So this weekend I should be running The Montane Cheviot Goat, I’ve been excited about this for a long time now – probably about 3 years since I first entered it but was injured in the run up and so did not start the race in 2018.
I entered again only for the pandemic to delay the start several times and so we come to Wednesday, today, two days before I need to leave home and drive down to Northumberland and begin a race I have long admired.
Here’s the rub though, there are issues, positives and negatives. What do I do?
This is a race that I have long wanted to run.
The organisers have pulled out all the stops to make sure the event goes ahead after storm Arwen.
Running and racing in winter is one of my favourite things to do.
I get to use all the new gear I have bought for this event.
I get out of going to my daughters piano recital.
I get to link up with the likes of the awesome Ian Braizer and Kate Allen.
It’s another opportunity to race.
My hip flexor and abductor are fucked.
After my foot injury in the Peak District two weeks ago I have not run since.
Covid and its variants are on the rise.
Storm Arwen damage may make it more challenging both on the day and logistically for all concerned.
I am navigationally challenged.
I was advised by the doctor who looked at my foot 2 weeks ago that I need 6-8 weeks of rest from running for reasons I’m not allowed to publish in case the GingaNinja reads this. The doctor did confirm though that I didn’t fracture my foot as this would have made me an immediate DNS.
Being fucked off by the White Peaks 50km has left me in a bit of a funk about running.
There is the fear of a Goat DNF.
I haven’t run an overnight race in about 3 years.
I’m not a very good driver and fear being caught and stranded in snow with nothing but a shitload of chocolate for company.
I’m not worried about the weather or the underfoot conditions or anything like that I worry about not being able to finish or being the stupid bastard that needs the mountain rescue. In fairness to myself I’ve got good mountain skills for the most part, save for being a bit navigationally challenged (though I’ve bought a Garmin Etrex as back up to my Fenix 6X to help with that) and I can read a map to a point.
I’m more concerned about my hip flexor injury and my foot both of which may make a finish unlikely but its a proper trail race and my hip flexors stand up to trail better than they do tarmac and so maybe that might mitigate the problem enough to get me round. The foot though is an unknown that might rear its ugly mug or not show up at all.
Maybe I’m worried about nothing but the question remains ‘to Goat or not to Goat’?
I hope I give good ultra running advice, hints and tips because I’ve shared them far and wide with runners from first timers to the grizzled and battered. I’ve had every kind of experience in ultra marathons, desert, trail, mountain, ice, long distance, short distance, DNS, DNF and even the odd finish and each one has given me an experience that I’ll mostly never forget.
Here’s the thing though, I don’t learn from my experiences and I don’t listen to my own advice and when I declared at the registration of the Ranger Ultras White (South) Peaks 50km that I was likely to be the worst runner there, that was not an exaggeration.
I am the worst ultra runner I’ve ever met and I’ve met a lot of ultra runners.
This is the story of why I’m both the worst and most idiotic ultra runner I’ve ever met, welcome to the Ranger Ultras Peaks Double Review, well half a review…
I had lots of titles vying for the dubious honour of being on the top of this blog post but I think the chosen one, 2 races, 1 start, 0 medals cuts right to the heart of it and summed it up best. The truth of it is, I made a mistake in attempting to run last weekend and it looks like it will prove to be a costly one in terms of running over the coming weeks and months. In my haste to return to the awesome Ranger Ultras events I have left myself broken and there is only person responsible for that – me, which is exactly what I said to the lovely nurse who was looking at me on Monday night.
Now while this blog post is intended to be supremely self indulgent, as all my posts are, there is also the event to discuss. Now for those of you who’ve read about either my Pennine Bridleway 55 (read about it here) or Yorkshire Three Peaks Ultra (read about it here) reviews you’ll know that I’m a massive fan of the people and the events at Ranger Ultras and I’m pleased to say that after my Day 1 White Peaks 50km my opinion remains steadfastly the same.
All the things that I loved about the earlier events were replicated here; friendly, cosy and professional but I’ll add another descriptor here that I perhaps haven’t used previously – family.
Ranger Ultras feels like family, and not the kind you want to strangle over the festive turkey, the kind that helps, supports and nurtures, and though this may sound odd when you’re for the most part, surrounded by strangers, it feels like the best description of the experience you get at one of their events.
However, I’ve jumped forward a little so let’s head back to 10.48pm the previous evening as I tried to get to sleep before my alarm would go off at 11.42pm for a 12.20am departure. I couldn’t sleep, I tossed and turned a bit, but it was that thing where no matter how hard you try you just can’t get to sleep and so a few minutes before my alarm was destined to go off I got showered and readied myself. My late night pre-race travel routine consisted of said shower, having a chocolate milkshake, some Skyr super berry yoghurt, drinking a shitload of coffee, making a 2 litre flask of caffeine laden rocket fuel and sitting on the porcelain throne hoping to have a clear out of the delicious but rather spicy homemade lentil dahl I’d spent most of the previous four days eating. Well the consumption part of this routine was fine but much like the wolf who tried to blow down the piggies brick built house I wasn’t having any success and I so I left the toilet free of a splattering.
Google indicated my arrival would be pre 6am with no stops and so I kept my foot on the floor and listened once more to the insanity that is early hours of the morning BBC Radio 5 Live. Topics included; sum up your weekend in three words, the rental market crisis and men’s mental health – in the end I turned it off in favour of singing along to Benny, Bjorn, Angneta and Frida on ABBA Voyage; very enjoyable.
Despite closures on the M6 and several accidents, rain and general exhaustion in my driving I did indeed arrive pre-6am to the Edale car park and home of the Ranger Ultras HQ for the duration of the weekend. Once there I made quick work of the pay and display and even quicker work of getting changed into my race day gear because it was bloody freezing in the car park. What I didn’t do was make the mistake of getting all my gear tightly packed up as I knew that there was likely going to be a proper kit check.
With registrations open I made my way inside where I was to be greeted by the ever sprightly and wonderfully warm RD Stu Westfield who reminded me of my position on the points total leaderboard and attempted to lure me to the 270km Pennine Bridleway and I had been considering it prior to the Yorkshire Three Peaks Ultra and it’s something that remains tempting, but that’s for later.
Anyway kit check done, I loaded up the new race vest, the Montane Gecko VP+ 12, my replacement for the Salomon ADV Skin 12 which rubbed the skin off my back at the Three Peaks and the Bridleway, and the damage had only just healed in time for this double race weekend. However, I hadn’t had the opportunity to test the race vest in the time since it arrived due to trying to get my hip flexors rested enough to allow me to run these races – it was all a bit bum squeaky tight in trying to make the cogs fit together for this weekend and then a balancing act to make sure I’d also get to the start line of the Cheviot Goat in 2 weeks time – more on that later.
This race also offered me the opportunity to reunite with one of the sweepers who I’d last seen having a giant dump on the West Highland Way Challenge Race. His little head had been bobbing up and down behind some ferns, but we had enjoyed a decent amount of running together at the WHWCR and it was lovely to see him again and given he was sweeping I’d expected to be spending most of the day with him! I also came across Kev again, a wonderful chap I met at the Pennine Bridleway and I finally figured out who he reminded me of, he was a bit of a Clark Kent, you know mild mannered and lovely but put him in some lycra and he’s superman! I ended up seated next to this superman on the bus and we chewed the fat covering all sorts of topics, it was a genuinely lovely way to get things underway.
However, we eventually arrived at the start after winding our way on a very pleasant coach journey to the start in Ashbourne and there was a small flurry of runners dashing to reach the customer toilets at the local Sainsbury’s presumably to offset the need to go ‘bear like’ and shit in the woods.
I spent the remaining minutes pre-race chatting with Kev and Pete and generally taking it all in. The organsiers corralled us all together to try and get a group photograph but being cunning I hid behind Kev because he’s tall and, despite the plethora of selfies that appear in my blog posts, I don’t like being photographed so hiding at the back seemed a perfectly sensible thing to do.
And then it was just a couple of minutes to go, fingers of runners moved to the poised position of ‘Garmin ready’ and suddenly there was the blaze of bleeps as we were sent on our way. The throngs of runners all setting out at their preferred pace and quickly spreading out onto the course.
Within a few minutes we came across a very welcome sight, a toilet!
Holy buggerchops I thought I could stop here for a dump, but with so many runners just behind me I didn’t want to stop for my emergency poo and so I sped up a bit in the hope that there might be another poo stop a bit further along and I could be in and out before the sweepers went past me.
What worried me though was the path that we were running on – it was some sort of disused railway line, and a wonderful path but also incredibly hard packed and even in the earliest of kilometres I wondered how long my body would tolerate this before it gave up on me. However, as it stood I was making good, steady progress, my new race vest was mostly comfortable and I was in overtaking mode. I battered my way through cool tunnels with creepily flickering lights and enjoyed the views that littered either side of the path.
From behind though, as I slowed up a touch I heard the sound of Clark Kent ripping open his shirt and Superman Kev ambled past me accusing me of ‘sandbagging’ which I assumed meant that I had been crying wolf about how shitty a runner I am. When I next saw Kev I believe I proved how rubbish I was, ha! But it was lovely to see him going great guns and he would undoubtedly be once more troubling the front runners, I wished him well and watched jealously as he charged forwards, outstanding runner and lovely chap (having seen his subsequent social media postings he did indeed trouble the front of the pack – huge congratulations).
Despite being left in the wake of Kev’s awesome running there was good news – a second toilet opportunity did indeed appear and I dipped inside to discover the single cubicle unoccupied and so I fired off a small noxious volley that while not the full payload should be enough to stop me having to go ‘full bear’ somewhere on the well used course.
I set off again and recognising a couple of guys from the registration point I made a joke of explaining my brief disappearing act into the bogs and then ran off.
Not much further along I saw two horses and riders on the path and witnessed them struggling with their horses who clearly found runners a bit of an issue. Thankfully the competitors from the race were all pretty respectful, they all slowed and gave the horses as much room as possible and many of us walked past so as not to antagonise the horses any further.
The thing was, as I approached them they’d been trying to walk side by side which meant most of the path was taken up and they’d found themselves stopping regularly at the side to let people through, which had clearly pissed them off and I’d seen a runner (not part of the race) speedily run past them and give the horses a bit of a fright.
I felt for them but also recognised that this was a public path and her reaction, at least to me, as she asked who was the organiser, was rather annoyed. Anyway as I cleared past the beautiful horses I began running again, hoping that I didn’t have any further problems today – but I rarely have that kind of good fortune and today it seemed was not going to be one of those good fortune days.
I remember looking down at my GPS at 8.19km in and thinking, ‘so this is how long it’s taken my hip flexor to start burning… an extra couple of kilometres more than usual’. The pain that had killed off my enjoyment of running recently was back but it was treating yours truly to a special dose of ‘don’t you dare visit the physiotherapist again’ medicine.
My entire hip was on fire and there was pain in the flexor and lower in the groin, a double whammy. Well 42km to go was the thinking and I wasn’t going to DNF such a short race – I did though have a plan and immediately began stretching as shown by my physio and then used whatever mental capacity I had to just power it through and hope that it would ease.
The good news was that I was just a short run from the first checkpoint and in the distance I could make out the green of my favourite jacket, the Montane Prism – only I have the blue version but I covet the green one. As I got closer I saw the blur of bright red lipstick and then I realised it was @peaksprincess.
I’ll be perfectly honest, with my hip in absolute pieces and pain searing down my body I’d have paid good money for it to be anyone else on the checkpoint. Don’t get me wrong I adore Kate but I didn’t wish to caught struggling so badly, so early on by someone I have a great deal of respect for.
Thankfully two litres of coffee, a shitload of pain and my ability to be rude and offensive at any given moment all converged to run my mouth for me and I left the checkpoint behind without doing all the stretching I needed to. Runners pride is a funny old thing.
The good thing though was that there were a relative abundance of checkpoints, located around at about 10km apart and this would mean that I could always DNF at the next one. And so I was into the second fifth of the race and here I found myself trying to enjoy the route as well as stretch my hip flexors as often as possible but I noticed that I was being hampered by a sharp pain in my left foot.
Bugger I thought, right hip knackered and left foot gone, all I need now is for my back to give up and I’d have the triple crown of injuries. Thankfully the new race vest was doing its job and my back was certainly no worse for wear than expected and I ambled along the route being overtaken by a succession of runners and also engaged in bits of chat here and there. Save for the pain I was in it was turning into a perfectly pleasant meander through The Peak District. The much trailed and expected rain was nowhere to be seen and as late autumn / early winter ultra marathons go this one had near perfect conditions.
What I remember most about the second 10 kilometre stretch though was that I barely remember anything about it at all. That’s the funny thing about pain it makes your focus rather inward and you stop experiencing the beauty around you because you’re devoting yourself time to the important task of holding yourself together. What I recall rather vividly though was pulling into the checkpoint and seeing the plethora of runners all gathered round the wonderful volunteers all filling water bottles and gorging themselves on sweet treats. For my part I saw heaven in a carton and reached for some orange juice and gulped this down as quickly as I could – this was to be something of a lifesaver across the race as I ate almost nothing during the event. I left the checkpoint quickly knowing that time (and the sweepers) were catching up to me and as much as I would have loved to have been the naughty schoolboy at the back of bus laughing and joking with the mop up crew of sweepers I was aware that I had to press on.
I ran out of the checkpoint and came across new and little interesting nuggets of sites, there was a little stone hut that reminded of those places in Finland with big roaring fires, coffee and reindeer skins strewn about the place and there were remnants of the old railway line that we were running along.
Having pulled my big boy pants on a bit I managed to try and start enjoying what I was seeing and this was aided by some lovely company throughout the event and it was in this section of the route that I came across a gentleman that would define my race and also make sure that I made it to the end.
Shaun if you’re reading this then I am going to start by saying, ‘thank you’.
Thank you because from the moment we met you had my back and because just as we met I was about to go significantly off course and he pointed me in the right direction something I was very grateful for.
What I can tell you is that on first glance my new companion was a bit of a ruff and tumble kind of a guy but it would have a mistake and misjudgement to assume that there wasn’t a lot more to him and as we covered many kilometres together I came to draw inspiration from this one man mission to live life to the fullest. I’ve met a lot of truly brilliant ultra distance runners, I’ve met a lot of brilliant ones during the time I’ve spent with Ranger Ultras too but Shaun was most certainly one of the best and just what I needed.
Neither of us were benefitting from the hard pack trail and I think both of us were suffering a little bit and I hope that we both benefitted from the general chitty chat that passes between runners because I found him to be warm and engaging. We came from very different places and yet as we spoke I could find many commonalities and as he expressed his approach to living every moment of his life I felt a genuine kinship. We met other lovely runners too though including Chris, Luke and a non eventer called Fiona (not one of the racers but was just nice company for a few minutes) and they helped to keep it light and fresh.
As the kilometres counted their way down the route started opening up a bit, for which I was thankful and although it was too late for my bruised and battered body I was grateful to see some slightly less hard packed trails. Hard packed, disused railway lines are wonderful for running faster and more consistently but they can be hard going on the legs and especially if you have a disposition to injury. The more genuine trails of the Peaks that we had now found were much more to my liking and I could really enjoy this time, albeit that I could barely run because of searing pain at the top of one leg and searing pain at the bottom of the opposite leg.
Good fortune seemed to be favouring us though when we were afforded the opportunity of a little bit of downhill trail and for the first time in what felt like a long time I was running a bit more, I mean it was more like hobbling but for the purposes of the blog post we’ll call it running. My usual surefootedness though had been replaced by an unease not to inflict further misery on the underside of my left foot and so I dared not run as fast as Shaun, Chris or Luke who were pressing on ahead but oddly there was an elasticity to us and we found ourselves all getting together again and this remained very much the case until we arrived at the third checkpoint were once more I saw @peaksprincess this time armed with the Mac who was clearly on guard duties. Woof.
I don’t remember much of our discourse, except telling her that I wished my dog would get cancer because he’s a bit of a bell end and she suggested that Mac should stop swinging his dick and was soon to have his nuts off, hearing Kate use the word dick was like reading one of her tweets – it was odd. I’ll be honest it wasn’t an obvious conversational topic but then I think that’s the way it always goes. I do offer good news for her though in that when she rocks up at The Montane Cheviot Goat in a few days time she probably won’t have to listen to me because I suspect I’m out of the running for that 😦
But I digress, Kate sent me on my way telling me to get it done, which is the kind of tough love I usually respond to, but today I was just feeling the fire of injury and the tough love just felt tough.
As I left I spoke to Luke and Chris and asked where Shaun was and the answer came that they thought he had simply powered through the checkpoint and I was actually a little bit sad about this as he had been such good company but then it is the way with ultra running that we tend to make connections and then lose them very quickly because two peoples pace are different or strategies for finishing aren’t aligned and so I hoped he was thundering up and down the course to a nice fast finish.
Anyway we starting climbing again and Chris and Luke both had more in their legs than I did and so looked like they would soon push on beyond me but as I looked up I saw a runner I recognised leaning against a gate, vaping. Now I can’t quite tell whether Shaun was waiting for us or whether he had simply stopped to admire the view but whatever it was, the effect was the same, it meant that there was a little gang of us travelling together and while we would eventually split into two pairs of competitors it was lovely to share this scenery and this event with such wonderful people.
Now for all the complaining I have done about injury and my mental state what I can say is that I knew that with significantly under 20km to go there was a good chance we might make it to the finish before dark and this was a positive thought that helped enable me to push harder than I had before. I was also aware that I was once more running on bits of the Pennine Bridleway that I recalled from my first Ranger Ultras race and that familiarity brought a level of solace. My Garmin also indicated that there wasn’t much more than another 100 metres of climbing across the last few miles of the course and so despite everything it looked like we would make it and all we could do was guess which of the little lumps ahead of us would provide the last metres of climb.
We ambled along and in these final few kilometres The Peak District really roared into life and there was lovely trail and little hilly mounds to admire. But all of our admiration had to be put aside to ensure that we did indeed crack that daylight finish and so we thundered along looking for Edale and in the near distance we could see the chocolate box village.
I urged Shaun to run those last few metres into the car park, because well, that’s what you do isn’t it? There was a round of applause from some of the other runners and there were faces that I recognised from earlier in the event. But I felt drained and as I tripped over the lip of the uPVC door into the race HQ I felt this summed up the kind of race I had run and I just dropped to the floor, pleased to have finished but sad not to be starting tomorrow.
I lost Shaun at the end but if you are reading this I must apologise for missing you at the finish, my head was ablaze with thoughts of going home (but I did as you suggested and looked up your brother by the way) and it was such a wonderful experience to meet you and be rescued by you. Thanks buddy.
And so ends the tale of the Peaks South 50km
Ascent: 850 metres
Date: November 2021
Cost: £55 per day (£85 for both days)
Terrain: Hard packed trail
Tough Rating: 2/5
Route Routes are such a personal thing and for this one there was a lot to like but also much to consider. The Peak District have done a wonderful job of providing a route that can be run or cycled with relative ease along what looks for the most part like a disused railway line and in terms of an ultra marathon it offers easier navigation and good conditions even for a potentially nasty weather early winter ultra marathon. It would serve as an ideal introduction to ultra marathon trail running and for the more experienced runner then it is an opportunity to stretch the legs a bit faster than usual because there is less mud to battle.
The route was relatively busy but not heaving and there was more than ample room for everyone, plus it was actually lovely to see members of the public out and giving the runners a little cheer. My favourite being the little Springer Spaniel about 3 or 4km in who was taking his owner for a jog and he seemed so happy.
It is worth saying that the first section is incredibly runnable, but that care should be taken in shoe choice, there is no doubt that even in crappy weather the hard packed trail would easily suit good comfortable road shoes and if the weather wasn’t horrific you could probably run the bulk of this in road or certainly road to trail footwear (but do remember the mandatory kit does say trail shoes). It is not a route that lends itself to aggressive lugs, even in the most trail of sections – so something to think about, basically you are not going to want your Walsh footwear on.
To my mind the second half of the route is the prettier section as it brings you closer to the action of The Peak District and this is where much more of the conventional trail running happens. The latter stages therefore are much more my thing and that is just a personal preference but what it means is that you get to experience two sides of trail running during one 50km event and perhaps that is why it is a very accessible event to those looking to transition into long distance trail running.
My enjoyment of the route was hampered by the pain I was in but when I put that aside I can see how I enjoyed this and with interesting sights along the way there really was a little bit of something for everyone.
Organisation There is no denying that Ranger Ultra offer perhaps the best organised race experience that I have ever been a part of. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, you are in safe, knowledgeable hands that know how to put on a really good running event. Everyone on the team knows their stuff and you really cannot put a price on that. The Ranger Ultras ethos of simple, effective but brilliant eventing is something that I really approve of and I wish other RDs would look closely at what Stu Westfield and the team are doing here because there is lots of good stuff going happening.
As always the pre-race material was comprehensive, the Facebook group was regularly updated and the team supported this with follow up emails to ensure that competitors didn’t get lost in the cracks of everyone using different platforms. On the day there were a lots of checkpoints and each was the right size for the location, the 10km and 40km CPs were smaller than the 20km and 30km CPs and this felt the right decision – give the support and resource where the runners will most need it.
I think the testament to brilliant organisation is that it never feels forced, everything just happens and flows. The team works so hard but always has time for a bit of banter, a laugh, a joke or even some running advice – as was evidenced by the fact I couldn’t be sure which of the many Harvey Maps I was carrying I would need for the Saturday event but the team knew instantly.
When I walked into the registration the team were busy putting stuff together, getting ready for departure to the start line and generally being awesome but the RD made a point of reminding me of my lofty position on the points leader board and my advantage in securing one of the beautiful hand crafted boxes (which are indeed beautiful by the way). He didn’t need to do this, but he did and that is why, long after my injuries are a distant memory and long after I’ve forgotten about my grandslam failure I will remember Ranger Ultras with great fondness.
Value for money I have come to the conclusion that the organisers must be romantics, because they aren’t doing this for the money, they are doing it for the love of it – at least that is very much how it comes across. They could increase the prices and I don’t think it would have a negative effect on numbers but I suspect they’d quite like to swell numbers a little further and therefore keeping the prices VERY reasonable might encourage others to join in.
