The Road is Always Long

My journey through the world of ultra marathons.

Monthly Archives: August 2014

The Devil – two weeks later.

Well, that has been exactly two weeks since the start of the Devil O’ the Highlands race, exactly as it’s (5:58) in the morning.  What the f…. am I doing up at this time?  Well, I’ve a big conversation to have on Monday and I woke at 4am thinking about what I am going to say and how I am going to say it.  Difficult conversations are not normally a source of stress for me, I don’t enjoy them, but I don’t shy away from them either.  Sometimes they just have to be done.  I’ve been given a great opportunity that I think, given my current circumstances, I would be foolish not to progress.

Anyway, I thought I would give an update on the last two weeks, post race, maybe some reflection, and some plans going forward.  Forward planning now fills me with a little dread.  I can target races months away and given my injury rate of late, I’ve no idea if I will make the start line!!

I took a full week and and a day off training after the race.  I let loose on the diet and allowed myself a few indulgent days/evenings with family and friends.  This included a 4:30pm start with mates in Edinburgh and a 5am finish! Ouch!  It took me days to recover from that.  This was a regular feature about 15-20 years ago, but as we are all in our 40’s our recovery ability from such nights is about the same as my recovery from a hard track session – it takes days!!!

It was good not to be training, not having to get up early or worry about packing my bag for work (my training is my commute), but by the Wednesday (only 3 days off) I was missing it and looking forward to getting back to training.  By the following Sunday, post race, I’d gained 8 pounds!!  If I didn’t run i would be a right porker!

I’d planned in a very easy week to come back.  Easy jogging into work (just over 4 miles) and then easy jogging home (6 miles to train station).  However, I remember a famous coach (whose name escapes me, LOL, not that famous then) who said that if you feel good then run harder, or words to that effect (my paraphrasing is rubbish).  So yesterday, I left work and after the usual awkward first mile, I felt really good and bouncy.  I picked up the pace on each mile and from starting out at 6:50 average pace I finished at 6:10 average pace, covering the first five miles in just over 31 minutes, with an easy mile to the train station.  I just felt good, so went for it.  I’ve also started back at the gym with some core work and stretching and next week I’ll be introducing some plyometric work a couple of times a week.  Next week is also the start of the 11 week training plan for the Glen Ogle 33 ultra.  This was my first ultra race last November and I fancy having another go at it this year.  The race last year didn’t quite finish the way I wanted it to, but with more miles under my belt and a better understanding of race nutrition and hydration, along with specific training, I should have a better pop at it this year.

So generally the plan is to alternate my long runs on the road and in the hills. The long Sunday runs in the hills will just be about being out there for time on feet, running hard up and down the Pentlands.  I really need to get my skills uprating, The Devil race showed this huge hole in my training.  The long road runs will mostly be sessions, including, marathon paced work, fast finishes, surges etc but I will also just factor in there some easy long runs.  I’m also planning on increasing my Saturday morning runs and including some climb and descent in there.  I am not too far from Arthurs Seat here in Edinburgh, so that could be my Saturday morning run most weeks.

Long runs covered, the remainder of the week will be what I can fit in with work and family life.  We have a new addition coming to the family in about 5 weeks time and this will most likey affect training for a couple of weeks at the very least.  I do have a treadmill in the house so there are options there.  But at the end of the day this is a hobby, family comes first.

I’ve had a few niggles this week, my left hip flexor has been painful as well as both quads.  I suspect this is just a reaction to the Devil, but other than that I think I have recovered quite well.  Better than I expected, it took me a few weeks to get over the GO33 race from last year and it really affected my races for the remainder of the year.  Which was annoying as I was selected for the Scottish Masters Cross Country team for the annual international race, and ran very poorly.

I’ve put my name forward again to the selectors for this year too, but I am not hopeful of a spot on the team.  There are now many 40+ Scottish males far quicker then me, and would deserve a place on the team ahead of me.  Unfortunately, they all can’t make the racing weekend (this year it’s in Nottingham).  Or should I say fortunately, so I get the nod, LOL.

Nutirition wise, I have altered my proteen intake.  I’ve started to use a protein supplement for the first time in the hope that I can recover quicker from sessions.  I am not holding my breath, but it was something I picked up from a very good book I have been reading.  Will see if it makes a difference, it not, it will be ditched as it’s expensive and just something else to organise on a daily basis!!

