Archive

Ultra running


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.


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

Key points

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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.

March started with such promise but ended in a failure from which there seems no escape. Below are the high and lowlights of my March running

  1. More than 200 miles run (mostly race miles)
  2. Completed the Hockley Woods Challenge despite injury early in the event
  3. Completed the outrageously fun Amersham Ultra
  4. Nasty bout of food poisoning gave me a week off running – that’ll teach me for eating slightly mouldy muffins!
  5. Withdrew from the UTBCN at the three-quarter point due to a kit failure in my brand new Petzl head torch
  6. The effect of a race failure caused by things outside of my control has meant I haven’t felt like running at all since
  7. Weight loss was slowed to allow me to eat more in preparation for the three races in March – 0.5kg dropped.
  8. I dumped Petzl in favour of Black Diamond head torches after the UTBCN. Fingers crossed my new choices don’t fail
  9. Kit tested my new Oxsitis Enduro and Ultimate Direction PB 3.0 both of which are outstanding pieces of kit – expect reviews in the coming months
  10. Yesterday UltraBaby told me we had to go for a run! Cool!

So it wasn’t a good March all in all – it’s not a disaster but after several months of geverally forward progress this feels like taking steps backwards and being unsure how to resolve it with a big race on the horizon doesn’t fill with me anything other than trepidation.

ho-hum.

Importantly though, for those that read this and feel I require a ‘man up’ or a ‘go for a run’ then please allow me to spare you those well meaning sentiments – they don’t help. I’ve already had quite a lot of well meaning but ultimately generic help from both real people and social media and actually this is just something you need to resolve yourself, or at least that’s how I need to do it.

I hope everyone else has had good running over the last month and that Apri is awesome too!

IMG_6839When I wrote my first A-Z of running I knew that I had much more to talk about and that for certain letters I probably had dozens of examples, so this is part 2 of my A-Z.

A. Age
I’m 40 later this year and in many ways this doesn’t bother me one iota, I don’t feel the need for a mid-life crisis and it will probably pass much as the previous 39 did – with little or no fan-fare.

There is something with regard to age and running, well for me there is.

In my youth I was a short distance track sprinter, 100 and 200 metres, I was explosively fast but as I entered my later teens and early 20s I drifted from running and didn’t bother much, preferring fast girls and night clubs – I suspect a recurring theme in the adolescent community. However, by my mid 20s I had started to amble back to running, 1 mile, 2 miles, etc until in 2004 I entered the Preston 10km aged 26 and thoroughly enjoyed it. Still though I ambled around this kind of distance for years and didn’t race again. I enjoyed running but never saw it as a way of expressing myself.

Perhaps it took a little maturity and, dare I suggest, age to give me enough perspective to realise that lots of the good things in my life were directly related to running and at the end of 2010 I finally started the journey that I write about now.

Falling in love with running and devoting myself to it at an older age means I’ve always been focused on it (not always the right focus but focused). I moved quickly through the discipline/distances to find the area I most enjoyed – no time wasting (5km to 100 mile ultra in 2.5 years).

Ageing and getting older has also allowed perspective on the nature of achievement and that actually the human body is amazing and that actually our limit is determined by our will. Seeing men and women much older than myself running and often beating me to a finish line is inspirational.

In truth I’d love to go back and teach younger me all the lessons I’ve taken on board over the years so that I could start at a younger age but he wouldn’t listen. The truth, in my opinion, is that age is not a barrier to good running but actually the key.

B. Body image
I wonder how many of us love our body? Probably very few of us are 100% happy but mostly we get by. I’ve always struggled with the idea that I’m fat, now rationally I am aware that I’m not fat, I’m mostly average but mentally, when I catch sight of myself and I see a fat UltraBoy staring back.

Running hasn’t honed my physique particularly and I’m not comfortable in the gym, you won’t catch me weight training but you will see me bench pressing many a mars bar. Undoubtedly I’m my own worst enemy, when I assault the biscuits or crisps or houmous I can hear myself saying ‘hey fatty, how you doin’?’ But I still eat it – I have an unhealthy relationship with food and this makes my body image problems worse. Some of you who know me in real life will have heard me use the term the ‘Compressport diet’ which is not a diet but both a joke and a way of living.

