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Altra Lone Peak 3.0

This is a story two years in the making as the moment I finished the SainteLyon in 2015 I knew I had found ‘my’ race. My experience was so incredibly positive that I knew I would return and when entries opened in April I was waiting with my debit card to hand ready to sign up. Experience had taught me that this was unnecessary but I wanted my place confirmed as quickly as possible and within a few hours I had also uploaded the medical certificate from the UTBCN, booked my flights and begun the search for accommodation.

For more detail on how you go about the logistics can I recommend you read the 2015 report, which goes into much detail about that kind of thing.

The first half of my running year had gone quite well, finishing with a great finish at the South Wales 50 and despite failure at MIUT I was feeling tremendously positive overall going into the summer race break. However, the death of my partners mother, illness and injuries to my back meant that my return to training and racing was hampered quite badly. I didn’t show up for the return of the London to Brighton, although I rocked up to the start of the Ultra Trail Scotland: Arran this was cancelled mid race due to terrible weather conditions and I deferred my place at The Rebellion because of a hideous chest infection and a lack of preparation. This all meant that my return to the SainteLyon was incredibly undertrained in fact only just returned to training and in no way ready to face this wonderful course.

Regardless I wasn’t going to miss out and on Friday, 1st December I ambled along to the hideous Luton Airport and took the short flight to the delightful Lyon St Exupery Airport a short hop on the Rhône Express took me into the centre of the city (30mins), I bought a 72hour combined Metro, Tram and bus ticket (€15) and took the 3 minute metro ride to Saxe Gambetta where I would find my small but perfect AirBnB accommodation just two minutes from the station.

I dropped my bags down to be greeted by the sight of a Nespresso machine and some Belgian waffles and chocolate crepes! Merci Diep (the host). I grabbed a few bits like my passport and registration confirmation before heading straight out to the hall to collect my number. Another short hop on the metro and I was a five minute walk from where I needed to be – awesome.

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Security was still quite tight in France and there were bag and body searches before entry to the hall – which in light of recent history both in France and across Europe -makes sense. But once in the hall it was like a Mecca for all things trail running and I slowly wandered round deciding what I would spend some pennies on. It was lovely to see Oxsitis with a big stand and lots of products on show and while I may not wear them any longer Hoka also rolled into town with a decent showing.

Collection of my number was easy this year and I used my incredibly handy French phrase, ‘je ne comprends pas francais. parlez vous anglais?’ and I found that my French hosts once they knew I was English simply switched languages (something I am in awe of) though I did use my French language skills wherever possible. With my number collected I headed over to get some SainteLyon socks and my new much loved Buff!

And from this point I actually had some free time. I headed over to the huge shopping centre and picked up some provisions, did some late night sightseeing and then continued in this vein the following morning – touristing before settling down to an afternoon nap before the race. I then engaged in my now infamous pre race coffee ritual for a full bowel clearance and eventually I’d get round to loading up my kit up! It all seemed to be going far to smoothly.

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At about 6pm I headed down to the bus pick up point and joined the queue for one of the many buses to St Etienne. I remember in 2015 the bus was warm but the window had a drip running down it and I’d worked hard to ensure I didn’t get wet! This year the bus was a little chillier but the window didn’t leak and we arrived in good time and without incident. Security was speedy but thorough and as I had time to kill I grabbed some of the pre race snack goodies and went into the smaller of the two halls to see if I could catch a bit more sleep or at least rest. The hall was warm and filled with people but I had little trouble finding space and I folded a buff up and lay my head upon it – but I couldn’t sleep. The SainteLyon was effectively my Christmas present to myself and like a young boy I was desperate to open my present and get to running! Much like a Christmas Eve the following three hours dragged like the Hundred Years’ War! Still the hours did give me a vantage point for kit and people watching – the most interesting outfit I saw was a teenage mutant ninja turtle with full shell and this chap (as far as I know) ran the whole thing dressed like this. The STL though doesn’t attract a great deal of runners like this, they’re quite rare I would say. Most runners rock up in their favourite or best kit and I was pleased to note that many of the runners were wearing Oxsitis, Raidlight or Kalenji bags, undoubtedly the French appreciate these brands being reasonably readily available on the high street and support local brands. Shoe choices were equally local with most seeming to opt for Salomon or Kalenji – the good thing for me was I saw no Karrimor!

