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Frustration


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.


I sat, eating delicious sugary sweets and drinking slightly too warm Coca Cola as the last shaft of light dropped away from northern Spain. I tried my Petzl one final time in the hope that it could power me round the final 32km.

But it was dead.

I’d prepared so hard to face down the UTBCN but I’d neglected something very important and yet based on my previous experience, superfluous – a second powerful head torch.

As I prepare to return to mountainous terrain with climbs in excess of 1,000 metres and a total elevation of more than 7,000 metres I need to ensure my preparation is more meticulous than ever.

(This was written prior to MIUT and my result there. A report of my experience will follow in the coming weeks once I’ve properly processed the event).

Mental, Physical, Technical Preparedness. I’ve spent much of the last year taking time to think about what I want from my running and as a consequence have changed so many things and while there have been a series of hiccups along the way I’m generally happy with how it’s all panning out


Physical. 
In physical terms I’m faster than I have been for years, I’m sub20 at 5km again and on the right (downhill) course I’m closing in on the low 40s for a 10km. My endurance is better too with 60-70 mile running weeks more achievable than ever and 15 mile hilly buggy runs are a regular occurrence and have been helping prepare for elevation efforts. I’ve been taking my body more seriously too, dropping a few kilograms in weight and not ignoring injuries and all of the above is paying dividends.

However, it’s not all positive, several years of under training, over racing and ignoring injury have left me with scars that my body is unlikely ever to recover from. And so I’ve gone from top 25% of the field runner to a mid/back of the pack runner and in the races I’m now committed to I’m happy just to be able to go to them because I’m a novice and still learning. 

When I go and stand on the start line of the MIUT I know that I’m not one of the mountain goats or one of the winners and that I’m there for the experience (and hopefully a finish) but I know that I’m headed there in better physical shape than say, six months ago, when I took on Haria Extreme.

If you can learn anything from my experiences I hope it’s that you need to develop – give yourself the time to rest, recuperate, train and absorb information from all available sources. This will improve your competitiveness and physicality as you approach those races you’ve always dreamed of facing.

Mental. I was stood at the base of Como Lumpido in Lanzarote with a difficult ascent ahead of me – some runners were coming down the climb having decided that this wasn’t for them.

There was no doubt I was going slowly but having only just returned from injury this race was going to be a test and this climb was a bit of a shit. When I reached the top I looked out into the distance and stood for a moment to grab a photograph or two and heard myself cry out ‘woohoo’. 

All you need is… I hadn’t felt like this since the Skye Trail Ultra six months earlier when I’d nearly shat myself coming down one of the very steep sections. This hilly running sent goosebumps running up my arms and shivers down my spine

I was in love.

For the next 25km of Haria Extreme I had my foot to the floor such was my joy and while there are circumstances that stopped me continuing at around 80km I came away from Lanzarote knowing I had so much more to give.

Dealing with the downs? I’ve often suffered with post race blues and an inability to draw the positives from the racing I’ve done, instead focusing on where it’s gone wrong and how I MUST improve but after Haria I was sure that my decision was the right one and I felt mentally positive about my failure.

However, in the fiasco of my Barcelona failure I’ve been much less positive and actually this has affected to some degree my preparation for Madeira. Having accepted I needed to give myself a bit of a kicking I’m relatively back on track and go to the Portuguese island clinging on to positive thoughts. 

Don’t say ‘edge’. My key concern though isn’t my occasionally negative feelings about ability, no.

My key concern is that I’m scared witless of heights and having viewed many YouTube clips, instagram feeds and twitter timelines I can assure both you reader and myself that the elevation, the climbs and the sheer drops are something I’m terrified of.

I can’t imagine taking these sections with anything other than an arse quivering fear and no experience is making me feel better about this. At Skye there was hard elevation and cliff edges to negotiate as there were  at the CCC, SainteLyon, Barcelona and Lanzarote but this is a whole new level.

I’ve worked hard to focus on the running so that I don’t look down too often and I’ve faced numerous long dangerous hikes over the last couple of years to get me prepared for this – I feel I should no longer be worried, but I am.

I’m advised that a healthy fear of these sections is sensible and respectful and while I know that’s true I wonder how I’m feel when I’m faced with them in the dead of night.

Why do I worry about ultras abroad so much? It’s true that I go to these foreign ‘A’ races and worry about them much more than I do say something like the TP100 or the Ridgeway. 

I’m convinced that some of the pressure I have been exerting on myself has been setting me up for failure. So, kit issues, physical condition, training, having family around, not having family around, lack of suitable locally sourced nutrition and foreign languages all contribute enormously to my stress levels that blow tall and mighty.

