Hope 24 hour run

Funny to be putting this in the “Racing” category. I’ll try and explain how an event can be a non-competitive competitive event as I go through. But, to set the picture Danny Slay, along with Pete Drummond as the organisers of the event make it pretty clear on their website:

“I am proud of what Hope24 is becoming and we like to reward as many of our competitors as possible. Therefore, we don’t do category winners and prizes as we feel that this only rewards those that have the ability to compete at a higher standard. For some, completing one lap of our course is a greater achievement than completing ten.”

With that as the outline, it is digging back to 4th April 2014 how I ended up being there. Wandering through Gatwick Airport with Phil and Andrew on the way to Errachidia Airport to run the Marathon des Sables I spotted a team of guys with Aarn Sacks on. They were immediately obvious as Team Hope, a group of firefighters who were raising a huge amount of money for charity. Social media being what it was, we were aware of what they were looking to achieve and who the characters in front of us were.

After MdS 2014
After MdS 2014

Flip on a week, Andrew, Phil and I in Tent 96, in the desert with the two sleeping bags we’d joined on the first night in the bivvy, Linda and Rachel along with Artur and Dave had formed a pretty tight knit “team”. All working individually, but really pulling the same load in camp. After such an experience, we knew that friendships would be formed, and as we said our goodbyes we promised each other a reunion.

Once home and nursing the long run injuries, Danny Slay was positing about the Hope 24 event, and how teams of 1,2,3,5 or 8 could come run a 5 mile trail for 24 hours. It seemed like a good opportunity for a 2015 reunion, and after a quick email, 5 of us were keen.  9/10 May became our re-union date. In the time in between we had all got our own little running or adventure goals. Linda and Rachel being very competitive in all sorts of races, Phil running some super fast times, and Andrew preparing for MdS 2015 with some amazing Ultra performances. 

But, this Hope 24 “thing” just a social re-union with a bit of running, right?

Phil and Andrew, catching up
Phil and Andrew, catching up

Well, Andrew came back from the desert, and had absolutely smashed through the event this year with a 3rd in Age from the UK. So as Phil, Andrew and I sat in Magor services on the M4 talking through MdS 2015, and general banter, there was a gentle probing as to what our expectations were for Hope 24.

Andrew, Phil and I had run together at Trail Marathon Wales, and Phil and I had run a parkrun together, and we knew Linda and Rachel were pretty competitive. No-one wanted to commit. Just natter, but we were all there to do the best we could personally. Phil headed to Bristol Airport to collect Linda from a flight from Cork, and Rachel from a flight from France. Andrew and I headed to Newnham Park to set up the camp.

After a brief tour *ahem* up the wrong road right next to the camp, we got the tent and shelter up in a relatively quiet campsite. Chatted to a few “veterans” from the 2014 event who were quick to tell us that the hilly trail run was tough and we needed to be wary of not having high expectations for the lap times.

Excellent sketch map of Hope 24 from Matt Bisco
Excellent sketch map of Hope 24 from Matt Bisco

A quick phone call from Phil confirmed he was enjoying the same entry tour as us as Andrew and I walked what turned out to be the second half of the course. We would have done well to have studied the rather excellent sketch map from Matt Bisco!

But more about the course in a bit.

There was serious catching up to be done. A bottle of red, some chilli olives, a bit of cheese was a great way to catch up with everyone. Talk of potential returns to the desert, the Dragons Back Race, Glen Coe Skyline as potential future races, plus the Ring o Fire and the Kerry Way Ultra as races we’re variously booked into.

Rachel clearly loving the shift from 27C in France to a slightly less tropical Newnham Park soon layered up with borrowed kit from us all.

The campsite came to life, we registered, got our individual race numbers (for the chip timing). One of the great things about not having “winners” prizes is that there are a large number and variety of spot prizes and I picked up a Buff at registration. We settled into watch (local?) people set up the camp for the event and then disappear and generally listen to the Peacocks squawk.

The almost inevitable rattle emanating from Phil’s rear whilst looking down on the tent took us all back to the days of Granola in the desert. We went to bed with all of us having better, or worse nights sleep. We were up at a similar time, and I got the Aeropress and Carvetii Coffee going, and we started the pre race grazing, banter and working out race order. We settled on youngest first, Rachel, then Linda, and she had mentioned she wanted to nail some laps! Then me, then Phil and Andrew. 

Tent 96 in pre-run hamstring stretch pose.
Tent 96 in pre-run hamstring stretch pose.

I bumped into Wayne Drinkwater, another MdS vet, here for a solo attempt at 100 miles. Wayne was another amazing fundraiser, and I really like his quiet approach to all that he does. Coming back to Ultra distance after a recent op, and being totally solo, we offered space under our shelter if he needed it.

Whilst we talk about nailing laps, Phil decided he needed some new nails, and Rachel happily matched Phil’s to Linda’s. I was quite surprised that Phil managed to keep his nails looking good for the whole event, where as Linda’s looked a little chipped, quite quickly.

Lovely purple nails Phil!
Lovely purple nails Phil!

Happy, and The Road to Hell were played on the startline, an obvious nod to those at MdS2014, and one that Tent 96 had collective goosebumps over.

The shape of the course meant that we could watch Rachel off the line, then support her before the second significant climb and then see her come back past the tent before the first handover to Linda. As the ‘probe’ the feedback from Rachel was really valuable. Two hills, a bit sloppy in places, but all good. Around 42 minutes a lap.

Linda blitzed round, about the same pace as Rachel, we supported. Tony Sheridan also from MdS 2014 came round, stopped for a quick chat, and then retired for Gin and Tonics and steak. What a civilised experience! I started to think about a smooth transition, and how I was going to run the lap. I wanted to run well, but also wanted to hold a bit back it was going to be a long night, and with us aiming towards 160 miles, it was likely to need to be consistent.

Spot prize of a Buff
Spot prize of a Buff

So onto my description of a lap. Standing in the transition box, looking for Linda coming down the finishing straight. Flicking the ‘baton’ wristband from her wrist into her hand. Crossing the line, hearing a beep and then taking the band and turning to run down the start straight. A really smooth left curve, before getting on a stony track. I focussed on getting warmed up, running within myself. A little bend and we’re onto slightly soft mud, and then over a little bridge, roots on the entry and exit suited me, but there were a few ginger steps over this. Then  a very short ramp up to a skeet shooting area, exited with a little Fred Astaire arm swing on a large fence post to a hard standing area marked out with Orange Clay pigeons. Another short climb and then a steady run through the 1 mile mark. This area was the wettest on the course and marked an area where the next left turn started one of two significant climbs. I found this runnable, and with three sections easy to pace through. A little bend through some trees at the top, and then a gently descent to clear the legs of lactic before a lovely plunge back to the skeet ground. The next section really only had a sharp left turn over a bridge as a point of note, quite flat run back towards camp. Somewhere through here was the 2 mile mark. Over the third bridge on the course, a slippy lead in, plywood bridge and then the second big climb. This is steep, through two trees, on open grass pasture then slacking off before a long and gentle climb on a stony path. A brief respite out of this field, before re-entering and climbing the headland of the field to “Thomas the Tank”. This area is a pony club jump filed so has a lot of funny things, including some sheep. Danny told me there is a great view from here, but I was keen to descend this section fast, and never looked up here! A stony vehicle track that descends slowly at first, a few flats, and then a steepish but quick for the strong of leg tarmac descent to a sharp left turn was easily the quickest mile of the course. A narrow little bridge, the fourth, delivers runners back into the camp field, and all that remains is a horseshoe shaped track back to the transition area.

I was pleased to hand the wrist band to Phil, knowing he would go out hard, my watch shows around 36 minutes for my lap, and though blowing hard from the flat finish everything feels ok. A quick bit of water and then get on with supporting the rest of the team.

Phil came back and despite having a poorly Achilles had set the fastest time. Andrew was saying he would go as best he could, and as normal not acknowledging what an excellent runner he is. At this point, maybe good, maybe bad, Phil and I went to see the event timing people Wild Boar Events. This showed Phil a little faster than me, but both of us close enough to 35 minutes to think about dipping under. Boys being boys the banter started. I was doubtful of being able to go faster than Phil. However, I like trail, and Phil doesn’t get as much time on it as I do.

Andrew came back in having smashed a great time, and off went Rachel again. One rotation and 25 miles we were off again.

I decided I was going to “go hard”on my next lap and dipped under the 35 mins mark. I was helped by a runner passing me at the second bridge of the lap, and I just locked on for the tow. But, the confidence this gave me was brilliant.

After this lap I popped to the Luff Bus for a yummy bit of flapjack, and some Butternut and Lentil Dhal. Great food to have at an event like this and was much appreciated!

Not the nicest evening out, thanks for the photo Phil Waters!
Not the nicest evening out, thanks for the photo Phil Waters!

