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You’ve got to test yourself and even I’ll concede that, occasionally, you have to do some training. This weekend was all about preparation for the Ridgeway Challenge and so in good spirits, early on Sunday morning, I headed out to the Vanguard Way Marathon.


I was joined on my quest for my next marathon medal by the GingaNinja and UltraBaby who had come along as my support team. Although for the purpose of this story UltraBaby will be retitled as ‘Klingon Rudolph’ due to her big red nose and bashed forehead caused a day earlier by a trip in the garden.


We arrived at Lloyd Park just after 8.30am to a few runners and the start line – I collected my number and was offered the option of some jelly babies or, in a slightly unusual turn, a dip into the shared pot of Vaseline. They had clearly read about my exertions at Endure 1250.

With number in hand I dipped into the excellent change and toilet facility and lubricated heavily to avoid a repeat of recent problems. My kit choice this time out was a test of a new sock combination, new bottom team up and a new single layer top. For socks I’d matched Injinji toe liners (which I’ve used to great effect on several ultras) with Ashmei low cut merino wool socks. For bottoms I was in Runderwear with my preferred short tights the Ronhill Trail Contour tights. This would be much lighter than teaming them with S-Lab Exo shorts. For top I was using a simple round neck Ronhill running shirt – short sleeved too, to make for an exciting change.

With kit sorted I ambled around the main group of congregated runners, said hello to some of the runners I knew and then bimbled up to the playground to play with ‘Rudolph’ on the swings. With playtime achieved we headed to the start line and listened to the race briefing and prepared for the off.

I looked out to the assembled crowd and realised there were probably less than 100 runners in the group but it had an air of a classic about it – well save for the lack of five inch shorts and the amount of expensive Salomon packs and GPS watches.

With limited fanfare we all threw ourselves on to the course and we set off at a nice pace. I chatted with Greg who I know a little bit through my attendance at SVN events and it was nice to catch up as I hadn’t seen him since the Ranscombe Ramble. I soon wished him good luck though and pushed on a little bit as although I wanted time on my feet we had a BBQ to attend.

Croydon is not noted for being an attractive place but it would be very fair to say that the Vanguard Way was very pleasant and wound itself around the outskirts of one of Surreys less well regarded towns before it hit woodland, forests and trail. I bounded across the route with an abandon not seen in quite some time and I was having a genuinely fun time.

The enclosed pictures better illustrate how much I was having


And then it began, I’d been following the people ahead of me rather than following my GPS and this proved a mistake as when I looked down to my shiny new Ambit 3 I realised I was significantly off route and so where many others. There was a suggestion that route signage had been the victim of tampering fingers but ultimately it didn’t matter we were lost.

I rocked up to a small group heading back towards me and a couple of others and we all stopped. I’d pretty much run 10km already and there was no sign of the first water station. Bugger. Between us we compared GPS devices, the route description and previous entrants knowledge to come up with a plan.

Huzzah! I cried as I bounced quickly downhill, taking decisions based solely on instinct (and a hint of a GPS map in the corner of my watch). Eventually with 13 kilometres on the clock I found the water station and it felt like a hard 13 kilometres, I hoped that on the return I would not get nearly so lost as who needs to add a further 3km to the route? I grabbed a cup of water, noted that my own store was still about half full (1.5 litre Salomon bladder) and so set off feeling upbeat.

It was around here that I finally checked my feet. I’d been incredibly uncomfortable around the balls of my feet and so when I peered inside my Olympus I could no longer see my outer sock layer – they had gone all Paul Daniels on me. I stripped my shoes off and found the Ashmei socks wrapped around my toes – I removed them and consigned them to the side pocket of my run vest. Well kit test one was a failure – we won’t be replicating that at the Ridgeway.

But I digress and so back to the race.

The second section was through some beautiful countryside and had the two most serious descents with lovely wild flora and fauna abound. I took the descents with all the speed and control I could muster, dipping over the gates and using the superb grip of the Altra Olympus to ensure I didn’t end up on my arse. The thought that had occurred though was that I was going to have to come back up this later in the day.


At mile 11 I was rewarded for my efforts with a meeting of ‘Mumwhoruns’ from Twitter and Instagram. We had missed each other at the Amba City of London Mile but with a message sent via Instagram I knew were she and her family were located and it was delightful to finally say hello in person. We of course grabbed a photograph because that’s what you do in this social media age – sod Justin Bieber – I want photographs with my social media followers!

I ploughed on though and the route settled down a little before a final climb up to the halfway point. the marshals sent us to the end of the road and urged us back with the offer of sweeties – but no water…

I looked on in horror as the young lady before me said ‘we’ve run out of water but Gareth is going to try and get some to us’.

Holy fuck, it was about 27 degrees and I had now almost exhausted my water supply. One of the marshals was able to spare, from her own personal supply, about 75ml of water but that wasn’t going to get me far. She decided that she would try one of the local homes but there was no telling how long this would take and I knew that the longer I stayed the more chance there was that I would not make the cut-off time. I had to take a decision and I decided that I would risk the hills and the heat with the miniscule amount of water I had and hope that the next checkpoint would have water.


The wheels started to come off immediately but I focused my head as there was little I could do about the predicament my body found itself in. I ran for a while with hundred marathon club member Maria who I hadn’t seen since the 2013 edition of the Kent Roadrunner marathon, but this liaison was short lived as I needed to peg back my exertions. 

The heat of the day was at full beam and I knew the climbs would soon be on me and I was feeling light headed. I sat down on a bench at the bottom of the first of the two ascents – letting runners pass me by. I sat here for about 15 minutes trying to regain my composure and with a weary head I pounded up the first hill, stopping periodically and exhausting the last of my water. At the top I called the GingaNinja and advised her of my problem and she told me to ‘hang on in there, keep to the shade and get back as quickly as possible’. What she didn’t mention was that I was barely making any sense and I was slurring my words – the heat had clearly now gotten a solid grip. 

I continued forward, making slower and slower progress – more runners passing me but I had climbed the second hill and I ambled down towards the water station, fingers crossed they had supplies. 

I gulped water – probably too much but I needed to freshen up, hydrate and then be on my way. What had looked like a DNF a few minutes earlier started to look like a possible finish again. I filled my bladder up, ensuring I had enough for the last few miles and then headed out. It took a little while for the water to kick in and I added in some apple and raspberry fruit pouches (baby food) but once it did kick in I could see I was struggling for time. 


I started to run again, something I had not thought possible and soon I was thundering through the trees, making up some of the massive amount of lost time I’d had in the middle. I walked quickly the uphills and I leathered the downhills – I was not going to miss the cut off.

Boom, I hit another hill, passed a couple of runners and then up and round but even following my GPS there was a degree of inaccuracy and I found myself lost again. I’d run about a kilometre in the wrong direction and with no other runners around I had little choice but to turn back.

I arrived back at the red and white tape and attempted to piece together my location – I could see two path options, neither looked familiar. Of course, you’ve probably already guessed, I took the wrong one (I was on the GPS route) but in the distance and in the more defined path, I could see taped markings and so I assaulted the undergrowth and made my way properly cross-country style. I landed on the path as I leapt free of the undergrowth – legs cut to ribbons and looked up and down the trail. In my head I heard those magic words – relentless movement forward and so I hurtled downhill with time ebbing away. 

I was back – I could see things I recognised. The GingaNinja called checking on my progress and I said I was nearly there but with only 20 minutes to cut off and having already completed just under 46kilometres I wasn’t sure how far I had left. I could see runners coming in from all directions but I didn’t care I was pretty sure I was on the right route, I dipped through the park and beyond the children’s play area, families and children everywhere required avoiding and I could finally see the finish. 

With all the energy I could muster I gave it everything I had left for a finish – Gareth the RD calling out words of encouragement as I crossed the line and almost sank to my knees. 

I looked terrible, the GingaNinja thought I needed hospital rather than a shower and I was pretty incoherent. I had managed it but it should have gone so much better.

I’ll wear this finishers T-shirt with pride.

Key points

  • Distance: Marathon(ish)
  • Profile: Hilly Trail
  • Date: August 2016
  • Location: Croydon
  • Cost: £36
  • Terrain: Hard packed trail, road
  • Tough Rating: 3.5/5

Route: Tremendous route and allowed to see some of the trails I never normally get to go on. The Vanguard Way is a route that will challenge and should be respected. The out and back nature should have made navigation easier but believe me it would be a mistake to think that. I would recommend getting to know the course if you can – it will really help in this instance.

Organisation: I’d love to say it can’t be faulted but the lack of water at the halfway point was a big failing – however, as I understand it they did resolve this eventually and the marshals did everything they could for us and it didn’t effect everyone.

The good news was that the start, finish line and other aid stations were excellent and well stocked. The course markings were interesting and if speculation is correct that they had been tampered with then there’s not a lot you can do about that and so it’s difficult to offer assessment on this. 

However, one change I’d like too is perhaps one colour arrows for ‘out’ and one colour for ‘back’. I did at one point near the finish start on my way back to the halfway point – which would have been, mentally, a killer mistake.

Ultimately though the organisation was excellent – the change and toilet facilities were brilliant and the organisers contributed to a great summer marathon vibe.


Goodies: Neck gaiter (from Richmond Marathon), bespoke medal, t-shirt, granola and a mars bar – yep it’s one of the better goody bags for under £40! These in addition to a great route make this a bargain race. 

Again: More than likely, it’s a tough marathon but there are too many positives not to give this another go. I’d prefer to know the route better and not end up running an extra 5km and I’d want to ensure I was carrying enough water with me but yes I’d sign up to this again. 

Conclusion: if you’re looking for a tough, challenging and demanding summer marathon then this had your name all over it. It’s not really for the ‘one and done’ marathoners – it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles – it had just what you need and a great atmosphere. In my search for low key, high quality events this scores very highly and while the water issue might have ruined my time that is something the organisers (and I) will learn from and ensure doesn’t happen again. You really can’t go wrong if you decide to go bounding about the Vanguard Way and if they ever open up the 107km of ultra trail I’ll be keen on that too. 


Ultra running at its best gives me a genuine feeling of worth and achievement. I’ve done something that takes courage, spirit and fight, it is something I can be proud of.

I’ve been very careful this year to choose races that I believed would challenge me, force me to work that bit harder and give me that sense of achievement. To this end I was brought to the Brutal Enduro, an 18hr, 10km trail loop with an undulating course, wet conditions underfoot and lots of foolhardy entrants. But was it just up my street?

I arrived at the Minley base camp, near Basingstoke, late on Saturday morning and pitched my tent in one of the heavy showers that had followed me almost all the way from Kent. Ducking inside I avoided the nastiness of a drowning before we had even started and I set about unpacking my kit. I laid out clothing changes, food, drink and in the dark kit – all easily accessible so I could pound the ground for as long as I liked.


As I started to get changed I could hear the sound of the free 1km children’s race and then a few short minutes later the first of the children screaming their way under the finish line. I was too busy rubbing my undercarriage in body glide at the time to go and watch but it helped start off the very positive family atmosphere that would be the hallmark of the event.

At 2pm we all lined up at the start and prepared for the off. There were about 50 or 60 runners on the start line, many part of teams who would be swapping over after a set number of laps to keep legs fresh but I, despite no training, would be going solo.

