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marathon ultra

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  • Running poles making ascents and descents easier
  • GPS to making navigation a doddle
  • Compression kit to reduce muscle fatigue

What do all these things have in common? These are all aids many of us use to help complete long distance endurance events.

I use running poles when allowed, I almost always use a GPS device even if a map isn’t loaded on to it and before I realised compression kit was causing all sorts of injury problems I would often be found in ridiculously tight fitting attire.

There are two aid types though that I wonder about, the first I don’t use, the second I do (when I can convince the GingaNinja to rock up to a race registration).

Pacers and Crews: The aid I don’t use that I’m referring to are pacers and it was after seeing some amazing finishes at hundred milers and the like that got me wondering if using a pacer increases the likelihood of a finish and whether by using them are runners on a level playing field?

The other aid are crews – which I do, on occasion, use and I believe that in the early days of my ultra marathoning I really wouldn’t have gotten very far without a crew and the support they offer. But do they give me and others who use them an edge on race day?

Reading lots of recent race reports and talking to runners it’s clear that there is an appetite for the use of both pacers and crews but does it take away something of the challenge? Increasingly my view is becoming that yes, these things are taking away from something that, at its best, in my opinion, is a solo sport.

Perhaps if they’re going to be in play there should be greater scrutiny about how a crew and pacers can be used as I’ve witnessed some things during recent races that has made me wonder if too much crew access and too much pacing is creating an unfortunate imbalance in ultra marathons.

I met a Spanish runner at about 30 miles into an unsupported race recently and we ran together for maybe 12 miles. I enjoyed his company very much but the curious thing was that his crew met him at five different points along the route during the time we were together. Each time he would stop, chat, change kit, have a nibble, check his route, have a sit in the warm vehicle etc. It felt like the spirit of the race was not being adhered to and there were others too during this particular event that had cars literally following them down the roads – with family members joining in for a few miles as pacers – picking up food at McDonalds, etc. I’ve met people who’ve run past their homes or near enough to detour and been witness to them going indoors, changing wet or filthy kit, filling up food and then simply popping back on the route – all I should point out, within the rules of the race. I don’t begrudge this level of support – hell, if I could get it my DNF percentage wouldn’t be so high! However, though I’m far from a purist in running terms I do feel this takes some of the shine off the effort required.

The pacer question is very much a personal choice and are often subject to specific race rules but for me these are an aid that detract from one of the most important aspects of a race – the mental challenge. I could pluck an arbitrary percentage out of the air but I’d suggest that most endurance races are won and lost in the mind and not in the body. The pacer therefore can have a real, tangible effect on a racers performance and we are back to the point about imbalance.

All this said though I’ve been known to buddy up with runners on a route in order to ensure a finish although always with the agreement that if the pacing didn’t match we’d say goodbye and good journey. That changed a little bit when on the South Wales 50 when myself and two other runners joined up on the course then formalised our pacing/team running strategy to ensure that we all finished. It was perhaps this more than anything that got me wondering about just how much of a difference a pacer can make. Now to be fair Ryan, Pete and myself were all pretty ruined by the time we’d hooked up and it was as much about surviving the night as it was pacing but it gave me an insight to what a fresh pair of legs or a fresh attitude can do for a very tired ultra runner.

These days I’m much more a social ultra runner rather than a competitive one and I tend not to think too much about my position in the field, preferring to concentrate on taking in my surroundings and having a lovely time. However, this has got me wondering just how much better I might be if I had a team right next to me pushing me forward?

The purity argument: The reason I suppose I don’t do that and put together a team to get me through these things is simply because of my belief in the solo element. I probably would be a better runner if there was someone in my ear for the final 50 miles pushing me that little bit harder or if I had a crew with lots of kit ready and waiting. However, for me ultra running is being out there, facing myself and a trail and although I can very much respect other people’s decisions for using pacers and crews it’s less and less suited to me. Perhaps evidence of this was that the last time the GingaNinja crewed for me was the Thames Path 100 in 2015 – here she met me several times armed with chocolate milk, kit options and a regular stern talking to but since then she’s mainly been at starts and finishes if there at all and in truth I prefer this. Although it’s scary to think you’re on your own it really does heighten the elation (for me) upon completion.

