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This is a story two years in the making as the moment I finished the SainteLyon in 2015 I knew I had found ‘my’ race. My experience was so incredibly positive that I knew I would return and when entries opened in April I was waiting with my debit card to hand ready to sign up. Experience had taught me that this was unnecessary but I wanted my place confirmed as quickly as possible and within a few hours I had also uploaded the medical certificate from the UTBCN, booked my flights and begun the search for accommodation.

For more detail on how you go about the logistics can I recommend you read the 2015 report, which goes into much detail about that kind of thing.

The first half of my running year had gone quite well, finishing with a great finish at the South Wales 50 and despite failure at MIUT I was feeling tremendously positive overall going into the summer race break. However, the death of my partners mother, illness and injuries to my back meant that my return to training and racing was hampered quite badly. I didn’t show up for the return of the London to Brighton, although I rocked up to the start of the Ultra Trail Scotland: Arran this was cancelled mid race due to terrible weather conditions and I deferred my place at The Rebellion because of a hideous chest infection and a lack of preparation. This all meant that my return to the SainteLyon was incredibly undertrained in fact only just returned to training and in no way ready to face this wonderful course.

Regardless I wasn’t going to miss out and on Friday, 1st December I ambled along to the hideous Luton Airport and took the short flight to the delightful Lyon St Exupery Airport a short hop on the Rhône Express took me into the centre of the city (30mins), I bought a 72hour combined Metro, Tram and bus ticket (€15) and took the 3 minute metro ride to Saxe Gambetta where I would find my small but perfect AirBnB accommodation just two minutes from the station.

I dropped my bags down to be greeted by the sight of a Nespresso machine and some Belgian waffles and chocolate crepes! Merci Diep (the host). I grabbed a few bits like my passport and registration confirmation before heading straight out to the hall to collect my number. Another short hop on the metro and I was a five minute walk from where I needed to be – awesome.

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Security was still quite tight in France and there were bag and body searches before entry to the hall – which in light of recent history both in France and across Europe -makes sense. But once in the hall it was like a Mecca for all things trail running and I slowly wandered round deciding what I would spend some pennies on. It was lovely to see Oxsitis with a big stand and lots of products on show and while I may not wear them any longer Hoka also rolled into town with a decent showing.

Collection of my number was easy this year and I used my incredibly handy French phrase, ‘je ne comprends pas francais. parlez vous anglais?’ and I found that my French hosts once they knew I was English simply switched languages (something I am in awe of) though I did use my French language skills wherever possible. With my number collected I headed over to get some SainteLyon socks and my new much loved Buff!

And from this point I actually had some free time. I headed over to the huge shopping centre and picked up some provisions, did some late night sightseeing and then continued in this vein the following morning – touristing before settling down to an afternoon nap before the race. I then engaged in my now infamous pre race coffee ritual for a full bowel clearance and eventually I’d get round to loading up my kit up! It all seemed to be going far to smoothly.

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At about 6pm I headed down to the bus pick up point and joined the queue for one of the many buses to St Etienne. I remember in 2015 the bus was warm but the window had a drip running down it and I’d worked hard to ensure I didn’t get wet! This year the bus was a little chillier but the window didn’t leak and we arrived in good time and without incident. Security was speedy but thorough and as I had time to kill I grabbed some of the pre race snack goodies and went into the smaller of the two halls to see if I could catch a bit more sleep or at least rest. The hall was warm and filled with people but I had little trouble finding space and I folded a buff up and lay my head upon it – but I couldn’t sleep. The SainteLyon was effectively my Christmas present to myself and like a young boy I was desperate to open my present and get to running! Much like a Christmas Eve the following three hours dragged like the Hundred Years’ War! Still the hours did give me a vantage point for kit and people watching – the most interesting outfit I saw was a teenage mutant ninja turtle with full shell and this chap (as far as I know) ran the whole thing dressed like this. The STL though doesn’t attract a great deal of runners like this, they’re quite rare I would say. Most runners rock up in their favourite or best kit and I was pleased to note that many of the runners were wearing Oxsitis, Raidlight or Kalenji bags, undoubtedly the French appreciate these brands being reasonably readily available on the high street and support local brands. Shoe choices were equally local with most seeming to opt for Salomon or Kalenji – the good thing for me was I saw no Karrimor!

