Bucket List

Chevy chase
Ann waltz
Coledale Horseshoe
Hardmoors 26.2 series, 26.2m, 17th feb Hardmoors 26.2 Osmotherley Trail Marathon
Hardmoors 55, 55m, 23rd March, https://www.sientries.co.uk/event.php?event_id=850
Allendale Challenge, 25m, 6th April, https://www.sientries.co.uk/event.php?event_id=891

Scarfell Marathon

Thanks to Lawrence Johnson and Phill Turton for suggestions.

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Trail Running Magazine’s Team 2014

One of the reason’s that I got involved in the British Trail Running podcast and the Strava Ambassador programme is that I believe in grass routes running. I find it just as inspiring to watch someone that’s new to running making it around their first park run as watching a world class runner putting in a new record performance.

It’s not that I have anything against elite runners, in fact I applaud their strength, determination and dedication, but at the same time I sometimes find its difficult to identify with their situation, their abilities are so far from my own and the time and resources they dedicate to running are entirely out of my league.

It’s really great to see Trail Running Magazine recruiting a selection of none elite runners again this year for their 2014 running team. Its so much more real to read about people striving to fit their training in around busy lifestyles and seeing kit reviewed by everyday runners.

Its also good to see that companies like Berghaus getting involved in the project kitting out the team in their gear and hopefully listening to the feedback.

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Readers Letters

There are a number of reason’s for my creating this blog, initially I wanted to see how the downloadable version of WordPress compared with the hosted version. In my day job, as an IT manager i’m occasionally asked for recommendations as to which blog platform is best for different users, so I often sign up to different technologies to see how they work).

I also thought  the blog would make a good platform to support my Himalayan 100 race in 2010, keeping friends, relatives and sponsors up to date with my training and fundraising and sharing photos when I got back.

But that was for years ago, and I’m no longer using the blog for fundraising, so why am I continuing to post? I’d like to think it was to share lots of useful information with other runners, but I guess the main reason is that I love to write.

Over the years I’ve written all sorts of stuff, at one point I regularly wrote Technotes a technology column in the Journal, but I’ve also written one off magazine articles and even copy for websites and print.

While I was writing blog post one day it to me that far more people would read it if it were published in one of the running magazines rather than on my little blog. When I got to thinking about this, I started to wonder just how well the kind of things I blogged about would transfer to running magazines. I guessed that none of the running magazines would want to commission something from me and decided that reader’s letters was could be the easies route to print.

I found a few running and fitness magazines lying around the house, each had its own style, so i’d need to tweak the articles a little to suite each one. I deliberately decided not to read the existing readers letters, simply to pick a subject, write a letter and send it off and see where I got. If i didn’t get published i’d look at the letters that had made it  and have another go.

I wrote 5 letters one to each magazine, 2 of those submissions were published, one was published as a star letter and landed me a pair of brooks trainers and a jacket. After reading published letters in each magazine  I targeted by letters and  sent off 4 more letters, 3 of which were published, including another star letter winning a gps watch and another pair of trainers.

By this time I’d accomplished my goal having been published in all 5 running magazines, but I written another couple of letter before I’d realised I’d be published in all 5 magazines, so I posted them anyway. Very much to my surprise these were also published, making it 3 months in a row for one of the magazines.

My experience with Readers Letter’s was a lot of fun, there was something very exciting about checking the book shelves each month to see if i’d made it into print and it proved to be as rewarding as it was challenging.

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2013 in Brief

As the new year approaches and we start to think about what races we want to tackle in 2014. I thought I’d look back and see what i’d accomplished in 2013.

On the whole I had a pretty good year with a lot more highs than lows. Completing my first 100 miler on the roads, closely followed by my first 100 on the trails with the Cotswold and Lakeland 100′s were certainly 2 big land mark achievement. Making it to the start of the Hardmoors 55 was a challenge in its own right with heavy snow making some of the roads impassible. The Ultra Tyne Tour was another memorable race, completing the multi-day race from the source of the Tyne to the sea in one go.

In total I clocked up over 1750 miles, running on average 35-40 miles a week. The calf and achilles injuries that had caused problems throughout 2012 at last seeming to be behind me, I even did a bit of speed work toward the end of the year, taking part in a few of the new parkruns popping up all over the North East.

I also had a pretty good year off the trails, I was invited to join the British Trail Running Podcast team, producing a monthly running podcasts interviewing some inspirational runners, reviewing kit and generally talking all things trail running. I put my writing skills to the test, trying my hand at readers letters and managing to get 8 letters published in all 5 of the top running magazines.

Finally I joined the Strava Ambassador Programme 2014, signing up to help strengthen the Strava community in the UK, and develop the Strava App and website. Something that i’m really looking forward to in 2014.

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Trailing into work

Living in the UK we are spoilt for places to run on trails, whether its around our beautiful coastline, the amazing national parks of the Lake or peak district, the pennines or snowdonia or any of many long distance paths like the north and south downs ways, the cotswolds way or the thames path.

In fact with some many epic trails on offer its easy to forget that most of us also have so many the miles of excellent footpaths, tracks and bridleways right on our doorsteps.

Even in some of our bigger cities where you might not expect to find anything even resembling a trail, its quite common to find a hidden trails and tracks if you look hard enough.

