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It was January and I’d just learned that there was no space at the Pilgrim Challenge, I was a little annoyed at myself for not having booked in earlier but hey-ho. I therefore did what I always do and looked on the ahotu website for race listings and there right in front of me was the UTBCN. Interestingly I knew that Lynne, Anna and Nia) family of the GingaNinja were soon to be back full time in Barcelona and so I suggested we go see them at the same time as me taking part in what looked like a pretty tough ultra marathon. 

As I was paying for flights the GN agreed and our hosts confirmed that it would be okay to crash out at their place for a few days and visit.

I entered and booked flights within minutes of confirmation that I had all the required green lights.


It seemed then like no time at all until I was stood at the back of the start line for the UTBCN with no expectations other than to start. 

Although my training had been going reasonably well I really hadn’t looked at the fine print for this race and only noticed how up and down it all was in the days leading up to the event. However, as I put myself up for harder and harder races this felt like a good starting point for the real ultra season opener.

I managed to pass kit check by the skin of my teeth as my brand new Petzl Actik failed literally moments before the start line (more on that later) but I had both a spare light (low-lumens) and extra batteries. I dipped into the starting area and looked ahead to the large inflatable and the hundreds of bronzed runners ahead of me. At this moment I felt very out of place with my milky white skin and too many mars bars physique but it was too late to think about this as the countdown roared into life and we were sent on our way from Begues to …well Begues.

And as we left this small town just outside Barcelona I felt no fear, the rainstorm the previous night had abated (annoying as I’d reworked my kit for wet and cold weather) and the race felt like home and I knew that once I reached the trail this was set to be a bone rattling humdinger of a race.


From the off it was uphill, downhill but sadly nothing in her lady’s chamber! The UTBCN felt like there were no flat sections, you were either going up or you were going down and that was were the fun was to be had.

Over the 100km course there was nearly 5000 metres of upward elevation and it felt like it! I’d thought that my experience at Harris Extreme would adequately prepare me for this but it was a very different beast. 


The nice thing about the route was that the elevation came via a huge variety of surfaces, there was mud, gravel trail, technical rocky trail, great big wet sections for that full foot dunking and even some tarmac (for those who like it simple). And each surface type tested you in new and often unexpected ways.

Much like the variable surfaces each of the climbs brought with it a unique view, a need to adapt your running style and a reminder to keep your wits about you. No two uphills were the same and no two downhills were either. This was a course that could easily chew you up and spit you out if you showed it anything less than total respect. 

The run to checkpoint one was filled with so much of the above and at 16km it felt like a great leg warmer, the day was still cool when I powered up the hill to the tables of food of drink but I noted that I had drained my Hydrapak 350ml bottle as well as the 150ml bottle – despite it not being a classically hot Spanish day there was heat in the running and so I filled my supplies, drank Coca Cola (yes the real stuff) and pressed on.


Sadly for me the weather started to turn on the run up to checkpoint two and the UTBCN quickly warmed up to a something more akin to a summer ultra. I’d opted for heavier summer weight kit and carrying spares of almost everything as I expected to be out anything up to 24hrs and wasn’t sure how quickly I could get through the unknown terrain. With the change in weather though my pack, which was heavy, simply felt like a drain on my own reserves. However, I made some changes to how I was wearing kit – removing buffs, visor on, sunglasses on, top up on sun cream and ensure I was eating as well as drinking enough.


I started passing through checkpoints at a decent pace and anywhere that running was an option I did, even the inclines as I knew that many of the downhills were very rocky with only the most nimble of speedgoats being able to hammer their way through them.

With less than 7.5 of the 24 permitted hours gone I passed through the halfway point kicked on as fast as I could knowing that the next sections would start to get trickier. I passed over some very steep up and downhills that had been assaulted by mud and rain and was slow going as your feet needed care to pass through unharmed.

However, despite the harshness of the terrain I was about to hit the 67km checkpoint in great time and with 33km to go I felt strong and assured in my running.


It was clear to me I’d thrown caution to the wind in the cooler temperatures and had leapt into the second half with a great aplomb and hurtled through the kilometres looking to make up as much ground on the course before nightfall set in. At the 67km checkpoint I placed on my pathetic emergency head torch and headed out and less than a kilometre later the sun finally dipped behind the beautiful northern Spain landscape and I was in the dark.

My problems now accelerated.

As mentioned, at the start line about 10.5hrs earlier, my brand new head torch had died, new batteries wouldn’t solve it and nor would prayer. So I was left with my backup head torch, the Petzl e-lite, which while superb kit is not a replacement for the Actik that was supposed to light my way.


Sadly I could barely see a metre ahead of me and the trail was even more dangerous in the dark than it was in the sunshine, over the 4km I ran in the dark I stumbled a dozen times. I tried following the light of other runners but this was of no use (and I couldn’t really do that for the final 28km) and so at 72km I sat at the checkpoint raging at my head torch manufacturer (Petzl) and at myself for I knew I had to pull out. I sat at the checkpoint for about 20 minutes before I was willing to DNF racking my brain for a solution, attempting to get my main light working but it wasn’t to be. 