Effectively I eat less and run more in an effort to one day fit into my Compressport top and not look like a totally fat bastard.

I see lots of runners posting on social media platforms about how awesome their weight loss has been and while they should be hugely proud of this I do wonder what the original motivations were – I suppose because I know mine are ultimately down to a huge insecurity in the way I look and I suspect that no matter what weight or shape I achieve I’m always going to struggle.

C. Cycling
Cycling is back on the agenda and I’m fancying a triathlon. Sensible? probably not

D. Direction
I will run the UTMB, I will run the UTMB, I will run the UTMB – then I went and attempted the CCC and thought, this is rubbish.

I believe we need a direction in our running, something to aim for – it could be a new bigger distance, a better time, a new race, weight loss, whatever, but having a driving force makes us better runners.

For a long time the direction was missing from my running and it wasn’t for the want of looking for one. I thought that achieving the start of membership to the 100 marathon club would be an aim, but I found myself put off by those doing things like the 10 in 10, which to me has always seemed like ticking off numbers rather than running great events (though no offence to those that do these intended). Then I finally found the road I’d been looking for and I decided to start going about things the right way and (as I write this in March 2017) I’m directing my energy towards, distance, elevation and tough as fuck events as I aim for my own ultimate challenge in the coming years.

E. Endangered Races
I am bombarded daily with emails, social media and other suggestions for ‘races you might consider’. Running is a multi-billion pound operation from kit, to gym membership, to nutrition, to therapies to the races but there is a saturation point for all of it. For example we’ve recently seen Pearl Izumi pull the plug on it’s well regarded running line because (I suspect) too much competition and, if we are honest, a confused marketing and naming strategy. However, the big issue for me is the amount of races – every weekend there are dozens (if not more) of races all over the country and a limited supply of runners – I’ve turned up to some amazing races to find numbers nowhere near capacity in recent years and while this is great for it not feeling too cramped, it’s doesn’t aid the longevity of events or the atmosphere. Anecdotal evidence points to events such as the Yorkshire Marathon, which sold out very quickly in its first running, still having room for runners looking for a northern marathon.

I’d like to see the major events such as the London Marathon, GNR and other mass participation races offering support by only accepting applicants from those who have run an equivalent distance in the year prior to their application. We should be fostering a culture of running and racing that is sustainable both for participants and for the businesses that run them – something to think about UKA?

F. Facing fears
Do something that terrifies you every single day (words I try to run and live by)

G. GoPro
I know runners with GoPro and action cameras look like tits but I don’t care I find carrying my GoPro Hero4 Session a reliable and efficient way of capturing memories and helping to tell my blog stories after a race. So while it’s not an issue to carry it I shall continue to do so.

H. Holding on (at races)
White Cliffs 50: mile 14, broken foot, lost. The Wall: mile 62, crying, 20 blisters. Saltmarsh 75: mile 35, crying, glutes destroyed. St Peter’s Way: severe chest infection, crying. Mouth to Mouth: undertrained, severe GI distress. Skye Trail Ultra: unfit, undertrained, vomit, GI distress, dozens of blisters

I’d like to think I’m a reasonable fun runner but the reality is I’m actually a terrible runner but with a decent amount of tenacity. The above races are simply a snapshot of the every event occurrences that dog my racing.

The annoying thing is that it doesn’t seem to matter what I do I can’t shake this monkey and it delights in giving me a good kicking in different ways at different races.

Even this year when I’m actually training, running properly, losing weight and preparing for races in an organised fashion I’m still being short changed (as proven by the Hockley Woods dog incident – read about it here). If I believed in luck, fate or karma I’d assume I was being singled out for some special sadistic treatment but I’ve simply come to accept that I’m never going to be a Scott Jurek or Tobias Mews.

