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‘Oi, you’re going the wrong way’ came the call, this I thought was going to be a very long day.

We’ve all signed up to races without doing our due diligence and that was very much the case with the East Hanningfield Marathon – basically it was coming to the end of 2017 I hadn’t got any races booked in and I didn’t really fancy a third round of Country to Capital – so I signed up for this. I did know that Top Day events had put on a wonderful little event last year at Hockley Woods and having thoroughly enjoyed that I assumed it would be much the same again.

The GingaNinja had agreed to take me and, with ASK in tow, was going to spend the day doing family things in Essex while I ran. We rolled up to the village sports hall nice and early and already a couple of dozen runners were chatting and milling around. I picked up my number, narrative instructions and pins then rejoined the family with nothing but thoughts a pre-race toilet visit to keep me on my toes. The day warmed up nicely when the lovely Rachel Smith of SVN events came over to say hello and then Rob Haldane who I hadn’t seen in an age confirmed he would be at checkpoint 2 – this was clearly going to be a friendly race.

With the various greetings done and dusted I took a look over the narrative instructions – it had been nearly 5 years since I was last reliant on instructions but I hoped that my navigation skills had improved enough that this wouldn’t be a challenge – then I read then.

SA through WG WE with FLHS to FC through double WM KG but don’t XRD have LD in middle of RD wishing you were SWE having a POO not looking for a dog poo bin in a field followed by a BB but SA… it was a lot like that… Frantically I began trying to memorise the abbreviations and then read the instructions to myself but it was becoming a mess in my head and so I decided that I would ‘learn while doing’ and try and get to grips with the narration while moving.

At 9.30 we all bimbled outside into the chilly January air and after a short racing briefing were sent off to find our way home as quickly as we could. It all started pretty well, round the field, follow the guys in front and keep up with the instructions. It had been a heavy training week as I returned from the post festive season lull so I was expecting to be running very slowly but I was merrily making my way through the runners and nearing the pacy ones at the front. This was as much to do with taking the first sections slowly to ensure they were going the right way as it was the sheer excellence of my running.

The course was incredibly damp but the heavy rains had dried up enough to make everything slick and therefore progress was slow but this did provide an excellent leveller for people like me who, though not fast, can be consistent regardless of the conditions. I had chosen my Topo Terraventure as shoes for this particular event and they proved an excellent choice as they cut through the worst of mud and by about mile 2 I was beginning to feel at home.

Of course when you feel at home is when your eye comes off the ball and then boom – wrong way. Thankfully I noticed pretty quickly but even so this was a mistake I could ill afford to make and quickly doubled back about 500metres to see runners making a sharp left turn. Others followed but perhaps the more sensible runners simply carried on and rejoined their fellow competitors a little way further up but I didn’t want to get into those kind of navigational mishaps and stick to my plan.

I used some of my reserves to push myself back into the middle of the pack and reasserted my credentials as navigator through the instructions and pressed onwards. The route passed across roads, fields and waterways and as always Essex provided visual treats whichever way you looked. There may not be mountains in Essex but it is a beautiful county and once you’re into the greenery here it’s spectacular and I remember thinking as I ran into the checkpoint that I really needed to remember to look up – take some pictures, etc.

At the first checkpoint I stuffed my face with pretty much everything I could get my hands on and there was a fine selection of sweet and savoury treats and the very professional volunteering was much appreciated. With my self imposed three minutes being up I set off at a canter but dropped back a little from the chaps I had run the last mile with – they were clearly going to be right in the mix for a top ten finish – I just wanted to finish – though there would be a bit of back and forth with them on the journey to checkpoint 2.

It was here that I met Dave again, we had met briefly in the run up to checkpoint one but this time we made conversation covering by a bit of family and the like, others runners would pass by or we would overtake and there was a nice convivial atmosphere as the sun shone down and the cold wind whipped around us. Despite my generally good mood my legs could feel the burn during the second section and a lack of fitness aha mild over training in the previous week were catching me. Thankfully I was able to hold on to the coat tails of the runners ahead of me, this was now not so much a directional aid as an inspiration aid.

