The Great Glen Ultra 2015

(Thanks to Fiona Rennie for the 4 excellent checkpoint photos)

Towards the end of 2014 I made the decision to end my parenthood inspired 2 year ultramarathon hiatus, signing up for The D33, The Hoka Highland Fling, and The Great Glen Ultra.

I fully appreciated that training was likely to be ‘impaired’ by the demands of parenthood, and certainly when compared to the kind of hours that I used to log in training pre-Harris.

However, it’s safe to say that I didn’t expect 2015 to be blighted quite so much by illness, as I stumbled from one ailment to another, including cellulitis and chickenpox to name but a couple.

The numerous ailments, together with on-going back pain resulting from a bad fall, impacted considerably on training and, looking back, I’m still surprised that I managed to complete even one of my chosen events, never mind all three of them!

In terms of long runs this year, I’ve managed a couple of 18 mile runs prior to the D33, the D33 itself, where I was beset with bad leg cramps in both legs at the 18 mile mark, and the Hoka Highland Fling, where I somehow managed not only to complete the race but also to bag a PB, albeit only by a few minutes.

Other than this, ‘training’ has consisted of a few 12-13 mile runs, and a number of 3-5 mile runs squeezed in over a lunchtime, supplemented with cross training, cycling and swimming.

One thing’s for certain – I’ve certainly kicked my habit of logging junk miles, running the same routes at the same pace time and time again!

Anyway, down to business, the events of this weekend just past and the 4th July Great Glen Ultra 2015.

Goals

Based on the above, I had 3 goals.

Don’t Die!

OK, so ‘slightly’ melodramatic, but I seriously felt that out of my depth. Sure I completed the 95 mile West Highland Way Race in apocalyptic weather conditions back in 2012, but that was the culmination of 3 years of solid ultra running and training and couldn’t have been further removed from my build up to the GGU.

Less melodramatically, the aim was not to do myself any long term damage and, having already managed my first post GGU run, an admittedly short (but speedy) 3 miles on the treadmill, I appear to have succeeded on that front.

I can’t actually recall running quite so quickly after any of my previous events, let alone one of this distance.

Finish

I have one DNF to my name, my first ever Fling back in 2010. That DNF bugs me to this day, though I appreciate now that my training at the time lacked the specificity to see me safely to the finish line. The temperature on the day and my body weight at the time also didn’t exactly help matters.

Since then, I have had an unswerving goal to finish at all costs!

And yet, this weekend just past, I found myself seriously considering a DNF from around miles 10 through to 30.

From the few GGU blogs that I’ve read so far, most people appear to have had the same train of thought at some point or another throughout the race! At least I was not alone in that respect.

By the time the bus left Inverness destined for Fort William, my stomach was already tying itself in knots and, come race time, my stomach hadn’t seen any food in over 5 hours. Hardly ideal, and a ‘bit’ of a failure in terms of my planning. I couldn’t wait to get to that first checkpoint 10 miles into the race.

Repeated visits to the gents prior to the start of the race didn’t get the desired results and I was fearful of a repeat of my 2012 West Highland Way Race experience.

That, on top of the existing nerves and concerns, did my confidence no favours at all and it was only when I started to approach the 1/2 way mark that I finally managed to banish some of the negativity from my thoughts.

Finish In 18 Hours (Ideally)

Why 18 hours? It was a time that fitted in with my sons sleep routine, albeit one that would see him start his evening sleep in the car travelling home rather than in bed. Throughout the day, the thought of some family time was THE thing that kept me going.

The Outcome

As it was, I finally crossed the line in a time of 16:02:49, in 36th place out of 73 entrants, 7 of whom did not start (DNS).

I will admit to being slightly gutted to have lost out on a sub 16 hour time but, upon arriving in Inverness of all places, I found myself uncertain of the route and wasted 10-15 mins approx. using Google to try to verify that I wasn’t about to embark upon some unnecessary mileage.

I really, really didn’t want to run any further than was absolutely necessary at this point and the thought of having to retrace my steps in the event of heading off on in the wrong direction filled me with dread.

Unfortunately, either Google Maps or my phone reception (or both) didn’t want to assist on the day! Thankfully I did end up on the correct path. For some reason I was convinced that Bught Park was far closer to that final hill that dropped us down into Inverness than it actually was.

The Route

“The Great Glen Way is a long distance path in Scotland. It follows the Great Glen, running from Fort William in the west to Inverness in the east, covering 79 miles. It was opened in 2002 and is one of Scotland’s four Long Distance Routes.” (Wikipedia – The Great Glen Way)

The Great Glen Ultra route, starting from Neptune’s Staircase in Corpach, comes in around 73 miles approx., with checkpoints at approximate distances as shown:

  • Checkpoint 1, Clunes (10miles)
  • Checkpoint 2, Laggan (20miles)
  • Checkpoint 3, Fort Augustus (30miles)
  • Checkpoint 4, Invermoriston (40miles) Water Station 1: (45miles)
  • Checkpoint 5 : Drummidrochit (50miles)
  • Checkpoint 6: Loch Laide (60miles)
  • Finish – Inverness Stadium @ Bught Park

I have to stress that these are approximate distances. Ideally I would be able to say exactly how far along the route each of these checkpoints was but an ‘issue’ on the day with my Suunto Ambit3 Sport prevents me from doing so. More to follow on this shortly!

Starting at 1am, I was fairly oblivious to the first section alongside the canal. There wasn’t much to see other than a stream of headtorches, bobbing along the route, with the runners all fairly closely packed at this point.

I can’t recall exactly where, but a later canal path section really did knock the stuffing out of me. It was just so compacted, and so very, very long and straight. As a result, progress felt very slow along this section.

Thankfully, there was also a considerable amount of time spent in various forests along the route, which was far more to my liking.

The route was very undulating, if indeed, this is even an adequate description as, at times, we found ourselves climbing high above the mist that hovered over the loch beneath us. Just when you thought you couldn’t climb any higher, another switchback appeared to signal otherwise, and it was these same switchbacks, ensuring that ascents weren’t too direct and too steep, that likely caused the aforementioned problems with my Suunto.