It’s a strange set of circumstances that probably come mostly from simply being out of my comfort zone.

By golly Holmes! To aid in the resolution of this I’ve taken some very simple steps a) pack early b) lists c) anything missing can usually be sourced locally and finally d) don’t be afraid to say ‘I’m not going to run it, I’m undertrained/injured/whatever’.

This approach has served me quite well at Haria and the UTBCN where both my failures to finish were because of circumstances outside of the norm. I’m hoping that with the two factors that blighted these events no longer being an issue (fingers crossed) and despite the harshness of the course, I can complete MIUT.

I’ve come a long way in my running preparation, especially the mental side of it and although it’s far from perfect – it’s improving.

I have to understand that should I ever want to reach the final race of my running career though I’ll need to develop a still greater tenacity to post race blues and I’ll need to improve my mental agility regarding perceived failure.

However, my love of the mountains and the peace I find in them make racing there so alluring that my deficiencies in mental strength can be overlooked enough to commit to an increasing number of elevation stacked races.

Technically. Fail to prepare, prepare to fail – I wish this were a true statement but I’m living proof that failing to prepare doesn’t prepare you to fail, however, the success you achieve is unlikely to be as great as you would hope for.

The above statement is not an excuse for my often woeful lack of preparedness but a statement of fact.

However, when you start preparing to run on the trails, going up hills and climbing mountainous regions, then you suddenly find that the better your running technique, your pre-race research and understanding of your equipment is then the better time you’ll have and the better you’ll perform.

But I adore throwing my love spuds on the fire! I’ve rocked up to a few races with ill fitting shoes, not taking into account the days conditions, no idea of the route, no idea the elevation and barely any idea what race I’m in. It will come as no surprise to runners that these are the events were I have mostly performed badly. I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count the races that could have gone so much better had I prepared in a more fitting manner.

I finally began preparing better for races at the SainteLyon 2015 because I was going to France alone, there would be no rescue, no backup, it was a race in the middle of winter, in the middle of the night.

So I prepared a little like this 

  • Researched previous years events on social media and running websites
  • Used only the local (French) language site as this was more up-to-date than the English language version
  • Got my medical certificate done as early as possible 
  • Booked flights and accommodation early
  • Got to know the local public transport network before I arrived
  • Brushed up on my French
  • Printed maps
  • Printed race documents
  • Got happy with race kit options before leaving the UK, avoided last minute purchases, but…
  • Knew where a local sports shop was for emergency race purchases
  • Got to bib collection early
  • Rested pre-race for the midnight start
  • Big poo pre-race
  • Packed kit for an ultra with no backup
  • Knew my route back to my accommodation 

I had with me for the SainteLyon options for clothing but my race kit (vest, nutrition, head torch, waterproof, etc) were all decided long before the race started and this helped me to settle down, not worry so much and have the best race experience I’ve ever had. The SainteLyon should be my model for how to prepare for a race.

Subsequently I’ve tried to replicate the process and it’s mostly gone okay but there is always the potential for problems but you learn to adapt. I do the ‘headless chicken’ routine a lot less than I used to.

The CCC. For example in the run up to the CCC we were advised that temperatures meant we should be carrying significant amounts of extra fluid, my response to this was to find a matching race belt to my bag with a 500ml bottle – but it had to be matching (my need for order overtaking my need to have a pleasant holiday in Chamonix). To say I was a bear with a sore head for most of this trip is an understatement, but it was all ridiculous race related pressure that I was heaping upon myself. 

The resolution is that now I carry a spare 350ml soft bottle as an addition to my other hydration options and on a race day I choose the most appropriate ones depending on weather conditions.

Bingo.

Preparation of the organisational and technical elements of racing have helped me very much and contributed significantly to finishes at Amersham, Green Man, Skye and the Vanguard Way and without being prepared I wouldn’t have gotten nearly as far as I did at Haria and Barcelona but it’s not the be all and end all.

Preparation, I’ve discovered, is not the key to finishing but it is the key to starting successfully and that in my opinion is half the battle.

So whether you’re a first timer or a bit of an old salty seadog like me, there will always be things that you can do to reduce anxiety and build confidence.

Facing MIUT. If I had to place in order how I value the three aspects of my running preparation I’d say that Mental is the most important followed by Technical/Organisation with my Physical readiness the least important. Ultimately if my headspace is fucked I’m not getting to the start line, I’d just stay in bed on race morning. If my kit, organisation or transport to the start line is wrong then my stress levels go up which affect my mental attitude and we have a cumulative nightmare. However, if my body is a bit worse for wear, if I haven’t slept properly, if all my hypochondria rears it ugly head I’ll still start and mostly I’ll put up with it (unless it’s serious).

