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Time: 8 Hours
Target: 8 Laps

It was about 5.30am, I’d had a lovely big mug of coffee whilst sitting upon the old porcelain throne and yet no matter how much I jiggled and wriggled – nothing would be released. So with much trepidation I rose from my perch and slapped on a handful of lubricant and squeezed it into every crevice before putting on my running kit – for today was Falkirk 8 hour Ultra day.

Surprisingly I’d been quite relaxed about the race as my week had been busy with a disaster situation over Scotland’s status in the European Union and Saturday had brought me the opportunity to go racing with my daughter and also join a pro-independence rally at Holyrood Park. So the reality is that the Falkirk Ultra came as something of a light hearted surprise to my week.

Let me roll back about three weeks to my status as a very unfit, very overweight, very slow runner who was about to attempt Tyndrum 24 (read about it here). While I had very much enjoyed the event I’d also been left feeling a bereft, missing my fitness and my turn of pace but mostly I was missing my ability to endure. I’d run less than 8hrs in good conditions and managed a paltry 30 miles in that time – Falkirk with forecasted cruddy conditions seemed to be headed to an even worse result.

Still with a coffee inside me and dressed for a race I drove the few short miles to the car parking and then grabbed my stuff with the aim to be at the registration tent nice and early. As I ambled through the park I wasn’t quite sure what would greet me outside Callendar House but I hadn’t imagined that an entire race village would be being constructed – yet here it was, being built before my very eyes.

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There were dozens of little tents and shelters going up for groups of clubs and runners and suddenly I realised that there might not be anywhere for the solo entrant to dispense with their stuff, thankfully my fears were unfounded and the registration tent would become the excellent location for drop bags. But I’m getting ahead of myself, I dipped into an empty registration tent at about 6.45am and picked up my bits, including a goody bag. Now normally goody bags are rubbish and when you’ve entered a race that costs £30 you don’t expect much in the way of extras but this was different.

In the paper bag we were given a Tunnocks tea cake, some Brewdog beer but most importantly was a lovely lightweight hoody and a pretty cool buff. I’d requested one of the cowbells too and made an £8 purchase of the race woolly hat. I felt like I was fully loaded on merchandise.

For the next hour I ambled around making a nuisance of myself as runners I knew came in for registration and said hello and had lovely chats with them all. There were a couple of guys from the Tyndrum 24, some local runners that I’ve gotten to know over the past few months and even a few of the Linlithgow Running Buddies that I’d had run with a few times.

The Falkirk Ultra was turning into a bit of an ultra meetup and there is nothing wrong with that.

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As light came the little race village that had been built the atmosphere began to grow and then the music started and the PA system kicked in – all systems started to ramp up and then we heard the announcement that we would be kicking off at 8.15am – so take your place behind the line and get ready to go. Here it was that I ran into Frances and Kieron from the Linlithgow Running Buddies – I felt compelled to complain about his wearing of ‘Shites’ (shorts and tights) but before we could get into the rights and wrongs of it we were off.

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Now for those of us that are local we will have been  well aware that Falkirk had recently enjoyed a healthy dose of rainfall and some snow too – this meant that the course was bound to boggy and with hundreds of runners passing through the route on multiple occasions the surface was going to be churned up extensively. The course itself had undergone some reconfiguration in the days leading up to the race due to the creation of a small temporary duck pond/lake just outside the main house – therefore what the next eight hours looked like were anyone’s guess.

For the first lap I went out pretty hard  – I knew that the aim was to produce 1 lap per hour or thereabouts and if I could add in some contingency while my hip and back were in decent shape then I could slow down later without too much concern about finishing. I put myself in the middle of the pack and gently hunkered down to my race strategy, not keen to chat to anyone on the first lap – I barely acknowledged the wonderful volunteers and marshals that were at regular intervals on the course.

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I ran to the first and only significant climb on the course and for the first lap made great strides up it, I was determined that I would run up this bugger at least once today and I managed that but no more (I promised myself, it hurt far too much) and it was a decision that a number of runners would make.

As I reached the top of the hill I could see ahead of me the ‘shit show of mud’ that awaited us – on a good day with fresh legs or being a good strong runner you’d eat this up but being neither strong or good I was going to struggle through this – and I did. I enjoyed this section of the course, it felt the most ‘trail’ and despite it being a little bit narrow because the mud was so churned up it was still a delight to see it on each and every lap.

In the early laps I could see runners both slow and fast avoiding the worst of the conditions trying to protect their feet but for me I was confident that my combination of Lone Peaks, Drymax socks and Injinji toe liners could easily go through the worst of it and still protect my rather sensitive tootsies. Infact in these early laps as others went around mud I chose to go straight through it and enjoyed it as it the spray attached itself to my legs. I do love it when you’re absolutely coated in mud before you’ve done your first mile and this reminded of running my beloved Vigo Tough Love 10.

As I came out of the mud and back onto the more traditional country park paths I found myself slowing down a little bit, this was harder packed and therefore less good for my old and knackered hips but still very runnable and much more to my tastes than the harder trails of Tyndrum 24. I bumbled along letting runners go past me and occasionally overtaking a runner and soon found myself heading downwards to more enthusiastic volunteers – possibly the most enthusiastic I saw all day, however, at this point I was still on a mission – how fast could I get round that first lap.

