On Saturday March 11th I returned to the scene of my first ultra, the D33. One year on from my ultra marathon debut I was keen to see how I’d improved as an ultra runner and put in to practice lessons learned from my previous two races. What better yardstick than my debut event and a course I knew, with a solid training block behind me and a firm game plan nothing could go wrong…
A niggling knee injury around New year meant the beginning of this training block was about building me up slowly and with a little less intensity than usual in terms of mileage and quality of session, the flip side of that was that I was making a concentrated effort on my strength work which, if I’m honest, is something I usually find too easy to neglect with a hectic work and family life. The benefits though would be laid out in front of me and the penny finally dropped as to why it is so important. The knee injury still persists, a suspected torn meniscus, but with the strength and conditioning it’s ceased to affect my running thankfully.
Eventually the higher quality sessions were introduced and despite my slow start I was beginning to feel stronger and fitter than I ever have in a training block. The key was consistency and I was hitting every target set for me with the exception of a short lay off due to shingles, however when I returned to training I didn’t feel as if I’d lost any fitness or strength. As preparations for a race go I was feeling good about it and there was a quiet confidence creeping in that I could shave at least 30 minutes off of my previous time of 5hrs 1min.
I travelled up to Aberdeen on the Friday afternoon after work with the wife, kids and dog in tow, they hadn’t managed to witness me finish last year as they all had Covid (not the dog) and couldn’t travel. We were extended the hospitality of my mother in law and sister in law who handily stay right around the corner from the Duthie Park where the race starts and finishes.
I managed a good night’s sleep before race day, around 7 and a half hours which was better than expected. Traditional pre race breakfast of toasted sesame seed bagel, peanut butter and banana consumed, toilet duties attended to and I was ready to make the short walk to registration at the Inn at the Park hotel. Once registration, kit check and the dreaded pinning the race number on the shorts was complete it was nice catching up with a couple of familiar faces and feeling relaxed we made our way to the start area for race briefing and the starter’s horn.
The D33 is a simple concept, it’s an out and back course on the Deeside way with a CP at one quarter of the distance which also serves as a CP at three quarters of the distance on your return to the park. There is also a CP at the half way and turning point in Banchory. There are options for drop bags to be left at each CP and I left a bag with my chosen fuel for the return leg at halfway along with an Ambrosia rice pudding pot, I also left another pot at the three quarters distance CP. Remember those lessons learned I mentioned? The rice pudding was a safeguard in case my fuelling strategy had gone to, er, pot.
Anyway, back to the race. Before setting off at the start I wished good luck to Alan, who I had met here the year before and my friend and ex work colleague Ben who was making his ultra debut. We stayed pretty close as we made our way from the park on to the tarmac path of the old Deeside railway line but soon we spread out and ran our own races, settling in to our target paces. My plan was to coast along at around 8 to 8:30 min/miles on the way out, evaluate how I was feeling at halfway and hopefully take it up a notch from there. My target time was a maximum of 4hrs 30mins but I really wanted about 4hrs 15mins, as I’d said I had put in the training and was feeling good and my targets were realistic based on that.
The first part of the race went to plan and my splits were fairly consistent for my game plan, I was sticking to my fuelling and hydration strategy well taking on a gel every 30 mins and aiming for 500ml of water per hour, I also had 500ml of active root which I was sipping at. All was fine as I approached the first CP (8 miles) where I quickly refilled my water but from there things started to go badly pretty quickly! For the next 2 miles I still managed to hold my target pace but I was starting to notice myself having to work much harder than I previously had been. Come mile 11 there were a couple of climbs but nothing like the kind of elevation I was doing in my training, I live surrounded by hills in every direction! These fairly innocuous climbs were posing me real problems and negative thoughts were starting to creep in. I genuinely couldn’t work out what was wrong and when you feel like that every little thing becomes magnified, like the pain I could suddenly feel in my knee. I knew it was in my head but the problem now was I couldn’t get out of my own head. I managed to briefly rally myself on the flat again, latching on to two runners in front of me and using them to pace and distract myself but I was still working too hard. By mile 13 I had to stop and walk and my head had completely gone. This is a distance I had run in training so many times, a distance I could run in my sleep and here I was stopping to walk. I tried running again but only managed a few hundred yards before stopping again and I knew my race was over. With tears forming I called my wife to tell her that I was quitting and the floodgates opened. Bubbling away I explained how I was feeling and she advised me to try and get to halfway and see how I felt, I agreed that’s what I would do but I knew it was over. I tried a half hearted effort to run but the thought of running another 20 miles feeling like I did was not an option. I don’t run to torture myself, I run to enjoy myself. Yes, I love a challenge but not at any cost so I called her again and asked her to come and pick me up. I informed some marshalls at a road crossing I was withdrawing and it was game over, my first DNF.