All this said I’ll still be using poles (periodically) and GPS – I’m not giving those up anytime soon, I mean I’m not completely stupid! Therefore am I a hypocrite for suggesting pacers and crews detract from a level race but I’m perfectly content to gain an edge by using kit that some call ‘cheat sticks’ or by buddying up inside an event? I suppose it’s an individuals view and more importantly a race directors view and if you (or perhaps I) don’t like it well then I don’t have to sign up to that race.

And so… I’m curious about your views on pacers and crews, do you feel they offer you a better chance of finishing well? Do you think they give some runners an advantage that others don’t have? Would you consider them a hindrance? Or are they simply part of your ultra running armoury?

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Those of you that believe that bodily fluids and especially bowel issues are something that should be neither seen or heard should probably move on from this post because it’s all about poo!

To begin I’ll draw attention to one of my top 10 list of ‘pieces of running advice’ I’ve collected over the years and at number 8 is ‘never trust a fart‘.

Damn fine advice if you ask me.

The expulsion of wind for a runner can lead to stopper being popped and the ‘trail runners supernova’ erupting all over our finest scenery.

Many of us, as trail runners, will have been caught short out on a deserted trail and will have squatted behind the nearest bush to evacuate our insides. As regular readers will know I’ve been caught short a few times, in fact quite a lot of times and therefore feel quite well informed about what causes these problems, the types of problem and the resolution.

However, I’m not all knowing and so in the last two years I’ve been doing a little research and quizzing runners about their terrible poo related tales, you guys are so willing to share! So in the interest of sharing aha furthering knowledge I bring the 10 most popular poo types on the trails.

In the interest of privacy no names (other than my own moniker) will be used.

Scoring*
As a sidebar to this post I’m curious which of the ten you may have encountered yourself, if you recognise up to and including 3 poo types you’re probably still an amateur, 4-6 would suggest you’ve been around a bit and are quite a competent trail pooper and anything beyond this suggests you’ve got rotten guts and may need to seek medical attention.

The Squirter
It was one of my first ultra marathons – Rat Races The Wall that I first encountered the notion that ultra runners shit in the woods. The gentleman I’d be running with for a little while (I say running, we were both hobbling by this point) advised he needed to stop and relieve himself. He told me to go on but we both knew that neither would make it as we were clearly using one another as a crutch to make it to the finish. So he nodded an agreement and headed off into the bushes alongside a quiet road for what I thought was a jimmy riddle.

The next thing I heard was what I believed to be the sound of a car back firing. Sadly no, it was my companion the back fire was followed by a noise that could only be described as ‘fountain like’ and something I wouldn’t encounter again until my 1 year old daughter projectile shat all over the GingaNinja.

Within a few minutes it was all over, I heard the groans of a man wiping himself on dried leaves and hoping his finger didn’t break the brittle natural loo roll. He returned and mumbled an apology to which I replied something along the lines of, ‘better out than in’. 

While I didn’t see the offending release, I did note that his lower back carried the hallmarks of poo splatter that had not been there previously and he was clearly in some distress as it shouldn’t be that yellow.

Just remember if you’re going to squirt – don’t get too close to anything – you do not want bounce back.

The Breach
I’ve recalled, in my race report, the moment on the Mouth to Mouth where I simply had to stop, spiking my arse on the only bush for miles in the process. I’d run several kilometres knowing that I couldn’t squeeze my arse cheeks tightly or there would be messy consequences and there is no feeling worse than having your guts be tumbling around as you’re in desperate need of a quiet spot and yet still trying to race. I ran Mouth to Mouth really quite well but this unfortunate stop cost me a decent time but when you’ve been torpedoed by your own lack of bowel control what can you do?

The Lightning Strike
In the distance I can hear the sound of Brian May playing some awesome guitar solo from Flash Gordon but the lightning attack is when you get an urgent need and an immediate stop is required followed by a single lightning quick unloading of your bowels. If the process from shorts down to concluding your business takes more than 30 seconds chances are this isn’t a Lightning Strike

The Double Ender
I lay baking in the midday sun, around a metre in front of me was a spray of chunky vomit and behind me – about the same distance away was a ‘Dr Octopus’ putrid green and stinking, liquid diahorrea. I genuinely thought I was going to die and was to die having experienced what has been called the double ender. During the experience I had bodily fluids pouring out of every orifice and all at the same time – my muscles didn’t know how to react to the need to lurch one way and then the next.