The old networks of canals and railways left by our industrial heritage are quite often now left as trails.

I work in the heart of Newcastle and quite often either run the 12 miles into the office or go for a run from the city centre before work.

While I used to run mainly on roads, I recently set myself the challenge of finding off road alternatives. I was amazed by the variety of trails I found. There was some degree of running on roads linking different tracks together, but I quite liked the mix of terrain going from roads to parks to woods and riverside tracks.

Whether you use them as training runs for more a more epic ultra or runs in their right i’d definitely recommend exploring more of the many the tracks, trails and footpaths criss crossing the country and leading right to the hearts of the big cities.

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Marshalling Ravenscar

The Western United States 100 Mile Endurance Race is one of those races that’s been on my bucket list since reading about it a couple of years ago. But what’s this got to do with marshalling? Well the Western Unites States race has a ‘service’ requirement for entry as well as a qualifying race requirement. That is to say that all competitors have to have put in a minimum of 8 hours ‘trail work or volunteering’ at an Ultra Marathon within the previous year.

While I’m not considering entering the Western United States 100 at this time, it struck me volunteering was a very worthy requirement for an ultra. Getting enough marshals to cover a 100 miles of trail can’t be easy and without marshals these sorts of race would simply not be possible.

I contacted my friend and fellow British Trail Running Postcast presenter Jon Steele to see if he needed any volunteers for his upcoming Hardmoors 60 race and was signed up to marshal at Ravenscar.


Ravenscar is checkpoint 6 of the Hardmoors 60, sitting at the top of cliffs on the biggest climb of the course, 41 mile into the run and 21 miles from the finish.

To be honest last year’s Hardmoor 60 wasn’t my finest hour as ultra’s go. I’d only just got back from holiday where I’d been running up and down the trail to the cable car station behind our hotel which was fantastic fun but which had left my legs shot. I barely made it around  the 60 within the cut offs and I hated that hill to Ravenscar with a passion.

Jonathan Fletcher and his dog ‘Airborne Otto’ were also down to be marshalling Ravenscar. Jonathan and Otto are quite well known in Ultra circles, raising money for the parachute regiment charity. We’d bumped into each other a couple of times at races in the past (including last years Hardmoors), but not really had the opportunity to chat before.

I arrived at Ravenscar just before Jonathan, parked up just past the tourist information office on trail leading to the cliff tops. A couple of minutes later Jonathan and Otto arrived with a car boot full of water and other supplies.

hardmoors 60 check point 6 ravenscar

We set up the checkpoint gazebo on the corner, along with a couple of camping chairs and a table, then checked out what goodies  Race Director Jon ‘the man of steele’ had sent for our runners; 75 litres of water, a bunch of banana’s, loads of crisps and mini pretzels, a couple of party packs of mini muffins, gingerbread men, brownies, shortbread biscuits and a pack of flapjacks. Jonathan and I added a pack of pears, some apples (stolen from my dad’s garden) a few more banana’s, 2 boxes of Haribos, a pack of special edition xmas Frodo bars and a couple of jugs blackcurrent juice.

Ravenscar Hardmoors 60 checkpoint 6

I shamelessly stole the idea of hand made ‘come on you legends’ checkpoint signs from the Montane|Kentmere checkpoint on the Lakeland 100 for our checkpoint, using ‘Hardmoors Hero’s’ as a tag line.

ravenscar welcomes hardmoors heros

Jim Mann, the first runner came in just after two in the afternoon, he looked more like he’d ran around the block than having covered the 41 miles he’s actually ran so far. He was followed about 15 minutes later by the next 2 runners, then there was about a 30 minute gap until the rest of the runners started to trickle through. The vast majority of them looking far better than I remember feeling at this point last year.

start 41 finish 21 sign

Both Jonathan and I had a pretty good idea of what the runners had been through by the time they reached us, so while our main job was to check the runners in and ensure they were all accounted for at the end, we did our best to do as much as we could to help them on their way, refilling water bottles and getting them whatever food they were up to eating, while they took a minute to get their breath back and attend to their kit.

aireborne otto

Poor Otto looked more and more depressed as the day went on, watching as run after runner passed by, while he remained behind. God only knows how many miles Jonathan had to run the next day to make it up to him!

Some of the runners friends and family came out to support them, and there was a constant steam of cars coming and going most of the day. Mick Cooper joined us for a while, and even made the teas and coffees whilst he waited for his wife which was nice of him. (Thanks for that Mick!) Thomas phillips also provided some good company while he waited for a lift back to the finish having decided to call it a day at Ravenscar.(He’d only just got back from the UTMB).

The sweeper turned up well before the official cut off of 7 o’clock,providing our cue to start packing up. The Gazebo had just about survived the day (despite a having one of the poles bent by a gust of wind), we’d fed and watered everyone, not managed not to loose anybody and even got the 5 DNF’s back to the finish. So all in all a pretty good day. I even managed to fit in a couple of miles run along the cliff tops as the sun set before heading home.

