Salomon S-Lab Wings 8- Shoe Review

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In the past I have often rushed a shoe review, but I really wanted to be 100% on these shoes before publishing my thoughts. First off, I wanted to make clear that I will only ever publish a positive review if I genuinely believe in a product. I’ve been trying to find the right shoe for a while now and have worn several this year, that for one reason or another, haven’t performed as I would have expected or desired.

I am also trying to move back away from more cushioned shoes such as my Hoka Speedgoats and Pearl Izumi M2’s, back towards something more lightweight and that helps support and reflect natural form.

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2017 was always intended to be a confident boosting year, with some big plans for 2018. Its been that and more and I have a good feeling for next year. I only intend to run three races in 2018, and all three will be 100 milers. Lottery season will dictate which 100 milers they will be but the only certainty I have in the calendar at present is the Arc of Attrition in February and for this I needed a shoe capable of having everything including the kitchen sink thrown at it. Mud, slick rock, road and very uneven terrain.

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Looking back (and it feels a long time ago now), my PB year in all distances was 2014 and for all of these PB’s, aside from the 100 mile PB, I ran in shoes that supported my natural running style and my go to brand back then was Salomon- namely the 2014 Sense range.

I am no Kilian, so running a Cornish coast path 100 miler in the depths of the UK winter would require more than a minimalist Sense shoe could offer, but what else would work between an overly cushioned shoe that didn’t allow the nimbleness this route requires, and a sense-style slipper?

Well, I think I have found it in the S-Lab Wings 8 shoe.

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First impressions out of the box were that this shoe was on the heavy side. At 275g that is not necessarily the case, but they just felt a bit cumbersome. That aside, they were everything I loved about the sense range, but beefed up a bit. The mesh has been strengthened, which was always the weakest point on the Sense, tearing before any other damage on both my pairs. The inner lining is thicker and means it can genuinely be worn sockless, not just as a marketing ploy. And the contragrip has been seriously strengthened making the lugs less prone to wear but also much grippier on wet rock (note- no shoe will stop slipping completely, but these are the best I have experienced on wet tree roots and rock).

The shoe is designed for testing mountain terrain and warm weather, being highly breathable. But this also equally applies to wet UK winters where I require a shoe that lets out all of the water the UK winter takes in. No shoe I have used drains like this one and on a recent Gran Canaria holiday I regularly got the shoe soaked and my socks were dry again very soon afterwards. The same applies to puddles back home and this will be essential for the Arc of Attrition.

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I have probably put about 300 miles on these shoes so far and a lot of that has been a mixture of trail and pavement without any wearing down of the lugs, so these are definitely stronger than other Salomon shoes I have used before.

The shoe has a 9mm drop, which is at the heftier end of things in the modern world of shoes like Altra, marketing themselves as solely zero drop, but I have started to move away from very low drops and this shoe suits my form perfectly and its nice to see such a variety of shoes emerge to cater to all forms. Even when I started ultras in the relatively recent 2012, there was nowhere near this range of shoes available.

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The quicklace system is simple and strong, meaning the laces once pulled taught can be tucked into a little flat on the tongue and there is no slipping.

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The shoe feels very supportive, without feeling like you are disconnected to the ground, but you also know that stray sharp rocks aren’t going to suddenly come through your foot- it is a very well built shoe.

Finally, it has a feeling of comfort but doesn’t lose any of the fast-feel you get from the Sense range. Running 100 miles in this shoe may be a little far, but for the terrain I will be using it on, this is the best shoe I have found in a while. Furthermore, there is also a soft ground version for those looking for even more lugginess.

You can buy it here: https://www.salomon.com/uk/product/s-lab-wings-8.html

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OCC (56K race of the UTMB Series)

As I stood on the start line of Orsieres, I felt more anxious than I had in a long time before a race. UTMB meant so much to me during some tough times last year that failing to finish it had, I realized over winter last year, impacted me a lot more than I had appreciated at the time. So being back at the, albeit shorter, OCC race and the chance to finish in Chamonix meant a great, great deal to me.

I was at the tail end of a nasty cold which had dilapidated me quite a bit in the ten day lead up to the race and up until the night before, I wasn’t even sure I would be starting. But I kept telling myself it was “only” a 56k race and I had plenty of time to finish it.

What I didn’t remind myself was that the weather was dreadful, I had 3500M+ of climb en route to Chamonix, I was racing between 1200M and 2200M above sea level (where I live) and that this was my third hard ultra in an 8 week period (Lavaredo Ultra Trail at 75 miles and the North Downs Way 100 miler just a few weeks before).

I focused on the positive.

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Courtest of Dawn Gardner (who’s husband Chris smashed the race) as I waited to start.

Despite this being the shortest of the UTMB race series, there was no sense of that at the start. I had already been up since before 4am to get a coach to the start line, but the atmosphere in Orsieres was electric. There were camera crews, helicopters and drones all around us filming the runners as we prepared to set off. Like others have said before- UTMB is something else and the hype is immense. I try and be quite low key and as such it was easy to feel overwhelmed at the magnitude of where I was.

As the gun went off at 8:15am we made our way through the small towns streets and up towards the first climb, high fiving kids as we went and to shouts of “Allez, Allez!”. If I am honest, I almost stopped whilst we were still on the towns tarmac as I didn’t feel great at all, but told myself I would give it an hour and worst case, I could walk back down to the town, knowing I at least tried.

The rain was coming down hard now and being towards the rear of the field-not caring about placing one bit in this race- it was very muddy already with a good 1000 runners ahead of me churning up the ground well. It wasn’t cold, but was very wet so whilst I started in the waterproof I found I was too hot quite quickly and took a moment to take it off and run in just my t-shirt. After I did this I felt a whole world better.

The first check point in this race was 10K in at Champex Lac where we then followed the remainder of the UTMB route into Chamonix. I don’t use a GPS but run to feel and estimated that based on the terrain and conditions, 5K an hour was about right, so I would be on for a roughly 12 hour finish. The cut off was 15 hours, so this allowed me to relax, albeit keep up a decent rhythm as there are intermittent cut offs on the route along the way. It felt like a 5K pace, hiking the ups, jogging the flats and running the downs.