I should have DNF’d that day but I picked myself up, carefully avoiding the vile radioactive anal and oral offerings and make a decision that I wasn’t going to quit this one!

There are number of lessons you need to learn from my experience, the first is ‘be careful of the water you drink from in Scottish Highland streams’ and secondly ‘remove enough of your clothing that you don’t get them covered in either ends of your distress’. Had I got so much as one iota of nastiness on my race clothing I would have DNF’d there and then.

And the rock cried out, no hiding place
It was during my fail at Haria Extreme that I had a disturbing thought – I need a dump but I knew that the checkpoint was only five minutes away and this section of the course was heavily marshalled – just to guide you through the vineyard and into the loving arms of the volunteers. ‘Is there a toilet?’ I asked hopefully. The volunteers looked at me in a ‘we don’t speak English’ kind of a way – thankfully a young boy at the back piped up and said, ‘next place, 20km’. This made no sense as the next CP was at 25km and there was no checkpoint 20km from this point. I thanked them and set off

My toilet need wasn’t super urgent but it would become that way if I didn’t resolve it. By the time I reached the next checkpoint it had become the main issue and I once again asked if they had toilets but it was another negative response. Bugger.

In the distance I could see large swathes of open landscape and no cover. Bugger. However, with a ridge in the distance I could use that as cover and indeed I did find a small cave that I could perch over the opening. Phew. I positioned myself carefully and despite needing to keep myself upright using all my upper body strength I managed to begin my business. It was just as the first droppings landed that below me I could hear the scurrying of something alive. Bugger.

I felt my face go red in the middle of the movement and my natural survival instinct kicked in and I fired out a rather difficult ‘lightning strike’ and leapt up with my shorts around my ankles. Clear of the pit I peered back and could see the scurrying of some animal(s) I had disturbed.

To add insult to injury I was now half naked in the middle of Lanzarote, balls out and above me, on the ridge, several runners ran past. Regardless of my own predicament I’m sure the sight of my nudey form did nothing to enhance their experience.

Lesson? Check the hole you’re about to deposit in – especially when it might be an animals home.

The Meconium
Meconium is the tough first, very dark poo your child does and when racing I had cause to stop during my first ultra and learn a very valuable lesson. Thankfully this happened at a checkpoint, on a toilet, in a village hall on the White Cliffs 50.

I had clearly not been drinking enough, was hugely dehydrated and when I needed to visit the little boys room but everything was super difficult to deliver, small, tough, dark and poisonous smelling. It didn’t impact my racing that day but it did remind me of the value of food and drink as I race.

The Galloping Trots
The trots are very different from the ‘Lightning Strike’ and ‘The Gift That Keeps on Giving’ in that you’re completely immobile for quite a significant period of time and there is a small tonne of it. I suppose the lesson to learn from the trots is that you need to give your stomach what it needs rather than what it wants and in the run up to CCC I’d been more socially active than normal and had spent the week eating out and eating lovely, sometimes quite rich food.

I wasn’t running very well at the CCC as I’d fallen quite badly coming off the first descent and this was made all the worse but the revenge of my week long holiday food choices. It was somewhere between CP1 and CP2 that I pulled up to tend my wounds properly and also to deal with my groaning, moaning stomach. I journeyed a little way off the route and into deep bushes – taking my pack off and moving all my kit to higher ground. I could feel the grumbling inside myself and it was pure agony as a stream of solid, then less solid, then liquid materials streamed out of me.

Coming in waves as these things invariably do I would think I was finished only to move and hear my stomach turn again. I was lucky that I was elevated from the ground between two big tree branches and therefore protected from splatter but 20 miles of too hot running, a bit of dehydration and a week of holiday eating had not made my bowels a scent sensation you’d enjoy.

I crept away, as you do, having defiled this sacred trail running ground. Feeling so rough I managed another 30km before the inevitable DNF and believe me my stomach felt every metre.

The Gift that Keeps on Giving
The first time I ever needed to stop on a race was during the South Downs Way 50. I remember I’d been struggling for about 2 miles and had to slow down enough that I felt like I was really losing ground. I was running with a buddy in a very casual way, in that we would hurl abuse at each other as we went by one another but at about 10 miles I needed to find a quiet place.

