therefore what the next eight hours looked like were anyone’s guess.

For the first lap I went out pretty hard  – I knew that the aim was to produce 1 lap per hour or thereabouts and if I could add in some contingency while my hip and back were in decent shape then I could slow down later without too much concern about finishing. I put myself in the middle of the pack and gently hunkered down to my race strategy, not keen to chat to anyone on the first lap – I barely acknowledged the wonderful volunteers and marshals that were at regular intervals on the course.

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I ran to the first and only significant climb on the course and for the first lap made great strides up it, I was determined that I would run up this bugger at least once today and I managed that but no more (I promised myself, it hurt far too much) and it was a decision that a number of runners would make.

As I reached the top of the hill I could see ahead of me the ‘shit show of mud’ that awaited us – on a good day with fresh legs or being a good strong runner you’d eat this up but being neither strong or good I was going to struggle through this – and I did. I enjoyed this section of the course, it felt the most ‘trail’ and despite it being a little bit narrow because the mud was so churned up it was still a delight to see it on each and every lap.

In the early laps I could see runners both slow and fast avoiding the worst of the conditions trying to protect their feet but for me I was confident that my combination of Lone Peaks, Drymax socks and Injinji toe liners could easily go through the worst of it and still protect my rather sensitive tootsies. Infact in these early laps as others went around mud I chose to go straight through it and enjoyed it as it the spray attached itself to my legs. I do love it when you’re absolutely coated in mud before you’ve done your first mile and this reminded of running my beloved Vigo Tough Love 10.

As I came out of the mud and back onto the more traditional country park paths I found myself slowing down a little bit, this was harder packed and therefore less good for my old and knackered hips but still very runnable and much more to my tastes than the harder trails of Tyndrum 24. I bumbled along letting runners go past me and occasionally overtaking a runner and soon found myself heading downwards to more enthusiastic volunteers – possibly the most enthusiastic I saw all day, however, at this point I was still on a mission – how fast could I get round that first lap.

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The lap from this point was still headed in a generally downward direction and it was still going through the more heavily wooded area of Callendar Park  – this was rather enjoyable and I was confident that I knew were headed to the turn out of the woods before rejoining the park a bit further down and then along the tarmac back to the start.

Sadly I was only half right.

I was right about the downward curvature back into the park but in the distance I saw a procession of runners heading back to the tarmac via a rather dippy, slippy field and even at this early stage you could see runners pretending to be aeroplanes with arms aloft looking for balance.

I reached the turning back on to the grass and moved slowly down it – this was nasty already and I swiftly sought out a return to what looked like a path. I ran along down into the dip and then climbed back out with all the skill of man with no skill whatsoever. This climb down and the clamber up proved to be some of the most comical viewing during the day and would give you a little smile as you watched runners struggling with it and knowing that you’d shortly be the entertainment for some other poor unfortunate!

But it was soon over and we were back on flat, sensible tarmac… but that was not a good thing. I didn’t yet know it but this section of the route would be the real mental test, every looped race has one, the bit you really hate, the bit that makes you think you should pack it all in and for me it was where you hit the tarmac again until you were back at the checkpoint.

Thankfully the Falkirk 8 Hour Ultra had something of an ace up its sleeve and that was the four sets of checkpoint volunteers that saw you through this horrible chore and even on lap one I needed the inspirational words of these lovely people. Ambling alongside the lake for what felt like an age I looked enviously towards the other side of the water to witness runners completing their first lap or in some cases getting well into their second. It wasn’t until I made it to the other side of the lake that I wished I was back on the other side…

Before a single runner had set foot on the checkpoint side of the lake it was already a well churned bog – the runners weren’t going to improve that but it was going to make for an interesting battle between us and sliding feet first in the cold lake just a few feet below us. I crossed the thick oozy mud in good time and propelled myself forward in about 33 minutes but a toilet and food stop made it more like 39 minutes before I set off again.

My stop was probably the longest one I had during the whole event as I’d missed breakfast and wanted to make sure I ate regularly. I chowed down on some kinder chocolate, a couple of delicious Caramel Freddo and a chocolate milkshake before filling up my water with Active Root – damn fine stuff that is, probably stopped me crapping myself!

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I soon returned to the drizzle and the course having removed my long sleeved layer in an attempt to stop me overheating. I am led out waving at those who gave a cheery hello or supportive wave and offered encouragement to those coming in – loops makes it easier to wish people well and you’ll sometimes remember those who, like myself, might benefit from a word or three of encouragement.

My second lap was nowhere near as energetic and the first section of the loop was getting muddier and more treacherous with every step, but this I was enjoying and the volunteers at the bottom of the slope seemed to be having fun with it too (well as much as you can have within health and safety guidelines of getting your runners safely through). I continued to stretch my legs until I reached the bottom of the hill and then my body told me that this was it, each loop was now going to be a case of hanging on and seeing if we could get to the magic 8 loops.

