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Before I start I should write that I realise that given the state of the world that my ‘problems’ discussed here are small fry and I lead both a fortunate and charmed life.

Still I hadn’t written a blog in a while and I’d gotten to be an unfit fatty!

Undoubtedly 2019 was my worst year of running since I began in 2011 and that’s a sad thing to consider given how relatively well 2018 had ended. I can’t deny that there were moments were I believed that I was turning a corner but it turned out that each corner proved to be another slap in the face from a different assailant.

Now normally I fill my blog with tales of injury woe and there was some of that but this year was more complicated.

The move to Scotland continued and although the whole family was now safely north of the English border we needed to find a house to buy and this proved more challenging than we had initially hoped and I had perhaps naively assumed that I could continue with my rather torturous race schedule during this hectic time.

THE WARNING SIGNS & A FALL FROM GRACE
The truth was that I could not continue as I had before and I got a very early warning of this when I travelled 450 miles to run the awesome Vigo Tough Love 10 (and pack up the remainder of the house). I felt every last inch of the race in my legs and the cramp that nearly killed me at mile 9 was horrendous. This should have been a warning to me but my general excitement about being in Scotland amongst all of these nice new races meant I went a bit mad.

My second warning that things were not going to go well came at the start line of the Highland Fling, here I ran into Andy O’Grady – the man who saw me to the finish line at the Skye Trail Ultra. ‘You’ve piled on the beef haven’t you?’ he said casually – he was only joking around with me but for a man who has poor body image issues this was something of a blow. However, it was also confirmation of something I knew very well – the trips up and down to Scotland, the lack of training, the lack of running and activity, the over eating and the living on my own for three months had taken their toll on my body – I’d gotten fat and lardy, both mentally and physically.

The same day as Andy poked fun at my fatness I found myself in the misery of the 9hrs of heavy rain and an unpleasant fall on Conic Hill at The Highland Fling. I withdrew from the race about mile 35 – a little over a half marathon from the finish – I was distraught.

How far I felt I’d fallen.

At the checkpoint where I threw in the towel I could see the excellent Scottish runner ‘Rhona Red Wine Runner’ somebody whose blog I have been a big fan of and periodically chatted to via Twitter over the years. We’d never met but I’d become so ashamed of my performance and appearance that I hid in the corner of the room I was waiting in hoping she neither noticed or recognised me.

The injury from the fall was relatively easy to recover from but the mental side of it was difficult to get over, even though I was just about ready for it I pulled out of the Balfron 10km and pulled out of the Ultra Trail Scotland for the second time.

With the final house move the weekend after my Fling effort I began to  feel that I was simply pushing too hard too fast. However, rather than rest properly I decided that once the house move had concluded and my body had recovered a bit I gave it some welly and started training again, returning to ultrarunning with the relatively simple but challenging Ben Vorlich Ultra.

I found Ben Vorlich tough as my fitness was still somewhat lacking but there was an overwhelming sense of joy that accompanied it and I started to feel like I could make some progress ater successfully completing the race and so immediately went home and entered the Thieves Road which runs across the Pentlands near Edinburgh. Sadly on race morning I awoke with a terrible case of the Gary Gritters and this kyboshed my attendance – sensible as I spent most of the day on the toilet and given the temperatures recorded I would not have finished anyway.

Still I had the Ambleside 60 upcoming in early September and so I retained my focus and actually I managed to continue training once the illness had passed and although the Ambleside 60 was even tougher than Ben Vorlich I managed to get over the line. I was finally feeling something of a bounce and with an effective if unconventional training regime (running up and down the West Lothian Bings and hiking in the Ochils). I was beginning to feel ready but once again I was about to get a kick in the guts and one that would end my year.

During the Ochil Ultra my stomach gave me all sorts of problems and I was vomiting from early on, I managed to push on to about the 20 odd  mile point but as I came into the checkpoint I simply collapsed on the floor and lay there thinking about my latest failure – this year was being rubbish. I felt at that moment the least like an ultrarunner that I have ever felt, I felt like a failure and that the runner who had earned nearly 200 medals, 50 of them in ultramarathon distances was coming to the end of his running career.

I went home that day and ate Dominos pizza and probably quite a lot of sweet things, I felt rubbish, I was rubbish and from here the dark gloom that came over me felt very tangible. Every race from here to the end of the year was thrown into jeopardy by this running breakdown. Race after race started to be cancelled as I realised that I was never going to make the start line, never mind the finish.

Benarty Hill Race, The Yorkshire Three Peaks Ultra, The Rebellion and finally The Cheviot Goat – significant cost (best part of £500 across those 4 races and hundreds more spent on maps and kit for these events.

However, the money was less significant than the cost to my mental wellbeing.

As the days dragged on beyond the Ochil Ultra I found myself enjoying retreating to a position of rest that involved eating biscuits, playing with my family and catching up on movies I’ve been waiting to see for an absolute age. There was a need for a physical break after all our efforts over the last year and work was being brutal in the run up to a significant project launch so maybe this stoppage was something that was needed.

However, running has always been my release and is inextricably linked to both my mental and physical wellbeing – so was there going to be a price to pay? Something I should have given more consideration as I sit here writing this in January.

Racing had now dropped down my priority list, something that had not happened in all the years since I began ultrarunning in 2013. A nasty illness in November also came at the wrong time and when I had been considering getting back out there in order to race The Goat and meet up with outstanding ultra runner Ryan Flowers.

However, I was sidelined for the best part of a month in the run up to The Goat and had no choice but to withdraw in the days leading up to the event. Thankfully I recovered in time for the a first family Christmas in our new home and our second in Scotland and while this was very enjoyable and relaxing I realised that I had relaxed too much, I’d put on significant weight over the past year and I was hiding in baggy clothing and finding it embarrassing being me.

And even as I added cream to another coffee and opened another packet of biscuits I still was struggling and it was only when I realised that my new found laziness was affecting things like my breathing that I decided it was time to pull on the running shoes and get back out there.

MEDAL COLLECTION INSPIRATION
The sad thing is that my medal collection hasn’t been giving me any joy or providing the inspiration to earn more medals – it has simply become a historical record of achievement rather than a living breathing thing which grows and evolves.

When I lived in the South East of England I found that every time I ascended my steep staircase I was greeted by my medal collection, it demanded that I added more but now it doesn’t do this, it is a decoration – therefore I’m going to find a new home for those medals so that they provide the inspiration I clearly crave.

Perhaps several medals in quick succession will help to build the desire again or if not medals then at least finishes – the benefit of the T24 and the Falkirk 8hr is that they are both loops and so I can’t fail to finish – subject to completing at least one lap and the F50K is running around Falkirk which is pretty well known to me now and should be within my ability. I was planning on adding in a few shorter distance races on the in between weeks too – so ASK and I are off to Edinburgh to run the Winter Family Run (1mile). I may also  consider a couple of 5 or 10km distances too – just to hold the precious piece of metal in my hand and bask in personal success – believe me I know how idiotic I sound. However, I have long associated the medals with me being in a good place, even if the state of me as I first clutch a medal is pretty ruined!

ANOTHER RETURN?
Let me assure you it has not been easy to bother with another return. Scotland and it’s notoriously foul weather has been in full evidence over the last few weeks and yet I have still found myself throwing on my shorts and doing little bits of running that will form the basis of my training.

5km most days isn’t really marathon territory but it’s a start. There has been lots of elevation added across these short distance and as a family we are resuming hill walking at the weekends and enjoying the great Scottish outdoors that we moved up here for regardless of what the weather looks like.

It is slow going, very slow and I am both the fattest and unhealthiest I have been in years and I am not finding it fun but I am doing it.

I don’t really enjoy these periodic rebirths and the themes in them are, sadly, reliably consistent, which gives me caution when I pin my hopes on another go at getting fit and healthy. The spiral that I seem locked into perhaps require some form of significant event to kickstart me into action – something akin to a heart attack or a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes. I realise that this sounds ridiculous but when you find that you can wake up regardless of your fitness and still force out 30, 40 or 50 miles and get the medal then the attitude can still afford to be, ‘well I can still do it’.

When I see social media material about Transformation Thursdays or Reframed Fridays or whatever these stupid names are I can see that there was a significant issue going on and that the person has done something about it – usually gotten fitter, cleaner, lighter, healthier. I’ve never quite managed to get to the point where the problems were so significant that the doctor or other person was saying, ‘listen mate you’re one Mars Bar away from ruining yourself forever’. That conversation doesn’t take place and so I find myself excusing my poor food behaviours and finding new ways to justify continuing them.

That is a difficult set of mental blocks to overcome and even as I write this I am struggling with it.

SECRET EATING
Those months of secretly eating Bernard Matthews Mini Chicken Kievs and Belvita Filled Strawberry bakes has not given me any joy – in fact these actions, this eating has made me very sad indeed. I’ve spoken before about over-eating, secret eating and the negative effects that this has but whereas before I was using running to combat it I’ve found that this time I was simply destroying years of work in bowls of processed and sugary treats.

