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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. 


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

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

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

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



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



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

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

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



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


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

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


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

Image: James Hare (Flickr)

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


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

Image: Graham Royston (Flickr)

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

Image: DPC (Flickr)

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

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

Image: David Biggs (Flickr)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy running.

  1. Crossing the finishing line of the TP100 with UltraBaby. I was in a bit of a mess as I crossed the line for the finish but I insisted that I do it carrying my daughter who seemed somewhat nonplussed by the whole thing but for me it was a finish I will never ever forget. I’ll also never forget the paramedics trying to take her off me in case I dropped her as I crossed the line – as if I would.
  2. The Halfway Point of the Saltmarsh 75. Sat in the pub at the overnight camp for Saltmarsh was an experience in friendship. I feel compelled to mention  the awesome Ian Brazier, Simon Oswald and co who provided the most enjoyable mid point company possible. What made this even more amusing viewing though was the departure of several pairs of trousers so the runners could sit in nothing more than their compression tights. I’m not sure I ever want to see that again 🙂
  3. Returning to racing at the Vigo Valentines 10. Having had more than 6 months off in the previous year I hoped I had finally recovered from injury. This race gave me so much confidence to go into the rest of 2015, I wasn’t fast on the day but I had such fun.
  4. Thayer, Emma, Emma, Kat, Jools, Rachel, Traviss, Joanna, Kate, Joe, Conrad, Ben, Ian, Ian, Sam, Gill, Clare, Rob … The list is near endless of awesome runners I’ve had the opportunity to meet this year, and with each and everyone I’ve had a particular experience you can’t properly explain or put into words that would do it justice. The absolute highlight though was finally meeting EmLa and discovering she’s as awesome in person as she is on Twitter. If 2016 offers the same level of new/old and interesting people I’ll be a happy bunny.
  5. Medway 10km sprint finish. 200metres to go and I kicked a bit early – I mean who was I racing? Just me surely? Turns out the lanky streak of piss next to me didn’t want to be beaten by a short, middle-aged man wearing a buff and so he kicked with me! Ha! I kept pace with him until about the 90metres from home point and then I shouted over the fury of those final metres ‘You’ve got me kid, well done’. The problem was my legs were no longer attached to my mouth and I broke for a second kick and as I raced to the finish my opponent drifted into the distance behind me. Turns out in the timing chip scenario I’d beaten him by nearly a minute but there’s nothing more fun than a sprint to the finish line – especially on a track. Awesome.
  6. Jo! The TP100 had so many highlights but one of my absolute favourites is the one I keep retelling to other runners because it amuses me. I’d just finished having a very long piss when a young lady came across me. When she asked if we could run together for a bit I was perfectly happy to do so however, it was the ‘you don’t look like the type who’d rape me’ that ensured I would never forget Jo. She was some of the best (and strangest) company I’ve ever had on a race but it was a delight to come across her again at the Saltmarsh 75. Thanks Jo.
  7. A family race. The GingaNinja and I don’t often do the same events anymore, she’ll sometimes roll up to a 10km and I’ll sometimes do a swim but when the Westminster Mile reared its head I asked if she fancied it (and we invited her mum, who accepted). The four of us rolled up to the start line – UltraBaby strapped to my front and 8minutes 39seconds later my daughter finished as about the 200th fastest female – not bad given her feet didn’t touch the ground!
  8. New job, new boss, some understanding. Most people think you’re bonkers when you tell them you run hundred mile races or run through the night across mountains or spend hundreds of your hard earned pounds on Lycra but my boss (The Big G) is a bit of an extreme triathlete and therefore understands why I do what I do and I’ve spent most of the last working year chatting about upcoming races, looking up new races and discussing strategies. It’s possible I wouldn’t be running the Isle of Skye ultra in May if it hadn’t been for our conversations about it!
  9. Birthday. I’m a notorious grumpy bugger at my birthday but the GingaNinja made it much better this year by ordering, from France, without my knowing, the difficult to acquire at the time, Altra Lone Peak 2.5 (what a shoe!)
  10. Goodbye Verucca. I’d had this bloody thing for ages and it kept opening up incredibly painfully on long distance trails (especially the TP100). I’m useless with medical stuff so the GingaNinja dealt with it every night for nearly three months and managed to kill it off just prior to the SainteLyon. The reward was that my feet held up so much better on the trails because of her tenacity in dealing with a  terrible patient.

