Every time we go hiking in the hills of Scotland i insist that we take the necessary gear to ensure that should trouble arise, we will survive. Now until recently I have always carried the bulk of the safety gear because my rather slender and lightweight daughter would have struggled to carry it. But at the age of 7 and with dozens of hill hikes under her belt it was time to let her carry her own safety gear.
Head torch, survival bag, midge net, warm layer(s), waterproof gloves, trousers & jacket, whistle, diets aid kit, spare buff and the lost goes on, at various points she has or will be carrying these. She is also equipped with some basic mountain survival skills to ensure that should myself or my partner have a serious accident or die that she would know how to survive until help came or better still she would know how to attract help.
Winter hiking though brought a whole new dimension to the fore – icy conditions and this meant that if we didn’t want to get forced off a mountain or similar then we needed to add to the kit (I’ll talk about the ice axes in another post on another day) and that meant microspikes because there was no doubt in my mind that the YakTrax we all own would not be up to the hiking I had in mind.
I had recently bought some Kahtoola microspikes for myself so that should the Cheviot Goat be an absolute icy mess I stood a chance of still being able to keep going but I didn’t think it necessary to kit out both the GingaNinja and ASKadventurer at the same time because the hills we generally climb in winter are reasonably sedate.
That all changed though when a couple of weeks ago we decided to hit the climb up to Schiehallion.
Now on the face of it Schiehallion isn’t a particularly challenging climb, the route is straightforward, there is a path for much of the way up and it’s not really that much climbing – about 800 metres to reach the 1089 metre summit. What gives this particular munro a bit of challenge is the negotiation of the boulder field that makes up the last couple of kilometres of climb.
Our effort though was snowed off before we got started, the snow that had started to come down thickly as we closed on the hike meant we were concerned about getting the car out. However, this did give me pause for thought about what we do if we reached a reasonable height and found ourselves in difficulty without some form of spikes and so I set about doing some research.
At this point the only spikes I really knew of where the ones from Kahtoola but then I came across the Icegripper website which had a broader selection of options for hiking in tougher, icier conditions. I was intrigued by the options and the better price points. Experience has taught me though often means, ‘buy cheaply, buy twice’. However, with the Kahtoola options all sold out anyway (and very few places having them) I wanted to make sure that I could get both the spikes for GingaNinja and ASK from the same place (easier for ensuring delivery and any possible returns I suppose).
This meant that for the GingaNinja I purchased the Icegripper Trek+Work micro crampon and for ASK I went with the Veriga ice track snow and ice chains – why didn’t I get the same for each of them? Simple, the Icegripper spikes don’t go down small enough and the Veriga where a mere £15 which seemed like an absolute bargain. Delivery was excellently speedy and they arrived well before we aimed to go back to Schiehallion a few days later.
Veriga v Icegripper vKahtoola
Before we look at their performance we should look at some of the specifications for the three spikes that were in use; these specifications and descriptions are taken from icegripper.co.uk.
Veriga ice track snow and ice chains
Veriga Ice Track Snow and Ice Chains feature high quality heat treated steel points for an efficient grip. Simply slip them onto your footwear and go!
8 x 10mm teeth per foot means great grip on snow, ice, crud and soft wet ground
Elastomer harness makes them suitable to wear with a variety of footwear types, but best on boots
Velcro ‘bridge strap’ to prevent losing in deep snow
Complete with a polyester blue and orange drawstring bag for storage when not in use
Packed Size: 150mm x 100mm x 200mm
Not suitable for high altitude trekking or extreme mountaineering
Icegripper Trek & Work
Icegripper Trek and Work are a new breed of micro crampon adaptable and tough enough to be used for both leisure and work. You will experience solid grip on packed snow and ice from 13 x 15mm spikes per foot. Whether you are an avid winter trekker/hiker or a farmer these ice grips are the answer to your winter traction problems. Unashamedly tough.
13 steel spikes per foot for rock solid traction
Specially designed, articulated front spike section enabling some spike contact with the ground in demanding conditions
Increased grip when traversing
Rugged stainless steel link chains
Flexible silicon elastomer outerband for quick on and off
Reinforced silicon eyelets to avoid tearing and increase longevity
Removeable bridge strap
600D polyester storage bag with polyester yarn mesh side to allow snow melt.
Pack Size: 130mm x 80mm x 180mm
12 month Icegripper manufacturer warranty
Whether you are trekking on icy winter trails, exploring winter woodland tracks, dog walking, or just popping to the shops and back , the new Kahtoola Microspike should be your first choice ice grip. Although best worn on Boots and Activity Shoes, they’re easy to use with almost any type of footwear and come with a 2 year manufacturers warranty. Kahtoola Microspikes offer confidence inspiring grip, even on sheet ice. Here are some more reasons to consider them.
Storage Tote Sack with each pair of Microspikes
3/8 Inch (1 cm) stainless steel spikes
Newly engineered under heel quad spike assembly
12 Spikes per foot on all sizes
Spikes made from heat treated 400 series stainless steel for longevity
Welded stainless steel chains
Patent pending eyelet reinforcements
Low profile elastomer harness, light and strong, easy on and off
Suitable to be worn with any type of footwear
50% less bulk and 13% harness weight reduction means Microspikes are more suitable for winter runners than ever before
Pack size: 125mm x 75mm x 50mm
2 year manufacturers warranty
Quality The first thing I can say is that I have been mostly impressed by the build quality of all three of the microspikes that we had out on the hills and there was actually very little to choose between them. The spikes feel robust and well made, as do the chain links and none of the spikes tested feel like they would be prone to easy breaking.
It is worth noting that the spikes on the Icegripper feel denser than the Kahtoola and as a result are heavier overall which makes the Kahtoola the lighter weight option and that might be worth factoring into your thinking – especially if you’re the kind of hiker (or runner) for whom every gram counts.
It is also worth mentioning that both the Veriga and the Icegripper use a much thicker elastomer harness over the shoe than the Kahtoola and this ultimately leads to the heavier feel of the Veriga and the Icegripper – that said none of these microspikes are very heavy at all and aren’t going to make a significant dent in your winter hiking pack.
Fit & Comfort This is a interesting one as they are clearly all designed for being worn over hiking boots and shoes but with the amounts of styles, shapes and weirdness that can now be found in footwear it could be described as a challenge to develop products that will cover all shoe types.
ASK currently wears Scarpa boots for hiking and Altra Koriki & Lone Peak for trail running and the size 1-3 in the Veriga works very well on all the shoe types, it fits neatly and soundly despite the fact the she is at the smaller end of the sizing.
The issue that could have been a problem is that both the GingaNinja and I wear Hoka One One hiking boots which tend to be very wide on the sole (and for me in the forefoot). I did have some trepidation as to whether the elastomer outer band would stretch over these super wide boots – especially the Icegripper because of the thicker, wider band.
Thankfully, even with cold hands it was relatively simple to slip into the spikes and then pull them around the heel and toe. There was a surprising amount of give in the bands of both the Icegripper and the Kahtoola but once on they both remained snug and well fitted.
Ultimately I think all three microspikes would be able to fit a broad range of footwear.
The one difference worth mentioning is that both the Veriga and the Icegripper came with a velcro strap fastening for across the foot and although I don’t think is essential it did offer the opportunity for an even more secure and dialled in fit.
The benefit of a well fitted microspike is that they are comfortable and all three of the tested microspikes were perfectly comfortable as we hiked. I wondered if they might dig in as we moved across the icy boulders but, either because of the maximal cushioning on our boots or because the spikes are spread in such a way so as not to cause pressure underfoot, the spikes stayed comfortable. The overband was also perfectly fitted on all three of the shoes although it would be fair to say that the least intrusive would be the Kahtoola because it is made of that thinner material – the overband much like the spikes also stayed in place and didn’t move around the foot, therefore there can be no complaints on fit or comfort.
What I was quick to note was that ASK who was wearing the Veriga was instantly transformed on the ice from a slow moving 7 year old to some form of spritely mountain goat. The same could be said for the GingaNinja and I who, once we donned the spikes, were able to move around with greater assuredness on the ice and across the rocky trail.
The rocky nature of the route up Schiehallion was of mild concern while wearing the spikes though and I feared damage to the spikes as we ascended but the truth is that all three sets of spikes came away unscathed and in turn each of the hikers for the most part returned to the bottom unscathed too.
The one thing I did note that I hadn’t expected and perhaps should have was just how much additional grip the spikes gave me and when leaping from a small ledge I remained connected to the ledge and took a bit of a tumble – but this was certainly down to my own stupidity and lack of experience rather than anything to do with the spikes.
We removed the spikes once we were clear of the slippier rocks and the ice and it was only then when we ran across small patches of ice that we realised just what a difference the spikes made. The level of care that is required while traversing ice is immense and you really don’t want to take a tumble and I feel that had we not had the spikes with us then we would not have made it to the top of Schiehallion in the conditions that we faced.
Carrying spikes can be a bit a nuisance as they are sharp, once worn they can be wet and dirty and ultimately they are a bit of an arse ache. However, each of the spikes came with a little bag. The Kahtoola bag is a simple soft fabric drawstring bag and offers decent protection from the spikes pocking through the material. The Veriga bag is a heavier weight fabric bag but with a drawstring that broke pretty quickly – thankfully the nice chaps at Icegripper gave us a couple of their own drawstring bags which are ideal for this kind of thing. The thing I like about the Veriga bag was that it was blue and orange and therefore easier to see in the bottom of a dark bag. Perhaps the most interesting bag was the one that the Icegripper spikes came as it had a zip and also a mesh that would allow debris and moisture out – had it come in neon yellow then I would have said that this was perfect instead of just very good.
A system for storing and carrying your spikes is a small thing but given that they’ll more often than not stay in your bag I’d like to know they aren’t going to be rattling around and snagging items of expensive outdoor clothing.
Value for money
Are microspikes worth the money? In my opinion they are because if you get halfway up a mountain and discover there is a load of icy path to negotiate or worse just ice you probably still want to try and make it to the top. The Kahtoola were about £55, the Icegripper £35 (£50 as of February 2022) and the Veriga were £15 (on sale, normally £35) and in terms of value I think they are all pretty good value.
The Veriga were obviously especially good value at a mere £15 but I would still pay £35 for them because they fitted nicely on a child’s boot and they offered ample stability to a reasonably fast moving child across difficult terrain.
The Icegripper at £35 with an excellent carry bag and a good set of spikes felt like excellent value for money and the GingaNinja was pleased with the performance and the fit. Would the Icegripper be as good value at £50 which puts them in direct competition with others brands price points? I think so yes, the main difference is the layout of the spikes, the weight and the length of warranty and this is going to be something of a personal preference when you’re doing your research on spikes.
What I will say is that I will be watching their performance closely over the next few months of hiking as I am likely to want a second pair of microspikes that are solely for hiking and these would certainly be under consideration.
The Kahtoola are excellent and the benefit for me over the Icegripper is the weight and so for running across ice in winter ultra marathons then I would go with these. However, if I were looking for a spike that would be good for just hiking then I’ll be considering the Icegripper – partly because I actually prefer the spike layout and so maybe I’m just convincing myself to get that second pair already.
Whichever one you choose and wherever you end up spending your money rest assured that having microspikes in your pack for winter hiking, especially in the hills, is essential.
What I would recommend you do is do some research, things like YouTube are a great starting point if you need some advice but then start looking around at the various manufacturers and independent retailers in your area.
Obviously if you can go to a shop and try them on with your specific footwear then even better but that isn’t always possible and so we look at online retailers. I bought the Veriga and the Icegripper from www.icegripper.co.uk and I managed to source my Kahtoola from www.trekitt.co.uk both of whom provided excellent service and information.
My other recommendation is to make sure that you buy the right gear for the activity you are doing.
If you just need something to commute through the city streets in then microspikes probable aren’t right and a pair of YakTrax would suffice but if you’re winter hiking in the hills then microspikes or even full blown crampons might be in order – consider your activity and buy appropriately and of course most importantly don’t go into the hills unless you are prepared.
It’s worth noting that I have no affiliation with Icegripper or Trekitt am not sponsored nor have I been paid to write this review – this is 100% independent (and probably unwanted).
I was looking forward to the Tour of Tameside, on paper it looked like a good mix of distances and a race series with lots of heritage and in a place I had never run before. It’s therefore with immense sadness that I didn’t enjoy it, that’s not to say it was terrible, it wasn’t, but there were a number of issues that really hampered my enjoyment.
The tour consisted of four races starting on Thursday 29th July and concluding on Sunday 1st August and took place in and around Tameside. Organised by the Running Bee Foundation it promised agonising race after agonising race all in order to support charity – so far so good.
