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Have you ever looked at a bar of chocolate and thought that looks amazing?

It’d be oozing caramel chunks, little flakes poking from the sides and then you taste it and you realise it’s a giant turd you’ve just bitten into but you’ve got to keep going because you’re in polite company and don’t want to miss out on the thing that everyone else is devouring. Welcome to my review of the Ultra Scotland 50!

I should at this point mention that the metaphor suggests I didn’t enjoy the race but the truth is very different – I very much enjoyed this like chocolate but also endured the race like a tough as buggery turd, but we’ll get to that later.

I suppose this is very much a tale of the pandemic and so that’s where it begins.

I, like lots of others, in 2019 eagerly entered our 2020 races assuming that we would once more spend the year running around beautiful trails and the occasional bit of cruddy car park. When 2020 came around I found that I wasn’t in the best place either injury, fitness or weight wise and I trudged my way through the mutually awesome Tyndrum 24 and Falkirk Trail Ultra, I then missed the inaugural F50K because of my grandmother dropping dead but figured with a race calendar full to brimming it would be fine. At the start of April I’d start my Ranger Ultras Grandslam and that would swiftly be followed by the Ultra Scotland 50 from GB Ultras.

I think we all know what happened nstead and races became consigned to the dustbin, albeit on a temporary basis.

And so when offered the chance to run the Ultra Scotland 50 as my first race of 2021, mere days after the latest lockdown ended, I knew I had to be on the start line whatever my condition.

As I stood at the side of Clatteringshaws Loch, watching the beautiful stars twinkling in the dark skies park with Rona at my side, a cup of tea in hand and I was listening to the man outside his motorhome playing bagpipes truly beautifully, I realised that I am a very fortunate person who was being presented with another awesome opportunity and I would not waste it.

The various lockdowns have meant that I’ve been able to focus on some of the key problems I’ve had when I’m running – so I’ve dropped more than 20kg in weight, I’ve returned to active, focused training and I’ve mostly been injury free and this triple gave my decent confidence as 2021 arrived. It was therefore with great dismay that despite my desire to race as I stood looking at those stars that my hamstring hurt like an absolute shit and I’d been struggling with it for over a month.

Typically, the moment there’s a race opportunity and my body decides to send me to a start line hampered.

However, as I gulped down the last of my tea I knew that my hamstring wasn’t going to deter me from leaving the Loch side in about 8hrs and set off from St John’s Town of Dalry and try and reach Moffat, a mere 56 miles away.

Rona, the motorhome, afforded me a nights peaceful and relatively luxurious sleep and when I got up the following morning I was able to get ready close to the race start with the benefit of my own toilet. For those who aren’t regular readers then you should be aware that my pre-race poo ritual is a well established marker in my race preparation and should not be disturbed. Milkshake, milky coffee, poo time – it’s simple and effective and reduces the need for me to spend half a race looking for a place that a) nobody will see me drop a turd and b) find a place to bury said turd.

What I can tell you is that, despite following the ritual, very little happened in the bowel department and this was next worry of the day but I just assumed I’d be going ‘full bear’ and making a mighty mound somewhere on the Southern Upland Way.

Having read the Covid guidelines for the race and watched the video from the organisers I felt quite confident that I was turning up ready to race and arriving ‘just in time’. The race start was very well organised, in covid terms and despite the mildly wet weather most runners were managing to stay dry and knew what to do in preparation for the start line.

We ambled into the registration point, in race number order, which I felt was rather cute, were given a few course correction notes as we entered and then were processed

  • Temperature check
  • Bag drop (I had chosen not to bother)
  • Tracker
  • Queue up for race start

All very easy, all very seamless – you’d have thought that GB Ultras had done it like this a thousand times – I was actually quite impressed.

The thing that was less impressive, and is no fault of the organisers, was the muted start.

Covid guidelines meant we were sent out one runner at a time in 15 second intervals and although practical did take away from the atmosphere. That said because the start line was located in a town it meant that there were people lingering around, including friends and family who cheered runners on which provided an improvement over the covid start line of Ultra North (my only comparison).

Anyway pretty much bang on the money of 6.07am I set off from the town and headed on the first of many uphills, waving goodbye to ASKadventurer and the GingaNinja knowing that it might be as much as 18hrs before I saw them again.

As I rolled out of Dalry I could immediately feel my hamstring but I was determined that I wouldn’t resort to using running poles unless I had no other choice and so I pushed on enjoying the early delights of the Southern Upland Way.

Despite the Covid guidelines it was still very likely you’d meet other runners on the route and as we entered the trail, after less than a kilometre of running, I came across my first major runchat opportunity – Patrick (first time organised ultra runner) and Alistair (seasoned mountain goat he looked like). We bimbled along, with me mostly bemoaning Falkirk’s lack of mountains to train on and they in good spirits. The trails were fun and fast but with less than 4km on the clock I made a huge mistake jumping on a bridge and sliding straight off it and landing on the edge – cracking my hip, leg and back in the process – this was not a good start. Although I leaped back up quickly I had to let me running colleagues slowly disappear into the distance as I needed to let the wind fill my sails once more.

I was shaken by the fall but mostly alright and I managed to pick myself up enough to start picking up the pace but there was pain in my knee on my already bad leg and I’d clearly hurt my shoulder as that was now acting like a dick. Thankfully I had a wonderful course to distract me and I was provided non-stop entertainment by the sheep bleeting at me as I ran and being the fool I am I chose to converse with the sheep whenever they were in range.

Heading downhill I could now see the 8 mile point and watched as it drew ever closer, the thing was I hadn’t yet touched my water supply, nor my food and so with little more than a nod and wink (with my mask on of course) I simply ran through and stopped a little way up the road to adjust myself and stow my face covering.

The adjustment was necessary as the fall had left a painful reminder on my shoulder and I found myself regularly readjusting my pack to try and reduce the pain on the injury but nothing worked.

Therefore with a gob full of kinder chocolate I began the real assault of the Southern Upland Way and from here it really felt like a proper trail race and with 15 or 16 miles until the next checkpoint across some tough ground this was going to be an interesting test of my body.

What I was still working out was how the breadcrumb mapping trail works on my Fenix 6X because despite following the signage it was saying I was off course… how the sweet arseholes could I be off course? I was following the map! The thing was I was heading up a hill with no path and no clear way forward – I was clearly off route and then I turned around and saw two runners heading in a different direction and I hastily headed towards them. Down I strode through the rough undergrowth and spilled my way back into the path – another knee trembler of a mistake, how many more of them was I going to make today?

I was a little bemused as to why neither of the two runners just a few feet ahead of me had issued a warning of my impending stupidity but maybe that’s just something I do when I see a fellow competitor about to do something navigationally erroneous. But ho-hum I was back on track now and heading towards the first big climb of the course.

The route here was overgrown and very green and a real delight, the trail wound upwards and onwards and as you climbed a little higher the temperature dropped despite the morning getting brighter.

Why was it getting chillier you might ask? Well that was simple – there was snow underfoot to chill your hard working and burning feet.

Having recently dropped my second layer of socks I could feel the cold through my Lone Peaks but it was a lovely sensation and it wasn’t very thick and therefore nice and easy to run through. On I ran and picked my way through the gently rolling hills and the short sharp ascents but all the while knowing that there were some significant spikes to come.

It was here that I came across Wayne Drinkwater, the race director and what a very welcoming sight he was and also a pleasant surprise as we had a bit of banter and he pointed the dreaded GoPro at me. I did ask that if I said horrific things about companies like Glaxo and GE would he not be able to use the footage? Thanks to Sue Perkins for that little tip.

I passed Wayne and pushed on up the hill and noting runners behind me, it was a steep but wholly achievable climb and in the distance I could see one of the key markers on the course, a large stone arch overlooking the Southern Upland Way. Obviously I stopped to grab a few pictures and the like and then set off down the path off Benbrack.

Mistake.

After a few minutes the path started to disappear and so I veered off to the fence line to see if that was likely to hand me a clue as to the direction I was supposed to be on. The Fenix 6X map was also about as much use as a chocolate teapot – simply saying ‘off course’. Over the top of the hill I had descended I saw two runners and scrambled across to meet them. Kirsty and Christophe seemed in good, but equally lost, spirits and between us we figured out a direction and once more headed off.

Down and down and down and down we went, heading towards what looked like the tree line on the map.

Mistake.

‘Ring, ring’ went Kirsty’s phone and it was race HQ to tell us we had fucked up big time. Bottom of hill – go back to the top, find the arch and start over. Another mistake that would lead to jelly legs but the three of us powered up the hill and retraced our steps. When we arrived we had clearly all been distracted by the sculptural arch at the summit and wholly ignored the way marker – now corrected we thundered downward in completely the opposite but correct direction.

Kirsty was a bit of a powerhouse and looked incredible as she bounded across the route and Christophe reminded me of all those tall French runners who would tower over me as I straddled the start line of the SainteLyon, it was quite comforting to be in their company. However, their pace was outstripping mine quite significantly and I was forced to say goodbye too quickly.

Thankfully I enjoy a little solitude during a race and the route wound it’s way through the hills and provided glorious views and well worn trails, I was probably alone for a good couple of hours before I came across a fence. ‘Hello fence’ I thought.

Through the fence I could see the next southern upland way markers but couldn’t reach it. I had a choice, follow the fence line low or follow it high. If my decision was incorrect it would be a long way back.

Time ticking, decision time, come on Ultraboyruns.

I chose high, assuming that if I messed up I would have less climb to correct and then I was off, soon regretting my choice between a wire fence and a dry stone wall with barely enough to squeeze through even the most snake hipped runner.

This ‘path’, I use that term loosely, was hard going with near non stop up and down and surrounded by construction work but the map said roughly ‘yes’ and I could see another marker but as I came to the top I’d lost all sight of the markers, I was lost.

What now?

Retreat or amble around looking for directions? Well I did both until I felt my Garmin shaking telling me my phone was ringing.