In summary, Covid
I had to accept, as difficult and confusing as it was, that it was one of those days. There were better runners than me who had suffered days like this I told myself, but it kept niggling at me and anyone who knows me knows I am not a good loser. That’s not to say I’m not able to accept my limitations as a runner and that I expect to be winning races but if I set myself a target you better bet I’ll try my hardest to achieve it. As the rest of the day went on I wasn’t feeling any better, both mentally from playing it over in my head but also physically. I felt dreadful, far too dreadful for having run just under 14 miles. Once home I decided I’d take a Covid test, mostly for my own peace of mind, and lo and behold I was positive! It doesn’t make the disappointment any less but it lets me explain away why it felt so hard. Funny enough I looked at the pictures of race day and there were some early clues as to how I was feeling.
Onwards and upwards
I have a good break from running coming up with a 2 week holiday in Florida at the beginning of April. After that I’ll be doing my local trail race, the pad race and then the hard work really starts with the Devil of the Highlands in August and the intimidating Ring of Steall skyrace in September. I know what I need to do for these to be a success. Be consistent, do my strength and conditioning and above all avoid Covid!
Auchterarder Chilli trail race
Last Saturday, November 5th (remember, remember) was my first experience of the Auchterarder running festival’s 10k trail race, otherwise known affectionately as the chilli trail race because of it’s unique route shape.
I’d decided to sign up for this pretty close to the event, having recovered well from my G2E exploits and feeling I had another race in my legs before the season end. It also helped that I was brave enough to tell my wife I’d be disappearing for the best part of a Saturday and that she is so supportive of my running, so sign up I did. I had lowered my weekly volume since the ultra marathon but I still had good fitness from the training and a couple of weeks of fine tuning with quality speed and hill sessions had me feeling ready for the challenge although to be honest I was just going along to enjoy myself or so I kept telling myself.
So with the promise of a lot of mud and a post race food truck (smoked meats, mmm) I set off on the hour long drive for Auchterarder around 9am on the Saturday morning with my friend Greg’s appearance on the Young Hearts Run Free podcast for company. I arrived at the registration location not long after 10am and after a short panic due to lack of available parking I managed to find a spot and get registered before the 10:30am cut off. I did however miss out on the much coveted chilli trail bobble hat, witnessing the sale of the very last one! I’d need to be quicker off the mark on the starting line.
On your marks, get set…
Arriving at the start area I had the usual pre race scan of the field to gauge the level of competition which on this occasion went from lithe, serious runners (Martin Heggie who won G2E among them) to runners in fancy dress looking to make a fun day of it. I wanted to have fun too but was thinking I’d prefer to be closer to the front pack so I set about doing a short warm up starting easy and then some hill reps to get the legs used to some lactic acid. Waiting for the start it definitely felt more chilly than chilli but it wouldn’t be long before I was feeling the heat of a raised heart rate and the burn of muscles in my legs
and they’re off!
