Matterhorn Ultraks 2015

Wow! What a race.

If you were to ask someone to create a race that had a fantastic route, over alpine trails, with lots of elevation and with breath-taking scenery, this is likely to be the race that they would create.

I signed up to this race about November last year I think. It was one of those spur of the moment things when it popped up in my timeline on Facebook. I had no experience of this kind of running at the time, and I remember posting something on Facebook after I’d signed up along the lines of “I just signed up to this…ambitious?”. Thankfully, it wasn’t ambitious at all.

We decided to make a bit of a holiday out of the trip, since flying all the way to Switzerland for a race is a little excessive to begin with. We flew into Geneva last Monday, had 24 hours in the city, then caught the incredibly clean and precise train all the way to Zermatt. Right from the start Switzerland was doing its usual thing of being smart, clean, adult and beautiful. I’ve spent a lot of time in the country with work over the years and I really do like the place. It makes itself easy to like though.

We rented an apartment in the town, which as it turned out was perfectly located. Zermatt isn’t all that big any way, but it was close enough to the centre and had a great view of the Matterhorn, so it ticked all the boxes we needed.

Our arrival in Zermatt was quite late in the day on Tuesday so it was a case of finding some food and settling in for the night. Wednesday morning I was out around town, working out my bearings and, importantly, buying a map. Over lunch I worked out a plan to run Wednesday and Thursday and take it easy on Friday before the race on Saturday. I knew this was cutting it fine and that my legs would be tired on the day, but I figured as long as I limited my climbing over the two days, I could get away with it.

The race was a loop around the head of a valley which started and finished in Zermatt town centre. The course took in three big climbs and three descents. I wanted to try to recce as much of the race route as possible beforehand so I decided to run the first ascent on Wednesday, then follow the line of the some of the first descent before heading straight back down into Zermatt instead of breaking off towards the next climb. Then on Thursday I took one of the cable cars up to Schwarzsee, which is at the head of the final climb and then run the 10km long descent back down into Zermatt. This all worked perfectly and gave me the opportunity I needed to get the worst parts of the race clear in my head. This included the climb from Furi back up to Schwarzsee which was steep, long and, as it turned out on the day, difficult in intense sunshine!

On the Friday, we took the train up to Gornergrat to take a look around from the top. The glacier was simply magnificent and really did make you realise how special the place is.

Monte Rosa and the glacier from Gornergrat

Looking towards Monte Rosa and the glacier from Gornergrat

Then came race day. The Ultraks is more of a running festival with 6 races in total on the day. I took part in the 30km trail race, but there was also a 46km, a 16km, a vertical race (VZR), a 30km corporate relay and a kids race. The 46km race was the main event with some famous professional runners toeing the start line. they took off before my race so I got the opportunity to see the start of the 46km race.

Start of the 46km race

Start of the 46km race

There was a real buzz around Zermatt, it is such a perfect town for this type of event. Before I knew it the 30km race was 10 minutes away from starting and I was shuffling my way into the start pen. In my recce for the start I knew that the route headed out of the town and eventually broke off up a narrow single track trail through the woods about 1km in. With close to 700 runners in the race this was always going to be a bottleneck unless you were in the first 10 people to reach it, so I knew that being towards the last 20% of runners in the pen was a bad start. After some enthusiastic encouragement from the race announcer to warm us all up, we were off. The pace from where I was started at a slow jog but the runners quickly broke up which provided some space as we ran through the streets. the crowds were out supporting and it felt great to be part of such a big event like this.

The road out of town started to climb and people slowed down to their natural climbing pace. I found myself starting to pass people but I was encouraged by the fact that, despite lots of people around me sprinting to get a better place, I paced myself so I didn’t tire too easily. One of the big things I wanted to do in this race was to simply enjoy it. The scenery as I’ve said is simply amazing, and I may never come back to run it again, so I wanted to enjoy it for the experience and not ruing things by being exhausted within the first 5km.

As we hit the first climb I found myself at what I estimated was about 50% of the way through the field. This felt about right as everyone around me by now was running similar bits to me and walking the bits I would walk, so it felt like I was in the right place. The first climb goes about 60% of the way up the hill, then levels out to traverse around a long flat trail. This was really narrow and over-taking was almost impossible. I think in the end this saved me as I would have been tempted to go for it here normally, but instead I just sat behind a small group of guys and recovered from that first push. I knew as well from the recce that as this flat section ended, it opened out on the next uphill section, but that section was short until the first aid station. When we reached it, I put on a push knowing there really wasn’t far to go before the top and this allowed me to pass about another 10 people.

