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adventure racing


Stood at the back of the first family wave at the Vitality Westminster Mile reminded me of every race I’ve been in – the difference was that this time I was accompanied by both the GingaNinja and UltraBaby. For the first time UB was taking to the tarmac for a race powered solely by her own two little feet. Yes it’s true that she’d completed the Chislehurst Chase 2km last year but that was trail and I was quite excited to see what 6 months of growing, the training and some slightly more technical kit might draw out of her. 


As Lord Sebastian Coe dropped the flag at the sound of the starting horn we belted out of the ‘starting blocks’ and pushed hard. As parents we kept hold of our little athletes hand and reminded her of the medal we were aiming for.

Our training had been pushing for the mile in between 15 and 18 minutes and as we hit the first 400 metre marker at 3mins 12secs I did wonder if we might even break 15 minutes. The route had lots of awesome support to help keep us going and the Steel Drum band gave us a bit of a boogie wiggle opportunity. There was such a positive atmosphere that you couldn’t help but want to push on!


At 600metres in, the clock ever ticking, we encountered a problem though – UB wanted to run alone!

We tried a couple of parenting tactics to get her to hold onto us but to no avail…

  • She simply stopped.
  • Bottom lip drooped.
  • A little tear slid down her face.

The seconds ticked on and with a thousand metres to go I was worried we wouldn’t get started again. It was then than a little girl went past us and I used her as the reason to get going again, ‘look at that little girl…’

UB relented and pursued the young girl with all the vigour she could muster – faster than before and encircled, hands free, by her parents.


Cheers erupted from all over the course, volunteers and spectators generously giving of their applause. UltraBaby returning the response with a series of double thumbs up, culminating in lots of ‘ahhhhh’ from the crowd. But with a great swathe of focus we had pushed to the final quarter of the race, before us we could see other runners and we encouraged UB into one final effort.

Over the line my little monster raised her arms in the air and cried ‘ice-cream’ (a promise I had made her during her mini meltdown). We had done it!


With meltdown we finished in 16mins 04secs. I was incredibly proud and watched with a little lump in my throat as she strode around displaying her medal to all that would look, telling them that she ‘won’ her race. I shan’t be dropping the crushing reality on her just yet that she wasn’t quite the overall winner.


Post race we ambled around the race village (while UB slept) – listened to Seb Coe talking and generally soaked up the amazing race day atmosphere. What a lovely way to spend a Sunday morning!


Toddler Kit: For those of us looking for reasonably priced running t-shirts and shorts for our toddlers can I recommend Uniqlo, who have a reasonable range of smaller non cotton kit ideal for the active toddler. UltraBaby was wearing the 3 year old sized short sleeved ‘boys’ top and the peach shorts and UB is a small(ish) 2 and a half year old.


Conclusion: What I can say is that the Westminster Mile is a mass participation event that feels small scale, low key and uber friendly. It never feels pressured and has a smoothness that keeps it feeling that way.

The family friendly nature of the event means you aren’t worried about bringing gran or grandad along (as we did the first time we did it) nor do you have any concern about having your toddler or younger with you. I ran this our first year with UB strapped to my front and loved it – this time she’s old enough to do it herself and run in a great time. More events could learn to be this family supportive.

The only thing I would love to see is this event replicated across the UK – to help build sporting achievement in the UK and as Seb Coe said at the event ‘everyone can run’ and mostly he’s right. So let’s spread events like this to every corner of the UK.

On two final notes, the first is a huge thank you to the army of volunteers and supporters who make this event feel special (especially for the younger runners who are hugely encouraged by the positive, inclusive atmosphere). 

And the second thing, get involved, you won’t regret it.


It would be wildly unfair of me to review the MIUT (Madeira Island Ultra Trail) as I didn’t finish, nor did I get close to finishing and I’d decided I wasn’t going to write anything about my experience until I realised that I want you to understand how amazing an experience this race is and if you want something mind bogglingly tough then you have to do this.

Pre-race
I’d been worried, very worried about all sorts of things like the elevation, the length of time, temperature, etc and upon flying into Madeira my fears proved worthy as I looked at the climb out of the capital city never mind the real mountains! To say I nearly shat myself is an understatement.


