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My favourite places to run haven’t always been in races, infact as I was drawing up this list I realised that my favourite places to run have mainly been away from racing. I came to the conclusion that this must be because I simply have more time to look up and around but then it could equally be that I simply enjoyed these places more than many of the race locations I’ve found myself bimbling around.

Below are my top 15, there is an order to them but depending on my mood that changes because the locations below all have very special memories for me.

  • Luosto
  • Lyon
  • Ashenbank Woods
  • Isle of Skye
  • Budapest
  • Greenwich foot tunnel
  • Grizedale Forest
  • Lacs de Vaches
  • Bude
  • Brooklyn Bridge
  • Vigo
  • Blackpool seafront
  • County Clare
  • Lanzarote
  • Winter Hill

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Luosto
I was incredibly fortunate last year to visit the Arctic Circle and take a few days out to run in the wilds of Finland. For what felt like an eternity I simply took myself off the local paths and surrendered myself to the beautiful frosted landscape and ran for all I was worth. The trails in the winter are tough, the snow is deep, the terrain varied but understandable and yet, at the same time, terrifyingly unknown. I recorded some GPS data while I was out there running and I would often find myself miles from the nearest known path, not another human being in sight and minus 10 degrees most days. Luosto and Phya were an unforgettable experience which would be difficult to replicate.



Lyon
It’s well documented here that forever (I believe) the SainteLyon will be my favourite ultra marathon and prior to racing there I had never been and it wasn’t until I was running along some very technical and challenging terrain that I realised that this jewel of a place would live long in my heart. There are no mountains that I ran up, nothing that might break you – just good old fashioned hard slog trails that demanded you pay attention lest you be overhauled by the challenge and the terrain. I recall looking over Lyon as i made the final couple of climbs and this reasonably small city simply sprawled out ahead of me. If you’re a local to Lyon and it’s surrounding trails then you’re a very lucky runner.



Ashenbank Woods
Ashenbank Woods are one of ‘go to’ places, close enough to home to make it a very accessible running location and more fun than you can shake a stick at given that it really isn’t a very big wood. There are defined trails but importantly there are lots of routes to find, trees to leap over, mud to thunder through and hills to hurl yourself up and down. The fact that it is then connected to another half a dozen woodlands and green spaces means you can extend out your enjoyment but I’ve never found the need. I can run round and round in circle(ish) shapes at Ashenbank and never cover the same spot twice – now how many places can say that?

Skye
If you want to know the approximate route that I ran then grab yourself a copy of the Harvey’s Skye map and follow it. I recall crossing the Skye Bridge and feeling like I’d arrived in some sort of paradise – not tropical just pure beauty. Skye is a truly bright star in a country of glistening running locations. I was there for the Skye Trail Ultra and running the 74 miles (and a bit more given my getting lost) I saw some of the most dramatic landscapes the UK has to offer. There was no moment in all the miles I ran on Skye that I felt bored or lacking inspiration, I ached to see round the next corner and longed to admire the distant hills. Skye is a spectacular place and I will treasure my first, but certainly not last, trip there.

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Budapest
The GingaNinja was six months pregnant when I made my second trip to Budapest in 2014. Given that she wasn’t quite as active as normal I was given a little time for exploring the city through running. Budapest has the Danube to run along which is filled with cultural nuggets and little parks that you can admire and pass through but ultimately it’s the huge heritage of the city and ease of navigation that makes it a wonderful running destination for me. I always packed my phone when I went running so that I could capture the statues, the memorials and the history of the place – Budapest overflowed my cultural cup, and then some. The pleasant weather of late April and early May gave good running conditions too, if you’re in Budapest it will provide you with an awesome assortment of running opportunity.



Greenwich foot tunnel
What’s the best sound in London? I know the answer to this and it’s four runners going full pelt through the Greenwich foot tunnel in zero drop minimalist trainers. Never have 370.2 metres been more fun and add in the race up and down the stairs and you can join me in hogs heaven. I love pulling away from one end only to leap up the stairs at the other end. Recently I took UltraBaby and we thundered through the tunnel in the ultramobile and I spent the whole time smiling. Recommended.


Grizedale Forest
I first went to Grizedale Forest in the Lake District when I was at school, not for running though, for art. When I’m not a runner I’m a graphic designer, illustrator, artist, creator. Grizedale always reminds me of the best of times, the combination of my life’s loves, the outdoors, running, the Lake District and creating – the forest itself is filled with beautiful natural sculptures – formed mainly from the materials found in and around the forest. On number our occasions I’ve gone through hunting out the sculptures like an orienteering run but mostly I like to simply drop into the woods and pick my way through it – thundering up and down the black mountain bike tracks and then stumping through a fresh formed stream intent on pushing you backwards. The Lakes as a whole are some of the UKs best running but Grizedale holds special memories for me.

Lacs de Vaches
Prior to my CCC attempt I spent a few days away from the Chanonix hub with friends of the GingaNinja and one of the locations we visited was a place called Lacs de Vaches or Cow Lake. I had been wanting to experience what exhausting climbs would be like for the race and Lac de Vaches had the main viewpoint (the lake) at 2318 metres above sea level with a starting point of around 1200 metres above sea level covering around 5km. For the main ascent I strapped a baby to me as this addition weight would more than replicate the pack I would race with and I set off to find unbelievably beautiful views. The trail was hard and coming towards me this less than sunny Sunday morning were lots of runners racing down the valley and I watched as they all bade me a good morning while hurling themselves across the very challenging landscape. By the time we’d reached the lake itself we knew the trip had been worth it, the lake was a beautiful grey colour, surrounded by mountains and hills on all sides. Giant boulders shouldered the lake for shelter and dotted on the lake were a series of large boulders making a kind of bridge so you could cross from one side to another. Jogging down from the ascent I realised how much I’d come to love France, Lac de Vaches is just one example, perhaps my favourite example of how breathtaking a country the French have. Recommended.


