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Ultra running events

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Post Jedburgh I felt a little bit weird, I had done so little training in the past year but had finished and felt surprisingly strong. I was, and remain confident, that I could have run Jedburgh significantly better and if I could just get settled properly in sunny Scotland then I might finally develop the time to commit to running.

And so there was an opportunity to add a November ultra to my schedule after pulling out of the 135 mile Rebellion. There was no way that I could have risked myself on such a significant distance given the state I find my body in and the level of running I am at.

However, I have been wanting to try High terrain events for a little while now and so the opportunity to run the now relatively local ‘Tweed Valley Ultra’ was too good to miss.

I got up at about four in the morning, showered and slapped on a tub full of Vaseline around the nether regions (having had a few problems during Jedburgh). I was determined that this was going to go well – I even applied a little to the toe tips as I’d had some serious blisters for the first time in years during the three peaks and wanted to avoid that as I suspected the Tweed Valley was going to be a tougher test.

The drive down from Edinburgh was nice and easy but being on my own for ultras is a new thing and I knew that I would also have to drive back on dark and narrow roads and that is something I’m going to have to get used to as I increase my activity up here. However, after a few minutes of driving aimlessly round the Glentress Visitor Centre I found the signage that I had missed when I first arrived.

I was, as usual, early – thankfully I prefer to be excessively early rather than a minute late and the facilities of the visitor centre were open to the runners and it was both warm and comfortable with breakfast available for those of those that could stomach it. I had made the mistake of taking my coffee too late before I’d left and was forced into visiting the little boy’s room for my pre-race delivery of the galloping trots. I can thankfully report that there was lots of loo roll and a warm toilet seat – a real treat compared to some of my pre-race toilet experiences.

I trotted over to the race registration for which the process was nice and easy (a necessity at 6.30am), name, number and grab a race t-shirt. Once I had collected my rather comfortable Tweed Valley t-shirt and grabbed some more hot coffee I took a seat and looked around to take in some of the faces that I might later be running alongside. I knew that Neil MacRitchie, John Munro and Fiona Rennie were running – all of whom I had first met at the Skye Trail Ultra a couple of years ago. I’ve run into Neil subsequently (most recently at Jedburgh) and John and I have run in the same races a couple of times but never really at the same pace as he’s a damn fine ultra marathoner and I’m well… me.

Anyway, I failed to run into anyone I knew and was concerned that this was likely to be a bit of a lonely race. I’d undoubtedly be near the back and I wonder if being cut adrift from fellow competitors is one of the things that has resulted in several of my race failures. However, with a few minutes to go I headed up to the start line, a final wee stop and I ran into a chap who had run the Skye Trail Ultra the year after I did it and we had a little laugh about the ever wonderful Jeff Smith and how we had found that particular race.

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David (I think his name was) was going to be going much quicker than I was and so when the race started we all thundered down the short path to the trail. Much to my own surprise I was keeping up with the middle of the pack runners quite happily but knew that it was never going to last and so into the first climb I made the conscious decision to slow down and go into slow grind mode. One of the things that I knew awaited us in the early part of the event was a climb, what I had not expected was quite how early it began or how long it would last.

As we started to climb I could feel the energy being sapped out of my legs and that was something that I was aware would come to bite me later (or perhaps sooner) in the race. The good news was that the trails were good, the weather was being exceptionally pleasant and the ground was very runnable, the bad news was that I was going to struggle to find an excuse as to why I was running so badly.

One thing I did note which I thought ‘’bugger’ about was that there were a number of the runners with poles safely stowed in their vests. Perhaps it is being in Scotland but I’ve been trying to give up the running poles as up here they mostly are not allowed but, being honest, even as we reached the summit of the first climb I was wishing that I had them. At the top I could feel my thighs burning and that was a sensation I had not expected quite so quickly – still this did not stop me from hitting the downhill with all the energy I could muster and running down was a lot of fun. The trail was still good, the conditions were still good, the light was up and you could throw yourself amongst the rocks and the roots and know that a confident approach would get you out of it safely.

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The exit to the forest brought us to the river (let’s take a guess at the Tweed) and from here it was good running and I should have been going as fast as possible but I was somewhat hampered by a need to have my guts explode out of me. Sadly it was a little exposed and so I was forced into deep breathing and scampering along clenching my arse cheeks! Thankfully the first of the four checkpoints was nearby and with it was the opportunity to dip in to the toilet. I think I need to note to down my pre-race preparation as this isn’t the first time I’ve been caught a bit short mid-race!

Anyway enough of the traditional gut rot… with that clear I was now on my way and feeling much better about the race. The thing I took in was just how beautiful the Tweed Valley was and with the mist drifting around the route, especially in the early hours, there was an even more spectacular eerie beauty. However, it is worth noting that while there was a majority of the route on trail there was a noticeable amount of tarmac in the first 20km which my long standing injuries did not enjoy. Thankfully I was soon upon checkpoint 2 and I ate and drank my way through a load of flapjacks and better than that, about a litre of Irn Bru (a theme for the race).

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After a few sunny minutes at checkpoint 2 I headed out and took aim at the biggest climb on the route (Minch Moor) – in real terms only about 400 metres but it felt like a lot more, especially in the first section of the climb where it was surprisingly steep. Once at the top though it became an undulating trail and once again the Tweed Valley offered stunning views in all directions. Ian, a chap I had met earlier in the day had explained how wonderful the Valley was, and he right.

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The undulation was now in my favour and I was racing towards the turn off point for the 65km or would it be the turn off point for the 50km? Would I drop down to the lower distance option?

It was then that a race angel came thundering past me in the shape of John Munro.

As he went past me in his lurid Compressport calve sleeves a part of me recognised him but I could not for the life of me place the face. We exchanged race pleasantries as people do but then he turned around and called out my name at which point I put two and two together and we had a lovely little chat. He was on the 50km and going past me at pace and I did not want the rest of the 50km to go past me and so when I reached the turn off point I jauntily pressed on past the lovely marshall and once more began ascending.

After a few minutes I turned around and stared back into what was increasingly becoming a lonely and empty trail. I assumed I was now at the back of the field and wondered if it was possible to run the final 26 miles alone. I opened a caramel Freddo and chomped down on the mildly melted chocolate, turned on my heel and continued to shuffle forward.

It seemed that the ghost of Skye was not yet done with me though and shortly after I had finished my Freddo I heard the sound of footsteps behind me. Surely I was going quicker than the sweeper – my time really was not that bad (not that good either to be fair). I shot a glance over my shoulder and, blow me, I recognised the silhouette of one of my favourite ultra runners…

Neil MacRitchie.

I’m sure he didn’t recognise me at first but that did not deter me from asking, ‘are yo stalking me?’ I knew it would be a short term mental reprieve but it was just the kind of boost I needed and we started to run together for a bit. Neil being the ultimate ultra runner is always full of good advice about races, events, logistics and well just everything and therefore it is always a pleasure to chat with him for a bit.

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Together we reached the Three Brethren which was an unexpected delight and we were making pretty good time. Unusually though neither of us had managed to shake the other and suddenly 10km had passed and we were drifting into the checkpoint. I had been feeling a little bit rough and ready in the last 20 minutes and so took the opportunity to drink lots of Irn Bru. We speculated once again that we might be bringing up the rear but we saw a fellow runner at the checkpoint and suddenly we there was a sense that we might not be the final finishers.

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Post giggle with the volunteers we headed out again – a little bit of tarmac, ruinous for me but as Neil identified, change is as good as a rest (NB. he’s wrong about that – a rest is always better than change). The route for the most part here was reasonably flat with bits of undulation here and there. We adopted a fartlek approach to the running or wherever we saw a hint of a downhill.

It was around here that things got weird when I ran into  a web developer that my company are hiring to help build the businesses new website. I hadn’t recognised him at all until he called my name out and then it took me a second to figure out who it was (we’d only met the once) but it did make me go, ‘weird!’