For me personally I had travelled from my sunny Scottish location to rainy Tameside in order to meet a lady from the Running Friends Scotland Facebook group. Nicky and I have chatted extensively across the pantheon of running topics and had hoped to record a podcast episode (more on that later) but it was mainly just a great opportunity to meet her.
And so on Thursday I thundered down the M74 out of Scotland’s sun soaked landscape and down the M6 into the grip of North West England for a few days of fun. I unpacked quickly upon arrival at my hotel, got my race kit ready and prepared the podcasting gear incase tonight was a good night for a record.
Race 1 X Trail 10km With the first race taking part in the evening I ambled along from the hotel down to the parking at the local rugby club. I was amazed at the amount of people who were there – I had assumed that the Tour of Tameside would be quite a small race with a few dozen runners but it turned out there were hundreds. Clearly some where here just for one day of the tour but I saw lots of full tour runners who would compete in the four races.
The start line was about a 10 minute walk from the parking and so having not being able to see Nicky I decided to head down to the start line and see what all the fuss was about. When I arrived it was even busier at the start line than it had been at the parking – it wasn’t quite a mass participation event but it was the biggest event I had been a part of since long before the pandemic began.
I was quite surprised by the way in which people were interacting even with the relaxing of the pandemic rules in England. I wandered around a bit exploring the course and trying to see where the trail was, this had the benefit of maintaining social distancing but also allowed me to experience the Tour of Tameside vibe.
But then it was time to go.
I headed to the back of the course and finally came across Nicky and we had a few minutes to chat before the race began but soon it was time to go. I hadn’t really thought about whether I would be running alongside Nicky or whether I would just go and do my own thing. But as it turned out we mostly stayed together and ambled gently around the course, which was very nice indeed.
It quickly became apparent that the best way to approach the Tour of Tameside was to just have a bit of fun with it and not take it too seriously. And so as we pushed up the hilly tarmac roads of Tameside and I awaited, with eagerness, the arrival of the trail to bring me the joy I was looking for.
The route was hillier than I imagined but not unpleasantly so and the running was interesting enough as we ambled through little villages where the locals had come out to support the competitors. Wonderful. The route though was tight in places and making progress through the throngs of runners was challenging even as the competitors began to spread themselves out. I made a nuisance of myself by making jokes with volunteers and supporters alike, always keen to mostly poke fun at myself and I am sure that runners both ahead and behind me must have found me a real irritant – wishing I would just piss off. I’m confident that the supporters near the start line who heard me calling for a change in the music from whatever shit it was they were blaring out to a bit of George Michael must have wondered what the fuck was going on.
But I’d found my fun groove and began a little sing-a-long or two, told some terrible jokes and hurled out a few expletive laden anecdotes but it wasn’t enough to make me love the race.
The key concern was that the route showed little sign of trail despite the name – I had assumed that the last minute change of route was responsible, although others suggested that the original route ran along a disused railway line, which I suppose could be considered a trail, although not my preference. and with a good portion of the run now completed we still had yet to find some good old fashioned mud or woodland trail.
The route looped in and out and down and around the roads of the villages until we ended up back at the start once more and finally we found a narrow piece of trail – this was fun and there was just enough room to go past the other runners.
Nicky was thundering along just nicely and as we approached a little bridge and I took a moment to grab a photograph or three and then it was a race to the finish – all downhill, through a tight gate – up and over and then bomb it down to the end. Boom.
And bomb it I did – I love a fast finish and I flew past several other runners and into the funnel for the finish where Nicky’s other half and the first medal awaited us.
The end of the first day and I had a lot to digest, it had been an odd race but now it was time to stretch, relax, hot bath and get ready for tomorrow. In the walk back to the car we met a young lady called Hatty who was both an absolute delight and an awesome runner and somebody that I would cross paths with several times during the next few days.
So as we ventured towards the car park with Nicky and Rob (Nicky’s other half) we chatted about life and colourful running leggings and then departed rather quickly – sadly without recording a podcast episode, but there was always tomorrow I thought and put it to the back of my mind.
Race 2 Hell on the Fell Living in Scotland gives me access to some wonderful hills and mountains which from time to time I am known to run and down. However, I tend not to run the hill races here because I feel I wouldn’t be competitive enough and I’d be guaranteed to miss checkpoints or timing points. However, the Hell on the Fell sounded like a great little bomb around some hills in Tameside and so this was the one I was most looking forward to.
Again the race was in the evening and on a cool but very runnable evening I made my way to another part of Tameside where I was greeted with a decent walk to the start line once more. Parking had been allocated at a local leisure centre but given the legions of runners, supporters and organisers this was clearly not going to be enough. However, everyone squeezed themselves in and around the local area and made their way to the start line – which was overshadowed by a couple of small hills and a picturesque reservoir – this is more like it I thought.
Nicky and Rob once more rocked up close to the starting time and took up their positions alongside me near the back just in time to hear me grumble about the man operating the PA. I’m aware that race information needs to be given out but there was a lot of that, ‘don’t worry it’s all downhill’ and ‘it’s a nice flat one tonight’, I didn’t find it funny I found it mostly tiresome but I am confident he had some fans, just not me.
Just prior to the race start though there was a disagreement between a couple of runners and I had stupidly gotten involved, I found myself in a heated exchange that I really didn’t want to be in and to be honest it really ruined the start of the event for me and while I won’t go into details I think it may have ruined the race for others too.
Still, this was a fell race and I was going to enjoy it but then we turned to the tarmac and headed down it, up it and around it. Hmmm. Now I realise I’m not a regular fell racer but I was fairly sure that fell running usually involved mud, trails, off trails, beating back the bracken, Walsh trainers and generally being covered head to toe in shit.
This was not that and the events at the start line were weighing heavily on my mind, although outwardly I was doing my best to project the happy go lucky, expletive delivering runner that I usually am recognised as.
Eventually we did finally leave the tarmac behind and climb a bit of trail and this was really good fun running, I leaped and lumbered up the hills chastising Nicky any time I felt she was starting to slip behind. The 30 minutes that we were actually on a hill, on an actual trail were really enjoyable and if the bulk of the running had been like this then the Tour of Tameside would have been right up my street but it really was just these 30 minutes that were like this.
Because we were at the back of the pack when we came to the narrow descent off the hill the pace slowed to a crawl and we couldn’t move any faster than the person at the front of the queue and so I was a bit disappointed as this would have been great to hurl ourselves down in the way the front runners had. However, once clear of the backlog we, like everyone else, began to fly down towards the end.
At this point Hatty had joined us and so I took the opportunity to mess around a bit and make aeroplane noises amongst other things, I’m sure both my lovely companions must have been wishing I would once more sod off but I didn’t I just carried on regardless. As we approached the finish the marshal advised me of a step down and I advised him that I was stopping, which must have looked strange but I was keen to capture the finish line moment as Nicky and Hatty battered towards the line. Annoyingly though another runner came thundering through and so I decided to put a little spurt on to the finish, stopping just short of the finish to allow him to cross the line before me – he must have thought me a dickhead too.
Boom, we crossed the line and collected another medal as the man on the PA system commented on my video-ing of the event. Something I noted as I entered the final day was against the rules of the race.
There was still a finish line photograph to do and then off but in all the excitement of the event, thoughts of podcasting were lost but I’d suggested ice-cream post race tomorrow to help celebrate Robs birthday and hopefully we could do it then.
Race 3 Hero Half Marathon I can’t remember my last half marathon but I think it might have been the 2013 Royal Parks Half Marathon and the half, in my opinion, is the toughest of all the race distances – it’s the one I struggle to judge in terms of pace and so I’ve found I don’t bother with doing them any longer.
Therefore it was going to take an amazing route and experience to make this one a great day. Once more I arrived early to ensure that I managed to get parking in the large field the organisers had arranged and I felt fortunate that the weather conditions were overcast and a little cooler than of late which meant that running conditions would be fine.
Not knowing much about the race I asked one of the organisers if I was better in road or trail shoes and he immediately advised road – I was glad therefore that I had invested earlier in the week in the Fli-Lyte 3 (a shoe I shall be reviewing once I’ve fully tested it).
I also had the good fortune to meet fellow instagrammer and ultra runner Karl and it was lovely chatting to him about the event and also about Topo Athletic shoes. It’s always fun meeting people from the internet, I very rarely recognise them, but my collection of Oddballs T-Shirts, wild beard and brightly coloured race packs makes me and easy spot. I’ll assume this is also how Nicky and Hatty picked me out of the crowd too!
Therefore, phew we had made it to race 3 mostly in one piece – but this was the one I was worried about. My already destroyed hamstrings, after the previous weekend of racing at the Solway Coast Marathon (read the review here) and the Splash & Dash (read the review here), were on fire and the hill race the night before had done them no favours – nor had my titting about on the route.
I knew that I had to run this one slowly if I had any chance of making it to race day 4. Although to be fair I was already having serious doubts about whether I wanted to continue with the Tour of Tameside given my experiences at the events and also in the wider Tameside area.
However, I was here and Nicky was here and that meant I was running.
We set off at a leisurely pace and ambled along the course, we passed through the village that sat just before the start line and then headed for an out and back race along a hard packed path. Annoyingly the day was now warming up but thankfully the course had a good deal of cover and we able to avoid much of it. I don’t recall what we talked about as we ran along the path but I punctured our chatting with attempts to soak Nicky as I launched myself into every puddle imaginable. This tactic didn’t start well when I found myself sliding towards the water instead of leaping into it but it was something I stuck with – although I think that Nicky soon became well educated to my sly watery tactics and knew how to avoid me.
Puddle after puddle I ran through and I’m sure it wasn’t only Nicky that I soaked but few complained and so I just happily did my own thing. I’d also taken my Insta360 camera so that I could capture the race and at one point one of the marshals told me to put it away (it would later be explained to me by the marshal that she thought it was a whip – wtf?).
The landscape and the scenery in the background was as pleasant as you can get but the route itself was a little devoid of excitement and interest, hence why I found myself leaping into the puddles and the second half of the out section felt like a real slog and mentally you knew you had to come back this way. The benefit of the out and back though is that you can cheer on runners that you have met along the way and I passed several runners that I was happy to cheer on or give support to because at the back of the pack there was some tremendously tenacious running and that deserves a cheer.
I noted that Rob was checking to see if Nicky was interested in a new PB because he was clearly keeping an eye on the clock but this is something that doesn’t really interest me and I’d decided that if they fancied cracking on for that new personal best then I’d just sit where I was and finish a bit behind them. However, I think Nicky picked up a bit of injury somewhere here and the PB looked like it would have to be saved for another day. Therefore once more the three of us just plodded back towards the finish and with me just looking to finish without incurring the wrath of my already dilapidated body.
Rob being relatively local knew quite a lot of the runners and would say hello or be able to provide interesting insights into people, places or clubs and that was fun and we as a trio would interact with other runners.
Then in the latter stages of the race I met a lady called Emma who was clearly having a crisis of confidence using terms like, ‘I’ve failed’ and ‘it’s such a disappointment’ and I immediately took her to task. The thing is, with 3 miles still to go you really don’t want to punish yourself mentally like that and so I hope that I gave her the tough love inspiration to finish.
Emma eventually managed to power her way back up to running properly and it was so pleasing to see her do so – watching her power away from me was a joy. That said I caught her on the final climb to the downhill sprint to the finish and I urged her on, well shouted at her really – I don’t really remember the final push but I remember that she crossed the line about the same time as me. Nicky and Rob were close behind but it appeared that Nicky really was nursing an unpleasant foot injury. Not exactly what anyone wanted for her and we would have to see if it would clear for the final race.
Again there were some finish line photographs and I congratulated a few of the runners I had spoken with on the way round – including Emma and Hatty. Nicky, Rob and I headed off into what I assume was Glossop in search of some ice-cream but ended up with a coffee, a poor choice of cakes and Rob feeling rather sickly after the race (not a great start to his birthday!).
Nicky and I agreed that we’d do the podcasting therefore after the race on day 4 and so ended the half marathon, I’d survived but it seemed that the rest of my little band had been given a right kicking by it.
Race 4 Dr Ron Hyde 7 mile By the time I came into the Dr Ron Hyde 7 mile I had pretty had enough of the Tour of Tameside and Tameside itself. I had considered not racing and just returning to Scotland but having gotten this far into the event I felt like I should at least finish and obviously there was Nicky to consider who I had enjoyed running with and didn’t just want to not turn up.
Therefore, I parked in the town centre, as advised, but with all my gear in the car and pretty exposed I became a touch worried when the driver next to me fitted his steering wheel with a huge stoplock… ‘is this not a nice area?’ I inquired. I don’t know Hyde at all but the man suggested that it wasn’t the nicest of places but it was too late now – I was here.
