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.

One thought on “The Campness of Cramping

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