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The leaves are falling from the trees. The nights are drawing in. Everything is turning glorious shades of orange and yellow and there’s a sense of excitement in the air. It can all only mean one thing! It’s Jedburgh time again!
My first foray into the world of Ultra in 2015 and still my favourite race of any year, the Jedburgh 3 Peaks Ultra is one that I keep coming back to again and again and it never disappoints. 38 miles long, starting in the middle of Jedburgh and taking runners through glorious countryside before a hop, skip and jump over the Eildon hills and then back to where you started. I’ve managed to PB every year since my first so I was hoping that I would continue that trend this year too.
After a few conversations with Mark, we decided that we were both in decent shape coming into the race and a 7:30 run was within reach for both of us. My plan was to go out at a quick pace and try to maintain it for the majority of the race. No fannying around at checkpoints. Get up and over the 3 peaks with the minimum of fuss. I thought if we could stick to this then it was definitely an achievable goal and would be a decent PB.
I had again opted to stay in Jedburgh the night before to maximise my energy for the race and the Spread Eagle Hotel put on breakfast for us at 6:45. This meant I was able to get a big bowl of porridge and some toast and coffee in me an hour before the race which was ideal. From there it was a two minute walk down the hill to registration where I met up with Mark. I met Donna and Dale Pass at breakfast and when I got to registration it was like turning up at a surprise party full of your friends. I lost count of how many hugs and handshakes I got before picking up my number and heading outside for the obligatory warm up.
Last year, Mark and I were too busy chatting at the start line and were surprised by the airhorn signaling the start of the race. This year, we managed to pay enough attention to hear the countdown and set off at a good pace around a third of the way down the field. After a few minutes we were peeling off of the Main Street and heading into the woods and everyone began to settle into their rhythm. As we went up and over the bridge, we didn’t slow any as we came to the first hill and chatted. Ian Burdett, running his first J3P sidled up alongside us as we cruised down the tarmac and we were able to chat for a few minutes before his long legs carried him away from us and off into the distance.
After the road crossing we tried to keep the pace up as we headed through the woods and along the river bank towards the infamous wobbly bridge. I always like to have a little bounce on the bridge on the way out to try and make someone scream a little but everyone was way too composed this year despite my best efforts. The next section through the woods and then over the fields is one of my favourite parts of the course and I was determined to run it well. On the outward journey it’s always so beautiful when you are full of energy and can look around at the trees in their full Autumnal glory. I’m sure they are still beautiful on the way back but I’m usually staring at my weary feet and trying not to twist an ankle!
Once out of the woods and over Dere Street, we came to the mudslide section which is a steep sided trough of wet mud which is either great fun or horrible and scary depending on your viewpoint. I tend to think of it as the former but just as we got to it, I turned my head to remind Mark that this was where our friend Emma had taken a nasty tumble last year and as I did, I caught my toe on a rock and went flying through the air Superman-style and landed on my face in the mud. Thankfully, no damage done except to my ego so I dusted myself off and ploughed down the hill at speed with a smile on my face. (I’m going to nickname that spot Peverils Folly in honour of Emma who was the first of us to fall there!)
Once safely down the mudslide, it was another mile or so of good running through the woods before we came to the road and took a right turn down the hill towards the Maxton checkpoint.
Mark and I had both decided to run straight through here as at 10 miles in, there is little need for refuelling and we would rather just push straight on and not disturb our momentum. I always feel that the race quietens down after Maxton. I think that you leave the excitement and hubbub of the first checkpoint and the noise of the river takes over and calms things down. There are also a lot of wooden steps and boardwalks in this section which you need to take care on especially if they are wet so this slows the pace slightly.
Stopping briefly in the woods for a photo with the piper, we pushed on down towards the river and continued to make good time. At this point, I think we were about 8 minutes quicker to CP1 than the previous year and feeling strong so we didn’t want to break stride for too long. We made good time along the river and on to the golf course using the steep hill to boost the energy reserves with some tablet before we headed into St Boswells. From the top of the hill, you get your first proper view of the 3 peaks and it’s always a fantastic sight (although this year I decided not to stop for a photo as I have 4 of the exact same ones already).
Once out of St Boswells, we rejoined the path of the river for a bit and I noticed Mark begin to slow slightly. I feel like we always slow a bit on this section so I was determined to keep pushing if I could to drag the pair of us through. I knew he would have to do the same for me at some stage so I kept my head down and kept pushing forward. As we came away from the river, Mark got some energy back and we ran side by side again as we moved towards the road crossing. (I need to give credit here to the lovely lady in the chicken hat for giving us a laugh and keeping our spirits up and laughing at my inappropriate jokes!)
We got held up slightly by the A68 traffic at the road crossing who kept slowing down when they spotted the marshals in their hi-viz jackets and inadvertently made it more difficult for us to cross. After a couple of minutes we got a break in the traffic and sprinted across the road and down the channel to the start of the climbing section.
The Rhymers Stone checkpoint is always a tricky one to deal with as there is a long steady climb just before it which slows you right down. It’s also easy to lose a lot of time here by stopping for too long at the aid station, which is something I think we did as we hadn’t stopped at the previous CP and also, you know the 3 peaks are just ahead so you want to take on nutrition and fuel here to see you over the hills. There is also usually a brief stoppage after the checkpoint for a lot check so there is a lot of stopping and starting here which really messes up your rhythm.
Once we were through the kit check, the race got back on track though and we started climbing with purpose. There has been some work done to the pathway to improve access for walkers this year and instead of last years slippy mud fest, we were faced with a strength-sapping, rocky staircase for most of the first ascent. I think that the new conditions makes the climb slightly harder as you are forced to use the stairs rather than find your own footholds and stretch more than you normally might so my quads were absolutely burning by the time I was halfway up. After a brief pause, we pushed on up and over the top before heading straight down the other side. We knew Mark’s Dad was going to be waiting for us on top of the second peak so there was no need to hang around on top of the first this year.
As soon as we began to descend, my calves began to cramp whenever I tried to run at any pace and I instantly regretted not taking on some salt at the previous checkpoint. Thankfully, Mark came to the rescue with some salted peanuts and it didn’t bother me for the rest of the race. A lesson for next time! We got up the second hill pretty quickly and checked in with Peter at the top. I think we surprised him slightly with how quick we had made it there which meant we were making good time and this gave me motivation to keep pushing on.
I took the lead going down the back of the second Eildon and slowed to wait on Mark at the bottom before the third and final push up the third smaller hill. Once we were over the top of the final peak we were now heading home. I glanced at my Suunto and saw that we had just passed the 4 hour mark which meant that if we wanted our sub 7:30 then we had 3 and a half hours to get back to Jedburgh. I thought this was well within reach but it would be completely dependent on how much gas we still had in the tank and if we had pushed a little too hard to get to this point in the first half of the race. Time would tell!
I pressed hard down the hill and back through the woods and we plodded along the road towards Bowden stopping only briefly to glance back at the hills as they appeared behind us. Couldn’t resist a photo this time! The playpark obstacle course is always one of the highlights of the this race and it lifts your spirits if you’ve had a hard time going over the hills. Despite having a mild heart attack courtesy of a giant bat coming at me from out of the bushes, we ran strongly into the park and traversed the rickety bridge and climbing frame without incident. A quick skid down the slide and we were rewarded with slices of watermelon, jelly beans, Coca Cola and a hug from Marks mum at the Bowden aid station.
The game plan of not fannying about at checkpoints was still in full effect and I was happy that up to this point we had managed to keep a good pace and were still on target. As with most of my races though, the last third is always the hardest section regardless of the distance and the closer the finish line gets, the more my brain starts to tell me how tired I am and I’m not very good at ignoring it. I knew I had to keep pushing for as long as possible and try to keep momentum and hopefully I would have enough at the end to take Mark in the customary sprint finish.
Coming out of Bowden, the route takes us through woodland and skirts round the edges of fields before taking us back to St Boswells where we rejoin the path we came out on along the river. I had to let Mark take the lead for a bit here as I was starting to hit a lull and needed dragged along for a bit while I worked through it. I took some more nutrition on board on the road into St Boswells and followed it up with half a bar of tablet to give me an energy hit which seemed to work as I was able to push forward again. For the first time in the race, runners from behind us were starting to catch up and overtake but we were still on target and I was just focused on keeping my legs moving and pushing negative thoughts away.
Before too long we were climbing the wooden staircase up from the river and Maxton was not far away. Mark took the lead again as we came through the woods as I think he had to make a portaloo pit stop so I let him push ahead. I was looking forward to taking some more fuel on board and having a minute to stop and talk myself into a more positive mindset. Checking my watch, we got to the checkpoint at just over 5 and a half hours so we still had just under 2 hours to get to the finish. We had covered the 10 mile distance in 1 hour 34 minutes on the way here so it was still within reason that we could make it back to Jedburgh within 2 hours but it was slightly uphill and we had 28 miles in our legs so we would have to dig in.
Ideally I would have spent a couple of minutes less in the checkpoint here but we moved through fairly rapidly o pared to some. I took on food and drink while Mark was in the toilet and I began to march up the hill telling him to catch me up when he was ready. By the top of the hill we were moving together again but the uphill road section was proving tough to run on with tired legs.
The pace picked up as we turned off the tarmac and back into the woods again and I found my energy returning. The climb up the mudslide hill was slowing everyone up but I managed to pick my way up the bank quite quickly and passed a few people on the way up. I was starting to clock watch now and was aware that the minutes were starting to tick by quickly. I was enjoying running but Mark was starting to drop back a little and every time I turned around he was slightly further back. I knew that waiting on him was going to rule out the sub 7:30 finish and I felt that it was still on for me if I could get some momentum. My mind was made up for me as my Haddington Club mate Mike Hoppe caught and edged past me on Dere Street. I decided to go with Mike and use him to pull me along for a bit and leave Mark to his own race.
I kept pace with Mike for about half a mile before I started to reel him in and caught up with him around 6 miles from the finish. Mike is a steady runner whereas I found myself catching him then falling back again and again.
Eventually we came through the woods and our onto the wobbly bridge again which meant we only had 3 miles to go. As we got off the bridge Mike pulled ahead for the final time as I slowed and he gradually moved off into the distance. I just couldn’t settle into a consistent pace for long enough without stopping and walking and I saw the minutes slipping away from me. I needed a final boost and concentrated on getting myself to the road crossing where I knew there would at least be a haribo or 2 to give me a sugar spike. I climbed the stairs out of the woods and shuffled across the road to the aid station where there was plenty of jelly beans and coke on offer and I necked a couple of cupfuls which I hoped would hit my bloodstream quickly and get me out of my slump.
I knew I was nearly there. On the way out that morning, we seemed to get to the road crossing in a matter of minutes but now it felt like I was still probably half an hour away and I had now resigned myself to missing out on the sub 7:30. A PB was still possible though. I marched up the hill as fast as I could and as it began to even out I broke into a run again and was soon scampering through the woods towards the town centre. The final mile or so along the pavement of Jedburgh is my least favourite part of the race and I always struggle to maintain a run all the way along. I think I started to walk around 3 times before I finally heard a bit of cheering up ahead and broke into a run for the final time. Rounding the corner I could see the rainbow archway up ahead and dig in until I dragged myself up the grassy knoll and over the finish line. Checking my watch, I had come in in 7:39 which was still a PB (for the 5th year in a row) so although I missed out on the original goal I was still happy with the time.
I knew Mark wouldn’t be too far behind me so I hung around to see him come in and chatted to Chiara and Jan while I waited. Both had had great runs coming in 2nd and 3rd Lady respectively. Ian was also at the finish having had a good first run and it was good to get his perspective on the race. Mark came in 7 minutes behind me looking fairly strong and I was secretly happy that he hadn’t managed to catch me up while I was flagging on the final mile!