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The lap from this point was still headed in a generally downward direction and it was still going through the more heavily wooded area of Callendar Park  – this was rather enjoyable and I was confident that I knew were headed to the turn out of the woods before rejoining the park a bit further down and then along the tarmac back to the start.

Sadly I was only half right.

I was right about the downward curvature back into the park but in the distance I saw a procession of runners heading back to the tarmac via a rather dippy, slippy field and even at this early stage you could see runners pretending to be aeroplanes with arms aloft looking for balance.

I reached the turning back on to the grass and moved slowly down it – this was nasty already and I swiftly sought out a return to what looked like a path. I ran along down into the dip and then climbed back out with all the skill of man with no skill whatsoever. This climb down and the clamber up proved to be some of the most comical viewing during the day and would give you a little smile as you watched runners struggling with it and knowing that you’d shortly be the entertainment for some other poor unfortunate!

But it was soon over and we were back on flat, sensible tarmac… but that was not a good thing. I didn’t yet know it but this section of the route would be the real mental test, every looped race has one, the bit you really hate, the bit that makes you think you should pack it all in and for me it was where you hit the tarmac again until you were back at the checkpoint.

Thankfully the Falkirk 8 Hour Ultra had something of an ace up its sleeve and that was the four sets of checkpoint volunteers that saw you through this horrible chore and even on lap one I needed the inspirational words of these lovely people. Ambling alongside the lake for what felt like an age I looked enviously towards the other side of the water to witness runners completing their first lap or in some cases getting well into their second. It wasn’t until I made it to the other side of the lake that I wished I was back on the other side…

Before a single runner had set foot on the checkpoint side of the lake it was already a well churned bog – the runners weren’t going to improve that but it was going to make for an interesting battle between us and sliding feet first in the cold lake just a few feet below us. I crossed the thick oozy mud in good time and propelled myself forward in about 33 minutes but a toilet and food stop made it more like 39 minutes before I set off again.

My stop was probably the longest one I had during the whole event as I’d missed breakfast and wanted to make sure I ate regularly. I chowed down on some kinder chocolate, a couple of delicious Caramel Freddo and a chocolate milkshake before filling up my water with Active Root – damn fine stuff that is, probably stopped me crapping myself!

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I soon returned to the drizzle and the course having removed my long sleeved layer in an attempt to stop me overheating. I am led out waving at those who gave a cheery hello or supportive wave and offered encouragement to those coming in – loops makes it easier to wish people well and you’ll sometimes remember those who, like myself, might benefit from a word or three of encouragement.

My second lap was nowhere near as energetic and the first section of the loop was getting muddier and more treacherous with every step, but this I was enjoying and the volunteers at the bottom of the slope seemed to be having fun with it too (well as much as you can have within health and safety guidelines of getting your runners safely through). I continued to stretch my legs until I reached the bottom of the hill and then my body told me that this was it, each loop was now going to be a case of hanging on and seeing if we could get to the magic 8 loops.

What happened next is a bit of a haze of names, hiking and sheer bloody mindedness. I met Ed a few times who was a lovely runner that was having a bit of a day of it – but actually going really rather well, there was Heather who had this awesome hat on that had a charm almost as big as it’s owner and then there was the lovely Susan who I ran a really brilliant lap with having a lovely chat with.

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The ever amazing Neil passed me a couple of times – always with practical words of encouragement and Fiona 1 and Fiona 2 both gave me lovely supportive boosts as they too saw fit to pass by me. It wasn’t just people I’ve met before though – there was Julie from Strava that turned round in the registration queue to say hello and I ran into a couple of other runners who shouted out, ‘hey are you UltraBoy?’ To which I of course reply, ‘ sort of…’ and I was either known through this blog or Strava.

The Falkirk Ultra really was a running community event.

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However, I did meet one runner that made me laugh every second I was with her and that was Tracy (without an e). I think we were both on lap 5 she was ready to call it a day over an injury concern and I should have been thinking the same thing as my hip and groin were ruined. But some days you meet a person who lifts your spirits enough that you forget about the trauma and you’re reminded that you’re actually going okay.

In the time we ran together I found new energy, I was a bit lighter on my feet and I forget about the previous laps and the tiredness of my legs. I did promise she’d make it into this blog and she makes it in not so much for how brilliant she was (although she was) she makes it in because she said, ‘my mums at the bridge, I’m getting a hug’.

Well that’s a red rag to a bull.

‘I’m getting a cuddle too. What’s your mums name? I’ll ask her does she remember me, dip in for the cuddle and then tell her it was a hot steamy night in ’83 – she had the white wine spritzer and I had the babysham’.

I have no idea what Tracy’s mum must have thought but I hope she understands that what happens at an ultra stays at an ultra (wink, wink – I joke).

Tracy (and mum) were awesome and I am pleased to say that both of us made it back out on another lap.

By lap 7though I was sore, really sore and although I was still well within my strategised time I was hoping the short loop would open soon so I could forget the long loop and I’d probably still reach 50km (a shorter loop opened up at 3pm to allow runners to continue running without forfeiting distance when the bell went for the finish at 4.15pm).

