Went to Leeds, ran 31 yards, DNF’ed, went home again. That’s pretty much what our weekend at God’s Own Backyard Ultra amounted to, but at the same time it was so much more than that! Hours spent on the trail, time in camp catching up with our “backyard family”, seeing many people smash their own goals as the race went on and then finishing as we started – together – made this one of the best events we’ve been to in a long time. So here’s the full story…
After our first time at GOBYU in November 2022, we knew for certain that we’d be back. Iain had the course record of 37 yards to defend, and Julie knew she had more than 27 yards to give. We signed up as soon as entries opened and were looking forwards to ending our 2023 ultra racing season on a high. Both of us had won several ultras already this year, but this would be our first chance to race together – and we both wanted to go out in style. Spoiler alert: we had agreed beforehand that even though there can only be one winner at a Backyard Ultra neither of us was going to race for the win. Our only goal was to go as far as we could together, aiming to be the last two left in the race and then finish together, the only question was how far that would be?
We won’t repeat a detailed overview of the event format and the course – see last year’s race report if you want that. This year we both took Friday off work and after seeing the kids off to school and welcomed the grandparents who would be left in charge for the weekend (and more), we packed and set off for Leeds. We arrived by late afternoon and checked in to the Met Hotel which was just a block away from the train station. We were glad only to be staying here before the race, as the lift was out of service and we had a room on the 5th floor! Time for a final carb-loading meal at Zizzi’s (a favourite of ours as they have an excellent gluten-free selection), last minute shopping trip and then off for an early night by 9pm.
We both slept amazingly well for the night before a race, although we did hear the rain in the night – which more than justified the decision not to be sleeping in a tent! Unfortunately the 6.30am train out to Kirkstall Forge was cancelled, so we had to take a taxi but we still arrived in plenty of time just as dawn broke to the event HQ / campsite at Hunter’s Greave. It was really nice to see many people that we knew from last year’s event or that we had seen around at Orkney, Lionsgate and Golspie BYUs throughout the year. We managed to bag ourselves a decent table at the back of the competitor’s marquee – furthest from the corral, but more importantly close to the hot water urn, kitchen and the toilets! We had loads of time to have a couple of cups of tea, plenty of breakfast (including sausage rolls 😋), collect our numbers and say hello to folk before the 3 whistles sounded at 7.57am and we headed in to the corral for the first time. Funnily enough, we had race numbers 1 & 2 – but it wasn’t a seeding, just that we happened to be the first ones to sign up when entries opened – at least that’s what we were told!
We were still chatting away in the corral when the cowbell rang to signal the start of the race so we hastily started watches and set off onto the course. We had planned to adopt a run-walk strategy, aiming for an average of 12:30min/mile or roughly 52 minutes per yard. This was a couple of minutes slower than last year, but we felt that 8 minutes rest was just about long enough to do everything we needed as we didn’t have our own crew. Since we can both walk pretty fast, this meant that well over half the distance could actually be walked, which is a great way to minimise the impact on your body when planning to go a very long way. Several people commented on our walking speed (usually as we overtook them on the course 🤣) and while we’re sure having long legs does help it is also something that you can train for! Last year, Iain kept having to trot after Julie during the walking segments but this year we were both able to keep up a <15 minute mile walking pace throughout the entire first day and night. We also found that last year being dead set on hitting the exact same pace every mile is counter-productive – not only are some miles more difficult than others, it’s also mentally challenging when you eventually cannot hit your target pace any more. This time, we aimed to bank a faster 12 minute first mile on the canal, and allow for a slower mile or two then make up any time we needed in the last mile, back on the canal path.
This year, the second mile had a couple of obstacles – firstly a fallen tree which had to be climbed or diverted around (via a very muddy field), followed by a major course change as the section of Bramley Falls Park which the trail should have passed through was cordoned off and had been treated to contain an infestation of Japanese Knotweed. Instead, we headed straight up the Leeds and Bradford road for around 2/3 of a mile before entering the park. This was a bit of a blessing in disguise as although it introduced more elevation gain, the section of trail near the “Spaceman” was deep in standing water after the overnight rain and would have been hard going! The third and fourth miles were the same as last year, although the ground was very muddy in places in the park, and being a couple of weeks later in the year there was a lot more fallen leaves and slippery mulch.
It didn’t take us long to settle in to a good rhythm, although Julie was surprised by different niggles starting after only 3 or 4 yards – perhaps 5 weeks since Lon Las Cymru meant she wasn’t 100% recovered. The first day loops passed quickly – there were lots of runners on the course, many dog walkers on the canal path and in the woods, and runners from another local race were also passing by on the final canal section. Before we knew it, 8 yards were done and it was time to switch to the night loops.
Head torches on, we set out on the out-and-back-and-out-and-back night loop. It was still light enough not to need a torch at 4pm, but half an hour later and it was properly dark! We aimed again to average 12:30 min/mile but since every mile is almost flat we were taking it a bit easier on the first mile than we had been during the day. One of the nice features of the night loop is that at each turnaround point you get to see how many runners are still in the race, and how far ahead or behind us they were. As the night hours ticked on we saw the fast front runners gradually drop off the pace and eventually drop out, and runners at the back struggling to make it back within an hour. Several times, runners would make it back to the corral after the final whistle, and either head back out on a doomed final yard, or DNF there and then!
Julie loves night running, which is just as well as Iain’s body likes to go to sleep during the night, so we were able to keep each other going throughout. Neither of us slept at all, although we both took turns shutting our eyes for a few minutes in a chair before returning to the corral to start the next yard. As the number of runners still in the race dwindled, the marquee became emptier and by the early hours of the morning, Iain was able to first commandeer some more comfortable camping chairs, and eventually an entire extra trestle table, which he folded flat and used as a bed!
16 hours of darkness is a long time, but eventually dawn arrived. Despite the (arguably) easier course change, and the relatively benign weather (no all-night fog, little rain, and mild temperature), only 10 runners were left at the 24-hour mark. Having said that, everyone was still looking strong, and it definitely seemed like the race had the potential to go on for a while. We managed the shift back on to the day loop pretty well – this was something that Julie had struggled with last year – going a little bit faster in the first mile to allow for slower second and third miles over the hillier and trail-y parts of the course. After the usual night of gels and energy drink, Iain’s stomach had woken back up, and there were pork pies for breakfast, and porridge for Julie!
Perhaps unsurprisingly, a few more runners dropped after completing their 24-hour, 100 miles effort and by the 26th yard there were only six of us left in, all veterans from the previous year: Eleanor, Craig, George, Luke (last year’s assist) and the two of us. Craig dropped after yard 27 (looked like he’d taken a tumble somewhere on course), leaving the final five. George was having a great race, having at long last pushed past 24 hours and was looking strong. Eleanor after having a wobble on one of the first loops on day 2 was approaching a personal best, and Luke was (as usual) trundling round at the back of the field looking like he would keep running for days! We tried our best to ignore what everyone else was doing and kept banging out 52-ish minute loops. We reminded ourselves that in the backyard it doesn’t matter how far in front or behind you are of anyone else… you just need to make sure you finish the loop with enough time to take care of yourself, and keep doing that until everyone else stops!
On yard 29 things started to get interesting! Eleanor and Luke had generally been behind us for a few yards now, but George had been out in front and on this yard we left them all far behind as we pushed on up the hill on mile two. We didn’t see anyone behind us at any point during the rest of the loop, and just before the end one of the marshals said something about the others being picked up in a car and us being the the last 2 runners! We got back the corral to find Luke and Eleanor had indeed bailed out mid-loop but George was still out on the course. When the one-minute whistle blew we went to the corral and suddenly George came sprinting down the course and made it back with a few seconds to spare. His Dad thrust a fresh bottle of drink into his hands, a bit of food and he sprinted off again to start yard 30 😱
Not really sure what to make of this, we just kept to our pacing plan and sure enough we caught up with him part way up the hill in the park. We made it back to camp in about 52 minutes again, and this time George was back with a bit more time to spare. The three of us set off again on yard 31, but just around the first corner, George stopped, shook hands with us and headed back to DNF – we had made it to the final two, just as we had hoped and planned!
By the time we got off the canal path and started up the hill, we had made our minds up – we already knew that we were going to DNF together but decided we were going to complete this one and final lap. Just like a normal Backyard Ultra finish, we’d do one more lap than the next person and that would be the end of the race. Both of us definitely had the legs to keep going longer – much longer if it had been needed – but were both completely content to wrap up the race there and then. We enjoyed the final lap so much we were actually a little bit faster, even running the whole of the final tarmac section down in to the corral where we had a big hug and announced that we were both Refusing To Continue and the race would end with no winner at 31 yards!
It’s always a bit of a funny anti-climax at the end of a BYU as most of the runners have packed up and gone home. Luke, Eleanor and George were still around, along with crews, the marshals, medical support and the organisers so we had a nice little crowd for the presentation of our Yorkshire goody bags – including (rightly), a pair of DNF mugs! There had been a lot of speculation about whether we would race for the win, or how long we would go on for – so it was quite fun to be able to spring a double-DNF surprise – and we think most people agreed it was a fitting end to the race 😄
We both had Monday and Tuesday off work, and no return travel booked as we had been prepared to run as long as it had taken to outlast everyone else. As a result, we didn’t have to rush home that night – we had the luxury of a takeaway dinner, 12 hours sleep in a hastily-booked Travelodge, and an all-you-can-eat breakfast before taking the train back home on Monday, followed by a day of unpacking and recovering on Tuesday. A perfect end to a perfect long weekend!
It’s true of every ultra race, but GOBYU more than most is simply an amazing community of like-minded people. We have absolutely found our “tribe” and loved every minute of our time with you all (even Darren 😜). Thanks to everyone involved in putting on and taking part in the event, you make it what it is and although we don’t think we can make it back next year we’ll be watching with interest and are sure it will continue to go from strength to strength. If you’ve never tried a Backyard Ultra before be sure to keep your eyes peeled for when entries open – you won’t regret it!
Thanks to everyone who took photos and shared them to the GOBYU Facebook group, we’ve used many of them here!
Orkney Backyard Ultra was my third big race of the year and I had deliberately taken it easy since Ultra Scotland 100 four weeks before. This felt quite strange and left me nervous that I wasn’t doing enough, but was definitely the correct approach for me as my final two runs felt great and I felt strong on the day. We were combining OBYU with our family holiday so lots of planning was needed for the race combined with a week’s camping for 6 and a dog! But all was squeezed into the car and trailer and we set off early Friday morning for the 4hr+ drive to Scrabster for the ferry. We were a little early but everyone was quite happy waiting in the car as the sun was shining. The bonus of having the trailer was we went in the large vehicle queue which meant we loaded first (and unloaded first at the other end). The ferry was all straightforward and we spent some time outside on deck and then the rest of the crossing in the dog lounge! We met a couple of others travelling for the race and I began to get a little nervous. The crossing is less than 2 hours so we soon arrived at Orkney and drove straight up to the race field on Twatt Farm with only one small detour when we missed the turning in Twatt!
We arrived late afternoon as the course was being set up and a few others had already arrived. Sarah, the race organiser, was really helpful and we found where we could camp and soon had the tent up and car & trailer unloaded. I was getting quite nervous now as you can see the route from the camping field and it looked like quite a big hill! We sorted tea – pasta, tomato sauce and cheese with apple pies for pudding and then took the dog for a leg stretch. The kids were happy to be out of the car as well! The portaloos deserve a special mention as they were an eclectic mix of what was locally available. The children were particularly horrified by McLoo and his interesting door fastenings!
I had two aims this race, the first was to believe in myself and not let the self doubt monsters take hold and the second was to win (or come as close to winning as I could). I intended to keep starting every lap until I timed out or won and I wanted to do it in as positive a way as I could. Too often my races are affected by doubting myself and questioning my ability and I really wanted this race to be different.
The weather forecast for Saturday was surprisingly warm (and windy) so I planned to start in a vest top and skort and then adjust my top layers as necessary. I wore a buff on my head when the sun was high and there was no cloud, and loads of sun cream was needed. The race didn’t start until midday so we planned to get up and have breakfast and then Iain took the kids and dog for a walk so I could get a couple of hours to myself. I slept surprisingly well on the Friday night considering we were in a tent and got up feeling ready to go. While Iain was away I managed another hour’s nap and then got up and registered picking up my goody bag of local treats, t-shirt, and buff. I also got my race number (no. 8).
By the race briefing at 11.45 I was more than ready to start – it had felt like a long morning and I was desperate to get going and get the first few laps under my belt. The 3 minute whistle was blown at 11.57 and we were in the corral ready to go. At exactly midday the tractor horns sounded and we were on our way, everybody with their own strategies, plans and goals. It was also great to see a nearly equal mix of male and female runners, a pleasant change from most of the races I have done where there are only a handful of women compared to the men.
My plan from the outset was to average 12 minute miles for the lap. With the elevation of the course this meant the first two uphill miles were slightly slower and the last two quicker. The route itself is an out and back. You start by running to the bottom of the field, along the bottom fence back up the side of the field and then down again to the gate in the corner. The field had a few inches of stubble in it and was fine for running although I think a few people were finding it hard on later laps when feet were sore. Once out of the field gate you turned back on yourself to head back up a farm track. This had two deep tracks that were quite stoney and a slightly grassier middle section for about half a mile, just before the track improved and became steeper there was a very overgrown section where it was tricky to see where you were placing your feet (this did get easier in the later laps when it was more trampled down). The track then becomes less rutted and hard packed for a shortish steep section to “abandoned car corner”. A right hand turn here, a more gentle incline and the one mile point. The track continues for a short way before another right turn onto a dead end road. This road passes a few houses and several fields of cows that were very inquisitive and fun to watch / have a chat with! This road is a gentle undulating uphill to the turn around point around a milk churn at the end of the road. Just before this point is the party caravan where amazing volunteers were there to give a morale boost, great music and some fun dancing! There was also water for those that needed. The second half was a reverse of the first. I found I was able to walk most of the ups, run/walk the road to the turn around point and then run back down the road until the turn off onto the farm track. I then tended to run the hardpacked top section of track before walking most of the rutted lower section. I ran the downs in the field and walked the ups. This strategy enabled me to keep to between 49 and 51 minute loops for nearly every lap (a couple were nearer 52 minutes).
Iain and the kids were an amazing crew and Iain was always waiting at the field gate to find out if I had any particular requests for food and drink. He would then nip back across to the tent to get everything ready while I ran the rest of the yard around the field. There was always a lovely welcome as we runners headed back up to the start/finish line and then headed to our individual crews. The first few laps were busy with some fast and some slower runners but the course doesn’t have any bottlenecks so everyone can just do their own thing. During the event I consumed lots of beans and sausages, banana and custard, crisps and sweets, and cups of tea and coke were my go to drinks. I was also making sure to lie down between laps whenever possible and stretch out my legs. The 3 minute whistle would soon sound and by the last whistle I would be ready in the coral. The tractor horns sounded on the hour and we would be off on the next lap. I soon settled into the rhythm of the event and although I enjoyed a few short chats with other runners I made sure to keep to my own pacings and do my own thing. The Saturday afternoon very much felt like I was just getting it done ready for the race to really get started over night and into the next morning. There were a few laps that felt a bit boring but overall I was really enjoying myself and started and finished every lap with a smile on my face. It was too hot for my ideal and I was looking forward to the night and it cooling down!
