Race Report: The 23rd Liversedge Half Marathon (2018)

Sunday February 18th, 2018

Three years ago, I pulled out what I personally regard as the finest run I’ve ever put together at the Liversedge Half Marathon, a tough, hilly road race situated in West Yorkshire, when I ran to a tenth place finish and a personal best time of 1:22:41, the latest in a line of personal best times from September 2013 that had dropped by minutes, not just seconds. I couldn’t get enough of half marathon then, but I had eyes on stepping up to marathons, which I achieved, and then went one step further, moving onto ultra distance racing. Coupled with an injury in later 2015 and a reduced racing schedule in 2016, I’ve only run 13.1 miles in a race once since that February morning. I didn’t get near my PB in that race, and I was starting to believe that perhaps I had already surpassed the peak of my fast running abilities when I left the half marathon behind in my late twenties. Which, as it turns out, was a completely absurd notion.

I raced Liversedge in both 2014 and 2015 as an unattached runner. Almost every training session undertaken was on my own. I was my own coach, and I rarely ran in a group or undertook regular speed specific workouts. Now, I run for the Halifax Harriers, and have improved my times at 5K and 10K. Having resolved to try and run a sub-3 marathon in London this year, a lot of my training has been dedicated to running quick. And having had a largely positive experience in training so far, I woke up on this particular morning actually feeling I had a good chance of having a crack at my three year PB and succeeding. Any doubts I’d begun to have after months of plodding and picnicking on canal towpaths and rural surrounds had shifted. I truly felt like I had the groove to get back to what I previously loved doing. Plus, I remember the drag I got from chasing the leading pack in 2015 on that wonderful day. Smashing the half marathon was indeed something I was looking forward to see if I was still capable.

Yet, as I stood waiting for my club mate to pick me up en route to the race, I realised my wrist was feeling rather bare. That’s right…


I couldn’t leave my spot, so I quickly resigned myself to doing something I hadn’t done at all, well, not since my earliest races – race without a watch. I’ve run without a watch before, but with a phone app like MapMyRun to announce my mile splits to the whole street from the back pocket of my shorts. I agreed to myself to record the race on MapMyRun but to turn off the voice feedback – how embarrassing would that be at the front end of a race?! So I just forgot about mile splits, and decided to treat the race as an experiment of sorts. My training has been going great, so I felt confident in my pace and pacing strategy. Getting a PB wasn’t the be all and end all, it was now just about finding my level and having a great time regardless.

Reaching the race HQ, it was no different to how I remembered it. The registration room was full of runners, all gathering their race numbers, pinning them to their vests, shirts, shorts and tights, and chatting away with one another. I got my pre-race ‘pit stop’ quickly out of the way and eventually, after bag drop and talking with my fellow attending club mates, it was time to head outside into the cold morning air. By all accounts the last couple of years had brought terrible weather to the race, so today was comparatively exotic by comparison. Just right, in fact, for running.

Before the race

The masses (about five or six hundred) were called to the start line, a quick briefing delivered and then the countdown. Setting off on the most familiar race to myself, I managed to get through the crowds and into a position around the top ten heading out of Roberttown, taking the descent down towards Headlands Road at speed and briefly established myself in third, before being overtaken again. The leader, a very, very good Spenborough AC athlete, was establishing a healthy lead already by this point and knowing of his quality, I didn’t expect him to be caught. Nonetheless, I continued to focus on the race around me. Heading up towards Hightown, I was rushing along in about sixth, and then seventh, as the race progressed onwards along the aptly named Windy Bank Lane (surprisingly calm on this day), and out into Hartshead Moorside. At this point, I was finding myself beginning to lose another place, but the downhill section of Birkby Lane, leading into Bailiff Bridge, was soon upon me and I was able to do what I usually do at this section of the race – throw myself down it with reckless abandon. Knowing full well I could get the momentum if I wanted it, I made sure I got to the bottom of the 14% drop ahead of the runner behind for maximum purchase out of the corner onto Bradford Road.

Bradford Road appears about 5.5 miles into the race, roughly, and just down the road is a tool shop with a big clock/temperature display that announced the time (at this point) to be 11:30am. This must have meant I was going at some great lick, but it was a bit too soon to be getting carried away with wondering if I was on for a personal best. Beyond six miles, and knowing the hilly section was coming up, I reached for my isogel and tried to rip the top of it off with my teeth while maintaining somewhere around six minute mile pace. The manoeuvre malfunctioned, as some of the gel splurged out onto my arm and slightly onto my glasses (though I never realised the latter during the race). Eventually consuming the gel, I reached the corner of Thornhill Bank Road, where I knew my family would be waiting. And sure enough, there they were, my wife poised with her camera phone and my kids raucously cheering me on. I veered off to the right, completely disregarding the runner behind me was right on my heels, and gave my kids a huge high five apiece as I went passed, which they found hilarious!

Heading over to give my kids a high five, and forgetting about the race momentarily!

I managed to get to the ford bridge at the bottom still ahead, but I would begin to suffer at this point for my early pace, and finally I ceded to eighth, then ninth and soon after tenth. The seventh mile was a comparative trudge minutes, and probably a good thing I didn’t have my watch to look at my mile split. Still, with the worst hill in the race out of the way, I could find my way back into my stride as the race plundered towards Clifton.

Heading up Highmoor Lane, aka the Mad Mile, as its known locally, I found myself overtaken by a Sowerby Bridge Snail who was actually quite speedy, belaying his club’s tongue-in-cheek name. But I found a bit of energy in reserve at this point as the hill began to level out and I retook my place. The next mile and a half became a bit of a tussle as both myself and the Snail exchanged back and forth. I opted for this tactically – I felt I’d thrive off having someone to keep me on my toes and at the same time use them to increase my own pace. I’d got a second wind by now and the places continued to swap until turning right off Windy Bank Lane onto Church Road. At this point I got back in front and didn’t give the place up. But it was shortly after clocking the 11 mile mark that I spotted the church clock, roughly two miles from the end of the race. The time on the clock was about 12:07pm. Suddenly, I knew the PB was on. But it felt like it was going to be tight.

It’s hard graft trying to get a PB!

As Church Road started to descend I upped the pace a little more, before reaching the Gray Ox junction, and put everything into flying down that hill. I cleared the next small uphill with ease off that and the race wound over to Fall Lane. Passing the 12 mile marker, I knew this was it. I had to keep going and I put the surge in whenever I could. The man in tenth was up ahead, and I could make inroads on what was about a twenty second gap to him, but I at least maintained the gap. I felt my lower back twinge a little bit but I knew I had to keep going. I truly believed by now I was going to make this happen, although it still remained a mystery to me as to whether I’d actually beat my time from three years ago.

I turned left into Commonside and ran up towards the finish. As the clock came into view, I could’ve sworn I read 1:26…but on closer inspection, it actually reads 1:20! I couldn’t believe it. For the third time at this race, I was going to absolutely blow my personal best to smithereens! Overjoyed I was punching the air and trying to whip the crowd into a few cheers. I crossed the line, finishing 11th, and, completely on feel, managed to finish in under 1:21.

My finishing time would be confirmed by the chip at 1:20:50. A brand new half marathon PB by 1 minute, 51 seconds, almost three years to the day I set my previous mark, also at this race.