My experience
I lined up in Porto Moniz with 750(ish) other runners and when the start came I jostled my way forward a little to look out at the upcoming trail storm. What I was greeted by was the most amazing race I’ve done so far.

From the off set we were climbing, weaving our way out of the town and uphill as quickly as possible. I unfurled my poles within the first kilometre as the realisation of what I was running finally hit me.

The first 1,000 metre climb seemed to be filled with steps and I chose small speedy steps to try and put some distance between me and the cut-off. We reached the real trails within a couple of kilometres and here the runners slowed as the climbing got sharper but I pressed on in what I considered an impressive time and when I reached the top I felt amazing. I stepped briefly to one side to grab some video footage and photographs and listened to the soon to be deafening noise in the distance.


What the hell was it? The answer to that was simple, it was the first of the many small villages and this one happened to be using the acoustics of the valley they lived in to draw the runners to them.


Like all the runners before me I was exhilarated by the welcome and bounded through the town, chest puffed out and a faster than was recommended run through the the throngs of people. From here it was all uphill again and it was a long slow slog through trails I was glad I couldn’t see clearly as it was obvious that I was facing sheer drops as the altitude grew ever higher.

It was somewhere here in the darkness that I had the first of my three falls – stumbling on some rocks that slipped out from beneath my feet and I cracked down on my left hand side, not too hard but enough to shake me. I stopped briefly and checked for blood but I was okay and so proceeded to the top of the ascent before I kicked on towards the 15km marker and the first of the many potential time out zones.


Arriving into check I had 30 minutes spare but it was clear this one was going to be tight all the way round and so I flew out of check with all the speed I could muster.

There’s no doubt that my failure at MIUT was down to the first 30km which brutalised me in ways that I’ve never had before and if I had decided on the shorter 80km distance I’m convinced I would have finished but from the second checkpoint to the third was a tribute to ascending hell and all I could do was hold on and hope that I could pick up the pace later in the race – if there was to be a later in the race!

Reaching summit after summit I realised I was likely to fail in my latest venture and even though before I’d started out that this was unlikely to end up in a finish I didn’t want to go out like this – weeping pitifully.

And then I caught a break – descent.

While my uphills are a bit rubbish I’m actually pretty good on the down. I can run fast and controlled across difficult and technical terrain and even as MIUT called for sometimes (down steps). I was able to take these hard descents faster than those in front of me and therefore I was catching people up – 20 or 30 were caught in about 5 or 6km and I pressed harder and harder through the night. As checkpoints fell I could see many people retiring and this was inspiring me to keep going.

Therefore, while descent was an option I knew I had to go ‘balls out’ if I was stand any chance of making it into respectable distances. And as I drew into the next ascents I pressed myself until I saw the first chinks of light in the day – I’d made it through the night.

So, in some fresh, fast moving water I washed the sweat and the fear away, sun creamed up I pushed on through the early morning light. I was still laughing and joking and soaking up all the views I could. Maybe just maybe I stood a chance…

But perhaps I was soaking in too many views as I found myself caught by a low hanging branch in the face which took my feet out from beneath me. Ouch.

Landing hard on my already tender back I needed a few minutes sit down to clean myself up and check myself over. Blood around my ankle and also in my hair suggested I’d been cut but thankfully not badly and a bit of spit and polish I was fine to resume my endeavours.


The ascent to Encumeada was tough though and as the morning warmed up I began feeling the day kicking me in the guts. I was unable to eat anything other than lemon and orange slices accompanied by large volumes of Pepsi offering recovery in the checkpoints.

The water from my soft bottle tasted unpleasant and was making me feel sick and stomach issues forced a stop to take the bear like option for a poo in the woods and had it been discovered most would have considered this a big, rather sickly bear.

Returning to my ascent I was feeling tired but had managed to mostly retain the gains in position I’d made into the next checkpoint where warm food and tired runners were in abundance. I needed neither and simply filled my water and drank lots of Pepsi before setting out – the words of a fellow runner ringing in my ears ‘this is the hardest section’.

On paper, this statement seemed absurd as it looked much easier than that which had come before but in practice this for me was the most brutal of the sections.

