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My review of 2021 was originally intended as a festive podcast (which you can listen to at the player above or by searching ‘ultraboyruns’ on your favourite podcast platform), though time and tide conspired against me to ensure that the episode dropped well late of the festive season but I’m not going to chastise myself too much for that.

But given that the podcast circulation is still quite small I thought I would take the original script and put it into written form too and also because I’m writing this beyond the festive season and with the first race of 2022 under my belt I can be a little less of a festive grump about the whole thing.

Would it surprise you that I’m a miserable shit at Christmas?

It probably comes as no surprise to anyone that really knows me that I am something of a grump at the festive period and originally thought I would share my festive grumpiness in my end of year running review. The benefit is that I get to improve my mood by worsening all of your moods, it’s a cunning plan.

Where to begin?

I think the first thing is that 2021 has felt like something of a lifetime in itself, I am sure we all remember that we started the year in lockdown with limited movement and interaction. The idea of running a race wasn’t on many peoples agendas and it all seemed so far away. But the advent and arrival of the vaccine roll out across the UK brought with it the easing of restrictions and the opportunity to get out and about a bit more.

Once the Scottish Government started to allow us to travel outside of our region we had no hesitation in picking a nice hillwalking route to test out and found ourselves on Cort Ma Law in the Campsies, withing days of the restrictions easing and soon after races started to pop up again.

The first race

My first one of the year was the delayed, inaugural Ultra Scotland 50 (click for race review) which I think was pretty much the first Covid secure Scotttish race to take place after the lockdown and it was a hazy mix of trepidation and relief.

I hadn’t raced since the Ultra North the previous September but that had been in England and this would be my first Scottish race since the Skull Trail Race in March 2020. We’d gone down in the Rona to sleep under stars of Clatteringshaws a few miles from the start in St Johns of Dalry. There was a man playing the bagpipes beautifully that evening, the night sky was clear and the stars twinkled brightly for us and it was a wonderfully serene and delightful pre-race.

The next morning I remember lining up amongst the dozens of grateful runners, all wearing masks and all wondering what a Covid secure event meant, myself included.

But I developed a very swift respect for Wayne Drinkwater and the GB Ultras team who really went out of their way to make sure that they stayed within the rules and that the runners could compete. Now having barely been near a hill in about 6 months I really, really felt the race and injuries really fucked me over quite early on which in turn inhibited my ability to move with any pace downhill and there is no doubt that the whole of the lowlands of Scotland will have heard my wild cursing of my old disintegrating body.

I was however joined in this expedition by a lovely chap called Kieran who was having more issues than I was and while I was running all of the Covid and the associated problems seemed to just disappear. It was such a tough day out on those lowland hills but I found myself holding on and being surprisingly strong at the end. I mean don’t get me wrong I was 100% fucked at the end and I hurt like nobody’s business but more importantly I was back in business – all I needed now was more races to do.

Appetite for more?

The Ultra Scotland 50 had given back my appetite for racing so it was with dismay that there were still races being cancelled left, right and centre, races being moved to make the end of the year jam packed, which could be great fun, but an incredible challenge in terms of the actual running and logistics.

By the time May had arrived I’d seen the postponement (in some cases for a second time) of the Cheviot Goat, the Bonnie Prince Ultra, the Loch Ness 360, the Pennine Bridleway Challenge and Run the Blades, only a complete bastard could fail to have the most tremendous sympathy for the race organisers who time and again seemed to have the rug pulled from under them or where hit by forces outside of their control. This very much wasn’t about me, this was about everyone with runners and organisers alike feeling some form of pinch caused by the pandemic.

Now don’t get me wrong racing isn’t that important in the grand scheme of things but the organisers of these races aren’t making millions of pounds from putting on events and if they can’t be supported by runners or were discovering that the financial issues being caused were too onerous to bother continuing then we might be looking at a post Covid race calendar that seems a little bare.

All we could hope was that restrictions continued to ease and that races could start.

I decided that I couldn’t wait for ultra running to return properly and decided to take advantage of any and all racing opportunities that cropped up and for the first time since social media was invented I found a use for it – uncovering races.

The Sunburn 5

An early example of this was discovering the amazing team at Trails of Fife, now I have a great deal of affection for Fife, it is a place I enjoy and any opportunity to race will be very seriously considered. Therefore, when the delayed Frostbite 5 (click for race review) was announced as running at the delightful Lochore Meadows Country Park I decided that we once more load up Rona and enjoy a weekend away in anything but frostbite conditions.

At the time I commented that it was more like the Sunburn 5 mile race than the Frostbite 5, but this event offered me an opportunity to test the injury I had sustained at the Ultra Scotland and also to test just how fast I could push myself after years of lethargy and not doing very much running at all.

We had a lovely time at Lochore Meadows in Rona, we went paddle boarding, kayaking and open water swimming, it was a wonderful Saturday – I sort of wondered why I was bothering racing and then as I arrived at the outdoor registration desk I remembered.

There was such a lovely atmosphere at the start, people glad to be back together – some of whom had clearly not seen each other for the duration of the lock down and then there was me watching it all and just soaking it up in one of my favourite places.

With time counting down though I wandered to the start line, which was a few minutes from the registration, and chatted to a few of the runners, I had forgotten what it was like to speak to another runner and just chew fat.  

When the race came I found myself hurtling away like someone had put a light under my nutsack and I stayed that way for the next 5 miles, I didn’t slow to look behind me to see if fellow local runner Fiona was there, I didn’t stop to take photographs, I didn’t hesitate to push my old dilapidated body to the limit. I thundered around Lochore Meadows and when I picked up a shadow about a mile from the end I used his influence to force me to go harder, faster and stronger.

I don’t recall the last time that I pushed to the point of my lungs busting but this was it but I did remember to get the action camera out at regular intervals because this was brilliant and I didn’t want to forget it. Everything about this was just awesome, I loved being in the sunshine of one of my favourite places while being cheered on by supporters and I loved the whole experience – the only odd thing was that Covid restrictions meant we had to be given my medal before we started so it weighed heavy in my race vest but by god when I hurled myself across the line I pulled it out and proudly wore it all the way back to Rona.

Unravelling begins

For all the joy I had here though my year of racing would soon start to unravel and a fall off my paddle board at Loch Lomond a couple of weeks after the Frostbite 5 killed any hopes of my starting The Great Glen Ultra. I was deeply saddened that I was too sore to start the GGU and as the runners were setting off I was lying in Rona less than a mile away from the start trying to get to sleep, annoyed at wasting another opportunity.

I was even more annoyed when we were parked up the next night in Inverness less than 300 metres from the finish and I watched jealously as competitors completed the course. I couldn’t bring myself to go and support the runners as I was simply too miserable and on reflection I realise that this was just me being selfish but I’m good at being selfish sometimes and this was one of those times.

6 races, 9 days

The good news was that the paddleboard injuries did clear up and racing continued throughout the summer with an awesome beach race in St Andrews where I enjoyed the delights of facing a giant fabric lobster in the coastal waves. The Splash n’ Dash (click for race review) also introduced me to the wonderful Yvonne who would get in touch post race and be a wonderful addition to the circle of awesome runners I know.

I followed the Splash n’ Dash on the next day with a jaunt down to Solway Coast to take part in the marathon there (click for race review).

From getting home from one race to leaving for the next race was actually only about 5hrs and so I remember arriving at the event, after a near 4 hour drive, feeling both exhausted and uninterested in running. Some of that feeling can be attributed to the fact that I don’t like road marathons, they are as boring as shit to me and I did consider just turning the car round and heading home.

However…

I got a bit of a second wind and met some of the local runners and also a few of the crowd who hang out with Rachel and Traviss from the Saxons, Normans and Vikings events and I realised that I might be about to have a fun day.

As I trundled along the course, taking in some lovely views across the northern England coast and most southerly of Scottish coastlines I found something I had not experienced in a very long time – a road marathon I could enjoy. This was one of the happiest races I would take part in over the course of 2021 and I would happily go back to the Solway Coast Marathon time and time again, I mean I’d probably be more keen to wear some road shoes to run it but other than that it was brilliant. This was such a small and perfectly formed event that I can’t heap enough praise on it and it had a cracker of a medal too – for more information there is a review of this race at ultraboyruns.com.

Perhaps most importantly I came away from this race with a tremendous amount of self belief and that would be crucial going into the following week where I would face four events over four days at the now infamous ‘Tour of Tameside’.

Merciless Murder

I’ve written about the Tour of Tameside (click for race review) and spoke about it extensively in the season one finale of the podcast (listen here) and it genuinely saddens me to say that I really disliked the Tour of Tameside. I think the thing is that when you travel a long way to do events you hope that they are good, or at the very least offer you something interesting and the Tour of Tameside offered me nothing positive. I found the tour tedious and energy sapping and over the four events my love of running was mercilessly murdered.

After this series of events I simply stopped running and have struggled ever since to get back into any kind of consistency, it doesn’t help that it was one of these four events that was the proper kick off of my hip flexor injury but it was so much more than that. It was the Covid security of the event which really wasn’t up to scratch, it was the crappy medals, the dull as dishwater routes and on and on.

The highlight of the event was leaving Tameside, a sad indication of how little I enjoyed it.

But finding a chink of light in every shitty experience is something we aim to do and so I found one here! The journey was made more worthwhile in that I finally got to meet the lovely Nicky and Rob who both make my highlights of 2021, meeting them, especially Nicky provided some significant solace against my anguish over attending the Tour of Tameside.

DNSs

The injury that I picked up though did mean that I was a non-starter the John Lucas Memorial and that was another kick in gonads.

I was also a non-starter at the Speyside Way Ultra because of a logistical parenting issue, although injuries were still there in the background, but I was very much trying to massage them across them start lines and more importantly finish lines.

The Speyside Way DNS was different because the GingaNinja was called into surgery late to try and save an animals life and by the time she got home it was too late for me to make it to the start line and I hadn’t been able to leave the house as I was on parenting duty. It was a case of ‘oh well, can’t be helped’ and I wasn’t as pissed off about it as I thought I would be, perhaps because I knew secretly my body needed more recovery time. That said, getting to the start line of the Speyside Way remains high on my event list and I’ll certainly be looking to start in 2022 or 2023.

Niggles

The problem really was that this succession of niggles, issues and complications led to a downward mental spiral that I am still addressing, but when you combine it with the physical injury stresses then it should come as no surprise that my end of 2021 was a lot less positive than the start. But as September rolled around and with three shiny new ‘did not starts’ I felt that maybe I might be about to turn a corner and knew that if I completed the Cheviot Goat and all the Ranger Ultras races I would still surpass my goal of 60 ultra marathons since March 2013.