Nearing the top of the first climb

Nearing the top of the first climb

The first aid station was at Sunnegga. I knew that from here there was a long, wide downhill track followed by a small climb and some traversal of a hill before the subsequent station at Riffelalp. I decided for this race to wear my Salomon vest simply to enable me to carry more fluids as I knew it was going to be a hot day. This worked great as I had two 500ml soft flasks filled with Tailwind. I’d drained one flask on the first climb and I knew I wouldn’t need more than one more flask to the next station, so I decided to simply grab a glass of water and keep running. This fast pit stop and the subsequent attack on the downhill earned me a significant number of places. I was surprised throughout the race at how few people were letting go on the down hills, especially as many of them were on wide, smooth tracks.

On the way to Riffelalp we passed markers where the 46km race broke off the route to take in a loop up to Gornergrat. I was reticent of not signing up to this longer distance race leading up to the start. In hindsight I think I probably enjoyed the 30km better, but I would like to go back and take on the bigger distance. We got to Riffelalp far faster than I anticipated and I had barely drained my remaining soft flask, so I decided on another short pit stop, grabbing two glasses of water and a handful of dried fruit. The aid stations were perfect in my opinion, they had a bounty of stock considering both the 46 and 30km races had been passing through and it was broadly laid out so people weren’t climbing over each other to get to it. As we neared this stop the sound of alpine horns started to drift through the air, it really added a wonderful atmosphere to the race.

Riffelalp Aid Station

Riffelalp Aid Station

Next up was Furi, which was another short descent away from Riffelalp. The trail on the way become a little technical and slowed things down considerably. It was obvious people were starting to tire as there were plenty of trips and falls as folk clipped their toe on a rock or a tree root here and there.

Heading towards Furi with the Matterhorn cheering us on

Heading towards Furi with the Matterhorn cheering us on

Before we could get to the water stop at Furi, there was a small matter of a suspension bridge to cross. I’d recce’d this before hand so knew what it was going to be like. I’m glad, because I think if I’d stumbled into this mid-race I might have been a bit spooked!

Furi suspension bridge - yes, it does move!

Furi suspension bridge – and yes, it does move!

The course team had flagged it to stop people from running on the bridge. This kind of worked, but as I crossed it, there were about 10 runners all speed walking across it. The bridge was considerably flexible and this amount of traffic on it had an interesting effect!

At Furi my partner, the wonderful and beautiful Nichola, was there to meet me and give me encouragement. I was ready for the pit stop here and had my sachet of tailwind ready to drop into one of my soft flasks for the final climb up to Schwarzsee. I almost ran straight into Nichola as I was sorting this stuff out! It was great to see her and it really gave me a lift for the next section of the course which was certainly the hardest.

Arriving at Furi - Picture: Nichola

Arriving at Furi – Picture: Nichola

This was about the only bit of the course I wasn’t looking forward to. From Furi it is an almost vertical climb up switchbacks to the next station, Schwarzsee. It was hard going, but just a case of keeping your head up and pushing on. I’d seen the trail from the chair lift and knew it was steep, but it was made even tougher as the sun was out by this point and the temperature was creeping up towards 30 degrees. After about 30 minutes, the summit came in sight and one final drive of the legs got me through the timing gate at the top. I was 3h 05min into the race and I had run the remainder on my final recce, so knew what lay ahead. It was mostly downhill on single track trail with just a short uphill section as the trail turned back towards Zermatt. This is possibly the most scenic part of the course, with a backdrop of the Matterhorn all the way.

The Matterhorn

The Matterhorn showing off in the sunshine

Before the race, I was thinking I would be close to 5 hours to finish, as I hit Schwarzsee I wasn’t really paying attention and also, Nichola had said she was heading up to meet me too. I spent about 5 minutes at the aid station here looking for Nichola, who it turns out was there but I just didn’t spot her. I eventually gave up and started the descent thinking I was probably at about the halfway mark in the field and had not much to run for. As I headed down I recognised that I was just over the 3h mark, and figured that as long as I take it steady I should make sub 4h 30m, so I set off. My stomach started to ache as I headed down, I think I took on too much water at the aid station so everything was bouncing about a little. This slowed me down, but eventually wore off enabling me to open my legs a bit as I headed into Zermatt. I had one guy in front of me who I could see but at some point the 16km race joined the trail and I was confused about why so many people were in front of me! Eventually I spotted the guy ahead of me but he was too far for me to catch.

The race folds around town to enable a finish up the main street with everyone cheering from the cafes and bars. It again created a wonderful atmosphere and the race planning was perfect as all of the main adult races were finishing about the same time. I crossed the line in 4h 12m and was delighted with how my race had gone. The winners from the 46km race were still being interviewed as I crossed so I assume they had only just finished too, and it felt amazing to be amongst such great runners.

After the finish line you were presented with what I think is both the best race medal I’ve ever had and also the best race t-shirt I’ve ever had. WP_20150822_048
There was also a further aid station immediately in the finishers area and lots of area of shade to recover in. The sun was out, I had my finishers medal and new t-shirt out and it felt amazing.