Ever since Rachel’s Ranscombe Ramble, in early April, where I destroyed my leg I haven’t run much in training or racing – the exception being the mauling I took at the Skye Trail Ultra and the Amba City of London Mile. I’ve been claiming rest but actually I’ve just not had the motivation to run and as the pictures show I’ve eaten a lot of chocolate over the last 12 weeks.

The Brutal Enduro therefore came along at just the wrong time but as I crossed under the start I pushed on to see how interesting the course might be and just what I could manage given the circumstances.

I let most of the speedy runners and team runners bound on ahead – I wasn’t going to get caught in the trap of going too quickly round the route. The first 3km had very limited interest, gentle trail, one notable jaunt through the wicked forest and then out through another field but once you reached the 3km mark suddenly the Brutal Enduro all made sense.


Climb, roots, rocks, mud, descent, repeat, jump, lift, spin, bound, sprint – the final 7km of the course had it all in abundance. I turned into the 3km marker and remarked to myself ‘coolio’ I bounded up the hill, then through the mud and onward – the descent from 4km to 5km was deeply vicious and I saw many runners treading carefully but I prefer to a launch myself into this – it’s why I enjoy trails. I bounded down the rutted and rooted trail, bouncing across ditches and sprinting to the exit and the sight of the camp and the toilets for the 5km mark. My first half lap was worthy of mention because I also needed to stop for my pre-race bowel motion (or rather in-race bowel motion) and the positioning on the course of the loo made this very achievable – thankfully.


Anyway the 5km mark was at the edge of the camp and offered the opportunity to fill up water bottles or visit your tent but I was happy to knock out the first 10km and get some distance under my belt.
This wasn’t going to be a fast course due to the nature of the up and down as well as the overall conditions but I pushed a little harder through the next 5km which continued the trend of being quite exciting and I was very glad to be running this in the light so I would stand a chance of knowing what might get me in the dark. I started to make mental notes like ‘hmm that hole looks Altra shoe sized’ or bloody hell I’ll be wearing my arsehole as a necklace if I jump into that’.

As at 3km there was a lovely, fast and spongy uphill climb at 6km and I bounced up the hill going past a couple of my fellow runners and from here on in it was just a series of opportunities to have fun picking exciting routes through the woodland. I hadn’t had this much fun since Skye.


However, I was acutely aware that my own body was rebelling against me – mostly because I simply hadn’t done any miles to get me ready for this. I took stock of my situation over some chocolate milkshake before I headed out for lap 2 and ambled along the first 3km again before giving it a bit more welly for the last 7km.

During the run I was fortunate to meet lots of lovely runners too – as happens I suppose on a looped course, the most notable where Ellen and Kerry who I ran with a different points during the event.

Kerry who lives and works in Jordan was in the UK for a few weeks and had taken the opportunity to complete the Race to the King and the Brutal Enduro because that’s what you do on holiday! Ellen meanwhile was looking to run her first marathon distance. Both provided delightful company, excellent respite from my own thoughts and helped me complete the laps I ran with them. The better news for me was that both would achieve, with relative ease, the targets they had set themselves.


For me though I knew the only way I was going to get to or around ten laps was by taking it easy but then my regular ultra curse struck – stupidity!

It was on lap 5 with dusk approaching that I twisted my knee, something I’d done on the Thursday before the race but had ignored in favour of hoping it would be okay. In truth it had held up pretty well but as I landed awkwardly, in one of those mentally noted trail traps, I knew I’d troubled it in a way that I didn’t want to run on it.

I came into the checkpoint and wandered off to my tent – my intent had always been a kit change and hot food at this point but I used it as a longer opportunity to rest and see if I could get back out on the course.
I found my way gingerly into clean and dry kit, charged my phone and ate some dirty noodles as the burger van had closed down for the night.

I felt in better spirits post food abs clean clothes but nearly 2 hours had passed since I had last been out and it was late. However, my knee didn’t seem too bad so I left the relative comfort of my tent and went back to the route. What was immediately apparent was that I wasn’t going to be running – I could feel the knee moving uncomfortably and my self imposed tent rest had also indicated that my feet (still not recovered from Skye) had taken another nasty beating. I began running the scenarios in my head – I could do another three laps and get to 80km or try and hobble five laps and make the hundred. What I realised was that there was no point, I wasn’t going to set a new distance record for myself, I wasn’t going to set a new fastest time, I’d done the marathon distance for the purposes of the 100MC and all I was ultimately doing was making Endure 12 in ten days time that much more difficult.

And so I trundled around the course in the dark, enjoying the company of Kerry, whom I’d found on the route again and decided this would be my final lap. Kerry was again in sparkling form and we chatted once again, regaling one another with anecdote after anecdote. An hour or so passed in this delightful state and we caught sight of the final ascent. I gave a gentle sigh – resignation at my overall failure and then trundled over the finish line.


I bade goodnight to Kerry and another runner who was waiting for her partner to complete his lap and I trudged to my tent, my knee glad I had shown some common sense, my heart thinking I had enough time for the other laps. Oh well maybe next year.

Key points

  • Distance: 10km loop
  • Profile: Undulating
  • Date: July 2016
  • Location: Fleet, Hampshire
  • Cost: £50
  • Terrain: Mixed, boggy, rocky
  • Tough Rating: 2/5

Route
The route was overall pretty good fun, even the slightly dull first couple of kilometres had some moments but there was a great joy in the other 7km. The mix of terrain, the bogginess and the route in the dark really gave this route a bit of an edge over similar looped trail events I’ve completed.

Organisation
The organisation was good, everyone seemed to know what they were required to do and they did it, registration was swift and the event set off on time and with the minimum of fuss. I liked the roving marshals in the night – they were a nice and useful addition to ensuring our safety and ultimately Brutal ran what appeared to be a tight and tidy ship. As is always the case with these events the volunteers were tremendous and there was always a cheery smile from someone in a neon gilet.

Checkpoints
There was really only one real checkpoint which was the main one and there was water, squash, tea, coffee bananas and oat bars – the rest was up to you. For £50 I think this was fair and I preferred catering for myself as it meant I only ate things I really wanted to.

Goodies
Good quality t-shirt and a bespoke medal – more OCR style than ultra but in keeping with their branding and it hangs proudly next to my other medals! Let’s be honest do you really need anything else?

Again
Would I do Brutal Enduro again? I probably would, but mainly because it’s a good fun course, not too many people around you, room to run and because it’s well organised (even with the tent peg mis-adventure, but that’s a story of the MoD – check the Facebook group for details). I probably wouldn’t pick this over something with big, big hills or a good quality point to point racing but even when stopping due to injury I still could see I’d had a good time and it as enough for me to consider a return in the future.

Conclusions
Cost effective, fun, friendly and in a great location with good organisation. If you’re looking for a run to complete that is challenging but achievable then this might just be for you or if you’re looking for a bit of test for slightly harder core trail races then this is an excellent warm-up (he says with one eye being cast to the Ridgeway Challenge…)

Further information
More information can be found on their various events at www.brutalrun.co.uk

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It’s Monday morning and I’m still a little bit tired, yesterday I spent my day painting an awesome new dinosaur mural for UltraBaby in the UltraCave or as my partner likes to describe it – the baby room. I woke up around 8.45 and threw myself almost straight into the haze of paint fumes and the cleaning of paint rollers, but that isn’t what I’m here to talk about – because a mere 18hrs earlier I was at one of the most wonderfully epic events I’ve ever done – the North Downs Way 100.

Most people who will read this are now probably imagining a tale of woe filled with grim images of my feet, complaints about the weather, underfoot conditions and all manner of technical hiccups I encountered but fear not, it’s not about that at all. Infact this is a tale about a guy who wanted to give something back to those who had supported him over the last 18 months of ultra running, this is a story about volunteering.

Now let me roll back about 8 weeks to my anguish at pulling out of the NDW100, that was one of the best and also most horrible decisions I’ve had to make as a runner – this hundred was my ticket into the UTMB, it was also the biggest test of both my physical and mental prowess but injury and having run too much on that injury have proved my undoing and I simply wasn’t going to be ready.

So when Nici at Centurion put out a call for people to help volunteer at CP10 Bluebell Hill I knew that this was the thing for me. I arrived therefore on the Saturday about 3.30pm and awaited the arrival of the chaps from Centurion so that we could unload the wagon and begin the process of setting up. gazebo, tables, hundreds of litres of water, tonnes of food and a team of excited and experienced runners all wanting to help provide support, solace or a kick up the arse to these hundred mile legends.

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Set up was reasonably quick and within an hour we were well on our way to being ready but Bluebell Hill is a notoriously windy spot and the gazebo didn’t look like it would take any kind of battering, this combined with the addition of walls to the gazebo meant that it simply wouldn’t stay down. But these are ultra runners and this is a highly regarded Centurion event. With the wave of a magic wand a new tent arrived with James Elson – lower to the ground, sturdier and bigger, this would be ideal and even with the attached walls this felt more secure and so in the wind we did the switch over – secured her down and knew we were ready ahead of time.

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Then came two lovely surprises, the first was some of the most amazing ‘Chocolate Crack’ from the equally amazing @abradypus and the second was a visit from the lady herself. My most kind thanks to you as ever my sweet! Your confectionary delights kept the crew going through the night!

We had heard rumours that some of the checkpoints had themed themselves as pirates and Christmas and while this wasn’t the case for us we were no less enthusiastic about the task at hand. We had a wonderfully energetic team of six – Sharon, Ellyn, Ronnie, Paul, Chris and myself. Ronnie as station manager was the one we looked to, but his calm was perhaps his best quality, which meant that we could simply set about making the food, getting up the seating and awaiting the first runners while also offering our conversational services to the crews and supporters of the runners.

Sharon took up her allocated position as time keeper atop the mound just outside the checkpoint, while the rest just waited for that very first runner. I’ll admit that I was a little bit nervous – I’d never really met the super fast ultra runners and had no idea how quick they’d want water replenishing or service etc. but as Duncan strode in to CP10 to a very warm and rousing round of applause life became much simpler – he like every other ultra runner stopped, had a chat, ate some food – filled their water supplies. The thing I learnt very quickly was that the super fast ultra runners want the same thing I do (generally) help, support and a bit of respite.

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It was a bit of a battle of the titans at the front and we saw the first three runners in reasonably quick succession but then there were the inevitable lulls – but this allowed me the opportunity to get to know some of the crews and supporters and even the marshals I was sharing the evening with. This was one of the things I was very happy to do because I know from my own crews experience that a friendly face and a friendly conversation can make all the difference to those waiting for loved ones.

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As more runners rolled in it became a busier job but actually it was never so hectic that we struggled. We welcomed each runner with a big smile and as best we could a humour filled heart. We knew that the more traumatic tales would start rolling in just in after midnight and this was very much the case – runners tired, sitting down, desperate for respite. It was now our job (as Ronnie reminded us regularly) to get the runners up and out. It was a combination of ‘you’re alright, keep going’ and ‘get off your arse and move’. It also started to become vital that we reminded runners to eat and drink, something I’m guilty of avoiding at the latter stages of an ultra. The saddest part though was the DNFs – boys and girls who had no choice but to retire and for them I felt every sympathy. But for every shattered dream there were a dozen other runners smiling and bouncing onwards – it was a glorious sight to behold.

It was about 1am (ish) when the heavy rain came down and therefore got even worse for the runners – lots were soaked to the skin but equally many remained jolly and the spirit of the ultra runner was in evidence the whole way round.