‘Let me guess I’m off course,’ I said as the GB Ultras team said hello. They told me that I and others were off course and they advised how I could correct it. I said I understood but I didn’t really and I just headed back – jumping walls and wooden pallets and fences in the process hoping that I could correct my direction with relative ease.

Thankfully just when I was about to say ‘fuck this for a game of golf’ I saw other equally lost runners, I think it was Dave, Michelle (more on Michelle later) with Kieran (more on Kieran later) and Nick (more on Nick later) – sorry Dave (but I did like your spectacles/goggles). We were all either going the wrong way or about to and after introductions were completed and we had bemoaned our lack of good fortune, having all done extra distance, we caught a break – a sign for the Southern Upland Way.

It’s things like this that could turn an atheist into a believer… actually no but you get the idea.

A convey of runners is always a slightly odd thing and this one split itself into little micro-pockets of covid-secure groups which moved fluidly between one another.

For the most part I found myself with Nick (looking forward to that YouTube channel fella), a truly spectacular dude with a big positive outlook on life, we chewed the fat extensively, as you do and he explained that he had entered the 215 mile GB Ultras Race Across Scotland.

Over the course of the next couple of hours I could clearly see that he had all the attributes needed to complete such an effort – his hill climbing was fast and furious even without poles and his general pace kept me going at a reasonable speed for all the time we were together.

We arrived into checkpoint two at Sanquhar together and were greeted by Nicks other half, the GingaNinja, my little Satan and our respective dogs.

At nearly a marathon in we both needed to refuel and we did so in the Covid secure hall. Chocolate (Mars and Snickers), cake (delicious and I believe homemade) and a belly full of cola were on my menu followed by a resetting of my race kit. I did dump a couple of items on the GingaNinja such as my water filter and waterproof trousers – neither of which it looked like I would require and I stuffed my waterproof jacket away properly to balance my pack better and then, after thanking the awesome GB Ultras team I was off, hunting down Nick in the process.

The first half had been quite eventful in terms of navigation, injury and pain management but it had also been filled with really beautiful trail running and as the day wore on I hoped for more of the latter and less of the former.

The good news was that the next two sections were relatively short at just 8 and 6 miles or so and I should be able to make up a bit of time here. Nick and I continued our jibber jabbering, much I am sure, to the annoyance of anyone else within earshot but that’s the thing about these races you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do to get through.

In the early stages of the climb out of checkpoint two Nick, myself and now Kieran came across a complete sheep’s skull and it was with some great surprise that Nick picked it up and attached it to his race vest. I’ve done some batshit stuff in my time and collected stuff off the trail but never a sheep’s head and certainly not while in a race! It was here that Nick also started pulling away and much as I tried to keep up I had to slow down a touch.

Slowing down isn’t always a bad thing though and it gave me an opportunity to soak in the route which in terms of its look had changed. The earlier stages seemed more confined and tighter trails but these seemed to have been replaced by large swathes of rolling hills and all around us was a sea of green. I was very much enjoying the scenery and Kieran had become my new running partner and we ambled along as briskly as our little bodies would carry us.

Kieran was aiming for a GB Ultras 50 mile Grandslam in his 50th year – although delayed due to Covid 19. If my recollection is correction he’s already got L2M done and was now north of the border taking on the Ultra Scotland 50, and much like me, delighting in the surrounds.

We chatted for hours about all things, from races to politics to family and everything in between – it was easy chatter and quite delightful.

It was early into my time with Kieran that I welcomed my biggest issue of the race though – an inability to move downhill if the there was any level of steepness. Holy turd there was a horrific burning in my knee and ITB with every single step downhill and running it off wasn’t really an option.

If I thought the fall had been bad or my hamstring had been shit, it was a truth that neither of these had anything on the excruciating pain I was in now. I mean I must really have pissed someone off to have this much go wrong.

In my head I looked over the remaining elevation and realised that there was still a significant amount of climbing to do, which meant a significant amount downhill and while the magnificence of the hills was a truly beautiful sight, my legs cursed them for being there.

The odd thing was that my uphill movement was actually pretty good despite everything and so I would set the pace uphill and Kieran was setting it in the down.

I was surprised that we managed to reach checkpoint 3 still at the head of the little group of runners that had all met about 10 miles back but there was nobody very far behind and I’m sure that as they came down from the hills and into the old mining town they’d have been impressed by beautiful summit ahead of them and the chocolate box town to our right.

As we approached the village one of the volunteers laughed with us a bit and gave us cheery advice about the next section – cheery I think because she wasn’t running it! The GingaNinja and ASK were also at the village just before the checkpoint and gave both of us cheers and waves before leaving us to find solace in some serious checkpoint chow down!

Checkpoint 3 would be our last significant stop, as the final checkpoint was in a lay-by, and so we made sure we took what we needed here. Kieran used the time to deal with an ever expanding foot (don’t ask, he didn’t) and some blistering and I did my best efforts at amusing the volunteers.

We didn’t stop long as other runners were making their way in and it seemed sensible to avoid creating a Covid hotspot at the checkpoint and forcing the awesome volunteers to move us on!

The next challenge was a nice, seemingly never ending and mildly dull climb – punctured only by the tarmac that looped through it several times. It was here I first noticed the cold and that our speed had dropped a bit. Although I was pressing hard I wanted to keep sight of my companion as I knew that both of us stood a better chance of finishing together than we did alone – this though had the effect of chilling me and as we arrived at a bit of a peak and a little mountain bothy I considered layering up. What stopped me though was a look at the time and Garmin’s estimated time of arrival – I relayed the bad news to Kieran and then set to work increasing our pace.

However, even as the clock ticked down both of us stopped to draw breath and capture some images of the sun going down over the hills because it’s moments like this that we run ultra marathons for.

But tick tock, it’s about 6 o’ fucking clock and we need to get a move on! And we did, Kieran increased his pace on the uphill and I swallowed the pain and went as quickly as I could on the downhill. This section though was full of steep, difficult terrain and I found myself using every expletive known to man and creating a few new ones along the way. I found myself apologising several times for my rather fruity language but Kieran simply shrugged it off and was hopefully not offended by my potty mouthed antics.

There was a lot less chatter now – partly due to being about 10 metres apart but also because of a need to concentrate – with time against us we had little capacity for further error. Then the route hit us with a series of difficult and slow going ascents and descents. In conventional circumstances you’d have laughed them off, enjoyed bouncing up and down them, but, on a day like today they felt cruel and unnecessary. We battered up and down, never quite losing hope that a friendly checkpoint smile awaited us.

We could see the road to our left as it wound its way through the hills and assumed that we would be heading down there to find some much needed respite because in front of us now loomed a large, steep climb, Kieran and I clearly had fingers crossed but as we closed on both the turn to the road and the steep ascent we were fired up the ascent. Our creaking bones and cracking optimism were pained by this latest news but ascend we did and with a little pool of runners now below us.

I was in no mood to be beaten to the next checkpoint though and I think Michelle and Dave were both in this little group that was around us and we may have had a bit of banter to try and boost moral – but moral seemed low and we needed that checkpoint. I remember reaching the top of the summit and noting that the checkpoint would surely be down there.

To improve my mentality I set to thinking about the spectacular borderlands that were laid out before us were and how they were probably oft missed by visitors – on another day, were I wasn’t chasing a clock, I’d very much enjoy a jaunt along the Southern Upland Way and it’s surrounds.

Kieran and I made it to the road and while he strode purposefully towards the checkpoint I felt like giving my legs a little shakedown and ran up towards the final checkpoint to devour as many of the little cakes as I could.

Here I found myself in surrealist territory as I asked questions like, ‘if Linford Christie was half a teapot which half would be the teapot – top or bottom?’ I believe I may have confused or befuddled the lovely volunteers but then I was 40+ miles into my first race in ages and my biggest distance and biggest elevation since last September – I was probably delirious.

Kieran rocked up a minute or two behind me and filled up on water and then we were off to the finish. 14 miles left but only about 5hrs to go until we had extinguished all of the allocated time.

Invigorated by reaching the last checkpoint we pushed on hard, assuming that most of the elevation had been dealt with, therefore it came as something a blow to realise that there was enough elevation in the final section to slow us down and that our efforts to push were being hampered by both the course and our exhaustion. Add into the mix that darkness would also soon be upon us and I made the decision to stop briefly and put on my waterproof jacket to protect me from the wind and also to grab my head torch. With this done we ploughed on and straight into a lovely big boggy section of trail that permeated straight through the Lone Peak 4.0 that had served me so well.

My feet felt cold for the first time since the climb up Benbrack and it would be a couple of minutes before my awesome Drymax socks warmed my feet again.

Chatter was now reduced to the minimum, I was doing the mental maths and calculating my likelihood of failing and being determined not too. Kieran, for his part remained on ‘team get to the finish’ and knew what needed to be done to claim a medal.

Up and down the course went with Scotland beautifully illuminated by the dancing darkness in front of us and the couple of twinkling headlights. In darkness this was lovely but by day I suspected this would be fantastic and much more reminiscent of the route in the first few miles of the race.

We knew that every step was a step closer to home – Kieran had salted caramel chocolate milkshake awaiting him at the B&B, I had a walk to find my motorhome wherever it was hidden! Ha – how different our post race experiences would be!

Before either of us got to an after the race situation we had more work to do.

Darkness had now surrounded us completely and even with less than 10km to go there was no sign of Moffat in the distance and time was ebbing away, we hurried through mostly good, hard packed trail and followed the way markers home – that was until Kieran had a dose of the batshit and thought we were going the wrong way.

I should have ignored him as the signage was pointing the way I had headed but I was also nervous of making another mistake with so little time available. We therefore doubled back and retreated to the last way marker and Kieran went thrashing about in the undergrowth looking for a way through. Two runners managed to catch us again in the time that we had spent doubling back and searching for an alternative route and as they headed off in the original direction I called out to my comrade that, ‘it’s this way, let’s crack on’. Kieran seemed rather trapped in the undergrowth but after a couple of minutes he fumbled his way back and we were off again and in hot pursuit of the couple ahead of us.