Bude
Have you ever been to Cornwall? It’s not all indecipherable language, pasties twelve fingered hands and webbed toes you know! Cornwall is a beautiful place but also filled with lovely running. When I first met the GingaNinja she lived and worked in the Cornish resort town of Bude. When we were not doing our loved up thing or vetting (her more than me) then I would be taking ThunderPad out running along the beach or through the town or I’d go out on my own for relatively (10km – I wasn’t much of a runner in those days) long runs along the cliffs and into the caves of the area. Bude had a little bit of everything, tough elevation, sandy beaches, the sea, varied terrain and a guarantee that it would start raining the moment I put on my old battered Adidas TRX. We often talk about returning to Bude and if we did I’d certainly plan a 50 or more mile social ultra run for myself (so not very social) but Cornwall looks tricky this year so it might be next year but what a place to in.

Image: James Hare (Flickr)

Brooklyn Bridge
My first time crossing Brooklyn Bridge was as a student – we said to the cab driver at 4am in the morning ‘take us to Brooklyn Bridge’ he advised us that it wasn’t sensible but we wanted to see the sunrise cross Manhattan and so we set off, that experience combined with the giant breakfast I ate in Brooklyn set me on a trend that has continued up to my last NYC visit about 10 years ago which is that wherever I stay I always run down to Brooklyn Bridge, cross as dawn breaks and then have a hearty breakfast before running back. New York City isn’t a great place to run but it is an iconic place to run.


Vigo
I suppose Vigo Rugby Club is my local club – and they also have a running club that for the last few years have put on a brutal 10 mile race in and around Vigo in Kent, it’s when you go to places like this and races like this that you come to understand just have beautiful Kent can be, but that’s not why I love running Vigo. No. the reason I love Vigo in the middle of February is that this race had a course that has all the appeal of cross country with the feel of fell running with a terrain that will absolutely eat you alive if you show it anything less than total respect. As well as being my favourite race it’s also one of my favourite routes with more up and down than the ‘whores draws’ and you can’t say fairer than that. The Vigo 10 mile race route is special but the whole area is filled with drama, great landscapes and enormous uphill challenges. If I could only run in one place for the rest of my days this would certainly be eligible as a contender for selection.

Image: Graham Royston (Flickr)

Blackpool seafront
Long before I was a runner or a professional designer I was a student and I spent my three undergraduate years hiding out in sunny Blackpool were I was an regularly infrequent runner. But even then I wasn’t one of those posing runners – I ran because I enjoyed it and I used to run up towards Stanley Park, down towards Lythem or my favourite which was a run from Central Pier through to Fleetwood up the coast – 10 miles each way (though I rarely did the whole distance). Some might be a little snobby about Blackpool but I loved running along the huge concrete sea defences and dipping down to the beach and pounding through the always soaking wet sand. I loved running between the huge legs of the piers and jumping over rocks and finding beautiful treasures to either collect or photograph. Back at the turn of the century Blackpool really had something for me (usually pretty shitty winter weather but I digress), Blackpool was where I cemented my adult love of running, though years would pass before it became my obsession, this is where it began. Sat here typing this I can feel the icy cold of the North Sea passing through my old Adidas, but me not caring, and simply bumbling blindly onward. Those minor miles I put down in the sand feeling harder and more taxing than any Ultra I’ve ever done.

Image: DPC (Flickr)

County Clare
My family has deep rooted connections to the Emerald Isle but it is Clare I have the most affection for. As with Blackpool l wasn’t a big runner but I enjoyed it and whenever I was over in Clare I would take myself off on an adventure in the hills. Ireland is a good place to disappear and that’s exactly what I did for hours at a time. Sometimes reaching my destination and sitting quietly as the Atlantic winds whipped over me was the best feeling in the world. Ireland has a little piece of me and whenever I’m there I feel at home, though it’s been a little while since I last set foot there and I feel a need to go running or even racing across Ireland as I think this would delight me in ways that nowhere else can – plus it would be one step closer to racing in each of the individual countries of the British Isles.

Lanzarote
I’m not one for hot weather so running across Lanzarote in November seemed the only sensible time of year to do it. I’d long been looking for great elevation and interesting landscapes and when I saw the opportunity to go and bimble around the island I simply couldn’t refuse. The island is a smorgasbord of terrain, landscape and running opportunity – from volcanic ash through to lush vegetation to dramatic climbs and character filled towns and sandy beach running. I think my favourite running here was the speedy racing through the vineyards – it had a sensation like no other. There was the crunch of the ground below you, your foot sinking deeply but springing out of the ground and yet it felt so fast. All around Lanzarote offered brilliantly beautiful opportunities for photographs and video – it truly was one of the most eye catching places to run. The race I ran (Haria Extreme) gave exposure to some beautifully hidden treasures as well as taking in many of the magnificent highlights of the island. Recommended.

Image: David Biggs (Flickr)

Winter Hill
During a phase of my adult life where I briefly lived and worked in Manchester I took 6 months in a little town called Horwich. There was a nice little Spanish restaurant, a tremendous secondhand book shop and a fish and chip shop on my own street corner that was to die for. However, the thing that Horwich is probably most famous for is Winter Hill (the home of the NWs old television transmitter). Winter Hill though isn’t just a hill – no, far from it – the beautiful running that can be found there is amongst the best in England! It was always a challenge, it always felt muddy, it always turned you over in some way or other but Winter Hill and it’s surroundings gave you back a feeling of satisfaction. There was often, even on a sun filled day, a bleak beauty to it, perhaps that was its charm. If you’re in the area I would say get your trail shoes on and hit this for all you’re worth – you will not be disappointed.

What didn’t make the list?
Why didn’t I add Chamonix, Switzerland, Cambodia, Thailand, Iceland, America, Ethiopia, the Trough of Bowland, Snowdonia, the North Yorkshire Coast, Snake Pass or any of the other exciting places I’ve spent time in?

What about the hundreds of beautiful country parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty like Great Windsor, the North and South Downs Way, the Ridgeway, Beacon Wood, Shorne or Bedgebury Arboretum?

Then there’s the exciting cities I’ve managed to run around like London, Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol and Glasgow, many of which have given me lovely highlights over my many years of running.