Anyway with the fartlek in full swing and my Irn Bru power disappearing faster than a Usain Bolt hundred metres I was really struggling once again and I suggested that we were far enough in that I was not going to DNF and that Neil should continue without me. However, he gave me ‘the talk’ and we pushed on to the checkpoint.

The Irn Bru Saga

Holy poo! How much Irn Bru can one man drink? You’d think I’d been sponsored by them – I probably downed another litre or so of what I described as Ambrosia and I consumed several delicious pieces of flapjack. This was intended to power me through the final phase and I had no intention of stopping now but Neil was looking strong and I really was not.

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Neil let me walk off my Irn Bru burping as we headed back towards the river and then explained he was going to employ a step count for running but after the first 100(200) running steps I could tell I was done and I insisted that he go on without me. No amount of Irn Bru was going to get me through this and with the light fading it seemed rather unfair to ruin the finish time for both of us. Thankfully though I was willing to give the step count a final crack and I found a second wind and the pace we were moving at was bumbling but steady. In no time at all we were through the little housing estate, past the café and onto the path by the river.

I finally knew were I was but I also knew that the downhill at the start was now set to become a terrifying, in the dark, race to the finish.

We managed to avoid putting our headtorches on until we reached the forest and the climb. It was here I felt I could smell the finish and found myself reaching for another gear as I pressed the pair of us into a reasonably pacey death march. Climb, climb, climb I could hear in my head. We had almost reached the summit when we stopped briefly for a hint of respite and in the distance we both thought we saw the twinkling of a headtorch – this was all we both needed to make sure we did not drop the pace.

BOOM. We were off.

We pushed onwards but more importantly downwards – all the time watching my Suunto as it passed 65km and then 66km and then 67km. I was dog tired and sore and all I wanted was the finish. The down to the finish would have been challenging enough in the light but in the dark it was frustratingly challenging and neither of us wanted to take a tumble at this late stage. In the distance between the trees though we finally saw the twinkling of lights and realised we had made it – we tumbled down to the bottom of the final rise whereupon I insisted we jog over the finish line.

And laughing as we crossed the finish line is all you can hope for when you’ve just survived the awesome Tweed Valley Ultra. Great race.

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Key points

  • Distance: 65km (68km)
  • Profile: Deceptive and beautiful
  • Date: November 2018
  • Location: Tweed Valley (Near Peebles)
  • Cost: £50
  • Terrain: Trail
  • Tough Rating: 2.5/5

Route
The route for the Tweed Valley Ultra was quite interesting in that the trail bits where spectacular and some of the good paths/tarmac were pleasant. If you have never been to the Tweed Valley then you’d really enjoy the sights and in fairness if you were a a regular in the Tweed Valley I’m confident this will take you on new and exciting paths.

The changing nature of the surfaces made this a mostly runnable event although having a steep climb at the start did sap the energy from my legs and meant I felt like I was constantly playing catch-up with own fitness levels.

Organisation
Fabulous volunteers and marshals who all  had a massive smile for the runners and for whom nothing seemed too much trouble. As for organisation this has to be rated as top notch – everything worked. The website, the GPX file, the map and the pre race event notes were mostly comprehensive and the on the day organisation at both the start and the finish is to be highly commended.

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Awards
A bespoke medal and a good quality t-shirt (and as much Irn Bru as I could drink).

Value for money
£50 is an excellent price for this well organised and friendly ultra from a company that is attracting both the seasoned ultra runners as well as first timers. If you fancy spending a few pennies with High Terrain Events then you will not be disappointed

Mentions
I would very much like to say thank you to the awesome Neil MacRitchie for always being there for his fellow ultra runners no matter the state they find themselves in.

Conclusion
I’ve now been living in Scotland for 8 weeks, I arrived the day I should have run the Ochil Ultra, I ran Jedburgh with no training and now I’ve completed the Tweed Valley with nothing more than a tenacious attitude and a lot of Vaseline. This is a great race and for me it was made all the better by coming across lots of lovely ultra runners. High Terrain should take pride in the fact that they are putting on a really, really good event, suitable for all levels of ultra runner and I am now seriously considering Kielder for 2019.

Well done guys and thanks.

There was a point where I believed I might never run again and if you’d be around me over the last six months it was very much like I was never going to run again. After my success at the Chicken Run I went on to stunning failures at The West Highland Way Challenge and The Trail de Haut Koenisbourg. This was coupled with not even bothering to start The Fellsman, The Ochil Ultra, The Ultra Trail Scotland: Arran Ultra and a back injury that refuses to clear. Thankfully there was of good decent reason for all of this… I’ve been slowly moving to Scotland.

I’ve been safely north of the English border for exactly a month now and  I decided that I needed to return to running, but rather than do some training I opted for rocking up to the Jedburgh Three Peaks Ultra.

The reputation of the race certainly precedes it and after a starring turn on the Adventure Show a couple of years ago meant that it showed up on my radar. However, I could not make 2016 because it was the same weekend as a friends wedding and 2017 was taken out by injury and so when I saw a little while back that the ultra ‘was almost sold out’ I put in my details and a place was secured.

I decided to travel down early on race morning – a 90 minute journey from where I am now based – which is a lot more achievable than driving up from London. I rolled into the small border town at a little after 6am and grabbed myself a delicious haggis and bacon bap and then drifted over the registration – which it turned out wasn’t open until 6.30am and I was jovially shoved back out the door. Post Haggis and coffee I slipped into the back of the car for a bit of discretion and changed into my race kit and headed out to grab my number and get used to the chilly wind that was whipping around the town.

Registration was quick and simple and I was largely impressed that they did ask to check my photographic identification. There was also an excellent range of facilities, lots of toilets, changing rooms and enough space for most people to try and stay warm. I was very grateful for all the facilities as one thing that hasn’t changed during my racing hiatus has been the uselessness of my bowels in pre, during and post race scenarios.

The pre-race overview was both swift and amusing and the round of ‘Happy Birthday’ for one of the lovely volunteers was a delightful touch. Post briefing we all ambled outside and soon headed to the start line to have the YMCA thrust upon us. Thankfully I had a GoPro and therefore excused myself from the dancing – though when the race started with the song still going I was somewhat caught unawares and found myself fumbling for the ‘on’ button on my Suunto.

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I had no idea what to expect from Jedburgh – the overview suggested that it was about 85% trail but I’ve been disappointed by races before that make such claims. However, I am very happy to report that if anything the organisers had probably underestimated the amount of trail and this started after just a few minutes of running from the town.  The GPX looked like it was going to be a pretty easy bimble but experience tells me that it very rarely is and the undulating nature of the route was tougher than it looked. Despite being late October the route was mostly dry which meant that the runners could get good traction though the falling of leaves had meant that every single root and branch that awaited to take our legs was hidden in plain sight.

The first stage was about 15km long and in that section I was running better than expected given my lack of training and long term injury woes. What struck me was how picturesque the route was and I found myself really enjoying it – this might be one of favourite landscapes that I’ve run in and provided just the shot in arm to reinvigorate my love for the trails. There were terrifying moments such as the wobbling bridge which just shook the turd out of me as my feet barely touched it as I bounced along it with the other runners.

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Throughout the course there was an excellent standard of volunteers and support and there was never a moment where you felt truly isolated but that is not to suggest that the route was busy – it wasn’t, it was never overcrowded. However, the sprinkling of medical and volunteer support was just at the right points and offered the right words of encouragement and checking that the runners were okay.

Once out of the first checkpoint the route did start to flatten off though and for a while I was concerned that it might stay this way. Uphill, downhill or bounding trails suit me very well but flat is my nightmare scenario. I decided to slow the pace down once alongside the river and the golf course as I knew that I should save myself for challenges later in the route. Once back on to the trail I loved it as the route went up and down and around, in the distance I could see the three peaks that we were set to climb.

