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In a recent Instagram post I had the caption, ‘how much kit did I take to Tyndrum 24? Yep way too much – I ended up using a tiny aount. This doesn’t even include the 10 pairs of shoes or the food either. How the hell did I think I was using all this stuff?‘ The holders of the race account replied and during the discourse I described myself as a ‘shit runner‘ to which I was told that ‘no one at the Tyndrum 24 was shit!’

Well, we are all entitled to our opinion, but experience tells me I’m a shit runner. Which brings me to this weekend where I was flying solo as the GingaNinja and Satan (ASK) were visiting Evil England and I felt like I should do something to boost my confidence after the kicking it has had recently. I dipped out Saturday and took a run around the Falkirk Ultra route and I had intended to use my Sunday for a longer hike up a hill or mountain somewhere nearby – however, I saw an opportunity come up.

There was a social media video for a race that I had dismissed a few weeks earlier – The Scurry Events Vogrie Country Park 5km – it looked muddy, it looked hilly and it looked miserable, just my kind of race. I had dismissed the race given that it was only a week after I’d been so rubbish at Tyndrum 24 and just a week before I take on the Falkirk Ultra but with just a couple of spaces available it seemed one of them was destined for me.

I signed up yesterday evening after arguing with myself for a couple of hours and decided that I should sign up for the shorter of the available distances (5km & 10km). I decided I’d take the hound with me and we’d make a bit of a day of it, do the race, have a walk around afterwards.

I woke up about 6.30am, had a quick shower, my pre-race coffee and headed out early, I figured I’d need to give the dog a bit of a walk before the race started and so at 7.45 jumped in the car and drifted down from Falkirk all the way to the beautiful and undulating Vogrie Country Park. Having previously run one of the Scurry Events races I expected that there wold be a strong organisational showing and I wasn’t disappointed as when I arrived at the gates of the park there was immediately a marshal to point me in the direction of the parking, there was then a marshal to point in the direction of the toilets and the route to Vogrie House and the registration point. Thankfully I was early enough to give the dog the required few minutes walk before I went to collect my number.

Scurry had set up three tents in the grounds of the country park near the main house and there were a collection of marshals handing out the numbers and offering a comforting smile, had they seen the course? Did they know what we silly few had decided to do with our Sunday morning? Ha. Anyway with number collected I trundled uphill back to the car to have a bit of sit down and avoid what looked like rain, nobody likes starting a race when they’re moist.

About 9.15am with no sign of the rain that felt so inevitable I headed back to the start line and saw something that was inevitable – there was Neil MacRitchie. Now the man might be an ultra running god but does he have to be brilliant at every race that I attend? (I joke) Neil is a wonderful guy though, generous with both his time and his support, which is why he is so well regarded by the Scottish running community. To me he is simply inspirational and whenever I see him at a race start I feel like I want to try that little bit harder because there is a way he looks at you that just says, ‘I believe in you’.

The question was could I return the faith – I’d find out in about an hour.

Neil and I chewed the fat for a bit and then it was warm up time for the 10km runners of which Neil was a part. I left it to him so I could enjoy watching the warm up – not something I’d be getting involved in, I like to start racing when I’m still cold – no reason to overexert myself.

Anyway with the 10km runners off the much smaller field of 5km runners moved to the start line, it was now that I worried that I might be coming last in the race – there were a number of fast looking racing snakes and as I stood at the back I thought, ‘bugger I’m going to have to give this a bit of welly’ and when the gun went off I was still considering this at the back of the field.

In an unusual change of race strategy I moved as far up the field as possible and settled into a heavy breathing but manageable pace – it was now just a case of seeing how far I could hang on for. The course was a heady mix of fast moving downhills and challenging lumps to negotiate but the early part of the course was fun as it weaved through the winter trail. I was enjoying myself very much and the course was surprisingly scenic despite the time of year, the weather was also holding out  and I felt like I was running rather better than is traditional for me.

The first kilometre was down and with the second one well underway I could begin to see the signs of the back of the 10km runners in the distance – it was something I had not really considered but it was entirely possible that I might make up the five or six minutes that the longer race had started before us. While it’s true I wasn’t going to catch any of the speed goats I might catch some of the back markers and this could be an interesting challenge. This challenge that I had set myself was giving me a mental lift and I started to shift harder and faster. As I hit the river it was my absolute favourite kind of semi-boggy trail and I found myself bounding across the trail – that’s the thing about short distance running – you can hammer it and you know it’ll soon be over. Vogrie Park and the Tyne Valley 5km was a beautiful course and I was really, really enjoying it but there is always going to be a sting in the tail. The particular sting was that there was going to be some horrid ascent to endure in order to bring us back round to the checkpoint.

I’ll be honest my exertions had rather wiped me out and so I, like the runners ahead of me, slowly meandered up the hills to the point we felt we could begin running again. Interestingly, we it is to me, given I knew I was in the final kilometre I chose to push a little earlier than usual off the hill and found myself thundering those final few hundred metres and when I heard my name being called over the PA system I could feel pride in my performance today – something that I very rarely say these days, regardless of the distance.

I crossed the line to the sounds of the small gathering of supporters, volunteers and fellow finishers and quickly collected my race memento buff. I was very glad it was over but I had thoroughly enjoyed the experience and was pleased to have signed up.

Conclusions
Last year I ran the Scurry Around Corstorphine which I found to be a very enjoyable event despite the weather conditions. I’d never been there before and I got to see another little piece of my new home country – the same is true of this event and I will certainly be inspired to visit Vogrie Park again.

The Scurry Event at Vogrie Park had all the best bits of Corstorphine but a better route – more genuine trail running and really, really fun up and downs. It is clear to me that the Scurry Event guys know how to put on a great event and we can only hope that they consider adding much longer distances to their repertoire before long.

Thanks also for the on course photography – the image they snapped me of me is above, it’s the one that I couldn’t possibly have taken of myself.

An area of improvement/change? The one small thing that stops me signing up for lots of their races though is the lack of a medal – Scurry have a little logo that would do nicely on a medal and they have enough races to merit making one. I know not everyone likes getting a medal but I do and I know others do. I like to look back at medals and remember the moment that someone put it round my neck or be reminded of how hard I worked to get it or use it to inspire my daughter in her own races.

The neck gaiter/buff was great BUT I already own 47 of them and there is a very good chance that it’ll be used to wipe my arse on an ultra in the future – therefore I’ll certainly have conflicting memories about it. Hell I’d even pay a couple of extra pounds to secure a medal – just something to think about Scurry as this was one of the reasons I nearly didn’t enter.

However, despite the lack of medal this is a great event at whatever distance, it is family friendly and it is a lot of fun. Have a look at them on Facebook and consider entering one of their future, excellent events.

As for me? Well, I’m still a shit runner but the groin and hip that exploded last weekend, at the Tyndrum 24, held up here today and  under the pressure of going a bit faster than I normally do and that’s all I can ask for.

I’m looking forward to giving the Falkirk 8hr my full attention but today has been a good running day and I’m a happy bunny.

Related Posts
Scurry Around Corstorphine

After four months of near inactivity the Tyndrum 24 (a looped foot race near the West Highland Way) had to be looked at with a bit of common sense. Even before I arrived I knew that running 24 hours was highly unlikely and I had joked that I might sleep 4 hours for every 1 hour of running but that’s getting rather ahead of myself.

For those of you who read my previous blog post (read it here) you’ll know that my training and racing has been almost non-existent since September and even before that it had been sporadic at best. I’d gained a shedload of weight and worse – I’d grown lazy and unfit. The truth is that I’d grown so lazy and unfit that during the 2019 festive season I had very much considered not running the Tyndrum 24.

However, after a short test of the route just before new year I decided that I would put the months of R&R and overating behind me and use the T24 to open my 2020 race account and see just how fall I had fallen.

A mid winter looped race in Scotland is always going to be a challenge – weather likely to be unpredictable, underfoot conditions likely to be grim and the cold… the cold. However, I approached this in a practical kind of way and packed up every bit of kit I could and worked out how I could stop semi regularly and rest so as to not push myself too far and risk injury and avoid failing to turn up at my next event.

In the run up it was confirmed that conditions were set to be kind and as I left the house on Saturday morning I was hopeful that the light drizzle would disappear and we’d have a lovely event.

I drove the back roads through Duone and Callendar up to Tyndrum and enjoyed the snow dusted hills and the dawn rising around me. I find driving through new parts of Scotland and the many little towns one of the delights of being here. I pulled up to the Green Welly about 8.30am and after meeting the first couple of volunteers (talking about you Andrew) I started to set up camp in the car. Here I imagined that I’d come back from the route jump into a sleeping bag – have a snooze, change and get back out – all part of the plan.

I disappeared off for a few minutes to have my pre-race poo and when I came back the window of the car next to me opened and the gentleman in the seat said hello.

Now as regular readers will know I am not a very sociable chap – except in a race scenario and so David and I chewed the fat for a while, especially over our mutual appreciation of the Skye Trail Ultra. Weirdly there was something familiar about him and much as I tried I could not place him but I’m going to guess that he may well be the David I met at the start line of the Tweed Valley Ultra in 2018 – perhaps I’ll never know.

I digress.

As the clock moved on I suggested we head down to registration – which gave me the opportunity to meet up with the wonderful Linlithgow Runner, Brian.

David and I rocked up the The Way Outside site and headed into registration after a bit of a bimble around the drop bag site and a watch of the other runners milling around as they waited for the start. The site seemed well set up and there was space for runners, volunteers and supporters to move around without pissing each other off – a good move from the race organisers. With time moving on though we headed upstairs to the registration point and were processed both quickly and efficiently (weirdly it could well have been fellow instagrammer Karmac70 that gave me my number but I can’t be sure).

Anyway, ID check was done, number was handed over, car details handed over to ensure any problems could be mentioned to us during the race and then we were sent outside to grab the lap dibber. All very easy, all really well drilled.

On the way to collect the dibber (from the awesomely hairstyled Jeff/Geoff) we ran in to Brian – saved me going to look for the bugger and it was a genuine joy to see him.

Brian and I have gotten to know one another a bit over the last few months as he’s been progressing his distances for bigger challenges to come and was ready to step up again with 12 hours at Tyndrum. We did brief introductions and then headed down to the Real Food Cafe for a cup of tea and a chat in nice warm surrounds. This, for me, was a wonderfully relaxing way to start a race and as we chatted about running and races I looked back with rose tinted specs to all those races were I’ve run terribly. Ha! Still saved me thinking about the terrible running I was about to do.

Post tea Brian headed off to get ready and David and I drifted off to the car park for a final change of kit.

The next hour or so there was mostly hanging around and although friendly and conversational  you could feel that runners were keen to set off, there was a nervous energy about the place and  even I, the fat hobbit, was keen to set off.  However, I managed to fill my time with a few photos and exchanges of strange tales with some of the other runners.

Looking round the checkpoint you could see a broad assortment of runners, mountain goats, road runners, first timers, old timers and misfits (I was in the misfit camp) – it was a real mix that had been attracted and in my experience that makes a for a good time. I’m always fascinated about what brought all of these wonderful people to a looped running event? in Tyndrum? on a cold and chilly day in January? That was something I’d be exploring with the many runners I came across during my time on the course.

After a short briefing from Stacey Holloway, the Race Director, we were off and rather annoyingly I found myself near the front and so immediately set about rectifying this and slowed my pace dramatically. During these first few hours where daylight existed I was keen to soak in my surroundings and enjoy the clear, crisp weather that’s one of the key joys of having this as my main hobby – the opportunity to see bits of the world that others do not and with loops you get to revisit the experience several times over and take in different details each time.

We ambled down the course jumping across the pools of water that had settled and a couple of short water jumps that were included as part of the entry before coming to the main river crossing. Given the heavy rain recently this could have been treacherous but actually it was fine and there were multiple good crossing points.

I was actually rather enjoying myself – I even leapt across the rocks in the run up to the bridge and then broke out into some genuine running before the first major hill that I knew I’d be hiking up. The hill brought many of the runners to a plod, myself included and this was a good chance to chat to people and wave on the speedgoats who would be crossing the hundred mile mark.

I was more concerned that Brian would overtake me on the first lap and so I plodded on – very keen to get the first loop in the bag – he could then overtake on loop 2 (I wouldn’t mind that so much). The climb wasn’t horrendous but it was significant – perhaps not in these early loops but as the day wore on this would increasingly feel hard and I noted that the ground below our feet, throughout the course, pretty much, was hard, unforgiving and unrelenting – this could be a worry given that neither my back or hips have ever responded well to sustained hard trails.

The descent from the high point of the course was going to be equally challenging but both of these seemed in line with expectations – it was the middle part of the course that looked the most challenging to me. Benign undulation and a long relatively dull stretch of path was what awaited the runners – this would be the part that divided opinion either as a rest from elevation or a chore between the interesting bits.

I battered down the mine road towards the (well used, given how many runners I saw going in and out of it) mid point toilet stop and then clambered up towards the final section of the route beyond the highly amusing medics who were preparing the fire and clearly a BBQ! Then it was a relatively single track path back towards the checkpoint which was rocky, undulating, challenging and yet very enjoyable. The short bursts upwards and the fast bursts downwards made for a bit of movement in the legs – something that felt very necessary after the grind of the mine road.

The final burst back up to the checkpoint was a gentle lollop back along the river with a rather cruel loop in the checkpoint  before reaching the dibber and our dibber checker.

I rolled into the checkpoint feeling reasonable but not without concern – fitness was obviously a concern but that was feeling steady – the problem was that my groin was feeling like shit. I started on my second lap with a light burning that was going through the same highs and lows as the route but lap 2 was finished within a reasonable time and I was still moving. Hurrah! However, the pain was now fully formed and sending shooting signals down my leg and up into my back.

I started to think about my options, one lap for a medal – well that was done but mentally that would be bad – I had originally aimed for 50 miles but that was rapidly being repurposed to a 30 mile run. In my head that was still going to be a failure but a chat with the GingaNinja reminded me that having not run for months those 30 miles would represent a reasonable return.

By lap 4 those 30 miles looked so far from achievable – I was in a really poor way, this felt like a DNF in the making and not reaching the minimum ultra distance was going to be a DNF to me.

It seemed to me though that on each lap I was going to meet someone that would help me reach the minimum distance. There was a Jennifer, John, Karen, the wonderful long distance walker Paul and many more. Occasionally I’d see Brian, David, Fiona or Neil who would provide a bit of a lift to get me over another hump. There were cuddles and conversation with (I’ll say husband and wife) Andrew and Susan – each one of these people and many more provided the incentive to keep going long enough to get six loops done. I heard amazing stories from the young, the old, the speedy and the slow and each one felt like stardust that kept me going just a little bit longer.

Laps 5 and 6 were well into the darkness and there was the greatest joy as I was able to sample the night sky of Tyndrum and the beautiful twinkling of all the stars in the sky watching over us. I stood at the bottom of the main climb, alone with my headtorch off wishing that I had a decent camera with me to capture this moment – I did something similar on the single track back up towards the start need the little mini loch and felt both the joy and appreciation of freedom I enjoy to be ale to be out here. However, as I swtiched my light on during those last few hundred metres of lap 6 I knew that a decision had to be made.

And it is 100% true that I didn’t make my final decision to halt at six loops until I was almost on top of the checkpoint. I felt sad, I felt drained but this was the only decision that could be made if I wanted to build on what had been done at the Tyndrum 24.

I had very much wanted to continue as the night time running was going to be spectacular and weather conditions were such that the route was going to be good overnight but my injury woes were getting worse and I knew that at some point I would need to drive home – injured.

I hobbled into the checkpoint and saw Jeff/Geoff and his beautiful hair (he let me touch it) and exited the race with a medal and my tail between my legs – there was no pride in my finish or my distance but it was a finish.

Key points

  • Distance: 5 mile loops over 6, 12 or 24hrs
  • Profile: Bumpy
  • Date: January 2020
  • Location: Tyndrum
  • Cost: £80
  • Terrain: Hard Trail
  • Tough Rating: 2/5

Route
I’ve already described much of the route but what I haven’t said is that there is a plethora of stunning scenery to delight in and despite being near civilisation you can feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere too – it’s a clever place to put a race like this. However, I felt the hard conditions underfoot took away from the picturesque nature of the route but it is a minor thing yet something some runners might want to consider if you’re thinking about entering. I’d been out and tested the route over the festive period as I was in the area anyway but I’d gone in reverse to the way we ran at T24 and felt that the reverse was easier – but again it’s all opinion and ultimately you’re doing the same elevation whichever way you went.

Organisation
The organisation was faultless, yes there were challenges – the on route toilet became unusable for a number 2 apparently and there was the occasional headless chicken moment as someone was running round looking to fix a problem but everything was handled well. What felt like an army of (I’ll assume) volunteers and the RD looked effortless on their exertions both at the checkpoint and around the course. The checkpoint layout, the race registration and the lap counting was all super easy and that’s high praise indeed, especially when you consider that this is an inaugural event. Tyndrum 24 should go from strength to strength and I expect it to be well supported in the coming years.

Communication
Regular communication across email and social media channels was excellent, I felt it was very important that the organisers did not rely on social media as a number of races now do. The email communication means you are more likely to catch those runners who don’t use these. In the run up there was quite a lot of information being put out – I would expect that in year two this will be streamlined as the issues that cropped up (such as transfers after the deadline) will be ironed out. Great job on the communications and marketing.

Value
When you think about this the race is quite expensive but not outrageous at £80 and well within the average price of similar such events – however, I believe it is excellent value for money, especially compared to its peers.

There was clearly a good deal of organisation that went into the event, there was lots of support such as a toilet on the route, ample quality parking, a good spacious checkpoint base, accurate lap timings, what felt like a load of volunteers, kit purchase options, headtorch loans, etc). There were upcycled race t-shirts and wooden medals which were a nice touch too.

Ultimately the money spent by the runners on entering the race felt like money used on the race.

Volunteers
The team behind T24 were really exceptional, I’ve met a lot of great people manning checkpoints or standing out in the cold but these guys were right up there. I’d like to mention once again the lovely Andrew, Susan, (their poor daughter for having to listen to my flirting with her dad) and Jeff/Geoff – they all made me laugh.

