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I wasn’t going to review the Harrier Run ‘Ultra’ bundle but after several months of use I felt it would be churlish of me not to jot down my thoughts for you to consider whether this is something that might be useful for you.

I shan’t bother with an incomplete history of Harrier as others have done this better than I will but it’s suffice to say that they are new on the block and something of a disruptor in, what has fast become, an overcrowded market. The company and its founder have, in an impressively short space of time put together a product range of running kit suited to the ‘couch to 5km’ runner all the way to the adventure/ultra marathoner and beyond. For this we must applaud the team who must work tirelessly.

I decided that although I did not need a new running vest that the Harrier Kinder 10 litre looked like something I wanted to try and with its low price point I was happy to purchase one and if it was ‘great’ then that was a bonus and if it was only ‘okay’ then it would go into the rotation and that would be fine too.

I didn’t purchase it straight away though, it was after I’d seen one in use at the Ultra North event that I ordered it. Having seen it in person I felt that it would be a useful addition in my running armoury. And so while literally travelling back to sunny Scotland from a very wet Northumberland I put my order in but not for the vest – for the ultra bundle.

The Ultra Bundle
The ultra bundle provides an excellent value packed array of gear designed to ensure that you, the runner, have all of the basics and a few key extras for your big adventures. So what’s in the ultra bundle?

  • A choice of 10l (Kinder) or 5l (Curbar) race vest (includes whistle)
  • Running poles
  • 2 x soft water bottles
  • 2 x soft bottle long straws
  • 1 x hydration bladder
  • 1 x snood
  • 1 x collapsible heatproof cup
  • 1 x collapsible cup
  • 1 x Emergency first aid kit (not available at the time I purchased the bundle)
  • 1 x Survival bag
  • 1 x dry bag

Perhaps the amazing thing is the variety within each item. The main event, the running vest, comes in two different colours in the Curbar and Kimder, there are four fit sizes. There is also an extra large for the bigger framed runner called the Stanage. Options don’t end at the race vest, in fact they barely start there – each of the water bottles and cups comes in a range of funky colours, the drybags are two colours and two sizes, the snood is available in blue and orange and even the running poles are available in multiple sizes and two different materials. It is an enviable amount of choice that the major manufacturers either don’t or can’t offer.

Choice
Sometimes choice can be a bit overwhelming and the trouble I had when putting my ultra bundle together was how do I co-ordinate? The answer was I couldn’t really – I wanted big bold and bright colours and these didn’t always match across the various products. I would quite happily have had everything in pink or purple but this wasn’t an option so I mixed and matched a little bit and after a little while I found what I believed was the perfect set up.

My only gripe was in the colour of the race vest itself which was much more muted than the rest of the options – that said the blue colouring that I chose was actually very pleasant but if there had been a pink or purple or batshit colour then I’d have chosen that. It may come as no surprise then that when both the Curbar and the Kinder became available in less discreet colours I ordered both the Orange and the Red.

Bundling
The company have the bundle system for lots of good reasons I imagine, if you’re starting on your ultra or long distance running journey then you may need a reasonable amount of kit and a bundle that offers a very healthy discount would be much appreciated. The bundle presumably also allows Harrier to get rid of stock that might not be as swift as seller – so hydration bladder and water bottles might not be bought at the same time but if part of a bundle then you’d take both and use whichever better suited your adventure that day. The bundle, because of the cleverness of Harrier, allows you to easily identify what kind of kit it is that you are going to need – there’s no research involved, you just buy a bundle and put it on and you’re on your way to thrill seeking.

Experiences
Experience with the Harrier Run Ultra Bundle will vary but the reception has been overwhelmingly positive but it can be difficult to judge something until you’ve been trying it out on a daily basis for several months and that is something that I have been doing. Almost all of the items in the ultra bundle have seen some running and most have been used multiple times – they key elements such as the vests, the poles, water bottles and drybag have been a near constant companion since they arrived and I feel very comfortable about being able to assess whether they are good for me or not.

Kinder Running Vest
I like a larger than necessary race vest because, ‘you never know’ and I have been known to start a run or a race with what some might describe as, ‘the kitchen sink’. The Kinder would still be at the smaller end of my race vest sizes even at 10 litres but I felt having seen it in real life that it looked acapable of supporting the amount of kit I traditionally transport in an ultra marathon.

So what does the Kinder have?

  • 10 litre capacity
  • Zero bounce
  • Lots of pockets across the vest
  • 7 x front pockets
  • Pull through back pocket for waterproofs
  • Deep mesh side pockets
  • Zipped phone pocket
  • Multiple connection points for running pole
  • Race number toggles
  • Adjustable sternum straps
  • Dedicated bladder pocket
  • Substantial bladder clip
  • Multiple bladder hose configurations
  • Bungee pull on the back for tighter fit
  • Main compartment zipped closing
  • Figure hugging fit
  • Whistle
  • Toggles and straps across the vest to keep kit tidy
  • Reflective strips
  • Choice of colours

Curbar Running Vest
Despite liking a larger capacity running vest I have to say that since the Curbar arrived a couple of months ago I have worn nothing else as a running bag (the Curbar was not part of the bundle, but bought separately along with a second Kinder). I have found a huge amount of running comfort and joy in the Curbar as I have been improving my training and ultimately improving my running.

So what does the Curbar have?

  • 5 litre capacity
  • Zero bounce
  • Lots of pockets across the vest
  • 7 x front pockets
  • Pull through back pocket for waterproofs
  • Deep mesh side pockets
  • Zipped phone pocket
  • Extra back pocket
  • Back pole holders
  • Race number toggles
  • Adjustable sternum straps
  • Dedicated bladder pocket
  • Substantial bladder clip
  • Multiple bladder hose configurations
  • Figure hugging fit
  • Whistle
  • Toggles and straps across the vest to keep kit tidy
  • Reflective strips
  • Choice of colours

When wearing either of the race vests it probably most resembles either a Salomon or early Ultimate Direction Signature series pack – that shouldn’t be considered a negative as the UD in particular was an exceptional race vest. It has a figure hugging shape and moves with you rather than bounces around and this is where the Harrier shows that it is superior than the old UD PB1.0. When moving side to side the vest has enough give that it comes with you but without ever feeling slack and yet is tight enough that when running it moves along with you rather than bouncing around in your mid lumbar region.

From fabric through to fit this is very, very comfortable running vest experience

If movement is an impressive feature of the Harrier vests then it is matched in impressiveness by the amount of available space. Both the 5 litre and the 10 litre have lots of upfront space and the pockets are cavernous. In fact this brings me to a favourite feature – for the first time ever in a race vest I can have my action camera stored upfront while at the same time as having two 500ml water bottles there too. I am sure that the makers did not consider the needs of the action camera user when designing this but the fact my DJ Osmo Action and my Insta360 One X2 both fit perfectly mean that this race vest will often jump to the front of the queue for racing. The rest of the pockets are equally excellent but each one has a purpose – so those front mesh pockets are ideal for a buff or a pair or gloves while the phone pocket is okay for a phone I find it better for a small amount of wallet or keys or basically something you aren’t going to use – there are better pockets for a phone.

The side pockets are as massive as their front siblings and also much more accessible than many of its rivals and the springiness of the fabric makes everything deceptively spacious.

On the reverse the space inside the back of the pack is mostly excellent but if you’re used to something like an OMM backpack or even a UD race vest then the Harrier vests will feel more confined and the mild tapering towards the bottom of the vest mean that the way you pack your kit may need some consideration – I don’t feel like I can just throw stuff in here.

The Curbar has a neat ‘through pocket’ where wet or dry waterproofs could be stowed and also has an extra pocket that sits at the bottom of the vest – I’d be tempted to keep only the lightest of gear here as I feel using it might unbalance my weight distribution – but remember that whatever you store in here should be in a small 2 litre or smaller drybag just incase you caught in a bit of precipitation.

The Kinder meanwhile benefits from a bungee cord rather than a through pocket and this is welcome addition as it offers flexibility to connect whatever you need to carry there and it also allows the vest to be cinched down if you aren’t carry much kit – something that the 5 litre vest doesn’t need. It is worth noting though that the Kinder runs just as well as the Curbar if it is empty and not cinched down.

One thing to keep in mind is that neither are waterproof and although when I’ve gotten soaking in it the back mesh, and therefore my back, for the most part stay dry, the outer layers will wet through and aren’t as quick to dry as say a ripstop material. What does this mean? It’s simple – you’ll need drybags (and don’t worry Harrier have you covered there too).

From here the Harrier mostly goes straight into party mode with little flourishes and finishes that will simply make your running life that bit easier – from multiple points of connection for your poles on the Kinder to back pole holders on the Curbar. The race number holder, the easy pull zip cords and multiple points of attachment for your bladder hose as well as those front pockets being more secure than the average through to the plethora of hoops, loops and bungees that can tie down pretty much anything – it’s almost like an S&M party on these vests – these vests have it all.

But…

I do have a bugbear and it is quite a big one – the fastening system for the front. Once its fitted that is lovely and it is great but if you need to adjust the height of the chest straps then it is a bit of a bugger, if you needed to do that with freezing cold or wet hands then it would be a nightmare. It reminds me of a lighter, less good version of the crossover system that Salomon employed on some of their bags a few years back (and my well still do). It’s not the worst but nor is it the best. The other thing, directly related to the chest straps is that they come loose as you are running, not massively and not all at once but you will find yourself regularly tightening these up. You might say it’s the sizing or what I’m carrying but I have both medium and large sizes and both the 5 and 10 litres and have tried them all in different configurations and the chest strap just loosens much more than say my beloved Raidlight Olmo 20.

Is it a big issue? Not really I just pull it tight as I run (and it super easy to adjust on the move).

So bugbear aside I think the Curbar and the Kinder are astonishingly good value and brilliant kit even if there were double the price. For less than £60.00, at full price, you simply won’t get better.

Harrier Run UK  - Helvellyn Running Z Fold Poles

Running/Hiking Poles
I’ve used my Black Diamond Z fold for several years now and never had a moment where I thought, these aren’t good enough, they were expensive but they’ve lasted and they felt like they would last from the moment I bought them. The poles from Harrier (at a mere £69.00) arrived to much online fanfare, lots of the runners who had tested them out had lots of good things to say about them. The thing for me is that I tend not to use poles outside of the more mountainous running events like MIUT but again as part of the ltra bundle it seemed silly to turn my nose up at this bargain.

When you pick the poles up they aren’t as light as some of their more expensive alternatives, however, the difference in weight (209g) isn’t really very noticeable and should certainly not be a deterrent to ownership. That slightly heftier feel though contributes to a sense that these are built to last and during my tests I have not once worried that the poles might snap, something I have seen happen to other poles during events. The handle is soft and runs long down the shaft with an easily adjustable and strong wrist loop. The poles are ‘z fold’ rather than telescopic which I feel suits runners better, once out of your pack you just fling them in front of you and lock them in position – no faffing around.

Are they as easy as my Black Diamond poles? No, not quite – the tightening flip lock clamp at the end of the handle means there is an additional step compared to my Black Diamond poles. However, this lock, I feel will give them a greater longevity and also allows a certain level of adjustability in height – another improvement over some of the competition. Add this together and with the reduction in the amount of little metal locking buttons, which are a potential place for water or grot to sit and cause damage, then you’ve got a product that is both practical and innovative. The Harrier alternative to the metal locking buttons are locking discs which sit at the end of each section of the pole and simply clamp together – easy.

The poles do follow some conventions though and have such as a coated metal inner cord to ensure that the pole has strength when you are running and doesn’t just come apart. A spike at the end to help you grip in the worst of terrains, mud basket and a rubber tip cover should you suddenly find yourself on the tarmac.

What I can say is that I’ve used these for about 30 miles of running since they arrived, I have bounced around the muddy trails on them, I’ve run on the ice using them (without Yaktrax) and I’ve hiked several of the Ochils (when I was allowed to go there) and they have been superb.

As for the fitting around you when you are racing, well if you’ve bought the ultra bundle then there are lots of places that the poles can go and the race vest(s) have all been given consideration to how a runner may way to run with poles. That said these poles would fit almost any race vest, I’ve used them in my Raidlight Olmo 20 and my UD PB3.0, they’re unobtrusive and they’re right there when you need them most.

And the best thing? Well for the money you’d think you were perhaps only getting one pole but no, you’re getting a pair. I would really struggle to find any criticism of the Helvellyn poles – but if you think that the £69.00 isn’t quite worth it and you don’t mind a little bit more weight then they have now produced an aluminium version called Catbells these will set you back a mere £39.00 at the time of writing and although I haven’t used them myself can you really argue with this kind of pricing?

Harrier Run - 500ml soft bottle with long straw

Soft Water Bottles (500ml), Standard Caps and Long Straw Caps
There are very few soft bottles that enhance the flavour of water, most of them make it taste a bit shitty to be honest. Thankfully the big brains at Harrier seem to have it sorted, the taste of the soft bottles is better than most (perhaps the only better one I’ve used was the 350ml Hydrapak soft bottle which was a little bit special). These soft bottles work incredibly well in the context of the Harrier vest and the long straws and wide opening makes them very easy to use. When the race vest is full it can be a little bit of a faff to get them in and out but then this is where the long straws come in handy and you could (if being careful) fill bottles without removing them from the pack (and yes I have done this, although not when exhausted in the middle of the night on an ultra marathon).

The range of colours and options is exceptional and there is something for everyone, mine are the 500ml option and might be purple, although they look very pink, however, regardless of the colour, I think they’re fantastic. These bottles have so far been zero leak and zero problem. Even if one of the bundles isn’t for you then perhaps when you’re looking for new bottles these will be on your list for consideration.

Hydration Bladder
I mostly stopped using a hydration bladder when I bought my first UD Signature Series race vest – the revelation that you could have front mounted water bottles seemed so revolutionary back them, however, given the smaller form factor of the Harrier vest I felt the need to try out their bladder (and it was part of the ultra bundle). The bladder itself has a good quality feel to it, the mouth piece is easy to use when on the move and it fits well inside both the Curbar and the Kinder. The vest has a dedicated space for the hydration bladder and it all feels very secure when it is locked in via the clip at the top of the pocket. The length of the hose is more than adequate and perfectly suited for being cut to a size that suits and there are multiple configurations for wrapping the hose around yourself and the vest.

What I did note though was that when filled the bladder sits deep in the vest and takes up much of the available space at the bottom of your race pack, now although you can work around this I find this is the space that I use to keep my waterproofs in (in this or any other race vest) – therefore I want easy access to them but in the Harrier vests I find I have to choose between storing my waterproofs at bottom of the vest or having the bladder in.

My biggest gripe about the bladder though was that it leaked. I took it out on a first run on a very chilly December morning (about 6am) to discover that by the time I gotten to the bottom of my hill my back was soaked and starting to freeze up – I turned around and headed for home. Thankfully I’d caught it in time to stop myself getting to cold and changed all kit and went out running but this was a disappointment. Having looked over the bladder the leak is somewhere near the seal between hose and bladder and therefore this makes it unusable (this was the only piece of kit that got one outing).

Harrier Run - Head scraf - Snood - Buff

Snood
Snood, buff, neck gaiter, wrag, scarf, arse wiper – whatever you want to call it, the Harrier version is very pleasant, a little more taut than some of its Buffwear alternatives and fits nicely. The two colour options and designs are very nice, I preferred the blue design over the orange and this piece of fabric I imagine will be as much a life saver as the other 50 I own.

I wonder if I’ll ever need to wipe the old rusty bullethole on it though? Hmmm something to ponder dear reader.

Harrier Run - collapsible cup

Collapsible Cup
With an increased need for events to be more sustainable and environmentally conscious we have seen a huge reduction in single use plastics and difficult to recycle materials. This has meant that the use of a refillable cup is now often a requirement on kit lists of longer races. It’s a simple thing, a scrunchy, weigh next to nothing cup that can easily attach to a race vest.

The Harrier collapsible cup comes in a range of excellent colours and works as well as any other cup of its type, the one downside of these cups is that they can’t really sustain hot contents and in the middle of a loooong race that might be something you want to consider but the good news is that Harrier has something for all you tea and coffee lovers too…

Harrier Run - Collapsible Hot Cup

Hot Collapsible Cup
I’ve seen collapsible hot mugs before but they’re often heavy and unwieldy, found in the handbags and shoulder bags of the ladies and gents who shop in Fenwicks or on Bond Street and need to be seen to be environmentally supportive but regret that their skinny latte is creating a stench in their overpriced handbag or might drip on to their overpriced ripped jeans. The good news is that the Harrier option is far removed from being a fashion item. Truth to tell it is actually a bit ugly but then I’m no oil painting myself so do I care if my hot collapsible mug wouldn’t walk the runways of Milan and Paris? No.

The hot collapsible cup is sturdy, robust and surprisingly small given the size it can reach when fully erect (I’ve heard that said about myself boom-tish). It’s useful, practical kit for running, fast packing and more general hiking days where space might be an issue.