However, I finished lap 7 with about 90 minutes remaining – I felt the need to go and do the big loop one final time – despite having already said most of my thanks to amazing volunteers. It very much felt like the only sensible thing to do… well maybe not sensible but I was doing it anyway.

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So steeled for one final battle I headed out and this time with nobody but myself and the clock to run against I found my second wind and started running up inclines, more fool me of course but I was making a much better fist of lap 8 than I had on a couple of the others.

I danced and twirled my way around the course – daring the mud to take me – daring it to cast me groundwards bit it never did. In truth, despite the conditions I remained sure footed throughout but never more so than now. I battled down the hill to a meeting with ‘The Badger’ (more on him later) and onwards toward the finish – there would be no short loops for me.

As I crossed the tarmac in the distance I could see my daughter waving feverishly toward me, and I to her. I picked up my feet and my pace to continue the illusion that her dad is the worlds greatest runner and as she called out I lifted her high into my arms in a display of muscular movement I did not consider possible.

I stopped for a few moments to talk to her but time was pressing and I wanted to make sure this lap counted and so I waved goodbye to my family, thanking the lovely marshal at the turning point and then I headed for home.

One final lurch across the mud and there I saw the finish and most other runners on the short lap – I didn’t want to limply cross that line – I wished to show my mettle and so with the GingaNinja and ASK at the finish I picked up my feet with 100metres to go and raised hell with a sprint that swerved between the short loop runners and crossed the line in a flurry of my own excitement.

I’d actually done it.

I’d made it.

  • Distance: 3.8mile loop (ish)
  • Ascent: Nothing hideous – just felt it (under 100 metres per lap)
  • Date: February 2020
  • Location: Falkirk
  • Cost: £30
  • Entrants: 350 (inc. relay runners)
  • Terrain: Muddy, undulating
  • Tough Rating: 2.5/5

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Route
What do you want from your route? A route that will be predictable or one that surprises you? The Falkirk 8 Hour Ultra has something for everyone to love and something to loathe. I loved it for the most part, the mud was challenging, the inclines & the declines were awesome and the tarmac that threaded it together was minimised.

Even with last minute changes to the route this still felt well prepared and overall you’d be silly not to fall in love with this. Obviously I’m a little biased as I live near Falkirk and run often in or around the park but this route took in some fun bits and even in the grey weather we had it’s still a lovely place to run.

The route was incredibly well marked and heavily marshalled but not in an intrusive way, you just felt secure in the knowledge that the race really did have your back.

My hope is that the route recovers quickly from so many runners racing around it so the event is welcomed back next year – this is a great place and a great place to have a route of this nature on. Scotland needs ultra marathons during the winter to support runners like myself and Falkirk will benefit from the goodwill of runners and a deepening reputation as a place where great events can be held (let us not mention Epic from the week before!)

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Organisation
I’ve been to a few races in my time and I’ve seen good and bad organisation but let me assure you that the organisation, preparation and selflessness of the organisers went so far above and beyond any expectations I had.

The organisers deserve a huge amount of credit for producing an event par excellence!

I was impressed by the race village that popped up (which the organisers might not be 100% responsible for but made sure it was sensibly located, etc), facilities such as toilets were excellent, parking was sensible given we, quite rightly, couldn’t use the main facilities at Callendar Park.

Even the organisation of the short loop, the updates for race timings seemed to be so effortless, it was a joy to behold – you, as the runner could simply get on with the business of dying out on the insanely fun course! Of course we all know that only a lot of hard work makes something like this look effortless, so my huge congratulations.

As a solo runner I was also mightily impressed about the way the big registration tent was cleared down and our bags were elevated off the ground to ensure that we had very easy access to our kit and I found myself very happily dipping in their briefly each lap and then coming back out onto the course to be welcomed by the race supporters – it was really nice.

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Value for Money
I normally have to question just how good the value of an event is but I can be effusive in my praise that this is probably the best value race you’ll ever do – £30! Let me put this into perspective – that’s the same as coffee and a toasted sandwich at Starbucks for two – and this race gives you a lot more than any corporate monster will.

Compare this with say the Epic Falkirk race at Callendar Park a few days earlier and you can immediately see the difference.

The route was fun, the time and dedication of the people who put this together was clearly evident. The excellent thought that went into the items in the goody bag was really appreciated and then the bespoke medal – what a corker.

People of Falkirk, people of Scotland, people of the world – this is an amazingly good value event and while I would highly recommend it to all of you could you make sure that I get a place every year as this is my local ultra and I’m going to look forward to it year in, year out!

Volunteers
I promised I would get to ‘The Badger’ and here we are but first I want to say a huge thank you to every single one of the marshalling team, on a cold, wet day at the start of February you stood out and supported hundreds of runners that you probably didn’t know and you gave each and every one of love and encouragement from start to whatever our finish was.