As I sat in the shade I looked across and saw Tom Owens who runs for Salomon taking a breather next to me. He had come 6th in the 46km race which is an incredible performance. I’d seen Tom run in Carnethy 5 and Birnham Hill race earlier this year and recognised him and said hello. Those guys are incredible athletes and it turned out he was a really nice guy too.

I ended up finishing 78th overall and 18th in the V40 category, which in both cases I am delighted with. To finish in the top 20% or so of a race of this distance with so many runners is really encouraging and made me feel great. Looking back and analysing my race, the slow start helped me as did knowing the course from my recces. I knew where I could push hard and knew where to recover and this paid dividends. I remember from Riffelalp passing people who had started stronger but were slowing down, and recognised that had been me in other races. It felt great to feel like I’d paced it better and had a steady performance. I also felt strong on the climbs, felt like my hydration and nutrition worked well again (Thank you Tailwind!) and all my kit worked well. I wore a Salomon vest, Salomon s-lab exo t-shirt, inov-8 shorts, Salomon s-lab sense ultra shoes, it just all worked perfectly.

The race rewards

The race rewards

The race was exceptionally well organised. During my recce’s I had spotted the guys a few times out and about around the course during the week before putting out markings. There was hundreds of small orange marker flags all over the mountains making it exceptionally clear about where to go. There were also large signs at any major junction to make it clear about which direction to go. This was how all races should be marked over big areas like this. The aid stations were perfectly managed, the pre and post race facilities were exceptional, a great hot meal was available for everyone. It was just all excellent. A huge congratulations and thank you to the race organisers, volunteers and people of Zermatt for putting on such an excellent event.

I felt great the next day and wanted to head out for a recover run. I was intrigued by the section from the 46km race that I hadn’t seen. This was a tough climb up to Gornergrat which I’d seen when I was up there sightseeing earlier in the week. I studied the map on Sunday morning and decided to get the train up to Sunnegga and follow my instincts. I cut off a little of the descent towards Riffelalp and contoured the hill before joining the race route from the 46km race a little further up the hill. The climb was really tough and technical in places. There were plenty of craggy sections and very little in the way of sections where you could recover. I was taking it easy to respect what my legs had done the day before, but it was still a really enjoyable run. I got up to Gornergrat in just over an hour and was rewarded all the way with spectacular views. The Strava activity for this run is here. Now I know what almost all the 46km race route is, I would love to head back next year and take it on.

Leaving Zermatt after such an amazing week was really difficult. Whilst we have spectacular hills and scenery in Scotland, the alps are at another level entirely and really pull on your heart stings if you love being outdoors in this type of environment. The trails and mountains were perfect for running and I can’t wait to go back.

The Strava activity for the race.

Next up for me is the Ben Nevis Race. This is a huge race in the UK hill running calendar and looks to be such a tough race. I’m nervously looking forward to it as it’s my first time, but with under two weeks to go, there is little I can do in the way of training which will help me. I’m planning on a few easy runs in the hills over the next week before taking a few days off before I reach Fort William and the start. Watch out for an update near the time.

Tomorrows Ultraks Race

Just a quick update before I hit the sack for the night. Tomorrow is the Matterhorn Ultraks race and I’m itching to get started. I’ve spent the week in Zermatt taking in different aspects of the course and generally enjoying some time up in the alps. I’ll write a details blog post after the race, but wanted to get an update out as I’ve been pretty quiet the last week or so on here.

Zermatt is an amazing place and I’ve fallen in love with it already. The buzz has been growing around town and reached a height tonight as more and more runners started to arrive to collect their race numbers.

View from the descent from Schwartzsee

View from the descent from Schwartzsee

With scenery like this, it is going to be an amazing race and the weather is looking like it will be ideal. Off to bed now to get what rest I can before the start line tomorrow.

Stumbling towards the Glen

Since the Caledonian challenge my mind has swung around towards the Great Glen ultra (GGU) which is coming up on July 4th. Since the fling my training has been a lot more unstructured, with my running distances reducing rather than increasing. Over the past week this has started to play on my mind with a race of 72 miles just over a week away I am questioning if I am ready or not.

If I think about it, over the past month I have ran Edinburgh Marathon and walked two very long distance walks, so I know I have some training under my belt. I also went out yesterday to fit in a good quality long run with plenty of elevation in to make it as tough as possible. I ended up doing 37.5km with almost 1300m of elevation, strava link here. I did something very similar the week before the fling, sticking two fingers up to the traditional taper approach and going for the panic reverse taper. Mentally I think this helps, I woke up this morning feeling happier about the GGU, but still concerned if I have it in my legs to take it up to such a long distance.

I also seem to have a niggle in my right leg after the caley challenge. I did a little jogging down one of the hills approaching Kinlochleven and I think that short stretch of running in my walking boots caused some ligament damage on the front of my ankle\shin. I have a physio appointment tomorrow to get it checked out and hopefully get some treatment to help it heal as fast as possible. Given I ran the fling with a sprained ankle from 10 days before the start, this appears to be an emerging trend for me in picking up injuries just before an ultra.

