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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.


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

But it was dead.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was in love.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I prepared a little like this 

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

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

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

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

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

Bingo.

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_4377-0
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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I’ve written twice previously about how awesome the Vigo 10 (Tough Love) Race is. It’s the crazy mix of trail and XC with the hardest, sharpest hill around and the best downhills for miles, a shed load of mud and so yes this is an awesome race. 


This year Vigo Running Club (in conjunction with the Harvel Hash Harriers) dared to amend a near perfect route – the result? an even better albeit slightly slower running experience. I wince at the thought of the mud sat here writing this now but yesterday as I battled across Kent I was in love and once the clarity of memory subsides I’ll be in love again.

I’m not going to go into great depth about the race again there’s a few highlights talked about below and you can read my previous reviews here (2014 review) (2015 review) but be assured that if you loved it before then you’ll love it again. All the best bits have been kept and it’s amazingly gotten even better!

I can honestly say that never have a medal and a mars bar been more keenly earned.


Below therefore is the brief overview of my 2017 Vigo 10 and it goes a little like this;

  • Pre-race 45 minutes on the toilet with epic bowel issues
  • Arriving to catch up with Mr Hrabe, Emma and to meet Chelsea (and husband) in a ‘stood next you and notice each other’ kind of way, ace
  • Wonderfully chilly conditions
  • Wonderfully moist (soaking) underfoot
  • The finest marshalling team
  • Great route directions and amusing signage
  • The best uphills
  • The best downhills
  • Great views 
  • A few minor adjustments to the route to make it even better
  • The nastiest mile 9 climb ever (and I include Como Lupslido on Lanzarote when I’m comparing)
  • Mud everywhere
  • I didn’t lose my shoe as I did in 2015
  • An outrageous and awesome (met him at my first ultra 4 years ago) runner on the PA system calling our names and numbers out, making me hurl myself at the finish!
  • A medal I’ll treasure and a mars bar I delighted in eating
  • Incredibly well organised
  • Wonderful support from the rugby club and the many supporters stood in the cold, a real community affair
  • A great value 10 mile run
  • A post race 45 minutes with hideous bowel issues, thankfully my race was unaffected!

As you may be able to tell this is just one of those races that you a) need to do and b) love doing. I’ll be back again next year because this race gives me joy in my running and I might not have pulled my hamstring dancing like an idiot at a rave the day before when this race next comes round.

My only minor complaint was the lack of the cannon firing to set us off, however, I imagine health and safety might have come into play with this – but I like the cannon and know other runners do too. However, this is a minor gripe in a race made for runners.


Final mentions: my special thanks go out to Mick Hrabe for catching me at the final hill, that gave me the incentive to really push for a fast finish – you weren’t beating me two years in a row! And of course we should all be grateful to both of the running clubs involved – Vigo and Harvel, truly great work.


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Looking back at this race report gives a real indication of how far I’ve come and how much I’ve changed in my approach to running and races. The Wall came about because I needed a new challenge and a new focus and it helped set me on my own road to Damascus and for that I’ll be eternally grateful but as I reflect back I can see that I’d be hard pressed to recommend this race, so much so that when I was asked my opinion of The Wall by a runner considering entering at Endure 1250 I suggested that if they liked trail running they should consider something more exciting like the St Peters Way or the SDW50.

The most memorable thing about this race for me was realising that I’m not a size 8 running shoe and actually a size 10, I finished this race with more than 20 blisters and almost no toenails. The Wall was the last time I wore Adidas and so I should thank it for putting me on the road to Pearl Izumi, Hoka One One and eventually Altra – in a size 10!

New content is italics, my original report is below;

Key points

  • Distance: 69 miles
  • Profile: Gentle
  • Date: June 2013
  • Location: Carlisle
  • Cost: £135 (2013) now even more expensive 
  • Terrain: Light trail, tarmac
  • Tough Rating: 0.5/5, the challenge is in the distance not the course
  • Next running: June 2017

In the beginning
 This all started in October last year (2012), I’d just finished my first marathon and had discovered that I hadn’t got a place at the London Marathon for the third time. I recall tweeting Rat Race saying that if London didn’t want me I’d become an ultra runner and that’s what I set about doing.