The Peaks South or Day 1 was another excellent value for money event and if you sign up I guarantee you’ll come away saying, ‘how the hell do they manage all that for such a low price?’
Volunteers and Support There is never a moment you aren’t grateful to the team or volunteers and supporters, they make the events happen and they make it so that you will finish. I’m going to reserve special praise for Kate and her vibrant lipstick who despite me being so mean to her didn’t swing a fist in my direction.
All I can say is thank you to each and every one of you for a. not pulling me out of the race when I looked like death warmed up and b. for being there on a cold and windy day in The Peak District.
Runners I met some amazing people on Saturday and reacquainted myself with others.
Ranger Ultras tends to attract a certain type of runner, these aren’t glamorous events in the sense that there aren’t any flashing lights and blasting music, these are running events for people who enjoy running. Therefore; it makes sense that the people who want to come and test themselves share a similar philosophy as the organisers and that means you have some common ground with most if not all of your fellow competitors. There are too many names to list to say thank you to individually – I mean basically just get me the start list and that should just about cover it but the runners at these events, have been awesome.
Awards Now as the title says 2 races, 1 start, 0 medals. I assume that given I failed to start day 2 I don’t get a medal for just finishing day 1 and so I can’t comment on them as I didn’t even see them. However, I am going to assume that they are the same as the other beautifully designed wooden coasters that have been seen at the other races and so if you earned one this weekend then well done guys – I’m very jealous.
My Race Well you’ve read about my race, it didn’t go well and who the bollocks knows how I managed to finish in a reasonable time, well that is mostly down to my companion for the second half of the race. I wouldn’t have finished if it hadn’t been for Shaun and equally importantly a strategically positioned @peaksprincess because as I say I wasn’t going to DNF in front of her – so thanks guys.
I made the rather unwise decision to drive home mere minutes after finishing because I really didn’t want to hang around as I feared I had broken my foot – I knew that I dare not take my shoe off because I wouldn’t be able to get it back on and then driving would be impossible. I was also pretty miserable about the way my hip flexor had gone and not earning the coaster, I was deflated and felt that my own company was probably the only company to have.
By the time I got back to Scotland I could no longer put any weight on my left leg and the right leg was ruined at the hip so it was a difficult time and some tears may have been shed as I stopped for a lentil dahl powered turd at Southwaite services. But listening to happy hardcore for a couple of hours and having the heater blasting at me did at least improve my mood on a very long drive.
Thankfully an x-ray on Monday suggested I haven’t fractured the foot but The Cheviot Goat Ultra looks like it might be beyond me again but I’ll make a final decision in a few days and I’ll mull over my conversation with Shaun about living the moments of life to their fullest.
Points, Grandslam & 270 I’ve stated it many, many times and even reiterated it here ‘I’m a terrible runner and an even worse ultra runner’ and yet because of turning up there I found myself at the top of the points leaderboard prior to this weekends events. I said to Stu that the points system he is employing for measuring the success of the runners at this years events is flawed because I should not be at the top, just because I have turned up is no reason to be lauded or rewarded.
This conversation came up in light of him mentioning that I should be considering the 270km full Pennine Bridleway! Ha.
It is a ridiculous notion, I mean you should have seen me at the end of the 50km, I was absolutely broken, destroyed, annihilated – I finished the race contemplating retiring from ultra running not signing up for two hundred and seventy long, arduous kilometres.
Stu is a cheeky little bugger and I assume the lady I spoke with at the end about the 270km was maybe his wife and I found myself on Monday evening, after discovering that my foot wasn’t broken, looking at the 270km race.
It is a stupid and idiotic idea that I could run it but I’m thinking about it, but just thinking about it and I’m going to need to think about it REALLY hard (like thinking about Michelle Pfieffer when I was 15 and watching Batman Returns) and if there’s too much tarmac or hard packed trail then I know that the things about me that are fragile won’t handle the pounding that they would take, but, I’m thinking about it.
As for the grandslam and my failure this year at the Ranger Ultras events, well I’m pretty annoyed at myself and I’ll be discussing this and the whole grandslam thing at greater length in a season 2 episode of the Ultraboyruns podcast. However, despite my failure, despite the epic driving and logistical nightmare that meant that each pre and post-race was really an arse ache I massively enjoyed my time with Ranger Ultras. I had a brilliant time because each event was made with love and my personal highlight being the Yorkshire Three Peaks.
Conclusions I stated earlier that I write this stuff to feed my ego but that is only partly true.
I want other runners to read this review and I want them to sign up for one or more of the Ranger Ultras races. There are lots of shit things in the world, lots of things that don’t offer you good value for money, but Ranger Ultras isn’t one of them.
Ranger Ultras is one of those joy filled things that gives much more than it gets.
So if you’ve got a blog, a social media channel, some running friends or even an aged aunty who still owns an old pair of Inov8 that have been gathering dust then tell them about Ranger Ultras, tell them about how they brutalised you, covered you in mud and generally kicked your arse before cuddling you better.
Specifically about the Peaks South event you can say that this is something they should try whether they are seasoned old hands or beginners because this is an everyone route. As I mentioned earlier the mixed nature of the terrain means that you can get a taste for trail running but also have the security of a really good hard packed trail for the bulk of the event. Easy!
My misery was nothing to do with the event itself that was down to my own stupidity so just don’t do it like I do it and you’ll be fine and of course Christmas is now just round the corner and I think if you ask, you too, be you naughty or nice, could get a Rangers Ultra event gift from Santa that will just keep on giving.
It’s worth noting that I have no affiliation with Rangers Ultra am not sponsored nor have I been paid to write this review – this is 100% independent (and probably unwanted).I should also point I neglected to check how Shaun spells his name but I found a record of a race I know he ran so have gone with this spelling
Three sleeps to go until the Ultra Scotland 50 will be well underway and the question is no longer will it go ahead (hopefully) but will this middle aged numpty make it to the finish? I think it is fair to say that we have all hoped that races, in particular for this blogs audience, ultra marathons would start again – because it is what we adore doing.
In recent weeks I’ve seen the Bonnie Prince Ultra, the Loch Ness 360 and the Pennine Bridleway be postponed again and so with the Ultra Scotland taking place just a couple of weeks after the restrictions were lifted it was a big ask that it would return. However, GB Ultras cautious optimism seems to have paid off and the event will go ahead as planned and I’ve committed to running it in those few days time, because ultimately if racing gets stopped again I’d love, just once, to get back out there and feel the wind on my back and a race number on my front.
The only trouble is that the moment I submitted my marathon PB, as requested by the race organisers to sort runners into waves, my hamstring went pop and has been a little shit ever since. So now, despite all the training and weight loss I’ve managed in the last year all of that may be useless because I’ll be hanging on for dear life just to finish.
So it’s going to be a ‘hello there’ from me to racing and a ‘hell here’ from racing to me.
The end of January is almost upon us and for the majority none of us will have raced for quite some time.
Now in the context of the pandemic this is a very minor thing but with glimmer of light in the distance and much hard work being done by so many to return humanity to a more traditional lifestyle, I am led to wonder about running races again.
For me the last race I did was Ultra North in September 2020, nestled between what many of us thought was the beginning of the end for COVID 19 and the ramping up of restrictions as the pandemic worsened across the globe.
2020 races, as of April, all got cancelled, some were moved on a number of occasions in an effort for events to happen but most simply didn’t take place. This means that those event organisers who have thankfully survived have moved their events to this year (2021) and this is where we can then only speculate. Is there a value in speculation? Perhaps not but I feel it helps me to write down how I’m feeling about this in order to remain focused in getting ready for the races I am aiming for.
Sadly a few days back I received my first postponement email telling me that the Pennine Bridleway has sensibly been moved from April to September. On top of that I’ve made the decision to pull out of the Quebec Mega Trail in July because I’m convinced my trip to Canada will not happen and therefore I have cancelled the flights and aim to go in 2022. It’s all starting to feel a bit 2020.
That said I’m one of the fortunate ones – I’ve got a lot of races booked in and therefore my racing agenda is set and all I can do is wait. For organisers, participants and those involved in the running events supply chain there are stresses, frustrations and disappointments coming from all directions and you can’t help but feel for everyone.
The 2020 that should have been My 2020 had been billed, by myself, as the year of the comeback. I’ve spent a lot of time treading water and running events at the back of the pack but I had assured myself that now I was settled in Scotland I could finally focus on running again and so even entered my first ultra marathon grand slam. So with that in mind my 2020 looked pretty good, with lots of variety, interesting routes and ball breakers, take a look below;
Tyndrum 24 / January (Completed)
Vogrie Park 5km / January (Completed)
Falkirk Trail 8hr Ultta / February (Completed)
F50K / March(DNS)
Skull Trail Race / March (Completed)
Pennine Bridleway / April (Postponed)
Bonnie Prince Ultra / April (Postponed)
To the Pike & Back Again / April (Postponed)
Chacefield (3 race series) / March / April / May (Postponed)
Ultra Scotland 50 / May (Postponed)
Loch Ness 360 / May (Postponed)
John Lucas Memorial / June (Postponed)
Quebec Mega Trail / July (Postponed)
Run the Blades / July (Postponed)
Ultra North / September(Completed)
Yorkshire Three Peaks / October (Postponed)
Dark Peaks / November (Postponed)
White Peaks / November (Postponed)
Cheviot Goat / December (Postponed)
I had loaded my 2020 calendar for the year end when I had assumed I would be fittest and more ready for the challenges that awaited me and to be fair by the time October and November had arrived I was much fitter than I had been when I raced at the Tyndrum 24. Who knew that I wouldn’t be getting to showcase my new found fitness! I think that most of us hoped that by the time December and therefore The Cheviot Goat had come around that the opportunity to race would have been restored.
As we all know though 2020 would end without the resumption of running events.
It couldn’t be helped and I was very much of a mind that I would rather have tighter restrictions for a significant period to allow all governments globally to get the pandemic under control rather than the half hearted restricting and easing that had been par for the course in the previous 6 months.
Feelings? The running community seems to have been sympathetic to the plight of race organisers, especially the smaller, more intimate events that have gone over and above to do their best for the wannabee participants.
I know there have been exceptions to the above statement and that some events have been found wanting in terms of communication, etc but organisers must have been dealing with enormous logistical, financial and commitment issues and so hopefully there can be some level of forgiveness if communication, rearrangements and the like were not as swift as it could have been.
Virtual Many runners have taken to engaging with the virtual events that almost every organiser has put on and this will presumably help in a small way to recover costs the organisers incurred in amongst other things venue rental, insurances and the production of 2020 materials such as medals and shirts.
Sadly, I fell out of love with virtual events some years ago and therefore found myself less inclined to do virtual runs. The only one I took part in was the ‘To the Pike & Back’ half marathon but this was because I was in the area on race day and was able to run the route at the time the event was supposed to take place.
Had I been running this at home in Scotland rather than in Bolton I would have felt like I had cheated the race and wouldn’t have been able to put the medal with my collection. Odd isn’t it? Maybe it is a little like a t-shirt I have from an event I DNS’d some years back (shirt was posted out pre-event) I don’t ever wear that shirt but I keep it as a reminder of being a knobhead and to stop doing stupid runs the day before a race.
Refunds, rearrangements and re-entry When I received the medal and the shirt a few weeks later it wasn’t with any real elation and this was perhaps the confirmation I needed to say that I would instead focus on training over virtual events. This may seem a little selfish, being unwilling to spend money on the virtual events to help keep organisers going -especially given the amount of benefit I’ve had from racing over the years, but having already spent nearly £1,000 on events and a lot more on extras I was keen not to spend money on things that I had little interest in.
However, I also had no interest in trying to recover any of the money from the events that were being cancelled and postponed because I want these businesses to survive, racing is an important part of my life and I remain happy to participate whenever racing returns. To this end where refunds have been offered and if I couldn’t do the rearranged date I simply donated my entry fee because the money was already used and I had moved on from it.
For example I donated my fee to the Quebec Mega Trail because my Canadian trip had been cancelled, when I rebooked the trip for 2021 I simply re-entered the QMT and now even though my trip has been cancelled again I will not be asking for a refund. Most importantly when we rebook our trip for 2022 I will then enter the QMT again and pay a third entrance fee.
I will continue to support events in my own way.
2021 The other reason I don’t feel particularly guilty for not doing the virtual events is that the moment there were 2021 races to enter – I started entering them. I had wanted to run the Moray Trail Series but given the hold overs from 2020 I could only run the long form of the Speyside Way, I entered within seconds of the event opening. I am hopeful that other opportunities will arise, not perhaps in ultra marathons (I’m pretty much fully booked for that) but in other smaller more community led events – 5 & 10km races, maybe the odd half marathon (to give myself a real challenge). I will happily enter as many of those as my old body will allow.
2020 was a tough year for everyone and 2021 looks like being little better as it stands but there are glimmers of hope, what I remain confident about is that most of us would like race organisers to survive this difficult time and bring racing back (whatever your distance preference).
How and when do I believe they will return? Well nobody has a crystal ball but you’ve got to remain optimistic and believe that during the second half of the year that some level of conventionality will have reached us but nothing is guaranteed, 2020 most certainly taught us that.
What I do believe though is that for a while racing will feel different, if my experience at Ultra North is anything to go by I think that events both running and non-running will be a little more nervous and perhaps lacking some of the confidence that is exuded from a great race environment. I also feel that the mass participation events will perhaps still struggle to operate – think of the amount of people that are involved in the major events, not just the runners, but everyone and you have to wonder if it is perhaps a risk that organisers, supporters and even the runners will be unwilling to stomach.
As for what 2021 should look like? Well my calendar is below and you can see that there are no real mass participation events, I’d say that some of these events would be as low as 50 participants while most will be in the low hundreds taking part. I live in hope that most of these events will go ahead but as I said earlier the first has already been postponed from April to September and one I’ll definitely be DNS’ing the QMT because I’ve now cancelled my flights to Canada.
My Calendar So, my race calendar looks a lot like last year;
Pennine Bridleway / April (Postponed)
Chacefield (3 race series) / March / April / May
Bonnie Prince Ultra / April
Ultra Scotland 50 / May
Loch Ness 360 / May
John Lucas Memorial / June
Quebec Mega Trail / July (DNS)
Run the Blades / July
Speyside Way / August
Yorkshire Three Peaks / October
Dark Peaks / November
White Peaks / November
Cheviot Goat / December
Going forward What would I like to see going forward, well that’s easy, I want to see rewarding running events that are safe (from COVID) but not safe from danger. I would like to see runners returning in big numbers to events that have brought them joy year on year.
I would love to see the return of the little events that litter the running calendar each year that draw the community together and often involve little old ladies handing out race numbers and giving you a little twinkle of their eyes to suggest that they still hold the course record.
I’d like to see event organisers having the confidence to put on new events to replace the ones that will inevitably have been lost and I’d like to see the running community supporting them.
Perhaps a positive of the various lockdowns and the pandemic is that we’ve seen a greater uptake in activity of all types and we’ve been exploring our local routes. What would be awesome is if some of those who have taken up running during the pandemic joined in with these wonderful racing celebrations of running. Races and the race experience cannot be replicated by a virtual events or even (in my opinion) by wonderful things like Parkrun, both of these do serve a very real need in the running community but they don’t do what racing does.
I’d like to think I’d even consider starting my own race or race series, though having seen the struggle of race directors during the good times to organise and fill an event, I’m not sure I’m ready to join their ranks just yet (if ever). But it is something I have been considering for quite a while and also something I feel that my natural organisational skills would be well suited to.
What have I been missing? Before I sign off I want to try and remind both you and myself about what racing does for me and maybe you’ll recognise some of this yourself.
Racing brings me nerves and anticipation, that anticipation leads to a dry mouth, clammy hands and sometimes sweaty nuts. Mostly it leads to a case of the epic shits (something I have detailed many times).
As I approach a start line I can feel the hairs on my arm standing up awaiting the order to race and as I barge into the throngs of runners ahead of me, trying to edge forward in the pack even before the race has started, I feel excited.
As I set off and my legs feel tense and yet like jelly I’ll find a rhythm and I’ll push as hard as my body will allow. I can hear the pounding of my feet on the floor, I can hear the sound of the different terrains, crunching through the leaves, sloshing through the rain and drumming deeply on the pavement. I can feel and hear the wind, it makes teeth chatter, it makes eyes narrow and it whistles across my face drying the sweat into salt that will later melt into my eyes.
But what I’ve missed most is seeing a Neil MacRitchie, Fiona Kirkaldy or Michael Hrabe, a face I know ahead of me and that feeling in my gut that is so desperate to catch them and overtake them that I feel the blood pulsing around my body and giving me that one final injection of speed. I never do catch them of course, I’m old, fat and ruined but I cross that finish line with aplomb and a little flourish.
No amount of lovely training and lovely muddy, hilly or wet running can replace that.
I’ve been asked a million questions on ultras and I’ve asked a fair few too, some are quite individual to a person while some are really good openers to get a conversation started with someone you’ve just met and might well be running with for quite some time.
Below I’ve listed a few of the questions I’ve asked or been asked and also some of the odder responses that I’ve heard and been heard to say. Having time to finally finish this epic post is one of the few benefits of self isolation.
Do you rock up to Parkrun in an ultra t-shirt to show off, then get your arse kicked by a 6 year old? This was a question I asked when I was recounting the time I had just completed the Thames Path 100 and wanted to show off by a) wearing it to the Tunbridge Wells Parkrun and b) wearing it while running with the buggy. I remember running past two guys who shouted, ‘that blokes just overtaken us while pushing a buggy’. My rather dickish response was to say, ‘ read the back of the t-shirt for the reason why!’ What an arse I was.
Do you want to be on the 100 marathon list or would you rather be on the 100 ultra list? I remember getting to about 20 marathons/ultras and suddenly thinking I could probably get to a hundred and then when I hit about 40 marathons/ultras I realised that it didn’t matter and when I finally reached 50 I knew that I no longer wanted to be a member of the 100 marathon club. Seeing people hammering out lap after lap of looped marathons to me felt like the wrong way to go about it. I knew that if I ever reached 100 I would want to do it by going and running at really awesome place and facing down routes that would really test me.
Do you have more running clothes than day to day clothes? I very quickly stopped buying day to day clothes in any significant manner once I was running enough to justify running purchases. From there I realised that I would be much happier in kit that was designed to do the thing that I love like hiking and dog walking
Whats the biggest lie you’ve told to justify a running purchase?
I’ve told a few half truths over the years in order to justify a purchase or two. I did however need to sneak a couple of pairs of shoes in once and when the GingaNinja asked why my bag was so heavy I claimed there was work in there. When she saw them a few weeks later I simply told her that I’d bought them months ago. I’m confident she has never believed a single one of my lies. I do regular knock £20 off the price of a pair of shoes.
You know Neil MacRitchie too?
The amount of times I’ve run into people in the Scottish Ultra scene that know Neil MacRitchie is unreal – I sometimes wonder if he is actually real or instead some form of urban legend. We tend to run lots of the same events and his name often comes up and he is a much loved and respected face on the scene. It was delight to meet him nearly 5 years ago and it remains my joy to know him now.
Which races would you immediately recommend? When a first time ultra runner asked me this I said, ‘Skye Trail Ultra (review), SainteLyon (review) and MIUT (review)’. I told him that if he liked being brutalised these were the races to aim for.
Do you ever get sandwiches (or any other foodstuff) stuck on the roof of your mouth at checkpoints? It’s weird I was running on the St Peters Way and I had eaten a sandwich and the crustless bread connected with my upper palette and refused to move. I ended up putting my filthy, sweaty fingers into my mouth and scrapped the sandwich out, it was horrific as the butter and ham sloshed about in my mouth. This remains one of my worst moments when racing, which is weird considering the amount of poo stories I’ve got in the locker.
Have you ever made a mud fairy?
I was running the Ambleside 60 (read about it here), my 51st ultra and I was about 45km in and I took a mis-step into a thick pool of mud, normally I would correct myself but for some reason I simply allowed my foot to sink further and further into the mud until the cold wet mud was tickling my testicles (low slung?) Anyway gravity soon took over and I found myself lurching backwards into the filthy brown stuff and while there I felt the delusions of the day come upon me and simply started making a mud fairy. It wasn’t impressive as a fairy but it was a lot of fun.
Ever felt you were in genuine danger during a race?
There have a couple of times were I’ve felt in real trouble, the first time was on a ridge in the dark on the Isle of Skye with quote a severe drop to one side of me. I leaned heavily into the side where I was more assured of safety. The only other time I felt in danger was when I was running past groups of men in the shadows of the canal section of Country to Capital – now as far as I am aware no runner has ever been attacked but you’re running through some pretty shitty sections of London on that route and the canal was clearly a Mecca for those wanting to do drugs or have illicit sex – I definitely overheard the moans and groans of more than one fat sweaty man down on the canalised as I was running.
How do you cope with mental fatigue?
At around the mid point of a race I can sometimes start to struggle mentally – doesn’t matter the distance it is always at about the midpoint. There are so many tricks that you can adopt to try and get through it – some people will listen to music or podcasts others will focus on their surroundings but I find myself during moments of mental fatigue to benefit from company. This can be such a hard thing though that you become reliant on the generosity of another persons mental strength to help pull you through. There have been innumerable runners whose positivity and mental security have seen me across a finish line, from Anne-Marie at my first ultra at the White Cliffs 50, to Andy at the Skye Trail Ultra, Neil at Tweed Valley through to the amazing Elaine at the Green Man. I remember these people and more because when I was feeling down, when I was ready to give up they showed me that there was another way. This highlights perhaps why my successes at ultras on mainland Europe have been so rare – the language barrier can make it harder to get that lift from your fellow runners, funny really.
Which is you favourite running shop?
I love running shops, they’re awesome and sadly we’ve lost a fair few of them recently including the awesome Likeys. Independent running shops are the life blood of the ultra running community and we should always support them – I don’t have a favourite which is why I try and buy from all of them but my usual go to places are Pete Bland Sports, Castleberg Outdoors, Northern Runner, The Climbers Shop and occasionally I’d dip in to Runners Need. The one place I refuse to buy from though is Sports Direct and there are so many goo reasons why I won’t
What’s the best tip you’ve ever been given?
I have a list of the best tips I have ever received and I’ll give you my top three, the first is ‘walk the hills’ the second is ‘walk the hills as fast as you can’ and the third top tip is ‘never sit down’. I mostly stick to these rules.