I’m starting to fix on my strategy for the GGU. It looks to be a course with 3 main sections from looking at the map. The first section is almost entirely flat from Fort William up to Laggan Locks. The trail follows alongside the canal to here which probably gains less than about 50m along the whole section. This is the danger section, with such a flat, solid trail the temptation will be to go out at 5min\km. I need to bring it back and really pace myself so I don’t come undone later on. The trail then meanders up and down along the side of Loch Oich through to Fort Augustus. There are no real climbs here, but I suspect the perpetual up and down will be tempting to run faster than I should be doing. My target pace for this section is 6min\km to take into account the slight up’s and downs.

From Fort Augustus the track goes along the loch side again with a little more undulation. By this time tiredness will be starting to creep in to my legs given how little distance work I’ve done recently so I need to be sensible and just get through this with my mind fixed on the CP at Invermorriston. Once I’ve refuelled here, it is then a stern climb up a tarmac road with a couple of switch backs that I found on my recent recce. Then a drop back down to Loch side for more undulating trails through to a road which leads down to Drumnadrochit and the final CP. That whole section I suspect will involve lots of slow pace shuffling. The fact I have run it in a recce is making it already feel more achievable in my mind.

From Drumnadrochit, the trail heads up another hill towards Inverness. This section is the one I am the most afraid of at the moment. It looks like a hell of a long way to be running with very tired legs and I suspect mentally it will be a real struggle. At this point I will be in “determined to finish” mode as the next point of civilisation will be the finish line. I don’t expect this to be easy or enjoyable at the time.

I think amongst the many things I’ve learned as I’ve trained to run ultras is the ability to just keep going. I think so much of this is about mental toughness and I’m still confident that, as long as my body can keep things ticking along, it will be the brain that gets me through the Glen.

In other news, I signed up to Transvulcania 2016 this week. It looks such an amazing race and an incredible challenge, getting over that huge volcanic area and in such hot conditions. Here’s a video from their official page to give you a sense for what’s to come.

Snow storms and spectating

I spent Saturday at the Cateran 55 ultra as one of my friends was taking part and I offered to give him a lift to and from the race. My plan, which worked out almost perfectly, was to drop him and a couple of his friends who were also running the race off in time for the start at 7am. After seeing them off I went to have a run up and over a route which took in 3 Munros on the east side of Glenshee.

We arrived a little early so had plenty of time to get some breakfast and a cup of tea before the race. My only ultra has been the Highland Fling which is a huge event. In comparison the Cateran 55 is a smaller but no lesser race. Alongside the Cateran 55 is the Cateran 110 or double as people call it. The race takes place around the Cateran trail which forms a loop around some rugged territory in the south of the Cairngorms. It really highlighted to me how friendly and supportive the whole ultra running community is. There looked to be less than 100 people running the 55 and I heard that the double, which set off at 4pm on Friday and performs two loops of the trail, had 15 people taking part.

The race got underway with clear skies and a light breeze, perfect running conditions. I got myself into the car and headed across to Glenisla for the start of my run. I parked near Auchavan and followed the Walk Highlands route towards my first hill, Monega. The trail from the car meandered along the glen floor before taking a turn left to make the long slog up the ridge line of Monega hill.

Monega hill in the center of the picture

Monega hill in the center of the picture

The climb up Monega was slow but steady. I tried to take a slow run all the way up but was forced to walk a few sections which were just too tough for my legs. Regardless, I managed to the King of the hill in strava; result! By the time I reached the summit, the weather awarded me fantastic views into the rocky end of Glen Isla. From the summit, the path followed a line along some cliffs towards Glas Maol, the first of two Munro’s on the route. I was happy to take a reasonable run along this and was taking the opportunity to snap some pics.

Me fannying about instead of paying attention

Me fannying about instead of paying attention

As I reached the end of the cliffs and before the short climb up to Glas Maol, I was still taking photos and hadn’t noticed the weather closing in from the west. Before I knew it, the blue skies and sunshine were replaced with clouds and snow showers. A very clear reminder of how quickly things can change at this height.

Stunning views from Little Glas Maol which distracted me from the weather

Stunning views from Little Glas Maol which distracted me from the weather

I checked my route map and read that Glas Maol had a shelter on it, so decided to up the pace and head for that. At this point, the wind had picked up and the snow was really coming down thick. I had my waterproofs on by now, hat and gloves, and was running to keep warm. It wasn’t working though. Within 5 minutes my extremeties were numb and I could feel myself stating to worry about where this was heading. By now, I was still running along a track but realised I was traversing Glas Maol rather than going to its summit. I tried to get a bearing but with limitd visibility it was impossible. I decided the slope to my left must be the hill I wanted and thankfully sumitted it quickly and found the sheep fold on the top. I hid in this away from the worst of the weather, had a cereal bar and some fluids and studied the map. My compass was telling me I had to go in a direction which just felt wrong. I took bearings several times and eventually decided to trust my map and compass and not my instinct, which by this point was also numb!

