This weekend I shall be running the Hardmoors 60 race. It’s part of the Hardmoors series which includes races from 15 to 160 miles along the North East coast. I’m very much looking forward to it. It is interesting to note, though, that whilst Hardmoors is in itself a well established and respected event, its name is intriguingly similar to a rather more prestigious race just across the pond, called Hardrock 100.
Hardrock 100 is, without doubt, one of the world’s standout 100 mile races. It’s been run 25 times since 1992 and this year Kilian Jornet famously completed the race with his arm in a sling having dislocated his shoulder in a fall. With 10,000 metres of elevation gain through the Colorado mountains, it’s a serious race and is on many ultra runner’s bucket list. So, in the same way that Boots and Lidl sell copycat brands like Fruit Essence alongside Herbal Essence, there’s a certain reflected glory in aligning your brand with one that’s perhaps more well known.
I noticed this again the other day when I came across the Deadwater Multi-Stage Ultramarathon. It’s a 235 mile, 6 stage race starting in Scotland, going through England and ending in Wales. Sounds awesome and I’d love to do it. Unfortunately, it’s at a terrible time of year given that there’s so much going on in the Alps at the end of August to which I’m committed for at least a couple of years. From what I can gather, the event is very new indeed, the same of which cannot be said for its US equivalent, the Badwater Ultra.
STYR Labs Badwater 135 is 30 years old and is another one of those billed as the toughest single stage race in the world. But it’s got a decent shout for the title. The elevation may not be too bad, at around 5000 metres, but it’s the heat of Furnace Creek and Death Valley that will get you. Read Susie Marsden’s blog about crewing it in 2017. If I’m honest, I think if I’m going to run an ultra in the USA, Western States and Hardrock would be higher on my list.
Given that Hardmoors is an obvious hommage to Hardrock, and Deadwater is a similar appropriation of the Badwater moniker (although it does actually start in a place called Deadwater, but we’ll gloss over that!), I wondered if there are any other UK races which have taken their names from their more prestigious US or European equivalents. A quick search of the Interwebs revealed the following events which all definitely exist.
Southern Counties 60
Western States is the oldest and most prestigious 100 mile race in the world. Climbing 5500 metres and running from Squaw Valley to Auburn in California, you’ll encounter searing temperatures in the valleys, snow capped peaks and the Rucky Chucky River crossing on your journey. Scott Jurek famously won seven in a row from 1999-2005 and Ann Trason’s record is even more amazing having won all but one between 1989 and 2003.
The UK has the Southern Counties 60. Starting in the ‘Garden of England’, Kent, through Essex, Middlesex and Surrey the Southern Counties 60 has two river crossings, through the historic Rotherhide and Dartford Tunnels. Passing through Rainham and on to East Ham, the ultra climbs over 30 metres into the sky as it crosses the county border to Poplar and Limehouse, taking in some of the dullest sections the famous London Marathon course as it does so. New Cross Gate and Lewisham are particular highlights in Surrey and Kent although the tremendous heat generated from the bus exhausts will test even the most seasoned ultra runner.
The course record was almost broken last year by Jim Worsley who was running tremendously well until he tragically fell off the Rotherhide Tunnel and drowned half way through the race. Seven time winner Dot Meat-Eater said “Unfortunately Jim went off with too many holes in his shirt. It was hilarious watching him try to blow it up and use it as a buoyancy aid. Rest in peace Jim ”.
The Barclays Marathon
The Barkley Marathons is – almost – unquestionably the most challenging ultra race in the world. Supposedly 100 miles, most agree it’s well over that and with something like 20000 metres elevation it’s no surprise that, since it began in 1986, there have only been 15 finishers. That’s 15 finishers total, in 31 years. Race Director Gary Cantrell came up with the idea for the race after prison escapee James Earl Ray managed to cover only 8 miles in 55 hours in the Tennessee hills.
In the UK, The Barclays Marathon is equally gruelling. Runners have 60 hours to visit as many branches of Barclays Bank as possible. Starting at Barclay’s head office in Canary Wharf, the race is self navigation. There is no set route and there are no aid stations. Runners must prove they have reached each branch by making a minimum £10 deposit into Race Director Percy Pond’s account and keeping the receipt which they show him on their return to Canary Wharf.
Entry to the Barclays Marathon is a very mysterious process. In an ironic hommage to its namesake, some say you have to visit the branch of Barclays in Nashville, Tennessee in person and give your name as John Fegyveresi. There was a heartbreaking conclusion to the 2017 race when Harry Blackbirds collapsed at the finish saying “I’ve kept all the receipts, I’ve kept all the receipts”. Unfortunately, although he and the only other finisher, Roger Melly, had visited 274 branches each, one of Harry’s receipts was found to be a £10 betting slip from Ladbrokes on himself to win the Barclays Marathon.