What I do know though is that I can hold on when things go wrong (if it’s important enough to me) and maybe that’s my skill.

Not much of a skill is it!?! 🙂

I. Insurance
Is it a great big con or not? I’m not sure but what I do know is that for about £10 per foreign race I can use the Activity top-up service at Sports Cover Direct and it gives the GingaNinja peace of mind for the day when I finally do fall off a mountain.

I suspect we’ve all heard stories of adventurers needing to be rescued and ending up with enormous bills from foreign medical suppliers and nobody wants to get caught in that trap. Ultimately ultra running can be dangerous, at its best it’s an extreme sport and therefore I’d rather be covered than not.

J. Job
I written before about how your job can affect your running. I mean let’s be honest who doesn’t occasionally have a stinker of a day and then let’s off steam by pounding out a few miles pretending each step is on Alex Keith’s face.

My problem in the relationship between work and running is that because the job preys on my mind long after it should and I find it either stops me wanting to run or worse sends me angry running.

I recall an issue of the comic Guardians of the Galaxy from many years ago where the phrase, ‘an angry opponent is a sloppy opponent’ was used in the dialogue and when I’m angry at work it makes my running angry, and worse it makes it sloppy, risky and often just plain stupid. Guardians of the Galaxy were right – but I bet they didn’t know they were talking about me.

I realise this a problem with the subjective nature of my job and my desire to retain some professional dignity occasionally – perhaps if I cared less about the quality of my work then I wouldn’t be so riled when it gets ridden roughshod over.

I often wonder if others share this issue and how it affects them outside of the work environment?

K. Karimmor
In my notebook there’s a list of things I despise; ‘my mother’, ‘the people who voted leave in the EU referendum’, ‘the people who voted for Donald Trump’, ‘the knobhead Donald Trump’, ‘David Cameron’ and ‘Jeremy Corbyn’. However, there is one name missing from that list and it covers a wide area and that name is ‘Karrimor’.

I’d recommend looking up Karrimor who have an incredibly sad story, a high quality British brand that was snapped up by hideous ‘businessman’ Mike Ashley. He turned Karrimor into the cornerstone brand of his Sports Direct empire. Now that name is synonymous with poorly and cheaply made outdoor and running rubbish that because of its huge high street presence lures in unsuspecting runners and erodes the market share of the independent running and outdoor retailers.

Basically if you love running then don’t shop at Sports Direct (or associated brands Sweatshop and Field & Trek) because there are so many better and reasonably priced brands that treat their staff and customers with the respect they deserve.

And if you see someone running, decked out in Karrimor gear can I offer you this advice. Run with them for a few minutes, tell them about kit that will support them, tell them of Run and Become, London City Runner, Up & Running, Decathlon, Wiggle, Likeys, Castleberg Outdoors and Ellis Brigham and then go about your business as normal. And I recommend you do this partly to save me from setting all of their Karrimor kit on fire.

L. Lone Peak 3.0
Since I started running I think I’ve worn pretty much every brand and every style of running shoe – or at lest it feels like that. However, there have been a number of stand out pieces of footwear over the years, my banana yellow Vibram FiveFingers Komodo, my first pair of Adidas Adios, my Inov8 Race Ultra 290 but perhaps most notably the Lone Peak version 3. It’s fair to say that I’ve loved all the Altra Lone Peak that I’ve owned but none had the same comfortably supportive feeling that the LP3.0 – visually they might remind me of an American muscle car but underneath they’re all class. The LP3.0 are a reminder to me that having a trusted shoe can make all the difference in running.

M. Mud
I have a loving relationship and it’s not with who you think it might be – it’s with mud and when you love trail running I believe you’ve got to love mud.