The Lows

I have to admit to struggling for long periods of the Great Glen Ultra. For some reason I just found it so hard to get my head in the game, and I often found myself wallowing in negativity, just looking for an excuse to drop from the race.

Midges

The dreaded midges and various other insects were definitely out to annoy. Bad enough for those of us running the event. Absolutely dreadful for the marshals who had to remain at their checkpoints.

The Rain

The forecast had been for heavy rain with the possibility of thunder and lightning. Thankfully we didn’t see any of the latter, but the rain was often and torrential.

With temperatures that would have ‘cooked’ me had I donned a waterproof, I opted just to get wet, and it was only in the latter stages of the race when the cold finally started to get to me, that I opted for some protection from the elements.

The one redeeming element of the rain was that it at least brought some respite from the dreaded midges!

Given the choice, I would most definitely take rain over midges any day!

Thoughts Of A DNF

I perhaps assumed that I was destined to fail on the day. It’s the only possible explanation I have as to why I spent quite so long considering dropping from the race.

Thankfully, as I clocked up the mileage, and especially upon reaching the 1/2 way point, my thoughts turned to a more positive assessment of the day.

The runners and marshals that I chatted to along the way, whether they knew it or not, lifted my spirits sufficiently to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

The Highs

That Sunrise!

The photos just don’t do it justice. The sunrise started as nothing more than a thin orange line sitting on top of the loch but culminated in a fiery red sky that lit up the clouds. If ever there was an excuse for a 3 am run, this is it!

Those Marshals!

Each and every single one of the marshals couldn’t have gone out of their way more to assist, whether it be retrieving and opening drop bags, assisting with litter, filling water bottles and so forth. What’s more, they did it in some atrocious weather conditions, all whilst being eaten alive by those b&%$£&^^ midges! Thank you all :o)

Camaraderie & Friendship

I spent a lot of time running with fellow runners, some of whom I knew from previous events, and some of whom I was meeting for the first time. Thanks to everyone for the company. You all helped me make it as far as Inverness.

One thing that is evident from the photographs taken throughout the event is that despite the weather/midges/pain/sleep deprivation/everything the majority of runners were still smiling.

Going by Fiona Rennie’s pictures, which I was totally unaware were being taken, I was having a whale of a time. I was delighted to see these, and I have to admit that the smile on my face leaves me questioning whether it was really as bad as I remember it.

That Mistake – The Suunto ‘Issue’

They say not to do anything new on race day. I should have listened. However, concerned with just how long I was going to be out running, I took it upon myself to create an ultra specific Suunto Ambit3 Sport mode, with a focus on maximum battery conservation.

The last thing I wanted was, as happened in the West Highland Way Race back in 2012, an incomplete GPS track of my route or, even worse, to be left clueless with regard to how far along the route I was.

Ironically, my battery preservation efforts backfired spectacularly, and the final mileage recorded by my watch was approx. 66.5 miles, considerable less than the 73 mile route.

The lost mileage, stemming from a reduced GPS tracking level, was no doubt amplified by the numerous switchbacks along the route.

It was soul destroying to realise that my watch couldn’t be relied upon for mileage, especially when the checkpoints weren’t exactly located 10 miles apart.

Ironically, as I finish writing this report, some 5 days after the event, my watch has still to be charged and has a battery life of 38%!

Checkpoint Times

Checkpoint Time of arrival Leg splits
CP1 01:47:56 n/a
CP2 03:35:20 01:47:24
CP3 06:02:00 02:26:40
CP4 07:37:52 01:35:52
CP5 11:16:00 03:38:08
CP6 13:14:17 01:58:17
FINISH 16:02:49 02:48:32

What’s Next?

The big question at this point is what’s next for me?

I swore during and after the GGU that this was my last ultra, at least until I was able to train properly.

That statement sits in contrast to my earlier stated intent to try and run the Highland Fling, West Highland Way Race or Great Glen Ultra, and Devil O’ The Highlands in 2016, assuming that I was fortunate enough to gain entry to each event.

In true ultramarathon runner style, the pain has already subsided and I am once again giving thought to putting myself through the pain and torture of events.

Indeed, the fact that I spent last night considering how best to tighten up on time spent at checkpoints is surely testament to the fact that I am already considering future events. I’m investigating Tailwind Nutrition to see if this offers an alternative to fuelling that works for me. As much as I do love the real food approach, it does result in longer spent at Checkpoints than is ideal.

Whilst I am not quite so certain that I will now be taking another ultra hiatus, I am 100% certain that I am not about to try and bluff my way through another year of ultras.

I’ve already lost 3 stone in weight in the build up to my 2015 events and the difference in my running has been evident. I don’t think that I would have completed any of the three events had I attempted to do so on such limited training and at my previous weight.

I’ve set myself a goal of making further ultra participation dependent upon continued weight loss of at least another 1/2 stone, but ideally a stone.

In terms of training, I will likely never return to the pre-Harris mileage that I ran in my first 3 years of ultramarathon involvement. However, I most definitely do need to put a more structured training regime in place, complete with more long runs. Of course, successful training will also be dependent upon continued good health, which was the main issue this year.

So that’s all for this year as far as ultramarathons are concerned. There was some thought about signing up for The Speyside Way Race but I’ve managed to double-book that weekend with a few days away in the Cairngorms, which has taken the do I/don’t I issue out of my hands.

This weekend, we are again bound for the Cairngorms, with a joint celebration of our 5th wedding anniversary and Leanne’s dads early retirement. Thankfully, it would appear that I am going to be fit enough after the exertions of last weekend to make the most of it.

West Highland Way Race 2016?

With only 11 days to go until the 2015 West Highland Way Race, social media, and Facebook in particular, is buzzing with race chatter. Given my 2 year ultra sabbatical, inspired by the birth of my son Harris, I thought the West Highland Way Race might be that bit too ambitious for my comeback year, but it doesn’t stop the pangs of jealousy as I read about those who are about to embark upon their own West Highland Way Race experience.

