Covid 19 has created so many delayed and cancelled races with medals having being purchased and monies committed and the Frostbite was probably one of those affected. However, with restrictions eased a little the organisers managed to put on a little 5 mile blast around Lochore Meadows Country Park and it was a real corker!
I happened to be visiting Lochore Meadows that weekend anyway and so the race dovetailed perfectly into my planned weekend of paddle boarding, open water swimming, cycling, running, exploring, kayaking and eating. If you haven’t been to Lochore Meadows Country Park then it is worth looking up and well worth a visit as it offers an abundance of exciting things to do all in a wonderful space.
I woke up in the motorhome park nice and early and went down to the water before the day properly got going and then headed back to Rona for a cup of coffee and the change into my running gear. The day was already scorching and it was barely 8am. By the time I was ready the organisers of the race had set up and were ready to hand out race numbers and medals – presumably one of the Covid secure systems that they had in place to minimise groupings around the finish line.
I gave in my allocated number from the email that had been sent round and excitedly took ownership of number 185 in papery form – it was lovely to be sticking a number on my shorts again. I then bimbled around the start line and the loch for a while before making the short 5 minute walk to the start line down at the golf course.
It was here that I ran into a local Falkirk legend and it was a delight to see her after all this time.
Although I didn’t say it, the last time I ran into Fiona she gave me a proper pasting at the Skull Trail Race and that was 100% fair because I wasn’t fit enough to compete at any distance, but when she came over at The Frostbite 5 to say hello my immediate thought turned to revenge, albeit a very quiet and understated revenge. Actually this isn’t true at all really – my thoughts were around the bloody scorching temperature but keeping ahead of Fiona was certainly in my head as an aim for the day.
And so as 11am approached we all headed down to the start line and spaced ourselves out appropriately, I turned around, as I often do, to look over the other competitors and noted every single one primed with their fingers ready to hit the buttons on their GPS watches. I on the other hand was fumbling around trying to put my camera back into my race vest. I did manage to get myself set just before the off and I even managed to switch on my Garmin and then like a rocket I thrust myself forward around the field that we would circle on our way out to the course.
The course itself was a lovely mix of gentle up and down with well maintained paths offered throughout and the course had been thoroughly marked and was incredibly well marshalled by cheering and presumably overheating volunteers! For my part I felt the heat of the day affecting me but I pushed on with all the energy I could muster and although I was overtaken by a few of the runners I had blasted past in the early stages I was mostly holding my own and found myself at a comfortable pace as I thundered into the main section of Lochore Meadows Country Park.
Knowing this was an out and back meant I was memorising how the course went in terms of where I would need to give it a little bit of a push and as I ran alongside the loch side I knew that the turning point had to be soon – although I had still seen no sign of the returning front runners. On I pressed and into what would be the final straight to the turning point and I could see runners approaching, one then another and another – but not as many I expected. I have very much gotten used to being at the back of the pack and so it was a surprise as I joked with the marshal at the halfway point that I was still running rather well.
I’d now warmed up a bit too and found myself cheering on the runners coming towards me and then something happened to ensure that I maintained my pace.
Behind me I could feel the hot breath of another runner which proved a little dispiriting given I thought I was doing okay and so I casually moved over and offered my breathy shadow the opportunity overtake but he didn’t.
Now whether he was being polite or he didn’t have enough in the legs to shoot past me he remained in my shadow for the next mile. We introduced ourselves and said hello but there wasn’t really time for any ‘ultra type’ chat – both of us where clearly busting a get to get back. John though provided the inspiration I was looking for and I was able to hold my pace and my position ahead of him.
Occasionally I would turn around to see where he was and he was moving from just behind to several seconds behind me and as I approached the field that we had started I had about 10 or 12 seconds on him and knew that this should be enough to get me to the finish ahead of John because I felt a sprint finish in my legs.
The field was long though and I felt myself slowing as the heat beat down upon me and against the short stretch of tarmac I started to slow significantly, I was looking downwards rather than concentrating on what was ahead and so I raised my head, looked forward and pulled myself together for a suitably flying finish.
Bounding to the finish, bouncing along like Bambi I felt amazing and hurled myself across the finish line and enjoying just a little moment of pleasure knowing that for the first time in ages I had run pretty well.
John came in a few seconds behind me and I thanked him for pushing me all the way – I would have slowed down if I hadn’t felt his chasing in the early stages of the second half of the race – really inspiring.
But what of revenge? Well Fiona made it back a minute or so after me and looked as cool as a cucumber, out for a morning stroll rather than a hard race (I looked like a fat bloated and sweaty pig in comparison). I have no doubt that had she had it in mind she would have given me another drubbing but I’ll take a finish ahead of her – just this once.
I ambled back to Rona, the motorhome, taking my medal out of the pocket I had kept it in during the race and put it around my neck, I felt a deep swell of pride wearing it and felt like a million dollars for running on that hot Sunday morning. Awesome!
Conclusions? What a great race, great location and brilliantly organised. This is one of the first times that racing has felt like it is returning and I’ll be looking forward to more events from the guys at Trails of Fife (you can find their Facebook group here) and I’m disappointed that I won’t be able to do their race at the end of June. It is races like this I feel that really being the running community together, for not much more than a tenner you get a medal, a well organised event, a classy route and the opportunity to run with runners from your community – what more could you ask for?
When I am not off doing ultra marathon events these are the types of races I enjoy the most, relatively short distance with a wonderfully mixed group of runners and an inclusive, friendly atmosphere.
Great job guys.
Video Below is a short video of the race from my perspective, enjoy.
I don’t live in the Highlands, so this isn’t a post about surviving the big snowy, icy, wet conditions that can be had up there, I’m not Scottish, so this isn’t a post about a lifetimes experience of the Scottish Central Belt and its regularly changing weather patterns. No this is a post about how I run through the winter in the Central Belt of Scotland with the minimum of fuss.
Now let’s be fair, I’m an odd guy, I’ve been described, often, as idiosyncratic , weird, a fucking nutter and all sorts of offensive and less offensive things. So what might be right for me might not be for you but this overview of how I do a Scottish winter running might be a starting point to keep you going out through the year. I’ll also be listing kit with this overview to try and show that you don’t have to have lots of fancy gear or for it to cost a fortune to get you out there year round.
History I moved to the Central Belt of Scotland nearly three years ago after the ridiculous English voted to leave the European Union (politics over). In that time I feel I have grown rather accustomed to the unpredictable and yet rather serene nature of life north of my former location.
So head to toe this is how I get ready to face the outdoors in the chillier months!
HEAD | Buff | Hat The head is the easiest bit to get right and I have a couple of items that make sense in surviving the winter here in Falkirk.
Buff Buff Traditional | £10-£30 The first is obviously a buff (or similar), it is possibly the most versatile piece of running gear that you own, intend to own or want to own. It’ll wipe your nose, it’ll wipe your arse, it’ll keep your face covered or it’ll act as a hat. I have several types for winter running – so if I’m going on a long run I’ll often choose the Buff Visor because as well as having a neoprene peak which is very soft and flexible you can still use it as a conventional buff and even still chuck it round your wrist. The peak though is the thing that gives you longer running protection from wind and rain in your eyes and can be wrung out if it gets wet! Perfect.
For shorter running more traditional buffs are used and I tend to carry a couple as they are so versatile.
Hat Big Bobble Hat £20 I’m also very keen on a hat – not always because you need one to keep your little head warm – the buff will do this but because the bobble hat always makes me feel nice. If you get a medium weight running hat then that would cover almost all scenarios and if it isn’t too heavy or bulky it will nicely scrunch up and can be tossed in a pocket of a jacket or a running vest. The Big Bobble hat pictured does not scrunch up so well but it is lovely and toasty and you’ll never say, ‘I didn’t see you coming’ while I’m wearing it.
Alternatives Rab Beanie Hat £15 | Oddballs Bobble Hat £15 | Kalenji Running Hat £6
BODY | Long Sleeved Shirt | Short Sleeve Shirt | Gilet Running hot is a nuisance sometimes, especially during the warmer weather or even on those milder winter days and so I need to have a solution that allows me to be both warm and well ventilated. The solution, as with all things for me, is layering and the three layers I discuss below offer the benefit of being easily removable, wicking and protecting me across a range of runs and a version of this would be used as my race day kit.
Long Sleeved Shirt Ronhill Core Long Sleeved Shirt | £25 A popular choice as a next to skin layer would be something like a compression top but I have never fared very well in these and prefer something that I have a little more control over and so I’ll wear a long sleeved Ronhill top. The benefits of this as my base layer means I can easily roll my sleeves up if I’m warming up too much, I can un/tuck the top into my shorts to minimise the amount of cold air that comes into direct contact with my skin and as it is usually neon in colour it offers a good level of visibility.
Alternatives Salomon Agile LS Shirt £30 | OMM Flow LS Shirt £40 | Kiprun Care LS Shirt £20
Short Sleeve Shirt Oddballs Training Top | £17 Over the long sleeved top I’ll wear a shorter sleeved shirt, usually something very lightweight to account for the fact I have two tops on and I’ve found that the Oddballs training shirts are the ideal combination of weight and durability against the various weather conditions that I’ll face. No they aren’t waterproof but they dry quickly and they have a good fit for a standard shaped man and so there isn’t a lot of spare fabric flying around to catch pools of water in. The best thing though is they are available in a range of batshit patterns and colours, are relatively inexpensive and are a perfect companion to my long sleeved top. If Oddballs ever do a long sleeved training tops I’ll be buying some!
Alternatives Salomon Agile SS Shirt £30 | La Sportiva Advance Shirt £45 | Alpkit Vayper SS Shirt £29 | Kalenji Dry + Feel £6
Gilet WAA Gilet | £45 If it rains while I’m out then the training shirts will dry out pretty quickly but for winter running you should have some form of waterproof or water-resistant cover for moist days – cold will cut through most materials in winter when it is wet and if you’re up a hill or out for several hours then even the hardiest of us will begin to feel the chill.
There are lots of options that you can go for such as a wind/water resistant jacket that will offer a little bit of protection from the elements, a full on waterproof jacket that would be best suited to those long days in the rain or for passing a race kit check but for my day to day winter running I usually take with me my WAA running gilet. The gilet offers just enough protection from the elements combined with a tiny form factor to make it great for distances up to about 13 miles or a couple of hours of running. The front of the gilet is single piece of fabric which means that the wind won’t pass through you too easily but on the back there are mesh panels that allow your body to breathe. Sadly I don’t believe they make this any longer but it was a great piece of kit when I first purchased it about 5 years ago and remains a great piece of kit. Oh
Alternatives OMM Sonic Smock £60 | Soar Ultra Running Gilet £135 | Alpkit Arro Vest £35 | Kalenji Run Wind H £10
HANDS | Overmitts | Gloves | Watch The hands are something that I never had to worry about until I arrived in Scotland and even up here it isn’t a major issue beyond the first few minutes of a run. However, those first few minutes are crucial in determining whether it is going to be a good run or not.
Wind/Waterproof Mitts Decathlon Overmitts | £15 The Decathlon overmitts are both waterproof and lightweight and have a tiny size in both form and weight. One of the key things about keeping warm is that you keep the wind out. I tend to find when running that I don’t need insulation as much as I need to keep the chill from passing through me. The overmitts provide a perfect wind protection layer until my hands have heated enough to be self supporting against the conditions and at about £15 a pair they are much more inexpensive than the nearest rivals.
Gloves WAA Gloves | £15 I’ve had a number of pairs of gloves over the years and most have been rubbish but the WAA gloves offer a thin level of insulation and combine this with still being able to use your fingers (a common problem with any level of insulation in gloves I find). There is no option to operate a phone with these gloves but I find this to be a benefit – it means I leave my phone in my pocket – but the fingers are usable enough to allow me to operate the action camera buttons should I need to. The WAA gloves are also the easiest on and off gloves I have ever bought – handy when you only wear them for a very short period of time, sadly these are no longer available at the WAA website but there are alternatives…
Watch Garmin Fenix 6X Pro | £550 A watch of any description is quite a handy thing to have – yes I happen to be using the rather fancy Garmin Fenix 6X Pro but something much simpler would be more than sufficient. I find that I don’t always track my running with the GPS or record it (I don’t use or like Strava) but I do like to keep an eye on how long I have been out for and also what kind of elevation I am running or hiking at. The watch allows me to do these things but I am not a slave to it and in winter I find it useful to remind me that I have or haven’t been out long enough.
The Fenix 6X Pro was bought as the replacement for my Ambit 3 Peak (a much loved multisport watch) with ultra marathons in mind but the alternatives offer many good features at significantly lower price points. The Polar impresses in particular and my partner has this watch because of its smaller size and lower weight as well as its many activity features.
LEGS | Shorts Whenever I post new running content to either Facebook or Instagram it will be adorned with the hashtag ‘shortsallyear’ because for me there is simply no better feeling and because my body can handle it. Not everybody can handle the cold as well as I do and therefore I can fully appreciate why you might opt for running leggings or even winter running leggings. Legwear is the most complex choice I think as they are difficult to change when you are out on a run and it’s the thing that you are most unlikely to carry a spare of so you’re stuck in whatever you choose to go out in.
Shorts Ronhill Tech Revive Twin Skin Shorts | £35 In the decade I have been running I have owned just 7 pairs of training shorts and given that I run on average a little over 300 days per year that is a lot of running for just 7 pairs of shorts. To be fair 2 of those pairs have been in the rotation for just a couple of months and 2 of those pairs have been there since 2018 – so for nearly 8 years I used just 3 pairs of Nike twin skin running shorts (no longer available) and I wore them in every possible condition. The latest additions to my running shorts armoury are Ronhill because they are good fit for me and I have had many happy adventures in their tops.
I wear twin skin shorts as a general rule because the brief style shorts are a bit like trying to fit a 500ml bottle of cola into a space designed for a 330ml can of fizzy drink. It also means that my legs mostly stay dry even if the outer fabric takes a bit of a pounding from the wet or the mud. In the cold I appreciate the next to skin layer especially given that I have a tendency to be nut sack high in wet muddy trails and worse icy waters.
FEET | Drymax Socks | Gaiters | Trail Running Shoes The feet represent my weakest point and therefore this is the area I pay most attention to during the winter months, I rotate my shoes on a daily basis and often have at least five different pairs going at once – this allows each pair to dry out fully before they are next used. Beyond this it’s about management of my feet to ensure they stay in reasonable condition for the next run
Socks Drymax Socks | £10-30 I recently wrote a piece about how I’ve evolved the set up of my kit for racing with specific reference to my feet (read about it here) and a key component of that are the Drymax socks. I’ve pretty much gone from only using Drymax during races to using them in anything other than warm, summery conditions.
The key benefit of Drymax is the warm while wet approach that means that even if your feet take a serious dunking the socks will keep your little footsies warm and relatively toasty. During a Scottish winter of running it is not inconceivable that you’ll come across snow, ice, freezing water, oodles of gooey mud, oodles of sticky mud and worse and so the socks need to be robust enough to handle all of the above and more.
During winter I tend to wear higher up the leg socks rather than the crew length ones I opt for in the summer and this also helps to keep the crap of the trail or ice away from skin which can an absolute bastard if it slices into you. If there’s one thing I want protected it’s my feet and these really help.
Alternatives Injinji Toe Socks £10-25 | Hilly Off Road Socks £10-20 |
Trail Running Shoes Topo Athletic Terraventure | £120 My first choice running shoes for the winter are my Topo Athletic Terraventure followed by the Inov8 Trail Talon 290, these two workhorse shoes will do everything and they are bombproof, they will go everywhere and nothing can hurt them. Both pairs of shoes will eat up tarmac if they are asked to but they are designed for the trail and that is where they will have the most fun and where you will get most benefit.
Footwear choice is, of course, very personal and you should only wear the shoes that are suited to you but these are the ones suited to me.
I would suggest that whatever shoe you wear during the winter that it is suited to the conditions that you are facing, If you do lots of tarmac then you don’t need aggressive lugs but if you are facing mud and hills on a daily basis then you’ll need something that can dig into the terrain. One thing that has seen me invest in is some specialist equipment for the ice and I’ll discuss this in the extras section.
Shoes don’t need to be super expensive or a super popular brand but go to a retailer (when we are allowed) and try them on, get a feel for them and listen to your feet. It took me a long time to find shoes that worked consistently but issues with my feet are no longer caused by the footwear I choose, just the conditions I run in! Do your research and you will be rewarded.
Alternatives Altra Lone Peak 5.0 £140 | On Cloudventure £150 | Kalenji Evadict TR2 £50 | More Mile Cheviot Pace £30
Gaiters Topo Athletic Gaiter | £15 Let me start by saying that the Topo Athletic gaiter is not my favourite gaiter, that award goes to the Dirty Girl gaiters that have been following my adventures since my first ultra marathon. However, I own the shoes so I might as well own the gaiters with the correct fitting for the footwear. The gaiters during winter provide added protection from the trail, there is nothing worse than stones, grit or other flotsam and jetsam getting involved with your feet. A pair of gaiters will instantly improve your running experience especially, if like me, you’ve got weak feet.
CARRY | Waterproof Jacket | Overtrousers | Light Year round I wear a running vest, I prefer it to a running belt or the Freetrain phone holder, I feel that a running vest or bag is designed to hold stuff and distribute weight across you better than any of the alternatives. Plus as a former Runcommuter I am very used to the idea of running with a bag on my back and in winter I believe that running safely requires the carrying of a few kit extras.
Waterproof Jacket Montane Minimus Waterproof Jacket | £140 I always come back to this jacket for one reason and one reason only – it has never, ever failed me. I own two of these but I mostly wear the one I have owned for nearly a decade, it doesn’t age, it doesn’t show signs of wear and its a beautiful green colour.
The Montane Minimus comes with me on those longer runs or when I head into the hills or if it really is chucking it down – how often do I wear it in the winter? Not that often, but occasionally if I’m having day where I feel a bit shit and frail then I’ll chuck it on and feel that bit more secure about going out and facing the trails.
Overtrousers Montane Featherlite Trousers | £50 This may surprise some readers but even I need a bit of help in the leg department occasionally and the thing that I carry with me are my much underused Montane Featherlite Trousers.
Now let me start by saying that these are not waterproof trousers they are water resistant and wind resistant and this is the key to why I like them so much. They are so light but never let my legs overheat and they dry incredibly quickly meaning that if I have had to resort to putting them on they are going to provide the kind of layer that I need. I own a much heavier pair of waterproof trousers that I use for hiking – the brilliant Berghaus Deluge but these would only be suitable as running cover in the most unpleasant of race situations (say something like the Spine).
This winter I haven’t worn my Featherlite Overtrousers because the lockdown has kept me relatively close to home and therefore away from the hills but in previous winters whenever I go near an area that might leave me a bit isolated these are straight into my running bag and the best thing is that they scrunch down into a tiny little stuff sack.
Light Olight Baton | £90 First off let me assure you that I paid a lot less than the price on the Olight website for a light that is the same length as my thumb (I have small thumbs). However, the important thing is that you are going to want a light if you are running through the winter – in the Central Belt it can be dark for up to 16 hours a day and that means the hours of daylight are likely being taken up with things like childcare or work or watching Netflix.
I have a number of headtorches that all work very well but I wanted something handheld as I find wearing a headtorch is a little uncomfortable (something I’m happy to put up in race conditions but not on my pleasure runs), they interfere with action camera footage and of course it can create the tunnel vision effect that can make running in the dark a lot less enjoyable.
The Olight baton benefits from being tiny in size, as already mentioned, but also incredibly powerful in terms of its beam (up to 2000 lumens) and there are three brightness settings available. Battery life is reasonable even on the brightest setting although in race conditions I think this would only ever be a spare light. The good news is that the Olight Baton can be recharged on the go with the use of an external battery pack and has a very secure magnetic charging cable that means you could chuck it in the back of your pack and leave it there to charge until you need it.
I use this extensively on my local trails if I am running late at night as there is very little moonlight that penetrates the canopy of my trail and so each step is in total darkness – this light really does lead the way. A very worthwhile purchase.
EXTRAS | Spikes | Survival Bag | First Aid Kit | Water Bottle
There are things that I have had for a very long time that form, part of my running kit and there are a few extras I have bought to face the Scottish winters – the first thing I bought as an extra was a pair of running spikes.
I am fortunate to live close enough to my local trails that if it ices up I can manage the few hundred metres of tarmac in spikes to get to the trail. Spikes aren’t the only solution to running on the ice and they certainly are not perfect but they let me keep going out even when others have been sidelined by the weather. Because I have rather large hobbit like feet I bought the Altra Golden Spike which are both surprisingly cushioned and grippy. The alternatives include the excellent YakTrax Pro or the rather expensive studded running shoes from VJ Sports, Inov8 and Icebug.
I have a plethora of water bottles that I use with my absolute favourite being the first generation hard bottles from Ultimate Direction, those bad boys have been hard to beat over the years and despite the advances in the technology and taste of the soft bottle I still prefer these beauties. That said I use my Salomon 150ml soft bottle for runs in winter up to about 21km and anything after that I’ll use a 300ml soft bottle because they are more flexible and fit better alongside the action camera that often accompanies me on runs.
I would always recommend carrying a survival bag of some description, I’ve never had to use one but on the day I do I will be extremely pleased that I have it with me. If I am going off trail or will be on my own for any length of time then this is an essential piece of kit that might well save my life and my life is probably just about worth the £10 that you’ll need to spend to get your hands on one of these.
As for a first aid kit I’m a bit skinny with this, I take a small used Compeed pack and put in it some plasters, a needle, painkillers, blister plasters and a small dressing and keep this at the bottom of my bag – again I have never had to use it while out training, although I did use it while racing on the Isle of Skye and that kept my feet in one piece until the end of the race (I say one piece my feet were fucked – you can read the race review here).
WHAT’S ESSENTIAL? I would say that of the kit listed above the essential bits are the buff, the long sleeved top, legwear, running shoes, socks, gloves and a water resistant or waterproof jacket – the rest I could have survived without but they made my daily jaunts to the trails much easier.
In 2011 if you’d have looked in my running gear drawer this is what you would have found the following;
my old ASICs trail shoes that I ran on roads and trails in | £27
my 3/4 length Nike running tights |£17
a couple of pairs of white cotton M&S socks | £3.50
a black buff that I stole from my partner who used to wear it while visiting farms | Free
a second buff I bought from a Rat Race event | £5
a pair of Saucony running gloves that fell apart after about 5 minutes | £14
a sale Adidas wind resistant jacket | £19
a long sleeved Ronhill running shirt that I still wear to this day | £21
a couple of short sleeved Rat Race overstock t-shirts from previous RR events | £10
It is also worth noting that these days I tend to run daily, especially in the winter and therefore I need a bit more kit to see me through otherwise my washing machine would never be off.
Only you can really decide what is essential for you to go running during the winter but for a relatively small investment you could probably have all the essentials that you need for running regularly and safely.
I tend to invest because my view is always that I’d rather have kit that does the job and does it for a long time and I like good value. My Montane Minimus is the best example of this, I bought the waterproof jacket many years ago for about £80 and it will probably last me another decade or more if I continue to look after it – that’s value for money and I’ve discovered value for money rarely means cheap. That said my £3, 18 year old Kalenji running base layers are still going strong and get worn often, get washed even more often and are super useful for running and other activities, so good value isn’t always expensive either!
WHERE? Where do you get stuff like this? Well that will be down to you but I like to use a mix of independent retailers, direct from manufacturers and online resources.
To make it clear I am NOT sponsored by any of these (or anyone else), I purchase all the products I use and nothing is ever taken for free or testing.
If I am looking for well made and inexpensive kit then I will always look at Decathlon because as well as having a significant shop presence I think they’re brilliant and then places like Cotswold Outdoors and Runners Need will always have something useful that the others can’t cover.
I NEVER buy from Sports Direct.
TOP TIPS I should point out that the kit and products I have listed I own and have used extensively in the cold of Scotland’s winter months, sometimes over multiple years.
The alternatives that I have presented here are merely examples of the things that I might own, might have researched or looked up as alternatives specifically for this blog and if you like the sound of them then get your research hat on and start deciding if it’s right for you. You are the best decision-maker for what will fit and work best for you, not some bloke on a blog or someone answering a Facebook/Twitter question.
And the reason I am posting this towards the tail end of the winter running season? Well it will soon be time for retailers to dispose of their AW20 kit and you might pick up a bargain or two that will be perfect for AW21.
FINALLY I do hope though that you realise that is possible to run all year round and that while you can spend an absolute fortune you really do not have to, the combination of excellent sales and the increase in the UK visibility of places like Decathlon means that choice has never been better and the quality of brands like Crane (via Aldi) has much improved in recent years. The sad thing is that the last couple of years has seen the loss of a couple of excellent independent running stores and these will unlikely be replaced – therefore please support local or independent running/outdoor stores were you can.
Most importantly of course is, enjoy your winter running and do it safely.
I wasn’t going to review the Harrier Run ‘Ultra’ bundle but after several months of use I felt it would be churlish of me not to jot down my thoughts for you to consider whether this is something that might be useful for you.
I shan’t bother with an incomplete history of Harrier as others have done this better than I will but it’s suffice to say that they are new on the block and something of a disruptor in, what has fast become, an overcrowded market. The company and its founder have, in an impressively short space of time put together a product range of running kit suited to the ‘couch to 5km’ runner all the way to the adventure/ultra marathoner and beyond. For this we must applaud the team who must work tirelessly.
I decided that although I did not need a new running vest that the Harrier Kinder 10 litre looked like something I wanted to try and with its low price point I was happy to purchase one and if it was ‘great’ then that was a bonus and if it was only ‘okay’ then it would go into the rotation and that would be fine too.
I didn’t purchase it straight away though, it was after I’d seen one in use at the Ultra North event that I ordered it. Having seen it in person I felt that it would be a useful addition in my running armoury. And so while literally travelling back to sunny Scotland from a very wet Northumberland I put my order in but not for the vest – for the ultra bundle.
The Ultra Bundle The ultra bundle provides an excellent value packed array of gear designed to ensure that you, the runner, have all of the basics and a few key extras for your big adventures. So what’s in the ultra bundle?
A choice of 10l (Kinder) or 5l (Curbar) race vest (includes whistle)
2 x soft water bottles
2 x soft bottle long straws
1 x hydration bladder
1 x snood
1 x collapsible heatproof cup
1 x collapsible cup
1 x Emergency first aid kit (not available at the time I purchased the bundle)
1 x Survival bag
1 x dry bag
Perhaps the amazing thing is the variety within each item. The main event, the running vest, comes in two different colours in the Curbar and Kimder, there are four fit sizes. There is also an extra large for the bigger framed runner called the Stanage. Options don’t end at the race vest, in fact they barely start there – each of the water bottles and cups comes in a range of funky colours, the drybags are two colours and two sizes, the snood is available in blue and orange and even the running poles are available in multiple sizes and two different materials. It is an enviable amount of choice that the major manufacturers either don’t or can’t offer.