So fellow runners what about your highlights of the year?

*Please note that the above list is in no particular order

My year of running: I remember January arriving and I’d been allowed a single solitary run in the previous 3 months. My physiotherapist seemed to believe that I needed a complete rest from running but by January as I was climbing the walls she told I should start running again – remembering that I had to take it easy.

I neglected to mention my race list for 2015 but that didn’t stop her asking. I explained that 2015 was less manic than my previous race years but still pretty hectic. I explained to her I’d build up sensibly and I would actually do some training – and I did.

During 2015 I put in more than 2,000 training and racing miles but 2015 was about more than covering a decent amount of distance – it was about completing new challenges and recovering from injury all while being new to parenthood.

My first few races were build ups to the SDW50 and ultimately the CCC but I returned to racing with the Vigo 10 which is perhaps my favourite non ultra race and it’s relatively local so when I was looking to return to racing this seemed a no-brainer. I was painfully slow as I trudged round the course and climbed the final ‘knee wobbler’ hill but I did complete it and I really enjoyed it – it was great to be back. I came away from the race thinking that I was cured of my injury woes and I could have kissed my physiotherapist I was so grateful.

Obviously it didn’t all go to plan – not by a long stretch, I followed Vigo up with the Brands Hatch half and this was a full on nightmare. My leg started to break down within about 7km and although I held on until 14km I knew I was going to have to hobble back to the finish line and this was very much what I did. It was a grim day and I was staring down the barrel of the gun again but my physiotherapist took a slightly more realistic approach and explained that setbacks do happen. Additional work revealed lots of physical problems that could do with correcting and we were able to identify that tarmac and hills are the main things that bring on ‘The Attack of the  Glutes’. And with a prevention strategy and further work I progressed nicely through the year. Yes, its true that I was in agony for the SDW50 but in the run up to that both days of the Ranscombe Challenge had gone exceptionally well.

I also managed to go to my final Centurion Running event for a while and complete the Thames Path 100 therefore getting the monkey off my back regarding my failure at the Winter 100 when all my injuries did finally gang up on me and leave me in a bad way. The winning of a Centurion buckle has been something I’ve been looking for a while now and I’m glad its done because it will let me focus on other things in 2016.

Post TP100 I took a bit of time out and did the Medway 10km with my dad, Bewl 15, the Great London Swim with no training whatsoever and the Westminster Mile with UltraBaby (running an 8 minute mile with a baby strapped to my chest). I banged out a slow Marathon at the Kent Roadrunner again as its my local marathon and I always enjoy the medal if not the course and its always a nice affair as there are usually lots of runners I know there – my sprint finish against Traviss Wilcox was a delight. I also had the pleasure of meeting Jools and Kat – along with a proper introduction to Ed Catmur at the inaugral Twilight Ultra in Ilford, this was supposed to be the final warm up for what would be my first proper foreign race…

I suppose 2015 had always been about France and my double trip to race on the French trails, in December it would be the SainteLyon but first up was my dismal showing at the CCC. I wasn’t quite up to it, it was much too hot for me, it just went badly and I fell during the race and came away from it feeling like I did after the Brands Hatch Half Marathon. However, despite my complete deflation I decided to get straight back on the horse and upon returning to the United Kingdom entered the Saltmarsh 75. With a month to recover from my exploits in France I rested perhaps a bit too much but I rolled up to the Essex saltmarshes and gave it some welly. I’d been incredibly lucky to discover that ultra runner extraordinaire Ian Brazier would be competing in the same race and that provided a real boost as Ian is the the kind of hardcore runner who inspires with his effortless charm. So thank you Mister B!