Whether it is your first year or your 10th (or more even!), you are almost certainly guaranteed a weekend that you will remember for the rest of your days.

I ran the West Highland Way Race in 2012, the year of the ‘apocalyptic weather’, and things didn’t quite go to plan (understatement!).

Summing up my own experiences, I wrote the following, and it is as true today as it was the day I wrote it, not long after completing the event:

“Without a doubt, my completion of the 95 mile West Highland Way Race in 2012 ranks as my all-time running achievement to date. That weekend in June changed me and, to this day, I still think back to what I learned over the course of the weekend.

95 miles in under 35 hours with 14,760ft of ascent would have been enough of a challenge. However, I also had to contend with apocalyptic weather conditions, explosive diarrhoea and projectile vomiting. Overall, it amounted to a very challenging 31 hours, 1 minute and 50 seconds of running! Not the time I was aiming for but, under the circumstance, one that I am very happy with.

That weekend was a roller-coaster of highs and lows like I had never experienced before and it redefined just how low I could go and yet still carry on.

I had briefed my support team to expect to see me at my worst throughout the weekend. Little had I expected, however, that this was actually going to be the case!

What’s more, we had only just found out that my wife Leanne was pregnant with our first child days before the race. To this day, I still feel guilty for putting her through the stress of seeing me at my worst.

In a lot of respects, I had the easy part. All I had to do was keep moving forward. My support crew however, had to witness what happened to me through the course of the weekend and to try, where possible, to keep me fed and watered and moving towards Fort William – not an easy task given my reluctance to consume anything for fear that it would soon exit from one end of me or the other! To this day I cannot figure out exactly how I managed to keep moving.

I’ve collated a number of posts relating to that event below.

My own race experience totally redefined what I can and will endure in a race, and demonstrated just how quickly the darkest of lows can turn into a high, from projectile vomiting at the 50 mile mark, feeling absolutely finished, devoid of energy and all but ready to throw in the towel, to running strongly again and knowing that I could make that finish line in Fort William, all within the space of 5 miles.

Hopefully your own race experience will be significantly easier than my own but, regardless, it will almost certainly be an experience that lives with you forever.

I am gearing up for my own challenge, the 70 miles approx. of the Great Glen Ultra, on 4th July 2015 and, true to form this year, my ‘training’ following my shock finish (& PB) at the Hoka Highland Fling has again been blighted by illness.

Regardless, I am still eagerly anticipating competing in the Great Glen Ultra and can’t wait to run along the banks of Loch Ness.

Maybe 2016 will see me return to the West Highland Way Race for another attempt, if I am fortunate enough to gain entry. Failing that, I am sure that I will return one year in the not too distant future. I can only hope that, on that occasion, I have an easier time of it!

All the very best to the 2015 West Highland Way Race runners, crew and race personnel. I hope that you all have a fantastic weekend.

To Fling Or Not To Fling (The Dilemma & The Outcome)

It has been almost a week now since I ran the 10th Hoka Highland Fling and, whilst the DOMS may finally be receding, the memories certainly aren’t.

What a difference a week makes. This time last week I was pondering the sense of making the journey down to Glasgow, uprooting my wife Leanne and two year old son Harris for the weekend, so that I could attempt a race that I was quite so unprepared for.

The post has turned into a mammoth effort, taking almost as long to write as it did to run the actual race! With that in mind, I’ve prepared an abridged version directly below. Read that if you find yourself short of time or, indeed, why not just skip to the pictures! For everyone else, grab a drink and read on :o)

The Abridged Version

  • Returning to ultras in 2015 after a 2 year break
  • 2015 has seen one illness after another
  • As a result, training has been minimal
  • Wasn’t going to run
  • Did run
  • Somehow not only finished but bagged a PB
  • Loved it, roll on Hoka Highland Fling 2016

For a fuller version, read on…

Pre Race

Thanks to 6 months spent ‘traipsing’ from one illness to another, which has seen training decimated by anything and everything (see below), I felt considerably unprepared for the Fling, on a level that I have never experienced before. I’ve gone in to 10k races better prepared than I was for the Fling.

Such was the extent of my ailments that it’s actually easier to list them rather than try and incorporate them into a sentence like structure!

  • Flu (multiple instances of)
  • Chest infection
  • Chickenpox (something I had managed to avoid for 43 years, totally floored me and sapped energy levels to an all time low)
  • Cellulitis (prevented training for approx 1 month leading up to the D33)
  • Further swollen legs with cellulitis-like symptoms caused by insect bites (unfortunately I appear to be the equivalent of a happy meal for all insects, and even more unfortunately, I appear to react really badly to each and every bite)
  • Permanent back ache caused by an unfortunate fall

When I considered my return to running ultramarathons last year, after a two year hiatus inspired by the birth of my son, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy to fit in the required training in such a way that it didn’t impact on my son. I didn’t, however, expect THIS. I mean, seriously, come on, give a guy a break! (Can I just stress that I don’t mean that literally. That would be all I need!)

At this point, it’s time to dispense with the self pity. One thing that I have gleamed from all of the excellent Fling blogs out there is that many of my fellow runners were in exactly the same boat, having experienced setbacks along the way, and/or with training far below their ideal levels.

At least. come race day, the question of whether I ran or not was in my own hands and I wasn’t a DNS by virtue of an injury. Sometimes, when things appear to be going against you, it’s all too easy to forget that.

As it happened, the dilemma over whether to make the trip down to Glasgow or not, was actually taken out of my hands. The last time I was in Glasgow, back in November, our SEAT Alhambra MPV died on us, just as we were about to start the journey home. We finally got the call to come and pick up our fixed car last week, some 6 months later (and yes, you did read that correctly, SIX months later!)

It’s an altogether different and long story but, suffice to say, it was good to finally get the call to come and get the car, and perfectly timed to coincide with race weekend.