Anyway, it’s good to ge this down on the virtual paper, so to speak.  Always good to read back and see how things went and see what adjustments can be made to training and nutrition. It’s also 6:34 (how long does it take me to write stuff down) and I need to go and get my run out of the way.

The Devil O’ The Highlands 2014

Kit List

  • Hoka one one Rapa Nui Trail
  • Nike Dri-fit race socks
  • Nike Combat base layer shorts
  • Adidas race shorts
  • New Balance sleeveless t-shirt
  • Ultimate Direction SJ Race vest
  • Wristband from Edinburgh AC 10k race
  • Scottish Flag Buff
  • Adidas Sunglasses.

Race Pack Contents

  • West Highland Way Map
  • Compass
  • Two GU gels
  • Toilet Paper
  • Empty water bottle – more on that later
  • Foil Blanket

In Back Up Car

  • Water – 8 litres
  • High 5 Zero Electrolyte tablets
  • Vitargo carbohydrate mix
  • Jelly babies
  • Soreen malt loaf
  • Boiled new potatoes
  • 10 GU gels, mixed caffiene and non caffiene
  • 2 Mars bars

Background

I’d entered this race many months ago.  Having completed the Glen Ogle Ultra in November 2013 I thought I needed another challenge.  I really wanted to concentrate on the marathon distance over the winter of 2013 and chose to pick a race that was later in 2014.  I’d supported Steven on his full West Highland Way race in the summer of 2013 and enjoyed running with him from Bridge of Orchy that it was right to choose the Devil as my first medium distance ultra.  I ignored the fact that a) I am rubbish at running on hills and this has over 6000ft of ascent and b) I am rubbish at running off road.  My cross country preformances for my running club Edinburgh AC are woeful.  How I thought I could run 43 miles over some of Scotland’s toughest terrain when I fall to bits in a 10k cross country course is still a mystery to me, never mind anyone who knows me.

Crew

Steven is pretty much a veteran of ultra running and without his knowledge and advice I would have been vastly underprepared for this race.  His advice about food and hydration, the organisation at the check points and meeting points was invaluable.  As was his crewing/support on the day.  He was always where he said he would be with the food/drinks that he said he would have.  I don’t think I stopped for more than 30 seconds at each check point.  I think I managed to avoid swearing at most check points but didn’t quite manage it the whole way.  I can’t think him enough for helping me through this race.

 

Pre Race Build Up

I’d completed Edinburgh marathon at the end of May in a disappointing 2:38.  I went through half way in 1:17 and felt good up to that point, then things started to go south and I struggled in the last few miles with cramp and dead legs to cross the line in 2:38.  I was only looking for the qualifying time for London Marathon in 2015 and I got that, so I was pleased to get that QT and record another sub 2:40 marathon.  I took a few days off after the marathon, just to let the legs recover a little and went out for an easy 4 mile jog on the Thursday the following week.  No real issues, a bit tired, a bit sore, but easy running and the pain was to be expected.  Then over the weekend I continued to run but I was becoming aware of a numbness in my left calf.  By the following Tuesday, on a run home from work, the numbness had turned into severe pain, where I had to limp to Haymarket station and get the train home.  A few days off running made no difference and a 4 mile run exactly a week after resulted in the same issue reappearing.  Diagnosis: calf tear and up to 6 weeks of no running.  And it took 6 weeks for the calf to heal properly, in which I cycled, swam and hit the gym as much as my boredom would allow (which wasn’t much).  I did manage to cycle to and from work most days, a round trip of 30 miles and combined with 3-4 weekly half hour swims, I managed to keep the weight down and retain some level of fitness.  A few false starts to running during that 6 week period resulted in more calf pain, so running was cut out completely.  I was getting very worried about my ability to start the Devil.  Then on the 3rd July less than a month to the race I had my first run in my new Hoka One One Rapa Nui Trail shoes.

 

I had often wondered about these shoes.  I’ve gone full circle with shoes.  Like most people I started off with just normal cushioned shoes.  I progressed to racing flats when I started to get a little quicker and more serious about it and I trained in racing flats for a lot of years.  Then the minimalist era appeared and I dipped my toes into that for a few months, but the injuries just kept coming.  People often say that you need to persevere, but I was injured for years trying this method of running.  Like most things in life, what works for one, won’t necessarily work for the other.  We have to find our own way and that goes for training, nutrition, hydration strategies, everything.  Anyone who says they have a one shoe fits all approach is misguided.  We all have different requirements.  Anyway, I got back into cushioned shoes and then onto the Hokas.  I will probably write a review of these shoes (I also have the tarmac version of them too) at some point so I will leave that for the moment.

