Imagine being stood at the start of a race and you’re faced with a potato dressed as a superhero, yes my Saturday was feeling a bit weird but we were here and there were three races to complete.
In the pantheon of stupid races I’ve done I think I may have to put this near the top, because though it was short, it was an amazing mix of hell and balls out fun.
I had convinced the GingaNinja that she wanted to run a mile race armed with 10kg of potatoes on her shoulders and better than that I had convinced ASK that she wanted to run a mile while hauling a 2.5kg bag of spuds. My only failing was that I had to run that mile while weighed down by 20kg of potato goodness.
But let’s roll back a bit, why where we here?
As a family we owe a great debt of gratitude to Perth, where the race took place. It was here that our love affair with Scotland began and also where the idea of moving to this wonderful country began when we were attending a friend of the GingaNinja’s wedding. I therefore retain a very soft spot for this rather beautiful little place and any chance I get to visit I’m going to take and let’s be honest who could say no to some free spuds?
With the race being set in the middle of the afternoon it meant that we could go about our usual Saturday business (in this case a party at which ASK was an attendee) and still have more than ample time to get to Perth before we hosted an evening BBQ with some of ASKs school friends and family. If timing went well it would be a great little way to spend the final weekend of the summer holidays, if timings were off or the potatoes were too heavy for any of us, then it could be a disaster!
However, we arrived at Perth with plenty of time to spare and found parking near North Inch Park at the leisure centre and although it was paid parking it was very reasonably priced, as is the case in much of Scotland. With time to spare we grabbed our bits and pieces and headed out to the park after ensuring that we were in the correct place and seeing in the distance dozens and dozens of bags of potatoes we guessed that we had arrived to the right place.
Now I had made a bit of mess of the entry and so I had assumed that we would be spending the spare time we had fixing my own stupidity. I had entered the GingaNinja for the under 18s junior race and had also entered ASK into this as well without any thought for the fact that she might therefore be racing against juniors up to an including 17 year olds. Therefore we spoke to the volunteers who told us that the GingaNinja could simply just line up in the women’s race and that ASK would be fine in the juniors race.
We ambled around a bit and got chatting to a couple who recognised my beloved Jedburgh Three Peaks race shirt. Oddly the lady in the couple looked remarkably familiar but I couldn’t place her and I clearly couldn’t know her as she was something of a speed demon – racing a second placed finish in the ladies race. They said they’d arrived early and were pretty much the first to arrive and much like us had hoped that more people would turn out as with about 30 minutes to the first race there weren’t that many people in attendance.
Thankfully it didn’t take long for the park to fill up with runners and supporters and across the three main races, a series of spud and spoon races and a wheelchair race there were more than 300 entrants. The atmosphere was big, warm and friendly – it was really lovely and it felt like a race should feel even though lots of the runners and supporters were still sensibly adhering to some social distancing.
Unfortunately there was a slight delay to the beginnings of proceedings – with the organisers wanting to ensure that the course markings were 100% clear. The very minor delay was a good idea given that after the two adult races there would be a series of youngsters taking to the field alone and their safety of course had to be paramount.
With the course ready and the runners ready there was time for a few words of encouragement from the local Provost and the race organisers. Clearly the organisers were keen to make up for lost time as the ladies race was prepared with a bit of vim and vigour. That said it never felt rushed, the atmosphere remained fun and enjoyable, therefore, ASK and I headed out to the course to catch sight of our runner as she would surely come hurtling by us in mere moments.
The route was an out and back, out and back, out and back on the grass in the park – not the most inspired idea for a race you might think but actually it was perfect – each 400 metre section provided supporters and fellow runners the opportunity to cheer each other on and also, if you were racing, the ambition to catch the runner ahead rather than watch them disappear off into the distance.
The GingaNinja headed out with the 10kg sack of spuds wrapped round her neck like a very heavy string of garlic – it looked heavy and the usually light footed suddenly looked heavy footed as they struggled with the packages. We whooped and hollered as she passed us by and then we grabbed our own bags of potatoes and moved in so we could get a better look for when she would come thundering back towards us.
A mile is not a very long distance but the dead weight on your shoulders makes things much more challenging and yet it was no surprise, with all the good triathlon training under her belt recently, that the GingaNinja was making exceptionally good time and we cheered once more as she came towards us and then away from us to the second leg of the race. ASK doesn’t get to see the GingaNinja race as often as she sees me, so it was good to see her smiling with immense pride at the pace that her mum was delivering.
We cheered on the other runners as the race progressed and took up a position about 50 metres from the finish – we were able to cheer in the young lady we had been chatting to earlier as she finished in a tremendous second place. I looked on enviously at the gloves she was sporting and wishing I had had the foresight to bring such an item. Then after around 9 minutes of racing the GingaNinja appeared and with all that she had left in the tank delivered a finish worth of the term, ‘a sprint’.
Even with the bag of potatoes rested across her shoulders she was determined not to allow the runner at her side beat her to the finish and I watched as she increased her stride to ensure that she crossed the line mere centimetres ahead.
The GingaNinja roasted the competition in those last few metres.
I hurled some potatoes on my back and immediately headed over to the finish to find her, more so she could take my race vest than for congratulations but time was of the essence.
Despite the late start of the race there was no rush to get the final runner home and instead they were greeted by the loud cheers of the crowd. It was genuinely a wonderful atmosphere.
However, there was clearly a determination to get the second race of the day underway and the men were invited to haul their spuds upon their backs and head to the start line.
I understood how heavy the spuds were and have carried many a rucksack much heavier than this however, what I hadn’t accounted for was that the bag had very little give in it and that gripping it was going to a challenge. I hoisted it upon my back but couldn’t get comfortable, perhaps I was the wrong shape for the bag I thought.
Still too late now, I got as comfortable as I could and waited for the race start. Boom we were off and I pressed as hard as I could although that was nowhere near as hard as some of the other competitors who thundered away with more conviction than I ever have. The first 400 metres moved pretty quickly but I was in a constant state of flux as I could feel potatoes sliding down my back – I kept trying to readjust on the move knowing that race at only a mile would be over within minutes. Eventually I pulled the bag onto my right shoulder and slipped a couple of fingers on my left side through the netting to try and give myself some semblance of control, albeit at the cost of balance.
The GIngaNinja said upon seeing me at the race that I looked incredibly uncomfortable and was leaning very far forward – this was very much in response to trying to get this dead weight under control but now with half the distance done I knew that I just had to hang on, both literally and figuratively.
I was now struggling though and the weight on my back was making running even more of a challenge and although I pushed hard as I came into the final 100 metres or so I knew that I would not catch the half a dozen runners ahead of me as I simply didn’t have the lift in my legs that the GingaNinja had.
Thankfully I crossed the line (in about 8 and half minutes) and dropped my lovely bag of potatoes to my feet – collecting a much needed bottle of water and my hard earned medal.
I can say that Ultraboyruns was totally mashed!
Shortly after finishing my family joined me and we quickly turned our attention our final race of the day – the juniors.
Now ASK has a bit of history in racing having competed in about 25 races since she started doing events but this one was different – carrying 2.5kg of potatoes for a rather slight 6 year old was going to be a big ask. Having seen lots of the other children struggling to keep the bags in one piece even before the race had started and were manhandling them in a way that suggested that the running would be cumbersome I suggested to ASK that she simply put them into a dry bag and carry that instead. I had suggested she hold it in front of her to make things easier – although what she did was something a little different.
We asked her if she wanted one of us to run with her but after much consideration she decided that she wanted to run it alone. I told her that one of us would run alongside the outside of the course to give her encouragement and this seemed to be a decent balance.
Interestingly, as she lined up for the race, with neither myself or the GingaNinja in sight, she looked calm and ready. She had decided to start reasonably near the front, something unknown to me, but as she stood around the much older and larger children she looked like she might get trampled by the her! Thankfully not though, and as the runners set out I was pleased to see that she used all her experience to run steadily amidst the junior runners who were hurling themselves as fast as they could up the first 400 metres.
As can be the case with kids who come to race very often they make the mistake of going out too fast (to be fair I think we all do that) and by the time the first 400 metres had passed the race had settled into those who had gone out too fast and those who hadn’t. ASK moved steadily through the runners ahead of her and I ran the outside of the course to give her encouragement when she felt the weight of her tatties.
Interestingly despite me advice she chose to have the bag she was carrying the spuds in bouncing on her back and this must have been both quite painful and having an effect on her running flow. I shouted to her to bring them round to the front but she ignored me and carried on regardless. With 1200 metres down she had gotten into the home run and I ran down to where the GingaNinja was waiting and we called out to her to push as hard as she could. ASK did take this piece of advice and she ran with as much gusto as she could manage and passed a couple of other young athletes on the way in and crossing the line in a very respectable time of a little over 10 minutes.
The man on the microphone, who had been incredibly jolly all afternoon, approached the child to interview her as she finished asking her if she did this much and that the bag to carry the potatoes in had been a great idea – ASK answered as she should, that she races quite a lot and that the bag was her parents idea! Good girl. I managed to get to the finish line before she managed to get her breath back and start chattering at the lovely chap and I took her away for a banana and a medal – she was a very happy young lady.
ASK Adventurer is a real chip off the old block I’d say!
And so we ended the race with 32.5kg on potatoes to take home, three medals and a great experience.
Conclusions The Great Perthshire Tattie Run is a wonderful community event and deserves to be run by everyone – genuinely one of the most joyous events that I have had the opportunity to run. Not only was it hugely inclusive with races for all ages and abilities but it didn’t take itself too seriously and understood the madness of running with a bag of tatties on your back.
A massive thank you should go to the organisers of the event Great Scottish Events and also Perth & Kinross Council, a huge thanks should also go to the supplier of the tatties because without Branstons then this is just a 1 mile run in a park.
Basically what more can you ask for out of an event? A race, a medal, a community experience and all for free. Well done guys and I look forward to running this again next year. I suppose the big question is, ‘would I pay to run this race?’ And the answer is absolutely, it was brilliant. This event is clearly a labour of love for the organisers and clearly an event that we should all be doing.
Thanks to Great Scottish Events for a couple of the professional photographs (bottom four images in the gallery)
Stood on the beach as the other runners ambled down I could feel that sensation you get when you know that you’re about to do something brilliant. Having recently run the Frostbite 5 with wonderful Trails of Fife, at Lochore Meadows, I was confident that I was in for another belter of a race.
And let’s be fair what more do you want from a race other than to have to run out into the middle of the surf and stare down a giant red lobster? More on that later.
I had made the relatively short hop across from sunny Falkirk to an equally sunny but also rather windy St Andrews, a place I had not yet managed to get to. Therefore, when the Splash & Dash came up and I had very little planned I knew I had to finally pay St Andrews a visit and this would make a great starting point for an epic week of running.
With a marathon to run the next morning I knew that this evenings event should be taken as easy as possible and so as the start line was being set up I made my way to the back of the hundred or so runners. I had no intention of sprinting off like a startled gazelle, no sir, I was going to sit at the back, come last and bloody well enjoy myself.
As these thoughts were running through my head a fellow runner with those, ‘can’t see your eyes’ sunglasses on approached me and asked, ‘do you have a running blog?’
Now occasionally I might have said something to piss someone off in my blog writing so I’m rarely swift to admit being the author and because I couldn’t see the young ladies eyes she was difficult to read but I figured it would be fine and so I carefully answered ‘yes’.
Turns out she had read the Frostbite 5 posting, the previous race I did with Trails of Fife (you can read that here) and I ended up chewing with fat with her little group for a couple of minutes – mostly extolling the virtues of running up Benarty Hill.
I must have gotten rather caught up in chatter though as I barely noticed the start of the race and I found that my legs had assumed control and decided to thunder away with the rest of me. The afterburner was spent pretty quickly though and I had just enough juice in the engine to catch up with local legend Fiona. It is always lovely to see Fiona, she’s one of my favourite runners and a genuine inspiration – I was also very impressed with her choice of top for the race (I’ll be looking that one up and making a purchase if I too can get it in orange!) But now it was time to press on and I slowly managed to pull away from Fiona and the group of runners behind me, not something I can usually do but I thought I’d put a bit of effort in before the old hamstrings gave in.
But here’s the thing – I couldn’t find my groove and the hamstring that has given so much woe since March had clearly been pulled and the tightness was impressing on me, the need to slow down. However, there was a problem – I had picked up a shadow in the form of another runner and she was sat right in my blind spot but I knew that at least for a while I could try and use her as my own personal pacer. Therefore, every time she got within a few metres of me I would open out my stride and pull ahead of her again. I must have done this about 10 times on the run back to the start line of lap one – I’m sure she could have cheerfully put my head in one of those sandy pools and drowned me but instead she simply ran a superbly consistent pace and it was hugely impressive.
At one point I turned to her and said, ‘you can overtake me but I’m going to make you work for it’ but really what I meant was, ‘chase me, I’m desperately trying to stay ahead’. In the end of course I was overtaken but it was a fun game to play even as the sand sapped all the energy from my legs.
Despite only being a mile down the beach and back twice this felt like a very long loop and as the first lap was concluding we were ushered by the amazing volunteers into a meeting with the race mascot.
In the North Sea there was a vison of red loveliness awaiting us, it’s claws ready to snap at unsuspecting runners and a massive flag stood proudly blowing in the wind. Yes we must face the lobster in the water before the lap could conclude.
In less covid times I would have been very happy to have gone and had a little nibble (cuddle), I mean lobster is delicious, and this lobster looked very tasty indeed. However, the times being what they are, I had to settle for a cheery smile and photograph – but I’d see the lobster again on my run to the finish line.
As I am sure we all know that running through water is a real bum ache, it drains your legs, it drains your spirit and it makes everything feel tough – but running in the sea is also the greatest buzz and gives me a tremendous joy. All the time I’ve spent in the water recently has meant that I’ve become rather adept at moving reasonably quickly through moving water and so while some found it a struggle to get out of the water I was able to make reasonable progress up the beach and in to lap 2.
Lap 2 was much like the first in that the beautiful beach at St Andrews gave us an amazing backdrop whichever direction you were running in and the conditions being warm and windy were absolutely magnificent. A couple of runners passed me by, including a chap who was running barefoot and brushed me aside with ease! I could also sense that I was slowing and bit by bit the pretence of a reasonable time was being eroded. However, once past the volunteers at the far end of the course I started to work my way back – I’d found a bit of a second wind and I got chatting to another young fella who was also clearly feeling the burn. We said hello and exchanged a bit of banter that really gave me some encouragement as we entered the final run back down to the water – speaking to him at the end I think he thought he’d get beyond me but I have my little secret weapon for race days…
Yes I’m a terrible runner but there’s one piece of advice that I have stuck by through the thick and thin of racing, ‘always finish strong’.
So as my feet entered the water I pulled my knees up and cried out my love and thanks to the lobster before blasting through the water to a sprint up the beach. I did give a little half a glance behind me to make sure I wasn’t going to be overtaken by the young fella I’d done those last few hundred metres with, thankfully though but he was a few precious seconds behind, though given how much ground he made up on me he more than deserved to finish ahead of me.
However, I crossed the line and inside all I could do was smile. Absolutely wonderful.
Conclusions Trails of Fife are quickly becoming my favourite race organiser, I’ve now done two of their races and both were just the most fun filled experiences. For me part of the joy is that they aren’t ultra marathons or long distance races, I can turn up, race and have a bit of laugh. I’m sure some people take this very seriously indeed but when there’s a giant lobster insisting that you run to him in the sea, well you just can’t take it too seriously can you?
The beach setting of St Andrews was amazing and the late start meant that there was lots of parking available and most of the tourist traffic had departed. This certainly helped with the use of the excellent toilet facilities and in fact by having the race later in the day there was a lot less pressure overall I felt – more early evening races I say!
The organisation was as brilliant as my first experience of Trails of Fife and the volunteers were that lovely blend of cheering you on and making sure that you were going in roughly the right direction. The volunteers are always the stars of the show as far as I am concerned and at Trails of Fife they make you feel that enormous warmth that I find comes with these lovely local races. So my thanks to you. However, I must of course say a special thank you to the lobster for whom standing in the sea for the best part of an hour cannot have been as much fun as it looked – the sea gets cold pretty quickly and he didn’t look like he had a wetsuit on under his outfit. His good humour and commitment to the role was outstanding and my only problem was that I didn’t get to take him home and put him a pot of boiling water and have him for dinner – still there’s always next time.
As for the medal? Well Trails of Fife seem to know how to do a damn fine medal – they’re big enough to make them feel special and nicely designed as a lovely memento of your event. I’m a big fan of these races and the organisers should be very proud of themselves for putting on such fine events. Easy collection of race number? Yes. Good facilities? Yes. Beautiful locations? Yes. Amazing team and volunteers? Yes. Cool medal that you’ll treasure? Yes. Really fun route and event? Yes. Any complaints? No.
If this returns with a winter edition I’ll be adding my name to the list because this is a corker and I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for further events from the lovely guys at Trails of Fife.
The only downside about writing this is that you may now feel the need to sign up to their races and I might not get a spot but here’s the thing – I feel everyone who loves running and loves a trail or being outdoors should do one of their events. Being as inexpensive as they are means they are as accessible as races get in cost terms and although I can guarantee you’ll love these events I will say that if you don’t have fun then you’ve probably had your fun bones removed.
I’ve been hiking hills for a long time but the exploration of the Scottish hills is taking new twists and turns all the time. This weekend we thought we would leave our beloved Ochils behind and try something a little further afield. With going further afield though came the question of how early a start we would need. And this is where the twist comes in – let’s get Rona out and we can head up the day before and have an easier start to our hiking.
It was an undoubtedly good idea.
We looked at several Corbetts and Munros including Ben Lui, Ben Cruachan, Scheihaillon, Ben Vorlich (Loch Earn) and Ben Vrackie. However, we are still relatively green to the whole motorhome, ‘off grid camping’ experience so feel the need to go softly, softly into it rather than headfirst and this would have an effect on our decision making.
Additionally with the weather seemingly going to be a bit rubbish we immediately discounted Ben Lui because nobody fancied a river crossing followed by a boggy hike and anything up near Tyndrum ruled itself out as having limited indoor activities available (just in case it was too grim to hike). I’d already run Ben Vorlich and while happy to do it again will always favour something new and so it came down to Ben Vrackie and Scheihaillon.
And so the research began as to were we could park comfortably for the night before, and go to after the hike, to take in a bit more of Scotland. The more we looked at Ben Vrackie the more enthused I became because there were both campsites and simple overnight parking options. Both of these were relatively close to the start of the hike and more importantly Pitlochry (the nearest town) seemed well endowed with pre and post hike entertainment.
Ferry Road Car Park Parking: £4.20 per day (Free Sunday & free overnight for motorhomes) More information: Search for Sites
The Ferry Road car park behind the Main Street in Pitlochry is a very simple affair with no facilities but it’s spacious and surprisingly quiet given it’s centre of the town location. When we arrived there were half a dozen motorhomes and there was room for more but it would quickly become crowded at about 20 reasonable sized motorhomes. The overnight cost is free but during the day you need to feed £4.20 worth of coins into the machine and Sunday is free all day – it’s good value if all you require is the parking.
The parking is mostly flat and requires no levelling and once you’re set up then you’re fine and there was very little disturbance, though to be fair I was exhausted and passed out pretty early and would have struggled to hear the sound of stampeding elephants.
The walk into the town was just two minutes and if you cut through under the railway bridge there’s a lovely looking coffee shop right on the street corner!
Near the railway bridge there are public toilets although we found these closed, whether due to Covid 19 or other reasons so this parking option definitely relies on you having on board facilities – it’s also worth noting that it does say that caravans and tents are not permitted.
All in all a perfectly good stop for a night or two if you’re not planning on staying in Pitlochry or it’s surrounds for a long period. For longer stays there are campsites and the like nearby but this was perfect for us as we were there less than 12hrs.
Ben Vrackie Car Park Parking: Free
Ben Vrackie is the local hill hike from Pitlochry and comes with a small but perfectly useful parking facility at the foot of the hike. We had walked up there from the town and through Moulin to check it out when we arrived and realised that we could probably bring Rona up here in the morning.
There were a couple of smaller vans parked up here but the angle of the car park was such that levelling would be very challenging and you risk annoying the locals should it become an extension of the excellent parking facility provided by the town. However, upon leaving the town I was perfectly happy to park up here as we went hiking. Rona at 6.6 metres isn’t a massive motorhome but we could use the grass verge for our rear overhang and therefore took up no more space than a car.
There is a second car park further up and as we hiked beyond it we noted a couple of campervans but this was a small car park and unsuited to motorhomes or caravans. You might find yourself in a world of tight turning and excessive swearing if you head up there.
Should you be inclined to hike Ben Vrackie and fancy a little celebratory beer there was the delightful looking pub in Moulin that certainly looked cosy and comfy and on another day we might have stopped there for food as it’s a mere two minute walk from the lower Ben Vrackie car park.
Ben Vrackie Cost: Free Maps: OS Landranger 43 – Braemar & Blair Atholl / OS Explorer 49 – Pitlochry & Loch Tummel Route Information: Visit Walkhighlands
The reason we went to Pitlochry was to hike up Ben Vrackie and so on the Sunday morning with the rain pouring down we left Rona behind in the lower car park. With a full set of waterproofs on we started a slow but steady ascent through a delightfully varied terrain. Tree lined paths open out to sloping open landscapes with beautiful peaks all around us. There is an excellent path that makes for mostly easy navigation and the route is dry and lacking things like bogs and river crossings – Ben Vrackie is a nice hike. The first half is pretty gentle but as you reach the second half of the 5 or so kilometres to the top you’ll note that the gradient of the climb becomes tougher and the stone stepped path is more of a challenge. However this should be no deterrent as it remains eminently climbable for even the least fit amongst us.
We were incredibly fortunate the large lurking grey clouds cleared briefly for our reaching of the summit and there were gloriously spectacular views in all directions across Scotland. Outstanding. That being said the conditions at the top were incredibly chilly and windy and even in the springtime the right kit is required for making such efforts. Much as I admired my fellow hikers who decided to take a little dip in the loch just below the summit I would suggest that Rhi is only for those brave, foolhardy or very experienced to risk. I’ll admit had the family not been with me then maybe I’d have stripped off and joined them!
Ben Vrackie is well worth the effort if you are in the area and if you’re interested in hiking and collecting summits then there are others in close proximity (not for the Munro baggers necessarily but just for the joy of the hike) and many of them offer stunning views and challenging walks.
Ben Vrackie at 841 metres is a descent sized Corbett and may well serve as a wonderful introduction to those slightly higher climbs, just be prepared for any and all weather conditions and take a sandwich for the little bench on the lochside about 650 metres up!
Upon completing our hiking we returned to the Ferry Road car park with Rona and headed off into the town.
Pitlochry looks like a very small place, smaller than Moffat that we visited on our last trip but appearances can be deceiving. The town has the Pitlochry Hydro Electric dam with its brand spanking new visitor centre which sits beside the River Tummel and holds back the beautiful Loch Faskally. The dam is also home to the huge fish ladder which helps the spawning of the fish that pass through the local waters and fascinated both myself and my 6 year old.
There is also the fantastic Pitlochry Festival Theatre with a wide range of shows for those looking for some indoor culture after hiking, eating and shopping, I have no doubt we will be back once the theatre reopens properly and welcomes back theatregoers!
With the river running through it there are a series of very beautiful riverside walks that will take you as far as you wish to go and you really aren’t far from places like Loch Rannoch and Loch Tummel.
The town itself has one of the best kept train stations I’ve ever seen and the town itself is full of those little independent shops that I love so much. We decided to get some take-out cakes from Hetties Tea Rooms (Chocolate, Crunchie Cheesecake & Lemon) which were absolutely delicious, the lemon cake for me was the winner but the family might have different opinions – big slices and full of flavour. We washed all that down with some motorhome made tea and hot chocolate and all in all it was a lovely time indeed.
With the lockdown starting to open things up a little bit the tourists had clearly started to return and there was a visible life to some of the bars and restaurants – all of which looked lovely and delicious. There was a decent mix of shops including some tourist type shopping, a John Muir Trust Information Centre & Shop, a Christmas Emporium and a really good looking second hand bookshop that we arrived too late for me to look around. Covid 19 rules means that numbers in shops and the like can cause a few delays but all the businesses are working incredibly hard to ensure that this is minimised and for the most part it all felt very conventional and tourist friendly.
You could easily pass a very happy afternoon here.
For key supplies that town has a good sized Co-op and that has pretty much anything you are likely to need in terms of keeping your motorhome topped up and there is a BP petrol station not too far outside the town.
For me places like Pitlochry are best visited during just outside the busier summer period or even the winter months because I think you’ll get a really relaxed and enjoyable experience. Summer I suspect is busy, though that shouldn’t stop you going, just something to think about if you are planning on going – especially with your motorhome.
Scotland really does have something for everyone and the thing I have discovered is that it refuses to hand it to you on a plate – you have to look for it and seek out those little rewards and perhaps that is what has made coming here and places like this so wonderful – I feel I am earning my joy.
So, whatever you’re doing in Scotland, enjoy it.
To note this overview is NOT a recommendation, endorsement or paid for advert for any of the parking, facilities, tourist destinations, motorhomes or anything else this is just my experience of them.There is no commercial benefit to this blog post.
Have you ever looked at a bar of chocolate and thought that looks amazing?