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After such a big year and as I started to feel better, all that mattered was getting to the finish in one piece. It doesn’t say your time on the gillet and the weather was getting worse and worse.

After Champex there is a short section along the lake, but the fog was so thick I could literally see a metre into the lake. I had seen this section hundreds of times on YouTube so it was a shame not to feel the surroundings, but such is the world of ultras, and I knew I would be back in 48 hours whilst crewing the main UTMB (more of that in a blog soon).

This follows a lovely fire road downhill where for the first time I felt normal and the legs moved nicely. At the bottom here there is the first big climb of the day (when I say big, to put it in context the ‘big’ ones have over 500 metres of gain, the small ones less than 300).

Here I thought back to the website where it describes this race as “for the less ultra runners”. I can assure you, I consider myself very much an ultrarunner these days having completed a lot of races, and this was by no means the fun run for crews wanting to be part of the atmosphere. This was a very tough, albeit shorter distance, race. It is 14k longer than a marathon on very tough terrain and I do feel it deserves a lot more respect than it gets. There are no fun runs at UTMB- even the kids race goes up a ski slope!

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Looks lovely, gentle and rolling, doesn’t it? Yeah, its not!

At the top of this long climb we found our way above the fog, but the rain was turning to sleet and patchy snow, so the waterproof came back on as did the hat, but not the gloves as I knew we would soon top out soon and be making our way down the long descent to Trient, with a 600m drop in altitude in just 5k.

Just after the top we entered a gite and this was the perfect time to fill up on water. Not having felt great I was mainly getting through this race on Tailwind, so I took the time to fill up a couple of bottles but the weather made the decision to press on quickly for me, as any stops in longer than two minutes resulted in shivering.

Again, this descent felt fantastic and I found myself passing a lot of runners and the grip on my Speedgoat Hokas was perfect. Despite the mud I didn’t lose my footing and I felt my descending was way better than at Lavaredo.

At Trient I was at the psychologically beneficial half way point and again quickly moved through. Shortly after there was another 5k climb and then 5k descent to Vallorcine. Each 10k section taking a little over 2 hours hopefully puts this race in context.

Through Vallorcine and the weather started to clear a little so it was back down to just a tshirt and pressing on along the relatively flat section to Argentierre and I felt like I was making decent progress. Despite no GPS, each aid station had distances listed so I knew I was on for 12 hours and I knew my family would be following online (the timing system here is first rate and even predicts accurately your next aid station arrival based on pace to date and terrain ahead). I was due to run into the finish with the kids and didn’t want to keep them waiting in the rain (as the weather was due to worsen again) so I kept up a decent momentum- as much as anything to just stay warm.

Through Argentierre you can almost smell Chamonix- driving it is only 4k away, but the course deviates uphill one last time to the top of a ski resort called La Flegere where it was then a 9k technical downhill to Chamonix itself. It was about 9:30 on the clock at this point and I calculated for the last 10k 2 hours climbing and one hour descending so was on for a 12:30 finish, which I would have been happy with. But my hiking here was very good and when I finally reached the top at La Flegere I knew if I ran the last 9k in an hour- all downhill but technical and slippery- in an hour I would be in for 12 hours.

Running down was excellent. No more climbing, my family and hot food awaited and I finally felt like a decent runner again. I savoured every step and knew this season had been amazing- so many fun races, no DNF’s and to have run my two main races in the Alps and the Dolomites I realized how lucky I was.

Finally the trail turned to a track, the track to a dirt road and the dirt road to tarmac. Chamonix’s lights were twinkling around me as dusk fell. I ran into the town and high fived kids and listened to the cheers all around me- this is what I had been looking forward to for almost 18 months and now it was happening.

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I weaved through the town and just as I hit the final bend, there were Monty and Lulu along with Sol and friends Sam, Christian and Caroline and their kids. I grabbed the kids by the hands and we jogged through the cheers to the finish. My parents were watching live on the webcam and it was just a fantastic feeling all round.

12 hours and 7 minutes. 2017 done.

Now nothing until the mega Arc of Attrition in February.

UTMB Finish

Follow up blog to come soon on crewing Jason Schlarb the next day at UTMB and then I will post on how I plan to recover and build fitness before February.

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The North Downs Way 100 Mile 2017

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This is the full trail. The NDW100 splits off to finish in Ashford. 

In all honesty, this was the only run I had scheduled in my calendar for 2017 that I didn’t want to do. I have run the 50 mile version more times than I can remember and having started the 100 twice, I had finished this race once before, and I knew it was a toughy.

I had entered as my back up plan if I failed to complete the Lavaredo Ultra Trail in less than 26 hours, which is the standard set as a Western States qualifying time. The NDW100 is also a WS qualifier and any finish time counts, as long as it is under the 30 hour cut-off. Whilst 25 miles longer than Lavaredo, it is a much, much easier course and was a logical back up. Logic also dictated that my finish time at the 75 mile Lavaredo should be around the same as the NDW100, but logic also tends to go out of the window at this distance. No matter how many 100 milers people had completed when stood on the start line, none of us had completed 100 miles yet that day. And that was all that mattered.

Having completed Lavaredo 5 weeks before, in just over 27 hours I knew I would need to run to keep my Western States cumulative ticket count growing. If I qualified this year, I would have 16 tickets- qualification standard for 5 years cumulatively.

Since I started ultras back in 2012, I have finished every single race I have entered…aside from the 100 mile distance.

100’s are a whole different ballgame and as I stood on the start line at 6am last Saturday, I was conscious this was my 9th 100 mile start line and I had only reached the finish of 4 so far. Was I about to make it 5 for 9, or was the trail about to take me 4 for 9? We had 30 hours to find out.

Anyone who knows me knows that Lavaredo beat me up pretty bad. A combination of heat, altitude, extreme climbs and descents, combined with numerous water crossings left my feet a real mess. For three weeks after I couldn’t face running. But, on the flip side I knew I had some good fitness going on, I knew the NDW trail like the back of my hand and most importantly, I knew that 100’s are a mind game, as much as a physical one. I didn’t have long to prepare physically, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t arrive mentally focused and prepared for a long slog, but a long slog that resulted in a finish.