How rapey do you think I look?
This is a question that comes from the fact that during a race a fellow runner in the middle of the night approached me and said, ‘do you mind if we together? You don’t look too rapey’. Now as an opening gambit it is both ballsy and memorable. Jo turned out to be a fabulous runner who just need a bit of support during a tough moment on the Thames Path 100 but that question has stuck with me and it is a tale I enjoy telling on the trail with all the obvious embellishments of mock horror in my reaction.
Do you have a spreadsheet at home with race data on it?
Lots of runners I know have spreadsheets with race finishes, I do not but what I do have are countless Moleskine notebooks with race notes, kit lists, runs I’ve done, blog ideas, etc.
What’s the best tip you’ve ever given?
Don’t forget to take tissues
How much do you get respect from your family for your running adventures?
Almost zero, even my daughter who used to think I was the mutts nuts or running now tells me she is a better runner than I am
Do you do the whole social media running thing?
I have a bit of. a love hate relationship with running community and social media, I found myself becoming part of little ultra running groupings and I started to not enjoy being part of that and so I came off for a while and when I returned they had moved on and I felt much better about my participation in the social media running community. I like to think I have positive control over social media, posting only when I have something to say on a subject or to reply to those who might contact me. I suppose the other thing that really annoyed me about social media was the amount of people you would be talking to and you couldn’t determine whether you were talking to a person or talking to the mouthpiece for a brand – that really chaffs my arse about social media in the running community.
Do you think races are too expensive?
Yes and no. Rat Race are too expensive by a country mile but then The Falkirk Ultra is too cheap. Some RDs really aren’t making any money from putting events on and that saddens me. Ultimately if you’re putting in all the hard work to make something a success for other people then there should be some form of reward at the end of it. On the other side of it there is no doubt that things like Race to the Stones are too commercial and overpriced but there are also lots of races in the middle. I suppose the message is that there is something for everyone regardless of your budget be it big or small. Me personally I’m not dogmatic about ‘the race must be less than £1 per mile’ but I do look for value for money and for my money I want a great route, an interesting medal and good organisation – then I’m happy my money has been spent wisely regardless of the cost.
Have you ever done one of the Rat Race events?
I have actually done a couple of the Rat Race events, I think the first one was The Survival of the Fittest 10km running around a obstacle course in the grounds and the structure of Battersea Power Station, an exciting experience but even in 2011 it was about £50, I went on to run my second ultra marathon with them, The Wall – another expensive one but the value for money here was better and I was grateful of their support throughout the race.
What’s the most expensive race you’ve done?
This is a difficult one because there are so many ways to measure the cost of race – so the cost per mile is a popular way of looking at it but I tend to look at the broader cost implications when calculating the costs. So for example travel to the race, accommodation costs, kit specific to that race, entry fee, etc. I also like to add in a cost for enjoyment – so the more I enjoyed a race then the less I will be bothered by the financial impact of an event. When I add all these together then the most expensive race I’ve ever been involved in was the CCC from the UTMB series of races and the truth of the matter is that it is also the race I enjoyed the least.
What do you do if you shat yourself?
I’ve asked this question several times to several very lovely runners – almost all of whom had a story to tell either about themselves or someone else. I’ve never quite shat myself but I’ve come pretty close on more than one occasion – it was either the Testway Ultra or the Mouth to Mouth and I’d been running painfully for about 5km because there was zero cover and I was desperate for a poo. I eventually found a single thorny bush at the top of a hill and ‘hid’ as best I could. At least five runners ran past me in the 30 seconds that I was perched and I had to clean up my own mess as best as I could – I hoped nothing ever dug that monster up!
What’s the most ridiculous reason for injury you’ve picked up during a race?
I had just gotten back from a week in the lovely Budapest and had as usual done zero training, we arrived back into London at about 2.00am and my next race was less than five hours away. I quickly packed up a load of kit and bumbled along to the race start of a lapped ultra on the Cyclopark in Gravesend, Ken. I was looking to keep my distance to the minimum so was keeping close to the inside edge when I slipped off the track and onto the grass – twisting my ankle in the process. I was about 20km in to a 100km race and made the immediate decision to drop down to the 50km distance. I remember hobbling for about 10km before I gingerly tried a bit more running – it took months to recover from my own stupidity and maybe I was never the same again.
To pole or not to pole? Is that even a question?
I met an older runner at a race some years ago who was bimbling along quite nicely and I asked him why he wasn’t using the poles he was carrying in his pack, especially given the terrain we crossing. He stopped and turned to me and said, ‘I don’t use them to run with, I use them to the whack the tourists who are in my way’.
What’s the worst blistering you’ve ever had during a race?
There are some horrendous tales of blistering – mostly feet based but I’ve witnessed runners who have had skin tore from their bodies from race vests that have rubbed or T-shirts that aren’t as silky smooth as they should be. During ‘The Wall’ my feet were really struggling, at mile 42 I took my shoes off and looked at my feet – I counted more than a dozen blisters on each foot and treated the worst offenders with Compeed second skin solutions, I burst a couple of them that I knew I could contend with for the remaining 30 miles and the rest I was just going to have to put up with.When I stopped at mile 62 my feet were one big bloody mess and I finally changed my shoes. I had run the first 62 miles in a size 8.5 Adidas, narrow fitting, trail shoe and the last 7 in a pair of size 9, soft, supple Inov8. What I can tell you is this, in later years I discovered that I was not a size 8.5, nor a size 9, I am actually a size 10 – but a wide fitting size 10, hence why I now wear Altra and Topo Athletic as my first choice shoes. I have a feeling that the blistering I experienced during The Wall was very much down to my footwear choice that day.
Ever tried to run with carrier bags on your feet after you look like you’ve already got trench foot?
While volunteering on a hundred mile ultra I saw feet in the worst possible condition but there was a Frenchman I met who had what looked like trench foot. He was pretty ruined at mile 76 were I was stationed and after a short rest in the dry of the tent he said, ‘I will put my feet in these’ and handed us two sealed plastic bags and he insisted that we gaffer tape the bags to his legs and then he inserted them back into his shoes. We advised him that his feet would be like boil in the bag rice and that the pain he was in would be nothing to the pulled pork effect he was going to be suffering from later down the line – his response to us was, ‘I am French’. I don’t know anything further about the man other than he finished the remaining 24 miles in the horrid, hot, wet, summer weather.
What are your bad running habits?
I want to say I don’t have any bad running habits but the truth is I have thousands and I’ve been told about a few too. A lady I was running the Testway ultra was telling me about how she would always carry one spare buff with her – for the front and back wipe scenario, she went on to say that she would of course the same buff for keeping sweat out of her eyes or even wiping her nose and keeping her face warm. I was both disgusted and heartened by this. N.B. I always carry at least 3 buffs with me.
What inspires you to do the training?
Sadly very little but if there is one thing that will force me out is the guilt of over eating and getting a bit lardy. A great running experience comes a close second
Favourite podcast to listen to when you’re running?
Without a doubt ‘My dad wrote a porno’ it is the single least erotic but filthiest listening material you’ll ever come across and often has me in belly laughs. I tend not to race listening to anything but if I’m running and hiking in the hills alone then I will invariably listen to something like that. The other great listening material is Matt Fforde’s Political Party which I find fascinating and revealing. Both highly recommended.
Did Lindley Chambers ever let you stroke his beard?
I’ve never met anyone who was fortunate enough to stroke his beard but I’ve known a lot of people who have wanted to. He has a face that seems to suggest he would not enjoy his face being stroked.
If you knew you were going to die out on a trail one day which one would you choose?
I’d choose Skye I think on the ridge where I nearly died in the baking sun as I shat myself stupid while also puking my guts up
How many miles a year do you run?
I’m always amazed when fellow runners go, ‘3,000 miles’ or even ‘2,000 miles’ and then I realise that in a decent year I probably run around ‘2,000 miles’. Some of the runners you meet are truly special in the awesome distances that they can run but then I’m in awe of most people who get out there.
What’s the best race T-shirt you’ve ever gotten from a race?
So many race T-shirts have meaning, not just mine but everyones. The shirt I got from Escape from Meriden (review) is a personal favourite of mine
Do you enjoy enjoy the overnight running?
I’ve spoken to lots of runners about running through the night and I’ve met a lot of runners who like me find that bit of the night between about 2am and 5am – the coldest bit of the night – really tough. The bit when you are desperate for the sun to come up to relieve the claustrophobia that you’re feeling. I’ve seen runners wrap up and cover themselves for the night time duration but this is something I tend to avoid as I’m not a fan of changing my kit unless absolutely necessary, we all have our little tricks to survive the night but I think we are all glad when it is over.
Do you forget that you’ve done certain races?
I never thought it was possible to forget races but I met people early in my career that could barely remember some of the races they had competed in. I realise that some races are more memorable than others but I couldn’t imagine a time when this would happen to me – now though, more than 200 races in and I can barely recall the ones I did last year never mind the races I did nearly a decade ago. Worse than forgetting races is the fact that I also now mix up races and certain bits from one event get inserted to the timeline of another, maybe that is the reason I write about them – so I can bloody well remember them.
If you were to wax your pubes would this itch during a race?
This question came up twice in quick succession at two different races, once with a lady and once with a gentleman both of whom gave a full and frank account of racing post waxing your bits. The lady said that it needs to be done a few days before to give it time to all calm down a bit and feel nice and lovely smooth against the lycra. She told me that she found the experience of trimming her bush back rather painful as the hairs then had sharp ends and could cause pain as she was running. She did indicate that if you were prone to excessive sweating or it was very hot then it could be a less pleasant experience if you are hairless down below. The gentleman I met who was discussing this issue explained that he had once waxed his entire body about two weeks before a race during a stag party – he didn’t go into the details about how he ended up being totally waxed but I’m confident it wasn’t a usual routine. He explained that the itch was unbearable and that wearing his Compressport gear was making it ten times worse. in the short time I ran with him he must have itched himself about a million times and I can only image he was desperate to grab hold of his nut sack and give it good old scratch. Poor bugger. The lesson is be careful if you’re a fan of hairlessness
How far off the route do you go for a poo?
I’m a bit of slow coach so if I go too far off the route I’ve simply got to make that distance back up, therefore I try to go far enough not to be seen, or worse, smelt and also somewhere with enough cover that nobody will ever come across it and I can bury it to some degree. I once had a situation where I was into the last 10 miles or so of a 100 mile race and to my surprise I had a bit of a turn of pace, it was early in the morning and the first light of day was coming through. The trail was winding and fun and I decided to enjoy this first light by running a bit harder than I had through the night. As I cam tearing around the corner I saw a fellow competitor, naked from the waist down, sitting atop a branch with his milk bottle legs dangling down and poo evacuating his bottom. I ran past him with nothing more than a, ‘nice morning for it’ and smiled at his companion who had been guarding the trail from the other direction. I never saw him again but what I did see – the milk bottle white legs, the poo evacuating his bottom and his penis – was quite enough.
Have you ever thought you’ve seen an apparition on the trail?
No, they don’t exist
How many shoes have you lost in bogs?
I’ve never lost a shoe in a bog but I once saw a runner at one of these OCR races – I think it was the Grim Challenge walking slowly back to the start barefooted – he had lost both his shoes and one of his socks. This was a sad sight as it was the middle of December and he just looked miserable.
What’s the weirdest thing you thought a shadow was?
It was at the Challenge Hub 24 and on each lap in the dark I imagined hat this branch was a snaked trying to bite me – the truth is that it was a combination of the wind and the branch that kept trying to bite me. Weirdly though during the daylight hours I did see a couple of grass snakes on the route – maybe that was playing on my mind in the darkness.
How many days will you use the same kit for before washing?
I need clean kit everyday – I mean I could just about manage to wear the same running kit on my commute in to work and my commute home but I would even then sometimes have a clean top. But I know runners, especially ultra runners who have worn the same kit for a week before they’ll even consider it dirty enough to hit the washing machine. One woman who shall remain nameless said she wouldn’t wash her kit until it was crusty enough to put a crease in it. Nasty.
Why do you think we believe we are interested in each other?
I’m curious as to why I find myself revealing the contents of my life to complete strangers while running when in real life I am a very private person and won’t share my address, my date of birth, the names of my loved ones, etc. I often wonder what it is about being alongside someone who is a complete stranger to you that makes you tell tales that you would normally take to the grave with you. I know I’m not alone in doing this either – I’ve come across people who just natter for hours on end and often with a specific focus on personal events in their life. I find it fascinating and I also find it wonderful. I’ve never managed to get the bottom of why we believe we are interested in one another but I have a theory – I’ve assumed that we know the chances that we will meet again are remote and therefore we can share things we might not normally share and that there is a joy in someone who will listen or support from a brand new perspective. I’m always grateful for those people that listen to me witter on and I’m equally grateful to those that witter right back at me. I remember people like Francesca at the Testway Ultra, Elaine at The Green Man, Grant at the Snowdonia Marathon, Anne-Marie at the White Cliffs, Andy at the Skye Trail Ultra or Neil at any number of events – these people and many, many more have often made events for me and their chatter has been the thing that has gotten me through and I hope in some small part that my chatter helped them too.
Do you ever wonder why you blog for so few readers?
I was speaking to a fellow running blogger a few months back and they said that they get maybe 200 views per month and a few more if they post something interesting and I asked why they continue to do it and they gave the answer that I gave when I would get asked that and my numbers were tiny. “I write it for myself’. Now when I started out with my first blog about a decade ago I had lots of posts and a small number of visitors, maybe 50 or 60 per day. These days the blog is still small numbers probably 5,000 or 6,000 per month but I enjoy writing for myself, recording my own history and providing good references for the races I’ve done. I go through periods where I don’t have time or can’t be arsed with blogging but mostly I find it a significant part of my outdoor life experience.
Does your partner always know about the races you are entering?
Holy fuck, no – she would murder me
Would you rather be caught having an affair or entering another race?
Difficult, I think I’d be more likely to be forgiven for an affair than another long distance race. You have no idea how many holidays I’ve booked only to then inform my family about the race I’ll be running while we are there. I’m never very popular in my house.
Which comes first running or the family?
I’m not the only person that says that running offers positive mental health benefits and I’m probably not the only person that could admit to putting my racing concerns ahead of family matters but when push comes to shove I’d probably (just about) say that family wins out over running.
What was your most expensive piece of kit?
I don’t have tonnes of uber expensive kit but I do have lots of kit. I operate with an average of 50 pairs of running shoes – most of which cost between £80 and £150, I have around 25 running vests and bags most of which cost over £100. There are three GPS watches and at least four Montane waterproof running jackets. Running has turned out to be a very expensive hobby but it is my only hobby – I don’t drink, smoke or do drugs – so I need a vice!
Can you spot a first time ultra runner?
I remember being at my first ultra race (The White Cliffs 50) and all the nice people I met, I remember having a bag that looked like it was twice the weight of every other runner and I remember a man who was sat next to me, gaffa taping his shoes up and he said time, ‘first time?’ to which I replied that. ‘yes it was’. It has always struck me that he sort of knew that this was my first time even though I was there in my Hoka and my OMM kit. Nowadays I browse the throngs of runners and I wonder who is here for their first time, I’m not very good at spotting them but I know they are there.
If your nipples were bleeding would you notice?
This is question best prefaced by a terrible tale of your own because otherwise it might look like very dark flirtation. I often tell people about my second crack at the Royal parks Half Marathon. I was wearing a light grey Nike vest and unusually I was attracting a lot more attention than usual – more applause and cheers – I made my sprint for the finish line as is my want and collected my medal. I crossed the line in a respectable but not blistering time and passed through the crowds of people to my medal and the exit. From St James Park to Charing Cross Station is a reasonable distance – not miles but far enough and what I will say sums up my experience of London. Not one of the fuckers who walked past me said, ‘Hey mate you’re nipples have bled right down your vest, are you okay?’ I had my medal round my neck and it wasn’t until I sat on the train and looked into the reflection of the window that I saw the two full length of my vest streaks of greasy, sweaty blood. Awesome.
What makes you cry during a race?
It’s always the GingaNinja – I can hold it together until I speak to her or my daughter. If its going badly and they aren’t there I will often have a big fat cry.
Ever swallowed an insect while running?
I’d heard tales of people puking up flies and the like but it had never happened to yours truly. I even saw a man who I believed to be choking stop infant of me collapse to his knees and start coughing his guts up while injecting as much water as he could. I had already started to pull my phone out ready to call for the paramedics. Thankfully it was just an inset of some description. I managed to avoid the taste of live insect until one sunny day running through the Lake District at the Ambleside 60 in 2019. It was a beautiful day and my gob must just have been open that little bit too much and what felt like a giant insect hit the back of my throat. In my mind I could feel it moving as I swallowed it – this was one of the single most disgusting things I have ever experienced. The taste was like you imagine shit to taste (it was an insect in the countryside) but it was the movement of the creature that made me really queasy – I dare say it was no picnic in the park for the insect but I hope that the copious amounts of Active Root and jelly babies that I consumed straight away consigned him or her to a sweet end.
Can you trust an ultra fart?
I believe you can but I have known other runners that would say you can’t. One gentleman who was running The Ridgeway Ultra had clearly experienced what happens when the ultra fart double crosses you. He was wearing light 3/4 running leggings (Sub4 I think). and he ha clearly had some form of watery explosion at his rear end. He was quite happily running along but the massive juicy stain at the back of his leggings wasn’t just damp through sweat it was brown through anal evacuation. I was behind him for some time and all I could feel was sorrow for the gentleman and this reminds me that no matter what never buy light coloured running bottoms.
Where’s the oddest place you’ve turned up in your running kit?
I’ve turned up in my running kit almost everywhere and I did threaten to turn up to my Grannies funeral a few days ago in my running gear as I knew this would have rightly pissed her off. However, I did once turn up to an evening performance of Aida at the London Coliseum in my running gear – I wasn’t very sweaty as I was planning on running home from the performance rather than arriving to it having run. I could see that there were some people looking at me like I was in the wrong place but then an older couple approached me and said, ‘we need more people like you at the opera’ and walked off. What I can say is that I had a very jolly time.
When you run along ridges and high places do you imagine your own demise?
Who doesn’t occasionally wonder if one day they’ll take the mis-step that hurls them hundreds of feet to their doom?
What kind of pre-race jitters do you get?
For me the pre-race jitters I get are always stomach related, usually poo related and always unpleasant. My solution is a flat white coffee about 2 hours before the race kicks off and this clears things out for me – the only trouble is that it only works about 50% of the time and you’ve got to sure that there are adequate toilet facilities around you when it does come.
Do you ever wish the runner next to you would just fuck off?
Only once have I ever wished that the runner next to me would fuck right off and she just about managed to annoy me in every single way possible. I didn’t see her again after a race where she joined in the loops despite her not being in the event – she wasn’t there to support, she was there just to pick my brains about a race she was going some months later. I was busy at the time trying to run my own race and she simply wouldn’t let me – I’ve never forgotten that experience and I try to make sure that when I’m chatting to a fellow runner I make it clear that if they’re going faster than me then they should crack on.
How soon into a race do you start counting down the miles to the finish?
Usually from about the halfway point for me, I love to conduct maths in my head as I’m running – so converting kilometres to miles of how far I have left to go, calculating my average speed based on my times checkpoint to checkpoint, etc. I really do find that the maths side of thing helps me to stop thinking about the shit that is really going on in my body.
What happens to your medals?
When I bought my first house I would come home from races and climb the stairs either to go the toilet or clean my mud stained body post race. I would always reach for the post at the top of the stairs to help with the last few steps, especially if it had been a hard or long race. It was this post that I decided I would put on my medals on so that as I jingled past them every time I ascended or descended the stairs I would hear what became known as the ‘sound of success’. Eventually the GingaNinja would have enough medals to use the other post and although she had a fair amount of neckwear for the post it was significantly less then my own collection and I would refer to this as the ‘sound of opportunity’. When we moved to Scotland I looked for a house where I could replicate this set up and in addition we have ASKs collection of medals which are referred to as the ‘sound of potential.’
When you’re road running do you run silently behind people and then terrify them as you fly past?
If I’m honest – yes I do occasionally – especially teenagers
Ever fallen asleep while you’ve been running?
Yes. I was running form Sheffield to Liverpool and in the middle of the night while I was so exhausted that I could barely stand – near a place Calle Penistone (yes really) – I found my eyes closing over and I was clearly running asleep. I have almost zero recollection about the events that transpired ahead of me but the runner I was with at the time said he had no idea that I was asleep either and it came as something of a surprise to him, what happened next. As I was running along the street narrowed into one of those old Lancashire villages with beautiful stonework everywhere, there were cars mounted on the curb and the walls of the cottages were low and jagged. My companion and I were set to turn left into the next street but for me this never happened and I simply pressed on forwards and ran straight into the low wall across the road and head first into the garden – waking as I fell. My race companion followed me across the road and whispered through his titters, as it was about 4am, ‘what happened? I’ll say this as I said then, ‘I think I fell asleep’.
Has running ever cost you a relationship?
Not that I’m aware of.but running has been a serious bone of contention over the years.
Do you get annoyed when people tell you running is bad for you?
Yes. Running has done so many wondrous things for me, better physical and mental health, I’ve seen so much of the world that is inaccessible until you’re willing to run or hike it and I’ve met so many wonderful, wonderful people over the years. Running has been nothing but kind to me – even in the times it has given me a bloody good kicking.
Does your doctor understand you?
I seem to be one of those people that must look unfit and unhealthy because my doctors will never ever sign off my medical forms for international races, in recent years I’ve had to have huge numbers of tests, gone to private doctors and worst of all I’ve had to sign the declarations myself – risking being banned from races that I love. I just wish one doctor would say, ‘ oh 53 ultra marathons and you can’t be arsed training? Sure I’ll sign this because if those buggers won’t kill you then neither will this.’
Do you overshare? Yes – this blog post is proof of that.
What brought you to ultra running?
In 2011 after several attempts to get into THE marathon and failing I decided that I would move straight up to ultra distance instead – so with just a few half marathons, some 10kms and one marathon (at Liverpool) I hastened to the White Cliffs 50 in 2013.
What would you do if you saw someone littering?
