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

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

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

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

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

I was fucked.

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

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

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

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

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

But no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

img_1777In times of turmoil we seek summits and points of vantage to gain clarity of vision.

When I was younger I would go to the Lake District to climb a hill and breathe clean air and give myself greater clarity. Given I didn’t drive (or ride a bike) I would often find myself in places you could reach by public transport and so Ambleside was a popular choice for a young man with a busy mind.

Roll forward a decade or two and my mind remains busy but I’ve added both a driving licence and an ability to ride a bike and so when I saw the inaugural Ambleside Trail 60 on the ultra event calendar I decided that this was for me.

The race was being organised in conjunction between the long established The Climbers Shop (find out more here) in Ambleside and charity The Brathay Trust (find out more here) – both well respected pillars of the community.

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I therefore had high expectations for the event.

When looking at the Ambleside Trail 60 on paper you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s rather easy and with a tad under 2,500metres of climb it all seemed perfectly respectable. The problem comes is that when deciding to do this I had conflated the shortness of the distance and relatively low ascent numbers to think this was going to be easy. How wrong can you be?

But anyway let me add a bit of context to proceedings – I’d had an excellent July, training had gone well and I’d come off the Ben Vorlich Ultra feeling pretty good and without injury. The truth is I’d felt so good that I’d returned to training the following day and was looking forwarding to maintaining my running mental strength by taking part in the Thieves Road Ultra. In typical fashion though disaster struck and I took a nasty tumble running up a hill and put a bloody big hole in my knee and this was supplemented by a shitty infection that I couldn’t shift. However, with August 10th approaching I knew that momentum was on my side and I’d be okay(ish) to race but it seemed my August ultra curse was set to continue and the race was cancelled due to the potential for adverse conditions.

What happened next was that race was reorganised for two weeks later, my illness got worse and on race day I spent about 8hrs on the porcelain throne. This time it was me cancelling the race and so I rolled up to the Ambleside 60 with very little training but a lot of chocolate eating done.

As I’ve said I’m a huge fan of The Lake District and Cumbria, it’s a truly spectacular place and so I was very happy to be there on a beautiful morning watching the world go by.

Strangely for an ultra it was taking place on a Sunday which meant I’d had the luxury of bimbling around the Lakes the day previously taking in the delights of Ambleside and registering with the event organisers at The Climbers Shop. Registration was both quick and easy and the lovely organisers were on hand to answer all of my ridiculous questions. I was also mightily impressed that race sponsor Rab (I assume) threw in a warm beanie which is likely to make its race debut later in the year. It was here that I bumped into Ed, a fellow competitor from Ben Vorlich and it was lovely to ‘chew the fat’ with him for a few minutes and catch up about what had happened at the race end. However, we soon parted and I found myself at a loose end but with lots of wonderful outdoor stores strewn across the town – I decide me to make hay while the sun shone. Lunch was a delicious spicy chicken baguette with a slab of honeycomb cake and this was followed by short trips to Kendal and Keswick to make the most of my stay.

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I had the luxury of having a six berth dorm room all to myself at the waterside YHA in Ambleside and I went to bed early to try and get as rested as possible. Kit was prepared, breakfast readied and I knew where I was going in the morning.

The organisers had suggested the pay & display car park in Ambleside, which given it was a few minutes from the start, made good sense. With water bottles now filled I headed to the start in Rothay Park and silently soaked up the friendly, banter atmosphere. I’ve grown rather accustomed to knowing runners at races, wherever I am, both here and abroad – so it was something of a surprise to not see any faces I knew. I wandered around a little bit before setting amongst the throng of ultra runners all keen for the start.

We were all instructed to dib our chips at the start which had been attached to us at registration. I found these mildly intrusive as they never felt very comfortable around the wrist and I fretted about them working loose and ending up in a puddle of mud somewhere on a hill. Thankfully it never did work loose but I found it uncomfortable compared to some of the alternatives that I’ve had to wear. That said the system was simple enough to use and the setup both at the start and at checkpoints was well thought out.

With an 8am start looming we were all corralled into the starting area and after a short briefing and some words of encouragement the 175(ish) runners burst forward and out of Rothay Park and into the wilderness. It’s fair to say that a number of ‘trail’ races that I’ve been part of have actually had quite significant amounts of road or tarmac involved but this experience was very different. From the near outset there was trail and nature surrounding the runners.

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As we wound our way through the first few kilometres it was clear that this was going to be s tougher day than I had originally imagined and as I looked down at my faithful Suunto I could see the elevation metres quickly stacking up. Those first few miles were easily the simplest on the route and with excellent route marking even I couldn’t go wrong. We wended our way through the variety of trails, up and down hills and along some of England’s finest scenery. For the most part I was making good time against the other runners – using my preferred tactic of ‘go as fast as you cN for as long as you can and then death march it in’. I made sure I was taking on board regular fluids and even a little food from early in proceedings as this would ensure I could still take on everything late in the event. I topped up my intake with some Active Root, which is about the only electrolyte style supplement I can stomach, and this kept me level and stopped significant dips – something to consider if you’re running well.

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I ran the first 15km pretty consistently and covered around 600 metres of climb – despite the recent rains the ground was in good condition and the route was runnable. Although I had poles with me I had decided that I would refrain from their use until I really needed them and despite the ascents I didn’t feel I needed them in the firs quarter of the event. The views were delightful and this was very much The Lake District of my youth – some places dragged up long forgotten memories and it was a very pleasant experience. It was here that I met Deborah – about 2.5 miles from the first checkpoint. We chatted for a while, as we bounded forward and this was such a pleasant experience that I barely noticed the run into the checkpoint.

Checkpoint one was brilliant with the marshalling team all dressed as chefs with big chef hats, the team were incredibly well drilled – timer, water, food, out, out, out! I was very impressed with the team and the organisation of the event on the whole, if I were to take a guess this was not their first rodeo. The quality of the food on offer was brilliant and as I left the checkpoint I felt buoyed by the energy the team have thrust upon me. In the distance I could see Deborah disappearing and continued my journey alone.

