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

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

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

Welcome to the Testway Ultra.

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

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

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

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

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

Well for the first miles…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a day.

Key points

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

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

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

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

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

Value for money: £50? Bargain.

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

 

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

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

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

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

She told me I should go home and shower.

I did.

I never dated that girl.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key points

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Oi, you’re going the wrong way’ came the call, this I thought was going to be a very long day.

We’ve all signed up to races without doing our due diligence and that was very much the case with the East Hanningfield Marathon – basically it was coming to the end of 2017 I hadn’t got any races booked in and I didn’t really fancy a third round of Country to Capital – so I signed up for this. I did know that Top Day events had put on a wonderful little event last year at Hockley Woods and having thoroughly enjoyed that I assumed it would be much the same again.

The GingaNinja had agreed to take me and, with ASK in tow, was going to spend the day doing family things in Essex while I ran. We rolled up to the village sports hall nice and early and already a couple of dozen runners were chatting and milling around. I picked up my number, narrative instructions and pins then rejoined the family with nothing but thoughts a pre-race toilet visit to keep me on my toes. The day warmed up nicely when the lovely Rachel Smith of SVN events came over to say hello and then Rob Haldane who I hadn’t seen in an age confirmed he would be at checkpoint 2 – this was clearly going to be a friendly race.

With the various greetings done and dusted I took a look over the narrative instructions – it had been nearly 5 years since I was last reliant on instructions but I hoped that my navigation skills had improved enough that this wouldn’t be a challenge – then I read then.

SA through WG WE with FLHS to FC through double WM KG but don’t XRD have LD in middle of RD wishing you were SWE having a POO not looking for a dog poo bin in a field followed by a BB but SA… it was a lot like that… Frantically I began trying to memorise the abbreviations and then read the instructions to myself but it was becoming a mess in my head and so I decided that I would ‘learn while doing’ and try and get to grips with the narration while moving.

At 9.30 we all bimbled outside into the chilly January air and after a short racing briefing were sent off to find our way home as quickly as we could. It all started pretty well, round the field, follow the guys in front and keep up with the instructions. It had been a heavy training week as I returned from the post festive season lull so I was expecting to be running very slowly but I was merrily making my way through the runners and nearing the pacy ones at the front. This was as much to do with taking the first sections slowly to ensure they were going the right way as it was the sheer excellence of my running.

The course was incredibly damp but the heavy rains had dried up enough to make everything slick and therefore progress was slow but this did provide an excellent leveller for people like me who, though not fast, can be consistent regardless of the conditions. I had chosen my Topo Terraventure as shoes for this particular event and they proved an excellent choice as they cut through the worst of mud and by about mile 2 I was beginning to feel at home.

Of course when you feel at home is when your eye comes off the ball and then boom – wrong way. Thankfully I noticed pretty quickly but even so this was a mistake I could ill afford to make and quickly doubled back about 500metres to see runners making a sharp left turn. Others followed but perhaps the more sensible runners simply carried on and rejoined their fellow competitors a little way further up but I didn’t want to get into those kind of navigational mishaps and stick to my plan.

I used some of my reserves to push myself back into the middle of the pack and reasserted my credentials as navigator through the instructions and pressed onwards. The route passed across roads, fields and waterways and as always Essex provided visual treats whichever way you looked. There may not be mountains in Essex but it is a beautiful county and once you’re into the greenery here it’s spectacular and I remember thinking as I ran into the checkpoint that I really needed to remember to look up – take some pictures, etc.

At the first checkpoint I stuffed my face with pretty much everything I could get my hands on and there was a fine selection of sweet and savoury treats and the very professional volunteering was much appreciated. With my self imposed three minutes being up I set off at a canter but dropped back a little from the chaps I had run the last mile with – they were clearly going to be right in the mix for a top ten finish – I just wanted to finish – though there would be a bit of back and forth with them on the journey to checkpoint 2.