Most of them would make a list of favourite places I’ve run but then the list would be even longer!

Some like Chamonix don’t make the list simply because I didn’t make good memories there – but that’s an issue for me to resolve as it is a truly spectacular place.

I suppose the reason to write this isn’t to say ‘I’ve run in lots of great places’ but more to hopefully inspire you to both run in great/unusual places but also ensure that you look up as you run and admire your surroundings wherever you are.

So now it’s over to you, I’m looking for new ideas of places to run, places to find races, places to find places and so, where do you most enjoy running and more importantly – why?

Happy running.

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January feels a very long time ago in running terms and it has very much been a year of two halves. One half, excellent, one half was pretty bollocks – literally. I also raced a lot less than usual too after taking a little bit of advice from my physiotherapist with only 20 races attempted rather than my usual 30+ per year.

  • Country to Capital
  • Green Man
  • Ranscombe Challenge
  • Ranscombe Ramble
  • Hillsborough to Anfield Run
  • Run for the 96
  • Skye Trail Ultra
  • City of London Mile
  • Brutal Enduro
  • Endure 1250
  • Vanguard Way
  • Darnley Challenge
  • RunThrough London Greenwich
  • Ridgeway (DNF) (55/86 miles)
  • Chislehurst Chase
  • Chislehurst Chase Fun Run
  • High Weald 50km
  • World Vegan Day Run
  • Haria Extreme (DNF) (80/102km)
  • Mouth to Mouth

Race Overview
When I look over the race list and two DNFs it tells a slightly sorry story but actually the reality is very different. Yes this year has been hugely disappointing in results terms but there are other ways to measure your year.

However, there are a couple of disappointments such as the way the Hillsborough to Anfield run went and my subsequent falling out with my father (something I haven’t chronicled but am considering) and my pulling out of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal 130 which in part was caused by the events at the H2A. This left me without a hundred mile (plus) race for 2016 and that’s disappointing. There was also the pulling out of TransGranCanaria, I had signed up this when I got over excited at the CCC but hadn’t considered what a long distance mountain race might do me so early in the year. Not going to TransGC was a good decision though as it meant not overextending myself before I was ready. On the positive side though I stuck to my guns and avoided the easy option of going back to Centurion events and will carry this through to 2017 as I look to continue my search for smaller, more intimate racing.

The Planning
When I was planning the year out I placed the marker races in March, May, August and November so as to spread them out and I chose races that I felt would give me new ultra based experiences. Those races were The Green Man Ultra (heavy mud), the Skye Trail Ultra (mountainous), Leeds to Liverpool Canal Race (distance) and Haria Extreme (hot mountainous) – this seemed like a year to kill for but there were changes that were needed due to injury, family problems and a lack of training after Skye and so I dropped the Leeds to Liverpool Canal and replaced it with the excellent but shorter distance Ridgeway 86.

What happened?
It was very much a year of two halves with the first half of the year going brilliantly and the second half of the year being pretty much a write off with a few positives thrown in. I started the year by joining the Wonky Wanderer at Country to Capital (read the review here) for her first ultra. Having convinced her that she should run it I was compelled to join her on the start line and it proved to be one of my most positive ultra experiences ever. Yes C2C isn’t going to win awards for being the most exciting race, but it is varied and challenging while being highly accessible as a first real ultra. Being there to see Emma cross the line in a little over 10hrs will remain one of my most treasured memories long after I finally retire from running.

Country to Capital should have been followed by the Vigo Runners Valentines Run but in 2016 this race was cancelled, much to many runners annoyance.

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Therefore, I managed to pass through February without racing and my next time on a start line was the brilliant Green Man (read the review here) in Bristol. The Green Man has the distinction of joining my favourite races list rather highly, it was muddy, it was tough and the course was an absolute delight. The best thing though was meeting lots of the local Bristol runners, catching up with the amazing Roz Glover and best of all was meeting Elaine who single handedly kept my spirits up to the finish line.

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Racing was replaced by a bit of cold weather training in the arctic circle (partly to see the Northern Lights). I managed to add XC skiing as well as lots of really fun running – the ice, the snow, the cold and the amazing scenery just filled my heart with joy. I took time out of every day I was there to just go off-road and see things that are certainly not on the usual trails (read about the Finland adventure here).

I came back to the UK fired up and ready to train.

With running going surprisingly well I turned up for a double header of running at the Ranscombe Farm and Wild Flower reserve. It’s pretty well known that I love a bimble around Ranscombe and I’d considered this a perfect opportunity to test my body against a bit of elevation prior to disappearing off to the Isle of Skye.

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The Ranscombe Challenge and Rachel’s Ranscombe Ramble (read the review here) offered two different routes around the reserve. Day one was good and strong for me, about 30 miles run but with some mild feeling in an old injury but Day two was pretty terrible with less than 15 miles added to my SVN total. The route around Ranscombe and small field nature of the event makes me a regular there but I wish I had just done the Ranscombe Ramble as this was the tougher of the routes and lots of new fun. I’d love to go back to the Ramble next year but sadly the timings are a little out for me – I’m hoping that SVN might run it later in the year to allow me to test my mettle properly against it.

The injury at the Ramble left me with something of a quandry – it wasn’t a nasty injury but it did require rest and with the Hillsborough to Anfield Run only a few weeks away I actually needed to be training. I chose to do the sensible thing and rest for much of the time before the H2A and then be as sensible as possible during the H2A. Sadly the Hillsborough Run went very badly for me both in terms of distance and what happened with my father in the aftermath. I came away from the H2A event incredibly deflated, sore, injured and ill – this was likely to have an effect on running the Skye Trail Ultra just a few days later and Skye was, as we’ve discussed, one of the big marker races for the year.

So after returning from Liverpool I prepared my kit for the Isle of Skye just five days later. Friday arrived and amazingly I was ready to run, at least mentally I was, physically I was a bit of a mess but I’d give it a bit of welly and hope for the best. I travelled up to Skye on the Caledonian sleeper train and what a tremendous experience it was – it was my first time on a sleeper train and just being there was exciting, eating haggis, watching ‘My Week with Marilyn’ and catching up on Barkley related race reports. The only downside was that I awoke from the journey with terrible travel sickness.