As an aside, SEAT did keep us mobile for the entire 6 months with a succession of hire cars and we now have what I like to think of as a ‘RoboCop’ car, rebuilt from the ground up in an effort to find the elusive fault!

Our impromptu week in Glasgow, which we spent before realizing that we weren’t about to get our car back soon,  also saw us fall in love with the city as we walked for miles each day exploring the numerous parks, museums and galleries, the architecture and the sights.

Anyway, back to the race!

Race Day

I headed off to bed around the same time as my son Harris, not long after returning from a fine pre-race meal of Italian food. Retrospectively, the early bed was a great idea. For one, I awoke naturally having managed a good nights sleep. Further, had I slept much longer, I would likely have missed the start of the race.

Whilst I did set an alarm on my iPhone, I omitted to check that I had set it for the right day. As such, my planned 4 a.m. rise didn’t ‘quite’ go to plan. Muppet!

Breakfast and final preparations were slightly less chilled than I had hoped for. However, I also didn’t have time to think, let alone stress! Every cloud does indeed have a silver lining, and, looking out the window, I could see that there were plenty clouds that morning!

Thanks to the selflessness of Leanne’s uncle John, Leanne and Harris were able to remain in bed whilst John dropped me off in Milngavie. I had just enough time to get the drop bags into the respective cars and visit the gents before making my way to the back of the line of runners who were eagerly awaiting the 6 a.m. start.

When I last ran the Fling, there must have been around 500 runners. This time around there was a potential field of 1000 solo runners and some 50 relay teams, with approx. 700+ solo runners actually starting.

I had wondered how things would fare with quite so many but, as it turns out, everything ran like clockwork. The staggered start, which saw me cross the line around 6.06 a.m., ensured that there was sufficient space between the waves of runners, and the field had naturally spaced out within a few miles.

Milngavie to Drymen (12.6 miles)

I caught up with a number of familiar faces over this first section, including Fiona Rennie, Silke Loehndorf and Stuart Macfarlane. It was great to catch up with people and it also helped take my mind off of the task at hand. Fiona made a comment regarding muscle memory which gave me some hope, even with my relative lack of running over the past couple of years.

The last time I ran this section of the West Highland Way was in the pitch black, in apocalyptic rain, with my stomach starting to give indications of the problems that were soon to blight my West Highland Way Race weekend.

It was a relief to find myself running happily and I welcomed the view of the Drumgoyne hills, one of my favourite stretches of the West Highland Way route.

Drymen to Balmaha (19.8 miles)

Unlike at the D33, I managed to run a sensible pace over those first 20 miles, no doubt assisted by the more undulating terrain of the West Highland Way route. I think this in itself paid dividends over the course of the race. (Mental note to self: if you find yourself running the early stages of an ultra at your new, fastest pace, expect to suffer at some point in the not too distant future!)

Conic Hill awaited before the first checkpoint in Balmaha and I approached the hill with some reservations. Thanks to various Facebook posts, I envisaged some kind of fully tarmacked path up and over the hill. Thankfully, the reality is nowhere near as bad as expected.

I did, however, find Conic Hill less arduous than expected. Perhaps down to the improvements underfoot; perhaps down to the 3 stone in weight I have lost these past few months; definitely not down to any form of specific training!

That same lack of hill training back in 2010 resulted in me coming off the hill in a bad state, with the end result being my one and only DNF when I finally threw in the towel around the 27 mile mark.

I arrived at Balmaha feeling positive and looking forward to the contents of my first drop bag. This in itself consisted of a fair amount of guesswork, as drop bags are not something I have had much call for these past two years. Common sense dictates that you don’t try anything new under race conditions. I was about to test whether my drop bag preferences from a few years ago still worked for me.

I’ve always hated eating and running. I love eating and I love running. I’m just not particularly fond of combining the two.

Regardless, this year I actually found myself eating most of the content of my drop bags at each of the 4 checkpoints.

At the end of the day, I suspect that this may be the difference. This may well be why I continued to run strong for so long on the day.

Now I know I said that you don’t try anything new on race day but someone posted a photo of their drop bags on Facebook. Scanning the photo I happened to notice that the bags included packets of Hula Hoops. They are not something that I have ever included in my drop bags but, instantly, I knew I had to have them.

Whoever posted that photo, thank you! Along with the cans of full fat Coke, the Hula Hoops proved to be the hit of the day as far as the content of my drop bags were concerned. I went through the motions with the bananas, flapjacks and pots of Muller Rice, throwing them down at speed. But the Coke and Hula Hoops. I loved those, and looked forward to them at each checkpoint.

Balmaha to Rowardennan (27.2 miles)

Leaving Balmaha, I was surprised to find that there had been a slight change to the route, which I assume is the new official West Highland Way route. It takes you straight back into the forest and well away from the traffic. With up to 1000 runners, that can only be a good thing!

I was also surprised to find myself back running quickly, despite my now full stomach.

Rowardennan to Inversnaid (34.3 miles)

Just a short few miles later, another Coke, packet of Hula Hoops and the remaining content of my drop bag awaited. I made the mistake of actually sitting down to enjoy my food, soaking up the atmosphere and people watching. Retrospectively, I perhaps spent just a few minutes too long at each of the checkpoints. However, what’s to say that these brief breaks didn’t actually aid my overall endurance.

I left Rowardennan in good fettle, having finally removed the waterproof jacket that I started the race in. Blue skies had been the order of the day for a good few miles by this point and I was starting to heat up under my extra layer, which I expected would eventually start to impair my performance. Given the forecast of heavy rain and potentially even snow, I expected that the jacket would have to go back on at some point soon but it never came to that.

As I passed the 27 mile point, I was again running, as before with a full stomach, and feeling good. Passing this, the point at where I abandoned my first ever Highland Fling, back in 2010, was a major psychological boost and, for the first time that day, I started to consider that I may yet complete the full 53 miles.

