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Ultra Trail Scotland

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.


I woke up in the Caledonian Sleeper train to a hot cup of tea and the smell of the outskirts of Glasgow to warm me as I prepared to join a group of suitably idiotic ultra runners on a race across the stunning northern Arran landscape – this was a race and an event I was very much looking forward to. At around 6pm I headed over the short stretch of water from mainland to the island and arrived as both the dark and the wet had caught up with me. However, with my accommodation some miles away I needed to get registered and ready for the race start at 6am the following morning. Thankfully  rather than reach the race registration I was sent over to the delicious pasta party a few feet across the road and my plans suddenly changed for the better.


It was here that the journey really started as the organisers welcomed the final stragglers to the inaugural Ultra Trail Scotland on the Isle of Arran. I grabbed a bowl of the delicious chicken and leek soup and chatted with Ross and James, two of the runners I’d met on the way up, to our left one of the chief race architects Casey Morgan was going through the race briefing with the Spanish contingent who had travelled over, some of whom were competing in the AlpinsUltra series of races, of which Arran was the final awesome stop.


We took a detailed race briefing from Andrew, who went through things in just the right amount of detail and ensured that we got to ask all the relevant questions.

Andrew also resolved some accommodation issues for both James and I as he said we would be welcome to share the bunk house space they had secured (as they had a couple of spare bunks). This meant that James didn’t have to camp and I didn’t have to travel halfway down the island in the rain with a heavy pack. Andrew and the team really didn’t have to do this, nor provide transport to the bunk house but they did and it would be fair to say that they went over and above their duty of care to the runners at every stage.

Race morning started at 4.30am, James and I dressed and left the bunk house for the mile hike up to the registration hall and arrived in time to catch a nervous merriment rolling around the runners. With just a few minutes before the scheduled 6am start we headed towards the coastline and boom we were off! 

Before I’d entered I hadn’t really known what to expect, hadn’t really known what kind of pace everyone else would be going and hadn’t assumed that I would get close to the finish and when we set off I realised how tough even the easy sections were likely to be.

I was running near to the front of the pack, half a dozen runners all striding forward as quickly as they could and although I knew I couldn’t maintain this pace I figured that given my uphill speed is atrocious I should make up for it in the flats and descents. However, the first piece of ‘flat’ was on the sandy beach – something of a nemesis for me – but I ploughed through following the speedgoats ahead of me until we heard the calls of the runners behind suggesting we had gone the wrong way! 1km in and already some of us had had navigational problems. We doubled back and rejoined the throng of runners and thankfully going the wrong way woke me up a bit and I slowed my pace to something more consistent with a middle aged man trying to stay youthful! Ha! I also fixed the mapping on my Suunto (which had gone a bit bonkers) because the field was small enough that I would inevitably lose sight of my fellow competitors and would need the GPX file working.

Despite the dark I could see the first climb up to Goatfell ahead of me and in the distance I could hear the rumble of a waterfall. It was here that I met James again and for a while we shadowed each other but keeping to our respective races. I was making decent time uphill, nothing spectacular but doing basic calculations in my head I was projecting that I should finish the race even accounting for significant slowing later in the day.

The ground below was wet, rocky and undoubtedly dangerous. I’ve come a long way in the last few years where I now feel confident and competent to run on difficult and more technical trails (even without my poles) and here I felt like I was in my natural environment and happy with it. Even my fresh out of the box Altra Lone Peak 3.5 were loving these trail ascents and Altra proving once again that you can put them on for the first time in a race day and thankfully not encounter any shoe problems.

In the distance I could see head torches flickering periodically and I pushed on to try and make up ground on them but the weather was closing in around us. Despite this though I was able to switch my headtorch off and use the dim dawn light to guide me.

It was then that some of the frontrunners appeared before me – heading down. I asked what was wrong, wondering if they needed aid but they simply shouted ‘fini’. I assumed they were calling it a day and so pressed on a little further until more runners came at me, ‘race over – it’s too dangerous, they’ve made a safety call, the ridge isn’t passable, even Casey can’t find the path safely’.