The guys on the course – especially those by the little bridge must have been freezing but always had a cheery smile, the medics were unapologetically hilarious and annoyingly inspiring with their nice warm fire going and the lady in the big wooly hat – she was so brilliant – mostly just telling me to get a move on. Ultimately it was a great team that came together to give the runners the support they needed.

My thanks guys.

Loop v Loop
I’ve run a few looped events over the years – Challenge Hub 24hr, The Ranscombe Challenges, Brutal Enduro, Endure 1250 and how does the T24 compare?

Thankfully the Tyndrum 24 compares very favourably – it felt very modern and forward thinking, it was incredibly runner friendly and supportive and it felt like an event that was put on for runners by runners. Sometimes looped events can feel like an attempt to get your number of completed marathons up (not that there is anything wrong with that) but this felt like a genuinely challenging event in its own right and you needed to prepare for it whereas sometimes lap races can feel like a turn up and give it a crack – I felt with T24 you had to want to do T24 not just another looped event..

I remember running Endure 1250 and felt that was a ‘numbers’ event where I was just putting another number on my ultra total but here I felt like runners, myself included were racing whatever clock they were facing. In another year when I was a little fitter I would feel very confident of running 75 miles or more because I wanted to and I could train for that.

As looped events go this was one of the more fun ones and sits up there alongside the Ranscombe and Brutal loops as a favourite.

Medal
The medal design was very nice, and as readers will know I do love a medal, my only concern is that the thickness of the wood suggests that this might not survive much of a bash. When I compare this to say the thickness of the wood of either Ben Vorlich or the Nocturnal I feel both of these will be a little more hardy. I’d have been quite happy to pay a couple of pounds extra for a few more millimetres of wood to ensure that my memento of this event lasts for the duration of my life.

Eco
No plastic cups? Wooden medals, upcycled race shirts, local suppliers – all things I can very much get on board with and I doubt you’d hear any runners complaining about this. The race encouraged users to use public transport where possible – going so far as to have a race start time that made this possible (something that just two years ago I’d have been very happy with given I didn’t drive). Issues around sustainability in running is likely to become a bigger and bigger selling point as the years go on and it is good to see a race taking a lead on issues like this.

Conclusion
I suppose the conclusions come down to whether I would run the event again and the answer is a well considered yes.

Tyndrum 24 is a strange beast of an event given the location and time of year but it is a much needed addition to the UK ultra running calendar as winter running events in January, especially in Scotland, are nowhere to be found. There is a reason though why this is so and that reason is that Scotland can have hideous weather in January and the possibility of cancellation presumably remains high.

These things are something you will have to factor into your calculations when you consider entering – this year the event was fortunate to have the best possible conditions – but next year and the year after may not be so lucky. How would you feel running in the driving rain up and down hill in the dark for at least 16 hours? Or ploughing though the snow for the same amount of time wearing every last inch of clothing you could manage just to get to 30, 40 or 50 miles? I’ll be interested to see how the event goes on in a year like that.

Perhaps the more important question for you is, should you enter? I feel the answer to that is easy – of course you should. This was a really lovely event with a wild mix of runners from all walks of life and the fact that the organisation was top class only adds to the conclusion that this is a top quality event.

I’d go so far as to say that it is race worth travelling for and 100 miles across the maximum time allowed is very achievable even if you chose to walk speedily the entire thing you’d be grinding out distances near three figures.

I also feel it is worth noting that the race directorship team is new to this and should be given a huge amount of praise for the amount of work they poured into this – it looked like a labour of love and that hard work paid off with a smooth and delightful event.

My own race, as I’ve suggested, was a failure but not totally, 4 laps away from my 50 mile target, I ran for less than 8 hours and I was in so much pain that this throws into doubt my participation at the Falkirk Ultra. Mentally though there was a hint of success – despite my lack of fitness and groin/hip/back problems from less than 5 miles in I managed to hold on and knock out 30 failure lacklusture miles but 30 miles nonetheless.

As I write this on Sunday evening while listening to some made people on the  post football chat on BBC 5 Live I can feel the pain rolling around my groin and hip, Every time I stand up I feel it and evry time I take a step I feel it. I made the right decision to pull out. The potential to cause further long term damage was real but I know how to solve it – I need to weigh 15kg less, I need to eat less rubbish and I need to get back out there probably tomorrow, even if it is only for a slow couple of kilometres, probably involving the hill outside my house.

Thanks T24, thanks to everyone involved and who knows maybe I’ll see you next year.

Next
Next I prepare for a solid weekend of Scottish fun starting on February 1st at the Edinburrgh Winter Riun where ASK and I will attempt to bring her mile time down a little and the following day I’ll be heading to Callendar Park in Falkirk to run loops again but this time deliverately for 8 hours (both subject to my injuries calmong down a bit).

Related

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

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

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

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

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I therefore had high expectations for the event.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something I was very glad of.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We had made it, I had made it.

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

Route
What they said about the route…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Conclusion
Is this a great race? Not yet.

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

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

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

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

Check out the race details here

I’ve failed to finish a few ultras – a couple through injury and a couple through stupidity but the thing that has cost me most is my ability, or rather lack thereof, to run in the heat and my ability to sweat like a national champion.

Even on the occasions where I have raced and run in the sun I’ve really struggled – the Folkestone 10km, Bedgebury 10km and the Vanguard Way Marathon. The latter is a prime example of how badly things can go, although I was running with water it was a boiling hot day and the organisers ran out of fluids of any sort at the half way point. At mile 16 I was pretty delusional and heat exhaustion had consumed me – in my own minds befuddlement i could tell I was in a dangerous situation but to my surprise I finished. In the aftermath I remember placing a McDonalds chocolate milkshake on either side of my head to cool myself. Yummy.

These were the experiences that I both survived and finished. However, there were races, mostly ultra marathons that occurred in the heat of the August sunshine where I simply had to give up.

My most memorable failure was probably the Ridgeway Challenge, which when I ran it, was held on a muggy late August afternoon and even before the event had begun I was feeling the effects of the heat. I had my head covered, fully sun creamed up, fully hydrated, fully lubricated and ready to go but within a few short miles I was already struggling.

When I was around 55 miles in I found myself stood atop a hill with my running tights around my ankles and attempting to stop the terrible burning that radiated around my nut sack. I put the family jewels inside a buff and I put tissues inside my Runderwear to stop any further rubbing of my red raw and sweating skin.

I soon crawled into a late night and windy checkpoint and stopped running – I could simply go no further.

This experience was not the only time an August ultra marathon has given me a kicking but after not racing during the summer months for the last couple of years I’ve decided that a move to Scotland may make the possiblity of completing an August ultra marathon a reality.

After completing the Ben Vorlich Ultra on Sunday in warm, but not sweltering, conditions I have begun to feel a little more confident about getting this hoodoo dealt with.

Therefore, I have decided to attend the inaugural Thieves Road Ultra from BaM Racing on August 10th as this seems like a decent opportunity. It will be 40 miles (ish) across the Pentlands and surrounds and will provide a strong test of distance and temperature and while I’m looking forward to it I also have to remember my failings at this time of year.

There are other things that I will be doing during the Thieves Road that I normally reserve for the continental ultras I have participated in and hopefully these little changes will have a big impact.

  • Using my baggier Raidlight shorts instead of my usual OMM Flash tights – this will hopefully pass greater breeze through the undercarriage to keep things cooler
  • A single pair of thinner Drymax socks rather than my preferred Injinji toe liner and Drymax trail sock. This will heopfully stop my feet overheating, which has been an issue that causes huge discomfort during events.
  • A lighter weight race vest with a lower load – I’ve been working down the weight of the contents of my race vest, looking to take only the kit required. The problem with being a middle to back of the pack runner is that there is often a need to have a little more kit. However, I’ve recently acquired the Raidlight Revolutiv 12 which I ran with for the first time at the Ben Vorlich Ultra and found that I was happy to run with a lower load and also found that I ddin’t sweat across my back as much with this race vest on.
  • A sahara style cap – I’m a big fan of a Buff visor but the cover it provides is not quite enough for the sweltering heat and retaining a cool head is key to finishing ultra distance races.
  • Reliable consumption of fluid – the new race vest has a minimum capacity of 1.5litres of fluid upfront and I during my latest adventure I found myself

These things combined with all my usual preparations will hopefully finally see me deliver an August medal. Fingers crossed and if anybody has any advice on how to deal with the heat, chaffing, heat stroke and  exhaustion, etc then I would be very happy to hear your tips.

I know I am getting on in years, in 2019 I will reach the ripe old age of 42 and it seems inconceivable to me that I’ll make it to 50. I mean I’m falling apart and my family medical history isn’t screaming, ‘welcome to long life’. Every inch of my beleaguered body calls to me daily demanding that I ease off or better still, retire.

Vitality

It seemed to me a good idea that I should sign up to things like income protection, life insurance, etc and for a number of years I had a rather unobtrusive policy that simply sat in the background presumably never doing anything other than waiting for the day I needed it. However, on a fine October morning my excellent financial advisor suggested to that I consider Vitality as an option. He said that given my lifestyle (outdoors and active) that I would benefit from the multitude of (ever changing) schemes and offers that they put forward. Plus the cover was mildly better, the premiums were mildly lower and it all seemed pretty sensible.

I signed up.

Now let me explain a bit about Vitality with its swanky marketing and how I feel after my first year of use and why I now avoid the doctor.

The marketing of Vitality is all about the benefits, earn a weekly coffee, get a nearly free Apple Watch, half price Garmin, get half price trainers, get cinema tickets and on the surface that seems lovely. However, it’s not that simple and the old adage is true, ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch’.

The Experience

Upon signing up and downloading the app you fill in lots of information and connect tech that will support your collecting of points. This collecting of points determines your Vitality (premium) level up to and including Platinum. You are given the opportunity to submit health readings, take examinations, etc and have this data fed into the ‘machine’. Once the machine has been sated you are given a Vitality age and advised on the what’s best to do to be fitter and healthier.

So far, so fine.

It’s then that you realise you’re locked in and have to do the work to make sure that your premiums don’t sky rocket and that you reach the maximum level possible. Again this is fine, you’ve signed up for something and so you are committed.

As an iPhone user I took the decision to get the Apple Watch through Vitality to use as my fitness tracker. I wouldn’t normally have done this but Vitality refuses to directly support my plethora of Suunto devices. This was a minor irritant as the Apple Watch is absolute rubbish and I feel for anyone that paid for one of these things. Now as a reasonably fit and active person I assumed that reaching my daily goal of steps or activity would be pretty easy but I found that this wasn’t always the case.

The reason for this was simple I’ve often found the desire of active people to track ever last iota of activity they do to be a little tiresome and as such I’ve never been a numbers athlete, until three weeks ago I’d never even used Strava). The problem that this caused was that in the early months I would forget to track activity or I would only put the watch on half way through a day and this meant I was chasing activity, especially on days where I was not running.

This was clearly a mistake I was making and one that I rectified pretty quickly but it was made all the more challenging by the fact we were in the middle of the hardest part of our move to Scotland. I would often find myself stopping at service stations and trying to build up extra steps even as I was in the middle of 900 mile round driving trip.

The crux of it was, for me, that I was being driven regardless of my situation on any given day to HAVE to exercise or be financially penalised for it. I would run 60 miles in a race on a Sunday and know that this had the same value as the person who ran for 30 minutes and the real annoyance here was not the imbalance – not at all – the annoyance is that no matter what state I was left in I felt forced to put my running shoes back on and exercise the day after a race.

This left me in something of a quandary as I look back on it and rather than motivate me to exercise more regularly I felt disenchanted with the idea of ‘having’ to do steps or exercise or whatever. I found that rather than improving my wellbeing it was having the opposite effect – my mental well-being was suffering and I was committing to the bare minimum of exercise to get ‘over the line’.

This culminated in my effectively withdrawing from any of the real running training I would traditionally do and just do the thing that got me the 8 points the quickest. What was the result of that? Understandably, my ultra running suffered, races that should be well within my ability suddenly felt like trials and I began to fear racing.

The negative spiral continued, manifesting itself as comfort eating and I found myself gaining weight, battling my body image issues and struggling to motivate myself to do any exercise. It was a nasty place I’d managed to get myself in and I could not find the motivation to get out – I was also much more difficult to live with and the GingaNinja would note my anxiety about having, ‘not got that days points’ and then seeing me stuff a giant slice of cake in my pie hole!

I realise that I might be an extreme case but the promise of Vitality inspiring you to do more has had the exact opposite effect on me.

And then there is the other side of it…

Medical

So, insurance is insurance but what do you do if you have a problem with say your back? Followers of my ultra adventures will probably know that the last couple of years have been plagued by DNFs – brought on mostly by lower back pain during races. I figured it was something and nothing for a while and had extensive privately funded physiotherapy which helped to keep me running. The problem however, refuses to go away and I don’t feel like I can see a doctor about it.

The reason? Insurance!

I’m confident my back can be fixed but I’m also confident that Vitality and any future insurer would consider this a future exclusion – especially as I’ve seen the piss poor excuses given to refuse cover to other perfectly healthy potential customers. Given my relationship with Vitality has so far not been filled with joy I’m weighing up whether to remain with them and therefore I don’t want my back concerns to sit on my record. But that thought goes further I was genuinely concerned about going to the doctor recently to ask about changes in moles and whether I might have skin cancer – how ridiculous is that? Thankfully I decided to say ‘fuck it’ and get a potential cancer threat checked out.

Less life threateningly is the need to get my ten ingrowing toenails sorted, this too has been delayed by my wondering what impact this will have in the future and who will cover me if I do have them done. I mean my feet are valuable to me as an ultra runner (never mind day to day bimbling around).

Currently I can perfectly legitimately and honestly declare that I don’t have any diagnosis of any major problems – even if this 42 year old body feels more like a 72 year old – but the moment I do have a diagnosis for something insurances suddenly become more problematic.

The future

Now in my second year of Vitality, and having reached their highest status, I remain uneasy about this policy. My mental well-being the (perhaps) unintentional victim of the pressure Vitality applies took until very recently to start its recovery. I would hasten to add to there were other circumstances that contributed to this being a hugely stressful time but I am confident that Vitality was very much a significant part of it. Balancing my new life has very much helped and the Vitality issue does not seem as severe but it does still weigh on me and I do find it a disincentive to stay healthy.

As a note I should most certainly say I’m immensely grateful to my family who have been excellent in supporting me finding my own motivation again (mainly by signing up to a shitload of ultra marathons, despite the back issue)! Thanks guys.

This all sounds mildly ridiculous when you begin writing it down but I when I’ve discussed this with other Vitality users I’m realise I’m not alone.

I do want to be clear though I’m not writing this to decry Vitality, this is an example of a corporate monster putting a slick gloss (with freebies) on an otherwise rather dull product – and for some it will provide the incentive they need to sort their health out but there is another side to it. Vitality would probably argue that they are helping to beat the obesity crisis that the UK faces and doing it with carrot rather than stick, I simply feel that the carrot they’re using is rather stick-like.

Ultimately this is my opinion and experience of Vitality and all I would suggest is that if you’re considering some form of incentives/rewards based health scheme then ask all the detailed questions about the implications of it and how it will affect your current lifestyle.

I ran the up the field, urging a lady named Karen to give it a bit of welly and then leaped across the line myself and so I drew to a close the Whitley 10km.

As most who read this will be aware I am partial to an ultra marathon and so a 10km you might think would present no real challenge but let me assure you that a 10km, this 10km was a challenge. My ultra running is a slow and steady affair generally and a 10km offers the opportunity to instead run more quickly. It’s worth noting though that the day before the race I had driven down from Scotland to sunny Cheshire, something I can’t recommend before a race. There was also a miserable nights sleep on an uncomfortable bed at a hotel in Lymm to add into the mix and so when I arrived in the delightful town of Whitley I wasn’t in the best of moods. However, the day was clear and it was near perfect running conditions and thus my race day truly began.

I ambled up to the race HQ to find a mass of race vests that I remember from my youth growing up in the north west of England, there was also the broad range of accents that a Cheshire based race would attract, Mancunian, Scouse and other more local accents beat against my ears and I found this rather soothing as I collected my number. The race had a well organised and yet small feel to to it despite there being about three hundred runners milling around but I found myself keeping myself to myself – I enjoyed the anonymity of being somewhere that absolutely nobody recognised my face.

At about 10.45 runners were ushered to the start line and I moved to the back of the field expecting to run a very slow 10km. At the back of the field I was surrounded by lots of lovely runners, first timers, old timers, returners from injury and bimblers and when the race started I set off the watch and began.

The route was mainly through tree lined closed roads and was a reminder to me that the north of England is, in many places, very attractive and worthy of exploration. I was setting a reasonable pace and decided to use my energy in the first half and then use sheer willpower through the second half. I started to overtake people in kilometres one and two but then noticed that my legs felt heavy and so too did my breathing – I was about to have a very bad day. The next three kilometres felt like the hardest distance I had run in years and the long, never ending roads seemed to taunt me, I had long forgotten what stretches of tarmac like this felt like.

However, it wasn’t just the tarmac that was giving me concern, I had the problem of finding my Altra Escalante a little uncomfortable and causing me distress through my left foot. No matter what I did I couldn’t shake the pain I was in and I’ve come to the conclusion that my latest attempt to love Altra road shoes has ended in failure and I should instead stick with Topo Athletic for the road running.

Regardless of these minor issues I found myself enjoying the experience of racing the Whitley 10km and its rather scenic roads. Once beyond 7km I also started to relax into event and fInd my rhythm, slowly picking off runners who had jumped ahead of me and although the pain in my foot remained I was perfectly happy ambling along and as I passed the 9km point I knew that I could ramp up the pace and finish with a bit of a flourish. It was here that I met Karen and for most of the finally kilometre we egged each other to go that bit faster and as we approached the final stretch and a loop of an altogether unnecessarily hilly field I urged her to take me down with a sprint finish and we crossed the line roughly together.