 

IMG_2319.JPGIMG_2326.JPGInside and outside the tent we continued to give the best support we could – I dried and compeeded several runners feet but I thankfully managed avoiding having to lance any blisters. There was one lovely French chap I helped dress in bin bags for the next leg, when I asked him if he wanted food he told me he was quite picky – ‘being French’ he said. However, I think hunger may have gotten to him and the wonderful array of fruit convinced him to eat.

CP10 started to wind down it’s operation at about 4.00am for a 4.45 cutoff – we had about 10 runners left to welcome, some very tired support crews and lots of fingers crossed they would make it. Volunteering had felt like the hardest type of fun you could have and I think (well from my perspective) that we had a well bonded unit that worked really well together and I hope all the runners felt that they received the support they needed. It was an amazing experience, a great honour and a challenge but most of all it was something I will most certainly go back to given the opportunity.

Next year I intend to run the NDW100 not because of volunteering and not because of having to pull out this year – I’m going to run it because it’s awesome.

I was sat alone in the large chamber of Lime Street Station when I decided I would actually review the WNWA96, I was tired and hungry and in need of being in my bed, I was done.

Before I start and before you read this there are a number of things I should say, the first I am going to get peoples names wrong, I am going to get some of the finer details wrong but this is an event like no other and so I’m going to tell it in the best way I can.

It was about 11.45am at Bluewater in Kent, my partner had wanted to return a few bit of a maternity wear to a shop because they hadn’t fitted and I had tagged along so that I could offer the opportunity to eat a dirty burrito. I figured what better way to carb load, I even had the mild salsa to avoid any serious complications in the ‘Paula Radcliffe’ department.

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I trundled home and started to get changed, everything seemed to be going well and laid my kit in front of me before applying lashings of wholesome Vaseline to almost the entire of my body. I clipped my Hoka to the side of my bag and headed off to the train station. As we sat outside the station saying goodbye it felt very different from all the other events I do, infact there was a sense of dread about this one and the tension in my face was visible. I kissed each one of my home team, The GingaNinja, UltraBaby, UltraHound and of course Thunderpad and waved them goodbye.

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I decided I would record the event in photographic terms, uploading them across various social media outlets, but the first would be Instagram and I would update on my progress in the event through blogging, Twitter and Facebook updates. I began snapping away on my rather uneventful journey to Sheffield and after a couple of trains, some short walks, a coach journey, tram ride and taxi hop plus a solid 8 hours in transit I arrived at Hillsborough.

I strolled down to the small car park where, in the glare of the lights, I could see the first of many friendly faces I would come across during my journey – Glen from Scoff Events. As I got down the stairs I said hello and he grabbed me a cup of coffee, what a guy. We chatted a little while and it all became clear that we had already met at the Great London Swim where he, myself and my dad had laughed and joked about life and stuff and now he was here making sure that we were all 100% fed and watered.

Feeling cheery therefore – although a little cold – I sat down in the car park and started to set myself up, compression sleeves on, buffs on compeed on my feet, Hoka on, water bottles filled, food compartmentalised, Suunto ready, iPod loaded. As I was doing this more and more people turned up including one of the event co-ordinators Cherie Brewster and they all set about the business of doing the things necessary to get us on our way. There was a nice air of relaxed panic about the place as people who clearly knew their places and hat to do worked hard to ensure that everything went off at the right time and in the right place and much of that is down to both Cherie and Steve Kelly whom we had the utmost faith that they would get it right on the day.

By the time 11.15 arrived the party was ready to hit full swing and I had the pleasure of meeting lots of lovely people. Gordon, on holiday in the Peak District had come over to support us. Owen, one of the walkers who had come on over from Houston – awesome. Nasher, gentleman, legend, poet and musician. Multiple Paul’s, a Debi, Brian, Des and of course Jimmy, the event mascot.

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As time was ticking on we were all called over to the memorial at Hillsborough and here would be a reading of the family names and Brian Nash would read a specially composed poem about his feelings on the tragedy. There was a sombre silence as the words echoed around the memorial. Brian read his poem with a beauty and sincerity that brought many to tears – including myself and as I saw my dad again I could see him ready to break down, it was here that I realised that no matter what else this was an event about community and the value of retaining your dignity and humanity.

Anyway, we returned to the general fits of giggles and laughs that would become the hallmark of the event, this was scousers on tour, yes it was nearly 1am and yes we hadn’t started yet and yes it was in memory of those who were lost in the tragedy, those who had survived and those who had supported everyone through the years but that didn’t mean we had to be downbeat – this was a celebration of the human spirit.

And so at 1am in the cold of Sheffield we set off. The organisers had prepared a couple of support cars with medics and supplies such as water, there was also a sweeper bus that was intended to keep us on our toes for the journey. Unfortunately there were only four copies of the maps to be distributed between most of the walkers, which on the whole was fine but meant for safety purposes it was better to have a photographic copy of your route. However, the support vehicles were never very far away and they helped to guide us – something I would be very grateful of at around 100km in.

The group quickly dispersed into several pockets – the first of which had me at the front of it. I was joined by two chaps, Ian and Brian – both of whom were survivors of the tragedy and talked a little about the feelings they had and why they were so determined to do this walk. Their stories were remarkable and their pace incredible, especially given their relative ages combined with the incredibly hilly start we had it was a stunningly fast pace we were pumping out. We reached the top of the first hill in great time and slowly but surely I could see that Ian was dropping back a little, I checked over my shoulder to ensure he was okay and with that seemed to be a wave of his hand Brian and I pressed on ahead – safe in the knowledge that there were another 30 odd walkers just behind us.

I kept about 50 metres ahead of Brian for a little while as the darkness was all consuming and I needed to focus on my own walk, but I had broken up the lack of light with my own entertainment which was belting out Elton John and Glee songs at the top of my voice, there is nothing like the sound of ‘Don’t go breaking my heart’ with hardly a soul in sight – something quite liberating. Anyway at about the 20km marker Brian finally caught me up as I was keen to take a photograph of the sign for ‘Penistone’ – how true that sometimes the ten year old inside never quite grows out of knob humour.

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It was probably now about 3am and together Brian and I set off at a fair old pace with the agreed intent of finishing it – the whole distance. For a little while I was feeling the effects of running through the night and at one point felt as though I was actually asleep standing up but then I sa the first signs of day break and we came through a little village and up onto another hill and we were greeted by the best sight of the night – Liz! Liz was the photographer who had been tracking our progress and ensuring we didn’t come unstuck for quite some miles and as she snapped at us I threw her a few of the UltraBoy moves and grabbed my own snapshot memento before moving onwards and sadly upwards!

The next few miles passed without incident and as passed by a place called Thunder Bridge Lane even I couldn’t help but feel buoyed by a renewed sense of vigour. This was of course all helped by the arrival of some chocolate croissants and the support vehicles giving us the clear thumbs up as they were sweeping some of the other walkers to the 24 mile point. Brian and I descended into Huddersfield in a great mood and in a great time – we were still under 6hrs and even with a diversion and getting a bit lost finding the Huddersfield Town stadium we made it inside 6hrs 20mins – not too shabby.

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Both Brian and I had spent most of the first 24miles thinking about Bacon sandwiches and thankfully upon arrival there was a tray full of the stuff provided by Glen and Scoff – and scoff it down I did along with about a litre of hit delicious coffee and even more delicious fresh orange juice. This was a significant break with about 90 minutes left for everyone to play catchup and I used this as an opportunity to change from my ridiculously uncomfortable thunder crackers to something more pleasant and also add another tub of Vaseline to my nether regions.

The guys at Huddersfield Town were amazing and the grounds people who helped direct us in and the chaps in the sports centre were very accommodating and I can’t thank them enough.

I also at this point decided to change shoes and mvdd from my Hoka Rapa Nui Tarmac into my classic and much travelled Hoka Stinson Evo. There was something warming about putting on an old friend who has completed thee ultra marathons with you. I used the rest of my time to chat with some of the other walkers who had by now warmed up and were feeling a little more lively, albeit with a few more blisters. I met many lovely people including Tony and Owen and Des (one of the drivers) and also the outstanding Eric who had a lovely ‘feet on the ground’ mentality to the whole thing and declared he was amazed he had managed 12 miles in his Adidas Samba! There was also the coordination of the news reporting and some filming took place but all in all it was well organised here and this helped settle nerves.

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It was then that we saw legend and all round hero Stevie Kelly come trundling round the corner and despite rumours that he was struggling he looked in remarkably good shape and when both Eric and I went over to join him there was nothing but good cheer as the first 24miles were done. There was a lot of truth in the phrase that ‘theres life in the old dog yet’ and he was living, breathing and hiking proof of it.

Anyway with everybody fed, watered and greased up it was time to go and a small group of us left Huddersfield and after some minor navigation challenges through the streets of the town both Brian and I once again headed the group and hit the hills with as much might as we could muster. It was a vertical climb, certainly as tough as anything that the SDW50 had thrown at me and probably a bit worse but my pace was strong and as we reached the top of the hill and crossed the motorway I was feeling in control of my own situation and knew I had the 96 in me. Then disaster started to strike

Bang.

I tripped and fell – my thigh straight into one of the motorway barriers – sharp shooting pains erupted down my right leg. I quickly thrust my hand down my running tights and checked for blood but it was okay, it was just going to hurt like nobodies business later.

We ploughed on at pace, Brian looked strong and for a while he certainly took the lead in keeping spirits high and maintaining the gusto with which we had started. What I knew was that I had to put this to the back of my mind and soldier on for a little while until the pain had subsided and before we reached the next checkpoint I was back in control and admiring the now beautiful scenery between Huddersfield and Oldham.

Our composure was fully gained and our tenacity growing as well as our confidence as we arrived at the next checkpoint – sadly there was no support vehicles and no supporters, curious. Suddenly the medical guys (Ian and Andy) rocked up and advised us that the bus had developed a problem and there would be no hand over of walkers. Within a minute or two my dad came thundering in and advised us that we should keep going and that some of the other walkers would do the next leg and more would join as soon as the bulk transporter was operational again.

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For the first time I felt a weight of expectation on my shoulders – that we, Brian and I would just continue, so with a map photographed and a straight run to Oldham ahead we picked up the pace, waved a cheery hello to the other walkers who had managed to reach this stage and then flew onwards into the highly exposed and therefore windy hills. Brian had made the unwise decision to strip himself of his bag and extra clothing at Huddersfield and therefore was feeling more exposed than he needed to. We stopped briefly while I layered us both up with additional clothing and buffs to keep things like necks and heads warm. All of this proved sufficient for us to progress in the cool morning sun and by what would be considered lunchtime things were looking pretty rosy, the bus had passed us and the walkers were back on the road.

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I, of course, being of a competitive nature on hearing that the walkers had been given a half hour head start proclaimed that ‘we’ll have them Brian’ and so from the second of this stages mini checkpoints we hit new speeds in our stride and launched ourselves towards the heart of Oldham. As we came across the hospital I saw the other walkers in the distance and called back to Brian ‘I can see them, lets take them!’ and so we began to run beyond them, giving them an enormous smile as we passed by. I was then in full stretch and I used the opportunity to widen my stride further and give me legs some release from the walking, this paid dividends as I hurtled into Oldham Athletics ground to be greeted by the grinning face of Desy the bus driver. Oldham was a bit of turning point for people I think, firstly there was a major stop – physiotherapist, hot food, rest, sleep for some and secondly it was a bit of a dawning for some that the road was coming to an end and that they needed to conserve their energy for supporting those that were going to continue walking or to save their energies for later on the route when it would be more important to have a visible presence.

