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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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Some days you’re really up for a marathon and other days you simply aren’t.

Thankfully I’d really been looking forward to the Suunto RunWimbledon marathon as it was a chance to properly test myself after a few months out and also test the back injury that has been plaguing me since late last year.

For the first time in ages both the GingaNinja and ASK rolled up with me to the start line near the Windmill Museum and we sat on the grass in the early autumnal sunshine having some lunch and bimbling round on our balance bike (the toddler, not me). The race village was excellent and served as the hub for runners coming in and out of the event. Suunto had a significant presence as the events main sponsor but otherwise this was as low key as you like.


Prior to race start I had the good fortune to bump into @Totkat – fresh from her self supported adventuring from Lands End to John O’Groats. It seemed we were both there for a bit of Marathon tomfoolery rather than going out hard. That said when the horn went off at 2pm I found myself pushing out on to the trail and following my tried and tested method of flooring it for the first half and then dropping off or exploding for the second half.


The route was four laps of winding in and out of the trails of Wimbledon Common and there was a combination of lovely downhills to get your feet moving, a couple of minor uphills to let you have some hurt and some duller connecting trails to keep you on track – all in all not a bad route given the size of space being worked with.

I pressed on through the field, trying not to pace myself against anyone else as I knew that many of the runners were liable to be a) relay marathoners or b) just better runners than me and every time I felt myself speed up I tried to calm myself down and slowwwwww up.

About 3 miles in it became quite clear that I hadn’t had my pre-race dump but this, for a change, didn’t concern me too greatly as I knew that at about 4 and a bit miles in there were portaloos. However, when I arrived into the race village there was a significant queue and I was running pretty well so I pressed on into the second half of the lap. I think it would be fair comment that the second half of the lap was significantly less interesting than the first half but it did give some nice long stretches of path that allowed you to open the taps a little. 15 minutes I was back in camp and looking towards the loo.

Once more though my hopes were dashed and with a quarter of the marathon run in a little over 50 minutes I was keen to get going again. I stopped for water and a bottle refill but there was no time for the loo – I’ll deal with this on lap 2! I drifted around the course attempting to maintain my pace but with my already listed toilet problem this was becoming a challenge. However, an option presented itself on the lap – the Wimbledon Common cafe had a toilet that was only a couple of hundred metres off the route and if there was still a queue when I got to the halfway point then I’d try that!

Of course there was a queue! And so with the clock ticking I pressed quickly to the spare toilet a mile or so away. Needless to say I lost some time and when I came out of the facilities some 20 minutes later I knew that a good time was looking beyond me. I ran into the race village feeling much relieved in the bowel region but had now begun to notice that my groin was groaning from a distinct lack of fitness and my back was aching from what could have been the start of my injury seeking revenge. Effectively I was slowing and not even the smiling ASK and GingaNinja could lift my spirits – I was just going to have to grind this out.

The one thing the race was missing on the support table were some sweets or slices of fruit and so I was very glad I had my own reserve and took onboard some Haribo and a children’s fruit pouch. The third lap was my worst and I just couldn’t get going and no matter what my heart was saying my head was saying the opposite but as I crossed the trails and heard the sympathetic applause of several dog walkers I determined that I must make a better effort and so I stopped – massaged my groin for several minutes and lay on the ground to stretch my back. This had enough of a desired effect that as I set off on the final lap I actually felt better. Mentally I was back in the game and while my groin was pretty knackered I was running consistently! There were now very few runners out on the course – there hadn’t been that many to begin with – but I found it in myself to overtake a couple of people and get round. Even the hill overlooking the race village was mounted with relative ease and I pressed downwards to the final couple of miles. ASK was awaiting me and I had to explain I would be back shortly but she could run the last few hundred metres with me if she wanted (in training for her race the following day). We had a little cuddle and she told me she would, ‘still be awake dad, it’s getting dark but it’s not bedtime yet’.

With those words ringing in my ears I hammered home those final couple of miles and when I came up to the 200 metre marker she was waiting for me. Given that the ground was uneven i insisted she held my hand but we thundered our way to the line. ‘Faster dad, Faster’ came the familiar line as we raced across the line to the sound of cheers from the volunteers, event staff, and the remaining runners and supporters!

I think ASK was happier than I was at the conclusion of the race as she was awarded a medal for an outstanding sprint to the finish. But ultimately despite the challenges I personally faced on the day this was a damn fine event.