 

I purchased the Hokas from Edinburgh’s #1 running shop, Run and Become with some vouchers I had won from the Edinburgh marathon for being the second old guy in the race.  I ran around my work’s designated grass running route, 4 miles with no pain.  Maybe, just maybe I could get to the start line.  From then until the Sunday I managed 28 miles of pain free running.  There was still a little numbness in the calf, but it never progressed to full blown pain as it had done in the previous weeks.  Following that week I spent a fabulous week in Gran Canaria with the family and I ran twice a day most days.  Not covering much distance but it accumulated to 60 miles of hilly running in the heat.  The following week I clocked up 100 miles including a Saturday run of 15 miles followed by 27 miles in the Pentland hills with Steven on Sunday and then it was time to taper!!!!  So I essentially had 2.5 weeks of training prior the race, I wasn’t holding out much hope of a good run, but I was determined to finish.  I wanted to get a qualifying race under my belt for the full route which I was still debating whether to enter the ballot for 2015 or not.  I would run the race and I would finish it, but any hopes of a decent time might just be out of my reach this time.

The Route

The Devil O’ The Highlands (in case you don’t know) is a 43 (well it was just over 42) mile footrace with around 6000ft of climb and descent from Tyndrum to Fort William in the Scottish Highlands.  The route is comprised of old drover’s roads and tracks over some of Scotland’s most beautiful scenery.  I absolutely love Glencoe, it is such a stunning place to be.  The race starts in Tyndrum and follows an easy runnable track to Bridge or Orchy (BoO) where the first climb comes.  This smallish climb charmingly called ‘Jelly Baby Hill’ or ‘Haribo Hill’ is easily runnable forestry trails which opens out at the top for the descent into Victoria Bridge. There is then around a mile on Tarmac to the start of the old drove road over Rannoch moor.  This is a gradual uphill climb for about 6 miles and then a drop into Glencoe Ski Centre car park.  The underfoot conditions are rough stone with a few very rough sections that need to be taken cautiously.   From the ski centre the route crosses the A82 onto old tarmac roads into the Kingshouse Hotel and follows a track to the bottom of the Devil’s Staircase around 21 miles into the race.  The Devil’s Staircase is a 450metre vertical ascent on some pretty rough underfoot conditions, and the descent at the other side to Kinlochleven (KLL) is even worse.  This descent really needs to be navigated as the underfoot conditions are pretty awful. More on that later. The last section of the descent into KLL is better but slippery when wet (queue Jon Bon Jovi).  There is then about a mile or two through KLL town and then onto the steeper and longer climb (650m vertical) to the Lairig Mor, a very long valley pass on the way to Fort William (FW).  The underfoot conditions are tricky for the most of it with large boulders and rocks sticking out of the ground at the tougher sections.  There is then some forestry tracks through Lundavra and a small climb up to the forestry service road that takes you down into Fort William itself.  The route finishes at the first roundabout when entering the town from the Braveheart car park road some 42 odd miles later.  While I’ve said that a lot of this route it tricky and sometimes dangerous, this route contains some of Scotland’s most beautiful scenery and nobody should be put off by the underfoot conditions if they fancy a wee walk in the highlands. It is perfectly safe to walk if you have the right gear and knowledge.  Running it, well, that is a different story!!

 

The Race

Steven and I stayed in the Tigh-na-Fraoch (House of Heather) B&B the night before the race.  Heather, the B&B owner, was also running the race and kindly allowed us to stay over the night.  Also staying the night was Kevin O’Donoghue, who was 3rd in last year’s race.  We all rose up at 4am on the day of the race to get our much needed pre race meal in our systems in plenty of time.  I hadn’t had the best sleep.  The calf tear that I struggled with for weeks was starting to play up, or at least play up in my head.  Steven gave me some pain killers that, on hindsight, may have contained caffeine, so I tossed and turned until about 1am.  So with 3 hours of sleep and a belly full of porridge and honey we headed to the Green Welly Stop for the race registration and briefing.  We got a seat up the back of the café and watched the nervous runners and crew go about their pre race routines and rituals.  On the whole most runners looked happy and nervous, there was a good vibe, and I was starting to get nervous myself.  I was keen for it to get started, my lack of training wasn’t on my mind at all and I knew that I would finish the race.  3 months prior to the race (pre calf tear) I wanted to be able to compete in the race, but now my main goal was to finish, to get that qualifying race under my belt. That was the main goal.