Within a kilometre I sat down on the side of the trail, poles beside me, wanting to give up. A lady plonked herself behind me – presumably considering a rest stop a good idea and we chatted – I complimented her in the excellent choice of ‘loud leggings’ and we overcame the language barrier as her English was pretty good and I was grateful for the natter. We set off together, climbing the length of the gas pipe that snaked across the trail and into the hills once more. I let the young lady go on ahead, telling her she had more in her legs than me – which was true. I then continued at a slow and steady pace but as I ambled up the hills I took my worst tumble. Misjudging a small leap across some rocks, I slipped, face first into those rocks. I slumped, staring into the abyss below me – realising I really wasn’t very far from oblivion.

Minutes passed before I collected myself together, my legs like jelly from a combination of the race and my fall and the heat of the day was now taking its toll.


Despite still mostly running I knew my race was coming to an end – I simply couldn’t go fast enough and my fall had shaken my already shattered confidence.

Shortly after though I met another runner, a Scottish gentleman who gave me enough of a boost and a focus to press on a little while longer but at the top of the ascent I made the inevitable call to the GingaNinja. I knew that I would miss the cut-off, and so it proved – but only by a couple of minutes but that was enough.

I was well beaten.

I stood in the checkpoint with other deflated runners and drank from the litre bottle of Pepsi – swigging it back like it was White Lightning. I’d run my heart out for this one, I’d left nothing inside but I’d come up short.


What did I learn?
I was listening to John Kelly talk about his Barkley Marathons prep in the aftermath of this race and his words resonated deeply with me, especially when he said ‘do things that you’ll fail at, go and get lost…’ This is the journey I’m on now, learning how to succeed and also how to fail.

Importantly I learned that I need to get faster in the climbs because this is why I was timed out. I’m actually pretty fast on the flat and the downhills where I can hold my own against good runners but my ascending is pretty shocking and so I’m going to be working on this with lots of hiking and hill repeats.

I’m very keen to learn from this experience. I’m determined I am going to use it to get stronger and better at these tougher races. If I commit to do more of them, more of this type of training and if I run in locations like Madeira more regularly I will start finishing these races and hopefully run more competitive times, well improved times.

MIUT was the hardest and most brutal event I’ve ever taken part in – whereas I have no doubt that I failed Haria Extreme and UTBCN because of external, non-race related factors I have even less doubt that my failure to finish MIUT was simply because it is beyond my current experience and capabilities.

Any regrets?
Two – the first was my decision to wear the Ultimate Direction PB3.0, a brilliant race pack that simply doesn’t suit me. It’s caused me a huge amount of pain in my back at both the UTBCN and MIUT, sadly I think this will be being consigned to 30 mile ultra pile. The pain I experienced certainly influenced the outcome of this race but not enough to have stopped my time out – this would have been my end result anyway just perhaps a few miles further down the road.

The other thing I regret was family attendance. I believe taking family to these races is a distraction, you’re focused on neither them nor the race 100% and so as a consequence neither get the best from you. And that’s not fair on either them or the race. Therefore, I’m unlikely to take them to Lyon for my year ending race and while I might consider shorter distance races if they’re going to be joining me in the future I wouldn’t take them to the bigger brutes I’ve been attempting recently – I believe this will increase everyone’s enjoyment of trips away and improve my overall performance at these races.

What’s next UltraBoy?
I’ve got a busy few weeks, off to the Marlborough Downs Challenge for a confidence boosting amble around Wiltshire, followed by a double effort at the Westminster Mile before chasing down about 70 miles at Escape from Meriden. However it will be another ball buster at the South Wales 100 that is currently making my arsehole quiver!


Any conclusion? Just one, go try MIUT for yourself.


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

Key points

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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No matter how prepared you are you can never tell what will happen on the day and I’ve had some epic failures in running. Off the back of my most recent failure I wanted to revisit some of them to try and better understand how I’ve achieved responsibility and hopefully get myself back in the right headspace for MIUT.

Perhaps also in light of the awesomeness of John Kelly and Gary Robbins last weekend I think it’s ever more important to understand that ‘I’m responsible for me, nobody else’.

With that in mind this is what I’ve learnt…

What: No training, still injured
Race: Winter 100
End: DNF
Distance: 45/100 miles

It’s one of the few races I’ve never reviewed in full because this one still rankles nearly 3 years later. I’d been running injured for months and months prior to the start line – making the hip injuries I had ever worse and my physiotherapist made me promise that if she could get me to the start line that I’d have a few months off after this.