I honestly couldn’t believe I pulled out a run like that, but I always knew if there was one course where I could potentially break my half marathon PB, it was Liversedge. I always do well when I have someone to try and keep up with. The winner this year ran 1:14 and the top 9 all ran inside 1:20. I was 20 seconds further back from the guy in tenth. I had roughly a twenty second gap to that man from about mile 8 onwards, and it more or less stayed the same to the finish. Put simply, if you want to get a fast time, Liversedge is a fantastic place to do it despite its undulating nature. I got a good drag to my previous PB in 2015, on this very course, and the same thing has happened here again. It’s fantastic trying to battle at the sharp end, though I realistically would need to be running inside 1:20 to be able to get nearer the front on a given day. Not that I’m disappointed with my 11th place! The place really didn’t matter to me on this occasion.

The only annoyance for myself personally was that I attempted to record my run after all, using MapMyRun, turning it on without voice feedback and with the auto-pause function, so I could start it and record my run quietly after setting off. Only, it didn’t unpause at all, so I actually have no record of what my mile splits were whatsoever. I know I averaged 6:10 mile pace, but I really would have loved to have known what some of those miles. I’ve only gone sub 5 minutes once in my life (4:53) and my next fastest mile after that was a 5:15. I must have got close! Alas, the race doesn’t bear too much use towards analysing my marathon prospects, well, except for right now…the sub-3 marathon is looking very good indeed.

Aside, I’d like to thank the runner and his family who paid for my post race sandwich and cup of tea when I realised I’d left my cash at home. It wasn’t much but it was a cracking gesture. I shall be more careful where I stash my cash next time!

That this race continues to sell out year upon year absolutely affirms its status, in my eyes, as one of the calendar highlights in road racing in the north of England if not beyond. A magnificent, testing race, it continues to attract runners from all the local clubs as well as drawing in the unattached, generates the support of members of the Roberttown Road Runners, the hosts of this race, and community volunteers who ensure the event goes year on year without a hitch.

Liversedge Half Marathon home page


Reflections on 2017

Looking back on a year of results, records and further self-discovery

Three weeks into 2017, I woke up from whatever catatonic stupor I was in from the crazy night out in Leeds. I had fallen over in some giddy chase after my brother and my sister’s fiancé piggybacked one another across a zebra crossing, some five pints down. I had bruised my knee, my ribs, my elbow, my hand and the top of my left foot. I despaired at my situation, the inbetween of which I had completely forgotten, thinking I’d ruined the running high I’d carried over from Snowdonia and the Great Yorkshire Pieathlon. Six days from my first half marathon in nearly two years, I’d have laughed in your face and uncontrollably floundered if what happened over the next 49 weeks, had been foretold.

At the end of 2017, I can look back on a year in which I’ve managed to surpass myself in a number of ways. OK, so fell running was an experience that left me in a heap in Roberts Park in Hebden Bridge, having felt sluggish, tired and truly beaten up by the beast of Stoodley Pike, and opting to leave it as an experience to return to in future. But it refocused my energy drawn from the brilliant start to the year, where I recovered from that incident in Leeds to record 3rd in the Sir Titus Trot Half Marathon, and 2nd in my first ever ultra marathon, the 32 mile Leeds Liverpool Canal Canter, a race I could scarcely believe how well I executed my race plan from start to finish off, to achieve the then-best result of my running career.

In May I finally joined a running club, the Halifax Harriers, off the back of two parkrun first places as well. Now a fully fledged member of a club, with club colours to wear proudly, I set about my chief task of the summer – a shot at my 10K time from 3 years before – a 37:15 from the Epilepsy Action Bradford 10K in 2014. Inspired by the track sessions, time trials and handicap races put on by my club, I injected speedwork back into my training and ran fastest in a 11th place finish in the club’s Summer Handicap 10K, making up a 21 minute deficit on the first runners to run 37:21, narrowly outside my time. Without question, getting myself in PB shape again, over two years since my last PB proper, was a difficult endeavour, with a couple of extra years of wear, as well as experience, to draw upon. My chosen race, the Race Organiser’s Regent’s Park 10K Summer Series, seemed an ideal place, and an opportune one at that, to go for the time, as well as squeeze in a race on my summer holiday. The race itself punished me for my early eager pace, and it was a bumpy ride midway through as I contemplated giving up on the attempt – but instead, I did the maths, figured I still had a chance and absolutely gritted my teeth on the final lap of the race. I recorded 37:08, finishing 5th overall and recording a 7 second PB which felt immensely harder than when I coasted home during the end of my Bradford race those years ago. Still, absolutely worth it.

Away from recording PB’s, there were more good results to be had too. I ran a competitive Honley Trail 10K to finish 5th overall, and I topped off my year with a first ever 5K race proper – and won! Leeds Liverpool Canal Christmas Cracker 5K Male Champion. Yep, that’s quite a mouthful, but to finally win a race was a tremendous feeling.

Without question though, my biggest successes came when I absolutely challenged myself. There was the Ilkley Aquathlon, a first ever competitive multisport event, in which my body pretty much gave me a big ‘nope’ mid swim and nearly ruined my race – due to a low turnout, however, I ended up making up time on the run and finishing 3rd male, 4th overall. The achievement there wasn’t where I finished, but more that I overcame my brain’s urge to quit during the swim and to see my first competitive swim – and aquathlon – to a conclusion. I didn’t spend 2.5 years relearning to swim just to give up when it mattered.

The step to ultra marathon, however, was perhaps my biggest all around achievement and maybe a steeper learning curve than anything the aquathlon (at the time) and fell running had thrown at me. There was the step of taking time to walk during my long distance runs to take on food, thus suppressing my competitive want to carry on running non stop. Getting this nailed was one thing I quickly got the hang of. Running slower than usual was another. Actually running marathon distance in training seemed plain ridiculous. Though I didn’t enter any traditional marathons in 2017, I ran the 26.2 twice – once entirely on the Calder-Hebble Navigation and Rochdale Canal, heading out and back in around 3:48 in early February; and a much hillier 3:54 around Upper Calder Valley. I truly enjoyed both experiences, running at a saner pace than any race attempt, a truly immersive experience and a highly rewarding one at that.

The results I gathered in my two ultras were something too. Second place in the Leeds Liverpool Canal Canter (32 miles), running for the most part about a mile per minute quicker than in training, and only finishing around 4.5 minutes behind the eventual winner. At the time, that was my best ever race result, but more impressive, my race plan went pretty much to perfection. The same can’t quite be said for the much hillier White Rose Ultra, which punished me for attempting to implement that same race plan and running inside course record pace in the first half of the event. I ran the last nine or ten miles with a good few walk breaks and pretty much all alone. But I found enough in reserve to eventually find a last injection of pace to finish strong and come home in 10th place, feeling proud to have finished well but knowing I’d truly been found out by a hideously difficult course, one that I’d actually reccied as well. 

