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Ultraboyruns ready for the winter running

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.

Buffs

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.

Alternatives
Harrier Tube Scarf £6 | Decathlon Wedze Neck Warmer £4 |

Big Bobble Hat

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.

Ronhill Long Sleeved Running Top

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

Oddballs Short Sleeved Training Top

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

WAA Gilet

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.

Alternatives
Raidlight MP Overmitts £36 | Salomon Bonatti Mitts £32

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…

Alternatives
Ronhill Classic Gloves £12 | Montane Switch Gloves/Mitts £55 |

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.

Alternatives
Polar Vantage M £175 | Suunto Ambit 9 £350 | Garmin Forerunner 45 £150

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.

Ronhill Twin Skin Revive Shorts

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.

Alternatives
Alpkit Koulin Trail 3/4 Leggings £28 | On Lightweight Running Shorts £50 | Salomon Exo Motion Twin Skin Shorts £75

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

Drymax socks

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 |

Topo Athletic Terraventure

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

Inov8 Trail Talon 290

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.

Alternatives
Dirty Girl Gaiters £18 | Alpkit Kanju Gaiters £20

Harrier Running Curbar 5 litre running vest

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.

I’ve written about running packs perviously in a blog post that you can read about here but this winter I have mainly been using my Raidlight Revolutiv 12 (review here), OMM Adventure 20 and my Harrier Curbar 5 (review here).

Montane Minimus Running Waterproof Jacket

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.

Alternatives
OMM Kamelika Jacket £140 | On Running Weather Jacket £190 | Montane Podium Pull-On £110

Montane Featherlite trousers

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.

Alternatives
OMM Halo Overtrousers £80 | Salomon Bonatti £85 | Inov8 Trailpant £110 | Raidlight Ultra MP £80 | Decathlon Evadict £40

Olight baton

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.

Alternatives
BlackDiamond Spot £30 | Petzl Actik Core £40

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.

Altra Golden Spikes

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

TOTAL: £116.50

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.

I would highly recommend retailers such as Pete Bland Sports, Castleberg Outdoors, Myracekit and Northern Runner – these are were I get most of my running shoes, socks and traditional sporting kit from. I buy direct from Oddballs, Montane, WAA, Lomo, Harrier, Harvey Maps Alpkit and Raidlight because I find this the most efficient way to get their kit and I buy from online resources such as Sports Pursuit.

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.

Topo MTN Racer

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.

Ultraboyruns in his MyOddballs top and Harrier Running Kinder 10 litre running vest

Most importantly of course is, enjoy your winter running and do it safely.

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

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

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

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

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I therefore had high expectations for the event.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something I was very glad of.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We had made it, I had made it.

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

Route
What they said about the route…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Conclusion
Is this a great race? Not yet.

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

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

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

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

Check out the race details here


This is a blog post that pains me to write but because I’ve written glowingly about the Altra Lone Peak 3.0 but feel it is important to provide an update to a problem encountered with my favourite running shoes.

Let me give some context to this post, I’ve purchased three pairs of Altra Lone Peak 3.0 (from Running Warehouse, London City Runner and Northern Runner).

The pair I coveted most were the burnt orange option (Running Warehouse) as I find Altra send the muted colours to the UK which doesn’t fit my running tastes profile.

I fell in love the moment I put them on and more than a couple of hundred kilometres in and I remained in love. It was at this point that I wrote my comparison review of the three main Altra trail running shoes. I couldn’t praise the changes enough, better fit, more robust, interesting design and a polish that had been missing in the 2.5 – these were brilliant.

The other two pairs (bought from independent UK retailers) were saved for racing as I train in Inov8 and On Running shoes mostly. Therefore I went to Haria Extreme with shoes that had just 3 miles on them. Thankfully unleashed on the Martian like terrain the LP3.0 returned nothing but notes of joy as they sang across the race.

What a shoe.

The morning after the race the day before: The day after the race though as I was performing my post race kit clean up I noticed that the toe bumper had come loose – this was unexpected. A total of 85km had been done in the shoes and that didn’t seem much. However, if I’m honest I was more interested in having a nice post race holiday and so packed them away (individually wrapped as ever) and thought no more about them.

For my final races of 2016 – Mouth to Mouth and the Mince Pi – I use older shoes like my Inov8 Race Ultra 290 and Lone Peak 2.0 which have lots of life in them but aren’t in my normal day to day shoe rotation so the LP3.0 stayed packed away well into the new year.

Therefore when 2017 did come calling I still hadn’t given my LP3.0 much consideration and it wasn’t until MIUT rolled round in April that I got them out again to run in.

However, looking at the damage to the toe bumper made me concerned about how they would protect me on the steep descents, more importantly might this damage provide a hazard during the more technical sections?

Being positively minded though I assumed that I had simply had one bad pair and decided to unbox my third pair and rocked up to MIUT in them. This time I was quite aware of the possibility of problems with the shoe and therefore was keen to keep an eye on them. With MIUT though the course was so ball breaking that I soon forgot to check my shoes.

It wasn’t until 50km in with daylight creeping over the horizon that I thought about my footwear and as I was shedding my night time kit and reworking my pack that I noticed that the toe bumper had started to work loose on a fresh out of the box pair!

Not cool. Not cool at all.

It was a massive disappointment because the shoe was so incredibly brilliant as it worked up and down the trails – such a tiny thing was going to ruin my experience.

Three pairs of LP3.0 and two of them failed within 50 miles and while some might argue that you can still use them I don’t feel you can use them for some of the nastier technical trails I was running earlier this year.

What next? I contacted Altra and their care team to tell them of the failures I had experienced, noting the distance I’d run in them, the terrain and as much other information that might help them provide a response.

The care team wrote back swiftly advising that they take this kind of thing seriously and hope that feedback can inform improvements later down the line and that I should in the first instance contact the people I bought the shoes from, which seemed perfectly sensible.

I very much appreciated the response from Altra USA and the reply struck the right tone for a brand on the way up.

As suggested I contacted both Northern Runner and London City Runner who were both very helpful and both offered suggestions as to why they may have failed

  1. ill fitting shoes
  2. washed in a washing machine
  3. temperature of the races I do

Sadly none of these seemed to be the case as I was fitted by Altra people for my Lone Peaks, they’ve never been in a washing machine and neither Madeira or Lanzarote were in extreme temperatures (24-26 degrees).

Northern Runner simply replaced them after seeing the damage on a series of photographs I supplied but because I’d lost my receipt and it had been many months since I’d purchased them it was more difficult for London City Runner – although the Altra supplier did say they would see what they could do*.

I’d like to stress the point that you really can’t fault the customer service, support or help in trying to find a resolution. Altra, Northern City Runner and London City Runner should be commended for dealing with me quickly. Though, it should be noted that it wasn’t replacement footwear that was at the forefront of my thinking, I just wanted to understand if there was a known issue.

The £115 a pair question! The crux of the issue and the thing I couldn’t get an answer for was ‘is this a known problem with the LP3.0?’

Understandably nobody seemed keen to answer this but if the shoe is prone to this particular failure then I simply won’t buy them anymore as at £115 for 50km running that’s a very expensive shoe.

Now it is possible I’m the only person to have suffered the toe bumper coming away but I’m not sure my running style is so distinct as to make me the only person this has happened to.

So the question now being posed is ‘Has anyone else had this problem?’ I’m interested to hear if others have faced this issue or other problems that I’ve been lucky enough to avoid.

The next version? I live in hope that the Lone Peak 3.5 resolves this very minor but hugely inconvenient problem as I’m an Altra fan and a big advocate for giving them a go. I don’t want to start looking around for new brands – it took me long enough to find this one. And in truth despite the durability problems the Altra Lone Peak 3.0 is a buggeringly good running shoe.

So Altra, get it fixed, I’ve got trails to conquer!


*Despite good initial conversations I never got round to visiting London City Runner and returning the original shoes to solve this issue as I got caught out with bouts of illness, injury and racing! Very much my own fault and I would very highly recommend all the retailers mentioned in this post.


I was going to review the Lone Peak 3.0 but then realised that actually the more useful thing to do might be to look at my experience of running across the Altra trail range. This review and comparison will look at the Altra Superior 2.0, Olympus 2.0 and Lone Peak 3.0 in which I’ve run at least 200 miles in each across a wide variety of terrain and conditions.

My introduction to the Altra trail experience 

Superior 2.0 It was a warm day in June when I first put my Superior 2.0 on, I’d bought them as a speedier alternative to the Lone Peak 2.0 – where the LP felt plush these felt more like moccasins, something you might find Native Americans wearing in the Old Wild West! As is often the case with Altra they sent the UK the boring colour way – grey with a hint of green and there was an air of wearing old ladies Hotter shoes rather than the latest innovative low profile trail running shoes.

Anyway I was at one of my usual haunts and set off on a short 10km trail run (a trail run that I put all new shoes through) and we danced across the logs, bounded across the dry, hurtled through the damp and came unstuck in the wet mud! Uphill they were kind to my toes and grippy and downhill they felt stable enough but with a backend that needed a bit of control.

The Superior feel like fast footwear, you don’t forget you’re wearing them despite having the same upper comfort levels of other Altra shoes – perhaps it’s the more tigerish feel of putting on a pair of runners that you know are built to go a bit quicker.

Lone Peak 3.0 I opened the box and looked down and went ‘wow’. Altra has finally delivered a shoe I could simply look at and think ‘OMG’. The LP3.0 was a big departure from the second series. Yes, I’m not made keen on the blue or the black colour ways (the only ones available in the UK) but I wanted to ensure they were bought from an independent UK retailer.

I knew I’d be delighted to take them out for a spin but it turned out that the first chance I’d get to use them would be on race day at the Chislehurst Chase. Now we all know the thing about not wearing them straight out of the box for something like a race but I felt confident in them and I knew the route as it used to be an old stomping ground of mine.

Within seconds of bounding our of the starting line I realised that the Lone Peak was an improvement and a half on the previous editions but it would it replace the LP2.0 as my Altra of choice?

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Olympus 2.0 Riding high like Zeus above the mere mortal men on the trail here I came in my mighty Olympus 2.0 (or so I thought). I had bought these with the Skye Trail Ultra specifically in mind. The Olympus it turned out were not the best choice for this race but they have proved to be a prudent choice for less gnarly routes.

The Olympus were as difficult to find in the UK as the Lone Peak 3.0 and in this instance I really did want an exciting colour and so bought them from France as they had the blue and neon yellow version. The most interesting advance in the Olympus over previous versions (and the reason I was willing to give them a go) was the Vibram outsole and more aggressive approach to the lugs.

Hitting the trails you could instantly see that the new, more cultured outsole was going to be of benefit and the level of comfort from all the A-bound technology sitting between you and the trail was ridiculously sumptuous.

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So what do Altra say about each of their footwear?

Superior 2.0
Why mess with perfection? Last year’s award-winning favorite is back with the same look and feel as its predecessor, but with new color options and sidewall reinforcement. The FootShape™ toe box lets your toes relax and spread out in uphill and downhill trail conditions while the fully cushioned Zero Drop™ platform helps you maintain proper form across long distances. TrailClaw™ outsole technology features canted lugs beneath your metatarsals for ultimate gripping in gnarly terrain. A removable StoneGuard™ rock protection plate protects your feet from sharp rocks and is removable for use on less demanding terrain.

  • Sizing: Slightly Short
  • Weight: 8.7 oz./247 g.
  • Stack Height: Height: 21mm
  • Sizes 7, 8–13, 14, 15
  • Cushioning: Light
  • Ideal Uses: Trail Running, Hiking, Backpacking, Off Road Racing
  • Designed to Improve: Running Form, Toe Splay, Stability, Push-off, Comfort, Traction
  • Platform: Natural Foot Positioning: FootShape™ Toe Box with Fully Cushioned Zero Drop™ Platform
  • Midsole: EVA/A-Bound™ Blend with InnerFlex™
  • Outsole: TrailClaw™ Sticky Rubber Outsole
  • Insole: 5 mm Contour Footbed with Removable StoneGuard™ Rock Protection
  • Upper: Quick-Dry Air Mesh
  • Other Features: GaiterTrap™ Technology

Lone Peak 3.0
Named after eleven thousand feet of pure Utah peak ruggedness, the Lone Peak 3.0 is the latest version of the trail shoe that started it all for Altra. We added additional protection to the upper for increased durability and protection when the trail starts to bite back. The outsole has been re-designed and spec’d up with the all new MaxTrac™ outsole, offering more grip in all conditions. The StoneGuard™ has been sandwiched between the midsole and outsole to offer extra protection from those rocks trying hard to go after your feet. And your toes will be loving life in the luscious FootShape™ toe box up front. The legend continues with the Lone Peak 3.0.

  • Weight: 9.7 oz. /275 g
  • Cushioning: Moderate
  • Stack Height: 25mm
  • Ideal Uses: Trail Running, Hiking, Fastpacking, Trail Racing
  • Designed To Improve: Running Form, Toe Splay, Stability, Push-off, Comfort, Traction
  • Platform: Foot Positioning: FootShape™ Toe Box with Fully Cushioned Zero Drop™ Platform
  • Last: SD6
  • Midsole: EVA with A-Bound™ Top Layer
  • Outsole: Altra MaxTrac Sticky Rubber with TrailClaw™
  • Insole: 5 mm Contour Footbed
  • Upper: Quick-Dry Air Mesh
  • Other Features: Sandwiched StoneGuard™ Rock Protection, Natural Ride System, GaiterTrap™ Technology, No-slip Sock Liner Design

Olympus 2.0
You asked, and we delivered. Our popular, max-cushioned trail shoe returns with a completely revamped Vibram® Megagrip outsole and a softer, more flexible upper. The new outsole dramatically enhances traction in uphill and downhill terrain while maintaining the max-cushioned feel you love. Traction and durability improvements have also led to a reduction in weight over its predecessor for a faster ride. An impressive 36mm stack height runs evenly from front to back and features an A-Bound bottom layer to add a spring to each step and EVA™ top layer to take the bite out of the rugged terrain. And like every Altra shoe, the FootShape™ toe box keeps your feet happy, relaxed, and stable through uphill climbs and downhill descents.

  • Improved Traction
  • Less Weight
  • Sizing: True to Size
  • Weight: 11.0 oz./ 312 g.
  • Cushioning: Max
  • Stack Height: 36mm
  • Sizes: 7, 8–13, 14, 15
  • Ideal Uses: Trail Running, Hiking, Fastpacking, Trail Racing
  • Designed To Improve: Running Form, Toe Splay, Stability, Push-off, Comfort, Traction
  • Last: SD6-M
  • Midsole: Dual Layer EVA with A-Bound™ Top Layer
  • Outsole: Vibram® Megagrip
  • Insole: 5mm Contour Footbed
  • Upper: Quick-Dry Trail Mesh
  • Other Features: Natural Ride System, GaiterTrap™ Technology

 Much has been made of the foot shaped toe box and the zero drop, both intended to enable a more natural running form and having been a runner who has run extensively in zero drop shoes and Vibram Fivefingers I can tell you that the Altra way has helped me achieve a better style of running form, especially when I’m tired – I don’t breakdown nearly as quickly.

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Superior Opinion?
The Superior are a great shoe, I use them for XC and shorter distance races (10, 12 miles) I don’t run ultra marathons in them even though I probably could. The lower profile offers the greatest connection to the trail but it also offers the least protection and you can feel this. Everything has been stripped down from the tongue right through to the upper – this is not a criticism but an observation. In my opinion the Superior benefit greatly from this more stripped down approach as they really do feel quicker than their trail siblings and have a lot in common with the Inov8 Trailroc.

The fit is generous around the toes  – as you might expect – this being the Altra USP, the heel cup is a little loose (a problem some find with Altra), the trail gaiter remains a great asset and the grip is reasonable.

The upper is an improvement on previous versions of the Superior but is still not amazing, the overlays in the latest version of 2.0 seem to have addressed this a little but I expect that Altra will need to consider a bit of an overhaul once again. The upper is remarkably comfortable though (again much like the Inov8 Trailroc 235) and it does feel like a lovely pair of slippers as you run round the trails. The upper drains and gets nice and dry quickly too which for someone like me is a real bonus.

The issue I think most will have will the Superior 2.0 is the grip – in the UK were things like rain and mud exist the Superior struggle to get traction and can become a little bogged down. However, in the dry or through the moist trail they’ll confidently take on everything that you thrown at them and you’re feet will feel like they’ve enjoyed the experience.