After some worrying meander down the slope to the west of Glas Maol, I found a stone wall that was to lead me over a bealach to Cleag Leacach, my 2nd munro of the day.

View from Creag Leacach as the clouds cleared

View from Creag Leacach as the clouds cleared

As I made my way along the line of the wall, the cloud and snow storm cleared as quickly as it came and the views I was presented with were just breathtaking. I thanked myself for being sensible and following my compass and decided to just focus on enjoying the rest of the run.

 

The last third of the run took in a couple of smaller hills before finally taking on Monamenach. After all the excitement of the snow storm and with tired legs, the direct climb up this final hill was….a little bit tough. Once over the top though, it was a long, steady decent back down to the foot of the glen and the flask of tea waiting in the car. By the time I was done, it wasn’t even lunchtime and I felt amazing. Distance: 22.6km, Time: 2h 29m, Avg. Pace: 7:56/KM, Total Elevation: 1365m. A perfect Saturday. Link to Strava for the running geeks.

Elevation Profile from Strava

Elevation Profile from Strava

I returned to Spittal of Glenshee to discover my friend had pulled out of the ultra with some ITB pain. We still had to wait to the finish as one of the passengers in the car was still running, so we headed to the Glenshee ski center for a bite to eat and then came back to see the race leaders finishing. Both the 55 and 110 finish in the same direction around the trail, so the runners were mixed as they came home. We headed up the hill which the races comes down in its final stage to cheer on our friend. As we walked up, the leader of the 55 came past looking strong and eventually finished in about 8h and 15m. Then over the hill came the 110 leader.

Now, I’ve seen lots of people finishing races since I started running and usually I find it really inspiring. Not on this occasion though. The guy we saw coming down that hill looked nothing short of delirious. He was running with pain in his eyes and a gait which suggested problems in later life were assured. I think it made me feel that races of that sort of distance are just never going to be my thing. The rest of the runners though just made me want to pull my shoes back on and get out there. I think the Cateran might feature on my race calendar next year. Being a spectator in the race also made me appreciate just how much work really goes into these things. I loved being part of the race without actually being in it and I will definitely be signing up to help with races in the future in some way.

In other news, I finally made the decision and signed up to the Great Glen Ultra in July. I feel I owe it something as it is the race which inspired me to consider running an ultra, so hopefully I do it justice and have a good run. With another ultra now on the horizon, I was inspired to get out and put some more miles on the clock this morning. I headed out with the Falkland Trail runners for a jaunt up West Lomond. It wasn’t quite the views from yesterday, but it was good enough. I’m enjoying my running at the moment; long may it continue!

View from West Lomond this morning

View from West Lomond this morning

 

DNS

Firstly, my thoughts are with the people in Nepal today after they have experienced the second earthquake. I am currently reading Runner by Lizzy Hawker which spends a lot of its time in Nepal meaning my mind was already in those beautiful mountains and now even more so.

I had my first DNS at the weekend when I missed the Ben Lomond hill race. There was a few contributing reasons to why I didn’t make the start line, but mainly it was that family commitments meant that I couldn’t run. Whilst this was disappointing because I really wanted to do the race as it looks great, it was also a good lesson to learn. We don’t always get what we want and nor should we. There are hundreds and hundreds of other races I can take part in, and me not making this one really doesn’t matter at all. OK, I missed a great run on what turned out to be a gloriously sunny day that would have given me a fantastic workout. What really mattered though was that I made a choice and put my family first and they will always be more important than any race.

The one thing I did do though was to get in touch with the race director to let them know I couldn’t start. The race was part of the Scottish Hill Racing championship which is a really popular competition. By letting them know it meant that someone who could run got moved up from the waiting list and hopefully had a great day as a consequence. As well as it being good etiquette, I think there is some karma involved and hopefully I will make a race I’m on a waiting list for in return. There was a big discussion related to this in one of the online running communities I’m part of about the number of races which are pre-entry only. It is a tough topic to approach, if you are a race organiser I can understand how knowing how many people will take part helps you to plan more effectively. The downside is that people can’t always plan far enough ahead and it creates a culture of people signing up to races not knowing when they do if they will be able to make it. The other aspect of pre-entry races is if people are allowed to transfer their entry. Some races state that the administration of allowing this is prohibitive whilst others allow it freely up to a point just before the race.

A friend of mine runs a small business which provides timing systems to races and says that when you have pre-entry, if you don’t allow for transfers you are likely to lose as many as 30-40% of sign ups. If you allow transfers then it is typically 10%. That’s a huge difference! Given that many of these races are run by local running clubs and used as a means to generate much needed funds, you would think that they would want to allow for transfers to make sure more people sign up to each race. Seems like an odd economy to me. Anyway, if you are signed up for a race and can’t make it; do the right thing and let the organisers know. It takes seconds to do and helps them organise a better race.