 

I spotted John Sharp.  John is a quality runner from Inverclyde AC. He showed me a clean pair of heels at the Scottish half Marathon championships in Moray last year and at this year’s Edinburgh Marathon, so I knew his quality. I hadn’t noticed him in any ultra results, so I assumed this was his first.  He would be a threat to the leaders of the race, for sure.  Then I spotted Casey Morgan.  I didn’t know Casey before the race.  He is an established ultra and mountain runner of very good quality and he would definitely be the man to beat today. I’d recently listened to an interview with him on the Talk Ultra Podcast where he discussed his 10th place at Transgrancanaria.  He has a string of podium places over the last few years in the Ultra scene at home and abroad and is a seasoned athlete.  I had also noticed some Facebook posts from a member of Paul Giblin’s family and wondered if he might show up at the last minute, like he did for this year’s West Highland Way race.  For anyone who hasn’t heard of Paul, he is the current record holder for the WHW race at 14 hours and 20 minutes, taking a near 50 minutes of his old record from last year.  In the end he didn’t appear on the start line.  I am sure it would have been a very interesting race if he had!  There was also Neil MacNicol, a veteran runner (like me) who appears to have had a podium place on just about every ultra he has entered.  Another very good athlete.  I didn’t know Neil, but he was pointed out to me by people I knew who had been in the same races as him in the past.

 

After a race briefing from Garry we made our way up the side of Brodies store to the star line and within a few minutes we were off.  The race starts on a small uphill tarmac section and the pace was sedate, so Casey took the lead and the pace increased.  I decided to go with him at the start.  Having come from a road background the pace was still fairly steady and so I stuck with him.  With it being 6am it takes a wee while for this old engine to warm up and I was breathing pretty hard on the climb.  John Sharp had also joined us, followed closely by

Neil and Kevin and a few others.  Once we reached the level road the pace increased, looking at my watch a few times to BoO we would be clocking sub 6:30 minute miles at times.  The pace was fast but I was feeling really good, better than I expected.

 

The three of us (Casey, John and I) went through BoO together and had already put a gap between us and the rest of the field.  Then we started the first climb of the race out of BoO and I was in the lead.  After about 100m I looked behind to see Casey on my tail and John a little further back.  The start of the climb this is a single file track with long grass and ferns on either side.  When we got to a wider part of the trail, Casey took off like a mountain goat.  I have never been strong on hills, it something I have never trained. The races I would do on the road were predominantly flat, so I never saw the need.  As Casey put space between us on each foot strike, I wished I done more hill training in my running.  Within a minute he had put about 100m gap as I struggled with the climb and by the top he was at least 200m ahead as we descended into Victoria Bridge.

 

As I approached Victoria Bridge I could see Steven waiting with some supplies.  This was where I picked up my first hydration bottle.  I’d started with a bottle, but it was for show only, empty.  We’d arranged that this would be the first time I would need anything which is about 9-10 miles in and along with the bottle, which contained a Vitargo and High 5 Zero mix, I collected two gels.  My nutrition approach was a gel every half hour until I got sick of them or wanted some real food.  I had already had two gels on the route to VB, and they had settled in my stomach quite nicely.  At this point, I’d also clawed back some time on Casey and I saw him hesitate at the gate to Rannoch moor whether to hold the gate open for me as I wasn’t that far behind, but he didn’t, and I know I certainly wouldn’t have if the tables were turned.  On the long slow climb over Rannoch Moor, Casey again opened up a gap on me and that gap grew to the Glencoe Ski centre car park.  As I approached the car park from Rannoch Moor I could see Casey on the run out.  I later learned that he lost time in there looking for his crew who hadn’t made it on time.  Steven was there again for a very quick stop to replace a bottle and pick up more gels.  I could see Casey stop at a car at the main A82 and I gained some space on him here and as we approached the Kingshouse Hotel I was about 20-30 metres behind him.  This would be as close as I would get.  I started to feel tired at this point, 19 miles in and I was starting to struggle.  It was at this point I had my first doubts.  I had 23 miles still to run over the toughest part of the route and my endurance was waning.