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The second section was going to be tougher with the first 600 metres climbed this meant that there was still around 1700 metres to climb and around a marathon to do it in. 2 hours down – 12 hours to go. I knew that the first significant climb was soon to be upon us and in the distance twinkling like little neon and Lycra clad stars were a succession of slow moving runners as the route moved up a gear in toughness.

It was now that the route threw challenge after challenge at us, the trail had moved from being mostly runnable to being filled with big lumpy rocks, it was wet underfoot and it changed from soaking to dry making your shoe choice irrelevant in the face of the varying conditions. I threw open my poles for the first time and began the slow journey upwards, happy in the knowledge that I had built up a reserve of time in the early stages of the race. However, as I looked ever upwards it was with a deep sense of foreboding – this was the first and easiest ascent and it was far from easy.

I decided that given I still had some strength in my legs I would do the climb in bursts and so would have a short stop and then powered up the next couple of hundred metres, stop and repeat. This technique helps me with the fatigue my legs get from the constant ball achingly monotonous striding of hiking up the hills (something I knew I would be forced into later in the day). My lack of training in the last month and the over eating was also playing a significant part now in my performance – runners were passing me as I struggled with the up hills and the beating my feet were now taking. However, I knew that on the downhill as long as the path was relatively runnable I would be able to make up some ground. Where some runners are guarded about running downhill too quickly for fear of a fall I am usually pretty surefooted and confident in my own ability. Therefore once the peak was reached I felt that I had little choice but to open up the taps a bit and go for it.

 

My descent was as quick as my ascent was slow and I found myself able to catch some of the runners that had managed to overtake me and I felt with nearly 1,000 metres of ascent done and about 20km in distance done I was feeling confident and then the ridiculous kicked in – I slipped. Bang down – on my back, on my arse, on all my weakest points. The two young runners ahead of me turned and shouted to find out if I was okay and I waved them on but I was far from alright. My back, which is troubling at the best of times, had shooting pain running through it and I had cut my hand open in several places and was bleeding. I picked my muddy form off the floor and cursed my own stupidity – I ran down to the little stream and put my buff in the water and wrapped it around my hand attempting to soak up the blood. I had been very lucky, within a few minutes the bleeding had stopped and I managed to clean up the various gashes that now covered my left hand – the realisation was dawning upon me that this route was going to give me a good kicking before it was finished.

I pushed onwards through the next few kilometres, slowing a little to account for the worsening running conditions, the rocky terrain became incredibly hard going and in my opinion it felt more like fell running than it did ultra trail running but it all added to the complexity of the challenge of finishing. I finally reached the halfway point and was greeted by the most welcoming committee of marshals, supporters and runners. Given I was so far from the lead it was no surprise to see my fellow racers in various states of distress, I grabbed a bit of grass and threw my bag to floor and motored over to the food table and stuffed my face with the delicious sausage rolls with the amazing pastry (I’m going to assume veggie but don’t want to know as they were so delicious it would disappoint me to know I’d been eating something mildly healthy). I drank as much tea as I could handle, grabbed a bit of soft chewy cake, filled my water bottles and then followed the other runners out of the checkpoint.

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It was here that I would make the relationship that would see me cross the finish line, though it did not begin well but I’ll get to that later.

From CP2 we were presented with a climb up Stake Pass, a beautiful climb and no mistake but a technical, rocky ascent that required maximum concentration all the way and its windy nature meant that you felt progress was even slower than it actually was. I used my brutish bursts of power to push myself up the pass and once more in the distance before and ahead of me I could see the swathes of runners slowly climbing to the summit. I kept telling myself that this is something I enjoy when moments of doubt would creep into my thinking but the reality was that my feet were burning from the damage that rocks underfoot where doing.

My feet are brittle at the best of times but the damp conditions coupled with the rocks were crippling me, the only plus I could find was that my Lone Peaks combined with Injinji liner and Drymax socks and my beloved Dirty Girls Gaiters were working overtime in protecting me from the worst of the route.

About halfway up local legend Keith passed me with his wonderfully consistent pace and all I could do when he went beyond me asking, ‘alright?’ I responded with, ‘had better days’ but Keith may have misinterpreted my joke for sincere annoyance and he simply shrugged his shoulder and pushed on. I thought nothing more of it really but like the cut of his pace and thought if I could keep up with him I might well be alright – but he, like many before, was soon gone.

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I retreated the comfort of the nearest rock I could find and grabbed some food from my race vest and looked longingly into the middle distance as dark and detrimental thoughts crept across my furrowed brow. ‘More than halfway’ I thought, ‘but my feet are bruised to buggery, my race vest is heavy and worse than that my back and arm was on fire from injuries both old and new’. However, the sight of runners closing in on me made me get off my backside and hurl myself up the hill and eventually I made it to the summit. I could see some of the runners who had made it past me and so I picked Keith as my target – if I could catch him before the arrival of the next checkpoint I would continue.

The route off the pass was as unrunnable as the route up with rocks jutting up from every angle and care required about just where the hell you were putting your feet. If you were less cautious you might have avoided the path  and run straight down the hill – but given I had no idea where I was or how far behind the next runner was – I did not fancy falling off Stake Pass. With all due care I made it to the bottom and leapt through the thick nasty smelling mud and crossing streams with all haste attempting to keep my feet as dry as possible. In the distance I could hear the clatter of Keith’s running poles and I realised I was catching him – having a target to aim for had made the journey much more focused and much easier and as I caught him I opened with the much cheerier line, ‘I’ve been chasing you down for ages – thanks for the incentive’ and from here a new race friendship was forged.

Keith was a bit of a running veteran and with 20 more years on the clock the than me he had well earned the right to legend status. He strode purposefully through the route, questioning the runability of some of the course but all the time remaining strong in his continuous push forward – I like Keith very much and over the next few miles we got to chatting and getting to know one another a little. But as is the rule in ultra marathons you run your own race and he reminded me of this several times as he suggested I not wait for him or that he would be waiting long for me. However, we were both moving at about the same speed ad so it turned out neither of us could shake the other one.

