The Western States 100- 2019 Race Report

 

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Stunning Early Miles

And when I say 100, I mean 100k not 100 miles…

This has been the hardest race report I have ever had to write. Having been back in the UK for almost two weeks, it has been too painful to write up until now. Even now I don’t feel ready, but I hope it is cathartic metaphorically putting pen to paper.

Where to begin. Well, as most people who know me are aware, this was the dream race- the ultimate challenge that I had focused on for seven years. It had become so much a part of me that failing to complete it has rocked me, but adversity does build strength and ultimately, despite it being pretty tough right now, I know this was my path and that I will come back from this.

In December of 2018 my name was finally called in the lottery, with 32 tickets of build up. 6 years of tickets and 7 years of trying to gain an entry. Less than two weeks after being called, I found myself on the cardiac ward at Truro hospital with an out of control infection having caused Pericarditis. I couldn’t run for 8 weeks, in the end, and felt that the Western States dream was over. I had to miss Trans Gran Canaria and the South Downs Way 50 mile race- my two key build up races. Training resumed in March, but with hindsight I was too scared to properly push the training until I had a follow up review with my cardiologist 5 weeks before States where he said I was in perfect health. But by this point, it was too late to really get into the shape I would need to run States.

If I could have deferred my place, I would have, but Western States has such a demand for slots that they can’t allow deferrals, understandably, and so with the meteoric rise in demand for this race I knew this may be my only shot for a decade or possibly ever, unless I was extremely lucky. I had to give it a shot.

I tried to put the negative thoughts out of my head and focus on somehow getting to Auburn in less than 30 hours. This would have been tough anyway with peak fitness, but I still felt it was doable.

Walking around Squaw Valley in the days prior to the race, I was conscious I was overweight and undertrained. The upside, was that Squaw Valley felt like home. I seemed to know 50% of the people in the ski resort and made new friends in addition to people I had known for years, both in person and via social media.

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Finally in Squaw as a Runner

My welcome to Auburn and Squaw Valley had been amazing. After a night in San Francisco on the Tuesday after landing, I was up early on the Wednesday and found a train that would take me almost all the way to Auburn. I hadn’t realized until I boarded that this was the famous California Zepha, which travels daily and takes two days from San Francisco all the way to Chicago. It follows the railroad routes made famous by the cowboy films of my youth and was truly historic, even though I was only travelling a fraction of the route.

Once in Auburn, I had been set up by Bob Crowley with a host family- a lovely couple called Perry and Kathleen. Every year they open their doors to two international runners and this year myself and Thiago (a Brazilian runner and all round great guy) were the two lucky guests. Perry drove me around Auburn and helped me settle in and we then ended up at the barbecue which is organized every year to welcome the international runners to Auburn. If you are an international runner and are lucky enough to get a slot at States, Bob will take you under his wing and make you feel so welcome.

This was a great opportunity to meet some local heroes- some known and some unknown. I spoke with two guys who were so down to earth and lived in Auburn. Asking if they had run the race they both casually mentioned that they had both finished multiple times in the top 10 in the 80’s and gave me some valuable insights as to their approach. I also met Perry’s sister who had won the race in the 80’s. I was in awe.

Later, as dusk fell I also finally got to say hello to Gordy face to face. Having chatted for years online this was a major moment for me. I was too nervous to say hello in 2012 and 2014 when I was there crewing, but finally plucked up the courage and we had a great chat. He was also hugely supportive after the race when he knew how much it had hurt to fail to finish.

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Gordy, Shannon & Me

The next day I headed early to Squaw with my pacer, Manu and his wife. Manu was suffering from a cold and I could tell his frustration as he wanted to be on top form for the day. I also secretly panicked that I would catch the cold and so spent the next 48 hours necking carrot and ginger smoothies at an amazing little bagel place in Squaw Valley.

We arrived at just before 10am, quickly dumped my bags at the hotel and went to join the briefing for the hike up to Emigrant Pass, the high point of the course where the race crests the mountain before tumbling down the other side on the way to Auburn. This was my first chance to properly meet Craig Thornley, the RD of Western States and I really enjoyed the chance to say hello and have him welcome me as a runner. By the time I finished talking to Craig in the resort, I was alone and so hiked up the mountain by myself which was really special. I had run up here twice before during the 6k uphill challenge in 12 and 14, but this was my chance to take in the breathtaking beauty by myself and unhurried. I knew in less than 48 hours I would be heading up here as a Western States runner and it sent tingles through my body.

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On the hike to Emmigrant Pass two days before the race

At the top I met Joseph Chick- a long time facebook friend from Ashland, Oregon and his lovely wife Jamie. Joseph is the only person I know who took longer than me to get a place and we both appreciated quite how lucky we were to be there. He hadn’t had the best start to the year either and we both knew we would have a battle on Saturday and Sunday to make it to Auburn, but I am delighted to say that he did make it.

The next 24 hours were a whirlwind of registering and saying hello to loads of people. I met Scott Jurek and Luis Escobar on the Thursday evening, along with Matt Brand who I was staying with in Squaw. This was the equivalent of meeting Keith and Mick from the Stones for many people and was the icing on the cake for an incredible first day in the valley. I also spent some time with my crew chief, Ellie, another Auburn resident who put her hand up when I was looking for some help and she was just amazing. More about her and her family later.

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Like being backstage at Glastonbury

The Friday was also very special and one person who joined me for the race was someone I hadn’t seen in four and a half years but holds a very special place in my heart, Alicia. We last saw each other at Brazos Bend in 2014 when I race the race to honour her husband, Lon who died earlier that year. It was emotional to have her and her family come to California to support me and made the trip even more special for me.

Friday night involved a very early night for Matt and I and our alarms went off at 3am to prepare for the race start at 5am. Coming from the UK, I had been waking at around 3am most days prior to the race anyway, so this wasn’t as big a deal as it sounds. The second our alarms went off, we were up and filled with adrenaline which we tried to keep in check. This pretty much involved multiple trips to the bathroom and we made sure we left a good amount of change in the room for the poor maid when she came to clean later that day.

Once we had bib numbers pinned on and bags dropped, it was a waiting game. With 5 minutes to go I stepped out into the fresh mountain air at 4:55am…and promptly had a nose bleed! Fuck sake. Was anything going to go right? I hadn’t had a nosebleed since I was a kid, so whether this was the altitude or extreme nerves I don’t know, but I shrugged it off as I had a battle I was about to fight.

Counting down from 10 stood behind the Western States starting arch I had a tear in my eye. This was it. This was dedication and this was my dream. This was years of hard work and this was passion. I made a vow that I would give today my all and most of all, I would enjoy myself. Yes this would be a tough day, but this was my day and I wanted this more than a real lottery win.

3…..2……1…….BANG!

Starting in the valley and with a climb of over 2,500 ft in the first four miles means that the race start is not anticlimactic, but it is a hike and a chance to temper some of the emotions and adrenaline. But even at a hike, with the air getting thinner and thinner it was hard work. We soon encountered the snow and found ourselves hiking up through freshly prepared ski runs (extremely rare even by Western States standards). After an hour and 15 minutes, I crested the top and looked around to see the stunning view of Lake Tahoe at sunrise behind me. I’m running Western States. I had to pinch myself.

I saw Eric Schranz at the top with his alpine horn and full lederhosen- quite a sight at 6am and I started to run down the other side of Emigrant Pass in a long line of runners as we enjoyed the initial snow free single track.

Every part of my race felt like a really slow version of Unbreakable- running with no headphones to take everything in, I even had the soundtrack in my head. In the high country I was slipping and sliding on the snow and it reminded me of JB Benna following Hal Koerner in 2010. The snow was really hard work and whilst it was cold early on and so pretty compact, I fell over a lot and had to slide down some parts, causing cuts to my hands and legs as I tried to maintain some sort of control. It was slow going for sure and I reached the first aid station towards the back of the field. I had expected this and wasn’t worried yet as I knew if I could just get through the snow inside the cut offs to 30 miles I could make up time later on. I needed to be patient but I also needed to push. Offsetting the slow pace was the sheer beauty all around me. I hopped back and forth here with Sharon Sullivan but then lost her until I next saw her when she passed me at mile 43.

As we got closer to Robinson Flat at mile 30, the snow became less of an issue but the first real climb of the day was due just as things were starting to warm up. By Western States standards, this was a cool year and another reason I am frustrated I couldn’t make it, but on that long climb to Robinson it started to hit me a little.  We had run the first 30 miles at an average elevation of over 6,000 ft and whilst I hadn’t really noticeably felt it, I had tripped a lot and was slow. Some of this was fitness, but a lot of it with hindsight will have been the altitude hitting this sea level dweller.