Big Tatties

Thankfully, it wasn’t all doom and gloom and when I most needed to find some joy in running I had a truly amazing time at the Great Perthshire Tattie Run (click for race review).

It seems that when you’re most feeling down that those closest to you ride in upon a glittery unicorn and rescue you. The GingaNinja, ASK and I were all competing in different races at the Perthshire Tattie Run, carrying large loads of potatoes and it was such a joyous thing I can’t quite describe it.

It’s one of those things that when you run such a short distance you get a massive buzz because it’s over before its started and to an ultra runner you can just soak it all in, it is a zero pressure race. The Tattie Run at just 1 mile makes you realise how much fun, running can actually be – even when you’ve got 20kg of spuds on your back.

As we left Perth hauling our swag of 32.5kg of spuds and a trio of medals I remember the faces of my two fellow runners and that will be the gift that keeps on giving.

Ultra anyone?

But not all races can be just 1 mile and so there was the return to the ultra marathon distance in September and although my hip flexor remained a constant issue I had decided to run. The event was part of a grand slam series of races that I should have completed in 2020 but the old C word put the kybosh on that so I instead took part in the 2021 edition starting with the Pennine Bridleway 55 (click for race review).

The trouble was that the grand slam was taking part over a 7 week rather than 7 month period because it had been condensed together after the April edition of the Pennine Bridleway was delayed due to restrictions at the time.

I concluded that I didn’t want to wait another year to try my hand at these events and so I found myself working towards the start line of the PB55.

Now had I realised that the Peak District is about 6 hours away from where I live and that my partners working schedule meant that I couldn’t leave until she arrived home at about 9pm the night before the race I might have thought somewhat differently about doing these. However, I loaded the car with litres of coffee, chocolate and milkshake and rolled up to a very small and perfectly formed event and although the hard packed nature of the trail would be an absolute shit for my body I did indeed enjoy myself. I met so many wonderful people, I ran alongside some truly exceptional athletes and I found in the organisers a team I really liked.

What I will admit is I really didn’t enjoy the afterwards of searching for diesel during the middle of the fuel crisis, nor did I enjoy the English approach to Covid that I was witnessing, because by the summer of 2021 people seemed to have forgotten or where choosing to ignore the pandemic and that was troubling.

However, despite my reservations about returning to England I looked forward to testing myself on what looked to be the highlight of the grand slam – the Yorkshire Three Peaks Ultra (click for race review).

Three bloody peaks

The Yorkshire Three Peaks Ultra was both a little bit closer to me in terms of travel albeit with the same logistical issues but I turned up to a truly brilliant event, even better than the PB55, it was a bigger and therefore a bigger atmosphere but it just had a real buzz about it that I got right into the groove of.

I’ve already said all I need to say about how great Ranger Ultras are; some might accuse me of ‘licking the hole’ but actually they just know how to organise a damn fine event and as the Yorkshire Three Peaks brutalised the fuck out of me I realised just how much Stu Westfield and the team understood ultra running.

I delighted in the up and I delighted in the down of this race – I mean it is true to say that the injuries that had been furthered during the Pennine Bridleway really fucked me over here but that didn’t stop me from finishing the 70km version of the event with a smile, at least inside I was smiling.

Outwardly I was obviously angry as I had failed to complete the 100km version of the event and therefore my grand slam was over – something that I was really hoping to achieve but it just wasn’t to be and as I drifted in and out of conciousness during my drive home along the M74 I chastised myself regularly for that failure.

Not making the grand slam, primarily because of the injuries I had sustained in the earlier part of the year drew into question whether I would bother turning up for the final two races of the slam, there seemed little point and with the Cheviot Goat a couple of weeks afterwards it seemed like I should remain at home but with my name at the top of the ‘points leaderboard’ I felt like this was an opportunity I could grasp

On reflection and after what happened I wish I hadn’t bothered but I did.

I recall sitting in the kitchen with the GingaNinja and saying, ‘I’m top of the Ranger Ultras leaderboard, well joint top…’ The GingaNinja looked at me in a bemused way and replied, ‘but you’re a terrible runner’.

And this was were my vexation came from, I am a terrible runner and therefore I shouldn’t be at the top of a leader board simply for turning up – a point I made to the race organisers when I next saw them, which handily was just a few days after the conversation with the GingaNinja took place.

Peaks-y-boo

I rolled up for a weekend of running in the Peaks amongst people I had come to consider friends and comrades, old and new but I left feeling deflated and distraught about running (click for race review).

In short the first day of the racing had gone pretty badly, I had a suspected broken foot and my hips were in pieces, added to this was the ignomy of being DNF’d from the event despite finishing the first day and this meant that I couldn’t reach 60 ultras this year no matter what happened at the Cheviot Goat.

I knew that I had done something serious to my foot and I should have DNF’d at about mile 2 but I didn’t because I believed, incorrectly, that a finish on day one would count towards my ultra total – a total that I am ultimately proud of as it a testament to my mental attitude in the face of being a piss poor athlete. But to finish day one of the Peaks North & South weekend and have it not count and therefore be a waste of my effort, left a very sour taste in my mouth.

Don’t get me wrong it was my mistake and I accept that, I should have checked the rules and I should have checked the route (which was mostly very hard packed and not suited to someone as injury prone as I can be). Had the organisers DNS’d me for day two and allowed me the finish for day one I would have been very happy with that, I could have tried to get ready for the Goat and reach 60 ultras that way but instead it brought to a close my grand slam adventure in the least satisfying of ways.

That being said all the hundreds of positive points of racing with Ranger Ultras remain true and I would certainly say they are worthy of consideration – especially the Yorkshire Three Peaks Ultra. And for the most part I have nothing but the highest regard and the highest of praise for Stu Westfield and the whole of the Ranger Ultras family.

Six to eight what?

My attendance at the first day of the Peaks North & South double did though create a quandary of whether I would be making the Cheviot Goat because my foot was looking pretty grim and when I went to the hospital I was advised that a minimum of 6-8 weeks without running was in order. Well of course what I heard was 6 to 8 days and so I planned to be on the start line with 10 days of no running and careful planning to get me round.

I ordered new kit, lots of it in order to give me an even lighter weight advantage against the various injuries that had plagued me in the second half of the year, I lurked around social media as other people commented on the route, the storm, the bogs and even whether to take crampons!

I had decided I would leave it until the last second to decide if I would go and then as my bags were packed, my kit was selected and the car was ready to go the Cheviot Goat was cancelled.

The Goat was never going to be the final event of the year for me but it would be the final significant one and it was hugely disappointing not to be testing myself in the cold of Northumberland. However, whatever I was feeling about the Goat would be inconsequential compared to the distress that would be caused to the organisers and anyone else affected by the ravages of Storm Arwen.

I’m fortunate in that I will line up next year at The Goat and I will thank the whole team for their efforts because they really deserve it. I’m hopeful I’ll get to see many of them in January as I have signed up for the Winter Wipeout from Cold Brew events and I can’t wait to get out there (having now run this you can read the review here).

The end?

But before the Winter Wipeout, 2021 isn’t quite over, I have a festive 7km to run with the family in a few days time and this will be ASKs biggest race distance (click for race review) and after her outstanding performance at the rather hilly Edinburgh MoRun in November I am pretty convinced that she has what it takes to make the step up to 7km and beyond.

So 2021 hasn’t been a waste but it certainly hasn’t been a success and I’m sad about that but we live and learn, well we live anyway.

Best of 2021?

Despite the shit show that 2021 appeared to be there were several big highlights, obviously there was the general return to racing but there were some significant specifics that really made a memorable mark on me – Shaun for example at the White Peaks 50km, the time I spent with him was very, very memorable. Seeing the joy on ASKs face as she earned a second medal at the MoRun. Running into the sea at St Andrews to chase down a man dressed as a Lobster was perhaps the funniest thing I did in racing this year but the absolute highlight would probably be the time I spent with the wonderful Kieran at the Ultra Scotland 50, it was simply the most glorious few hours of running I did this year with much swearing done, lots of pain and just general big kids pissing about in the hills, desperate to finish! I suppose that’s the thing about the running I do its all solo except for when I go racing and then I delight in the people that I meet.

There is probably a lesson in that statement for me, if only I could see it…

Of course one other event took place that I haven’t mentioned here yet and this is the Craggy Island Triathlon – an event I didn’t take part in but I had an instrumental role in because my partner was racing in it and I was volunteering. Perhaps the best thing I did in 2021 was that at the end of the race, infront of everyone I chose to ask her to marry me – something that will have wide ranging implications well beyond 2021 and most people think that after 13 years it was about time.

What went so badly wrong with 2021?

I’m usually pretty good at identifying the big issue that caused the ruining of my year but in 2021 it was different, I’m struggling to put my finger on it. I mean I know the big causes of the unravelling and that was the hip flexor injury but beyond this there was the mental unravelling that began with the Tour of Tameside and that is something that no physiotherapist or rest will help.

The real shit is that I did lots of the right things for a change, my weight dropped, I did training, I did cross training, I did stretching, I went for regular physiotherapy sessions, I returned to writing the blog, I started the podcast but nothing ever really went very well, all of the races had twinges, all the efforts felt laboured and as a new year approaches I hope to leave that sense of foreboding and wheezing behind me.

What did I learn to take into 2022?

Well I’d like to say that I learnt lots from 2021 that will better inform my racing next year but the truth be told I’m such an old stick in the mud that I’ll just repeat the same old mistakes again – I’m full of good intentions that just never happen, however, I’m going to try and do the things I did well in 2021 again and avoid the things I did badly in 2021 and we’ll see if I make it through a full calendar or events.

Running in a COVID world

Running in a COVID world was initially very odd but by the end I appreciated it and I found that being in Englandshire were rules were relaxed much more quickly than they have been in Scotland I found myself rather more nervous than when closer to home.

I didn’t enjoy a lot of what I saw in England and the attitude towards Covid and I’m grateful for Scotland’s tighter restrictions and peoples desire to follow the rules. I feel that covid guidance will very significantly influence my 2022 decision making regarding the races that I run.

Best running event of 2021?

This is a tough one, especially as I managed not to start three of the events I was due to run and at the time of the original writing of this I had yet to decide if I was to run the Cheviot Goat, although that decision was taken out of everyone’s hands when the event was cancelled at the last moment because of local council declaring an emergency.