I ambled around once more, attempting to avoid the bits of rain that were hanging in the air but without going into the town hall as there were too many runners congregated with very few of them wearing masks or socially distancing. I realise that the pandemic has been hard for people but I didn’t really want to expose myself any more than I felt was appropriate.
The race was busy and had attracted what looked like every racing snake from far and wide but I did my usual and headed to the back, only really looking round to see if I could see Nicky or Rob – but there was no sign. Then I saw Nicky coming to the barrier and she was still hobbling with what sounded like a nasty foot injury, I did for a second think – ah fuck this, perfect excuse I can just go home – but she was visibly distressed by not being able to compete in race day 4 and therefore I felt it wouldn’t be right for me not to complete it.
That said I really wasn’t in the mood for it, I wasn’t in the mood for running on tarmac once more and when the race started I just tuned into my own personal little bubble, avoiding eye contact with my fellow runners and I just wanted to get this done.
However, Rob caught me up after a mile or so and started chatting but whatever it was he said it opened the floodgates to my frustrations with the last few days and I wasn’t in an appeasing mood and when a fellow runner passed comment I was rather unapologetically robust in my commentary. Ho-hum.
‘There’s no need for language like that’, she said,
‘The thing is’, I said, ‘if you know who Paul Dacre is – there is need for such language’.
As road races go this one was okay, the route itself didn’t have anything spectacular in terms of its scenery to write home about but there were some up hills, there were some down hills and there were a few bits were you could stretch your legs on. I met a young lady in the middle of the race who I joked with that I was going to make her earn her overtaking and she was a fabulous little pocket rocket of a runner who did in the end overtake me – but I really did make her work for it.
Now I was simply bumbling my way round, once more silently sitting in my own bubble and for a change focusing on just getting to the finish, I stopped only to say hello to the wonderfully colourfully attired spectator in the dungarees who I had seen the day before and had a bit of a laugh with.
As the race was winding down to its conclusion I could see that the route was mainly going to be downhill and so I pulled my big boy pants on and gave it some welly.
I ran hard along the road, I could feel the energy burning through my legs and in the distance I could see a young girl and her dad perhaps coming together to hold hands – I didn’t have the time to move around them and so shouted, ‘out of the way’ and barged through them.
In the distance I could see the little pocket rocket I had encouraged earlier and overtook her – closing a huge gap. As I went past her I turned and told her she could overtake me again but she just didn’t have a last blast of power in her legs and then another chap who had gone past me earlier thought he could race me to the finish but I still had a bit in the tank and having hit the afterburner of rage I pipped him to the line.
I slowed in the finishers funnel, ‘did you enjoy that?’ asked the marshal.
‘No’ I answered honestly.
Annoyingly I couldn’t find Nicky or Rob at the finish and after about 40 minutes of cantering around looking for them where I saw Hatty finish and Karl come in I had to leave because it was going to be a long journey to Scotland and I couldn’t risk time slipping further and further away. So the Tour of Tameside came to a conclusion but it’s not one I enjoyed writing about and I am confident you didn’t enjoy reading about it either.
Distance: 10km / 6 miles / Half Marathon / 7 miles
Date: July 2021
Tough Rating: 1/5
Routes The Tour of Tameside has been going for 40 years and I am sure that most of the people who run it, love it. I’m confident that lots of them are relatively local and know this area of the world well and love battering around their own stomping grounds. I on the other hand travelled a reasonably long way to test myself on what I thought would be awesome routes and I’m sorry to say that for me they were not.
As I mentioned earlier the second half of the ‘Hell on the Fell’ and some bits of the Hyde 7 were a bit of fun but mostly I found the routes uninspiring – the half marathon and the X trail being the least inspiring. It actually pains me to write this because I don’t want to put anyone off doing this, but I, as a mostly trail runner and adventurer, found these routes disappointing.
Who might these routes suit? Well if you enjoy tarmac running in mostly closed road situations, where supporters can line the routes then this would be a good series for you to consider.
Organisation There was a lot of organisation that went into this I would say, from the road closures to the permits required, to the actual on the day organisation and setting up the starts and finishes which were not always located in the same place.
There must have been a massive logistical effort that went into staging the Tour of Tameside. The amount of volunteers and marshals seemed enormous, the amount of toilets seemed enormous and the amount of road closures seemed enormous – I can’t fault any of that.
On course signage and marking was also excellent and that can’t be faulted.
I also liked that the parking at races 1 and 3 were supporting local community with a £1.00 donation per car, this meant that unused parking space was generating income and helping a race happen. That said the field that race 3 used for parking looked like if any more rain had come down then we might have needed a tractor to get out. I do very much enjoy it when the community gets involved in local races and this was very evident at the Tour of Tameside.
However, I did feel Covid took a real back seat at the Tour of Tameside and that was both surprising and disappointing.
Late in the day there was an email that suggested lateral flow tests should be taken for each event you attend and I did do these tests for each day but I wonder how many of the other runners did? Social distancing would have been near impossible because of the numbers involved and the amount of spectators but there wasn’t much evidence of people trying not to get too close or wearing masks even in indoor settings.
It must be incredibly difficult to balance the needs of the event against the pandemic but I’m not sure a good balance was struck here. However, I did note that race numbers were sent out ahead of time and that did at least reduce the need for queues at race starts – so it wasn’t all disappointing.
On a final note and one very large positive is The Running Bee Foundation who organise the event use these races to generate funds for charity and the winners cash award of £3,000 is given, not to the winner of the tour but, to a charity of the winners choice. In that sense the Tour of Tameside is a community project that benefits others and for that the organisers should be congratulated.
Litter and sustainability So sustainability is something we are seeing increasingly in races – numbers are not posted out, information is provided digitally, goody bags have been dropped in favour of say one good quality item such as a medal or decent technical t-shirt. Sustainability is less of a buzz word and more of an action word but I’m not sure the Tour of Tameside was quite as sustainable as it could have been, it is important to note though that if you want a sustainable race then it is the responsibility of both the runners and the organisers to make this happen and I hope in the future the tour addresses some of the issues around sustainability.
Let’s start with the good – the race handbook was digital and most communication was via email. Race numbers were sent via the post but I imagine this was a Covid issue.
There has been an increase in plastic reduction at races by suggesting that runners should carry some form of cup if you want water and while is mostly relevant at ultra distance running I have seen an increase in the idea at shorter distance races too. To be fair the water bottles are recyclable and there was clear guidance at the race about disposal to help marshals clear them away but there were water cartons spread over a very wide area, much wider than I imagine the race organisers would want and therefore some cartons might have been missed.
This brings me to the other issue – I have gotten very used to not seeing litter on race routes but here there was litter, not tonnes but enough for me to notice. Now be it deliberate or accidental it still gives runners and running a bad name and makes it much more difficult to say that races are good for the community. I’m sure the organisers will have done the best job they can in clean down but littering is something we as people, never mind runners should not do to our community.
And then there was the goody bag at the end, the tour really didn’t need it and it was a very mixed bag of stuff, the tour top was excellent quality as it was Ronhill but there were bits of plastic nonsense from the sponsors and the bag that it was all in was just more plastic. Then of course there were the bits of paper to advertise future races – I think in future the organisers and sponsors might be better finding more sustainable ways of presenting themselves to the audience.
Value for money It was about £15 per race when you break it down and for that you got a lot of stuff, there were medals each day, there was lots of marshal support, there were so many toilets, the road closures, etc. If you like racing and you don’t care about running beautiful routes then this represents excellent value for money.
Awards Let’s start with the good stuff – the Ronhill top that I mentioned above for completing the full tour is excellent. In addition to this you could purchase a range of other tops and vests (which I did) and they were also excellent quality and will be used as training shirts.
The bag, stress balls, piggy bank, cup, etc are less welcome – the race didn’t need it and I would rather the money was funnelled into the charitable aspect of the race and I hope that is a conclusion the race directors come to as well.
The other thing is the medals – there were four of them, one for each race and that’s lovely, as a runner and racer I am rather partial to a medal.
However, there was a problem, the medals are made of either glass or perspex with a sticker stuck to the reverse of them. They feel very cheap and that the stickers are not going to be in it for the long haul. I compare this to the 2015 set of medals which I saw displayed at one of the races and there was no comparison – they’ll still be going strong in 100 years but these ones I doubt will. It also comes back to the sustainability issue again, either get rid of the medals or maybe consider wooden medals which once they fall apart will simply be recycled. I wonder if the stickers on the back of the medal is recyclable?
Volunteers & support There were lots of marshals, lots of supporters and for the most part they were hugely supportive and fun, I really enjoyed laughing and joking with them as I made my way – mostly being a bit silly. There were a couple who were a bit miserable when I tried to have a little joke with them but then I suppose if I was stood for an hour on the top of a hill in the rain I might be a bit sour. Volunteers and marshals have a tough job as they are committed to being out for a long time and while the runners may be out for an hour or two the team will be involved in the set up and breakdown of an event – it can be a long day and they should be applauded.
On the whole though there was some lovely support and of course my ridiculously bright and colourful shirts always attract comments – mostly positive, although there were one or two comments that seemed to draw into question my sexuality, which is fine, I don’t mind you thinking I’m gay, I take it as a compliment.
There was one woman in particular that I must mention and I think she must have had a runner in the races and on the final day she had these wonderful dungarees on at the top of the hill and I’d seen her the previous day when she wonderful colourful trousers on – she was soooo positive and soooo lovely, I really enjoyed chatting to her as I ran past.
Special Mentions There are lots of people I could mention such as Rob, Hatty, Karl and Emma but the special mention must go to Nicky, she was very much the reason I was at the Tour of Tameside and meeting her was an absolute pleasure. She’s a great runner and only going to get better and is a wonderful human being. Despite not having lots and lots of race experience she smiled through most of it and laughed through much of it. Well done Nicky.
It was a massive disappointment to see her injured on the final day hobbling towards me, although it hadn’t come as much of a surprise having seen her the day before, I was also sorry to have missed the opportunity to record the podcast in person and will now look to organise that for a zoom call or some such in the near future.
There was so much to say and talk to Nicky about and I look forward to another opportunity to do so.
Conclusions Well I want this to be as positive conclusion as I can because although the Tour of Tameside wasn’t for me it clearly has a loyal following and is very popular year in, year out.
The charitable aspect of the tour is a wonderful thing that should be supported and the thing is that the issues I had could very easily be resolved by revising the awards given to the runners and examining how the routes could be improved.
If you’re local runner or somewhere relatively nearby then the tour or a couple of the races, even in their current format, are probably something that you do or would consider doing on a semi regular basis and I can see how that works. However, I’m not sure I could justify recommending that you travel any significant distance to come and do this.
I did have some fun during the Tour of Tameside but that was more to do with some of the people I met than my race experience and usually I’ve found that my best races are the ones were I can have a laugh surrounded by stunning scenery.
If I were to recommend any of the races then probably the Hell on the Fell is the most scenic and the most fun. I don’t enjoy writing negatively about races because I know the effort that goes in to staging them and so if the organisers wish to discuss my experience of the Tour of Tameside then I would be happy to go into further detail but it could be that the audience for this series of races is a group I’m just not a part of.
I don’t live in the Highlands, so this isn’t a post about surviving the big snowy, icy, wet conditions that can be had up there, I’m not Scottish, so this isn’t a post about a lifetimes experience of the Scottish Central Belt and its regularly changing weather patterns. No this is a post about how I run through the winter in the Central Belt of Scotland with the minimum of fuss.
Now let’s be fair, I’m an odd guy, I’ve been described, often, as idiosyncratic , weird, a fucking nutter and all sorts of offensive and less offensive things. So what might be right for me might not be for you but this overview of how I do a Scottish winter running might be a starting point to keep you going out through the year. I’ll also be listing kit with this overview to try and show that you don’t have to have lots of fancy gear or for it to cost a fortune to get you out there year round.
History I moved to the Central Belt of Scotland nearly three years ago after the ridiculous English voted to leave the European Union (politics over). In that time I feel I have grown rather accustomed to the unpredictable and yet rather serene nature of life north of my former location.
So head to toe this is how I get ready to face the outdoors in the chillier months!
HEAD | Buff | Hat The head is the easiest bit to get right and I have a couple of items that make sense in surviving the winter here in Falkirk.
Buff Buff Traditional | £10-£30 The first is obviously a buff (or similar), it is possibly the most versatile piece of running gear that you own, intend to own or want to own. It’ll wipe your nose, it’ll wipe your arse, it’ll keep your face covered or it’ll act as a hat. I have several types for winter running – so if I’m going on a long run I’ll often choose the Buff Visor because as well as having a neoprene peak which is very soft and flexible you can still use it as a conventional buff and even still chuck it round your wrist. The peak though is the thing that gives you longer running protection from wind and rain in your eyes and can be wrung out if it gets wet! Perfect.