It’d be oozing caramel chunks, little flakes poking from the sides and then you taste it and you realise it’s a giant turd you’ve just bitten into but you’ve got to keep going because you’re in polite company and don’t want to miss out on the thing that everyone else is devouring. Welcome to my review of the Ultra Scotland 50!
I should at this point mention that the metaphor suggests I didn’t enjoy the race but the truth is very different – I very much enjoyed this like chocolate but also endured the race like a tough as buggery turd, but we’ll get to that later.
I suppose this is very much a tale of the pandemic and so that’s where it begins.
I, like lots of others, in 2019 eagerly entered our 2020 races assuming that we would once more spend the year running around beautiful trails and the occasional bit of cruddy car park. When 2020 came around I found that I wasn’t in the best place either injury, fitness or weight wise and I trudged my way through the mutually awesome Tyndrum 24 and Falkirk Trail Ultra, I then missed the inaugural F50K because of my grandmother dropping dead but figured with a race calendar full to brimming it would be fine. At the start of April I’d start my Ranger Ultras Grandslam and that would swiftly be followed by the Ultra Scotland 50 from GB Ultras.
I think we all know what happened nstead and races became consigned to the dustbin, albeit on a temporary basis.
And so when offered the chance to run the Ultra Scotland 50 as my first race of 2021, mere days after the latest lockdown ended, I knew I had to be on the start line whatever my condition.
As I stood at the side of Clatteringshaws Loch, watching the beautiful stars twinkling in the dark skies park with Rona at my side, a cup of tea in hand and I was listening to the man outside his motorhome playing bagpipes truly beautifully, I realised that I am a very fortunate person who was being presented with another awesome opportunity and I would not waste it.
The various lockdowns have meant that I’ve been able to focus on some of the key problems I’ve had when I’m running – so I’ve dropped more than 20kg in weight, I’ve returned to active, focused training and I’ve mostly been injury free and this triple gave my decent confidence as 2021 arrived. It was therefore with great dismay that despite my desire to race as I stood looking at those stars that my hamstring hurt like an absolute shit and I’d been struggling with it for over a month.
Typically, the moment there’s a race opportunity and my body decides to send me to a start line hampered.
However, as I gulped down the last of my tea I knew that my hamstring wasn’t going to deter me from leaving the Loch side in about 8hrs and set off from St John’s Town of Dalry and try and reach Moffat, a mere 56 miles away.
Rona, the motorhome, afforded me a nights peaceful and relatively luxurious sleep and when I got up the following morning I was able to get ready close to the race start with the benefit of my own toilet. For those who aren’t regular readers then you should be aware that my pre-race poo ritual is a well established marker in my race preparation and should not be disturbed. Milkshake, milky coffee, poo time – it’s simple and effective and reduces the need for me to spend half a race looking for a place that a) nobody will see me drop a turd and b) find a place to bury said turd.
What I can tell you is that, despite following the ritual, very little happened in the bowel department and this was next worry of the day but I just assumed I’d be going ‘full bear’ and making a mighty mound somewhere on the Southern Upland Way.
Having read the Covid guidelines for the race and watched the video from the organisers I felt quite confident that I was turning up ready to race and arriving ‘just in time’. The race start was very well organised, in covid terms and despite the mildly wet weather most runners were managing to stay dry and knew what to do in preparation for the start line.
We ambled into the registration point, in race number order, which I felt was rather cute, were given a few course correction notes as we entered and then were processed
Bag drop (I had chosen not to bother)
Queue up for race start
All very easy, all very seamless – you’d have thought that GB Ultras had done it like this a thousand times – I was actually quite impressed.
The thing that was less impressive, and is no fault of the organisers, was the muted start.
Covid guidelines meant we were sent out one runner at a time in 15 second intervals and although practical did take away from the atmosphere. That said because the start line was located in a town it meant that there were people lingering around, including friends and family who cheered runners on which provided an improvement over the covid start line of Ultra North (my only comparison).
Anyway pretty much bang on the money of 6.07am I set off from the town and headed on the first of many uphills, waving goodbye to ASKadventurer and the GingaNinja knowing that it might be as much as 18hrs before I saw them again.
As I rolled out of Dalry I could immediately feel my hamstring but I was determined that I wouldn’t resort to using running poles unless I had no other choice and so I pushed on enjoying the early delights of the Southern Upland Way.
Despite the Covid guidelines it was still very likely you’d meet other runners on the route and as we entered the trail, after less than a kilometre of running, I came across my first major runchat opportunity – Patrick (first time organised ultra runner) and Alistair (seasoned mountain goat he looked like). We bimbled along, with me mostly bemoaning Falkirk’s lack of mountains to train on and they in good spirits. The trails were fun and fast but with less than 4km on the clock I made a huge mistake jumping on a bridge and sliding straight off it and landing on the edge – cracking my hip, leg and back in the process – this was not a good start. Although I leaped back up quickly I had to let me running colleagues slowly disappear into the distance as I needed to let the wind fill my sails once more.
I was shaken by the fall but mostly alright and I managed to pick myself up enough to start picking up the pace but there was pain in my knee on my already bad leg and I’d clearly hurt my shoulder as that was now acting like a dick. Thankfully I had a wonderful course to distract me and I was provided non-stop entertainment by the sheep bleeting at me as I ran and being the fool I am I chose to converse with the sheep whenever they were in range.
Heading downhill I could now see the 8 mile point and watched as it drew ever closer, the thing was I hadn’t yet touched my water supply, nor my food and so with little more than a nod and wink (with my mask on of course) I simply ran through and stopped a little way up the road to adjust myself and stow my face covering.
The adjustment was necessary as the fall had left a painful reminder on my shoulder and I found myself regularly readjusting my pack to try and reduce the pain on the injury but nothing worked.
Therefore with a gob full of kinder chocolate I began the real assault of the Southern Upland Way and from here it really felt like a proper trail race and with 15 or 16 miles until the next checkpoint across some tough ground this was going to be an interesting test of my body.
What I was still working out was how the breadcrumb mapping trail works on my Fenix 6X because despite following the signage it was saying I was off course… how the sweet arseholes could I be off course? I was following the map! The thing was I was heading up a hill with no path and no clear way forward – I was clearly off route and then I turned around and saw two runners heading in a different direction and I hastily headed towards them. Down I strode through the rough undergrowth and spilled my way back into the path – another knee trembler of a mistake, how many more of them was I going to make today?
I was a little bemused as to why neither of the two runners just a few feet ahead of me had issued a warning of my impending stupidity but maybe that’s just something I do when I see a fellow competitor about to do something navigationally erroneous. But ho-hum I was back on track now and heading towards the first big climb of the course.
The route here was overgrown and very green and a real delight, the trail wound upwards and onwards and as you climbed a little higher the temperature dropped despite the morning getting brighter.
Why was it getting chillier you might ask? Well that was simple – there was snow underfoot to chill your hard working and burning feet.
Having recently dropped my second layer of socks I could feel the cold through my Lone Peaks but it was a lovely sensation and it wasn’t very thick and therefore nice and easy to run through. On I ran and picked my way through the gently rolling hills and the short sharp ascents but all the while knowing that there were some significant spikes to come.
It was here that I came across Wayne Drinkwater, the race director and what a very welcoming sight he was and also a pleasant surprise as we had a bit of banter and he pointed the dreaded GoPro at me. I did ask that if I said horrific things about companies like Glaxo and GE would he not be able to use the footage? Thanks to Sue Perkins for that little tip.
I passed Wayne and pushed on up the hill and noting runners behind me, it was a steep but wholly achievable climb and in the distance I could see one of the key markers on the course, a large stone arch overlooking the Southern Upland Way. Obviously I stopped to grab a few pictures and the like and then set off down the path off Benbrack.
After a few minutes the path started to disappear and so I veered off to the fence line to see if that was likely to hand me a clue as to the direction I was supposed to be on. The Fenix 6X map was also about as much use as a chocolate teapot – simply saying ‘off course’. Over the top of the hill I had descended I saw two runners and scrambled across to meet them. Kirsty and Christophe seemed in good, but equally lost, spirits and between us we figured out a direction and once more headed off.
Down and down and down and down we went, heading towards what looked like the tree line on the map.
‘Ring, ring’ went Kirsty’s phone and it was race HQ to tell us we had fucked up big time. Bottom of hill – go back to the top, find the arch and start over. Another mistake that would lead to jelly legs but the three of us powered up the hill and retraced our steps. When we arrived we had clearly all been distracted by the sculptural arch at the summit and wholly ignored the way marker – now corrected we thundered downward in completely the opposite but correct direction.
Kirsty was a bit of a powerhouse and looked incredible as she bounded across the route and Christophe reminded me of all those tall French runners who would tower over me as I straddled the start line of the SainteLyon, it was quite comforting to be in their company. However, their pace was outstripping mine quite significantly and I was forced to say goodbye too quickly.
Thankfully I enjoy a little solitude during a race and the route wound it’s way through the hills and provided glorious views and well worn trails, I was probably alone for a good couple of hours before I came across a fence. ‘Hello fence’ I thought.
Through the fence I could see the next southern upland way markers but couldn’t reach it. I had a choice, follow the fence line low or follow it high. If my decision was incorrect it would be a long way back.
Time ticking, decision time, come on Ultraboyruns.
I chose high, assuming that if I messed up I would have less climb to correct and then I was off, soon regretting my choice between a wire fence and a dry stone wall with barely enough to squeeze through even the most snake hipped runner.
This ‘path’, I use that term loosely, was hard going with near non stop up and down and surrounded by construction work but the map said roughly ‘yes’ and I could see another marker but as I came to the top I’d lost all sight of the markers, I was lost.
Retreat or amble around looking for directions? Well I did both until I felt my Garmin shaking telling me my phone was ringing.
‘Let me guess I’m off course,’ I said as the GB Ultras team said hello. They told me that I and others were off course and they advised how I could correct it. I said I understood but I didn’t really and I just headed back – jumping walls and wooden pallets and fences in the process hoping that I could correct my direction with relative ease.
Thankfully just when I was about to say ‘fuck this for a game of golf’ I saw other equally lost runners, I think it was Dave, Michelle (more on Michelle later) with Kieran (more on Kieran later) and Nick (more on Nick later) – sorry Dave (but I did like your spectacles/goggles). We were all either going the wrong way or about to and after introductions were completed and we had bemoaned our lack of good fortune, having all done extra distance, we caught a break – a sign for the Southern Upland Way.
It’s things like this that could turn an atheist into a believer… actually no but you get the idea.
A convey of runners is always a slightly odd thing and this one split itself into little micro-pockets of covid-secure groups which moved fluidly between one another.
For the most part I found myself with Nick (looking forward to that YouTube channel fella), a truly spectacular dude with a big positive outlook on life, we chewed the fat extensively, as you do and he explained that he had entered the 215 mile GB Ultras Race Across Scotland.
Over the course of the next couple of hours I could clearly see that he had all the attributes needed to complete such an effort – his hill climbing was fast and furious even without poles and his general pace kept me going at a reasonable speed for all the time we were together.
We arrived into checkpoint two at Sanquhar together and were greeted by Nicks other half, the GingaNinja, my little Satan and our respective dogs.
At nearly a marathon in we both needed to refuel and we did so in the Covid secure hall. Chocolate (Mars and Snickers), cake (delicious and I believe homemade) and a belly full of cola were on my menu followed by a resetting of my race kit. I did dump a couple of items on the GingaNinja such as my water filter and waterproof trousers – neither of which it looked like I would require and I stuffed my waterproof jacket away properly to balance my pack better and then, after thanking the awesome GB Ultras team I was off, hunting down Nick in the process.
The first half had been quite eventful in terms of navigation, injury and pain management but it had also been filled with really beautiful trail running and as the day wore on I hoped for more of the latter and less of the former.
The good news was that the next two sections were relatively short at just 8 and 6 miles or so and I should be able to make up a bit of time here. Nick and I continued our jibber jabbering, much I am sure, to the annoyance of anyone else within earshot but that’s the thing about these races you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do to get through.
In the early stages of the climb out of checkpoint two Nick, myself and now Kieran came across a complete sheep’s skull and it was with some great surprise that Nick picked it up and attached it to his race vest. I’ve done some batshit stuff in my time and collected stuff off the trail but never a sheep’s head and certainly not while in a race! It was here that Nick also started pulling away and much as I tried to keep up I had to slow down a touch.
Slowing down isn’t always a bad thing though and it gave me an opportunity to soak in the route which in terms of its look had changed. The earlier stages seemed more confined and tighter trails but these seemed to have been replaced by large swathes of rolling hills and all around us was a sea of green. I was very much enjoying the scenery and Kieran had become my new running partner and we ambled along as briskly as our little bodies would carry us.
Kieran was aiming for a GB Ultras 50 mile Grandslam in his 50th year – although delayed due to Covid 19. If my recollection is correction he’s already got L2M done and was now north of the border taking on the Ultra Scotland 50, and much like me, delighting in the surrounds.
We chatted for hours about all things, from races to politics to family and everything in between – it was easy chatter and quite delightful.
It was early into my time with Kieran that I welcomed my biggest issue of the race though – an inability to move downhill if the there was any level of steepness. Holy turd there was a horrific burning in my knee and ITB with every single step downhill and running it off wasn’t really an option.
If I thought the fall had been bad or my hamstring had been shit, it was a truth that neither of these had anything on the excruciating pain I was in now. I mean I must really have pissed someone off to have this much go wrong.
In my head I looked over the remaining elevation and realised that there was still a significant amount of climbing to do, which meant a significant amount downhill and while the magnificence of the hills was a truly beautiful sight, my legs cursed them for being there.
The odd thing was that my uphill movement was actually pretty good despite everything and so I would set the pace uphill and Kieran was setting it in the down.
I was surprised that we managed to reach checkpoint 3 still at the head of the little group of runners that had all met about 10 miles back but there was nobody very far behind and I’m sure that as they came down from the hills and into the old mining town they’d have been impressed by beautiful summit ahead of them and the chocolate box town to our right.
As we approached the village one of the volunteers laughed with us a bit and gave us cheery advice about the next section – cheery I think because she wasn’t running it! The GingaNinja and ASK were also at the village just before the checkpoint and gave both of us cheers and waves before leaving us to find solace in some serious checkpoint chow down!
Checkpoint 3 would be our last significant stop, as the final checkpoint was in a lay-by, and so we made sure we took what we needed here. Kieran used the time to deal with an ever expanding foot (don’t ask, he didn’t) and some blistering and I did my best efforts at amusing the volunteers.
We didn’t stop long as other runners were making their way in and it seemed sensible to avoid creating a Covid hotspot at the checkpoint and forcing the awesome volunteers to move us on!
The next challenge was a nice, seemingly never ending and mildly dull climb – punctured only by the tarmac that looped through it several times. It was here I first noticed the cold and that our speed had dropped a bit. Although I was pressing hard I wanted to keep sight of my companion as I knew that both of us stood a better chance of finishing together than we did alone – this though had the effect of chilling me and as we arrived at a bit of a peak and a little mountain bothy I considered layering up. What stopped me though was a look at the time and Garmin’s estimated time of arrival – I relayed the bad news to Kieran and then set to work increasing our pace.
However, even as the clock ticked down both of us stopped to draw breath and capture some images of the sun going down over the hills because it’s moments like this that we run ultra marathons for.
But tick tock, it’s about 6 o’ fucking clock and we need to get a move on! And we did, Kieran increased his pace on the uphill and I swallowed the pain and went as quickly as I could on the downhill. This section though was full of steep, difficult terrain and I found myself using every expletive known to man and creating a few new ones along the way. I found myself apologising several times for my rather fruity language but Kieran simply shrugged it off and was hopefully not offended by my potty mouthed antics.
There was a lot less chatter now – partly due to being about 10 metres apart but also because of a need to concentrate – with time against us we had little capacity for further error. Then the route hit us with a series of difficult and slow going ascents and descents. In conventional circumstances you’d have laughed them off, enjoyed bouncing up and down them, but, on a day like today they felt cruel and unnecessary. We battered up and down, never quite losing hope that a friendly checkpoint smile awaited us.
We could see the road to our left as it wound its way through the hills and assumed that we would be heading down there to find some much needed respite because in front of us now loomed a large, steep climb, Kieran and I clearly had fingers crossed but as we closed on both the turn to the road and the steep ascent we were fired up the ascent. Our creaking bones and cracking optimism were pained by this latest news but ascend we did and with a little pool of runners now below us.
I was in no mood to be beaten to the next checkpoint though and I think Michelle and Dave were both in this little group that was around us and we may have had a bit of banter to try and boost moral – but moral seemed low and we needed that checkpoint. I remember reaching the top of the summit and noting that the checkpoint would surely be down there.
To improve my mentality I set to thinking about the spectacular borderlands that were laid out before us were and how they were probably oft missed by visitors – on another day, were I wasn’t chasing a clock, I’d very much enjoy a jaunt along the Southern Upland Way and it’s surrounds.
Kieran and I made it to the road and while he strode purposefully towards the checkpoint I felt like giving my legs a little shakedown and ran up towards the final checkpoint to devour as many of the little cakes as I could.
Here I found myself in surrealist territory as I asked questions like, ‘if Linford Christie was half a teapot which half would be the teapot – top or bottom?’ I believe I may have confused or befuddled the lovely volunteers but then I was 40+ miles into my first race in ages and my biggest distance and biggest elevation since last September – I was probably delirious.
Kieran rocked up a minute or two behind me and filled up on water and then we were off to the finish. 14 miles left but only about 5hrs to go until we had extinguished all of the allocated time.
Invigorated by reaching the last checkpoint we pushed on hard, assuming that most of the elevation had been dealt with, therefore it came as something a blow to realise that there was enough elevation in the final section to slow us down and that our efforts to push were being hampered by both the course and our exhaustion. Add into the mix that darkness would also soon be upon us and I made the decision to stop briefly and put on my waterproof jacket to protect me from the wind and also to grab my head torch. With this done we ploughed on and straight into a lovely big boggy section of trail that permeated straight through the Lone Peak 4.0 that had served me so well.
My feet felt cold for the first time since the climb up Benbrack and it would be a couple of minutes before my awesome Drymax socks warmed my feet again.
Chatter was now reduced to the minimum, I was doing the mental maths and calculating my likelihood of failing and being determined not too. Kieran, for his part remained on ‘team get to the finish’ and knew what needed to be done to claim a medal.
Up and down the course went with Scotland beautifully illuminated by the dancing darkness in front of us and the couple of twinkling headlights. In darkness this was lovely but by day I suspected this would be fantastic and much more reminiscent of the route in the first few miles of the race.
We knew that every step was a step closer to home – Kieran had salted caramel chocolate milkshake awaiting him at the B&B, I had a walk to find my motorhome wherever it was hidden! Ha – how different our post race experiences would be!
Before either of us got to an after the race situation we had more work to do.
Darkness had now surrounded us completely and even with less than 10km to go there was no sign of Moffat in the distance and time was ebbing away, we hurried through mostly good, hard packed trail and followed the way markers home – that was until Kieran had a dose of the batshit and thought we were going the wrong way.
I should have ignored him as the signage was pointing the way I had headed but I was also nervous of making another mistake with so little time available. We therefore doubled back and retreated to the last way marker and Kieran went thrashing about in the undergrowth looking for a way through. Two runners managed to catch us again in the time that we had spent doubling back and searching for an alternative route and as they headed off in the original direction I called out to my comrade that, ‘it’s this way, let’s crack on’. Kieran seemed rather trapped in the undergrowth but after a couple of minutes he fumbled his way back and we were off again and in hot pursuit of the couple ahead of us.
We made swift progress in hunting down the runners ahead and once we crossed paths again we travelled together to make this final push that bit more enjoyable. Martin and Nicola were relatively new to ultra running but they looked mostly strong despite a tough day (I understood that) and were from Berkshire, an area I know very well having run several races in the region.
Once more chat consumed us but we were driving forward with purpose. I found myself chatting with Nicola, while Martin and Kieran took up the rear but we ended up starting to separate a little and after so long together I wasn’t keen on leaving Kieran.
I always feel a sense of togetherness when you’ve come so far with a person or people and I genuinely looked forward to getting through this together.
Mere moments after the couple had departed we found civilisation again, tarmac, roads, lights, life. My spirits immediately lifted – we must have made it? but the watch still said 4km.
Surely it must be wrong? It wasn’t wrong.
I found myself waddling along as quickly as I could trying desperately to finish but also trying desperately not to release the shit I’d needed for the last 10 miles, this would be the final ignominy – shitting myself on the side of the road just a mile or so from the end.
I wonder what it says about me that I’d put a medal shaped piece of metal ahead of my bowel health in terms of life importance? Still no time to think about my poo or question my life choices because a support vehicle broke the thoughts of my introspection
The vehicle pulled up alongside us and I did wonder if we were being timed out but Wayne simply checked we were all okay. Well the answer to that was no, I did for a moment consider asking for a lift and a load of bog roll, but I’d worked too hard to give up now so bollocks to that and we replied, ‘yeah, all good’.
The road to Moffat seemed to take forever and again seemed a little cruel, having already travelled much more than the 50 miles of the race title and more than the 56 miles offered in the race description. At this point we picked up another runner who had been round the houses in terms of going in the wrong direction, Mark (may have gotten your name wrong, it was a long day) despite this he remained intensely jolly and I feel he helped make this last stretch seem that little bit less agonising.
But when we arrived into Moffat and the town square there was no immediate sign of the finish, our exhausted brains couldn’t see the thing we needed, a sign, a person, a marker – we found ourselves hunting round the town square and then I saw the bus that would be headed back to Dalry. I ran through the town and asked the driver if he knew where the finish was but he didn’t, thankfully one of the members of the bus did and they showed me on their phone but as I turned to race it in the RD rolled up with a grin on his face. ‘I’ll take you down’ he said.
I was relieved – though my ever gurgling bowels were at the point of collapse!
We ambled through the town and Wayne asked if fancied running it in as we closed on the finish line and of course I’m such a sucker that’s my feet rose and sprinted those last few hundred metres, in fact I was going so fast that I overshot the finish line and had to double back. What a numpty.
At the finish line was Kieran and a few others collecting their medals and without much fuss it was all over.
I was relieved to have survived but survive I did and just in time.
Distance: 56+ miles
Ascent: 2800 metres
Date: May 2021
Location: St John’s Town of Dalry
Tough Rating: 3/5
Route I’ve often driven the M74 and wondered, ‘what are those hills? They look fun, one day I’ll go and run amongst them.’ Well GB Ultras helped my achieve an ambition and the route for the most part did not disappoint. There was a really good mix of scenery to keep you entertained and it was often breathtakingly beautiful – reminding me a little of The Pentlands but without the monotony of their nearby sibling.
The little villages that we came across on the route served as excellent stopping points and often reminded me of those little chocolate box towns that you only get in places like the Cotswold or the Highlands. These border locations really are a treasure that deserve a greater degree of exploration by those visiting Scotland.
I really appreciated that the race route was mostly trail – sometimes a race can be described as trail but with have large swathes of the route on tarmac, but not here. The Southern Upland Way offers a route directly through and mostly over Scotland’s greenery and the race is all the better for that.
Perhaps that is the benefit of being run on one of the great trails of Scotland – the trail has already been defined. This though is also one of the downsides of the route – the hidden paths and trails around the Southern Upland Way clearly had so much to offer and although we got some fantastic views and a great route there were so many interesting pockets to explore that the route bypassed.
I understand the practical and technical reasons for following the Southern Upland Way but I could see how there might be opportunity to return to the area and experience a very different running or hiking day.
The elevation at around 2800 metres was fine and although steep in places it was nothing to overly concern yourself with, regular hill training would cover what is effectively like climbing three small Munros. Over the course of my additional mileage I managed to clock up nearly an extra 500 metres of elevation – my legs felt every single centimetre of that! Ooof.
The downhill of the route was different and reminded me of some very rough and tough races I’ve attempted like MIUT. I was incredibly grateful for my running poles, as once my knee had gone I needed the poles to reduce the searing pain while descending even the lightest incline.
Ultimately the route was beautiful and wonderful but also very, very cruel and it asked much of those running it, I suspect it asked even more of those, like myself, who haven’t seen a hill in the last year.
What I will add is that the Southern Upland Way for all its beauty lacks surprise or perhaps one great money shot moment – perhaps I’ve been spoilt by things like the Skye Trail Ultra which is mostly money shot or the SainteLyon which has a couple of really outstanding ‘take your breath away’ moments. The trouble with that is that when I look back on this I won’t find a defining moment of the race in terms of the route, it’s not a bad thing, it’s just a thing and worth pointing out if you like your routes filled with those ‘Instagram’ moments.
Organisation GB Ultras remind me a little bit of Centurion Running in that they are well organised, highly regarded by the running community, have a decent social media presence to create strong word of mouth for their events, have good, well marked routes and put on events that people want to run. As the RD, Wayne Drinkwater is very visible and this I think gives confidence to the runners that a well organised event is upon them, and they’d be correct – it is well thought out and well executed.
Pre-race communication was lengthy but full of detailed information and the Covid video was helpful (though I did struggle to find the mandatory kit video).
The thing that was hardest was probably the social media stuff – lots of different pages, lots of different events, lots of crossover and that was a little confused – perhaps some rationalisation of these pages would help in terms of finding things and knowing where to ask questions. For example despite reading through everything I could not find mention of whether running poles were allowed and I didn’t want to bother the RD and the team knowing that they would be incredibly busy in the final days leading up to the event. I’m sure that information is available but I couldn’t find it.