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Thankfully I recovered enough to be race ready 12hrs later and at 5am in the morning on the Saturday I blundered through the Skye Trail Ultra (read the review here) with all the energy I could muster. Skye was as promised, was one of the hardest but most rewarding things I have ever done – it was filled with beautiful views, majestic climbs and terrifying navigation. Skye destroyed my feet and it destroyed my head but what it gave back was massive in terms of belief. I’d recommend the Skye Trail Ultra more than most ultras and it was certainly my favourite race this year and plays second fiddle only to the SainteLyon (read the review here) as my favourite ultra of all time.

UltraBaby and I were next on the running scene, this time joined by the GingaNinja at the City of London Mile (read the review here) and we gave it some fair welly (I did it solo and as a family runner) and this was a great fun event, nice and fast on the roads around Cannon Street, London. If it’s back next year we’ll be signing up and UltraBaby will be attacking this one on foot (rather than sleeping through it in the buggy). This was a lovely community experience and although I didn’t quite run it as fast as I might have hoped I did enjoy it.

And this was the last time that they year went really well or at all to plan.

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By the time we entered the summer the wheels had really started to come off. It started with the Brutal Enduro (read the review here) which was a tremendous event and highly recommended if you’re looking for a  challenging and inexpensive looped event. I really enjoyed the Brutal Enduro because of the variety inside the 10km loop and the fact that it was very inclusive event with a positive atmosphere but by 60km I’d had enough of summertime chaffing and injuries that continued to flare up. So I returned to my tent and caught up on some sleep. What I did know was that I had enjoyed the experience enough to try my hand at another looped trail race and so bundled myself off to the Endure 1250 (read the review here)I should have known though that lightning doesn’t strike twice and Endure 1250 was one of the least interesting races I have taken part in. Where Enduro had views, hills, challenges, excitement and atmosphere this felt flat, dull and lifeless. The worst part of it wasn’t any of this of course – the worst part was the horrendous chaffing I suffered within the first 10km. You might think this was colouring my view of the race but not so, I just didn’t enjoy it and hoped for better when I hit the trails once more.

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It seemed though I had cursed myself because the Vanguard Way Marathon (read the review here) was probably the most serious of the issues I faced while racing. It had been a hot day at the beginning of August and this one had been flagged as being tough, partly from the navigational point of view but also from the undulating nature of the course. In typical fashion I got seriously lost but also had to contend with both serious heat stroke and no water at the halfway point. I had consumed an entire 1.5 litre bladder of water in the first 13 miles along with water at the first checkpoint and had now run out. by mile 14 I was in quite serious trouble as the sun came blazing out. I had collapsed in a heap overlooking the lovely views of the Vanguard way for a little while before I came to and called the GingaNinja – slurring my words. However, I survived back to the checkpoint and managed to refresh my water supply but it felt like a close run thing. All the positives of the year seemed to be disappearing rather quickly but that being said I really loved the Vanguard Way Marathon and would do it again – the views were spectacular and the route was amazingly good fun, even when you add a couple of miles. Knowing what I would have to face would give me a better chance of being prepared for this Croydon bad boy!

The effect of the heatstroke lasted several days, it was really quite severe and so when I lumbered up to the Darnley Challenge (read the review here) less than a week later I was still not quite right but there is (as stated) always fun and chocolate at an SVN event and so taking in some of the delights of Ranscombe, Cobham and Gravesend(?) I ran a decent marathon for the first time in ages as well as adding a medal that was about the size of my head, can’t be bad.

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But my response to the Darnley Challenge could not mask the fact I really wasn’t ready for the Ridgeway 86 (read the review here). I’ve come to the conclusion that you really should not start a race if you’re nervous about whether you have the fitness to finish it and R86 was an example of a race where I was making excuses before I got anywhere near the start line. I suppose there was a clue as to my readiness when my calf simply seized up on at the RunThrough 10km in Greenwich Park a week earlier.

However I did rock up and I ran the first 43 miles in a decent time and even when I reached my final port of call at about mile 55 my body was in surprisingly good shape – what ruined it were my bollocks once again. The terrible chaffing that had been the bane of my racing through the summer had once again struck. My nuts were about the size of a couple of watermelons, fecking hell they hurt! The funny thing is that despite it being a good race I wasn’t really enjoying it all that much, having DNf’d the Winter 100 a couple of years ago this took in some of the same route and I didn’t find it inspired me to continue. A shame as it was a well organised and challenging race and even though I’ve said to myself I’m never returning to it, I’m sure I will.

It was then that my year hit a real low, I argued with the GingaNinja about running and racing, causing my public withdrawl from all running and racing. I ate a lot of pizza, drank a lot of Lucozade and refused to get the physical problems I’d been accumulating looked at. My retirement lasted a mere month but it was a very long month that really took some bites out of me, it kicked my fitness into the ground and I had piled on the pounds, all in all it was a shitty episode that was very public and very horrible. When I returned to racing at the Chislehurst 10km (read the review here) I gave it all the welly I could muster and even though I ran a reasonable time I knew I wasn’t in anyway fit enough to face the High Weald 50km (read the review here) but when did that ever stop me?

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At High Weald I was slow and steady but nothing spectacular and that was fine, it was a comeback race but it was far from ideal. I had toyed with the idea of not turning up to this one but I really wanted one of the mugs and the only way to get one, bar stealing one, was to run the bloody race. The good news was I was going to be testing my Altra Lone Peak 3.0 properly on the course and the better news was that the undulating nature of the course meant I was at least going to be doing something I love – trail hills.

During the race I felt like I was being punished a thousand times over for my ‘retirement’ and the sunstroke that got me about halfway through the race was unfair but I really enjoyed another bimble through Sussex and I’d certainly go back and run this one better. The best bit though was that post race I was allowed to have McDonalds chocolate milkshake again (just like after the Vanguard Way Marathon) as it helped to cool me down in the quickest possible way. Thank you McDonalds!