 

The Devil’s Staircase is a winding path up and over the Aonagh Eagach ridge and is around a 400m vertical climb.  The actual distance of the path I am not sure, but it is a tough climb.  I ran the first section of the climb and I could see Casey a few ‘rungs’ up the hill, running hard.  After a few hundred metres I had to walk, the climb became too steep and difficult to run.  There are a few sections that actually look like stairs, I suspect they have been there since General Wade’s day!!!  I started to run again as I approached the top and cresting over the summit, Casey was nowhere to be seen.  This initial descent is treacherous, uneven exposed rock face and rocks sticking up out the ground everywhere.  After about 100m, I tripped on an exposed rock and went flying forward, landing on my hands and knees.  A small fall, and I quickly got back up onto my feet.  Then about 100m later and tripped again, same foot, same toe and I went flying on this one, landing heavily on my left hand side.  I lay there with rocks poking in my back and pain in my left leg and right foot.  This one hurt!  After a minute and a bit of shouting and swearing I got up and started to hobble/jog, being very apprehensive of my descent while the pain subsided.  A couple of minutes later I was off again navigating my way down and over the terrain, taking it easy when I needed to.  You can see KLL from the top of the Devil, and it looks so close, only 14 miles from there, but it is actually miles away and a good hour over this type of underfoot conditions.  It is a tough descent.  I was glad to reach the relatively sedate paths that ran along the hydro station equipment and then eventually onto, my friend, tarmac as I entered KLL.  Steven was again there as expected with all that was needed and said the Casey was about 10 minutes ahead.  I knew there was no way I was going to catch him, now it was just a matter of finishing and hopefully retaining second place. KLL is about 29 miles into the race and I hadn’t ran this distance since November 2013, over 9 months previously.  I hadn’t thought about this at the time, but I’d only had one longer than marathon run in 2014 and that was 2 weeks prior to the race.  What did I really expect?  Sometimes I can be very tough on myself.  I was disappointed that I could not longer challenge and I was angry with myself for slowing, but I was determined to finish this race.  It has struck me since the race that ultra running is far more than your current physical state, your state of mind is probably of equal importance.  At no time in this race did I contemplate pulling out, not once.  Although physically I wasn’t ready for it, I am delighted with the way I mentally approached the race as it happened.  I can keep going and that is exactly what I did leaving KLL.

 

The climb out of KLL is a toughie.  It’s around 650m of vertical climb through forest, but the underfoot conditions are not as tough as the Devil.  However, with my physical state deteriorating, I was forced to walk large parts of the climb, in fact pretty much all of it.  And that run/walk mode lasted the entire way along the Lairig Mor.  As this was now mid morning, there were a lot of walkers out on the route, many taking their final walk on the full WHW into Fort William.  All were very pleasant, wishing me luck, and congratulating me, while I was wishing that I was walking with them.  My average pace over the route had slipped from 6:30-6:40 at Glencoe to 8:30-8:40 on the Lairig Mor.  This was a really tough section and I was leaking time.  Some self talk or shout motivation was needed and as I started to run at a reasonable pace I tripped again, this time I could feel the toe crunch in my shoe, always the same foot that caught.  And I tumbled and tumbled.  This time there was blood and pain almost everywhere.  I lay there, unable to move.  I could see some walkers further down the hill, but they were moving away from me.  I thought, is this it, have a broken something and do I need to be helicoptered out of here.  All I could think of was the embarrassment of it.  The pain stated to subside and I started to move a little until I sat up.  My arm left side (again!!) had taken the brunt of the impact but there were cuts on both sides.  The left was worse and there was a large road rash type injury at the bottom of my left leg, cuts to my left and right arm and strangely my left stomach. I could feel impact points on my back and right side.  I needed to get up, to assess the damage, to assess my chances of finishing.  So I got up.  Believe it or not, after 30 odd miles of running it’s only the running motion that doesn’t hurt.  Trying to do anything else is painful!  Getting up off the ground must have taken me 3 minutes! Seriously! I could stand and I could walk, so I could finish.  And I plodded on until the pain had gone to a level I was comfortable with and I started to run again.  Coming into Lundavra and Steven was there, as usual.  I had gone off the gels at this point and wanted no more food, but I was thirsty and took on some water and then took the electrolyte bottle and was off again.  Steven had told me I was about 10 minutes ahead of 3rd at KLL.  I had lost so much time on the Lairig Mor that I was very conscious that I could be caught.