I was particularly fortunate, I got to have cuddles with just about everyone, the lovely ladies who were at the bottom of the hill and gave me both cuddles and the odd kick up the arse. The cowbell ladies who must have had ringing ears by the end of the day and the poor young lady who lost her leopard skin print gloves – amazing. The dancing ladies, the downhill turning point marshals, the chaps as we ran back into the park – all of them had a cheery smile no matter how many times I told terrible jokes.

The guys on the tarmac – couple of lovely beards there (one ginger and one badger), these guys I looked forward to seeing each lap and got lots of big hugs from them. There is something wonderful about drawing big chaps into a cuddle with a fool like me – plus it gives you a lift and hopefully it reminds them just how much they are appreciated.

I’d also like to say thanks to the great ladies who were at the two bridges who accepted my flirtatious charm with all the humour it was intended with.

And then the couple of guys at the run back to the checkpoint, one to advise us to get closer to the water as the ground grew ever more treacherous and one to bang his piece of metal with a drum stick – I may on lap 7 have suggested that I knew were he could put that drumstick… you can guess the rest.

If I missed anyone out, believe me you aren’t forgotten – every marshal and member of the team contributed a massive amount to its success and I am confident all the runners would bow down before your dedication and tenacity. Brilliant, just brilliant.

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Awards
Lovely hoody, lovely buff, Tunnocks teacake and an awesome bespoke medal. Do I need to say anymore? Brilliant

Conclusion
This looped race jumps to the top of the list of my favourite looped races and just a favourite race in general – toppling the Brutal Enduro for loops and I am sure my enthusiasm for this race will live long. If you have never attempted the Falkirk 8 Hour Ultra then you should consider it, if you aren’t an ultra runner then get involved in the relay as that looked incredibly competitive and you could have all the fun without the pain.

As for me, well I had a lot of fun but my hips will pay the price for that fun – they started to feel pretty crappy at about the 25km mark, this though is a significant improvement on the 5 miles they managed at Tyndrum 24. The important thing for me was that I am starting to improve – it’s true I’m still a shit runner but a shit runner that is getting mildly fitter and with that I’ll hope to improve pace and distance.

I went into the Falkirk Ultra with no expectations but hopes that I would make this my 53rd ultra finish and I managed that – it might have been at the bottom end of the ultra distances but after a rubbish 2019 of running I’m pleased with the way this weekend went. I can now go to the F50K with a bit more confidence (just need to learn to navigate).

Ultimately what can I say other than this was stunning and I hope to see you all next year for a few extra laps.

Related

After four months of near inactivity the Tyndrum 24 (a looped foot race near the West Highland Way) had to be looked at with a bit of common sense. Even before I arrived I knew that running 24 hours was highly unlikely and I had joked that I might sleep 4 hours for every 1 hour of running but that’s getting rather ahead of myself.

For those of you who read my previous blog post (read it here) you’ll know that my training and racing has been almost non-existent since September and even before that it had been sporadic at best. I’d gained a shedload of weight and worse – I’d grown lazy and unfit. The truth is that I’d grown so lazy and unfit that during the 2019 festive season I had very much considered not running the Tyndrum 24.

However, after a short test of the route just before new year I decided that I would put the months of R&R and overating behind me and use the T24 to open my 2020 race account and see just how fall I had fallen.

A mid winter looped race in Scotland is always going to be a challenge – weather likely to be unpredictable, underfoot conditions likely to be grim and the cold… the cold. However, I approached this in a practical kind of way and packed up every bit of kit I could and worked out how I could stop semi regularly and rest so as to not push myself too far and risk injury and avoid failing to turn up at my next event.

In the run up it was confirmed that conditions were set to be kind and as I left the house on Saturday morning I was hopeful that the light drizzle would disappear and we’d have a lovely event.

I drove the back roads through Duone and Callendar up to Tyndrum and enjoyed the snow dusted hills and the dawn rising around me. I find driving through new parts of Scotland and the many little towns one of the delights of being here. I pulled up to the Green Welly about 8.30am and after meeting the first couple of volunteers (talking about you Andrew) I started to set up camp in the car. Here I imagined that I’d come back from the route jump into a sleeping bag – have a snooze, change and get back out – all part of the plan.

I disappeared off for a few minutes to have my pre-race poo and when I came back the window of the car next to me opened and the gentleman in the seat said hello.

Now as regular readers will know I am not a very sociable chap – except in a race scenario and so David and I chewed the fat for a while, especially over our mutual appreciation of the Skye Trail Ultra. Weirdly there was something familiar about him and much as I tried I could not place him but I’m going to guess that he may well be the David I met at the start line of the Tweed Valley Ultra in 2018 – perhaps I’ll never know.

I digress.

As the clock moved on I suggested we head down to registration – which gave me the opportunity to meet up with the wonderful Linlithgow Runner, Brian.

David and I rocked up the The Way Outside site and headed into registration after a bit of a bimble around the drop bag site and a watch of the other runners milling around as they waited for the start. The site seemed well set up and there was space for runners, volunteers and supporters to move around without pissing each other off – a good move from the race organisers. With time moving on though we headed upstairs to the registration point and were processed both quickly and efficiently (weirdly it could well have been fellow instagrammer Karmac70 that gave me my number but I can’t be sure).