Once the prizegiving was complete we headed over to the rugby club to get a well deserved soup and coffee and it was a great opportunity to catch up with everyone else I knew that was running as they came in.
Although I missed out on the sub 7:30, I can’t be disappointed with my race. Everything went exactly to plan right up until the final 6 miles or so where I think the mental side of things let me down. I still managed a PB, I had a great time and I’ve still got something to aim for next year.
See you in 2020 Jedburgh!
Credit: Thanks to Peter Dalgleish for the race photos
Despite the claim in my race report from last year, this was one of the quickest and easiest signups I made this year. Last years vomit-fest will live long in the memory but I wanted to come back this year with purpose, fitness and a lack of gastrointestinal issues and claim my 100 mile memento. I had a plan and I knew it was doable. I had even been fundraising and publicly declaring that I was out to run the 100 miles. I was ready. Or was I?
2019 has breezed by quickly. I’m not quite sure how it’s September already and here we are on my 6th Ultra event of the year. West Highland Way seems like a distant memory but one thing that doesn’t is the Thieves Road Race. I’m still tired from 2 weeks ago and that’s a worrying thought going into a 24 hour race when tiredness is going to be one of the biggest factors in deciding whether I make my goal or not. This year though, I did have the advantage of having run the race before and so knew what to expect. We had also hired a campervan this year instead of relying on our tent so protection from the elements at base camp would be slightly better. Bringing the kids with us was a bit of an unknown quantity though. Either they would have a great time and it would be a joy to see them on every lap or they would be a nightmare and it would give me an excuse not to linger too long. Either way, Alice would have to bear the brunt of that gamble.
We got ourselves packed up and headed up the road on Friday, arriving at the Hayfield just after dinner time and found a good pitch in the middle of the field, not too far from the entrance. After a bit of faffing around with the campervan setup we had ourselves organised and headed to the pre-race party in the marquee. Wary of inducing any stomach issues this year, I limited myself to one beer and after chatting with a few friends, we all headed back to the camper around 9:30 to get an early night.
With the kids bedding down in the pop up roof, Alice and I got a good nights sleep in the pull down bed and slept fairly soundly until morning. The midday start leaves a lot of time in the morning to hang around but I was trying to do as little as possible to save my energy. We took a short walk along the road to a cafe for a hot coffee and roll before wandering back along to get changed in time for the briefing and at midday I was ready to go.
I took the first couple of laps at a steady but easy pace, running alongside Ian Burdett, who was running his first Glenmore race. Ian is a lot faster than me but this type of race is a whole different animal so speed counts for very little over the time. The weather was fine and dry with almost no wind and was almost ideal for running. We were warned it was forecast to be a cold night so wanted to make the most of the warm day.
As the first few laps passed, I was aware that I was falling into my familiar trap of not eating enough early in the race so I stopped and grabbed a museli bar next time I passed through the Hayfield and tried to force down a couple of dates despite not feeling hungry at all. The plan was to eat little and often all the way through as I find myself unable to run for a while without feeling sick if I eat too much in one sitting. Alice and the kids and gone exploring for the first few hours of the race as I didn’t anticipate needing any hot food until later in the day.
My basic plan for the race was to cover 5 loops of the 4 mile course within the first 4 hours and then churn out one lap an hour for the rest of the race. That would bring me in at just over 100 miles by the time midday rolled around on Sunday. In the early stages I was making it around the loops in around 40 minutes so was totally on schedule without exhausting myself.
After 5 loops, I had been running for 4 hours and 5 minutes so I was looking on schedule and running pretty well. I stopped to swap out my Active Root for water and went out on lap 6, getting round in just over an hour. 6 laps in 5 hours 12 minutes meant that if I stuck to the plan then the 100 miles would be in sight.
After the 6th loop I made a stop and took on a pot noodle to try and get some easily digestible food on board. This obviously impacted my lap time for the next lap but I was still on course as long as I was able to keep churning out 50 odd minute laps.
The next few laps passed without much incident and I chatted with a few other runners as everyone was now well into their race and pacing was fairly consistent. The temperature began to drop slightly as the sun got lower in the sky and knew that the next time I passed through the Hayfield I would need to change into my long sleeves and pick up my headtorch.
By 10pm I was starting to get slightly concerned that each lap was now starting to creep slightly over the hour mark but the goal was still well within reach. I thought that the night laps would obviously slow as the temperature and pace dropped but I hoped that when the sun came up on Sunday, I would be able to get back to a 50 minute lap pace again.
Alice and the kids had gone to bed as darkness fell and I didn’t really want to disturb them unless I really had to. It was a good mental incentive not to stop as well but I was really starting to feel tired as midnight approached. I knew the course would get substantially quieter as the 12 hour runners finished their race but I was prepared for it. I hadn’t seen Ian for a while but it is really hard to keep track of others in the dark when you can usually only see the headtorch lights coming and going. I knew Calum had passed me a couple of times but I knew he would be well up on me from early in the race. I think I could really have done with some company during this period of the race just to pass a few laps and distract my mind but everyone seemed to be either too fast or too slow for me to comfortably stick with. Where are you Gilly!
After the 12 hour runners finished, I got myself into a bit of a negative mindset and tried to talk myself out of without much success. I was tired and I was really beginning to feel the cold. As I passed through the timing point, I noticed that a layer of frost had appeared on the docking stations so I knew it was properly cold. The next lap was a really bad one and I felt terrible for most of the way round. I knew I was seriously slowing up and I was walking more and more. As I finished lap 14, I knew that I had really slipped in terms of time and that the 100 mile goal was now well behind schedule. Barring a massive resurgence, I wouldn’t now be able to make back the time and I decided that I needed to stop for a small power nap to try and recharge my battery. This would either make or break the race for me. I got into the van and wrestled a sleeping bag away from Alice, set a 15 minute alarm and climbed in.
As soon as I stopped, my body temperature just dropped and I woke up shivering. Alice was telling me to get up and get back out there but I just wanted to keep sleeping. Grudgingly I got out of my sleeping bag and struggled to tie my laces and headed back out into the darkness. My muscles were cramping and I was really shivering but things did get a bit better the more I moved. As I passed around the campsite, I could see a layer of frost over peoples tents and tables as well as their shoes that had been left outside and their food. If I had been frozen in the camper then these runners must be really bad in their tents!
Yan and Noanie were still partying hard in the disco tent and I managed to raise my mood enough to give them a smile and a wave as I passed. Those guys are made of something else and I wished I could just take them around the whole course with me to keep my spirits up. I managed around the next lap in just over an hour again but my power nap had added about 20 minutes to my time. The lap after that was much the same again and I knew that although the nap had revived me slightly, it wasn’t going to be enough to rescue my game plan. The 100 mile goal was over and it was now just about keeping going and seeing how far I could go.
Once I knew the 100 mile effort was over, my mood dropped even lower, as did the temperature. I had intentionally put a lot of pressure on myself to get to the 100 in the hope that it would push me forward when I was flagging but now that the goal was no longer achievable, it just pulled me back even further I started to feel more tired, more cold, more downtrodden and the next time I pulled into the Hayfield I decided to make another stop.
Alice and the kids were fast asleep and I climbed up into the roof section and curled up under a sleeping bag. With the plan out of the window, I no longer cared about how long I would stop for and set an alarm for an hour. I just wanted to be out of the cold and dark for a while and I was shivering uncontrollably. Hypothermia was a real risk and not one that I was willing take for the sake of a 90 mile run.
An hour later, I woke up still freezing and still exhausted but Alice had woken up too and kicked me out of the van. I struggled to get moving initially but loosened up the more I moved and soon warmed up again. There was a hint of dawn in the sky as I headed out but it was still bitterly cold and I was just longing for daylight. The first section of the course was now becoming too uneven to run on as I was too exhausted to concentrate properly. I was able to shuffle pretty well on the second section. The uphill section was harder and slower every time I trudged up it and I was even struggling on the long downhill section as my quads were hurting badly.
By the time I came around to the Hayfield again, the light was up enough that I could ditch my headtorch back at the van and managed to force down some hot tea and a pot noodle to warm my insides.
The sunlight definitely lifted my mood again although there was still a lot of hours still to get through. Mentally I was still down as the rest of the race seemed pointless now that the target was lost but I kept trudging around the course with now only the hope of beating last years total, although even that was now not certain. Now that the sun was up I managed to catch up with a few familiar faces again. I chatted with Angela for a few minutes who I caught up with on the flat section. Calum passed me for the umpteenth time on the uphill and looked to be still going well and churning out the laps. There was still no sign of Ian and I hoped he was still going on the course somewhere. I decided to have another long stop the next time I got back to the Hayfield to get some energy back as well as some more food on board.
Yan popped his head into the van as I was coming too and threatened to set his dog Flash on me if I wasn’t up and moving soon (which I wouldn’t have minded) but I did what I was told and got myself out on the course again.
Once I got past the 9am point I could feel the end in sight and started counting the laps down. I ran with Viv Black for the 2nd last long lap and having someone to chat to really raised my spirits. It was just after 10am when I got back to the Hayfield and I knew I had another long lap in me to take me over the 80 mile mark before I began the short laps.
The final push up the big hill was a tough one and I pretty much had to walk the whole downhill as well but I was glad not to have to do either again. Coming back into the Hayfield, the wee laps had not long started and I joined in with the others. I finally caught sight of Ian doing the laps and it was good to see that he was still going but I figured that he must have stopped for a decent nap through the night. I had no idea how far each lap was but at this point I really didn’t care either. My quads were in bits and the climbs up and down the wee hill were killing me until I tried descending backwards. Wow! It actually works. I couldn’t handle the concentration of trying to walk downhill backwards without falling over people very well but it certainly stopped my legs hurting so it was worth it.
Every rotation go us closer to the end and I tried to make Matts life easier at the top of the hill by not clumping together with groups of runners as he counted us through. Eventually, we heard the countdown and as we got to zero, I planted my tentpeg in the ground and stopped moving. It was over! I didn’t get near the 100 miles but I did make the 24 hours. I was absolutely destroyed but I shuffled over to my pitch and collapsed on a picnic blanket in the sun.
After a decent (and painful) stretch off, we headed over to the marquee for the prize giving and I learned my final mileage of 82:4 miles. Slightly further than last year and no vomiting so I’m calling that a win.
I found Glenmore a real battle this year and despite previous experience I still really struggled with a lot of key things. Coming into the race, I was still tired from previous races (especially Thieves Road) and this really affected me through the night. I couldn’t pick up the pace when I needed to and the sleepiness got the best of me at a few points. Eating was also again an issue as I didn’t take on nearly enough food before or during the race. I’ve found it harder and harder to eat while running over the last few months and it’s something that I’m going to have to address before I take on any more major events.
Tactically, I think I was ok but struggled to maintain my pace in the latter stages so next year I may try and get a little further ahead in the first quarter of the race to give myself a little more leeway.
Realistically, I don’t think you can achieve the 100 miles if you are planning on stopping at any stage either and sleeping is definitely out so I need to be coming into the race fresh and rested next time and I need to find a way of pushing on through when I’m feeling exhausted although this might be easier if I can find a better way of fuelling.
Although I found it really tough and missed out on my goal, I still loved the event and was left smiling when it was over. I definitely feel like I have the 100 miles in me although it got away from me this time and I’ll be back to try again when I’m hopefully fitter and stronger. I foresee lots of rest and relaxation in my immediate future through!