I had set myself a very loose target of 7 hours to Robinson, but rolled in in just over 8 hours. This wasn’t the end of the world, but it did mean I had work to do. I saw my crew quickly but didn’t need much. I didn’t change shoes as I had initially planned- one, to save time and two, because my feet and socks felt pretty decent so I really didn’t see the point.

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Robinson Flat Mile 30

After Robinson Flat there is a gentle ish 13 miles of flat and downhill and I knew here I could make up some time. I was joined here by two women who I think looking at the photos since were Denise and Terra. They were great fun, but at the time I was starting to feel a bit sick and I was probably not the best company. We hopped back and forth and whilst I tried to chat, I tend to go deep within myself on these races and am just not chatty. If you are both reading this, I hope you finished and sorry if I was a quiet, grumpy Brit- I am usually pretty happy!

Despite feeling rough, I was making up some time and eventually made it to the Last Chance aid station at mile 43. I was about an hour up on the cut offs and feeling tired but OK. I knew the canyons were next and whilst the temperatures weren’t as a fierce as usual, this did nothing to change the steepness of the descents and the climbs. Plus, it was still about 80 degrees down there and muggy as hell, so it wasn’t exactly cool either.

As I made my way out of Last Chance, I felt the soup I had just drunk rising back up and a build-up of saliva in my throat. I knew what was next. Doubled up at the side of the trail, I released everything and as always, felt amazing. Next was the Pucker Point loop and the drop down to Swinging Bridge, a huge descent before a 2000 ft climb up to Devils Thumb. If I could keep up a good pace here, I would be well within the cut offs and on my way to Auburn. I knew this was a key point of the run.

As I descended my quads were pretty painful, but functioning. I knew I had to replace the salt I had lost through my puking so was gently sipping on water and taking an s-cap every half an hour. I was also maintaining Tailwind to build up some calories in the system. This seemed to work and after an hour of steep descending, I hit the bridge. I dunked in the river and started to make my way up the other side.

Within about 10 metres, I was sat on my arse literally unable to move. I felt like I had been hit by Tyson and I had to forced myself to my feet after 5 minutes and start my way up the climb. This was the most horrific climb of my life I thought it would never end. 3 times I had to sit down and each time, my confidence was knocked. The only thing that kept me moving were the horrific mosquitos that attacked every inch of my exposed flesh. In the days after the race my legs and neck were swollen up like balloons and were so painful.

Eventually I was about to crest the top when I heard the blow of a horn, meaning there was just half an hour to leave the aid station before the cut off. At this point, I felt it was game over as I crashed into a chair and mumbled for some soup and coke. I tried to drop but the team just wouldn’t let me, saying everyone looked like shit here and this was the hardest climb of the course done. If I could just keep a hiking pace and jog when my legs came back I would be OK.

My pacer had flown all the way from Germany for this. I had waited for 7 years for this. I had invested thousands of pounds to be here, both now and in the past years as crew. This had become my life, so I forced myself from my chair and started to walk. A walk turned into a jog and a jog into a….well a jog. That was the best I could manage.

Heading through Deadwood Cemetary, it was one more huge descent and climb and I would then be at Michigan Bluff, mile 55. If I got here after 8pm, my pacer Manu could join me here rather than mile 62 and realistically getting there before 8pm was unlikely so I made this my focus.

I also had one more serious problem- it was going to get dark soon and I had no headlamp with me. I needed to get to Michigan Bluff ASAP to catch the daylight or I would be climbing in the dark. With snakes using the trail to stay warm overnight and cougars hunting at dusk and dawn, it was fair to say I was shitting myself.

And then as I descended with two other guys, we saw a bear just off the trail eating some berries on a nearby bush. Worse, it was only a cub so there was a mother no doubt nearby. Worse again, every twist and turn down the switchbaks was blind so whilst I desperately needed to make up some time, I was petrified of every rustle in the bushes and every turn possibly leading to a bear encounter, so I was tip toeing when I should have been bombing. All of the locals had said bears are not what you need to worry about, but tell this to an exhausted Brit who already has a hard enough time at home with dogs!

Fortunately, we made it to the bottom and Momma was nowhere to be seen. I had an hour and fifteen minutes to make the next climb within the cut off, but it was almost 4 miles of straight up. This was going to be almost impossible, but I had vowed to myself that I would not quit until I was pulled.

Me and two others made our way up the climb and we took it in turns to lead the way. As dusk turned to night, they fortunately had headlamps and we shared the light as we pushed and encouraged each other on. Twisting and turning up and up and up, we then heard voices above us as the sweeper team made their way behind us. This was not how I planned it, so I ignored the sweepers and gritted my teeth. As the voices above got louder, we realized they were some guys helping motivate the runners to make the cut offs. They were so loud and asked our names. For the next mile all I heard was ‘COME ON TIM!” as they screamed at me. One had a spare torch so I could push ahead a little. After an eternity, we hit the top and there was Manu. I had four minutes to get through the aid station to make the cut off. I let out an almost animal like scream and forced my busted quads to move. We ran through Michigan Bluff like I was possessed and as I made it through with less than 2 minutes to spare, I collapsed to my knees and puked all over myself. Lying there in a puddle of my own sick, I knew I was giving it my all and if I didn’t make it, it wasn’t for lack of effort on the day. This was a very surreal moment and oddly, one of my proudest running memories to date. There will always be a little bit of me at Michigan Bluff. Literally.

Alicia was here too and seeing her helped me get back up on to my knees, wipe my face and get a new tshirt on. If I could just make Forresthill at mile 62, 7 miles away in the next hour and a half, I would have enough time to finish as the cut offs get a lot more lenient after that point. The only problem was, my legs just weren’t obeying my brains orders.

Manu and I set off into the night and I was the very last runner at this point, with the other guys behind me not having made the cut off at Michigan Bluff. The sweepers were there and I told myself I would not let them catch up until I could move no longer.

I told Manu I was in a world of pain and just needed to hike for a bit to try and open up my legs but my quads were rock solid and spasming. I tried so hard to run and had tears of anguish and frustration running down my face. It was becoming apparent that I just wouldn’t be able to make it and as we hit the bottom of Volcano Canyon, I told Manu that my day was done. We hugged it out and I said I was so sorry.

The sweepers caught us and we walked slowly up to Forresthill. As the adrenaline left my body I felt faint and even struggled the gentle walking pace up that final canyon. If I could have just found 15 more minutes, I would have made it through and had 38 miles of ‘easy’ running to Auburn.

But I was trashed. I sat in a chair and John Trent came over to console me and remove my runner wristband. I think I was in shock as whilst I knew it would have been a battle after whats happened these last few months, I honestly thought I was going to finish. I don’t want to be too dramatic, but it was like I was in mourning. I have struggled to come to terms with it since too, unlike any other DNF.

Ellie picked me up and drove us back to her house as it was now midnight. I feel asleep as soon as I got in the car and woke up at 5am on her sofa, confused and still fully dressed in my running gear. I sent a few messages to let people know I was ok and fell asleep again.

Ellie was amazing, as was her husband and they set me up with a shower and a fresh set of clothes from my bag. We then went to breakfast and I headed back to Perry and Kathleens where I dozed on and off by the pool. Manu came by later and we drove to No Hands Bridge so I could walk across it and then had an amazing meal with Perry and Kathleen. The next morning I left Auburn for San Francisco.

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With the wonderful Perry & Kathleen

In the days after the run and in the two weeks since I have thought how to write this report, it has become increasingly clear to me that this isn’t about the race, its about the place. This little corner of California has embraced this obsessed runner and welcomed me into their town. The people I have come to know as a result of this race are now lifelong friends. Not just from Auburn, but from all over the world.

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Thiago, Manu and Me at No Hands Bridge

Funds permitting, I will be back next summer or another summer soon to either pace someone those last 38 miles or run/hike them quietly by myself. The Western States trail is my church and whilst it didn’t go my way, I ran 62 miles of Western States and followed my dream. Not many people in life set themselves a goal and actually follow it though, but I was there and I was proud to be there. But yes, of course I am gutted too. Its cut very, very deep.

On a larger scale, my running has been poor for sometime now. I have gained weight, lost speed and in all honesty lost a lot of the spark and motivation I once had. My last 7 years have been all about qualifying and watching a webcam in December to hear my name. On the one hand I am at a loss now as I wont be in the lottery this December and on the other hand I have an opportunity to get my spark back. Get some form back. Get some fun back and find my thrill of running again.

With my children growing up fast and owning two small businesses, I am flat out in so many ways away from running. But running is a huge part of who I am and I need to find my way again.

In short, my Western States dream isn’t over. The trail is there 365 days of the year even if the race is just once a year. Western States has defined my 30’s and it will continue to shape me into my 40’s. I love it more than ever. The people, the place, the smells, the feelings, even the thrill of seeing a wild bear. Its magic. It’s just magic.