Choice Sometimes choice can be a bit overwhelming and the trouble I had when putting my ultra bundle together was how do I co-ordinate? The answer was I couldn’t really – I wanted big bold and bright colours and these didn’t always match across the various products. I would quite happily have had everything in pink or purple but this wasn’t an option so I mixed and matched a little bit and after a little while I found what I believed was the perfect set up.
My only gripe was in the colour of the race vest itself which was much more muted than the rest of the options – that said the blue colouring that I chose was actually very pleasant but if there had been a pink or purple or batshit colour then I’d have chosen that. It may come as no surprise then that when both the Curbar and the Kinder became available in less discreet colours I ordered both the Orange and the Red.
Bundling The company have the bundle system for lots of good reasons I imagine, if you’re starting on your ultra or long distance running journey then you may need a reasonable amount of kit and a bundle that offers a very healthy discount would be much appreciated. The bundle presumably also allows Harrier to get rid of stock that might not be as swift as seller – so hydration bladder and water bottles might not be bought at the same time but if part of a bundle then you’d take both and use whichever better suited your adventure that day. The bundle, because of the cleverness of Harrier, allows you to easily identify what kind of kit it is that you are going to need – there’s no research involved, you just buy a bundle and put it on and you’re on your way to thrill seeking.
Experiences Experience with the Harrier Run Ultra Bundle will vary but the reception has been overwhelmingly positive but it can be difficult to judge something until you’ve been trying it out on a daily basis for several months and that is something that I have been doing. Almost all of the items in the ultra bundle have seen some running and most have been used multiple times – they key elements such as the vests, the poles, water bottles and drybag have been a near constant companion since they arrived and I feel very comfortable about being able to assess whether they are good for me or not.
Kinder Running Vest I like a larger than necessary race vest because, ‘you never know’ and I have been known to start a run or a race with what some might describe as, ‘the kitchen sink’. The Kinder would still be at the smaller end of my race vest sizes even at 10 litres but I felt having seen it in real life that it looked acapable of supporting the amount of kit I traditionally transport in an ultra marathon.
So what does the Kinder have?
10 litre capacity
Lots of pockets across the vest
7 x front pockets
Pull through back pocket for waterproofs
Deep mesh side pockets
Zipped phone pocket
Multiple connection points for running pole
Race number toggles
Adjustable sternum straps
Dedicated bladder pocket
Substantial bladder clip
Multiple bladder hose configurations
Bungee pull on the back for tighter fit
Main compartment zipped closing
Figure hugging fit
Toggles and straps across the vest to keep kit tidy
Choice of colours
Curbar Running Vest Despite liking a larger capacity running vest I have to say that since the Curbar arrived a couple of months ago I have worn nothing else as a running bag (the Curbar was not part of the bundle, but bought separately along with a second Kinder). I have found a huge amount of running comfort and joy in the Curbar as I have been improving my training and ultimately improving my running.
So what does the Curbar have?
5 litre capacity
Lots of pockets across the vest
7 x front pockets
Pull through back pocket for waterproofs
Deep mesh side pockets
Zipped phone pocket
Extra back pocket
Back pole holders
Race number toggles
Adjustable sternum straps
Dedicated bladder pocket
Substantial bladder clip
Multiple bladder hose configurations
Figure hugging fit
Toggles and straps across the vest to keep kit tidy
Choice of colours
When wearing either of the race vests it probably most resembles either a Salomon or early Ultimate Direction Signature series pack – that shouldn’t be considered a negative as the UD in particular was an exceptional race vest. It has a figure hugging shape and moves with you rather than bounces around and this is where the Harrier shows that it is superior than the old UD PB1.0. When moving side to side the vest has enough give that it comes with you but without ever feeling slack and yet is tight enough that when running it moves along with you rather than bouncing around in your mid lumbar region.
From fabric through to fit this is very, very comfortable running vest experience
If movement is an impressive feature of the Harrier vests then it is matched in impressiveness by the amount of available space. Both the 5 litre and the 10 litre have lots of upfront space and the pockets are cavernous. In fact this brings me to a favourite feature – for the first time ever in a race vest I can have my action camera stored upfront while at the same time as having two 500ml water bottles there too. I am sure that the makers did not consider the needs of the action camera user when designing this but the fact my DJ Osmo Action and my Insta360 One X2 both fit perfectly mean that this race vest will often jump to the front of the queue for racing. The rest of the pockets are equally excellent but each one has a purpose – so those front mesh pockets are ideal for a buff or a pair or gloves while the phone pocket is okay for a phone I find it better for a small amount of wallet or keys or basically something you aren’t going to use – there are better pockets for a phone.
The side pockets are as massive as their front siblings and also much more accessible than many of its rivals and the springiness of the fabric makes everything deceptively spacious.
On the reverse the space inside the back of the pack is mostly excellent but if you’re used to something like an OMM backpack or even a UD race vest then the Harrier vests will feel more confined and the mild tapering towards the bottom of the vest mean that the way you pack your kit may need some consideration – I don’t feel like I can just throw stuff in here.
The Curbar has a neat ‘through pocket’ where wet or dry waterproofs could be stowed and also has an extra pocket that sits at the bottom of the vest – I’d be tempted to keep only the lightest of gear here as I feel using it might unbalance my weight distribution – but remember that whatever you store in here should be in a small 2 litre or smaller drybag just incase you caught in a bit of precipitation.
The Kinder meanwhile benefits from a bungee cord rather than a through pocket and this is welcome addition as it offers flexibility to connect whatever you need to carry there and it also allows the vest to be cinched down if you aren’t carry much kit – something that the 5 litre vest doesn’t need. It is worth noting though that the Kinder runs just as well as the Curbar if it is empty and not cinched down.
One thing to keep in mind is that neither are waterproof and although when I’ve gotten soaking in it the back mesh, and therefore my back, for the most part stay dry, the outer layers will wet through and aren’t as quick to dry as say a ripstop material. What does this mean? It’s simple – you’ll need drybags (and don’t worry Harrier have you covered there too).
From here the Harrier mostly goes straight into party mode with little flourishes and finishes that will simply make your running life that bit easier – from multiple points of connection for your poles on the Kinder to back pole holders on the Curbar. The race number holder, the easy pull zip cords and multiple points of attachment for your bladder hose as well as those front pockets being more secure than the average through to the plethora of hoops, loops and bungees that can tie down pretty much anything – it’s almost like an S&M party on these vests – these vests have it all.
I do have a bugbear and it is quite a big one – the fastening system for the front. Once its fitted that is lovely and it is great but if you need to adjust the height of the chest straps then it is a bit of a bugger, if you needed to do that with freezing cold or wet hands then it would be a nightmare. It reminds me of a lighter, less good version of the crossover system that Salomon employed on some of their bags a few years back (and my well still do). It’s not the worst but nor is it the best. The other thing, directly related to the chest straps is that they come loose as you are running, not massively and not all at once but you will find yourself regularly tightening these up. You might say it’s the sizing or what I’m carrying but I have both medium and large sizes and both the 5 and 10 litres and have tried them all in different configurations and the chest strap just loosens much more than say my beloved Raidlight Olmo 20.
Is it a big issue? Not really I just pull it tight as I run (and it super easy to adjust on the move).
So bugbear aside I think the Curbar and the Kinder are astonishingly good value and brilliant kit even if there were double the price. For less than £60.00, at full price, you simply won’t get better.
Running/Hiking Poles I’ve used my Black Diamond Z fold for several years now and never had a moment where I thought, these aren’t good enough, they were expensive but they’ve lasted and they felt like they would last from the moment I bought them. The poles from Harrier (at a mere £69.00) arrived to much online fanfare, lots of the runners who had tested them out had lots of good things to say about them. The thing for me is that I tend not to use poles outside of the more mountainous running events like MIUT but again as part of the ltra bundle it seemed silly to turn my nose up at this bargain.
When you pick the poles up they aren’t as light as some of their more expensive alternatives, however, the difference in weight (209g) isn’t really very noticeable and should certainly not be a deterrent to ownership. That slightly heftier feel though contributes to a sense that these are built to last and during my tests I have not once worried that the poles might snap, something I have seen happen to other poles during events. The handle is soft and runs long down the shaft with an easily adjustable and strong wrist loop. The poles are ‘z fold’ rather than telescopic which I feel suits runners better, once out of your pack you just fling them in front of you and lock them in position – no faffing around.
Are they as easy as my Black Diamond poles? No, not quite – the tightening flip lock clamp at the end of the handle means there is an additional step compared to my Black Diamond poles. However, this lock, I feel will give them a greater longevity and also allows a certain level of adjustability in height – another improvement over some of the competition. Add this together and with the reduction in the amount of little metal locking buttons, which are a potential place for water or grot to sit and cause damage, then you’ve got a product that is both practical and innovative. The Harrier alternative to the metal locking buttons are locking discs which sit at the end of each section of the pole and simply clamp together – easy.
The poles do follow some conventions though and have such as a coated metal inner cord to ensure that the pole has strength when you are running and doesn’t just come apart. A spike at the end to help you grip in the worst of terrains, mud basket and a rubber tip cover should you suddenly find yourself on the tarmac.
What I can say is that I’ve used these for about 30 miles of running since they arrived, I have bounced around the muddy trails on them, I’ve run on the ice using them (without Yaktrax) and I’ve hiked several of the Ochils (when I was allowed to go there) and they have been superb.
As for the fitting around you when you are racing, well if you’ve bought the ultra bundle then there are lots of places that the poles can go and the race vest(s) have all been given consideration to how a runner may way to run with poles. That said these poles would fit almost any race vest, I’ve used them in my Raidlight Olmo 20 and my UD PB3.0, they’re unobtrusive and they’re right there when you need them most.
And the best thing? Well for the money you’d think you were perhaps only getting one pole but no, you’re getting a pair. I would really struggle to find any criticism of the Helvellyn poles – but if you think that the £69.00 isn’t quite worth it and you don’t mind a little bit more weight then they have now produced an aluminium version called Catbells these will set you back a mere £39.00 at the time of writing and although I haven’t used them myself can you really argue with this kind of pricing?
Soft Water Bottles (500ml), Standard Caps and Long Straw Caps There are very few soft bottles that enhance the flavour of water, most of them make it taste a bit shitty to be honest. Thankfully the big brains at Harrier seem to have it sorted, the taste of the soft bottles is better than most (perhaps the only better one I’ve used was the 350ml Hydrapak soft bottle which was a little bit special). These soft bottles work incredibly well in the context of the Harrier vest and the long straws and wide opening makes them very easy to use. When the race vest is full it can be a little bit of a faff to get them in and out but then this is where the long straws come in handy and you could (if being careful) fill bottles without removing them from the pack (and yes I have done this, although not when exhausted in the middle of the night on an ultra marathon).
The range of colours and options is exceptional and there is something for everyone, mine are the 500ml option and might be purple, although they look very pink, however, regardless of the colour, I think they’re fantastic. These bottles have so far been zero leak and zero problem. Even if one of the bundles isn’t for you then perhaps when you’re looking for new bottles these will be on your list for consideration.
Hydration Bladder I mostly stopped using a hydration bladder when I bought my first UD Signature Series race vest – the revelation that you could have front mounted water bottles seemed so revolutionary back them, however, given the smaller form factor of the Harrier vest I felt the need to try out their bladder (and it was part of the ultra bundle). The bladder itself has a good quality feel to it, the mouth piece is easy to use when on the move and it fits well inside both the Curbar and the Kinder. The vest has a dedicated space for the hydration bladder and it all feels very secure when it is locked in via the clip at the top of the pocket. The length of the hose is more than adequate and perfectly suited for being cut to a size that suits and there are multiple configurations for wrapping the hose around yourself and the vest.
What I did note though was that when filled the bladder sits deep in the vest and takes up much of the available space at the bottom of your race pack, now although you can work around this I find this is the space that I use to keep my waterproofs in (in this or any other race vest) – therefore I want easy access to them but in the Harrier vests I find I have to choose between storing my waterproofs at bottom of the vest or having the bladder in.
My biggest gripe about the bladder though was that it leaked. I took it out on a first run on a very chilly December morning (about 6am) to discover that by the time I gotten to the bottom of my hill my back was soaked and starting to freeze up – I turned around and headed for home. Thankfully I’d caught it in time to stop myself getting to cold and changed all kit and went out running but this was a disappointment. Having looked over the bladder the leak is somewhere near the seal between hose and bladder and therefore this makes it unusable (this was the only piece of kit that got one outing).
Snood Snood, buff, neck gaiter, wrag, scarf, arse wiper – whatever you want to call it, the Harrier version is very pleasant, a little more taut than some of its Buffwear alternatives and fits nicely. The two colour options and designs are very nice, I preferred the blue design over the orange and this piece of fabric I imagine will be as much a life saver as the other 50 I own.
I wonder if I’ll ever need to wipe the old rusty bullethole on it though? Hmmm something to ponder dear reader.
Collapsible Cup With an increased need for events to be more sustainable and environmentally conscious we have seen a huge reduction in single use plastics and difficult to recycle materials. This has meant that the use of a refillable cup is now often a requirement on kit lists of longer races. It’s a simple thing, a scrunchy, weigh next to nothing cup that can easily attach to a race vest.
The Harrier collapsible cup comes in a range of excellent colours and works as well as any other cup of its type, the one downside of these cups is that they can’t really sustain hot contents and in the middle of a loooong race that might be something you want to consider but the good news is that Harrier has something for all you tea and coffee lovers too…
Hot Collapsible Cup I’ve seen collapsible hot mugs before but they’re often heavy and unwieldy, found in the handbags and shoulder bags of the ladies and gents who shop in Fenwicks or on Bond Street and need to be seen to be environmentally supportive but regret that their skinny latte is creating a stench in their overpriced handbag or might drip on to their overpriced ripped jeans. The good news is that the Harrier option is far removed from being a fashion item. Truth to tell it is actually a bit ugly but then I’m no oil painting myself so do I care if my hot collapsible mug wouldn’t walk the runways of Milan and Paris? No.
The hot collapsible cup is sturdy, robust and surprisingly small given the size it can reach when fully erect (I’ve heard that said about myself boom-tish). It’s useful, practical kit for running, fast packing and more general hiking days where space might be an issue.
Drybag I think I’ve owned every type of dry bag in every size over the years; Lomo, Decathlon, Osprey, Exped, Alpkit… the list goes on. Of all the dry bags I’ve used the Alpkit was, and remains the best but be assured the Harrier drybag runs it a close second. Once more the kit is available in a couple of colours and sizes, you’ll want some of these if you intend to use the Harrier running vests because they are not waterproof. I’ve been out for less than a couple of hours in my Harrier vest and the kit on the inside while not soaked through haven’t been dry either. The slim 5 litre drybag is an excellent fit for most key kit and the smaller 2 litre drybag is better for things you want quicker, more immediate access to.
If racing in the Harrier vest and living in Scotland as I do, I would 100% want a series of smaller drybags to supplement the vest and make sure my kit was dry when I needed it.
Survival Bag & Whistle A second whistle in the bundle (the first is attached to the race vest) and a proper survival bag in case you’re totally fucked on a mountain somewhere – much better than a foil blanket and might just save your life, £8.00 seems like a bargain
Fit Now this was a nuisance as I sit between a variety of the Harrier sizes. With the poles I’m 5’9 and therefore could have gone for the large and set them to the minimum sizing or gone for the medium and set it for the longer setting. In the end I chose the medium because I felt that having poles that extended beyond my height would be of little value but having slightly shorter ones might have an application. It turned out I was right and I have found the ability to shrink the poles down a little very useful for going uphill.
When ordering I was shrinking my waistline at a reasonably rapid rate, I’d moved from a 34 inch waist to 32 inch and my chest had started to shrink a little as had my middle and I was facing the annoyance of being between a medium and large. Both sizes fit me but the medium is better though when carry larger amounts of kit I find the large is a good fit too – basically, if you’re right in the middle of a sizing it might be worth going with the smaller size, at least this is my experience with the Harrier race vests and poles.
How much has it cost? That’s a difficult one I bought came without the first aid kit and this was reflected in the price, in total for everything in the ultra bundle it was £170.00 and some change – the bundle saving was around £30.00, so this should have been around £200.00. The second Kinder race vest was a further £59.00 and the Curbar was £54.00. Delivery times were amazingly swift and after ordering it on a Thursday I had it by the weekend and was testing it out on the Sunday morning. Can’t say fairer than that.
Buy or Not? On the trail or on the road this kit performs superbly but it’s not all sunshine and sweet cheeks and we need to understand that no matter how good kit is, there can be issues and Harrier is no different. You have to take into account the value that is in the ultra bundle though and that value is VERY HIGH, you can’t deny that Harrier have gone all out to produce bundles that really do tick every kit list box.
Obviously some of the things in the bundle will be of more use to than others but then on the day you need it, you need it and it will already have been covered by this excellent market disruptor.
It’s worth noting that there aren’t really any alternatives to the ultra bundle, bigger companies will make you buy all the things individually but there are alternatives to the individual items and you should do a comparison before purchasing – because it isn’t ever one size or rather one brand fits all. However, I bought the ultra bundle because it looked great, it was well reviewed and it was at a price point that it almost didn’t matter if it was a load of old shit – but it wasn’t a load of old shit and it has been my joy to be running in it and I expect to get many good years out of most of it.
So to buy or not to buy? That’s for you to decide.
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.
I was hiking up a glacier in Iceland some years ago when I asked the guide, ‘why do you give the kids ice axes?’ He explained that an ice axe gives the less hiking inclined children something to do.
I could see his logic.
No such thought entered my head when I bought ASK adventurer a child specific hiking pole from Decathlon. I bought a child sized hiking pole for her because I figured at some point the child was likely to run out puff going up one of these hills and I did not want to have to carry her.
I’m still waiting for the end of puff.
The MH500 Junior Hiking Pole The junior hiking pole is much like its budget adult variant, it is simple, lightweight and effective.
The sizing moves between 75 and 100cm and is suited for children between about 100 and 145cm. There are a series of small metal holes on the pole that serve as height points and so although not completely adjustable as a more expensive option would be, there are enough height options for all within the range offered.
There is a simple and yet surprisingly comfortable soft foam, ergonomic grip along with a strap to keep it connected to the junior hiker and the pole has an optional basket for the bottom to stop mud and/or snow collecting around the spike. Weighing in at just 170g and a folded length of 58cm this also makes only the smallest of dents in the parents hiking bag when the child has had enough of the pole. On the rare occasions I find myself being handed ASKs pole I will usually store it the side pocket of my OMM Classic 25 and it sits there rather nicely.
Practical use ASK has been using the junior hiking pole for about a year now and although she rarely actually needs it for the uphill hiking it has allowed her to become more skilled in good pole etiquette and use for when she faces the more testing challenges to come. Where it does come into its own is on the downhills, as we hike my partner tends to zig-zag a little bit to reduce the impact on her knees and back and ASK likes to join in with this and so she uses to poles to steady herself as she goes. I also find the pole useful for where loose stones or heavy mud are all around and I can have ASK use her pole to work with me to get the pair of us through to safer ground (yes in difficult situations I do keep my daughter close to hand).
More recently and with a frosty Scottish winter upon us we have seen that the pole has been as valuable in the ice as it has been on climbing hills, ASK has successfully used the pole as much on icy streets and paths as on the hills in recent weeks.
When not in use ASK has also been known to use a bungee cord or two and add the hiking pole to the Universal Gear Rail of her OMM Ultra 8 and this has not impeded her hiking at all. Given her size I would not let her carry the pole in her side pockets for fear of injury during a fall but as she gets older, taller and more secure I am sure this will become an option.
Being so lightweight we find that ASK is more than willing to carry her kit up and down and mountain without complaint whether it is attached to her or whether she is carrying it. Don’t get me wrong she isn’t weighted down with gear but she might carry her own snack and small drink (150ml) and perhaps some gloves or a spare set of buffs for the whole family.
In terms of durability we have had zero issues, over the year we have had it the pole has hiked lots of Scottish hills and many icy trails, there has been no sign of damage, bending and thankfully due to it’s aluminium construction no sign of rusting. Will it last forever? Probably not but it’s not likely to fall apart either, the chances you aren’t planning on climbing Mount Everest with something like this (or your 6 year old for that matter). It is designed for the rough and tumble that a child will subject it to but perhaps without some of the pressures that an adult will exert and to be fair if a child did in some way manage to break this would you really begrudge paying another £5.99 for a replacement?
What does ASK say? Perhaps the best reviewer is my daughter who says, ‘I like it, it helps me up the mountains in Scotland and I use it pull myself along in the deep mud or put it in the river to help me jump over the water. The best thing though is when I dig it in the ice and it helps keeps my feet on the ground’.
Conclusion Cheap, simple, effective. The phrase, ‘you get what you pay for’ doesn’t always apply and when it comes to decathlon gear I feel this very keenly. I opened my conclusion with the word ‘cheap‘ but that is inaccurate I should have said, ‘outstandingly good value’ because as well as being cheap it is well constructed and durable. If you have an adventurously spirited child that looks at mountains and hills and says, ‘let’s go up there today fellow adventurer‘ then this might be an essential purchase for you.
About half a dozen years ago I bought a Montane Prism gilet, I’ve worn that gilet thousands of times during my ownership, I’ve used it in every condition, races, hiking, shopping and everything in between. It has been (and remains) one of my all time favourite pieces of kit that I own. It’s never failed me and it endures.
But this isn’t a review of my six year old Montane Prism gilet – this is a review of the latest edition of the Montane Prism jacket which I bought recently. Could this jacket be anywhere as good as the gilet it was brought in to support? The very simple answer is, ‘yes’.
I’m a self confessed Montane fan but that doesn’t mean that I love everything they do, there’s some of their kit that simply isn’t right for me but the Prism is not one of these things – the Prism jacket fits me like the proverbial glove. So what do Montane say are the features of the Prism;
CHEST POCKET External chest pocket with YKK zip. UB says: The chest pocket is a small easy accessible place to store your phone, snack or train ticket that won’t be impeded by your rucksack or bag. It’s large enough to be useful but not large enough to allow you to overfill. The angle that it is set at also means that you’ll find access even easier when you are on the move. The addition of the YKK zip is welcome too, at least for me, having used some of lightweight zips I find them to be much more easily broken, I’d rather have the miniscule extra grammage to ensure I’ve got a zip that works and will last.
ELASTICATED CUFFS Low bulk elasticated cuffs to reduce heat loss. UB says: Nice and simple close fitting elasticated cuffs, your gloves will go beneath if they need to and the cuffs will move around with you if you’re doing something active. Adjustable cuffs are a good but for something that you might throw on when it cools down a bit and your hands are already chilly this is ready to go the moment you put it on.
HELMET COMPATIBLE HOOD Fully adjustable roll-away insulated climbing helmet-compatible hood with stiffened peak. UB says: Montane are correct in saying this is a fully adjustable hood, I have tested it with my kayaking helmet and can confirm it is helmet compatible and the adjustability is excellent for both those foul days where you need your face protected but also those dog walking days where you just fancy keeping your ears warm and you’ve forgotten your Big Bobble Hat.
STUFFS INTO OWN RIGHT POCKET Stuffs into the right-hand pocket with internal carabiner loop. UB says: One of the things I love about the gilet was that it stuffed inside itself and was further compressible to make a very small little package indeed. The jacket is equally impressive in its self stuffing pocket and although it doesn’t compress down as far as the gilet (more fabric to stuff) it remains a very tight and compact unit. Additionally the overall weight (around 390g) of the jacket means that carrying it in your rucksack is no chore as it is neither heavy nor bulky unlike say my Montane Extreme Smock.
PERTEX® QUANTUM 30 Denier PERTEX® QUANTUM outer with Durable water repellency. UB says: You assume they aren’t lying about the material it’s made from but the water repellency is rather good, yes eventually it’ll take a soaking but for the most part its good in a heavy shower or a lighter shower for a long time. I normally team my Prism with my Montane Neo Further Faster which is one of their heavier duty waterproofs and this provides an excellent layering of insultation and waterproofness from the Scottish mountain environments.
INSULATION 40g/m2 PrimaLoft® Silver 100% recycled insulation. UB says: I use this jacket up mountains and while shopping, its got a versatility to it that other jackets simply don’t. The level of warmth isn’t so much that you can’t use on a chilly summer evening but it will also help protect you in the middle of winter. The level of insulation means that it works perfectly in a layering system – so a base layer and mid layer will easily fit beneath it and it can be combined with any number of layers over it such as a waterproof. I’ve never been cold in my Prism jacket and my Prism gilet saw me through multiple winters in the South East of England – I never wore a coat I would just chuck my gilet over my running gear and stand on freezing cold train platforms and never be bothered by a chill. The jacket does the same job just that bit more all encompassing.
RIP-STOP LINING FEATHERLITE™ Mini Rip-stop 20D nylon lining. UB says: Soft to the touch and durable – the Prism is made to last and the lining is lovely.
ARTICULATED ARMS Articulated arms for high reach movement. UB says: Does the Prism jacket ride up when you raise your arms? No. The freedom of movement provided by a jacket that retails for around £120 is fantastic. The articulated arms are perfect for giving you the ability to make the moves you want to without letting the cold air in from underneath.
YKK VISLON & ZIP Full-length YKK VISLON® front zip with internal storm flap. UB says: Two way zip only on alpine red? Meh, fine – it is certainly no deal breaker. The YKK zip is again worth the few extra grams and the storm flap keeps everything cosy, I’ve never had a problem with it and I doubt you will either.
MAP-SIZED HAND POCKETS Two insulated map-sized hand pockets with YKK zips UB says: I have dozens of Harvey and OS maps and I prefer not to use a map holder therefore having map sized pockets is actually quite important to me. The thing you can say about these pockets is that they provide an excellent roast- toasty location for your digits. Even when weighed down by gloves, technology or Mars Bars I find the pockets remain comfortable and don’t make me look too much like a man with a massive beer gut.
CONCLUSIONS My experience with the Montane Prism jacket has been exceptional, I’ve already said that I use it both on mountains and also while shopping. It is comfortable, the new styling is fantastically attractive and it does exactly what it supposed to. Traversing the Ochils or climbing up mountains in Glencoe this jacket, in the short time it has been with me, has done it all and I feel like it will be around for a long time.
Can I find fault with the Montane Prism jacket after 6 months of ownership through the Scottish autumn and early winter? The easy to answer to this is, No. I usually like to find something I dislike about a product but it’s hard to find anything bad to say. Customer service from Montane is exceptional, colourways are excellent and the product performs as expected and beyond.
In harsh conditions I could easily use this for running, although obviously that is not its primary function, but on a harsh multi-day running event then this would be first to make my kit list. Overnight wild camping this jacket would be right at home and would be perfect for those nights you’re wanting to sit out under the stars before you retire to your bothy, tent or motorhome (yes I said motorhome).
Yes you could pay a lot more and get a jacket with features that you don’t need but why bother? The Montane Prism gives you so much for your money and perhaps that is why is one of my favourite pieces of kit, it offers exceptional value from a trusted brand. Of course there are excellent alternatives out there and Montane might not suit your frame or might not be to your aesthetic tastes but this Update is certainly worth considering if you need a new ‘catch-all’ jacket.
