Ultimate Trails 55k

So far! So good!
So far! So good!

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on until you come to the end: then stop.”

The quote from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland had been my mantra ever since reading it in Lizzy Hawker’s Runner earlier that week – and it seems similarly apt now.

The problem with writing a blog on the Ultimate Trails 55k is knowing just where to start. It was an amazing day: the most beautiful race – if not run – I’ve ever done; an amazing atmosphere; perfect weather and superbly well-organised.

It was also by far the toughest, most challenging race I’ve ever run; it was acutely painful at times; and a fairly long, dark period in the first half pushed me closer to a DNF than I’ve ever been before.

Coming into the race, I felt confident. I’d run further before and done so in worse shape than I was in now. I’d had a really strong year so far, and felt I’d trained reasonably well for this – I’d probably not done as many miles as I’d have liked since Manchester Marathon, but back-to-back weekends running the Coledale Round and then the Borrowdale Trail 21km in May had at least put some hills and trail in my legs.

My biggest worry was how I’d cope mentally with running that kind of distance alone. My two previous ultramarathons had been group efforts and I knew not having friends around me to give me a lift when I was struggling would be new territory for me.

The plan was to take it really easy to Grisedale Hause, and then see how I felt after that – hoping that I’d be able to push on and run the second half reasonably hard. But looking back now, that plan had gone out of the window before we even started – for two reasons.

The first was the buzz we got from witnessing some super-impressive running ourselves. The Ultimate Trails 55k is one of two races that day, the other being a 110km route that started at midnight.

As the 350 or so of us preparing for the 55k were making our way to our 11am start, however, news filtered through that the lead runner in the 110km event, Kim Collison, was already close to finishing. It was an honour to line up at the start/finish and cheer him over the line, then have the chance to congratulate him as he passed among us to get his medal. 11 hours to run 110km over that terrain! Wow!

The second reason was that I lined up at the start alongside an old school friend who’d done this run before. Dave is a better runner than me, and I suspected his friend Mark was a better runner than him, but I felt my training had been good, and Dave was being characteristically self-deprecating, so I thought I’d see how long I could keep up with him. So much for the plan.

Starting in Rothay Park, the route heads out of Ambleside and up alongside Stock Ghyll towards the Kirkstone Pass beneath Raven Crag. I didn’t manage to keep up with Dave and Mark initially but caught them at the first food stop as they stopped to take on food and I didn’t. As the path then pointed downhill, Mark skipped goat-like ahead, building a gap that Dave and I didn’t make up until long after passing Brothers Water.

Although we were making up time, we didn’t finally catch Mark until the next food stop, at Patterdale. This time, I did stop. I quickly gulped a few cups of flat coke and shoved a fistful of peanuts and jelly babies into my waist pack before setting off again, heading up the valley following Grisedale Beck.

But while we had taken the pace quite easy, I wasn’t conserving as much energy as I’d planned to. I was also conscious of the climb ahead and felt I’d be better taking my own pace from here. I politely bowed out and encouraged Dave and Mark to push on.

Climbing out of Patterdale, with Ullswater behind me
Climbing out of Patterdale, with Ullswater behind me

Without Dave to keep up with, I immediately slowed a lot, especially as we began to climb. Finding myself being passed by runner after runner, I took the opportunity to take a few photos and soak up the view. The short rest did me good and, as the path levelled again, I picked up the pace feeling a chunk fresher than I had just a few minutes earlier.

Another mile of flat trails, however, and the path turned up once more for the sustained climb up towards Grisedale Tarn. Again, I found myself slipping backwards through the pack. I wasn’t even walking with purpose and, reaching for refreshments every few yards, I found I’d now run out of water in my Camelbak as well.

I knew this would be the toughest part of the course, and probably the hottest part of a hot day, so the fact I’d made such an elementary mistake by not topping up at either of the food stops so far was really frustrating.

It wasn’t a serious problem as I knew I had a bottle of flat Coke in my backpack, but I was annoyed at myself. Not only had I ignored my plan, but I’d ignored the basics as well. What an idiot!