At the time of writing I would say that the highlight of the year has been the Yorkshire Three Peaks, this was a real bastard of a route and a genuine trail which I 100% loved. I was a little sad not to run the extra 30km but I’m  not sure I missed much as it would just have been for time on my feet rather than enjoyment. I found great joy in the organisation and the team behind Ranger Ultras and though there was a bitterness left after being DNF’d rather than DNS’d at day 2 of the Peaks weekend I cannot deny my general love of the guys who put the Ranger Ultras events on.

I would also add that running the MoRun around Holyrood Park with my family was also genuinely brilliant and to witness was 7 year old, as the youngest runner on the course, not only finish but also finish well, was a real joy.

The only bitterness I have regarding this is that I know she could have shaved about 8 minutes off her time but we decided that we would run it as a family and that meant running at the pace of our slowest runner, the GingaNinja. Maybe next year we’ll run a few races without mum!

Best bit of kit of 2021?

I bought a shit load of kit in 2021, perhaps to make up for the fact that I really didn’t buy very much in 2020 – there were several new pairs of Topo Athletic running shoes including the excellent Terraventure 3 and the MTN Racer 2, both of which performed brilliantly in every scenario I hurled at them.

There was also the brilliant Montane Gecko VP+ 12 which was a replacement for brilliantly flawed Salomon ADV Skin 12 which destroyed the skin on my back at both the Pennine Bridleway 55 and the Yorkshire Three Peaks Ultra.

There was also much purchase of many, many running tops as I restocked my Ronhill long sleeved options and bought up what seemed like the last of the amazingly designed and garish original Oddballs training tops.

There was also the addition of the Insta360 One X2 as I looked to diversify the type of footage I shoot for the blog and the other social channels and I found this to be a lot of fun and having finally sourced a second battery for it I can start to take it on races with me.

But the best bits of kit I bought in 2021 were actually unrelated to running.

I’ve always been a bit of a one trick pony, in that my only hobby has been running, I talk running, I breathe running, I live running and I bore to death anyone I come across because of my fascination with running (and poo stories related to running). Therefore, it comes as a bit of surprise that my best bit of kit this year is probably my new paddling gear which includes a Liquid Logic Lil’ Joe river running kayak and a Pyhrana Surfjet 2.0 – these along with ASK’s love of paddle boarding means that we have another active avenue which we can explore together, although I am bitterly disappointed that the 5km New Years Day paddleboard race that I had entered has been cancelled.

Boo fucking hoo, I hear you cry! Ha! I never thought I’d say this but if you’re a runner and you’re a running bore like me, get another hobby to go alongside it, its awesome!

The Future?

A couple of weeks ago I’d have said that the future is more of the same but there were issues at my race that have really given a kick in the nutsack that make me wonder if running is for me.

Don’t get me wrong, I love running, I love the long distance running and getting lost inside myself, I love the writing and podcasting that comes with it and I love sharing my adventures but the costs just keep rising and I don’t mean the financial implications (although ask me about that after my Ultimate Directions Fastpack 20 arrives from France and I’ve got a stinking import duty bill to pay).

What I mean is that my body is suffering and suffering increasingly badly and the pay-offs are getting less and less.

So when I travelled 6 hours to the Peak District and finished day one of the Ranger Ultras races and thought I had earned a finish and possibly even a medal but it turned out that what I’d earnt was fuck all other than a DNF and an exhausting 6 hour drive home, that really doesn’t help create enthusiasm for racing.

Now take out the fact that I really like the guys who run the Ranger Ultras stuff this means that their cheap as chips event was actually incredibly expensive to me with nothing to show for it, well except that DNF and a visit to the X-ray department to see if I had broken my foot… oh and the likelihood that I wouldn’t be making it to the next race.

Even if I’d had the best day out in all the racing I’ve ever done this still probably wouldn’t have been worth all the effort and I’ll be honest it wasn’t a bad day out, but it certainly wasn’t anywhere the best. If it had been an isolated incident then maybe I could just put it down to one of those things but there is no doubt that the Ultra Scotland 50, for all that it gave, left me feeling a little deflated and lonely, in the running sense.

So the future of my running has to be to do things that really, really float my boat and to that end I’d originally looked at starting the year with a paddle board race, but this has been cancelled, so instead I’ve decided to join the GingaNinja for a weekend of running – she’s doing the Kielder 10km Night Run and then the following morning we’ll be off for me to face the Cold Brew Events Winter Wipeout that I have already mentioned – although the GingaNinjas race has been cancelled and it is just my event to run now!

Then I’m doing a couple of local looped ultras in January and February followed hopefully by a return to Kent for a 900 mile round trip to race 10 epic miles around Vigo and I’ve just added in a 6hour looped event with my old friends at SVN events – so that’ll be a nice amble down memory lane.

I’ll finish up the races that have hung over from 2020 such as the Loch Ness 360 and the Bonnie Prince Ultra as well as Run the Blades and then I’ll find more of those low key ball busters I love. Maybe the Cairngorms Ultra or Glen Lyon both of which I have been keen to try, maybe the Ochils Ultra which I was sick as a dog on when I attempted it in 2019 and if Covid allows it is about time I returned to the SainteLyon, my favourite ultra marathon and the best race experience I have ever had.

Perhaps the other thing that I will doing in 2022 is finally getting my running group up and moving, it is the thing that I am most nervous about because it creates a responsibility and a timetable that I might need to adhere to but that is in the near future and should be up and running by the time the first real episode of the second season of the podcast comes around.

Keep your fingers crossed for me.

But if I only learn one lesson this year and its that I really need to run the stuff I want to rather than run the stuff that fits.

And so

Thanks for reading, this may not have been very interesting but there might have been some things in my own musings that you are considering yourself, especially about how to deal with things going wrong. And if any of you wish to get in touch with me you can do so at ultraboycreates@gmail.com and I’m always going to be happy to chat through running or adventuring and the highs and lows associated.

Running can be lonely and if the pandemic has taught us anything it is that we need to grasp opportunity and be more open to those opportunities.

So that’s the end of 2021 and my review of it, the blog has already started for 2022 and so has the podcast. I’m sure I’ll be sharing more of my adventures via Instagram throughout the year and more episodes of the podcast will be coming later in the year – hopefully it will be a 10 episode season where I will be looking at things like wild camping with a child, my top 5 ultra marathons, kit reviews including OMM running packs and Topo Athletic shoes as well as interviews with more runners who are much like myself – just trying to get along.

In the meantime, enjoy your running and see you next time.

Below are links to reviews of my 2021 events listed above.

‘When we get back you can kick his right gonad in and I’ll kick his left one in’ … this was part of a conversation I had with fellow runner Sonya as we ascended the final climb of the Winter Wipeout from Cold Brew Events about one of the race organisers, Barry ‘Brilliantly Sadistic’ Kemp.

What a race; what an event! I do hate a half marathon but this was an absolute cracker.

But to fully understand why both Barry’s gonads deserved a bloody good whack with a large blunt instrument and why this was an absolute ‘must run race’ you really have to roll back about 6 hours or so.

In the car at about 4.45am I set off from a rather chilly Falkirk down towards Ingram and the race registration. All was going well, 90s dance music was playing loudly in the car, I was being mindful of both speed cameras and road conditions and I hadn’t eaten all the remains of the festive sweeties I had brought with me.

Life was good.

I’d successfully negotiated all but the last couple of miles of the journey when I felt the backend of the car flip out from behind me. Check 1, anything coming towards me? No. Check 2, anything behind me? No. Check 3, anything hard and wall like that I might be about to hit? A wall!

Thankfully I hadn’t been going too fast because it was clear this back road was rather icy and so I looked to the side of the car and simply moved with it allowing it to touch the grass verge that it was heading for and as it gently mounted it I tapped the accelerator around the tight corner.

What I can confirm was it was a brown trousers moment and I felt, had I been in dire need for a poo, then it is almost a certainty that I would have sprayed that brown goo all over the drivers seat.

For the remaining 1.9 miles of the journey I glued open my eyelids and gave it the obligatory 110% concentration arriving into the parking a little before 7am with very sweaty palms and a bladder ready to pop.

The parking was pretty quiet save for a few T5s and similar and I enjoyed the peace and quiet as I quickly slid out of driving clothes and into race clothes. As the minutes slowly rolled by I was sure that soon a massive influx of runners would arrive but by 7.30 it was still really quiet and so I wandered off to register.

Outside the cafe there was a gazebo with a very friendly chap and a young girl, probably not much older than my own daughter handing out race numbers. No razzmatazz – just hand your name in, get a number, pick up some pins – perfect. I was very impressed by the young lady handing out numbers, as it was pretty chilly at that time and she kept smiling even though I suspected she would much rather be inside.

I headed back to the car with the smell of bacon sandwiches on my nostrils from the cafe but I knew I’d soon return and this time armed with a few quid to turn the smell into the taste of bacon. Before I could get my wallet though one of my fellow competitors said, ‘don’t suppose you could help move my van could you? Got stuck in the mud when we arrived last night’.

‘Of course’ I replied and we took a side each while what I assumed was his wife attempted to reverse but despite rolling it and rolling it the van refused to budge and when the gent conceded defeat I wished them well and set off for coffee and bacon.

Coffee and Bacon were delicious and even better was an opportunity to speak to Barry Kemp, the man, the legend, the tormentor – it was nice to see him again – but I was sad not to see him in his tiny running shorts as he was the first time I met him at the start line of the Skye Trail Ultra in 2016. I think all Winter Wipeout competitors should be treated to a glimpse of a Barry in his shorts.

After a brief chat with Barry I sauntered back to the car to finish my coffee, finish getting ready and then sit back and watch the newly arrived throngs of runners.

Ah, kit watching time I thought to myself as I put the seat back and half closed my eyes.

Time though soon disappeared and I headed back to the registration area, queued for a wee and awaited the race briefing from Drew, who managed to joke about the councils role in the demise of the 2021 Cheviot Goat – something that, quite rightly, clearly was still chaffing his arse.

The race brief was clear, short but succinct, most of the people grouped at the starting line had done stuff like this before and knew what to expect but the Cold Brew Events crew made sure we were all aware of the way things would play out.

And then with as little fanfare as the registration we all set off into the Cheviots to face bogs, ice, wind and… sunshine?

I was in my usual place – at the back and was thoroughly enjoying myself as we all squeezed along the little path to the road. There was a very cosy atmosphere as runners began jockeying for position and to find their feet within the race. I like everyone else did my fair share of jockeying and manoeuvring around the ice and all the time I was taking in the beautiful scenery that surrounded me.