Confront them – littering isn’t cool. I’ve only had reason to stop someone once and they took it much better than I thought they would – which I’m glad of because they would have given me a bloody good pasting if they’d hit me.
Do you watch the Barkley documentary and think, ‘I could do that’?
I’ve watched several documentaries regarding the Barkley, I’ve examined the aerial footage of the area and I’ve studied maps of the surrounding area. I dream of The Barkley Marathons and although I’ll never get in I am allowed to dream.
What’s the most horrendous race you’ve run?
My worst race was probably the Ridgeway Ultra – not because the race was terrible – far from it – the race was amazing but the temperature was absolutely blistering on the day I did it. I knew that I was going to struggle but I couldn’t believe just how bad it was going to get. At about mile 50 my testicles were on fire, I could barely move and what movement I did achieve was done looking like I was a pastiche of John Wayne. The night section of the race was incredibly windy and the temperature had really started to drop but all I could feel was the burning of my balls. I pulled my running leggings down about 4 miles from the checkpoint and looked – my memory suggests that my entire groin was glowing red but that must have been my imagination. I grabbed the tub of vaseline I was carrying in my pack and put the remains all over my scrotum – it was hideous. By headtorch I tried to clean myself up, stop the burning and make it to the checkpoint. When I hobbled in I sat stoney faced for a while, weight up the final 30 miles – I knew I was done physically, I just had to wait for my brain to catch up. That sticks out in my mind as my worst ever race.
Do you still enjoy short distance races?
I love the shorter distances but there are limits. I love the mile, I enjoy the 5k, 5mile and 10km distance but then I really love the 10 mile distance – just long enough to blast it out but without the challenge of holding on as I need to do when I run the half marathon. Weirdly it is the half marathon distance that I dislike the most, it is such an odd distance, it’s neither long or short and I’ve always struggled to set myself up properly for this despite having a just under 90 minute personal best. But yes, I still very much the joy that a short distance race and run bring. I can feel one coming on right now actually.
Do you clean your shoes or let them fester?
Fester – occasionally smack the crustiest bits off. Never put them in the washing machine, just loosens the glue holding them together.
What, for you, is the worst part of ultra running?
My favourite answer to this was at the Skye Trail Ultra, ‘the next hill…’. I don’t agree with that assessment necessarily but it did make me smile as struggled up the next ridge.
What’s the worst chaffing you’ve ever had?
The Ridgeway Ultra and the WNWA96 where I had to create a toilet paper anal plug to stop my arse cheeks rubbing together. Amazing how sharp you can make bog roll if you try.
Ever stopped for a beer or similar during a race?
I was racing along and the three gentlemen who were running alongside me suddenly said, ‘I fancy a beer’ and they all stopped – as a teetotaller and somewhat worried about the cut-offs I meandered on. When. looked them up on the race results they had all finished, albeit with only a few minutes to spare, but they finished – probably pissed as farts!
Do non-runners groan when you tell a running story?
As a pseudo-hermit I’m rather lucky that I don’t speak to many people but those that I do come across often have that glazed expression if I mention running. My grandmother prior to her death would simply cut me off mid-sentence and start a different topic and the GingaNinja just ignores me.
Shall we do a bit of running?
This is a phrase that I hear a lot and have said a lot. Late into a race your feet are mashed, your head equally so and one of the runners you might be with will say, ‘ shall we do a bit of running?’ It rarely looks like anything that most of us would consider running but given you’ve just run up three mountains across 50 miles this feels like you’re Usain Bolt crossing the 100 metre line. Shall we do a bit of running is one of the most useful phrases I’ve ever heard in an ultra and shall continue using for myself and others.
What brought you to this race?
I’m always fascinated by what inspires people to run, especially the longer races and I’ve heard lots of great and lots of mundane reasons why people choose to run ultra marathons. My favourite was a man who when asked this question said, ‘well me bruv died a month ago so I fought I’d come an run this in his memory’. I could see tears filling his eyes as he fought back the emotions. I proffered some pathetic response about my sympathies to which I he turned to me and said, ‘only kidding mate, its my local race’. Didn’t I feel a bellend.
Ever ended up in hospital?
Just once. It was my first ultra and I had broken my foot at mile 14 of the race which was supposed to be 54 miles (turned out to be 60 miles). My whole foot was purple and rotten after the race and I attended the hospital the next morning proudly wearing my race T-shirt. ‘What did you do?’ asked the nurse as she looked at the horrid foot before her. ‘Read the t-shirt,’ was my rather chuffed reply.
Which goes first, head or feet?
In my case during a race the first thing to go are my feet – my head usually stays in play for about 90% of the race, it’s just a mild shame that the 10% it dips out for is about the halfway point and if my feet have gone too then that’s a DNF in the making.
How many toenails do you think you’ve lost?
I know some lucky bastards who lose toenails on a regular basis. I have only ever lost two toenails, both on my left handside second toe – I’ve never managed to lose my big toenails despite repeated attempts to do so.
Are you ritualistic pre and/or post race?
Coffee and a poo if at all possible, if I don’t do these things then it’s not going to go that well.
How often do you visit running websites?
Far too often.
What’s the dream race?
The Barkley of course. Don’t we all dream of meeting Laz at the gate? That said there are lots of races that get recommended to you as you are running or racing – I will often recommend MIUT, the Skye Trail Ultra and The SainteLyon but I’ve had things like Cape Wrath, the Dragons Back and others suggested to me and I know that my list only gets longer and Im not getting any younger.
As a kid did you have a favourite pair of trainers?
I didn’t have a specific pair that I loved but my favourites were always Adidas which is why I suppose I gravitated to them when I was looking for my first ‘real’ running shoe – the Adidas Adios (£67.00 – 2012). I remember a pair of Fila Pump trainers that had this inflatable front section which were cool and I remember my first pair of Adidas Torsion which I genuinely believed would make me go as fast as The Flash.
Do you believe in walking the hills?
Rule number one of ultra running: walk the hills.
Rule number two of ultra running: walk the hills fast
rule number of ultra running: never sit down
You must run you own race right?
It doesn’t matter how far into a race you are you can’t run someone else race with them – yes you can chat while it is suitable to do so but if you try and run at their pace, their strategy then the wheels are likely to come off. Ultra running is not quite the same as its shorter siblings – other races you can run someone else race and I find it often helpful to do so but the chances are you’re only going to be hanging on to their coat tails or holding back for a short(isn) period of time. Imagine trying to keep up with someone for a sustained period, it is not practical – so always run your own race.
Ooooo where did you get that <insert kit>?
Kit jealousy is something I get all the time – I’ll see a pair of trainers I’ve never heard of or a race pack that’s new to me and I’ll often grab a photograph or catch up to runner and ask them what the hell it is. I remember being on the way to work in shirt and tie and suddenly this man came running by and he was wearing one of the Raidlight Olmo vests – it was something that looked so comfortable and so after he was about 100 metres further along I turned on my heel and gave chase. When I caught him he continued running but was at the very least willing to tell me the name of the bag and most importantly how comfy he found it. I’d ordered one before I got to the office that day.
Ever wanted to start up a race?
I have small aspirations to set up a race and lots of the runners I know who started about the same time as me either have the desire to set up a race or have done so. I feel my life remains too busy to allow me to fully commit to the idea of starting a race but I have a few ideas about where, when and distances. I’m not saying I’d be any good as a Race Director – it is a tough job that requires outstanding organisational and people skills. It occurs to me that you need to have a skin as thick as a Rhinos and you’ve got to be ready for any eventuality and to lose money. Despite all of these things I still rather fancy a crack at it and the Scottish race calendar has a few spaces that could make for perfect opportunities. We’ll see what happens.
How often do you buy new kit?
Far too often
What’s your favourite checkpoint food?
Once on a hundred mile race there was houmous at about mile 84 and made all the difference to me finishing.
Where were your favourite volunteers?
All volunteers are amazing – because they volunteer but my favourite were probably the guys at the Falkirk Ultra. That said there have been some other memorable checkpoint volunteers – the St Peters Way teams were incredible and the efficiency of the teams at the SainteLyon was something special but Falkirk had a certain something that no other race had and the event and the volunteers will live long in the memory.
What was your favourite medal?
My favourite medal is always a difficult choice, the first marathon medal is special because of the memories it brings but it is probably trumped by my first ultra medal which always sits proudly near the top of my medal pile. The White Cliffs 50 tore me apart but I survived and afterwards I was set on a road that has brought me a million different memories and experiences.
Do you ever buy kit from the evil Sports Direct?
I love winding people up and I also hate Sports Direct – so I will often ask them if they shop there and if the answer is yes I usually spend the next few minutes telling them all about the benefits of Decathlon and independent sports retailers – usually being able to list the nearest independent running retailer to their location. When I lived in London, if I had time to kill, I would go up to the running footwear section and hang around until a customer service adviser would finish speaking to one of the potential customers – at this point I would pounce and tell the person where they could get more accurate advice, better, cheaper footwear and they should run out of the shop now. I used to do this in their Oxford Street flagship store and their Piccadilly Circus store – I heard so much rubbish spoken about running shoes that I felt it my obligation to send business to other places. This is one of my often shared tales when out on the trail.
If your kids wanted to follow you into ultra running would you advise them to do it?
There is lots of conflict on this one within the running community I think, you talk to people and they say that ultra running positives will always outweigh the negatives and I mostly agree with this but there are people that I’ve met who hope their beloved offspring find something else to do because they understand the pain of injury and absence and lets not forget that many of us, myself included are obsessives about long distance running and/or racing – which isn’t always a healthy thing. However, the thing that tends to get universally agreed upon is that having active and healthy kids is definitely a positive. I do wonder if my little one will one day follow me into what I consider to be the family trade, we shall see.
Who was the first professional athlete who inspired you?
That’s a difficult one because I initially thought it was Steve Cram but that’s probably not true, it could well have been Ian Rush former Liverpool FC striker but then as I carried on thinking about it the answer became very clear – it was Zola Budd. I remember her running barefoot and being diminutive and having this thick curly dark hair. She didn’t appear to be like any other athlete I had ever seen and I admired her and wanted to be her. As I’ve gotten older and you get to know other names like Scott Jurek or Gary Cantrell learn to take bits from each of their own inspirational tales but the story and memory of Zola Budd will always have a special place in my heart.
Do PBs & PWs still matter to you?
The last time a PB or a PW bothered me was the Royal Parks Half Marathon in 2013. I had high hopes that I could break my own time – but I was about 90 seconds out and this was about the same time that I was moving to the super long distance running and so I stopped being worried about how long something took me. These days my main concern is meeting the cut-offs imposed by race directors but even this is less important than having a nice time
Other than the race medal what other mementos do you keep from a race?
For me I keep everything, race numbers, paperwork, trinkets, sometimes a stone from the course
Do you lurk in Facebook groups looking at other runners posts but never posting yourself?
I used to do this but the blog gives me a reason to comment and I enjoy supporting other runners out there. I try not to give advice unless it is something I have direct experience of and am always keen to remind those I would advice to is that I’m a terrible runner and you should listen to me at your peril.
Do you get lost easily?
My special skill in life is to not know where am I, how I got there or more importantly how to get back. I can have an accurate GPS device and an accurate route and I’ll still get it wrong – often by quite some significant way. I once got stopped by a fellow racer who said, ‘I hope you’re not following my mate because I’m lost.’ I had been following him – we both ended up doubling back about 3 miles – that distance was most unwanted on a 50 miler.
Which race pleasantly surprised you the most?
I’m quite picky about the races I do – especially now I can drive, the world is my lobster but there have been a few that have really surprised me by just how brilliant they were compared to my expectations. The most surprising was probably the Medway 10km, a little race in Kent that I rolled up to with zero expectations and it turned out to be an absolute blast. The route was windy, mixed, filled with interest and elevation, the support was magnificent and the track based finish was amazing – especially a sprint against a kid who was about half my age and I spun ahead of inches from the line. You could ready about the Medway 10km here
Which was your favourite landscape to run in?
There is so much beauty in the world that this is a really difficult one to answer. When the snow is covering everything then I would have to say that northern Finland in the arctic circle is truly one of the most spectacular places I’ve ever run. Right up there with that though are the hills of Madeira which are outstandingly beautiful.
How long does it take you to recover enough to eat after a race?
I’m not very good at eating post race – my trick has become finding a McDonalds chocolate milkshake at the earliest available opportunity, who doesn’t like that.
There is a really weird sensation about rolling up the start line of a race and being the only person there, I suppose this would make me the both first and last finisher in the race I was runningbut the Pike and Back (Virtual) Half Marathon had much more meaning than just a run, this was a run that filled with history, emotion and of course mud.
I left my home in Scotland at about 7am with the aim to start running around lunchtime and hopefully avoid those who might be considering running the virtual race on the course at the original designated time – it’s about a four and half hour journey and I broke this up with a swift stop at a McDonalds for a ‘nourishing’ breakfast.
I was driving the little car as it was just me travelling and as the sun beat down on the car I thought it was going to be a scorcher for the run, something I had not counted on when I had been packing my kit (I was all waterproofs and survival blankets). I arrived bang on time despite a couple of little mis-steps in my directions.
The man in the car next me glared as I pulled up next to him he tossed his cigarette out of the car and wound his window up – presumably because he believved I had arrived to lick COVID 19 all over him which couldn’t be any further from the truth.
Anyway I had a Tesco pastry and a bit of chocolate milkshake to make sure I was fully energisted and then quickly got changed into my kit. I had vague memories of Moss Bank from my childhood, although I’m not from Bolton I do know the area quite well from visits as a child and Winter Hill is a well known landmark but I couldn’t remember ever being allowd to go up it (we were not a very active family). We also used to come here when I was child to a restaurant called Smithhills – it was a dickensian themed place and for our birthdays my grandparents would take us there as a treat. This event, virtual or not was loaded with memories for me and on the day before I led the funeral to my grandmother this was rather a poignant thing I was doing (you could read about this in a separate blog post here).
I set up the navigation on my Suunto and started to amble around aimlessly looking for the start (this did not bode well for following the route). Eventually after a few minutes of groping around the park I came to a small opening in the bushes which looked like the kind of place that a race might begin – Suunto agreed and so, after a couple of pictures, we set off.
Now lets be fair Suunto and the breadcrumb trail is at best, ‘not bad’ so as I ambled up the hill towards what I considered to be the route I figured quickly that I had made a mistake – what gave this away was that I found myself launching my poor, knackered body off a wall and onto the street below and then around a few narrow winding streets and then some steps where I finally picked up what was probably the route. There were clues that this might be the route, the first was the winding river and the trail in the distance, the second was that my watch finally looked like it was going in the right direction and thirdly two fellow virtual half marathiners came thundering past me.
Aha I thought I have found my way.
Now I really hadn’t done that much research about the race or route, I’d left it to the rose tinted specs to assume that this would be something I’d like to do. I’d glanced at the elevation profile which looked like there were two small hills at about the mid-point of the route and the rest of it was pretty flat. It was only as I was about 600 metres in that I realised I had rather misjudged the situation and I had rather misjudged the route. Effectively the route was made actually made up of two tough climbs on a variety of surfaces and then in reverse it was made of a couple of hanrd going downhills and one really tough as old boots uphill that really sapped every last bit of energy you had!
The first three and bit kilometres of the route were mainly tarmac, quiet roads (or they should have been given the COVID-19 trouble), the elevation felt really tough. The toughness wasn’t just the route, this was very much a combination of a long drive from Scotland and a lack of training in recent weeks, my lack of training has been in part to COVID-19 but mainly due to the stress of work and my grandmother dying and having to do all the arrangements from this and now I was feeling it.
The road seemed never ending and I did for a moment wonder if this was a trail half marathon but then glinting in the distance I saw the outline of a gate and a route on to the rolling trails around Winter Hill and Rivington Pike. I crossed the gate and bade the cyclists a good morning as I passed by them and then continued onward and most importantly upward. At this point we had moved from the tarmac to hard packed and stoney trail. I bimbled along, stopping only to allow past me, faster moving traffic and to take pictures of the truly spectacular surroundings. In the distance I now had clear sight of the Winter Hill transmission mast and realised that I despite having been here many times before I had probably only ever seen this at a distance.
I pressed on across the rocks, the mud and the water, the route had now gone from a bit of a slog to being genuinely fun and I was finally enjoying the route – especially as the sun was shining but also lovely and cool, a perfect running day. My feet for the first time that day felt free to unleash a little bit of pace inspite of the uphill – this is why I run I thought. I found myself feeling rather jaunty depsite the situation we all find ourselves in and I could simply revel in the reason I was here – to pay a small tribute to my departed (but much unloved) granny.
I skipped down the stony path and alongside the transmittor and marvelled at the scale of the structure that had once (and may well still) send out things like the signal for Granada Television, I felt like a young boy in the back seat of grandfathers car as a ran beside the mast, the only thing missing was the twinkling red lights that adorn it as the lights go down.
I assumed that Rivington Pike could not be that far from the mast and in the distance I could see a small structure which I asssumed was the destination and turnaround point. I therefore joined a narrow piece of tarmac and wended my way downwards and started arching away from the small structure, that was not Rivington Pike – oh dear. In the distance I could see a flurry of people around what looked like a small fortification or castle – that was Rivington Pike and I was what looked like several miles away from it. Thankfully this was now downhill but my knees don’t much like tarmac and they were feeling the stress of the pounding they were taking and although my Lone Peak 4.0 are well built they aren’t suited for sustained running on tarmac.
I ran down and down, and down and down and then weirdly what felt like more down and down, yet, and this was the strange thing – Rivington Pike was up – totally in opposition to my descent.
However, eventually my downward spiral stopped and I returned to hard packed trails – here it felt very busy, lots of people travelling up to the Rivington Pike and dusty hard packed trails gave the illusion that everybody had a dry and dusty cough. It was rather interesting to watch as people covered up their faces as they walked past you or as I ran past them. I mean yes I was breathing more heavily than most of the people there but then I was exerting more pressure on my poor old body. I was mostly being sensible and passing people at a distance but one couple, who were wearing face masks, moved away from me at 90 degrees and zipped up their heavy duty winter jackets to fully cover their mouth – which I felt was a little excessive given that I was never closer than about 20ft away.
Anyway I hurled myself on to the final climb of Rivington Pike and chatted (at a safe social distance) to a local cyclist, both of us wondering why the hell we were here. I waved at him as I left him behind and continued my climb to the top which was awash with people. I stopped long enough to take a couple of pictures and then made a swift sprint down the front of the Pike knowing that an absolute shit of a hill was waiting for me.
I’ll be perfectly honest, not a lot of running was done back up the hill, my legs were absolutely cream crackered and all I wanted was to be back at the car and maybe stop at the ice cream van who was awaiting customers in the park. I was also very keen to relieve my bladder of its contents but given the throngs of people that were festooned around the route and the lack of any cover meant that I really had to tie a knot in it and hold on. It was here that I noted I had probably made a routing error on the way out and added several hundred metres to my journey as my beloved Suunto insisted that I head across the wet boggy trail. Of course this was music to my ears – get off the tarmac, get back in touch with nature and as cold mud sprayed up the back of me and my feet found themselves submerged I thought, ‘bliss’. I came across a father and son who were clearly not geared for this kind of trail and looking rather unhappy at the prospect of having to continue through this but they managed a cheery smile as I ran by them.
Soon though I was back on the path and facing the Winter Hill mast, I waved goodbye to it as I turned away from it and pushed on as fast as I could knowing that it was mostly downhill all the way home. However, as I’ve indicated the route was hard going and even in a downhill situation if you’re undertrained and exhausted then it is ging to be hard. But with the wind on my back and surprising cheeriness in my heart I ran happily off the hill and back to road which seemed so long ago now.
When I arrived back to the gate it felt like I had really achieved something and I gently ran down the road, attemptin not to punish my old nears any more than I needed to. I was so close now and in the distance I could see the park where all of this had started. Down, down, down I went – bit like a first date that has gone too well – and as I arrived back to the point I met the earlier virtual runners I felt a tremendous sense of relief. Yes I’d been slow but I’d had good reason not to rush this one – I had time and I wanted time to be able to reflect on everything that is currently going on both personally and globally. I crossed the finish line to the sound of silence, or rather the sound of nature and actually rather enjoyed it.
I’d completed the Pike and Back Half Marathon and I was pleased to have done it.
Distance: Half Marathon Type: Virtual (due to COVID-19) Ascent: Bloody Hell Date: March 2020 Location: Bolton Terrain: Very mixed Tough Rating: 3/5
I would traditionally write a full breakdown of the event but that is impossible given the nature of this one in its virtual format. What I will say is that full credit goes to the team of Time2Run Events for allowing runners to complete the event virtually – they could simply have said ‘cancelled’ but as many Race Directors have done they have looked for alternatives and we should be grateful for that.
The route was really tough, the elevation was challenging, the mixed terrain meant that shoe choice was a nightmare and if you really weren’t prepared for this then you were going to have your arse handed to you and mine was handed to me gift wrapped.
Had I not been attending my grannies funeral, and referencing the race in the eulogy I had written for the following day, then I probably wouldn’t have come down for the race I would have transferred my entry to next year, done the training and actually run much better but there was something special about this, about doing it alone, abour forcing myself to push on. I’m an ultra runner really and the half marathon distance is my least favourite race length so to come here and really enjoy myself is really quite wonderful.
There was also something joyous about finishing the ‘race’ first and last – that’ll make me laugh for the rest of my days and I feel like this is a medal I have really earned. I will looking forward to receiving the medal knowing that whenever I look at it with all the others at the top of my staircase that it will bring back a smorgasbord of feelings and that is the sign of a great thing.
The one thing I did notice was how friendly people were in comparison to the Scottish races I run, up here almost all the runners, hikers, walkers, etc have time to smile or have a laugh and a joke with you but despite smiling and saying hello to everyone I went past there was something of a lack of response. Now some of it I’ll put down to COVID-19 but I was rather surprised that the north of England, famed for its friendliness, was a little less than I’ve gotten used to in Scotland. That said, those people that did wave back or say hello or smile back at me were warm and wonderful, I was just surprised by how many people simply didn’t bother.
It was about 5.30am, I’d had a lovely big mug of coffee whilst sitting upon the old porcelain throne and yet no matter how much I jiggled and wriggled – nothing would be released. So with much trepidation I rose from my perch and slapped on a handful of lubricant and squeezed it into every crevice before putting on my running kit – for today was Falkirk 8 hour Ultra day.