I’d chosen Altra for footwear and my beloved Oxsitis Hydragon for my back with a variety of OMM and Ronhill kit making up the rest, perhaps it was the kit that made me stand out as English as anyone that approached me spoke to me (generally) in my native tongue – clearly to the other runners I was not French!

Anyway to the race! The SainteLyon in its current form is a 72km race from St Etienne to Lyon, taking place the first weekend in December and setting off around midnight, you can read more about it here at Wikipedia. At around 11.30pm I drifted slowly to the start knowing that I would be starting near the back of the field but this would allow me to pick off runners later on (if I had any capacity to do so).

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The organisers though were releasing the runners in waves which meant that as I was at the back I would be one of the final runners to depart St Etienne. I could feel the cold setting in and I was geared for minimal warmth as I knew that during the race I would overheat with too many layers. I rubbed my arms periodically to retain warmth and hugged myself, while gently jigging on the spot – stopping sporadically to take photographs and make social media checks.

40 minutes later and, as promised, bang on time the music played, the horn blew and thousands of runners were released into the night. It was as magical as I remembered it, only this time there was no @kemptomslim to share the moment with and so I turned to look at the arch I had just run under and said ‘au revoir’ before turning on my heel and running into the Rhône Valley night.

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The first few kilometres are along the roads and lack any really interesting things to note other than the opportunity to catch some ground in the runners ahead of you or perhaps make some alliances to allow the hours to pass more pleasantly. I decided on the former rather than the latter and pressed firmly ahead knowing that conditions underfoot later in the race might slow me down. Perhaps the big clue as to the conditions was the fact that many runners had loaded up crampons to their race vests in preparation for cruddy conditions but at this early stage even those in their Kalenji Road shoes were running fine.

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While my French is limited I could feel the ambience of the race and the runners and there was a generally positive, goodwill feeling that swelled up around the runners in these early stages and you couldn’t help but be carried by this. For my part I darted between runners and ambled towards the trail which kicked in at around the 6km mark.

From here the light snowfall that we had seen on the sides of the road was replaced by much thicker, more dangerous, not so grippy snow and I recall as I headed down the trail that ‘bugger, this isn’t going to be as easy as last time’.

However, I am confident in my footwork and I was able to press on a little faster than those in front of me and as the kilometres marched downward toward the first checkpoint I started to feel very confident about running a good time. Despite a lack of training in the lead up to the race I was feeling surprisingly spritely too and as I hurled myself up and down the trails I was enjoying myself.

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I felt like I was in a good place and set myself up for cruise control to allow me some breathing room and to take photographs and simply to take joy from the experience. About 13km in, not long before the first checkpoint I looked behind me to see the procession of runners all twinkling behind me and then I really remembered why I love this race so much.

However, with underfoot conditions worsening I was glad to drop upon the first checkpoint and it was here that I stayed the longest of all the checkpoints – maybe 5 minutes, this was mainly due to the amount of people and partly because I actually wanted food. But it was still a short stop and thankfully they had full fat Coca Cola on offer and I enjoyed a cup full before heading out – no Rolo Cola this time @kemptonslim

I remembered that post checkpoints I was freezing cold for the first few minutes and so covered my fingers with the mitten part of my gloves and pulled my neck buff up and my head buff down and headed out. Weirdly though my nose was freezing and when I felt the front of my buff the snot and hot breath had frozen into a cold and icy mess. I folded it down a little and it was better but this would be the first buff to be replaced a few more kilometres down the trail.

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It was from here that you started noticing people putting crampons on as conditions underfoot deteriorated further and there was a visible increase in the amount of runners who were losing their legs beneath them, I was keen to go as fast as I could but knew two things;

  1. Falling would hurt
  2. I’d forgotten to buy ultra marathon sports insurance

and so I ran were it was appropriate and walked as quickly as possible everywhere else. It was about the 20km mark that I heard the sounds of an Australian accent behind me and for a short while I’d met someone who spoke English natively and we had a lovely brief chat before we went our sort of separate ways. This was her first ultra marathon and her French friend felt this would be a great introduction to ultras and when I saw her she looked the business taking her fast marathon form into the STL. I would see a little more of her later.