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Both Cheri Brewster and Steve Kelly showed optimal skills in the division of labours – for my mind Steve (or Dad as I usually call him) organised the human element, people and Cheri dealt with the logistics, this provided, for those that wanted it, the respite needed for the upcoming assault on the final 50 miles. The other big plus was that Oldham Athletic were simply amazing – the show of support they offered was unbelievable with both space and time afforded to this posse of Liverpool fans all making their way home – there was even a cake baked and most were hugely grateful to the two physiotherapists who gave excellent support to aching muscles and relief from blisters. Some bothered with sleep on the terraces, others chatted, I took time to get to know some of the people and discussed many things including impending fatherhood, the art of breaking down time, the relative greatness of Shanks compared to Fergie and lots of other exciting topics. For me personally the break was too long because my long suffering muscles were unable to rest, if I had sat down I know that would have finished me off and so I was required to continue my standing throughout and by the time we were all ready for the off I was really ready.

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Before we departed though there was a little bit of time for interviews with local radio – including myself – which felt very strange, it seemed that my attempt on the entire distance had not gone unnoticed and I felt rather uncomfortable in the limelight – even if only briefly. However, I was keen to do my bit and so answered as honestly as I could the questions. The thing I found hardest was the question, ‘What would your uncle Mike think about this?’ The true answer was that I had no idea what he’d think, so I went we the only sensible answer which was that ‘he’d think we were all mad, then join us for the last half a mile’. I was also tired when I was interviewed and my emotions were sitting on the surface and I found this hard.

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Anyway … we were off again … lots of us were off … ace.

This time I set off with Brian again and this time joined by Ian (what a guy!) – the Eithad our destination. Once again I took control of the directions and hit the full pelt button, stopping only twice. The first stop was to buy two bottles of Lucozade Sport as I really needed isotonic fluids and the second was to roar with laughter as Chelsea were beaten by Sunderland. That second stop seemed to give us a helluva lift and the walkers as a whole seemed visibly stronger. I found myself making to a little jig and telling our lovely medics that I was made of fairy dust. We pressed on to the outer ring of the stadium and started to make our way round. I waved my companions goodbye as I set off into the distance and around the far side of the stadium, running to the checkpoints was now becoming obligatory.

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Waiting in the car park was the bus, the walkers and some sandwiches. Yum. I took the opportunity to refresh my water bottles and have a quick chat with my dad who was walking some of the next stage and then I kicked on knowing that time was very much of the essence. As I wandered out of Manchester City’s ground I could see what a behemoth it was and every bit as impressive as I had heard, what was going to be more impressive though was how the event was to turn on its head for me.

I was still pretty much with Brian but he was now starting to flag, the soaking he had taken in the first 24 miles looked like it as taking its toll and our latest comrade in arms was keen to push on but was unsure of the way. I had no choice but to mention to the medical team that I was a little concerned about Brian and they simply asked me to keep an eye on him and flag it if anything serious was going to happen – I suppose my main concern was hypothermia – despite my best efforts to get him warmed up, Brian looked cold and I recognised the face he was pulling because I had been pulling it the night before. However, Brian continued, as did the rest of us and then at 99.8km I was called over to the medical wagon.

‘You’re out of time’

The words echoed hard in my head and I looked at the map.

‘We can give you 10 minutes to get to the next checkpoint – it’s 1.9miles’

‘The others?’

‘If they can make it, if not they’ll need to be swept up’

I turned, handed the map to Brian, and then ran like I’ve never run before. After 100km of travelling along some challenging hills I was pumping out 6 minute miles and every time Andy and Ian would catch me in the support vehicle I’d hammer home another burst of speed. I couldn’t breathe and I couldn’t think straight all I knew was that I needed to keep moving. I was hurtling beyond passers by, who at this time of night on a Saturday would be considering their social engagement option rather than being worried about my thundering body. The chaps in the support vehicle pulled up and called me back as the GPS had gotten them lost, they told me to start breathing and even as they did they started looking for a direction and suddenly they said

‘down there’

Once more into the breach and with with heart bursting in my chest I flew up the hill towards Bury football ground – passing my waiting dad – who would have to swiftly follow as I hurled myself face first onto the bus. I started looking for a change of shoes – goodbye Hoka and into my Inov8 Trailroc. As I was sat on the floor of the bus there was the sound of cheers and applause and much back slapping but I hadn’t achieved anything yet and I’d lost my hiking buddy. I called out for a couple of bottles of water and my dad passed them to me along with my much needed paper towel to dry the sweat from my feet.

I was still in the event and still on for the 96, but I was five minutes behind the other walkers and so with a rod of lightning jammed between my arse cheeks I hit the road again – roars of well wishing greeting my triumphant exit. In the distance I could hear that a medic was being sent to join me to which I could only respond with, ‘if he can keep up’. I bolted down a one way street and then down to the main road, I was being and feeling awesome and in the distance I saw other support vehicle and so slowed down a little bit – engaging in a little bit of a jig as I met up with Paul and a group of walking legends. I’d made it.

We set off at a respectable pace and where soon joined by ultra running legend Earle Jackson, who only a few days previously had completed the 96 mile Anfield to Hillsborough run. He rocked up without a care in the universe and simply started walking – Earle has the benefit of being one of those guys that is simply amazing and his calm and dignity shone through. And so the group ambled through the roads between Bury and Bolton, the problem was that despite a reasonable pace the timings seemed to be against us, I spoke once again to the medics and was told we were once again on the cusp – I urged the other walkers to go a little faster but it seemed we already had our foot to the floor.

I started to run. The medical wagon rolled along side me. Earle rocked up too. In my head I heard the sound of Brian, my dad everyone else who had shared a cheery smile with me this day and it was willing me on as I banged out each step downhill and then every step up the hill to the waiting bus.

Here Earle and I were greeted by more whoops but this time it was urgent – the two walkers on the road were 30 minutes ahead of us. I started to strip down, goodbye warm clothing, goodbye Ultimate Directions PB vest – I was going to run it, but I needed a pacer and support and that turned up in the form of Earle, who stripped down and said ‘don’t worry I can run in my hiking boots’.

And off we went and considering our exhaustion and injury status we went pretty well. Bolton was ablaze with the echo of our thundering hooves and as we entered the road to Horwich I knew we were going to make it. Earle had out me back on time and in fact Earle had put the walk back on time. After about 25 minutes of exhausting running we finally caught up to Cheri and Tony and although we stopped and started to hike again we needed to move at a swifter pace than the others because of our lack of clothing, water or anything actually useful. We therefore bid the others goodbye and set off to reach the wonderful Reebok stadium with more than 20 minutes to spare before the next break.

At Bolton we were allowed to use the wonderful facilities of the hotel and apparently even grab a shower, I saw people brushing teeth and catching their breath, lying down and catching up on sleep. I managed a brief toilet stop and had a gigantic bacon sandwich along with enough coffee to sink a battleship but time was pressing.

I reloaded my running vest, put my warmer clothing back on and layered up to try and avoid bringing my race to an early conclusion in exactly the same way Brian had. I greeted as many people as I could, passing on my congratulations to them because there was so much awesomeness going on that it was hard to keep up. I met some of the new walkers who had joined at Bolton and think I was suitably weird but I’m not sure that mattered now.

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What I saw though now though was that some of the steel had been eroded from the walkers, everyone looked exhausted, but nobody looked ready to give in. As I stood on the bus packing my bits I saw the lovely Paul who had both of his feet on ice and advised me that he’d be back walking for the final few miles, I saw my Dad who was having his feet strapped up and offered me a thumbs up both as a confirmation he was fine and a need to get reassurance about my own health. Nobody was ready to get off this adventure yet.

I don’t remember much about the journey to Wigan other than I may have answered the question, ‘how do you feel?’ with the one word response ‘shit’. I do recall singing ‘row, row, row your boat’ once again and telling Sarah and Tara that I might cry unicorn tears and I may have been mistakenly pairing different people up – well adversity does bring people together 🙂

Wigan arrived and I came across a double yolker of a problem ‘Paula Radcliffe’ time and I had serious sweat rash in my arse crack – awesome. My dad found a McDonalds and I swiftly headed over to it as the walkers moved on, here I was able to have a moments comfort as well as jammed a very tightly packed square of soft toilet tissue between my are cheeks and use that as a buffer – genius. I left McDonalds, purchasing some orange juice as a thank you for the use of the facilities and then set off. The problem was that I’d been cut adrift from the other walkers and so needed to run the hill out of Wigan. Here I caught up with my dad and then several other walkers but the hills out of Wigan and onto the East Lancs Road were epic and I was really struggling, it was here that my Dad and I finally had a bit of a catchup, he helped me over the hills and more importantly down the hills which were actually the much more difficult thing. Of all the moments that I needed help this was the most important and while I am hugely grateful to Brian and Earle for their huge individual efforts in getting me to those hills, the irony is not lost on me that it was father who guided me over that final very difficult section.

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Well I say final…

We hit the East Lancs Road and I think all the walkers were in various states of dilapidation but were continuing to plod on. Again though we were pressed with the threat of being swept up, with more than 2hrs before we were due to reach the Showcase Cinema we were being ordered to what I had now dubbed ‘the fun bus’ (mainly because Des kept making me laugh). I spoke to my dad and asked if he was capable of at least running to the bus and he said that he was – probably about 2 miles away at this point.

In my head I was playing the William Tell overture and I felt like I was the Lone Ranger upon my horse and slowly but surely the sight of Dad and lad started to draw other people into a gentle jog. It started to feel like Rocky as we collected more and more of the walkers – we were now the sweeper vehicle, but instead of draining hope we were filling people with renewed energy. I could see the support vehicles and the supporters ahead and my feet took over – blasting their way through the next few hundred metres – awesome. I ran past the bus, knowing that I was likely to be pulled but my dad caught me up and told me to head off, it was here that I was also told that the support vehicles would not be able to stay with me.

‘That’s fine’ was my answer as I turned on my heel and headed out to cheers from the crowd. I ran for a little while and then made a call to my OH, I needed to hear her voice and tell me that it as all okay and for a few minutes we stood either end of a phone crying to each other. She thankfully knew me well enough to tell me that there were only a few miles to go and that I was awesome. She also reminded me that when I am telling the story of the legend of UltraBoy to UltraBaby this will be the story that it won’t believe. It was a long call, probably 10 minutes and in that time I could see the bus had stopped and so I started a gentle jog again and as I got there the bus left and a support vehicle remained but what was also there was the most amazing sight I have ever come across.

Sue.

Sue, her sister and her niece were all there, I’ve only ever met Sue but each of them set about me with hugs and cuddles like we were lifelong friends. I couldn’t appreciate you guys any more – I soooooo needed you at that point. My medical support was now back as well and I stopped to chat to him

‘Your dad said I’ve got to stay with you’

‘What if I run across the field? Seriously go and get some ice cream’

He just laughed but together we pushed on and before 10am, with about 40 minutes left before the official leaving time I had made it to the cinema. Photographs, hugs, love, there was a massive outpouring both from and to me. Some people though I think thought that was it for me and it really wasn’t and I started out for Goodison Park.