High Weald had given me the incentive to start training properly again and I did start on a programme of good miles, better eating and strengthening – it seemed like I was back on course after some failure but my fate seems to be that I am to write about my misadventures rather than successes! And when one Tuesday evening as I was buggy running with UltraBaby I felt my calf finally give up the ghost and it was ruined.

8 weeks until Haria Extreme. Turd.

For nearly three weeks it was painful to walk and I was resting as much as I could while remaining active by gingerly walking to work and back as a minimum. I thought that rest was the solution – it wasn’t. I called in the physiotherapist and she worked all the magic she could, my physio has gotten my ready for races before when I’ve ruined myself and I trusted her to do so again. The advice was rest, TENS, stretching, heat and physio – hours of it daily and for a change I gave up those hours to rehabilitation.

2 weeks until Haria Extreme. Progress.

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With no training I signed up to the World Vegan Day Challenge (read the review here) and hoped to test my calf for a few miles. As it was a weekday challenge the GingaNinja wasn’t available to take me so I was required to cycle the 13 miles to the race start. When I rolled up to Ranscombe Farm Reserve I managed a rather surprising marathon distance. However, I knew all was not right and trail ride home made me realise I was going to have to up the rehab if I wanted to survive. I stopped running again as I knew that my best chance of reaching the start line of Haria was to stop moving and continue fixing.

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Haria Extreme (read the review here) was the end of the year marker race – I had been looking forward for this for months and I wanted to give my all but knowing that your body may not hold up and that your training had been non-existent meant I was nervous.

However, I drew heavily on experience at Skye to help me overcome the mountainous sections and I remembered that whatever else I did I should enjoy it infact I spent so much time looking up in wonder at the beautifully dramatic landscape that I almost forgot to race. Haria was harder than Skye, it turned me inside out in a much shorter time, the heat hit me, the elevation hit me and the naked ladies hit me (not literally). I finished about 20km short of the finish and that should have tortured me but it didn’t and the reason was I am learning that by taking on harder and harder races I know I will fail more. Haria let me experience failure while giving some tremendous memories back.

I cut my shins quite unpleasantly and my calf muscle pulled me apart again but I learned that despite my lack of fitness I was within a cats whisker of completing Haria Extreme, the weird thing is that I had nearly 10hrs to complete just over 20km, maybe as I sit here reflecting I should have carried on but ultimately I know I did the right thing.

With Haria out of the way though I could then focus on finishing the year and this I did at Mouth to Mouth (read the review here), no pressure, a beautiful race on the south coast that was only mildly troubled by GI distress. I remember thinking as I crossed the line, what a lucky bugger I am

Original aims of 2016

  • Don’t DNF
  • Test yourself on more mountainous terrain
  • Avoid the easy route to ultras by returning to races you’ve done
  • Don’t buy as many pairs of shoes
  • No half marathons, they bore me

How did it finish up? 

  • I bought lots of pairs of shoes
  • By year end I will have run about 2000 miles in 2016
  • I had two DNFs
  • I managed not to run a half marathon!
  • I did run lots of smaller, more intimate races, avoiding mass participation
  • I had several experiences of testicle chaffing
  • I had several experiences of serious GI distress – the south downs have a new hill on them and Skye has a ‘no go’ zone with a half life of about 3,000 years
  • I learned to not worry so much about what other runners think of me
  • I’m still a lard arse
  • UltraBaby got to her sixth race medal

2016 was such a mixed year, it was filled with so many challenges that I overcame and so many that gave me a bloody good kicking. The important thing wasn’t the failure, it was how I dealt with that failure. I was frustrated and angry with myself at both Endure 1250 and the Ridgeway 86 – its fair to say at R86 in fact I was furious. The problems that got me at these races though I believe I’ve resolved (kit changes) but the lesson learned from Haria was to test myself at harder and harder races and accept that not finishing is the price you have to pay sometimes. The whole retirement/injury thing had huge consequences and I’m still trying to get back into shape and only now returning to full time training, so I’ll be trying to avoid both of them going forward but ultimately 2016 I’ll look for the positives and there were many.

Perhaps the most exciting positive was seeing so much more of the UK, trying new types of running, on new trails, in new countries. It was a positive that I raced less and positive that I realised the mistake I would have made by trying to run the LLCR130. I’ll make mistakes going forward but there is something rewarding about being accepting of that.

The one change I think will make a huge difference to me to is that I’ve stopped worrying about what the other runners think of me, I’ve always been a bit fearful of the judgement of my peers – perhaps we all are but it was proving to be crippling. It stopped me entering the Hangman Ultra and also from submitting applications to races where I knew significantly better runners than I would be on the start line. I’ve very much come to embrace that I am me, warts and all. I wish I had learned this lesson so much sooner. There are a couple of my peers who helped me see this and if you are reading this and you think it was you then it probably is.

So without naming names – thanks.

The future
More of the same, more races, smaller and harder races, more running, considered training, hilly runs and some, if not lots, of mountains, certainly thousands of metres of elevation. I’ll be previewing my 2017 plans in the next few weeks which will help me firm up my exact race and training trajectory – but be assured I’m ‘on it, like a car bonnet!’. I don’t even know what that means.

What about you?

  • So how about everyone else’s 2016?
  • Did it go well? Did you avoid injury?
  • Did you achieve thousands of PBs?
  • Did you focus all your energies into Parkruns?
  • What plans do you have for 2017?
  • What races should I consider adding to my calendar?
  • Will I have another year of two halves?

Let’s talk about the run up to Haria Extreme before we get into the nuts and bolts;

  • You’ve run three times since August Bank Holiday
  • You’ve been unable to run since 29 September – (the Vegan Challenge was a reckless mistake)
  • Injury was causing enough concern that you weren’t sure you’d start Haria Extreme
  • Pre-race prep severely hampered by circumstances beyond your control
  • There was more than 3,000 metres of steep climb across 102km
  • …and unsurprisingly you retired from the race
  • however, this was not a failure – far from it

Now the question is, ‘when is retiring from a race not a failure?’ The answer, for me, lies in the thoughts I’ve put together over the last week while bimbling around Lanzarote post race. The journey to HE begins where so many things have done – in my failure at the CCC, while I was in France I came across the HE stall and said to myself that looks like the most brilliant piece of cool and I have to do it. The problem was that it was in November last year and I was already committed to running the SainteLyon. However, HE has stayed in my memory since that day and when applications opened in about April I was first on the list.