Finishing fast at the 2017 White Rose Ultra
Post-WRU, about to receive post-race chilli and taking stock of what I’d endured

All this extra distance meant I finally achieved the one arbitrary goal that had eluded me for the best part of four years – a year end total of 1,000 miles –  albeit one I’d only seriously chased since 2015, ironically the year I spent most of my days on the sidelines. My best effort of any year saw me scrape just inside 900 miles for the year, still a very good total for any year, but in reality a sign of being hampered by injury at some point or another. This year, having overcome that early fall, and boosted the extra mileage I’ve run for the ultra marathons, I’ve managed a total of 1,160 miles for 2017, aided by an 8.5 mile run this morning. I surpassed my target in Mid-October and have ended up smashing my old record by a good 250+ miles. It’s never been a mark I’ve obsessed over, but to finally say I ran a thousand miles plus in a year, says a lot about my dedication and also how lucky I am to have got through the year pretty much injury free. A full year of consistent running, pretty much, from start to finish, the first time really since 2014.

I’m now getting into the swing of 2018 already, with entries to the Liversedge Half Marathon and the London Marathon now confirmed, I’m going to be almost singularly focused for the time being on getting the one time goal that truly matters to me more than any other – the sub-3 hour marathon. But I’m embellish more on that in future posts. Tonight will be a good time to reflect on everything I’ve done this year, a year I can be absolutely satisfied with everything I threw myself into. 

With that, I’d like to thank all my readers for all your support, interest, your kind words and encouragement. For the active among you, I hope you also found success this year and wish you all the very best heading into 2018.

My year in numbers:

1,160 miles run in 2017

Longest run: 32.48 miles (Leeds Liverpool Canal Canter) 

10 races

7 top 10 finishes

1 race victory 

1 2nd place finish

1 3rd place finish (and a 3rd male finish in the Ilkley Aquathlon) 

2 parkrun 1st place finishes

37:08 – New 10K PB time (at the Royal Parks Summer Series Regent’s Park 10K)

White Rose Ultra pictures taken from Team OA. 

Race Report: Canal Christmas Cracker 5K 

Sunday December 10th, 2017

At this time of year, in the last two years I’ve run the Great Yorkshire Pieathlon, a hilly trail race involving pie-eating and all manner of silly costumes. I enjoyed shoving mince pies down my face as I run, but this year I wanted a different challenge while still running a shorter distance than I traditionally race. The Canal Christmas Cracker 5K fit the bill perfectly, completely sans pies (until the end, at least), and somewhat less hilly – a decision which, Post-White Rose Ultra, seemed like a masterstroke. Indeed, you can’t get much flatter than a canal most of the time, save for, in this case, a couple of up and down footbridges that required navigation.

The last few days building up to the race, however, seemed ominous to say the least. Britain was about to get a blast from Storm Caroline – which, in my part of the country, seemed more like a bit of a shower and little else – followed by an icy currant of weather that would send temperatures subzero. Queue a nervous few days as reports of heavy snow came in from down south and races around the country were either cancelled or subject to review. 

Meanwhile, in Brighouse, the little town that could, it really tried hard to snow.  And yet every flurry, every downfall failed to come to fruition. This was the scene on Friday afternoon… 

Dashing through the sn…oh…

Effusing positivity, it seemed, were the team at It’s Grim Up North Running, who via Facebook were doing everything to assure runners that the race would be going ahead, between posting pictures of delicious looking cake, something of a trademark that has become synonymous with this wonderful Leeds based events company. Having done two events earlier in the year (the Sir Titus Trot in January, the Leeds-Liverpool Canal Canter in March), it seemed right to close off my year of running with a crack at one of their shorter events, although there was still a marathon here to be ran if you really fancied upwards of 3 or 4 hours, maybe more, running in absolutely freezing cold conditions. And in typically northern fashion, we would not be deterred. 

I was very glad, however, to reach the registration venue in Kirkstall. The chill I felt after leaving the bus was immense. Thankfully the heating was on and the main function room seemed to be packed. I wandered over to the 5K and 10K registration desk and didn’t even need to introduce myself. I was actually recognised? Apparently I was the really fast runner who was going to run the 5K in 18 minutes! I played down my expectations, modest as I ever am, because as fun as this was going to be (if running in subzero is your idea of fun), it was still a race to be run, not necessarily to be won. 

I went back after completing my warm up exercises and introduced myself to James, a fellow runner from the online running community, Running the World. He had been helping with registration and was also running the 10K. After exchanging a few stories about running and, indeed, the weather, it was time to head back out to go to the start/finish at Kirkstall Bridge. Not without wishing one another luck, of course. 

The race start was a little chaotic, and partly through my own doing. I decided to go on a warm up jog down the canal, just to check the towpath for ice, and obviously to get my running legs going before the off. Except, in doing so, I missed the majority of the race briefing. How despicable of me. I understood at least there was going to be a staggered start, with the half, 20 mile and marathon racers going first travelling west under Kirkstall Bridge, with the 5K and 10K runners starting a bit further back on the other side, heading out east towards Leeds. I complicated matters when another runner said he thought the 5K runners were starting back the other side of the bridge, so I listened and found nearly everyone had come towards where I’d come from. So I went back, and just stood with the 10K runners as the longer distance runners hurriedly started their race. So much so that a few runners also turned up late for their start, so the group didn’t go through in one go. With nearly everyone, it seemed, through, the countdown to the 5 and 10K began. And yes, I asked if this was the 5K start. James said ‘just run Peter!’ The horn was sounded, my brief embarrassment and self-shame put to one side as I sprinted off the line. Incredibly, more of the half and full runners came under Kirkstall Bridge after the 5 and 10K races began, which meant I had to manoeuver around them tightly cornering the outside of the towpath.

After all that, I finally had clear towpath ahead of me. And so I just ran my natural race, ie. to go as hard and fast as possible. Resulting in a 3:25 first km, according to watch. That would be as quick as it got, with the aforementioned hills up ahead to contend with, brief as they were, and the biting cold perhaps just slowing me by a few seconds here and there. Nonetheless, at the turn, I was well clear, and eventually past the leading 10K runners, which included James, offering a sort of high five as we crossed paths. I had quite a gap back to second and really could enjoy the thrill of ideal conditions as far as this day could be expected – about 98% ice free throughout, save for a few icy muddy puddles which were navigated without too much difficulty.

The race distance exceeded 5km as it happened, so I knew I couldn’t count on my time here as a PB – I went through 5km in 18:15, a good few seconds off my parkrun PB – but ended up running another. 35km according to watch, finishing in 19:40. Nonetheless, I was able to enjoy something I’d never experienced before as a runner in an actual race – victory!

I slowed up at the line and gratefully received a finisher’s medal, along with the winner’s trophy for 1st Placed Male. I even got my photo taken in front of Kirkstall Bridge. And unlike the Canal Canter Ultra earlier in the year, I was able to stomach one of the masses of cake and pastries so lovely served up for the runners at the finish. The cranberry tart I had was incredible!

Holding the 5K 1st Male trophy. Finally number 1

It turned out I finished, in 5K distance terms, a long way ahead of the second place male, and it turned out only 5 people ran the 5K, myself included. IGUNR are still an up and coming events company, and for my money one of the best around – it seems, however, their more popular events are 10K upwards to half and full marathon distances, and most of their race entry allocation goes on these events. The only nitpicking I could stage on this occasion is the slightly chaotic staggered start (of which I played my own small part), but this is a minor quibble because it didn’t actually delay the start, and at the end of the day, its a Christmas race, a chance for a bit of fun. 