I looked up for a few moments and despite only being 150metres from the first summit I knew it was dangerous as visibility had dropped to next to nothing. I was disappointed and deflated and weighed up my options a) hike back feeling sorry for myself b) continue onwards without the race support but be a clear danger to myself and the rescue teams or c) hammer the downhill home and run this like a gud’un!


Well I wasn’t going to feel sorry for myself, not in these stunning surroundings and I certainly wasn’t going to endanger life and limb so it was the final choice – hammer it home and have some fun.

I turned on my heel and gave chase to a couple of the runners ahead of me and thundered as quick as my feet could carry me downhill. Leaping over rocks, slipping and sliding around but ultimately in control I was having a blast – my only complaint being that I knew it would end far too soon.

The light was now up and for the first time I could finally see Arran and the mountains behind me showed off their majesty – it would have been brutal but brutally amazing.

I arrived back to the faces of runners and organisers, all being incredibly professional, all incredibly disappointed. Tea, bacon and egg sandwiches and support flowed throughout this small, hardy community and ultimately it was the right decision to cancel the race.

I was grateful just to have gotten out there and seen even a tiny fraction of this wonderful island and I’ll be going back because this is a race to do. Thanks Ultra Trail Scotland – you guys have an amazing race on your hands and with a bit of nurture you’re going to have a great event next year – see you there.

Key points

  • Distance: 71km
  • Profile: Ballbusting ascents and descents
  • Date: October 2017
  • Location: Isle of Arran
  • Cost: £80
  • Terrain: Mixed, trail, muddy trail, off trail, boggy, technical – basically the lot
  • Tough rating: 4.5/5

Route: I didn’t get to run the whole route, in fact I barely got started before the race was cancelled amid concerns for runners safety due to the weather and visibility. However, the section I did run (and my subsequent bits of running around the island) showed Arran to be the kind of place you need to run and the route selected by the organisers promised nothing but the best that Arran and perhaps Scotland has to offer. If you’re an ultra runner this route will not disappoint and if you want a shorter Arran test there’s the vertical and the 25km.

Organisation/Marketing: The organisation was first class, Andrew, Casey, Noreen and the rest of the team really covered everything during our time on Arran and as well as supervising the races they looked after everyone too in the pre-race and in the aftermath of cancellation. You really couldn’t have asked for any more from them.

One thing though as a thought for next year is the marketing of the event – I would love to see this grow, be a success and become a regular on the ultra calendar but I only found out about this because I saw the Rat Race version but knew I wanted a more intimate event – but I had to dig to find this event. So please get the word out as far and wide as you can because if you like a bit of bog and a bit of climbing this is the run for you!

Conclusion: I might not have finished but I had an amazing time, met some amazing people and got to run part of an amazing route. Ultra Trail Scotland deserves another crack with decent weather (or just not really shitty weather – annoyingly the weather on the days either side was pretty damn good). This is going to be a top drawer event in the future and you’re all going to want to be a part of it! As a special note I’d like to thank everyone involved for making this the most awesome and weirdest 40th birthday present I could ever have gotten for myself.

You can find out more by visiting the website ultratrailscotland.com or find them on Twitter as ‪@findadrenaline ‬

gptempdownload-20
And the rock cried out no hiding place. And it was correct, in ultra marathons there is no hiding place – especially from yourself.

The question I’m asking myself is, have I stopped hiding and am I making forward progress? Well the last six months are the first real test of that question – so how did I fare?

The 2017 halfway point: I love running, I hate running – it’s a perfect balance and 2017 has, so far, given as much as it has taken at the halfway point.

I’m not going to dwell on two DNFs (I’ve done that enough) instead I’m considering the huge positives I can take from my first six months of the year and look forward with enormous pleasure to my second six months.