Wonderful.

I picked up my medal (rather pleasant too) as I was ushered through the finishing area and had my timing chip removed and then I was free to head back to sunny Scotland – safe in the knowledge that fun had been achieved.

Conclusions

A well organised and executed 10km at a perfectly sensible price and a great warm up race for your spring marathon(s). The Whitley 10km was more than scenic enough and if you enjoy road racing along country lanes than this is just for you. The closed roads and wonderful volunteers coupled with a light, bright attitude just made this a great day out for runners, highly recommended.

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Post Jedburgh I felt a little bit weird, I had done so little training in the past year but had finished and felt surprisingly strong. I was, and remain confident, that I could have run Jedburgh significantly better and if I could just get settled properly in sunny Scotland then I might finally develop the time to commit to running.

And so there was an opportunity to add a November ultra to my schedule after pulling out of the 135 mile Rebellion. There was no way that I could have risked myself on such a significant distance given the state I find my body in and the level of running I am at.

However, I have been wanting to try High terrain events for a little while now and so the opportunity to run the now relatively local ‘Tweed Valley Ultra’ was too good to miss.

I got up at about four in the morning, showered and slapped on a tub full of Vaseline around the nether regions (having had a few problems during Jedburgh). I was determined that this was going to go well – I even applied a little to the toe tips as I’d had some serious blisters for the first time in years during the three peaks and wanted to avoid that as I suspected the Tweed Valley was going to be a tougher test.

The drive down from Edinburgh was nice and easy but being on my own for ultras is a new thing and I knew that I would also have to drive back on dark and narrow roads and that is something I’m going to have to get used to as I increase my activity up here. However, after a few minutes of driving aimlessly round the Glentress Visitor Centre I found the signage that I had missed when I first arrived.

I was, as usual, early – thankfully I prefer to be excessively early rather than a minute late and the facilities of the visitor centre were open to the runners and it was both warm and comfortable with breakfast available for those of those that could stomach it. I had made the mistake of taking my coffee too late before I’d left and was forced into visiting the little boy’s room for my pre-race delivery of the galloping trots. I can thankfully report that there was lots of loo roll and a warm toilet seat – a real treat compared to some of my pre-race toilet experiences.

I trotted over to the race registration for which the process was nice and easy (a necessity at 6.30am), name, number and grab a race t-shirt. Once I had collected my rather comfortable Tweed Valley t-shirt and grabbed some more hot coffee I took a seat and looked around to take in some of the faces that I might later be running alongside. I knew that Neil MacRitchie, John Munro and Fiona Rennie were running – all of whom I had first met at the Skye Trail Ultra a couple of years ago. I’ve run into Neil subsequently (most recently at Jedburgh) and John and I have run in the same races a couple of times but never really at the same pace as he’s a damn fine ultra marathoner and I’m well… me.

Anyway, I failed to run into anyone I knew and was concerned that this was likely to be a bit of a lonely race. I’d undoubtedly be near the back and I wonder if being cut adrift from fellow competitors is one of the things that has resulted in several of my race failures. However, with a few minutes to go I headed up to the start line, a final wee stop and I ran into a chap who had run the Skye Trail Ultra the year after I did it and we had a little laugh about the ever wonderful Jeff Smith and how we had found that particular race.

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David (I think his name was) was going to be going much quicker than I was and so when the race started we all thundered down the short path to the trail. Much to my own surprise I was keeping up with the middle of the pack runners quite happily but knew that it was never going to last and so into the first climb I made the conscious decision to slow down and go into slow grind mode. One of the things that I knew awaited us in the early part of the event was a climb, what I had not expected was quite how early it began or how long it would last.

As we started to climb I could feel the energy being sapped out of my legs and that was something that I was aware would come to bite me later (or perhaps sooner) in the race. The good news was that the trails were good, the weather was being exceptionally pleasant and the ground was very runnable, the bad news was that I was going to struggle to find an excuse as to why I was running so badly.

One thing I did note which I thought ‘’bugger’ about was that there were a number of the runners with poles safely stowed in their vests. Perhaps it is being in Scotland but I’ve been trying to give up the running poles as up here they mostly are not allowed but, being honest, even as we reached the summit of the first climb I was wishing that I had them. At the top I could feel my thighs burning and that was a sensation I had not expected quite so quickly – still this did not stop me from hitting the downhill with all the energy I could muster and running down was a lot of fun. The trail was still good, the conditions were still good, the light was up and you could throw yourself amongst the rocks and the roots and know that a confident approach would get you out of it safely.

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The exit to the forest brought us to the river (let’s take a guess at the Tweed) and from here it was good running and I should have been going as fast as possible but I was somewhat hampered by a need to have my guts explode out of me. Sadly it was a little exposed and so I was forced into deep breathing and scampering along clenching my arse cheeks! Thankfully the first of the four checkpoints was nearby and with it was the opportunity to dip in to the toilet. I think I need to note to down my pre-race preparation as this isn’t the first time I’ve been caught a bit short mid-race!

Anyway enough of the traditional gut rot… with that clear I was now on my way and feeling much better about the race. The thing I took in was just how beautiful the Tweed Valley was and with the mist drifting around the route, especially in the early hours, there was an even more spectacular eerie beauty. However, it is worth noting that while there was a majority of the route on trail there was a noticeable amount of tarmac in the first 20km which my long standing injuries did not enjoy. Thankfully I was soon upon checkpoint 2 and I ate and drank my way through a load of flapjacks and better than that, about a litre of Irn Bru (a theme for the race).

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After a few sunny minutes at checkpoint 2 I headed out and took aim at the biggest climb on the route (Minch Moor) – in real terms only about 400 metres but it felt like a lot more, especially in the first section of the climb where it was surprisingly steep. Once at the top though it became an undulating trail and once again the Tweed Valley offered stunning views in all directions. Ian, a chap I had met earlier in the day had explained how wonderful the Valley was, and he right.

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The undulation was now in my favour and I was racing towards the turn off point for the 65km or would it be the turn off point for the 50km? Would I drop down to the lower distance option?

It was then that a race angel came thundering past me in the shape of John Munro.

As he went past me in his lurid Compressport calve sleeves a part of me recognised him but I could not for the life of me place the face. We exchanged race pleasantries as people do but then he turned around and called out my name at which point I put two and two together and we had a lovely little chat. He was on the 50km and going past me at pace and I did not want the rest of the 50km to go past me and so when I reached the turn off point I jauntily pressed on past the lovely marshall and once more began ascending.

After a few minutes I turned around and stared back into what was increasingly becoming a lonely and empty trail. I assumed I was now at the back of the field and wondered if it was possible to run the final 26 miles alone. I opened a caramel Freddo and chomped down on the mildly melted chocolate, turned on my heel and continued to shuffle forward.

It seemed that the ghost of Skye was not yet done with me though and shortly after I had finished my Freddo I heard the sound of footsteps behind me. Surely I was going quicker than the sweeper – my time really was not that bad (not that good either to be fair). I shot a glance over my shoulder and, blow me, I recognised the silhouette of one of my favourite ultra runners…

Neil MacRitchie.

I’m sure he didn’t recognise me at first but that did not deter me from asking, ‘are yo stalking me?’ I knew it would be a short term mental reprieve but it was just the kind of boost I needed and we started to run together for a bit. Neil being the ultimate ultra runner is always full of good advice about races, events, logistics and well just everything and therefore it is always a pleasure to chat with him for a bit.

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Together we reached the Three Brethren which was an unexpected delight and we were making pretty good time. Unusually though neither of us had managed to shake the other and suddenly 10km had passed and we were drifting into the checkpoint. I had been feeling a little bit rough and ready in the last 20 minutes and so took the opportunity to drink lots of Irn Bru. We speculated once again that we might be bringing up the rear but we saw a fellow runner at the checkpoint and suddenly we there was a sense that we might not be the final finishers.

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Post giggle with the volunteers we headed out again – a little bit of tarmac, ruinous for me but as Neil identified, change is as good as a rest (NB. he’s wrong about that – a rest is always better than change). The route for the most part here was reasonably flat with bits of undulation here and there. We adopted a fartlek approach to the running or wherever we saw a hint of a downhill.

It was around here that things got weird when I ran into  a web developer that my company are hiring to help build the businesses new website. I hadn’t recognised him at all until he called my name out and then it took me a second to figure out who it was (we’d only met the once) but it did make me go, ‘weird!’

Anyway with the fartlek in full swing and my Irn Bru power disappearing faster than a Usain Bolt hundred metres I was really struggling once again and I suggested that we were far enough in that I was not going to DNF and that Neil should continue without me. However, he gave me ‘the talk’ and we pushed on to the checkpoint.

The Irn Bru Saga

Holy poo! How much Irn Bru can one man drink? You’d think I’d been sponsored by them – I probably downed another litre or so of what I described as Ambrosia and I consumed several delicious pieces of flapjack. This was intended to power me through the final phase and I had no intention of stopping now but Neil was looking strong and I really was not.

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Neil let me walk off my Irn Bru burping as we headed back towards the river and then explained he was going to employ a step count for running but after the first 100(200) running steps I could tell I was done and I insisted that he go on without me. No amount of Irn Bru was going to get me through this and with the light fading it seemed rather unfair to ruin the finish time for both of us. Thankfully though I was willing to give the step count a final crack and I found a second wind and the pace we were moving at was bumbling but steady. In no time at all we were through the little housing estate, past the café and onto the path by the river.

I finally knew were I was but I also knew that the downhill at the start was now set to become a terrifying, in the dark, race to the finish.

We managed to avoid putting our headtorches on until we reached the forest and the climb. It was here I felt I could smell the finish and found myself reaching for another gear as I pressed the pair of us into a reasonably pacey death march. Climb, climb, climb I could hear in my head. We had almost reached the summit when we stopped briefly for a hint of respite and in the distance we both thought we saw the twinkling of a headtorch – this was all we both needed to make sure we did not drop the pace.

BOOM. We were off.

We pushed onwards but more importantly downwards – all the time watching my Suunto as it passed 65km and then 66km and then 67km. I was dog tired and sore and all I wanted was the finish. The down to the finish would have been challenging enough in the light but in the dark it was frustratingly challenging and neither of us wanted to take a tumble at this late stage. In the distance between the trees though we finally saw the twinkling of lights and realised we had made it – we tumbled down to the bottom of the final rise whereupon I insisted we jog over the finish line.

And laughing as we crossed the finish line is all you can hope for when you’ve just survived the awesome Tweed Valley Ultra. Great race.

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Key points

  • Distance: 65km (68km)
  • Profile: Deceptive and beautiful
  • Date: November 2018
  • Location: Tweed Valley (Near Peebles)
  • Cost: £50
  • Terrain: Trail
  • Tough Rating: 2.5/5

Route
The route for the Tweed Valley Ultra was quite interesting in that the trail bits where spectacular and some of the good paths/tarmac were pleasant. If you have never been to the Tweed Valley then you’d really enjoy the sights and in fairness if you were a a regular in the Tweed Valley I’m confident this will take you on new and exciting paths.

The changing nature of the surfaces made this a mostly runnable event although having a steep climb at the start did sap the energy from my legs and meant I felt like I was constantly playing catch-up with own fitness levels.

Organisation
Fabulous volunteers and marshals who all  had a massive smile for the runners and for whom nothing seemed too much trouble. As for organisation this has to be rated as top notch – everything worked. The website, the GPX file, the map and the pre race event notes were mostly comprehensive and the on the day organisation at both the start and the finish is to be highly commended.

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Awards
A bespoke medal and a good quality t-shirt (and as much Irn Bru as I could drink).

Value for money
£50 is an excellent price for this well organised and friendly ultra from a company that is attracting both the seasoned ultra runners as well as first timers. If you fancy spending a few pennies with High Terrain Events then you will not be disappointed

Mentions
I would very much like to say thank you to the awesome Neil MacRitchie for always being there for his fellow ultra runners no matter the state they find themselves in.

Conclusion
I’ve now been living in Scotland for 8 weeks, I arrived the day I should have run the Ochil Ultra, I ran Jedburgh with no training and now I’ve completed the Tweed Valley with nothing more than a tenacious attitude and a lot of Vaseline. This is a great race and for me it was made all the better by coming across lots of lovely ultra runners. High Terrain should take pride in the fact that they are putting on a really, really good event, suitable for all levels of ultra runner and I am now seriously considering Kielder for 2019.

Well done guys and thanks.

YJJW7237

Sunday was a weird kind of day, I should have been completing The Fellsman in Yorkshire but an injury meant that I had withdrawn a few weeks ago as Yorkshire from Kent is a long way to travel for a DNF. However, I didn’t fancy not doing any racing this weekend and so with a bit of a look through the listings I found ‘The Chicken Run’ at Herne Bay on the Kent coastline. A 5km race isn’t a distance I do very often anymore but today was a reminder that this is a distance that I love.

Anyway let me roll back a little and to about 8.30am when I get into the drivers seat of the Big car for the first time and started the terrifying near hour journey to the coast. The weather was grey and overcast and my newly minted bad mood was as grey as the sky given my new found mental strength to bad food. However, unlike the weather my bad mood abated and we parked up half a mile from the start line at Herne Bay pier. I always get a lovely sensation when I arrive at any British seaside town, presumably derived from my university time in Blackpool and so with a spring in my step I bimbled onto the pier with ASKruns and the GingaNinja.

There was a small queue of runners who had arrived before me to face the whipping winds of Herne Bay pier and who, once they had registered, hid behind a nice big wind breaker near the California food stall! The team of volunteers from the Strode Park Foundation were doing a top notch job getting everyone geared up with the obligatory costume and keeping everyone’s spirits up with cheer despite the slightly soggy conditions.

I did as all other runners did and hid behind the wind break and put my costume over my usual 5km kit of t-shirt and shorts. It was a little while later that all the runners were called over for the ‘photo opportunity’ – this involved sitting astride the merry-go-round and getting to know some of the other runners. It was a really nice way to set things off. This was followed by a bit of a chicken roast from the guys at Bay Running as they got us warmed up for the run.

All this was taking place for my daughter to see who, during races, traditionally sees me nervous and a little stressed. Today though she was seeing me dressed like a chicken, flapping my wings and generally having fun.

We were taken to the beginning of the race at the start of the pier, I took up my customary position near the back of the field and with a crack we were off! Dozens of flapping and running chickens headed off along the coast. Despite the weather being grey the rain was mostly light and it was near perfect conditions for running. Yes there was a wind that was making progress harder than it might have been but the sight of so many lovely fowl based runners was quite the inspiration.

There was a problem though about a kilometre in and that was I found myself at the front of the race. Now some may say this is a lovely thing but for someone who hasn’t led a race for a long time this was quite confusing and as I passed the army of volunteers and supporters who were lining the course I felt compelled to say, ‘help, I don’t normally go this fast’.

Thankfully at about 1.5km I took a wrong turn and Lucy who had been acting as my shadow called out that I needed to follow the coastal path.

Runners were now catching up too but I put this out of my mind and pressed Lucy as hard as I could until I was keeping pace with her. We reached the turnaround point together and both put a spurt on and as we were together we began chatting a little more. We reached the one significant climb in the race and I put all my mountain running experience to good use and pushed on.

My companion started to lag a little and so I called out to her that she could easily take me if she pushed a little harder – and she did push and pushed really well – which in turn gave me the incentive to keep going outside my comfort zone!

Behind us the other runners were not that far and with the pier now in sight I could see a top three finish being possible!

Normally my more selfless self would come out and I’d have helped her keep pace to the end but the selfish side of me wanted to hear the winning roar of the crowd and for my daughter to witness me coming home first. I pushed the afterburner button and my legs found that final sprint, probably 400metres from the end and I was determined to make sure I would hit the pier first.

I took a sneaky look over my shoulder and saw the two male runners creeping up on second place but I was clear enough that I could shout to ASK who cheered me home.

My chest was pounding and on fire but I hurtled through the ribbon to my first win over any distance for 4 years!

Conclusions: it might not have been The Fellsman but this lovely inaugural event was really, really well organised, it was a whole load of fun and really good value (chicken suit, medal, lots of support, water on the course and of course some post race chocolate egg – chicken and the egg… get it). The volunteers (I’ll assume from the Strode Park Foundation) were superb and must be both thanked and congratulated in equal measure. The course was really quite testing – with a decent incline on the way out and a nice steep incline on the way back with as fast a finish as you could ever want. The costume element of the race was a bit of fun but most welcome if I’m honest. I would highly recommend joining this lovely 5km by the sea – even if it’s blowing a gale! Brilliant.

Check out the Strode Park Foundation here and their charitable aims and I’m sure the Chicken Run 2019 will be available for entry later in the year!

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

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

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

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

But the race…

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

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

Here’s the overview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a race!

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

Key points

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There have been a number of excellent blog posts this year about running and photography. I think my favourite was the ‘Mind Over Matter’ blog (read the original post here) about the subject and it got me thinking about the way I photograph and are there any tips I can impart that may help you to tell more compelling visual stories?

The Mind Over Matter piece suggests that blogging is big business and that photography has (in some cases) gone ‘business’ too with professional photography being bought in to create that more refined look. However, the post continues by arguing that this all looks very ‘samey’ and I couldn’t agree more.

For me photography is the capturing of a genuine moment in time and not the creation of a set-up, now that’s not to say that I haven’t put a camera on timed and attempted to capture me going in full flight but if I do it’s for my own amusement or the amusement of Instagram and the running was still genuine. If anyone had ever seen the tail end or start of my running videos then it’s usually me dropping camera on the floor followed by dipping down to collect it as I run past again. Basically what I’m saying is I’m more likely to disengage with something I consider contrived and overthought than something genuine (a word to the wise for the big brands methinks).

Therefore I’ve looked at the things I do based on 20 years of professional creative experience and also my experience using a variety of cameras in ‘action’ scenarios to create a series of tips as to how you might try taking action (but in particular) running footage.

Angles. The simplest trick you can add to any photograph (running or otherwise) is to change the angle you are shooting from. Shooting at face height has a tendency to all look the same – so use your camera to shoot from the sides, below and above.