I’ll never let anything take away from what I achieved – I was best on the day and that’s about as much as anyone can say. It caps an absolutely amazing 12 months, which started with 5th at last year’s Pieathlon – two thirds, a second, a couple more top 10 finishes, and now a first place finish at last. I can honestly say I never expected to win a race, and would have been happy just to excel myself, yet at the same time, it felt like such a long time coming and ultimately I’m very happy I’ve actually achieved it.

Many thanks to Diane, Cath and the It’s Grim Up North Running team for putting on this event and working tirelessly to ensure it went ahead, despite the harsh weather conditions preceding the race, and their incredible positivity and enthusiasm for ensuring another successful race event. A massive thank you to the marshals who stood for hours in the cold conditions, and well done to all who competed on this, well, grim day up north. 

It’s Grim Up North Running website

Race Report: White Rose Ultra 2017

Saturday November 4th, 2017

The twelve hours or so preceding this race were a little stressful. I had kids bedtime to do on my own and the little mites wouldn’t sleep! Then I had a hour in the evening trying to get my kit ready – cleaning my hydration bladder, sorting out my mandatory kit, my clothing, etc., while trying to get enough sleep. I slept only around six hours, and after showering, found that my plan to eat porridge about 30 minutes before my bus, just after 5:30am, were ill conceived. I couldn’t even finish my porridge either. I ended up hastily packing my hydration fluid and sachets away, getting out the door to my bus too hastily, in a bit of a panic. When on the bus, I got listening to a random mix of Leftfield, The Album Leaf, doom bringers Thou, and then Run The Jewels (who I’m off to see Thursday!), before proceeding to get off the bus a stop early. No matter. I enjoyed my walk to race HQ, while gleefully uttering the words ‘RTJ3, motherf****rs’ with nobody about to hear, all while admiring the majesty of Pule Hill, which overlooks the village of Marsden, in early morning darkness. By now I could at least relax at race HQ and get my things prepared while counting down to race time.

Race day was finally here, some five months after that whimsical decision. The White Rose Ultra. One of northern England’s premier ultra marathons was finally here, in its 5th year, welcoming runners from far and wide to attempt one loop, two loops, or three (+ 10 additional miles) of its 30 mile course.
It was good to converse with other entrants, as it always is – in running you rarely need to talk about anything else – and I even met a regular from the Running the World Facebook group – before warming up, setting my baggage to one side. The room went from relatively empty when I first arrived to the whole visitor centre being full of runners, some new to this ultra game, others more experienced, coming from all parts of the UK and beyond.

Everyone began to gather outside. The rain wasn’t lashing down by any means, but the air was still damp. Plenty of time remained for selfies and some further warming up before Wane, the race director, debriefed the runners shortly before the race began.

As the 30 second warning went out, I realised I hadn’t switched on my watch! I quickly turned it on but of course, it was never going to find a satellite so quickly. Alas, the race set off, and my watch took a good minute or two before I could get it going. I was quickly established around the first seven or eight runners, already spread out as one guy doing the 30 had already opened up a gap heading towards Mount Road. Once on the hill, the gap spread out a little more, but we all kept in touch more or less. The race then took a tight angle to the left, heading back down Old Mount Road. I could only note the leader getting away further from the other lead runners. The downhill gradient was an invitation to inject some pace into proceedings, and I gained a few places, before ceding two immediately after mistaking a dead end for Binn Road, the road leading to the Wessenden Valley and Pennine Way. The hills were already proving challenging, but eventually it levelled out as the trail emerged. To the left, walls, bushes and hills. To the right, reservoirs, spillways and more hills. One of Yorkshire’s most spectacular sights, right on the edge of the Lancashire boundary. Notably, the leader was getting away even further. I thought he’d surely overcooked it, but who was I to know. I focused on my own race and continued to navigate the numerous puddles and muddy footpaths left by the overnight rain. Its a gentle climb up to the top of the Wessenden Valley, with only the last climb to the top having a bit of sting in the tail.

The first self serve water station was here, and I got some in my reusable cup, which was a bit flimsy in terms of keeping its shape and actually getting anything from it. At this point, I’d still not had any caffeine. I needed to shock myself, it seemed, so as the wind gripped at the top of Wessenden Head, I chucked the remaining water in my face. I seemed instantaneously awoken, like whatever punishment I’d sustained subsided and now it was time to enjoy some road running. I kept to my tactic though, of trying to stop for nourishment every hour, so I slowed down and finally took some of my caffeine drink, along with a slice of Soreen malt loaf. This allowed a runner to overtake me, so I ensured I didn’t hang about took long in my walk phase and got moving again, taking the left off the road to head through the trails leading to Blackmoorfoot reservoir.

Here I made some inroads into the positions, gaining two places, but my jacket was loosening from my waist, and I decided it needed to go back in the bag. I got to a corner in the road, having really worked hard, took off the vest and set it down to put it back. Only, the zip jammed. It would not open. I was overtaken again, and so, furious with myself, ran off carrying the jacket for a short distance before tying it back around my waist as the route crossed more trail. I got back into my rhythm and noticed up ahead that two runners were crossing by the Blackmoorfoot Reservoir. I was still some distance behind at this point, but as I left the reservoir behind, I began to catch up these two runners at the first food station. I reached the food desk just as they left, grabbed a sausage roll and more water, and quickly set off again, feeling I could keep my pace up over this relatively mild section.

Heading towards Linthwaite, I was enjoying a rich vein of running form. I seemed to be running well at this point, and the view from above was even more enjoyable due to the presence of two deer, absolutely at peace. The route barreled down towards Linthwaite village, and before I knew it, I’d overtaken the two men (one doing the 30, the other running the 60) and was keeping the pace downhill.

I kept up the pace as the race reached Linthwaite, but I knew what was coming next. The next 6 miles or so were filled with steep hills, winding through Wellhouse, Bolster Moor, Leymoor, and then up towards Scapegoat Hill. I had slowed up a little to try and retain a much steadier momentum up the hill, but I’d forgotten how steep the incline towards Bolster Moor was! I dropped a few places here and saved my legs as the race led to the right, once past the farm shop. At this point, I came across one of my club mates from the Halifax Harriers, who had come out for a little while to take some photos, all of which took place on some of the less stressful sections of the route, which were taking their toll already. I did my best to smile – I was genuinely pleased to see someone I knew out on course. He would appear again a little further up the road. Apparently the front runners were only a couple of minutes ahead, but realistically I knew I was beginning to suffer.

Leaving Bolster Moor. Looking strong at this point!

I reached the trail section known as Hollin Hall Lane here, which is all downhill into the village of Leymoor, but the overnight rain made going down in treacherous. The runner behind me said it was dicy in road shoes, and my toothy Salomons had little grip either. I jarred my left achillies at one point, and near the bottom I managed to whack my left ankle with my right foot. That one seemed particularly painful at the time, but on I went. It didn’t inhibit my gait, and the road was a nice diversion before heading up the cobbles of Dodlee Lane. This one was run-walked. Further along the next country road was the next aid station, combined with a water station as well. More water and a couple of Jelly Babies, I was off again. 