In terms of longevity and durability you might find that these aren’t going to last like an old pair of Walsh – they are far from bombproof. This could be said of both the upper and the tread as both will ear down pretty quickly. My boss who owns a pair of Superior says that the tread has already started to peel away after only 100 miles and my pair once they reached 200 miles looked a little abused. There was also soome gentle fraying on the upper by 200 miles and given the mileage I will put in this makes the Superior seem like an expensive shoe.

However, they remain fun and lots of it.

Best for: Cross Country, shorter trail running, dry trail, faster trail running

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Peak Opinion?
The Lone Peak are the trail shoe that have saved my feet, I realise this is a big statement but its true. I started with the Lone Peak 2.0 (several pairs) and loved them to bits.I ran the Thames Path 100 in them straight out of the box, having never tried Altra before and never looked back. Lots of runners, including the excellent review ‘Ginger Runner’ suggested that the Lone Peak 2.0 felt more like a skater shoe than a pair of running shoes – he had a point. However, the upper, support and overall feel as well as the visuals of the LP2.0 were stunning. My first pair ran well in excess of 1,000 miles before they even began to consider retirement (they still run today but only on training runs).

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With the 3.0 though the Lone Peaks have undergone something of a transformation. More overlays, less heel cup (so less skater shoe feel), revised grip, Abound material for support but with all the things you previously loved. The visuals have also gone for a more Americanised look, throwing out some of the more understated ‘European’ feel of the 2.0 and 2.5.

The rewards for this effort can be felt almost immediately on the trail. The LP3.0 is lighter, faster, better fitting and better at dealing with muddy terrain than ever before. It’s the shoe you always wanted from Altra and so far none of the problems (other than its a bloody expensive shoe).

I’ve committed to several hundred miles in this shoe since I bought them (the moment they arrived in the UK) and each run has given me comfort and pleasure in a way that not even my much loved yellow LP2.0 could. It’s things like the attention to detail I love, the little clip for the gaiters on the front of the shoe and obviously the trail gaiter trap on the reverse, the removal of the ridiculous rudder continues and the graphics lifted partly from the 1.5. What’s not to like?

The shoe also now comes in a pertex and a booted version. The boot version looks like it’s going to try and take on the Hoka Tor series and the Pertex version of for those of you that are insane enough to wear them – seriously who wears waterproof shoes, once it’s gone over the top its like your feet have gone for a swim and aren’t getting out the pool!

With the right marketing and supply chain these shoes should be taking over the trail running world but Altra seem to have an issue, especially in the UK with both its communication and its stock levels (this needs to be cleared up because growth through word of mouth alone will not overhaul Hoka, Inov8 and Salomon).

Great shoe, more of the same please.

Best for: Ultra distance, long slow trail runs, hiking, mud and mayhem!

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© Gareth Jones

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© Fiona Rennie

MIghty Olympus?
The Olympus are pictured above taking on the demands of the first 30 miles of the Skye Trail Ultra and what a great pair of shoes they are. Not perhaps the best choice for the first 30 miles of Skye but my word they’ve covered themselves in glory ever since – especially during the Brutal Enduro and several very long training runs on and around the North Downs Way. Having not tested the earlier versions I had no comparison for the Olympus but the main issue seemed to have been with the 1.0 and the 1.5 was that the grip was shockingly rubbish.

So Altra gave us a Vibram outsole! In the picture below you can see the toe bumper and the depth of the lugs on the Olympus 2.0 – you’ll also see the new leg pattern from the LP3.0 (wouldn’t mind seeing a vibram version of this!) There’s a couple of different compounds too which do much the same job as say Inov8’s Tri-C but basically its got hard and soft sections to deal with the different types of terrain you’ll be facing.

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The Olympus has a big stack height (36mm) so its clearly built for the long slow journeying rather than the faster more trail intimate experience of the Superior but that’s not to say that you don’t get feedback from the route because you do – just not quite so telling on the feet as with a less supportive shoe.

The good news is that after several hundred miles both the upper and the outsole are wearing well. I have yet to find any significant durability issues and believe me I enjoy taking my running shoes through the nasty kinds of trails and I’m always on the lookout for wet mud and hills (preferably both) to give them a good test. The grip is impressive mostly (other than in the thickest mud, but very shoes deal with this well) and overall the Olympus are a kick arse pair of shoes.

As a previous wearer of Hoka I can tell you that Altra (rather than Hoka) have got the maximal shoe right (for me at least). Stable, fun, faster than you expect and they look the business rather than like clown shoes!

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Best for: Ultra distance, long slow trail runs

So which would you go for?
For me that’s really easy – I’d have all three but if I was only going to have one then I’d go for the classic Lone Peak 3.0, a tremendous shoe.

However, each of the Altra trail shoes does something quite unique and I like having them all for both training and racing.  I still believe that Altra is a niche product and not suited to everyone so I’d always advocate a try-before-you-buy if at all possible but if you are looking to dump the Hoka because they don’t feel stable enough, your feet have been bruised to buggery by the lack of cushioning on your Inov8 or you simply want a change from the black and red of Salomon then these might be the choice of shoe for you.

Remember too that while I’ve been looking at these very much from the ultra running perspective they are equally at home on the shorter trails

Where can I try Altra?
There are a number of stockists including (other stockists are probably available);

Do Altra (or their stockists or anyone) pay you or give you kit to write this?
Thankfully no.

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I didn’t really want to go to the High Weald 50km, it was a race I had been hugely looking forward to but after a blistering disagreement with the GingaNinja about running I had decided I was done with running.

However, in the days leading up to HW50 there was a change of stance as one of us backed away from the precipice and I then relented on my retirement from running (I may one day chronicle what happened but not today). The problem was I then hadn’t run for nearly a month – so I entered the Chislehurst 10km as a test of fitness and to see what damage eating all the food in universe had done.

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The bad news was that the Chislehurst Chase was not only incredibly tough on my unfit body but I also pulled my hamstring. Bugger. With less than 7 days to the HW50 race start I decided I’d rest rather run in the lead up to the race.

And so it came to pass that the day of the High Weald 50 arrived and I rolled up to the start line feeling suitably miserable. I collected my number and drifted to the start line, I really wasn’t feeling it as the race when we kicked off I drifted to the back of the runners and decided I’d stay there.

I hadn’t really know what to expect from the course other than it would be undulating but knowing Tonbridge and the surroundings a little bit I expected it to be properly hilly. However, as the miles wore on I grew a little happier, glad to be back on the trail and the HW50 offered real trail.

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With the weather overcast and a little drab it made for the ideal conditions and I was running a mildly consistent pace with a few ‘hurl myself down the hill’ moments – I could feel the fun rolling in. The miles were counting down nicely and I was through checkpoint 1 and 2 in good time but I could clearly feel my lack of training, too many pizzas and the hamstring I’d pulled a week earlier, it was about 23km in that I finally knew it was going to be a bit of a slog and that was when the sun came out.

I hadn’t prepared for sun, other than my buff visor, I could feel the heat bearing down on to my head and making the route feel increasingly difficult. Even undertrained and carrying an injury I had been running quite well but with sunstroke setting in this was going to be the Vanguard Way all over again.

Thankfully around the 35km mark I came across first time ultra runner Greg. There he was looking a lot like the honey monster with his salt and pepper beard, a jaunty approach to running and excellent conversation. Greg and I meandered through the next 10km or so moving back and forth for running ahead and he was having a lovely old time and I was able to hold onto what remained of my sanity by focusing on the conversation. However, prior to the final checkpoint I put on a burst of speed as I needed some form of sugary drink and knew that with just a few kilometres to go I put a bit of a burst together.

After some sugary drinks and pizza related banter I pulled out of the checkpoint and realised that the final section had lots of lovely cover and in these conditions I could feel my head cooling off and my desire to get the job done return.

I therefore did what I do what I can’t sleep – I jumped into the cockpit of my spaceship and pretended I had an urgent mission to complete / with the finish line my HQ and about a bazillion alien invaders between me and home.

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I managed not to lumber my way through the final kilometres, infact I was pushing and for the first time I thought about my feet and realised how lovely my Lone Peak 3.0 were. I was now back at pace and urging myself forward but whenever I would meet daylight rather than shade I retreated into myself like a vampire realising his alarm clock had woken him before sunset. As I thundered back towards the start I could see Greg’s family waiting for him and I shouted that he should just be a few minutes behind me (and he was). I powered up the final piece of undulation at the edge of the car park and towards the finish line.

In the distance I could hear a very noisy child shouting ‘dad run fast’ – little fucker I thought. UltraBaby came running towards me, my arms rose aloft to indicate it was me and I put my arms around her, picked her up and ran towards the finish line. Sadly UB had other ideas and starting howling for the GingaNinja and so I ground to a halt dropped her to the floor and directed her towards her mum. I turned and drifted over the finish line – much to the amusement of the volunteers and marshals.

Key points

  • Distance: 50km
  • Profile: Very undulating
  • Date: September 2016
  • Location: Sussex
  • Cost: £40
  • Terrain: Trail, some technical descents
  • Tough Rating: 3/5 (3.5/5 if you’re not very fit when you do it)

Route
The route was really very interesting and varied, remaining on the trail for the bulk of the race. The uphills felt like real uphills and some of the downhills were properly awesome. This was the kind of route I expected at The Ridgeway 86 and didn’t get but High Weald delivered in bucketloads, highly recommended route.

Organisation
The High Weald 50 gets a 10 out of 10 for organisation – from car parking to race instructions to finish line cake and tea, this was a well drilled and organised event. The volunteers, every single one of them were brilliant and everyone should be incredibly proud of the job they did.

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Support
Aid stations about every six miles and lots of good stuff available (I stuck with the Coke) it was a really good spread and the supporters, be they the volunteers or the runners individual supporters were brilliant.

Awards
The real reason I rolled up to the race wasn’t the medal or the route it was to ensure I claimed one of the awesome mugs that come with the High Weald 50km. This one made it just that little bit special for me and it’s joined the other non-medal trinkets I’ve won over the years. The medal itself was nice enough and the delicious cake and cup of tea at the end were much needed and as good a reward for racing as I’ve ever received. The awards were definitely a winner!

Value for money
There’s been a general rising of prices across races as it’s got more popular and in a number of cases it’s becoming harder to justify the cost. However, the chaps at Trail Running Sussex have a tremendous event at a very decent price and even if this went up a few pounds it would remain exceptionally good value.

Conclusion
It’s true I had a terrible second half to the race where I suffered with sunstroke quite badly but that wouldn’t stop me saying this was one of my favourite races – I had so much fun. I have no problem in recommending this race, especially if what you want in an event is a low key and tough autumnal challenge. It’s got much going for it beyond the great organisation, atmosphere, route and lovely mug – it’s got that great sense of achievement that should come from doing something awesome. I’d love to say I’ve got something negative to say but I haven’t the race is perfect just as it is.

Keep up the good work!

 


I’m not a great fan of negative reviews, either reading or writing them because it tends to be about personal experience and that’s so personal it detracts from the specifics of a thing therefore once you’ve read about my experience at Endure1250 you’ll probably think it’s the worst race in the universe and that’s not true. So if you want to read a quick guide to Endure 1250 then try the statement below

Basically Endure1250 is a decent, well organised, good value, low key timed (or distance) trail run. That statement is true but if  you want to know what happened to UltraBoy at Endure 1250 then read on but be warned – my testicles get a lot of ‘airtime’.

As I’m sure you all know summer has magically arrived in the UK which basically means it’s stupidly hot therefore I was glad that Endure1250 wasn’t kicking off until 7pm, it meant that the heat of the day could be avoided and give me a decent chance of putting some quality miles in.

Saturday though started with a trip to the Great London swim and also a browse of all the CosPlayers from the Star Wars Celebration at the Excel Centre in London and by the time I left I was running late making it only as far as Paddington by well gone 2pm. I then added to my woe by jumping on the wrong train and I found myself increasingly uncomfortably hot and sweaty.

Thankfully, despite my detour, I hit Reading a little after 3pm and then Pangbourne (the nearest town to the event) about 4pm. Even with all my camping and run gear on my back I still hiked the couple of miles to the start line in less than 20 minutes and after a swift registration threw up the tent and began unpacking my stuff.

The race village was small but perfectly formed with pretty much everything you would need for a cheery event. I drifted around, grabbed a reasonably priced and very tasty hot dog and browsed the couple of running kit stands. Bales of hay were provided as cheap seating and were located around what would become a campfire later in the day and this was a good opportunity to meet other runners. Therefore with my kit laid out in the tent and a bit of time to kill I decided to get social with a couple of the runners. Sadly there was a general desire, at least at this early stage, to stay within your grouping or with your friends – which was understandable, this wasn’t the socialising hour – I’d clearly missed that!

Post relax I headed back to the tent, armed with a bottle of water and assorted toiletries, in an attempt to resolve a bit of a problem – sweat rash and chaffing.

The heat of the day, lots of running about and lugging my camping gear round had meant I’d picked up this racers worst nightmare – rubby balls! Yes it looked like someone had dropped a tin of red paint down the inside of my shorts and swirled it about.

I carefully, as one can in a small, hot tent, cleaned up the offending area, drying it thoroughly and waiting patiently before applying liberal lashings of bodyglide. It was tender – of that there was no doubt but I hoped that my patch up job would hold for long enough into the race that it wouldn’t be an issue. I believed if I could hit say 35 of the 50 miles of promised myself before it reared its ugly head again I’d be alright.

Kitted up I proceeded to the start line to grab some photographs for this blog post and to revel in the pre-race atmosphere which was now more traditionally ultra – nervous excitement. I listened to the announcer, over the tannoy, inform us that the start would be delayed by a few minutes for safety checks. However, at 7.14pm the horn sounded and several hundred runners set off along the grass path and alongside the camping area passing the many supporters and awaiting relay runners to a multitude of cheers and whoops!

I remembered to tell myself the key thing was to keep it steady and don’t get drawn in to racing the relay runners, the 50 km runners or even the 50 milers – I was due to be here for the next 12 hours.

I pushed through the first kilometre marker in decent time as the loop moved in and around the outside of the camp and the second kilometre was met after some largely uninspiring Tarmac and I hoped the route would improve but the next couple of kilometre were alongside the river with only a few narrow boats to offer support or interest.

However, at 5 km things improved when we re-entered Beale Park and despite being on the road again we could admire the large animal sculptures and pleasant gardens and there was a general upward trend in the run route for kilometres 6-8 as we passed through tree lined areas, a couple of hills and a faster section or two.

I pulled in briefly at the base camp after the first five miles to grab some chocolate milkshake and also to visit the little boys room and there I discovered that the problem I had patched up was going to return more quickly than anticipated.

Even in the dim lighting of portaloo I could see the glowing chaffing hiding in my shorts. How quickly his face had turned to anger, all twisted and contorted with rage. The bodyglide as good as it was could do nothing for this, clearly I applied it too late in the day and should have used it before I even set out for event some 12hrs earlier.

With time ticking away I rejoined the race and cantered around the first few kilometres again trying to get comfortable enough to run sensibly but it wasn’t to be and I completed my second lap in agony and looking like I had some sort of genital itch as I constantly readjusted my shorts.

I came in to the camp at the end of lap 2 and opened up my tent – closing the fly shield just enough to give me cover while open enough to let a breeze in. I kicked off my shorts to inspect the damage – it was pretty severe. I lay back legs open wide and feet pointing skyward letting a cool wind blow over the affected area. I lay motionless like this for some 20 minutes before a plan came to mind.

The return of the buff!
It was generally too warm to be wearing a buff but not around my nether regions! I took the UTMB buff I purchased last year (the one I’m embarrassed to wear given my DNF at the CCC) and I wrapped my nuts in it, carefully placing the excess fabric either side of the inner shorts of my Salomon compression leggings. I’d kept the compression leggings on in an effort to keep things from moving round. Now we would see how a third lap might go.

For me the race had turned to farce but I had travelled a long way and wasted enough money that I didn’t want to leave without achieving the minimum of a marathon distance to at least tick another one off for a step closer to the hundred marathon club vest.
I ran what I could, walked what I had to. I came in at each lap to cool off my buff, change my shorts and generally let things catch the benefit of a breeze.

I was in agony.

At 7.30hrs in, and with the stops to let the chaffing cool getting longer, I forced myself out one final time to get to the 30 miles that would confirm the marathon distance.
I crossed the line about an hour later, my run/walking never really that slow (the stops making my lap times look particularly terrible) and I went and gingerly sat down on the bales of hay. I purchased a cup of tea, watched runners going round and round in circles and then took myself off to bed. Bollocks to this I thought – literally bollocks.

