To say that I’ve neglected the blog of late would certainly be an understatement. The Glenmore 24 ultramarathon was back on 3rd September and here I am, finally starting to write something, on 22nd October.
So, why the tardiness?
There’s no single reason but it’s likely in large part down to my less than stellar performance that weekend, a ‘performance’ that was considerably below the expectations that I had set for myself.
It was my first attempt at a 24 hour event. Having run in excess of 24 hours at both the 2012 (31:01:50) and 2016 (32:26:09) West Highland Way Races, I knew that I was capable of lasting the duration.
However, the ‘unknown’ was how I would cope with the 4 mile looped nature of the event. Thankfully, the event, as the name implies, was held on the trails of the Glenmore forest, already one of my favourite stomping grounds.
Arriving in Aviemore on Friday evening, I opted to stay with Leanne, Harris and Leanne’s family at our preferred lodge, just down the road from Glenmore in Coylumbridge. Being the social animal that I am (not!), and feeling slightly below par, I decided instead to embrace the comfort of a warm bed, conscious of what I was about to put myself through.
Come Saturday morning, when I arrived at the pop-up village that was race H.Q. and the start of the race, the place was buzzing, with runners, crew, race organisers and marshals all making the most of the remaining time for some final preparations.
I pitched my small 2 man tent and unloaded my kit beside fellow runner Colin Knox’s tent. I’d decided to go solo for the event as it wasn’t practical to have Harris running amok at the village. This also ruled out Leanne as someone needed to take care of our bundle of fun, and there was no way I could impose once again on Alan and Carolyn, especially with it being quite so soon after their stellar efforts at the West Highland Way Race. However, Colin’s mum and dad had kindly offered to look out for me whilst they also supported Colin, an offer that I was very grateful for. It was great to see their smiling faces every 4 miles and I was thankful for the support and the words of encouragement. Hopefully I wasn’t too much of an additional burden.
The race started at 12 noon on an unseasonably hot day. I’ve read reports of Glenmore 24 weekends that experienced nothing but torrential rain so I really shouldn’t complain. However, anyone who has read my blog previously will already likely know that I ‘perform’ better in the rain than I do in the heat. My West Highland Way Race efforts are testament to this. Despite the apocalyptic weather conditions of 2012, extreme diarrhea, and projectile vomiting, I still finished almost an hour and a half quicker than my 2016 effort, where the mercury hit 25-26°C.
The benefit of hindsight is a great thing. Had I known how things were going to pan out, I would likely (hopefully!) have held back a little instead of trying to keep up with runners that I knew to be better prepared than I was.
By evening I was toiling and my mood was not helped by the abundance of midges. I ran with a midge net for as long as the light permitted. However, there came a time when it was no longer safe to tackle the often rooty, occasionally technical terrain underfoot with my vision impaired by a net.
It was not long after this point that my will to keep running gave way and I retired to the shelter from the midge menace that was offered by my tiny tent. Ironically, I hadn’t wanted to even bring a tent as, to quote myself earlier that day, “I was there to run”. Thankfully, the Race Directors had the foresight to make a tent a compulsory item!
I had forgotten that my small single skin tent was prone to condensation. I was also without a sleeping mat as mine had punctured some time back and I have yet to replace it. Comfort issues aside, I still do not think I would have slept that night. The heat of the day had given way to a colder than anticipated night and, further, the constant noise in the race village, prohibited any sleep for me. Once asleep, I’m rarely woken, but until I fall asleep, the slightest sound is enough to keep me awake.
Despite the lack of sleep, my legs were at least glad of the rest, having felt overly tight and achy for quite some hours. In the interim between the Devil O’ The Highlands and Glenmore 24 my ‘training’ had gone about as well as the rest of the year and, as such, discomfort was only to be expected.
Around 5 a.m. I somehow dragged myself out of the tent to try and make my final mileage that little bit more respectable. I’d hoped (don’t we all) to ‘get the horn’ from Aida, the sign of a runner clocking the 100 mile mark. That sounds/reads so much worse than it actually is. It’s a bit of an in-race joke.