A brand new race from the BaM team so I basically had no choice but to enter. The original date of August 10th meant that it was far enough away from the West Highland Way to allow plenty of recovery and also a month before Glenmore 24 so I would have time to rest before my next go at running in circles for a day. Unfortunately, the Scottish climate dictated that race day would be blessed with thunderstorms so the RD’s took the (correct) option to postpone the inaugural event for two weeks for the sake of health and safety. Obviously this was the right call but it meant that the new date was now only a mere 2 weeks before Glenmore. I don’t like to shy away from a challenge though!
There were a few familiar names on the start list for the original date but after the reschedule, most of them had to withdraw due to other commitments. I was happy to have a few of my club runners from Haddington on the start line with me though as well as a couple of late entries.
The race registration took place at Edderston Farm in Peebles which was about an hours drive from home so I was up at around 5:30 to get myself dressed, fed and on the road in plenty of time. A music gig in Montrose on the Friday night meant that I had only had 3 or 4 hours sleep which wasn’t ideal but couldn’t be helped. I arrived in plenty of time and the weather was looking like it was going to be great for running, if a tad on the hot side. No thunderstorms on the horizon this time! We were loaded onto the buses just after 8 am and headed to Little Vantage for the race start.
The bus driver may or may not have gotten a tiny bit lost en route so we started slightly behind schedule but at 9:21, after a quick comfort break at the side of the road, we lined up on a dirt track in the middle of nowhere and Bill set us on our way.
Being new to the club, I didn’t really know the pace of the Haddington runners so I just kept my head down and did my own thing for the first mile or so as I didn’t want to get sucked in to running either too fast or too slow in the early stages. On the first decent ascent I found myself running along with Adrian from the club as well as fellow Haddington man Ali Black who I finally managed to meet in the flesh despite numerous attempts. We were all managing a decent pace and having some good chat between ourselves for the next few miles as we picked our way over the hills and tried to avoid the boggiest bits of ground, mostly unsuccessfully.
I had been previously warned by a friend that the first few miles were a bit of a climb and would be boggy if there had been rain before the race and this was certainly proving to be true. I had to stop and re-tie my shoes once we got onto a bit of solid ground as they were being sucked off my feet every time I mis-stepped into a squelchy bit of ground but it was all part of the fun at this early stage. If I would have known what was to come later in the day, I would be a little less cheery about it.
After about 5 miles, we got some more solid ground under our feet and began to descend towards West Linton. Ali had moved up a gear and pulled well ahead as soon as we got to the top of the climb but I managed to catch up with Adrian and we chatted as we ran all the way down to the first checkpoint at 8 miles. I was feeling good but was starting to become aware of the rising temperature and I was drinking quite a lot, even at this early stage. I knew there was quite a big gap between checkpoints so took advantage of the water and Active Root on offer and topped up both my bottles.
Adrian was in and out of the checkpoint like a rocket and little did I know this would be the last time I would see him during the race. I wanted to get some nutrition on board and walked out of the checkpoint chugging down a couple of energy bars. Unfortunately, they seemed to have the opposite effect on me as I started to feel really sluggish as we climbed up the tarmac roads out of the town. I usually have a bit of a dip around 6 miles into a race but it usually passes fairly quickly but this one was going on for a while. I had only been running for a couple of hours but was feeling really lethargic. The lack of sleep the previous evening was not doing me any favours but I just got my head down and tried to keep the runners in front of me within sight.
Soon we were heading downhill again and back out into the open countryside. The views were stunning and despite the increasing heat, the weather was showing the landscape off to its best. I was still feeling a bit low but was managing to maintain my pace and position although I was still drinking like a fish and emptying my bottles quickly. I was hoping for a village with an obvious outside tap that I could use but nothing was immediately obvious.
I was clearly not the only one starting to suffer from the heat though. This was not what I wanted to see right now!
Thankfully, as we climbed up into the hills again, one of nature’s water stations crossed the path we were running on and I stopped to dip my feet, my buff and have an impromptu shower as well as refilling my bottles. Got to love this country of ours at times like this!
Temporarily cooled and rehydrated, I picked up the pace again and tried to catch up with the runners ahead. The slump seemed to have passed and I wanted to make the most of my resurgence! I managed to pick off a couple of runners as we wound our way through the hills but there was no sign of Adrian or Ali. As I rounded one of the hills there was an ambiguous arrow marker attached to a post that appeared to point up directly up the hill and I followed it despite a nagging feeling that it was the wrong way. After about half a mile, I stopped to look around and try to find the next marker or another runner to check that I was going in the right direction. I noticed that a few other runners had come up behind me and I decided to wait on them to check directions. Mike Hoppe from the club was one of them and after climbing another couple of hundred yards together, we decided that we must have taken the wrong route. We couldn’t see any other runners or markers so decided to head back down the hill to the previous marker and retrace our steps from there. Once there we managed to come to a consensus about the right direction and as we headed through the woods we found another marker to confirm that we were back on track.
After another stop at nature’s water station to dip our buffs and fill our bottles, we headed through the woods and it was a good chance to cool down slightly after the heat up on the hills. Mike and the others pulled away from me a bit as I had gotten into a bit of a bad headspace after taking the wrong turn and was annoyed with myself for losing so much time as I had been feeling good before that. I managed to shake off the bad feeling after a short while and get back to running again and I managed to gain another couple of places through the woods. I had no idea how many runners had gone past me while I was up on the hill but I wanted to pull as many back as I could.
As we came out of the woods, I managed to catch up my Karen McIndewar and it was good to see a friendly face. She looked as if she was equally struggling with the hills and the heat and we chatted for a bit until I pushed on down the hill. I could see Peebles in the distance and I wanted to get to the next checkpoint sooner rather than later to try and regroup and sort myself out before the very hilly final section.
I really enjoyed the section through Peebles. As I got into town, I wisely stopped at the first corner shop I saw and grabbed myself a tin of Irn Bru and a Solero which sorted me right out.
A mile or so along the road there was also another chance to fill the water bottles before moving down towards the river. Thanks Steph and friend, this was much appreciated!
Along the river there were lots of families out enjoying the glorious weather, walking dogs and swimming in the river. If I had known what was ahead of me I would gladly have stopped and dived in with them and spent the rest of the day paddling and sunbathing but I had some running still to do. Most people I passed gave some encouraging words and told me I was doing well and others just looked a little dumbfounded.
Once over the bridge and into the woods, there were a couple of very steep climbs up but at least it was nice to be out of the lunchtime sunshine. I tried to chew down another energy bar while I was climbing but it wasn’t going down that easily and I was really looking forward to getting to the checkpoint to tuck into my crisps, sweets and coffee. After leaving the woods, we came out onto another bit of open tarmac and tried to get some decent pace going again but almost as soon as we got going, the checkpoint came into view. I had been expecting another mile or so but I was delighted. We were greeted by Angela, Sylvia and a few others and Karen and I took a spot on the grass to enjoy our lunchtime picnic. There was no way we were running straight through this one!
After guzzling down our dropbags and getting a drenching and encouragement from Angela and friends, I picked myself up and headed out and up the hill leaving Karen who wanted a few more minutes. I didn’t know what was ahead but I was promised hills and they certainly weren’t kidding!
The sun was still beating down as I hauled myself up and over the first small hill and into the woods. I met fellow club runner Angie and was glad of the company as it would hopefully keep my mind off what we were doing in the miles ahead. I’ve never met Angie before but it was good to get to know each other as we moved steadily along the roads at a comfortable pace.
After another brief pit stop at the final water station to fill our bottles and chat to Vicky Lyon, we began to steadily climb up what was to be a torturous final section. As you move through the estate, there is no indication of the scale of the hills that you are about to head up and I’m certain we weren’t the only runners who were surprised by what came next.
For the next 3 hours we would be doing nothing but climbing. There would be no running at all. The heat from the sun was still ferocious and sapped us of any energy. Even when the path evened out, the road became boggy and totally unrunable. The steep sections were dry and rocky but they were covered in swarms of flying ants which made stopping to catch your breath a bad idea as the started buzzing around and climbing up my legs. Angie seemed in better shape than I was but this was becoming a team effort just to keep going. The only thing that provided any joy was the views which were spectacular.
Every summit just seemed to lead to another and just when we thought we were on the highest peak then another one would be revealed. There were hills all around us and we had no idea how many we would have to get ourselves over before we were allowed to start heading back down towards civilisation again. This would make a very challenging 14 mile hill race in itself, but with nearly 30 hard miles already in our legs and the blazing sun to contend with it was verging on torture! We couldn’t see any other runners either ahead of us or behind but the reflective tape on the fenceline let us know we were definitely on the course so we had no choice but to keep heading forward.
After an absolute age, we finally came to the final checkpoint and dibbed our dobbers. Surely it was all downhill from here and we might be able to get running again! Unfortunately not. From this point onwards we were faced with nothing but heather and soggy peat bogs for the next mile or so. We eventually saw a runner up ahead who was either injured or just despondently having a lie down so it did motivate us slightly to try and catch up to him although trying to do anything but drag ourselves through the swamp-like terrain was impossible.
We eventually caught up with Craig (who it turns out was despondently having a lie down) and the three of us teamed up to get ourselves off this hill from hell. As we picked our way through the thick heather, we seemed to lose sight of the markers we had been following but we had a vague idea of where we needed to go to get back on course so we hopped a walk and headed down the hill to rejoin the road we had come along on the way here. Once off the heather we were able to start moving with a bit more purpose again but the idea of running just didn’t appeal any more. All of us were mentally and physically done in and it was all about just getting to the end now.
As we started to head back up into the woods where I met Angie, I picked up the pace again and engaged my marching legs. I filled my head with thoughts of cake and tea at the finish line and pulled away from the other two and as we came out of the woods I re-engaged the jogging legs. Up and over the crest of the hill and I could see the checkpoint a quarter of a mile away and it was a very welcome sight. I ran down the grassy hill being careful not to slip on the wet turf and joined the rocky path for the final hundred yards and crossed the finish line with a big smile into the waiting arms of Angela and Sylvia. 11 hours and 7 minutes after starting, I had made it to the end of one of the toughest races I had done to date.
I had no idea of where I had come in the standings but in knew I must be pretty far down the field although I was certainly in much better shape than some of the other runners who were at the finish before me. Some were hobbling around, others were lying prone under foil blankets and some were just staring into space like they had just returned from a battlefield. I chatted with Mike and Rebecca who had come in around 15 minutes ahead of me and had run the whole race together and they seemed in good spirits. They told me that nearly a third of the field had DNF’d and there were around 6 people still to come in. That goes to show what a tough day it had been for all involved.
In the end, the results showed that I had come in 33rd out of 41 finishers so I was happy with that. Not my finest race by a long way but a really tough course in tough conditions with very little sleep the night before so I’ll take that. Those cattle thieves must have been a really hardy bunch back in the day!
Next up for me, the return to Glenmore 24 in two weeks time. Rest and recovery between now and then will be paramount. I’ll be starting to get sick of the sight of these BaM guys soon!
It’s long run time again! June rolled around quickly this year and before I knew it, the West Highland Way Race taper was on me. I hadn’t run that much since the Cateran as life has been busy and I thought that I was more in need of rest than training after the two recent 50 milers. Mentally, I had been getting myself organised however and my support runner Gilly was fit, ready and briefed. My two drivers, Alice and Peter knew what they were doing after crewing for me last year and I had a gold, silver and bronze plan drawn up in terms of timing and performance. The Gold was a 24 hour finish. The Silver was a 25-28 hour finish. The Bronze was a sub 30 hour finish. I wasn’t even thinking about not finishing. Death before DNF!