My feet was sore, so very sore, my hips were destroyed, my ankles a mess, my head annihilated and I couldn’t focus. I slipped behind the group, I could no longer keep up and then something amazing happened, some of the walkers – I’ll never know who – left a breadcrumb trail of human beings all telling me it wasn’t much further, telling me I could do it and when I came across the fourth or fifth I said ‘I need to catch up’

‘No you don’t’ she replied, ‘you’ll get there whatever speed you go’

I however, decided the speed was going to be ‘fast’ and so I ran into Goodison Park and collapsed onto the ground. The group was there a little while and I avoided the photographs as I felt as though I had hogged enough of the centre stage and I just wanted to concentrate on the last mile or so. Goodison brought with huge positive feeling and an enormous swelling of pride from the city. It was here, more than ever, that you could see the immense respect that Liverpool had for the 96 and equally, the survivors. At this point I chatted with a number of the hikers, most notably Ian and Andy the medics and then Brian Nash who had read the poem at the beginning of our epic journey. It had seemed the wrong time to speak to him just after the reading in Sheffield but I wanted while I had the opportunity at Goodison to tell him how moving and how human his words had been to me. He gazed down at me on the floor and there was a moment where I thought we might both burst into tears but thankfully the moment was punctured by the guys from 96 footballs who are preparing an exhibition in honour of the 96 (details can be found at the link below).

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Anyway our time at Goodison Park was short and we quickly moved on towards Anfield, the home of Liverpool fans the world over. The final leg was passing through Stanley Park, the barrier between the two great football giants and here I again slowed down but this time it was for the purpose of being interviewed, I’m not even sure I was making any sense but I did my best and then plodded on until I met up with a young lady called Terri-Anne (or Nish I think she may have called herself). Feeling rather positive that I was actually now going to make it I suggested that she could help me up the hill by having a little race and so after more than 160km I gave a 100metre sprint up the hill to lick Terri-Anne – poor girl! But I simply couldn’t let her win.

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Anfield for me came and went, it was all about the celebration of the lives of the 96, the effort of the walkers and the legacy for the survivors. For me it was over, I walked over to the memorial, said ‘Hello’ to Michael and then disappeared into the crowd – waiting until the ceremonies were over. There was a huge amount of congratulations, hundreds of people all wanting to say thank you but for me that wasn’t the point – the point was I was saying thank you on behalf of those who couldn’t.

It was an unforgettable experience and there was so much to take from it, lots of positives and so few negatives.

A few notes and an opportunity to say thank you.
Thanks should go to Cherie Brewster for her organisation prior to the event and during, her commitment to both the walkers and the event was unwavering and I am sure all the walkers will of been happy to have someone like this ensuring they were safe and secure.

Earle Jackson will have my eternal thanks for his pacing of me for two rather hilly and significant sections, his contribution to this walk and the campaign as a whole will long be remembered.

I have nothing but wonderfully kind words for the Arriva guys, Des and Ian (if I’ve got your names wrong I apologise). These two chaps were amazingly chipper for almost the entire time and you can’t put into words how hard it is to keep your concentration over the time when you aren’t constantly focused – they also worked tirelessly to ensure that there was some transport for the journey, well done guys.

The photographer, Liz, who I only saw for the first half a day really but she provided stunning cover for Brian and I as we fought through much of the first 24 miles. She offered a winning smile and a regular thumbs up.

Then there are the walkers, some of whom I feel deserve a special mention for having kept me on the road. Debi and Paul – awesome, Paul with his ice packed feet – awesome. Both of the Ians – awesome. Poor Tara and Sarah for having to put up with my stupid unicorn tears – awesome and then of course there was Brian – 100km of awesome walking, he was and is a true gentleman and legend and also offered the best fun of the night when his hearing aid started going bonkers on the bus and the guys couldn’t figure out what it was. But ultimately all of the walkers made a huge impression on me, more than I can ever truly express in words and even if I haven’t mentioned you by name I will carry you in my heart and my memory for the rest of my life

All of the support vehicles crews were 100% amazing – these guys who crawled alongside us where pushing their bodies to the limits as much as the rest of us but I’d like to pay special tribute to Ian and Andy. These two guys had the measure of me, they could see my trigger points and whenever I was flagging they came along and gave me a kick up the arse. If I could take only one thing away from this experience then I would take a wonderful pair of friendships with the two guys who made this all possible for me personally.

The football grounds deserve huge thanks – especially Oldham Athletic though who opened up their ground and provided space for physiotherapists and food. All the grounds though proved very much that football is about community.

Of course, there was also Scoff Events (do look them up) who provided the food and ongoing good cheer. Glen and his team were amazing and his bacon sandwiches are ace, and his chilli, and his burgers… and his coffee… in fact everything he did turned to deliciousness

And a final thank you – to Stephen Kelly. Well done dad, you done good.

On other bits
Generally the event was well run and the best thing that my dad and Cherie did was get in professionals to help them – with the greatest of respect to both of them they aren’t professional event co-ordinators and they both have a daily lives to lead, so the addition of people like Scoff, the football grounds, Arriva and Home2Office meant that they could focus on the important things like the route and how it would translate as a celebration of the people who have supported the campaigns and the people over the last 25 years.

The route itself was hard and 96 miles (actually closer to about 101 miles) of tarmac was hard going even for an experienced ultra runner like myself and while the hills were all manageable there were a lot of them – even at the end and the timings offered little respite which was manly because of Everton’s game against Manchester United on the Sunday. i believe, in hindsight, it would have been better to have reduced some of the rest times and started a little earlier and that way I am confident more would have completed the entire distance. However, this is very much in hindsight and the event was an enormous success and we should pay tribute to all those who played a part.

And Finally
As a tribute to the memory of those who died and those who have survived as well as those who have campaigned this was a success beyond all measure – it has touched hearts and minds all over the world. As a symbolic gesture I can see how the 96 miles we have completed is nothing compared to the 25 year journey in honour of the 96 that the campaigners have endured.

I write this now having walked the entire distance and having learnt so much about myself and the tragedy, I am humbled by the people who surrounded me last weekend, humbled by the survivors, campaigners and supporters and I am honoured to have walked a tiny part of this road with you and for you. Thank you.

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Amazingly this was ultra number 6 for me, I’ve now got more ultra marathon medals than I have marathon medals – that to me seems a little bit crazy. Let me start by saying that I thoroughly enjoyed the SDW50 and am looking forward to tackling it again but this was a real beast of a course over some challenging terrain but enjoyable conditions.

Anyway, as is often my way, let’s roll back a few days to incidents that I have no control over and that most certainly had a detrimental effect on my race day face! On Monday of race week it turns out that my grandmother (whom I’ve written about before) took a reasonably serious tumble in her home, breaking her ankle and injuring other bits of herself as she went down. It was a hospital trip and then a hospital stay, even as I write this she’s there – and miserable about it.

What this meant was a lot of preparation. I squeezed all the work in the universe into a couple of days, managed to get a work laptop for designing on the go, advised my pregnant partner that I’d be away but be back in time for her hospital appointment on the Friday afternoon, slipped in a desperate appointment with the physiotherapist to try and fix my knackered hips, kit check with Mick (more about that running legend later) and even fit in a last minute race to Waterstones to pick up a couple of maps that were needed just in case kit checks were very thorough. This was then all topped off by my partner being on call until 1am in the morning on race day and me not finishing my kit packing until well beyond this time with a 5am start – let’s be honest this wouldn’t qualify as the best of race day preparation. This all meant that by 5am on Saturday April 5th I was pretty much over the race and fancied DNSing for the first time.

However…

At about 5.03am I stepped into the shower and allowed the hot pillows of water splash over my exhausted body and for the first time in days I looked over towards the mirror and I stared ahead and said to myself ‘you are an ultra runner’. I dried quickly but thoroughly, added in a copious (but as I would discover later, still insufficient) amount of Vaseline to those areas most affected by chaffing and then grabbed my kit from the top of the stairs, stroking my previous race medals as I went past for good luck.

My race preparation usually means that I get dressed in the dining room – this is where the remainder of my kit is usually laid out and also it stops me disturbing the rest of the house. Kit is now pretty settled thankfully, Ronhill VIzion LS top, my much loved tech shirt from the Snowdonia Marathon, 0.5 OMM flash tights, CompressSport Calfguards, Dirty Girl Gaiters, Drymax socks and my still beautiful Hoka Stinson Evo all topped off with my Buff and sunglasses (just incase) – I’ve still never quite managed to fix the underwear problem but I live in hope that I come up with a solution soon.

With this done I scoffed a bit of Soreen, had a big cup of tea and even a couple of those kids yogurts, a breakfast of champions I hear you cry. Not really but I’m not sure I’ve prepared well for an ultra marathon ever – though I am trying to amend some of my poorer habits.

With all of this done I said goodbye to the GingaNinja, ThunderPad and UltraHound who were staying in bed to recover from a challenging week and then I headed off to see Mick who would also be running the race as well as supplying the transport to the start line. I arrived at his house, feeling surprisingly perky, said hello to Nicola his wife and met his in-laws who were joining us for the journey to the start line.

It was a thankfully uneventful journey to the start line and as we approached the parking area I could see @abradypus in the distance – sadly she failed to notice me, but it was nice to see a smiling face so early in the morning and as we arrived at the main registration area with just an hour to go to the start everything had a wonderful air of calm about it. I suppose that is the benefit of going to an event that has such a distinguished, even if short history – you got the feeling that they really knew what they were doing.

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So a quick kit check, followed by the collection of my ‘chip’ to get my number and within a couple of minutes I was done and ready to go. Mick wasn’t far behind and we drifted over to the excellent changing facilities, what was a college or school on the field changing room with little benches that reminded you of being 14 again.

I was already changed so I used this an opportunity to tidy up my bag after the kit check, have some Lucozade sport, clip on my number and chat to a couple of the other runners. Strangely nerves had pretty much deserted me, which given my level of preparation and on reflection was a bit of mistake.

We were thankfully early enough to have nice and easy access to the toilets and after a few minutes we were simply stood around basking in the ultra indulgent atmosphere of the beautiful Worthing morning. We were soon joined by running and Twitter royalty @abradypus and @cat_simpson_ and also @annemarieruns who I had originally met at the White Cliffs 50 just over a year ago – again more running royalty. I introduced Mick who was at SDW50 losing his ultra cherry and suddenly it went from pleasant to having that carnival feel. The whole Centurion atmosphere that everyone raves about kicked in and you really were being pulled along by it.

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With mere minutes to go we hurled our bags into the van for delivery to the finish line and then strolled over to the start. I’ll be honest I didn’t take a lot of notice of the safety briefing as I was too busy chatting to Mick and Anne-Marie but it all seemed pretty straight forward and then it all happened in slow motion – the start.

I started moving forward rather gently and within a few seconds I found myself setting off in the traditionally too fast manner that has been the cornerstone of almost every race I have ever done but regardless at the first corner I saw @cat_simpson_ thundering past me and what a sight she is to behold in full flight! However, ultras are very much about your individual challenge and I had originally said that if I could come in with a finish that started 10hrs … something then I would be pretty happy.

The first few miles I was finding reasonably difficult and as I stormed up the first hill I could already feel my hips, additionally the uneven ground was a challenge even in my Hoka. The good news was that it was pretty dry and actually within a couple of miles the sun had really come out and I was forced into my first of many changes which was the removal of my under shirt.

I slipped my shirt off, attached it to the back of my Ultimate Directions and then quickly set of again, this time with Mick who had caught me up. Suddenly from behind came a runner – at sprint pace – to hand me back my sunglasses that I had thrown away rather recklessly on the course. Grateful, I thanked him for his sprint and carried on – Mick and I joking that the chaps sprint might well cost him dearly later!