Drybag
I think I’ve owned every type of dry bag in every size over the years; Lomo, Decathlon, Osprey, Exped, Alpkit… the list goes on. Of all the dry bags I’ve used the Alpkit was, and remains the best but be assured the Harrier drybag runs it a close second. Once more the kit is available in a couple of colours and sizes, you’ll want some of these if you intend to use the Harrier running vests because they are not waterproof. I’ve been out for less than a couple of hours in my Harrier vest and the kit on the inside while not soaked through haven’t been dry either. The slim 5 litre drybag is an excellent fit for most key kit and the smaller 2 litre drybag is better for things you want quicker, more immediate access to.

If racing in the Harrier vest and living in Scotland as I do, I would 100% want a series of smaller drybags to supplement the vest and make sure my kit was dry when I needed it.

Survival Bag & Whistle
A second whistle in the bundle (the first is attached to the race vest) and a proper survival bag in case you’re totally fucked on a mountain somewhere – much better than a foil blanket and might just save your life, £8.00 seems like a bargain

Fit
Now this was a nuisance as I sit between a variety of the Harrier sizes. With the poles I’m 5’9 and therefore could have gone for the large and set them to the minimum sizing or gone for the medium and set it for the longer setting. In the end I chose the medium because I felt that having poles that extended beyond my height would be of little value but having slightly shorter ones might have an application. It turned out I was right and I have found the ability to shrink the poles down a little very useful for going uphill.

When ordering I was shrinking my waistline at a reasonably rapid rate, I’d moved from a 34 inch waist to 32 inch and my chest had started to shrink a little as had my middle and I was facing the annoyance of being between a medium and large. Both sizes fit me but the medium is better though when carry larger amounts of kit I find the large is a good fit too – basically, if you’re right in the middle of a sizing it might be worth going with the smaller size, at least this is my experience with the Harrier race vests and poles.

How much has it cost?
That’s a difficult one I bought came without the first aid kit and this was reflected in the price, in total for everything in the ultra bundle it was £170.00 and some change – the bundle saving was around £30.00, so this should have been around £200.00. The second Kinder race vest was a further £59.00 and the Curbar was £54.00. Delivery times were amazingly swift and after ordering it on a Thursday I had it by the weekend and was testing it out on the Sunday morning. Can’t say fairer than that.

Buy or Not?
On the trail or on the road this kit performs superbly but it’s not all sunshine and sweet cheeks and we need to understand that no matter how good kit is, there can be issues and Harrier is no different. You have to take into account the value that is in the ultra bundle though and that value is VERY HIGH, you can’t deny that Harrier have gone all out to produce bundles that really do tick every kit list box.

Obviously some of the things in the bundle will be of more use to than others but then on the day you need it, you need it and it will already have been covered by this excellent market disruptor.

It’s worth noting that there aren’t really any alternatives to the ultra bundle, bigger companies will make you buy all the things individually but there are alternatives to the individual items and you should do a comparison before purchasing – because it isn’t ever one size or rather one brand fits all. However, I bought the ultra bundle because it looked great, it was well reviewed and it was at a price point that it almost didn’t matter if it was a load of old shit – but it wasn’t a load of old shit and it has been my joy to be running in it and I expect to get many good years out of most of it.

So to buy or not to buy? That’s for you to decide.

Find out more at: Harrier UK or search for them on social channels

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.

Let’s hope for racing this year.

I was hiking up a glacier in Iceland some years ago when I asked the guide, ‘why do you give the kids ice axes?’ He explained that an ice axe gives the less hiking inclined children something to do.

I could see his logic.

No such thought entered my head when I bought ASK adventurer a child specific hiking pole from Decathlon. I bought a child sized hiking pole for her because I figured at some point the child was likely to run out puff going up one of these hills and I did not want to have to carry her.

I’m still waiting for the end of puff.

The MH500 Junior Hiking Pole
The junior hiking pole is much like its budget adult variant, it is simple, lightweight and effective.

The sizing moves between 75 and 100cm and is suited for children between about 100 and 145cm. There are a series of small metal holes on the pole that serve as height points and so although not completely adjustable as a more expensive option would be, there are enough height options for all within the range offered.

There is a simple and yet surprisingly comfortable soft foam, ergonomic grip along with a strap to keep it connected to the junior hiker and the pole has an optional basket for the bottom to stop mud and/or snow collecting around the spike. Weighing in at just 170g and a folded length of 58cm this also makes only the smallest of dents in the parents hiking bag when the child has had enough of the pole. On the rare occasions I find myself being handed ASKs pole I will usually store it the side pocket of my OMM Classic 25 and it sits there rather nicely.

Practical use
ASK has been using the junior hiking pole for about a year now and although she rarely actually needs it for the uphill hiking it has allowed her to become more skilled in good pole etiquette and use for when she faces the more testing challenges to come. Where it does come into its own is on the downhills, as we hike my partner tends to zig-zag a little bit to reduce the impact on her knees and back and ASK likes to join in with this and so she uses to poles to steady herself as she goes. I also find the pole useful for where loose stones or heavy mud are all around and I can have ASK use her pole to work with me to get the pair of us through to safer ground (yes in difficult situations I do keep my daughter close to hand).

More recently and with a frosty Scottish winter upon us we have seen that the pole has been as valuable in the ice as it has been on climbing hills, ASK has successfully used the pole as much on icy streets and paths as on the hills in recent weeks.

When not in use ASK has also been known to use a bungee cord or two and add the hiking pole to the Universal Gear Rail of her OMM Ultra 8 and this has not impeded her hiking at all. Given her size I would not let her carry the pole in her side pockets for fear of injury during a fall but as she gets older, taller and more secure I am sure this will become an option.

Being so lightweight we find that ASK is more than willing to carry her kit up and down and mountain without complaint whether it is attached to her or whether she is carrying it. Don’t get me wrong she isn’t weighted down with gear but she might carry her own snack and small drink (150ml) and perhaps some gloves or a spare set of buffs for the whole family.

In terms of durability we have had zero issues, over the year we have had it the pole has hiked lots of Scottish hills and many icy trails, there has been no sign of damage, bending and thankfully due to it’s aluminium construction no sign of rusting. Will it last forever? Probably not but it’s not likely to fall apart either, the chances you aren’t planning on climbing Mount Everest with something like this (or your 6 year old for that matter). It is designed for the rough and tumble that a child will subject it to but perhaps without some of the pressures that an adult will exert and to be fair if a child did in some way manage to break this would you really begrudge paying another £5.99 for a replacement?

What does ASK say?
Perhaps the best reviewer is my daughter who says, ‘I like it, it helps me up the mountains in Scotland and I use it pull myself along in the deep mud or put it in the river to help me jump over the water. The best thing though is when I dig it in the ice and it helps keeps my feet on the ground’.

Conclusion
Cheap, simple, effective. The phrase, ‘you get what you pay for’ doesn’t always apply and when it comes to decathlon gear I feel this very keenly. I opened my conclusion with the word ‘cheap‘ but that is inaccurate I should have said, ‘outstandingly good value’ because as well as being cheap it is well constructed and durable. If you have an adventurously spirited child that looks at mountains and hills and says, ‘let’s go up there today fellow adventurer‘ then this might be an essential purchase for you.

You can have a look here at their website and just to be clear, I’m just a happy customer and have nothing whatsoever to with Decathlon.

DJI Osmo Action Camera product review from a runners perspective

I loved my GoPro Session, I still love my my GoPro Session, the tiny size combined a waterproof body and with really, rather good quality video meant it was the perfect companion to join me on races and document my journey. However, that was 2016, a lifetime ago in technology terms but I’m never that keen on upgrading for the sake of upgrading. I change my kit usually when the old stuff is coming to the end of its useful life.

But the GoPro still works perfectly. A quandary for me to ponder.

The Session though was starting to not do what I wanted and what I wanted was greater, faster, higher quality control. So I started looking at options but the reality is you are left with just a couple of genuine contenders as a replacement. The first is the GoPro Hero 8 (now the Hero 9 too) or the DJI Osmo Action, I opted for the DJI Osmo Actino.

I’m not going to be reviewing this from a technical perspective because there are already dozens of those kind of blogs and vlogs that you can look up. Instead I will be reviewing this from the perspective of an ultra runner/adventurer who uses the Osmo Action to tell my running stories.

DJI Osmo Action Camera product review from a runners perspective

Form
So for those of you familiar with the GoPro Hero then you’ll be fairly familiar with the DJI Osmo Action. It’s about the same size as the GoPro and about the same weight. Anybody you meet will likely think you’re carrying a GoPro. Compared to my old Session it’s bigger and heavier but in its favour it’s not as wide so when I’m running it sits closer to my body and when teamed with a selfie stick or similar then you can arch the camera firm against your shoulder and you barely know it’s there.

Stability
Image stability was a big issue with the Session, when running it would perform poorly in lower light conditions and even in good light conditions there were no guarantees that you’d be able to pull good photographic stills from video footage. (The photo mode simply isn’t fast enough for shooting running pictures). The Osmo deals with this via its image stabilisation process called ‘rocksteady’. But also in general the photographic technology has moved forward significantly and the DJI is superior than the camera it is replacing.

Rocksteady is awesome. It’s the perfect balance between getting footage that looks high energy and getting footage that is usable. I’m not a fan of gimbals as they make everything look so boring and static and therefore the camera needs to offer a decent level of image stabilisation. Remember that running is as much about moving up and down as it is about propelling yourself forward and the Osmo captures this without leaving you with blurry footage.

ULtraboyruns on his Dagger Katana kayak at Lochore Meadows in Scotland

In the edit the footage that you are achieving is good for both stills and also for video. It means that whether you are taking 12mp photographs with your Osmo or you are grabbing HD stills from the video footage the output is remarkably good. It should be noted that I often only shoot at 1080p/30fps/Rocksteady because the footage I’m shooting is for things like YouTube & Instagram and therefore 4k video seems overkill.

Image stabilisation is available though in 4k/60fps which should pretty much cover most social video needs and beyond. Certainly if, like me, you’re buying this to record runs and races with then you’ll be more concerned about space on your Micro SD card than you will about super high density footage.

DJI Osmo Action Camera product review from a runners perspective

Flexibility
The flexibility of the Osmo was the reason that it won out over the GoPro (Hero 8) for me with the big thing being the front facing screen which allows for easier set up of shots, especially those that are on the move. I was also impressed that it was super easy to switch between the two screens. This means that if I’m filming during an event I’m spending less and less time faffing about trying to get the perfect image for the blog post.

Front screen is impressive at 1.4 inches, just large enough to be usable and viewable and the 2.25inches of screen space you get on the rear is genuinely excellent with a ‘just sensitive’ enough touchscreen.

DJI Osmo Action Camera product review from a runners perspective

However, it isn’t just the dual screen that I find very useful there are a number of other features that make transitioning between running with a camera and putting it away much easier. The voice commands (which are a new feature to me) are super easy to use and even with my lovely Liverpudlian tones it picks up my commands very easily, that said it’s not so happy listening to my little Scottish 6 year old ordering it to ‘take photo’.

The various options for settings are expected but I’m often shooting at the widest possible angle because I’ll be looking to capture landscapes as well as the running and I’m grateful for auto orientation of the screen and therefore for the shooting because this often saves time later in the edit of footage. The Osmo simply gets that I’m not Martin Scorsese and wants to try and help me out.

Waterproof:
The waterproof nature of the camera without the need for extra casing was a must, one of the reasons I avoided earlier action cameras was the need for a separate waterproof case which I felt made everything much too bulky and carrying that either mounted to yourself or in one of the valuable pockets of your race vest wasn’t practical over 50 or 100 miles.

I was dubious whether with the removable battery section and various moving parts of the Osmo whether it would truly be waterproof, however, I am very happy to report that the camera is waterproof. I’ve had the Osmo since about August and I’ve out it through some seriously watery adventures, often muddy ones, filthy canals, mudflats and often in icy lochs – never once has the Osmo given me a moments trouble.

DJI claim the camera is waterproof to 11 metres and -10 degrees, I’ve probably only had it down as far as say 3 metres but in freezing water and if I get down to 11 metres I’m probably drowning.

It has been the definition of an ‘action-ready’ camera whatever the situation it has found itself in.

DJI Osmo Action Camera product review from a runners perspective - showing the osmo battery

Battery:
One area of flexibility that has really impressed me was the ‘action pack’ I purchased as it came with three batteries (cases for each of them) and a few additional goodies.

Those (lightweight) extra battery packs mean that I can keep shooting footage through the whole of an event rather than say having to be concerned about how long my battery will last. It makes good sense that they would throw a couple of batteries into the pack because the battery does not last as long as the GoPro Session (Session has no screens) and you do want to ensure that you get your start line and finish line picture and everything in between. DJI claim that a battery can last over 2hrs and while this probably isn’t far short of the mark the chances are you going to to use the camera in a non-optimal way and therefore reduce its efficiency.

It is also worth noting that the battery change is relatively easy, although when fingers are cold or exhausted it could become a little bit fiddly but then I feel that trying to do anything with fine motor skills after 18hrs on the trail is a proper head fuck anyway.

Lens:
Finally on the question of flexibility we have the removable and replaceable lens cover (with the option to add practical filters too). This means that should you damage the lens cover you can still have a fully functioning action camera, this was certainly a big bonus over the GoPro Hero 8 (the Hero 9 now has a replaceable lens cover). If like me you are prone to adventures that come with higher than average risk then having the option to replace the lens is important

DJI Osmo Action Camera product review from a runners perspective - showing the lens cover

Quality
I was impressed by the Osmo, but that said it is a relatively expensive piece of kit and I would expect it to be made of materials that are both robust and feel nice. Running your finger over the buttons they have a lovely chunky feeling and the rounded edges feel like they’ll bounce back nicely from a fall or three. Perhaps thats exactly what you want from your action camera, the ability to throw it about and that when it lands it looks as good as the moment you took it out of the box.

Ease
There are three parts to ease of use as a runner, the first is deployment of the camera for taking pictures – so form, the second is ease of use of the camera functions and thirdly the ease of se of the software.

Form, fit and ease of access
The form I have mentioned, yes it is wider than the Session it is replacing but it is also less deep and because it is waterproof and needs no separate casing it sits comfortably next to the body. I have used this in several of the my race vests front pockets (including my Harrier Kinder, Raidlight Olmo 20 and Ultimate Direction Signature Series PB3) and each of them it has sat in such a way that I had no problem running.

Getting the camera out and putting it back in to my race vest is much easier than I ever imagined and actually is no more hassle than the Session ever was. There are obviously other ways of wearing this as a runner such as in a chest mounted harness of even a head mounted harness. What I will say is that the head mounted harness is hard work, its like having an uncomfortable head torch on and the chest mounting means that you can’t really use it with a race vest or bag (well I can’t), plus both the head and chest then have severe limitations to the angles and type of footage that can be achieved.

DJI Osmo Action Camera product review from a runners perspective - selfie sticks

A shitty self stick or an expensive gimbal?
Much of the fit also goes to the kind of selfie stick that you use with your action camera and I always team it with something nasty and cheap. Why? There are a number of reasons why I refuse to invest in a gimbal but the first is that the kind of adventures I go on often finds me facing giant turd sized perils. Those perils are the thing that make for the most exciting footage, the cost of this is that the selfie sticks often get broken, snapping is not unusual and they certainly don’t last given the beatings they take in all weathers. Gimbals tend to very expensive and therefore breaking them can become an expensive habit that gets costly quickly.

Gimbals also tend to be bulkier than the selfie stick, (though there are some very compact options in gimbals) and these can be something of a nuisance to carry during a race. One of the things I want is to be able to pull my camera out at a moments notice and if the gimbal or selfie stick is too big then getting it in and out can be complicated. Having a lightweight, compact selfie stick gives me the best balance of flexibility in terms of storage and also accessibility.

The final and perhaps most consistent reason that I choose the cheap selfie stick over the gimbal is because I feel that the gimbal creates really dull footage for runners. Now in some sports such as say skiing or water sports then having the gimbal to remove the worst excesses of bounce would be useful. However, in running terms you actually want some bounce, you want movement because that is the natural way of running – when running is done via a gimbal or drone from a POV then it removes all its energy. With good image stabilisation then I see no reason to use a gimbal at all.

Ultraboyruns running along his local trails

And action…
I’d been running for about 7 hours in the rain, my hands were 100% fucked and my body felt like a sponge it had soaked up so much water but I really wanted footage of me crossing the Tyne during Ultra North. I yanked out my Osmo, switched it on with the big fat square button on the top and then squeezed the equally big fat red dotted circle to record. A second later the little red light was flashing on the front to indicate recording. Once I had finished recording I pressed the circular button again and the the recording stopped and a minute later the screen auto shut down because it knew I had simply forgotten to power it down.

My head was pretty mashed in the later stages of the race and often is and I have been known to only shoot footage from the first half of an event because of it. However, during the maiden race for the Osmo I was happily able to use it from start to finish and this was down very much to the ease of the software and button setup of the camera.

It is true that I’d prepared my settings 1080p / 30fps / video but beyond that it was then simply a matter of pressing two buttons and to be fair the powering up step can be missed out if you’d rather just hit the circle button – it will then just record footage. I don’t mess with the touchscreen when I’m running because I figure this is a way to mess things up but changing recoding resolution, aspect ratio or frames per second on the move is easy enough to do should you really wish.

