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!
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