The next few miles passed by pleasantly and with a nice troupe of runners both in front and behind I progressed at a steady but reasonably sedate pace. I had eased myself into the race, become familiar with the terrain and was feeling pretty good as we dipped down a rutted path about 6 miles in, my legs were feeling fresh at this point and as we headed across the first of many rolling hills I finally started to understand the enormity of the task ahead – because in the distance lay hill, after hill, after monstrous hill.

Mick and I caught up with one another again and at this point I had to confess that there was going to be need of a Paula Radcliffe moment and I was forced to abandon my comrade and seek shelter in the bushes just before checkpoint 1. However, there was a hiking group just across from me and I felt rather ashamed to ‘Paula’ all over their hiking destination and therefore I made haste for the checkpoint and filled up on the goodies that the amazing Centurion volunteers offered. It is quite possible that I guzzled down about a litre of Coca Cola on my own but feeling refreshed I set off again at a bit of canter.

From here we were marshalled across a busy road and onto the next of our many climbs, we came to the top and once we had headed out alone the road I decided I would once again try and stop and deliver ‘paula’ which was becoming an increasing burden and I was confident that my ‘paula’ need was affecting the way I was running and therefore no good for my hips. However, once again I was thwarted by a lack of sufficient cover and therefore I rolled back up my 0.5 OMM Flash tights and continued onwards where much to my surprise the lovely @abradypus caught me up.

I ran with her for a few minutes but the problems I was facing and her overall pace meant that there was no way I could manage to keep up at that time – if I was lucky I might catch her later but there was the ‘paula’ issue to deal with. The last time I saw @abradypus she was thundering past her pinked topped nemesis and she looked like she had a lot of energy in the tank, so much so that not only did she dip in below 10hrs at the finish but she overtook both Mick and Anne-Marie on her way to South Downs Way success! Huge congratulations to her!

Anyway, after the next major hill climb I finally found some respite in the form of some thorny bushes that straddled a road and here I hid for a few moments checking that runners were not going to be alarmed by the sight of a 36 year old man trying to recreate a moment that simply shouldn’t be recreated. Anyway having achieved a measure of success I hit the trail again and this was were I would meet Sue.

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Sue, I am sure wouldn’t mind me sharing that she was a 61 year old ultra runner and an amazing lady with lots of energy and a nice zippy style that put my old hips to shame. We chatted for a few minutes and realised that we were gong at roughly the same pace and ended up progressing through the miles together. We chatted about lots of things including Springer Spaniels, Greyhounds, our respective partners, races, etc. And actually this partnership proved crucial I think for both of us for quite a long time. When I was struggling up a hill, she would put out a cheery little something and vice versa, it became like a mutual appreciation club but I was fully aware that with the way that my hips were feeling I would need the company for as long as possible.

Sue and I continued climbing the hills and making progress through the field, so much so that we actually passed people we thought would have had a much better chance, of a much better time than we were aiming for. Still we had a plan and the plan was a good one – sub 11 hours. We picked up a couple of other runners on the route and as we passed into third checkpoint we were in remarkably good cheer and my thoughts of handing in my number had disappeared. And so we ambled onwards and the next few miles meandered past us like an old friend – or perhaps more akin to the miles already achieved!

The volunteers at the fourth checkpoint and just beyond the 33 mile point were wearing sombreros and handing out both excellent advice and delicious snacks. The route from here looked a little ominous though but it was met with a happy heart and the little team we had amassed spread themselves out a little bit and trudged up the hill, hoping to catch a glimpse either of the summit or of the crew at the bottom of the hill. After ten minutes of straight climbing we could see neither the top nor could we see the volunteers and crew at the bottom and so, still laughing and joking at our good fortune to be out on these wonderful hills we pressed on.

At this point @ultrarunnerdan who had been stalking us for some time finally joined the group and being a veteran of the SDW100 gave us some excellent advice about what was upcoming (even though he lied about the severity of what was to come) and together we ambled in and out of each other’s company. It was here as the group had spread itself out that tragedy on the course almost caught me out.

I had been bumbling along at my own little pace, Sue had decided to push forward a little bit without me and @ultrarunnerdan was a few hundred metres behind me and I decided then to give a little sprint to allow my legs a slightly different movement. I was going pretty well for a guy with no hips left and I was keen to give the good looking girl, holding the gate open a show to remember …and then I did.

As I passed the gate, flashing my winning smile I caught my Hoka on a rock and tripped and was sent sprawling. I managed to stay upright long enough to get my hands in front of me – but it was too late, the damage was done. I had twisted one ankle, bloodied the other – though I wouldn’t know about the blood until nearly midnight. I picked myself up and in the haze of pain and shock I simply started running, telling Sue that we’d never make the 11hr finish time if we stopped now. Progress was steady but I was in pain and again the thoughts of DNF came to the forefront of my mind! I urged Sue to push on with Annalise (spelling?) a very nice Swiss lady who we had met earlier in the race and adopted into our little posse, but we all remained together for the most part. What could have proved to be the end of the race for me proved to be the point I managed to pull myself together and head into the next checkpoint taking over Annalise, Sue and even @ultrarunnerdan who exclaimed ‘here he comes’ as I thundered past him and into the hall, almost blasting straight past it.

‘Milky coffee,’ I called, ‘you lot are my favourite checkpoint since the last one’

I slurped down my coffee and in marched Sue … ‘4 minutes 37 seconds’ I exclaimed. We knew if we left this checkpoint with 2hrs remaining we would probably make the 11hrs. Sue drank her coffee quickly and we stepped outside – there we the noted the patter of the rain on our skin and decided this was the point to whip out our waterproofs. Now fully waterproofed the three of us set out in search of @ultrarunnerdan, we once again hit the ground running and finally the urgency of the run became apparent, we could finish this in time, we could finish this in the light, we could finish this.

The three of us headed up another killer hill and the grounds remained this rather difficult stony affair that offer respite to our feet and here on the difficult terrain the combination of my hips and my ankles meant that Sue and Annalise were finally pulling away from me and I urged them forward, knowing that my sub11 was now quickly fading away. I took a cursory glance down to my Suunto and saw that I was still 10km from the finish and had less than an hour to go. Yes I was going to get a medal but it wasn’t a medal I would ever look at with pride.

However, with a thrust of guts and determination on the downhill into the churchyard I was cheered in by a combination of locals and volunteers and there were Sue and Annalise – I had caught them.

I had a sip of coffee and no food

‘Are you okay?’ Sue inquired rather urgently
‘Yes, now move, let’s go’ came my rather gruff and dogged response.

I bounced down the stairs out of the aid station and never looked back, my ultra running colleagues were now behind me and I pushed quickly up the final ascent, infact it was some of the quickest movement I had managed for several hours. Yes my ankles were on fire and my hips resided at checkpoint 3 but I really didn’t give a flying fuck about any of that. I could smell the finish line. Annalise briefly powered past me but in the descent I knew that I would be more surefooted and I thundered down the hill in a positive and yet controlled manner – a fall here would bring the race to its conclusion a mile or so too early and so I made sure that every step was the right step.

The runner I was then shadowing soon hit the tarmac and we were finally in Eastbourne, ‘goodbye runner, I’m having you’ were my thoughts as I pushed through the roads of Eastbourne. Now following my Suunto very closely for signs that the course as coming to end I kept seeing floodlights and feeling that we must finally be there, but the end never seemed to appear.

10.49.59 was the time on my watch and I passed the final corner – another runner in my sights, boom, caught, onwards. Words of encouragement wee raging around my head and I threw out equally encouraging words with gay abandon. There was the sports centre, there was the track, there were the floodlights – follow the lights.

Boom

I could hear the cheer of the assembled group. @abradypus claimed that she thought it must be someone else by virtue of the fact that I was still running at all, but the watch said 10.56.33 and I wanted a 10.57.something time (watch not gun time). And on the final bend I gave it everything, every last ounce of strength that remained to me was thrown into the last 75metres and I crossed the line – more joyous than you can probably imagine.

At the finish line there was @abradypus whom I must sincerely apologise to for probably being incredibly rude. It was that moment when you finish a race and you just can’t see straight anymore and there was all the pain I was in and I just didn’t give the right response. I did of course go for sweaty man hugs later but still it never hurts to say you’re sorry.

A minute or so ahead of me @annemarieruns completed the race and I caught up with her as she prepared to eat some of the most delicious chilli available, she was all set to be running the Brighton Marathon about 12hrs later! Legend! Sue, Annalise and @ultrarunnerdan came in shortly after me and completed the final stage in stunning times. I know for certain that I finished under 11hours and I’m confident most of them did too for which I’m really happy.

So that was the experience but what about my opinions?

Race and Course
I don’t think that anybody could fault the race or the course, it was tough, it was challenging and it was ultra. The South Downs Way is a hard packed course and offers little respite on the feet. The runners I met who were wearing Hoka One One tended to be grateful and those in more minimal shoes such as the Salomon Sense Ultra said they were feeling the fatigue being caused on their feet by the course. I would highly recommend running the South Downs Way at any time of year but it is very exposed to the elements – so do be careful. The route also benefit from not being closed and therefore we, as a running group, were able to converse and be supported by the cyclist, horse riders and hikers who were out and about. 10/10

Support
The support was pretty minimal in terms of on the course support and often inaccessible to friends and family who might want to follow you around, with the exception obviously of those people braving the elements of the South Downs Way. The many smiles and cheers we received were much appreciated. The support at the aid stations though was simply fantastically 100% and it was my pleasure to offer at the bare minimum a smile as we passed through and the odd bit of flirting if I had the energy. 9/10

Aid Stations
The aid stations were all well stocked and well manned, the volunteers and Centurions themselves provided excellent checkpoint help. The food was generally of a very high quality although there was a lack of diversity in the savoury options and I struggled to find things I liked (perhaps I missed the chicken nuggets found on the St. Peter’s Way). However, that said I didn’t struggle to fill up and the biscuits and cake at Checkpoints 1 and 3 were particular highlights with the addition of coffee at the last couple of checkpoints a real lifesaver – the Centurions really know how to put a spread together. A word should go to the volunteers and crews also, they were 100% amazing and without them things like this would be impossible and we were all so grateful. 9/10 (10/10 for the crews)

Value for Money
As with the course and so many of the elements of the SDW50 you really can’t fault the guys, not one iota. And in the value for money department this is a race that delivers in spades. At £65 you are almost the same price as the Run to the Beat half marathon or the Royal Parks Half and what do you get for your money? Signage, support, an excellent well labelled supporting website, goodies and best of all an experience you will never ever forget. I even think there might have been showers at the end, but I was too busy trying to find trains to care about being clean. 10/10

Medal and Goodies
The medal is brilliant – not as blingtastic as say The Wall or as rich in heritage as perhaps The St Peter’s Way but it has a beautiful charm of its own and more importantly, as a young boy pointed out, it has a sword on it. The medal and the T-shirt were both very understated and I really liked that and will be wearing both to my next fancy dress party, where with mock indifference I shall wear both and tell people I’m a Centurion. 9/10

Conditions
The conditions on the course were excellent and the guys had clearly worked their magic to neither bring too much sun or leave it at home. I can’t score this, they don’t control the weather

Live Tracking
The live tracking was a bit of a bag of uselessness, it didn’t kick in until beyond the halfway point and then only once before the finish – but on the plus side they did attempt live tracking and I am sure this was simply a minor technical hitch. 4/10

Navigation
The navigation was faultless, I really didn’t need a map, compass or infact the GPS file on my Ambit 2 – brilliant marking 10/10

Conclusions
This is a bit of a strange one, despite everything, despite it being absolutely brilliant, it still wasn’t my very favourite ultra – that honour still rests with the St. Peter’s Way but the SDW50 is an outstanding course with outstanding levels of organisation and if you are an ultra runner I would urge you to try it. This felt like a labour of love for the guys who organised it and if they can retain that feeling going forward then they will have one of the best events in the ultra calendar. I’m very much looking forward to both the NDW100 and the Winter100 with these guys because I have the confidence in the team that they won’t let me down and all I need to do is not let myself down.