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Having not read the details of the handbook too closely I wasn’t 100% sure if the next checkpoint would be before we began climbing or after – it turned out that the checkpoint was prior and I decided to stock up on the delicious Active Root (ginger energy drink) which was a little bit like a flat ginger beer.

I also took the opportunity for a little visit to the loo as I had been having stomach issues for several miles – it was not a pleasant experience and simply reinforced the problems that had been apparent earlier in the morning. I had to hope that things were relatively cleared out otherwise the climb over the hills might be a real struggle.

I waved the cheery volunteers a goodbye and headed further downwards (sure that the climbing had to begin soon) and was greeted by something that was both welcomed and also surprising – kit check! You often hear that there will be kit checks on the route but here they made good on the threat – thankfully I had the three items of kit prepared and once cleared I started the first of three uphills.

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Here I ran into the wonderful Neil MacRitchie that I first met at the Skye Trail Ultra and we chewed the fat for a few minutes as we climbed the first ascent – in typical fashion though he was much stronger than I as he powered his way up the hill. Saying this though I managed to push forward at a reasonable pace but also wanted to soak in the environment that I was in. The views were amazing and it was such a clear day that you could see as far and wide as the eye could see – this was spectacular.

Once at the top I took a further few moments, making jokes with passing walkers and hill runners and then prepared to climb the second of the hills, this I was told was the hardest of the three – but actually I found this one easier than the first and enjoyed the scrambling over the trail. However, the downhill was hard going, steep and technical. All the runners ahead of me were taking it easy and I saw no reason to adopt anything other than a cautious approach. Once at the bottom I pushed on to the final much smaller climb and as I reached the top I decided to keep going rather than soak in the landscape ahead of me – I knew this was the turning point and I was now on the way home.

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It was also here that I met Melissa – a lady that would very much define the second half of my Jedburgh experience. We got chatting, as you do, on started the long journey back together – we were both going okay – I mean neither of us were going to win, but we were steady. However, during the next few miles an injury that she had picked up got progressively worse.

The miles that we had been crunching down at an even pace started to slow and while we joked about what could and not be considered a hill I realised that she was going to find this hard work and being her first official ultra I was concerned that she might decide to DNF. For a long while we left it unsaid but unless she insisted I would probably hang fire and travel the last 17 miles or so. We made it back to the next checkpoint in pretty good time and Melissa was still forcing herself to run bits of the route but at each point I reminded her that we didn’t want to make it any worse and her limp was not improving.

Still the sun was shining and we had time, we just needed to be consistent.

It was with some sadness for both of us that dozens of runner passed us, proof positive that we had actually been running quite well but that was put firmly out of mind – we had a job to do. Time was now an ever growing pressure and I wanted neither of us to miss the 7 hrs 30 cut off for the final checkpoint. I realised that once we had arrived back at the golf course that we would actually be fine but Melissa still wanted to be back at the finish before the 10hr cut off and preferrably by 9hrs 30.

I said we’d do our best.

Onward , reversing all our steps from earlier in the day I could feel the mental fatigue kicking in with my comrade and I felt it was important to try and provide the distraction necessary to stop her thinking about the injury she was carrying or the distance remaining. We were down to the last few miles and came across a posse of ladies all out in support of Melissa – these voices and this support was just the tonic and it gave Melissa a lift that only a friend can. I did a bit of bum wiggle and joked my way through the throng of friends before I pressed us on to the final half dozen kilometres.

Melissa after a few miles had figured out her route to success which was a surprisingly speedy march through those last few miles and despite runners still catching us we were more consistent and could maintain our pace. The mental fatigue that had plagued some of the earlier miles, when running was no longer an option, seemed to have disappeared amongst the desire to finished and the consistency of our travel. Melissa was now chomping at the bit to start running again but I suggested we hang fire and to finish strong.

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I knew the finish line would be a wall of noise as we approached and I hoped that this would drive her forward and across the line to a truly stunning finish and as we entered the funnel to the finish line we were greeted by unicorns and all manner of hallowe’en themed characters as well as other runners and well wishers. It was a truly spectacular finish line to cross – especially so late into the day. Late in the day it might have been but we beat the cut off – what a great day.

Key points

  • Distance: 38 miles
  • Profile: Deceptive
  • Date: October 2018
  • Location: Jedburgh
  • Cost: £40
  • Terrain: Trail
  • Tough Rating: 2.5/5

Route
Without doubt this was a lovely route, the landscape around you, ahead of you and in the distance is spectacular and you will never be bored. The variety found in the route is exciting and in the good weather conditions that  we experienced the views across Scotland were spectacular. The peaks themselves were challenging but completely runnable for those fit enough and if you’re a fast ultra runner than 5 or 6 hours is totally achievable. For those more mere mortal types the route is probably more like 6-10hrs but it is a route that is suitable for all levels of runner. Highly recommended.

Organisation
There are not enough positive words to explain just how brilliant the organisation and the organisers of the Jedburgh Three Peaks Ultra are. I also very much enjoyed the whole charitable aims of the event and the fun that the organisers injected into every section. There was an enthusiasm that ran through the organisation and it didn’t matter where on the route you found the fabulous volunteers they all had a massive smile and a delightful cheer to send you on your way with.

Awards
An awesome medal and a goody bag filled with beer, Active Root and a Tunnocks wafer (delicious).

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Value for money
Are you kidding? £40 for a brilliant route, a decent goody bag, a great medal and some of the best support I’ve seen at an ultra. I cold have lived without the YMCA but only because my best dancing days are behind me! Maybe I’ll practice my moves for next year.

Mentions
As with all ultra marathons there are lots of people that deserve mentions but the organisers Noanie and Angela have a spectacular event and deserve all the praise that they receive. I’d also like to thank Melissa, she is an inspirational runner who held on to record her first official finish and provided me with lots of good humour and great company. It was my pleasure to be allowed to join her for her ultra journey and I hope she continues to run events all over Scotland and beyond (Maybe see you at Kielder!).

Conclusion
I had a truly lovely time, I loved the Jedburgh Three Peaks Ultra and would recommend this race to novice and seasoned runners alike. While I may not have done ANY training for this I’m glad I decided to turn up and I’m glad to have rediscovered a love for the thing I most enjoy doing and I will return.

Having run lots and lots of races I’ve come across lots and lots of race organisation. It’s fair to say that mostly race organisation has been really good but occasionally you do find that there are ones that stink to high heaven.

However, this post looks to celebrate the ones I’ve found the absolute best and if good race management and strong organisational skills are your thing then maybe you should consider these guys

Extreme Energy (XNRG)
Organisers of: Pilgrims Way, Pony Express, Amersham Ultra

I’d heard so many good things about XNRG that I didn’t think it could possibly be true. However what I noticed about my running with them was how they had managed to absorb all the ‘friendly’ elements of small, local races where everyone knows each other and scale it up to ultra distance. I recall arriving into the Amersham Ultra and everything being in the right place, it was in a great location and everyone knew what they needed to do and outwardly they showed no stress. Anecedotal evidence from others who have run with them confirm that is pretty much the case all over an XNRG event.

Best things: no fuss, well drilled, experienced team, great attitude
Website: www.xnrg.co.uk

Challenge Running
Organisers of: Monarchs Way, St Peters Way, Stort 30

I ran the St. Peter’s Way in 2014 and it has long left a lasting impression on me – this is partly because Lindley Chambers is a rather unforgettable chap but there were other reasons. I recall rocking up to the SPW and bumping into Ian Braizer for the first time since we’d both crashed out of the Thames Gateway 100, lining up for an actual kit check and a race briefing that felt more like being told off. However, the pre race organisation was on point and the marshalling crews across the course were absolutely outstanding and often old hands at the ultra game. The aid stations were spot on and it all ran with a kind of military precision. There is much to admire about the way Challenge Running do races and if you’re looking for tough, well thought out, well executed but ultimately achievable adventures then they are well worth a look.

