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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.


Periodically I write about the adventures of my daughter (aka UltraBaby/ASK) and I, this blog post will update regularly and provide links to the tall tales that formed those adventures because we don’t just run… we just mainly run.

Climbing: We rolled back the years when we visited Evolution Climbing and it turns out ASK is a natural. Click the link to read more

Being Funky: Tales from the dancefloor at Rave-a-Roo and GrooveBaby. Click the link to read more

Taking to the ice: some festive fun and our first experience ice skating. Click the link to read more

Chislehurst Chase: ASK rocks up to the Chislehurst Chase and gives it some welly on the trail. Click the link to read more

Cultural Lanzarote: capturing some of the cultural delights of Lanzarote. Click the link to read more 

Rancho Texas: YeeHaa as we saddle up for a bit of light theme parking in the Canary Islands. Click the link to read more

MeeMeep, buggy runner coming through: how ASK and I get to go racing together. Click the link to read more

Dartford Bridge Fun Run: nothing like being 3 weeks old and competing in your first race. Click the link to read more


My favourite places to run haven’t always been in races, infact as I was drawing up this list I realised that my favourite places to run have mainly been away from racing. I came to the conclusion that this must be because I simply have more time to look up and around but then it could equally be that I simply enjoyed these places more than many of the race locations I’ve found myself bimbling around.

Below are my top 15, there is an order to them but depending on my mood that changes because the locations below all have very special memories for me.

  • Luosto
  • Lyon
  • Ashenbank Woods
  • Isle of Skye
  • Budapest
  • Greenwich foot tunnel
  • Grizedale Forest
  • Lacs de Vaches
  • Bude
  • Brooklyn Bridge
  • Vigo
  • Blackpool seafront
  • County Clare
  • Lanzarote
  • Winter Hill

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Luosto
I was incredibly fortunate last year to visit the Arctic Circle and take a few days out to run in the wilds of Finland. For what felt like an eternity I simply took myself off the local paths and surrendered myself to the beautiful frosted landscape and ran for all I was worth. The trails in the winter are tough, the snow is deep, the terrain varied but understandable and yet, at the same time, terrifyingly unknown. I recorded some GPS data while I was out there running and I would often find myself miles from the nearest known path, not another human being in sight and minus 10 degrees most days. Luosto and Phya were an unforgettable experience which would be difficult to replicate.



Lyon
It’s well documented here that forever (I believe) the SainteLyon will be my favourite ultra marathon and prior to racing there I had never been and it wasn’t until I was running along some very technical and challenging terrain that I realised that this jewel of a place would live long in my heart. There are no mountains that I ran up, nothing that might break you – just good old fashioned hard slog trails that demanded you pay attention lest you be overhauled by the challenge and the terrain. I recall looking over Lyon as i made the final couple of climbs and this reasonably small city simply sprawled out ahead of me. If you’re a local to Lyon and it’s surrounding trails then you’re a very lucky runner.



Ashenbank Woods
Ashenbank Woods are one of ‘go to’ places, close enough to home to make it a very accessible running location and more fun than you can shake a stick at given that it really isn’t a very big wood. There are defined trails but importantly there are lots of routes to find, trees to leap over, mud to thunder through and hills to hurl yourself up and down. The fact that it is then connected to another half a dozen woodlands and green spaces means you can extend out your enjoyment but I’ve never found the need. I can run round and round in circle(ish) shapes at Ashenbank and never cover the same spot twice – now how many places can say that?

Skye
If you want to know the approximate route that I ran then grab yourself a copy of the Harvey’s Skye map and follow it. I recall crossing the Skye Bridge and feeling like I’d arrived in some sort of paradise – not tropical just pure beauty. Skye is a truly bright star in a country of glistening running locations. I was there for the Skye Trail Ultra and running the 74 miles (and a bit more given my getting lost) I saw some of the most dramatic landscapes the UK has to offer. There was no moment in all the miles I ran on Skye that I felt bored or lacking inspiration, I ached to see round the next corner and longed to admire the distant hills. Skye is a spectacular place and I will treasure my first, but certainly not last, trip there.

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Budapest
The GingaNinja was six months pregnant when I made my second trip to Budapest in 2014. Given that she wasn’t quite as active as normal I was given a little time for exploring the city through running. Budapest has the Danube to run along which is filled with cultural nuggets and little parks that you can admire and pass through but ultimately it’s the huge heritage of the city and ease of navigation that makes it a wonderful running destination for me. I always packed my phone when I went running so that I could capture the statues, the memorials and the history of the place – Budapest overflowed my cultural cup, and then some. The pleasant weather of late April and early May gave good running conditions too, if you’re in Budapest it will provide you with an awesome assortment of running opportunity.