Landing into the second checkpoint brought me back to Rob and after a brief hello and grabbing as much food as I could Dave and I set off again. My companion and I while not attached at the hip trundled through the mud – never too far apart (though I’m very glad I wasn’t next to him when he lost his feet and took a tumble in some deep water – I didn’t want to bathe with him!) and from here we pretty much stayed around or about one another.

The road to checkpoints 3 and 4 were hard and leggy. I know that I was struggling in the claggy ground and my much loved Topo were choosing to carry the weight of the muddy fields beneath them rather than clear quickly but thankfully the company of Dave was deflecting from the exhaustion in my undertrained legs. However, as much as I loved Dave I could have killed him when he directed us down a path at the side of a Morrisons Supermarket – the trouble was that the fence had collapsed and we were required to crawl on hands and knees through the dog turd laden path! The worst 150 metres of running in over 150 races! Still all good fun.

There were a few miles left after our ‘tunnel’ experience and we ambled purposefully towards the finish – the unrelenting nature of the route meant that even these last few miles felt tough but I believe both Dave and I (and everyone else) will have had a brilliant time. Ambling in the direction of the finish we were passed by a couple of runners once more and waved then cheerily onwards as we made our way but less than a mile later we came to a crossing of the ways, in one direction we could see the village we were aiming for, in the other the two runners who had strode last us about 10 minutes earlier. In the distance we could see them questioning them their directions and decided that this answered our own quandary and we crossed the field.

Feeling rather chipper now, although I’d pulled a groin muscle at about mile 20 which was making things a bit unpleasant, we jogged and chatted our way through the last of the mud and into the glorious sight of the parked cars that the runners had left earlier. We were nearly there, a final last shunt and a stop at the finish line to ensure we crossed the line together.

Caked in mud and filled with joy we collected our medals and removed our footwear before disappearing off. I can’t recall if I thanked Dave for all of his support but without him I wouldn’t have run this nearly as swiftly or as easily – cheers geezer.

What a day.

Key points

  • Distance: Marathon
  • Profile: Nothing too severe, couple of hundred metres of climb
  • Date: January 2018
  • Location: Essex
  • Cost: £20
  • Terrain: Trail
  • Tough Rating: 3/5

Route: The route was really very interesting and varied, remaining on the trail for the majority of the race. It also took in some of the St Peters Way I believe, which I think is one of the best kept secrets in England for a really tough path to run. This is a highly recommended route. The self navigation element might be a worry for some (as it was for me) and the description looked incredibly daunting but when you’re out there and you’ve memorised a few of the abbreviations the it becomes much easier. Saying that though I still added a solid mile and a half additional distance to my journey with mistakes in my navigation.

Organisation: I’d run with Top Day Events at Hockley Woods last year and the organisation was immaculate and they replicated this over the longer distance with a well drilled and incredibly supportive team for whom nothing was too much trouble and it had an informally professional feel to it which made for a great day.

Support: Aid stations about every six miles and lots of sweet and savoury snacks available – it was a really good spread and the supporters, be they the volunteers or the runners individual supporters were fantastic.

Awards: Medal and some post race food and drink. Lovely. All nice and low key but perfect reflections of a perfect race.

Value for money: I rate value against criteria like the route, the medal, the experience, the support and of course the cost. Against all the above criteria this race is a class act and deserves to sell out year in, year out. It’s a great race, it’s great fun and a good reputation for it is very much deserved.

Conclusion: Low key, well organised, intimate, full of trail marathon runners who just love being out there and in the mess and a wonderful day for it made the East Hanningfield Marathon a real classic and worthy of your attention. Top Day really are putting on great little events with lots of heart, try them out and definitely consider giving the East Hanningfield brute a little go.

Keep up the good work guys.

Attending an inaugural running event can be a dangerous thing, the route may not be fully tested, the organisation might not be quite as slick as when the event has been running a while and the atmosphere may be dampened by the attracting of fewer runners than a more established event…

Thankfully we then have the Hockley Trail Challenge which was blighted by none of the above, in fact I think it’s fair to say that this looped course deserves nothing but high praise and return visits! But let me rewind to 10 days before the race and recount another sorry tale from my personal pantheon of running tales.

I was recounting the story of the week before the Green Man Ultra in 2016 and how I’d been pushed into the road on New Bond Street and been hit by a car mere days before the Bristolian 45 miles. I joked that I hoped that didn’t happen again, it seemed however, that fate is a cruel mistress and as I was bounding along New Bond Street a plethora of tourists refused to get out of my way and I was forced into the road, pulling a muscle in my calf as I landed awkwardly.