I used to believe that I was a creature of habit, especially regarding my running, however, increasingly I find myself evolving all aspects of my running.
This evolution has manifested itself in lots of different ways, my attitude to training for example was once that it was a necessary evil in order to reach races now I consider it the gift that keeps on giving.
I once considered that a running watch was a taskmaster that should not be nourished by your ever watchful eye but instead something to be feared, now however, I consider a watch a genuinely useful tool that informs on my progress and is nothing to fear, albeit with the caveat never to get too obsessed by numbers as the story they tell is far from complete.
I once considered myself to be a size 8 narrow fitting shoe only to realise that after many, many blisters, I am in actual fact a size 10 with hobbit width feet and it is in feet that my latest change has come about.
Fear not long time readers there shall be no pictures of my feet.
My feet are, if you’ll excuse the error, my Achilles heel. If something is going to fail me on either a run or a race it will be my feet. They simply give in and have always been prone to this, now while I can and do push through pain there’s a point where my feet tell me to fuck off and say ‘that’s enough Ultraboy’.
For anyone that has seen my nasty little hobbit feet you’ll know that even on their best day they look like someone has just run a tank over them – and let’s be frank – good days are rare. They are always encrusted with blood, goo and filth and my nails, what remains of them, are bitten (yes bitten) as far down as is possible and that’s quite far down.
It took me a long time to devise a system that would allow me to successfully run ultra marathons and I have deviated from this recipe so few times because although not perfect – it works most of the time (about 93% of the time based on DNFs).
The layering on my feet has been very simple – a light layer of a Compeed stick based lubricant on and between my toes followed by a pair of Injinji toe liner socks followed by a pair of Drymax socks (thickness being weather dependent) and encased inside a pair of Altra Lone Peak and topped with a pair of Dirty Girl Gaiters.
Each element serves a particular purpose and has done since I devised the system.
The result after running an ultra marathon with my feet dressed in this manner is that my second toe (the one next to my big toe) would invariably blister at the end, filling with fluid and peeling off a few days later but with very little pain and that was it. And since I adopted this format for my feet in races I have accepted this result as the price to pay for finishing the race.
I can only think of two significant failures of the system – the Skye Trail Ultra where my feet took an absolute battering over 28hrs and the Ridgeway where the heat and moisture played havoc with my poor little foot digits. In both instances I feel that any significant change to the system would have no different a result, just a different way of experiencing it.
Change? So why am I considering evolving the system? Well tastes change, as does product fit and product quality but perhaps it is experience that is the key here. The good thing about evolution is that you are not throwing the baby out with the bath water and what has worked for so many years will remain the basis for my feet going forward.
The Compeed remains my lubricant of choice and Dirty Girl Gaiters will remain as my top layer (they continue to be one of my favourite pieces of running kit and have never, ever failed me). However, there are changes elsewhere – my shoe choice has moved away from Altra towards Topo Athletic and I have been extensively testing running without the Injinji layer – especially in wet and muddy conditions – something that my new home of Scotland has in abundance.
Altra Let me explain a little further, I still very much love Altra running shoes and when I first put them on in 2015 they were a revelation.
Since that first pair of Lone Peak I have owned more than 30 pairs of Altra, mainly in trail but occasionally in road. Many of them have been brilliant but enough of them have had serious durability issues and some have had comfort issues (looking at you Escalante and King MT). The breaking point was the £130 Lone Peak 4.5 which were both too soft and lacking the kind of longevity that I demand out of a long distance pair of shoes. They felt a bit too much style and not enough substance.
I don’t plan on dumping my Altra as wide fitting footwear are hard to come by and have in fact just ordered a pair of Altra Golden Spikes for use in XC and the occasional icy conditions.
Altra though will move to my second choice shoe – this means they’ll be for training, shorter ultras and sub ultra races. To replace them I had a recent investment splurge in Topo Athletic after finding them to be a good mix of comfort, responsiveness and importantly – durability.
The MTN Racer, the Terraventure 2, Hydroventure 2, Ultraventure and Trailventure will form the spine of my race shoes for the next year or two but having also enjoyed training in Topo for several years they are displacing Altra as my ‘go to’ shoe for running shits and giggles.
Injinji The removal of the Injinji socks from the footwear set-up is perhaps a bigger change than replacing Altra because the Injinji have been there since my first ultra marathon – they were on my feet when I ran my first marathon but they only became a layered sock at the St Peter’s Way in 2014 and there is an emotional connection to the physical benefit I perceived they brought.
But I am less and less convinced by the physical benefit in my layering system.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the Injinji liner sock and currently own 12 pairs of them (thank you Castleberg Outdoors for your buy three get one free offer). The Injinji liner sock provides a very comfortable, soft, durable material between the outer sock and your foot. The liner is a delight and the fact it separates your toes out is a nice feeling after a long day on the trail. However, I’ve been running tests with my Injinji liners recently both alone and in conjunction with my Drymax socks and once the Injinji sock is wet it doesn’t respond as well as the Drymax.
The Drymax almost instantly warms the feet when wet but the Injinji liner does not and in the time it takes the liner sock to dry out (which to be fair isn’t very long at all) the damage is already done. If my feet take several soakings that means that the next to skin layer is almost always going to be wet or at the very least damp and I believe that I can reduce some of the fatigue my feet are feeling by removing the liner.
The Drymax sock is so good that it really has never needed anything else I was just such a creature of habit that I kept the Injini liner because of sentiment. What this means though is that I’ve had to increase the amount and variety of Drymax socks in my collection to cover the various seasons and race types (thanks to the Ultramarathon Running Store for stocking all the socks I need).
But what of the dozen pairs of Injinji socks?
Oh that’s easy – they will become my summer running socks and having just purchased my first pair of running spikes I suspect they will be the perfect companion for them.
The lesson of the sock There is a lesson here and it’s a pretty simple one, don’t be afraid of change – at a time where things are batshit crazy, making changes is okay. Whether it’s the way you protect your feet during a run or something that’s actually serious. Change can be positive, let’s hope that’s how my feet feel after their next race.
Please note this post is entirely my own opinion, I have no brand affiliation and I pay for ALL my own gear! Which is why I get to say fuck so much and talk about poo.
I’ve been locked down for a few days now – unable to leave the house, never mind go running. I mean I could have visited the treadmill but I don’t have a good relationship with the treadmill – we treat each other with disdain.
I’ve also been having a huge amount of fun eating toblerone and eating toblerone requires concentration and so you can’t run. When I haven’t been working, I’ve been eating and vice versa. Life is a super exciting rollercoaster at the moment.
Yesterday though I said to ASK would you like to go running in the garden?
She replied, ‘yes please, can we have a race’ and I told her that if she ran 100 laps of the garden I’d give her the virtual medal she hadn’t quite earned from her March running, and that yes we could race it. 100 laps of the garden would be enough to cover the last couple of miles she needed and she seemed happy to try it. I told her that I’d carry on and do maybe 200 laps and she seemed pretty happy about the arrangement.
The trouble is that the layout of our garden is not very conducive to running for a number of reasons;
It’s on multiple levels
The runnable bit isn’t very big
Regardless I managed to devise a route that would take in the bulk of the paths of the garden, a rock jump and some steps – all this in under 50 metres. Had I been smarter I could have used the front garden too and the two side passages wither side of the house which would have made it more like a 200 metre loop but I figured the pain of torment of such a small loop would at the very least test our mental strength.
I told ASK that we must move at slow and steady pace and that the garden was full of opportunities to injure ourselves and so we must be careful. Anyway ASK was off like a rocket and calling out to me to hurry up – I was choosing to run just behind her incase any of the garden obstacle proved the undoing of my rather slight five year old.
I had instructed both of us to put a layer on and also a buff to help keep us warm but as the laps started falling we found that both of us were wildly overdressed and quickly disposed of our layers. ASK was quick round the course, racing up the steps and then bounding down the narrow path down and making jolly good fun of the rock leap at the bottom of the narrow path.
She refused to let me pass and lead the way – even when we had water stops she would say, ‘dad are you ready?’ and then immediately step out infant of me to get a bit of a head start. As we hit 50 laps she started to slow a little bit – not on the downhill but on the steps and the climb back up to the top of the garden. I offered words of encouragement and gave her regular updates as to how many laps we had completed and more importantly, how many were left to go.
Thankfully her mid-run lull lasted about 10 laps and then she had some fire in her belly as I said there were barely 30 laps left. With all the energy she could muster I could see the pumping of her arms driving her ever forward. 10 laps to go and I called out to her that there were about 20 laps still left, because clearly she wasn’t keeping count, and as the entered the last 3 laps I finally revealed we were nearly there. She shot off but I called out to her that there were still 3 laps left – and thankfully she slowed a little bit, allowing me to catch her up.
As she passed the ‘checkpoint’ for the final time I called out to her that this was the last lap and that I was going to win. With gusto I started tailgating her around the lap, making her call out to, ‘stop it dad!’ to which I replied, ‘well go faster!’
The last 20 metres were quick as lightning and she crossed the line with a little jump in the air and a big slurp of water in the late afternoon sunshine. A very happy young lady was soon awarded the virtual medal she had now finally earned – that makes it about medal number 26 that she’s achieved and this one was in very special circumstances.
There is a really weird sensation about rolling up the start line of a race and being the only person there, I suppose this would make me the both first and last finisher in the race I was runningbut the Pike and Back (Virtual) Half Marathon had much more meaning than just a run, this was a run that filled with history, emotion and of course mud.
I left my home in Scotland at about 7am with the aim to start running around lunchtime and hopefully avoid those who might be considering running the virtual race on the course at the original designated time – it’s about a four and half hour journey and I broke this up with a swift stop at a McDonalds for a ‘nourishing’ breakfast.
I was driving the little car as it was just me travelling and as the sun beat down on the car I thought it was going to be a scorcher for the run, something I had not counted on when I had been packing my kit (I was all waterproofs and survival blankets). I arrived bang on time despite a couple of little mis-steps in my directions.
The man in the car next me glared as I pulled up next to him he tossed his cigarette out of the car and wound his window up – presumably because he believved I had arrived to lick COVID 19 all over him which couldn’t be any further from the truth.
Anyway I had a Tesco pastry and a bit of chocolate milkshake to make sure I was fully energisted and then quickly got changed into my kit. I had vague memories of Moss Bank from my childhood, although I’m not from Bolton I do know the area quite well from visits as a child and Winter Hill is a well known landmark but I couldn’t remember ever being allowd to go up it (we were not a very active family). We also used to come here when I was child to a restaurant called Smithhills – it was a dickensian themed place and for our birthdays my grandparents would take us there as a treat. This event, virtual or not was loaded with memories for me and on the day before I led the funeral to my grandmother this was rather a poignant thing I was doing (you could read about this in a separate blog post here).
I set up the navigation on my Suunto and started to amble around aimlessly looking for the start (this did not bode well for following the route). Eventually after a few minutes of groping around the park I came to a small opening in the bushes which looked like the kind of place that a race might begin – Suunto agreed and so, after a couple of pictures, we set off.
Now lets be fair Suunto and the breadcrumb trail is at best, ‘not bad’ so as I ambled up the hill towards what I considered to be the route I figured quickly that I had made a mistake – what gave this away was that I found myself launching my poor, knackered body off a wall and onto the street below and then around a few narrow winding streets and then some steps where I finally picked up what was probably the route. There were clues that this might be the route, the first was the winding river and the trail in the distance, the second was that my watch finally looked like it was going in the right direction and thirdly two fellow virtual half marathiners came thundering past me.
Aha I thought I have found my way.
Now I really hadn’t done that much research about the race or route, I’d left it to the rose tinted specs to assume that this would be something I’d like to do. I’d glanced at the elevation profile which looked like there were two small hills at about the mid-point of the route and the rest of it was pretty flat. It was only as I was about 600 metres in that I realised I had rather misjudged the situation and I had rather misjudged the route. Effectively the route was made actually made up of two tough climbs on a variety of surfaces and then in reverse it was made of a couple of hanrd going downhills and one really tough as old boots uphill that really sapped every last bit of energy you had!
The first three and bit kilometres of the route were mainly tarmac, quiet roads (or they should have been given the COVID-19 trouble), the elevation felt really tough. The toughness wasn’t just the route, this was very much a combination of a long drive from Scotland and a lack of training in recent weeks, my lack of training has been in part to COVID-19 but mainly due to the stress of work and my grandmother dying and having to do all the arrangements from this and now I was feeling it.
The road seemed never ending and I did for a moment wonder if this was a trail half marathon but then glinting in the distance I saw the outline of a gate and a route on to the rolling trails around Winter Hill and Rivington Pike. I crossed the gate and bade the cyclists a good morning as I passed by them and then continued onward and most importantly upward. At this point we had moved from the tarmac to hard packed and stoney trail. I bimbled along, stopping only to allow past me, faster moving traffic and to take pictures of the truly spectacular surroundings. In the distance I now had clear sight of the Winter Hill transmission mast and realised that I despite having been here many times before I had probably only ever seen this at a distance.
I pressed on across the rocks, the mud and the water, the route had now gone from a bit of a slog to being genuinely fun and I was finally enjoying the route – especially as the sun was shining but also lovely and cool, a perfect running day. My feet for the first time that day felt free to unleash a little bit of pace inspite of the uphill – this is why I run I thought. I found myself feeling rather jaunty depsite the situation we all find ourselves in and I could simply revel in the reason I was here – to pay a small tribute to my departed (but much unloved) granny.
I skipped down the stony path and alongside the transmittor and marvelled at the scale of the structure that had once (and may well still) send out things like the signal for Granada Television, I felt like a young boy in the back seat of grandfathers car as a ran beside the mast, the only thing missing was the twinkling red lights that adorn it as the lights go down.
I assumed that Rivington Pike could not be that far from the mast and in the distance I could see a small structure which I asssumed was the destination and turnaround point. I therefore joined a narrow piece of tarmac and wended my way downwards and started arching away from the small structure, that was not Rivington Pike – oh dear. In the distance I could see a flurry of people around what looked like a small fortification or castle – that was Rivington Pike and I was what looked like several miles away from it. Thankfully this was now downhill but my knees don’t much like tarmac and they were feeling the stress of the pounding they were taking and although my Lone Peak 4.0 are well built they aren’t suited for sustained running on tarmac.
I ran down and down, and down and down and then weirdly what felt like more down and down, yet, and this was the strange thing – Rivington Pike was up – totally in opposition to my descent.
However, eventually my downward spiral stopped and I returned to hard packed trails – here it felt very busy, lots of people travelling up to the Rivington Pike and dusty hard packed trails gave the illusion that everybody had a dry and dusty cough. It was rather interesting to watch as people covered up their faces as they walked past you or as I ran past them. I mean yes I was breathing more heavily than most of the people there but then I was exerting more pressure on my poor old body. I was mostly being sensible and passing people at a distance but one couple, who were wearing face masks, moved away from me at 90 degrees and zipped up their heavy duty winter jackets to fully cover their mouth – which I felt was a little excessive given that I was never closer than about 20ft away.
Anyway I hurled myself on to the final climb of Rivington Pike and chatted (at a safe social distance) to a local cyclist, both of us wondering why the hell we were here. I waved at him as I left him behind and continued my climb to the top which was awash with people. I stopped long enough to take a couple of pictures and then made a swift sprint down the front of the Pike knowing that an absolute shit of a hill was waiting for me.
I’ll be perfectly honest, not a lot of running was done back up the hill, my legs were absolutely cream crackered and all I wanted was to be back at the car and maybe stop at the ice cream van who was awaiting customers in the park. I was also very keen to relieve my bladder of its contents but given the throngs of people that were festooned around the route and the lack of any cover meant that I really had to tie a knot in it and hold on. It was here that I noted I had probably made a routing error on the way out and added several hundred metres to my journey as my beloved Suunto insisted that I head across the wet boggy trail. Of course this was music to my ears – get off the tarmac, get back in touch with nature and as cold mud sprayed up the back of me and my feet found themselves submerged I thought, ‘bliss’. I came across a father and son who were clearly not geared for this kind of trail and looking rather unhappy at the prospect of having to continue through this but they managed a cheery smile as I ran by them.
Soon though I was back on the path and facing the Winter Hill mast, I waved goodbye to it as I turned away from it and pushed on as fast as I could knowing that it was mostly downhill all the way home. However, as I’ve indicated the route was hard going and even in a downhill situation if you’re undertrained and exhausted then it is ging to be hard. But with the wind on my back and surprising cheeriness in my heart I ran happily off the hill and back to road which seemed so long ago now.
When I arrived back to the gate it felt like I had really achieved something and I gently ran down the road, attemptin not to punish my old nears any more than I needed to. I was so close now and in the distance I could see the park where all of this had started. Down, down, down I went – bit like a first date that has gone too well – and as I arrived back to the point I met the earlier virtual runners I felt a tremendous sense of relief. Yes I’d been slow but I’d had good reason not to rush this one – I had time and I wanted time to be able to reflect on everything that is currently going on both personally and globally. I crossed the finish line to the sound of silence, or rather the sound of nature and actually rather enjoyed it.
I’d completed the Pike and Back Half Marathon and I was pleased to have done it.
Distance: Half Marathon Type: Virtual (due to COVID-19) Ascent: Bloody Hell Date: March 2020 Location: Bolton Terrain: Very mixed Tough Rating: 3/5
I would traditionally write a full breakdown of the event but that is impossible given the nature of this one in its virtual format. What I will say is that full credit goes to the team of Time2Run Events for allowing runners to complete the event virtually – they could simply have said ‘cancelled’ but as many Race Directors have done they have looked for alternatives and we should be grateful for that.
The route was really tough, the elevation was challenging, the mixed terrain meant that shoe choice was a nightmare and if you really weren’t prepared for this then you were going to have your arse handed to you and mine was handed to me gift wrapped.
Had I not been attending my grannies funeral, and referencing the race in the eulogy I had written for the following day, then I probably wouldn’t have come down for the race I would have transferred my entry to next year, done the training and actually run much better but there was something special about this, about doing it alone, abour forcing myself to push on. I’m an ultra runner really and the half marathon distance is my least favourite race length so to come here and really enjoy myself is really quite wonderful.
There was also something joyous about finishing the ‘race’ first and last – that’ll make me laugh for the rest of my days and I feel like this is a medal I have really earned. I will looking forward to receiving the medal knowing that whenever I look at it with all the others at the top of my staircase that it will bring back a smorgasbord of feelings and that is the sign of a great thing.
The one thing I did notice was how friendly people were in comparison to the Scottish races I run, up here almost all the runners, hikers, walkers, etc have time to smile or have a laugh and a joke with you but despite smiling and saying hello to everyone I went past there was something of a lack of response. Now some of it I’ll put down to COVID-19 but I was rather surprised that the north of England, famed for its friendliness, was a little less than I’ve gotten used to in Scotland. That said, those people that did wave back or say hello or smile back at me were warm and wonderful, I was just surprised by how many people simply didn’t bother.
I used to look on at the ultra marathoners who completed the Centurion Running Grandslam with a little bit of jealousy but never fancied doing it myself despite really wanting to test myself in a series.
Well I rather fell out of love with Centurion Running and stopped racing with them – no skin off their noses, they’ve got ultra runners and ultra running wannabies banging down their door to get in to their races. I never felt like it was a community I was comfortable in, now this isn’t to say that Centurion don’t put on good events – they do, really good, but they stopped being for me, a socially awkward introvert.
So, given that Centurion was probably the biggest UK Grandslam in the south of England I probably wasn’t going to get to do a series of races in this format.
Fast forward 5 years and much has changed I’m living in Scotland and a driving licence has been achieved which has brought access to all sorts of lovely new race opportunities including Hardmoors and GB Ultras. Now while the first 18 months here have been about getting settled, buying a new home, etc I’ve become determined that after a rubbish running in 2019 that 2020 would be a year of interesting race opportunities.
And so my road to a grandslam began.
Late in 2019 I came across Ranger Ultras who race in and around the Peak District and they immediately caught my eye. It was after my failure at the Ochil Ultra that I signed up for the Y3P (Yorkshire Three Peaks) that Ranger Ultras put on. However, it turned out that injury and illness would conspire against me and so on the day before the race I pulled out.
However, the description of their event intrigued me and there was something rather ‘old school’ about them that I really liked.
I put them on my ‘must look into for 2020’ list of race providers, though by this time 2020 was pretty well formed with 5 or 6 ultra marathons already booked in. But I figured I’d like to go back and give the Yorkshire Three Peaks a bash given I’d missed it just a few weeks earlier.
Roll forward to the start of this year and there are positives starting to show themselves – I’ve been running a bit (woohoo), I’ve finished four races of which two were 50km each – not bad for a bloke, who if he were a building would be described as condemned or at the very least dilapidated. I kept sourcing new events to do this year and interestingly kept managing to squeeze them in – but not in the months that had the races of the inaugural Ranger Ultras Grandslam. Hmmmm.
In my head I began working out the logistics – the Peak District is a reasonable distance from Scotland and with a large family trip to Canada this year I wouldn’t have oodles of annual leave to use up in travelling to and from events.
The races needed to be of a distance that I could travel down to after work on a Friday night and still be fresh enough come Saturday morning to race – as criteria that precludes anything over about 60 miles.
Thankfully the first race was 57km along the Pennine Bridleway – a perfect distance as I look to build up again, a perfect time of year as it should be rather windy and wet without too much sunshine and with a reasonably generous time allowance it should be both achievable and challenging.
The second and third race are then not until nearer the year end which again works for me (mostly). The Yorkshire Three Peaks takes up October and at 100km will serve as an excellent test of my running in preparation for the year ending Cheviot Goat.
Missing the Y3P last year was a real annoyance as I had entered late in the day and had to pull out even later and I feel that as a runner who has covered a lot of ground across the UK this iconic route should have been done at least once.
Maybe that’s why it is this grandslam over some of the others – The Peak District is a place that is relatively unknown to me, they’re new and I like the challenge of new. I like the adventure of seeing the sun go down on a new horizon, I enjoy the feel of a new ground below my feet though I am confident that by the time I have run the weekend double header of the white and dark peaks at the end of November I will be fully sated and probably and bit angry at The Peaks but I will hopefully feel that I fully adventured there (at least for a little while).
This adventure is very much about continuing my journey to find out who I am and who I want to be.
I moved my life from London so that I would be able to do stuff like this, so that I could fill my boots with things that make me smile and things that can inspire me to consider joining races like The Spine or The Race Across Scotland. I have need to push myself to limit of my physical ability and perhaps more importantly my mental ability – both have which have being a bit lardy over recent years.
I feel that the grandslam will make me work harder and keep my mental endurance on track – vital for both my running and my day-to-day life.
If I do get through the first challenge of the PB57 I will know that I then need to get through, amongst others, the Ultra Scotland and the Loch Ness 360 because these will form the basis of my fitness to take on the rest of the series. Each completion will hopefully build confidence going into the next – the tough times will come if something goes wrong in one of these events as it did last year and I will be working hard to stop one bad event unravelling the rest of the year.
But let’s look for positives…
The bad news is that attempting to scratch the grandslam itch may only make that itch worse – I can feel it. Success here (and by success I mean completing it) will make me want to take a crack at the Hardmoors series of races. However, I have no idea if I will achieve the Ranger Ultras Grandslam, my failure rate suggests that there is a good chance that something will go wrong during at least one of the races but I am hopeful that the risk of missing out on the grandslam finish will push me onward towards some form of glorious end.
It was about 5.30am, I’d had a lovely big mug of coffee whilst sitting upon the old porcelain throne and yet no matter how much I jiggled and wriggled – nothing would be released. So with much trepidation I rose from my perch and slapped on a handful of lubricant and squeezed it into every crevice before putting on my running kit – for today was Falkirk 8 hour Ultra day.
Surprisingly I’d been quite relaxed about the race as my week had been busy with a disaster situation over Scotland’s status in the European Union and Saturday had brought me the opportunity to go racing with my daughter and also join a pro-independence rally at Holyrood Park. So the reality is that the Falkirk Ultra came as something of a light hearted surprise to my week.
Let me roll back about three weeks to my status as a very unfit, very overweight, very slow runner who was about to attempt Tyndrum 24 (read about it here). While I had very much enjoyed the event I’d also been left feeling a bereft, missing my fitness and my turn of pace but mostly I was missing my ability to endure. I’d run less than 8hrs in good conditions and managed a paltry 30 miles in that time – Falkirk with forecasted cruddy conditions seemed to be headed to an even worse result.
Still with a coffee inside me and dressed for a race I drove the few short miles to the car parking and then grabbed my stuff with the aim to be at the registration tent nice and early. As I ambled through the park I wasn’t quite sure what would greet me outside Callendar House but I hadn’t imagined that an entire race village would be being constructed – yet here it was, being built before my very eyes.
There were dozens of little tents and shelters going up for groups of clubs and runners and suddenly I realised that there might not be anywhere for the solo entrant to dispense with their stuff, thankfully my fears were unfounded and the registration tent would become the excellent location for drop bags. But I’m getting ahead of myself, I dipped into an empty registration tent at about 6.45am and picked up my bits, including a goody bag. Now normally goody bags are rubbish and when you’ve entered a race that costs £30 you don’t expect much in the way of extras but this was different.
In the paper bag we were given a Tunnocks tea cake, some Brewdog beer but most importantly was a lovely lightweight hoody and a pretty cool buff. I’d requested one of the cowbells too and made an £8 purchase of the race woolly hat. I felt like I was fully loaded on merchandise.
For the next hour I ambled around making a nuisance of myself as runners I knew came in for registration and said hello and had lovely chats with them all. There were a couple of guys from the Tyndrum 24, some local runners that I’ve gotten to know over the past few months and even a few of the Linlithgow Running Buddies that I’d had run with a few times.
The Falkirk Ultra was turning into a bit of an ultra meetup and there is nothing wrong with that.
As light came the little race village that had been built the atmosphere began to grow and then the music started and the PA system kicked in – all systems started to ramp up and then we heard the announcement that we would be kicking off at 8.15am – so take your place behind the line and get ready to go. Here it was that I ran into Frances and Kieron from the Linlithgow Running Buddies – I felt compelled to complain about his wearing of ‘Shites’ (shorts and tights) but before we could get into the rights and wrongs of it we were off.
Now for those of us that are local we will have been well aware that Falkirk had recently enjoyed a healthy dose of rainfall and some snow too – this meant that the course was bound to boggy and with hundreds of runners passing through the route on multiple occasions the surface was going to be churned up extensively. The course itself had undergone some reconfiguration in the days leading up to the race due to the creation of a small temporary duck pond/lake just outside the main house – therefore what the next eight hours looked like were anyone’s guess.
For the first lap I went out pretty hard – I knew that the aim was to produce 1 lap per hour or thereabouts and if I could add in some contingency while my hip and back were in decent shape then I could slow down later without too much concern about finishing. I put myself in the middle of the pack and gently hunkered down to my race strategy, not keen to chat to anyone on the first lap – I barely acknowledged the wonderful volunteers and marshals that were at regular intervals on the course.