Tip: Gorilla grips let me quickly hang my camera from above or to attach to difficult to reach places or to act as a tripod, they are relatively inexpensive and incredibly useful for finding more exciting angles.

Motion. A photograph should have a focus and in running photography that focus is usually the runner but that leaves the rest of the shot to convey that you are moving. Landscapes behind that are slightly softer in focus or in some cases dramatically softer in focus can help better capture your experience.

Locations. If you want to you can take your running photos in dog turd alley but will it give you the kind of photograph you wish to share or keep? Always look up and around and when you see a location that will enhance your photograph then capture it.

If you’re taking photographs with social media in mind then maybe consider you want to highlight new and exciting things – I found that seeking out new things even on my shorter RunCommutes helped keep things interesting both in exercise and photography terms.

Tip. If like me you are London based then photographs of me running past Big Ben aren’t as interesting and nuanced as discovering a new sculpture down a hidden street or finding another of those little blue plaques that London is filled with. New locations, new directions, new trails, new backdrops – keep it exciting, keep it fresh.

Stability. How far do you want to go in your investment in order to produce incredible steady footage? A gimbal is an expensive item generally and it’s going to be a personal preference as to whether you like them or not. I’m not really a fan and believe you’re better grabbing more realistic footage that shows the movement of the subject.

Tip: a reasonably steady hand and a willingness to experiment are the key requirements here. In my opinion a series of short bursts of photographs or video will mean you end up with a more compelling and action led visual story than if you shoot dozens of minutes of gimbal stabilised footage.

Safety. Photography while running can be a bit like using your mobile phone while driving – it is a distraction. On more than one occasion I’ve seen runners on the Southbank taking selfies running into people and I myself nearly brought the Skye Trail Ultra to a swift conclusion when attempting to get my GoPro out I took a nasty tumble down the ridge – breaking my selfie stick and slicing my leg open in the process

Basically take photographs when it is safe to do so or as a memory from my childhood pops into my head, ‘Stop, Look, Listen’.

Enlist help. Having someone to press the button as you’re flying by is perhaps the best way of capturing running photographs. When the GingaNinja attends races she becomes my unofficial race photographer and has learned to dip down at the race line, to capture me when I’m in full stride and to grab surrounding/background shots for blog posts. One could argue that’s the sign of true love.

Tip: Run with your dog? Strap a harness on them, cool angles and madness ensue!

Don’t worry. So you’ve just done 10 good miles, weather was great, conditions were lovely and muddy and the route was fantastic – but you didn’t take any photography because you were in the moment. That’s no problem – there will be other occasions.

Tip: If you feel like it you can always add an extra few hundred metres of sprints, hills, mud, whatever to give more consideration to camera position and how you wish the running to be portrayed.

Tip: If running selfies/running photos are your thing then don’t be intimidated by people around you. Whip your camera out, point and click happy!

The right camera. There’s not much point using your GoPro for finish line photography – that isn’t what it’s designed for, nor would it be really appropriate to whip out your DSLR at the 75 mile point of a hundred miler.

Small compact cameras are awesome for taking with you as they’re thin, lightweight and have good battery life. However, if you have a modern smartphone that’s going to cover most needs.

However, smartphone photography come with the cost to your battery, the potential for damage by dropping it and how effective your waterproofing is. Running saw the destruction of no less than three iPhone 5s because of moisture (both rain and sweat) I’m hoping that iPhone 8 will be a little more resilient.

Timers v Video Snapshot v Bluetooth button. Modern telephones and action cameras have a variety of useful aids to help you capture specific moments.

iPhone for example has a 3 and 10 second timer which will capture 10 shots of you across a short period of time – this is excellent once you’ve learnt to filter out the rubbish photographs this generates. However, if you’re moving like poo off a shovel it will struggle to focus.

The shutter speed of the iPhone (your mobile phone shutter speed will vary) is often not quick enough to capture a well focused and crisp image in anything other than perfectly lit conditions and then there is the setup. The possible solution is a discreet Bluetooth camera button (available for most phones for about £15) – this has the capacity to help you activate your camera without the need to use the timer and therefore have a greater degree of control.

Ultimately it’s all a hit and miss process but practice makes perfect.

I find the action camera setup is generally much quicker – drop harness/grip/stick in position, click camera to film and then spin back to enter frame as you’d envisioned, grab image in post production later and if you are shooting on a 4k (or even lower HD) action camera then the output should give you something to work with for most of the formats you’ll be using the images in.

Tip: If it’s raining when you’re shooting then wipe your camera lens down to avoid water droplets on your shots

Lighting. This can be challenging as you’re on the go and you have to work with what’s in front of you. But consider things like the position of the sun as you’re grabbing a selfie, it’s annoying if you’ve got the face right, the action right and the background looking cool if you then shoot into direct sunlight and burn everything out or shoot in such dark shadow that nothing shows up.

Tip: Alter the times if day you ‘photorun’ to use the differing light levels, this can make even your ‘go to’ route seem quite different.

At night running photography becomes even more challenging – the flash will ruin most photographs but you run the risk of out of focus images if you do it without.

The key to night time photography is being selective and taking your time. By this I mean consider natural light sources, road lighting, headtorch light and the general pace of the action, you can shoot everything and anything if you like but you’ll simply end up with full memory cards and lots of unusable images.

Tip: Dress for photography, black on black is fine but adding a splash of colour will make you easier to spot – especially in low light conditions

My recent trip to the SainteLyon was filled with decent night time race photography (blog suitable at least) because I was conscious of the conditions and was patient, waiting for the right points to grab the shots I wanted.

Post production. This makes it sound like a Hollywood movie rather than a action photograph but having some photo editing software to lighten or balance images just makes things that little bit tidier. For the social media vampires amongst us the various social platforms all integrate reasonably good editing tools. You don’t need Photoshop to ensure great storytelling

Tip: GoPro edit software is really rather good and easy for grabbing snapshots and cutting up your videos into snapshots of your experiences. Other software is readily available – I’m perhaps luckier in that I have Premiere installed on my phone which makes quick work of any video I want to quickly edit together but there’s thousands of great little apps whatever your editing platform.

Anything else?

Tip: Find of way of comfortably carrying your camera kit that allows for easy access but also keeps out of the way. I use Ronhill trail leggings that have two flush to the body stretch pockets on each leg that I put my GoPro in or one of the front pockets of any of my race vests.

Tip: A small charger – carry one! If it’s race day, (especially when you’re going to be out a long time) and you’re carrying a GoPro and your phone you may require a little bit of juice to keep your phone going. I can be bigger for tweeting, photographing and videoing events and I find I burn through my battery pretty swiftly – fine on a 10km but not so cool on a mountain ultra when you may need your phone for location or emergency services. A small charger is about the size of a lipstick and will certainly keep your phone going if you’ve been a little too ‘snap happy’.

In a nutshell

  • Honest photographs – don’t go all fake news
  • Use the right camera for the job
  • Don’t worry if your shots don’t come out
  • Shoot lots, delete the rubbish
  • Get help for race days
  • Photograph responsibly – be safe
  • Most importantly, try new things, experiment, have fun

and in answer to the question in the title, yes I probably am secretly running selfie obsessed – I’ve been accused (via Twitter users) of not taking my racing and running seriously enough, more interested in taking pictures than the event I’m doing. All I can say to that is, ‘caught red handed!’ 😁

After the South Wales 50 I wrote about how, mostly, my first half of 2017 had been pretty good with positives driving me forward towards my endgame and even the failures provided really useful information for future planning.

Sadly the second half of 2017 was a disaster.

I suppose the year unravelled when my partners mother passed away in early August and it all went a bit downhill from there.

I just didn’t turn up to the start line of the London to Brighton because of injury and exhaustion but had recovered enough in time to make hard work of the RunWimbledon Marathon. That proved to be my only September running at all and so my preparation for the Isle of Arran Ultra was woeful.

Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise when the race was cancelled less than 90 minutes in? But I had been making quite good progress and felt strong even if not amazingly so, despite my lack of match fitness. I had hoped that Arran and the running and hiking in Scotland would give me the lift I needed to commit to improving the second half of the year and even with Arran’s cancellation I enjoyed my Scottish running adventures going across numerous bloody enormous hills.

However, upon our return to Kent my running was sidelined by the worst chest infection I’ve had in years and while I battled through the first week of it the rest of October was a write off and I had to defer my entry to the Rebellion Ultra Marathon – once again through a lack of readiness. However, by the middle of November I had finally cleared the chest and I could resume some training and with less than 2 weeks before the SainteLyon I started to run again.

With a couple of biggish weeks in the bag I went to France and despite some truly hideous and in places dangerous conditions I ran the SainteLyon with all the gusto I could muster. It was a great feeling to be back in Lyon but even the joy of this outstanding race couldn’t hide my disappointment of a mere 2,000 miles run and a lot less racing than normal over the year.

However, though my 2017 ultra running ended in France there was to be a final run out as a family at the Mince Pi: A run of two decimal places. The GingaNinja had asked if we could find a race to do say 5km – the trouble is that to run together requires us to run with the toddler. Thankfully in Wacky Events we found an RD willing to allow us to race with our daughter being pushed on the Unirider!

This wonderful event proved to be the right year end to running, it involved my two favourite people, it involved trail running in winter and it has provided a bit of inspiration to the GingaNinja to kick on with her own personal fitness goals.

Can’t say fairer than that can you?

Highlights

  1. Returning to the SainteLyon
  2. Returning to Scotland for both racing and training
  3. Meeting Pete and Ryan at the South Wales 50
  4. Racing alongside ASK and the GingaNinja at the Westminster Mile
  5. Attempting MIUT and not letting failure break me

Lowlights

  1. The death of my partners mother
  2. The broken Petzl headtorch debacle at UTBCN
  3. The cancellation of the Arran Ultra
  4. Missing London to Brighton and The Rebellion
  5. Being ill or injured most of September through to November

So that was 2017 but what about 2018?

2018 looks like a very complex year in that we are going to try and move to Scotland for a better work life balance, the bonus for me will be proximity to the hills and mountains I love so much. However, the downside is that I need to not be racing so much – which is a disappointment.

The year has started well enough though with a New Years Day shakedown at the Lamberhurst 5km and the first weekend will bring the East Hanningfield trail marathon and there is a January 100 mile virtual challenge which should ease me back into bigger and bigger monthly miles.

February will be a return to the Vigo 10, which with a move so far north on the cards, may be my final return to my favourite race and then we have space in the calendar.

Thankfully I’ve put my bank account to damn fine use and entered the West Highland Way Challenge Race in May and The Rebellion will follow in November (as will a second crack at the Arran Ultra subject to it running again).

There are things I won’t return to though such as my reduction in racing/running over the summer, although it aided me in avoiding the sun I used it as an excuse to stop training and that wasn’t the idea.

The first half of 2017 had been so positive and I wonder if I hadn’t halted the momentum I had gained would my second half have been better – even given family circumstances at the time?

Still new year, no point moping about what has been and it’s now the 3rd January and I’m already 18.6 miles of running into my January 100 mile Virtual Challenge, woohoo!Having been reading lots of blogs and the like recently about the variety of adventures you’re all going in it looks like there’s some good stuff about to happen. Mostly I read them because I’m always keen to hear about your own adventures so I can try them myself and I’ve found some of my best experiences because I tried something you suggested to me or suggested to me I your own writing – so keep it up please!

Anyway, enough of this jibber jabber, it’s raining outside and blowing a gale so, ‘Let’s crack on and enjoy adventuring’.

Mince Pi Photographs: Hayley Salmon

‘I think I need another race,’ where the unlikely words to come out of the GingaNinja after the Mince Pi Run. It’s not that she has suddenly become enamoured with the idea of running or racing its more to do with the need to be healthy and a healthy example to ASK. With that in mind I found the Lamberhurst 5km event on New Years Day – a little road bimble that I had imagined would be a nice and easy leg stretcher. Let me assure you readers that the Lamberhurst event (the 5 or 10km) is no easy bimble but it is a shedload of fun – this is what happened…

Living about 30 miles from the race start I decided to use the opportunity to practice my driving along the country roads of Kent and with the rain being heavy this was going to prove a big challenge for someone who finds the idea of driving a nerve shredding experience. Thankfully I pulled into Lamberhurst at about 9.30am just as Google had predicted with all three of my runners intact.

Our GingaNinja inspired attendance was supplemented by myself and ASK for a 5km party of three. We ambled along to the village hall where I got a sense that the route wasn’t as flat as I had imagined… hmm. Still we grabbed our race numbers, a toilet stop and then waterproofed ASK (as she would be ‘running’ on the Unirider offering inspiring words to her mum) and soaked up some of the post New Years Eve cheer that clearly was still in the air.

As is often the way at races where ASK runs with us on the Unirider we receive lots of attention and this was no different with many of our fellow runners wishing us well or offering a cheery nod to ASK – something that I believe makes the experience much more positive for my toddler.

At the start line we chatted with more runners even as the rain began its downpour! ASK advised that she was getting wet but I promised that we would soon be running and wouldn’t notice the rain. At least half of that was true and we soon set off with the GingaNinja a little behind us.

The first challenge was a wonderfully steep hill and we shouted encouragement to the GN to keep on going as the hill got steeper. ASK and I powered past people and reached the first section to flatten out and gave the GN a chance to catch up, but our respite was short lived and we were all soon pushing onwards and with the field clear of the faster runners we could trundle happily along in the wet conditions.

ASK and I weaved in and out of the route and the remaining runners as we headed downward and back toward the village hall, giving the Unirider a real race test on the tarmac rather than the trails we normally run on.

Straight from the downhill though we entered our second significant climb but the GingaNinja had paired up with one of the lovely runners and I had got chatting to a lovely chap called Kev who like me had a youngster and was a Mountain Buggy user for taking his son out. Of course we chatted about the Unirider but also general running and this helped make the event much more fun for all. Of course ASK and I circled back to ensure that we all stayed together – this was very much a family race – and we continued to shout encouragement as the race progressed.

As we entered the next downhill we went a little quicker but my problem was that the heavy rain had stayed on the race course and ASK was getting mildly wet feet, actually very wet feet – thankfully like the superhero she is she didn’t complain and we thundered down the hill being greeted by the returning runners from the turnaround point.

We passed through what looked like a country house at the turning point and passed a grandfather and granddaughter running together – both looking brilliant and I used the young lady as an example to ASK of what she could be doing if she carries on being active. ASK was excited by this as the girl was almost all in pink!

The final climb was also the most challenging given the water on the course and its steep nature but both myself and the GingaNinja gave it our all and I suggested that we would wait at the top of the hill for her (and shout out support of course). I wheeled in behind the lovely marshal but had made a minor miscalculation in my turning circle and ASK fell off the Unirider for the first time. Thankfully we were almost stopped and no harm was done other than some wet gloves and a bit of a shock. There were also a few tears and so I cuddled my awesome little daughter and said, ‘don’t tell your mum’. She replied with the, ‘alright dad’ and jumped straight back on. However, her hands were now cold and with the rain still heavy she wanted to finish.

I told the GingaNinja what had happened and all credit to both of them we sped up to get back to the warm as fast as possible. The downhill was fun and I think we all enjoyed the run into the line with people cheering my daughter in and I heard the GingaNinja gave her name called out.

We finished and collected medals (mine immediately becoming the property of ASK) and headed indoors where we stripped off and put on warmer kit. What a belter!

Conclusions: Incredibly family friendly, lots of youngsters doing the child’s race, lots involved with their parents and grandparents in the main race. A nice, warm village hall at the start and a really, really fantastic route that could be as fast or as sedate as you wanted. The Lamberhurst races should be everyone’s start to the year and with the opportunity to grab a wonderful medal who wouldn’t want to do this on a wet New Years Day? Another great event from Nice Work and thanks for letting ASK take part with the Unirider, we are very grateful.


I woke up in the Caledonian Sleeper train to a hot cup of tea and the smell of the outskirts of Glasgow to warm me as I prepared to join a group of suitably idiotic ultra runners on a race across the stunning northern Arran landscape – this was a race and an event I was very much looking forward to. At around 6pm I headed over the short stretch of water from mainland to the island and arrived as both the dark and the wet had caught up with me. However, with my accommodation some miles away I needed to get registered and ready for the race start at 6am the following morning. Thankfully  rather than reach the race registration I was sent over to the delicious pasta party a few feet across the road and my plans suddenly changed for the better.


It was here that the journey really started as the organisers welcomed the final stragglers to the inaugural Ultra Trail Scotland on the Isle of Arran. I grabbed a bowl of the delicious chicken and leek soup and chatted with Ross and James, two of the runners I’d met on the way up, to our left one of the chief race architects Casey Morgan was going through the race briefing with the Spanish contingent who had travelled over, some of whom were competing in the AlpinsUltra series of races, of which Arran was the final awesome stop.


We took a detailed race briefing from Andrew, who went through things in just the right amount of detail and ensured that we got to ask all the relevant questions.

Andrew also resolved some accommodation issues for both James and I as he said we would be welcome to share the bunk house space they had secured (as they had a couple of spare bunks). This meant that James didn’t have to camp and I didn’t have to travel halfway down the island in the rain with a heavy pack. Andrew and the team really didn’t have to do this, nor provide transport to the bunk house but they did and it would be fair to say that they went over and above their duty of care to the runners at every stage.

Race morning started at 4.30am, James and I dressed and left the bunk house for the mile hike up to the registration hall and arrived in time to catch a nervous merriment rolling around the runners. With just a few minutes before the scheduled 6am start we headed towards the coastline and boom we were off! 

Before I’d entered I hadn’t really known what to expect, hadn’t really known what kind of pace everyone else would be going and hadn’t assumed that I would get close to the finish and when we set off I realised how tough even the easy sections were likely to be.