Key points

  • Distance: Marathon
  • Profile: mildly undulating
  • Date: September 2017
  • Location: Wimbledon Common
  • Cost: £35
  • Terrain: Mixed, trail, muddy trail, good paths
  • Tough rating: 2/5

Route
As I’ve already indicated the route was interesting without being spectacular, ultimately you’re in a borough of London – how exciting can you make it? but it was a very well thought out use of the space available. For me the best bits were when the trail tightened up, ran through the dirtier trails and forced you to beware but for many this would have been a lovely introduction to trail marathons. Interestingly despite being a trail event this felt like a fast event with good times perfectly possible – worth noting for the trail speed demons.

Organisation
Those who put on the Suunto RunWimbledon had a good plan and stuck to it. The placement of drinks support was excellent and you passed the table twice per loop and having a race village in the loops middle actually made this a jovial affair. The volunteers were universally excellent and for the most part the organisation was perfectly invisible which allowed the runners to simply get on with the job of running.

Awards
A new Salomon neck gaiter/buff, a decent bespoke medal and drinks – you’d be hard pressed to grumble.

Value for money
£35, 4 loops of a well thought out course, excellent support and little extras like the neck gaiter – yep this one would score highly on good value.

Conclusion
The Suunto RunWimbledon Marathon is an excellent trail running marathon that is well organised and well supported – with the addition of the half marathoners and 10km runners the field felt quite nicely full but never so much as to feel crowded. I’d say that if you were looking for an early autumn marathon near London then this one would have to rate highly in your choices. The question I often ask myself when I review races is ‘would I do this again?’ and in this case the answer is yes.

I looked over my shoulder just beyond the escape point to see if the Crow was following but much to my delight its beady eye was watching north – little did I know that my winged nemesis used more than vision to stalk its prey.

Escape from Meriden, the prison break was on. But let me roll back a little to explain the race and why I was running it. EFM is the brainchild of those sadistic types at Beyond Marathon – turn up at the centre point of England and at 23.59 you run as far from Meriden as you possibly can in 24hrs. No aid stations, no support (unless you bring it yourself) and no defined route (unless you’ve planned one). Then comes the both the carrot and the stick – your finishing point (or final resting place) will be ‘as the crow flies’ from Meriden and there are three distance level up points you could be rewarded for 30, 60, 90 miles.

The crow and the race would be a very cruel mistress and that’s why I wanted to be involved. Unsupported I wanted to experience the challenge of facing myself, my own route and whether I had it in me to get over the 60 miles (as the crow flies).

I’ve already mentioned in my race preview that given I would be off to South Wales in a few weeks that I would drop my distance at Meriden but not by much – I dropped down from about 92 to 75 miles but I’d also run less time (somewhere around 18-20hrs) and instead of heading to London I’d amble along to a small village in Oxfordshire/Wiltshire.

I had a clear and well defined plan. It sounds like my race preparation was going well doesn’t it? The trouble is my prep was going anything but well. Lower back/kidney pain has been a constant companion since about March, left footed heel pain has been nothing but a nuisance and a groin tear that makes any movement a possible lighting pain inducing experience / the annoying thing is that none of these were caused by running but they made my ‘Escape’ seem downright impossible.

So what happened?
Well I ambled up to Birmingham International (£8 single, advance), jumped into a taxi (£12) and arrived into Meriden to see small pockets of runners ambling around. I joined them at the Methodist Church Hall were I was greeted by familiar faces from my SVN eventing – nothing better than a couple of friendly faces when you’re feeling a bit nervous. I grabbed my number, tracker, coffee, biscuits, t-shirt and a dark corner to get changed.

The hall was now packed with a wonderful array of runners, hikers and their supporters and the atmosphere was exactly as I like it, friendly, relaxed but filled with a buzzing anticipation. Being completely alone in terms of my race approach made me feel slightly more nervous than usual but when the call came out to head up to the start line I was quite ready. I hurled on my waterproof jacket as the rain had started to come down and then plodded up to Meriden marker.

I don’t know what I expected from the start line but as everyone set off in every possible direction I stopped to look around and take it all in. To describe it you’d say it was less of a prison break and more rats jumping ship… drowned rats too but we were off.

With GPS on I was determined I would follow the route as closely as possible – ensuring I didn’t get snared into a mis-step by following another runner or taking what might be considered a short cut – Escape from Meriden was not about instinct it was going to be about following rules – perhaps this was my mistake.

I drifted through the first few miles, merrily keeping myself to myself and even with the rain becoming heavier I decided to dispense with the services of my waterproof jacket, I felt it better to be damp than overheating.