This race also came virtually a year to the day since I got some very important good news and marked an anniversary of my first year working for myself. Having just launched my own sportswear company too, as well as running my consulting business, I had a lot to feel proud of and I wanted to celebrate with doing what I do best, running long in beautiful places. It also helped knowing my wife and kids would be meeting me at halfway and that kept me focused in the first half.

As is typical for August, the day wasn’t hugely warm but it was humid. I was sweating heavily from early on and knew I needed to keep the fluids up. Knowing the first half so well, I had set myself a personal cut off of 5 hours to the 25 mile mark and 12 hours to the halfway point, leaving me 18 hours in the bank for the final 50 miles. That sounds like enough time to walk the second half, let alone run it, but believe me if you have run this trail you will know that that is nowhere near enough and you have to push constantly and run wherever possible in order to finish under 30 hours here.

The first 50 was uneventful aside from a decent thunderstorm which lasted an hour or so. Runners all around me were stopping to put on waterproofs, but my logic was that if this was before the night-leg I would have done exactly the same, but I was about 14 miles from halfway where I would be changing tops anyway, I had been dousing myself with water until this point to keep cool, so the rain was actually really welcome relief. The air temperature cooled off a bit and by not putting a jacket on it forced me to keep up a decent clip. This worked perfectly and I felt really fresh following that storm as the humidity had been building for hours. The trail became very slippy though and you could spot those who had started in road shoes a mile off. I felt for them, but it is a trail race and we knew rain was forecast, so they had made their own bed.

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Walking into the aid station with the kids was an awesome feeling

I arrived in Knockholt Pound at 11:45 to be greeted by my awesome kids running and screaming towards me for a huge hug. Until they realized I was soaked and both said ‘yuk’ and backed off.

We got inside the checkpoint where I changed my shirt and swapped items from my dropbag for the night leg. Solange force fed me, but my appetite was good so I threw down a bowl of pasta and took some watermelon and sweets with me so I could eat and walk for the next mile to get my legs warmed up again. I asked the kids three times what they did today, apparently, and was told repeatedly ‘Dad- we just told you that’. I was pretty tired already!

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Ruining a perfectly lovely photo by looking like the wrong way. Standard. 

Back out the door to cuddles and kisses, I marched towards Wrotham with renewed purpose ready to deliver the kids their fifth 100 mile buckle. My legs and feet were complaining from Lavaredo, but I am experienced enough to know now that the pain at mile 50 is no worse than the pain at mile 75 or 95. This is where the brain takes over and if you let it talk you down here, you are done. But if you control it, you will win.

I felt like I moved pretty well to Wrotham and it was just turning to dusk as I got here. Tania from Runderwear was running this aid station and grabbed me my headlamp from my pack, got me a coffee and a sandwich and kicked me out the door. 40 miles to go.

The next five miles I was completely alone, which is just how I like to be in the long races. I prefer not chatting and staying focused, with quiet music on and night falling. I love nightrunning these days and find it so peaceful so made good progress as night fell and the woods came alive with the sound of owls and bats swooping all around me, feeling totally alone. It was my favourite part of the race for sure.

Having been a very muggy day, I had religiously been drinking 500ml of tailwind an hour, followed by a bottle of water and a third bottle for the longer stretches. I had been peeing and felt fine, but as I got close to mile 65 at Holly Hill, I felt the first signs of nausea. Spit built up in my mouth and I knew it was time for a system re-set. The body dictates what will happen and you just have to roll with it. Up and out everything came and over the next mile I was sick about four or five times, but felt so much better. I knew I just needed to take it steady and keep the calories coming back in slowly and gently. Again, with experience there was no panic, this was just part and parcel of running 100 milers and happens to so many people I know.

The North Downs Way is a really odd trail and I found myself taking in so much more than I had done on previous runs here. The thing I find most odd is the route takes you past what must be some of the most expensive houses in the country, but they are all down mud and gravel dirtroads. It’s hard to explain. Maybe it’s the privacy the owners crave, but these are multi-million pound houses and I found myself thinking a lot about silly things like yes, fine if you own a 4×4 but they must have cleaners and those roads must be lethal in the winter in a normal car. This probably isn’t making anyone reading this want to run 100 milers if they haven’t before, but those who have will know the funny thoughts a wandering mind can have!

From Holly Hill I had a 10 mile slog to Bluebell Hill at mile 76 and it was at that point I had set myself my personal finish line. If I made it to BH in good time, I knew I would finish. I crossed the Medway Bridge and this was a big milestone and it was now under 30 miles to go.

The climb to the long track that leads to Bluebell Hill seemed to pass quickly and my legs still felt great on the climbs, having worked so hard on climbing in the spring in preparation for the Dolomites. The track then seems to take an age before it hits the village and there was one house where a monster of a dog was barking at me. As I got closer I could see it lunging at the wall to try and get over. This certainly put a spring in my step and my shuffle turned into probably my fastest mile of the course!

At Bluebell Hill I sat down for only the second time during the race and ate a couple of sandwiches and packed a load of fruit and sweets into a little freezer bag I carried with me. I had a coffee and looked out at the horizon where the storm had cleared into a beautiful evening. It was stunning and I once again appreciated having the health, ability and determination to be able to do these things. I mustn’t take them for granted, even when wondering what on earth I am doing at times.

Cracking on, it was 6.5 miles to Detling, the final indoor aid station and a chance for hot food before the final 18 miles to the finish. Sorry, 21 miles. Its trail racing so it’s never an exact distance, but we all knew there was an extra 3 miles and this would equate to an hour so I was carefully factoring that into my maths. I don’t run with a GPS but run by feel, so was carefully monitoring my split times between each aid station and find this is a great way of keeping the mind occupied as you plod out the miles.

Again, this was fairly uneventful, plodding along knowing that the five miles after Detling are tough, but then it is 15 fairly flat runnable miles to the finish.