A very sad end to a great race that I was actually running well!


Key points

  • Distance: 100km
  • Profile: Hilly
  • Date: March 2017
  • Location: Barcelona
  • Cost: €95
  • Terrain: Very variable trail
  • Tough Rating: 3.5/5

Route As for the race route itself well that was beautiful, with stunningly lush landscapes in all directions. It took you high above Barcelona and it took you down to the beach, what more could you ask for? The course itself was absolutely brutal in places and highly runnable in others, i think it’s fair to say it lends itself to local runners or mountain goats who know what to expect but any decent trail runner would really enjoy the magic of this race. 


Organisation and support The organisation was, I found, superb with multi lingual checkpoint staff, aid stations were all incredibly well stocked and tasty. The number collection was very easy (at a giant sports store in Barcelona) and it felt like a very inclusive race and drew people from all over the world and it wouldn’t surprise me if they, like me, would be very happy to go back and run this again. It’s fair to say that the support and organisation would be a key factor in luring me back for a crack at finishing this race. There was no of the manic feel that races like the UTMB have, it was so much more relaxed (but admittedly significantly smaller) but the intimacy and friendliness that was felt throughout the event makes you want to go back.

Additionally the website with a full English language version was much appreciated and easy to use. 

Awards and Goodies For finishers there was a medal and a nice one, I did not get one as I only completed the LTBCN route and not the UTBCN route. However, I did get a goody bag which contained lots of lovely little food nuggets, a lovely neck gaiter/buff, really tasty t-shirt and some other random bits that will all get used. 

Value for money? €95 for 100km? or you can downgrade elements like not getting a medal, t-shirt, etc and taking a cheaper package. I chose the all inclusive which pre-race I had thought was a little expensive but actually when you look at what you get, the stunning route, the amazing organisation, etc then actually this race looks like good value because it is. When you compare to say ‘The Race to the Stones’ or ‘The Wall’ or any OCR race then this really is good value and even when compared to its European race rivals this one stands up pretty well.

Lynne, Anna and Nia I mentioned earlier the people we stayed with, family to the GingaNinja and ultimately without them this wouldn’t have been nearly as possible – so my eternal thanks.

Petzl The failure of my brand new (fully tested) head torch before the race is unforgivable, I had to stop because of a failure created by someone else and that smarts. At the time of writing I’ve had no response from the company despite a number of messages (none of them abusive) but perhaps they simply don’t care about their customers – something to think about when you’re next considering a head torch purchase.

Conclusions This is a great event and if you looking for an easy to reach, tough as old boots ultra in nearby Europe then this should be high on your list. The course was beautiful, the scenery stunning and the atmosphere upbeat. I doubt this race is on the radar of many of you but it should be and I hope you’ll at least look up the UTBCN for future consideration.

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This is a little note to you, Petzl, about my annoyance, disappointment and anger at the failure of your product, the Actik, during the UTBCN.

I’ll keep it short;

  • I bought a brand new Actik head torch for use at the UTBCN
  • I gave it a one hour test run pre-race
  • I switched it on at kit check, it came on for a second then failed
  • I changed the batteries immediately – no response

Thankfully I had my Petzl e-lite (as backup), a 25 lumen head torch, which mercifully passed kit check and meant I wasn’t immediately disqualified, I knew this probably wasn’t good enough to get me round any night section I might face but at least I could start.

And so at 68km, 12hrs in, daylight finally faded and I began running using the e-lite, my iPhone torch and trying to use the light of the runners ahead of and behind me.

Not cool Petzl, not cool.

The UTBCN was a tough technical up and down course and even in the 4 or 5km I ran with limited lighting I was in trouble – unable to see where I was going, unable to see the ground clearly never mind the trail ahead. I tripped several times in this short section, more than I had done for the rest of the race!

And so at 72km I decided to stop, too embarrassed to say my head torch had failed I simply said my back was sore but the truth is I was running well with a likely finish time of under 16 hours. 

The failure of my Petzl Actik therefore was the cause of my failure at the UTBCN and I’m pretty angry about it.

What do you have to say Petzl?

Are these the medals of someone who doesn’t deserve a medical certificate?


As regular readers will know I’ve got something of a conplex past with my doctor regarding the signing of medical certificates for races and despite having gone through a battery of tests (and passed them all as fit and healthy) I still can’t get the forms signed. 

Therefore, in a fit of middle class rage, I chose a private route having already invested heavily in the UTBCN. The private service I chose was The London Doctors Clinic because 1) they were local to my workplace and commuting stations 2) the website specifically mentioned sporting medical certificates and 3) they were a sensible price.

Booking in at the London Bridge Clinic the night before I attended was simple, via their website and on my way there I received a call to confirm my attendance. All very professional.

I arrived at a building on Borough High Street that was rather unassuming and I dipped inside to be told to go upstairs. The surgery space was small but more than adequate and the doctor was friendly. He asked some questions, insisted on an ECG (given my age and the strenuous nature of the things I do) and that for all intents and purposes was it. Quick, simple and efficient.