In other news I managed to get out for my first long run post-fling on Sunday. I headed out into the Lomond Hills with a bunch of intrepid squirrels from Falkland Trail Runners. We headed out of Falkland through Maspie Den, over Creag Mead and across to Whitecraigs and Bishops Hill, then back to Falkland via Glen Vale and the base of West Lomond. 22km in total in about 2h 30mins with 600m of elevation. It was a driech day with a low cloud that hung in the air and a wind blowing in from the west which, when exposed, bit through all layers of clothes. Despite that, we all had a great time. This was a longer run than normal for the squirrels, we usually stick to a 10-14km run on a Sunday, however a few of the club wanted to get some longer runs in around the hills so we headed out and had a fantastic day despite the weather.

Squirrels in the mist

Squirrels in the mist

The pace of Sunday’s run also caught me off guard. Despite the distance and elevation, it was run at a touch over 5min\km! I think all the training leading up to and completing the fling have really improved my running, I am feeling really strong in all the runs I’ve done since the race and feel confident about my running. Yet another benefit of running an ultra. I’m in Munich for work this week so will be heading out for a couple of morning runs around the English Garten. It is as flat as a pancake, but a great city trail to run around, so I’m looking forward to it. The weather is also spectacular so I will enjoy the warm weather running. Considering how strong I am feeling in running, I am now almost convinced about signing up to the Great Glen ultra in July. It is the race that caught my attention and got me into ultra-running in the first place, so I feel like I owe it my participation. I’d also love to complete the race as it is spectacular countryside all along the route. I’ll let you know if and when I sign up and if I do, hopefully I won’t be a DNS.

 

Dumyat Hill Race

Pronounced Dum-eye-at apparently.

Last night was the Dumyat hill race organised by Stirling University and part of the Bog and Burn series of races. Dumyat is a comparatively small hill at the western end of the Ochil hills just outside Stirling and tops out at 390m. The course is a straight up and down starting from the university campus. It begins on a tarmac road which you soon turn off and up through a steep wooded section, over a burn, more woods with a short, near vertical mud wall to clamber up, then you are out on the long open slope to the summit with a few rocky sections to contend with. Just before the summit is a wire fence to deal with and a knee deep bog on the other side waiting to trap tired legs. Then you get to do it all again in reverse on the way down at high speed!

Dumyat hill race start - Picture credit Stirling University

Dumyat hill race start – Picture credit Stirling University

I started out towards the front of the pack at the start line, letting the feather weight racing types dash off from the gun. We streamed up the road and through a hole in the wall to a dirt track heading through the woods. I spot Judy from the Falkland Trail Runners in the same pack as me and I know she is a really strong runner so I stuck with her almost all the way up the hill, she eventually pulled away from me about three quarters of the way up. As the hilly section starts proper in the woods, there is a stretch which is particularly steep with bared tree roots and soft, slippery mud inbetween. The race attracts the usual hill running crowd but also a lot of students. There were plenty of shrieks and screams as road shoes lost their grip on this section and bodies were flying all around me.

The woods eventually open out to stile and after that it is a long steady drag to the summit. It is good hill running trail all the way up for the most part with a mixture of beaten tracks, boggy bits and rocky sections. Dave from the Lomies caught me up as we were going up this and pointed out that it is one of those hills that is just about runnable the whole distance, which means you are knackered by the top! About 500yrds from the summit the front runners started to hurtle past us on their descent. It was my first race where I’d been in this situation, other races were on circular routes so I’d never got to see the fast guys. They plummet down the hill and it is a spectacle to see. If you’ve seen these sci-fi films where they are out in space and then all of a sudden asteroids start flying past, it’s a bit like that. the long, slow plod of the up hill runners contrasts dramatically with the speed and recklessness of the down hillers.

The summit eventually comes up, I don’t remember much about it other than a cairn and a trig point. I didn’t stop to take in the view but I imagine it was pretty fantastic as the weather had cleared by now and the earlier rain clouds had moved on. I set off down the descent which is the bit I always enjoy. I left the group I’d been running up with almost immediately as I picked up some speed. It is a great course for a fast descent. Before I knew it I was at the bog again and doing my own asteroid impression as I flew past those further back in the field.

Coming down the muddy descent at Dumyat

Coming down the muddy descent at Dumyat (Photo: Finlay Walton)

By the time I reached the woods I’d made up about 10 places and had a group of another 5 in sight ahead of me. My legs were feeling strong by now, my breathing had settled down after the excess of the uphill slog and I was enjoying it. The ground was soft and I had my Inov-8 Mudclaws on so the slippery mud in places was my friend. After crossing the stile I remembered the really steep muddy bit and realised it was coming up again soon. I quickly discovered it along with about 8 people trying to slip and pick their way down it. I figured I had nothing to lose so decided to go for the bold approach and ran right down it, passing a huge group of people on the way. I was crapping myself that I would hit a root and make an arse of myself any second, but I managed to get away with it.