Thankfully a location rocked up quickly and I disposed of the offending item discreetly and set off again but less than 3 miles later I was pain again. I dug a small hole and delivered again but it still wasn’t enough – in a little over 15 miles I needed 5 stops, each worse than the last and my concern about the amount of toilet tissue I was carrying was growing.

At my first stop I’d been quite generous with my loo roll but as the stops became more frequent I had to ration it and as the releases became less solid I felt I needed more paper – this was a no win situation.

My solution was that I stopped eating before the halfway point and I took very small amounts of water fearing that I might end up in a situation where I’d have to use my much loved buff to wipe. I didn’t, I finished and the Buff survived.

Sugar Loaf Mountain
This is a very specific moment in my running career and there will be people who read this and know the incident I’m talking about. It was 2014 and my first time at Country to Capital – in the gents there are two cubicles. It’s fair to say both were incredibly busy but it’s equally fair to say that only one of them was flushing. Upon reaching the front of the queue I was offered the right hand side cubicle – I headed in and looked down, though not far down as the peak of the poo mountain was creeping over the rim. I stepped back, choking slightly on my own vomit and offered the opportunity to the man behind me and risking the other cubicle.

I’m not sure what disgusted me more – the sight of so much poo or the fact that so many runners were happy to give this a go. Nasty.

The Heaver
I was running in a 45 mile race when I met a lovely lady who offered some insight into what I’ve dubbed ‘the heaver’. The lady in question who told me about this was in the middle of a mountain marathon and had gotten caught a little short, ‘I know what it’s like,’ as I was discussing my concerns about needing a toilet break as we raced.

She had decided to stop at a small clump of bushes and then fell into distress – she says she was pushing and pushing with only the smallest of results but knowing that there was a real need to deal with this . I’ll quote her directly as this has never left me, ‘I heaved and I heaved but the house just wouldn’t blow down’.

After some 20 minutes (according to her Garmin) she had managed to fire off a small pile of rabbit like pebbles – which to her seemed inconsistent with the trouble her bowels had been giving her. Still she did complete her mountain marathon but said I shouldn’t worry if I ever need a noisy poo as she was sure every runner who went past her probably heard her trying to push that one out.

Ah the honesty of ultra runners.

My Solution
There’s no magic wand for issues like this, if it happens you simply need to deal with it but my pre-race preparation now at least offers me a chance of getting it all out of the way before I set off.

The Flat White coffee seems to be the trigger for helping me pass the contents of my innards before a race start. It’s not a perfect solution, it doesn’t always work and if I get the timings wrong then it can cause more problems than it solves but since trying this method I’ve had a greater deal of control out on a route – because undoubtedly I suffer from a really shitty problem (sometimes)!

You’ll all have your own magic treatments and pre-race routines and I’d love to hear them because I’ve seen and been involved in some pretty horrendous states and anything we can all do together to reduce this can only be a good thing.

So please feel free to share…

Lessons

  1. Watch for back splash
  2. Always carry enough toilet paper/tissues
  3. Deal with it quickly, don’t wait until it is a serious issue
  4. Beware small furry animals
  5. Ensure you use the facilities before your run/race
  6. Ensure you are suitably secluded if you need to use the trail
  7. Don’t overburden your stomach pre-race
  8. Never trust a fart
  9. Make sure you are finished
  10. Try not to care what other people think

I hope this post hasn’t distressed or disturbed you all too much and I hope that what you take from this is, ‘be prepared’ and ‘it’s not just bears that shit in the woods’

*Thanks to GCJ for suggesting the scoring system


Your favourite races over time will change and a couple of years ago I looked at which events had given me the most joy but since then I’ve run another 50 races and I thought it was about time to refresh the list.

I’ve limited my list to just a single choice and the previous winner if there was one. The thing is though there are lots of great events that didn’t make the number one spot, the Green Man Ultra for example comes a very close second to the SainteLyon while MIUT, UTBCN and Haria Extreme could all easily take the top spot in their respective categories.

At the other end I hate missing out the City of London Mile and the Bewl 15 but hopefully this list provides an interesting read and a starting point for you to find your own favourite races… and you never know maybe one of these races will become your favourite sometime too.