N. Negative thoughts
In both running and not running I can be both up and downbeat, it’s the nature of life but I’m lucky that I rarely hit the extremes of high and low. However, when I’m running I do suffer with negative thinking and it’s something I’ve long been working hard to combat.
Outwardly I’ll say ‘you’ve got to run your own race’, ‘I’m just here for a bimble’, ‘I’m just here for the cake’ or whatever. But I like to do well and I like to push myself to do well.
Recently at the Hockley Woods Challenge I thundered through the first 3 laps believing I was on my way to a four hour hilly, muddy trail marathon (and a bit). Then when I was upended by a dog that came out of nowhere and bowled me over I immediately knew I had done something to my groin in the landing. The problem was I was far enough enough to determine that I should complete it but not far enough to do myself some lasting damage.

The thoughts that rolled round my head for the best part of 30km were a little unkind to myself and the problem is that I’ll carry that self loathing and negativity into the Amersham Ultra if I’m not careful.

Thankfully I’ve been using these negative events to try and double down harder on the elements that have been going well and so even if I can’t see it at the time I try and analyse it shortly after to ensure that the negativity remains short lived.

It’s not ideal but I’ve found a negative mental state to be the ruin of my racing and running, much more so than any physical injury I might ever have picked up.

O. ‘Off’ time
When I started running again I wanted to be like Ron Hill with a 50 year RunStreak behind me but what I found happened was that my body simply wasn’t up to it and as I pushed myself further and further my body eventually gave up.

I’ve learnt the lesson of not resting and have now dropped back from races that I don’t need to do – I’ve dropped out of junk miles and I’ve given myself rest periods across the year to allow more time for my body to heal and to train smarter.

For me, the key elements of my ‘off time’ are that I’ve adopted a ‘no race’ policy for July/August which should stop getting DNFs through excessive chaffing and I’ll cap ultra marathons per year at about a bakers dozen. I’m also varying my daily RunCommute mileage from as little as 5km to as much as 25km and ever the occasional rest day thrown in too.

Off time also gives me greater capacity to spend time with the GingaNinja and UltraBaby and might even allow me the capacity to train for a sprint distance triathlon. Perhaps I’ve come to the conclusion that switching off leads to better switched on!

P. Planning
I’m always in planning mode, 2017 was in the planning stage by the time I’d reached April of 2016. Ultra marathons, especially the very popular ones sell out quickly and you have to be ready to catch them – MIUT was done on the day of release for example – and was sold out 5 days later (or so). I have thankfully only missed out on one of the races I was looking at doing and that was the XNRG Pilgrims Challenge, (which I have now left too late for two years in a row – lesson learned) I’ll be aiming to get there next year.

Planning is essential though for more than booking in races, it’s at the heart of training too. I have been heavily focused on hill work, building my strength with buggy running and gently increasing my distances in preparation for all the elevation I have planned. This is because between the UTBCN, MIUT and SW100 there is around 20,000 metres of climb over 360km – so planning is essential. Knowing the races I’m doing is providing an incentive to train both harder and smarter.

For smart running you should always consider smarter planning – something it has taken me a long time to learn!

Q. Quiet
Stood at the summit of a hill somewhere in rural Kent there was no silence – there was the rush of the wind and the rustle of the leaves shipping around, driving rain pounding my back and my hot deep breath was beating on my ear drums. But I was alone, so very alone – I looked forward to see signs of brightly coloured waterproof jackets but the weather had kept people indoors, warm and toasty. I scanned my surroundings some more and realised I’d found what I was looking for – a little bit of quiet. My breathing slowed, my heart rate dropped and the rain and wind became friends and I just enjoyed a few moments of quiet. I imagined this is what a car feels like in an automated car wash as the mud was hewn from my limbs by the rain, but there were no soapy suds on this hill. My quiet was broken by a sheep creeping up on me but I like to think it was there seeking much the same thing I was and so I vacated my space and gave it to the sheep.

Sometimes I run to find quiet and sometimes I find it.

R. RunCommute
I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the humble RunCommute. When I decided to start running and training for the Grim Challenge all those years ago I knew that running at weekends would never be enough and that I needed to adopt an efficient use of my time – that efficiency was running to and from work. I remember that first time strapping my OMM 25 litre classic pack to my back and running from Regent’s Park to Victoria Station, it was so tough but I felt like a Cram or Ovett.

