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race review

Imagine being stood at the start of a race and you’re faced with a potato dressed as a superhero, yes my Saturday was feeling a bit weird but we were here and there were three races to complete.

In the pantheon of stupid races I’ve done I think I may have to put this near the top, because though it was short, it was an amazing mix of hell and balls out fun.

I had convinced the GingaNinja that she wanted to run a mile race armed with 10kg of potatoes on her shoulders and better than that I had convinced ASK that she wanted to run a mile while hauling a 2.5kg bag of spuds. My only failing was that I had to run that mile while weighed down by 20kg of potato goodness.

But let’s roll back a bit, why where we here?

As a family we owe a great debt of gratitude to Perth, where the race took place. It was here that our love affair with Scotland began and also where the idea of moving to this wonderful country began when we were attending a friend of the GingaNinja’s wedding. I therefore retain a very soft spot for this rather beautiful little place and any chance I get to visit I’m going to take and let’s be honest who could say no to some free spuds?

With the race being set in the middle of the afternoon it meant that we could go about our usual Saturday business (in this case a party at which ASK was an attendee) and still have more than ample time to get to Perth before we hosted an evening BBQ with some of ASKs school friends and family. If timing went well it would be a great little way to spend the final weekend of the summer holidays, if timings were off or the potatoes were too heavy for any of us, then it could be a disaster!

However, we arrived at Perth with plenty of time to spare and found parking near North Inch Park at the leisure centre and although it was paid parking it was very reasonably priced, as is the case in much of Scotland. With time to spare we grabbed our bits and pieces and headed out to the park after ensuring that we were in the correct place and seeing in the distance dozens and dozens of bags of potatoes we guessed that we had arrived to the right place.

Now I had made a bit of mess of the entry and so I had assumed that we would be spending the spare time we had fixing my own stupidity. I had entered the GingaNinja for the under 18s junior race and had also entered ASK into this as well without any thought for the fact that she might therefore be racing against juniors up to an including 17 year olds. Therefore we spoke to the volunteers who told us that the GingaNinja could simply just line up in the women’s race and that ASK would be fine in the juniors race.

Phew.

We ambled around a bit and got chatting to a couple who recognised my beloved Jedburgh Three Peaks race shirt. Oddly the lady in the couple looked remarkably familiar but I couldn’t place her and I clearly couldn’t know her as she was something of a speed demon – racing a second placed finish in the ladies race. They said they’d arrived early and were pretty much the first to arrive and much like us had hoped that more people would turn out as with about 30 minutes to the first race there weren’t that many people in attendance.

Thankfully it didn’t take long for the park to fill up with runners and supporters and across the three main races, a series of spud and spoon races and a wheelchair race there were more than 300 entrants. The atmosphere was big, warm and friendly – it was really lovely and it felt like a race should feel even though lots of the runners and supporters were still sensibly adhering to some social distancing.

Unfortunately there was a slight delay to the beginnings of proceedings – with the organisers wanting to ensure that the course markings were 100% clear. The very minor delay was a good idea given that after the two adult races there would be a series of youngsters taking to the field alone and their safety of course had to be paramount.

With the course ready and the runners ready there was time for a few words of encouragement from the local Provost and the race organisers. Clearly the organisers were keen to make up for lost time as the ladies race was prepared with a bit of vim and vigour. That said it never felt rushed, the atmosphere remained fun and enjoyable, therefore, ASK and I headed out to the course to catch sight of our runner as she would surely come hurtling by us in mere moments.

The route was an out and back, out and back, out and back on the grass in the park – not the most inspired idea for a race you might think but actually it was perfect – each 400 metre section provided supporters and fellow runners the opportunity to cheer each other on and also, if you were racing, the ambition to catch the runner ahead rather than watch them disappear off into the distance.

The GingaNinja headed out with the 10kg sack of spuds wrapped round her neck like a very heavy string of garlic – it looked heavy and the usually light footed suddenly looked heavy footed as they struggled with the packages. We whooped and hollered as she passed us by and then we grabbed our own bags of potatoes and moved in so we could get a better look for when she would come thundering back towards us.

A mile is not a very long distance but the dead weight on your shoulders makes things much more challenging and yet it was no surprise, with all the good triathlon training under her belt recently, that the GingaNinja was making exceptionally good time and we cheered once more as she came towards us and then away from us to the second leg of the race. ASK doesn’t get to see the GingaNinja race as often as she sees me, so it was good to see her smiling with immense pride at the pace that her mum was delivering.

We cheered on the other runners as the race progressed and took up a position about 50 metres from the finish – we were able to cheer in the young lady we had been chatting to earlier as she finished in a tremendous second place. I looked on enviously at the gloves she was sporting and wishing I had had the foresight to bring such an item. Then after around 9 minutes of racing the GingaNinja appeared and with all that she had left in the tank delivered a finish worth of the term, ‘a sprint’.

Even with the bag of potatoes rested across her shoulders she was determined not to allow the runner at her side beat her to the finish and I watched as she increased her stride to ensure that she crossed the line mere centimetres ahead.

The GingaNinja roasted the competition in those last few metres.

I hurled some potatoes on my back and immediately headed over to the finish to find her, more so she could take my race vest than for congratulations but time was of the essence.

Despite the late start of the race there was no rush to get the final runner home and instead they were greeted by the loud cheers of the crowd. It was genuinely a wonderful atmosphere.

However, there was clearly a determination to get the second race of the day underway and the men were invited to haul their spuds upon their backs and head to the start line.

I understood how heavy the spuds were and have carried many a rucksack much heavier than this however, what I hadn’t accounted for was that the bag had very little give in it and that gripping it was going to a challenge. I hoisted it upon my back but couldn’t get comfortable, perhaps I was the wrong shape for the bag I thought.

Still too late now, I got as comfortable as I could and waited for the race start. Boom we were off and I pressed as hard as I could although that was nowhere near as hard as some of the other competitors who thundered away with more conviction than I ever have. The first 400 metres moved pretty quickly but I was in a constant state of flux as I could feel potatoes sliding down my back – I kept trying to readjust on the move knowing that race at only a mile would be over within minutes. Eventually I pulled the bag onto my right shoulder and slipped a couple of fingers on my left side through the netting to try and give myself some semblance of control, albeit at the cost of balance.

The GIngaNinja said upon seeing me at the race that I looked incredibly uncomfortable and was leaning very far forward – this was very much in response to trying to get this dead weight under control but now with half the distance done I knew that I just had to hang on, both literally and figuratively.

I was now struggling though and the weight on my back was making running even more of a challenge and although I pushed hard as I came into the final 100 metres or so I knew that I would not catch the half a dozen runners ahead of me as I simply didn’t have the lift in my legs that the GingaNinja had.

Thankfully I crossed the line (in about 8 and half minutes) and dropped my lovely bag of potatoes to my feet – collecting a much needed bottle of water and my hard earned medal.

I can say that Ultraboyruns was totally mashed!

Shortly after finishing my family joined me and we quickly turned our attention our final race of the day – the juniors.

Now ASK has a bit of history in racing having competed in about 25 races since she started doing events but this one was different – carrying 2.5kg of potatoes for a rather slight 6 year old was going to be a big ask. Having seen lots of the other children struggling to keep the bags in one piece even before the race had started and were manhandling them in a way that suggested that the running would be cumbersome I suggested to ASK that she simply put them into a dry bag and carry that instead. I had suggested she hold it in front of her to make things easier – although what she did was something a little different.

We asked her if she wanted one of us to run with her but after much consideration she decided that she wanted to run it alone. I told her that one of us would run alongside the outside of the course to give her encouragement and this seemed to be a decent balance.

Interestingly, as she lined up for the race, with neither myself or the GingaNinja in sight, she looked calm and ready. She had decided to start reasonably near the front, something unknown to me, but as she stood around the much older and larger children she looked like she might get trampled by the her! Thankfully not though, and as the runners set out I was pleased to see that she used all her experience to run steadily amidst the junior runners who were hurling themselves as fast as they could up the first 400 metres.

© Great Scottish Events 2021

As can be the case with kids who come to race very often they make the mistake of going out too fast (to be fair I think we all do that) and by the time the first 400 metres had passed the race had settled into those who had gone out too fast and those who hadn’t. ASK moved steadily through the runners ahead of her and I ran the outside of the course to give her encouragement when she felt the weight of her tatties.

Interestingly despite me advice she chose to have the bag she was carrying the spuds in bouncing on her back and this must have been both quite painful and having an effect on her running flow. I shouted to her to bring them round to the front but she ignored me and carried on regardless. With 1200 metres down she had gotten into the home run and I ran down to where the GingaNinja was waiting and we called out to her to push as hard as she could. ASK did take this piece of advice and she ran with as much gusto as she could manage and passed a couple of other young athletes on the way in and crossing the line in a very respectable time of a little over 10 minutes.

The man on the microphone, who had been incredibly jolly all afternoon, approached the child to interview her as she finished asking her if she did this much and that the bag to carry the potatoes in had been a great idea – ASK answered as she should, that she races quite a lot and that the bag was her parents idea! Good girl. I managed to get to the finish line before she managed to get her breath back and start chattering at the lovely chap and I took her away for a banana and a medal – she was a very happy young lady.

ASK Adventurer is a real chip off the old block I’d say!

And so we ended the race with 32.5kg on potatoes to take home, three medals and a great experience.

Conclusions
The Great Perthshire Tattie Run is a wonderful community event and deserves to be run by everyone – genuinely one of the most joyous events that I have had the opportunity to run. Not only was it hugely inclusive with races for all ages and abilities but it didn’t take itself too seriously and understood the madness of running with a bag of tatties on your back.

A massive thank you should go to the organisers of the event Great Scottish Events and also Perth & Kinross Council, a huge thanks should also go to the supplier of the tatties because without Branstons then this is just a 1 mile run in a park.

Basically what more can you ask for out of an event? A race, a medal, a community experience and all for free. Well done guys and I look forward to running this again next year. I suppose the big question is, ‘would I pay to run this race?’ And the answer is absolutely, it was brilliant. This event is clearly a labour of love for the organisers and clearly an event that we should all be doing.

Get involved!

Thanks to Great Scottish Events for a couple of the professional photographs (bottom four images in the gallery)

I was looking forward to the Tour of Tameside, on paper it looked like a good mix of distances and a race series with lots of heritage and in a place I had never run before. It’s therefore with immense sadness that I didn’t enjoy it, that’s not to say it was terrible, it wasn’t, but there were a number of issues that really hampered my enjoyment.

The tour consisted of four races starting on Thursday 29th July and concluding on Sunday 1st August and took place in and around Tameside. Organised by the Running Bee Foundation it promised agonising race after agonising race all in order to support charity – so far so good.

For me personally I had travelled from my sunny Scottish location to rainy Tameside in order to meet a lady from the Running Friends Scotland Facebook group. Nicky and I have chatted extensively across the pantheon of running topics and had hoped to record a podcast episode (more on that later) but it was mainly just a great opportunity to meet her.

And so on Thursday I thundered down the M74 out of Scotland’s sun soaked landscape and down the M6 into the grip of North West England for a few days of fun. I unpacked quickly upon arrival at my hotel, got my race kit ready and prepared the podcasting gear incase tonight was a good night for a record.

Race 1
X Trail 10km
With the first race taking part in the evening I ambled along from the hotel down to the parking at the local rugby club. I was amazed at the amount of people who were there – I had assumed that the Tour of Tameside would be quite a small race with a few dozen runners but it turned out there were hundreds. Clearly some where here just for one day of the tour but I saw lots of full tour runners who would compete in the four races.

The start line was about a 10 minute walk from the parking and so having not being able to see Nicky I decided to head down to the start line and see what all the fuss was about. When I arrived it was even busier at the start line than it had been at the parking – it wasn’t quite a mass participation event but it was the biggest event I had been a part of since long before the pandemic began.

I was quite surprised by the way in which people were interacting even with the relaxing of the pandemic rules in England. I wandered around a bit exploring the course and trying to see where the trail was, this had the benefit of maintaining social distancing but also allowed me to experience the Tour of Tameside vibe.

But then it was time to go.

I headed to the back of the course and finally came across Nicky and we had a few minutes to chat before the race began but soon it was time to go. I hadn’t really thought about whether I would be running alongside Nicky or whether I would just go and do my own thing. But as it turned out we mostly stayed together and ambled gently around the course, which was very nice indeed.

It quickly became apparent that the best way to approach the Tour of Tameside was to just have a bit of fun with it and not take it too seriously. And so as we pushed up the hilly tarmac roads of Tameside and I awaited, with eagerness, the arrival of the trail to bring me the joy I was looking for.

The route was hillier than I imagined but not unpleasantly so and the running was interesting enough as we ambled through little villages where the locals had come out to support the competitors. Wonderful. The route though was tight in places and making progress through the throngs of runners was challenging even as the competitors began to spread themselves out. I made a nuisance of myself by making jokes with volunteers and supporters alike, always keen to mostly poke fun at myself and I am sure that runners both ahead and behind me must have found me a real irritant – wishing I would just piss off. I’m confident that the supporters near the start line who heard me calling for a change in the music from whatever shit it was they were blaring out to a bit of George Michael must have wondered what the fuck was going on.

But I’d found my fun groove and began a little sing-a-long or two, told some terrible jokes and hurled out a few expletive laden anecdotes but it wasn’t enough to make me love the race.