To top things off, my dodgy left achilles was also making an unwelcome reappearance – not really painful but enough to notice.

The climb to Grisedale Hause
The climb to Grisedale Hause

I promised myself cold pizza and coke at Grisedale Tarn as an incentive to keep pushing on, but it was no use. I was barely moving forwards at some points, questioning why on Earth I thought I could train on flat roads but race in mountains, and seriously considering calling it a day when I got down to the next food stop at Grasmere.

Well if that was an option, I might as well eat some of the food I was carrying sooner rather than later. Still a few hundreds yards from the tarn, I found a flat rock to sit on and tucked in.

It worked.

When I got to the tarn and started filming a few shots on my camera, I felt re-energised and broke into a run again. I started passing some of those who had walked past me on the climb, and I soon got chatting to another runner who was running this to raise funds for the hospice that had looked after his mum in her last weeks. And there was I, 20 minutes earlier, moaning about not being able to run hills and having a slightly sore achilles!

Half way!
Half way!

The descent was great and before long, Grasmere School brought more snacks and the opportunity to refill with water. A quick Facebook post to reassure those at home that I was alive and well, and on I went – again overtaking quite a few runners who had decided to stop for longer.

The next climb – between Sheep Crag and Raven Crag, before turning towards Great Langdale – was shorter and easier, and while not exactly easy, was over before I had time to worry about it.

As I crossed the top of the climb and settled into more gentle trails, I found myself singing Amazing Grace. I might have had 20 miles and lots of ascent in my legs by this point, my heel and ankle might have been turning from niggle to ache, and from ache to pain, but looking at the scenery as we headed towards Great Langdale it was hard not to feel incredibly blessed.

We might have only passed a few miles from the fells below Helvellyn and from Patterdale earlier, but the fells here are so different, it is like being in a different country. The sun was out and I just drank in the views. I suddenly felt that this was what Lizzi Hawker meant when she wrote about living in the moment.

I found myself running more and more: The more beautiful the views, the better I felt physically. The better I felt physically, the more I ran. The more I ran, the more I caught and then passed other runners. And the more I passed other runners, the better I felt. It was the most positive of all positive feedback loops.

Others were talking about there being chips at the next (and final) food stop and were clearly using that to drag themselves along. But strangely, I didn’t need to look ahead. I was just enjoying being right there, running and taking in the views.

From Great Langdale, we turned south towards Little Langdale before completing a loop past Little Langdale Tarn, Blea Tarn and past Side Pike before rejoining the Cumbria Way along to Chapel Stile and Elterwater. As we did, 20 miles became 23, then 25.

Marathon done! Only 10 miles to go
Marathon done! Only 10 miles to go

I stopped to take a photo as I hit what my watch said was 26.2 – marathon distance – at Blea Tarn (I knew I’d missed the first half mile, but that didn’t matter), and then pushed on again.

I could have run round here all day.

When I finally reached that food stop, there was soup but no chips, but even then, I didn’t care. Others were taking the opportunity to put their feet up for 10 minutes, but again I grabbed some jelly babies, downed some Coke, then pushed on again.

By now, my heel and ankle was becoming really painful – especially as I came out of the food stop and tried to start running again. But then I found that, while it hurt when I start running, if I could just keep running, the pain disappeared, only to reappear when I walked and tried to start again. The solution was simple: don’t stop running!

As we crossed Loughrigg, I had no option but to walk. A few of those runners I’d caught and passed since the food stop caught me again but at least I was walking with purpose this time. And if I could just get running for a few dozen yards on the descent, the pain in the ankle would disappear again and I could run.

Fortunately, I managed to break into a run just before spotting James Kirby – the official photographer for today, and for all Lakeland Trails’ races. Ignoring my ankle, I mustered up what strength I had left for the photo opp – and thankfully James caught it beautifully – as you can see above – I wouldn’t have fancied having to do it again!

Keen to get the finish on film, I turned my camera onto myself and just refused to stop. I had no idea how far from home we were, but you could feel the finish getting closer. There were more dog-walkers around, more people just out for a gentle amble, more people saying we were nearly there.