All that was left then was the last bit of trail down through the woods which felt like familiar territory by now. Up a slight incline to test tired legs, through the whole in the wall and back out on to the road. By this point I was with a group of 3 other runners who I’d caught up with. We all had enough left in our legs for a fast finish and I passed over the line mid group with a time of 46m 57s. My moment of glory though was just as I crossed the finish line and I tripped on the timing mats, flying head first towards the crowd of waiting smart phone cameras. Only my ego was really damaged, but I suspect it made a few people laugh and made for a decent photo (please contact me if you have one!). Hector Haines from HBT won the race with an impressive 35m 14s.

I felt fantastic at the finish, it is a great race with a great mixture of types of running. I was also happy that my legs held out after the fling. Next it is on to Ben Lomond at the weekend which I think will be much more of a challenge.

Jedburgh 3 Peaks Ultra

To affirm my madness and new addiction to ultra running I signed up to the Jedburgh 3 Peaks Ultra last night. After the fling, a 38 mile trot through the Scottish Borders sounds like a training run!

I’m excited about this race though. I ran the 3 Eildons 10 mile trail race earlier this year and it is brilliant running territory around that part of the world. The three Eildons are interesting interludes midway through the race and will be quite a test I imagine. Much of the trail around there is alongside the River Tweed too, which means it is usually wet and muddy. Should be fun.

Me right at the back coming down off the 2nd of the 3 Eildon hills

It is likely to be the last race of the season given it is in October. I’m hoping by then that my endurance has built up and I can complete the race in a respectable time. The alternative of course is that by October I’m knackered band I have to drag my whimpering arse around the course. Time will tell.

Highland Fling – lessons learned

It’s been a week now since I finished the fling, my legs started to feel human again about Monday evening and I even went for a 5km slow run on Wednesday morning without any real discomfort. All in all, I feel like I got away with it in the recovery stakes. I didn’t know what to expect after running such a crazy distance, 53 miles is a bloody long way, and how I felt immediately afterwards suggested I was going to be walking like someone who’d shat themselves for weeks to come. I didn’t though and in the post race high, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I would\will do in the next ultra.

Several times I’ve stopped myself and asked “Whoa there! Your next one? Who said this was something you’d be doing again?”. As the days go on though, all I can think about is giving this whole thing another try. I think one of the things driving this though is all the niggly little things in the fling which I feel didn’t go as well as I hoped they would. Running an ultra takes a lot of training and a lot of planning.

Nutrition

In the fling I went with a real food strategy. There were three real downsides to this:

1. Time – real food takes time to eat, in a race, you need to save time, even a long endurance race like an ultra.

2. Bulk – my drop bags were huge, which I know isn’t a problem. When I transferred the food to cary with me to the next CP though, that turned me into a pack mule. I don’t want to be that runner.

3. Gagging – real food, after 20 or more miles, is a real turn off. Knowing that I had to eat my sushi roll or sandwich to give me the calories to get me through to the next CP really ate away at my mind in the race. All I wanted was liquids.

In the drop bag at each checkpoint I had things to eat at the check point which were a veggie sushi roll to give me lots of rice for the carbs and seaweed for some nutrients. I also made a sandwich for each checkpoint. I’d tried both in training runs, but after 20 miles, neither worked.

In each bag I also had snacks to take with me on the next stage. I had a chia charge flapjack, which are fantastic bundles of energy. I’d also made up some ziplock bags too with some cashew and almonds as well as dried apricots and figs. I also had some high 5 Zero tabs in each drop bag to put in my water bottles to keep my electrolyte levels up. Lastly, I’d cut an orange into segments, one for each bag. In my training runs leading to the fling, I found that after a while, my mouth just wanted something refreshing and I thought that oranges would do the trick.

The sandwiches, whilst sounding like a good idea, really sat heavy and were really hard to eat. That meant that I spent so much more time in the checkpoints than I wanted to, but also it just added to the gagging feeling I found I got after about 20 miles of running. No more sandwiches then. The sushi was also like eating soggy cardboard by the time I was on my 3rd round of it, and I never want to see a sushi roll again as a consequence.

The snacks worked out ok, on much of the walking uphill sections I tucked into the fruit and nuts pouches. I don’t know how much they gave me in terms of energy or nutrients, but they were tasty and easy enough to eat, so I think they can stay. The oranges were divine and really lifted me. They are a must for next time.