Sunset on the cliff tops at Ravenscar yorkshire
There is a small section in the Chris McDougal’s book ‘Born to run’ that really inspires me, it talks about an ultra runner winning a race then grabbing a jacket or sleeping bag and returning to the finish line to cheer on the rest of the competitors as they come in. I’d seen the same sort of attitude in fell race with legends like Joss Naylor often going out in all sorts of weather support runners at on the trails,  and it always struck me as being one of the finest attributes of a truly great sportsman.
I guess my volunteering to marshal this race was at least in part my contribution towards that sporting spirit, an attempt to put something back in to a sport I really enjoy, and having experienced the day I have the utmost respect for everyone involved in this kind of event , from the race directors co-ordinating the various checkpoints, to the marshals (especially the none running marshals) and to the runs who on the whole were fantastic sports. The Hardmoor’s series has a reputation for being one of the most challenging trail series, but it also has a reputation for being one of the most friendly, a reputation which in my opinion is very well deserved.
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Ultra Popular

We all know how difficult getting a place in an event like the Great North Run or the London Marathon can be. These days even local races like North East’s Blaydon Race or the coastal run are filling up within hours of going on-line.

The problem is simple, running has become the victim of its own success. More people want to run that there are places available and the problem is compounded when you run trail races or ultras. The logistics of getting large numbers of people onto trails then getting marshals, water and other essentials to them, simply does not lend itself to large numbers.

Traditionally this wasn’t a problem as fell or trail races were almost an underground sport, few people knew about them, fewer still ran them. You could turn up in your shorts and trainers, and sign up on the day, but over recent years with the popularity of books like ‘feet in the clouds’ and ‘born to run’ even these events are beginning to draw larger and larger crowds.

There are only around 20 100-mile races in the Uk and each catering for between 100-300 runners. Unlike their road running equivalents the majority of places go directly to runners on a first come first server basis, many selling out on the day they are put online, without club or charity allocations.

The big question is, where does the sport go from here? With both trail marathons and ultra’s becoming ever more popular, is there a sustainable way to get more people out running on out trails without damaging the fells.

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Having completed the big ultras I’d signed up for this year, my training is starting to trail off a bit so I thought it would be a good time to revisit park running and see how my 5k time was doing.


Parkruns are essentially a weekly collection of free 5k race that take place around the UK and now the world. You simply register yourself as a runner, print your barcode and then turn up and run. Your time and position is then recorded and emailed to you along with some stats on your performance. Founded by Paul Sinton-Hewitt in 2004, the idea of parkrun grew from the initial Bushy parkrun event (originally called Bushy Park Time Trial) into a small collection of events called the UK Time Trials and then into parkrun.

Newcastle Parkrun

I ran my first Parkrun back in April 2010, at that time Newcastle was one of the only Park run locations in the North East. There are now Parkruns in Gateshead, Durham, Blackhill | Consett , Sunderland, Whitley Bay and South Shields. At least 3 of these are within an easy drive of my house, so I decided that if I was going to give Parkrun another go I should check out some of these new locations.

My good friends Ian Younger and David Best are two of the people behind Run Consett and are also involved in the newly formed Blackhill Park runs, so it seemed appropriate to check out Blackhill Parkrun first.

Black Hill Park run August 2013

I was pleasantly surprised to find  76 runners at the event, a very  decent number given that it was still a very new location, the inaugural running only having taken place 3 only weeks earlier.  The location for the event was the  ’Blackhill and Consett Heritage Park’ complete with bowling green and band stand. The course is a slightly convoluted (compared to somewhere like Newcastle) consisting of a short start section, followed by 3 laps of the middle section and a short finish section. As you might expect if you know the area at all this is not a flat course, so while it was a great work out the time did not really compare to my 20 minute Newcastle parkrun time.

Next up was Gateshead and I was looking forward to catch up with regular Gateshead Parkrunner Shaun Dunlop, who I’d not seen since the Lakeland 100.

The Gateshead Parkrun takes place in Saltwell Park and has been going since February 2012. Like the Blackhill course the Gateshead Parkrun consisted of a start section, followed by 3 laps of a circuit looping down a hill around the boating lake and bowling green then back up the hill, followed by a flat finish. Not quite as hilly as BlackHill, but still a good work out, and great bunch of people.

Gateshead Park Run Sept 2013

I was a little surprised by the number of runners from outside of the area running the course for the first time, but it was Great North Run weekend so possibly there were a lot of runners down for that.

Parkrunning is obviously going from strength to strength with more locations popping up all the time and greater and greater numbers taking part each week and it was inspiring to see the number of runners wearing white Parkrun 10,  red Parkrun 50 and even black Parkrun 100 tops.

parkrun 50 t-shirt

Having ran a couple of different Parkrun courses now I am struck by how literally they are ‘Park’ Runs and how lucky we are to have so many great parks we have around the Uk to run in. My views on what park running is all about have also changed a little,  previously I’d thought of them as a kind of little standard fitness tests that I could do from time to time wherever I happened to be to see how my speed  work was doing, however its now apparent that there is nothing standard about them, each is a quite unique and  you can’t really compare results from one with another, but they are a great way to get out and meet other runners and have fun especially if like me you are not a club runner.

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Tyne Ultra – tales from the river bank

Since I started running as a kid, I’ve been running along the River Tyne. Whether its was the iconic Great North Run following the River from Newcastle to South shields, racing my brother around the loop between the bridges at Wylam and Newburn, or just running into the office, the river has been a big part of my running live.