Anyway, ID check was done, number was handed over, car details handed over to ensure any problems could be mentioned to us during the race and then we were sent outside to grab the lap dibber. All very easy, all really well drilled.

On the way to collect the dibber (from the awesomely hairstyled Jeff/Geoff) we ran in to Brian – saved me going to look for the bugger and it was a genuine joy to see him.

Brian and I have gotten to know one another a bit over the last few months as he’s been progressing his distances for bigger challenges to come and was ready to step up again with 12 hours at Tyndrum. We did brief introductions and then headed down to the Real Food Cafe for a cup of tea and a chat in nice warm surrounds. This, for me, was a wonderfully relaxing way to start a race and as we chatted about running and races I looked back with rose tinted specs to all those races were I’ve run terribly. Ha! Still saved me thinking about the terrible running I was about to do.

Post tea Brian headed off to get ready and David and I drifted off to the car park for a final change of kit.

The next hour or so there was mostly hanging around and although friendly and conversational  you could feel that runners were keen to set off, there was a nervous energy about the place and  even I, the fat hobbit, was keen to set off.  However, I managed to fill my time with a few photos and exchanges of strange tales with some of the other runners.

Looking round the checkpoint you could see a broad assortment of runners, mountain goats, road runners, first timers, old timers and misfits (I was in the misfit camp) – it was a real mix that had been attracted and in my experience that makes a for a good time. I’m always fascinated about what brought all of these wonderful people to a looped running event? in Tyndrum? on a cold and chilly day in January? That was something I’d be exploring with the many runners I came across during my time on the course.

After a short briefing from Stacey Holloway, the Race Director, we were off and rather annoyingly I found myself near the front and so immediately set about rectifying this and slowed my pace dramatically. During these first few hours where daylight existed I was keen to soak in my surroundings and enjoy the clear, crisp weather that’s one of the key joys of having this as my main hobby – the opportunity to see bits of the world that others do not and with loops you get to revisit the experience several times over and take in different details each time.

We ambled down the course jumping across the pools of water that had settled and a couple of short water jumps that were included as part of the entry before coming to the main river crossing. Given the heavy rain recently this could have been treacherous but actually it was fine and there were multiple good crossing points.

I was actually rather enjoying myself – I even leapt across the rocks in the run up to the bridge and then broke out into some genuine running before the first major hill that I knew I’d be hiking up. The hill brought many of the runners to a plod, myself included and this was a good chance to chat to people and wave on the speedgoats who would be crossing the hundred mile mark.

I was more concerned that Brian would overtake me on the first lap and so I plodded on – very keen to get the first loop in the bag – he could then overtake on loop 2 (I wouldn’t mind that so much). The climb wasn’t horrendous but it was significant – perhaps not in these early loops but as the day wore on this would increasingly feel hard and I noted that the ground below our feet, throughout the course, pretty much, was hard, unforgiving and unrelenting – this could be a worry given that neither my back or hips have ever responded well to sustained hard trails.

The descent from the high point of the course was going to be equally challenging but both of these seemed in line with expectations – it was the middle part of the course that looked the most challenging to me. Benign undulation and a long relatively dull stretch of path was what awaited the runners – this would be the part that divided opinion either as a rest from elevation or a chore between the interesting bits.

I battered down the mine road towards the (well used, given how many runners I saw going in and out of it) mid point toilet stop and then clambered up towards the final section of the route beyond the highly amusing medics who were preparing the fire and clearly a BBQ! Then it was a relatively single track path back towards the checkpoint which was rocky, undulating, challenging and yet very enjoyable. The short bursts upwards and the fast bursts downwards made for a bit of movement in the legs – something that felt very necessary after the grind of the mine road.

The final burst back up to the checkpoint was a gentle lollop back along the river with a rather cruel loop in the checkpoint  before reaching the dibber and our dibber checker.

I rolled into the checkpoint feeling reasonable but not without concern – fitness was obviously a concern but that was feeling steady – the problem was that my groin was feeling like shit. I started on my second lap with a light burning that was going through the same highs and lows as the route but lap 2 was finished within a reasonable time and I was still moving. Hurrah! However, the pain was now fully formed and sending shooting signals down my leg and up into my back.

I started to think about my options, one lap for a medal – well that was done but mentally that would be bad – I had originally aimed for 50 miles but that was rapidly being repurposed to a 30 mile run. In my head that was still going to be a failure but a chat with the GingaNinja reminded me that having not run for months those 30 miles would represent a reasonable return.

By lap 4 those 30 miles looked so far from achievable – I was in a really poor way, this felt like a DNF in the making and not reaching the minimum ultra distance was going to be a DNF to me.

It seemed to me though that on each lap I was going to meet someone that would help me reach the minimum distance. There was a Jennifer, John, Karen, the wonderful long distance walker Paul and many more. Occasionally I’d see Brian, David, Fiona or Neil who would provide a bit of a lift to get me over another hump. There were cuddles and conversation with (I’ll say husband and wife) Andrew and Susan – each one of these people and many more provided the incentive to keep going long enough to get six loops done. I heard amazing stories from the young, the old, the speedy and the slow and each one felt like stardust that kept me going just a little bit longer.