The key concern was that the route showed little sign of trail despite the name – I had assumed that the last minute change of route was responsible, although others suggested that the original route ran along a disused railway line, which I suppose could be considered a trail, although not my preference. and with a good portion of the run now completed we still had yet to find some good old fashioned mud or woodland trail.

The route looped in and out and down and around the roads of the villages until we ended up back at the start once more and finally we found a narrow piece of trail – this was fun and there was just enough room to go past the other runners.

Nicky was thundering along just nicely and as we approached a little bridge and I took a moment to grab a photograph or three and then it was a race to the finish – all downhill, through a tight gate – up and over and then bomb it down to the end. Boom.

And bomb it I did – I love a fast finish and I flew past several other runners and into the funnel for the finish where Nicky’s other half and the first medal awaited us.

The end of the first day and I had a lot to digest, it had been an odd race but now it was time to stretch, relax, hot bath and get ready for tomorrow. In the walk back to the car we met a young lady called Hatty who was both an absolute delight and an awesome runner and somebody that I would cross paths with several times during the next few days.

So as we ventured towards the car park with Nicky and Rob (Nicky’s other half) we chatted about life and colourful running leggings and then departed rather quickly – sadly without recording a podcast episode, but there was always tomorrow I thought and put it to the back of my mind.

Race 2
Hell on the Fell

Living in Scotland gives me access to some wonderful hills and mountains which from time to time I am known to run and down. However, I tend not to run the hill races here because I feel I wouldn’t be competitive enough and I’d be guaranteed to miss checkpoints or timing points. However, the Hell on the Fell sounded like a great little bomb around some hills in Tameside and so this was the one I was most looking forward to.

Again the race was in the evening and on a cool but very runnable evening I made my way to another part of Tameside where I was greeted with a decent walk to the start line once more. Parking had been allocated at a local leisure centre but given the legions of runners, supporters and organisers this was clearly not going to be enough. However, everyone squeezed themselves in and around the local area and made their way to the start line – which was overshadowed by a couple of small hills and a picturesque reservoir – this is more like it I thought.

Nicky and Rob once more rocked up close to the starting time and took up their positions alongside me near the back just in time to hear me grumble about the man operating the PA. I’m aware that race information needs to be given out but there was a lot of that, ‘don’t worry it’s all downhill’ and ‘it’s a nice flat one tonight’, I didn’t find it funny I found it mostly tiresome but I am confident he had some fans, just not me.

Just prior to the race start though there was a disagreement between a couple of runners and I had stupidly gotten involved, I found myself in a heated exchange that I really didn’t want to be in and to be honest it really ruined the start of the event for me and while I won’t go into details I think it may have ruined the race for others too.

Still, this was a fell race and I was going to enjoy it but then we turned to the tarmac and headed down it, up it and around it. Hmmm. Now I realise I’m not a regular fell racer but I was fairly sure that fell running usually involved mud, trails, off trails, beating back the bracken, Walsh trainers and generally being covered head to toe in shit.

This was not that and the events at the start line were weighing heavily on my mind, although outwardly I was doing my best to project the happy go lucky, expletive delivering runner that I usually am recognised as.

Eventually we did finally leave the tarmac behind and climb a bit of trail and this was really good fun running, I leaped and lumbered up the hills chastising Nicky any time I felt she was starting to slip behind. The 30 minutes that we were actually on a hill, on an actual trail were really enjoyable and if the bulk of the running had been like this then the Tour of Tameside would have been right up my street but it really was just these 30 minutes that were like this.

Because we were at the back of the pack when we came to the narrow descent off the hill the pace slowed to a crawl and we couldn’t move any faster than the person at the front of the queue and so I was a bit disappointed as this would have been great to hurl ourselves down in the way the front runners had. However, once clear of the backlog we, like everyone else, began to fly down towards the end.

At this point Hatty had joined us and so I took the opportunity to mess around a bit and make aeroplane noises amongst other things, I’m sure both my lovely companions must have been wishing I would once more sod off but I didn’t I just carried on regardless. As we approached the finish the marshal advised me of a step down and I advised him that I was stopping, which must have looked strange but I was keen to capture the finish line moment as Nicky and Hatty battered towards the line. Annoyingly though another runner came thundering through and so I decided to put a little spurt on to the finish, stopping just short of the finish to allow him to cross the line before me – he must have thought me a dickhead too.

Boom, we crossed the line and collected another medal as the man on the PA system commented on my video-ing of the event. Something I noted as I entered the final day was against the rules of the race.

There was still a finish line photograph to do and then off but in all the excitement of the event, thoughts of podcasting were lost but I’d suggested ice-cream post race tomorrow to help celebrate Robs birthday and hopefully we could do it then.

Race 3
Hero Half Marathon

I can’t remember my last half marathon but I think it might have been the 2013 Royal Parks Half Marathon and the half, in my opinion, is the toughest of all the race distances – it’s the one I struggle to judge in terms of pace and so I’ve found I don’t bother with doing them any longer.

Therefore it was going to take an amazing route and experience to make this one a great day. Once more I arrived early to ensure that I managed to get parking in the large field the organisers had arranged and I felt fortunate that the weather conditions were overcast and a little cooler than of late which meant that running conditions would be fine.

Not knowing much about the race I asked one of the organisers if I was better in road or trail shoes and he immediately advised road – I was glad therefore that I had invested earlier in the week in the Fli-Lyte 3 (a shoe I shall be reviewing once I’ve fully tested it).

I also had the good fortune to meet fellow instagrammer and ultra runner Karl and it was lovely chatting to him about the event and also about Topo Athletic shoes. It’s always fun meeting people from the internet, I very rarely recognise them, but my collection of Oddballs T-Shirts, wild beard and brightly coloured race packs makes me and easy spot. I’ll assume this is also how Nicky and Hatty picked me out of the crowd too!

Therefore, phew we had made it to race 3 mostly in one piece – but this was the one I was worried about. My already destroyed hamstrings, after the previous weekend of racing at the Solway Coast Marathon (read the review here) and the Splash & Dash (read the review here), were on fire and the hill race the night before had done them no favours – nor had my titting about on the route.

I knew that I had to run this one slowly if I had any chance of making it to race day 4. Although to be fair I was already having serious doubts about whether I wanted to continue with the Tour of Tameside given my experiences at the events and also in the wider Tameside area.

However, I was here and Nicky was here and that meant I was running.

We set off at a leisurely pace and ambled along the course, we passed through the village that sat just before the start line and then headed for an out and back race along a hard packed path. Annoyingly the day was now warming up but thankfully the course had a good deal of cover and we able to avoid much of it. I don’t recall what we talked about as we ran along the path but I punctured our chatting with attempts to soak Nicky as I launched myself into every puddle imaginable. This tactic didn’t start well when I found myself sliding towards the water instead of leaping into it but it was something I stuck with – although I think that Nicky soon became well educated to my sly watery tactics and knew how to avoid me.

Puddle after puddle I ran through and I’m sure it wasn’t only Nicky that I soaked but few complained and so I just happily did my own thing. I’d also taken my Insta360 camera so that I could capture the race and at one point one of the marshals told me to put it away (it would later be explained to me by the marshal that she thought it was a whip – wtf?).

The landscape and the scenery in the background was as pleasant as you can get but the route itself was a little devoid of excitement and interest, hence why I found myself leaping into the puddles and the second half of the out section felt like a real slog and mentally you knew you had to come back this way. The benefit of the out and back though is that you can cheer on runners that you have met along the way and I passed several runners that I was happy to cheer on or give support to because at the back of the pack there was some tremendously tenacious running and that deserves a cheer.

I noted that Rob was checking to see if Nicky was interested in a new PB because he was clearly keeping an eye on the clock but this is something that doesn’t really interest me and I’d decided that if they fancied cracking on for that new personal best then I’d just sit where I was and finish a bit behind them. However, I think Nicky picked up a bit of injury somewhere here and the PB looked like it would have to be saved for another day. Therefore once more the three of us just plodded back towards the finish and with me just looking to finish without incurring the wrath of my already dilapidated body.

Rob being relatively local knew quite a lot of the runners and would say hello or be able to provide interesting insights into people, places or clubs and that was fun and we as a trio would interact with other runners.

Then in the latter stages of the race I met a lady called Emma who was clearly having a crisis of confidence using terms like, ‘I’ve failed’ and ‘it’s such a disappointment’ and I immediately took her to task. The thing is, with 3 miles still to go you really don’t want to punish yourself mentally like that and so I hope that I gave her the tough love inspiration to finish.

Emma eventually managed to power her way back up to running properly and it was so pleasing to see her do so – watching her power away from me was a joy. That said I caught her on the final climb to the downhill sprint to the finish and I urged her on, well shouted at her really – I don’t really remember the final push but I remember that she crossed the line about the same time as me. Nicky and Rob were close behind but it appeared that Nicky really was nursing an unpleasant foot injury. Not exactly what anyone wanted for her and we would have to see if it would clear for the final race.

Again there were some finish line photographs and I congratulated a few of the runners I had spoken with on the way round – including Emma and Hatty. Nicky, Rob and I headed off into what I assume was Glossop in search of some ice-cream but ended up with a coffee, a poor choice of cakes and Rob feeling rather sickly after the race (not a great start to his birthday!).

Nicky and I agreed that we’d do the podcasting therefore after the race on day 4 and so ended the half marathon, I’d survived but it seemed that the rest of my little band had been given a right kicking by it.

Race 4
Dr Ron Hyde 7 mile

By the time I came into the Dr Ron Hyde 7 mile I had pretty had enough of the Tour of Tameside and Tameside itself. I had considered not racing and just returning to Scotland but having gotten this far into the event I felt like I should at least finish and obviously there was Nicky to consider who I had enjoyed running with and didn’t just want to not turn up.

Therefore, I parked in the town centre, as advised, but with all my gear in the car and pretty exposed I became a touch worried when the driver next to me fitted his steering wheel with a huge stoplock… ‘is this not a nice area?’ I inquired. I don’t know Hyde at all but the man suggested that it wasn’t the nicest of places but it was too late now – I was here.

I ambled around once more, attempting to avoid the bits of rain that were hanging in the air but without going into the town hall as there were too many runners congregated with very few of them wearing masks or socially distancing. I realise that the pandemic has been hard for people but I didn’t really want to expose myself any more than I felt was appropriate.

The race was busy and had attracted what looked like every racing snake from far and wide but I did my usual and headed to the back, only really looking round to see if I could see Nicky or Rob – but there was no sign. Then I saw Nicky coming to the barrier and she was still hobbling with what sounded like a nasty foot injury, I did for a second think – ah fuck this, perfect excuse I can just go home – but she was visibly distressed by not being able to compete in race day 4 and therefore I felt it wouldn’t be right for me not to complete it.

That said I really wasn’t in the mood for it, I wasn’t in the mood for running on tarmac once more and when the race started I just tuned into my own personal little bubble, avoiding eye contact with my fellow runners and I just wanted to get this done.

However, Rob caught me up after a mile or so and started chatting but whatever it was he said it opened the floodgates to my frustrations with the last few days and I wasn’t in an appeasing mood and when a fellow runner passed comment I was rather unapologetically robust in my commentary. Ho-hum.

‘There’s no need for language like that’, she said,

‘The thing is’, I said, ‘if you know who Paul Dacre is – there is need for such language’.

As road races go this one was okay, the route itself didn’t have anything spectacular in terms of its scenery to write home about but there were some up hills, there were some down hills and there were a few bits were you could stretch your legs on. I met a young lady in the middle of the race who I joked with that I was going to make her earn her overtaking and she was a fabulous little pocket rocket of a runner who did in the end overtake me – but I really did make her work for it.

Now I was simply bumbling my way round, once more silently sitting in my own bubble and for a change focusing on just getting to the finish, I stopped only to say hello to the wonderfully colourfully attired spectator in the dungarees who I had seen the day before and had a bit of a laugh with.

As the race was winding down to its conclusion I could see that the route was mainly going to be downhill and so I pulled my big boy pants on and gave it some welly.

I ran hard along the road, I could feel the energy burning through my legs and in the distance I could see a young girl and her dad perhaps coming together to hold hands – I didn’t have the time to move around them and so shouted, ‘out of the way’ and barged through them.

In the distance I could see the little pocket rocket I had encouraged earlier and overtook her – closing a huge gap. As I went past her I turned and told her she could overtake me again but she just didn’t have a last blast of power in her legs and then another chap who had gone past me earlier thought he could race me to the finish but I still had a bit in the tank and having hit the afterburner of rage I pipped him to the line.

I slowed in the finishers funnel, ‘did you enjoy that?’ asked the marshal.

‘No’ I answered honestly.

Annoyingly I couldn’t find Nicky or Rob at the finish and after about 40 minutes of cantering around looking for them where I saw Hatty finish and Karl come in I had to leave because it was going to be a long journey to Scotland and I couldn’t risk time slipping further and further away. So the Tour of Tameside came to a conclusion but it’s not one I enjoyed writing about and I am confident you didn’t enjoy reading about it either.

Overview

  • Distance: 10km / 6 miles / Half Marathon / 7 miles
  • Date: July 2021
  • Location: Tameside
  • Cost: £65
  • Terrain: Mixed
  • Tough Rating: 1/5

Routes
The Tour of Tameside has been going for 40 years and I am sure that most of the people who run it, love it. I’m confident that lots of them are relatively local and know this area of the world well and love battering around their own stomping grounds. I on the other hand travelled a reasonably long way to test myself on what I thought would be awesome routes and I’m sorry to say that for me they were not.