The covid secure systems they had in place seemed to work very well and although they reduce the overall atmosphere of the event they did allow it to take place. I found the race start to be perfectly well executed and despite my trepidation about doing these covid secure events I would say GB Ultras got it spot on.
I would also like to mention the tracking which although perhaps not 100% accurate was certainly mostly accurate and when you were off course the team knew about it and were trying to get in touch with you. This is a vast improvement over some of the tracking we’ve witnessed over the years and that’s a clear indication that the technology is finally catching up with the idea. It’s also worth saying that the Southern Upland Way has pretty good phone reception and so if the GB Ultras team is trying to get in touch they may well actually get through. Not all locations in Scotland have phone reception on a race route – something I quite like because you can’t be disturbed and you can keep your phone in airport mode!
It’s also worth noting that there were pictures and videos aplenty flying around the event and it’s quite an achievement that the GB Ultras team had time to be capturing pictures and footage as well as ensuring the more important stuff got done – like feeding me cake! Well done guys!
All in all the GB Ultras organisation was on point and handled incredibly well given the Covid guidelines.
Value for Money This is always a big one for me in terms of determining whether I would run it again or perhaps more importantly whether to tell other runners about this race. So the cost is £79 and what do you get for that? For starters there’s the race itself, the excellent indoor checkpoint locations, the race tracking and the support when you go significantly off route. There’s the medal and there is a decent crack at good and varied checkpoint food.
So £79 (plus about £10 for the bus back to the start if you need transport) is it worth it? I think so – it’s not really much more than the magic £1 per mile which used to be a significant marker in race costs – what you’re getting is a lovely, tough, well managed day in the hills and that is well worth the money being charged.
Awards Medal, big medal, golden medal. Done.
I was glad there was no t-shirt because I’m not sure I could wear one that had the Union flag on it, as a pro-Scottish Independence, SNP voting Englishman living in Scotland it would have felt weirdly hypocritical to put one on, however, I thought the medal was very nice and really quite understated – it sits proudly at the top of my stairs with its brothers and sisters.
Volunteers I remember thinking at my first ultra marathon all those years ago as I stared at the poor volunteers, ‘fuck I hope I don’t die because you guys couldn’t handle dealing with the dead body’. As I ran into each and every checkpoint of the Ultra Scotland I knew that each member of the checkpoint probably not only knew how to deal with the body but probably had a good idea on how to dispose of me too. The volunteers were exceptional, every single person knew the drill and they remained Covid secure throughout.
Kudos to them for remaining both diligent, supportive and in some cases amusing. Being a volunteer at an endurance event can be a cold, lonely and thankless job but these guys were amazing – so thank you all.
The Runners I sometimes think that when we consider races or write reviews we forget that actually it’s mostly about the runners – we tend to focus on medals, routes, organisation but having the race against the background of the pandemic reminded me that without runners willing to train, travel, get wet, potential fuck themselves up – well then races wouldn’t take place at all.
I’ve mentioned the awesome Kieran whom without, I wouldn’t have made it to the end, I’ve mentioned Nick who was simply brilliant and I expect to see his name against some really big challenges in the coming years – there was something about him and I’ve mentioned a whole host of other names but I did say I’d come back to Michelle and here we are! I was introduced to Michelle via social media a few days before the race through a mutual acquaintance – the evergreen Grant Wilcox. Anyway we exchanged a couple of messages and wished each other well saying we’d chat if we saw each other.
Well I met Michelle several times over the course of the race and even stated out loud that I hope she was going to make it back in time – what I didn’t realise was the Michelle I met on the route was the Michelle I had spoken to via social media.
What a dumbass I am.
Worse than that it would take me at least another couple of days to connect the two. Bloody numpty! Anyway the good news was that she made it and I’m happy about that. Should I meet her again I will definitely tell her the real story of the Snowdonia Marathon though and how I came to meet our mutual buddy – Grant!
I suppose the thing about this running of the Ultra Scotland is that only about 50 runners turned out for it but actually it felt like many more and the runners should be congratulated for their part in making the event of the success that it was.
My Race Well as you’ve read I had a both brilliant and torrid time, I went in injured but reasonably well trained and I came out injured further and totally ruined. That said I had a great time getting this ruined and despite a late finish I got up to hike Gray Mare’s Tail the next morning and was back running on the Monday. I wish my knee had held up because I knew about my hamstring and felt I could manage that but the knee was unexpected and that both threw me and slowed me significantly. So it wasn’t a disaster for me – I mean I finished but I didn’t finish the way I wanted and that’s disappointing.
Conclusions What can I say about the Ultra Scotland 50? Well it’s a tough as old boots challenge that lives up to trail running label, it has superb organisation and a great team behind it. GB Ultras deserve all the plaudits they get from the running community and managing to stage a Covid secure event deserves extra credit.
There are a few niggles though, but nothing dramatic and certainly nothing that would stop me entering – the big bugbear was that this is closer to 60 than 50 miles even in the official distance and by the time you’ve added on your extra mileage it is definitely reading more like a 60 mile race, I suppose I could try and get better at navigation but where’s the fun in that? I understand that for marketing it’s better to have a set of 50 mile races but it is inaccurate.
I enjoyed the race and I feel like it’s one that you could easily have a good crack at regardless of your level but it’s a ‘no prisoners’ kind of a race and if the weather was shit then this would be a real ball breaker – something to think of given this is Scotland, in early spring and snow, wind and rain isn’t unusual! We got pretty lucky with the weather but even in decent conditions the wind at the hill tops was cold and happy to give your face a good blasting.
Would I do it again?
Well I’d be in no rush to sign up again because I feel that I’ve experienced the Southern Upland Way path and if I were going to run there again it would be on new trails. That said I enjoyed this enough to consider going back and improving on my performance at some point in the future and I felt that GB Ultras put on a great event and therefore I’d be very happy to go and try one of their other races next year – the Pennine Barrier being the one that most interests me.
Is it worth you doing it? Well that’s up to you – you can find out more about this race and their other events on the GB Ultras website.
As for me I’ll be polishing my medals (not a euphemism) and reviewing the Great Glen Ultra in July, once I’ve run it – 71 miles, argh!
I don’t live in the Highlands, so this isn’t a post about surviving the big snowy, icy, wet conditions that can be had up there, I’m not Scottish, so this isn’t a post about a lifetimes experience of the Scottish Central Belt and its regularly changing weather patterns. No this is a post about how I run through the winter in the Central Belt of Scotland with the minimum of fuss.
Now let’s be fair, I’m an odd guy, I’ve been described, often, as idiosyncratic , weird, a fucking nutter and all sorts of offensive and less offensive things. So what might be right for me might not be for you but this overview of how I do a Scottish winter running might be a starting point to keep you going out through the year. I’ll also be listing kit with this overview to try and show that you don’t have to have lots of fancy gear or for it to cost a fortune to get you out there year round.
History I moved to the Central Belt of Scotland nearly three years ago after the ridiculous English voted to leave the European Union (politics over). In that time I feel I have grown rather accustomed to the unpredictable and yet rather serene nature of life north of my former location.
So head to toe this is how I get ready to face the outdoors in the chillier months!
HEAD | Buff | Hat The head is the easiest bit to get right and I have a couple of items that make sense in surviving the winter here in Falkirk.
Buff Buff Traditional | £10-£30 The first is obviously a buff (or similar), it is possibly the most versatile piece of running gear that you own, intend to own or want to own. It’ll wipe your nose, it’ll wipe your arse, it’ll keep your face covered or it’ll act as a hat. I have several types for winter running – so if I’m going on a long run I’ll often choose the Buff Visor because as well as having a neoprene peak which is very soft and flexible you can still use it as a conventional buff and even still chuck it round your wrist. The peak though is the thing that gives you longer running protection from wind and rain in your eyes and can be wrung out if it gets wet! Perfect.
For shorter running more traditional buffs are used and I tend to carry a couple as they are so versatile.
Hat Big Bobble Hat £20 I’m also very keen on a hat – not always because you need one to keep your little head warm – the buff will do this but because the bobble hat always makes me feel nice. If you get a medium weight running hat then that would cover almost all scenarios and if it isn’t too heavy or bulky it will nicely scrunch up and can be tossed in a pocket of a jacket or a running vest. The Big Bobble hat pictured does not scrunch up so well but it is lovely and toasty and you’ll never say, ‘I didn’t see you coming’ while I’m wearing it.
Alternatives Rab Beanie Hat £15 | Oddballs Bobble Hat £15 | Kalenji Running Hat £6
BODY | Long Sleeved Shirt | Short Sleeve Shirt | Gilet Running hot is a nuisance sometimes, especially during the warmer weather or even on those milder winter days and so I need to have a solution that allows me to be both warm and well ventilated. The solution, as with all things for me, is layering and the three layers I discuss below offer the benefit of being easily removable, wicking and protecting me across a range of runs and a version of this would be used as my race day kit.
Long Sleeved Shirt Ronhill Core Long Sleeved Shirt | £25 A popular choice as a next to skin layer would be something like a compression top but I have never fared very well in these and prefer something that I have a little more control over and so I’ll wear a long sleeved Ronhill top. The benefits of this as my base layer means I can easily roll my sleeves up if I’m warming up too much, I can un/tuck the top into my shorts to minimise the amount of cold air that comes into direct contact with my skin and as it is usually neon in colour it offers a good level of visibility.
Alternatives Salomon Agile LS Shirt £30 | OMM Flow LS Shirt £40 | Kiprun Care LS Shirt £20
Short Sleeve Shirt Oddballs Training Top | £17 Over the long sleeved top I’ll wear a shorter sleeved shirt, usually something very lightweight to account for the fact I have two tops on and I’ve found that the Oddballs training shirts are the ideal combination of weight and durability against the various weather conditions that I’ll face. No they aren’t waterproof but they dry quickly and they have a good fit for a standard shaped man and so there isn’t a lot of spare fabric flying around to catch pools of water in. The best thing though is they are available in a range of batshit patterns and colours, are relatively inexpensive and are a perfect companion to my long sleeved top. If Oddballs ever do a long sleeved training tops I’ll be buying some!
Alternatives Salomon Agile SS Shirt £30 | La Sportiva Advance Shirt £45 | Alpkit Vayper SS Shirt £29 | Kalenji Dry + Feel £6
Gilet WAA Gilet | £45 If it rains while I’m out then the training shirts will dry out pretty quickly but for winter running you should have some form of waterproof or water-resistant cover for moist days – cold will cut through most materials in winter when it is wet and if you’re up a hill or out for several hours then even the hardiest of us will begin to feel the chill.
There are lots of options that you can go for such as a wind/water resistant jacket that will offer a little bit of protection from the elements, a full on waterproof jacket that would be best suited to those long days in the rain or for passing a race kit check but for my day to day winter running I usually take with me my WAA running gilet. The gilet offers just enough protection from the elements combined with a tiny form factor to make it great for distances up to about 13 miles or a couple of hours of running. The front of the gilet is single piece of fabric which means that the wind won’t pass through you too easily but on the back there are mesh panels that allow your body to breathe. Sadly I don’t believe they make this any longer but it was a great piece of kit when I first purchased it about 5 years ago and remains a great piece of kit. Oh
Alternatives OMM Sonic Smock £60 | Soar Ultra Running Gilet £135 | Alpkit Arro Vest £35 | Kalenji Run Wind H £10
HANDS | Overmitts | Gloves | Watch The hands are something that I never had to worry about until I arrived in Scotland and even up here it isn’t a major issue beyond the first few minutes of a run. However, those first few minutes are crucial in determining whether it is going to be a good run or not.
Wind/Waterproof Mitts Decathlon Overmitts | £15 The Decathlon overmitts are both waterproof and lightweight and have a tiny size in both form and weight. One of the key things about keeping warm is that you keep the wind out. I tend to find when running that I don’t need insulation as much as I need to keep the chill from passing through me. The overmitts provide a perfect wind protection layer until my hands have heated enough to be self supporting against the conditions and at about £15 a pair they are much more inexpensive than the nearest rivals.
Gloves WAA Gloves | £15 I’ve had a number of pairs of gloves over the years and most have been rubbish but the WAA gloves offer a thin level of insulation and combine this with still being able to use your fingers (a common problem with any level of insulation in gloves I find). There is no option to operate a phone with these gloves but I find this to be a benefit – it means I leave my phone in my pocket – but the fingers are usable enough to allow me to operate the action camera buttons should I need to. The WAA gloves are also the easiest on and off gloves I have ever bought – handy when you only wear them for a very short period of time, sadly these are no longer available at the WAA website but there are alternatives…
Watch Garmin Fenix 6X Pro | £550 A watch of any description is quite a handy thing to have – yes I happen to be using the rather fancy Garmin Fenix 6X Pro but something much simpler would be more than sufficient. I find that I don’t always track my running with the GPS or record it (I don’t use or like Strava) but I do like to keep an eye on how long I have been out for and also what kind of elevation I am running or hiking at. The watch allows me to do these things but I am not a slave to it and in winter I find it useful to remind me that I have or haven’t been out long enough.
The Fenix 6X Pro was bought as the replacement for my Ambit 3 Peak (a much loved multisport watch) with ultra marathons in mind but the alternatives offer many good features at significantly lower price points. The Polar impresses in particular and my partner has this watch because of its smaller size and lower weight as well as its many activity features.
LEGS | Shorts Whenever I post new running content to either Facebook or Instagram it will be adorned with the hashtag ‘shortsallyear’ because for me there is simply no better feeling and because my body can handle it. Not everybody can handle the cold as well as I do and therefore I can fully appreciate why you might opt for running leggings or even winter running leggings. Legwear is the most complex choice I think as they are difficult to change when you are out on a run and it’s the thing that you are most unlikely to carry a spare of so you’re stuck in whatever you choose to go out in.
Shorts Ronhill Tech Revive Twin Skin Shorts | £35 In the decade I have been running I have owned just 7 pairs of training shorts and given that I run on average a little over 300 days per year that is a lot of running for just 7 pairs of shorts. To be fair 2 of those pairs have been in the rotation for just a couple of months and 2 of those pairs have been there since 2018 – so for nearly 8 years I used just 3 pairs of Nike twin skin running shorts (no longer available) and I wore them in every possible condition. The latest additions to my running shorts armoury are Ronhill because they are good fit for me and I have had many happy adventures in their tops.
I wear twin skin shorts as a general rule because the brief style shorts are a bit like trying to fit a 500ml bottle of cola into a space designed for a 330ml can of fizzy drink. It also means that my legs mostly stay dry even if the outer fabric takes a bit of a pounding from the wet or the mud. In the cold I appreciate the next to skin layer especially given that I have a tendency to be nut sack high in wet muddy trails and worse icy waters.
FEET | Drymax Socks | Gaiters | Trail Running Shoes The feet represent my weakest point and therefore this is the area I pay most attention to during the winter months, I rotate my shoes on a daily basis and often have at least five different pairs going at once – this allows each pair to dry out fully before they are next used. Beyond this it’s about management of my feet to ensure they stay in reasonable condition for the next run
Socks Drymax Socks | £10-30 I recently wrote a piece about how I’ve evolved the set up of my kit for racing with specific reference to my feet (read about it here) and a key component of that are the Drymax socks. I’ve pretty much gone from only using Drymax during races to using them in anything other than warm, summery conditions.
The key benefit of Drymax is the warm while wet approach that means that even if your feet take a serious dunking the socks will keep your little footsies warm and relatively toasty. During a Scottish winter of running it is not inconceivable that you’ll come across snow, ice, freezing water, oodles of gooey mud, oodles of sticky mud and worse and so the socks need to be robust enough to handle all of the above and more.
During winter I tend to wear higher up the leg socks rather than the crew length ones I opt for in the summer and this also helps to keep the crap of the trail or ice away from skin which can an absolute bastard if it slices into you. If there’s one thing I want protected it’s my feet and these really help.
Alternatives Injinji Toe Socks £10-25 | Hilly Off Road Socks £10-20 |
Trail Running Shoes Topo Athletic Terraventure | £120 My first choice running shoes for the winter are my Topo Athletic Terraventure followed by the Inov8 Trail Talon 290, these two workhorse shoes will do everything and they are bombproof, they will go everywhere and nothing can hurt them. Both pairs of shoes will eat up tarmac if they are asked to but they are designed for the trail and that is where they will have the most fun and where you will get most benefit.
Footwear choice is, of course, very personal and you should only wear the shoes that are suited to you but these are the ones suited to me.
I would suggest that whatever shoe you wear during the winter that it is suited to the conditions that you are facing, If you do lots of tarmac then you don’t need aggressive lugs but if you are facing mud and hills on a daily basis then you’ll need something that can dig into the terrain. One thing that has seen me invest in is some specialist equipment for the ice and I’ll discuss this in the extras section.
Shoes don’t need to be super expensive or a super popular brand but go to a retailer (when we are allowed) and try them on, get a feel for them and listen to your feet. It took me a long time to find shoes that worked consistently but issues with my feet are no longer caused by the footwear I choose, just the conditions I run in! Do your research and you will be rewarded.
Alternatives Altra Lone Peak 5.0 £140 | On Cloudventure £150 | Kalenji Evadict TR2 £50 | More Mile Cheviot Pace £30
Gaiters Topo Athletic Gaiter | £15 Let me start by saying that the Topo Athletic gaiter is not my favourite gaiter, that award goes to the Dirty Girl gaiters that have been following my adventures since my first ultra marathon. However, I own the shoes so I might as well own the gaiters with the correct fitting for the footwear. The gaiters during winter provide added protection from the trail, there is nothing worse than stones, grit or other flotsam and jetsam getting involved with your feet. A pair of gaiters will instantly improve your running experience especially, if like me, you’ve got weak feet.
CARRY | Waterproof Jacket | Overtrousers | Light Year round I wear a running vest, I prefer it to a running belt or the Freetrain phone holder, I feel that a running vest or bag is designed to hold stuff and distribute weight across you better than any of the alternatives. Plus as a former Runcommuter I am very used to the idea of running with a bag on my back and in winter I believe that running safely requires the carrying of a few kit extras.
Waterproof Jacket Montane Minimus Waterproof Jacket | £140 I always come back to this jacket for one reason and one reason only – it has never, ever failed me. I own two of these but I mostly wear the one I have owned for nearly a decade, it doesn’t age, it doesn’t show signs of wear and its a beautiful green colour.
The Montane Minimus comes with me on those longer runs or when I head into the hills or if it really is chucking it down – how often do I wear it in the winter? Not that often, but occasionally if I’m having day where I feel a bit shit and frail then I’ll chuck it on and feel that bit more secure about going out and facing the trails.
Overtrousers Montane Featherlite Trousers | £50 This may surprise some readers but even I need a bit of help in the leg department occasionally and the thing that I carry with me are my much underused Montane Featherlite Trousers.
Now let me start by saying that these are not waterproof trousers they are water resistant and wind resistant and this is the key to why I like them so much. They are so light but never let my legs overheat and they dry incredibly quickly meaning that if I have had to resort to putting them on they are going to provide the kind of layer that I need. I own a much heavier pair of waterproof trousers that I use for hiking – the brilliant Berghaus Deluge but these would only be suitable as running cover in the most unpleasant of race situations (say something like the Spine).
This winter I haven’t worn my Featherlite Overtrousers because the lockdown has kept me relatively close to home and therefore away from the hills but in previous winters whenever I go near an area that might leave me a bit isolated these are straight into my running bag and the best thing is that they scrunch down into a tiny little stuff sack.
Light Olight Baton | £90 First off let me assure you that I paid a lot less than the price on the Olight website for a light that is the same length as my thumb (I have small thumbs). However, the important thing is that you are going to want a light if you are running through the winter – in the Central Belt it can be dark for up to 16 hours a day and that means the hours of daylight are likely being taken up with things like childcare or work or watching Netflix.
I have a number of headtorches that all work very well but I wanted something handheld as I find wearing a headtorch is a little uncomfortable (something I’m happy to put up in race conditions but not on my pleasure runs), they interfere with action camera footage and of course it can create the tunnel vision effect that can make running in the dark a lot less enjoyable.
The Olight baton benefits from being tiny in size, as already mentioned, but also incredibly powerful in terms of its beam (up to 2000 lumens) and there are three brightness settings available. Battery life is reasonable even on the brightest setting although in race conditions I think this would only ever be a spare light. The good news is that the Olight Baton can be recharged on the go with the use of an external battery pack and has a very secure magnetic charging cable that means you could chuck it in the back of your pack and leave it there to charge until you need it.
I use this extensively on my local trails if I am running late at night as there is very little moonlight that penetrates the canopy of my trail and so each step is in total darkness – this light really does lead the way. A very worthwhile purchase.
EXTRAS | Spikes | Survival Bag | First Aid Kit | Water Bottle
There are things that I have had for a very long time that form, part of my running kit and there are a few extras I have bought to face the Scottish winters – the first thing I bought as an extra was a pair of running spikes.
I am fortunate to live close enough to my local trails that if it ices up I can manage the few hundred metres of tarmac in spikes to get to the trail. Spikes aren’t the only solution to running on the ice and they certainly are not perfect but they let me keep going out even when others have been sidelined by the weather. Because I have rather large hobbit like feet I bought the Altra Golden Spike which are both surprisingly cushioned and grippy. The alternatives include the excellent YakTrax Pro or the rather expensive studded running shoes from VJ Sports, Inov8 and Icebug.
I have a plethora of water bottles that I use with my absolute favourite being the first generation hard bottles from Ultimate Direction, those bad boys have been hard to beat over the years and despite the advances in the technology and taste of the soft bottle I still prefer these beauties. That said I use my Salomon 150ml soft bottle for runs in winter up to about 21km and anything after that I’ll use a 300ml soft bottle because they are more flexible and fit better alongside the action camera that often accompanies me on runs.
I would always recommend carrying a survival bag of some description, I’ve never had to use one but on the day I do I will be extremely pleased that I have it with me. If I am going off trail or will be on my own for any length of time then this is an essential piece of kit that might well save my life and my life is probably just about worth the £10 that you’ll need to spend to get your hands on one of these.
As for a first aid kit I’m a bit skinny with this, I take a small used Compeed pack and put in it some plasters, a needle, painkillers, blister plasters and a small dressing and keep this at the bottom of my bag – again I have never had to use it while out training, although I did use it while racing on the Isle of Skye and that kept my feet in one piece until the end of the race (I say one piece my feet were fucked – you can read the race review here).
WHAT’S ESSENTIAL? I would say that of the kit listed above the essential bits are the buff, the long sleeved top, legwear, running shoes, socks, gloves and a water resistant or waterproof jacket – the rest I could have survived without but they made my daily jaunts to the trails much easier.
In 2011 if you’d have looked in my running gear drawer this is what you would have found the following;
my old ASICs trail shoes that I ran on roads and trails in | £27
my 3/4 length Nike running tights |£17
a couple of pairs of white cotton M&S socks | £3.50
a black buff that I stole from my partner who used to wear it while visiting farms | Free
a second buff I bought from a Rat Race event | £5
a pair of Saucony running gloves that fell apart after about 5 minutes | £14
a sale Adidas wind resistant jacket | £19
a long sleeved Ronhill running shirt that I still wear to this day | £21
a couple of short sleeved Rat Race overstock t-shirts from previous RR events | £10
It is also worth noting that these days I tend to run daily, especially in the winter and therefore I need a bit more kit to see me through otherwise my washing machine would never be off.
Only you can really decide what is essential for you to go running during the winter but for a relatively small investment you could probably have all the essentials that you need for running regularly and safely.
I tend to invest because my view is always that I’d rather have kit that does the job and does it for a long time and I like good value. My Montane Minimus is the best example of this, I bought the waterproof jacket many years ago for about £80 and it will probably last me another decade or more if I continue to look after it – that’s value for money and I’ve discovered value for money rarely means cheap. That said my £3, 18 year old Kalenji running base layers are still going strong and get worn often, get washed even more often and are super useful for running and other activities, so good value isn’t always expensive either!
WHERE? Where do you get stuff like this? Well that will be down to you but I like to use a mix of independent retailers, direct from manufacturers and online resources.
To make it clear I am NOT sponsored by any of these (or anyone else), I purchase all the products I use and nothing is ever taken for free or testing.
If I am looking for well made and inexpensive kit then I will always look at Decathlon because as well as having a significant shop presence I think they’re brilliant and then places like Cotswold Outdoors and Runners Need will always have something useful that the others can’t cover.
I NEVER buy from Sports Direct.
TOP TIPS I should point out that the kit and products I have listed I own and have used extensively in the cold of Scotland’s winter months, sometimes over multiple years.
The alternatives that I have presented here are merely examples of the things that I might own, might have researched or looked up as alternatives specifically for this blog and if you like the sound of them then get your research hat on and start deciding if it’s right for you. You are the best decision-maker for what will fit and work best for you, not some bloke on a blog or someone answering a Facebook/Twitter question.
And the reason I am posting this towards the tail end of the winter running season? Well it will soon be time for retailers to dispose of their AW20 kit and you might pick up a bargain or two that will be perfect for AW21.
FINALLY I do hope though that you realise that is possible to run all year round and that while you can spend an absolute fortune you really do not have to, the combination of excellent sales and the increase in the UK visibility of places like Decathlon means that choice has never been better and the quality of brands like Crane (via Aldi) has much improved in recent years. The sad thing is that the last couple of years has seen the loss of a couple of excellent independent running stores and these will unlikely be replaced – therefore please support local or independent running/outdoor stores were you can.