Best things: very experienced team, pure ultra running experience, great aid station food
Website: www.challenge-running.co.uk

SVN
Organisers of: Ranscombe Challenge, Viking Way Challenge, Cakeathon

There are people who might (justifiably) suggest that organising looped events is relatively straight forward. 1 aid station, a few direction signs and off you go. I tend to believe that the reason this opinion exists is because race organisers like Phoenix and Saxons, Vikings & Norman’s make a difficult task look easy. When you roll up to a SVN event you’re treated like an adult, Traviss and Rachel are both hugely experienced runners who offer sage words of advice and an understanding of what motivates runners (distance, routes, cake and medals). The SVN events are always a joyful experience and the organisation is the right balance of knowing you’ve got a reasonably experienced group of attendees and the need to ensure nobody gets lost.

The looped nature of the events means aid stations are never far away and the you’re never more than a few hundred metres from another runner who will offer moral support if you’re in need. SVN has community spirit written all over it and this combined with good routes, excellent aid stations and wonderful race directors make this an easy choice to run.

Best things: Community spirit of the events, the medals and the ridiculously overfilled goody bags.
Website: www.saxon-shore.com

Ultra Trail Scotland/Find Your Adrenaline
Organisers of: Isle of Arran Ultra, Arran 25km

If you’re running in autumn or winter, if you’re running up Scottish mountains and if you’re unsure what you’ve let yourself in for then you really want to ensure that the organisers of a race have got your back. Find Your Adrenaline who organised the Ultra Trail Scotland: Arran race proved to be the best race organisers I’ve ever come across. I attended the inaugural event and saw a small team of race organisers bringing together two very different sets of runners (many who had come from Spain and the local runners). I witnessed the organisers going through the route in a variety of languages, the pre race meal was amazing, the support we were shown in putting an easy roof over heads was brilliant and then getting everyone to the start line was a very simple no fuss affair. There were no bells, no whistles, no silly gimmicks – this would be a hardcore race and it demanded the best of its organisers.

We’d been given GPX files well in advance, we’d been talked through the trouble spots on the route and as we all made the climb to Goatfell and light was coming up I think we all felt well supported and like this was going to be a great day out. When race director Casey Morgan though started sending runners back because conditions were so bad this was proof positive that safety was foremost on the minds of the organisers. Nobody could blame him or the rest of the team – nature can be tough. The brilliant thing though was that the support didn’t end here, once we had descended the mountain the team kicked into action and provided food, drink and anything else we could want. I have nothing but the highest of praise for the team under extremely difficult and disappointing (for them as much as the runner) conditions. I’m glad to see they didn’t see this as the end and if you fancy a real challenge then you should consider a crack at Arran this June.

Best things: the routes, runner safety, runner care
Website: www.ultratrailscotland.com

Run Walk Crawl
Organisers of: SW100, SW50, Gower 50

Organised, friendly and well thought out are how I’d describe the Run, Walk, Crawl experience. Because of dropping down to the SW50 from the 100 I had a bit of time to kill and so joined the support team handing out numbers and registering runners. This was an awesome experience and sitting behind the table was almost as much fun as the running. The rugby club that the organisers had hired out was a brilliant location as it meant we had hot showers (pre and post race), somewhere to change and a decent place to camp too. There was a town and a train station a short hop away and it meant that the runners had access to everything they might need. Race morning saw coaches laid on to the start and it all felt easy (which as the runner is something you only appreciate if something goes wrong). On the course there was great support from the crews, food and drink options were plentiful and the route even passed a Co-op for an ice-cream stop (truly something for everyone).

Best things: understanding of runners needs, well organised staff, excellent setup.
Website: www.runwalkcrawl.co.uk

Extra Sports
Organisers of: SainteLyon

I don’t do many mass participation events because I simply don’t enjoy them and feel that they get far too much coverage (looking at you London Marathon). However, the SainteLyon with a total of 14,000 runners over 4 different distances is an exception I make.

The race is a bit of French classic that has been running for over 60 years but despite this the race remains reasonably anonymous in the UK and English speaking countries. And so to why I would consider Extra Sports do brilliant at race organisation, the first is the language barrier – many of the volunteers and staff are well versed in English and other languages, but that isn’t the pleasant surprise – the surprise is the fact that many can spot you as a foreigner before you’ve even spoken and are incredibly helpful. The rest of my experience with Extra Sports and the SainteLyon was equally well organised – the main hall were registrations take place is split between the race village and the number hand out. Identity checks are swift and number allocations equally so but it’s a very human process despite the number of people involved. Then there are the logistics are transporting thousands of runners to the start line, returning bags to the finish line and ensuring that everyone is suitably comfortable, fed and watered in the run up to a race start at midnight in the middle of December. Extra Sports go the extra kilometre.

On course it’s the same brilliant event management – in the icy unmanned sections there are quad bikers going back and forth to help runners who might be injured. Last time I saw a runner being airlifted out (I assume due to injury) and every care was shown here. Aid stations despite being incredibly busy were never once short of food or drink and the people manning these incredibly busy aid stations looked like they were working harder than the runners. Truly epic efforts, truly brilliant.

Best things: Organisation of transport for a shedload of runners, really well considered logistics at start and finish.
Website: www.saintelyon.com

Ultra Running Ltd
Organisers of: The Green Man Ultra

Ultrarunning Ltd, organisers of the Green Man, Malvern Hills and the Midnight Express to name but a few boast a fine reputation for fun, inventive and inspiring ultra marathons that you always fancy a second (or more) crack at. My first experience was a mud soaked bumble around Bristol known as the Green Man Ultra. We were lucky I think that we had a fine day for it which allowed runners to congregate outside the main registration hall. Numbers/colours were allocated according to your distance (30 or 45 miles and whether you were being fed on route or not) a theme that continued into the medals as well.

Once off I found that the course was easy enough to follow and you were never very far from another runner despite the relatively small field. What was a surprise was just how delicious the aid station food was – including the delightful jam butties! The crews were plentiful for this one, this meant that no runner was waiting around for very long for a cup of tea!

I rolled in reasonably late from this one but that didn’t stop there being a tremendous reception and more importantly there was still some of the truly delicious chilli remaining! (a common occurrence when you’re not at the front of the race is that post race food has often disappeared – but not here). Facilities at the end were ace and the lovely certificate I was presented with (with my name written and spelt correctly) was a genuinely lovely finishing touch. This race, the experience, the organisation and the medal will long be remembered

Best things: Food at the finish, food on the course, really enthusiastic volunteers.
Website: www.ultrarunningltd.co.uk

Obviously there are lots of other incredible organisers of races, Vigo Running Club and Harvel Hash Harriers who put together the Tough Love 10 are outstanding, the chaps behind the Marlborough Downs Challenge are incredibly well organised and I’ve rarely met any organisers that have done a bad job. You’d certainly be assured that all race directors go into these things to provide great race experiences because making money isn’t the reason you do it and they want to most of all make sure that you all get round safely having had a load of fun.

You’ll all have your favourite races, you’ll all have your favourite race organisers and my list is just an opportunity to look into something new, in the knowledge that the organisers involved with these companies offer the best race organisation and experiences I’ve had.

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

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

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

Welcome to the Testway Ultra.

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

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

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

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

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

Well for the first miles…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a day.

Key points

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

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

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

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

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

Value for money: £50? Bargain.

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

 

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

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

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

They bet me I couldn’t down a pint of whiskey and still be sober later – I downed the whiskey and next remember being in a police cell being offered sausage and eggs covered in my own vomit and probably my own piss. Needless to say the first thing I did upon my release was to head over to the house of the girl I fancied and ask, ‘what the bollocks happened…’

She told me I should go home and shower.

I did.

I never dated that girl.

That was one of the many anecdotes I told as I bimbled and bumbled around the Silkin Way Ultra this last weekend. It was a funny race and something I was completely unprepared for but it was all good fun in the end. But before we reach the conclusion we need the journey and this is what happened.

