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

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

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

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

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I therefore had high expectations for the event.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something I was very glad of.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We had made it, I had made it.

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

Route
What they said about the route…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Conclusion
Is this a great race? Not yet.

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

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

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

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

Check out the race details here

As I ambled around the Vigo Tough Love 10 I spent my time contemplating just how I might start this blog post and I could find no appropriate way to say what I was feeling and so we are starting like this.

There’s never an easy way to say goodbye and Vigo almost had me in tears (at miles 1 through to 9 and of course at the end) but that’s more about the course than the emotional end that Vigo Runners provided.

However, let me roll back 450 miles and a day or so earlier to when I was hammering down the M6 to the south with thoughts of my final days in the Kentish sunshine and another ding dong with the mud of the Vigo Tough Love 10.

The last year has left me a tad overweight, incredibly unfit, brutally broken and with nothing left in the tank – so the thought of driving a 900 mile round trip, loading up a van full of the last vestiges of our life here AND running the greatest race ever conceived seemed to be a cruelty that I did not need to put my body through. However, the Vigo Tough Love 10 has provided years of joy to me and one last opportunity to run it seemed like the ideal sign off.

We rolled up to the familiar sight of the Vigo running club on Sunday morning not in the best of moods – sleeping on a child’s picnic mat for the previous evening, having to make a pre-race trip to the local tip and then smacking my head into a car door were not ideal preparation. However, I was greeted in the warmest possible way when the race organiser called out ‘ultraboy’. Somewhat surprised by the recognition I found myself having a lovely chat and suddenly the day felt warmer as I waxed lyrical about my love of the event and my sadness about this (probably) being my final visit.

Post chat I took my place in the queue for number collection and I was surrounded by familiar faces both well known and less so but all welcome sights and I could feel myself getting, as the GingaNinja puts it, ‘totsemosh’. The efficiency of number collection was brilliant by the way, the very minor problem of the previous year had been ironed out – so well done guys.

All I could do really was to take in my beautiful surroundings and the lovely weather but most importantly was the wonderful atmosphere that seems to have grown year on year.

I love small races and small fields – yet even as this race grows it retains all the joy and friendliness that I have associated with it since I first took to the start line in 2014.

Anyways 10.30am rolled around (yes a nice time in the morning for a race!) I ambled to the back of the pack and listened to the safety briefing and sponsor gubbins and this year the bang of the cannon was finally replaced by a sound not so cannon like! But we were off and I started to gently pick my way through the field of runners.

We ran the traditional route round the rugby pitch and even here I could feel my poor old feet and lungs burning – today, I could tell, was going to be a long day. I was very grateful when we came across the first of the log leaps and there was a short queue and here I came across a runner who last year I had met as he was limping bloodied and injured about halfway in – lovely to see him back and looking strong.

The brief stop prepared me for the lovely first stretch of mud and for my part I looked lovingly over the oozy mud. Sadly Kent must have had a patch of good weather as the route was very runnable and probably the most runnable I’d ever seen it. However, let me assure thrillseekers that despite the excellent conditions there was still plenty of filthy action to get you aroused!

It still amazes me though that some runners had chosen to run in road shoes, I (relatively sensibly) had opted for the Altra King MT and I had full confidence that they would handle pretty much anything.

And so it was.

While others picked there way through the sides of the mud I simply bounded through it like a puppy. I was a literal pig in muddy poo, oh how I could have simply lain in the muddiness!

My mood was improving dramatically with every step and I delighted in dancing through the trails and chatting to the runners – mostly me talking at people, mocking my own stupidity for attempting this with so much else going on. But the V10 is the kind of race where you do chat to fellow runners and you do share your trail running stories, it’s all part of that very friendly vibe that reverberates through every level of the event.

As the miles passed by I was reminded once again how Vigo feels so open and crammed in all at the same time – one second you’re in tight woodland and then suddenly you’re in great expanses of green and for miles and miles you feel like you’re in the trail maze. Uphills become downhills and vice versa – it’s an unending smorgasbord of beauty and brutality on your legs and your wits and it will catch you out if you fail to respect it.