Most importantly of course is, enjoy your winter running and do it safely.
I wasn’t going to review the Harrier Run ‘Ultra’ bundle but after several months of use I felt it would be churlish of me not to jot down my thoughts for you to consider whether this is something that might be useful for you.
I shan’t bother with an incomplete history of Harrier as others have done this better than I will but it’s suffice to say that they are new on the block and something of a disruptor in, what has fast become, an overcrowded market. The company and its founder have, in an impressively short space of time put together a product range of running kit suited to the ‘couch to 5km’ runner all the way to the adventure/ultra marathoner and beyond. For this we must applaud the team who must work tirelessly.
I decided that although I did not need a new running vest that the Harrier Kinder 10 litre looked like something I wanted to try and with its low price point I was happy to purchase one and if it was ‘great’ then that was a bonus and if it was only ‘okay’ then it would go into the rotation and that would be fine too.
I didn’t purchase it straight away though, it was after I’d seen one in use at the Ultra North event that I ordered it. Having seen it in person I felt that it would be a useful addition in my running armoury. And so while literally travelling back to sunny Scotland from a very wet Northumberland I put my order in but not for the vest – for the ultra bundle.
The Ultra Bundle The ultra bundle provides an excellent value packed array of gear designed to ensure that you, the runner, have all of the basics and a few key extras for your big adventures. So what’s in the ultra bundle?
A choice of 10l (Kinder) or 5l (Curbar) race vest (includes whistle)
2 x soft water bottles
2 x soft bottle long straws
1 x hydration bladder
1 x snood
1 x collapsible heatproof cup
1 x collapsible cup
1 x Emergency first aid kit (not available at the time I purchased the bundle)
1 x Survival bag
1 x dry bag
Perhaps the amazing thing is the variety within each item. The main event, the running vest, comes in two different colours in the Curbar and Kimder, there are four fit sizes. There is also an extra large for the bigger framed runner called the Stanage. Options don’t end at the race vest, in fact they barely start there – each of the water bottles and cups comes in a range of funky colours, the drybags are two colours and two sizes, the snood is available in blue and orange and even the running poles are available in multiple sizes and two different materials. It is an enviable amount of choice that the major manufacturers either don’t or can’t offer.
Choice Sometimes choice can be a bit overwhelming and the trouble I had when putting my ultra bundle together was how do I co-ordinate? The answer was I couldn’t really – I wanted big bold and bright colours and these didn’t always match across the various products. I would quite happily have had everything in pink or purple but this wasn’t an option so I mixed and matched a little bit and after a little while I found what I believed was the perfect set up.
My only gripe was in the colour of the race vest itself which was much more muted than the rest of the options – that said the blue colouring that I chose was actually very pleasant but if there had been a pink or purple or batshit colour then I’d have chosen that. It may come as no surprise then that when both the Curbar and the Kinder became available in less discreet colours I ordered both the Orange and the Red.
Bundling The company have the bundle system for lots of good reasons I imagine, if you’re starting on your ultra or long distance running journey then you may need a reasonable amount of kit and a bundle that offers a very healthy discount would be much appreciated. The bundle presumably also allows Harrier to get rid of stock that might not be as swift as seller – so hydration bladder and water bottles might not be bought at the same time but if part of a bundle then you’d take both and use whichever better suited your adventure that day. The bundle, because of the cleverness of Harrier, allows you to easily identify what kind of kit it is that you are going to need – there’s no research involved, you just buy a bundle and put it on and you’re on your way to thrill seeking.
Experiences Experience with the Harrier Run Ultra Bundle will vary but the reception has been overwhelmingly positive but it can be difficult to judge something until you’ve been trying it out on a daily basis for several months and that is something that I have been doing. Almost all of the items in the ultra bundle have seen some running and most have been used multiple times – they key elements such as the vests, the poles, water bottles and drybag have been a near constant companion since they arrived and I feel very comfortable about being able to assess whether they are good for me or not.
Kinder Running Vest I like a larger than necessary race vest because, ‘you never know’ and I have been known to start a run or a race with what some might describe as, ‘the kitchen sink’. The Kinder would still be at the smaller end of my race vest sizes even at 10 litres but I felt having seen it in real life that it looked acapable of supporting the amount of kit I traditionally transport in an ultra marathon.
So what does the Kinder have?
10 litre capacity
Lots of pockets across the vest
7 x front pockets
Pull through back pocket for waterproofs
Deep mesh side pockets
Zipped phone pocket
Multiple connection points for running pole
Race number toggles
Adjustable sternum straps
Dedicated bladder pocket
Substantial bladder clip
Multiple bladder hose configurations
Bungee pull on the back for tighter fit
Main compartment zipped closing
Figure hugging fit
Toggles and straps across the vest to keep kit tidy
Choice of colours
Curbar Running Vest Despite liking a larger capacity running vest I have to say that since the Curbar arrived a couple of months ago I have worn nothing else as a running bag (the Curbar was not part of the bundle, but bought separately along with a second Kinder). I have found a huge amount of running comfort and joy in the Curbar as I have been improving my training and ultimately improving my running.
So what does the Curbar have?
5 litre capacity
Lots of pockets across the vest
7 x front pockets
Pull through back pocket for waterproofs
Deep mesh side pockets
Zipped phone pocket
Extra back pocket
Back pole holders
Race number toggles
Adjustable sternum straps
Dedicated bladder pocket
Substantial bladder clip
Multiple bladder hose configurations
Figure hugging fit
Toggles and straps across the vest to keep kit tidy
Choice of colours
When wearing either of the race vests it probably most resembles either a Salomon or early Ultimate Direction Signature series pack – that shouldn’t be considered a negative as the UD in particular was an exceptional race vest. It has a figure hugging shape and moves with you rather than bounces around and this is where the Harrier shows that it is superior than the old UD PB1.0. When moving side to side the vest has enough give that it comes with you but without ever feeling slack and yet is tight enough that when running it moves along with you rather than bouncing around in your mid lumbar region.
From fabric through to fit this is very, very comfortable running vest experience
If movement is an impressive feature of the Harrier vests then it is matched in impressiveness by the amount of available space. Both the 5 litre and the 10 litre have lots of upfront space and the pockets are cavernous. In fact this brings me to a favourite feature – for the first time ever in a race vest I can have my action camera stored upfront while at the same time as having two 500ml water bottles there too. I am sure that the makers did not consider the needs of the action camera user when designing this but the fact my DJ Osmo Action and my Insta360 One X2 both fit perfectly mean that this race vest will often jump to the front of the queue for racing. The rest of the pockets are equally excellent but each one has a purpose – so those front mesh pockets are ideal for a buff or a pair or gloves while the phone pocket is okay for a phone I find it better for a small amount of wallet or keys or basically something you aren’t going to use – there are better pockets for a phone.
The side pockets are as massive as their front siblings and also much more accessible than many of its rivals and the springiness of the fabric makes everything deceptively spacious.
On the reverse the space inside the back of the pack is mostly excellent but if you’re used to something like an OMM backpack or even a UD race vest then the Harrier vests will feel more confined and the mild tapering towards the bottom of the vest mean that the way you pack your kit may need some consideration – I don’t feel like I can just throw stuff in here.
The Curbar has a neat ‘through pocket’ where wet or dry waterproofs could be stowed and also has an extra pocket that sits at the bottom of the vest – I’d be tempted to keep only the lightest of gear here as I feel using it might unbalance my weight distribution – but remember that whatever you store in here should be in a small 2 litre or smaller drybag just incase you caught in a bit of precipitation.
The Kinder meanwhile benefits from a bungee cord rather than a through pocket and this is welcome addition as it offers flexibility to connect whatever you need to carry there and it also allows the vest to be cinched down if you aren’t carry much kit – something that the 5 litre vest doesn’t need. It is worth noting though that the Kinder runs just as well as the Curbar if it is empty and not cinched down.
One thing to keep in mind is that neither are waterproof and although when I’ve gotten soaking in it the back mesh, and therefore my back, for the most part stay dry, the outer layers will wet through and aren’t as quick to dry as say a ripstop material. What does this mean? It’s simple – you’ll need drybags (and don’t worry Harrier have you covered there too).
From here the Harrier mostly goes straight into party mode with little flourishes and finishes that will simply make your running life that bit easier – from multiple points of connection for your poles on the Kinder to back pole holders on the Curbar. The race number holder, the easy pull zip cords and multiple points of attachment for your bladder hose as well as those front pockets being more secure than the average through to the plethora of hoops, loops and bungees that can tie down pretty much anything – it’s almost like an S&M party on these vests – these vests have it all.
I do have a bugbear and it is quite a big one – the fastening system for the front. Once its fitted that is lovely and it is great but if you need to adjust the height of the chest straps then it is a bit of a bugger, if you needed to do that with freezing cold or wet hands then it would be a nightmare. It reminds me of a lighter, less good version of the crossover system that Salomon employed on some of their bags a few years back (and my well still do). It’s not the worst but nor is it the best. The other thing, directly related to the chest straps is that they come loose as you are running, not massively and not all at once but you will find yourself regularly tightening these up. You might say it’s the sizing or what I’m carrying but I have both medium and large sizes and both the 5 and 10 litres and have tried them all in different configurations and the chest strap just loosens much more than say my beloved Raidlight Olmo 20.
Is it a big issue? Not really I just pull it tight as I run (and it super easy to adjust on the move).
So bugbear aside I think the Curbar and the Kinder are astonishingly good value and brilliant kit even if there were double the price. For less than £60.00, at full price, you simply won’t get better.
Running/Hiking Poles I’ve used my Black Diamond Z fold for several years now and never had a moment where I thought, these aren’t good enough, they were expensive but they’ve lasted and they felt like they would last from the moment I bought them. The poles from Harrier (at a mere £69.00) arrived to much online fanfare, lots of the runners who had tested them out had lots of good things to say about them. The thing for me is that I tend not to use poles outside of the more mountainous running events like MIUT but again as part of the ltra bundle it seemed silly to turn my nose up at this bargain.
When you pick the poles up they aren’t as light as some of their more expensive alternatives, however, the difference in weight (209g) isn’t really very noticeable and should certainly not be a deterrent to ownership. That slightly heftier feel though contributes to a sense that these are built to last and during my tests I have not once worried that the poles might snap, something I have seen happen to other poles during events. The handle is soft and runs long down the shaft with an easily adjustable and strong wrist loop. The poles are ‘z fold’ rather than telescopic which I feel suits runners better, once out of your pack you just fling them in front of you and lock them in position – no faffing around.
Are they as easy as my Black Diamond poles? No, not quite – the tightening flip lock clamp at the end of the handle means there is an additional step compared to my Black Diamond poles. However, this lock, I feel will give them a greater longevity and also allows a certain level of adjustability in height – another improvement over some of the competition. Add this together and with the reduction in the amount of little metal locking buttons, which are a potential place for water or grot to sit and cause damage, then you’ve got a product that is both practical and innovative. The Harrier alternative to the metal locking buttons are locking discs which sit at the end of each section of the pole and simply clamp together – easy.
The poles do follow some conventions though and have such as a coated metal inner cord to ensure that the pole has strength when you are running and doesn’t just come apart. A spike at the end to help you grip in the worst of terrains, mud basket and a rubber tip cover should you suddenly find yourself on the tarmac.
What I can say is that I’ve used these for about 30 miles of running since they arrived, I have bounced around the muddy trails on them, I’ve run on the ice using them (without Yaktrax) and I’ve hiked several of the Ochils (when I was allowed to go there) and they have been superb.
As for the fitting around you when you are racing, well if you’ve bought the ultra bundle then there are lots of places that the poles can go and the race vest(s) have all been given consideration to how a runner may way to run with poles. That said these poles would fit almost any race vest, I’ve used them in my Raidlight Olmo 20 and my UD PB3.0, they’re unobtrusive and they’re right there when you need them most.
And the best thing? Well for the money you’d think you were perhaps only getting one pole but no, you’re getting a pair. I would really struggle to find any criticism of the Helvellyn poles – but if you think that the £69.00 isn’t quite worth it and you don’t mind a little bit more weight then they have now produced an aluminium version called Catbells these will set you back a mere £39.00 at the time of writing and although I haven’t used them myself can you really argue with this kind of pricing?
Soft Water Bottles (500ml), Standard Caps and Long Straw Caps There are very few soft bottles that enhance the flavour of water, most of them make it taste a bit shitty to be honest. Thankfully the big brains at Harrier seem to have it sorted, the taste of the soft bottles is better than most (perhaps the only better one I’ve used was the 350ml Hydrapak soft bottle which was a little bit special). These soft bottles work incredibly well in the context of the Harrier vest and the long straws and wide opening makes them very easy to use. When the race vest is full it can be a little bit of a faff to get them in and out but then this is where the long straws come in handy and you could (if being careful) fill bottles without removing them from the pack (and yes I have done this, although not when exhausted in the middle of the night on an ultra marathon).
The range of colours and options is exceptional and there is something for everyone, mine are the 500ml option and might be purple, although they look very pink, however, regardless of the colour, I think they’re fantastic. These bottles have so far been zero leak and zero problem. Even if one of the bundles isn’t for you then perhaps when you’re looking for new bottles these will be on your list for consideration.
Hydration Bladder I mostly stopped using a hydration bladder when I bought my first UD Signature Series race vest – the revelation that you could have front mounted water bottles seemed so revolutionary back them, however, given the smaller form factor of the Harrier vest I felt the need to try out their bladder (and it was part of the ultra bundle). The bladder itself has a good quality feel to it, the mouth piece is easy to use when on the move and it fits well inside both the Curbar and the Kinder. The vest has a dedicated space for the hydration bladder and it all feels very secure when it is locked in via the clip at the top of the pocket. The length of the hose is more than adequate and perfectly suited for being cut to a size that suits and there are multiple configurations for wrapping the hose around yourself and the vest.
What I did note though was that when filled the bladder sits deep in the vest and takes up much of the available space at the bottom of your race pack, now although you can work around this I find this is the space that I use to keep my waterproofs in (in this or any other race vest) – therefore I want easy access to them but in the Harrier vests I find I have to choose between storing my waterproofs at bottom of the vest or having the bladder in.
My biggest gripe about the bladder though was that it leaked. I took it out on a first run on a very chilly December morning (about 6am) to discover that by the time I gotten to the bottom of my hill my back was soaked and starting to freeze up – I turned around and headed for home. Thankfully I’d caught it in time to stop myself getting to cold and changed all kit and went out running but this was a disappointment. Having looked over the bladder the leak is somewhere near the seal between hose and bladder and therefore this makes it unusable (this was the only piece of kit that got one outing).
Snood Snood, buff, neck gaiter, wrag, scarf, arse wiper – whatever you want to call it, the Harrier version is very pleasant, a little more taut than some of its Buffwear alternatives and fits nicely. The two colour options and designs are very nice, I preferred the blue design over the orange and this piece of fabric I imagine will be as much a life saver as the other 50 I own.
I wonder if I’ll ever need to wipe the old rusty bullethole on it though? Hmmm something to ponder dear reader.
Collapsible Cup With an increased need for events to be more sustainable and environmentally conscious we have seen a huge reduction in single use plastics and difficult to recycle materials. This has meant that the use of a refillable cup is now often a requirement on kit lists of longer races. It’s a simple thing, a scrunchy, weigh next to nothing cup that can easily attach to a race vest.
The Harrier collapsible cup comes in a range of excellent colours and works as well as any other cup of its type, the one downside of these cups is that they can’t really sustain hot contents and in the middle of a loooong race that might be something you want to consider but the good news is that Harrier has something for all you tea and coffee lovers too…
Hot Collapsible Cup I’ve seen collapsible hot mugs before but they’re often heavy and unwieldy, found in the handbags and shoulder bags of the ladies and gents who shop in Fenwicks or on Bond Street and need to be seen to be environmentally supportive but regret that their skinny latte is creating a stench in their overpriced handbag or might drip on to their overpriced ripped jeans. The good news is that the Harrier option is far removed from being a fashion item. Truth to tell it is actually a bit ugly but then I’m no oil painting myself so do I care if my hot collapsible mug wouldn’t walk the runways of Milan and Paris? No.
The hot collapsible cup is sturdy, robust and surprisingly small given the size it can reach when fully erect (I’ve heard that said about myself boom-tish). It’s useful, practical kit for running, fast packing and more general hiking days where space might be an issue.
Drybag I think I’ve owned every type of dry bag in every size over the years; Lomo, Decathlon, Osprey, Exped, Alpkit… the list goes on. Of all the dry bags I’ve used the Alpkit was, and remains the best but be assured the Harrier drybag runs it a close second. Once more the kit is available in a couple of colours and sizes, you’ll want some of these if you intend to use the Harrier running vests because they are not waterproof. I’ve been out for less than a couple of hours in my Harrier vest and the kit on the inside while not soaked through haven’t been dry either. The slim 5 litre drybag is an excellent fit for most key kit and the smaller 2 litre drybag is better for things you want quicker, more immediate access to.
If racing in the Harrier vest and living in Scotland as I do, I would 100% want a series of smaller drybags to supplement the vest and make sure my kit was dry when I needed it.
Survival Bag & Whistle A second whistle in the bundle (the first is attached to the race vest) and a proper survival bag in case you’re totally fucked on a mountain somewhere – much better than a foil blanket and might just save your life, £8.00 seems like a bargain
Fit Now this was a nuisance as I sit between a variety of the Harrier sizes. With the poles I’m 5’9 and therefore could have gone for the large and set them to the minimum sizing or gone for the medium and set it for the longer setting. In the end I chose the medium because I felt that having poles that extended beyond my height would be of little value but having slightly shorter ones might have an application. It turned out I was right and I have found the ability to shrink the poles down a little very useful for going uphill.
When ordering I was shrinking my waistline at a reasonably rapid rate, I’d moved from a 34 inch waist to 32 inch and my chest had started to shrink a little as had my middle and I was facing the annoyance of being between a medium and large. Both sizes fit me but the medium is better though when carry larger amounts of kit I find the large is a good fit too – basically, if you’re right in the middle of a sizing it might be worth going with the smaller size, at least this is my experience with the Harrier race vests and poles.
How much has it cost? That’s a difficult one I bought came without the first aid kit and this was reflected in the price, in total for everything in the ultra bundle it was £170.00 and some change – the bundle saving was around £30.00, so this should have been around £200.00. The second Kinder race vest was a further £59.00 and the Curbar was £54.00. Delivery times were amazingly swift and after ordering it on a Thursday I had it by the weekend and was testing it out on the Sunday morning. Can’t say fairer than that.
Buy or Not? On the trail or on the road this kit performs superbly but it’s not all sunshine and sweet cheeks and we need to understand that no matter how good kit is, there can be issues and Harrier is no different. You have to take into account the value that is in the ultra bundle though and that value is VERY HIGH, you can’t deny that Harrier have gone all out to produce bundles that really do tick every kit list box.
Obviously some of the things in the bundle will be of more use to than others but then on the day you need it, you need it and it will already have been covered by this excellent market disruptor.
It’s worth noting that there aren’t really any alternatives to the ultra bundle, bigger companies will make you buy all the things individually but there are alternatives to the individual items and you should do a comparison before purchasing – because it isn’t ever one size or rather one brand fits all. However, I bought the ultra bundle because it looked great, it was well reviewed and it was at a price point that it almost didn’t matter if it was a load of old shit – but it wasn’t a load of old shit and it has been my joy to be running in it and I expect to get many good years out of most of it.
So to buy or not to buy? That’s for you to decide.
The end of January is almost upon us and for the majority none of us will have raced for quite some time.
Now in the context of the pandemic this is a very minor thing but with glimmer of light in the distance and much hard work being done by so many to return humanity to a more traditional lifestyle, I am led to wonder about running races again.
For me the last race I did was Ultra North in September 2020, nestled between what many of us thought was the beginning of the end for COVID 19 and the ramping up of restrictions as the pandemic worsened across the globe.
2020 races, as of April, all got cancelled, some were moved on a number of occasions in an effort for events to happen but most simply didn’t take place. This means that those event organisers who have thankfully survived have moved their events to this year (2021) and this is where we can then only speculate. Is there a value in speculation? Perhaps not but I feel it helps me to write down how I’m feeling about this in order to remain focused in getting ready for the races I am aiming for.
Sadly a few days back I received my first postponement email telling me that the Pennine Bridleway has sensibly been moved from April to September. On top of that I’ve made the decision to pull out of the Quebec Mega Trail in July because I’m convinced my trip to Canada will not happen and therefore I have cancelled the flights and aim to go in 2022. It’s all starting to feel a bit 2020.
That said I’m one of the fortunate ones – I’ve got a lot of races booked in and therefore my racing agenda is set and all I can do is wait. For organisers, participants and those involved in the running events supply chain there are stresses, frustrations and disappointments coming from all directions and you can’t help but feel for everyone.
The 2020 that should have been My 2020 had been billed, by myself, as the year of the comeback. I’ve spent a lot of time treading water and running events at the back of the pack but I had assured myself that now I was settled in Scotland I could finally focus on running again and so even entered my first ultra marathon grand slam. So with that in mind my 2020 looked pretty good, with lots of variety, interesting routes and ball breakers, take a look below;
Tyndrum 24 / January (Completed)
Vogrie Park 5km / January (Completed)
Falkirk Trail 8hr Ultta / February (Completed)
F50K / March(DNS)
Skull Trail Race / March (Completed)
Pennine Bridleway / April (Postponed)
Bonnie Prince Ultra / April (Postponed)
To the Pike & Back Again / April (Postponed)
Chacefield (3 race series) / March / April / May (Postponed)
Ultra Scotland 50 / May (Postponed)
Loch Ness 360 / May (Postponed)
John Lucas Memorial / June (Postponed)
Quebec Mega Trail / July (Postponed)
Run the Blades / July (Postponed)
Ultra North / September(Completed)
Yorkshire Three Peaks / October (Postponed)
Dark Peaks / November (Postponed)
White Peaks / November (Postponed)
Cheviot Goat / December (Postponed)
I had loaded my 2020 calendar for the year end when I had assumed I would be fittest and more ready for the challenges that awaited me and to be fair by the time October and November had arrived I was much fitter than I had been when I raced at the Tyndrum 24. Who knew that I wouldn’t be getting to showcase my new found fitness! I think that most of us hoped that by the time December and therefore The Cheviot Goat had come around that the opportunity to race would have been restored.
As we all know though 2020 would end without the resumption of running events.
It couldn’t be helped and I was very much of a mind that I would rather have tighter restrictions for a significant period to allow all governments globally to get the pandemic under control rather than the half hearted restricting and easing that had been par for the course in the previous 6 months.
Feelings? The running community seems to have been sympathetic to the plight of race organisers, especially the smaller, more intimate events that have gone over and above to do their best for the wannabee participants.
I know there have been exceptions to the above statement and that some events have been found wanting in terms of communication, etc but organisers must have been dealing with enormous logistical, financial and commitment issues and so hopefully there can be some level of forgiveness if communication, rearrangements and the like were not as swift as it could have been.
Virtual Many runners have taken to engaging with the virtual events that almost every organiser has put on and this will presumably help in a small way to recover costs the organisers incurred in amongst other things venue rental, insurances and the production of 2020 materials such as medals and shirts.
Sadly, I fell out of love with virtual events some years ago and therefore found myself less inclined to do virtual runs. The only one I took part in was the ‘To the Pike & Back’ half marathon but this was because I was in the area on race day and was able to run the route at the time the event was supposed to take place.
Had I been running this at home in Scotland rather than in Bolton I would have felt like I had cheated the race and wouldn’t have been able to put the medal with my collection. Odd isn’t it? Maybe it is a little like a t-shirt I have from an event I DNS’d some years back (shirt was posted out pre-event) I don’t ever wear that shirt but I keep it as a reminder of being a knobhead and to stop doing stupid runs the day before a race.
Refunds, rearrangements and re-entry When I received the medal and the shirt a few weeks later it wasn’t with any real elation and this was perhaps the confirmation I needed to say that I would instead focus on training over virtual events. This may seem a little selfish, being unwilling to spend money on the virtual events to help keep organisers going -especially given the amount of benefit I’ve had from racing over the years, but having already spent nearly £1,000 on events and a lot more on extras I was keen not to spend money on things that I had little interest in.
However, I also had no interest in trying to recover any of the money from the events that were being cancelled and postponed because I want these businesses to survive, racing is an important part of my life and I remain happy to participate whenever racing returns. To this end where refunds have been offered and if I couldn’t do the rearranged date I simply donated my entry fee because the money was already used and I had moved on from it.
For example I donated my fee to the Quebec Mega Trail because my Canadian trip had been cancelled, when I rebooked the trip for 2021 I simply re-entered the QMT and now even though my trip has been cancelled again I will not be asking for a refund. Most importantly when we rebook our trip for 2022 I will then enter the QMT again and pay a third entrance fee.
I will continue to support events in my own way.
2021 The other reason I don’t feel particularly guilty for not doing the virtual events is that the moment there were 2021 races to enter – I started entering them. I had wanted to run the Moray Trail Series but given the hold overs from 2020 I could only run the long form of the Speyside Way, I entered within seconds of the event opening. I am hopeful that other opportunities will arise, not perhaps in ultra marathons (I’m pretty much fully booked for that) but in other smaller more community led events – 5 & 10km races, maybe the odd half marathon (to give myself a real challenge). I will happily enter as many of those as my old body will allow.