Inversnaid to Beinglas (40.9 miles)

I don’t think I have ever come across a section of trail quite as mental as the one between Inversnaid and Beinglas. It’s just so damn technical, with routes, rocks, boulders, narrow paths and all manner of obstacles that require the use of hands and feet to clamber up, over, and down to navigate them with any level of safety.

Getting any kind of rhythm going was nigh on impossible and I found myself pondering, especially on the more exposed elements of the route, just how more runners (thankfully) haven’t come a cropper on this section.

By the time I arrived at the final checkpoint, at 40.9 miles in Beinglas, I knew that a race finish was all but assured, even if I had to ‘death march’ to the finish line, but I was also starting to suffer, especially my knees, thanks to the constant clambering and climbing on the technical trail.

Beinglas to Tyndrum (53 miles)

After relatively close checkpoints, I always find this last stint of 12 miles approx. to feel far longer than it actually is. This is particularly true of the forest element, which more than deserves the description of ‘undulating’. There’s a good few steep hills in this section and I came across a number of runners who were suffering in some shape or form, but most often as a result of cramping.

A familiar sounding accent got me talking to a Fling first timer, Caron Mutch, from Macduff if I recall correctly, just up the road from me here in Ellon.

I then found myself running with someone who I didn’t recognise at first. Running head down, focused on getting to the finish, It was only after chatting for a few minutes that I recognised Thomas (Tommy) Robb, whom I have run with on many occasions previously.

The realisation that we actually did know each other hit us at the same time. Tommy’s reaction upon recognizing that it was me was priceless, with words to the effect of “Jonathan, where have you gone”. I suspect this is testament to just how different I must look having lost 3 stones in weight.

The Finish

There’s no disputing that Race Director John Duncan, a.k.a. ‘Jonny Fling’, knows how to put on an ultra event which is an examplar to all others.

The attention to detail throughout the event is second to none, from the ability to register the day before, to the staggered start, to the efficient, well manned checkpoints, staffed with friendly marshals who were all eager to help, to the names and flags on numbers, to the excellent finishing area and finishers prizes. I could go on.

However, one thing about the finish really made my day.

A text from Leanne just a few miles from the end confirmed that Leanne and Harris were waiting for me at the finish and Leanne asked if I would like to run the final few yards with Harris.

This had been my intention all along, without a doubt, and I had decided that, should I be fortunate enough to actually make it to the finish line, Harris would be the recipient of my medal.

Approaching the red carpet, finish line in sight, I spotted Leanne with Harris ready to run the last bit to the line. Having been running for some 12 1/2 hours I was delighted to see them both.

Taking Harris’s hand, we headed towards the line, with the amazing crowds cheering Harris (and me) to the finish. And then Harris stumbled, landing on his knees, which was met with a chorus of sympathetic oooohhsss from the crowd. Picking himself up, we crossed the line together, accompanied Once again by cheers from those around the finish area.

At this point, both Harris and myself were presented with finishers medals, making both his and my day.

I’ve read other Fling blogs where runner parents describe the same thing happening with their children and I really do hope that this is a tradition that continues. If Harris’s reaction is anything to go by, the next generation of ultra runners is already in the making.

Normally, our wee boy is in bed by 7 but it was all we could do to get the excited wee fella in bed by 11 that night, as he proudly showed off his medal to anyone and everyone!

Summary

Saturday 25th April 2015 was one of those all too rare days when everything appeared to just come together so well. Given the lack of training and the fact that I almost didn’t even start, I had no expectations of myself.

As a result, I started far less stressed than usual, accepted each mile covered as a bonus, barely checked my watch, and, when I did, used it only to determine the mileage covered, not once checking my pace. I ran within my comfort zone, stopping to take the ‘occasional’ photo (see the gallery here), and enjoyed the amazing views throughout the day.

I found myself thinking back occasionally to my 2012 West Highland Way Race, especially at sections that reminded me of my exploits that weekend (graphic account of apocalyptic weather, explosive diarrhea and projectile vomiting here), but mostly I was glad just to be back on this iconic trail, alongside so many like minded runners, all striving to reach Tyndrum.

The Future

Given just how troublesome my return to ultras has been this year, I was considering making this comeback a brief one. I was starting to wonder if ultra life was still for me. However, completing the Fling on so little training* and still managing to get a PB (chip time) has actually given me even more incentive to continue, to see what I can achieve with more appropriate training.

(* I don’t dutifully log my mileage these days but, from memory, training over the past 5 months has consisted of 18 miles of the D33 before cramp saw me hobble the remaining 15 miles, an 18 mile training run, approx 3 1/2 marathon distance training runs, a 10 mile hilly Cairngorm run, approx 4 * 5 mile treadmill runs and, finally, approx 7 * 3 mile treadmill runs)

However, Saturday just served to remind me all too well what the allure or running ultras is all about; about the element of camaraderie and friendship that exists amongst runners, seeing runners looking out for each other and chatting away, often with little more in common than their shared love of trails and distance; about pushing limits and taking chances, testing yourself regardless of how well, or otherwise, your training has gone; about taking a chance on a set of circumstances coming together to work in your favour on the day in question.

Broaching the subject of participation in next year’s Fling with my wife, her response was decidedly positive. My participation was a given. Why wouldn’t I want to compete in such an excellent event.

Good to see that a non runner also holds the Hoka Highland Fling in such high stead.

Just a week past the Fling and I am already looking forward to Hoka Highland Fling 2016, which will be Fling #5 for me.

In my mind, I am already envisaging covering those last few metres on the red carpet, with Harris at my side.

Photography: Thanks to John Duncan for arranging race photographers to capture our race, and to photographers Clark Hamilton and www.monumentphotos.co.uk

Return Of The Mac – D33 2015

Update, 16th March 2015, 17:00: felt a little poorly at work today but put this down to my D33 efforts over the weekend. However, turns out that I actually have chickenpox, with rapidly spreading spots. Will admit that I didn’t see that one coming! Having never had chickenpox before, I’m not relishing the prospect of the next week. Hopefully won’t impact too much on my Fling training.