It didn’t help that UltraBaby arrived 6 weeks before the race and so I turned up to the start line having not done any training for around 8 months, having completed, badly, a handful of ultra events in that period and having had a very busy time as a first time parent in the run up to the start line. I managed to run the first 25 miles reasonably well but the second leg was nothing but agony and at around 45 miles the pain in my hips was so severe that I had to quit.

I recall sitting quietly in the village hall as the volunteers discussed their upcoming races and I found myself filled with rage that I wouldn’t be able to join them on any of these exciting adventures. I remember seeing Susie Chan coming through the door at the main central aid station and greeting me, sympathy being poured upon me, but I just wanted to leave and get away. It wasn’t that I was ungrateful I just knew that I was responsible for the mess I was in, I alone had caused this and I alone could fix it – but not here and not while I was so filled with rage at myself.

The Winter 100 caused me to understand that running while seriously injured has long term implications and it took a long time to return to being able to to run even halfway well again (and I’ll never recover properly it seems). Intensive physiotherapy and lots of rest allowed me to return to running only six months later and I’ve been much better at seeing the signs ever since but these and this race are mistakes I do regret.

What: Titting about
Race: National Ultra
End: Completed
Distance: 50km

Six months prior to the W100, having flown in from Budapest less than a dozen hours earlier I rolled up to the National 100km, in the early days of my hip injury and on a third of four ultras in 42 days.

I was tired when I heard the bell sound at the start and I decided as it was a cycle track I’d take it relatively easy. By about 20km I was bored and started messing about, joking with the spectators and basically being a bellend. In hindsight it comes as no surprise then that at about 27km I slipped off the track and twisted my knee in a bizarre and ridiculous accident.

Expletives rang out around the track but this was own stupid fault and so rather unwilling I dropped down a distance and cried off at 50km having hobbled slowly the 23km to the finish. The GingaNinja had no sympathy for me when I relayed my sorry tale of woe to her and quite rightly she let me stew on my own juices.

2014 was a year of massive mistakes and huge learning but it wouldn’t be until 2016 that I’d learned to mostly cut out the self inflicted mistakes.

What: 12 inches? No just a foot
Race: White Cliffs 50
End: Completed
Distance: 54 miles (and about 6 extra miles)

This remains my favourite ultra marathon story – probably one that has been embellished over the years but is very much based in truth.

  • I did roll my foot at mile 14
  • I was titting about for the cameraman
  • I did break my toes
  • I did hobble 2 miles to the checkpoint
  • I did change into Vibram FiveFingers
  • I did then manage to finish the race

The incident here would set an unfortunate precedent that no Ultra would occur without incident, injury or plain old poor fortune. I probably should just have retired here – become a ‘one and done’ but I didn’t and when I reflect like this it drives me mad at the level of stupidity and lack of respect I’ve shown to the races I’ve attempted. It’s only in more recent times that I’ve found myself turning up to events and showing the required level of dedication and mostly this is being rewarded with better running and better results, although still with a huge chunk of improvement to be made.

What: Shoes too small 
Race: The Wall
End: Completed
Distance: 69 miles

The Wall was a bit like ‘I know best’. I didn’t need fitting for shoes, I didn’t need help sourcing kit, reading routes, I didn’t need any help at all. Well the truth of the matter is that having done one ultra marathon when The Wall came up I was in no way prepared to take on a jump of nearly 20 miles in distance.

And when I rode in at mile 47 to be greeted by the GingaNinja I knew that my feet were in a bad way – we removed my shoes Adidas XT4 (or something) and inside, screaming out in agony, were two feet with more than 25 blisters adorning them in every possible place. It turns out I was wearing shoes that were 2 sizes too small and about 6 inches too narrow. My arrogance and self belief ensured that the final 22 miles of The Wall were simply the most painful I’ve ever faced. It’s fair to say I probably deserved those 22 miles.

The lesson was learnt – being assured is one thing but over confidence will chew you out!