At Detling I downed some soup and was ready to leave in under four minutes. There was no point resting now, I could sleep all I wanted in a few hours and I had a job to do. I had just over seven hours to cover the remaining 21 miles and for the first time I realized that this was by no means in the bag. Yes, I was functioning well enough to finish, but I had to keep up a real decent pace to do it. 3 miles an hour sounds like an absolute joke, but after 82 miles on the legs and a huge amount of climbing, descending, slipping and getting through a very overgrown trail, 3 miles an hour is then quite a lot to ask.

With adrenaline spiking and my backpack having just split with the zip coming off, but having been cobbled back together using the bungees by awesome volunteer Dave Brock, I was off and out the door. Everyone talks about Detling and I remember how much it hurt in 2014, but after Lavaredo it was just a little hill with some fiddly ups and downs on the steps. Nothing to panic about, but one to grind through as painfully slowly as it would take. I started looking at my watch incessantly and really concerned that I would miss the finish and have to find another Western States qualifier later in the autumn and abroad, as this was the last UK qualifier of the year. I couldn’t afford to do that. I had to get this done.

The sun rose as I descended the final downhill to the 15 miles of rolling track and it was the most incredible sunrise. The mist was in the valley and the sky was such a bright blue already. I again realized how lucky I am that I get to experience these things.

From here on in, it was full panic stations. I had four miles to reach the Lenham aid station and from there another 12 to the finish line. I ran and overtook more runners than I could remember. Some were limping and realized their day was done and wouldn’t make it home in time, others were trying to run but couldn’t sustain a pace and it was hard to witness. I said hello to everyone but had to remain focused on my race and unless someone was injured and needed my help, I wasn’t stopping. Thankfully no one was.

Finally, I hit Lenham with two other guys who were on the same mission as me. The three of us were not going down without a fight and it was at this point I realized how fast I had run the last section. The volunteers calmed our nerves and told us we had well over 5 hours to do the last 12 miles and whilst it still wasn’t guaranteed, bar a major mishap, I would finish in time.

I told myself to keep up the momentum for the next 8 miles to the final aid station at Dunn Street, which was mile 98 ish and then I could walk the last 4.5 miles if I wanted. Suddenly a runner came up very fast behind me and I thought it was maybe a morning jogger but then I heard my name being called. It was Christian Maleedy and never has a friendly face been a more welcome sight.

We had bumped into each other earlier the night before at mile 60 where he was waiting to pace his friend Amy, but she had sadly dropped out injured. Christian had then run through the night alone as a training run for UTMB in a few weeks and had kept an eye out for me so he could offer to pace me home. I was so happy to see him as I had entered this without a crew or pacer, but knew he would dictate a pace for now that I could follow to ensure I got home in plenty of time.

It was an awesome few hours and he was as smiley and happy as always, even having run 40+ miles himself overnight. He led the pace and I could let my brain switch off. We ran the flats and the downs and walked even the slightest incline and every step inched closer to Ashford.

As we got to Dunn Street he went in to get me a cup of tea and I carried on marching to keep the momentum up. We then sat in the shade, as the day had gotten pretty warm already, put some suncream on and prepared for the final four miles. I was almost there!

Now I knew it was doable, my pace dropped considerably and as we entered the outskirts of Ashford, runners started to stream past me. I really didn’t care and cheered them all on, including Phil Bradburn who I had stayed with the night before in Farnham (no wait, the night before the night before…man these races throw time around). Then Paolo Valente ran past me and we high-fived. This made me realise my time and progress wasn’t bad at all, as he is a way better runner than me.

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Focussed and shattered on the streets of Ashford

The track took an age to come around and poor Christian had to encourage me along as I could literally feel the adrenaline sapping from my body and my eyes wanting to close, but then there were some floodlights. We saw the flags. We heard the cheers. I was here.

Christian left me at the gates and I ran the track alone. I thought about my finish all night and how I would scream or shout as I crossed the line, but as always I got a little self conscious at the cheers and attention and pottered over the line, mumbling “knackered” and had a hugs and high fives with Nici, Nikki, Drew, Chris and Stuart. Some of my favourite people in the world.

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I had a quick photo and headed straight for the showers. Done.

28 hours and 36 minutes. 118th place of 249 starters. All I could have hoped for and more.

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Courtesy of the amazing photographer Stuart March

All year my distances have been building from Cotswold Way 50k in February, The Green Man 45 mile in March, North Downs Way 50 mile in May, Lavaredo 75 mile in June and now the NDW100 in August. Its been exactly what I needed. I haven’t exactly set any of my PB’s on fire, but I have shown myself to be strong and capable again and I can fly to Chamonix in a couple of weeks for the 55k OCC, knowing this will be a fun day out to end an awesome, awesome season.

To everyone who made this possible- thank you. The volunteers, the other crews, my family. It’s a tough, sometimes stupid sport, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.

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Fifth buckle. Earned. 

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Lavaredo Ultra Trail 2017 Race Report

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Beautiful Cortina

I am not even sure if I have fully finished processing this race just yet. In all honesty, I am not sure I ever will. When Anton Krupicka describes a race as “probably the most beautiful I have ever run”, you know you are in for something special.

If the saying is true that life begins at the end of your comfort zone, then for 27.5 hours between Friday 24th and Sunday 26th June 2017, my life really was unequivocally in a new level of awe, discomfort, elation, despair and everything in between.

The Dolomites are sensory overload in every one of the five senses. The eyes truly have difficulty in getting your brain to process the level of out-of-this-worldness that is being taken in. The taste of the free running snow melt water that is the most delicious I have ever drank, the ears try and take in every sound from the streams to the insects, the touch as you try and pull yourself up one more climb in the middle of the second night that is so steep you’ve had to pack away your trekking poles and scramble with hands and feet. And lastly the smell that varies throughout the race- wild flowers, cut grass, dust, olive oil on bread in the aid stations, wild garlic, pine.

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I hiked the last 10k and back two days before the race

You might be able to tell I am a little bit in love with these mountains. However, as you’ll read below, just because you love something, doesn’t mean it’ll love you back. One blog I read before flying out described this race as ‘hell in heaven’ and despite trying, I can’t summarise this race any better than that.