Unlike last year, I made sure I got up to Milngavie early on the Friday and took time to relax and tried to get a lot of rest before the race. I had been having a few early nights in the week leading up to the race so I was feeling like I was in quite a good place. Physically, I was significantly less fit than last year but mentally I was ready. We arrived at our accommodation 6 miles outside Milngavie in the early afternoon and got ourselves settled before heading into town for a bite to eat. Veggie risotto and a pint seemed like a good shout for a pre race meal and it left me feeling full and relaxed as we headed back to the accommodation.
As Peter checked over the car I went and got my head down for a couple of hours, not really sleeping but just dozing in the early evening. My 20:45 alarm went off and we set off back into Milngavie to register for the race and collect our timing chip and passes. The plan was to get in and out nice and early then head back up and get a few hours sleep again before I lined up at the start. We were done in about 10 minutes and got back to the accommodation without stopping to chat to anyone. Listening to John Kynaston’s podcasts in the weeks leading up to the race, John had suggested this method of conserving energy before the race rather than hanging around the start line chatting to everyone. Exhaustion had definitely played a big part in my race last year so I was making every effort to avoid the same again. I managed a couple of hours sleep before my alarm woke me at 11:45 and I put on the last of my kit and headed towards the start line with Alice.
We arrived about 10 minutes before the race briefing from Ian and Sean and I remember feeling very calm and relaxed as we all stood in the dark under the railway bridge. I could sense the nervous excitement all around me but I felt relaxed, rested and ready for what was about to come. 1am came around and after a brief moment of limbering up, the horn sounded and we were off under the bridge and up the stairs. Alice had told me to keep left at the start but I didn’t see her in the sea of faces as we trundled along the high street and down into Mugdock country park.
Running in the dark during a race is something I really enjoy when I’m fresh. It’s very calming and hypnotic as all you can see is the few feet in front of you where your head torch beam hits and all you can hear is the breathing around you and the rhythmic pounding of feet. I was happy to let anyone pass me that wanted to at this stage and didn’t allow myself to get sucked along by anyone. I saw a couple of runners that I knew pull ahead but I just kept my head down and didn’t try to say hello or catch their eye. I just wanted to get the first couple of miles out of the way in my own zone then take it from there.
There were a few people running together and talking loudly in the first couple of miles and I slowed to let them pass as their conversation was distracting me from my rhythm. As we dropped down out of the hills onto the long narrow path towards the Beech Tree, I found myself caught up in a little pack being lead by Fiona Rennie so I was happy to just anonymously tuck in and pass a few miles as Fiona is one of the most consistent pacers I know. This section is quite narrow so passing a group of runners is almost impossible even if I had wanted to. As the Beech Tree came into view, I felt a tap on my shoulder and Yan Horsburgh came drifting up alongside me, moving like a luminous, bearded gazelle. With an encouraging word he eased ahead and was off into the darkness. Although he is one of my favourite humans on the planet, I know he is a much faster runner than me so I didn’t even try to stick with him. I knew that barring disaster on his part, I probably wouldn’t see him again until the prizegiving but I was happy with my current pace and stuck with my little group until the road opened out through Dumgoyne.
As we began to climb out of the town, the group began to draw out and I used the hills to take on some water and energy bar. I am really bad for not eating much when I run and I’m usually ok on 50 milers but that’s not something you can get away with in a race of this distance so I wanted to try and eat little and often and then top up with mini meals at the checkpoints.
Fiona was still up ahead leading our little mini pack of runners so I kept pace with the other runners as we started to head out of Drymen and the first of the big climbs; Conic Hill. During the Fling, the weather had made Conic a pretty damp and miserable affair but as we approached on the trails, the sun was just beginning to come up over the horizon and I knew I would get my epic view as a reward for the climb this time. The conversation between runners had dried up over the last hour as people had started to get into the race and the initial excitement had worn off but now, people were starting to chat again and look around a bit as it got lighter and the head torches were turned off.
I skipped down the rocks and over the bridge before beginning my ascent, careful not to push too hard, as some around me were clearly doing. As the adage goes, “Don’t be a fool in the first half of a race and don’t be a wimp in the second half”. Passing people on ascents this early in the race is foolhardy. The summit came relatively quickly and I was surprised not to be greeted by a sneaky photographer at the top waiting to capture the pain etched on everyone’s faces after the uphill struggle. I did indeed get my view at the top and also a bit of ribbing from Robin Pate who told me that I’ve probably seen this view enough times that I didn’t need another picture. I disagree. It’s always worth a look around and a photo.
I took the descent steadily so as not to trash the quads and as I skipped down the forest road thinking that I was feeling good and must be sitting around my gold target. As I got into the first checkpoint at Balmaha, I met Peter who was primed with coffee and porridge.
Checking my time, I arrived 3 hours 58 minutes after leaving Milngavie which actually put me into my bronze plan. I had thought I was going a lot better than this but I had obviously got confused somewhere along the line. I was however feeling good and didn’t intend to bust a gut in the next section to try and claw it back. There was a long way still to go. I probably spent around 5 minutes in the checkpoint before heading out of the car park and down onto the shore road towards Rowardennan.
As I ran along the shore, I tried to put my iPod on to get my head back in the race but ended up talking to a couple of ladies who caught me up coming out of the checkpoint. One of the girls, Lucy was going well and kept forging ahead but her friend (who’s name I never caught) seemed to be struggling a bit and was just looking to make it to Rowardennan. The three of us ran together for a few miles and I picked Lucy’s brain about the Hardmoors races which were local to her. As we got into the woods, the ladies pulled ahead and I was caught up by Robin again who had obviously lingered in the checkpoint longer than I had. We chatted through the woods until the steep staircase before the rollercoaster (where talking becomes impossible!) and I moved ahead of him as we started on the downhills. I’m always very hit and miss on this section. Sometimes I like it as it’s a good running section and other times it feels like it just goes on and on. This time I enjoyed it and when the bottom of the hill came and we moved out onto the road just before the checkpoint, I had overtaken Lucy and her friend again and was feeling good. Coming into the checkpoint, I was greeted by the ever-smiling Donna and Lois who were in high spirits despite the midges and encouraging everyone on. I briefly stopped for a couple of minutes perched on a rock and wolfed down my drop bag contents of coffee, coke and crisps and then I was off out past the war memorial and towards the first of the lochside sections.
The route here differs from the Fling route as it takes the low road, meaning a much more technical path with lots of boulders and scrambling and very little running. I really enjoy this kind of terrain but it definitely slows the pace and breaks up your rhythm which is why I think a lot of people don’t like it. There is also a real danger of twisting an ankle or taking a heavy fall if you don’t have your wits about you, and I’m sure that more than one runner has had to be fished out of the loch over the years.
I spent a lot of this section on my own but I was aware that there were always a few runners just up ahead and another few just behind me all the way along until the road finally opened up and headed uphill again to join the high road path just before Inversnaid. As I pushed up the hill I passed a big Irish guy called Thomas who I chatted with briefly before pushing ahead towards Inversnaid when I began to hear the waterfall.
Up and over the waterfall and I took a seat to devour my drop bag. Coffee, coke and some crisps as well as an energy bar and I was good to go again. It seemed like a lot of people were taking a bit of a breather here and it was tempting to just sit on one of the benches in the sunshine and have a chat while we looked out across the lake but I wanted to get moving again before I got too comfortable. I left while munching on the remainder of my crisps and trotted downhill into the woods, followed after a couple of minutes by Thomas and we chatted for a bit until we got back into the more technical stuff again when I pulled ahead. After a bit of scrambling I came out into the sunlight at the end of the loch and skirted my way up the hill to Dario’s Post where I stopped for my customary dram. I didn’t linger long but it’s always nice to take a minute or two to look back along the loch and take in the view before pushing on up the Holland heading for Beinglas.
Beinglas was going to be the last checkpoint before I saw my crew again and the last point that I would be running on my own again before Gilly joined me at Auchtertyre. I tend to always like this little section as it’s a good bit to get the legs going again after the slow going over the lochside. I hadn’t seen anyone for a little while but almost immediately I came upon two runners just over the brow of the hill and was quickly past them. I made a couple of more gains before I saw the checkpoint up ahead and ran in to collect my drop bag. I arrived in 10 hours 21 minutes which was 7 minutes quicker than my recent Fling time and just shy of my bronze goal. John Duncan and his team had gone above and beyond the call of duty and had brought in proper coffee for us to see us through in the absence of our usual crew but a combination of a midge infestation and being too hot meant that I just didn’t fancy it by the time I got there. I hung around for a few minutes to stretch off my calves and eat my drop bag contents before heading out up the hill.
I usually hate the next section of the route from Beinglas to Crianlarich. It is mostly just a gradual push uphill along a winding road that lets you see miles ahead and I find it a bit of a struggle. However, I decided just to try and keep my head down and focus on getting to the forest road at Crianlarich which is a good bit of downhill running through the trees which brings you nearly all the way to Auchtertyre. The runners ahead of me were obviously finding the going just as tough as I was for the first couple of miles and I was able to reel in and pass a few as the early afternoon heat began to ramp up. I had been amazed up until now about how few walkers were out on the Way today but this was probably where I saw most during the whole race.
I was careful to mind my head on the low bridge and negotiated (what used to be) Cow Poo Alley without much difficulty and was soon heading up into the woods. I had pushed on quite well for an hour or so and was suddenly feeling a bit lethargic. I decided to stop for a couple of minutes under a tree and scoff a packet of fizzy sweets to give me an energy boost which would hopefully see me into Auchtertyre. A couple of runners passed me as I sat taking in the view and eating my sweet picnic but once I got going again, I quickly overtook them again on the downhill. I always feel like it’s a good section to stretch the legs coming down through the forest and you can let the brakes off a little bit. During the Fling, this is obviously nearly the end but today I was only approaching halfway so I did have to reign in my enthusiasm a little.
Once out of the woods, I made the road crossing and pushed up the hill towards Auchtertyre and my waiting crew. It was good to see them again after such a long break and I was looking forward to taking a couple of minutes to sit and compose myself and take on some actual food again. The weigh in passed without incident and I sat down for a few minutes to tell the guys how I was feeling and recount the past couple of hours. In between munching down a healthy meal of pot noodle, an apple and a coffee I decided to change my shoes as my current Saucony ISO’s were starting to suffocate my feet. My Peregrines are half a size bigger and I’m much more used to them on this course.
Gilly was primed and ready to go and I was ushered out of my seat and along the road as soon as my noodles were finished. She started at a brisk pace which was exactly what I needed as I would happily have just strolled out onto the course again and lost a bit of time. Last year on this section, I really started to struggle and had very little recollection of anything before Bridge of Orchy but this year the miles were ticking along nicely and it was great to have a running buddy again as we chatted and took in the sights around us.
We got into Bridge of Orchy around two and a half hours later which put me around 10 minutes ahead of my bronze plan and I was feeling good. Despite a well-meaning marshal trying his best to lead me across the road in front of a moving car, we got into the checkpoint unscathed and met Peter and Alice. Peter had been keen to run from here to Glencoe so he was in his running gear and ready to go. In last years race I had come in looking haunted and demanding to be allowed to sleep but this year I felt fine, if a little weary.
We headed out of the checkpoint and up the hill in good spirits and it was nice to have Peter along for the ride now as well to keep things fresh. Jelly Baby Hill was the next stop and Murdo was there in all his usual splendour keeping everyone’s spirits high and doling out his sweets to each runner in turn. We stopped briefly for a chat with Murdo and apprentice Mike then headed on our way down towards the river.