Surprisingly I’d been quite relaxed about the race as my week had been busy with a disaster situation over Scotland’s status in the European Union and Saturday had brought me the opportunity to go racing with my daughter and also join a pro-independence rally at Holyrood Park. So the reality is that the Falkirk Ultra came as something of a light hearted surprise to my week.
Let me roll back about three weeks to my status as a very unfit, very overweight, very slow runner who was about to attempt Tyndrum 24 (read about it here). While I had very much enjoyed the event I’d also been left feeling a bereft, missing my fitness and my turn of pace but mostly I was missing my ability to endure. I’d run less than 8hrs in good conditions and managed a paltry 30 miles in that time – Falkirk with forecasted cruddy conditions seemed to be headed to an even worse result.
Still with a coffee inside me and dressed for a race I drove the few short miles to the car parking and then grabbed my stuff with the aim to be at the registration tent nice and early. As I ambled through the park I wasn’t quite sure what would greet me outside Callendar House but I hadn’t imagined that an entire race village would be being constructed – yet here it was, being built before my very eyes.
There were dozens of little tents and shelters going up for groups of clubs and runners and suddenly I realised that there might not be anywhere for the solo entrant to dispense with their stuff, thankfully my fears were unfounded and the registration tent would become the excellent location for drop bags. But I’m getting ahead of myself, I dipped into an empty registration tent at about 6.45am and picked up my bits, including a goody bag. Now normally goody bags are rubbish and when you’ve entered a race that costs £30 you don’t expect much in the way of extras but this was different.
In the paper bag we were given a Tunnocks tea cake, some Brewdog beer but most importantly was a lovely lightweight hoody and a pretty cool buff. I’d requested one of the cowbells too and made an £8 purchase of the race woolly hat. I felt like I was fully loaded on merchandise.
For the next hour I ambled around making a nuisance of myself as runners I knew came in for registration and said hello and had lovely chats with them all. There were a couple of guys from the Tyndrum 24, some local runners that I’ve gotten to know over the past few months and even a few of the Linlithgow Running Buddies that I’d had run with a few times.
The Falkirk Ultra was turning into a bit of an ultra meetup and there is nothing wrong with that.
As light came the little race village that had been built the atmosphere began to grow and then the music started and the PA system kicked in – all systems started to ramp up and then we heard the announcement that we would be kicking off at 8.15am – so take your place behind the line and get ready to go. Here it was that I ran into Frances and Kieron from the Linlithgow Running Buddies – I felt compelled to complain about his wearing of ‘Shites’ (shorts and tights) but before we could get into the rights and wrongs of it we were off.
Now for those of us that are local we will have been well aware that Falkirk had recently enjoyed a healthy dose of rainfall and some snow too – this meant that the course was bound to boggy and with hundreds of runners passing through the route on multiple occasions the surface was going to be churned up extensively. The course itself had undergone some reconfiguration in the days leading up to the race due to the creation of a small temporary duck pond/lake just outside the main house – therefore what the next eight hours looked like were anyone’s guess.
For the first lap I went out pretty hard – I knew that the aim was to produce 1 lap per hour or thereabouts and if I could add in some contingency while my hip and back were in decent shape then I could slow down later without too much concern about finishing. I put myself in the middle of the pack and gently hunkered down to my race strategy, not keen to chat to anyone on the first lap – I barely acknowledged the wonderful volunteers and marshals that were at regular intervals on the course.
I ran to the first and only significant climb on the course and for the first lap made great strides up it, I was determined that I would run up this bugger at least once today and I managed that but no more (I promised myself, it hurt far too much) and it was a decision that a number of runners would make.
As I reached the top of the hill I could see ahead of me the ‘shit show of mud’ that awaited us – on a good day with fresh legs or being a good strong runner you’d eat this up but being neither strong or good I was going to struggle through this – and I did. I enjoyed this section of the course, it felt the most ‘trail’ and despite it being a little bit narrow because the mud was so churned up it was still a delight to see it on each and every lap.
In the early laps I could see runners both slow and fast avoiding the worst of the conditions trying to protect their feet but for me I was confident that my combination of Lone Peaks, Drymax socks and Injinji toe liners could easily go through the worst of it and still protect my rather sensitive tootsies. Infact in these early laps as others went around mud I chose to go straight through it and enjoyed it as it the spray attached itself to my legs. I do love it when you’re absolutely coated in mud before you’ve done your first mile and this reminded of running my beloved Vigo Tough Love 10.
As I came out of the mud and back onto the more traditional country park paths I found myself slowing down a little bit, this was harder packed and therefore less good for my old and knackered hips but still very runnable and much more to my tastes than the harder trails of Tyndrum 24. I bumbled along letting runners go past me and occasionally overtaking a runner and soon found myself heading downwards to more enthusiastic volunteers – possibly the most enthusiastic I saw all day, however, at this point I was still on a mission – how fast could I get round that first lap.
The lap from this point was still headed in a generally downward direction and it was still going through the more heavily wooded area of Callendar Park – this was rather enjoyable and I was confident that I knew were headed to the turn out of the woods before rejoining the park a bit further down and then along the tarmac back to the start.
Sadly I was only half right.
I was right about the downward curvature back into the park but in the distance I saw a procession of runners heading back to the tarmac via a rather dippy, slippy field and even at this early stage you could see runners pretending to be aeroplanes with arms aloft looking for balance.
I reached the turning back on to the grass and moved slowly down it – this was nasty already and I swiftly sought out a return to what looked like a path. I ran along down into the dip and then climbed back out with all the skill of man with no skill whatsoever. This climb down and the clamber up proved to be some of the most comical viewing during the day and would give you a little smile as you watched runners struggling with it and knowing that you’d shortly be the entertainment for some other poor unfortunate!
But it was soon over and we were back on flat, sensible tarmac… but that was not a good thing. I didn’t yet know it but this section of the route would be the real mental test, every looped race has one, the bit you really hate, the bit that makes you think you should pack it all in and for me it was where you hit the tarmac again until you were back at the checkpoint.
Thankfully the Falkirk 8 Hour Ultra had something of an ace up its sleeve and that was the four sets of checkpoint volunteers that saw you through this horrible chore and even on lap one I needed the inspirational words of these lovely people. Ambling alongside the lake for what felt like an age I looked enviously towards the other side of the water to witness runners completing their first lap or in some cases getting well into their second. It wasn’t until I made it to the other side of the lake that I wished I was back on the other side…
Before a single runner had set foot on the checkpoint side of the lake it was already a well churned bog – the runners weren’t going to improve that but it was going to make for an interesting battle between us and sliding feet first in the cold lake just a few feet below us. I crossed the thick oozy mud in good time and propelled myself forward in about 33 minutes but a toilet and food stop made it more like 39 minutes before I set off again.
My stop was probably the longest one I had during the whole event as I’d missed breakfast and wanted to make sure I ate regularly. I chowed down on some kinder chocolate, a couple of delicious Caramel Freddo and a chocolate milkshake before filling up my water with Active Root – damn fine stuff that is, probably stopped me crapping myself!
I soon returned to the drizzle and the course having removed my long sleeved layer in an attempt to stop me overheating. I am led out waving at those who gave a cheery hello or supportive wave and offered encouragement to those coming in – loops makes it easier to wish people well and you’ll sometimes remember those who, like myself, might benefit from a word or three of encouragement.
My second lap was nowhere near as energetic and the first section of the loop was getting muddier and more treacherous with every step, but this I was enjoying and the volunteers at the bottom of the slope seemed to be having fun with it too (well as much as you can have within health and safety guidelines of getting your runners safely through). I continued to stretch my legs until I reached the bottom of the hill and then my body told me that this was it, each loop was now going to be a case of hanging on and seeing if we could get to the magic 8 loops.
What happened next is a bit of a haze of names, hiking and sheer bloody mindedness. I met Ed a few times who was a lovely runner that was having a bit of a day of it – but actually going really rather well, there was Heather who had this awesome hat on that had a charm almost as big as it’s owner and then there was the lovely Susan who I ran a really brilliant lap with having a lovely chat with.
The ever amazing Neil passed me a couple of times – always with practical words of encouragement and Fiona 1 and Fiona 2 both gave me lovely supportive boosts as they too saw fit to pass by me. It wasn’t just people I’ve met before though – there was Julie from Strava that turned round in the registration queue to say hello and I ran into a couple of other runners who shouted out, ‘hey are you UltraBoy?’ To which I of course reply, ‘ sort of…’ and I was either known through this blog or Strava.
The Falkirk Ultra really was a running community event.
However, I did meet one runner that made me laugh every second I was with her and that was Tracy (without an e). I think we were both on lap 5 she was ready to call it a day over an injury concern and I should have been thinking the same thing as my hip and groin were ruined. But some days you meet a person who lifts your spirits enough that you forget about the trauma and you’re reminded that you’re actually going okay.
In the time we ran together I found new energy, I was a bit lighter on my feet and I forget about the previous laps and the tiredness of my legs. I did promise she’d make it into this blog and she makes it in not so much for how brilliant she was (although she was) she makes it in because she said, ‘my mums at the bridge, I’m getting a hug’.
Well that’s a red rag to a bull.
‘I’m getting a cuddle too. What’s your mums name? I’ll ask her does she remember me, dip in for the cuddle and then tell her it was a hot steamy night in ’83 – she had the white wine spritzer and I had the babysham’.
I have no idea what Tracy’s mum must have thought but I hope she understands that what happens at an ultra stays at an ultra (wink, wink – I joke).
Tracy (and mum) were awesome and I am pleased to say that both of us made it back out on another lap.
By lap 7though I was sore, really sore and although I was still well within my strategised time I was hoping the short loop would open soon so I could forget the long loop and I’d probably still reach 50km (a shorter loop opened up at 3pm to allow runners to continue running without forfeiting distance when the bell went for the finish at 4.15pm).
However, I finished lap 7 with about 90 minutes remaining – I felt the need to go and do the big loop one final time – despite having already said most of my thanks to amazing volunteers. It very much felt like the only sensible thing to do… well maybe not sensible but I was doing it anyway.
So steeled for one final battle I headed out and this time with nobody but myself and the clock to run against I found my second wind and started running up inclines, more fool me of course but I was making a much better fist of lap 8 than I had on a couple of the others.
I danced and twirled my way around the course – daring the mud to take me – daring it to cast me groundwards bit it never did. In truth, despite the conditions I remained sure footed throughout but never more so than now. I battled down the hill to a meeting with ‘The Badger’ (more on him later) and onwards toward the finish – there would be no short loops for me.
As I crossed the tarmac in the distance I could see my daughter waving feverishly toward me, and I to her. I picked up my feet and my pace to continue the illusion that her dad is the worlds greatest runner and as she called out I lifted her high into my arms in a display of muscular movement I did not consider possible.
I stopped for a few moments to talk to her but time was pressing and I wanted to make sure this lap counted and so I waved goodbye to my family, thanking the lovely marshal at the turning point and then I headed for home.
One final lurch across the mud and there I saw the finish and most other runners on the short lap – I didn’t want to limply cross that line – I wished to show my mettle and so with the GingaNinja and ASK at the finish I picked up my feet with 100metres to go and raised hell with a sprint that swerved between the short loop runners and crossed the line in a flurry of my own excitement.
I’d actually done it.
I’d made it.
Distance: 3.8mile loop (ish)
Ascent: Nothing hideous – just felt it (under 100 metres per lap)
Date: February 2020
Entrants: 350 (inc. relay runners)
Terrain: Muddy, undulating
Tough Rating: 2.5/5
What do you want from your route? A route that will be predictable or one that surprises you? The Falkirk 8 Hour Ultra has something for everyone to love and something to loathe. I loved it for the most part, the mud was challenging, the inclines & the declines were awesome and the tarmac that threaded it together was minimised.
Even with last minute changes to the route this still felt well prepared and overall you’d be silly not to fall in love with this. Obviously I’m a little biased as I live near Falkirk and run often in or around the park but this route took in some fun bits and even in the grey weather we had it’s still a lovely place to run.
The route was incredibly well marked and heavily marshalled but not in an intrusive way, you just felt secure in the knowledge that the race really did have your back.
My hope is that the route recovers quickly from so many runners racing around it so the event is welcomed back next year – this is a great place and a great place to have a route of this nature on. Scotland needs ultra marathons during the winter to support runners like myself and Falkirk will benefit from the goodwill of runners and a deepening reputation as a place where great events can be held (let us not mention Epic from the week before!)
I’ve been to a few races in my time and I’ve seen good and bad organisation but let me assure you that the organisation, preparation and selflessness of the organisers went so far above and beyond any expectations I had.
The organisers deserve a huge amount of credit for producing an event par excellence!
I was impressed by the race village that popped up (which the organisers might not be 100% responsible for but made sure it was sensibly located, etc), facilities such as toilets were excellent, parking was sensible given we, quite rightly, couldn’t use the main facilities at Callendar Park.
Even the organisation of the short loop, the updates for race timings seemed to be so effortless, it was a joy to behold – you, as the runner could simply get on with the business of dying out on the insanely fun course! Of course we all know that only a lot of hard work makes something like this look effortless, so my huge congratulations.
As a solo runner I was also mightily impressed about the way the big registration tent was cleared down and our bags were elevated off the ground to ensure that we had very easy access to our kit and I found myself very happily dipping in their briefly each lap and then coming back out onto the course to be welcomed by the race supporters – it was really nice.
Value for Money
I normally have to question just how good the value of an event is but I can be effusive in my praise that this is probably the best value race you’ll ever do – £30! Let me put this into perspective – that’s the same as coffee and a toasted sandwich at Starbucks for two – and this race gives you a lot more than any corporate monster will.
Compare this with say the Epic Falkirk race at Callendar Park a few days earlier and you can immediately see the difference.
The route was fun, the time and dedication of the people who put this together was clearly evident. The excellent thought that went into the items in the goody bag was really appreciated and then the bespoke medal – what a corker.
People of Falkirk, people of Scotland, people of the world – this is an amazingly good value event and while I would highly recommend it to all of you could you make sure that I get a place every year as this is my local ultra and I’m going to look forward to it year in, year out!
I promised I would get to ‘The Badger’ and here we are but first I want to say a huge thank you to every single one of the marshalling team, on a cold, wet day at the start of February you stood out and supported hundreds of runners that you probably didn’t know and you gave each and every one of love and encouragement from start to whatever our finish was.
I was particularly fortunate, I got to have cuddles with just about everyone, the lovely ladies who were at the bottom of the hill and gave me both cuddles and the odd kick up the arse. The cowbell ladies who must have had ringing ears by the end of the day and the poor young lady who lost her leopard skin print gloves – amazing. The dancing ladies, the downhill turning point marshals, the chaps as we ran back into the park – all of them had a cheery smile no matter how many times I told terrible jokes.
The guys on the tarmac – couple of lovely beards there (one ginger and one badger), these guys I looked forward to seeing each lap and got lots of big hugs from them. There is something wonderful about drawing big chaps into a cuddle with a fool like me – plus it gives you a lift and hopefully it reminds them just how much they are appreciated.
I’d also like to say thanks to the great ladies who were at the two bridges who accepted my flirtatious charm with all the humour it was intended with.
And then the couple of guys at the run back to the checkpoint, one to advise us to get closer to the water as the ground grew ever more treacherous and one to bang his piece of metal with a drum stick – I may on lap 7 have suggested that I knew were he could put that drumstick… you can guess the rest.
If I missed anyone out, believe me you aren’t forgotten – every marshal and member of the team contributed a massive amount to its success and I am confident all the runners would bow down before your dedication and tenacity. Brilliant, just brilliant.
Lovely hoody, lovely buff, Tunnocks teacake and an awesome bespoke medal. Do I need to say anymore? Brilliant
This looped race jumps to the top of the list of my favourite looped races and just a favourite race in general – toppling the Brutal Enduro for loops and I am sure my enthusiasm for this race will live long. If you have never attempted the Falkirk 8 Hour Ultra then you should consider it, if you aren’t an ultra runner then get involved in the relay as that looked incredibly competitive and you could have all the fun without the pain.
As for me, well I had a lot of fun but my hips will pay the price for that fun – they started to feel pretty crappy at about the 25km mark, this though is a significant improvement on the 5 miles they managed at Tyndrum 24. The important thing for me was that I am starting to improve – it’s true I’m still a shit runner but a shit runner that is getting mildly fitter and with that I’ll hope to improve pace and distance.
I went into the Falkirk Ultra with no expectations but hopes that I would make this my 53rd ultra finish and I managed that – it might have been at the bottom end of the ultra distances but after a rubbish 2019 of running I’m pleased with the way this weekend went. I can now go to the F50K with a bit more confidence (just need to learn to navigate).
Ultimately what can I say other than this was stunning and I hope to see you all next year for a few extra laps.
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.
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.
Distance: 5 mile loops over 6, 12 or 24hrs
Date: January 2020
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).
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.
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.
In 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I owe this finish to Keith – I would not have made it without you. Thank you.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
Obviously there are lots of other incredible organisers of races, Vigo Running Club and Harvel Hash Harriers who put together the Tough Love 10 are outstanding, the chaps behind the Marlborough Downs Challenge are incredibly well organised and I’ve rarely met any organisers that have done a bad job. You’d certainly be assured that all race directors go into these things to provide great race experiences because making money isn’t the reason you do it and they want to most of all make sure that you all get round safely having had a load of fun.
You’ll all have your favourite races, you’ll all have your favourite race organisers and my list is just an opportunity to look into something new, in the knowledge that the organisers involved with these companies offer the best race organisation and experiences I’ve had.
‘I’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!
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…
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
Distance: 44 miles
Profile: Deceptively challenging
Date: April 2018
Location: Coombe Gibbet
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.
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.
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’.
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!
There have been a number of excellent blog posts this year about running and photography. I think my favourite was the ‘Mind Over Matter’ blog (read the original post here) about the subject and it got me thinking about the way I photograph and are there any tips I can impart that may help you to tell more compelling visual stories?
The Mind Over Matter piece suggests that blogging is big business and that photography has (in some cases) gone ‘business’ too with professional photography being bought in to create that more refined look. However, the post continues by arguing that this all looks very ‘samey’ and I couldn’t agree more.
For me photography is the capturing of a genuine moment in time and not the creation of a set-up, now that’s not to say that I haven’t put a camera on timed and attempted to capture me going in full flight but if I do it’s for my own amusement or the amusement of Instagram and the running was still genuine. If anyone had ever seen the tail end or start of my running videos then it’s usually me dropping camera on the floor followed by dipping down to collect it as I run past again. Basically what I’m saying is I’m more likely to disengage with something I consider contrived and overthought than something genuine (a word to the wise for the big brands methinks).
Therefore I’ve looked at the things I do based on 20 years of professional creative experience and also my experience using a variety of cameras in ‘action’ scenarios to create a series of tips as to how you might try taking action (but in particular) running footage.
Angles. The simplest trick you can add to any photograph (running or otherwise) is to change the angle you are shooting from. Shooting at face height has a tendency to all look the same – so use your camera to shoot from the sides, below and above.
Tip: Gorilla grips let me quickly hang my camera from above or to attach to difficult to reach places or to act as a tripod, they are relatively inexpensive and incredibly useful for finding more exciting angles.
Motion. A photograph should have a focus and in running photography that focus is usually the runner but that leaves the rest of the shot to convey that you are moving. Landscapes behind that are slightly softer in focus or in some cases dramatically softer in focus can help better capture your experience.
Locations. If you want to you can take your running photos in dog turd alley but will it give you the kind of photograph you wish to share or keep? Always look up and around and when you see a location that will enhance your photograph then capture it.
If you’re taking photographs with social media in mind then maybe consider you want to highlight new and exciting things – I found that seeking out new things even on my shorter RunCommutes helped keep things interesting both in exercise and photography terms.
Tip. If like me you are London based then photographs of me running past Big Ben aren’t as interesting and nuanced as discovering a new sculpture down a hidden street or finding another of those little blue plaques that London is filled with. New locations, new directions, new trails, new backdrops – keep it exciting, keep it fresh.
Stability. How far do you want to go in your investment in order to produce incredible steady footage? A gimbal is an expensive item generally and it’s going to be a personal preference as to whether you like them or not. I’m not really a fan and believe you’re better grabbing more realistic footage that shows the movement of the subject.
Tip: a reasonably steady hand and a willingness to experiment are the key requirements here. In my opinion a series of short bursts of photographs or video will mean you end up with a more compelling and action led visual story than if you shoot dozens of minutes of gimbal stabilised footage.
Safety. Photography while running can be a bit like using your mobile phone while driving – it is a distraction. On more than one occasion I’ve seen runners on the Southbank taking selfies running into people and I myself nearly brought the Skye Trail Ultra to a swift conclusion when attempting to get my GoPro out I took a nasty tumble down the ridge – breaking my selfie stick and slicing my leg open in the process
Basically take photographs when it is safe to do so or as a memory from my childhood pops into my head, ‘Stop, Look, Listen’.
Enlist help. Having someone to press the button as you’re flying by is perhaps the best way of capturing running photographs. When the GingaNinja attends races she becomes my unofficial race photographer and has learned to dip down at the race line, to capture me when I’m in full stride and to grab surrounding/background shots for blog posts. One could argue that’s the sign of true love.
Tip: Run with your dog? Strap a harness on them, cool angles and madness ensue!
Don’t worry. So you’ve just done 10 good miles, weather was great, conditions were lovely and muddy and the route was fantastic – but you didn’t take any photography because you were in the moment. That’s no problem – there will be other occasions.
Tip: If you feel like it you can always add an extra few hundred metres of sprints, hills, mud, whatever to give more consideration to camera position and how you wish the running to be portrayed.
Tip: If running selfies/running photos are your thing then don’t be intimidated by people around you. Whip your camera out, point and click happy!
The right camera. There’s not much point using your GoPro for finish line photography – that isn’t what it’s designed for, nor would it be really appropriate to whip out your DSLR at the 75 mile point of a hundred miler.
Small compact cameras are awesome for taking with you as they’re thin, lightweight and have good battery life. However, if you have a modern smartphone that’s going to cover most needs.