It’s a brilliant route and I have lots of respect for the V10m.

But it wasn’t going to be my day in terms of good running so I hiked quickly the harder hills and gave it ‘the beans’ where I could. Vigo really was going to test my mental, emotional and physical endurance today.

The good news was that as the naughty thoughts of failure flickered across my mind my favourite downhill was upon me! The downhill sits around halfway through the race and I always feel you’re entering a tunnel of trees – here you see the cautious not wanting to risk anything but as an old hand I could turn the volume up to 11 and simply go.

And go I did.

More than usual I really hurtled down the trail and found myself coming over the log at the bottom with such enthusiasm that you’d have thought there was a 4 pack of cream eggs waiting for me!

Instead, at the bottom, was another of the brilliant marshalling team. I carried on through the open field and saw the climb up to the halfway hill of horror, weirdly behind me I could here the sound of runners – running! ‘Running?’ I hear you cry, ‘up a hill?’

I’ll be honest I knew that walking up this hill would save me for later in the race and both knees and feet would thank me for not running up the tarmac climb. But I was mightily impressed that many at the back of the pack where showing a lot more grit than I was!

Once clear of the summit I returned to running and cut gently through the swathes of delicious Kentish countryside while grabbing greedily at the proffered jelly babies (nice ones too – haribo rather than bassets I reckon). The only problem was that conditions were a little too warm for me and I’d already dispensed with my undershirt but the ground, due to the glorious conditions, was much tougher than anticipated and therefore my King MT in the final 5km were a little hard going and my Lone Peaks might have been a better on the day choice.

Still I bounced merrily along the final downhill and prepared for the long, slow slog up the final hill. Most might call this heartbreak hill or some other such valentines related nonsense but I simply refer to it as, ‘friend’. The final hill reminds me of the many good times I’ve endured clambering to the top, breathless with joy, exhaustion and excitement, it’s a fine climb and one that gives this race a special place in all our hearts.

As I slowly clambered upwards I laughed and joked with the other runners and recounted my history with the race and just how happily willing I was to travel from Scotland for this event.

Near the top of the hill there was a tremendous amount of encouragement for all the runners and as ever there was a marshall to give you that final shove if the hill had gotten the better of you.

At the top I shared a slurp of water with another runner and we both set off – having a little chat and bimbling our way to the finish. Then with less than a mile to go my toes curled in under my foot and the worst cramp I’ve ever experienced – I’ll admit I let out a series of howls and expletives. I tried running but there was nothing, I stopped to try and stretch but the magnificent pain just forced itself deeper into my foot.

Bloody hell I was so near – it cannot end like this.

I stood for a few moments and started to stretch my toes out but the little buggers were like claws and refused to open. Sod this I thought as a marshall approached and asked if I needed help – thanking him I said, ‘no’ and with one final effort I pushed the afterburner button and thrust myself forward into the trees. I knew I was going to make it but the question I had to ask myself was ‘how do you want to make it?’

The answer I concluded was with a roar.

In the distance I could see the two young cadets guarding the entrance to final run in and despite their warnings of the log I hurled myself over it – all prepared for one final blast down the runway to the finish line.

But then I stopped.

There was my family and the GingaNinja said to me, ‘she wants to run with you’.

Let my assure dear reader – this was going to be the perfect end to my Vigo journey. ASK grabbed my hand and told me, ‘we’re going to win dad’.

I’ll be honest I could have come last and I would have won today – this was brilliant and in the distance I could hear the call of the PA system cry out my variety of known names but on a race day, on a day like this, I’m definitely ultraboy!

ASK and I hammered those final couple of hundred metres home, I watched as she strode across the line and behind me and all around me I could hear the cheers of the remaining runners and the gentle congratulations of my daughter. Cuddles ensured and photographs taken and a medal was placed proudly round my daughters neck.