It is a sorry state of affairs that I’ve been  secret eating food I don’t even want but at least I can admit it and hopefully now do something about it.

CONTROL & ATTITUDE
But I’m only at the start and I have yet to get control of the eating but at the very least I have enough control to be doing the exercise that can negate some of the impact of my foul food behaviours.

There is also the question of ASK, one I’ve mentioned before, my food behaviour should not be allowed to rub off on her and I am aware that sometimes I fail in this aspect of parenting and it is an area that I need to work on harder. Even if I can’t eat vegetables and fruit I should still be actively promoting these to her. In fairness she is not the glutton I can be and has a very healthy enjoyment of positive food choices – seeing things such as chocolate as a treat rather than seeing them as I do, as a food group that requires 5 a day.

The physical activity is also helping to get a better balance mentally – I feel more decisive and clearer in vision when I’m fitter and as I hiked around the delightful Falls of Clyde last weekend I could feel myself wanting to go further, be active and it was delightful – the trouble is that tonight’s running was torrid and tough – the battle is clearly only just beginning.

But control of my attitude towards health is going to be key to regaining overall control and ensuring that the enjoyment I’ve had through being healthy continues through my 40s and beyond. With control, will come the respect that my body deserves after serving faithfully for the last 42 years and in that respect I will create the kind of person I want my family to see.

I’m hopeful that I’ll finally make a decision regarding a recognised running club which I feel will offer a greater ‘herd mentality’. Being around other runners does provide a greater sense of purpose and direction, especially to me, and although it is not something I have ever done I feel it will create a support network I can both draw from and feed into.

My experiences with Parkrun, The London Social Runners and The Linlithgow Running Buddies all had lots of highs but ultimately none were quite the right fit for my running needs (although I retain huge respect for them all) and I feel the right running club would help keep me on the straight and narrow.

Sadly one thing that I did try to help inspire me was Strava. I had hoped that joining Strava would provide new local running connections but the truth is that it hasn’t – save for the lovely Fiona (hello if you’re reading this, nice to see you the other night) and despite my local area being full of runners and sporting types I haven’t found organic ways to make connections that might benefit myself and equally them. Therefore I have probably given up on Strava, though never say never and if you find my activities making their way onto your app screen – do think kindly of the fat bloke running around Falkirk.

SO NEXT NEXT…
This weekend brings me to the first race of the year at the Tyndrum24 – a looped 24hr event where I plan on going super slowly and super steadily and taking so much kit with me that my body shouldn’t have to take too much of a hammering from the conditions (lots of shoes, lots of waterproofs). I’d like to come out of T24 with around 50 miles completed – which might not sound like much but given that the furthest I’ve run since the Ochil Ultra is 7.5km then 50 miles sounds like a big ask. If I can achieve the 50 mile mark I’ll be very happy and this will hopefully give me something of a momentum launch into a busy year of events with the Falkirk Ultra following 2 weeks later and the F50K 4 weeks after that.

I really want the T24 to help me rebuild the confidence I am going to need to complete events such as the Loch Ness 360 and the Ultra Scotland 50.

Don’t get me wrong I don’t want to be fat, unfit or unhealthy – I want to be none of these things and I desperately want to get back to being a healthy icon for my daughter – who I encourage to be active at every available opportunity. As I write I find it amusing that this may sound like I consider 2019 to be an unhealthy nightmare and a waste of time but the truth is far more complicated than that – 2019 was actually a really very positive year filled with much joy and fun times.

As a family we have developed new facets – especially with ASK starting school and the move to Scotland has proved to be the kind of success I had hoped for – but there is room for improvement. New friendships to replace those we left behind will be important as we go forward and we must be keen to make the required amount of time in our daily routine to ensure we are getting the most out of this wonderful opportunity.

So what’s the plan?

Well there are the dozen ultra marathons which are a very serious consideration and I’ve entered things that I believe will be the hardest possible challenge given the level to which I have dropped, importantly though, with effort, I feel these are  achievable. I remain focused on smaller and inaugural events with the odd bigger event to remind me that ultra running events aren’t completely solo sports.

Tyndrum 24, although my first event back is more than a warm up as I’ve said – this will be the launch pad and building blocks that may make or break the rest of the year. I’ll be following this up with the 1 mile family fun run in Edinburgh where ASK and I will attempt to drive her mile time down even further and I do love running with my daughter.

Then we hit the main thrust of the year from February until the end of July I’m goin g to giving it full throttle, The Falkirk Ultra and the F50K followed a few weeks later by the Peninne Bridelway in what will be the first of the Ranger Ultras Grandslam (assuming I enter) then another 4 weeks before I take to the Southern Upland Way with GB Ultras and then around 4 weeks further before the years longest ultra around the new Loch Ness 360 trail. Less than 3 weeks later I’ll be towing the line of the John Lucas Memorial, which as a more tarmac ultra could be an unmitigated disaster given my relationship with tarmac races and that’s just a few days before spending 3 (hopefully) awesome weeks in Canada, travelling round but also racing the truly awesome looking Quebec Mega Trail (only the 15km but still a first Canadian race seems like the only sensible thing to do) and then when I touch down I’ve got a few days before I’m back in the saddle for The Run The Blades 50km – I suppose something of a warm down compared to the rest of the events in the run up.

Thankfully the summer months are spent in training mode rather than racing as my body hates August and I seem to have a curse regarding races that happen in August so I’ll be skipping this before the winter tests come with the three remaining grandslam races from Ranger Ultras and a first crack but second entry to The Cheviot Goat.

I feel its an unconventional race list, there are no marathons, no big city events, no events that most runners will have heard of, it is a list of grim sounding races filled with elevation or shitty weather or shitty course conditions. It is a race list from someone that wants to get back to running, get back to racing and get back his self respect.

  • January: Tyndrum 24 (24hr loop) (Entered)
  • February: Edinburgh Winter Run (1 mile) (Entered)
  • February: Falkirk Ultra (8hr loop) (Entered)
  • March: F50K (50km) (Entered)
  • April: Peninne Bridelway (57km)
  • May: Ultra Scotland (54 miles) (Entered)
  • May: Loch Ness 360 (80 miles) (Entered)
  • June: John Lucas Memorial (46 miles) (Entered)
  • July: Quebec Mega Trails (15km) (Entered)
  • July: Run The Blades (50km) (Entered)
  • October: Yorkshire Three Peaks (100km)
  • November: White Peaks Trail
  • November: Dark Peaks Trail
  • December: Cheviot Goat (54 miles) (Entered)

The only way I’m going to get near completing these is with a plan and I think I’ve got the key areas I need to consider.

  • Stop overeating
  • Eat more healthily
  • Start running consistently
  • Run for longer
  • Run further
  • Finally pick a running club
  • Get to the start line of the races I have entered
  • Continue exploring Scotland
  • Work on body image issue

I’m clearly not going to fix all the issues any time soon, some are long standing issues that are deeply ingrained in me but as I suggested earlier it is about regaining control and that is something I have done successfully before. It is a very personal, individual experience and one that draws on my failings as a person, my own arrogance and my own falibility but now added to this is a sense of my own mortality. Nobody wants their legacy to be that they slowly faded away – so I’m going to try and not to.

I very much plan on building on the positive things that did take place in 2019 and try and reintegrate the things that worked well from my life before I arrived in Scotland. I am responsible for the mess I have gotten mysef into and by opening myself up to the scrutiny of my peers I hope to encourage myself to be the best version of me.

Best get on it. Adios.

July was the first month in a couple of years that I’ve run lots and this is by no means a lot by my own low standards. However, it is a lot compared to how much I have been doing in the last 3 years.

As regular readers will know I moved to Scotland last year and now, being safely ensconsed in my new home, I have the time to dedicate to running. The trouble has been that my body has been ravaged by chronic injury, weight gain and a distinct lack of fitness action and so when the GingaNinja told me that I had finally gotten fat enough, it was decided that I would start to look after myself again and this meant getting fitter.

You may well have read my piece about my poor relationship food (read it here if you like) and my various blogs about a general annoyance at logging every last iota of data from running – I’ve never ascribed to the ‘if it isn’t on Strava then it didn’t happen’ – but this month I did a number of new things;

The first was I put my massive over-eating under control. The second thing was, despite my reservations, I signed up to Strava.

I did a couple of other key things too though, the third thing was I wanted to explore my surroundings and so invested in a few maps and ensured that I sought new and interesting places to run – this was in combination with a subscription to the OS Maps app (highly recommended for easy browsing maps).

I also sought support from my family and asked them to join me on a weekly hike up a hill or mountain within relative striking diatance of home – they heartily agreed and all of this began when we bimbled up to Cairngorms for a week towards the end of June. Now though all I needed to do was commit to the idea of returning to fitness and maybe even getting back down to a weight I could be a bit happier with.