And then, in the distance, a tannoy in the air.

Picking my feet up, I caught one or two last runners before turning into Rothay Park again and finally seeing the finish line.

Done it!
Done it!

Done it!

The pain rushing back into my heel as I stopped was nothing compared with the euphoria that flooded over me as the volunteers hung the medal round my neck. So what if I couldn’t walk? Nor could many of the other runners I could see!

A short hobble and I was then given a bowl of Wilf’s famous vegetarian chilli and cheese – and it tasted heavenly.

For half an hour, I compared notes with other runners – some I’d run with for long spells, others I’d merely seen on and off since the start, some I’d not noticed being near me all day – and we discussed future plans. The consensus was that if we could do today, then a great many other ultras – including some that are much longer – would be easy. Or at least less painful.

And from there, the long drive home to Manchester. What an amazing day!

Two weeks have passed since, and I’ve not run any more than a bath in that time. That painful ankle/heel turned out to be more achilles tendonopathy, which is still swollen a fortnight on.

The initial assessment was that I might not be able to run for three months, and on my second trip to see my physio yesterday, the only consolation he could offer was that I’d “done it good and proper”. Well if a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing “good and proper”.

But sitting down to write this, even the thought of three months off can’t dampen my spirits. It was just an amazing, awesome day. Not everyone is lucky enough to be able to run in the first place. Not many can drive to and from the Lake District from home in a day to take in the views I saw. And very few get the chance to do so while also running 36 miles with some amazing people.

The fact I got that chance was largely thanks to the organisers of this race, who put on a truly amazing event, and also to the injury-free year I’ve had until now to get myself into shape to complete a race like this.

For all of that, I am so grateful, and so lucky. Amazing grace indeed.

Salomon S-Lab X-Series – The first 100 miles

Salomon S-Lab X-Series
Salomon S-Lab X-Series

Salomon don’t do road shoes. It just wouldn’t be ‘on brand’ to run on tarmac for mile after mile.

For Salomon, running is for mountains, for finding your freedom running along countryside trails miles from civilisation, for loose footpaths and for mud.

In theory, I couldn’t agree more.

In practice, I like to do my running fresh out of my front door … and my front door is in Manchester. Even the trails I run on are firm, even surfaces. A lot of them – such as the canal towpath I run on most days – are even carefully laid tarmac, just like roads. In fact, the trails I run are mostly better surfaces than the roads!

And it’s for people like me, I think, that they have developed the S-Lab X-Series.

Looking at the website, it’s not a road shoe. No, no. Off brand, find your freedom, run the trails, etc.

No, the X-Series is designed for “an urban trail racecourse,” giving “precise foothold, assured traction, and a dynamic ride” and allowing runners to “race across a diverse urban landscape”.

Urban trails. Sounds a lot like footpath to me.

Of course, I’m poking fun at Salomon calling this a road shoe. But if I’m being fair, the joking stopped as soon as I put these shoes on.

Like my Salomon Sense Mantra, these fit like slippers. The tongue is stitched into the sole of the inner so wraps around your foot. The fast lacing system means that pressure is applied more equally around your foot than with traditional laces. While the toe box is quite wide, the back of the shoe is firm and structured like a trail shoe, meaning there’s no risk that foot will move around if you do come across some uneven urban trail (like kerbs).

And the weight! At 237g, these are super light compared with what I’m used to. They’ve also got an 8mm drop – higher than a trail shoe, but flatter than I’m used to for my main road shoes.

Even before I started running, they just feel fast. I love them.

Clicking the Salomon S Lab X-Series
Clicking the Salomon S Lab X-Series

In my first 100 miles, I’ve used them on the (tarmac and gravel) canal towpaths, on the Trans Pennine Trail, but mainly on road. I’ve used them for Parkruns and for the Wings for Life World Run, where I managed 17 miles in them (right).

On the longer distances, I did find that my toes did move around a little more than I’d have liked, but the cushioning (which I thought I’d find a little bit lightweight over longer, tarmac runs) was more than good enough.

As a result, I still reach for my New Balance 1080s for my usual long runs, but if I’m planning anything fast, these are my first choice.