After the disappointment of a lackluster effort at UTMB last year, 2017 had gone really well. I’d already completed 3 ultras in the build-up to this- Cotswold Way 50k in Feb, The Green Man in March and The North Downs Way 50 miler in May and felt I had increased stamina perfectly. I felt as fit as I had ever been and was ready to push myself to my limits to prove to myself that I was capable of a mountain race finish. At just under 6,000 metres of climb (and the same level of descent), half the race over 2000 metres above sea level and the distance of 3 consecutive marathons to boot, this was not an easy way to join that club. But I don’t do this because it is easy, I do this to test myself.

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During the hike, not the race, hence the smile

The race started at 11pm in the centre of Cortina d’Ampezzo which is a beautiful town in the heart of this mountain range. The town is surrounded by huge peaks and as just under 1,600 of us charged into the night there was electricity in the air. Thankfully this night it was just our nervous energy, as the previous few nights we had taken a bashing from huge thunderstorms, ever reminding us we are not in charge of these mountains. We are but a pinprick they will tolerate at times and only at times.

Tonight we were lucky and it was a beautiful evening, if a little humid. Everyone was running in daytime clothes and those who had started with a jacket on quickly removed it. After a mile or so through the town, we ran into the woods and the first climb of the night at a little over 500 metres gain. We bottlenecked at the entrance to the single track but this quickly made way onto fireroad and we could run two or three abreast up into the sky. Running quickly turned to hiking as the rhythmic click-clack of poles filled the air and we ascended into the cooler, thinner air, switchback after switchback.

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Not far from Croda da Lago

Eventually we crested out and ran for a good few kilometres on gently rolling flat terrain before the first big descent. I am not a quick downhill runner. I am cautious and as a result whilst I found my hiking to be excellent, every place I had gained climbing was lost on the downhill. It’s not that I was just cautious, I also wanted to preserve my legs and whilst I have no doubt that a lot of the runners knew what they were doing, some were clearly carried away by the early exuberance and by the bottom I had seen a good three or four runners hobbling along on twisted ankles, their races and dreams ended in just a couple of hours from the start. There was no guarantee I would finish this, but I told myself whatever happens my race would not end from over exuberance or stupidity. I was not after a time, I was after a finish and this was all about self-preservation and self-management.

That said, whilst I was steady on the descents I wasn’t hanging around on the flats or the climbs. Being timed out of UTMB as a result of being too cautious and saving myself for the second night was, with hindsight, a more painful and humiliating experience than I had appreciated at the time. So with just 6.5 hours to hit 33k within the cut off, I was moving where I felt confident and safe to do so. At 18k we hit the first aid station and this was right on my schedule. The schedule being to hit 33k before 4:30am so I could bank 1 hour on the cut offs. I quickly moved through and headed into the second of the big climbs of Lavaredo, to Son Forca.

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This was some of the gentler terrain. I am serious.

Over the last few months I have built up a strong hiking style and as we climbed into the small hours of the morning and my headlamp bathed the way, I felt really strong. It was hard going, but it was what I had trained for and my eyes were fixed on hitting the top and getting down to the aid station with time banked. As I crested the top I could see runners far fitter than I look, wrapped in foil blankets waiting to be evacuated down by Mountain Rescue. It was a further reminder than the mountains don’t care how well you’ve trained, how fit you look, but only on how you respect them and the distance.

We then descended down some hairy switchbacks with steep drops and I let the speedy ones past as I stayed well and truly on the side of the trail away from the edge. With poles being carelessly swung to maintain their balance and an at times complete disregard for other runners, I wasn’t going to let a kamikaze runner take me out of this race.

Eventually after a quad grinding hour, we hit the aid station and I was delighted when I glanced at my watch to see it revealed 04:12am. I was almost an hour and twenty minutes up on the cut off. I wasn’t about to get complacent, so quickly filled my bottles, ate some food and was on my way.

It is no exaggeration to say you can lose hours in a race like this at the aid stations. For me, one of my race saviors was telling myself I wouldn’t sit down unless absolutely necessary. It’s very easy to get cold, particularly pre-dawn when you are already soaked in sweat from the humidity and I wanted to maintain a rhythm and also keep gaining time on the cut-offs. I knew that later in the race I may well be walking a large portion, so I needed to bank time now. I was in my own little world not racing anyone but the clock and it felt good.

My other race savior was Tailwind. This is a powdered form of nutrition that comes in handy sachets which you just dump in your water bottle and shake. I would have one bottle of Tailwind and one of water (later two of water during the heat of the day) and I felt like I had high energy levels throughout. I didn’t once feel sick and even felt hungrier than normal at the aid stations where I supplemented with real food- favorites here being noodle soup, cheese, fruit and salami as well as delicious bread drenched in olive oil.

The course ascended to a stunning sunrise at Pianmaceto with a cloud inversion down in the valley. The only downside being the drone of mosquitos waking to destroy as much as they could that day. On the flip side, every time I heard their evil whine it forced me to run a little quicker through this relatively flat but high wooded trail section. As dawn surrounded us I broke out of the woods and arrived at the beautiful Lake Misurina, which I knew led to the third steep climb of the day up to the 50k point that the course is named after, Tre Cime di Lavaredo- the jewel in this races crown.

Fortunately, whilst the aid stations where sparsely spread out, there were regular opportunities to fill up on water from little taps dotted here and there, as well as directly from the mountain streams. So before this big climb, I refilled, prepared a Tailwind mix and got myself ready.

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Course profile. Note the smaller ‘hills’ at the end. They were not.

And it really was a brute of a climb. Eventually, I arrived at the 48k aid station at Rif Auronzo at bang on 8am and had now banked a total of two and a half hours on the cut off, which I was very happy with. The length and steepness of that climb, combined with altitude at well over 2000 metres now meant I was a little fuzzy here and needed to sort myself out before talking the long next section.

I downed a lot of coke, drank some noodle broth and took 3 bananas with me. Having refilled my bottles and feeling a million miles away from how I felt when I arrived- and at only 15 minutes later- I was on my way.

The next aid station wasn’t until 66 kilometres but was a focus point for my race because it was firstly over halfway by that stage and secondly, where my dropbag was with a fresh t-shirt and a can of sprite and fanta- liquid of the gods as the heat rose.