The sun sets late on Orkney in July and we didn’t need head torches until very late in the evening. It was an amazing sunset and I loved seeing the sun set over the sea as we headed up the hill to the top road. It was stunning! It got windy as you headed up the hill and along the top path. This didn’t really bother me too much but I know some of the other runners weren’t enjoying the wind at all. The night soon passed with only 4 or 5 hours that were actually dark, some runners didn’t even use head torches. I used a head torch as I don’t have great depth perception in the dark and didn’t want to fall over. Into the evening and night it was great to see many runners really pushing themselves and reaching new distance PBs. The field was gradually thinning out and in fact by morning there were a lot fewer runners left than I expected. I was still really enjoying myself and feeling really strong, eating well and drinking plenty. In fact I probably drank too much through the night as I was needing to pee a lot in the morning! I need to give another shout out to the party caravan who were an amazing boost through the night and in fact on every lap.
By the 17th loop there were only 5 of us left running which was a surprise, Ella Corrick had finished 2nd female on 16 yards so it was me and 4 men left in the race. I was pleased to be the last female but also still very confident I could win and most importantly of all was still enjoying myself. I remember saying to the men in the coral that it was now down to me to win it for the girls! Adam “Tango” Holland completed lap 17 and then turned back on loop 18 – we were down to 4 and still a good few laps away from the 24 hour milestone. Martin Gordon turned back at the start of loop 19 and then we were down to 3 runners. The course was now really quiet which was strange, but we had had a nice sunrise and I was still enjoying every lap. The cows were still entertaining me and good for a chat 🤪 Iain and the kids were still keeping me well fuelled and hydrated and all was good. Don’t get me wrong, I was tired and the legs were feeling the miles but I was definitely still having fun and enjoying myself. I had short chats with Mark and Allan during the next few laps but this was now getting serious and I was determined to win so I stuck with my pacing plan and stayed focussed at the task at hand. Mark was doing amazingly and reached his first ever 100 miles at midday and then stopped – we were down to two. I knew Allan was a strong runner and had previously run 31 yards so I was fully expecting and mentally prepared to run into the high 30s of yards. I was slightly nervous as we ran through the afternoon as it was becoming harder work to stick to me lap pacing. But I was still managing it and decided the best strategy was to keep running at the same pacing with a smile on my face and hope that Allan would decide to stop sooner rather than later! By lap 29 my I was beginning to develop shin splints which I was a bit concerned about but I still wanted to stick to my pacing for a few more laps so I walked some of the rougher down hills and made up the time on the top road. This meant the overall lap time was still much the same and I was still smiling.
I have to give a big shout out to the amazing couple who lived on the top road and started coming out on the Sunday morning to give us a cheer each lap. This was amazing and gave me such a boost each lap. I would look forward to seeing them as I came up the hill and then would look out for them as I ran along the top road. Every hour they stopped what they were doing and came to cheer three (and then two) crazy runners on as we pushed to see what we were capable of. Thank you it really helped make a fun event even more special.
When you are down to two runners I discovered it becomes more of a mental as well as physical challenge. The unknown of how long you will be running for is really strange and makes it an guessing game as to whether you should slow down or stick to the same pacing. I was sure we would run to at least 32 yards as I felt certain Allan would be working towards a new PB. So when we started lap 31 and Allan stopped, shook my hand and said that was him done I couldn’t quite believe it. And then the final lap was the strangest of all! I was really worried I was going to do something silly and time out or fall over or somehow mess it up in the final lap! I was also an emotional mess – Iain was at the gate as I ran round the field and I was crying my eyes out shouting at him how much I loved him and the kids. I then had a final run up the hill and passed the lovely couple who had saucepan lids to bang itncelebration of my final lap. It was really special, although the horse in the field opposite wasn’t as impressed! A final thank you to the party caravan and I even stopped for a quick drink (the first time in the race) and then back on down to the field and the finish line. By the time I reached the finish line I was slightly more composed!
It was lovely to run back into the field on the final lap with everyone clapping and cheering (even with it having started to rain). A run over the finish line and I had done it, I had won Orkney Back yard Ultra with 31 yards. I got a fantastic horn trophy and a bottle of gin and a big hug with Iain and the kids. It was a truly fantastic well run event. A huge thanks to Sarah and the team for making it all happen. To Allan as the assist for a great race and to all the other amazing runners and crews – you were all amazing.
It was my favourite race to date and I enjoyed (nearly) every minute of it. I don’t think I have ever smiled so much during a race! Things I learnt from this race and will take forward into future races:
enjoying yourself makes everything feel easier
pacing is really important
smiling makes everything more fun
celebrating other runners successes makes the whole run more enjoyable
eat and drink every lap. But not too much fluid through the night!
Foods that worked for me included:
Hula hoops, baby bels, banana and custard, Kellogg squares, beans and sausages, shrimp and banana sweets and KMC gels. Actually I seem to be quite lucky and can eat most things as long as they are gluten free! As for how much I just ate something at the end of each lap and didn’t worry at all about number of calories etc – it worked for me!
I wore my Flanci shorts again and found them really comfy the whole race (as always), I also always wear Runderwear which I find very comfy and I wore Hoka Torrent 2 shoes which I have been wearing more and more for longer runs.
I did get mild shin splints but I think this was mainly down to not running enough hilly trails in preparation (something I will be working on this winter). It was a week later that I went for my first 5k and one ankle was still slightly sore but was ok to run on. I then had a couple of quiet weeks before getting back into a training block mid August when the kids went back to school. I find running during the school holidays really tricky so always planned a quiet few weeks. I only had a few small blisters that soon sorted themselves out. All in all my recovery was straight forward. My only thing to note is planning a family camping trip the week after a big race isn’t the best idea – sleeping on the floor with just a bed roll was not the best!
Some photos by event photographer Peter Fay – thanks!
We first met father and son combo Allan and George Parkin at God’s Own Backyard Ultra last year, and since then we keep bumping in to them at events from the tip of Wales to Orkney (where we randomly ended up on the same campsite as them for several days after the event too 😲). We’ll be seeing them this weekend again as they are both running in the inaugural Golspie Backyard Ultra, which we are volunteering at. So it’s been long overdue to sit down and have a proper chat with them both!
Thanks for making the time to chat to us! Let’s start by telling our readers a bit about yourselves.
Allan: I’m just about to hit 59 years young. I’m married to Joanne, my biggest fan and cheerleader extraordinaire, and I have three children. I support disabled adults for a living.
George: I’m George, 24 years old. A football enthusiast that enjoys travelling around the UK exploring different football grounds. I’ll stop there as it sounds like I’m trying to sell myself on a dating app 🤣
So how did you first get in to running?
Allan: It was on December 29th 2012. After around six years of weekend countryside walks, often organised events with the local rangers, I decided to go for a jog. It was way before I had even heard of Strava but being a bit of a geek, I logged all of my early activities. Here is what I jotted down from that momentous morning…
“Decided to start running to get rid of some flabby belly and man boobs! Set off about 8:15am. Cloudy with spots of rain then HEAVY rain on way back! Couldn’t have picked a worse day to start but will carry on. Made it to the halfway point without stopping. Joanne about 3 or so mins behind which ain’t bad as she has done NOWT for months!”
It was a 2.2 mile run and I was wearing a fleece top that was about triple the weight once the rain had soaked in at the end. For some reason this baptism of moisture didn’t put me off running and I have been going pretty much non stop for nearly 11 years. I’ve had a few niggles and a couple of injuries that have kept me sidelined for several weeks but all in all I have been pretty lucky and have always managed to keep my motivation.
George: I first started running in 2020 and in true beginner style I wore a pair of Adidas trainers for my first run. I’d say I got into running by simply starting off by doing a one mile run & not having a clue what I was doing. Something must have clicked to start doing healthy hobbies and change my lifestyle. Although he never forced me to start running if it wasn’t for my Dad I don’t think I’d have ever started running, certainly not ultras.
What are some of your favourite places to run?
George: Although most of my runs are on road I do prefer to run on trails. A route I enjoy which is local to me is named “The Dovestone Diamond”. It’s a 6.7 mile route all on trail with some incredible views. The name given to this route is simply due to its location which is at Dovestone Reservoir and when it is complete the run on a map is shaped like a diamond. It even has its own Strava Segment.
Allan: I started off mainly road running but it wasn’t too long after that I got a taste for the muddy trails. We have plenty to choose from where I live. There’s local trails right from my front door which can easily connect to trails such as the Pennine Way and Trans Pennine Trail. Like George, I suppose one of my favourites is Dovestone. It can definitely give the Lake district a run for its money.
I’ve done a few 24 hour loop events including Endure in Leeds a couple of times. I’ve also done a race called Escape from Meriden four times. The beauty of this race is that you start in Meriden, the centre of England, and run in any direction you want for 24 hours. Your mileage is based as the crow flies, so you have to plot a route and keep it as straight as possible to avoid wasted miles. To add to the wackiness of the event, it starts at midnight. Seeing people run in all directions at the start of a race has to be seen to be believed. There’s the option of running solo, in pairs or chained. I’ve done both solo and pairs and have my eye on the chained event for the future. I just need to find an idiot that I can tolerate being chained to for 24 hours.
Escape from Meriden is basically the opposite of “The Drop“, which Iain has done 3 of now. Good luck finding that idiot, though 🤔
George, you recently completed the Accumulator and Allan a 99 day run streak. What were those personal challenges about, and why?
George: I recently completed the accumulator challenge, normally this challenge is 31 days of increasing your daily mileage by 1. E.g. Day 1 = 1 mile, Day 10 = 10 miles up until Day 31. I did the 31 day challenge around 18 months ago. Midway through October I decided to give it another go. Why? I believed it would be perfect training for my up and coming backyard ultra races. However this time I would put an extra day at the end making it 32 days = 528 miles.
Allan: I decided to do a run steak to keep me motivated right up to the backyard ultra at Golspie. It was always designed to finish on the Saturday, a week before the race. I was super chuffed when I worked it out and realised that the streak would end on 99 days. I set my minimum miles per day at just 1 and only did this a handful of times. The run streak spanned two holidays, Madeira and Scotland, so kept me motivated when it would have been all too easy to not get out.
How do you get on running together?
George: We very rarely run together, probably due to my Dad not being able to keep up with me 😉. Maybe running together is something we should try at Golspie Backyard Ultra in the later loops.
Allan: When we do it’s either a parkrun, a backyard ultra or the tail end of one of our personal challenges. We usually end up chatting about backyard ultra stats and the usual running nonsense.
Between you you’ve done more than a dozen Backyard Ultras, so what got you in to BYU running?
George: My Dad had told me about Backyard Ultras as he had ran one several years before I started running. It sounded easy, but how wrong I was! I liked the concept of them and now I’m hooked!
Allan: I’d done my first ultra in 2015, the Oldham Way 40 mile event. I got hooked and was soon looking around for other long distance stuff. In early 2016 I came across a race called Last One Standing. It had happened the week before in Castleward, Northern Ireland. Just over 4.1 miles on the hour, every hour until there was only one person left. I remember thinking how easy that would be. All I had to do was run a fast lap in around 40 minutes or so and then have twenty minutes rest. How wrong I was! I entered the event the following year and managed 30 yards (laps, hours) and ended up in the top 6. I was hugely chuffed with myself to not only get my first 100 miles but to then carry on for another 6 hours.
I’m definitely a huge fan of the backyard ultras these days. Golspie this weekend will be my 11th BYU. I’ve had a mix of success and failures from that glorious start at Castleward. 13 yards being the lowest and a PB earlier this year at GOBYU in Leeds of 31 yards. I used to think that it was a 50/50 split between fitness and mental strength in a BYU. Now I believe it’s 1/3 fitness, 1/3 mental strength and 1/3 luck. If everything doesn’t come together on the day (days) you’re soon in trouble. The backyard ultra is now a huge worldwide event, with hundreds of races. Back in 2017 there were only 9 events, and in 2016 there were only 3. With the lack of events in 2017 I was actually joint 7th in the world in the backyard ultra format. A stat that I will tell anyone and everyone whenever I can. Right now, I’m joint 778th.
Have you got any goals for Golspie this weekend?
George: Ahead of this weekend at Golspie I’m feeling really positive. I’ve put in plenty of miles and I want to be up there. I’m still yet to do 24 loops = 100 miles so as a minimum I would like this to happen at the weekend, then carry on pushing onto the win however many loops that may be.
Allan: I’d be a fool and a liar if I said I haven’t. My main goal is to beat George and I’m pretty certain one of his is to beat me. We both have a bit of a competitive edge which keeps us both on our toes. Obviously I’d like to increase my PB but I’ve learned to just keep chipping away the yards and to not think of the bigger picture. I definitely need to control my mind as the laps get tougher. At Orkney BYU in July I got to within 1 lap of my PB and simply gave up. I said at the time that I was more than happy to be the assist to Julie! Days later I was pretty annoyed with myself. I was coming in late at the end of the laps but still had time to sort myself out and answer the bell. Will I learn from this? Let’s see after the weekend.
We’ll be watching with interest to see which of you comes out on top!So what’s next, got any other events or challenges planned?
George: A fortnight after Golspie I’ll be running another Backyard Ultra – Gods’ Own BYU in Leeds which is one I’ve taken part in each time. My personal best of 20 loops is recorded at this race.
Allan: The only event I have is the Cowshed BYU in April. It’s the Four Nations Championship and I’ll be running for Team England again. I ran in the team at 2 events in 2022 with 13 and 20 yards. I hope to massively improve on this next year. I’ll be doing some biggish miles in training leading up to the event. I stick to around 60 miles a week for between 4-6 weeks including a 20 miler at the weekend.
Good luck – we’ll see you there! Now all the questions are done and it’s over to you. Anything else you want to share with our readers?
George: I “run” my own Facebook page called “The Oldham Groundhopper” where I document where I go on my travels which consist of watching football at many different grounds. From small non-league grounds with 100 spectators, to Ibrox in Glasgow watching Rangers with over 50 thousand. I’ve been doing this for over 3 years now and currently have over 52,000 followers!
Allan: I’m not going to jump on my soapbox, but I will say that being Vegan for around five and a half years has massively improved my running. Maybe not so much speed or anything but the recovery rate sometimes surprises even me. I can be up and out on a decent recovery run usually the day after a big event. I’m a great believer in active recovery. If I can’t quite manage a run, I’ll always get out for a walk. If you’re interested, check out the Vegan Runners website.
Thanks for sharing, I’m sure some of our readers will check our those links!
Hope you enjoyed our chat with the Parkins! You can wish them luck and see how they both get on at Golspie by joining the Golspie BYU Facebook group or following Golspie BYU on Instragram. We’ll try to share bit on our FB and X pages too. See you soon 👋
Not “… A hobbit’s tale, by Bilbo Baggins”, but rather the Ochil 100 – both directions along the Ochil 50 route back-to-back 🤪 Julie had run (and won) the Ochil 50 last year so I’ll spare you the blow-by-blow route description (re-read her post if you’re looking for route info) and just give you a bit of a sense of how it went!