The footage stores itself sequentially on your SD card(s) and so this makes it easier to recall running or eventing for when I might be editing several days, weeks or months later. Its a damn fine user experience and this is extended, thankfully, to the software that comes with it for your smartphone.

And edit…
I wanted a better camera to device experience than the GoPro Session when I upgraded. I mean the Session was mostly fine but a little bit cumbersome and the desktop editing software was a massive bag of wank, so DJI didn’t have much to improve upon. DJI MiMo (My Moment) is the software they offer and it is a huge leap forward in the way to handle and edit video. As a graphic designer I am used to using Adobe Premiere and After Effects for video work but this running footage needed to be editable in a quick fun way, not have all my time and effort devoted to crafting Hollywood style blockbusters. Therefore DJI MiMo from my iPhone offered quick connectivity to the camera, easy downloads and then a full suite of excellent editing tools to craft very social video files that have been doing the rounds of some of the Facebook groups and my IGTV feed in recent weeks.

MiMo is also the beneficiary of regular updates which makes the software more stable and more usable, and on the subject of software updates, the camera itself is the recipient of semi regular updates too and all of this takes place in the background ensuring that your camera is ready for adventuring when you are.

If you follow me at my blog here ultraboyruns.com or on my new Facebook page there are a variety of videos that I have been creating and I usually split the editing between iMovie and MiMo, not because one is better than the other but because they offer slightly different tonal outputs. MiMo is the superior of the software though and is incredibly easy to use.

I suppose there is the question of, ‘would i find it easy to use if I didn’t have a background in creative?’ Well the answer to that is I believe that while I perhaps have a small advantage in the edit process that this is something that anybody who knows how to use a smartphone would be able to do. DJI have made action video creation a real option for those who want it, though you might just be somebody that wants to take pictures with your action camera and that is fine too. If you are likely to be using your Osmo for shooting video and then grabbing stills from it there is no way (as far as I can tell) to grab a still within the MiMo environment, for grabbing video footage stills I tend to use Framegrabber which is an app available for both iOS and Android.

Footage & output
Output is created in either .mov or .mp4 format. The footage is of a generally very high quality and can be captured at 4k/60fps with an excellent in-built microphone, though this can be upgraded by adding an external microphone. For the purposes of running I find the supplied mic more than sufficient and the lower end of the video spectrum will cover most needs. When casting 1080p footage I have edited to a 4k 55inch Samsung television the output has been very good – not quite movie quality but more than sufficent for showing to your nearest and dearest as they fall asleep watching your running movies.

Why?
The question of why I bother shooting my running and editing the footage together for social media has come up more than once. The reason I take the action camera with me and share so much running related video content is because it combines to two things I enjoy most – creativity and running. I really don’t give two flying fucks if you watch it, don’t watch it, love it or hate it – I make this stuff for myself. However, if one person is inspired to get their running shoes on or go and get muddy on a trail somewhere then that is a bonus.

Conclusions
I can’t judge whether the Osmo Action is better than the latest version of the GoPro Hero because I haven’t extensively tested the GoPro but I have extensively tested the DJI and I can tell you that the Osmo Action is an amazing action camera.

The combination of quality, ease of use, output and importantly price point make this a very real option for purchase. I paid less than £250 for the camera, three batteries, charger, cage and a pair of mounts (the app is a free download). To put this in perspective I paid nearly £200 for my GoPro Session which offered no additional power sources (sealed unit meant you couldn’t change the battery) but a couple of mounts and that was 5 years ago.

DJI Osmo Action Camera product review from a runners perspective -action pack and selfie sticks

I love the ease of use of Osmo and have both increased and improved my adventure video and photographic output. If you are interested in action cameras and shooting your adventures then this is very much worth considering.

I’ve used my Osmo Action for all sorts of activity and although running is the primary thing that I capture footage of I have also regularly used it for open water swimming, mountain biking, sledging, paddle boarding, kayaking, fast hiking, roller skating, hill walking and even motor homing, the options are limitless. The question is in camera terms is how far will you go in search of adventure and do you want to record it?

Perhaps the key features that determined which action camera I was going to buy were the dual screens and the replaceable lens cover (both now available on the Hero 9, a product that wasn’t available when I bought the DJI and remains significantly more expensive than the Osmo Action). When you’re researching which one to buy you’ll see that the difference in footage quality, colour saturation, image stabilisation, warping, image correction, microphone, etc is nominal and so it really comes down to personal preference but it was the Osmo that made me part with my money.

Further information is available at the DJI website

Here are 10 great reasons I hike up big hills with my 6 year old daughter;

  1. She gets to see her parents set a good healthy & active example.
  2. She gets to play in the wonderful surroundings that we moved to Scotland to find.
  3. It is great undisturbed family time where we learn the value of teamwork.
  4. There is infinite opportunity for exploration, adventure and danger.
  5. She develops an appreciation of both the majesty and fragility of the outdoors.
  6. Doing this as a child I hope I hope will inspire her to do it as she gets older.
  7. She learns new skills in hiking, the countryside code, navigation, safety and nature.
  8. She is an excellent hill hiker (and delights in beating her parents to a summit).
  9. She is a keen hill hiker (and will request going hiking as an activity).
  10. She loves reaching a trig point.

Don’t get me wrong there are days when she doesn’t want to do it but there are days I don’t want to either but she has never reached a trig point or cairn and been disappointed. She is learning to respect her environment and what that environment means both locally and in bigger terms.

If you have a young adventurer in your family then get them and you started early in enjoying the outdoors., you don’t need big mountains to have a wonderful time (but they do help). Hiking with my 6 year old is a big win for child and parent – I cannot recommend it enough.

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

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

But where did it all begin?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit the OMM website for further information on their products

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit the Oxsitis website for further information on their products

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit the Ultimate Direction website for further information on their products

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit the Raidlight website for further information on their products

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit the Harrier website for further information on their products

RUNNING KIT Mistakes!

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

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

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

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

Recommendations?

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

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

If I had some tips for you I would say;

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

WHERE CAN I BUY?

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

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

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

Gallery

Have fun shopping.

Living in Scotland offers you lots and lots of opportunity to be active and having an energetic six year old gives me further reason to be out and about. Obviously Scotland also has a bit of a reputation for occasionally being a bit wet, that however is not a reason to stay indoors. Having the right gear for your activities is imperative and top of the list for my daughter was a waterproof jacket that could handle the elements

Enter, the Tribord Sailing 100 Waterproof jacket which might not have been designed with hiking in mind but let me assure you that if you’ve got a mini adventurer in your family then you need one (or more) of these in your arsenal of kit to defend against crappy weather.

Decathlon, who make the jacket, offer this for a measly £14.99 and you’ll find that the specification that the website offers does not do it justice. The overview suggests that this is good in pretty mild conditions but I can say we’ve properly stress tested this jacket and it goes over and above the website description.

Let’s look at the features that Decathlon lists;

  • High collar for protection from the wind
  • Hood visor
  • Injected plastic zip to prevent salt corrosion
  • Resistant component to a water pressure of 2,000 mm after ageing (= 2,000 Schmerber – average pressure exerted by the water during rain)
  • Water-repellent components
  • 100% taped seams.
  • Central opening features a flap with a drainage channel for optimal waterproofing.

For less than £15 you’re getting a waterproof jacket with taped seams, a hood visor and a hood that actually covers the head and protects the face. You’ll pay a lot more for a lot less elsewhere. As a windproof it’s better than many of the expensive jackets I own as an adult and the adjustable cuffs are easy to work even when your fingers are chilly.

It also has the benefit of being a smart looking jacket and I’m very happy to send my daughter to school in it and it’s versatility means that it can be used on wet summer days and cool autumn days and be equally at home. When winter comes calling then we normally add a gilet or jumper beneath this turning it into a year round jacket.

ASK has worn this in some pretty filthy weather, hail stones, long hours atop a ridge with lots of moisture in the air, heavy rain and wild winds – it has never failed. It isn’t just the filthy hiking weather though that she’s worn it for, when we go trail running this is the jacket she uses and underneath her life jacket when kayaking this is what she’ll invariably have on.

This is almost always the first piece of gear out of the box.

I was such a fan of the jacket that when she outgrew the first one I simply bought a second in the next size up and assuming the quality remains the same I will do so again.

There are little touches that I really like too, the jacket is a little longer than other kids jackets, perhaps given it’s design for sailing, but I find this works wonderfully well when it’s combined with ASKs waterproof trousers – the wet doesn’t get through between trousers and jacket. The pockets are also a good size and well positioned at the front should ASK want to warm her hands or store something in there such as gloves.

It’s hard to find fault with this piece of kit, but then maybe that’s the thing – it’s an inexpensive, well made, practical and yet aesthetically pleasing jacket. The cut is great and the little detailing to make it an active, fitted jacket is so nice to see if you’ve got an outdoorsy little person in your life.

Add in that it compresses down nicely to fit into any dry bag or stuff sack you already own and it means you’re not lugging around a jacket under your arms when your child says they’re too warm and want to remove it.

To caveat my glowing review I suppose I could say that at some point the jacket will let water through, at some point it will let the cold in and at some point it won’t stand up to the rigors its facing BUT that could be said of any jacket. I use a Montane Neo Further Faster that cost £300 and a couple of Montane Minimus jackets for ultra running (both over £100) and eventually both of these will fail if they get wet enough. This £15 jacket is a great choice for your little one as they discover the joys of the outdoors.

I would add that the jacket photographed here is the second edition we bought and she has had it since about December 2019. It has been used extensively and the product photographs taken for this blog post were taken in October 2020 after nearly a years usage – the jacket looks as new as the day we bought it.

Ultimately I feel that Decathlon make a range of excellent kit for every age group and it’s a price point where you don’t mind so much that they’ll outgrow it before they destroy it. This jacket though is better than usual and to my mind is actually superior to their hiking equivalent – perhaps it’s because of the ability to easily layer and it has multi season use but whatever, I highly recommend this fir young adventurers everywhere.

You can find more information on the decathlon website

Please note I am in NO way affiliated with Decathlon or any other brand and this review is solely because I bought this and think other parents of young adventurers would be interested.

Much has changed in the last few months, I’ve dropped over 13kg in weight, I’ve finally grown an ultra beard, I now own two kayaks and a paddleboard, ASK Adventurer turned 6 and oh yes… COVID 19

You’ll all be aware that racing has been off the agenda for most of 2020 due to the pandemic and only in the last few weeks has it really shown any return, albeit, that return, at the time of writing, is in jeopardy.

While I realise that running events not happening isn’t the end of the world, it does effect me, but being so long since my last race I wondered if this enforced absence might have seen my racing love, wane somewhat.

Then along came the lovely Luke Gow who I’d met at the Nocturnal Ultra a couple of years ago (evening geezer) and he suggested that Ultra North in Northumberland might be going ahead and would have spaces. What a cheeky little bugger manipulating me like that…

Well of course I immediately checked out the website and given I’m susceptible to even the lightest race persuasion* I soon found myself stumping up the entrance fee. (*this seems an odd phrase on re-reading, I need to practive my writing more).

Ultra North comes from the same people who do things like The Great North Run and the Great Swim Series – as a larger events organisation I would normally avoid them – because experience suggests that the profit motivation goes before the quality of the event. However, after swimming in a couple of the Great Swim series I had high hopes that this would be one of the better ‘large’ events.

Ultra North was targeting a wide running base in its advertising as it was being suggested as suitable for both speed demons and those of us with more of a snails pace and in this sense it opened its arms to all who were willing to give it a go. With generous cut offs and lots of support – plus two race distances this was, on paper, a good novice ultra event. Perhaps on paper you’d have read this as a road marathoner and thought ‘I could do Ultra North’.

Ultimately I was quite happy that I was signing up to a race that wasn’t to my usual tastes but the question is did it prove to be better than my expectations and dud it reignite my racing fire?

We’ll get there in a minute.

Anyway we drove down to a place about an hour outside of the start in Newcastle called Bellingham and camped overnight – this meant there wasn’t a near 3hr sprint from Scotland to the start line. This enable me to have a much more relaxed approach to reaching the registration point and with all the COVID regulations in place you really wanted to be arriving in a semi relaxed state.

Weather conditions promised heavy rain so the outdoor registration system was a bit miserable but the team behind Ultra North were quick, effective and as enthusiastic as you could hope for. It wasn’t perhaps your typical Geordie welcome but these are unusual times we live in.

I collected my race number and affixed it to my leggings and then lined up, all very simple. The Eagles Arena car park had been set up to give the runners adequate space to social distance and runners were sent off in groups of 3. It wasn’t a race start to write home about – COVID has sapped the energy out of events – but this is to be expected and so as we were sent on our merry way I remembered that this is temporary and that for the first time since the Falkirk Ultra I was racing again.

The route lumbered its way through some very uninspiring kilometres which had me worried, the tarmac was hard and the roads grey and without joy – if the whole event was like this then it was going to be a truly miserable day. However, the runners, many of whom were from the north east had the lovely chatty, friendly personality I had come to expect and COVID had not managed to beat that. I both listened in and joined into conversations that passed me and that I went past. That was lovely and thankfully once we were closing in on the first checkpoint at 13km the route was becoming more interesting I started to enjoy myself.

It was in the last couple of kilometres to checkpoint one that I met the lovely Leanne who was a first time ultra runner and looking incredibly strong. We chewed the fat a bit before saying farewell as we set off for checkpoint two but I had no doubt she had a great finish in her. Her energy gave me the drive to push onwards to CP1 when I might normally have dragged my heels a bit – so thank you!

The checkpoints were very simply laid out with all the bits you could want and it was very much self help (which I prefer), a one way system through the CP and hand sanitising before you tuck in.

Now because I’m on a weight loss fight I decided not to stuff my face, so it was a small amount of cola, one chocolate pancake thing and then gone.

From here we crossed the Tyne for the first time and off for a series of climbs into the ‘wilds’ of Northumberland and the route provided those with road shoes on something of a challenge as we climbed muddy, wet, rocky trails. This was probably my favourite section but I did hear a number of the runners cursing this and describing it as tough (ha! wait until you try MIUT then you’ll know tough!). All the road running was worth these lovely little bits of trail and I was disappointed when the climbing and the mud abated. Still back to the roads and actually as I passed through little villages and lovely bits of England I had never before seen I found a great sense of joy – I’ll be honest this was mildly tempered by the soaking I had taken and continued to take.

I passed by the next checkpoint in good time and was only mildly concerned that one of the marshals offered me the ambulance. He must have misinterpreted my response to; ‘do you need anything?’ To which I had replied, ‘a lift back?

It was in this section that I met Chris (if I’ve got your name wrong my apologies), we chatted for a bit and I encouraged us to a bit of running – he told me that the running we’d done had been the longest he’d done in a while. When I left him to carry on running I was convinced he would make it and sure enough as I was driving home I saw him coming into the final kilometre looking as determined as when I had left him. Good job fella!

I was now into the last 20km or so and was bang on time, not too fast, not too slow. I hit the third checkpoint and was in and out pretty quickly but as I left the checkpoint I noted ASK and the GingaNinja approaching and waving wildly from Rona!

I stopped mere seconds to wave at them and tell them I had to continue – they would thankfully come and see me later in the race which was a perfect pick me up at about 45km.

More tarmac passed under my weary feet and for someone who had weak glutes, no core stength, trail shoes on and very limited training in the bank this was proving a killer, not that I’m looking for excuses, obviously.

There was also the back injuries that have plagued me since about 2015 resurfacing at 20km and made the weight of my race vest feel very heavy and draining indeed. That problem is going to be a very serious issue for The Cheviot Goat in a few weeks time. Here though the problem manifested itself as severe pain across the middle of my back and so I would hoist my race vest higher up my back to alleviate the stress points.

Regardless I pushed onwards as I knew that I was now not going to DNF, even with the back pain I could push through and claim my first medal in months. It was at about 40km though that the dynamic of the race changed for me and I met a young man with a nice beard called Lewis and we got chatting during one of my regular refuelling and walking breaks. We found ourselves chewing the fat over all sorts of topics and I found his company delightful and very distracting from my back trouble.

I could have run on from him as I had the energy to do it, but I made a decision that his speed walking pace was sufficiently excellent, my back was in pieces and if we maintained this pace I’d only be 40 minutes slower than if I were running and so despite both of us clearly stating, ‘please crack on if you need to’ we stayed together and talked (hopefully) about useful, useless and running things for the final three hours of the event!

As we crossed the Millennium Bridge across the Tyne I recounted my last running in Newcastle (Rat Race’s The Wall – review here), I was even able to identify the nightclub where a drunken Geordie lass offered to help myself and another runner up to the finish despite not being able to stand herself – I have no idea if there’s a euphemism in there but there might have been at the time of the original event.

Great memories.

I was surprised that lots of the runners I spoke to were considering or had run The Wall, I’d urge everyone to make sure you’ve looked round at alternatives, The Wall is very expensive for what you’re getting and the north and north east have a lot of great value, great running events. Just saying.