Something I was very glad of.

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The road to CP3 was hard and long, we had come off the hill and now it was just finding the checkpoint, hoping that we would make the cut-off and then pushing through as fast as we could up the biggest ascent on the course – Lining Crag. While we both looked and probably felt a bit shitty we both also seemed to gain a newfound mental strength from each other – I certainly did from him and when I started to leave CP3 Keith joined me for some further adventuring.

The strange thing was that despite our low speed we were starting to catch people again and in the close distance we could see runners who had long left me behind and, though I shouldn’t, I was buoyed by seeing other runners finding this a challenge or perhaps I was simply developing a second wind that might carry over the Crag.

Sadly my second wind was very short lived and as I began the ascent I felt every bone in my body scream for mercy, even with the first few hundred metres being relatively gentle this was a climb of false summits and false hope.

One of the great things about Keith was his wide and varied local knowledge, this meant that he was able to be accurate in his assessment of our situation, so when we approached the scramble up to the crag I knew that this was not the summit and that there were further smaller climbs to come. The scramble was actually surprisingly simple and the change of pace on the legs was welcome, I enjoy scrambling although I don’t do it very often as I am terrified of heights. So I finally reached the safety of solid ground that wasn’t going to try and kill me I was very grateful. We  made good time as we crossed the high ground and started to overtake people again and other runners came past us as they picked the pace up a little. On reflection it was nice to know that we were still in a race, often at these type of events you’ll find yourself alone for hours and hours and not knowing where in the race you are, here the numbers were just right to be able to have significant time alone but also know that you could still catch someone.

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We knew that the final checkpoint was at about 53km in and so it was with a little dismay that the ascent to the top of the crag had pushed us forward a mere 2km of the 12km we needed to run. Running remained hard going over the rocky paths and went as fast and securely as we could but both Keith and I were losing our footing at regular intervals and many of the runners had soggy bottoms but perhaps none got the soggy bottom in the way I did.

While crossing a boggy path I lost my footing and into the mid thigh depth mud my leg went, the trouble was that my other leg followed me in and as I fell in my whole body lurched backward in some attempt to create the muddy equivalent of a snow fairy. Keith turned to face me, barely disguising his amusement at the predicament that I found myself in. I managed to stand in the mud and could feel the vacuum attempting to suck my shoes in but I carefully extracted one leg and then the other with no significant loss.  I was caked in mud from head to toe but I had clearly picked the right kit for the event and my wonderful new Runderwear long boxer shorts and Raidlight Freetrail shorts soon dried off and despite being in 3 foot of wet, shitty mud my feet remained warm and toasty.

After picking myself up we headed along the remainder of the route down to Grasmere with little further incident, but we were aware that the final climb and descent had taken much, much longer than anticipated and I was keen to finish as I still had hours in the car driving back to Scotland.

I noticed that both Keith and I were rather quiet as we landed in Grasmere, tiredness was clearly playing a part but seeing the race organisers at the final checkpoint gave us a bit of a life and knowing that we were less than 10km from the finish was the mental nourishment we needed.

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We had been quite quick in the checkpoints up until this point but we stayed a little longer in Grasmere as Keith knew both of the guys from The Climbers Shop (I’m going to go with Mike and Gill but could be wrong). Gill had been at the registration and she clearly remembered my idiotic face from the previous day and the warmth with which I was greeted felt genuine and heartfelt and for that I was very grateful. They tried to stuff our faces with all manner of food and drink but we were so close to the finish that I actually wanted just my water filled and then off and the guys obliged.

Keith and I were very keen to see off the race before the dark became impenetrable and with all the speed we could muster we set out from Grasmere. This final section had a few light climbs on it but it was mainly tarmac that we were following and there was nothing to concern ourselves with – I seem to recall that we spent most of the time on these final few miles being rather jolly and looking forward to food, drinks, showers and in Keith’s case being reunited with his wife and the lovely Border Colllies.

I remember Keith commenting that at this point he had one speed and although I had recovered a little bit and probably could have run this final section I had no desire to leave my companion behind and in truth I’d have only managed to get about a dozen metres ahead before he would have reeled me in again. Meeting Keith made the experience of the Ambleside 60 much more pleasant than it looked like it might have been given the struggles I know he played a huge part in me finishing on Sunday.

We rolled up to Rothay Park and the dark had finally arrived, we thanked the marshalling staff at the final corner and as is my way I tried to have a cheery word/joke and thank you for the guys who were stood there waiting in the cold ensuring that we didn’t take a wrong turn at the final point. In the dim distance I could make out the large finish line inflatable and in front of it were two dibbing points so that we could get a final time. It took me an age to get my bloody dibber in but once I did we were ushered into a tent and given medals, beer and times.

Keith’s wife was there with the dogs and I joined them briefly to thank him and to thank his wife for loaning me such a wonderful gentleman for the day.

We had made it, I had made it.

Overview
Distance: 60km
Cost: £65
Location: Ambleside
Date: September 2019
Tough Rating: 3.5/5

Route
What they said about the route…

starting from Rothay Park, the Ambleside Trail 60 is a 60km loop made up of some iconic Lake District running. From the park, participants will make their way up and over Loughrigg towards Skelwith Bridge, Tarn Hows and from there onwards towards Coniston. Before reaching Coniston, the route climbs above Coniston Coppermine and toward Lad Stones. Continuing onward, the route makes its way to Little Langdale and after a short but punchy climb reaches Blea Tarn. Runners then make their way up Stake Pass and then follow the Langstrath Beck before climbing back up Lining Crag, the biggest climb on the course. Runners descend into Grasmere and slowly wind their way back toward Ambleside..