As I mentioned earlier the second half of the ‘Hell on the Fell’ and some bits of the Hyde 7 were a bit of fun but mostly I found the routes uninspiring – the half marathon and the X trail being the least inspiring. It actually pains me to write this because I don’t want to put anyone off doing this, but I, as a mostly trail runner and adventurer, found these routes disappointing.

Who might these routes suit? Well if you enjoy tarmac running in mostly closed road situations, where supporters can line the routes then this would be a good series for you to consider.

Organisation
There was a lot of organisation that went into this I would say, from the road closures to the permits required, to the actual on the day organisation and setting up the starts and finishes which were not always located in the same place.

There must have been a massive logistical effort that went into staging the Tour of Tameside. The amount of volunteers and marshals seemed enormous, the amount of toilets seemed enormous and the amount of road closures seemed enormous – I can’t fault any of that.

On course signage and marking was also excellent and that can’t be faulted.

I also liked that the parking at races 1 and 3 were supporting local community with a £1.00 donation per car, this meant that unused parking space was generating income and helping a race happen. That said the field that race 3 used for parking looked like if any more rain had come down then we might have needed a tractor to get out. I do very much enjoy it when the community gets involved in local races and this was very evident at the Tour of Tameside.

However, I did feel Covid took a real back seat at the Tour of Tameside and that was both surprising and disappointing.

Late in the day there was an email that suggested lateral flow tests should be taken for each event you attend and I did do these tests for each day but I wonder how many of the other runners did? Social distancing would have been near impossible because of the numbers involved and the amount of spectators but there wasn’t much evidence of people trying not to get too close or wearing masks even in indoor settings.

It must be incredibly difficult to balance the needs of the event against the pandemic but I’m not sure a good balance was struck here. However, I did note that race numbers were sent out ahead of time and that did at least reduce the need for queues at race starts – so it wasn’t all disappointing.

On a final note and one very large positive is The Running Bee Foundation who organise the event use these races to generate funds for charity and the winners cash award of £3,000 is given, not to the winner of the tour but, to a charity of the winners choice. In that sense the Tour of Tameside is a community project that benefits others and for that the organisers should be congratulated.

Litter and sustainability
So sustainability is something we are seeing increasingly in races – numbers are not posted out, information is provided digitally, goody bags have been dropped in favour of say one good quality item such as a medal or decent technical t-shirt. Sustainability is less of a buzz word and more of an action word but I’m not sure the Tour of Tameside was quite as sustainable as it could have been, it is important to note though that if you want a sustainable race then it is the responsibility of both the runners and the organisers to make this happen and I hope in the future the tour addresses some of the issues around sustainability.

Let’s start with the good – the race handbook was digital and most communication was via email. Race numbers were sent via the post but I imagine this was a Covid issue.

There has been an increase in plastic reduction at races by suggesting that runners should carry some form of cup if you want water and while is mostly relevant at ultra distance running I have seen an increase in the idea at shorter distance races too. To be fair the water bottles are recyclable and there was clear guidance at the race about disposal to help marshals clear them away but there were water cartons spread over a very wide area, much wider than I imagine the race organisers would want and therefore some cartons might have been missed.

This brings me to the other issue – I have gotten very used to not seeing litter on race routes but here there was litter, not tonnes but enough for me to notice. Now be it deliberate or accidental it still gives runners and running a bad name and makes it much more difficult to say that races are good for the community. I’m sure the organisers will have done the best job they can in clean down but littering is something we as people, never mind runners should not do to our community.

And then there was the goody bag at the end, the tour really didn’t need it and it was a very mixed bag of stuff, the tour top was excellent quality as it was Ronhill but there were bits of plastic nonsense from the sponsors and the bag that it was all in was just more plastic. Then of course there were the bits of paper to advertise future races – I think in future the organisers and sponsors might be better finding more sustainable ways of presenting themselves to the audience.

Value for money
It was about £15 per race when you break it down and for that you got a lot of stuff, there were medals each day, there was lots of marshal support, there were so many toilets, the road closures, etc. If you like racing and you don’t care about running beautiful routes then this represents excellent value for money.

Awards
Let’s start with the good stuff – the Ronhill top that I mentioned above for completing the full tour is excellent. In addition to this you could purchase a range of other tops and vests (which I did) and they were also excellent quality and will be used as training shirts.

The bag, stress balls, piggy bank, cup, etc are less welcome – the race didn’t need it and I would rather the money was funnelled into the charitable aspect of the race and I hope that is a conclusion the race directors come to as well.

The other thing is the medals – there were four of them, one for each race and that’s lovely, as a runner and racer I am rather partial to a medal.

However, there was a problem, the medals are made of either glass or perspex with a sticker stuck to the reverse of them. They feel very cheap and that the stickers are not going to be in it for the long haul. I compare this to the 2015 set of medals which I saw displayed at one of the races and there was no comparison – they’ll still be going strong in 100 years but these ones I doubt will. It also comes back to the sustainability issue again, either get rid of the medals or maybe consider wooden medals which once they fall apart will simply be recycled. I wonder if the stickers on the back of the medal is recyclable?

Volunteers & support
There were lots of marshals, lots of supporters and for the most part they were hugely supportive and fun, I really enjoyed laughing and joking with them as I made my way – mostly being a bit silly. There were a couple who were a bit miserable when I tried to have a little joke with them but then I suppose if I was stood for an hour on the top of a hill in the rain I might be a bit sour. Volunteers and marshals have a tough job as they are committed to being out for a long time and while the runners may be out for an hour or two the team will be involved in the set up and breakdown of an event – it can be a long day and they should be applauded.

On the whole though there was some lovely support and of course my ridiculously bright and colourful shirts always attract comments – mostly positive, although there were one or two comments that seemed to draw into question my sexuality, which is fine, I don’t mind you thinking I’m gay, I take it as a compliment.

There was one woman in particular that I must mention and I think she must have had a runner in the races and on the final day she had these wonderful dungarees on at the top of the hill and I’d seen her the previous day when she wonderful colourful trousers on – she was soooo positive and soooo lovely, I really enjoyed chatting to her as I ran past.

Special Mentions
There are lots of people I could mention such as Rob, Hatty, Karl and Emma but the special mention must go to Nicky, she was very much the reason I was at the Tour of Tameside and meeting her was an absolute pleasure. She’s a great runner and only going to get better and is a wonderful human being. Despite not having lots and lots of race experience she smiled through most of it and laughed through much of it. Well done Nicky.

It was a massive disappointment to see her injured on the final day hobbling towards me, although it hadn’t come as much of a surprise having seen her the day before, I was also sorry to have missed the opportunity to record the podcast in person and will now look to organise that for a zoom call or some such in the near future.

There was so much to say and talk to Nicky about and I look forward to another opportunity to do so.

Conclusions
Well I want this to be as positive conclusion as I can because although the Tour of Tameside wasn’t for me it clearly has a loyal following and is very popular year in, year out.

The charitable aspect of the tour is a wonderful thing that should be supported and the thing is that the issues I had could very easily be resolved by revising the awards given to the runners and examining how the routes could be improved.

If you’re local runner or somewhere relatively nearby then the tour or a couple of the races, even in their current format, are probably something that you do or would consider doing on a semi regular basis and I can see how that works. However, I’m not sure I could justify recommending that you travel any significant distance to come and do this.

I did have some fun during the Tour of Tameside but that was more to do with some of the people I met than my race experience and usually I’ve found that my best races are the ones were I can have a laugh surrounded by stunning scenery.

If I were to recommend any of the races then probably the Hell on the Fell is the most scenic and the most fun. I don’t enjoy writing negatively about races because I know the effort that goes in to staging them and so if the organisers wish to discuss my experience of the Tour of Tameside then I would be happy to go into further detail but it could be that the audience for this series of races is a group I’m just not a part of.

You can check out the Sports Tour International website here for more information on the races and you can check out the excellent work of the Running Bee Foundation here.

Terry Pratchett wrote that the Discworld sat atop four giant elephants that stood astride a giant turtle that flew through space. If Scotland were Discworld then the Solway Coast Marathon would be in the space beyond the edges of the known.

I had no idea what to expect from the Solway Coast Marathon but what I did know was the following;

  1. I don’t like road marathons
  2. I don’t like running in the summer months
  3. I had raced less than 12 hours earlier in St Andrews
  4. I had pulled my hamstring in the race in St Andrews

So when I woke up at 4am, after just 3 hours sleep I asked myself do I really want to drive for the next three and half hours to do a race that isn’t my usual cup of tea? I showered and put my shorts on and decided that, ‘yes – what the hell, there’s a medal in this for me’.

What I didn’t expect was to thoroughly enjoy myself and have a truly wonderful time at a stunningly good event.

I drove down along the M74 in what is some very misty conditions and I wondered if the promised sunshine might hold off long enough for the race to take place but as I drove further and further toward the marathon I could see that the sunshine had arrived and by the time I pulled into the airfield car park it was already far too warm.

Now being in England the Covid rules have been relaxed further than in Scotland but when I went to collect my number I ensured that I sanitised my hands and wore a mask, while I’m happy to be racing it was good to see that many of the runners at the start maintained social distancing and I didn’t feel like some sort of freak for following Scottish guidance over the English rules.

Number collection was swift and there were good facilities on hand to make sure that we all got to the start line having been to the little boys or girls room. Afterwards I headed back to the car, got into my race gear and then opened the boot of the car and got comfy, just watching the world go by. Despite my feelings that a road marathon was not what I needed I found myself feeling rather comfortable here and there was a lovely relaxed vibe being given off by both the runners and the organisers.

About 8.30am I headed back to the registration point where the runners were starting to congregate and after a short safety briefing we headed down the road to the start line. I met a young local runner called Claire and we chatted for a little while about our various experiences, there was something wonderfully down to earth about Claire and had she been a back of the pack runner she would have made an awesome companion but she was aiming for a sub4 marathon and I most certainly wasn’t.

When we reached the start line I wished her a cheery farewell and hoped she succeeded in her aim for the day but I knew the place I had to take up and so I headed to the back.

It was here that I met the first of many runners who would help define my day in the sunshine. Mick was a runner with a fine pedigree and, as befits a running legend, was wearing a Saxons, Normans & Vikings t-shirt which instantly put him on my radar as someone who would know Traviss Wilcox. I very much enjoyed our gentle first few miles as we talked about all things SVN and beyond. My time with Mick took away from noting how hard going the tarmac was under my feet – something that in my training runs isn’t an issue as I mostly run trails.

Mick clearly had a plan though and was keen to stick to it, whereas I was aiming to do what I usually do, run the first half as fast as I can and then die in the second half. I suppose when I think about it that’s a plan too it’s just not a very good one. So with the sunshine beating down upon me I pressed on through a few of the runners ahead of me and settled into a reasonably steady rhythm.

In the early stages we were running mostly through some of the little villages near the Solway Coast and it was full of little picture postcard scenes that made you feel like you’d stepped back to times gone by. I was rather enamoured with my surroundings and soaked it all in as I gently plodded along.

It was in these little picture postcard villages that I came across a young gentleman and what I assume was his daughter armed with musical instruments and a hose. The sound of music from supporters is something I really enjoy and the little girl was shaking her rattle like her life depended on it. Wonderful. I had seen the gentleman hose down one of the runners and clearly he was doing this for all that wanted it and so with all the gusto I could manage I shouted, ‘in the face, in the face!’ and he duly obliged – spraying my hot sweaty face with cool refreshing water. I didn’t realise it until much later in the race but the soaking of my buff visor by this lovely pair probably helped maintain my ability to run this event as despite the heat and sunshine my neck remained cool.

Now that I was all cool and feeling refreshed I turned my attention to a different issue. The trouble was that my right hamstring was already on fire and I knew that it was only going to get worse but it was joined by a wobbly left hamstring and I did wonder what I had done to deserve this kind of misfortune but regardless my time was looking okay as I completed the little 6 mile loop and started on the long journey around the coastline.

It was here that I came across one of the two most important people I would meet during the race and his name was Sachin and what a lovely chap he was. We ran together for several miles, moving back and forth and forth and back and we shared stories and philosophies and I really enjoyed chewing the fat with him. He was running with such fantastic consistency that he really helped me keep on target, when he finally meandered past me after several false dawns I watched as he slowly, consistently pulled away from me. Looking his time up he was about 20 minutes ahead of me and if he keeps running like that his times are only going to get quicker.

But it was in the weaving of being ahead or behind Sachin that I met the runner who would really define the race for me. I met Allan at about the 10 mile point and we had chatted for a little while during a period that I had scooted ahead of Sachin but then I’d lost both of them at one of the many excellent checkpoints (more on them later). Anyway I’m getting ahead of myself – as Allan approached I was looking into the distance and trying to decide if I was staring at Scotland or if I was staring at the Lake District. I decided it must be Scotland as there were clearly visible hills but Allan assured me that actually I was looking over into the Lakes and that Scotland, or home as we both called it, was in the other direction.

Allan was cool, not bullshit cool, just cool, kinda like the Fonz, in his superdry sunglasses and Highland Fling vest – when I grow up I thought, I want to be like Allan. But when we pulled into the next checkpoint neither of my fellow runners were there and so for the first time in an age I was alone.