So when I go to Madeira and the midnight start in Porto Moniz I’m just going to take it easy because I have prepared properly, I have tested all my kit and I am trying to stay positive, albeit a nervous positive. Finish or fail it matters not, I just know I’d rather be challenging myself at MIUT this weekend rather than something I know I can do.

March started with such promise but ended in a failure from which there seems no escape. Below are the high and lowlights of my March running

  1. More than 200 miles run (mostly race miles)
  2. Completed the Hockley Woods Challenge despite injury early in the event
  3. Completed the outrageously fun Amersham Ultra
  4. Nasty bout of food poisoning gave me a week off running – that’ll teach me for eating slightly mouldy muffins!
  5. Withdrew from the UTBCN at the three-quarter point due to a kit failure in my brand new Petzl head torch
  6. The effect of a race failure caused by things outside of my control has meant I haven’t felt like running at all since
  7. Weight loss was slowed to allow me to eat more in preparation for the three races in March – 0.5kg dropped.
  8. I dumped Petzl in favour of Black Diamond head torches after the UTBCN. Fingers crossed my new choices don’t fail
  9. Kit tested my new Oxsitis Enduro and Ultimate Direction PB 3.0 both of which are outstanding pieces of kit – expect reviews in the coming months
  10. Yesterday UltraBaby told me we had to go for a run! Cool!

So it wasn’t a good March all in all – it’s not a disaster but after several months of geverally forward progress this feels like taking steps backwards and being unsure how to resolve it with a big race on the horizon doesn’t fill with me anything other than trepidation.

ho-hum.

Importantly though, for those that read this and feel I require a ‘man up’ or a ‘go for a run’ then please allow me to spare you those well meaning sentiments – they don’t help. I’ve already had quite a lot of well meaning but ultimately generic help from both real people and social media and actually this is just something you need to resolve yourself, or at least that’s how I need to do it.

I hope everyone else has had good running over the last month and that Apri is awesome too!

Let’s talk about the run up to Haria Extreme before we get into the nuts and bolts;

  • You’ve run three times since August Bank Holiday
  • You’ve been unable to run since 29 September – (the Vegan Challenge was a reckless mistake)
  • Injury was causing enough concern that you weren’t sure you’d start Haria Extreme
  • Pre-race prep severely hampered by circumstances beyond your control
  • There was more than 3,000 metres of steep climb across 102km
  • …and unsurprisingly you retired from the race
  • however, this was not a failure – far from it

Now the question is, ‘when is retiring from a race not a failure?’ The answer, for me, lies in the thoughts I’ve put together over the last week while bimbling around Lanzarote post race. The journey to HE begins where so many things have done – in my failure at the CCC, while I was in France I came across the HE stall and said to myself that looks like the most brilliant piece of cool and I have to do it. The problem was that it was in November last year and I was already committed to running the SainteLyon. However, HE has stayed in my memory since that day and when applications opened in about April I was first on the list.

Yes please sign me up for your newly enhanced, hillier and longer route, I said with an undeserved air of confidence.

In truth my running had been going pretty well all year and I had good reason to be confident, Green Man, Skye Trail Ultra, Vanguard Way, Country to Capital, Brutal Enduro had all been completed and pretty well – but the wheels started to come off at The Ridgeway when I DNF’d over some severe chaffing and it got worse when my disagreement with the GingaNinja turned into a full blown retirement from running and by the time I was going again I then found a nasty new injury to give me a kicking. That calf injury needed severe physiotherapy, lots of rest and no running – in fact no exercise as there was a point that it was too painful to walk on. With days quickly rolling by I cold see HE slipping from my grasp – I was pretty devastated.

With two weeks before the race I took part in the SVN Vegan Day Challenge and tortured myself round the route, looking back on it with a little common sense I should have realised that this was not a good idea but I needed to test the calf problems and although they held up on the day they never felt very good and the days after the race were some of the most pain I’ve ever been in.

Tick-tock, tick-tock.

We arrive to the day before the flight (Wednesday) and I’m rushing round like a blue arsed fly trying to ensure that everything for the flight, the race and the family holiday were all complete and that it would all be super smooth when we arrived at the airport at 3.30am. Little did I realise that this would be a monumental disaster with UltraBaby, the GingaNinja and I making the flight with mere seconds to spare, it wasn’t helped that the support we received from Special Assistance for our disabled companion was pathetic and so the trip and the race were off to a stinking start.