However, smartphone photography come with the cost to your battery, the potential for damage by dropping it and how effective your waterproofing is. Running saw the destruction of no less than three iPhone 5s because of moisture (both rain and sweat) I’m hoping that iPhone 8 will be a little more resilient.
Timers v Video Snapshot v Bluetooth button. Modern telephones and action cameras have a variety of useful aids to help you capture specific moments.
iPhone for example has a 3 and 10 second timer which will capture 10 shots of you across a short period of time – this is excellent once you’ve learnt to filter out the rubbish photographs this generates. However, if you’re moving like poo off a shovel it will struggle to focus.
The shutter speed of the iPhone (your mobile phone shutter speed will vary) is often not quick enough to capture a well focused and crisp image in anything other than perfectly lit conditions and then there is the setup. The possible solution is a discreet Bluetooth camera button (available for most phones for about £15) – this has the capacity to help you activate your camera without the need to use the timer and therefore have a greater degree of control.
Ultimately it’s all a hit and miss process but practice makes perfect.
I find the action camera setup is generally much quicker – drop harness/grip/stick in position, click camera to film and then spin back to enter frame as you’d envisioned, grab image in post production later and if you are shooting on a 4k (or even lower HD) action camera then the output should give you something to work with for most of the formats you’ll be using the images in.
Tip: If it’s raining when you’re shooting then wipe your camera lens down to avoid water droplets on your shots
Lighting. This can be challenging as you’re on the go and you have to work with what’s in front of you. But consider things like the position of the sun as you’re grabbing a selfie, it’s annoying if you’ve got the face right, the action right and the background looking cool if you then shoot into direct sunlight and burn everything out or shoot in such dark shadow that nothing shows up.
Tip: Alter the times if day you ‘photorun’ to use the differing light levels, this can make even your ‘go to’ route seem quite different.
At night running photography becomes even more challenging – the flash will ruin most photographs but you run the risk of out of focus images if you do it without.
The key to night time photography is being selective and taking your time. By this I mean consider natural light sources, road lighting, headtorch light and the general pace of the action, you can shoot everything and anything if you like but you’ll simply end up with full memory cards and lots of unusable images.
Tip: Dress for photography, black on black is fine but adding a splash of colour will make you easier to spot – especially in low light conditions
My recent trip to the SainteLyon was filled with decent night time race photography (blog suitable at least) because I was conscious of the conditions and was patient, waiting for the right points to grab the shots I wanted.
Post production. This makes it sound like a Hollywood movie rather than a action photograph but having some photo editing software to lighten or balance images just makes things that little bit tidier. For the social media vampires amongst us the various social platforms all integrate reasonably good editing tools. You don’t need Photoshop to ensure great storytelling
Tip: GoPro edit software is really rather good and easy for grabbing snapshots and cutting up your videos into snapshots of your experiences. Other software is readily available – I’m perhaps luckier in that I have Premiere installed on my phone which makes quick work of any video I want to quickly edit together but there’s thousands of great little apps whatever your editing platform.
Tip: Find of way of comfortably carrying your camera kit that allows for easy access but also keeps out of the way. I use Ronhill trail leggings that have two flush to the body stretch pockets on each leg that I put my GoPro in or one of the front pockets of any of my race vests.
Tip: A small charger – carry one! If it’s race day, (especially when you’re going to be out a long time) and you’re carrying a GoPro and your phone you may require a little bit of juice to keep your phone going. I can be bigger for tweeting, photographing and videoing events and I find I burn through my battery pretty swiftly – fine on a 10km but not so cool on a mountain ultra when you may need your phone for location or emergency services. A small charger is about the size of a lipstick and will certainly keep your phone going if you’ve been a little too ‘snap happy’.
In a nutshell
Honest photographs – don’t go all fake news
Use the right camera for the job
Don’t worry if your shots don’t come out
Shoot lots, delete the rubbish
Get help for race days
Photograph responsibly – be safe
Most importantly, try new things, experiment, have fun
and in answer to the question in the title, yes I probably am secretly running selfie obsessed – I’ve been accused (via Twitter users) of not taking my racing and running seriously enough, more interested in taking pictures than the event I’m doing. All I can say to that is, ‘caught red handed!’ 😁
After the South Wales 50 I wrote about how, mostly, my first half of 2017 had been pretty good with positives driving me forward towards my endgame and even the failures provided really useful information for future planning.
Sadly the second half of 2017 was a disaster.
I suppose the year unravelled when my partners mother passed away in early August and it all went a bit downhill from there.
I just didn’t turn up to the start line of the London to Brighton because of injury and exhaustion but had recovered enough in time to make hard work of the RunWimbledon Marathon. That proved to be my only September running at all and so my preparation for the Isle of Arran Ultra was woeful.
Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise when the race was cancelled less than 90 minutes in? But I had been making quite good progress and felt strong even if not amazingly so, despite my lack of match fitness. I had hoped that Arran and the running and hiking in Scotland would give me the lift I needed to commit to improving the second half of the year and even with Arran’s cancellation I enjoyed my Scottish running adventures going across numerous bloody enormous hills.
However, upon our return to Kent my running was sidelined by the worst chest infection I’ve had in years and while I battled through the first week of it the rest of October was a write off and I had to defer my entry to the Rebellion Ultra Marathon – once again through a lack of readiness. However, by the middle of November I had finally cleared the chest and I could resume some training and with less than 2 weeks before the SainteLyon I started to run again.
With a couple of biggish weeks in the bag I went to France and despite some truly hideous and in places dangerous conditions I ran the SainteLyon with all the gusto I could muster. It was a great feeling to be back in Lyon but even the joy of this outstanding race couldn’t hide my disappointment of a mere 2,000 miles run and a lot less racing than normal over the year.
However, though my 2017 ultra running ended in France there was to be a final run out as a family at the Mince Pi: A run of two decimal places. The GingaNinja had asked if we could find a race to do say 5km – the trouble is that to run together requires us to run with the toddler. Thankfully in Wacky Events we found an RD willing to allow us to race with our daughter being pushed on the Unirider!
This wonderful event proved to be the right year end to running, it involved my two favourite people, it involved trail running in winter and it has provided a bit of inspiration to the GingaNinja to kick on with her own personal fitness goals.
Can’t say fairer than that can you?
Returning to the SainteLyon
Returning to Scotland for both racing and training
Meeting Pete and Ryan at the South Wales 50
Racing alongside ASK and the GingaNinja at the Westminster Mile
Attempting MIUT and not letting failure break me
The death of my partners mother
The broken Petzl headtorch debacle at UTBCN
The cancellation of the Arran Ultra
Missing London to Brighton and The Rebellion
Being ill or injured most of September through to November
So that was 2017 but what about 2018?
2018 looks like a very complex year in that we are going to try and move to Scotland for a better work life balance, the bonus for me will be proximity to the hills and mountains I love so much. However, the downside is that I need to not be racing so much – which is a disappointment.
The year has started well enough though with a New Years Day shakedown at the Lamberhurst 5km and the first weekend will bring the East Hanningfield trail marathon and there is a January 100 mile virtual challenge which should ease me back into bigger and bigger monthly miles.
February will be a return to the Vigo 10, which with a move so far north on the cards, may be my final return to my favourite race and then we have space in the calendar.
Thankfully I’ve put my bank account to damn fine use and entered the West Highland Way Challenge Race in May and The Rebellion will follow in November (as will a second crack at the Arran Ultra subject to it running again).
There are things I won’t return to though such as my reduction in racing/running over the summer, although it aided me in avoiding the sun I used it as an excuse to stop training and that wasn’t the idea.
The first half of 2017 had been so positive and I wonder if I hadn’t halted the momentum I had gained would my second half have been better – even given family circumstances at the time?
Still new year, no point moping about what has been and it’s now the 3rd January and I’m already 18.6 miles of running into my January 100 mile Virtual Challenge, woohoo!Having been reading lots of blogs and the like recently about the variety of adventures you’re all going in it looks like there’s some good stuff about to happen. Mostly I read them because I’m always keen to hear about your own adventures so I can try them myself and I’ve found some of my best experiences because I tried something you suggested to me or suggested to me I your own writing – so keep it up please!
Anyway, enough of this jibber jabber, it’s raining outside and blowing a gale so, ‘Let’s crack on and enjoy adventuring’.
‘I think I need another race,’ where the unlikely words to come out of the GingaNinja after the Mince Pi Run. It’s not that she has suddenly become enamoured with the idea of running or racing its more to do with the need to be healthy and a healthy example to ASK. With that in mind I found the Lamberhurst 5km event on New Years Day – a little road bimble that I had imagined would be a nice and easy leg stretcher. Let me assure you readers that the Lamberhurst event (the 5 or 10km) is no easy bimble but it is a shedload of fun – this is what happened…
Living about 30 miles from the race start I decided to use the opportunity to practice my driving along the country roads of Kent and with the rain being heavy this was going to prove a big challenge for someone who finds the idea of driving a nerve shredding experience. Thankfully I pulled into Lamberhurst at about 9.30am just as Google had predicted with all three of my runners intact.
Our GingaNinja inspired attendance was supplemented by myself and ASK for a 5km party of three. We ambled along to the village hall where I got a sense that the route wasn’t as flat as I had imagined… hmm. Still we grabbed our race numbers, a toilet stop and then waterproofed ASK (as she would be ‘running’ on the Unirider offering inspiring words to her mum) and soaked up some of the post New Years Eve cheer that clearly was still in the air.
As is often the way at races where ASK runs with us on the Unirider we receive lots of attention and this was no different with many of our fellow runners wishing us well or offering a cheery nod to ASK – something that I believe makes the experience much more positive for my toddler.
At the start line we chatted with more runners even as the rain began its downpour! ASK advised that she was getting wet but I promised that we would soon be running and wouldn’t notice the rain. At least half of that was true and we soon set off with the GingaNinja a little behind us.
The first challenge was a wonderfully steep hill and we shouted encouragement to the GN to keep on going as the hill got steeper. ASK and I powered past people and reached the first section to flatten out and gave the GN a chance to catch up, but our respite was short lived and we were all soon pushing onwards and with the field clear of the faster runners we could trundle happily along in the wet conditions.
ASK and I weaved in and out of the route and the remaining runners as we headed downward and back toward the village hall, giving the Unirider a real race test on the tarmac rather than the trails we normally run on.
Straight from the downhill though we entered our second significant climb but the GingaNinja had paired up with one of the lovely runners and I had got chatting to a lovely chap called Kev who like me had a youngster and was a Mountain Buggy user for taking his son out. Of course we chatted about the Unirider but also general running and this helped make the event much more fun for all. Of course ASK and I circled back to ensure that we all stayed together – this was very much a family race – and we continued to shout encouragement as the race progressed.
As we entered the next downhill we went a little quicker but my problem was that the heavy rain had stayed on the race course and ASK was getting mildly wet feet, actually very wet feet – thankfully like the superhero she is she didn’t complain and we thundered down the hill being greeted by the returning runners from the turnaround point.
We passed through what looked like a country house at the turning point and passed a grandfather and granddaughter running together – both looking brilliant and I used the young lady as an example to ASK of what she could be doing if she carries on being active. ASK was excited by this as the girl was almost all in pink!
The final climb was also the most challenging given the water on the course and its steep nature but both myself and the GingaNinja gave it our all and I suggested that we would wait at the top of the hill for her (and shout out support of course). I wheeled in behind the lovely marshal but had made a minor miscalculation in my turning circle and ASK fell off the Unirider for the first time. Thankfully we were almost stopped and no harm was done other than some wet gloves and a bit of a shock. There were also a few tears and so I cuddled my awesome little daughter and said, ‘don’t tell your mum’. She replied with the, ‘alright dad’ and jumped straight back on. However, her hands were now cold and with the rain still heavy she wanted to finish.
I told the GingaNinja what had happened and all credit to both of them we sped up to get back to the warm as fast as possible. The downhill was fun and I think we all enjoyed the run into the line with people cheering my daughter in and I heard the GingaNinja gave her name called out.
We finished and collected medals (mine immediately becoming the property of ASK) and headed indoors where we stripped off and put on warmer kit. What a belter!
Conclusions: Incredibly family friendly, lots of youngsters doing the child’s race, lots involved with their parents and grandparents in the main race. A nice, warm village hall at the start and a really, really fantastic route that could be as fast or as sedate as you wanted. The Lamberhurst races should be everyone’s start to the year and with the opportunity to grab a wonderful medal who wouldn’t want to do this on a wet New Years Day? Another great event from Nice Work and thanks for letting ASK take part with the Unirider, we are very grateful.
This is a story two years in the making as the moment I finished the SainteLyon in 2015 I knew I had found ‘my’ race. My experience was so incredibly positive that I knew I would return and when entries opened in April I was waiting with my debit card to hand ready to sign up. Experience had taught me that this was unnecessary but I wanted my place confirmed as quickly as possible and within a few hours I had also uploaded the medical certificate from the UTBCN, booked my flights and begun the search for accommodation.
The first half of my running year had gone quite well, finishing with a great finish at the South Wales 50 and despite failure at MIUT I was feeling tremendously positive overall going into the summer race break. However, the death of my partners mother, illness and injuries to my back meant that my return to training and racing was hampered quite badly. I didn’t show up for the return of the London to Brighton, although I rocked up to the start of the Ultra Trail Scotland: Arran this was cancelled mid race due to terrible weather conditions and I deferred my place at The Rebellion because of a hideous chest infection and a lack of preparation. This all meant that my return to the SainteLyon was incredibly undertrained in fact only just returned to training and in no way ready to face this wonderful course.
Regardless I wasn’t going to miss out and on Friday, 1st December I ambled along to the hideous Luton Airport and took the short flight to the delightful Lyon St Exupery Airport a short hop on the Rhône Express took me into the centre of the city (30mins), I bought a 72hour combined Metro, Tram and bus ticket (€15) and took the 3 minute metro ride to Saxe Gambetta where I would find my small but perfect AirBnB accommodation just two minutes from the station.
I dropped my bags down to be greeted by the sight of a Nespresso machine and some Belgian waffles and chocolate crepes! Merci Diep (the host). I grabbed a few bits like my passport and registration confirmation before heading straight out to the hall to collect my number. Another short hop on the metro and I was a five minute walk from where I needed to be – awesome.
Security was still quite tight in France and there were bag and body searches before entry to the hall – which in light of recent history both in France and across Europe -makes sense. But once in the hall it was like a Mecca for all things trail running and I slowly wandered round deciding what I would spend some pennies on. It was lovely to see Oxsitis with a big stand and lots of products on show and while I may not wear them any longer Hoka also rolled into town with a decent showing.
Collection of my number was easy this year and I used my incredibly handy French phrase, ‘je ne comprends pas francais. parlez vous anglais?’ and I found that my French hosts once they knew I was English simply switched languages (something I am in awe of) though I did use my French language skills wherever possible. With my number collected I headed over to get some SainteLyon socks and my new much loved Buff!
And from this point I actually had some free time. I headed over to the huge shopping centre and picked up some provisions, did some late night sightseeing and then continued in this vein the following morning – touristing before settling down to an afternoon nap before the race. I then engaged in my now infamous pre race coffee ritual for a full bowel clearance and eventually I’d get round to loading up my kit up! It all seemed to be going far to smoothly.
At about 6pm I headed down to the bus pick up point and joined the queue for one of the many buses to St Etienne. I remember in 2015 the bus was warm but the window had a drip running down it and I’d worked hard to ensure I didn’t get wet! This year the bus was a little chillier but the window didn’t leak and we arrived in good time and without incident. Security was speedy but thorough and as I had time to kill I grabbed some of the pre race snack goodies and went into the smaller of the two halls to see if I could catch a bit more sleep or at least rest. The hall was warm and filled with people but I had little trouble finding space and I folded a buff up and lay my head upon it – but I couldn’t sleep. The SainteLyon was effectively my Christmas present to myself and like a young boy I was desperate to open my present and get to running! Much like a Christmas Eve the following three hours dragged like the Hundred Years’ War! Still the hours did give me a vantage point for kit and people watching – the most interesting outfit I saw was a teenage mutant ninja turtle with full shell and this chap (as far as I know) ran the whole thing dressed like this. The STL though doesn’t attract a great deal of runners like this, they’re quite rare I would say. Most runners rock up in their favourite or best kit and I was pleased to note that many of the runners were wearing Oxsitis, Raidlight or Kalenji bags, undoubtedly the French appreciate these brands being reasonably readily available on the high street and support local brands. Shoe choices were equally local with most seeming to opt for Salomon or Kalenji – the good thing for me was I saw no Karrimor!
I’d chosen Altra for footwear and my beloved Oxsitis Hydragon for my back with a variety of OMM and Ronhill kit making up the rest, perhaps it was the kit that made me stand out as English as anyone that approached me spoke to me (generally) in my native tongue – clearly to the other runners I was not French!
Anyway to the race! The SainteLyon in its current form is a 72km race from St Etienne to Lyon, taking place the first weekend in December and setting off around midnight, you can read more about it here at Wikipedia. At around 11.30pm I drifted slowly to the start knowing that I would be starting near the back of the field but this would allow me to pick off runners later on (if I had any capacity to do so).
The organisers though were releasing the runners in waves which meant that as I was at the back I would be one of the final runners to depart St Etienne. I could feel the cold setting in and I was geared for minimal warmth as I knew that during the race I would overheat with too many layers. I rubbed my arms periodically to retain warmth and hugged myself, while gently jigging on the spot – stopping sporadically to take photographs and make social media checks.
40 minutes later and, as promised, bang on time the music played, the horn blew and thousands of runners were released into the night. It was as magical as I remembered it, only this time there was no @kemptomslim to share the moment with and so I turned to look at the arch I had just run under and said ‘au revoir’ before turning on my heel and running into the Rhône Valley night.
The first few kilometres are along the roads and lack any really interesting things to note other than the opportunity to catch some ground in the runners ahead of you or perhaps make some alliances to allow the hours to pass more pleasantly. I decided on the former rather than the latter and pressed firmly ahead knowing that conditions underfoot later in the race might slow me down. Perhaps the big clue as to the conditions was the fact that many runners had loaded up crampons to their race vests in preparation for cruddy conditions but at this early stage even those in their Kalenji Road shoes were running fine.
While my French is limited I could feel the ambience of the race and the runners and there was a generally positive, goodwill feeling that swelled up around the runners in these early stages and you couldn’t help but be carried by this. For my part I darted between runners and ambled towards the trail which kicked in at around the 6km mark.
From here the light snowfall that we had seen on the sides of the road was replaced by much thicker, more dangerous, not so grippy snow and I recall as I headed down the trail that ‘bugger, this isn’t going to be as easy as last time’.
However, I am confident in my footwork and I was able to press on a little faster than those in front of me and as the kilometres marched downward toward the first checkpoint I started to feel very confident about running a good time. Despite a lack of training in the lead up to the race I was feeling surprisingly spritely too and as I hurled myself up and down the trails I was enjoying myself.
I felt like I was in a good place and set myself up for cruise control to allow me some breathing room and to take photographs and simply to take joy from the experience. About 13km in, not long before the first checkpoint I looked behind me to see the procession of runners all twinkling behind me and then I really remembered why I love this race so much.
However, with underfoot conditions worsening I was glad to drop upon the first checkpoint and it was here that I stayed the longest of all the checkpoints – maybe 5 minutes, this was mainly due to the amount of people and partly because I actually wanted food. But it was still a short stop and thankfully they had full fat Coca Cola on offer and I enjoyed a cup full before heading out – no Rolo Cola this time @kemptonslim
I remembered that post checkpoints I was freezing cold for the first few minutes and so covered my fingers with the mitten part of my gloves and pulled my neck buff up and my head buff down and headed out. Weirdly though my nose was freezing and when I felt the front of my buff the snot and hot breath had frozen into a cold and icy mess. I folded it down a little and it was better but this would be the first buff to be replaced a few more kilometres down the trail.
It was from here that you started noticing people putting crampons on as conditions underfoot deteriorated further and there was a visible increase in the amount of runners who were losing their legs beneath them, I was keen to go as fast as I could but knew two things;
Falling would hurt
I’d forgotten to buy ultra marathon sports insurance
and so I ran were it was appropriate and walked as quickly as possible everywhere else. It was about the 20km mark that I heard the sounds of an Australian accent behind me and for a short while I’d met someone who spoke English natively and we had a lovely brief chat before we went our sort of separate ways. This was her first ultra marathon and her French friend felt this would be a great introduction to ultras and when I saw her she looked the business taking her fast marathon form into the STL. I would see a little more of her later.
The second section unlike the first had a greater degree of pure Trail and both my knees and back appreciated this. The trail was incredibly variable with some being good clear trail, other parts moist but most were snow and ice covered and progress remained slower than I would have liked but still not bad. The STL though has a very interesting aspect to it that say something like the CCC does not – overtaking. Although the route is busy with runners the potential for overtaking is enormous and you find yourself gearing up past runners all the time and then being overtaken by them! This has benefits for the relay runners who are undoubtedly fresher than the full distance runners and even for the Express (44km) runners that you might meet.
I found myself hitting some decent running in this section and engaging in lots of overtaking and being overtaken and it was fabulous hearing the phrase ‘a gauche’ or ‘a droit’ – I can’t tell my left from my right in English so I had to concentrate hard to get it right in French!
Although not clock watching I was very aware that my time was better than it had been in 2015 and some basic mental calculations suggested I could shave off around two or three hours from my previous outing and despite an injury and illness hit few months I was giving it as much welly as the ground would allow. However, all of this was to grind to a halt and all the good work undone. At about 23km in the ground became so icy that runners couldn’t even walk on it and in front of you a plethora of bodies were strewn across the trail.
A runner would fall and the phrase ‘ca va?’ would be called the two or three runners that would stop to pick up their fallen comrade. I brought my own race to a stop to assess the conditions and decided that I would use what visual clues I had before me, track the steps of the runners ahead of me and go as carefully as possible. Sections were becoming so severe that runners were sitting on their arses and pushing themselves down the trail on their hands.
I witnessed bloodied and bruised runners ahead of me but their tenacity meant that most would get up. My problems intensified though when at 26km my trusty Altra gave into the ice and I was thrust skyward and came down with a thud. I’d broken the fall with my back and smashed my headand although I got up straight away I was in pain – my recent back troubles suddenly came rushing back and my head felt woozy. I knew that Sainte-Catherine was only a couple of kilometres further on and so I followed the crowd, walking now and not in a good place. I slipped and slid more, desperate to keep my feet but I fell a further three times before the second checkpoint and when I crashed in I felt like death.