In the meantime I added a second ultra (or first ultra as it arrived in March) and managed to break my foot in the process but a swift return to running followed and although I’ve stayed pretty consistently injured throughout the year I’d managed some decent races and knew that I could complete my original challenge – The Wall.

My training hadn’t gone well (something’s never change) until I saw that Juneathon was just around the corner and I threw together a competitive streak of 7 races in 6 weeks and combined this with about 350 miles of running over the last 6-8 weeks adding in a lot of hiking and swimming.

This finally proved to me that actually I could do The Wall and inside the first 2 weeks of Juneathon I managed a little over 200km of running to help me prepare mentally. The challenge then would be to ensure I still had enough in the tank to run well on race day.

The Lakes
I arrived in Carlisle (the start) after an epic week in the Lake District, I ran about 7km each morning and hiked a total of about 60km up some lovely hills adding in about 1500m of positive elevation and some seriously challenging hikes with HP, my dad and our hounds. I also took part in race which rather than a run was The Great North Swim (full report being written) and proved just the antidote to some of my running jitters, a highly recommended race by the way. Carlisle is a lovely place, well from the visitors point of view and after collecting my race number from the castle we headed around the town to check out a few bits, grab some food and walk the dog. Lovely.

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What happened next was quite strange, we entered a small park near the Travelodge we were staying in and there in front of us was a man collapsed in the late afternoon sun. I advised HP to back away and I approached gently, I could see the man was breathing but didn’t want to move him incase there was and injury that I might make worse. I spoke to him but he wasn’t very lucid given that by the park bench was an empty bottle of QC and four cans of Red Bull. HP called the emergency services and swiftly an ambulance turned up, we had kept the man company while the medics arrived and upon catching sight of him called out ‘Hello Stephen’ – he was clearly a minor celebrity in the A&E department at Carlisle. Well good deed for the day done I retired to the hotel and discovered that I had neglected to pick up my timing chip from the registration point.

At nearly 8pm I rocked up again to the castle, not realising I was once again saying hello to @HelzBelz1982 and laughed and joked my way through the registration process again as the Rat Race crew sorted out my last few bits for me. I also took the opportunity to purchase myself a hooded top and some new half price full length OMM running tights as a replacement for my Skins A200s which I have never really found very pleasant to wear.

Back to the hotel, pack my bag, get my kit together and then sleep. I hit the hay about 11.30 but was awake again shortly after midnight, cramp in my legs was giving me all sorts of problems and the heat of the room was a nightmare for someone who needs cold. Windows open, duvet off, sleeping in the shower, sleeping with legs up against the wall – I tried it all but nothing worked. At about 3am HP awoke to beat my calves into submission and I was able to get about 90mins sleep. Not the best preparation but it could have been worse I might have gotten no sleep!

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Breakfast was a little light with just a small tub of natural yoghurt to keep me company but my lack of sleep had proven something of an appetite suppressant and so I quickly got ready, loaded up my kit and carried out the rest of the luggage and off to the start line.

Arriving at Carlisle Castle was a strange feeling, I sensed impending doom as I looked up at the portcullis and thought it might just drop on my head. But I went in and chatted to some of the runners, had a few laughs, drifted around wishing my fellow competitors well.

Ultra running doesn’t have that competitive edge (well not unless you are at the front) and everyone simply wants to survive the experience. As 7am came around you could sense both tension and humour in the group, nervous laughs from the first timers and those with ultras under their belt already.