The second section unlike the first had a greater degree of pure Trail and both my knees and back appreciated this. The trail was incredibly variable with some being good clear trail, other parts moist but most were snow and ice covered and progress remained slower than I would have liked but still not bad. The STL though has a very interesting aspect to it that say something like the CCC does not – overtaking. Although the route is busy with runners the potential for overtaking is enormous and you find yourself gearing up past runners all the time and then being overtaken by them! This has benefits for the relay runners who are undoubtedly fresher than the full distance runners and even for the Express (44km) runners that you might meet.

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I found myself hitting some decent running in this section and engaging in lots of overtaking and being overtaken and it was fabulous hearing the phrase ‘a gauche’ or ‘a droit’ – I can’t tell my left from my right in English so I had to concentrate hard to get it right in French!

Although not clock watching I was very aware that my time was better than it had been in 2015 and some basic mental calculations suggested I could shave off around two or three hours from my previous outing and despite an injury and illness hit few months I was giving it as much welly as the ground would allow. However, all of this was to grind to a halt and all the good work undone. At about 23km in the ground became so icy that runners couldn’t even walk on it and in front of you a plethora of bodies were strewn across the trail.

A runner would fall and the phrase ‘ca va?’ would be called the two or three runners that would stop to pick up their fallen comrade. I brought my own race to a stop to assess the conditions and decided that I would use what visual clues I had before me, track the steps of the runners ahead of me and go as carefully as possible. Sections were becoming so severe that runners were sitting on their arses and pushing themselves down the trail on their hands.

I witnessed bloodied and bruised runners ahead of me but their tenacity meant that most would get up. My problems intensified though when at 26km my trusty Altra gave into the ice and I was thrust skyward and came down with a thud. I’d broken the fall with my back and smashed my headand although I got up straight away I was in pain – my recent back troubles suddenly came rushing back and my head felt woozy. I knew that Sainte-Catherine was only a couple of kilometres further on and so I followed the crowd, walking now and not in a good place. I slipped and slid more, desperate to keep my feet but I fell a further three times before the second checkpoint and when I crashed in I felt like death.

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I took a few minutes and ate emmental and salami to help get something in me and for both the first and last time I wondered if I should stop and seek medical attention. The answer was ‘no’ and with that I set off again. I tried to focus on the trail and ran reciting song lyrics and poetry to myself as I’ve often found this works to stop me thinking about more painful distractions. The various falls though and those to come had given me s kicking and perhaps had my head taken a worse knock than it did I would have had the common sense to stop – but I didn’t. The trail continued to worsen and we were now into the coldest part of the night and at the highest, often most exposed points, when the wind whipped through it passed straight through me but I refused to put additional layers on knowing that this would simply infuriate me.

Upon reach Inge the highest point of the race I felt something of an achievement, despite having run it before I convinced myself that the rest of the course was downhill but this was ridiculous and actually the most dangerous Running was just around the corner.

I could see the pack starting to gather ahead of me, the ice, once again so bad that runners were sat on the floor dragging themselves down and the mountain rescue, aided by quad bikes were going back and forth collecting runners from the trail. In my head I refused to sit down and drag myself along, I refused to bow, in my head I could here Terence Stamps, Zod calling out, ‘kneel before Zod son of Jor-el’ and although I’m no Superman i knew that the moment I gave in I would death march this home.

My decision to stay stood cost me a couple of falls and a fellow runner came sliding into the back of me taking me out at one point. My already broken body didn’t have the required agility to jump straight back up this time but my fellow runners pulled me to my feet quickly and set me on my way. I was hurting now in lots of ways but the mild delirium kept me on the straight and narrow!

Ha!

I dragged my sorry arse into the checkpoint and found a quiet spot to change head torches and power my phone up after the cold had simply switched it off. I didn’t bother with food or drink here – I was feeling sickly but I hoped this would pass if I quickly got out of the checkpoint and avoided the dreaded DNF.

I was a marathon or so in and light would soon be upon these beautiful French lands and with it I felt conditions would improve if only because I’d be able to see but the news was a bit better than that – the closer to Lyon we got the better the trail conditions got and icy conditions became more sporadic. My head was also starting to clear a little bit and despite the physical pain I could feel myself running more and more with confidence returning that I could control both my ascents and more importantly the descents.