For shorter running more traditional buffs are used and I tend to carry a couple as they are so versatile.
Hat Big Bobble Hat £20 I’m also very keen on a hat – not always because you need one to keep your little head warm – the buff will do this but because the bobble hat always makes me feel nice. If you get a medium weight running hat then that would cover almost all scenarios and if it isn’t too heavy or bulky it will nicely scrunch up and can be tossed in a pocket of a jacket or a running vest. The Big Bobble hat pictured does not scrunch up so well but it is lovely and toasty and you’ll never say, ‘I didn’t see you coming’ while I’m wearing it.
Alternatives Rab Beanie Hat £15 | Oddballs Bobble Hat £15 | Kalenji Running Hat £6
BODY | Long Sleeved Shirt | Short Sleeve Shirt | Gilet Running hot is a nuisance sometimes, especially during the warmer weather or even on those milder winter days and so I need to have a solution that allows me to be both warm and well ventilated. The solution, as with all things for me, is layering and the three layers I discuss below offer the benefit of being easily removable, wicking and protecting me across a range of runs and a version of this would be used as my race day kit.
Long Sleeved Shirt Ronhill Core Long Sleeved Shirt | £25 A popular choice as a next to skin layer would be something like a compression top but I have never fared very well in these and prefer something that I have a little more control over and so I’ll wear a long sleeved Ronhill top. The benefits of this as my base layer means I can easily roll my sleeves up if I’m warming up too much, I can un/tuck the top into my shorts to minimise the amount of cold air that comes into direct contact with my skin and as it is usually neon in colour it offers a good level of visibility.
Alternatives Salomon Agile LS Shirt £30 | OMM Flow LS Shirt £40 | Kiprun Care LS Shirt £20
Short Sleeve Shirt Oddballs Training Top | £17 Over the long sleeved top I’ll wear a shorter sleeved shirt, usually something very lightweight to account for the fact I have two tops on and I’ve found that the Oddballs training shirts are the ideal combination of weight and durability against the various weather conditions that I’ll face. No they aren’t waterproof but they dry quickly and they have a good fit for a standard shaped man and so there isn’t a lot of spare fabric flying around to catch pools of water in. The best thing though is they are available in a range of batshit patterns and colours, are relatively inexpensive and are a perfect companion to my long sleeved top. If Oddballs ever do a long sleeved training tops I’ll be buying some!
Alternatives Salomon Agile SS Shirt £30 | La Sportiva Advance Shirt £45 | Alpkit Vayper SS Shirt £29 | Kalenji Dry + Feel £6
Gilet WAA Gilet | £45 If it rains while I’m out then the training shirts will dry out pretty quickly but for winter running you should have some form of waterproof or water-resistant cover for moist days – cold will cut through most materials in winter when it is wet and if you’re up a hill or out for several hours then even the hardiest of us will begin to feel the chill.
There are lots of options that you can go for such as a wind/water resistant jacket that will offer a little bit of protection from the elements, a full on waterproof jacket that would be best suited to those long days in the rain or for passing a race kit check but for my day to day winter running I usually take with me my WAA running gilet. The gilet offers just enough protection from the elements combined with a tiny form factor to make it great for distances up to about 13 miles or a couple of hours of running. The front of the gilet is single piece of fabric which means that the wind won’t pass through you too easily but on the back there are mesh panels that allow your body to breathe. Sadly I don’t believe they make this any longer but it was a great piece of kit when I first purchased it about 5 years ago and remains a great piece of kit. Oh
Alternatives OMM Sonic Smock £60 | Soar Ultra Running Gilet £135 | Alpkit Arro Vest £35 | Kalenji Run Wind H £10
HANDS | Overmitts | Gloves | Watch The hands are something that I never had to worry about until I arrived in Scotland and even up here it isn’t a major issue beyond the first few minutes of a run. However, those first few minutes are crucial in determining whether it is going to be a good run or not.
Wind/Waterproof Mitts Decathlon Overmitts | £15 The Decathlon overmitts are both waterproof and lightweight and have a tiny size in both form and weight. One of the key things about keeping warm is that you keep the wind out. I tend to find when running that I don’t need insulation as much as I need to keep the chill from passing through me. The overmitts provide a perfect wind protection layer until my hands have heated enough to be self supporting against the conditions and at about £15 a pair they are much more inexpensive than the nearest rivals.
Gloves WAA Gloves | £15 I’ve had a number of pairs of gloves over the years and most have been rubbish but the WAA gloves offer a thin level of insulation and combine this with still being able to use your fingers (a common problem with any level of insulation in gloves I find). There is no option to operate a phone with these gloves but I find this to be a benefit – it means I leave my phone in my pocket – but the fingers are usable enough to allow me to operate the action camera buttons should I need to. The WAA gloves are also the easiest on and off gloves I have ever bought – handy when you only wear them for a very short period of time, sadly these are no longer available at the WAA website but there are alternatives…
Watch Garmin Fenix 6X Pro | £550 A watch of any description is quite a handy thing to have – yes I happen to be using the rather fancy Garmin Fenix 6X Pro but something much simpler would be more than sufficient. I find that I don’t always track my running with the GPS or record it (I don’t use or like Strava) but I do like to keep an eye on how long I have been out for and also what kind of elevation I am running or hiking at. The watch allows me to do these things but I am not a slave to it and in winter I find it useful to remind me that I have or haven’t been out long enough.
The Fenix 6X Pro was bought as the replacement for my Ambit 3 Peak (a much loved multisport watch) with ultra marathons in mind but the alternatives offer many good features at significantly lower price points. The Polar impresses in particular and my partner has this watch because of its smaller size and lower weight as well as its many activity features.
LEGS | Shorts Whenever I post new running content to either Facebook or Instagram it will be adorned with the hashtag ‘shortsallyear’ because for me there is simply no better feeling and because my body can handle it. Not everybody can handle the cold as well as I do and therefore I can fully appreciate why you might opt for running leggings or even winter running leggings. Legwear is the most complex choice I think as they are difficult to change when you are out on a run and it’s the thing that you are most unlikely to carry a spare of so you’re stuck in whatever you choose to go out in.
Shorts Ronhill Tech Revive Twin Skin Shorts | £35 In the decade I have been running I have owned just 7 pairs of training shorts and given that I run on average a little over 300 days per year that is a lot of running for just 7 pairs of shorts. To be fair 2 of those pairs have been in the rotation for just a couple of months and 2 of those pairs have been there since 2018 – so for nearly 8 years I used just 3 pairs of Nike twin skin running shorts (no longer available) and I wore them in every possible condition. The latest additions to my running shorts armoury are Ronhill because they are good fit for me and I have had many happy adventures in their tops.
I wear twin skin shorts as a general rule because the brief style shorts are a bit like trying to fit a 500ml bottle of cola into a space designed for a 330ml can of fizzy drink. It also means that my legs mostly stay dry even if the outer fabric takes a bit of a pounding from the wet or the mud. In the cold I appreciate the next to skin layer especially given that I have a tendency to be nut sack high in wet muddy trails and worse icy waters.
FEET | Drymax Socks | Gaiters | Trail Running Shoes The feet represent my weakest point and therefore this is the area I pay most attention to during the winter months, I rotate my shoes on a daily basis and often have at least five different pairs going at once – this allows each pair to dry out fully before they are next used. Beyond this it’s about management of my feet to ensure they stay in reasonable condition for the next run
Socks Drymax Socks | £10-30 I recently wrote a piece about how I’ve evolved the set up of my kit for racing with specific reference to my feet (read about it here) and a key component of that are the Drymax socks. I’ve pretty much gone from only using Drymax during races to using them in anything other than warm, summery conditions.
The key benefit of Drymax is the warm while wet approach that means that even if your feet take a serious dunking the socks will keep your little footsies warm and relatively toasty. During a Scottish winter of running it is not inconceivable that you’ll come across snow, ice, freezing water, oodles of gooey mud, oodles of sticky mud and worse and so the socks need to be robust enough to handle all of the above and more.
During winter I tend to wear higher up the leg socks rather than the crew length ones I opt for in the summer and this also helps to keep the crap of the trail or ice away from skin which can an absolute bastard if it slices into you. If there’s one thing I want protected it’s my feet and these really help.
Alternatives Injinji Toe Socks £10-25 | Hilly Off Road Socks £10-20 |
Trail Running Shoes Topo Athletic Terraventure | £120 My first choice running shoes for the winter are my Topo Athletic Terraventure followed by the Inov8 Trail Talon 290, these two workhorse shoes will do everything and they are bombproof, they will go everywhere and nothing can hurt them. Both pairs of shoes will eat up tarmac if they are asked to but they are designed for the trail and that is where they will have the most fun and where you will get most benefit.
Footwear choice is, of course, very personal and you should only wear the shoes that are suited to you but these are the ones suited to me.
I would suggest that whatever shoe you wear during the winter that it is suited to the conditions that you are facing, If you do lots of tarmac then you don’t need aggressive lugs but if you are facing mud and hills on a daily basis then you’ll need something that can dig into the terrain. One thing that has seen me invest in is some specialist equipment for the ice and I’ll discuss this in the extras section.
Shoes don’t need to be super expensive or a super popular brand but go to a retailer (when we are allowed) and try them on, get a feel for them and listen to your feet. It took me a long time to find shoes that worked consistently but issues with my feet are no longer caused by the footwear I choose, just the conditions I run in! Do your research and you will be rewarded.
Alternatives Altra Lone Peak 5.0 £140 | On Cloudventure £150 | Kalenji Evadict TR2 £50 | More Mile Cheviot Pace £30
Gaiters Topo Athletic Gaiter | £15 Let me start by saying that the Topo Athletic gaiter is not my favourite gaiter, that award goes to the Dirty Girl gaiters that have been following my adventures since my first ultra marathon. However, I own the shoes so I might as well own the gaiters with the correct fitting for the footwear. The gaiters during winter provide added protection from the trail, there is nothing worse than stones, grit or other flotsam and jetsam getting involved with your feet. A pair of gaiters will instantly improve your running experience especially, if like me, you’ve got weak feet.
CARRY | Waterproof Jacket | Overtrousers | Light Year round I wear a running vest, I prefer it to a running belt or the Freetrain phone holder, I feel that a running vest or bag is designed to hold stuff and distribute weight across you better than any of the alternatives. Plus as a former Runcommuter I am very used to the idea of running with a bag on my back and in winter I believe that running safely requires the carrying of a few kit extras.
Waterproof Jacket Montane Minimus Waterproof Jacket | £140 I always come back to this jacket for one reason and one reason only – it has never, ever failed me. I own two of these but I mostly wear the one I have owned for nearly a decade, it doesn’t age, it doesn’t show signs of wear and its a beautiful green colour.
The Montane Minimus comes with me on those longer runs or when I head into the hills or if it really is chucking it down – how often do I wear it in the winter? Not that often, but occasionally if I’m having day where I feel a bit shit and frail then I’ll chuck it on and feel that bit more secure about going out and facing the trails.
Overtrousers Montane Featherlite Trousers | £50 This may surprise some readers but even I need a bit of help in the leg department occasionally and the thing that I carry with me are my much underused Montane Featherlite Trousers.
Now let me start by saying that these are not waterproof trousers they are water resistant and wind resistant and this is the key to why I like them so much. They are so light but never let my legs overheat and they dry incredibly quickly meaning that if I have had to resort to putting them on they are going to provide the kind of layer that I need. I own a much heavier pair of waterproof trousers that I use for hiking – the brilliant Berghaus Deluge but these would only be suitable as running cover in the most unpleasant of race situations (say something like the Spine).
This winter I haven’t worn my Featherlite Overtrousers because the lockdown has kept me relatively close to home and therefore away from the hills but in previous winters whenever I go near an area that might leave me a bit isolated these are straight into my running bag and the best thing is that they scrunch down into a tiny little stuff sack.
Light Olight Baton | £90 First off let me assure you that I paid a lot less than the price on the Olight website for a light that is the same length as my thumb (I have small thumbs). However, the important thing is that you are going to want a light if you are running through the winter – in the Central Belt it can be dark for up to 16 hours a day and that means the hours of daylight are likely being taken up with things like childcare or work or watching Netflix.
I have a number of headtorches that all work very well but I wanted something handheld as I find wearing a headtorch is a little uncomfortable (something I’m happy to put up in race conditions but not on my pleasure runs), they interfere with action camera footage and of course it can create the tunnel vision effect that can make running in the dark a lot less enjoyable.
The Olight baton benefits from being tiny in size, as already mentioned, but also incredibly powerful in terms of its beam (up to 2000 lumens) and there are three brightness settings available. Battery life is reasonable even on the brightest setting although in race conditions I think this would only ever be a spare light. The good news is that the Olight Baton can be recharged on the go with the use of an external battery pack and has a very secure magnetic charging cable that means you could chuck it in the back of your pack and leave it there to charge until you need it.