What happened next is a bit of a haze of names, hiking and sheer bloody mindedness. I met Ed a few times who was a lovely runner that was having a bit of a day of it – but actually going really rather well, there was Heather who had this awesome hat on that had a charm almost as big as it’s owner and then there was the lovely Susan who I ran a really brilliant lap with having a lovely chat with.

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The ever amazing Neil passed me a couple of times – always with practical words of encouragement and Fiona 1 and Fiona 2 both gave me lovely supportive boosts as they too saw fit to pass by me. It wasn’t just people I’ve met before though – there was Julie from Strava that turned round in the registration queue to say hello and I ran into a couple of other runners who shouted out, ‘hey are you UltraBoy?’ To which I of course reply, ‘ sort of…’ and I was either known through this blog or Strava.

The Falkirk Ultra really was a running community event.

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However, I did meet one runner that made me laugh every second I was with her and that was Tracy (without an e). I think we were both on lap 5 she was ready to call it a day over an injury concern and I should have been thinking the same thing as my hip and groin were ruined. But some days you meet a person who lifts your spirits enough that you forget about the trauma and you’re reminded that you’re actually going okay.

In the time we ran together I found new energy, I was a bit lighter on my feet and I forget about the previous laps and the tiredness of my legs. I did promise she’d make it into this blog and she makes it in not so much for how brilliant she was (although she was) she makes it in because she said, ‘my mums at the bridge, I’m getting a hug’.

Well that’s a red rag to a bull.

‘I’m getting a cuddle too. What’s your mums name? I’ll ask her does she remember me, dip in for the cuddle and then tell her it was a hot steamy night in ’83 – she had the white wine spritzer and I had the babysham’.

I have no idea what Tracy’s mum must have thought but I hope she understands that what happens at an ultra stays at an ultra (wink, wink – I joke).

Tracy (and mum) were awesome and I am pleased to say that both of us made it back out on another lap.

By lap 7though I was sore, really sore and although I was still well within my strategised time I was hoping the short loop would open soon so I could forget the long loop and I’d probably still reach 50km (a shorter loop opened up at 3pm to allow runners to continue running without forfeiting distance when the bell went for the finish at 4.15pm).

However, I finished lap 7 with about 90 minutes remaining – I felt the need to go and do the big loop one final time – despite having already said most of my thanks to amazing volunteers. It very much felt like the only sensible thing to do… well maybe not sensible but I was doing it anyway.

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So steeled for one final battle I headed out and this time with nobody but myself and the clock to run against I found my second wind and started running up inclines, more fool me of course but I was making a much better fist of lap 8 than I had on a couple of the others.

I danced and twirled my way around the course – daring the mud to take me – daring it to cast me groundwards bit it never did. In truth, despite the conditions I remained sure footed throughout but never more so than now. I battled down the hill to a meeting with ‘The Badger’ (more on him later) and onwards toward the finish – there would be no short loops for me.

As I crossed the tarmac in the distance I could see my daughter waving feverishly toward me, and I to her. I picked up my feet and my pace to continue the illusion that her dad is the worlds greatest runner and as she called out I lifted her high into my arms in a display of muscular movement I did not consider possible.

I stopped for a few moments to talk to her but time was pressing and I wanted to make sure this lap counted and so I waved goodbye to my family, thanking the lovely marshal at the turning point and then I headed for home.

One final lurch across the mud and there I saw the finish and most other runners on the short lap – I didn’t want to limply cross that line – I wished to show my mettle and so with the GingaNinja and ASK at the finish I picked up my feet with 100metres to go and raised hell with a sprint that swerved between the short loop runners and crossed the line in a flurry of my own excitement.

I’d actually done it.

I’d made it.

  • Distance: 3.8mile loop (ish)
  • Ascent: Nothing hideous – just felt it (under 100 metres per lap)
  • Date: February 2020
  • Location: Falkirk
  • Cost: £30
  • Entrants: 350 (inc. relay runners)
  • Terrain: Muddy, undulating
  • Tough Rating: 2.5/5

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Route
What do you want from your route? A route that will be predictable or one that surprises you? The Falkirk 8 Hour Ultra has something for everyone to love and something to loathe. I loved it for the most part, the mud was challenging, the inclines & the declines were awesome and the tarmac that threaded it together was minimised.

Even with last minute changes to the route this still felt well prepared and overall you’d be silly not to fall in love with this. Obviously I’m a little biased as I live near Falkirk and run often in or around the park but this route took in some fun bits and even in the grey weather we had it’s still a lovely place to run.

The route was incredibly well marked and heavily marshalled but not in an intrusive way, you just felt secure in the knowledge that the race really did have your back.