We were all pushing hard, and just as the sun was setting we realised that we were actually one of the teams putting in the most laps for the time. Go Tent 96!! There was a slight disbelief we were up there ahead of teams of 8, mixed and single sex. This started to fade in the night, we started losing places, and I think we all took our eyes off comparing, and just went as well as we could. There were a couple of trials and Rachel needed to shift her position in the running order. This meant a shorter rest for us for a bit, but she soon rejoined the running order. Dark trail running is a skill, and made harder when the cloud came down. Short lie downs meant no proper sleep, and the inevitable misery of putting wet running gear back on and getting cold waiting for the returning runner adds mental and physical challenges. Our transitions stayed smooth, and whilst we all slowed down we kept plugging out good consistent laps.

As the sun started to rise we checked our placings again, we had incredibly pulled out a lead against a male team of 8, and were in the overall lead. Both Phil and I had had “bad” laps of over 40 minutes, which in reality wasn’t bad, but really knocked the mental. Was I tiring or had I just eased off? Phil and I got a piece of paper out and started calculating. If we could squeeze a few minutes off each lap, we may be able to eek out an extra lap.

My 7th lap, I don’t think I’ve ever felt so anxious lining up to run. I knew that we all had to push hard, and I felt really uncertain whether at mile 30-35 I was going to be able to pull it out the bag. Linda handed me the wristband, and I went for it. I knew now the landmarks for time this lap. I was steady, not quick, through to the top of the first climb, and then I went for it. It hurt, but not enough to back off. I reached Thomas the Tank with a cramp starting in my left hamstring. But, I knew I could go back under 40 minutes, and hammered the descent, a herd of Elephants I think was the description of that one.  That lap has changed my view of what I can do when tired, and was a big moment when I crossed the line back in the region of 37 minutes.

Salomon Sense Pro sole unit after 600km of abuse.
Salomon Sense Pro sole unit after 600km of abuse.

A brief shout out to my Salomon Sense Pro that came recommended from Run.Coed y Brenin as on the last lap they went through the 600km mark, all quite hard miles. The more miles I run in these, the more I think they are a terrific trail shoe. At 6mm drop they aren’t as racey as the S-Lab Ultra, and whilst I covet the Soft Ground version, these are really capable. After 35 miles of quick running, my feet were in a good state, and I hadn’t felt a slip once on the varied terrain of the Hope 24 course.

Now was all about keeping the team keeping on. We’d taken the pressure off a bit, but the male 8 were pushing and there was some friendly banter starting between us all. Our lead came down to 3 minutes, Phil opened it out to 7. Andrew was feeling the pressure, but again delivered an exceptional lap. It came down to the last lap, Linda was going to run her 8th lap, against a team of 8, who were running their 5th. If she was nervous, it didn’t show. Transition was smooth, she ran the bend out of the startline like a 400m runner. Rachel got ready to pace her up the second big hill, Phil and I got the difference in time, told Rachel. And crossed our fingers that the guy Linda was running against couldn’t match her determination.

Watching Linda and Rachel come back into the event camp, with the “opponent” no where to be seen was amazing. Phil joined them at the tent, I about 200m out and then Andrew about 100m out from the finish line. Tent 96 crossed the line together, and in front. After the two teams covering 180 miles, 4 minutes was the difference. Exceptional performances by everyone.

An amazing team, an amazing effort and a real sense of achievement for the team effort. For me, running 35 miles in 4hrs 23 mins and 13 seconds was an amazing result, made all the sweeter by just pipping Phil by 30 seconds over 35 miles. I know though, if it had been an actual head to head race, and not a time trial like this, would almost certainly be different. We’ll see at Trail Marathon Wales this year…maybe!

Hope 24 Medal
Hope 24 Medal

But, it’s not about finishing first. It felt good, but seeing people achieving what they wanted and feeling equally proud is what this event is about. Of note was Matt Bisco running 135 miles solo, supported by many including Elisabet Barnes (this years winner of MdS) and her husband Colin (owners of MyRaceKit) and Great Dane, Stig. But also, the lady, who signed up for the event 7 months ago, before finding out she was one month pregnant, and completing the event 8 months pregnant. To buzzy bees, to superheroes, to runners, to walkers, to kids, to bus pass holders or sponsored athletes this event captures to me the essence of personal endeavour and joint appreciation of it.

To all the competitors who proudly have their medal, congratulations, and thank you for making a really memorable event!

To the supporters, caterers, masseurs, timing guys, volunteers and landowners you all make a fantastic event. Thank you.

To the organisers and creators of Hope 24, Danny Slay and Pete Drummond. It was an honour to be involved this year. Thank you, great event, fantastic hospitality and ethos.

If you’ve read this far, 14th-15th of May 2016 get on it! Hope 24, 2016, it will only be better than this, and I suspect will turn entrants away.



Buff Winter Trail Wales 2015

Right at the start, I’m going to say a massive “Thank You” to all the organisers, volunteers, marshals, partners and Mountain Rescue team that supported this race as well as the supporters and competitors that made the event what it is. The time and effort that goes into the build up and break down to any event is pretty tough, but in the winter, in the forest  with the wet and cold that we had in the week before the tough conditions were lost on us, the runners.

Buff and finishers mug.
Buff and finishers mug.

As Coed y Brenin is a trail centre that has a history in making great quality experiences for bikers, it is amazing to see the growth of trail running right here on my doorstep. Despite many many passionate runners in the area, it is the vision of one man (Matt Ward) and a whole gang of helpers and partners that is putting Coed y Brenin on the map for trail running. Trail Marathon Wales came to town for the first time in 2012, since then we now have 4 waymarked courses  as well as a nearly endless supply of trails to explore and put together. We also have a really visionary running shop, Run.Coed y Brenin complete with the ability to demo trail running shoes out on the trails. If running off road is your thing, then just like if you’re a mountain biker, Coed y Brenin should drop on to your list of places to visit.

So that’s the location, about the race! Well, it is the same half marathon course that is used in the summer, only in winter conditions. 21.1km of hilly, woody goodness – views, single track, climbs, descents and the wild atmosphere of Coed y Brenin. 

With an entry list of 400 that filled up really quickly, the visitor centre was humming from early on. Loads of familiar faces from all sorts of running, whether road, fell or ultra it was great to catch up with all the different personalities. I’d set myself a goal of 1 hr 50 for this, and had been working on my hill form in the lead up to the event. I’d had a rattly lung infection just after New Year and this had stopped me feeling fully confident in my preparation. But, in terms of other goals in the year this was to be a benchmark to build on with my other races in the year.

Pre-race, picture courtesy of Janson Heath
Pre-race, picture courtesy of Janson Heath

The start-line is beneath the visitor centre, meaning that the route takes you straight up between the centre buildings before turning onto the trail through the main trailhead.

Because this bit of trail is a little hourglass shaped it is good to be patient. So I picked my normal startline spot, about half way back in the pack. And just mooched off. There is always a rush, and I was planning on pacing myself nice and steady. As is nearly always the case, I started picking people off on the uphill, before them coming back at me on the flat. But, again I either do well on slightly rougher ground, or on a climb. I think I may need to try going out a little harder. But. as this was only my second ever half marathon event, I’m still only learning the tactics. I settled back into a steady climb pace for the whole of the trip up Sarn Helen.

This next section then becomes an undulating fire road that works it’s way across the back of Cefn Deuddwr before the long drop to the “aerial bridge” over the Mawddach. On this descent, it was noticeable that I was catching runners in front, and I need to focus even more on my downhill pace. It was in this part of the race that I ran my fastest event mile (6:09). Then a quick diversion to the waymarkings for the half marathon and up the steep little muddy climb on the Goldrush route before nipping off along the lovely descent of the old Karrimor trail. I’d shot this short video in poor light on this section before, and as good as the trail is, I couldn’t use my local knowledge here as I was stuck in a row of runners. Popping out onto the fire road at the bottom to Metallica – “Enter the Sandman” could mean only one thing, local running legend Ifs Richards must be the marshal here, and it was!

On the Goldrush section of Winter Trail Wales
On the Goldrush section of Winter Trail Wales

From here is the longest sustained climb on the course, up through the halfway point. I knew I wanted to run this bit well, and I picked up a good 10 places along here. Through the first feed station, and stuck to my plan to take nothing here. A quick zip down through the trees to the Afon Wen, a guy having a heavy tumble crossing the mountain bike trail, and then the fire road back towards Tyn y Groes. This section I can definitely run faster than I did, and I think this is where my downhilling needs a bit of work. The transition back to the flat took me a little while to get momentum again, and whilst I din’t lose places I didn’t protect the gains on the previous climb. I love the section here from Penrhos over to the banks of the Mawddach and I had enough space to enjoy it. At this next (and last feed station) I took on a gel and some electrolyte and got on with the fire road run up to the bailey bridge. Some stern, but very welcome encouragement from Hilary sent me up “sting in the tail”, I pulled to one side to let a runner go by, let him go in front, before passing him back when his legs gave up. I made good progress to the switchback and then had to settle for a quick walk to get to the top. Just not quite enough power (or too much weight!) to see this one through at 18km. Then the undulating run and small climbs back towards Cefn Deuddwr before the little sharp descent back towards the finish. I caught a runner here, and was determined to pass him on the way into the finish, hoping that I would get him on the last rise to the line. Unfortunately he didn’t fancy giving way to easily and I finished on his shoulder after a good 80m push to the finish.