 

So I started running out of Lundavra as fast as I could.  There is around 7 miles to go in the race, mostly downhill and I thought I need to keep moving, I need to keep 2nd place.  If you had told me I would be 2nd in Tyndrum at 6am that morning, I would have laughed it off.  In all honesty, if I was 20th or 30th or last but finished the race I would have been happy, but the competitor in me wanted to hold onto this position. So I ran as much as I could, walked when the climbs were too steep for me and ran as hard as I could on the descents.  It was an absolute relief when I crested onto the service road. Nearly 40 miles in and it was runnable track and road all the way to the finish.  I wouldn’t be caught now.

 

About 2 miles from the end on a flat, stable part of the road I felt this excruciating pain on the inside of my right leg.  It was so sore I couldn’t run another step.  I stopped, tried to stretch it, tried to massage it, nothing gave relief and so I started walking. Never stop!  It started to ease and so I started to jog again, and as it subsided more I could pick up to a run again.  At this point I was doing the ultimate no no and looking behind me.  Nobody there, just keep going, I told myself.  I’ve since googled the muscle in question, the gracilis.  It appears to be a pretty pointless muscle, but trust me when that spasms, it is agony!  Not long after that I approached a walker, heading up the hill.  An old guy in his 70’s maybe 80’s in what looked like 60’s walking gear.  As it was still morning, I said, “Good Morning”, he looked at me, emotionless and replied “Hurry Up!”.

 

The sense of relief as I saw the Braveheart car park was immense, about a mile to go and I actually broke into a half decent pace on the tarmac path to the finish.  There was a small gathering of people standing around in the rain clapping and cheering and it I felt such a sense of achievement as I crossed the line.  I’d just completed the Devil O’ the Highlands in 6 hours and a couple of seconds, finishing second behind the very impressive Casey Morgan who broke the 6 year old Jez Bragg record in 5:13 minutes.  A full 47 minutes ahead of me.  I didn’t care that I had lost a further 35 minutes from KLL to the end, I had walked a lot of that section, I was delighted to finish and a podium place is a podium place.  Neil MacNicol had closed me down to almost 2 minutes as he crossed the line in 6:02 with Kevin coming in 4th  in 6:06.  John, who had been with us at the start, unfortunately had to pull out at Glencoe, I hope he is ok.

 

Race Organisation

All I can say is brilliant.  There have been a lot of negative vibes going around before this race started and I have no idea why or what they were and to be honest I couldn’t care less. I have been unaffected by it. This race is very well organised and managed.  I spoke with both Garry and Gemma after the race and they were thoroughly nice people, who care passionately about the race.  I’ve heard some rumblings about the race being run for profit.  As are most high level road races.  If you don’t like that aspect, don’t enter, surely that is the best way to protest about it.   Sitting in the house as the keyboard warrior is not the way forward.  If I have any complaints about the whole experience is the on line presence of the race.  The Devil website is badly in need of an update, I hope they do that soon.

 

Post Race Reflection

I am delighted that I have finished the race and to podium is a level higher than I expected.  I went into this race under prepared and I needed a lot more training.  However, it has shown me that I can compete at these types of distances and I do have some of the qualities that are needed in ultra races, particularly the mental aspect.  There are a number of aspects to my ‘game’ that I need to work on, but these are all workable and I will tailor my future training to that.  I am looking forward to progressing on this path, I feel that the ultra world is offering me a new challenge in my running and I’ve got a new eagerness to explore it.

The Campness of Cramping

I’d made the decision to enter the Glen Ogle 33 mile ultra almost as soon as I’d finished supporting Steven on his West Highland Way race attempt this year. Avid blog readers may remember how much I enjoyed supporting Steven to an astounding 22 hour finish of the 95 mile race. Steven told me about the Glen Ogle 33 and I waited, like so many, on the opening day to get my entry in. It was sold out in a matter of hours, testament to the popularity of this race and ultra running in Scotland generally.