After Julie’s run this was definitely on my radar for 2023, but early in the year the ‘double’ Ochil 100 route option was offered for the first time and since the race route would now pass not once but twice past our house, it seemed rude not to enter! I believe 16 people expressed interest but in the end unfortunately only 2 of us actually entered. So after BWOG (3 entrants), 2 at the Ochil 100, all I need now is to run a race solo 🤣 Given that I knew the route pretty well, having run all of it barring about 10 miles in the middle the main unknown was the other guy – Ryan Small – so I did my homework on him a.k.a. stalked him on Strava and D.U.V. (sorry)! Looked like he was at least as fast as me on short distances and with similar times on longer races, so although there were only 2 of us, it was a pretty even match-up.
With the Ochil 50 running in the ‘normal’ Perth->Stirling direction, we were setting off from Stirling at 6pm on the Friday, giving us 13 hours ‘head start’ before the Ochil 50 set off from Perth at 7am in the morning. With little fanfare, the two of us set off from Stirling University and chatted all the way up Dumyat. Oddly enough, it turned out that Ryan grew up in Galashiels just 5 miles down the road from my home town of Selkirk so we had plenty in common – small world! As anyone from the Borders knows, there is quite a rivalry between Selkirk and Gala, so I had even more reason not to let him beat me. Since we were quite evenly matched, my Plan A was the same as BWOG – let him get ahead, staying within a mile or so and aim to overtake later in the race to minimise the chance of me going out too fast and blowing up. On the way down Dumyat I stopped for a pee and I let him get ahead.
I was running the first half of the race without a crew – Julie would be meeting me when I passed home (~40 and 60 miles in), and then coming to the checkpoints during the day on the way back to Stirling. Ryan had a couple of guys crewing him through the night and would see them at every checkpoint along the way. Since he had stopped briefly with his crew at Tillicoultry, I caught him up and we went up and over the next major climb together. The rain came on and it was pretty grim for an hour or so, but before too long we ran in together down the road past Frandy Fishery, where his crew were waiting again. Time for Plan B, which was to head straight through and try to build a lead while he was stopped with his crew.
Despite now being in the boggy / grassy middle third of the course, I got my head down and kept moving as fast as I could, trying not to keep looking over my shoulder. By the Glen Sherup dam crossing I looked back down the valley and saw no sign of a head light so seemed to have roughly a mile’s lead, at least. On the climb out from the dam I had my only navigational issue, where the marked route and the provided GPX differed. On the way out I followed the GPX, which took a sketchy little forest path, full of overgrowth and fallen trees, and on the way back again followed the signed path 🤷♂️ Looking at our tracks afterwards, it seems Ryan got somewhat lost here so by the time I was headed up out of Glendevon I’d pulled out another mile or so on him. Between Glendevon and the Rossie Ochil road is actually four distinct sections between road crossings, but in the dark it all blurred into a mixture of wet grassy tracks, forest gravel roads and what seemed like endless miles of tussocky bog. It wasn’t hard to keep headed in the right direction but even with good moonlight my micronavigation was far from optimal as I stumbled from trod to trod! There was also the one and only checkpoint on the first half of the route roughly half way along – quick photo stop and I headed off again. My legs were feeling good all night, my feet were soaked but I was in a good mood except for cursing every single bog I came across! No Ochil Ultra would be complete without an encounter with cows, and just after midnight I disturbed a large herd who stampeded first one way across me, then turned and passed back again before leaping over a fence! No sign of them in the morning, but I am convinced they were real 😬
Eventually I was back on the section I knew well, and counted down the final few miles through the wind farm, down the Wallace Road and into Bridge of Earn. Julie was waiting for me outside the house and had everything I needed set up in the porch. I had a quick change of socks – which was welcome as my feet were soaked and the next 20 miles were on dry trail and road – drank a cup of tea and she restocked my pack with everything I needed. I had just run out of drink a few miles beforehand, so judged it almost perfectly. A quick check of the race tracker showed Ryan was still up in the wind farm so I had nearly a 5 mile lead. Only 5 minutes stopped and I was off again to tackle the last climb up and over Moncrieffe Hill to reach Perth.
For the first time, I started to feel quite sleepy on the climb up, although to be fair it was about 4am by this point! I had my first caffeine gel, and by the time I came over the top the run down into Perth woke me up. I made it to the start point of the 50 mile race at South Inch at exactly 5.30am, but it was deserted so I just touched the post at the edge of the car park, turned and went straight back the way I came. Just before reaching the A912 I ran into race director Ben in his truck – he hadn’t quite made it to the start in time to catch me! I knew I would pass Ryan at some point after the turnaround so I was working hard to build as much of a lead as possible and ran most of the way up the hill to the Rhynd road. Turning in to the Moncrieffe Hill car park I ran into his crew who were waiting for him to arrive, then Ryan arrived down the track, walking and in obvious pain. He had taken a nasty fall on the way down the Wallace Road, landing on some rocks and suspected he had broken his ribs. Fortunately, it turned out afterwards only to be bad bruising but he was walking in to the 50 mile point and DNF’ing there. Not the way either of us wanted the race to end, but now all I had to do was finish!
The dawn started to break as I came down the South side of Moncieffe and before too long I was back for my second stop at the home aid station… and Julie had prepared a promised sausage sandwich! I had been looking forward to this, but my stomach does not usually tolerate large amounts of solids during a race – however I had managed a sausage sandwich during BWOG so it had got to be worth a try again. But first, a quick top-up of my pack, visit to the luxury of a real toilet and then I walked off, eating my breakfast 😋 It seemed to settle quite well, and I was back running again before the first official CP at Kilgraston. Ben was there again and confirmed that I was the only remaining runner in the 100.
The rest of the way back to Stirling was pretty uneventful and actually quite enjoyable now I wasn’t needing to keep one eye over my shoulder for the gap to Ryan. The first of the 50 mile front-runners caught up with me as I reached the top of the wind farm, having left Perth at 7am, 90 minutes behind me. After that I had a steady stream of 50 milers passing all day, many of whom realised I was running the hundred so gave plenty of encouragement on their way past. The checkpoints were also a big encouragement – thanks to the volunteers for that 👏👏👏 As I approached Glendevon I started catching the tail end of the 30 mile runners which was also a nice boost. It’s strange how different the same route can be in daylight (even in reverse!), the ‘trackless’ boggy parts now had a wide swathe bashed through them by all the runners in front of me, and it was much easier underfoot as a result.
Julie was waiting for me at the last two checkpoints, Frandy Fishery and Tillicoultry. At Frandy, it looked like I was just about on-track for a 24 hour finish, but I was too slow up the hill and even downhill running in to Tillicoultry was becoming a struggle. Nothing specifically hurting, but just generally all round knackered! Julie tried to work her magic again and had bought a hot sausage roll from the bakers for me at Tillicoulty. It went down well, but wasn’t enough to speed me up significantly. The final big climb up and over Dumyat was just a slow trudge, and the weather also closed in as I came over the top. Eventually I was on the road, just a short run through the University campus and I broke into a ‘sprint’ finish for the last quarter of a mile, down the hill and across the finish line in 24 hours and 36 minutes!
Obviously I’m very happy to have come away with the win, although losing my only competitor to injury is not the way would have wanted to do it. Maybe with the pressure of someone chasing, I could have got in under 24 hours, who knows 🤷♂️ I think I ran a good race, paced it pretty well and I was pleased that feet stayed in good shape despite being soaked. My nightly routine of moisturising them seems to have made them somewhat waterproof, and the mid-way change of socks also helped. It was also a nice change to have my stomach settled enough to enjoy not one but two sausage-based snacks along the way 😃 Thanks as always to my brilliant crew chief Julie – she knows exactly what I need even when I don’t and has been an integral part of all my successful runs this year.
Hopefully next year will see a few more people taking on the Ochil 100 now that it has been established as an event but I think I will give it a miss – I don’t think I’ve got much more to prove to myself by doing it again. The 24 hour target is definitely do-able by someone, but don’t be fooled, the course is much harder than the distance or the elevation gain would suggest due to the roughness of the terrain – it’s far from a ‘trail run’ for large sections. If neither of us are running next year, perhaps we’ll open the bonus Bridge of Earn aid station again?
It’s been a while since I did a gear review on the blog, but the onesthatwehavedone are some of the most popular posts we’ve got… so time for another. This time, what’s more important to runners than what’s on your feet? For me, that means a pair of Salomons – I’ve run pretty much exclusively in their shoes for the last 6+ years and at the moment I have four pairs on the go in my rotation – two pairs of Sense Escape with 870 and 423 miles usage on each of them, and two pairs of Sense Ride with 266 and 423 miles.
Both models are something of a crossover shoe, much less grippy than a full off-road/fell shoe like the Speedcross, but also more durable and comfier for for hard trails and road. The Sense Escape are my go-to for running on roads or tarmac or gravel paths – basically running around town – and the Sense Ride for anything primarily on trails or hills. The newest pair get used for races, the older Sense Ride for everything else trail-y and the Sense Escape for mainly road runs. I tend to wear my shoes up to about 1000 miles before they get consigned to non-running use – at the moment an old pair of Sense Ride 2 are my everyday (non-running) shoes and a very old pair of Sense Escape are used for gardening in!
Like all Salomon shoes, these both tend to fit people with narrower feet (although they do now offer wide-fit versions of many of their shoes) but that suits me just fine. The few times I’ve had an issue with their shoes e.g. holes in uppers / failed welded panels after less than 200 miles, they have been very good at issuing a warranty replacement, even if the original purchase was from a channel retailer like SportsShoes.com or Amazon.
You’ll see Salomon sponsored runners all wearing the latest S/Lab shoes, but don’t be fooled – the Sense range are a good budget alternative and you can certainly find them at good discount of you shop around. On with the detailed reviews!
Salomon Sense Ride
“A versatile trail shoe that does it all, the Sense Ride 5 is equally in its element on short, fast trail runs as on ultra distances. A super comfortable overachiever that easily adapts to a variety of terrains, with a balanced midsole for cushioning, response and an engineered mesh upper with Sensifit for just the right amount of comfortable hold.”
That’s how Salomon describe the Sense Ride – the two pairs I am currently using are the Sense Ride 4, but I have worn multiple pairs of both Sense Ride 2 and Sense Ride 3 and since they ironed out a few design issues with the second edition the 3rd and 4th are very similar and the latest edition looks much the same. With an 8mm drop and 3.5mm tread depth they have a good amount of grip – I feel very comfortable in them on loose gravel, grass, and rock. While they are obviously far from zero-drop they are also noticeably more stable than the Speedcross. They feature the Quicklace system which is a single pull-and-lock system, with a “lace garage” a.k.a. a pocket in the top of the tongue to keep the end out of the way. The lace tension seems to hold really well and I rarely have to adjust them, even on very long runs. The upper is nice and breathable but there is a good rim of welded rubber all the way round which keeps your toes dry through grass and small puddles. They also do a Gore-Tex variant which I’ve used in the past and is great keeping dry through long grass, mud and deep puddles but not so much if your feel are going to get soaking – in which case just embrace it and let them drain dry!
Pros: A good balance between cushioning, protection and responsiveness – you can feel the ground but my feet were still OK after running >150 miles at one stretch in these. If you like a lot of cushioning (looking at you, Hoka wearer 😉) something like the Ultra Glide might be better. They are also reasonably grippy and aggressive enough for short trail and hill races. The cushioning doesn’t seem to wear out either, even up to ~1000 miles, the outsole will wear out first. Great value too – often available in the ~£70 range if you don’t need the latest colour / model.
Cons: The outsole tends to wear quite quickly and unevenly (at least for my pronation pattern), although this does mean there will still be plenty of grip left somewhere! Not much to complain about though – if I had to run in just one shoe it would be these ones!
“The perfect shoe for discovering the joy and freedom of trail running. Sense Escape is comfortable as a traditional running shoe, but also provides the extra protection and grip needed on paths and uneven terrain.”
Sitting somewhere between a road shoe and light trail shoe, these do very well for runs which are mostly on road/pavement with a little bit of trail or grass. They have a 10mm drop, but I never found them to feel unstable, perhaps because the midsole is not too thick, meaning the overall stack height is still quite low, even at the heel. Not sure of the exact tread depth, but maybe 2.5mm (a bit less than the Sense Ride) however the outsole is made of the much more durable Contagrip MD compound, so every pair I’ve had of these the upper has worn through before the sole! They also come in a Gore-Tex variant, as well as the reflective “Nocturne” which is what I have at the moment. Lacing is a standard flat lace, but I have found these to grip my foot a bit too tightly and always swap them out for some 3rd-party stretchy laces which allow for a little bit of flex.
Pros: a bit more cushioned than the Sense Ride, perfect for road interval sessions! Almost indestructible outsoles mean these shoes can last well over 1000 miles if you take care of the uppers.
Cons: No longer in production, which makes them very hard to come by but if you get lucky and find some in your size they are typically quite cheap. Let me know if you find any UK 10.5 – I bought the last two pairs I could find online earlier this year 🙏 Maybe I should take a look at something like the Aero Volt?
I hope you found these reviews useful – let me know if you have any questions by leaving a comment below 👇 To read more of our gear reviews, just browse the “Gear Review” category!
This race was simultaneously the worst and the best thing I have ever done – I’m still buzzing from it 4 days later as I write this 😁 So many challenges along the way, but I managed them all and came away with a result that I still can’t quite wrap my head around! But more of that later, let’s go back to the beginning…
After Julie ran Loch Ness 24 last year, I was keen to give it a shot. It sounded like a course that I would enjoy, and the winning distance of 26 loops (112 miles) meant that if I had a good race I should be in the mix for the podium places. It fitted well in the gap between BWOG at the start of July and the Ochil 100 at the end of September… at least until I tried to cram in another failed attempt at Ramsay’s Round at the start of August 🤦♂️ Once again aggravating the tendonitis that has been bothering me since May and having blistered the entire skin off the end of one of my toes meant I had a couple of weeks of mostly rest, before a 40 mile week, then a few days taper!
Last year we enjoyed the festival atmosphere of camping at Loch Ness 24, but with the weather forecast looking decidedly wetter we changed plans at the last minute and opted to drive up early on the Saturday morning rather than face pitching the tent in the rain. This was a good call as the rain continued into Saturday morning and the camping field was decidedly boggy in places. Julie wonders why whenever she crews me it rains and when I crew her the weather is hot 🤷♂️ Anyway, we had plenty of time to get the tent up, get registered and ready for the 10 am start, in between hiding from the rain so it was a good decision.
With the rain set in for the day I set off with a jacket on. However, with persistent heavy (torrential at time) showers I was soaked through and opted to ditch the jacket by the end of lap two – at least it wasn’t cold or windy. There were a few minor course changes from last year, with a bit more gravel path and less gnarly rooty bits, but any advantage was cancelled out by the muddy sections which were just next-level ankle-deep bog! I had worn Julie’s gaiters which worked well for a few laps until the elastic straps snapped and I ended up rolling them up my mid-afternoon. At least they kept my feet clean-ish for a few hours. I enjoyed the course a lot – the hills weren’t as steep as I had thought, and even the shingle beach was not too bad – mainly due to the amount of mud everyone stamped into it, turning it into a well-bedded-down path! So of course I hared off like a total noob, believing I could hold to a 40-minute lap pace – way faster than the 45-50 I had planned on 🙈
Of course this came back to bite me and by laps 7 and 8 I was struggling to keep up a pace, letting myself think about the 16 more laps I needed to do to get to 24, and generally having a hard time of it. There were a range of motivational slogans hung in the trees by the marshals near the bottom of the last big hill, and one of them stuck with me “The warrior says – I am the storm” (check out this version on Youtube… gives me goosebumps) and every time I passed it I was like “I am the fricking STORM, baby”! It got me out of my rut, stopped me feeling sorry for myself and back focussing on what I was doing (and should have been doing from the start). I was in the top 10 by this point, but not out of touch with the leaders only about 10 mins ahead of me but it was time to stop getting carried away with ‘racing’ and focus on finishing the race. I added in a couple of extra short walking sections on gradual uphills and let my pace slow down to 50 minutes per lap.