We made swift progress in hunting down the runners ahead and once we crossed paths again we travelled together to make this final push that bit more enjoyable. Martin and Nicola were relatively new to ultra running but they looked mostly strong despite a tough day (I understood that) and were from Berkshire, an area I know very well having run several races in the region.

Once more chat consumed us but we were driving forward with purpose. I found myself chatting with Nicola, while Martin and Kieran took up the rear but we ended up starting to separate a little and after so long together I wasn’t keen on leaving Kieran.

I always feel a sense of togetherness when you’ve come so far with a person or people and I genuinely looked forward to getting through this together.

Mere moments after the couple had departed we found civilisation again, tarmac, roads, lights, life. My spirits immediately lifted – we must have made it? but the watch still said 4km.

Surely it must be wrong? It wasn’t wrong.

I found myself waddling along as quickly as I could trying desperately to finish but also trying desperately not to release the shit I’d needed for the last 10 miles, this would be the final ignominy – shitting myself on the side of the road just a mile or so from the end.

I wonder what it says about me that I’d put a medal shaped piece of metal ahead of my bowel health in terms of life importance? Still no time to think about my poo or question my life choices because a support vehicle broke the thoughts of my introspection

The vehicle pulled up alongside us and I did wonder if we were being timed out but Wayne simply checked we were all okay. Well the answer to that was no, I did for a moment consider asking for a lift and a load of bog roll, but I’d worked too hard to give up now so bollocks to that and we replied, ‘yeah, all good’.

The road to Moffat seemed to take forever and again seemed a little cruel, having already travelled much more than the 50 miles of the race title and more than the 56 miles offered in the race description. At this point we picked up another runner who had been round the houses in terms of going in the wrong direction, Mark (may have gotten your name wrong, it was a long day) despite this he remained intensely jolly and I feel he helped make this last stretch seem that little bit less agonising.

But when we arrived into Moffat and the town square there was no immediate sign of the finish, our exhausted brains couldn’t see the thing we needed, a sign, a person, a marker – we found ourselves hunting round the town square and then I saw the bus that would be headed back to Dalry. I ran through the town and asked the driver if he knew where the finish was but he didn’t, thankfully one of the members of the bus did and they showed me on their phone but as I turned to race it in the RD rolled up with a grin on his face. ‘I’ll take you down’ he said.

I was relieved – though my ever gurgling bowels were at the point of collapse!

We ambled through the town and Wayne asked if fancied running it in as we closed on the finish line and of course I’m such a sucker that’s my feet rose and sprinted those last few hundred metres, in fact I was going so fast that I overshot the finish line and had to double back. What a numpty.

At the finish line was Kieran and a few others collecting their medals and without much fuss it was all over.

I was relieved to have survived but survive I did and just in time.

  • Distance: 56+ miles
  • Ascent: 2800 metres
  • Date: May 2021
  • Location: St John’s Town of Dalry
  • Cost: £79
  • Entrants: 50
  • Terrain: Trail
  • Tough Rating: 3/5

Route
I’ve often driven the M74 and wondered, ‘what are those hills? They look fun, one day I’ll go and run amongst them.’ Well GB Ultras helped my achieve an ambition and the route for the most part did not disappoint. There was a really good mix of scenery to keep you entertained and it was often breathtakingly beautiful – reminding me a little of The Pentlands but without the monotony of their nearby sibling.

The little villages that we came across on the route served as excellent stopping points and often reminded me of those little chocolate box towns that you only get in places like the Cotswold or the Highlands. These border locations really are a treasure that deserve a greater degree of exploration by those visiting Scotland.

I really appreciated that the race route was mostly trail – sometimes a race can be described as trail but with have large swathes of the route on tarmac, but not here. The Southern Upland Way offers a route directly through and mostly over Scotland’s greenery and the race is all the better for that.

Perhaps that is the benefit of being run on one of the great trails of Scotland – the trail has already been defined. This though is also one of the downsides of the route – the hidden paths and trails around the Southern Upland Way clearly had so much to offer and although we got some fantastic views and a great route there were so many interesting pockets to explore that the route bypassed.

I understand the practical and technical reasons for following the Southern Upland Way but I could see how there might be opportunity to return to the area and experience a very different running or hiking day.

The elevation at around 2800 metres was fine and although steep in places it was nothing to overly concern yourself with, regular hill training would cover what is effectively like climbing three small Munros. Over the course of my additional mileage I managed to clock up nearly an extra 500 metres of elevation – my legs felt every single centimetre of that! Ooof.

The downhill of the route was different and reminded me of some very rough and tough races I’ve attempted like MIUT. I was incredibly grateful for my running poles, as once my knee had gone I needed the poles to reduce the searing pain while descending even the lightest incline.

Ultimately the route was beautiful and wonderful but also very, very cruel and it asked much of those running it, I suspect it asked even more of those, like myself, who haven’t seen a hill in the last year.

What I will add is that the Southern Upland Way for all its beauty lacks surprise or perhaps one great money shot moment – perhaps I’ve been spoilt by things like the Skye Trail Ultra which is mostly money shot or the SainteLyon which has a couple of really outstanding ‘take your breath away’ moments. The trouble with that is that when I look back on this I won’t find a defining moment of the race in terms of the route, it’s not a bad thing, it’s just a thing and worth pointing out if you like your routes filled with those ‘Instagram’ moments.

Organisation
GB Ultras remind me a little bit of Centurion Running in that they are well organised, highly regarded by the running community, have a decent social media presence to create strong word of mouth for their events, have good, well marked routes and put on events that people want to run. As the RD, Wayne Drinkwater is very visible and this I think gives confidence to the runners that a well organised event is upon them, and they’d be correct – it is well thought out and well executed.

Pre-race communication was lengthy but full of detailed information and the Covid video was helpful (though I did struggle to find the mandatory kit video).

The thing that was hardest was probably the social media stuff – lots of different pages, lots of different events, lots of crossover and that was a little confused – perhaps some rationalisation of these pages would help in terms of finding things and knowing where to ask questions. For example despite reading through everything I could not find mention of whether running poles were allowed and I didn’t want to bother the RD and the team knowing that they would be incredibly busy in the final days leading up to the event. I’m sure that information is available but I couldn’t find it.

The covid secure systems they had in place seemed to work very well and although they reduce the overall atmosphere of the event they did allow it to take place. I found the race start to be perfectly well executed and despite my trepidation about doing these covid secure events I would say GB Ultras got it spot on.

I would also like to mention the tracking which although perhaps not 100% accurate was certainly mostly accurate and when you were off course the team knew about it and were trying to get in touch with you. This is a vast improvement over some of the tracking we’ve witnessed over the years and that’s a clear indication that the technology is finally catching up with the idea. It’s also worth saying that the Southern Upland Way has pretty good phone reception and so if the GB Ultras team is trying to get in touch they may well actually get through. Not all locations in Scotland have phone reception on a race route – something I quite like because you can’t be disturbed and you can keep your phone in airport mode!

It’s also worth noting that there were pictures and videos aplenty flying around the event and it’s quite an achievement that the GB Ultras team had time to be capturing pictures and footage as well as ensuring the more important stuff got done – like feeding me cake! Well done guys!

All in all the GB Ultras organisation was on point and handled incredibly well given the Covid guidelines.

Value for Money
This is always a big one for me in terms of determining whether I would run it again or perhaps more importantly whether to tell other runners about this race. So the cost is £79 and what do you get for that? For starters there’s the race itself, the excellent indoor checkpoint locations, the race tracking and the support when you go significantly off route. There’s the medal and there is a decent crack at good and varied checkpoint food.

So £79 (plus about £10 for the bus back to the start if you need transport) is it worth it? I think so – it’s not really much more than the magic £1 per mile which used to be a significant marker in race costs – what you’re getting is a lovely, tough, well managed day in the hills and that is well worth the money being charged.

Awards
Medal, big medal, golden medal. Done.

I was glad there was no t-shirt because I’m not sure I could wear one that had the Union flag on it, as a pro-Scottish Independence, SNP voting Englishman living in Scotland it would have felt weirdly hypocritical to put one on, however, I thought the medal was very nice and really quite understated – it sits proudly at the top of my stairs with its brothers and sisters.

Volunteers
I remember thinking at my first ultra marathon all those years ago as I stared at the poor volunteers, ‘fuck I hope I don’t die because you guys couldn’t handle dealing with the dead body’. As I ran into each and every checkpoint of the Ultra Scotland I knew that each member of the checkpoint probably not only knew how to deal with the body but probably had a good idea on how to dispose of me too. The volunteers were exceptional, every single person knew the drill and they remained Covid secure throughout.

Kudos to them for remaining both diligent, supportive and in some cases amusing. Being a volunteer at an endurance event can be a cold, lonely and thankless job but these guys were amazing – so thank you all.

The Runners
I sometimes think that when we consider races or write reviews we forget that actually it’s mostly about the runners – we tend to focus on medals, routes, organisation but having the race against the background of the pandemic reminded me that without runners willing to train, travel, get wet, potential fuck themselves up – well then races wouldn’t take place at all.

I’ve mentioned the awesome Kieran whom without, I wouldn’t have made it to the end, I’ve mentioned Nick who was simply brilliant and I expect to see his name against some really big challenges in the coming years – there was something about him and I’ve mentioned a whole host of other names but I did say I’d come back to Michelle and here we are! I was introduced to Michelle via social media a few days before the race through a mutual acquaintance – the evergreen Grant Wilcox. Anyway we exchanged a couple of messages and wished each other well saying we’d chat if we saw each other.

Well I met Michelle several times over the course of the race and even stated out loud that I hope she was going to make it back in time – what I didn’t realise was the Michelle I met on the route was the Michelle I had spoken to via social media.