Amazingly I’d never really been here, certainly never as a runner and I couldn’t believe that I had been missing out on this untamed wilderness for all these years. After my disappointment at the views of the Peak District my love of the English outdoors was being restored by Northumberland. But this was only the start and I now fully expected to embrace the wilds even more as I raced along the route.

The tarmac that we were running on for the first little bit was soon replaced by trail and the Winter Wipeout looked like it was going to earn a big star as a genuine trail run. We were greeted at the turn to the trail by a marshal who pointed us onwards and upwards and I was pretty sure that there was a wicked smile on his face as he sent us to meet our fate in them there hills.

From here it was a steady climb across the hills and conditions were absolutely wonderful, it was cold, it was dry, the wind was nowhere to be seen and although there was ice it was reasonably runnable. In my head I wondered what all the horrific conditions warnings had been about and I continued to make steady progress.

Despite the hustle and bustle of the runners I felt a lovely tranquillity about running here and I had lots of time to soak it in as I slowly climbed the route.

The uphill was hard going and the impression given was of a chain gang or wagon train heading ever onwards and upwards – runners were strewn all over the place in a sweaty, heavy breathing messes. In the distance you could sometimes see a neon jacket or the reflective strip of a bag from a runner who was that bit further on and you wondered why just over a 1,000 metres of ascent was feeling so damned tough and what was it going to take to get you to the next bit of hill.

I was loving it and I spoke briefly to lots of the runners who were either going past me or I was going past – little conversations that made the whole experience very friendly indeed. Half marathons are my least favourite distance and I’ve long avoided them, returning only briefly last year at the boring as buggery, Tour of Tameside Heroes Half – but this was a completely different beast – this was magnificent.

I remember looking down at my watch at about the four and half kilometre point and thinking that, although challenging I was making decent time and I figured if my progress continued like this I’d be on my way back to Scotland by about midday. The route of course though had other ideas and suddenly the runners found themselves moving from gentle climbing to calf grinding, thigh burning uphill and with a increase in both the wind and the general chilliness of the day.

I rolled my sleeves down and covered up a bit as we passed the marshals and mountain rescue guys who were huddled behind a big rock watching us make our merry way up the icy trails.

There was more chat as we went on and I kept meeting people who had migrated from places I’d lived in to Northumberland and hearing their stories, albeit in brief, was a real delight.

Had opportunity arisen it would have been lovely to have chewed the fat properly with runners but you took every chance your body gave you on this course to run because the ice, as we got higher, was making progress slower.

It was on the first major climb that I ran out of puff and began stomping through the undergrowth to keep my feet beneath me, this was hard work as the undergrowth was cutting you to bits while simultaneously sapping all your energy away. I pushed as hard as I could but knowing that there was likely to be another even more difficult climb over this little peak.

Thankfully the path started to flatten out for a while and then rolled into a downhill, I knew that there was a risk that if I hurled myself down here that I might end up injured, covered in shit or dead but with the wind on my back I made my MTN Racer 2 do exactly what they were made for – go fast on the trails.

Boom!

I thundered down that hill until my lungs or arsehole where about to burst. I’d kept my feet beneath me and I wasn’t covered in shit – life was good. The little burst of pace though meant i meandered gently over to the fence line via the ice rink as the peak wasn’t going anywhere and I didn’t feel the need to rush.

I started up the final ascent before the turnaround and was greeted by the front runners – all of them foolishly hurling themselves down the course. I had no idea what these people where thinking, I knew that I would not be hurtling down this ‘slide of doom’, I’d be lazing back and strolling down the hill, much as I planned on strolling up it.

Conditions on the hill were considerably worse now and visibility was poor – lots of the runners were clearly grateful for the many layers that they were wearing. Although I had a full set of waterproofs and a proper thermal in my pack I decided to instead use a piece of kit, that although I’ve owned for nearly 6 years, I’ve never used – my Montane Fireball hat.

I’ve never used it because it makes me look like a prick and while I’m usually happy to look like a bit of dick this hat takes it to a new level, but here, near the summit of Hedgehope, I found myself dropping to my knees and putting on the hat. I also managed to get my waterproof overmitts on because these are perfect protection against the wind which ultimately is what was making my hands chilly.

Anyway with my kit updated I pressed on over the icy, boggy and now rocky ground. Runners were literally moving in all directions looking for safe passage through the route. Eventually, with the wind and conditions battering my body I saw the summit and two little beacons of red next to the trig point.

I felt so sorry for mountain rescue guys who were seated behind a little wall trying to escape the worst of the very chilly wind. I thanked them as I touched the trig point and then began my assault on the return.

Now I had intended to stroll back down but instead I did exactly what lots of the other runners did – I hit the turbo and started hurtling down from Hedgehope Hill with all the gusto I could summon into my legs. I took a mildly different route to most of the runners I had seen sliding down the ice earlier – I stepped into the undergrowth and just pulled my legs up, leaping across the landscape as fast as I could.

Two young ladies behind me would occasionally make some ground up on me and I advised them that they were going to have to work to overtake me and then I would put a little spurt on to put some distance between us. That back and forth would continue for quite some time yet and the two young ladies would easily, eventually overhaul me but having someone sat on your shoulder really does inspire you to perform a bit better.

As I completed the last of the icy uphills I stopped for a moment to just enjoy the lack of wind and the sunshine, removed my hat and gloves and then once more set off, noting that the young ladies were closing fast and the ice had departed in favour of becoming bog – so now it was time for my beloved Drymax socks to keep their reputation in tact. I dove feet first (thankfully) through every icy puddle on the route and battered down towards the rocky outcrop that housed the other pair of Mountain Rescue crew. I was mostly flying but I could also feel the exhaustion in my legs and as I passed and thanked the safety team and here I slowed down and allowed the two young ladies behind me to get ahead of me.

From here I continued to press on but my efforts had left me bereft of energy and there was still 142metres of climb apparently as well as a river crossing. I hoped that the river crossing was at the very end and that the remaining climb would be spread evenly across the remaining kilometres. Oddly the organisers must have been able to read my mind as they decided to do exactly the opposite of what I was hoping for and witnessed this first hand as I started down the final bit of trail and back to the road where the race had really gotten started.

In the distance I could see more marshals and mountain rescue types and so followed the arrows to join them at the river crossing. With much enthusiasm I exclaimed that this was the bit I was most looking forward to – albeit I hadn’t counted on that bloody big hill I’d have to climb afterwards.

And then with as much energy as I could manage I hurled myself into the water and then flailed about as the cold caught me – it was absolutely wonderful and upon getting to the other side I proceeded to jump back in the water snd splash about a bit more exclaiming that, ‘you really need to go nutsack deep to appreciate this’.

The young lady about to enter the water, Sonya as I would later discover, replied, ‘I don’t have a nutsack’. I hastily retreated from the water and began to climb, very slowly and very steadily. Had this been the tale of the Hare and the Tortoise then I was one of the lamest Tortoises ever to have raced but I was still moving. It was here that I was joined once more by the lovely and very friendly Sonya, she was the kind of runner that really perks you up and makes you feel like you’re the best runner in the race and I was grateful that she joined me.

We climbed the final hill together, both vocalising our displeasure with the very naughty Barry Kemp for making us do this final hill and we expressed this to the lovely marshal at the top who simply laughed at us.

From the top we could see Ingram and therefore the finish and so we both pushed what remained of our running and headed out, well until Sonya decided to take what looked like a heavy fall, but awesome runner that she clearly is, she dusted herself down and got right back up – impressive,

I’d have stayed down and waited for someone to carry me home!

We chatted a bit as we went and I hope we encouraged one another to keep going, I especially had a bit of a wobble as we entered Ingram but my running buddy put the metaphorical arm round my shoulder and told me I could do it – and she was right.

With the finish within touching distance I urged us onward to a bit of a sprint finish. It’s the one thing I always remember a man named Jimmy McKenna saying to me, ‘always finish well, no matter how the rest of the race went’ and so as we came to final few hundred metres I pumped my arms and thundered toward the finish but Sonya, who had been so instrumental in these last couple of kilometres, was not there and so I slowed, so we crossed the line together.

I’ve never been so happy to see a finish line but nor have I ever been so keen to go straight back out on the course again. It was absolutely wonderful.

Overview

  • Distance: Half Marathon
  • Ascent: 1000 metres (approx)
  • Date: January 2022
  • Location: Ingram, Northumberland
  • Cost: £33
  • Terrain: Icy, Boggy, Trail
  • Tough Rating: 3/5

Route
This was brilliant, it had just about everything, it was wet, it was muddy, it was winter, it was just the perfect bit of trail for some ridiculous winter fun running. I mean yes it was a bit brutal in places and the chap I saw running in road shoes must have had balls of steel to take this on in them but the only thing you really need to know about the route is that it will bring you joy, laughter and tears in equal measure.

Organisation
What can I say, other than the organisation was brilliant – from the parking, to the facilities, to the people who were there to ensure you had a safe and brilliant day out. This was an event with a lot of moving parts and Cold Brew Events made it run like clockwork. Great job guys.

Value for money
It’s not the cheapest half marathon I’ve ever run but it is the best value for money half marathon I’ve run and a great value packed event. I’ll be honest I’d hope they’re charging enough to ensure that they keep this brilliant event just as it is because I know I’d be happy to pay a little bit more for such a tremendous event.

Support
I’ve mentioned how sorry I felt for the guys at the top of Hedgehope – they must have been frozen but huge thanks to them. However, really it’s a huge thanks to every single person who was involved in making this happen, Cold Brew Events, the team at the cafe, the volunteers – including the young lady at number collection, each person really made this feel like a well loved and supported event. Of course there were also the ton of runners and runners friends and family who gave the whole event a really warm atmosphere – wonderful.

Awards
Great medal, nicely made mug, hot soup. Thank you very kindly that’s just grand.

So many races have got a bit puritanical about giving out medals and awards and I understand that not every runner wants or needs them and that races are attempting to become less wasteful and more environmentally friendly but some of us love a medal and a mug and I applaud Cold Brew Events for giving us great ones!

There is perhaps something to learn here – if you’re going to do a medal then do it properly, as Cold Brew Events have, and then, in my view, it’s not a waste – it’s race treasure.

My Race
I had such a great time, I didn’t come last, no fresh injuries and I came away from the race wanting to do it again. Yes I could have been fitter and carrying less festive fat and therefore run faster but I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it any more than I already do.