Finally after the drama and trauma of the night I was back in the race – although the slow progress through the ice had ensured that there was no way I was going to run faster than the previous attempt.

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We were also on the countdown to the finish ‘SainteLyon 25km arrivee’ I pushed on as fast as I could, walking the hills as quickly as possible and staying steady across the flat and downhills. I stopped briefly to top up my calories with a couple of caramel Freddo and some icy water and took a look back to realise that there still many, many runners behind me – this was clearly proving a hard slog for everyone.

With 20km to go I pulled into the next checkpoint and pulled out again quickly – I’d been keeping tabs on the young Australian girl and her friend who I’d inadvertently been playing overtaking tennis with and decided that I could use her as my pacer – the aim? To beat her to the finish. The final 20km are much more road based which doesn’t really suit my running style nor my injury record, however, it did allow me to push on without too much concern for what was happening at foot level.

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about 5km in to the final 20km I saw my new target drift ahead of me – still looking strong and here I thought it was all over, I didn’t have a race in me – or so I thought. With just over 10km left I entered the final checkpoint had arrived at the outskirts of Lyon. I saw the two runners I was trailing and asked how they were getting on, they described a tale of woe in the icy conditions and my internal Schadenfreude said, ‘hehe’ but instant karma paid me back by making me bite down hard on my own finger instead of the cheese and salami I was holding. I base them farewell and wished them a good final push but I knew I could get there before them.

Boom!

Finally the sun was warming, I removed my buffs, my gloves and rolled my sleeves up. I knew the route from here, I could smell the finish line in the distance and even the good awful climb into the city I flew up much to the amusement of runners behind me. There are steps on the descent into Lyon and the finish – lots of them and ahead of me I could see runners gingerly hobbling down them but I pushed hard knowing that I could continue to climb the rankings.

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Off the steps, down to the river, up the winding steps, over one bridge, fly past the musee de confluences and over the final bridge, cheering supporters shouting, ‘Allez!’ And clapping calling out, ‘Bravo! Bravo!’

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I had decided on my finish routine long ago for this race and I ambled along to the final 200metres, I could see runners ahead of me and at the right moment I pressed my feet into the floor and like a rocket I blasted off much to the surprise of the crowd who whooped and hollered as I hit full pace. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 runners down, runner number 6 with his hands in the air smacked me in the head but I was in full glorious flow and I hurtled towards the final turn – taking it wide to ensure I could cross the line flat out! I passed a couple of final runners at the line and I was over.

It was over! I was over!

  • Distance: 72km
  • Ascent: +2000 metres
  • Location: Lyon
  • Cost: £65
  • Runners: 7,000 (15,000 over all distances)
  • Terrain: Mixed, icy, rocky, hilly, tough
  • Tough Rating: 3/5

Organisation
The STL is possibly the best organised race I’ve ever run, but then after 64 editions perhaps that is to be expected. However, they clearly keep on making minor corrections to the system to ensure that runners know what’s going on and what they have to do. Things like transport to the start for thousands of runners is slick and well rehearsed and the checkpoints although busy are all easily accessible as a runner.

As a French classic there isn’t much information in English but Google translate is helpful and the volunteer army was amazing in helping me with questions I had.

There was also excellent social media connectivity and the tracking was quick, up to date and working unlike at so many events (yep I’m thinking of you UTMB). The STL scores incredibly highly for organisation.

Volunteers
All volunteers are amazing but the SainteLyon volunteers are out in some freezing cold conditions for a very long period and they remain hugely upbeat – they are a credit to the race and to European Ultra Running. There should also be a special mention to the many people who came out on to the course to support, whether they had a runner or not, truly special.

Route
The route had something for everyone whether you’re a trail lover, a road hog or somewhere in between. The ascents are sharp and the descents technical in places but it’s fun and the route is mostly wide enough for easy overtaking. The views for this route are strange in that you are in the middle of the night so it’s dark but the lights of the runners illuminate things around you and in the distance and that’s a beautiful sight. I feel very much the reason I love the STL so much is because the route is both challenging and fun, this time it really did show me it’s tough side but that doesn’t change my opinion that this is an everyman course and with a bit of tenacity you can do it.