What a dumbass I am.

Worse than that it would take me at least another couple of days to connect the two. Bloody numpty! Anyway the good news was that she made it and I’m happy about that. Should I meet her again I will definitely tell her the real story of the Snowdonia Marathon though and how I came to meet our mutual buddy – Grant!

I suppose the thing about this running of the Ultra Scotland is that only about 50 runners turned out for it but actually it felt like many more and the runners should be congratulated for their part in making the event of the success that it was.

My Race
Well as you’ve read I had a both brilliant and torrid time, I went in injured but reasonably well trained and I came out injured further and totally ruined. That said I had a great time getting this ruined and despite a late finish I got up to hike Gray Mare’s Tail the next morning and was back running on the Monday. I wish my knee had held up because I knew about my hamstring and felt I could manage that but the knee was unexpected and that both threw me and slowed me significantly. So it wasn’t a disaster for me – I mean I finished but I didn’t finish the way I wanted and that’s disappointing.

Conclusions
What can I say about the Ultra Scotland 50? Well it’s a tough as old boots challenge that lives up to trail running label, it has superb organisation and a great team behind it. GB Ultras deserve all the plaudits they get from the running community and managing to stage a Covid secure event deserves extra credit.

There are a few niggles though, but nothing dramatic and certainly nothing that would stop me entering – the big bugbear was that this is closer to 60 than 50 miles even in the official distance and by the time you’ve added on your extra mileage it is definitely reading more like a 60 mile race, I suppose I could try and get better at navigation but where’s the fun in that? I understand that for marketing it’s better to have a set of 50 mile races but it is inaccurate.

I enjoyed the race and I feel like it’s one that you could easily have a good crack at regardless of your level but it’s a ‘no prisoners’ kind of a race and if the weather was shit then this would be a real ball breaker – something to think of given this is Scotland, in early spring and snow, wind and rain isn’t unusual! We got pretty lucky with the weather but even in decent conditions the wind at the hill tops was cold and happy to give your face a good blasting.

Would I do it again?

Well I’d be in no rush to sign up again because I feel that I’ve experienced the Southern Upland Way path and if I were going to run there again it would be on new trails. That said I enjoyed this enough to consider going back and improving on my performance at some point in the future and I felt that GB Ultras put on a great event and therefore I’d be very happy to go and try one of their other races next year – the Pennine Barrier being the one that most interests me.

Is it worth you doing it? Well that’s up to you – you can find out more about this race and their other events on the GB Ultras website.

As for me I’ll be polishing my medals (not a euphemism) and reviewing the Great Glen Ultra in July, once I’ve run it – 71 miles, argh!

Ultraboyruns: The Adventure Podcast episode 5 will be released before the end of May (previous episodes here) and there will be further YouTube adventures coming up (previous adventures here). See you out there.

Thanks to GB Ultras for some of the checkpoint and finish line photographs.

Much has changed in the last few months, I’ve dropped over 13kg in weight, I’ve finally grown an ultra beard, I now own two kayaks and a paddleboard, ASK Adventurer turned 6 and oh yes… COVID 19

You’ll all be aware that racing has been off the agenda for most of 2020 due to the pandemic and only in the last few weeks has it really shown any return, albeit, that return, at the time of writing, is in jeopardy.

While I realise that running events not happening isn’t the end of the world, it does effect me, but being so long since my last race I wondered if this enforced absence might have seen my racing love, wane somewhat.

Then along came the lovely Luke Gow who I’d met at the Nocturnal Ultra a couple of years ago (evening geezer) and he suggested that Ultra North in Northumberland might be going ahead and would have spaces. What a cheeky little bugger manipulating me like that…

Well of course I immediately checked out the website and given I’m susceptible to even the lightest race persuasion* I soon found myself stumping up the entrance fee. (*this seems an odd phrase on re-reading, I need to practive my writing more).

Ultra North comes from the same people who do things like The Great North Run and the Great Swim Series – as a larger events organisation I would normally avoid them – because experience suggests that the profit motivation goes before the quality of the event. However, after swimming in a couple of the Great Swim series I had high hopes that this would be one of the better ‘large’ events.

Ultra North was targeting a wide running base in its advertising as it was being suggested as suitable for both speed demons and those of us with more of a snails pace and in this sense it opened its arms to all who were willing to give it a go. With generous cut offs and lots of support – plus two race distances this was, on paper, a good novice ultra event. Perhaps on paper you’d have read this as a road marathoner and thought ‘I could do Ultra North’.

Ultimately I was quite happy that I was signing up to a race that wasn’t to my usual tastes but the question is did it prove to be better than my expectations and dud it reignite my racing fire?

We’ll get there in a minute.

Anyway we drove down to a place about an hour outside of the start in Newcastle called Bellingham and camped overnight – this meant there wasn’t a near 3hr sprint from Scotland to the start line. This enable me to have a much more relaxed approach to reaching the registration point and with all the COVID regulations in place you really wanted to be arriving in a semi relaxed state.

Weather conditions promised heavy rain so the outdoor registration system was a bit miserable but the team behind Ultra North were quick, effective and as enthusiastic as you could hope for. It wasn’t perhaps your typical Geordie welcome but these are unusual times we live in.

I collected my race number and affixed it to my leggings and then lined up, all very simple. The Eagles Arena car park had been set up to give the runners adequate space to social distance and runners were sent off in groups of 3. It wasn’t a race start to write home about – COVID has sapped the energy out of events – but this is to be expected and so as we were sent on our merry way I remembered that this is temporary and that for the first time since the Falkirk Ultra I was racing again.

The route lumbered its way through some very uninspiring kilometres which had me worried, the tarmac was hard and the roads grey and without joy – if the whole event was like this then it was going to be a truly miserable day. However, the runners, many of whom were from the north east had the lovely chatty, friendly personality I had come to expect and COVID had not managed to beat that. I both listened in and joined into conversations that passed me and that I went past. That was lovely and thankfully once we were closing in on the first checkpoint at 13km the route was becoming more interesting I started to enjoy myself.

It was in the last couple of kilometres to checkpoint one that I met the lovely Leanne who was a first time ultra runner and looking incredibly strong. We chewed the fat a bit before saying farewell as we set off for checkpoint two but I had no doubt she had a great finish in her. Her energy gave me the drive to push onwards to CP1 when I might normally have dragged my heels a bit – so thank you!

The checkpoints were very simply laid out with all the bits you could want and it was very much self help (which I prefer), a one way system through the CP and hand sanitising before you tuck in.

Now because I’m on a weight loss fight I decided not to stuff my face, so it was a small amount of cola, one chocolate pancake thing and then gone.

From here we crossed the Tyne for the first time and off for a series of climbs into the ‘wilds’ of Northumberland and the route provided those with road shoes on something of a challenge as we climbed muddy, wet, rocky trails. This was probably my favourite section but I did hear a number of the runners cursing this and describing it as tough (ha! wait until you try MIUT then you’ll know tough!). All the road running was worth these lovely little bits of trail and I was disappointed when the climbing and the mud abated. Still back to the roads and actually as I passed through little villages and lovely bits of England I had never before seen I found a great sense of joy – I’ll be honest this was mildly tempered by the soaking I had taken and continued to take.

I passed by the next checkpoint in good time and was only mildly concerned that one of the marshals offered me the ambulance. He must have misinterpreted my response to; ‘do you need anything?’ To which I had replied, ‘a lift back?

It was in this section that I met Chris (if I’ve got your name wrong my apologies), we chatted for a bit and I encouraged us to a bit of running – he told me that the running we’d done had been the longest he’d done in a while. When I left him to carry on running I was convinced he would make it and sure enough as I was driving home I saw him coming into the final kilometre looking as determined as when I had left him. Good job fella!

I was now into the last 20km or so and was bang on time, not too fast, not too slow. I hit the third checkpoint and was in and out pretty quickly but as I left the checkpoint I noted ASK and the GingaNinja approaching and waving wildly from Rona!

I stopped mere seconds to wave at them and tell them I had to continue – they would thankfully come and see me later in the race which was a perfect pick me up at about 45km.

More tarmac passed under my weary feet and for someone who had weak glutes, no core stength, trail shoes on and very limited training in the bank this was proving a killer, not that I’m looking for excuses, obviously.

There was also the back injuries that have plagued me since about 2015 resurfacing at 20km and made the weight of my race vest feel very heavy and draining indeed. That problem is going to be a very serious issue for The Cheviot Goat in a few weeks time. Here though the problem manifested itself as severe pain across the middle of my back and so I would hoist my race vest higher up my back to alleviate the stress points.

Regardless I pushed onwards as I knew that I was now not going to DNF, even with the back pain I could push through and claim my first medal in months. It was at about 40km though that the dynamic of the race changed for me and I met a young man with a nice beard called Lewis and we got chatting during one of my regular refuelling and walking breaks. We found ourselves chewing the fat over all sorts of topics and I found his company delightful and very distracting from my back trouble.

I could have run on from him as I had the energy to do it, but I made a decision that his speed walking pace was sufficiently excellent, my back was in pieces and if we maintained this pace I’d only be 40 minutes slower than if I were running and so despite both of us clearly stating, ‘please crack on if you need to’ we stayed together and talked (hopefully) about useful, useless and running things for the final three hours of the event!

As we crossed the Millennium Bridge across the Tyne I recounted my last running in Newcastle (Rat Race’s The Wall – review here), I was even able to identify the nightclub where a drunken Geordie lass offered to help myself and another runner up to the finish despite not being able to stand herself – I have no idea if there’s a euphemism in there but there might have been at the time of the original event.

Great memories.

I was surprised that lots of the runners I spoke to were considering or had run The Wall, I’d urge everyone to make sure you’ve looked round at alternatives, The Wall is very expensive for what you’re getting and the north and north east have a lot of great value, great running events. Just saying.