The finish line was well organised with the friendly face of Es handing out the mugs and various finishers having a chat. All in all really good. I finished just outside my target time at 1:50:15 which gave me 54th overall and 20th in category.  I’m pretty pleased with that. I know there are a few areas, especially in the opening quarter where I could make up a minute or two, and better mental preparation would help me in the last half as well. Job well done.

In summary then, the Buff Winter Trail Wales has, I think in it’s first year, built on the successful summer events in recent years. Great quality terrain, backed up by great facilities, put on by a high quality team who know exactly what they’re doing. A really fantastic addition to the events calendar in the UK. It was fantastic to be a part of the inaugural event, and I applaud Matt and his team for delivering the high standard, in year one, in the winter. Da iawn!

Ciara at the trailhead of the running trails at Coed y Brenin.
Ciara at the trailhead of the running trails at Coed y Brenin.

It was lovely that my daughter Ciara asked to go running with me as soon as I felt recovered, so we talked about heading back up to Coed y Brenin the following day. To say that I was super proud of her run/walking the 4.3km Sarn Helen – Byr route is an understatement.

It was tough for her, but she plugged away at the various bits, and as always flew off down any descent. Seeing youngsters running downhill just for the love of it is lovely and it was great to be out in the woods the day after such a big event for the area. It was quiet, and peaceful again and sharing it with Ciara was a real honour.



Wye One Way 50 mile (Might Contain Nuts)

Finishers medal
Finishers medal

Time for a write up of an event. This one comes in a roundabout way. Mainly because I got to the start line with so many doubts and feeling more pressure than I had before. It’s an ultra right up, so you might want to grab some hydration (tea should work).

I was heading to the start line to support Sandra Williams in her first 50 mile run, and to help her raise money for the Welsh Air Ambulance – please consider donating here

Sandra and I have run long runs together over the last little while, and her company in long runs whilst training for MdS made some long weeks bearable.

The original aim was for the South Down Way 50 in April, but events meant that Sandra deferred to the Wye One Way Ultra, run by Might Contain Nuts. I can’t really remember when she asked whether I would run it with her, but I said yes, and booked my place.

The route is quite special, first it is linear, it starts in Llangurig and roughly follows the Afon Gwy (River Wye) to Glasbury. When I say follow, it sort of meanders up off over hills, meaning that the 50 miles roller coasters up and down 2200m.

Why the pressure? Well, I managed to roll my ankle the weekend before the run, and it was a little achey. Plus I felt that I hadn’t really managed to put as many back-to-back miles in as I would have liked. I also really wanted to make Sandra’s run as easy as possible. Running that distance is mainly mental. It is going to hurt. It is about managing everything to get to the finish. The last thing I wanted to be was another thing that Sandra needed to manage to get her to the finish. 

Splits record stuck to my water bottle
Splits record stuck to my water bottle

I found it quite challenging planning in my head. Trying to visualise how I would go at different points. I am fairly detailed in how I plan. And the unknown, being there to be invisible became more and more of an issue as my ankle got more sore. I’m so used to running my own race, this was a new challenge for me.

Sandra messaged me to say “Start together, finish together” which worried me. The doubts I had meant that I needed to know, if I was truly broken, she would carry on. We were fortunate that Rhys, Sandra’s husband was going to be following us down the route and be at checkpoints (CP) so I knew I could bale if I really had to. Though I really didn’t want to, I doubted my ankle would take the battering.

Food haul
Food haul

I got all the food together that I needed. This time I was going to take most of my calories from TORQ gel and TORQ energy, I had two Pepperami Wideboys, some NutriGrain breakfast bars and some ’emergency’ Jelly Babies. Because we had Rhys following us, I also had some flat Coca-Cola, just to lift me at CP’s. Along with the madatory kit my pack was 3.5kg, plus a litre of water, made 4.5kg.

I packaged it all down, and was comfortable with the set up. One chest bottle, and one bottle in reserve, just in case it was hot on the longest leg, that also had some large climbs on it.

I also decided that I would use tried and tested shoes; the Inov8 Roclite 315, just for a mixture of grip and cushioning. My last job was to get the CP’s onto a Movescount Route, this would mean I would have some leg by leg navigation. Because the route is marked it should be a case of just following the markers, but it’s nice to have a ready reference. 

We arrived in Llangurig at 7:15, registered in the village car park. Made use of the portaloo’s and controlled start nerves. The bus load of other runners, who were being shuttled up from Glasbury, arrived, The quiet car park became a lively chatter of 40 ish runners. A couple of dogs were running. We all wandered onto the little lane for the race briefing. Because it had been dry the cattle were still on some of the fields we were running through. As always leave gates shut. And other than that it was a case of “have a good one”. 

The start in Llangurig
The start in Llangurig

We all agreed the start could be brought forward a minute, and then a hoot of a horn and we all started shuffling forward. It was immediately nice to be running. The nerves gone, the focus on the job all that was important.

Sandra and I were running together, just finding our way through the runners to our easy pace. With a race this long, the start is never rushed, warming up as you go.

The route slowly turned uphill, then off tarmac and onto farmland. Not fighting the hills was key; just enjoy the views. I was aware of Sandra breathing hard, and we both slowed to a walk together. Up a big grassy hill, lovely views to the west towards Pumlumon. The group of runners already spread out, and finding their own pace. Plenty of gates, and that was a theme that carried on.

Of course, running down the Wye, if you climb, you descend. That first descent was probably the steepest of the course. It would be lovely on a shorter run, but on this distance taking it steady was essential. We come out on to a little road, and the pace picks up naturally as we are on easy terrain. Quickly, it seemed, we arrive at CP1. We’re quickly through, no need for anything after 5 miles. We join a runner, Nick Lindley, who is having a big year of Ultra’s and we chat about all sorts of stuff. He’s off to do a marathon assault course next weekend. Sandra and I are both impressed!

Coming to the Afon Elan with Nick
Coming to the Afon Elan with Nick

We climb steeply over Cefn Bach, with Nick pulling ahead before a lovely descent. Sandra and I catch Nick at the Afon Elan crossing. Because of the low water, it really is only a splash, but getting wet feet in the first 10 miles isn’t ideal. We join tarmac and as three runners round a very low Craig Goch Reservoir. Just before crossing the dam, Rhys is roadside. Sandra ditches a bit of her kit that she is finding too heavy. CP2 is on the other side of the dam. The marshalls, in their camper, had a lovely smell of sausages wafting out, I joked with them about having no brown sauce. Great to get some friendly banter whilst filling up on water. There are toilets here and we avail ourself. We chat with a runner who is on the way on, who has run the event before. he wans us there aren’t toilets for a long time yet.

CP2 to CP3, is on the face of it simple, alongside Penygarreg Resevoir, then down Garreg Ddu Resevoir to the dam and CP3. At the end of the Penygarreg Resevoir, we catch the runner in front who was trying to work out which fork to take on an unmarked junction. Quickly checking my watch, I can see it’s right and we run passed. The next bit of reservoir is stunning – inky water, slate blue rock and fresh green grass that has grown on the low level fringes of the foreshore. We pass a big group of walkers who shout “runner” to alert the others. I explain jokily that we’re shufflers. It’s very friendly. We arrive at CP3, Sandra takes a layer off, we refill water, have a  chat to the marshals about how bad Diet Coke is. Rhys points out we’re moving quite quickly. We both agree we should back off a bit; we’re going to need to.

We’re both avoiding the fact that this leg is long, and with a big climb. The other runner sets off in front of us and we grind up past the Church. We’re chatting about future events – Snowdon Marathon for Sandra. We’re steadily contouring round above the western end of the Caban Goch dam. We talk work on the descent back to tarmac. Again it would be a lovely quick descent on a different day.

We turn from travelling SW to just North of East as we climb back along the other side of Caban Goch. As we climb, we concertina closer and further away from the runner in front, depending on whether we are climbing or descending. On the long pull up Gro hill we pass the walkers again. Whilst they’re still bantering, we’re a little more subdued this time. A couple of mountain bikers zip down, it really is great riding in the Elan valley.

We’re descending here when Sandra pulls up with a really sharp pain in her knee. Obviously in a lot of pain, we talk through that it has happened before, and that it’ll pass. This is probably my most negative point of the run. My ankle is sore, and if Sandra needs to finish the desire to stop is massive. Sandra runs it out, and we climb again to Carn Gafallt. Sandra’s knee tweaks again on the descent into Llanwthrwl. But it quickly subsides and we descend to the CP. The runner in front is sat on a chair by the village hall. I take some pain killers that Sandra has brought. I can’t quite feel happy on my ankle. A good shot of Coca Cola too. Sandra has some coffee and we’re off ahead of the runner still sat. The Marathon distance run has started at this CP, and so there is more evidence of runners, suddenly. Grass shows the passage of people. This is reassuring for route finding.