Awards
I would love, love, love a SainteLyon medal but solo finishers are presented with a T shirt instead – a nice technical shirt but still not a medal. This year pre-race they also supplied a snood/buff and a pair of STL branded warm socks which are excellent. There were all sorts of other goodness such as the post race and pre race food (I didn’t bother with either but I heard good things about it). All in all the awards are great but I’d love a medal (take the hint organisers).

Costs
To give an indication of cost I paid around £85 return flights (London Luton – Lyon). £22 for the return express train to Lyon from the airport and about £85 for three nights Airbnb in the centre of Lyon as well as £60 for the race and transport. Other costs included a couple of technical SainteLyon t-shirts and a bobble hat (total cost £27). All in, transport, race, goodies, tourism and food £300.

Logistics
I’ve written in my previous STL about logistics but Lyon is 1hr 25mons from London and Lyon Airport is 30 mins from the city centre. I used AirBnB for accommodation which was lovely and the race itself provides buses to the start for €13 and this is easily the best way of arriving fresh at the start. The organisers and Lyon/St Etienne are very well prepared for this event and as far as I could tell it runs smoothly and logistically brilliantly.

Value for money
Value for money is a very subjective thing, for example some people even believe that OCR events are good value but this is a different kettle of fish. Entry is €63 – this includes the €3 service charge and what you get is not only a truly glorious event but also tremendous support (be that through volunteers, cheering supporters or food at checkpoints), most importantly though you receive a brilliantly organised event and having some events not this well set up I can tell you I appreciate the value of a good team delivering on their promises.

Favourite moments
This year was a little different to 2015 but it had no fewer highlights, below are five moments that really made a difference to my race.

  1. The start line, such an icon of the race and filled with all sorts of emotion. The moment the runners all started hugging and patting each other on their backs just made me feel connected to my fellow competitors
  2. Standing at various high points of the route and looking back to see the procession of lights running to catch me and the people ahead of me.
  3. The two young children and their mother offering water, coffee, goodies and support in the darkest hours of the race
  4. The cries of Allez! Allez! Allez! and Bravo!
  5. My sprint to the finish line

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Conclusion
Going back to the SainteLyon after 2015 was never in doubt. I had loved the idea of it and loved the execution of it. After being busy with Haria Extreme in 2016 I knew I would be returning to Lyon this year but what I hadn’t been prepared for was a hugely different experience.

In truth, as I look back on it, I enjoyed this year even more than my first time because of how close I came to failing and yet still clinging on. However, it wasn’t just that it was also the fact I got to enjoy the race, to watch the landscape move before my very eyes in a procession of light and because the SainteLyon continues to tease, ‘come back UltraBoy you can run me faster’.

Going back to the SainteLyon is a certainty because there is something special about it that no other race I’ve done has given me the feeling I get here. It might have left me broken into a thousand pieces but I would rather that it was body broken than my heart. SainteLyon 2017 – I loved you.

You can learn more about the race at www.saintelyon.com and below is a gallery of images taken during the 2017 event!

 


Your favourite races over time will change and a couple of years ago I looked at which events had given me the most joy but since then I’ve run another 50 races and I thought it was about time to refresh the list.

I’ve limited my list to just a single choice and the previous winner if there was one. The thing is though there are lots of great events that didn’t make the number one spot, the Green Man Ultra for example comes a very close second to the SainteLyon while MIUT, UTBCN and Haria Extreme could all easily take the top spot in their respective categories.

At the other end I hate missing out the City of London Mile and the Bewl 15 but hopefully this list provides an interesting read and a starting point for you to find your own favourite races… and you never know maybe one of these races will become your favourite sometime too.

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Category: Obstacle Course
Winner: Grim Challenge
Previous: Grim Challenge

I suppose this remains my favourite OCR run because I don’t really do OCR anymore. However, having done Survival of the Fittest, the Beast in the East, Xtreme Beach and several others (though never a tough mudder) I’d say that this ‘natural’ OCR still has great character and deserves consideration for some end of year fun. Why do this race? mud glorious winter mud.