Yes please sign me up for your newly enhanced, hillier and longer route, I said with an undeserved air of confidence.

In truth my running had been going pretty well all year and I had good reason to be confident, Green Man, Skye Trail Ultra, Vanguard Way, Country to Capital, Brutal Enduro had all been completed and pretty well – but the wheels started to come off at The Ridgeway when I DNF’d over some severe chaffing and it got worse when my disagreement with the GingaNinja turned into a full blown retirement from running and by the time I was going again I then found a nasty new injury to give me a kicking. That calf injury needed severe physiotherapy, lots of rest and no running – in fact no exercise as there was a point that it was too painful to walk on. With days quickly rolling by I cold see HE slipping from my grasp – I was pretty devastated.

With two weeks before the race I took part in the SVN Vegan Day Challenge and tortured myself round the route, looking back on it with a little common sense I should have realised that this was not a good idea but I needed to test the calf problems and although they held up on the day they never felt very good and the days after the race were some of the most pain I’ve ever been in.

Tick-tock, tick-tock.

We arrive to the day before the flight (Wednesday) and I’m rushing round like a blue arsed fly trying to ensure that everything for the flight, the race and the family holiday were all complete and that it would all be super smooth when we arrived at the airport at 3.30am. Little did I realise that this would be a monumental disaster with UltraBaby, the GingaNinja and I making the flight with mere seconds to spare, it wasn’t helped that the support we received from Special Assistance for our disabled companion was pathetic and so the trip and the race were off to a stinking start.

We arrived exhausted, aching, grumpy and in my case the physical exhaustion came from lugging around the huge amount of luggage we had needed to transport to support an ultra runner, a 2 year old toddler and a disabled traveller – I could really feel my lack of base fitness from the lack of exercise in the previous few months (and this worried me). However, unpacked (roughly) we headed up to Haria to collect my race number and take a look around the event.

There was no doubt that my mood improved but my worries refused to abate, looking again at the race profile and steep climbs it involved had me very concerned. On the positive side number collection was very easy – passport was checked for ID, collected my number and got hold of a giant set of HE kit (compression shirt, compression arm sleeves, neck gaiter and head band – all very high quality). This was a very welcome bonus and for just €30 I added a lurid yellow hooded top which will brighten any cold winter UK day.

The race village didn’t have much in the way of people selling kit but there were a few bits and actually it was all very low key and rather delightful, there was also the live local Canarian musicians which I felt was something a little special for a race that was starting to feel a little ‘buzzy’. I had feared that this would be another UTMB type race but all appearances seemed to be suggesting that this had a much smaller, niche feel to it and I felt vindicated in my decision to run this over attempting TransGranCanaria earlier in the year.

With number collected, Friday was left as a family day and the holiday could finally begin and I enjoyed a day doing swimming, watching animals and generally running riot with my daughter at a number of bits and pieces we had identified and we even dipped our feet for some splashing into the pool at the villa we had hired via AirBnB.

Friday evening though was used to fine tune my kit, Oxsitis bag rather than Ultimate Direction – Ronhill top rather than La Sportiva and Lone Peak 3.0 over Olympus 2.0 – it took quite some time to make final decisions but the biggest choices were in leg wear and nutrition.

For leg wear I selected the excellent Raidlight Freetrail (longer length but very lightweight shorts in a delightfully ridiculous colourway with stupid typography on them – full review to follow). I teamed these with raidlight tights and runderwear pants to maximise my comfort in the heat (just incase there was a repeat of the R86 chaffing nightmare).

Nutrition though was a very different matter – I had chosen to bring Tailwind with me but having never used it I was somewhat worried about how I might react so in typical fashion I had both Tailwind and real food options with me (lots of chocolate). I knew that I didn’t want to pollute my main water supply so my bladder had to remain free of tailwind, instead I carried two 150ml soft bottles that I could easily store in the small waist pockets of the Freetrail shorts. This was the perfect way to take Tailwind for me.

The race
Anyway, the race itself was a 7am kick off to maximise the Canarian daylight. We were due to start out from ‘Timanfaya’ the volcanic national park with the last remaining active Lanzarote volcano. We pulled into the car park at about 6.30am and saw the runners and supporters lining the dark sand and lava gravel track. It was quite a sight next to the huge herd of camels that also lined up alongside them.

I drifted over to the toilet block which was located inside the normally bustling tourist cafe but at this time it was simply a very long queue of runners. I opted not to wait and would hope that the first checkpoint had a toilet stop as I was rather in need. I rejoined the GingaNinja and UltraBaby for the 10 or 12 minutes before the race began and we admired the camels, the sea of volcanic rock and the sunrise – it was all suitably spectacular.

At a slightly later than expected 7.15 the sound issuing us off was given and about 200 hardy souls set off at a fair old whack down into the unknown. For the first 5km we thundered along a rocky and sandy track through the national park – admiring the amazing geology as we went. I unfortunately was allowing myself to be caught up in the moment and being dragged along at a pace that really didn’t suit. However, within a couple of kilometres I settled into myself and looking round realising this would be no follow the leader – you were out there on your own.

At about 5km we turned out of the core Timanfaya National Park and entered the broader volcanic area which I had hoped would make for easier going on the feet but as the gritty sand slipped around your feet you knew this was going to be hard work.

What I hadn’t expected was the ground to be so varied, there was of course the gritty dark remains of lava and black sand but there was also huge swathes of pebbles, big rocks, slippery rocks, jagged rocks, basically lots of rocks. There was no nice easy Kent countryside trail here but thankfully the Lone Peak 3.0 were the right choice for the job and my feet felt well protected from the elements.