I’ve not yet had chance to take these onto any proper trails – and while there’s still life in my Sense Mantras (currently approaching 600 miles), I’m not sure I will.

Based on how they feel on trail here, though, I’d be confident using them on the well-used stone footpaths in the Lakes (when dry), where the ability to run comfortably on tarmac for a few miles to and from the real trails will be a major benefit over full-on mud busters.

A Northern SoleAnything more muddy than that, and I wouldn’t expect the road soles (see left) to cope.

Overall, first impressions couldn’t be better. I really do love these shoes. My only concern is that, at £140 a pair (RRP), they’d need to survive an awful lot of tarmac miles for me to consider them good value alongside my usual shoes. Given that I’m using them for shorter distances, however, maybe it will be fairer for me to measure them on a cost-per-run, rather than a cost-per-mile basis.

Either way, time will tell. I’ll post again once I get above 500 miles or so.

The kind folk at Salomon gave me this pair to try as part of their #SalomonInsiders project

Wings for Life World Run 2015

Being caught by Coulthard - look closely, you can see him smiling!
Being caught by Coulthard – look closely, you can see him smiling!

Even before Manchester Marathon, I knew I’d need to set myself another target to focus on pretty much immediately to avoid Post Marathon Syndrome.

My main criteria were probably a race that would give me enough time to recover but not so long I could stop training, something local to spare my family from another weekend of me running too much, and somewhere between half marathon and 20 miles to make it interesting.

On that basis, the Wings for Life World Run failed on at least two counts and – on a really good day – could fail at all three.

Why? Well, it starts at Silverstone, which is a good 2.5hr drive from home – so with the Well Done cards from Kate and the girls still stood on the windowsill following the marathon, running it would mean a full day away from them.

Secondly, it was two weeks after Manchester – so it wouldn’t help me keep my long runs going simply because I wouldn’t be doing any long runs in the fortnight after Manchester.

And then there’s the distance. Or lack of one.  Toeing the start line, runners simply don’t know how far they will run – but more of that later.

Having almost zero interest in motor-racing, the novelty of running on a Formula One racetrack didn’t hold any appeal.

So why am I sat here writing about it? Because as soon as I started reading about it (and asking for reviews on Twitter), I found myself being drawn to it.

I’ll explain: The World Run is unlike any other run I’ve done in that you set off not knowing how far your race will take you. Rather than have a fixed finish line, runners set off on a 80km loop around the Northamptonshire countryside. Half an hour after they start, a ‘catcher car’ starts to track them down, and the idea is that you run until the car catches you.

Rather than run towards the finish line and hope to get there as quickly as possible, you run away from it and hope to stay ahead for as long as possible.

The novelty appealed. Tapping in a few possible ‘race paces’ into the online calculator, I predicted I could run around 18 miles before the car would catch me. I was hooked: Long enough to be interesting, but not like entering another marathon.

At this stage, I should have reminded myself of the half marathon trail race in the Lake District I’d already entered in early June, or my first solo ultra later the same month. But I didn’t. Instead, the credit card was out before I could spell David Coulthard.

Andy Oates duly found his arm twisted and without even a pint to bribe him, he was just as quickly enlisted as moral support. As it happened, Andy chose to run with me all the way around, which meant that, come race day, I was looking forward to it all even more.

The other thing that makes the World Run different is that it’s run in 35 separate locations around the world simultaneously. Watching all the countries counting down to the start, seeing celebs being interviewed on camera, the helicopter overheard broadcasting pictures from our own start line around the world, it all felt like some kind of Live Aid for runners.

I couldn’t wait to start.

This was the running community at its best. Thanks to Red Bull, every penny of the £40 entry fee was going straight to Wings for Life, a charity committed to finding a cure for spinal injuries. Sure, there were some people around who wanted to win, or beat personal targets. But most of all, this was carnival atmosphere.

Once we got running, I was immediately conscious that we were running faster than my initial 8min/mile pace, but already the different mentality of this race was pushing me on. Instead of warning myself that I could blow up by starting too quick, my brain was willing me on: So what if you blow up, all that means is that the finish will come sooner. Bring it on!