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Category: Obstacle Course
Winner: Grim Challenge
Previous: Grim Challenge

I suppose this remains my favourite OCR run because I don’t really do OCR anymore. However, having done Survival of the Fittest, the Beast in the East, Xtreme Beach and several others (though never a tough mudder) I’d say that this ‘natural’ OCR still has great character and deserves consideration for some end of year fun. Why do this race? mud glorious winter mud.

View the gallery here

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Category: Timed
Winner: Brutal Enduro
Previous: Fowlmead Challenge

I’ve completed a number of timed challenges, many of them with SVN who provided the Fowlmead Challenge but without a shadow of a doubt my favourite timed event was the 18hrs I spent running around a truly spectacular route near Fleet to the south west of London. There was something quite magical about the tree lined, up and down, 10km lap that really tested the mettle of the runners – it helps I think that it was a relatively small field, a great atmosphere and a thoughtful organising team. I was somewhat dismayed to note that there was no 2017 edition but I live in hope that this great value event returns because I know I can do much better than I did last time. Why do this race? A truly awesome route that never gets boring no matter how many times you do it!

Read the review here
View the gallery here

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Category: Up to 5km
Winner: Chislehurst Chase Fun Run
Previous: Westminster Mile

I’d been trying to run the main Chislehurst Chase 10km for about 4 years when I finally found the time to rock up and hammer out a couple of laps of one of my favourite Kentish routes around Scadbury Park. The unexpected bonus was the children’s 2km fun run which was a nice, tight loop. UltraBaby in her first race to be powered exclusively by her own legs ran well for the first kilometre but then needed some minor cajoling to finish (in a respectable 30 minutes). The huge cheering crowd and the positive atmosphere filled me with joy but also my daughter who only the week before had turned 2. The medal that they placed around her neck remained there all day as she told passers-by of her running success and still she strokes her ‘Chase’ medal when she tells me, ‘my medals are here dad!). Great event! Why do this race? it’s fast, furious and family friendly

Read the review here

Category: 5km
Winner: Xtreme Beach
Previous: Ashton Gate Parkrun

I do love Ashton Gate Parkrun – it’s outstandingly good fun and also the starting point for one of my favourite ultra marathons, The Green Man but when I think of the 5km race that brought me most joy then it had to be Xtreme Beach. I’d been injured for quite a long time when this came up and at the last minute I decided to attend the inaugural event near the Bradwell power station in Essex. It turned out that Xtreme Beach was a looped OCR event through the most hideous smelling crap on the planet with ball busting challenges to face on each loop. I settled for a single loop as I didn’t want to disturb my hip injuries too much and by god it was fun! I came out of the filthy waters around the power station in shades of black I wasn’t aware existed and the squelch from my trainers indicated I’d not shirked my responsibility to give it some welly. Lots of fun packed in to that event – I wonder if it’s still going? Hmmm.

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Category: 10km
Winner: Chislehurst Chase
Previous: Medway 10km

The Chislehurst Chase is a double winner from me as the 10km trail race is an easy choice as one of the best 10km races around. The two lap route around Scadbury Park is windy, hilly, muddy, fast and challenging – it demands that you give every inch of yourself as you wend your way round the course and the rewards are pure exhilarating enjoyment. When I lived near Orpington I would regularly run fast laps around the main trail here and thunder up and down the hills with my spaniel but to get a medal for doing it was a lovely added bonus. Why do this race? a tight, twisty and runnable course finished off with a blistering sprint across the track. Outstanding.

Read the review here

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Category: 10 mile
Winner: Vigo Tough Love 10
Previous: Vigo Valentines Day

The only thing more fun than the Vigo Valentines Day 10 mile was when they made a few minor course changes and turned it into to the stomach churning, arse clenching Vigo Tough Love 10! This is the Kentish equivalent of a fell race and is both fast and furious while being a proper ball busting grind. The race failed to take place in 2016 but with the support of the Harvel Hash Harriers made a triumphant return in 2017 with a few minor course amendments and a superior sprint to the finish line. There is something magical about this race, in any incarnation, but the 2017 version for me is definitive and I’ll be back for a fourth crack next year! Why do this race? because it’s the best race around and at a mere 10 miles and a cut off of nearly 4 hours – anyone can do it… if they show a bit of tenacity.