I had neglected to bring my passport (to prove I was who I said I was) therefore I couldn’t get my certificate signed there and then but when I emailed a copy through it was returned signed and stamped almost immediately with the paper copy turning up the next day.

This was a far cry from the hoop jumping, waiting around and running after my normal doctor. My GP claimed that he couldn’t do a medical in less than half an hour but the LDC doctor was more than able to achieve this and actually I felt like I had been examined properly. I don’t want to beat down on the NHS because ultimately it is an institution shackled by its own success and reason d’être but in the UK we really shouldn’t be in a position where healthy people are forced to use private medical care because the NHS is unable or refuses to help.

That said I like the entrepreneurial zeal with which LDC operates and it’s a service that is needed in these ever more complex days. However, I’m saddened that my route to racing ultra marathons has been continually blocked by my GP so much that I’ve had to break my own left wing views on the health service.

Ultimately what I’m suggesting is that if you have a London Doctors Clinic nearby and your looking for a sensible examination and medical certificate for an ultra marathon or similar then these are good choice – especially if like me you’ve wasted months chasing after the NHS.


In 2017 these are the brands that litter my wardrobes: Altra, Montane, OMM, Raidlight, Drymax, Rab, Ronhill, Decathlon, Ultimate Direction, Buff, Oxsitis, Raidlight, Runderwear 

But in 2011 at the start of my running journey the brands that I was using looked quite different: Adidas, Nike, Asics, Marks & Spencer, Rab, Decathlon, Buff, OMM 

And it made me wonder why I’ve evolved from certain brands to others and have I become something of a running kit snob?

The accusation and the defence. I have been accused in the past of being more interested in the kit of running than the running itself and while I was deeply offended by this statement there was a whiff of truth about it.

There is no denying that I love checking out new kit and usually buying far too much of it but I rarely buy things I don’t need and there has been a constant evolution in what I buy to accommodate the needs of the races I run. 

For example the SW100 requires as part of its kit a thermal mid layer and this has required lots of research, lots of testing and in the end the purchase of two hybrid jackets and one synthetic down jacket. However, I’m in no doubt that my (already owned) Rab Powerstretch thermal layer would have done the job perfectly well. But I wanted new kit.

I remember running my first marathon and my kit consisted of a neon orange vest, a pair of Adidas Adios racing flats and a pair of 5 inch Nike shorts (with mesh brief) and the piece d’resistance, a pair of cotton M&S socks, I thought I was the bollocks, sadly, I wasn’t.

These days I roll up to a marathon wearing much more kit, two tops, tights, liner socks, wicking outer layer socks, a race vest/backpack, sunglasses, buff, tissues, compeed, gaiters but at least I now know I’m not the bollocks.

Have I changed, has running changed or have brands simply switched on to the depth of the pockets of this market? 

I wonder if we all go through the kit gears, especially those of us who bang through the disciplines looking for that challenge that fits? Did we all go to a Sweatshop or a Sports Direct for our first pair of trainers? Did we all listen impatiently as the store staff ‘advised’ us? and did we all trawl round the high street shops looking for stuff that wouldn’t make us bulge in new and weird ways? I suspect we did.

Feeling a little uncomfortable. I recall being in John Lewis and trying on a pair of full length tights – Asics, black with blue trim – very understated. However, because it showed the clear shape of my gentleman’s region I refused to step out the changing room. The GingaNinja told me I was being foolish and that you couldn’t see anything (which obviously made me feel SO much better!) but that started me on a journey that has cost me a small fortune one way or another. 

A trinity of trouble. However, how did I go from the high street to really quite niche brands and kit? The answer to that is three fold, the first part is racing, the second part is social media and the third part is ‘I love shopping’.

Turning up to my first race after I returned to running (The Grim Challenge) I wore the aforementioned plain black tights with blue trim, a black t-shirt and some grey with orange trim Asics trail shoes (size 9). I did not feel out of place in this gear, many of my fellow racers had cotton shirts on and worse. However, my eye was drawn to several names I’d never seen before, ‘Zoot’, ‘Inov8’, ‘Camebak’, ‘Montane’ and ‘OMM’. My eyes were agog attempting to process all of this information – Sweatshop and the like had nothing like this and I resolved to find out more about my kit options.

It was around this time that I joined Twitter, the blogosphere and even developed a lazy relationship with Facebook – here I developed community relationships with my fellow runners, cyclists and triathletes who were providing a near infinite amount of new touch points for brands and kit.

But neither of these would have provided me with the drive to develop my unhealthy obsession with kit unless I loved shopping – and I have always loved shopping. Long before running I’ve adored bimbling round shops both for research (looking) and buying and weirdly it could be any kind of shopping too – shoe, clothing, craft or even grocery shopping.