Boom! Lightning can strike twice.

I hobbled home and almost immediately cancelled my 49 mile Milton Keynes to London run and sat for hours with the TENS machine and the bastard rumble roller I own – there was Hockley Woods to get ready for! I decided rest was the order of the week and reduced my running to the bare minimum did nothing over the weekend and managed to see my physiotherapist the day before the event (never ideal). Anyway patched up and rested I rolled up to Hockley Woods in good spirits and a desire to have an amble round a new location.

By the time I arrived at 8.30 a few runners had congregated round the registration but many were hiding in their cars avoiding a pre-race soaking. Number collection was swift and smooth and I ran into Cherie and her husband who I met at the Ridgeway last year and we exchanged banter about our various abilities to do directions!

I soon returned to the family who had decided to join me so that the hound and the GingaNinja could get a few miles round the woods in before departing for a morning of trampolining pre-race UltraBaby and I bounded round on the Unirider chasing ThunderPad and the GingaNinja. However runners were soon called over for a short but useful race briefing and we all lined up for six hours of trail shenanigans!

I took up my customary position at the back of the course but as the start was called I quickly made my way forward through the other eventers, quickly catching the front four or five runners and settling into a very pleasant stride.

As I often do on looped events I look for markers and note conditions underfoot so as to try and see where problems, challenges or faster sections will occur later in the race and this one the course was replete with challenging conditions, grinding up hills, gnarly trail and the odd speedy downhill.

I quickly realised that the use of the word challenge in the title was very appropriate.
Regardless I pressed onwards, enjoying the spray of mud that had erupted all over my legs and I thundered through the first lap in under 30 minutes despite the reasonably heavy rain. The second lap went in an even faster time despite a stop to speak to UltraBaby who had been chasing round the woods after runners and our Spaniel, when lap three dropped at a similar pace my thoughts turned to a sub 4 hour marathon time for the first time in ages and a little over 4 hours for the eight laps I had targeted.

I took a few minutes at the checkpoint to gather myself for another lap and then set out again, still making good time and looking at a little over 2hrs for the first four laps.

I was about halfway round lap 4 when I came across a horse riding teen, I’ll assume parent and dogs. Having been kicked by a horse in the past I know instinctively to give them a wide berth and I’d noted that the Collie looked nervous and I felt best I give it some space too. Sadly the dog decided to run between my legs and, in my efforts to avoid giving it a thoroughly good kicking, upended me – forcing me down badly and heavily on my groin.
I managed to hobble away, there was no word from the owner, an acknowledgement or even apology might have been nice but still. I knew I’d pulled something quite painfully and so felt around to see what was tense but it was just sore. I pressed in some thumbs and then moved on gingerly.

At this point I hoped I could run it off but all running was doing was aggravating it. I stopped periodically to stretch my leg out which would give a minute or two of relief but the Hockley Trail Challenge as a race, for me, was over.

I moved into the fifth lap looking grim faced and eventually telephoned the GingaNinja asking for advice, however, having already decided that I wasn’t going to give up I pushed on despite her wise words. I found myself now being overtaken and in some cases lapped which simply irritated me but there was nothing for it I had made my decision and you don’t DNF the marathon distance when you’re so close to home.

Thankfully I was still managing to run some sections of each loop which kept both my sanity intact and my timings reasonable given the pain I was in and I was fortunate to meet some lovely people as I ambled along (most notably Joe, a lovely, hardcore ultra running chap from Tipperary!) who provided excellent distractions.

Reaching the eighth lap I stopped at the checkpoint for a few minutes and ate some chocolate raisins, looking longingly at the medals, thinking ‘I should have had one of those hours ago’. But with these thoughts put out of mind I pushed on for one last go round Hockley Woods. With the rain long behind us, the sun out and the knowledge that I was less than 6km from finishing I continued to run/walk these last few steps.

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As a very pleasant surprise though my little daughter UltraBaby was waiting for me a couple of hundred feet from the finish line (thanks to the lovely volunteers for the picture). She jumped out to ‘scare’ me as she is prone to do and then joined me for those final metres. We bimbled towards the finish as UltraBaby told me we were racing and we crossed the line to much applause from the amazing volunteers. Sadly for me UltraBaby stole the medal, little sodding monster – thankfully only one of us ended up coated in mud and it wasn’t her!