I’d like to say that running the ‘wrong’ way around the famous Silverstone circuit felt wrong, but of course, I only knew that because the start lights were pointing the wrong way. Anyway, all too soon, we were turning out of the racecourse and onto beautiful country lanes.

Chatting away, the miles flew by. Chocolate box villages were packed with supporters, while overhead, the constant buzzing of that helicopter reminded us of the global event we were taking part in. In fact, we’d long since gone through the half-marathon point (1:44, I think) before we noticed that the reason our pace was erratic was that the road hadn’t been flat for quite a few miles.

“The next hill’s a ****,” added a fellow runner, helpfully.

It was at this point that I began to realise that 18miles might be a stretch too far today. Whether it was the marathon in my legs, or my hopeless inability to run uphill, the 8-min-mile average we needed was sliipping away all the time and, from mile 15, I threw all caution to the (head)wind and tried to push on.

Tried being the operative word. It seemed like the road only went upwards and, sure enough, as Andy turned back to check on me midway up one of the ascents, I saw the reaction on his face.

“It’s coming.”

This is it. Cue the first real push. The hill leveled off (a little), and I managed to get my pace back down towards 8min/mile. A rare few hundred yards of flat saw it fall closer to seven. The car wouldn’t catch us so quickly at this pace.

But it wasn’t to last. Another hill meant I was giving it everything and barely moving forwards again.

A nod to Andy and he set off to hammer his final mile or two and, in my head at least, it was just me and the car.

Another picturesque village and this time the cheer was a roar. They could see it. They knew that we were the last runners they’d support today. For them, hours of clapping had come to this. Maybe they too believed we could somehow outrun a Range Rover Discovery with a former Formula One driver at the wheel!

Another burst, another few hundred yards, and then another short incline.

I looked over my shoulder. I could almost see Coulthard’s smile behind the wheel.

We go again.

Motorbike passes. The photographer cheers us on.

I find some more left in my legs to give.

I can hear the engine.

For a second, the encouragement of the rest of the procession takes over and I throw in a heel click for the photographer. He cheers. I think he caught that one, but I still try another just in case.

One. Last. Sprint.

Ultimately, sprinting against a car is futile. I feel like I’m running like Usain Bolt, but it still glides past. Probably in second gear. A high five from the crew inside, and I reach to stop my watch.

The chase is up. My race is over.

Wow! Within a few minutes a minibus offers me a lift to the next aid station, from where I’d be picked up and taken back to the racetrack. As I get out, Andy is already there – having only just been caught by the looks of it.

Official results will eventually confirm my distance at 17.06 miles. Not so far from 18 after all. And so much fun.

It wouldn’t be a Red Bull event without something death-defying extreme sport thrown in, and as our crowded double decker bus teetered on the edge of a deep ditch on a single lane country road, I started to recall the end of The Italian Job.  The cheers when we finally made it back onto open road suggested I wasn’t the only one.

Before long we were back at Silverstone, with more Red Bull and Haribos than we could carry, and heading towards a free bar. But having had one beer to be polite, our priority was getting home and that 2.5hr drive.

No PBs had been set, no targets smashed thanks to a carefully thought-out race strategy or months of training. If anything, our woeful choice of kit (two layers at the start, down to one within 5k) could have been disastrous.

But you wouldn’t have known it from the conversation in the car. It had been a really great day, a race like no other we had done before, or like anything we’d got planned for the rest of the year.

What we needed was something similar to put in the diary to keep us motivated.

Or maybe just enter again next year.

Manchester Marathon 2015 – PB!

What it's all about - the medal
What it’s all about – the medal

Before today, my marathon PB was 3:43:40, set at Manchester in 2012. Those who ran that race remember it vividly. In fact, like me, they probably have flashbacks every time the weather is truly horrendous. Even though I’ve not come close to that time since, looking back on that day has never filled me with the warm pride of a 10-minute PB – the only thoughts are about the cold; the pain not just in my legs but in my hands and my face; and of being unable to warm up for what felt like days afterwards.