We arrived exhausted, aching, grumpy and in my case the physical exhaustion came from lugging around the huge amount of luggage we had needed to transport to support an ultra runner, a 2 year old toddler and a disabled traveller – I could really feel my lack of base fitness from the lack of exercise in the previous few months (and this worried me). However, unpacked (roughly) we headed up to Haria to collect my race number and take a look around the event.

There was no doubt that my mood improved but my worries refused to abate, looking again at the race profile and steep climbs it involved had me very concerned. On the positive side number collection was very easy – passport was checked for ID, collected my number and got hold of a giant set of HE kit (compression shirt, compression arm sleeves, neck gaiter and head band – all very high quality). This was a very welcome bonus and for just €30 I added a lurid yellow hooded top which will brighten any cold winter UK day.

The race village didn’t have much in the way of people selling kit but there were a few bits and actually it was all very low key and rather delightful, there was also the live local Canarian musicians which I felt was something a little special for a race that was starting to feel a little ‘buzzy’. I had feared that this would be another UTMB type race but all appearances seemed to be suggesting that this had a much smaller, niche feel to it and I felt vindicated in my decision to run this over attempting TransGranCanaria earlier in the year.

With number collected, Friday was left as a family day and the holiday could finally begin and I enjoyed a day doing swimming, watching animals and generally running riot with my daughter at a number of bits and pieces we had identified and we even dipped our feet for some splashing into the pool at the villa we had hired via AirBnB.

Friday evening though was used to fine tune my kit, Oxsitis bag rather than Ultimate Direction – Ronhill top rather than La Sportiva and Lone Peak 3.0 over Olympus 2.0 – it took quite some time to make final decisions but the biggest choices were in leg wear and nutrition.

For leg wear I selected the excellent Raidlight Freetrail (longer length but very lightweight shorts in a delightfully ridiculous colourway with stupid typography on them – full review to follow). I teamed these with raidlight tights and runderwear pants to maximise my comfort in the heat (just incase there was a repeat of the R86 chaffing nightmare).

Nutrition though was a very different matter – I had chosen to bring Tailwind with me but having never used it I was somewhat worried about how I might react so in typical fashion I had both Tailwind and real food options with me (lots of chocolate). I knew that I didn’t want to pollute my main water supply so my bladder had to remain free of tailwind, instead I carried two 150ml soft bottles that I could easily store in the small waist pockets of the Freetrail shorts. This was the perfect way to take Tailwind for me.

The race
Anyway, the race itself was a 7am kick off to maximise the Canarian daylight. We were due to start out from ‘Timanfaya’ the volcanic national park with the last remaining active Lanzarote volcano. We pulled into the car park at about 6.30am and saw the runners and supporters lining the dark sand and lava gravel track. It was quite a sight next to the huge herd of camels that also lined up alongside them.

I drifted over to the toilet block which was located inside the normally bustling tourist cafe but at this time it was simply a very long queue of runners. I opted not to wait and would hope that the first checkpoint had a toilet stop as I was rather in need. I rejoined the GingaNinja and UltraBaby for the 10 or 12 minutes before the race began and we admired the camels, the sea of volcanic rock and the sunrise – it was all suitably spectacular.

At a slightly later than expected 7.15 the sound issuing us off was given and about 200 hardy souls set off at a fair old whack down into the unknown. For the first 5km we thundered along a rocky and sandy track through the national park – admiring the amazing geology as we went. I unfortunately was allowing myself to be caught up in the moment and being dragged along at a pace that really didn’t suit. However, within a couple of kilometres I settled into myself and looking round realising this would be no follow the leader – you were out there on your own.

At about 5km we turned out of the core Timanfaya National Park and entered the broader volcanic area which I had hoped would make for easier going on the feet but as the gritty sand slipped around your feet you knew this was going to be hard work.

What I hadn’t expected was the ground to be so varied, there was of course the gritty dark remains of lava and black sand but there was also huge swathes of pebbles, big rocks, slippery rocks, jagged rocks, basically lots of rocks. There was no nice easy Kent countryside trail here but thankfully the Lone Peak 3.0 were the right choice for the job and my feet felt well protected from the elements.