For a while I watched as the miles started to be clocked up, I even logged into the drone website so I could see the progress of my fellow runners but the sheen soon wore off as the reality of the rain kicked in. However, despite the weather I knew that I needed to make maximum progress while it was dark as the heat of the day was likely to wipe me out. I passed through small villages and hamlets throughout the night and delighted in the peace and tranquility of my route. This was punctuated only by the roar of ‘boy and girl’ racers using the dead of night to test how fast their Alfa Romeos and souped up Corsas would go. Light was much earlier than I expected arriving for me around 4am and the arrival of light always brings with it renewed hope – strangely though rather than hope it brought hunger.

I had munched my way through much of my very limited supplies and therefore when arriving into the towns on my route to the discovery that everywhere was closed proved mentally challenging. I was hungry, very hungry, my choices were limited to stopping for more than an hour and wait for the garage to open or 2hrs 15 for the Co-operative to open or I could continue and accept the hunger.

I chose the latter and pressed on

Thankfully as a distraction from my hunger there was an unspecified pain across the top of my foot, which I unwisely ignored. Had I been brave enough to stop and look I’d have seen a massively swollen right foot with a tenderness that really shouldn’t have been run on. Ho-hum! On the positive side of distraction though we had Riccardo from Italy who epitomised the ultra running spirit – carefree, spirited and determined. His company for several miles made the early morning meandering much more palatable. The issue of food had not been resolved though and without any support or checkpoints this was going to start becoming an issue as my water supplies were lowering too.

I rolled into the next town to discover a Co-op that was open about 7.30am. I could smell myself from sweat, rain and mud and wanted to restrict my human interaction – I find trying to explain ultra running quite a chore when I’m mid event.

I picked up some chocolate milk and some Lucozade and asked the lovely Co-op ladies if they knew of a local cafe or bakery that might be open – they just laughed. Hmmm, if this had been France I’d probably have had the choice of half a dozen bakeries and eaten my own body weight in croissants but as it is the UK I had to have chocolate milk and Lucozade. I hoped that later stops might furnish me with something a little more delicious… well you’ve got to have hope right?

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Feeling refreshed, my bag rearranged, night time kit locked away and starting to finally dry off I pressed on a little quicker heading out of Shipston with all the effort I could muster. The day was now in full flow but the heat hadn’t yet set in so it was worth it to try and get as far beyond the 30 mile point as possible. Despite passing through 50km I still hadn’t crossed the 30 mile ‘as the crow flies’ line but it surely couldn’t be far?

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Daylight brought me into The Cotswold and an area of the country that I’ve not really been running round very much. What I discovered was large swathes of beautiful British countryside and farmland and I finally understood why people move out to places like this.

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It had been some time that my foot had been an issue during Escape from Meriden but I remembered to take some pain killers but now my back/kidneys ached and my groin strain was shooting the lightning bolts of pain up and down my leg that have been synonomous with my running in recent weeks. Having gotten through the 30 mile point I did seriously consider stopping – but I had come here with an objective and that objective was the 60 mile ‘as the crow flies’ marker and that was still at least 30 miles away.

More and more small villages were run through and the pain I was in grew worse and worse but I felt having committed to not stopping that I had to make the effort count.

At 12.47pm I ambled into a town with another Co-op, this could have Wychwood, it could have been anywhere but I sat tired and sore on a park bench with some houmous, baguette and more chocolate milk (I also replenished the Haribo), a wise choice having learned that The Cotswold effectively has no retail presence!

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Fed and watered I set off again but this time in search of a toilet – as you can imagine if shops are hard to come by then public toilets are even harder and I didn’t feel it appropriate to use the local publicans facilities. However, I was lucky enough to find a delightful and discreet field where I could release the contents of my bowels all over the countryside. I have to say I’ve become something of expert at this and my process is now so well rehearsed that my hands are washed long before there’s any whiff of indiscretion by an ultrarunner.

The next 40km were probably the worst of the race, very limited resources for water, hot and very busy ‘A’ roads.

I was as careful as it was possible to be and for the most part drivers were very considerate of a runner using the side of the road. However, I remained vigilant and  was mindful to move out of the way of larger vehicles, stepping into the grass verges or nettles when required. The trouble is that there were many drivers with their soft top sports cars out speeding through the countryside, flexing their machismo and then there was the red Nissan Almeria driver who refused to move from driving too closely to me, despite there being no traffic on the other side of the road, clipping me with his wing mirror and then hurling abusive language at me for using a road we were both perfectly entitled to be on.