 

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The Road to Western States

This month I will run Western States.

Today is 1stJune 2019 and I have been waiting to say those words since 2011.

Sat on a delayed central line underground train in summer 2011, I was idly flicking through the free paper, Metro. Usually I got off the train before I was even halfway through the paper, but being delayed, I strayed further into the pages until I came across the book reviews.

‘Run!’ Was the book that leapt out at me, by a chap called Dean Karnazes. This was his second book and chronicled his journey deep into the world of a sport I had never heard of. A sport called Ultrarunning.

Having just completed the London Marathon for the second time, earlier in 2011 I was intrigued. You can run further than a marathon? You can run in mountains? You can run for days at a time? What the hell is this?

I was sold. I immediately went and bought a copy of his book and that was it- the journey had begun.

Dean had run many races, but one leapt out. Western States. 100 mountainous miles in beautiful Californian wilderness. Extreme heat, extreme snow in the early miles, bears, rattlesnakes, mountain lions and some of the most beautiful terrain in the world. I had to run this race. I just had to.

Back in 2011, ultrarunning was gaining popularity, but hadn’t yet boomed like it has in recent years. The qualification standard and likelihood of entry is now a lot tougher but back then, you had to run a pre-approved 50 mile race in less than 11 hours to enter into the lottery to get a place at Western States. Searching through the list of races, one jumped out organized in the UK by a group called Centurion- the North Downs Way 50 miler- was set for August 2012. I had a year to prepare.

Even before I ran my first qualifier, I had crewed at Western States. As part of my new found obsession with this race, I contacted a British elite, Jez Bragg, and asked if he wanted any help. He said he would love crew assistance, so in 2012 and again in 2014, I crewed Jez at Western States and got a feel for this race from the sharp end.

But back to 2012.

Having lived in Guildford for 8 years, I knew many of the places on the NDW50 route and decided this was the race for me. I wasn’t a trail runner and had no concept of hills. Back then, the race didn’t even have mandatory kit, so I lined up with just a water bottle in hand and started my ultrarunning adventure.

11 hours and 41 minutes later, I crossed the finish line outside of Western States qualification time, cut to ribbons by brambles and totally, utterly wasted. I had failed.

A few days later and recovered, I made a pledge to myself that I would not quit and no mater how long it took, I would run Western States.

Each and every year you qualify to run Western States, but fail to gain an entry in the lottery, you double your ticket counts for the following year. So firstly I needed to qualify and secondly, I needed to keep on qualifying to get an entry.

In 2013 I returned to the North Downs Way 50 and ran it an hour and a half quicker in just a shade over 10 hours. That year, I watched the lottery, streamed live over the internet, for the first time. I didn’t get in. but with a 4% chance of an entry with one ticket, I didn’t expect to.

By this time, the start of 2014, ultrarunning was starting to boom and as a result, the Western States Board decided to make qualification tougher, but fairer. They had realized that a lot of people who got into the race and subsequently dropped out during the run, were those that had qualified with ‘just’ a 50 miler. They reasoned, quite rightly, that in order to qualify you should really have experience of the distance or at the very least, 100k, before you could qualify. Some 100k races were left in, on the basis that many people would have liked the Western States experience to be their first 100 miler. All 50 milers were dropped. As an aside, my only gripe here is that some elites can still qualify with one 50 mile Golden Ticket race, the Lake Sonoma 50 miler, held every April. This seems unfair as the purpose of Western States should always be that everyone on the start line has earned their spot via a certain distance, rather than their status, but that is by the by.

So, my 2014 qualifier had to be 100k or 100 miles. I had run neither distance, having failed in August 2013 at my first 100 mile distance (incidentally also on the North Downs).

I made a pact to go back to the 2014 NDW100 and this time around I finished my first 100 miler and qualified for Western States again. 2 tickets.

In 2015 I ran the Thames Path 100 as my qualifier. 4 tickets.

In 2016 I ran the South Downs Way 100 miler. 8 tickets.

In 2017 I just missed out at the Lavaredo Ultra Trail with a time slightly over the allotted amount for Western States qualification, so it was back to the North Downs Way 100 miler. 16 tickets.

In 2018, I returned to the Thames Path and again qualified. 32 tickets.

In the lottery in December 2018, my name was finally called. 7 years later, I was in.

I have run countless other races in the build up to Western States, in addition to my lottery qualifiers. I have run all over the world for fun and in races. I am an extremely lucky man and now, this month, my dream race is in front of me.

It’s been a hell of a build up and a hell of a year so far this year, but I can tell you one thing. There won’t be one person on the start line in a few weeks, who wants this more than I do. Bring it on.

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50 Sleeps til Statesmas

It’s been a while since I updated things on here. I guess after a shocking start to 2019 I kept myself to myself, but with Western States just a few weeks away now I wanted to jot down a few thoughts.

Following an MRI scan back in February, I was given the all clear to run again the day before I flew to Gran Canaria. Whilst unable to run the race itself, it was great to land and get a first jog done, in the esteemed company of Chris Jones and Damian Hall. It was only a mile, on pavement at night, but boy did it feel good. I finally felt unshackled again.

Over the next few weeks, I started to build up the miles slowly and in all honestly, for the first time since becoming a runner, I felt a little nervous. My cardiologist had said it was fine to train again and raise my heart rate, but at the same time to build up slowly, so March was a month of cautious optimism.

As April rolled around, I was conscious of the South Downs Way 50 getting closer and closer. Initially I had planned to run this following the all clear, as a confidence booster as I built back up to Western States. However, the week prior I made the call to withdraw as I was concerned it may have been a confidence damager and have the exact opposite effect that I was looking for. Since then, I have very much kept the training to myself but I am happy to report I am feeling really good again, finally.

As it stands, I am doing 50-60 miles a week. This is a lot lower than in previous seasons but it feels right. The one thing I consistently read about WS is that it is always better to go in slightly undertrained, than overtrained. So my focus is on hills and heat during the week, to get the quads ready and the body acclimated, and a long run at the weekends. I tend to run Monday to Thursday around 30 miles in total, take Friday off, have a 30 mile long run Saturday and then again take Sunday off. This feels good and about right.

Heat wise, every short run is now in a down jacket and warm hat which is working well and the long run in race day gear. I am starting to think a lot about race day and whilst initially I planned to run with just two handheld bottles, I am now veering towards a lightweight race vest. This won’t be to carry much as I plan to still use handhelds, but is more to be able to store ice during the heat of the day to keep my core as cool as I can.

With 10-15 volunteers for every runner, my every need will be catered to on the day so aside from a few emergency gels, I don’t intend to carry anything aside from water and tailwind, to keep my pack weight to an absolute minimum.

As I get closer I will talk a little about the kit I plan to use but for now, it is head down and just enjoying as many miles as I can. I am still a little sluggish from the two months off at a time of year I don’t enjoy at the best of times, so I am focussed on eating well and trying to get to the start line in as lean a shape as possible, but I have accepted I will be heavier than I ideally would have liked. I would rather than go in a little heavy, than focus too much on weight loss and go in lighter but weaker, so I am accepting how things are whilst also eating and training as sensibly as I can.

Four big weeks of training are now coming up and then a gentle two week taper.

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Pericarditis

 

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Spending the night on the Cardiology Ward at Truro Hospital wasn’t how I wished, or planned to spend Boxing Day night. But, in the words of the late, great John Lennon ‘life is what happens whilst you’re making other plans’.

Throughout 2018 I had an increasing amount of pain. It started in my arm and I assumed it was a torn or pulled muscle. Strangely, it always improved when I did more upper body exercise, so this is what I did. However, as the year wore on, it spread to my upper back, shoulder and then neck. I put it down to impending middle age and just got on with things as best as I could. With hindsight, all the alarm bells were there for a doctors visit, but I honestly thought it was just muscle pain from training with a pack.

The other warning sign was an increasing amount of small, hard lumps behind my ears and under my right armpit. I put these down to skin tags, but I now know they were a result of my thyroid fighting an increasing infection.

The long and the short of it is, on Boxing Day, following a beautiful seven mile run on the coast path in Cornwall, I had an increasing amount of chest pain. Being with my parents, they insisted they take me to Truro to get it checked out and I agreed as it was increasingly uncomfortable.

Prioritised through A&E I was quickly taken through and hooked up to an ECG, which showed some abnormalities. Further tests were done, including bloods and an echocardiogram whilst myself and my father got more and more anxious. The doctors and nurses were amazing and didn’t give too much away, but were checking if there had been a “cardiac event”. It didn’t take a genius to work out that were trying to assess if I had had a heart attack.