This trio of elements left the perfect conditions for fostering an obsessive love of kit. Adidas and Nike apparel was quickly replaced by OMM, Ronhill, Rab and Montane. I tested dozens of sock types, changing my allegiance as new distances and challenges would change my race needs. It was in the shoe department though that I blasted through many types until I finally settled on Altra with hints of other brands. Vibram FiveFingers, Hoka, On, Scott, Salomon, Pearl Izumi, Brooks, Saucony, Inov8 and many more have been tested to destruction or been deemed completely inappropriate for my feet. I’ve owned more pairs of running shoes in the last five years than I have owned ‘normal shoes’ across the whole of my life.

Even when it comes to running equipment I make my selections only after extensive research and testing. When I first decided I would start RunCommuting I purchased half a dozen bags I thought might be suitable but none of them were ever quite right until I bought the OMM Classic 25 and the OMM 15 both of which still run a little bit today (though the 25 is definitely in its twilight years after being extensively abused). Recently I decided to look again for a RunCommute pack and while the OMM 15 was mostly perfect for my needs I felt the materials now used are nowhere near as good as it was 5 years ago and the classic has had the bungee cords removed from the side therefore removing a very useful component (in my opinion).

I started my research in December 2016 and bought a Raidlight XP14 in mid February 2017 after searching through every foreign language review I could find and then one day when I saw a runner wearing one (and I was in work gear) I gave chase. I caught up to him somewhere in Mayfair and drawing level I said ‘excuse me is that the Raidlight XP14?’ His reply initially was ‘what that fuck??’ but upon realising I was asking about his kit he stopped and let me try it on – very nice of him on a cold February morning. Job done, research over, purchase made.

Understanding yourself. What I’ve learned over the last five years is that the right kit is essential and that the right kit for each person is very different.

However, it’s important to note that the UK high street isn’t really equipped to deal with runners needs and that by expanding our search and looking at the brands that we might associate with outdoor adventuring rather than running and you’ll often find equipment more tailored to you – even on the high street.

It’s a shame that we can’t learn a lesson or three from our European neighbours who appear to have high quality high street sports stores much more readily available. (But the UK and it’s attitude to all things European is a contentious issue currently).

Should you be brand loyal? We also need to be wary of brand loyalty. Just because you love a particular item doesn’t mean you should buy everything they make! You’ll see brand ambassadors ‘head-to-toe’ in a manufacturers garb but the reality for us mere mortals is that we should be testing everything and always questioning whether something is right for us – none of us want draws full of ill fitting, unused kit just because Anton, Scott or Elisabet was seen wearing it!

Undoubtedly my kit choices cost me more and I could buy things much more cheaply but not necessarily more cost effectively. Cheap rip-offs from Sports Direct (and similar) are pretty much just that – put a Salomon shoe next to a Karrimor shoe and while they might look like siblings I believe you’d find the experience very different (and that is a test I’ve done). I could also do things more cheaply by not buying from independent retailers but I value the contribution and advice that these awesome retailers provide and want them to be there in the future.

Providing value for money. I should point out though that not all cheaper brands are bad. One high street brand name that has remained constant from day one of my running is Decathlon – the lovely French brand that covers just about every sport going. Decathlon proves quite simply that you don’t have to pay a fortune to get high quality, well developed and long lasting kit and it certainly gives a kicking to many of its more expensive rivals (though you don’t always have to ape Salomon in your race vests chaps!). I’d also give some credit to ‘Crane’ from one of the discount German supermarkets, though the lack of availability and sometimes questionable longevity make this kit a little hit and miss.

Importantly though, I don’t want to be unkind to major high street names like Asics, Adidas and Nike – they have their place.

In truth I still love my Nike commuting shorts (4 pairs, 3 still going strong) which I’ve worn pretty much every day for five years. I’m simply suggesting that there’s a great big world of exciting kit waiting to be discovered – don’t limit yourself.

The snobbery question? Am I kit snob? I like to think not as I try to find the kit that works – it’s true that I would love to see Sports Direct closed down because I feel they provide a path of least resistance to runners who can’t be bothered to look for more effective kit. So if despising Sports Direct makes me a snob then so be it.

So what am I asking you to take from this?

  1. Research extensively 
  2. Test extensively
  3. Evolve your kit and knowledge
  4. Ask questions…
  5. …but remember you’re only getting an opinion
  6. Question brand loyalty
  7. Support independent retailers
  8. Buy cost effectively not cheaply
  9. Avoid Sports Direct (it’s associated stores) and Karrimor

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!

 

IMG_6839When I wrote my first A-Z of running I knew that I had much more to talk about and that for certain letters I probably had dozens of examples, so this is part 2 of my A-Z.

A. Age
I’m 40 later this year and in many ways this doesn’t bother me one iota, I don’t feel the need for a mid-life crisis and it will probably pass much as the previous 39 did – with little or no fan-fare.

There is something with regard to age and running, well for me there is.

In my youth I was a short distance track sprinter, 100 and 200 metres, I was explosively fast but as I entered my later teens and early 20s I drifted from running and didn’t bother much, preferring fast girls and night clubs – I suspect a recurring theme in the adolescent community. However, by my mid 20s I had started to amble back to running, 1 mile, 2 miles, etc until in 2004 I entered the Preston 10km aged 26 and thoroughly enjoyed it. Still though I ambled around this kind of distance for years and didn’t race again. I enjoyed running but never saw it as a way of expressing myself.