In terms of kit, my Topo Athletic MTN Racer 2 were the perfect shoe for the race but I carried too much kit in my pack and didn’t need my thermal layer or extra socks – what I didn’t carry too much of though was food and I found myself, just before the summit of Hedgehope, stuffing my face with about a dozen chocolate bars – something I’ll remember for when The Goat finally comes around. Waterproof over mitts were incredibly useful (much more useful than warm gloves I was carrying and remained unused) and I was very happy to finally use my Montane Fireball hat, albeit briefly. I will also once more praise my awesome Drymax socks, which when I discovered them about 7 years ago I wasn’t sure about but then really do keep your feet warm when wet and on a day like this that is very valuable.

Conclusions
I dream of running The Spine Challenger but until I’m ready for that then I’ll be coming back to this, year after year. The Winter Wipeout has restored my faith in the half marathon distance, but it has taken a very special event to do that and I’m not going to start signing up for lots of halves. This race has something for everyone that is excited by running trails and while it feels incredibly challenging it never feels so tough as to be unmanageable.

When you add in the amazing organisation, the wonderful support and a dreamy winters route then you’ve got magic.

Cold Brew Events know how to throw a trail party and I’ll be back for more of their filthy fun soon! I’d go so far as to say that the Winter Wipeout might have cracked my top 10 favourite races and is probably within touching distance of my top 5 – which isn’t bad when you consider I’ve run about 250 races. I really do recommend taking a crack at this, it was awesome.

The 2023 edition of the Winter Wipeout is open now and you can enter here or you can check out the other Cold Brew Events here.

Importantly, if you happen to see me there next year, looking like I’m dying on the route, don’t worry that’s just me having fun.

See you out there.

As we walked down through the rain and wind from the campsite to the Kerrera ferry I think we all wondered what madness had we gotten involved in, but here we were, as a family, about to be part of the Craggy Island Triathlon from Durty Events.

In a twist to our usual family adventures it was the GingaNinja who was competing meanwhile I and the child would be on volunteering duty at the junior triathlon event. We headed for our crossing to the island about 8.30am and lined up with dozens of other competitors, spectators and volunteers. It was a real electric atmosphere as we waited those few minutes to board one of the many boats that was whizzing people and gear to the registration.

What I can say is that in organisational terms the whole team worked brilliantly and not just Durty Events but also the islanders who help make this happen. Boats moved across the water transporting competitors in a constant sea of movement – it was a magnificent sight and when we arrived on the beautiful Kerrera we were greeted by the brilliant hustle and bustle of the event that was even more electric than the mainland.

Before we had departed the slipway we made our first new friend of the day – a lovely chap called Adrian, who had competed the day before and had come back to volunteer on day two. Myself and ASK chatted with him and others for quite a while as we awaited the beginning of the briefing for volunteers.

At a little after 9.30am (too busy chatting to competitors, so we were a few minutes late) we headed to the volunteer briefing and caught up on where we were supposed to be and what we would be doing. Diane lead the briefing and gave clear and easy instructions and noting any pressure points that might occur during the day. ASK and I had been handed junior stream crossing duty on the bike and run section and we needed to be there for about noon – so we had time to spare and with that we got chatting to other marshals like Linsey and Freya who were both awesome and ambled around supporting the GingaNinja and some of the other competitors as nerves started to get the better of them.

Thankfully the GingaNinja got into the spirit of things and made a few new friends herself including the awesome Pauline and Jane who were competing as a relay team in the triathlon, I had no idea that there would be so many brilliant options for this event and this gave the whole thing a vibe of being super friendly and incredibly inclusive – it had a really welcoming feel that just lifted the spirits even if the rain was bouncing down on top of you.

But with time ticking away competitors needed to head back to mainland for the start of the race – yep that’s right – registration is on the island but the start is on the mainland – you’ve got to swim back to the island to complete the bike and run sections!

What a superb and brutal idea!

Anyway ASK and I took up a spot overlooking the swim exit and cheered everyone into transition while awaiting the arrival of our athlete. The GingaNinja should have been quick in the swim and I was probably expecting a time of about 11 or 12 minutes but as the first swimmers came out and then the next and the next she wasn’t there.

In the water you could see the current was strong and it found swimmers being dragged significantly off course and this was going to be a massive drain on them as they pushed for the slipway. The GingaNinja, who would argue that the swim is her strongest discipline, struggled in the early stages and resorted to breast stroke until she found her footing.

By the time she was in gear and back into front crawl mode she had used up the energy reserves in her legs and lost a bit of the competitive advantage that a good swim would have given her ahead of the sections she wasn’t so confident in.

However, she pulled herself out of the water to a rapturous roar from the crowd, pulled the big girl pants on and managed to jog up the hill into transition where a battle with a wetsuit awaited. ASK and I followed as quickly as we could offering as much encouragement as we could.

ASK and I shouted advice down to her but she looked pretty pissed so I let her get on with it and instead turned my attention to the gentleman who had just approached me. Paul is one of the key organisers of the event along with the rest of the Durty Events team and the awesome Duncan (the wonderful ferryman and also my original co-conspirator in the special reason for being on the island).

What was my special reason for being there? Well, I had contacted the team at Durty Events to ask if they could help me in proposing marriage to the GingaNinja.

On one of of our test trips to the island, in the months before the event, Duncan had identified himself as co-organiser and so when we were there for our final test trip I stopped and asked if he might be able to help. Duncan with his broad smile and a little twinkle in his eye said, ‘leave it with me’.

And now as the GingaNinja was pulling the bike up from the grass to head out on the course, plans were being finalised for me to be able to ask her to marry me front of all her fellow triathletes.

But before any of that could happen there was the business of marshalling the junior race. ASK and I had been stationed at one of the outlier but most beautiful points. So at about 11.45 we, and Adrian, made our way up to our marshalling points, saying hello to the other event volunteers as we went by and cheering the adult race competitors as they hurried past us.

Looking into the sky, the grey had now disappeared and what remained was beautiful, blue sky! This was wonderful and I had no doubt would make marshalling a much easier task (especially with a 7 year old in tow) and also a more mentally enjoyable effort for the juniors.

ASK set herself up by the directional signage, grabbed herself a hot chocolate from the flask I had brought and sat upon her recently purchased inflatable seat (from race sponsor and local Oban outdoor wear store Outside Edge, a really good shop to visit might I add). The only problem, that I wouldn’t discover until we were packing away was that she had planted the seat in the sloppiest sheep shit imaginable!

Could have been worse of course she might have dumped herself in it.

Within minutes of our arrival at the marshal point we saw our first bikers, ASK steeled herself for motivational cheers and frantic arm waggling to inform the athletes the direction to go. I on the other hand found myself a little rock amongst the sea of sodden ground and stood just above the stream of water that the competitors would have to get through to continue onwards.

Adrian would later describe my motivational cheering as like an old style PE teacher on steeplechase or cross-country day as the runners were hitting the water! That said I like to think I was a little more encouraging to those that looked like they needed to hear that they could do it! We whooped and hollered at all the young athletes until both ASK had become rather hoarse.

What is undeniable though is that I was incredibly impressed by the skill, speed and tenacity of these young adventurers and I very much admired their abilities – from the youngest to the oldest they all did an amazing job. ASK also really enjoyed being part of it all and wanting to have a go herself. She called over to me at one point as one of the younger athletes came through and said, ‘that boy only looks about 8, I could do this next year when I’m 8’.

Of course I explained she was a bit too young yet to meet the age requirement but when she is old enough she’s welcome to try – but she’ll need to improve her biking skills first because there’s no way she’d get through the mud with her current bike riding.

What I do know is that while the biking was impressive from the juniors it was the running that really impressed me, those who had perhaps fought with the bike a bit, looked sharp in the run, and even on the boggy, muddy, slippery conditions there was real grit shown from everyone. If I had been wearing a cap as I stood on my rock I would have doffed it in the direction of each and every one of them.

With the race all but over ASK and I ate some lunch, a delicious curry pie for me and a macaroni pie for the child. As we were finishing them and with no athletes having been seen for some time we caught sight of the other marshals heading towards us collecting signs and so we joined them, clearing the field of event signage – leaving no trace.

It was a lovely wander back with some lovely people, good chat and Teddy the black Labrador that had been hanging round the food tent earlier and looking to snack on any tasty treat that a careless athlete might have lost.

But now it was back to the real event of the day for me and that was taking place back at the finish line.

We deposited the race signage at the registration tent and then ASK and I set ourselves up at the finish line hoping that the GingaNinja would be here soon. The Durty guys were keeping a special eye out for her so that they could time things as efficiently as possible and this meant that when I arrived back I knew she had already been out on the run for about 45 minutes.

I spoke to Paul and said if she isn’t back in 15 minutes then they should just go ahead with the prize giving – I had no intention of keeping cold, hungry and exhausted triathletes from getting home but the Durty team seemed very relaxed about the whole thing and just played it by ear.

I however, was anxious, very anxious.

Although the GingaNinja knew the deal we agreed many years ago – complete an ultra marathon, a long distance walk of 100 miles or an any distance triathlon and we would get married she would have little or no idea that I would have roped in the help of the event organisers to force her, through embarrassment, into saying yes!

I kept checking my phone to see if she was in trouble but nothing she was still out there. Other triathletes crossed the finish line to great applause and while I was happy for them I was nervous for her and then Paul came over and said, ‘she’s a few minutes away’. My heart started racing but I got myself together and headed down the final strait so that ASK could finish it with her mum and then with prize giving underway I needed to move the GingaNinja and ASK into position quickly without giving the game away.

I stripped her of her soaking kit and hurled her dryrobe on, I gave the child a camera and with just a minute to spare we were settled at the prize giving at which point I was almost immediately called up to the front of what felt like a million people.

Now I had relayed my story and what was about to happen to lots of the people at the event and almost everywhere I looked I saw someone who knew what was about to happen.

With microphone in hand I began.

‘We’ve been on a million and one adventures together… I wondered if you fancied a million and one more… starting with this one…’

At which point I removed from my pocket a ring that had been specially made for us by a wonderful lady called Sally Grant in Burntisland and moved to the traditional single knee position.

‘Will you marry me?’

The GingaNinja moved from the crowd, looking rather sheepish and then whole world fell silent and disappeared. She came, took the ring from my rather trembling fingers, which would refuse to fit on her triathlon fattened sausage fingers and said yes.

I informed the crowd of the answer and there was a cheer to break the silence and more importantly there was an easing of my breathing. Hellfire I even cried, which is most unlike me.

Holy turd. She said yes.

The Durty Stuff
But enough of this you aren’t here for the emotional proposal stuff you’re here because of Durty Events. What I can say is that the Craggy Island Triathlon must be a massive logistical challenge but the team make it look effortless. It was smooth, it was brilliantly executed and it seemed to be very elastic, if something needed to adapt then the team could move with that need. Brilliant.