Anyway with the wind on our back and the rain on our faces Lewis and I ambled gently towards the finish. I was now very cold, partly due to an extended stop at the final checkpoint, partly due to a gruelling 8hr soaking, so I was keen to finish but the cold and the speed walking had drained any notion of running the last kilometre.

Lewis and I waited until we could see the finish before we put on a short burst of speed and crossed the eerily quiet finish line and the collection of our rewards.

An odd day, a good day.

  • Distance: 55km
  • Ascent: Around 550 metres
  • Date: October 2020
  • Location: Newcastle
  • Cost: £65
  • Entrants: 109 finishers
  • Terrain: Mixed, lots of tarmac
  • Tough Rating: 1/5

Route
This one isn’t going to win any prizes for being the most scenic but it has its moments, ultimately I think you know what you’re likely to be getting into when the compulsory kit says ‘debit card’ to buy supplies if you need them.

If you’re a fast road runner and fancying the transition to trail this would be a great route to get some testing into your feet or if you’re new to the ultra marathon scene then this won’t come as too much of a shock. The route has a lot in common with the aforementioned ‘The Wall’ in that the amount of road running is quite high. However, if you’re aware of this or have a preference for it then you’re going to enjoy yourself. If you’re an out and out trail runner then this might not be one for you.

These are also a couple of iconic moments on the route too – obviously the run alongside the Tyne is a must see if you’re coming to Newcastle and this brought back a shitload of great memories for me. Running the last bit with Lewis as well gave it a nice social element that we’ve all been missing since racing stopped.

Anyway I can’t actually be negative about the route overall, it is mostly quite good fun (well except for that shitty first few kilometres but every race has a bit like that). I would urge the Ultra North organisers to see if there are any ways to add in some of the lovely trails that lined the roads of the route – I realise this probably means greater organisation and costs but it would make for a more complete route and would certainly draw runners like me back.

Organisation
I would struggle to fault the organisation, it was very well oiled. The checkpoints were well spaced out and well thought out, the marshalls were all well organised and well drilled, all instructions, both on the day and pre-race, were clear and the COVID side of things was handled with all the grace and clarity it could be. Ultra North should be commended for managing to put on a city starting event and yet maintain the required level of protocols.

A special note of course to the marshals without whom these events could not take place, each and every one of them that I came into contact with was doing a spectacular job and while it might not have been cuddles and kisses there was a lot of support and encouragement and no hint of pressure to get out of a CP. Well done guys.

Value for Money
Always a tricky one, this race was about £65 which I consider a fair amount for a race. What did you get? You got a well organised, well supported race across a circular route and a medal and T-shirt where you could see were bespoke. The food at the checkpoints was plentiful, nice and varied and so, yes, Ultra North offered good value for money.

Awards
Bespoke medal and shirt (size medium, that’s what a bit of weight loss will do for you). I liked the medal and shirt, very vibrant, much like the rest of the excellent event branding.

Conclusion
Any runner, and I mean any runner or long distance walker, could find enough good reasons to take part in this.

It’s short enough for a a marathon runner to test their ability on a new distance, mixed terrain runners would enjoy the variety, new to ultra distance runners will find it not too challenging and experienced ultra runners will enjoy the day out in Newcastle not being covered in as much shit as usual.

It’s possibly not the event that you’ll remember as the best you ever did but does that really matter? It was a fun day out as far as I am concerned and remember I was soaking wet for 8hrs. Would I return to run it again? I would certainly consider returning – though I think the October date is much better than the original March date that is pencilled in for this and if the route was made a little more of the trail features found all over this landscape then you’ve got a bona fide hit.

Racing Fire
Did Ultra North return my racing fire? Sort of – I’m now looking forward to The Cheviot Goat much more than I was – but COVID 19 has removed a lot of the fun of racing for me.

‘I want mummy’ came the little voice of ASK as tears rolled down her freezing cold face. But only half a mile in and half a mile to go we were not stopping.

After the Tyndrum 24 and the Vogrie 5km I turned my attention to something a little less about me and entered ASK into a family mile race in the shadow of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh. Given the UK and my adopted home of Scotland had just been rudely removed from the European Union I figured what better way to improve my weekend than spend time with my daughter earning another medal.

The race was part of a festival of running, there were some UK wide university XC championships on as well as a more general 5km race for the public, a toddler dash and the family mile that we had entered.

It was a chilly and windy day when we arrived at the delightful Holyrood Park and we were keen to find some shelter and our number. It was incredibly busy with runners across the various races milling around or queuing for one thing or another. Eventually we found the correct tent and grabbed our race number – I was only moderately concerned when I asked the volunteer when the family mile started that he didn’t know – but I let it slide knowing full well that days like this are stressful for organisers and volunteers.

ASK and I hid in the sanctuary of the tent for a while given that we’d had a rather convoluted journey to Holyrood Park but once warmed up a bit we headed outside to watch some of the University Cross Country Championships happening – the ladies event was well underway and we were fortunate enough to be able to cheer home some of the back markets but also head to the finish line and witness the astonishing feats of the winning ladies. Bathed in mud and caked up to their eyeballs in the brown gooey stuff I asked ASK if she would one day like to be like them. Her reply was an enthusiastic ‘ooooo yes’. Whether this was to placate a father she believes wants her to be a runner or not Is up for debate but I live in hope that she picks an active lifestyle for herself.

Anyway after watching these awesome runners and the toddler dash(which brought back lots of great memories of early races with ASK) we slowly headed over to the start line, we spoke to another family who were running and chatted about what brought us here and why our kids were keen to race, it was nice to hear another families reasons for rocking up. We lined up at the start line, spoke to other runners and wished them all luck during the event and after a short warm up we were sent into the race.

The mile has been my favourite race distance for years and years, it is fun, it’s a blast and you can turn it into a real gut buster in ways that you can’t with other distances and when ASK and I thundered away from the start we made swift progress from the back to the front. Watching my daughter striding in the way she does is something of a joy and she has both form and technique that I have never been able to master.

We were thundering down the tarmac towards the Holyrood Palace turnoff and I could see all the Scottish flags waving in the distance and thought to myself – I wonder if this is s Pro-EU rally, must check this out later. But my gaze was suddenly averted towards ASK who was slowing, I tried to gee her up with words of encouragement but then she simply burst into tears. I stopped running and knealt down beside her

‘What’s wrong’ I asked
“I want mummy’ she replied through deep wet sobs.
‘No you don’t,’ I countered, ‘you want a good time, a medal and to show this off to mummy when we get home don’t you? Mum will be so proud of you’

I gave her GoPro which always makes her feel more important when we race together and she took pictures as we came up to speed again. The little inclines up to the turnaround point was reasonably steep but I reminded her that every hill we go up we eventually have to go down and so at the turnaround we hurtled away, catching the runners ahead of us and looking to make up the ground we had lost during our stop.

In the distance I could see the finish line and there was a lovely bounce in the form of supporters on the course cheering all the children home. ASK hurled forward faster than she had at any point during the event and I told her to move ahead of me so she could finish her race with a flourish. She was flying and I could feel my pride swelling as she threw herself across the line and then promptly burst into a tears.

I once more knealt down and comforted my racing daughter who received her medal (and from me some Kinder chocolate), she was also provided with one of the Edinburgh Winter Run beanie hats which, once she had calmed down, wore proudly.

I asked her what was wrong and all she would say is that, ‘It’s too hard and I want mummy.’ We came to the conclusion that she gets a bit anxious before racing as this isn’t the first time she has cried on the finish line and she never struggles over the distances. Something as a parent that I need work on to give her greater confidence going to the start line but that is something for next time.

Regardless she soon forgot her woes and was very happy with her medal and immediately wanted to do it again.

Both ASK and I would definitely recommend going along for one of the races but it was a very busy set of races and with University XC championships going on it was made even more complicated, a little bit more signage would have helped and a larger bag drop as the queue for collection was massive and slow moving. The Family Mile and the Toddler Dash were both really nice additions and Holyrood Park is a delightful place to do it. ASK did tell me that she wanted to come back and climb (amongst others) Arthur’s Seat.

Post Race
As we left Holyrood Park I decided that we would investigate the sea of EU and Scottish flags and when we reached the Government buildings we saw that it was indeed a rally about ‘Tories Out’, ‘IndyRef2’ & ‘RejoinEU’. ASK and I joined in and spoke to many of the lovely people outside the parliament buildings about our reasons for supporting them and I spent much time explaining the importance to ASK about what was going on here. All in all a good day.

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I have been struggling with the start of this blog post about the South Wales 50 for a couple of reasons, the first is that some of what happened shouldn’t ever be aired again and remain confined to the trails it happened on and the second is that the race was so amazingly awesome that it is actually rather challenging to put into words.

However, as a regular reviewer of races I want you all to consider this monster, step back, think carefully and then probably enter and here is why…

Several months ago I had decided that my hundred mile effort for the year was going to be the SW100, described as brutal with a mere 30% completion rate. In my effort to tackle more and more brutal races this had all the appeal I needed and with training going well in the first four months of the year I was feeling pretty good about going up against this beast. Sadly in the wake of MIUT, Marlborough and Meriden my body took a series of nasty blows – bad injuries to my groin, my heel and my back and none have truly settled, especially after the mauling I took at Meriden three weeks ago. I therefore decided to request to be dropped down from the hundred mile to the fifty, I explained that I felt as though I at least stood a chance of getting around the 50 whereas I felt the hundred would probably annihilate me.

Joe and Ben couldn’t have been nicer and moved me over to the fifty but with trains already booked I was going to be arriving for the hundred anyway and so offered my services for a few hours as a volunteer. So at 5am on the Friday with a rucksack that weighed the same as a tank I set off on my journey to Radyr. Thankfully the GingaNinja was visiting her parents and I was able to grab a lift as far as Swindon in the relatively luxurious new wheels we had picked up the day before and after a quick spot of lunch (KFC) I hurled my bag on my back and trundled to Swindon train station for an hour long journey to Cardiff followed by a short hop to Radyr – half a mile from the start.