Key points

  • Distance: 8km loop
  • Profile: Flat
  • Date: July 2016
  • Location: Pangbourne
  • Cost: £35
  • Terrain: Very light trail, road
  • Tough Rating: 1/5

Route
The route was probably designed to take advantage of open spaces and Beale Park to provide a fast, very runnable route. However, for me, I found it dull and uninspiring. I know loops are going to get repetitive but races such as Ranscombe Challenge, the Challenge Hub events and the Brutal Enduro all manage to keep the routes varied and exciting – this didn’t have that. However, lots of people enjoyed the route so maybe it was just me.

What I will say on a positive note is that the little lighting effects they dotted around the darker parts of the route were delightful and I enjoyed seeing these very much
Organisation: the organisation was excellent with lots of volunteers on the course and it was well marked. The check-in was quick and equally well organised with very little left to chance. The slightly late start that the race suffered from was due to ensuring the route was genuinely ready – they really wanted runners to have a safe environment.

Checkpoints
The base camp was well positioned on the route and volunteers lined the course about every 1.5km, all cheery and at the 5km mark a water stop. It left had you chosen to you probably could have run this carrying nothing (as many did – despite the heat). The volunteers were also really awesome and not a single one complained about me sharing my terrible chaffing tale!

Goodies
Good quality t-shirt was a purchase rather than included (£7.50) but the bespoke medal was nice even if it doesn’t make clear which race you ran.

Again
Would I do Endure1250 again? No. Unlike Ranscombe and the Enduro I just didn’t enjoy the route. I’m told Endure24 has a much more exciting route with hills and challenges but this wasn’t for me. Perhaps it’s that I’m not nearly as fast as I used to be and I felt this course was built for those looking to collect a fast time over a chosen distance or to claim a big distance over a specific time. I’m not saying don’t do it, not at all – it’s got a decent atmosphere and great organisation but if you’re after something with varied terrain and stunning scenery then this might leave you wanting more.

Conclusions
Cost effective it certainly is at just £35 whatever your distance and it’s a genuinely friendly event. Importantly for decision making – if you’re looking for a fast run at an ultra distance then this could be for you. I suspect the team running is much more fun here and actually watching people still banging out 40 minute laps at the end of the event was exciting to watch. So while Endure 1250 won’t be to everyones tastes this is a decent event and worth testing if you fancy some of the above.

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I became a convert to the Altra way of running long before I knew what Altra were, I’d been using minimal zero drop shoes from Vibram and Merrell but had given these up in favour of Hoka as I was looking for a resolution to my feet being crucified during ultras. Hoka were never the answer due to the narrow fitting of their footwear so when @borleyrose suggested for about the 50th time that I consider Altra I decided to give them a whirl. Now a little over a year on I own six pairs of Altra, four different models and this is the review of the Altra Olympus 2.0

I didn’t wear either the 1.0 or the 1.5 so have no real comparison but if I were suggesting a shoe it reminded me of to look at then that would be the Hoka Stinson ATR. But what do Altra say about them?

You asked, and we delivered. Our popular, max-cushioned trail shoe returns with a completely revamped Vibram® Megagrip outsole and a softer, more flexible upper. The new outsole dramatically enhances traction in uphill and downhill terrain while maintaining the max-cushioned feel you love. Traction and durability improvements have also led to a reduction in weight over its predecessor for a faster ride. An impressive 36mm stack height runs evenly from front to back and features an A-Bound bottom layer to add a spring to each step and EVA™ top layer to take the bite out of the rugged terrain. And like every Altra shoe, the FootShape™ toe box keeps your feet happy, relaxed, and stable through uphill climbs and downhill descents.

  • Weight: 11.0 oz./ 312 g.
  • Maximal Cushioning
  • Stack Height: 36mm
  • Ideal Uses: Trail Running, Hiking, Fastpacking, Trail Racing
  • Designed To Improve: Running Form, Toe Splay, Stability, Push-off, Comfort, Traction
  • Midsole: Dual Layer EVA with A-Bound™ Top Layer
  • Outsole: Vibram® Megagrip
  • Insole: 5mm Contour Footbed
  • Upper: Quick-Dry Trail Mesh
  • Natural Ride System
  • GaiterTrap™ Technology

Weight?
In terms of weight these are rather pleasant, yes it’s no size zero (at 312g) but you really don’t feel the shoe dragging you back when you’re out on the trail. However, if you’re sensitive to the weight of your shoe then this might be a consideration. While I compared them in looks to the Hoka Stinson I’d say in weight they feel more like a Challenger ATR (v1) and I found both the Olympus and the ATR to feel light on the feet despite the numbers.

Fit?
There’s no doubt about it, Altra have yet to perfect sizing. There are complaints with every iteration of any of their shoes that they fit differently. The Olympus 2.0 suffers with the same complaints but not from me. I’m normally a 9.5 UK but in all Altra I’m a 10 UK. There’s some truth in that the toebox is less spacious than say the Lone Peak 2.0 but even to someone with Hobbit like feet I’ve got room to spread my hairy toes. The heel cup is also significantly better than say the Lone Peak 2.0, it doesn’t feel as bulky and is much more akin to the Lone Peak 2.5 – basically it fits nicely at the heel and midfoot but with room to breathe for the toes. These should feel a comfortable ride straight out of the box.

Comfort?
This is where the Olympus 2.0 starts to really shine. This shoe is like wearing really big slippers, because the fit is more secure while retaining its spacious feel you are rewarded with a shoe that feels right. The upper doesn’t rub and the heel has enough give in it to make it supportive rather than overly firm – like a memory foam pillow.

Maximal?
The maximal aspect of the Olympus 2.0 is one of its big selling points. At 36mm it certainly is a maximal shoe – there’s lots of cushioning from the squishy foam that sits under your feet. It’s an incredibly comfortable ride without feeling so soft that you’ve got no feel – on the contrary it’s got a good connection to the trail considering its so maximal. What I would say though is that unlike something such as the Hoka Stinson which had a firmer ride the Olympus 2.0 would benefit from a rockplate – the soft pillow like approach has made them more vulnerable to impact over longer distances. I genuinely don’t believe they need firming up at all because the ride is excellent but a rockplate might be the answer.

Upper?
There are anecdotal reports of the upper wearing too quickly but the seamless upper on the Olympus 2.0 looks in good shape so far (150 miles). That said the seamless upper does leave it vulnerable to assault from gnarly trails and sharp rocks but I’m no floating trail runner, I like to get right in to the bad shit and in all honesty the Olympus 2.0 has come through unscathed. Perhaps there’s a balance to be had between structure/overlays and a supple upper and it could be that the test bed for that is the Lone Peak 3.0, we shall see.

One of the areas that that Olympus 2.0 really excels is in drainage – the upper material, while porous, drains quickly and the shoe will eventually dry out. I had numerous opportunities over the start of the British Summer to get them wet and let them drain.

Ultimately the upper is a discreet delight even if it might not be the longest lasting.

Traction?
And so to the reason I bought the Olympus 2.0 – the Vibram outsole. I’d been hunting a pair of shoes that would road, trail, rock, mud and anything else a race threw at me. The Olympus 2.0 ticks lots and lots of boxes, it grips well through mud, it clings tightly to rocks and it covers the road to trail sections with great aplomb. However, they aren’t perfect, weirdly there’s nothing wrong with them but much like every other pair of shoes they aren’t all things to all terrains – and that’s fair enough. The tread with its multi directional lugs and differing strength compounds are excellent and a vast improvement on the very light tread of earlier versions.

The good news is that mud clears away quickly and despite decent mileage in them there is little show of wear and tear.

Stability?
The problem with all maximal shoes is the issue of stability and ankle rolling – the Olympus 2.0 sadly doesn’t buck this trend. On most surfaces actually there is no issue – generally they’re pretty stable. They don’t roll nearly as much as my Hoka have done.
During the Skye Trail Ultra they banged their way across the terrain without any issues and similarly at the Brutal Enduro they conducted themselves well. The problem seems to be when the grass falls away from you, you hit a dip in the trail, you lose control. The Olympus 2.0 struggles to help contain your fall and will actually accentuate the problem you’re facing. At Skye in the first 5 miles I rolled my ankle a dozen times in thick, tall, wet and boggy grass and during my first ascent in equally overgrown conditions my food didn’t feel well connected to either the shoe or the ground. However, this was one specific incident during a race, after the first few miles the Olympus 2.0 carried on magnificently but were there was seriously overgrown and uneven terrain they didn’t perform as well as the LP2.5 would have.

Visuals?
Altra need to stop sending the UK the wanky colour options – I don’t want black shoes, I want my shoes bright and vibrant. To this end I had to order my Altra from France as they had the awesome blue and yellow option.

The Olympus 2.0 are a nice looking pair of shoes – yes they look bulkier than a pair of Salomon but Altra have kept off weight excess so that you don’t look like you’re wearing clown shoes.

The maximal aspect of the shoe has attention drawn to it with a thick slathering of neon yellow – you certainly won’t miss these. 

Thankfully the gaiter trap has been retained and this remains a discreet addition at the back of the heel – but sitting much higher than I expected.

Sadly you won’t win any style awards for being in the Olympus 2.0 but they are no disgrace on your feet either and I really like them.

Experience?
So far I’ve taken the Olympus 2.0 up and across the Isle of Skye and through several laps of the Brutal Enduro as well as lots of trail running and even a bit of road.

As I’ve described previously at Skye they had issues bit mostly performed well. Through the worst of the rocky ascents and descents they gave solid support – though a rock plate would really have helped to avoid some of the underfoot damage I incurred (something for v3 chaps?).

Despite being soaking wet by the end of mile 1 they continued to perform well until I swapped them out at mile 27 (this had always been the plan). On the downhills I can say that the Olympus 2.0 protected my knees brilliantly and even at full pelt you had a good measure of control due to the enhanced traction underneath and the rolling of ankles is only an issue if you aren’t thinking about the route ahead. One might say it’s more to do with user error than the shoe itself.

Post Skye the Olympus 2.0 have been a good companion – joining me on RunCommutes through London and across lovely trails in the Kent countryside. They’re surprisingly quick as I discovered when I went bombing around local forests and the traction does mean you can leather it and not be too concerned about the surface you’re on. Let’s not get carried away though you aren’t wearing these for Parkrun. No. These are shoes built for going long, long distances – if I were thinking of a race they’d be perfect for it would be the Thames Path 100 and if I think of a race they aren’t suited to, well that would be the CCC.

IMG_1236

Conclusion?
The Olympus 2.0 is a really good and fun shoe but with some caveats – the biggest of which is the price. Are they worth over £100 when there are excellent alternatives such as the Pearl Izumi N3 Trail retailing at about £90? The answer is probably ‘just about’ if you like the wide toebox, the zero drop and the maximal approach then the Olympus 2.0 is what you’re after. I would like to see a removable rock plate added to the Olympus as I think this would shore up its defensive capability without adding to the weight and I’d be interested to see just how long the upper lasts.

However, there’s lots of great things going on in this shoe – the improved grip is very grippy, the upper is very comfortable, the ride is excellent, they’re much improved in the mud and best of all they kept the trail gaiter. When Altra decide to listen to their customers they do it well and the Olympus 2.0 addresses many concerns about the earlier editions but there’s still work to do.

My only other note is the lack of stockists for Altra and the lateness we get the shoes. In London we have one stockist and they don’t carry in store the Olympus. The U.K. as a whole has around 5 or 6 stockists I can find – Altra help me out, expand your reach. If you look at the statistics from WSER a couple of weeks back you can see that the second most popular shoe at the start line were Altra – there’s a lot of UK ultra runners and I think with better in-store visibility we’d see a swift rise in sales and appreciation for this brands footwear.

As with all footwear I’d suggest you try these before buying if possible – they aren’t for everyone but if you have hobbit feet like I do then these might just be for you.

Likes

  • Significantly improved traction
  • Soft supple upper
  • Excellent colour options (if you can source them)
  • Surprisingly quick
  • Surprisingly snug but excellent fit in all the right places
  • Retains the gaiter trap!

Dislikes

  • Price
  • Lack of colourways in the United Kingdom
  • Arrival into the United Kingdom much later than US and mainland Europe
  • Lack of stockists
  • Minor stability issues on certain terrains
  • Concerns over durability of upper

‘Have you got any Haggis left?’ I inquired. It was 9 minutes after midnight and the lady responded by saying ‘we’ve stopped serving’. Looking crestfallen the chef responded in a thick Scots accent ‘aye’. Five minutes later I was chowing down on a tasty tray of Haggis, neeps & tatties – this was when my adventure to The Isle of Skye truly began.

Key points

  • Distance: 74 miles
  • Ascent: +4500 metres
  • Location: Isle of Skye
  • Runners: 14
  • Terrain: Mixed, boggy, rocky, tough
  • Race Director: Might be Santa
  • Tough Rating: 4/5

A week earlier I’d had a bad day of running at the Hillsborough to Anfield Run where the implications and costs have proved incredibly high and I wasn’t even sure if I was going to make it to Skye. A recurrence of injury and the arse end of my chest infection made it all seem highly unlikely. However, intensive work on my glutes and hamstring had helped to ease the problem and my chest infection was more a gloopy mess than anything serious. I heaved a sigh of relief as I slung my giant filled Macpac rucksack on my back and departed to Euston on Thursday evening.

I’d chosen the Caledonian Sleeper journey for travel for a number of reasons but the most important one was that I wanted to experience the overnight train and watch Scotland go by in a hazy blur and it was delightful, I caught up on some movies, read a book, wrote my blog piece about the EU Referendum and chatted to other passengers. At about 2am I finally drifted off to sleep in the comfort of my chair (standard class is still pretty good) and found myself dreaming of hills.

I opened my eyes about 5.30am and saw we had crossed the border, I was in Scotland – all I could see were hills and green, it was lush and fresh. The problem was I felt travel sick, my head exploded and I rushed to the toilet to try and puke my guts up but one toilet was broken and the other was blocked. My cosy journey was turning into a nightmare, I got a cup of sweet tea from the food carriage and sat back down, began breathing deeply and tried to stay calm. Eventually arriving into Inverness I had 25 minutes before my bus arrived and so I stormed around the city seeking headache tablets and more water. With both in hand I boarded and say at the back, curling up into a ball concerned that my race might be over before it started.

Despite everything I held myself together and tried to enjoy the latter part of the bus trip as we crossed the Skye Bridge from Kyle and as I hit Broadford my mood further improved and the fresh air gave me just what I needed. I stood motionless outside on the high street, taking in my surroundings and then gingerly walked up to my accommodation – I had arrived.

At about 3pm I attended the early race briefing and met Chris, Kevin, Emma, Barry, John and Allison as well as the man of the hour, Race Director Jeff Smith, who if you described him would be somewhere between Father Christmas and Billy Connolly, he had a good calming presence about him and it was a delight to have him go through the map with us, give us hints and of course do kit check.

The eclectic group of runners were a mix of English, Scots and French and there was a nice atmosphere despite there only being a handful of us.

I left the briefing, continuing to chat briefly with Chris one of the other highly experienced runners – which gave me some concern as I felt, despite nearly 30 ultras under my belt, perhaps I didn’t have the right kind of experience for this.

Back to my room, final kit and drop bag checks, shower and then sleep – in a few hours time we would be off.

At 2am I ran down to the village hall desperate to avoid the heavy rain – although my drop bags were waterproof my kit wasn’t and I didn’t want to get to the start line wet, I suspected there would be enough of that later. But just a few minutes later I rolled in to see Barry, John, Chris and Allison as well as Paul and Owen, everyone was looking a little sheepish but Jeff kept us all jolly with a cup of tea and those delicious Scottish tones!

By 2.45am, with a 3am depart to the north of the island for the start line it was clear not everyone was going to turn up. 30 runners entered, 10 had already had to pull out and a further half a dozen didn’t make it to the start line for whatever reason – there would be only – 14 starters. Yet this didn’t create any sense of missing out, infact it made it all quite cosy and there was chatter on the way to start and we watched as the day gently broke around us. We had arrived at the start of something special.

Out of the fun bus we all ambled around, taking in our new surroundings while Jeff prepared the final last bits. It was all very casual, well oiled but casual and it felt like you were amongst friends and so when we lined up to begin there was no real mad rush to the front. Yes, we had Paul and Owen who set an early pace but once they were gone to battle it out for the win the rest of us settled into our stride and prepared to face the oncoming trail storm!