Still going well…

The next section wound past the Outlane golf course. This is pretty much where my race as I knew it began to unravel. My quads had basically had enough. Scarily too, had my lower calf muscles. I found myself stopping to stretch them at one point, but I felt good to continue. Seeing the M62 up ahead meant I must be near the top, but there just seemed to be another hill every time I turned a corner. Eventually, I came out onto the end of Pole Moor, heading towards New Hey Road, and I could no longer see anyone in front. My race had truly gone to hell, in the sense that any pre-race strategy was out of the window as walk breaks were far more frequent, and that my quads, going uphill at least, were deadweight. The nutrition remained more or less the same, as I started taking gels to try and give myself a boost. Even on New Hey Road, I was struggling to run and I really had to remind myself this was left foot, right foot stuff. I looked back as I took the next turn, and saw no one behind me. Not that I cared for where I finished, but it was surely a matter of time before someone else caught and passed me.

I started to pick up a little more energy at last, heading into mile 23. I felt like I had the reserves to move things up and even if it was still, to me, a nine minute mile I was running, it was still progress on before. The race was now entering its closing phase, winding through Bradshaw, Slaithwaite and finally into Marsden. I felt reasonably OK until I felt some sort of cramp coming into my quads, fearing it could be curtains if it took hold. So I stopped, trying to do a quad stretch and nearly made it worse. Finding it better to keep going, the cramp oddly disappeared and I was able to keep going at around nine-ten minute miles, as the course became very undulating. Down one drop and a right hand turn, along the road, then another right turn.

And there it was. Plains Lane. At mile 29/59/89 depending on which race you were in. It starts off steep, then flattens a little before becoming even steeper and finally turning trail and. retaining its steepness. Goodness knows what gradient it is, I already made my promise to myself weeks ago I was walking nearly every inch of this hill, and I delivered. It was a massive slog, and yet, as I took one last look behind me, looking down the hill, still I found no one behind me. If I was getting caught anywhere it was this hill, but as I finally reached the peak, nope, still no one had passed, and I had my running legs again.

There was still one gentle climb to navigate but the miles and yards were running out on this race. Eventually, a left turn would see myself looking downhill, and at last, a left pointing arrow directing towards the finish. I found some resolve, bolstered by the knowledge the end was near, and finally found some pace as I ran the remaining fractions of a mile. I got those knees lifted, those shoulders moving, and as the right turn approached, I even lengthened my stride! I charged down the hill, turned left and crossed the finish running stronger than at any time since about mile 16. I was quickly informed at the finish line I’d finished tenth! Not a bad result at all.

Heading back upstairs, the chief organisers Wane and Kate, whom know me on first name terms having partaken in the Pieathlon and having got hilariously lost during the (Wo)Man vs Barge last year, presented me with a medal and t-shirt. I confirmed to them I didn’t want to do another loop of the course, and headed off for the post-race grub. Vegetarian chilli!

This was far from a perfect race for me, mostly in terms of my own transgressions against myself – not setting my watch at the start was most unlike myself, though I only wanted it mostly for recording my run rather than tracking my pace constantly.  Trying to keep up the pace and not stop for rest at aid stations was a rookie mistake. The decision to take out my jacket at the start of the race when the rain, in retrospect, wasn’t so bad and was beginning to clear, wasn’t a great one due to the faffing about with the jacket, especially when I stopped to load it into my race vest, which itself was a bane during and after the race due to a label getting caught in the zip. Nothing quite like mid-race for your kit to malfunction. And as a minor point, the water stops weren’t entirely consistent with what was stated pre-race. Every five miles turned out to be more like this (as a rough guide); mile 6, 11, 18, 20 and at the finish (or end of lap for the 60/100 runners). Of course, I don’t expect a water stop right in the middle of a three mile section of the Pennine Way. But the lack of a water station around mile 25 meant for myself, I was tapping into what was left in my hydration bladder (mostly empty of caffeine drink) and a single water bottle which was intended for consumption with gels and basically as and when required. I had enough to get to the end though, and nobody else saw it as a particular issue, but 10 miles without fresh water just wasn’t something I’ve ever experienced at miles 20-30 of any race. Hey, I’m new to this ultra running lark!
The race had so much more going for it though. My own recce from the summer was invaluable on the day, but had I not done so, turning up and running the route for the first time on race day would have been just as reassuring. Incredibly well signposted on the day, it really felt impossible to go wrong. That’s what you want from a 30 mile loop where it would be difficult to get enough people to volunteer far and wide. So top marks to the organisers there. The scenery, like most places in Yorkshire, is simply stunning, from the Wessenden Valley to Pole Moor, to Scammonden Water and the hills over Marsden itself. The work you have to put in to see such sights though!

And on a personal note, I must thank Wane, the main man at Team OA and race director, for allowing me to participate in this race for free. This was a transfer for a cancelled race earlier in the summer and given the generally higher costs of entering an ultra marathon, that kind of generosity, whether in reparation or otherwise, does not go unnoticed. So cheers for a brilliant day Wane!

And as if the Canal Canter hadn’t taught me so, I’m in awe of the ultra marathon community in presence at the WRU. This is without question one of the hardest races on the calendar, absolutely worth its UTMB points accreditation, but beyond that is an indomitable spirit among everyone at this race who put themselves through the ringer, from the record breakers in the 30, up to the 100 milers staying out into the early hours in pursuit of the ultimate endurance goal, to those who did their utmost to finish and those who had to make the distance to drop out part way through. You’re all incredible. Its not about times, it’s not all about speed. Its determination, a mindset, the ultimate enjoyment of running. The pursuit, and celebration, of adventure and adversity.

But am I glad to see the back of this race? Yes I am. I found this such a punishing, gruelling race that I’m canning the long distance runs now until I begin training for the London Marathon. Its been a long, successful year, and with a couple of shorter December races to follow, I really have had enough for now of running even 10 miles at this point! I think I’ll simply take the time to ease back into running, enjoy the shorter distances and find the time to reflect on the amazing memories and experience I can take from this race.

White Rose Ultra official website

Taking The Long Path – reflecting on a year of endurance

Taking my mind and body into further, harder, longer territory as 2017 begins to wind down.

I realise that I haven’t reported much on how my training has been going this year, and I have a reasonably big race coming up this weekend. So I thought now would be a good time to reflect on the progress I’ve made as a runner in 2017. Not just in terms of results, but in relation to my overall fitness. I know – ‘its just turned November, aren’t you being premature?’, I hear you ask. But in the scope of major personal challenges, now feels like the right time to take stock.

Its been just over five years since I laced up a pair of trainers and set off running. I’ve considered myself a serious runner for about the last 3.5 years. As of now, I’ve had an absolutely fantastic year of running. Most importantly, I’ve not had such a truly uninterrupted run of injury-free running since 2013-early 2015, at a time when I seemingly couldn’t stop improving on my pace. Sesamoidits and knee pain caused by overpronation meant I lost much of 2015 to the former and the latter really affected my London Marathon preparation. Snowdonia Marathon training went much more smoothly but largely on three runs per week. It was only once I made the step up to ultra marathon, with training beginning in earnest from late 2016, after I’d put Bwlch-y-Groes behind me that I truly felt I was finding my four times a week groove again. I had a couple of hiccups at the start of this year – a self-inflicted drunken fall left me bruised and battered but I got up from that and a bit of ankle bother to do something I never thought I’d so – run a marathon distance training run.