Key points

  • Distance: 5.5(ish)km loops
  • Profile: Undulating
  • Date: March 2017
  • Location: Hockley Woods, Essex
  • Cost: £30
  • Terrain: Muddy trail
  • Tough Rating: 3/5

Route
The route was much harder than I had imagined, hillier than I was expecting and conditions on the ground and the lapped nature of the course meant it got cut up pretty quickly. That being said once the rain stopped and the runners thinned out the course quickly returned to being more runnable for the most part. In truth despite the hills and mud this was a good running course with more than enough interest to sustain you for as many laps as you can manage. Hockley Woods looks like a really good training ground and if you’re local I’d recommend banging a few miles out.

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Organisation
The organisation was brilliant, the route was well marked, there were photographers and floating volunteers on the route and the checkpoint was well manned, well stocked and well protected for any gear that we had left behind. The volunteers were always on hand to provide the wrist bands to count our laps and there was always a lot of love and cheers as you rocked up to the checkpoint.

Awards
Medal and goody bag. The medal was big, heavy and has a fun feeling to it, the goody bag had Maltesers in (and other stuff) and that’s more than good enough for me. The real award though was the event and I think this was the general feeling from the runners I spoke to during the day.

Value for money
£30 seems like a very fair amount for a race this well organised.

I saw a Facebook post that suggested that £30 was too much but actually look at what you’re getting. A glorious loop on a glorious course with a big bespoke medal, an incredibly well stocked aid station/checkpoint and a really good atmosphere all supported by a wonderful team of volunteers who never stopped smiling. I’ll put it like this, I’ve paid a lot more for a lot less (I’m thinking East London half marathon and even the Royal Parks Half Marathon).

Conclusion
The Ranscombe Challenge (read the review here) has always held a special place in my heart as my favourite ‘laps’ marathon/ultra but the Hockley Trail Challenge has replaced it. I know that my experience was marred by getting injured but that doesn’t detract from the brilliance of this event. I would highly recommend running it’s a great experience and I know that I for one will at some point be back to add an ultra amount of laps to marathon amount of laps!

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img_7095I lined up with the other runners and waited for the less than dramatic start but it was the kind of start line you wanted at 8am on a Sunday morning the weekend before Christmas. What was I waiting for? Well that was the Sikhs in the City Dawn ’til Dusk event.

It was a crisp day to run 25 laps of a 2km course in Redbridge, Essex and despite having had a pretty rubbish week this felt like just the the way to end that week and more importantly my running year.

On most days I’d probably have said that this wasn’t an interesting course, there was a lot of tarmac, there were a couple of busy roads and there was an uphill and a downhill however, there was something in air, maybe it was festive magic, maybe it was something more mystic but whatever it was I ran the first lap of the route and thoroughly enjoyed it.

I rolled up the hill with all the energy of someone running the half marathon and stopped only to have a high five with UltraBaby. I found that as I drifted round the laps I came across a number of runners I had previously met before. Ian and Bill were two fellow ultra runners that I’d first met at the St. Peters Way event in 2014 and we jollied our way round at various points on the course. Clare and Sam were also on the course, I’d met this pair of brilliant and tenacious runners at both the twilight Ultra and also the Saltmarsh 75 and they were determined to get a photograph with Fauja Singh (the man and marathon running legend – 104 years old and still faster than me). What this did was make it even more of an enjoyable event  and I was able to therefore have very pleasant conversation pretty much all the way round.

Now for those of you concerned that this wasn’t a race and more of a social gathering – let me assure you that nothing could be further from the truth.

There were a number of ‘speed goats’ on the course giving it a proper go and watching them going full pelt was inspiring. Still, I’ll admit after my exploits in France a couple of weeks earlier that was never going to be me, I was going to be going slowly.  Anyway, I trundled round at a fair old pace and by the time I got to about mile ten I was feeling very fuzzy and warm.