It was here that I met Dave again, we had met briefly in the run up to checkpoint one but this time we made conversation covering by a bit of family and the like, others runners would pass by or we would overtake and there was a nice convivial atmosphere as the sun shone down and the cold wind whipped around us. Despite my generally good mood my legs could feel the burn during the second section and a lack of fitness aha mild over training in the previous week were catching me. Thankfully I was able to hold on to the coat tails of the runners ahead of me, this was now not so much a directional aid as an inspiration aid.

Landing into the second checkpoint brought me back to Rob and after a brief hello and grabbing as much food as I could Dave and I set off again. My companion and I while not attached at the hip trundled through the mud – never too far apart (though I’m very glad I wasn’t next to him when he lost his feet and took a tumble in some deep water – I didn’t want to bathe with him!) and from here we pretty much stayed around or about one another.

The road to checkpoints 3 and 4 were hard and leggy. I know that I was struggling in the claggy ground and my much loved Topo were choosing to carry the weight of the muddy fields beneath them rather than clear quickly but thankfully the company of Dave was deflecting from the exhaustion in my undertrained legs. However, as much as I loved Dave I could have killed him when he directed us down a path at the side of a Morrisons Supermarket – the trouble was that the fence had collapsed and we were required to crawl on hands and knees through the dog turd laden path! The worst 150 metres of running in over 150 races! Still all good fun.

There were a few miles left after our ‘tunnel’ experience and we ambled purposefully towards the finish – the unrelenting nature of the route meant that even these last few miles felt tough but I believe both Dave and I (and everyone else) will have had a brilliant time. Ambling in the direction of the finish we were passed by a couple of runners once more and waved then cheerily onwards as we made our way but less than a mile later we came to a crossing of the ways, in one direction we could see the village we were aiming for, in the other the two runners who had strode last us about 10 minutes earlier. In the distance we could see them questioning them their directions and decided that this answered our own quandary and we crossed the field.

Feeling rather chipper now, although I’d pulled a groin muscle at about mile 20 which was making things a bit unpleasant, we jogged and chatted our way through the last of the mud and into the glorious sight of the parked cars that the runners had left earlier. We were nearly there, a final last shunt and a stop at the finish line to ensure we crossed the line together.

Caked in mud and filled with joy we collected our medals and removed our footwear before disappearing off. I can’t recall if I thanked Dave for all of his support but without him I wouldn’t have run this nearly as swiftly or as easily – cheers geezer.

What a day.

Key points

  • Distance: Marathon
  • Profile: Nothing too severe, couple of hundred metres of climb
  • Date: January 2018
  • Location: Essex
  • Cost: £20
  • Terrain: Trail
  • Tough Rating: 3/5

Route: The route was really very interesting and varied, remaining on the trail for the majority of the race. It also took in some of the St Peters Way I believe, which I think is one of the best kept secrets in England for a really tough path to run. This is a highly recommended route. The self navigation element might be a worry for some (as it was for me) and the description looked incredibly daunting but when you’re out there and you’ve memorised a few of the abbreviations the it becomes much easier. Saying that though I still added a solid mile and a half additional distance to my journey with mistakes in my navigation.

Organisation: I’d run with Top Day Events at Hockley Woods last year and the organisation was immaculate and they replicated this over the longer distance with a well drilled and incredibly supportive team for whom nothing was too much trouble and it had an informally professional feel to it which made for a great day.

Support: Aid stations about every six miles and lots of sweet and savoury snacks available – it was a really good spread and the supporters, be they the volunteers or the runners individual supporters were fantastic.

Awards: Medal and some post race food and drink. Lovely. All nice and low key but perfect reflections of a perfect race.

Value for money: I rate value against criteria like the route, the medal, the experience, the support and of course the cost. Against all the above criteria this race is a class act and deserves to sell out year in, year out. It’s a great race, it’s great fun and a good reputation for it is very much deserved.