The first section was a nice piece of uphill gravel track which gave a false impression of the next 73 and a bit miles. Once we had lost this we entered the wilderness and faced off against the boggy, mostly unmarked trail.

People took moderately different paths to begin the ascent up the Trotternish ridge, some choosing a lower path and others a more fulsome climb, I was somewhere in the middle – keen to make the ascent but more keen to stay on track. It was heavy going and already my feet were sodden and the Altra Olympus although reasonable were not built for this and I realised my Lone Peaks would have served me better. However, I made swift progress and battered my way to the top and soon bounded into a run. I pulled out the GoPro to grab some footage and quickly made my way down a fast descent. The Olympus picked up the trail nicely and I was feeling very positive that this was going to be fun.

Then the sucker punch came…

I was busy admiring the scenery rather than being focused on the course and I tripped, breaking the selfie stick and cutting open my leg. I pulled out my arm warmers to stop the bleeding and wipe away the most of the dirt and hurled myself forward. The trouble was I could feel my knee – 4 miles in and I was broken already, all my early bluster seemed just that now – bluster!

Regardless I began chasing Kevin down who was a little in front of me and overtook Chris who had stopped for refreshment, while continuing to delight in the scenery around me. These were the photographic opportunities as well as a good chance to thrash any knee injury out by putting a bit of pace together.

My aim was to hit Quiraing as quickly as I could and although not fast I was making decent time. Kevin remained just ahead of me and in the distance I could see the glint of a camera lense and the deep red of a pair of Race Ultra 290 – it was The Big G or The Boss who had come out to photograph Skye and the event. I thundered toward him and plonked myself down, exclaiming that, ‘bloody hell its hard’. We chatted for a minute but out of the corner of my eye I saw other runners and so put a bit of a spurt on where Jeff, the RD was waiting with some water. I hadn’t really consumed any of the 1.5litre bladder I was carrying but had emptied my 125ml soft bottle so filled this as I knew the real CP was over 20 miles away. With all the energy I could muster I ploughed onwards and importantly upwards (please feel free to correct me if I get names or hills wrong) past Biodha Buidhe and Bein Edra. Both with impressively destructive climbs and equally impressive descents – it was during these sections that I finally started to look around, as much for respite as for the views but I allowed myself time to take it all in and take in the enormity of the task ahead. It was here that I properly met Neil – one of two chaps who would define the way my race would go.

He caught me about an hour after leaving the first mini checkpoint and we ran together for the next few hours – I discovered this was a second crack at it for Neil and he was a seasoned ultra runner with a good humour and a varied repertoire of conversation. Between us we pushed through the uphills and the downhills despite my trepidation, especially on the descents as I was terrified of slipping over an edge or worse but his calming influence was much appreciated. When we reached the bottom of the Storr climb we found a small stream and filled out now heavily depleted water supply and I took this as a first opportunity to change my socks, dry my feet and look at what was happening between my toes.

It was all a bit funky with my feet and I knew I didn’t have the capacity to deal with at the bottom of a hill but the next CP couldn’t be that far. We made the ascent up the hill where The Big G awaited us with his camera and we stopped briefly to say hello but then it was back to it. Neil and I used the downhill to gain some much needed momentum but also once again freshened up in the streams. Moving forward was still feeling pretty good and although my knee was troubling me I felt I had a handle on it.

Another mile fell and then another and we arrived at the final ascent of the ridge.

I could feel my insides doing cartwheels and my legs turned to jelly, my head had turned to mush. I couldn’t think and I was spinning out of control. I had just enough about me to urge Neil on and when he was out of sight I collapsed into a heap. I held my head quietly for a few minutes and tried to focus, I started playing out Star Trek VI in my head as I often do when I need a distraction. Within a few minutes Kevin caught me and asked how I was, I told him I was feeling a bit crap but I’d be alright, I said the same to John as he passed me but as Allison approached I picked myself up and started moving again. For me this ‘final’ hill was harsh, it was steep and it was a scramble. I needed to stop every 20ft, my head still spinning but I knew I needed to at least get to Portree so I could either DNF or sort myself. After about 20 minutes I made it to the top and hurling off my bag I proceeded to vomit all over the grass. I lay there for a while, unable to move but the griping of my stomach was continuing and I found myself in need of a different type of evacuation. Let’s put it this way my arse could have put out the flames in a burning house I evacuated that much liquid shit. I thankfully had all the requirements to resolve the situation in cleanliness terms but I needed to lie down again. It was race over.

If I’d have had signal is have called mountain rescue but I didn’t so I picked myself up and headed onward – regularly checking my GPS to ensure I was going the right way. What I hadn’t realised was that my GPS had stopped working and I was off course, I’d been travelling around 90 minutes through rough ground and places I shouldn’t have been before I found some houses. I followed the road for a while but realised I had no idea where this would end up so I found a field of tall heather and harsh plant life that I could cross, another 40 minutes passed before I finally managed to make it to the road to Portree. By then my legs were sliced to bits and my arms whipped – I’d had enough, the sweepers would easily have gotten past me and the other runners would be ahead – I would surely be timed out.

With some trepidation I approached the checkpoint, I was pretty downbeat. ‘Hi, number 37… no sweepers haven’t been through yet… there’s runners behind you… you aren’t being timed out.

‘I’ve had heather jammed right up my arsehole for the last two hours’ I exclaimed, making light of the fact I looked like death. I was offered a giant pot of Vaseline – but I didn’t fancy the double dip possibility.

I was there for about 20 minutes, change of shoes, socks, dry feet, call the GingaNinja, fix Suunto, take painkillers, learn how to read map, load lucozade into main pack, fill water, change food. I now had a chance, if I could keep my feet dry I might just make it. The guys at the CP were so amazing and supportive and offered a bit of tough love when they felt I was getting comfy.

I set off at a decent pace, fast walking and light jogging, I wanted my feet to recover a little. I also ate a good sized portion of chicken, chocolate and lucozade – all of this combined to continue my recovery and by a mile or three in I was good to go. True another runner burst past me but I wasn’t interested in his race I was interested in mine. The road section allowed me some respite and when I finally got the harder trails again I was ready to commit to them. Here despite the water I kept my feet dry – using the rocks, however small, to ensure I arrived at CP2 with dry feet.

This was fun running now, I was enjoying myself again, leaping across waterfalls and bouncing down trails – all my strength had returned, though my feet remained an issue and had taken the brunt of the punishment and there was nothing I could do about that.
Into the campsite before CP2, another fording or three of rivers, a cheery hello with a German family and then I was greeted by my name being chanted from the volunteers! Dear god I couldn’t help it but I put in a turn of speed and thundered up towards them rushing across the road to collect my much needed nutrition (yazoo chocolate milkshake) and more dry socks for later in the day.

Just a few minutes in the checkpoint but long enough to tell a few jokes and meet the sweeper who had caught me in the last few metres of the second leg. I was advised he was there more as an aid to getting home rather than the man who’d time me out.

I’ll talk about Andy more later but for now let’s say he was a diamond geezer.

I set off to CP3 feeling pretty okay but with the knowledge that this section was noted for being wet. I’d made the bold prediction just prior to leaving that if my feet took another soaking then I really would DNF but instead I pushed on as fast as I could over the heavily stoned trail and through the Cuillins – I was passing through as the sun was starting to dip and all around I could see the majesty of the island dancing before my eyes. I leapt across the various waters, being mindful not to get too wet and always on the lookout ahead for a more sensible route but always with half an eye on the fantastic views.

Eventually Andy caught up to me again this time when I needed to stop and dress a gigantic blister that needed immediate attention. This particular toe has become a bit of a challenge in recent races, especially where moisture is an issue but a single large compeed sealed it up and I was soon on the move again. A couple more miles of moist track soon became damp bog, passing the bothy towards the south of the island and approaching my next proper cry.

Andy asked how I was with cliff edges. I explained that I was petrified of them and a vertigo sufferer, I didn’t mention that multiple bouts of labyrinthitis had left me with poor balance in situations like that also. We put on head torches and began assaulting the cliff edge – higher we climbed and I could feel the exposure to my right, hear the saline of water beckoning me towards my doom like a Siren calling out to a sailor. I moved as swiftly as I could, tears dripping down my face and Andy a little farther ahead. I’d been told this would be a few miles but that it might take as much as 90 minutes. Andy proved his diamond geezer status by being straight up – he helped by preparing me mentally and never saying ‘it’ll be over soon’ – I learnt quickly to trust him. Eventually we descended down and moved onwards then back up towards Elgol but the route had thinned out and we arrived into the CP to be greeted by the brilliant Karen. Here there was a little shelter, some food, Irn Bru and tea.

‘Two teas please, one with sugar, one without, oooo is that Irn Bru and is THAT a mister Kipling individual wrapped strawberry milkshake cake???’ I changed my socks here for the ones in my race best as I’d foolishly decided against a drop bag here.

My new companion Andy was making haste with clothing and footwear changes and all in all this was a proper stop – 20 minutes probably but it was needed. Here I ran into Barry again, this time thankfully not in his tiny shorts, his race had come to a premature end unfortunately. Had I been a gambling man I’d have said he was good for the win here but a niggle meant he’d taken the safer approach to ensure his was race fit for events in June (check out his events at www.highfellevents.com – these look fun). John and Allison also were at this CP and I got to say hello, how’re you doing, etc and they both looked strong and in good form – this was pleasing to see. To my mind they were well on course to a very respectable finish. Sadly though, the runner (Andy I think) who had stormed past me between CP1 and 2 had blown up and had nothing left, he looked in pain and was pretty miserable. However, he like Barry had clearly taken the sensible decision – I felt I still had this within me, just and I’m not one for common sense.

Andy and I set off in good cheer, having thanked Karen as we left, chatting a little here and there as we went – the next section was a fairly simple 8 miles and thankfully also uneventful save for seeing the sun start to come up and we could discard our headtorches. It was a consistent pace here and we simply watched our surroundings drift from our view, but what surroundings. I’ve been lucky enough to see the sunrise on spectacular views in places like Iceland, Ethiopia and Thailand but this was amongst the most amazing places to find the sun warm your face with its first glow. We felt better, we felt warmer and we soon found John and Allison and together we trudged to the final CP.

The guys were well prepared for us, the kettle was already on and I sat down to change my socks for a final time. Boom! I was going to make it! I could sense it, for the first time in over 60 miles I knew I had it in me despite everything that happened.

The four of us set off together though John and Allison clearly had more in the tank than I and so trundled in ahead. Andy warned that the next section was incredibly rocky, hilly and troubling. He was right.

After a short road section we rejoined the Skye Trail to find that the rocks cut through us like a hot knife through butter. Every step was sending shooting pain from my feet up to my neck. I was in agony, I was desperate to stop but the others were making slow but steady progress. We climbed and climbed for what felt an age, even the views out to sea could not soothe me now and my head was starting to fail me. I could hear myself saying ‘I just need to hold on, just hold on, 10 more miles’ we stopped at a gate to both regroup and discover than Andy’s right foot had exploded underneath – blood or pus we assumed. The four of us looked pretty broken but ultra runners have that weird tendency to say ‘fuck it, let’s do this’ and this was the point we were at. From here we followed the coastal path from Blaven to Broadford, this was a good path and if you were out doing a nice 10 mile run this would be awesome. You could move swiftly on the up and down, over rocks, jumping streams, taking in the smell of freshness all around – but we were slow, methodically placing our feet, trying to minimise damage.

I was frustrated for much of this because my body felt good but my feet offered me nothing and this was playing out as a battle in my head and as we trudged up the final trail ascent I wanted to simply stop and DNF. Andy took the tough love approach ‘well you’ll have to tell Jeff, he’s in Broadford’. Despite the fact I’d given up on myself Andy hadn’t and I tried to hold it together, I pressed on and on and we finally reached the ‘Marble Line’ a white marble gravel track. Andy had promised this would be easier going but the fine dust cut straight my Lone Peaks and caused nothing but excruciating pain.

I urged him to go on ahead – I would make it from here whatever happened but he told me ‘it was more than his jobs worth to leave a runner behind’. I groaned a lot over the last couple of miles as the sun beat down on me and I’m confident Andy could quite cheerfully have throttled me – I would have throttled me. But then I saw the final sign ‘Skye trail ultra’ in big black letters on a little yellow sign.

Less than a mile

I hobbled down to Broadford and Andy urged me to cross the line running. I advised I didn’t have it in me but when all was said and done I couldn’t crawl across the line and I insisted Andy run with me. To be honest it was all a blur, but I picked my feet up and gave what I imagine was my best Linford Christie. The crowd of supporters, runners and volunteers howled with encouragement as I threw myself across the finish and collapsed to the floor. Jeff seeming a little concerned I might be about to die but thanks to the care of my fellow competitors and a little tenacity from me I’d made it.

The route
Have you ever been to the Isle of Skye? If yes then go back, if not then get up there. The route is everything you want from a race, it’s hard, exposed, unforgiving and unrelenting but it pays you back with views that so few people will actually ever see. It’s off the beaten track and it encourages you to think about your environment.

The Harvey’s Map is invaluable but Skye has clear natural markers that you can use to navigate but still it’s not a route to underestimate. That’s not to say that improvements couldn’t be made but if the race route didn’t change you wouldn’t be too worried, it is exceptional.

The Race Director
Jeff Smith is a man with a passion for the outdoors and that shows. His casual style hides his organised side but it’s this casual side that kept his event from feeling forced. Jeff is a dude and a dude who knows how to put on an event! My only complaint was that he shouldn’t have apologised at all for the number of runners, he should be incredibly proud of his achievements. He has produced an event that any race director would be proud of and I hope it grows bigger in the coming runnings.

Organisation
Top notch – from the runners side it was all seamless – organised, early registration, easy transport to the start line, well drilled drop bag system and volunteers who couldn’t have done any more. It wasn’t slick that would suggest corporate nastiness, it was just knowledgable. It felt like it was organised and managed by runners and outdoors people – basically people who knew what they were talking about.

Checkpoints
The first 26 mile section is too far without checkpoints – I understand you can’t have people with drop bags on the hills but this was hard. Even the water stop at 10km while welcome wasn’t enough and if someone went missing here you might struggle to narrow their location.

However, that being said, nobody died and that first section was a mighty and worthwhile challenge. As for the CPs themselves they were brilliant, the volunteers as I’ve said were tremendous. It seemed odd at first to not offer food but actually loading your own drop bags for each CP made sense – I had exactly what I wanted. Often at other events I ignore the food because it’s not what I want – the drop bag system worked well. I can imagine this might be more troubling if you’ve got an event with hundreds or thousands of people though.

Volunteers
I won’t remember all your names but I will remember what you did for me. Thank you guys. There’s also a special mention to The Big G (my boss) who came out to photograph the runners, we were all incredibly grateful for this support and I especially was because seeing a face I recognised was invaluable in those early stages. Thanks fella (in joke).

Competitors
I’ve run alongside some truly great people over the last three years of ultra running and every single one of my fellow competitors was brilliant. But for me personally it’s Neil and Andy who I owe my finish to, thanks guys.

UltraBoyRuns
I paid what I thought would be a heavy injury price for completing the Skye Trail Ultra but there was an upside – my glutes didn’t fire and my hamstring held up. Yes I was sick, had a serious case of the galloping trots, sliced my legs apart and destroyed my toes and feet but when all is said and done I did a near 10 mile hike later on the day I finished. Effectively I was fine and once my feet stop burning and the skin heals I’ll be back to running (hopefully on Saturday, less than a week after the race).

The one bit of pain that won’t heal quickly is the cut in the old undercarriage. I did it when trying to get to Portree and some thorny thistle like crap ripped into my nuts. There’s a nasty cut from my bollocks heading backwards and so there’ll be no running until that’s healed and yes it hurts when I sit and it hurts when I walk – it just hurts! Hopefully this will heal quickly too, but we’ll see (with a complex combination of mirrors i might add).

Goodies
Beanie, medal, trophy, sweeties, alcoholic ginger beer. Jobsagudun. 

Tough Rating
4/5 – given the distance, the elevation, warmth, midges, conditions underfoot I consider this a bit of a ball buster. If you gave it an inch it would take a yard or worse your leg. We had it pretty lucky with the weather but in more wintery or low visibility conditions this would surely be considered even tougher. Do not underestimate what is being asked of you, it might only be 74 miles but they are hard, worthwhile miles.

