Speyside Way Race, 36.5 miles, 27th August 2011

Heading in to the weekend of the Speyside Way Race, I was filled with mixed emotions. On the one hand, ‘all’ it would take would be one more completion and I would have successfully finished all 6 of my ultras for the year without a DNF in site. It would also, unfortunately, signal the last ultra of the year for me and, as Leanne will no doubt testify, I would be at every run under the sun if I could!

I always find it so much easier to train when I have something to aim for and last year, if truth be told, I kind of lost my way a bit after I finished the Loch Ness Marathon. As a result, when I started off this years ultras back in March at the D33, I was essentially starting fresh all over again. At the D33 I was doing well until approximately 18 miles in when everything went pear shaped. Looking back now, this was hardly surprising. If I recall correctly this was the furthest distance that I had run since the Loch Ness Marathon the previous October and training had not exactly gone to plan!

This year I am determined to avoid a repeat performance and, as such, I have set myself 2 longer term goals – I want to beat each of the 6 new PBs from this year, starting with taking a fair chunk off of my D33 time come March 2012. There is also the matter of completing the full 96 mile West Highland Way race in June 2012, something that I know is also on the mind of a number of my fellow runners.

Having completed the Speyside Way Race in 2010, I had a pretty good idea what to expect this time around. The route itself, from Ballindalloch, North through Knockando, Aberlour, Craigellachie, Fochabers & Tugnet (Spey Bay) and then East towards Buckie, is a scenic one with a good mix of terrain underfoot. Around 13 to 15 miles in to the route the (seemingly never ending) climb over the 1546 feet Ben Aigan starts. Last year I hated this bit. This time around it felt much better, perhaps in part as a result of the recently completed and ever so undulating Devil O’ The Highlands run.

The weather (for once!) was favourable for running. Once up and running, the bitter cold from the start of the morning soon gave way to a gently breezy day, somewhat far removed from the torrential rain and strong winds that had been forecast. The following day the Peterhead 10k was cancelled due to the extreme weather. It would have been bad enough running 10k in those conditions, never mind 36.5 miles.

I took the opportunity to catch up with people before the start of the race including Colin Knox, Mike Raffan, Dave Morrow, Tommy and Alan. Tommy and Alan were running their first Ultra and going by their performaces, I hope it will not be their last!

I ran most of the first 13 miles with Sue Walker and found that I seemed to warm up and start to feel comfortable far quicker than I normally would. Thanks to Sue for setting a good pace and for the good company which was much appreciated. I generally take 6 miles to get warmed up these days, hence the general avoidance of 10ks, so it was good to make a slightly faster than planned start. I spent too long at the first checkpoint at Craigellachie, approximately 13 miles in, as I attempted to cram as much of the contents of my drop bag down me as possible. The total of 19 minutes for the mile that included that checkpoint was evidence enough that I need to significantly work on speeding up checkpoints!.

I actually felt pretty good coming out of Craigellachie on the start of the uphill that would eventually see me up and over Ben Aigan, something that I did not expect given how bad this stretch felt last year!

All was going well until approximately 21 miles in. At this point, I developed a sharp pain on the outside of my right knee. Soon after, the pain spread to my right hip. Classic signs of Iliotibial band syndrome. The next 15.5 miles proved very painful. I was gutted! Up until the 21 mile mark I had visions of smashing my 2010 time of 7.44 by at least 45 mins. Unfortunately, this was not to be the case.

I finished, looking somewhat ‘broken’ by all accounts, in 07:23:45. I had not ‘smashed’ my PB, at least not by as much as I had earlier hoped but I had improved on the time nonetheless, taking 22 minutes and 55 seconds off of my 2010 time.

The Speyside Way Race route is great and there are some cracking bits that I absolutely love – most notably, the trails underneath the bridge at Fochabers and then on towards Tugnet, and then again shortly after leaving Tugnet en route for Buckie. The forest on this part in particular resounded with creaks and groans that were thankfully from the trees and not my weary legs! It is quite weird that this excellent, runnable and so very peaceful trail all exists in such close proximity to the A96 with all of its roadworks and bypass construction!