It turned out that Allan was a little bit behind me and Sachin was a little bit ahead, I chose to keep moving forward assuming that at some point Allan and every other runner would probably go past me – no need to slow down when I still had energy in my legs.

It’s at this point that I’d like to mention the course and the checkpoints, we were now at about the second checkpoint and it was clear that there was an army of volunteers on the route, all willing you on and the checkpoint teams were just super, super brilliant. Not just in encouragement terms but also in getting you what you wanted. I’d forgetten about marathon checkpoints looked like as I have gotten so used to ultra marathon checks. The tables were pretty simple – water, cola, electrolytes and jelly babies – I don’t need anything else, they did the job they needed to and armed with 2 x 300ml bottles full of active root in my race vest I was well catered for.

That said had I not had my race vest with me then the checkpoints had bottled water that we could use. There were also lots of water stops – I lost count in the end but they were positioned between 3 and 5 miles apart and this meant that you had enough support. The organisers clearly appreciated that running during the summer months can be a challenge and were fully prepared for it. Unlike at some other races I’ve done (looking at you Vanguard Way – read the review here) there was never any hint of a lack of supplies and as I passed that second checkpoint I was very happy with the awesome support that I and the other runners were getting.

Now out on the coast I could finally appreciate the absolutely beautiful location I had come to run at. I spent much of time gazing out across the sands as I pounded the pavements, watching runners in the distance. I wound my way further and further round the route and looking at all the little nuggets of trails with their tree lined shade and thinking, ‘I bet you could have an awesome trail race round here’ and I wonder if they do?

But to the matter at hand I continued forward and up into the next checkpoint, passing two supporters who were following their runner – I think it might have been Micks partner but I couldn’t be 100% sure. However, as I trudged up the little hill in the town I was passing they offered some much needed support – although when I asked them for an ice-cream that was a lot less forthcoming! Ha.

At the top of one of the few little hills on this course there was the next checkpoint and I stopped here for a few minutes, pouring more water over my head, having a bit of banter with the wonderful volunteers and watching as Allan caught me once more.

I set off after I had refilled my now empty bottles and spent a little bit of time with Becks who was doing what good runners do and maintain a good consistent pace and with her I was able to catch up a little on some of the pace that I had lost. Becks soon left me in her dust though, quite rightly might I add and I was once more left to soak up the views. But I could feel myself slowing all the time, the gusto that I had approached the first half had now left my legs but, and this was important, I found myself still running.

Thoughts of finishing in around 4 hours had departed to be replaced by a dose of reality but I realised that I might actually be able to mostly run this one in and so I pressed on bit by bit, making my way slowly to the next checkpoint at mile 18. Somewhere along this section Allan finally caught me for the final time and we got reacquainted after our short chat earlier. He really was a top fella and the kind of person you want to sit down with at a roaring fire and listen to him tell stories of his adventures, his accent was so wonderfully melodic too and I found that very reassuring, it was like one of those velvety voices you used to get on the radio. I didn’t tell him that but I cold have listened to it all day.

Anyway we were running it in, although Allan was employing a walk-run strategy and that seemed like a sensible thing to do and so I found myself joining him and we spent the next little while chatting about adventures, races we’ve done, Daniel Kershaw and how awesome he is, the race to 100 marathons, the race to bagging all the munros and so many other things that filled me with joy. I think the thing I liked most was that he was soon to racing with his 27 year old son for the first time and that gave me hope that my little ASK Adventurer will still take me out when she’s in her 20s.

We pulled into the checkpoint at mile 18 and there were a couple of the most lovely volunteers, as is always the case I try to thank each of them, have a little joke or flirt. But there was something at this checkpoint that I noted and it was a hardcover edition of the Terry Pratchett book ‘Maskerade’ and I found myself chatting to the lovely lady who was reading it. I love a Pratchett novel, with ‘The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents’ being my absolute favourite and ‘The Truth’, ‘Mort’ and ‘Monstrous Regiment’ also being firm favourites – little did I know that my fellow Pratchett fan had a little surprise for me at the finish, but more on that later.

Allan and I pressed on, saying hello to the odd runner that might pass us by or that we might pass, this was one of the friendliest marathons I have ever taken part in and I recall turning to my companion and saying, ‘you know what, I’m really enjoying this’ and I was – I was having a blast. Yes my hamstrings were ruined, the sun was baking, my second toe on my left foot was blistered and I should really have worn some road shoes instead of an older pair of Altra Lone Peak but you simply couldn’t take away the fact that I was smiling.

Allan and I dipped into the mile 22 checkpoint and said hello once more to the volunteers who were here – this was also one of the earlier checkpoints before you disappeared on the long loop of the coast. Once more we had a bit of a laugh and a joke and then we went off, crossing the little bridge and into the clapping hands of supporters and volunteers. ‘You’re doing well guys’ they cried out – now that was very nice to hear but it wasn’t true, I was dying inside and when Allan and I approached the turn to the final few miles I said, ‘you’ll have to go on without me, I might just amble the last few miles I think’. As I was saying this the ambulance that was running up and down the course came hurtling past us with its lights on and I remembered why I often run with other people during races and its because I do better if my mind isn’t fixated on my inner darkness.

As I watched Allan disappearing into the distance with less than 5km to go I made a choice that usually wold elude me, I found my inner grit and I caught up to Allan and decided that I would hang on to his coat tails for as long as I could.

We were now 40km and I had managed to hold on, Allan seemed to be struggling a bit at this late stage but there was no way I was going anywhere without him and so we kept on going together – he pointed in the direction of a couple of towers that represented the finish line and I could feel the finish. A young lady went past us in the final stretch but I was too pleased to care about trying to race her, I was just glad I was going to finish in one piece (ish).

On the final stretch a group of young chaps started to cheer us in but I advised that really I’d appreciate a sarcastic slow hand clap more and they duly obliged – cheeky buggers 🙂 and then the finish, and the people started clapping and cheering to which I shouted, ‘you’ve started too early its going to take me an age to reach you’ and a young lady told me that there was a special gift for me at the finish – I assumed she must have mistaken me for someone else as I didn’t know anyone there.

Anyway the finish was at the bottom of the hill and I said to Allan, ‘let’s sprint this one in’.

All I recall was the hullabaloo of my own voice crying out, ‘I’ve finished, I’ve finished’.

And it was done but the story isn’t over – I was handed my medal, some water and the copy of ‘Maskerade’ that the lovely volunteer had been reading, she had left it for me, and I’ll mention this a little more below as it was an act of kindness that I found incredibly heart warming.

Overview

  • Distance: Marathon
  • Ascent: 112 metres
  • Date: July 2021
  • Location: Kirkbride and the Solway Coast
  • Cost: £30
  • Entrants: 67
  • Terrain: Road
  • Tough Rating: 3/5 (mainly due to the heat)

Route
The route was through a beautiful part of the UK that I had never seen before and would be keen to explore further both on the English side of the border and the Scottish. If all road marathons looked as good as this then I’d probably run more of them. The route is a curious one though and quite confusing if you’ve never run it before, the initial 6 mile loop throws you because you don’t expect to end up back near the start after only an hour out of the blocks but it really works because then when you have done the bigger loop around the coast you are rewarded with a bit of running that you’ve done before. I found I drew mental strength from knowing that I was nearly there.

Organisation
I like a well organised race and this one was brilliant, on the day everything was just right, there was ample parking, there were toilets at all the checkpoints, the volunteers all knew the drill and the general feeling around the event was really positive. The checkpoints were plentiful and each of them was outfitted with everything that a marathoner might need – plus the organisers were happy to take your own bottle of something to some of the checkpoints.

What’s not to like?

The finish line was as well organised as the start and although Covid remains a shadow over events like this it didn’t dominate like it has at other events – possibly given that the rules have been relaxed a bit further since I raced back in May. That said the organisers (and runners) continued to respect the issue that Covid presents and this event was small enough that we all had space and time to adhere to regulations.

Value for money
Seriously guys – you need to charge more!

£30 (ish) isn’t enough, there are races that charge so much more and give a whole lot less. I would add that I had never heard of this race before I entered, therefore it needs more marketing or more social media or something. The race had less than 100 starters and for an event that was crafted with this much care and value I think it deserves a bigger audience. This was a truly great value for money event with a really lovely medal, top notch organisation and a lovely experience all round.

This is probably one of the best value races I have ever run and that’s high praise indeed for such a tight fisted gimboid like me.

Awards
The medal was a real cracker and one that sits proudly with its siblings, my extra gift of the copy of Maskerade by Terry Pratchett was an unexpected and much loved bonus.

Volunteers and support
We all know that the running community needs the support of a large volunteer community and this race looked like it had it by the bucket load. There were lots of volunteers out on the course who were providing directions on an already well marked course. The checkpoint teams were exceptional and couldn’t have been more helpful. I’m a very fortunate runner and have had some great experiences in running but that fun and enjoyment is often built on the hard work and dedication of those who stand in the wet, cold, sweltering heat and worse. The volunteers and the team here were top class and deserve all the plaudits – thank you.

There is also the community to mention – people from the various villages that we passed through waving us on and wishing us well in addition to the pair with the musical instruments and hose and also the second chap who hosed my face down for me at about mile 10 or something. Cyclists, other runners, walkers, even people in cars offering words or signals of support and that really helps when you’re feeling like crap.

Special Mention
I really want to say thank you to the lovely volunteer who left the Terry Pratchett book for me at the finish, I want you to know that it was a gesture that will be repaid, as I ‘pay it forward’ by doing something for someone else. I didn’t get your name, but if you read this and want to get in touch I would love to thank you personally. As I sat in my car on the journey home this thing made this race just that little bit more special.

Runners
I met some awesome runners during this event, Claire, Mick, Sachin, Becks and of course the awesome Allan. Each of you played a very important and critical part in getting me across the start and the finish and I’ll be thankful to each one of you. Allan especially though, your wise words, fantastic company and endurance were the thing that made sure I ran a reasonable time for a change – I hope our paths cross again on either a hill or in a race, maybe both at the same time.

My race
I ran better than usual but my hamstrings are ruined and the Tour of Tameside is going to be absolute murder.

Conclusions
If you are looking for a fast, flat marathon then the Solway Coastal Marathon could be it, if you enjoy running in the sunshine of July then this could be for you. However, if like me you dislike road marathons, you dislike sunshine and heat and you’re a dilapidated old fart of a runner then this could be for you! I absolutely loved this race – don’t ask me why, it has so few of the ingredients I look for in a race, there are no hills, no trails. The thing it does have though is a stunning personality, great views and that small marathon vibe running through it.

If you were considering running this race I would say that on a cooler, crisper day this is most certainly a route that you could run a personal best and even in the heat the amount of checkpoints mean there is enough support to run fast and not suffer too much.

Could they improve anything? Yes… a bit more social media in the right places – I know there is a Facebook page for Sport in Action but I really only came across this by accident and a slightly better website with some of the awesome photographs might really help this wonderful event have more attendees. Hell I’d help them do it because I genuinely thought my days of enjoying tarmac were over but the Solway Coast Marathon defied my own definitions of what I enjoy and that is the gift that will keep on giving.

I highly, highly recommend this race – next time I’ll be wearing road shoes though! Thanks Solway Coast Marathon – you were awesome, probably see you next year.

You can find out more at the Sport in Action or at the Race Best website.

NB: this is an 100% independent and there is no sponsorship, promotion or paid for benefit in this review, just sharing some thoughts on the race. Professional photography courtesy of Carlos Reina Photography

Stood on the beach as the other runners ambled down I could feel that sensation you get when you know that you’re about to do something brilliant. Having recently run the Frostbite 5 with wonderful Trails of Fife, at Lochore Meadows, I was confident that I was in for another belter of a race.

And let’s be fair what more do you want from a race other than to have to run out into the middle of the surf and stare down a giant red lobster? More on that later.

I had made the relatively short hop across from sunny Falkirk to an equally sunny but also rather windy St Andrews, a place I had not yet managed to get to. Therefore, when the Splash & Dash came up and I had very little planned I knew I had to finally pay St Andrews a visit and this would make a great starting point for an epic week of running.

With a marathon to run the next morning I knew that this evenings event should be taken as easy as possible and so as the start line was being set up I made my way to the back of the hundred or so runners. I had no intention of sprinting off like a startled gazelle, no sir, I was going to sit at the back, come last and bloody well enjoy myself.

As these thoughts were running through my head a fellow runner with those, ‘can’t see your eyes’ sunglasses on approached me and asked, ‘do you have a running blog?’

Now occasionally I might have said something to piss someone off in my blog writing so I’m rarely swift to admit being the author and because I couldn’t see the young ladies eyes she was difficult to read but I figured it would be fine and so I carefully answered ‘yes’.

Turns out she had read the Frostbite 5 posting, the previous race I did with Trails of Fife (you can read that here) and I ended up chewing with fat with her little group for a couple of minutes – mostly extolling the virtues of running up Benarty Hill.

I must have gotten rather caught up in chatter though as I barely noticed the start of the race and I found that my legs had assumed control and decided to thunder away with the rest of me. The afterburner was spent pretty quickly though and I had just enough juice in the engine to catch up with local legend Fiona. It is always lovely to see Fiona, she’s one of my favourite runners and a genuine inspiration – I was also very impressed with her choice of top for the race (I’ll be looking that one up and making a purchase if I too can get it in orange!) But now it was time to press on and I slowly managed to pull away from Fiona and the group of runners behind me, not something I can usually do but I thought I’d put a bit of effort in before the old hamstrings gave in.