Conclusion: Low key, well organised, intimate, full of trail marathon runners who just love being out there and in the mess and a wonderful day for it made the East Hanningfield Marathon a real classic and worthy of your attention. Top Day really are putting on great little events with lots of heart, try them out and definitely consider giving the East Hanningfield brute a little go.

Keep up the good work guys.


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

Benefits

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

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

*she is going through a phase of loving things. 

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

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

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

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

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


I woke up in the Caledonian Sleeper train to a hot cup of tea and the smell of the outskirts of Glasgow to warm me as I prepared to join a group of suitably idiotic ultra runners on a race across the stunning northern Arran landscape – this was a race and an event I was very much looking forward to. At around 6pm I headed over the short stretch of water from mainland to the island and arrived as both the dark and the wet had caught up with me. However, with my accommodation some miles away I needed to get registered and ready for the race start at 6am the following morning. Thankfully  rather than reach the race registration I was sent over to the delicious pasta party a few feet across the road and my plans suddenly changed for the better.


It was here that the journey really started as the organisers welcomed the final stragglers to the inaugural Ultra Trail Scotland on the Isle of Arran. I grabbed a bowl of the delicious chicken and leek soup and chatted with Ross and James, two of the runners I’d met on the way up, to our left one of the chief race architects Casey Morgan was going through the race briefing with the Spanish contingent who had travelled over, some of whom were competing in the AlpinsUltra series of races, of which Arran was the final awesome stop.


We took a detailed race briefing from Andrew, who went through things in just the right amount of detail and ensured that we got to ask all the relevant questions.

Andrew also resolved some accommodation issues for both James and I as he said we would be welcome to share the bunk house space they had secured (as they had a couple of spare bunks). This meant that James didn’t have to camp and I didn’t have to travel halfway down the island in the rain with a heavy pack. Andrew and the team really didn’t have to do this, nor provide transport to the bunk house but they did and it would be fair to say that they went over and above their duty of care to the runners at every stage.

Race morning started at 4.30am, James and I dressed and left the bunk house for the mile hike up to the registration hall and arrived in time to catch a nervous merriment rolling around the runners. With just a few minutes before the scheduled 6am start we headed towards the coastline and boom we were off! 

Before I’d entered I hadn’t really known what to expect, hadn’t really known what kind of pace everyone else would be going and hadn’t assumed that I would get close to the finish and when we set off I realised how tough even the easy sections were likely to be.

I was running near to the front of the pack, half a dozen runners all striding forward as quickly as they could and although I knew I couldn’t maintain this pace I figured that given my uphill speed is atrocious I should make up for it in the flats and descents. However, the first piece of ‘flat’ was on the sandy beach – something of a nemesis for me – but I ploughed through following the speedgoats ahead of me until we heard the calls of the runners behind suggesting we had gone the wrong way! 1km in and already some of us had had navigational problems. We doubled back and rejoined the throng of runners and thankfully going the wrong way woke me up a bit and I slowed my pace to something more consistent with a middle aged man trying to stay youthful! Ha! I also fixed the mapping on my Suunto (which had gone a bit bonkers) because the field was small enough that I would inevitably lose sight of my fellow competitors and would need the GPX file working.

Despite the dark I could see the first climb up to Goatfell ahead of me and in the distance I could hear the rumble of a waterfall. It was here that I met James again and for a while we shadowed each other but keeping to our respective races. I was making decent time uphill, nothing spectacular but doing basic calculations in my head I was projecting that I should finish the race even accounting for significant slowing later in the day.

The ground below was wet, rocky and undoubtedly dangerous. I’ve come a long way in the last few years where I now feel confident and competent to run on difficult and more technical trails (even without my poles) and here I felt like I was in my natural environment and happy with it. Even my fresh out of the box Altra Lone Peak 3.5 were loving these trail ascents and Altra proving once again that you can put them on for the first time in a race day and thankfully not encounter any shoe problems.