Thanks to Iona, Sarah and all of the marshalls for yet another cracking Speyside Way Race – Here’s to the Speyside Way Race 2012 🙂

Speyside Way Race Elevation Profile

Speyside Way Race Elevation Profile

Speyside Way Race Route

Devil O’ The Highlands, 43 miles, 6th August 2011

Travelling down to the Devil O’ The Highlands run on the Friday after work we encountered someone driving at us at 70mph up the wrong side of the dual carriageway. Only Leanne’s super quick thinking and evasive action meant that we survived to tell the tale and the subsequent stunned silence spoke volumes. We just slotted in between cars who themselves were breaking wildly in an effort to avoid a pileup from the other fast lane vehicles who had also taken evasive action to avoid colliding with the apparently oblivious woman driving straight at them. We were fortunate to be continuing onwards towards Tyndrum and boy did we know it!

Arriving in Tyndrum around 9.00 we quickly found the By The Way Hostel*, having prior knowledge of it’s location thanks to its positioning at the finish of the Highland Flind race earlier in the year. Bags were quickly offloaded into the room and we set off in to Tyndrum, destined for the Real Food cafe where I enjoyed a desperately needed coffee!

I went off to sleep around 11pm and the 4am alarm was an unwelcome awakening from an unusually decent pre-race sleep. Pecan pastry, porridge and coffee started the usual pre-race routine and I was ready to leave for the race registration shortly before 5am.

The Green Welly Stop, surely one of the most famous things in Tyndrum, had kindly opened their doors (and cafe) to runners for the 4.30am – 5.30 race registration and, by the time I arrived, the place was full of runners and support crew. I saw a lot of the ‘usual’ faces for SUMS events and caught up with Colin Knox, Dave Morrow, Mike Raffan and Iain & Vicki Shanks.

Knowing the hilly nature of the route and having not quite found my race fitness since my return from 2 weeks in Menorca, I was nervous about the impending run. Unlike Canada, where I managed to get a good run in most days, Menorca was just too hot, even in the early hours of the morning and, as such, I struggled to run more than 5 or 6 miles on the 4 or 5 days that I managed a run. I felt that my lack of race fitness was all to evident in my poorer than expected showing in the recent Clyde Stride Ultramarathon where I suffered for the last 20 miles approx.

Initially, I had thought that the requirement of a support crew was a pain as I am used to the drop bags system that is in use at most other ultras. However, with my wife Leanne and her brother Ross as my support crew I actually found that it was good to look forward to meeting up with them. Further, I could be far more flexible with my hydration and nutrition without the waste that accompanies the use of drop bags. They did a great job of keeping me fed and watered and cajoled me onwards towards the finish. Thanks to them both – consider yourselves hired whenever a support crew is required 🙂

With regard to the route itself, I have Colin’s excellent blog to thank for the exact route details.

At 6 a.m. approx 130 runners set off from Brodies store in Tyndrum, headed for the first check point at Bridge of Orchy. We started climbing out of Tyndrum on the old military road from the word go – no gentle starts then!

I reached Bridge of Orchy ahead of my planned time and hoped that this would not be too early for my support crew. I ran some of the way with Dave Morrow and Vicki Shanks and I have them to thank for helping me get in to a good pace, something I always find difficult as my body objects to running for about the first 6 miles! I need not have worried – as I crossed the bridge (built around 1750), Leanne and Ross were there with everything ready. I had to laugh as Ross did his best ‘Kenny’ impression trying to escape the worst of the midgies. To say they were swarming was an understatement!

With my Powerade replenished and having thrown back some pasta, a banana and a Red Bull I set off out of Bridge of Orchy, straight in to a steep climb up on to Mam Carraigh (approx 1000ft). According to the race info, this part “Heralds the beginning of rougher country underfoot that continues more or less unabated until the end of the race”. It was at this point that I realised I was becoming oblivious to the midgie menace, even the ones intent on flying up my nose and in to my eyes! At this point I also started to really appreciate the beauty of the surrounding countryside. The Devil O’ The Highlands route really does take us through some of Scotland’s finest, and the best was still to come.