Once the heat and my earlier (ill-considered) efforts took effect, I slowly accepted that 100 miles just wasn’t going to happen for me and, with this, I will confess to losing my sense of purpose.
That’s when it all started to go pear-shaped for me, when the head started to give in too easily, when on the likes of the West Highland Way Race, for example, the ‘stubborn gene’ would have kicked in and told me to ‘get the f^£* on with it and stop my moaning’. That simply didn’t happen this time around and, again with the benefit of hindsight, I essentially threw in the towel far too easily.
I’m still trying to figure out why things went the way they did. Unfortunately (fortunately?) the ultra marathon rose-tinted glasses that I tend to put on all too soon after a tough event have long been on and I’m already toying with the idea of attempting Glenmore 24 again in 2017, despite, I have to add, vowing that 24 hour looped events just weren’t for me! As Leanne says, she has heard it all before, and knows better than to believe anything that I say in the aftermath of an event that involves me a) never doing that event again, b) taking a break, c) quitting ultra marathons altogether, or d) any and all combinations of the above.
Once back and running, shortly after emerging from my tent around 5 a.m., I wasn’t altogether sure how many more laps I intended to do. As you might expect, it was a laboured return to running, with stiff, achy legs. However, I happened to run in to (thankfully not literally) Mark Keddie, someone that I first met back at the Montane (as it was back then, pre-Hoka days) Highland Fling, when we both DNFed around the 27 mile mark.
Whereas my running has largely plateaued save for the occasional PB, Mark’s has come on in leaps and bounds, with numerous respectable finishes and, especially worthy of a mention, a finish at the 8 day, 400km Cape Wrath Ultra as a ‘warm up’ before bagging yet another West Highland Way Race finishers goblet.
When I met up with Mark, he was well on the way to achieving his 100 mile target and I set about accompanying him on those final laps. It provided me with the sense of purpose that I had lacked since my own 100 mile target limped off sadly into the distance. Once back running, even once Mark hit the big 100, it made sense just to keep going until the bitter end, something that entailed numerous laps of the Hayfield once time restrictions meant a complete 4 mile lap was impossible to achieve.
As the end loomed ever closer, the midges became that (little) bit less annoying, the aches and pains became all the more manageable, the mood lightened, and the temperature once again started to climb. All in all, it wasn’t too bad!
When the horn sounded to signal the end of the race, I crumpled to the ground and planted my flag to indicate the exact point reached on my many loops around the Hayfield. With that, it was time to thank the Knox’s for their support, and to get my own stuff packed away. I had an only an hour until the prize giving, but estimated that this was just enough time to pack up and then return to our Coylumbridge accommodation, to freshen up for the afternoon ahead.
In the end, I managed somewhere between 66 to 67 miles, considerably short of my desired 100 mile target but, nonetheless, not too shabby (I suppose!) given my extended break.
As with my 1 and only DNF, back at the Fling in 2010, I will admit to mentally ‘beating myself up’ since the race, knowing full well that I could have, and should have, fared considerably better than I did.
In the immediate aftermath, I put it down to loops ‘not being for me’. However, if truth be told, whilst the lack of a change of scenery does get a wee bit monotonous after a while, it is not without benefits. You don’t need to carry nearly so much equipment, water and nutrition for one. You also get to see fellow runners more often than a simple point to point race would allow. You also know exactly what lies ahead after the initial couple of laps and, as someone suggested to me, the different times of day or night, with the associated differences in lighting and weather conditions, do indeed make every lap just that little bit different.
The race itself is well organised and the athlete village that springs up at the Hayfield is something else, and that same atmosphere that perhaps in part hindered any effort to sleep through the night when I should have been running, was the exact same atmosphere that saw crews supporting runners on their journeys night and day, offering words of support without fail. Special mention has to go to the particularly raucous (in a good way!) tents that had their sound system pelting out various 80s and disco hits in the final hours of the race, bringing a smile to the faces of the runners as they made their way up the steep hill on the outer edge of the Hayfield.