I started the first of the ascents after some off-roading through what looked like a well pruned back Canarian vineyard and then into the first serious descent where I allowed myself the opportunity of a bit of respite and I flew to the bottom knowing that the next ascent was several hundred rocky metres and I would need all due care to navigate this. ‘Surely not all the ascents could be like this?’ I asked myself as the track disappeared and we were left to find our own path amongst the course markings. But with every ascent there is a matching descent and here I thrust myself forward once more. This time I was lurching left and left through a vineyard – no trail specifically, just the tracks of my fellow runners. With each step I could feel the black gravel being kicked up behind me and I was grateful for my gaiters which kept the stones and sand to a minimum.

Through the vineyard I passed and by a volunteer who cheered ‘bravo’ and I offered a cheery wave with a solid ‘grassy arse’. In the distance I could see the checkpoint and so with as much energy as I could I bolted to the stopping point.

All the volunteering points were excellent although there wasn’t much English spoken and there were a lot of very competent 15 year olds manning them. I did ask if there was a toilet in my best Spanglish ‘whereas are ass los toiletos por favour’. They smiled politely and told me ’20 kilometres’. I assumed they meant checkpoint 2, it turns out they simply hadn’t understood my brilliant piece of linguistics.

The problem was I was now about 10 miles in with an urgent need for the toilet. Looking around offered no immediate solutions as there was no cover whatsoever – Haria Extreme was pretty exposed and I had no intention of exposing myself here. So onward I moved, taking things sensibly as the day began to warm up. I refuelled at the previous stop on Pepsi and refilled my Tailwind bottles and actually my energy reserves where holding our pretty well. Pushing through the next 10 or 12km was relatively easy despite my urgent need for the loo and as I crossed the car park into checkpoint 2 I grabbed more Pepsi and took the opportunity to admire the view. Although I was clearly near the back of the field I felt that this was being sensible – I knew the heat would be an issue and f I could make it into night then I’d be much more able to make up time on the people in front of me.

With these thoughts in my head I bade the checkpoint ‘adios’ and moved on – in the distance I could see a big hill but I could also see some cover. I therefore looked back about a kilometre and realised I was alone for at least a few minutes and found a discreet cave in which to deliver the problem child I had been carrying for more than 25km – I was very relieved. After quickly rearranging myself I pressed on through a slightly greener Lanzarote but then I realised I hadn’t seen a route marker for quite a while, I checked with Suunto, I was off course.

Ah.

I looked back and could clearly see that there were no route markers nearby – I therefore retraced my steps, after about ten minutes of running I saw a man a couple of hundred metres higher than me at the top of the hill. I was probably about another kilometre back away from finding the point at which the rise started and so I looked up, a near vertical climb – probably 200 metres. I dug in and I climbed. I remember that I refused to stop, I refused to look down and I refused to give up even when my breathing was heavy and hard I was determined to continue and then I reached the summit to be greeted by a volunteer who was pointing me in the right direction.

‘Wrong way!’ I exclaimed. He had clearly watched me climb the vertical and offered me a pat on the back as I ran beyond him.

The route was unrelenting and when it wasn’t punishing you with ascents and descents it was looking for cracks in your kit to place stones, sand and general pain and the road to checkpoint three was no less so.

The interesting thing about HE and in particular the road to Soo) was that you could tell where the checkpoints were long before you reached them because they were found in the towns dotted around the island – which were often isolated pockets of life. As I banged on down to sea level and on to the thick hot white sand I could see my next stop and I knew that my family were waiting for me.

I made my into the town and drifted over to UB who ran towards me with arms outstretched and a stone, presumably for nutrition. A runner sat on the side of the road looked miserable as he had clearly DNF’d but the GN told me I was looking good and that I wasn’t actually that far behind a number of runners. I stopped here for a few minutes to have a mental uplift but then it was back off and on the way to Famara.

This was a tough section for me as it represented the hottest temperatures of the day but I’d been drinking consistently and the route here although hard going through tricky roads and soft sand allowed me to pick up the pace a little. I realised as I was running along that I’d never run in sand before and it wasn’t an enjoyable experience as it finally found a way into my shoes but any problems my feet faced were offset by the bevy of topless and naked ladies who lined parts of this section of the route. I swear I tried not to stare but I’m only human and this wasn’t some British nudist colony this was wave after wave of the beautiful people. I felt somewhat self conscious, especially when a very naked lady walking towards me with her (I’ll assume) husband cried ‘bravo, bravo’. I mean seriously where do you look in that situation? Anyway I thanked them for their good wishes and pressed on.

In the distance I could see the next climb ‘Lomo Cumplido’ which in my head was reading like some form of oral sex act but was actually instead a straight up 600metre climb, this was what I had come for. I wasted no time at checkpoint 4 other than to revitalise my stock of Tailwind and drink about a pint of Pepsi. Still feeling pretty good I began to climb and in the distance I could see runners coming towards me – runners who had decided enough was enough. I wished them well, but wondered what had driven back these very fit looking men from ascending this rock? I made surprisingly good time to the top, stopping only periodically to either drink in the view or rebalance myself and calm down (I’m terrified of heights). As I reached the top I rested on my Poles and thought about how much better a runner I was this time round compared to when I attempted the CCC.

It dawned on me at the top of this monster that I was still very much in the learning phase of running big inclines, descents and bloody big mountains. It was in this moment that I realised that however far I got today I had made significant progress.

I took a moment to check my messages as I had asked the GN to supply me with a list of all the cut-off times for the checkpoints and then I nearly had a heart attack… I was less than an hour from the checkpoint cut-off. I hurried along the ridge as fast as my body would carry me, facing my fear of heights with every step. I stopped at the mini checkpoint and said hello to the people there but quickly strode on to reach the full checkpoint a further 1.5km along.

I stopped here for mere seconds before realising I needed to bag some time or the sweeper would catch me. Zoom, zoom – this was a significant downhill section and I was able to use my sure footedness to power through the loose rocks and gather some much needed time. But it was now getting darker and I didn’t want to stop to grab my head torch and so lit my way along the coast with iPhone. Not the best light for making swift progress but it sufficed and I knew the GN and UB would be waiting for me again.