But here’s the thing – I couldn’t find my groove and the hamstring that has given so much woe since March had clearly been pulled and the tightness was impressing on me, the need to slow down. However, there was a problem – I had picked up a shadow in the form of another runner and she was sat right in my blind spot but I knew that at least for a while I could try and use her as my own personal pacer. Therefore, every time she got within a few metres of me I would open out my stride and pull ahead of her again. I must have done this about 10 times on the run back to the start line of lap one – I’m sure she could have cheerfully put my head in one of those sandy pools and drowned me but instead she simply ran a superbly consistent pace and it was hugely impressive.

At one point I turned to her and said, ‘you can overtake me but I’m going to make you work for it’ but really what I meant was, ‘chase me, I’m desperately trying to stay ahead’. In the end of course I was overtaken but it was a fun game to play even as the sand sapped all the energy from my legs.

Despite only being a mile down the beach and back twice this felt like a very long loop and as the first lap was concluding we were ushered by the amazing volunteers into a meeting with the race mascot.

In the North Sea there was a vison of red loveliness awaiting us, it’s claws ready to snap at unsuspecting runners and a massive flag stood proudly blowing in the wind. Yes we must face the lobster in the water before the lap could conclude.

In less covid times I would have been very happy to have gone and had a little nibble (cuddle), I mean lobster is delicious, and this lobster looked very tasty indeed. However, the times being what they are, I had to settle for a cheery smile and photograph – but I’d see the lobster again on my run to the finish line.

As I am sure we all know that running through water is a real bum ache, it drains your legs, it drains your spirit and it makes everything feel tough – but running in the sea is also the greatest buzz and gives me a tremendous joy. All the time I’ve spent in the water recently has meant that I’ve become rather adept at moving reasonably quickly through moving water and so while some found it a struggle to get out of the water I was able to make reasonable progress up the beach and in to lap 2.

Lap 2 was much like the first in that the beautiful beach at St Andrews gave us an amazing backdrop whichever direction you were running in and the conditions being warm and windy were absolutely magnificent. A couple of runners passed me by, including a chap who was running barefoot and brushed me aside with ease! I could also sense that I was slowing and bit by bit the pretence of a reasonable time was being eroded. However, once past the volunteers at the far end of the course I started to work my way back – I’d found a bit of a second wind and I got chatting to another young fella who was also clearly feeling the burn. We said hello and exchanged a bit of banter that really gave me some encouragement as we entered the final run back down to the water – speaking to him at the end I think he thought he’d get beyond me but I have my little secret weapon for race days…

Yes I’m a terrible runner but there’s one piece of advice that I have stuck by through the thick and thin of racing, ‘always finish strong’.

So as my feet entered the water I pulled my knees up and cried out my love and thanks to the lobster before blasting through the water to a sprint up the beach. I did give a little half a glance behind me to make sure I wasn’t going to be overtaken by the young fella I’d done those last few hundred metres with, thankfully though but he was a few precious seconds behind, though given how much ground he made up on me he more than deserved to finish ahead of me.

However, I crossed the line and inside all I could do was smile. Absolutely wonderful.

Conclusions
Trails of Fife are quickly becoming my favourite race organiser, I’ve now done two of their races and both were just the most fun filled experiences. For me part of the joy is that they aren’t ultra marathons or long distance races, I can turn up, race and have a bit of laugh. I’m sure some people take this very seriously indeed but when there’s a giant lobster insisting that you run to him in the sea, well you just can’t take it too seriously can you?

The beach setting of St Andrews was amazing and the late start meant that there was lots of parking available and most of the tourist traffic had departed. This certainly helped with the use of the excellent toilet facilities and in fact by having the race later in the day there was a lot less pressure overall I felt – more early evening races I say!

The organisation was as brilliant as my first experience of Trails of Fife and the volunteers were that lovely blend of cheering you on and making sure that you were going in roughly the right direction. The volunteers are always the stars of the show as far as I am concerned and at Trails of Fife they make you feel that enormous warmth that I find comes with these lovely local races. So my thanks to you. However, I must of course say a special thank you to the lobster for whom standing in the sea for the best part of an hour cannot have been as much fun as it looked – the sea gets cold pretty quickly and he didn’t look like he had a wetsuit on under his outfit. His good humour and commitment to the role was outstanding and my only problem was that I didn’t get to take him home and put him a pot of boiling water and have him for dinner – still there’s always next time.

As for the medal? Well Trails of Fife seem to know how to do a damn fine medal – they’re big enough to make them feel special and nicely designed as a lovely memento of your event. I’m a big fan of these races and the organisers should be very proud of themselves for putting on such fine events. Easy collection of race number? Yes. Good facilities? Yes. Beautiful locations? Yes. Amazing team and volunteers? Yes. Cool medal that you’ll treasure? Yes. Really fun route and event? Yes. Any complaints? No.

If this returns with a winter edition I’ll be adding my name to the list because this is a corker and I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for further events from the lovely guys at Trails of Fife.

You can find their Facebook group here and see what’s next.

The only downside about writing this is that you may now feel the need to sign up to their races and I might not get a spot but here’s the thing – I feel everyone who loves running and loves a trail or being outdoors should do one of their events. Being as inexpensive as they are means they are as accessible as races get in cost terms and although I can guarantee you’ll love these events I will say that if you don’t have fun then you’ve probably had your fun bones removed.

Enjoy and see you next time.

Covid 19 has created so many delayed and cancelled races with medals having being purchased and monies committed and the Frostbite was probably one of those affected. However, with restrictions eased a little the organisers managed to put on a little 5 mile blast around Lochore Meadows Country Park and it was a real corker!

I happened to be visiting Lochore Meadows that weekend anyway and so the race dovetailed perfectly into my planned weekend of paddle boarding, open water swimming, cycling, running, exploring, kayaking and eating. If you haven’t been to Lochore Meadows Country Park then it is worth looking up and well worth a visit as it offers an abundance of exciting things to do all in a wonderful space.

I woke up in the motorhome park nice and early and went down to the water before the day properly got going and then headed back to Rona for a cup of coffee and the change into my running gear. The day was already scorching and it was barely 8am. By the time I was ready the organisers of the race had set up and were ready to hand out race numbers and medals – presumably one of the Covid secure systems that they had in place to minimise groupings around the finish line.

I gave in my allocated number from the email that had been sent round and excitedly took ownership of number 185 in papery form – it was lovely to be sticking a number on my shorts again. I then bimbled around the start line and the loch for a while before making the short 5 minute walk to the start line down at the golf course.

It was here that I ran into a local Falkirk legend and it was a delight to see her after all this time.

Although I didn’t say it, the last time I ran into Fiona she gave me a proper pasting at the Skull Trail Race and that was 100% fair because I wasn’t fit enough to compete at any distance, but when she came over at The Frostbite 5 to say hello my immediate thought turned to revenge, albeit a very quiet and understated revenge. Actually this isn’t true at all really – my thoughts were around the bloody scorching temperature but keeping ahead of Fiona was certainly in my head as an aim for the day.

And so as 11am approached we all headed down to the start line and spaced ourselves out appropriately, I turned around, as I often do, to look over the other competitors and noted every single one primed with their fingers ready to hit the buttons on their GPS watches. I on the other hand was fumbling around trying to put my camera back into my race vest. I did manage to get myself set just before the off and I even managed to switch on my Garmin and then like a rocket I thrust myself forward around the field that we would circle on our way out to the course.

The course itself was a lovely mix of gentle up and down with well maintained paths offered throughout and the course had been thoroughly marked and was incredibly well marshalled by cheering and presumably overheating volunteers! For my part I felt the heat of the day affecting me but I pushed on with all the energy I could muster and although I was overtaken by a few of the runners I had blasted past in the early stages I was mostly holding my own and found myself at a comfortable pace as I thundered into the main section of Lochore Meadows Country Park.

Knowing this was an out and back meant I was memorising how the course went in terms of where I would need to give it a little bit of a push and as I ran alongside the loch side I knew that the turning point had to be soon – although I had still seen no sign of the returning front runners. On I pressed and into what would be the final straight to the turning point and I could see runners approaching, one then another and another – but not as many I expected. I have very much gotten used to being at the back of the pack and so it was a surprise as I joked with the marshal at the halfway point that I was still running rather well.

I’d now warmed up a bit too and found myself cheering on the runners coming towards me and then something happened to ensure that I maintained my pace.

Behind me I could feel the hot breath of another runner which proved a little dispiriting given I thought I was doing okay and so I casually moved over and offered my breathy shadow the opportunity overtake but he didn’t.

Now whether he was being polite or he didn’t have enough in the legs to shoot past me he remained in my shadow for the next mile. We introduced ourselves and said hello but there wasn’t really time for any ‘ultra type’ chat – both of us where clearly busting a get to get back. John though provided the inspiration I was looking for and I was able to hold my pace and my position ahead of him.

Occasionally I would turn around to see where he was and he was moving from just behind to several seconds behind me and as I approached the field that we had started I had about 10 or 12 seconds on him and knew that this should be enough to get me to the finish ahead of John because I felt a sprint finish in my legs.

The field was long though and I felt myself slowing as the heat beat down upon me and against the short stretch of tarmac I started to slow significantly, I was looking downwards rather than concentrating on what was ahead and so I raised my head, looked forward and pulled myself together for a suitably flying finish.

Bounding to the finish, bouncing along like Bambi I felt amazing and hurled myself across the finish line and enjoying just a little moment of pleasure knowing that for the first time in ages I had run pretty well.

John came in a few seconds behind me and I thanked him for pushing me all the way – I would have slowed down if I hadn’t felt his chasing in the early stages of the second half of the race – really inspiring.

But what of revenge? Well Fiona made it back a minute or so after me and looked as cool as a cucumber, out for a morning stroll rather than a hard race (I looked like a fat bloated and sweaty pig in comparison). I have no doubt that had she had it in mind she would have given me another drubbing but I’ll take a finish ahead of her – just this once.

I ambled back to Rona, the motorhome, taking my medal out of the pocket I had kept it in during the race and put it around my neck, I felt a deep swell of pride wearing it and felt like a million dollars for running on that hot Sunday morning. Awesome!

Conclusions?
What a great race, great location and brilliantly organised. This is one of the first times that racing has felt like it is returning and I’ll be looking forward to more events from the guys at Trails of Fife (you can find their Facebook group here) and I’m disappointed that I won’t be able to do their race at the end of June. It is races like this I feel that really being the running community together, for not much more than a tenner you get a medal, a well organised event, a classy route and the opportunity to run with runners from your community – what more could you ask for?

When I am not off doing ultra marathon events these are the types of races I enjoy the most, relatively short distance with a wonderfully mixed group of runners and an inclusive, friendly atmosphere.

Great job guys.

Video
Below is a short video of the race from my perspective, enjoy.

Have you ever looked at a bar of chocolate and thought that looks amazing?

It’d be oozing caramel chunks, little flakes poking from the sides and then you taste it and you realise it’s a giant turd you’ve just bitten into but you’ve got to keep going because you’re in polite company and don’t want to miss out on the thing that everyone else is devouring. Welcome to my review of the Ultra Scotland 50!

I should at this point mention that the metaphor suggests I didn’t enjoy the race but the truth is very different – I very much enjoyed this like chocolate but also endured the race like a tough as buggery turd, but we’ll get to that later.

I suppose this is very much a tale of the pandemic and so that’s where it begins.

I, like lots of others, in 2019 eagerly entered our 2020 races assuming that we would once more spend the year running around beautiful trails and the occasional bit of cruddy car park. When 2020 came around I found that I wasn’t in the best place either injury, fitness or weight wise and I trudged my way through the mutually awesome Tyndrum 24 and Falkirk Trail Ultra, I then missed the inaugural F50K because of my grandmother dropping dead but figured with a race calendar full to brimming it would be fine. At the start of April I’d start my Ranger Ultras Grandslam and that would swiftly be followed by the Ultra Scotland 50 from GB Ultras.

I think we all know what happened nstead and races became consigned to the dustbin, albeit on a temporary basis.

And so when offered the chance to run the Ultra Scotland 50 as my first race of 2021, mere days after the latest lockdown ended, I knew I had to be on the start line whatever my condition.

As I stood at the side of Clatteringshaws Loch, watching the beautiful stars twinkling in the dark skies park with Rona at my side, a cup of tea in hand and I was listening to the man outside his motorhome playing bagpipes truly beautifully, I realised that I am a very fortunate person who was being presented with another awesome opportunity and I would not waste it.

The various lockdowns have meant that I’ve been able to focus on some of the key problems I’ve had when I’m running – so I’ve dropped more than 20kg in weight, I’ve returned to active, focused training and I’ve mostly been injury free and this triple gave my decent confidence as 2021 arrived. It was therefore with great dismay that despite my desire to race as I stood looking at those stars that my hamstring hurt like an absolute shit and I’d been struggling with it for over a month.

Typically, the moment there’s a race opportunity and my body decides to send me to a start line hampered.

However, as I gulped down the last of my tea I knew that my hamstring wasn’t going to deter me from leaving the Loch side in about 8hrs and set off from St John’s Town of Dalry and try and reach Moffat, a mere 56 miles away.