The next leg is all alongside the Wye, and is beautiful running. I hadn’t quite plotted the CP in the right place, so I need to “skip” this on the navigation of my watch. Not having done it before, I stop the watch trying to get into a menu. Doh!! I start my watch again. So here is the first section the watch recorded.

We pass a mountain biker, who I’m briefly jealous of. I’d like to come back and ride this section. Having paddled it, and now run it, it seems like a good target to have.

We pass a very impressive house that I’ve never seen before, I think this is Doldowlod. It’s hard to imagine anyone investing that kind of money in such a development these days. Very impressive.

CP 5 itself is a bit of a blur, it’s on the side of a quick back road. I chat to a marshal who ran at Trail Marathon Wales, and was very pleased to hear that Run. Coed y Brenin has now got such an extensive range of demo trail shoes. I treat myself to a Pepperami and a slug of Cola here. There is a very uncomfortable looking runner, who is cramping badly. I offer him some Pepperami as he’s lacking salt and electrolytes and isn’t carrying any/ It’s 6 miles to CP6 and he is being encouraged to consider his choices carefully. 

As we run out through woodland, I’m burping Pepperami and Cola, stay classy Ash! Sandra, understandably, wants to stay clear of the smell if she can. She’s feeling a little peaky! We have a quick navigation moment, as we cross into a field we can’t quite see where the path goes, we add a few hundred metres on, going to an opposite corner before we spot a yellow sign and regain the track. This leg runs right alongside the river, some fantastic swimming spots and at low water the lovely rock shelves are visible. We pass a really impressive chalet style building, Dolyrerw Farm. Sandra and I are both smitten! We pass under the railway, and then pass Builth Rocks, there used to be a very popular canoe slalom held here, but not at these levels.

We can see the Royal Welsh Showground on the other bank, Builth Wells is close. We run alongside the Rugby pitch, Builth are playing Gwemyfyd and are winning 27-0 (they want on to win 49-0, well done!) and there is a great atmosphere. Sandra is trying to work out what to eat, if anything, as she’s feeling a bit queasy. I make use of the toilets, scarf a Nutrigain, some JellyBabies and some Coke. This next leg is the last big climb, and so we’re preparing ourselves mentally.

Out of Builth and we turn uphill, on tarmac, there are lots of midges here and it is a little unpleasant. We climb about 70m and then on the crest of the hill, Sandra spots a little hedge lined lane on the other side of the valley. We both know we’re heading up there. We descend to the small Duhonw river before climbing up what feels like an old drover road. It’s pretty, but hard. We climb to about 400m on the side of Banc y Celyn before contouring. We lose a little height and join a track, before a small climb to CP7. 

It’s under a half marathon left, in fact the 10 mile trail race starts here. We travel along “Twmpath” which is a beautiful mound of grass, quite high above the Wye. This is easy running, and I was lulled into  false sense of security. Just above Erwood we drop in to a little wood. There are lots of brambles, and a nadgery little trail it’s only 500m or so long, but this is the most uncomfortable, technical section of trail yet. We finally clear this, and have about a kilometre to CP8. Sandra is hobbling, and has a very sore heel. We stop, and she gets a plaster on the blister. “Should have listened to Rhys”, she says, as he’d offered that advice earlier. Nothing ever gets better on an ultra!

We run into Trericket Mill, this CP is my final water fill up. I gobble a couple more Jelly Babies. We cross the A470 and follow the Wye Valley Walk alongside the river. There is a path, a hard path, I whoop in relief! The terrain is a little easier. Rhys toots his horn as he leaves us to get to CP 9.

We tick down this leg pretty quickly. The running is pretty simple, the route finding easy, and the light is still pretty good. Llangoed Hall is impressive and well lit, before we pass the Llyswen Water Treatment works and get back on tarmac. I know we’ll both finish now.

CP9 is quick, Rhys has noticed we picked up the pace, and confirms that if we do the same again we’ll finish under 12 hours. The light is fading so we put head torches on and run through woodland and farmland before picking up a firm trail leading towards Glasbury. At the road, we turn left and run to Woodlands OEC, where the finish waits for us.

Coming to the Finish of the Wye Valley One Way
Coming to the Finish of the Wye Valley One Way

Sandra spots that we’re just inside 12 hours, and whilst we’d been vaguely aware that Sandra was running well, here at the finish line it’s confirmed; she is the first lady home What an achievement – I’m so chuffed to be along for the run with her. The emotions of finishing smash home for Sandra, and a little lip wobble are sorted by a hug from a massively proud Rhys. If you’ve read this far, you’ll recognise the amazing achievement – donate here!

I’ve learned a lot, again, about myself. I’m pleased to have made it down the Wye. It’s very satisfying personally, but I’ve got far more pleasure considering Sandra’s achievement. Da iawn San!


What are the best trail running shoes?

Here’s a question that gets asked a lot. And there are some things that make the best trail running shoe.

In my opinion the best trail shoes should:

  1. Fit you
  2. Instil confidence in your feet
  3. Be well made

Now, because of the difference in trails there is always a compromise. Here in the UK we have a variety of different styles of trails, and these throw heaps of challenges to shoes. Consider the difference between hard pack, dusty, dry forest fire road trails  and sloppy, boggy, marshy trails after rain and you’ll start to see the fact that no one “foot tyre” can fit. Tractors have big aggressive tyre patterns compared to a formula one car. I dislike “waterpoof” shoes, instead I prefer quick drying shoes, which allow water to drain from the inside out. Think if you will about filling your wellies up with water and then walking 10 km. Your feet will be soft and broken. This is what having a liner in creates in UK conditions. There are places where it’s useful, but in my opinion, not on UK trails.

In the same way, everyone feet are slightly different. High arches, wide forefoot, bony heels the list of “I’ve got’s…” is impressive. Get the right length shoe, and then learn how to lace you shoe up properly.

Trail shoes aren’t a one trick pony – I have three shoes that I run trails in. I can run any trail in these three, but my speed will be massively affected by what I have on my feet.

I’m looking at three shoes (L-R)  Inov-8 Roclite 315, Salomon Crossmax Neutral and Asics GT2000. At the time of being pictured I have racked up, collectively, 2700 km on these shoes, split as follows:

  • Inov8 Roclite 315 – 700 km
  • Salomon Crossmax neutral – 620 km
  • Asics GT2000 – 1,380 km

I primarily use the Roclites when I’m heading off the beaten track, mountain, forest and although not this pair, these were the shoe I chose for Marathon des Sables, Trail Marathon Wales, Brecon Ultra and some other off road races. The sole is, in my experience pretty spot on for UK trail running. The rubber is soft enough to give good traction on rock, wet and dry as well on wet tree roots. As the pictures show, despite this soft rubber, the wear has lasted well, bear in mind my running weight is a minimum of 85 kg, sometimes 90+ depending on how much water and kit I am carrying. The upper too deserves credit, these have smashed new paths through heather, run down scree, kicked big rocks in slate fields as well as pottering through Skye’s vicious Gabro rock. There is a bit of material damage inside the heel cup of one shoe, but that is my fault not the shoe, and after 700 km I think that this is a massive success for a shoe that often gets sodden!

The Salomon Crossmax I use when I know I have a large amount of tarmac and hard pack and when I know there are not steep grassy slopes involved. I love these shoes for running alongside canals and rivers. I haven’t raced in these, primarily because I’ve not entered a race where the terrain has suited, but I would use them for any of the Thames path races, or at this stage, something like Ring o’ Fire. These also get a fair hammering through the undergrowth. Though I don’t think this is the reason for the failing upper over the bridge of the toe. The speed lacing system is very effective, and I do like this very much where I don’t need to tension the shoe in a non standard way (swelling feet, steep terrain). The rubber compound is very solid, sometimes at the detriment to grip in the wet. I don’t trust the soles much on wet rock, or tree roots, but this is perhaps because I’m acutely aware of this where I run the majority of my routes.  

Whilst the Asics get used mainly on tarmac, I’ve added them here for a specific reason. I use these where I’m running fire trail, or prepared trails where the surface isn’t broken. I also think the Asics demonstrate how it is possible to make a very long lasting shoe. Whilst these upper do not get abused anywhere near as much as the Inov8’s these do get wet and mucky fairly regularly and I’m really impressed how well they look after 1400 km’s. The sole rarely gets anything more complicated than some big pebbles, and some pretty steep tarmac that I have locally but the sheer volume of footstrike these have experienced (nearly half a million) with my 85kg on top of them are a massive testament to the build quality of these shoes. The grip side of things is never an issue for me, but that is because they are never pushed in a position where I ever really test it. The major win for these is the sheer contact area that they have available without knobbles!

Which are the best trail shoes? Well they’re the ones that work for you. I consider that I’ve tested these three shoes reasonably extensively in UK conditions. Is one of these the best pair of trail running shoes? For me yes, I could pick one pair for all my trail running. I’d prefer to have all three pairs, and I will probably keep on experimenting over the coming shoes. Technology is still evolving in trail running and that will bring about better shoes. Which should you choose? You should choose a shoe that suits the majority of the conditions that you run in.