Scotland is a strange country to organise an ultra marathon, don’t you think? We have some of the most beautiful scenery in the world (personal opinion of course), fantastic trails, steeped in history, varied wildlife, great people, but probably some of the most consistently horrific weather conditions this side of the Watford Gap!! It is not unusual here to have horizontal rain. It’s also not unusual to have almost all seasons in a day, scratch that, all seasons in an hour!! It makes preparing yourself for an ultra very difficult from a ‘what to pack’ perspective. Did you ever watch The Fast Show? Channel 9 Weather? Scorchio, Scorchio, Scorchio. Scottish weather forecasting would as well being decided by a ‘weather’ puggy (bandit, or fruit machine to Englandshire people), it is simply unpredictable. But you have to think about it, right? I packed everything to take with me, that way I couldn’t say I wasn’t prepared.

The day started with a 4:45 rise to get a bowl of porridge and heather honey (thanks to Tizer’s Aunt and Uncle who have their own beehives in the North West of Scotland). It went down well. I hadn’t eaten since 6pm the previous night, where I consumed enough prawn risotto to feed Luxemburg, so I was hungry. I’ve been stung in the past with consuming too much at breakfast though (no details on that please I hear you saying), so the oats were carefully measured and the honey was only a spoonful, the salt and water were also carefully applied. We normally have dinner later than 6pm, but I wanted to see if I could break the usual 7:30 morning ‘comfort break’. As the race started at 8am, a 7:30 comfort break was getting too close for comfort, quite literally! The early dinner worked a treat and I was out the door by 5:15 and heading to Livingston to pick up Steven. Steven was running his 5th Ultra this year, crazy man, this one, all three on the West Highland Way and another one that has escaped my mind.

It was cold outside, the temperature gauge on the car instrument panel read 1 degree, when we got to Strathyre that temperature had doubled!!! Stepping out the car at the Campsite/Registration reminded me of snowboarding holidays, a cold, crisp winter day, but a calm light wind. It had been wet though and the walk across the grass to the registration tent soaked my shoes and socks. Back to the car with my number and a change of clothes already. New socks on. Then started the dilemma of what to pack and what to wear. I must have pulled stuff in and out of my race pack a hundred times, before deciding on t-shirt and shorts, beanie and gloves and packed a space blanket and my Montane minimus race smock. I’d filled one of the bottles for the race vest with Torq carb drink, the other bottle, I’d filled with electrolyte and put it, along with some GU Energy gels, in a drop bag and left that at registration. I’d intended on picking this up at checkpoint 3, about 19 miles into the route.

The race vest was a Ultimate Direction, Scott Jurek race vest. Very lightweight pack with plenty storage locations. It has two up-front water bottle pouches. I used the second one to stick the 3 GU Energy gels into. I’d chosen the small vest, but on hindsight the medium may have been a better option, as the second chest strap is at it’s maximum range. Any weight gain could make it uncomfortable and the side pockets are, well, now almost back pockets. Still, it’s light, it does the job and there is no bounce. It was the right choice for the race and given it’s versatility the right choice for any long day out training, mountain or trail running.

After a race briefing, which I think I caught about 2 words of, we were being marched down the main road out of Strathyre to the race start. There was no actual line to toe instead the runners just congregated on a forestry road chatting and trying to keep warm. Then there was a count down and we were off. A group of about 5 or 6 lads headed off first and I was just sitting behind them. The first two and a bit miles are uphill, some of it steep and so the group started to thin out. When we reached the summit, myself and two other lads had created a small gap on the others and we started our first descent into Kingshouse. We were averaging about 7 minute miles to this point, maybe just under. We turned the corner at the hotel in Kingshouse and faced the first checkpoint, although I am not sure anyone was ready for us as they frantically ran up the road to show us where to go. Having recced the route a few weeks before I knew we were turning onto the cycle path. This was an undulating part of the course, with some short sharp inclines and declines. We were starting to loose one of the lads at this point. Abdul, was running hard up the inclines, maybe trying to unnerve me, but I would catch him again on the flats and descents, and once we joined the old railway line we were still together. We ran stride for stride for the next 3 miles, the pace ever creeping upwards. The average was now down to 6:40’s and I was wondering if I, or we, were overcooking it. When I’d recced the course, I had ran with Steven at 8:30’s for the first 23 miles and due to Steven’s foot injury I had to run the lat 8 or 9 myself. I’d done this at 6:40 pace and remembered how hard it was, so to be running at 6:40’s average at this point was a total unknown to me and I was slightly worried. However, I felt great.