Shaming myself
There was a part of me that felt like being on Strava and Instagram was a form of public shaming and by being more open than usual I would have nowwhere to hide. Those first runs were hard and they were brutal, they lacked any form of pace, my breathing was rubbish and I really was not going that far. Worse than that I had gotten the point where my running shirts were starting to make it look like I’d bought a size too small to show off ‘the goods’ – I hadn’t though. But I was committed to the idea of sharing this information, in part, to highlight to myself how far I had fallen and more importantly how much progress I could make.

Still those first few posts were damning and I hated putting them on Strava and Instagram.

However, as each day passed and I ran a little bit more, with a little more elevation and across harder terrain I could feel the benefits kicking in. Don’t get me wrong I was not going any faster but it was getting easier and I was focusing on climbing rather than distance which made every session I was doing even harder than I would train when I lived in the South East.

To help incentivise myself I added in a few Strava challenges such as the 5km race, the 10km race, 200km in a month and 2,000 metres elevation in a month – expecting to hit only the 5km and maybe the 10km race challenges. There was also the public humiliation of giving over my information to runners I both knew and didn’t know and so logically I began following local, to me runners, who if I knew might be looking at my runs might inspire me to pick up my feet and get round a bit quicker.

Food
The added challenge was that all of this has been run on a diet of around 1400 calories a day and so has been both intense and tough. I love food, especially ‘treat’ food and I’ll reward myself for almost anything. So sticking to a better eating life has been good for me and the whole family. I’ve found myself cooking more again (and enjoying it) and I have generally eaten less – that said my consumption of sugar free Irn Bru has quadrupled (at least). The one thing that has been dropped from my diet is chocolate (not 100% but not far off) and my consumption of sugar has also been drastically reduced – all of this means that I have managed to shed nearly 3kg in weight during July.

I don’t want to make it all sound positive though and there were a couple of bad days where take away food was eaten but I’m trying not to beat myself up about that – these were social occasions and there were more good days than bad, and are that note I can seamlessly segway into the numbers of July…

The Numbers
So how do the numbers stack up for this month?

  • Time on my feet: 29hrs 45 mins
  • Activities: 30
  • Distance: 233.7km
  • Elevation Gain: 4,142 metres
  • Running: 24hrs 16mins
  • Running Distance: 209.6km
  • Running Elevation: 3,332 metres
  • Hiking: 5hrs 6mins
  • Hiking Distance: 22.3km
  • Hiking Elevation: 795 metres
  • Weight: Down 2.8kg
  • Races: 1 (Ben Vorlich Ultra)
  • Instagram Posts: 300
  • Blog Posts: 3

The numbers aren’t amazing but they do show a surge in my activity level and if I can maintain this level then I am sure that I will get faster and continue to get fitter.

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Physical and Mental Wellbeing
I’ve discussed several times that running keeps me healthy both physically and mentally and that when I don’t run then both suffer and while it is bad for my body to be unfit when my mind is unfit I become a much less decent human being. When I was running through London on a daily basis as part of my commute I found this rather stressful and was often having to reach a point by a certain moment or running to another train station because London Bridge was closed or Cannon Street had been flooded or Dartford  was closed so I would then have to wake up tired legs to run the final leg home. Now I am running for pleasure with the greatest pressure deciding on where I need to run – it won’t always be like this but for the moment I am enjoying the freedom afforded by my job, my drive to work and the locations I pass through – which are filled with rich, luxourious landscapes.

My mental wellbeing is as good as it has ever been, if not better and my life feels lighter – of course nothing is perfect and something terrible could happen tomorrow but I’m working on the assumption that it won’t and so as my physical wellbeing improves through the running so does my mental wellbeing and perhaps I’ll get to a point where I won’t be thinking about the next potential disaster situation and rather be thinking about the next step upward.

The Routes
The routes have been the most spectacular part of returning to running and I’ve explored lots of my little part of Scotland, there have been mountains, waterfalls, hills, lots of mud, some tarmac and head high grass at almost place I’ve run – this has been tremendously exciting. Some of my favourite places have been Polmont Woods& Burn, Blackness Castle & The John Muir Way, Torphichen & the Cairnpapple, Muiravonside & the Avon Aqueduct, The Kinneil Estate, Westquarter, The Union Canal,  Dechmont Law, Ben Vorlich, Dumyat & Castle Law, Miekle Bin, Meall a Bhuachaille, Steall Falls, Ravencraig & The Knook, Greendykes Bing, Seafield Law and Rough Castle & The Falkirk Wheel. I can highly recommend trying out some or all of them – it is true to say that these aren’t The Highlands but they are no less fun. I’ll be continuing to explore over the following months more and more areas, I’ll be spending more hours poring over maps to find places that nobody else goes to and I’ll be continuing to get lost as I increasingly seek the off trail routes (my legs have been stung so much this last month).

 

Highlights
The highlights are actually pretty easy and it has little to do with running and more about achieving fitness – climbing up Dumyat & Castle Law in the Ochils with ASK and the GingaNinja and also the climb up The Law was lots of fun. Hoerver, it was more than that, it was excellent preparation for running up hills and testing myself – forcing myself to go slower with a 4 year in tow up a 700 metre ascent means that I have developed patience. So thanks family for helping me get back on track.

The Future
There is much in the diary already – first up is the Thieves Road in a week but I consider that a stepping stone to more challenging oportunities further down the line. The Ambleside 60 in September will take me back to a true love of mine – The Lake District and to a place I spent many happy days during my 20s – from here though things get a little more serious. The Ochil Ultra at the end of September will be hard and at 50 miles it will be a test of how far I have come and will very much determine whether I race the Rebellion. The Rebellion at 135 miles is the furthest I will ever have run – I will have no support crew and I will need to be on point and fit as I can be. If successful I then have four weeks to recover before my 2019 A race – The Montane Cheviot Goat, I am very much looking forward to this and will hopfully serve as reward for several months of hard work – but we shall see.

But the future is about more than races, the future is about my health and wellbeing and that of those around me.

ASK asks me when I am going to die and the answer I give her is that, ‘I’ll die one day, maybe tomorrow, maybe next year or maybe a long time away’. I always remind her that the reason I run and want an active life for all of us is to make sure that I am, and we are, around for as long as possible and it is the reason I ask that she join me on runs and hikes – so that she will live, in her words, ‘a very long time’. There are things I cannot control but this is something that I can influence.

If we can maintain this as a family then we will succeed and I have learnt that I really can’t do it alone and it is not just the support of family I’ve found the social thing much more useful this time around too.

When ‘the social family’ is sending kudos on Strava or liking pictures on Instagram or reading this blog then know that you are making a difference to ensuring I succeed, but not in the way you might imagine I still don’t really care if anybody reads this and if no Kudos or Likes are received then that is fine – I’m not really needy about stuff like that. But exposing myself to social scrutiny is a valuable lesson for me, in that it ensures I am looking at developing an ongoing healthy relationship with my own honesty towards wellbeing and I’d hate to be dishonest so if everyone ignored it I that’s fine because its for my own self satisfaction. Maybe self satisfaction is what this needs to be about – something for me to think about as August comes around.

Anyway, so see you out there and enjoy your running.

 

I know I am getting on in years, in 2019 I will reach the ripe old age of 42 and it seems inconceivable to me that I’ll make it to 50. I mean I’m falling apart and my family medical history isn’t screaming, ‘welcome to long life’. Every inch of my beleaguered body calls to me daily demanding that I ease off or better still, retire.

Vitality

It seemed to me a good idea that I should sign up to things like income protection, life insurance, etc and for a number of years I had a rather unobtrusive policy that simply sat in the background presumably never doing anything other than waiting for the day I needed it. However, on a fine October morning my excellent financial advisor suggested to that I consider Vitality as an option. He said that given my lifestyle (outdoors and active) that I would benefit from the multitude of (ever changing) schemes and offers that they put forward. Plus the cover was mildly better, the premiums were mildly lower and it all seemed pretty sensible.

I signed up.

Now let me explain a bit about Vitality with its swanky marketing and how I feel after my first year of use and why I now avoid the doctor.

The marketing of Vitality is all about the benefits, earn a weekly coffee, get a nearly free Apple Watch, half price Garmin, get half price trainers, get cinema tickets and on the surface that seems lovely. However, it’s not that simple and the old adage is true, ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch’.

The Experience

Upon signing up and downloading the app you fill in lots of information and connect tech that will support your collecting of points. This collecting of points determines your Vitality (premium) level up to and including Platinum. You are given the opportunity to submit health readings, take examinations, etc and have this data fed into the ‘machine’. Once the machine has been sated you are given a Vitality age and advised on the what’s best to do to be fitter and healthier.

So far, so fine.

It’s then that you realise you’re locked in and have to do the work to make sure that your premiums don’t sky rocket and that you reach the maximum level possible. Again this is fine, you’ve signed up for something and so you are committed.