Greenwich foot tunnel
What’s the best sound in London? I know the answer to this and it’s four runners going full pelt through the Greenwich foot tunnel in zero drop minimalist trainers. Never have 370.2 metres been more fun and add in the race up and down the stairs and you can join me in hogs heaven. I love pulling away from one end only to leap up the stairs at the other end. Recently I took UltraBaby and we thundered through the tunnel in the ultramobile and I spent the whole time smiling. Recommended.


Grizedale Forest
I first went to Grizedale Forest in the Lake District when I was at school, not for running though, for art. When I’m not a runner I’m a graphic designer, illustrator, artist, creator. Grizedale always reminds me of the best of times, the combination of my life’s loves, the outdoors, running, the Lake District and creating – the forest itself is filled with beautiful natural sculptures – formed mainly from the materials found in and around the forest. On number our occasions I’ve gone through hunting out the sculptures like an orienteering run but mostly I like to simply drop into the woods and pick my way through it – thundering up and down the black mountain bike tracks and then stumping through a fresh formed stream intent on pushing you backwards. The Lakes as a whole are some of the UKs best running but Grizedale holds special memories for me.

Lacs de Vaches
Prior to my CCC attempt I spent a few days away from the Chanonix hub with friends of the GingaNinja and one of the locations we visited was a place called Lacs de Vaches or Cow Lake. I had been wanting to experience what exhausting climbs would be like for the race and Lac de Vaches had the main viewpoint (the lake) at 2318 metres above sea level with a starting point of around 1200 metres above sea level covering around 5km. For the main ascent I strapped a baby to me as this addition weight would more than replicate the pack I would race with and I set off to find unbelievably beautiful views. The trail was hard and coming towards me this less than sunny Sunday morning were lots of runners racing down the valley and I watched as they all bade me a good morning while hurling themselves across the very challenging landscape. By the time we’d reached the lake itself we knew the trip had been worth it, the lake was a beautiful grey colour, surrounded by mountains and hills on all sides. Giant boulders shouldered the lake for shelter and dotted on the lake were a series of large boulders making a kind of bridge so you could cross from one side to another. Jogging down from the ascent I realised how much I’d come to love France, Lac de Vaches is just one example, perhaps my favourite example of how breathtaking a country the French have. Recommended.


Bude
Have you ever been to Cornwall? It’s not all indecipherable language, pasties twelve fingered hands and webbed toes you know! Cornwall is a beautiful place but also filled with lovely running. When I first met the GingaNinja she lived and worked in the Cornish resort town of Bude. When we were not doing our loved up thing or vetting (her more than me) then I would be taking ThunderPad out running along the beach or through the town or I’d go out on my own for relatively (10km – I wasn’t much of a runner in those days) long runs along the cliffs and into the caves of the area. Bude had a little bit of everything, tough elevation, sandy beaches, the sea, varied terrain and a guarantee that it would start raining the moment I put on my old battered Adidas TRX. We often talk about returning to Bude and if we did I’d certainly plan a 50 or more mile social ultra run for myself (so not very social) but Cornwall looks tricky this year so it might be next year but what a place to in.

Image: James Hare (Flickr)

Brooklyn Bridge
My first time crossing Brooklyn Bridge was as a student – we said to the cab driver at 4am in the morning ‘take us to Brooklyn Bridge’ he advised us that it wasn’t sensible but we wanted to see the sunrise cross Manhattan and so we set off, that experience combined with the giant breakfast I ate in Brooklyn set me on a trend that has continued up to my last NYC visit about 10 years ago which is that wherever I stay I always run down to Brooklyn Bridge, cross as dawn breaks and then have a hearty breakfast before running back. New York City isn’t a great place to run but it is an iconic place to run.


Vigo
I suppose Vigo Rugby Club is my local club – and they also have a running club that for the last few years have put on a brutal 10 mile race in and around Vigo in Kent, it’s when you go to places like this and races like this that you come to understand just have beautiful Kent can be, but that’s not why I love running Vigo. No. the reason I love Vigo in the middle of February is that this race had a course that has all the appeal of cross country with the feel of fell running with a terrain that will absolutely eat you alive if you show it anything less than total respect. As well as being my favourite race it’s also one of my favourite routes with more up and down than the ‘whores draws’ and you can’t say fairer than that. The Vigo 10 mile race route is special but the whole area is filled with drama, great landscapes and enormous uphill challenges. If I could only run in one place for the rest of my days this would certainly be eligible as a contender for selection.