It was 2am when my alarm went off, I’d gotten to bed at around 11pm due to having run out of printer ink and needing to handwrite the narrative route instructions, so when I awoke I wasn’t in that great a mood. However, a shower and a thick slathering of Vaseline’s finest around my nuts offered the usual level of excellent preparation. I had to two large coffees and a bowl of Cornflakes before I left the house at 3am and took position behind the wheel of Spusm, my little Toyota Aygo. I wished us both well because a) it was 3am in the morning b) there was heavy rain and c) this was my first significant drive without anyone else in the car with me and I was about to drive 3 and a half hours to Shropshire.

Vroom! Vroom! Thankfully aside from trucks and roadworks the motorways up to Telford were pretty quiet, my only real concern was the rain and I surprised myself when I rolled into Telford Services pre-6am (and pre Burger King being open). This though offered the opportunity for the coffee I’d had earlier to perform its magic and relieve me of my inner poo turmoils and yesterday’s delicious homemade spiced Indian meatballs. With no second breakfast options I headed over to the Village Hall in Coalport and took a wander down by the river as even the race organisers hadn’t arrived.

Denzil and the guys arrived not long after me and began setting up, I did offer to help but they had everything under control and so I returned to the relative comfort of the car and looked out for the other runners coming in. I chatted with several lovely Marathon and ultra regulars – all of whom were new to me, which was one of the benefits of being so far from home at a relatively small and quite new event. I chatted with others mainly about upcoming events and my fears about the Fellsman in four weeks but more immediately – how the hell you drive home after an ultra marathon!! Anyway with all the guff and gubbins done we ambled to the start and with a lovely low key start Denzil sent us on our way.

I ambled up to the Silkin Way and started to pick out my position in the instructions – with no GPX file I’d be reliant on these and the very handy chalk markings (thanks to Jon I believe) on the route. I started out at far too fast a pace and got rather caught up chatting with future ultra star Emily who bounced around the route like the Energiser Bunny but I knew her pace was going to outstrip mine and so about 5km I said adios and watched as she thundered off into the distance. From there I was able to ease off a little as it became clear to me this wasn’t going to a trail race and it’s been a very long time since I’d even tried to run long distance on tarmac and paths like this. Within 7km I could feel my knee, groin and hamstring in my left leg and by 10km I was in pain, however, if I slowed now I knew that I’d be getting back at the top end of the eight hour time limit and I really didn’t want that – so I pressed on.

The route itself was pleasant and we passed through sections of Telford that gave a nice impression of the area and harked back to much of the towns heritage. The route and the Silkin Way had many people out walking, though it was never too busy to be congested and we passed several big lovely parks and open spaces that the locals were using. On a nice morning like this it was lovely to see. I’d only been to Shropshire once previously where I went fruit picking with some old friends (although my hopes had mainly been in the seduction of French girls rather than pulling Gooseberries all day). This trip to Shropshire was for an entirely different kind of loving – my love of running.

However, as much as I love running with only 20km done I was feeling the burning heat of pain in my groin and I was grateful a couple of miles later when I reached the second checkpoint. This wonderful stop was rather handily was in one of the organisers homes – a novel and very friendly way of doing it I thought. I grabbed some cola and a few jelly babies before heading back out.

With the second half of the event now under way I was hoping that given this was effectively an out and back I’d be able to avoid the route mistakes I’d made earlier in the race but sadly no – I was still able to get bits wrong. Thankfully the mistakes were smaller and I wasn’t clocking up large extra miles.

It was a few kilometres further in that I would meet the runners that would define my race – there was no doubt I was struggling but people like Nick, Rob and Karen provided fresh inspiration to keep going at a reasonable pace. There was back and forth with these small pockets of runners but I noticed that when I was on my own or they would go past me that I would immediately slow and give in to the voice that said, ‘you’ve ruined yourself, save it for another day’. However, the jollification and support offered by being alongside other runners outweighed the negative thoughts I was having and so I did my best to keep up.

As the miles were counted down I could feel a sense of relief washing over me and when we were given a little bit of trail respite my hamstrings, knees and groin called out in gratitude – these kilometres were my favourite of the day but there simply hadn’t been enough of them to make much of a difference to the pounding the lower half of my body had taken and so I continued to slowly amble merrily along.

We were however soon back on the pavements and being sent across the mighty Ironbridge, sadly for us this glorious structure is undergoing major renovation and restoration work and was therefore completely covered. That said I can certainly say I crossed it and enjoyed the views across the town and river. From here I started clock watching or to be more accurate GPS watching, converting kilometres to miles and trying to figure out just how far was left, the trouble was I’d gone wrong in direction enough to make this futile and turned my gaze to the river and the fact I was on the side opposite to the finish line. Bugger.

All of the runners I was with had a small wobble about halfway before the actual crossing but it was with renewed vigour that we all pressed on for the final mile. Buoyed by the sight of the final directional arrow I burst forward a little ahead of the others and bounced through the car park to the finish.

There was no fanfare, simply Denzil manning the bacon butty wagon. Perfect.

Key points

  • Distance: Ultra 50km
  • Profile: Nothing too severe
  • Date: March 2018
  • Location: Telford
  • Cost: £50
  • Terrain: Mixed (but mainly tarmac paths)
  • Tough Rating: 1/5 (very accessible ultra)

Route: The route had a number of interesting bits, lots of bridges, lots of heritage and passed along some good scenery but that was tempered by the running through some really rather dull sections. The Silkin Way markers were a really nice touch and being made up of good paths the route lends itself to being fast – if you want it to be. The trail sections for me where the best part (though I believe these were off the Silkin Way) but there weren’t enough of them, however, that’s the trail runner in me talking. Ultimately I think you’ll find that this is neither the best nor the worst route you’ll ever do but has more than enough positives to make this a worthwhile run.

Organisation: This was my first time with ‘How Hard Can it Be’ and the hugely enthusiastic team were incredibly professional and wonderfully supportive. It was a relaxed atmosphere and everything was organised perfectly – just the kind of race organisation I enjoy.

Support: Aid station 1 and 3 were the same one on the out and back with aid 2 being in one of the organisers homes which was very nice and my desire to take a seat was sorely tested. Three aid stations was enough albeit the positioning was probably just a wee bit off as you had the final ten miles with no race support (although there was nothing stopping you nipping into the local shop for a bottle of water and/or a snickers!). The aid stations themselves were suitably stocked for the shorter end of the ultra distances with jelly babies, jaffa cakes, crisps, cola and water in abundance. Nothing wrong with the support.

Awards: The medal was weighty and a lovely memento of a challenging event. I also very much liked the design for the race numbers, made a pleasant change from the black number against white background. There was also the post race photograph to look forward too (or grimace at) – as per usual I look terrible!

Value for money: The route, the medal, the experience, the support and of course the cost all come to mind when I’m looking at value – how does this stack up against its contemporaries?

It comes out pretty well – primarily because of the positive experience you’ll have running the Silkin Way and different people will take away different positives from this. For me I got to run an ultra marathon in a new part of the UK, in a friendly, small field of runners with an ace medal and that means I got excellent value for money.

Conclusion: Is this the best ultra marathon in the UK? No it’s not, but is it a really good early spring shakedown ultra that will set you up for races later in the year? Oh yes!

I’d say this race is especially good for road runners who want to dip their toes into ultra marathons but who want to avoid laps or want to avoid mud. It would be excellent if you were looking for a challenging but fast 50km. Would I do it again? If I were looking for a race at this time of year I would certainly consider running this again (although I’d prepare a bit better for the tarmac) as I enjoyed myself more than the pain in my legs suggest. The fact is that races like this draw out, in my opinion, the ultra runners I want to run with and I’ll continue to support races like this for as long as lovely race directors like Denzil (and the team) put them on. Good work guys – you can check out their races at http://www.codrc.co.uk

After the South Wales 50 I wrote about how, mostly, my first half of 2017 had been pretty good with positives driving me forward towards my endgame and even the failures provided really useful information for future planning.

Sadly the second half of 2017 was a disaster.