Back in March 2013, I toiled around the D33 ultramarathon, finally completing in a PW time of 06:18:33. The event, just a couple of weeks after the birth of my son Harris, was to be my last ultra until this weekend just past, the 14th March, when I once again toed the line for the D33.

Having taken a 2 year hiatus following the birth of my son, I finally felt prepared to once again tackle ultra distances. Or, at least, that was the thinking behind my application back at the start of 2015. The reality, of course, was somewhat different.

The short version of events is that, just like in 2013, I made it to the finish line and, in doing so, completed my 18th ultramarathon out of 19 starts. Again just like 2013, It was anything but pretty!

Looking at the available splits information for my participation in D33 events to date, the one thing that is evident is that I ‘may’ have gone out too hard and fast on the day.

Perhaps this is why, come mile 18, I found myself rooted to the spot, absolutely unable to move, thanks to debilitating cramps that were shooting through every inch of both legs.

Or then again, maybe it was more to do with the absolute lack of training, the recent issues with cellulitis that had curtailed all running in the run up to the event, or the fact that I chose to hydrate entirely with nothing more than 100% water, with no electrolytes or salt tablets at all, a habit that I had become accustomed to over the considerably shorted runs that I had completed whilst on my ‘ultra vacation’.

To say that things hadn’t quite gone to plan would be an understatement.

When I last ran the race, back in 2013, my training had been adversely affected by preparations for the arrival of my son Harris and my longest training run had been just 11 miles. However, despite the short distances back then, there was considerably more volume of training and I still had the muscle memory from 3 years worth of ultra events that I believe helped me get through on the day.

This time around, illness and parenthood limited the training time available to me and my situation was further exasperated by the events of the past month.

I should add at this point, that it’s not all doom and gloom. A good few people commented on my considerably reduced frame on Saturday, thanks in no small part to the loss of over 3 stones in weight over the past 6 months approx.

However, this in itself added yet more uncertainty into the mix and I really did feel as if I was starting afresh. Come Saturday morning I was extremely nervous and pretty much kept myself to myself, save for a few short catch up conversations, as I awaited the start of the race.

Initially, as the weight started to drop off, I came to ‘expect’ PBs, almost forgetting that they needed to be earned. An 18 mile run from Ellon to Mintlaw at the start of the year, along the Formartine & Buchan Way, soon put paid to these naive thoughts. Less than 3 miles in I found myself toiling badly and I will admit to considering making the call for a pick up at one of the many hop on/off points along the line. Retrospectively, I was glad that I did complete the run, though at no point did it feel like anything more than an absolute slog.

It soon became apparent that weight loss alone wasn’t going to be enough to ensure PB times and that, further, any muscle memory in the legs was well and truly gone.

The only option was to ramp up the long runs, mixing these up with 2-3 speedier sessions through the week. With this in mind, approximately 1 month before this years D33, I set out to do a back to back weekend, pushing hard on the Saturday.

I was delighted to smash my 1/2 marathon PB by a considerable number of minutes in the course of the 15 mile run that day and I followed this up with a 13 mile run the following day, pushing only marginally less hard.

Come Monday, my legs were in bad shape and I spent the week swimming in place of my planned cross training and running sessions. What I thought was just a bad case of DOMS hung about considerably longer than I would expect.

With the D33 looming ever closer, I took the decision to ‘test’ the legs, setting out for an out and back 15 mile off-road run. Daft perhaps but I am sure, given the circumstances, something that most runners would have done themselves.

The run out was manageable, just. The return however, was anything but comfortable and the notion of running ‘form’ soon went out the window as I ran/walk/limped home.

Waking in pain at 1 am, unable to return to sleep thanks to the throbbing in my left leg, I knew then that there was something seriously wrong.

Sunday revolved around a hospital visit where I was diagnosed with cellulitis, provided with antibiotics, anti-inflammatories and painkillers. I was advised to keep the feet up and do nothing.

Over the course of the week, my left leg lost its warm red glow and returned to a size more comparable to my right leg. However, despite completing all medication, there was still considerably more pain that I would have expected at this stage. Unfortunately, flexion was the root cause of much of the pain which didn’t bode particularly well for running.

Seeking further medical advice, I was advised that the continued pain was likely a side effect of the cellulitis and that continued rest was the only approach. Thankfully, the doctor was very understanding when I broached the subject of the D33.

I was advised that there was little constructive training that could be done at this point anyway, and that, if I really had to run it, I should just stay off the leg as much as possible until the day and then attempt to complete, using any pain experienced as a barometer of if/when I should pull out.

Armed with this advice I at least had some hope, which was good enough for me. (I’ve got to love my medical practice. They really do tolerate my insanity really well!)

I waited until the Wednesday before the D33 and, with pain levels almost back to normal, I hit the treadmill for a fast paced 5 mile test.

The pain was bearable, my race was on. (Retrospectively, I shouldn’t have pushed quite so hard as I spent the Friday worrying about the DOMS that my test run had brought about!)

As I headed into the D33 early on the Saturday morning I was a bag of nerves. The limitations of my training were playing on my mind, as was that torturous 18 mile run along the Formartine & Buchan Way, my longest training run to date. Surely it wouldn’t/couldn’t be THAT bad!

My leg was still an unknown quantity. How would it cope with any distance? Would the cellulitis return? (at the time of writing, thankfully not!).

Finally, I had taken the decision to replace my trusty Altra Lone Peak 1.5 trail shoes with the new Lone Peak 2.0 which, it turns out, has quite a different feel to it. I just hadn’t had the opportunity to test the shoes out. Thankfully they were the real success story of the day as my feet were in immaculate condition come the finish. The slightly increased stack height of the 2.0 quite possibly best suited the hard conditions underfoot of the D33.

The race itself was going well for the first 13 miles. Really well. Too well in fact. I knew I was going too fast, considerably faster than previous efforts, and yet I didn’t back off.

Stupid? Maybe, but who’s to say that the events of mile 18 wouldn’t have happened regardless of how hard I pushed. I can, at least, take some consolation from the fantastic run that I had to start. I didn’t even stop at the first check point, confirming my number to one of the marshals and continuing on my way.