As I have got older, I’ve started to run further and further, moving up from half marathons to marathons and eventually ultras. At some point, and I’m not sure entirely when, I got a crazy notion that it might be possible to run the entire course of the Tyne, from its source to the sea. I mentioned this idea to a few running friends and they sort of said ‘yeah great idea’, then laughed as if to say ‘are you bonkers its like 80 miles!’

So it pretty much stayed as just that a crazy idea that I’d never do much about. Until one day I was looking on the internet at upcoming Ultras and spotted a new race called the Tyne Ultra, a two day untra following the course of the North or South Tyne to Hexham where the rivers join on day one and then from Hexham to the coast on day 2. At first I thought ‘hey they’ve stolled my idea’, then I thought ‘hang on I could enter the day 1 of the race and just not bother to stop after day one, just keep on running to the coast’.

I had ran longish distances unsupported in the past, reccing 20 miles of the Lakeland then turning around and running back to the car, I’d also ran far long races, but I’d never ran through the night without support having  already ran 40 miles.

Unsure what the organisers might think  of my hijacking their race to do my own thing on saturday night, I sent them an email asking if they would have any problems with me doing it that way. After crossing the finish line on day one, I would would be entirely on my own, running unofficially, there would be no checkpoints, if I got lost it would be down to me to sort out myself and even if I finished my time wouldn’t show in the results.

As race day got closer, there were worryingly few people signed up to run, and more disturbingly the organisers didn’t seem to be responding to queries on  their website’s forum or to my emails. With a only a couple of days to go, I went ahead and signed up. At that point there were 14 other people on board, 1 running the North Tyne, 9 South Tyne and 8 running on Sunday. As far as I knew I was the only one planning on running all the way threw.

Most Ultra’s are quite formal affairs, having published routes with cut off times for each checkpoint and mandatory kit list that all runners must carry at all times, many races having pre race kit checks and even weigh ins. The Tyne Ultra was a little different there was no mandatory kit, it was up to runners to take what they saw fit to take, with less than 24 hours before the race started I’d not received any details of the exact route, where the checkpoints would be, what food would be available or even exactly how we’d get to the start. I been told I’d receive the final details my email before the race, and as promised they did eventually arrive at 2.30am on the the day of registration.

Registration was even more informal that the race communication, it was at the Scout hut, next door to Marks and Spencer in Hexham behind the hospital. When I walked into the hall the organiser Jon, was sat at a desk with a laptop and a pile of a4 print outs of Os maps while 2 other guys were standing around chatting. Jon Asked me my name and continued to chat, it turned out the guys were also runners come to register, one was running the North Tyne by himself on Saturday the other running the hexham to Tyne Mouth section on Sunday only.  During the course of the conversation I discovered that there would be one marshal covering the North Tyne Course and another 2 covering the South Tyne, driving on to the next checkpoint as the last run left hoping to arrive ahead of the front runners as they went.

After about 10 minutes I made my excuses and drove back hope to grab some dinner before making any last minute kit changes and heading to bed.  I had a few butterflies in my stomach as I lay there trying to sleep, i felt like this was the least prepared i’d ever been for a run, yes my bags were packed for the run, for the one and only checkpoint on the second half and for the finish, but because I had no idea about what food would be available where until the last minute I’d overlooked getting a couple of things I usually take like peperami (very good for salt intake on the run), I’d also not had as much sleep as I would have liked and I still didn’t have a map showing the route.

david coxon at the start of the Tyne Ultra

Four thirty came quickly, and before I knew it I was up and dressed, had had some breakfast and was driving with Lucinda to Hexham for the start, when we got there a couple of people that had slept there over night were packing up there gear and others were putting on trainers or checking their kit. Lucinda took a couple of photos and said bye before heading home while I wait to be taken up to the start, the transport turn out to be the marshals cars.

The Start was a small car park on the moors above Alston, the closest that the road gets to the source of the Tyne about 2 miles away.

There was a slight chill in the air, with the sun not yet high enough to provide much warmth, the the skies were blue and clear, so it  looked like we were in for a glorious day. It was still 10 minutes until half past when the race was due to start, but Jon the organiser said he wasn’t going to keep us standing around in the cold needlessly and we head off. Within minutes I was ankle deep in water, just what I was looking to avoid after foot problems in the Lakeland 100.

Source of the tyne through the sculpture

You couldn’t see the source or the stream that would become the River from were we were but we’d been told there was some sort of sculpture or rock to mark the spot, so it should be easy enough to find. There were a couple of different route options, follow the fence the longer way around, cross the ups and down of the peat haggs or try to skirt around them, and it seemed we’d all take a slightly different tack. After a few minutes I consulted the map , and soon got to a point were it seemed right to turn down the slope toward the valley bottom, apparently it was a good estimate as we emerged right on the source.

the source of the Tyne sculpture

I stopped and look a few photos, and filled a small container of water which I popped in my bag and would carry until I emptied it into the sea at the end of my journey. This was an idea I’d got from a friend called Jacqui Schulz. Jacqui is an Australian film maker who’d made a charming movie with some indigenous australians documenting their journey from the source of a river to a lake at its other end. Appropriately enough I met Jacqui several years earlier when she worked on a project to build a bamboo bridge across the river on the Newcastle | Gateshead Quayside – but that is a different story.

water taken from the source of the tyne

It was quite surprising how quickly the trickle of water coming from the spring became a stream, and how quickly that small stream became more substantial. Within only a few miles you could only cross the stream via a bridge.