Anyway with the wind on our back and the rain on our faces Lewis and I ambled gently towards the finish. I was now very cold, partly due to an extended stop at the final checkpoint, partly due to a gruelling 8hr soaking, so I was keen to finish but the cold and the speed walking had drained any notion of running the last kilometre.

Lewis and I waited until we could see the finish before we put on a short burst of speed and crossed the eerily quiet finish line and the collection of our rewards.

An odd day, a good day.

  • Distance: 55km
  • Ascent: Around 550 metres
  • Date: October 2020
  • Location: Newcastle
  • Cost: £65
  • Entrants: 109 finishers
  • Terrain: Mixed, lots of tarmac
  • Tough Rating: 1/5

Route
This one isn’t going to win any prizes for being the most scenic but it has its moments, ultimately I think you know what you’re likely to be getting into when the compulsory kit says ‘debit card’ to buy supplies if you need them.

If you’re a fast road runner and fancying the transition to trail this would be a great route to get some testing into your feet or if you’re new to the ultra marathon scene then this won’t come as too much of a shock. The route has a lot in common with the aforementioned ‘The Wall’ in that the amount of road running is quite high. However, if you’re aware of this or have a preference for it then you’re going to enjoy yourself. If you’re an out and out trail runner then this might not be one for you.

These are also a couple of iconic moments on the route too – obviously the run alongside the Tyne is a must see if you’re coming to Newcastle and this brought back a shitload of great memories for me. Running the last bit with Lewis as well gave it a nice social element that we’ve all been missing since racing stopped.

Anyway I can’t actually be negative about the route overall, it is mostly quite good fun (well except for that shitty first few kilometres but every race has a bit like that). I would urge the Ultra North organisers to see if there are any ways to add in some of the lovely trails that lined the roads of the route – I realise this probably means greater organisation and costs but it would make for a more complete route and would certainly draw runners like me back.

Organisation
I would struggle to fault the organisation, it was very well oiled. The checkpoints were well spaced out and well thought out, the marshalls were all well organised and well drilled, all instructions, both on the day and pre-race, were clear and the COVID side of things was handled with all the grace and clarity it could be. Ultra North should be commended for managing to put on a city starting event and yet maintain the required level of protocols.

A special note of course to the marshals without whom these events could not take place, each and every one of them that I came into contact with was doing a spectacular job and while it might not have been cuddles and kisses there was a lot of support and encouragement and no hint of pressure to get out of a CP. Well done guys.

Value for Money
Always a tricky one, this race was about £65 which I consider a fair amount for a race. What did you get? You got a well organised, well supported race across a circular route and a medal and T-shirt where you could see were bespoke. The food at the checkpoints was plentiful, nice and varied and so, yes, Ultra North offered good value for money.

Awards
Bespoke medal and shirt (size medium, that’s what a bit of weight loss will do for you). I liked the medal and shirt, very vibrant, much like the rest of the excellent event branding.

Conclusion
Any runner, and I mean any runner or long distance walker, could find enough good reasons to take part in this.

It’s short enough for a a marathon runner to test their ability on a new distance, mixed terrain runners would enjoy the variety, new to ultra distance runners will find it not too challenging and experienced ultra runners will enjoy the day out in Newcastle not being covered in as much shit as usual.

It’s possibly not the event that you’ll remember as the best you ever did but does that really matter? It was a fun day out as far as I am concerned and remember I was soaking wet for 8hrs. Would I return to run it again? I would certainly consider returning – though I think the October date is much better than the original March date that is pencilled in for this and if the route was made a little more of the trail features found all over this landscape then you’ve got a bona fide hit.

Racing Fire
Did Ultra North return my racing fire? Sort of – I’m now looking forward to The Cheviot Goat much more than I was – but COVID 19 has removed a lot of the fun of racing for me.

img_4483

I’ve been locked down for a few days now – unable to leave the house, never mind go running. I mean I could have visited the treadmill but I don’t have a good relationship with the treadmill – we treat each other with disdain.

I’ve also been having a huge amount of fun eating toblerone and eating toblerone requires concentration and so you can’t run. When I haven’t been working, I’ve been eating and vice versa. Life is a super exciting rollercoaster at the moment.

Yesterday though I said to ASK would you like to go running in the garden?

She replied, ‘yes please, can we have a race’ and I told her that if she ran 100 laps of the garden I’d give her the virtual medal she hadn’t quite earned from her March running, and that yes we could race it. 100 laps of the garden would be enough to cover the last couple of miles she needed and she seemed happy to try it. I told her that I’d carry on and do maybe 200 laps and she seemed pretty happy about the arrangement.

img_4463

The trouble is that the layout of our garden is not very conducive to running for a number of reasons;

  1. It’s on multiple levels
  2. It’s multi-surfaced
  3. The runnable bit isn’t very big

Regardless I managed to devise a route that would take in the bulk of the paths of the garden, a rock jump and some steps – all this in under 50 metres. Had I been smarter I could have used the front garden too and the two side passages wither side of the house which would have made it more like a 200 metre loop but I figured the pain of torment of such a small loop would at the very least test our mental strength.

I told ASK that we must move at slow and steady pace and that the garden was full of opportunities to injure ourselves and so we must be careful. Anyway ASK was off like a rocket  and calling out to me to hurry up – I was choosing to run just behind her incase any of the garden obstacle proved the undoing of my rather slight five year old. 

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I had instructed both of us to put a layer on and also a buff to help keep us warm but as the laps started falling we found that both of us were wildly overdressed and quickly disposed of our layers. ASK was quick round the course, racing up the steps and then bounding down the narrow path down and making jolly good fun of the rock leap at the bottom of the narrow path.

She refused to let me pass and lead the way – even when we had water stops she would say, ‘dad are you ready?’ and then immediately step out infant of me to get a bit of a head start. As we hit 50 laps she started to slow a little bit – not on the downhill but on the steps and the climb back up to the top of the garden. I offered words of encouragement and gave her regular updates as to how many laps we had completed and more importantly, how many were left to go. 

Thankfully her mid-run lull lasted about 10 laps and then she had some fire in her belly as I said there were barely 30 laps left. With all the energy she could muster I could see the pumping of her arms driving her ever forward. 10 laps to go and I called out to her that there were about 20 laps still left, because clearly she wasn’t keeping count, and as the entered the last 3 laps I finally revealed we were nearly there. She shot off but I called out to her that there were still 3 laps left – and thankfully she slowed a little bit, allowing me to catch her up.

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As she passed the ‘checkpoint’ for the final time I called out to her that this was the last lap and that I was going to win. With gusto I started tailgating her around the lap, making her call out to, ‘stop it dad!’ to which I replied, ‘well go faster!’

She did.

The last 20 metres were quick as lightning and she crossed the line with a little jump in the air and a big slurp of water in the late afternoon sunshine. A very happy young lady was soon awarded the virtual medal she had now finally earned – that makes it about medal number 26 that she’s achieved and this one was in very special circumstances.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aha I thought I have found my way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Time: 8 Hours
Target: 8 Laps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sadly I was only half right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Falkirk Ultra really was a running community event.

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

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

Well that’s a red rag to a bull.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’d actually done it.

I’d made it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related

After four months of near inactivity the Tyndrum 24 (a looped foot race near the West Highland Way) had to be looked at with a bit of common sense. Even before I arrived I knew that running 24 hours was highly unlikely and I had joked that I might sleep 4 hours for every 1 hour of running but that’s getting rather ahead of myself.

For those of you who read my previous blog post (read it here) you’ll know that my training and racing has been almost non-existent since September and even before that it had been sporadic at best. I’d gained a shedload of weight and worse – I’d grown lazy and unfit. The truth is that I’d grown so lazy and unfit that during the 2019 festive season I had very much considered not running the Tyndrum 24.

However, after a short test of the route just before new year I decided that I would put the months of R&R and overating behind me and use the T24 to open my 2020 race account and see just how fall I had fallen.

A mid winter looped race in Scotland is always going to be a challenge – weather likely to be unpredictable, underfoot conditions likely to be grim and the cold… the cold. However, I approached this in a practical kind of way and packed up every bit of kit I could and worked out how I could stop semi regularly and rest so as to not push myself too far and risk injury and avoid failing to turn up at my next event.

In the run up it was confirmed that conditions were set to be kind and as I left the house on Saturday morning I was hopeful that the light drizzle would disappear and we’d have a lovely event.

I drove the back roads through Duone and Callendar up to Tyndrum and enjoyed the snow dusted hills and the dawn rising around me. I find driving through new parts of Scotland and the many little towns one of the delights of being here. I pulled up to the Green Welly about 8.30am and after meeting the first couple of volunteers (talking about you Andrew) I started to set up camp in the car. Here I imagined that I’d come back from the route jump into a sleeping bag – have a snooze, change and get back out – all part of the plan.

I disappeared off for a few minutes to have my pre-race poo and when I came back the window of the car next to me opened and the gentleman in the seat said hello.

Now as regular readers will know I am not a very sociable chap – except in a race scenario and so David and I chewed the fat for a while, especially over our mutual appreciation of the Skye Trail Ultra. Weirdly there was something familiar about him and much as I tried I could not place him but I’m going to guess that he may well be the David I met at the start line of the Tweed Valley Ultra in 2018 – perhaps I’ll never know.

I digress.

As the clock moved on I suggested we head down to registration – which gave me the opportunity to meet up with the wonderful Linlithgow Runner, Brian.

David and I rocked up the The Way Outside site and headed into registration after a bit of a bimble around the drop bag site and a watch of the other runners milling around as they waited for the start. The site seemed well set up and there was space for runners, volunteers and supporters to move around without pissing each other off – a good move from the race organisers. With time moving on though we headed upstairs to the registration point and were processed both quickly and efficiently (weirdly it could well have been fellow instagrammer Karmac70 that gave me my number but I can’t be sure).

Anyway, ID check was done, number was handed over, car details handed over to ensure any problems could be mentioned to us during the race and then we were sent outside to grab the lap dibber. All very easy, all really well drilled.

On the way to collect the dibber (from the awesomely hairstyled Jeff/Geoff) we ran in to Brian – saved me going to look for the bugger and it was a genuine joy to see him.

Brian and I have gotten to know one another a bit over the last few months as he’s been progressing his distances for bigger challenges to come and was ready to step up again with 12 hours at Tyndrum. We did brief introductions and then headed down to the Real Food Cafe for a cup of tea and a chat in nice warm surrounds. This, for me, was a wonderfully relaxing way to start a race and as we chatted about running and races I looked back with rose tinted specs to all those races were I’ve run terribly. Ha! Still saved me thinking about the terrible running I was about to do.

Post tea Brian headed off to get ready and David and I drifted off to the car park for a final change of kit.

The next hour or so there was mostly hanging around and although friendly and conversational  you could feel that runners were keen to set off, there was a nervous energy about the place and  even I, the fat hobbit, was keen to set off.  However, I managed to fill my time with a few photos and exchanges of strange tales with some of the other runners.

Looking round the checkpoint you could see a broad assortment of runners, mountain goats, road runners, first timers, old timers and misfits (I was in the misfit camp) – it was a real mix that had been attracted and in my experience that makes a for a good time. I’m always fascinated about what brought all of these wonderful people to a looped running event? in Tyndrum? on a cold and chilly day in January? That was something I’d be exploring with the many runners I came across during my time on the course.

After a short briefing from Stacey Holloway, the Race Director, we were off and rather annoyingly I found myself near the front and so immediately set about rectifying this and slowed my pace dramatically. During these first few hours where daylight existed I was keen to soak in my surroundings and enjoy the clear, crisp weather that’s one of the key joys of having this as my main hobby – the opportunity to see bits of the world that others do not and with loops you get to revisit the experience several times over and take in different details each time.

We ambled down the course jumping across the pools of water that had settled and a couple of short water jumps that were included as part of the entry before coming to the main river crossing. Given the heavy rain recently this could have been treacherous but actually it was fine and there were multiple good crossing points.

I was actually rather enjoying myself – I even leapt across the rocks in the run up to the bridge and then broke out into some genuine running before the first major hill that I knew I’d be hiking up. The hill brought many of the runners to a plod, myself included and this was a good chance to chat to people and wave on the speedgoats who would be crossing the hundred mile mark.

I was more concerned that Brian would overtake me on the first lap and so I plodded on – very keen to get the first loop in the bag – he could then overtake on loop 2 (I wouldn’t mind that so much). The climb wasn’t horrendous but it was significant – perhaps not in these early loops but as the day wore on this would increasingly feel hard and I noted that the ground below our feet, throughout the course, pretty much, was hard, unforgiving and unrelenting – this could be a worry given that neither my back or hips have ever responded well to sustained hard trails.

The descent from the high point of the course was going to be equally challenging but both of these seemed in line with expectations – it was the middle part of the course that looked the most challenging to me. Benign undulation and a long relatively dull stretch of path was what awaited the runners – this would be the part that divided opinion either as a rest from elevation or a chore between the interesting bits.

I battered down the mine road towards the (well used, given how many runners I saw going in and out of it) mid point toilet stop and then clambered up towards the final section of the route beyond the highly amusing medics who were preparing the fire and clearly a BBQ! Then it was a relatively single track path back towards the checkpoint which was rocky, undulating, challenging and yet very enjoyable. The short bursts upwards and the fast bursts downwards made for a bit of movement in the legs – something that felt very necessary after the grind of the mine road.

The final burst back up to the checkpoint was a gentle lollop back along the river with a rather cruel loop in the checkpoint  before reaching the dibber and our dibber checker.

I rolled into the checkpoint feeling reasonable but not without concern – fitness was obviously a concern but that was feeling steady – the problem was that my groin was feeling like shit. I started on my second lap with a light burning that was going through the same highs and lows as the route but lap 2 was finished within a reasonable time and I was still moving. Hurrah! However, the pain was now fully formed and sending shooting signals down my leg and up into my back.

I started to think about my options, one lap for a medal – well that was done but mentally that would be bad – I had originally aimed for 50 miles but that was rapidly being repurposed to a 30 mile run. In my head that was still going to be a failure but a chat with the GingaNinja reminded me that having not run for months those 30 miles would represent a reasonable return.

By lap 4 those 30 miles looked so far from achievable – I was in a really poor way, this felt like a DNF in the making and not reaching the minimum ultra distance was going to be a DNF to me.

It seemed to me though that on each lap I was going to meet someone that would help me reach the minimum distance. There was a Jennifer, John, Karen, the wonderful long distance walker Paul and many more. Occasionally I’d see Brian, David, Fiona or Neil who would provide a bit of a lift to get me over another hump. There were cuddles and conversation with (I’ll say husband and wife) Andrew and Susan – each one of these people and many more provided the incentive to keep going long enough to get six loops done. I heard amazing stories from the young, the old, the speedy and the slow and each one felt like stardust that kept me going just a little bit longer.

Laps 5 and 6 were well into the darkness and there was the greatest joy as I was able to sample the night sky of Tyndrum and the beautiful twinkling of all the stars in the sky watching over us. I stood at the bottom of the main climb, alone with my headtorch off wishing that I had a decent camera with me to capture this moment – I did something similar on the single track back up towards the start need the little mini loch and felt both the joy and appreciation of freedom I enjoy to be ale to be out here. However, as I swtiched my light on during those last few hundred metres of lap 6 I knew that a decision had to be made.

And it is 100% true that I didn’t make my final decision to halt at six loops until I was almost on top of the checkpoint. I felt sad, I felt drained but this was the only decision that could be made if I wanted to build on what had been done at the Tyndrum 24.

I had very much wanted to continue as the night time running was going to be spectacular and weather conditions were such that the route was going to be good overnight but my injury woes were getting worse and I knew that at some point I would need to drive home – injured.

I hobbled into the checkpoint and saw Jeff/Geoff and his beautiful hair (he let me touch it) and exited the race with a medal and my tail between my legs – there was no pride in my finish or my distance but it was a finish.

Key points

  • Distance: 5 mile loops over 6, 12 or 24hrs
  • Profile: Bumpy
  • Date: January 2020
  • Location: Tyndrum
  • Cost: £80
  • Terrain: Hard Trail
  • Tough Rating: 2/5

Route
I’ve already described much of the route but what I haven’t said is that there is a plethora of stunning scenery to delight in and despite being near civilisation you can feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere too – it’s a clever place to put a race like this. However, I felt the hard conditions underfoot took away from the picturesque nature of the route but it is a minor thing yet something some runners might want to consider if you’re thinking about entering. I’d been out and tested the route over the festive period as I was in the area anyway but I’d gone in reverse to the way we ran at T24 and felt that the reverse was easier – but again it’s all opinion and ultimately you’re doing the same elevation whichever way you went.

Organisation
The organisation was faultless, yes there were challenges – the on route toilet became unusable for a number 2 apparently and there was the occasional headless chicken moment as someone was running round looking to fix a problem but everything was handled well. What felt like an army of (I’ll assume) volunteers and the RD looked effortless on their exertions both at the checkpoint and around the course. The checkpoint layout, the race registration and the lap counting was all super easy and that’s high praise indeed, especially when you consider that this is an inaugural event. Tyndrum 24 should go from strength to strength and I expect it to be well supported in the coming years.