I ran to the first and only significant climb on the course and for the first lap made great strides up it, I was determined that I would run up this bugger at least once today and I managed that but no more (I promised myself, it hurt far too much) and it was a decision that a number of runners would make.
As I reached the top of the hill I could see ahead of me the ‘shit show of mud’ that awaited us – on a good day with fresh legs or being a good strong runner you’d eat this up but being neither strong or good I was going to struggle through this – and I did. I enjoyed this section of the course, it felt the most ‘trail’ and despite it being a little bit narrow because the mud was so churned up it was still a delight to see it on each and every lap.
In the early laps I could see runners both slow and fast avoiding the worst of the conditions trying to protect their feet but for me I was confident that my combination of Lone Peaks, Drymax socks and Injinji toe liners could easily go through the worst of it and still protect my rather sensitive tootsies. Infact in these early laps as others went around mud I chose to go straight through it and enjoyed it as it the spray attached itself to my legs. I do love it when you’re absolutely coated in mud before you’ve done your first mile and this reminded of running my beloved Vigo Tough Love 10.
As I came out of the mud and back onto the more traditional country park paths I found myself slowing down a little bit, this was harder packed and therefore less good for my old and knackered hips but still very runnable and much more to my tastes than the harder trails of Tyndrum 24. I bumbled along letting runners go past me and occasionally overtaking a runner and soon found myself heading downwards to more enthusiastic volunteers – possibly the most enthusiastic I saw all day, however, at this point I was still on a mission – how fast could I get round that first lap.
The lap from this point was still headed in a generally downward direction and it was still going through the more heavily wooded area of Callendar Park – this was rather enjoyable and I was confident that I knew were headed to the turn out of the woods before rejoining the park a bit further down and then along the tarmac back to the start.
Sadly I was only half right.
I was right about the downward curvature back into the park but in the distance I saw a procession of runners heading back to the tarmac via a rather dippy, slippy field and even at this early stage you could see runners pretending to be aeroplanes with arms aloft looking for balance.
I reached the turning back on to the grass and moved slowly down it – this was nasty already and I swiftly sought out a return to what looked like a path. I ran along down into the dip and then climbed back out with all the skill of man with no skill whatsoever. This climb down and the clamber up proved to be some of the most comical viewing during the day and would give you a little smile as you watched runners struggling with it and knowing that you’d shortly be the entertainment for some other poor unfortunate!
But it was soon over and we were back on flat, sensible tarmac… but that was not a good thing. I didn’t yet know it but this section of the route would be the real mental test, every looped race has one, the bit you really hate, the bit that makes you think you should pack it all in and for me it was where you hit the tarmac again until you were back at the checkpoint.
Thankfully the Falkirk 8 Hour Ultra had something of an ace up its sleeve and that was the four sets of checkpoint volunteers that saw you through this horrible chore and even on lap one I needed the inspirational words of these lovely people. Ambling alongside the lake for what felt like an age I looked enviously towards the other side of the water to witness runners completing their first lap or in some cases getting well into their second. It wasn’t until I made it to the other side of the lake that I wished I was back on the other side…
Before a single runner had set foot on the checkpoint side of the lake it was already a well churned bog – the runners weren’t going to improve that but it was going to make for an interesting battle between us and sliding feet first in the cold lake just a few feet below us. I crossed the thick oozy mud in good time and propelled myself forward in about 33 minutes but a toilet and food stop made it more like 39 minutes before I set off again.
My stop was probably the longest one I had during the whole event as I’d missed breakfast and wanted to make sure I ate regularly. I chowed down on some kinder chocolate, a couple of delicious Caramel Freddo and a chocolate milkshake before filling up my water with Active Root – damn fine stuff that is, probably stopped me crapping myself!
I soon returned to the drizzle and the course having removed my long sleeved layer in an attempt to stop me overheating. I am led out waving at those who gave a cheery hello or supportive wave and offered encouragement to those coming in – loops makes it easier to wish people well and you’ll sometimes remember those who, like myself, might benefit from a word or three of encouragement.
My second lap was nowhere near as energetic and the first section of the loop was getting muddier and more treacherous with every step, but this I was enjoying and the volunteers at the bottom of the slope seemed to be having fun with it too (well as much as you can have within health and safety guidelines of getting your runners safely through). I continued to stretch my legs until I reached the bottom of the hill and then my body told me that this was it, each loop was now going to be a case of hanging on and seeing if we could get to the magic 8 loops.
What happened next is a bit of a haze of names, hiking and sheer bloody mindedness. I met Ed a few times who was a lovely runner that was having a bit of a day of it – but actually going really rather well, there was Heather who had this awesome hat on that had a charm almost as big as it’s owner and then there was the lovely Susan who I ran a really brilliant lap with having a lovely chat with.
The ever amazing Neil passed me a couple of times – always with practical words of encouragement and Fiona 1 and Fiona 2 both gave me lovely supportive boosts as they too saw fit to pass by me. It wasn’t just people I’ve met before though – there was Julie from Strava that turned round in the registration queue to say hello and I ran into a couple of other runners who shouted out, ‘hey are you UltraBoy?’ To which I of course reply, ‘ sort of…’ and I was either known through this blog or Strava.
The Falkirk Ultra really was a running community event.
However, I did meet one runner that made me laugh every second I was with her and that was Tracy (without an e). I think we were both on lap 5 she was ready to call it a day over an injury concern and I should have been thinking the same thing as my hip and groin were ruined. But some days you meet a person who lifts your spirits enough that you forget about the trauma and you’re reminded that you’re actually going okay.
In the time we ran together I found new energy, I was a bit lighter on my feet and I forget about the previous laps and the tiredness of my legs. I did promise she’d make it into this blog and she makes it in not so much for how brilliant she was (although she was) she makes it in because she said, ‘my mums at the bridge, I’m getting a hug’.
Well that’s a red rag to a bull.
‘I’m getting a cuddle too. What’s your mums name? I’ll ask her does she remember me, dip in for the cuddle and then tell her it was a hot steamy night in ’83 – she had the white wine spritzer and I had the babysham’.
I have no idea what Tracy’s mum must have thought but I hope she understands that what happens at an ultra stays at an ultra (wink, wink – I joke).
Tracy (and mum) were awesome and I am pleased to say that both of us made it back out on another lap.
By lap 7though I was sore, really sore and although I was still well within my strategised time I was hoping the short loop would open soon so I could forget the long loop and I’d probably still reach 50km (a shorter loop opened up at 3pm to allow runners to continue running without forfeiting distance when the bell went for the finish at 4.15pm).
However, I finished lap 7 with about 90 minutes remaining – I felt the need to go and do the big loop one final time – despite having already said most of my thanks to amazing volunteers. It very much felt like the only sensible thing to do… well maybe not sensible but I was doing it anyway.
So steeled for one final battle I headed out and this time with nobody but myself and the clock to run against I found my second wind and started running up inclines, more fool me of course but I was making a much better fist of lap 8 than I had on a couple of the others.
I danced and twirled my way around the course – daring the mud to take me – daring it to cast me groundwards bit it never did. In truth, despite the conditions I remained sure footed throughout but never more so than now. I battled down the hill to a meeting with ‘The Badger’ (more on him later) and onwards toward the finish – there would be no short loops for me.
As I crossed the tarmac in the distance I could see my daughter waving feverishly toward me, and I to her. I picked up my feet and my pace to continue the illusion that her dad is the worlds greatest runner and as she called out I lifted her high into my arms in a display of muscular movement I did not consider possible.
I stopped for a few moments to talk to her but time was pressing and I wanted to make sure this lap counted and so I waved goodbye to my family, thanking the lovely marshal at the turning point and then I headed for home.
One final lurch across the mud and there I saw the finish and most other runners on the short lap – I didn’t want to limply cross that line – I wished to show my mettle and so with the GingaNinja and ASK at the finish I picked up my feet with 100metres to go and raised hell with a sprint that swerved between the short loop runners and crossed the line in a flurry of my own excitement.
I’d actually done it.
I’d made it.
Distance: 3.8mile loop (ish)
Ascent: Nothing hideous – just felt it (under 100 metres per lap)
Date: February 2020
Entrants: 350 (inc. relay runners)
Terrain: Muddy, undulating
Tough Rating: 2.5/5
What do you want from your route? A route that will be predictable or one that surprises you? The Falkirk 8 Hour Ultra has something for everyone to love and something to loathe. I loved it for the most part, the mud was challenging, the inclines & the declines were awesome and the tarmac that threaded it together was minimised.
Even with last minute changes to the route this still felt well prepared and overall you’d be silly not to fall in love with this. Obviously I’m a little biased as I live near Falkirk and run often in or around the park but this route took in some fun bits and even in the grey weather we had it’s still a lovely place to run.
The route was incredibly well marked and heavily marshalled but not in an intrusive way, you just felt secure in the knowledge that the race really did have your back.
My hope is that the route recovers quickly from so many runners racing around it so the event is welcomed back next year – this is a great place and a great place to have a route of this nature on. Scotland needs ultra marathons during the winter to support runners like myself and Falkirk will benefit from the goodwill of runners and a deepening reputation as a place where great events can be held (let us not mention Epic from the week before!)
I’ve been to a few races in my time and I’ve seen good and bad organisation but let me assure you that the organisation, preparation and selflessness of the organisers went so far above and beyond any expectations I had.
The organisers deserve a huge amount of credit for producing an event par excellence!
I was impressed by the race village that popped up (which the organisers might not be 100% responsible for but made sure it was sensibly located, etc), facilities such as toilets were excellent, parking was sensible given we, quite rightly, couldn’t use the main facilities at Callendar Park.
Even the organisation of the short loop, the updates for race timings seemed to be so effortless, it was a joy to behold – you, as the runner could simply get on with the business of dying out on the insanely fun course! Of course we all know that only a lot of hard work makes something like this look effortless, so my huge congratulations.
As a solo runner I was also mightily impressed about the way the big registration tent was cleared down and our bags were elevated off the ground to ensure that we had very easy access to our kit and I found myself very happily dipping in their briefly each lap and then coming back out onto the course to be welcomed by the race supporters – it was really nice.
Value for Money
I normally have to question just how good the value of an event is but I can be effusive in my praise that this is probably the best value race you’ll ever do – £30! Let me put this into perspective – that’s the same as coffee and a toasted sandwich at Starbucks for two – and this race gives you a lot more than any corporate monster will.
Compare this with say the Epic Falkirk race at Callendar Park a few days earlier and you can immediately see the difference.
The route was fun, the time and dedication of the people who put this together was clearly evident. The excellent thought that went into the items in the goody bag was really appreciated and then the bespoke medal – what a corker.
People of Falkirk, people of Scotland, people of the world – this is an amazingly good value event and while I would highly recommend it to all of you could you make sure that I get a place every year as this is my local ultra and I’m going to look forward to it year in, year out!
I promised I would get to ‘The Badger’ and here we are but first I want to say a huge thank you to every single one of the marshalling team, on a cold, wet day at the start of February you stood out and supported hundreds of runners that you probably didn’t know and you gave each and every one of love and encouragement from start to whatever our finish was.
I was particularly fortunate, I got to have cuddles with just about everyone, the lovely ladies who were at the bottom of the hill and gave me both cuddles and the odd kick up the arse. The cowbell ladies who must have had ringing ears by the end of the day and the poor young lady who lost her leopard skin print gloves – amazing. The dancing ladies, the downhill turning point marshals, the chaps as we ran back into the park – all of them had a cheery smile no matter how many times I told terrible jokes.
The guys on the tarmac – couple of lovely beards there (one ginger and one badger), these guys I looked forward to seeing each lap and got lots of big hugs from them. There is something wonderful about drawing big chaps into a cuddle with a fool like me – plus it gives you a lift and hopefully it reminds them just how much they are appreciated.
I’d also like to say thanks to the great ladies who were at the two bridges who accepted my flirtatious charm with all the humour it was intended with.
And then the couple of guys at the run back to the checkpoint, one to advise us to get closer to the water as the ground grew ever more treacherous and one to bang his piece of metal with a drum stick – I may on lap 7 have suggested that I knew were he could put that drumstick… you can guess the rest.
If I missed anyone out, believe me you aren’t forgotten – every marshal and member of the team contributed a massive amount to its success and I am confident all the runners would bow down before your dedication and tenacity. Brilliant, just brilliant.
Lovely hoody, lovely buff, Tunnocks teacake and an awesome bespoke medal. Do I need to say anymore? Brilliant
This looped race jumps to the top of the list of my favourite looped races and just a favourite race in general – toppling the Brutal Enduro for loops and I am sure my enthusiasm for this race will live long. If you have never attempted the Falkirk 8 Hour Ultra then you should consider it, if you aren’t an ultra runner then get involved in the relay as that looked incredibly competitive and you could have all the fun without the pain.
As for me, well I had a lot of fun but my hips will pay the price for that fun – they started to feel pretty crappy at about the 25km mark, this though is a significant improvement on the 5 miles they managed at Tyndrum 24. The important thing for me was that I am starting to improve – it’s true I’m still a shit runner but a shit runner that is getting mildly fitter and with that I’ll hope to improve pace and distance.
I went into the Falkirk Ultra with no expectations but hopes that I would make this my 53rd ultra finish and I managed that – it might have been at the bottom end of the ultra distances but after a rubbish 2019 of running I’m pleased with the way this weekend went. I can now go to the F50K with a bit more confidence (just need to learn to navigate).
Ultimately what can I say other than this was stunning and I hope to see you all next year for a few extra laps.
‘I want mummy’ came the little voice of ASK as tears rolled down her freezing cold face. But only half a mile in and half a mile to go we were not stopping.
After the Tyndrum 24 and the Vogrie 5km I turned my attention to something a little less about me and entered ASK into a family mile race in the shadow of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh. Given the UK and my adopted home of Scotland had just been rudely removed from the European Union I figured what better way to improve my weekend than spend time with my daughter earning another medal.
The race was part of a festival of running, there were some UK wide university XC championships on as well as a more general 5km race for the public, a toddler dash and the family mile that we had entered.
It was a chilly and windy day when we arrived at the delightful Holyrood Park and we were keen to find some shelter and our number. It was incredibly busy with runners across the various races milling around or queuing for one thing or another. Eventually we found the correct tent and grabbed our race number – I was only moderately concerned when I asked the volunteer when the family mile started that he didn’t know – but I let it slide knowing full well that days like this are stressful for organisers and volunteers.
ASK and I hid in the sanctuary of the tent for a while given that we’d had a rather convoluted journey to Holyrood Park but once warmed up a bit we headed outside to watch some of the University Cross Country Championships happening – the ladies event was well underway and we were fortunate enough to be able to cheer home some of the back markets but also head to the finish line and witness the astonishing feats of the winning ladies. Bathed in mud and caked up to their eyeballs in the brown gooey stuff I asked ASK if she would one day like to be like them. Her reply was an enthusiastic ‘ooooo yes’. Whether this was to placate a father she believes wants her to be a runner or not Is up for debate but I live in hope that she picks an active lifestyle for herself.
Anyway after watching these awesome runners and the toddler dash(which brought back lots of great memories of early races with ASK) we slowly headed over to the start line, we spoke to another family who were running and chatted about what brought us here and why our kids were keen to race, it was nice to hear another families reasons for rocking up. We lined up at the start line, spoke to other runners and wished them all luck during the event and after a short warm up we were sent into the race.
The mile has been my favourite race distance for years and years, it is fun, it’s a blast and you can turn it into a real gut buster in ways that you can’t with other distances and when ASK and I thundered away from the start we made swift progress from the back to the front. Watching my daughter striding in the way she does is something of a joy and she has both form and technique that I have never been able to master.
We were thundering down the tarmac towards the Holyrood Palace turnoff and I could see all the Scottish flags waving in the distance and thought to myself – I wonder if this is s Pro-EU rally, must check this out later. But my gaze was suddenly averted towards ASK who was slowing, I tried to gee her up with words of encouragement but then she simply burst into tears. I stopped running and knealt down beside her
‘What’s wrong’ I asked
“I want mummy’ she replied through deep wet sobs.
‘No you don’t,’ I countered, ‘you want a good time, a medal and to show this off to mummy when we get home don’t you? Mum will be so proud of you’
I gave her GoPro which always makes her feel more important when we race together and she took pictures as we came up to speed again. The little inclines up to the turnaround point was reasonably steep but I reminded her that every hill we go up we eventually have to go down and so at the turnaround we hurtled away, catching the runners ahead of us and looking to make up the ground we had lost during our stop.
In the distance I could see the finish line and there was a lovely bounce in the form of supporters on the course cheering all the children home. ASK hurled forward faster than she had at any point during the event and I told her to move ahead of me so she could finish her race with a flourish. She was flying and I could feel my pride swelling as she threw herself across the line and then promptly burst into a tears.
I once more knealt down and comforted my racing daughter who received her medal (and from me some Kinder chocolate), she was also provided with one of the Edinburgh Winter Run beanie hats which, once she had calmed down, wore proudly.
I asked her what was wrong and all she would say is that, ‘It’s too hard and I want mummy.’ We came to the conclusion that she gets a bit anxious before racing as this isn’t the first time she has cried on the finish line and she never struggles over the distances. Something as a parent that I need work on to give her greater confidence going to the start line but that is something for next time.
Regardless she soon forgot her woes and was very happy with her medal and immediately wanted to do it again.
Both ASK and I would definitely recommend going along for one of the races but it was a very busy set of races and with University XC championships going on it was made even more complicated, a little bit more signage would have helped and a larger bag drop as the queue for collection was massive and slow moving. The Family Mile and the Toddler Dash were both really nice additions and Holyrood Park is a delightful place to do it. ASK did tell me that she wanted to come back and climb (amongst others) Arthur’s Seat.
As we left Holyrood Park I decided that we would investigate the sea of EU and Scottish flags and when we reached the Government buildings we saw that it was indeed a rally about ‘Tories Out’, ‘IndyRef2’ & ‘RejoinEU’. ASK and I joined in and spoke to many of the lovely people outside the parliament buildings about our reasons for supporting them and I spent much time explaining the importance to ASK about what was going on here. All in all a good day.
After four months of near inactivity the Tyndrum 24 (a looped foot race near the West Highland Way) had to be looked at with a bit of common sense. Even before I arrived I knew that running 24 hours was highly unlikely and I had joked that I might sleep 4 hours for every 1 hour of running but that’s getting rather ahead of myself.
For those of you who read my previous blog post (read it here) you’ll know that my training and racing has been almost non-existent since September and even before that it had been sporadic at best. I’d gained a shedload of weight and worse – I’d grown lazy and unfit. The truth is that I’d grown so lazy and unfit that during the 2019 festive season I had very much considered not running the Tyndrum 24.
However, after a short test of the route just before new year I decided that I would put the months of R&R and overating behind me and use the T24 to open my 2020 race account and see just how fall I had fallen.
A mid winter looped race in Scotland is always going to be a challenge – weather likely to be unpredictable, underfoot conditions likely to be grim and the cold… the cold. However, I approached this in a practical kind of way and packed up every bit of kit I could and worked out how I could stop semi regularly and rest so as to not push myself too far and risk injury and avoid failing to turn up at my next event.
In the run up it was confirmed that conditions were set to be kind and as I left the house on Saturday morning I was hopeful that the light drizzle would disappear and we’d have a lovely event.
I drove the back roads through Duone and Callendar up to Tyndrum and enjoyed the snow dusted hills and the dawn rising around me. I find driving through new parts of Scotland and the many little towns one of the delights of being here. I pulled up to the Green Welly about 8.30am and after meeting the first couple of volunteers (talking about you Andrew) I started to set up camp in the car. Here I imagined that I’d come back from the route jump into a sleeping bag – have a snooze, change and get back out – all part of the plan.
I disappeared off for a few minutes to have my pre-race poo and when I came back the window of the car next to me opened and the gentleman in the seat said hello.
Now as regular readers will know I am not a very sociable chap – except in a race scenario and so David and I chewed the fat for a while, especially over our mutual appreciation of the Skye Trail Ultra. Weirdly there was something familiar about him and much as I tried I could not place him but I’m going to guess that he may well be the David I met at the start line of the Tweed Valley Ultra in 2018 – perhaps I’ll never know.
As the clock moved on I suggested we head down to registration – which gave me the opportunity to meet up with the wonderful Linlithgow Runner, Brian.
David and I rocked up the The Way Outside site and headed into registration after a bit of a bimble around the drop bag site and a watch of the other runners milling around as they waited for the start. The site seemed well set up and there was space for runners, volunteers and supporters to move around without pissing each other off – a good move from the race organisers. With time moving on though we headed upstairs to the registration point and were processed both quickly and efficiently (weirdly it could well have been fellow instagrammer Karmac70 that gave me my number but I can’t be sure).
Anyway, ID check was done, number was handed over, car details handed over to ensure any problems could be mentioned to us during the race and then we were sent outside to grab the lap dibber. All very easy, all really well drilled.
On the way to collect the dibber (from the awesomely hairstyled Jeff/Geoff) we ran in to Brian – saved me going to look for the bugger and it was a genuine joy to see him.
Brian and I have gotten to know one another a bit over the last few months as he’s been progressing his distances for bigger challenges to come and was ready to step up again with 12 hours at Tyndrum. We did brief introductions and then headed down to the Real Food Cafe for a cup of tea and a chat in nice warm surrounds. This, for me, was a wonderfully relaxing way to start a race and as we chatted about running and races I looked back with rose tinted specs to all those races were I’ve run terribly. Ha! Still saved me thinking about the terrible running I was about to do.
Post tea Brian headed off to get ready and David and I drifted off to the car park for a final change of kit.
The next hour or so there was mostly hanging around and although friendly and conversational you could feel that runners were keen to set off, there was a nervous energy about the place and even I, the fat hobbit, was keen to set off. However, I managed to fill my time with a few photos and exchanges of strange tales with some of the other runners.
Looking round the checkpoint you could see a broad assortment of runners, mountain goats, road runners, first timers, old timers and misfits (I was in the misfit camp) – it was a real mix that had been attracted and in my experience that makes a for a good time. I’m always fascinated about what brought all of these wonderful people to a looped running event? in Tyndrum? on a cold and chilly day in January? That was something I’d be exploring with the many runners I came across during my time on the course.
After a short briefing from Stacey Holloway, the Race Director, we were off and rather annoyingly I found myself near the front and so immediately set about rectifying this and slowed my pace dramatically. During these first few hours where daylight existed I was keen to soak in my surroundings and enjoy the clear, crisp weather that’s one of the key joys of having this as my main hobby – the opportunity to see bits of the world that others do not and with loops you get to revisit the experience several times over and take in different details each time.
We ambled down the course jumping across the pools of water that had settled and a couple of short water jumps that were included as part of the entry before coming to the main river crossing. Given the heavy rain recently this could have been treacherous but actually it was fine and there were multiple good crossing points.
I was actually rather enjoying myself – I even leapt across the rocks in the run up to the bridge and then broke out into some genuine running before the first major hill that I knew I’d be hiking up. The hill brought many of the runners to a plod, myself included and this was a good chance to chat to people and wave on the speedgoats who would be crossing the hundred mile mark.
I was more concerned that Brian would overtake me on the first lap and so I plodded on – very keen to get the first loop in the bag – he could then overtake on loop 2 (I wouldn’t mind that so much). The climb wasn’t horrendous but it was significant – perhaps not in these early loops but as the day wore on this would increasingly feel hard and I noted that the ground below our feet, throughout the course, pretty much, was hard, unforgiving and unrelenting – this could be a worry given that neither my back or hips have ever responded well to sustained hard trails.
The descent from the high point of the course was going to be equally challenging but both of these seemed in line with expectations – it was the middle part of the course that looked the most challenging to me. Benign undulation and a long relatively dull stretch of path was what awaited the runners – this would be the part that divided opinion either as a rest from elevation or a chore between the interesting bits.
I battered down the mine road towards the (well used, given how many runners I saw going in and out of it) mid point toilet stop and then clambered up towards the final section of the route beyond the highly amusing medics who were preparing the fire and clearly a BBQ! Then it was a relatively single track path back towards the checkpoint which was rocky, undulating, challenging and yet very enjoyable. The short bursts upwards and the fast bursts downwards made for a bit of movement in the legs – something that felt very necessary after the grind of the mine road.
The final burst back up to the checkpoint was a gentle lollop back along the river with a rather cruel loop in the checkpoint before reaching the dibber and our dibber checker.
I rolled into the checkpoint feeling reasonable but not without concern – fitness was obviously a concern but that was feeling steady – the problem was that my groin was feeling like shit. I started on my second lap with a light burning that was going through the same highs and lows as the route but lap 2 was finished within a reasonable time and I was still moving. Hurrah! However, the pain was now fully formed and sending shooting signals down my leg and up into my back.
I started to think about my options, one lap for a medal – well that was done but mentally that would be bad – I had originally aimed for 50 miles but that was rapidly being repurposed to a 30 mile run. In my head that was still going to be a failure but a chat with the GingaNinja reminded me that having not run for months those 30 miles would represent a reasonable return.
By lap 4 those 30 miles looked so far from achievable – I was in a really poor way, this felt like a DNF in the making and not reaching the minimum ultra distance was going to be a DNF to me.
It seemed to me though that on each lap I was going to meet someone that would help me reach the minimum distance. There was a Jennifer, John, Karen, the wonderful long distance walker Paul and many more. Occasionally I’d see Brian, David, Fiona or Neil who would provide a bit of a lift to get me over another hump. There were cuddles and conversation with (I’ll say husband and wife) Andrew and Susan – each one of these people and many more provided the incentive to keep going long enough to get six loops done. I heard amazing stories from the young, the old, the speedy and the slow and each one felt like stardust that kept me going just a little bit longer.
Laps 5 and 6 were well into the darkness and there was the greatest joy as I was able to sample the night sky of Tyndrum and the beautiful twinkling of all the stars in the sky watching over us. I stood at the bottom of the main climb, alone with my headtorch off wishing that I had a decent camera with me to capture this moment – I did something similar on the single track back up towards the start need the little mini loch and felt both the joy and appreciation of freedom I enjoy to be ale to be out here. However, as I swtiched my light on during those last few hundred metres of lap 6 I knew that a decision had to be made.
And it is 100% true that I didn’t make my final decision to halt at six loops until I was almost on top of the checkpoint. I felt sad, I felt drained but this was the only decision that could be made if I wanted to build on what had been done at the Tyndrum 24.
I had very much wanted to continue as the night time running was going to be spectacular and weather conditions were such that the route was going to be good overnight but my injury woes were getting worse and I knew that at some point I would need to drive home – injured.
I hobbled into the checkpoint and saw Jeff/Geoff and his beautiful hair (he let me touch it) and exited the race with a medal and my tail between my legs – there was no pride in my finish or my distance but it was a finish.
Distance: 5 mile loops over 6, 12 or 24hrs
Date: January 2020
Terrain: Hard Trail
Tough Rating: 2/5
Route I’ve already described much of the route but what I haven’t said is that there is a plethora of stunning scenery to delight in and despite being near civilisation you can feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere too – it’s a clever place to put a race like this. However, I felt the hard conditions underfoot took away from the picturesque nature of the route but it is a minor thing yet something some runners might want to consider if you’re thinking about entering. I’d been out and tested the route over the festive period as I was in the area anyway but I’d gone in reverse to the way we ran at T24 and felt that the reverse was easier – but again it’s all opinion and ultimately you’re doing the same elevation whichever way you went.