I’d chosen Altra for footwear and my beloved Oxsitis Hydragon for my back with a variety of OMM and Ronhill kit making up the rest, perhaps it was the kit that made me stand out as English as anyone that approached me spoke to me (generally) in my native tongue – clearly to the other runners I was not French!

Anyway to the race! The SainteLyon in its current form is a 72km race from St Etienne to Lyon, taking place the first weekend in December and setting off around midnight, you can read more about it here at Wikipedia. At around 11.30pm I drifted slowly to the start knowing that I would be starting near the back of the field but this would allow me to pick off runners later on (if I had any capacity to do so).

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The organisers though were releasing the runners in waves which meant that as I was at the back I would be one of the final runners to depart St Etienne. I could feel the cold setting in and I was geared for minimal warmth as I knew that during the race I would overheat with too many layers. I rubbed my arms periodically to retain warmth and hugged myself, while gently jigging on the spot – stopping sporadically to take photographs and make social media checks.

40 minutes later and, as promised, bang on time the music played, the horn blew and thousands of runners were released into the night. It was as magical as I remembered it, only this time there was no @kemptomslim to share the moment with and so I turned to look at the arch I had just run under and said ‘au revoir’ before turning on my heel and running into the Rhône Valley night.

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The first few kilometres are along the roads and lack any really interesting things to note other than the opportunity to catch some ground in the runners ahead of you or perhaps make some alliances to allow the hours to pass more pleasantly. I decided on the former rather than the latter and pressed firmly ahead knowing that conditions underfoot later in the race might slow me down. Perhaps the big clue as to the conditions was the fact that many runners had loaded up crampons to their race vests in preparation for cruddy conditions but at this early stage even those in their Kalenji Road shoes were running fine.

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While my French is limited I could feel the ambience of the race and the runners and there was a generally positive, goodwill feeling that swelled up around the runners in these early stages and you couldn’t help but be carried by this. For my part I darted between runners and ambled towards the trail which kicked in at around the 6km mark.

From here the light snowfall that we had seen on the sides of the road was replaced by much thicker, more dangerous, not so grippy snow and I recall as I headed down the trail that ‘bugger, this isn’t going to be as easy as last time’.

However, I am confident in my footwork and I was able to press on a little faster than those in front of me and as the kilometres marched downward toward the first checkpoint I started to feel very confident about running a good time. Despite a lack of training in the lead up to the race I was feeling surprisingly spritely too and as I hurled myself up and down the trails I was enjoying myself.

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I felt like I was in a good place and set myself up for cruise control to allow me some breathing room and to take photographs and simply to take joy from the experience. About 13km in, not long before the first checkpoint I looked behind me to see the procession of runners all twinkling behind me and then I really remembered why I love this race so much.

However, with underfoot conditions worsening I was glad to drop upon the first checkpoint and it was here that I stayed the longest of all the checkpoints – maybe 5 minutes, this was mainly due to the amount of people and partly because I actually wanted food. But it was still a short stop and thankfully they had full fat Coca Cola on offer and I enjoyed a cup full before heading out – no Rolo Cola this time @kemptonslim

I remembered that post checkpoints I was freezing cold for the first few minutes and so covered my fingers with the mitten part of my gloves and pulled my neck buff up and my head buff down and headed out. Weirdly though my nose was freezing and when I felt the front of my buff the snot and hot breath had frozen into a cold and icy mess. I folded it down a little and it was better but this would be the first buff to be replaced a few more kilometres down the trail.