Communication
Regular communication across email and social media channels was excellent, I felt it was very important that the organisers did not rely on social media as a number of races now do. The email communication means you are more likely to catch those runners who don’t use these. In the run up there was quite a lot of information being put out – I would expect that in year two this will be streamlined as the issues that cropped up (such as transfers after the deadline) will be ironed out. Great job on the communications and marketing.

Value
When you think about this the race is quite expensive but not outrageous at £80 and well within the average price of similar such events – however, I believe it is excellent value for money, especially compared to its peers.

There was clearly a good deal of organisation that went into the event, there was lots of support such as a toilet on the route, ample quality parking, a good spacious checkpoint base, accurate lap timings, what felt like a load of volunteers, kit purchase options, headtorch loans, etc). There were upcycled race t-shirts and wooden medals which were a nice touch too.

Ultimately the money spent by the runners on entering the race felt like money used on the race.

Volunteers
The team behind T24 were really exceptional, I’ve met a lot of great people manning checkpoints or standing out in the cold but these guys were right up there. I’d like to mention once again the lovely Andrew, Susan, (their poor daughter for having to listen to my flirting with her dad) and Jeff/Geoff – they all made me laugh.

The guys on the course – especially those by the little bridge must have been freezing but always had a cheery smile, the medics were unapologetically hilarious and annoyingly inspiring with their nice warm fire going and the lady in the big wooly hat – she was so brilliant – mostly just telling me to get a move on. Ultimately it was a great team that came together to give the runners the support they needed.

My thanks guys.

Loop v Loop
I’ve run a few looped events over the years – Challenge Hub 24hr, The Ranscombe Challenges, Brutal Enduro, Endure 1250 and how does the T24 compare?

Thankfully the Tyndrum 24 compares very favourably – it felt very modern and forward thinking, it was incredibly runner friendly and supportive and it felt like an event that was put on for runners by runners. Sometimes looped events can feel like an attempt to get your number of completed marathons up (not that there is anything wrong with that) but this felt like a genuinely challenging event in its own right and you needed to prepare for it whereas sometimes lap races can feel like a turn up and give it a crack – I felt with T24 you had to want to do T24 not just another looped event..

I remember running Endure 1250 and felt that was a ‘numbers’ event where I was just putting another number on my ultra total but here I felt like runners, myself included were racing whatever clock they were facing. In another year when I was a little fitter I would feel very confident of running 75 miles or more because I wanted to and I could train for that.

As looped events go this was one of the more fun ones and sits up there alongside the Ranscombe and Brutal loops as a favourite.

Medal
The medal design was very nice, and as readers will know I do love a medal, my only concern is that the thickness of the wood suggests that this might not survive much of a bash. When I compare this to say the thickness of the wood of either Ben Vorlich or the Nocturnal I feel both of these will be a little more hardy. I’d have been quite happy to pay a couple of pounds extra for a few more millimetres of wood to ensure that my memento of this event lasts for the duration of my life.

Eco
No plastic cups? Wooden medals, upcycled race shirts, local suppliers – all things I can very much get on board with and I doubt you’d hear any runners complaining about this. The race encouraged users to use public transport where possible – going so far as to have a race start time that made this possible (something that just two years ago I’d have been very happy with given I didn’t drive). Issues around sustainability in running is likely to become a bigger and bigger selling point as the years go on and it is good to see a race taking a lead on issues like this.

Conclusion
I suppose the conclusions come down to whether I would run the event again and the answer is a well considered yes.

Tyndrum 24 is a strange beast of an event given the location and time of year but it is a much needed addition to the UK ultra running calendar as winter running events in January, especially in Scotland, are nowhere to be found. There is a reason though why this is so and that reason is that Scotland can have hideous weather in January and the possibility of cancellation presumably remains high.

These things are something you will have to factor into your calculations when you consider entering – this year the event was fortunate to have the best possible conditions – but next year and the year after may not be so lucky. How would you feel running in the driving rain up and down hill in the dark for at least 16 hours? Or ploughing though the snow for the same amount of time wearing every last inch of clothing you could manage just to get to 30, 40 or 50 miles? I’ll be interested to see how the event goes on in a year like that.

Perhaps the more important question for you is, should you enter? I feel the answer to that is easy – of course you should. This was a really lovely event with a wild mix of runners from all walks of life and the fact that the organisation was top class only adds to the conclusion that this is a top quality event.

I’d go so far as to say that it is race worth travelling for and 100 miles across the maximum time allowed is very achievable even if you chose to walk speedily the entire thing you’d be grinding out distances near three figures.

I also feel it is worth noting that the race directorship team is new to this and should be given a huge amount of praise for the amount of work they poured into this – it looked like a labour of love and that hard work paid off with a smooth and delightful event.

My own race, as I’ve suggested, was a failure but not totally, 4 laps away from my 50 mile target, I ran for less than 8 hours and I was in so much pain that this throws into doubt my participation at the Falkirk Ultra. Mentally though there was a hint of success – despite my lack of fitness and groin/hip/back problems from less than 5 miles in I managed to hold on and knock out 30 failure lacklusture miles but 30 miles nonetheless.

As I write this on Sunday evening while listening to some made people on the  post football chat on BBC 5 Live I can feel the pain rolling around my groin and hip, Every time I stand up I feel it and evry time I take a step I feel it. I made the right decision to pull out. The potential to cause further long term damage was real but I know how to solve it – I need to weigh 15kg less, I need to eat less rubbish and I need to get back out there probably tomorrow, even if it is only for a slow couple of kilometres, probably involving the hill outside my house.

Thanks T24, thanks to everyone involved and who knows maybe I’ll see you next year.

Next
Next I prepare for a solid weekend of Scottish fun starting on February 1st at the Edinburrgh Winter Riun where ASK and I will attempt to bring her mile time down a little and the following day I’ll be heading to Callendar Park in Falkirk to run loops again but this time deliverately for 8 hours (both subject to my injuries calmong down a bit).

Related

Having failed to complete the Ochil Ultra I feel now is a time of reflection – I won’t be reviewing it this year as it would be unfair on the organisers to judge this on half a race. However, I can happily confirm that the (a little under) half a race I did was ball achingly epic and an example of a stunningly scenic Scottish ultra marathon that wasn’t in either the highlands or on the West Highland Way. Give it a go I don’t think you’ll be in any way disappointed – and with a couple of the loveliest RDs around.

What I’m looking for is some closure about the Ochil Ultra – sadly that will not be achieved here – only finishing the fucker will deliver that, however, I need to examine what happened and why I am so massively disappointed.

Perhaps the truth is that it’s not the failure that chaffs my arsehole but the way I failed.

I mean I knew things were not going well before the race started and my guts were doing cartwheels. I managed to alleviate this somewhat with the obligatory pre race dump but it still didn’t feel right. Thankfully negative things were somewhat put to the back of my mind by meeting the truly awesome and inspiring Fiona (see enclosed picture) but this was temporary relief and when I lined up at the start I was genuinely worried.

The race was quick to accelerate uphill and I found myself pushing as hard as I could up the first climb to the summit of Dumyat. I was fortunate to be on a route that I knew quite well and the views were truly spectacular. Having been here several times before I was expecting this to be an easy ascent and a relatively easy descent. However, when I reached the top I discovered that the descent was going to be far from easy and several slips and bumps as I went downwards would prove to be my undoing. I made it down to the bottom I tried to have something to eat – one of those baby fruit pouches that are pretty easy on the stomach – however, this was were I discovered that my participation in the Ochil Ultra was going to be short-lived, I started puking my guts up. Everything that I had laid on my stomach to try and stop race nausea came up and it was pretty vile. I crawled away in dismay and started to run again as best I could but on tarmac I could now feel the pain of my back and groin that had taken a pounding coming off that first climb.

I was fucked.

How sad that a race I had been so been looking forward to had come to a conclusion so quickly – but what now? Do I stop at the first checkpoint or do I get as far as possible and hope that everything eased off and I could make it to the last 15 miles or so and push through. Knowing that much tougher races are to come later in the year I felt that I had no choice but to try and push through and see how far I could get.

I pulled into checkpoint one and ate and drank as much as I could stomach, I also opened up the Active Root to see if there was anything it could do to help me ease my stomach issues. I would like to briefly mention the young man who was at the checkpoint and remembered me from Ben Vorlich – he was awesome and helped me get stuff out of my pack so that I didn’t need to take it off. What a great volunteer and he was more than willing to check half a bottle of water over my head!

I decided to head up the hill from checkpoint one and it really wasn’t very far before I was once more on my knees and bringing up the food and drink I had consumed at the checkpoint, chicken and chocolate (yuck). I sat down for a while, who knows how long, but long enough that I had the capacity to get up and continue but I was sort of wishing I hadn’t. It was a steep climb up from here and I made slow progress upwards where a volunteer was looking out for us – I stopped briefly to chat and then pushed onwards.

I looked back at the Ochils and saw a new side to the hills that were one of the great draws that brought me to Scotland. I felt truly grateful to be where I was but I was very much wishing that I did not feel like I did but with gritted teeth I continued through this beautiful and isolated landscape. I came down off the hill to a fisheries on the Glen Devon Estate that I recognised and when briefly I had phone signal I called the GingaNinja and asked her to come and rescue me from checkpoint two – I would be finishing there. The call though was cut short – not by a lack of signal but by having to get across the fast moving stream of water – something that was rather tricky give the state I was in.

Hours seemed to drift by until  I finally  arrived at the Glen Devon Reservoir and around the 30km mark I assumed that the checkpoint and the therefore my finish line would be just at the bottom of the hill I had climbed only a week or so previously.

But no.

I reached the path and saw the arrow pointing upwards to yet more climbing and here I found myself with tears in my eyes. My groin and my back were burning, I had managed to puke for a third and final time and my mental strength had simply evaporated into the ether. I did consider the option of simply walking down to the Glen Sherup car park but knew that there was no phone signal there and felt that the second checkpoint must be nearby. I mean how much elevation could there really be here? The answer to that was revealed as I entered a darkened forest section and noted that the climb looked steep and impossible. However, much as before I simply gritted my teeth and forced my way through the increasingly shitty conditions underfoot. Once I reached the top of the section I saw a sign saying ‘Innerdownie summit 1km’ and noted that we must come back here and make the ascent – something we had considered when, as a family, we were hiking up Ben Shee.

In the distance I could see signs of habitation and assumed that the checkpoint was there and so I gingerly made my way down to the bottom to the welcome of the volunteers and the GingaNinja but all I could say was that those cheers and congratulations were unnecessary – I had failed, totally and utterly and was very sad about that. Perhaps the most annoying thing was that I

The guys at Wee Run Events were tremendous and offered anything I needed and I would like to very much thank them from that. I’ve said it before but the guys really do love what they do and if they don’t then they make it look like they do.

Afterwards & Onwards 
Failing here would normally have sent my spiralling into a pit of my own self inflicted misery and ensuring that I just piled on the pounds eating chocolate and bread products but I’ve been rather than pragmatic than that this time. I’ve decided not to run the Rebellion Ultra as I feel as though it is simply too far for me at this time and have instead entered the Yorkshire Three Peaks Ultra – which at 70km should be a great event and I’ve very rarely run in Yorkshire so its a lovely opportunity.

The injury thankfully has eased off and I’ve immediately gone back to running and so I’m aiming to be ready for the Three Peaks but also more importantly I’m now laser focused on The Cheviot Goat which has been my ‘A’ race all year – so as sad as I feel about the Ochils Ultra it has provided me with renewed focus for my remaining targets this years.

I will still reach ultra number 52 just not at the Ochil Ultra and 2020 will, I am determined, not be the washout that 2019 has been.

Failing to finish, refusing to continue, timed out, did not finish. Doesn’t matter, I did fail but I will return and it is holding on to a positive attitude that will get me through. Some may comment that I was just having a stinker of a day but the truth is that I’ve had too many stinking days at races. I could blame my work stress levels, the sickness on the day or the injuries but ultimately I should only blame myself for my failures – and I do.

So thank you Ochil Ultra, you were awesome and I was shit but I’m coming to get you and next time I will not fail.

img_2097This is less a review and more a thank you to the Millar Foundation for putting on a truly awesome Superhero Fun Run this weekend.

I’m sure that many of my fellow geeks, nerds and coolios will recognise the name Mark Millar from excellent comic books such as Kick Ass, Kingsman: The Secret Service and Superior as well as more instantly recognisable names such as Spider-Man.

Beyond comics though he founded the Millar Foundation with the aim of providing transformative opportunity and community in the place he grew up. What a thoroughly decent idea and well worth an internet search to articles about the projects the Foundation is involved in or click here to see the photographs from recent events

This latest event was just the kind of thing that a running and comic book obsessed father and daughter would be very attracted to. And so we went along.

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When we rolled up to Drumpellier Country Park the sun was shining wonderfully but thankfully it wasn’t too hot as being in superhero garb was a little different to my Ronhill and La Sportiva technical tops. We had traded in our usual monikers for a crack at being Supergirl and Mister Incredible (some might say that’s no change for me – I jest) and we delighted in a bit of cape swooshing as we left the car park.

As we ambled along the path we were picked out by the local press photographer for a quick snap and then directed to the registration point. All was lovely, everybody hugely welcoming and there was some delicious fruit juice, bottled water and bananas available to the runners pre-race. Awesome.

We were half an hour early so Supergirl and I sat enjoying our fruit juice and admiring the many wonderful costumes on display.

As it was ‘Batman Day’ (The Caped Crusaders 80th birthday) there were lots of dark knight detective themed characters but there was a significant amount of Captain America, Hulk, Supergirl, Wonder Women, Spider-Men and Supermen ready to race. I did catch sight of a couple of Deadpool runners and even one Gecko from PJ Masks, it was an eclectic and wonderful mix.

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Before long it was race time and after a bit of a warm up from the team at the local gym we were thrust on to the course. The race kicked off at about 11 and I had taken up my customary position at the back of the pack and had instructed Supergirl to take it steady as this was her longest race to date.

As the gaggle of superheroic runners set out we began to find our stride and it wasn’t long before we began overtaking all manner of caped competitors. The key for me, in the run, was that Supergirl maintain a sensible pace and run consistently throughout the distance. Many of the young people running were prone to bursts of speed and then being forced into walking as they had expelled all their power. No such issue confronted us and we gently ambled our way through the field and down the tarmac path with it’s wonderful views across the lake.

It was about a half a kilometre in when the tarmac turned to woodland trail and both Supergirl and Mister Incredible were much happier – both of us kicked on a little bit and started to target runners ahead of us, picking them off one by one. Occasionally a runner from behind would overtake us and we enjoyed watching the spirited displays of running from the young and old. The effort was really very inspiring and that was such a great message for my daughter to take away. There is something powerful about seeing kids, not much older than her, both succeeding and struggling but fighting for that finish and the reward of the medal.

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As for the course – the news was good – for all the runners as the path was lovely and dry with a mildly spongy feel to it which gave wonderful bounce as you ran. Had Supergirl not been with me I’d have happily done half a dozen loops here. But instead as a dynamic duo we steadily ran through the woodlands and said hello to many of the other runners and as we approached the turnaround Supergirl put on a little spurt – determined to claim her medal as quickly as possible.

The distance to the finish was quickly disappearing and we were flying. I was incredibly proud of her performance and then all of a sudden, as happens with ASK, she lost concentration for a second and was sent sprawling across the trail.

We immediately stopped running and tears fell down her little face and I took right hold of her in a big hug and said the thing I always say when she falls, ‘what do we do when we fall over?’ To which she always replies, ‘we get back up and keep going’. I dusted her down and checked that there was no serious injury or bleeding and checked she was fine to continue…

She was.

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With the tears dried we picked up the pace – Supergirl though wanted to hold my hand – she was keen not to fall again – so together we came to final turn and the sound of the finish line PA system blared music in our direction. The lovely volunteer at the final corner made note of my delightful backpack that I was sporting (I was carrying a teddy bear on my back brought home from school for the weekend to go on adventures – and my daughter wanted the bear to race).

Supergirl decided that now we were back on tarmac she no longer needed the company of Mister Incredible and hit the afterburner. With around 250 metres to go Supes started her sprint finish, both feet off the ground and arms pumping – my little superhero crossing the finish line to collect a most well earned medal.

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Great racing, great event.

  • Distance: 2.5km (2.7km GPS measurement)
  • Time: 18 minutes of moving time / 3 minutes of crying and dusting ourselves off

Conclusion
Thanks must go the Millar Foundation but also the Drumpellier Park Parkrun team who made the event happen – the volunteers of the Park Run team really worked hard to make sure everyone had a great time and it was.

The nice thing was that the whole event was free and there was a lovely sense of community and that will certainly have helped to bring people out but given how many people got dressed up I feel this was simply the kind of event that draws families out to do something fun and active, together.

I hope this runs for many years and I hope it inspires other towns to run similar events –  they don’t have to be free – they just have to be on. The fun run at the recent West Lothian Running Festival (read about it here) for example was a lovely and well organised event too and these things really do bring people together. I feel it important that our children and young people are able to participate in events like this to ensure that being active is a habit and not a chore.