I enjoyed the view of Loch Tulla and the speed offered by the descent down to Black Rock Cottage. Next up was Rannoch Moor which I have admired for its beauty in the past. I have to admit that, on this occasion, I just got on with the job in hand and welcomed the site of the Peter Fleming cairn which signalled that the next check point was not too far away. Approaching Kingshouse, with Buachaille Etive Mor in the background, I realised I was going to have to make an unplanned pitstop at the Glencoe Ski Centre. I would later regret the time spent here, including time spent queuing, as it impacted on my chance of a sub 10 hour time. As before, my support crew were all prepared and, after yet more pasta and Red Bull, and with bottles filled, I set off for what I expected would be the toughest climb of the day, over the Devil’s Staircase.

Like so many others, I was welcoming the change in the forecast. At the beginning of the week the forecast had been for heavy rain, which would have been bad enough for the runners but awful for the support crews. However, as the week progressed, this was amended to showers and sunny spells. This I could live with. Far too many of this years runs have been done in the heat. Unfortunately, the rain held off until I was approx 3 miles from Fort William and, instead, ‘sunny spells’ were replaced with baking heat and it would appear that the peaks of the temperatures were reserved for the big climbs of the day!

The route continued down to Kingshouse and then to a climb along the side of Beinn a Chrulaiste where I really started to feel the heat. Arriving at Altnafeadh, and with the Devil’s Staircase (849ft but feels like so much more!) looming, the temperature continued to rise. The height gained is all the more impressive when you consider the view of Buachaille Etive Mor that you had at the bottom against the amazing view from the top. This is the highest point of the whole route at 1798ft. Again I was glad of some company on the ascent from Dave and Vicki and also from Iain who was supporting both Dave and Vicki and, in climbing the Devil’s Staircase with them surely went above and beyond the call of duty!

Once over the Devil’s Staircase the descent down into Kinlochleven began. This should have been the ‘easy’ part, but with treacherous terrain underfoot and legs burning from the ascent, it was all I could do not to ‘fall’ down the path which in sections appeared as steep as to ‘throw’ you down towards Kinlochleven.

My team were patiently waiting in Kinlochleven for me and again made sure that everything was topped up and ready to go. This was going to be it until Fort William which I knew was going to be some time away.

The climb out of Kinlochleven was brutal… and unexpected. I really should have checked the map a bit more carefully and then the climb, with a full stomach from the last check point, would not have been such a surprise. As it was, I found this climb to be even worse than the Devil’s Staircase. The route, up to the Lairig Mor (the high pass) climbs approx 1100ft. However, as before, the views from the top more than made up for it.

I spoke with a few runners on this stretch and also with members of the Wilderness Mountain Rescue Team who offered words of support and ice cold water which was much appreciated.

It was not until the latter stages of the run that I managed to get lost. Looking behind me, I could see 2-3 runners in the distance. Determined not to be caught, this spurred me onwards and I stopped only briefly to take in the sheer beauty of Ben Nevis. I descended down towards Fort William, realising that I might just get a sub 10 hour time. However, I took a path to the right and ended up running the long way to the finish, on the pavement by the side of the road. If I had kept going down the forest track I would have seen a spray painted sign which indicated that the finish was this way – doh! As it was, the people that I had seen in the distance finished before me, coming in just under 10 hours. I finished in 10 hours, 3 minutes and 9 seconds!

The Saturday before the Devil I had not even managed to run 3 miles without stopping as my calves felt that they were about to snap and/or combust. As such, I set myself the target of finishing the run within the allocated 12 hours. From looking at results from the previous year, I had set myself a 10 hour 30 minute ‘perfect day’ target time on the Friday. Thus, while I did not get the sub 10 hour time, I really can’t complain with the time I did get.

After the run we stopped off at Morrisons so that I could have my, as of this year, traditional apres run beer. As most of you will know, I generally abstain from drinking so these are the only times I ever drink alcohol! It tasted great at the time but unfortunately I required an emergency pit stop at Spean Bridge to deposit it by the roadside – doh! Heading back to Ellon via Aviemore, we stopped off at Roos for a meal as a way of saying thanks to my support crew. Fortunately, this did stay down!