I may have run like the old man I’ve become but this remains the greatest race in the UK, my greatest race and what happened next is proof of that…

But we’ll get to that later.

Key Points

Distance: 10miles (10km option available)
Profile: a hilly calf destroyer
Date: Valentines weekend
Location: Vigo, Kent
Cost: £20
Terrain: Muddy and damn fine fun
Tough Rating: 3/5

Route: I’ve written several times about the route and I’ve waxed lyrical about the up and down nature of running around Vigo and this lovely part of Kent. I suppose the reason I really love this route is that in February it has everything, it’s wet and it’s dry, it’s hard and soft, you’ll come out of the event covered in mud, maybe even a bit bloodied if you get lucky and you’ll not have a single minute when you’re bored. This is a route that you’ll finish and immediately want to go back to again.

Organisation: I’m sure that 2018 will one day be remembered as ‘that year’ where there was a bit of a mix up with race numbers. However, having done this a five times now I can say that the organisation has always been first class and 2019 was no different – the team from Vigo Runners and Harvel Hash Harriers really do know how to organise a race and race number collection this year was better, faster and smoother than ever.

The marshalling points are all perfectly placed for directions and support, you always receive knowledgeable people guiding you and there’s a friendliness from all those involved in the organisation that makes this truly welcoming.

Support: The rugby club at Vigo which hosts the start line and provides the facilities pre-and post-race is a great way to ensure that there’s a good level of support to send the runners on their way plus the club itself shows its ongoing community spirit by allowing a load of stinky trail runners in through its doors! The indoor facilities such as the toilets, food options and changing rooms (and ample toilet roll) make this a comfortable wait for the runners, there no standing round in the cold – it’s simply catering well to a runners pre-race needs!

As mentioned the marshalling team are all top notch and you can’t fault them and you can’t praise them enough.

Value for Money: Value for money is always a difficult thing to measure but with Vigo you are getting both an awesome experience as well a mars bar, some love hearts and a really decent medal. Thrown in some really excellent support, a couple of water stations and a route to die for and you get brilliant value in your race.

Social Media / Communication: I’ve started looking at the way races communicate with it’s runners and how it advertises them (and I admit some bias here as my previous blog posts about the event get recommended to be read in their comms sometimes). Vigo Runners get the balance snooty right between too much and too little but I’d love to see more video content, more interaction throughout the year to help further build this ‘must-do’ race. The good news is though is that they don’t do it all through Facebook – they still do email race instructions and this I feel is a positive as not everyone likes or has social media. So basically I hope they keep doing exactly what they’re doing and will continue to build up this aspect of the race advertising.

Post Race Mentions: After I crossed the finish line there was a blur – lots of congratulations (despite this being my slowest ever Vigo), there was me congratulating other runners and there was ASK disappearing from my sight as I had my tuning chip removed and crying as she couldn’t find the GingaNinja.

I was starting to head out when a runner (the name eludes me but then it’s been a mad weekend) spoke to me and we briefly got chatting about her taking on the awesome upcoming Green Man Ultra. Weirdly we also had a selfie moment which was surprisingly odd – as it felt a little too much like celebrity – especially when it was followed by the race organisers coming over and saying, ‘we’ve been calling your name for ages’. I limped over to the starting area and there was the Vigo & Harvel top brass with a trophy and a HAGGIS! To say thank you for the support I’ve shown over my years running with them.

Now firstly, I love Haggis, secondly I love this race and thirdly – thank you so very much for this. I really don’t write the blog for reward, I write it because I want people to go to races that I’ve really enjoyed. And I’ve consistently said this is my favourite race and if this is to be my final time at Vigo then I’ll both be very sad and very grateful for the opportunity of running it and writing about it.

Conclusion: My apologies for this intentionally gushy and rather emotional post about the Vigo Tough Love 10 Mile. In 2019 I loved it as much as I loved it when it was all new in 2014 – it’s an event and a race that will bring you joy and if you are local or from further afield you should make the effort to join in – you will never be disappointed by running the Vigo 10. And while I say this will be my last time, my fifth time will never feel like enough and who knows – maybe next year I’ll discreetly turn up and run a decent time. We shall see. However, if I leave a Vigo legacy it this – I hope that some of you will be inspired to sign-up because you wanted a bit of the joy I felt when my feet slurped through that mud.