I suppose the year unravelled when my partners mother passed away in early August and it all went a bit downhill from there.

I just didn’t turn up to the start line of the London to Brighton because of injury and exhaustion but had recovered enough in time to make hard work of the RunWimbledon Marathon. That proved to be my only September running at all and so my preparation for the Isle of Arran Ultra was woeful.

Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise when the race was cancelled less than 90 minutes in? But I had been making quite good progress and felt strong even if not amazingly so, despite my lack of match fitness. I had hoped that Arran and the running and hiking in Scotland would give me the lift I needed to commit to improving the second half of the year and even with Arran’s cancellation I enjoyed my Scottish running adventures going across numerous bloody enormous hills.

However, upon our return to Kent my running was sidelined by the worst chest infection I’ve had in years and while I battled through the first week of it the rest of October was a write off and I had to defer my entry to the Rebellion Ultra Marathon – once again through a lack of readiness. However, by the middle of November I had finally cleared the chest and I could resume some training and with less than 2 weeks before the SainteLyon I started to run again.

With a couple of biggish weeks in the bag I went to France and despite some truly hideous and in places dangerous conditions I ran the SainteLyon with all the gusto I could muster. It was a great feeling to be back in Lyon but even the joy of this outstanding race couldn’t hide my disappointment of a mere 2,000 miles run and a lot less racing than normal over the year.

However, though my 2017 ultra running ended in France there was to be a final run out as a family at the Mince Pi: A run of two decimal places. The GingaNinja had asked if we could find a race to do say 5km – the trouble is that to run together requires us to run with the toddler. Thankfully in Wacky Events we found an RD willing to allow us to race with our daughter being pushed on the Unirider!

This wonderful event proved to be the right year end to running, it involved my two favourite people, it involved trail running in winter and it has provided a bit of inspiration to the GingaNinja to kick on with her own personal fitness goals.

Can’t say fairer than that can you?

Highlights

  1. Returning to the SainteLyon
  2. Returning to Scotland for both racing and training
  3. Meeting Pete and Ryan at the South Wales 50
  4. Racing alongside ASK and the GingaNinja at the Westminster Mile
  5. Attempting MIUT and not letting failure break me

Lowlights

  1. The death of my partners mother
  2. The broken Petzl headtorch debacle at UTBCN
  3. The cancellation of the Arran Ultra
  4. Missing London to Brighton and The Rebellion
  5. Being ill or injured most of September through to November

So that was 2017 but what about 2018?

2018 looks like a very complex year in that we are going to try and move to Scotland for a better work life balance, the bonus for me will be proximity to the hills and mountains I love so much. However, the downside is that I need to not be racing so much – which is a disappointment.

The year has started well enough though with a New Years Day shakedown at the Lamberhurst 5km and the first weekend will bring the East Hanningfield trail marathon and there is a January 100 mile virtual challenge which should ease me back into bigger and bigger monthly miles.

February will be a return to the Vigo 10, which with a move so far north on the cards, may be my final return to my favourite race and then we have space in the calendar.

Thankfully I’ve put my bank account to damn fine use and entered the West Highland Way Challenge Race in May and The Rebellion will follow in November (as will a second crack at the Arran Ultra subject to it running again).

There are things I won’t return to though such as my reduction in racing/running over the summer, although it aided me in avoiding the sun I used it as an excuse to stop training and that wasn’t the idea.

The first half of 2017 had been so positive and I wonder if I hadn’t halted the momentum I had gained would my second half have been better – even given family circumstances at the time?

Still new year, no point moping about what has been and it’s now the 3rd January and I’m already 18.6 miles of running into my January 100 mile Virtual Challenge, woohoo!Having been reading lots of blogs and the like recently about the variety of adventures you’re all going in it looks like there’s some good stuff about to happen. Mostly I read them because I’m always keen to hear about your own adventures so I can try them myself and I’ve found some of my best experiences because I tried something you suggested to me or suggested to me I your own writing – so keep it up please!

Anyway, enough of this jibber jabber, it’s raining outside and blowing a gale so, ‘Let’s crack on and enjoy adventuring’.

Mince Pi Photographs: Hayley Salmon

This is a story two years in the making as the moment I finished the SainteLyon in 2015 I knew I had found ‘my’ race. My experience was so incredibly positive that I knew I would return and when entries opened in April I was waiting with my debit card to hand ready to sign up. Experience had taught me that this was unnecessary but I wanted my place confirmed as quickly as possible and within a few hours I had also uploaded the medical certificate from the UTBCN, booked my flights and begun the search for accommodation.

For more detail on how you go about the logistics can I recommend you read the 2015 report, which goes into much detail about that kind of thing.

The first half of my running year had gone quite well, finishing with a great finish at the South Wales 50 and despite failure at MIUT I was feeling tremendously positive overall going into the summer race break. However, the death of my partners mother, illness and injuries to my back meant that my return to training and racing was hampered quite badly. I didn’t show up for the return of the London to Brighton, although I rocked up to the start of the Ultra Trail Scotland: Arran this was cancelled mid race due to terrible weather conditions and I deferred my place at The Rebellion because of a hideous chest infection and a lack of preparation. This all meant that my return to the SainteLyon was incredibly undertrained in fact only just returned to training and in no way ready to face this wonderful course.

Regardless I wasn’t going to miss out and on Friday, 1st December I ambled along to the hideous Luton Airport and took the short flight to the delightful Lyon St Exupery Airport a short hop on the Rhône Express took me into the centre of the city (30mins), I bought a 72hour combined Metro, Tram and bus ticket (€15) and took the 3 minute metro ride to Saxe Gambetta where I would find my small but perfect AirBnB accommodation just two minutes from the station.

I dropped my bags down to be greeted by the sight of a Nespresso machine and some Belgian waffles and chocolate crepes! Merci Diep (the host). I grabbed a few bits like my passport and registration confirmation before heading straight out to the hall to collect my number. Another short hop on the metro and I was a five minute walk from where I needed to be – awesome.

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Security was still quite tight in France and there were bag and body searches before entry to the hall – which in light of recent history both in France and across Europe -makes sense. But once in the hall it was like a Mecca for all things trail running and I slowly wandered round deciding what I would spend some pennies on. It was lovely to see Oxsitis with a big stand and lots of products on show and while I may not wear them any longer Hoka also rolled into town with a decent showing.

Collection of my number was easy this year and I used my incredibly handy French phrase, ‘je ne comprends pas francais. parlez vous anglais?’ and I found that my French hosts once they knew I was English simply switched languages (something I am in awe of) though I did use my French language skills wherever possible. With my number collected I headed over to get some SainteLyon socks and my new much loved Buff!

And from this point I actually had some free time. I headed over to the huge shopping centre and picked up some provisions, did some late night sightseeing and then continued in this vein the following morning – touristing before settling down to an afternoon nap before the race. I then engaged in my now infamous pre race coffee ritual for a full bowel clearance and eventually I’d get round to loading up my kit up! It all seemed to be going far to smoothly.

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At about 6pm I headed down to the bus pick up point and joined the queue for one of the many buses to St Etienne. I remember in 2015 the bus was warm but the window had a drip running down it and I’d worked hard to ensure I didn’t get wet! This year the bus was a little chillier but the window didn’t leak and we arrived in good time and without incident. Security was speedy but thorough and as I had time to kill I grabbed some of the pre race snack goodies and went into the smaller of the two halls to see if I could catch a bit more sleep or at least rest. The hall was warm and filled with people but I had little trouble finding space and I folded a buff up and lay my head upon it – but I couldn’t sleep. The SainteLyon was effectively my Christmas present to myself and like a young boy I was desperate to open my present and get to running! Much like a Christmas Eve the following three hours dragged like the Hundred Years’ War! Still the hours did give me a vantage point for kit and people watching – the most interesting outfit I saw was a teenage mutant ninja turtle with full shell and this chap (as far as I know) ran the whole thing dressed like this. The STL though doesn’t attract a great deal of runners like this, they’re quite rare I would say. Most runners rock up in their favourite or best kit and I was pleased to note that many of the runners were wearing Oxsitis, Raidlight or Kalenji bags, undoubtedly the French appreciate these brands being reasonably readily available on the high street and support local brands. Shoe choices were equally local with most seeming to opt for Salomon or Kalenji – the good thing for me was I saw no Karrimor!