As an iPhone user I took the decision to get the Apple Watch through Vitality to use as my fitness tracker. I wouldn’t normally have done this but Vitality refuses to directly support my plethora of Suunto devices. This was a minor irritant as the Apple Watch is absolute rubbish and I feel for anyone that paid for one of these things. Now as a reasonably fit and active person I assumed that reaching my daily goal of steps or activity would be pretty easy but I found that this wasn’t always the case.

The reason for this was simple I’ve often found the desire of active people to track ever last iota of activity they do to be a little tiresome and as such I’ve never been a numbers athlete, until three weeks ago I’d never even used Strava). The problem that this caused was that in the early months I would forget to track activity or I would only put the watch on half way through a day and this meant I was chasing activity, especially on days where I was not running.

This was clearly a mistake I was making and one that I rectified pretty quickly but it was made all the more challenging by the fact we were in the middle of the hardest part of our move to Scotland. I would often find myself stopping at service stations and trying to build up extra steps even as I was in the middle of 900 mile round driving trip.

The crux of it was, for me, that I was being driven regardless of my situation on any given day to HAVE to exercise or be financially penalised for it. I would run 60 miles in a race on a Sunday and know that this had the same value as the person who ran for 30 minutes and the real annoyance here was not the imbalance – not at all – the annoyance is that no matter what state I was left in I felt forced to put my running shoes back on and exercise the day after a race.

This left me in something of a quandary as I look back on it and rather than motivate me to exercise more regularly I felt disenchanted with the idea of ‘having’ to do steps or exercise or whatever. I found that rather than improving my wellbeing it was having the opposite effect – my mental well-being was suffering and I was committing to the bare minimum of exercise to get ‘over the line’.

This culminated in my effectively withdrawing from any of the real running training I would traditionally do and just do the thing that got me the 8 points the quickest. What was the result of that? Understandably, my ultra running suffered, races that should be well within my ability suddenly felt like trials and I began to fear racing.

The negative spiral continued, manifesting itself as comfort eating and I found myself gaining weight, battling my body image issues and struggling to motivate myself to do any exercise. It was a nasty place I’d managed to get myself in and I could not find the motivation to get out – I was also much more difficult to live with and the GingaNinja would note my anxiety about having, ‘not got that days points’ and then seeing me stuff a giant slice of cake in my pie hole!

I realise that I might be an extreme case but the promise of Vitality inspiring you to do more has had the exact opposite effect on me.

And then there is the other side of it…

Medical

So, insurance is insurance but what do you do if you have a problem with say your back? Followers of my ultra adventures will probably know that the last couple of years have been plagued by DNFs – brought on mostly by lower back pain during races. I figured it was something and nothing for a while and had extensive privately funded physiotherapy which helped to keep me running. The problem however, refuses to go away and I don’t feel like I can see a doctor about it.

The reason? Insurance!

I’m confident my back can be fixed but I’m also confident that Vitality and any future insurer would consider this a future exclusion – especially as I’ve seen the piss poor excuses given to refuse cover to other perfectly healthy potential customers. Given my relationship with Vitality has so far not been filled with joy I’m weighing up whether to remain with them and therefore I don’t want my back concerns to sit on my record. But that thought goes further I was genuinely concerned about going to the doctor recently to ask about changes in moles and whether I might have skin cancer – how ridiculous is that? Thankfully I decided to say ‘fuck it’ and get a potential cancer threat checked out.

Less life threateningly is the need to get my ten ingrowing toenails sorted, this too has been delayed by my wondering what impact this will have in the future and who will cover me if I do have them done. I mean my feet are valuable to me as an ultra runner (never mind day to day bimbling around).

Currently I can perfectly legitimately and honestly declare that I don’t have any diagnosis of any major problems – even if this 42 year old body feels more like a 72 year old – but the moment I do have a diagnosis for something insurances suddenly become more problematic.

The future

Now in my second year of Vitality, and having reached their highest status, I remain uneasy about this policy. My mental well-being the (perhaps) unintentional victim of the pressure Vitality applies took until very recently to start its recovery. I would hasten to add to there were other circumstances that contributed to this being a hugely stressful time but I am confident that Vitality was very much a significant part of it. Balancing my new life has very much helped and the Vitality issue does not seem as severe but it does still weigh on me and I do find it a disincentive to stay healthy.

As a note I should most certainly say I’m immensely grateful to my family who have been excellent in supporting me finding my own motivation again (mainly by signing up to a shitload of ultra marathons, despite the back issue)! Thanks guys.

This all sounds mildly ridiculous when you begin writing it down but I when I’ve discussed this with other Vitality users I’m realise I’m not alone.

I do want to be clear though I’m not writing this to decry Vitality, this is an example of a corporate monster putting a slick gloss (with freebies) on an otherwise rather dull product – and for some it will provide the incentive they need to sort their health out but there is another side to it. Vitality would probably argue that they are helping to beat the obesity crisis that the UK faces and doing it with carrot rather than stick, I simply feel that the carrot they’re using is rather stick-like.

Ultimately this is my opinion and experience of Vitality and all I would suggest is that if you’re considering some form of incentives/rewards based health scheme then ask all the detailed questions about the implications of it and how it will affect your current lifestyle.

There have been a number of excellent blog posts this year about running and photography. I think my favourite was the ‘Mind Over Matter’ blog (read the original post here) about the subject and it got me thinking about the way I photograph and are there any tips I can impart that may help you to tell more compelling visual stories?

The Mind Over Matter piece suggests that blogging is big business and that photography has (in some cases) gone ‘business’ too with professional photography being bought in to create that more refined look. However, the post continues by arguing that this all looks very ‘samey’ and I couldn’t agree more.

For me photography is the capturing of a genuine moment in time and not the creation of a set-up, now that’s not to say that I haven’t put a camera on timed and attempted to capture me going in full flight but if I do it’s for my own amusement or the amusement of Instagram and the running was still genuine. If anyone had ever seen the tail end or start of my running videos then it’s usually me dropping camera on the floor followed by dipping down to collect it as I run past again. Basically what I’m saying is I’m more likely to disengage with something I consider contrived and overthought than something genuine (a word to the wise for the big brands methinks).

Therefore I’ve looked at the things I do based on 20 years of professional creative experience and also my experience using a variety of cameras in ‘action’ scenarios to create a series of tips as to how you might try taking action (but in particular) running footage.

Angles. The simplest trick you can add to any photograph (running or otherwise) is to change the angle you are shooting from. Shooting at face height has a tendency to all look the same – so use your camera to shoot from the sides, below and above.

Tip: Gorilla grips let me quickly hang my camera from above or to attach to difficult to reach places or to act as a tripod, they are relatively inexpensive and incredibly useful for finding more exciting angles.

Motion. A photograph should have a focus and in running photography that focus is usually the runner but that leaves the rest of the shot to convey that you are moving. Landscapes behind that are slightly softer in focus or in some cases dramatically softer in focus can help better capture your experience.

Locations. If you want to you can take your running photos in dog turd alley but will it give you the kind of photograph you wish to share or keep? Always look up and around and when you see a location that will enhance your photograph then capture it.

If you’re taking photographs with social media in mind then maybe consider you want to highlight new and exciting things – I found that seeking out new things even on my shorter RunCommutes helped keep things interesting both in exercise and photography terms.

Tip. If like me you are London based then photographs of me running past Big Ben aren’t as interesting and nuanced as discovering a new sculpture down a hidden street or finding another of those little blue plaques that London is filled with. New locations, new directions, new trails, new backdrops – keep it exciting, keep it fresh.

Stability. How far do you want to go in your investment in order to produce incredible steady footage? A gimbal is an expensive item generally and it’s going to be a personal preference as to whether you like them or not. I’m not really a fan and believe you’re better grabbing more realistic footage that shows the movement of the subject.

Tip: a reasonably steady hand and a willingness to experiment are the key requirements here. In my opinion a series of short bursts of photographs or video will mean you end up with a more compelling and action led visual story than if you shoot dozens of minutes of gimbal stabilised footage.

Safety. Photography while running can be a bit like using your mobile phone while driving – it is a distraction. On more than one occasion I’ve seen runners on the Southbank taking selfies running into people and I myself nearly brought the Skye Trail Ultra to a swift conclusion when attempting to get my GoPro out I took a nasty tumble down the ridge – breaking my selfie stick and slicing my leg open in the process

Basically take photographs when it is safe to do so or as a memory from my childhood pops into my head, ‘Stop, Look, Listen’.

Enlist help. Having someone to press the button as you’re flying by is perhaps the best way of capturing running photographs. When the GingaNinja attends races she becomes my unofficial race photographer and has learned to dip down at the race line, to capture me when I’m in full stride and to grab surrounding/background shots for blog posts. One could argue that’s the sign of true love.

Tip: Run with your dog? Strap a harness on them, cool angles and madness ensue!

Don’t worry. So you’ve just done 10 good miles, weather was great, conditions were lovely and muddy and the route was fantastic – but you didn’t take any photography because you were in the moment. That’s no problem – there will be other occasions.