I had top-notch (as always) support from Julie, who had set up a little aid-station for me just 50m on from the start/finish area where I was stopping every lap to drink and eat. I had been managing a good amount and variety of solid food up to lap 10, when without much warning I puked everything up just over the top of the first hill (fortunately out of sight of the camp!). Fortunately I was carrying an emergency gel in my back pocket so was able to eat that half way round the lap to avoid having to run the full lap on an empty stomach. It was now about 7pm in the evening, so (a bit earlier than planned), I switched to my night plan of one gel per lap, plus KMC Isomix drink, and just got on with it.
From here on in, it was like a switch had flicked in my head and I kept focusing on hitting my run/walk markers, no micro-quitting, running with good style (head up, strong core), walking with pace and purpose and I banged out lap after lap at ~52 minute pace right through the night. By 10pm, the half-way point there were supposed to be fireworks, but unfortunately these were cancelled as there were two lost dogs on the campsite (eventually found by the morning). I had completed 15 laps and from nowhere I came up with a new goal – if I could complete 23-and-a-bit laps (100 miles) before 6:30 in the morning I had a chance to beat by 100 mile PB! And what’s more it would be done on a hilly, muddy, traily course (about 7800 ft in 100 miles) compared to my previous PB which was set on Leeds & Liverpool Canal! I really had the bit between my teeth now and Julie commented at the time that I looked like I was on a mission. Around midnight, the leader Rosie Doull had a couple of slower laps (I think she may have stopped in camp for 5 or 10 mins) and without realising it I found that I was actually in the lead – how things had turned around from the afternoon 😲 I put in a faster lap to try and make sure no-one behind me would have me in sight again.
I hit my 100 mile goal about quarter past 5 in the morning, just before the dawn started to break – a new PB by well over an hour 🎉 As the sun rose and I could finally ditch the head torch I found a bit more speed as I was caught and passed by another solo runner – you could easily spot the fast pairs/team runners as they had green bib numbers, whereas the solo had blue. From talking to him it seemed he might only be a lap behind me and with 4+ hours left I was running scared! I found a couple more minutes per lap and actually got progressively faster from loop 24 to the end as I knew at this point I didn’t have to hold anything else back.
As morning came, I was starting to feel hungry again so I though I should try to re-introduce some solid food for ‘breakfast’ – I tried a few bites of watermelon and was violently sick again… so back to gels! I was getting fed up with them by now as I’d eaten nothing else for 15 hours, but they were doing their job I guess. By now my feet were beginning to get a bit painful. I’d had a couple of paracetamol earlier as my achilles tendinitis was becoming noticeable, but now I could feel my feet were on the verge of blistering, I had a few bits of grit in my shoes, and the soles of my feet were not liking the hard packed gravel paths. Even the nice soft mud was now mostly dried out! But with only a few hours to go I just gritted my teeth and stuck at it.
I completed my 28th lap at about 9.30am – it wasn’t until this lap when Julie told me that the first placed lady had stopped after 24 laps and the fast-moving guy who was now in second place was still “only” on lap 26 that I finally believed I was about to win the race! I headed out on my 29th and final loop knowing I would finish after 10am, but I really wanted to enjoy this one 😁 It was great knowing that every section I passed I would not have to do it again. I was able to thank the marshals (especially the last marshal point, whose motivational quotes kept me going early in the race), congratulate other runners who were finishing their own races and then run, whooping, past the campsite and in to the crowd, down the finish funnel and across the line!
To have come into the race with relatively poor preparation (although my base fitness this year is clearly good 😳), screw up my pacing for the first third of the race, push through soaking rain and mud to come away with a win and push the course record up to 29 loops (125 miles), I’m just absolutely blown away. Three things that I think have really helped (same ones as at BWOG, really) are:
The best crew support ever 🤩 Julie put up with camping (or hiding in the car) in a sodden, rainy field with 4 kids and still was there every lap with food, drink, and just exactly the right things I needed to hear. Couldn’t have done it without you – and I know at some point it’s going to rain when I’m crewing for you 🤣
Fast walking – keeping my pace at faster than 15 min/mile for the walk sections allows a good bit of recovery while not actually hurting my lap times much at all.
Strength training – I’ve now been keeping up a twice-weekly, 30 minute strength training programme for about 3 months and I think it’s paying off. I felt I could keep up good running form with a strong core and was able to trust my single-leg and ankle stability on the rooty and muddy sections which seemed to slow a lot of people down.
What’s next – another month of rest (although being stuck standing-room-only on a train from Edinburgh to Leeds on Monday was not a great start to that 😱), short recovery runs, then getting ready for the Ochil 100 in 5 weeks time. Looking forward to that now… even if it goes half as well it will still be great!
Some time last year I heard that Rocket Events were putting on an extension to their annual Great Glen Way Ultra, adding (just!) the whole West Highland Way beforehand to make a 170 mile + 21,500 ft of climb continuous route all the way from Glasgow to Inverness via Fort William. It sounded just like my kind of thing and I was the first to sign up on the day that entries opened! In the end there were only three of us bold (or foolish) enough to attempt it. Read on to find out how I got on… and count the toilet euphemisms along the way 💩💩💩
After an abject 10-loop capitulation at the Lionsgate Backyard Ultra at the start of June and still carrying a bit of tendonitis picked up while at Cape Wrath Ultra my preparation was unconventional, to say the least. To give the ankle some recovery I’d done barely any running (barring buddy running with Julie for the last 50 miles of Ultra Scotland 🙈) and concentrated on fast hiking, including a great 5+ hour walk around the Pentland Skyline route. I’d also started on a bi-weekly strength training programme, so while my running mileage was way down on my usual, I was probably in pretty good shape as it turned out.
One unusual feature of the race was the 9pm start on Thursday – designed so that we would arrive in Fort William at around the time the Great Glen Way set off and so pass through the same checkpoints for the second half of ‘our’ race. With the end of term/start of summer holidays, things had been pretty busy and even though I took Thursday afternoon off work, I hadn’t managed to get any extra sleep before I took the bus and train to Milngavie for the start. Julie and the kids would be crewing for me, but with no crew access along Loch Lomond, and little point in having them make the trip just to see me pass through Drymen and Balmaha in the early stages of the race I was effectively running the first 50 miles unsupported and they would see me first at Dalrigh (near Tyndrum) on Friday morning.
I carbed up with a classic pizza crunch supper on the way through Glasgow, and had plenty of time for a cup of tea and loaded ice cream in a cafe in Milngavie before the start. It had been 20 years since I had last been here, when I hiked the West Highland Way as a student, so it was good to remind myself how to get out of Milngavie and onto the WHW – avoiding the potential of embarrasing navigational errors right at the start. With about a half an hour to go, the other two runners – Kev Craig and Calum Anderson (with their crews) – and the race organisers and some of the marshals who would staff the early checkpoints all arrived. We got our trackers, dropped off drop bags and then had a nice moment with Keith Hughes, who is the only known completer of the WHW+GGW double in a time of 49h02m back in 2009. The race was planned with a cut-off of 50 hours (although I put together a 46 hour schedule which I thought was achievable), and Keith by his own admission reckoned his time was beatable. He had brought a bottle of whisky and offered some from his finishers’ goblet, although none of us fancied it at that point – maybe at the finish line it would have been a different story! A few photos were taken and soon the time ticked round to 9pm and without much ceremony we were on our way.
Milngavie – CP1 Drymen (12 miles)
It was quite a strange feeling to start a race with only three participants – we all set off together through the underpass from the station into Milngavie and then onto the route. We chatted a bit, but it felt to me that the pace was a little bit too fast, and I was mainly planning to run my own race so I soon made my apologies and dropped to a walk, letting Calum and Kev run ahead. Before we split I did manage to save them both from missing a turn 3/4 of a mile in 😂
Before too long I had got into a good run/walk pace and caught back up to them as we dropped down towards the old railway path near Dumgoyne. I made a bit of an effort to push on into the lead, but they seemed to keep pace with me so I dropped back again. I was already moving faster than my planned 12:30/mile pace so was happy to let them go. Legs were feeling good, I was able to eat and drink well and with such a long way to go there was no need to worry about ‘racing’ at this early stage. My focus was on moving efficiently, keeping to my planned pace with the aim of being in a good shape to run when we hit the canal at the start of the GGW. At about 11pm it was time to put headtorches on – it would be quite a short night since we were only a week past the summer solstice. As it happens, I caught up to them again as we rejoined the road on the way in to Drymen and we all arrived at CP1 together, about 12 minutes ahead of schedule. So far, so good!
CP1 Dryman – CP2 Balmaha (7 miles)
This section is a little bit shorter, but contains the first major climb of the route – Conic Hill. Right from the CP at Drymen, the route leaves the road and climbs towards and then through the Garadhban forestry plantation. I put in a bit of an effort on the climb and gradually managed to eke out a few minutes lead over Calum and Kev, who were still running together. Fast hiking is one of the skills I have been learning from Julie (hope she doesn’t mind me sharing one of the secrets of her success 🤫) and it was paying off. However, as the track levelled out and became runnable again before too long they caught me up again and passed. I was feeling a bit churny for the first time so I took a few minutes to “take care of business” in the woods before heading on.
The climb up Conic Hill was not nearly as bad as I had expected, especially as the trail follows the North shoulder of the hill, rather than going all the way to the top. I was able to see the two head lamps not too far ahead and like the first few miles of this section I was moving faster on the non-runnable parts! I had forgotten (or maybe it had been added in the last 20 years) about the hundreds of stone steps on the descent and while it wasn’t much fun, I was able to catch right up Calum and Kev just as we came in to the car park at Balmaha, now about 20 mins up on my planned pace. They had their first chance to see their crews, but I was fully supplied to take me through the night so once again, we all headed out together onto the side of Loch Lomond.
CP2 Balmaha – CP3 Rowardennan (7.5 miles)
Out of Balmaha, the WHW winds its way through the woods between the road and the lochside and while it was nice to run with the others for a while, I quickly decided the running pace was faster than I wanted to go, so dropped back again. I also realised that the terrain, while fairly flat overall, had a lot of small ups and downs and I was not going to be able to keep up with my 12:30/mile planned pace! At least I had a little bit of time in the bank, so I wasn’t unduly worried about it. It was now getting on for 2am, and for the first time I started to struggle a bit. I think physically I was OK, but I was getting tired and for the first time, strayed into a dark place mentally. At one point I remember having a conversation in my head wondering how if I couldn’t manage to work hard enough to keep up my pace only 20 miles in to a 170 mile race, what was the point continuing? I thought long and hard about bailing out, cancelling all my future race bookings, binning my running shoes and having a nice weekend with the family… funny how the mind works!
At the same time, I was aware enough to try to get myself out of this rut – I necked my first caffiene gel, but it didn’t have much effect. I was still eating and drinking well, but couldn’t stop myself micro-napping while still upright! It seemed to take forever to arrive at the checkpoint at Rowardennan, although I was actually still 5 mins ahead of plan. I had an idea (another one taken straight out of Julie’s playbook from TR250) – I was going to have a sleep, and try to reboot my brain. The checkpoint was just a guy (Big Kev) with a van in the car park, and when I got there the others had just left. I didn’t need any water but took my pack off and announced I was going to sleep on the ground for 10 mins. Even better, Big Kev had a bed made up in the back of the van and offered use of it – I didn’t even need to take my shoes off! I got my head down and was out like a light.
CP3 Rowardnennan – CP4 Inversnaid (7.5 miles)
Big Kev woke me up after what seemed like a few seconds – my 10 minutes was up and it was time to move. Amazingly, I felt great like I’d just had 8 hours solid sleep 🤷♂️ From the car park there is a good few miles of runnable trail before the WHW splits into the high (easy) and the low (hard) path. Guess which one we were taking?
I had vague memories from 20 years ago of the ‘path’ here being a bit ‘interesting’ – in fact it’s a tangled mess of rocks and roots, and again although on a map it appears flat, there is very little that is runnable for more than a few steps. At least I was wide awake and moving! I was losing lots of time on my (unrealistic) schedule, but keeping pace with Calum and Kev who were about 15 minutes ahead. Eventually, it started to get light again and I was able to stow my headtorch. Perhaps the most surreal moment of the whole race occurred at this point – there was a steep flight of maybe 15 wooden steps, almost ladder-steep, and standing at the top was a menacing-looking goat. I hadn’t been troubled by hallucinations during the night, but I did make the point of taking a picture to convince myself it was real! Fortunately the goat decided I was not worth the fight and stepped off the path (not very far, though 😬) and I was able to pass safely.
The whole night had been dry, which was lucky considering the forecast for the race had been ‘mixed’ at best, but for the first time there were a few spots of rain. It wasn’t cold, though, so I stopped and swapped out my base layer and shirt combo for shirt and jacket. Of course, then the rain stopped again – I would need the jacket again before too long though. Shortly I crossed the bridge over the cascading burn which signalled that Inversnaid hotel was just ahead and popped out into the car park, where Bill was waiting with his campervan. In all, I was now about 15 mins behind schedule. Not too bad considering the unplanned sleep and still moving well and very much still in the race!
CP4 Inversnaid – CP5 Beinglas (7 miles)
Bill had a camping chair so I took a moment to sit down, refill my water for the first time and drop off some rubbish. I didn’t hang around for too long though as the sun was coming up and it was time to be moving on. The next section up to the head of Loch Lomond starts with a similar mixture of runnable trail and unrunnable rocky bits, but fortunately they gradually became less frequent and the trail improved as I climbed up to the bothy at Doune and past the opposite site of the Ardlui ferry. I even saw a few early morning hikers out – probably making the most of the still dry conditions to get wherever they were going.
A couple of miles further on I arrived at Beinglas campsite – I was happy to find that the toilet block was left unlocked so sneaked in to “make use of the facilities” (it was morning, after all 😂). Once past the campsite the trail widens out into a good, undulating gravel road so I made good progress up Glen Falloch and eventually crested a hill to find the CP ahead. There was a thick cloud of midges hanging around, so I didn’t – just a quick drink of water and off again.
CP5 Beinglas – CP6 Dalrigh (7.5 miles)
It was now properly morning, I was wide awake and on good runnable trails, and looking forward to seeing Julie for my first crewed CP of the race. Shortly after leaving the checkpoint I was lucky enough to see not just a train, but the Caledonian Sleeper, chugging up the incline towards Crianlarich on the far side of the glen – I have been reduced to tears by the sight of a train before, but this one just gave me a boost! It also helped that for the first time since Balmaha, I caught sight of Calum and Kev ahead. I reckoned they were about 10 minutes ahead, and I worked hard to gradually reel them in. The miles passed quite quickly and soon I reached the track junction above Crianlarich and headed down the hill again towards Strathfillan.