So, after my first, somewhat long-winded first attempt at a race report, I can only conclude by saying the Devil was everything I expected and a whole lot more. I loved it and I will be back for more next year, hopefully with the same support crew (hint, hint guys!). It was great to have the opportunity to run in such beautiful surroundings and to see everyone again. As I mentioned before, it was also great to see my Wife and her brother at each of the check points. I am used to seeing them only at the start and finish and this made them feel part of the day. Thanks as always for your support of my running 🙂

Hopefully see you all at the Speyside Ultramarathon at the end of the month!

* An excellent choice of accommodation which appeared to be almost entirely filled with runners and support crew. One of the owners, Kirsty, was also running in the Devil O’ The Highlands. Have already booked in for next year’s Devil O’ The Highlands!

Compulsory Kit:

This list of safety equipment is to be carried by each competitor and a duplicate copy is also advised to be carried by the backup team:

  1. Map
  2. Compass
  3. Space Blanket
  4. Full body waterproof clothing
  5. Water
  6. Food

Check Points:

  • Tyndrum (Booking in for the start of the race)
  • Bridge of Orchy (Checkpoint 1)
  • White Cottage Glencoe (Down from Ski Center) (Checkpoint 2)
  • Kinlochleven (Checkpoint 3)
  • Fort William (Checkpoint 4 and Finish)

Distances:

  • Tyndrum to Bridge of Orchy: 7 miles (11.2 km)
  • Bridge of Orchy to Kingshouse: 12 miles (19.2 km)
  • Kingshouse to Kinlochleven: 9 miles (14.4 km)
  • Kinlochleven to Fort William: 16 miles (24 km)

http://www.devilothehighlandsfootrace.co.uk/

Devil O’ The Highlands Elevation Profile

Devil O' The Highlands Elevation Profile

Devil O’ The Highlands Route

Montane Highland Fling, 30th April 2011

It’s been too long since the actual event to do a race report. However, The 2011 Montane Highland Fling was an important event for me and, as such, deserves a mention.

In 2010 I toed the line at the very same event for my first stab at the 53 miles. It was my second ultra marathon having completed the D33 months before. I had vague recollections of the route from having walked it a few years back – or so I thought! It turns out I had forgotten just how rough underfoot the route can be, and how undulating parts of it were. By the time I reached Balmaha, having been up and over Conic Hill, I was beat! Having done almost all of my training on the local Formartine and Buchan Way, I was simply not prepared for the undulating terrain and certainly not for the slog that is Conic Hill. The Formartine & Buchan Way is a former railway route and, whilst off-road, rough underfoot, and pleasurably scenic, it is also really, really flat!

I cannot recall the exact temperature from the day. Suffice to say it was unseasonably hot! In the heat of the day I found that I just could not stay hydrated. I was drinking as much as I could and yet this only resulted in a slooshing feeling in my stomach. Certainly not conducive to running. My clothes were starting to cake with salt and, by the time I reached Rowardennan, a marshall commented on this, advising that I should carefully monitor the situation. I ran on for a further mile before turning back to Rowardennan. Whilst I knew I could make the next checkpoint, I was not convinced that I could finish and I knew that the next checkpoint was far more difficult to reach by road, which would make any ‘rescue’ by Leanne more difficult.

I had, for some miles, been on a real low and it was only when I decided to pull out that my mood lightened. It dawned on me that it was not my day, and that I would far rather be with Leanne and Ross, leisurely enjoying the surroundings and sun, than torturing myself further.

Even though I had made a conscious decision to quit, to say the DNF (Did Not Finish) played on my mind would be an understatement. I beat myself up over my ‘failure’, reading every single blog and race report that I could find on the run courtesy of Google, and basically spent the next few days, if not weeks, with lingering self doubt.

On the plus side, from reading all of the blogs I did find out about electrolytes which, before the run had been alien to me and, armed with this new found knowledge, I was able to work out a strategy that appears to work best for me – Water, but in moderation; Powerade, which I ‘discovered’ in Canada and found I could drink far more of than any other sports drink before getting sick of the taste; and Hammer Electrolyte Replacement Supplements, which I later replaced with Succeed S Caps.

It had been my decision to quit. It was not ‘forced’ upon me by illness or injury (though I do feel that my condition would potentially have deteriorated if I had tried to finish). Mentally, I was not tough enough to finsh the 2010 Fling.