If I had to choose one pair of shoes from these three, it would be the Inov8’s. In fact I have a few pairs and would happily run any route that went off road in them.

Trust the shoes on your feet, and go run exploring. The best kit in the world does no good sitting on the shelf!

Run training with Strava premium, is it worth it?

I choose to be a Strava premium user. I like statistics, my running buddies often ask me whether paying for Strava is worth the money. I think it depends on what you want, but if results is your thing I would say, yes, it’s a handy tool to have in your toolkit.

So here was my test. In May, having come back from Marathon des Sables, and *ahem* eaten my way through my recover. I needed a clear goal to get me back and training hard. So I looked out the window. And this is what I saw, obviously without the writing!

My motivation
My motivation

Next job was to create a segment, so 4th May I went for a run, starting and finishing where I wanted my goal to be. Here’s the link to that segment, so now I have the statistics it’s 6.6km with an 825m ascent. I also now know that it takes me about an hour and eleven minutes to get to the top. It is also a climb category “HC” which is tough!

Now, this is where premium kicks in, you can then set a goal for the segment, which is time limited, and this appears on your dashboard every time you view Strava. It counts you down to the deadline. I picked 4 months as that felt sensible.

Then, I almost forgot about this goal for 8 weeks, I focussed on training for Trail Marathon Wales, well when I say focussed, I focussed on the race, but not the preparation and got the result I deserved…slow.

But then, I started using Strava to analyse where I needed to gain. It was in my speed. My stamina was good, but I needed pace work. So, I set a one km segment and tried to get that speed down. I entered a short trail race and set myself the challenge of a Cooper Test (all out effort for 12 minutes). One thing, each month where speed was being measured. Then I looked at my daily training against my heart rate. I then made sure I was spending one session in my tempo category, and one in my threshold, as well as keeping up the long steady runs.

I used the “goal segment” for a couple of my long runs, just to check the route and see where my pace was naturally going. By mid August I had taken just over five minutes off my time. The segment analysis now lets you see where gains can be made, and that is mentally noted to go hard at.

Strava training log
Strava training log

The training log gives a visual record of how you’re getting on against your weekly goal (another premium add)

This all means that staying injury free is easier.

All the while I’m learning more about how and when I run at my best.

I had a slight hiccup, my aim was to have a go at the goal three weeks before the deadline, however darling daughter giving me a cold put paid to that!!

So, finally I had a shot at the goal today. In 4 months, I knocked nearly 14 minutes off my time (that’s nearly 20% lost). Yes it hurt, but looking at where I made pace, I was moving consistently faster across the terrain. I’m very, very pleased!

Could I have done it without Strava, probably. But as someone who trains on my own, a lot, it’s great getting kudos and feedback from the followers. It really keeps me motivated not to duck a training session.

Strava premium, is it worth it? I think if you want to make gains in your running. Strava should be there in your training toolbox!



Ponderosa fell race

After I mucked my preparation up for Trail Marathon Wales, I really wanted to get some speed back into my legs. And so, shorter faster races are something I wanted to get my teeth into.

I’ve still got an Ultra in September, so I’m trying to keep the miles up and do speed work.

Ponderosa Fell race fitted with the plan of short and fast, without it being a road race, which I don’t really enjoy those at all. It’s organised by Wrexham Road Runners and draws runners from quite a wide area.

At 6.4km and 289m of ascent, it is a category BS fell race, and really is more of a hilly trail race. It’s a great place to start on fell running, or as I wanted something to go and really push myself on to get some focus on pace.

It starts at 7pm, and this year on a Wednesday, from the top of the Horseshoe Pass near Llangollen. The Ponderosa cafe car park is the starting point, so it’s easy to find and plenty of parking. Sadly the cafe wasn’t open, so there were no facilities to support the 100 or so people that this event attracts.

Aerial at the top of the climb - photo credit Charles Ashley
Aerial at the top of the climb – photo credit Charles Ashley

Registration done, the start is only a few hundred metres away on the vehicle access track to the aerials on top of the hill. 

As with most fell races, the startline was informal and friendly, and the briefing quick and concise. With a quick “off you go” we were away, pretty much dead on 7pm.

The wide open track gave everyone a chance to settle into their stride, and find a place in the pack. This year, due to a bee hive or two, there was a short diversion off into the heather about two thirds of the way up the climb. This was all runnable, but very slow. Back out on to the track, for the final and steepest part of the climb to the aerial.

At this point I was breathing pretty hard, but felt ok. The marshalls ushered us right, round onto the single track path that descends slowly off to the right of the aerial. This section is very difficult to overtake on, with heather and small bushes keeping most runners fairly central. I was pushing my descent here, and normally where I’d try and recover downhill, I was keeping my breathing working hard.

After about 1.5km the track turns back alongside a barbed wire fence, on to initially, an even harder piece of trail to overtake on. This section is fast running, it slowly widens and heather gives way to bracken, the narrow rut gives way to a grass path and the running is technically easier. There are a few soft pieces of trail, no more than 10 metres in length, where some commitment can give a chance to overtake. I’d imagine if this was run after heavy rain, this section would be incredibly boggy! There is one very narrow section where I sheep has eroded a sleeping place, definitely need to stay right here! This soft section ends at a small stream crossing. 

A very short climb puts you onto some slightly broader trail, without the cross slope. This winds and undulates over to where the race joins the Clwydian way. This is a very firm track, and really enjoyable running. That has a couple of lovely descents that are lots of fun, and justify the climb at the beginning.

This ends where the path passes a house, with a small bridge, and the route briefly joins tarmac before the final climb to the finish. This section is the wettest, and most deceptive part of the race. It is 500m long with about 90m of climb. I was blowing hard and trying to stay running, but failed at two points. One chap stopped for a messy vomit, and I managed to keep working hard to run in to the finish.

The results take a while to come out, so I will update when they’re released, but I was definitely over 30 minutes.

The finish line was friendly, with water and category wins getting bottles of wine. There had been a few bee stings, and some quite epic stories around that, especially Lucie, for which this was the first club run. The newest member of Meirionnydd, Rachael) managed to land first senior lady.

Meirionny #Runfie - photo credit Elly Dee!
Meirionny #Runfie – photo credit Elly Dee!

Back to the car park for a Meirionnydd Running Club #runfie and iced bun (Thanks Sandra!) before the drive home.

A massive thanks to the organiser and all the marshalls who put the race on, it’s terrific.

If you’re thinking about a first time mid week fell race in North Wales for next year, Ponderosa should be on your list.

Aarn Marathon Magic and Marathon des Sables race number

I was contacted by Ong Yu-Phing about the Aarn Marathon Magic 33 and how to fit the race number for Marathon des Sables 2015 in the right place. The numbers are about 180mm x 160mm so I would cut one out of a piece of cardboard and play around getting the right way of getting it attached.

I’m really envious of Yu-Phing heading out next year – pulling my pack back on just made me want to go run in the desert again!!

Yu-Phing also asked whether I would go for the smaller size, the 22. I probably could if I was happy strapping things on the outside to begin with. And whilst the 33 is about 350g heavier and so harder to head towards the magic 6.5kg (before adding water and flare) I think I could justify the extra stability of having everything inside the pack on the start line of stage 1.

Very best of luck for 2015 Yu-Phing – its an amazing experience!

Any way, here is the video explaining what I did and what I’d do differently…

Aarn Mountain Magic 33 and Marathon des Sables race number from Ashley Charlwood on Vimeo.

Trail Running Review – why you should try it!

A review, so Google says – 

a formal assessment of something with the intention of instituting change if necessary.

I’m not sure how formal, or how intent I am of changing anything I am, but I’m still going to call it a review. I guess it’s also a description or a beginners “how-to” for trail running.

Trail running is becoming more fashionable, fitness magazines are covering it more and there are definitely more videos being made about it as a pastime.

What is trail running?

It is running (and quick walking) off an athletics track or road/pavement. It is different to cross country running in that it tends to be longer distances so slower paced.

Trail running, at the moment isn’t recognised by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF)

Why go trail running?

There are lots of good reasons to go running on trails.

Views out and about trail running
Views out and about trail running
  • You get to see things you can’t on a bike or in a car, it really does get you closer to nature
  • Because fast walking is a part of trail running it is a great way to build fitness
  • No hard surfaces jarring joints means less chance of repetitive strain injuries
  • Uneven surfaces and hills use more core muscles and so build strength and stamina
  • If being watched running around the village/town you live in isn’t your thing trails get you away from curtain twitchers
  • It’s social if you want it to be
  • Above all it’s fun

Where to go trail running?

Trail running can happen anywhere there isn’t a hard surface, and the opportunities are massive. Footpaths, bridleways, canal towpaths, forest centres, mountain tracks in fact anywhere. A sense of adventure and exploration will get you uncovering places near to home.

I’m lucky to live right next to Coed y Brenin near Dolgellau. Here there are easy to follow way-marked trails of all sorts of different lengths. There are also a wide range of routes on National Trust estates too.

How to go trail running for the first time

I’d suggest picking a walk you know, nothing too long, something that you can walk comfortably and know pretty well. Personally I’d choose something that isn’t flat because I’d want places I can walk. A walk that takes about an hour (3 miles or 5km) would be a good place for someone not running regularly.