I took a few minutes and ate emmental and salami to help get something in me and for both the first and last time I wondered if I should stop and seek medical attention. The answer was ‘no’ and with that I set off again. I tried to focus on the trail and ran reciting song lyrics and poetry to myself as I’ve often found this works to stop me thinking about more painful distractions. The various falls though and those to come had given me s kicking and perhaps had my head taken a worse knock than it did I would have had the common sense to stop – but I didn’t. The trail continued to worsen and we were now into the coldest part of the night and at the highest, often most exposed points, when the wind whipped through it passed straight through me but I refused to put additional layers on knowing that this would simply infuriate me.
Upon reach Inge the highest point of the race I felt something of an achievement, despite having run it before I convinced myself that the rest of the course was downhill but this was ridiculous and actually the most dangerous Running was just around the corner.
I could see the pack starting to gather ahead of me, the ice, once again so bad that runners were sat on the floor dragging themselves down and the mountain rescue, aided by quad bikes were going back and forth collecting runners from the trail. In my head I refused to sit down and drag myself along, I refused to bow, in my head I could here Terence Stamps, Zod calling out, ‘kneel before Zod son of Jor-el’ and although I’m no Superman i knew that the moment I gave in I would death march this home.
My decision to stay stood cost me a couple of falls and a fellow runner came sliding into the back of me taking me out at one point. My already broken body didn’t have the required agility to jump straight back up this time but my fellow runners pulled me to my feet quickly and set me on my way. I was hurting now in lots of ways but the mild delirium kept me on the straight and narrow!
I dragged my sorry arse into the checkpoint and found a quiet spot to change head torches and power my phone up after the cold had simply switched it off. I didn’t bother with food or drink here – I was feeling sickly but I hoped this would pass if I quickly got out of the checkpoint and avoided the dreaded DNF.
I was a marathon or so in and light would soon be upon these beautiful French lands and with it I felt conditions would improve if only because I’d be able to see but the news was a bit better than that – the closer to Lyon we got the better the trail conditions got and icy conditions became more sporadic. My head was also starting to clear a little bit and despite the physical pain I could feel myself running more and more with confidence returning that I could control both my ascents and more importantly the descents.
Finally after the drama and trauma of the night I was back in the race – although the slow progress through the ice had ensured that there was no way I was going to run faster than the previous attempt.
We were also on the countdown to the finish ‘SainteLyon 25km arrivee’ I pushed on as fast as I could, walking the hills as quickly as possible and staying steady across the flat and downhills. I stopped briefly to top up my calories with a couple of caramel Freddo and some icy water and took a look back to realise that there still many, many runners behind me – this was clearly proving a hard slog for everyone.
With 20km to go I pulled into the next checkpoint and pulled out again quickly – I’d been keeping tabs on the young Australian girl and her friend who I’d inadvertently been playing overtaking tennis with and decided that I could use her as my pacer – the aim? To beat her to the finish. The final 20km are much more road based which doesn’t really suit my running style nor my injury record, however, it did allow me to push on without too much concern for what was happening at foot level.
about 5km in to the final 20km I saw my new target drift ahead of me – still looking strong and here I thought it was all over, I didn’t have a race in me – or so I thought. With just over 10km left I entered the final checkpoint had arrived at the outskirts of Lyon. I saw the two runners I was trailing and asked how they were getting on, they described a tale of woe in the icy conditions and my internal Schadenfreude said, ‘hehe’ but instant karma paid me back by making me bite down hard on my own finger instead of the cheese and salami I was holding. I base them farewell and wished them a good final push but I knew I could get there before them.
Finally the sun was warming, I removed my buffs, my gloves and rolled my sleeves up. I knew the route from here, I could smell the finish line in the distance and even the good awful climb into the city I flew up much to the amusement of runners behind me. There are steps on the descent into Lyon and the finish – lots of them and ahead of me I could see runners gingerly hobbling down them but I pushed hard knowing that I could continue to climb the rankings.
Off the steps, down to the river, up the winding steps, over one bridge, fly past the musee de confluences and over the final bridge, cheering supporters shouting, ‘Allez!’ And clapping calling out, ‘Bravo! Bravo!’
I had decided on my finish routine long ago for this race and I ambled along to the final 200metres, I could see runners ahead of me and at the right moment I pressed my feet into the floor and like a rocket I blasted off much to the surprise of the crowd who whooped and hollered as I hit full pace. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 runners down, runner number 6 with his hands in the air smacked me in the head but I was in full glorious flow and I hurtled towards the final turn – taking it wide to ensure I could cross the line flat out! I passed a couple of final runners at the line and I was over.
It was over! I was over!
Ascent: +2000 metres
Runners: 7,000 (15,000 over all distances)
Terrain: Mixed, icy, rocky, hilly, tough
Tough Rating: 3/5
Organisation The STL is possibly the best organised race I’ve ever run, but then after 64 editions perhaps that is to be expected. However, they clearly keep on making minor corrections to the system to ensure that runners know what’s going on and what they have to do. Things like transport to the start for thousands of runners is slick and well rehearsed and the checkpoints although busy are all easily accessible as a runner.
As a French classic there isn’t much information in English but Google translate is helpful and the volunteer army was amazing in helping me with questions I had.
There was also excellent social media connectivity and the tracking was quick, up to date and working unlike at so many events (yep I’m thinking of you UTMB). The STL scores incredibly highly for organisation.
Volunteers All volunteers are amazing but the SainteLyon volunteers are out in some freezing cold conditions for a very long period and they remain hugely upbeat – they are a credit to the race and to European Ultra Running. There should also be a special mention to the many people who came out on to the course to support, whether they had a runner or not, truly special.
Route The route had something for everyone whether you’re a trail lover, a road hog or somewhere in between. The ascents are sharp and the descents technical in places but it’s fun and the route is mostly wide enough for easy overtaking. The views for this route are strange in that you are in the middle of the night so it’s dark but the lights of the runners illuminate things around you and in the distance and that’s a beautiful sight. I feel very much the reason I love the STL so much is because the route is both challenging and fun, this time it really did show me it’s tough side but that doesn’t change my opinion that this is an everyman course and with a bit of tenacity you can do it.
Awards I would love, love, love a SainteLyon medal but solo finishers are presented with a T shirt instead – a nice technical shirt but still not a medal. This year pre-race they also supplied a snood/buff and a pair of STL branded warm socks which are excellent. There were all sorts of other goodness such as the post race and pre race food (I didn’t bother with either but I heard good things about it). All in all the awards are great but I’d love a medal (take the hint organisers).
To give an indication of cost I paid around £85 return flights (London Luton – Lyon). £22 for the return express train to Lyon from the airport and about £85 for three nights Airbnb in the centre of Lyon as well as £60 for the race and transport. Other costs included a couple of technical SainteLyon t-shirts and a bobble hat (total cost £27). All in, transport, race, goodies, tourism and food £300.
Logistics I’ve written in my previous STL about logistics but Lyon is 1hr 25mons from London and Lyon Airport is 30 mins from the city centre. I used AirBnB for accommodation which was lovely and the race itself provides buses to the start for €13 and this is easily the best way of arriving fresh at the start. The organisers and Lyon/St Etienne are very well prepared for this event and as far as I could tell it runs smoothly and logistically brilliantly.
Value for money Value for money is a very subjective thing, for example some people even believe that OCR events are good value but this is a different kettle of fish. Entry is €63 – this includes the €3 service charge and what you get is not only a truly glorious event but also tremendous support (be that through volunteers, cheering supporters or food at checkpoints), most importantly though you receive a brilliantly organised event and having some events not this well set up I can tell you I appreciate the value of a good team delivering on their promises.
Favourite moments This year was a little different to 2015 but it had no fewer highlights, below are five moments that really made a difference to my race.
The start line, such an icon of the race and filled with all sorts of emotion. The moment the runners all started hugging and patting each other on their backs just made me feel connected to my fellow competitors
Standing at various high points of the route and looking back to see the procession of lights running to catch me and the people ahead of me.
The two young children and their mother offering water, coffee, goodies and support in the darkest hours of the race
The cries of Allez! Allez! Allez! and Bravo!
My sprint to the finish line
Conclusion Going back to the SainteLyon after 2015 was never in doubt. I had loved the idea of it and loved the execution of it. After being busy with Haria Extreme in 2016 I knew I would be returning to Lyon this year but what I hadn’t been prepared for was a hugely different experience.
In truth, as I look back on it, I enjoyed this year even more than my first time because of how close I came to failing and yet still clinging on. However, it wasn’t just that it was also the fact I got to enjoy the race, to watch the landscape move before my very eyes in a procession of light and because the SainteLyon continues to tease, ‘come back UltraBoy you can run me faster’.
Going back to the SainteLyon is a certainty because there is something special about it that no other race I’ve done has given me the feeling I get here. It might have left me broken into a thousand pieces but I would rather that it was body broken than my heart. SainteLyon 2017 – I loved you.
You can learn more about the race at www.saintelyon.com and below is a gallery of images taken during the 2017 event!
My second race of the weekend wasn’t my race at all, it belonged to my daughter, ASK and I’ve never been more ecstatic not to be racing.
I remember when she was born, almost exactly three years ago that I decided I would enter a race with her and aged 15 days old she completed the Dartford Bridge 2km Fun Run with myself, the GingaNinja and Pops (my father).
Well much has changed since that race, ASK has become a boisterous toddler, my father and I fell out over Hillsborough (although it was always made clear he was welcome at our door to see ASK whenever he wanted) and both the GingaNinja and I have lost half a yard of pace due mainly to Dominos Pizza.
Anyway three years later we return to the scene of her first medal triumph, only this time she’s powered by her own legs.
Now I’ve been accused by many of being a pushy parent getting her to run but the truth of the matter is she asked me to find her a race because, ‘I want another medal dad’. She also asks to go training and use both the running buggy and the Unirider – I think it’s fair to say she’s the pushy toddler and I’d rather be taking her running than having her sat infront of Dora the Explorer or Paw Patrol!
Anyway we rocked up to the start line just after the 10km had started and we paid our £3 entry fee (which would be going to a local good cause) and waited for the main race runners to come in. ASK stood transfixed at the sides watching runners of all shapes and sizes crossing the finishing line and claiming their medals – desperate to know when she could get started!
Before long it was time to line up – kids from near newborns to 13 and 14 year olds. We eyeballed a couple of our fellow toddlers that we knew we could take down and when the horn erupted we set off from our position at the back of the pack like lightning.
ASK quickly set a steady if unspectacular pace for the first 500 metres, preferring to soak up some of the undeserved adulation she was receiving! But once out of sight of the supporters we made better time taking two other runners on the first corner, followed quickly by a slightly older girl whose interest seemed to have waned a little. By the time we had reached the end of the first kilometre we had taken out another couple of runners but the field had now spread itself out but with just 8 minutes on the clock we looked to be making good time and ASK showed no sign of stopping (other than for water breaks).
In the distance – some 200metres ahead – we saw a couple of older boys, probably aged about 10 and we suggested to ASK that we could try and catch them. As they disappeared around the corner and into the final stretch she looked dejected that they had gotten away.
‘Do you want to catch them?’ we inquired. ‘Yes’ replied ASK and so with that we hit the go faster afterburners and our little daughter responded with much enthusiasm and although we would never catch the boys we knew that the sounds and sight of the finish line would give her a huge lift to finish well.
With just a couple of hundred metres to go ASK geared up again and started hurtling towards the finish – the remainder of the crowds cheering her every last step home.
Cruising through the barrier she stopped only briefly to grab a medal (we offered thanks in her behalf) and then some rehydration and refuelling – this had been a gruelling race.
What can I say? There are a few things to say about the race, the organisers and ASK.
Firstly let me congratulate Bridge Triathlon events who year in, year out put on lovely events for all ages and all abilities. As a regular runner I’ve taken part in a few of the events as has the GingaNinja and ASK marks her third Bridge Triathlon event here.
The Dartford Bridge 10km and the 2km fun run really help promote a healthy running lifestyle and it’s low key approach in a simple setting make this a perfect September Sunday morning event.
Secondly the event itself is magnificent, either the 10km or the 2km (the only reason I wasn’t doing the 10km was because I’d ruined my groin at the RunWimbledon marathon the day before). The route is fast and flat and if you want it to be it’s a really good event for racing FAST!
And finally, ASK (my UltraBaby) What can I say other than, well done little daughter of mine. She ran brilliantly, she ran fast and she wanted to do it and is already inquiring as to when she can get her next race medal. So if you know of an upcoming event please let me know – I’ve got a three year old ready to race and that’s an attitude I’m happy to encourage.
I have been struggling with the start of this blog post about the South Wales 50 for a couple of reasons, the first is that some of what happened shouldn’t ever be aired again and remain confined to the trails it happened on and the second is that the race was so amazingly awesome that it is actually rather challenging to put into words.
However, as a regular reviewer of races I want you all to consider this monster, step back, think carefully and then probably enter and here is why…
Several months ago I had decided that my hundred mile effort for the year was going to be the SW100, described as brutal with a mere 30% completion rate. In my effort to tackle more and more brutal races this had all the appeal I needed and with training going well in the first four months of the year I was feeling pretty good about going up against this beast. Sadly in the wake of MIUT, Marlborough and Meriden my body took a series of nasty blows – bad injuries to my groin, my heel and my back and none have truly settled, especially after the mauling I took at Meriden three weeks ago. I therefore decided to request to be dropped down from the hundred mile to the fifty, I explained that I felt as though I at least stood a chance of getting around the 50 whereas I felt the hundred would probably annihilate me.
Joe and Ben couldn’t have been nicer and moved me over to the fifty but with trains already booked I was going to be arriving for the hundred anyway and so offered my services for a few hours as a volunteer. So at 5am on the Friday with a rucksack that weighed the same as a tank I set off on my journey to Radyr. Thankfully the GingaNinja was visiting her parents and I was able to grab a lift as far as Swindon in the relatively luxurious new wheels we had picked up the day before and after a quick spot of lunch (KFC) I hurled my bag on my back and trundled to Swindon train station for an hour long journey to Cardiff followed by a short hop to Radyr – half a mile from the start.
So far , so simple
The problem was I was pretty exhausted – the stupidly hot week we had just experienced had meant I’d managed only a few hours sleep all week and I didn’t fancy my chances of a good night in a jam packed tent with no roll mat. Regardless of these concerns I unloaded, set up my camp and then went to offer my services as a volunteer.
A bit of volunteering never hurt anyone
Joe handed me over to Sian on race number duty and together we spent the next few hours handing out race numbers, maps and shirts to all that wanted to risk their lives against the Welsh valleys. It was an amazing insight and something of a spectacle and of course it is a favourite thing of mine to do – simply to admire the every type of person who believes they can do this distance. Every type of person was represented here from the silly to the serious, the young to the old, the seasoned to the newbie, it would be interesting to see who would finish and importantly why people might stop.
I really enjoyed registration and felt like I’d gotten into the swing of things after a while and genuinely enjoyed the company of the other volunteers, especially Sian. After the 100s had finished registering I called it a day, they had more than enough volunteers to cope it seemed and I needed food, sleep and prep.
It was closing on 8pm when I left Radyr in search of food and the drizzle had already begun, I’d managed to cook some dirty noodles on my stove but having forgotten a fork I had to wet wipe one of the metal tent pegs to eat it – my hunger was far from sated. The nearest reasonable town was only a mile or so away and so I threw caution to the wind and headed out. Whitchurch it turned out had a number of eateries but I didn’t fancy sitting alone so I found a truly delicious fish and chip shop grabbed the ‘homemade fish cake and chips’ for £3.20 and meandered back towards the Tesco Express, while chowing down on my hot delicious treat, to pick up some essentials such as chocolate milk, a Turkish Delight and two packs of pulled pork pastries.
By 9.30pm a little wetter but much happier I settled down in my tent knowing that in the morning I’d be taking on an uncompromising 50 mile route. Sleep though was far from easy to find and it was an uncomfortable night filled with a drizzle that normally would aid my rest, but this night simply heightened my anxiety. I got up at about 5 and fiddled with kit for a bit and decided the best course of action was shower and a chocolate milk breakfast.
It was big communal rugby showers which warmed wonderfully across my exhausted body and I felt fresh afterwards as I slapped on liberal amounts of Vaseline to my knackers. My only concern was that I spilt a whole cup of tea on my runderwear the night before and despite keeping them in my sleeping bag they hadn’t dried and so my troublesome balls were a little looser than I might have liked but there was nothing for it but to accept it. It was here that I would meet the first of two gentlemen that would define my race. I met Pete in the shower room and we chatted a little about races, children and the days event, we’d had a bit of a laugh and as I left the changing facilities we wished each other well. I thought little more of it.
I proceeded up the stairs and grabbed an empty table as I didn’t really want to intrude on the couple of small gatherings and cracked open the chocolate milk – tidied up my drop bag and watched as a succession of weary looking warriors trundled in. Pete joined me at my table and behind me sat another gentleman runner, Ryan – we were joined by Gari (who it would turn out I already knew via Twitter and was speedy as buggery round the course) and a couple of others that helped to create a warm and friendly bantering atmosphere. It was mainly old race and kit chatter interspersed with amusing anecdotes. The time waiting for the bus to take us to the start simply flew by; I hadn’t had a start to a race this good in years.
As I left to get on the bus I found myself behind Ryan and as we’d already become acquainted I asked if he minded a bit of company for the trip to the start line. I was very grateful to learn little tidbits about his life and happy to share bits of mine – little did I know that he would be the other person who really would define my race.
But upon arrival at the drop off point and near the start of the race at Pen Y Fan I knew it was likely we would say our goodbyes and so it was with mild surprise that we continued to hang out together, Pete too popped up and we joked with some of the others, perhaps it was the sense of impending doom but even with only 50 people starting it felt a tight knit race.
And they’re off…
The awesome Joe kicked proceedings off and with a light flurry we all hit the first climb and were on our way back to drizzly Cardiff via the Brecon Beacons.
I’d done as I often do in races and started with my waterproof jacket on. I’d brought my Montane jacket rather than the rather inadequate Ultimate Directions waterproof I also own but within a few hundred metres I was dispensing with the jacket and it wouldn’t come out again. The climb up to Pen Y Fan was no world beater, it was a rather busy trail and surrounded by mist with limited visibility but this being Wales it felt magical or perhaps like a scene from Monty Pythons Holy Grail. Ryan had caught me up while I was arranging my bag and we bimbled along for a while overtaking one another and chatting as we went.
The route up to the summit (and the Beacons) had been described to me as like a motorway and I could sort of see that but perhaps I’d have romanticised it a little more by suggesting it was like the yellow brick road and we were on our way to the Emerald City. Perhaps it was when the cloud and mist broke open and The Valleys appeared that I could get a sense of how truly magnificent South Wales is. I was very glad to be here and on the Brecon Beacons going up and down the trails I was having a lot of fun – this has been described as the harder sections of the route but actually I found these early stages much more to my tastes and would have been very happy stuck up here all day and night.
That said some runners looked like they found these first climbs hard work and I’d certainly say they shouldn’t be underestimated but they were much less severe than some of the later up and downs. Ryan and I passed by some of the hundred milers about three quarters the way up Pen Y Fan and congratulated them on their efforts so far – they all looked really strong and had hit the halfway point at around 15hrs – more than enough time to get to the finish.
The summit of Pen Y Fan was busy and both Ryan and I decided not to hang around for obligatory selfies but pushed on through Cribyn for the first of the compulsory clips and here I picked up my first injury. The clip was broken and so in the howling wind I found myself rather than stabbing the paper I stabbed straight into my thumb – the views from here were rather spectacular and I headed over to the cliff edge for a wee look before we pushed onwards to what I was reliably informed called ‘Big Fanny’. Now ‘Big Fanny’ (sniggers like a teenage boy) provided the second compulsory clip point and the route provided a non-stop succession of up and downs.
It had its wild moments too such as the descent from Fan Y Big – I decided I was going to let gravity do the work down a rather steep descent and within seconds realised that despite reasonable sure-footedness this was going to get my legs out from under me. I was pretty certain that above me, being slightly more sensible in their approach to the descent, that Ryan and Ann (a lady we had just met) were laughing themselves silly at my antics. Having stopped my body dead in its tracks I waited for them to catch me up and simply referred to myself as an ‘over-eager tit’. Ann ran with us for a little while as she explained she had been feeling a little nauseous but was still chatting and running, and we were happy to have another face on our ‘fun bus through Wales’. She explained she was due to hit the North Downs Way 100 later in the year with Centurion and for the while we ran with her she looked in good form. It was a kilometre or two later that I lost the pair of them – I saw a seriously fun looking descent down towards Talybont Reservoir and hit the afterburner. ‘Wee’ I heard myself cry as I pushed on knowing that the checkpoint was only a few hundred more metres away and with the reservoir to my right and the wind slapping me in the face I thundered down the beautifully flat tarmac and into the waiting arms of the checkpoint staff.
Now normally I’d say three minutes and then out but I was in no rush and so had a couple of glasses of cola and as many purple jelly babies as were available. In the distance I could see Ryan and Ann but decided that I was slow enough on the ascents that they were undoubtedly catch me. I thanked the checkpoint staff and cried ‘tally-ho’ as I ambled my way upwards.
Beyond the first checkpoint
Now if the first section had been fun the second section was a little chewier. I ambled up the steep track into a section of undergrowth and thought, ‘hmmm have I taken my first wrong turn?’ Running up the track I wondered if I could catch sight of some of the other runners, the GPS was still saying roughly and I was keen to go back down the hill as much like the Grand Old Duke of York I’d end up coming back up it! It was at this moment that I saw the incredibly friendly face of Ryan but sans Ann.
Sadly she had retired at the checkpoint, Ryan suggested that she had taken a downward turn after I’d left them briefly to hurtle the descent into CP1.
‘Thank fuck it’s you’ I called out, ‘I think it’s up here but I’m not sure’. Ryan assured me that crossing the style and heading across was the right thing to be doing – sadly he was only half right and we set off away from the next climb but quickly corrected ourselves when we spotted a couple of very weary looking runners about 500 metres (vertically) away from us.