And to my surprise, not only did I complete that run, I did so at such a controlled, measured pace that my recovery time was literally a few days and not weeks. No DOMS (or Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness if you’re feeling wordy), no stairs that could leave me with fear and dread. I felt good and ready, and what followed a few weeks later was an unexpected best finish of my amateur running career. A second place, in my first ultra, of all places. And since then, I seem to have gone about racking up the miles, while collecting the odd good result here and there, and for a short time, flogging myself in the name of fell racing. But perhaps the most critical choice in my race calendar came when a race I was supposed to do, The Drop, got cancelled due to a lack of numbers. The race organiser (Team OA) allowed entrants to transfer to a race from their repertoire at no extra cost. I wasn’t drawn any of their races involving pie, ale, wine or chocolate, oh no. Just go for the big one, my heart said. My poor brain had no resistance. A few emails later, I was in.

The Butterley Spillway, one of the many sights of the White Rose Ultra. 26/08/2017

And so in just under 48 hours, I’ll be taking part in my second ultra marathon, the White Rose Ultra. It’s a popular ultra which takes place in the Wessenden and Colne Valley areas a few miles outside of Huddersfield, and having heard good things from fellow runners over the years, it wasn’t too hard to be convinced. There’s also a 60 mile and a 100 mile option for this race, but one lap of 30 is about enough for me, thank you. What is has meant is a training regime packed with hills, miles and all kinds of personal challenges (see my beach run from around 6 weeks back). And thankfully, I seem to have remained fit for all of it – barring this bout of the sniffles, of course.

Ogden Water, 23/09/2017

Running huge long training distances these last few weeks has been a joy to behold. As much experiments in nutrition execution as simply clocking up mileage, I’ve taken myself out to the far corners of Calderdale, be it Warley Moor, by way of the stunning Ogden Water Nature Reserve, or reaching out as far as Soyland on a recent marathon distance jaunt, it gives such a positive charge to have such freedom to roam and understand my body, and how it holds up against such demanding distances, and indeed demanding gradients. I even threw in a 20% uphill on a relatively ‘flat and easy’ 16 miler inbetween. I pretty much ran the entire hill. My quads felt like they’d suffered an earthquake, they felt like jelly, and yet somehow, a few miles later I had slowly worked the rumble out, and went on to finish the last 3 miles of the run with a 19 minute blast to finish the entire 16 mile run in under 2 hours. Its like I continue to ask my body ‘how high?’ and it just seems to clear every bar I set in its way. Sure, I’ve worked hard on swimming and made an improvement in terms of strengthening exercises, but I honestly feel very lucky, and appreciative, that my body has withstood this increase in effort and mileage.

The last few weeks have all been about my taper routine. Illness forced me to miss a couple of potential half marathons I wanted to run, plus a first meeting with my newborn niece, and had the usual ‘maranoia’ in the form of my right foot and left knee giving the odd grumble, but otherwise the mileage has continued to rise, and its been great this time to share my build up through group runs with the Halifax Harriers. A further motivation is in the form of a yearly challenge I’ve never once managed previously – to exceed 1000 miles in a calendar year. I thought I was on course to break my target this Saturday, but in actual fact, I achieved it during a routine run around my local park around 10 days ago! There seemed to be some synchronization issue with my Garmin watch which kind of pooped my parade, but nonetheless, to finally surpass that mark is a monkey off my back, and a testament to the ‘further, longer’ adage to sum up my year of running in 2017.

So in four days time, I’ll be lining up with hundreds of others in one of northern Britain’s most recognised ultra marathons, running 30 miles, across hills, roads, trails, past spillways, geological wonders and historical places (and possibly a bull!). I’ve got a couple of shorter races coming up in December, but this right here is the main event of my calendar year. And I’m going to enjoy it. Zero expectations of a result, regardless of how well my first ultra went. I still just want to get round this most difficult, challenging, Yorkshire of courses, just the once, and to get a hot meal at the end of it. To be able to celebrate this magnificent year of running, while I sit somewhat cathartically, enjoying whatever is left of my weekend before I have to face the rigidity of the office.

I’ll write up about my experiences at the WRU shortly, in the meantime enjoy running wherever you are, take in your surroundings and think about what lies beyond them. And then consider if your willpower and drive will take you there. For limits are always there to be pushed. And in running, there’s no shame in breaking through what you thought wasn’t possible.

Race Report: Ilkley Aquathlon 2017

Saturday September 16th, 2017

To club triathletes and seasoned multisporters, the Ilkley Triathlon & Aquathlon are highlights of the club & local tri calendar, and in the latter’s case, a fantastic introduction for junior athletes to get some early experience. Then there are people like me, who have never taken part in a full sprint or standard distance multisport event and basically want to have a go to see if they like it, or to have a bit of fun with the challenge.

In my case, the Ilkley Aquathlon had come to symbolize a little bit more for me. Just under 2.5 years ago, fresh off an incident at my local pool which led to me being dragged out before I got into further difficulty, I took part in the Go Tri Yorkshire Aquathlon, a 100 metre swim, and 1200 metre run. I swam the entire 100 metres head above water, but found it such an enjoyable experience that ever since, I’ve taken over two years of swimming lessons just to get to the point of being capable for this one race. If London and Snowdonia were my target races last year, this was arguably my target race this year. I’m now much improved, a capable front crawl swimmer who can move at decent pace (though not competitively fast), with a decent technique, and reasonable endurance. Though I’d never once swam 400 metres in one go, my swim training for this race left me believing I absolutely could. I was absolutely looking forward to this race, and absolutely couldn’t wait to take my first true step into the world of multisport, and one step closer to my ultimate goal of becoming a triathlete.

My trip to the race venue was going really well until I arrived, when I stepped on one of my elastic laces and snapped it, meaning I had to tie knots in it to prevent it from unravelling, and to keep it attached to my foot. Undeterred, and not reading into it as a sign of things to come, I walked to race registration and became reacquainted with the ankle tag – the thing they use in these events to time each part of your swim, transition and run consecutively. Even better was the offer of a free hat! An unexpected perk.

The setting out back was amazing. The lido was closed but it sits right with the backdrop of Ilkley Moor for company. I bet that’s a cracking place to be on a warm day. But I digress. The race briefing was given out by a man who looked not unlike WWE megastar John Cena. After he gave the crystal clear information to everyone, I proceeded to leave my vest, shoes and a towel in transition, convinced I would be fine with safety pins and not a race number belt, having carefully tried successfully to put the vest and pins over my head and over my t-shirt. With that taken care of, it was over to the spectator area. I wasn’t due to race until 4:47pm. I could easily have gone back into Ilkley for another hour or so, but to do what exactly? I thought I might as well soak up the atmosphere of my first aquathlon race proper. So I had my lunch and went out to the back where the run course was, walking once round it to get a good idea of the 600 metre route.