Start
A short safety briefing and a 10 second countdown brought about the race start and we were off, straight out of the castle, through Carlisle and off into the wild blue yonder. I don’t really remember much about the first stage other than at 15miles I went off too quick, but it was an enjoyable romp with Simon, Keith and another chap whose name eludes me. We stayed together a little while, had a few laughs and then parted just as we came up to the first pit stop. The weather was pretty damp but not torrential and the overcast conditions were making for good running and actually I was really rather enjoying the experience. I completed the first section in under 2hrs 30 and only stopped briefly to chat to a chap called Stuart and the GingaNinja who was waiting with the hound.

We had all been told that stage 2 was tough, probably the toughest stage in terms of ground, elevation and experience and as the weather got worse this turned out to be reasonably but not completely true. The hills came thick and fast and with a mental note to myself that the hills should be walked I slackened my pace and strode purposefully up the hills. Once at the top I could begin to run again and used common sense to pick up other runners who I could chat with and have those few laughs that might get you round to the next stage. As I crossed the large stone steps going up into the second section of this stage it finally dawned on me that this wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought it might be and when the photographer asked for a sprint and smile and I gave a grimace and gazelle like jump. To be fair I was still enjoying this more than enough to take in the stunning scenery on offer and the opportunity to see some of Hadrian’s Wall was fabulous. And as I was heading into the latter phase of stage 2 I came across @bryanwe (now @ultradhc) who recognised me from behind, something of an achievement I think given we had never previously met. And I had just recently been overtaken by David, a fellow Liverpudlian (now in Scotland) who was running a stunning race. All of this meant that I felt very jolly going into pit stop 2. I joked and laughed with all the marshals, grumbling in a semi jovial way about the distance, lack of serious hills and the lack of beer, it costs nothing to be nice to people who would clearly still be stood there showing us the way in the early hours of the morning.

At pitstop 2 we were offered some rather disappointing looking soup, which I’m told was rather nice but the idea of drinking down the hot vomit didn’t appeal, I decided the only sensible solution was instead a hot cup of tea and a couple of Chicken Tikka sandwiches – delicious.

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I chatted with a couple of the Rat Race crew from the day before that i’d had a laugh with and it was nice to be remembered.

Anyway quick change of clothes, new OMM arm warmers, update my food and water stores and a swap round of unnecessary kit and I was away again, 30 minute stop (ha! These days the idea of such a long stop might as well be a DNF), not too bad really. What I should of done though was listen to my body and rather than rush out of the door I should have strapped my toes up which were, even at 32 miles, starting to blister – but I didn’t and this was a mistake.

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Then came the soul destroyer.

It was only a 250m climb from the bottom to the top of the hill but it felt like miles through the undergrowth and upon reaching the top I felt all the energy I had gained in the pitstop drain away and for a few minutes I walked, noting that my feet were sore.

However, with composure regained I headed back out to a running pace, slow running but still running and found my feet again, the weather was beginning to warm but with my hat and sunglasses on I felt I would be okay. I passed through lots of picturesque countryside and chocolate box villages that seemed very inviting as they were littered with little pubs, full of food and beer – yum. But I was still on course for about a decent finish time and therefore I would have to miss the delicious delights on offer and find pitstop 3 and this was were sadly The Wall stopped being a race for me and more about the need to finish.

The End?
I came into the pitstop bang on the time I predicted but the cost had been substantial, the blistering that had started about 15 miles earlier were now crippling. I stripped my feet down and the GingaNinja applied emergency compeed to the key affected areas and also places I suspected would blister. I changed socks too as my first pair were soaked which I suspect had helped bring on the severity of the blistering. At first count there were 10 blisters across my feet.

Nasty but I’d cope.

I left the pitstop wondering if the frailty of my feet with more than 22 miles to go was going to kick in but with nearly 7hrs before midnight I intended to make a decent push for a swift finish

Sadly all of my work began to unravel pretty swiftly and the road became lonely and long, still scenic enough but I felt at the end of my tether and around 8pm I called the GingaNinja and cried. I was failing, but with some comforting words and a gentle push I decided to keep going. But this 17 mile stretch was going to test every last ounce of my mental toughness and when the GingaNinja arrived at the second checkpoint between the pitstops I knew she was worried. What happened next though was a bit of a miracle. No, my feet didn’t heal, but I did discover enough energy to power to the final pitstop. I could see runners slowing around me and felt that I was not alone in my pain and so I came into the final stop, made a final call to change into my Speedcross 3 and use a pair of hiking poles. once this was all sorted I would be off once the medic had cleared me and checked I was suitably visible.