Then, go round that walk, perhaps running the gentle downhills and some of the flat. Listen to your breathing, don’t exert yourself too hard and don’t be afraid to walk.

How to improve your trail running

Local running clubs are a great source of knowledge, they’ll introduce you to like minded people and probably have sessions where you can join runs. This works for a lot of people and is the most common way to improve.

That didn’t work for me though. I started exploring my local footpaths and forests. Over a period of 18 months I went from 5-10 miles a week to being able to run 90-100. Be careful not to increase your mileage to fast, or start running more hills than you are used to. Muscles can tighten and it really is a good idea to do some simple stretches and strength exercise (I often work my calves whilst on the phone).

What do I need to go trail running?

In short, nothing is needed to go trail running. But there are a few things that will make your run a bit more enjoyable.

Trail running shoes 

From L-R Inov8 Mudclaw 300, Salomon Crossmax neutral, Inov8 Roclite 315, Ascis 2100GT
From L-R Inov8 Mudclaw 300, Salomon Crossmax neutral, Inov8 Roclite 315, Ascis 2100GT

The first upgrade is your feet, where you touch the ground. It can seem an impossible choice and be quite overwhelming. Don’t be put off. Find a local running specialist and ask for advice. Most trail runners are only to happy to give an opinion.

Any well fitting running shoes will work for trail running. However, trail running shoes have grippier soles and generally slightly stronger materials. Bear in mind they will get wet and have to deal with stones, mud , tree roots as well as grass and harder surfaces. There are some major brands out there Salomon, Inov-8, Asics, Saucony and Brooks are some of the more popular brands.

They all do slightly different things; hard stony trails, soft muddy trails or mixtures. Get something comfortable and go wear them out!

As a note, waterproof trainers are only waterproof until the water goes over the top of the shoes, then the water can’t get out. For this reason I like well draining, quick drying shoes and just get on with splashing in muddy puddles.

Clothing for trail running

This is really personal preference. Baggy or tight makes no difference. On longer days out baggy things can chafe a little, but in my experience makes no difference at all for runs of up to about 20km (half marathon). I would prioritise buying running clothing in this order:

  1. Socks
  2. Shorts/legs
  3. T-shirt/top
  4. Waterproof/windproof

Of course, like all hobbies you can go eyewear, headwear, gloves and on and on. Like shoes all clothing, except a waterproof should be light and quick drying. Building layers of clothing is by far the best way to be comfortable and have the right kit for any occasion.

The shell layer (outer waterproof) -very often if it is drizzly and not too cold I prefer to run with a windproof layer (Pertex or similar). The reason is that when I’m running I make heat and sweat. Whilst I have a good waterproof, if I push hard then I can make myself wetter inside a waterproof than on the outside, so I prefer to let my body heat push the sweat out of the jacket or gilet.

Food and water for trail running

This is a subject in itself and I’m not even going to touch the surface here. In general, up to an hour your body can cope easily on its own. Beyond that it is worth thinking about fluids and food. If I am heading somewhere really remote I like to take some emergency snacks, really just for reassurance

Carrying things for trail running

Bumbag and emergency kit for trail running
Bumbag and emergency kit for trail running

Bumbag, rucksack, waistbelt, ultra vests, hydration packs, bottles – all these are just a short list of what some people choose to use. I don’t use a hydration pack for trail running as it encourages me to carry too much weight. I prefer a sports bottle, this lets me see how much I have drunk to, and also on much longer runs, in two bottles plain water and one with a flavour and/or electrolytes.

My 15 year old bumbag is still in service and in this I can carry waterproofs, basic emergency kit, food and water. If I need more (going further, or worse conditions) then I’ll take a small rucksack. On the occasions I go multiday running I’ve never needed anything bigger than 35 litres.

Gadgets for trail running

I’m using the term gadget here, some are occasionally essential, some are luxury, I’m mentioning them here just to think about. But, don’t ever carry anything you don’t know how to use, otherwise you’re carrying weight for the sake of it.

Map and compass. If you have any doubt about where you’re going, these are an essential.

Headtorch. If you are either going out in the dark, or might be at risk of getting stuck out in the dark, this is an essential. (Chris Baynham-Hughes did an extensive independent buyers guide to head torches)

Watch. Time, pace, place, heart rate, altitude, tide. Watches can measure all sorts of things. Sometimes this can be a motivator, sometimes it can be a de-motivator.

Emergency kit. First-aid and survival blanket can be useful, both for yourself and others you may need to help. I always carry these on the trails out of personal preference.

I’m going to repeat myself, especially about the Map, Compass and Emergency kit – KNOW HOW TO USE THEM!!

Competitive trail running

Shattered, but massive sense of achievement at the end of Marathon des Sables 2014
Shattered, but massive sense of achievement at the end of Marathon des Sables 2014

Trail running is more loosely organised than other running disciplines. Events are a great way to go to places you wouldn’t go to normally, meet new people and test yourself (if that’s your thing).

Trail races can range from 5km upwards. Beware though a 5km trail race will be much tougher than a 5km road running race.

My experience is that trail races are really friendly and run by people who are passionate about running off road. Ask questions will get you lots of answers!

Training for trail running racing will follow the same type of sessions as road running. Build a stamina base, then building pace and power with shorter speed sessions or on hills or (yuk!!) both. Flexibility (stretching or yoga) will help you enormously with recovery and speed.

Finding more information

There are some good Facebook pages with heaps of information about trail running. The two most popular UK best pages are Trail Running Magazine and The Trail Running Association.

As a resource for competitive world wide running, Mud, Sweat & Tears is hard to beat as a website.

Runners World is still the most readily available running magazine in the UK, but is more focussed on running generally rather than trail running.

Finally…have fun trail running

I trail run because it’s fun. Normally not to be the fastest, not to beat people, nor to be fitter. I love the journey and trail running lets me make more of my free time, exploring the places I want to go. Every now and then I like to race, just to test myself, and by every now and then I mean less than 5 times a year normally. 

Trail running shouldn’t ever be a punishment (it was for me at school). 

If you remember running around outdoors as a child, running with your legs out of control down a hill or through high grass and those memories make you smile then have a go.

Let trail running take you new places, let it make your body feel alive and your mind clear. Sometimes you’ll exert yourself and it’ll be hard work. Sometimes it’ll be cold, windy or dark. Sometimes you’ll see a deer, a sunrise, sunset or a view all of your own.

Learn to enjoy the ups and downs, make it fun and enjoyable.

So, my formal review, not very formal, and the need to change anything, not really for me. I always need to remember that I really really enjoy trail running.

Here’s a video I made a couple of years ago to explain trail running in Coed y Brenin, a forest near home that is better known for mountain biking at the moment. Hope you enjoy it.

Marathon des Sables – a race review

I’ve sat looking at this blank page for ages, nearly two weeks now.

Normally I can sit and the words fall out of me; I know the shape of what I want to say and how I want to say it.

Perhaps this should be the review of the 29th Edition of Marathon des Sables. “Speechless”.

I was motivated to do the event because Cancer reared its head in my life, again. 2014 was a good year for lots of reasons that I’ve blogged about before. But the event has done more, been more, than I could ever have imagined.

If you’re sat contemplating a multi-day ultra event, and like I did, have doubts about whether you could physically complete the course you’ll gloss over what lots of people write in their blogs. I did that too. 

Yes, Marathon des Sables is physically hard, but not impossible. Yes, Marathon des Sables takes commitment and sacrifice. I can say with confidence though, you will learn more, feel more and be affected more by this event than you could ever anticipate.

Honestly, there is no point since the start day where I’ve thought “I’d never do this again”. Lot’s of MdSers have said “done”, “ticked off” and “no way”. I asked myself as I crossed the line would I do it again, no doubt at all, if the opportunity arose I’d say emphatically “yes” in a heart beat.

I’d anticipated that crossing the line, those final ten steps I had focussed on for two years would be emotional. It wasn’t. That’s not to say in the preceding 40 hours of running I hadn’t been happy, sad, angry, stubborn and every other emotion. Just what I had expected at the finish line was different to reality.

There are no words, pictures, videos or talks that I can use to explain fully what happened. I’ve written the day by day accounts, but the bit inside me, the emotional bit is still, a month on, just out of reach to me. It’ll have to wait for another day!

The race itself is so amazingly well organised. Yes, there is a bit of queuing, but lets put that in perspective. There are 1000 people in the Sahara, running. The visual impact on this environment after the bivouac has gone is really minimal. A few tyre tracks and a dark 10 foot diameter circle. Pretty impressive. Everything is packed in, set up, handed out, taken down and taken away. There is solid medical cover that wants you to finish. The stories of what Doc Trotters did to keep people running are amazing, and totally contrary to what you’d expect. Even what we’d consider worthy of a few days off work don’t raise an eyebrow. Patch you up, encourage you and get on with the event. Mind blowing, inspiring stuff. 