Image: Graham Royston (Flickr)

Blackpool seafront
Long before I was a runner or a professional designer I was a student and I spent my three undergraduate years hiding out in sunny Blackpool were I was an regularly infrequent runner. But even then I wasn’t one of those posing runners – I ran because I enjoyed it and I used to run up towards Stanley Park, down towards Lythem or my favourite which was a run from Central Pier through to Fleetwood up the coast – 10 miles each way (though I rarely did the whole distance). Some might be a little snobby about Blackpool but I loved running along the huge concrete sea defences and dipping down to the beach and pounding through the always soaking wet sand. I loved running between the huge legs of the piers and jumping over rocks and finding beautiful treasures to either collect or photograph. Back at the turn of the century Blackpool really had something for me (usually pretty shitty winter weather but I digress), Blackpool was where I cemented my adult love of running, though years would pass before it became my obsession, this is where it began. Sat here typing this I can feel the icy cold of the North Sea passing through my old Adidas, but me not caring, and simply bumbling blindly onward. Those minor miles I put down in the sand feeling harder and more taxing than any Ultra I’ve ever done.

Image: DPC (Flickr)

County Clare
My family has deep rooted connections to the Emerald Isle but it is Clare I have the most affection for. As with Blackpool l wasn’t a big runner but I enjoyed it and whenever I was over in Clare I would take myself off on an adventure in the hills. Ireland is a good place to disappear and that’s exactly what I did for hours at a time. Sometimes reaching my destination and sitting quietly as the Atlantic winds whipped over me was the best feeling in the world. Ireland has a little piece of me and whenever I’m there I feel at home, though it’s been a little while since I last set foot there and I feel a need to go running or even racing across Ireland as I think this would delight me in ways that nowhere else can – plus it would be one step closer to racing in each of the individual countries of the British Isles.

Lanzarote
I’m not one for hot weather so running across Lanzarote in November seemed the only sensible time of year to do it. I’d long been looking for great elevation and interesting landscapes and when I saw the opportunity to go and bimble around the island I simply couldn’t refuse. The island is a smorgasbord of terrain, landscape and running opportunity – from volcanic ash through to lush vegetation to dramatic climbs and character filled towns and sandy beach running. I think my favourite running here was the speedy racing through the vineyards – it had a sensation like no other. There was the crunch of the ground below you, your foot sinking deeply but springing out of the ground and yet it felt so fast. All around Lanzarote offered brilliantly beautiful opportunities for photographs and video – it truly was one of the most eye catching places to run. The race I ran (Haria Extreme) gave exposure to some beautifully hidden treasures as well as taking in many of the magnificent highlights of the island. Recommended.

Image: David Biggs (Flickr)

Winter Hill
During a phase of my adult life where I briefly lived and worked in Manchester I took 6 months in a little town called Horwich. There was a nice little Spanish restaurant, a tremendous secondhand book shop and a fish and chip shop on my own street corner that was to die for. However, the thing that Horwich is probably most famous for is Winter Hill (the home of the NWs old television transmitter). Winter Hill though isn’t just a hill – no, far from it – the beautiful running that can be found there is amongst the best in England! It was always a challenge, it always felt muddy, it always turned you over in some way or other but Winter Hill and it’s surroundings gave you back a feeling of satisfaction. There was often, even on a sun filled day, a bleak beauty to it, perhaps that was its charm. If you’re in the area I would say get your trail shoes on and hit this for all you’re worth – you will not be disappointed.

What didn’t make the list?
Why didn’t I add Chamonix, Switzerland, Cambodia, Thailand, Iceland, America, Ethiopia, the Trough of Bowland, Snowdonia, the North Yorkshire Coast, Snake Pass or any of the other exciting places I’ve spent time in?

What about the hundreds of beautiful country parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty like Great Windsor, the North and South Downs Way, the Ridgeway, Beacon Wood, Shorne or Bedgebury Arboretum?

Then there’s the exciting cities I’ve managed to run around like London, Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol and Glasgow, many of which have given me lovely highlights over my many years of running.

Most of them would make a list of favourite places I’ve run but then the list would be even longer!

Some like Chamonix don’t make the list simply because I didn’t make good memories there – but that’s an issue for me to resolve as it is a truly spectacular place.

I suppose the reason to write this isn’t to say ‘I’ve run in lots of great places’ but more to hopefully inspire you to both run in great/unusual places but also ensure that you look up as you run and admire your surroundings wherever you are.

So now it’s over to you, I’m looking for new ideas of places to run, places to find races, places to find places and so, where do you most enjoy running and more importantly – why?

Happy running.

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