I was running near to the front of the pack, half a dozen runners all striding forward as quickly as they could and although I knew I couldn’t maintain this pace I figured that given my uphill speed is atrocious I should make up for it in the flats and descents. However, the first piece of ‘flat’ was on the sandy beach – something of a nemesis for me – but I ploughed through following the speedgoats ahead of me until we heard the calls of the runners behind suggesting we had gone the wrong way! 1km in and already some of us had had navigational problems. We doubled back and rejoined the throng of runners and thankfully going the wrong way woke me up a bit and I slowed my pace to something more consistent with a middle aged man trying to stay youthful! Ha! I also fixed the mapping on my Suunto (which had gone a bit bonkers) because the field was small enough that I would inevitably lose sight of my fellow competitors and would need the GPX file working.

Despite the dark I could see the first climb up to Goatfell ahead of me and in the distance I could hear the rumble of a waterfall. It was here that I met James again and for a while we shadowed each other but keeping to our respective races. I was making decent time uphill, nothing spectacular but doing basic calculations in my head I was projecting that I should finish the race even accounting for significant slowing later in the day.

The ground below was wet, rocky and undoubtedly dangerous. I’ve come a long way in the last few years where I now feel confident and competent to run on difficult and more technical trails (even without my poles) and here I felt like I was in my natural environment and happy with it. Even my fresh out of the box Altra Lone Peak 3.5 were loving these trail ascents and Altra proving once again that you can put them on for the first time in a race day and thankfully not encounter any shoe problems.

In the distance I could see head torches flickering periodically and I pushed on to try and make up ground on them but the weather was closing in around us. Despite this though I was able to switch my headtorch off and use the dim dawn light to guide me.

It was then that some of the frontrunners appeared before me – heading down. I asked what was wrong, wondering if they needed aid but they simply shouted ‘fini’. I assumed they were calling it a day and so pressed on a little further until more runners came at me, ‘race over – it’s too dangerous, they’ve made a safety call, the ridge isn’t passable, even Casey can’t find the path safely’.

I looked up for a few moments and despite only being 150metres from the first summit I knew it was dangerous as visibility had dropped to next to nothing. I was disappointed and deflated and weighed up my options a) hike back feeling sorry for myself b) continue onwards without the race support but be a clear danger to myself and the rescue teams or c) hammer the downhill home and run this like a gud’un!


Well I wasn’t going to feel sorry for myself, not in these stunning surroundings and I certainly wasn’t going to endanger life and limb so it was the final choice – hammer it home and have some fun.

I turned on my heel and gave chase to a couple of the runners ahead of me and thundered as quick as my feet could carry me downhill. Leaping over rocks, slipping and sliding around but ultimately in control I was having a blast – my only complaint being that I knew it would end far too soon.

The light was now up and for the first time I could finally see Arran and the mountains behind me showed off their majesty – it would have been brutal but brutally amazing.

I arrived back to the faces of runners and organisers, all being incredibly professional, all incredibly disappointed. Tea, bacon and egg sandwiches and support flowed throughout this small, hardy community and ultimately it was the right decision to cancel the race.

I was grateful just to have gotten out there and seen even a tiny fraction of this wonderful island and I’ll be going back because this is a race to do. Thanks Ultra Trail Scotland – you guys have an amazing race on your hands and with a bit of nurture you’re going to have a great event next year – see you there.

Key points

  • Distance: 71km
  • Profile: Ballbusting ascents and descents
  • Date: October 2017
  • Location: Isle of Arran
  • Cost: £80
  • Terrain: Mixed, trail, muddy trail, off trail, boggy, technical – basically the lot
  • Tough rating: 4.5/5

Route: I didn’t get to run the whole route, in fact I barely got started before the race was cancelled amid concerns for runners safety due to the weather and visibility. However, the section I did run (and my subsequent bits of running around the island) showed Arran to be the kind of place you need to run and the route selected by the organisers promised nothing but the best that Arran and perhaps Scotland has to offer. If you’re an ultra runner this route will not disappoint and if you want a shorter Arran test there’s the vertical and the 25km.

Organisation/Marketing: The organisation was first class, Andrew, Casey, Noreen and the rest of the team really covered everything during our time on Arran and as well as supervising the races they looked after everyone too in the pre-race and in the aftermath of cancellation. You really couldn’t have asked for any more from them.

One thing though as a thought for next year is the marketing of the event – I would love to see this grow, be a success and become a regular on the ultra calendar but I only found out about this because I saw the Rat Race version but knew I wanted a more intimate event – but I had to dig to find this event. So please get the word out as far and wide as you can because if you like a bit of bog and a bit of climbing this is the run for you!

Conclusion: I might not have finished but I had an amazing time, met some amazing people and got to run part of an amazing route. Ultra Trail Scotland deserves another crack with decent weather (or just not really shitty weather – annoyingly the weather on the days either side was pretty damn good). This is going to be a top drawer event in the future and you’re all going to want to be a part of it! As a special note I’d like to thank everyone involved for making this the most awesome and weirdest 40th birthday present I could ever have gotten for myself.

You can find out more by visiting the website ultratrailscotland.com or find them on Twitter as ‪@findadrenaline ‬

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And the rock cried out no hiding place. And it was correct, in ultra marathons there is no hiding place – especially from yourself.

The question I’m asking myself is, have I stopped hiding and am I making forward progress? Well the last six months are the first real test of that question – so how did I fare?

The 2017 halfway point: I love running, I hate running – it’s a perfect balance and 2017 has, so far, given as much as it has taken at the halfway point.

I’m not going to dwell on two DNFs (I’ve done that enough) instead I’m considering the huge positives I can take from my first six months of the year and look forward with enormous pleasure to my second six months.

The good

  • Finishing my third Vigo 10
  • Running on awesome trails in Barcelona and Madeira
  • Completing the Hockley Woods Challenge, Marlborough Downs Challenge, South Wales 50, Amersham Ultra and Escape From Meriden
  • Running the Westminster Mile twice, once with the family, once solo
  • Managing to get a medical certificate signed
  • Being told my heart is in tip top condition
  • Losing 6kg in weight
  • Deciding that, as a family, we need to move to Scotland and be closer to the mountains

The Bad

  • Failed to complete a race purchase therefore missing out on Winter Tanners
  • Let down by failing Altra Lone Peak 3.0
  • DNF at Madeira
  • DNF at Barcelona
  • Petzl head torch failure at the first time of in race usage
  • Put on 3kg in weight

The good stuff has been really, really good and the bad stuff has been a bit ‘meh’ I mean it’s not like the world caved in – it’s just running.

The South Wales 50 probably serves as the ultra highlight for me because I met two wonderful runners, had an awesome time and finished in a reasonable albeit not exceptional time. But the real highlight was having UltraBaby banging out a mile in a decent time and fully understanding the concept of racing and earning her reward – I was both a proud parent and runner at that moment.

The low point was obviously going to be Barcelona and realising I was going to have to DNF on a technicality rather than for running reasons – I was pretty furious and disappointed.

However, despite my misadventures I feel like I’m making positive progress towards my endgame and I knew before I started on this segment of the journey that failures would be fairly regular.

Perhaps my regret in my racing over the last six months is that Meriden killed off any chance I had of taking part in the South Wales 100. But this did set me up for a truly outstanding experience on the 50 with Ryan and Pete. South Wales was also a really good finishing point for the end of the first half of the year as it felt like I have properly succeeded at something and it means that mentally I go into preparations for my coming races and training with a positive attitude.

Upcoming
It’s a bit weird really, much like the start of the year I’m effectively having two months off where I can focus on training and family without the interruption of racing.

Therefore July and August will have a series of long runs on the outskirts of London and across Kent to prepare me for racing again which begins in early September with the return of the London to Brighton race.

The time off from racing will I hope get me through the summer without a case of serious dehydration or further DNFs as I found last summer and the one before to be a dreadful time for racing.

Ultimately I have reduced the amount of racing I do and I am seeing some benefits but there’s still much improvement to make, the challenge now is to improve my results in the second half of the year and continue to have a bloody good time.

Testing myself 

September London to Brighton will be a test of pace. Can I knuckle down enough to complete the 100km in under 14hrs? And can I navigate the course well enough to end up where I need to be. Given that I’ve clearly lost ‘half a yard’ to use a football reference and my navigation skills, although improving, are still not amazing, I will be very pleased to get through this unscathed. 

October Ultra Trail Scotland: Arran was the final race in my 2017 calendar to be confirmed and I can’t wait. At only 75km this should be a fairly simple test but with a little over 5,000metres of positive elevation this is set to be as brutal as the section of MIUT that I ran and anything but simple – the difference is that this will be autumnal Scotland not a pleasant spring day in Madeira. 

November The Rebellion sees me head to Wales again in November for a bit of a bimble through the hills. At 135miles this will be the longest distance I’ve tackled and I’m not intending to be quick but I’m also not planning on using the full 72hr time allocation. I signed up for this after the bitter disappointment of dropping from the SW100 to the SW50. Looking forward to this one.

December SainteLyon is my favourite race and I’ll be returning for more midnight shenanigans in Lyon. I’m sure I’ll still be a giant puddle of mess after The Rebellion but this glorious race fills me with unexplainable joy. I’m hoping to improve on my time from my first attempt but I’ll simply be pleased to returning a city and an event I really did fall in love with.

So that’s my second half of the year – four races left that cover mountains, speed, distance and love – you can’t ask for much more really.

But what about you? How has your running been so far this year? All going to plan? None of it going to plan? What’s left in the race calendar? and most importantly are you having fun? 

Happy running. 


Skye Trail Ultra (The Ridge)
‘It’s this way’ I called over to Neil and pointed southwards and then I looked down, the descent was terrifying and amazing in the same instant, being awestruck though was soon replaced by the reality that I had to descend this.

SainteLyon (highest point)
From the viewing point, at 3am on a cold December morning, I stopped to turn back and watch the twinkling of thousands of head torches in the distance gently lighting up the trail. C’est magnifique!

St Peters Way (The final push)
Darkness was upon me and a gale blew me from pillar to post. The gentle final shaft of light cast a foreboding shadow of the finish line and church in the distance. It was the most beautiful finish.

Vigo ‘Tough Love’ 10 (That Hill)
‘Don’t worry, it’s not that bad’ said an older fell running type when describing the final hill of the Vigo 10. With absolute clarity I remember creaking my neck skywards to see the top of the hill, what a sight, what a hill, what a route!

What do all these things have common? Well they were my first experience of some section of a race route and always under race conditions and most importantly the first sight of some of the most spectacular views available.

I’ve often gone back to races I’ve loved – Vigo (favourite race) and the SainteLyon (favourite ultra) are prime examples but no matter how much I love these races none of them will be able to capture the awe, joy and delight I had as I saw the route for the first time. There is something special about your first time, even if it’s not your best result at that race or it doesn’t go to plan – there’s magic in a first go at any race.

Racing fresh
I would be lying if I said I had never done a recce but on the few occasions I have I’ve found that rather than enhance my experience of a race it actually takes something away from it. Perhaps it is that when you live for the unknown, the discovery and the curiosity then having those things taken away in race removes the enjoyment (for me).

The thing is I have a belief that there is nothing better than the first moment I pass across an amazing vista, run an amazing piece of trail, soak myself in a muddy puddle and lightning, in my opinion, never strikes twice.

It’s for this reason that I don’t get running a race route in preparation. I mean why would you?

Obviously…
I understand if you’re at the front of the pack chasing the prize of a win or a high placing – you want every advantage possible and knowing where you are headed and what you’ll face will certainly count as an advantage. But if you’re a bit like me, middle of the pack bimbler, then maybe like me, you’re there for the experience of being amazed and challenged. I wonder if you any of you feel that foreknowledge of a route can deflate the joy of that?

I’m also aware that some do it for the enjoyment and some do it for the feeling of security. But if I did it I would feel as though I was robbing myself of moments I’ve come to cherish.

There is a solution…
For those that want it though there is an obvious solution to save the route while at the same time condition oneself to the terrain you’re running and that’s simply to run in as close to race conditions as possible. When I rocked up to the CCC I went running in mountains that might mimic the conditions I’d face but I didn’t go anywhere near the Monte Bianco until race day.

When I ran The Wall I spent the week prior running in the rain soaked Lake District bouncing around Grizedale, Skafell Pike and others but I didn’t get near the north of the Lakes to tackle the route.

I’d therefore picked up a bit of relevant local information without compromising my enjoyment of the event – but this isn’t always practical when you race a lot or the location is a bazillion miles away. I just don’t worry about it (that said my arse is a bit quivery about having never run on the Brecon Beacons next weekend!)

Why I’ve never run the North Downs Way… I’ve been asked why, despite living so close to it that I don’t train (often) on the North Downs Way and I’ve never really had an answer but as I was reflecting on the writing for this post I realised why – I’m waiting for a single day race to take place there that I really want to do.

Surprise yourself… I guess I’m not suggesting that you give up the preparation for races – that would be silly and counter productive for many but I’ve met lots of runners who get so caught up in the detail of a race that they forget to look up and admire their surrounds and the last time I checked running was supposed to be fun. During Escape From Meriden I met a young gentleman who when I asked why this race, he responded, ‘well you get to see new things don’t you?’. I couldn’t have put it better myself.

So with the weekend upon us, whether you are racing or not maybe go left instead of right, look upwards instead of down and make sure you ‘see new things, lots of them!’


This is a blog post that pains me to write but because I’ve written glowingly about the Altra Lone Peak 3.0 but feel it is important to provide an update to a problem encountered with my favourite running shoes.

Let me give some context to this post, I’ve purchased three pairs of Altra Lone Peak 3.0 (from Running Warehouse, London City Runner and Northern Runner).

The pair I coveted most were the burnt orange option (Running Warehouse) as I find Altra send the muted colours to the UK which doesn’t fit my running tastes profile.

I fell in love the moment I put them on and more than a couple of hundred kilometres in and I remained in love. It was at this point that I wrote my comparison review of the three main Altra trail running shoes. I couldn’t praise the changes enough, better fit, more robust, interesting design and a polish that had been missing in the 2.5 – these were brilliant.

The other two pairs (bought from independent UK retailers) were saved for racing as I train in Inov8 and On Running shoes mostly. Therefore I went to Haria Extreme with shoes that had just 3 miles on them. Thankfully unleashed on the Martian like terrain the LP3.0 returned nothing but notes of joy as they sang across the race.

What a shoe.

The morning after the race the day before: The day after the race though as I was performing my post race kit clean up I noticed that the toe bumper had come loose – this was unexpected. A total of 85km had been done in the shoes and that didn’t seem much. However, if I’m honest I was more interested in having a nice post race holiday and so packed them away (individually wrapped as ever) and thought no more about them.

For my final races of 2016 – Mouth to Mouth and the Mince Pi – I use older shoes like my Inov8 Race Ultra 290 and Lone Peak 2.0 which have lots of life in them but aren’t in my normal day to day shoe rotation so the LP3.0 stayed packed away well into the new year.

Therefore when 2017 did come calling I still hadn’t given my LP3.0 much consideration and it wasn’t until MIUT rolled round in April that I got them out again to run in.

However, looking at the damage to the toe bumper made me concerned about how they would protect me on the steep descents, more importantly might this damage provide a hazard during the more technical sections?

Being positively minded though I assumed that I had simply had one bad pair and decided to unbox my third pair and rocked up to MIUT in them. This time I was quite aware of the possibility of problems with the shoe and therefore was keen to keep an eye on them. With MIUT though the course was so ball breaking that I soon forgot to check my shoes.

It wasn’t until 50km in with daylight creeping over the horizon that I thought about my footwear and as I was shedding my night time kit and reworking my pack that I noticed that the toe bumper had started to work loose on a fresh out of the box pair!

Not cool. Not cool at all.

It was a massive disappointment because the shoe was so incredibly brilliant as it worked up and down the trails – such a tiny thing was going to ruin my experience.

Three pairs of LP3.0 and two of them failed within 50 miles and while some might argue that you can still use them I don’t feel you can use them for some of the nastier technical trails I was running earlier this year.

What next? I contacted Altra and their care team to tell them of the failures I had experienced, noting the distance I’d run in them, the terrain and as much other information that might help them provide a response.

The care team wrote back swiftly advising that they take this kind of thing seriously and hope that feedback can inform improvements later down the line and that I should in the first instance contact the people I bought the shoes from, which seemed perfectly sensible.

I very much appreciated the response from Altra USA and the reply struck the right tone for a brand on the way up.

As suggested I contacted both Northern Runner and London City Runner who were both very helpful and both offered suggestions as to why they may have failed

  1. ill fitting shoes
  2. washed in a washing machine
  3. temperature of the races I do

Sadly none of these seemed to be the case as I was fitted by Altra people for my Lone Peaks, they’ve never been in a washing machine and neither Madeira or Lanzarote were in extreme temperatures (24-26 degrees).

Northern Runner simply replaced them after seeing the damage on a series of photographs I supplied but because I’d lost my receipt and it had been many months since I’d purchased them it was more difficult for London City Runner – although the Altra supplier did say they would see what they could do*.

I’d like to stress the point that you really can’t fault the customer service, support or help in trying to find a resolution. Altra, Northern City Runner and London City Runner should be commended for dealing with me quickly. Though, it should be noted that it wasn’t replacement footwear that was at the forefront of my thinking, I just wanted to understand if there was a known issue.

The £115 a pair question! The crux of the issue and the thing I couldn’t get an answer for was ‘is this a known problem with the LP3.0?’

Understandably nobody seemed keen to answer this but if the shoe is prone to this particular failure then I simply won’t buy them anymore as at £115 for 50km running that’s a very expensive shoe.

Now it is possible I’m the only person to have suffered the toe bumper coming away but I’m not sure my running style is so distinct as to make me the only person this has happened to.

So the question now being posed is ‘Has anyone else had this problem?’ I’m interested to hear if others have faced this issue or other problems that I’ve been lucky enough to avoid.

The next version? I live in hope that the Lone Peak 3.5 resolves this very minor but hugely inconvenient problem as I’m an Altra fan and a big advocate for giving them a go. I don’t want to start looking around for new brands – it took me long enough to find this one. And in truth despite the durability problems the Altra Lone Peak 3.0 is a buggeringly good running shoe.

So Altra, get it fixed, I’ve got trails to conquer!