My race number (picture taken post-event)

In this country at least, the majority of aquathlon races (of which there aren’t many) are aimed at juniors getting into triathlon. So the first wave of runners where known as the Tri Start wave (for entrants born in 2009, would do two lengths of the 25 metre pool (50m total) and one lap of the 600 metre course. The three Tri Star groups, comprising slightly older children per category – Tri Star 1 (born 2007-08) would incrementally do four pool lengths and run two laps, Tri Star 2 (born 2005-06) swim eight pool lengths and run three laps, Tri Star 3 (2003-04) swim twelve lengths and run four laps up to Youth/Adult (born 2000 or earlier), doing a full sixteen pool lengths (400m) and five laps of the run course (3000m). Time passed, along with a passing rain shower that lasted for about 10 minutes, with barely anywhere to shelter. As I worried about changing into my now possibly wet shoes and vest, the rain subsided, the sun broke out a little, and the racing continued. At about 3pm, still just under two hours to launch, I went inside and observed the swim legs. There was a 10 second countdown for each event, and I keenly observed the swim pedigree of some of the older juniors, seeking an opportunity to just watch them go through their stroke and trying to observe the tumble turns, something I haven’t yet mastered. Although thankfully I wasn’t the only one. I would later get dressed into my swim shorts, then my hat and goggles, as time ticked down.
We were all briefed by one of the race marshals at the shallow end of the pool. There were about 10 or 11 of us. I generally have done well in races with smaller fields, but I wasn’t taking anything for granted given I was likely to come out behind in the swim. We were later assigned into lanes and (finally) led to poolside.

So this was it. After nearly 2.5 years, numerous swim lessons, and 22 prior waves on race day, it was time to get in the pool. I dunked my head into the water to check my goggles weren’t letting anything in. All good. I assumed the push and glide position as the 10 second countdown commenced. At 1, my head went under and the race began.

The first thing I noticed was the guy next to me was absolutely off like a rocket. By the time I’d completed 25m, he was already into his second length and by 50m he was already coming back to start his fourth length. But I wasn’t concerning myself with him. I just kept focused on completing the swim. But something wasn’t right. By 100m some sort of tiredness had crept into my right arm, and by 125m I was feeling very tired. I wasn’t trying to keep up with anyone, I was swimming how I normally swim. What on earth was going on? I made it to 150 metres and needed a few seconds to take a breather. I kept going and did the next 50m, but at 250m I had lost count of how many lengths I had left. I was taking an extra second or two at each end to gather myself. This was not what I’d come to expect.

I was getting a lot of encouragement from the volunteers to keep going though, and this was certainly keeping me from even contemplating the thought of not finishing. I certainly didn’t want to be the one ‘DNF’ on the results, having put so much into getting into shape to do the swim. But the encouragement poolside was helping me think positive and at 300m I was told I had four lengths to go. Finally, knowing the end of the swim was close, I got back to it and seemed to swim my best 100m of all. I knew I would grow into the swim, just not like this. In any event, I reached the end, to a few cheers from poolside and more encouragement from the volunteers. I climbed out and walked to the transition herehere, offering brief thanks and acknowledgment on my way out. I was the last one out.

A couple of years ago, at the Go Tri event I did, we didn’t have race numbers to attach, and I seemlessly got my shirt and shoes on that day. Here, I got my shoes on first, no worries. Now the vest – over it went. Then, it seemed to coil up, and just as I’d feared, the safety pins were causing a problem. That, and the fact I was still wet emerging from the water, it took a good 30 seconds alone to get the vest to cover my body. Then I’d realised as I left transition I’d forgotten to tighten my elastic laces, and bumped into John Cena who was coming back into the transition area. He was very apologetic but I honestly didn’t mind, I just had to get the awful transition behind me and get into my run. 

I always knew I could catch people up on the run, and so it proved here. Emboldened by my recent success in club handicap races, I overtook runners on the course which we all had to do 5 laps of. I worked out the best, least muddiest route and used this to my advantage, making sure to accelerate out of the tight angled turns with as much power as possible and in the end, completed the run without too much fuss. Upon receiving my time via a printout – 23:35 in total – I found out I was indeed the 3rd male. Out of four. Placing fourth overall.

As one of the top three men, I would be presented with a plaque. There was applause from those who’d gathered, and then that was it. Off to get my train back home.

My overall feeling was somewhat strange about the whole thing. I felt that my race, barring the run, had gone pretty badly and I felt I’d only won the plaque through sheer lack of numbers. I’d only come for the challenge and the experience. I was pretty ambivalent about receiving such a prize. That doesn’t mean I’m not grateful for it, but it kind of feels odd to see it sat there right now next to my trophies for the Sir Titus Trot and the Leeds Liverpool Canal Canter, both races where I’d placed highly in a more competitive field. Family and friends, at home and on social media, were much more encouraging (one of my kids said ‘you know, third place is still a good place to finish!’), others reminding me that you can only beat who turns up on the day, and third is third no matter what. I’m not going to reject that reasoning either!

Sporting my race swag (post-event)

But as for an experience in multisport, it was definitely a valuable one. In hindsight, my somewhat bad swim is one I’m putting down to psychological factors – I’ve never swam competitively before, and it honestly feels like my body went into some ‘fight or flight’ situation despite my best efforts to treat it as any other swim. It won’t put me off trying again someday, but it does put into focus what I need to work on. Namely adapting to cope mentally in competitive pool swims, build my swim endurance, and, should I come to race an aquathlon again, or indeed a triathlon, for all that is sacred, get a trisuit and a number belt! Transition would be a lot simpler if I did.
All in all, a slightly chasening welcome to multisport was endured, but at a great local event. Anyone wanting to take part in a well supported local multisport could do far worse than turn up here during the weekend of the aquathlon and triathlon. I can honestly say the encouragement from those poolside got me through that swim, and I’m absolutely grateful for it! Granted, Ilkley is a bit out of the way for some – it took me just under 90 minutes using public transport from Brighouse, about 15 miles away – but you’ll get a great, no pressure experience here and not to mention a great magnet for the junior triathletes. A big thank you must go to the volunteers and marshals, and indeed Leeds Bradford Triathlon, for making this event a success year on year.

I’m also sorry there aren’t many photos – there was a strict policy on photos at the event due to junior involvement, parental permission, etc, so I kept my phone away. I’ve not found official photos either since the event, but that’s no problem personally. I still have the memories of the event itself. 

Thank you all for reading.

Ilkley Aquathlon event page

A Long Birthday Run on the Beach

I woke up on Saturday September 9th, at 3:46am, almost exactly 33 years to the very moment I was born. Yes, it was my birthday, but I had business to attend to. I’ve no other reason to be up at such an ungodly time (well, maybe, but thankfully not this time) other than to get on with my ultra marathon training. The White Rose Ultra, a mere eight weeks away, has a take no prisoners course that will surely take every last ounce of energy to get over the line. The training diary said 21 miles. There was no getting out of it, not that I had any intention of doing. Not even on my birthday. Not even on holiday. At Butlins Skegness. Again.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been here in the last few years, and on this occasion it was to celebrate my mother-in-law’s 50th birthday, the day after mine. I personally wouldn’t choose to come back time after time, but it has its perks. Its great for kids and families, and its got a beach nearby. And in planning for this holiday, and holidays past, I’ve come to realise it has miles and miles of coastline to explore.

My training has had to account for plenty of steep hills, being a Yorkshire lad. But in route planning I found I’d have to travel too far inland to get even the slightest mound to have to run up. So my only realistic option was to plan this run on the Lincolnshire coastal beach. Having run as far as 3 miles to the north of Butlins, and 3 miles to the south – Skegness itself – I had become used to its camber, and the difficulty in running across those sands. Basically, I had the perfect equalizer for these hills lying in the sands. But 21 miles was going to require a massive step up. Was I truly physically prepared? Arguably not – how often do I run on sand? Maybe a couple of times a year at present. And as for the beach itself, not being familiar with just the unpredictability of the terrain alone was a major red flag.