2020 was a tough year for everyone and 2021 looks like being little better as it stands but there are glimmers of hope, what I remain confident about is that most of us would like race organisers to survive this difficult time and bring racing back (whatever your distance preference).
How and when do I believe they will return? Well nobody has a crystal ball but you’ve got to remain optimistic and believe that during the second half of the year that some level of conventionality will have reached us but nothing is guaranteed, 2020 most certainly taught us that.
What I do believe though is that for a while racing will feel different, if my experience at Ultra North is anything to go by I think that events both running and non-running will be a little more nervous and perhaps lacking some of the confidence that is exuded from a great race environment. I also feel that the mass participation events will perhaps still struggle to operate – think of the amount of people that are involved in the major events, not just the runners, but everyone and you have to wonder if it is perhaps a risk that organisers, supporters and even the runners will be unwilling to stomach.
As for what 2021 should look like? Well my calendar is below and you can see that there are no real mass participation events, I’d say that some of these events would be as low as 50 participants while most will be in the low hundreds taking part. I live in hope that most of these events will go ahead but as I said earlier the first has already been postponed from April to September and one I’ll definitely be DNS’ing the QMT because I’ve now cancelled my flights to Canada.
My Calendar So, my race calendar looks a lot like last year;
Pennine Bridleway / April (Postponed)
Chacefield (3 race series) / March / April / May
Bonnie Prince Ultra / April
Ultra Scotland 50 / May
Loch Ness 360 / May
John Lucas Memorial / June
Quebec Mega Trail / July (DNS)
Run the Blades / July
Speyside Way / August
Yorkshire Three Peaks / October
Dark Peaks / November
White Peaks / November
Cheviot Goat / December
Going forward What would I like to see going forward, well that’s easy, I want to see rewarding running events that are safe (from COVID) but not safe from danger. I would like to see runners returning in big numbers to events that have brought them joy year on year.
I would love to see the return of the little events that litter the running calendar each year that draw the community together and often involve little old ladies handing out race numbers and giving you a little twinkle of their eyes to suggest that they still hold the course record.
I’d like to see event organisers having the confidence to put on new events to replace the ones that will inevitably have been lost and I’d like to see the running community supporting them.
Perhaps a positive of the various lockdowns and the pandemic is that we’ve seen a greater uptake in activity of all types and we’ve been exploring our local routes. What would be awesome is if some of those who have taken up running during the pandemic joined in with these wonderful racing celebrations of running. Races and the race experience cannot be replicated by a virtual events or even (in my opinion) by wonderful things like Parkrun, both of these do serve a very real need in the running community but they don’t do what racing does.
I’d like to think I’d even consider starting my own race or race series, though having seen the struggle of race directors during the good times to organise and fill an event, I’m not sure I’m ready to join their ranks just yet (if ever). But it is something I have been considering for quite a while and also something I feel that my natural organisational skills would be well suited to.
What have I been missing? Before I sign off I want to try and remind both you and myself about what racing does for me and maybe you’ll recognise some of this yourself.
Racing brings me nerves and anticipation, that anticipation leads to a dry mouth, clammy hands and sometimes sweaty nuts. Mostly it leads to a case of the epic shits (something I have detailed many times).
As I approach a start line I can feel the hairs on my arm standing up awaiting the order to race and as I barge into the throngs of runners ahead of me, trying to edge forward in the pack even before the race has started, I feel excited.
As I set off and my legs feel tense and yet like jelly I’ll find a rhythm and I’ll push as hard as my body will allow. I can hear the pounding of my feet on the floor, I can hear the sound of the different terrains, crunching through the leaves, sloshing through the rain and drumming deeply on the pavement. I can feel and hear the wind, it makes teeth chatter, it makes eyes narrow and it whistles across my face drying the sweat into salt that will later melt into my eyes.
But what I’ve missed most is seeing a Neil MacRitchie, Fiona Kirkaldy or Michael Hrabe, a face I know ahead of me and that feeling in my gut that is so desperate to catch them and overtake them that I feel the blood pulsing around my body and giving me that one final injection of speed. I never do catch them of course, I’m old, fat and ruined but I cross that finish line with aplomb and a little flourish.
No amount of lovely training and lovely muddy, hilly or wet running can replace that.
I was hiking up a glacier in Iceland some years ago when I asked the guide, ‘why do you give the kids ice axes?’ He explained that an ice axe gives the less hiking inclined children something to do.
I could see his logic.
No such thought entered my head when I bought ASK adventurer a child specific hiking pole from Decathlon. I bought a child sized hiking pole for her because I figured at some point the child was likely to run out puff going up one of these hills and I did not want to have to carry her.
I’m still waiting for the end of puff.
The MH500 Junior Hiking Pole The junior hiking pole is much like its budget adult variant, it is simple, lightweight and effective.
The sizing moves between 75 and 100cm and is suited for children between about 100 and 145cm. There are a series of small metal holes on the pole that serve as height points and so although not completely adjustable as a more expensive option would be, there are enough height options for all within the range offered.
There is a simple and yet surprisingly comfortable soft foam, ergonomic grip along with a strap to keep it connected to the junior hiker and the pole has an optional basket for the bottom to stop mud and/or snow collecting around the spike. Weighing in at just 170g and a folded length of 58cm this also makes only the smallest of dents in the parents hiking bag when the child has had enough of the pole. On the rare occasions I find myself being handed ASKs pole I will usually store it the side pocket of my OMM Classic 25 and it sits there rather nicely.
Practical use ASK has been using the junior hiking pole for about a year now and although she rarely actually needs it for the uphill hiking it has allowed her to become more skilled in good pole etiquette and use for when she faces the more testing challenges to come. Where it does come into its own is on the downhills, as we hike my partner tends to zig-zag a little bit to reduce the impact on her knees and back and ASK likes to join in with this and so she uses to poles to steady herself as she goes. I also find the pole useful for where loose stones or heavy mud are all around and I can have ASK use her pole to work with me to get the pair of us through to safer ground (yes in difficult situations I do keep my daughter close to hand).
More recently and with a frosty Scottish winter upon us we have seen that the pole has been as valuable in the ice as it has been on climbing hills, ASK has successfully used the pole as much on icy streets and paths as on the hills in recent weeks.
When not in use ASK has also been known to use a bungee cord or two and add the hiking pole to the Universal Gear Rail of her OMM Ultra 8 and this has not impeded her hiking at all. Given her size I would not let her carry the pole in her side pockets for fear of injury during a fall but as she gets older, taller and more secure I am sure this will become an option.
Being so lightweight we find that ASK is more than willing to carry her kit up and down and mountain without complaint whether it is attached to her or whether she is carrying it. Don’t get me wrong she isn’t weighted down with gear but she might carry her own snack and small drink (150ml) and perhaps some gloves or a spare set of buffs for the whole family.
In terms of durability we have had zero issues, over the year we have had it the pole has hiked lots of Scottish hills and many icy trails, there has been no sign of damage, bending and thankfully due to it’s aluminium construction no sign of rusting. Will it last forever? Probably not but it’s not likely to fall apart either, the chances you aren’t planning on climbing Mount Everest with something like this (or your 6 year old for that matter). It is designed for the rough and tumble that a child will subject it to but perhaps without some of the pressures that an adult will exert and to be fair if a child did in some way manage to break this would you really begrudge paying another £5.99 for a replacement?
What does ASK say? Perhaps the best reviewer is my daughter who says, ‘I like it, it helps me up the mountains in Scotland and I use it pull myself along in the deep mud or put it in the river to help me jump over the water. The best thing though is when I dig it in the ice and it helps keeps my feet on the ground’.
Conclusion Cheap, simple, effective. The phrase, ‘you get what you pay for’ doesn’t always apply and when it comes to decathlon gear I feel this very keenly. I opened my conclusion with the word ‘cheap‘ but that is inaccurate I should have said, ‘outstandingly good value’ because as well as being cheap it is well constructed and durable. If you have an adventurously spirited child that looks at mountains and hills and says, ‘let’s go up there today fellow adventurer‘ then this might be an essential purchase for you.
I loved my GoPro Session, I still love my my GoPro Session, the tiny size combined a waterproof body and with really, rather good quality video meant it was the perfect companion to join me on races and document my journey. However, that was 2016, a lifetime ago in technology terms but I’m never that keen on upgrading for the sake of upgrading. I change my kit usually when the old stuff is coming to the end of its useful life.
But the GoPro still works perfectly. A quandary for me to ponder.
The Session though was starting to not do what I wanted and what I wanted was greater, faster, higher quality control. So I started looking at options but the reality is you are left with just a couple of genuine contenders as a replacement. The first is the GoPro Hero 8 (now the Hero 9 too) or the DJI Osmo Action, I opted for the DJI Osmo Actino.
I’m not going to be reviewing this from a technical perspective because there are already dozens of those kind of blogs and vlogs that you can look up. Instead I will be reviewing this from the perspective of an ultra runner/adventurer who uses the Osmo Action to tell my running stories.
Form So for those of you familiar with the GoPro Hero then you’ll be fairly familiar with the DJI Osmo Action. It’s about the same size as the GoPro and about the same weight. Anybody you meet will likely think you’re carrying a GoPro. Compared to my old Session it’s bigger and heavier but in its favour it’s not as wide so when I’m running it sits closer to my body and when teamed with a selfie stick or similar then you can arch the camera firm against your shoulder and you barely know it’s there.
Stability Image stability was a big issue with the Session, when running it would perform poorly in lower light conditions and even in good light conditions there were no guarantees that you’d be able to pull good photographic stills from video footage. (The photo mode simply isn’t fast enough for shooting running pictures). The Osmo deals with this via its image stabilisation process called ‘rocksteady’. But also in general the photographic technology has moved forward significantly and the DJI is superior than the camera it is replacing.
Rocksteady is awesome. It’s the perfect balance between getting footage that looks high energy and getting footage that is usable. I’m not a fan of gimbals as they make everything look so boring and static and therefore the camera needs to offer a decent level of image stabilisation. Remember that running is as much about moving up and down as it is about propelling yourself forward and the Osmo captures this without leaving you with blurry footage.
In the edit the footage that you are achieving is good for both stills and also for video. It means that whether you are taking 12mp photographs with your Osmo or you are grabbing HD stills from the video footage the output is remarkably good. It should be noted that I often only shoot at 1080p/30fps/Rocksteady because the footage I’m shooting is for things like YouTube & Instagram and therefore 4k video seems overkill.
Image stabilisation is available though in 4k/60fps which should pretty much cover most social video needs and beyond. Certainly if, like me, you’re buying this to record runs and races with then you’ll be more concerned about space on your Micro SD card than you will about super high density footage.
Flexibility The flexibility of the Osmo was the reason that it won out over the GoPro (Hero 8) for me with the big thing being the front facing screen which allows for easier set up of shots, especially those that are on the move. I was also impressed that it was super easy to switch between the two screens. This means that if I’m filming during an event I’m spending less and less time faffing about trying to get the perfect image for the blog post.
Front screen is impressive at 1.4 inches, just large enough to be usable and viewable and the 2.25inches of screen space you get on the rear is genuinely excellent with a ‘just sensitive’ enough touchscreen.
However, it isn’t just the dual screen that I find very useful there are a number of other features that make transitioning between running with a camera and putting it away much easier. The voice commands (which are a new feature to me) are super easy to use and even with my lovely Liverpudlian tones it picks up my commands very easily, that said it’s not so happy listening to my little Scottish 6 year old ordering it to ‘take photo’.
The various options for settings are expected but I’m often shooting at the widest possible angle because I’ll be looking to capture landscapes as well as the running and I’m grateful for auto orientation of the screen and therefore for the shooting because this often saves time later in the edit of footage. The Osmo simply gets that I’m not Martin Scorsese and wants to try and help me out.
Waterproof: The waterproof nature of the camera without the need for extra casing was a must, one of the reasons I avoided earlier action cameras was the need for a separate waterproof case which I felt made everything much too bulky and carrying that either mounted to yourself or in one of the valuable pockets of your race vest wasn’t practical over 50 or 100 miles.
I was dubious whether with the removable battery section and various moving parts of the Osmo whether it would truly be waterproof, however, I am very happy to report that the camera is waterproof. I’ve had the Osmo since about August and I’ve out it through some seriously watery adventures, often muddy ones, filthy canals, mudflats and often in icy lochs – never once has the Osmo given me a moments trouble.
DJI claim the camera is waterproof to 11 metres and -10 degrees, I’ve probably only had it down as far as say 3 metres but in freezing water and if I get down to 11 metres I’m probably drowning.
It has been the definition of an ‘action-ready’ camera whatever the situation it has found itself in.
Battery: One area of flexibility that has really impressed me was the ‘action pack’ I purchased as it came with three batteries (cases for each of them) and a few additional goodies.
Those (lightweight) extra battery packs mean that I can keep shooting footage through the whole of an event rather than say having to be concerned about how long my battery will last. It makes good sense that they would throw a couple of batteries into the pack because the battery does not last as long as the GoPro Session (Session has no screens) and you do want to ensure that you get your start line and finish line picture and everything in between. DJI claim that a battery can last over 2hrs and while this probably isn’t far short of the mark the chances are you going to to use the camera in a non-optimal way and therefore reduce its efficiency.
It is also worth noting that the battery change is relatively easy, although when fingers are cold or exhausted it could become a little bit fiddly but then I feel that trying to do anything with fine motor skills after 18hrs on the trail is a proper head fuck anyway.
Lens: Finally on the question of flexibility we have the removable and replaceable lens cover (with the option to add practical filters too). This means that should you damage the lens cover you can still have a fully functioning action camera, this was certainly a big bonus over the GoPro Hero 8 (the Hero 9 now has a replaceable lens cover). If like me you are prone to adventures that come with higher than average risk then having the option to replace the lens is important
Quality I was impressed by the Osmo, but that said it is a relatively expensive piece of kit and I would expect it to be made of materials that are both robust and feel nice. Running your finger over the buttons they have a lovely chunky feeling and the rounded edges feel like they’ll bounce back nicely from a fall or three. Perhaps thats exactly what you want from your action camera, the ability to throw it about and that when it lands it looks as good as the moment you took it out of the box.
Ease There are three parts to ease of use as a runner, the first is deployment of the camera for taking pictures – so form, the second is ease of use of the camera functions and thirdly the ease of se of the software.
Form, fit and ease of access The form I have mentioned, yes it is wider than the Session it is replacing but it is also less deep and because it is waterproof and needs no separate casing it sits comfortably next to the body. I have used this in several of the my race vests front pockets (including my Harrier Kinder, Raidlight Olmo 20 and Ultimate Direction Signature Series PB3) and each of them it has sat in such a way that I had no problem running.
Getting the camera out and putting it back in to my race vest is much easier than I ever imagined and actually is no more hassle than the Session ever was. There are obviously other ways of wearing this as a runner such as in a chest mounted harness of even a head mounted harness. What I will say is that the head mounted harness is hard work, its like having an uncomfortable head torch on and the chest mounting means that you can’t really use it with a race vest or bag (well I can’t), plus both the head and chest then have severe limitations to the angles and type of footage that can be achieved.
A shitty self stick or an expensive gimbal? Much of the fit also goes to the kind of selfie stick that you use with your action camera and I always team it with something nasty and cheap. Why? There are a number of reasons why I refuse to invest in a gimbal but the first is that the kind of adventures I go on often finds me facing giant turd sized perils. Those perils are the thing that make for the most exciting footage, the cost of this is that the selfie sticks often get broken, snapping is not unusual and they certainly don’t last given the beatings they take in all weathers. Gimbals tend to very expensive and therefore breaking them can become an expensive habit that gets costly quickly.
Gimbals also tend to be bulkier than the selfie stick, (though there are some very compact options in gimbals) and these can be something of a nuisance to carry during a race. One of the things I want is to be able to pull my camera out at a moments notice and if the gimbal or selfie stick is too big then getting it in and out can be complicated. Having a lightweight, compact selfie stick gives me the best balance of flexibility in terms of storage and also accessibility.
The final and perhaps most consistent reason that I choose the cheap selfie stick over the gimbal is because I feel that the gimbal creates really dull footage for runners. Now in some sports such as say skiing or water sports then having the gimbal to remove the worst excesses of bounce would be useful. However, in running terms you actually want some bounce, you want movement because that is the natural way of running – when running is done via a gimbal or drone from a POV then it removes all its energy. With good image stabilisation then I see no reason to use a gimbal at all.
And action… I’d been running for about 7 hours in the rain, my hands were 100% fucked and my body felt like a sponge it had soaked up so much water but I really wanted footage of me crossing the Tyne during Ultra North. I yanked out my Osmo, switched it on with the big fat square button on the top and then squeezed the equally big fat red dotted circle to record. A second later the little red light was flashing on the front to indicate recording. Once I had finished recording I pressed the circular button again and the the recording stopped and a minute later the screen auto shut down because it knew I had simply forgotten to power it down.
My head was pretty mashed in the later stages of the race and often is and I have been known to only shoot footage from the first half of an event because of it. However, during the maiden race for the Osmo I was happily able to use it from start to finish and this was down very much to the ease of the software and button setup of the camera.
It is true that I’d prepared my settings 1080p / 30fps / video but beyond that it was then simply a matter of pressing two buttons and to be fair the powering up step can be missed out if you’d rather just hit the circle button – it will then just record footage. I don’t mess with the touchscreen when I’m running because I figure this is a way to mess things up but changing recoding resolution, aspect ratio or frames per second on the move is easy enough to do should you really wish.
The footage stores itself sequentially on your SD card(s) and so this makes it easier to recall running or eventing for when I might be editing several days, weeks or months later. Its a damn fine user experience and this is extended, thankfully, to the software that comes with it for your smartphone.
And edit… I wanted a better camera to device experience than the GoPro Session when I upgraded. I mean the Session was mostly fine but a little bit cumbersome and the desktop editing software was a massive bag of wank, so DJI didn’t have much to improve upon. DJI MiMo (My Moment) is the software they offer and it is a huge leap forward in the way to handle and edit video. As a graphic designer I am used to using Adobe Premiere and After Effects for video work but this running footage needed to be editable in a quick fun way, not have all my time and effort devoted to crafting Hollywood style blockbusters. Therefore DJI MiMo from my iPhone offered quick connectivity to the camera, easy downloads and then a full suite of excellent editing tools to craft very social video files that have been doing the rounds of some of the Facebook groups and my IGTV feed in recent weeks.
MiMo is also the beneficiary of regular updates which makes the software more stable and more usable, and on the subject of software updates, the camera itself is the recipient of semi regular updates too and all of this takes place in the background ensuring that your camera is ready for adventuring when you are.
If you follow me at my blog here ultraboyruns.com or on my new Facebook page there are a variety of videos that I have been creating and I usually split the editing between iMovie and MiMo, not because one is better than the other but because they offer slightly different tonal outputs. MiMo is the superior of the software though and is incredibly easy to use.
I suppose there is the question of, ‘would i find it easy to use if I didn’t have a background in creative?’ Well the answer to that is I believe that while I perhaps have a small advantage in the edit process that this is something that anybody who knows how to use a smartphone would be able to do. DJI have made action video creation a real option for those who want it, though you might just be somebody that wants to take pictures with your action camera and that is fine too. If you are likely to be using your Osmo for shooting video and then grabbing stills from it there is no way (as far as I can tell) to grab a still within the MiMo environment, for grabbing video footage stills I tend to use Framegrabber which is an app available for both iOS and Android.
Footage & output Output is created in either .mov or .mp4 format. The footage is of a generally very high quality and can be captured at 4k/60fps with an excellent in-built microphone, though this can be upgraded by adding an external microphone. For the purposes of running I find the supplied mic more than sufficient and the lower end of the video spectrum will cover most needs. When casting 1080p footage I have edited to a 4k 55inch Samsung television the output has been very good – not quite movie quality but more than sufficent for showing to your nearest and dearest as they fall asleep watching your running movies.
Why? The question of why I bother shooting my running and editing the footage together for social media has come up more than once. The reason I take the action camera with me and share so much running related video content is because it combines to two things I enjoy most – creativity and running. I really don’t give two flying fucks if you watch it, don’t watch it, love it or hate it – I make this stuff for myself. However, if one person is inspired to get their running shoes on or go and get muddy on a trail somewhere then that is a bonus.
Conclusions I can’t judge whether the Osmo Action is better than the latest version of the GoPro Hero because I haven’t extensively tested the GoPro but I have extensively tested the DJI and I can tell you that the Osmo Action is an amazing action camera.
The combination of quality, ease of use, output and importantly price point make this a very real option for purchase. I paid less than £250 for the camera, three batteries, charger, cage and a pair of mounts (the app is a free download). To put this in perspective I paid nearly £200 for my GoPro Session which offered no additional power sources (sealed unit meant you couldn’t change the battery) but a couple of mounts and that was 5 years ago.
I love the ease of use of Osmo and have both increased and improved my adventure video and photographic output. If you are interested in action cameras and shooting your adventures then this is very much worth considering.
I’ve used my Osmo Action for all sorts of activity and although running is the primary thing that I capture footage of I have also regularly used it for open water swimming, mountain biking, sledging, paddle boarding, kayaking, fast hiking, roller skating, hill walking and even motor homing, the options are limitless. The question is in camera terms is how far will you go in search of adventure and do you want to record it?
Perhaps the key features that determined which action camera I was going to buy were the dual screens and the replaceable lens cover (both now available on the Hero 9, a product that wasn’t available when I bought the DJI and remains significantly more expensive than the Osmo Action). When you’re researching which one to buy you’ll see that the difference in footage quality, colour saturation, image stabilisation, warping, image correction, microphone, etc is nominal and so it really comes down to personal preference but it was the Osmo that made me part with my money.
I used to believe that I was a creature of habit, especially regarding my running, however, increasingly I find myself evolving all aspects of my running.
This evolution has manifested itself in lots of different ways, my attitude to training for example was once that it was a necessary evil in order to reach races now I consider it the gift that keeps on giving.
I once considered that a running watch was a taskmaster that should not be nourished by your ever watchful eye but instead something to be feared, now however, I consider a watch a genuinely useful tool that informs on my progress and is nothing to fear, albeit with the caveat never to get too obsessed by numbers as the story they tell is far from complete.
I once considered myself to be a size 8 narrow fitting shoe only to realise that after many, many blisters, I am in actual fact a size 10 with hobbit width feet and it is in feet that my latest change has come about.
Fear not long time readers there shall be no pictures of my feet.
My feet are, if you’ll excuse the error, my Achilles heel. If something is going to fail me on either a run or a race it will be my feet. They simply give in and have always been prone to this, now while I can and do push through pain there’s a point where my feet tell me to fuck off and say ‘that’s enough Ultraboy’.
For anyone that has seen my nasty little hobbit feet you’ll know that even on their best day they look like someone has just run a tank over them – and let’s be frank – good days are rare. They are always encrusted with blood, goo and filth and my nails, what remains of them, are bitten (yes bitten) as far down as is possible and that’s quite far down.
It took me a long time to devise a system that would allow me to successfully run ultra marathons and I have deviated from this recipe so few times because although not perfect – it works most of the time (about 93% of the time based on DNFs).
The layering on my feet has been very simple – a light layer of a Compeed stick based lubricant on and between my toes followed by a pair of Injinji toe liner socks followed by a pair of Drymax socks (thickness being weather dependent) and encased inside a pair of Altra Lone Peak and topped with a pair of Dirty Girl Gaiters.
Each element serves a particular purpose and has done since I devised the system.
The result after running an ultra marathon with my feet dressed in this manner is that my second toe (the one next to my big toe) would invariably blister at the end, filling with fluid and peeling off a few days later but with very little pain and that was it. And since I adopted this format for my feet in races I have accepted this result as the price to pay for finishing the race.
I can only think of two significant failures of the system – the Skye Trail Ultra where my feet took an absolute battering over 28hrs and the Ridgeway where the heat and moisture played havoc with my poor little foot digits. In both instances I feel that any significant change to the system would have no different a result, just a different way of experiencing it.
Change? So why am I considering evolving the system? Well tastes change, as does product fit and product quality but perhaps it is experience that is the key here. The good thing about evolution is that you are not throwing the baby out with the bath water and what has worked for so many years will remain the basis for my feet going forward.
The Compeed remains my lubricant of choice and Dirty Girl Gaiters will remain as my top layer (they continue to be one of my favourite pieces of running kit and have never, ever failed me). However, there are changes elsewhere – my shoe choice has moved away from Altra towards Topo Athletic and I have been extensively testing running without the Injinji layer – especially in wet and muddy conditions – something that my new home of Scotland has in abundance.
Altra Let me explain a little further, I still very much love Altra running shoes and when I first put them on in 2015 they were a revelation.
Since that first pair of Lone Peak I have owned more than 30 pairs of Altra, mainly in trail but occasionally in road. Many of them have been brilliant but enough of them have had serious durability issues and some have had comfort issues (looking at you Escalante and King MT). The breaking point was the £130 Lone Peak 4.5 which were both too soft and lacking the kind of longevity that I demand out of a long distance pair of shoes. They felt a bit too much style and not enough substance.
I don’t plan on dumping my Altra as wide fitting footwear are hard to come by and have in fact just ordered a pair of Altra Golden Spikes for use in XC and the occasional icy conditions.
