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.

2014 Review

Given that it’s now the start of February 2015, it’s technically getting a bit late for a ‘2014 Review’. Things keep getting in the way, not unlike the way they keep getting in the way of training, but I set out to write a review of 2014 and I am determined to complete it. After all, if I can’t even complete a review, what hope have I got of completing 2015’s planned event schedule.

My ‘2014 Review’ will be quite unlike many of the reviews that I have been reading online.

For one, my ‘2014 Review’ is actually going to go back as far as 2013, so we can get the whole picture, as my running spiralled into oblivion.

Further, my review is different because I didn’t run in any organised events, let alone any ultramarathons, and I ran fewer miles than I have since at least 2010 and, most likely, since 2007.

There were no big events, no (official) PBs, and no logging of mileage. I couldn’t even give an approximation of how many miles I ran.

Sounds a bit chaotic really but the truth of the matter is that I was ‘otherwise engaged’, ‘on sabbatical’, ‘out of office’ as far as running was concerned.

It’s a situation that, given the prominent role that running has played in my life these past few years, I would never have envisaged, and yet, 2014 was the first year since 2004 that I didn’t compete in an organised event.

Since late February 2013, it has all been about parenthood, attempting to master the role of ‘daddy’, a challenge that I have relished despite constantly feeling like I am making it up as I go along!

My last ultramarathon was the 2013 D33, just weeks after the birth of my son Harris. ‘Training’ had been severely impacted by preparations around the house for the impending birth, with practically the whole house decorated, including a kitchen that was finally finished just a couple of weeks before Harris’s arrival. I hope never again to repeat the chaos of those few months.

By the time the D33 came, in mid-March and just a couple of weeks after our new arrival, I had mustered ‘long run’ training, and I really do use that description in the loosest sense, of just 11 miles, 1/3 of the total distance that I expected to cover.

I did grind out a finish, along with a PW time, but admittedly not actually that much over my first ever D33 time!

It wasn’t pretty.

Understatement.

It hurt.

A lot.

Huge understatement!

I knew there was no chance of me making it to the 2014 D33 and was gutted to lose my place as one of the ever presents in this, the 5th year of the event.

So, we’ve established, 2014 wasn’t about the running.

It wasn’t, however, a complete write-off where fitness was concerned.

But we are not quite at the positive part, not just yet.

Following injury and my resulting failure to attain a 1/2 marathon PB at the Great Scottish Run in October 2013, a very visible failure thanks to my role as a PUMA PB Challenge Ambassador with PUMA and The Running Bug, I found my running mojo plummeted.

I was then unfortunate enough to catch something called Hand, Foot & Mouth from my son. Fortunately, he appeared to have a fairly mild reaction to this viral infection, something which, according to the NHS mostly affects young children.

I, on the other hand, did not. One of the symptoms is described as follows:

“A non-itchy red rash, made up of spots or small fluid-filled sacs (vesicles), which usually develops on the hands and feet, but may also occur on the knees, elbows, groin and buttocks; sometimes the rash can develop into painful blisters”

I ended up unable to walk thanks to painful blisters that covered the soles of my feet, amongst other areas, almost in their entirety. My feet were in a better condition at the end of 95 miles of apocalyptic weather on the West Highland Way than they were after just one single day of hand, foot and mouth.

It was a good few weeks before I could even walk, let alone run without pain, and the skin of my feet took months to properly heal.

My weight started to creep up, nullifying all the gains that I had made thanks to the nutrition element of the PUMA PB Challenge.

2014 started with illness. I was in the Cairngorms for the start of the year but was under the weather thanks to a bad chest infection. I made the most of my time there but I was most definitely held back by the severity of the infection.

Finally, around the middle of 2014, things took a positive turn on the health front. By this point, my weight was up around the 16 stone mark.

Following the opening of the new Aquatics Centre at Aberdeen Sports Village, I popped across for a swim, just to see what it was like. This made a change to my usual approach of working through lunch, eating a packed lunch at my desk.

My single visit turned into a daily pilgrimage to the pool. When I tired of swimming every day, I alternated between the gym and the pool, and this is pretty much how it has been since.

I started 2015 some 3 stone lighter than my 16 stone peak, still heavy by a lot of people’s standards but, certainly as far as I am concerned, the lightest that I have been since… well, since I can actually really remember. I was possibly lighter at some point back in my early 20s, but that’s a good while ago now and the memory isn’t ‘that’ good!

I’m not finished yet. Despite a plateau over the past few weeks, I am determined to lose more weight, hopefully in time for 2015’s planned events.

Losing weight does bring new ‘problems’. For one, I need to replace a large portion of my wardrobe as and when finances permit. That’s not such a big deal.

I also discovered that I am no longer impervious to the cold, resulting in the purchase this past weekend of a Rab Summit Jacket, a toasty warm down garment that should hopefully keep me much warmer.

The main issue is with regard to the impact on my running.

On the plus side, I’ve found myself able to run considerably faster than previously, notching up a massive PB at the 5k distance and taking over a minute off of my 10k PB, a time which itself was a fluke, much faster than my usual times, set way back in 2008!

On the negative side, my pacing has gone out of the window. I’m no longer ‘Mr. Single Speed’. I can now mix it up. Unfortunately, however, I usually do mix it up, each and every long run, and I have yet to find the optimal pace for completing runs over the 6 mile distance. That’s obviously something that needs to be resolved, ideally before the D33 in March.

I had, admittedly somewhat naively, hoped that muscle memory, coupled with the not insignificant weight loss, would see me easily smash all of the ultra PBs that I have set in the past.

The reality, as I found on one particularly bad 18 mile run the other week, was that I will need to a) find my optimal long run pace and b) train just as hard, if not harder, than I have in the past, to try and get anywhere near to the levels of ultra endurance that I had previously accrued over 3 solid years of ultra training and racing.

To add insult to injury, I actually struggled from the 3 mile mark on that 18 mile run. Still, I persisted, something that I obviously haven’t forgotten from my time running ultras and, further, an 18 mile run, albeit a bad one, is still 7 miles longer than any run I managed while training for the 2013 D33! As such, I can’t really complain.

So, that’s where things stand now. I am attempting to get enough running in, albeit mixed up with swimming, cycling and cross training. Gone are the days when I run simply to log miles and add to yearly mileage totals. I haven’t in fact, logged any of my mileage. I just have a rough idea of how things are building up.

With a bit of luck I will complete the D33 and the Highland Fling, the two events that I have signed up for at the time of writing. I’m also keen to do the Great Glen Ultra, a 72 mile run from Fort William to Inverness that I have never run before. It would, in fact, be my first BaM (Bill & Mike) event. Having cycled the route, from Inverness to Fort William, a good few years back, it’s a race that excites me, and especially with the prospect of running some of it on the new higher level path, with the improved views over Loch Ness.

Ideally, I would also like to round off the year with a return to The Speyside Way. Hopefully training, finance, and logistics, will allow that. As an ‘Elgin loon’, it’s almost like returning home, even though running, let alone running endurance events, was about the furthest thing from my mind in those first 18 years of my life when I lived in Elgin and Lhanbryde (located 4 miles out of Elgin, not in Wales, for those that don’t know the area).

There are elements of that Speyside Way Race route that are amongst my favourite trails outside of the Cairngorms and I can’t wait to run them again.

So, in summary, 2013/2014 didn’t have the best of starts health wise and running was always a secondary, if even that, part of my life in this time. However, 2014 was the year when I finally, after years of trying, turned a corner where my weight was concerned, something that will hopefully have an impact on my 2015 ultra schedule and for many, many years to come.