But did I feel mentally prepared (or indeed, ‘certified’)? Absolutely!

South from Butlins wasn’t an option – beyond Skegness is Gibraltar Point Nature Reserve, which would mean getting forced inland onto the roads as the beach would run out, turning mostly into wetlands until Norfolk. Too far, and somewhat less enamoured with that potential out and back through the streets of Boston. So it would have to be northbound. Beach was guaranteed on this route the whole way, joining from Ingoldmells, and running to Sutton-on-Sea, via Chapel St. Leonards, Anderby Creek, Huttoft and Sandilands, before doubling back.

Outside at 4:21am!

Headtorch and race vest equipped, and a little older (& wiser?), I set off from with the grounds of the holiday village and north towards Ingoldmells, home to Fantasy Island theme park and various brightly coloured bars and shops. Turning right, I soon swapped the darkened streets for the moonlit beach.

The tide out and the sand was relatively flat and firm, with streams of water trickling back into the North Sea as it pulled back and forth. The streams varied in width, but it didn’t make much of a splash even if stepped in. Still, I had to keep an eye on my footstep, and on how close the sea was to reaching my feet. At one point, near Chapel St. Leonards, it was right up against me, and I had to make a quick shift upwards to not get caught. I doubt it would have been a major issue – it wouldn’t have been an excuse to go for a swim, but I wouldn’t want to get into any difficulty while it was still dark. With that considered, my headtorch was certainly coming in for good use in the early stages, particularly to avoid one particularly squelchy section of sand.

Not everything was coming up roses however. A few years back I saw a seal on the beach before it quickly made a move back into the water. I’d longed to see another one in the wild since. And around five miles into the run, I did. However, it was lying on the sands apparently not moving. There were no obvious signs of harm, no signs of an attack or a fight, but I struggled to be able to tell if this particular seal was simply just resting or very much deceased. I, like many I suspect, have no expertise on how exactly to check a seal’s vital signs, so after a minute or so gently trying to startle it, I had to assume the worst and accept it wasn’t coming round, simply washed up by the tide by its harsh mistress, its natural habitat, the great sea. There was a part of me that hoped I was wrong, but by the time I came back it was gone, presumably reclaimed by the now incoming tide, which I’ll come back to later. I can only assume the worst, as I’m sure it would have been alerted to my presence if I was pounding my feet in the nearby sand if it had half an idea I was there.

Looking out to sea at Huttoft (I think), 9/9/2017

I was roughly 8:30 miling up to about 7 miles, at which point I was beginning to struggle against the terrain, but having run for an hour, it was a good time to practise my refuelling strategy, which today was to eat half an orange. About five minutes later, I went back into a jog, and then a run, as I made it to a relatively grippy and firm stretch of sand, meaning it wasn’t so much effort trying to dig in and therefore my gait felt freer. However the tenth mile became awkward, as the sands approaching Sutton-on-Sea became deeper, making them effectively unrunnable, if such a word exists. I reached my target destination rather slowly, but I was able to get to the promenade and all in all I could feel happy at this point. 1:32, bar stoppages. All in all a good 10.5 miles, and pretty much how I’d expected, if I could have any expectations beyond tough at all.

Looking out from Sutton-on-Sea

I spent a good five minutes or so here checking out the information about the Mablethorpe to Sutton-on-Sea Cycleway, while taking on some carb-based drink to refuel for the second half of the run. I opted to run the next mile or so on the cycle path, to avoid the deep sands that seemed so stifling. And also to try and make up a bit of time so I wouldn’t be too late getting back to Butlins. Or so I foolishly hoped.

I recorded a 7:34 mile for the twelfth, and had hoped I could carry a little of that pace back onto the sands when I rejoined. However, I quickly found myself struggling for grip again and the next mile went for 9:22. Any gains had quickly been lost, and so the scene was set for the remainder of the run. I had another recovery walk at 2 hours into the run, but in truth I was beginning to walk more often, be it because of fishermen, people who couldn’t control their dogs, or growing tiredness. I’d covered just over 13.5 miles though, more or less where I’d hoped to be, but was now running more or less in the plus 9 minute miles as the sun rose over the North Sea.

Sunrise off the Lincolnshire coast, 9/9/2017

Everything was being taken incrementally now. Mentally I was fine, but physically I was up against it, and my quads were starting to ache in a rather dull fashion, like I’d taken on one too many hills. That’s what running on sand all this time was doing to me. I was counting debris that I’d seen on the way out as markers. However, the tide was coming in, and it was doing its bit to accentuate that one thing you can count on the guide you home along the stands (unless the tide swallows them up, that is). Yes, footprints. Something as simple as that is the mark of any journeyman, and to see my footsteps now lined up against the gentle waves hitting the shore, brightened up by a glistening sunrise, was great motivation. To see where I’d come from, and to show how far I’d come.

Rather than now focusing on 21 miles, I chose to count down the miles to Ingoldmells itself – merely single digits, literally taking one mile at a time, trundling along in search of the skull and crossbones flags I’d noted when I entered the beach in darkness. Eventually I spotted Fantasy Island in the distance, and knew it wasn’t far to go. But my footsteps were slowing. My pace had dropped again and I was now working harder than ever to keep going. Any notion that it was my birthday had long been left behind. I was absolutely in the zone, only thinking forwards and looking for the flags.

Finally, there they were. I was almost at a walk when I trudged up the steps. Over the brow of the tiny hill, and at last, concrete. Firm ground. I had roughly a mile and a half left now, and I managed to maintain a reasonably slow and steady rhythm until I reached the holiday park, running through the car park and clocking up the big 21, stopping there and then.

I had done it. My crazy training run, over 80% of it on sand, was complete, and I took my creaking legs back to the apartment to return to the real world, and receive my birthday greetings from my wife and kids. I also got to give anyone sat in view of the balcony a view of my stretching ability, perhaps enforced by not wanting to get my sandy, muddy feet all over the furniture.

A fellow runner on the Facebook group, Running The World, had wished me luck before my run and warned that 21 miles on sand will sap the energy out of me. He wasn’t wrong. This was perhaps the most destructive run I’ve ever experienced. Had I run about another half a mile of beach I’d have been ready to collapse. My legs had got ridiculously heavy at the point of returning to Ingoldmells, it didn’t make a difference if I was running on flat sand or deep sand. I was still absolutely mentally clear, but physically, I almost had nothing left when I got back onto the road in Ingoldmells. This relatively flat sandy run was quite possibly the most gruelling I’d had since the one where I ran to Dovestone Edge and spontaneously started rock climbing. A good long sand run will absolutely compare with any hilly one and quite the feat of endurance if you can manage it.

But without question, this was absolutely worth doing. Even on my birthday, ultra marathon training cannot and did not stop, and this was exactly the kind of brutal training I thrive on to prepare for the rigours of what lies ahead in November. It was awesome to be running on the beach in darkness, the tide out, relatively easy to run on. Sheer willpower got me to the end, but I achieved my training target and amazingly the recovery aspect went really well. By the evening I was well prepared for the night of boozing I was treated to by two family members.

All in all, this was a great way to start my birthday, even if somewhat an act of self-flagellation, and across an absolutely amazing setting. This was incredible preparation as a training run for the White Rose Ultra in November. But I know I’d be crazy to ever attempt this distance on sand again!