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recovery

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.

The end of January is almost upon us and for the majority none of us will have raced for quite some time.

Now in the context of the pandemic this is a very minor thing but with glimmer of light in the distance and much hard work being done by so many to return humanity to a more traditional lifestyle, I am led to wonder about running races again.

For me the last race I did was Ultra North in September 2020, nestled between what many of us thought was the beginning of the end for COVID 19 and the ramping up of restrictions as the pandemic worsened across the globe.

2020 races, as of April, all got cancelled, some were moved on a number of occasions in an effort for events to happen but most simply didn’t take place. This means that those event organisers who have thankfully survived have moved their events to this year (2021) and this is where we can then only speculate. Is there a value in speculation? Perhaps not but I feel it helps me to write down how I’m feeling about this in order to remain focused in getting ready for the races I am aiming for.

Sadly a few days back I received my first postponement email telling me that the Pennine Bridleway has sensibly been moved from April to September. On top of that I’ve made the decision to pull out of the Quebec Mega Trail in July because I’m convinced my trip to Canada will not happen and therefore I have cancelled the flights and aim to go in 2022. It’s all starting to feel a bit 2020.

That said I’m one of the fortunate ones – I’ve got a lot of races booked in and therefore my racing agenda is set and all I can do is wait. For organisers, participants and those involved in the running events supply chain there are stresses, frustrations and disappointments coming from all directions and you can’t help but feel for everyone.

The 2020 that should have been
My 2020 had been billed, by myself, as the year of the comeback. I’ve spent a lot of time treading water and running events at the back of the pack but I had assured myself that now I was settled in Scotland I could finally focus on running again and so even entered my first ultra marathon grand slam. So with that in mind my 2020 looked pretty good, with lots of variety, interesting routes and ball breakers, take a look below;

  • Tyndrum 24 / January (Completed)
  • Vogrie Park 5km / January (Completed)
  • Falkirk Trail 8hr Ultta / February (Completed)
  • F50K / March(DNS)
  • Skull Trail Race / March (Completed)
  • Pennine Bridleway / April (Postponed)
  • Bonnie Prince Ultra / April (Postponed)
  • To the Pike & Back Again / April (Postponed)
  • Chacefield (3 race series) / March / April / May (Postponed)
  • Ultra Scotland 50 / May (Postponed)
  • Loch Ness 360 / May (Postponed)
  • John Lucas Memorial / June (Postponed)
  • Quebec Mega Trail / July (Postponed)
  • Run the Blades / July (Postponed)
  • Ultra North / September(Completed)
  • Yorkshire Three Peaks / October (Postponed)
  • Dark Peaks / November (Postponed)
  • White Peaks / November (Postponed)
  • Cheviot Goat / December (Postponed)

I had loaded my 2020 calendar for the year end when I had assumed I would be fittest and more ready for the challenges that awaited me and to be fair by the time October and November had arrived I was much fitter than I had been when I raced at the Tyndrum 24. Who knew that I wouldn’t be getting to showcase my new found fitness! I think that most of us hoped that by the time December and therefore The Cheviot Goat had come around that the opportunity to race would have been restored.

As we all know though 2020 would end without the resumption of running events.

It couldn’t be helped and I was very much of a mind that I would rather have tighter restrictions for a significant period to allow all governments globally to get the pandemic under control rather than the half hearted restricting and easing that had been par for the course in the previous 6 months.

Feelings?
The running community seems to have been sympathetic to the plight of race organisers, especially the smaller, more intimate events that have gone over and above to do their best for the wannabee participants.

I know there have been exceptions to the above statement and that some events have been found wanting in terms of communication, etc but organisers must have been dealing with enormous logistical, financial and commitment issues and so hopefully there can be some level of forgiveness if communication, rearrangements and the like were not as swift as it could have been.

Virtual
Many runners have taken to engaging with the virtual events that almost every organiser has put on and this will presumably help in a small way to recover costs the organisers incurred in amongst other things venue rental, insurances and the production of 2020 materials such as medals and shirts.

Sadly, I fell out of love with virtual events some years ago and therefore found myself less inclined to do virtual runs. The only one I took part in was the ‘To the Pike & Back’ half marathon but this was because I was in the area on race day and was able to run the route at the time the event was supposed to take place.

Had I been running this at home in Scotland rather than in Bolton I would have felt like I had cheated the race and wouldn’t have been able to put the medal with my collection. Odd isn’t it? Maybe it is a little like a t-shirt I have from an event I DNS’d some years back (shirt was posted out pre-event) I don’t ever wear that shirt but I keep it as a reminder of being a knobhead and to stop doing stupid runs the day before a race.