Thank you to everyone involved and keep doing what you’re doing. Brilliant event.

It’s been a weird week, I’ve had so few hours sleep that I can barely see straight, I’ve been working round the clock to meet my commitments at work and to get ready for job interviews in preparation for a move Scotland. Too this add the last ten days being dedicated to the final part of my beloved Spaniels life and well let’s say it’s not been the easiest period we’ve ever had. Theres been no running since the 28th January and to be fair I just haven’t felt like putting on my shoes and getting out there.

The problem was Vigo, my favourite race, my favourite route. However, I really wasn’t prepared for it physically or mentally. With every new thing that layered itself in life outside running pushed me further from the start line. However, when ThunderPad died I knew running Vigo would be a fitting tribute both to him (he loved mud and that part of Kent) and to pay homage to a race that I might be running for the final time (Scotland is a long way to come).

Seems I’d sold it into myself – back to the Vigo Tough Love 10 mile(ish).

Let’s briefly discuss the registration process which had a few issues. It seems the database and the numbers were the wrong way round – it was an admin error and I hope that anyone who ran it could see that guys worked tirelessly to get things working. Yes we started 40 minutes late but that time allowed the organisers to get on top of everything and also for the runners to get better acquainted. Stuff happens and these guys really pulled it out of the bag to get us running. Well done chaps.

But the race…

Was it still the stuff of legend? Was it still the race that I pencil in first when I’m planning my next years running? Is it still the best value and best fun event in the calendar?

I can save you the trouble of reading further and say, oh yes! You’ll never have more fun in your life than doing this tremendous race!

Here’s the overview

  • Pre-race despite the problems with registration the whole team pulled together to get the runners ready as quickly as possible. Well done
  • Arrived and immediately ran into the salty sea dog Gary!
  • Wonderfully wet route
  • The most enthusiastic and determined marshalling team
  • The uphills and the downhills are still the best around and they really do grind you to pieces
  • Beautifully clear Kentish views
  • A fabulous course
  • Mud everywhere
  • My Topo Athletic Terraventure were truly brilliant in the mud once again
  • The 10km runners were split off from the 10 milers pretty early which helped avoid to many pacing problems
  • Cool medal and another mars bar!
  • Incredibly well organised despite the hiccup at registration and there was regular communication from the organisers – they did everything right given the challenges.
  • Very well supported
  • Really excellent value

But the devil is always in detail and this is why it’s still my favourite race.

After the organisers had managed to successfully get everyone through the registration process we were mere minutes from starting. I took up my customary position at the rear and when the sound to go went off I slid my way forward with the other foolhardy souls.

The amble around the rugby field is an opportunity for some to burst forward, usually those who have never run it before or those going for the win. I was quite happy sat in the middle of the pack enjoying watching the surroundings go by. The thing about Vigo though is that if you let it then it will bite you on the bum and as early as the first leap over a log you could tell conditions would be treacherous but runnable.

The rain earlier in the week had sat heavily on the course and made the top layers of mud pretty damn slick and as I looked to avoid the worst of the first puddles I realised this was going to be futile and so sank my foot into the thick wet, muddy water. Woohoo I thought as I felt the freezing cold water pass through my Terraventure.

Splish, splash, splish, squelch, squerch I thundered across the ground watching the runners ahead of me and seeing the sections I should avoid. The good thing about going through the water is that it is probably the most stable section of the course – yes you run the risk of losing a shoe or two but it’s quicker than trying to go round the edge. Despite a bad back, no sleep, a week to forget and the toughness of the route I was making pretty good time and I passed through the 5km mark within 30 minutes.