I’ve run over 50 ultra marathons and I’ve run across some of the toughest trails in the crappiest conditions and I can honestly say that the route of the Ambleside 60km was a bit of a terror. I mentioned earlier that this felt more like an ultra distance fell race than a trail race. Although the path was defined it was, in parts, brutal – despite the shortness of the distance this was a route that really threw everything at you and there was a procession of the walking wounded on the course as the Ambleside 60 took no prisoners.

This is not a route for the inexperienced and had the weather conditions been worse then this would really have given the competitors a challenge that even more might not have finished. What I will say though is that the Ambleside 60 route gave so much back in views and beauty that you really can’t complain about the temporary pain inflicted by the course.

The climbs were tough, the variety was welcome and the route marking was exceptional – just a few less rocky roads would have made this a more complete running experience. Don’t misunderstand me though this was a brilliant route and I feel fortunate to have seen parts of the Lake District that only become accessible if you are willing to put the effort in. The highlight of the route for me was the second climb up Stake Pass, which as well as being as tough old boots, had the wonderful sound of gushing water on both sides of the pass, it had majesty all around it and there was a eeriness about it as you could see nothing of modern life as far as the eye could see – wonderful.

So, perhaps a few little tweaks to make sure that this doesn’t become an ‘only suitable for the mountain goats’ and the route cold be a real winner for everyone wanting to take part.

Organisation
The organisation was 100% top notch, from registration to the near army of marshals that were posted on the course – this was some of the best organisation I have ever seen. The route marking for the most part was fantastic, the little map we received at the start was perfect as a guide and the pre and post race information was concise and informative. A huge thank you should go to all the organisers and especially the marshalling and medical staff who offered friendly faces all over the day. Races like this do not happen without the support of lots of people behind the scenes – and it was clear that the work they had put in here had really paid off.

Kit
I go mountain running most weekends and I go hill running after work and I know what kit I need to carry with me, I know how to be safe in the mountains and in adverse weather conditions and to that end I felt that the mandatory kit list was a little over complicated. I understand completely that safety comes first and that not all runners are experienced in the hills but there does need to be a balance. I did note that a number of the runners had very small amounts of kit with them and you had to wonder how where they fitting all the mandatory kit into such a small space?

Given my back issues carrying all the required kit was always going to be one of the main challenges I faced during the Ambleside 60 and I have a preference to carry specific things that help my individual race needs. For example I have my ridiculously weak feet so spare socks are a must and I’m known to take a picture or two so spare battery is also an essential. But rules are rules and it is important that we all adhere to them – they are designed to ensure your safety isn’t compromised, might just be worth looking next year about a little more flexibility between the mandatory and recommended kit.

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Goodies
Having great sponsors like Rab and Ultimate Directions mean that sometimes there are excellent goodies and this time there was a delightful Rab beanie available pre-race and post race there was some Hawkshead Brewery beer, which if you’re a beer drinker is a great reward for a job well done – obviously as a teetotaller the beer is less relevant to me but I know someone who’ll drink it for me. The medal was nice and understated, which seemed very much in keeping with the whole ethos of the event and I appreciated that. I wore my medal proudly all the way home to Scotland and as I crawled up the stairs to my bedroom upon returning home I made sure that it took its rightful place with its brother and sister medals at the top of the stairs.

Value
I’ve said it before and I’ll repeat it, the value for money aspect is very much down to personal opinion about your experience. I very much believe that the Ambleside 60 was excellent value for money at £65 and to be fair if you’d charged a little more it would still have represented good value for money. The little goodies, the excellent event staff, the support both before and after, the photography and the challenge of the event itself mean that you have to say you really did get bang for your buck. Some people might bemoan the lack of race T-shirt but the truth is I would rather have had the beanie – it’s always nice to get something useful that most races don’t think about.

Special Mentions
I owe this finish to Keith – I would not have made it without you. Thank you.

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Conclusion
Is this a great race? Not yet.

Does this have the potential to be a great race? Oh yes!

2019 as its inaugural running was a damn fine event, it gave the best views of Ambleside and its surrounds that I’ve ever had the honour of laying my eyes on. The Ambleside 60 has much to recommend it and if you’re lucky enough to have a clear day as we did then you’ll bear witness to a visual treat. The medal for this one really  is worth earning and you will feel like you have accomplished something truly spectacular when, or perhaps more appropriately, if you cross the finishing line. The organisation of the race, for me, makes this one stand out in the memory too – there was genuine care for the runners and that should be recognised, nobody got anything less than 100% from the excellent team.

However, this isn’t perfect I’ve mentioned that it felt like a long distance fell run in places and the course was incredibly hard going at times, even in good conditions. I genuinely believe more responsibility should be on the individual regarding kit choices and I’d probably prefer to see the race run on a Saturday to give runners the Sunday and a chance to rest for their weary bones before a return to grindstone of work on a Monday (I found the drive back to Scotland really tough and Monday was weird in the office). However, if nothing changed, if the race came back next year in exactly the same format would I run it again? The answer is 100% yes, there is something special about the Ambleside 60 and it deserves its soon to be well established reputation as a tough as old boots brilliant ultra marathon.

So if you’ve read this and thought, he sounds likes you had a horrible time, then you’ve misunderstood me, there was no misery for me just a real ball busting challenge – which is primarily what I look for in an ultra marathon and if it is what you look for then you’re going to have a mighty fine time.

Check out the race details here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

I’ve failed to finish a few ultras – a couple through injury and a couple through stupidity but the thing that has cost me most is my ability, or rather lack thereof, to run in the heat and my ability to sweat like a national champion.

Even on the occasions where I have raced and run in the sun I’ve really struggled – the Folkestone 10km, Bedgebury 10km and the Vanguard Way Marathon. The latter is a prime example of how badly things can go, although I was running with water it was a boiling hot day and the organisers ran out of fluids of any sort at the half way point. At mile 16 I was pretty delusional and heat exhaustion had consumed me – in my own minds befuddlement i could tell I was in a dangerous situation but to my surprise I finished. In the aftermath I remember placing a McDonalds chocolate milkshake on either side of my head to cool myself. Yummy.