I started the first of the ascents after some off-roading through what looked like a well pruned back Canarian vineyard and then into the first serious descent where I allowed myself the opportunity of a bit of respite and I flew to the bottom knowing that the next ascent was several hundred rocky metres and I would need all due care to navigate this. ‘Surely not all the ascents could be like this?’ I asked myself as the track disappeared and we were left to find our own path amongst the course markings. But with every ascent there is a matching descent and here I thrust myself forward once more. This time I was lurching left and left through a vineyard – no trail specifically, just the tracks of my fellow runners. With each step I could feel the black gravel being kicked up behind me and I was grateful for my gaiters which kept the stones and sand to a minimum.

Through the vineyard I passed and by a volunteer who cheered ‘bravo’ and I offered a cheery wave with a solid ‘grassy arse’. In the distance I could see the checkpoint and so with as much energy as I could I bolted to the stopping point.

All the volunteering points were excellent although there wasn’t much English spoken and there were a lot of very competent 15 year olds manning them. I did ask if there was a toilet in my best Spanglish ‘whereas are ass los toiletos por favour’. They smiled politely and told me ’20 kilometres’. I assumed they meant checkpoint 2, it turns out they simply hadn’t understood my brilliant piece of linguistics.

The problem was I was now about 10 miles in with an urgent need for the toilet. Looking around offered no immediate solutions as there was no cover whatsoever – Haria Extreme was pretty exposed and I had no intention of exposing myself here. So onward I moved, taking things sensibly as the day began to warm up. I refuelled at the previous stop on Pepsi and refilled my Tailwind bottles and actually my energy reserves where holding our pretty well. Pushing through the next 10 or 12km was relatively easy despite my urgent need for the loo and as I crossed the car park into checkpoint 2 I grabbed more Pepsi and took the opportunity to admire the view. Although I was clearly near the back of the field I felt that this was being sensible – I knew the heat would be an issue and f I could make it into night then I’d be much more able to make up time on the people in front of me.

With these thoughts in my head I bade the checkpoint ‘adios’ and moved on – in the distance I could see a big hill but I could also see some cover. I therefore looked back about a kilometre and realised I was alone for at least a few minutes and found a discreet cave in which to deliver the problem child I had been carrying for more than 25km – I was very relieved. After quickly rearranging myself I pressed on through a slightly greener Lanzarote but then I realised I hadn’t seen a route marker for quite a while, I checked with Suunto, I was off course.

Ah.

I looked back and could clearly see that there were no route markers nearby – I therefore retraced my steps, after about ten minutes of running I saw a man a couple of hundred metres higher than me at the top of the hill. I was probably about another kilometre back away from finding the point at which the rise started and so I looked up, a near vertical climb – probably 200 metres. I dug in and I climbed. I remember that I refused to stop, I refused to look down and I refused to give up even when my breathing was heavy and hard I was determined to continue and then I reached the summit to be greeted by a volunteer who was pointing me in the right direction.

‘Wrong way!’ I exclaimed. He had clearly watched me climb the vertical and offered me a pat on the back as I ran beyond him.

The route was unrelenting and when it wasn’t punishing you with ascents and descents it was looking for cracks in your kit to place stones, sand and general pain and the road to checkpoint three was no less so.

The interesting thing about HE and in particular the road to Soo) was that you could tell where the checkpoints were long before you reached them because they were found in the towns dotted around the island – which were often isolated pockets of life. As I banged on down to sea level and on to the thick hot white sand I could see my next stop and I knew that my family were waiting for me.

I made my into the town and drifted over to UB who ran towards me with arms outstretched and a stone, presumably for nutrition. A runner sat on the side of the road looked miserable as he had clearly DNF’d but the GN told me I was looking good and that I wasn’t actually that far behind a number of runners. I stopped here for a few minutes to have a mental uplift but then it was back off and on the way to Famara.

This was a tough section for me as it represented the hottest temperatures of the day but I’d been drinking consistently and the route here although hard going through tricky roads and soft sand allowed me to pick up the pace a little. I realised as I was running along that I’d never run in sand before and it wasn’t an enjoyable experience as it finally found a way into my shoes but any problems my feet faced were offset by the bevy of topless and naked ladies who lined parts of this section of the route. I swear I tried not to stare but I’m only human and this wasn’t some British nudist colony this was wave after wave of the beautiful people. I felt somewhat self conscious, especially when a very naked lady walking towards me with her (I’ll assume) husband cried ‘bravo, bravo’. I mean seriously where do you look in that situation? Anyway I thanked them for their good wishes and pressed on.