I ignored the checkpoint other than saying ‘hola’ and instead asked the GN to get my head torch out, I dumped my GoPro and other equipment I no longer needed with her – kissed the family goodbye and insisted I would make the next checkpoint. What I did say about my situation though was that I had cut myself on my shin quite unpleasantly and that my injured calf was sending shooting pains through my leg and both of these combined where making running painful. The good news though was that I had made up time on the clock and I was ahead by more than 90 minutes rather than the 40 minutes I had going spare at the previous stop.

If I could hold my leg together and the next section wasn’t too tough I might make it through. BOOM, onwards – foot straight into the sea! But thankfully the LP3.0 repelled this nicely. With the wrong mental head on this could have been disasterous but not so soon after seeing my family and with the aid of some local children I found my way through the wasteland of the town and crept bent double under the bridge tunnels, more suited to rats than runners!

Then up again.

On paper this section looks easy and filled with lovely respite but in reality it’s a ballbreaker, the climb is hard, unforgiving and filled with loose rocks and undergrowth that simply rip you apart. This was the section that drained my spirit and when the sweeper caught up to me I admit I became a little dispirited – despite him being clear that I was more than 2 hours ahead of the cut off. I was now gaining on people but I was done, I had maybe 5km to think this through but I knew I had come to Haria Extreme and achieved more than I thought I would.

As we passed through the end of the clambering section here the sweeper called out to me ‘bravo’. He didn’t seem the jokey type and so took him at his word as we had made really quite good time and so when we ran into the checkpoint I asked for ‘cinqo minutos’ to go through my thoughts.  I sat down for the first time in about 12 hours with a little under 10 hours remaining and 23km to go. I rubbed my calf a little while the checkpoint staff tried to force watermelon down my throat but I knew that I’d damaged my calf enough to not want to risk it further.

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I went over to my companion of the last few kilometres and said ‘I’m retiring and it’s okay – I’m good, I’m happy’ and I was. I had turned up to Haria Extreme with the hope I would make it to the start line, once I got there I hoped I wouldn’t crap myself somewhere in the first 25km, I hoped I wouldn’t disgrace myself and I hoped I would make it beyond 50km or running. Obviously I hoped I would finish and I didn’t but that’s okay because the experience of Haria Extreme has given me a tremendous confidence boost ahead of MIUT and I know what I need to do to ensure I finish that race.

Key points

  • Distance: 102km
  • Profile: Hilly, sharp ascents and descents
  • Date: November 2016
  • Location: Lanzarote
  • Cost: £55
  • Terrain: Technical trail, rocky, hilly
  • Tough Rating: 4/5

Route
The route was amazing – I can’t praise it enough, from the start in Timanfaya through vineyards and across rocky ascents this had everything. It’s tough too but not impossible and had I been even a little bit fit then this would have been much easier than I have made it look. That’s not to say it is easy though because it really isn’t, it will fight you every single step of the way and just when you get comfortable it will throw up amazing challenges. Brilliant!

Organisation
The organisation is always going to be slightly more difficult to analyse as a foreigner but information was communicated in good time, translations were decent and GPX files and all the other pre-race material was handled very well. In Haria itself number collection was easy and there were lots of English speakers available. It felt friendly but also a little local rather than a huge international race. The other really nice thing was that there was a range of races and distances so if you fancied a marathon or a half marathon or even a 10km there was something for everyone. (And the good news) each route had been clearly and concisely thought out.

Support
Aid stations were suitable for the race but the only food was fruit (which for me was a bit useless) but there was cola, water and electrolytes at every aid station. Most aid stations had at least one English speaker but where there wasn’t one I had a real laugh with the guys trying my best Spanish!

Awards
The real reason I rolled up to the race wasn’t the medal or the route it was the experience and the experience was amazing. I suppose its lucky I didn’t roll up for the medal given that I didn’t get one

Value for money
Incredible value for money, lots of lovely freebies, lots of great experience moments – yes the aid stations were not exactly brilliantly stocked with lovely houmous, breads and Canarian potatoes but I can forgive that given the brilliance of everything else. The race cost about £60 (exchange rate is difficult to judge at the moment) and there are 10km races in the UK that cost this, believe me this is much better than any 10km you’ll run.

Conclusion
There are races and there are races – this is one of the latter. Haria Extreme is a race I would do year in and year out if it were closer to home – instead I’ll simply consider going back in a few years to ensure that I finish it. My experience, as you can probably tell, was one of absolute delight given that I didn’t think I had it in me to start never mind get to 80km. Basically, you can’t go wrong with Haria Extreme it does have everything and if you decide to seek out a lovely low key but spectacular race this will not disappoint.

Good luck and enjoy those hills.

 

I’ve been mulling over next years ultra options in the last couple of weeks and I’ve seen a problem and that’s Transgrancanaria – a race I’ve been looking forward to since the moment I heard about it. I signed up in a moment of madness just prior to my attempt at the CCC but after my failure there I regretted the entry.

The reason I suppose is not that I believe I’ll fail at TransGC – quite the opposite infact, my training has been going well and my injuries haven’t been as hideous as in 2014. No the reason I’m not so keen anymore is that I think this big race so early in the year might negatively impact the rest of the year and I’ve got some properly interesting stuff waiting in the pipeline. I’m already in for Country to Capital again, I’m off to the Skye Ultra Trail and I’ve made my first tentative enquires about running the Leeds-Liverpool Canal 130 for my big A race of 2016 and then I’m hoping to finish the year with Haria Extreme in Lanzarote (another reason to not do TransGC – I don’t want to visit the Canary Islands twice in a year).

As an alternative to TransGC too we’ve got The Green Man Ultra which I’ve been wanting to do for absolutely ages and it’s the same weekend, so I’d still get to ultra, just in a more Bristolian way!

So the question is chaps, do I just let the entry to TransGC slide away and continue on my path of running smaller, potentially more ‘me’ ultras or should I just say sod it and run TransGC anyway and hope it doesn’t ruin me for the other races?

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