These were the experiences that I both survived and finished. However, there were races, mostly ultra marathons that occurred in the heat of the August sunshine where I simply had to give up.

My most memorable failure was probably the Ridgeway Challenge, which when I ran it, was held on a muggy late August afternoon and even before the event had begun I was feeling the effects of the heat. I had my head covered, fully sun creamed up, fully hydrated, fully lubricated and ready to go but within a few short miles I was already struggling.

When I was around 55 miles in I found myself stood atop a hill with my running tights around my ankles and attempting to stop the terrible burning that radiated around my nut sack. I put the family jewels inside a buff and I put tissues inside my Runderwear to stop any further rubbing of my red raw and sweating skin.

I soon crawled into a late night and windy checkpoint and stopped running – I could simply go no further.

This experience was not the only time an August ultra marathon has given me a kicking but after not racing during the summer months for the last couple of years I’ve decided that a move to Scotland may make the possiblity of completing an August ultra marathon a reality.

After completing the Ben Vorlich Ultra on Sunday in warm, but not sweltering, conditions I have begun to feel a little more confident about getting this hoodoo dealt with.

Therefore, I have decided to attend the inaugural Thieves Road Ultra from BaM Racing on August 10th as this seems like a decent opportunity. It will be 40 miles (ish) across the Pentlands and surrounds and will provide a strong test of distance and temperature and while I’m looking forward to it I also have to remember my failings at this time of year.

There are other things that I will be doing during the Thieves Road that I normally reserve for the continental ultras I have participated in and hopefully these little changes will have a big impact.

  • Using my baggier Raidlight shorts instead of my usual OMM Flash tights – this will hopefully pass greater breeze through the undercarriage to keep things cooler
  • A single pair of thinner Drymax socks rather than my preferred Injinji toe liner and Drymax trail sock. This will heopfully stop my feet overheating, which has been an issue that causes huge discomfort during events.
  • A lighter weight race vest with a lower load – I’ve been working down the weight of the contents of my race vest, looking to take only the kit required. The problem with being a middle to back of the pack runner is that there is often a need to have a little more kit. However, I’ve recently acquired the Raidlight Revolutiv 12 which I ran with for the first time at the Ben Vorlich Ultra and found that I was happy to run with a lower load and also found that I ddin’t sweat across my back as much with this race vest on.
  • A sahara style cap – I’m a big fan of a Buff visor but the cover it provides is not quite enough for the sweltering heat and retaining a cool head is key to finishing ultra distance races.
  • Reliable consumption of fluid – the new race vest has a minimum capacity of 1.5litres of fluid upfront and I during my latest adventure I found myself

These things combined with all my usual preparations will hopefully finally see me deliver an August medal. Fingers crossed and if anybody has any advice on how to deal with the heat, chaffing, heat stroke and  exhaustion, etc then I would be very happy to hear your tips.

I’d signed up to the Ben Vorlich Ultra on the back of my entry the Ochil Ultra (also organised by Wee Run Events) and to be fair had not really done much research – but I knew that it ran up a mountain I had been keen to climb and when you combine this with a bit of running then how could you possibly go wrong?

I drove down to the Cultybraggan Camp from sunny Polmont to ensure I left the start line at the earliest possible time – so it was an early kick off. Thankfully the roads were clear and I’d gotten up in time to get ready properly and have breakfast – something that often eludes me pre-race and I always pay the price for it later. Sadly my early morning coffee had not worked other things loose so that might become a problem later in the race (but I did have my tissues with me).

Preparations had been somewhat disrupted that weekend by the GingaNinja having to work late on Friday night, my daughter spending the rest of Friday evening puking her guts up and my Saturday being taken up by the purchase and installation of a treadmil in my garage.

Still it was now Sunday morning and I had arrived, registration was swift and clear –  my number, tracker and  timing band were handed over. There were decent facilities at Cultybraggan Camp  (including what looked like the option of showers). The weather was reasonable, so as a consequence the runners were milling around the starting point rather than being huddled in vehicles or hiding in the registration hut.

The race should have kicked out at 7am, with the runners being allowed to leave anytime after this point – the only stipulation being that you were finished by 10pm – there was small delay to sending us out but nothing significant and with the shout ‘Go!’ we were sent on our merry way.

I felt that the pace of the runners ahead of me was going to be significantly faster than I, and I was right. A lack of training, fitness and being overweight meant that I was going to drop back pretty quickly, however, I didn’t really consider this a problem as I knew that my participation was more about completing the event than trying to get a decent time.

The route headed out of Cultybraggan and towards Comrie along a deep dark path along the River Earn – there were lovely tree roots everywhere, there was mud and there was waist high grass, stinging nettles and thorns that on a wet day would give you some strife. I bounded along the route here thinking that if the entire route was like this then we’d be in for a really good time. This lasted for a couple of miles before arring at the delightful, chocolate box town of Comrie, at 7.30 in the morning Comrie was a sleepy village with a few dog walkers out but later in the day the GingaNinja informed me that it very much became a hotbed of English tourists visiting the area – presumably to taste what she described as he best fish and chips she had ever had.

I digress.

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The route wound its way towards Loch Earn via an old railway line, much of which, for the first half, has been transformed to what can only be described as excellent cycle paths, while the back end is a little more hard packed trail but ultimately both sections were very runnable.

I found myself making rather better time than I imagined I was going to given that my longest run since returning to running has been 19km. Although I was near the back of the pack I really did not mind – I was enjoying the moderate solitude of the event and the surrounds were truly stunning and as I hadn’t been to the Trossachs before I considered this a real opportunity.

I bimbled along the route until arriving into the first checkpoint where I was greeted by some of the lovely race volunteers – water, timing point and importantly a toilet where on offer and I was grateful for the water as my own supply was being quickly exhausted by the conditions which felt a little muggy on this side of the loch (and I do poorly once conditions warm up)!

After a lovely little chat with the checkpoint team I headed out again with a greater understanding of the task at hand. Having trundled along one side of Loch Earn it was now time to travel the opposite side and head to the finish – with just the small matter of Ben Vorlich to negotiate.