The first mile or so of this section lulls you in with pretty scenery and good running terrain but once you start to head uphill again, the climb goes on and on, pretty much until you reach the Glencoe Ski Centre. I’d love to be able to run more than I do here but luckily, our marching game is strong and we made good progress, passing several others on the way.
I was starting to feel a bit frazzled towards the end of the climb and I was also starting to suffer a bit from really bad heartburn, which was made worse when I tried to run. I’ve suffered from this on the last few races now and I’m not certain what causes it but I put it down to the packet of fizzy laces that I scoffed earlier. The ski centre seemed to take an age to come into view and as we ran in I had my first, and only, fall of the day. I was too busy looking ahead and stepped off the verge I was running on and ended up looking at the sky before I knew what was happening. No damage done though and I was helped up and sent onwards. Eventually the ski centre came into view and I was glad to see Alice and get some refreshing food into me.
Lentil soup, coffee and watermelon were the orders of the day and I was talked in to changing my clothes before heading out again. I think this was more for Gilly’s benefit than mine though because I was starting to pong a bit! Alice gave me a quick leg massage to loosen things off a bit and Gilly and I headed down the road with the clock just passing 19 hours.
I felt a lot more refreshed as we headed past the newly refurbished Kinghouse Hotel and stared up at the Great Herdsman.
This section of the course always feels a bit unnecessary to me as you head away from the road, up the hill then turn and head back down towards the road again before making the climb up the Devils Staircase. I knew that we only had a few hours of daylight left so the plan was to get up and down the Devil before it got too dark so we pushed on while we were on the flat.
The climb itself is always a bit hit and miss for me. The name itself sounds really daunting but I usually don’t find it so bad. When running Devil O The Highlands, it’s usually easy enough to power-march your way up the hill by taking it in sections. You can see the top so it’s helpful to know how far you still have to go, unlike the Kinlochleven climb where you don’t know it’s over until you come out of the trees at the top. With 70+ miles in my legs though, I definitely wouldn’t be skipping up and over the top.
We made up some good ground on the runners ahead before the climb started and used our power-marching technique once we began heading up. I found the climbing ok but did need to pause for breath on a few occasions on the way up. As we neared the summit, the sun began to set and we were treated to an amazing light show on the hills all around. We got the timing just right so I didn’t mind taking a seat to appreciate it for a few moments.
We lingered on the summit just long enough to appreciate what was going on around us then headed down the hill with the aim of getting off the rocky path before it got too dark. On the way down, we met Robin again with his support runner Douglas, and gave them a few brief words of encouragement. Robin seemed to be having a bit of a dip and struggling with a physical problem but I knew if he was able to dig in and get to the checkpoint then he could regroup and get to the finish. I was also starting to feel the affects of being awake and running for over 20 hours so I didn’t want to hang around. We pushed down the hill with Gilly taking the lead and headed down into Kinlochleven.
The road into KLL always seems to go on forever and I always think there could do to be a waymarker somewhere just to reassure you that you are still going the right way. Gilly knew where she was going though and I trusted her implicitly to get me there. Eventually we were running alongside the Ice Factor and heading into town and the checkpoint. Alice has come along the road to meet us and ushered me inside to get weighed before heading out to the car. The climb had taken a bit out of me and I was feeling really fatigued so I demanded a 10 minute nap in the back of the car before heading out again. After my 10 minutes were up, I had another pot noodle, some watermelon, some coffee and some paracetamol and I was on my way again.
I just wanted enough of a boost to slingshot me up the hill and I knew I could march the rest of the race out. I was well inside my sliver race plan so knew I was on course to beat last years time as long as nothing went badly wrong.
The climb out of town wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it might be. We marched hard in the early section and powered up the hill while the coffee was still doing its work. Pretty soon I glanced over my shoulder and saw the lights of the town below us and I knew we were at the top. Now we just had to make it over the long and winding road of the Lairig Mor and we would be almost there.
On the Devil, you can see for miles on the Lairig Mor and that means you can see how far you still have to go. No such worries tonight as I could only see as far as my head torch would allow so I got my head down and tried to pick up the pace a little. Underfoot is difficult all the way along here and I’ve no idea how the speedy guys and girls do it. You have to negotiate loose gravel mixed with tennis ball sized rocks and then they throw some football sized ones in occasionally just to trip you up. Last year I also had the added distraction of Mickey Mouse and Snoopy watching me from the side of the trail but thankfully there were no such hallucinations this time.
After what felt like a really short time, we noticed lights in the distance and soon came upon Jeff and his mountain rescue truck. Jeff stands out here every year in the middle of nowhere to give runners a bit of encouragement and some fizzy juice. My brain was starting to fall asleep and I kept tripping over rocks so I gladly accepted his offer of some mixed fruit fizz. Accepting sweets from a stranger on a dark road in the middle of the night is not something that would impress my mother!
Karen McIndewar and her crew had also stopped for a bit of refreshment and it was nice to see her for two reasons. I was glad she was still in the race although she seemed to be suffering from blisters a bit and also because she has finished significantly faster than me the last few times we have run together. If I had managed to catch her then I though I must be going quite well. Whatever was in the fizzy juice had the desired effect though because I felt instantly more awake and keen to push on. We moved ahead of Karen and her crew as we headed along the road and on to Lundavra.
Last year I had really struggled on this section of the race with sleep deprivation and exhaustion but this year I was feeling much stronger. I was still tired but I was moving much better and Gilly let me take the lead for most of the road. We were running for short periods but I was suffering with really bad heartburn which only subsided when I stopped running so we were forced into a run/walk strategy. We were still moving well though and hadn’t been passed by anyone for a long time, possibly since before Glencoe. We had left Karen and her crew out of sight behind us and picked off another couple of runners as we skirted round the sheep paddock and moved on to more runnable track.
The checkpoint at Lundavra doesn’t really come into sight until you are almost upon it and I found myself longing for it a long time before it arrived but eventually we could hear the chatter of people and and a few shouts of “Woo-hoo!” as we approached. Norrie who lives just down the road from me in East Lothian was manning the photo booth so it was nice to see another friendly face out here in the dark in the middle of nowhere. After the photos, we were unceremoniously booted out of the checkpoint and sent on our way. Next stop, Fort William!
During last years race I was completely out of it during this last section. I was speaking gibberish and veering all over the path and couldn’t wait to get to the end. This year I was a bit more in control of myself but I was still exhausted and just wanted this section to be over. Gilly was brilliant and just kept me going as we followed the path ahead and just focussed on getting to the top of the fire road. We caught a few people, one of which had heavy strapping on his knee and looked like he was in for a long, slow slog to the finish line. I had resorted to a kind of stumbling shuffle run over the rocky path but eventually we only had one hill to push up and we were on the fire road.
I wanted to run all the way down the fire road but my heartburn kept flaring up in my chest as I tried to run so I kept stopping before I thought I was going to throw up. We made it about three quarters of the way down running but we were forced to march the rest. As we came to the bottom of the hill and through Braveheart car park I knew it wasn’t far to go now but I had no idea of how for away the new finish line was and my watch was already reading more than 95 miles.
We hit the pavement at last and I let Gilly take the lead while I scanned the pavement for arrows pointing us in the direction of the Nevis Centre. After we saw the first one it was easy to follow the rest but my exhausted brain had no idea what the building looked like. We passed Lynsey McLaughlin on the way in who was heading back out to meet Karen on the fire road and she told us we had around half a mile to go. As we rounded a corner we saw super-marshals Lois and Donna crossing the car park towards us and knew we were there and the cheers of the crowd got louder as we ran around the corner and into the centre. I stopped running exactly where I had started 28 hours and 1 minute earlier; right in front of RD Ian Beattie.
After hugs to all the crew I had a seat and some toast before hitting the shower and then indulging in a post race massage to help loosen off the legs. I’d advise anyone else doing the race in the future to get right in there as it helped my recovery no end. After that it was into the back of the Volvo where I quickly passed out and remained for the rest of the morning until I was woken up to head to the prizegiving.
We got there around half an hour before it started and got seats near the front so that my walk up wouldn’t take too long. I had a chance to chat to a couple of friends in the crowd before the ceremony got underway and it was just as special as my first one last year. There is so much joy and shared admiration in the room for each and every runner from first to last and it’s a fantastic thing to be a part of. Just like last year, I collected my goblet from John Kynaston and stood up at the front proudly along with every other runner who made it to the end. I was particularly delighted to see Kirsten Cowling pick up her goblet after listening to her podcasts in the months leading up to the race and knowing how much of an achievement it was for her. There were a few special moments catching up with other runners and support runners I had met out on the course and seeing that they had all made it to the end in their own ways after we had left each other.
So, West Highland Way 2019 was done and dusted. 14 minutes quicker than the previous year and finished in much better shape both physically and mentally. I could probably have pushed it a little bit harder on the day(s) and shaved a little bit off of my time but I was happy with the run overall. I went into it physically inferior to 2018 but mentally stronger and it saw me through. My support team were amazing throughout in terms of logistics and organisation and giving me exactly what I needed. Peter and Alice split the driving duties perfectly to allow each other to get a good rest when not needed and Gilly was fantastic as a support runner, giving me a push when needed and letting me dictate the pace when I was struggling. I couldn’t have asked for a better team and this goblet is as much theirs as it is mine. As I write this report a week after the race, I feel physically fine with no ill effects other than tiredness and I’m looking forward to the next few races coming up this year. People have already been asking me if I’ll be back for 2020 and the answer is definitely yes but I’m not sure if I’ll be running, crewing or volunteering yet. The only thing I know is that I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else on Saturday 20th June 2020.
I’ve tried to make it to this race a few times but been thwarted by illness, injury and timing in the last few years and it was starting to become a bit of a bogey race even getting to the start line. Thankfully, this year, everything aligned and I headed up to Perthshire on a Friday evening, albeit a little underprepared, to take my first race steps on the Cateran Trail.
This year was to be the 10th and final race under the current stewardship of Karen and George so I was glad to be a part of it. Looking at the previous years finishers, all the famous (and infamous!) names were on there but the Cateran seems to fly under the radar a bit in the Ultra scene. Possibly because it’s only 2 weeks after the Fling, not a lot of people are stupid enough to do both races in the same year and so don’t talk about it as much but it’s clearly well loved and well attended in the Ultra community. I was about to find out for myself.
In previous years I had done a few recces of various sections of the course but had never stitched any of them together. Having my in-laws a few miles away from Alyth meant that I could pop out for a few hours running while visiting so I had a bit of an idea of what to expect terrain-wise. Pretty much every recce I had done up until now had been a wet one, either directly from the sky or already saturated underfoot so when I saw the forecast of possible snow in the run up, I was not exactly delighted.
In the week before the race, I had been busy trying to organise my own running event which was taking place the day after the Cateran so race prep was pretty limited. I was course marking my own race on Friday afternoon then packing a bag and making the 2 hour drive North on Friday evening. Drop bags were thrown together at the last minute and I packed my kit in preparation for bad weather. My running gloves were nowhere to be found so I had to make do with big woolly ones but better that than frostbite. I limited myself to 3 drop bags as there were only 3 ziplocks left in the kitchen drawer and I didn’t have time to go shopping. I was staying at my in-laws while they were away on holiday so I made the drive up to Angus, arriving just after 9pm to a cold house and tried to get to bed as soon as possible. I was still 40 minutes drive from the start of the race so I would have to be up around 4am to get up, feed myself and get to the start without having to rush.
The sun was already up and the drive to Gulabin Lodge was gorgeous. I had the roads to myself apart from a few suicidal deer and the sun was warming up nicely. So much for the forecast of snow! I arrived around 5:45 and parked up in the field beside the finish line and headed to registration. Inside, all of the runners who were staying at the lodge were already tucking in to a hearty breakfast and I grabbed a coffee and met Gilly before picking up my race number and mementos.