In the distance I could see head torches flickering periodically and I pushed on to try and make up ground on them but the weather was closing in around us. Despite this though I was able to switch my headtorch off and use the dim dawn light to guide me.

It was then that some of the frontrunners appeared before me – heading down. I asked what was wrong, wondering if they needed aid but they simply shouted ‘fini’. I assumed they were calling it a day and so pressed on a little further until more runners came at me, ‘race over – it’s too dangerous, they’ve made a safety call, the ridge isn’t passable, even Casey can’t find the path safely’.

I looked up for a few moments and despite only being 150metres from the first summit I knew it was dangerous as visibility had dropped to next to nothing. I was disappointed and deflated and weighed up my options a) hike back feeling sorry for myself b) continue onwards without the race support but be a clear danger to myself and the rescue teams or c) hammer the downhill home and run this like a gud’un!


Well I wasn’t going to feel sorry for myself, not in these stunning surroundings and I certainly wasn’t going to endanger life and limb so it was the final choice – hammer it home and have some fun.

I turned on my heel and gave chase to a couple of the runners ahead of me and thundered as quick as my feet could carry me downhill. Leaping over rocks, slipping and sliding around but ultimately in control I was having a blast – my only complaint being that I knew it would end far too soon.

The light was now up and for the first time I could finally see Arran and the mountains behind me showed off their majesty – it would have been brutal but brutally amazing.

I arrived back to the faces of runners and organisers, all being incredibly professional, all incredibly disappointed. Tea, bacon and egg sandwiches and support flowed throughout this small, hardy community and ultimately it was the right decision to cancel the race.

I was grateful just to have gotten out there and seen even a tiny fraction of this wonderful island and I’ll be going back because this is a race to do. Thanks Ultra Trail Scotland – you guys have an amazing race on your hands and with a bit of nurture you’re going to have a great event next year – see you there.

Key points

  • Distance: 71km
  • Profile: Ballbusting ascents and descents
  • Date: October 2017
  • Location: Isle of Arran
  • Cost: £80
  • Terrain: Mixed, trail, muddy trail, off trail, boggy, technical – basically the lot
  • Tough rating: 4.5/5

Route: I didn’t get to run the whole route, in fact I barely got started before the race was cancelled amid concerns for runners safety due to the weather and visibility. However, the section I did run (and my subsequent bits of running around the island) showed Arran to be the kind of place you need to run and the route selected by the organisers promised nothing but the best that Arran and perhaps Scotland has to offer. If you’re an ultra runner this route will not disappoint and if you want a shorter Arran test there’s the vertical and the 25km.

Organisation/Marketing: The organisation was first class, Andrew, Casey, Noreen and the rest of the team really covered everything during our time on Arran and as well as supervising the races they looked after everyone too in the pre-race and in the aftermath of cancellation. You really couldn’t have asked for any more from them.

One thing though as a thought for next year is the marketing of the event – I would love to see this grow, be a success and become a regular on the ultra calendar but I only found out about this because I saw the Rat Race version but knew I wanted a more intimate event – but I had to dig to find this event. So please get the word out as far and wide as you can because if you like a bit of bog and a bit of climbing this is the run for you!

Conclusion: I might not have finished but I had an amazing time, met some amazing people and got to run part of an amazing route. Ultra Trail Scotland deserves another crack with decent weather (or just not really shitty weather – annoyingly the weather on the days either side was pretty damn good). This is going to be a top drawer event in the future and you’re all going to want to be a part of it! As a special note I’d like to thank everyone involved for making this the most awesome and weirdest 40th birthday present I could ever have gotten for myself.

You can find out more by visiting the website ultratrailscotland.com or find them on Twitter as ‪@findadrenaline ‬


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.


Key points

  • Distance: Marathon
  • Profile: mildly undulating
  • Date: September 2017
  • Location: Wimbledon Common
  • Cost: £35
  • 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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