Tip: If you feel like it you can always add an extra few hundred metres of sprints, hills, mud, whatever to give more consideration to camera position and how you wish the running to be portrayed.

Tip: If running selfies/running photos are your thing then don’t be intimidated by people around you. Whip your camera out, point and click happy!

The right camera. There’s not much point using your GoPro for finish line photography – that isn’t what it’s designed for, nor would it be really appropriate to whip out your DSLR at the 75 mile point of a hundred miler.

Small compact cameras are awesome for taking with you as they’re thin, lightweight and have good battery life. However, if you have a modern smartphone that’s going to cover most needs.

However, smartphone photography come with the cost to your battery, the potential for damage by dropping it and how effective your waterproofing is. Running saw the destruction of no less than three iPhone 5s because of moisture (both rain and sweat) I’m hoping that iPhone 8 will be a little more resilient.

Timers v Video Snapshot v Bluetooth button. Modern telephones and action cameras have a variety of useful aids to help you capture specific moments.

iPhone for example has a 3 and 10 second timer which will capture 10 shots of you across a short period of time – this is excellent once you’ve learnt to filter out the rubbish photographs this generates. However, if you’re moving like poo off a shovel it will struggle to focus.

The shutter speed of the iPhone (your mobile phone shutter speed will vary) is often not quick enough to capture a well focused and crisp image in anything other than perfectly lit conditions and then there is the setup. The possible solution is a discreet Bluetooth camera button (available for most phones for about £15) – this has the capacity to help you activate your camera without the need to use the timer and therefore have a greater degree of control.

Ultimately it’s all a hit and miss process but practice makes perfect.

I find the action camera setup is generally much quicker – drop harness/grip/stick in position, click camera to film and then spin back to enter frame as you’d envisioned, grab image in post production later and if you are shooting on a 4k (or even lower HD) action camera then the output should give you something to work with for most of the formats you’ll be using the images in.

Tip: If it’s raining when you’re shooting then wipe your camera lens down to avoid water droplets on your shots

Lighting. This can be challenging as you’re on the go and you have to work with what’s in front of you. But consider things like the position of the sun as you’re grabbing a selfie, it’s annoying if you’ve got the face right, the action right and the background looking cool if you then shoot into direct sunlight and burn everything out or shoot in such dark shadow that nothing shows up.

Tip: Alter the times if day you ‘photorun’ to use the differing light levels, this can make even your ‘go to’ route seem quite different.

At night running photography becomes even more challenging – the flash will ruin most photographs but you run the risk of out of focus images if you do it without.

The key to night time photography is being selective and taking your time. By this I mean consider natural light sources, road lighting, headtorch light and the general pace of the action, you can shoot everything and anything if you like but you’ll simply end up with full memory cards and lots of unusable images.

Tip: Dress for photography, black on black is fine but adding a splash of colour will make you easier to spot – especially in low light conditions

My recent trip to the SainteLyon was filled with decent night time race photography (blog suitable at least) because I was conscious of the conditions and was patient, waiting for the right points to grab the shots I wanted.

Post production. This makes it sound like a Hollywood movie rather than a action photograph but having some photo editing software to lighten or balance images just makes things that little bit tidier. For the social media vampires amongst us the various social platforms all integrate reasonably good editing tools. You don’t need Photoshop to ensure great storytelling

Tip: GoPro edit software is really rather good and easy for grabbing snapshots and cutting up your videos into snapshots of your experiences. Other software is readily available – I’m perhaps luckier in that I have Premiere installed on my phone which makes quick work of any video I want to quickly edit together but there’s thousands of great little apps whatever your editing platform.

Anything else?

Tip: Find of way of comfortably carrying your camera kit that allows for easy access but also keeps out of the way. I use Ronhill trail leggings that have two flush to the body stretch pockets on each leg that I put my GoPro in or one of the front pockets of any of my race vests.

Tip: A small charger – carry one! If it’s race day, (especially when you’re going to be out a long time) and you’re carrying a GoPro and your phone you may require a little bit of juice to keep your phone going. I can be bigger for tweeting, photographing and videoing events and I find I burn through my battery pretty swiftly – fine on a 10km but not so cool on a mountain ultra when you may need your phone for location or emergency services. A small charger is about the size of a lipstick and will certainly keep your phone going if you’ve been a little too ‘snap happy’.

In a nutshell

  • Honest photographs – don’t go all fake news
  • Use the right camera for the job
  • Don’t worry if your shots don’t come out
  • Shoot lots, delete the rubbish
  • Get help for race days
  • Photograph responsibly – be safe
  • Most importantly, try new things, experiment, have fun

and in answer to the question in the title, yes I probably am secretly running selfie obsessed – I’ve been accused (via Twitter users) of not taking my racing and running seriously enough, more interested in taking pictures than the event I’m doing. All I can say to that is, ‘caught red handed!’ 😁

This is a story two years in the making as the moment I finished the SainteLyon in 2015 I knew I had found ‘my’ race. My experience was so incredibly positive that I knew I would return and when entries opened in April I was waiting with my debit card to hand ready to sign up. Experience had taught me that this was unnecessary but I wanted my place confirmed as quickly as possible and within a few hours I had also uploaded the medical certificate from the UTBCN, booked my flights and begun the search for accommodation.

For more detail on how you go about the logistics can I recommend you read the 2015 report, which goes into much detail about that kind of thing.

The first half of my running year had gone quite well, finishing with a great finish at the South Wales 50 and despite failure at MIUT I was feeling tremendously positive overall going into the summer race break. However, the death of my partners mother, illness and injuries to my back meant that my return to training and racing was hampered quite badly. I didn’t show up for the return of the London to Brighton, although I rocked up to the start of the Ultra Trail Scotland: Arran this was cancelled mid race due to terrible weather conditions and I deferred my place at The Rebellion because of a hideous chest infection and a lack of preparation. This all meant that my return to the SainteLyon was incredibly undertrained in fact only just returned to training and in no way ready to face this wonderful course.

Regardless I wasn’t going to miss out and on Friday, 1st December I ambled along to the hideous Luton Airport and took the short flight to the delightful Lyon St Exupery Airport a short hop on the Rhône Express took me into the centre of the city (30mins), I bought a 72hour combined Metro, Tram and bus ticket (€15) and took the 3 minute metro ride to Saxe Gambetta where I would find my small but perfect AirBnB accommodation just two minutes from the station.

I dropped my bags down to be greeted by the sight of a Nespresso machine and some Belgian waffles and chocolate crepes! Merci Diep (the host). I grabbed a few bits like my passport and registration confirmation before heading straight out to the hall to collect my number. Another short hop on the metro and I was a five minute walk from where I needed to be – awesome.

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Security was still quite tight in France and there were bag and body searches before entry to the hall – which in light of recent history both in France and across Europe -makes sense. But once in the hall it was like a Mecca for all things trail running and I slowly wandered round deciding what I would spend some pennies on. It was lovely to see Oxsitis with a big stand and lots of products on show and while I may not wear them any longer Hoka also rolled into town with a decent showing.

Collection of my number was easy this year and I used my incredibly handy French phrase, ‘je ne comprends pas francais. parlez vous anglais?’ and I found that my French hosts once they knew I was English simply switched languages (something I am in awe of) though I did use my French language skills wherever possible. With my number collected I headed over to get some SainteLyon socks and my new much loved Buff!

And from this point I actually had some free time. I headed over to the huge shopping centre and picked up some provisions, did some late night sightseeing and then continued in this vein the following morning – touristing before settling down to an afternoon nap before the race. I then engaged in my now infamous pre race coffee ritual for a full bowel clearance and eventually I’d get round to loading up my kit up! It all seemed to be going far to smoothly.

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At about 6pm I headed down to the bus pick up point and joined the queue for one of the many buses to St Etienne. I remember in 2015 the bus was warm but the window had a drip running down it and I’d worked hard to ensure I didn’t get wet! This year the bus was a little chillier but the window didn’t leak and we arrived in good time and without incident. Security was speedy but thorough and as I had time to kill I grabbed some of the pre race snack goodies and went into the smaller of the two halls to see if I could catch a bit more sleep or at least rest. The hall was warm and filled with people but I had little trouble finding space and I folded a buff up and lay my head upon it – but I couldn’t sleep. The SainteLyon was effectively my Christmas present to myself and like a young boy I was desperate to open my present and get to running! Much like a Christmas Eve the following three hours dragged like the Hundred Years’ War! Still the hours did give me a vantage point for kit and people watching – the most interesting outfit I saw was a teenage mutant ninja turtle with full shell and this chap (as far as I know) ran the whole thing dressed like this. The STL though doesn’t attract a great deal of runners like this, they’re quite rare I would say. Most runners rock up in their favourite or best kit and I was pleased to note that many of the runners were wearing Oxsitis, Raidlight or Kalenji bags, undoubtedly the French appreciate these brands being reasonably readily available on the high street and support local brands. Shoe choices were equally local with most seeming to opt for Salomon or Kalenji – the good thing for me was I saw no Karrimor!