Location
In terms of location I think Kerrera might be a little hidden gem in Scotland’s arsenal of little gems. The place is full of little secrets to uncover as you explore and it is certainly worth seeing the castle and the views across to Mull and the mainland but there’s so much more to the island. The islanders themselves that I met on my various visits were incredibly friendly and welcoming and there’s a real community spirit about the place. Then you’ve got the event route which the GingaNinja described as ‘absolutely glorious’ and you’d have to agree, it has absolutely everything in it, all muddily packaged in to about 22km of eventing and the junior route was equally exceptional – you don’t get this kind of thing everyday.

This is an event worth doing as a seasoned eventer or first timer – it’s something you’ll never forget and never regret.

Marshalling & Volunteering
As for marshalling? Well I definitely had a pretty easy time of it, I answered a few questions from some of the competitors and spectators, then got a fantastic view of the junior race for a couple of hours – it was a truly wonderful experience. What I can say is that it was brilliant and everyone should try and give a bit back by doing some volunteering and let me assure you that you’ll have a great time if you choose to do it in a Durty Events kind of way. Importantly though any kind of volunteering and marshalling makes a difference in any kind of endurance sport and your participation makes it so much easier for events to take place and for athletes to be supported.

Mountain Rescue
It’s also worth noting that this event also serves as a fundraiser for the Oban Mountain Rescue and I can’t think of a service that deserves your support more, you can donate to them at any time (or your nearest mountain rescue) because without their dedication and commitment, events like this wouldn’t really be possible. We might think we’ll never need their aid or their exceptional skills but on the day we do then I’m glad I’ve donated to keep them going.

Thanks
And now to a few thanks, first of course is to Durty Events and team, not only did they provide a triathlon event that my partner was keen to participate in but they made room for me and my little piece of proposal mischief. Paul & Diane especially you have my thanks.

To Duncan, our wonderful ferryman, co-organiser and all round star I must say thank you for being a brilliant support and a real gentleman, you inspired all of the madness of the proposal at the event! Plus being sped from the island by you was the perfect end to a perfect day.

To Freya, Linsey, Adrian and all the other volunteers and marshals – your company, wisdom and videography skills were much appreciated, I hope we one day come across each other in another muddy location.

To the many competitors who took part, especially those such as Jane and Pauline who we chatted to throughout the event it was a pleasure to share the Craggy Island Triathlon with you. Congratulations to everyone who took part you were amazing snd my apologies if I’ve forgotten to mention you.

To my little munky, ASK, the 7 year old marshal and daughter who managed not to moan at all, despite soggy feet and missing her mum. She was a superstar and came away wanting not to be an ultra runner like her dad but be a triathlete like her mum.

And finally to the GingaNinja – thanks for finishing and for saying yes.

And so that’s one of the Tales of Kerrera, what’s yours? And what will your next adventure be?

Durty Events have lots of lovely looking events to get your teeth into (or volunteer at). I know I’ll be signing up to a first triathlon with them (probably Craggy Island) and the GingaNinja is already eyeing up both the Foxlake and Aviemore Tri events. It wouldn’t surprise me if we become not just durty but filthy regulars because these guys know how to put on a splendid event. You can find out more at durtyevents.com and let me assure you I’m not paid or sponsored to say any of this they are just a brilliant events team.

Apologies if I got a name wrong or if I missed anyone out – it has been a mad few days but thank you to everyone and see you again soon!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

‘I think I need another race,’ where the unlikely words to come out of the GingaNinja after the Mince Pi Run. It’s not that she has suddenly become enamoured with the idea of running or racing its more to do with the need to be healthy and a healthy example to ASK. With that in mind I found the Lamberhurst 5km event on New Years Day – a little road bimble that I had imagined would be a nice and easy leg stretcher. Let me assure you readers that the Lamberhurst event (the 5 or 10km) is no easy bimble but it is a shedload of fun – this is what happened…

Living about 30 miles from the race start I decided to use the opportunity to practice my driving along the country roads of Kent and with the rain being heavy this was going to prove a big challenge for someone who finds the idea of driving a nerve shredding experience. Thankfully I pulled into Lamberhurst at about 9.30am just as Google had predicted with all three of my runners intact.

Our GingaNinja inspired attendance was supplemented by myself and ASK for a 5km party of three. We ambled along to the village hall where I got a sense that the route wasn’t as flat as I had imagined… hmm. Still we grabbed our race numbers, a toilet stop and then waterproofed ASK (as she would be ‘running’ on the Unirider offering inspiring words to her mum) and soaked up some of the post New Years Eve cheer that clearly was still in the air.

As is often the way at races where ASK runs with us on the Unirider we receive lots of attention and this was no different with many of our fellow runners wishing us well or offering a cheery nod to ASK – something that I believe makes the experience much more positive for my toddler.

At the start line we chatted with more runners even as the rain began its downpour! ASK advised that she was getting wet but I promised that we would soon be running and wouldn’t notice the rain. At least half of that was true and we soon set off with the GingaNinja a little behind us.

The first challenge was a wonderfully steep hill and we shouted encouragement to the GN to keep on going as the hill got steeper. ASK and I powered past people and reached the first section to flatten out and gave the GN a chance to catch up, but our respite was short lived and we were all soon pushing onwards and with the field clear of the faster runners we could trundle happily along in the wet conditions.

ASK and I weaved in and out of the route and the remaining runners as we headed downward and back toward the village hall, giving the Unirider a real race test on the tarmac rather than the trails we normally run on.

Straight from the downhill though we entered our second significant climb but the GingaNinja had paired up with one of the lovely runners and I had got chatting to a lovely chap called Kev who like me had a youngster and was a Mountain Buggy user for taking his son out. Of course we chatted about the Unirider but also general running and this helped make the event much more fun for all. Of course ASK and I circled back to ensure that we all stayed together – this was very much a family race – and we continued to shout encouragement as the race progressed.

As we entered the next downhill we went a little quicker but my problem was that the heavy rain had stayed on the race course and ASK was getting mildly wet feet, actually very wet feet – thankfully like the superhero she is she didn’t complain and we thundered down the hill being greeted by the returning runners from the turnaround point.

We passed through what looked like a country house at the turning point and passed a grandfather and granddaughter running together – both looking brilliant and I used the young lady as an example to ASK of what she could be doing if she carries on being active. ASK was excited by this as the girl was almost all in pink!

The final climb was also the most challenging given the water on the course and its steep nature but both myself and the GingaNinja gave it our all and I suggested that we would wait at the top of the hill for her (and shout out support of course). I wheeled in behind the lovely marshal but had made a minor miscalculation in my turning circle and ASK fell off the Unirider for the first time. Thankfully we were almost stopped and no harm was done other than some wet gloves and a bit of a shock. There were also a few tears and so I cuddled my awesome little daughter and said, ‘don’t tell your mum’. She replied with the, ‘alright dad’ and jumped straight back on. However, her hands were now cold and with the rain still heavy she wanted to finish.

I told the GingaNinja what had happened and all credit to both of them we sped up to get back to the warm as fast as possible. The downhill was fun and I think we all enjoyed the run into the line with people cheering my daughter in and I heard the GingaNinja gave her name called out.

We finished and collected medals (mine immediately becoming the property of ASK) and headed indoors where we stripped off and put on warmer kit. What a belter!

Conclusions: Incredibly family friendly, lots of youngsters doing the child’s race, lots involved with their parents and grandparents in the main race. A nice, warm village hall at the start and a really, really fantastic route that could be as fast or as sedate as you wanted. The Lamberhurst races should be everyone’s start to the year and with the opportunity to grab a wonderful medal who wouldn’t want to do this on a wet New Years Day? Another great event from Nice Work and thanks for letting ASK take part with the Unirider, we are very grateful.

I’m deeply ashamed of myself, the kind of ashamed that makes looking in the mirror difficult, it’ll sound like a very minor thing and with the state of the world as it is then even I realise this is not the end of the world. However, my relationship with food has gotten out of control and I don’t know how to fix it.

I’ve never smoked, I gave up what little drinking I did years ago and I never bothered with drugs despite at times during my life being in the vanguard of the nightclub scene. Food though has always played a hugely destructive part in my life and after turning 40 I’m struggling even more to maintain any control over my urges to over indulge.

I’ve often felt that my addictive nature and need to push has often led me down paths I shouldn’t go but thankfully as life has developed most of these things have fallen into a place that I can manage and retain some control over. But control over my eating habits has never truly improved and I believe I know where it started…

As a child we were quite poor, well very poor and my unemployed, single parent, Liverpudlian mother didn’t have either the desire or the energy to try and help us strive for a better life. This often resulted in reaching the weekend and what little food there had been on a Monday was now extinguished and we would be often have a choice to make between eating and electricity.

To be fair my mother did her best within the choices that she made but it meant that once I was old enough to earn money (I had my first job at 11) then I would use the small amounts of money to share with my mother or to buy delicious treats like Mars Bars – I was a latter day Charlie Bucket but without the charm and songs.

Upon leaving home and heading to university and life I’ve always striven to ensure the one thing that never happens is to find myself in a position similar to the one I found in my childhood. From leaving home I found a security in always ensuring that there was food in the cupboard and therefore I feel conditioned to believe that hunger is bad.

And so I eat.

The problem is I’ve never developed a love of what you might consider ‘positive choice’ foods – vegetables, fruit, etc. I’ve always been much more of a ‘ooooo dairy milk? I’ll have 6 please’. I gorge on food because you never know, ‘it might not be there tomorrow’.

What stops me being the size of a bus is the running, it keeps my weight at a relatively manageable level but if I get injured or become too busy to run then not only do I not reduce my intake of food I actually increase it to fill the running shaped hole in my life.

The problem doesn’t show on anyone’s radar either because I’m a secretive eater, I’ll take biscuits and walk into the next room stuffing myself silly or I’ll eat lunch, then a dinner and a second dinner – I’m like a fat hobbit with the amount of food I can get through.

And the sad thing?

This food does not bring me joy, it brings me nothing but sadness and even as the rationale side of me is talking about calories, effect on running, lack of hunger and lack of enjoyment I will still chow down on my fifth Wagon Wheel or third bag of twiglets.

I wish I could blame advertising and the constant bombardment of signs telling us to ‘EAT’ but I’d be lying if I said that was the case – I’ve spent so long in design & marketing that mostly I can switch advertising off in my head – so just how bad would it be for someone who can be swayed by signs exclaiming ‘4 sausage rolls for £1?’