This was a nice little milestone as I was now 50 miles in to the race, and as it happened was where I had wild-camped when walking the route 20 years ago! More good farm tracks and even some tarmac led past the wigwam site, under the A82, and up to the checkpoint. I was greeted a couple of hundred metres along the road by Julie and a very excited Spud – it was a real boost to see them.
I found that Kev and Craig were also at the checkpoint with their crews when I arrived but I had plenty to get done. Julie and Rhona were a well-drilled ‘pit crew’ and refilled my pack with food and fluids while I tucked in to a pan full of sausage and beans and let my feet air for a few minutes before changing into a fresh pair of socks. Usually on ultras I can’t face any solid food so it was good to find my stomach was behaving itself this time and I scoffed almost all of it. No hanging around though – 10 minutes in total and I was back on my way, headed for Tyndrum!
CP6 Dalrigh – CP7 Bridge of Orchy (10.5 miles)
The car park at Dalrigh is slightly off the WHW and we had been instructed to follow the new cycle path all the way in to rejoin the main WHW path just before Tyndrum. As I made my way along, a police car pulled up on the road, hooting and flashing lights – I hoped there wasn’t going to be any road closures for Julie to worry about! Crossing the river into Tyndrum, Julie and all the kids had got there before me, and it was great to see them all again (even only after 20 mins). I decided again since the opportunity was there I should make the short detour to “spend a penny” at the Green Welly Stop, and after a quick stop I was on my way again (a few kg lighter 💩💩💩). Turning back onto the WHW I found the police car had stopped and the two officers were standing by the trail. I wondered what was going on, but in the end it turned out they were a couple of Kev’s ex-colleagues who had stopped off to cheer him on! As it happened I had been quicker through the CP than Kev and had left before him, but he passed me again while I was in Tyndrum and he motored on to catch up with Calum while I took it easy up the hill.
Once at the top of the short climb, there is about 6 miles of gradual downhill on a good wide track (old military road), and I just took it easy, enjoyed spotting a few trains as they ran parallel to the path, and still made up over half an hour on my schedule, arriving at Bridge of Orchy only 40 minutes behind plan and feeling good. Time seemed to fly by on this section 🤷♂️ and soon I was running down to the the bridge where Julie had parked the car at the CP. A much shorter stop here, although I did sit down, eat some tinned potatoes (another first for me on a race) and some watermelon (more to be said about that later). I was figuring that since my body doesn’t generally tolerate solid food, especially at night, I should carb up while I could.
CP7 Bridge of Orchy – CP8 Glencoe (11 miles)
On leaving the CP, I came across a bunch of portaloos, presumably placed to discourage WHW users from “leaving their mark on the landscape”. Not just any old portaloos but top quality Honey Wagon loos – readers who were at Cape Wrath Ultra will appreciate the distinction!
Right from Bridge of Orchy, the WHW turns uphill on a loose, rocky path. It was not fun to go up, and not even great to descend although there were good views over Loch Tulla at the top to make it (kind of) worthwhile. Passing the Inveroran Hotel there is even a mile of “the dreaded black stuff” (tarmac) which seemed to go on for ages, even though I was keeping a decent pace. Then the path starts to climb more gradually up into the Black Mount, the first real taste of remote highland landscape of the route. The rain started again here and I was paid my first daytime visit by the ‘sleep monster’ as I walked. Once again, I kept micro-sleeping as I walked and it made for an unpleasant half an hour, until the path levelled out near Bà Bridge and I was able to run again and keep myself awake.
A short distance further on I made my only real navigation error of the race – there is a junction where the WHW goes straight ahead on a good stony track, but a smaller trail heads off left. There are no WHW markers anywhere in sight (in fact there were few on this whole section), but a cairn marks the junction – which to me is a message “don’t miss this turn”. Sure enough my watch had me following the lesser path, and since I was out of phone signal and not carrying a paper map (oops!) I had nothing else to go on so I headed left. The path rose and quickly became a proper boggy mess and my feet which I had worked so hard to keep dry up to this point were quickly sodden. As I approached the crest of the hill, I regained phone signal and sure enough there was a message from Julie warning me I was off course. I was able to check the map and sure enough I was on the “Old Military Road”, which paralleled the WHW about 100m further up the hill. By that point the best solution was to continue on and rejoin the route just before the ski centre. The extra climb and the wet feet ensured I had self-penalised for the detour!
Despite the sleepiness and detour, I completed this section bang on schedule! Julie was waiting just before the car park as usual with everything I needed – I changed into dry socks and (I think) had another pan of sausages and beans and some watermelon before heading off. Julie and then kids were staying in a wigwam at the ski centre and had been able to check in early and even go ‘tubing’ while they were waiting for me to arrive.
CP8 Glencoe – CP9 Kinlochleven (10 miles)
Leaving the ski centre was the first time it really took my legs a while to get going again. It was still drizzling with the promise of heavier rain ahead, but I gradually walked and jogged my way into a bit of a rhythm across the A82 and past the Kingshouse Hotel, munching on a bag of Hula Hoops. I was intercepted for a quick photo by Terry who had missed me at the checkpoint just as I headed off the worn tarmac and up onto the hillside to contour along to the base of the Devil’s Staircase. This is well known as the crux climb of the WHW (although it’s not actually as big as the climb out of Kinlochleven 🤷♂️), but I was able to keep a good hiking pace and it didn’t really take too long! From the top, I had a last glimpse down into Glencoe before the clouds rolled in, bringing the heaviest rain of the race so far.
With the path turning into a river in places and just the steep descent on tired legs made it quite slow going. At one point I saw Kev and Calum maybe half a mile ahead, so I knew they weren’t too far away, which was encouraging. On the way down into Kinlochleven the hydro scheme was overspilling and even the water pipes were jetting water out of the joints between them – it was properly WET. I had a strange deja vu realisation at one point that I was walking through the exact location that randomly crops up in my dreams from time to time… must have been some visual memory from 20 years ago that I had forgotten the source of! For what was a relatively long section, it actually seemed to pass quite quickly and all of a sudden I could see the rooftops of Kinlochleven and was able to sit down and have all my needs attended to by my crew. They had picked up a takeaway dinner and even had some prawn crackers for me, but I didn’t fancy them and decided I should make (another) “comfort stop”. They had spotted some public loos just round the corner, so I headed there only to find it was five past six and they had been locked up at six 🤬 Fortunately I was able to sneak in to the bunkhouse/camp site toilets, so besides an extra few hundred metres there was no harm done. Since there was no crew access at Lundavra and I would be into Glen Nevis late in the evening this was the last time I’d have crew until Fort Augustus in the morning. I had a drop-bag waiting for me at South Laggan some 30+ miles away so I ate another can of beans and sausage, more watermelon, and did a big restock of my pack to take me through the night before heading off on my way munching on another bag of crisps.
CP9 Kinlochleven – CP11 Braveheart Car Park (13.5 miles)
The first mile up through the forest is a big climb, although like the Devil’s Staircase it felt like it went quite quickly and before too long I popped out onto a wide track – another section of old military road – which would take me all the way to Lundavra. Even though it should have been quite runnable, I did quite a lot of walking on this section (saving myself for the nice, runnable first half of the Great Glen!). Although the rain had gone off and it was actually quite a nice evening there was still a lot of standing water on the path and I was trying my best to keep my feet dry. It seemed like a long time before I got to Lundavra, where I was expecting there to be a checkpoint. No sign of it! I was in a phone signal black-spot again so I continued on the WHW until I crested a ridge and was able to check the race tracker – and the Lundavra checkpoint had mysteriously disappeared! Fortunately I wasn’t in need of anything, so no great loss to me, but it made the combined section to Glen Nevis quite a long one! Somewhere along this section was the Bon Jovi moment (“Woah, we’re half way there!” 🎵) but I don’t remember it. Quite sensibly I wasn’t thinking about how far there was still to go!
Between Lundavra and Glen Nevis is several miles of undulating single-track path. I didn’t have a good mental map of the area so it was hard to judge progress. I was definitely going in the right direction, just slowly! As it was now well into the evening I was a bit dozy, so took another caffiene gel to keep me going. After what seemed far longer than it actually was, I reached the forestry road that led down into Glen Nevis. I forced myself into a decent running pace for the last two miles down the glen. Maybe half a mile before the turning for the CP I caught up with two walkers (I thought), one wearing a dryrobe but as I passed them I realised one of them was Calum! Later I found out that he’d got really cold and phoned his crew to come out and walk him in, leaving Kev to go on ahead.
At the CP, Calum’s crew (thanks 🙏) had been given a cup-a-soup for me by Julie and I was just drinking it as Calum came in and climbed straight into his van to warm up. Kev was taking a decent length break with with his crew and I realised this might be my chance to get a lead… time to make a move!
CP11 Braveheart CP – CP12 Clunes (13.5 miles)
It was just getting dark so I put my head torch on as I headed down the Glen Nevis road, passing a very slow hiker who was looking forward to finishing the WHW. I had another 70-something miles to go! I’d like to say I put the hammer down, but all I could muster was a bit of a running interspersed with fast walking. I had just crossed the river Lochy on the “Road to the Isles” when Kev set off in pursuit, with Calum not that far behind him. I had turned a 15 minute deficit into a 25 minute lead, but the chase was well and truly on! Up the locks of Neptune’s staircase and I was on the Great Glen Way proper. At this point I had planned to get some decent running in, but it wasn’t happening and the next few miles felt like the hardest yet.
The rain was lashing down and all I could see in the beam of torch light was gravel path, rain reflecting the light, hedges to my right and the blackness of the canal to my left. I stopped briefly to pull on full waterproofs and ploughed on. It felt like I was in a little bubble of monotony, making no progress and for the second time in the race, the sleep monster paid a visit. Another caffeine gel didn’t make any difference and I found myself micro-napping again. It felt like Kev was catching me and I was only a couple of miles along the canal but I simply had to sleep. I set my phone alarm for 10 minutes and curled up right there on the towpath, fast asleep. I woke on the alarm, suddenly alert again. I had half expected to be woken by Kev, but I could see on the tracker that he was still just at Neptune’s staircase.
I headed off again and the rain began to slacken off but soon I was back into battle with the sleep monster. I tried a bunch of different tactics to stay awake, first talking to myself, then singing random lyrics of songs that popped into my head. Probably a good thing there was no-one else out and about at midnight on a rainy Friday night! I tuned into a Radio 5 late night chat show for a bit, and even caught some of Glastonbury on BBC Sounds. Behind me, things had changed as Kev had decided to quit and turned back to the start of the GGW race at Corpach, but Calum was moving well again and maybe 2 or 3 miles behind at most. Eventually, I made it off the interminable canal path and crossed at the bridge at Gairlochy where there were a couple of marshals and Bill re-painting arrows on the road as they had been washed away by the rain. At least it shows the washable paint worked!
After a very short bit of road, the GGW turns back into a more interesting trail but now I was in the woods I first had to stop to “make a deposit”. The next few miles weave in and out of the woods and around the headland – I imagine there would be a quite a good view down Loch Lochy in daylight! At this point the front-runners of the Great Glen Ultra started to come past. It was quite nice to see some other people and though I was mainly walking it was nice to cheer them by and also get some encouragement as most of them were aware that there were a few hardy souls out there who had 100 miles in the bag already. A couple of miles of road led to the next CP at Clunes and I arrived there at 3am, but not before another 5 minute roadside nap!
CP12 Clunes – CP13 South Laggan (7.5 miles)
I was way slower than planned, now two hours behind schedule but still in the lead and though I was all-round tired I didn’t have any major issues, so there was nothing for it but to push on to the next CP, where I would have a drop bag waiting. In hindsight it might have been a good idea to have one at Clunes just to give me a boost. I had hoped there might be something available at the CP, but none of the GGU runners had left anything. Pretty much the whole of this section is wide forestry tracks along the side of Loch Lochy. It was pretty slow going and as I plodded along I was aware Calum was gradually closing on me, but I was still really dozy and stopped for two further on-trail naps. On one of them I was woken by one of the GGU runners, to check I was OK! I got straight up and kept pace with him for a while (thanks!), which was a good distraction.
Dawn broke about half-way along this section, but it didn’t do much to wake me up. At least there was a big zig-zag climb to focus on as the path had recently been diverted to bypass a hydro scheme. Once at the top I was able to pick up a little bit more of a pace on the gradual downhill to South Laggan. No more proper naps allowed, but I was still micro-napping on my feet. On several occasions I lost more than a few seconds and woke up slightly disoriented. At one point I woke having fallen face first into a bush at the side of the trail. I was looking forward to the CP, but the name is deceptive as it was not at South Laggan but actually a mile and a half further on, just past North Laggan… not what I needed as I was running very low on supplies!
It was great to finally round the corner and see the CP crew there with a chair ready for me. Calum was still only about 30 mins behind me at this point but I needed a decent break. I changed into a fresh pair of socks and applied some KT tape to the balls of my feet, which were starting to feel a bit tenderised. In my drop-bag I had a pot of fruit salad, some powder to make up some more energy drink and a few bits to eat during the next section. I was really hungry though and was able to scran a few bits from the CP van too (thanks again!) In all, I stopped for about 15 mins and it was good to take the weight off my feet and have someone to talk to. I’d lost about another hour and a half on this section – the schedule was well and truly out of the window now 🤣
CP13 South Laggan – CP14 Fort Augustus (13 miles)
I headed off feeling rejuvinated, with the sun rising in the sky on what was set to be a nice day. Lots of nice trail on the next section, a mile or so less than expected due to the location of the previous CP, plus I could look forward to seeing Julie again! One advantage of being behind schedule – if I had been on time she wasn’t planning to be there and I wouldn’t have had any crew until the next CP at Invermoriston! I made decent progress up and over the hill to Invergarry, although I had to stop to apply some more KT tape as my left achilles had started complaining – oddly enough this was not the same tendonitis that I had had for the month leading up to the race 🤷♂️. It was only a few miles over to Invergarry, then back up into the woods. I was still moving quite slowly but enjoying myself and feeling very relaxed. I could see that Calum had stopped for a long break (90 mins in total) at Laggan so the pressure was off and I guess I dawdled a bit as a result!
Reaching the canal again at Bridge of Oich the weather changed a bit and there were several short, sharp showers which necessitated quickly putting my jacket on, but then taking it off in between as it was hot in the sun! My ankle was bothering me quite a lot by this point and although the towpath was dead flat and runnable, I wasn’t running. It was only 4 miles but once again, seemed to take a long time! Julie found the perfect motivation but messaging me a picture of a sausage sandwich, and came out half a mile from the checkpoint to deliver it (nicely returning the favour for my bacon sandwich delivery on the KACR 😎).
At the CP, I had just sat down when the wind whipped up, and cold rain started bucketing down! Fortunately, Julie and Rhona had a complete restock of my pack ready and I gobbled some food while I was there too. No more watermelon sadly – apparently they had discovered it was in fact mouldy (after feeding it to me for most of the day)… maybe that was the reason for my frequent toilet stops! Sitting still and the sudden change weather had caused me to get quite cold all of a sudden, so I didn’t stop long, putting my jacket back on and getting moving to keep warm. I wasn’t moving well though and it felt like a long way to “death march” to the finish!