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Photoshop is wonderful

There was a lot of downhill here but I was still moving well, with limited issues and set into a nice steady rhythm. By the time we got to the bottom of the valley it was really warm and everyone took the time to get soaked in the streams and rivers. It’s just as important in the heat to keep the external parts of the body cool as well as keep drinking, so wherever I could I soaked my cap and Buff that was around my neck. As well as the Tailwind, I also partially credit my finish to the amazing P20 suncream I was using. This stuff is incredible and I didn’t burn once or need to re-apply often, although I did a few times to be cautious. To spend a whole day under the unrelenting mountain sun and not burn with my complexion- this stuff is a lifesaver.

By km66 I was feeling good still and quickly changed into the fresh shirt which felt amazing, downed the two cans of sugar and was out again. The next climb was probably the hottest of the day and the track we hiked ran parallel to a gently tumbling stream. By halfway up, this was too much to resist and I took my pack off, paddled in and lay down face first, holding my breath for ten seconds or so as the freezing water soothed my cooked body.

Like a new man, I got up and marched the rest of that hill with renewed vigor until I crested the top and jogged down the other side to Malga Ra Stua at km80 or so. Just a marathon to go, but the steepest climb was about to take place and we still had to descend for another hour or so before it began. A 10k climb of 1000 metre gain in the heat.

It was here that the wheels started to fall off. The chafing, which had been building became excruciating, despite constantly re-applying, the heat was radiating off the huge cliffs to the side of the trail, the terrain was like walking up the worlds steepest, longest gravel driveway and there were multiple stream crossings where the feet quickly got wet and rubbed as they dried during the climb.

Combine this with altitude increasing with each step and already almost 90k on the legs, by the time we came to what I thought was the top, I was hanging on in there. After a long period of flat through boulder fields it became apparent that this was a false summit and I was also 5k further back than I had thought. Distances become skewed in races like this and whilst 5k is often 25 mins for most people on fresh Saturday legs in the park, 5k here was well over an hour- sometimes two- and the trail only went up.

As we almost crested the top, there was a small sign saying ‘90k’. This may as well have said ‘you thought you were well over 100k, didn’t you fat boy?’. It was truly devastating and whilst I am sure put out there to encourage people, to me and those around me it had the total opposite effect. Still, we had signed up for this and we hadn’t come this far to only come this far, so down the other side we went. It was now just 5k to the next aid station and virtually all downhill.

It was now mercifully cloudy and starting to drizzle but I didn’t bother with the waterproof as it was still muggy and I was moving nicely when the leg muscles eventually realised they were finally no longer climbing.

Down, down, down until a little tunnel and up to a long since abandoned mountain fort and then down again to Col Gallina. I met up with a couple of equally broken Brits here and we quickly re-filled. I was the first out as I wanted to be moving, but it wasn’t long before they passed me on the next big climb. Having the map printed on our race bibs was excellent and allowed us to see what was coming, but it didn’t ever put it in context. I could see that the end was ‘rolling’ and no more steep, long climbs. How wrong I was. The last four climbs may not have been steep, but they were in every way as brutal and most of the next 20k was at altitudes of over 2000m before a huge descent to the finish at 1200m.

By now, running had long since been dispatched to ancient history and I was a broken shuffler. My back ached like never before I was drawn into a hunch. Without my poles I would never have finished. And then I heard the thunder. What a way to finish!

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110k.

As I made my way out of the penultimate aid station with just 6k to go until the last one, at the refuge I had hiked to two days before the race so I knew the last 10k, I was on a mission to hang on in there. I got as much sugar down me as my body would allow and put the headlamp back on, the headlamp I had so desperately wanted to not have to use again. But the mountain dictated my pace, not me.

The evening before, seeing headlamps twinkling above me as I climbed was oh so pretty and it was a joy to be a part of this epic race. Fast forward 24 hours and having headlamps twinkling where I would have to climb almost broke me. The final climb was marked on the map with an exclamation mark and now I knew why. It had a huge drop to the side of it and for the first time in my ultra career to date, I was truly scared. I was exhausted and this climb was so steep that my poles were no use and I needed to use my hands to help me scramble up. By now it wasn’t fun and it was all about just getting to the finish safely, the time did not matter one bit.

Finally I crested the top and there, twinkling away 1000 metres below me and 11k on foot was Cortina. Whatever happened now, I would be home in three hours.

The last aid station was not pretty and I moved through the puddles of other peoples puke quickly. By this stage, I wasn’t quite sure if I was a runner, hiker or a pacer. The altitude or a combination of all things to have happened that day had well and truly fried my brain. I thought it best not to ask the question of what I was doing up there- to be pulled with 9k to go wasn’t going to happen and I knew I would be better as I got lower.

I shuffled the agonizingly steep last descent, not knowing if I was doing this or watching a movie of me doing this but slowly my senses recovered and I was almost home. I was bent almost double by this point and the pain in my back just wouldn’t let me stand up straight so I shuffled and shuffled until I finally came out of the woods and hit tarmac. I ran in with some French guys who asked if I was OK and I said I would be in 2k’s time. I encouraged them to go ahead, assuring them I was fine and before I knew it I was on the cobbled streets of Cortina to cheers of those who were still out at just after 2am.

I wondered all day how finishing this race would make me feel. I got a lump at the beauty of Tre Cime and wondered if the same would happen at the finish. As I crossed the line all I felt was shattered. I had just run one of the hardest ultras in the world and I finished two and a half hours inside the cut off. I wasn’t elated, I was just done. I knew the feelings of this day would take a while yet to sink in.

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The coveted Gilet and race t-shirt

All I can say now is, that race is incredible. I’ve tried my best to describe how it was for me, but just like the photos, to know this race you have to have done it. I can’t get anywhere near what it feels with words. I just can’t. No one can.

 

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The 2017 North Downs Way 50

In short, I was aiming for a long day on the Downs, and that is what I got.

Arriving in Farnham having stayed with some friends in Horsham, I was feeling relaxed and free of any anxiety that I usually have on a start line. There was no time pressure to finish- the time cut offs are lenient- and I wanted to use as much time as I could to be on my feet with Lavaredo kit and just enjoy the North Downs in all of their spring glory.