I suppose the positive thing is that I can see the problems I’m facing even if I’m struggling to deal with them and I’m grateful that my daughter has a much more balanced approach to food and she is never allowed to see me in ‘gorging’ mode. Strangely, or perhaps not, the more secretive overeating stops her for seeing me like this and I extol the virtues of healthier foods to her at every opportunity. I think she’s listening.

And so I’m looking for solutions, I’m looking to reduce my sugar to avoid a case of type 2 diabetes and though I’m lucky to be mostly fit and healthy I’m aware that heart conditions, strokes and cancer run heavily through my family at an early age. However, having had every check I can have I seem to be doing all the right things, except for the food and now it’s time I got to grips with that long term.

After several months of limited running, injury, illness and overeating I’m back in the zone, though I’m a bit late I’m mentally if not physically ready to take on the SainteLyon in just over a weeks time and I’m eating less and better. But I need to sustain this through the festive season and out the other side and hopefully overcome my own mental blocks about food.

As a guide this is how I’m going about it

  • Reduce my intake of calories
  • Increase my exercise output
  • Take responsibility for my body
  • Tell the GingaNinja if I’ve over indulged
  • Increase tracking of food/exercise levels
  • Attempt to reduce daily sugar
  • Eat at reasonable times
  • Talk about it if I’m struggling
  • Have goals (such as races)
  • Look in the mirror and ask myself ‘do you need that Toffee Crisp fatty?’

Ultimately I need to have a positive attitude to how I deal with food and ensure I don’t allow my body to become the victim of my lack of willpower.

Right now I’m on it, let’s hope I stay on it and I look forward to hearing your own hints and tips as ever.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Looking back at this race report gives a real indication of how far I’ve come and how much I’ve changed in my approach to running and races. The Wall came about because I needed a new challenge and a new focus and it helped set me on my own road to Damascus and for that I’ll be eternally grateful but as I reflect back I can see that I’d be hard pressed to recommend this race, so much so that when I was asked my opinion of The Wall by a runner considering entering at Endure 1250 I suggested that if they liked trail running they should consider something more exciting like the St Peters Way or the SDW50.

The most memorable thing about this race for me was realising that I’m not a size 8 running shoe and actually a size 10, I finished this race with more than 20 blisters and almost no toenails. The Wall was the last time I wore Adidas and so I should thank it for putting me on the road to Pearl Izumi, Hoka One One and eventually Altra – in a size 10!

New content is italics, my original report is below;

Key points

  • Distance: 69 miles
  • Profile: Gentle
  • Date: June 2013
  • Location: Carlisle
  • Cost: £135 (2013) now even more expensive 
  • Terrain: Light trail, tarmac
  • Tough Rating: 0.5/5, the challenge is in the distance not the course
  • Next running: June 2017

In the beginning
 This all started in October last year (2012), I’d just finished my first marathon and had discovered that I hadn’t got a place at the London Marathon for the third time. I recall tweeting Rat Race saying that if London didn’t want me I’d become an ultra runner and that’s what I set about doing.

In the meantime I added a second ultra (or first ultra as it arrived in March) and managed to break my foot in the process but a swift return to running followed and although I’ve stayed pretty consistently injured throughout the year I’d managed some decent races and knew that I could complete my original challenge – The Wall.

My training hadn’t gone well (something’s never change) until I saw that Juneathon was just around the corner and I threw together a competitive streak of 7 races in 6 weeks and combined this with about 350 miles of running over the last 6-8 weeks adding in a lot of hiking and swimming.

This finally proved to me that actually I could do The Wall and inside the first 2 weeks of Juneathon I managed a little over 200km of running to help me prepare mentally. The challenge then would be to ensure I still had enough in the tank to run well on race day.

The Lakes
I arrived in Carlisle (the start) after an epic week in the Lake District, I ran about 7km each morning and hiked a total of about 60km up some lovely hills adding in about 1500m of positive elevation and some seriously challenging hikes with HP, my dad and our hounds. I also took part in race which rather than a run was The Great North Swim (full report being written) and proved just the antidote to some of my running jitters, a highly recommended race by the way. Carlisle is a lovely place, well from the visitors point of view and after collecting my race number from the castle we headed around the town to check out a few bits, grab some food and walk the dog. Lovely.

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What happened next was quite strange, we entered a small park near the Travelodge we were staying in and there in front of us was a man collapsed in the late afternoon sun. I advised HP to back away and I approached gently, I could see the man was breathing but didn’t want to move him incase there was and injury that I might make worse. I spoke to him but he wasn’t very lucid given that by the park bench was an empty bottle of QC and four cans of Red Bull. HP called the emergency services and swiftly an ambulance turned up, we had kept the man company while the medics arrived and upon catching sight of him called out ‘Hello Stephen’ – he was clearly a minor celebrity in the A&E department at Carlisle. Well good deed for the day done I retired to the hotel and discovered that I had neglected to pick up my timing chip from the registration point.

At nearly 8pm I rocked up again to the castle, not realising I was once again saying hello to @HelzBelz1982 and laughed and joked my way through the registration process again as the Rat Race crew sorted out my last few bits for me. I also took the opportunity to purchase myself a hooded top and some new half price full length OMM running tights as a replacement for my Skins A200s which I have never really found very pleasant to wear.

Back to the hotel, pack my bag, get my kit together and then sleep. I hit the hay about 11.30 but was awake again shortly after midnight, cramp in my legs was giving me all sorts of problems and the heat of the room was a nightmare for someone who needs cold. Windows open, duvet off, sleeping in the shower, sleeping with legs up against the wall – I tried it all but nothing worked. At about 3am HP awoke to beat my calves into submission and I was able to get about 90mins sleep. Not the best preparation but it could have been worse I might have gotten no sleep!

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Breakfast was a little light with just a small tub of natural yoghurt to keep me company but my lack of sleep had proven something of an appetite suppressant and so I quickly got ready, loaded up my kit and carried out the rest of the luggage and off to the start line.

Arriving at Carlisle Castle was a strange feeling, I sensed impending doom as I looked up at the portcullis and thought it might just drop on my head. But I went in and chatted to some of the runners, had a few laughs, drifted around wishing my fellow competitors well.

Ultra running doesn’t have that competitive edge (well not unless you are at the front) and everyone simply wants to survive the experience. As 7am came around you could sense both tension and humour in the group, nervous laughs from the first timers and those with ultras under their belt already.

Start
A short safety briefing and a 10 second countdown brought about the race start and we were off, straight out of the castle, through Carlisle and off into the wild blue yonder. I don’t really remember much about the first stage other than at 15miles I went off too quick, but it was an enjoyable romp with Simon, Keith and another chap whose name eludes me. We stayed together a little while, had a few laughs and then parted just as we came up to the first pit stop. The weather was pretty damp but not torrential and the overcast conditions were making for good running and actually I was really rather enjoying the experience. I completed the first section in under 2hrs 30 and only stopped briefly to chat to a chap called Stuart and the GingaNinja who was waiting with the hound.

We had all been told that stage 2 was tough, probably the toughest stage in terms of ground, elevation and experience and as the weather got worse this turned out to be reasonably but not completely true. The hills came thick and fast and with a mental note to myself that the hills should be walked I slackened my pace and strode purposefully up the hills. Once at the top I could begin to run again and used common sense to pick up other runners who I could chat with and have those few laughs that might get you round to the next stage. As I crossed the large stone steps going up into the second section of this stage it finally dawned on me that this wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought it might be and when the photographer asked for a sprint and smile and I gave a grimace and gazelle like jump. To be fair I was still enjoying this more than enough to take in the stunning scenery on offer and the opportunity to see some of Hadrian’s Wall was fabulous. And as I was heading into the latter phase of stage 2 I came across @bryanwe (now @ultradhc) who recognised me from behind, something of an achievement I think given we had never previously met. And I had just recently been overtaken by David, a fellow Liverpudlian (now in Scotland) who was running a stunning race. All of this meant that I felt very jolly going into pit stop 2. I joked and laughed with all the marshals, grumbling in a semi jovial way about the distance, lack of serious hills and the lack of beer, it costs nothing to be nice to people who would clearly still be stood there showing us the way in the early hours of the morning.

At pitstop 2 we were offered some rather disappointing looking soup, which I’m told was rather nice but the idea of drinking down the hot vomit didn’t appeal, I decided the only sensible solution was instead a hot cup of tea and a couple of Chicken Tikka sandwiches – delicious.

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I chatted with a couple of the Rat Race crew from the day before that i’d had a laugh with and it was nice to be remembered.

Anyway quick change of clothes, new OMM arm warmers, update my food and water stores and a swap round of unnecessary kit and I was away again, 30 minute stop (ha! These days the idea of such a long stop might as well be a DNF), not too bad really. What I should of done though was listen to my body and rather than rush out of the door I should have strapped my toes up which were, even at 32 miles, starting to blister – but I didn’t and this was a mistake.

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Then came the soul destroyer.

It was only a 250m climb from the bottom to the top of the hill but it felt like miles through the undergrowth and upon reaching the top I felt all the energy I had gained in the pitstop drain away and for a few minutes I walked, noting that my feet were sore.

However, with composure regained I headed back out to a running pace, slow running but still running and found my feet again, the weather was beginning to warm but with my hat and sunglasses on I felt I would be okay. I passed through lots of picturesque countryside and chocolate box villages that seemed very inviting as they were littered with little pubs, full of food and beer – yum. But I was still on course for about a decent finish time and therefore I would have to miss the delicious delights on offer and find pitstop 3 and this was were sadly The Wall stopped being a race for me and more about the need to finish.

The End?
I came into the pitstop bang on the time I predicted but the cost had been substantial, the blistering that had started about 15 miles earlier were now crippling. I stripped my feet down and the GingaNinja applied emergency compeed to the key affected areas and also places I suspected would blister. I changed socks too as my first pair were soaked which I suspect had helped bring on the severity of the blistering. At first count there were 10 blisters across my feet.

Nasty but I’d cope.

I left the pitstop wondering if the frailty of my feet with more than 22 miles to go was going to kick in but with nearly 7hrs before midnight I intended to make a decent push for a swift finish

Sadly all of my work began to unravel pretty swiftly and the road became lonely and long, still scenic enough but I felt at the end of my tether and around 8pm I called the GingaNinja and cried. I was failing, but with some comforting words and a gentle push I decided to keep going. But this 17 mile stretch was going to test every last ounce of my mental toughness and when the GingaNinja arrived at the second checkpoint between the pitstops I knew she was worried. What happened next though was a bit of a miracle. No, my feet didn’t heal, but I did discover enough energy to power to the final pitstop. I could see runners slowing around me and felt that I was not alone in my pain and so I came into the final stop, made a final call to change into my Speedcross 3 and use a pair of hiking poles. once this was all sorted I would be off once the medic had cleared me and checked I was suitably visible.