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It was from here that you started noticing people putting crampons on as conditions underfoot deteriorated further and there was a visible increase in the amount of runners who were losing their legs beneath them, I was keen to go as fast as I could but knew two things;

  1. Falling would hurt
  2. I’d forgotten to buy ultra marathon sports insurance

and so I ran were it was appropriate and walked as quickly as possible everywhere else. It was about the 20km mark that I heard the sounds of an Australian accent behind me and for a short while I’d met someone who spoke English natively and we had a lovely brief chat before we went our sort of separate ways. This was her first ultra marathon and her French friend felt this would be a great introduction to ultras and when I saw her she looked the business taking her fast marathon form into the STL. I would see a little more of her later.

The second section unlike the first had a greater degree of pure Trail and both my knees and back appreciated this. The trail was incredibly variable with some being good clear trail, other parts moist but most were snow and ice covered and progress remained slower than I would have liked but still not bad. The STL though has a very interesting aspect to it that say something like the CCC does not – overtaking. Although the route is busy with runners the potential for overtaking is enormous and you find yourself gearing up past runners all the time and then being overtaken by them! This has benefits for the relay runners who are undoubtedly fresher than the full distance runners and even for the Express (44km) runners that you might meet.

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I found myself hitting some decent running in this section and engaging in lots of overtaking and being overtaken and it was fabulous hearing the phrase ‘a gauche’ or ‘a droit’ – I can’t tell my left from my right in English so I had to concentrate hard to get it right in French!

Although not clock watching I was very aware that my time was better than it had been in 2015 and some basic mental calculations suggested I could shave off around two or three hours from my previous outing and despite an injury and illness hit few months I was giving it as much welly as the ground would allow. However, all of this was to grind to a halt and all the good work undone. At about 23km in the ground became so icy that runners couldn’t even walk on it and in front of you a plethora of bodies were strewn across the trail.

A runner would fall and the phrase ‘ca va?’ would be called the two or three runners that would stop to pick up their fallen comrade. I brought my own race to a stop to assess the conditions and decided that I would use what visual clues I had before me, track the steps of the runners ahead of me and go as carefully as possible. Sections were becoming so severe that runners were sitting on their arses and pushing themselves down the trail on their hands.

I witnessed bloodied and bruised runners ahead of me but their tenacity meant that most would get up. My problems intensified though when at 26km my trusty Altra gave into the ice and I was thrust skyward and came down with a thud. I’d broken the fall with my back and smashed my headand although I got up straight away I was in pain – my recent back troubles suddenly came rushing back and my head felt woozy. I knew that Sainte-Catherine was only a couple of kilometres further on and so I followed the crowd, walking now and not in a good place. I slipped and slid more, desperate to keep my feet but I fell a further three times before the second checkpoint and when I crashed in I felt like death.

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I took a few minutes and ate emmental and salami to help get something in me and for both the first and last time I wondered if I should stop and seek medical attention. The answer was ‘no’ and with that I set off again. I tried to focus on the trail and ran reciting song lyrics and poetry to myself as I’ve often found this works to stop me thinking about more painful distractions. The various falls though and those to come had given me s kicking and perhaps had my head taken a worse knock than it did I would have had the common sense to stop – but I didn’t. The trail continued to worsen and we were now into the coldest part of the night and at the highest, often most exposed points, when the wind whipped through it passed straight through me but I refused to put additional layers on knowing that this would simply infuriate me.

Upon reach Inge the highest point of the race I felt something of an achievement, despite having run it before I convinced myself that the rest of the course was downhill but this was ridiculous and actually the most dangerous Running was just around the corner.

I could see the pack starting to gather ahead of me, the ice, once again so bad that runners were sat on the floor dragging themselves down and the mountain rescue, aided by quad bikes were going back and forth collecting runners from the trail. In my head I refused to sit down and drag myself along, I refused to bow, in my head I could here Terence Stamps, Zod calling out, ‘kneel before Zod son of Jor-el’ and although I’m no Superman i knew that the moment I gave in I would death march this home.

My decision to stay stood cost me a couple of falls and a fellow runner came sliding into the back of me taking me out at one point. My already broken body didn’t have the required agility to jump straight back up this time but my fellow runners pulled me to my feet quickly and set me on my way. I was hurting now in lots of ways but the mild delirium kept me on the straight and narrow!