*Despite good initial conversations I never got round to visiting London City Runner and returning the original shoes to solve this issue as I got caught out with bouts of illness, injury and racing! Very much my own fault and I would very highly recommend all the retailers mentioned in this post.

There was a huge doubt in my mind as to whether I’d turn up to the start line of the Amersham Ultra. The reason? Well on race morning, having been upended by a nervous dog a week earlier, I was still carrying the bulk of a groin strain and the arse end of a hamstring pull having refused to DNF! I really shouldn’t have rolled up to the school hall at 8.15 on Saturday 11 March but I did and I’m very pleased that I did.

Let’s do the short version for those of you desperate to know how it was… basically if you enjoy the following; oozy mud, an undulating route, a great atmosphere and beautiful countryside then the Amersham Ultra is for you. If you don’t then I wonder how you got this far 🙂

And now to the rambling version of events. The start was located inside a school hall which, as you might imagine, brought about a bevy of long repressed memories. XNRG had arranged things for a swift registration process and there was a registration desk, T-shirt collection point, a tea and cake table, Apex Sport and some information about Humanity Direct (the charity who would be benefitting from our entry fee and running).

I was joined in the hall by the usual eclectic mix of runners and of course by UltraBaby and the GingaNinja. UltraBaby sadly was a bit ill and was mildly more manic than normal, which was to the amusement of some and annoyance to others – but ho-hum! However, it’s always a delight for me to be waved off to the two ladies in my life but my beloved hound had decided to sit this one out and he remained in bed – catching up on the 5Live I suspect.

Anyway…

Clocking in at around 30 miles this is at the baby end of the ultra running world but that should not detract from it being a very worthwhile event. I know from having done the first half of Country to Capital around these parts that there can be some tricky sections and that the Amersham Ultra while advertised as ‘for everyone’ should not be underestimated.

And with that thought and a few well chosen words from the organisers ringing in my ears we set off.

The course it is fair to say is mighty, undoubtedly runnable for the most part despite the mud and varied, it’s fair to say that there is a bit of tarmac involved but actually rather than me moan about this I’ll instead say that this was the connective tissue between the trail sections – it felt like a well considered course.


Lots of the runners set out at a good pace even though we were the 9.00am (slower) group and overall there was a genuinely positive atmosphere that passed through the groups. For a change I was mostly keeping myself to myself, trying to focus on the running rather than the chit-chat and this was working wonders except for some over heating!

By about mile 3 I realised I was wearing one layer too many and by mile 5 I was over heating. I stopped, threw off my tops and discarded one to the bottom of my much loved original UD PB vest. Now in just a t-shirt I felt much livelier and set about catching the dozen or so people who had overtaken me.

Still feeling strong I did indeed catch the runners who had overtaken me a little before checkpoint 1 but I was also aware that I could feel my hamstring and if I didn’t back off I might not make it to checkpoint 2. I had decided that I would use my ’90 second checkpoint rule’ for this race and so gulped down some orange squash and buttered malt loaf before hurling myself into the void of the second section.

I’ll make a minor tangent here to mention the truly brilliant aid station and checkpoint crews. As mentioned this is a baby distance ultra but the checkpoints and the runners were treated with the utmost respect – good, well prepared food with a good range available. The crews were upbeat, focused and never missed a beat. Absolutely superb – I understand why XNRG are so highly regarded in the ultra community.

Having now slowed a little bit I could start to think about the problem that had been pestering me since near the start and that was the epic ‘gut rot’. Thankfully I was a) still capable of running and b) fully armed with poo roll and I took full advantage of a hilly wooded area to relieve some of the enormous pressure that had been building. Relieved but with more than 10 minutes lost I set off again but noting I had managed to slice open the lower part of my shins and sweat was seeping into the open wounds.

For the third time in the race I stopped, this time to clean up the slices, then off again.

With my drama quotient filled I arrived into checkpoint 2, refilled my water and ploughed on. CP2 to CP3 would be the longest of the sections but at about 14km still was reasonably short and there was more fun to be had, although I know I got lost a couple of times which didn’t help my time but it did offer me some discreet cover for a second delivery of epic ‘gut rot’. I’ll be honest I was feeling pretty ill. However, relieved, I once again pressed on despite feeling that either my guts or my hamstring injury were going to get the better of me.

Despite my troubles I couldn’t help but delight in the route – it was for the most part very special. I met several runners throughout the day indicated that this was a ‘warm-up for the SDW50’. For me, being honest and having done the SDW50 a couple of times, Amersham was more fun, more exciting and better looking.

Anyway, with checkpoint 3 reached I had about 10 miles to go. I gulped down some lovely cola and hit the afterburner hoping to get round in as respectable a time as possible. Sadly this section brought my final trip to natures toilet (and the use of my last tissue) but I was ‘cleaned out’ to use an appropriate gambling term.

Feeling better than I had for much of the race but increasing pain through my hamstring I knew I should stop at the final checkpoint but I’d loved this route so much that I was determined to see it through.

More lovely trails greeted me as I wound my way to the finish and a glorious climb into Amersham was just reward for my efforts. Here I was joined by the delightful Sharon and I delighted in her company as we inspired each other to the finish line. As we turned into the final field and back into the school we looked around a little lost and some kindly supporters waved us towards them, we were going to make it! I could now see the finish a few hundred metres away and I turned to Sharon and said ‘end of the cones we give it a bit of welly’ and we did – crossing the line to the same beautiful support we had received all the way round.

What a bloody brilliant event! and I’ll be joining XNRG again for many more of their events I reckon – check them out here.

Key points

  • Distance: 31 miles (ish)
  • Profile: Mildly undulating
  • Date: March 2017
  • Location: Amersham
  • Cost: £48
  • Terrain: Muddy trail
  • Tough Rating: 2.5/5

Route
I feel as though I’ve already discussed my love for this route, it was a wonderfully eclectic mix of challenges that with effort could be achieved by anyone. For those that might question the value of shorter distance routes I’d say that what it lacked in big distance it provided in character and challenge – one not to be underestimated but one you’ll fall in love with. Recommended, especially in the earlier part of the year when conditions underfoot make it ‘real’ trail!

Awards
There was a truly delightful medal and an awesome t-shirt that perfectly matches my new down jacket. In addition there was tea, coffee and cakes at the beginning with free photographs thrown in just for good measure (I’m told there were prizes too but I’m too old and slow to win one of those!). You really would struggle to criticise the goodies that were heaped on this race. Excellent.


Horses
So having discussed my mid race gut rot I’ll briefly mention the horses on the course. Somewhere between the start and checkpoint one a huge herd of horses ambled politely around either side of the track, others had run through and the track itself was clear. I slowed as I approached and when they got too close let them wander past me, then it happened, like clouds on a mountain – they surrounded me.

I nearly ‘shat’ myself. Inching forward more horses came to face me down, several surly looking beasts snorting as they strode past me and then I saw my escape, a decent sized gap and I walked sensibly to the edge of the horses.

Clear(ish). I turned as I exited their thrall and what I saw next was terrifying – scores and scores of horses in a stampede across where I had been standing seconds earlier.

Had I been in there I’d have been dead but thankfully (for me at least) I wasn’t. Note to self, two races, two weeks, two incidents involving horses – a pattern?

Charity
Perhaps the nicest thing about the Humanity Direct Amersham Ultra was the charitable element. Your £48 bought you much more than a race as XNRG were donating all of the entry fee to Humanity Direct who do amazing work with those that need it most in Africa.
The race organisers, I can only assume, absorb the costs of putting on this event (medals, t-shirts, food, logistics, etc) in order that this worthwhile charity benefits from such a spectacular event. It’s fitting to say that I’m in genuine awe of the guys at XNRG and can understand were the excellent reputation they have comes from.

If you want more information about Humanity Direct click here to check out their website

Organisation
Perfect, if anything went wrong then you didn’t see it – this was a very knowledgeable team delivering a great event.

Volunteers
Having volunteered a few times at different races I know a little of what it takes to support runners and it’s fair to say that the XNRG volunteers and teams know a lot more than I do. Everyone seemed so well catered for at the start, at the checkpoints and at the finish. Every single person I met under the XNRG banner was really outstanding. Top notch.

Value for money
£48? Smallish field but never lonely, beautiful and challenging route, great medal and perhaps the best organisation I’ve seen at an ultra marathon with the added bonus of the money going to Humanity Direct. This to me is a real bargain and one of the best value for money ultras around – no it’s not £1 a mile or less but there are some very significant mitigating reasons. Everyone should be adding this to their list!

Conclusion
As you’ve read I can’t praise this race enough. For myself I ran better than expected but not as well as I would have liked given my hamstring and ‘crotchal’ region proving that this was perhaps a bit too far after the previous weeks exploits (read about last weeks race here). What I liked was that at no point did I become bored by the surroundings, at no point did I really want the race to end and thankfully it wasn’t a brutaliser. Instead of brutalising it was an excellent test of your marathon pace over tough conditions and a few spare miles to give you a fright. What the Humanity Direct Amersham Ultra gave me though was a big dollop of confidence to face down the UTBCN in two weeks time (subject to injury clearing – wish me luck!)

All in all, top marks for a top event, check it out!

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8 weeks until Haria Extreme. Turd.

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

2 weeks until Haria Extreme. Progress.

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

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

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

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

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

Original aims of 2016

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

How did it finish up? 

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

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

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

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

So without naming names – thanks.

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

What about you?

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


Well Tweeters, Facebookers or bloggers Mary (ahealthiermoo) suggested I answer a few questions about myself so I’ve done so. I’m not sure if you’re going to learning anything about me but what the hell here goes. If I had to suggest anyone I’d like to answer similar questions it would be @SarahCRunning, @ultrarunnerdan, @chelseagreg73 and @ChiltonDiva

1. What made you decide to start blogging?
I had been blogging under a different pseudonym for about 18 months but that had become confused with my life as a graphic designer and so I quit blogging, plus I’d also started to receive enough unkind comments that having my head above the parapet seemed unwise. It was at the suggestion of a friend that I consider returning under a different more anonymous guise and so UltraBoy (and subsequently UltraBaby, The GingaNinja and ThunderPad) was born. I started blogging because I wanted to write about my experiences of running – the good, the bad and the indifferent. It didn’t and doesn’t matter if it gets read as it serves very much as a record book of my time in running. I’m lucky that I have an audience for the things I write but if nobody but me read it I’d still do it. Wouldn’t you?

2. Have you ever met any other bloggers in real life before?
Strangely I’ve met lots of the bloggers, tweeters, Instagrammers and Facebookers that I follow – most by chance. For example, Mary, who nominated me to write this post, I met when I looked up to the number collection table at Country to Capital and there she was.
I’ve been very lucky in meeting my fellow bloggers (and usually runners) most have been kind, warm and with time to give and I hope that’s what I’ve been able to return (oh and some poo stories). I’d draw particular attention to the likes of UltraRunnerDan, Abradypus, Susie__Chan, Borleyrose, Conwild, RunnARGHHH, ChiltonDiva and Em1506 as examples of runners it had been my pleasure to spend time with and there are some I’m very much looking forward to meeting (when I feel less fat) such as ChelseaGreg and DT_76

3. How many blogs do you follow?
Too many, I link to most of them on my own blog but the ones I read on a semi regular basis I keep open as windows on my phones browser and I can then just dip in when it’s been a while. I’ve got favourites abradypus, ahealthiermoo, dreaming of footpaths and fat-to-fit have been consistently my favourites since I started blogging and I keep hoping that one day the Wonky Wanderer would get hers up to date or that @sarahcrunning would start writing a running blog as I’d find that fascinating I think.

I tend not to follow blogs that are all about numbers or detailing the excruciating minutiae of a race – I like to read about experience and life and so the blogs I follow are the ones that do that best.

4. As today is A level results day, what did you take for your A-levels? (Or GCSEs if you didn’t take A-levels)
Now that’s long and complicated – I studied all sorts of stuff at GCSE, 11 different subjects that I barely remember what they were and then started A levels in Art &Design, information technology, History and maybe Maths (I don’t really recall). However, a very public argument with the headteacher one afternoon about the treatment of one of his own staff set me on a different path and I went and studied Art & Design elsewhere, eventually becoming the designer I’d always wanted to be.

5. Describe your perfect ‘day off’.
I don’t have a perfect day off – I just have things I’d like to be doing so it could be buggy running, ultra running, training runs… running might feature heavily in this answer. There are other things though too, I paint, illustrate, photograph – craft basically. In my younger days I cut quite a swathe across a dance floor both at nightclubs and in a slutty tango but I don’t feel the need to do this so much anymore.

If there’s one thing though that will make a perfect day it is ‘being curious’

6. What has been your favourite running experience?
There are a few, in race terms I think the SainteLyon just pips the Skye Trail Ultra to the award simply because it didn’t hurt as much and it felt like a great big middle finger to extremism – coming as it did just three weeks after terrorist atrocities in France. The fact that it was a truly brilliant race obviously makes it pretty special and it helped to erase the terrible memories of the CCC. There are other things though, racing my Spaniel because he’s awesome and the first time I took UltraBaby running (aged 3 days old).

There’s almost too many to go into really but basically I’ve had a great time running.

7. At what point did you realise that you were no longer a non-runner?
I’ve always considered myself a runner, but still to this day I’m very much a fun runner – I remember school sports days and being quick, the 100metre sprint at secondary school and running significantly under 12 seconds, the first time I ran 10km was in Preston in 2004 and all of these memories made me feel increasingly like a runner.

8. Are you a fan of obstacle races?
Who doesn’t? My first race since I returned to running in 2011 was the Grim Challenge and I’ve loved a good OCR ever since. Interestingly I prefer an OCR with natural objects rather than man-made challenges therefore the Grim will always win out over something like Survival of the Fittest.

9. What has been your largest fitness expense?
There’s been a few wastes of money which would certainly fulfil the requirement of ‘largest fitness expense’. There was a gym membership which I had for a year and never used or there is my excessive collection of shoes – currently I have 35 pairs of shoes on the go, there was also the entry to TransGranCanaria which I decided was a race I couldn’t compete in this year.

Therefore, foreign ultras will always qualify as my largest fitness expense but my favourite big fitness expense will be the £700 I spent on the Mountain Buggy Terrain (and accessories). However, the running buggy has proved a great investment as UltraBaby and I do enjoy hitting the trails together and those are memories I hope we will both cherish for the duration of our lives.

10. What is the nicest thing anyone has ever done for you?
I haven’t spoken to my mother in 20 years – I should thank her.


I haven’t run a marathon well since my first crack at the Kent Roadrunner, since then I’ve been in a spiral downwards of injury hit crisis and increasingly slower distance.

Therefore I found myself on the start line of the Darnley Challenge with nothing more than the aim of a bimble round and an opportunity to say happy birthday to one of the race directors.

The conditions, for me, we’re not ideal – it was too warm, it was too sunny and there was going to be a fair bit of Tarmac involved (never good for the knees). I’d also not been feeling amazing over the previous few days, having caught some germs from the GingaNinja and I was still getting over the previous weekends exertions at the Vanguard Way Marathon. I wasn’t in great shape but actually I felt surprisingly okay about being there.

I caught up with Gary, who I bump into from time to time at Parkrun and I met Hannah (who had the air of being suspiciously familiar – turns out we follow one another on Twitter and more recently Instagram) and before I knew it the start was sounded and we were off.

I’d very much wanted to start at the back but had inadvertently started at the front and so I decided to get the first hill out of the way at a reasonable pace before slowing down as I got inside Jeskyns Country Park.

After dropping the pace a little I proceeded to find a steady rhythm and bounded out of the park and headed towards the very delightful Cobham. It’s funny when you live so close to these little villages that you rarely get out to them – still I was here now and took the opportunity to grab some photographs and joke with the locals about the lack of water in the pump! I passed down the high street and headed towards the mausoleum. The trail here was gravel and still hard going on my legs but I ploughed on knowing that a little further on the ground would soften and I could pick up my pace.

The surroundings of Darnley Mausoleum and Ranscombe are wild and often untamed – the reason that despite living in these parts for nearly 5 years it continues to interest me as a run and race route. I dragged myself along the tree lined path until I came to the one point I could turn the wrong way.

I peered down the hill (no runners), I peered straight ahead (no runners) and then thankfully, behind me a lady shouted ‘straight on’ and so I leapt forward now knowing roughly where I was headed. The fast downhill through Ranscombe was lovely and I allowed my legs the opportunity of space to glide down towards the trudge up the field and the halfway checkpoint.

I stayed a little too long at the CP but it was busy with runners and I was thirsty plus an SVN volunteer is always good for a laugh and a joke. Once on the move again though it was business as usual, conversation, running and making the usual dick of myself. I pressed harder here for a while and even made haste into the uphill climb out of Ranscombe. I certainly gave it more welly than I would normally bother for a training marathon.

I was back at the point I had nearly gotten lost earlier and now knew were I was headed and could switch off the GPX and simply watch the time ticking away. I almost never train with a GPS these days – I don’t enjoy watching numbers and I don’t do Strava but a new Ambit means I’ll wear it for about 3 weeks before I get bored. The Darnley Challenge was test 2 and an excellent opportunity to ensure I was doing mapping correctly before I risk the Ridgeway.

I digress… as I reached the Mausoleum on the return journey I met the brilliant Costas and we chatted a while as we ambled down beyond the trail, Cobham and through Jeskyns – he was doing all four of the weekends challenge events and with his triumph of a beard and gloriously long hair I simply marvelled at his excellent tale. We chatted about love, life and Greece, all within a few short miles and encouraged each other through the latter stages of the first lap.

With Costas though now a little way behind me and preserving his energy for the next days race I was back on the Tarmac and I could feel my ITB and knees begin to grumble. However, I shook off these moanings and made good time to the base and the turnaround point.

I stopped for more water, filled bottles and headed out for a second and final lap. The second lap was overall a little slower but there were a number of reasons for this – the first was my own fault, too much messing about taking photographs but the second was brought on by my lack of pre-race visit to the loo.