What: Slip sliding away
Race: CCC
End: DNF
Distance: 55/110km

12 miles in and I was confident that after I had conquered the first major ascents that the race down to CP1 would be fast and carefree. Sadly the race to CP1 was fast but it wasn’t so much carefree as ‘loose’. I lost my footing once, then twice and then with control out of the window my legs buckled under me and I flew down the descent on my back, arse, head. I rolled and slid far enough for the runners around me to stop and check I was okay and while the immediate agony was my ego I knew I’d hurt myself. I stumbled along for another 25 miles before calling it a day but once more my over confidence had been my downfall.

What: Blisters, Blood, Vomit, Poo
Skye Trail Ultra
End: Completed
Distance: 75 miles (and a few extra)

I don’t want to paint a picture of a tortured ultra runner in this post, I’ll ultimately take responsibility for my own failures and hopefully find strength from the times I overcame adversity.

Skye is my ultimate triumph of overcoming that adversity. Even if you take out the hideous travel sickness I had on my 18hr journey up to the island and my efforts to recover from that with just 12hrs before the race started and only focus on what happened in the race – then my finish at Skye is still one of my greatest achievements.

However, it all looked likely to unravel when at 25 miles in I stopped running, I simply couldn’t continue – bent double in pain. My stomach had become what Obi-Wan might describe as a ‘wretched hive of villainy’. I made the assault of the final climb (or so I thought) of the ridge and I lay dying in the sunshine. I puked up the contents of my stomach and a few feet in the other direction my arse exploded a putrid green and neon yellow Jackson Pollock. I used the last of my water to clear my mouth out and simply lay back waiting for the DNF to take me.

Thankfully that fateful moment never came and I proceeded to spend nearly two hours lost looking for checkpoint one, but having survived the nightmare of my own body rebelling against me – I ploughed on with a determination to finish.

And I did… finish that is, I was finally starting to understand what it would take to be an ultrarunner.

What: Burning Balls
Race: Ridgeway 86
End: DNF
Distance: 54/86 miles

My infamous bollocks of fire where an issue at the Ridgeway and is second only to the even more infamous burning bullet hole of ultras when we are taking about running pains. Stood on the trail in the dark with my shorts round my ankles attempting to Vaseline them up and place a buff around my red raw testicles is something I’ll never forget.

I plan on returning to the Ridgeway to complete this event as I enjoyed it a lot, was well organised and genuinely scenic event – I simply made some poor kit choices and that’s easily remedied.

What: Turd Emergency
Race: Mouth to Mouth
End: Completed
Distance: 28 miles

The need for a poo on the trail is something that has dogged me for a while, so much so that a decent amount of toilet tissue always joins me for a race.

When possible I use the ‘Pre-race Flat White Coffee’ solution, as for some reason this delicious hot beverage has the ability to offer the clean as a whistle requirement my bowels like pre-race.

I digress…

The lack of cover at the M2M meant I needed to run several kilometres before nature overtook me and I had an urgent rush to the worlds smallest spikiest bush and created a mountain on the South Downs!

In subsequent races when I’ve felt the urge I have resolved that little problem more quickly and found that doing that has incurred better running – lesson learnt.

What: Head torch failure
Race: UTBCN
End: DNF
Distance: 73/100km

I was running really well at the UTBCN, strong, relaxed and, while unlikely to win anything, I would go home with a medal I could be proud of and a feeling that I was on the right road to my ultimate running aims.

The debacle with my head torch failing at the start line is an annoyance and, while I was angry with Petzl, ultimately it’s my fault for not carrying sufficient spares (I did have a spare head torch – it just wasn’t powerful enough). I let myself down by and while the kit fail shouldn’t ever have happened – it did.

The solution has been to buy new head torches and they will be fully tested before they go into battle and more importantly there’s two of them, both over 200 lumens, both adequate to see me through most ultra marathons.

The future?
By accepting responsibility for my actions I’m hoping that I can go to MIUT and beyond, giving my all as I run. I’m trying to drive myself to accept that I can do The harder races, the real challenges and that if I fail then I simply need to pick myself up, find the useful parts of whatever happens and continue my running journey.

I’ve found this post quite therapeutic, reminding myself about failure and the lessons I’ve taken from them (and indeed the successes). I’m hoping that information I’m gathering is influencing my performance and enhancing the recent progress I’ve been making in distance, endurance, speed and attitude.

So, with the disappointment of the UTBCN all I can say is, ‘come on MIUT – let’s see what you’re made of’.


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.


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?

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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