My hope is that the route recovers quickly from so many runners racing around it so the event is welcomed back next year – this is a great place and a great place to have a route of this nature on. Scotland needs ultra marathons during the winter to support runners like myself and Falkirk will benefit from the goodwill of runners and a deepening reputation as a place where great events can be held (let us not mention Epic from the week before!)

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Organisation
I’ve been to a few races in my time and I’ve seen good and bad organisation but let me assure you that the organisation, preparation and selflessness of the organisers went so far above and beyond any expectations I had.

The organisers deserve a huge amount of credit for producing an event par excellence!

I was impressed by the race village that popped up (which the organisers might not be 100% responsible for but made sure it was sensibly located, etc), facilities such as toilets were excellent, parking was sensible given we, quite rightly, couldn’t use the main facilities at Callendar Park.

Even the organisation of the short loop, the updates for race timings seemed to be so effortless, it was a joy to behold – you, as the runner could simply get on with the business of dying out on the insanely fun course! Of course we all know that only a lot of hard work makes something like this look effortless, so my huge congratulations.

As a solo runner I was also mightily impressed about the way the big registration tent was cleared down and our bags were elevated off the ground to ensure that we had very easy access to our kit and I found myself very happily dipping in their briefly each lap and then coming back out onto the course to be welcomed by the race supporters – it was really nice.

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Value for Money
I normally have to question just how good the value of an event is but I can be effusive in my praise that this is probably the best value race you’ll ever do – £30! Let me put this into perspective – that’s the same as coffee and a toasted sandwich at Starbucks for two – and this race gives you a lot more than any corporate monster will.

Compare this with say the Epic Falkirk race at Callendar Park a few days earlier and you can immediately see the difference.

The route was fun, the time and dedication of the people who put this together was clearly evident. The excellent thought that went into the items in the goody bag was really appreciated and then the bespoke medal – what a corker.

People of Falkirk, people of Scotland, people of the world – this is an amazingly good value event and while I would highly recommend it to all of you could you make sure that I get a place every year as this is my local ultra and I’m going to look forward to it year in, year out!

Volunteers
I promised I would get to ‘The Badger’ and here we are but first I want to say a huge thank you to every single one of the marshalling team, on a cold, wet day at the start of February you stood out and supported hundreds of runners that you probably didn’t know and you gave each and every one of love and encouragement from start to whatever our finish was.

I was particularly fortunate, I got to have cuddles with just about everyone, the lovely ladies who were at the bottom of the hill and gave me both cuddles and the odd kick up the arse. The cowbell ladies who must have had ringing ears by the end of the day and the poor young lady who lost her leopard skin print gloves – amazing. The dancing ladies, the downhill turning point marshals, the chaps as we ran back into the park – all of them had a cheery smile no matter how many times I told terrible jokes.

The guys on the tarmac – couple of lovely beards there (one ginger and one badger), these guys I looked forward to seeing each lap and got lots of big hugs from them. There is something wonderful about drawing big chaps into a cuddle with a fool like me – plus it gives you a lift and hopefully it reminds them just how much they are appreciated.

I’d also like to say thanks to the great ladies who were at the two bridges who accepted my flirtatious charm with all the humour it was intended with.

And then the couple of guys at the run back to the checkpoint, one to advise us to get closer to the water as the ground grew ever more treacherous and one to bang his piece of metal with a drum stick – I may on lap 7 have suggested that I knew were he could put that drumstick… you can guess the rest.

If I missed anyone out, believe me you aren’t forgotten – every marshal and member of the team contributed a massive amount to its success and I am confident all the runners would bow down before your dedication and tenacity. Brilliant, just brilliant.

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Awards
Lovely hoody, lovely buff, Tunnocks teacake and an awesome bespoke medal. Do I need to say anymore? Brilliant

Conclusion
This looped race jumps to the top of the list of my favourite looped races and just a favourite race in general – toppling the Brutal Enduro for loops and I am sure my enthusiasm for this race will live long. If you have never attempted the Falkirk 8 Hour Ultra then you should consider it, if you aren’t an ultra runner then get involved in the relay as that looked incredibly competitive and you could have all the fun without the pain.

As for me, well I had a lot of fun but my hips will pay the price for that fun – they started to feel pretty crappy at about the 25km mark, this though is a significant improvement on the 5 miles they managed at Tyndrum 24. The important thing for me was that I am starting to improve – it’s true I’m still a shit runner but a shit runner that is getting mildly fitter and with that I’ll hope to improve pace and distance.

I went into the Falkirk Ultra with no expectations but hopes that I would make this my 53rd ultra finish and I managed that – it might have been at the bottom end of the ultra distances but after a rubbish 2019 of running I’m pleased with the way this weekend went. I can now go to the F50K with a bit more confidence (just need to learn to navigate).

Ultimately what can I say other than this was stunning and I hope to see you all next year for a few extra laps.

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