And in closing I’ll simply say that I look forward to donning a bit of spandex next year for this wonderful event.

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img_1777In times of turmoil we seek summits and points of vantage to gain clarity of vision.

When I was younger I would go to the Lake District to climb a hill and breathe clean air and give myself greater clarity. Given I didn’t drive (or ride a bike) I would often find myself in places you could reach by public transport and so Ambleside was a popular choice for a young man with a busy mind.

Roll forward a decade or two and my mind remains busy but I’ve added both a driving licence and an ability to ride a bike and so when I saw the inaugural Ambleside Trail 60 on the ultra event calendar I decided that this was for me.

The race was being organised in conjunction between the long established The Climbers Shop (find out more here) in Ambleside and charity The Brathay Trust (find out more here) – both well respected pillars of the community.

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I therefore had high expectations for the event.

When looking at the Ambleside Trail 60 on paper you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s rather easy and with a tad under 2,500metres of climb it all seemed perfectly respectable. The problem comes is that when deciding to do this I had conflated the shortness of the distance and relatively low ascent numbers to think this was going to be easy. How wrong can you be?

But anyway let me add a bit of context to proceedings – I’d had an excellent July, training had gone well and I’d come off the Ben Vorlich Ultra feeling pretty good and without injury. The truth is I’d felt so good that I’d returned to training the following day and was looking forwarding to maintaining my running mental strength by taking part in the Thieves Road Ultra. In typical fashion though disaster struck and I took a nasty tumble running up a hill and put a bloody big hole in my knee and this was supplemented by a shitty infection that I couldn’t shift. However, with August 10th approaching I knew that momentum was on my side and I’d be okay(ish) to race but it seemed my August ultra curse was set to continue and the race was cancelled due to the potential for adverse conditions.

What happened next was that race was reorganised for two weeks later, my illness got worse and on race day I spent about 8hrs on the porcelain throne. This time it was me cancelling the race and so I rolled up to the Ambleside 60 with very little training but a lot of chocolate eating done.

As I’ve said I’m a huge fan of The Lake District and Cumbria, it’s a truly spectacular place and so I was very happy to be there on a beautiful morning watching the world go by.

Strangely for an ultra it was taking place on a Sunday which meant I’d had the luxury of bimbling around the Lakes the day previously taking in the delights of Ambleside and registering with the event organisers at The Climbers Shop. Registration was both quick and easy and the lovely organisers were on hand to answer all of my ridiculous questions. I was also mightily impressed that race sponsor Rab (I assume) threw in a warm beanie which is likely to make its race debut later in the year. It was here that I bumped into Ed, a fellow competitor from Ben Vorlich and it was lovely to ‘chew the fat’ with him for a few minutes and catch up about what had happened at the race end. However, we soon parted and I found myself at a loose end but with lots of wonderful outdoor stores strewn across the town – I decide me to make hay while the sun shone. Lunch was a delicious spicy chicken baguette with a slab of honeycomb cake and this was followed by short trips to Kendal and Keswick to make the most of my stay.

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I had the luxury of having a six berth dorm room all to myself at the waterside YHA in Ambleside and I went to bed early to try and get as rested as possible. Kit was prepared, breakfast readied and I knew where I was going in the morning.

The organisers had suggested the pay & display car park in Ambleside, which given it was a few minutes from the start, made good sense. With water bottles now filled I headed to the start in Rothay Park and silently soaked up the friendly, banter atmosphere. I’ve grown rather accustomed to knowing runners at races, wherever I am, both here and abroad – so it was something of a surprise to not see any faces I knew. I wandered around a little bit before setting amongst the throng of ultra runners all keen for the start.

We were all instructed to dib our chips at the start which had been attached to us at registration. I found these mildly intrusive as they never felt very comfortable around the wrist and I fretted about them working loose and ending up in a puddle of mud somewhere on a hill. Thankfully it never did work loose but I found it uncomfortable compared to some of the alternatives that I’ve had to wear. That said the system was simple enough to use and the setup both at the start and at checkpoints was well thought out.

With an 8am start looming we were all corralled into the starting area and after a short briefing and some words of encouragement the 175(ish) runners burst forward and out of Rothay Park and into the wilderness. It’s fair to say that a number of ‘trail’ races that I’ve been part of have actually had quite significant amounts of road or tarmac involved but this experience was very different. From the near outset there was trail and nature surrounding the runners.

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As we wound our way through the first few kilometres it was clear that this was going to be s tougher day than I had originally imagined and as I looked down at my faithful Suunto I could see the elevation metres quickly stacking up. Those first few miles were easily the simplest on the route and with excellent route marking even I couldn’t go wrong. We wended our way through the variety of trails, up and down hills and along some of England’s finest scenery. For the most part I was making good time against the other runners – using my preferred tactic of ‘go as fast as you cN for as long as you can and then death march it in’. I made sure I was taking on board regular fluids and even a little food from early in proceedings as this would ensure I could still take on everything late in the event. I topped up my intake with some Active Root, which is about the only electrolyte style supplement I can stomach, and this kept me level and stopped significant dips – something to consider if you’re running well.

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I ran the first 15km pretty consistently and covered around 600 metres of climb – despite the recent rains the ground was in good condition and the route was runnable. Although I had poles with me I had decided that I would refrain from their use until I really needed them and despite the ascents I didn’t feel I needed them in the firs quarter of the event. The views were delightful and this was very much The Lake District of my youth – some places dragged up long forgotten memories and it was a very pleasant experience. It was here that I met Deborah – about 2.5 miles from the first checkpoint. We chatted for a while, as we bounded forward and this was such a pleasant experience that I barely noticed the run into the checkpoint.

Checkpoint one was brilliant with the marshalling team all dressed as chefs with big chef hats, the team were incredibly well drilled – timer, water, food, out, out, out! I was very impressed with the team and the organisation of the event on the whole, if I were to take a guess this was not their first rodeo. The quality of the food on offer was brilliant and as I left the checkpoint I felt buoyed by the energy the team have thrust upon me. In the distance I could see Deborah disappearing and continued my journey alone.

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The second section was going to be tougher with the first 600 metres climbed this meant that there was still around 1700 metres to climb and around a marathon to do it in. 2 hours down – 12 hours to go. I knew that the first significant climb was soon to be upon us and in the distance twinkling like little neon and Lycra clad stars were a succession of slow moving runners as the route moved up a gear in toughness.

It was now that the route threw challenge after challenge at us, the trail had moved from being mostly runnable to being filled with big lumpy rocks, it was wet underfoot and it changed from soaking to dry making your shoe choice irrelevant in the face of the varying conditions. I threw open my poles for the first time and began the slow journey upwards, happy in the knowledge that I had built up a reserve of time in the early stages of the race. However, as I looked ever upwards it was with a deep sense of foreboding – this was the first and easiest ascent and it was far from easy.

I decided that given I still had some strength in my legs I would do the climb in bursts and so would have a short stop and then powered up the next couple of hundred metres, stop and repeat. This technique helps me with the fatigue my legs get from the constant ball achingly monotonous striding of hiking up the hills (something I knew I would be forced into later in the day). My lack of training in the last month and the over eating was also playing a significant part now in my performance – runners were passing me as I struggled with the up hills and the beating my feet were now taking. However, I knew that on the downhill as long as the path was relatively runnable I would be able to make up some ground. Where some runners are guarded about running downhill too quickly for fear of a fall I am usually pretty surefooted and confident in my own ability. Therefore once the peak was reached I felt that I had little choice but to open up the taps a bit and go for it.

 

My descent was as quick as my ascent was slow and I found myself able to catch some of the runners that had managed to overtake me and I felt with nearly 1,000 metres of ascent done and about 20km in distance done I was feeling confident and then the ridiculous kicked in – I slipped. Bang down – on my back, on my arse, on all my weakest points. The two young runners ahead of me turned and shouted to find out if I was okay and I waved them on but I was far from alright. My back, which is troubling at the best of times, had shooting pain running through it and I had cut my hand open in several places and was bleeding. I picked my muddy form off the floor and cursed my own stupidity – I ran down to the little stream and put my buff in the water and wrapped it around my hand attempting to soak up the blood. I had been very lucky, within a few minutes the bleeding had stopped and I managed to clean up the various gashes that now covered my left hand – the realisation was dawning upon me that this route was going to give me a good kicking before it was finished.

I pushed onwards through the next few kilometres, slowing a little to account for the worsening running conditions, the rocky terrain became incredibly hard going and in my opinion it felt more like fell running than it did ultra trail running but it all added to the complexity of the challenge of finishing. I finally reached the halfway point and was greeted by the most welcoming committee of marshals, supporters and runners. Given I was so far from the lead it was no surprise to see my fellow racers in various states of distress, I grabbed a bit of grass and threw my bag to floor and motored over to the food table and stuffed my face with the delicious sausage rolls with the amazing pastry (I’m going to assume veggie but don’t want to know as they were so delicious it would disappoint me to know I’d been eating something mildly healthy). I drank as much tea as I could handle, grabbed a bit of soft chewy cake, filled my water bottles and then followed the other runners out of the checkpoint.

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It was here that I would make the relationship that would see me cross the finish line, though it did not begin well but I’ll get to that later.

From CP2 we were presented with a climb up Stake Pass, a beautiful climb and no mistake but a technical, rocky ascent that required maximum concentration all the way and its windy nature meant that you felt progress was even slower than it actually was. I used my brutish bursts of power to push myself up the pass and once more in the distance before and ahead of me I could see the swathes of runners slowly climbing to the summit. I kept telling myself that this is something I enjoy when moments of doubt would creep into my thinking but the reality was that my feet were burning from the damage that rocks underfoot where doing.

My feet are brittle at the best of times but the damp conditions coupled with the rocks were crippling me, the only plus I could find was that my Lone Peaks combined with Injinji liner and Drymax socks and my beloved Dirty Girls Gaiters were working overtime in protecting me from the worst of the route.

About halfway up local legend Keith passed me with his wonderfully consistent pace and all I could do when he went beyond me asking, ‘alright?’ I responded with, ‘had better days’ but Keith may have misinterpreted my joke for sincere annoyance and he simply shrugged his shoulder and pushed on. I thought nothing more of it really but like the cut of his pace and thought if I could keep up with him I might well be alright – but he, like many before, was soon gone.

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I retreated the comfort of the nearest rock I could find and grabbed some food from my race vest and looked longingly into the middle distance as dark and detrimental thoughts crept across my furrowed brow. ‘More than halfway’ I thought, ‘but my feet are bruised to buggery, my race vest is heavy and worse than that my back and arm was on fire from injuries both old and new’. However, the sight of runners closing in on me made me get off my backside and hurl myself up the hill and eventually I made it to the summit. I could see some of the runners who had made it past me and so I picked Keith as my target – if I could catch him before the arrival of the next checkpoint I would continue.

The route off the pass was as unrunnable as the route up with rocks jutting up from every angle and care required about just where the hell you were putting your feet. If you were less cautious you might have avoided the path  and run straight down the hill – but given I had no idea where I was or how far behind the next runner was – I did not fancy falling off Stake Pass. With all due care I made it to the bottom and leapt through the thick nasty smelling mud and crossing streams with all haste attempting to keep my feet as dry as possible. In the distance I could hear the clatter of Keith’s running poles and I realised I was catching him – having a target to aim for had made the journey much more focused and much easier and as I caught him I opened with the much cheerier line, ‘I’ve been chasing you down for ages – thanks for the incentive’ and from here a new race friendship was forged.

Keith was a bit of a running veteran and with 20 more years on the clock the than me he had well earned the right to legend status. He strode purposefully through the route, questioning the runability of some of the course but all the time remaining strong in his continuous push forward – I like Keith very much and over the next few miles we got to chatting and getting to know one another a little. But as is the rule in ultra marathons you run your own race and he reminded me of this several times as he suggested I not wait for him or that he would be waiting long for me. However, we were both moving at about the same speed ad so it turned out neither of us could shake the other one.

Something I was very glad of.

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The road to CP3 was hard and long, we had come off the hill and now it was just finding the checkpoint, hoping that we would make the cut-off and then pushing through as fast as we could up the biggest ascent on the course – Lining Crag. While we both looked and probably felt a bit shitty we both also seemed to gain a newfound mental strength from each other – I certainly did from him and when I started to leave CP3 Keith joined me for some further adventuring.

The strange thing was that despite our low speed we were starting to catch people again and in the close distance we could see runners who had long left me behind and, though I shouldn’t, I was buoyed by seeing other runners finding this a challenge or perhaps I was simply developing a second wind that might carry over the Crag.

Sadly my second wind was very short lived and as I began the ascent I felt every bone in my body scream for mercy, even with the first few hundred metres being relatively gentle this was a climb of false summits and false hope.

One of the great things about Keith was his wide and varied local knowledge, this meant that he was able to be accurate in his assessment of our situation, so when we approached the scramble up to the crag I knew that this was not the summit and that there were further smaller climbs to come. The scramble was actually surprisingly simple and the change of pace on the legs was welcome, I enjoy scrambling although I don’t do it very often as I am terrified of heights. So I finally reached the safety of solid ground that wasn’t going to try and kill me I was very grateful. We  made good time as we crossed the high ground and started to overtake people again and other runners came past us as they picked the pace up a little. On reflection it was nice to know that we were still in a race, often at these type of events you’ll find yourself alone for hours and hours and not knowing where in the race you are, here the numbers were just right to be able to have significant time alone but also know that you could still catch someone.

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We knew that the final checkpoint was at about 53km in and so it was with a little dismay that the ascent to the top of the crag had pushed us forward a mere 2km of the 12km we needed to run. Running remained hard going over the rocky paths and went as fast and securely as we could but both Keith and I were losing our footing at regular intervals and many of the runners had soggy bottoms but perhaps none got the soggy bottom in the way I did.

While crossing a boggy path I lost my footing and into the mid thigh depth mud my leg went, the trouble was that my other leg followed me in and as I fell in my whole body lurched backward in some attempt to create the muddy equivalent of a snow fairy. Keith turned to face me, barely disguising his amusement at the predicament that I found myself in. I managed to stand in the mud and could feel the vacuum attempting to suck my shoes in but I carefully extracted one leg and then the other with no significant loss.  I was caked in mud from head to toe but I had clearly picked the right kit for the event and my wonderful new Runderwear long boxer shorts and Raidlight Freetrail shorts soon dried off and despite being in 3 foot of wet, shitty mud my feet remained warm and toasty.

After picking myself up we headed along the remainder of the route down to Grasmere with little further incident, but we were aware that the final climb and descent had taken much, much longer than anticipated and I was keen to finish as I still had hours in the car driving back to Scotland.

I noticed that both Keith and I were rather quiet as we landed in Grasmere, tiredness was clearly playing a part but seeing the race organisers at the final checkpoint gave us a bit of a life and knowing that we were less than 10km from the finish was the mental nourishment we needed.

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We had been quite quick in the checkpoints up until this point but we stayed a little longer in Grasmere as Keith knew both of the guys from The Climbers Shop (I’m going to go with Mike and Gill but could be wrong). Gill had been at the registration and she clearly remembered my idiotic face from the previous day and the warmth with which I was greeted felt genuine and heartfelt and for that I was very grateful. They tried to stuff our faces with all manner of food and drink but we were so close to the finish that I actually wanted just my water filled and then off and the guys obliged.

Keith and I were very keen to see off the race before the dark became impenetrable and with all the speed we could muster we set out from Grasmere. This final section had a few light climbs on it but it was mainly tarmac that we were following and there was nothing to concern ourselves with – I seem to recall that we spent most of the time on these final few miles being rather jolly and looking forward to food, drinks, showers and in Keith’s case being reunited with his wife and the lovely Border Colllies.

I remember Keith commenting that at this point he had one speed and although I had recovered a little bit and probably could have run this final section I had no desire to leave my companion behind and in truth I’d have only managed to get about a dozen metres ahead before he would have reeled me in again. Meeting Keith made the experience of the Ambleside 60 much more pleasant than it looked like it might have been given the struggles I know he played a huge part in me finishing on Sunday.

We rolled up to Rothay Park and the dark had finally arrived, we thanked the marshalling staff at the final corner and as is my way I tried to have a cheery word/joke and thank you for the guys who were stood there waiting in the cold ensuring that we didn’t take a wrong turn at the final point. In the dim distance I could make out the large finish line inflatable and in front of it were two dibbing points so that we could get a final time. It took me an age to get my bloody dibber in but once I did we were ushered into a tent and given medals, beer and times.

Keith’s wife was there with the dogs and I joined them briefly to thank him and to thank his wife for loaning me such a wonderful gentleman for the day.

We had made it, I had made it.

Overview
Distance: 60km
Cost: £65
Location: Ambleside
Date: September 2019
Tough Rating: 3.5/5

Route
What they said about the route…

starting from Rothay Park, the Ambleside Trail 60 is a 60km loop made up of some iconic Lake District running. From the park, participants will make their way up and over Loughrigg towards Skelwith Bridge, Tarn Hows and from there onwards towards Coniston. Before reaching Coniston, the route climbs above Coniston Coppermine and toward Lad Stones. Continuing onward, the route makes its way to Little Langdale and after a short but punchy climb reaches Blea Tarn. Runners then make their way up Stake Pass and then follow the Langstrath Beck before climbing back up Lining Crag, the biggest climb on the course. Runners descend into Grasmere and slowly wind their way back toward Ambleside..