Moving away from the USA, there are few ultra races that send a shiver down the spine like the iconic UTMB, the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. A 105 mile traverse of Mont Blanc through France, Switzerland and Italy starting and ending in Chamonix. It is the pinnacle of an elite ultra runners career to win the UTMB and, although there are tougher races, there are few with the status or prestige of the UTMB. Of course, having a similarly named race in the UK may well attract attention and get you valuable extra publicity.
Let me introduce you to the UTMBBBBB, the Ultra Trail of Manchester, Bolton, Blackburn, Burnley, Bradford and Bury. Starting and finishing in Manchester this stunning route takes runners on a 100 mile race through some of the most picturesque industrial towns in the north of England. You’ll see abandoned Victorian workhouses, dilapidated coal mines, numerous streets of boarded up terraced houses and the remains of various ex-Premier League football club stadia. Runners are warned that the A666, M60, M65 and M66 are all very busy roads and head torches must be worn during the night section of the race.
In an upset this year, the favourite Julian Cornetto was beaten by 11ft 2in ultra giant Frank of Heene Road, Worthing. This year’s post-race disco and buffet was held at Damian Hall, a Masonic Lodge in the heart of Manchester’s red light district.
It’s important to mention one other UK race which has taken its name in part from the UTMB. The Ultra Race in Eastbourne has courted controversy having changed its name twice in its history. It started in 1981 as the Seven Sisters Marathon before rebranding in 2001 as the Beachy Head Marathon. The 2017 name change has caused uproar given that the race distance is only 25 miles, so not even a marathon. Yet Eastbourne Borough Council feels that with the growth of ultra running in the UK a rebrand along the lines of UTMB would improve the race’s profile. So URinE is now splattered across many tourist information brochures, shop fronts, websites and t-shirts across Sussex.
Marathon des Sable
Ten years ago Marathon des Sable was regarded, almost universally, as the toughest foot race in the world. We now know that there are probably a number of races which are more difficult to complete, but the Marathon des Sable still retains its mystique and desirability. The cost is horrendous but, however unlikely, it’s still on the bucket list for many an ultra runner, myself included. If you don’t know, Marathon des Sable is a 5 day adventure in Morocco. You run approximately a marathon a day (although there are shorter days and there is a double distance day) through the desert carrying everything you need, save for your tent.
For most of us, it’s not the difficulty of the challenge per se, but the cost that will keep us from ever taking part. If only there were a race with a similar name in the UK we could run to make up for it. Well, say hello to the Dessert Marathon. Bear with me. Literally translated, Marathon des Sable is the Marathon of Sand or the Desert Marathon. Like you, I was a bit confused initially until I spoke to Race Director James Crackpot who explained. “I knew we couldn’t use the exact name so I decided we should translate it. I’m a busy man so I passed the job to my husband, Ben Bogle. He got a bit drunk and before I knew it the translation was done and there was nothing I could do about it. So we were stuck with the Dessert Marathon.”
Rather than ditch the whole idea, James and Ben decided to go with it and have created a superb event along similar lines to the Marathon du Medoc in France or the Beer Mile. This 5 day stage race requires runners to run a marathon a day from Crosby Beach across the sand dunes to Southport and back. This retains a link to Marathon de Sable. However what makes this race unique is the nutrition rule. No runner is allowed to consume anything other than dessert during the entire event. The mandatory kit list requires each runner to carry some sort of cake. Jaffa cakes are not allowed.
Aid stations provide gateaux, trifle, fruit salad, a variety of crumbles, different flavours of ice cream, Victoria sponge, rice pudding and strawberry pavlova. All served in china bowls with custard, pouring or squirty cream. Any runner found eating savoury food or gels is immediately disqualified. Obviously, water is not going to compliment a dessert, so runners are required to carry liqueur coffee in their bottles and standard tea or coffee is supplied at the aid stations. Finishers are presented with a lighted cigar as they cross the line.
Celebrate UK Trails
Here in the UK, we may not have the extremes of temperature or weather that they have in other parts of the world. We may not have expansive deserts or soaring mountain peaks, but what we do have are creative opportunists, willing and able to jump on a bandwagon and copy a good idea when they see it. We are nothing if not expedient.
Let us celebrate the trail running opportunities we have here in the UK. It’s very nice to dream of going abroad and running across the Alps or through the Costa Rican jungle but the grass is always greener on the other side…..urm except for in the desert. Not a lot of grass in the desert…or on the top of a mountain for that matter, mostly snow. Actually, there’s probably not an awful lot of grass in the jungle either. Lots of big trees and huge leaved plants and bugs, lots and lots of bugs.
So, in summary, UK trails have a lot to offer. The UK has some stunning races from the Jurassic Coast to the Lake District, so get on the tinterweb, sign up and get out there now. This author takes no responsibility whatsoever for runners attempting to sign up for any of the races listed above. Run at your own risk and remember, no headphones allowed.