In the distance I could see the next climb ‘Lomo Cumplido’ which in my head was reading like some form of oral sex act but was actually instead a straight up 600metre climb, this was what I had come for. I wasted no time at checkpoint 4 other than to revitalise my stock of Tailwind and drink about a pint of Pepsi. Still feeling pretty good I began to climb and in the distance I could see runners coming towards me – runners who had decided enough was enough. I wished them well, but wondered what had driven back these very fit looking men from ascending this rock? I made surprisingly good time to the top, stopping only periodically to either drink in the view or rebalance myself and calm down (I’m terrified of heights). As I reached the top I rested on my Poles and thought about how much better a runner I was this time round compared to when I attempted the CCC.

It dawned on me at the top of this monster that I was still very much in the learning phase of running big inclines, descents and bloody big mountains. It was in this moment that I realised that however far I got today I had made significant progress.

I took a moment to check my messages as I had asked the GN to supply me with a list of all the cut-off times for the checkpoints and then I nearly had a heart attack… I was less than an hour from the checkpoint cut-off. I hurried along the ridge as fast as my body would carry me, facing my fear of heights with every step. I stopped at the mini checkpoint and said hello to the people there but quickly strode on to reach the full checkpoint a further 1.5km along.

I stopped here for mere seconds before realising I needed to bag some time or the sweeper would catch me. Zoom, zoom – this was a significant downhill section and I was able to use my sure footedness to power through the loose rocks and gather some much needed time. But it was now getting darker and I didn’t want to stop to grab my head torch and so lit my way along the coast with iPhone. Not the best light for making swift progress but it sufficed and I knew the GN and UB would be waiting for me again.

I ignored the checkpoint other than saying ‘hola’ and instead asked the GN to get my head torch out, I dumped my GoPro and other equipment I no longer needed with her – kissed the family goodbye and insisted I would make the next checkpoint. What I did say about my situation though was that I had cut myself on my shin quite unpleasantly and that my injured calf was sending shooting pains through my leg and both of these combined where making running painful. The good news though was that I had made up time on the clock and I was ahead by more than 90 minutes rather than the 40 minutes I had going spare at the previous stop.

If I could hold my leg together and the next section wasn’t too tough I might make it through. BOOM, onwards – foot straight into the sea! But thankfully the LP3.0 repelled this nicely. With the wrong mental head on this could have been disasterous but not so soon after seeing my family and with the aid of some local children I found my way through the wasteland of the town and crept bent double under the bridge tunnels, more suited to rats than runners!

Then up again.

On paper this section looks easy and filled with lovely respite but in reality it’s a ballbreaker, the climb is hard, unforgiving and filled with loose rocks and undergrowth that simply rip you apart. This was the section that drained my spirit and when the sweeper caught up to me I admit I became a little dispirited – despite him being clear that I was more than 2 hours ahead of the cut off. I was now gaining on people but I was done, I had maybe 5km to think this through but I knew I had come to Haria Extreme and achieved more than I thought I would.

As we passed through the end of the clambering section here the sweeper called out to me ‘bravo’. He didn’t seem the jokey type and so took him at his word as we had made really quite good time and so when we ran into the checkpoint I asked for ‘cinqo minutos’ to go through my thoughts.  I sat down for the first time in about 12 hours with a little under 10 hours remaining and 23km to go. I rubbed my calf a little while the checkpoint staff tried to force watermelon down my throat but I knew that I’d damaged my calf enough to not want to risk it further.

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I went over to my companion of the last few kilometres and said ‘I’m retiring and it’s okay – I’m good, I’m happy’ and I was. I had turned up to Haria Extreme with the hope I would make it to the start line, once I got there I hoped I wouldn’t crap myself somewhere in the first 25km, I hoped I wouldn’t disgrace myself and I hoped I would make it beyond 50km or running. Obviously I hoped I would finish and I didn’t but that’s okay because the experience of Haria Extreme has given me a tremendous confidence boost ahead of MIUT and I know what I need to do to ensure I finish that race.

Key points

  • Distance: 102km
  • Profile: Hilly, sharp ascents and descents
  • Date: November 2016
  • Location: Lanzarote
  • Cost: £55
  • Terrain: Technical trail, rocky, hilly
  • Tough Rating: 4/5

Route
The route was amazing – I can’t praise it enough, from the start in Timanfaya through vineyards and across rocky ascents this had everything. It’s tough too but not impossible and had I been even a little bit fit then this would have been much easier than I have made it look. That’s not to say it is easy though because it really isn’t, it will fight you every single step of the way and just when you get comfortable it will throw up amazing challenges. Brilliant!

Organisation
The organisation is always going to be slightly more difficult to analyse as a foreigner but information was communicated in good time, translations were decent and GPX files and all the other pre-race material was handled very well. In Haria itself number collection was easy and there were lots of English speakers available. It felt friendly but also a little local rather than a huge international race. The other really nice thing was that there was a range of races and distances so if you fancied a marathon or a half marathon or even a 10km there was something for everyone. (And the good news) each route had been clearly and concisely thought out.