Having failed to use the facilities when they were available I had little choice at about 18 miles in but to stop, dig a small hole in the ground and fill it with what on a good day could be described as a 4 pack of melted mars bars… given I’m always prepared for this kind of thing I left my offending item and the biodegradable tissue paper suitably buried deep in the route and about 4 inches underground. Thankfully I was hidden suitably off the trail as 2 runners went past me, hopefully unnoticed – but you can never be sure (so if you did see me in a compromising position I can only apologise).

The bad news was I had lost a solid 15 minutes looking for a suitable location and delivering the payload, etc. Still I could now run again as I had been a little worried about shitting myself since about mile 14. I therefore drifted into the checkpoint and out again with no great drama – even avoiding all the delicious looking cake.

With the knowledge I was into the final 10km I took my foot off the gas and told myself I was going to coast this one in. The Challenge event had felt like decent training for the Ridgeway and I saw no point in burning myself out. The hills and heat hadn’t gotten to me – I would finish this largely pain free and my kit testing for the ridgeway had proved mostly successful.

As I came into mile 20 I could see the outline of the GingaNinja and UltraBaby driving to the finish line and so for the final push I hit the afterburner and came storming up to my daughter, arms aloft and waving wildly.

UltraBaby came running toward me, this was the reward I look for these days, but still I rang the bell and concluded my race for another mighty medal.

It had been a good day.

Look at the size of this bloody medal!

Key points

  • Distance: Marathon (8hr timed event)
  • Profile: Undulating trail/road
  • Date: August 2016
  • Location: North West Kent
  • Cost: £36
  • Terrain: Hard packed trail, road
  • Tough Rating: 2/5

Overall?
When Traviss and Rachel you know what you’ll get and that’s a fun route, lots of cake, a chocolate filled goody bag and a medal that’s too heavy to wear – the Darnley Challenge was no exception. Given that RD Traviss was celebrating his 50th birthday it’s no wonder such an effort was made with all four of the events medals and all runners will have gone home very pleased.

SVN events are truly all inclusive events and if you can do a few short miles then you can do one of these and claim a great medal and a giant piece of kudos (as well as cake). If you fancy joining them visit www.saxon-shore.com and get yourself running. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again SVN events are brilliant and I’ll be back (probably later in the year).

 

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. 


I’m not a great fan of negative reviews, either reading or writing them because it tends to be about personal experience and that’s so personal it detracts from the specifics of a thing therefore once you’ve read about my experience at Endure1250 you’ll probably think it’s the worst race in the universe and that’s not true. So if you want to read a quick guide to Endure 1250 then try the statement below

Basically Endure1250 is a decent, well organised, good value, low key timed (or distance) trail run. That statement is true but if  you want to know what happened to UltraBoy at Endure 1250 then read on but be warned – my testicles get a lot of ‘airtime’.

As I’m sure you all know summer has magically arrived in the UK which basically means it’s stupidly hot therefore I was glad that Endure1250 wasn’t kicking off until 7pm, it meant that the heat of the day could be avoided and give me a decent chance of putting some quality miles in.

Saturday though started with a trip to the Great London swim and also a browse of all the CosPlayers from the Star Wars Celebration at the Excel Centre in London and by the time I left I was running late making it only as far as Paddington by well gone 2pm. I then added to my woe by jumping on the wrong train and I found myself increasingly uncomfortably hot and sweaty.

Thankfully, despite my detour, I hit Reading a little after 3pm and then Pangbourne (the nearest town to the event) about 4pm. Even with all my camping and run gear on my back I still hiked the couple of miles to the start line in less than 20 minutes and after a swift registration threw up the tent and began unpacking my stuff.

The race village was small but perfectly formed with pretty much everything you would need for a cheery event. I drifted around, grabbed a reasonably priced and very tasty hot dog and browsed the couple of running kit stands. Bales of hay were provided as cheap seating and were located around what would become a campfire later in the day and this was a good opportunity to meet other runners. Therefore with my kit laid out in the tent and a bit of time to kill I decided to get social with a couple of the runners. Sadly there was a general desire, at least at this early stage, to stay within your grouping or with your friends – which was understandable, this wasn’t the socialising hour – I’d clearly missed that!

Post relax I headed back to the tent, armed with a bottle of water and assorted toiletries, in an attempt to resolve a bit of a problem – sweat rash and chaffing.

The heat of the day, lots of running about and lugging my camping gear round had meant I’d picked up this racers worst nightmare – rubby balls! Yes it looked like someone had dropped a tin of red paint down the inside of my shorts and swirled it about.

I carefully, as one can in a small, hot tent, cleaned up the offending area, drying it thoroughly and waiting patiently before applying liberal lashings of bodyglide. It was tender – of that there was no doubt but I hoped that my patch up job would hold for long enough into the race that it wouldn’t be an issue. I believed if I could hit say 35 of the 50 miles of promised myself before it reared its ugly head again I’d be alright.

Kitted up I proceeded to the start line to grab some photographs for this blog post and to revel in the pre-race atmosphere which was now more traditionally ultra – nervous excitement. I listened to the announcer, over the tannoy, inform us that the start would be delayed by a few minutes for safety checks. However, at 7.14pm the horn sounded and several hundred runners set off along the grass path and alongside the camping area passing the many supporters and awaiting relay runners to a multitude of cheers and whoops!

I remembered to tell myself the key thing was to keep it steady and don’t get drawn in to racing the relay runners, the 50 km runners or even the 50 milers – I was due to be here for the next 12 hours.

I pushed through the first kilometre marker in decent time as the loop moved in and around the outside of the camp and the second kilometre was met after some largely uninspiring Tarmac and I hoped the route would improve but the next couple of kilometre were alongside the river with only a few narrow boats to offer support or interest.

However, at 5 km things improved when we re-entered Beale Park and despite being on the road again we could admire the large animal sculptures and pleasant gardens and there was a general upward trend in the run route for kilometres 6-8 as we passed through tree lined areas, a couple of hills and a faster section or two.

I pulled in briefly at the base camp after the first five miles to grab some chocolate milkshake and also to visit the little boys room and there I discovered that the problem I had patched up was going to return more quickly than anticipated.

Even in the dim lighting of portaloo I could see the glowing chaffing hiding in my shorts. How quickly his face had turned to anger, all twisted and contorted with rage. The bodyglide as good as it was could do nothing for this, clearly I applied it too late in the day and should have used it before I even set out for event some 12hrs earlier.

With time ticking away I rejoined the race and cantered around the first few kilometres again trying to get comfortable enough to run sensibly but it wasn’t to be and I completed my second lap in agony and looking like I had some sort of genital itch as I constantly readjusted my shorts.

I came in to the camp at the end of lap 2 and opened up my tent – closing the fly shield just enough to give me cover while open enough to let a breeze in. I kicked off my shorts to inspect the damage – it was pretty severe. I lay back legs open wide and feet pointing skyward letting a cool wind blow over the affected area. I lay motionless like this for some 20 minutes before a plan came to mind.

The return of the buff!
It was generally too warm to be wearing a buff but not around my nether regions! I took the UTMB buff I purchased last year (the one I’m embarrassed to wear given my DNF at the CCC) and I wrapped my nuts in it, carefully placing the excess fabric either side of the inner shorts of my Salomon compression leggings. I’d kept the compression leggings on in an effort to keep things from moving round. Now we would see how a third lap might go.

For me the race had turned to farce but I had travelled a long way and wasted enough money that I didn’t want to leave without achieving the minimum of a marathon distance to at least tick another one off for a step closer to the hundred marathon club vest.
I ran what I could, walked what I had to. I came in at each lap to cool off my buff, change my shorts and generally let things catch the benefit of a breeze.

I was in agony.

At 7.30hrs in, and with the stops to let the chaffing cool getting longer, I forced myself out one final time to get to the 30 miles that would confirm the marathon distance.
I crossed the line about an hour later, my run/walking never really that slow (the stops making my lap times look particularly terrible) and I went and gingerly sat down on the bales of hay. I purchased a cup of tea, watched runners going round and round in circles and then took myself off to bed. Bollocks to this I thought – literally bollocks.

Key points

  • Distance: 8km loop
  • Profile: Flat
  • Date: July 2016
  • Location: Pangbourne
  • Cost: £35
  • Terrain: Very light trail, road
  • Tough Rating: 1/5

Route
The route was probably designed to take advantage of open spaces and Beale Park to provide a fast, very runnable route. However, for me, I found it dull and uninspiring. I know loops are going to get repetitive but races such as Ranscombe Challenge, the Challenge Hub events and the Brutal Enduro all manage to keep the routes varied and exciting – this didn’t have that. However, lots of people enjoyed the route so maybe it was just me.

What I will say on a positive note is that the little lighting effects they dotted around the darker parts of the route were delightful and I enjoyed seeing these very much
Organisation: the organisation was excellent with lots of volunteers on the course and it was well marked. The check-in was quick and equally well organised with very little left to chance. The slightly late start that the race suffered from was due to ensuring the route was genuinely ready – they really wanted runners to have a safe environment.

Checkpoints
The base camp was well positioned on the route and volunteers lined the course about every 1.5km, all cheery and at the 5km mark a water stop. It left had you chosen to you probably could have run this carrying nothing (as many did – despite the heat). The volunteers were also really awesome and not a single one complained about me sharing my terrible chaffing tale!

Goodies
Good quality t-shirt was a purchase rather than included (£7.50) but the bespoke medal was nice even if it doesn’t make clear which race you ran.

Again
Would I do Endure1250 again? No. Unlike Ranscombe and the Enduro I just didn’t enjoy the route. I’m told Endure24 has a much more exciting route with hills and challenges but this wasn’t for me. Perhaps it’s that I’m not nearly as fast as I used to be and I felt this course was built for those looking to collect a fast time over a chosen distance or to claim a big distance over a specific time. I’m not saying don’t do it, not at all – it’s got a decent atmosphere and great organisation but if you’re after something with varied terrain and stunning scenery then this might leave you wanting more.

Conclusions
Cost effective it certainly is at just £35 whatever your distance and it’s a genuinely friendly event. Importantly for decision making – if you’re looking for a fast run at an ultra distance then this could be for you. I suspect the team running is much more fun here and actually watching people still banging out 40 minute laps at the end of the event was exciting to watch. So while Endure 1250 won’t be to everyones tastes this is a decent event and worth testing if you fancy some of the above.


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

‘Bye bye’ UltraBaby said as I wandered down to the back of St Pauls Cathedral and the start line of the City of London mile. I’d accidentally put myself forward for the 5mins 30secs club but post Skye my feet have been playing up with bruising, bleeding and generally not being very useful. So when I ran into Ben (the beardy one offa Twitter) who was starting a wave behind me I was a little bit worried. The truth was I’d only run about 3 times since Skye and none of that had gone very well.

Still I was at the very least well rested.

I stood nervously at the back of the pack and when the start came I pushed as hard as my little feet would carry me. I’d chosen for the race my Altra Instinct which in all honesty are not noted for their speed – I had wanted to use my On running shoes but my feet were a bloody, nasty mess and I required the soft, extra wide, cushioned feel of the Altra to even get going.

I realised about halfway I was losing ground on the front of the pack but I also wasn’t at the back – clearly others had also over-egged their ability but at the turn I still felt okay and as I came up to the 400 metres to go sign I hit the afterburner and put my mid-race slump behind me.

At 200 metres to go I could feel the power of the crowd behind me and my arms pumped hard to cross the line in a little over 6 minutes – not my best time at the distance, not even close but I’d enjoyed it.

The route took in the Bank of England and St Paul’s Cathedral so it was familiar territory and I knew this would be harder than the Westminster Mile but in the end I’d just had a nice time and an opportunity to run without a race vest or hydration. There were other benefits – I did get to say hello and see running Gemma Hockett who is as exceptional a runner as her social media suggests and I picked up a very nice medal for my efforts but there was something else – the GingaNinja was back for a raceday.

The GN had signed up for one of the last waves, clearly I had bullied her into taking part but it was a nice day and I felt she’d appreciate taking part in something with such a tremendous atmosphere.

The problem was that UltraBaby was feeling a little clingy. We hatched a plan, a simple plan, move the GN to the ‘family wave’ and she could then run with UB who would walk/run as much of the distance as possible and then I’d take her off the course to follow in the buggy along the route shouting support.

With approval of the plan from the organisers we got UB warmed as she ran up and down the street, carb loaded and did a bit of stretching (of her very loud lungs). Then problem two kicked in – UB fell asleep.

Some quick thinking saw me remove the timing chip from my race number and join in the family wave with the GN and the buggy containing the baby. For a second time I prepared for the off and this time I enjoyed the ambience of the event, sedately running through the City of London, waving at children, taking in the Steel Drum Band and generally having a lovely time.

The GN in her first run in ages and her first race in even longer powered home the last few hundred metres and was greeted warmly by the excellent volunteers who handed her and UB medals. Great work, especially just a day after completing the Great East Swim.

The Amba City of London Mile (and the Westminster Mile) is a truly great event run in the spring and having done it, I can recommend it (and its Westminster sibling). It’s a ball breaking distance, the mile and one you can really put your foot to the floor with but the sense of achievement is huge regardless of your actual running ability. I love the mile, its my favourite race distance after the 10 mile.

The City Mile is incredibly well organised coupled with a great route and a stunning atmosphere, its unbeatable. if you’re looking for a community event next year that can draw people together then this would be my recommendation (along with the Westminster Mile).  As a final note I think a great deal of goodwill should be shown to Amba Hotels who sponsor the event and help to make it a free to enter race. Without organisations like them events like this simply wouldn’t be possible.

Anyway, don’t delay get training – you’ve got a whole year before the next running! and most importantly get involved!

‘Have you got any Haggis left?’ I inquired. It was 9 minutes after midnight and the lady responded by saying ‘we’ve stopped serving’. Looking crestfallen the chef responded in a thick Scots accent ‘aye’. Five minutes later I was chowing down on a tasty tray of Haggis, neeps & tatties – this was when my adventure to The Isle of Skye truly began.

Key points

  • Distance: 74 miles
  • Ascent: +4500 metres
  • Location: Isle of Skye
  • Runners: 14
  • Terrain: Mixed, boggy, rocky, tough
  • Race Director: Might be Santa
  • Tough Rating: 4/5

A week earlier I’d had a bad day of running at the Hillsborough to Anfield Run where the implications and costs have proved incredibly high and I wasn’t even sure if I was going to make it to Skye. A recurrence of injury and the arse end of my chest infection made it all seem highly unlikely. However, intensive work on my glutes and hamstring had helped to ease the problem and my chest infection was more a gloopy mess than anything serious. I heaved a sigh of relief as I slung my giant filled Macpac rucksack on my back and departed to Euston on Thursday evening.

I’d chosen the Caledonian Sleeper journey for travel for a number of reasons but the most important one was that I wanted to experience the overnight train and watch Scotland go by in a hazy blur and it was delightful, I caught up on some movies, read a book, wrote my blog piece about the EU Referendum and chatted to other passengers. At about 2am I finally drifted off to sleep in the comfort of my chair (standard class is still pretty good) and found myself dreaming of hills.

I opened my eyes about 5.30am and saw we had crossed the border, I was in Scotland – all I could see were hills and green, it was lush and fresh. The problem was I felt travel sick, my head exploded and I rushed to the toilet to try and puke my guts up but one toilet was broken and the other was blocked. My cosy journey was turning into a nightmare, I got a cup of sweet tea from the food carriage and sat back down, began breathing deeply and tried to stay calm. Eventually arriving into Inverness I had 25 minutes before my bus arrived and so I stormed around the city seeking headache tablets and more water. With both in hand I boarded and say at the back, curling up into a ball concerned that my race might be over before it started.

Despite everything I held myself together and tried to enjoy the latter part of the bus trip as we crossed the Skye Bridge from Kyle and as I hit Broadford my mood further improved and the fresh air gave me just what I needed. I stood motionless outside on the high street, taking in my surroundings and then gingerly walked up to my accommodation – I had arrived.

At about 3pm I attended the early race briefing and met Chris, Kevin, Emma, Barry, John and Allison as well as the man of the hour, Race Director Jeff Smith, who if you described him would be somewhere between Father Christmas and Billy Connolly, he had a good calming presence about him and it was a delight to have him go through the map with us, give us hints and of course do kit check.

The eclectic group of runners were a mix of English, Scots and French and there was a nice atmosphere despite there only being a handful of us.

I left the briefing, continuing to chat briefly with Chris one of the other highly experienced runners – which gave me some concern as I felt, despite nearly 30 ultras under my belt, perhaps I didn’t have the right kind of experience for this.

Back to my room, final kit and drop bag checks, shower and then sleep – in a few hours time we would be off.

At 2am I ran down to the village hall desperate to avoid the heavy rain – although my drop bags were waterproof my kit wasn’t and I didn’t want to get to the start line wet, I suspected there would be enough of that later. But just a few minutes later I rolled in to see Barry, John, Chris and Allison as well as Paul and Owen, everyone was looking a little sheepish but Jeff kept us all jolly with a cup of tea and those delicious Scottish tones!

By 2.45am, with a 3am depart to the north of the island for the start line it was clear not everyone was going to turn up. 30 runners entered, 10 had already had to pull out and a further half a dozen didn’t make it to the start line for whatever reason – there would be only – 14 starters. Yet this didn’t create any sense of missing out, infact it made it all quite cosy and there was chatter on the way to start and we watched as the day gently broke around us. We had arrived at the start of something special.

Out of the fun bus we all ambled around, taking in our new surroundings while Jeff prepared the final last bits. It was all very casual, well oiled but casual and it felt like you were amongst friends and so when we lined up to begin there was no real mad rush to the front. Yes, we had Paul and Owen who set an early pace but once they were gone to battle it out for the win the rest of us settled into our stride and prepared to face the oncoming trail storm!

The first section was a nice piece of uphill gravel track which gave a false impression of the next 73 and a bit miles. Once we had lost this we entered the wilderness and faced off against the boggy, mostly unmarked trail.