CP14 Fort Augustus – CP15 Invermoriston (7.5 miles)
After a mile on the streets of Fort Augustus, the GGW enters a really nice forest section, and after a short distance splits into a low and high route. Of course, we were taking the high route! This climbed steeply up and soon broke out above the treeline onto a good path over open hillside. It was slow going, but at least climbing I felt I had an excuse to go slowly whereas on the flat sections my ankle was hurting quite a lot. The path topped out at around 1000ft and there were spectacular view up and down Loch Ness on what had become a warm and bright summer morning. I didn’t stop long though and forced myself to run the downhills, even though balls of my feet were starting to get pretty sore (although in their defence, they had just covered 130 miles)!
The path pretty much contoured along the hillside for a few miles, before a short steep drop down towards Invermoriston, mirroring the climb up from Fort Augustus. The route doubles back on itself before dropping down onto a minor road into Invermoriston. Julie came out to meet me, and though she didn’t say so at the time thought I was looking pretty ropey, and had doubts I would finish! As well as a chance to sit down, refuel and replenish, the car park at Invermoriston also had a public loo, which I (of course) “made a visit” to. I didn’t even have to pay 50p as I managed to sneak through the barrier behind someone else… possibly the fastest I had moved for a while 🤣 Julie was also able to sort out my feet with some fresh (and better applied) KT tape and they felt much better as I left! Although the going had been slow, this was the first major climbing section since Glen Nevis, so I ‘only’ lost another 20 minutes on my schedule.
Straight out of Invermoriston, the climbing starts again, first on a zig-zag tarmac road where I was able to eat and check the race tracker. I was surprised to see that Calum (fresh from his rest at South Laggan), had clawed 45 minutes back on my on the previous section to Fort Augustus, and was making good time towards Invermoriston. The race was back on!
On the way up through the forest I was working hard and definitely moving faster than I had on the previous climbs. I did have to stop to put my jacket back on at one point as a short sharp shower rolled through, but it was better than getting wet and cold. Once over the top, the track pops out at a great viewpoint over Loch Ness and there is then 3 miles of gradual downhill single-track and I was flying (relatively), clocking 12 minute miles for the first time since Tyndrum – amazing what a bit of adrenaline can do! A faffy little wiggly section leads out to a car park at Grotaig, followed by 3 miles of undulating tarmac. Not fun, but at least I could keep up a good pace on it, and in some places the GGW ran along a footpath parallel to the road, which was better.
The road eventually turns downhill, giving a good couple of miles running into Drumnadrochit via a nice forest path which was soft underfoot with pine needles and leaves. Once it levelled out I was expecting to cross the river on the road bridge and the CP be pretty much there, but there was almost another mile to go until the Julie came in to sight! On previous stages I would have been walking these flat pavement sections, but now I was running! For the first time since Loch Lomond I was actually making up time on my schedule, running this section an hour faster than planned 😄
A relatively quick stop of only 10 minutes, although I ate some more sausage and beans, restocked for the last two sections and (partly) removed a tick from my leg, then I was on my way. One final big climb to do and all the hard sections would be done!
CP16 Drumnadrochit – CP17 Abriachan (7 miles)
I could see Calum had taken a longer break at Invermoriston, and was also going slower than I had up the hill so I was feeling a bit more confident again. I scoffed a bag of crisps on my way out of Drumnadrochit and then enjoyed some more good running down the road. Someone had said there was about 3 miles of road, but it was actually only a little more than a mile till the GGW turned off through a gate, round the back of a farm, and then up into the woods, via what seemed like a million gates that had to be unlatched and latched as I passed through – although it was probably only 4 or 5!
The climb up through the woods should have been quite pleasant, even enjoyable. The sun was out, it was the end of a warm afternoon and the light was filtering through the trees to the mossy forest floor – a lovely place to go for a walk. Maybe it was the time of day, or maybe the last 150 miles were catching up on me, but for the first time my mind just checked out and I started to get major visual hallucinations! First up, I could see a “Go-Ape” style high ropes course in the trees, with wires, platforms and ladders. No people oddly, but whenever I got close, it all just disappeared! The most disconcerting experience was on one particular mossy and rooty climb, the ground seemed to flow downhill towards me and pass by underneath my feet like a giant travelator. To top it off, at one point I spotted a pair of Nazgûl standing watching me from beside a tree-stump – which could have been scary but for the fact one was carrying a tennis racquet and the other had a bike 😂.
Fortunately I kept it together enough to escape the woods and came out on a wide forest road. Rising out of the woods it began to get cold in the wind and I had to put my jacket on again as I was too tired to move fast enough to generate much body heat. The trail continued to rise and eventually after a couple of miles arrived at the final CP at the trailhead car park of Abriachan. Getting close to the checkpoint gave me a boost and I was running quite well down the long straight towards the CP. Apparently the last of the GGU runners had just passed through, so the checkpoint crew were still there as well as Julie and the kids. They seemed to be having far too much fun as at least one of the crew was in a onesie and they had a princess theme, so I duly obliged by sitting on the “throne” (not a toilet but a camping chair) and donning a tiara for a photo! I’m pretty sure none of this was hallucinated! I didn’t stop long though as it was time to tackle the final leg.
CP17 Abriachan – Finish (10 miles)
I could see that I had pulled out another hour or so on Calum, and although I was about 3 hours behind my own original schedule I knew that barring a freak accident, I was going to finish first. Leaving the checkpoint at 7pm a 48 hour finish was out of the question but I set a goal to go under 49 hours to beat Keith’s time – something to keep me going.
Honestly there is not much to like about most of this section of the route. After a mile of nice forest single track I came out onto “The Dreaded Black Stuff” again. It was only about 3 miles long but gradually uphill and seemed interminable. Branching off onto a path, the gradual climbing continued and I was getting fed up waiting for the top. Eventually the path started to level out and gradually drop through a forestry plantation. There were still 6 miles to go at this point and even though I was running bits the distance seemed to pass so slowly, and the soles of my feet were feeling pretty tenderised on the hard stony path.
With about 4 miles to go I started to “smell the barn” and a switch flicked in my head – no matter how I was feeling, I was running it in! Shortly, the forest gave way to open woods, with glimpses through to Inverness and the finish. The path steepened downhill, and apart from a short section through a housing estate on the pavements it made for enjoyable running. On the next narrow path section, I caught up the GGU sweepers and the last two runners. We exchanged congratulations on our respective about-to-achievements and I motored on. One last housing estate and I was on the footpath by the river – less than a mile to go. Across the bridge over the canal and Julie, the kids and Spud were waiting for me. Through the underpass and in to the athletics centre and onto the track. The kids ran alongside me and from nowhere I turned on the jets! All of the tiredness, sore feet left me and I was flying, leaving the kids behind and hitting 6-minute mile pace as I rounded the far bend. Overwhelming feelings of both relief and achievement flooded over me as I pelted down the finishing straight and across the line, stopping my watch at 48:44:26 🎉🎉🎉
Quite a crowd had waited at the finish line, and it was great to sit down, get changed and let it all sink in! We didn’t hang around too long though, as we needed to get home and Julie had already done quite a shift driving around for the last 48 hours. We made a quick stop at McDonald’s and then headed down the A9 – despite my best efforts to stay awake I don’t think I lasted long 🙈. We hadn’t realised that there was a prizegiving on the Sunday, although there were no prizes to give out for BWOG anyway as Bill wasn’t sure any of us would complete it! In truth it was good to be back home in my own bed, and I don’t think I woke up till lunch time anyway.
Looking back now on the race, although there were only 3 runners, it really felt like a race for almost the whole distance, and I feel very satisfied that I was able to manage myself well enough to come away with the win. Congrats to Calum (finished about 5 hours later), and Kev (100 miles in 27 hours) on their achievements too! At one point on the trail before South Laggan, Calum was only 10 mins behind me and if he had caught me the result could have been very different.
A lot of things went to plan – apart from the second night, my pacing was pretty good. In hindsight I’d have allowed more time for the tricky path along Loch Lomond, and I should have planned for an extra drop bag at Clunes and/or Braveheart CP as the section from Kinlochleven to South Laggan with no resupply was a long, slow one. Having never gone through two nights before and setting a new distance PB I’m more than happy though, especially having discovered the joy of on-trail napping! No major foot or injury issues and after a couple weeks of recovery (including holiday to Orkney) and plenty of easy walking I was able to get back running again just fine.
I couldn’t have made it to the end though without the tireless support of Julie in particular and also the kids – best crew ever 🤩 In total I had only about 4 and a half hours of ‘non-moving time’, and given that at least an hour of that was spent sleeping, I was in and out of almost all the crewed checkpoints in 15 mins or less. The marshals at all of the other checkpoints were very helpful too – thanks for taking the time out to support us on this crazy adventure, and it was great to have so many people waiting to cheer me in at the finish too.
Since this was the first running of the event Bill had said the cut-offs were really a guideline, and although I finished within the 50 hour limit, I did miss the planned 4.30pm cut-off at Drumnadrochit. I think next year the start time is going to be 4pm on Thursday, giving an extra 5 hours – which seems about right. It would also mean more overlap with the GGU runners, and more chance the CPs would still be open when BWOG runners passed through – Fort Augustus, Invermoriston and Drumnadrochit were all gone when I got there.
Several people suggested my finish should be considered the new FKT, but the race route through Claggan meant missing out the first miles of the GGW and the finish is a little bit short of the end of the GGW too, so Keith can keep his FKT… but maybe changing the route to fit in the full GGW might be an option for the future?
Would I come back and run it again? Probably not as I don’t think I left much room for improvement (at least for me) and the only way is down from here 🥇 but it’s a great route and I look forward to dot-watching next year. But never say never… Maybe you fancy giving it a go yourself?
Thanks to everyone who took and shared photos during the event, I have shamelessly pinched them and shared here 🙏
One of the best parts about volunteering at Cape Wrath Ultra earlier this year was getting to see all the competitors achieving (or even exceeding) their own goals as the event went on. For some it was a solo journey, while for others they buddied up out on the route. One pair that I saw finish every single day together were Jean-Philippe (Jeep) Cornet and Bénédicte Saintier who had come together all the way from France to the North-West of Scotland to take part in CWU. It took a little while after the race, but I managed to have a chat with them, so here it is!
Congratulations again on your CWU finish and thanks for making the time to answer some questions for the Miles Together blog! Let’s start with by finding out how you got into running and how you met?
Béné: I started running 25 years ago when I was an expat in Taiwan. I joined a Hash club and initially I was more interested in the drinking afterwards, but gradually I became a good runner and most importantly I loved it, and started loving every outdoor sports : mountain biking, cross country skiing, etc…
Jeep: I started running at school with cross country then longer races until the half marathon. After a break of 5-6 years to play volleyball, I started triathlon when I entered the Faculty of Sports in Montpellier. I practiced for about 5 years.
I continued to run without competing, and I registered for my first long distance, 70km at the Templier race in Millau in 2008.
Béné: We met during an ultra in the South of France 4 years ago. I noticed this good looking guy at around 45km (he says he’s the one who noticed me), by 70km we were running together, he helped me through a rough patch at 80km, I dropped him at 100km and we reunited at the finish.
It’s a big step up from 100km to an 8-day, 400km race. What led to you signing up for CWU?
Béné: I heard of it on the internet and because I love Scotland and I love sporting events with a story, a meaning, a good route, a journey so it was immediately on my radar and it was obvious this was something I wanted to share with Jeep.
Jeep: This adventure seemed too beautiful to say no.
I hope it lived up to your expectations! Did you always plan to run 100% of the race together? Did it work well or were their times you would have preferred to separate?
Béné and Jeep: We weren’t always sure beforehand and changed our minds several times. However, after the first day it was obvious that we wanted to stay together and part of why we came to Scotland was to share the trail and the landscapes.
It worked really well mainly because our aim was to enjoy and finish more than real competition (at home we usually separate after 10min from the start and meet again at the end!). But we love running together and we did most of our training together.
It certainly is an awesome trail. What were some of your highlights from the race?
Béné and Jeep: Getting to the top of the last climb on day 6 and seeing where we’d come from. The light, the view, the company were just perfect at this moment.
The camps, our tent mates (tent 7 rocks!), unlimited chips, the amazing volunteers and especially the welcome at the end of each day, showers with a different view every day (yes, we enjoyed washing in lochs and rivers every nights!) and the weather (I know, we were so lucky).
Most importantly, the landscapes every day were beyond amazing.
We were super happy to get the lighthouse but we loved the journey more and we would have liked it longer (even if at the time we were sore everywhere).
Nice to hear you enjoyed the welcome back to camp 😃 I’m sure it wasn’t all highs, though! What were your worst moments and how did you get through them together?
Béné and Jeep: There wasn’t really any difficult moments except times where we were tired and it was a bit long. But we go through these times by just getting stuck in until it passes.
The worst moment was the bad weather on the headland between Glencoul and Glendhu on day 7. We were both digging in hard. We were cold and progressing very slowly. But then it stopped raining, and things looked up (like they always do)!
Good old fashioned positivity and hard work got you through then. Any advice for other people taking part (either solo or together) in future? What did you learn from the race?
Béné and Jeep: Learn to run off trails and if possible in bogs. Prepare your body for shin splint. I think 80% of camp was rocking K tape on the shins!
Jeep: I learned a new life philosophy – to always go and see what there is after (pain, doubt, joy, night, hunger, etc….). Thanks to Laurent, our tent mate, for this outlook on life.
Béné: I learned that I was strong and that this impossible race was actually totally doable with good training.
Amazing what you can do together! Now it’s a couple of months since you left Cape Wrath. How did your recovery go and what have you got planned next?
Jeep: We were tired for a couple of weeks afterwards but a couple of months later did a 178km race in the Alps with 11,000m vertical climbing. It went well (especially for Béné who completed it in under 45hours).
Béné: However, we also planned to be volunteers on races. After the care we received from the amazing team we decided it was time to give back. So, this winter we’ll be volunteering! We hope to be volunteers at the CWU one day (Jeep says he’s going to learn English).
That’s a great idea, you’ll love it. And your English is just fine Jeep 👍
We hope you enjoyed meeting Béné and Jeep – maybe it will inspire you to take on a challenge of your own! In the mean time, keep enjoying more Miles Together 👋
The Cape Wrath Ultra is an epic 250 mile, 8 day stage race organised by Ourea Events that follows the Cape Wrath Trail Starting from Fort William right up the West Coast of Scotland to finish at the lighthouse on mainland Scotland’s most North-westerly point – Cape Wrath! This year there were roughly 180 competitors taking on the challenge, and I was one of 80 or so event team members supporting them along the way. The event team is made up of Ourea staff, specialist contractors (medica, timing, plumbing & electrics, marquees…) and many, many volunteers!
While the 10 day commitment is not to be taken lightly (thanks Julie 😍), a week or more camping, working and hanging out in great surroundings with a bunch of like-minded people – what’s not too like?