I use this extensively on my local trails if I am running late at night as there is very little moonlight that penetrates the canopy of my trail and so each step is in total darkness – this light really does lead the way. A very worthwhile purchase.
EXTRAS | Spikes | Survival Bag | First Aid Kit | Water Bottle
There are things that I have had for a very long time that form, part of my running kit and there are a few extras I have bought to face the Scottish winters – the first thing I bought as an extra was a pair of running spikes.
I am fortunate to live close enough to my local trails that if it ices up I can manage the few hundred metres of tarmac in spikes to get to the trail. Spikes aren’t the only solution to running on the ice and they certainly are not perfect but they let me keep going out even when others have been sidelined by the weather. Because I have rather large hobbit like feet I bought the Altra Golden Spike which are both surprisingly cushioned and grippy. The alternatives include the excellent YakTrax Pro or the rather expensive studded running shoes from VJ Sports, Inov8 and Icebug.
I have a plethora of water bottles that I use with my absolute favourite being the first generation hard bottles from Ultimate Direction, those bad boys have been hard to beat over the years and despite the advances in the technology and taste of the soft bottle I still prefer these beauties. That said I use my Salomon 150ml soft bottle for runs in winter up to about 21km and anything after that I’ll use a 300ml soft bottle because they are more flexible and fit better alongside the action camera that often accompanies me on runs.
I would always recommend carrying a survival bag of some description, I’ve never had to use one but on the day I do I will be extremely pleased that I have it with me. If I am going off trail or will be on my own for any length of time then this is an essential piece of kit that might well save my life and my life is probably just about worth the £10 that you’ll need to spend to get your hands on one of these.
As for a first aid kit I’m a bit skinny with this, I take a small used Compeed pack and put in it some plasters, a needle, painkillers, blister plasters and a small dressing and keep this at the bottom of my bag – again I have never had to use it while out training, although I did use it while racing on the Isle of Skye and that kept my feet in one piece until the end of the race (I say one piece my feet were fucked – you can read the race review here).
WHAT’S ESSENTIAL? I would say that of the kit listed above the essential bits are the buff, the long sleeved top, legwear, running shoes, socks, gloves and a water resistant or waterproof jacket – the rest I could have survived without but they made my daily jaunts to the trails much easier.
In 2011 if you’d have looked in my running gear drawer this is what you would have found the following;
my old ASICs trail shoes that I ran on roads and trails in | £27
my 3/4 length Nike running tights |£17
a couple of pairs of white cotton M&S socks | £3.50
a black buff that I stole from my partner who used to wear it while visiting farms | Free
a second buff I bought from a Rat Race event | £5
a pair of Saucony running gloves that fell apart after about 5 minutes | £14
a sale Adidas wind resistant jacket | £19
a long sleeved Ronhill running shirt that I still wear to this day | £21
a couple of short sleeved Rat Race overstock t-shirts from previous RR events | £10
It is also worth noting that these days I tend to run daily, especially in the winter and therefore I need a bit more kit to see me through otherwise my washing machine would never be off.
Only you can really decide what is essential for you to go running during the winter but for a relatively small investment you could probably have all the essentials that you need for running regularly and safely.
I tend to invest because my view is always that I’d rather have kit that does the job and does it for a long time and I like good value. My Montane Minimus is the best example of this, I bought the waterproof jacket many years ago for about £80 and it will probably last me another decade or more if I continue to look after it – that’s value for money and I’ve discovered value for money rarely means cheap. That said my £3, 18 year old Kalenji running base layers are still going strong and get worn often, get washed even more often and are super useful for running and other activities, so good value isn’t always expensive either!
WHERE? Where do you get stuff like this? Well that will be down to you but I like to use a mix of independent retailers, direct from manufacturers and online resources.
To make it clear I am NOT sponsored by any of these (or anyone else), I purchase all the products I use and nothing is ever taken for free or testing.
If I am looking for well made and inexpensive kit then I will always look at Decathlon because as well as having a significant shop presence I think they’re brilliant and then places like Cotswold Outdoors and Runners Need will always have something useful that the others can’t cover.
I NEVER buy from Sports Direct.
TOP TIPS I should point out that the kit and products I have listed I own and have used extensively in the cold of Scotland’s winter months, sometimes over multiple years.
The alternatives that I have presented here are merely examples of the things that I might own, might have researched or looked up as alternatives specifically for this blog and if you like the sound of them then get your research hat on and start deciding if it’s right for you. You are the best decision-maker for what will fit and work best for you, not some bloke on a blog or someone answering a Facebook/Twitter question.
And the reason I am posting this towards the tail end of the winter running season? Well it will soon be time for retailers to dispose of their AW20 kit and you might pick up a bargain or two that will be perfect for AW21.
FINALLY I do hope though that you realise that is possible to run all year round and that while you can spend an absolute fortune you really do not have to, the combination of excellent sales and the increase in the UK visibility of places like Decathlon means that choice has never been better and the quality of brands like Crane (via Aldi) has much improved in recent years. The sad thing is that the last couple of years has seen the loss of a couple of excellent independent running stores and these will unlikely be replaced – therefore please support local or independent running/outdoor stores were you can.
Most importantly of course is, enjoy your winter running and do it safely.
The end of January is almost upon us and for the majority none of us will have raced for quite some time.
Now in the context of the pandemic this is a very minor thing but with glimmer of light in the distance and much hard work being done by so many to return humanity to a more traditional lifestyle, I am led to wonder about running races again.
For me the last race I did was Ultra North in September 2020, nestled between what many of us thought was the beginning of the end for COVID 19 and the ramping up of restrictions as the pandemic worsened across the globe.
2020 races, as of April, all got cancelled, some were moved on a number of occasions in an effort for events to happen but most simply didn’t take place. This means that those event organisers who have thankfully survived have moved their events to this year (2021) and this is where we can then only speculate. Is there a value in speculation? Perhaps not but I feel it helps me to write down how I’m feeling about this in order to remain focused in getting ready for the races I am aiming for.
Sadly a few days back I received my first postponement email telling me that the Pennine Bridleway has sensibly been moved from April to September. On top of that I’ve made the decision to pull out of the Quebec Mega Trail in July because I’m convinced my trip to Canada will not happen and therefore I have cancelled the flights and aim to go in 2022. It’s all starting to feel a bit 2020.
That said I’m one of the fortunate ones – I’ve got a lot of races booked in and therefore my racing agenda is set and all I can do is wait. For organisers, participants and those involved in the running events supply chain there are stresses, frustrations and disappointments coming from all directions and you can’t help but feel for everyone.
The 2020 that should have been My 2020 had been billed, by myself, as the year of the comeback. I’ve spent a lot of time treading water and running events at the back of the pack but I had assured myself that now I was settled in Scotland I could finally focus on running again and so even entered my first ultra marathon grand slam. So with that in mind my 2020 looked pretty good, with lots of variety, interesting routes and ball breakers, take a look below;
Tyndrum 24 / January (Completed)
Vogrie Park 5km / January (Completed)
Falkirk Trail 8hr Ultta / February (Completed)
F50K / March(DNS)
Skull Trail Race / March (Completed)
Pennine Bridleway / April (Postponed)
Bonnie Prince Ultra / April (Postponed)
To the Pike & Back Again / April (Postponed)
Chacefield (3 race series) / March / April / May (Postponed)
Ultra Scotland 50 / May (Postponed)
Loch Ness 360 / May (Postponed)
John Lucas Memorial / June (Postponed)
Quebec Mega Trail / July (Postponed)
Run the Blades / July (Postponed)
Ultra North / September(Completed)
Yorkshire Three Peaks / October (Postponed)
Dark Peaks / November (Postponed)
White Peaks / November (Postponed)
Cheviot Goat / December (Postponed)
I had loaded my 2020 calendar for the year end when I had assumed I would be fittest and more ready for the challenges that awaited me and to be fair by the time October and November had arrived I was much fitter than I had been when I raced at the Tyndrum 24. Who knew that I wouldn’t be getting to showcase my new found fitness! I think that most of us hoped that by the time December and therefore The Cheviot Goat had come around that the opportunity to race would have been restored.
As we all know though 2020 would end without the resumption of running events.
It couldn’t be helped and I was very much of a mind that I would rather have tighter restrictions for a significant period to allow all governments globally to get the pandemic under control rather than the half hearted restricting and easing that had been par for the course in the previous 6 months.
Feelings? The running community seems to have been sympathetic to the plight of race organisers, especially the smaller, more intimate events that have gone over and above to do their best for the wannabee participants.
I know there have been exceptions to the above statement and that some events have been found wanting in terms of communication, etc but organisers must have been dealing with enormous logistical, financial and commitment issues and so hopefully there can be some level of forgiveness if communication, rearrangements and the like were not as swift as it could have been.
Virtual Many runners have taken to engaging with the virtual events that almost every organiser has put on and this will presumably help in a small way to recover costs the organisers incurred in amongst other things venue rental, insurances and the production of 2020 materials such as medals and shirts.
Sadly, I fell out of love with virtual events some years ago and therefore found myself less inclined to do virtual runs. The only one I took part in was the ‘To the Pike & Back’ half marathon but this was because I was in the area on race day and was able to run the route at the time the event was supposed to take place.
Had I been running this at home in Scotland rather than in Bolton I would have felt like I had cheated the race and wouldn’t have been able to put the medal with my collection. Odd isn’t it? Maybe it is a little like a t-shirt I have from an event I DNS’d some years back (shirt was posted out pre-event) I don’t ever wear that shirt but I keep it as a reminder of being a knobhead and to stop doing stupid runs the day before a race.
Refunds, rearrangements and re-entry When I received the medal and the shirt a few weeks later it wasn’t with any real elation and this was perhaps the confirmation I needed to say that I would instead focus on training over virtual events. This may seem a little selfish, being unwilling to spend money on the virtual events to help keep organisers going -especially given the amount of benefit I’ve had from racing over the years, but having already spent nearly £1,000 on events and a lot more on extras I was keen not to spend money on things that I had little interest in.
However, I also had no interest in trying to recover any of the money from the events that were being cancelled and postponed because I want these businesses to survive, racing is an important part of my life and I remain happy to participate whenever racing returns. To this end where refunds have been offered and if I couldn’t do the rearranged date I simply donated my entry fee because the money was already used and I had moved on from it.
For example I donated my fee to the Quebec Mega Trail because my Canadian trip had been cancelled, when I rebooked the trip for 2021 I simply re-entered the QMT and now even though my trip has been cancelled again I will not be asking for a refund. Most importantly when we rebook our trip for 2022 I will then enter the QMT again and pay a third entrance fee.
I will continue to support events in my own way.
2021 The other reason I don’t feel particularly guilty for not doing the virtual events is that the moment there were 2021 races to enter – I started entering them. I had wanted to run the Moray Trail Series but given the hold overs from 2020 I could only run the long form of the Speyside Way, I entered within seconds of the event opening. I am hopeful that other opportunities will arise, not perhaps in ultra marathons (I’m pretty much fully booked for that) but in other smaller more community led events – 5 & 10km races, maybe the odd half marathon (to give myself a real challenge). I will happily enter as many of those as my old body will allow.
2020 was a tough year for everyone and 2021 looks like being little better as it stands but there are glimmers of hope, what I remain confident about is that most of us would like race organisers to survive this difficult time and bring racing back (whatever your distance preference).
How and when do I believe they will return? Well nobody has a crystal ball but you’ve got to remain optimistic and believe that during the second half of the year that some level of conventionality will have reached us but nothing is guaranteed, 2020 most certainly taught us that.
What I do believe though is that for a while racing will feel different, if my experience at Ultra North is anything to go by I think that events both running and non-running will be a little more nervous and perhaps lacking some of the confidence that is exuded from a great race environment. I also feel that the mass participation events will perhaps still struggle to operate – think of the amount of people that are involved in the major events, not just the runners, but everyone and you have to wonder if it is perhaps a risk that organisers, supporters and even the runners will be unwilling to stomach.
As for what 2021 should look like? Well my calendar is below and you can see that there are no real mass participation events, I’d say that some of these events would be as low as 50 participants while most will be in the low hundreds taking part. I live in hope that most of these events will go ahead but as I said earlier the first has already been postponed from April to September and one I’ll definitely be DNS’ing the QMT because I’ve now cancelled my flights to Canada.