However, within an hour or two it was clear my heart was in good shape, my lungs were clear on my x-ray and my blood pressure was excellent (even if it was probably significant heightened with anxiety).

A cardiologist saw me, did some further tests and quickly assessed me as having Acute Pericarditis. This is a condition that affects a lot of people aged 20 to 50 and mimics all the signs of a heart attack, but is actually relatively harmless if caught early enough and treated. Essentially, it is an infection that has reached the Pericardium, which is the fluid filled sack that protects the heart- not the heart itself.

I was kept in overnight as a precaution because they needed to do further tests to see if it was potentially Myo-Pericarditis, which is much worse and means the infection has gone beyond the protective sack and into the heart itself. Further tests revealed my heart was fine and my second blood test was much better than the first.

I was discharged the next day on medication to deal with the infection and I am now waiting for a further echocardiogram next week at my local hospital which will hopefully give me the all clear, infection wise.

The medication has been working wonders and as a result, I have no more back pain, no chest pain, the lumps behind my ears and under my arm have gone and I feel in great health- better than I have for years. I know my heart is strong, my lungs are good and I am in good health.

It also helps explain why 2018 was such a shite running year! I only completed one race and struggled to find any form or consistency. In a way, I am delighted I now know why this was.

The downside is I cannot exercise until I have the all clear and even then, I don’t know how quickly I can properly run and train again.

Trans Gran Canaria is almost certainly out. South Downs Way 50 is up in the air and then there is Western States in June.

At the end of the day, these are just races. Nothing matters more than being well and being there for my kids, so I am taking each day as it comes. I am currently allowed to exercise ‘like a 70 year old’. This is a tricky one as my father is in his 70’s and is the Kilian of Cornwall, hiking up and down the cliff path and beaches every day, so I am trying to exercise like a normal 70 year old- not him! This includes yoga and stretching and a 3-5 mile walk every day to keep things moving.

I am confident I will return and stronger than ever. I just don’t know when.

The only thing I can pass on from this experience is, if you are worried about something or something just doesn’t feel right, go and see your GP. The ultra world does have a tendency to be somewhat ego driven and the culture of ‘suck it up, buttercup’ is there. Pain is normal, its what we do and so on. With one of my friends having suffered a stroke a couple of days before my situation and other friends with cancer, we aren’t invincible and early assessment is so crucial. If I had seen my GP last summer when the pain was growing, I wouldn’t be where I am now. Please see your GP.

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Cotswold Way Century 2018

This race has been a part of my ultra-running journey since its inaugural run in 2013 when Kurt Dusterhoff’s Cotswold Running company started the modern version of the race. Simply put, it’s the whole of the Cotswold Way, 102 miles end to end. Non-stop in under 30 hours.

I volunteered in 2013 and 2014, failed to finish in 2015 and 2016, volunteered again in 2017 and here I was in 2018, back to put this thing to bed.

I am no stranger to tough races or the 100 mile distance. I have finished 6 x 100 mile races in the UK, as well as tough races in the USA, Dolomites and the Alps and countless shorter distance ultras and marathons, so I have the ability to finish this race, but somehow always manage not to.

In 2015 and 2016 I was not prepared enough and exhausted both times from busy seasons, so this year I made this my A race. I hadn’t raced since the Thames Path 100 in May and focused on getting to start line in September fresh and focused. I have always been of the belief that of the two, it’s better to stand on the start line a little under trained than over trained.

Unlike previous starts here, when historically we have been very lucky with the weather (aside from during the night in 2016), the weather was grim from the start. We walked to the start line in waterproofs and I managed to catch up with a few friends. I wasn’t overly anxious but was focused on just getting this done and hurling this big monkey off my back.

Soon after we were sent on our way I stopped to take off the waterproof. It was still drizzling but I was feeling too hot, so wanted to make sure I felt good. I had spare t-shirts in my drop bag and crew bag anyway and I knew that being damp in the day wasn’t an issue, so long as I was warm overnight when my body temperature had calmed down somewhat.

The first few miles from Chipping Camden are fairly flat and quite dull, so I made sure I didn’t go off like a rocket and kept my pace and breathing calm and steady. Anyone can run the first 20 miles fast, I reminded myself, and this wasn’t a 20 mile race. The rain eased off a little as we approached the iconic Broadway Tower and then ran the long descent into Broadway, which is a beautiful place. Running down the high street to polite clapping from the residents and tourists, I felt good. I heard one of the marshalls comment to someone “these guys are pacing it right”, which gave me a boost. It’s always easy to go off too fast in the excitement of a race, so this helped my confidence further.

Underfoot the ground was still pretty decent, despite the deluge of the last few days. Its been an exceptional summer so my hopes were that despite the rain, the ground having been so dry would soak it all in and we wouldn’t be in a mud bath, particularly in the later stages. More on that later, but for now it was very runnable.

I hit the first aid station at 13 miles in bang on 3 hours which was my target, quickly re-filled my bottles and kept moving. Even stopping for a few seconds I felt cool, which was a world away from 2015 when I stopped here to ask if anyone had any suncream!

Legs felt ok, attitude was good, it was the no-mans land of get to 50 miles unbroken and then the real race started.

Somehow in the next section I felt like I was suddenly at the very back of the field. This was a bit of a surprise as I felt I was moving well and on time for my personal goals. Whilst I am never usually at the very back (although I am increasingly slower- which needs to be addressed), I felt this must be down to other runners exuberance than my own slow pace and reminded myself to ignore everyone else and focus on my own splits. Simply put, I wanted to always be at least an hour ahead of the cut offs. Always.

Just before the second aid station at Aggs Hill, mile 27 I saw someone who was connected to the race, but didn’t know his name. whilst the area is vaguely familiar, I didn’t know exactly how far it was to the check point so I asked him. “about six miles, mate” was his response.

What? I cant be that far off my pace, surely? I panicked a little and pushed harder than I would have otherwise at this stage of the race. Thankfully, I then came across the aid station about 3 miles later in 6 hours exactly- bang on my goal time, an hour ahead of the 7 hour cut off for this point.

Here I saw Nikki Mills who had kindly agreed to take my crew bag to hand to Alan Mercer at 6pm. I changed my top here as the early evening air was cold now and added a gilet to my layers to stay warm. Changing clothes felt great and I was soon on my way, happy with my status.

I have said it before, but one of the things I love most about ultras is how they break you down to your most simple desires. I am not thinking about money or cars or holidays, just maybe a can of lemonade in 10 miles time. It’s the most humbling sport and what keeps me coming back.

The next aid station was at mile 38.5 and between Aggs Hill and here it would get dark, so I made sure my torches were easily accessible without having to root through my bag in the rain. The technical term for the weather at this stage was ‘pissing it down’.

Halfway between Aggs Hill and Birdlip, Alan Mercer took over crewing for me and I was in very safe hands. The ultra running community is a special place and despite the fact we hadn’t met aside from facebook, Alan said he would crew me overnight from 6pm to 6am where he would hand over to another friend of mine, Chris, who would get me through the day leg to the finish.

Alan was calm and knowledgeable so helped give me a huge boost as I started into the night.

By now I had caught some other people and ran with a lady called Dominique for a bit. This was her first 100 miler and she was running it to raise money for Prostate Cancer. Her father was crewing and she explained the reasons why she was raising money- it was a pleasure to meet him. The full results haven’t been published as I write this and I don’t know her surname, but I do hope that she finished.

The next few miles were uneventful and we made steady progress to Birdlip, where it was fully dark upon arrival. I now had 10 miles to cover to be in by midnight at Painswick, the halfway point. The cut off was 1am so midnight was my goal. At Birdlip I stopped only very briefly and they had minestrone soup which was just perfect. Again, the simplicity of ultras- I wasn’t thinking about lunch at Nobu, but minestrone soup from a polystyrene cup was about the best thing I had ever tasted. I had second cup and took it with me as I marched towards the woods. Most of the night leg was in the woods and this was great as it was warmer. However, it was also a lot mistier with the humidity. It didn’t take long before it was a pull pea soup fog.

I had a headtorch and also a hand held torch. Hand helds are slightly more hard work as your arm swings, but they are also a lot better in the fog. Head torches light up all the moisture in front of your eyes which can make it almost as blinding as running with no torch at all, so the hand held was perfect to keep lower and light the way as much as possible. It was still very hard to see anything and I felt my pace slow dramatically as I made sure I was on course. This is an unmarked race, so having the route as a GPS file on my watch was essential for confidence although I tried to navigate by the national trail markers as much as possible to keep my pace up.

I made a couple of minor navigation errors here and there, but nothing major as I made my way to Painswick. Here I met another lady called Karen and we shared a lot of the race, back and forth, from here on in.

At some point around here I also saw Henry Church who had driven out to cheer me and another friend on and he had the best thing possible right now- a cold can of coke. Thanks for coming out, mate and having a chat and walk with me for a bit.