Read the review here

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Category: Half Marathon
Winner: Summer Breeze
Previous: Summer Breeze

The half marathon distance is the one I run the least because it’s the one I enjoy the least. However, that being said I’ve run a dozen and I’ve never found one more exhilarating than the ‘Summer Breeze’ on Wimbledon Common. It was a hot, muddy, slow run with my former colleague HitmanHarris – I was injured and he was steady – it should have been an awful afternoon but actually it was as much fun as I’d hoped for and will make an effort to return in 2018 to this bimble with the Wombles! Why do this race? you’d do this race because it is so far from what you might expect and that’s a really good thing.

Read the review here

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Category: Marathon
Winner: Vanguard Way Marathon
Previous: Liverpool Marathon

My first marathon was in Liverpool in 2012 and while it was a fun it was a busy road marathon and pounding pavement, as I would discover, is not what I enjoy, nor does my body. Roll forward a couple years and the 2016 Vanguard Way Marathon – a race with almost universal approval, small field, beautiful trail route and a delightful medal what’s not to like? Well the VWM takes you on a tour of your own limits, you’re guaranteed to do ‘free miles’ as you get lost, the water may well run out at the checkpoints, it’s the middle of August with large swathes of the route held in a bloody sun trap and there’s a couple of arse quiveringly unpleasant hills to climb! I suppose you’re wondering why I’d say this is my favourite marathon then aren’t you? Well that’s easy, any race that tries to kill you has definitely got your respect. I suppose you can only truly appreciate being alive when you stand a chance of not being and the VWM provided that opportunity by the bucketload. Why do this race: the VWM is the UK version of Dignitas, just with a lower success rate. A tough as old boots marathon and in the August heat can be a real killer.

Read the review here
View the Gallery here

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Category: Ultra (up to 50km)
Winner: XNRG Amersham Ultra
Previous: N/A

Because I’ve expanded on the race distances I’ve done the 50km category has made itself available for a winner. Thankfully there was a very clear choice in my mind and that was the event that took in some wonderful trails around Amersham and also gave me my first experience of the wonderful XNRG. There was a certain zip and energy that accompanied this friendly, charity fund raising event and it seemed to me that everyone was up for a bit of a bimble. Now it’s true that I was feeling rough as heck for most of the race as my guts tried to force me into a DNF but I held on to record a respectable finish and have lots of lovely chats with some truly awesome. Why do this race? because it’s for charity, because it’s run by XNRG who are amongst the best in the ultra business and because it’s an amazing route.

Read the review here

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Category: Ultra (50km – 75km)
Winner: SainteLyon
Previous: St Peters Way

I loved the muddy glory of the St. Peter’s Way in Essex but for me the SainteLyon is both my favourite race in this category and also my favourite ultra. It’s the middle of winter, it’s midnight and there’s 6000 other runners all stood in Saint Etienne ready to launch themselves towards Lyon. It has twinkling headtorches as far as the eye can see, it has French locals out with cow bells cheering you on and it has a truly fast finish as you bound under the illuminated archway! It’s an amazing race and an amazing experience. And if you’re running it in 2017… we’ll I’ll see you there. Why do this race? it is simply unforgettable.

Read the review here
View the gallery here

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Category: Ultra (75km – 100km)
Winner: South Wales 50
Previous: N/A

I had no idea that the South Wales 50 would leave such a wonderful mark in my heart and there are lots of reasons for this. The route is compelling and tough, the organisation is top notch and the medal was both excellent and hard earned – however, it’s none of these that make this my favourite race in this category. The real reason is the bond of friendship that drew together the runners – I’d never seen so many quickly formed bonds made. I met Pete and Ryan who I will forever hold in high esteem and have huge respect for (good luck at TDS and RoF guys). Importantly though these type of bonds could be seen all over as people got to know one another on a way I’d never seen before. I would highly recommend the South Wales 50 – but be prepared for a toughie. Why do this race? it’s tough, it’s intimate and it’s great fun.

Read the review here

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© UltraBoyRuns

Category: Ultra (over 100km)
Winner: Skye Trail Ultra
Previous: Thames Path 100

I’ve said many times before that Skye tore me apart, broke me but also gave me one of the greatest race experiences I’ll ever have. Skye showed me ‘I can’ and I made sure I did. This race is as small and as intimate as you like, it’s run by ultra runners for ultra runners and it is tremendously inclusive. But don’t get caught up in admiring too many of the spectacular views because Skye is a ball buster. Enjoy Why do this race? because it’s there and everyone should run Skye.