Perhaps it took a little maturity and, dare I suggest, age to give me enough perspective to realise that lots of the good things in my life were directly related to running and at the end of 2010 I finally started the journey that I write about now.

Falling in love with running and devoting myself to it at an older age means I’ve always been focused on it (not always the right focus but focused). I moved quickly through the discipline/distances to find the area I most enjoyed – no time wasting (5km to 100 mile ultra in 2.5 years).

Ageing and getting older has also allowed perspective on the nature of achievement and that actually the human body is amazing and that actually our limit is determined by our will. Seeing men and women much older than myself running and often beating me to a finish line is inspirational.

In truth I’d love to go back and teach younger me all the lessons I’ve taken on board over the years so that I could start at a younger age but he wouldn’t listen. The truth, in my opinion, is that age is not a barrier to good running but actually the key.

B. Body image
I wonder how many of us love our body? Probably very few of us are 100% happy but mostly we get by. I’ve always struggled with the idea that I’m fat, now rationally I am aware that I’m not fat, I’m mostly average but mentally, when I catch sight of myself and I see a fat UltraBoy staring back.

Running hasn’t honed my physique particularly and I’m not comfortable in the gym, you won’t catch me weight training but you will see me bench pressing many a mars bar. Undoubtedly I’m my own worst enemy, when I assault the biscuits or crisps or houmous I can hear myself saying ‘hey fatty, how you doin’?’ But I still eat it – I have an unhealthy relationship with food and this makes my body image problems worse. Some of you who know me in real life will have heard me use the term the ‘Compressport diet’ which is not a diet but both a joke and a way of living.

Effectively I eat less and run more in an effort to one day fit into my Compressport top and not look like a totally fat bastard.

I see lots of runners posting on social media platforms about how awesome their weight loss has been and while they should be hugely proud of this I do wonder what the original motivations were – I suppose because I know mine are ultimately down to a huge insecurity in the way I look and I suspect that no matter what weight or shape I achieve I’m always going to struggle.

C. Cycling
Cycling is back on the agenda and I’m fancying a triathlon. Sensible? probably not

D. Direction
I will run the UTMB, I will run the UTMB, I will run the UTMB – then I went and attempted the CCC and thought, this is rubbish.

I believe we need a direction in our running, something to aim for – it could be a new bigger distance, a better time, a new race, weight loss, whatever, but having a driving force makes us better runners.

For a long time the direction was missing from my running and it wasn’t for the want of looking for one. I thought that achieving the start of membership to the 100 marathon club would be an aim, but I found myself put off by those doing things like the 10 in 10, which to me has always seemed like ticking off numbers rather than running great events (though no offence to those that do these intended). Then I finally found the road I’d been looking for and I decided to start going about things the right way and (as I write this in March 2017) I’m directing my energy towards, distance, elevation and tough as fuck events as I aim for my own ultimate challenge in the coming years.

E. Endangered Races
I am bombarded daily with emails, social media and other suggestions for ‘races you might consider’. Running is a multi-billion pound operation from kit, to gym membership, to nutrition, to therapies to the races but there is a saturation point for all of it. For example we’ve recently seen Pearl Izumi pull the plug on it’s well regarded running line because (I suspect) too much competition and, if we are honest, a confused marketing and naming strategy. However, the big issue for me is the amount of races – every weekend there are dozens (if not more) of races all over the country and a limited supply of runners – I’ve turned up to some amazing races to find numbers nowhere near capacity in recent years and while this is great for it not feeling too cramped, it’s doesn’t aid the longevity of events or the atmosphere. Anecdotal evidence points to events such as the Yorkshire Marathon, which sold out very quickly in its first running, still having room for runners looking for a northern marathon.

I’d like to see the major events such as the London Marathon, GNR and other mass participation races offering support by only accepting applicants from those who have run an equivalent distance in the year prior to their application. We should be fostering a culture of running and racing that is sustainable both for participants and for the businesses that run them – something to think about UKA?

F. Facing fears
Do something that terrifies you every single day (words I try to run and live by)

G. GoPro
I know runners with GoPro and action cameras look like tits but I don’t care I find carrying my GoPro Hero4 Session a reliable and efficient way of capturing memories and helping to tell my blog stories after a race. So while it’s not an issue to carry it I shall continue to do so.

H. Holding on (at races)
White Cliffs 50: mile 14, broken foot, lost. The Wall: mile 62, crying, 20 blisters. Saltmarsh 75: mile 35, crying, glutes destroyed. St Peter’s Way: severe chest infection, crying. Mouth to Mouth: undertrained, severe GI distress. Skye Trail Ultra: unfit, undertrained, vomit, GI distress, dozens of blisters

I’d like to think I’m a reasonable fun runner but the reality is I’m actually a terrible runner but with a decent amount of tenacity. The above races are simply a snapshot of the every event occurrences that dog my racing.