After registering I had chance to catch up with a few of the centurion crew- Drew, James, Nici and Claire, as well as Ian Brazier, Paul Reader and James Donald- a friend from Bath who I knew was on for a good time (he finished in 8th, under 8 hours which is a cracking time on this route).

A quick chat with Stuart March, a race briefing from James and then it was time for my sixth walk from St Polycarps down to the start line at the beginning of the 153 mile North Downs Way (has anyone done the 100 miler yet and carried on those extra 53 to Dover? Just gonna leave that out there…Mark Fox. Ahem).

I had made the decision to aim for five hours to halfway and then seven hours for the second half, but as usual I got carried away with the early pace and as it felt fine I went with it. I had in the back of my mind that my plan was to pretty much hike the second half anyway so if I ‘blew up’ by going off a little quicker than planned, then it really didn’t matter and might even help.

Aid station one at Puttenham came around as expected in just over an hour and I slowed to fill my bottles and thank the volunteers. I knew I was seeing the kids at Newlands Corner so was keen to push on and meet them on schedule at 10:30.

My pace was fine here and I chatted with a few runners here and there, which is unlike me as I usually get my head down. It was a totally different experience to pushing myself and as I arrived at Newlands Corner bang on half ten, I was smiling…even more so as I saw my son and daughter bounding towards me. We had a kiss and a cuddle, grabbed a bit of food and then raced them to the road crossing where they kissed me goodbye and went for a wagamama with the boss. It was great seeing them and Sol on the course and I really didn’t feel like the day was hurting where as Newlands Corner is usually that no-mans land where the legs start to hurt a tad, but you haven’t really made much of a dent on the distance. Today felt good and the weather was perfect.

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Newlines Corner. Mile 13- the best part of the race, seeing the monkeys!

I love the next section, 11 miles through the woods to Box Hill. It reminds me of being a kid and playing in the woods with my friends and the colours on the trees were amazing. It was one long green tunnel and we even had a brief rain shower which was very pleasant on a slightly humid morning.

My best time on this course was 10:11 in 2013 and here I got to Box Hill in 4:15, so I was slightly surprised to arrive in 4:32 this weekend. I had intentionally not been looking at my watch, but running to feel and I now knew I had banked enough time to hike the second half and still finish under 13 hours. However, I didn’t want to be under any pressure later in the race from the cut-offs, so set myself a 12 hour finish pace which was along the lines of run the downhills as hard as I could (get the quads as used to downhill damage as possible), walk the ups and hike the flats, interspersed with jogging now and then.

At the bottom of Box Hill I took out my Mountain King poles and was looking forward to having a good few hours practice with them for the rest of the day. No hill on this course lasts for more than 15-20 minutes max, so poles aren’t necessary by any means, but I also wanted to get used to running with them so there are no surprises come the last weekend of June.

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Oxted Steps about mile 40. Credit: Jon Lavis

The second half of the race was awesome. I spent a lot of time alongside Paul Spooner who is doing the 50 mile grand slam this summer. Paul is a very accomplished runner, having done over 100 marathons, but this was his first NDW50 so it was good to be able to tell him what was coming up. We were side by side to the final aid station at Botley Hill, where he went ahead and I decided to walk the last 7 miles (or 9, according to Ash on the aid station).

Very happy, I trundled over the line in 11:48- perfect pacing.

As I write this I have certainly learnt a lot. Firstly, no matter what pace you go at, the next day always hurts like hell! This was my longest run for a while and whilst I never felt like I was pushing myself, 50 miles is still 50 miles and the quads don’t like me very much today.

Secondly, I still have work to do on my nutrition (not just because of the massive gut in the race photos), but on race day food. I still struggle with solids and whilst I don’t have long until Lavaredo I would love to know how others get on with the likes of Tailwind. In hindsight I should have tried some on Saturday, but it didn’t occur to me until after.

Thirdly, whilst the day went well, Lavaredo is a different beast entirely. I need to drop some weight and work the hills relentlessly for the next month, before a gentle taper and a flight to Venice.

All in all, this weekend was everything I had hoped it would be. Centurion were awesome as always and the volunteers were everything a runner could ask for and more. Especially the bossy lady at Reigate Hill who only let me sit down for two minutes! Happy recovery to everyone who ran and I will see you at the South Downs 100 in four weeks where I am pacing Paul Reader.

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Fourth NDW50 finish, bagged.

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Planning a Personal Worst at the North Downs Way 50 2017

The last time I stood on the start line in Farnham was actually way back in 2014 when I completed my first 100 mile race, but this was actually my fifth run from Farnham to Knockholt Pound and I am looking forward to returning almost three years later.

This race will always have a special place in my heart as it was my first ultra back in 2012.

I ran the 2012, 2013 and 2014 editions of the 50 miler as well as twice during the 100 mile version, so the route is very familiar and very special to me- my first ultra finish and my first 100 mile finish being on this course.

And yes, the title to this piece isn’t a typo, I really am aiming for a personal worst here next weekend. And you are probably wondering why…

Well, six weeks after the NDW50 I am running the Lavaredo Ultra Trail, a 120km loop through the Dolomites, starting and finishing in Cortina d’ampezzo and this is my ‘A Race’ of 2017. The NDW50 is not an easy race and it deserves respect, however for me this year it is my final long test run before the mountains and a great opportunity spend a long time on my feet using all the kit I will be taking to Cortina.

So whilst I have a healthy respect for this course, its also an opportunity to use all of the time Centurion allot to this race (13 hours) to be out there on my feet and feeling comfortable so there are no surprises come the last weekend of June.

So, firstly I wouldn’t want to push myself on the Downs and potentially cause any mishaps or injuries so close to this race. Secondly, I need a long time to re-familiarise myself with trekking poles which I haven’t used much since UTMB last summer. Don’t panic if you are new to the NDW50- you don’t need them- but it’s a great opportunity for me to re-connect.

Finally, I have always run this race with a goal in mind- whether that is Western States qualification or a PB, and I have never just been out there to enjoy it. I have some great memories of this race, but next Saturday for me will be about taking in the scenery and just enjoying the day.

So whether this is your first race or you are a long time sufferer of ultras, I’m looking forward to catching up in a few days time.