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What I do know is that I was both lucid and determined and as an added bonus one of the other runners asked if we could go together on the final leg. I’d met him earlier and he’d already been puking and making the kind of noises that people do before they give up but credit to him, he had hung on in and it seemed we both needed the company and the support. Sadly for the life of me I can’t remember his name and should have gotten some contact details from him but I didn’t.

The Final Seven
Anyway, we set out about 10.30pm in the knowledge that only a major miracle would let us finish by midnight but it seemed we were both in too much pain to care really and we were both keen to finish. Head torches on we ploughed across the course and through the night, making only relatively minor mistakes, maybe 2 miles worth and enjoyed each others company and as we hit the quayside we looked on in awe towards what we knew would be the finish line.

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However, what struck us first about the quayside was the sheer lack of clothing being worn by the ladies of Gateshead and their use of the word ‘fuck’. I mean seriously these were kids!

Maybe it’s because I’ve become such a middle aged old fart but even I was surprised by the potty mouthed youths that littered the banks of the Tyne.

I digress…

In the distance we could see the winking millennium bridge and I told my new buddy that we would be crossing the finish line running, not speed walking as we had been. He agreed and asked if we should race it but that seemed at odds with the ethos of ultra running and so as we jumped onto the bridge, having a laugh and joke with the marshal and decided we would run the second half as it was downhill.

I don’t really remember very much about the finish, it was all a bit of a blur, I remember the photographer, the GungaNinja, ThunderPad and bright lights. I remember the sense of elation at crossing the finishing line, no pain, no sorrow, just unabashed joy – I grasped my companion and we raced arm in arm to collect our epic medals, delicious post run food and a little chat with the medic.

Sitting in the finishers village there were dozens of runners strewn across the area, some who had finished, some who had given up, one chap gave up at 60 miles, I couldn’t have done that (nearly 40 ultras later I really could do that and have done it), perhaps it took more bravery to say ‘I can’t do it’ than to keep on going regardless. But whether they finished or not the people who were in the finishers village were all winners because they had tried.

And that was it, that was ultra 2, The Wall. There are a few more things to say though before this epic blog post closes.

Organisation
The first is that the level of organisation was very high. Rat Race really do know what they are doing, a corporate events company  who know how to create safe and secure opportunities for wannabes athletes. They’ve had time to get it right, as my partner said they make events that are designed to be finished, they want you to make it and while these things are relatively challenging they are very do-able. 10/10

Community
The runners themselves were pretty much all of a positive mindset, all passing on support or help were needed. Ultra running is like no other type of racing, the only person you are racing is yourself and that’s one of the most difficult concepts to understand as you move from say marathon running to ultra running. In terms of runners I met some great guys, as mentioned the chap who did the last 7 miles with me, David who I met at the hotel the night before and again several times around the town and the course, Stuart who wasn’t competing but there supporting his wife, great advice about keeping your head up and the three great Irish guys who I was jigging along with. There are actually too many great people to mention. Rat Race sometimes takes criticism for being dull routes and overpriced and these criticisms are far too accurate but they are inclusive safe events that allow beginners a taste (albeit an expensive taste) of ultra running.  8/10

Food

Food was generally of a very high quality and lots of it, my only tiny grumble was the vomit looking soup at the halfway point. Unsurprisingly I didn’t actually eat that much and I had a decent amount of my own supplies but it was good to know that I want going to go hungry if I had to stop on a hillside somewhere. I’ve heard in later years since I ran The Wall that the food has become less high quality and much cheaper, I can only confirm that in 2013 it was decent 7/10