As I looked around the dining room, I realised that it was full of familiar faces. I knew more people there than I didn’t. Some were running and some were volunteering and it’s always a good thing to have a host of friendly faces around on a long race, especially when it’s one that you haven’t done before.
Around 6:30, everyone moved outside for the pre race brief in the morning sunshine and after a few words from Karen and George, we were led across the road to the start line.
7am rolled around and with no fanfare we were off and heading over the bridge and off up into the fields. Marina took off at a good pace but Gilly and I were happy to just find our feet early on and chat away the first few miles. We were both aware that the Fling two weeks earlier was probably still in our legs and didn’t want to go out too hard early on.
The first couple of miles of the course are mostly made up of sheep trails and farm tracks but it is really runable. We found ourselves in a little group of similarly paced runners as the field spread out and we moved through the first few miles well until we started to slow on the first steep climbs. The weather was so much better than had been forecast so it wasn’t long before Gilly and I were ditching our base-layers and gloves in favour of short sleeves.
The checkpoint at Dalnagair Castle came quickly, just 6 miles into the race and we moved past quickly. We picked up our pace again as we moved down the first steep descent into the forest and picked our way though the puddle-filled ditches.
Paul Broad had managed to catch us up (despite taking a slight detour in the first couple of miles) and the three of us were running well and chatting away happily. The scenery was stunning in the morning sunshine and we were constantly stopping to grab a photo as we ran.
Before too long we were winding down the hill again and through a farm before running along the road to the next checkpoint at Kirkton of Glenisla at the 15 mile mark.
The fabulous “ladies” of Glenisla filled our bottles and handed out or drop bags and I necked my first coffee of the day. Gilly hurried me along and we marched out of the checkpoint in began to climb up and out of the village.
We had passed through Glenisla just shy of 3 hours into the race and the mid morning sun was starting to warm up nicely. We pushed on up to the top of the first hill and ran well for a few miles on the gloriously open trails, reeling in a few runners ahead of us as we went. Then came another hill. Then another. Was there any downhill running on this section? It certainly didn’t feel like it but I was aware that we were still catching people ahead so we were obvioisly still moving quite well in terms of the rest of the field.
I had recced a bit of this section of the race and started to notice some familiar sights as we began to near Alyth. There is a long and steady climb up on the approach to the town but also a long descent afterwards where you can run without the brakes on for a bit. I made the most of this and caught a couple of runners on the descent before slowing to a marching pace as we moved through the town. We moved well, chatting with One of Gilly’s club mates, Alan, as we pounded the streets and cut down into the Den and the “Disco” checkpoint manned by Mel and Mike Raffan. Mike was doing his best 70s pimp impression and Mel was rocking the Pans People look whilst refining bottles and handing out drop bags. I didn’t have a drop bag here due to my rationed selection so I refilled my Active Root and walked out of the checkpoint along the river while the others caught up.
We were 5 and a half hours in now and still moving quite well apart from a bit of faffing around after the checkpoint changing jackets and looking for direction arrows. After we found our way (I was standing on one of the arrows!) we moved back out onto the road and headed up (surprise!) another hill as we headed towards Blairgowrie. This section is a mix of woodland and road running so we were able to continue moving at a steady pace. We had hooked up with Alan and a couple of other guys and spent a few miles getting to know each other. As we came through Drimmie Woods, we happened upon Donna Pass who was hobbling along with a stick for support and not looking in a good way in terms of movement but her demeanour was still good. She knew her race was over and was just moving to the next checkpoint under her own steam but we stopped long enough to make sure she was ok and check if she needed anything. As she was in good spirits, she told us to keep moving and we left her to her walk in the woods, knowing that others would be coming behind us and that we would tell the next marshal we saw that she was on her way. It may seem callous to some that we left her but you know when someone is struggling and in need of help and when someone is just injured but able to continue until the next aid station. This was definitely the latter.
As we came out of the woods, there was a long push down the road and I noticed that Gilly was starting to pull away a bit as I chatted to a couple of the other guys so I upped the pace a bit and reeled her in again coming down the hill. She wasn’t ditching me that easily! Alan dropped back a little to let his friend catch up and Paul had slipped back a little so as we came into the Blairgowrie checkpoint it was Gilly and I pushing ahead. We decided not to linger too long in Blairgowrie despite other runners taking some time to sit down and deal with blisters or have a full on picnic. I had recced the next section twice and knew that it could be a bit of a slog so wanted to just get moving while I still had the energy.
There’s a bit of a climb up from the checkpoint past some rather swanky looking holiday lets and some massive houses with stunning views over the countryside. Once out of the town, we headed up the old military road for what felt like an age, marching as if we were soldiers on patrol, before eventually making a turn downhill and through a farm and then out into lush, green trail once more.
We were starting to do a bit of to-ing and fro-ing with a couple of other runners where we would pass them then they would pass us and so on. The pace on the next section past Middleton was steady without being particularly quick but I was glad of the dry conditions. On previous recces when it had been a lot wetter underfoot, this section was hard going. It had been boggy and hard to pick your way across without getting wet feet or sinking past your ankles but today it wasn’t half as bad. We continued to pick people off ahead of us and I was happy to take the lead from Gilly for a while. The last mile or so into Bridge of Cally must have been done at a good pace because we had caught everyone in sight in front of us and given ourselves a decent lead on those behind us.
Coming into the checkpoint, we were greeted by the Pirates of the Cateran who were checking us in and handing us our “booty”. Unfortunately, I hadn’t left a drop bag here but I did find some buried treasure on the leftover table in the shape of Stoats bar so I looted and pillaged that and my shipmate and I sailed off down the trail before anyone else appeared from the stern.
A short run down the hill and we had to stop for the obligatory shoe cleaning and Gilly had to stop for a few minutes to deal with a blister that had just popped on her foot. It was nice to stop for a few minutes but I was aware that stopping for too long at this stage would be bad for momentum so as soon as Gilly was sorted we headed off again. The group that we had passed before the last checkpoint had managed to get ahead of us again but they were still within sight so we began to try and reel them in again one by one.
The first part of this section was hard packed trail so running was an option but after 9 hours and 40 miles of running we were noticeably starting to tire and the ascents just kept on coming.
When we finally got to the summit of the never ending hill, the going got harder as we were now picking our way over heather-covered, boggy moorland and it was a case of pick your way slowly along the path using the rocks or risk going knee-deep into a squelchy hole in the ground. All of this was adding to our fatigue and we were both really starting to feel the 53 miles that our legs had done just 14 days earlier.
Finally, we made it out of the marshland and onto some solid ground again as we neared Kirkmichael. From here, the next milestone was the checkpoint at Enochdu then we were on to the finish. From behind, we were joined briefly by Jenni Rees-Jenkins, Jodie Phillips-Laird and Susan Murchie who were all moving just a bit faster than us by this point. We had passed Jodie sitting by the side of the road a short while back but she seemed to have gotten a second (or fourth or tenth) wind and was now moving well alongside Jenni and they both pulled ahead of us quickly. Susan seemed happy to hang in with us for the moment so we shared a few stories for the next mile or so. We stopped briefly outside a house in Kirkmichael to partake in some sliced watermelon that some lovely human had left out for weary runners and it brought back fond memories of Glenmore last year when it was one of the only things that my stomach would allow me during the whole race.
A few more gentle climbs and a bit of woodland later and we the Enochdu checkpoint up ahead. John Munro has ditched his sequinned, rainbow dress in favour of a hi-viz now and was doling sweets and whisky to give us all a final push to the end. While Jenni and co were throwing back healthy measures, I knew that once I finished the race, I had a 40 minute drive back to Roundyhill. I don’t think the traffic cops would see the funny side if anything happened en route and I had to explain that after 5 hours sleep I had run 55 miles and then had a couple of drams before driving home. They probably wouldn’t believe me anyway And it was a 10 year old Talisker so it would be rude not to have a small one!
Tastebuds re-awoken we all began the march (uphill again) towards Glenshee. Gilly and I moved off before the others but we were soon caught and passed by the double-barrelled surname twins and Susan was shuffling along a few hundred yards behind us. I knew that the next section was a long, slow push up the hill and the closer we got to the top, the steeper it got.
Gilly and I were both resigned to just marching this last section out now as we were both just physically knackered although mentally we were fine and still having a laugh. The thought of food and the steep descent on the other side of the hill kept pushing us forward and we stopped every so often just to take in the landscape that we were in before we got back to some sort of civilisation. Up here you can see for miles and it’s all hills and valleys and heather and trees and it makes you feel really lucky to just be here doing what you are doing in this place. Maybe the whisky was just starting to kick in.
Eventually we got to the way marker at the top of the climb and once through the gate it was all downhill to the finish line. I had seriously underestimated how much downhill it was though and how steep! Running it at this stage was just asking for a fall and I didn’t want to hurt myself now right at the end so we picked our way down in a half stumble, half shuffle kind of motion. I thought that five minutes would see us home but it turned out to be nearly twenty before our feet touched gravel again and we headed over the bridge and into the field where we had gathered that morning.
I had suggested to Gilly that we should have a game of rock, paper, scissors to decide who crossed the line first but I had forgotten all about that as I rounded the corner and the cheers and applause from the spectators pulled me over the line just ahead of her. Sorry Gilly! After a huge hug from Karen at the finish line, I received my quaich from George before grabbing a seat and a coffee in the tent while the next few runners came in.
Afterwards, we headed up to the dining room to get stay warm and get a bite to eat. The thought of tasty soup at the finish always motivates me in the final stages of a race and the kitchen didn’t disappoint. There was a whole buffet of soup, tea, coffee, baked tatties, Mac & Cheese and everyone was sitting around enthusiastically chatting about the race. I caught up with Marina who had come in just under an hour earlier and Karen McIndewar who had had a great run too despite her customary fall. Paul came in while we were tucking into our food and I saw a host of other familiar faces sipping beers and smiling around us.
Cateran 55 was done. Despite the forecast of snow and rain, we had had amazing weather and a fantastic run on a great course. The scenery was breathtaking, the route was well marked, the marshals and volunteers were fabulous as usual and it had been a great day out with great people. I was tired and sore but brimming with happiness. I even managed to get my van out of the field on the first attempt which wasn’t looking likely earlier in the day! I’m glad that I managed to get the race done while Karen and George were still at the helm. The new RD team are going to have big boots to fill next year!
The Cateran will draw lots of comparisons with the Fling as it’s a similar distance at a similar time of year but it’s a very different beast. It’s a really tough course with a lot of climbing but it’s probably quite runnable if you are at the sharp end and used to running up hills. The landscape is fantastic and while it might not have the prestige of the Fling, I love its understated and unassuming nature. There’s nothing unassuming about the volunteers though and they add a splash of colour and pantomime with their themed checkpoints and fancy dress in among the muted greens and browns of the surroundings. Running the Fling two weeks before the Cateran definitely had an impact on my energy levels in the final 10 miles. I think that coming back to the race when I’m a bit fresher would definitely improve my time but even without that draw, it’s one that I’ll want to do again.
“Flinging In The Rain”
As April draws to a close, one of the highlights of the Ultrarunning year rolls around, The Fling! Despite having only run this race for the first time last year, I feel like I’ve been talking about it for years, such is it’s standing in the Ultra community. It’s just a special race for pretty much everyone that’s ever been involved in it, whether running or volunteering and it’s one that I hope I’m still going back to for many years to come.