I’d chosen Altra for footwear and my beloved Oxsitis Hydragon for my back with a variety of OMM and Ronhill kit making up the rest, perhaps it was the kit that made me stand out as English as anyone that approached me spoke to me (generally) in my native tongue – clearly to the other runners I was not French!

Anyway to the race! The SainteLyon in its current form is a 72km race from St Etienne to Lyon, taking place the first weekend in December and setting off around midnight, you can read more about it here at Wikipedia. At around 11.30pm I drifted slowly to the start knowing that I would be starting near the back of the field but this would allow me to pick off runners later on (if I had any capacity to do so).

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The organisers though were releasing the runners in waves which meant that as I was at the back I would be one of the final runners to depart St Etienne. I could feel the cold setting in and I was geared for minimal warmth as I knew that during the race I would overheat with too many layers. I rubbed my arms periodically to retain warmth and hugged myself, while gently jigging on the spot – stopping sporadically to take photographs and make social media checks.

40 minutes later and, as promised, bang on time the music played, the horn blew and thousands of runners were released into the night. It was as magical as I remembered it, only this time there was no @kemptomslim to share the moment with and so I turned to look at the arch I had just run under and said ‘au revoir’ before turning on my heel and running into the Rhône Valley night.

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The first few kilometres are along the roads and lack any really interesting things to note other than the opportunity to catch some ground in the runners ahead of you or perhaps make some alliances to allow the hours to pass more pleasantly. I decided on the former rather than the latter and pressed firmly ahead knowing that conditions underfoot later in the race might slow me down. Perhaps the big clue as to the conditions was the fact that many runners had loaded up crampons to their race vests in preparation for cruddy conditions but at this early stage even those in their Kalenji Road shoes were running fine.

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While my French is limited I could feel the ambience of the race and the runners and there was a generally positive, goodwill feeling that swelled up around the runners in these early stages and you couldn’t help but be carried by this. For my part I darted between runners and ambled towards the trail which kicked in at around the 6km mark.

From here the light snowfall that we had seen on the sides of the road was replaced by much thicker, more dangerous, not so grippy snow and I recall as I headed down the trail that ‘bugger, this isn’t going to be as easy as last time’.

However, I am confident in my footwork and I was able to press on a little faster than those in front of me and as the kilometres marched downward toward the first checkpoint I started to feel very confident about running a good time. Despite a lack of training in the lead up to the race I was feeling surprisingly spritely too and as I hurled myself up and down the trails I was enjoying myself.

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I felt like I was in a good place and set myself up for cruise control to allow me some breathing room and to take photographs and simply to take joy from the experience. About 13km in, not long before the first checkpoint I looked behind me to see the procession of runners all twinkling behind me and then I really remembered why I love this race so much.

However, with underfoot conditions worsening I was glad to drop upon the first checkpoint and it was here that I stayed the longest of all the checkpoints – maybe 5 minutes, this was mainly due to the amount of people and partly because I actually wanted food. But it was still a short stop and thankfully they had full fat Coca Cola on offer and I enjoyed a cup full before heading out – no Rolo Cola this time @kemptonslim

I remembered that post checkpoints I was freezing cold for the first few minutes and so covered my fingers with the mitten part of my gloves and pulled my neck buff up and my head buff down and headed out. Weirdly though my nose was freezing and when I felt the front of my buff the snot and hot breath had frozen into a cold and icy mess. I folded it down a little and it was better but this would be the first buff to be replaced a few more kilometres down the trail.

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It was from here that you started noticing people putting crampons on as conditions underfoot deteriorated further and there was a visible increase in the amount of runners who were losing their legs beneath them, I was keen to go as fast as I could but knew two things;

  1. Falling would hurt
  2. I’d forgotten to buy ultra marathon sports insurance

and so I ran were it was appropriate and walked as quickly as possible everywhere else. It was about the 20km mark that I heard the sounds of an Australian accent behind me and for a short while I’d met someone who spoke English natively and we had a lovely brief chat before we went our sort of separate ways. This was her first ultra marathon and her French friend felt this would be a great introduction to ultras and when I saw her she looked the business taking her fast marathon form into the STL. I would see a little more of her later.

The second section unlike the first had a greater degree of pure Trail and both my knees and back appreciated this. The trail was incredibly variable with some being good clear trail, other parts moist but most were snow and ice covered and progress remained slower than I would have liked but still not bad. The STL though has a very interesting aspect to it that say something like the CCC does not – overtaking. Although the route is busy with runners the potential for overtaking is enormous and you find yourself gearing up past runners all the time and then being overtaken by them! This has benefits for the relay runners who are undoubtedly fresher than the full distance runners and even for the Express (44km) runners that you might meet.

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I found myself hitting some decent running in this section and engaging in lots of overtaking and being overtaken and it was fabulous hearing the phrase ‘a gauche’ or ‘a droit’ – I can’t tell my left from my right in English so I had to concentrate hard to get it right in French!

Although not clock watching I was very aware that my time was better than it had been in 2015 and some basic mental calculations suggested I could shave off around two or three hours from my previous outing and despite an injury and illness hit few months I was giving it as much welly as the ground would allow. However, all of this was to grind to a halt and all the good work undone. At about 23km in the ground became so icy that runners couldn’t even walk on it and in front of you a plethora of bodies were strewn across the trail.

A runner would fall and the phrase ‘ca va?’ would be called the two or three runners that would stop to pick up their fallen comrade. I brought my own race to a stop to assess the conditions and decided that I would use what visual clues I had before me, track the steps of the runners ahead of me and go as carefully as possible. Sections were becoming so severe that runners were sitting on their arses and pushing themselves down the trail on their hands.

I witnessed bloodied and bruised runners ahead of me but their tenacity meant that most would get up. My problems intensified though when at 26km my trusty Altra gave into the ice and I was thrust skyward and came down with a thud. I’d broken the fall with my back and smashed my headand although I got up straight away I was in pain – my recent back troubles suddenly came rushing back and my head felt woozy. I knew that Sainte-Catherine was only a couple of kilometres further on and so I followed the crowd, walking now and not in a good place. I slipped and slid more, desperate to keep my feet but I fell a further three times before the second checkpoint and when I crashed in I felt like death.

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I took a few minutes and ate emmental and salami to help get something in me and for both the first and last time I wondered if I should stop and seek medical attention. The answer was ‘no’ and with that I set off again. I tried to focus on the trail and ran reciting song lyrics and poetry to myself as I’ve often found this works to stop me thinking about more painful distractions. The various falls though and those to come had given me s kicking and perhaps had my head taken a worse knock than it did I would have had the common sense to stop – but I didn’t. The trail continued to worsen and we were now into the coldest part of the night and at the highest, often most exposed points, when the wind whipped through it passed straight through me but I refused to put additional layers on knowing that this would simply infuriate me.

Upon reach Inge the highest point of the race I felt something of an achievement, despite having run it before I convinced myself that the rest of the course was downhill but this was ridiculous and actually the most dangerous Running was just around the corner.

I could see the pack starting to gather ahead of me, the ice, once again so bad that runners were sat on the floor dragging themselves down and the mountain rescue, aided by quad bikes were going back and forth collecting runners from the trail. In my head I refused to sit down and drag myself along, I refused to bow, in my head I could here Terence Stamps, Zod calling out, ‘kneel before Zod son of Jor-el’ and although I’m no Superman i knew that the moment I gave in I would death march this home.

My decision to stay stood cost me a couple of falls and a fellow runner came sliding into the back of me taking me out at one point. My already broken body didn’t have the required agility to jump straight back up this time but my fellow runners pulled me to my feet quickly and set me on my way. I was hurting now in lots of ways but the mild delirium kept me on the straight and narrow!

Ha!

I dragged my sorry arse into the checkpoint and found a quiet spot to change head torches and power my phone up after the cold had simply switched it off. I didn’t bother with food or drink here – I was feeling sickly but I hoped this would pass if I quickly got out of the checkpoint and avoided the dreaded DNF.

I was a marathon or so in and light would soon be upon these beautiful French lands and with it I felt conditions would improve if only because I’d be able to see but the news was a bit better than that – the closer to Lyon we got the better the trail conditions got and icy conditions became more sporadic. My head was also starting to clear a little bit and despite the physical pain I could feel myself running more and more with confidence returning that I could control both my ascents and more importantly the descents.

Finally after the drama and trauma of the night I was back in the race – although the slow progress through the ice had ensured that there was no way I was going to run faster than the previous attempt.

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We were also on the countdown to the finish ‘SainteLyon 25km arrivee’ I pushed on as fast as I could, walking the hills as quickly as possible and staying steady across the flat and downhills. I stopped briefly to top up my calories with a couple of caramel Freddo and some icy water and took a look back to realise that there still many, many runners behind me – this was clearly proving a hard slog for everyone.