I learnt a lot of lessons as well on the course – the first was more hill work, more sprint work and more everything. The next thing was that I should try and prepare better for big races because when you have a crappy week in the run up then it shows on race day. But the most important thing I learnt is that you should never, ever forget to put a shedload of vaseline on your nether regions unless you want your balls to looks like a pepperoni pizza. 9/10

And on that note, happy running guys and thank you Centurions

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On Sunday morning I took the short trip from Kent to Essex to take part in what I had heard was a stunning little ultra marathon – the St. Peter’s Way from Challenge Running.

Having started the year with Country to Capital and adding in a lovely 10 mile heavy trail at Vigo I felt that this ultra was well within my capability and in fact I was aiming to run something around the 8hr mark for St. Peter’s Way. Training had been going okay for a little while but a series of misadventures stretching back through to early February meant the training had tailed off in favour or trying to get to the start line.

Therefore I loaded my kit in the car on Sunday and set off, two bags – one, my Aquapac wet and dry bag with a ton of warm clothing and the other my Ultimate Directions vest with enough running kit to  sink a small battleship. The advice had been that a base layer would be needed and also some waterproof trousers, this though had the affect of making my vest heavier and bigger than I would have liked. However, the benefit of the UD pack is that it stays small and it felt as comfortable as ever when I did the test fitting in Ongar.

As I arrived at the car park where everything was being co-ordinated I noticed all the runners wandering around, many of them congregating up near the check in and bag drop. I joined the queue and had my kit checked (for the first time ever in an ultra), grabbed my number and then headed back to the car to wait for the start and also to cough my guts up – fearing that if anyone saw me hacking up a weeks worth of phlegm they would politely refuse me entry to the race.

Having previously run the White Cliffs 50 and Thames Gateway 100 with the now defunct Saxon Shore Ultra Trails I noted how outrageously well organised the St. Peter’s Way Ultra was in comparison. Lindley had provided excellent pre-race communication and on the day he made for an excellent orator of what was expected from the runners and what they could expect. We were then dismissed and had a few minutes to chat with the other runners or mentally prepare for the upcoming 45 miles. At this point despite my chest infection I felt pretty okay about the race and that really enthusiastic race environment was driving me forward. My OH looked on, probably in horror, hoping that I was going to do the sensible thing and withdraw but she knew me better than that.

The race then simply started with a few cheery ‘good lucks’ and a few laughs about the impending mud fest we faced. In retrospect the start could be considered a bit of anti climax as I ended up walking the first 100metres but this simply gave us time to compare notes about previous races and introduce ourselves to other runners that we might later rely on for support and encouragement.

As we turned into the first field my beloved Hoka One One took the first of their muddy soakings and you could tell this course was likely to drain all the energy from your legs. Myself and the other runners stumbled through the first few steps until we got into our stride, watching the super ultra royalty at the front of the course moving faster and further than most of us could dream of.

We had been warned that the course didn’t have any super challenging hills in it but that it would be constantly undulating, this proved very much to be the case. And despite not really being able to get an adequate grip anywhere I was making steady but slowish progress. Thankfully I could also feel the warmth of the day on my face and it looked like we might get perfect running weather – just as we had for Country to Capital.

The course turned out to be surprisingly well labelled and the written instructions in combination with my Suunto Ambit 2 powered map I was sure would see me home and this was where you realised that Challenge Running really did know what they were doing, Nicki, one of the runners I would travel with later in the race said of Lindley that, ‘he knows what ultra runners want, because he is one himself’. This very much came across in the care with which he (and his team?) had prepared every final detail.

As I ambled across the route, over taking a few, being over taken by a few, I met (at a bit of junction) a sprightly young runner named Mike, I say young he was a few years older than I but you would never have known it. It was about mile 3 and we discovered that we had a few things in common and, as you do, got chatting about life, loves and the art of running and our common ground and the differences between us made for enjoyable conversation over the next few miles. I learnt of his racing battle with his wife and he discovered about the stupidity of my seven ultra marathon challenge, we discussed food – Mike favouring Soreen and me favouring Kinder chocolate. I explained to Mike that my chest infection was making my journey tough and that at no point should I hold him up but despite my increasing anxiety and shortness of breath we reached CP1 in good spirits.

We rolled up past the Viper pub to be welcomed by a decent troop of supporters and my OH who was supposed to have gone home. I was grateful to see her and we had big hugs and kisses as well as chowing down on all the goodies at the stop. Yummy. Challenge Running had an excellent range of food and drink – both savoury and sweet and at one point I had both jelly beans and chicken nuggets in my mouth at the same time.

Mike and I left CP1 and headed off to CP2, the course remained challenging but not impossible and our navigation was good, therefore we were able to make decent time and even some of the hills proved insignificant as we thrust ourselves forward – looking back only to make sure the other was okay. We made other running friends as we went about our business and without too much fuss (and other light sprint to the checkpoint) we made it to CP2. Mike was still looking excellent but I knew I was already in trouble and so after some friendly banter and a piece of delicious raspberry and white chocolate cake we both headed out again. We trundled up the road and back onto the trail but I knew that I needed to slow down and so rather than hold Mike back I just let him slip away – hoping that I’d catch him at the end so we could keep in contact post race.

As we crossed a main road over a bridge I made light work of this, grateful for the change of pace but then slowed to allow Mike past and then watched as he ploughed onwards. I then trudged up the next field and down and around – following my GPS and for the first time, just as I lost my running partner, I lost my way. I had come out of the field and the group in front of me had gone. I couldn’t see them.

Looking to the instructions and my GPS for support provided little help and when looking most vulnerable a gentleman with a dog called to me and advised that I was a few miles out of the way and that other runners had been slicing through the field a little way back but that I could get back to the St Peter’s Way with a left and right turn and I shouldn’t add too much to my route. I was grateful to him and as was the chap behind me who had also made the same mistake as I. However, within a few minutes we found ourselves on the back end of a housing estate, caked in mud and proving something of a shock to most of the locals who were out washing their cars and brushing their driveways. The Tarmac made for easier going for about a quarter mile but I knew that we would soon be back on the trail and there it was, a right turn back on to the main path to Bradwell on Sea.

CP2 – CP3 was probably the hardest section, it was badly cut up, it had a few hills, it was covered (in places) in horse shit and it offered some amazing opportunities to fall over and get covered in every kind of slime imaginable. It was starting to take no prisoners. The first 20 miles had been the warm up, the next 20 it seemed where going to give us a bit of a roasting and with conditions worsening and a strong wind growing, it looked this ultra would prove worthy of the 2UTMB points that it came with.

I slogged my way up the final section, cursing my burning chest and beating it like Tarzan in an effort to move the phlegm but nothing was working and when finally I came across the Tarmac road into the village and home of CP3 I gave my now usual sprint to the line. I also committed my usual acts of pseudo flirting with the volunteers and ate as much as I could manage, but with a worsening condition in my chest and throat this wasn’t as much as it should have been.

I had sent an SMS to my OH explaining the severity of my chest infection and that I was struggling for breath and at this point she suggested I stop- something I had been considering for a little while and when I saw that the next section was nearly 10 miles I almost handed my number in, but then I remembered that no matter how bad I was physically my mental strength was good and so after a few laughs at CP3 I pushed on.

The next 10 miles were much easier than the previous 10 and included lots of lovely photographic moments across the shipyards and in small Essex villages – the kind that Essex doesn’t get enough credit for. Truth to tell I was starting to simply enjoy the process of being a bit of tourist in Essex and allowing history and beauty to seep over me.

It was about 3.45pm when I finally stopped, briefly, and threw on my waterproof, even though it wasn’t raining the day had taken several turns for the worse and I wanted I make sure that I was warm enough to complete the distance. This precaution proved to be the right choice and in a new found warmth I also found new energy and was able to battle through my own fatigue. I dipped onto the road that would leap to CP4 and slowly made quite scary progress against the flow of the traffic. With my renewed vigour I pushed into the checkpoint, gave in my number and was grateful for both the stop and the chat with the marshall’s – even the topic of Mike Jones came up, the man who had run Saxon Shore Ultra Trails and it was very nice to be remembered, maybe that’s why I love the ultra community – people remember you! I digress…

I now knew that with only 8 miles to go I wasn’t going to give up. If I gave up now I would be transported to the finish and there I would be witness to all the other runners in their finery and me, without a medal – this would not happen. About 3 miles into the final section, mainly speed walking I came across the very lovely Nicki (mentioned earlier) and between us I hope that we managed to keep each other going at a pace that meant we would make the 6.30pm bus back to the start. Nicki was 100% focused on making the distance and I found her tenacity infectious to the point that our speed walking was not a million miles from 5miles per hour. The dark was now setting in around us and we finally reached Bradwell-on-Sea and memories poured into my head of crawling through the mud last year at Xtreme Beach but today it wasn’t the mud that was in my face it was the battering winds from the sea. We ploughed on through the wind – sometimes behind us, sometimes at the side of us and I could feel my energy ebbing away and with less than a mile to go. I called out to Nicky and told her I needed to back off a bit and she should push on as she going amazingly well.

And then it happened, probably less than 250 metres to go – I felt the full force of blood pumping in me and I started running and then as we crossed the final stretch of blackness I could feel my feet sprinting. 150metres to go, I went the wrong way round the finish line  – I hurled out my apologies to Nicky who had gotten me to this point and then I flew forward in relatively full flight sprint, taking my congratulations and medal from Lindley himself.

I was done, in so many ways.

After the crossing of the line I was able to collect my beautiful Tshirt, my drop bag, food and also catch up with Mike who had finished about 45 minutes ahead of me. It was a wonderful location to finish an ultra at and despite my haze I was in amazement at how wonderful an experience this was.

So to sum up.

The route? Bloody tough, but hugely rewarding, very scenic and an exploration of some of the best bits of Essex. The way is pretty well marked and it was harder to get lost than I thought, add in that the lovely people of Essex provided much needed support and in some cases – directions.

The Volunteers and Marshals? A race is only as good as the people who line the route and in this race the volunteers and marshals were amazing. They were fun, helpful, dedicated and interacted with us. I’m sure people came through grumpy and tired and deflated or happy or whatever and you know that these guys were the ones who made it possible for them to keep going. I have nothing but praise for every single one of you

The Food? The food was a nice mix of sweet and savoury, everything that a runner could possibly want and the chicken nuggets were a delight! Jelly beans, gummy bears, the various cakes, lots of drink types and never a shortage.

The Finish Line? I’ve had some great finish lines over the last three years, running next to the Liver Building, crossing the Tyne at Gateshead and this one was right up there. Not only have I never been so happy to see a finish line but there was something eerily beautiful about the church lit only by head torches and a few lamps – it was truly beautiful.