Marathon des Sables 2014 track log
Marathon des Sables 2014 track log

The route, changes, new formats are tested. Veterans of the race express their feelings about the good and the bad, the ease or difficulty of the various stages. But that’s irrelevant to me. My MdS, my race looks like a wiggly line near the border with Algeria. It’s not even half as long as one tank of fuel in my car and yet it represents more to me than any car journey.

And my daughter summed it up nicely, as only a nine year old can. I now know that I can run from home, in Dolgellau to Oxford. Why I would do that, or want to do that I don’t know. Why I would do that in the heat carrying my own stuff, I don’t know. It’s barking mad when written like that.

But I could. And that is my lesson!

Marathon des Sables Kit Review

Marathon des Sables 2014 

Kit that I used, a review

I wanted to put some thoughts down on everything I used for Marathon des Sables 2014. It’s an independent, subjective view I chose all my own kit, and paid for it all myself. Where I can, I’ve put the manufacturers link. If there are broken link please let me know.

For the first timer getting kit sorted can be overwhelming, even veterans still refine their equipment, so if you’ve time on your hands, get opinions and where possible try and test the kit.

Just because something worked/didn’t work for me doesn’t mean it will/won’t work for you. Try and make up your own mind. At the end of the day you have to believe that the kit you are wearing is up for the job for you!

I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules, remember in 2009  a tweed jacket, a jumper, a plastic carrier bag and a shoulder bag got a finish for an elderly Indian chap. I’d say time on your feet is a better use of time than shopping!


From the bottom up I wore

Inov8 Roclite 315 with gaiter velcro attached
Inov8 Roclite 315 with gaiter velcro attached

Inov8 Roclite 315 trainers – I went with these because I use them a lot for running around Wales. I like the fit and the sole unit. They did very well in the desert, though the grippy soles weren’t needed and the final wear for the race is about equivalent to two to three times what I would expect in the UK for the same distance. I went up a half size, but after the swelling that I experienced in the long day, I’d have no hesitation in going up a full size, especially with a two sock approach.

RaceKit gaiters – The back story to getting the velcro on my shoes is this – use a professional service like the ShoeHealer. I used a local cobbler who destroyed a pair of shoes, I tried to glue my own. ShoeHealer did mine in 48hrs, no buckles or rucks, the velcro stayed on and I had every confidence. Don’t muck around! The gaiters did well, stayed firmly attached. I had a slight issue on Stage 1 with the bottom seam filling with sand. I small incision prevented this happening again. The toe took a hammering on the rocky stages of Stage 4 and I gaffer taped these. Solid ankle seal, and very unaware of wearing them.

X Sock Marathon Short – A very comfortable sock, well fitting. Need to spend some time to check that there are no rucks or twists, but that is no different to any other sock. I took two pairs so that I could start the long day with a fresh pair. I was pleased I did this.

Injinji sock liner – As liner socks go these have a cult following for a good reason. When they’re on they do a really good job of preventing blisters between the toe. My problems started with a good hard kick of a rock on stage 1, and the blood blister and then rolling my ankle on Stage 4 changing my gait for 120+ km. I ditched these for the Marathon stage due to the swelling of my feet. There was a noticeable difference in the tenderness after this stage. Again two pairs.

Compressport R2 Calf Guards – I was introduced to calf guards by Matt Williams, a Physio who suggested that I might benefit from them after a calf strain. I really like the compressport guards, they are hard wearing, supportive and comfortable to wear. I notice the difference running without them now, in that the vibrations caused by running are non existent. I can’t comment on whether they help recovery or not, as I haven’t really tested this aspect. It was useful having lower leg cover from the sun.

Salomon Exo Short – I chose these mainly because they have a liner brief inside the short. My mistake was to not check the position of the slightly rubberised seam on Stage 2. This caused a small chafe. This is not the shorts fault at all, just an oversight from me. I find the compression on my thighs nice, and the waist is good and high. Nothing interfered with the rucksack. Wore very well, lots of life left in them.

Salomon S-Lab Exo Zip Tee – I don’t normally use a compression top, but decided for MdS that I would use this. Being a biggish guy the top isn’t flattering. I can’t fault the top at all. Kept me cool and dry – the zip was a nice to have. Good sun protection and the compression seemed to do well. The only visible wear afterwards was an area where a piece of velcro on my rucsac has obviously pulled repeatedly in the same spot. I was amazed at how clean it came out of the wash when I got home. No staining at all despite being very stiff with salt and desert grime.

Montane Featherlite Ultra Gilet – I used this on two morning only. A very lightweight bit of kit, really effective in getting rid of the chill associated with wind. With the long sleeve merino shirt it was all the temperature control that I needed.

Embers Merino LS base layer – An ancient bit of kit. I like merino, and on the coldest morning, this over my race shirt and covered with the Montane Gilet was super warm. On other evenings and mornings I wore this alone and was a nice temperature. It was a nice change to the race shirt and I would definitely take again.

Racelight Shara Cap and oakleys
Racelight Shara Cap and oakleys

RaidLight Sahara Cap– Initially I was slightly dubious about this. I have a 59cm head and this cap felt pretty tight. However, it never fell off, nor was it ever too uncomfortable to wear. I found by pulling the flap over my ears and then putting my sunglasses over the top my ears stayed well protected. A top thing to note, for baldies like me, the flap will cover the small hole in the back of the cap where the adjustment velcro is-its worth checking if you don’t suncream your head (I did). It was pointed out to me by someone at the start of Stage 2. Be aware this is THE hat of MdS – I would consider personalising my hat in the future.

Oakley Radar Path sunglasses – I had these for cycling from before the event. Very light, fit me well and eal very weel with themy face shape and blocking out the light. They sit securely on my nose, and on the top of my head.

Aarn Mountain Magic 33 Rucksack – I only have really, really good things to say about the performance of this pack. It really does do everything it says on the tin. It was a good size for all the kit, and compresses nicely as the volume decreased during the week. I was slightly dubious about how the chest strap was going to work out with the requirements for displaying the number- see my solution here. I ended up being able to hook the chest strap behind the number no bother at all. The chest pockets were great for organising the stuff I needed during the day. Regularly leaving CP’s with 3 litres in them plus all the other bits and bobs I needed. I didn’t cut anything down, just fitted as per the instructions and ran with it. No sign of any failings at all. Briliiant! If pushed as to a bad point – in photography the crossover chest strap accentuates man boobs.

Equipment Carried

Raidlight Press to Drink bottle x 2 I wanted to be taking my bottle out to drink so I could keep tabs on how much I was drinking. There is nothing wrong with these, but if I were selecting again I would lose the 90 degree bend bits in favour of a standard drinks bottle. The clag around the bite valve was horrid on all the bottles like this in the tent, and were tricky to clean with what we had available. Also of note, when dissolving Nuun tablets in the bottle, do it when the bottle is empty with just a little water left in it. Because there is a straw that reaches to the bottom, when this is immersed in water, Nuun tablets cause the bite valve to spray.

Thermarest 3/4 light matress – probably 15 years old, if not more. Comfortable and trusted, not the lightest by modern standards but worked very well. Doubled over for feet up comfort at the end of the day, and full three-quarter length for a good nights sleep.

Kimmlite PA1 sleeping bag – also old, don’t think they’re made any more. Plenty warm enough, a bit narrow for being able to relax in, but it’s a race sleeping bag, I wasn’t expecting glamping!

Silk sleeping bag liner – another old bit of kit. I like these for looking after my sleeping bag, the hygiene side of things. I also found that it was amazingly useful for maintaining an element of dignity whilst having a bed bath in the tent. Mine is square cut, so it was also a handy wrap around sarong for evening pee expeditions.

Exped Air Pillow UL Medium – after the first night I covered this in a buff. Very comfortable and made for no stiff neck. Would definitely take again. Only downside perhaps is its light weight, doesn’t take a big breeze to turn it into a game of cross the desert chase the pillow!

Buff Orignal x2 A pretty versatile bit of kit – warm head, cool neck, back up sand protection in a sand storm, camera bag, pillow case, one corner was used to deal with a nosebleed, sunglasses cleaner and carrier of Welsh Dragon. Brilliant.

Esbit Titanium Stove – so lightweight it’s crazy. I found that two hex tablets heated all the water I needed for a main meal and a cup of tea. I took a piece of tin foil and this made the stove really efficient. Very stable with the MyTi mug too.

Alpkit MyTi Mug – another bit of pre owned kit. Light, robust and just the right size for heating enough water for a meal, and for making a cup of tea. During the day it carried the stove, fuel, tea bags, lighter and toilet roll.

MSR Titan tool spoon – another 15 year old bit of kit, still going strong. Didn’t need the tool as that fits a multifuel stove, but its a good shape for food, lightweight and doesn’t break.

Turboflame Military lighter – has the guts to light a hex tablet very quickly, doesn’t get affected by the wind and is useful for sealing rope ends or sterilising a needle for blister duty. Needed to be turned down in power because the increase in temperature was making the gas flame out.