Where the first section had been the old converted railway line, this track was the road that ran alongside the loch. Even though it was festooned with signs saying this was ‘walker and cyclist friendly’ I was unconvinced and therefore happy, whenever I met a vehicular foe, to step aside into the undergrowth to allow them to pass. This slowed my progress to the climb and had I been either braver or faster I would probably have made life a little tighter for the drivers, but I’m not, so I didn’t.

There was a gentle breeze around the water which made for pleasant running but still I was hugely grateful to see the checkpoint and my drop bag full of goodies. I helped myself to two chocolate milkshakes, a curry pie and a caramel Freddo (yes I know how to live it up) and also caught up with Ed who was looking for his first ultra finish.

He asked, ‘still going up?’

To which my reply was, ‘of course’.

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It was at this point that the race leader flew into the checkpoint and I felt that actually I must be doing okay as he was only an up and down faster than I was! and so with a cheery wave to the volunteers I headed up – little knowing what was awaiting me.

How much I regretted that decision on the way up – but I wasn’t to fully appreciate that until about 20 minutes into my ascent as realisation crept across my brow. As I started my ascent I noted the succession of runners all making their way down, all looking strong, all contenders for the lead if truth be told, whereas I looked out of place and exhausted – but regardless I moved relentlessly forward.

I had also noted that some of the runners where choosing to use poles – something that I had considered but then given I came to Scotland to learn how to race up mountains without poles it seemed silly to use them here, as this was a genuine test of my training in the nearby home hills. However, as I passed the RD by the side of the path, counting us on the mountain and off it, I regretted my poles decision but, I put in all the effort I could and even when the weather started to close in I simply put on my jacket and dug in.

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The path up Ben Vorlich is clear and easy to follow but it’s rocky, technically demanding and unrelentingly steep with a number of little false summits that lull you into a false sense of completion.

I lumbered my way up and around the loose rock, bruising the underside of my feet as I leaped over sections of tricky wet rock and landing upon sharp jagged stones. As each metre was added to my Suunto ascent total I knew I was slowly nearing the top and as the final peak to the top of the Ben presented itself I pushed hard into the mist – determined to make it.

Being scared of heights made this all the more terrifying at the final moment and I bent down to hands and knees as I thundered that final 10 metres of climb to touch the trig point and grab some photographs. I probably spent 10 minutes up there admiring the view before I remembered this was a race and quickly set off. I say quickly but when you look down from Ben Vorlich you realise just how steep it is and you are forced to slow down. Here I saw Ed for what would be the final time and for the first time I realised that if I wanted to finish anything other than last I would have to move quicker.

 

Once clear of the most severe of the descent I pressed harder down the hill, throwing myself at the rocks and refusing to slow until I saw the RD once more. ‘Alright?’ he said. ‘Got what I came for,’ I replied, ‘to climb Ben Vorlich’ and with that I said goodbye and pressed downwards to the checkpoint once more. My legs were like jelly when I hit the bottom but despite this I offered two young ladies (I’ll assume related to the marshalls) a race back to the checkpoint – which while a physical mistake was a brilliant boost mentally.

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I spent a few minutes with the checkpoint guys, again – properly awesome – and then kicked on knowing that the Ben Vorlich Ultra, for me, had gone from a test of the physical to a test of mental strength. My legs were battered to pieces but I knew they would make it – the problem was going to be knowing that I would be retracing my steps back to the finish and knowing that I had finished with the superb views of mountains. However, there was still the remainder of Loch Earn to negotiate and given how my body was feeling this too was going to be testing. I walked a couple of those road kilometres to try and reduce the effect on my back, hip flexor, right calf and bowels but when I got back to the turn for home I knew I had to start running again.

Thankfully it was about here that the rain kicks in properly and I felt quite content jumping back into my beloved Montane Minimus and I adopted the faithful run/walk strategy through the next 12km or so and it wasn’t until I knew I was in the home strait that I was willing to open the taps a little more and on the old railway I began to run. I smiled as I passed through Comrie and I upped the pace a little further through the trails, refusing to slow even when the waist high grass soaked my feet – I could smell home or so I thought.

The GPS route shouted at me, ‘you’re here’ but as I looked around I can assure you I wasn’t! Frantic I looked round for a sign, it looked so familiar but I was in meltdown – I called the GingaNinja and said, ‘I’m at Cultybraggan Farm but I don’t know where…’ and as I turned round I saw the old barracks in the distance. I’ll be honest I let out a little tear and then put my foot on the accelerator – I ran to the gates and saw my daughter waiting at the far end. I dare not disappoint and so I gave it all I had as she gave some welly to the cow bells.

As I approached ASK she asked to run those final few metres with me and so as a family we all crossed the line. Awesome. Never have I been so happy to finish a race.

Damn good but brutal fun.

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Key points

  • Distance: 60km (ish)
  • Profile: Deceptive and killer
  • Date: July 2019
  • Location: Loch Earn
  • Cost: £55
  • Terrain: Very Mixed
  • Tough Rating: 2.5/5

Route
This is an odd one as I really hate tarmac and there was a decent amount of tarmac here but there was also a decent amount of trail, the views for the most part were spectacular and the route would cover most bases for all but the most dogmatic of trail runners. Therefore I have to say I really, genuinely enjoyed it.

Obviously I was there for Ben Vorlich itself and so the low road that ignored it would not have interested me as much but the going up the mountain really makes this a race to do. That said the route without the mountain climb would make for a really good and fast short distance ultra with only a few hundred metres of climb across the 50km. Ultimately the route has a little bit of something for everyone. I’d say if you’re looking to move up from marathon then the 50km is ace, if you like a bit of tough as old boots climbing then the 60km will test you and if you like something else we’ll you’ll probably enjoy it anyway.