Montane Highland Fling 2011

In the weeks leading up to the 2011 Fling, the one thing I dreaded was a repeat of the 2010 temperatures and I honestly thought that this would define my race. If it was hot, I would fail without question as the strains of carrying my very non ultra friendly bulk of a frame, coupled with my propensity to sweat buckets, would combine to put success outwith my reach. Nothing like a positive state of mind – nothing like it at all!

At my pre run breakfast a few lone runners were dotted around the room. Two of the runners had struck up a conversation from their respective tables. One, an old hand who had previous experience of the Fling, the other a Fling newbie. Some sound advice was handed down and one thing in particular stuck in my mind.

“When you get to mile 30 and feel like shit, don’t ask yourself ‘If I feel this bad now, how bad am I going to feel in another 20 miles time’. The truth is, you will feel just as shit, only you will be 3 miles from the finish!”

Sound advice indeed. Having completed 6 ultramarathons at the time of writing this, I now appreciate that you go through all kinds of highs and lows, and the lows can really, really suck! They do, however, also play a huge part in making the highs quite so high! It is only natural over the course of such distances and hours spent out on the route to go through any number of emotions. The difference between my 2010 Fling and my 2011 Fling is that I did not let those emotions determine the outcome of my race.

It was hot, even hotter than the previous year! Thankfully, in the week before the run I had purchased The North Face Enduro 13 backpack, a slimline pack with little room for anything more than the absolute essentials. One of the reasons for the purchase was the 2 very accessible bottle holders at each side. On the day, I implemented a, by now, carefully practiced, monitored intake of fluids. This, coupled with the Succeed S Caps and the more robust approach to nutrition gave me a much better shot at finishing.

It was tough. However, I felt miles better descending Conic Hill than I had done the previous year, thanks in no small part to some sessions on Bennachie in the run up to the race. I also left Rowardennan in a much better state of mind than the previous year which had a hugely positive mental impact, especially once I passed the point at which I had abandoned the race the previous year. The terrain after Rowardennan slowed me down considerably and I made it to the cut off point with barely any time to spare. The next 13 miles were the real test for me. With the heat subsiding, the real challenge was the seemingly never ending, undulating forest terrain. 3 miles from the end, and still in line to get a sub 13 hour time, I experienced the worst leg cramps, resulting in a hop-swing approach to the last few miles. In the last couple of hours, I had let the electrolyte regime slip and I was finally paying the price. I popped a couple of Succeed S Caps and these kicked in, or I ran it off (who knows really!), close to the finish line.

One of ‘the’ things I was most looking forward to was the sound of the piper. I was gutted to find that the piper had, by this point, made his way to the ceilidh which was about to kick off! That’s my incentive to run it faster next year! I will also turn 40 in time to see me move up an age category. I have racked my brain for positives on hitting the big 4-0 and the only thing I can come up with is the earlier start time (7 a.m.) and additional hour at the Fling lol!

Amongst the people waiting at the finish area were Leanne, Ross, George Reid and Karen Donoghue. It was great to see everyone. I think I was somewhere beyond exhaustion so I dont know if I made it clear to anyone how glad I was to see them. Thanks for being there at the end – sorry I took so long 🙂

I couldn’t eat. I knew that I should but the most I could manage was some ice cream. That night, around 11.30, I started to doze off. I turned to get into a more comfortable position only to feel what felt like a bolt of lightening shooting through my right leg. The pain was unbelievable but there was nothing I could do to relieve it. I could not move. When the sharp pain finally subsided to a dull ache, I tried in vain to get back to sleep. After a nervous pre race sleep and the efforts of the day all I wanted to do was sleep but this proved to be beyond me!

On the Sunday we took the scenic route home. It was gloriously sunny. I was subdued by lack of sleep and muscular pain but I really didn’t care. I had banished my demons and, in turning my DNF into a finish, I had proved to myself that I was capable of completing ultra marathons. Looking back, I have a lot to thank the guy at breakfast for but he doesn’t even know he helped me!

I was 271st out of 320 finishers. Over 50 starters did not finish.

Here’s to the Montane Highland Fling 2012 🙂