The first few miles passed quickly following the South Tyne Trail down along a section of path which became a track and then a road before crossing a small footbridge and becoming a muddy track through the fields. Up until the footbridge all of the runners had remained in sight of each other, but as the terrain became more difficult I found myself in a group of four runners that were starting to break away from the others. I didn’t know it then but the four of us would remain together for the remainder of the day until the finish in Hexham.

Carrigill was the first little village we got to and the location for checkpoint one, we spotted Jon before spotting Alistair but were soon gathered around the open boot of the audi topping up water bottles, grabbing bags of crisps, cheese sandwiches and glasses of coke, before heading off again towards Alston.

checkpoint 1 - tyne ultra

Even at this point only having ran a few miles with Claire, Simon and Gavin and only having seen Jon and Alistair at one checkpoint, it had the more the feeling of a reccie or a day out running with friends that a full on Ultra race.

The route didn’t stick strictly to the South Tyne trail, but instead followed a variety of different paths sometimes along the river, over bridges, under tunnels, through woods and fields and occasionally on roads or tracks.  It was perhaps a little convoluted in places, but it was a beautiful day, and the variety of terrain meant we got to see plenty of wildlife from birds of prey to snakes as well as lots of sheep,calfs and the odd bull and I was in good company, even if they did insist on running even the hills (something I don’t often do on Ultras).

Lamely Aqueduct

This was one of the first races I’d done in a while where I needed a map.  Both Simon and I were both checking our maps as we went and while we did missed the odd turning, between us we were pretty much able to correct any errors and get back on course quite quickly.

Given that I was still planning to run on to Tynemouth after getting to Hexham, I was probably going way to fast and not eating quite enough, but I was pleasantly surprised to still be keeping up with the lead group at this point and starting to entertain the idea of a joint first place. I know there were only 9 runners so its not like winning a proper race, but never having won a race in my life it was quite a novel idea.


While the route could quite easily drop straight down to the river, it look us instead over Lambley Aqueduct and then back again over the footbridge underneath, by this time the Tyne its quite some size and the bridges crossing it have began to become more impressive.

As we got to the checkpoint at Haltwhistle there was quite a gap developing between our group and the remaining runners who’d split into two couples running separately with Jon a little further behind after taking a wrong turn. When he arrived at Beltingham, there was no sign of a checkpoint so we continued calling in to say that we’d just push on to Haydon Bridge and catch the marshals there.

I was now far more familiar with the area having ran sections of the course on the Haltwhistle marathon and the Wall Race, and happy to run without needing to look at the map quite as much at all. While I still had many mile to go, it was great to finish the race together as a group and get a few photos before stocking up on water and heading off n the next chapter of the adventure on my own.

Tyne Ultra Finish

Unfortunately the maps and the road books that I’ve been only went as far ax hexham, and the maps and road books for day two had still not been printed. So I was going to rely upon memory, to cover the day 2 route, and as it happens they had changed the route from that route published on the internet, so I didn’t run exactly the same route that the others would follow in the morning but it was close enough.

Now that I was on my own I switched from listening to music to listening to an episode of the British Trail Running Podcast and adopted a strategy of walking for five minutes in every 30 in order to conserve a bit of energy and water. Lucinda was going to meet me at Prudhoe with some supplies, but then there would be no further checkpoints until the finish. I pushed on as best I could while it was still light, slightly altering the route to avoid the run through the woods at the back of hexham where I’d potentially get lost without a map, rejoining the route at Dilson and returning to the river around Corbridge from where the track literally follows the river bank through the woods to riding mill, at this point the North and South Tyne have merged and its quite wide. Even the streams feeding into the Tyne start to become quite large and at one point I had to cross a fantastic set of concreate stepping stones.

It had taken around 3 hours to get from Hexham to Prudhoe and in actual fact the Sunday runners would follow a slightly different (flatter) route into Prudhoe on the other side of the river, having changed from the version of map on the website a little. I was really looking forward to seeing Lucinda, we had been texting a bit as I ran, so she knew where I was and how I was doing. We arrived at the car park by the station at exactly the same time and I climbed into the car seat and sat drinking a lemon tea and changing my socks, the double pairs of socks thing was just not working the outer pair was simply trapping water in the inner pair and my feet were remaining wet all day despite my trainers drying – something to sort out for next time. I fueled up on rice puddings, crisps and bananas eating like a mad man. Then I swopped my water for black current, got out the head torch and tied another hoody around my waist before kissing Lucinda good night and goodbye and thanked her for coming out with the supplies, then headed out into the night along the next stretch or river.

The first few miles left great I was back to running a little faster and not walking as often, but as I passed Wylam and started to run along the river side walk, the lack of sleep started to get to me my eyes getting heavier and heavier, at times I swear I actually nodded off as I ran, waking with a start, opening my eyes relieved to see the track still stretching out in front of me.