Organisation The organisation was faultless, yes there were challenges – the on route toilet became unusable for a number 2 apparently and there was the occasional headless chicken moment as someone was running round looking to fix a problem but everything was handled well. What felt like an army of (I’ll assume) volunteers and the RD looked effortless on their exertions both at the checkpoint and around the course. The checkpoint layout, the race registration and the lap counting was all super easy and that’s high praise indeed, especially when you consider that this is an inaugural event. Tyndrum 24 should go from strength to strength and I expect it to be well supported in the coming years.
Communication Regular communication across email and social media channels was excellent, I felt it was very important that the organisers did not rely on social media as a number of races now do. The email communication means you are more likely to catch those runners who don’t use these. In the run up there was quite a lot of information being put out – I would expect that in year two this will be streamlined as the issues that cropped up (such as transfers after the deadline) will be ironed out. Great job on the communications and marketing.
Value When you think about this the race is quite expensive but not outrageous at £80 and well within the average price of similar such events – however, I believe it is excellent value for money, especially compared to its peers.
There was clearly a good deal of organisation that went into the event, there was lots of support such as a toilet on the route, ample quality parking, a good spacious checkpoint base, accurate lap timings, what felt like a load of volunteers, kit purchase options, headtorch loans, etc). There were upcycled race t-shirts and wooden medals which were a nice touch too.
Ultimately the money spent by the runners on entering the race felt like money used on the race.
Volunteers The team behind T24 were really exceptional, I’ve met a lot of great people manning checkpoints or standing out in the cold but these guys were right up there. I’d like to mention once again the lovely Andrew, Susan, (their poor daughter for having to listen to my flirting with her dad) and Jeff/Geoff – they all made me laugh.
The guys on the course – especially those by the little bridge must have been freezing but always had a cheery smile, the medics were unapologetically hilarious and annoyingly inspiring with their nice warm fire going and the lady in the big wooly hat – she was so brilliant – mostly just telling me to get a move on. Ultimately it was a great team that came together to give the runners the support they needed.
My thanks guys.
Loop v Loop I’ve run a few looped events over the years – Challenge Hub 24hr, The Ranscombe Challenges, Brutal Enduro, Endure 1250 and how does the T24 compare?
Thankfully the Tyndrum 24 compares very favourably – it felt very modern and forward thinking, it was incredibly runner friendly and supportive and it felt like an event that was put on for runners by runners. Sometimes looped events can feel like an attempt to get your number of completed marathons up (not that there is anything wrong with that) but this felt like a genuinely challenging event in its own right and you needed to prepare for it whereas sometimes lap races can feel like a turn up and give it a crack – I felt with T24 you had to want to do T24 not just another looped event..
I remember running Endure 1250 and felt that was a ‘numbers’ event where I was just putting another number on my ultra total but here I felt like runners, myself included were racing whatever clock they were facing. In another year when I was a little fitter I would feel very confident of running 75 miles or more because I wanted to and I could train for that.
As looped events go this was one of the more fun ones and sits up there alongside the Ranscombe and Brutal loops as a favourite.
Medal The medal design was very nice, and as readers will know I do love a medal, my only concern is that the thickness of the wood suggests that this might not survive much of a bash. When I compare this to say the thickness of the wood of either Ben Vorlich or the Nocturnal I feel both of these will be a little more hardy. I’d have been quite happy to pay a couple of pounds extra for a few more millimetres of wood to ensure that my memento of this event lasts for the duration of my life.
Eco No plastic cups? Wooden medals, upcycled race shirts, local suppliers – all things I can very much get on board with and I doubt you’d hear any runners complaining about this. The race encouraged users to use public transport where possible – going so far as to have a race start time that made this possible (something that just two years ago I’d have been very happy with given I didn’t drive). Issues around sustainability in running is likely to become a bigger and bigger selling point as the years go on and it is good to see a race taking a lead on issues like this.
Conclusion I suppose the conclusions come down to whether I would run the event again and the answer is a well considered yes.
Tyndrum 24 is a strange beast of an event given the location and time of year but it is a much needed addition to the UK ultra running calendar as winter running events in January, especially in Scotland, are nowhere to be found. There is a reason though why this is so and that reason is that Scotland can have hideous weather in January and the possibility of cancellation presumably remains high.
These things are something you will have to factor into your calculations when you consider entering – this year the event was fortunate to have the best possible conditions – but next year and the year after may not be so lucky. How would you feel running in the driving rain up and down hill in the dark for at least 16 hours? Or ploughing though the snow for the same amount of time wearing every last inch of clothing you could manage just to get to 30, 40 or 50 miles? I’ll be interested to see how the event goes on in a year like that.
Perhaps the more important question for you is, should you enter? I feel the answer to that is easy – of course you should. This was a really lovely event with a wild mix of runners from all walks of life and the fact that the organisation was top class only adds to the conclusion that this is a top quality event.
I’d go so far as to say that it is race worth travelling for and 100 miles across the maximum time allowed is very achievable even if you chose to walk speedily the entire thing you’d be grinding out distances near three figures.
I also feel it is worth noting that the race directorship team is new to this and should be given a huge amount of praise for the amount of work they poured into this – it looked like a labour of love and that hard work paid off with a smooth and delightful event.
My own race, as I’ve suggested, was a failure but not totally, 4 laps away from my 50 mile target, I ran for less than 8 hours and I was in so much pain that this throws into doubt my participation at the Falkirk Ultra. Mentally though there was a hint of success – despite my lack of fitness and groin/hip/back problems from less than 5 miles in I managed to hold on and knock out 30 failure lacklusture miles but 30 miles nonetheless.
As I write this on Sunday evening while listening to some made people on the post football chat on BBC 5 Live I can feel the pain rolling around my groin and hip, Every time I stand up I feel it and evry time I take a step I feel it. I made the right decision to pull out. The potential to cause further long term damage was real but I know how to solve it – I need to weigh 15kg less, I need to eat less rubbish and I need to get back out there probably tomorrow, even if it is only for a slow couple of kilometres, probably involving the hill outside my house.
Thanks T24, thanks to everyone involved and who knows maybe I’ll see you next year.
Next Next I prepare for a solid weekend of Scottish fun starting on February 1st at the Edinburrgh Winter Riun where ASK and I will attempt to bring her mile time down a little and the following day I’ll be heading to Callendar Park in Falkirk to run loops again but this time deliverately for 8 hours (both subject to my injuries calmong down a bit).
Before I start I should write that I realise that given the state of the world that my ‘problems’ discussed here are small fry and I lead both a fortunate and charmed life.
Still I hadn’t written a blog in a while and I’d gotten to be an unfit fatty!
Undoubtedly 2019 was my worst year of running since I began in 2011 and that’s a sad thing to consider given how relatively well 2018 had ended. I can’t deny that there were moments were I believed that I was turning a corner but it turned out that each corner proved to be another slap in the face from a different assailant.
Now normally I fill my blog with tales of injury woe and there was some of that but this year was more complicated.
The move to Scotland continued and although the whole family was now safely north of the English border we needed to find a house to buy and this proved more challenging than we had initially hoped and I had perhaps naively assumed that I could continue with my rather torturous race schedule during this hectic time.
THE WARNING SIGNS & A FALL FROM GRACE The truth was that I could not continue as I had before and I got a very early warning of this when I travelled 450 miles to run the awesome Vigo Tough Love 10 (and pack up the remainder of the house). I felt every last inch of the race in my legs and the cramp that nearly killed me at mile 9 was horrendous. This should have been a warning to me but my general excitement about being in Scotland amongst all of these nice new races meant I went a bit mad.
My second warning that things were not going to go well came at the start line of the Highland Fling, here I ran into Andy O’Grady – the man who saw me to the finish line at the Skye Trail Ultra. ‘You’ve piled on the beef haven’t you?’ he said casually – he was only joking around with me but for a man who has poor body image issues this was something of a blow. However, it was also confirmation of something I knew very well – the trips up and down to Scotland, the lack of training, the lack of running and activity, the over eating and the living on my own for three months had taken their toll on my body – I’d gotten fat and lardy, both mentally and physically.
The same day as Andy poked fun at my fatness I found myself in the misery of the 9hrs of heavy rain and an unpleasant fall on Conic Hill at The Highland Fling. I withdrew from the race about mile 35 – a little over a half marathon from the finish – I was distraught.
How far I felt I’d fallen.
At the checkpoint where I threw in the towel I could see the excellent Scottish runner ‘Rhona Red Wine Runner’ somebody whose blog I have been a big fan of and periodically chatted to via Twitter over the years. We’d never met but I’d become so ashamed of my performance and appearance that I hid in the corner of the room I was waiting in hoping she neither noticed or recognised me.
The injury from the fall was relatively easy to recover from but the mental side of it was difficult to get over, even though I was just about ready for it I pulled out of the Balfron 10km and pulled out of the Ultra Trail Scotland for the second time.
With the final house move the weekend after my Fling effort I began to feel that I was simply pushing too hard too fast. However, rather than rest properly I decided that once the house move had concluded and my body had recovered a bit I gave it some welly and started training again, returning to ultrarunning with the relatively simple but challenging Ben Vorlich Ultra.
I found Ben Vorlich tough as my fitness was still somewhat lacking but there was an overwhelming sense of joy that accompanied it and I started to feel like I could make some progress ater successfully completing the race and so immediately went home and entered the Thieves Road which runs across the Pentlands near Edinburgh. Sadly on race morning I awoke with a terrible case of the Gary Gritters and this kyboshed my attendance – sensible as I spent most of the day on the toilet and given the temperatures recorded I would not have finished anyway.
Still I had the Ambleside 60 upcoming in early September and so I retained my focus and actually I managed to continue training once the illness had passed and although the Ambleside 60 was even tougher than Ben Vorlich I managed to get over the line. I was finally feeling something of a bounce and with an effective if unconventional training regime (running up and down the West Lothian Bings and hiking in the Ochils). I was beginning to feel ready but once again I was about to get a kick in the guts and one that would end my year.
During the Ochil Ultra my stomach gave me all sorts of problems and I was vomiting from early on, I managed to push on to about the 20 odd mile point but as I came into the checkpoint I simply collapsed on the floor and lay there thinking about my latest failure – this year was being rubbish. I felt at that moment the least like an ultrarunner that I have ever felt, I felt like a failure and that the runner who had earned nearly 200 medals, 50 of them in ultramarathon distances was coming to the end of his running career.
I went home that day and ate Dominos pizza and probably quite a lot of sweet things, I felt rubbish, I was rubbish and from here the dark gloom that came over me felt very tangible. Every race from here to the end of the year was thrown into jeopardy by this running breakdown. Race after race started to be cancelled as I realised that I was never going to make the start line, never mind the finish.
Benarty Hill Race, The Yorkshire Three Peaks Ultra, The Rebellion and finally The Cheviot Goat – significant cost (best part of £500 across those 4 races and hundreds more spent on maps and kit for these events.
However, the money was less significant than the cost to my mental wellbeing.
As the days dragged on beyond the Ochil Ultra I found myself enjoying retreating to a position of rest that involved eating biscuits, playing with my family and catching up on movies I’ve been waiting to see for an absolute age. There was a need for a physical break after all our efforts over the last year and work was being brutal in the run up to a significant project launch so maybe this stoppage was something that was needed.
However, running has always been my release and is inextricably linked to both my mental and physical wellbeing – so was there going to be a price to pay? Something I should have given more consideration as I sit here writing this in January.
Racing had now dropped down my priority list, something that had not happened in all the years since I began ultrarunning in 2013. A nasty illness in November also came at the wrong time and when I had been considering getting back out there in order to race The Goat and meet up with outstanding ultra runner Ryan Flowers.
However, I was sidelined for the best part of a month in the run up to The Goat and had no choice but to withdraw in the days leading up to the event. Thankfully I recovered in time for the a first family Christmas in our new home and our second in Scotland and while this was very enjoyable and relaxing I realised that I had relaxed too much, I’d put on significant weight over the past year and I was hiding in baggy clothing and finding it embarrassing being me.
And even as I added cream to another coffee and opened another packet of biscuits I still was struggling and it was only when I realised that my new found laziness was affecting things like my breathing that I decided it was time to pull on the running shoes and get back out there.
MEDAL COLLECTION INSPIRATION The sad thing is that my medal collection hasn’t been giving me any joy or providing the inspiration to earn more medals – it has simply become a historical record of achievement rather than a living breathing thing which grows and evolves.
When I lived in the South East of England I found that every time I ascended my steep staircase I was greeted by my medal collection, it demanded that I added more but now it doesn’t do this, it is a decoration – therefore I’m going to find a new home for those medals so that they provide the inspiration I clearly crave.
Perhaps several medals in quick succession will help to build the desire again or if not medals then at least finishes – the benefit of the T24 and the Falkirk 8hr is that they are both loops and so I can’t fail to finish – subject to completing at least one lap and the F50K is running around Falkirk which is pretty well known to me now and should be within my ability. I was planning on adding in a few shorter distance races on the in between weeks too – so ASK and I are off to Edinburgh to run the Winter Family Run (1mile). I may also consider a couple of 5 or 10km distances too – just to hold the precious piece of metal in my hand and bask in personal success – believe me I know how idiotic I sound. However, I have long associated the medals with me being in a good place, even if the state of me as I first clutch a medal is pretty ruined!
ANOTHER RETURN? Let me assure you it has not been easy to bother with another return. Scotland and it’s notoriously foul weather has been in full evidence over the last few weeks and yet I have still found myself throwing on my shorts and doing little bits of running that will form the basis of my training.
5km most days isn’t really marathon territory but it’s a start. There has been lots of elevation added across these short distance and as a family we are resuming hill walking at the weekends and enjoying the great Scottish outdoors that we moved up here for regardless of what the weather looks like.
It is slow going, very slow and I am both the fattest and unhealthiest I have been in years and I am not finding it fun but I am doing it.
I don’t really enjoy these periodic rebirths and the themes in them are, sadly, reliably consistent, which gives me caution when I pin my hopes on another go at getting fit and healthy. The spiral that I seem locked into perhaps require some form of significant event to kickstart me into action – something akin to a heart attack or a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes. I realise that this sounds ridiculous but when you find that you can wake up regardless of your fitness and still force out 30, 40 or 50 miles and get the medal then the attitude can still afford to be, ‘well I can still do it’.
When I see social media material about Transformation Thursdays or Reframed Fridays or whatever these stupid names are I can see that there was a significant issue going on and that the person has done something about it – usually gotten fitter, cleaner, lighter, healthier. I’ve never quite managed to get to the point where the problems were so significant that the doctor or other person was saying, ‘listen mate you’re one Mars Bar away from ruining yourself forever’. That conversation doesn’t take place and so I find myself excusing my poor food behaviours and finding new ways to justify continuing them.
That is a difficult set of mental blocks to overcome and even as I write this I am struggling with it.
SECRET EATING Those months of secretly eating Bernard Matthews Mini Chicken Kievs and Belvita Filled Strawberry bakes has not given me any joy – in fact these actions, this eating has made me very sad indeed. I’ve spoken before about over-eating, secret eating and the negative effects that this has but whereas before I was using running to combat it I’ve found that this time I was simply destroying years of work in bowls of processed and sugary treats.
It is a sorry state of affairs that I’ve been secret eating food I don’t even want but at least I can admit it and hopefully now do something about it.
CONTROL & ATTITUDE But I’m only at the start and I have yet to get control of the eating but at the very least I have enough control to be doing the exercise that can negate some of the impact of my foul food behaviours.
There is also the question of ASK, one I’ve mentioned before, my food behaviour should not be allowed to rub off on her and I am aware that sometimes I fail in this aspect of parenting and it is an area that I need to work on harder. Even if I can’t eat vegetables and fruit I should still be actively promoting these to her. In fairness she is not the glutton I can be and has a very healthy enjoyment of positive food choices – seeing things such as chocolate as a treat rather than seeing them as I do, as a food group that requires 5 a day.
The physical activity is also helping to get a better balance mentally – I feel more decisive and clearer in vision when I’m fitter and as I hiked around the delightful Falls of Clyde last weekend I could feel myself wanting to go further, be active and it was delightful – the trouble is that tonight’s running was torrid and tough – the battle is clearly only just beginning.
But control of my attitude towards health is going to be key to regaining overall control and ensuring that the enjoyment I’ve had through being healthy continues through my 40s and beyond. With control, will come the respect that my body deserves after serving faithfully for the last 42 years and in that respect I will create the kind of person I want my family to see.
I’m hopeful that I’ll finally make a decision regarding a recognised running club which I feel will offer a greater ‘herd mentality’. Being around other runners does provide a greater sense of purpose and direction, especially to me, and although it is not something I have ever done I feel it will create a support network I can both draw from and feed into.
My experiences with Parkrun, The London Social Runners and The Linlithgow Running Buddies all had lots of highs but ultimately none were quite the right fit for my running needs (although I retain huge respect for them all) and I feel the right running club would help keep me on the straight and narrow.
Sadly one thing that I did try to help inspire me was Strava. I had hoped that joining Strava would provide new local running connections but the truth is that it hasn’t – save for the lovely Fiona (hello if you’re reading this, nice to see you the other night) and despite my local area being full of runners and sporting types I haven’t found organic ways to make connections that might benefit myself and equally them. Therefore I have probably given up on Strava, though never say never and if you find my activities making their way onto your app screen – do think kindly of the fat bloke running around Falkirk.
SO NEXT NEXT… This weekend brings me to the first race of the year at the Tyndrum24 – a looped 24hr event where I plan on going super slowly and super steadily and taking so much kit with me that my body shouldn’t have to take too much of a hammering from the conditions (lots of shoes, lots of waterproofs). I’d like to come out of T24 with around 50 miles completed – which might not sound like much but given that the furthest I’ve run since the Ochil Ultra is 7.5km then 50 miles sounds like a big ask. If I can achieve the 50 mile mark I’ll be very happy and this will hopefully give me something of a momentum launch into a busy year of events with the Falkirk Ultra following 2 weeks later and the F50K 4 weeks after that.
I really want the T24 to help me rebuild the confidence I am going to need to complete events such as the Loch Ness 360 and the Ultra Scotland 50.
Don’t get me wrong I don’t want to be fat, unfit or unhealthy – I want to be none of these things and I desperately want to get back to being a healthy icon for my daughter – who I encourage to be active at every available opportunity. As I write I find it amusing that this may sound like I consider 2019 to be an unhealthy nightmare and a waste of time but the truth is far more complicated than that – 2019 was actually a really very positive year filled with much joy and fun times.
As a family we have developed new facets – especially with ASK starting school and the move to Scotland has proved to be the kind of success I had hoped for – but there is room for improvement. New friendships to replace those we left behind will be important as we go forward and we must be keen to make the required amount of time in our daily routine to ensure we are getting the most out of this wonderful opportunity.
So what’s the plan?
Well there are the dozen ultra marathons which are a very serious consideration and I’ve entered things that I believe will be the hardest possible challenge given the level to which I have dropped, importantly though, with effort, I feel these are achievable. I remain focused on smaller and inaugural events with the odd bigger event to remind me that ultra running events aren’t completely solo sports.
Tyndrum 24, although my first event back is more than a warm up as I’ve said – this will be the launch pad and building blocks that may make or break the rest of the year. I’ll be following this up with the 1 mile family fun run in Edinburgh where ASK and I will attempt to drive her mile time down even further and I do love running with my daughter.
Then we hit the main thrust of the year from February until the end of July I’m goin g to giving it full throttle, The Falkirk Ultra and the F50K followed a few weeks later by the Peninne Bridelway in what will be the first of the Ranger Ultras Grandslam (assuming I enter) then another 4 weeks before I take to the Southern Upland Way with GB Ultras and then around 4 weeks further before the years longest ultra around the new Loch Ness 360 trail. Less than 3 weeks later I’ll be towing the line of the John Lucas Memorial, which as a more tarmac ultra could be an unmitigated disaster given my relationship with tarmac races and that’s just a few days before spending 3 (hopefully) awesome weeks in Canada, travelling round but also racing the truly awesome looking Quebec Mega Trail (only the 15km but still a first Canadian race seems like the only sensible thing to do) and then when I touch down I’ve got a few days before I’m back in the saddle for The Run The Blades 50km – I suppose something of a warm down compared to the rest of the events in the run up.
Thankfully the summer months are spent in training mode rather than racing as my body hates August and I seem to have a curse regarding races that happen in August so I’ll be skipping this before the winter tests come with the three remaining grandslam races from Ranger Ultras and a first crack but second entry to The Cheviot Goat.
I feel its an unconventional race list, there are no marathons, no big city events, no events that most runners will have heard of, it is a list of grim sounding races filled with elevation or shitty weather or shitty course conditions. It is a race list from someone that wants to get back to running, get back to racing and get back his self respect.
January: Tyndrum 24 (24hr loop) (Entered)
February: Edinburgh Winter Run (1 mile) (Entered)
February: Falkirk Ultra (8hr loop) (Entered)
March: F50K (50km) (Entered)
April: Peninne Bridelway (57km)
May: Ultra Scotland (54 miles) (Entered)
May: Loch Ness 360 (80 miles) (Entered)
June: John Lucas Memorial (46 miles) (Entered)
July: Quebec Mega Trails (15km) (Entered)
July: Run The Blades (50km) (Entered)
October: Yorkshire Three Peaks (100km)
November: White Peaks Trail
November: Dark Peaks Trail
December: Cheviot Goat (54 miles) (Entered)
The only way I’m going to get near completing these is with a plan and I think I’ve got the key areas I need to consider.
Eat more healthily
Start running consistently
Run for longer
Finally pick a running club
Get to the start line of the races I have entered
Continue exploring Scotland
Work on body image issue
I’m clearly not going to fix all the issues any time soon, some are long standing issues that are deeply ingrained in me but as I suggested earlier it is about regaining control and that is something I have done successfully before. It is a very personal, individual experience and one that draws on my failings as a person, my own arrogance and my own falibility but now added to this is a sense of my own mortality. Nobody wants their legacy to be that they slowly faded away – so I’m going to try and not to.
I very much plan on building on the positive things that did take place in 2019 and try and reintegrate the things that worked well from my life before I arrived in Scotland. I am responsible for the mess I have gotten mysef into and by opening myself up to the scrutiny of my peers I hope to encourage myself to be the best version of me.
This is less a review and more a thank you to the Millar Foundation for putting on a truly awesome Superhero Fun Run this weekend.
I’m sure that many of my fellow geeks, nerds and coolios will recognise the name Mark Millar from excellent comic books such as Kick Ass, Kingsman: The Secret Service and Superior as well as more instantly recognisable names such as Spider-Man.
Beyond comics though he founded the Millar Foundation with the aim of providing transformative opportunity and community in the place he grew up. What a thoroughly decent idea and well worth an internet search to articles about the projects the Foundation is involved in or click here to see the photographs from recent events
This latest event was just the kind of thing that a running and comic book obsessed father and daughter would be very attracted to. And so we went along.
When we rolled up to Drumpellier Country Park the sun was shining wonderfully but thankfully it wasn’t too hot as being in superhero garb was a little different to my Ronhill and La Sportiva technical tops. We had traded in our usual monikers for a crack at being Supergirl and Mister Incredible (some might say that’s no change for me – I jest) and we delighted in a bit of cape swooshing as we left the car park.
As we ambled along the path we were picked out by the local press photographer for a quick snap and then directed to the registration point. All was lovely, everybody hugely welcoming and there was some delicious fruit juice, bottled water and bananas available to the runners pre-race. Awesome.
We were half an hour early so Supergirl and I sat enjoying our fruit juice and admiring the many wonderful costumes on display.
As it was ‘Batman Day’ (The Caped Crusaders 80th birthday) there were lots of dark knight detective themed characters but there was a significant amount of Captain America, Hulk, Supergirl, Wonder Women, Spider-Men and Supermen ready to race. I did catch sight of a couple of Deadpool runners and even one Gecko from PJ Masks, it was an eclectic and wonderful mix.
Before long it was race time and after a bit of a warm up from the team at the local gym we were thrust on to the course. The race kicked off at about 11 and I had taken up my customary position at the back of the pack and had instructed Supergirl to take it steady as this was her longest race to date.
As the gaggle of superheroic runners set out we began to find our stride and it wasn’t long before we began overtaking all manner of caped competitors. The key for me, in the run, was that Supergirl maintain a sensible pace and run consistently throughout the distance. Many of the young people running were prone to bursts of speed and then being forced into walking as they had expelled all their power. No such issue confronted us and we gently ambled our way through the field and down the tarmac path with it’s wonderful views across the lake.
It was about a half a kilometre in when the tarmac turned to woodland trail and both Supergirl and Mister Incredible were much happier – both of us kicked on a little bit and started to target runners ahead of us, picking them off one by one. Occasionally a runner from behind would overtake us and we enjoyed watching the spirited displays of running from the young and old. The effort was really very inspiring and that was such a great message for my daughter to take away. There is something powerful about seeing kids, not much older than her, both succeeding and struggling but fighting for that finish and the reward of the medal.
As for the course – the news was good – for all the runners as the path was lovely and dry with a mildly spongy feel to it which gave wonderful bounce as you ran. Had Supergirl not been with me I’d have happily done half a dozen loops here. But instead as a dynamic duo we steadily ran through the woodlands and said hello to many of the other runners and as we approached the turnaround Supergirl put on a little spurt – determined to claim her medal as quickly as possible.
The distance to the finish was quickly disappearing and we were flying. I was incredibly proud of her performance and then all of a sudden, as happens with ASK, she lost concentration for a second and was sent sprawling across the trail.
We immediately stopped running and tears fell down her little face and I took right hold of her in a big hug and said the thing I always say when she falls, ‘what do we do when we fall over?’ To which she always replies, ‘we get back up and keep going’. I dusted her down and checked that there was no serious injury or bleeding and checked she was fine to continue…
With the tears dried we picked up the pace – Supergirl though wanted to hold my hand – she was keen not to fall again – so together we came to final turn and the sound of the finish line PA system blared music in our direction. The lovely volunteer at the final corner made note of my delightful backpack that I was sporting (I was carrying a teddy bear on my back brought home from school for the weekend to go on adventures – and my daughter wanted the bear to race).
Supergirl decided that now we were back on tarmac she no longer needed the company of Mister Incredible and hit the afterburner. With around 250 metres to go Supes started her sprint finish, both feet off the ground and arms pumping – my little superhero crossing the finish line to collect a most well earned medal.
Great racing, great event.
Distance: 2.5km (2.7km GPS measurement)
Time: 18 minutes of moving time / 3 minutes of crying and dusting ourselves off
Thanks must go the Millar Foundation but also the Drumpellier Park Parkrun team who made the event happen – the volunteers of the Park Run team really worked hard to make sure everyone had a great time and it was.