What was becoming apparent was how much muddier underfoot it was becoming. The shoes I had decided on for this race were ones I had used all summer so they were nicely broken in. However, as a result of the dry trails all summer, the lugs were somewhat worn down in places so slipping was inevitable. A few days before the race as I knew the forecast I debated buying a new pair of the same shoes, with thicker lugs, but decided against it as I would rather slip a bit than have blisters from new shoes. Whilst slipping was frustrating at times, aside from this my feet felt good and it was the right call.

As Karen and I came into Painswick, Alan was waiting and it was exactly midnight. Bang on schedule. I wanted to get in and out and hadn’t sat down all day so I ate some vege chilli, which was amazing and was back on the trail within 7 minutes. Alan was even kind enough to lend me his own hat, to save me having to dig through my pack to get mine and lose time. That’s the sort of friend you need on a crew.

I knew my buffer on the cut offs was OK, but also wouldn’t allow any errors so I started to worry a little. By the time I met Alan again in Stroud I was worried and he helped push me on to get to Coaley Peak as soon as I could. I lost Karen for a bit before Stoud but she caught me whilst I was with Alan and we worked a team on the big climb to Coaley Peak, where we decided we wouldn’t stop and keep moving to bank time. Its amazing how much things look different on paper to reality. I felt I would be fine for time and move at a gentle pace, but increasingly as my ever battered body broke down, I was having to work much harder than I would have wanted to keep up a pace good enough to finish.

At Coaley Peak, by not stopping we ended up with three other runners and formed a group of five which helped with the pacing. This wasn’t a formal agreement, you either kept up or got dropped as we were all on our own mission to finish, but because the foggy woods at 3am aren’t an overly lovely place to be alone, we all worked as a group to stay together.

One of these guys was Lee Scott who I first met at the Arc of Attrition back in February. We also shared some miles on the Thames Path this year. Lee is a great bloke and set a decent pace which I tried to maintain. A couple of hours later we hit Dursley where I saw Alan and grabbed some food and drink before the next push to Wooton Under Edge. I felt OK here and whilst my cut off buffer wasn’t amazing, I was still the right side of things.

As I spoke with Alan I lost the other runners so had to use my GPS to find the trail out of Dursely. From here there is a steep climb up to Stinchcombe golf course and as I got back on the trail I realized I wasn’t climbing like I thought I should be. I check my GPS and I was off course. However it was only by a fraction, so I kept going thinking maybe the watch had a small error in the thick woods. What I didn’t realise is that I was on a lower logging track and the trail I should have been on climbed almost parallel above me, so the GPS was spot on- I was almost on the right track but at the same time, heading in a completely different direction.

I turned around and tried to find my way. I found a path that rose, so followed that even though it was overgrown. Eventually it came to a halt at a fallen tree and I swore and shouted as I knew I would have to double back to Dursely. I had now lost half an hour on my already slender cut off buffer and was starting to get distraught. This race means so much to me and I knew it was almost impossible to make it after this massive mistake.

But, I wasn’t out yet and vowed I would never drop and not go down without a fight. Once back on the trail I saw headtorches above me and it was Alan and Chris, who had arrived to take over crewing. I am sorry Chris saw me like this as I was furious and angry with myself, but they kept me focused and said I had time if I kept moving.

This coincided with a 2.5 mile loop of the golf course which is so tough to do when you know you are almost out of time. I had to get to Wooton by 8am to make the cut offs and when you know there is a route that is 400 yards as opposed to 2.5 miles, its hard to stay focused. But the course is the course and I would never cheat, but your brain is all over the place at 6am in fog so thick you can’t see your arm in front of you, that it tries to tell you its ok to just give up and call it a day. No way. Not this year. So I followed the route around the outer stretches of the course and made excellent time fuelled by anger, swearing and lemonade.

I knew I was close to being timed out so when I saw Alan and Chris after this loop they said they had some good news and some bad news. The bad news was I had 6k to go to Wooton, not 4k as I had thought, but the good news was they had checked and the cut off was 8:30am not 8am. So my half hour fuck up, may not yet be the end of the world.

This put a pep in my step and combined with there now being enough daylight to lose the torches, I was off and racing to Wooton. All the pain in my legs, hips and feet I put to one side and I threw myself down the hills with abandon. I slipped a couple of times, going arse over tit, but didn’t care- it was pure adrenaline. I had gritted teeth and was breathing like a man possessed, often grunting on the climbs. I dread to think what an early morning dog walker would have thought.

I saw Chris briefly before the final big climb on this section and he forced me to take a gel and gave me no sympathy- both exactly what I needed. I made the climb and then raced the flat to Wooton through the woods before a big descent into the town.

Chris was here again and told me I had to be in the check point by 8:17 not 8:30. It was now 8:05 so I threw myself down the high street and arrived in 8:13, panicked and stressed but also now believing I had enough time to move steadier and make the final cut off at 1:30pm at mile 87.

I am not sure if it was the adrenaline wearing off, having made this cut off after such a battle, or the fact my body was now trashed from pushing so hard or just general fatigue but I felt myself having increasingly less energy as I moved on. I had 11 miles to make Horton at mile 82 now and needed to be there by 11am at the latest to stand a chance of hitting Tormarton by 1:30. 11 miles in two and a half hours sounds easy, but on that terrain and with the state of my body after the night, it was a big ask.

But as they say, I hadn’t come this far to only come this far, so I pushed on. I’d caught Lee at this point as he was in severe pain but we vowed we wouldn’t stop until we knew it was impossible. My quads were blown, the connector between my shin and my foot was in agony on both feet and my knees really hurt. I mustered a shuffle but it was really, really hard.

I cried a bit thinking after all I pushed that I may now be timed out, but wiped away the tears and kept focused. I was not out yet.

Horton took an absolute age and I saw Chris halfway between the two points. He tried to keep me fired up, but knew time wasn’t on my side as my body was more and more uncooperative. I pushed as much as I could, but just couldn’t maintain a decent average pace. I cant begin to tell you how frustrating that was.

The last 20 miles of the Cotswold Way are the easy bit. If I had just banked another hour I could have walked in from Tormarton, but cut offs are there for a reason and I have to respect them. As I approached Horton, I got lost again only for a moment, but it meant a switch was flicked in my mind. I now didn’t have enough time. Like a balloon being popped, everything left me and I was broken, beaten and finished. I am gutted to say that when I got to Horton I handed my tracker in and pulled off my race number.

So, so close, and yet so far. I have to remain positive and take all of the good things from this weekend. I have never been more focused in a race and I gave it absolutely everything. I left everything out there on that course and if that is the benchmark of personal worth, then I am proud of my race.

If it wasn’t for my mistake at Dursley, I am 100% convinced I would be sat typing a different report, looking at my medal. But that is ultra running and for me, its not about the medals its about the experience and whether or not I can say I am proud of my performance.

Its not the result I wanted and I know I am becoming a bit of a joke at this race now, but I will put it to bed. It means a lot and I know I am capable. I don’t know if it will be next September, but I will get to the Abbey in Bath one of these years. That I can promise you. I think its time to get a coach and get focussed on where I can improve.

My thanks go to Chris and Alan for giving up their weekends for me. I persuaded Chris to enter the South Downs Way 50 miler next April after he nailed his first marathon earlier this year. Having now spent a few hours with me on Sunday morning, he’s probably regretting that now, but the Cotswold Way has a way of stripping you absolutely raw! To Alan, to come out and help a virtual stranger all night in those conditions, I am eternally grateful and will return the favour whenever you need it.

I failed to finish, but I didn’t fail to try. And for that I have salvaged some personal pride.

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Salomon S Lab Hybrid JKT U Review

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Salomon describe this as a ‘technical jacket for athletic pursuits in tough weather’.

I have always rated Salomon gear amongst the highest of the kit I own. Granted, as a brand it isn’t the cheapest but I have tees I bought back in 2012 still in rotation where as cheaper brands only last a season or two before needing to be thrown.

So when I knew I needed to upgrade my waterproof, Salomon was the brand I turned to. My last waterproof from them was the Bonatti which I bought back in 2015 and that has probably worked out at costing me 20p for every run I have used it for in the rain- money well spent when you break it down like that.

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I wanted something highly packable for the days when you just don’t know if it will rain and able to peform for the days when you know it will.

My next 100 mile race, The Cotswold Way Century is a week tomorrow. With the weather being highly changeable in September and this race often getting very cold overnight, I wanted a highly waterproof jacket, windproof and breathable.

When the envelope arrived I thought that this must have been something else I was receiving because the pack was so light it couldn’t possibly the jacket. Amazingly, as I opened it, I realized it was indeed the jacket.