Ha!

I dragged my sorry arse into the checkpoint and found a quiet spot to change head torches and power my phone up after the cold had simply switched it off. I didn’t bother with food or drink here – I was feeling sickly but I hoped this would pass if I quickly got out of the checkpoint and avoided the dreaded DNF.

I was a marathon or so in and light would soon be upon these beautiful French lands and with it I felt conditions would improve if only because I’d be able to see but the news was a bit better than that – the closer to Lyon we got the better the trail conditions got and icy conditions became more sporadic. My head was also starting to clear a little bit and despite the physical pain I could feel myself running more and more with confidence returning that I could control both my ascents and more importantly the descents.

Finally after the drama and trauma of the night I was back in the race – although the slow progress through the ice had ensured that there was no way I was going to run faster than the previous attempt.

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We were also on the countdown to the finish ‘SainteLyon 25km arrivee’ I pushed on as fast as I could, walking the hills as quickly as possible and staying steady across the flat and downhills. I stopped briefly to top up my calories with a couple of caramel Freddo and some icy water and took a look back to realise that there still many, many runners behind me – this was clearly proving a hard slog for everyone.

With 20km to go I pulled into the next checkpoint and pulled out again quickly – I’d been keeping tabs on the young Australian girl and her friend who I’d inadvertently been playing overtaking tennis with and decided that I could use her as my pacer – the aim? To beat her to the finish. The final 20km are much more road based which doesn’t really suit my running style nor my injury record, however, it did allow me to push on without too much concern for what was happening at foot level.

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about 5km in to the final 20km I saw my new target drift ahead of me – still looking strong and here I thought it was all over, I didn’t have a race in me – or so I thought. With just over 10km left I entered the final checkpoint had arrived at the outskirts of Lyon. I saw the two runners I was trailing and asked how they were getting on, they described a tale of woe in the icy conditions and my internal Schadenfreude said, ‘hehe’ but instant karma paid me back by making me bite down hard on my own finger instead of the cheese and salami I was holding. I base them farewell and wished them a good final push but I knew I could get there before them.

Boom!

Finally the sun was warming, I removed my buffs, my gloves and rolled my sleeves up. I knew the route from here, I could smell the finish line in the distance and even the good awful climb into the city I flew up much to the amusement of runners behind me. There are steps on the descent into Lyon and the finish – lots of them and ahead of me I could see runners gingerly hobbling down them but I pushed hard knowing that I could continue to climb the rankings.

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Off the steps, down to the river, up the winding steps, over one bridge, fly past the musee de confluences and over the final bridge, cheering supporters shouting, ‘Allez!’ And clapping calling out, ‘Bravo! Bravo!’

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I had decided on my finish routine long ago for this race and I ambled along to the final 200metres, I could see runners ahead of me and at the right moment I pressed my feet into the floor and like a rocket I blasted off much to the surprise of the crowd who whooped and hollered as I hit full pace. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 runners down, runner number 6 with his hands in the air smacked me in the head but I was in full glorious flow and I hurtled towards the final turn – taking it wide to ensure I could cross the line flat out! I passed a couple of final runners at the line and I was over.

It was over! I was over!

  • Distance: 72km
  • Ascent: +2000 metres
  • Location: Lyon
  • Cost: £65
  • Runners: 7,000 (15,000 over all distances)
  • Terrain: Mixed, icy, rocky, hilly, tough
  • Tough Rating: 3/5

Organisation
The STL is possibly the best organised race I’ve ever run, but then after 64 editions perhaps that is to be expected. However, they clearly keep on making minor corrections to the system to ensure that runners know what’s going on and what they have to do. Things like transport to the start for thousands of runners is slick and well rehearsed and the checkpoints although busy are all easily accessible as a runner.

As a French classic there isn’t much information in English but Google translate is helpful and the volunteer army was amazing in helping me with questions I had.

There was also excellent social media connectivity and the tracking was quick, up to date and working unlike at so many events (yep I’m thinking of you UTMB). The STL scores incredibly highly for organisation.