From the 2nd checkpoint in the race, all I wanted was liquid. In hindsight I wish now that I had used some gels in the 2nd half of the race. I really don’t like them, but I see now how liquid calories are probably the right thing to do in a 50 mile+ race. I’ve done some research over the past week and discovered Tailwind Nutrition. I manage to grab some of their endurance powder whilst in Seattle for work this week to try it out between now and Edinburgh marathon at the end of May. I’m hoping that something like this will be at the core of my strategy next ultra. That would mean I get refreshing liquids constantly, my drop bags don’t look like a picnic hamper and importantly, I will spend less time in checkpoints and have less to carry between them.

Kit

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My kit list for the fling was as follows:

  • New Balance Leadville v2 trainers – perfect, will use them again
  • Inov-8 Race Elite shorts – perfect, really comfortable
  • Icebreaker merino 200 long sleeve – The weather forecast was cool\cold and the merino top works for me in most temperatures.
  • Salomon Trail top – I love this top, great for keeping wind off you and fits really well
  • Salomon SLab ADVSkin 12 – This pack is good, the two chest bottles I like as the water doesn’t slosh about. The pouches in the back were great too for holding excess kit
  • OMM Kamelika Smock – The weather forecast showed rain and possibly snow. This smock has seen me through the worst of the Scottish winter hill running.
  • Injinji trail medium socks – I used these to prevent blisters, but ended up with one small one of the end of a toe. Generally though, they were great

Generally, all of this worked well. In future though, I’m wondering if I need to take as much kit. I think I could get away with fewer layers, perhaps just wear one layer and have the smock to go over the top if the weather turns horrible. I was looking at what other people use, the guys up the front of the race all seem to run with barely nothing, a hand held bottle, a small bum bag or flip-belt. I’m going to give this approach a try on my next long run and see how it goes. I think it might take some training to get used to it, but if I can, I suspect it will stop me from faffing about in the race with kit on the hoof or in CP’s.

Logistics

I travelled to Glasgow on the Friday before the fling and stayed in a city center hotel. All the hotels near the start line were fully booked by the time I got my arse in gear to sort it out, but they are generally travel lodge type hotels, which I don’t usually enjoy. I stayed at the Hilton Grosvenor by the Botanics. This was a 20 min walk to the race hotel for registration on Friday afternoon which gave me time to calm my nerves down a bit. It was also an easy taxi ride to Milngavie on Saturday morning for the start. I’d definitely do it this way again.

Strategy

With this being my first ultra, I was nervous and really wanted to just stick to a slow pace and complete it. My goal when I signed up to the fling really was to just complete it. It was only as I got closer did I have naïve aspirations of completing it in 10 to 11 hours. My naivety gave me the kick up the arse I deserved in the time stakes, but in general I’m really happy with what I achieved. If I want to improve, I need to change some of the things around my food and kit that I’ve spoken about in this post, but I think I also need to get more endurance training in. I had a long stretch from about 10 to 30 miles where my hips ached quite badly. They were never going to stop me, but I was frustrated that it felt like something that, if I’d trained more, I could have avoided this. What I would like for next time is to hold a steady, slow pace all the way through. Looking at peoples races on Strava, I can see that those that do really well maintain an almost exact pace all the way. My pace varied from 5min\km to 11min\km. I think 6min\km is probably my target pace, but it is going to take some focussed endurance training to get to it.

Taking everything into consideration, for my first ultra, I think the logistics and planning worked really well. I never went through a stage in the race where I felt like I needed more food, and I was never in a position where I was worried about getting to the race, having the right kit or anything like that. I think there is room for improvement though. Travel lighter, fuss less at CP’s and focus on getting calories inside whilst on the move.

I’m going to try to post some details about my main runs with each blog post:

Hoka Highland Fling

  • Time: 11hrs 46min
  • Distance 53miles\82km
  • Kit:New Balance Leadville v2, Inov-8 shorts, Icebreaker long sleeve, Buff, OMM Smock, Salomon ADV skin 12, injinji socks
  • Weather: Sunshine
  • Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/292451934

Ultra marathon dreams and beyond

This is my first post so I’ll try to keep it short and sweet. Last weekend I completed my first ultra marathon, the fantastic, the amazing, the superb Hoka Highland fling. The race experience itself was brilliant, but the training build up to it was also a wonderful experience as well. A year ago I decided to start running to lose some weight and get a little healthier. I started with a 5k jog\walk and twelve months later I find myself crossing the finish line of a 53 mile race in a time of 11hrs and 46 mins.

Me finishing the 2015 Highland Fling

Me finishing the 2015 Highland Fling

It’s been a journey as they say, and along the way I’ve contracted an addiction to running and in particular to running in the hills and for long distances. I’m going to try to write about all these things in this blog in the hope it inspires others to join in this little known community of addicts. I take part in Scottish hill races and other local running events around Scotland and I am already looking at my next and subsequent ultra marathons, so there should be no shortage of things to talk about. I’m also a running gear addict too so you can expect to hear me harping on about what I like and don’t like as I spend what feels like half of my salary on things I probably don’t need. That’s it for now, thanks for reading and please feel free to get in touch to say hello if you want to.