My Calendar So, my race calendar looks a lot like last year;
Pennine Bridleway / April (Postponed)
Chacefield (3 race series) / March / April / May
Bonnie Prince Ultra / April
Ultra Scotland 50 / May
Loch Ness 360 / May
John Lucas Memorial / June
Quebec Mega Trail / July (DNS)
Run the Blades / July
Speyside Way / August
Yorkshire Three Peaks / October
Dark Peaks / November
White Peaks / November
Cheviot Goat / December
Going forward What would I like to see going forward, well that’s easy, I want to see rewarding running events that are safe (from COVID) but not safe from danger. I would like to see runners returning in big numbers to events that have brought them joy year on year.
I would love to see the return of the little events that litter the running calendar each year that draw the community together and often involve little old ladies handing out race numbers and giving you a little twinkle of their eyes to suggest that they still hold the course record.
I’d like to see event organisers having the confidence to put on new events to replace the ones that will inevitably have been lost and I’d like to see the running community supporting them.
Perhaps a positive of the various lockdowns and the pandemic is that we’ve seen a greater uptake in activity of all types and we’ve been exploring our local routes. What would be awesome is if some of those who have taken up running during the pandemic joined in with these wonderful racing celebrations of running. Races and the race experience cannot be replicated by a virtual events or even (in my opinion) by wonderful things like Parkrun, both of these do serve a very real need in the running community but they don’t do what racing does.
I’d like to think I’d even consider starting my own race or race series, though having seen the struggle of race directors during the good times to organise and fill an event, I’m not sure I’m ready to join their ranks just yet (if ever). But it is something I have been considering for quite a while and also something I feel that my natural organisational skills would be well suited to.
What have I been missing? Before I sign off I want to try and remind both you and myself about what racing does for me and maybe you’ll recognise some of this yourself.
Racing brings me nerves and anticipation, that anticipation leads to a dry mouth, clammy hands and sometimes sweaty nuts. Mostly it leads to a case of the epic shits (something I have detailed many times).
As I approach a start line I can feel the hairs on my arm standing up awaiting the order to race and as I barge into the throngs of runners ahead of me, trying to edge forward in the pack even before the race has started, I feel excited.
As I set off and my legs feel tense and yet like jelly I’ll find a rhythm and I’ll push as hard as my body will allow. I can hear the pounding of my feet on the floor, I can hear the sound of the different terrains, crunching through the leaves, sloshing through the rain and drumming deeply on the pavement. I can feel and hear the wind, it makes teeth chatter, it makes eyes narrow and it whistles across my face drying the sweat into salt that will later melt into my eyes.
But what I’ve missed most is seeing a Neil MacRitchie, Fiona Kirkaldy or Michael Hrabe, a face I know ahead of me and that feeling in my gut that is so desperate to catch them and overtake them that I feel the blood pulsing around my body and giving me that one final injection of speed. I never do catch them of course, I’m old, fat and ruined but I cross that finish line with aplomb and a little flourish.
No amount of lovely training and lovely muddy, hilly or wet running can replace that.
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.
Eat more healthily
Start running consistently
Run for longer
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.
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.
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.
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…
So how do the numbers stack up for this month?
Time on my feet: 29hrs 45 mins
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.
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 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).
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.
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.
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’.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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;
Falling would hurt
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!’
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!
Ascent: +2000 metres
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).
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.
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
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.
The two young children and their mother offering water, coffee, goodies and support in the darkest hours of the race
The cries of Allez! Allez! Allez! and Bravo!
My sprint to the finish line
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!
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).
Easy to get on and off public transport
Avoids the need for lifts
Excellent on road
Excellent off road
Excellent for tight situations
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.
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.
Some days you’re really up for a marathon and other days you simply aren’t.
Thankfully I’d really been looking forward to the Suunto RunWimbledon marathon as it was a chance to properly test myself after a few months out and also test the back injury that has been plaguing me since late last year.
For the first time in ages both the GingaNinja and ASK rolled up with me to the start line near the Windmill Museum and we sat on the grass in the early autumnal sunshine having some lunch and bimbling round on our balance bike (the toddler, not me). The race village was excellent and served as the hub for runners coming in and out of the event. Suunto had a significant presence as the events main sponsor but otherwise this was as low key as you like.
Prior to race start I had the good fortune to bump into @Totkat – fresh from her self supported adventuring from Lands End to John O’Groats. It seemed we were both there for a bit of Marathon tomfoolery rather than going out hard. That said when the horn went off at 2pm I found myself pushing out on to the trail and following my tried and tested method of flooring it for the first half and then dropping off or exploding for the second half.
The route was four laps of winding in and out of the trails of Wimbledon Common and there was a combination of lovely downhills to get your feet moving, a couple of minor uphills to let you have some hurt and some duller connecting trails to keep you on track – all in all not a bad route given the size of space being worked with.
I pressed on through the field, trying not to pace myself against anyone else as I knew that many of the runners were liable to be a) relay marathoners or b) just better runners than me and every time I felt myself speed up I tried to calm myself down and slowwwwww up.
About 3 miles in it became quite clear that I hadn’t had my pre-race dump but this, for a change, didn’t concern me too greatly as I knew that at about 4 and a bit miles in there were portaloos. However, when I arrived into the race village there was a significant queue and I was running pretty well so I pressed on into the second half of the lap. I think it would be fair comment that the second half of the lap was significantly less interesting than the first half but it did give some nice long stretches of path that allowed you to open the taps a little. 15 minutes I was back in camp and looking towards the loo.
Once more though my hopes were dashed and with a quarter of the marathon run in a little over 50 minutes I was keen to get going again. I stopped for water and a bottle refill but there was no time for the loo – I’ll deal with this on lap 2! I drifted around the course attempting to maintain my pace but with my already listed toilet problem this was becoming a challenge. However, an option presented itself on the lap – the Wimbledon Common cafe had a toilet that was only a couple of hundred metres off the route and if there was still a queue when I got to the halfway point then I’d try that!
Of course there was a queue! And so with the clock ticking I pressed quickly to the spare toilet a mile or so away. Needless to say I lost some time and when I came out of the facilities some 20 minutes later I knew that a good time was looking beyond me. I ran into the race village feeling much relieved in the bowel region but had now begun to notice that my groin was groaning from a distinct lack of fitness and my back was aching from what could have been the start of my injury seeking revenge. Effectively I was slowing and not even the smiling ASK and GingaNinja could lift my spirits – I was just going to have to grind this out.
The one thing the race was missing on the support table were some sweets or slices of fruit and so I was very glad I had my own reserve and took onboard some Haribo and a children’s fruit pouch. The third lap was my worst and I just couldn’t get going and no matter what my heart was saying my head was saying the opposite but as I crossed the trails and heard the sympathetic applause of several dog walkers I determined that I must make a better effort and so I stopped – massaged my groin for several minutes and lay on the ground to stretch my back. This had enough of a desired effect that as I set off on the final lap I actually felt better. Mentally I was back in the game and while my groin was pretty knackered I was running consistently! There were now very few runners out on the course – there hadn’t been that many to begin with – but I found it in myself to overtake a couple of people and get round. Even the hill overlooking the race village was mounted with relative ease and I pressed downwards to the final couple of miles. ASK was awaiting me and I had to explain I would be back shortly but she could run the last few hundred metres with me if she wanted (in training for her race the following day). We had a little cuddle and she told me she would, ‘still be awake dad, it’s getting dark but it’s not bedtime yet’.
With those words ringing in my ears I hammered home those final couple of miles and when I came up to the 200 metre marker she was waiting for me. Given that the ground was uneven i insisted she held my hand but we thundered our way to the line. ‘Faster dad, Faster’ came the familiar line as we raced across the line to the sound of cheers from the volunteers, event staff, and the remaining runners and supporters!
I think ASK was happier than I was at the conclusion of the race as she was awarded a medal for an outstanding sprint to the finish. But ultimately despite the challenges I personally faced on the day this was a damn fine event.
Profile: mildly undulating
Date: September 2017
Location: Wimbledon Common
Terrain: Mixed, trail, muddy trail, good paths
Tough rating: 2/5
Route As I’ve already indicated the route was interesting without being spectacular, ultimately you’re in a borough of London – how exciting can you make it? but it was a very well thought out use of the space available. For me the best bits were when the trail tightened up, ran through the dirtier trails and forced you to beware but for many this would have been a lovely introduction to trail marathons. Interestingly despite being a trail event this felt like a fast event with good times perfectly possible – worth noting for the trail speed demons.
Organisation Those who put on the Suunto RunWimbledon had a good plan and stuck to it. The placement of drinks support was excellent and you passed the table twice per loop and having a race village in the loops middle actually made this a jovial affair. The volunteers were universally excellent and for the most part the organisation was perfectly invisible which allowed the runners to simply get on with the job of running.
Awards A new Salomon neck gaiter/buff, a decent bespoke medal and drinks – you’d be hard pressed to grumble.
Value for money £35, 4 loops of a well thought out course, excellent support and little extras like the neck gaiter – yep this one would score highly on good value.
Conclusion The Suunto RunWimbledon Marathon is an excellent trail running marathon that is well organised and well supported – with the addition of the half marathoners and 10km runners the field felt quite nicely full but never so much as to feel crowded. I’d say that if you were looking for an early autumn marathon near London then this one would have to rate highly in your choices. The question I often ask myself when I review races is ‘would I do this again?’ and in this case the answer is yes.
What do all these things have in common? These are all aids many of us use to help complete long distance endurance events.
I use running poles when allowed, I almost always use a GPS device even if a map isn’t loaded on to it and before I realised compression kit was causing all sorts of injury problems I would often be found in ridiculously tight fitting attire.
There are two aid types though that I wonder about, the first I don’t use, the second I do (when I can convince the GingaNinja to rock up to a race registration).
Pacers and Crews: The aid I don’t use that I’m referring to are pacers and it was after seeing some amazing finishes at hundred milers and the like that got me wondering if using a pacer increases the likelihood of a finish and whether by using them are runners on a level playing field?
The other aid are crews – which I do, on occasion, use and I believe that in the early days of my ultra marathoning I really wouldn’t have gotten very far without a crew and the support they offer. But do they give me and others who use them an edge on race day?
Reading lots of recent race reports and talking to runners it’s clear that there is an appetite for the use of both pacers and crews but does it take away something of the challenge? Increasingly my view is becoming that yes, these things are taking away from something that, at its best, in my opinion, is a solo sport.
Perhaps if they’re going to be in play there should be greater scrutiny about how a crew and pacers can be used as I’ve witnessed some things during recent races that has made me wonder if too much crew access and too much pacing is creating an unfortunate imbalance in ultra marathons.
I met a Spanish runner at about 30 miles into an unsupported race recently and we ran together for maybe 12 miles. I enjoyed his company very much but the curious thing was that his crew met him at five different points along the route during the time we were together. Each time he would stop, chat, change kit, have a nibble, check his route, have a sit in the warm vehicle etc. It felt like the spirit of the race was not being adhered to and there were others too during this particular event that had cars literally following them down the roads – with family members joining in for a few miles as pacers – picking up food at McDonalds, etc. I’ve met people who’ve run past their homes or near enough to detour and been witness to them going indoors, changing wet or filthy kit, filling up food and then simply popping back on the route – all I should point out, within the rules of the race. I don’t begrudge this level of support – hell, if I could get it my DNF percentage wouldn’t be so high! However, though I’m far from a purist in running terms I do feel this takes some of the shine off the effort required.
The pacer question is very much a personal choice and are often subject to specific race rules but for me these are an aid that detract from one of the most important aspects of a race – the mental challenge. I could pluck an arbitrary percentage out of the air but I’d suggest that most endurance races are won and lost in the mind and not in the body. The pacer therefore can have a real, tangible effect on a racers performance and we are back to the point about imbalance.
All this said though I’ve been known to buddy up with runners on a route in order to ensure a finish although always with the agreement that if the pacing didn’t match we’d say goodbye and good journey. That changed a little bit when on the South Wales 50 when myself and two other runners joined up on the course then formalised our pacing/team running strategy to ensure that we all finished. It was perhaps this more than anything that got me wondering about just how much of a difference a pacer can make. Now to be fair Ryan, Pete and myself were all pretty ruined by the time we’d hooked up and it was as much about surviving the night as it was pacing but it gave me an insight to what a fresh pair of legs or a fresh attitude can do for a very tired ultra runner.
These days I’m much more a social ultra runner rather than a competitive one and I tend not to think too much about my position in the field, preferring to concentrate on taking in my surroundings and having a lovely time. However, this has got me wondering just how much better I might be if I had a team right next to me pushing me forward?