The end of the year was working out much better than the start of it!

Into the home stretch of the year and I added the Ranscombe Challenge for the third time in a year  with Jools, Kat and (I finally met) the awesome Emma (mk1) finally. A very happy marathon distance was covered and I’m looking forward to next years ultra in her company. There was also time to have to pull out of both the Tolkien and Hugin Challenges but replace those with the Thames Meander over in Kingston-upon-Thames where I felt very fortunate to meet Emma (mk2) and run into several old friends from my London Social Runners Meetup Group.

As November wore on I grew in confidence for the Virtual Runner UK Poppy Challenge which encouraged me to add more and more distance to my November total and there was the best finish in the universe to November when UltraBaby joined me for her fourth race of 2015 at the Greenwich Movember 10km and we bullied our way round the course to being the fastest buggy runners – even if I did nearly flip the buggy as we raced over the finish line.

However, it was December that brought the highlight of the year and the SainteLyon which was an awe inspiring race through the French hills from St Etienne and Lyon.

In review: If that’s (SainteLyon) the last race of the year then this was a properly awesome 9 months of running. I’m hoping that I might be able to go the entire year in 2016 without any injury breaks. It’s fair to say that my injuries have not cleared up completely but I am at least managing them and I’m now actively avoiding races that I know will set them off.

2015 was a great year of racing, true I didn’t race nearly as much as I did in the previous years but I think that was very much in response to my body telling me to pick the races I do more carefully and know my own limits.

My original aims for 2015?

  1. Get a Centurion buckle
  2. Run at one of the UTMB races
  3. Race with my daughter
  4. Cross the line of a hundred mile race with the GingaNinja and UltraBaby
  5. Race with my dad
  6. Successfully recover from injury
  7. Complete 5 ultra marathons
  8. Complete 1 marathon
  9. Enjoy running
  10. Engage with more of the running community 

How did it finish up? 

  • Well I did earn my Centurion buckle (just the one, I’m no Bryan, Dan or Louise).
  • I did race at the CCC but this ended up being my DNF of 2015.
  • I raced four times with UltraBaby and had a great time at each event.
  • I crossed the TP100 line with my family and it was an awesome feeling.
  • I raced with my dad at the Medway 10km which was one of my favourite races of the year. 
  • Injury was a little more complex, I’m still in recovery and that may never change, however, I now have a management strategy and I take a more considered view of the races I’m doing.
  • I completed 7 ultra marathons in 2015.
  • I completed 3 marathons in 2015.
  • For almost every second I was out on the road or the trail I had a great time and never once felt like I didn’t want to be running (well maybe during Brands Hatch, that was depressing).
  • I had the honour to reconnect with lots of great runners I’ve previously met but also had the opportunity to meet and run with lots of new and exciting runners. 

Below is my full race list for 2015

  • Vigo 10
  • Brands Hatch Half
  • Ranscombe Challenge Day 1
  • Ranscombe Challenge Day 2
  • Virtual Runner March 10km
  • SDW50
  • Darent Valley 10k
  • Thames Path 100
  • Medway 10k
  • Bewl 15
  • Great London Swim
  • Westminster Mile
  • Kent Roadrunner Marathon
  • Twilight Ultra
  • Virtual Runner June 10k
  • CCC*
  • Ranscombe Challenge Day 1
  • Saltmarsh Day 1
  • Saltmarsh Day 2
  • Poppy Challenge
  • Thames Meander Marathon
  • Greenwich Movember 10k
  • Saintelyon

*Timed Out

The future: Now the focus is on my plans for 2016 – I’m already booked in for Country to Capital (with EmLa) then I’m going to try and defer my place for TransGC to 2017 in favour of The Green Man Ultra over in Bristol before I step things up a gear with the second running of the Skye Ultra Trail in May.