Until I did it I hadn’t realised just how many people had abandoned or part abandoned public transport and their cars in order, presumably, to improve their fitness.

RunCommuting also brings little cool ‘mini-games’ like Kit Watch, Strava Art, Time Attack, New Route Finder, Race The Bus and a personal favourite The RunCommute PhotoChallenge.

The RunCommute hasn’t always gone to plan and has been at the ground zero of a few injuries over the years but it’s always felt that it has given much more than it’s ever taken and while I probably take it for granted I certainly won’t be found abandoning it.

S. Scotland
Jedburgh, The Fling, The Devil, The WHW, Glencoe, Skye, the Charlie Ramsay, Celtman… Scotland has a lot going for it in running terms and I’m considering a change of location and moving north of the border.

I’ve grown increasingly weary of the English and the whole EU referendum makes me disgusted to be English – I am proudly European, defiantly European even. Now my thought is that if I can’t save my own country, because the level of idiocy has pretty much reached its spunk unloading climax, then perhaps I can help the Scottish people to achieve independence and find a new home in the EU.

The benefits are many, I’d get to live in the countryside, be closer to some of the best trails around and I’d be in a country where the majority want to stay in the EU. In running terms though the race scene looks brutally beautiful and that’s a decent sized consideration for me.

I always thought I’d stay near to London but living in Kent has highlighted with tremendous clarity that the future for England is intolerance and trouble and that taking a punt on Scotland may be the opportunity that I, my family and my running have been looking for.

T. Training
Do you remember training? Training was something I used to do several years ago when I was getting ready for mr first half marathon. Training was something other people did and training was a bit of a waste of my very valuable time. I managed to run nearly 40 marathons/ultra marathons on very limited training over about a 3.5 year period.

Interestingly though I also picked up 3 DNFs, a couple of serious injuries, and any number of smaller injuries and piled on enough weight to consider myself a bit of a fatty. Yes I was doing the RunCommute but I was never committing to longer, more structured, targeted miles, essentially I was coasting and yet still turning up to events wondering why the magic just wasn’t happening.

Since the start of December 2016 I’ve very much been focused on delivering the promises I made to myself and this has required training. I’ve actually been committed to weekly averages of around 40-50 miles, speedwork/fartleks, hills, buggy running and a more co-ordinated approach. However, I remain ‘fluid’ in the way training is achieved and I’m not sure I’ll ever quite be ready for written plans or dogma but at least I’m training properly and I feel fitter than I have done in years.

U. Unirider
If you’re a runner and have a child aged between two and six (size dependent) then the Mountain Buggy Unirider is probably the best piece of kit you can own (reviewed here). My daughter and I are often looking for ways to extend our adventures and this single wheel push along ride is an ideal way for the pair of us to go running round muddy, hilly trails and fast, flat roads! There is something really quite fun about watching UltraBaby scream out in excitement as we bounce across gnarly trail, calling out, ‘faster, faster dad’.

V. Vigo Tough Love
If you want to truly fall in love with trail running then this is the race for you – it has a little bit of everything. A ten mile run through Kentish hills this offers nothing but the opportunity to truly enjoy yourself. Up, down, through mud, through water and across the finish line – it’ll never, ever be a fast course but it is an exceptional course and deserving of the high praise it gets. You can read my review of the 2017 event here.
W. Westminster Mile

I have favourite events and I have preferred distances – the Westminster Mile combines the two. The mile, to me, is one of the great unsung heroes of running. With the mile you can be ball breakingly fast and make your lungs gasp for air and you can feel the exhilaration of a race in just a few short minutes. The Westminster Mile allows for both of these things but adds in drama and atmosphere – it’s a great day out with thousands upon thousands aiming to lay claim to a fast time around the course.

Of course the best thing is that it’s a family event and UltraBaby already has one finish to her name and after a year off will return for the 2017 edition. Highly recommended wherever your age, gender, fitness level or even if you aren’t that interested in running.

Find out more here.