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The Green Man Ultra 2017

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My diary was eerily apt for race day…

I hadn’t finished an ultra since the South Downs Way 100 last June. After two drops in August and September I decided to have a reflective winter and to rest and re-build. That meant very little running and a return to basics. I started looking after myself better with regular physio and tried (and mostly failed) to eat better. I still ran, but very rarely anything over six miles in one go until after Christmas.

I ran the Slaughterford 9 in January and held the Cotswold Way 50k where I gently ran the distance at the back, helping those less familiar with the course in order to just bank the miles and not worry about the time. And before I knew it, the calendar hit March and it was three days until the Green Man, a 45 mile mudbath of a single loop of the Community Forrest Path encircling Bristol.

I had run this once before in 2015 when I was arguably at my fittest, three months after my fastest 100 miler at Brazos Bend in December 2014 and so I knew getting close to that time would be virtually impossible. Conditions that year were dry underfoot too, so all I cared about this time was getting to the finish and getting the DNF monkey off my back. I knew I wasn’t as fit as I could be but I needed a confidence boost before a big season and to finish was all that mattered. I also firmly placed in my mind that I have never dropped from a distance of less than 100 miles and had finished many 50 milers when less fit and settled as I am right now, so whilst confidence wasn’t exactly high, I was looking forward to this one.

After driving to the start I caught up with Paul Heath who I last saw after he dropped at the Autumn 100 and we spoke as I was waiting to pace Mark Myles the last 30 miles. He seemed fired up and I was pleased to see he finished in a great time and I hope he is delighted, as he should be. We shared a coffee as we waited to get going and I also spoke with Dawn Gardner. Anyone who knows Dawn knows she is in a different league. Dawn was running the Green Man double and had already completed one loop overnight before starting with the mass field at 8am. She looked a little tired, but more than that, focussed and completed her 90+ mile personal challenge in less than 24 hours. We had chatted the day before as I was one of only a few people who knew she was planning this, having run a section of the course with her in December and she almost didn’t start the normal race, let alone the double, which just goes to show her mental strength. Expect big things from her at the GUCR in two months time.

We started out from the beautiful mansion at Ashton Court estate and headed up for the first few miles, often stopping as the mass field got caught up at gates and stiles. These slow and steady miles were what I needed as I placed myself towards the back of the field, but I quickly realised that it was significantly more muddy underfoot than I recalled from two years ago and knew we were in for a slog if it stayed like this. Stay like this, it did.

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Credit: Mick Ward

Whilst I didn’t have a time goal in mind, I figured if I was within an hour of my 9:58 of 2015 I would be doing well. This was based on fitness, confidence and the underfoot conditions, so I had 11 hours in the back of my mind, but was in no way running to that goal but more enjoy the day and simply finish. I hit checkpoint one in 1:51 and knew this was not too shabby and I felt fine, so quickly downed a couple of cups of coke and moved on.

The run to checkpoint two was much of the same, a very slippy section of often ankle deep mud and an exercise in staying upright but the miles clicked by and whilst wet underfoot, it was a beautiful morning and I just enjoyed the scenery and running alone, as is my preference.

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Credit: Mick Ward

I moved quickly through this checkpoint too, but whilst I wasn’t at the very back they had already run out of coke which was a bit frustrating as this is my main fuel on shorter ultras as I don’t like too much solid food. Sadly this pattern continued and where there was red bull at checkpoint three a couple of years ago and soup at checkpoint four, there was only squash and coffee respectively. Having paid for the catered event, this was disappointing and I feel running out of coke and not having soup where advertised isn’t good practice. That said, the volunteers and marshall were awesome as were all of the crews on the course cheering us on and offering sweets etc.

The section between checkpoint two and three took over 3 hours and this was my lowest point of an otherwise pretty upbeat run. The terrain here is mainly flat but everywhere was heavily waterlogged and made the going quite slow. It was also pretty warm for early March and I found myself rationing water knowing it was a long stretch. It started raining about half an hour out of the checkpoint so I stopped to put on my waterproof and enjoyed running in my own little cocooned world with my hood up and music on.

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Credit: Mick Ward 

In most races I set myself a checkpoint target from where I know I will complete the distance. Obviously things can go wrong, but this tends to work for me and helps break down the distance. Checkpoint 3 was about 29 miles so when I started this was my ‘finish’ line and if I made it here I only had a 16 mile jog/walk to go. Psychologically this helps and so when I ran into this checkpoint, I knew I would finish. I think everyone has their own way of mentally breaking down ultras but this as always worked for me and so I left here focussed and ready to get to checkpoint four.

At this point it started to really pour down, but abated after half an hour or so but I kept the waterproof and gloves on and felt warm, settled and confident. It was another 10 miles to the next checkpoint, but we were mostly in urban areas by now so the going was easier but the legs were starting to feel it. I’ve done enough races now to know that the legs don’t hurt any worse at mile 40 than they do at mile 30 and so I embraced it, with my body remembering what it was capable of. It was just great to be back.

I quickly grabbed a coffee at checkpoint four and moved on for the final six or so miles back to Ashton Court. This takes you through one of the nicest parts of Bristol and I enjoyed the home stretch. At The Green Man there are ‘time lords’ who run at 9, 10,11 and 12 hour paces and I was tooing and froing with the 11 hour crowd running with time lord Ira Rainey (of Fat Man to Green Man fame). By this stage, my mindset had firmly focussed on sub 11 hours and I knew if I pushed and maintained I would finish ahead of Ira’s pacing so got my head down and ran as much of the flats and downs as I could and walked the hills as fast as I could manage.

The sun had now set, so as I hit Clifton Downs I grabbed my headtorch and pushed on. Soon the stunning site of the Clifton Suspension Bridge, lit up, was ahead of me and I knew this marked one mile to go. It was 6:40pm and I had 20 minutes to cover that last mile. I jogged and walked with a group of other runners over the bridge, turned left into the estate and ran down the final hill to the finish, crossing the line in 10:56.

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I really needed that run. As I write this, I feel great and it was the exact confidence boost I needed. And to sum it up, my diary quote at the top of this post is just perfect.

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