I’ve run over 50 ultra marathons and I’ve run across some of the toughest trails in the crappiest conditions and I can honestly say that the route of the Ambleside 60km was a bit of a terror. I mentioned earlier that this felt more like an ultra distance fell race than a trail race. Although the path was defined it was, in parts, brutal – despite the shortness of the distance this was a route that really threw everything at you and there was a procession of the walking wounded on the course as the Ambleside 60 took no prisoners.

This is not a route for the inexperienced and had the weather conditions been worse then this would really have given the competitors a challenge that even more might not have finished. What I will say though is that the Ambleside 60 route gave so much back in views and beauty that you really can’t complain about the temporary pain inflicted by the course.

The climbs were tough, the variety was welcome and the route marking was exceptional – just a few less rocky roads would have made this a more complete running experience. Don’t misunderstand me though this was a brilliant route and I feel fortunate to have seen parts of the Lake District that only become accessible if you are willing to put the effort in. The highlight of the route for me was the second climb up Stake Pass, which as well as being as tough old boots, had the wonderful sound of gushing water on both sides of the pass, it had majesty all around it and there was a eeriness about it as you could see nothing of modern life as far as the eye could see – wonderful.

So, perhaps a few little tweaks to make sure that this doesn’t become an ‘only suitable for the mountain goats’ and the route cold be a real winner for everyone wanting to take part.

Organisation
The organisation was 100% top notch, from registration to the near army of marshals that were posted on the course – this was some of the best organisation I have ever seen. The route marking for the most part was fantastic, the little map we received at the start was perfect as a guide and the pre and post race information was concise and informative. A huge thank you should go to all the organisers and especially the marshalling and medical staff who offered friendly faces all over the day. Races like this do not happen without the support of lots of people behind the scenes – and it was clear that the work they had put in here had really paid off.

Kit
I go mountain running most weekends and I go hill running after work and I know what kit I need to carry with me, I know how to be safe in the mountains and in adverse weather conditions and to that end I felt that the mandatory kit list was a little over complicated. I understand completely that safety comes first and that not all runners are experienced in the hills but there does need to be a balance. I did note that a number of the runners had very small amounts of kit with them and you had to wonder how where they fitting all the mandatory kit into such a small space?

Given my back issues carrying all the required kit was always going to be one of the main challenges I faced during the Ambleside 60 and I have a preference to carry specific things that help my individual race needs. For example I have my ridiculously weak feet so spare socks are a must and I’m known to take a picture or two so spare battery is also an essential. But rules are rules and it is important that we all adhere to them – they are designed to ensure your safety isn’t compromised, might just be worth looking next year about a little more flexibility between the mandatory and recommended kit.

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Goodies
Having great sponsors like Rab and Ultimate Directions mean that sometimes there are excellent goodies and this time there was a delightful Rab beanie available pre-race and post race there was some Hawkshead Brewery beer, which if you’re a beer drinker is a great reward for a job well done – obviously as a teetotaller the beer is less relevant to me but I know someone who’ll drink it for me. The medal was nice and understated, which seemed very much in keeping with the whole ethos of the event and I appreciated that. I wore my medal proudly all the way home to Scotland and as I crawled up the stairs to my bedroom upon returning home I made sure that it took its rightful place with its brother and sister medals at the top of the stairs.

Value
I’ve said it before and I’ll repeat it, the value for money aspect is very much down to personal opinion about your experience. I very much believe that the Ambleside 60 was excellent value for money at £65 and to be fair if you’d charged a little more it would still have represented good value for money. The little goodies, the excellent event staff, the support both before and after, the photography and the challenge of the event itself mean that you have to say you really did get bang for your buck. Some people might bemoan the lack of race T-shirt but the truth is I would rather have had the beanie – it’s always nice to get something useful that most races don’t think about.

Special Mentions
I owe this finish to Keith – I would not have made it without you. Thank you.

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Conclusion
Is this a great race? Not yet.

Does this have the potential to be a great race? Oh yes!

2019 as its inaugural running was a damn fine event, it gave the best views of Ambleside and its surrounds that I’ve ever had the honour of laying my eyes on. The Ambleside 60 has much to recommend it and if you’re lucky enough to have a clear day as we did then you’ll bear witness to a visual treat. The medal for this one really  is worth earning and you will feel like you have accomplished something truly spectacular when, or perhaps more appropriately, if you cross the finishing line. The organisation of the race, for me, makes this one stand out in the memory too – there was genuine care for the runners and that should be recognised, nobody got anything less than 100% from the excellent team.

However, this isn’t perfect I’ve mentioned that it felt like a long distance fell run in places and the course was incredibly hard going at times, even in good conditions. I genuinely believe more responsibility should be on the individual regarding kit choices and I’d probably prefer to see the race run on a Saturday to give runners the Sunday and a chance to rest for their weary bones before a return to grindstone of work on a Monday (I found the drive back to Scotland really tough and Monday was weird in the office). However, if nothing changed, if the race came back next year in exactly the same format would I run it again? The answer is 100% yes, there is something special about the Ambleside 60 and it deserves its soon to be well established reputation as a tough as old boots brilliant ultra marathon.

So if you’ve read this and thought, he sounds likes you had a horrible time, then you’ve misunderstood me, there was no misery for me just a real ball busting challenge – which is primarily what I look for in an ultra marathon and if it is what you look for then you’re going to have a mighty fine time.

Check out the race details here

I’ve failed to finish a few ultras – a couple through injury and a couple through stupidity but the thing that has cost me most is my ability, or rather lack thereof, to run in the heat and my ability to sweat like a national champion.

Even on the occasions where I have raced and run in the sun I’ve really struggled – the Folkestone 10km, Bedgebury 10km and the Vanguard Way Marathon. The latter is a prime example of how badly things can go, although I was running with water it was a boiling hot day and the organisers ran out of fluids of any sort at the half way point. At mile 16 I was pretty delusional and heat exhaustion had consumed me – in my own minds befuddlement i could tell I was in a dangerous situation but to my surprise I finished. In the aftermath I remember placing a McDonalds chocolate milkshake on either side of my head to cool myself. Yummy.

These were the experiences that I both survived and finished. However, there were races, mostly ultra marathons that occurred in the heat of the August sunshine where I simply had to give up.

My most memorable failure was probably the Ridgeway Challenge, which when I ran it, was held on a muggy late August afternoon and even before the event had begun I was feeling the effects of the heat. I had my head covered, fully sun creamed up, fully hydrated, fully lubricated and ready to go but within a few short miles I was already struggling.

When I was around 55 miles in I found myself stood atop a hill with my running tights around my ankles and attempting to stop the terrible burning that radiated around my nut sack. I put the family jewels inside a buff and I put tissues inside my Runderwear to stop any further rubbing of my red raw and sweating skin.

I soon crawled into a late night and windy checkpoint and stopped running – I could simply go no further.

This experience was not the only time an August ultra marathon has given me a kicking but after not racing during the summer months for the last couple of years I’ve decided that a move to Scotland may make the possiblity of completing an August ultra marathon a reality.

After completing the Ben Vorlich Ultra on Sunday in warm, but not sweltering, conditions I have begun to feel a little more confident about getting this hoodoo dealt with.

Therefore, I have decided to attend the inaugural Thieves Road Ultra from BaM Racing on August 10th as this seems like a decent opportunity. It will be 40 miles (ish) across the Pentlands and surrounds and will provide a strong test of distance and temperature and while I’m looking forward to it I also have to remember my failings at this time of year.

There are other things that I will be doing during the Thieves Road that I normally reserve for the continental ultras I have participated in and hopefully these little changes will have a big impact.

  • Using my baggier Raidlight shorts instead of my usual OMM Flash tights – this will hopefully pass greater breeze through the undercarriage to keep things cooler
  • A single pair of thinner Drymax socks rather than my preferred Injinji toe liner and Drymax trail sock. This will heopfully stop my feet overheating, which has been an issue that causes huge discomfort during events.
  • A lighter weight race vest with a lower load – I’ve been working down the weight of the contents of my race vest, looking to take only the kit required. The problem with being a middle to back of the pack runner is that there is often a need to have a little more kit. However, I’ve recently acquired the Raidlight Revolutiv 12 which I ran with for the first time at the Ben Vorlich Ultra and found that I was happy to run with a lower load and also found that I ddin’t sweat across my back as much with this race vest on.
  • A sahara style cap – I’m a big fan of a Buff visor but the cover it provides is not quite enough for the sweltering heat and retaining a cool head is key to finishing ultra distance races.
  • Reliable consumption of fluid – the new race vest has a minimum capacity of 1.5litres of fluid upfront and I during my latest adventure I found myself

These things combined with all my usual preparations will hopefully finally see me deliver an August medal. Fingers crossed and if anybody has any advice on how to deal with the heat, chaffing, heat stroke and  exhaustion, etc then I would be very happy to hear your tips.

Having moved to Scotland. Having finally bought and moved into our new house I can now focus on running and getting outdoors again and I’m loving it. Having moved to a small semi rural location just outside Falkirk I find myself in the enviable position of having trail runs and walks on my doorstep and dozens of public rights of way that lead to all sorts of exciting trails.

Every night for the last three weeks I’ve set off with the task of finding a new trail or finding new ways around a trail I’ve been around previously. I have no preconceptions about areas because I’m new here and so I park up (usually after work) and chuck on my shoes and see where I end up.

Fitness being what it is at the moment and my back injury still plaguing me (probably even more than ever), I’ve been keeping it fairly sensible. What this means in practice is 30 to 40 minutes and usually a couple of hundred feet of steep elevation and I’ve found something wonderful – joy. Then there’s the added bonus of the hiking that I’ve very much taken to!

Running and exploring in and around London had become a chore rather than something I enjoyed (not helped by having a Vitality plan that needs servicing). I was running because I had to rather than because I wanted to and this meant I simply fell out of love with the sport that has given me so much.

I’d always said that the move to Scotland was as much about getting outdoors more as it was about the stupidity of the English in their ‘leave the EU’ voting and now I’m finally making that happen. I’ve spent most of my time exploring the locations around work and home, which has included Westquarter Glen, Callendar Woods, Polmont Woods, Dechmont Law, California, the Union Canal, Roughcastle and the Falkirk Wheel, Blackness, the Lomond Hills and more. But I’m fortunate enough to have travelled a bit around Scotland and run much of the West Highland Way, parts of Arran, Skye, Loch Ness, the Tweed Valley, Fox Lake, the Cairngorms, Jedburgh and of course my favourite place – the Ochils.

It is the Ochils that I see when I leave for work in a morning and it is the Ochils that remind me why I brought my family here.

Each weekend I now take the GingaNinja and ASK up to the Ochils to hike one of the hills. I tend to downplay the steepness and the challenge that each climb presents just to add a bit of shits and giggles to a family outing. However, these activities are helping me to prepare me for greater hiking and running challenges down the line. They’re also very much central to my belief that our quality of life here can be so much better than more suffocating one in the south east of England.

I realise that I’m fortunate to have a family that are interested in bounding around Scotland with me and in the six months that we have lived here, all of us have grown to love our surroundings.

But it’s more than the family benefits it’s very much the trail benefits. Scotland’s running trails have absolutely everything you could want and I’ve been testing that as much as I can. There’s much joy to be found as I go running around Scotland and the abundance of oozy mud, bloody hills, tricky ascents and blistering descents make me want to take early retirement and feast on the great Scottish outdoors.

So there you have it, one mans love of the great outdoors but there are some practical tips that I’d offer to make your own adventuring all the more pleasurable and sustainable.

Get everyone involved

Hiking up a hill on your own is a lovely thing, the peace that this can provide is immeasurable in my opinion. However, some of the best hikes I’ve been involved in have included friends and family.

Red Screes, Catbells and Skiddaw in the Lake District will live long in my memory and the ultra marathons and racing around Skye (as an example) was a truly unforgettable experience with people I really loved meeting – some of whom helped inspire my move northwards.

Basically, people and company can make a hard hike easier, they can be enthusiastic and supportive when your legs feel like jelly and they can offer advice when your brain is frazzled. So why wouldn’t you invite friends old and new along.

There’s also the opportunity to join local and national groups – the ramblers are probably the best known but there are others. With the advent of social meetings through the likes of Facebook and Meetup you can hopefully find a group (or start one). The opportunities are open ended and just waiting to be explored.

Get exploring local maps

Scotland has so many amazing trails but the famoud ones, such as the West Highland Way, as with anywhere, can be reasonably busy. Therefore I’ve found it wonderful looking for trails that are less well used. I did two things that have helped, the first was to buy an annual subscription to OS Maps and the second was to invest in a series of paper maps. Since getting hold of maps I’ve been exploring my local and not so local trails looking to find places where I can very much ‘get lost’ on hidden trails. Obviously there is some hit and miss in this approach but broadly I’ve been lucky to find exciting new routes. More importantly by going into the undergrowth and wending my way through the path less travelled I’ve caught sight of all manner of wildlife and beautiful scenes. By getting lost, by following my nose (and the maps) I’ve been discovering a Scotland that others might simply pass by.

Develop outdoor skills

Map reading is a key outdoor skill to have, GPS isn’t always accurate and an accident or battery fail is often only a minor incident away. Therefore I would advocate for the value of map and compass skills. Sensible first aid knowledge is also useful as is kit knowledge and basic survival skills in what kind of water you can drink and when you shouldn’t.

As you go further afield, as you go further into nature there is an increased responsibility on you to ensure you are safe and that you know how to get off a mountain yourself. The ability to navigate, strap yourself up and basically survive is essential.

I came to the idea of being sensible a little late but for my Scottish adventures I’m very pleased that I’ve developed a bit of common sense.

Be prepared to take shelter or abandon a hike

There’s a moment, regardless of your preparation, when the weather comes in or the conditions turn to shit and you have to decide what to do. When I’m running then I’ll generally keep going regardless of the conditions

However, when hiking I take a different approach, especially when my four year old daughter is alongside and will take a sensible more cautionary approach. I suppose that running and hiking are slightly different mindsets for me because I’ll happily run up a hill with no more than shorts and a mars bar but I wouldn’t dream of hiking without at a decent waterproof jacket and a stout pair of shoes.

Regularly check the weather

As we all know Scotland can be a little unpredictable with the weather, one minute sunshine, next minute rain and the next – snow! In the hills and mountains this unpredictability is multiplied many times, cloud cover coming in and thick, horizontal rain followed by blazing sunshine in a matter of minutes is not uncommon. So check the weather and pack your kit for all eventualities.

Beware ticks and insect bites

Little bleeders! Post hike, post run, post wiping your own bum, make sure you check for ticks – the consequences of not dealing with ticks properly is devastating. A simple tick check as part of your post hike/run cuppa is a worthwhile investment of time. And on the investment front – make sure you buy a tick remover!

Despite my warnings I want you all to get out in your local surroundings and have fun. For me that means hurling myself around the hills and mud of Scotland but for you it could be somewhere else, somewhere old or even somewhere new. I suppose the message I want to send about our great outdoors is

…enjoy yourself and see you out there.

I ran the up the field, urging a lady named Karen to give it a bit of welly and then leaped across the line myself and so I drew to a close the Whitley 10km.

As most who read this will be aware I am partial to an ultra marathon and so a 10km you might think would present no real challenge but let me assure you that a 10km, this 10km was a challenge. My ultra running is a slow and steady affair generally and a 10km offers the opportunity to instead run more quickly. It’s worth noting though that the day before the race I had driven down from Scotland to sunny Cheshire, something I can’t recommend before a race. There was also a miserable nights sleep on an uncomfortable bed at a hotel in Lymm to add into the mix and so when I arrived in the delightful town of Whitley I wasn’t in the best of moods. However, the day was clear and it was near perfect running conditions and thus my race day truly began.

I ambled up to the race HQ to find a mass of race vests that I remember from my youth growing up in the north west of England, there was also the broad range of accents that a Cheshire based race would attract, Mancunian, Scouse and other more local accents beat against my ears and I found this rather soothing as I collected my number. The race had a well organised and yet small feel to to it despite there being about three hundred runners milling around but I found myself keeping myself to myself – I enjoyed the anonymity of being somewhere that absolutely nobody recognised my face.

At about 10.45 runners were ushered to the start line and I moved to the back of the field expecting to run a very slow 10km. At the back of the field I was surrounded by lots of lovely runners, first timers, old timers, returners from injury and bimblers and when the race started I set off the watch and began.

The route was mainly through tree lined closed roads and was a reminder to me that the north of England is, in many places, very attractive and worthy of exploration. I was setting a reasonable pace and decided to use my energy in the first half and then use sheer willpower through the second half. I started to overtake people in kilometres one and two but then noticed that my legs felt heavy and so too did my breathing – I was about to have a very bad day. The next three kilometres felt like the hardest distance I had run in years and the long, never ending roads seemed to taunt me, I had long forgotten what stretches of tarmac like this felt like.