Parts of the route were also dry enough to run through more quickly and here I made up time for the sections were conditions had caused delay. As I passed the many wonderful marshals I offered my own assessment that they, ‘hadn’t made it any easier since last year’ but with the downhills kicking in it felt like I was making swift progress across Kent. It wasn’t much later – probably 8 or 9km in that I felt the last few weeks really catching up on me and when I hit a fast downhill I knew that I didn’t have full control of my jelly like legs – that didn’t stop me thundering down though but the big road climb in the route did bring me to a stodgy halt.

I stomped up to the top and the water point, wishing I was closer to the finish. I had fluids and a jelly baby followed by a stern talking to myself before I set off again – legs exhausted and a minor hamstring pull. As I pressed on I enjoyed the views and the slightly slower running. It was about 3km later when my Vigo running buddy caught me up and grabbed me from behind saying, ‘let’s get this done buddy’ but even as we pushed on together I knew that I didn’t have the legs – still that didn’t mean I wasn’t going to put up a fight. I flew with all the dignity I could muster through the downhill and into the next field but the sight of the final climb in the corner of my eye made me poo myself just a little bit and I said goodbye to Mick.

The final couple of miles are spent in the knowledge that you’ve got the final ball busting hill to ascend and in the distance you can see a slow and slowing procession of exhausted runners making the best of it that they can. I took my time getting there as I knew there was no way I was doing it quickly and when I arrived I had a little joke with the marshal before giving it about five seconds of thrust! I descended quickly into a slow death march to the top but strangely even though I was going relatively slowly it was pretty consistent and conditions on the hill were such that this was a reasonable ascent. Lovely. As I reached the top I muttered to both myself and volunteers, ‘four times I’ve done this! You’d think I’d learn. Never again’ – there was laughter.

Last year I reached the top and gave it some welly but this year I was in pieces – my legs stumbled to get back into position and once we were moving it was fine. I knew that I was probably less a kilometre from the finish but I wanted to finish strongly and so ambled casually into the undergrowth of the final few turns. Here I met a lovely volunteer who got behind me and gave me a push when I looked like I was about to give up and from here I hit the afterburner – leaping across the log and into the home stretch. In the distance I could hear the sound of Mick shouting out my name and there was a runner about a hundred metres ahead of me. I flew like my life depended on it to try and catch him but he crossed the line a second before me. My sprint finish wasn’t quite as brilliant as it so often is yet unable to stop I charged towards the volunteers – coming to a less than dignified stop some metres beyond the finish.

What a race!

Caked in mud I shared an embrace with my long standing running friend Mick, his brother and also met his friend who described how he kicked on to take the race win a whole half an hour earlier than either I or Mick. Lovely chap and a very deserving winner.

Key points

  • Distance: 10 miles
  • Profile: Hilly, sharp ascents and descents
  • Date: February 2018
  • Location: Vigo, Kent
  • Cost: £20 (£25 on the day)
  • Terrain: Muddy, hilly
  • Tough Rating: 3/5

Route: It doesn’t get any better than this, the first mile or two is absolutely amazing whatever the conditions – you’re flying or falling through the thick oodles of mud. It drains you, it feels heavy but with every fibre of your body you know that this is the kind of race you’re going to adore based on this first section. The rest is simply a succession of ball busting up and down with very little respite but what it takes out you it gives back 10 fold and more. If you love running you need to do this route, preferably in this race.

Organisation: No complaints – even with a bit of an admin error (for which they massively apologised) the team got on with the job and made it happen (and as far as I can tell the chip times look pretty good). I hope nobody thinks different as they really bust a gut to get the race underway as fast as possible. In other terms the race start, the execution of the on course support, the finish line and the pre race marketing and social media meant that actually the race seemed even better organised than ever.

A special mention goes to the wonderful marshals and volunteers at Vigo Runners and the Harvel Hash Harriers who make this happen. I know that some complained a bit about the muddy parking but let’s put a bit of a spin on it – there was free parking and there were awesome cadets and other runners who helped push out the cars when we got a bit stuck! This race had a real air of community spirit – don’t change a thing!