Volunteers
All volunteers are amazing but the SainteLyon volunteers are out in some freezing cold conditions for a very long period and they remain hugely upbeat – they are a credit to the race and to European Ultra Running. There should also be a special mention to the many people who came out on to the course to support, whether they had a runner or not, truly special.

Route
The route had something for everyone whether you’re a trail lover, a road hog or somewhere in between. The ascents are sharp and the descents technical in places but it’s fun and the route is mostly wide enough for easy overtaking. The views for this route are strange in that you are in the middle of the night so it’s dark but the lights of the runners illuminate things around you and in the distance and that’s a beautiful sight. I feel very much the reason I love the STL so much is because the route is both challenging and fun, this time it really did show me it’s tough side but that doesn’t change my opinion that this is an everyman course and with a bit of tenacity you can do it.

Awards
I would love, love, love a SainteLyon medal but solo finishers are presented with a T shirt instead – a nice technical shirt but still not a medal. This year pre-race they also supplied a snood/buff and a pair of STL branded warm socks which are excellent. There were all sorts of other goodness such as the post race and pre race food (I didn’t bother with either but I heard good things about it). All in all the awards are great but I’d love a medal (take the hint organisers).

Costs
To give an indication of cost I paid around £85 return flights (London Luton – Lyon). £22 for the return express train to Lyon from the airport and about £85 for three nights Airbnb in the centre of Lyon as well as £60 for the race and transport. Other costs included a couple of technical SainteLyon t-shirts and a bobble hat (total cost £27). All in, transport, race, goodies, tourism and food £300.

Logistics
I’ve written in my previous STL about logistics but Lyon is 1hr 25mons from London and Lyon Airport is 30 mins from the city centre. I used AirBnB for accommodation which was lovely and the race itself provides buses to the start for €13 and this is easily the best way of arriving fresh at the start. The organisers and Lyon/St Etienne are very well prepared for this event and as far as I could tell it runs smoothly and logistically brilliantly.

Value for money
Value for money is a very subjective thing, for example some people even believe that OCR events are good value but this is a different kettle of fish. Entry is €63 – this includes the €3 service charge and what you get is not only a truly glorious event but also tremendous support (be that through volunteers, cheering supporters or food at checkpoints), most importantly though you receive a brilliantly organised event and having some events not this well set up I can tell you I appreciate the value of a good team delivering on their promises.

Favourite moments
This year was a little different to 2015 but it had no fewer highlights, below are five moments that really made a difference to my race.

  1. The start line, such an icon of the race and filled with all sorts of emotion. The moment the runners all started hugging and patting each other on their backs just made me feel connected to my fellow competitors
  2. Standing at various high points of the route and looking back to see the procession of lights running to catch me and the people ahead of me.
  3. The two young children and their mother offering water, coffee, goodies and support in the darkest hours of the race
  4. The cries of Allez! Allez! Allez! and Bravo!
  5. My sprint to the finish line

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Conclusion
Going back to the SainteLyon after 2015 was never in doubt. I had loved the idea of it and loved the execution of it. After being busy with Haria Extreme in 2016 I knew I would be returning to Lyon this year but what I hadn’t been prepared for was a hugely different experience.

In truth, as I look back on it, I enjoyed this year even more than my first time because of how close I came to failing and yet still clinging on. However, it wasn’t just that it was also the fact I got to enjoy the race, to watch the landscape move before my very eyes in a procession of light and because the SainteLyon continues to tease, ‘come back UltraBoy you can run me faster’.

Going back to the SainteLyon is a certainty because there is something special about it that no other race I’ve done has given me the feeling I get here. It might have left me broken into a thousand pieces but I would rather that it was body broken than my heart. SainteLyon 2017 – I loved you.

You can learn more about the race at www.saintelyon.com and below is a gallery of images taken during the 2017 event!

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And they’re off…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Check them out www.runwalkcrawl.co.uk

Favourite moments

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

What a shoe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not cool. Not cool at all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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