Facilities
Toilets were clean, water was plentiful and the pitstops generally had enough in the way of cover and setting should you need them. Vindolanda especially was and example of what you can do with a few tents if you really put your mind to it. 9/10

Signage
For me the best part was that signage was accurate and clear, only near Gateshead did any of us go wrong and this we suspect was the work of vandals or trophy hunters. But the race team answered calls quickly when directions were lost and this was very reassuring. This was the major difference between this ultra and the WC50, the fact that the guidance was already worked out and very accurate meant that we could concentrate on the running element of the ultra. Not to put the WC50 down because actually of the two I preferred the course and much smaller field of runners of the WC50 but The Wall with it’s easy navigation meant you could focus on running . 9/10

Marshals and Supporters
And perhaps most importantly were the marshals and the supporters. The marshals were always happy to see us, or at least smiled and they gave us what we needed, no matter the weather and as for the support, there was just enough to see us through, especially at the key points. For me personally I realised that actually this is a medal that three should share, the GingaNinja and the hound should share it, because without those two and lots of Twitter support I would never have made it. 9/10

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Scenery and Course

The course and the scenery were okay, green, lush and open were often not far away but we were often on Tarmac so didn’t really connect with the trail and I’d have liked a lot more Hadrians Wall – we saw about 40 stones of it. The thing I wanted basically  was more trail, there was a little too much road running, had I known I probably would have worn road shoes as they would have handled most of the course and for the rest my Vibrams were in my bag 🙂 you would run this for some of the scenery, but be aware there were some seriously dull sections as well. But then it can’t all be an oil painting can it? As for the physicality and challenge of the course on paper this one looks pretty simple but it isn’t though nor is it a real ball buster, if you’re looking for genuinely scenic and really touch then this isn’t the one for you. 4/10.

And you
, should you do it?
I’d originally said yes to this but given the cost and lack of trail I’d probably say no – but that’s based on the experience of much better races. The Wall is much like the Race to the Stones/King it’s a safe pair of hands ultra and perhaps a starting pointing for those too scared to try a Centurion or navigation race. It’s too expensive though for what it is but despite this it still attracts people looking to step up their distance. I won’t be going back though. 3.5/10

Heroes
And a final word on a couple of unsung heroes, the medics at 1am who looked at my feet for me, you were brilliant and the ladies who were serving the food in the dining room at the finishers village, you were outstanding and I’m grateful you gave me the beef goulash, yum!

Conclusion
I’ve discovered I’m not an ultra runner yet, oh yes I’ve run a couple but I’m a novice and have lots to learn, I’m going to carry on running them much to everyone’s annoyance and hopefully one day I too can call myself an ultra marathoner. My conclusions about this race stand true today – yes these days I call myself an ultra runner but I’m still a novice, the great thing about this sport of ours is that you never stop learning and I’m grateful for that.

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I was doing some blog maintenance over the last few days and it occurred to me that a number of the races I’ve done don’t appear as UltraBoyRuns because that was a creation to replace my confused original blogging identity.

Therefore I’m returning to some of my older races and the original reports (with a hint of editing and hindsight) and we start with my first ultra marathon – the one and only Running of the White Cliffs 50(54)(60).

This is what I wrote of the experience;

There is nothing that can prepare you for going Ultra.

I woke up on Saturday morning worried about my first ultra, training hadn’t gone that well and my ankle had been pretty screwed for the past ten days. My kit was too heavy, I didn’t have nearly enough sweeties and I figured I was going to come last but I’d at least then have 2 UTMB points in the bag and a beautiful new medal.

I was up about 5, showered, ready and out the door by 6. The start line was about an hour away and by the time I was sat in the car with the GingaNinja and good old ThunderPad only one thing hadn’t been completed and that was the morning ‘movement’ which for any distance runner is vital but I was hoping that the facilities at the start line would be sufficient (and they were).