So far , so simple
The problem was I was pretty exhausted – the stupidly hot week we had just experienced had meant I’d managed only a few hours sleep all week and I didn’t fancy my chances of a good night in a jam packed tent with no roll mat. Regardless of these concerns I unloaded, set up my camp and then went to offer my services as a volunteer.

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A bit of volunteering never hurt anyone
Joe handed me over to Sian on race number duty and together we spent the next few hours handing out race numbers, maps and shirts to all that wanted to risk their lives against the Welsh valleys. It was an amazing insight and something of a spectacle and of course it is a favourite thing of mine to do – simply to admire the every type of person who believes they can do this distance. Every type of person was represented here from the silly to the serious, the young to the old, the seasoned to the newbie, it would be interesting to see who would finish and importantly why people might stop.

I really enjoyed registration and felt like I’d gotten into the swing of things after a while and genuinely enjoyed the company of the other volunteers, especially Sian. After the 100s had finished registering I called it a day, they had more than enough volunteers to cope it seemed and I needed food, sleep and prep.

It was closing on 8pm when I left Radyr in search of food and the drizzle had already begun, I’d managed to cook some dirty noodles on my stove but having forgotten a fork I had to wet wipe one of the metal tent pegs to eat it – my hunger was far from sated. The nearest reasonable town was only a mile or so away and so I threw caution to the wind and headed out. Whitchurch it turned out had a number of eateries but I didn’t fancy sitting alone so I found a truly delicious fish and chip shop grabbed the ‘homemade fish cake and chips’ for £3.20 and meandered back towards the Tesco Express, while chowing down on my hot delicious treat, to pick up some essentials such as chocolate milk, a Turkish Delight and two packs of pulled pork pastries.

By 9.30pm a little wetter but much happier I settled down in my tent knowing that in the morning I’d be taking on an uncompromising 50 mile route. Sleep though was far from easy to find and it was an uncomfortable night filled with a drizzle that normally would aid my rest, but this night simply heightened my anxiety. I got up at about 5 and fiddled with kit for a bit and decided the best course of action was shower and a chocolate milk breakfast.

Pre-race
It was big communal rugby showers which warmed wonderfully across my exhausted body and I felt fresh afterwards as I slapped on liberal amounts of Vaseline to my knackers. My only concern was that I spilt a whole cup of tea on my runderwear the night before and despite keeping them in my sleeping bag they hadn’t dried and so my troublesome balls were a little looser than I might have liked but there was nothing for it but to accept it. It was here that I would meet the first of two gentlemen that would define my race. I met Pete in the shower room and we chatted a little about races, children and the days event, we’d had a bit of a laugh and as I left the changing facilities we wished each other well. I thought little more of it.

I proceeded up the stairs and grabbed an empty table as I didn’t really want to intrude on the couple of small gatherings and cracked open the chocolate milk – tidied up my drop bag and watched as a succession of weary looking warriors trundled in. Pete joined me at my table and behind me sat another gentleman runner, Ryan – we were joined by Gari (who it would turn out I already knew via Twitter and was speedy as buggery round the course) and a couple of others that helped to create a warm and friendly bantering atmosphere. It was mainly old race and kit chatter interspersed with amusing anecdotes. The time waiting for the bus to take us to the start simply flew by; I hadn’t had a start to a race this good in years.

As I left to get on the bus I found myself behind Ryan and as we’d already become acquainted I asked if he minded a bit of company for the trip to the start line. I was very grateful to learn little tidbits about his life and happy to share bits of mine – little did I know that he would be the other person who really would define my race.

But upon arrival at the drop off point and near the start of the race at Pen Y Fan I knew it was likely we would say our goodbyes and so it was with mild surprise that we continued to hang out together, Pete too popped up and we joked with some of the others, perhaps it was the sense of impending doom but even with only 50 people starting it felt a tight knit race.

And they’re off…

The awesome Joe kicked proceedings off and with a light flurry we all hit the first climb and were on our way back to drizzly Cardiff via the Brecon Beacons.

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I’d done as I often do in races and started with my waterproof jacket on. I’d brought my Montane jacket rather than the rather inadequate Ultimate Directions waterproof I also own but within a few hundred metres I was dispensing with the jacket and it wouldn’t come out again. The climb up to Pen Y Fan was no world beater, it was a rather busy trail and surrounded by mist with limited visibility but this being Wales it felt magical or perhaps like a scene from Monty Pythons Holy Grail. Ryan had caught me up while I was arranging my bag and we bimbled along for a while overtaking one another and chatting as we went.

The route up to the summit (and the Beacons) had been described to me as like a motorway and I could sort of see that but perhaps I’d have romanticised it a little more by suggesting it was like the yellow brick road and we were on our way to the Emerald City. Perhaps it was when the cloud and mist broke open and The Valleys appeared that I could get a sense of how truly magnificent South Wales is. I was very glad to be here and on the Brecon Beacons going up and down the trails I was having a lot of fun – this has been described as the harder sections of the route but actually I found these early stages much more to my tastes and would have been very happy stuck up here all day and night.

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That said some runners looked like they found these first climbs hard work and I’d certainly say they shouldn’t be underestimated but they were much less severe than some of the later up and downs. Ryan and I passed by some of the hundred milers about three quarters the way up Pen Y Fan and congratulated them on their efforts so far – they all looked really strong and had hit the halfway point at around 15hrs – more than enough time to get to the finish.

The summit of Pen Y Fan was busy and both Ryan and I decided not to hang around for obligatory selfies but pushed on through Cribyn for the first of the compulsory clips and here I picked up my first injury. The clip was broken and so in the howling wind I found myself rather than stabbing the paper I stabbed straight into my thumb – the views from here were rather spectacular and I headed over to the cliff edge for a wee look before we pushed onwards to what I was reliably informed called ‘Big Fanny’. Now ‘Big Fanny’ (sniggers like a teenage boy) provided the second compulsory clip point and the route provided a non-stop succession of up and downs.

It had its wild moments too such as the descent from Fan Y Big – I decided I was going to let gravity do the work down a rather steep descent and within seconds realised that despite reasonable sure-footedness this was going to get my legs out from under me. I was pretty certain that above me, being slightly more sensible in their approach to the descent, that Ryan and Ann (a lady we had just met) were laughing themselves silly at my antics. Having stopped my body dead in its tracks I waited for them to catch me up and simply referred to myself as an ‘over-eager tit’. Ann ran with us for a little while as she explained she had been feeling a little nauseous but was still chatting and running, and we were happy to have another face on our ‘fun bus through Wales’. She explained she was due to hit the North Downs Way 100 later in the year with Centurion and for the while we ran with her she looked in good form. It was a kilometre or two later that I lost the pair of them – I saw a seriously fun looking descent down towards Talybont Reservoir and hit the afterburner. ‘Wee’ I heard myself cry as I pushed on knowing that the checkpoint was only a few hundred more metres away and with the reservoir to my right and the wind slapping me in the face I thundered down the beautifully flat tarmac and into the waiting arms of the checkpoint staff.

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Now normally I’d say three minutes and then out but I was in no rush and so had a couple of glasses of cola and as many purple jelly babies as were available. In the distance I could see Ryan and Ann but decided that I was slow enough on the ascents that they were undoubtedly catch me. I thanked the checkpoint staff and cried ‘tally-ho’ as I ambled my way upwards.

Beyond the first checkpoint
Now if the first section had been fun the second section was a little chewier. I ambled up the steep track into a section of undergrowth and thought, ‘hmmm have I taken my first wrong turn?’ Running up the track I wondered if I could catch sight of some of the other runners, the GPS was still saying roughly and I was keen to go back down the hill as much like the Grand Old Duke of York I’d end up coming back up it! It was at this moment that I saw the incredibly friendly face of Ryan but sans Ann.

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Sadly she had retired at the checkpoint, Ryan suggested that she had taken a downward turn after I’d left them briefly to hurtle the descent into CP1.

‘Thank fuck it’s you’ I called out, ‘I think it’s up here but I’m not sure’. Ryan assured me that crossing the style and heading across was the right thing to be doing – sadly he was only half right and we set off away from the next climb but quickly corrected ourselves when we spotted a couple of very weary looking runners about 500 metres (vertically) away from us.

‘Oh bollocks’ I thought as we stopped for a jimmy riddle behind some windswept trees. ‘I like to fire the stream into the wind and see how far it’ll be carried’ I advised Ryan, he was on the same page.

Noting that I’d had an epic pee I decided to crack open the tailwind bottle I’d prepared earlier and upon taking several large gulps felt almost immediately better – though this was short lived once I realised what we had to climb.

With the help of some other runners we realised we had ended up in the wrong field and as there was no gate we very carefully and safely supported one another across the barbed wire and into the road before heading up one of the steepest ascents on the course. We had regular stops, both I think pretending that we were admiring the view rather than gathering our breath and we ploughed on. I couldn’t tell you how long we ambled upwards here but it was long enough to feel like hard work and when we reached the summit and the clip point we decided that a windy sit down was in order.

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Ryan unfurled a breakfast bar that had been attacked by both the shape of his body and the sweat of the day. I did much the same only for me it was the sweaty Haribo option.

The wind was harsh up on the summit and so we picked ourselves up and set off quickly downwards to find a little bit of respite and warmth. With the skies now completely clear too it was a lovely day and I should have thought to sun cream up like I was hiding from the sunlight but I didn’t and I would pay a high price for that later. This was pleasant running though and generally we were still running – our legs felt pretty good and both Ryan and I, although no speed goats, were making good enough time to finish somewhere between 17 and 19 hours. However, it was here that we lost our way a little as the course zig zagged around and the GPS file didn’t quite match the road book we needed to stop and take stock of our position.