View the gallery here

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Category: Timed
Winner: Brutal Enduro
Previous: Fowlmead Challenge

I’ve completed a number of timed challenges, many of them with SVN who provided the Fowlmead Challenge but without a shadow of a doubt my favourite timed event was the 18hrs I spent running around a truly spectacular route near Fleet to the south west of London. There was something quite magical about the tree lined, up and down, 10km lap that really tested the mettle of the runners – it helps I think that it was a relatively small field, a great atmosphere and a thoughtful organising team. I was somewhat dismayed to note that there was no 2017 edition but I live in hope that this great value event returns because I know I can do much better than I did last time. Why do this race? A truly awesome route that never gets boring no matter how many times you do it!

Read the review here
View the gallery here

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Category: Up to 5km
Winner: Chislehurst Chase Fun Run
Previous: Westminster Mile

I’d been trying to run the main Chislehurst Chase 10km for about 4 years when I finally found the time to rock up and hammer out a couple of laps of one of my favourite Kentish routes around Scadbury Park. The unexpected bonus was the children’s 2km fun run which was a nice, tight loop. UltraBaby in her first race to be powered exclusively by her own legs ran well for the first kilometre but then needed some minor cajoling to finish (in a respectable 30 minutes). The huge cheering crowd and the positive atmosphere filled me with joy but also my daughter who only the week before had turned 2. The medal that they placed around her neck remained there all day as she told passers-by of her running success and still she strokes her ‘Chase’ medal when she tells me, ‘my medals are here dad!). Great event! Why do this race? it’s fast, furious and family friendly

Read the review here

Category: 5km
Winner: Xtreme Beach
Previous: Ashton Gate Parkrun

I do love Ashton Gate Parkrun – it’s outstandingly good fun and also the starting point for one of my favourite ultra marathons, The Green Man but when I think of the 5km race that brought me most joy then it had to be Xtreme Beach. I’d been injured for quite a long time when this came up and at the last minute I decided to attend the inaugural event near the Bradwell power station in Essex. It turned out that Xtreme Beach was a looped OCR event through the most hideous smelling crap on the planet with ball busting challenges to face on each loop. I settled for a single loop as I didn’t want to disturb my hip injuries too much and by god it was fun! I came out of the filthy waters around the power station in shades of black I wasn’t aware existed and the squelch from my trainers indicated I’d not shirked my responsibility to give it some welly. Lots of fun packed in to that event – I wonder if it’s still going? Hmmm.

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Category: 10km
Winner: Chislehurst Chase
Previous: Medway 10km

The Chislehurst Chase is a double winner from me as the 10km trail race is an easy choice as one of the best 10km races around. The two lap route around Scadbury Park is windy, hilly, muddy, fast and challenging – it demands that you give every inch of yourself as you wend your way round the course and the rewards are pure exhilarating enjoyment. When I lived near Orpington I would regularly run fast laps around the main trail here and thunder up and down the hills with my spaniel but to get a medal for doing it was a lovely added bonus. Why do this race? a tight, twisty and runnable course finished off with a blistering sprint across the track. Outstanding.

Read the review here

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Category: 10 mile
Winner: Vigo Tough Love 10
Previous: Vigo Valentines Day

The only thing more fun than the Vigo Valentines Day 10 mile was when they made a few minor course changes and turned it into to the stomach churning, arse clenching Vigo Tough Love 10! This is the Kentish equivalent of a fell race and is both fast and furious while being a proper ball busting grind. The race failed to take place in 2016 but with the support of the Harvel Hash Harriers made a triumphant return in 2017 with a few minor course amendments and a superior sprint to the finish line. There is something magical about this race, in any incarnation, but the 2017 version for me is definitive and I’ll be back for a fourth crack next year! Why do this race? because it’s the best race around and at a mere 10 miles and a cut off of nearly 4 hours – anyone can do it… if they show a bit of tenacity.

Read the review here

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Category: Half Marathon
Winner: Summer Breeze
Previous: Summer Breeze

The half marathon distance is the one I run the least because it’s the one I enjoy the least. However, that being said I’ve run a dozen and I’ve never found one more exhilarating than the ‘Summer Breeze’ on Wimbledon Common. It was a hot, muddy, slow run with my former colleague HitmanHarris – I was injured and he was steady – it should have been an awful afternoon but actually it was as much fun as I’d hoped for and will make an effort to return in 2018 to this bimble with the Wombles! Why do this race? you’d do this race because it is so far from what you might expect and that’s a really good thing.