Altra though will move to my second choice shoe – this means they’ll be for training, shorter ultras and sub ultra races. To replace them I had a recent investment splurge in Topo Athletic after finding them to be a good mix of comfort, responsiveness and importantly – durability.
The MTN Racer, the Terraventure 2, Hydroventure 2, Ultraventure and Trailventure will form the spine of my race shoes for the next year or two but having also enjoyed training in Topo for several years they are displacing Altra as my ‘go to’ shoe for running shits and giggles.
Injinji The removal of the Injinji socks from the footwear set-up is perhaps a bigger change than replacing Altra because the Injinji have been there since my first ultra marathon – they were on my feet when I ran my first marathon but they only became a layered sock at the St Peter’s Way in 2014 and there is an emotional connection to the physical benefit I perceived they brought.
But I am less and less convinced by the physical benefit in my layering system.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the Injinji liner sock and currently own 12 pairs of them (thank you Castleberg Outdoors for your buy three get one free offer). The Injinji liner sock provides a very comfortable, soft, durable material between the outer sock and your foot. The liner is a delight and the fact it separates your toes out is a nice feeling after a long day on the trail. However, I’ve been running tests with my Injinji liners recently both alone and in conjunction with my Drymax socks and once the Injinji sock is wet it doesn’t respond as well as the Drymax.
The Drymax almost instantly warms the feet when wet but the Injinji liner does not and in the time it takes the liner sock to dry out (which to be fair isn’t very long at all) the damage is already done. If my feet take several soakings that means that the next to skin layer is almost always going to be wet or at the very least damp and I believe that I can reduce some of the fatigue my feet are feeling by removing the liner.
The Drymax sock is so good that it really has never needed anything else I was just such a creature of habit that I kept the Injini liner because of sentiment. What this means though is that I’ve had to increase the amount and variety of Drymax socks in my collection to cover the various seasons and race types (thanks to the Ultramarathon Running Store for stocking all the socks I need).
But what of the dozen pairs of Injinji socks?
Oh that’s easy – they will become my summer running socks and having just purchased my first pair of running spikes I suspect they will be the perfect companion for them.
The lesson of the sock There is a lesson here and it’s a pretty simple one, don’t be afraid of change – at a time where things are batshit crazy, making changes is okay. Whether it’s the way you protect your feet during a run or something that’s actually serious. Change can be positive, let’s hope that’s how my feet feel after their next race.
Please note this post is entirely my own opinion, I have no brand affiliation and I pay for ALL my own gear! Which is why I get to say fuck so much and talk about poo.
I remember when I started running I knew that the training would be the worst bit, not the actual bothering to do it but finding the time to do it. I committed to the idea of the runcommute and stuck to this religiously but in order to do this I needed a running bag.
Now I might not be the biggest fan of running but I am a huge fan of shopping and I’m pretty good at it which is why I now own so many bloody running vests and bags. Below is a brief history of my running pack history and how my over buying across the years might be able to help you out a little bit. I’ll be honest though if I could have my time over I’d still buy them all again!
But where did it all begin?
OMM I tried all sorts of bags but none of them worked until I came across the OMM Classic 25. When I put this on, I never looked back.
I bought the OMM Classic 25 in 2011 and I still use it on a regular basis. When the OMM Classic 25 was my only running bag I used it every single day both in runcommuting and in training. During the week it carried my changes of clothes, laptops, kit, paperwork, lunches, etc – it was brilliant and during the weekend it would carry waterproofs, snacks and fluids.
Classic 25 The key things that I loved about the OMM Classic 25 were;
The huge amount of available space
The incredibly comfortable fit
The large top pocket
The spacious hip pockets
The stuff pocket on the back of the bag
After owning this bag for nearly a decade I can serve as witness to the truly amazingly durable nature of OMM products and the fact I’ve gone back to them time and again means I trust their products.
Over the course of the next decade I added in a variety of larger and smaller options from OMM, the Ultra 15 was the bag I used on my first ultra marathon, the Classic 32 and the Adventure 20 are both used for fast packing, run commuting, hiking and races and the Phantom 25 was purchased with the intent of using it at the Montane Cheviot Goat Ultra marathon.
Perhaps the most interesting purchase is that of the OMM Ultra 8 which I have purchased in 2020 for my 6 year old daughter. I want her to have the best kit that it is possible to have and although she is not currently a trail runner she is a hill/mountain hiker and sometimes she needs to carry her own kit. The OMM 8 is a brilliant fit for a young adventurer and will grow with her. Perhaps my more melancholic side wonders if the bag will outlive me and remind my daughter of good and bad times in the mountains.
Oxsitis When I was looking for something more vest like than my OMM running bags I turned to Salomon. The French sportswear company looked like they had products that were very simple and easy to use, however, my experience with Salomon was confused and difficult. The fit was never comfortable on my back and the arrangements of pockets felt less well thought out than other bags and so I moved on pretty quickly. During this period I experimented with my first UD vest – the PB signature series and loved it but in 2014 as I moving into Hoka running shoes for the first time I stopped by their London Marathon stand and came across a little oddity that Hoka were not selling – a running bag.
Let’s be clear Hoka do not make running bags and so I assumed this was some sort of expo special that the stand staff could wear to promote the brand but to my surprise these were production models of products that Hoka would be releasing. But when? The man on the stand suggested that it might be some time before this pack hit UK shores, however, he did let me try it on and have a proper look and it was amazing.
It turned out that the Hoka bag was actually made by a French company called Oxsitis and the model at the expo was their rebadged Hydragon Ace 17. After the Hoka test I decided that I needed to have one of the Hydragon 17 and so immediately got one sent from France at 160 euros it wasn’t cheap but it did things that no other running bag was at the time and to this day I doubt you’d find a race vest that had a pocket organiser in the main compartment.
Hydragon Ace 17 The key things that I loved about the Oxsitis Hydragon 17 were;
17 litres of space
The incredibly comfortable fit
The internal organiser
The pole carriers
I loved and still love my Oxsitis 17 (so much so that I bought two of them, I also added the larger capacity Enduro 30 and the Hydrobelt). The level of comfort afforded by all my Oxisitis running bags is better than anything I have with before or since and there were a number of clever innovations beyond the main compartment organiser such as the pole holders, the large velcro adjustment system, the magnetic number holder and the phone specific pocket.
The Hydragon Ace was amazing as a race vest but it was also a tremendous commuter.
The 17 litres of storage and the internal organiser made it perfectly suited to carrying work clothes or food, drinks and even on occasion a small laptop. The ripstop material that made up the bulk of its construction was strong and robust and also crucially more waterproof than anything I had in my arsenal. However, it was not waterproof but it stayed drier longer than my OMM bags and if your clothes were in a semi decent drybag then anything behind it in the organiser would mostly stay dry in all but the worst downpours.
Oxsitis still make amazing kit and I am sure that I’ll revisit them when I’m looking for a replacement for the Hydragon in the future.
Ultimate Direction When Ultimate Direction came along the ultra marathon scene just seemed to be hitting the mainstream and I’d been running these longer distance races for a little over a year. UD seemed to catch lightning in a bottle and ride this explosion of interest in the sport with the release of the ‘Signature Series’. They signed up three of the best endurance athletes out there Scott Jurek, Anton Krupika and Peter Bakwin and got them to ‘design’ the kit that they would use on adventures. I think every ultra runner, wannabee ultra runner and parkrunner got one of these running vests – I know I did.
Experience of racing and commuting had taught me a couple of things – the first was that ‘there are racing bags/vests and there are running bags/vests’ and the UD Signature Series was part of the former and not the latter and so when I bought it I knew that this was going to be for racing rather than day to day running (which at the time was mainly commuting).
Even the largest of the vests (PB) was a tiny form factor but could store a huge amount of kit and was the perfect racing vest, the bottles it came with were a revelation and it was the kind of innovation that you thought would let you finish that hundred miler with ease.
I delighted in rolling up to races such as the South Downs Way 50 or the St Peters Way wearing this and feeling confident that I had the perfect partner. We ran lots of races together, at every distance – no longer would I be reliant on the water aid stations – I’d simply carry my own supply.
The bag had a large volume main section, a very useful stretch mesh back pocket, little pockets littered the front of the vest and the side and everything felt very robustly built. This was also the race vest that made me stop using hydration bladders, something that I have not returned to because the UD PB14 taught me the value of knowing how much water you’re carrying!
Signature Series PB (v1) The key things that I loved about the Signature Series PB were;
14 litres of space
The tiny overall size
The level of adjustability
The ability to carry poles with ease
Great build quality
Some say that the version 1 had a few quirks with the quality of the materials but I never found this and I’ve had mine now for more than 6 years, the first 3 of those this was just a racing vest but afterwards it became an every day road and trail running pack that has done thousands of running and fast hiking miles. My Signature Series vest shows no sign of giving up anytime soon and you’ve got to love kit that just refuses to be replaced. Perhaps to highlight how much I love this running vest, despite mostly retiring it from racing service, I will still on a race morning pick this old friend out and check my kit in the back and go and race a marathon or a shorter ultra and it never lets me down.
UD have had some great vest and bags in the years since and I did buy the Signature Series (v3) of this pack which remains part of my racing and training rotation and had a number of truly excellent upgrades including the Burrito pocket. I’ve also use the original Fastpack 20 and Fastpack 15 – both of which have been excellent on things such as the Skye Trail Ultra, commuting and longer fastpacking adventures.
UD though seem to suffer periodic dips in form in terms of design and quality and it is always worth waiting a little while to ensure that their latest ‘innovations’ are actually improvements – for example I found the tightening systems on their last couple of adventure vests to be a little difficult and so avoided them. However, I would have no hesitation in buying more things from this well regarded brand, but I’d always want to test it first.
Raidlight I came to Raidlight because I had this dream that one day I’d run the UTMB. Now, although I’ve subsequently relinquished that dream in favour of running more interesting races I did during my trip to the CCC discover the Raidlight brand and I fell immediately head over heels in love.
At the time though I had no need for a new running vest. I just purchased my first Hydragon from Oxsitis and I still had lots of others that were in perfectly good working order. So I returned to the UK and many months went by before I thought about Raidlight again. It was while walking up from Charing Cross to Oxford Street that I saw a gentleman wearing what I would later learn was the Raidlight Olmo 20. I chased this fully laden runner down the street in my shirt and trousers and ran alongside him quizzing him.
I decided that the Olmo 20 was too large for me and so that very evening ordered a Raidlight XP14 which was such an odd running bag and wildly unique. I really enjoyed this as a commuting bag as it was taller, slimmer and more nimble that some of the others which tended to be more squat in order to ride higher up the back but I was never a fan of the belly band, for vanity reasons rather than anything else, they make me look even fatter than I am! However, despite this not being the perfect bag it did inspire me to consider other options from Raidlight and when my back started giving me issues in 2015 I looked for something that would ride high on my back and that I could carry more load in pockets and higher up the bag – enter the Olmo 20 and for shorter races enter the Revolutiv 12.
Olmo 20 The key things that I loved about the Olmo 20 were;
20 litres of well considered space
Front carrying system for poles that kept out of the way
Sits high on the back
Lots of adjustment potential
I feel that Raidlight are a bit of a marmite brand whichever way you look at them, detractors say the quality isn’t up to much and the fit can be weird in all their kit but their fans are equally vocal about what tremendously well thought out kit this is – I think the reality is somewhere in between. Sometimes the build quality has let them down (although I’ve never had any problems) and the fit can sometimes be weird (the i love trail series of shorts come to mind) but on the whole Raidlight makes stunningly interesting and useful kit and should never be dismissed from your purchasing thoughts. The Olmo 20 is a very special case in that I bought it to help keep me running through the various back pains I’ve had over the last few years.
When it arrived I was surprised how snug it all was but that it felt like everything was build like a circle around the runner and aside from the main pocket you could pretty much access everything you need while on the move or without needing to take the vest off.
Materials were varied and designed to be used in the places they were needed – so a harder stiffer material on the bottom for when you hurl your race vest on the floor to the super comfortable and quick drying vest harness. There are an abundance of pockets that litter the front, the side and the reverse of the pack and internally there is some compartmentalisation to make it simpler to know where your kit is. It’s simple but it is clever. I find this a very easy vest to use.
The Olmo 20 remains one of my key race vests because of the level of comfort it affords me and the flexibility of the pack is almost unbeatable. It’s a shame that Raidlight no longer make it but then I do also own the supremely brilliant Revolutiv 12, so I suppose there’s hope that their gear going forward will be as brilliant as the gear of the past.
HARRIER Harrier are the new kid on the block and what in modern parlance would be described as a disruptor that is taking aim squarely at Ultimate Direction and Salomon. If you’re a long distance runner, fell runner or ultra marathoner then the chances are you own one of the big brand racing vests but with Harrier you’re being offered a genuine alternative at a price point that is impossible to ignore. I had zero need of another running vest – the above running bags and vests are almost all still in active service and therefore Harrier would have to be something amazing to make me buy it.
During the summer months I found myself in full research mode about the brand and became fascinated with Kate Mackenzies drive and determination to develop the Harrier brand and bring well crafted and priced gear to the running community. However, still not needing a new race vest in any way shape or form I didn’t order one.
Then I ran the Ultra North race in my trusty Olmo 20 with both of us performing brilliantly in shit conditions and there I saw it, the Harrier Kinder 10l attached to a slow and steady runner who had it jammed to the rafters. Despite being full to the brim my fellow competitor commented that it was the most comfortable running bag she had ever used.
Upon my return to Scotland I ordered the ultra bundle – something that I will be reviewing in the near future.
However, I can give you this advanced preview and tell you that the Harrier Kinder 10 litre running vest is one of the best running packs I have ever worn. I immediately made a tremendous friend in the Kinder and we have been adventuring on a daily basis ever since she arrived.
Kinder 10 The key things that I loved about the Kinder 10 were;
Big split rear carrying section
Well positioned pockets
Excellently located straps to keep things strapped down near to your body
Lots of adjustment potential
A pocket seemingly perfectly designed to carry a DJI Osmo Action or GoPro
I won’t spoil the details of my in-depth review which will look at the Harrier running vests but for the money they are brilliant and to be fair to them if they were double the price you would be hard pressed to complain. They really do feel like the child of a Salomon and UD vest but with many of the mistakes from both of those manufacturers ironed out. Don’t get me wrong it is not a perfect piece of kit but it’s as near as any race vest is ever going to get when it needs to fit such a wide variety of runners. I’d commend Kate and Harrier for producing such brilliant kit (not just the race vests but all the other stuff too) and I loved the Harrier Kinder 10 so much that I bought a second just this week and then added in one of the 5 litre Curbar options – this time I went for their bright more batshit colours because that’s the kind of runner I am.
Mistakes, I’ve had a few, as the song says… below are some of the ones that I never really got on with.
I love the kit of WAA but the UltraBag was an expensive mistake – despite its reputation as the ultimate MDS bag I found it to be poorly thought out and worse, badly executed. The bottle holders on the 2017 version I had didn’t cinch down very well, the bottles themselves were terrible – leaking everywhere as they bounced around on my chest. The bag no longer came fitted with the Sherpa strap which was a feature I desired and the ability to add additional pockets was poorly made and sized and simply didn’t fit anything very well. The worst thing though was when the chest pouch attachment simply fell apart and the zip slid straight off the end during its first run.
I know some people love it but I didn’t and was very disappointed. In hindsight I should have returned it to the ultra marathon running store but I didn’t and so now it gets used as a bag for biking with – but it’s not the trusted companion that many other of my race vests became.
My Camelbak XT01 (I think) was an impulse purchase and one that I should have thought more carefully about. Although sold as a running bag it had all the hallmarks of being a better bag for biking. The low volume combined with a fit that didn’t feel geared to a no bounce experience made this feel unpleasant to run in. The vest was also made of heavy material and susceptible to taking in water without ever drying so all in all this was a fail and I’ve never considered a Camelbak again.
I genuinely don’t think you recommend a running vest or bag to a runner any more than you can recommend a pair of running shoes and say, ‘these will be perfect for you’.
A running pack is such a specific thing and the fit is not universal and nor are your individual needs. With the high street rapidly disappearing though it is becoming increasingly difficult to try kit on and therefore you are required to make expensive purchases before potentially having to return them and incurring delivery charges which simply makes things even pricier.
If I had some tips for you I would say;
Where you can try on the running packs, the more you try on the better you’ll understand what is right for you.
One pack might not do all scenarios – so for example you might want a bigger pack for commuting than you do for racing.
Think carefully about what size you need, is it something simply to carry your phone and jumper or will you be carrying water, bottles, poles, etc? There is a big difference between the OMM Classic 25 and the Raidlight Revolutiv 12
Think carefully about features you would like – pole holders, gear rails, lots of straps, vest fitting, whistle, key clips, stuff sack, hydration bladder compatible.
Look at online reviews of the specific pack you are considering, check social channels too and especially look for those reviews that give details of fit. For example I am 5’9, 38″ chest, 32″ waist, 70kg and the Kinder 10 litre fits me perfectly but my second purchase of the Kinder is a large to allow me to better fit larger amounts of kit in the pack and wear layers for winter racing.
Don’t spend a fortune until you know what is right – consider the excellent range of Decathlon race vests and bags have. These tend to be significantly cheaper than Salomon, UD, etc and are generally excellent quality. The Harrier running vests are also at such a good price point that these feature packed bits of kit must be a contender for good quality, good value packs (perhaps less good for commuting though).
Buy last years kit – there are always sales on the previous iteration of the main brands running packs and bags, you really do not need the latest colourway.
Avoid Sports Direct (this is a general point but also good advice for running packs).
Borrow another runners kit, I realise in these COVID infused times that is more difficult than usual but I have loaned out my running bags before and would happily do so again in the future.
WHERE CAN I BUY?
There are lots of retailers who will do an excellent range of running kit, below are a few URLS to help get your research underway. To note I’d like to say that I have purchased all the running packs that I own, nobody sponsors me and the links I am providing above are for your reference and research only. I currently have 23 race packs, that’s lots of user testing gone on and hope it’s helpful.
Do also remember that there are lots of other great brands to try out and just because I didn’t get on with something or haven’t written about it doesn’t mean that you won’t love it – brands that you could consider researching include WAA, Ronhill, Nathan and Salomon (there are a plethora of others too).
I’ve tried most of running brands one way or another and I’ll guarantee you’ll eventually find something that works for you but it can be a minefield and so don’t rush into an expensive purchase until you are ready.
Much has changed in the last few months, I’ve dropped over 13kg in weight, I’ve finally grown an ultra beard, I now own two kayaks and a paddleboard, ASK Adventurer turned 6 and oh yes… COVID 19
You’ll all be aware that racing has been off the agenda for most of 2020 due to the pandemic and only in the last few weeks has it really shown any return, albeit, that return, at the time of writing, is in jeopardy.
While I realise that running events not happening isn’t the end of the world, it does effect me, but being so long since my last race I wondered if this enforced absence might have seen my racing love, wane somewhat.
Then along came the lovely Luke Gow who I’d met at the Nocturnal Ultra a couple of years ago (evening geezer) and he suggested that Ultra North in Northumberland might be going ahead and would have spaces. What a cheeky little bugger manipulating me like that…
Well of course I immediately checked out the website and given I’m susceptible to even the lightest race persuasion* I soon found myself stumping up the entrance fee. (*this seems an odd phrase on re-reading, I need to practive my writing more).
Ultra North comes from the same people who do things like The Great North Run and the Great Swim Series – as a larger events organisation I would normally avoid them – because experience suggests that the profit motivation goes before the quality of the event. However, after swimming in a couple of the Great Swim series I had high hopes that this would be one of the better ‘large’ events.
Ultra North was targeting a wide running base in its advertising as it was being suggested as suitable for both speed demons and those of us with more of a snails pace and in this sense it opened its arms to all who were willing to give it a go. With generous cut offs and lots of support – plus two race distances this was, on paper, a good novice ultra event. Perhaps on paper you’d have read this as a road marathoner and thought ‘I could do Ultra North’.
Ultimately I was quite happy that I was signing up to a race that wasn’t to my usual tastes but the question is did it prove to be better than my expectations and dud it reignite my racing fire?
We’ll get there in a minute.
Anyway we drove down to a place about an hour outside of the start in Newcastle called Bellingham and camped overnight – this meant there wasn’t a near 3hr sprint from Scotland to the start line. This enable me to have a much more relaxed approach to reaching the registration point and with all the COVID regulations in place you really wanted to be arriving in a semi relaxed state.
Weather conditions promised heavy rain so the outdoor registration system was a bit miserable but the team behind Ultra North were quick, effective and as enthusiastic as you could hope for. It wasn’t perhaps your typical Geordie welcome but these are unusual times we live in.
I collected my race number and affixed it to my leggings and then lined up, all very simple. The Eagles Arena car park had been set up to give the runners adequate space to social distance and runners were sent off in groups of 3. It wasn’t a race start to write home about – COVID has sapped the energy out of events – but this is to be expected and so as we were sent on our merry way I remembered that this is temporary and that for the first time since the Falkirk Ultra I was racing again.
The route lumbered its way through some very uninspiring kilometres which had me worried, the tarmac was hard and the roads grey and without joy – if the whole event was like this then it was going to be a truly miserable day. However, the runners, many of whom were from the north east had the lovely chatty, friendly personality I had come to expect and COVID had not managed to beat that. I both listened in and joined into conversations that passed me and that I went past. That was lovely and thankfully once we were closing in on the first checkpoint at 13km the route was becoming more interesting I started to enjoy myself.
It was in the last couple of kilometres to checkpoint one that I met the lovely Leanne who was a first time ultra runner and looking incredibly strong. We chewed the fat a bit before saying farewell as we set off for checkpoint two but I had no doubt she had a great finish in her. Her energy gave me the drive to push onwards to CP1 when I might normally have dragged my heels a bit – so thank you!
The checkpoints were very simply laid out with all the bits you could want and it was very much self help (which I prefer), a one way system through the CP and hand sanitising before you tuck in.
Now because I’m on a weight loss fight I decided not to stuff my face, so it was a small amount of cola, one chocolate pancake thing and then gone.
From here we crossed the Tyne for the first time and off for a series of climbs into the ‘wilds’ of Northumberland and the route provided those with road shoes on something of a challenge as we climbed muddy, wet, rocky trails. This was probably my favourite section but I did hear a number of the runners cursing this and describing it as tough (ha! wait until you try MIUT then you’ll know tough!). All the road running was worth these lovely little bits of trail and I was disappointed when the climbing and the mud abated. Still back to the roads and actually as I passed through little villages and lovely bits of England I had never before seen I found a great sense of joy – I’ll be honest this was mildly tempered by the soaking I had taken and continued to take.
I passed by the next checkpoint in good time and was only mildly concerned that one of the marshals offered me the ambulance. He must have misinterpreted my response to; ‘do you need anything?’ To which I had replied, ‘a lift back?’
It was in this section that I met Chris (if I’ve got your name wrong my apologies), we chatted for a bit and I encouraged us to a bit of running – he told me that the running we’d done had been the longest he’d done in a while. When I left him to carry on running I was convinced he would make it and sure enough as I was driving home I saw him coming into the final kilometre looking as determined as when I had left him. Good job fella!
I was now into the last 20km or so and was bang on time, not too fast, not too slow. I hit the third checkpoint and was in and out pretty quickly but as I left the checkpoint I noted ASK and the GingaNinja approaching and waving wildly from Rona!
I stopped mere seconds to wave at them and tell them I had to continue – they would thankfully come and see me later in the race which was a perfect pick me up at about 45km.
More tarmac passed under my weary feet and for someone who had weak glutes, no core stength, trail shoes on and very limited training in the bank this was proving a killer, not that I’m looking for excuses, obviously.
There was also the back injuries that have plagued me since about 2015 resurfacing at 20km and made the weight of my race vest feel very heavy and draining indeed. That problem is going to be a very serious issue for The Cheviot Goat in a few weeks time. Here though the problem manifested itself as severe pain across the middle of my back and so I would hoist my race vest higher up my back to alleviate the stress points.
Regardless I pushed onwards as I knew that I was now not going to DNF, even with the back pain I could push through and claim my first medal in months. It was at about 40km though that the dynamic of the race changed for me and I met a young man with a nice beard called Lewis and we got chatting during one of my regular refuelling and walking breaks. We found ourselves chewing the fat over all sorts of topics and I found his company delightful and very distracting from my back trouble.
I could have run on from him as I had the energy to do it, but I made a decision that his speed walking pace was sufficiently excellent, my back was in pieces and if we maintained this pace I’d only be 40 minutes slower than if I were running and so despite both of us clearly stating, ‘please crack on if you need to’ we stayed together and talked (hopefully) about useful, useless and running things for the final three hours of the event!
As we crossed the Millennium Bridge across the Tyne I recounted my last running in Newcastle (Rat Race’s The Wall – review here), I was even able to identify the nightclub where a drunken Geordie lass offered to help myself and another runner up to the finish despite not being able to stand herself – I have no idea if there’s a euphemism in there but there might have been at the time of the original event.
I was surprised that lots of the runners I spoke to were considering or had run The Wall, I’d urge everyone to make sure you’ve looked round at alternatives, The Wall is very expensive for what you’re getting and the north and north east have a lot of great value, great running events. Just saying.