After a decent performance at the John Muir Ultra a month before, I was hoping for another decent run at the Fling. All the usual suspects were there. Gilly was in for (I think) her 4th run with Aldo in his usual super-marshal role. Mark and Aasim were going to be popping their Fling cherry. Emma was back to try to banish the demons of her previous years DNF. Nicola was hoping to go one better than her 2nd place finish in 2018. Marina was on volunteer duty with Matt, Sylvia, Yan, Angela and a whole host of other familiar faces so it was going to be a great day of running on a fabulous route surrounded by a bunch of great people no matter what else happened.
Alice and the kids had all wanted to come along with me on this one and we headed across to the west on the Friday afternoon. I had booked a “hobbit house” camping pod at Lomond Woods holiday park in Balloch and it was a perfect little spot to hunker down the night before the race. I was able to leave in the early hours to get to Milngavie but it gave Alice and the kids only a short drive to Balmaha where I would see them at the checkpoint later in the day.
I got up at 4am and got myself lifted out for race day before meeting up with Mark and his Dad for the 30 minute drive to Milngavie at 4:30. This gave us plenty of time to get registered, leave our drop bags and foodbank donations and have a mingle in the growing crowd of 1000 runners looking for familiar faces.
The start line is always a hushed mixture of excitement, anxiety and fun. It’s like having a bunch of big kids waiting on permission from their parents to go and start opening their presents on Christmas morning. As 6am approached, RD John climbed up on the roof the Flingmobile to deliver the race briefing before we were herded into the starting pen. With so many runners, there’s a staggered start and Mark and I opted to start in the second wave with the intention of a nice easy and slow start. Once we were suitably packed in like sardines, the front runners were off first and after a few minutes we began our own walk under the famous railway bridge.
Up the stairs and along the high street and we turn on to the official start of the West Highland Way into Mugdock Country Park (aided by Angela and her foamy fingers).
Once off the pedestrian precinct, it immediately starts to quieten down and feel like a trail race. My watch was still struggling to find GPS so I just decided to start it and hope that it would sort itself out soon enough. Mark and I tried to ease into a nice and comfortable 10:30 pace and let the excitement settle. As the saying goes, “Don’t be a hero in the first half and don’t be a wimp in the second half” and that’s good advice over a 53 mile course. I knew what was to come over the next 12 odd hours and didn’t want to find myself death marching the final section.
A couple of miles in and we were coasting along nicely. We had picked up my friend Martin (who is always a good source of banter) and before long the three of us were heading towards the Beech Tree. Having made my customary pit stop around mile 7, I had to do a little bit of solo running to catch up to Mark but found him again just before Gartness.
Slowing a little as we climbed the hill out of the village, I was able to chat to a couple of guys from Haddington running club. I really must try and make it along there one day! They foraged ahead on the approach to Drymen and Mark and I took a bit of a breather and took on some food after the kit check. On the approach to Conic Hill, the sun faded and the clouds started to gather and the hope of a spectacular sunlit view from the top slipped away. Coincidentally, I started to feel a bit lethargic and heavy-legged at the same time and tried to give myself a wee boost with some fizzy sweets. The rain was starting to seep in now so I spent a couple of seconds getting my waterproof on and trudged on. I’ve done enough races now to know that there are always peaks and troughs but I could have done without one just before the first major climb!
Mark was still moving quite well so I was happy for him to take the lead up Conic and just grind it out for a while and hope that the sugar would kick in and push me over the top. The rain wasn’t heavy but it did make the going slow and with every step, I was regretting each and every extra trip I had made to the buffet whilst on holiday the week before. I’ve no idea how long the climb lasted but I was glad to get over the brow and start heading downhill again.
As it was wet, I didn’t have any trouble reminding myself to take it easy on the decent and not trash my quads but the thought of Alice and the kids waiting at the bottom was enough to make me push on. There was also coffee in my drop bag and if the sugar wasn’t working for me then perhaps the caffeine would. Mark and I swapped places and picked our way down the stoney descent. The bad weather meant that there were no tourists to dodge today so we made it down quite quickly and I got a bit of momentum going the closer to the bottom we got. I left Mark behind on the descent and gunned into the checkpoint. Announcer Sylvia drummed up some support from the crowd and I saw Alice and the kids waiting in the drizzle.
The plan was, as always, not to linger too long in the checkpoints but at the bottom of the hill I decided to spend a few minutes devouring everything in my drop bag. I wasn’t sure what was causing the lethargy but I thought if I guzzled down some coffee, coke, crisps and fruit in addition to the sweets I had already eaten then something would hit the right spot and pull me out of my funk.
After a couple of minutes, Alice told me to move my ass out of the checkpoint and Mark and I headed off into the woods again. A short up and down brings you out onto the road again and then down onto the shoreline. The sign slung over the stone wall at the bottom of the hill seemed to be telling me exactly what I needed to hear and I started to try and force the pace up again as the course levelled out.
Mark’s parents were camped at Milarochy Bay so a couple of miles along the road we stopped briefly again to see them and I ditched my waterproof as the rain seemed to be subsiding. A couple of minutes chat and we were on our way again towards Rowardennan. This is not normally one of my favourite sections so I was preparing myself to just get my head down and grind it out through the undulating forest track but as we ran I felt myself start to pick up a bit of momentum and rhythm. I was ready for the long climb up the steps when we got there and warned Mark to prepare himself. A few of the other runners around us looked to be making hard work of the climb up and maybe weren’t expecting it to go on for so long but having done this section a few times now, I knew how to pace myself. Once we got up to the top of the track, it’s a fun little section of runnable downhill all the way to the Rowardennan checkpoint so I told Mark I was feeling good and wanted to push on and try to make up some lost time here. I knew he would be able to catch up to me at the checkpoint, and also, I really needed a poo so I set off at pace down the track.
I passed quite a few people on the downhill who were maybe pacing themselves in case another set of stairs appeared before them. On previous runs, I’ve always felt that this little rollercoaster section goes on forever but I may have just been more mentally prepared this time and I saw the signs for Rowardennan appear in front of me before too long. A quick jog up the road and round the corner and I was greeted by Paul Broad bearing my drop bag. Unfortunately, he was also bearing bad news and told me almost immediately that Emma had been forced to withdraw due to injury, just as she had last year. I knew she would be devastated and I was gutted for her and wanted to go and give her a hug but Paul told me she was already on the bus back so I stopped for a few minutes and wolfed down the contents of my drop bag while Mark came in and I broke the news about Emma. Lunch scoffed and facilities used, we headed out along the track again and up the hill.
The rain started again and a couple of hundred yards down the road I stopped and got my waterproof back on. My T-shirt was already wet but I reckoned it would stave off the cold a bit. Mark and I pushed on up the hill, taking the high road route and chatting about the infamous lochside section which lay ahead. Normally I’m in the minority that really likes the scrambling over tree roots and boulders but I wasn’t overly-enthused about it in the wet.
Coming down the hill I picked up a bit of pace again and started to feel quite good. Maybe something from the drop bag at the last checkpoint had kicked in, maybe I was just over my long slump but whatever it was, I felt like I could run again. Mark let me take the lead and I foraged on towards the lochside section. As the overall pace of the race began to slow, we started to catch and pass people who were taking it really easy on the rocks. Now that I was feeling good, I wanted to make the most of my momentum in case it disappeared again. I opened up a bit of a gap on Mark who was running with a little group including My friend Tricia so I wasn’t too worried about him. He was looking ok and moving well so I kept pushing on. Every time I came to a long straight, I had a look back to check that he was still coming and kept this up pretty much all the way to Inversnaid. Sometimes you need someone to be beside you or dragging you along when you are in a rut and other times it’s good to feel alone and self sufficient. That’s how I was feeling now as I came into the Inversnaid checkpoint.
I felt good at Inversnaid but wanted to take a few minutes to refuel so I sat down at a table and emptied my drop bag. Mark came in about 3 minutes after me and we had our picnic together but sitting about in the rain wasn’t doing us any favours so we picked up and headed out as soon as we were done. I warned him that the next section was more of the same but a bit tougher but he was looking fine. I was eager to pick off a few more runners in this section so I set of at a fast pace and left Mark to his own race and I knew that I wouldn’t be too far ahead. I thought I might try and reel in Gilly who we hadn’t seen since before the Beechtree but I had no idea how far ahead she was. It was a good target and focus to have though as I moved ahead on my own.
As expected, a lot of the runners ahead were taking it really easy here on the sloppy rocks and gnarled roots but my Saucony Peregrines we’re serving me well. The mes on the top of my foot had a couple of holes in it which weren’t doing me any favours in the wet but the grip on the sole was doing its job impeccably. Every runner (and walker) that I came up behind stepped aside and let me pass without much delay and I got a small mental boost with every one that I passed. I was slightly annoyed when the path smoothed out and the rocky section gave way to a runnable path again and I had to pick up the pace. When I say runnable path, what I actually mean is a river for that was what the path now was thanks to the constant drizzle. My wet feet weren’t going to get dry anytime soon though so trying to tiptoe around the standing puddles and running rivers was pointless. I just steamed through the middle of them and managed to pass another couple of runners on the climb.
On the way up to Dario’s post I had a brief chat with Ultra legends Fiona and Pauline who were plugging away in their usual fashion with big smiles on their faces. I took a chance to get a bit of a sprint on as I passed their little merry band of runners and scurried up the hill. It’s been a bit of a custom of mine to pause and have a wee dram at Dario’s post every time I’m there. It’s a beautiful spot, even in the rain and I find it rejuvenating to just take a moment here to look around and just appreciate where I am and what I’m doing.
As I screwed the top back on my flask and started back up the hill, I saw that Mark was coming around the shore just behind Fiona and Pauline and gave him an encouraging wave to make sure he was ok. I don’t really remember that much about the next section to Beinglas as I was just focusing on picking off each runner in front of me one at a time. Aside from a couple of runners while I was stopped at Dario’s post, no one had passed me on the whole of the last section and I continued to move well all the way into the next checkpoint. As it turns out, I had moved up 19 places since Inversnaid and I was feeling good while others around me were noticeably flagging. I didn’t want to stop long at Beinglas while I was feeling good so I chugged down my coffee in a can, stuck my dried mango in my vest, ditched my can of coke and marched out of the checkpoint eating my salt and vinegar crisps.
The section between Beinglas and Bogle Glen is pretty much a constant climb up over the moorland and is quite exposed and I remember having a pretty bad time here on the Fling and the West Highland Way Race her last year. This year however was a completely different story. I was feeling strong and energised and continued to catch and pass people all the way up the hill. The rain had mostly stopped now but water was pouring off the hill and the track was a couple of inches deep with flowing water. I’m sure a few points would have been classed as a river crossings on another day!
As I approached the top of the climb and headed under the low bridge, I knew it was only a short skip and a jump through what used to be Cow Poo Alley and I would be at the Bogle Glen checkpoint. I didn’t know if Alice and the kids would be there or not due to the weather but I sent her a text to let her know where I was and kept moving. I had seen pictures of the work that had been done to Cow Poo Alley and wanted to see how it was settling in. CPA has always been a horrible but weirdly challenging and enjoyable part of this run and I hoped that I wouldn’t be too disappointed now that it was no more. As it turned out, the work to improve the path has settled since completion. When the initial photographs appeared on social media they caused a bit of a commotion with a lot of people (myself included) thinking that they had ruined the aesthetic of the route but I’m pleased to say that the path is not as bad as first feared and is settling in well with the landscape (I stand corrected Ian Beattie).
Leaving Cow Poo Alley behind, I continued to push up the hill and after a while I saw the many multicoloured flags at the Bogle Glen checkpoint. As I got closer, I could hear cheering and applause and then the unmistakable sound of Alice shouting “woo hoo! Come on Rosco!”. After a brief pause to hug her and the kids and gulp down another coffee, I told her I was feeling good and wanted to push on quickly. She told me not to go too fast so that she had time to get to the finish line and I headed up the hill again.