The annoying thing is that it doesn’t seem to matter what I do I can’t shake this monkey and it delights in giving me a good kicking in different ways at different races.

Even this year when I’m actually training, running properly, losing weight and preparing for races in an organised fashion I’m still being short changed (as proven by the Hockley Woods dog incident – read about it here). If I believed in luck, fate or karma I’d assume I was being singled out for some special sadistic treatment but I’ve simply come to accept that I’m never going to be a Scott Jurek or Tobias Mews.

What I do know though is that I can hold on when things go wrong (if it’s important enough to me) and maybe that’s my skill.

Not much of a skill is it!?! 🙂

I. Insurance
Is it a great big con or not? I’m not sure but what I do know is that for about £10 per foreign race I can use the Activity top-up service at Sports Cover Direct and it gives the GingaNinja peace of mind for the day when I finally do fall off a mountain.

I suspect we’ve all heard stories of adventurers needing to be rescued and ending up with enormous bills from foreign medical suppliers and nobody wants to get caught in that trap. Ultimately ultra running can be dangerous, at its best it’s an extreme sport and therefore I’d rather be covered than not.

J. Job
I written before about how your job can affect your running. I mean let’s be honest who doesn’t occasionally have a stinker of a day and then let’s off steam by pounding out a few miles pretending each step is on Alex Keith’s face.

My problem in the relationship between work and running is that because the job preys on my mind long after it should and I find it either stops me wanting to run or worse sends me angry running.

I recall an issue of the comic Guardians of the Galaxy from many years ago where the phrase, ‘an angry opponent is a sloppy opponent’ was used in the dialogue and when I’m angry at work it makes my running angry, and worse it makes it sloppy, risky and often just plain stupid. Guardians of the Galaxy were right – but I bet they didn’t know they were talking about me.

I realise this a problem with the subjective nature of my job and my desire to retain some professional dignity occasionally – perhaps if I cared less about the quality of my work then I wouldn’t be so riled when it gets ridden roughshod over.

I often wonder if others share this issue and how it affects them outside of the work environment?

K. Karimmor
In my notebook there’s a list of things I despise; ‘my mother’, ‘the people who voted leave in the EU referendum’, ‘the people who voted for Donald Trump’, ‘the knobhead Donald Trump’, ‘David Cameron’ and ‘Jeremy Corbyn’. However, there is one name missing from that list and it covers a wide area and that name is ‘Karrimor’.

I’d recommend looking up Karrimor who have an incredibly sad story, a high quality British brand that was snapped up by hideous ‘businessman’ Mike Ashley. He turned Karrimor into the cornerstone brand of his Sports Direct empire. Now that name is synonymous with poorly and cheaply made outdoor and running rubbish that because of its huge high street presence lures in unsuspecting runners and erodes the market share of the independent running and outdoor retailers.

Basically if you love running then don’t shop at Sports Direct (or associated brands Sweatshop and Field & Trek) because there are so many better and reasonably priced brands that treat their staff and customers with the respect they deserve.

And if you see someone running, decked out in Karrimor gear can I offer you this advice. Run with them for a few minutes, tell them about kit that will support them, tell them of Run and Become, London City Runner, Up & Running, Decathlon, Wiggle, Likeys, Castleberg Outdoors and Ellis Brigham and then go about your business as normal. And I recommend you do this partly to save me from setting all of their Karrimor kit on fire.

L. Lone Peak 3.0
Since I started running I think I’ve worn pretty much every brand and every style of running shoe – or at lest it feels like that. However, there have been a number of stand out pieces of footwear over the years, my banana yellow Vibram FiveFingers Komodo, my first pair of Adidas Adios, my Inov8 Race Ultra 290 but perhaps most notably the Lone Peak version 3. It’s fair to say that I’ve loved all the Altra Lone Peak that I’ve owned but none had the same comfortably supportive feeling that the LP3.0 – visually they might remind me of an American muscle car but underneath they’re all class. The LP3.0 are a reminder to me that having a trusted shoe can make all the difference in running.

M. Mud
I have a loving relationship and it’s not with who you think it might be – it’s with mud and when you love trail running I believe you’ve got to love mud.

N. Negative thoughts
In both running and not running I can be both up and downbeat, it’s the nature of life but I’m lucky that I rarely hit the extremes of high and low. However, when I’m running I do suffer with negative thinking and it’s something I’ve long been working hard to combat.
Outwardly I’ll say ‘you’ve got to run your own race’, ‘I’m just here for a bimble’, ‘I’m just here for the cake’ or whatever. But I like to do well and I like to push myself to do well.
Recently at the Hockley Woods Challenge I thundered through the first 3 laps believing I was on my way to a four hour hilly, muddy trail marathon (and a bit). Then when I was upended by a dog that came out of nowhere and bowled me over I immediately knew I had done something to my groin in the landing. The problem was I was far enough enough to determine that I should complete it but not far enough to do myself some lasting damage.

The thoughts that rolled round my head for the best part of 30km were a little unkind to myself and the problem is that I’ll carry that self loathing and negativity into the Amersham Ultra if I’m not careful.