Laps 5 and 6 were well into the darkness and there was the greatest joy as I was able to sample the night sky of Tyndrum and the beautiful twinkling of all the stars in the sky watching over us. I stood at the bottom of the main climb, alone with my headtorch off wishing that I had a decent camera with me to capture this moment – I did something similar on the single track back up towards the start need the little mini loch and felt both the joy and appreciation of freedom I enjoy to be ale to be out here. However, as I swtiched my light on during those last few hundred metres of lap 6 I knew that a decision had to be made.

And it is 100% true that I didn’t make my final decision to halt at six loops until I was almost on top of the checkpoint. I felt sad, I felt drained but this was the only decision that could be made if I wanted to build on what had been done at the Tyndrum 24.

I had very much wanted to continue as the night time running was going to be spectacular and weather conditions were such that the route was going to be good overnight but my injury woes were getting worse and I knew that at some point I would need to drive home – injured.

I hobbled into the checkpoint and saw Jeff/Geoff and his beautiful hair (he let me touch it) and exited the race with a medal and my tail between my legs – there was no pride in my finish or my distance but it was a finish.

Key points

  • Distance: 5 mile loops over 6, 12 or 24hrs
  • Profile: Bumpy
  • Date: January 2020
  • Location: Tyndrum
  • Cost: £80
  • Terrain: Hard Trail
  • Tough Rating: 2/5

Route
I’ve already described much of the route but what I haven’t said is that there is a plethora of stunning scenery to delight in and despite being near civilisation you can feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere too – it’s a clever place to put a race like this. However, I felt the hard conditions underfoot took away from the picturesque nature of the route but it is a minor thing yet something some runners might want to consider if you’re thinking about entering. I’d been out and tested the route over the festive period as I was in the area anyway but I’d gone in reverse to the way we ran at T24 and felt that the reverse was easier – but again it’s all opinion and ultimately you’re doing the same elevation whichever way you went.

Organisation
The organisation was faultless, yes there were challenges – the on route toilet became unusable for a number 2 apparently and there was the occasional headless chicken moment as someone was running round looking to fix a problem but everything was handled well. What felt like an army of (I’ll assume) volunteers and the RD looked effortless on their exertions both at the checkpoint and around the course. The checkpoint layout, the race registration and the lap counting was all super easy and that’s high praise indeed, especially when you consider that this is an inaugural event. Tyndrum 24 should go from strength to strength and I expect it to be well supported in the coming years.

Communication
Regular communication across email and social media channels was excellent, I felt it was very important that the organisers did not rely on social media as a number of races now do. The email communication means you are more likely to catch those runners who don’t use these. In the run up there was quite a lot of information being put out – I would expect that in year two this will be streamlined as the issues that cropped up (such as transfers after the deadline) will be ironed out. Great job on the communications and marketing.

Value
When you think about this the race is quite expensive but not outrageous at £80 and well within the average price of similar such events – however, I believe it is excellent value for money, especially compared to its peers.

There was clearly a good deal of organisation that went into the event, there was lots of support such as a toilet on the route, ample quality parking, a good spacious checkpoint base, accurate lap timings, what felt like a load of volunteers, kit purchase options, headtorch loans, etc). There were upcycled race t-shirts and wooden medals which were a nice touch too.

Ultimately the money spent by the runners on entering the race felt like money used on the race.

Volunteers
The team behind T24 were really exceptional, I’ve met a lot of great people manning checkpoints or standing out in the cold but these guys were right up there. I’d like to mention once again the lovely Andrew, Susan, (their poor daughter for having to listen to my flirting with her dad) and Jeff/Geoff – they all made me laugh.

The guys on the course – especially those by the little bridge must have been freezing but always had a cheery smile, the medics were unapologetically hilarious and annoyingly inspiring with their nice warm fire going and the lady in the big wooly hat – she was so brilliant – mostly just telling me to get a move on. Ultimately it was a great team that came together to give the runners the support they needed.

My thanks guys.

Loop v Loop
I’ve run a few looped events over the years – Challenge Hub 24hr, The Ranscombe Challenges, Brutal Enduro, Endure 1250 and how does the T24 compare?

Thankfully the Tyndrum 24 compares very favourably – it felt very modern and forward thinking, it was incredibly runner friendly and supportive and it felt like an event that was put on for runners by runners. Sometimes looped events can feel like an attempt to get your number of completed marathons up (not that there is anything wrong with that) but this felt like a genuinely challenging event in its own right and you needed to prepare for it whereas sometimes lap races can feel like a turn up and give it a crack – I felt with T24 you had to want to do T24 not just another looped event..

I remember running Endure 1250 and felt that was a ‘numbers’ event where I was just putting another number on my ultra total but here I felt like runners, myself included were racing whatever clock they were facing. In another year when I was a little fitter I would feel very confident of running 75 miles or more because I wanted to and I could train for that.

As looped events go this was one of the more fun ones and sits up there alongside the Ranscombe and Brutal loops as a favourite.