I’d also started on the treats that the Sikhs in the City Running Club had laid on for us – cakes, breads, crisps and still and fizzy drink options. I’d added a bit of my own chocolate milkshake on the runners table but the organisers had gone out of there way to get it right and there was a little surprise as the half marathon point rolled round for most of us. The surprise came in the form of the onion bhaji and it was the finest onion bhaji I have ever tasted, it was warming and it was spicy with a delicious after taste that left you wanting more. It might be said this was my in-race highlight!

My only problem was that the combination of tarmac and hills had really knackered my glutes and I was feeling it by the time I hit mile 15 and so after speaking to a couple of the other runners I made the sensible decision to stop at the marathon.

I figured that for the purpose of another one towards the Hundred Marathon Club it makes no difference, I’ll still get a medal and I saw no reason to break myself further. Therefore with a bit of a spurt at lap 21 I sped up the hill to UltraBaby and the GingaNinja (who had returned from a trip to Westfield) and crossed the line. I went and claimed my medal that was presented to me by the brilliant Fauja Singh (I was much more excited by this than when Mimi Anderson presented me with my medal at the SDW50). I also made a grab for as many of the bhajis as I could – truly its worth doing the race just for these.

Conclusion
What a great event, with a great medal, organised by a wonderful running club. I’ll be back and next time (hopefully) I’ll finish the ultra on a tougher than it looks course and I’ll enjoy the fact it was a bargain at just £30 – and that £30 contains a nice T-shirt and a decent goody bag.

This race comes highly recommended as do the Sikhs in the City. Thanks guys

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
   

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I could sum this up in one sentence, that sentence would be ‘feck me that was fun’. But this would provide an injustice to supporting a lovely new event that clearly took lots of organisation and had certain challenges of nature that threw things slightly into chaos – let me explain.

I signed up a couple of weeks ago to Xtreme Beach with Xtreme running because it simply sound an absolute hoot and because at the time I didn’t have a knackered Achilles, but just a few short days before, for the first time I injured the one thing that I really didn’t want to injure. Thankfully with a lot of effort and a lot of ice I managed to drag myself to start line in Bradwell on Sea in Essex. The first thing we noticed was that the emailed out directions to the event were very good and we arrived in very good time with the added bonus of free parking. Awaiting us was signage to indicate we had arrived and there were runners and race organisers floating around directing people over to the start line – all good so far. I even noticed that the couple of toilets weren’t in bad condition either – although I was there early and didn’t use them but the good lady did and she wasn’t too distressed by them.

I nipped over to the registration tent where I remembered that I had left my ‘Waiver form’, say on the printer at home, but the guys resolved this problem pretty easily for which I was grateful. I was asked how many laps I intended to do and I offered my usual – all of them please answer, the full 18km. I had decided that I would keep running until it was no longer safe to do so and therefore I needed to make sure I had the right amount of distance signed up for.

I was a little distressed as my feet had taken a soaking in the long grass on the way to the registration but there was nothing to be done about this now and although I had now seem a much drier path it was too late – perhaps a little directional signage would have helped here? I have to say though it was a rather jovial atmosphere though and by the time a few dozen runners had arrived and the music was in full swing, one could of mistaken this for a bit of rave had it not been for the early morning setting and the amount of trainers and Lycra on show. Sadly it then turned a bit miserable when the first obstacle hit home – the hail storm, this was well and truly beyond the organisers control but being in the long grass of the field with no cover meant that we pretty much all took quite an unpleasant soaking and the race was still 45 minutes away. I was freezing and contemplated pulling out as what looked like a load of fun now looked like being pretty miserable but I’m glad I didn’t.

10.30 turned up and the race should have started but over the PA system we heard it was running a few minutes late and that the warm up would take place soon. This was fine as at least they kept us informed and the warm up was okay although I felt some of it in the long grass might have led to potential injuries and given my already knackered state I took this section rather easy. So despite a few teething problems, mostly caused by Mother Nature the registration was pretty smooth.