Organisation
I was supposed to run the Ochil Ultra last year with Wee Run Events but given I was moving up to Scotland that day I had to DNS. Therefore I was very much looking forward to meeting the guys as I’d heard the Ochils was a really nice, well organised event. It’s worth taking into account this was a first running of the Ben Vorlich Ultra and as an inaugural event though you expect the team to be ironing things out a little as they find their feet but actually it all seemed pretty smooth – yes there was a minor delay in setting off but this served only to make sure that as many people as possible set off together. The checkpoints were sound and there was water at every stop – what more do you need? The route signage was really good, the marshals were all brilliant, the supplied map was okay, there was tracking and a timing chip and most importantly there was a good base camp which meant your supporters didn’t have to freeze to death. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can bestow is that the RDs looked very much liked they cared about the race and the runners.

Awards
Nicely designed vest (would love a technical version of it, even if this was a race extra) and a cute bespoke wooden medal which was really nice. All the Scottish races I’ve done so far have avoided too many frills and this was no exception the focus has instead been on a couple of really nice items rather than lots of rubbish.

Value for Money
This is always very subjective but the Ben Vorlich Ultra was well organised and well executed. The bespoke medal, cheery volunteers and live tracking, for me, ensure this is well on the right side of good value. As runners you don’t always get to see how much hard work goes on behind the scenes but these guys earned much kudos and I have no hesitation in saying you’d feel it was money well spent if you signed up for the 2020 edition of the Ben Vorlich Ultra.

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Conclusion
Interesting route, great mountain to climb and a lovely medal for completing a tough ultra at the shorter end of the distances we run. Don’t be fooled though and do not underestimate the challenge of Ben Vorlich on the high or the low route as it will give you a kicking if you fail to show respect. The organising team and the volunteers were fabulous on the day and deserve a lot of credit for making it a smooth and enjoyable experience.

I had my issues on the day such as a lack of fitness and a tummy that has been giving me some grief recently (and a rusty bullet hole post race that is so hot I dare not go near it) but that has nothing to do with my conclusions about the race I just wanted to ensure that you, dear reader, understand that despite my relative lack of action both in running and blogging I’ll never forget to add a bit of poo to a race tale.

On a more serious note there are improvements that could be made – a bit more trail running on the route in the second half would make it easier on jelly legs and perhaps an FAQ section on the website to answer questions like, ‘can you use poles?’

Both of these I feel would elevate a really good race to an unmissable race. However, take nothing away from this event it was brilliant and it’s small tweaks rather than significant change that I feel would benefit everyone. The one significant change I might consider would be a single start time – I do like the starting with everyone else and think it might make it easier logistically for the race team but then I can see the flip side that it’s not a massive distance and so you are enabling runners from further afield to attend.

Ultimately I’d give this a go, it’s an unusual ultra but all the better for defying expectations and if I can offer one recommendation and that is I’d always take the high road – it really is worth it. And if it’s any measure of how much I enjoyed it, yes I would certainly go again.

You can find out more at benvorlichultra.run

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I’ve long come to terms with the fact I’m not just a terrible runner but a terrible ultra runner – even after half a century of completed ultra events I still find them hard and I still fail at them more than I would like.

With that in mind I had entered the Nocturnal Ultra and had decided to try and squeeze a post marathon distance in with just 6 hours available on the clock.

But lets roll back a week to the previous Saturday when I was full of delirium, cold and with a huge desire to hide inside a big fluffy blanket, running was the last thing on my mind. However, with the last few months having been so hectic I find ultra racing to be a bit of therapy and also provides the necessary bolt right up my arse that will set me up for exhausting period known as the final push up to Scotland.

And so I did no running in the two weeks before the event, instead each night I wrapped up in my big hoody and a waterproof jacket and went walking for an hour or more after work. And so when Saturday came I felt reasonable albeit with even less training done than normal in running terms.

Because the race started at 4pm I didn’t start my kit check and pack until about 11am on the Saturday and there was also a decent soak in the bath to have. Unfortunately there also the worst case of the pre-race shits too – could it have been the large quantity of houmous I had eaten less than 18 hours earlier? Perhaps.

Anyway a series of delays meant that I didn’t set off for the race until quite late and I was clearly rushing down the motorway rather than taking my preferred relaxed bimble. I had largely been hoping to arrive early so that I could avoid the second car park which I knew was going to be in a field of some description and my driving skill is not really that good and I was worried about getting in and getting out of said field. None of my fears were put to bed as I slid the little car around the wet grass attempting not to kill any of the very helpful marshals.

Thankfully with a minimum of fuss I managed to park up and grab my kit – only loosely concerned that the race was starting in 45 minutes and I was still in civilian dress and my kit was spread across a couple of drop bags.

Bugger.

I had never been to Fox Lake before and was surprised by just how much opportunity there was for outdoor fun both on and off water and I suspect I’ll be returning in a non-ultra runner capacity in the future. However, what is more important was that I made the tent for the pickup of my number with more than enough time and the process was both quick and painless. There was also a good number of marshals directing runners and supporters around the race village.

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Perhaps the only real problem of the race village is also one of the main benefits – the fixed Fox Lake facilities are fixed and there isn’t that much room to expand them and the amount of runners in the available space was quite a lot. But the benefits are that there was lots of cover and there were changing cubicles and showers and good food facilities. It’s a difficult balance to get right and the organisers gave a strong showing in moving runners around and getting them to the right place.

I slipped into the aforementioned changing cubicles and found myself hurriedly getting ready – probably a bit too hurriedly and when I strapped myself into my UD PB3.0 I realised I had packed it rather uncomfortably. Still with time against me I’d just have to adjust myself once we had set off – it wasn’t like I was aiming for the win.

There was a very full race briefing prior to the off and then the start line filled up with runners of all types. Seconds later we were off and into the beginnings of night – this was going to be an interesting event.

Much like myself many runners had decided to not run with a headtorch for the first lap presumably in an effort to conserve battery power and also to limit the effects of the tunnel vision that can occur when using a headtorch for extended periods. And in truth there was just about enough light to get us round the first fifteen minutes but when I reached the halfway point of the first loop I pressed the on switch – it was too dark too continue without light.