I’d chosen Altra for footwear and my beloved Oxsitis Hydragon for my back with a variety of OMM and Ronhill kit making up the rest, perhaps it was the kit that made me stand out as English as anyone that approached me spoke to me (generally) in my native tongue – clearly to the other runners I was not French!

Anyway to the race! The SainteLyon in its current form is a 72km race from St Etienne to Lyon, taking place the first weekend in December and setting off around midnight, you can read more about it here at Wikipedia. At around 11.30pm I drifted slowly to the start knowing that I would be starting near the back of the field but this would allow me to pick off runners later on (if I had any capacity to do so).

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The organisers though were releasing the runners in waves which meant that as I was at the back I would be one of the final runners to depart St Etienne. I could feel the cold setting in and I was geared for minimal warmth as I knew that during the race I would overheat with too many layers. I rubbed my arms periodically to retain warmth and hugged myself, while gently jigging on the spot – stopping sporadically to take photographs and make social media checks.

40 minutes later and, as promised, bang on time the music played, the horn blew and thousands of runners were released into the night. It was as magical as I remembered it, only this time there was no @kemptomslim to share the moment with and so I turned to look at the arch I had just run under and said ‘au revoir’ before turning on my heel and running into the Rhône Valley night.

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The first few kilometres are along the roads and lack any really interesting things to note other than the opportunity to catch some ground in the runners ahead of you or perhaps make some alliances to allow the hours to pass more pleasantly. I decided on the former rather than the latter and pressed firmly ahead knowing that conditions underfoot later in the race might slow me down. Perhaps the big clue as to the conditions was the fact that many runners had loaded up crampons to their race vests in preparation for cruddy conditions but at this early stage even those in their Kalenji Road shoes were running fine.

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While my French is limited I could feel the ambience of the race and the runners and there was a generally positive, goodwill feeling that swelled up around the runners in these early stages and you couldn’t help but be carried by this. For my part I darted between runners and ambled towards the trail which kicked in at around the 6km mark.

From here the light snowfall that we had seen on the sides of the road was replaced by much thicker, more dangerous, not so grippy snow and I recall as I headed down the trail that ‘bugger, this isn’t going to be as easy as last time’.

However, I am confident in my footwork and I was able to press on a little faster than those in front of me and as the kilometres marched downward toward the first checkpoint I started to feel very confident about running a good time. Despite a lack of training in the lead up to the race I was feeling surprisingly spritely too and as I hurled myself up and down the trails I was enjoying myself.

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I felt like I was in a good place and set myself up for cruise control to allow me some breathing room and to take photographs and simply to take joy from the experience. About 13km in, not long before the first checkpoint I looked behind me to see the procession of runners all twinkling behind me and then I really remembered why I love this race so much.

However, with underfoot conditions worsening I was glad to drop upon the first checkpoint and it was here that I stayed the longest of all the checkpoints – maybe 5 minutes, this was mainly due to the amount of people and partly because I actually wanted food. But it was still a short stop and thankfully they had full fat Coca Cola on offer and I enjoyed a cup full before heading out – no Rolo Cola this time @kemptonslim

I remembered that post checkpoints I was freezing cold for the first few minutes and so covered my fingers with the mitten part of my gloves and pulled my neck buff up and my head buff down and headed out. Weirdly though my nose was freezing and when I felt the front of my buff the snot and hot breath had frozen into a cold and icy mess. I folded it down a little and it was better but this would be the first buff to be replaced a few more kilometres down the trail.

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It was from here that you started noticing people putting crampons on as conditions underfoot deteriorated further and there was a visible increase in the amount of runners who were losing their legs beneath them, I was keen to go as fast as I could but knew two things;

  1. Falling would hurt
  2. I’d forgotten to buy ultra marathon sports insurance

and so I ran were it was appropriate and walked as quickly as possible everywhere else. It was about the 20km mark that I heard the sounds of an Australian accent behind me and for a short while I’d met someone who spoke English natively and we had a lovely brief chat before we went our sort of separate ways. This was her first ultra marathon and her French friend felt this would be a great introduction to ultras and when I saw her she looked the business taking her fast marathon form into the STL. I would see a little more of her later.

The second section unlike the first had a greater degree of pure Trail and both my knees and back appreciated this. The trail was incredibly variable with some being good clear trail, other parts moist but most were snow and ice covered and progress remained slower than I would have liked but still not bad. The STL though has a very interesting aspect to it that say something like the CCC does not – overtaking. Although the route is busy with runners the potential for overtaking is enormous and you find yourself gearing up past runners all the time and then being overtaken by them! This has benefits for the relay runners who are undoubtedly fresher than the full distance runners and even for the Express (44km) runners that you might meet.

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I found myself hitting some decent running in this section and engaging in lots of overtaking and being overtaken and it was fabulous hearing the phrase ‘a gauche’ or ‘a droit’ – I can’t tell my left from my right in English so I had to concentrate hard to get it right in French!

Although not clock watching I was very aware that my time was better than it had been in 2015 and some basic mental calculations suggested I could shave off around two or three hours from my previous outing and despite an injury and illness hit few months I was giving it as much welly as the ground would allow. However, all of this was to grind to a halt and all the good work undone. At about 23km in the ground became so icy that runners couldn’t even walk on it and in front of you a plethora of bodies were strewn across the trail.

A runner would fall and the phrase ‘ca va?’ would be called the two or three runners that would stop to pick up their fallen comrade. I brought my own race to a stop to assess the conditions and decided that I would use what visual clues I had before me, track the steps of the runners ahead of me and go as carefully as possible. Sections were becoming so severe that runners were sitting on their arses and pushing themselves down the trail on their hands.

I witnessed bloodied and bruised runners ahead of me but their tenacity meant that most would get up. My problems intensified though when at 26km my trusty Altra gave into the ice and I was thrust skyward and came down with a thud. I’d broken the fall with my back and smashed my headand although I got up straight away I was in pain – my recent back troubles suddenly came rushing back and my head felt woozy. I knew that Sainte-Catherine was only a couple of kilometres further on and so I followed the crowd, walking now and not in a good place. I slipped and slid more, desperate to keep my feet but I fell a further three times before the second checkpoint and when I crashed in I felt like death.

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I took a few minutes and ate emmental and salami to help get something in me and for both the first and last time I wondered if I should stop and seek medical attention. The answer was ‘no’ and with that I set off again. I tried to focus on the trail and ran reciting song lyrics and poetry to myself as I’ve often found this works to stop me thinking about more painful distractions. The various falls though and those to come had given me s kicking and perhaps had my head taken a worse knock than it did I would have had the common sense to stop – but I didn’t. The trail continued to worsen and we were now into the coldest part of the night and at the highest, often most exposed points, when the wind whipped through it passed straight through me but I refused to put additional layers on knowing that this would simply infuriate me.

Upon reach Inge the highest point of the race I felt something of an achievement, despite having run it before I convinced myself that the rest of the course was downhill but this was ridiculous and actually the most dangerous Running was just around the corner.

I could see the pack starting to gather ahead of me, the ice, once again so bad that runners were sat on the floor dragging themselves down and the mountain rescue, aided by quad bikes were going back and forth collecting runners from the trail. In my head I refused to sit down and drag myself along, I refused to bow, in my head I could here Terence Stamps, Zod calling out, ‘kneel before Zod son of Jor-el’ and although I’m no Superman i knew that the moment I gave in I would death march this home.