Medal
The medal design was very nice, and as readers will know I do love a medal, my only concern is that the thickness of the wood suggests that this might not survive much of a bash. When I compare this to say the thickness of the wood of either Ben Vorlich or the Nocturnal I feel both of these will be a little more hardy. I’d have been quite happy to pay a couple of pounds extra for a few more millimetres of wood to ensure that my memento of this event lasts for the duration of my life.

Eco
No plastic cups? Wooden medals, upcycled race shirts, local suppliers – all things I can very much get on board with and I doubt you’d hear any runners complaining about this. The race encouraged users to use public transport where possible – going so far as to have a race start time that made this possible (something that just two years ago I’d have been very happy with given I didn’t drive). Issues around sustainability in running is likely to become a bigger and bigger selling point as the years go on and it is good to see a race taking a lead on issues like this.

Conclusion
I suppose the conclusions come down to whether I would run the event again and the answer is a well considered yes.

Tyndrum 24 is a strange beast of an event given the location and time of year but it is a much needed addition to the UK ultra running calendar as winter running events in January, especially in Scotland, are nowhere to be found. There is a reason though why this is so and that reason is that Scotland can have hideous weather in January and the possibility of cancellation presumably remains high.

These things are something you will have to factor into your calculations when you consider entering – this year the event was fortunate to have the best possible conditions – but next year and the year after may not be so lucky. How would you feel running in the driving rain up and down hill in the dark for at least 16 hours? Or ploughing though the snow for the same amount of time wearing every last inch of clothing you could manage just to get to 30, 40 or 50 miles? I’ll be interested to see how the event goes on in a year like that.

Perhaps the more important question for you is, should you enter? I feel the answer to that is easy – of course you should. This was a really lovely event with a wild mix of runners from all walks of life and the fact that the organisation was top class only adds to the conclusion that this is a top quality event.

I’d go so far as to say that it is race worth travelling for and 100 miles across the maximum time allowed is very achievable even if you chose to walk speedily the entire thing you’d be grinding out distances near three figures.

I also feel it is worth noting that the race directorship team is new to this and should be given a huge amount of praise for the amount of work they poured into this – it looked like a labour of love and that hard work paid off with a smooth and delightful event.

My own race, as I’ve suggested, was a failure but not totally, 4 laps away from my 50 mile target, I ran for less than 8 hours and I was in so much pain that this throws into doubt my participation at the Falkirk Ultra. Mentally though there was a hint of success – despite my lack of fitness and groin/hip/back problems from less than 5 miles in I managed to hold on and knock out 30 failure lacklusture miles but 30 miles nonetheless.

As I write this on Sunday evening while listening to some made people on the  post football chat on BBC 5 Live I can feel the pain rolling around my groin and hip, Every time I stand up I feel it and evry time I take a step I feel it. I made the right decision to pull out. The potential to cause further long term damage was real but I know how to solve it – I need to weigh 15kg less, I need to eat less rubbish and I need to get back out there probably tomorrow, even if it is only for a slow couple of kilometres, probably involving the hill outside my house.

Thanks T24, thanks to everyone involved and who knows maybe I’ll see you next year.

Next
Next I prepare for a solid weekend of Scottish fun starting on February 1st at the Edinburrgh Winter Riun where ASK and I will attempt to bring her mile time down a little and the following day I’ll be heading to Callendar Park in Falkirk to run loops again but this time deliverately for 8 hours (both subject to my injuries calmong down a bit).

Related

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

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

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

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

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

I was fucked.

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

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

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

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

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

But no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I therefore had high expectations for the event.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something I was very glad of.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We had made it, I had made it.

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

Route
What they said about the route…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Conclusion
Is this a great race? Not yet.

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

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

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

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

Check out the race details here

Having moved to Scotland. Having finally bought and moved into our new house I can now focus on running and getting outdoors again and I’m loving it. Having moved to a small semi rural location just outside Falkirk I find myself in the enviable position of having trail runs and walks on my doorstep and dozens of public rights of way that lead to all sorts of exciting trails.

Every night for the last three weeks I’ve set off with the task of finding a new trail or finding new ways around a trail I’ve been around previously. I have no preconceptions about areas because I’m new here and so I park up (usually after work) and chuck on my shoes and see where I end up.

Fitness being what it is at the moment and my back injury still plaguing me (probably even more than ever), I’ve been keeping it fairly sensible. What this means in practice is 30 to 40 minutes and usually a couple of hundred feet of steep elevation and I’ve found something wonderful – joy. Then there’s the added bonus of the hiking that I’ve very much taken to!

Running and exploring in and around London had become a chore rather than something I enjoyed (not helped by having a Vitality plan that needs servicing). I was running because I had to rather than because I wanted to and this meant I simply fell out of love with the sport that has given me so much.

I’d always said that the move to Scotland was as much about getting outdoors more as it was about the stupidity of the English in their ‘leave the EU’ voting and now I’m finally making that happen. I’ve spent most of my time exploring the locations around work and home, which has included Westquarter Glen, Callendar Woods, Polmont Woods, Dechmont Law, California, the Union Canal, Roughcastle and the Falkirk Wheel, Blackness, the Lomond Hills and more. But I’m fortunate enough to have travelled a bit around Scotland and run much of the West Highland Way, parts of Arran, Skye, Loch Ness, the Tweed Valley, Fox Lake, the Cairngorms, Jedburgh and of course my favourite place – the Ochils.