The lap that would make up the next six hours of my life was really quite pleasant and surprisingly varied, it was all very in and out of tree lined trails with a good dollop of slick mud that was only going to get more wretched the more the runners passed through it. The weather had been mostly unkind in the days leading up to the race but on Saturday the lords of wind and rain had decided to have the day off and so we were left with delightful evening running conditions.

I’m sure I was not the only one grateful that the heavier conditions would only come from the thousands of footprints that would litter the course and not from more wind and rain.

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The route started out nice and dry on good gravel track before sending you through a multi-coloured and illuminated forest section. The switchback then thrust you through a short downhill and along a faster straight section to the only real uphill before you hit the mile of mud as I came to know it. However, once you were clear of this it was mostly a straight run home and into the next lap. Although I shared the same thought of other runners that the final stretch back up to the start point felt much longer than the 800 metres suggested.

I was in good form and ran the first lap faster than I anticipated – very much getting caught up in the excitement of my fellow runners but also probably pacing myself against the relay runners – which is never a very smart idea.

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I had decided that I would stop on each lap and fill up on both Active Root – a drink that I knew wasn’t going to upset my stomach after my experience of it at Jedburgh – and the  Lucozade in my drop bag (which I was jealous of in Neil MacRitchies arsenal at the Tweed Valley Ultra a couple of weeks earlier).

I was being strict in my timings as I knew that I needed 9 laps for the ultra distance and to say that my second and third lap were ‘shit’ would be offensive to the word ‘shit’. Perhaps this is where the idea that I’m a rubbish runner comes from and therefore in my head I knew that I cold’t make it, I was doing the maths in my head – I’m going too slow.

Lap 4 came and went and I had managed to pick my feet up a little and I was taking Active Root on board like it was crack cocaine but I was so behind time that I’d be lucky to hit 7 laps within the time – not even the sound of the music barn was enough to get me going fast enough to put me on time.

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Bob Marshall Photos

I needed some incentive.

At the start of the next I called my daughter and when she asked where I was I replied, ‘I’m in a race.’ Such is the innocence of my four year old adventurer that she followed up her initial line of inquiry with, ‘are you winning? are you going to win a medal?’

‘I’m trying my best’

I knew this was a lie though and I knew that if I was to honestly claim that ultra medal I was really going to have to sort myself out, ‘listen you get to sleep,’ I said, ‘I’ll go and get the medal’.

Push UltraBoy, push!

And I did. I started to do something I haven’t done in years – I started overtaking people, I started to race but not against the other people on the course but against the clock, against my own fragile body. I ran the flats, I ran the mud, I ran the uphills and I opened the taps to give my legs some respite from the general crawl that makes up my ultra pace.

I hurtled through lap 6 and then lap 7 and I arrived on lap 8 with about 69 minutes remaining – all I needed to do was push one last time and I would be through the timing barrier and I could take all night if I needed to for lap 9 and so with thunder in my feet I flew through the HQ tent and pressed onwards to that medal that my daughter wanted me to earn.

It is rare for me to feel strong in a race (especially so late on) and even though the two fast laps had really drained me I was surprised by own invention as I convinced myself that I really had no time to get through to that final lap. I was slower on lap 8 than the previous couple but I was bearing down on the line to that final lap and I knew I would make it.

I stopped once more at the Active Root stand and had another short conversation with the two amazingly lovely ladies there and they simply gave me the thumbs up saying, ‘one more lap and we’ll see you back here in 20 minutes’.

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20 minutes later.
I was out on the course, I was about halfway round the final lap and I was counting down to the final moments of the six hours we were allocated and I was waiting for the fireworks display signal.

I stopped as I heard a countdown in the distance and then the fireworks went off. I had officially made it – all I had to do now was run it in and claim my medal and this I did with some joy in my heart. I ran through the covered forest just outside the race village and as I closed in on the final few hundred metres I raised my knees and committed the best sprint finish I could muster and with the wind in my sails I passed straight over the line and into the waiting arms of my medal!

Delightful.

Key points

  • Distance: 5km (ish) loops
  • Profile: Minor up and down
  • Date: December 2018
  • Location: Fox Lake, East Lothian
  • Cost: £50
  • Terrain: Muddy trail
  • Tough Rating: 2/5

Route
The route was interesting and fun but ultimately it is a loop and if loops are not your thing then this race is not for you. It is worth noting though that the night time nature of the race gives the loop a less repetitive feel than similar daytime events. The added danger of the time and year and the potential for difficult weather conditions means that this route should not be under estimated. As well as an excellent event route this would make a wonderfully fast training route.

Organisation
Great marshals who were well drilled in what they had to and where they had to be.

I also liked the roaming nature of the marshals around the course – being set in the dark means that there is more potential for injury or trouble and the organisation clearly took this very seriously. Overall the organisation was top notch – especially given the occasionally cramped feel of the race village. The one thing that might benefit from some consideration is a slightly bigger drop bag stop for the solo runners as this was sometimes a little crowded but if any delay was had then it was very minor.

I’d also like to say a tremendous thank you to the two ladies at the Active Root table as their inspiring and occasionally arse kicking words really did keep me going.

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Awards
An excellent bespoke medal

Value for money
£50 seems about right for this, there is a lot of support and clearly lots of organisation that goes into making it happen and the medal was one of the more interesting ones I’ve had in recent times.

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Conclusion
10 weeks living in Scotland and 3 ultra marathons done since I arrived, even I can feel pretty good about that.

The Nocturnal Ultra is a fun end of year event to keep you running but that perhaps does it a disservice. This is a great event that might be the culmination of a years hard training and if you’re looking a trail run that is fast and tough enough then maybe this is perfect for you.  The event has a little bit of everything and the six hour time limit really gives it an edge that means you have to keep moving, especially if you’re not as quick as you once where. And the added bonus is that the location was lovely and it was close enough to Edinburgh to be accessible.

So could I happily recommend the Nocturnal Ultra?

Very much so.

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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.

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