I suppose though that next year is all about my entry to the Leeds – Liverpool Canal 130 (if I get a place), this will be my toughest challenge to date and will be the furthest I have ever run. If I don’t get a place though I will finally go and run The Ridgeway with the TRA. Sadly I won’t have room for my regular marathon next year either (Kent Roadrunner) and I’m a little sad about this but you can’t keep doing the same race over and over again.

For the end of the year I’ll be looking at the ultra distance for the Haria Extreme in Lanzarote and if time allows I’d love to go back to Lyon and rerun the SainteLyon but that might have to wait until 2017!

What about you? So how about everyone else’s 2015? Did it go well? Did you avoid injury? Did you achieve thousands of PBs or did you focus all your energies into Parkruns? What plans do you have for 2016? What races should I consider adding to my calendar?

I’m still a pretty rubbish runner but once in a while you feel like you’ve done everything just about bob-on and the planets align to make magic happen – for me, this is what must have occurred during the SainteLyon. Be aware, though the race was at the shorter end of the ultra distances, this report is not.

A French Classic?

The Saintelyon has been a long distance endurance event and in its current form the solo assault is about 72km give or take a few metres (yep it’s French so we’ll be fully metric here too) and covers the road and trails between St. Etienne and Lyon. Excited yet? No? Understandable. What if I tell you it starts at midnight in the middle of winter? That you’re surrounded by the best French runners around and that you will follow a trail illuminated by your fellow competitors? You’ll be surrounded by the people of France supporting the race almost every inch of the way? At 4am in the morning all you’ll hear are the sound of cow bells and the smell of wood burning fires as you pass through unofficial supporting posts? Does this get you excited?

This is a race for runners, trail runners, hill runners, night time runners, this is a race for those who want to test their mettle over a hideously wonderful course that takes bit fat chunks out of you if you switch off for even one second. This is a race made for everyone and if my experience doesn’t convince you, well, you’ve got no soul and that’s just fact*

Pre-race timeline 

  • Apr: Enter 72km solo entry
  • Apr: Book accommodation
  • May: Book flights
  • May: Improve your French
  • Sept: Find other English speakers
  • Dec: Shit yourself
  • Dec: Run like you’ve got wind

My journey to the SainteLyon

I first came across the SainteLyon about 15 months ago when Cat Simpson mentioned it (I think). I tried to enter that day but to no avail and so from my armchair in sunny Kent I watch the competitors race out last December and then I waited. It would be some five months before entries for the race opened and I was checking regularly (daily) and when it did open for entry I was one of the first in line – hence my rather low bib number.

Launch forward several months and I found myself stood at Heathrow airport wondering what kind of madness I had let myself in for. I’d be running pretty well for the 8 or so weeks before – I’d taken part in the Saltmarsh 75, Thames Meander Marathon, Ranscombe Challenge, Poppy Challenge and Greenwich Movember Race – all setting me up for my French adventure. In the back of my mind was the nagging doubt about my ability given what had happened at the CCC but as I arrived into Lyon I put this to the back of my mind and focused on the task at hand.

Transport in Lyon is simple, from the airport I sauntered down to the city on the Rhonexpress (return €24, 30 minutes) and then picked up the single tram ticket to my accommodation. I was staying about 10 minutes from the centre of town and this proved a decent choice for access to the bib collection and also the finish line. I used AirBnB for apartment hire, got a cat thrown in for free and after dropping my bags off I headed straight out to ‘Halle Tony Garnier’. It was a 40 minute walk and I wanted to get a feel for Lyon by night and this seemed as good a place as any to start.

It was here that the problems started, I entered the hall to collect my bib and the realisation of what I had done hit me – I had forgotten my passport – the only identification I had and the only identification that would suffice. Feeling a little silly I spoke with one of the crew who advised me that I would need to return with my passport to get my number but that they were closing within the hour and that I would probably be best returning in the morning. I made the decision to have a look round the small but rather interesting ‘race village’ collected a few leaflets for races I’d never heard of, took some photographs near the finish line and then ambled back to my apartment to have a bite to eat and a restless night of sleeping.