The nice thing was that the whole event was free and there was a lovely sense of community and that will certainly have helped to bring people out but given how many people got dressed up I feel this was simply the kind of event that draws families out to do something fun and active, together.
I hope this runs for many years and I hope it inspires other towns to run similar events – they don’t have to be free – they just have to be on. The fun run at the recent West Lothian Running Festival (read about it here) for example was a lovely and well organised event too and these things really do bring people together. I feel it important that our children and young people are able to participate in events like this to ensure that being active is a habit and not a chore.
And in closing I’ll simply say that I look forward to donning a bit of spandex next year for this wonderful event.
In times of turmoil we seek summits and points of vantage to gain clarity of vision.
When I was younger I would go to the Lake District to climb a hill and breathe clean air and give myself greater clarity. Given I didn’t drive (or ride a bike) I would often find myself in places you could reach by public transport and so Ambleside was a popular choice for a young man with a busy mind.
Roll forward a decade or two and my mind remains busy but I’ve added both a driving licence and an ability to ride a bike and so when I saw the inaugural Ambleside Trail 60 on the ultra event calendar I decided that this was for me.
The race was being organised in conjunction between the long established The Climbers Shop (find out more here) in Ambleside and charity The Brathay Trust (find out more here) – both well respected pillars of the community.
I therefore had high expectations for the event.
When looking at the Ambleside Trail 60 on paper you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s rather easy and with a tad under 2,500metres of climb it all seemed perfectly respectable. The problem comes is that when deciding to do this I had conflated the shortness of the distance and relatively low ascent numbers to think this was going to be easy. How wrong can you be?
But anyway let me add a bit of context to proceedings – I’d had an excellent July, training had gone well and I’d come off the Ben Vorlich Ultra feeling pretty good and without injury. The truth is I’d felt so good that I’d returned to training the following day and was looking forwarding to maintaining my running mental strength by taking part in the Thieves Road Ultra. In typical fashion though disaster struck and I took a nasty tumble running up a hill and put a bloody big hole in my knee and this was supplemented by a shitty infection that I couldn’t shift. However, with August 10th approaching I knew that momentum was on my side and I’d be okay(ish) to race but it seemed my August ultra curse was set to continue and the race was cancelled due to the potential for adverse conditions.
What happened next was that race was reorganised for two weeks later, my illness got worse and on race day I spent about 8hrs on the porcelain throne. This time it was me cancelling the race and so I rolled up to the Ambleside 60 with very little training but a lot of chocolate eating done.
As I’ve said I’m a huge fan of The Lake District and Cumbria, it’s a truly spectacular place and so I was very happy to be there on a beautiful morning watching the world go by.
Strangely for an ultra it was taking place on a Sunday which meant I’d had the luxury of bimbling around the Lakes the day previously taking in the delights of Ambleside and registering with the event organisers at The Climbers Shop. Registration was both quick and easy and the lovely organisers were on hand to answer all of my ridiculous questions. I was also mightily impressed that race sponsor Rab (I assume) threw in a warm beanie which is likely to make its race debut later in the year. It was here that I bumped into Ed, a fellow competitor from Ben Vorlich and it was lovely to ‘chew the fat’ with him for a few minutes and catch up about what had happened at the race end. However, we soon parted and I found myself at a loose end but with lots of wonderful outdoor stores strewn across the town – I decide me to make hay while the sun shone. Lunch was a delicious spicy chicken baguette with a slab of honeycomb cake and this was followed by short trips to Kendal and Keswick to make the most of my stay.
I had the luxury of having a six berth dorm room all to myself at the waterside YHA in Ambleside and I went to bed early to try and get as rested as possible. Kit was prepared, breakfast readied and I knew where I was going in the morning.
The organisers had suggested the pay & display car park in Ambleside, which given it was a few minutes from the start, made good sense. With water bottles now filled I headed to the start in Rothay Park and silently soaked up the friendly, banter atmosphere. I’ve grown rather accustomed to knowing runners at races, wherever I am, both here and abroad – so it was something of a surprise to not see any faces I knew. I wandered around a little bit before setting amongst the throng of ultra runners all keen for the start.
We were all instructed to dib our chips at the start which had been attached to us at registration. I found these mildly intrusive as they never felt very comfortable around the wrist and I fretted about them working loose and ending up in a puddle of mud somewhere on a hill. Thankfully it never did work loose but I found it uncomfortable compared to some of the alternatives that I’ve had to wear. That said the system was simple enough to use and the setup both at the start and at checkpoints was well thought out.
With an 8am start looming we were all corralled into the starting area and after a short briefing and some words of encouragement the 175(ish) runners burst forward and out of Rothay Park and into the wilderness. It’s fair to say that a number of ‘trail’ races that I’ve been part of have actually had quite significant amounts of road or tarmac involved but this experience was very different. From the near outset there was trail and nature surrounding the runners.
As we wound our way through the first few kilometres it was clear that this was going to be s tougher day than I had originally imagined and as I looked down at my faithful Suunto I could see the elevation metres quickly stacking up. Those first few miles were easily the simplest on the route and with excellent route marking even I couldn’t go wrong. We wended our way through the variety of trails, up and down hills and along some of England’s finest scenery. For the most part I was making good time against the other runners – using my preferred tactic of ‘go as fast as you cN for as long as you can and then death march it in’. I made sure I was taking on board regular fluids and even a little food from early in proceedings as this would ensure I could still take on everything late in the event. I topped up my intake with some Active Root, which is about the only electrolyte style supplement I can stomach, and this kept me level and stopped significant dips – something to consider if you’re running well.
I ran the first 15km pretty consistently and covered around 600 metres of climb – despite the recent rains the ground was in good condition and the route was runnable. Although I had poles with me I had decided that I would refrain from their use until I really needed them and despite the ascents I didn’t feel I needed them in the firs quarter of the event. The views were delightful and this was very much The Lake District of my youth – some places dragged up long forgotten memories and it was a very pleasant experience. It was here that I met Deborah – about 2.5 miles from the first checkpoint. We chatted for a while, as we bounded forward and this was such a pleasant experience that I barely noticed the run into the checkpoint.
Checkpoint one was brilliant with the marshalling team all dressed as chefs with big chef hats, the team were incredibly well drilled – timer, water, food, out, out, out! I was very impressed with the team and the organisation of the event on the whole, if I were to take a guess this was not their first rodeo. The quality of the food on offer was brilliant and as I left the checkpoint I felt buoyed by the energy the team have thrust upon me. In the distance I could see Deborah disappearing and continued my journey alone.
The second section was going to be tougher with the first 600 metres climbed this meant that there was still around 1700 metres to climb and around a marathon to do it in. 2 hours down – 12 hours to go. I knew that the first significant climb was soon to be upon us and in the distance twinkling like little neon and Lycra clad stars were a succession of slow moving runners as the route moved up a gear in toughness.
It was now that the route threw challenge after challenge at us, the trail had moved from being mostly runnable to being filled with big lumpy rocks, it was wet underfoot and it changed from soaking to dry making your shoe choice irrelevant in the face of the varying conditions. I threw open my poles for the first time and began the slow journey upwards, happy in the knowledge that I had built up a reserve of time in the early stages of the race. However, as I looked ever upwards it was with a deep sense of foreboding – this was the first and easiest ascent and it was far from easy.
I decided that given I still had some strength in my legs I would do the climb in bursts and so would have a short stop and then powered up the next couple of hundred metres, stop and repeat. This technique helps me with the fatigue my legs get from the constant ball achingly monotonous striding of hiking up the hills (something I knew I would be forced into later in the day). My lack of training in the last month and the over eating was also playing a significant part now in my performance – runners were passing me as I struggled with the up hills and the beating my feet were now taking. However, I knew that on the downhill as long as the path was relatively runnable I would be able to make up some ground. Where some runners are guarded about running downhill too quickly for fear of a fall I am usually pretty surefooted and confident in my own ability. Therefore once the peak was reached I felt that I had little choice but to open up the taps a bit and go for it.
My descent was as quick as my ascent was slow and I found myself able to catch some of the runners that had managed to overtake me and I felt with nearly 1,000 metres of ascent done and about 20km in distance done I was feeling confident and then the ridiculous kicked in – I slipped. Bang down – on my back, on my arse, on all my weakest points. The two young runners ahead of me turned and shouted to find out if I was okay and I waved them on but I was far from alright. My back, which is troubling at the best of times, had shooting pain running through it and I had cut my hand open in several places and was bleeding. I picked my muddy form off the floor and cursed my own stupidity – I ran down to the little stream and put my buff in the water and wrapped it around my hand attempting to soak up the blood. I had been very lucky, within a few minutes the bleeding had stopped and I managed to clean up the various gashes that now covered my left hand – the realisation was dawning upon me that this route was going to give me a good kicking before it was finished.
I pushed onwards through the next few kilometres, slowing a little to account for the worsening running conditions, the rocky terrain became incredibly hard going and in my opinion it felt more like fell running than it did ultra trail running but it all added to the complexity of the challenge of finishing. I finally reached the halfway point and was greeted by the most welcoming committee of marshals, supporters and runners. Given I was so far from the lead it was no surprise to see my fellow racers in various states of distress, I grabbed a bit of grass and threw my bag to floor and motored over to the food table and stuffed my face with the delicious sausage rolls with the amazing pastry (I’m going to assume veggie but don’t want to know as they were so delicious it would disappoint me to know I’d been eating something mildly healthy). I drank as much tea as I could handle, grabbed a bit of soft chewy cake, filled my water bottles and then followed the other runners out of the checkpoint.
It was here that I would make the relationship that would see me cross the finish line, though it did not begin well but I’ll get to that later.
From CP2 we were presented with a climb up Stake Pass, a beautiful climb and no mistake but a technical, rocky ascent that required maximum concentration all the way and its windy nature meant that you felt progress was even slower than it actually was. I used my brutish bursts of power to push myself up the pass and once more in the distance before and ahead of me I could see the swathes of runners slowly climbing to the summit. I kept telling myself that this is something I enjoy when moments of doubt would creep into my thinking but the reality was that my feet were burning from the damage that rocks underfoot where doing.
My feet are brittle at the best of times but the damp conditions coupled with the rocks were crippling me, the only plus I could find was that my Lone Peaks combined with Injinji liner and Drymax socks and my beloved Dirty Girls Gaiters were working overtime in protecting me from the worst of the route.
About halfway up local legend Keith passed me with his wonderfully consistent pace and all I could do when he went beyond me asking, ‘alright?’ I responded with, ‘had better days’ but Keith may have misinterpreted my joke for sincere annoyance and he simply shrugged his shoulder and pushed on. I thought nothing more of it really but like the cut of his pace and thought if I could keep up with him I might well be alright – but he, like many before, was soon gone.
I retreated the comfort of the nearest rock I could find and grabbed some food from my race vest and looked longingly into the middle distance as dark and detrimental thoughts crept across my furrowed brow. ‘More than halfway’ I thought, ‘but my feet are bruised to buggery, my race vest is heavy and worse than that my back and arm was on fire from injuries both old and new’. However, the sight of runners closing in on me made me get off my backside and hurl myself up the hill and eventually I made it to the summit. I could see some of the runners who had made it past me and so I picked Keith as my target – if I could catch him before the arrival of the next checkpoint I would continue.
The route off the pass was as unrunnable as the route up with rocks jutting up from every angle and care required about just where the hell you were putting your feet. If you were less cautious you might have avoided the path and run straight down the hill – but given I had no idea where I was or how far behind the next runner was – I did not fancy falling off Stake Pass. With all due care I made it to the bottom and leapt through the thick nasty smelling mud and crossing streams with all haste attempting to keep my feet as dry as possible. In the distance I could hear the clatter of Keith’s running poles and I realised I was catching him – having a target to aim for had made the journey much more focused and much easier and as I caught him I opened with the much cheerier line, ‘I’ve been chasing you down for ages – thanks for the incentive’ and from here a new race friendship was forged.
Keith was a bit of a running veteran and with 20 more years on the clock the than me he had well earned the right to legend status. He strode purposefully through the route, questioning the runability of some of the course but all the time remaining strong in his continuous push forward – I like Keith very much and over the next few miles we got to chatting and getting to know one another a little. But as is the rule in ultra marathons you run your own race and he reminded me of this several times as he suggested I not wait for him or that he would be waiting long for me. However, we were both moving at about the same speed ad so it turned out neither of us could shake the other one.
Something I was very glad of.
The road to CP3 was hard and long, we had come off the hill and now it was just finding the checkpoint, hoping that we would make the cut-off and then pushing through as fast as we could up the biggest ascent on the course – Lining Crag. While we both looked and probably felt a bit shitty we both also seemed to gain a newfound mental strength from each other – I certainly did from him and when I started to leave CP3 Keith joined me for some further adventuring.
The strange thing was that despite our low speed we were starting to catch people again and in the close distance we could see runners who had long left me behind and, though I shouldn’t, I was buoyed by seeing other runners finding this a challenge or perhaps I was simply developing a second wind that might carry over the Crag.
Sadly my second wind was very short lived and as I began the ascent I felt every bone in my body scream for mercy, even with the first few hundred metres being relatively gentle this was a climb of false summits and false hope.
One of the great things about Keith was his wide and varied local knowledge, this meant that he was able to be accurate in his assessment of our situation, so when we approached the scramble up to the crag I knew that this was not the summit and that there were further smaller climbs to come. The scramble was actually surprisingly simple and the change of pace on the legs was welcome, I enjoy scrambling although I don’t do it very often as I am terrified of heights. So I finally reached the safety of solid ground that wasn’t going to try and kill me I was very grateful. We made good time as we crossed the high ground and started to overtake people again and other runners came past us as they picked the pace up a little. On reflection it was nice to know that we were still in a race, often at these type of events you’ll find yourself alone for hours and hours and not knowing where in the race you are, here the numbers were just right to be able to have significant time alone but also know that you could still catch someone.
We knew that the final checkpoint was at about 53km in and so it was with a little dismay that the ascent to the top of the crag had pushed us forward a mere 2km of the 12km we needed to run. Running remained hard going over the rocky paths and went as fast and securely as we could but both Keith and I were losing our footing at regular intervals and many of the runners had soggy bottoms but perhaps none got the soggy bottom in the way I did.
While crossing a boggy path I lost my footing and into the mid thigh depth mud my leg went, the trouble was that my other leg followed me in and as I fell in my whole body lurched backward in some attempt to create the muddy equivalent of a snow fairy. Keith turned to face me, barely disguising his amusement at the predicament that I found myself in. I managed to stand in the mud and could feel the vacuum attempting to suck my shoes in but I carefully extracted one leg and then the other with no significant loss. I was caked in mud from head to toe but I had clearly picked the right kit for the event and my wonderful new Runderwear long boxer shorts and Raidlight Freetrail shorts soon dried off and despite being in 3 foot of wet, shitty mud my feet remained warm and toasty.
After picking myself up we headed along the remainder of the route down to Grasmere with little further incident, but we were aware that the final climb and descent had taken much, much longer than anticipated and I was keen to finish as I still had hours in the car driving back to Scotland.
I noticed that both Keith and I were rather quiet as we landed in Grasmere, tiredness was clearly playing a part but seeing the race organisers at the final checkpoint gave us a bit of a life and knowing that we were less than 10km from the finish was the mental nourishment we needed.
We had been quite quick in the checkpoints up until this point but we stayed a little longer in Grasmere as Keith knew both of the guys from The Climbers Shop (I’m going to go with Mike and Gill but could be wrong). Gill had been at the registration and she clearly remembered my idiotic face from the previous day and the warmth with which I was greeted felt genuine and heartfelt and for that I was very grateful. They tried to stuff our faces with all manner of food and drink but we were so close to the finish that I actually wanted just my water filled and then off and the guys obliged.
Keith and I were very keen to see off the race before the dark became impenetrable and with all the speed we could muster we set out from Grasmere. This final section had a few light climbs on it but it was mainly tarmac that we were following and there was nothing to concern ourselves with – I seem to recall that we spent most of the time on these final few miles being rather jolly and looking forward to food, drinks, showers and in Keith’s case being reunited with his wife and the lovely Border Colllies.
I remember Keith commenting that at this point he had one speed and although I had recovered a little bit and probably could have run this final section I had no desire to leave my companion behind and in truth I’d have only managed to get about a dozen metres ahead before he would have reeled me in again. Meeting Keith made the experience of the Ambleside 60 much more pleasant than it looked like it might have been given the struggles I know he played a huge part in me finishing on Sunday.
We rolled up to Rothay Park and the dark had finally arrived, we thanked the marshalling staff at the final corner and as is my way I tried to have a cheery word/joke and thank you for the guys who were stood there waiting in the cold ensuring that we didn’t take a wrong turn at the final point. In the dim distance I could make out the large finish line inflatable and in front of it were two dibbing points so that we could get a final time. It took me an age to get my bloody dibber in but once I did we were ushered into a tent and given medals, beer and times.
Keith’s wife was there with the dogs and I joined them briefly to thank him and to thank his wife for loaning me such a wonderful gentleman for the day.
starting from Rothay Park, the Ambleside Trail 60 is a 60km loop made up of some iconic Lake District running. From the park, participants will make their way up and over Loughrigg towards Skelwith Bridge, Tarn Hows and from there onwards towards Coniston. Before reaching Coniston, the route climbs above Coniston Coppermine and toward Lad Stones. Continuing onward, the route makes its way to Little Langdale and after a short but punchy climb reaches Blea Tarn. Runners then make their way up Stake Pass and then follow the Langstrath Beck before climbing back up Lining Crag, the biggest climb on the course. Runners descend into Grasmere and slowly wind their way back toward Ambleside..
I’ve run over 50 ultra marathons and I’ve run across some of the toughest trails in the crappiest conditions and I can honestly say that the route of the Ambleside 60km was a bit of a terror. I mentioned earlier that this felt more like an ultra distance fell race than a trail race. Although the path was defined it was, in parts, brutal – despite the shortness of the distance this was a route that really threw everything at you and there was a procession of the walking wounded on the course as the Ambleside 60 took no prisoners.
This is not a route for the inexperienced and had the weather conditions been worse then this would really have given the competitors a challenge that even more might not have finished. What I will say though is that the Ambleside 60 route gave so much back in views and beauty that you really can’t complain about the temporary pain inflicted by the course.
The climbs were tough, the variety was welcome and the route marking was exceptional – just a few less rocky roads would have made this a more complete running experience. Don’t misunderstand me though this was a brilliant route and I feel fortunate to have seen parts of the Lake District that only become accessible if you are willing to put the effort in. The highlight of the route for me was the second climb up Stake Pass, which as well as being as tough old boots, had the wonderful sound of gushing water on both sides of the pass, it had majesty all around it and there was a eeriness about it as you could see nothing of modern life as far as the eye could see – wonderful.
So, perhaps a few little tweaks to make sure that this doesn’t become an ‘only suitable for the mountain goats’ and the route cold be a real winner for everyone wanting to take part.
The organisation was 100% top notch, from registration to the near army of marshals that were posted on the course – this was some of the best organisation I have ever seen. The route marking for the most part was fantastic, the little map we received at the start was perfect as a guide and the pre and post race information was concise and informative. A huge thank you should go to all the organisers and especially the marshalling and medical staff who offered friendly faces all over the day. Races like this do not happen without the support of lots of people behind the scenes – and it was clear that the work they had put in here had really paid off.
I go mountain running most weekends and I go hill running after work and I know what kit I need to carry with me, I know how to be safe in the mountains and in adverse weather conditions and to that end I felt that the mandatory kit list was a little over complicated. I understand completely that safety comes first and that not all runners are experienced in the hills but there does need to be a balance. I did note that a number of the runners had very small amounts of kit with them and you had to wonder how where they fitting all the mandatory kit into such a small space?
Given my back issues carrying all the required kit was always going to be one of the main challenges I faced during the Ambleside 60 and I have a preference to carry specific things that help my individual race needs. For example I have my ridiculously weak feet so spare socks are a must and I’m known to take a picture or two so spare battery is also an essential. But rules are rules and it is important that we all adhere to them – they are designed to ensure your safety isn’t compromised, might just be worth looking next year about a little more flexibility between the mandatory and recommended kit.
Having great sponsors like Rab and Ultimate Directions mean that sometimes there are excellent goodies and this time there was a delightful Rab beanie available pre-race and post race there was some Hawkshead Brewery beer, which if you’re a beer drinker is a great reward for a job well done – obviously as a teetotaller the beer is less relevant to me but I know someone who’ll drink it for me. The medal was nice and understated, which seemed very much in keeping with the whole ethos of the event and I appreciated that. I wore my medal proudly all the way home to Scotland and as I crawled up the stairs to my bedroom upon returning home I made sure that it took its rightful place with its brother and sister medals at the top of the stairs.
I’ve said it before and I’ll repeat it, the value for money aspect is very much down to personal opinion about your experience. I very much believe that the Ambleside 60 was excellent value for money at £65 and to be fair if you’d charged a little more it would still have represented good value for money. The little goodies, the excellent event staff, the support both before and after, the photography and the challenge of the event itself mean that you have to say you really did get bang for your buck. Some people might bemoan the lack of race T-shirt but the truth is I would rather have had the beanie – it’s always nice to get something useful that most races don’t think about.
I owe this finish to Keith – I would not have made it without you. Thank you.
Is this a great race? Not yet.
Does this have the potential to be a great race? Oh yes!
2019 as its inaugural running was a damn fine event, it gave the best views of Ambleside and its surrounds that I’ve ever had the honour of laying my eyes on. The Ambleside 60 has much to recommend it and if you’re lucky enough to have a clear day as we did then you’ll bear witness to a visual treat. The medal for this one really is worth earning and you will feel like you have accomplished something truly spectacular when, or perhaps more appropriately, if you cross the finishing line. The organisation of the race, for me, makes this one stand out in the memory too – there was genuine care for the runners and that should be recognised, nobody got anything less than 100% from the excellent team.
However, this isn’t perfect I’ve mentioned that it felt like a long distance fell run in places and the course was incredibly hard going at times, even in good conditions. I genuinely believe more responsibility should be on the individual regarding kit choices and I’d probably prefer to see the race run on a Saturday to give runners the Sunday and a chance to rest for their weary bones before a return to grindstone of work on a Monday (I found the drive back to Scotland really tough and Monday was weird in the office). However, if nothing changed, if the race came back next year in exactly the same format would I run it again? The answer is 100% yes, there is something special about the Ambleside 60 and it deserves its soon to be well established reputation as a tough as old boots brilliant ultra marathon.
So if you’ve read this and thought, he sounds likes you had a horrible time, then you’ve misunderstood me, there was no misery for me just a real ball busting challenge – which is primarily what I look for in an ultra marathon and if it is what you look for then you’re going to have a mighty fine time.
As I ambled around the Vigo Tough Love 10 I spent my time contemplating just how I might start this blog post and I could find no appropriate way to say what I was feeling and so we are starting like this.
There’s never an easy way to say goodbye and Vigo almost had me in tears (at miles 1 through to 9 and of course at the end) but that’s more about the course than the emotional end that Vigo Runners provided.
However, let me roll back 450 miles and a day or so earlier to when I was hammering down the M6 to the south with thoughts of my final days in the Kentish sunshine and another ding dong with the mud of the Vigo Tough Love 10.
The last year has left me a tad overweight, incredibly unfit, brutally broken and with nothing left in the tank – so the thought of driving a 900 mile round trip, loading up a van full of the last vestiges of our life here AND running the greatest race ever conceived seemed to be a cruelty that I did not need to put my body through. However, the Vigo Tough Love 10 has provided years of joy to me and one last opportunity to run it seemed like the ideal sign off.
We rolled up to the familiar sight of the Vigo running club on Sunday morning not in the best of moods – sleeping on a child’s picnic mat for the previous evening, having to make a pre-race trip to the local tip and then smacking my head into a car door were not ideal preparation. However, I was greeted in the warmest possible way when the race organiser called out ‘ultraboy’. Somewhat surprised by the recognition I found myself having a lovely chat and suddenly the day felt warmer as I waxed lyrical about my love of the event and my sadness about this (probably) being my final visit.
Post chat I took my place in the queue for number collection and I was surrounded by familiar faces both well known and less so but all welcome sights and I could feel myself getting, as the GingaNinja puts it, ‘totsemosh’. The efficiency of number collection was brilliant by the way, the very minor problem of the previous year had been ironed out – so well done guys.
All I could do really was to take in my beautiful surroundings and the lovely weather but most importantly was the wonderful atmosphere that seems to have grown year on year.
I love small races and small fields – yet even as this race grows it retains all the joy and friendliness that I have associated with it since I first took to the start line in 2014.
Anyways 10.30am rolled around (yes a nice time in the morning for a race!) I ambled to the back of the pack and listened to the safety briefing and sponsor gubbins and this year the bang of the cannon was finally replaced by a sound not so cannon like! But we were off and I started to gently pick my way through the field of runners.
We ran the traditional route round the rugby pitch and even here I could feel my poor old feet and lungs burning – today, I could tell, was going to be a long day. I was very grateful when we came across the first of the log leaps and there was a short queue and here I came across a runner who last year I had met as he was limping bloodied and injured about halfway in – lovely to see him back and looking strong.
The brief stop prepared me for the lovely first stretch of mud and for my part I looked lovingly over the oozy mud. Sadly Kent must have had a patch of good weather as the route was very runnable and probably the most runnable I’d ever seen it. However, let me assure thrillseekers that despite the excellent conditions there was still plenty of filthy action to get you aroused!
It still amazes me though that some runners had chosen to run in road shoes, I (relatively sensibly) had opted for the Altra King MT and I had full confidence that they would handle pretty much anything.
And so it was.
While others picked there way through the sides of the mud I simply bounded through it like a puppy. I was a literal pig in muddy poo, oh how I could have simply lain in the muddiness!
My mood was improving dramatically with every step and I delighted in dancing through the trails and chatting to the runners – mostly me talking at people, mocking my own stupidity for attempting this with so much else going on. But the V10 is the kind of race where you do chat to fellow runners and you do share your trail running stories, it’s all part of that very friendly vibe that reverberates through every level of the event.
As the miles passed by I was reminded once again how Vigo feels so open and crammed in all at the same time – one second you’re in tight woodland and then suddenly you’re in great expanses of green and for miles and miles you feel like you’re in the trail maze. Uphills become downhills and vice versa – it’s an unending smorgasbord of beauty and brutality on your legs and your wits and it will catch you out if you fail to respect it.
It’s a brilliant route and I have lots of respect for the V10m.
But it wasn’t going to be my day in terms of good running so I hiked quickly the harder hills and gave it ‘the beans’ where I could. Vigo really was going to test my mental, emotional and physical endurance today.
The good news was that as the naughty thoughts of failure flickered across my mind my favourite downhill was upon me! The downhill sits around halfway through the race and I always feel you’re entering a tunnel of trees – here you see the cautious not wanting to risk anything but as an old hand I could turn the volume up to 11 and simply go.
And go I did.
More than usual I really hurtled down the trail and found myself coming over the log at the bottom with such enthusiasm that you’d have thought there was a 4 pack of cream eggs waiting for me!