Given I was tired this played on my mind – he might have killed me and it forced me to rethink a little bit for rest of the event. However, the clock was ticking and I had promised the GingaNinja that I would arrive at my finish point near her parents house as close to bedtime for UltraBaby as possible. In order to do this I had to negotiate the slightly terrifying remaining busy Saturday A roads. 


No further incident was had in this section and in my head I was making calculations for a course correction. My route could be altered to go straight past her parents house and then onwards, albeit uphill about 4 miles and through the 60 mile barrier. The GingaNinja and UltraBaby being so close chose to come and cheer me on, which was a welcome distraction, although she had no kit I could use or food I could eat she could take my race vest which was no longer of any real use. I removed the tracker, my phone, battery pack  and a water bottle and explained my plan to the GingaNinja hoping that I’d be able to finish the last 15km in the next 90(ish) minutes.

My arrival at Faringdon was short lived and although there was finally a wide and varied selection of places to eat and drink I was no longer in the mood, nor did I feel I had the time and simply pressed on. 

The climb out of Faringdon isn’t much but when your feet are ruined and your nerves on edge then it feels very steep but despite this I made it to the main road and I nearly had a heart attack – it was the main road between Swindon and Oxford – Holy Shitburgers.

The road was incredibly busy on both sides and the traffic gave you no quarter – the grass verge was massively overgrown and so I had little choice, having picked this route but to tough it out. In the gaps between the cars I would sprint as far as I could before leaping back onto the relative safety of the overgrown grass and nettles. Each time I did this my nerves jumped back to the knife edge from where the car had clipped me earlier, but despite tiredness creeping in and having now been awake for more than 45hrs, and running for the last 18 of them, I felt very focused and managed to weave my way down this horrible, horrible road.

Eventually I found a diversion through a place called Longcot where traffic wasn’t an issue and slowed down, slowed my heartbeat and calmed myself. I was angry at myself for changing my route – this was stupid – and all to save no more than a mile.


From here it was a quiet climb up to Ashbury, a small village, I assume in Wiltshire. I watched for a while as the sun bled from the sky. I watched as my little dot on the drone tracker finally passed the 60 mile marker, but I had run around 73 miles to achieve this.

I felt broken but also nervous – had I done enough? I still had around three hours I could have used to progress further but I wasn’t going to get 90 miles as the crow flies and so there seemed little point and UltraBaby told me it was bedtime.

With my body having taken a beating during this event I felt it deserved a few hours off.

I escaped Meriden and I reached all my targets and yet I feel like I failed Meriden. I guess I’ll just have to return to prison and see if I can get out again.

Key points

  • Distance: as much as you can in 24hrs
  • Profile: you decide
  • Date: June 2017
  • Location: Meriden
  • Cost: £35 (plus food)
  • Terrain: Whatever you like
  • Tough Rating: 3.5/5

My normal criteria for judging an event doesn’t really apply here simply because the conditions are really quite unique. However, I’ll apply some logic and try and give a fair representation of EFM.

Organisation: First class, there was good pre-event communication, an active social media community, a fair exchange of places policy, a well run, smooth and comfortable registration process. What more could you ask for? The race drones were a nice touch to make the event ‘cheat proof’ and it didn’t need to be any fancier than it was. Brilliant.

Route: I hold my hands up to making a huge mistake – I thought I could run the roads and the tarmac but it’s been years since I did more than a few miles like this. I’m conditioned for trail, built for trail and love trail. When I go back I will show the same level of detail to the route as I did this time but instead focus wholly on finding a decent trail route out of Meriden. My route, for a ‘as the crow flies’ was a good one and it had lots of lovely views but it hurt my feet and caused my existing injuries nothing but misery.

Value for money: £35 (plus food on the route) a bargain, plain and simple. I bought the tech T-shirt too so it was about £50 with another £30 for transport and food – this is one of the best value events around. The fact they throw in a decent looking medal too means if you’ve got no room for complaint! Ace

Who is it for? That’s easy, this is a tough as buggery event but it is achievable by anyone, a decent walker could get a long way in an event like this and a good runner – well the sky is the limit. I like events that are inclusive like this – I’d recommend it to everyone.


Conclusions: I earned my gold medal, I ran a decent distance, I got to the point I was aiming for yet I feel a little deflated.

It didn’t go as well as I wanted and that was down to being injured before the event and then possibly breaking my foot early on during the event. I also selected a route that wasn’t right for my ability and I’d urge you that if you’re running this PLAN, PLAN, PLAN your route!