‘Oh bollocks’ I thought as we stopped for a jimmy riddle behind some windswept trees. ‘I like to fire the stream into the wind and see how far it’ll be carried’ I advised Ryan, he was on the same page.
Noting that I’d had an epic pee I decided to crack open the tailwind bottle I’d prepared earlier and upon taking several large gulps felt almost immediately better – though this was short lived once I realised what we had to climb.
With the help of some other runners we realised we had ended up in the wrong field and as there was no gate we very carefully and safely supported one another across the barbed wire and into the road before heading up one of the steepest ascents on the course. We had regular stops, both I think pretending that we were admiring the view rather than gathering our breath and we ploughed on. I couldn’t tell you how long we ambled upwards here but it was long enough to feel like hard work and when we reached the summit and the clip point we decided that a windy sit down was in order.
Ryan unfurled a breakfast bar that had been attacked by both the shape of his body and the sweat of the day. I did much the same only for me it was the sweaty Haribo option.
The wind was harsh up on the summit and so we picked ourselves up and set off quickly downwards to find a little bit of respite and warmth. With the skies now completely clear too it was a lovely day and I should have thought to sun cream up like I was hiding from the sunlight but I didn’t and I would pay a high price for that later. This was pleasant running though and generally we were still running – our legs felt pretty good and both Ryan and I, although no speed goats, were making good enough time to finish somewhere between 17 and 19 hours. However, it was here that we lost our way a little as the course zig zagged around and the GPS file didn’t quite match the road book we needed to stop and take stock of our position.
We encountered a couple of other runners in a similar predicament and as we wound our way around and down we realised we might be a little off. In the distance above us I saw Pete (and his posse) and waved enthusiastically – probably a little over friendly if I’m honest and rolled my arm nonchalantly around my head attempting to disguise my greeting – phew got away with it.
These miles proved to be interesting as we ambled through – not taking anything too seriously and spending most of our time doing knob and fart gags. The posse spread out here and there with different people choosing slightly different directions but often doubling back, it was to the collective credit of the runners that they always attempted to aid one another to ensure the right route was being taken. Ryan and I between us were actually doing rather well in navigation terms and as we dipped down to Trefil Village we had much to be pleased about.
The hard rough road into the village felt like an excellent place to slow down and this gave Pete a chance to catch us up and turn a duo into a trio. It occurred to me that this looked like a scene from ‘The Three Amigos’ but the bad news was that I was clearly being cast as Martin Short to Ryan’s Chevy Chase and Pete completing the line-up as Steve Martin. However, this felt right and as we listened to Ryan tell us about his £450 Ford Granada Funeral Car ‘Party Bus’ we simply howled our way into the next checkpoint.
Checkpoint 2 and the start of the real race
‘Hotdog lads’ came a cheery voice, ‘tea, coffee, fill your bottles?’ Upon entering CP2 we found ourselves in the midst of the best reception we could have hoped for, our drop bags awaited us but also importantly there were hot dogs on the menu and we all greedily ate them and washed it down with a cup of sweet tea. I continued to stuff my face with food from my drop bag and drank the chocolate milk I had been dreaming of but mostly I left my kit in my bag – no spare shoes or socks were required.
I’m not sure how it came about but the checkpoint volunteers ended up describing us as the smiliest runners they’d seen all day and I can see that being true but as I said, ‘we pay to do this, might as well enjoy it!’. Much banter was passed around the checkpoint and I told the tale of how a female runner, in the middle of the night asked me if we could run together telling me, ‘you don’t look too rapey’. Quick as a flash from the crowd came the response (and I’ll paraphrase) ‘she was wrong wasn’t she?’ Genius!
The guys at checkpoint 2 were magnificent and they sent us on our way truly refreshed and rather cheery about the next section and with only 500 metres of ascent we thought this would be a nice easy section – how wrong we were proved.
We ran across the first field and saw a small stream to cross and by the Power of Greyskull we did it, but this led us into boggy fields and we found that the tall grass made progress slow. Each of us took turns to go as lead risking the possibility of wet feet but we survived and hit the tarmac before conversation turned to much loved movies, quotes from Flash Gordon, Labyrinth, Bond movies littered liberally around and how many filthy film titles could you think of; Pete was pretty good as he shot from the hip a number of classic titles including ‘Shaving Ryan’s Privates’ before we hit a low when ‘Confessions of Window Cleaner’ and ‘On the Buses’ got a mention. Ryan was no slouch either in the humour department as the ‘teenage boy toilet humour’ dominated the miles.
This though provided respite from our travails across the swamp and as we headed into Parc Bryn Bach we were feeling okay and also finally starting to pull away a little from the group behind us. We pushed on using the momentum we’d developed using a combination of running and pretty swift hiking to cover the miles, stopping only for photo opportunities with the enormous remains of cars and vans that littered the South Wales countryside (somewhere is a photograph of me sat in one of these seats). It felt like we were starting to lose the light as well but actually it was simply getting overcast but regardless given our height we would manage to avoid head torches for several more hours.
However, mentally this was probably the most draining, the least interesting and the toughest section to get through and this was where my comrades were at their most valuable. We’d discussed whether we should stay together and agreed that given the bollock crushing nature of the course, the navigation and our general good feeling for one another that seeing this journey through together would be a good idea. So it was with a flourish that we each entered the third checkpoint and maintained our cheery approach…
‘It’s no North Sea Hijack’ I exclaimed to one of the wonderful volunteers as we began flirtation via Roger Moore. His riposte was composed of Roger Moore-esque fashion suggestions, ‘…cravat? perhaps teamed with a pastel coloured safari suit..?’ Ha!
More wonderful back and forth banter which in turn earned each of us a freshly BBQed delight. Delicious!
I had the peppered steak in a cheesy bap (because as Ryan said ‘everything tastes better with cheese’ (though I’m not sure he’d thought it through as I hear oral sex with a cheesy whiff is quite unpleasant) while my running buddies ate heartily of a pork belly bap.
Anyway after a few minutes of scoffing bacon frazzle & Jaffa cake sandwiches we all felt much better and we’d now reached about 29 miles of running or as it would turn out ‘halfway’! We doffed our caps to the awesome volunteers and bade them a fond farewell and headed once more into the Welsh Wilds!
It wasn’t far into the next section that another eating opportunity arose and as we approached the Co-op I offered the option of stopping for an ice-cream at the outer edge of Bargod. Pete chose the delicious flake cone, while I selected a strawberry cornetto and an Irn-Bru but Ryan decided to dip out of this in favour of a bit of a kit check and fix up. The cool slightly melting iced joy danced on my palette and I devoured this little treat as we continued on our journey.
Despite this little stop we had decided that we’d like to try and get through to the next checkpoint before full darkness consumed us but it was only a mile or two down the road as the trail darker that we decided that it was worth bringing illumination to the darkness we found ourselves in. Despite having now been running together for many hours we still had much to be upbeat about and even as the reality dawned on us that we were slowing down a bit we knew it was important to keep our spirits up as the night brings new and often unwanted challenges.
It was in this section that we started to pass considerable fly tipping which while it can offer amusement of it’s a car seat is actually quite disgusting and disappointing and really did spoil some of the views across the Welsh landscape as the sun disappeared from sight.
We were now fully at the mercy of the Welsh night and although it was calm I was glad for the companionship of Ryan and Pete. Humour dried up a little as we passed single file through rougher more overgrown trail – my exposed legs were taken quite the battering and I sliced myself many times across the legs, arms and head but we continued making progress and occasionally one of us would remember that this was the fun bus and shout ‘arse almighty’ or ‘you’re pulling my plankety plank’.
It was around here that Ryan’s heel blistering was becoming bad and my lack of Runderwear had gotten to my testicles which were now the size of watermelons, even Pete looked a little worse for wear, although clearly in the best shape of the three of us.
I’d chosen to make a hasty testicle hanger out of my ‘Anton’ Buff and despite his heel pain Ryan too pushed on and our power hiking was making good progress. If we could just avoid any more bracken and thorns we might just survive this! However, the race was turning against us and applying thumb screws we believed we’d left behind on the Beacons. More and more unpleasant undergrowth attacked us and conditions underfoot varied in quality so there was simply no respite from the challenge of completion.
The three of us pulled slowly into CP4 a while later to see a couple of very important things – the first was the availability of hot tea and pizza but also the pair of young ladies that we had been periodically running near since early on. Elise (one of the runners) looked in a pretty grim way and had apparently been lying down to try and get some life back inside her. We did the only thing we could which was offer some support and as much advice as our weary heads could work. Ryan though offered some caffeine soaked shot bloks and this seemed enough to get them ready for leaving. While they prepped we sat for a little while eating pizza and trying to regain the enthusiasm for the race. However, I was very aware that staying inside for a long period would bring about a DNF and so we pressed on and headed toward a narrow overgrown passage despite a local gentleman attempting to guide us off course.
As we stood looking over the map we saw the two ladies pass us by and knew to follow them. Sadly the route was now becoming a little bitty but there was still Caerphilly Mountain to conquer and I hoped for some interesting trails to run across – thankfully the trails did become suitably gnarly for a while and despite pain in all sorts of places we continued forward searching for what the next clip point. Pete was now mostly in charge of navigation, although I was keeping a very regular check on the GPX route to ensure we had a consensus for direction but wrong turns were few and far between as we headed to the final checkpoint. A minor blip meant that we came up a road rather than a trail for about 250 metres and nearly missed the checkpoint entirely but we simply wanted to continue on.
However, at the final checkpoint and at around 4.00am I got to see my fellow registration volunteer Sian – who looked as fresh as she had about 36hrs earlier! She was sensibly wrapped in a dry robe and upon looking me over realised who I was and came over to say hello. The volunteer team were as awesome as ever but with only six or seven miles left we needed very little and strode out from the CP pretty swiftly.
I won’t lie we looked in a pretty bad way by the time the sun came up, both Ryan and I had rusty bullet holes that you could have cooked eggs on, my testicles were on fire and we both had serious blister problems. Pete it looked like was suffering from cramp and was using the slower pace for regular stretching. We had all started to get a little grumpy too and the mood although never unpleasant was quieter and more sombre than it had been at any point in the night. However, it is fair to say that we all checked on each other – no man was being left behind and when the blisters under my feet burst the guys gave me the required time to steady myself and pick up a head of steam.
The hardest part here were not the uphills – in fact the minor uphills were a nice distraction – the main problem was the downhill to the riverside run home on the Taff Trail. Each of us struggled with this section in his own way but upon making it down we made the best effort we could to get it over the line without being overtaken further.
However, in the final few hundred metres we were overtaken by a couple of ladies – we all agreed that fighting for a placing really wasn’t worth the agony and we crossed line just as we had travelled it – together.
The route was an interesting one, the best of it was at the start and in the first 25 miles but that’s not to say the second half didn’t have appealing features because it did. The route was also incredibly tough. It is fair to suggest that this would be one of the tougher 50 milers you will face in the United Kingdom – it’s also fair to say that you’ll almost certainly need to do some extra miles – the route claims to be about 53 miles but my GPS file and that of those around me was more like 57/58 miles which is a significant percentage increase on the 50 that are advertised in the title of the race. However, none of this detracts from the fact that the route really is very special, albeit not one of the fastest around. I felt, having never really explored South Wales in any great depth, that this tour of the Brecon Beacons and the road into Cardiff gave me a desire to search for more in the region and I’m now very much looking forward (with a hint of trepidation) to The Rebellion in November.
Great t-shirt and pretty, good quality medal – do you need any more?
What a holy trinity we proved to be. Myself, Ryan and Pete (I hope for them as much as me) proved to be a great match for banging out some exciting miles in South Wales and thank you very much for all your support. It was my honour to run alongside you and I hope to do so again soon. I hope you both conquer your awesome upcoming challenges – the TDS and the RoF.
I’ve had the good fortune to meet some amazing volunteers over the years I’ve been doing races but the guys at the SW50 were amongst the best. Special mention must go to Joe and Sian who I worked with during the registration but also to the guys who made me laugh so heartily at CP2 and the bearded chap with his Roger Moore comments and the hug at the finish line).
Top notch and in every respect – if you decide to run this then it will feel smooth and well oiled and even during the bit of volunteering that I did I got the impression that Joe and the organising team were all over it like the proverbial ‘car bonnet’. Each of the CPs was well drilled and they handled the runners with respect – which hopefully they received back in genuine thanks. Ten out of ten!
Value for money
£70 for this? a bargain in any book – this included the camping, the transport to the start, tech shirt and the tremendous organisation. I would heartily recommend this race if you are looking for a proper ballbuster, it might not be for the novice runners and it might not even be for some of the seasoned ultra runners but there are a huge amount of you out there that would love this.
Caught by a farmer: ‘Shot or bummed which way do you fancy dying?’ I think I suggested shot while being ‘bummed’ as I really wanted to avoid the farmers ‘cum face’. In truth he was a very helpful man and all we needed to do was show a little humility for our minor mistake.
The button mushroom:‘Does your cock shrivel up like a button mushroom during an ultra?’ asked Pete. Insightful was my first thought, however, both Ryan and I simply reached down to our respective ankles to scratch the end of ours to give him the answer!
My comrades: Ryan and Pete, two men I’d never met before who were simply amazing. Let’s put it this way we didn’t need the sheep that night 😉
Fixing my bollocks: the poor young ladies who were running next to us for various bits possibly having to witness me fixing my beloved Anton buff round my testicles on more than one occasion.
The things we learned about each other: Needless to say one of us shared too much but the ‘titwank’ story and the tale of the ‘sensible car purchase’ will be retold many times I suspect
The Flintstones: Being outvoted on the Betty/Wilma debate and just how manly is Fred Flintstone? I swear neither Ryan or Pete understood the real ‘Wilma’ or that Barney was a probably a sensitive caring lover for Betty.
Favourite insult: I like ‘cockwomble’, I’m a fan of ‘used cockbag’, ‘well I don’t think you can beat cunt’. I shan’t tell you who said what.
Upon finishing: Joe asks, ‘can we get you anything?’ ‘Hookers,’ I replied. ‘I think all the rugby guys have gone home sadly…’
This isn’t my favourite ultra – it would have to go a long way to unseat the SainteLyon and the Skye Trail Ultra – but that said this was an amazing race put on by people who really know what they’re doing and I would urge you to take a look at this for next year – you may well decide it’s not for you but for those that it is for will come away having being battered and bruised but feeling elated. So instead of signing up for the same old, same old maybe give this a go – I did and it really paid off.
As for my race? Well I was a couple of hours slower than I had hoped but I had a great time with two amazing guys and lots of other awesome runners. South Wales 50 is a race that will live long in the memory and although the 100 might be off the table for next year I suspect I will be back to give it a crack sooner rather than later and who knows maybe I will end up taking on the 100 next year.
Post race? I’ve eaten all the biscuits and my testicles have calmed down but the blisters on my feet are some of the worst I’ve had in ages and will take a few more days to heal – but the pain is well worth it.
It would be wildly unfair of me to review the MIUT (Madeira Island Ultra Trail) as I didn’t finish, nor did I get close to finishing and I’d decided I wasn’t going to write anything about my experience until I realised that I want you to understand how amazing an experience this race is and if you want something mind bogglingly tough then you have to do this.
Pre-race I’d been worried, very worried about all sorts of things like the elevation, the length of time, temperature, etc and upon flying into Madeira my fears proved worthy as I looked at the climb out of the capital city never mind the real mountains! To say I nearly shat myself is an understatement.
My experience I lined up in Porto Moniz with 750(ish) other runners and when the start came I jostled my way forward a little to look out at the upcoming trail storm. What I was greeted by was the most amazing race I’ve done so far.
From the off set we were climbing, weaving our way out of the town and uphill as quickly as possible. I unfurled my poles within the first kilometre as the realisation of what I was running finally hit me.
The first 1,000 metre climb seemed to be filled with steps and I chose small speedy steps to try and put some distance between me and the cut-off. We reached the real trails within a couple of kilometres and here the runners slowed as the climbing got sharper but I pressed on in what I considered an impressive time and when I reached the top I felt amazing. I stepped briefly to one side to grab some video footage and photographs and listened to the soon to be deafening noise in the distance.
What the hell was it? The answer to that was simple, it was the first of the many small villages and this one happened to be using the acoustics of the valley they lived in to draw the runners to them.
Like all the runners before me I was exhilarated by the welcome and bounded through the town, chest puffed out and a faster than was recommended run through the the throngs of people. From here it was all uphill again and it was a long slow slog through trails I was glad I couldn’t see clearly as it was obvious that I was facing sheer drops as the altitude grew ever higher.
It was somewhere here in the darkness that I had the first of my three falls – stumbling on some rocks that slipped out from beneath my feet and I cracked down on my left hand side, not too hard but enough to shake me. I stopped briefly and checked for blood but I was okay and so proceeded to the top of the ascent before I kicked on towards the 15km marker and the first of the many potential time out zones.
Arriving into check I had 30 minutes spare but it was clear this one was going to be tight all the way round and so I flew out of check with all the speed I could muster.
There’s no doubt that my failure at MIUT was down to the first 30km which brutalised me in ways that I’ve never had before and if I had decided on the shorter 80km distance I’m convinced I would have finished but from the second checkpoint to the third was a tribute to ascending hell and all I could do was hold on and hope that I could pick up the pace later in the race – if there was to be a later in the race!
Reaching summit after summit I realised I was likely to fail in my latest venture and even though before I’d started out that this was unlikely to end up in a finish I didn’t want to go out like this – weeping pitifully.
And then I caught a break – descent.
While my uphills are a bit rubbish I’m actually pretty good on the down. I can run fast and controlled across difficult and technical terrain and even as MIUT called for sometimes (down steps). I was able to take these hard descents faster than those in front of me and therefore I was catching people up – 20 or 30 were caught in about 5 or 6km and I pressed harder and harder through the night. As checkpoints fell I could see many people retiring and this was inspiring me to keep going.
Therefore, while descent was an option I knew I had to go ‘balls out’ if I was stand any chance of making it into respectable distances. And as I drew into the next ascents I pressed myself until I saw the first chinks of light in the day – I’d made it through the night.
So, in some fresh, fast moving water I washed the sweat and the fear away, sun creamed up I pushed on through the early morning light. I was still laughing and joking and soaking up all the views I could. Maybe just maybe I stood a chance…
But perhaps I was soaking in too many views as I found myself caught by a low hanging branch in the face which took my feet out from beneath me. Ouch.
Landing hard on my already tender back I needed a few minutes sit down to clean myself up and check myself over. Blood around my ankle and also in my hair suggested I’d been cut but thankfully not badly and a bit of spit and polish I was fine to resume my endeavours.
The ascent to Encumeada was tough though and as the morning warmed up I began feeling the day kicking me in the guts. I was unable to eat anything other than lemon and orange slices accompanied by large volumes of Pepsi offering recovery in the checkpoints.
The water from my soft bottle tasted unpleasant and was making me feel sick and stomach issues forced a stop to take the bear like option for a poo in the woods and had it been discovered most would have considered this a big, rather sickly bear.
Returning to my ascent I was feeling tired but had managed to mostly retain the gains in position I’d made into the next checkpoint where warm food and tired runners were in abundance. I needed neither and simply filled my water and drank lots of Pepsi before setting out – the words of a fellow runner ringing in my ears ‘this is the hardest section’.
On paper, this statement seemed absurd as it looked much easier than that which had come before but in practice this for me was the most brutal of the sections.
Within a kilometre I sat down on the side of the trail, poles beside me, wanting to give up. A lady plonked herself behind me – presumably considering a rest stop a good idea and we chatted – I complimented her in the excellent choice of ‘loud leggings’ and we overcame the language barrier as her English was pretty good and I was grateful for the natter. We set off together, climbing the length of the gas pipe that snaked across the trail and into the hills once more. I let the young lady go on ahead, telling her she had more in her legs than me – which was true. I then continued at a slow and steady pace but as I ambled up the hills I took my worst tumble. Misjudging a small leap across some rocks, I slipped, face first into those rocks. I slumped, staring into the abyss below me – realising I really wasn’t very far from oblivion.
Minutes passed before I collected myself together, my legs like jelly from a combination of the race and my fall and the heat of the day was now taking its toll.
Despite still mostly running I knew my race was coming to an end – I simply couldn’t go fast enough and my fall had shaken my already shattered confidence.
Shortly after though I met another runner, a Scottish gentleman who gave me enough of a boost and a focus to press on a little while longer but at the top of the ascent I made the inevitable call to the GingaNinja. I knew that I would miss the cut-off, and so it proved – but only by a couple of minutes but that was enough.
I was well beaten.
I stood in the checkpoint with other deflated runners and drank from the litre bottle of Pepsi – swigging it back like it was White Lightning. I’d run my heart out for this one, I’d left nothing inside but I’d come up short.
What did I learn? I was listening to John Kelly talk about his Barkley Marathons prep in the aftermath of this race and his words resonated deeply with me, especially when he said ‘do things that you’ll fail at, go and get lost…’ This is the journey I’m on now, learning how to succeed and also how to fail.
Importantly I learned that I need to get faster in the climbs because this is why I was timed out. I’m actually pretty fast on the flat and the downhills where I can hold my own against good runners but my ascending is pretty shocking and so I’m going to be working on this with lots of hiking and hill repeats.
I’m very keen to learn from this experience. I’m determined I am going to use it to get stronger and better at these tougher races. If I commit to do more of them, more of this type of training and if I run in locations like Madeira more regularly I will start finishing these races and hopefully run more competitive times, well improved times.
MIUT was the hardest and most brutal event I’ve ever taken part in – whereas I have no doubt that I failed Haria Extreme and UTBCN because of external, non-race related factors I have even less doubt that my failure to finish MIUT was simply because it is beyond my current experience and capabilities.
Any regrets? Two – the first was my decision to wear the Ultimate Direction PB3.0, a brilliant race pack that simply doesn’t suit me. It’s caused me a huge amount of pain in my back at both the UTBCN and MIUT, sadly I think this will be being consigned to 30 mile ultra pile. The pain I experienced certainly influenced the outcome of this race but not enough to have stopped my time out – this would have been my end result anyway just perhaps a few miles further down the road.