WHW Race Planning

It’s just about a month to go now until I take part in the West Highland Way race and I thought it is worth sharing the planning that I’m doing for this epic race. I’m really, really looking forward to it and feeling really positive. I missed out on Transvulcania a couple of weeks ago as I had some work commitments come up which I had to prioritise. My friend Scott Robb still went and ran that race and had a hellish time, but I dare say the experience will now help him focus on the WHW.

West Highland Way

West Highland Way

Given the WHW is the longest race I’ve done to date, it’s difficult to know exactly what to plan for in this race, but here is an overview of some of the things outside of everyday training that I’m thinking about:

Race Goals

I have a number of goals for the race which dictate a lot about how other aspects will work. Here’s a summary:

  1. Finish in under 20 hours – This is an incredible time for a race like this, and might be a naïve goal on my part. Nonetheless, I’m planning for it or else I will never pull it off.
  2. Finish in under 24 hours – This is my 2nd target if #1 goes wrong. I feel more comfortable about this, but I want to focus on #1 but accept #2 if it happens
  3. Finish in under 30 hours – I discovered that this is the time limit which earns you the right to put in for an entry for the lottery for WS100. Now that might be an ridiculous thought, but I’m going for it anyway. Therefore, under 30 hours is a must and I’ll be really disappointed with myself if I am at this end of the time spectrum.
  4. Pace myself – For any of the above to happen, I have to nail my race pace. More on this later.
  5. Smile – I want to go through the whole race with a smile on my face. My training hasn’t been perfect and I know I’m not going to win the race. Therefore, I want to be happy and enjoy the experience for what it is.

Pacing

To achieve anything I have to be really diligent about my pace. Over the past year as my fitness has improved my average pace has got much faster and my endurance longer, so there will be a temptation to put that new horse power to the test from the start. I know though that, if I want to have a finish that doesn’t make me look like someone returning from the front line, I need to start off slow and steady.

To understand how slow, I took a look at last years splits for the race. Given my sub 20hr target, I focused on the guys that achieved that time last year and how they got to it. A couple of things jumped out. Firstly, most of the top twenty runners maintained roughly their position throughout the race. They started strong and powered through at the end. A small number though started really slow and then slowly moved up the pack as others started to fade. I want to try to emulate that approach as I think it will work best for me.

I took one guy who finished in 8th place, Johnny Fling, the master of the Hoka Highland Fling. He ran a great race. At CP1 he was in 41st place, then worked his way through the field, CP by CP:

35th, 27th, 22nd, 16th, 14th, 10th, 8th.

His average pace for the race was just over 10min\km, but his pace for each segment was roughly 30sec’s slower than everyone else in the top 10 final positions, yet he finished 8th! All because of consistency of pace. So, after looking at average paces per segment from the 15 guys who dipped in under 20hrs in 2015, here is my pace table with associated times I want to try to hit:

CP Distance KM Pace min\km Segment Time Race Time Stops
Balmaha 30 00:06:30 03:15:00 03:15:00 00:05:00
Rowardenan 13 00:07:00 01:31:00 04:46:00
Beinglas 24 00:07:30 03:00:00 07:46:00 00:05:00
Auchtertyre 15 00:07:30 01:52:30 09:38:30 00:05:00
BoO 14 00:08:00 01:52:00 11:30:30 00:05:00
Glencoe 18 00:07:30 02:15:00 13:45:30 00:05:00
Kinlochleven 16 00:08:30 02:16:00 16:01:30 00:10:00
Fort William 22 00:08:30 03:07:00 19:08:30
19:08:30 0:35:00
Finish Time 19:43:30

Food

Tailwind. Mostly. This is one of the things I suspect my newbie status at this distance will catch me out on. I have used tailwind quite a bit now and it always seems to work for me. I also use chia bars for the sensation of eating something solid. As I’ll talk about later, I want my CP strategy to be fast and simple, so I don’t plan on hanging around at any point. So I’m planning on making up several bottles of tailwind and making sure I carry two chia bars as backup between each CP. I might have a bowl of cereal or porridge on stand by at one or two of the CP’s in case I am needing something more substantial.