At the start line we all ganged up together and readied for the off, I started in my customary place at the back and would work my way forward, the first kilometre was fine although bereft of any really nice scenery or challenges and I used this to move up the field a little bit. Then we saw it, the first of the challenges, we crossed into what can only be described as a very long stream of glorious shit, chest high in places and filling all our crevices with black mud. My Speedcross 3 with their gloriously grippy grip kept getting caught in the mud and refusing to come free but I powered forward as only a runner can! I slipped at one point and my head was dunked just below the surface and this was the bit where I knew I was going to enjoy this. After what felt like an age we came out of the mud and many of the runners simply started to walk but I pulled myself out and started to run for the monkey bars, it was a great disappointment that I saw a number of the runners avoiding the black pool of filth because if you weren’t going to do the adventure element of the race then what was the point? Anyway I digress .. I managed about 2/3 of the monkey bars and then hurtled past a dude called Gary who I had met earlier, I jumped under the first of the netting and used my head as a guide (getting friction burns on my scalp I think!) coming out of this was a delight until I crossed onto the beach and the lovely Marshall advised we were going down on hands and knees again. I adopted the same routine and came up for air quickly, holding the netting for my fellow competitors. Pushing onwards and upwards I came to the tyre lift and hurled some abuse at a lovely chap who was offering comedy support, into the water once again and then back out hurling my tyre on the rack. I was now tiring, more from a lack of training and being injured than the course but it was taking its toll and I hoped to simply make it to that second lap. I threw myself over the double wall they had erected and then onto the bag of stone lift – it was here I decided on doing just a single lap as the weight of the stone make breathing difficult and while I recovered once the weight was off me I wasn’t sure I fancied it again and my Achilles was feeling tighter than I had hoped. I therefore trundled beyond the turn, thanking the Marshall and organiser at the turning but deciding to go to the finish. I did give the finish a bit of fizz as is my usual way and I sprinted straight into the final obstacle of two large gentlemen brandishing large cushioned batons to beat me with! Ha, wonderful.

I was cut, bloodied and bruised but I felt rather wonderful at the finish line and this was a great event.

Perhaps a few things to consider though, I run for the bling … I suppose I’d rather have a medal than a t-shirt, the goody bag was decent, banana, hot soup, T-shirt, water (although would like to have seen the logo on the T-shirt). The registration area would probably have been better in the car park, or on slightly more even and drier ground given the autumnal setting and then we could have been led to the start line.

The marshals were excellent, giving clear directions and lots of lovely support, so many thanks to them. I imagine that as the event gets bigger and better the organisers will add little tricks and touches to the route and the obstacles but I thought they made great use of the landscape and terrain in developing complex challenges. The choice of 6,12 and 18km on the day and as you are going round was also very welcome and that option to stop when you needed to meant I was actually able to participate despite injury.

I would certainly do this again, although the normal entry price of £40 seems reasonably steep – even things like the Grim and Beast in the East manage to keep it a little cheaper than this but the discounts via Twitter (and I imagine Facebook) made the cost more sensible – infact for the £22.00 I paid I thought it was a bargain.

In conclusion I can say a few things, the first is that while this is not on the scale of the Mens Health Survival of the Fittest, nor Grim Challenge it has an epic charm all of its own and if they manage to tweak some of the very minor problems in registration then they have a winning formula and coupled with a great attitude and a listening ear this event will become a regular on many peoples calendar. Finally I would like to congratulate the organisers for their hard work because without them we wouldn’t have places to race and they seemed so genuinely passionate – plus the thing I really loved was that they wanted the runners feedback – this is the kind of thing that will make this event stand out as it moves forward. So thanks very much and good luck for the future Xtreme Running and I look forward to seeing you for the 18km next year.

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The image above is a near 15 year old pair of Adidas Response TR X, they only ever ran one race – the Preston 10km in 2004 and for such a fine pair of running shoes this seems unfair. I came across them just a few short hours ago while grabbing some bits in preparation for the Snowdonia Marathon at the end of the month. I remembering buying them from a little shop in Blackpool while I was still a student and I wore them daily for years until about 2005 whenI finally decided they had done their duty, the problem was I suppose I love them enough to keep them and worse keep moving them around with me. Anyway, back to the story, I was in the loft collecting items for Snowdonia and there they were, calling to me. For the marathon I knew that I couldn’t wear them but then I remembered that I’m running the Xtreme Beach 18km Obstacle Course – I need to wear old trainers for this and I can think of no more a fitting tribute to these wonderful workhorse trainers than to hit the obstacle course at full pelt in them.

I looking forward to the Xtreme Beach but have no idea what to make of it but going out there is a pair of runners that I trust despite their age will be brilliant. Here’s to a great race.

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