I woke up the following morning about 6am and started to prepare my race bag and the foody delights that would power me between St Etienne and Lyon. But the main reason I was up early and bright was because at 10am I wanted to be waiting for the doors to open and for me to be collecting my bib.

I rocked up about 9.30am with a pain au chocolat and a hot café au lait in my hands and proceeded to wait with the other runners until the gates to the hall opened wide and I descended quickly upon the Saintelyon crew.

The interesting thing that was holding up most of the runners though was not the queue, no, it was the body and bag search. Recent horrific events in Paris had made this event clearly more conscious of security and we were all made to go through the same quite extensive but understandable search.

The challenge was now to get my number as quickly as possible and then head off for some well earned rest. Funnily though my plans took an unexpected turn and in a very pleasant way. I had grabbed my number and race pack with the aid of some very poor French on my part and some decent English on the part of the SainteLyon crew (though I didn’t get a little hat, much to my dismay). I did however manage to get some excellent looking beers as Christmas gifts and information about lots of beautiful looking trail races across Europe.

At this point the race village was starting to bubble over with people and my early morning jaunt have achieved all I had intended it to (including the purchase of a very nice SainteLyon jumper). So by 11.00am I was on my out of the hall and making an immediate beeline for a runner I had met via Twitter just a few short months ago.


@Kemptonslim
Sometimes you are really lucky and you meet people who make the day just that little bit better and altogether more awesome @kemptonslim is one those. It would be fair to say that the SainteLyon attracts most of its entrants from mainland Europe and more specifically – France. Most people there understood enough English for me to get by with but having a native English speaker really made the hours of race day fly by much more easily than they might have.

We hung out together for a little while and managed to grab some awesome Calzone from an overworked Frenchman and we avoided the giant Churros (though I did contemplate sneaking back for one) and soon we headed off to our respective abodes with the suggestion we would catch up later.

I returned to my apartment and finished getting ready – shower, pack, feed and water the cat (yep I had feline company in my apartment). For the purpose of staying cool I managed to watch a couple of episodes of classic BBC comedy ‘Bottom’ but as time eroded I knew I needed to head out.

I waved the cat goodbye and headed to the finish line. The whole area around the SainteLyon was awash with a manic buzz, it was a brilliant spectacle and supremely well organised. I managed to get on a very comfy bus (€13) laid on by the organisers which took us up to St. Etienne, here I managed to grab about half an hours sleep here but it was only an hour or so in total to St. Etienne and I arrived feeling lightly refreshed but keen to relax further in the hours pre-race.

It was at this point that the only blight came to the race. We were all frisked by security as we entered the second race centre but the gentleman who went on to examine my bag was rough and took apart my well prepared race pack. He threw me accusatory glances as he searched for sharp implements that I just didn’t have. His English like my French was poor and so eventually after pulling everything out he gave up and let me in. I suppose it was unsurprising that they were being rigorous but it wasn’t handled well.

Thankfully this was a minor thing and understandable given all France has suffered recently, However, now free of security I headed to the main hall and took up position on the floor, grabbing some space and using what few items I had with me to act as a cushion.

It was weird watching runners setting up picnics and effectively camp in the main hall. It was a proper spectacle. I managed to get hold of tea and cakes too and this gave me a pleasant boost but not as much as my reuniting with @Kemptonslim.

For the next few hours we chewed the fat about our lives, our races and the mystery of why looking into the ceiling lights might well be like looking into the face of God. We also met Darius and Steve (names may be wrong) – both English ultra runners and triathletes/duathletes who had come to France looking for a glorious challenge. All in all this was a good few hours and the lesson is that having someone with you is invaluable in a race like this.

© SainteLyon 2015

However, all the pre-race fun was now over. The relay racers had left and it was the time of the solo entrants. We meandered our way out of the hall – stopping only at an unofficial  toilet point (or fence) and then went and lined up. The line-up was a joyous experience, it was filled good quality music and we jigged to Daft Punk and Euro Pop, it was filled with an electrifying charge from the runners and it was filled with light. There were thousands of runners but it didn’t feel crowded, it didn’t have that horrible crush feeling that I experienced at the CCC. We paused for a minutes applause in honour of the people who had been killed in Paris and then we hugged and kissed our fellow competitors – this was a special moment, this was going to be a special race.