I still had around 20 miles to go. I began to wonder if i’d make it all the way to the coast, thinking about the possibilities of calling it a day at Newcastle, i’d have covered 100km and I could always finish the rest in the morning with Gavin and the others. Previous races had been far tougher. I’d kept going in the Wall, the Northumbrian Ultra, Cotswolds, Hardmoors 55/60 and  the Lakeland 50/100.  But this was no longer a race, there would be no medal or t-shirt at the end and I was running on my own so the temptation to simply stop was far higher. But I wasn’t running on my own, I was getting motivational text from Lucinda encouraging me to keep going. She knows me better that I know myself, telling me how much i’d regret it if  i  gave up now having gone so far. So I kept going. Someone had thrown themselves off on of bridges in the town centre and there were police helicopters, fire engines, ambulances and rescue launches searching the river as I jogged past at around one in the morning.

The other thing keeping me going was that little container of water i’d collected at the source of the river, I kept thinking about what i’d do with that if i simply went home. Would I tip it into the Tyne there, would I leave it in the jar or put it down a drain. No there was nothing for it put to keep going until i reach the sea and could put it where it belonged.

Tiredness however was not my only problem, I  was also starting to feel sick, I’d obviously not quite got my nutrition right and while feeling I needed to get some energy from somewhere I couldn’t even stomach drinking. Chuppa chup lollies were usually my secret weapon if i could eat anything else I could manage one of those, but tonight I could even do that, I gagged every time I tried to put it in my mouth and ended up walking with a lolly in my hand for a couple of miles.

Eventually I reached a sign on the number 72 cycle path that said Tynemouth 8 miles. I was down to single numbers and felt that deserved starting to run again. The next miles passed reasonably quickly and it wasn’t long before I was texting Lucinda to arrange to be picked up at the finish. I’m not entirely sure where the official finish of the Tyne Ultra is, but i’d arranged for Lucinda to meet me at the Tyne mouth Metro station.

Tynemouth is one of those big sprawling places that seems to go on forever, and it seemed to take ages from getting to the first Tyne moth sign to the station and just as I got there and started to look around for the Car Lucinda pulled into the other end of the street. In some ways it was a bit on an anti climax to have finished such an epic run and simply get into the car and drive off, almost like i’d not done it at all if there was no one there to see it, but it was great to finally see Lucinda and to have made it from the source to the sea. All that remained was to walk down to the beach and pour the container of water into the sea…

I guess I could wrap things up by saying thank you to Lucinda for giving up a nights sleep to support me and getting me through it, to Gavin, Claire and Simon who were great company for 40 miles and to the organizers and Marshals jon, Alistair and Jill for putting on the event, providing great support at the checkpoints and an interesting route, and finally to Jacqui for the carming movie that gave me the idea for carrying the water from the rivers source to the sea.

Tynemouth sign

Generally I try not to write stage by stage, stride by stride blog post, partially because there a lot of other people out there that are very good at writing those (and after all that’s really what the road book’s there for) but also because i’d end up writing vanity posts name dropping friends and going off on my own little eco trips of what amazing guy I am. They have a tendency to go on almost as long as the run itself.

I made an exception with this case firstly  because so few people ran this race its unlikely there will be many accounts of it (and a few people asked if i’d write a post) and secondly because I couldn’t come up with a better way to write about it after all its was a run along a long and winding river with a start and an end and a meandering bit in the middle.

Posted in food, gear, motivation, planning, racing, routes, social, technique, training, ultra | 5 Comments

Rounding up the best of the Race Vests

I remember watching a video of one of the big american ultras a couple of years ago,  I can’t remember  if it was the Western United States, Badwater or Leadville, what I do remember was it wasn’t the amazing scenery or awesome performances of the athletes that caught my attention, but the bags these guys were wearing. I’d never seen anything like them.

Before moving over to ultras I’d been a fell runner where the minimum race kit generally fitted into a bum bag and for longer races most people wore lightweight rucksack (such as the omm 12l). While designed for running bags like the OMM generally follow a traditional design with a waist belt most of the capacity being in the main compartment on the back. I’d always struggled with this design from the point of view of not being able to easily access the food and drinks on the go. On the downhills I was going far too fast to even think about grappling around for a bottle from the pouch on the back of the pack, while on the slower uphills sections I simply didn’t had the energy to even consider taking my pack off to find a gel or energy drink.

The idea of a pack where the weight was split equally between the back and front, where I would be able to reach drinks, gels, energy bars and even my phone, made complete sense. The only problem back then was no-one in the uk was stocking them and you rarely saw one on the trails. The Salomon slab was one of the first and was priced at around £150, which was  a bit of a gamble for a bag you couldn’t even try on before parting with your cash. Over the next few months I saw perhaps 1 or  2 starting to appear on the fells, then I found the UltrAspire website –  there packs/vest had a very similar style but were about half the cost of the SLAB. The Ultraspire Surge looked perfect and was something I simply had to get my hands on. The package arrived in the post a few days before the Hardmoors 60, and at 8 litres I wasn’t sure I’d get the entire compulsory kit list in, but after playing around with my race kit for a while and experimenting with putting bits and pieces inside dry sacks stuffed into the expansion slots I managed to fit it all in. Since then I’ve ran the Allendale, Hardmoors 55, Cotswold 100 and Montane Lakeland 100 with it. I still use my Berghaus for the commute to the office where I need extra space for a towel and a change of clothes, but I rarely use anything else for running ultras.