X. Xenophobia
I was recently on one of my longer runs and was briefly joined by another runner who was going in vaguely the same direction as me, he wanted to chat and I was fine to listen. He was telling me about how he had turned to running after a heart attack at 35 and that he had turned his life around. All very noble I thought and then he got into politics and particularly the EU referendum and perhaps it was were we were running or something about me that suggested xenophobic or mildly racist but he decided to espouse his theories about the ‘fucking scroungers from Europe’.

I kept my cool and told him that I had voted remain, and felt more European than ever because of my belief and research that his statement was simply not true at which point he called me a ‘traitor’ and decided to run off in a different direction.

As a tolerant person (to a point), despising only stupidity, a lack of curiosity and my mother this man highlighted why I dislike running in Kent, why I despair about England and why I love running in Europe.

Our friends on the continent (and north of the border) offer such a tremendous welcome to their countries and their races that this is very much now my preference for running (I’ll race in Europe three times in 2017, UTBCN, MIUT and SainteLyon and possibly in Scotland too).

I don’t want to come across people like the man who ran beside me telling a total stranger about his hate filled beliefs – xenophobia and intolerance have no part in my running community. Running should be the most inclusive of all the sports!

Y. Yearly
I think some runners will return to races year on year, perhaps because they really enjoyed it, because it gave them a personal best time or because it’s local.

I did four editions of the Kent Roadrunner because it was local to me but at the fifth and sixth time of asking I’d had enough of running round a cycling track in the heat, I simply wanted more out of my racing.

The only race I return to year on year is the Vigo Valentines Run and this is because that’s a very special race that is never the same twice and brings untold levels of joy to me.
I’m curious about the mindset of those who always have to run London Marathon, Brighton or wherever. I suppose for me there’s now so many great races that you can do a new route, meet new people, take on new challenges almost every time you choose to race.

I don’t really want to be critical of a persons choice to do the same thing over and over but I just wonder why you might limit your experiences?

With nearly 150 different races completed I feel that now and again I can go and revisit my favourites (SainteLyon this year, Skye Trail Ultra next year) but this is only because I’ve already done lots of different races. However, I still go looking for new experiences and this year (so far) all but the Vigo 10 and SainteLyon will be new races to me and I can’t wait to be surprised!

Z. Zippers (UD jacket)
I quite like the Ultimate Direction waterproof jacket but it does have a couple of very serious flaws and the most major one is the really crappy zip – it’s weak, feels like it’s going to break and offers no sense of security. When compared to the zipping mechanism of my 4 year old Montane Minimus there is no comparison – the UD comes a distant second.

So come on UD you’ve improved the Signature Series no end with the PB 3.0 – let’s see you do the same for your waterproof jacket.


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

DCIM100GOPRO

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.

budapest-0991

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.

img_7660

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.

img_7605

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!

img_7611

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.

img_7617

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.

img_7631

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.

img_7638

img_7646

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.

img_7651

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

img_7624

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.

Inadvertent Mooning

Observations from the Grumpy side of ultra running

The Unprofessional Ultra Runner

My attempt to crack some serious challenges in an unserious manner

LifeAthlon

“Life Is An Endurance Event”

rara's rules for living

Swim, bike, run, fun!

An academic in (running) tights

Blogs on education and running: My two passions

"Keep Running Mummy!"

Motherhood, marathons and more

Franky tells it like it is

(Though sometimes it might be wiser to keep my mouth shut- not)

Val's running blog

The trials and tribulations of a Jolly Jogger

be back in a bit, have biscuits ready

I like running, and feel the need to write about it

marathoncomeback

After a short break of 23 years I have registered to run the Melbourne Marathon.

knittysewandsew

Amateur wrangling with sewing machines, wool, fabric and thread. Some baking too!

Medal Magpie

A blog about running and middle distance wind chimes

Memoirs of an Average Runner

Taking it one run at a time.

Tailfish

A Professional Nagger & Problem Solver by day, this blog is about me, my life and the things I enjoy including running, snowboarding and gadgets

runnerbeankate

aspiring middle distance athlete