Anyway with the wind on our back and the rain on our faces Lewis and I ambled gently towards the finish. I was now very cold, partly due to an extended stop at the final checkpoint, partly due to a gruelling 8hr soaking, so I was keen to finish but the cold and the speed walking had drained any notion of running the last kilometre.
Lewis and I waited until we could see the finish before we put on a short burst of speed and crossed the eerily quiet finish line and the collection of our rewards.
An odd day, a good day.
Ascent: Around 550 metres
Date: October 2020
Entrants: 109 finishers
Terrain: Mixed, lots of tarmac
Tough Rating: 1/5
Route This one isn’t going to win any prizes for being the most scenic but it has its moments, ultimately I think you know what you’re likely to be getting into when the compulsory kit says ‘debit card’ to buy supplies if you need them.
If you’re a fast road runner and fancying the transition to trail this would be a great route to get some testing into your feet or if you’re new to the ultra marathon scene then this won’t come as too much of a shock. The route has a lot in common with the aforementioned ‘The Wall’ in that the amount of road running is quite high. However, if you’re aware of this or have a preference for it then you’re going to enjoy yourself. If you’re an out and out trail runner then this might not be one for you.
These are also a couple of iconic moments on the route too – obviously the run alongside the Tyne is a must see if you’re coming to Newcastle and this brought back a shitload of great memories for me. Running the last bit with Lewis as well gave it a nice social element that we’ve all been missing since racing stopped.
Anyway I can’t actually be negative about the route overall, it is mostly quite good fun (well except for that shitty first few kilometres but every race has a bit like that). I would urge the Ultra North organisers to see if there are any ways to add in some of the lovely trails that lined the roads of the route – I realise this probably means greater organisation and costs but it would make for a more complete route and would certainly draw runners like me back.
Organisation I would struggle to fault the organisation, it was very well oiled. The checkpoints were well spaced out and well thought out, the marshalls were all well organised and well drilled, all instructions, both on the day and pre-race, were clear and the COVID side of things was handled with all the grace and clarity it could be. Ultra North should be commended for managing to put on a city starting event and yet maintain the required level of protocols.
A special note of course to the marshals without whom these events could not take place, each and every one of them that I came into contact with was doing a spectacular job and while it might not have been cuddles and kisses there was a lot of support and encouragement and no hint of pressure to get out of a CP. Well done guys.
Value for Money Always a tricky one, this race was about £65 which I consider a fair amount for a race. What did you get? You got a well organised, well supported race across a circular route and a medal and T-shirt where you could see were bespoke. The food at the checkpoints was plentiful, nice and varied and so, yes, Ultra North offered good value for money.
Awards Bespoke medal and shirt (size medium, that’s what a bit of weight loss will do for you). I liked the medal and shirt, very vibrant, much like the rest of the excellent event branding.
Conclusion Any runner, and I mean any runner or long distance walker, could find enough good reasons to take part in this.
It’s short enough for a a marathon runner to test their ability on a new distance, mixed terrain runners would enjoy the variety, new to ultra distance runners will find it not too challenging and experienced ultra runners will enjoy the day out in Newcastle not being covered in as much shit as usual.
It’s possibly not the event that you’ll remember as the best you ever did but does that really matter? It was a fun day out as far as I am concerned and remember I was soaking wet for 8hrs. Would I return to run it again? I would certainly consider returning – though I think the October date is much better than the original March date that is pencilled in for this and if the route was made a little more of the trail features found all over this landscape then you’ve got a bona fide hit.
Racing Fire Did Ultra North return my racing fire? Sort of – I’m now looking forward to The Cheviot Goat much more than I was – but COVID 19 has removed a lot of the fun of racing for me.
I’ve been locked down for a few days now – unable to leave the house, never mind go running. I mean I could have visited the treadmill but I don’t have a good relationship with the treadmill – we treat each other with disdain.
I’ve also been having a huge amount of fun eating toblerone and eating toblerone requires concentration and so you can’t run. When I haven’t been working, I’ve been eating and vice versa. Life is a super exciting rollercoaster at the moment.
Yesterday though I said to ASK would you like to go running in the garden?
She replied, ‘yes please, can we have a race’ and I told her that if she ran 100 laps of the garden I’d give her the virtual medal she hadn’t quite earned from her March running, and that yes we could race it. 100 laps of the garden would be enough to cover the last couple of miles she needed and she seemed happy to try it. I told her that I’d carry on and do maybe 200 laps and she seemed pretty happy about the arrangement.
The trouble is that the layout of our garden is not very conducive to running for a number of reasons;
It’s on multiple levels
The runnable bit isn’t very big
Regardless I managed to devise a route that would take in the bulk of the paths of the garden, a rock jump and some steps – all this in under 50 metres. Had I been smarter I could have used the front garden too and the two side passages wither side of the house which would have made it more like a 200 metre loop but I figured the pain of torment of such a small loop would at the very least test our mental strength.
I told ASK that we must move at slow and steady pace and that the garden was full of opportunities to injure ourselves and so we must be careful. Anyway ASK was off like a rocket and calling out to me to hurry up – I was choosing to run just behind her incase any of the garden obstacle proved the undoing of my rather slight five year old.
I had instructed both of us to put a layer on and also a buff to help keep us warm but as the laps started falling we found that both of us were wildly overdressed and quickly disposed of our layers. ASK was quick round the course, racing up the steps and then bounding down the narrow path down and making jolly good fun of the rock leap at the bottom of the narrow path.
She refused to let me pass and lead the way – even when we had water stops she would say, ‘dad are you ready?’ and then immediately step out infant of me to get a bit of a head start. As we hit 50 laps she started to slow a little bit – not on the downhill but on the steps and the climb back up to the top of the garden. I offered words of encouragement and gave her regular updates as to how many laps we had completed and more importantly, how many were left to go.
Thankfully her mid-run lull lasted about 10 laps and then she had some fire in her belly as I said there were barely 30 laps left. With all the energy she could muster I could see the pumping of her arms driving her ever forward. 10 laps to go and I called out to her that there were about 20 laps still left, because clearly she wasn’t keeping count, and as the entered the last 3 laps I finally revealed we were nearly there. She shot off but I called out to her that there were still 3 laps left – and thankfully she slowed a little bit, allowing me to catch her up.
As she passed the ‘checkpoint’ for the final time I called out to her that this was the last lap and that I was going to win. With gusto I started tailgating her around the lap, making her call out to, ‘stop it dad!’ to which I replied, ‘well go faster!’
The last 20 metres were quick as lightning and she crossed the line with a little jump in the air and a big slurp of water in the late afternoon sunshine. A very happy young lady was soon awarded the virtual medal she had now finally earned – that makes it about medal number 26 that she’s achieved and this one was in very special circumstances.
There are things in life that when you come across them that you wonder how you ever survived without them, you wonder why no other genius has come up with this years before you found it, you may wonder but ultimately you don’t care because your life has just gone through a revolution.
For me the thing that changed my life was the Revolutiv 12l from Raidlight.
I realise that some people may believe I am overstating the improvement that my life has gone through since this race vest was posted through my door but you’d be 100% incorrect. The Raidlight Revolutiv 12 litre is a true innovation.
I’ll be honest I like Raidlight – I always have, there is a little bit of quirkiness about them that you don’t get with companies like Salomon or Ultimate Direction, they have that je’ne cest que and they successfully plough their own little furrow and you’ve got to admire that.
To the Revolutiv 12 though and here we have a race vest that is designed for both the elite and the every(wo)man and I say that very much as an everyman runner. I’m not going out there and winning races but I am going out up hills, across mountains and across every type of terrain and over all sorts of ridiculous distances.
WHAT THEY SAY
Raidlight say about this vest that;
Innovation has a name: discover REVOLUTIV, the 2019 RaidLight range. Its 12L capacity allows you to tackle medium and long distance trails.
This year we have developed an ingenious system that allows the upper back pocket to be tilted forward very easily. No need to remove the vest from your back to grab your accessories! You now have access very easily and quickly to equipment that does not fit into the spaces provided at the front of your trail vest.
Weighing less than 200g this running vest will even make you forget that you are carrying it! Yet you will be surprised to discover all of the equipment you can take with you on a trail. Enjoy the amazing features of one of the best trail running packs. Finally, all the storage space is simplified and optimized to allow you to perfect your performance. Give yourself the means to achieve your wildest goals!
The vest is set up for approximately 12 litres of storage but this is highly compartmentalised – a key benefit of the vest. The main reverse section of the Revolutiv is split into two 5litre(ish) parts – wholly independent of each other but when conventionally worn sit one atop each other. This is then all kept in place by two easy lock, spring loaded magnets and they really work. The individual sections of the bag work just as if they were a single compartment with two zips!
It’s when you unclick the magnets that the magic starts to happen, for someone with a perenial bad back you’d think that reaching round to unclick magnets would be something of a chore but thankfully not so. The clever chaps at Raidlight have positioned the clips within easy reach even if you are an old dilapidated fart like me. Once unclipped you can then flip the top of the pack over your head and wear it on the front (reclipping the magnets round the back to make it nice and snug).
Thankfully the party piece doesn’t end here and with a simple unclipping the top section that has just flipped over your head it can be completely removed.
Basically three race vests in one.
You would think that there would have to be compromises to make this work or lots of faffing around trying to get the race vest to the configuration you want but let me assure you there is none of that. The unique selling proposition of this race vest works and works well.
I suppose the whole vest is really stripped back, not a single ounce has been added that didn’t need to be there and there is little doubt that every space age fabric that could be thrown at this has been.
This is not a criticism it is simple a fact and the development team have clearly given consideration to comfort. It could be argued that sometimes these super lightweight vests can compromise on the comfort in order to get weight down or techology in, but here those things are not a problem and it is as comfortable as my beloved (and incredibly silky) Oxsitis Hydragon 17 – high praise indeed.
This fits more like a Salomon vest than anything else – the thin stretchy material hugging your figure while being highly adjustable with the sternum straps and also the wire tightening adjustors on the side to keep it nice and tight
In my experience it doesn’t ride loose very easily either and so as a consequence once you’re in it then you’d be comfortable and happy to be in it until the race ends. The balance of the vest is excellent too and it never feels as though it is overloaded anywhere and I am a runner who tends to overload on kit regardless of the race or the distance.
There are some niggles that I am less keen on about the two main storage sections – they key one being the zips. The zips feel weak and I realise that you’re looking to avoid adding weight but the truth is that if the zip explodes on a trail somewhere then you’re going to be in trouble. It really wouldn’t add much weight to include a stronger feeling zip.
Volume of 12l
Materials 91% Polyester 9% Spandex
Delivered with 2×600 ml EazyFlasks (compatible with all Raidlight bottles),
Chest sizes: S 68-88cm / M 75-100cm / L 90-120cm.
Running vest with 8 pockets, 2 compartments of 6L and 5L at the rear .
Two zipped side pockets
Upper rear pocket flips forward for quick access to items on the move, fixed lower rear pocket for mandatory equipment storage (perfect for Ultras)
2 front shoulder pockets for hydration compatible with all Raidlight bottle systems
Monofiliment Polyester harness for an optimal breathability, resistance and lightness. Compression system with the 2 Freelock® micrometric buckles
Front pole carrying system
Let’s make no bones about this the Raidlight Revolutiv 12l is expensive, when it was launched you were looked at around the £160 price point – in the subsequent months this has dropped a little to be around £130 but that is still a lot of cash to stump up for a niche item.
However, I feel Raidlight have produced something that nobody else is doing – it feels like something Salmon might make but has the capacity and durability of something that Ultimate Directions might make and the reality is that it is neither of these, it is very much its own thing.
The gimmick of the flippable and removable pouch extends the value further and I genuinely believe this to be a worthwhile race vest – albeit with some caveats – lets say I’m looking forward to version 2 where the minor things that bug me would be ironed out.
So what is the Raidlight Revolution 12l suitable for? Well the answer to that is complicated – if you’re an elite runner then it is probably going to be perfect for you for any race – the multi format bag really does allow you to pick and choose how much kit you’re going to take and how heavy the pack will be. Water upfront only might be a bind for some runners but I think a 1.2litre capacity for water should be sufficient for most races and running adventures between refills.
For me as a much slower runner this is a race vest for up to 50 miles and no further just because I need to carry that little bit extra in terms of food and equipment but if you weren’t such a dawdler then you could probably use it for any running distance.
EXPERIENCE & DURABILITY
I’ve run three races in my Revolutiv 12l since I bought it last year, two ultra marathons and a 10km but in addition to that I’ve done a couple of hundred miles with it in training across the Ochils and Pentlands in Scotland. I’ve used it in every weather condition and across all sorts of terrain. The Revolutiv 12 has been a wonderful companion on my most excellent adventures and I look forward to further such adventures.
In terms of durability the race vest shows almost no sign of wear and tear – the one little bit of wear and tear is in the transfer logo on the translucent back panel and this has started to flake – I’ll assume this is more to do with the effort I’ve been putting in and sweat dripping down the back of me. This is an aesthetic thing though and in no way hinders the usefulness of the vest.
You can buy this directly from Raidlight, Northern Runner or Castleberg Outdoors – all of whom are absolutely lovely suppliers of brilliant kit and service. Please always buy from independent retailers or the manufacturers they really do need your support!
There is much to love about this race vest, aside from the multiple formats you can adopt when running it has Raidlights innovative front carrying system for poles, it is super, super light and it fits like a glove around even the oddest shape of runner (I’m an oddly shaped runner).
It feels like expensive kit, it looks like quality kit when its on and it operates like the premium product it is but the price point while high, I feel, is worth it.
I don’t use it everyday but have used it quite a lot for testing purposes and it has yet to fail me – but this is race vest rather than a training vest (I tend to use my old indestructible UD PB v1.0 for that) and that should be factored in when you are considering purchasing it – I feel it would be wasted as a training pack.
If you’re considering the Raidlight Revolutiv or you already use Raidlight gear and fancy an upgrade then I would suggest you consider this, try it if you can though as this might not suit everyone because it is a niche product. However, if you fall into the niche of being an ultra runner than loves quality kit then you’ll be drooling over this awesome bit of kit.
To be 100% clear – I paid for my race vest, I never accept samples for reviews and my review is based only on my experience of a product I wanted to buy.
There is a really weird sensation about rolling up the start line of a race and being the only person there, I suppose this would make me the both first and last finisher in the race I was runningbut the Pike and Back (Virtual) Half Marathon had much more meaning than just a run, this was a run that filled with history, emotion and of course mud.
I left my home in Scotland at about 7am with the aim to start running around lunchtime and hopefully avoid those who might be considering running the virtual race on the course at the original designated time – it’s about a four and half hour journey and I broke this up with a swift stop at a McDonalds for a ‘nourishing’ breakfast.
I was driving the little car as it was just me travelling and as the sun beat down on the car I thought it was going to be a scorcher for the run, something I had not counted on when I had been packing my kit (I was all waterproofs and survival blankets). I arrived bang on time despite a couple of little mis-steps in my directions.
The man in the car next me glared as I pulled up next to him he tossed his cigarette out of the car and wound his window up – presumably because he believved I had arrived to lick COVID 19 all over him which couldn’t be any further from the truth.
Anyway I had a Tesco pastry and a bit of chocolate milkshake to make sure I was fully energisted and then quickly got changed into my kit. I had vague memories of Moss Bank from my childhood, although I’m not from Bolton I do know the area quite well from visits as a child and Winter Hill is a well known landmark but I couldn’t remember ever being allowd to go up it (we were not a very active family). We also used to come here when I was child to a restaurant called Smithhills – it was a dickensian themed place and for our birthdays my grandparents would take us there as a treat. This event, virtual or not was loaded with memories for me and on the day before I led the funeral to my grandmother this was rather a poignant thing I was doing (you could read about this in a separate blog post here).
I set up the navigation on my Suunto and started to amble around aimlessly looking for the start (this did not bode well for following the route). Eventually after a few minutes of groping around the park I came to a small opening in the bushes which looked like the kind of place that a race might begin – Suunto agreed and so, after a couple of pictures, we set off.
Now lets be fair Suunto and the breadcrumb trail is at best, ‘not bad’ so as I ambled up the hill towards what I considered to be the route I figured quickly that I had made a mistake – what gave this away was that I found myself launching my poor, knackered body off a wall and onto the street below and then around a few narrow winding streets and then some steps where I finally picked up what was probably the route. There were clues that this might be the route, the first was the winding river and the trail in the distance, the second was that my watch finally looked like it was going in the right direction and thirdly two fellow virtual half marathiners came thundering past me.
Aha I thought I have found my way.
Now I really hadn’t done that much research about the race or route, I’d left it to the rose tinted specs to assume that this would be something I’d like to do. I’d glanced at the elevation profile which looked like there were two small hills at about the mid-point of the route and the rest of it was pretty flat. It was only as I was about 600 metres in that I realised I had rather misjudged the situation and I had rather misjudged the route. Effectively the route was made actually made up of two tough climbs on a variety of surfaces and then in reverse it was made of a couple of hanrd going downhills and one really tough as old boots uphill that really sapped every last bit of energy you had!
The first three and bit kilometres of the route were mainly tarmac, quiet roads (or they should have been given the COVID-19 trouble), the elevation felt really tough. The toughness wasn’t just the route, this was very much a combination of a long drive from Scotland and a lack of training in recent weeks, my lack of training has been in part to COVID-19 but mainly due to the stress of work and my grandmother dying and having to do all the arrangements from this and now I was feeling it.
The road seemed never ending and I did for a moment wonder if this was a trail half marathon but then glinting in the distance I saw the outline of a gate and a route on to the rolling trails around Winter Hill and Rivington Pike. I crossed the gate and bade the cyclists a good morning as I passed by them and then continued onward and most importantly upward. At this point we had moved from the tarmac to hard packed and stoney trail. I bimbled along, stopping only to allow past me, faster moving traffic and to take pictures of the truly spectacular surroundings. In the distance I now had clear sight of the Winter Hill transmission mast and realised that I despite having been here many times before I had probably only ever seen this at a distance.
I pressed on across the rocks, the mud and the water, the route had now gone from a bit of a slog to being genuinely fun and I was finally enjoying the route – especially as the sun was shining but also lovely and cool, a perfect running day. My feet for the first time that day felt free to unleash a little bit of pace inspite of the uphill – this is why I run I thought. I found myself feeling rather jaunty depsite the situation we all find ourselves in and I could simply revel in the reason I was here – to pay a small tribute to my departed (but much unloved) granny.
I skipped down the stony path and alongside the transmittor and marvelled at the scale of the structure that had once (and may well still) send out things like the signal for Granada Television, I felt like a young boy in the back seat of grandfathers car as a ran beside the mast, the only thing missing was the twinkling red lights that adorn it as the lights go down.
I assumed that Rivington Pike could not be that far from the mast and in the distance I could see a small structure which I asssumed was the destination and turnaround point. I therefore joined a narrow piece of tarmac and wended my way downwards and started arching away from the small structure, that was not Rivington Pike – oh dear. In the distance I could see a flurry of people around what looked like a small fortification or castle – that was Rivington Pike and I was what looked like several miles away from it. Thankfully this was now downhill but my knees don’t much like tarmac and they were feeling the stress of the pounding they were taking and although my Lone Peak 4.0 are well built they aren’t suited for sustained running on tarmac.
I ran down and down, and down and down and then weirdly what felt like more down and down, yet, and this was the strange thing – Rivington Pike was up – totally in opposition to my descent.
However, eventually my downward spiral stopped and I returned to hard packed trails – here it felt very busy, lots of people travelling up to the Rivington Pike and dusty hard packed trails gave the illusion that everybody had a dry and dusty cough. It was rather interesting to watch as people covered up their faces as they walked past you or as I ran past them. I mean yes I was breathing more heavily than most of the people there but then I was exerting more pressure on my poor old body. I was mostly being sensible and passing people at a distance but one couple, who were wearing face masks, moved away from me at 90 degrees and zipped up their heavy duty winter jackets to fully cover their mouth – which I felt was a little excessive given that I was never closer than about 20ft away.
Anyway I hurled myself on to the final climb of Rivington Pike and chatted (at a safe social distance) to a local cyclist, both of us wondering why the hell we were here. I waved at him as I left him behind and continued my climb to the top which was awash with people. I stopped long enough to take a couple of pictures and then made a swift sprint down the front of the Pike knowing that an absolute shit of a hill was waiting for me.
I’ll be perfectly honest, not a lot of running was done back up the hill, my legs were absolutely cream crackered and all I wanted was to be back at the car and maybe stop at the ice cream van who was awaiting customers in the park. I was also very keen to relieve my bladder of its contents but given the throngs of people that were festooned around the route and the lack of any cover meant that I really had to tie a knot in it and hold on. It was here that I noted I had probably made a routing error on the way out and added several hundred metres to my journey as my beloved Suunto insisted that I head across the wet boggy trail. Of course this was music to my ears – get off the tarmac, get back in touch with nature and as cold mud sprayed up the back of me and my feet found themselves submerged I thought, ‘bliss’. I came across a father and son who were clearly not geared for this kind of trail and looking rather unhappy at the prospect of having to continue through this but they managed a cheery smile as I ran by them.
Soon though I was back on the path and facing the Winter Hill mast, I waved goodbye to it as I turned away from it and pushed on as fast as I could knowing that it was mostly downhill all the way home. However, as I’ve indicated the route was hard going and even in a downhill situation if you’re undertrained and exhausted then it is ging to be hard. But with the wind on my back and surprising cheeriness in my heart I ran happily off the hill and back to road which seemed so long ago now.
When I arrived back to the gate it felt like I had really achieved something and I gently ran down the road, attemptin not to punish my old nears any more than I needed to. I was so close now and in the distance I could see the park where all of this had started. Down, down, down I went – bit like a first date that has gone too well – and as I arrived back to the point I met the earlier virtual runners I felt a tremendous sense of relief. Yes I’d been slow but I’d had good reason not to rush this one – I had time and I wanted time to be able to reflect on everything that is currently going on both personally and globally. I crossed the finish line to the sound of silence, or rather the sound of nature and actually rather enjoyed it.
I’d completed the Pike and Back Half Marathon and I was pleased to have done it.
Distance: Half Marathon Type: Virtual (due to COVID-19) Ascent: Bloody Hell Date: March 2020 Location: Bolton Terrain: Very mixed Tough Rating: 3/5
I would traditionally write a full breakdown of the event but that is impossible given the nature of this one in its virtual format. What I will say is that full credit goes to the team of Time2Run Events for allowing runners to complete the event virtually – they could simply have said ‘cancelled’ but as many Race Directors have done they have looked for alternatives and we should be grateful for that.
The route was really tough, the elevation was challenging, the mixed terrain meant that shoe choice was a nightmare and if you really weren’t prepared for this then you were going to have your arse handed to you and mine was handed to me gift wrapped.
Had I not been attending my grannies funeral, and referencing the race in the eulogy I had written for the following day, then I probably wouldn’t have come down for the race I would have transferred my entry to next year, done the training and actually run much better but there was something special about this, about doing it alone, abour forcing myself to push on. I’m an ultra runner really and the half marathon distance is my least favourite race length so to come here and really enjoy myself is really quite wonderful.
There was also something joyous about finishing the ‘race’ first and last – that’ll make me laugh for the rest of my days and I feel like this is a medal I have really earned. I will looking forward to receiving the medal knowing that whenever I look at it with all the others at the top of my staircase that it will bring back a smorgasbord of feelings and that is the sign of a great thing.
The one thing I did notice was how friendly people were in comparison to the Scottish races I run, up here almost all the runners, hikers, walkers, etc have time to smile or have a laugh and a joke with you but despite smiling and saying hello to everyone I went past there was something of a lack of response. Now some of it I’ll put down to COVID-19 but I was rather surprised that the north of England, famed for its friendliness, was a little less than I’ve gotten used to in Scotland. That said, those people that did wave back or say hello or smile back at me were warm and wonderful, I was just surprised by how many people simply didn’t bother.
This week has seen a huge number of race cancellations – The Highland Fling, Fellsman various marathons and lots of smaller, local events. Thankfully the race I had entered was the Skull Trail Race and this went ahead, I mean I say thankfully but what I think I mean is something very different.
I awoke on Sunday morning to the sound of BBC Radio 4 going on about the crisis of Covid-19 and as I drank my coffee I felt like the world had rather gone mad and so with gay abandon I pulled up my running tights and headed off to the Kingdom of Fife to mingle with other potential future Covid-19 zombies.
The registration was lovely and quick, though I felt like something of a pariah as the two ladies behind me kept several metres from me despite the gentlemen behind them remaining butted up tightly. Perhaps they were just adopting a cautious and sensible approach.
In an unusual twist the guys at the Skull Trail race give you your medal before you’ve run which I found odd as I returned to the car and sat there contemplating whether to bother facing down the hills and mud. Thankfully my funk was addressed by ASK requiring the toilet and so off we ambled to the village hall, I was plonked outside with the dog while my family disappeared off to the loo.
It was here that I once more ran into the lovely and local to me Fiona, at this rate I may have to start referring to her as a friend – given I see her more than most and I find her rather delightful. We chatted about stuff while I got annoyed at the dog and the amount of time my little daughter was taking on the loo.
Thankfully they surfaced and I was able to head over to the start line where all the runners and supporters were milling about casually. There was a lovely atmosphere that permeated the race and the mood was good. Thankfully the sun was shining and it was a delightful day for a run which was lucky given our purpose there. We were soon called to the starting line and with a loud shout from the start line we were off.