Read the review here

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Category: Marathon
Winner: Vanguard Way Marathon
Previous: Liverpool Marathon

My first marathon was in Liverpool in 2012 and while it was a fun it was a busy road marathon and pounding pavement, as I would discover, is not what I enjoy, nor does my body. Roll forward a couple years and the 2016 Vanguard Way Marathon – a race with almost universal approval, small field, beautiful trail route and a delightful medal what’s not to like? Well the VWM takes you on a tour of your own limits, you’re guaranteed to do ‘free miles’ as you get lost, the water may well run out at the checkpoints, it’s the middle of August with large swathes of the route held in a bloody sun trap and there’s a couple of arse quiveringly unpleasant hills to climb! I suppose you’re wondering why I’d say this is my favourite marathon then aren’t you? Well that’s easy, any race that tries to kill you has definitely got your respect. I suppose you can only truly appreciate being alive when you stand a chance of not being and the VWM provided that opportunity by the bucketload. Why do this race: the VWM is the UK version of Dignitas, just with a lower success rate. A tough as old boots marathon and in the August heat can be a real killer.

Read the review here
View the Gallery here

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Category: Ultra (up to 50km)
Winner: XNRG Amersham Ultra
Previous: N/A

Because I’ve expanded on the race distances I’ve done the 50km category has made itself available for a winner. Thankfully there was a very clear choice in my mind and that was the event that took in some wonderful trails around Amersham and also gave me my first experience of the wonderful XNRG. There was a certain zip and energy that accompanied this friendly, charity fund raising event and it seemed to me that everyone was up for a bit of a bimble. Now it’s true that I was feeling rough as heck for most of the race as my guts tried to force me into a DNF but I held on to record a respectable finish and have lots of lovely chats with some truly awesome. Why do this race? because it’s for charity, because it’s run by XNRG who are amongst the best in the ultra business and because it’s an amazing route.

Read the review here

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Category: Ultra (50km – 75km)
Winner: SainteLyon
Previous: St Peters Way

I loved the muddy glory of the St. Peter’s Way in Essex but for me the SainteLyon is both my favourite race in this category and also my favourite ultra. It’s the middle of winter, it’s midnight and there’s 6000 other runners all stood in Saint Etienne ready to launch themselves towards Lyon. It has twinkling headtorches as far as the eye can see, it has French locals out with cow bells cheering you on and it has a truly fast finish as you bound under the illuminated archway! It’s an amazing race and an amazing experience. And if you’re running it in 2017… we’ll I’ll see you there. Why do this race? it is simply unforgettable.

Read the review here
View the gallery here

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Category: Ultra (75km – 100km)
Winner: South Wales 50
Previous: N/A

I had no idea that the South Wales 50 would leave such a wonderful mark in my heart and there are lots of reasons for this. The route is compelling and tough, the organisation is top notch and the medal was both excellent and hard earned – however, it’s none of these that make this my favourite race in this category. The real reason is the bond of friendship that drew together the runners – I’d never seen so many quickly formed bonds made. I met Pete and Ryan who I will forever hold in high esteem and have huge respect for (good luck at TDS and RoF guys). Importantly though these type of bonds could be seen all over as people got to know one another on a way I’d never seen before. I would highly recommend the South Wales 50 – but be prepared for a toughie. Why do this race? it’s tough, it’s intimate and it’s great fun.

Read the review here

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© UltraBoyRuns

Category: Ultra (over 100km)
Winner: Skye Trail Ultra
Previous: Thames Path 100

I’ve said many times before that Skye tore me apart, broke me but also gave me one of the greatest race experiences I’ll ever have. Skye showed me ‘I can’ and I made sure I did. This race is as small and as intimate as you like, it’s run by ultra runners for ultra runners and it is tremendously inclusive. But don’t get caught up in admiring too many of the spectacular views because Skye is a ball buster. Enjoy Why do this race? because it’s there and everyone should run Skye.

Read the review here
View the gallery here


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.

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

A French Classic?

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

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

Pre-race timeline 

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

My journey to the SainteLyon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© SainteLyon 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kit?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I felt like crying

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

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

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

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

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

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

Technical

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

Important Information

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

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


 

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