The good

  • Finishing my third Vigo 10
  • Running on awesome trails in Barcelona and Madeira
  • Completing the Hockley Woods Challenge, Marlborough Downs Challenge, South Wales 50, Amersham Ultra and Escape From Meriden
  • Running the Westminster Mile twice, once with the family, once solo
  • Managing to get a medical certificate signed
  • Being told my heart is in tip top condition
  • Losing 6kg in weight
  • Deciding that, as a family, we need to move to Scotland and be closer to the mountains

The Bad

  • Failed to complete a race purchase therefore missing out on Winter Tanners
  • Let down by failing Altra Lone Peak 3.0
  • DNF at Madeira
  • DNF at Barcelona
  • Petzl head torch failure at the first time of in race usage
  • Put on 3kg in weight

The good stuff has been really, really good and the bad stuff has been a bit ‘meh’ I mean it’s not like the world caved in – it’s just running.

The South Wales 50 probably serves as the ultra highlight for me because I met two wonderful runners, had an awesome time and finished in a reasonable albeit not exceptional time. But the real highlight was having UltraBaby banging out a mile in a decent time and fully understanding the concept of racing and earning her reward – I was both a proud parent and runner at that moment.

The low point was obviously going to be Barcelona and realising I was going to have to DNF on a technicality rather than for running reasons – I was pretty furious and disappointed.

However, despite my misadventures I feel like I’m making positive progress towards my endgame and I knew before I started on this segment of the journey that failures would be fairly regular.

Perhaps my regret in my racing over the last six months is that Meriden killed off any chance I had of taking part in the South Wales 100. But this did set me up for a truly outstanding experience on the 50 with Ryan and Pete. South Wales was also a really good finishing point for the end of the first half of the year as it felt like I have properly succeeded at something and it means that mentally I go into preparations for my coming races and training with a positive attitude.

Upcoming
It’s a bit weird really, much like the start of the year I’m effectively having two months off where I can focus on training and family without the interruption of racing.

Therefore July and August will have a series of long runs on the outskirts of London and across Kent to prepare me for racing again which begins in early September with the return of the London to Brighton race.

The time off from racing will I hope get me through the summer without a case of serious dehydration or further DNFs as I found last summer and the one before to be a dreadful time for racing.

Ultimately I have reduced the amount of racing I do and I am seeing some benefits but there’s still much improvement to make, the challenge now is to improve my results in the second half of the year and continue to have a bloody good time.

Testing myself 

September London to Brighton will be a test of pace. Can I knuckle down enough to complete the 100km in under 14hrs? And can I navigate the course well enough to end up where I need to be. Given that I’ve clearly lost ‘half a yard’ to use a football reference and my navigation skills, although improving, are still not amazing, I will be very pleased to get through this unscathed. 

October Ultra Trail Scotland: Arran was the final race in my 2017 calendar to be confirmed and I can’t wait. At only 75km this should be a fairly simple test but with a little over 5,000metres of positive elevation this is set to be as brutal as the section of MIUT that I ran and anything but simple – the difference is that this will be autumnal Scotland not a pleasant spring day in Madeira. 

November The Rebellion sees me head to Wales again in November for a bit of a bimble through the hills. At 135miles this will be the longest distance I’ve tackled and I’m not intending to be quick but I’m also not planning on using the full 72hr time allocation. I signed up for this after the bitter disappointment of dropping from the SW100 to the SW50. Looking forward to this one.

December SainteLyon is my favourite race and I’ll be returning for more midnight shenanigans in Lyon. I’m sure I’ll still be a giant puddle of mess after The Rebellion but this glorious race fills me with unexplainable joy. I’m hoping to improve on my time from my first attempt but I’ll simply be pleased to returning a city and an event I really did fall in love with.

So that’s my second half of the year – four races left that cover mountains, speed, distance and love – you can’t ask for much more really.

But what about you? How has your running been so far this year? All going to plan? None of it going to plan? What’s left in the race calendar? and most importantly are you having fun? 

Happy running. 

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