I should also give special mention to Ada. Whilst, unfortunately, I didn’t ‘get the horn’ from Ada this year, I do have high hopes for a future year, and I totally appreciated the friendly words of encouragement from Ada and the lap counting crew as they recorded each and every lap logged by all of those running.
Thanks also to the Race Directors and the many, many marshals who so generously have up their time (and especially to those poor marshals who manned the half way checkpoint which was particularly plagued by swarms of midges).
There were, despite the aforementioned issues, a number of positives that came from the weekend.
I didn’t negatively impact on my love of the Glenmore trails, trails that I love to run. Indeed, the Glenmore 24 route actually showed me a couple of miles of trail that I had not previously encountered and, with a visit to Aviemore looming in the next few weeks, I actually hope to once again run that 4 mile loop. This time, however, I will likely add on a good few ***different*** miles on either side of the loop rather than run it multiple times!
What’s more, part of the trail was on the route that my 3 year old son Harris recently rode when he biked his first Cairngorm trails on our last visit, having effortlessly switched from his balance bike to a pedal bike (no stabilizers), just days before (very proud dad moment!). Those happy memories kept me smiling at least for the first 4-5 loops!
I actually really like the Glenmore 24 route, with what I consider to be (very) roughly 1 mile sections of technical, flat, uphill and downhill respectively. The view afforded from the highest point of the trail was one that I had not enjoyed previously and was as good as to merit a (very) short stop each and every time.
I also successfully tested two new items of kit, something you should almost certainly avoid doing in a race scenario. However, I was lucky. Well, kind of. I was lucky in the my new Inov8 Trail Talon 275 shoes arrived just in time for our departure for Aviemore and I was very lucky that they were a perfect fit. I was extremely lucky that, after some 66 and a bit miles, my feet were in excellent condition, albeit slightly sore from the constant pounding. Given the beating that they took at The West Highland Way Race however, where the top 1/3 of each foot was badly bruised, I really had no cause for complaint.
I wasn’t so lucky that I actually needed to buy and ‘break in’ new trainers however. I had every intention of making the Glenmore 24 the swansong event of the Altra Lone Peak 2.5 that I had been wearing in the months leading up to the event. Perhaps they got wind of what lay ahead. With less than a week to go, they committed hara-kiri, splitting at the sides in exactly the same location that my Altra Superiors had split just weeks previously. Suffice to say that this confirmed my suspicions regarding the durability of some of the new Altra shoes and, with that in mind, also confirmed my intent to switch brand. A quick web search and a stellar review of the Inov8 Trail Talon 275 from Ian Corless of the Talk Ultra podcast soon resulted in a return to the Inov8 brand for me.
I also successfully tested the Ultimate Direction Groove Stereo waist pack. Despite my love of the Salomon S-Lab Advanced Skin 3 Belt Set, I’ve always found it to be quite restrictive in terms of what can comfortably be carried and the Groove Stereo stepped up with regard to enabling greater flexibility on this front. What’s more, it also provided much easier access to my iPhone, which I generally carry in a protective OtterBox case and a waterproof Exped bag. Whilst the Salomon waist pack accommodated the phone/case/bag combo, it certainly didn’t let me retrieve and/or stash it without a bit of a fight!
When I started, I certainly didn’t expect what was supposed to be a brief write up of my Glenmore 24 exploits to amount to quite such a lengthy post but, there it is, my weekend in a nut-shell, albeit a rather lengthy nut shell!
There’s one other thing that may also have impacted on my performance that weekend, but that deserves a post of its own – ‘Taking Harris to Harris’. What started out as a weekend that was all about my first attempt at the Glenmore 24 ended up being a ‘stopover’ on route to take my son Harris (and, indeed, ourselves) to the island of Harris for the first ever time! Was my brain already in ‘holiday mode’ by the time that I arrived in Aviemore? I suspect that there’s at least a bit of truth in that! More to follow on that very shortly.
Thanks to Sue Walker, Pauline Walker and Fiona Rennie for photographs.