Instead, at the bottom, was another of the brilliant marshalling team. I carried on through the open field and saw the climb up to the halfway hill of horror, weirdly behind me I could here the sound of runners – running! ‘Running?’ I hear you cry, ‘up a hill?’
I’ll be honest I knew that walking up this hill would save me for later in the race and both knees and feet would thank me for not running up the tarmac climb. But I was mightily impressed that many at the back of the pack where showing a lot more grit than I was!
Once clear of the summit I returned to running and cut gently through the swathes of delicious Kentish countryside while grabbing greedily at the proffered jelly babies (nice ones too – haribo rather than bassets I reckon). The only problem was that conditions were a little too warm for me and I’d already dispensed with my undershirt but the ground, due to the glorious conditions, was much tougher than anticipated and therefore my King MT in the final 5km were a little hard going and my Lone Peaks might have been a better on the day choice.
Still I bounced merrily along the final downhill and prepared for the long, slow slog up the final hill. Most might call this heartbreak hill or some other such valentines related nonsense but I simply refer to it as, ‘friend’. The final hill reminds me of the many good times I’ve endured clambering to the top, breathless with joy, exhaustion and excitement, it’s a fine climb and one that gives this race a special place in all our hearts.
As I slowly clambered upwards I laughed and joked with the other runners and recounted my history with the race and just how happily willing I was to travel from Scotland for this event.
Near the top of the hill there was a tremendous amount of encouragement for all the runners and as ever there was a marshall to give you that final shove if the hill had gotten the better of you.
At the top I shared a slurp of water with another runner and we both set off – having a little chat and bimbling our way to the finish. Then with less than a mile to go my toes curled in under my foot and the worst cramp I’ve ever experienced – I’ll admit I let out a series of howls and expletives. I tried running but there was nothing, I stopped to try and stretch but the magnificent pain just forced itself deeper into my foot.
Bloody hell I was so near – it cannot end like this.
I stood for a few moments and started to stretch my toes out but the little buggers were like claws and refused to open. Sod this I thought as a marshall approached and asked if I needed help – thanking him I said, ‘no’ and with one final effort I pushed the afterburner button and thrust myself forward into the trees. I knew I was going to make it but the question I had to ask myself was ‘how do you want to make it?’
The answer I concluded was with a roar.
In the distance I could see the two young cadets guarding the entrance to final run in and despite their warnings of the log I hurled myself over it – all prepared for one final blast down the runway to the finish line.
But then I stopped.
There was my family and the GingaNinja said to me, ‘she wants to run with you’.
Let my assure dear reader – this was going to be the perfect end to my Vigo journey. ASK grabbed my hand and told me, ‘we’re going to win dad’.
I’ll be honest I could have come last and I would have won today – this was brilliant and in the distance I could hear the call of the PA system cry out my variety of known names but on a race day, on a day like this, I’m definitely ultraboy!
ASK and I hammered those final couple of hundred metres home, I watched as she strode across the line and behind me and all around me I could hear the cheers of the remaining runners and the gentle congratulations of my daughter. Cuddles ensured and photographs taken and a medal was placed proudly round my daughters neck.
I may have run like the old man I’ve become but this remains the greatest race in the UK, my greatest race and what happened next is proof of that…
But we’ll get to that later.
Distance: 10miles (10km option available) Profile: a hilly calf destroyer Date: Valentines weekend Location: Vigo, Kent Cost: £20 Terrain: Muddy and damn fine fun Tough Rating: 3/5
Route: I’ve written several times about the route and I’ve waxed lyrical about the up and down nature of running around Vigo and this lovely part of Kent. I suppose the reason I really love this route is that in February it has everything, it’s wet and it’s dry, it’s hard and soft, you’ll come out of the event covered in mud, maybe even a bit bloodied if you get lucky and you’ll not have a single minute when you’re bored. This is a route that you’ll finish and immediately want to go back to again.
Organisation: I’m sure that 2018 will one day be remembered as ‘that year’ where there was a bit of a mix up with race numbers. However, having done this a five times now I can say that the organisation has always been first class and 2019 was no different – the team from Vigo Runners and Harvel Hash Harriers really do know how to organise a race and race number collection this year was better, faster and smoother than ever.
The marshalling points are all perfectly placed for directions and support, you always receive knowledgeable people guiding you and there’s a friendliness from all those involved in the organisation that makes this truly welcoming.
Support: The rugby club at Vigo which hosts the start line and provides the facilities pre-and post-race is a great way to ensure that there’s a good level of support to send the runners on their way plus the club itself shows its ongoing community spirit by allowing a load of stinky trail runners in through its doors! The indoor facilities such as the toilets, food options and changing rooms (and ample toilet roll) make this a comfortable wait for the runners, there no standing round in the cold – it’s simply catering well to a runners pre-race needs!
As mentioned the marshalling team are all top notch and you can’t fault them and you can’t praise them enough.
Value for Money: Value for money is always a difficult thing to measure but with Vigo you are getting both an awesome experience as well a mars bar, some love hearts and a really decent medal. Thrown in some really excellent support, a couple of water stations and a route to die for and you get brilliant value in your race.
Social Media / Communication: I’ve started looking at the way races communicate with it’s runners and how it advertises them (and I admit some bias here as my previous blog posts about the event get recommended to be read in their comms sometimes). Vigo Runners get the balance snooty right between too much and too little but I’d love to see more video content, more interaction throughout the year to help further build this ‘must-do’ race. The good news is though is that they don’t do it all through Facebook – they still do email race instructions and this I feel is a positive as not everyone likes or has social media. So basically I hope they keep doing exactly what they’re doing and will continue to build up this aspect of the race advertising.
Post Race Mentions: After I crossed the finish line there was a blur – lots of congratulations (despite this being my slowest ever Vigo), there was me congratulating other runners and there was ASK disappearing from my sight as I had my tuning chip removed and crying as she couldn’t find the GingaNinja.
I was starting to head out when a runner (the name eludes me but then it’s been a mad weekend) spoke to me and we briefly got chatting about her taking on the awesome upcoming Green Man Ultra. Weirdly we also had a selfie moment which was surprisingly odd – as it felt a little too much like celebrity – especially when it was followed by the race organisers coming over and saying, ‘we’ve been calling your name for ages’. I limped over to the starting area and there was the Vigo & Harvel top brass with a trophy and a HAGGIS! To say thank you for the support I’ve shown over my years running with them.
Now firstly, I love Haggis, secondly I love this race and thirdly – thank you so very much for this. I really don’t write the blog for reward, I write it because I want people to go to races that I’ve really enjoyed. And I’ve consistently said this is my favourite race and if this is to be my final time at Vigo then I’ll both be very sad and very grateful for the opportunity of running it and writing about it.
Conclusion: My apologies for this intentionally gushy and rather emotional post about the Vigo Tough Love 10 Mile. In 2019 I loved it as much as I loved it when it was all new in 2014 – it’s an event and a race that will bring you joy and if you are local or from further afield you should make the effort to join in – you will never be disappointed by running the Vigo 10. And while I say this will be my last time, my fifth time will never feel like enough and who knows – maybe next year I’ll discreetly turn up and run a decent time. We shall see. However, if I leave a Vigo legacy it this – I hope that some of you will be inspired to sign-up because you wanted a bit of the joy I felt when my feet slurped through that mud.
Thank you to everyone involved and keep doing what you’re doing. Brilliant event.
Post Jedburgh I felt a little bit weird, I had done so little training in the past year but had finished and felt surprisingly strong. I was, and remain confident, that I could have run Jedburgh significantly better and if I could just get settled properly in sunny Scotland then I might finally develop the time to commit to running.
And so there was an opportunity to add a November ultra to my schedule after pulling out of the 135 mile Rebellion. There was no way that I could have risked myself on such a significant distance given the state I find my body in and the level of running I am at.
However, I have been wanting to try High terrain events for a little while now and so the opportunity to run the now relatively local ‘Tweed Valley Ultra’ was too good to miss.
I got up at about four in the morning, showered and slapped on a tub full of Vaseline around the nether regions (having had a few problems during Jedburgh). I was determined that this was going to go well – I even applied a little to the toe tips as I’d had some serious blisters for the first time in years during the three peaks and wanted to avoid that as I suspected the Tweed Valley was going to be a tougher test.
The drive down from Edinburgh was nice and easy but being on my own for ultras is a new thing and I knew that I would also have to drive back on dark and narrow roads and that is something I’m going to have to get used to as I increase my activity up here. However, after a few minutes of driving aimlessly round the Glentress Visitor Centre I found the signage that I had missed when I first arrived.
I was, as usual, early – thankfully I prefer to be excessively early rather than a minute late and the facilities of the visitor centre were open to the runners and it was both warm and comfortable with breakfast available for those of those that could stomach it. I had made the mistake of taking my coffee too late before I’d left and was forced into visiting the little boy’s room for my pre-race delivery of the galloping trots. I can thankfully report that there was lots of loo roll and a warm toilet seat – a real treat compared to some of my pre-race toilet experiences.
I trotted over to the race registration for which the process was nice and easy (a necessity at 6.30am), name, number and grab a race t-shirt. Once I had collected my rather comfortable Tweed Valley t-shirt and grabbed some more hot coffee I took a seat and looked around to take in some of the faces that I might later be running alongside. I knew that Neil MacRitchie, John Munro and Fiona Rennie were running – all of whom I had first met at the Skye Trail Ultra a couple of years ago. I’ve run into Neil subsequently (most recently at Jedburgh) and John and I have run in the same races a couple of times but never really at the same pace as he’s a damn fine ultra marathoner and I’m well… me.
Anyway, I failed to run into anyone I knew and was concerned that this was likely to be a bit of a lonely race. I’d undoubtedly be near the back and I wonder if being cut adrift from fellow competitors is one of the things that has resulted in several of my race failures. However, with a few minutes to go I headed up to the start line, a final wee stop and I ran into a chap who had run the Skye Trail Ultra the year after I did it and we had a little laugh about the ever wonderful Jeff Smith and how we had found that particular race.
David (I think his name was) was going to be going much quicker than I was and so when the race started we all thundered down the short path to the trail. Much to my own surprise I was keeping up with the middle of the pack runners quite happily but knew that it was never going to last and so into the first climb I made the conscious decision to slow down and go into slow grind mode. One of the things that I knew awaited us in the early part of the event was a climb, what I had not expected was quite how early it began or how long it would last.
As we started to climb I could feel the energy being sapped out of my legs and that was something that I was aware would come to bite me later (or perhaps sooner) in the race. The good news was that the trails were good, the weather was being exceptionally pleasant and the ground was very runnable, the bad news was that I was going to struggle to find an excuse as to why I was running so badly.
One thing I did note which I thought ‘’bugger’ about was that there were a number of the runners with poles safely stowed in their vests. Perhaps it is being in Scotland but I’ve been trying to give up the running poles as up here they mostly are not allowed but, being honest, even as we reached the summit of the first climb I was wishing that I had them. At the top I could feel my thighs burning and that was a sensation I had not expected quite so quickly – still this did not stop me from hitting the downhill with all the energy I could muster and running down was a lot of fun. The trail was still good, the conditions were still good, the light was up and you could throw yourself amongst the rocks and the roots and know that a confident approach would get you out of it safely.
The exit to the forest brought us to the river (let’s take a guess at the Tweed) and from here it was good running and I should have been going as fast as possible but I was somewhat hampered by a need to have my guts explode out of me. Sadly it was a little exposed and so I was forced into deep breathing and scampering along clenching my arse cheeks! Thankfully the first of the four checkpoints was nearby and with it was the opportunity to dip in to the toilet. I think I need to note to down my pre-race preparation as this isn’t the first time I’ve been caught a bit short mid-race!
Anyway enough of the traditional gut rot… with that clear I was now on my way and feeling much better about the race. The thing I took in was just how beautiful the Tweed Valley was and with the mist drifting around the route, especially in the early hours, there was an even more spectacular eerie beauty. However, it is worth noting that while there was a majority of the route on trail there was a noticeable amount of tarmac in the first 20km which my long standing injuries did not enjoy. Thankfully I was soon upon checkpoint 2 and I ate and drank my way through a load of flapjacks and better than that, about a litre of Irn Bru (a theme for the race).
After a few sunny minutes at checkpoint 2 I headed out and took aim at the biggest climb on the route (Minch Moor) – in real terms only about 400 metres but it felt like a lot more, especially in the first section of the climb where it was surprisingly steep. Once at the top though it became an undulating trail and once again the Tweed Valley offered stunning views in all directions. Ian, a chap I had met earlier in the day had explained how wonderful the Valley was, and he right.
The undulation was now in my favour and I was racing towards the turn off point for the 65km or would it be the turn off point for the 50km? Would I drop down to the lower distance option?
It was then that a race angel came thundering past me in the shape of John Munro.
As he went past me in his lurid Compressport calve sleeves a part of me recognised him but I could not for the life of me place the face. We exchanged race pleasantries as people do but then he turned around and called out my name at which point I put two and two together and we had a lovely little chat. He was on the 50km and going past me at pace and I did not want the rest of the 50km to go past me and so when I reached the turn off point I jauntily pressed on past the lovely marshall and once more began ascending.
After a few minutes I turned around and stared back into what was increasingly becoming a lonely and empty trail. I assumed I was now at the back of the field and wondered if it was possible to run the final 26 miles alone. I opened a caramel Freddo and chomped down on the mildly melted chocolate, turned on my heel and continued to shuffle forward.
It seemed that the ghost of Skye was not yet done with me though and shortly after I had finished my Freddo I heard the sound of footsteps behind me. Surely I was going quicker than the sweeper – my time really was not that bad (not that good either to be fair). I shot a glance over my shoulder and, blow me, I recognised the silhouette of one of my favourite ultra runners…
I’m sure he didn’t recognise me at first but that did not deter me from asking, ‘are yo stalking me?’ I knew it would be a short term mental reprieve but it was just the kind of boost I needed and we started to run together for a bit. Neil being the ultimate ultra runner is always full of good advice about races, events, logistics and well just everything and therefore it is always a pleasure to chat with him for a bit.
Together we reached the Three Brethren which was an unexpected delight and we were making pretty good time. Unusually though neither of us had managed to shake the other and suddenly 10km had passed and we were drifting into the checkpoint. I had been feeling a little bit rough and ready in the last 20 minutes and so took the opportunity to drink lots of Irn Bru. We speculated once again that we might be bringing up the rear but we saw a fellow runner at the checkpoint and suddenly we there was a sense that we might not be the final finishers.
Post giggle with the volunteers we headed out again – a little bit of tarmac, ruinous for me but as Neil identified, change is as good as a rest (NB. he’s wrong about that – a rest is always better than change). The route for the most part here was reasonably flat with bits of undulation here and there. We adopted a fartlek approach to the running or wherever we saw a hint of a downhill.
It was around here that things got weird when I ran into a web developer that my company are hiring to help build the businesses new website. I hadn’t recognised him at all until he called my name out and then it took me a second to figure out who it was (we’d only met the once) but it did make me go, ‘weird!’
Anyway with the fartlek in full swing and my Irn Bru power disappearing faster than a Usain Bolt hundred metres I was really struggling once again and I suggested that we were far enough in that I was not going to DNF and that Neil should continue without me. However, he gave me ‘the talk’ and we pushed on to the checkpoint.
The Irn Bru Saga
Holy poo! How much Irn Bru can one man drink? You’d think I’d been sponsored by them – I probably downed another litre or so of what I described as Ambrosia and I consumed several delicious pieces of flapjack. This was intended to power me through the final phase and I had no intention of stopping now but Neil was looking strong and I really was not.
Neil let me walk off my Irn Bru burping as we headed back towards the river and then explained he was going to employ a step count for running but after the first 100(200) running steps I could tell I was done and I insisted that he go on without me. No amount of Irn Bru was going to get me through this and with the light fading it seemed rather unfair to ruin the finish time for both of us. Thankfully though I was willing to give the step count a final crack and I found a second wind and the pace we were moving at was bumbling but steady. In no time at all we were through the little housing estate, past the café and onto the path by the river.
I finally knew were I was but I also knew that the downhill at the start was now set to become a terrifying, in the dark, race to the finish.
We managed to avoid putting our headtorches on until we reached the forest and the climb. It was here I felt I could smell the finish and found myself reaching for another gear as I pressed the pair of us into a reasonably pacey death march. Climb, climb, climb I could hear in my head. We had almost reached the summit when we stopped briefly for a hint of respite and in the distance we both thought we saw the twinkling of a headtorch – this was all we both needed to make sure we did not drop the pace.
BOOM. We were off.
We pushed onwards but more importantly downwards – all the time watching my Suunto as it passed 65km and then 66km and then 67km. I was dog tired and sore and all I wanted was the finish. The down to the finish would have been challenging enough in the light but in the dark it was frustratingly challenging and neither of us wanted to take a tumble at this late stage. In the distance between the trees though we finally saw the twinkling of lights and realised we had made it – we tumbled down to the bottom of the final rise whereupon I insisted we jog over the finish line.
And laughing as we crossed the finish line is all you can hope for when you’ve just survived the awesome Tweed Valley Ultra. Great race.
Distance: 65km (68km)
Profile: Deceptive and beautiful
Date: November 2018
Location: Tweed Valley (Near Peebles)
Tough Rating: 2.5/5
The route for the Tweed Valley Ultra was quite interesting in that the trail bits where spectacular and some of the good paths/tarmac were pleasant. If you have never been to the Tweed Valley then you’d really enjoy the sights and in fairness if you were a a regular in the Tweed Valley I’m confident this will take you on new and exciting paths.
The changing nature of the surfaces made this a mostly runnable event although having a steep climb at the start did sap the energy from my legs and meant I felt like I was constantly playing catch-up with own fitness levels.
Fabulous volunteers and marshals who all had a massive smile for the runners and for whom nothing seemed too much trouble. As for organisation this has to be rated as top notch – everything worked. The website, the GPX file, the map and the pre race event notes were mostly comprehensive and the on the day organisation at both the start and the finish is to be highly commended.
A bespoke medal and a good quality t-shirt (and as much Irn Bru as I could drink).
Value for money
£50 is an excellent price for this well organised and friendly ultra from a company that is attracting both the seasoned ultra runners as well as first timers. If you fancy spending a few pennies with High Terrain Events then you will not be disappointed
I would very much like to say thank you to the awesome Neil MacRitchie for always being there for his fellow ultra runners no matter the state they find themselves in.
I’ve now been living in Scotland for 8 weeks, I arrived the day I should have run the Ochil Ultra, I ran Jedburgh with no training and now I’ve completed the Tweed Valley with nothing more than a tenacious attitude and a lot of Vaseline. This is a great race and for me it was made all the better by coming across lots of lovely ultra runners. High Terrain should take pride in the fact that they are putting on a really, really good event, suitable for all levels of ultra runner and I am now seriously considering Kielder for 2019.
Sunday was a weird kind of day, I should have been completing The Fellsman in Yorkshire but an injury meant that I had withdrawn a few weeks ago as Yorkshire from Kent is a long way to travel for a DNF. However, I didn’t fancy not doing any racing this weekend and so with a bit of a look through the listings I found ‘The Chicken Run’ at Herne Bay on the Kent coastline. A 5km race isn’t a distance I do very often anymore but today was a reminder that this is a distance that I love.
Anyway let me roll back a little and to about 8.30am when I get into the drivers seat of the Big car for the first time and started the terrifying near hour journey to the coast. The weather was grey and overcast and my newly minted bad mood was as grey as the sky given my new found mental strength to bad food. However, unlike the weather my bad mood abated and we parked up half a mile from the start line at Herne Bay pier. I always get a lovely sensation when I arrive at any British seaside town, presumably derived from my university time in Blackpool and so with a spring in my step I bimbled onto the pier with ASKruns and the GingaNinja.
There was a small queue of runners who had arrived before me to face the whipping winds of Herne Bay pier and who, once they had registered, hid behind a nice big wind breaker near the California food stall! The team of volunteers from the Strode Park Foundation were doing a top notch job getting everyone geared up with the obligatory costume and keeping everyone’s spirits up with cheer despite the slightly soggy conditions.
I did as all other runners did and hid behind the wind break and put my costume over my usual 5km kit of t-shirt and shorts. It was a little while later that all the runners were called over for the ‘photo opportunity’ – this involved sitting astride the merry-go-round and getting to know some of the other runners. It was a really nice way to set things off. This was followed by a bit of a chicken roast from the guys at Bay Running as they got us warmed up for the run.
All this was taking place for my daughter to see who, during races, traditionally sees me nervous and a little stressed. Today though she was seeing me dressed like a chicken, flapping my wings and generally having fun.
We were taken to the beginning of the race at the start of the pier, I took up my customary position near the back of the field and with a crack we were off! Dozens of flapping and running chickens headed off along the coast. Despite the weather being grey the rain was mostly light and it was near perfect conditions for running. Yes there was a wind that was making progress harder than it might have been but the sight of so many lovely fowl based runners was quite the inspiration.
There was a problem though about a kilometre in and that was I found myself at the front of the race. Now some may say this is a lovely thing but for someone who hasn’t led a race for a long time this was quite confusing and as I passed the army of volunteers and supporters who were lining the course I felt compelled to say, ‘help, I don’t normally go this fast’.
Thankfully at about 1.5km I took a wrong turn and Lucy who had been acting as my shadow called out that I needed to follow the coastal path.
Runners were now catching up too but I put this out of my mind and pressed Lucy as hard as I could until I was keeping pace with her. We reached the turnaround point together and both put a spurt on and as we were together we began chatting a little more. We reached the one significant climb in the race and I put all my mountain running experience to good use and pushed on.
My companion started to lag a little and so I called out to her that she could easily take me if she pushed a little harder – and she did push and pushed really well – which in turn gave me the incentive to keep going outside my comfort zone!
Behind us the other runners were not that far and with the pier now in sight I could see a top three finish being possible!
Normally my more selfless self would come out and I’d have helped her keep pace to the end but the selfish side of me wanted to hear the winning roar of the crowd and for my daughter to witness me coming home first. I pushed the afterburner button and my legs found that final sprint, probably 400metres from the end and I was determined to make sure I would hit the pier first.
I took a sneaky look over my shoulder and saw the two male runners creeping up on second place but I was clear enough that I could shout to ASK who cheered me home.
My chest was pounding and on fire but I hurtled through the ribbon to my first win over any distance for 4 years!
Conclusions: it might not have been The Fellsman but this lovely inaugural event was really, really well organised, it was a whole load of fun and really good value (chicken suit, medal, lots of support, water on the course and of course some post race chocolate egg – chicken and the egg… get it). The volunteers (I’ll assume from the Strode Park Foundation) were superb and must be both thanked and congratulated in equal measure. The course was really quite testing – with a decent incline on the way out and a nice steep incline on the way back with as fast a finish as you could ever want. The costume element of the race was a bit of fun but most welcome if I’m honest. I would highly recommend joining this lovely 5km by the sea – even if it’s blowing a gale! Brilliant.
‘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!
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…
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
Distance: 44 miles
Profile: Deceptively challenging
Date: April 2018
Location: Coombe Gibbet
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.
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.
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’.
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!
They bet me I couldn’t down a pint of whiskey and still be sober later – I downed the whiskey and next remember being in a police cell being offered sausage and eggs covered in my own vomit and probably my own piss. Needless to say the first thing I did upon my release was to head over to the house of the girl I fancied and ask, ‘what the bollocks happened…’
She told me I should go home and shower.
I never dated that girl.
That was one of the many anecdotes I told as I bimbled and bumbled around the Silkin Way Ultra this last weekend. It was a funny race and something I was completely unprepared for but it was all good fun in the end. But before we reach the conclusion we need the journey and this is what happened.
It was 2am when my alarm went off, I’d gotten to bed at around 11pm due to having run out of printer ink and needing to handwrite the narrative route instructions, so when I awoke I wasn’t in that great a mood. However, a shower and a thick slathering of Vaseline’s finest around my nuts offered the usual level of excellent preparation. I had to two large coffees and a bowl of Cornflakes before I left the house at 3am and took position behind the wheel of Spusm, my little Toyota Aygo. I wished us both well because a) it was 3am in the morning b) there was heavy rain and c) this was my first significant drive without anyone else in the car with me and I was about to drive 3 and a half hours to Shropshire.
Vroom! Vroom! Thankfully aside from trucks and roadworks the motorways up to Telford were pretty quiet, my only real concern was the rain and I surprised myself when I rolled into Telford Services pre-6am (and pre Burger King being open). This though offered the opportunity for the coffee I’d had earlier to perform its magic and relieve me of my inner poo turmoils and yesterday’s delicious homemade spiced Indian meatballs. With no second breakfast options I headed over to the Village Hall in Coalport and took a wander down by the river as even the race organisers hadn’t arrived.
Denzil and the guys arrived not long after me and began setting up, I did offer to help but they had everything under control and so I returned to the relative comfort of the car and looked out for the other runners coming in. I chatted with several lovely Marathon and ultra regulars – all of whom were new to me, which was one of the benefits of being so far from home at a relatively small and quite new event. I chatted with others mainly about upcoming events and my fears about the Fellsman in four weeks but more immediately – how the hell you drive home after an ultra marathon!! Anyway with all the guff and gubbins done we ambled to the start and with a lovely low key start Denzil sent us on our way.
I ambled up to the Silkin Way and started to pick out my position in the instructions – with no GPX file I’d be reliant on these and the very handy chalk markings (thanks to Jon I believe) on the route. I started out at far too fast a pace and got rather caught up chatting with future ultra star Emily who bounced around the route like the Energiser Bunny but I knew her pace was going to outstrip mine and so about 5km I said adios and watched as she thundered off into the distance. From there I was able to ease off a little as it became clear to me this wasn’t going to a trail race and it’s been a very long time since I’d even tried to run long distance on tarmac and paths like this. Within 7km I could feel my knee, groin and hamstring in my left leg and by 10km I was in pain, however, if I slowed now I knew that I’d be getting back at the top end of the eight hour time limit and I really didn’t want that – so I pressed on.
The route itself was pleasant and we passed through sections of Telford that gave a nice impression of the area and harked back to much of the towns heritage. The route and the Silkin Way had many people out walking, though it was never too busy to be congested and we passed several big lovely parks and open spaces that the locals were using. On a nice morning like this it was lovely to see. I’d only been to Shropshire once previously where I went fruit picking with some old friends (although my hopes had mainly been in the seduction of French girls rather than pulling Gooseberries all day). This trip to Shropshire was for an entirely different kind of loving – my love of running.
However, as much as I love running with only 20km done I was feeling the burning heat of pain in my groin and I was grateful a couple of miles later when I reached the second checkpoint. This wonderful stop was rather handily was in one of the organisers homes – a novel and very friendly way of doing it I thought. I grabbed some cola and a few jelly babies before heading back out.
With the second half of the event now under way I was hoping that given this was effectively an out and back I’d be able to avoid the route mistakes I’d made earlier in the race but sadly no – I was still able to get bits wrong. Thankfully the mistakes were smaller and I wasn’t clocking up large extra miles.