Thankfully I’ve been using these negative events to try and double down harder on the elements that have been going well and so even if I can’t see it at the time I try and analyse it shortly after to ensure that the negativity remains short lived.

It’s not ideal but I’ve found a negative mental state to be the ruin of my racing and running, much more so than any physical injury I might ever have picked up.

O. ‘Off’ time
When I started running again I wanted to be like Ron Hill with a 50 year RunStreak behind me but what I found happened was that my body simply wasn’t up to it and as I pushed myself further and further my body eventually gave up.

I’ve learnt the lesson of not resting and have now dropped back from races that I don’t need to do – I’ve dropped out of junk miles and I’ve given myself rest periods across the year to allow more time for my body to heal and to train smarter.

For me, the key elements of my ‘off time’ are that I’ve adopted a ‘no race’ policy for July/August which should stop getting DNFs through excessive chaffing and I’ll cap ultra marathons per year at about a bakers dozen. I’m also varying my daily RunCommute mileage from as little as 5km to as much as 25km and ever the occasional rest day thrown in too.

Off time also gives me greater capacity to spend time with the GingaNinja and UltraBaby and might even allow me the capacity to train for a sprint distance triathlon. Perhaps I’ve come to the conclusion that switching off leads to better switched on!

P. Planning
I’m always in planning mode, 2017 was in the planning stage by the time I’d reached April of 2016. Ultra marathons, especially the very popular ones sell out quickly and you have to be ready to catch them – MIUT was done on the day of release for example – and was sold out 5 days later (or so). I have thankfully only missed out on one of the races I was looking at doing and that was the XNRG Pilgrims Challenge, (which I have now left too late for two years in a row – lesson learned) I’ll be aiming to get there next year.

Planning is essential though for more than booking in races, it’s at the heart of training too. I have been heavily focused on hill work, building my strength with buggy running and gently increasing my distances in preparation for all the elevation I have planned. This is because between the UTBCN, MIUT and SW100 there is around 20,000 metres of climb over 360km – so planning is essential. Knowing the races I’m doing is providing an incentive to train both harder and smarter.

For smart running you should always consider smarter planning – something it has taken me a long time to learn!

Q. Quiet
Stood at the summit of a hill somewhere in rural Kent there was no silence – there was the rush of the wind and the rustle of the leaves shipping around, driving rain pounding my back and my hot deep breath was beating on my ear drums. But I was alone, so very alone – I looked forward to see signs of brightly coloured waterproof jackets but the weather had kept people indoors, warm and toasty. I scanned my surroundings some more and realised I’d found what I was looking for – a little bit of quiet. My breathing slowed, my heart rate dropped and the rain and wind became friends and I just enjoyed a few moments of quiet. I imagined this is what a car feels like in an automated car wash as the mud was hewn from my limbs by the rain, but there were no soapy suds on this hill. My quiet was broken by a sheep creeping up on me but I like to think it was there seeking much the same thing I was and so I vacated my space and gave it to the sheep.

Sometimes I run to find quiet and sometimes I find it.

R. RunCommute
I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the humble RunCommute. When I decided to start running and training for the Grim Challenge all those years ago I knew that running at weekends would never be enough and that I needed to adopt an efficient use of my time – that efficiency was running to and from work. I remember that first time strapping my OMM 25 litre classic pack to my back and running from Regent’s Park to Victoria Station, it was so tough but I felt like a Cram or Ovett.

Until I did it I hadn’t realised just how many people had abandoned or part abandoned public transport and their cars in order, presumably, to improve their fitness.

RunCommuting also brings little cool ‘mini-games’ like Kit Watch, Strava Art, Time Attack, New Route Finder, Race The Bus and a personal favourite The RunCommute PhotoChallenge.

The RunCommute hasn’t always gone to plan and has been at the ground zero of a few injuries over the years but it’s always felt that it has given much more than it’s ever taken and while I probably take it for granted I certainly won’t be found abandoning it.

S. Scotland
Jedburgh, The Fling, The Devil, The WHW, Glencoe, Skye, the Charlie Ramsay, Celtman… Scotland has a lot going for it in running terms and I’m considering a change of location and moving north of the border.

I’ve grown increasingly weary of the English and the whole EU referendum makes me disgusted to be English – I am proudly European, defiantly European even. Now my thought is that if I can’t save my own country, because the level of idiocy has pretty much reached its spunk unloading climax, then perhaps I can help the Scottish people to achieve independence and find a new home in the EU.

The benefits are many, I’d get to live in the countryside, be closer to some of the best trails around and I’d be in a country where the majority want to stay in the EU. In running terms though the race scene looks brutally beautiful and that’s a decent sized consideration for me.

I always thought I’d stay near to London but living in Kent has highlighted with tremendous clarity that the future for England is intolerance and trouble and that taking a punt on Scotland may be the opportunity that I, my family and my running have been looking for.

T. Training
Do you remember training? Training was something I used to do several years ago when I was getting ready for mr first half marathon. Training was something other people did and training was a bit of a waste of my very valuable time. I managed to run nearly 40 marathons/ultra marathons on very limited training over about a 3.5 year period.