At just 90g, this is an exceptionally light and packable jacket for its capabilities.

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Most ultra distance races require a 10,000mm level waterproof jacket and this doubles that at 20,000mm. At this level to be as breathable as it is, is almost unheard of versus the weight and packable ratio.

This all comes down to the Pertex shield, but the real selling point is the fit of the jacket.

You can see from the photos that the bottom of the jacket on the hem and on the wrists is a highly stretchable material that ensures the jacket stays sealed. Wind and rain cannot blow inside the jacket and this makes it perfect for both wet and windy days.

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In addition, the cut of the jacket is in such a way that motion is not restricted when the hood is up (which naturally grips to your head and is non-adjustable, but not restrictive) and the shoulders and arms can move freely as well.

For autumn and winter days as well as mandatory kit requirements, this jacket is absolutely perfect. Salomon specialise in details and the jacket can fold down into its own hood where two carry straps fold out. This way it can be attached to the front or rear of a race vest easily for days when the jacket may come on and off regularly, or simply carried by hand. For days when its just for emergency only, at just 90g you wouldn’t even know its inside your pack.

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Being built to last too, whilst it is £200 to buy, that will work out at pennies per run. And from struggling in races with poor waterproofs in the past, this is an area of my racing where I am no longer prepared to cut costs.

You can purchase the jacket direct from Salomon here: https://www.salomon.com/uk/product/s-lab-hybrid-jkt-u.html?article=392614

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The Thames Path 100 2018- Race Report

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Running 100 miles is hard. Really hard. Like a trauma where the brain suppresses horrific memories, the body heals quickly and the mind lets go. It’s why I keep signing up to this distance and I only remember the agony and mental despair about 60 miles in.

Most ultras vary from somewhat hilly to outright mountainous. It was never designed to be an easy sport, but races do vary in difficulty. On paper the Thames Path 100 sounds like it should be at the easier end of the spectrum. A flat course, relatively urban (i.e. easy access for crews and things like ice cream vans), spring weather and a mixture of tarmac and fields. Flippantly someone said it was the ‘London Marathon’ of 100 milers- i.e. people enter thinking it will be pretty straightforward to get from London to Oxford in less than 28 hours. How hard can it be…?

I first ran this race back in 2015 when I was arguably at the best fitness of my life. I had run a PB at The Brazos Bend 100 miler in Texas four months before, coming in for 18th place (no, there weren’t 19 entrants…), and kept up a good training block afterwards. That year it was warm-ish in the day but poured with rain overnight and I finished in 23:16, having walked most of the last 10 miles.

I remembered it was hard. As mentally draining as anything I had ever done before, but I felt confident this time around that I was pretty fit- maybe not 2015 fit- but in better shape than last year and felt that time was beatable. As I mentioned earlier, my brain had suppressed a lot.

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Stood on the start line with my good friend David Ickringill, we knew we were in for a toasty day. Not outrageously hot, but having endured 7 months of crap UK weather, certainly a shock to the system type of hot. It turned out to be both- as the below graph from fellow runner Lee Scotts watch shows, it peaked at over 90 Fahrenheit. That is Western States territory, almost, and with no heat acclimation for most of the field, the race was set to be a brutal war of attrition.

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All my pacing times went out of the window and I purely ran to feel. This race wasn’t about getting a PB, although it would have been a bonus, it was about getting to Oxford safely and bagging my 32 Western States tickets, as my 7th year of qualifying in a row. So much more pressure each year not to fuck it up!

I won’t bore you with blow by blow details, but the first 30 miles went well and I kept myself cool. Between 3pm and 6pm it felt at its hottest and by then I was keeping drenched however I could. Never has the River Thames appealed for a swim, like it was a beach in Zanzibar. It was truly baking. As an example, many of the houses lining the route are multi-millionaire territory and one with a beautiful garden had a gardener in the front working the sprinklers. A fellow runner and myself gestured to him and he sprayed us down liberally- one of the best feelings during the run.

A big mistake people make in the heat is simply drinking more than normal. Whilst this is obviously important, this doesn’t cool your core and you need to do this externally. The drop out rate for this rate was huge by Centurion standards and I firmly believe that whilst many will have been for injury, a lot will have been to managing body temperature adequately and this is something I have also had to learn the hard way. If you are hot, it’s a problem. If you stop sweating, it’s a problem. Staying cool was the absolute object of the day. As a result my pace fell dramatically, but I was comfortable on the cut offs and happy to plod until the sun went down and then, hopefully, make hay overnight.

Being well down on my time of 2015, one of the hardest parts mentally was running into the dark knowing I had run this section in daylight 3 years ago. The head trys to defeat you at times like this, but I kept reminding myself I was doing great and this wasn’t about beating that time. I naturally drifted back to feeling like a failure, but kept telling myself this wasn’t even the same race as back then. It was the same route, but todays conditions were a million miles away.

As I approached the halfway point at Henley, I pushed to get there before I had to put my torch on. As a result, and with a build up of food, water and tailwind in my stomach, I felt the familiar acids rising. Here we go again. And I duly decorated the river bank in one of the wealthiest towns in the country. Classy.

But I no longer panic when I am sick. It just happens sometimes and can be managed so I walked into Henley feeling fresh and ready to get some new calories in via the pasta and cheese on offer. As I sat down, David had arrived just before me and I momentarily let slip that I was thinking of dropping. He was having none of it and said to just chip away. I knew I wasn’t ready to drop and I am sorry I shared that burden with him- from experience when someone tells you that, it can make you second guess what you yourself are doing so I should have kept it to myself and just got on with it, but he was great and pushed me on my way.

The contrast between day and night temperatures was huge and will also be what caught a number of runners out. I put on a gillet and arm warmers, changed my tshirt and with a stomach filling back up with warm pasta I was on my way and feeling not 100%, but certainly better than when I arrived.

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Henley to Reading (mile 58) was really nice. Slow and steady jogging with the cool evening air around me and took about an hour and a half, which I was very happy with. At Reading I was in and out, having seen Tania from Runderwear. I think I looked worse than I felt and I could tell she was a little concerned but I said I was fine and made my way out.

There is no other way to describe this next section, aside from shit. You just have to get through it. Through Reading there are some real ‘characters’ by the river after midnight so that motivated me to keep running instead of walking and just clear the urban area. After this, fields go on forever and then the trainline from Paddington runs parallel with the path and this is where I had a sickness session in 2015. Well. Sure enough within 200 yards of where that happened, I re-decorated the hedge again. This time, as opposed to Henley, it was a huge clear out but again like 2015, I felt amazing. Doubled up by the side of the trail, runners checked I was OK but I explained its normal for me and would be on my way shortly. Normal may not be ideal, but its still normal.

From here you run through a housing estate which has a pleasant incline and then descent and then boring fields for several miles until you hit a bridge and the next aid station.

I know this section well, having paced at the Autumn 100 which shares this leg, as well as my previous run here, so this aid station marks 4 miles to Goring, which is the 71 mile point and my mental destination from which I knew if I made Goring, I would finish.

Joe Delaney was outside here and we had a handshake. He then demanded he see me again within 3 minutes or he was coming into the checkpoint to throw me out. I needed that at 3am and the height of the cold night!

The next four miles to Goring is probably my favourite bit of this race. It is finally hilly and there is a gorgeous trail section down to the river and I thoroughly enjoyed this, sucking on my 50% water 50% coke mix and jelly babies.

At Goring I was met by the dream team of Paul Ali and Tim Cox. Two guys I have huge respect for in the sport. If anyone knows how to get 100’s done, its these two.

They fixed me up with beans and cheese (just amazing!) and I had a quick chat with Sarah Sawyer, whos husband Tom had sadly called it a day at Goring. I then spotted Tom Garrod, who is a way better runner than me and it made me realise that the sensible runners were holding a lot back today and this gave me confidence that I was racing this well and carefully. I reminded myself that only a finish mattered, not the time.

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I accessed my drop bag here and grabbed a down jacket to put on over my gillet- it really was that cold now- as well as a travel pot of sudocreme which I was badly in need of, this late in the day. Chafing is something that I still haven’t sorted. Even with runderwear and Vaseline etc, it still gets me- especially in hot races. So whilst sudocreme causes a right mess, it was that little pot that got me to the finish line.

I knew that at the next aid station I was to meet my pacer, Dawn and her husband Chris. They would get me to the finish line no matter what. I had already called them earlier in the race to say not to bother coming as I was super slow compared to my original plan and didn’t want to waste their time if it involved a death march to the finish. They insisted anyway and this gave me a real boost.