The purity argument: The reason I suppose I don’t do that and put together a team to get me through these things is simply because of my belief in the solo element. I probably would be a better runner if there was someone in my ear for the final 50 miles pushing me that little bit harder or if I had a crew with lots of kit ready and waiting. However, for me ultra running is being out there, facing myself and a trail and although I can very much respect other people’s decisions for using pacers and crews it’s less and less suited to me. Perhaps evidence of this was that the last time the GingaNinja crewed for me was the Thames Path 100 in 2015 – here she met me several times armed with chocolate milk, kit options and a regular stern talking to but since then she’s mainly been at starts and finishes if there at all and in truth I prefer this. Although it’s scary to think you’re on your own it really does heighten the elation (for me) upon completion.
All this said I’ll still be using poles (periodically) and GPS – I’m not giving those up anytime soon, I mean I’m not completely stupid! Therefore am I a hypocrite for suggesting pacers and crews detract from a level race but I’m perfectly content to gain an edge by using kit that some call ‘cheat sticks’ or by buddying up inside an event? I suppose it’s an individuals view and more importantly a race directors view and if you (or perhaps I) don’t like it well then I don’t have to sign up to that race.
And so… I’m curious about your views on pacers and crews, do you feel they offer you a better chance of finishing well? Do you think they give some runners an advantage that others don’t have? Would you consider them a hindrance? Or are they simply part of your ultra running armoury?
I remember the first time I put the UDPB1.0 on and felt it was a kind of hallelujah moment. It was a race vest that, even to this day, I’ve never found any flaws with. I still love running with it, I still race with it and it had never let me down – so it was with considerable ease that the money for the Ultimate Direction PB3.0 came out of my account.
However, given I’ve been very happy with my Oxsitis Hydragon I was in no rush to be an early adopter and so waited for the reviews and then waited a bit more. Having seen the blue and grey colour way I was less than impressed by the slightly dour look of the signature series 3.0 but when the ‘Canyon’ version was available it became a much easier sell. I bought my PB3.0 (as with much of my kit) from an independent retailer and waited patiently for its arrival.
Like a child in a sweatshop I ripped open the package and tried it on the moment it arrived and it felt as luxurious as all the promise of the reviews. It had pocket upon pocket, it fitted so very differently from the version 1 but it was comfortable and my word was it beautiful. Everything has been overhauled, the fabrics, the mechanisms, the shape and structure and there are a thousand and one little gems waiting to be found.
Specifications and features
Sliding rail sternum straps
Bottle holster tightens to carry phone or camera
iPhone compatible pockets
Unique, on-the-go trekking pole holders
Double ice axe loops
Soft and flexible 150g mono-mesh
Two mesh pouches for wet or voluminous gear
Secure lateral pockets
Sizing At Chest (Unisex):
SM: 24 – 36 in. / 62 – 92 cm
MD: 31 – 41 in. / 80 – 104 cm
LG: 38 – 48 in. / 96 – 122 cm
Volume Capacity: 16L
Weight: 14.42 oz. / 412 g
Height: 17.3 in. / 44 cm
Width: 9.4 in. / 24 cm
Depth: 9.1in. / 23 cm
The Pockets For me this is probably the biggest improvement that the UDPB3.0 has. In the previous edition we had a couple of water bottle holders and 4 smallish pockets above and below the bottle holders. The reverse was split into a main compartment and a small stuff space. The PB3.0 has been completely overhauled to work for ultra runners (and with a bit of thought, also commuters). The large main section has been retained but now tapers a little at the bottom making for a more refined fit and stops kit simply getting lost at the bottom of the pack.
The main stuff pouch on the back now accounts for only the bottom half of the vests body but is more flexible and feels more durable, above it we have a similar mesh pocket that is less springy but locked in by the various clip fastenings that hold the UDPB3.0 together.
There is also now a dedicated bladder pocket – though this could be used for any number of items but would be best suited perhaps to clothing – though remember to wrap any clothing as sweat would seep through.
In terms of change I thought that the removal of the double water bottle pockets would be a mistake but the burrito pocket is a revelation and combined with ideas taken from the Fastpack 20 you are more than happy loaded up front without feeling cramped. The new front pocket system is more more aligned to the use of soft bottles but it’s not impossible to use hard bottles if you wish. Ultimately the front pockets are brilliant and perfectly balanced.
As the pack wraps around UD have retained the enormous cavernous side pockets but with added ventilation meaning that your Reeces Cups might not melt quite so quickly. I use my side pockets mainly for things like Tailwind and headtorches as they now feel substantial enough to handle it. In the v1.0 I always kept buff and gloves there as they weren’t quite as substantial or, in my opinion, secure.
Finally we have a small stash pocket on the back of the pack – which on paper is another excellent addition but I found that when you had a reasonably full pack the zip could quite easily work it’s way open – therefore leaving valuables or whatever at risk to loss.
The pole holders proving quite handy for keeping my GoPro secure
The Pole Holders The UDPB3.0 has been crying out for dedicated pole holders and I like most other runners have simply adjusted our previous editions to find a way of securely carrying an often necessary piece of kit in the hills and mountains. The easy ‘loop and pull’ system means that getting your poles out is not tedious at all and these holders minimise stoppages.
Fitting and adjustment
The UDPB1.0 fitted so brilliantly that I didn’t think thy could improve on it – but they have. They’ve tweaked the clips to be a little more robust, made the rails they move on rigid to give form and it feels snug. With limited adjustment round the middle it’s all adjusted up front and because it’s a generally better balanced vest now it’s weighted for a more comfortable ride.
There are also lots of little bungee cords to help the adjustment the back and keep everything as tight and fitted as possible and to stop these cords bouncing around we have an equally large number of clever clips.
There is little doubt in my mind that the UDPB3.0 is a top quality product, it screams premium. This is how Ultimate Direction describe it,
150g Knit Mono Mesh: New 150gsm harness conforms to your body for absolute comfort and superior load carrying
180g Darlington Power Mesh: Lightweight strength with differential stretch in the x and y axis for enhanced load management
SilNylon/66: Silicone-Impregnated 30D nylon with a polyurethane face creates a permanently waterproof fabric, and substantially increases seam and tear strength
I don’t know enough about materials or manufacturing to discuss how good or bad the materials above are but what I do know is that the feel is soft on your back, durable to the touch across the main wear and tear points and it has an attention the detail that we’ve come to expect from this generally excellent ultra kit producer. If the third iteration stands up half as well as its predecessor then it’ll be worth £140 of anyone’s money.
I’ve raced a few times in my UDPB3.0 and have found it excellent for carrying every item of kit you’ll need for a 24/30hr race. The positioning and weight balance is impossible to ignore. It would be fair comment to suggest you’ll forget its there mostly but for me there is one downside and for me it’s a massive one. At about the 30 mile mark my lower back starts to ache, at first I thought it would pass but in all the events I’ve run with the UDPB3.0 I’ve suffered and in one case there’s no doubt it significantly increased the likelihood of my eventual DNF.
That said the first 30 miles are as described above are magic.
My commutes are short, 6 miles at most in any one direction (mostly) and, if I chose to, the UDPB3.0 would be an expensive but excellent choice. However, for those that carry the world and it’s all its possessions to work each day then this isn’t going to cut the mustard and you’d be better sticking with your Osprey, OMM or Kalenji which all offer bigger capacities at a fraction of the price. However, if I know I’m going to be doing a post work 20 miles I don’t mind a slightly tighter squeeze to ensure I’m running with a decent race vest rather than one of my commuting packs.
Can I recommend the latest iteration of the Ultimate Direction PB? Damn right I can but with caveats that come from the experience of using it.
It’s spec is very high, it is very well made and it fits as snuggly as the previous edition but for whatever reason the pack also is causing me lower back discomfort which I simply can’t reduce and that therefore limits the vests use to me, if you are considering purchasing this I would certainly go and try it our first if you can.
Ultimately at somewhere between £120 and £140, for me, this makes the UDPB3.0 an expensive short distance race vest but from collected anecdotal evidence the experience of most people is that this is simply a superb product and Ultimate Direction should be commended.
Perhaps the most important thing for me is, ‘will it usurp the Oxsitis Hydragon?’ and the easy answer to that is ‘no’ – it is a close run thing and if it didn’t cause me discomfort later in a race then maybe it would be a more genuine contender but the Oxsitis has features I really love that the UDPB3.0 doesn’t (but also the reverse is true in favour of the UD). So for now I will be continuing with the Oxsitis for big, long distance running and I’ll be saving the UDPB3.0 for my shorter races.
The Ultimate Direction can be tried out and purchased at a number of excellent independent retailers in the UK including Likeys and Northern Runner – other retailers are available but I would urge all runners out there to support our independent retailers and while this review is 100% independent and the product bought with my own money I very much value the contribution of these wonderful retailers because without ALL of them we wouldn’t be able to access these excellent products as easily.
Your favourite races over time will change and a couple of years ago I looked at which events had given me the most joy but since then I’ve run another 50 races and I thought it was about time to refresh the list.
I’ve limited my list to just a single choice and the previous winner if there was one. The thing is though there are lots of great events that didn’t make the number one spot, the Green Man Ultra for example comes a very close second to the SainteLyon while MIUT, UTBCN and Haria Extreme could all easily take the top spot in their respective categories.
At the other end I hate missing out the City of London Mile and the Bewl 15 but hopefully this list provides an interesting read and a starting point for you to find your own favourite races… and you never know maybe one of these races will become your favourite sometime too.
I suppose this remains my favourite OCR run because I don’t really do OCR anymore. However, having done Survival of the Fittest, the Beast in the East, Xtreme Beach and several others (though never a tough mudder) I’d say that this ‘natural’ OCR still has great character and deserves consideration for some end of year fun. Why do this race? mud glorious winter mud.
I’ve completed a number of timed challenges, many of them with SVN who provided the Fowlmead Challenge but without a shadow of a doubt my favourite timed event was the 18hrs I spent running around a truly spectacular route near Fleet to the south west of London. There was something quite magical about the tree lined, up and down, 10km lap that really tested the mettle of the runners – it helps I think that it was a relatively small field, a great atmosphere and a thoughtful organising team. I was somewhat dismayed to note that there was no 2017 edition but I live in hope that this great value event returns because I know I can do much better than I did last time. Why do this race? A truly awesome route that never gets boring no matter how many times you do it!
Category: Up to 5km
Winner: Chislehurst Chase Fun Run Previous: Westminster Mile
I’d been trying to run the main Chislehurst Chase 10km for about 4 years when I finally found the time to rock up and hammer out a couple of laps of one of my favourite Kentish routes around Scadbury Park. The unexpected bonus was the children’s 2km fun run which was a nice, tight loop. UltraBaby in her first race to be powered exclusively by her own legs ran well for the first kilometre but then needed some minor cajoling to finish (in a respectable 30 minutes). The huge cheering crowd and the positive atmosphere filled me with joy but also my daughter who only the week before had turned 2. The medal that they placed around her neck remained there all day as she told passers-by of her running success and still she strokes her ‘Chase’ medal when she tells me, ‘my medals are here dad!). Great event! Why do this race? it’s fast, furious and family friendly
I do love Ashton Gate Parkrun – it’s outstandingly good fun and also the starting point for one of my favourite ultra marathons, The Green Man but when I think of the 5km race that brought me most joy then it had to be Xtreme Beach. I’d been injured for quite a long time when this came up and at the last minute I decided to attend the inaugural event near the Bradwell power station in Essex. It turned out that Xtreme Beach was a looped OCR event through the most hideous smelling crap on the planet with ball busting challenges to face on each loop. I settled for a single loop as I didn’t want to disturb my hip injuries too much and by god it was fun! I came out of the filthy waters around the power station in shades of black I wasn’t aware existed and the squelch from my trainers indicated I’d not shirked my responsibility to give it some welly. Lots of fun packed in to that event – I wonder if it’s still going? Hmmm.
The Chislehurst Chase is a double winner from me as the 10km trail race is an easy choice as one of the best 10km races around. The two lap route around Scadbury Park is windy, hilly, muddy, fast and challenging – it demands that you give every inch of yourself as you wend your way round the course and the rewards are pure exhilarating enjoyment. When I lived near Orpington I would regularly run fast laps around the main trail here and thunder up and down the hills with my spaniel but to get a medal for doing it was a lovely added bonus. Why do this race? a tight, twisty and runnable course finished off with a blistering sprint across the track. Outstanding.
Category: 10 mile
Winner: Vigo Tough Love 10
Previous: Vigo Valentines Day
The only thing more fun than the Vigo Valentines Day 10 mile was when they made a few minor course changes and turned it into to the stomach churning, arse clenching Vigo Tough Love 10! This is the Kentish equivalent of a fell race and is both fast and furious while being a proper ball busting grind. The race failed to take place in 2016 but with the support of the Harvel Hash Harriers made a triumphant return in 2017 with a few minor course amendments and a superior sprint to the finish line. There is something magical about this race, in any incarnation, but the 2017 version for me is definitive and I’ll be back for a fourth crack next year! Why do this race? because it’s the best race around and at a mere 10 miles and a cut off of nearly 4 hours – anyone can do it… if they show a bit of tenacity.