The usual count down from ten and we were off out of the start area and heading downhill. I’d started not far behind the guys who would be pushing for the win and they soon disappeared from view as expected but I was happy keeping a good pace on the downhill trail and then through an underpass tunnel before the main climb for 4km began. I do a lot of hill rep sessions and I was fairly comfortable for most of that climb having decided to run the long race and not attack it all out from the beginning so I kept a steady pace, a few people passed me on that section which didn’t bother me at all because I was confident I’d make up the ground on them on the flat and downhill sections. The climb was a series of false summits and it was only on the very last part that my legs started to feel it but I reached the top and after a few seconds to let my muscles recover I picked up the pace, again feeling comfortable and moving well. We were on some proper trails now after the country road climb and the scenery was beautiful even though it was a fairly wet day, the flat section went on for a couple of kilometres and I was really enjoying myself, passing one or two people on the way. There is a notorious muddy section on this part and while shoes have been lost and runners fallen I managed to navigate it with minimum fuss, result!
Once I reached the end of the flat section it was on to forestry road down through the trees. I had become aware of another runner, maybe two close behind me, I could hear breathing and the crunch of the trail behind me but I didn’t want to turn round so it was here, on the downhill, that my competitive instinct really kicked in and I decided to drop the hammer absolutely flying down the trails with abandon. Down the trail kept going and I was having a great time, my legs felt fine and my breathing was comfortable. Eventually the trail is crossed by a couple of streams and my inner child was fully realised as I splashed through the water, cleaning my shoes and legs in the process.
I had started to feel that a gap was opening between myself and the runner behind but I was still aware of their presence as we reached the bottom of the downhill and on to a more undulating part of the route. With a few shorter hills thrown in at this point I decided to employ some mind games (yes, this is really who I am) and I powered up each of the climbs, my legs were really starting to feel it at this point but I knew there was another short downhill for me to recover before the final climb back up to the start/finish line. Once I got back through the underpass, just before I started that climb I allowed myself to glance back and I could see that I had opened up enough of a gap to relax a little if not too much. Up the hill, thick with mud and energy sapping, I went to the sign for the last 100m. A short bout of confusion on which way to go with shouts and people pointing me in the right direction I eventually regained my composure to cross the finish line in a very respectable time of 48 mins 24 secs to finish 24th/372 and 6th in my age category.
The Auchterarder chilli trail race is a fantastic and well run event which I can’t wait to do again. Everyone from the organisers to the marshalls to the runners were friendly and welcoming. The medal was unique and they throw in a buff for good measure. Hats off to Fiona and Steven Watt (Young Hearts Run Free podcast) for the time and effort put in to make it so enjoyable. It even had the added bonus of John Cassidy (Young Hearts Run Free podcast) on compere duties, making sure each and every runner’s name was called and compliments given as they approached the finish line. I must also give a mention to sugar and spice bakery where I got a post race evening reward from.
GB Ultras: G2E 08/10/22
In March ’22 I completed my first ultra marathon, the D33 along the old Deeside way railway line. I’m told you’re supposed to say never again after finishing your first but not me, I was hooked.
Shortly afterwards I was scouring the internet to see what my next challenge would be and that’s when I saw the advert for GB Ultras Glasgow to Edinburgh ultra marathon, at 56 miles it was a significant step up in distance for me. Training was delayed by a niggling injury and along the way I lost a bit of belief in myself but I mostly hit my targets and come the morning of Saturday 8th October I was toeing the starting line alongside another 300+ runners.
Cometh the hour…
I managed a full night’s sleep the night before the race, which considering my nerves that day was a feat in itself. Alarm set for 3:45am I crept downstairs so as not to wake the whole house, had my usual pre run breakfast of toasted bagel, peanut butter and chopped banana washed down with a coffee and it was almost time to go. My friend, and fellow ultra runner, Greg had offered to crew me so he picked me up and off we headed to the Riverside museum in Glasgow to register, pick up my race number and GPS tracker and most importantly get the toilet duties over and done with.
“It’s time to start running!”