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As the sun rose, my pace fell. Often people talk about the rejuvenation of a sunrise during a 100 miler, but I find it is a few hours later that I feel better when the warmth breaks through. I staggered along just wanting to get to Dawn as I came through a lovely bunch of people out at 5am bird watching for the dawn chorus (no pun intended). They were incredibly supportive, if a little shocked to see exhausted runners at that time in the middle of nowhere. About as far from the people I had seen in Reading as you can imagine!

As I came into the village and saw Dawn and Chris outside the aid station, I let them know that I needed a 10 minute power nap. For many people, this can be seen as race ending but for me I find a nap is a lifesaver. In 2014 when I crewed Sam Robson at the GUCR, he had a power nap that we as crew felt was race ending, after a disastrous (by his standards) night leg. 15 minutes later he was out of the car and clocking nine minute miles.

I wasn’t quite on that pace, but as soon as I left the car I was running again and it was fantastic to know I wasn’t alone and that Dawn would make me finish. She explained after that having not paced before in a 100 miler, she would use a strategy of pretending I was Chris and nag me into submission. This worked a treat!

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We ran for seven hours together and at times I was stressed about cut offs, but she just set a pace that I could jog/ walk behind her to and this was sufficient. My walking was shockingly slow, so I had to jog to keep up with the pace and this is something I need to improve on. The thing is, I never walk the flat in training. For my mountain races last summer, I trained myself to hike efficiently with poles and became really quite good. But on the flat, I run so I need to improve this if I have any hope at the KACR in July.

By hook or by crook, we were chewing up the miles between 11 minute and 18 minute mile pace (I needed to be ahead of 20 min mile average) and whilst slow by anyone’s standards, 90 miles into a race this pace still hurt.

By the time we reached the last aid station it was another glorious day, for anyone but a runner. For us, it was savage but the team had rigged up a shower here and this was amazing to stand under for two minutes, a quick sit down to gag down some fruit, cheese and coke (all my stomach would manage) and we were off for the last five miles.

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My god that last section was hard. It felt hotter than the day before and I was a mess. Dawn kept me drenched and Chris was amazing with encouragement whenever we saw him (I was rather envious of his deckchair). Finally, Oxford was in sight.

As we approached the finish I thanked Dawn from the bottom of my heart. That finish took every bit of my, and her, will power. I was on the verge of calling it a day when I met them but they got me safely delivered and it was an honour to run across the finish line, hand in hand, as Chris filmed and congratulated. Thank you both so much- pacing and crewing is so stressful, especially when it drags on and cut offs come into play, but you were both amazing.

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I am also delighted to say that David finished an hour in front of me and Goska, from Rockstar, a few minutes after me. Nearly half the field dropped and these are already good ultrarunners to have qualified to be on the start line. That was truly brutal, but I am so glad I persevered.

As always, a huge thanks to the volunteers for all their hard work. To James Elson and Nici Griffin, Drew and the team. Nikki Mills, Stuart March, Richard Stillion, Lorna and Phil Bradburn and all the regulars I have forgotten to mention, as well as everyone out on the course not in an official capacity but with sun cream, ice lollies, water and kind words. It is a special little world I have found myself in for the last few years.

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Salomon Wings Pro 3- Review

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If you happen to have followed my ultra-running journey over the last few years, you will know that my shoe choice has varied quite considerably.

At the time I started my ultra journey in 2011, it was the height of the barefoot craze. I found myself running in minimal flats and whilst I never went as far as the running sandal or five fingers foot gloves, I did have a pair of the New Balance barefoot shoes. A shoe I loved, until you stepped on a sharp stone and then instantly hated.

I mostly ran in what you would call ‘standard’ shoes, shoes like the Pearl Izumi Trail N2 or Salomon Sense and then gravitated to the Hoka shoe as my distances grew and I felt cushioning may be the answer.

But, like politics, where people flutter to the left then the right, the most sensible place is often right in the middle. And as I build up to my 2018 season, which includes only 100 and 100 mile + races, I wanted a shoe that was reliable, good on and off trail, suited the wet and the dry and was generally supportive but let you assume natural form. A lot to ask for in one shoe, for sure, but I think I have found it.

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Now, Salomon has arguably the best marketing machine of any outdoor brand. You just need to type Salomon into YouTube to know that, but- and this is the clincher, they also make some of the very best products in the market and their development is lead by athletes. This doesn’t mean they only make clothes, shoes and equipment for the best, but designed by the best and usable by everyone.

I should know. I’m not elite but I still have pairs of Salomon shoes in my garage that I haven’t had the heart to throw away, going back as far as 2013. Yes, there were some tearing issues with the early Sense models on the mesh, but these have been drastically improved with feedback over the last few model generations. And I still train in those old models today.

The Wings Pro 3 is the latest ‘general’ trail shoe. It is not the lightest shoe at 295g, but is ruggedly built and designed predominantly for dry trails, but also very adept at mud and wet conditions. It is the shoe I wore for 16 hours at The Arc of Attrition, and took everything that the extremely demanding course could throw at it.

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The fit is not low, which I have found annoying on some shoes in the past, that slip off in wet or muddy conditions, but fits high on the ankle and consequently suffers from no slippage. The toe box is roomy and the quicklace system works as well as all previous generations of these shoes, with a little pocket in the tongue to tuck laces and ensure nothing bounces or flaps around.

At 9mm drop, it is at the larger end of spectrum but in all honesty, I have felt very little difference between this and a 4-5mm drop, so don’t let that put you off. In addition, the grip is superb but also doesn’t feel cumbersome on hard surfaces like some trail shoes can.

Finally, the breathability is superb as you would expect from a Salomon shoe, but also drains quickly in wet conditions.

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My next two races are flat 100 and 145 mile river/canal races, respectively and these shoes offer a very decent amount of cushioning for such a lightweight shoe. I am very confident that they will have the ability to get through these sorts of distances without me needing to change shoes, something I always dislike doing mid-race. Often just a tiny difference in shoe ‘drop’ or feel can play havoc on the legs, so I look for a shoe that is adaptable to a range of conditions but can go the distance.

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At £120, these aren’t cheap, but I have learned from experience that the old adage ‘buy cheap, buy twice’ is painfully true and I really rate these shoes as a highly capable all-rounder, whether you are looking to compete or simply complete.

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The Arc of Attrition 2018

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Coffee break at The Lizard, the most southerly point in the UK

If you know me, you’ll know I am not a fan of winter. Despite working on it year on year, it effectively feels like life almost switches off at the end of November and comes back in April. I really struggle with it. I try and stay positive as much as possible but I am highly conscious that this can be a real strain on those around me.

So, last year I decided one of the best ways to try and deal with winter was to have a real goal to force me out of the door during those dreadful winter months. And what better than a 100 mile footrace in one of the most beautiful parts of the UK?

Not only would this hopefully help with the annual winter weight gain and depression, but the Arc of Attrition finishes just a few miles away from my parents house, so I would have an excellent base and also coincided with half term, so I could stay on a few extra days after the race with the kids who love spending time there.

Whilst my running this winter was a million times better than most winters, I knew this was one hell of a race and my training wasn’t anywhere near as good as it would have been for a summer 100 miler. So I went into this race in the full knowledge that it may not end in a finish, but that also 2017 I ran some very big races on limited fitness and tend to get ultras done on my stubbornness and will-power, so a finish here was not out of the question.

That said, I firmly believe that you have to stand on every start line, absolutely convinced you are capable of finishing what is in front of you. If you don’t, you may as well not even start. I wasn’t injured, the lack of serious training meant I was fresh and I have a lot of ultra and 100 mile finishes behind me, so I stood a strong chance here.

So at Midday on Friday 9th February, around 150 of us set off from Coverack on the Cornish south coast, set to run the incredible Arc of Attrition.

The weather was very kind on day one and it was absolutely beautiful. There was a slight breeze but it wasn’t cold and the bright sunshine turned my Oakley reactions into sunglasses virtually instantly. The usual queues formed as we found our respective positions in the field and quickly it became very clear that it was not the climbs or the weather that would hamper us during this race, it would be the underfoot conditions.

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The buffet car at the back of the train (with Nicola and Lee)

Cornwall has been lashed with storm after storm this winter and my parents can’t remember a winter down there quite so severe as this one. This was reflected in several parts of the course having been subject to landlsides and dangerous erosion, so without a 100 mile race being hard enough, this was now a 104+ mile race, with several inland diversions in the first 25 miles. We were given an extra half an hour on the cut offs to compensate, but really these diversions cost runners of my speed and ability well over an hour. Don’t take that as me complaining- we were lucky to get an extra half an hour- and the Mudcrew team bent over backwards in order to make the race take place by carefully managing the route, but at the same time I think those diversions made it very hard for a number of mid to back of the pack runners to make up any time and significantly contributed to the extremely high DNF rate (it was a tiny 1/3 finish rate!).