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What I do know is that I was both lucid and determined and as an added bonus one of the other runners asked if we could go together on the final leg. I’d met him earlier and he’d already been puking and making the kind of noises that people do before they give up but credit to him, he had hung on in and it seemed we both needed the company and the support. Sadly for the life of me I can’t remember his name and should have gotten some contact details from him but I didn’t.

The Final Seven
Anyway, we set out about 10.30pm in the knowledge that only a major miracle would let us finish by midnight but it seemed we were both in too much pain to care really and we were both keen to finish. Head torches on we ploughed across the course and through the night, making only relatively minor mistakes, maybe 2 miles worth and enjoyed each others company and as we hit the quayside we looked on in awe towards what we knew would be the finish line.

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However, what struck us first about the quayside was the sheer lack of clothing being worn by the ladies of Gateshead and their use of the word ‘fuck’. I mean seriously these were kids!

Maybe it’s because I’ve become such a middle aged old fart but even I was surprised by the potty mouthed youths that littered the banks of the Tyne.

I digress…

In the distance we could see the winking millennium bridge and I told my new buddy that we would be crossing the finish line running, not speed walking as we had been. He agreed and asked if we should race it but that seemed at odds with the ethos of ultra running and so as we jumped onto the bridge, having a laugh and joke with the marshal and decided we would run the second half as it was downhill.

I don’t really remember very much about the finish, it was all a bit of a blur, I remember the photographer, the GungaNinja, ThunderPad and bright lights. I remember the sense of elation at crossing the finishing line, no pain, no sorrow, just unabashed joy – I grasped my companion and we raced arm in arm to collect our epic medals, delicious post run food and a little chat with the medic.

Sitting in the finishers village there were dozens of runners strewn across the area, some who had finished, some who had given up, one chap gave up at 60 miles, I couldn’t have done that (nearly 40 ultras later I really could do that and have done it), perhaps it took more bravery to say ‘I can’t do it’ than to keep on going regardless. But whether they finished or not the people who were in the finishers village were all winners because they had tried.

And that was it, that was ultra 2, The Wall. There are a few more things to say though before this epic blog post closes.

Organisation
The first is that the level of organisation was very high. Rat Race really do know what they are doing, a corporate events company  who know how to create safe and secure opportunities for wannabes athletes. They’ve had time to get it right, as my partner said they make events that are designed to be finished, they want you to make it and while these things are relatively challenging they are very do-able. 10/10

Community
The runners themselves were pretty much all of a positive mindset, all passing on support or help were needed. Ultra running is like no other type of racing, the only person you are racing is yourself and that’s one of the most difficult concepts to understand as you move from say marathon running to ultra running. In terms of runners I met some great guys, as mentioned the chap who did the last 7 miles with me, David who I met at the hotel the night before and again several times around the town and the course, Stuart who wasn’t competing but there supporting his wife, great advice about keeping your head up and the three great Irish guys who I was jigging along with. There are actually too many great people to mention. Rat Race sometimes takes criticism for being dull routes and overpriced and these criticisms are far too accurate but they are inclusive safe events that allow beginners a taste (albeit an expensive taste) of ultra running.  8/10

Food

Food was generally of a very high quality and lots of it, my only tiny grumble was the vomit looking soup at the halfway point. Unsurprisingly I didn’t actually eat that much and I had a decent amount of my own supplies but it was good to know that I want going to go hungry if I had to stop on a hillside somewhere. I’ve heard in later years since I ran The Wall that the food has become less high quality and much cheaper, I can only confirm that in 2013 it was decent 7/10

Facilities
Toilets were clean, water was plentiful and the pitstops generally had enough in the way of cover and setting should you need them. Vindolanda especially was and example of what you can do with a few tents if you really put your mind to it. 9/10

Signage
For me the best part was that signage was accurate and clear, only near Gateshead did any of us go wrong and this we suspect was the work of vandals or trophy hunters. But the race team answered calls quickly when directions were lost and this was very reassuring. This was the major difference between this ultra and the WC50, the fact that the guidance was already worked out and very accurate meant that we could concentrate on the running element of the ultra. Not to put the WC50 down because actually of the two I preferred the course and much smaller field of runners of the WC50 but The Wall with it’s easy navigation meant you could focus on running . 9/10

Marshals and Supporters
And perhaps most importantly were the marshals and the supporters. The marshals were always happy to see us, or at least smiled and they gave us what we needed, no matter the weather and as for the support, there was just enough to see us through, especially at the key points. For me personally I realised that actually this is a medal that three should share, the GingaNinja and the hound should share it, because without those two and lots of Twitter support I would never have made it. 9/10

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Scenery and Course

The course and the scenery were okay, green, lush and open were often not far away but we were often on Tarmac so didn’t really connect with the trail and I’d have liked a lot more Hadrians Wall – we saw about 40 stones of it. The thing I wanted basically  was more trail, there was a little too much road running, had I known I probably would have worn road shoes as they would have handled most of the course and for the rest my Vibrams were in my bag 🙂 you would run this for some of the scenery, but be aware there were some seriously dull sections as well. But then it can’t all be an oil painting can it? As for the physicality and challenge of the course on paper this one looks pretty simple but it isn’t though nor is it a real ball buster, if you’re looking for genuinely scenic and really touch then this isn’t the one for you. 4/10.

And you
, should you do it?
I’d originally said yes to this but given the cost and lack of trail I’d probably say no – but that’s based on the experience of much better races. The Wall is much like the Race to the Stones/King it’s a safe pair of hands ultra and perhaps a starting pointing for those too scared to try a Centurion or navigation race. It’s too expensive though for what it is but despite this it still attracts people looking to step up their distance. I won’t be going back though. 3.5/10

Heroes
And a final word on a couple of unsung heroes, the medics at 1am who looked at my feet for me, you were brilliant and the ladies who were serving the food in the dining room at the finishers village, you were outstanding and I’m grateful you gave me the beef goulash, yum!

Conclusion
I’ve discovered I’m not an ultra runner yet, oh yes I’ve run a couple but I’m a novice and have lots to learn, I’m going to carry on running them much to everyone’s annoyance and hopefully one day I too can call myself an ultra marathoner. My conclusions about this race stand true today – yes these days I call myself an ultra runner but I’m still a novice, the great thing about this sport of ours is that you never stop learning and I’m grateful for that.

I’ve been trying to pay it forward a little and say thanks in meaningful ways. It all started last week when I saw that lots of the big names were once again lined up for the #RunUltraBlogger nomination and as much as I love some of the names on the list, it was, to my mind, mostly uninspiring and I wanted real runners who motivate me and so I nominated the two that have inspired me most over the last 12 months or so.

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The blogs therefore I nominated are UltraRunnerDan (dan-fattofit.blogspot.co.uk) and Totkat (www.totkat.org). If they make a shortlist (or whatever the process is) do be sure to give them some support – they both highly deserve it for their awesome running and tremendous contributions to ‘run’ debates and healthy living. And even if you don’t vote for them do go along and visit their blogs and see what can be achieved with a bit of tenacity. They really are excellent reads.

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Now, while in awards mood I also slid over to The Running Awards website and both put my tick next to some of the nominees and also nominated a couple of races.

The most important things I nominated were the SainteLyon (best international race) and the Skye Trail Ultra (best endurance race). This seemed like a good positive thing to do – the SainteLyon is (I believe) the second longest running ultra marathon in the world and is an inspiration – I recommend that all ultra runners look it up and take part (there were only a dozen or so English runners there last year).

The other nomination for the Skye Trail Ultra is for three reasons 1) it’s a small local race across a tremendous landscape 2) it deserves to compete against much larger races because it has a spirit not found at places like VMLM and 3) the race director Jeff Smith is a brilliant, brilliant man who gives up his time to put on the most amazing event!

You can click links here for both The Running Awards and Run Ultra Blogger awards to find out more. Run Ultra Blogger awards are available by clicking here and the The Running Awards can be found here

Now before I go I wanted to discuss a different way I’ve been paying it forward via running; but as many readers will probably be aware I’ve been heavily focused on politics the last few months. This is very much because the referendum result has left a shit show which I feel has shown how nasty, insular and intolerant the UK has become. It saddens me hugely that many people, I had once considered friends, voted leave with the key reason being immigration.

Roll forward to the last week… twice in the last week I’ve been running slowly home and it’s been cold, really cold – winter is finally upon us.

On one of these cold early evenings I saw a man reading a book, a little bedraggled, trying to remain warm – he looked homeless, he certainly looked like he had troubles. I asked if I could buy him something to eat and he accepted. It wasn’t much but I bought some hot food and drink to take to him because who knew when the last time he’d eaten properly.

He was English or at least had an English accent, white, young(ish) probably my age actually – we didn’t speak much because I was cooling down post run and I didn’t want to embarrass him by standing over him as he ate. I wished him well and we shook hands.

I wondered if I had done right?

I did a similar thing tonight, a young(ish) lady who spoke little or no English, not enough clothes on, carrier bags with possessions that looked like her entire life and no hope. I was at Charing Cross with 15 minutes to spare before my train and I spotted her. I mimed the idea of food to her, tried to explain I’d just be a minute or two (I was) and thankfully she was still there when I returned. Given she couldn’t understand me, nor I her, I didn’t feel the need to make small talk but as I stood to leave she grabbed my arm, pressed it firmly and smiled thanks.

I could have cried.

Instead I smiled and waved gently before getting on the train to write this.

I see lots of homeless people as I run, people selling the big issue, refugees desperate for help, the mentally ill, the runaways, those hiding in plain sight and I don’t know how to help but what I do know is that too many in the UK see these poorest of people as a blight and a problem.

But maybe we could look at it differently?

Instead of seeing a homeless woman, try and see a woman who needs help. Instead of seeing a starving refugee, see a hungry man. If you were displaced, tired, hungry, distraught, abandoned wouldn’t you want someone to help?

Post referendum result I’m scared what my country is becoming.

So I’m asking you to do something for someone else. I’m asking you to pay it forward, help someone else or if you can’t help someone else then consider helping yourself by fighting to overturn the stupidity and the rhetoric of this country.

It’s never too late to start making a difference. #IAmEuropean

really (not) a runner

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Robbie Roberts

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