Gerber Knife
Gerber Knife

Gerber Ultralight LST knife – didn’t need anything more than this, main use was for opening vacuum packed food, though it did get a light bit of “first aid” use. Sharp, holds its edge and very light weight. The locking mechanism feels strong and the blade seems rust resistant.

Petzl Tikka XP head torch – used for training all through the Welsh winter, very confident in this torch. I use it with rechargeable batteries and for the complete time at MdS never needed to use the spares. Also has a whistle on it, which was another bit of mandatory kit. The red light was useful for not really annoying other tent mates around the bivouac. On the night stage there were a couple of times when I would have ideally liked a bit more light, but by flicking the diffuser up I always got to see what I needed to see.

VeniStop Venom Pump – mandatory kit, unused.

Plastic signalling mirror – mandatory kit, not used for signalling. Useful for checking out how badly split your lip is, or how much blood is left on your nose.

Silva Field compass – not used in anger, see Vector watch beneath. Mandatory kit, and this was the lightest option that met the criteria.

Suunto GPS track pod I wrote an initial review of this here. Battery life lasted really well, as expected. Even after leaving it on for an extra 5 hours at the end, this still had 33% charge when I got home and hooked it up. Definitely not necessary, but I’m pleased I took it to record the route and critically didn’t need any charging. It was just dropped into the chest pocket of my Aarn sack and it had no issues at all. Acquisition time was fast (less than 2 minutes) after turning on in Morocco the first time, and far less on all the other stages. I had it set to be manually started, and probably should have set auto off for 1 hour of non movement.

Suunto Vector
Suunto Vector

Suunto Vector Watch – another old bit of kit. I love this for navigating generally only using the altimeter. The time display is super clear and was useful all the time I was remembering to put in salt tablets, guestimate time to run to the next CP. I used the compass on every dune leg just to check the given bearing in the roadbook translated to somewhere to end up on the horizon. It was this that put me back on track on the way to CP2 on Stage 4. Not essential by any means, but I like it.

Prosport SPF 44 Sun cream – Piz Buin seemed to be the sun protection of choice on MdS. This though I had used before for sailing. It dries quickly and doesn’t leave a residue that sand sticks to. It gives a solid 8 hours protection and seems not to be at all affected by sweat. Even applied to my head with water running off I had no stinging eyes. Given I was out raising money for Melanoma, this was really important to me, and the SPF44 was as strong as I could find in an apply once, waterproof, stick free sun cream.

Brave Soldier Friction Zone – Very good at what it does, should have applied it early to my thighs. Once I had an infection I swapped to Friars Balsam and then this round the edge. Good stuff!

Wemmi Wipes – Another bit of hygiene kit with lots of uses. I found that filling a bottle top with water and then dropping one of these in worked really well. Rachel, in our tent rehydrated one in her mouth to cope with a nose bleed – not recommended. I will use these again as I only discovered them for MdS.

Friars Balsam – my topical antiseptic. Benzoin is the active ingredient. It’s quite harsh, and any grazes feel like they are being well cleaned. Useful for making skin sticky for applying sticky tape dressings!

Adventure medical kit Ultralight and Watertight .3 – didn’t need the contents of this, Doc Trotters at all CP’s and in the bivouac have all that you might need. Reassuring to have with you for anything that might have happened and not at all heavy.

Imodium – why wouldn’t you? I used one, just in case.

Cuticura Antibactieral hand gel – given most people are bringing food that has been pre packaged and the water is bottled, the only way you’ll get a tummy bug is by you putting germs into your own mouth. A small 100ml bottle got me through with plenty to spare, after toilet and before you put anything in your mouth, clean your hands. Germs from locals handling anything that might go in your mouth is a chance to have things other than your feet running!

Sea to Summit Ultra Sil Nano bag – fantastic stuff sacs, 4l ones were my preferred choice. Pretty resilient for their weight, slightly transparent which is useful for getting to the right bit of kit when needed. I like having my stuff organised into different bags Sleeping, clothing, food, personal admin, cooking this was another layer of protection from the sand…and when you pour water over your head…your kit gets wet. My knackered roadbook is testament to that!

Ortileb A5 document bag – another bit of pre-owned kit. Perfect for carrying passports, paperwork, money etc. Totally waterproof and something I don’t travel without. Might be a bit heavy for the gram counter, but really reliable.

10 safety pins – mandatory, I used 4 front and 4 rear for my race number.

Fix kit, needle, gaffer tape, thread in a Sugru tube
Fix kit, needle, gaffer tape, thread in a Sugru tube

Gaffer Tape – great for repairs, only used on the toe of my gaiter. Carried this wound round a small Sugru needle holder I made – write up on the Sugru website here

Needle – taken mainly to sew with, but ended up being sterilised with the turboflame for a bit of blister management. Stored in the above carrier.

Thread- not used, but taken in case anything needed stitching, I took about 3 metres of strong thread and wrapped around the outside of the Gaffer tape.

Sugru – goes by the strapline “The future needs fixing” and it’s brilliant stuff. If my gaiters had broken earlier I would have used it to make a toe cap for them, but with ‘only’ a dusty marathon left I made do with a gaffer tape repair.

Toothbrush – I had a break in half and fit inside itself style travel toothbrush. Lovely for de clagging your mouth morning and evening. Should be mandatory!

Half a tube of toothpaste – goes with the above, the mintier the better!

28 sheets of toilet paper – I banked on 4 sheets per day, probably could have done with 6, to get rid of the nasal grot that the desert brings on. Only felt short once, when things were a little looser than I would have liked…Tent mates helped out with a whip round. I took dinner serviettes before the race. In hindsight I would have taken more in my luggage and binned what I didn’t need at the start of day 1. ALWAYS, ALWAYS put your toilet roll in a ziploc bag!

GoPro Hero 3 and 3 batteries – no case, just the camera, wrapped in a buff. Could have got away with 2 batteries, but 3 gave me a bit more confidence. The quality of the stills camera is good enough to get some nice pictures, and grabbing a few bits of video here and there seemed to make sense for an event. of this scale.

Supplied by MdS

Flare – weighs about 900g, though some people got a small emergency beacon (epirb). It’s a parachute style flare and are very pretty. We heard of a few being used, so pay attention in the briefing in case you have to let one off.

Timing transponder- neoprene cuff with a velcro strap. An extra safety pin is supplied to make sure this is fully secure. I wore mine under my gaiter and didn’t notice it was there at all.

Salt tablets- start with 120. 2 an hour for the first three hour and then 4 an hour thereafter. Definitely noticeable if you don’t use them. Use them!


When you’re not running, or sleeping you’ll be eating…

Expedition Foods High Energy Serving – I took a range of flavours, none of which I minded in the heat. I had a slight preference for the Sweet and Sour Chicken and Rice as it was less liquid and made for easier to eat. I heated water for mine, but a fair few people just cold rehydrated them. I looked forward to these everyday, and the one I had at CP5 on the long day definitely put the energy back in when needed.

TORQ Recovery – I’m a late convert to recovery powder. I used the Cookies and Cream powder and because of my body weight went for 6 scoops (150g) in 750 ml. I found it dissolved really well in cold water in a normal drinking bottle. I used one serving in the middle of the long day and was grateful for the calories. I vacuum packed my own servings, which I wouldn’t do in future, double freezer bag makes for easier storage rather than a flat brick.

TORQ Energy, Recovery and Gel
TORQ Energy, Recovery and Gel

TORQ Energy – I only had one serving (90g) of these as a day, in the neutral flavour. The flavour is really neutral and I could always tell I’d had some. I would take more of this in the future instead of shot bloks or jelly beans. I also vacuum packed this, but would also double freezer bag for convenience.

TORQ Gel – Orange and Banana, I had one a day, again I would take more in favour of other energy foods. I find them really palatable and would much prefer to have one of these than either of the other option. I don’t find them a problem in the heat, but some do.

Peperami Wideboy – 1 a day, at the end of the day. A luxury that I looked forward to. Good balance of nutrition and nice to eat whilst the water was boiling. It also did my mental state good on the long day.

Kellogs Nutri Grain Oat bake – a last minute substitution after my Ma Baker bars didn’t arrive. This was to be my breakfast everyday and it got increasingly hard to swallow. I would replace these with home made paleo balls for breakfast in the future.

Clif Shot bloks – worked well for me and I always ate them. Didn’t feel that they gave me the same lift as the TORQ products, and so would swap these out.

Extreme Sports Jelly Beans – this was my surprise. I usually love these, and feel a lift from them. Not at all in the desert though. Ate them everyday, but would swap them out.

Nuun Electrolyte tablets – one tube, I didn’t use them for the first three days, but started using them on the long day, mainly to change the flavour of the water. There was a good deal of flavour trading going on in the tent, but the citrus one worked for me. I like the way it leaves the mouth feeling a little fresher.


I’m not at all upset with my kit choice at all. When I was stomping along, I did occasionally wish I’d had some walking poles, but on the legs that I ran, these would have been a real pain in the butt.

The only major change I would make would be to my daytime nutrition and to the amount of toilet roll I took. I’d swap more TORQ supplements in and probably take a small nut and dried fruit mix to fill the stomach with savoury.