No 100 mile race has ever taken me longer than 28.5 hours, so with a 36.5 hour cut off time for this race, I felt I had plenty of time. Yes, its winter and yes its tricky underfoot, but another 8 hours on top of my slowest 100 mile time, that’s plenty, right? Wrong.

It quickly became clear that the 8 hours we had to cover the first 28 miles was not as much as it sounded. However, I felt fit and made steady progress to the Lizard at just over 10 miles where I would see my parents, Solange and the kids. I arrived in 2 hours 45 minutes and felt pretty good. I had a bleeding hand from a fight with a gorse bush as I tried to stay upright on one of the descents, but aside from this I was in great form and smiling as the kids bounded towards me. Dad gave me a pasty and a coffee and I felt like a new man as I had a few cuddles with the kids and made my way back on to the coast path, focused on getting to Porthleven at 28 miles with time in the bank.

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I’m hoping thats the wind blowing my jacket open.

The course was regularly ankle deep in mud and often heavily waterlogged in places. At times it felt like every step forward involved a counter step to stay upright. Amazingly, I was one of the only runners around me who managed not to fall down. The arc was a given, seeing the shape of the run, the attrition was increasingly becoming apparent.

As dusk fell, the lights of Porthleven twinkled ahead of me and I felt I had made good time and would be there around 6:30pm, banking an hour and a half on the cut off. Not knowing the route however, I hadn’t banked on a wide and slow diversion just after a small beach crossing before we hit the town. As I strapped on my head torch and turned on my red flashing light on the back of my pack, we made our way down a dirt road which wound for a mile or two, then headed through some woods and finally some very slippery muddy/cow shit fields before finally being turned back on to the coast path to drop down into the outskirts of Porthleven.

At this point, I need to mention crew. Usually I am a highly self-sufficient runner, even at 100 mile races or long mountain races such as last summers highlight, The Lavaredo Ultra Trail. However, being winter and with long gaps between check points, here I wanted to have a support crew so I could re-fill my bottles and change clothes whenever I required. Being layered up, my base layer would often get soaked with sweat and it was important I didn’t get cold overnight so having a crew was important to me.

My good friend Richard Fish carried my support bag for the first six hours and then handed over to Matt and Loz for the overnight leg, who would then hand over to my father and Solange for the final day. Matt was someone I only met two days before the race and is a friend of my fathers. He offered to help out overnight with his brilliant Aussie mate, Loz and I am already looking forward to returning the favour for them at another race soon. It was incredibly kind of them to stay out all night to help a total stranger and is another reason why I love the endurance sport community, where people rally together to help others achieve a goal.

The outskirts of Porthleven was where I met Matt and Loz, but I was already slightly frazzled on the time after the big diversion so I said I would see them at the aid station where I would change shoes and get back out on the course.

One of the best features of this race were the aid stations and the so called ‘Arc Angels’, who looked after you from arrival to departure. As soon as I got close a very smiley and friendly lady, who’s name escapes me, took me inside and fixed me up with sausages, chips and sweet black coffee. It was one of the best meals of my life, after 28 winter miles on the coast path. I saw the guys and changed my shoes and socks and headed back out after a maximum of five minutes to try and make up some time on the next leg.

As the night enveloped us, one of the most strangely endearing things about this course was the red tail lights that were part of the mandatory kit that we had to fix to the rear of our packs. As I ran along with fresh shoes and socks, on a relatively dry piece of path and the stars filled a cloudless sky, all I could see for miles was intermittent twinkling red lights and it really made me feel part of something special. I don’t know why these lights had such an effect on me, and I guess different people take different things away from races, but there was just something about them. You knew you were on the right track, so they were re-assuring, but they enveloped a sense of comradery in me, that we were all on a journey together and had a shared goal, for a multitude of different reasons.

The next aid station was in Penzance at 42 miles in (including diversion miles). I used my poles for the first time somewhere around here, but then dumped them shortly after. I find they are really useful for mountain races where you are climbing for in excess of two hours, often but here no climb lasted more than 10 minutes or so, and they then became an annoyance on the downhills and flats, particularly when the path was narrow. Later, as we had to climb boulders and stream crossings they would have been even more annoying, as I needed to use my hands to climb and scramble, but that is just a personal preference.

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Quick change of clothes and into Penzance

I found myself toing and froing with a number of groups on this section and I gave those around me names in my own head. I had purple and red jackets, two women who seemed to never cease to run out of chat and were working so well as a team. Salomon man, who looked like he had more Salomon kit than Kilian (or Chris Mills), Map Boy who was always checking his map at junctions and a whole host of others.

I met up with Matt and Loz a couple more times and was soon just before Marazion. Here I made my first navigational error and ran down a slip road on to a beach, but fortunately I wasn’t too far in front of some other runners who called me back and put me back on the right path. A little later the path did drop back down on to this same beach and it was here I bumped into Dawn Gardner, who I knew was ahead of my somewhere since the start.

Dawn was in a bit of a state at this point as she had also made a navigational error on the same beach, but she had been alone and had been going in circles for a while trying to find the correct path out of the beach. Whilst we were fairly tight on the cut offs, I wasn’t overly concerned as we had some time to play with, but unfortunately for Dawn due to the length of her error she had checked out mentally. I tried to encourage her and we ran most of the way to the Penzance checkpoint together, but sadly at this point she decided to call it a day. One of the strongest and most determined runners I know, she will finish this race next year. Its not even in doubt.

I saw Matt and Loz at Marazion, but said I wasn’t stopping and ran towards Penzance as hard as I could. The cut off time here was 00:15 and I think it was close to 11:30, so I needed to get a wriggle on. Once inside the checkpoint, my every need was looked after and I quickly got in and out. It looked like a war zone in there with dropped runners all over the floor and crews trying to keep people motivated. I had a quick chat with Richard Stillion and we both said how we felt like we were moving well, but were just making such agonizingly slow progress. It was very frustrating for the both of us.

Nothing to do but move so I headed out and knew I had another few miles of flat road to make up some time on, before we got to the trickiest section so far, boulders around Lamorna Cove.

Here for the first time, I started to doubt my ability to make it to Lands End (60 miles, with diversions) by 5am. The cut off was 7am but I was told you need at least two hours in the bank here to have a hope of finishing, as the section between Lands End and St Ives made the sections we had run to date seem like childsplay. I started to feel 5am may not be possible and from here on in, it was a battle with my brain.

I told Matt and Loz this and to their credit, they were having none of it. I believe Loz said “well, you’d better get facking moving then”, or something to that effect, and he had a point. I didn’t want them to have had a wasted night so I gave myself a stern talking to and got my head down.

Up and over boulders, stream crossings, huge pebbles on beaches, shin deep mud, twists and turns, branches that come out of nowhere and smack you in the head, gorse, wind, cold, stars…and so it went.

By Lamorna Cove I was in a shit state and knew I was seriously up against it. I headed out and this next section was the one that ended my race. It was tough and slow, but no tougher or slower than Lavaredo and I kept plugging away. Near the end of this bit, a runner came past me looking as fresh as a daisy and I followed him blindly and didn’t pay attention to the route on my watch. Sadly this resulted in a wrong turn and then another wrong turn until we were pretty lost. We lost a lot of time doubling back to find the right path and due to slowing down and walking to find the right way, here I got pretty cold. I knew 5am was now impossible and whilst I stood a chance of 7am, I would be up against it for the rest of the day and the conditions were about to get a whole lot worse.

So, after finally finding the right path, as I hit the cove at the bottom and met Matt and Loz, I called it a day. They did all they could to keep me going, but also realized at this point that time wasn’t on my side, so I am sad to say I bailed after 16 hours and 54 miles run.

Do I regret this decision? In some respects, yes. I wish I had battled on to have been officially timed out and that would have meant I had left it all out there. But in others, it would have been futile to continue and get cold and more run down when I opted to save myself for another day.

The Arc took me apart, but its also given me a lot of positives. I am very pleased with how I handled the 54 miles I did complete and it has given me a good base for the coming season. I have never run so far in winter before (Texas doesn’t count!), so I just need to build from this and next up, conditions permitting, I want to have a damn good go at a sub 20 hour Thames Path. I think I have this in me and I can now enjoy some faster canal miles for the next two months as I build to this.

If you don’t DNF every once in a while, you aren’t challenging yourself. That’s the way I see it, so whilst of course I would have loved to have finished this epic race, its not a failure. The only failure is to not try in the first place.

A huge thanks to my parents, Sol and the kids for everything around this race. To Loz and Matt and Richard Fish for helping me try and get this done and to everyone who sent me good wishes before, during and after the race. And finally to Andrew, Jane and the Mudcrew team- you put on a hell of a good show and I am not surprised at all that this is becoming one of the to-do races on the UK ultra circuit.

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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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