Improvements
There are things I’d consider to make this an even better experience, the most important would be some minor adjustments to the route if possible – not to fundamentally change it but perhaps to make coming down off the ridge a little easier and descent into Portree more obvious, this would also potentially offer an earlier CP which we would all have been grateful for. Other than that only the trail route to Blaven might get looked at given the opportunity for debris on the trail.

In terms of organisation and everything else it was top notch and communication was good although I was required to re-activate my Facebook account to ensure I didn’t miss anything.

As a final point I think it would be great if the local community were more involved – local businesses, local people – everyone I told about it was fascinated and the community spirit on Skye appears incredibly strong – I think the race could easily harness this just as other events like Celtman do.

Would I do it again!?
I’ll be back, the course chewed me up and spat me out. On the scoresheet it reads UltraBoyRuns 0 – 1 Skye Trail Ultra. I’m unlikely to be back next year given my desire to do new things each year but assuming there is a 2018 I’d consider myself almost certain to be on the start line again. It takes courage or blind stupidity to complete this but if you do enter you won’t regret it, I know lots of you are thinking – dear god this poor sod has a terrible time with all his issues but believe me this race made me nothing but happy and I’m glad that Andy stopped from just sitting down in a field and crying myself into my bivvy bag 🙂

Conclusions
It’s the hardest, most insane race I’ve had the pleasure of doing. It tested fitness, stamina and tenacity. At no point did it say to me you can just call this one in – it demanded respect, it desired my attention.

This event turned me inside out, it made me sick, it made me bleed and it made me cry but it gave me the best memories of running I’ll ever have I think – and that’s high praise. The Skye Trail Ultra joins the SainteLyon at the top of my list of favourite races.

If you’re looking for the challenge of a lifetime, if you’re sick of running on roads, if you fancy getting properly lost inside yourself then this is the race for you. It’s got a little something for everyone and you’ll love it.

The race director might not blow the trumpet of this race but I will. So get your kit on, Skye awaits you but let me assure you with this one – the Skye might just be the limit.

Find out more at www.skyetrailultra.co.uk or search ‘skye trail ultra’ on Facebook (or you could just click the links!

Good luck.

A full gallery of photographs will be added shortly

  I remember as I lay on the pavement just after the car hit me thinking that ‘The Green Man Ultra might be a DNS’ but roll back towards the middle of February and I was thinking ‘The Green Man Ultra is probably going to be a DNS because of this horrid chest infection’. To complete the tale of woe UltraBaby decided she would choose the night before the race to stay awake all night and keep both the GingaNinja and I up.

So rather miserably on Saturday 5th March at about 5.30am I got up and got ready for The Green Man Ultra. To say I wasn’t ready is an understatement.  

I rocked up with rather grumpy GingerNinja and even grumpier UltraBaby to the awesome starting facilities at Ashton Gate – not far from where the Parkrun kicks off from.

Then came the first positive of the day, as I was collecting my number a familiar, yet new face came beaming towards me – @knocker73 – awesome. After a number of near misses over the years we finally got to meet and what an awesome, humble and tremendous young chap he is. The start line was filled with lots of familiar faces, many of them from Twitter and I managed to say hola to lots of them – especially once I’d found the ever brilliant Roz Glover. But there were also those I missed like @razzledazzlemark (another day buddy).

 
It was a cold and crisp morning but it was also bright and there had that hint of moisture in the air – lots of the runners had chosen to go out in waterproofs but as is normal for me I chose my standard combo of Ronhill and lovely Eco Green top from the Snowdonia Marathon. I’d chosen my Ronhill shorts too but this was a practical issue as the pockets on the outside would allow me to safely stow my GoPro and run without fear of loss. Having checked conditions with some of the local runners it was suggested that it was going to be a mud bath – I looked down at my Altra Lone Peak 2.0 and I feared for my safety.

 
Regardless of kit issues the briefing was over and we were off. I started, as has become my custom, at the back of the field and gently wandered through the field picking up my pace to stay just behind Ira Rainey (the 10hr timekeeper) – I figured if my body was okay I’d probably run something like about 9hrs and I’d push on past him once I’d figured the route out.

Conditions though were muddy and the hundreds of runners going through prior to me had cut it up nicely so it was as much mud sliding as it was running and each of the ‘hundreds’ of stiles meant that by the time you’d gotten into your stride there was another gate to clamber over or get through. However, after the first few steady ascents and descents I had relaxed into the race and found myself warming to the possibility of running a decent time. The trouble was that I could feel the niggle of the previous weeks car crash and by mile 3 it was a raging burning sensation through my groin, my right leg and lower back.   

The pain was preventing me eating much as well and so at about mile 5, as I ran into a lovely gentleman called James, I started to chow down on food and drink to see if that would get my mind off the more problematic things. It worked while I was eating but nothing more.

The good news though was that Bristol and North Somerset are replete with beautiful scenery and as I looked up I could see nothing but fantastic views of our fantastic countryside. This was why I was here today.

Pulling in to CP1 I stopped for 2 or 3 minutes, watched Ira Rainey leave the checkpoint with his band of merry runners and then quickly followed. By now I realised I was slowing so my aims had to change and so I focused on staying ahead of the 11 hour pacer.

Through gritted teeth now I ran harder between CP1 and 2 than I had the first section but I was slower, my effort wasn’t being rewarded with results but pushing on I stayed ahead of the pacer. Here though it turned sweet and sour, firstly I could see Roz in the distance and so I put a spurt on to see if I could make CP2 before she did and then I came across ‘real mud’. I’d seen the previous pair of runners clamber across on a metal fence like a pair of monkeys but I felt with the right combination of pace and effort it was runnable.

How wrong can you be? My Clarkson-esque ‘more power’ gave rise to a defining moment in the race.

 
Slop! Slop! Fart! Fart! My feet became stuck but my body continued its progress forward and I was sent straight into the muddy abyss. Thankfully my Lone Peaks stayed on my feet and the dirty girl gaiters kept me locked in but I was covered from head to toe in crap. I wiped myself clean with all the buffs I had and then used what areas of my clothes that remained clean to wipe the rest off me. I climbed over to the fence and fought my way through the bog.

I don’t know if Roz was laughing at me, but if she was I hope she enjoyed it because had I seen me do that – well let’s say I’d have been amused. We ran together for the next 20 minutes too which was lovely as I often only see her at race starts and finishes or as she’s going past me. But Roz as ever looked every inch the legend she is and powered on to CP2 a little ahead of me. By the way, as an aside if Roz ever mentions ‘Dickslam’ or ‘Cockslam’ rest assured she’s talking about races and not knackering your knacker projectile launcher.

I pulled into CP2 – ate delicious jam sandwiches (no crust) and then promptly left heading straight to CP3. Alone now I was contemplating the DNF or my preferred RTC (refuse to continue), I was in agony but I faced the mental demons and reminded myself I was here to collect a medal and so I pushed on.

About 6 miles in to CP3 the 11 hour pacer finally caught me and so I used this as an opportunity to find my time bearings – how close to the right pace was he going, etc. He thought he was around 5 minutes ahead of time and he had a significant group with him – I stayed roughly with them for the next hour but eventually as we hit Tarmac my body failed and I slowed letting them go past – I was going to be timed out. All this way, all this pain, all for nothing. 

 
‘Pain, time, effort, illness, sleeplessness and I will finish because I’m more than halfway there’ I told myself and then something happened that would change the course of my race and her name was Elaine.

Elaine. A very youthful forty-something (be rude to give an exact age) ultra running lady who was having a mentally challenging time. It’s fair to say, having lost the 11 hour pacer, she looked like her race was over. However, Elaine gave me the opportunity to focus on problems that weren’t my own and we chatted for a little while. Within a few moments I had warmed enormously to Elaine and we ground out the distance to CP3 where we both had support waiting for us. She had the awesome Gary, husband and supporter extraordinaire and I had the GingaNinja, UltraBaby and the Continental Trio.

 
I gulped down milkshake, said Adios to the support and threw on a waterproof after being hail stoned. Grabbing my running buddy, Elaine we set off. We’d agreed that we would aid one another for the remainder of the race, effectively we’d pace each other to the finish knowing that time was now against us.

She was calm, understated and brilliant and I was upbeat, frantic and woefully inadequate but it was a good mix of temperaments. It was when I found myself feeling leaden and she turned and said to me, ‘anyone’d think you’d been hit by a car!’ that I realised I was going to make it and in the best of company.  

We pulled apart the next section in good time and that was because (I hope) that we were inspiring one another to go that bit faster and that bit harder. Suddenly inclines and mud seemed a little less difficult and we covered a wide range of topics in conversations as the miles drifted away. I won’t say that the journey to CP4 was easy but it was a more balanced effort. It was all just coming together and the problems that had plagued me earlier in the day, while still there, seemed less significant. I hope the same can be said for my partner.

Tim. It was here that we met ‘Tim’. I know that lots of you will have met him, he was just a guy with a car, by a church, handing out goodies just when we needed them – he’d done the race the year before and we appreciated him taking the time to sit in the cold and wait for the exhausted runners to give them food and drink (and in our case a hug). I had lots of fizzy haribo. Yum. 

Once we had passed Tim we started to focus on the final jaunt to mile 39. It was the grind now but actually good humour was holding it all together and nothing highlights that as much as our enclounter with a group of youths …

The VCR Tape Gang. We passed by a group of youths on the road, nothing unusual about that you might say, however, they had been unfurling the contents of old VHS tapes and I couldn’t help but advise them that ‘VHS has had its day, it’s old technology’. This was greeted by a torrent of abuse suggesting that we hurry up and the like. Having had my fun with them and a bit of a laugh I concluded the discourse with the following statement ‘I’m related to Jimmy Saville you know!’ 

It raised a titter in the running ranks and our young friends promptly left to get on with it.

At CP4 there was just time for a weewee stop for one of us – I’d drained the lizard just beyond CP3 so used the opportunity to give a progress update to the GingaNinja and suggested that we were about 10km and at current pace we’d be done in about 80 minutes. CP4 also gave me an opportunity to chat to a first time ultra widow and her family, we had a few gentle laughs about being stuck in the cold and waiting around for runners that might never appear. Her partner was several miles behind us and as I left I wished her and her runner well knowing that he was rapidly running out of time.

  
   
We pushed on uphill and back through the mud, only stopping for an enforced ‘headtorch breakout’. Fully lit we pushed on, watching the map, watching the Suunto and most importantly, watching the clock. Onwards through to Bristol and we could finally see things we knew (well things I knew) and the Tarmac hills felt heavy under my feet – the pounds of mud that caked my Altra was now starting to become strewn across the city, I could taste the finish line.

The GingaNinja passed us in the car and waved us on – we were nearly there. Entering the final uphills, each step started to feel like a winning step and the night became illuminated as we crossed the Clifton Suspension Bridge – a truly magnificent sight.   

A little further and Elaine egged us onwards, I egged us onwards and we reached the summit of Ashton Gate and into the deer park. Boom!

There was no time for messing around – we had momentum and we hurled our bruised and battered bodies to the fore. Through the final gate and in the distance we could see the small group of people lining the way. We grasped each other’s hands and began our ‘fast’ finish – the GingaNinja and Gary (Elaine’s excellent other half) waiting to congratulate us. 

Over the line! I was delirious. 

I felt like dying, every pain that I’d held back simply coursed through my veins, I was suitably broken. But I’d made it and the Green Man Ultra was beaten, even if it was, in my case, a narrow points victory.  


The Route.
What can you say? It’s undulating, there’s a few steep bits, there’s mud (up to your eyeballs in my case) and there was some stunning scenery to admire. The Green Man is a pretty route – a shame about the amount of gates and stiles you need to get through but these are a very minor distraction to a great course. You should do this just for the course. 

Marshals/Volunteers/Support. As with all ultra races the support tends to be checkpoint based and this was no different and it was universally excellent. Everything from the casual ease of the registration through to the handing out of jam sandwiches, medals and certificates this was one slick operation. A mention must go to the people on the course too – Tim, with his unofficial checkpoint, the cowbellers with the pretzels and the family at the park with jelly beans – they all made me smile. There was also the genuine and heartfelt congratulations from the Bristolians as ultra runners invaded their city. This was a good old knees up. For me though I’d like to say a big thank you to Ian, the 11 hour Timelord who put up with my wittering about getting extra time for far too long. So thanks you everyone you made this a very friendly experience. 

Value for money? Always a bone of contention for me. Do you get your money’s worth? Let’s break it down; entry to the race with a stunning course to run, a bespoke medal, bespoke T-Shirt, included race photography,  certificate, food on the course, hot food afterwards, showers, good change and toilet facilities and all the usual gubbins! Yep this was a value for money ultra.

Elaine. If you know her, if you’ve met her, if you see her then always pass on my good wishes and thanks. She’s a tremendous runner with a great future in the sport and for me personally she was the perfect antidote to day I was having. I’ll always be incredibly grateful to her as her spirit was so incredibly strong. If you read this young lady – recover well and start your preparations for the next one soon!

Kit? I chose mostly the right kit and the altra LP2.0 despite being slip slide actually help up amazingly well and combined with my drymax socks kept my feet in good condition. The Ronhill shorts with the gel pockets also worked a treat as a secure location for my GoPro and extendable reach stick – so lots of steady footage shot of the race and me running it. The thing I got wrong was good and I’ll need to assess that for next time – the sweet and fruit options were fine but my savoury choices made me choke and that’s not what you want.

UltraBoyRuns? Don’t run an ultra on no training (chest infection), no sleep (naughty UltraBaby) or having just survived being hit by a car mere days earlier. I was foolish to think about starting but I wouldn’t have missed it. I finished bloodied, bruised and injured and in a rubbish time but eventually all that fades and what’s left is I ran the 45 miles.

Conclusions? The Green Man is fun, friendly, beautiful, intimate, tough and brilliant. It has something for everyone and I highly recommend you add this to your race calendars – it’s one I’d go back to. Don’t let the fact it’s a shorter distance ultra put you off, the mud makes this a challenge, the route is a challenge and the time of year is a challenge. Give this a go, you won’t regret it.

Name: The Green Man Ultra Organisers: Ultrarunning Ltd Location: Bristol Distance: 45 miles approximately Course: Muddy, undulating, runnable

 

I’m still a pretty rubbish runner but once in a while you feel like you’ve done everything just about bob-on and the planets align to make magic happen – for me, this is what must have occurred during the SainteLyon. Be aware, though the race was at the shorter end of the ultra distances, this report is not.

A French Classic?

The Saintelyon has been a long distance endurance event and in its current form the solo assault is about 72km give or take a few metres (yep it’s French so we’ll be fully metric here too) and covers the road and trails between St. Etienne and Lyon. Excited yet? No? Understandable. What if I tell you it starts at midnight in the middle of winter? That you’re surrounded by the best French runners around and that you will follow a trail illuminated by your fellow competitors? You’ll be surrounded by the people of France supporting the race almost every inch of the way? At 4am in the morning all you’ll hear are the sound of cow bells and the smell of wood burning fires as you pass through unofficial supporting posts? Does this get you excited?

This is a race for runners, trail runners, hill runners, night time runners, this is a race for those who want to test their mettle over a hideously wonderful course that takes bit fat chunks out of you if you switch off for even one second. This is a race made for everyone and if my experience doesn’t convince you, well, you’ve got no soul and that’s just fact*

Pre-race timeline 

  • Apr: Enter 72km solo entry
  • Apr: Book accommodation
  • May: Book flights
  • May: Improve your French
  • Sept: Find other English speakers
  • Dec: Shit yourself
  • Dec: Run like you’ve got wind

My journey to the SainteLyon

I first came across the SainteLyon about 15 months ago when Cat Simpson mentioned it (I think). I tried to enter that day but to no avail and so from my armchair in sunny Kent I watch the competitors race out last December and then I waited. It would be some five months before entries for the race opened and I was checking regularly (daily) and when it did open for entry I was one of the first in line – hence my rather low bib number.

Launch forward several months and I found myself stood at Heathrow airport wondering what kind of madness I had let myself in for. I’d be running pretty well for the 8 or so weeks before – I’d taken part in the Saltmarsh 75, Thames Meander Marathon, Ranscombe Challenge, Poppy Challenge and Greenwich Movember Race – all setting me up for my French adventure. In the back of my mind was the nagging doubt about my ability given what had happened at the CCC but as I arrived into Lyon I put this to the back of my mind and focused on the task at hand.