We arrived at the hall and I introduced myself to a couple of runners, registered with Mike Jones, the race director and I received the first surprise of the day – no kit check – something I had anguished over for several days, especially the content of my first aid kit. Anyway, I helped myself to a cup of tea and passed on the delicious looking bacon sandwiches (I noticed The GingaNinja grabbed a sly one).

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The race briefing was excellent and the race director seemed to be fully in control of everything that was going on – but in fairness most people seemed to be pretty experienced ultra or at least marathon runners and everyone was just getting ready. There was a real buzz about the place, I got the feeling I was going to like the ultra running community.

The 100 milers set off (about 25 runners) an hour earlier than the shorter distance runners and the 50 milers used this time to prepare themselves – however, I used the time to glean as much information as I could about endurance running on a very cold winters day carrying about 20kg of Sainsbury’s all butter flapjacks. At the back of the start I said goodbye to my crew and set off with the field of about 55 other runners. I had my GPS switched on and my route description in hand and I decided that the best way to get through this was quickly as possible without compromising my ability to finish.

Fast and strong was to be my mantra.

Ah wait … the first problem of the race then showed itself almost immediately – the directions. Within 400metres more than 20 of the runners had gone the wrong way, myself included and we needed to swiftly change tack, head back and hit the thick wet, filthy slope down. I hit the floor a couple of times and covered myself in crap. I had to steady myself on the barb wire fencing more than once and I realised very quickly that this really wasn’t a race, it was an opportunity to survive a race. All the competitors walked the first kilometre or so before we finally hit flat and dry.

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Once there I was in good form, infact very good form, I’d warmed up nicely and felt strong – possibly from not having done any running for a week.

The first 6 miles were full of small innocuous hills and therefore runners hit pretty swift time and most came into the first checkpoint in good spirits, myself included. Grabbing a jaffa cake and quick word with crew was it and I pretty much setting off into stage 2.
Upon arrival at the White Horse of Kent it became even more abundantly clear that this was a tough challenge and despite my energies I had to walk up some of the hill but on reaching the top I returned to moving at a fair pace – noting that there was a trail of runners behind me but I rounded the next hill at full pace and then banged out a swift walk up a nasty tarmac hill and great views of Ashford.

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The run was pretty simple for a while, taking in the wonderful White Cliffs of Dover and several other lovely sights (including my beloved Spaniel) 1 – I was having a great time really and then it happened, the thing that has blighted my running! Stupidity. At about 14 miles my good ankle got rolled over a rock, while I was titting and that was pretty much it.
I contemplated calling it a day at about 18 miles but the lovely Rich from the Harvel Runners (and several others) reminded me that pain is temporary. I therefore increased my pace, hit the aid station and decided to get out of my Merrell Glove and change into my Vibram FiveFinger Komodo. On reflection nearly four years later I wonder how foolhardy this was. It felt like I’d broken something and my thinking was that my barefoot fivefingers would spread my toes and allow my most natural movement. I could also race through icy puddles and keep my foot and ankle effectively ‘on ice’ for the remaining 35 odd miles

I knew that I would have my own crew awaiting me at 38.1 miles, if I could make it this far I would be able to decide if I had enough in me for the last 15 miles – there is a lot to be said for having someone you know at an aid station with a smile on their face.

Stage 3 – 5 were filled with lots of route problems, the directions really weren’t up to the task and a course that was hugely challenging – especially with an ankle that was starting to look like it might be fractured but I’d buddied up with a guy called Chris who was also running his first ultra, add to this Anne-Marie, who was looking for her 2 points towards the UTMB and I had the perfect running pals, the three of us passed through the up and downhills of the next couple of stages.

By the time we hit stage 5 the cold had set in, as had the darkness, the delays had meant that this was a much tougher course than anyone had actually imagined – most now thinking 12 hours for a finish and upon leaving the Stage 5 aid station and into Stage 6 we knew that we were still looking good for a 9.30pm- ish finish and then even more problems cropped up.

We just got lost.