Read the review here
View the gallery here

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And the rock cried out no hiding place. And it was correct, in ultra marathons there is no hiding place – especially from yourself.

The question I’m asking myself is, have I stopped hiding and am I making forward progress? Well the last six months are the first real test of that question – so how did I fare?

The 2017 halfway point: I love running, I hate running – it’s a perfect balance and 2017 has, so far, given as much as it has taken at the halfway point.

I’m not going to dwell on two DNFs (I’ve done that enough) instead I’m considering the huge positives I can take from my first six months of the year and look forward with enormous pleasure to my second six months.

The good

  • Finishing my third Vigo 10
  • Running on awesome trails in Barcelona and Madeira
  • Completing the Hockley Woods Challenge, Marlborough Downs Challenge, South Wales 50, Amersham Ultra and Escape From Meriden
  • Running the Westminster Mile twice, once with the family, once solo
  • Managing to get a medical certificate signed
  • Being told my heart is in tip top condition
  • Losing 6kg in weight
  • Deciding that, as a family, we need to move to Scotland and be closer to the mountains

The Bad

  • Failed to complete a race purchase therefore missing out on Winter Tanners
  • Let down by failing Altra Lone Peak 3.0
  • DNF at Madeira
  • DNF at Barcelona
  • Petzl head torch failure at the first time of in race usage
  • Put on 3kg in weight

The good stuff has been really, really good and the bad stuff has been a bit ‘meh’ I mean it’s not like the world caved in – it’s just running.

The South Wales 50 probably serves as the ultra highlight for me because I met two wonderful runners, had an awesome time and finished in a reasonable albeit not exceptional time. But the real highlight was having UltraBaby banging out a mile in a decent time and fully understanding the concept of racing and earning her reward – I was both a proud parent and runner at that moment.

The low point was obviously going to be Barcelona and realising I was going to have to DNF on a technicality rather than for running reasons – I was pretty furious and disappointed.

However, despite my misadventures I feel like I’m making positive progress towards my endgame and I knew before I started on this segment of the journey that failures would be fairly regular.

Perhaps my regret in my racing over the last six months is that Meriden killed off any chance I had of taking part in the South Wales 100. But this did set me up for a truly outstanding experience on the 50 with Ryan and Pete. South Wales was also a really good finishing point for the end of the first half of the year as it felt like I have properly succeeded at something and it means that mentally I go into preparations for my coming races and training with a positive attitude.

Upcoming
It’s a bit weird really, much like the start of the year I’m effectively having two months off where I can focus on training and family without the interruption of racing.

Therefore July and August will have a series of long runs on the outskirts of London and across Kent to prepare me for racing again which begins in early September with the return of the London to Brighton race.

The time off from racing will I hope get me through the summer without a case of serious dehydration or further DNFs as I found last summer and the one before to be a dreadful time for racing.

Ultimately I have reduced the amount of racing I do and I am seeing some benefits but there’s still much improvement to make, the challenge now is to improve my results in the second half of the year and continue to have a bloody good time.

Testing myself 

September London to Brighton will be a test of pace. Can I knuckle down enough to complete the 100km in under 14hrs? And can I navigate the course well enough to end up where I need to be. Given that I’ve clearly lost ‘half a yard’ to use a football reference and my navigation skills, although improving, are still not amazing, I will be very pleased to get through this unscathed. 

October Ultra Trail Scotland: Arran was the final race in my 2017 calendar to be confirmed and I can’t wait. At only 75km this should be a fairly simple test but with a little over 5,000metres of positive elevation this is set to be as brutal as the section of MIUT that I ran and anything but simple – the difference is that this will be autumnal Scotland not a pleasant spring day in Madeira. 

November The Rebellion sees me head to Wales again in November for a bit of a bimble through the hills. At 135miles this will be the longest distance I’ve tackled and I’m not intending to be quick but I’m also not planning on using the full 72hr time allocation. I signed up for this after the bitter disappointment of dropping from the SW100 to the SW50. Looking forward to this one.

December SainteLyon is my favourite race and I’ll be returning for more midnight shenanigans in Lyon. I’m sure I’ll still be a giant puddle of mess after The Rebellion but this glorious race fills me with unexplainable joy. I’m hoping to improve on my time from my first attempt but I’ll simply be pleased to returning a city and an event I really did fall in love with.