Transport in Lyon is simple, from the airport I sauntered down to the city on the Rhonexpress (return €24, 30 minutes) and then picked up the single tram ticket to my accommodation. I was staying about 10 minutes from the centre of town and this proved a decent choice for access to the bib collection and also the finish line. I used AirBnB for apartment hire, got a cat thrown in for free and after dropping my bags off I headed straight out to ‘Halle Tony Garnier’. It was a 40 minute walk and I wanted to get a feel for Lyon by night and this seemed as good a place as any to start.

It was here that the problems started, I entered the hall to collect my bib and the realisation of what I had done hit me – I had forgotten my passport – the only identification I had and the only identification that would suffice. Feeling a little silly I spoke with one of the crew who advised me that I would need to return with my passport to get my number but that they were closing within the hour and that I would probably be best returning in the morning. I made the decision to have a look round the small but rather interesting ‘race village’ collected a few leaflets for races I’d never heard of, took some photographs near the finish line and then ambled back to my apartment to have a bite to eat and a restless night of sleeping.

I woke up the following morning about 6am and started to prepare my race bag and the foody delights that would power me between St Etienne and Lyon. But the main reason I was up early and bright was because at 10am I wanted to be waiting for the doors to open and for me to be collecting my bib.

I rocked up about 9.30am with a pain au chocolat and a hot café au lait in my hands and proceeded to wait with the other runners until the gates to the hall opened wide and I descended quickly upon the Saintelyon crew.

The interesting thing that was holding up most of the runners though was not the queue, no, it was the body and bag search. Recent horrific events in Paris had made this event clearly more conscious of security and we were all made to go through the same quite extensive but understandable search.

The challenge was now to get my number as quickly as possible and then head off for some well earned rest. Funnily though my plans took an unexpected turn and in a very pleasant way. I had grabbed my number and race pack with the aid of some very poor French on my part and some decent English on the part of the SainteLyon crew (though I didn’t get a little hat, much to my dismay). I did however manage to get some excellent looking beers as Christmas gifts and information about lots of beautiful looking trail races across Europe.

At this point the race village was starting to bubble over with people and my early morning jaunt have achieved all I had intended it to (including the purchase of a very nice SainteLyon jumper). So by 11.00am I was on my out of the hall and making an immediate beeline for a runner I had met via Twitter just a few short months ago.


@Kemptonslim
Sometimes you are really lucky and you meet people who make the day just that little bit better and altogether more awesome @kemptonslim is one those. It would be fair to say that the SainteLyon attracts most of its entrants from mainland Europe and more specifically – France. Most people there understood enough English for me to get by with but having a native English speaker really made the hours of race day fly by much more easily than they might have.

We hung out together for a little while and managed to grab some awesome Calzone from an overworked Frenchman and we avoided the giant Churros (though I did contemplate sneaking back for one) and soon we headed off to our respective abodes with the suggestion we would catch up later.

I returned to my apartment and finished getting ready – shower, pack, feed and water the cat (yep I had feline company in my apartment). For the purpose of staying cool I managed to watch a couple of episodes of classic BBC comedy ‘Bottom’ but as time eroded I knew I needed to head out.

I waved the cat goodbye and headed to the finish line. The whole area around the SainteLyon was awash with a manic buzz, it was a brilliant spectacle and supremely well organised. I managed to get on a very comfy bus (€13) laid on by the organisers which took us up to St. Etienne, here I managed to grab about half an hours sleep here but it was only an hour or so in total to St. Etienne and I arrived feeling lightly refreshed but keen to relax further in the hours pre-race.

It was at this point that the only blight came to the race. We were all frisked by security as we entered the second race centre but the gentleman who went on to examine my bag was rough and took apart my well prepared race pack. He threw me accusatory glances as he searched for sharp implements that I just didn’t have. His English like my French was poor and so eventually after pulling everything out he gave up and let me in. I suppose it was unsurprising that they were being rigorous but it wasn’t handled well.

Thankfully this was a minor thing and understandable given all France has suffered recently, However, now free of security I headed to the main hall and took up position on the floor, grabbing some space and using what few items I had with me to act as a cushion.

It was weird watching runners setting up picnics and effectively camp in the main hall. It was a proper spectacle. I managed to get hold of tea and cakes too and this gave me a pleasant boost but not as much as my reuniting with @Kemptonslim.

For the next few hours we chewed the fat about our lives, our races and the mystery of why looking into the ceiling lights might well be like looking into the face of God. We also met Darius and Steve (names may be wrong) – both English ultra runners and triathletes/duathletes who had come to France looking for a glorious challenge. All in all this was a good few hours and the lesson is that having someone with you is invaluable in a race like this.

© SainteLyon 2015

However, all the pre-race fun was now over. The relay racers had left and it was the time of the solo entrants. We meandered our way out of the hall – stopping only at an unofficial  toilet point (or fence) and then went and lined up. The line-up was a joyous experience, it was filled good quality music and we jigged to Daft Punk and Euro Pop, it was filled with an electrifying charge from the runners and it was filled with light. There were thousands of runners but it didn’t feel crowded, it didn’t have that horrible crush feeling that I experienced at the CCC. We paused for a minutes applause in honour of the people who had been killed in Paris and then we hugged and kissed our fellow competitors – this was a special moment, this was going to be a special race.

The countdown was now on, I loaded up the map on my Suunto and started to have a bit more of a jig to the music that surrounded us and then we were off.

The light from the head torches of all the runners was the most stunning start to any race that I have ever taken part in. It wasn’t the quickest start as I believe it was staggered a little to let people get some movement between each other and this meant that when I passed the start line at 12.04am I had room to move and room to run.

@Kemptonslim and I had a very similar strategy for running which was to start slow and then start picking people off as we got further into the race. We also had never seen the course before and therefore didn’t want to waste our energy committing to running sections that we would regret later. Therefore we both used the hills as fast walking sections and the flats/downhills for running. What I surprised about was how fast I was managing to walk the hills in the early sections.

The first checkpoint was located about 10 miles in and was after several steep ascents – the actual climb wasn’t that much overall, not when you consider a mountain run but the up and down nature of the first section combined with the dark and your zest to get going this was a dangerous time in the race. However, conditions were good and @KemptonSlim and I kept each other under control and stopped one another racing away or getting carried along by the waves of euphoria that swept over us.

Despite the course toughness I confess that I fell into an immediate love with it. The crowds that lined the streets and the general party atmosphere had put me in a very good mood as I raced on. My only gripe was my own fault and that was I had managed to fill my bladder with fizzy water and this tasted pretty crappy.

When you’ve done something like this you need to make a decision. Do I a) drink the water and potentially make myself sick or do I b) not drink the water and potential dehydrate myself before CP1? The answer was somewhere in between – the fizziness of the water was making me feel sick and rather burpy so I decided I would sip a little but wash my mouth out with the fizzy water until mile 10 when I would dump the remainder of my bladder and fill up with fresh flat water.

The first 10km were slow going as the hills were mainly on tarmac and I knew that my glutes would thank me later for taking this in a more sedate manner. Many of the other runners were streaking ahead but it seemed that this was a strategy that I could overturn later in the race and make up ground.

I found myself occasionally stopping and turning regularly, especially on the hills as I could look back over the expanses and the wide open spaces and see the procession of lights behind me – it was a truly awesome sight, but there was more to the first 10km than this. We passed through a number of small and delightful picturesque towns (despite the dark) and admired both the gleaming lights and also the brilliant support.

One of the killer things for the first 10 miles was the challenge of the floor below the runners, although conditions were pretty much perfect the ground was filled with loose rocks, mud, roots and leaves – the path was also wide enough generally to have easy over taking but this came with the risk of those hidden roots and rocks and on several occasions I saw runners tumble in front of me.

You knew you were in a race that was not going to be taking any prisoners.

Within a couple of hours despite the hills both I and @Kemptonslim had made the first checkpoint unharmed and raring to go. I changed my water and ate some of the delicious fruit pastilles but it would be fair to say that the checkpoints were a little bit chaotic. The crews were doing their best and cannot be faulted but there were so many runners attempting to get through that it needed a little more organisation. The other thing was that the cola on offer was Pepsi Max – yes that’s right sugar free, calorie free, taste free cola. Lots of the runners were disgruntled by this but with little other option we drank it by the gallon.

Despite the crush at the checkpoint we managed to get out of the checkpoint within about six or seven minutes. Not bad really and at this point we learnt something very important – we would be very cold when we left checkpoints. I’ll stop here briefly to mention my kit choices for the race, which were similar to normal but focused on the specific conditions I would be facing.

Kit?

  • 1 x Ronhill long sleeved fluorescent orange top
  • 1 x recycled eco green run shirt
  • 1 x OMM arm warmers
  • 2 x Buff, 1 x Salomon XT Wings gloves
  • 1  x pair Injinji liner socks
  • 1 x  pair Drymax heavy socks
  • 1 x dirty girl gaiters
  • 1 x pair Compressport calf guards
  • 1 x pair 0.5 OMM flash tights
  • 1 x Salmon  exo compression tights

The kit now came into its own post CP1. For much of the first 10 miles I had my arm warmers rolled down, my sleeves rolled up and my gloves in my race vest. I hadn’t raced like most of the runners who had deemed it a requirements to be wearing waterproofs and/or windproofs combined with long leggings. What I needed in terms of warmth was to not feel the cold as I left a checkpoint … as we stepped outside I moved my neck buff round my mouth, put gloves on, rolled arm warmers up and sleeves down. I only needed to do this for a few minutes before I had to strip down again but it was worth it as it kept me focused and gave me an idea of what I had to do at the end of each CP visit.

Section 2, 3 and 4  of the race brought with it the fun of the SainteLyon. Here the trails became harder, more diffciult to negotiate and surprisingly, even steeper. You were starting to get tired too and so it made it even more important that you took care. Both @Kemptonslim and I agreed that actually the fastest progress was likely to be that which took a little longer and a little more care.

The atmosphere for the runners was a strange one, one that I have very really experienced and that was very much that it didn’t matter where in the race you were you were still racing and that feeling was very special.

Upon reaching the high point of the course we stopped and looked out across France and marvelled at the little orange lights twinkling in the distance. It was a one of those nice moments that ultra running brings and it was punctured only by the other runners going past.

It was now probably around 4am and lots of distance had been covered but there was more to go and the course remained unrelenting and even with a chirpy nature all the competitors were feeling the toll on their bodies. However, such was the magnificence of the course and the supporters on the route that in the distance I could see a fire burning and the sound of a man beating his cow bells for all he was worth – this was just the lift you needed. The video is currently available over on Instagram (search UltraBoyRuns or Saintelyon2015).

Sometime around here I also came across a lovely Moroccan runner who when he discovered I was originally from Liverpool started referring to me as ‘We Never Walk Alone’, given that this was the name of the event my own father put together last year this seemed appropriate and brought a smile to my face.

As the miles pushed on I can say that they go no easier and actually the down hills that we were facing were just as hard as the uphill and I saw more than one runner lose their footing and take a face plant into the dirt. Moving at speed was a dangerous game but both @Kemptonslim and I saw our opportunity to move up the field. We were no progressing faster than the runners around us and periodically we’d even take on the pace of some of the relay runners to give us a boost in our quest for a decent time. My running buddy and I were now taking greater and greater risks as we ploughed through the down and kicked on through the up – we both quietly were thinking that we might be on for sub10hrs.

All we felt we now had to do was continue in this form until we hit daylight and that would refresh us.

7.30am and daylight
Daylight was an awesome sight – we watched it arrive through the vines of a vineyard – a French vineyard, how cultured we felt! But now it was head torches off and we arrived into the penultimate checkpoint 20km(ish) from home. We stopped here for a bit of chicken soup and slightly more time than I would have liked but I was feeling it and I spoke to my excellent and clearly more energised running partner.

‘I’d leave you behind, ultras are about your own race, not mine’ and it was a genuine thing I said as I intended to cut him loose so he could get the best possible time. However, we stayed together for another couple of kilometres out of the checkpoint when I finally admitted defeat on the tarmac and said ‘you really have to go on’. We shook hands and he was gone – I hoped I’d see him at the finish.

What this did was allow me a few minutes to have a little bit of a meltdown. I needed about 20 minutes to compose myself for the final 15km and in this time I watched dozens of runners go past me and each one that went past filled me with a sense of fury. I had worked really hard to get past these runners and now they were taking advantage of my mental fragility.

But then I picked myself up, I reminded myself that the road would come to an end and I might manage to hit some trails again but regardless of what I was running on I was going to be running. Boom. I hit my stride and for the first time in about 2hrs I felt strong again, I’d eaten some Reeces Cups, Biltong and had as much water as I could stomach – I was back in business.

I felt like I was thundering along as I came into the final checkpoint, I wasn’t really but I now had the bit between my teeth and I was determined to make up the ground I had lost. The final checkpoint allowed me the opportunity to properly fuel and rather than take the easy option and sit down for 20 minutes I powered on.

The next 5km were great and fun trails and with light now breaking the day open I was able to hurl myself down the trails in an effort to catch those who had passed me

My tenacity was showing its prowess and all things I had worked so hard on were coming to the fore. I was determined that I would have nothing left in the tank when I crossed the finish line. The next 5km passed in a blur, only one small accident occurred as I pressed hard on the downward trail and looked to have fallen over a sheer  drop – thankfully I grabbed hold of a tree and righted myself before continuing my downward run to my doom – and I still attached to the trail.

In the distance as the trails slowly started to come to their conclusion and there was a super fast down that I was able to look forward and heard myself give a little ‘oh shit’. It seemed the final 5km would be the final killer and ahead of me I could see runners who had moved into trudge mode, the death march but that was not to be my fate. I powered up the hill and continued to pass my fellow competitors – I was no longer being passed by anyone.

I felt like crying

My feet felt good as I reached the summit of Lyon, I was at the top of a long set of steps and I suddenly felt like Gene Kelly and I flew down them like Debbie Reynolds was awaiting me at the bottom. I could now see the Musee des Confluences, I was so close. I reached the bottom of the steps and we were sent away from the finish line and down to the River Rhone, then back up, then beyond the museum and then into the home straight and across the Pont Raymond Barre. At the 200metre mark I began my sprint home, as is often my want, I aim to give something to back to those that have come out and supported and I disappointed nobody, not even myself as I raced to the finish and watched the numbers tumble before me. 100metres, 75metres … I could see the signs disappear behind me and then the hall opened up before me. I’d be lying if I said I could remember anything about it all I know is that I recall saying to myself ‘both feet off the floor UltraBoy’ and I made it happen.

I crossed the line at pace and cried. I’d done it.

Conclusion
This is the best race I have ever had the honour to compete in. The organisation was exceptional, the course was exceptional, the night start was exceptional, the time of year was inspired  – this has something for everyone. Obviously its not perfect, what race is? But there was a magical charm about this event that I’ve been struggling to find recently. Perhaps the best thing I can say about the SainteLyon is that it reminded me of how I felt the first time I started an ultra at the White Cliffs 50 – it was all so unknown. SainteLyon you made me feel fresh and alive and that’s a great gift you give to runners.

I suppose the big question is ‘would I go back?’ and the answer without hesitation is ‘YES’, possibly even next year – depending on when the Haria Extreme in Lanzarote takes place. However, if I don’t return next year then I will be back soon as this was so good and so much fun.

There are no limits to how highly I recommend this beautiful and yet tough old bastard of a race. One for your list I hope!

Special Mention
Special mentions must go to Jon – @Kemptonslim who provided both inspiration and excellent company in equal measure. I’m sure I would have gotten round without him but I don’t think I’d have had as much fun. I look forward to the opportunity to run on some course with him again.

Technical

  • The course was well marked and directions were not an issue
  • Pre-race information was excellent but you needed to translate it
  • Food was pretty good but there needs to be a better way of dealing with the checkpoint chaos
  • Water refilling stations – there were not enough of them, this meant that the stop at Checkpoint 2 took longer than was required
  • The hall spaces at both St Etienne and Lyon were excellent

Important Information

  1. If you’re English then use the French language website and have Google Chrome translate it for you, it’s more up to date and infinitely more useful
  2. Take something to lie on, thermarest or some such for your wait in St. Etienne – it will be transported to the finish.
  3. Forget the medal – there isn’t one, there’s a T-Shirt and it’s awesome.
  4. Remember this is a runners run (although there were a couple of hiking types at the start).
  5. British Airways are cheaper than SleazyJet once you factor in additional transport/baggage/parking by some way

*I don’t believe in souls unless they’re attached to the bottom of my Altra and then they’re soles. 