The only positive I recall is being scraped up off the road at 25.5 – when I was staggering across the route unable to remember my name – and being dragged to the finish by Simon and Mike.

Today was the opposite of that.

Today, everything went right. The weather was perfect – overcast and cool without being cold. I had a realistic plan, and I followed it. When it hurt, I dug deep. And, without any planning, I ran 16 miles or so of it with Simon. Perfect.

The result was an eight-minute PB: 3:35:22. Absolutely chuffed to bits.

Me with the Timperley Massive at the start
Darren, Andy, Me, Richard and Jonathan at the start

And I wasn’t the only one. Manchester rained PBs today: Mike and Alex both broke 3hrs with impeccably paced runs; Steve ‘Teetotal’ Taylor converted four months of dedication to a 26-minute PB in 3:09:29; Philip Kelly got his Boston qualifier by clocking 3:11:36; and Gia clocked a best of 3:08:56, which should be good preparation for the 53-mile West Highland Way in six days’ time! It was also the day my usual training partners, Darren, Richard, and Jonathan ran their first marathons – in 4:16, 3:31, and 4:10 respectively.

But most of all (for me), Andy Oates took 3hrs and tore it to pieces.

Like me, Andy’s previous PB was at Manchester 2012, when he ran 3:00:04. Think about that for a second. Horrific conditions, and he missed breaking 3hrs by five seconds – or 20 metres. The time it’s taken you to read this paragraph. Barely the length of a swimming pool. I’m sure they were the longest five seconds, and the furthest 20 metres, of his life.

He’s been in great form since, but a succession of injuries – whether suffered on the day or in training – have meant he’s not been really close to beating that since. Until today. Setting off with a plan to build up a bit of a buffer to allow for any slowing in the final few miles, he had so much in reserve that, when he did slow (a little!) from 22 onwards, he still came in in 2:56:55! That’s hero status right there, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

So back to my race. Well, the first thing to note is that it’s been four months in the making. After a nasty dose of flu just before Christmas wiped me out for over a week, I’d left myself with 60 miles to run in the last 10 days of 2014 to hit my target of 1,500 miles. Of course, that’s easier to hit with so much time off work and, in the end, I ran almost every day for 10 days so that my 11-miler on New Year’s Eve took me to 1,510.

Having proved to myself that I could still run a 50-mile week, I tried to run another. And another. Encouraged by Darren and Richard, who had taken up doing intervals with Altrincham & District AC, I even went back to track night for the first time in more than a decade. As we came to Helsby Half in mid-January, I tapered a little and still clocked 47 for the week. It also dawned on me around then that I’d not missed a day running since Dec 29 (marathon day was Day 111).

Back then, the plan was to try to get a PSB at Manchester – a personal second best time of somewhere between 3:43:40 (Manchester 2012) and 3:53:20 (London 2003). But by the time I got to Stafford 20, I was already wondering whether something better was on the cards. A little foolishly, I raced Stafford as hard as I could but without tapering beforehand. So, when I narrowly missed my 2012 time, the optimist inside always had cause to think that – had I wound down before it like I did three years ago – I could have beaten it. I couldn’t say with certainty whether I was in better or worse shape than 2012, but it was close.

And so to Manchester. The plan was to run on 3:30 pace until 20 miles, then race as hard as I could in the hope that I’d only drop 5 mins (instead of the usual 10-15) in the final 10km. Setting off, my only thought was not to go off too fast. I knew everything had gone to plan since Christmas. The weather was perfect. I’d had the pleasure of meeting up with all those mentioned above before the start and could sense it was going to be a great day for so many of them. Just manage the adrenaline and don’t go too fast.

Simon and I wave to his support crew
Simon and I wave to his support crew

Around two miles, I saw Simon overtaking me. Having said he was in no shape to trouble his PB (3:34), he looked very comfortable to me, and pretty much on my pace. We started chatting. Where the course doubles back on itself, we took turns in spotting friends on the other side of the road, and then spotting his wonderful family out supporting. And we carried on chatting.