With 20km to go I pulled into the next checkpoint and pulled out again quickly – I’d been keeping tabs on the young Australian girl and her friend who I’d inadvertently been playing overtaking tennis with and decided that I could use her as my pacer – the aim? To beat her to the finish. The final 20km are much more road based which doesn’t really suit my running style nor my injury record, however, it did allow me to push on without too much concern for what was happening at foot level.

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about 5km in to the final 20km I saw my new target drift ahead of me – still looking strong and here I thought it was all over, I didn’t have a race in me – or so I thought. With just over 10km left I entered the final checkpoint had arrived at the outskirts of Lyon. I saw the two runners I was trailing and asked how they were getting on, they described a tale of woe in the icy conditions and my internal Schadenfreude said, ‘hehe’ but instant karma paid me back by making me bite down hard on my own finger instead of the cheese and salami I was holding. I base them farewell and wished them a good final push but I knew I could get there before them.

Boom!

Finally the sun was warming, I removed my buffs, my gloves and rolled my sleeves up. I knew the route from here, I could smell the finish line in the distance and even the good awful climb into the city I flew up much to the amusement of runners behind me. There are steps on the descent into Lyon and the finish – lots of them and ahead of me I could see runners gingerly hobbling down them but I pushed hard knowing that I could continue to climb the rankings.

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Off the steps, down to the river, up the winding steps, over one bridge, fly past the musee de confluences and over the final bridge, cheering supporters shouting, ‘Allez!’ And clapping calling out, ‘Bravo! Bravo!’

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I had decided on my finish routine long ago for this race and I ambled along to the final 200metres, I could see runners ahead of me and at the right moment I pressed my feet into the floor and like a rocket I blasted off much to the surprise of the crowd who whooped and hollered as I hit full pace. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 runners down, runner number 6 with his hands in the air smacked me in the head but I was in full glorious flow and I hurtled towards the final turn – taking it wide to ensure I could cross the line flat out! I passed a couple of final runners at the line and I was over.

It was over! I was over!

  • Distance: 72km
  • Ascent: +2000 metres
  • Location: Lyon
  • Cost: £65
  • Runners: 7,000 (15,000 over all distances)
  • Terrain: Mixed, icy, rocky, hilly, tough
  • Tough Rating: 3/5

Organisation
The STL is possibly the best organised race I’ve ever run, but then after 64 editions perhaps that is to be expected. However, they clearly keep on making minor corrections to the system to ensure that runners know what’s going on and what they have to do. Things like transport to the start for thousands of runners is slick and well rehearsed and the checkpoints although busy are all easily accessible as a runner.

As a French classic there isn’t much information in English but Google translate is helpful and the volunteer army was amazing in helping me with questions I had.

There was also excellent social media connectivity and the tracking was quick, up to date and working unlike at so many events (yep I’m thinking of you UTMB). The STL scores incredibly highly for organisation.

Volunteers
All volunteers are amazing but the SainteLyon volunteers are out in some freezing cold conditions for a very long period and they remain hugely upbeat – they are a credit to the race and to European Ultra Running. There should also be a special mention to the many people who came out on to the course to support, whether they had a runner or not, truly special.

Route
The route had something for everyone whether you’re a trail lover, a road hog or somewhere in between. The ascents are sharp and the descents technical in places but it’s fun and the route is mostly wide enough for easy overtaking. The views for this route are strange in that you are in the middle of the night so it’s dark but the lights of the runners illuminate things around you and in the distance and that’s a beautiful sight. I feel very much the reason I love the STL so much is because the route is both challenging and fun, this time it really did show me it’s tough side but that doesn’t change my opinion that this is an everyman course and with a bit of tenacity you can do it.

Awards
I would love, love, love a SainteLyon medal but solo finishers are presented with a T shirt instead – a nice technical shirt but still not a medal. This year pre-race they also supplied a snood/buff and a pair of STL branded warm socks which are excellent. There were all sorts of other goodness such as the post race and pre race food (I didn’t bother with either but I heard good things about it). All in all the awards are great but I’d love a medal (take the hint organisers).

Costs
To give an indication of cost I paid around £85 return flights (London Luton – Lyon). £22 for the return express train to Lyon from the airport and about £85 for three nights Airbnb in the centre of Lyon as well as £60 for the race and transport. Other costs included a couple of technical SainteLyon t-shirts and a bobble hat (total cost £27). All in, transport, race, goodies, tourism and food £300.

Logistics
I’ve written in my previous STL about logistics but Lyon is 1hr 25mons from London and Lyon Airport is 30 mins from the city centre. I used AirBnB for accommodation which was lovely and the race itself provides buses to the start for €13 and this is easily the best way of arriving fresh at the start. The organisers and Lyon/St Etienne are very well prepared for this event and as far as I could tell it runs smoothly and logistically brilliantly.

Value for money
Value for money is a very subjective thing, for example some people even believe that OCR events are good value but this is a different kettle of fish. Entry is €63 – this includes the €3 service charge and what you get is not only a truly glorious event but also tremendous support (be that through volunteers, cheering supporters or food at checkpoints), most importantly though you receive a brilliantly organised event and having some events not this well set up I can tell you I appreciate the value of a good team delivering on their promises.

Favourite moments
This year was a little different to 2015 but it had no fewer highlights, below are five moments that really made a difference to my race.

  1. The start line, such an icon of the race and filled with all sorts of emotion. The moment the runners all started hugging and patting each other on their backs just made me feel connected to my fellow competitors
  2. Standing at various high points of the route and looking back to see the procession of lights running to catch me and the people ahead of me.
  3. The two young children and their mother offering water, coffee, goodies and support in the darkest hours of the race
  4. The cries of Allez! Allez! Allez! and Bravo!
  5. My sprint to the finish line

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Conclusion
Going back to the SainteLyon after 2015 was never in doubt. I had loved the idea of it and loved the execution of it. After being busy with Haria Extreme in 2016 I knew I would be returning to Lyon this year but what I hadn’t been prepared for was a hugely different experience.

In truth, as I look back on it, I enjoyed this year even more than my first time because of how close I came to failing and yet still clinging on. However, it wasn’t just that it was also the fact I got to enjoy the race, to watch the landscape move before my very eyes in a procession of light and because the SainteLyon continues to tease, ‘come back UltraBoy you can run me faster’.

Going back to the SainteLyon is a certainty because there is something special about it that no other race I’ve done has given me the feeling I get here. It might have left me broken into a thousand pieces but I would rather that it was body broken than my heart. SainteLyon 2017 – I loved you.

You can learn more about the race at www.saintelyon.com and below is a gallery of images taken during the 2017 event!

 

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It was Christmas last year when I introduced the Mountain Buggy Unirider to our lives. I’d been looking for something that could help me take the joy I get from running to my daughter and this one wheeled wonder was the answer. I won’t be looking back into the spec again – for that you’re welcome to read my original review here. This is intended to give a longer term view of how the Mountain Buggy Unirider has influenced the lives of both myself and ASK.

I’d originally intended the Unirider as a way of running with ASK but in the months since we’ve been using it we’ve found it to be much more versatile than that.


Trail/Fell/Hill running I can’t tell you that the Unirider was built for running – I simply don’t know that for sure but what I do know is that it is perfect for running with your child on trail. ASK and I have racked up hundreds of miles over the last 10 months and we will continue to do so until she says, no thanks dad, you’re too slow’. With experience we’ve gotten faster and more accurate at negotiating tougher terrain, ASK has also increased in confidence and can occasionally be found hurling her arms in the air in delight or stretching her legs out in front of her if we’ve been going for a decent length of time. We’ve also had the joy of exploring every type of condition since the start of the year from snow through to the wettest, muddiest festivals and I’m pleased to say that the Unirider has come through it. 

The confidence that I discussed isn’t confined to ASK either – I’ve also grown in confidence as the pilot and I find myself willing to push myself to go faster, take corners more excitingly and I trust that my rider is in control of the front end. This trust had taken time to master but as she calls for ‘faster’ ASK understands that’s it’s both hands holding on, legs tight in and leaning just a little forward to give us additional momentum. She is very much an active participant in the Unirider experience.


It’s strange when I hand over the piloting to the GingaNinja during trail running because she’s much more reserved than I now am and I can both see and feel the difference in approaches. But much like I did the GingaNinja gets more confident the more she uses it and sees ASK and I battling up hills and across gnarly trails inspires her to run faster and better. Nothing like being beaten by a toddler and an old man to inspire improvement 🙂

Other scenarios? Where else might you use the Unirider? Well you’d be surprised but ASK and I use it for city running as well as trails and when I say city running I mean central London at the weekends! We love nothing more than blasting down The Mall or hammering through Trafalgar Square, Westminster or bimbling down the hills at Greenwich. City running is a skill that requires a little attention, fast footwork and preferably a talkative child. I’m fortunate in that ASK will request that people ‘get out of the way’ and she calls out, ‘faster, faster’ at regular intervals.