It is the Ochils that I see when I leave for work in a morning and it is the Ochils that remind me why I brought my family here.

Each weekend I now take the GingaNinja and ASK up to the Ochils to hike one of the hills. I tend to downplay the steepness and the challenge that each climb presents just to add a bit of shits and giggles to a family outing. However, these activities are helping me to prepare me for greater hiking and running challenges down the line. They’re also very much central to my belief that our quality of life here can be so much better than more suffocating one in the south east of England.

I realise that I’m fortunate to have a family that are interested in bounding around Scotland with me and in the six months that we have lived here, all of us have grown to love our surroundings.

But it’s more than the family benefits it’s very much the trail benefits. Scotland’s running trails have absolutely everything you could want and I’ve been testing that as much as I can. There’s much joy to be found as I go running around Scotland and the abundance of oozy mud, bloody hills, tricky ascents and blistering descents make me want to take early retirement and feast on the great Scottish outdoors.

So there you have it, one mans love of the great outdoors but there are some practical tips that I’d offer to make your own adventuring all the more pleasurable and sustainable.

Get everyone involved

Hiking up a hill on your own is a lovely thing, the peace that this can provide is immeasurable in my opinion. However, some of the best hikes I’ve been involved in have included friends and family.

Red Screes, Catbells and Skiddaw in the Lake District will live long in my memory and the ultra marathons and racing around Skye (as an example) was a truly unforgettable experience with people I really loved meeting – some of whom helped inspire my move northwards.

Basically, people and company can make a hard hike easier, they can be enthusiastic and supportive when your legs feel like jelly and they can offer advice when your brain is frazzled. So why wouldn’t you invite friends old and new along.

There’s also the opportunity to join local and national groups – the ramblers are probably the best known but there are others. With the advent of social meetings through the likes of Facebook and Meetup you can hopefully find a group (or start one). The opportunities are open ended and just waiting to be explored.

Get exploring local maps

Scotland has so many amazing trails but the famoud ones, such as the West Highland Way, as with anywhere, can be reasonably busy. Therefore I’ve found it wonderful looking for trails that are less well used. I did two things that have helped, the first was to buy an annual subscription to OS Maps and the second was to invest in a series of paper maps. Since getting hold of maps I’ve been exploring my local and not so local trails looking to find places where I can very much ‘get lost’ on hidden trails. Obviously there is some hit and miss in this approach but broadly I’ve been lucky to find exciting new routes. More importantly by going into the undergrowth and wending my way through the path less travelled I’ve caught sight of all manner of wildlife and beautiful scenes. By getting lost, by following my nose (and the maps) I’ve been discovering a Scotland that others might simply pass by.

Develop outdoor skills

Map reading is a key outdoor skill to have, GPS isn’t always accurate and an accident or battery fail is often only a minor incident away. Therefore I would advocate for the value of map and compass skills. Sensible first aid knowledge is also useful as is kit knowledge and basic survival skills in what kind of water you can drink and when you shouldn’t.

As you go further afield, as you go further into nature there is an increased responsibility on you to ensure you are safe and that you know how to get off a mountain yourself. The ability to navigate, strap yourself up and basically survive is essential.

I came to the idea of being sensible a little late but for my Scottish adventures I’m very pleased that I’ve developed a bit of common sense.

Be prepared to take shelter or abandon a hike

There’s a moment, regardless of your preparation, when the weather comes in or the conditions turn to shit and you have to decide what to do. When I’m running then I’ll generally keep going regardless of the conditions

However, when hiking I take a different approach, especially when my four year old daughter is alongside and will take a sensible more cautionary approach. I suppose that running and hiking are slightly different mindsets for me because I’ll happily run up a hill with no more than shorts and a mars bar but I wouldn’t dream of hiking without at a decent waterproof jacket and a stout pair of shoes.

Regularly check the weather

As we all know Scotland can be a little unpredictable with the weather, one minute sunshine, next minute rain and the next – snow! In the hills and mountains this unpredictability is multiplied many times, cloud cover coming in and thick, horizontal rain followed by blazing sunshine in a matter of minutes is not uncommon. So check the weather and pack your kit for all eventualities.

Beware ticks and insect bites

Little bleeders! Post hike, post run, post wiping your own bum, make sure you check for ticks – the consequences of not dealing with ticks properly is devastating. A simple tick check as part of your post hike/run cuppa is a worthwhile investment of time. And on the investment front – make sure you buy a tick remover!

Despite my warnings I want you all to get out in your local surroundings and have fun. For me that means hurling myself around the hills and mud of Scotland but for you it could be somewhere else, somewhere old or even somewhere new. I suppose the message I want to send about our great outdoors is

…enjoy yourself and see you out there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Extra Sports
Organisers of: SainteLyon

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

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

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

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

Ultra Running Ltd
Organisers of: The Green Man Ultra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to the Testway Ultra.

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

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

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

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

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

Well for the first miles…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a day.

Key points

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

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

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

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

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

Value for money: £50? Bargain.

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

 

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

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

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

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