It was a few kilometres further in that I would meet the runners that would define my race – there was no doubt I was struggling but people like Nick, Rob and Karen provided fresh inspiration to keep going at a reasonable pace. There was back and forth with these small pockets of runners but I noticed that when I was on my own or they would go past me that I would immediately slow and give in to the voice that said, ‘you’ve ruined yourself, save it for another day’. However, the jollification and support offered by being alongside other runners outweighed the negative thoughts I was having and so I did my best to keep up.
As the miles were counted down I could feel a sense of relief washing over me and when we were given a little bit of trail respite my hamstrings, knees and groin called out in gratitude – these kilometres were my favourite of the day but there simply hadn’t been enough of them to make much of a difference to the pounding the lower half of my body had taken and so I continued to slowly amble merrily along.
We were however soon back on the pavements and being sent across the mighty Ironbridge, sadly for us this glorious structure is undergoing major renovation and restoration work and was therefore completely covered. That said I can certainly say I crossed it and enjoyed the views across the town and river. From here I started clock watching or to be more accurate GPS watching, converting kilometres to miles and trying to figure out just how far was left, the trouble was I’d gone wrong in direction enough to make this futile and turned my gaze to the river and the fact I was on the side opposite to the finish line. Bugger.
All of the runners I was with had a small wobble about halfway before the actual crossing but it was with renewed vigour that we all pressed on for the final mile. Buoyed by the sight of the final directional arrow I burst forward a little ahead of the others and bounced through the car park to the finish.
There was no fanfare, simply Denzil manning the bacon butty wagon. Perfect.
Distance: Ultra 50km
Profile: Nothing too severe
Date: March 2018
Terrain: Mixed (but mainly tarmac paths)
Tough Rating: 1/5 (very accessible ultra)
Route: The route had a number of interesting bits, lots of bridges, lots of heritage and passed along some good scenery but that was tempered by the running through some really rather dull sections. The Silkin Way markers were a really nice touch and being made up of good paths the route lends itself to being fast – if you want it to be. The trail sections for me where the best part (though I believe these were off the Silkin Way) but there weren’t enough of them, however, that’s the trail runner in me talking. Ultimately I think you’ll find that this is neither the best nor the worst route you’ll ever do but has more than enough positives to make this a worthwhile run.
Organisation: This was my first time with ‘How Hard Can it Be’ and the hugely enthusiastic team were incredibly professional and wonderfully supportive. It was a relaxed atmosphere and everything was organised perfectly – just the kind of race organisation I enjoy.
Support: Aid station 1 and 3 were the same one on the out and back with aid 2 being in one of the organisers homes which was very nice and my desire to take a seat was sorely tested. Three aid stations was enough albeit the positioning was probably just a wee bit off as you had the final ten miles with no race support (although there was nothing stopping you nipping into the local shop for a bottle of water and/or a snickers!). The aid stations themselves were suitably stocked for the shorter end of the ultra distances with jelly babies, jaffa cakes, crisps, cola and water in abundance. Nothing wrong with the support.
Awards: The medal was weighty and a lovely memento of a challenging event. I also very much liked the design for the race numbers, made a pleasant change from the black number against white background. There was also the post race photograph to look forward too (or grimace at) – as per usual I look terrible!
Value for money: The route, the medal, the experience, the support and of course the cost all come to mind when I’m looking at value – how does this stack up against its contemporaries?
It comes out pretty well – primarily because of the positive experience you’ll have running the Silkin Way and different people will take away different positives from this. For me I got to run an ultra marathon in a new part of the UK, in a friendly, small field of runners with an ace medal and that means I got excellent value for money.
Conclusion: Is this the best ultra marathon in the UK? No it’s not, but is it a really good early spring shakedown ultra that will set you up for races later in the year? Oh yes!
I’d say this race is especially good for road runners who want to dip their toes into ultra marathons but who want to avoid laps or want to avoid mud. It would be excellent if you were looking for a challenging but fast 50km. Would I do it again? If I were looking for a race at this time of year I would certainly consider running this again (although I’d prepare a bit better for the tarmac) as I enjoyed myself more than the pain in my legs suggest. The fact is that races like this draw out, in my opinion, the ultra runners I want to run with and I’ll continue to support races like this for as long as lovely race directors like Denzil (and the team) put them on. Good work guys – you can check out their races at http://www.codrc.co.uk
After the South Wales 50 I wrote about how, mostly, my first half of 2017 had been pretty good with positives driving me forward towards my endgame and even the failures provided really useful information for future planning.
Sadly the second half of 2017 was a disaster.
I suppose the year unravelled when my partners mother passed away in early August and it all went a bit downhill from there.
I just didn’t turn up to the start line of the London to Brighton because of injury and exhaustion but had recovered enough in time to make hard work of the RunWimbledon Marathon. That proved to be my only September running at all and so my preparation for the Isle of Arran Ultra was woeful.
Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise when the race was cancelled less than 90 minutes in? But I had been making quite good progress and felt strong even if not amazingly so, despite my lack of match fitness. I had hoped that Arran and the running and hiking in Scotland would give me the lift I needed to commit to improving the second half of the year and even with Arran’s cancellation I enjoyed my Scottish running adventures going across numerous bloody enormous hills.
However, upon our return to Kent my running was sidelined by the worst chest infection I’ve had in years and while I battled through the first week of it the rest of October was a write off and I had to defer my entry to the Rebellion Ultra Marathon – once again through a lack of readiness. However, by the middle of November I had finally cleared the chest and I could resume some training and with less than 2 weeks before the SainteLyon I started to run again.
With a couple of biggish weeks in the bag I went to France and despite some truly hideous and in places dangerous conditions I ran the SainteLyon with all the gusto I could muster. It was a great feeling to be back in Lyon but even the joy of this outstanding race couldn’t hide my disappointment of a mere 2,000 miles run and a lot less racing than normal over the year.
However, though my 2017 ultra running ended in France there was to be a final run out as a family at the Mince Pi: A run of two decimal places. The GingaNinja had asked if we could find a race to do say 5km – the trouble is that to run together requires us to run with the toddler. Thankfully in Wacky Events we found an RD willing to allow us to race with our daughter being pushed on the Unirider!
This wonderful event proved to be the right year end to running, it involved my two favourite people, it involved trail running in winter and it has provided a bit of inspiration to the GingaNinja to kick on with her own personal fitness goals.
Can’t say fairer than that can you?
Returning to the SainteLyon
Returning to Scotland for both racing and training
Meeting Pete and Ryan at the South Wales 50
Racing alongside ASK and the GingaNinja at the Westminster Mile
Attempting MIUT and not letting failure break me
The death of my partners mother
The broken Petzl headtorch debacle at UTBCN
The cancellation of the Arran Ultra
Missing London to Brighton and The Rebellion
Being ill or injured most of September through to November
So that was 2017 but what about 2018?
2018 looks like a very complex year in that we are going to try and move to Scotland for a better work life balance, the bonus for me will be proximity to the hills and mountains I love so much. However, the downside is that I need to not be racing so much – which is a disappointment.
The year has started well enough though with a New Years Day shakedown at the Lamberhurst 5km and the first weekend will bring the East Hanningfield trail marathon and there is a January 100 mile virtual challenge which should ease me back into bigger and bigger monthly miles.
February will be a return to the Vigo 10, which with a move so far north on the cards, may be my final return to my favourite race and then we have space in the calendar.
Thankfully I’ve put my bank account to damn fine use and entered the West Highland Way Challenge Race in May and The Rebellion will follow in November (as will a second crack at the Arran Ultra subject to it running again).
There are things I won’t return to though such as my reduction in racing/running over the summer, although it aided me in avoiding the sun I used it as an excuse to stop training and that wasn’t the idea.
The first half of 2017 had been so positive and I wonder if I hadn’t halted the momentum I had gained would my second half have been better – even given family circumstances at the time?
Still new year, no point moping about what has been and it’s now the 3rd January and I’m already 18.6 miles of running into my January 100 mile Virtual Challenge, woohoo!Having been reading lots of blogs and the like recently about the variety of adventures you’re all going in it looks like there’s some good stuff about to happen. Mostly I read them because I’m always keen to hear about your own adventures so I can try them myself and I’ve found some of my best experiences because I tried something you suggested to me or suggested to me I your own writing – so keep it up please!
Anyway, enough of this jibber jabber, it’s raining outside and blowing a gale so, ‘Let’s crack on and enjoy adventuring’.
This is a story two years in the making as the moment I finished the SainteLyon in 2015 I knew I had found ‘my’ race. My experience was so incredibly positive that I knew I would return and when entries opened in April I was waiting with my debit card to hand ready to sign up. Experience had taught me that this was unnecessary but I wanted my place confirmed as quickly as possible and within a few hours I had also uploaded the medical certificate from the UTBCN, booked my flights and begun the search for accommodation.
The first half of my running year had gone quite well, finishing with a great finish at the South Wales 50 and despite failure at MIUT I was feeling tremendously positive overall going into the summer race break. However, the death of my partners mother, illness and injuries to my back meant that my return to training and racing was hampered quite badly. I didn’t show up for the return of the London to Brighton, although I rocked up to the start of the Ultra Trail Scotland: Arran this was cancelled mid race due to terrible weather conditions and I deferred my place at The Rebellion because of a hideous chest infection and a lack of preparation. This all meant that my return to the SainteLyon was incredibly undertrained in fact only just returned to training and in no way ready to face this wonderful course.
Regardless I wasn’t going to miss out and on Friday, 1st December I ambled along to the hideous Luton Airport and took the short flight to the delightful Lyon St Exupery Airport a short hop on the Rhône Express took me into the centre of the city (30mins), I bought a 72hour combined Metro, Tram and bus ticket (€15) and took the 3 minute metro ride to Saxe Gambetta where I would find my small but perfect AirBnB accommodation just two minutes from the station.
I dropped my bags down to be greeted by the sight of a Nespresso machine and some Belgian waffles and chocolate crepes! Merci Diep (the host). I grabbed a few bits like my passport and registration confirmation before heading straight out to the hall to collect my number. Another short hop on the metro and I was a five minute walk from where I needed to be – awesome.
Security was still quite tight in France and there were bag and body searches before entry to the hall – which in light of recent history both in France and across Europe -makes sense. But once in the hall it was like a Mecca for all things trail running and I slowly wandered round deciding what I would spend some pennies on. It was lovely to see Oxsitis with a big stand and lots of products on show and while I may not wear them any longer Hoka also rolled into town with a decent showing.
Collection of my number was easy this year and I used my incredibly handy French phrase, ‘je ne comprends pas francais. parlez vous anglais?’ and I found that my French hosts once they knew I was English simply switched languages (something I am in awe of) though I did use my French language skills wherever possible. With my number collected I headed over to get some SainteLyon socks and my new much loved Buff!
And from this point I actually had some free time. I headed over to the huge shopping centre and picked up some provisions, did some late night sightseeing and then continued in this vein the following morning – touristing before settling down to an afternoon nap before the race. I then engaged in my now infamous pre race coffee ritual for a full bowel clearance and eventually I’d get round to loading up my kit up! It all seemed to be going far to smoothly.
At about 6pm I headed down to the bus pick up point and joined the queue for one of the many buses to St Etienne. I remember in 2015 the bus was warm but the window had a drip running down it and I’d worked hard to ensure I didn’t get wet! This year the bus was a little chillier but the window didn’t leak and we arrived in good time and without incident. Security was speedy but thorough and as I had time to kill I grabbed some of the pre race snack goodies and went into the smaller of the two halls to see if I could catch a bit more sleep or at least rest. The hall was warm and filled with people but I had little trouble finding space and I folded a buff up and lay my head upon it – but I couldn’t sleep. The SainteLyon was effectively my Christmas present to myself and like a young boy I was desperate to open my present and get to running! Much like a Christmas Eve the following three hours dragged like the Hundred Years’ War! Still the hours did give me a vantage point for kit and people watching – the most interesting outfit I saw was a teenage mutant ninja turtle with full shell and this chap (as far as I know) ran the whole thing dressed like this. The STL though doesn’t attract a great deal of runners like this, they’re quite rare I would say. Most runners rock up in their favourite or best kit and I was pleased to note that many of the runners were wearing Oxsitis, Raidlight or Kalenji bags, undoubtedly the French appreciate these brands being reasonably readily available on the high street and support local brands. Shoe choices were equally local with most seeming to opt for Salomon or Kalenji – the good thing for me was I saw no Karrimor!
I’d chosen Altra for footwear and my beloved Oxsitis Hydragon for my back with a variety of OMM and Ronhill kit making up the rest, perhaps it was the kit that made me stand out as English as anyone that approached me spoke to me (generally) in my native tongue – clearly to the other runners I was not French!
Anyway to the race! The SainteLyon in its current form is a 72km race from St Etienne to Lyon, taking place the first weekend in December and setting off around midnight, you can read more about it here at Wikipedia. At around 11.30pm I drifted slowly to the start knowing that I would be starting near the back of the field but this would allow me to pick off runners later on (if I had any capacity to do so).
The organisers though were releasing the runners in waves which meant that as I was at the back I would be one of the final runners to depart St Etienne. I could feel the cold setting in and I was geared for minimal warmth as I knew that during the race I would overheat with too many layers. I rubbed my arms periodically to retain warmth and hugged myself, while gently jigging on the spot – stopping sporadically to take photographs and make social media checks.
40 minutes later and, as promised, bang on time the music played, the horn blew and thousands of runners were released into the night. It was as magical as I remembered it, only this time there was no @kemptomslim to share the moment with and so I turned to look at the arch I had just run under and said ‘au revoir’ before turning on my heel and running into the Rhône Valley night.
The first few kilometres are along the roads and lack any really interesting things to note other than the opportunity to catch some ground in the runners ahead of you or perhaps make some alliances to allow the hours to pass more pleasantly. I decided on the former rather than the latter and pressed firmly ahead knowing that conditions underfoot later in the race might slow me down. Perhaps the big clue as to the conditions was the fact that many runners had loaded up crampons to their race vests in preparation for cruddy conditions but at this early stage even those in their Kalenji Road shoes were running fine.
While my French is limited I could feel the ambience of the race and the runners and there was a generally positive, goodwill feeling that swelled up around the runners in these early stages and you couldn’t help but be carried by this. For my part I darted between runners and ambled towards the trail which kicked in at around the 6km mark.
From here the light snowfall that we had seen on the sides of the road was replaced by much thicker, more dangerous, not so grippy snow and I recall as I headed down the trail that ‘bugger, this isn’t going to be as easy as last time’.
However, I am confident in my footwork and I was able to press on a little faster than those in front of me and as the kilometres marched downward toward the first checkpoint I started to feel very confident about running a good time. Despite a lack of training in the lead up to the race I was feeling surprisingly spritely too and as I hurled myself up and down the trails I was enjoying myself.
I felt like I was in a good place and set myself up for cruise control to allow me some breathing room and to take photographs and simply to take joy from the experience. About 13km in, not long before the first checkpoint I looked behind me to see the procession of runners all twinkling behind me and then I really remembered why I love this race so much.
However, with underfoot conditions worsening I was glad to drop upon the first checkpoint and it was here that I stayed the longest of all the checkpoints – maybe 5 minutes, this was mainly due to the amount of people and partly because I actually wanted food. But it was still a short stop and thankfully they had full fat Coca Cola on offer and I enjoyed a cup full before heading out – no Rolo Cola this time @kemptonslim
I remembered that post checkpoints I was freezing cold for the first few minutes and so covered my fingers with the mitten part of my gloves and pulled my neck buff up and my head buff down and headed out. Weirdly though my nose was freezing and when I felt the front of my buff the snot and hot breath had frozen into a cold and icy mess. I folded it down a little and it was better but this would be the first buff to be replaced a few more kilometres down the trail.
It was from here that you started noticing people putting crampons on as conditions underfoot deteriorated further and there was a visible increase in the amount of runners who were losing their legs beneath them, I was keen to go as fast as I could but knew two things;
Falling would hurt
I’d forgotten to buy ultra marathon sports insurance
and so I ran were it was appropriate and walked as quickly as possible everywhere else. It was about the 20km mark that I heard the sounds of an Australian accent behind me and for a short while I’d met someone who spoke English natively and we had a lovely brief chat before we went our sort of separate ways. This was her first ultra marathon and her French friend felt this would be a great introduction to ultras and when I saw her she looked the business taking her fast marathon form into the STL. I would see a little more of her later.
The second section unlike the first had a greater degree of pure Trail and both my knees and back appreciated this. The trail was incredibly variable with some being good clear trail, other parts moist but most were snow and ice covered and progress remained slower than I would have liked but still not bad. The STL though has a very interesting aspect to it that say something like the CCC does not – overtaking. Although the route is busy with runners the potential for overtaking is enormous and you find yourself gearing up past runners all the time and then being overtaken by them! This has benefits for the relay runners who are undoubtedly fresher than the full distance runners and even for the Express (44km) runners that you might meet.
I found myself hitting some decent running in this section and engaging in lots of overtaking and being overtaken and it was fabulous hearing the phrase ‘a gauche’ or ‘a droit’ – I can’t tell my left from my right in English so I had to concentrate hard to get it right in French!
Although not clock watching I was very aware that my time was better than it had been in 2015 and some basic mental calculations suggested I could shave off around two or three hours from my previous outing and despite an injury and illness hit few months I was giving it as much welly as the ground would allow. However, all of this was to grind to a halt and all the good work undone. At about 23km in the ground became so icy that runners couldn’t even walk on it and in front of you a plethora of bodies were strewn across the trail.
A runner would fall and the phrase ‘ca va?’ would be called the two or three runners that would stop to pick up their fallen comrade. I brought my own race to a stop to assess the conditions and decided that I would use what visual clues I had before me, track the steps of the runners ahead of me and go as carefully as possible. Sections were becoming so severe that runners were sitting on their arses and pushing themselves down the trail on their hands.
I witnessed bloodied and bruised runners ahead of me but their tenacity meant that most would get up. My problems intensified though when at 26km my trusty Altra gave into the ice and I was thrust skyward and came down with a thud. I’d broken the fall with my back and smashed my headand although I got up straight away I was in pain – my recent back troubles suddenly came rushing back and my head felt woozy. I knew that Sainte-Catherine was only a couple of kilometres further on and so I followed the crowd, walking now and not in a good place. I slipped and slid more, desperate to keep my feet but I fell a further three times before the second checkpoint and when I crashed in I felt like death.
I took a few minutes and ate emmental and salami to help get something in me and for both the first and last time I wondered if I should stop and seek medical attention. The answer was ‘no’ and with that I set off again. I tried to focus on the trail and ran reciting song lyrics and poetry to myself as I’ve often found this works to stop me thinking about more painful distractions. The various falls though and those to come had given me s kicking and perhaps had my head taken a worse knock than it did I would have had the common sense to stop – but I didn’t. The trail continued to worsen and we were now into the coldest part of the night and at the highest, often most exposed points, when the wind whipped through it passed straight through me but I refused to put additional layers on knowing that this would simply infuriate me.
Upon reach Inge the highest point of the race I felt something of an achievement, despite having run it before I convinced myself that the rest of the course was downhill but this was ridiculous and actually the most dangerous Running was just around the corner.
I could see the pack starting to gather ahead of me, the ice, once again so bad that runners were sat on the floor dragging themselves down and the mountain rescue, aided by quad bikes were going back and forth collecting runners from the trail. In my head I refused to sit down and drag myself along, I refused to bow, in my head I could here Terence Stamps, Zod calling out, ‘kneel before Zod son of Jor-el’ and although I’m no Superman i knew that the moment I gave in I would death march this home.
My decision to stay stood cost me a couple of falls and a fellow runner came sliding into the back of me taking me out at one point. My already broken body didn’t have the required agility to jump straight back up this time but my fellow runners pulled me to my feet quickly and set me on my way. I was hurting now in lots of ways but the mild delirium kept me on the straight and narrow!
I dragged my sorry arse into the checkpoint and found a quiet spot to change head torches and power my phone up after the cold had simply switched it off. I didn’t bother with food or drink here – I was feeling sickly but I hoped this would pass if I quickly got out of the checkpoint and avoided the dreaded DNF.
I was a marathon or so in and light would soon be upon these beautiful French lands and with it I felt conditions would improve if only because I’d be able to see but the news was a bit better than that – the closer to Lyon we got the better the trail conditions got and icy conditions became more sporadic. My head was also starting to clear a little bit and despite the physical pain I could feel myself running more and more with confidence returning that I could control both my ascents and more importantly the descents.
Finally after the drama and trauma of the night I was back in the race – although the slow progress through the ice had ensured that there was no way I was going to run faster than the previous attempt.
We were also on the countdown to the finish ‘SainteLyon 25km arrivee’ I pushed on as fast as I could, walking the hills as quickly as possible and staying steady across the flat and downhills. I stopped briefly to top up my calories with a couple of caramel Freddo and some icy water and took a look back to realise that there still many, many runners behind me – this was clearly proving a hard slog for everyone.
With 20km to go I pulled into the next checkpoint and pulled out again quickly – I’d been keeping tabs on the young Australian girl and her friend who I’d inadvertently been playing overtaking tennis with and decided that I could use her as my pacer – the aim? To beat her to the finish. The final 20km are much more road based which doesn’t really suit my running style nor my injury record, however, it did allow me to push on without too much concern for what was happening at foot level.
about 5km in to the final 20km I saw my new target drift ahead of me – still looking strong and here I thought it was all over, I didn’t have a race in me – or so I thought. With just over 10km left I entered the final checkpoint had arrived at the outskirts of Lyon. I saw the two runners I was trailing and asked how they were getting on, they described a tale of woe in the icy conditions and my internal Schadenfreude said, ‘hehe’ but instant karma paid me back by making me bite down hard on my own finger instead of the cheese and salami I was holding. I base them farewell and wished them a good final push but I knew I could get there before them.
Finally the sun was warming, I removed my buffs, my gloves and rolled my sleeves up. I knew the route from here, I could smell the finish line in the distance and even the good awful climb into the city I flew up much to the amusement of runners behind me. There are steps on the descent into Lyon and the finish – lots of them and ahead of me I could see runners gingerly hobbling down them but I pushed hard knowing that I could continue to climb the rankings.
Off the steps, down to the river, up the winding steps, over one bridge, fly past the musee de confluences and over the final bridge, cheering supporters shouting, ‘Allez!’ And clapping calling out, ‘Bravo! Bravo!’
I had decided on my finish routine long ago for this race and I ambled along to the final 200metres, I could see runners ahead of me and at the right moment I pressed my feet into the floor and like a rocket I blasted off much to the surprise of the crowd who whooped and hollered as I hit full pace. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 runners down, runner number 6 with his hands in the air smacked me in the head but I was in full glorious flow and I hurtled towards the final turn – taking it wide to ensure I could cross the line flat out! I passed a couple of final runners at the line and I was over.
It was over! I was over!
Ascent: +2000 metres
Runners: 7,000 (15,000 over all distances)
Terrain: Mixed, icy, rocky, hilly, tough
Tough Rating: 3/5
Organisation The STL is possibly the best organised race I’ve ever run, but then after 64 editions perhaps that is to be expected. However, they clearly keep on making minor corrections to the system to ensure that runners know what’s going on and what they have to do. Things like transport to the start for thousands of runners is slick and well rehearsed and the checkpoints although busy are all easily accessible as a runner.
As a French classic there isn’t much information in English but Google translate is helpful and the volunteer army was amazing in helping me with questions I had.
There was also excellent social media connectivity and the tracking was quick, up to date and working unlike at so many events (yep I’m thinking of you UTMB). The STL scores incredibly highly for organisation.
Volunteers All volunteers are amazing but the SainteLyon volunteers are out in some freezing cold conditions for a very long period and they remain hugely upbeat – they are a credit to the race and to European Ultra Running. There should also be a special mention to the many people who came out on to the course to support, whether they had a runner or not, truly special.
Route The route had something for everyone whether you’re a trail lover, a road hog or somewhere in between. The ascents are sharp and the descents technical in places but it’s fun and the route is mostly wide enough for easy overtaking. The views for this route are strange in that you are in the middle of the night so it’s dark but the lights of the runners illuminate things around you and in the distance and that’s a beautiful sight. I feel very much the reason I love the STL so much is because the route is both challenging and fun, this time it really did show me it’s tough side but that doesn’t change my opinion that this is an everyman course and with a bit of tenacity you can do it.
Awards I would love, love, love a SainteLyon medal but solo finishers are presented with a T shirt instead – a nice technical shirt but still not a medal. This year pre-race they also supplied a snood/buff and a pair of STL branded warm socks which are excellent. There were all sorts of other goodness such as the post race and pre race food (I didn’t bother with either but I heard good things about it). All in all the awards are great but I’d love a medal (take the hint organisers).
To give an indication of cost I paid around £85 return flights (London Luton – Lyon). £22 for the return express train to Lyon from the airport and about £85 for three nights Airbnb in the centre of Lyon as well as £60 for the race and transport. Other costs included a couple of technical SainteLyon t-shirts and a bobble hat (total cost £27). All in, transport, race, goodies, tourism and food £300.
Logistics I’ve written in my previous STL about logistics but Lyon is 1hr 25mons from London and Lyon Airport is 30 mins from the city centre. I used AirBnB for accommodation which was lovely and the race itself provides buses to the start for €13 and this is easily the best way of arriving fresh at the start. The organisers and Lyon/St Etienne are very well prepared for this event and as far as I could tell it runs smoothly and logistically brilliantly.
Value for money Value for money is a very subjective thing, for example some people even believe that OCR events are good value but this is a different kettle of fish. Entry is €63 – this includes the €3 service charge and what you get is not only a truly glorious event but also tremendous support (be that through volunteers, cheering supporters or food at checkpoints), most importantly though you receive a brilliantly organised event and having some events not this well set up I can tell you I appreciate the value of a good team delivering on their promises.
Favourite moments This year was a little different to 2015 but it had no fewer highlights, below are five moments that really made a difference to my race.
The start line, such an icon of the race and filled with all sorts of emotion. The moment the runners all started hugging and patting each other on their backs just made me feel connected to my fellow competitors
Standing at various high points of the route and looking back to see the procession of lights running to catch me and the people ahead of me.
The two young children and their mother offering water, coffee, goodies and support in the darkest hours of the race
The cries of Allez! Allez! Allez! and Bravo!
My sprint to the finish line
Conclusion Going back to the SainteLyon after 2015 was never in doubt. I had loved the idea of it and loved the execution of it. After being busy with Haria Extreme in 2016 I knew I would be returning to Lyon this year but what I hadn’t been prepared for was a hugely different experience.
In truth, as I look back on it, I enjoyed this year even more than my first time because of how close I came to failing and yet still clinging on. However, it wasn’t just that it was also the fact I got to enjoy the race, to watch the landscape move before my very eyes in a procession of light and because the SainteLyon continues to tease, ‘come back UltraBoy you can run me faster’.
Going back to the SainteLyon is a certainty because there is something special about it that no other race I’ve done has given me the feeling I get here. It might have left me broken into a thousand pieces but I would rather that it was body broken than my heart. SainteLyon 2017 – I loved you.
You can learn more about the race at www.saintelyon.com and below is a gallery of images taken during the 2017 event!