Awards: Pretty cool medal, Vigo also had something different, my first one was pretty generic, the others a little more themed – this latest one looks like it could be a sex toy (if you look at it in the wrong light! Ha).

Conclusion: This remains my favourite race, the SainteLyon runs it so close but this has a place in my heart that just edges it ahead. The ten mile (and new 10km) distance mean this is a very accessible race. The route is hellfire tough, brutal in places but also super fast in others. It’s a race that can be whatever you want it to be and I hope this continues long after I have slipped off this mortal shell. Sadly my move to Scotland means I doubt I’ll be down for every running of this race but I suspect I’m not done with Vigo – my heart will draw me back. If you’ve run it you’ll hopefully know what I mean and be drawn back too and if you’ve never run it then you need to.

In memory of Thai: In my final words I’ll say that I ran this partly in memory of my beloved Spaniel who we lost earlier in the week – he loved the area and no matter how hard the race was I knew that if Thai were running alongside me (during a training run – race sadly not really suitable for Cani-X) he’d have been complaining that we weren’t reaching the next muddy puddle quickly enough. Thanks for keeping me going out there ThunderPad, miss you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a day.

Key points

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep up the good work guys.

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

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

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

Boom! Lightning can strike twice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key points

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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As regular readers will know I’m something of a Hoka One One convert, I started wearing them last year when I was looking to replace a couple of pairs of shoes and reduce the blistering problem I suffer with during ultra marathons. I love them but I can’t live in them, they aren’t the kind of runners you throw on when you need to put the bins out or when you need to run to the shop to get a pint of milk. If ever a shoe was designed for ‘proper’ running it is the Hoka.

So with that in mind I’d been considering Inov8 for some time. I’d already tried on a pair a few months back but hadn’t fallen in love with them and so had decided against it but when Snow and Rock had a bit of sale on Invo8 shoes and in particular the ones I was considering I was more inclined to take a punt.

What they say
Let’s talk about the shoe itself or rather what the manufacturer has to say

The Inov8 Men’s Trailroc 245 is great for everything from training to racing, packing the perfect combination of performance, cushioning and underfoot protection. The Meta-Shank™ midsole provides targeted metatarsal impact protection whilst the anatomic fit allows you toes to spread for a more natural feel. Reinforced in all the right places for extra support, the Trailroc™ has an innovative outsole that utilises three, sticky rubber compounds for the ideal combination of hardness, durability and grip, so that you can easily adapt; however the ground beneath you changes.

Anatomic fit
Synthetic, TPU upper
Mesh Lining
6mm Footbed
EVA injected midsole
3mm Differential
Meta-Shank™ midsole
TRI-C™ compound

It’s fair to say I’m often dubious about shoes when they sound too technical and the Trailroc with their anatomical fit, meta-shank midsole and TRI-C compound make my ears prick with caution but there is something to be said for a lot of this. The 6mm footbed is a blessing on trails as it really offers just that hint of support you want as you are running and yet manages to give enough connection with the surface you are running on for it to feel very real.

The TRI-C compound is also quite a nice little touch in that they’ve broken down the sole into three distinctive areas with differing degrees of flexibility and strength in the rubber so that your foot gets the best protection and movement for the ground it’s covering. This is where they really come into their own and actually running through wet or sticky trail simply ‘feels’. You know where you are because the rubber is working with you rather than simply absorbing the impact as with say the Hoka One One.

Upper
The mesh on the upper is lightweight and very breathable and even in wet conditions will bounce back pretty readily. Obviously they are in no way waterproof but they drain well and with the right socks, offer lasting protection against the elements. The concern with the upper is that it won’t last a million years but then if you will insist on running in a pair of slippers you’ve got to expect that they’ll wear a little easier than some of their hardcore cousins.