Support
Aid stations were suitable for the race but the only food was fruit (which for me was a bit useless) but there was cola, water and electrolytes at every aid station. Most aid stations had at least one English speaker but where there wasn’t one I had a real laugh with the guys trying my best Spanish!

Awards
The real reason I rolled up to the race wasn’t the medal or the route it was the experience and the experience was amazing. I suppose its lucky I didn’t roll up for the medal given that I didn’t get one

Value for money
Incredible value for money, lots of lovely freebies, lots of great experience moments – yes the aid stations were not exactly brilliantly stocked with lovely houmous, breads and Canarian potatoes but I can forgive that given the brilliance of everything else. The race cost about £60 (exchange rate is difficult to judge at the moment) and there are 10km races in the UK that cost this, believe me this is much better than any 10km you’ll run.

Conclusion
There are races and there are races – this is one of the latter. Haria Extreme is a race I would do year in and year out if it were closer to home – instead I’ll simply consider going back in a few years to ensure that I finish it. My experience, as you can probably tell, was one of absolute delight given that I didn’t think I had it in me to start never mind get to 80km. Basically, you can’t go wrong with Haria Extreme it does have everything and if you decide to seek out a lovely low key but spectacular race this will not disappoint.

Good luck and enjoy those hills.

 

Do you remember a time before the referendum when we were all worried but knew it would be okay?

We’d stay in Europe and we’d have at least another 4 years of a democratic White House in the US. The world seemed unstable but that common sense would prevail.I’d been participating in the debate for the Referendum, very much on the side of remain and although it looked perilously tight we should pull through.

I tell this as a true story – I had not intended to as it upsets me greatly, it is told from my perspective but it is very much what I witnessed and in light of the horrific results in the US presidential election and the ongoing referendum fall-out it seems appropriate to try and put into perspective why this image summed up the referendum for me.

A battered Y registered, turquoise Opel Astra with a near collapsed suspension thundered up behind me. In the car was a rather grubby, drawn faced looking man with the stench of tobacco and weed about him I noted as he pulled up beside me, his one arm driving technique making me take a step further back on to the pavement. In the back of the vehicle three children sat, but I barely had time to notice them as the driver bawled at me ‘where’s this fucking polling station mate?’

I offered the information he was looking for, ‘first left and a couple of hundred metres up on the right, it’s the local church centre if you know it?’

He pulled away without saying a word and by the time he had driven up I had pretty much arrived too. There was a queue and he was before me, turned out his name was ‘Michael’ and he had been speaking to some of the others about his vote. I listened because here, in this man, I could hear the voice of discontent and also the level of ignorance that hadn’t just invaded my community but much of the country.

‘Kick ’em out,’ he said, ‘I mean not all of ’em – Alvin at the Chinky does a lovely lemon chicken’. Michael was making me want to vomit, partly due to the smell, partly due to his quiet tirade. Perhaps he didn’t realise that the pizza he had recently ordered is more famously associated with Italy or that his Opel Astra has long standing German links. The people around him didn’t shuffle uncomfortably at his words, they merely smiled politely, they were older and tried at least not to encourage him.

Michael eventually voted, I’ll assume ‘Leave’ and I voted ‘Remain’ we both left.

He opened the door to his car, telling his children it was time to pick up the pizza (that’s how I know what was on the menu that evening) and he left, driving as wildly as when I first encountered him.

I returned home in dismay, worried about the result.

I can’t know for sure but Michael didn’t appear to be a regular voter – his lack of knowledge of the polling stations location despite his local accent suggested he had made a special effort to vote. But the things he said while waiting where hideous and given the evidence of the months since the referendum result we can see that he really isn’t alone.

I know not everyone who voted ‘Leave’ is a Michael, but I wonder if we really want to hand the keys of the UK to people like this? If they get what they want where do they stop? Michael didn’t mind Alvin at the Chinese takeaway but I wondered how he felt about the local barber who is actually an Iraqi refugee. A young man who fled conflict in his own country and has made a good life for himself here, married to a lovely Polish lady and now with a British born child. How far does the anti-immigration view go? How far has hate in England and Wales engulfed our nation and our national identity? 

Last night I was told by the lovely Lesley that ‘we’d lost’ but to everyone who thinks it’s okay to just accept defeat then I’d ask you to look again.