Putting on an event of this scale is a major feat of logistics, and the Ourea team are a well-oiled machine. Volunteers are assigned to a team for the week and I was part of the Start/finish team. A typical day for us would involve setting up for the start (7-9am), making sure each runner had their GPS tracker and sending them on their way. As soon as the last runners were out, we’d pack down the start funnel and gantry, pack all out kit into a van and head to to the next camp to set it all up again for the finish! Usually we had plenty of time but on one particularly short day with a relatively long drive between camps we were ready only ~15 mins before the first finishers arrived. We’d then welcome each runner back in, take their trackers back and let them head off to prepare for the next day! The course closed at 10pm but most days almost all the runners were back in with an hour or more to spare. In between times, we would help the camp team with packing everything else away, and erecting the 20+ 8-sleeper blue tents that the competitors used. We had morning and evening shifts which meant there was a chance each day to get off site for a short run, although I must admit I was there at course opening and closure every day 🙈
Some highlights from the week:
On day 2, we had late drama as three runners were still out on course as the 10pm deadline loomed. The first one rounded the last headland (about 1km out) with less than 10 mins on the clock. Sprinting it in, he made it with 58 seconds to spare! Sadly the other two failed to make the cutoff.
On day 5, the last runner on the course (Agamemnon a.k.a. The King) made a wrong turn a couple of miles from the finish and came down the wrong side of the hill. He managed to get within 250m of the camp, but on the far side of a burn and deer fence. We all watched as he proceed to double-back and re-climb the hill, adding nearly 1000ft and a couple of miles to his route. Race control deemed no action was required as he had “self-penalised” 🤣 For the rest of the week he was the butt of (good-natured) navigational jokes.
The weather was great pretty much all week, light overcast and some sun and a little breeze – perfect for running and camping. Only on the morning of day 7 did we finally get a little taste of Scottish Spring, with driving winds and horizontal rain. The midges weren’t too bad, even in Torridon!
The camp locations are stunning. My favourite was Inverewe (Camp 4), where we had stunning sunshine and a lovely site overlooked by Beinn Eighe. I even managed a little swim in the river… very nice after most of a week without a shower! Glenfinnan and Kinloch Hourn were also special places.
On the final day, the finish line is at the Cape Wrath lighthouse, but from there everyone needs to be shuttled 12 miles down a dirt track, across a the loch via a short boat ride and walk to the final camp in Keoldale, near Durness. Only a small ground of event team get to go to the actual finish line and I was one of the lucky ones. It was an absolute privilege to be there to welcome the competitors to the end of their epic journey and share cheers, hugs and tears as they crossed the line.
I couldn’t have asked for a better bunch of people to work with on the start/finish team! Inspired by the late, great Tina Turner you guys were “simply the best”. Simply the loudest too – as I believe our finish line whooping was heard more than a mile from camp 🙉
If you want to find out more about what happened in the race itself, there is a great daily blog from Ourea. All I would add is that volunteering was an absolutely fantastic experience, and I totally recommend it to anyone – you will not regret it! I made some great new friends and really feel like part of the CWU community. Looking forward to seeing many of you again next year, when I will be back – as a competitor 😁
Scroll down to the bottom for Strava link (spoiler alert!)
The Thames Ring 250 is organised by Challenge Running, with race director Lindley Chambers. It is a 250 mile loop starting and finishing in Goring and made up of stretches of the Thames path, Grand Union Canal and Oxford Canal. I have been preparing for this race since January with nervous anticipation and it was finally time to travel down to Goring for the race start. I left home at 5am on the Tuesday and 3 coaches and a train later I arrived in Goring at about 7pm. I checked in to the Miller of Mansfield pub where I was staying and immediately met a couple of guys that were also racing! A lot of the runners were meeting for a meal at another of the local pubs but I had decided against joining them as I felt it would make me more nervous and then make it harder to sleep. Instead I went for a quick mile leg stretch along the Thames before heading to the local chippy for sausage and chips. I then headed straight to my room to get my kit sorted for the morning before a relatively early night. Race registration (and the pub breakfast) didn’t start until 8am so I set my alarm for 7am. I actually managed a good nights sleep until I woke at 3am and then I dozed after that. All in all it wasn’t a bad pre-race nights sleep.
When I headed down to breakfast at 8am there were already a couple of runners there and more soon arrived. In total there was just over a dozen of us! A full cooked breakfast and plenty of tea went down a treat and I then went and sorted my bags before heading to race registration just across the bridge at the Morrell Room. Registration was really well organised and I soon had my kit checked and a tag added to my drop bag. I collected my hoody and race number and had my tracker attached to my race vest (I then had to get this moved as it felt really uncomfortable)! I was all sorted by 9am and then had a long hour of waiting around. I had a quick chat with Iain and my eldest and then hung around nervously waiting for the start.
Start – CP1 Hurley Car Park (27 miles)
As we waited for the start I positioned myself at the back determined to not go off too fast! My plan was to walk the first 5 mins and then alternate 5 minutes running / 5 minutes walking for as long as possible. We started at 10am and it was a relief to get going after what felt like a very long wait at the start! I always find it hard not to race others at the start of any race but knew I would be better trying to stick at a steadier pace, which I actually managed. The 5 minutes walking at the start definitely helped as well as being slowed down by a few gates in the first few miles. I did find it hard to settle into a rhythm as even with only 43 starters it felt busy and I felt like I was getting in people’s way with my frequent walk sections! However we all soon spread out, quite a few others were running in pairs or groups but I ran on my own wanting to stick to my walk/run strategy. I know from previous races I tend to run too much or too fast if I start chatting with other runners. It did mean a lot of yo-yoing with others during the first day. We were soon crossing the river at Pangbourne and then heading on to a section where you come away from the river, over the railway and pass through Purley-on-Thames. Navigation was straight forward using the GPX file on my watch. I had been nervous about navigating the road/town sections beforehand but soon got into the swing of it once we were on our way. After crossing back over the railway we then followed the Thames all the way to Reading. I was looking forward to the next section as it was the only section I had previously run (in reverse) during KACR last year. Everything was feeling good, I was eating and drinking almost every walk break and my pacing was what I had expected. All good so far!
From Reading you follow the Thames until reaching Sonning where you cross the Thames on the road bridge. It was here that Iain (as my crew) came to my rescue on KACR as I had my biggest wobble of the race! Chocolate had solved the problem on that occasion! This time I was feeling good and happy to just be trotting along to CP1. There were still a few other runners around and as we turned away from the river just before Shiplake I was able to show them the correct way to go. It was nice to have a short chat with other runners but then they stopped at the shop in Shiplake and I headed on over the level crossing and back towards the Thames. There was a short diversion to avoid a damaged foot bridge and then I was at Henley. It always feels strange running through busy towns with everyone just going about their business but I had soon crossed over the river and was again heading along the river path towards the turn away from the river at Aston and the short climb up past the Flower Pot Inn (one of the checkpoints from KACR). I had caught up a couple of other runners but was still sticking to my 5 minutes running / 5 minutes walking and was looking forward to reaching the check point which now didn’t feel too far away! I like this section of river path running and was soon crossing the foot bridge at Hurley. A short run along the island and then across a second footbridge and I was at the check point at roughly 27 miles (28 miles on my watch).
This check point and all of the future check points were fantastically well organised and the volunteers were amazing. My drop bag was always ready for me as was a chair and volunteers were super quick and helpful. There were a couple of runners at the check point when I arrived and a couple came in while I was there. I had always planned for a quick turn around at this first checkpoint and I managed that reasonable well – I didn’t get too comfortable! I had my bottles refilled, topped up on food and gels, emptied my rubbish, had a cup of tea and a banana and was on my way. All in all I was stopped for about 10 minutes.
CP1 – CP2 Chertsey (28 miles)
This next section was where I felt I finally got into a better running rhythm. I didn’t see as many people and just got my head down and got on with it. I had run the route as far as Maidenhead (albeit in reverse) and was looking forward to the public toilets in Cookham! I was sticking to a roughly 12 min/mile pace which I was really pleased with and eating and drinking well. The temperature was great for running and as long as I didn’t think about how far was still to go all was good! Soon after the check point you cross over the Temple bridge and run along the left side of the Thames until Marlow where you weave along some little lanes and alleys before getting back to the river. You stick on this side of the river for quite a while before crossing on a footbridge next to a railway bridge at Bourne End. For anyone that like trains you get to see lots on this race and every time I saw a train it made me smile and think of Iain as he gets so excited when he sees a train on a run! After this you soon reach Cookham and turn away from the river and through the church graveyard. A short road section and then some public toilets in the car park! You then turn down Mill Lane and are soon on a wooded path which takes you back to the river. Navigation was all straight forward and I was feeling more confident following the route on my watch. You run along the road into Maidenhead, cross over the road bridge to continue along the Thames on the far side. I said goodbye to the section of the route I knew and was on to new territory!
I don’t really remember much about this next section to the check point. There were a couple of bridge crossings and short road sections but otherwise river path all the way. Navigation was straight forward and I was just ticking away the miles. I have never run a race with such a long distance between check points and hadn’t appreciated how long it can feel between stops and seeing people. At this point in the race it was OK but it did get harder as the race went on! I had to stop about half an hour before the check point to put my head torch on but otherwise just kept going! As I approached the bridge where the check point was meant to be I saw a sign that said the check point was just up the road in the pub car park so off I trotted! I was still running at the pace I had hoped and aimed for another quick turn around at this check point. I was still feeling good and feet felt fine so wasn’t planning to change socks or shoes just yet.
The check point was another fantastic set up and I was soon munching on a bowl of potatoes and cheese with a cup of tea. Water bottles and food was restocked and I swapped into a long sleeved t-shirt for the night. All the volunteers were lovely and it was great to chat to folk before heading out again. I also changed my skort for a pair of shorts as the waist elastic was slightly too tight and it had been bothering me for quite a few miles. Changed into my trusty Flanci trailblazer shorts and full of food I felt ready to tackle the night! I was about 18 minutes at the check point, slightly longer than I had hoped but with the change of clothes not too bad!
CP2 – CP3 Yiewsley (28 miles)
This was the section I had been most nervous about before the start. It has some quite built up areas and I must admit I was nervous of running them in the dark on my own. My options were to pair up with another runner but that would have meant going slightly faster or slower than I would have liked and with a different run/walk pattern or to just get on and do it. I chose to just get on with it as I assessed that the actual risks are low and I had my tracker and phone with me. It did mean I was slightly on edge all night and very aware of my surroundings! I just prefer running in the countryside on my own at night! In my pre race planning I had hoped to stick at roughly 13 min/mile for this section and I managed this reasonably well sticking to the 5 minutes running / 5 minutes walking plan.
After leaving the check point you follow the river round until you reach Shepperton where you head up the road away from the river. There were 2 points in Shepperton where the GPX and maps differed slightly so I had checked with Lindley before the race and he was happy for us to follow either route. I stuck to the road which I was glad about as there were a large number of teenagers hanging about in the car park which was the first point where the map and GPX varied. Once through Shepperton you cross the bridge to Walton-on-Thames where you follow the river all the way until crossing back over at Hampton Court. This section was slightly confusing as there is more than one path option. They do however all run parallel to each over between the Thames and Hampton Court. Looking at Strava I seemed to have swapped between 2 of the paths and at one point I phoned Iain who told me that people were using both the lower and middle path. Iain was fantastic support through the night and I spoke to him several times for reassurance and a friendly voice! He makes an awesome long distance crew and I would find it a lot harder without him. Just before Kingston bridge I caught up and overtook another runner, annoyingly in this stretch I got distracted and tripped over a tree root, thankfully no harm was done and I jumped back up and on my way. Iain was again amazing and calmed me down!
I don’t remember much of the next section until reaching Richmond which was the next stage I had been worried about. There were several sections through the night where the route went next to quiet roads in woody areas. This did mean I had to run past a few cars of young men, but I just put my head down and kept running and wasn’t bothered by anyone. In Richmond the navigation was actually easier than I had expected and I didn’t have any problems, there were however quite a few youths hanging around which made me on edge even though none of them did anything! I was definitely on hyper alert for this section. My nerves weren’t helped when I turned into Lion wharf Road to find a police car and van pulling over a car – I just kept going! Syon Park was straight forward to head across and seems to be permanently open at the far end now. I was finally on the Grand Union Canal which felt like a huge milestone.
I don’t remember much about this section, I definitely relaxed a lot as I felt the worst of the night was over. This section is easy to navigate and just had one straightforward diversion. The legs were beginning to feel the miles now and I was looking forward to reaching check point 3. I was still only slightly off my plan A pacing which was encouraging (I am always overly optimistic on my plans and have never stuck to one yet!).
I arrived at check point 3 in the early hours of the morning, and looking back was slower than I should have been. The danger of lovely check point volunteers and many hours on my own meant I probably lingered and chatted far longer than I should have. I did check my feet and put on more Sudocrem and I think I changed socks (I can’t 100% remember what I did when)! I enjoyed more tea and baked beans, hot dogs and potatoes (I think) and restocked my water and food. I was having to work at eating on my walk breaks now and wasn’t really enjoying a lot of the food I had with me. However gels were great and I continued to benefit from them for the rest of the race. I think I was about 28 minutes at this check point before I headed on my way.
CP3 – CP4 Berkhampsted (24 miles)
This section had the benefit of being slightly shorter and in daylight, however I tend to find I have a real low in the early morning once it gets light and this was no exception! I felt really tired on this section and because there is little navigation I found it hard to snap out of that tired state. This section is also where you pass 100 miles which felt like another milestone although also brought with it nagging doubts of how was I going to keep going for another 150 miles when I was already this tired! The key with this race is definitely to avoid thinking about the enormity of the task and just focus on the next section. There were lots of positives – I was still running well and managing an OK pace (just over 13 min/miles a lot of the time), nothing was injured (just tired), it was now daylight and I would be seeing my parents and aunt and uncle at check point 5 this afternoon. I can’t remember if I saw any other runners on this section or just at the check point. The path was generally good for running / fast walking. There was one diversion on this section which took you away from the canal and along a busy road but otherwise it was canal all the way. I arrived at CP4 ready for a break and was definitely more faffy than I should have been! Legs and feet were now tired and sitting in a chair was far too nice! My routine was much the same as at other check points and it was nice to get some chat. Henrik was at the check point when I arrived having hurt his knee. He headed out before me as I was still getting sorted with food and drink. I think I also changed shoes at this check point as I figured fresh soles would have more cushioning than the ones I had been pounding for miles and miles. I was just under 30 minutes at the check point in total with 108 miles on my watch.
CP4 – CP5 Milton Keynes (25 miles)
I soon caught up with Henrik who was really struggling with his knee. We walked for a short section and then I started running again. Henrik tried a run but it wasn’t going to happen with his knee so I said a goodbye and headed on. I was unsure if he was going to try and keep going but with a knee that sore and 150 miles to go it seemed unlikely. I was gutted for him as a bashed knee is not a nice way to have to end a race.
So I was on my own again and heading on to Milton Keynes. I was really looking forward to seeing Mum and Dad and my aunt and uncle, but I was also feeling really tired and felt I was slowing down a lot. At some point I swapped to 4 min running / 4 min walking as 5 minutes just felt too long. I decided to try a 15 minute power nap at Milton Keynes to see if that sorted me out for the night ahead. This section of the route is easy running and navigation, looking back at Strava my only slight detour was to head down the Wendover arm of the GUCR! I’m guessing my watch beeped at me and I headed back! For this section I wasn’t really using the map at all and was just relying on the GPX on my watch. As I got more tired Iater into the race I was keeping an eye on bridge numbers on the map as well to minimise mistakes! This was the first section where I really started noticing how long it was between check points and this section did begin to drag. It was hard to keep my mind focussed on the moment and not start thinking of the massive distance still to go!