The race was two laps of Balbirnie Park in Markinch and you’d think it couldn’t possibly be that hard given it’s in a park and at a mere 4 and a bit miles the distance wasn’t even that bad.
So as I pushed through the throng of runners I felt confident I’d be able to keep my friend Fiona within infection distance rather than see her bound off miles ahead of me as usual. Sadly my undertrained body was willing to remind me that the last few weeks have been incredibly testing and I stated to feel the drag of no running since mid February.
I ran up the first couple of hills and kept a fair pace going but the ground was claggy and the hills were absolute bastards – this was a route to inflict maximum enjoyment or endurement on its competitors. Even as I weaved around the undergrowth within the first kilometre I could hear myself saying, ‘Two laps? Bloody hell!’ Still I bounded onwards and found a pace I could work to, all the time watching the clock and the distance hoping to hear the cheery sounds of supporters at the finish. I reached the first of the main climbs, a little zig zag up and then a quick return back down. I forget as I watched runners young and old bounding up the hill that some people actively run up elevation. However, as a seasoned ultra runner I know my limits and so gently jogged upwards (some might even call it walking), the Speedgoats thundered past me but I was here for a laugh and as I came to the downhill I pressed the accelerator myself with a giant squeal of ‘weeeeeeeee’.
At every mud pit I encountered I pushed my new Altra Timp deeper into the mire and they were grateful for a small but fast flowing river crossing. I paid no mind to the runners aside me as I went sloshing through the water, nor did I apologise for spraying water everywhere – if you were at the Skull Trail Race then you were not here to keep clean and stay dry! Thankfully the combination of drymax socks and Altra always dry off really quickly and by the time I was at the next significant climb my feet were toasty once more. I dragged my feet wearing up the hill, noting that I’d have to do it all again shortly and that I had barely registered 2 miles of running and I was absolutely shagged.
I reached the hill turning point and joked, ‘I thought this was a flat time trial’ – the truth was that this was anything but a flat time trial. I couldn’t believe how exhausted I was but I could finally hear the voices of the supporters in the distance and bumbled gently along the path towards lap 2. The problem was I had completely forgotten the bog and as I meandered towards that second lap I could see it getting closer and I could see runners being submerged in its muddy depths, this was going to be shit – literally. I flew into the muddy water with all the gusto I could manage until the water simply dragged me to a halt. I found myself wading through the gloop with everyone else until I reached the tree branch that you needed to negotiate to free yourself, I pulled one leg free, then the other and hurled myself free and there I saw the finish or as the foolish called it, lap 2.
2 and a bit miles!!! 2 and a bit miles!!! and I’m ruined.
Lap 2 was tough starting out and was destined not to get any easier as I desperately groped for some semblance of the runner I used to be. My legs were still shaking from the bog and I only started to feel properly stable again about a kilometre after the start of lap 2 and now I knew that my ingenuity, experience and guile would come into play. There was no sense me hammering downhills or trying to sprint uphills – I had to be smart. So I moved quickly when I could, I moved smartly when I couldn’t and I used a succession of the runners ahead of me to pace me to the finish.
I had a problem – a regular one with Altra – the insole had slipped and become desperately uncomfortable but it was too late to start fidgeting and so I pressed up, over the river, up the hills, through the mud at its squelchy underbelly and on to one final encounter with the bog.
At this point I was running for a bit with a girl I met called Kiera who was giving it her all and heading straight for the bog. I offered her the gentlemanly ‘ladies first’ then followed her in, though taking a different line through what has probably served as a watery grave for many a hardy runner. Still I thrust myself across the log, losing my footing on only a couple of occasions and crossed the finish line before falling to floor, hailing my piss poor performance at a truly outstanding event.
What can I say? What a great, well organised and tough as old boots running event. Never have 4 miles felt more like 40 – I’ll definitely be going back and well done for defying COVID-19! Oh and a lovely little medal, great value for money – get signed up for the series.
Thanks to everyone involved and I’ll look forward to next year.
I used to look on at the ultra marathoners who completed the Centurion Running Grandslam with a little bit of jealousy but never fancied doing it myself despite really wanting to test myself in a series.
Well I rather fell out of love with Centurion Running and stopped racing with them – no skin off their noses, they’ve got ultra runners and ultra running wannabies banging down their door to get in to their races. I never felt like it was a community I was comfortable in, now this isn’t to say that Centurion don’t put on good events – they do, really good, but they stopped being for me, a socially awkward introvert.
So, given that Centurion was probably the biggest UK Grandslam in the south of England I probably wasn’t going to get to do a series of races in this format.
Fast forward 5 years and much has changed I’m living in Scotland and a driving licence has been achieved which has brought access to all sorts of lovely new race opportunities including Hardmoors and GB Ultras. Now while the first 18 months here have been about getting settled, buying a new home, etc I’ve become determined that after a rubbish running in 2019 that 2020 would be a year of interesting race opportunities.
And so my road to a grandslam began.
Late in 2019 I came across Ranger Ultras who race in and around the Peak District and they immediately caught my eye. It was after my failure at the Ochil Ultra that I signed up for the Y3P (Yorkshire Three Peaks) that Ranger Ultras put on. However, it turned out that injury and illness would conspire against me and so on the day before the race I pulled out.
However, the description of their event intrigued me and there was something rather ‘old school’ about them that I really liked.
I put them on my ‘must look into for 2020’ list of race providers, though by this time 2020 was pretty well formed with 5 or 6 ultra marathons already booked in. But I figured I’d like to go back and give the Yorkshire Three Peaks a bash given I’d missed it just a few weeks earlier.
Roll forward to the start of this year and there are positives starting to show themselves – I’ve been running a bit (woohoo), I’ve finished four races of which two were 50km each – not bad for a bloke, who if he were a building would be described as condemned or at the very least dilapidated. I kept sourcing new events to do this year and interestingly kept managing to squeeze them in – but not in the months that had the races of the inaugural Ranger Ultras Grandslam. Hmmmm.
In my head I began working out the logistics – the Peak District is a reasonable distance from Scotland and with a large family trip to Canada this year I wouldn’t have oodles of annual leave to use up in travelling to and from events.
The races needed to be of a distance that I could travel down to after work on a Friday night and still be fresh enough come Saturday morning to race – as criteria that precludes anything over about 60 miles.
Thankfully the first race was 57km along the Pennine Bridleway – a perfect distance as I look to build up again, a perfect time of year as it should be rather windy and wet without too much sunshine and with a reasonably generous time allowance it should be both achievable and challenging.
The second and third race are then not until nearer the year end which again works for me (mostly). The Yorkshire Three Peaks takes up October and at 100km will serve as an excellent test of my running in preparation for the year ending Cheviot Goat.
Missing the Y3P last year was a real annoyance as I had entered late in the day and had to pull out even later and I feel that as a runner who has covered a lot of ground across the UK this iconic route should have been done at least once.
Maybe that’s why it is this grandslam over some of the others – The Peak District is a place that is relatively unknown to me, they’re new and I like the challenge of new. I like the adventure of seeing the sun go down on a new horizon, I enjoy the feel of a new ground below my feet though I am confident that by the time I have run the weekend double header of the white and dark peaks at the end of November I will be fully sated and probably and bit angry at The Peaks but I will hopefully feel that I fully adventured there (at least for a little while).
This adventure is very much about continuing my journey to find out who I am and who I want to be.
I moved my life from London so that I would be able to do stuff like this, so that I could fill my boots with things that make me smile and things that can inspire me to consider joining races like The Spine or The Race Across Scotland. I have need to push myself to limit of my physical ability and perhaps more importantly my mental ability – both have which have being a bit lardy over recent years.
I feel that the grandslam will make me work harder and keep my mental endurance on track – vital for both my running and my day-to-day life.
If I do get through the first challenge of the PB57 I will know that I then need to get through, amongst others, the Ultra Scotland and the Loch Ness 360 because these will form the basis of my fitness to take on the rest of the series. Each completion will hopefully build confidence going into the next – the tough times will come if something goes wrong in one of these events as it did last year and I will be working hard to stop one bad event unravelling the rest of the year.
But let’s look for positives…
The bad news is that attempting to scratch the grandslam itch may only make that itch worse – I can feel it. Success here (and by success I mean completing it) will make me want to take a crack at the Hardmoors series of races. However, I have no idea if I will achieve the Ranger Ultras Grandslam, my failure rate suggests that there is a good chance that something will go wrong during at least one of the races but I am hopeful that the risk of missing out on the grandslam finish will push me onward towards some form of glorious end.
It was about 5.30am, I’d had a lovely big mug of coffee whilst sitting upon the old porcelain throne and yet no matter how much I jiggled and wriggled – nothing would be released. So with much trepidation I rose from my perch and slapped on a handful of lubricant and squeezed it into every crevice before putting on my running kit – for today was Falkirk 8 hour Ultra day.
Surprisingly I’d been quite relaxed about the race as my week had been busy with a disaster situation over Scotland’s status in the European Union and Saturday had brought me the opportunity to go racing with my daughter and also join a pro-independence rally at Holyrood Park. So the reality is that the Falkirk Ultra came as something of a light hearted surprise to my week.
Let me roll back about three weeks to my status as a very unfit, very overweight, very slow runner who was about to attempt Tyndrum 24 (read about it here). While I had very much enjoyed the event I’d also been left feeling a bereft, missing my fitness and my turn of pace but mostly I was missing my ability to endure. I’d run less than 8hrs in good conditions and managed a paltry 30 miles in that time – Falkirk with forecasted cruddy conditions seemed to be headed to an even worse result.
Still with a coffee inside me and dressed for a race I drove the few short miles to the car parking and then grabbed my stuff with the aim to be at the registration tent nice and early. As I ambled through the park I wasn’t quite sure what would greet me outside Callendar House but I hadn’t imagined that an entire race village would be being constructed – yet here it was, being built before my very eyes.
There were dozens of little tents and shelters going up for groups of clubs and runners and suddenly I realised that there might not be anywhere for the solo entrant to dispense with their stuff, thankfully my fears were unfounded and the registration tent would become the excellent location for drop bags. But I’m getting ahead of myself, I dipped into an empty registration tent at about 6.45am and picked up my bits, including a goody bag. Now normally goody bags are rubbish and when you’ve entered a race that costs £30 you don’t expect much in the way of extras but this was different.
In the paper bag we were given a Tunnocks tea cake, some Brewdog beer but most importantly was a lovely lightweight hoody and a pretty cool buff. I’d requested one of the cowbells too and made an £8 purchase of the race woolly hat. I felt like I was fully loaded on merchandise.
For the next hour I ambled around making a nuisance of myself as runners I knew came in for registration and said hello and had lovely chats with them all. There were a couple of guys from the Tyndrum 24, some local runners that I’ve gotten to know over the past few months and even a few of the Linlithgow Running Buddies that I’d had run with a few times.
The Falkirk Ultra was turning into a bit of an ultra meetup and there is nothing wrong with that.
As light came the little race village that had been built the atmosphere began to grow and then the music started and the PA system kicked in – all systems started to ramp up and then we heard the announcement that we would be kicking off at 8.15am – so take your place behind the line and get ready to go. Here it was that I ran into Frances and Kieron from the Linlithgow Running Buddies – I felt compelled to complain about his wearing of ‘Shites’ (shorts and tights) but before we could get into the rights and wrongs of it we were off.
Now for those of us that are local we will have been well aware that Falkirk had recently enjoyed a healthy dose of rainfall and some snow too – this meant that the course was bound to boggy and with hundreds of runners passing through the route on multiple occasions the surface was going to be churned up extensively. The course itself had undergone some reconfiguration in the days leading up to the race due to the creation of a small temporary duck pond/lake just outside the main house – therefore what the next eight hours looked like were anyone’s guess.
For the first lap I went out pretty hard – I knew that the aim was to produce 1 lap per hour or thereabouts and if I could add in some contingency while my hip and back were in decent shape then I could slow down later without too much concern about finishing. I put myself in the middle of the pack and gently hunkered down to my race strategy, not keen to chat to anyone on the first lap – I barely acknowledged the wonderful volunteers and marshals that were at regular intervals on the course.
I ran to the first and only significant climb on the course and for the first lap made great strides up it, I was determined that I would run up this bugger at least once today and I managed that but no more (I promised myself, it hurt far too much) and it was a decision that a number of runners would make.
As I reached the top of the hill I could see ahead of me the ‘shit show of mud’ that awaited us – on a good day with fresh legs or being a good strong runner you’d eat this up but being neither strong or good I was going to struggle through this – and I did. I enjoyed this section of the course, it felt the most ‘trail’ and despite it being a little bit narrow because the mud was so churned up it was still a delight to see it on each and every lap.
In the early laps I could see runners both slow and fast avoiding the worst of the conditions trying to protect their feet but for me I was confident that my combination of Lone Peaks, Drymax socks and Injinji toe liners could easily go through the worst of it and still protect my rather sensitive tootsies. Infact in these early laps as others went around mud I chose to go straight through it and enjoyed it as it the spray attached itself to my legs. I do love it when you’re absolutely coated in mud before you’ve done your first mile and this reminded of running my beloved Vigo Tough Love 10.
As I came out of the mud and back onto the more traditional country park paths I found myself slowing down a little bit, this was harder packed and therefore less good for my old and knackered hips but still very runnable and much more to my tastes than the harder trails of Tyndrum 24. I bumbled along letting runners go past me and occasionally overtaking a runner and soon found myself heading downwards to more enthusiastic volunteers – possibly the most enthusiastic I saw all day, however, at this point I was still on a mission – how fast could I get round that first lap.
The lap from this point was still headed in a generally downward direction and it was still going through the more heavily wooded area of Callendar Park – this was rather enjoyable and I was confident that I knew were headed to the turn out of the woods before rejoining the park a bit further down and then along the tarmac back to the start.
Sadly I was only half right.
I was right about the downward curvature back into the park but in the distance I saw a procession of runners heading back to the tarmac via a rather dippy, slippy field and even at this early stage you could see runners pretending to be aeroplanes with arms aloft looking for balance.
I reached the turning back on to the grass and moved slowly down it – this was nasty already and I swiftly sought out a return to what looked like a path. I ran along down into the dip and then climbed back out with all the skill of man with no skill whatsoever. This climb down and the clamber up proved to be some of the most comical viewing during the day and would give you a little smile as you watched runners struggling with it and knowing that you’d shortly be the entertainment for some other poor unfortunate!
But it was soon over and we were back on flat, sensible tarmac… but that was not a good thing. I didn’t yet know it but this section of the route would be the real mental test, every looped race has one, the bit you really hate, the bit that makes you think you should pack it all in and for me it was where you hit the tarmac again until you were back at the checkpoint.
Thankfully the Falkirk 8 Hour Ultra had something of an ace up its sleeve and that was the four sets of checkpoint volunteers that saw you through this horrible chore and even on lap one I needed the inspirational words of these lovely people. Ambling alongside the lake for what felt like an age I looked enviously towards the other side of the water to witness runners completing their first lap or in some cases getting well into their second. It wasn’t until I made it to the other side of the lake that I wished I was back on the other side…
Before a single runner had set foot on the checkpoint side of the lake it was already a well churned bog – the runners weren’t going to improve that but it was going to make for an interesting battle between us and sliding feet first in the cold lake just a few feet below us. I crossed the thick oozy mud in good time and propelled myself forward in about 33 minutes but a toilet and food stop made it more like 39 minutes before I set off again.
My stop was probably the longest one I had during the whole event as I’d missed breakfast and wanted to make sure I ate regularly. I chowed down on some kinder chocolate, a couple of delicious Caramel Freddo and a chocolate milkshake before filling up my water with Active Root – damn fine stuff that is, probably stopped me crapping myself!
I soon returned to the drizzle and the course having removed my long sleeved layer in an attempt to stop me overheating. I am led out waving at those who gave a cheery hello or supportive wave and offered encouragement to those coming in – loops makes it easier to wish people well and you’ll sometimes remember those who, like myself, might benefit from a word or three of encouragement.
My second lap was nowhere near as energetic and the first section of the loop was getting muddier and more treacherous with every step, but this I was enjoying and the volunteers at the bottom of the slope seemed to be having fun with it too (well as much as you can have within health and safety guidelines of getting your runners safely through). I continued to stretch my legs until I reached the bottom of the hill and then my body told me that this was it, each loop was now going to be a case of hanging on and seeing if we could get to the magic 8 loops.
What happened next is a bit of a haze of names, hiking and sheer bloody mindedness. I met Ed a few times who was a lovely runner that was having a bit of a day of it – but actually going really rather well, there was Heather who had this awesome hat on that had a charm almost as big as it’s owner and then there was the lovely Susan who I ran a really brilliant lap with having a lovely chat with.
The ever amazing Neil passed me a couple of times – always with practical words of encouragement and Fiona 1 and Fiona 2 both gave me lovely supportive boosts as they too saw fit to pass by me. It wasn’t just people I’ve met before though – there was Julie from Strava that turned round in the registration queue to say hello and I ran into a couple of other runners who shouted out, ‘hey are you UltraBoy?’ To which I of course reply, ‘ sort of…’ and I was either known through this blog or Strava.
The Falkirk Ultra really was a running community event.
However, I did meet one runner that made me laugh every second I was with her and that was Tracy (without an e). I think we were both on lap 5 she was ready to call it a day over an injury concern and I should have been thinking the same thing as my hip and groin were ruined. But some days you meet a person who lifts your spirits enough that you forget about the trauma and you’re reminded that you’re actually going okay.
In the time we ran together I found new energy, I was a bit lighter on my feet and I forget about the previous laps and the tiredness of my legs. I did promise she’d make it into this blog and she makes it in not so much for how brilliant she was (although she was) she makes it in because she said, ‘my mums at the bridge, I’m getting a hug’.
Well that’s a red rag to a bull.
‘I’m getting a cuddle too. What’s your mums name? I’ll ask her does she remember me, dip in for the cuddle and then tell her it was a hot steamy night in ’83 – she had the white wine spritzer and I had the babysham’.
I have no idea what Tracy’s mum must have thought but I hope she understands that what happens at an ultra stays at an ultra (wink, wink – I joke).
Tracy (and mum) were awesome and I am pleased to say that both of us made it back out on another lap.
By lap 7though I was sore, really sore and although I was still well within my strategised time I was hoping the short loop would open soon so I could forget the long loop and I’d probably still reach 50km (a shorter loop opened up at 3pm to allow runners to continue running without forfeiting distance when the bell went for the finish at 4.15pm).
However, I finished lap 7 with about 90 minutes remaining – I felt the need to go and do the big loop one final time – despite having already said most of my thanks to amazing volunteers. It very much felt like the only sensible thing to do… well maybe not sensible but I was doing it anyway.
So steeled for one final battle I headed out and this time with nobody but myself and the clock to run against I found my second wind and started running up inclines, more fool me of course but I was making a much better fist of lap 8 than I had on a couple of the others.
I danced and twirled my way around the course – daring the mud to take me – daring it to cast me groundwards bit it never did. In truth, despite the conditions I remained sure footed throughout but never more so than now. I battled down the hill to a meeting with ‘The Badger’ (more on him later) and onwards toward the finish – there would be no short loops for me.
As I crossed the tarmac in the distance I could see my daughter waving feverishly toward me, and I to her. I picked up my feet and my pace to continue the illusion that her dad is the worlds greatest runner and as she called out I lifted her high into my arms in a display of muscular movement I did not consider possible.
I stopped for a few moments to talk to her but time was pressing and I wanted to make sure this lap counted and so I waved goodbye to my family, thanking the lovely marshal at the turning point and then I headed for home.
One final lurch across the mud and there I saw the finish and most other runners on the short lap – I didn’t want to limply cross that line – I wished to show my mettle and so with the GingaNinja and ASK at the finish I picked up my feet with 100metres to go and raised hell with a sprint that swerved between the short loop runners and crossed the line in a flurry of my own excitement.
I’d actually done it.
I’d made it.
Distance: 3.8mile loop (ish)
Ascent: Nothing hideous – just felt it (under 100 metres per lap)
Date: February 2020
Entrants: 350 (inc. relay runners)
Terrain: Muddy, undulating
Tough Rating: 2.5/5
What do you want from your route? A route that will be predictable or one that surprises you? The Falkirk 8 Hour Ultra has something for everyone to love and something to loathe. I loved it for the most part, the mud was challenging, the inclines & the declines were awesome and the tarmac that threaded it together was minimised.
Even with last minute changes to the route this still felt well prepared and overall you’d be silly not to fall in love with this. Obviously I’m a little biased as I live near Falkirk and run often in or around the park but this route took in some fun bits and even in the grey weather we had it’s still a lovely place to run.
The route was incredibly well marked and heavily marshalled but not in an intrusive way, you just felt secure in the knowledge that the race really did have your back.
My hope is that the route recovers quickly from so many runners racing around it so the event is welcomed back next year – this is a great place and a great place to have a route of this nature on. Scotland needs ultra marathons during the winter to support runners like myself and Falkirk will benefit from the goodwill of runners and a deepening reputation as a place where great events can be held (let us not mention Epic from the week before!)
I’ve been to a few races in my time and I’ve seen good and bad organisation but let me assure you that the organisation, preparation and selflessness of the organisers went so far above and beyond any expectations I had.
The organisers deserve a huge amount of credit for producing an event par excellence!
I was impressed by the race village that popped up (which the organisers might not be 100% responsible for but made sure it was sensibly located, etc), facilities such as toilets were excellent, parking was sensible given we, quite rightly, couldn’t use the main facilities at Callendar Park.
Even the organisation of the short loop, the updates for race timings seemed to be so effortless, it was a joy to behold – you, as the runner could simply get on with the business of dying out on the insanely fun course! Of course we all know that only a lot of hard work makes something like this look effortless, so my huge congratulations.
As a solo runner I was also mightily impressed about the way the big registration tent was cleared down and our bags were elevated off the ground to ensure that we had very easy access to our kit and I found myself very happily dipping in their briefly each lap and then coming back out onto the course to be welcomed by the race supporters – it was really nice.
Value for Money
I normally have to question just how good the value of an event is but I can be effusive in my praise that this is probably the best value race you’ll ever do – £30! Let me put this into perspective – that’s the same as coffee and a toasted sandwich at Starbucks for two – and this race gives you a lot more than any corporate monster will.
Compare this with say the Epic Falkirk race at Callendar Park a few days earlier and you can immediately see the difference.
The route was fun, the time and dedication of the people who put this together was clearly evident. The excellent thought that went into the items in the goody bag was really appreciated and then the bespoke medal – what a corker.
People of Falkirk, people of Scotland, people of the world – this is an amazingly good value event and while I would highly recommend it to all of you could you make sure that I get a place every year as this is my local ultra and I’m going to look forward to it year in, year out!
I promised I would get to ‘The Badger’ and here we are but first I want to say a huge thank you to every single one of the marshalling team, on a cold, wet day at the start of February you stood out and supported hundreds of runners that you probably didn’t know and you gave each and every one of love and encouragement from start to whatever our finish was.
I was particularly fortunate, I got to have cuddles with just about everyone, the lovely ladies who were at the bottom of the hill and gave me both cuddles and the odd kick up the arse. The cowbell ladies who must have had ringing ears by the end of the day and the poor young lady who lost her leopard skin print gloves – amazing. The dancing ladies, the downhill turning point marshals, the chaps as we ran back into the park – all of them had a cheery smile no matter how many times I told terrible jokes.
The guys on the tarmac – couple of lovely beards there (one ginger and one badger), these guys I looked forward to seeing each lap and got lots of big hugs from them. There is something wonderful about drawing big chaps into a cuddle with a fool like me – plus it gives you a lift and hopefully it reminds them just how much they are appreciated.
I’d also like to say thanks to the great ladies who were at the two bridges who accepted my flirtatious charm with all the humour it was intended with.
And then the couple of guys at the run back to the checkpoint, one to advise us to get closer to the water as the ground grew ever more treacherous and one to bang his piece of metal with a drum stick – I may on lap 7 have suggested that I knew were he could put that drumstick… you can guess the rest.
If I missed anyone out, believe me you aren’t forgotten – every marshal and member of the team contributed a massive amount to its success and I am confident all the runners would bow down before your dedication and tenacity. Brilliant, just brilliant.
Lovely hoody, lovely buff, Tunnocks teacake and an awesome bespoke medal. Do I need to say anymore? Brilliant
This looped race jumps to the top of the list of my favourite looped races and just a favourite race in general – toppling the Brutal Enduro for loops and I am sure my enthusiasm for this race will live long. If you have never attempted the Falkirk 8 Hour Ultra then you should consider it, if you aren’t an ultra runner then get involved in the relay as that looked incredibly competitive and you could have all the fun without the pain.
As for me, well I had a lot of fun but my hips will pay the price for that fun – they started to feel pretty crappy at about the 25km mark, this though is a significant improvement on the 5 miles they managed at Tyndrum 24. The important thing for me was that I am starting to improve – it’s true I’m still a shit runner but a shit runner that is getting mildly fitter and with that I’ll hope to improve pace and distance.
I went into the Falkirk Ultra with no expectations but hopes that I would make this my 53rd ultra finish and I managed that – it might have been at the bottom end of the ultra distances but after a rubbish 2019 of running I’m pleased with the way this weekend went. I can now go to the F50K with a bit more confidence (just need to learn to navigate).
Ultimately what can I say other than this was stunning and I hope to see you all next year for a few extra laps.