Refunds, rearrangements and re-entry
When I received the medal and the shirt a few weeks later it wasn’t with any real elation and this was perhaps the confirmation I needed to say that I would instead focus on training over virtual events. This may seem a little selfish, being unwilling to spend money on the virtual events to help keep organisers going -especially given the amount of benefit I’ve had from racing over the years, but having already spent nearly £1,000 on events and a lot more on extras I was keen not to spend money on things that I had little interest in.

However, I also had no interest in trying to recover any of the money from the events that were being cancelled and postponed because I want these businesses to survive, racing is an important part of my life and I remain happy to participate whenever racing returns. To this end where refunds have been offered and if I couldn’t do the rearranged date I simply donated my entry fee because the money was already used and I had moved on from it.

For example I donated my fee to the Quebec Mega Trail because my Canadian trip had been cancelled, when I rebooked the trip for 2021 I simply re-entered the QMT and now even though my trip has been cancelled again I will not be asking for a refund. Most importantly when we rebook our trip for 2022 I will then enter the QMT again and pay a third entrance fee.

I will continue to support events in my own way.

2021
The other reason I don’t feel particularly guilty for not doing the virtual events is that the moment there were 2021 races to enter – I started entering them. I had wanted to run the Moray Trail Series but given the hold overs from 2020 I could only run the long form of the Speyside Way, I entered within seconds of the event opening. I am hopeful that other opportunities will arise, not perhaps in ultra marathons (I’m pretty much fully booked for that) but in other smaller more community led events – 5 & 10km races, maybe the odd half marathon (to give myself a real challenge). I will happily enter as many of those as my old body will allow.

2020 was a tough year for everyone and 2021 looks like being little better as it stands but there are glimmers of hope, what I remain confident about is that most of us would like race organisers to survive this difficult time and bring racing back (whatever your distance preference).

How and when do I believe they will return?
Well nobody has a crystal ball but you’ve got to remain optimistic and believe that during the second half of the year that some level of conventionality will have reached us but nothing is guaranteed, 2020 most certainly taught us that.

What I do believe though is that for a while racing will feel different, if my experience at Ultra North is anything to go by I think that events both running and non-running will be a little more nervous and perhaps lacking some of the confidence that is exuded from a great race environment. I also feel that the mass participation events will perhaps still struggle to operate – think of the amount of people that are involved in the major events, not just the runners, but everyone and you have to wonder if it is perhaps a risk that organisers, supporters and even the runners will be unwilling to stomach.

As for what 2021 should look like? Well my calendar is below and you can see that there are no real mass participation events, I’d say that some of these events would be as low as 50 participants while most will be in the low hundreds taking part. I live in hope that most of these events will go ahead but as I said earlier the first has already been postponed from April to September and one I’ll definitely be DNS’ing the QMT because I’ve now cancelled my flights to Canada.

My Calendar
So, my race calendar looks a lot like last year;

  • Pennine Bridleway / April (Postponed)
  • Chacefield (3 race series) / March / April / May
  • Bonnie Prince Ultra / April
  • Ultra Scotland 50 / May
  • Loch Ness 360 / May
  • John Lucas Memorial / June
  • Quebec Mega Trail / July (DNS)
  • Run the Blades / July
  • Speyside Way / August
  • Yorkshire Three Peaks / October
  • Dark Peaks / November
  • White Peaks / November
  • Cheviot Goat / December

Going forward
What would I like to see going forward, well that’s easy, I want to see rewarding running events that are safe (from COVID) but not safe from danger. I would like to see runners returning in big numbers to events that have brought them joy year on year.

I would love to see the return of the little events that litter the running calendar each year that draw the community together and often involve little old ladies handing out race numbers and giving you a little twinkle of their eyes to suggest that they still hold the course record.

I’d like to see event organisers having the confidence to put on new events to replace the ones that will inevitably have been lost and I’d like to see the running community supporting them.

Perhaps a positive of the various lockdowns and the pandemic is that we’ve seen a greater uptake in activity of all types and we’ve been exploring our local routes. What would be awesome is if some of those who have taken up running during the pandemic joined in with these wonderful racing celebrations of running. Races and the race experience cannot be replicated by a virtual events or even (in my opinion) by wonderful things like Parkrun, both of these do serve a very real need in the running community but they don’t do what racing does.

I’d like to think I’d even consider starting my own race or race series, though having seen the struggle of race directors during the good times to organise and fill an event, I’m not sure I’m ready to join their ranks just yet (if ever). But it is something I have been considering for quite a while and also something I feel that my natural organisational skills would be well suited to.

What have I been missing?
Before I sign off I want to try and remind both you and myself about what racing does for me and maybe you’ll recognise some of this yourself.