By miles 14 and 15 I was starting to lag, and I was glad of a can of Coke at the 1/2 way point, my one guilty ‘ultra pleasure’. There’s nothing quite like the thought of a can of Coke to lift my spirits and keep me heading on to the next checkpoint.

I’ve already documented the events at mile 18. I was absolutely rooted to the spot, unable to move, afraid to move, for fear of the pain that even the slightest sway was met with.

The ultra community really came through for me at this point, with many people enquiring as to my well-being and/or if there was anything that they could do. I owe my race to the assistance of one guy who was supporting his wife who was kind enough to help me stretch out both legs. This was enough to get me back moving, albeit very, very gingerly, for fear of inducing yet another cramping spasm.

I also owe thanks to Nicola Stuart for sharing some rock salt with me, and to the final checkpoint for more salt, all of which I am sure helped me nurse my cramping legs to the finish line.

Given all of the issues going in to the event, who would have thought that my performance would ultimately be dictated by cramp!

What I can say for certain is that I made it, and was delighted to be rewarded with a 05:59:41 time, sneaking in just below the 6 hour mark. Further, of the 5 times that I have run the event, it’s actually my 3rd fastest time!

As with so many ultra events, I had a chance to catch up with old friends, and to make new friends along the way, surely one of the best aspects of ultras.

Hopefully my return to the Hoka Highland Fling will fare better!

Huge thanks to the RDs and Marshals without who, the D33 wouldn’t exist.

Ding! Ding! I’m In The Fling!

After a long day ripping up 2 overgrown rockeries in the garden, lumping oversized rocks around, digging up plants determined to annexe their neighbours, and generally attempting to return our garden to the (kind of) pristine shape that it used to enjoy pre Harris, I was all but set for a very early bed tonight.

And then I remembered it was Fling night. No, not some night of sordid sexual depravity, nor a night of Scottish dancing, but, instead, the opening of entry to The Hoka Highland Fling, the 53 mile ultramarathon that is Scotland’s, if not also the UK’s, biggest Ultramarathon.

With a capped entry of 1000 solo runners, I was hopeful of getting a place but, regardless, decided to err on the side of caution and sign up as soon as entry opened, at 9PM this evening.

With a couple of crashes along the way, it was obvious that the web servers were taking a bit of a pounding but, thankfully, I  secured the desired place, ending my 2 year ‘sabbatical’ from ultramarathons.

What I didn’t expect was to see over 600 of those 1000 available spaces sell out in the first 40 minutes of the race being opened. I won’t be surprised if the race is sold out by the time I waken tomorrow morning at this rate!

So, a commitment to run 53 miles on 25th April 2015, along the lower ‘1/2’ of the West Highland Way, on the 10th edition of the Highland Fling, along with some 999 other solo runners and some 50 approx relay teams of 4 runners. I had best get training!

A Far Flung Fling?

 

A far flung Fling? Only as far as Glasgow (from Ellon). Not that far really, but a) I somehow came up with the title and decided to run with it and b) when a toddler who isn’t overly fond of travel (or more to the point of being restrained for any length of time) enters the equation, even 160 approx. miles is far enough!

So, is a return to ultramarathons on the cards for me after an absence that started back in March 2013, shortly after the birth of my son Harris?

The short answer is ‘who knows for sure’, but the more considered answer is that I sure hope so. I’ve been making changes that should impact on my running, hopefully allowing me to train for ultras without the excessive mileage that I put in pre Harris.

Essentially, it boils down to continued weight loss (See my previous post, Suunto Ambit 3 & The Return To Training, for more details), more speed work (again referring to my previous post, I’ve now got my 3 mile time down from approx. 30 mins to 21:45 in the space of just a few weeks), and greater specificity, with more emphasis on hills when the terrain available to me permits it.

In a nutshell, I’m aiming for quality over quantity, and hoping that my regular swimming and cross training will supplement the run training.

My history with the Fling is mixed, providing me with my 1 D.N.F. to date:

  • 28/04/12 Highland Fling 12:36:12
  • 30/04/11 Highland Fling 13:03:43
  • 24/04/10 Highland Fling D.N.F. (27 miles)

2010 resulted in my only D.N.F. to date, 2011 saw me awake most of the night with massive leg cramps, too scared to move for fear of more cramping, and 2012 saw me retire to bed early, shortly after completing, with the weirdest case of the shivers. And yet, I love it – the terrain, the atmosphere, the slick, quality for money event that it is.

It’s one of ***the*** races I have missed the most and, in my absence, it would appear that Race Director John Duncan has taken the Fling from strength to strength making it one of, if not ***the*** biggest ultras in the UK.

2015 is the 10th Fling and, with 1000 solo runners plus relay teams, it’s sure to be a party!

My aims for the 2015 Fling are simple:

  • Secure my place in the race
  • Train, train, train (but train smart!)
  • Beat 12:36:12

It would be nice to take a good chunk off of that 12:36:12 time but, given that this will be only my 1st or 2nd ultra back after my wee, toddler inspired, ultra ‘sabbatical’, I will ultimately settle for a finish. I certainly don’t want to be adding to my list of D.N.F.s!

Realistically, whilst recent changes have the potential to translate into a quicker ultra running pace, it’s getting the long runs in that will be the toughest aspect of training with a toddler.

Entries Open for the 2015 Fling Ultramarathon on Sunday 12th October 2014 at 9pm (UK Time) – best set a reminder as I don’t think it will take long before the race is at capacity!

Daily Record – Ultra Runner Sets Astonishing Record For Gruelling 90-Mile Race Along West Highland Way

Paul Giblin’s recent West Highland Way Race 2014 victory and new course record is nothing short of amazing and it’s good to see both the event and Paul’s achievement get some mainstream recognition, in the Daily Record (29th June 2014).

What’s more, it’s a really good, descriptive article that charts not only Paul’s achievement but, also, mentions the various sections of the West Highland Way Race and gives an idea of just how much of an undertaking it is to participate in the event.