I arrived at check point 5 about 30 mins behind my A plan which I was very happy with and it was great to see my Mum, Dad, aunt and uncle, they have never seen me mid-race before so I had already warned them I may look awful, be really stiff or just not look very happy. Actually I was feeling good, tired and sore but nothing that wouldn’t be expected at this point in the race. After quick hugs and hellos I soon put them to work refilling bottles, emptying rubbish from my race vest etc (all the glamorous jobs)! I had some food (I can’t remember what) and a cup of tea and then once everything was organised I said my goodbyes and nipped into the little pop up tent to try and get a short nap. I crawled into the tent and soon realised sleeping would be a challenge! My hips and legs were sore on the thin mat so I tossed and turn but didn’t really sleep. I did use the time to rub sore spots in my leg muscles so that when I got up 15 mins later my legs felt loads better.
Looking at Strava I only spent about 30 minutes at the check point so not any longer than the previous one. Annoyingly I forgot to put the elastics back on my gaiters after my little rest and didn’t realise until several miles down the canal path so after that they weren’t doing much good and I took them off at the next check point. The first of many little check point errors!
CP5 – CP6 Nether Heyford (26 miles)
It was now raining and I had put my rain coat on at the check point. This was frustrating as I find I overheat easily when wearing it but the forecast was that it was set in for the night so I was just going to have to get used to it. Another runner had mentioned to me that this next section to Nether Heyford was a tough one so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but the first few miles were OK and quite runnable. I had arranged to say another hello to my mum, dad, aunt and uncle at the far side of Milton Keynes and I was really looking forward to this. I felt a little bad dragging them out in the rain just to say hello as I ran by but at least it wasn’t in the middle of the night! It was lovely to see them, I was still feeling good and running well, although apprehensive about the night ahead! I tried to stop and have a chat but they weren’t having any of it and sent me on my way! Once past Milton Keynes the path became quite muddy and wet and was harder to keep a good rhythm on. It was requiring concentration to keep from slipping on the path, especially as it was now dark. At some point I stopped and put waterproof trousers on as I was getting cold – this turned into more of a job than I had hoped as even with zips up the back the trousers didn’t fit over my shoes and I had to hop around trying to take shoes of and put them on!. I managed to slip over at one point when looking up to check a bridge number, before I knew what was happening I was sliding along the path in the mud! Thankfully no damage was done and I was soon on my way again!
Bilsworth tunnel was at about 151 miles. The navigation was easy but the climb up from the canal was steep! Somehow steeper than I had expected and once you join Stoke Road although easier underfoot I didn’t enjoy it much as the cars came flying down the road ridiculously fast. It seemed like it took a very long time before I turned off the road and rejoined the canal. The next few miles to the check point were slower, I don’t remember a huge amount about this section of canal but at night in the rain with a slippy, muddy path they took far longer than I would have liked and it was with huge relief I arrived at Nether Heyford ready for some warm food, a short sleep and a change of clothes. This section had taken a lot out of me and I was worried about the 100 miles ahead! For all this sounds like I didn’t enjoy it in some ways running in the rain was really nice and knowing I was heading towards an indoor check point was a huge incentive to keep pushing on! Being in second place overall and first female so early in the race had been a surprise and I wanted to keep giving the race my best however I was now running further than I ever had before and a second night of very little sleep was new to me. I found it very hard not to let the doubts creep in!
Someone had come out of the check point to meet me which I really appreciated in the rain and as the only runner at the check point I was really well looked after. I soon had all my wet kit off drying on radiators and watch and phone charging. A quick change in the toilets and I was ready for food and a cup of tea. I decided to have an hour’s sleep here and was soon up on the stage behind the curtain. It was lovely and warm and dark but unfortunately the hard floor meant I couldn’t really get to sleep and rolled around and fidgeted for most of the hour. I think I dropped off for about 20 minutes in total. I did take the opportunity to rub and stretch some very sore and tight leg muscles which felt good. After an hour I got up finished sorting my bag and had some more food and another cup of tea and was then off on my way. I was at the check point for about 1 hour and 40 mins in total and left knowing it would now be very difficult to get near the female course record but I was still on target for finishing with a good time.
During this race I learnt that I can manage several nights on very little sleep and for me I think 10 mins with my eyes shut stretching out sore and tired muscles is probably the best. I don’t feel that having an hour laying down really added very much and meant that when I left the check point I just felt frustrated that I had wasted an hour. I’m not sure exactly when I left but it was still raining and I had a couple of hours before it got light. I didn’t mind the rain but wasn’t looking forward to swapping onto the Oxford canal which from previous race reports sounded like it was the most difficult terrain of the race!
CP6 – CP7 Fenny Compton (29 miles)
This is the longest section of the race and it felt it (30 miles on my watch with some poor navigation at Braunston)! There are only a couple of points where you need to be careful for navigation, firstly the diversion at the Braunston tunnel. I was tired at this point and spent a long time wandering around trying to find the correct path. In the end I phoned Iain who thanks to the tracker soon had me sorted out! The other point is to make sure you get on to the Oxford canal, which I managed fine! The path was hard going and only got worse and once on the Oxford canal it is very monotonous. This may be a good thing as concentration is required on foot placement all of the time. There would be sections where the path would improve only to deteriorate around the next corner. The path was quite slippy and wet and was either sloping into the canal or had big holes for you to keep an eye out for. The bushes had thankfully been cut back but they still had nice sharp edges to snag your coat on. This was the start of my low section, my pace had really reduced and I had started faffing – always dangerous and difficult to stop once started. Once it got light I had my morning lull and generally spent this section feeling sorry for myself. The rain did at some point stop and the sun came out. My feet had started being sore in the last section and that was only getting worse and my legs were stiff and tired. I began to see my time slipping away.
I arrived at the check point later than I would have liked and ready for a break. The volunteers were again fantastic and I was soon had hot food and drinks, bottles refilled and bag restocked. I was finding it harder now to eat between check points. Hard pear drops that had seemed like a great idea (and I had enjoyed) had shredded my mouth which was now full of ulcers. I hadn’t really enjoyed the salamis and they sat unused in my drop bag. Babybels and little Kinder-like bars were still going down well and Kellogg’s Krispie squares, although not enjoyable, definitely gave me an energy boost. Crisps were also hit and miss. Gels however were still good so I kept well stocked up with them and I was still eating really well at check points so all was good. I again decided to have a short sleep here and again failed to sleep. 10 mins laying down and rubbing sore muscles is definitely the way to go for future races. I was craving company by this point and so hang around far longer than I should have. This check point also has the bonus of the pub toilets – a real luxury but also another way to waste time. All in all I spent just over an hour here, definitely longer than I should.
CP7 – CP8 Lower Heyford (23 miles)
As the race went on I discovered that I would feel really strong and positive for a couple of hours out of a check point and then would crash, feeling tired and sorry for myself all the way to the next check point. I think in future long races in the latter parts of the race I will stop every 3 hours or so for my own mini check point – some good solid food and a 5-10 min sit down to see if this makes a difference. However this race I didn’t so after a couple of hours of feeling good I plodded on past endless fields, random bridges to nowhere and the odd canal boat. The path was terrible for most of the day and I was faffing! This made the tiredness even worse and at one point I phoned my eldest for a chat as I felt like I was falling asleep on my feet. Every time I saw a bench or lock it was difficult to fight the urge to sit down and I often treated myself to 10 second sit downs. I’m not sure these did much good and only slowed me down more! Everything was tired and sore by this point, including my toes, thankfully the balls of my feet and heels were holding up ok. The sun had come out warm and I was glad it hadn’t been this warm the whole way. It was late afternoon / early evening by the time I arrived at Lower Heyford, the second indoor check point of the race.
The building was lovely and I took my shoes off at the door! I got everything on to charge (watch, phone and torch) and then sorted out my feet which had some good blisters on the toes. My hands had been swollen all day, which is normal for me in long races but I was aware my ankles were also beginning to swell which I was worried about. So while I ate some lovely food I sat with my feet up. This check point was far too comfortable and warm with the TV on. There was also a comfy looking blow up sleep mat in the corner which I managed to resist! I again spent too long at this check point and was just leaving as the next racer arrived. I spent just over an hour at the check point. Definitely room for improvement!
CP8 – CP9 Abingdon (25 miles)
The first 15 miles out of this check point were slow. I had decided that I couldn’t run anymore and was going to walk the rest of the way. The problem being my walk was getting slower and slower! The path does improve and definitely has some good runnable sections but in my head I couldn’t run anymore. As it got dark I put my head torch on only for it to start flashing that the battery was low. This was concerning as I had just charged it! It turns out that in my sleep deprived state I hadn’t realised the power bank I “charged” it from was empty! I turned it down to medium beam and used it on that until it stopped altogether when I swapped onto my spare battery. This was fine but I had a nagging worry about what if this battery didn’t last me to the next check point and I was left with no head torch on a canal in the middle of nowhere. These worries and Iain’s amazing MP3 playlist kept me going for a while until near Oxford when I started getting really tired again. I started hallucinating which I found funny rather than scary and had a section where my family were walking with me, even though I knew they were at home, bicycle wheels also kept doing weird and wonderful things and I kept seeing faces in the path. The most annoying hallucination were seeing people where there weren’t any and trees that appeared to be bridges until I was very close.
A phone call with Iain late evening and he told me that one of the runners behind, Nathan, had picked up his pace and was rapidly catching me. That was fine I was still convinced I was going as fast as I could. Nathan did catch me, which actually felt a relief as I was desperate for some company! I just hoped he stayed for a chat for a few miles before running on! However when Nathan arrived he was very certain he didn’t want to overtake me and was happy to go at the quickest pace I could to the finish. I told him not to be silly and to get going as it was a race after all and he was looking far stronger than me at this point. However he was adamant and I was happy for the company so we carried on together. For his sake I said I would try a run but reminded him I really didn’t think I could run anymore. It turns out I could and once my brain was overruled my legs were more than capable of running. We had a fun few miles running faster than we probably should have done at this stage in the race but it felt great.
We only slowed down when the path again deteriorated into a horrible, muddy, slippy track for the last few miles to Abingdon. I learnt a valuable lesson here that even when you think you can’t do anymore actually you can. I could still run and I really enjoyed it. We had a few almost navigational errors but always noticed and corrected them before they were a problem and I really enjoyed having someone to chat to after so many hours on my own. We turned up at the check point in high spirits and aiming for a quick turn around. Nathan set a time limit which was sensible but I did struggle to keep to it after faffing so much at the last few aid stations. The check point volunteers are again fantastic and couldn’t do enough for us. If you are looking for a quick finish time it is definitely important to limit check point time! After only 20 minutes or so we were back on our way. Clean shoes and socks, fed and watered and with gels restocked, I had also removed my waterproofs which I had been wearing for warmth but since running had been slowly baking in! And the head torch did last out until the check point and daylight!
CP9 – Finish Goring (21 miles)
In my head this section was going to be easier, with only 21 miles to go and back on the Thames path I thought it would be easier terrain. We left in high spirits planning to run / walk most of the way, but were soon disappointed – the path was still awful, claggy, slippy mud and rutted paths. Interspersed with fields of interested bovines, which were tussocky and uneven it made keeping up any pace hard going. The early morning was shrouded in a cold mist that slowly burnt off but meant I was either too cold or too hot depending on our pace and whether we were in a random pocket of cold air. It was a beautiful morning but I wasn’t in much of a state to appreciate it with all my focus on the finish that didn’t seem to be getting any closer! I then made the mistake of looking at my legs and noticing how swollen my knees were – they weren’t too sore but I was worried I was going to injure myself so was reluctant to try running again on the uneven surfaces. I suggested a couple of times to Nathan that he could head on but he was happy to stick with me as long as we were moving fast enough to keep second place and under his target time of 74 hours. Morning is always when my low points hit and today was no exception and I probably moaned far more than I should have – sorry! The sleep deprivation had also caught up with me and I was struggling with even simple bits of navigation. Thankfully we didn’t make any major mistakes!
Eventually the finish crawled slowly nearer and it was with relief we were able to count down the last few miles. I would like to say I picked up the pace for the finish but all I could manage was a run around the last corner to the finish, 260 miles on my watch, joint 2nd position and first female in a time of 72 hrs and 40 minutes. Lindley presented our medals and my trophy and prizes for first female, a few photos and I was able to sit down and relax knowing I didn’t have to get up again for a while! Again everyone was fantastic making sure I had food and drink and everything I needed. Blisters were drained and dressed for the journey home (thank you) and I was able to get a couple of hours sleep in the corner of the room. It was great to be able to cheer in the next two finishers before having to head to the station for the journey home. Thankfully Lindley gave me a lift to the station as it would have felt like a long slow and painful walk with my drop bag!
Of the 43 starters, 19 finished and regardless of if people finished or not everyone gave it their all. Of those that finished I am particularly impressed by those that did a fourth night – I have no idea how you kept going and think you are all amazing. A huge thanks to Challenge Running, to Lindley for a brilliant event and for your amazing team of volunteers – super well organised throughout and I was always very well looked after at all the check points and finish. Sometimes too well(!) making it hard to get back out there and keep moving! And a massive thank you to Iain and my family for allowing me the time for these crazy and awesome adventures.
A train journey and 3 coaches (1 of them overnight) isn’t the best start to recovery and by the time I got home on Sunday morning my ankles had swollen impressively. I had thankfully managed to get some sleep on the coach (hopefully I wasn’t snoring too much!) and managed the half mile walk home from the bus stop. Iain was running a local 10 mile race that morning so after a quick shower and breakfast I headed out with him to support. I really wanted to be there for him as he had done such an amazing job supporting me during the race. Our youngest was also with us so after seeing the racers off we headed to the closest point they would pass after a mile and a half. I managed to hobble there in time to give Iain a cheer and then we headed back to the stands at the track where the race would finish. Angus was playing games on my phone so I instructed him when to wake me and promptly fell asleep! I woke just in time and was able to hobble to the finish to cheer Iain in – a new PB of 1:03:42 and 14th place overall. Then home to put the feet up and sleep.
Lots of sleeping and elevating the legs meant I was able to slowly walk a few miles on Tuesday and since then have made sure to walk every day and I started running again eight days after I finished. Pilates has also helped stretch everything but is a little sore at the time! Thankfully other than very bruised and blistered toes I haven’t had any injuries and just need to give my body time to recover.
Having spent a large portion of the race complaining about how much I hated it and how I couldn’t understand how anyone would run it twice or more, within a couple of hours of finishing I found myself thinking how I would improve my race strategy and how I could do better. It is certainly the race I have learnt most during and I am looking forward to using what I have learnt in the future. I would absolutely love to come back and try again at the race record – I am sure having run the route previously is an advantage and also knowing that I can manage on very little sleep. I could certainly reduce my time at later check points and I now know I can run even when I think I can’t! A little more self believe would also help. Of all the races I have run this is the first I feel I have unfinished business with!