We encountered a couple of other runners in a similar predicament and as we wound our way around and down we realised we might be a little off. In the distance above us I saw Pete (and his posse) and waved enthusiastically – probably a little over friendly if I’m honest and rolled my arm nonchalantly around my head attempting to disguise my greeting – phew got away with it.

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These miles proved to be interesting as we ambled through – not taking anything too seriously and spending most of our time doing knob and fart gags. The posse spread out here and there with different people choosing slightly different directions but often doubling back, it was to the collective credit of the runners that they always attempted to aid one another to ensure the right route was being taken. Ryan and I between us were actually doing rather well in navigation terms and as we dipped down to Trefil Village we had much to be pleased about.

The hard rough road into the village felt like an excellent place to slow down and this gave Pete a chance to catch us up and turn a duo into a trio. It occurred to me that this looked like a scene from ‘The Three Amigos’ but the bad news was that I was clearly being cast as Martin Short to Ryan’s Chevy Chase and Pete completing the line-up as Steve Martin. However, this felt right and as we listened to Ryan tell us about his £450 Ford Granada Funeral Car ‘Party Bus’ we simply howled our way into the next checkpoint.

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Checkpoint 2 and the start of the real race
‘Hotdog lads’ came a cheery voice, ‘tea, coffee, fill your bottles?’ Upon entering CP2 we found ourselves in the midst of the best reception we could have hoped for, our drop bags awaited us but also importantly there were hot dogs on the menu and we all greedily ate them and washed it down with a cup of sweet tea. I continued to stuff my face with food from my drop bag and drank the chocolate milk I had been dreaming of but mostly I left my kit in my bag – no spare shoes or socks were required.

I’m not sure how it came about but the checkpoint volunteers ended up describing us as the smiliest runners they’d seen all day and I can see that being true but as I said, ‘we pay to do this, might as well enjoy it!’. Much banter was passed around the checkpoint and I told the tale of how a female runner, in the middle of the night asked me if we could run together telling me, ‘you don’t look too rapey’. Quick as a flash from the crowd came the response (and I’ll paraphrase) ‘she was wrong wasn’t she?’ Genius!

The guys at checkpoint 2 were magnificent and they sent us on our way truly refreshed and rather cheery about the next section and with only 500 metres of ascent we thought this would be a nice easy section – how wrong we were proved.

We ran across the first field and saw a small stream to cross and by the Power of Greyskull we did it, but this led us into boggy fields and we found that the tall grass made progress slow. Each of us took turns to go as lead risking the possibility of wet feet but we survived and hit the tarmac before conversation turned to much loved movies, quotes from Flash Gordon, Labyrinth, Bond movies littered liberally around and how many filthy film titles could you think of; Pete was pretty good as he shot from the hip a number of classic titles including ‘Shaving Ryan’s Privates’ before we hit a low when ‘Confessions of Window Cleaner’ and ‘On the Buses’ got a mention. Ryan was no slouch either in the humour department as the ‘teenage boy toilet humour’ dominated the miles.

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This though provided respite from our travails across the swamp and as we headed into Parc Bryn Bach we were feeling okay and also finally starting to pull away a little from the group behind us. We pushed on using the momentum we’d developed using a combination of running and pretty swift hiking to cover the miles, stopping only for photo opportunities with the enormous remains of cars and vans that littered the South Wales countryside (somewhere is a photograph of me sat in one of these seats). It felt like we were starting to lose the light as well but actually it was simply getting overcast but regardless given our height we would manage to avoid head torches for several more hours.

However, mentally this was probably the most draining, the least interesting and the toughest section to get through and this was where my comrades were at their most valuable. We’d discussed whether we should stay together and agreed that given the bollock crushing nature of the course, the navigation and our general good feeling for one another that seeing this journey through together would be a good idea. So it was with a flourish that we each entered the third checkpoint and maintained our cheery approach…

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‘It’s no North Sea Hijack’ I exclaimed to one of the wonderful volunteers as we began flirtation via Roger Moore. His riposte was composed of Roger Moore-esque fashion suggestions, ‘…cravat? perhaps teamed with a pastel coloured safari suit..?’ Ha!

More wonderful back and forth banter which in turn earned each of us a freshly BBQed delight. Delicious!

I had the peppered steak in a cheesy bap (because as Ryan said ‘everything tastes better with cheese’ (though I’m not sure he’d thought it through as I hear oral sex with a cheesy whiff is quite unpleasant) while my running buddies ate heartily of a pork belly bap.

Anyway after a few minutes of scoffing bacon frazzle & Jaffa cake sandwiches we all felt much better and we’d now reached about 29 miles of running or as it would turn out ‘halfway’! We doffed our caps to the awesome volunteers and bade them a fond farewell and headed once more into the Welsh Wilds!

It wasn’t far into the next section that another eating opportunity arose and as we approached the Co-op I offered the option of stopping for an ice-cream at the outer edge of Bargod. Pete chose the delicious flake cone, while I selected a strawberry cornetto and an Irn-Bru but Ryan decided to dip out of this in favour of a bit of a kit check and fix up. The cool slightly melting iced joy danced on my palette and I devoured this little treat as we continued on our journey.

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Despite this little stop we had decided that we’d like to try and get through to the next checkpoint before full darkness consumed us but it was only a mile or two down the road as the trail darker that we decided that it was worth bringing illumination to the darkness we found ourselves in. Despite having now been running together for many hours we still had much to be upbeat about and even as the reality dawned on us that we were slowing down a bit we knew it was important to keep our spirits up as the night brings new and often unwanted challenges.

It was in this section that we started to pass considerable fly tipping which while it can offer amusement of it’s a car seat is actually quite disgusting and disappointing and really did spoil some of the views across the Welsh landscape as the sun disappeared from sight.

We were now fully at the mercy of the Welsh night and although it was calm I was glad for the companionship of Ryan and Pete. Humour dried up a little as we passed single file through rougher more overgrown trail – my exposed legs were taken quite the battering and I sliced myself many times across the legs, arms and head but we continued making progress and occasionally one of us would remember that this was the fun bus and shout ‘arse almighty’ or ‘you’re pulling my plankety plank’.

It was around here that Ryan’s heel blistering was becoming bad and my lack of Runderwear had gotten to my testicles which were now the size of watermelons, even Pete looked a little worse for wear, although clearly in the best shape of the three of us.

I’d chosen to make a hasty testicle hanger out of my ‘Anton’ Buff and despite his heel pain Ryan too pushed on and our power hiking was making good progress. If we could just avoid any more bracken and thorns we might just survive this! However, the race was turning against us and applying thumb screws we believed we’d left behind on the Beacons. More and more unpleasant undergrowth attacked us and conditions underfoot varied in quality so there was simply no respite from the challenge of completion.

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The three of us pulled slowly into CP4  a while later to see a couple of very important things – the first was the availability of hot tea and pizza but also the pair of young ladies that we had been periodically running near since early on. Elise (one of the runners) looked in a pretty grim way and had apparently been lying down to try and get some life back inside her. We did the only thing we could which was offer some support and as much advice as our weary heads could work. Ryan though offered some caffeine soaked shot bloks and this seemed enough to get them ready for leaving. While they prepped we sat for a little while eating pizza and trying to regain the enthusiasm for the race. However, I was very aware that staying inside for a long period would bring about a DNF and so we pressed on and headed toward a narrow overgrown passage despite a local gentleman attempting to guide us off course.

As we stood looking over the map we saw the two ladies pass us by and knew to follow them. Sadly the route was now becoming a little bitty but there was still Caerphilly Mountain to conquer and I hoped for some interesting trails to run across – thankfully the trails did become suitably gnarly for a while and despite pain in all sorts of places we continued forward searching for what the next clip point. Pete was now mostly in charge of navigation, although I was keeping a very regular check on the GPX route to ensure we had a consensus for direction but wrong turns were few and far between as we headed to the final checkpoint. A minor blip meant that we came up a road rather than a trail for about 250 metres and nearly missed the checkpoint entirely but we simply wanted to continue on.

However, at the final checkpoint and at around 4.00am I got to see my fellow registration volunteer Sian – who looked as fresh as she had about 36hrs earlier! She was sensibly wrapped in a dry robe and upon looking me over realised who I was and came over to say hello. The volunteer team were as awesome as ever but with only six or seven miles left we needed very little and strode out from the CP pretty swiftly.

I won’t lie we looked in a pretty bad way by the time the sun came up, both Ryan and I had rusty bullet holes that you could have cooked eggs on, my testicles were on fire and we both had serious blister problems. Pete it looked like was suffering from cramp and was using the slower pace for regular stretching. We had all started to get a little grumpy too and the mood although never unpleasant was quieter and more sombre than it had been at any point in the night. However, it is fair to say that we all checked on each other – no man was being left behind and when the blisters under my feet burst the guys gave me the required time to steady myself and pick up a head of steam.

The hardest part here were not the uphills – in fact the minor uphills were a nice distraction – the main problem was the downhill to the riverside run home on the Taff Trail. Each of us struggled with this section in his own way but upon making it down we made the best effort we could to get it over the line without being overtaken further.

However, in the final few hundred metres we were overtaken by a couple of ladies – we all agreed that fighting for a placing really wasn’t worth the agony and we crossed line just as we had travelled it – together.

Distance: 50(57) miles
Ascent: +3486 metres
Location: Brecon Beacons
Cost: £70
Runners: 60
Terrain: Mixed, boggy, rocky, hilly, toughTough Rating: 4/5

Route
The route was an interesting one, the best of it was at the start and in the first 25 miles but that’s not to say the second half didn’t have appealing features because it did. The route was also incredibly tough. It is fair to suggest that this would be one of the tougher 50 milers you will face in the United Kingdom – it’s also fair to say that you’ll almost certainly need to do some extra miles – the route claims to be about 53 miles but my GPS file and that of those around me was more like 57/58 miles which is a significant percentage increase on the 50 that are advertised in the title of the race. However, none of this detracts from the fact that the route really is very special, albeit not one of the fastest around. I felt, having never really explored South Wales in any great depth, that this tour of the Brecon Beacons and the road into Cardiff gave me a desire to search for more in the region and I’m now very much looking forward (with a hint of trepidation) to The Rebellion in November.