Rona, the motorhome, afforded me a nights peaceful and relatively luxurious sleep and when I got up the following morning I was able to get ready close to the race start with the benefit of my own toilet. For those who aren’t regular readers then you should be aware that my pre-race poo ritual is a well established marker in my race preparation and should not be disturbed. Milkshake, milky coffee, poo time – it’s simple and effective and reduces the need for me to spend half a race looking for a place that a) nobody will see me drop a turd and b) find a place to bury said turd.

What I can tell you is that, despite following the ritual, very little happened in the bowel department and this was next worry of the day but I just assumed I’d be going ‘full bear’ and making a mighty mound somewhere on the Southern Upland Way.

Having read the Covid guidelines for the race and watched the video from the organisers I felt quite confident that I was turning up ready to race and arriving ‘just in time’. The race start was very well organised, in covid terms and despite the mildly wet weather most runners were managing to stay dry and knew what to do in preparation for the start line.

We ambled into the registration point, in race number order, which I felt was rather cute, were given a few course correction notes as we entered and then were processed

  • Temperature check
  • Bag drop (I had chosen not to bother)
  • Tracker
  • Queue up for race start

All very easy, all very seamless – you’d have thought that GB Ultras had done it like this a thousand times – I was actually quite impressed.

The thing that was less impressive, and is no fault of the organisers, was the muted start.

Covid guidelines meant we were sent out one runner at a time in 15 second intervals and although practical did take away from the atmosphere. That said because the start line was located in a town it meant that there were people lingering around, including friends and family who cheered runners on which provided an improvement over the covid start line of Ultra North (my only comparison).

Anyway pretty much bang on the money of 6.07am I set off from the town and headed on the first of many uphills, waving goodbye to ASKadventurer and the GingaNinja knowing that it might be as much as 18hrs before I saw them again.

As I rolled out of Dalry I could immediately feel my hamstring but I was determined that I wouldn’t resort to using running poles unless I had no other choice and so I pushed on enjoying the early delights of the Southern Upland Way.

Despite the Covid guidelines it was still very likely you’d meet other runners on the route and as we entered the trail, after less than a kilometre of running, I came across my first major runchat opportunity – Patrick (first time organised ultra runner) and Alistair (seasoned mountain goat he looked like). We bimbled along, with me mostly bemoaning Falkirk’s lack of mountains to train on and they in good spirits. The trails were fun and fast but with less than 4km on the clock I made a huge mistake jumping on a bridge and sliding straight off it and landing on the edge – cracking my hip, leg and back in the process – this was not a good start. Although I leaped back up quickly I had to let me running colleagues slowly disappear into the distance as I needed to let the wind fill my sails once more.

I was shaken by the fall but mostly alright and I managed to pick myself up enough to start picking up the pace but there was pain in my knee on my already bad leg and I’d clearly hurt my shoulder as that was now acting like a dick. Thankfully I had a wonderful course to distract me and I was provided non-stop entertainment by the sheep bleeting at me as I ran and being the fool I am I chose to converse with the sheep whenever they were in range.

Heading downhill I could now see the 8 mile point and watched as it drew ever closer, the thing was I hadn’t yet touched my water supply, nor my food and so with little more than a nod and wink (with my mask on of course) I simply ran through and stopped a little way up the road to adjust myself and stow my face covering.

The adjustment was necessary as the fall had left a painful reminder on my shoulder and I found myself regularly readjusting my pack to try and reduce the pain on the injury but nothing worked.

Therefore with a gob full of kinder chocolate I began the real assault of the Southern Upland Way and from here it really felt like a proper trail race and with 15 or 16 miles until the next checkpoint across some tough ground this was going to be an interesting test of my body.

What I was still working out was how the breadcrumb mapping trail works on my Fenix 6X because despite following the signage it was saying I was off course… how the sweet arseholes could I be off course? I was following the map! The thing was I was heading up a hill with no path and no clear way forward – I was clearly off route and then I turned around and saw two runners heading in a different direction and I hastily headed towards them. Down I strode through the rough undergrowth and spilled my way back into the path – another knee trembler of a mistake, how many more of them was I going to make today?

I was a little bemused as to why neither of the two runners just a few feet ahead of me had issued a warning of my impending stupidity but maybe that’s just something I do when I see a fellow competitor about to do something navigationally erroneous. But ho-hum I was back on track now and heading towards the first big climb of the course.

The route here was overgrown and very green and a real delight, the trail wound upwards and onwards and as you climbed a little higher the temperature dropped despite the morning getting brighter.

Why was it getting chillier you might ask? Well that was simple – there was snow underfoot to chill your hard working and burning feet.

Having recently dropped my second layer of socks I could feel the cold through my Lone Peaks but it was a lovely sensation and it wasn’t very thick and therefore nice and easy to run through. On I ran and picked my way through the gently rolling hills and the short sharp ascents but all the while knowing that there were some significant spikes to come.

It was here that I came across Wayne Drinkwater, the race director and what a very welcoming sight he was and also a pleasant surprise as we had a bit of banter and he pointed the dreaded GoPro at me. I did ask that if I said horrific things about companies like Glaxo and GE would he not be able to use the footage? Thanks to Sue Perkins for that little tip.

I passed Wayne and pushed on up the hill and noting runners behind me, it was a steep but wholly achievable climb and in the distance I could see one of the key markers on the course, a large stone arch overlooking the Southern Upland Way. Obviously I stopped to grab a few pictures and the like and then set off down the path off Benbrack.

Mistake.

After a few minutes the path started to disappear and so I veered off to the fence line to see if that was likely to hand me a clue as to the direction I was supposed to be on. The Fenix 6X map was also about as much use as a chocolate teapot – simply saying ‘off course’. Over the top of the hill I had descended I saw two runners and scrambled across to meet them. Kirsty and Christophe seemed in good, but equally lost, spirits and between us we figured out a direction and once more headed off.

Down and down and down and down we went, heading towards what looked like the tree line on the map.

Mistake.

‘Ring, ring’ went Kirsty’s phone and it was race HQ to tell us we had fucked up big time. Bottom of hill – go back to the top, find the arch and start over. Another mistake that would lead to jelly legs but the three of us powered up the hill and retraced our steps. When we arrived we had clearly all been distracted by the sculptural arch at the summit and wholly ignored the way marker – now corrected we thundered downward in completely the opposite but correct direction.

Kirsty was a bit of a powerhouse and looked incredible as she bounded across the route and Christophe reminded me of all those tall French runners who would tower over me as I straddled the start line of the SainteLyon, it was quite comforting to be in their company. However, their pace was outstripping mine quite significantly and I was forced to say goodbye too quickly.

Thankfully I enjoy a little solitude during a race and the route wound it’s way through the hills and provided glorious views and well worn trails, I was probably alone for a good couple of hours before I came across a fence. ‘Hello fence’ I thought.

Through the fence I could see the next southern upland way markers but couldn’t reach it. I had a choice, follow the fence line low or follow it high. If my decision was incorrect it would be a long way back.

Time ticking, decision time, come on Ultraboyruns.

I chose high, assuming that if I messed up I would have less climb to correct and then I was off, soon regretting my choice between a wire fence and a dry stone wall with barely enough to squeeze through even the most snake hipped runner.

This ‘path’, I use that term loosely, was hard going with near non stop up and down and surrounded by construction work but the map said roughly ‘yes’ and I could see another marker but as I came to the top I’d lost all sight of the markers, I was lost.

What now?

Retreat or amble around looking for directions? Well I did both until I felt my Garmin shaking telling me my phone was ringing.

‘Let me guess I’m off course,’ I said as the GB Ultras team said hello. They told me that I and others were off course and they advised how I could correct it. I said I understood but I didn’t really and I just headed back – jumping walls and wooden pallets and fences in the process hoping that I could correct my direction with relative ease.

Thankfully just when I was about to say ‘fuck this for a game of golf’ I saw other equally lost runners, I think it was Dave, Michelle (more on Michelle later) with Kieran (more on Kieran later) and Nick (more on Nick later) – sorry Dave (but I did like your spectacles/goggles). We were all either going the wrong way or about to and after introductions were completed and we had bemoaned our lack of good fortune, having all done extra distance, we caught a break – a sign for the Southern Upland Way.

It’s things like this that could turn an atheist into a believer… actually no but you get the idea.

A convey of runners is always a slightly odd thing and this one split itself into little micro-pockets of covid-secure groups which moved fluidly between one another.

For the most part I found myself with Nick (looking forward to that YouTube channel fella), a truly spectacular dude with a big positive outlook on life, we chewed the fat extensively, as you do and he explained that he had entered the 215 mile GB Ultras Race Across Scotland.

Over the course of the next couple of hours I could clearly see that he had all the attributes needed to complete such an effort – his hill climbing was fast and furious even without poles and his general pace kept me going at a reasonable speed for all the time we were together.

We arrived into checkpoint two at Sanquhar together and were greeted by Nicks other half, the GingaNinja, my little Satan and our respective dogs.

At nearly a marathon in we both needed to refuel and we did so in the Covid secure hall. Chocolate (Mars and Snickers), cake (delicious and I believe homemade) and a belly full of cola were on my menu followed by a resetting of my race kit. I did dump a couple of items on the GingaNinja such as my water filter and waterproof trousers – neither of which it looked like I would require and I stuffed my waterproof jacket away properly to balance my pack better and then, after thanking the awesome GB Ultras team I was off, hunting down Nick in the process.

The first half had been quite eventful in terms of navigation, injury and pain management but it had also been filled with really beautiful trail running and as the day wore on I hoped for more of the latter and less of the former.

The good news was that the next two sections were relatively short at just 8 and 6 miles or so and I should be able to make up a bit of time here. Nick and I continued our jibber jabbering, much I am sure, to the annoyance of anyone else within earshot but that’s the thing about these races you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do to get through.

In the early stages of the climb out of checkpoint two Nick, myself and now Kieran came across a complete sheep’s skull and it was with some great surprise that Nick picked it up and attached it to his race vest. I’ve done some batshit stuff in my time and collected stuff off the trail but never a sheep’s head and certainly not while in a race! It was here that Nick also started pulling away and much as I tried to keep up I had to slow down a touch.

Slowing down isn’t always a bad thing though and it gave me an opportunity to soak in the route which in terms of its look had changed. The earlier stages seemed more confined and tighter trails but these seemed to have been replaced by large swathes of rolling hills and all around us was a sea of green. I was very much enjoying the scenery and Kieran had become my new running partner and we ambled along as briskly as our little bodies would carry us.

Kieran was aiming for a GB Ultras 50 mile Grandslam in his 50th year – although delayed due to Covid 19. If my recollection is correction he’s already got L2M done and was now north of the border taking on the Ultra Scotland 50, and much like me, delighting in the surrounds.

We chatted for hours about all things, from races to politics to family and everything in between – it was easy chatter and quite delightful.

It was early into my time with Kieran that I welcomed my biggest issue of the race though – an inability to move downhill if the there was any level of steepness. Holy turd there was a horrific burning in my knee and ITB with every single step downhill and running it off wasn’t really an option.

If I thought the fall had been bad or my hamstring had been shit, it was a truth that neither of these had anything on the excruciating pain I was in now. I mean I must really have pissed someone off to have this much go wrong.

In my head I looked over the remaining elevation and realised that there was still a significant amount of climbing to do, which meant a significant amount downhill and while the magnificence of the hills was a truly beautiful sight, my legs cursed them for being there.

The odd thing was that my uphill movement was actually pretty good despite everything and so I would set the pace uphill and Kieran was setting it in the down.

I was surprised that we managed to reach checkpoint 3 still at the head of the little group of runners that had all met about 10 miles back but there was nobody very far behind and I’m sure that as they came down from the hills and into the old mining town they’d have been impressed by beautiful summit ahead of them and the chocolate box town to our right.

As we approached the village one of the volunteers laughed with us a bit and gave us cheery advice about the next section – cheery I think because she wasn’t running it! The GingaNinja and ASK were also at the village just before the checkpoint and gave both of us cheers and waves before leaving us to find solace in some serious checkpoint chow down!

Checkpoint 3 would be our last significant stop, as the final checkpoint was in a lay-by, and so we made sure we took what we needed here. Kieran used the time to deal with an ever expanding foot (don’t ask, he didn’t) and some blistering and I did my best efforts at amusing the volunteers.

We didn’t stop long as other runners were making their way in and it seemed sensible to avoid creating a Covid hotspot at the checkpoint and forcing the awesome volunteers to move us on!

The next challenge was a nice, seemingly never ending and mildly dull climb – punctured only by the tarmac that looped through it several times. It was here I first noticed the cold and that our speed had dropped a bit. Although I was pressing hard I wanted to keep sight of my companion as I knew that both of us stood a better chance of finishing together than we did alone – this though had the effect of chilling me and as we arrived at a bit of a peak and a little mountain bothy I considered layering up. What stopped me though was a look at the time and Garmin’s estimated time of arrival – I relayed the bad news to Kieran and then set to work increasing our pace.

However, even as the clock ticked down both of us stopped to draw breath and capture some images of the sun going down over the hills because it’s moments like this that we run ultra marathons for.

But tick tock, it’s about 6 o’ fucking clock and we need to get a move on! And we did, Kieran increased his pace on the uphill and I swallowed the pain and went as quickly as I could on the downhill. This section though was full of steep, difficult terrain and I found myself using every expletive known to man and creating a few new ones along the way. I found myself apologising several times for my rather fruity language but Kieran simply shrugged it off and was hopefully not offended by my potty mouthed antics.