Another tactic for today was not to obsess about my average pace. When a mile split came along, I took a second to check whether it was on target or not (they were) and before we knew it, we had wound our way through Old Trafford, Stretford, Sale and on to Brooklands. Seeing David and his family outside their house gave me a boost and, a mile later, we were in Timperley – where my own support team were waiting for me.

Timperley has always been really good for supporters in the marathon, but this year was the best it’s been. By far the best support in the whole course (apart from the final 200 yards, maybe) and the cheering – together with seeing my girls – gave me another huge rush of adrenaline.

Me with my support crew afterwards
Me with my support crew afterwards

Altrincham was also good, and having officially rejoined the club in April, it was great to hear so many clubmates cheering my Altrincham vest for the first time in years.  Coming back through Timperley, I made sure I got to the side of the road to high five my girls.

Between this point – around mile 14 – and the top of Brooklands at 16, I’d started to realise that we were dropping off pace a little, and that what had been coming naturally for two hours was now needing some effort. So when we came past David’s house again and I heard him shout that I was owning my new PB, I got a real lift. Don’t think about the fact it’s getting harder, think about the PB. The right words, at the right time.

Spotting me coming (and perhaps showboating just a little) the support from everyone at LifeChurch simply took my breath away. I knew that was the last support we were likely to get for a good few miles, so with a quick reminder to Simon that we were now within single figures of the finish, I tried to focus on the task ahead.

Not long after that, Simon explained he was going to drop back and, for the first time all race, I was on my own. I’d been expecting to running alone all race, so to have ‘got a lift’ to the 18 mile mark had been amazing. And running with Simon is always a pleasure. Now, I’d just got eight miles to race hard for all the work to be worthwhile.

Shortly after mile 19, the 3:30 pacing bus caught up with me. At mile 20, I was 20 yards behind them but still inside 3:30 pace. Was there any chance I could keep up with them until the end? At mile 21, I got my answer as the pacers stretched further ahead and out of view.

At last, the race had started. I knew this section of the course really well and started to dig deep. Get to mile 23 and then kick. But when mile 23 came, it was as much as I could do to just hold the pace without losing too much time. I had slipped to 9:30 pace by now, and was breaking down each 300-metre chunk or so to see if I could hold my pace for just a little longer. I was succeeding, by and large, and at mile 25, the pace even started to come back down.

Running up to Old Trafford (it’s not as close as you think), I knew 3:35 was possible, but only just. Seeing Kate with 600 metres to go gave me the final lift I needed. A short sprint, an attempted heel click for the cameras, and I’d done it.

Simon, me and Andy at the end
Simon, me and Andy at the end

Having collected my bag, it was time to find Kate, Andy and anybody else who was still around the finish. Fortunately, I am quite a reserved and macho man, so I absolutely did not bear-hug Andy with all the strength I had left when he told me his news. I definitely did not do so twice. I also had no need whatsoever to choke back the tears when I told Kate how pleased I was with my time. Or hug Simon to thank him for keeping me company when we met up with him and his family.

What a day! Kate was obviously confident as she had bought me a congratulations card in advance, which she’d personalised with the words: Pain is temporary, achievement lasts a lifetime. I don’t know about a lifetime – I’m already hoping my PB only lasts six months – but if I never beat 3:35:22 again, I can at least look back on the day I did it with nothing but amazing memories. And I don’t have to think about Manchester Marathon 2012 ever again!

Update: The photographer didn’t capture my heel click, but did get me gunning for him at half way. I really need to start taking this marathon lark a bit more seriously

Taking off
Taking off
Gunning for a PB?
Gunning for a PB?


Salomon Sense Mantra – Final Thoughts

The fact that I’m still not quite ready to retire these shoes probably tells you all you need to know.

A trusty workhorse of a not-quite-trail shoe
A trusty workhorse of a not-quite-trail shoe

To date, I’ve run 554 miles in these and it’s only really the grips on the sole that are showing any sign of wear and tear. While I’ve stuck to road shoes for my main pair, I’ve used these for runcommutes up and down the canal towpath, for Parkruns, and for the occasional jaunt up a fell or two in the Lakes. Oh, and for the Longest Day Run 2014, which was for me a gentle potter around 42 miles of the Peak District with some wonderful friends.