Awards
Great t-shirt and pretty, good quality medal – do you need any more?

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Companions
What a holy trinity we proved to be. Myself, Ryan and Pete (I hope for them as much as me) proved to be a great match for banging out some exciting miles in South Wales and thank you very much for all your support. It was my honour to run alongside you and I hope to do so again soon. I hope you both conquer your awesome upcoming challenges – the TDS and the RoF.

Volunteers
I’ve had the good fortune to meet some amazing volunteers over the years I’ve been doing races but the guys at the SW50 were amongst the best. Special mention must go to Joe and Sian who I worked with during the registration but also to the guys who made me laugh so heartily at CP2 and the bearded chap with his Roger Moore comments and the hug at the finish line).

Organisation
Top notch and in every respect – if you decide to run this then it will feel smooth and well oiled and even during the bit of volunteering that I did I got the impression that Joe and the organising team were all over it like the proverbial ‘car bonnet’. Each of the CPs was well drilled and they handled the runners with respect – which hopefully they received back in genuine thanks. Ten out of ten!

Value for money
£70 for this? a bargain in any book – this included the camping, the transport to the start, tech shirt and the tremendous organisation. I would heartily recommend this race if you are looking for a proper ballbuster, it might not be for the novice runners and it might not even be for some of the seasoned ultra runners but there are a huge amount of you out there that would love this.

Check them out www.runwalkcrawl.co.uk

Favourite moments

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  • Caught by a farmer: ‘Shot or bummed which way do you fancy dying?’ I think I suggested shot while being ‘bummed’ as I really wanted to avoid the farmers ‘cum face’. In truth he was a very helpful man and all we needed to do was show a little humility for our minor mistake.
  • The button mushroom: ‘Does your cock shrivel up like a button mushroom during an ultra?’ asked Pete. Insightful was my first thought, however, both Ryan and I simply reached down to our respective ankles to scratch the end of ours to give him the answer!
  • My comrades: Ryan and Pete, two men I’d never met before who were simply amazing. Let’s put it this way we didn’t need the sheep that night 😉
  • Fixing my bollocks: the poor young ladies who were running next to us for various bits possibly having to witness me fixing my beloved Anton buff round my testicles on more than one occasion.
  • The things we learned about each other: Needless to say one of us shared too much but the ‘titwank’ story and the tale of the ‘sensible car purchase’ will be retold many times I suspect
  • The Flintstones: Being outvoted on the Betty/Wilma debate and just how manly is Fred Flintstone? I swear neither Ryan or Pete understood the real ‘Wilma’ or that Barney was a probably a sensitive caring lover for Betty.
  • Favourite insult: I like ‘cockwomble’, I’m a fan of ‘used cockbag’, ‘well I don’t think you can beat cunt’. I shan’t tell you who said what.
  • Upon finishing: Joe asks, ‘can we get you anything?’ ‘Hookers,’ I replied. ‘I think all the rugby guys have gone home sadly…’

Conclusions
This isn’t my favourite ultra – it would have to go a long way to unseat the SainteLyon and the Skye Trail Ultra – but that said this was an amazing race put on by people who really know what they’re doing and I would urge you to take a look at this for next year – you may well decide it’s not for you but for those that it is for will come away having being battered and bruised but feeling elated. So instead of signing up for the same old, same old maybe give this a go – I did and it really paid off.

As for my race? Well I was a couple of hours slower than I had hoped but I had a great time with two amazing guys and lots of other awesome runners. South Wales 50 is a race that will live long in the memory and although the 100 might be off the table for next year I suspect I will be back to give it a crack sooner rather than later and who knows maybe I will end up taking on the 100 next year.

Post race? I’ve eaten all the biscuits and my testicles have calmed down but the blisters on my feet are some of the worst I’ve had in ages and will take a few more days to heal – but the pain is well worth it.


What happens if the clutch stops working and one of the wheels fall off your car and you’ve still got two thirds of your journey to go? The answer is you get my experience of the Marlborough Downs Challenge.

I felt surprisingly fresh at the start line despite having had a long day at work on the Friday, a long bus journey to Swindon and a sleeping situation that involved a very cheap child’s mattress in cramped conditions in a house that was much to warm with my daughter inches away from me. In my head this one read as a 33 mile amble but my legs said ‘hehe, let’s rock this one out’.

And so as the runners kicked off my legs dictated a pace my head was telling me I’d regret later on. The key thing though was to ensure you were through the 9 mile checkpoint before the 2hr cut-off to ensure you were not thrust on to the shorter route.

But I’m getting rather ahead of myself, something my head would remind my legs as they were forced around the supermarket later that day.

There were probably about a hundred runners on the start line, most looked like seasoned ultra runners but it turned out, having spoken to many of them that the field was a wide and varied mix of ages, experiences and abilities. It had a really nice homely feel and was a comfortable race to be around, UltraBaby was made to feel very welcome and it reinforced my belief that I’m better off avoiding the bulk of the mass participation events as this kind of thing is exactly where I want to be.

Anyway I set off at, what was for me, an almighty pace. I wasn’t doing my normal jogging along I was actually running and though there was never likely to be any issue with me troubling the front runners I was pushing hard.


The route was ambling, rambling and delicious but all the while heading uphill and while the elevation profile wasn’t too severe there was enough to make you realise that this 33 miles was going to be a bit of a test – especially if you were still feeling a bit leggy from your Madeira adventuring.

I’ve spent a lot of time in sunny Wiltshire and Oxfordshire but never really appreciated just how amazingly beautiful it actually is. The Marlborough Downs Challenge resolved this omission in my visual enjoyment and as I pressed on there was still enough time for a few photographs and intakes of breath as I admired my surroundings.


Checkpoints started to fall quickly and I was actually having a tremendous out of fun, there was only one small problem and that was my legs were tired, sore even but the joy of the route was keeping me going. The problems became more troubling when I pulled something in my knee and my groin and while I knew these issues would leave me ruined at some point I decided to push ever onwards.

With checkpoint 3 passed I stopped for a slightly longer jelly baby and photo opportunity, one of which is the image that opens this blog post and from here I came across what was to be my favourite part of the route and a fast downhill section with a series of fast up and down bumps that I could launch myself along – glorious.


The race was now starting to open up and despite making good time the injuries and lack of match fitness were catching up with me and some of the runners I had passed earlier were starting to catch me up and a good finishing time slowly started to ebb away. However, a good finish time had never really been the intention but would however have been a real bonus. More checkpoints fell and I met several very lovely runners, several new to the ultra running scene and several veterans, all extremely interesting and each with stories that would help pass the miles by. Alison, Marc, Liza and many others contributed to a grand day out and I recounted my many tales of stupidity as an obsessed ultra runner and a ridiculous parent.

Into the latter sections I started to chow down on larger and larger handfuls of dolly mixture and jelly babies and insisted on a ‘free hug’ from one of the lovely volunteers at the race – who duly obliged to both myself and one of the other runners.

It was this combination of experiences that reminded me very much why I love eventing, it’s the comaraderie that sweeps through races like the Marlborough Downs Challenge that keeps me going back and risking life and limb.


The fact that I’d sweep my way past one of the beautiful Wiltshire white horses and drift through the delightful Avesbury stone circle simply confirmed this as a very scenic event. By Avesbury though and with 11km still to go I was shot to pieces and I was grateful to reach the final checkpoint and pick up some runner support for the finish push. My companions and I trundled down the final descents and back into Marlborough discussing the delights of the Lake District and running with (grand)children – thank you very much guys, especially Liza who made those last 2 miles much easier.

As I approached the finish in the distance, a few hundred metres to go I came across UltraBaby who waved wildly as she caught sight of me. I turned to Liza and said I’d catch up to her at the end and I drifted off to run the final section with my family. I crossed the line, delighted to be finished at this glorious event.

Key points

  • Distance: 33 miles
  • Profile: Hilly but runnable
  • Date: May 2017
  • Location: Marlborough
  • Cost: £30
  • Terrain: Mixed trail
  • Tough Rating: 2/5

Route. The route was interesting and filled with historical delights including Avesbury Stone Circle. The hills and the trails were truly exceptional, I had expected them to be like the South Downs (which I find a little dull of I’m honest) but actually the Marlborough Downs are often spectacular and deserve much recognition for this. The route was very dry which I’m sure many will consider a bonus but I found it hard underfoot even with well supported shoes and those in road running trainers probably made the right decision. My only criticism would be the amount of gravel paths which is a personal thing as I find it difficult to run on, preferring muddier trails but this is very much the nature of the area rather than a criticism of the route. It’s a route you’ll enjoy when you decide to sign up and will live long in the memory.

Awards. A hand made mug inscribed with the event name – delightful and I chose a short and stout one in white to contrast against a similar mug I received at the High Weald 50km last year. They are lovely mementos of a lovely race.


Organisation. Absolutely faultless, from start to finish and with people positioned at key difficult crossings – perfect.

Volunteers. I have only good things to say about the awesome army of wonderful volunteers who laughed and joked with runners as they ambled their way around. Thank you very much to all of them, especially the lady with the giant bag of jelly babies and the free hugs!

Value for money. It’s a small event, run locally but with a more than good enough reputation to draw people from far and wide and I have no idea how they put it on for such a low price. Excellent value for money and with a delicious hot meal at the end who could ever complain (well me as UltraBaby ate my Macaroni Cheese!)

Conclusion. Fun route, good awards, well organised and great value for money. You’d be mad not to give this a go – but don’t underestimate it, the route is runnable but challenging and is festooned with many a photo opportunity that will inevitably slow you down. I thoroughly enjoyed the Marlborough Downs Challenge and if I were looking for a late spring race in beautiful surroundings this would make the shortlist every time.

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