There was a lot less chatter now – partly due to being about 10 metres apart but also because of a need to concentrate – with time against us we had little capacity for further error. Then the route hit us with a series of difficult and slow going ascents and descents. In conventional circumstances you’d have laughed them off, enjoyed bouncing up and down them, but, on a day like today they felt cruel and unnecessary. We battered up and down, never quite losing hope that a friendly checkpoint smile awaited us.

We could see the road to our left as it wound its way through the hills and assumed that we would be heading down there to find some much needed respite because in front of us now loomed a large, steep climb, Kieran and I clearly had fingers crossed but as we closed on both the turn to the road and the steep ascent we were fired up the ascent. Our creaking bones and cracking optimism were pained by this latest news but ascend we did and with a little pool of runners now below us.

I was in no mood to be beaten to the next checkpoint though and I think Michelle and Dave were both in this little group that was around us and we may have had a bit of banter to try and boost moral – but moral seemed low and we needed that checkpoint. I remember reaching the top of the summit and noting that the checkpoint would surely be down there.

To improve my mentality I set to thinking about the spectacular borderlands that were laid out before us were and how they were probably oft missed by visitors – on another day, were I wasn’t chasing a clock, I’d very much enjoy a jaunt along the Southern Upland Way and it’s surrounds.

Kieran and I made it to the road and while he strode purposefully towards the checkpoint I felt like giving my legs a little shakedown and ran up towards the final checkpoint to devour as many of the little cakes as I could.

Here I found myself in surrealist territory as I asked questions like, ‘if Linford Christie was half a teapot which half would be the teapot – top or bottom?’ I believe I may have confused or befuddled the lovely volunteers but then I was 40+ miles into my first race in ages and my biggest distance and biggest elevation since last September – I was probably delirious.

Kieran rocked up a minute or two behind me and filled up on water and then we were off to the finish. 14 miles left but only about 5hrs to go until we had extinguished all of the allocated time.

Invigorated by reaching the last checkpoint we pushed on hard, assuming that most of the elevation had been dealt with, therefore it came as something a blow to realise that there was enough elevation in the final section to slow us down and that our efforts to push were being hampered by both the course and our exhaustion. Add into the mix that darkness would also soon be upon us and I made the decision to stop briefly and put on my waterproof jacket to protect me from the wind and also to grab my head torch. With this done we ploughed on and straight into a lovely big boggy section of trail that permeated straight through the Lone Peak 4.0 that had served me so well.

My feet felt cold for the first time since the climb up Benbrack and it would be a couple of minutes before my awesome Drymax socks warmed my feet again.

Chatter was now reduced to the minimum, I was doing the mental maths and calculating my likelihood of failing and being determined not too. Kieran, for his part remained on ‘team get to the finish’ and knew what needed to be done to claim a medal.

Up and down the course went with Scotland beautifully illuminated by the dancing darkness in front of us and the couple of twinkling headlights. In darkness this was lovely but by day I suspected this would be fantastic and much more reminiscent of the route in the first few miles of the race.

We knew that every step was a step closer to home – Kieran had salted caramel chocolate milkshake awaiting him at the B&B, I had a walk to find my motorhome wherever it was hidden! Ha – how different our post race experiences would be!

Before either of us got to an after the race situation we had more work to do.

Darkness had now surrounded us completely and even with less than 10km to go there was no sign of Moffat in the distance and time was ebbing away, we hurried through mostly good, hard packed trail and followed the way markers home – that was until Kieran had a dose of the batshit and thought we were going the wrong way.

I should have ignored him as the signage was pointing the way I had headed but I was also nervous of making another mistake with so little time available. We therefore doubled back and retreated to the last way marker and Kieran went thrashing about in the undergrowth looking for a way through. Two runners managed to catch us again in the time that we had spent doubling back and searching for an alternative route and as they headed off in the original direction I called out to my comrade that, ‘it’s this way, let’s crack on’. Kieran seemed rather trapped in the undergrowth but after a couple of minutes he fumbled his way back and we were off again and in hot pursuit of the couple ahead of us.

We made swift progress in hunting down the runners ahead and once we crossed paths again we travelled together to make this final push that bit more enjoyable. Martin and Nicola were relatively new to ultra running but they looked mostly strong despite a tough day (I understood that) and were from Berkshire, an area I know very well having run several races in the region.

Once more chat consumed us but we were driving forward with purpose. I found myself chatting with Nicola, while Martin and Kieran took up the rear but we ended up starting to separate a little and after so long together I wasn’t keen on leaving Kieran.

I always feel a sense of togetherness when you’ve come so far with a person or people and I genuinely looked forward to getting through this together.

Mere moments after the couple had departed we found civilisation again, tarmac, roads, lights, life. My spirits immediately lifted – we must have made it? but the watch still said 4km.

Surely it must be wrong? It wasn’t wrong.

I found myself waddling along as quickly as I could trying desperately to finish but also trying desperately not to release the shit I’d needed for the last 10 miles, this would be the final ignominy – shitting myself on the side of the road just a mile or so from the end.

I wonder what it says about me that I’d put a medal shaped piece of metal ahead of my bowel health in terms of life importance? Still no time to think about my poo or question my life choices because a support vehicle broke the thoughts of my introspection

The vehicle pulled up alongside us and I did wonder if we were being timed out but Wayne simply checked we were all okay. Well the answer to that was no, I did for a moment consider asking for a lift and a load of bog roll, but I’d worked too hard to give up now so bollocks to that and we replied, ‘yeah, all good’.

The road to Moffat seemed to take forever and again seemed a little cruel, having already travelled much more than the 50 miles of the race title and more than the 56 miles offered in the race description. At this point we picked up another runner who had been round the houses in terms of going in the wrong direction, Mark (may have gotten your name wrong, it was a long day) despite this he remained intensely jolly and I feel he helped make this last stretch seem that little bit less agonising.

But when we arrived into Moffat and the town square there was no immediate sign of the finish, our exhausted brains couldn’t see the thing we needed, a sign, a person, a marker – we found ourselves hunting round the town square and then I saw the bus that would be headed back to Dalry. I ran through the town and asked the driver if he knew where the finish was but he didn’t, thankfully one of the members of the bus did and they showed me on their phone but as I turned to race it in the RD rolled up with a grin on his face. ‘I’ll take you down’ he said.

I was relieved – though my ever gurgling bowels were at the point of collapse!

We ambled through the town and Wayne asked if fancied running it in as we closed on the finish line and of course I’m such a sucker that’s my feet rose and sprinted those last few hundred metres, in fact I was going so fast that I overshot the finish line and had to double back. What a numpty.

At the finish line was Kieran and a few others collecting their medals and without much fuss it was all over.

I was relieved to have survived but survive I did and just in time.

  • Distance: 56+ miles
  • Ascent: 2800 metres
  • Date: May 2021
  • Location: St John’s Town of Dalry
  • Cost: £79
  • Entrants: 50
  • Terrain: Trail
  • Tough Rating: 3/5

Route
I’ve often driven the M74 and wondered, ‘what are those hills? They look fun, one day I’ll go and run amongst them.’ Well GB Ultras helped my achieve an ambition and the route for the most part did not disappoint. There was a really good mix of scenery to keep you entertained and it was often breathtakingly beautiful – reminding me a little of The Pentlands but without the monotony of their nearby sibling.

The little villages that we came across on the route served as excellent stopping points and often reminded me of those little chocolate box towns that you only get in places like the Cotswold or the Highlands. These border locations really are a treasure that deserve a greater degree of exploration by those visiting Scotland.

I really appreciated that the race route was mostly trail – sometimes a race can be described as trail but with have large swathes of the route on tarmac, but not here. The Southern Upland Way offers a route directly through and mostly over Scotland’s greenery and the race is all the better for that.

Perhaps that is the benefit of being run on one of the great trails of Scotland – the trail has already been defined. This though is also one of the downsides of the route – the hidden paths and trails around the Southern Upland Way clearly had so much to offer and although we got some fantastic views and a great route there were so many interesting pockets to explore that the route bypassed.

I understand the practical and technical reasons for following the Southern Upland Way but I could see how there might be opportunity to return to the area and experience a very different running or hiking day.

The elevation at around 2800 metres was fine and although steep in places it was nothing to overly concern yourself with, regular hill training would cover what is effectively like climbing three small Munros. Over the course of my additional mileage I managed to clock up nearly an extra 500 metres of elevation – my legs felt every single centimetre of that! Ooof.

The downhill of the route was different and reminded me of some very rough and tough races I’ve attempted like MIUT. I was incredibly grateful for my running poles, as once my knee had gone I needed the poles to reduce the searing pain while descending even the lightest incline.

Ultimately the route was beautiful and wonderful but also very, very cruel and it asked much of those running it, I suspect it asked even more of those, like myself, who haven’t seen a hill in the last year.

What I will add is that the Southern Upland Way for all its beauty lacks surprise or perhaps one great money shot moment – perhaps I’ve been spoilt by things like the Skye Trail Ultra which is mostly money shot or the SainteLyon which has a couple of really outstanding ‘take your breath away’ moments. The trouble with that is that when I look back on this I won’t find a defining moment of the race in terms of the route, it’s not a bad thing, it’s just a thing and worth pointing out if you like your routes filled with those ‘Instagram’ moments.

Organisation
GB Ultras remind me a little bit of Centurion Running in that they are well organised, highly regarded by the running community, have a decent social media presence to create strong word of mouth for their events, have good, well marked routes and put on events that people want to run. As the RD, Wayne Drinkwater is very visible and this I think gives confidence to the runners that a well organised event is upon them, and they’d be correct – it is well thought out and well executed.

Pre-race communication was lengthy but full of detailed information and the Covid video was helpful (though I did struggle to find the mandatory kit video).

The thing that was hardest was probably the social media stuff – lots of different pages, lots of different events, lots of crossover and that was a little confused – perhaps some rationalisation of these pages would help in terms of finding things and knowing where to ask questions. For example despite reading through everything I could not find mention of whether running poles were allowed and I didn’t want to bother the RD and the team knowing that they would be incredibly busy in the final days leading up to the event. I’m sure that information is available but I couldn’t find it.

The covid secure systems they had in place seemed to work very well and although they reduce the overall atmosphere of the event they did allow it to take place. I found the race start to be perfectly well executed and despite my trepidation about doing these covid secure events I would say GB Ultras got it spot on.

I would also like to mention the tracking which although perhaps not 100% accurate was certainly mostly accurate and when you were off course the team knew about it and were trying to get in touch with you. This is a vast improvement over some of the tracking we’ve witnessed over the years and that’s a clear indication that the technology is finally catching up with the idea. It’s also worth saying that the Southern Upland Way has pretty good phone reception and so if the GB Ultras team is trying to get in touch they may well actually get through. Not all locations in Scotland have phone reception on a race route – something I quite like because you can’t be disturbed and you can keep your phone in airport mode!

It’s also worth noting that there were pictures and videos aplenty flying around the event and it’s quite an achievement that the GB Ultras team had time to be capturing pictures and footage as well as ensuring the more important stuff got done – like feeding me cake! Well done guys!

All in all the GB Ultras organisation was on point and handled incredibly well given the Covid guidelines.

Value for Money
This is always a big one for me in terms of determining whether I would run it again or perhaps more importantly whether to tell other runners about this race. So the cost is £79 and what do you get for that? For starters there’s the race itself, the excellent indoor checkpoint locations, the race tracking and the support when you go significantly off route. There’s the medal and there is a decent crack at good and varied checkpoint food.

So £79 (plus about £10 for the bus back to the start if you need transport) is it worth it? I think so – it’s not really much more than the magic £1 per mile which used to be a significant marker in race costs – what you’re getting is a lovely, tough, well managed day in the hills and that is well worth the money being charged.

Awards
Medal, big medal, golden medal. Done.

I was glad there was no t-shirt because I’m not sure I could wear one that had the Union flag on it, as a pro-Scottish Independence, SNP voting Englishman living in Scotland it would have felt weirdly hypocritical to put one on, however, I thought the medal was very nice and really quite understated – it sits proudly at the top of my stairs with its brothers and sisters.

Volunteers
I remember thinking at my first ultra marathon all those years ago as I stared at the poor volunteers, ‘fuck I hope I don’t die because you guys couldn’t handle dealing with the dead body’. As I ran into each and every checkpoint of the Ultra Scotland I knew that each member of the checkpoint probably not only knew how to deal with the body but probably had a good idea on how to dispose of me too. The volunteers were exceptional, every single person knew the drill and they remained Covid secure throughout.

Kudos to them for remaining both diligent, supportive and in some cases amusing. Being a volunteer at an endurance event can be a cold, lonely and thankless job but these guys were amazing – so thank you all.

The Runners
I sometimes think that when we consider races or write reviews we forget that actually it’s mostly about the runners – we tend to focus on medals, routes, organisation but having the race against the background of the pandemic reminded me that without runners willing to train, travel, get wet, potential fuck themselves up – well then races wouldn’t take place at all.

I’ve mentioned the awesome Kieran whom without, I wouldn’t have made it to the end, I’ve mentioned Nick who was simply brilliant and I expect to see his name against some really big challenges in the coming years – there was something about him and I’ve mentioned a whole host of other names but I did say I’d come back to Michelle and here we are! I was introduced to Michelle via social media a few days before the race through a mutual acquaintance – the evergreen Grant Wilcox. Anyway we exchanged a couple of messages and wished each other well saying we’d chat if we saw each other.