Nestled in a little clearing in the woods at the top of the hill were a couple of ladies with an accordion who were helping to lift spirits before the long downhill towards Tyndrum and the finish line. I had made good progress in the last section (and had made up 26 places) and was determined to keep it going to the end. I always love this section because it’s a long and winding downhill Through the woods and I feel that at this stage of the race it’s fine to just let the brakes off and go. I’m no longer trying to save myself for anything and the finish line is within reach.
I passed runner after runner who were either struggling with the downhill or just taking it easy and opened up my stride while gravity was with me. There’s a bit of flat and undulating after we come out of the woods so I was trying to make up as many places as I could now. At the bottom of the hill, I came straight out into the road crossing and was waved across by the marshals so I didn’t have to break stride. I eased off a little as we crossed the bridge and headed up towards Auchtertyre. I eased off a little again and tucked in behind a lady called Morven. We were both moving at the same pace and I’m not sure either of us had enough to push past the other without being caught again quickly so we made an unspoken agreement to just maintain until the end and have a chat. As we ran alongside the river, we heard the piper in the distance and I told her to push on up the hill as she was slightly in front and I would hang back enough to let her have her red carpet photo without my ugly mug over her shoulder.
I checked behind us as she moved away and saw that there was no one directly behind me that would catch me before the end so after a few seconds I took a deep breath and headed up the last hill past the piper and saw the start of the carpet. As soon as you set foot on it, it’s like you are at the start line again. All fatigue just leaves you and you can’t help but smile at all the friends and strangers that are lining final straight to cheer you home. Yan popped out of the crowd with a big cheer and a thumbs up and I could hear Alice somewhere but couldn’t pick her out in the sea of faces. As I crossed the line, I was grabbed and given a massive hug from Sheona before being ushered off to the side to dib my dobber and get my times and goody bag.
In the welfare tent, I got my photo and found Marina on coffee duty so took a few minutes to get a hot drink inside me and take the weight off my legs while having a blether to her. Despite being cold and wet, I wanted to hang around and see Mark over the line of his first Fling. I thought he might be around 20 minutes behind so I found Alice and the kids and got my hoody on keep warm while I waited for him to come around the corner. In the end, it turned out he was around 40 minutes behind but finished strong along the carpet and I caught up with him in the welfare tent for a hug and a team photo.
My second Fling now done and dusted. I was just over an hour slower than the previous year coming in at 13:30 but I was happy with that on the day given the weather conditions and my fitness levels. The first half of the race was where I lost the most time but judging by my splits, I had a massive improvement in the second half so I can focus on the positives. Also, I wouldn’t advise hanging about in the cold and rain waiting on a friend as I did feel mildly hypothermic once I sat down in the food tent and needed to break out my foil blanket. I was fine once I got the wet clothes off and the heater on in the car though. I love, love, love this race regardless of times and performance or weather as it’s the people and the location that make it. Ding Ding until the next time!
It’s that time of year again. The Foxtrail Winter Series has come to an end and as the days begin to draw out it’s time to up the distance again and begin a new season of Ultrarunning. Like last year, I’m starting with my favourite local race, the 50k John Muir Ultra. This year will be my 4th run on the bounce.
Last year still holds memories of howling gales, rain in the face and swamp like conditions coming through Balgone so I was hoping for a bit of an easier time this year. I had also managed to convince my running buddy Mark to head up from the Borders to take part in my local race so I was hoping that the East Lothian countryside was going to show itself off well. Forecast showed a bright start with a bit of rain in the middle and a bright finish so signs were good.
Initially I had signed up to run the Kielder Dark Skies run a week before this race but after taking a tumble on a training run two weeks ago and cracking (at least) one of my ribs, I had decided that running around a forest in the dark probably wasn’t the best idea and withdrew. That meant that this was my first long race of the year so I was hoping that my legs (and my rib) would be up to the task.
I made the short drive along the road to Foxlake around 7am and met Mark in the carpark. After a quick registration and quick hello to a few other runners I knew, we took our seats on one of the complimentary buses and headed to the start line at Port Seton. As chance would have it, I found myself sitting behind my next door neighbours sister, Maxine who was going to attempt to run her very first Ultra distance. Chatting and passing on a few words of wisdom made the journey pass quickly and we were soon stepping off the bus into the cool coastal breeze. After a final toilet stop we assembled on the prom for the race briefing from RD John and we lined up in our groups for a staggered start.
As with previous years, I decided to start in the second wave to let the speed demons get on with setting the pace and not get carried away early on. Once we get off the promenade, the course skirts around the beach on single track paths so it’s easy to get stuck behind slower runners so we made sure we started at a brisk pace before dialing it back a notch after a mile or two.
By the time we come back out onto the tarmac of the coast road, we are moving briskly but steadily and the pack is starting to thin out as everyone settles into their pace. Gosford House and Aberlady are upon us quite quickly and we soon arrive at the first water station. Running well and not needing anything, Mark and I run straight through without stopping and head towards Gullane.
I usually have a bit of a dip at this section for some reason. Last year, the wind just sapped the strength out of me coming around the main road and around the exposed golf course but this time I was hoping that having Mark beside me would see me ok. As we slowed the pace coming up the hill, I chomped down a protein bar for a bit of an extra boost. Best to cover all bases and use the experience of previous years. Once round Saltcoats Road we pushed up the hill into Gullane and then right, along the A198 towards Archerfield Estate and the first main checkpoint.
Passing the Walled Garden checkpoint at just under 90 minutes, Mark and I felt that we were still moving well enough that we didn’t need to stop so ran straight through as the rain began to fall. It wasn’t heavy but it was the kind of fine rain that just soaks you through gradually and it didn’t look like it was going to let up anytime soon. The route winds around the Renaissance Club before circling back up the hill past Archerfield House and on towards the village of Dirleton. The rain was beginning to soak in now and bring my temperature down so I slipped on my running sleeves as we ran along the straight tarmac section towards Dirleton and chewed down a couple of jelly sweets to keep the energy levels up.
As we came out into the main square at Dirleton, the course hangs a left down towards the coast again and into the woods around the golf course. This was a nice little respite from the rain but there are lots of tree roots here to catch a toe on so I was cautious with my footing. Falling with an already broken rib was not in my plans today! We made good progress down behind the houses towards Yellowcraigs, stopping only briefly to high-5 a couple of young children who were manning a trestle table of cakes and sweets for us runners in spite of the cold and wet conditions. Ultrarunning has an amazing way of bringing out the best of humanity.
Once we got to the carpark at Yellowcraig, the course skirts around the edge of the woods and heads towards North Berwick. This was the section I had fallen on and broken my rib a few weeks earlier and as it was wet again today, I was careful not to push myself too hard again here. I decided to skip the wooden walkway altogether and take my chances in the long grass. Unscathed, Mark and I headed through the gates and on towards the slow climb up Abbotsford Road. As we summited the hill, we upped the pace again as we pushed on down hill and across the links towards the halfway point at North Berwick lifeboat station.
Alice and the kids were waiting on us at the lifeboat station but one look at the kids faces told me that they had been standing in the rain for longer than they were happy with and they wouldn’t mind if we were in and out quickly. The rain was still coming down as we headed out onto the sand and steeled ourselves for the climb up off the shore and through the Glen towards Berwick Law. As the rain started to ease, Mark and I were still maintaining a decent pace but there are a lot of undulations and little mini hills which interrupted the running flow in this section and we were a bit stop and start until we got out from the base of the Law.
The next section between the Law and East Linton is a section that I am very familiar with as it is the route I run from my house in training and a lot of it is either flat or downhill. Last year, the loop around the Balgone Estate lakes was really tough going as it was akin to running through a bog. Each footstep was more effort than the last because of the amount of wet mud that got stuck to your shoes each time you planted a foot. This year was an absolute breeze in comparison. The paths had been chipped and packed down in the past 12 months so each step forward was a solid one. Our average pace was beginning to drop from the first half of the race but Mark and I were still managing to pick off the odd person here and there as we went round. As the rain had now stopped, I was beginning to warm up again and had almost finished my trusty bottle of Active Root (I was only carrying one bottle because of the broken rib on one side) so I was delighted when we got to the aid station and found a cooler of Active Root waiting along with the usual tray bakes and sweets. Bottle refilled, we headed off up the track and made a series of short but sharp climbs through the woods and out onto the Estate road.
From here, the course opens out before you and there are lovely views over the farmland and out towards the Lammermuirs. I felt like we were starting to pick up a bit of pace again as we took in the rollercoaster section downhill towards East Linton but I knew there would be a bit of walking up Drylaw Hill, the last decent climb of the race, so I wanted to bank some time here. I pushed on a bit right up until the base of the hill before we slowed and used the long climb to catch our breath and guzzle down some jelly sweets. Once we got to the summit, I knew it was only a few miles of fairly flat running to the finish line and wanted to finish strong as I had totally bombed here last year.
A glance down at my watch told me there was less than five miles to go now and that I was well inside last years time. I could still be on course for a PB too if I really put the foot down in these last miles but it was going to be tight. Mark and I picked up the pace again and ran in silence past the Doocot outside East Linton and on to Smeaton. After a quick check we agreed to run straight through the aid station at the main road and headed out onto the open fields around the river Tyne. After another glance at my watch, I saw that time was getting away from me and beating my PB was becoming less likely with every passing minute. My legs were tired and heavy and I just couldn’t make them move any faster. I had also noticed that Mark was starting to lag slightly behind but I knew that if the roles were reversed, I would want him to push on ahead for the last couple of miles and get the PB.
The harder I ran, the slower I seemed to be going and by the time I had run under the bridge at Tyninghame, I knew that making the PB was now going to be beyond me. I probably needed a couple of 7 minute miles now and I just couldn’t make my legs move that fast. I decided to just let it go and the rest of the run became about just beating last years time which was totally within reach unless something went pop in my legs. I know the tracks around the Tynemouth like the back of my hand these days having run them so often in training and as part of the Foxtrail series so I managed to overtake a few people in the last mile or so. Even though my legs felt like lead, they knew the end was in sight and gave me just enough movement to keep pace for the final section. With about half a mile to go, Donald Sandeman pulled ahead of me and headed for the finish line. Mark and I had last passed him just before North Berwick so I was a bit gutted that he had managed to catch me right at the end. (As it turned out, he must have started in the first wave of runners so my watch time was actually faster as we crossed the line. Yay!)
Running down the finishing straight, I was met by Alice and the kids as well as Mark’s parents who I reassured that he wasn’t far behind me. After collecting my medal and grabbing a drink I wandered back down the sidelines to see Mark over the finish line with his customary sprint finish. According to my watch I had missed my PB by around 4 minutes but beaten last years time by around 20 minutes so I was fairly content given that I was running with a broken rib. Mark had made it home in 5:28 and had looked comfortable right up until the last couple of miles so a good run for him too.
I was able to hang around at the finish line for a while to check out how all my friends had gotten on with their own runs on the day. Nicola has stormed the female race as usual and taken first. Ian, Dougie and Aasim had all finished well and Gilly had come in 9 minutes behind Mark despite saying she would be happy to make it halfway. Maxine also completed her first Ultra at the first time of asking so a good day for all concerned. As per usual, the Foxlake team did a fantastic job of getting everyone round the course safely and with a smile on their face.
John Muir Ultra number 4 is done and dusted and the Ultrarunning season has now kicked off for me. Next up, it’s back to Milngavie for the Fling at the end of April when hopefully my rib will have fully healed.