Do you know a Michael? Do you want the future of the UK to be determined by a vision built on fear and loathing. I want my daughter to know I fought every single day to give her an inclusive, tolerant future and if that means being less tolerant of the ridiculousness the people of the UK and the Westminster elite have brought down upon us then so be it.

Being an ultra marathon runner you come to realise that the starting gun or vote is just the beginning of the race and I’m hoping that those who want to be part of the EU feel like endurance runners because this race has a steep profile, lots of evil elevation and big fast downhills but by holding steady, getting our nutrition right we might just finish this. Let’s hope those who dream of an EU-less UK have gone out too quick and blown up at checkpoint one.

I’ve been trying to pay it forward a little and say thanks in meaningful ways. It all started last week when I saw that lots of the big names were once again lined up for the #RunUltraBlogger nomination and as much as I love some of the names on the list, it was, to my mind, mostly uninspiring and I wanted real runners who motivate me and so I nominated the two that have inspired me most over the last 12 months or so.

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The blogs therefore I nominated are UltraRunnerDan (dan-fattofit.blogspot.co.uk) and Totkat (www.totkat.org). If they make a shortlist (or whatever the process is) do be sure to give them some support – they both highly deserve it for their awesome running and tremendous contributions to ‘run’ debates and healthy living. And even if you don’t vote for them do go along and visit their blogs and see what can be achieved with a bit of tenacity. They really are excellent reads.

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Now, while in awards mood I also slid over to The Running Awards website and both put my tick next to some of the nominees and also nominated a couple of races.

The most important things I nominated were the SainteLyon (best international race) and the Skye Trail Ultra (best endurance race). This seemed like a good positive thing to do – the SainteLyon is (I believe) the second longest running ultra marathon in the world and is an inspiration – I recommend that all ultra runners look it up and take part (there were only a dozen or so English runners there last year).

The other nomination for the Skye Trail Ultra is for three reasons 1) it’s a small local race across a tremendous landscape 2) it deserves to compete against much larger races because it has a spirit not found at places like VMLM and 3) the race director Jeff Smith is a brilliant, brilliant man who gives up his time to put on the most amazing event!

You can click links here for both The Running Awards and Run Ultra Blogger awards to find out more. Run Ultra Blogger awards are available by clicking here and the The Running Awards can be found here

Now before I go I wanted to discuss a different way I’ve been paying it forward via running; but as many readers will probably be aware I’ve been heavily focused on politics the last few months. This is very much because the referendum result has left a shit show which I feel has shown how nasty, insular and intolerant the UK has become. It saddens me hugely that many people, I had once considered friends, voted leave with the key reason being immigration.

Roll forward to the last week… twice in the last week I’ve been running slowly home and it’s been cold, really cold – winter is finally upon us.

On one of these cold early evenings I saw a man reading a book, a little bedraggled, trying to remain warm – he looked homeless, he certainly looked like he had troubles. I asked if I could buy him something to eat and he accepted. It wasn’t much but I bought some hot food and drink to take to him because who knew when the last time he’d eaten properly.

He was English or at least had an English accent, white, young(ish) probably my age actually – we didn’t speak much because I was cooling down post run and I didn’t want to embarrass him by standing over him as he ate. I wished him well and we shook hands.

I wondered if I had done right?

I did a similar thing tonight, a young(ish) lady who spoke little or no English, not enough clothes on, carrier bags with possessions that looked like her entire life and no hope. I was at Charing Cross with 15 minutes to spare before my train and I spotted her. I mimed the idea of food to her, tried to explain I’d just be a minute or two (I was) and thankfully she was still there when I returned. Given she couldn’t understand me, nor I her, I didn’t feel the need to make small talk but as I stood to leave she grabbed my arm, pressed it firmly and smiled thanks.

I could have cried.

Instead I smiled and waved gently before getting on the train to write this.

I see lots of homeless people as I run, people selling the big issue, refugees desperate for help, the mentally ill, the runaways, those hiding in plain sight and I don’t know how to help but what I do know is that too many in the UK see these poorest of people as a blight and a problem.

But maybe we could look at it differently?

Instead of seeing a homeless woman, try and see a woman who needs help. Instead of seeing a starving refugee, see a hungry man. If you were displaced, tired, hungry, distraught, abandoned wouldn’t you want someone to help?

Post referendum result I’m scared what my country is becoming.

So I’m asking you to do something for someone else. I’m asking you to pay it forward, help someone else or if you can’t help someone else then consider helping yourself by fighting to overturn the stupidity and the rhetoric of this country.

It’s never too late to start making a difference. #IAmEuropean

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