“A RUNNER has smashed the record for racing Scotland’s most famous long-distance path, the West Highland Way. Paul Giblin finished the gruelling 95-mile trail race in just 14 hours, 20 minutes and 11 seconds. He took an amazing 47 minutes off his previous best time when he also won the West Highland Way Race last year. Paul, 36, from Paisley, said: ‘I still can’t believe it. It hasn’t really sunk in yet. But I am really pleased with the result.'”

Note: Paul Giblin’s achievement has also been picked up on by Runner’s World:

West Highland Way Race 2014

95 miles in under 35 hours with 14,760ft of ascent. It’s that time again, the weekend of the West Highland Way Race. Registration will just be starting in Milngavie in preparation for the 1.00 am start on Saturday morning.

Thinking back to my own West Highland Way Race, in 2012, I wasn’t too nervous at this point. I was all too aware that I was about to step (run) into the unknown, covering some 40 approx. more miles than I had in any race up to that point. Up until June 2012, my longest race had been The Cateran, at 55 miles.

I think, more than anything, there was a sense of relief, firstly, that I had shaken off the Achilles injury picked up only 6 miles into The Cateran less than a month before the WHW Race (I still finished – not finishing my final ‘warm up’ race before WHW Race would have been too big a psychological blow) , and, secondly, that things were, after so much anticipation and build up, finally about to start.

My West Highland Way Race journey started many many months before, from the day I entered the ballot back in November 2011, through to the email just before Christmas telling me I had a place, through the many months of training and racing that led me to the start line of the race in June 2012.

Little did I know just how much of a battle I would face to finish the race. That’s all well documented (links below) though I will caution that it makes for fairly gruesome reading.

Suffice to say, that weekend was one that I will never forget, the weekend when I not only joined the West Highland Way Race ‘Family’, but did so in the face of such adversity – Most definitely a defining weekend in my life.

Hopefully, everyone running the race this weekend will have a considerably smoother journey. The weather conditions appear to be more favourable than those encountered in 2012 but then the weather is just one element of the overall experience.

All the very best to everyone running and, especially, to my good friend Ian Minty, who supported me on my own journey in 2012.

Had it not been for the presence and support of Ian, I very much doubt that I would have continued past the 50 mile point of my journey, when, beset with projectile vomiting and explosive diarrhoea, I hit an all time low.

I did aim to return for a second goblet in 2013 but parenthood got in the way and continues to prevent me from training at the level required. However, I wouldn’t change that for the world and, hopefully, I will be back for goblet number 2 in the not too distant future, hopefully with my young son Harris playing some part in my support team :o)

West Highland Way Race 2014 Links

West Highland Way Race 2012 – My Journey

And Then There Were 11

This New Year I was fortunate enough to be in the Cairngorms, surrounded by family and enjoying a week there in the aftermath of Harris’s first Christmas. The weather wasn’t too bad for the time of year and I was able to enjoy long early morning walks on The Speyside Way with Harris, albeit in the dark for a lot of the time! The days were spent, as every day should be, walking lots, making the most of the opportunities afforded by our location, and drinking hot chocolate, eating cake and dining well. Perfect!

Unfortunately, I was feeling considerably below par, taking everything at a reduced pace, and tiring far quicker than normal.

An emergency appointment at the local surgery on New Year’s Eve resulted in a diagnosis of a chest infection and appropriate medication was dispensed.

When The D33 entries opened on 1st January, I immediately applied, determined to keep up my record as one of the 12 ‘ever presents’, those with 100% attendance at the event. It also gave me something to aim for, a return to ultras, with approximately 3 months in which to get my mileage back up to something sensible for participating in this kind of event.

There would be no turning up at the start line with ‘long run’ training of only 11 miles this year, unlike 2012 when home improvements, baby preparations, and the arrival of Harris put paid to serious ultra mileage.

Positive thoughts to start the year.

What followed was weeks of illness, including some 3 weeks signed off work, as I went from chest infection to flu to viral infection to, well, basically whatever appeared to be on the go, much of it ‘kindly’ passed on by my son, encountering many of these ailments for the first time himself! Oh, and did I mention an infected big toe? Something that was also diagnosed that New Year’s Eve in Aviemore!

As so commonly happens, the month of March snuck up on me at alarming speed, all without anything remotely resembling serious training taking place.

The decision to withdraw from The D33 was a painful one but, under the circumstances, it was the right thing to do. I could perhaps, as I did in 2013, have ground out a finish, but at what cost to my body and overall health? Also, there was the nagging doubt in my mind that, when I did finish in 2013, it was admittedly with reduced training, but was also with 3 years of solid running in the legs. In 2013/14, injury, illness, work and family commitments decimated my running. Would I have been able to pull it off? We will just never know!

The D33 will also be a special race for me. Like so many others, it was my first ultramarathon. Further, I like to be there for RD George Reid, and Karen Donaghue, as a thank you for their efforts and encouragement over the years. It’s admittedly not the most scenic of the ultras that I run and it’s certainly far from hilly, but what else would you expect from a race held on an old railway line!

I may have lost my 100% attendance record, but I will be back!

Update: 7th April 2014

This article was originally titled, ‘And Then There Were 10‘ but, as I found out just after posting it, there are still 11 ever presents who have now completed all 5 D33 events. The 11 are listed below in order of total time taken to complete the 5 races:

  • Mike Raffan
  • Graham Nash
  • Norry Mcneill
  • Michael Dick
  • Ian Minty
  • Victoria Shanks
  • Colin Knox
  • Jo Thom
  • Neil Macritchie
  • Iain Shanks
  • Ray McCurdy

I had to laugh when, shortly after posting this, the following appeared on The D33 Facebook page:

“This ikea bag has secret stuff in it to go somewhere secret to get secret stuff done to it for the 11 ever presents who have ran all 5 D33’s. Hope to have them to you all in a few weeks.”

How typical to have missed out – Wonder what’s inside the bag!