However, this being said the event was amazing and I would return in a heartbeat and if anyone can’t use their winter place I would purchase it happily. This is one of those unique challenges that deserves its well regarded reputation and I’ll be back for more Beyond Marathon events (probably next year now) because they really do know how to put on an event.

Thanks guys.


…and when I head up to Meriden in a couple of days time I will be crapping myself about what I’ve let myself in for at Escape from Meriden.

Previously on UltraBoyRuns: The year was going so brilliantly, I was training well, running well and dropping weight – I was on it like the proverbial ‘car bonnet’. However, failure at Barcelona albeit for technical reasons and clearly not being good enough to finish Madeira affected confidence and although there was the palette cleanser in the Marlborough Downs I’ve been pretty injured since then and hardly run at all.

Injuries while attempting escape: Neither my heel or my groin injuries have settled but I’ve discovered that the heel pain can be offset by wearing supportive shoes (Altra Olympus please step forward) and my groin seems to be at its worst when I lie down (so I’ll try not to lie down).

Perhaps my major injury concern is my back/kidneys which I haven’t been to get checked out – primarily because I asked to come off my doctors register due to their greedy narrow minded approach to healthy people and I’ve yet to source a suitable alternative – my bad.
The trouble is that whenever I’m running with a race pack for anything over about 8 or 9 miles (regardless of weight and now regardless of bag) my back/kidneys feel like they’re being punched repeatedly. It’s some of the worst pain I’ve ever been in and certainly contributed significantly to my failure at Madeira but now I’m concerned it’s going to ‘rain on my Meriden parade!’

On the run again: My first foray back into running has been the Westminster Mile and while it’s one of my absolute favourite races and favourite distances it does nothing to prepare me for Meriden. There’s no time to catch up on training now and in truth I’m not ready to return to training, I’m only doing this event because I won’t need to compete in the traditional sense. I know I can probably hike the route I’ve got planned inside the time limit and that would be a good test ahead of SW100. 

The original escape plan: Meriden is something new for me with its lack of support and ‘go anywhere’ guide to routing and originally I had planned to be powered through it by a succession of 24hr Tesco and McDonalds. As for the route I was going to lumber out of Meriden and head straight for Charing Cross train station in Central London (which just happens to be outside the 90 mile black medal radius) and pretty much a straight line if you don’t take into account my little diversion across Hampstead Heath and Primrose Hill.

Bish, bash, boom, job done. 

Then I entered for the South Wales 100 which takes place a mere 3 weeks after Meriden and I needed a Plan B.

The revision: Knowing that the GingaNinja would be visiting her mum that weekend I considered a slightly less torturous distance – 123km (74 miles).

I once again planned a pretty straight route down into sunny Wiltshire and found a good stopping point not too far from her parents and also well outside the gold medal 60 mile radius.

The only problem is that this route is not so replete with 24hr supermarkets and fast food joints on every corner. It’s fair to say the route is crammed with beautiful scenery and patisseries but the kind that are only open for about 3hrs a day. I jest a little, there are ample smaller supermarkets but I was hoping to find something open in the middle of the night section for water resupply and this is worrying me a bit. 

However, a trick I picked up on an ultra some years ago suggested that often graveyards will have a drinking water tap… what is an issue is that I’m not sure if there’s something wrong with ambling around a graveyard in the dark looking for water or not – to say my moral compass is conflicted on this should come as no surprise. Survival or creepiness, hmmmm?
Still with no training since Madeira nearly 6 weeks ago I’m figuring I’ve got bigger problems than whether I’ve got enough water.

I’m going to Escape Meriden: This is hardly the Shawshank Redemption but the positives are that I’ve got a planned route, my kit is tested and ready to go, my train is booked and I’m actually looking forward to this new type of truly unsupported running.

Am I genuinely worried? Yes a little bit – most other races I’ve run have people, aid stations and a safety net this strips all that away and gives you just one thing – yourself. But in reality I’m not trapped on Everest or in the middle of the jungle – I’m in the middle of England where the most dangerous thing I’ll come across are Tory voters.

As I tow the start line of Meriden my thoughts will be on people like Ian Brazier and Gareth Jones who last weekend completed their own awesome race efforts at GUCR and Skye Trail Ultras respectively. I’ll be contemplating how hard UltraBaby worked for her Mile medal and I’ll be drawing on 4 years of ultra running experience to get my safely to my finish line.


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

Key points

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I digress…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boom! Lightning can strike twice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key points

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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