Water bottle tops

These days practically every other person you see at an Ultra is running in a vest or pack of some description. That being said you still don’t see many on the shelves of high street stores like Blacks or Start fitness, but specialist running stores are now starting to stock them, even Cotswold Sports will order a Salomon pack in for you to try before buy it. The number of manufacturers producing ultra vest/packs and the number of models that are on offer seems to be increasing on an almost weekly basis. Salomon, Ultimate Direction, UltrAspire, Nathan, Raidlight and Camel Bak all already include ultra vest/pack in their ranges and rumour has it that Montane, Inov8 and Northface all look set to launch their own take on ultra vests/packs in the first quarter of 2014.

ultra running vests/packs

With all this much variety on the market and more and more people stepping up from marathons to ultra running, we’re seeing more and more discussion on on- line forums about which vest is best, so I thought it was about time I took another look.

I started off drawing up a list of features: capacity, weight, number of pockets front and back, materials used,  price etc then I went through each of the manufacturers and drew up a comparison. I put it all this information into a speadsheet and shared in on google documents. You can it find here: Ultra Vest Comparisons 2013 But the stats alone does’t really give you the whole story, what looks good on paper doesn’t necessarily translate to what feels good on a run. I would love to say that I’d had the opportunity to take them all for a spin and could tell you first hand what did and didn’t feel good or even which was my personal favourite, unfortunately though I’ve not got enough money to burn to go out and buy one of each nor am I a good enough runner (or writer for that matter) that manufacturers send me out demo packs. So I’ve had to settle for speaking to friends that run in the various vest and asked what they think of them.

Ultraspire Surge

Lets start with the UltrAspire Surge, which is the vest I have been running with for the last year.  Its probably the smallest race vest around that you can actually get the full mandatory kit into even for a hundred at around 8L. In order to get mandatory kit into it, I have to forgo the bladder, I tend to use a 750ml bottle on the front right, the zip pocket on the left for my phone, head torch and mp3 player, leaving adequate room in the the mesh pockets  for gels, flapjacks and other treats, all of which I have easy access to while running. The 2 side straps and 2 chest fastenings allow you to move the position of the shoulder straps across your front so you can put the water where its most comfortable. The expansion pocket works well with the fastening on the main pocket allowing  you to clip dry sacks into the pocket and ensuring there is no movement in the vest or gear. On the negative side its just little things, like the zip pocket being a little too short for modern mobiles (making it fiddly to get something like an iphone 5 in there) or the fact that the main pocket is a little narrow in the opening so I struggle to get in to find things without taking it all out. Like most vests, it isn’t waterproof, so if it rains everything’s wet, and while I’ve never had a problem with them (even in shockingly cold conditions)  it feels feel like the chest strap hooked fastenings could be fiddley with cold or wet fingers. I really do rate this vest and think it’s excellent value for money.

When it comes to advice on race vests, there’s not many people more qualified that Jonathon Steele, Jon is not only Race Director of the Hardmoors Series ,but also recently ran 52 ultra’s in 52 weeks and is a fellow presenter on the BritishTrail Running Podcast.

Jon currently runs in a Salomon skin pro 14+3 set, but has been around long enough to remember running in the North Face Hammerhead, the OMM Ultra, the Camelback Mule as well as the good old days of side pockets you had to be double jointed to get to and who could forget the OMM water bottle holders that you fitted on your rucksack straps. He reminded me of how mad they drove you bouncing around as you ran – I think I would have just been happy working out how to attached them!

Salomon Race Pack

Unlike the Salomon SLAB 12 the 14+3′s bottle holders will allow you to hold a standard bottles in place and the large mesh pockets on the side of the bag are easily within reach and hold quite a bit of gear. Jon found that there was little to no no movement while running and that the pack was adjustable enough to get the right fit even with the bag empty. So great for short runs too and it does look pretty cool!

On the downside, it is expensive (but as he points out most vests are, other than string ones!), the main compartment can be difficult to get to and the Chest straps can be a bit awkward to fasten (especially while wearing gloves). Finally he felt that if the side pockets had zips similar to the SLAB 12 he’d have more confidence with putting things in them.

Jon finished by saying that the Salomom 14+3 is the best pack he’s ever owned (as well as being the most expensive)!

Next up is Andy Holohan, Andy is a fellow ‘middle of the pack’ runner, but has been making his way up the results lately. I met Andy during last year’s Montane Lakeland 50,  and have been following his adventures on line for a while. Andy runs in an Ultimate Direction PB, and was kind enough to share a few observations with me. He also published an excellent review on his blog ultramadness.