 


If you find talk of poo, blisters, injury or ripped off toenails a problem then this blog post isn’t for you and might I suggest you try a different Saltmarsh tale. 

‘Twas the night before Saltmarsh
My journey to Essex was a little fraught the night before the Saltmarsh 75, my 90 litre duffel bag weighed the same as a small hippopotamus and I was carrying half a dozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts in the other hand, on my back was an untested two man pop up tent and worse I’d eaten a hearty curry lunch and strangely pre-race a curried dinner. All of this should have been a warning sign but I was in a jovial if tired mood when I rocked up to see the awesome Ian awaiting me at the train station. Ian is the kind of runner you aspire to be – committed but fun and fast as lightning in a pair of sandals!

We said goodnight early enough to get a good nights sleep but I struggled as my calves and ITB had been playing up since my fall at the CCC. I struggled to sleep and it wasn’t until nearly 2am that I finally drifted off. However, it felt like good quality sleep and when I woke up about 5.30am I felt fresh, had a delicious coffee made by my delightful host and chatted with both Ian and his young daughter – herself a runner and I suspect soon to overtake her fathers place as the family ‘speedgoat’.

A Fiesta for the eyes
Ian said we were being picked up by the brilliant and funny Simon, Claire and the beautiful hound (who I think was called Annie – apologies Ian’s delightful hound is Annie, Simon and Claire’s is Luna). So four people, three race vests, two tents, one dog and multiple bags fitted cosily inside the Ford Fiesta. A work of genius on the part of Simon and Claire who were not 100% aware that they were transporting me, the interloper.

The journey wasn’t long but it was significant enough for me to realise I was in the company of brilliant people and I couldn’t have been happier as we rocked up to the Marsh Farm and joined the queue to collect our numbers.


Bring forth the Saltmarsh
We ambled around for a bit and found a place for our kit before we labelled it up. The queue we joined to collect our numbers wasn’t long and it was moving swiftly we chatted to lots of other runners – some previous Saltmarshers, others like me more inexperienced. However, it was clear that the Saltmarsh attracted the friendlier end of the running and walking community. Chat was easy, experiences shared and mirth ensued – time slipped by far too easily but we soon had our numbers from the well oiled administrative side of the event. I followed this up with a coffee and delicious bacon baguette from the outrageously delicious cafe and still with time to spare I meandered up to the toilets for the start of my race problems.

A final warning – if you can’t handle bodily fluids (not literally) please leave now.

Plop followed by flood, holy fuck my insides had died and I had no idea what had caused it. Double Wasabi perhaps? Hmmm. I concluded my gallop of the trots and got the rear end ready for racing but I could feel that hot stinging in the old rusty bullet hole and that was going to hurt on the way round. Regardless I rejoined the gaggle of runners and we continued to make merry – heading to the start line for race briefing and with a few short words we were off and in the hunt for the walkers.

The race
As usual I’m not going to give you a mile by mile account of the race as I doubt you want to hear it but it’s important (if you want to run this race) to understand what you’re signing up for. As I ambled out of the farm and onto the path that would eventually lead to the Essex coastline I suddenly felt a little like a Heathcliffe or Mr Rochester, I was surrounded by marshland, eerie silence, mud and mist. You could barely see a few hundred metres as the mist rolled around you and other runners on the course resembled ghosts or perhaps a ‘Potteresque’ Patronus. The dry weather made for a clarity of these conditions and it felt properly beautiful. Stood here you could really fall in love with Essex. I was running reasonably and overtaking most of the mid pack runners, taking a leap out of the ‘Traviss’ book of running – hit it hard first half and ease off at the end and grind it out. I knew that the mist would clear and temperatures would rise as the day wore on so it was better I commit to a faster start and try and get through as much as I could before trouble started.

Checkpoint 1 came and went in a bit of a blur and just a miles in and I was feeling rather jolly. I collected my next instructions, had some water and trundled on, the next section was longer – 8 miles and yet the weather was holding its nice ‘dry gloominess’ and conditions were ideal for running (and photography).

At this point I was chasing down the walkers and wishing them well it was a bright jovial atmosphere that greeted me. At around 14 miles in and about 2hrs 15 on the clock I was feeling pretty confident. Checkpoint 2 was a much more fulsome affair and here I had lots of juice, the first of the malt loaves I’d eat and grabbed lots of fruit pastilles. I really liked the nice touch of five or six fruit pastilles bagged for you to take – this was quality attention to detail. I thanked the volunteers, waved towards the well wishing crowd and drifted slowly out of the checkpoint – stopping only to take a photograph for a couple of my fellow competitors.

The third section would be the hardest – a 13 mile slog against what feels like an unending path – seeing competitors miles in the distance but never able to catch them and a camber that would effectively end Saltmarsh as a competitive event for me and turn it into a lovely long chat! It was here that I met Louise, Jo (from TP100), Rob, Gill and Sam (from Twilight Ultra and Dengies 100) and with each one I had a series of significant moments as we passed by each other on multiple occasions – willing each other on.

It was here that Rob started to suffer and on his first ultra he was having a bad time, it was around here that I ran with him for a bit, listened to him and offered some advice about how to get through this. The good news was he was actually a really good runner and with a renewed sense of belief and his family supporting him he pushed on and he pushed on hard.

I caught up to Louise at this point and we headed with all forward motion to St. Peter’s Church. This would be the last point that I knew roughly were I was and I sneaked through the wood and race up to the checkpoint where Claire was waiting with a camera pointed in my direction

‘Ian?’ I asked
‘Well ahead’ she replied unsurprisingly
‘Simon?’
‘Between 2 and 3, hopefully here soon’

Claire was an awesome surprise and it was lovely to see a fresh face you recognised. It provided the bit of a lift I needed. I stayed a little too long in the checkpoint but I was keen to be powered by cake and replace all the energy I was shitting out during my regular stops on route.

I once again caught up to Rob and his brother – who was walking this section with him. We had introductions and a bit of a laugh and then I waved them goodbye – but the Saltmarsh never allows you to get that far ahead! My problem was that my hamstring, glutes and ITB were all firing and I had some decisions to make. I could walk the last 10 or so of day 1 and save myself or I could run until the burning became too intense…

Slowly, slowly, catchy runners
‘Raise your knees UltraBoy’
‘Sod off mind’ I replied

One, two, three, increase my stride, go faster – I was running – slowly – but I was running. I was catching people. BOOM. This was a big mental lift and with each runner I caught I felt better and better and the euphoria from this was off-setting the destruction of my legs under the weight of their long standing injuries. I started passing through checkpoints too and with renewed energy I finally reached checkpoint 5 and there was Louise and Rob with his young (we’ll say 7 year old) pacer. Genius idea. CP5 and my problem bottom brought itself to bear on the toilet block available to us and I was incredibly grateful for a comfy shitter I’ll be honest and after my (what I believed was a) complete evacuation the three of us departed with OUR pacer.

The final push of day one
Despite everyone feeling pretty broken we continued to run most of the final section and we’re delighted to see the little entrance tunnel with its fairy lights – the whole thing was lovely. A few hundred metres from the finish I bade Louise farewell answer into my customary ‘sprint’ finish and crossing the line with a large dirty growl and a welcome from some of my fellow competitors and their crews. Louise followed swiftly behind me just as Rob had finished swiftly in front of me and it was lovely to enter the warmth of the hall to find both of them in good spirits, as everyone was. I utilised the hall for grabbing some delicious tea and toast and soon headed over to the pub to collect my tent and other kit – I wanted a hot shower, clean clothes and to go to the pub.

I’d purchased a pop-up tent rather sensibly for the event and with the all energy I could muster I unfurled her in the field. As promised by Decathlon it was spacious, quick to erect and properly waterproof. A shower followed shortly after and more chitty chat with runners I hadn’t yet come across and everything bounced along just brilliantly. I was warm, clean and hungry – off to the pub? Not quite.

More shit?
I felt another urgency and this time it was more serious, I doubled over in pain and ran at full pelt to the loo – both cubicles were locked – shit. I ran to the pub, into the gents – cubicle in use – I dipped into the ladies, cubicles all in use. I waved hello to Ian, Simon and Colin – got some drinks in, made a food order and all the time clenching my arse together tighter than an ill fitting pair of Skins compression tights! I handed over the drinks and apologised as I darted away to await a free space in the toilet block. Thankfully upon arrival I was able to take a seat, though not before checking the supply of loo roll, and I relieved myself of almost all my excess body weight. I felt ill in so many ways but I also felt so much better and soon returned to the delightful pub and delicious meat lasagne dinner I had ordered.

I left my companions to the rugby and went to get some rest but sleep was tough to come by, not for any lack of comfort, but the day had played on my mind. The heat had gotten to me in the afternoon, blisters on the end of my toes had caused me trouble after mile 20, my hamstring and ITB were in absolute agony despite my stretching and there was tomorrow to come. I did think about pulling out of the second day.

What saved me? As these dark thoughts swirled around my noggin I heard the voices of Ian, Damian, Simon and Colin – I heard the banter and it made me feel like I’d be letting real people down if I didn’t at least have a crack at it and with that I fell asleep.

1.38am, 3.45am then 5.06am
I woke up regularly – partly because of injury pain and partly because I was thinking about the next day of racing. At 5.06am I gave up and decided to wake up – I visited the little boys room again and tried to eat a few bits to keep me going until breakfast in the pub. I decided I’d get kit ready and dismantle the camping equipment amd chuck it in the back of the van and then joined my companions for a hearty meal of jam on toast and coco pops. I wasn’t nearly as jolly today but I’d stretched and massaged my way to being race ready and I promised myself I’d stop if I thought I was going to injure myself.

And so we all registered for day 2 – 60 people had decided not to return for day 2 apparently, which was understandable given that it had been much tougher than I think anyone had imagined. I once again ran into some of the excellent runners and walkers I had spent so much of the previous day chatting with. Paul and Rob I saw first followed by Gill and Sam – we all ambled to the start and when the runners started I darted forward and gave section 1 some serious welly but that was pretty much the only time in the whole second day I had any energy in me.

By 5 miles in runners were overtaking me and I slowly meandered my way towards the back of the running pack, then I stopped – I needed to examine my shin which had been burning for a little while and was more sore than it should have been. I looked down and the size of my shin was about twice what it should have been but the pain was running through my ankle and I couldn’t tell which was the cause of the issue. I could see a runner I recognised ahead of me and headed out hoping that I could catch them as they weren’t moving very quickly. After about an hour I managed to catch Gill and we chatted for a while and walked together discussing our various ills and we agreed that at least for a while we would walk/run our way through a few miles.

Gill was awesome and we spent several miles just laughing and joking about day one, learning a bit about each others lives and what we might do if we ever finished the bloody course. Given that we would be lucky to finish we both decided that we would simply enjoy the experience and we made merry with the various volunteers and people out on the course. It wasn’t that we weren’t taking it seriously but you have to know your limitations, Gill had a foot that was bleeding through her shoe and both my legs had what felt like quite serious issues. Despite this we made reasonable time through the various checkpoints and stayed together for the entire time – we even managed to pick up another member for the team – Karen, formerly of Northern Ireland and now of Essex.

As we crossed the final couple of hundred metres I turned to my two companions and asked, ‘ would you like to cross the line hand in hand’ – the answer was a resounding ‘yes’ and as the final couple of hundred metres approached we gathered some pace and starting running, each of of us in absolute agony, injured, tired, destroyed but finished. The Saltmarsh was over.

Course
The course was flat but slow, the camber in the 13 mile third section on day one destroyed my hamstring and my ITB, but the views in the mist were spectacular and the views in general while not traditionally beautiful I found to be fabulous. Essex is so much more than places like Chelmsford and Basildon, Essex is a really beautiful part of our country and we should all go and explore it a little bit more. The course was also not 75 miles but closer to 77 miles and if like me you went wrong a few times then you would add extra anyway. The course markings were zero but the course directions that were handed to us at each checkpoint were very good, everything was well thought out for the course. I would highly recommend the course as a runner or walker despite it taking a big chunk out of me.

Checkpoints
The checkpoints were pretty simple but with a good selection of sweets, very little in the way of savoury which was a disappointment as one thing ultra runners want is some variety in flavour. I loaded up on things like malt loaf but also used my own supplies as suggested by the Saltmarsh organisers. The other thing missing were hot drinks – you could buy them at later checkpoints if you wanted them but this should in my opinion be replaced by hot drinks on general offer at the checkpoints. Special mention should go to the unofficial checkpoint run by the Dengies 100 running club for whom many of us were very, very grateful. The other outstanding checkpoint was the pub at Steeple, not only was it welcoming and warm but it had excellent food options and really great staff both in the evening when we arrived and for breakfast as we left.

Support and Volunteers
The support was brilliant, checkpoint 2 on Day 1 was pretty special, as was the arrival into Maldon on Day 2 and throughout the event there was a general air of pleasantness towards the runners. It was lovely to see the people of Essex getting behind the runners and the volunteers were all brilliant, especially the young red haired lady at about the third checkpoint on Day 2 – who should have had a hat on instead of that very inviting smile! I have nothing negative to say about either the volunteers or the supporters, both were magnificent

Organisation
On the whole the organisation was excellent, pre-race information, social media mentions – all good, collecting your number was swift and efficient, the locations of checkpoints was sensible and the route was well watched by volunteers in vehicles ensuring our safety. My only gripe was that the communication between the teams wasn’t perhaps as coherent as it could have been and questions couldn’t always be answered with absolute certainty, however, on the whole the checkpoint staff were informative and helpful and this was reflected I think in the efficiency getting us in and out of check. I’m sure the Saltmarsh organisers are constantly on the lookout for improvements and will continue to tweak the organisation as the event grows ever more popular.

Fellow Runners
I’ve already said I met lots of amazingly friendly runners and walkers but its fair to say that in all the ultra distance events I have taken part in this had the friendliest group of participants. I was taken aback by the huge amount of internal support that the runners gave each other and more over how much the loved ones and crew of runners helped out other runners. I will forever be grateful to Robs sister (possibly in-law) Hannah who gave me updates as to how Rob was faring also checking on me. I was very grateful to everyone I came across but without a shadow of doubt it was Gill that pulled me through the last few miles of the second day and I will always be grateful to her for that

Goody Bag
No goody bag as such but there was a beanie hat and also a nice pin bag and a reasonable medal. The added bonus was the hot toast and tea at the end of day one and the baked potato at the end of day 2. So although no T-shirt or other crap actually the team at Saltmarsh invested in things that people might actually want or get use out of.

Conclusion
A great race, incredibly challenging and much underrated if you think flat is easy. There were issues but they were few and far between and relatively minor and I would say that this is a event that everyone can train for and everyone can do. In poor weather conditions I think that this might actually be a pretty horrible experience – think about trying to put tents up when the wind and rain is coming down on you or its blowing a gale coming in from the coast and believe me I did the St Peters Way when this was a reality and its harsh. I enjoyed my experience but think I would have enjoyed it a lot more had it not been a thirty mile march to the end. But if you are looking for something really challenging in the early autumn and without any hills then this is the bad boy for you.

What have I taken from the Saltmarsh 75
Sadly the thing I have taken from doing this event is not to do multi-day events anymore, it was my first one and my instinct was correct – I prefer the single day ultras – they’re easier. Was there a positive to take away from my Saltmarsh experience? Oh yes and it was the people of this event, runners, organisers, supporters and volunteers they were amazing and deserve every plaudit they get.

   
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
   

 
So yesterday I turned 38, not a particularly momentous day but the weeks between the end of August and my September 20th are uninspiring and make me far too contemplative. That rather internal monologue I have during this period is quite negative and I often need something to snap me out of it because my running always suffers.

Enter: The GingaNinja with a pair of freshly imported Altra Lone Peak 2.5 – say goodbye biscuits and over-eating, say hello ‘back in training’

Thanks GingaNinja.

  
I’d like you to read the below email from Martin at Likeys, one of the best outdoor stores in the UK – if not the world. They are an independent retailer and like many others from all over the country they are being battered by the larger, more powerful companies and we as runners (both ultra and not) have an opportunity to do something about it. I’d also love you take a look at the event photograph above and see how much kit is there – tonnes of it and I’m confident lots of it was advised on by the independent retailers I’m writing about now. Read on…

This isn’t your typical email but I would like to share some thoughts with you….. and as a reward, there is a 10% discount code at the end of the email – but if time allows, please read the following first.

Likeys (like most other independent retailers) have over many years strived to provide the very best service to our customers. This service includes the following…..