The description and the GPS couldn’t agree – when it would connect, but we were also now in a wooded area with no exit having crossed difficult uneven terrain in the dark. With a little effort we threw ourselves across half a dozen barb wire fences and managed to avoid the river (although why bother when we had run through so much icy water already!).
We arrived to the final checkpoint at about 8.50pm, knowing that most of the final 14km stage would have to be walked given that we were all exhausted and pretty much mentally gone and what little running we were going to do would be slow.

More directional issues followed, especially around the golf course and the BT tower where runners were coming at one another from all directions and chaos briefly ensued. But with renewed resolve and grit we were convinced we were on the right path and having met some of the other runners we could throw ourselves towards the finish line. 6 of us blundered through muddy fields and sheep, defying the pain we all felt.

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Fast walking had become the order of the day but when we crossed the final gate to the road up to the finish and the village I knew I had less than 10 minutes to get my two UTMB points. My foot was in agony and it was only the thought of not finishing that spurred me on But my lack of long distance experience and general gusto meant I did what I do best – my sprint finish and I gave it my all. I tore into the car park and through the doors of the village hall looking up at the wall mounted clock, 54 minutes past the hour – 6 minutes of the fifteen hours allocated to spare. I collected my medal, collected my T shirt and suddenly every ounce of pain and every tear I had been holding back flooded out. I sat on a chair opposite one of the runners and we stared vacantly at one another. The quiet though was broken by the sound of the doors to the village hall crashing open once more and my companions for many, many miles collapsed in – all making the cut-off.

We should have run just over 53 miles but I know that I just completed just under 60 miles with all the extras that were done. But I had completed my first ultra marathon and it would set me on a road that I have never once regretted.

What an experience.

 

Key points

  • Distance: 54 miles (ended up being 60 miles after various route issues)
  • Profile: Rolling hilly
  • Date: March 2013
  • Location: Kent
  • Cost: £50
  • Terrain: Trail
  • Tough Rating: 3.5/5
  • Next running: now defunct

Route
Kent, the Garden of England does not have some of the amazing drama of say Scotland or the Lake District but it is much tougher than you might think and has hills aplenty as well as rivers to ford and challenges to face! The route for the WC50 was fun and engaging and the white cliffs themselves are a joy to run over, the whole thing though was ruined by incredibly poor directions and course marking

Organisation
When I ran this I had no frame of reference for how well organised an ultra should be. Mike Jones the race director was a seasoned and well organised man but he had failed to secure enough volunteers and this really showed as he bussed in people to the later aid stations who had no idea what they were supposed to do or even where they actually where. The worst part for a novice like myself was that the map book and course markings were incredibly poor and so I spent more time stood in fields trying to figure out where I was or watching GPX file on my less than ideal Garmin 410. The volunteers that did know what they were doing were brilliant and I have nothing but the highest praise for them – but it does say something that the GingaNinja as she was driving round the checkpoints felt the need to muck in and help the runners (she earned a volunteer t-shirt for her troubles!)

Support
Aid stations were well stocked with hotdogs available at one of the later ones – you really couldn’t complain about the food

Awards
Great medal, a favourite, lovely T-shirts (and still being worn).

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My Foot
I think the image below tells you all you need to know other than it was several weeks before I could return to running

Value for money
Great value for money, food, medals, cold, mud, hills – what more could you ask for? Well some decent directions would be nice but we did therefore get free miles and a free trip to the hospital to get my foot looked over

Conclusion
I feel for Mike Jones as the WC50 and all the other Ultra Trails (Saxon Shore) races failed to return for a second year. The single running of the WC50 was a tremendous if flawed race. I loved meeting some of the amazing ultra runners, many of whom I’ve kept in touch with and several of whom I’ve race alongside subsequently. I enjoyed the drama of the finish line race, I enjoyed the route, the challenge and most of all I loved becoming an  ultra runner. So thank you White Cliffs 50 for breaking my foot but putting my on the way to becoming a runner I’m actually quite proud of

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