The bottles on the chest are great for easy access, the water sloshes around a bit but you get used to that. With 2 bottle holders you have the ability to carry water in one and electrolytes in the other! You may want to watch the weight distribution as you drink your water though. There are plenty of other front pockets as well as the bottle pouches that make grabbing food on the go easy , and still leave room for money,a gps and Phone (Like the surge the iPhone 4S fits, but Andy said he would be surprised if the iPhone 5 did!) There are a set of side bellows with Zipped pockets and compression mesh suitable for stashing waterproofs, but these can hard to access while running. The vest has a set of pole attachments, but Andy uses mountain king poles that collapse and don’t fit the pole straps the way they are  supposed to work, however it he found it just as easy to slip them under the bungee straps on the back, allowing easy access. Sounds like the Ultimate Direction was a big hit, with plenty of storage and apparently if that wasn’t enough there are also lots of elastic loops to pull buffs or rolled maps through, so you won’t be short of places to stash stuff where actually be able to use it!!

Ultimate Direction

While the Ultimate Direction signature series all look very similar in terms of styling, each is designed in partnership with an athlete at the top of their field. The list including people like Anton Krupicka (AK) a very minimalist runner, Scott Jurek (SJ) an Ultra runner and Peter Bakwin (PB) an all round adventurer. Each athlete imprinting their own running style on their particular pack, the styling carried through in the fabrics, pack capacity, the number of pockets, the positions of the pockets and ultimately the packs cost and weight.

Also running in an Ultimate Direction pack is Darren Gillman., this time the SJ version, designed by ultra legend Scott Jurek. I met Darren during this years Lakeland 100, where I got to see both Darren and the pack in action for a good bit of the weekend.

Darren thought the SJ was an incredibly light but robust pack, with ample capacity to hold the mandatory race kit (as the material is very stretchy), but said packing it all in was a bit of an art, working out which kit to put in which of the various pockets took several goes. In use the pack was incredibly comfortable and the front mounted water bottles were a revelation, although he agreed with Andy about the sloshing. On the downside Darren experienced some problems with chaffing around the side of the chest/armpits. Despite the chaffing which apparently didn’t affect him during the race, but left him looking like some one had had a go at him with a power sander when he took the pack off, it is still his ultra pack of choice. So much so that he’s stopped looking at other packs, and that from a real kit junky!

Finally we have Tony Holland. Tony’s been Ultra running for a couple of years now, and does much of  his running for charities. When it comes to running kit Tony really knows his stuff, so much so that he’s  set up his own online store ultra-runner.com/ (the store also generates extra income for his chosen charities). I met Tony a couple of years ago running ‘the Wall’ from Carlisle to Gateshead, since then  we’ve ran together at the Hardmoors 55, and Lakeland 50 amongst others.

Nathan Vapour Wrap

Tony has been running in a Nathan Vapour Wrap and has been good enough to share a few thoughts with me,  …. Tony’s store ultra-runner.com offers a range of Nathan, Ultimate direction, UltrAspire and Salomon Vests and he has kindly offered to let readers of the blog use promo code DAVID10 to get 10% off any of the race vests until the end of September. (Actually I think that code will work on anything on the store…but don’t tell Tony I told you!).

In Tony’s word “the Nathan is a good all rounder, that just keeps giving!!”. He felt that while both the Salomon SLAB 12 and the Ultimate Direction PB felt fantastic empty, when you load them up they start to get pulled out of shape and begin to feel awkward, whereas because the Nathan allows you to pull the whole thing tight, you get a great fit whether full or empty. He found that the lat pockets were easy to reach with plenty of space and that there was room to store his Mountain king Poles just behind the lat pockets (like most packs the Nathan was really designed to carry the longer poles).

On the downside he found the large removable pocket could be a pain and it sometimes got in the way, he also felt that the yellow on the pack attracted the bees and wasps and suggested that the next version should have a larger improved removable pocket with added stuff pockets on the sides of the bottle holders (similar to the Ultimate Direction).

Tony’s parting words were that if he was going to go with just one race vest it would be the Nathan, but to remember that a race pack was really always a work in progress as each race is different and a pack that works for one may be a pain in the next.

If there are any manufacturers or designers reading this, a couple of features I’d love to see included in future vest designs would be a soft pocket or loop set where I could stow away my sunglasses during the night when I’m not using them, and possibly a few points on the back of the pack where you could safely pin a race number without risking the pins hitting the bladder or getting caught up in the bungee fastening…and if you do fancy sending me any samples to try out I’m more that happy to give them a go.

chest strp fastenings

It seems that all of the vests/packs we looked at were universally liked (none of us were in any hurry to change the packs we were using, although Tony being the gear Junky that he is, has several and uses different packs for different races) . I certainly love the minimalism of the UltrAspire Surge, that being said I haven’t actuallyran in any of the others. A huge thanks to my friends Tony Holland, Darren Gillman, Andy Holohan and Jon Steele for taking the time to give me some insights into the ultra vests/packs they have been running in.

In finishing I have to say if you were looking for me to tell you which vest is best or even just to narrow the field a little, you’re going to be sadly disappointed. What I can however say is that the main criteria for me in choosing an Ultra pack are the fit and the accessibility of the bottles/pockets on the front, but others may be more interested in overall capacity of the pack, access to the bladder or storage for poles. The upside of all this choice is that there are more options available than ever before so whatever your requirement (or budget) there is a pack out there for you…you just need to find it!

Posted in bags/vests/packs, gear, racing, ultra | 5 Comments