Racing brings me nerves and anticipation, that anticipation leads to a dry mouth, clammy hands and sometimes sweaty nuts. Mostly it leads to a case of the epic shits (something I have detailed many times).

As I approach a start line I can feel the hairs on my arm standing up awaiting the order to race and as I barge into the throngs of runners ahead of me, trying to edge forward in the pack even before the race has started, I feel excited.

As I set off and my legs feel tense and yet like jelly I’ll find a rhythm and I’ll push as hard as my body will allow. I can hear the pounding of my feet on the floor, I can hear the sound of the different terrains, crunching through the leaves, sloshing through the rain and drumming deeply on the pavement. I can feel and hear the wind, it makes teeth chatter, it makes eyes narrow and it whistles across my face drying the sweat into salt that will later melt into my eyes.

But what I’ve missed most is seeing a Neil MacRitchie, Fiona Kirkaldy or Michael Hrabe, a face I know ahead of me and that feeling in my gut that is so desperate to catch them and overtake them that I feel the blood pulsing around my body and giving me that one final injection of speed. I never do catch them of course, I’m old, fat and ruined but I cross that finish line with aplomb and a little flourish.

No amount of lovely training and lovely muddy, hilly or wet running can replace that.

Let’s hope for racing this year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How far I felt I’d fallen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what’s the plan?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best get on it. Adios.

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

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

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

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

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

I was fucked.

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

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

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

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

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

But no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Vitality

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

I signed up.

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

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

The Experience

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

So far, so fine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then there is the other side of it…

Medical

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

The reason? Insurance!

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

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

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

The future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to the Testway Ultra.

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

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

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

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

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

Well for the first miles…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a day.

Key points

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

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

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

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

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

Value for money: £50? Bargain.

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

 

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

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

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



Life, the universe and then? 
Sometimes you can guide your life in such a way to make you believe that you have control and other times life simply asserts its dominance over you and gives you a bloody good kicking. I think I’ve had a charmed life, certainly over the past 10 years or so. I’ve been very fortunate that it’s morphed into something I consider very happy but it wasn’t always like that.

Finding happiness? One of the big pieces in the happiness puzzle was running, but unlike others who may have been Olympically or middle-age inspired, I came to running because I was going through the darkest period of my life. 

I’ve said before that I started running in late 2011 but that’s not strictly true – I’ve always run.

At school I ran the 100m, 200m and 400m, I was a decent cross-country runner and I enjoyed it much more than football, cricket or rugby. I was then an intermittent/lazy runner until around 2003 when I took a 3 month stay in sunny Scarborough because I needed to recover from what was effectively breaking down.

I suppose the truth of the matter is that I really arrived at a life filled with running because of this serious lapse in my mental health. I’d been in a relationship with a woman that had turned sour a year earlier and despite an a acrimonious break-up when she came calling, with serious issues of her own, I stupidly returned to try and help her.

This act of affection broke me into a million pieces, the problem I had was that I wasn’t qualified to help with her problems and she dragged me down beyond the point of being able to see clearly enough to prevent myself from drowning. I’m sure I’m not alone in such situations but at the time I felt at my lowest ebb and unable to see anything ahead of me – it felt a lot like I imagine the end of a wasted life would feel.

Though I don’t have a definitive recollection of everything that happened I do recall considering ending my own life, although I had framed it in thoughts such as, ‘what would happen if I wasn’t here?’ ‘Who would care?’ and ‘could a train ever not kill a human being in a direct hit situation?’

However, in reality, suicide wasn’t really on the cards as an option but it lurked as a concept. 

Thankfully I didn’t do that and I made a desperate decision that plays a huge role in influencing my life to this day…

I’d called my uncle.

He and his family lived in North Yorkshire and they kindly offered a place to stay and support. Little did I know his help would manifest itself best in reviving my love of running.

My uncle in his younger days had been a decent runner but as age, life and pies get to you then you let yourself go a bit and he had. It seemed we both benefitted from the fresh Scarborough coast line as we ran daily. The hilly roads and hillier cliff trails of North Yorkshire providing ample respite from my own stupidity. I even saw Jimmy Saville running up and down my hill a few times in the days when he was still ‘Saint Jim’.

My uncle was (and assume is) a pragmatic man and his approach of seaside air combined with exercise might seem a bit Victorian but actually I hadn’t gone so far down the rabbit hole that I couldn’t be reached and his solution was the right remedy for me.

We didn’t really talk in any detail about what went on, (stereotypically) men don’t, northern men don’t and we didn’t – other than a brief chat on a late night stroll up the hill to his home. I think this left us both a little uncomfortable and neither of us ever really returned to the topic other than in one heated argument (the point at which I knew I was recovering and knew it was time to leave).