So that’s my second half of the year – four races left that cover mountains, speed, distance and love – you can’t ask for much more really.

But what about you? How has your running been so far this year? All going to plan? None of it going to plan? What’s left in the race calendar? and most importantly are you having fun? 

Happy running. 


Skye Trail Ultra (The Ridge)
‘It’s this way’ I called over to Neil and pointed southwards and then I looked down, the descent was terrifying and amazing in the same instant, being awestruck though was soon replaced by the reality that I had to descend this.

SainteLyon (highest point)
From the viewing point, at 3am on a cold December morning, I stopped to turn back and watch the twinkling of thousands of head torches in the distance gently lighting up the trail. C’est magnifique!

St Peters Way (The final push)
Darkness was upon me and a gale blew me from pillar to post. The gentle final shaft of light cast a foreboding shadow of the finish line and church in the distance. It was the most beautiful finish.

Vigo ‘Tough Love’ 10 (That Hill)
‘Don’t worry, it’s not that bad’ said an older fell running type when describing the final hill of the Vigo 10. With absolute clarity I remember creaking my neck skywards to see the top of the hill, what a sight, what a hill, what a route!

What do all these things have common? Well they were my first experience of some section of a race route and always under race conditions and most importantly the first sight of some of the most spectacular views available.

I’ve often gone back to races I’ve loved – Vigo (favourite race) and the SainteLyon (favourite ultra) are prime examples but no matter how much I love these races none of them will be able to capture the awe, joy and delight I had as I saw the route for the first time. There is something special about your first time, even if it’s not your best result at that race or it doesn’t go to plan – there’s magic in a first go at any race.

Racing fresh
I would be lying if I said I had never done a recce but on the few occasions I have I’ve found that rather than enhance my experience of a race it actually takes something away from it. Perhaps it is that when you live for the unknown, the discovery and the curiosity then having those things taken away in race removes the enjoyment (for me).

The thing is I have a belief that there is nothing better than the first moment I pass across an amazing vista, run an amazing piece of trail, soak myself in a muddy puddle and lightning, in my opinion, never strikes twice.

It’s for this reason that I don’t get running a race route in preparation. I mean why would you?

Obviously…
I understand if you’re at the front of the pack chasing the prize of a win or a high placing – you want every advantage possible and knowing where you are headed and what you’ll face will certainly count as an advantage. But if you’re a bit like me, middle of the pack bimbler, then maybe like me, you’re there for the experience of being amazed and challenged. I wonder if you any of you feel that foreknowledge of a route can deflate the joy of that?

I’m also aware that some do it for the enjoyment and some do it for the feeling of security. But if I did it I would feel as though I was robbing myself of moments I’ve come to cherish.

There is a solution…
For those that want it though there is an obvious solution to save the route while at the same time condition oneself to the terrain you’re running and that’s simply to run in as close to race conditions as possible. When I rocked up to the CCC I went running in mountains that might mimic the conditions I’d face but I didn’t go anywhere near the Monte Bianco until race day.

When I ran The Wall I spent the week prior running in the rain soaked Lake District bouncing around Grizedale, Skafell Pike and others but I didn’t get near the north of the Lakes to tackle the route.

I’d therefore picked up a bit of relevant local information without compromising my enjoyment of the event – but this isn’t always practical when you race a lot or the location is a bazillion miles away. I just don’t worry about it (that said my arse is a bit quivery about having never run on the Brecon Beacons next weekend!)

Why I’ve never run the North Downs Way… I’ve been asked why, despite living so close to it that I don’t train (often) on the North Downs Way and I’ve never really had an answer but as I was reflecting on the writing for this post I realised why – I’m waiting for a single day race to take place there that I really want to do.

Surprise yourself… I guess I’m not suggesting that you give up the preparation for races – that would be silly and counter productive for many but I’ve met lots of runners who get so caught up in the detail of a race that they forget to look up and admire their surrounds and the last time I checked running was supposed to be fun. During Escape From Meriden I met a young gentleman who when I asked why this race, he responded, ‘well you get to see new things don’t you?’. I couldn’t have put it better myself.

So with the weekend upon us, whether you are racing or not maybe go left instead of right, look upwards instead of down and make sure you ‘see new things, lots of them!’

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.

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