My decision to stay stood cost me a couple of falls and a fellow runner came sliding into the back of me taking me out at one point. My already broken body didn’t have the required agility to jump straight back up this time but my fellow runners pulled me to my feet quickly and set me on my way. I was hurting now in lots of ways but the mild delirium kept me on the straight and narrow!

Ha!

I dragged my sorry arse into the checkpoint and found a quiet spot to change head torches and power my phone up after the cold had simply switched it off. I didn’t bother with food or drink here – I was feeling sickly but I hoped this would pass if I quickly got out of the checkpoint and avoided the dreaded DNF.

I was a marathon or so in and light would soon be upon these beautiful French lands and with it I felt conditions would improve if only because I’d be able to see but the news was a bit better than that – the closer to Lyon we got the better the trail conditions got and icy conditions became more sporadic. My head was also starting to clear a little bit and despite the physical pain I could feel myself running more and more with confidence returning that I could control both my ascents and more importantly the descents.

Finally after the drama and trauma of the night I was back in the race – although the slow progress through the ice had ensured that there was no way I was going to run faster than the previous attempt.

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We were also on the countdown to the finish ‘SainteLyon 25km arrivee’ I pushed on as fast as I could, walking the hills as quickly as possible and staying steady across the flat and downhills. I stopped briefly to top up my calories with a couple of caramel Freddo and some icy water and took a look back to realise that there still many, many runners behind me – this was clearly proving a hard slog for everyone.

With 20km to go I pulled into the next checkpoint and pulled out again quickly – I’d been keeping tabs on the young Australian girl and her friend who I’d inadvertently been playing overtaking tennis with and decided that I could use her as my pacer – the aim? To beat her to the finish. The final 20km are much more road based which doesn’t really suit my running style nor my injury record, however, it did allow me to push on without too much concern for what was happening at foot level.

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about 5km in to the final 20km I saw my new target drift ahead of me – still looking strong and here I thought it was all over, I didn’t have a race in me – or so I thought. With just over 10km left I entered the final checkpoint had arrived at the outskirts of Lyon. I saw the two runners I was trailing and asked how they were getting on, they described a tale of woe in the icy conditions and my internal Schadenfreude said, ‘hehe’ but instant karma paid me back by making me bite down hard on my own finger instead of the cheese and salami I was holding. I base them farewell and wished them a good final push but I knew I could get there before them.

Boom!

Finally the sun was warming, I removed my buffs, my gloves and rolled my sleeves up. I knew the route from here, I could smell the finish line in the distance and even the good awful climb into the city I flew up much to the amusement of runners behind me. There are steps on the descent into Lyon and the finish – lots of them and ahead of me I could see runners gingerly hobbling down them but I pushed hard knowing that I could continue to climb the rankings.

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Off the steps, down to the river, up the winding steps, over one bridge, fly past the musee de confluences and over the final bridge, cheering supporters shouting, ‘Allez!’ And clapping calling out, ‘Bravo! Bravo!’

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I had decided on my finish routine long ago for this race and I ambled along to the final 200metres, I could see runners ahead of me and at the right moment I pressed my feet into the floor and like a rocket I blasted off much to the surprise of the crowd who whooped and hollered as I hit full pace. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 runners down, runner number 6 with his hands in the air smacked me in the head but I was in full glorious flow and I hurtled towards the final turn – taking it wide to ensure I could cross the line flat out! I passed a couple of final runners at the line and I was over.

It was over! I was over!

  • Distance: 72km
  • Ascent: +2000 metres
  • Location: Lyon
  • Cost: £65
  • Runners: 7,000 (15,000 over all distances)
  • Terrain: Mixed, icy, rocky, hilly, tough
  • Tough Rating: 3/5

Organisation
The STL is possibly the best organised race I’ve ever run, but then after 64 editions perhaps that is to be expected. However, they clearly keep on making minor corrections to the system to ensure that runners know what’s going on and what they have to do. Things like transport to the start for thousands of runners is slick and well rehearsed and the checkpoints although busy are all easily accessible as a runner.

As a French classic there isn’t much information in English but Google translate is helpful and the volunteer army was amazing in helping me with questions I had.

There was also excellent social media connectivity and the tracking was quick, up to date and working unlike at so many events (yep I’m thinking of you UTMB). The STL scores incredibly highly for organisation.

Volunteers
All volunteers are amazing but the SainteLyon volunteers are out in some freezing cold conditions for a very long period and they remain hugely upbeat – they are a credit to the race and to European Ultra Running. There should also be a special mention to the many people who came out on to the course to support, whether they had a runner or not, truly special.

Route
The route had something for everyone whether you’re a trail lover, a road hog or somewhere in between. The ascents are sharp and the descents technical in places but it’s fun and the route is mostly wide enough for easy overtaking. The views for this route are strange in that you are in the middle of the night so it’s dark but the lights of the runners illuminate things around you and in the distance and that’s a beautiful sight. I feel very much the reason I love the STL so much is because the route is both challenging and fun, this time it really did show me it’s tough side but that doesn’t change my opinion that this is an everyman course and with a bit of tenacity you can do it.

Awards
I would love, love, love a SainteLyon medal but solo finishers are presented with a T shirt instead – a nice technical shirt but still not a medal. This year pre-race they also supplied a snood/buff and a pair of STL branded warm socks which are excellent. There were all sorts of other goodness such as the post race and pre race food (I didn’t bother with either but I heard good things about it). All in all the awards are great but I’d love a medal (take the hint organisers).

Costs
To give an indication of cost I paid around £85 return flights (London Luton – Lyon). £22 for the return express train to Lyon from the airport and about £85 for three nights Airbnb in the centre of Lyon as well as £60 for the race and transport. Other costs included a couple of technical SainteLyon t-shirts and a bobble hat (total cost £27). All in, transport, race, goodies, tourism and food £300.

Logistics
I’ve written in my previous STL about logistics but Lyon is 1hr 25mons from London and Lyon Airport is 30 mins from the city centre. I used AirBnB for accommodation which was lovely and the race itself provides buses to the start for €13 and this is easily the best way of arriving fresh at the start. The organisers and Lyon/St Etienne are very well prepared for this event and as far as I could tell it runs smoothly and logistically brilliantly.

Value for money
Value for money is a very subjective thing, for example some people even believe that OCR events are good value but this is a different kettle of fish. Entry is €63 – this includes the €3 service charge and what you get is not only a truly glorious event but also tremendous support (be that through volunteers, cheering supporters or food at checkpoints), most importantly though you receive a brilliantly organised event and having some events not this well set up I can tell you I appreciate the value of a good team delivering on their promises.

Favourite moments
This year was a little different to 2015 but it had no fewer highlights, below are five moments that really made a difference to my race.

  1. The start line, such an icon of the race and filled with all sorts of emotion. The moment the runners all started hugging and patting each other on their backs just made me feel connected to my fellow competitors
  2. Standing at various high points of the route and looking back to see the procession of lights running to catch me and the people ahead of me.
  3. The two young children and their mother offering water, coffee, goodies and support in the darkest hours of the race
  4. The cries of Allez! Allez! Allez! and Bravo!
  5. My sprint to the finish line

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Conclusion
Going back to the SainteLyon after 2015 was never in doubt. I had loved the idea of it and loved the execution of it. After being busy with Haria Extreme in 2016 I knew I would be returning to Lyon this year but what I hadn’t been prepared for was a hugely different experience.

In truth, as I look back on it, I enjoyed this year even more than my first time because of how close I came to failing and yet still clinging on. However, it wasn’t just that it was also the fact I got to enjoy the race, to watch the landscape move before my very eyes in a procession of light and because the SainteLyon continues to tease, ‘come back UltraBoy you can run me faster’.

Going back to the SainteLyon is a certainty because there is something special about it that no other race I’ve done has given me the feeling I get here. It might have left me broken into a thousand pieces but I would rather that it was body broken than my heart. SainteLyon 2017 – I loved you.

You can learn more about the race at www.saintelyon.com and below is a gallery of images taken during the 2017 event!

 

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