Well I met Michelle several times over the course of the race and even stated out loud that I hope she was going to make it back in time – what I didn’t realise was the Michelle I met on the route was the Michelle I had spoken to via social media.

What a dumbass I am.

Worse than that it would take me at least another couple of days to connect the two. Bloody numpty! Anyway the good news was that she made it and I’m happy about that. Should I meet her again I will definitely tell her the real story of the Snowdonia Marathon though and how I came to meet our mutual buddy – Grant!

I suppose the thing about this running of the Ultra Scotland is that only about 50 runners turned out for it but actually it felt like many more and the runners should be congratulated for their part in making the event of the success that it was.

My Race
Well as you’ve read I had a both brilliant and torrid time, I went in injured but reasonably well trained and I came out injured further and totally ruined. That said I had a great time getting this ruined and despite a late finish I got up to hike Gray Mare’s Tail the next morning and was back running on the Monday. I wish my knee had held up because I knew about my hamstring and felt I could manage that but the knee was unexpected and that both threw me and slowed me significantly. So it wasn’t a disaster for me – I mean I finished but I didn’t finish the way I wanted and that’s disappointing.

Conclusions
What can I say about the Ultra Scotland 50? Well it’s a tough as old boots challenge that lives up to trail running label, it has superb organisation and a great team behind it. GB Ultras deserve all the plaudits they get from the running community and managing to stage a Covid secure event deserves extra credit.

There are a few niggles though, but nothing dramatic and certainly nothing that would stop me entering – the big bugbear was that this is closer to 60 than 50 miles even in the official distance and by the time you’ve added on your extra mileage it is definitely reading more like a 60 mile race, I suppose I could try and get better at navigation but where’s the fun in that? I understand that for marketing it’s better to have a set of 50 mile races but it is inaccurate.

I enjoyed the race and I feel like it’s one that you could easily have a good crack at regardless of your level but it’s a ‘no prisoners’ kind of a race and if the weather was shit then this would be a real ball breaker – something to think of given this is Scotland, in early spring and snow, wind and rain isn’t unusual! We got pretty lucky with the weather but even in decent conditions the wind at the hill tops was cold and happy to give your face a good blasting.

Would I do it again?

Well I’d be in no rush to sign up again because I feel that I’ve experienced the Southern Upland Way path and if I were going to run there again it would be on new trails. That said I enjoyed this enough to consider going back and improving on my performance at some point in the future and I felt that GB Ultras put on a great event and therefore I’d be very happy to go and try one of their other races next year – the Pennine Barrier being the one that most interests me.

Is it worth you doing it? Well that’s up to you – you can find out more about this race and their other events on the GB Ultras website.

As for me I’ll be polishing my medals (not a euphemism) and reviewing the Great Glen Ultra in July, once I’ve run it – 71 miles, argh!

Ultraboyruns: The Adventure Podcast episode 5 will be released before the end of May (previous episodes here) and there will be further YouTube adventures coming up (previous adventures here). See you out there.

Thanks to GB Ultras for some of the checkpoint and finish line photographs.

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.

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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.

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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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This week has seen a huge number of race cancellations – The Highland Fling, Fellsman various marathons and lots of smaller, local events. Thankfully the race I had entered was the Skull Trail Race and this went ahead, I mean I say thankfully but what I think I mean is something very different.

I awoke on Sunday morning to the sound of BBC Radio 4 going on about the crisis of Covid-19 and as I drank my coffee I felt like the world had rather gone mad and so with gay abandon I pulled up my running tights and headed off to the Kingdom of Fife to mingle with other potential future Covid-19 zombies.

The registration was lovely and quick, though I felt like something of a pariah as the two ladies behind me kept several metres from me despite the gentlemen behind them remaining butted up tightly. Perhaps they were just adopting a cautious and sensible approach.

In an unusual twist the guys at the Skull Trail race give you your medal before you’ve run which I found odd as I returned to the car and sat there contemplating whether to bother facing down the hills and mud. Thankfully my funk was addressed by ASK requiring the toilet and so off we ambled to the village hall, I was plonked outside with the dog while my family disappeared off to the loo.

It was here that I once more ran into the lovely and local to me Fiona, at this rate I may have to start referring to her as a friend – given I see her more than most and I find her rather delightful. We chatted about stuff while I got annoyed at the dog and the amount of time my little daughter was taking on the loo.

Thankfully they surfaced and I was able to head over to the start line where all the runners and supporters were milling about casually. There was a lovely atmosphere that permeated the race and the mood was good. Thankfully the sun was shining and it was a delightful day for a run which was lucky given our purpose there. We were soon called to the starting line and with a loud shout from the start line we were off.

The race was two laps of Balbirnie Park in Markinch and you’d think it couldn’t possibly be that hard given it’s in a park and at a mere 4 and a bit miles the distance wasn’t even that bad.

So as I pushed through the throng of runners I felt confident I’d be able to keep my friend Fiona within infection distance rather than see her bound off miles ahead of me as usual. Sadly my undertrained body was willing to remind me that the last few weeks have been incredibly testing and I stated to feel the drag of no running since mid February.

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I ran up the first couple of hills and kept a fair pace going but the ground was claggy and the hills were absolute bastards – this was a route to inflict maximum enjoyment or endurement on its competitors. Even as I weaved around the undergrowth within the first kilometre I could hear myself saying, ‘Two laps? Bloody hell!’ Still I bounded onwards and found a pace I could work to, all the time watching the clock and the distance hoping to hear the cheery sounds of supporters at the finish. I reached the first of the main climbs, a little zig zag up and then a quick return back down. I forget as I watched runners young and old bounding up the hill that some people actively run up elevation. However, as a seasoned ultra runner I know my limits and so gently jogged upwards (some might even call it walking), the Speedgoats thundered past me but I was here for a laugh and as I came to the downhill I pressed the accelerator myself with a giant squeal of ‘weeeeeeeee’.

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At every mud pit I encountered I pushed my new Altra Timp deeper into the mire and they were grateful for a small but fast flowing river crossing. I paid no mind to the runners aside me as I went sloshing through the water, nor did I apologise for spraying water everywhere – if you were at the Skull Trail Race then you were not here to keep clean and stay dry! Thankfully the combination of drymax socks and Altra always dry off really quickly and by the time I was at the next significant climb my feet were toasty once more. I dragged my feet wearing up the hill, noting that I’d have to do it all again shortly and that I had barely registered 2 miles of running and I was absolutely shagged.

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I reached the hill turning point and joked, ‘I thought this was a flat time trial’ – the truth was that this was anything but a flat time trial. I couldn’t believe how exhausted I was but I could finally hear the voices of the supporters in the distance and bumbled gently along the path towards lap 2. The problem was I had completely forgotten the bog and as I meandered towards that second lap I could see it getting closer and I could see runners being submerged in its muddy depths, this was going to be shit – literally. I flew into the muddy water with all the gusto I could manage until the water simply dragged me to a halt. I found myself wading through the gloop with everyone else until I reached the tree branch that you needed to negotiate to free yourself, I pulled one leg free, then the other and hurled myself free and there I saw the finish or as the foolish called it, lap 2.

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2 and a bit miles!!!
2 and a bit miles!!!
and I’m ruined.

Lap 2 was tough starting out and was destined not to get any easier as I desperately groped for some semblance of the runner I used to be. My legs were still shaking from the bog and I only started to feel properly stable again about a kilometre after the start of lap 2 and now I knew that my ingenuity, experience and guile would come into play. There was no sense me hammering downhills or trying to sprint uphills – I had to be smart. So I moved quickly when I could, I moved smartly when I couldn’t and I used a succession of the runners ahead of me to pace me to the finish.

I had a problem – a regular one with Altra – the insole had slipped and become desperately uncomfortable but it was too late to start fidgeting and so I pressed up, over the river, up the hills, through the mud at its squelchy underbelly and on to one final encounter with the bog.

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At this point I was running for a bit with a girl I met called Kiera who was giving it her all and heading straight for the bog. I offered her the gentlemanly ‘ladies first’ then followed her in, though taking a different line through what has probably served as a watery grave for many a hardy runner. Still I thrust myself across the log, losing my footing on only a couple of occasions and crossed the finish line before falling to floor, hailing my piss poor performance at a truly outstanding event.

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What can I say? What a great, well organised and tough as old boots running event. Never have 4 miles felt more like 40 – I’ll definitely be going back and well done for defying COVID-19! Oh and a lovely little medal, great value for money – get signed up for the series.

Thanks to everyone involved and I’ll look forward to 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

‘I want mummy’ came the little voice of ASK as tears rolled down her freezing cold face. But only half a mile in and half a mile to go we were not stopping.

After the Tyndrum 24 and the Vogrie 5km I turned my attention to something a little less about me and entered ASK into a family mile race in the shadow of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh. Given the UK and my adopted home of Scotland had just been rudely removed from the European Union I figured what better way to improve my weekend than spend time with my daughter earning another medal.

The race was part of a festival of running, there were some UK wide university XC championships on as well as a more general 5km race for the public, a toddler dash and the family mile that we had entered.

It was a chilly and windy day when we arrived at the delightful Holyrood Park and we were keen to find some shelter and our number. It was incredibly busy with runners across the various races milling around or queuing for one thing or another. Eventually we found the correct tent and grabbed our race number – I was only moderately concerned when I asked the volunteer when the family mile started that he didn’t know – but I let it slide knowing full well that days like this are stressful for organisers and volunteers.

ASK and I hid in the sanctuary of the tent for a while given that we’d had a rather convoluted journey to Holyrood Park but once warmed up a bit we headed outside to watch some of the University Cross Country Championships happening – the ladies event was well underway and we were fortunate enough to be able to cheer home some of the back markets but also head to the finish line and witness the astonishing feats of the winning ladies. Bathed in mud and caked up to their eyeballs in the brown gooey stuff I asked ASK if she would one day like to be like them. Her reply was an enthusiastic ‘ooooo yes’. Whether this was to placate a father she believes wants her to be a runner or not Is up for debate but I live in hope that she picks an active lifestyle for herself.

Anyway after watching these awesome runners and the toddler dash(which brought back lots of great memories of early races with ASK) we slowly headed over to the start line, we spoke to another family who were running and chatted about what brought us here and why our kids were keen to race, it was nice to hear another families reasons for rocking up. We lined up at the start line, spoke to other runners and wished them all luck during the event and after a short warm up we were sent into the race.

The mile has been my favourite race distance for years and years, it is fun, it’s a blast and you can turn it into a real gut buster in ways that you can’t with other distances and when ASK and I thundered away from the start we made swift progress from the back to the front. Watching my daughter striding in the way she does is something of a joy and she has both form and technique that I have never been able to master.

We were thundering down the tarmac towards the Holyrood Palace turnoff and I could see all the Scottish flags waving in the distance and thought to myself – I wonder if this is s Pro-EU rally, must check this out later. But my gaze was suddenly averted towards ASK who was slowing, I tried to gee her up with words of encouragement but then she simply burst into tears. I stopped running and knealt down beside her

‘What’s wrong’ I asked
“I want mummy’ she replied through deep wet sobs.
‘No you don’t,’ I countered, ‘you want a good time, a medal and to show this off to mummy when we get home don’t you? Mum will be so proud of you’

I gave her GoPro which always makes her feel more important when we race together and she took pictures as we came up to speed again. The little inclines up to the turnaround point was reasonably steep but I reminded her that every hill we go up we eventually have to go down and so at the turnaround we hurtled away, catching the runners ahead of us and looking to make up the ground we had lost during our stop.

In the distance I could see the finish line and there was a lovely bounce in the form of supporters on the course cheering all the children home. ASK hurled forward faster than she had at any point during the event and I told her to move ahead of me so she could finish her race with a flourish. She was flying and I could feel my pride swelling as she threw herself across the line and then promptly burst into a tears.

I once more knealt down and comforted my racing daughter who received her medal (and from me some Kinder chocolate), she was also provided with one of the Edinburgh Winter Run beanie hats which, once she had calmed down, wore proudly.

I asked her what was wrong and all she would say is that, ‘It’s too hard and I want mummy.’ We came to the conclusion that she gets a bit anxious before racing as this isn’t the first time she has cried on the finish line and she never struggles over the distances. Something as a parent that I need work on to give her greater confidence going to the start line but that is something for next time.

Regardless she soon forgot her woes and was very happy with her medal and immediately wanted to do it again.

Both ASK and I would definitely recommend going along for one of the races but it was a very busy set of races and with University XC championships going on it was made even more complicated, a little bit more signage would have helped and a larger bag drop as the queue for collection was massive and slow moving. The Family Mile and the Toddler Dash were both really nice additions and Holyrood Park is a delightful place to do it. ASK did tell me that she wanted to come back and climb (amongst others) Arthur’s Seat.

Post Race
As we left Holyrood Park I decided that we would investigate the sea of EU and Scottish flags and when we reached the Government buildings we saw that it was indeed a rally about ‘Tories Out’, ‘IndyRef2’ & ‘RejoinEU’. ASK and I joined in and spoke to many of the lovely people outside the parliament buildings about our reasons for supporting them and I spent much time explaining the importance to ASK about what was going on here. All in all a good day.

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