Your faster footwork is mostly required for tighter turning and swift breaking – city dwellers tend to be absorbed in things like mobile phones and the content of Tindr can sometimes be more engaging than the sight of an angry middle aged man, baring down on you thrusting a toddler forward, at pace, on a parent powered unicycle… apparently. 

The Unirider handles curbs really well – both up and down but you get pretty good at making judgement calls about what it will do and what it won’t. I find the curbs with the highest drop simply require us to make a swift turn and pop ourselves up in reverse. The crux of it is that the Unirider is a stunning device to use in any running scenario and has impressed with its handling in every type of condition across road and trail.


But not all you will want to run with the Unirider some of you might be wondering about day to day usage.

Perhaps this is why I’m writing the long term review because since buying it I’ve definitely expanded its usage to include shopping, hiking, music festivals, days exploring & adventuring as well as commuting and basically replacing our day to day buggy.


Hiking is much like the running only a bit slower – the Unirider is built for the outdoors and although it can take a bit of getting used to going over the roughest of terrain the ride handles it well. Some children might complain about bumps and jumps as you’re going over gnarly ground but if you make this part of the experience, and offer warnings to your rider where you can, I’ve found that my toddler doesn’t mind a slightly (or even very) bouncy ride.

Thankfully the design does help with bumpy, uneven trails as the air filled tyre has enough give in it to move with the trail (though do remember to periodically reinflate).

Our experience shopping is probably the thing of interest to most people as taking a buggy around shops can be a difficult affair – they’re big and aisles can be narrow – the Unirider negotiates these spaces much more accurately than a buggy can. The easy on and off of the device means that if things become difficult we simply jump off, spin the Unirider round and take a few steps until we can get back on. It’s true that you have a reduced capacity for carrying than you might with a buggy or pram but not by much. I often team our shopping expeditions with my Ultimate Direction Fastpack 20 in which I carry a few bits for ASK and then any shopping I’ve collected. ASK might also wear a small backpack if she wishes to carry anything for herself.

If you’re off out to buy the weekly Sainsbury’s shop then the Unirider needs a second person with you to push the trolley (but the same would be true if you were using a buggy) but ultimately this is a good and useful shopping aid that offers excellent space saving on either public transport or the car. It’s also wonderful for taunting security staff in shopping centres… we probably shouldn’t but ASK and I do love running round busy shopping centres, zipping in and out of all the nooks and crannies and making use of the long, slick and flat stretches.

I’ve seen ASK on more than one occasion give a thumbs up to figures of authority who’d like a word with us but in truth the Unirider gives us a huge amount of control in navigating between objects, and importantly, control in stopping quickly.


As for commuting the Unirider is a joy, I collect ASK from the childminders some evenings and when I depart from the train my first stop is home to grab the Unirider because it means our commute home is quicker and she enjoys the journey back more. When I knock on the door I’m often greeted by the phrase, ‘Am I going on the Unirider?’ and if I answer, ‘No’ she is always disappointed. Whether we run or walk home we can use this time to chat and it’s calm time (even if we are running) that she gets to cool down from banging round like a mini whirlwind at the childminders. If we’re both in the mood I’ll increase our commute to give more time for this relaxing journey time.

Longer commutes are equally easy – when I travel to see friends or family and cross the country on public transport we use the Unirider because it speeds up our on and off time, we are quicker on the connections and we’re simply more efficient. ASK and I have often been witnessed going like lighting between St Pancras and Euston in order to make a soon departing train and the Unirider is small enough that you can avoid the use of lifts and instead travel up stairs or escalators therefore making your commuting more efficient.


What about distance? The GingaNinja describes the Unirider as being hard work, even now, but then that’s when she is running with it round our local, very hilly woods. I mention this because it does take a little bit of time and practice to get larger mileage in. In my ‘early doors’ review I suggested I’d capped the distance at 10km for running and this remains roughly correct. I feel that 10km on the Unirider around a hilly trail is more than adequate for running and avoids passing any boredom threshold for ASK.

However, it is worth noting that I put no such restrictions on the Unirider when we are using it in day to day life and during our recent excursion to Scotland the buggy never got used – if we needed something to cart ASK around in then it was the Unirider (this included shopping, hiking and fells).


All I would say is start slowly and build your time used/mileage up instead of leaping head first into as many fast miles as I could manage.

A growing child? Some people have asked how it changes as your child gets bigger and I can confirm there is a change in the way I use the Unirider now she’s nearly a year older and bigger. My toddlers increased weight has helped to ground the Unirider a little better. I find I don’t have to push down as much either for the same level of effort – yes she’s heavier and bigger but that simply means she’s forcing the ride forward and therefore actually making it easier for me. I imagine we’ll get to a point where her size becomes an issue but I’ll be trying to convince her to ride it long after she should have given it up.


Age? You’ll have to judge your own child but ASK (quite the adventurer) was using it from just after 2 years old and this seemed like a good starting point to me.

Reversing? As you’ll see if been rather effusive in my praise for the Unirider in my long term review and given how often our Unirider adventures appear on my Instagram feed this should probably come as no surprise. However, I am very happy to record a flaw in the device, a minor one, albeit one that a potential purchaser should be aware of and that is reversing. The Unirider and pilot, as far as I can tell, do not have the same perfect balance going backwards as they do going forward. This means that turning should mostly be done going forward or with limited reversing. It’s a minor thing but the only thing that caused ASK to drop her feet to the floor for support.


Do people stop you? What’s the reaction to a slightly more unusual form of toddler transport? We’ve covered lots of miles on the Unirider and it doesn’t matter where we go we are always the subject of people passing comment as we go by and often we get stopped to quiz us about it. At WOMAD I was stopped probably 50 times by people asking what it was and more importantly where they could get it, I had people stopping us to take photographs with us (bit weird) and I was happy to offer people the opportunity to have a little go with their own child. In cities you hear things like, ‘ahhh look at that child’ or slightly older children saying ‘ooooooo that’s so cool’. Adults will often comment things like, ‘now that’s the way to travel!’ and I’m always happy to discuss why we love it if someone asks because I’d love to see more parents out and about with them.

Unbreakable? After nearly a year of use I feel confident in being able to answer the question about how robust the Unirider is and the answer is fairly simple – it is very robust.

There is an important caveat with that though, ‘the wilder you are the more care you’ll need to take’. My daughter and I go on adventures and we’ve bounded through some pretty tough trails and this has a habit of trying to lodge itself in and around the wheel and so occasionally (every few months) I’ve taken to deconstructing the Unirider and cleaning all of its elements. I also make sure the wheel is the right level of inflated and that everything feels taut. The most notable cleaning required was after the mudfest that was WOMAD – I noticed that the combination of very thick, deep mud and tonnes of bark (laid to try and dry things out) was the closest we’ve come to being stopped in our tracks – but then in reality nothing was getting through that unscathed. 

The only damage I’ve managed to inflict is to the foam handle when a low hanging branch attacked both child and Unirider and cut into the foam (a bit of gorilla tape later and it was as good as new).

Benefits

  • Easy to get on and off public transport
  • Avoids the need for lifts
  • Excellent on road
  • Excellent off road
  • Fast
  • Excellent for tight situations
  • Inexpensive
  • More versatile than a buggy
  • Huge toddler enjoyment
  • A conversation starter

And finally to the toddlers verdict. I quizzed ASK about the Unirider, this is what was said, ‘Why do you want to go on the Unirider?’ I questioned. ‘So we can fast dad,’ came the reply. ‘Do you like the Unirider?’  ‘No dad, I love* it’ she answered, ‘can we go to the woods on my Unirider?’ ‘Of course we can’. ‘Yay’.

*she is going through a phase of loving things. 

Conclusion. After months of usage, after a shedload of mileage and after causing mayhem at both home and abroad I can clearly state that the Unirider remains some of the best fun that ASK and I have. It’s fun as something to take us to bigger adventures and it’s fun as a tool for exploring and adventuring but equally it is happy as a replacement for the buggy and ambling around the shops.

In February when I wrote my ‘first impressions’ review I commented that, ‘The Unirider is a thoughtful and well constructed device which is as much fun for parents as it is for your children. When it works at its best, pilot and rider act as though they have a symbiotic relationship. It is brilliant and with a reasonable price point. I have lots of love for Mountain Buggy kit and I’ll be sorry when UltraBaby finally outgrows their stuff but for the time being we are having the most fun possible – together!’.

I have no reason to change a single sentiment of that review (which you can read here) I would simply add that the Mountain Buggy Unirider has proved to be much more than a one hit wonder and will remain a firm favourite in our home until ASK says she’s had enough. So has the Unirider influenced the lives of our toddler and the two parents that use it? Hell yeah.

You can find out more and buy your own Unirider here.

And in the interests of clarity and transparency, I bought my Unirider, at full price and have no connection to Mountain Buggy other than we occasionally like each other’s posts on Instagram and this review is free of influence.

Gabrielle Outdoors

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