The Bling? Brilliant, I love the bling – see picture, it was bold, red and the same as the symbol I had been following all day long. I wore it for the whole of the rest of Sunday night and this morning I looked at again and relived those final moments as it went around my neck.

Finally Do this race, do it next year and the year after and every other year, this is an amazing race, with amazing organisation and a team that really know what they are doing. I’ll attempt to race 7 ultras this year and I’m not sure I’ll run a more brilliant one than this. I know one thing though and that is I’d like to go back and run it without the chest infection as my one disappointment was my time.

Next for me is the March Virtual Run and then South Downs Way 50. Can’t wait.

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‘Anymore than about £70 and you’re paying for the label and the current seasons colour’ I was told this by a trusted running friend and this got me thinking. I’ll add the caveat that this was said in 2010 and therefore adjusted for inflation and other factors lets say £75 in 2014 money. Now to prove his point the first edition of the Adidas Adios Boost which was in Sweatshop for about £110 dropped to £75 in the winter sale…

Hmmm. Are we being duped into buying over priced running shoes? Unusually for this blog I’ve been doing some research – I’ll admit I’ve not gone very far with said research but its a start, but this posting is mainly about my own experiences in attempting to find the best pair of running shoes for my feet and just how much am I willing to overpay.

Let’s start with (some of) my current crop of running shoes, how much I paid for them and more importantly did I consider that good value for money.

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Newton Distance
Paid: £99.00 (per pair)
Normally: £125.00
Retailer: Sweatband
This was my first foray into the world of lugs and Newtons and I remember the first time I put them in the shop and thinking, that my feet had found a new home that they would never want to leave. Newton Running are a pretty specialist maker of shoes with a core band of supporters but have been growing in popularity, the problem with niche shoe makers is that their product tends to be expensive and these were no exception, even at the £99.00 I paid (per pair, I ended up buying several pairs) they were pricey. I found them excellent on dry roads but on wet surfaces they can be hard going and trail should be a no go for these road shoes, so they had a limited use, however, the first pair managed more than 700 kilometres, performed reasonably at the Bewl Water Marathon and the Snowdonia Marathon, neither of which would have trails suited to these shoes, but the wide toe box meant that (due to injury) I had to wear them. So in that sense they were excellent value and even now after 700 kilometres I still sometimes do a few commuting kilometres in them. All Newtons are built to a very high standard and clearly made with excellent materials and more than enough consideration is given to the design – they are shoes designed to stand out in every single way. They are also my shoe to lounge around the house in, I simply find them comfy and therefore they are worth the money I paid out, but could I recommend them at the full price? In this instance I could, the Newton Distance is a well put together shoe from a specialist maker, they won’t turn you into Steve Cram or Scott Jurek but they will provide excellence over the lifetime of the shoe. I’ll be buying more of these soon.
Value: 8/10

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Newton MV2
Paid: £50.00
Normally: £99.00
Retailer: Newton Running
I went back to Newton when I was looking for a replacement for my Adidas Adios 2 and I hadn’t wanted to upgrade to the Boost edition as they it was still such new technology that I wanted to give it a season before I tried them (plus at £109 I thought they were too expensive). Newton did a deal for their sprint edition model, the MV2, low profile, same quality materials as other Newtons and a decent set of reviews. When they arrived they were lightweight, compact, filled with lightweight producing technology and they felt as fast as lightning. But they came with a caveat and that was that they would not endure – some of the reviews suggested that the MV2 had a lifespan of about 200km and upon receiving them I could see why – the upper feels flimsy and after my happiness with the distance these were quite a disappointment. Now what I will say is they are fast shoes, they feel amazing but are they are £100.00 worth of running shoe? No not even close, my original Adidas Adios cost £75.00 and I ran over 700 kilometres in them, raced nearly a dozen times in them and they never once failed me – these feel like they are a 5km shoe but that couldn’t do that too many times in a week, just incase you were asking too much of them, I’ll be honest even at £50.00 these feel a little bit expensive but I still love them and we do to running together. Interestingly my experience with the MV2 will not dissuade me from trying other Newtons, but perhaps I’m best sticking with the Distance (a pretty fast shoe in itself).
Value: 4/10

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Hoka One One Mafate 2
Paid: £62.50
Normally: £120.00
Retailer: Snow & Rock
Pro: Quality build, good ride, good endurance
Con: Blistered on 100mile ultra at five miles in after getting soaked but user error, been excellent since
Distance: 300km (so far)
Value: 9/10

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Hoka Stinson Evo
Paid: £125.00
Normally: £125.00
Retailer: Pete Bland Sports
Pro: Build quality, ride quality, endurance, excellent road to trail ability, offer less fatigue on your knees.
Con: Expensive but worth it, my feet came away from last ultra in pretty good condition thanks to these.
Distance: 300km (so far)
Value: 9/10, for me a near perfect shoe.

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Salomon Sense Ultra
Paid: £75.00
Normally: £125.00
Retailer: Sportshoes.com
Pro: Build and ride quality, decent transition from road to trail but definitely a trail shoe
Con: Slightly too exposed to the elements, not a great fit only feet but that’s only my feet 🙂
Distance: 35km (so far)
Value: 6/10, at £75 these feel well priced but much more than this and they feel expensive

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Merrell Barefoot
Paid: £50.00
Normally: £75.00
Retailer: Blacks Outdoor
Pro: Lightweight, well made, Vibram sole, multi-purpose footwear, well designed alternative to VFFs
Con: Not suited to heavy trail but handy for road to light trail
Distance: 300km (so far)
Value: 7/10, reliable and fun shoes that can have any number of applications but as a specific first choice running shoe they aren’t quite there. Having said that I always take a pair with me as a backup during ultra marathons

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Adidas Adios 2
Paid: £80.00
Normally: £80.00
Retailer: Sweatshop
Pro: Lightweight, fast, well designed, reliable, have endured well
Con: Not as good as the original Adios
Distance: 1250km (over three pairs)
Value: 9/10, even though I’m not as keen on v2 these are an unbelievably good shoe that I use in training as well as racing.

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Adidas Ace 3
Paid: £35.00
Normally: £75.00
Retailer: Runners Need
Pro: Lightweight, bright, reliable, comfortable ride
Con: Not as good as the Boston or the Adios
Distance: 100km (so far)
Value: 6/10 at £35.00 you can’t argue that these make a nice change from the Adios or my other lightweight running shoes but at £75.00 they don’t feel as though they have enough under the hood and I’m not sure I would trust them over a marathon distance.

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Vibram Fivefingers Komodo
Paid: £135.00 Normally: £135.00 Retailer: Vibram
Pro: Unique, challenges your own perceptions, build quality, good for endurance, showstopper
Con: Get twigs trapped between your toes, getting your feet caught on the visually impaired aids on the road, they hurt like hell if you accidentally heel strike
Distance: 900km (original pair)
Value: 9/10 near faultless until they finally gave in, second pair just as good – very expensive but worth every single penny as I saw my times tumbling in Vibrams and my distances increase.

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Vibram Fivefingers Speed LS
Paid: £88.00
Normally: £110.00
Retailer: Field and Trek
Pro: Unique, build quality, showstopper
Con: uncomfortable
Distance: 40km
Value: 3/10 I can’t wear these for running, so I wear them as a work shoe – never understood how my Komodo were so perfect and these so nightmarish. Blisters, discomfort – the lot came with these. Sad as they are beautifully understated shoes.

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Skora Phase
Paid: £42.00
Normally: £75.00
Retailer: Sports Pursuit
Pro: Nice lacing system, beautiful to look at, nice comfortable ride, suitably barefoot, niche running shoes, well built
Con: Not so great as a big distance shoe – lovely sprint shoe though
Distance: 150km (so far)
Value: 8/10 I wear these both as running shoes and day to day shoes as I bought the black ones. Comfortable, inexpensive and nice to sprint in. Well worth £42.00, probably not worth £75.00

The reality is that I remain unconvinced that paying big money for big shoes means you’ll get any better results on the road, the track or the trail. What it does mean is that you’ve spent a lot of money on a pair of shoes. I tend to buy expensive shoes not because they are expensive but because they have a specific fit for me. The Hoka One One for example I own because they have a wide toe box and have helped to reduce the impact of blisters on my feet during ultras. But I’ve made mistakes – I was lured into the Salomon S-Lab Ultra shoes because of the name and now I own a pair of shoes that might occasionally get a 10km trail run rather than the ultras they were supposed to race in. Shoes like the Skora Phase were inexpensive enough and with good enough reviews to warrant taking a punt on something new and actually I really like them and when they pop up in sales I will certainly buy some more. I recall @Cat_Simpson_ saying that she never bought the current seasons shoes as she wanted to let the reviews come out (and presumably see the flaws) before buying. This is very much approach I’ve always adopted also and hence why I rarely pay full price for any shoe and if I do it really has got something special in its box of magic tricks.

But there does appear to be a trend to convincing us, through expensive marketing, about new technology in shoes and how much it will improve our running. Do you remember Nike Shox for example – lauded as the next big thing in training shoes or the the recent bandwagon for barefoot running or technology that springs us forward and returns energy to our bodies? And what do the manufacturers want? They want us to buy them, more often, in more colours – get rid of those old favourites that have been hiding in your cupboard for years because they believe, that you will believe that there is a Usain Bolt inside of you – and that can be brought out with your new runners. Hmph!

As runners we all know that finding a shoe that fits and works is invaluable regardless of the cost, brand, shape or size but there is an ever creeping group of marketeers who are convinced we will pay over £100 for knitted footwear or shoes with springs. Hmmmm, the only shoe I’d pay stupid money for are ones with jet rockets concealed in the soles.

The following articles offer some interesting insights – though of course it isn’t all to be agreed with and neither offer conclusive evidence as to whether we are being over charged by sports companies keen to take advantage of runners as the sport becomes ever more fashionable, but they do offer food for thought.

http://www.scpod.org/foot-health/2013-latest-news/news-archive/expensive-vs-cheap-running-shoes/

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/6968891/Why-expensive-trainers-could-be-worse-than-useless.html

Mike O’Neill, podiatric surgeon and spokesman for the Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists said “it is not the cost of the trainers that is important but the suitability of the trainers. 

How very true!

But we all go into a shop with a closed mind, I know for example that I won’t event try Asics on because my experience of trying them on is that they don’t feel comfortable and I don’t really like New Balance as a brand for the shoes – and I really haven’t tried even a small portion of the options they have available. Plus I know that if my shoes don’t come in some ludicrous colour then I’m not spending my money on them – I will not wear white trainers!!! Therefore, no matter the research or what we are told is probably best for us we all have a pre-determined picture of the shoes we are going to buy (hence why I ended up with a pair of Salomon I’m not that keen on – but love looking at).

The article from The Telegraph goes further and asks about the value of having shoes at all! Well for me I need some running shoes, mainly to stop myself form getting dog poo between my toes – yuck but you catch my meaning. So are we overpaying for shoes? Yes, marketing machines have seen a niche and are exploiting runners, but at the same time we are keen to be exploited with the aim to establish that new PB. How many of us could really go barefoot or buy that pair of Crane or Hi-Tec running shoes that according to Mike O’Neill are no worse than their expensive cousins. The cycle continues and until we are ready to admit we enjoy being conned and having the major manufacturers tell us what is good for us then we can never start down the real road to running glory.

Happy Sunday running guys

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