And to be fair, those are the types of run that these shoes were made for: firm paths and uneven ground, where you need a bit more grip than a road shoe, but where you still need to be able to run on stretches of firm ground or tarmac without sliding around like you’re running in studded football boots. And where it’s not really muddy enough to justify a traditional trail shoe.

So whereas I may have given the impression in my first impressions that these are trail shoes, they are not. Not really.  Put them to work climbing up or down a muddy hill or on winter grass sessions at the club, and they slide around almost as much as any other road shoe, while those with Mudclaws and the like ease away into the distance.

So why have I still not invested in a pair of ‘proper’ trail shoes? Well, because in all other situations I run in, these do the job. Yes, I could have used a pair of deep-lugged shoes for grass sessions, and probably for a few of my runs on the fells. But if your idea of a trail is, like mine most of the time, a flat-as-they-come stretch of disused railway line, a well-trodden and dry lakeland footpath, or a 4 mile stretch of impeccably maintained canal towpath, then these are perfect.

So there you have it: a really good all-rounder of a shoe. Comfortable, light, really securely fitting, with a bit of support and a better than average grip. I’ll be sad to retire these – which is why I’m not ready to, not just yet.

* Disclaimer: The lovely folk at Salomon gave me these to review

Salomon Sense Mantra – first impressions

The Sense Mantra is designed to be a relatively minimal ‘door-to-trail’ shoe, with a low heel-to-toe drop but with still enough under your foot to cope well both on and off road.

OK, so not a very good pic of the shoes - but lots of nice mud!
OK, so not a very good pic of the shoes – but lots of nice mud!

So while it has a more minimalist feel than traditional running shoes, it’s not an out-and-out minimalist shoe and doesn’t feel like it would need an awful lot of transitioning to make this your main shoe.

While that helps on the road, the biggest surprise for me from a trail shoe was the grip on the sole. When I think of trail shoes, I automatically think of big fat lugs and deep grooves that look like they’d chew up and spit out any depth of mud or grit. The sole on the Sense Trail, by contrast, looks more like a road shoe, with comparatively tiny, shallow grips pointing in various different directions across the foot.

On the top, the tongue wraps right around the foot and is stitched into the bottom of the shoe, making your foot feel super-secure, while the lacing system is quick to tighten but really robust with no slippage or give once pulled tight.

Picking the shoe up, the Sense Mantra are really light, but appear remarkably inflexible compared with other shoes I’ve had in the past. This could be the result of a puncture-proof plate that runs from toe to midfoot to protect the foot from any hidden nasties out on the trails, but either way, never felt a problem once you got the shoes on your foot and ran – which is all that matters.

Putting them on for the first time, they felt like slippers. The stitched in tongue is very comfortable, while the weight and the low profile all feel natural while still solid enough to give me confidence that I could take these out on stony ground.

Running late, I shoved the Salomon’s on and dashed to the start. As well as being extremely comfortable, the first real benefit was that lacing system: the shoes felt secure and tight within seconds, while the tightened ‘lace’ tucks in nicely along the tongue without needing to be wrapped around half a dozen times to tidy away all the excess.

The route quickly goes from tarmac to long, waterlogged grass, back via tarmac to a stony trail before more grass, and then churned up mud.

While those in front carefully chose their footing on each surface, I threw the Sense Mantra through the worst I could find. My confidence grew and grew as I did, with the shoes not giving me so much as a slight slip or a sharp stone. They’re not waterproof (no bad thing in my book, as if water struggles to get in then it tends to struggle to get out when you eventually do go ankle deep) but my feet stayed dry throughout.

In conclusion, I really like these shoes. I’ll still use road shoes for road runs, which means these are unlikely to ever be my default shoes, but I’ll certainly use them for Parkruns and jaunts along the canal and Transpennine Trail.

*Disclaimer: Salomon was kind enough to give me these shoes to review

NB: While only posted in April 2015, the above post was written in Autumn 2013