However, it wasn’t just the tarmac that was giving me concern, I had the problem of finding my Altra Escalante a little uncomfortable and causing me distress through my left foot. No matter what I did I couldn’t shake the pain I was in and I’ve come to the conclusion that my latest attempt to love Altra road shoes has ended in failure and I should instead stick with Topo Athletic for the road running.

Regardless of these minor issues I found myself enjoying the experience of racing the Whitley 10km and its rather scenic roads. Once beyond 7km I also started to relax into event and fInd my rhythm, slowly picking off runners who had jumped ahead of me and although the pain in my foot remained I was perfectly happy ambling along and as I passed the 9km point I knew that I could ramp up the pace and finish with a bit of a flourish. It was here that I met Karen and for most of the finally kilometre we egged each other to go that bit faster and as we approached the final stretch and a loop of an altogether unnecessarily hilly field I urged her to take me down with a sprint finish and we crossed the line roughly together.

Wonderful.

I picked up my medal (rather pleasant too) as I was ushered through the finishing area and had my timing chip removed and then I was free to head back to sunny Scotland – safe in the knowledge that fun had been achieved.

Conclusions

A well organised and executed 10km at a perfectly sensible price and a great warm up race for your spring marathon(s). The Whitley 10km was more than scenic enough and if you enjoy road racing along country lanes than this is just for you. The closed roads and wonderful volunteers coupled with a light, bright attitude just made this a great day out for runners, highly recommended.

The road to recovery and fitness is fraught with many challenges and last weekends challenge was called Corstorphine Hill. With a weekend free due to finding a new sofa the previous Saturday I felt compelled to do something interesting and saw that new kid on the block Scurry Events we’re hosting their inaugural event around a trail I’d been keen to test out. Better news was that they had a 10km, 5km and a fun run – the prefect family outdoor adventure I thought and so I signed up myself for the 5km and ASK and the GingaNinja for the fun run.

Now the question you might be asking is why I would be signing up to the 5km distance when there’s a 10km available? Well the answer is very simple – injury and fitness. Having jarred my shoulder during the move up here I can now barely move my left arm and the back problems that have been plaguing my running for more than 3 years now continue to be an issue, this combined with a distinct drop off in activity has meant that I wasn’t even fit enough for the 5km.

Regardless I signed us up and when I awoke on Sunday morning I felt like today was going to be fun, that was until I looked out the window to see the horizontal rain lashing the flat. Hmmmm. I did briefly consider calling it all off and returning to bed but I had promised ASK a medal in exchange for her 1km running effort.

So with the 5km race the early start we set off on the 20 minute journey to the start line.

The race HQ was inside a nice looking hotel in Corstorphine and this was handy given the biting cold and driving rain. There were lots of families who had braved the conditions to take on the local hills. Registration was well organised and everything was quick and straightforward – number and pins, what more did I need? The family I found a quiet corner where could arrange ourselves and I suggested that the GingaNinja and ASK hide in the restaurant with a hot drink and a bacon sandwich while I headed out.

The start line was a short hike across the road and up a muddy hill through a hole in a hedge – I liked this. There was something really traditional about this race – there was no chip timing, there was a muddy field and a start line with a tent or two to support the throng of runners. Lovely.

The pre-race briefing was suitably brief and many of the runners huddled into a tent both for a bit of a warm up and to avoid the rain. I was unusually attired in my light waterproof jacket but I’d teamed it with my shorts – because who the hell wears tights! Ha. However, I was somewhat concerned that I’d be overheating in no time, the trouble was that I knew post race I’d be in my kit awaiting the start of the fun run and I didn’t fancy that soggy clammy feeling before facing the wind and rain again.

Anyway the race started and the front runners pelted down the field and through the mud with more energy than my little legs could find. However, the mass of overtakers that I had expected to pass me didn’t occur and I settled into my ‘stride’. What I hadn’t expected though was that my overall fitness was so poor that by the time I’d climbed the first hill that I would be badly out of puff.

But I was very much out of puff.

As the path led downwards I was momentarily grateful but the slick, muddy conditions meant that I needed all of my best control, not something I’m noted for. Runners overtaking me had no such concern and hurled themselves into the danger of the slippery conditions but I was being uncharacteristically cautious. I pushed onwards and more importantly upwards into the woodlands and found myself disposing of my waterproof jacket as the cover offered my the woodland was sufficient shielding from any remaining rain. The route was a 5km lap of the Corstorphine woodland area and it was really very beautiful for the most part. The paths were well trodden but still felt like you were out in the middle of nowhere and the undulating nature of the route conspired with the weather to ensure that this 5km felt much tougher than the distance implied.

The route was also delightfully scenic and you realise that Edinburgh is surrounded on all sides by lovely little pockets of green that really can take you out of the city and as I ambled around Corstorphine I was reminded of the value of my move to Scotland.

As the kilometres fell I started to feel more like a runner, well more like an ultra runner, as I climbed very slowly but steadily up the hills, rather than belting them out like I should have been. I was also abundantly aware that the last kilometre contained the biggest climb up, to the highest point of the route, which I have assumed was Corstorphine Hill itself. I had only seen the hill from the lovely photographs posted by Patricia Carvalho, who I’d met during the epic Skye Trail Ultra, and the pictures of the landscape were very inspiring and so as I passed by the daunting rocky faces I felt a familiarity creep over me – deja vu to a place I had never been.

As I reached the top of the hill I could see the finish line – it was a clear run back down the field, one tight turn and then a thunder into the tent, making sure not to be undone by a nasty patch of slick mud near the line. I gave it a bit of welly and overtook some of the runners who had taken me down a little earlier in the race and as I heard my name called out I was filled with both joy and joyous relief that I had finished.

This was a tough but enjoyable race.

The Fun Run

Thankfully though the day was not quite over for me and I ran back to the hotel HQ and picked up the GingaNinja and ASK.

Unfortunately the rain had once more picked up and so we increased the clothing for both of the fun run racers – just to make sure that nobody was getting a serious soaking. The GingaNinja selected her Hoka Ultra Hi boot for a bit of added grip but ASK didn’t have any trail running shoes and so we decided we would mostly run it holding hands with her – though as we discovered this was mostly unnecessary.

With the 11am start approaching we joined the dozens of other runners at the start line and after a warm up we set off. Now to be fair ASK hasn’t run a trail race since the Chislehurst Chase Fun Run over 18 months ago – so we were both surprised by her blistering start and her desire to thunder up the hills. She went straight into the mud and happily dived through it – with the GingaNinja noting that she was, ‘struggling to keep up’. Into the fast downhill we thundered along and although not at the front , considering the age range of the participants we held a strong mid pack position. Ahead of us we could see runners being encouraged by parents as the hill climbs came thick and fast, ASK for the first time faltered on the climb upwards to the return half of the race. However, with some gentle encouragement we opened up the taps and pressed onwards, overtaking a few more runners before reaching the squelching mud again. This time I took the route through the worst of it while the GingaNinja supported ASK abc then it was a downhill sprint to the finish. ASK called out to go faster and slipped away from us and we, as parents, decided to let her go for it. I ran ahead to capture the moment on camera and the GingaNinja eased off the accelerator as ASK crossed the line to a rapturous applause! (As well as a hard earned medal, a small amount of chocolate and lots of lovely fruit).

Outstanding!

Conclusion

Scurry Events were really well organised and lots of fun. Everything was in the right place, there were lots of really enthusiastic volunteers and I felt like lots of effort had gone into making this a really family friendly event.

I was mildly disappointed not to get a medal but the branded towel was fun and ASK did get a medal in the fun run which was the important thing. And the addition of a bit of Active Root and some biscuits at the end was very welcome.

I feel that Corstorphine Hill was a great choice of event location and although the 10km was two loops of the 5km route I blieve that the route bore a second look and you would happily run a 6hr looped event here without losing interest – an event to think about organising guys!?! (Winter please).

Check out Scurry Events – supporting new and enthusiastic event organisers is always a good thing, especially when they do such a good job and I look forward to the next time I’m at one of your start lines.

Find them at scurryevents.co.uk

Finish line photographs courtesy of Nicky Freedman

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I’ve long come to terms with the fact I’m not just a terrible runner but a terrible ultra runner – even after half a century of completed ultra events I still find them hard and I still fail at them more than I would like.

With that in mind I had entered the Nocturnal Ultra and had decided to try and squeeze a post marathon distance in with just 6 hours available on the clock.

But lets roll back a week to the previous Saturday when I was full of delirium, cold and with a huge desire to hide inside a big fluffy blanket, running was the last thing on my mind. However, with the last few months having been so hectic I find ultra racing to be a bit of therapy and also provides the necessary bolt right up my arse that will set me up for exhausting period known as the final push up to Scotland.

And so I did no running in the two weeks before the event, instead each night I wrapped up in my big hoody and a waterproof jacket and went walking for an hour or more after work. And so when Saturday came I felt reasonable albeit with even less training done than normal in running terms.

Because the race started at 4pm I didn’t start my kit check and pack until about 11am on the Saturday and there was also a decent soak in the bath to have. Unfortunately there also the worst case of the pre-race shits too – could it have been the large quantity of houmous I had eaten less than 18 hours earlier? Perhaps.

Anyway a series of delays meant that I didn’t set off for the race until quite late and I was clearly rushing down the motorway rather than taking my preferred relaxed bimble. I had largely been hoping to arrive early so that I could avoid the second car park which I knew was going to be in a field of some description and my driving skill is not really that good and I was worried about getting in and getting out of said field. None of my fears were put to bed as I slid the little car around the wet grass attempting not to kill any of the very helpful marshals.

Thankfully with a minimum of fuss I managed to park up and grab my kit – only loosely concerned that the race was starting in 45 minutes and I was still in civilian dress and my kit was spread across a couple of drop bags.

Bugger.

I had never been to Fox Lake before and was surprised by just how much opportunity there was for outdoor fun both on and off water and I suspect I’ll be returning in a non-ultra runner capacity in the future. However, what is more important was that I made the tent for the pickup of my number with more than enough time and the process was both quick and painless. There was also a good number of marshals directing runners and supporters around the race village.

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Perhaps the only real problem of the race village is also one of the main benefits – the fixed Fox Lake facilities are fixed and there isn’t that much room to expand them and the amount of runners in the available space was quite a lot. But the benefits are that there was lots of cover and there were changing cubicles and showers and good food facilities. It’s a difficult balance to get right and the organisers gave a strong showing in moving runners around and getting them to the right place.

I slipped into the aforementioned changing cubicles and found myself hurriedly getting ready – probably a bit too hurriedly and when I strapped myself into my UD PB3.0 I realised I had packed it rather uncomfortably. Still with time against me I’d just have to adjust myself once we had set off – it wasn’t like I was aiming for the win.

There was a very full race briefing prior to the off and then the start line filled up with runners of all types. Seconds later we were off and into the beginnings of night – this was going to be an interesting event.

Much like myself many runners had decided to not run with a headtorch for the first lap presumably in an effort to conserve battery power and also to limit the effects of the tunnel vision that can occur when using a headtorch for extended periods. And in truth there was just about enough light to get us round the first fifteen minutes but when I reached the halfway point of the first loop I pressed the on switch – it was too dark too continue without light.

The lap that would make up the next six hours of my life was really quite pleasant and surprisingly varied, it was all very in and out of tree lined trails with a good dollop of slick mud that was only going to get more wretched the more the runners passed through it. The weather had been mostly unkind in the days leading up to the race but on Saturday the lords of wind and rain had decided to have the day off and so we were left with delightful evening running conditions.

I’m sure I was not the only one grateful that the heavier conditions would only come from the thousands of footprints that would litter the course and not from more wind and rain.

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The route started out nice and dry on good gravel track before sending you through a multi-coloured and illuminated forest section. The switchback then thrust you through a short downhill and along a faster straight section to the only real uphill before you hit the mile of mud as I came to know it. However, once you were clear of this it was mostly a straight run home and into the next lap. Although I shared the same thought of other runners that the final stretch back up to the start point felt much longer than the 800 metres suggested.

I was in good form and ran the first lap faster than I anticipated – very much getting caught up in the excitement of my fellow runners but also probably pacing myself against the relay runners – which is never a very smart idea.

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I had decided that I would stop on each lap and fill up on both Active Root – a drink that I knew wasn’t going to upset my stomach after my experience of it at Jedburgh – and the  Lucozade in my drop bag (which I was jealous of in Neil MacRitchies arsenal at the Tweed Valley Ultra a couple of weeks earlier).

I was being strict in my timings as I knew that I needed 9 laps for the ultra distance and to say that my second and third lap were ‘shit’ would be offensive to the word ‘shit’. Perhaps this is where the idea that I’m a rubbish runner comes from and therefore in my head I knew that I cold’t make it, I was doing the maths in my head – I’m going too slow.

Lap 4 came and went and I had managed to pick my feet up a little and I was taking Active Root on board like it was crack cocaine but I was so behind time that I’d be lucky to hit 7 laps within the time – not even the sound of the music barn was enough to get me going fast enough to put me on time.

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Bob Marshall Photos

I needed some incentive.

At the start of the next I called my daughter and when she asked where I was I replied, ‘I’m in a race.’ Such is the innocence of my four year old adventurer that she followed up her initial line of inquiry with, ‘are you winning? are you going to win a medal?’

‘I’m trying my best’

I knew this was a lie though and I knew that if I was to honestly claim that ultra medal I was really going to have to sort myself out, ‘listen you get to sleep,’ I said, ‘I’ll go and get the medal’.

Push UltraBoy, push!

And I did. I started to do something I haven’t done in years – I started overtaking people, I started to race but not against the other people on the course but against the clock, against my own fragile body. I ran the flats, I ran the mud, I ran the uphills and I opened the taps to give my legs some respite from the general crawl that makes up my ultra pace.

I hurtled through lap 6 and then lap 7 and I arrived on lap 8 with about 69 minutes remaining – all I needed to do was push one last time and I would be through the timing barrier and I could take all night if I needed to for lap 9 and so with thunder in my feet I flew through the HQ tent and pressed onwards to that medal that my daughter wanted me to earn.

It is rare for me to feel strong in a race (especially so late on) and even though the two fast laps had really drained me I was surprised by own invention as I convinced myself that I really had no time to get through to that final lap. I was slower on lap 8 than the previous couple but I was bearing down on the line to that final lap and I knew I would make it.

I stopped once more at the Active Root stand and had another short conversation with the two amazingly lovely ladies there and they simply gave me the thumbs up saying, ‘one more lap and we’ll see you back here in 20 minutes’.

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20 minutes later.
I was out on the course, I was about halfway round the final lap and I was counting down to the final moments of the six hours we were allocated and I was waiting for the fireworks display signal.

I stopped as I heard a countdown in the distance and then the fireworks went off. I had officially made it – all I had to do now was run it in and claim my medal and this I did with some joy in my heart. I ran through the covered forest just outside the race village and as I closed in on the final few hundred metres I raised my knees and committed the best sprint finish I could muster and with the wind in my sails I passed straight over the line and into the waiting arms of my medal!

Delightful.

Key points

  • Distance: 5km (ish) loops
  • Profile: Minor up and down
  • Date: December 2018
  • Location: Fox Lake, East Lothian
  • Cost: £50
  • Terrain: Muddy trail
  • Tough Rating: 2/5

Route
The route was interesting and fun but ultimately it is a loop and if loops are not your thing then this race is not for you. It is worth noting though that the night time nature of the race gives the loop a less repetitive feel than similar daytime events. The added danger of the time and year and the potential for difficult weather conditions means that this route should not be under estimated. As well as an excellent event route this would make a wonderfully fast training route.

Organisation
Great marshals who were well drilled in what they had to and where they had to be.

I also liked the roaming nature of the marshals around the course – being set in the dark means that there is more potential for injury or trouble and the organisation clearly took this very seriously. Overall the organisation was top notch – especially given the occasionally cramped feel of the race village. The one thing that might benefit from some consideration is a slightly bigger drop bag stop for the solo runners as this was sometimes a little crowded but if any delay was had then it was very minor.

I’d also like to say a tremendous thank you to the two ladies at the Active Root table as their inspiring and occasionally arse kicking words really did keep me going.

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Awards
An excellent bespoke medal

Value for money
£50 seems about right for this, there is a lot of support and clearly lots of organisation that goes into making it happen and the medal was one of the more interesting ones I’ve had in recent times.

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Conclusion
10 weeks living in Scotland and 3 ultra marathons done since I arrived, even I can feel pretty good about that.

The Nocturnal Ultra is a fun end of year event to keep you running but that perhaps does it a disservice. This is a great event that might be the culmination of a years hard training and if you’re looking a trail run that is fast and tough enough then maybe this is perfect for you.  The event has a little bit of everything and the six hour time limit really gives it an edge that means you have to keep moving, especially if you’re not as quick as you once where. And the added bonus is that the location was lovely and it was close enough to Edinburgh to be accessible.

So could I happily recommend the Nocturnal Ultra?

Very much so.

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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.