The countdown was now on, I loaded up the map on my Suunto and started to have a bit more of a jig to the music that surrounded us and then we were off.

The light from the head torches of all the runners was the most stunning start to any race that I have ever taken part in. It wasn’t the quickest start as I believe it was staggered a little to let people get some movement between each other and this meant that when I passed the start line at 12.04am I had room to move and room to run.

@Kemptonslim and I had a very similar strategy for running which was to start slow and then start picking people off as we got further into the race. We also had never seen the course before and therefore didn’t want to waste our energy committing to running sections that we would regret later. Therefore we both used the hills as fast walking sections and the flats/downhills for running. What I surprised about was how fast I was managing to walk the hills in the early sections.

The first checkpoint was located about 10 miles in and was after several steep ascents – the actual climb wasn’t that much overall, not when you consider a mountain run but the up and down nature of the first section combined with the dark and your zest to get going this was a dangerous time in the race. However, conditions were good and @KemptonSlim and I kept each other under control and stopped one another racing away or getting carried along by the waves of euphoria that swept over us.

Despite the course toughness I confess that I fell into an immediate love with it. The crowds that lined the streets and the general party atmosphere had put me in a very good mood as I raced on. My only gripe was my own fault and that was I had managed to fill my bladder with fizzy water and this tasted pretty crappy.

When you’ve done something like this you need to make a decision. Do I a) drink the water and potentially make myself sick or do I b) not drink the water and potential dehydrate myself before CP1? The answer was somewhere in between – the fizziness of the water was making me feel sick and rather burpy so I decided I would sip a little but wash my mouth out with the fizzy water until mile 10 when I would dump the remainder of my bladder and fill up with fresh flat water.

The first 10km were slow going as the hills were mainly on tarmac and I knew that my glutes would thank me later for taking this in a more sedate manner. Many of the other runners were streaking ahead but it seemed that this was a strategy that I could overturn later in the race and make up ground.

I found myself occasionally stopping and turning regularly, especially on the hills as I could look back over the expanses and the wide open spaces and see the procession of lights behind me – it was a truly awesome sight, but there was more to the first 10km than this. We passed through a number of small and delightful picturesque towns (despite the dark) and admired both the gleaming lights and also the brilliant support.

One of the killer things for the first 10 miles was the challenge of the floor below the runners, although conditions were pretty much perfect the ground was filled with loose rocks, mud, roots and leaves – the path was also wide enough generally to have easy over taking but this came with the risk of those hidden roots and rocks and on several occasions I saw runners tumble in front of me.

You knew you were in a race that was not going to be taking any prisoners.

Within a couple of hours despite the hills both I and @Kemptonslim had made the first checkpoint unharmed and raring to go. I changed my water and ate some of the delicious fruit pastilles but it would be fair to say that the checkpoints were a little bit chaotic. The crews were doing their best and cannot be faulted but there were so many runners attempting to get through that it needed a little more organisation. The other thing was that the cola on offer was Pepsi Max – yes that’s right sugar free, calorie free, taste free cola. Lots of the runners were disgruntled by this but with little other option we drank it by the gallon.

Despite the crush at the checkpoint we managed to get out of the checkpoint within about six or seven minutes. Not bad really and at this point we learnt something very important – we would be very cold when we left checkpoints. I’ll stop here briefly to mention my kit choices for the race, which were similar to normal but focused on the specific conditions I would be facing.

Kit?