Interestingly though I also picked up 3 DNFs, a couple of serious injuries, and any number of smaller injuries and piled on enough weight to consider myself a bit of a fatty. Yes I was doing the RunCommute but I was never committing to longer, more structured, targeted miles, essentially I was coasting and yet still turning up to events wondering why the magic just wasn’t happening.

Since the start of December 2016 I’ve very much been focused on delivering the promises I made to myself and this has required training. I’ve actually been committed to weekly averages of around 40-50 miles, speedwork/fartleks, hills, buggy running and a more co-ordinated approach. However, I remain ‘fluid’ in the way training is achieved and I’m not sure I’ll ever quite be ready for written plans or dogma but at least I’m training properly and I feel fitter than I have done in years.

U. Unirider
If you’re a runner and have a child aged between two and six (size dependent) then the Mountain Buggy Unirider is probably the best piece of kit you can own (reviewed here). My daughter and I are often looking for ways to extend our adventures and this single wheel push along ride is an ideal way for the pair of us to go running round muddy, hilly trails and fast, flat roads! There is something really quite fun about watching UltraBaby scream out in excitement as we bounce across gnarly trail, calling out, ‘faster, faster dad’.

V. Vigo Tough Love
If you want to truly fall in love with trail running then this is the race for you – it has a little bit of everything. A ten mile run through Kentish hills this offers nothing but the opportunity to truly enjoy yourself. Up, down, through mud, through water and across the finish line – it’ll never, ever be a fast course but it is an exceptional course and deserving of the high praise it gets. You can read my review of the 2017 event here.
W. Westminster Mile

I have favourite events and I have preferred distances – the Westminster Mile combines the two. The mile, to me, is one of the great unsung heroes of running. With the mile you can be ball breakingly fast and make your lungs gasp for air and you can feel the exhilaration of a race in just a few short minutes. The Westminster Mile allows for both of these things but adds in drama and atmosphere – it’s a great day out with thousands upon thousands aiming to lay claim to a fast time around the course.

Of course the best thing is that it’s a family event and UltraBaby already has one finish to her name and after a year off will return for the 2017 edition. Highly recommended wherever your age, gender, fitness level or even if you aren’t that interested in running.

Find out more here.

X. Xenophobia
I was recently on one of my longer runs and was briefly joined by another runner who was going in vaguely the same direction as me, he wanted to chat and I was fine to listen. He was telling me about how he had turned to running after a heart attack at 35 and that he had turned his life around. All very noble I thought and then he got into politics and particularly the EU referendum and perhaps it was were we were running or something about me that suggested xenophobic or mildly racist but he decided to espouse his theories about the ‘fucking scroungers from Europe’.

I kept my cool and told him that I had voted remain, and felt more European than ever because of my belief and research that his statement was simply not true at which point he called me a ‘traitor’ and decided to run off in a different direction.

As a tolerant person (to a point), despising only stupidity, a lack of curiosity and my mother this man highlighted why I dislike running in Kent, why I despair about England and why I love running in Europe.

Our friends on the continent (and north of the border) offer such a tremendous welcome to their countries and their races that this is very much now my preference for running (I’ll race in Europe three times in 2017, UTBCN, MIUT and SainteLyon and possibly in Scotland too).

I don’t want to come across people like the man who ran beside me telling a total stranger about his hate filled beliefs – xenophobia and intolerance have no part in my running community. Running should be the most inclusive of all the sports!

Y. Yearly
I think some runners will return to races year on year, perhaps because they really enjoyed it, because it gave them a personal best time or because it’s local.

I did four editions of the Kent Roadrunner because it was local to me but at the fifth and sixth time of asking I’d had enough of running round a cycling track in the heat, I simply wanted more out of my racing.

The only race I return to year on year is the Vigo Valentines Run and this is because that’s a very special race that is never the same twice and brings untold levels of joy to me.
I’m curious about the mindset of those who always have to run London Marathon, Brighton or wherever. I suppose for me there’s now so many great races that you can do a new route, meet new people, take on new challenges almost every time you choose to race.

I don’t really want to be critical of a persons choice to do the same thing over and over but I just wonder why you might limit your experiences?

With nearly 150 different races completed I feel that now and again I can go and revisit my favourites (SainteLyon this year, Skye Trail Ultra next year) but this is only because I’ve already done lots of different races. However, I still go looking for new experiences and this year (so far) all but the Vigo 10 and SainteLyon will be new races to me and I can’t wait to be surprised!

Z. Zippers (UD jacket)
I quite like the Ultimate Direction waterproof jacket but it does have a couple of very serious flaws and the most major one is the really crappy zip – it’s weak, feels like it’s going to break and offers no sense of security. When compared to the zipping mechanism of my 4 year old Montane Minimus there is no comparison – the UD comes a distant second.

So come on UD you’ve improved the Signature Series no end with the PB 3.0 – let’s see you do the same for your waterproof jacket.

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

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

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

Boom! Lightning can strike twice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key points

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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