People took moderately different paths to begin the ascent up the Trotternish ridge, some choosing a lower path and others a more fulsome climb, I was somewhere in the middle – keen to make the ascent but more keen to stay on track. It was heavy going and already my feet were sodden and the Altra Olympus although reasonable were not built for this and I realised my Lone Peaks would have served me better. However, I made swift progress and battered my way to the top and soon bounded into a run. I pulled out the GoPro to grab some footage and quickly made my way down a fast descent. The Olympus picked up the trail nicely and I was feeling very positive that this was going to be fun.

Then the sucker punch came…

I was busy admiring the scenery rather than being focused on the course and I tripped, breaking the selfie stick and cutting open my leg. I pulled out my arm warmers to stop the bleeding and wipe away the most of the dirt and hurled myself forward. The trouble was I could feel my knee – 4 miles in and I was broken already, all my early bluster seemed just that now – bluster!

Regardless I began chasing Kevin down who was a little in front of me and overtook Chris who had stopped for refreshment, while continuing to delight in the scenery around me. These were the photographic opportunities as well as a good chance to thrash any knee injury out by putting a bit of pace together.

My aim was to hit Quiraing as quickly as I could and although not fast I was making decent time. Kevin remained just ahead of me and in the distance I could see the glint of a camera lense and the deep red of a pair of Race Ultra 290 – it was The Big G or The Boss who had come out to photograph Skye and the event. I thundered toward him and plonked myself down, exclaiming that, ‘bloody hell its hard’. We chatted for a minute but out of the corner of my eye I saw other runners and so put a bit of a spurt on where Jeff, the RD was waiting with some water. I hadn’t really consumed any of the 1.5litre bladder I was carrying but had emptied my 125ml soft bottle so filled this as I knew the real CP was over 20 miles away. With all the energy I could muster I ploughed onwards and importantly upwards (please feel free to correct me if I get names or hills wrong) past Biodha Buidhe and Bein Edra. Both with impressively destructive climbs and equally impressive descents – it was during these sections that I finally started to look around, as much for respite as for the views but I allowed myself time to take it all in and take in the enormity of the task ahead. It was here that I properly met Neil – one of two chaps who would define the way my race would go.

He caught me about an hour after leaving the first mini checkpoint and we ran together for the next few hours – I discovered this was a second crack at it for Neil and he was a seasoned ultra runner with a good humour and a varied repertoire of conversation. Between us we pushed through the uphills and the downhills despite my trepidation, especially on the descents as I was terrified of slipping over an edge or worse but his calming influence was much appreciated. When we reached the bottom of the Storr climb we found a small stream and filled out now heavily depleted water supply and I took this as a first opportunity to change my socks, dry my feet and look at what was happening between my toes.

It was all a bit funky with my feet and I knew I didn’t have the capacity to deal with at the bottom of a hill but the next CP couldn’t be that far. We made the ascent up the hill where The Big G awaited us with his camera and we stopped briefly to say hello but then it was back to it. Neil and I used the downhill to gain some much needed momentum but also once again freshened up in the streams. Moving forward was still feeling pretty good and although my knee was troubling me I felt I had a handle on it.

Another mile fell and then another and we arrived at the final ascent of the ridge.

I could feel my insides doing cartwheels and my legs turned to jelly, my head had turned to mush. I couldn’t think and I was spinning out of control. I had just enough about me to urge Neil on and when he was out of sight I collapsed into a heap. I held my head quietly for a few minutes and tried to focus, I started playing out Star Trek VI in my head as I often do when I need a distraction. Within a few minutes Kevin caught me and asked how I was, I told him I was feeling a bit crap but I’d be alright, I said the same to John as he passed me but as Allison approached I picked myself up and started moving again. For me this ‘final’ hill was harsh, it was steep and it was a scramble. I needed to stop every 20ft, my head still spinning but I knew I needed to at least get to Portree so I could either DNF or sort myself. After about 20 minutes I made it to the top and hurling off my bag I proceeded to vomit all over the grass. I lay there for a while, unable to move but the griping of my stomach was continuing and I found myself in need of a different type of evacuation. Let’s put it this way my arse could have put out the flames in a burning house I evacuated that much liquid shit. I thankfully had all the requirements to resolve the situation in cleanliness terms but I needed to lie down again. It was race over.

If I’d have had signal is have called mountain rescue but I didn’t so I picked myself up and headed onward – regularly checking my GPS to ensure I was going the right way. What I hadn’t realised was that my GPS had stopped working and I was off course, I’d been travelling around 90 minutes through rough ground and places I shouldn’t have been before I found some houses. I followed the road for a while but realised I had no idea where this would end up so I found a field of tall heather and harsh plant life that I could cross, another 40 minutes passed before I finally managed to make it to the road to Portree. By then my legs were sliced to bits and my arms whipped – I’d had enough, the sweepers would easily have gotten past me and the other runners would be ahead – I would surely be timed out.

With some trepidation I approached the checkpoint, I was pretty downbeat. ‘Hi, number 37… no sweepers haven’t been through yet… there’s runners behind you… you aren’t being timed out.

‘I’ve had heather jammed right up my arsehole for the last two hours’ I exclaimed, making light of the fact I looked like death. I was offered a giant pot of Vaseline – but I didn’t fancy the double dip possibility.

I was there for about 20 minutes, change of shoes, socks, dry feet, call the GingaNinja, fix Suunto, take painkillers, learn how to read map, load lucozade into main pack, fill water, change food. I now had a chance, if I could keep my feet dry I might just make it. The guys at the CP were so amazing and supportive and offered a bit of tough love when they felt I was getting comfy.

I set off at a decent pace, fast walking and light jogging, I wanted my feet to recover a little. I also ate a good sized portion of chicken, chocolate and lucozade – all of this combined to continue my recovery and by a mile or three in I was good to go. True another runner burst past me but I wasn’t interested in his race I was interested in mine. The road section allowed me some respite and when I finally got the harder trails again I was ready to commit to them. Here despite the water I kept my feet dry – using the rocks, however small, to ensure I arrived at CP2 with dry feet.

This was fun running now, I was enjoying myself again, leaping across waterfalls and bouncing down trails – all my strength had returned, though my feet remained an issue and had taken the brunt of the punishment and there was nothing I could do about that.
Into the campsite before CP2, another fording or three of rivers, a cheery hello with a German family and then I was greeted by my name being chanted from the volunteers! Dear god I couldn’t help it but I put in a turn of speed and thundered up towards them rushing across the road to collect my much needed nutrition (yazoo chocolate milkshake) and more dry socks for later in the day.

Just a few minutes in the checkpoint but long enough to tell a few jokes and meet the sweeper who had caught me in the last few metres of the second leg. I was advised he was there more as an aid to getting home rather than the man who’d time me out.

I’ll talk about Andy more later but for now let’s say he was a diamond geezer.

I set off to CP3 feeling pretty okay but with the knowledge that this section was noted for being wet. I’d made the bold prediction just prior to leaving that if my feet took another soaking then I really would DNF but instead I pushed on as fast as I could over the heavily stoned trail and through the Cuillins – I was passing through as the sun was starting to dip and all around I could see the majesty of the island dancing before my eyes. I leapt across the various waters, being mindful not to get too wet and always on the lookout ahead for a more sensible route but always with half an eye on the fantastic views.

Eventually Andy caught up to me again this time when I needed to stop and dress a gigantic blister that needed immediate attention. This particular toe has become a bit of a challenge in recent races, especially where moisture is an issue but a single large compeed sealed it up and I was soon on the move again. A couple more miles of moist track soon became damp bog, passing the bothy towards the south of the island and approaching my next proper cry.

Andy asked how I was with cliff edges. I explained that I was petrified of them and a vertigo sufferer, I didn’t mention that multiple bouts of labyrinthitis had left me with poor balance in situations like that also. We put on head torches and began assaulting the cliff edge – higher we climbed and I could feel the exposure to my right, hear the saline of water beckoning me towards my doom like a Siren calling out to a sailor. I moved as swiftly as I could, tears dripping down my face and Andy a little farther ahead. I’d been told this would be a few miles but that it might take as much as 90 minutes. Andy proved his diamond geezer status by being straight up – he helped by preparing me mentally and never saying ‘it’ll be over soon’ – I learnt quickly to trust him. Eventually we descended down and moved onwards then back up towards Elgol but the route had thinned out and we arrived into the CP to be greeted by the brilliant Karen. Here there was a little shelter, some food, Irn Bru and tea.

‘Two teas please, one with sugar, one without, oooo is that Irn Bru and is THAT a mister Kipling individual wrapped strawberry milkshake cake???’ I changed my socks here for the ones in my race best as I’d foolishly decided against a drop bag here.

My new companion Andy was making haste with clothing and footwear changes and all in all this was a proper stop – 20 minutes probably but it was needed. Here I ran into Barry again, this time thankfully not in his tiny shorts, his race had come to a premature end unfortunately. Had I been a gambling man I’d have said he was good for the win here but a niggle meant he’d taken the safer approach to ensure his was race fit for events in June (check out his events at www.highfellevents.com – these look fun). John and Allison also were at this CP and I got to say hello, how’re you doing, etc and they both looked strong and in good form – this was pleasing to see. To my mind they were well on course to a very respectable finish. Sadly though, the runner (Andy I think) who had stormed past me between CP1 and 2 had blown up and had nothing left, he looked in pain and was pretty miserable. However, he like Barry had clearly taken the sensible decision – I felt I still had this within me, just and I’m not one for common sense.

Andy and I set off in good cheer, having thanked Karen as we left, chatting a little here and there as we went – the next section was a fairly simple 8 miles and thankfully also uneventful save for seeing the sun start to come up and we could discard our headtorches. It was a consistent pace here and we simply watched our surroundings drift from our view, but what surroundings. I’ve been lucky enough to see the sunrise on spectacular views in places like Iceland, Ethiopia and Thailand but this was amongst the most amazing places to find the sun warm your face with its first glow. We felt better, we felt warmer and we soon found John and Allison and together we trudged to the final CP.

The guys were well prepared for us, the kettle was already on and I sat down to change my socks for a final time. Boom! I was going to make it! I could sense it, for the first time in over 60 miles I knew I had it in me despite everything that happened.

The four of us set off together though John and Allison clearly had more in the tank than I and so trundled in ahead. Andy warned that the next section was incredibly rocky, hilly and troubling. He was right.

After a short road section we rejoined the Skye Trail to find that the rocks cut through us like a hot knife through butter. Every step was sending shooting pain from my feet up to my neck. I was in agony, I was desperate to stop but the others were making slow but steady progress. We climbed and climbed for what felt an age, even the views out to sea could not soothe me now and my head was starting to fail me. I could hear myself saying ‘I just need to hold on, just hold on, 10 more miles’ we stopped at a gate to both regroup and discover than Andy’s right foot had exploded underneath – blood or pus we assumed. The four of us looked pretty broken but ultra runners have that weird tendency to say ‘fuck it, let’s do this’ and this was the point we were at. From here we followed the coastal path from Blaven to Broadford, this was a good path and if you were out doing a nice 10 mile run this would be awesome. You could move swiftly on the up and down, over rocks, jumping streams, taking in the smell of freshness all around – but we were slow, methodically placing our feet, trying to minimise damage.

I was frustrated for much of this because my body felt good but my feet offered me nothing and this was playing out as a battle in my head and as we trudged up the final trail ascent I wanted to simply stop and DNF. Andy took the tough love approach ‘well you’ll have to tell Jeff, he’s in Broadford’. Despite the fact I’d given up on myself Andy hadn’t and I tried to hold it together, I pressed on and on and we finally reached the ‘Marble Line’ a white marble gravel track. Andy had promised this would be easier going but the fine dust cut straight my Lone Peaks and caused nothing but excruciating pain.

I urged him to go on ahead – I would make it from here whatever happened but he told me ‘it was more than his jobs worth to leave a runner behind’. I groaned a lot over the last couple of miles as the sun beat down on me and I’m confident Andy could quite cheerfully have throttled me – I would have throttled me. But then I saw the final sign ‘Skye trail ultra’ in big black letters on a little yellow sign.

Less than a mile

I hobbled down to Broadford and Andy urged me to cross the line running. I advised I didn’t have it in me but when all was said and done I couldn’t crawl across the line and I insisted Andy run with me. To be honest it was all a blur, but I picked my feet up and gave what I imagine was my best Linford Christie. The crowd of supporters, runners and volunteers howled with encouragement as I threw myself across the finish and collapsed to the floor. Jeff seeming a little concerned I might be about to die but thanks to the care of my fellow competitors and a little tenacity from me I’d made it.

The route
Have you ever been to the Isle of Skye? If yes then go back, if not then get up there. The route is everything you want from a race, it’s hard, exposed, unforgiving and unrelenting but it pays you back with views that so few people will actually ever see. It’s off the beaten track and it encourages you to think about your environment.

The Harvey’s Map is invaluable but Skye has clear natural markers that you can use to navigate but still it’s not a route to underestimate. That’s not to say that improvements couldn’t be made but if the race route didn’t change you wouldn’t be too worried, it is exceptional.

The Race Director
Jeff Smith is a man with a passion for the outdoors and that shows. His casual style hides his organised side but it’s this casual side that kept his event from feeling forced. Jeff is a dude and a dude who knows how to put on an event! My only complaint was that he shouldn’t have apologised at all for the number of runners, he should be incredibly proud of his achievements. He has produced an event that any race director would be proud of and I hope it grows bigger in the coming runnings.

Organisation
Top notch – from the runners side it was all seamless – organised, early registration, easy transport to the start line, well drilled drop bag system and volunteers who couldn’t have done any more. It wasn’t slick that would suggest corporate nastiness, it was just knowledgable. It felt like it was organised and managed by runners and outdoors people – basically people who knew what they were talking about.

Checkpoints
The first 26 mile section is too far without checkpoints – I understand you can’t have people with drop bags on the hills but this was hard. Even the water stop at 10km while welcome wasn’t enough and if someone went missing here you might struggle to narrow their location.

However, that being said, nobody died and that first section was a mighty and worthwhile challenge. As for the CPs themselves they were brilliant, the volunteers as I’ve said were tremendous. It seemed odd at first to not offer food but actually loading your own drop bags for each CP made sense – I had exactly what I wanted. Often at other events I ignore the food because it’s not what I want – the drop bag system worked well. I can imagine this might be more troubling if you’ve got an event with hundreds or thousands of people though.

Volunteers
I won’t remember all your names but I will remember what you did for me. Thank you guys. There’s also a special mention to The Big G (my boss) who came out to photograph the runners, we were all incredibly grateful for this support and I especially was because seeing a face I recognised was invaluable in those early stages. Thanks fella (in joke).

Competitors
I’ve run alongside some truly great people over the last three years of ultra running and every single one of my fellow competitors was brilliant. But for me personally it’s Neil and Andy who I owe my finish to, thanks guys.

UltraBoyRuns
I paid what I thought would be a heavy injury price for completing the Skye Trail Ultra but there was an upside – my glutes didn’t fire and my hamstring held up. Yes I was sick, had a serious case of the galloping trots, sliced my legs apart and destroyed my toes and feet but when all is said and done I did a near 10 mile hike later on the day I finished. Effectively I was fine and once my feet stop burning and the skin heals I’ll be back to running (hopefully on Saturday, less than a week after the race).

The one bit of pain that won’t heal quickly is the cut in the old undercarriage. I did it when trying to get to Portree and some thorny thistle like crap ripped into my nuts. There’s a nasty cut from my bollocks heading backwards and so there’ll be no running until that’s healed and yes it hurts when I sit and it hurts when I walk – it just hurts! Hopefully this will heal quickly too, but we’ll see (with a complex combination of mirrors i might add).

Goodies
Beanie, medal, trophy, sweeties, alcoholic ginger beer. Jobsagudun. 

Tough Rating
4/5 – given the distance, the elevation, warmth, midges, conditions underfoot I consider this a bit of a ball buster. If you gave it an inch it would take a yard or worse your leg. We had it pretty lucky with the weather but in more wintery or low visibility conditions this would surely be considered even tougher. Do not underestimate what is being asked of you, it might only be 74 miles but they are hard, worthwhile miles.

Improvements
There are things I’d consider to make this an even better experience, the most important would be some minor adjustments to the route if possible – not to fundamentally change it but perhaps to make coming down off the ridge a little easier and descent into Portree more obvious, this would also potentially offer an earlier CP which we would all have been grateful for. Other than that only the trail route to Blaven might get looked at given the opportunity for debris on the trail.

In terms of organisation and everything else it was top notch and communication was good although I was required to re-activate my Facebook account to ensure I didn’t miss anything.

As a final point I think it would be great if the local community were more involved – local businesses, local people – everyone I told about it was fascinated and the community spirit on Skye appears incredibly strong – I think the race could easily harness this just as other events like Celtman do.

Would I do it again!?
I’ll be back, the course chewed me up and spat me out. On the scoresheet it reads UltraBoyRuns 0 – 1 Skye Trail Ultra. I’m unlikely to be back next year given my desire to do new things each year but assuming there is a 2018 I’d consider myself almost certain to be on the start line again. It takes courage or blind stupidity to complete this but if you do enter you won’t regret it, I know lots of you are thinking – dear god this poor sod has a terrible time with all his issues but believe me this race made me nothing but happy and I’m glad that Andy stopped from just sitting down in a field and crying myself into my bivvy bag 🙂

Conclusions
It’s the hardest, most insane race I’ve had the pleasure of doing. It tested fitness, stamina and tenacity. At no point did it say to me you can just call this one in – it demanded respect, it desired my attention.

This event turned me inside out, it made me sick, it made me bleed and it made me cry but it gave me the best memories of running I’ll ever have I think – and that’s high praise. The Skye Trail Ultra joins the SainteLyon at the top of my list of favourite races.

If you’re looking for the challenge of a lifetime, if you’re sick of running on roads, if you fancy getting properly lost inside yourself then this is the race for you. It’s got a little something for everyone and you’ll love it.

The race director might not blow the trumpet of this race but I will. So get your kit on, Skye awaits you but let me assure you with this one – the Skye might just be the limit.

Find out more at www.skyetrailultra.co.uk or search ‘skye trail ultra’ on Facebook (or you could just click the links!

Good luck.

A full gallery of photographs will be added shortly

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