  • 1 x Ronhill long sleeved fluorescent orange top
  • 1 x recycled eco green run shirt
  • 1 x OMM arm warmers
  • 2 x Buff, 1 x Salomon XT Wings gloves
  • 1  x pair Injinji liner socks
  • 1 x  pair Drymax heavy socks
  • 1 x dirty girl gaiters
  • 1 x pair Compressport calf guards
  • 1 x pair 0.5 OMM flash tights
  • 1 x Salmon  exo compression tights

The kit now came into its own post CP1. For much of the first 10 miles I had my arm warmers rolled down, my sleeves rolled up and my gloves in my race vest. I hadn’t raced like most of the runners who had deemed it a requirements to be wearing waterproofs and/or windproofs combined with long leggings. What I needed in terms of warmth was to not feel the cold as I left a checkpoint … as we stepped outside I moved my neck buff round my mouth, put gloves on, rolled arm warmers up and sleeves down. I only needed to do this for a few minutes before I had to strip down again but it was worth it as it kept me focused and gave me an idea of what I had to do at the end of each CP visit.

Section 2, 3 and 4  of the race brought with it the fun of the SainteLyon. Here the trails became harder, more diffciult to negotiate and surprisingly, even steeper. You were starting to get tired too and so it made it even more important that you took care. Both @Kemptonslim and I agreed that actually the fastest progress was likely to be that which took a little longer and a little more care.

The atmosphere for the runners was a strange one, one that I have very really experienced and that was very much that it didn’t matter where in the race you were you were still racing and that feeling was very special.

Upon reaching the high point of the course we stopped and looked out across France and marvelled at the little orange lights twinkling in the distance. It was a one of those nice moments that ultra running brings and it was punctured only by the other runners going past.

It was now probably around 4am and lots of distance had been covered but there was more to go and the course remained unrelenting and even with a chirpy nature all the competitors were feeling the toll on their bodies. However, such was the magnificence of the course and the supporters on the route that in the distance I could see a fire burning and the sound of a man beating his cow bells for all he was worth – this was just the lift you needed. The video is currently available over on Instagram (search UltraBoyRuns or Saintelyon2015).

Sometime around here I also came across a lovely Moroccan runner who when he discovered I was originally from Liverpool started referring to me as ‘We Never Walk Alone’, given that this was the name of the event my own father put together last year this seemed appropriate and brought a smile to my face.

As the miles pushed on I can say that they go no easier and actually the down hills that we were facing were just as hard as the uphill and I saw more than one runner lose their footing and take a face plant into the dirt. Moving at speed was a dangerous game but both @Kemptonslim and I saw our opportunity to move up the field. We were no progressing faster than the runners around us and periodically we’d even take on the pace of some of the relay runners to give us a boost in our quest for a decent time. My running buddy and I were now taking greater and greater risks as we ploughed through the down and kicked on through the up – we both quietly were thinking that we might be on for sub10hrs.

All we felt we now had to do was continue in this form until we hit daylight and that would refresh us.

7.30am and daylight
Daylight was an awesome sight – we watched it arrive through the vines of a vineyard – a French vineyard, how cultured we felt! But now it was head torches off and we arrived into the penultimate checkpoint 20km(ish) from home. We stopped here for a bit of chicken soup and slightly more time than I would have liked but I was feeling it and I spoke to my excellent and clearly more energised running partner.

‘I’d leave you behind, ultras are about your own race, not mine’ and it was a genuine thing I said as I intended to cut him loose so he could get the best possible time. However, we stayed together for another couple of kilometres out of the checkpoint when I finally admitted defeat on the tarmac and said ‘you really have to go on’. We shook hands and he was gone – I hoped I’d see him at the finish.

What this did was allow me a few minutes to have a little bit of a meltdown. I needed about 20 minutes to compose myself for the final 15km and in this time I watched dozens of runners go past me and each one that went past filled me with a sense of fury. I had worked really hard to get past these runners and now they were taking advantage of my mental fragility.

But then I picked myself up, I reminded myself that the road would come to an end and I might manage to hit some trails again but regardless of what I was running on I was going to be running. Boom. I hit my stride and for the first time in about 2hrs I felt strong again, I’d eaten some Reeces Cups, Biltong and had as much water as I could stomach – I was back in business.