Fitting
I found the Trailroc came up a little small in the fitting and so rather than use my usual size 9 I went with the 9.5 – I did this for several reasons, the first is that I wanted to wear thicker socks with them (Drymax) and I wanted to give my feet a little more room than usual. The nice wide toe box of the Trailroc 245 is a very good fit for a runner with wider feet like myself. My toes never feel too locked in to the shoe but they always feel secure thanks to an excellent lacing system and loopholes in exactly the places that you want them.

Visual
Aesthetically the shoe is very nice, it’s not quite Salomon Lab Ultra nice but they aren’t far off and I always feel like a fashion icon of running when I find myself choosing my Trailroc to hit the ground in. The thing they have over the SLab Ultra are that in my case they fit properly.

Comfort
Once of the nice things about the Trailroc 245 though is that I find them very comfortable on the tarmac as well – I mean I’m not going to run a marathon in them but when I’m crossing London in an evening or hitting the road for my Virtual 10km races then these are ideal. They don’t suffer with some of the dull ache you get with other trail shoes that you might accidentally wear on tarmac – bonus.

Overall
So technically they appear a great shoe, you really can’t fault them but is my experience of them equally as good. I’ve now run about 80 miles in the shoes and feel that is enough to get a fair understanding of how I feel about them

Experience
As most people who read my blog will be aware I enjoy racing and I feel that every shoe I own should run at least one race. This happens to be quite difficult when you own dozens of pairs of running shoes but with the Inov8 I was keen to get them into a race as soon as possible and my wish was granted with the Valentines Challenge in Vigo.

The conditions were incredibly heavy going (as you can read in my earlier blog posting here) because of  all the rain and storms that the UK had suffered from over the months of December and January. I was wearing the Trailroc for only the second time and the first on trail and so I was filled with slight nerves about their performance. However, I need not have worried – the shoes chomped through most of the mud, skipped through puddles and waded happily through flooding. Yes, they were a bit lethargic through the top layer wet mud but then I think almost any shoe would have been – perhaps a super aggressive grip shoe would have fared better but then in the drier rockier sections the three rubber outsole worked its magic as I skipped over the difficult terrain with both enough protection and lubrication on my feet. Each soaking my feet took eventually dried out and the combination of shoe and sock was a magical one. Even as I was finishing the race covered in every kind of mud imaginable the shoes never let me down and even trudged to a reasonably fast finish.

Subsequent runs have been equally impressive but as with all barefoot or minimal shoes I find that when I run tired that my form slips and this then makes them less comfortable – but that is a problem with the runner and not so much with the shoe. Would I think of these for an ultra marathon such as SDW50 in a few weeks time? I suppose the honest is ‘possibly’. They will certainly be my back up shoe but they won’t yet make it to being my first port of call – the Hoka are simply too good for that. However, when I’m looking at kit for the Race to the Stones these will definitely be being considered because of the lower profile, lighter weight, ventilation and all round comfort.

Score
Great shoe 9/10 – dropping a point only because they couldn’t cure me of my Hoka addiction.

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This weekend saw a number of runners tackle the challenge of the Brighton Half marathon and even one of the runners I’ve had the pleasure to meet take on the Midnight Challenge. I was barred from the Midnight Challenge by my ever loving partner who reminded me that she wasn’t going to attend nor offer me any help with this one as she wanted a quiet weekend. The compromise was that I would be allowed to take part in the Valentines Run in Vigo, a very small village in Kent. Hosted by Vigo Rugby Club I had no doubt that we would get a professional race but had no idea that we would get such a well organised and delightful race experience. Let me explain how the day went…

At about 7.30am I woke up still singing ‘everything is awesome’ the very catchy little ditty housed near the start of the Lego Movie. My head was still a little bit leaden and my chest was still on fire from all the crappy gunk that I was trying to exhume but I hopped into the shower and simply pretended to my now also ManFlu ridden OH that it was ‘race on’.

I picked some sensible kit, long OMM flash leggings, my Ronhill VIzion LS top and my new Inov8 Trailroc, I’d coupled these with the Drymax socks I’d bought for C2C earlier in the year. The one addition I was glad I added was my Salomon race belt, I wasn’t sure how much water would be out on the course and this seemed like a sensible precaution out on the trail.