By the time I stood on the starting line I felt good, absolutely raring to go and shift that nervous energy that had been building in me for days. 3, 2, 1 and it was time to go. From the start I stayed quite reserved, sticking to my pacing plan of 10 min/mile, all I could see ahead of me as we snaked through the quiet Glasgow streets down towards the river Kelvin were the bobbing lights of runners’ head torches which must have been quite a sight to any late night/early morning revellers sneaking home. I soon got in to a rythym once the field thinned and feeling comfortable I pushed my pace up to 9:30 min/mile. The first CP was at around 5 miles and no crew were permitted here so I was quite happy to push on to CP2 (11 miles) where I’d meet Greg for a check on how I was, he assured me I was looking strong and moving through the field nicely. A quick refill of active root and solid fuel stock up and off I went.
The sun had come up by now and I still felt good so I allowed myself to take my pace up another notch to sit just above 9 min/mile pace. Fuelling and hydration was also going to plan and I’d loaded up with enough to see me to CP4 as CP3 was no crew permitted. I stopped briefly at CP3 (16 miles) to try the much recommended salted potatoes and top up my water before quickly soldiering on to meet Greg at CP4 next to the Falkirk wheel (26 miles). Same spiel from Greg here, asking how I was feeling, how my fuelling was etc. This time I told him I still felt good but not quite as good as the last time I’d seen him but he assured me I still looked strong, especially in comparison to a few runners who’d arrived before me, and he told me I was still picking off the field in front of me which was a boost. A quick top up of hydration and fuel, some more salted potatoes and onwards I went.
Although the distance between CP4 and CP5 was a mere 4 miles it was on this leg of the race that I started to struggle. I was less attentive to my fuelling as I was now having problems swallowing anything without wretching and as a result my legs were getting heavier and the pain was starting to weigh on me mentally, I was also starting to obsess over the constant left sloping camber of the canal tow path but I was keeping on top of my hydration and the active root was keeping me going albeit a little more slowly. When I got to CP5 (30 miles) my mindset was noticeably more negative. Greg met me with the same questions as before, ‘how are you feeling?’. ‘Are you drinking, eating, peeing?’. ‘It hurts’ I answered. ‘What hurts?’. ‘Everything from the waist down!’. Greg told me that was fine, to be expected and I could block that out. I was starting to build a surplus of fuel I told him, as I couldn’t eat. It was at this point he produced a little pot of heaven and told me to try it, Ambrosia rice pudding! On a normal day I am not a fan of this stuff but on this occasion it was a god send. I scoffed half the pot, refilled my active root and off I went feeling a little better for it and the boost in energy soon filtered to my aching legs.
My legs still felt tired in waves and I was still wretching anytime I ate on the move, or at all really, so by now any time I needed to eat I started walking and just forced myself to get it over the back of my tongue and in to my stomach. This was the theme from CP5 through CP6 (37 miles and more rice pudding) and on to CP7 (50 miles) where this time Greg made me eat one of my Chia charge flapjacks before leaving and produced a pot of custard, even better! 6 miles to go and at this point I knew I’d finish, not that I ever had real doubts about it but what’s 6 miles?
7.3 miles, that’s what 6 miles turned out to be! Apart from constantly awaiting the never arriving sight of Saughton sports complex I felt ok and resolved to run a mile and walk a minute which worked well for me. I had been warned in advance of the turn off the Union canal path on to the trail following the water of Leith and I was keeping my eyes open for it and the cruelest of twists that was the stairs between the 2 paths, down no less. If you know you know!
Finally, I hit Saughton sports complex and the promised land of the track and finish line, a quick wrong turn left on to the track faux pas only to be redirected to my right to do the full lap and from somewhere I found 8 min/mile pace to finish looking stronger than I felt. Medal, finishers picture, a few tears and a hug from Greg (who I couldn’t have managed without) and I was done. 41st place in a time of 9:41:45, a fantastic achievement and well below my sub 10 hour target. What next?
Welcome to WordPress! This is your first post. Edit or delete it to take the first step in your blogging journey.