I felt like I was thundering along as I came into the final checkpoint, I wasn’t really but I now had the bit between my teeth and I was determined to make up the ground I had lost. The final checkpoint allowed me the opportunity to properly fuel and rather than take the easy option and sit down for 20 minutes I powered on.

The next 5km were great and fun trails and with light now breaking the day open I was able to hurl myself down the trails in an effort to catch those who had passed me

My tenacity was showing its prowess and all things I had worked so hard on were coming to the fore. I was determined that I would have nothing left in the tank when I crossed the finish line. The next 5km passed in a blur, only one small accident occurred as I pressed hard on the downward trail and looked to have fallen over a sheer  drop – thankfully I grabbed hold of a tree and righted myself before continuing my downward run to my doom – and I still attached to the trail.

In the distance as the trails slowly started to come to their conclusion and there was a super fast down that I was able to look forward and heard myself give a little ‘oh shit’. It seemed the final 5km would be the final killer and ahead of me I could see runners who had moved into trudge mode, the death march but that was not to be my fate. I powered up the hill and continued to pass my fellow competitors – I was no longer being passed by anyone.

I felt like crying

My feet felt good as I reached the summit of Lyon, I was at the top of a long set of steps and I suddenly felt like Gene Kelly and I flew down them like Debbie Reynolds was awaiting me at the bottom. I could now see the Musee des Confluences, I was so close. I reached the bottom of the steps and we were sent away from the finish line and down to the River Rhone, then back up, then beyond the museum and then into the home straight and across the Pont Raymond Barre. At the 200metre mark I began my sprint home, as is often my want, I aim to give something to back to those that have come out and supported and I disappointed nobody, not even myself as I raced to the finish and watched the numbers tumble before me. 100metres, 75metres … I could see the signs disappear behind me and then the hall opened up before me. I’d be lying if I said I could remember anything about it all I know is that I recall saying to myself ‘both feet off the floor UltraBoy’ and I made it happen.

I crossed the line at pace and cried. I’d done it.

Conclusion
This is the best race I have ever had the honour to compete in. The organisation was exceptional, the course was exceptional, the night start was exceptional, the time of year was inspired  – this has something for everyone. Obviously its not perfect, what race is? But there was a magical charm about this event that I’ve been struggling to find recently. Perhaps the best thing I can say about the SainteLyon is that it reminded me of how I felt the first time I started an ultra at the White Cliffs 50 – it was all so unknown. SainteLyon you made me feel fresh and alive and that’s a great gift you give to runners.

I suppose the big question is ‘would I go back?’ and the answer without hesitation is ‘YES’, possibly even next year – depending on when the Haria Extreme in Lanzarote takes place. However, if I don’t return next year then I will be back soon as this was so good and so much fun.

There are no limits to how highly I recommend this beautiful and yet tough old bastard of a race. One for your list I hope!

Special Mention
Special mentions must go to Jon – @Kemptonslim who provided both inspiration and excellent company in equal measure. I’m sure I would have gotten round without him but I don’t think I’d have had as much fun. I look forward to the opportunity to run on some course with him again.

Technical

  • The course was well marked and directions were not an issue
  • Pre-race information was excellent but you needed to translate it
  • Food was pretty good but there needs to be a better way of dealing with the checkpoint chaos
  • Water refilling stations – there were not enough of them, this meant that the stop at Checkpoint 2 took longer than was required
  • The hall spaces at both St Etienne and Lyon were excellent

Important Information

  1. If you’re English then use the French language website and have Google Chrome translate it for you, it’s more up to date and infinitely more useful
  2. Take something to lie on, thermarest or some such for your wait in St. Etienne – it will be transported to the finish.
  3. Forget the medal – there isn’t one, there’s a T-Shirt and it’s awesome.
  4. Remember this is a runners run (although there were a couple of hiking types at the start).
  5. British Airways are cheaper than SleazyJet once you factor in additional transport/baggage/parking by some way

*I don’t believe in souls unless they’re attached to the bottom of my Altra and then they’re soles. 


 

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