But with limited exchanges over my mental wellness I felt the need to balance the support provided by my uncle and his wife by adding in talking therapy as a way of exploring what had brought me to my knees. Unfortunately I found a therapist determined to focus on my parents as the root of the issues I had rather than the slightly more obvious ex-girlfriend fucking around in my head. Thankfully I found the therapist and I got on very well and the conversations quite stimulating which in turn opened up my own ability for assessment with a renewed clarity.

In the weeks that followed I was able to reconnect with myself and through my newly acquired active lifestyle I began to feel physically and mentally stronger.

I started to set out some basic life rules* that (mostly) to this day I live by, but at the heart of that was a promise to myself that I would be active – this would form the cornerstone of ‘me’. I also came to understand that my life rules must be fluid and flexible because it was my own dogma that had made me fragile and vulnerable. However, in my dealings with the ex-girlfriend I had compromised myself and no amount of flexibility should allow that to happen again. 

And so armed with words to live by I did just that and the past 15 years have been (mostly) the best of my life. And in all that time only once have I had a scare that it might all come tumbling down and that was last year during my very public retirement from running.

The Risk of Return? With the GingaNinja disagreeing about how much running I do I found myself in something of a quandary. After many successful years of both good mental health and running I found myself in a position where I was being asked to curtail some of my active exploits.

The danger of this was an immediate downward spiral back towards being less mentally happy which would ultimately (I believe) have endangered my relationship.

I tried to explain this without the context of my experiences in the early 2000s and feel that withholding this information made the problem worse than it needed to be. Thankfully a solution was achieved where I neither compromised the security of my health or my relationship. No easy feat but it was the right outcome.

Times and people change. In the years since I first encountered a mental health problem I’ve become a very different person, so much so that my near 40 year old self would barely recognise the younger me. And even though I’m still a reasonably anxious person it now fails to overwhelm me, I’ve come to the conclusion that, ‘everything will just keep happening so I’ll just get on with my bit’ and this is just fine, but it felt like it was a very long road to get to this stage.

Concluding. I never thought I was a candidate to struggle with mental health and I never believed it would take nearly 15 years for me to talk about it in a public way but perhaps I simply no longer care what anyone else thinks. Maybe it’s that I’ve seen lots of blogs and forums on the topic and feel that my experience may be of use to someone or maybe I just like talking about myself.

However, having discussed other peoples challenges and resolutions in search of greater understanding I’ve come to realise that no two issues or answers are the same. I’m a big advocate for an adventurous, running lifestyle to give yourself breathing space and time to think but I am very aware this isn’t for everyone and need only look to my ex-girlfriend who helped bring my own problems to the fore. Running was not the solution for her but it was for me.

What I would urge anyone who finds themselves in a difficult position, anxious, depressed, sad or some other form of mental illness is to seek support (support information from Mind, click here). There are options and most of all there are ways to navigate around or away from difficultied but your journey will be as unique as you are and recovery takes effort and nothing in life is guaranteed.

But ultimately stay happy and as Bill and Ted said, ‘Be excellent to each other’.

While you’re here below are a few facts from mentalhealth.org.uk 

  • It is estimated that 1 in 6 people in the past week experienced a common mental health problem.
  • In 2014, 19.7% of people in the UK aged 16 and over showed symptoms of anxiety or depression – a 1.5% increase from 2013. This percentage was higher among females (22.5%) than males (16.8%).
  • Mental health problems are one of the main causes of the overall disease burden worldwide
  • Mental health and behavioural problems (e.g. depression, anxiety and drug use) are reported to be the primary drivers of disability worldwide, causing over 40 million years of disability in 20 to 29-year-olds.
  • Depression is the predominant mental health problem worldwide, followed by anxiety, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

And these numbers from Mind make sad reading (the full survey and information can be read here);

  • Generalised anxiety disorder 5.9 in 100 people
  • Depression 3.3 in 100 people
  • Phobias 2.4 in 100 people
  • OCD 1.3 in 100 people
  • Panic disorder 0.6 in 100 people
  • Post traumatic stress disorder 4.4 in 100 people
  • Mixed anxiety and depression 7.8 in 100 people

*For those interested and still reading I earlier mentioned the ‘Life Rules’ I established nearly 15 years ago. Having found the original list I wrote I have down exactly as was in my sketchbook. It was a good list then and it’s a good list now.

  • Be curious
  • Keep moving
  • Look up
  • Question
  • Listen
  • Fight
  • Never compromise yourself
  • Work hard, earn everything
  • Stand up for your beliefs
  • Learn from mistakes
  • Give people what they need not what they want
  • Have faith in people
  • Live the life fantastic
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