8 miles in we both started our ascent from the low railway line to the high line. This is a zig zag path that climbs over a hundred feet in a short distance. We had slowed right down here and Abdul said that he was going to slow down. Once you reach the top of this little climb the route continues to climb to the top of the Glen Ogle valley, maybe another 3 or 4 miles. I didn’t want to slow down and so kept the pace hard but sustainable. The average pace was coming down all the time, until it settled around 6:25 per mile. At the top of the valley was checkpoint 2 and where my drop bag was. I’d taken one gel at 10 miles and had 2 left in my pack, I’d also hardly touched my carb drink, so I didn’t stop and crossed the road and then down past the burger van and the long 2-3 miles into Killin. I was now on my own totally and didn’t see another person for another 5-6 miles. The climb out of Killin to the top of the forestry road was brutal and I considering walking as I approached the top. I did actually take 2 ‘walking’ steps and then shouted at myself to HTFU. It took a full 5 minutes for my legs to get back to normal after that climb and the average pace had dropped to close to 6:35’s, but now there was another descent to the burger van and checkpoint 3 (which was also checkpoint 2). As I approached the burger van and car park, I will never forget the noise. There were cow bells clanging, people shouting, people whooping, it was unbelievable, I couldn’t help but go through there with a huge smile on my face. It was fantastic support, and reminder me of the crowed noise at New York marathon in 2007. Seriously, it was that noisy!!!

It gave me a real lift and my pace increased a little going through checkpoint 3. I was asked if I wanted water or my drop bag, but I politely (I hope) refused both and headed now downhill on the railway line, passing some of the back markers in the race. All very cheery and happy looking, we would ‘well done’ each other. I’d gone through 20 miles in around 2 hours and 9 minutes and still felt really good. I took my second gel at around 22 miles and drank some more of the carb drink, but by the time I got back to the undulating cycle path, any movement other than going straight forward hurt. Going over cattle grids was painful and the descents were really starting to hurt my quads. I was surprised to see that the pace wasn’t dropping although the race was becoming more painful.

Coming out of the cycle path to checkpoint 4 and I knew it was an undulating final 5-6 miles. At this point I was sore, but still running well and at 26.2 miles I lapped my watch (I didn’t have it set to auto lap) and was pleased to see a 2:50 marathon under my belt considering the amount of climb. However, at that precise moment, the heavens opened up and within a millisecond I was drenched. Both hamstrings had also had enough by this point and were beginning to spasm, threatening full blown cramp. I stopped. At the side of the road I stretched out both hamstrings as much as I could and then started running again. Because I had lapped my watch at 26.2 I was now getting a new average pace reading and it was down to 7 mm again. I had a real fear I was going to get caught and doubt started to creep in about finishing this running. I imagined pictures of me walking to the end and losing place after place along this final 4-5 miles. After a few more stops to stretch out the hammies and shouts of frustration, I’d had enough. Another self shouty moment of HTFU and just get on with it!! While running, that feeling of full blown cramp was always just a ball hair away and I wondered how long this would last before it was crippling me. I approach an old bridge and on the incline to it, I altered how I ran. The stride length had shortened and therefore, I think, the hamstrings were being used less and the feeling of cramping instantly disappeared.

As there was nobody around, I didn’t care what I looked like, but I had pictures of me, mincing along this back road with little short steps, hands held too high with fearful apprehension of a cramping bout. But what I should have been worried about was a serious camping bout, Larry Grayson style!! I didn’t care, I could run again, albeit at an average pace of 6:50’s with half a dozen 10-20 seconds stops, so I was still moving and it meant I could get to the end without walking large portions of it. These final couple of miles into Strathyre are tough. The course has a real sting in the tail with sharp inclines and declines to the finish. My quads were totally trashed with the descents and my hamstrings gubbed with the relentless pace I’d set myself for the previous 30 miles, but I was going to finish this race, in fact I was going to win this race.

I was soaked to the skin as I crossed the finish line in 3 hours 26 minutes and 32 seconds. I’d taken about 17 minutes of the previous course record and despite the pain, how cold and wet I was, how miserable I should have felt in those conditions, you know what, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Brilliant, brilliant event, excellent support, excellent marshals, excellent organisers.