Vigo itself was about a 25 minute drive from us and so about 9.30 with the hounds packed in the car and the sun beating down above us, we headed out. Upon arrival we parked up on a slightly wet and muddy overspill car park but nothing that the car couldn’t handle although the local cadets were having to massage many a vehicle onto the mud.

I headed on into the race HQ or the bar as it’s normally known and spoke to a lovely lady who gave me my number. Given that I was a low number and had only registered a couple of weeks back I suspected that most of the entries would be taken on the day and in fact the race desk was very busy taking runners details.

I hung around the race start, chatted to some of the volunteers and some of the runners – introduced Indigo to the bustling nature of pre race, my baby springer spaniel was much in demand for cuddles and love. And then about 10.25 we all headed outside for the start.

We filed into a kind of pen just on the outside of the rugby field and as the starting approached the cannon fired off a round signalling the start – you wouldn’t have got that at the Brighton Half marathon!

The first section was to run around the sticky field of the rugby club and it was dense and hard going and I remember that by the time I got to the wooded section only a few hundred metres into the race my legs already felt heavy and my chest was on fire.

Regardless I crossed the log barred entry and started my run through the woods with their heavily pitted and watered tracks, with a desire to run reasonably steadily I lumbered from one side of the track to the next, trying not to get caught up in the overtaking through the puddles and focus instead on keeping my balance on the slippery ground.

The first few miles ran really quite well but I was going particularly fast and then the first of the major downhills came and I could feel my body urging me forward. However, the ground was rocky and uneven with large long clumps of thick wet mud to get through and my mind was telling me to be sensible. Thankfully body and heart won out and I was decided to give my Inov8 something to test themselves on and so we hurtled down the hill, bouncing between the rocks and I noted that despite being a reasonably minimalist shoe I felt very little trouble as went down, though I did feel suitable connected to the trail and therefore the Trailroc really where earning their spurs!

The course for the next couple of miles remained reasonably uphill, not in the ‘here’s a big hill, now climb it’ those I can deal with pretty easily, no, this was the kind of hill work that required a bit of tenacity and personality. I paced myself up most of it, going slowly but steadily and managing to take in some breathtaking Kent scenery.

At the half point there was a much needed water stop – located handily at the top of hill which was manned by a couple of lovely people handing out water and jelly babies. Having my own supply meant that I thought it best to leave the water for some of the runners behind me but used the opportunity to take on board my own fluid. I did take a jelly baby though and this yumminess pushed me up to the top of the next section and through onto the downhill where once again I pushed myself harder and chatted to a guy I’d met in the car park. It was a brief chat but in the few seconds we spoke he managed to curdle my blood with a tale of the last hill. Bloody hell as my only thought.

A shore while later I met Brendan who was struggling pretty badly and so we stayed together for the remainder of the race, I still felt pretty good, despite the ManFlu and knew that this chap needed a bit of push. I urged him to pull his finger out for the run up towards the hill and then we clambered slowly to the top. The hill as the photographs below show was a bit of a beast and required mental toughness to complete. I continued to support Brendan as best I could and had a bit of a joke or three with the girls at the top of the hill. I suggested Brendan catch his breath and then we headed out, the finish was in sight! well nearly. As we hit the track back to the rugby club we were ushered around the field once more. I had managed t claw back a place or two against people who had overtaken me earlier and it called back to Brendan that his goal was now not the finish line but overtaking me. However, I knew I probably had more in the tank than he did and so with a final push I crossed the line. Brendan came in a few seconds later looking tired but pleased as punch, he had given it his all. And if you read this, well done, you were brilliant.

I picked up my medal, my decent goody back (still wrapped foil blanket, mars bar, love hearts and a £5 Sweatshop voucher) and headed away with my loving Spaniels who had managed to get as filthy as their daddy.

This was a great race and highly recommended – especially if you like hills (nearly 1200ft of ascent and descent) and mud, lots of mud.

See you next year.

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