The half marathon distance is the one I run the least because it’s the one I enjoy the least. However, that being said I’ve run a dozen and I’ve never found one more exhilarating than the ‘Summer Breeze’ on Wimbledon Common. It was a hot, muddy, slow run with my former colleague HitmanHarris – I was injured and he was steady – it should have been an awful afternoon but actually it was as much fun as I’d hoped for and will make an effort to return in 2018 to this bimble with the Wombles! Why do this race? you’d do this race because it is so far from what you might expect and that’s a really good thing.
Winner: Vanguard Way Marathon
Previous: Liverpool Marathon
My first marathon was in Liverpool in 2012 and while it was a fun it was a busy road marathon and pounding pavement, as I would discover, is not what I enjoy, nor does my body. Roll forward a couple years and the 2016 Vanguard Way Marathon – a race with almost universal approval, small field, beautiful trail route and a delightful medal what’s not to like? Well the VWM takes you on a tour of your own limits, you’re guaranteed to do ‘free miles’ as you get lost, the water may well run out at the checkpoints, it’s the middle of August with large swathes of the route held in a bloody sun trap and there’s a couple of arse quiveringly unpleasant hills to climb! I suppose you’re wondering why I’d say this is my favourite marathon then aren’t you? Well that’s easy, any race that tries to kill you has definitely got your respect. I suppose you can only truly appreciate being alive when you stand a chance of not being and the VWM provided that opportunity by the bucketload. Why do this race: the VWM is the UK version of Dignitas, just with a lower success rate. A tough as old boots marathon and in the August heat can be a real killer.
Because I’ve expanded on the race distances I’ve done the 50km category has made itself available for a winner. Thankfully there was a very clear choice in my mind and that was the event that took in some wonderful trails around Amersham and also gave me my first experience of the wonderful XNRG. There was a certain zip and energy that accompanied this friendly, charity fund raising event and it seemed to me that everyone was up for a bit of a bimble. Now it’s true that I was feeling rough as heck for most of the race as my guts tried to force me into a DNF but I held on to record a respectable finish and have lots of lovely chats with some truly awesome. Why do this race? because it’s for charity, because it’s run by XNRG who are amongst the best in the ultra business and because it’s an amazing route.
Category: Ultra (50km – 75km)
Previous: St Peters Way
I loved the muddy glory of the St. Peter’s Way in Essex but for me the SainteLyon is both my favourite race in this category and also my favourite ultra. It’s the middle of winter, it’s midnight and there’s 6000 other runners all stood in Saint Etienne ready to launch themselves towards Lyon. It has twinkling headtorches as far as the eye can see, it has French locals out with cow bells cheering you on and it has a truly fast finish as you bound under the illuminated archway! It’s an amazing race and an amazing experience. And if you’re running it in 2017… we’ll I’ll see you there. Why do this race? it is simply unforgettable.
Category: Ultra (75km – 100km)
Winner: South Wales 50
I had no idea that the South Wales 50 would leave such a wonderful mark in my heart and there are lots of reasons for this. The route is compelling and tough, the organisation is top notch and the medal was both excellent and hard earned – however, it’s none of these that make this my favourite race in this category. The real reason is the bond of friendship that drew together the runners – I’d never seen so many quickly formed bonds made. I met Pete and Ryan who I will forever hold in high esteem and have huge respect for (good luck at TDS and RoF guys). Importantly though these type of bonds could be seen all over as people got to know one another on a way I’d never seen before. I would highly recommend the South Wales 50 – but be prepared for a toughie. Why do this race? it’s tough, it’s intimate and it’s great fun.
I’ve said many times before that Skye tore me apart, broke me but also gave me one of the greatest race experiences I’ll ever have. Skye showed me ‘I can’ and I made sure I did. This race is as small and as intimate as you like, it’s run by ultra runners for ultra runners and it is tremendously inclusive. But don’t get caught up in admiring too many of the spectacular views because Skye is a ball buster. Enjoy Why do this race? because it’s there and everyone should run Skye.
Skye Trail Ultra (The Ridge)
‘It’s this way’ I called over to Neil and pointed southwards and then I looked down, the descent was terrifying and amazing in the same instant, being awestruck though was soon replaced by the reality that I had to descend this.
SainteLyon (highest point)
From the viewing point, at 3am on a cold December morning, I stopped to turn back and watch the twinkling of thousands of head torches in the distance gently lighting up the trail. C’est magnifique!
St Peters Way (The final push)
Darkness was upon me and a gale blew me from pillar to post. The gentle final shaft of light cast a foreboding shadow of the finish line and church in the distance. It was the most beautiful finish.
Vigo ‘Tough Love’ 10 (That Hill)
‘Don’t worry, it’s not that bad’ said an older fell running type when describing the final hill of the Vigo 10. With absolute clarity I remember creaking my neck skywards to see the top of the hill, what a sight, what a hill, what a route!
What do all these things have common? Well they were my first experience of some section of a race route and always under race conditions and most importantly the first sight of some of the most spectacular views available.
I’ve often gone back to races I’ve loved – Vigo (favourite race) and the SainteLyon (favourite ultra) are prime examples but no matter how much I love these races none of them will be able to capture the awe, joy and delight I had as I saw the route for the first time. There is something special about your first time, even if it’s not your best result at that race or it doesn’t go to plan – there’s magic in a first go at any race.
I would be lying if I said I had never done a recce but on the few occasions I have I’ve found that rather than enhance my experience of a race it actually takes something away from it. Perhaps it is that when you live for the unknown, the discovery and the curiosity then having those things taken away in race removes the enjoyment (for me).
The thing is I have a belief that there is nothing better than the first moment I pass across an amazing vista, run an amazing piece of trail, soak myself in a muddy puddle and lightning, in my opinion, never strikes twice.
It’s for this reason that I don’t get running a race route in preparation. I mean why would you?
I understand if you’re at the front of the pack chasing the prize of a win or a high placing – you want every advantage possible and knowing where you are headed and what you’ll face will certainly count as an advantage. But if you’re a bit like me, middle of the pack bimbler, then maybe like me, you’re there for the experience of being amazed and challenged. I wonder if you any of you feel that foreknowledge of a route can deflate the joy of that?
I’m also aware that some do it for the enjoyment and some do it for the feeling of security. But if I did it I would feel as though I was robbing myself of moments I’ve come to cherish.
There is a solution…
For those that want it though there is an obvious solution to save the route while at the same time condition oneself to the terrain you’re running and that’s simply to run in as close to race conditions as possible. When I rocked up to the CCC I went running in mountains that might mimic the conditions I’d face but I didn’t go anywhere near the Monte Bianco until race day.
When I ran The Wall I spent the week prior running in the rain soaked Lake District bouncing around Grizedale, Skafell Pike and others but I didn’t get near the north of the Lakes to tackle the route.
I’d therefore picked up a bit of relevant local information without compromising my enjoyment of the event – but this isn’t always practical when you race a lot or the location is a bazillion miles away. I just don’t worry about it (that said my arse is a bit quivery about having never run on the Brecon Beacons next weekend!)
Why I’ve never run the North Downs Way… I’ve been asked why, despite living so close to it that I don’t train (often) on the North Downs Way and I’ve never really had an answer but as I was reflecting on the writing for this post I realised why – I’m waiting for a single day race to take place there that I really want to do.
Surprise yourself… I guess I’m not suggesting that you give up the preparation for races – that would be silly and counter productive for many but I’ve met lots of runners who get so caught up in the detail of a race that they forget to look up and admire their surrounds and the last time I checked running was supposed to be fun. During Escape From Meriden I met a young gentleman who when I asked why this race, he responded, ‘well you get to see new things don’t you?’. I couldn’t have put it better myself.
So with the weekend upon us, whether you are racing or not maybe go left instead of right, look upwards instead of down and make sure you ‘see new things, lots of them!’
Unless you are an avid reader of French blogs and reviews most of the people who read this are likely only to ever come across Oxsitis through one of two places, the first is via the Hoka running bag (which is made by Oxsitis) or through the countless images I’ve posted across my own social media extolling the virtues of their products.
I first came across Oxsitis when I was looking for a replacement for my original Ultimate Direction PB race vest – I wasn’t keen on the v2.0 as this didn’t look like a serious upgrade and I had recently tried the Hoka Evo bag at the London Marathon Expo in 2014 (just there for the expo not the race).
They didn’t have any for sale but they had one to try and it was amazing. Lots of pockets, incredibly lightweight and a little organiser system on the inside. I went home and began researching the bag and eventually discovered that the bag was made by a relatively new French manufacturer ‘Oxsitis’.
Reviews were limited and stockists even more so but after finding out as much as I could I took the plunge and bought the Hydragon 17l – the most deceptively brilliant race vest I’ve ever owned.
Later that year I was in France for the CCC and happened to be staying near a place called Albertville which has the single most awesome running and outdoor store in the universe Au Vieux Campeurit had everything – lots of Hoka, tonnes of Raidlight, Grivel and brands I’d never come across OMG I was in some kind of running heaven. I spent hours poring over items I had no reason to buy, I tried on everything and bought quite a few things – but the one piece that is relevant to this post is the Oxsitis Hydrabelt.
I’m no fan of running belts as I find they ride up and ultimately aren’t very comfy – I’d much rather wear a race vest and spread the load across my back but the CCC had an extensive kit list and it was being suggested we should all be carrying more water than normal as the temperature was expected to be high. I tested several Salomon and Nathan choices as well as a couple from Decathlon but my choices would be limited so close to race day. I saw the Oxsitis belt and given my positive race vest experience decided to give it a go.
The belt was secured by two thick Velcro straps that could be adjusted at either end and across the belt there were a number of interesting innovations
Magnetic clips for race numbers
A removable (velcro) pocket for rubbish or small items
An elastic triple pocket (big enough for a mobile phone and a reasonable amount of food) comes with a magnetic closing mechanism
Water bottle pouch with 500ml hard bottle on the reverse
A hidden inner pocket with a thermal blanket inside
Thick elastic hoops (I added carabiners to mine to attach buffs and arm warmers)
The first thing you notice when trying it on is how comfortable the thicker straps are around your waist and the double strap allows for easy adjustment. For me it sits comfortably around the waist without much fuss and I found that while running there wasn’t much movement and thankfully no rubbing. The velcro fixing also means that this should fit the smallest to the largest waist sizes in the running community without any issue.
I would be hard pressed to say you don’t notice it but it’s not as intrusive as some of the other race belts I tested out.
The goodies! In terms of the little goodies spread around the belt there was nothing that seemed out of place. The bottle holder itself (the main feature of a purchase like this) is angled in such a way as to make access easy both getting at the water and returning it to its berth. The wider than usual bottle is also nice and easy grip and in this situation a hard bottle is best, though a UD soft bottle also works a treat.
The pole holders are excellent and a welcome addition taken directly from the Hydragon vest. The hoops for this allow one z-fold pole to be mounted either side of the belt. The quick release is surprisingly spritely and because it isn’t surrounded by the pockets, as on the vest, the poles come to hand very smoothly.
The main pocket has three levels – a velcro, flush to the body first section that is ideal for your phone, a large elasticated topped pocket that is the main store for food or small clothing/electrical items and a slightly smaller front pocket ideal for rubbish, gels or for me it’s perfect for tissues.
Strangely the most useful thing for me though is the removable ‘rubbish bag’. This attaches to the two straps that keep you locked into the belt. The removable nature of it lends itself to two things either a) rubbish, so you have easy access for disposal and washing once its full or b) a perfect size for a medical kit (which is what I use it for).
Now being a French company they’re concerned about your safety on the trails too and include a ‘space blanket’ as standard (the gold and silver version) and a stash pocket located behind the water bottle to keep it in. The obligatory whistle is the finishing touch on the safety features but would come in handy should you ever need to bang out a Bob Dylan number to scare off some wild animals.
I told you it was feature packed!
Conclusion Ultimately this is a tremendous piece of well made, well considered kit that for about £35 seems an absolute bargain. If you want a running belt that is both comfortable and practical then this is well worth considering and if you’re looking to expand your capacity for longer adventures then you’ll find this works really well with most race vests and even sacks such as the Fastpack 20 or OMM 15.
I have no trouble recommending the Hydrabelt and nobody paid me to say that. I bought this with my own money and tested it extensively over the last 18 months. For me Oxsitis are an exciting brand making innovative, well crafted products but they’re hard to come by in the UK and I feel it’s my duty to share my findings. Therefore, I’ll finish by saying, if you happen to be in France anytime soon and love running, then stop by a local independent retailer and try Oxsitis out or find them at their website www.oxsitis.fr (and let google do the translation!)