* Sourcing the newest and best products, often putting our necks on the line in bringing innovative brands and products to the market – brands such as Hoka, Nuun, Raidlight, X-Bionic, Aarn, Injinji (and many more) were first seen in Likeys, long before the “Big Boys” had even heard of the brands.

* We freely give advice for all manner of running and adventures whilst always having the customers’ needs at the very forefront of our minds. We have had customers traveling from as far away as Zimbabwe specifically to pick our brains, whilst we have stayed open until 12.45 in the morning to make sure a couple of athletes got the advice and correct kit choices for an extreme ultra they were about to compete in. In a nutshell, we will always go that extra mile to look after our customers.

* We always try to be as competitive as we can be with our prices.

* We passionately support the sport we love – over the years we have sponsored the Questars Adventure Race Series (past 6 years). Have been the main sponsors of the popular 3-4-5 mile race series in Brecon (past 5 years), as well as giving away over £5,000 worth of sponsorship to ultra-runners in 2013. Plus year in year out providing numerous spot prizes for many races both locally and around the country.

* We organise both the Beacons Ultra (8th year in 2015) and the 6633 Ultra in the Canadian Arctic (7th year in 2015). Both races organised with the primary aim of providing the competitors with no frills ultra challenges at different spectrums of the range of madness…. These events are organised because we love the sport… simple!!.

Over the last 12 months there have been seismic shifts in the outdoor retail market, with a number of large corporate retailers picking up on the boom of off-road/trail/ultra running, the results of which for customers is that there have seen some wonderful online discounting, particularly on items that were once perceived as specialist. 

Naturally as a business we have noticed this, and a survey that we conducted a month or so ago confirmed that discounting is a significant factor when buying. However, it was equally obvious from that survey that the knowledge of specialist retailers, the personalised customer service and enthusiasm of independents which are freely given are also very highly regarded when making a purchase.

Independent retailers don’t have the financial clout to compete with these behemoths of the industry, so whilst I don’t have a crystal ball, unless there are changes, I can foresee Likeys closing its doors to the public in about 14 months when the lease on our current premises comes up for renewal. 

In the 9 years Likeys has been around, neither Sue or I have ever paid ourselves as much as the minimum wage, so please read the above knowing that we are not trying to line our pockets, we are simply trying to maintain a service that we truly think will be missed if Likeys go. Likeys (and I think this will equally apply to many other independents that are caught up in this current discounting melee) has always been a passion before any business sense could be applied to it, so making money has never been the overriding factor, but alas even we have to make enough to pay the bills and pay the wages of those that work alongside us.

Now before you go jumping to any conclusions…. This isn’t a begging letter, it is merely a statement of how I see the market panning out for specialist independents such as Likeys. 

So what am I saying….

Well, quite simply I would like you to consider supporting the independent stores (including Likeys) as much as you can in order that they can continue to support you in your adventures wherever they might take you. If you see an item for a few pounds more at an independent, please don’t assume they are being greedy, they are simply trying to bring products to the market at a fair price that will allow them to stay in business. Please support us independents, as your good custom means far more than you will ever realise. In return you will continue to get the excellent customer service, the free product advice, the enthusiasm and passion that only an independent store can provide….. and it’s only the likes of a Likeys that can offer you the chance to tackle what is probably the toughest race in the World!!!

Whilst I don’t imagine the above musing will change the world, I am a born optimist, so fingers crossed I am hoping enough people will appreciate the true value for money you get from independents that will see both Likeys and many of the other brilliant independents survive for many years to come so we can share the laughs and tribulations as you go on your merry way competing in daft events in this country and further afield.

Now, I mentioned a discount code….

Bearing in mind what I have written above, we would love it if you didn’t use it (wink wink), but equally we know everyone likes a bit of a deal….So, as a “Thank You” for a few minutes of your time reading the above – for 10% off anything you buy at Likeys (www.likeys.com) from now until Friday 26th, simply type in the two words coloured green above into the promotion code (without a space between) during checkout and the wizardry of the Likeys website will do the rest for you.

Very best wishes

Martin

P.S. Please feel free to share these sentiments with others that you think might appreciate them

I’m not including the discount coded because I’d rather we paid the price on the tin. But the point is that we as runners need resources like this, I don’t mind if you want to buy your Christmas sale bargains from Wiggle or. GoOutdoors or whoever but would it really hurt to spend that small bit extra to ensure we keep these places open?

To ensure I’m not being hypocritical I can tell you that 9 out of my last 10 pairs of running shoes came from independent retailers but I admit that my Salomon race vest came from Wiggle and some of my cheaper training kit comes from places Decathlon or buying direct from the manufacturer at things like the London Marathon Expo (though I still try and support smaller companies like Runderwear at these events). I’m also due to purchase my CCC shoes this week and given that I’ll be buying Altra Lone Peak 2.0 I know that I’ll be going to an independent retailer (either Accelerate or ultra-runner.com) because I think it’s the right thing to do and because the service and advice I have received from both these companies in the past has been really top notch.

All I’m asking is that you think about these companies, look beyond the giant discounts and try and remember that the deal you are being offered by Sweatshop and SportsDirect usually isn’t as good as you think (funny how Mike Ashley’s hand is involved in those two businesses and we are talking about the death of independent retailers). Let’s not forget these guys support the races we do with prizes, sponsorship, race day stores – if we undermine them too much then will the races that we love so much start to struggle to find funding? It’s a vicious circle isn’t it?

Help me out visit an independent retailer today and maybe make a purchase – do you really have to look that hard to find Run and Become? Likeys? Ultra-Runner? UltraMarathonRunningStore? Castleberg Outdoors? George Fisher? Accelerate? Endurance Store? Jog Shop, Brighton? Give them a chance and help them out – if not for you then for me – because I shop in them and I want them to stay around.

Just a thought guys.

   

  

  

  

 I’ve been through a fair few pairs of shoes and even more miles. There are probably only half a dozen pairs of running shoes that I haven’t gotten on with – most of them Salomon. On my own personal journey to foot comfort nirvana I’ve passed through Merrell, Vibram FiveFingers, Brooks, Pearl Izumi, Inov8, Adidas, Hoka, Asics and even a couple of pairs of Skora. I’ve worn them all and more in an effort to find the shoe that would serve me best.

Perhaps my search is now over as I’ve just discoverd the Altra Lone Peak 2.0

My interest in Altra has been relatively long standing, @borleyrose has been banging on about them since we first started chatting via Twitter but the combination of Hoka and Inov8 were serving me very well and I saw no reason to move away from a decent rotation of trail shoes. However, her enthusiasm for them did ensure that if I ever saw them in a shop and was in the market for new kicks then I’d try them on.

Then it happened, I was at the London Marathon Expo and I had visited the Hoka stand and they weren’t very helpful at all. When I asked if they had anything in a 9.5 that was a wider fit and suitable for the trail the man who a talking to me brought me out a pair of their new ‘Speedgoat’. Not only was he simply wanting to show off his new model but the speedboat is designed for the exceptionally narrow footed runner – he hadn’t listened and I was finally pissed off with Hoka. Luckily as I stepped away from the stand and looked left there in big bold letters were Altra.

Olympus, Lone Peak, Superior – they had them all.

‘Excuse me, do you have the Lone Peak in a 9.5’ I asked. The gentleman couldn’t have been nicer and he had me try the 9.5 but when he said I should consider the 10 I felt a little foolish.

‘Take them for a spin’ he urged – I did.

I bounded round the exhibition hall of Excel like nobody’s business with the Lone Peak feeling light and fresh on my feet. Bouncy, bouncy, bouncy went my feet as they pounded and spun around the various stands. I slowed, looked down at my feet and then bounded headlong back to the Altra stand. I told the chaps running the stand that they were possibly the most comfortable show I has ever tried, and I really wasn’t lying but at £110 they’re expensive and I’ve been trying to cut back on the amount of shoes I’m using at any one time.

‘I need to think about these, by the way do they come in any colors?’ I asked simply as I wasn’t keen on the rather muted black option. The reply was that ‘they come in yellow too’. But they didn’t have those in stock.

What was in my mind now was a shoe for the Thames Path 100, but that race was now only a week away from my trying the Altra on. I immediately left the exhibition centre, jumped on a train and opened up every bit of research I could find on the LP2.0 and viewed the excellent Ginger Runners glowing blog post about them – view it here. I then started looking for the yellow version of the shoe.

By the following morning I had (thanks to Twitter) sourced what I expected was the last pair of Altra Lone Peak 2.0 size 10 UK in yellow and the Ultra Runner Store (www.ultra-runner.com). They guys there were amazing and managed to get me the shoes by the Monday after the London Marathon – excellent service and I look forward to using them again.

But that’s how I came to the shoe, what about the shoe? Now for reviewing purposes I normally wear a pair for about fifteen runs and the total distance for that can be anywhere between say 100km and 200km but the Lone Peak have only done 3 runs but one of them was the awesome Thames Path 100 therefore I’ve put in around 180km on these and in the interest of avoiding bias I paid for them with my own money.

What Altra Say?

The Lone Peak 2.0™ was inspired by one of the most rocky, rugged mountains in the Wasatch Range and was designed to tackle the gnarly terrain of the Wasatch 100. The FootShape™ toe box allows your toes to relax and spread out naturally for more comfort and stability in uphill and downhill trail conditions. Sandwiched StoneGuard™ technology offers protection from rocks and other trail debris while the carbon rubber TrailClaw™ outsole combines unique uphill and downhill lug traction for every trail condition. Quick-dry, abrasion-resistant mesh on the upper allows you to plow through puddles, debris or whatever nature throws at you.

Technical Specs

Weight: 10.9 oz.

Cushioning: Moderate

Ideal Uses: Trail Running, Hiking, Fastpacking, Trail Racing

Designed To Improve: Running Form, Toe Splay, Stability, Traction, Comfort, Trail Protection

Platform: Zero Drop™ Platform, FootShape™ Toe Box

Stack Height: 26 mm

Midsole: Dual Layer EVA with A-Bound™ Top Layer

Outsole: Sticky Rubber TrailClaw™

Insole: 5 mm Contour Footbed

Upper: Quick-Dry Trail Mesh, Minimal Seams

Other Features: Sandwiched StoneGuard™ Rock Protection, Trail Rudder, GaiterTrap™ Technology

https://www.altrarunning.com/men/lone-peak-20

Altra are perfectly designed for that slightly wider footed runner and the design of being more foot shaped does indeed allow your foot room to breathe, room to land on impact, promote better form and give rider stability. I found that out of the box I instinctively knew that the Altra were going to be move with me and not against me.

Quality?

Upper: the upper claims to be a quick drying mesh and I was lucky enough to give them a thorough testing in both long wet grass and the rain of the TP100. The first thing you notice is that the upper stays dry and when it does finally get wet then it offers up a reasonably swift drying. However, if you put your foot through a river then the Lone Peak isn’t the quickest to drain and compared to say the Race Ultra 270 or even the Challenger ATR you’ll feel like you’re carrying the river away with you – at least for a few minutes. However, that’s a very minor negative and actually the upper feels light and not once did my feet feel like they were confined in a big fabric prison.

Durability and quality: this seems to be a bit of a bone of contention with some people suggesting that the LP2.0 start to disintegrate within 250km – well I’ll have hit 250km within half a dozen runs and to be honest they look pretty damn fine to me, the lugs look in good condition with almost no wear, the upper appears in one piece and strong and there is a whole feel to these shoes that Altra have listened to runners concerns. 

Cushioning: As a lover of most of Inov8’s range of footwear I know what it’s like to have your feet feel the ground below you. The Trailroc, the Roclite, the Race Ultra 290 and the truly awesome Race Ultra 270 know it’s important to have some contact with the ground, to know that you’re doing the right thing with the terrain. The Lone Peak are different, they claim to be of moderate cushioning, zero drop but with a 26mm stack height and a rock plate + lateral stone guard. What does this mean for you? Basically it means that you can feel the ground, you can connect with terrain but not so much that you’re going to take a battering in your feet over the distance. Over the TP100 I got to more than 70 miles before problems kicked in and that was less to do with the shoe and more to do with my own stupidity. 

It’s a weird sensation feeling the impact but not being affected by it, when you run in Hoka you don’t really feel the ground below you and when you run in Inov8 you feel pretty well connected to the ground – this is balance between the two. I’ve seen reviews describe the LP2.0 as a ‘limousine for your feet’ and this to me seems like a very good description.

Outsole?

The Lugs offer forward, back grooves intended for up and down the hills which are dense and deep enough for anything but thick claggy mud. The Lone Peak 2.0 aren’t the natural friend of mud or the UK ultra scene because we are always guaranteed mud somewhere on the route. These Altra were clearly built for dry, hard packed trail but the outsole on the LP2.0 goes some way to addressing the concerns of the European ultra marathoner that they are looking at the best ways to find a shoe to fit our conditions. Equally to note though with these are that the lugs are shallow enough to make going road to trail a possibility but deep enough that thy can force their way through the mud.

I did find that the outsole didn’t kick clear of mud very easily but this just required me to thrust my leg forward every few kilometres and flick it clean.

There’s something also about the beauty of the outsole, having already established that the outsole appears to be durable I’d like to give mention to the fact that the outsole is also tremendously beautiful, the foot shape as you lift your legs up gets shown to everyone behind you and that’s ankle talking point – you can also spot other Altra users a mile off. The big patches of yellow on my LP2.0 made for some exciting looking photographs (thanks Stuart March Photography for making them look awesome in my TP100 pictures).

Looks?

When I first put them on they looked more like clown shoes than any of my Hoka, they are wide, they are long and there does appear to be a huge amount of fabric encasing your foot. In the black and red I’m a little bit ‘meh’ about them – too safe but in the yellow they just look awesome and once they are on you don’t notice the clown shoe nature of them. These are a good looking pair of shoes and infact it was partly me admiring my new Altra in shop windows as I ran through Soho recently that was the cause of my newly broken finger (long story).

Weight?

The Ginger Runner and I disagree on this one, he says that the LP2.0 is too heavy, has too much fabric on the heel – could be lighter. I say that the nominal amount of additional weight gives you nothing but pleasure, my heel felt comforted over the 100 mile distance and my feet barely noticed that I had shoes on – I’ll admit they don’t feel like you’re wearing a pair of FiveFingers but then nothing does. The LP2.0 feel soft and light on your feet and I never felt fatigued in them. That said all of the latest generation of cushioned running footwear is so much lighter than it used to be and this is very much down to the manufacturers taking care with right balance of the right materials.

Sizing?

Half size up I’d suggest, however, I’d really suggesting going to a shop and trying them.

Price?

I paid, with postage, £103.50, which is a nominal saving on their RRP. What you can clearly say is that Altra (the whole range) is a but pricey but saying that it’s inline with its chief competitors like the Cascadia, the Mafate Speed, Challenger ATR and the various options from Inov8 and the like. I’ll be honest I don’t want to pay over £100 for every pair of running shoes I own but these were an investment in my feet and my running. I’d advise waiting until they come into a sale to buy Altra – but I fear you’d be waiting a long time.

Extras?

The gaiter trap is awesome with a small piece of protected Velcro to tie in your dirty girl gaiters is very much appreciated and actually made my gaiters much more effective in keeping crap away from my foot. The tail rudder I’m not so sure about but it served no harmful purpose and perhaps I’ll find a use for it when I hit some slightly more serious hills. The lateral stone guard and the rock plate give nice solid protection and yet are thin enough to still let you feel the ground – ultimately these are a finely crafted shoe.

Value for money?

£100? Are they value for money? Yes I believe so. Altra have a product with enough differentiation to make them standalone in a very crowded marketplace. They aren’t an alternative to Hoka or Inov8, they are a uniquely crafted piece of footwear that deserve to be considered as such.

Problems?

For some fitting may well be a problem as they are very wide fitting shoes but this is going to be a personal preference thing, this though leads me to the main problem with Altra and that is getting hold of them to try. It took me nearly 3 months to find a pair I could try on without visiting an online store and then it was the actual Altra representatives at the London Marathon. Come on Altra improve your supplier/retailer network.

Conclusions

Really good shoe with the caveat that they aren’t for everyone and if you can ‘try before you buy’. I’m an Altra convert and they have won a little place in my heart and will replace Hoka in my shoe rotation, and actually these bad boys might even make the grade for the CCC in August and replace the Inov8s I had earmarks for that race.

Good work Altra, looking forward to trying your other shoes.

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