CP’s

In and out fast. No loitering, no sitting about in chairs. Over the ultras I’ve done so far I’ve got progressively better at passing through checkpoints rather than stopping at them. I know that as this race plays out I’m going to get hellishly tired and the temptation of sitting down at Kinlochleven (KLL) and having fish and chips will be strong. However, I’m determined to try to run a really good race and so will try to push myself out and walk on from CP’s whilst eating something rather than stand or sit around. I put in my plan for a 10 mins stop at KLL, I want to think of that as a buffer though, rather than something mandatory. I am planning to change my shirt either there or at Glencoe as it will be evening time by then and I will likely want something warmer on. Adding this time into the plan gives me options.

Kit

I’m going to go with my Salomon Sense Ultra 5’s for the whole race I think. I’m enjoying running in them and unless it gets really wet and horrible between now and the race, I don’t think the extra grip of my other trail shoes will help. I bought a Salomon waist pack recently which I’m enjoying using. It carries two 500ml bottles plus enough expanding storage to fit in a light jacket and a bar or two, plus my phone. I have my trusty salomon adv skin 12 pack too which I will use if the weather is crap so I can carry extra clothes, but the plan is to be as light as possible.

Crew

This has been the hardest bit so far. I have one guy from the Lomies who has offered to help me and as a bonus he also has a camper van, which will feel like a real luxury on race day I’m sure. My road crew is just him though for the moment so I need to find one or two others to help out so he doesn’t have to take all the strain. I have two support runners signed up if I want them, although if my plan comes off, I will be within 4 hours of the race leader and so won’t be able to use a support runner. Overall though, more work needed on support crew.

Final Training

With 30 days to go from today, I need to be careful now not to get into panic mode. I haven’t had as many long runs as I would have liked to have had. However, those that I have had I’ve felt good on, so I’m not too worried. I am looking to do two more long runs on the WHW before the race. One from Glencoe towards Fort William as an out and back for about 50km. Another along the loch side section from Balmaha to Inversnaid, mainly to remind myself and familiarise myself with this trail so I can be more confident on the day. I remember in the fling last year I hated this loch section so I want to banish those thoughts before the race with a good run on that stretch.

Overall, I’m feeling good. I know I’m not going to win this as there are some seriously good runners. However, I do feel confident that if I approach this right, I have the fitness to hit my 20 hour goal and run a good race.

Highland Fling 2016

My race plan for this year meant that I would be racing Transvulcania the week after this years Hoka Highland Fling. I hadn’t worked this out when I booked my place on Transvulcania, so I was disappointed that I wouldn’t get to go back and run this wonderful race again this year. I remember sitting at home on the evening that the entries were opened, watching social media explode as hundreds of people booked their place.

I didn’t want to miss out on the day because it is such a memorable event, so I contacted Johnny Fling to volunteer. A race of this magnitude takes a few hundred people to make it happen, most of them volunteers. I’ve helped out at my local club races on a few occasions, but this was the first big event I’ve helped on. I think everyone who takes part in these races should volunteer to help out once in a while. We all reap the benefits of the hours of time people give up for free, so it only feels fair to pay back or forward to the ultra running community.

I contacted Johnny months ago and had actually forgotten about it until a couple of weeks before. I spotted my name on the volunteer list against the Inversnaid checkpoint and because I’d noted that I had a car I was willing to use, I was to be at the start line to collect the drop bags for that checkpoint. Consequently, at 4am on Saturday morning I was in the car park at Milngavie train station a lot more relaxed than I was this time a year ago!

It was fun to see the runners preparing for the race and the mix of emotions written all over their faces. It reminded me of how much of a nervous wreck I was a year ago before the start but also how much calmer I feel now thinking about these races. Over the next couple of hours the boot of my car slowly filled up with almost 500 drop bags. If you ever wondered what a million calories look like in the boot of a BMW, this is it:

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After a race brief by Johnny from the roof of his Ding Ding transit van, the runners made their way over to the tunnel that marks the start of the West Highland Way. I admit that I was sad not to be lining up with everyone, but equally I was nervous for when I stand at the end of that underpass waiting for the start of the WHW race in 6 weeks time. 6 weeks! how the hell has that race come around so fast? More on the preparations for that in the next post.

I managed to make it to the other end of the underpass before the first wave of runners were set off. This years race attracted an impressive bunch of runners who were all in with a chance of winning this race, so it was good to see these fast guys racing off up the steps at the start.

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Once these guys were on their way, the rest of the field were released and I headed to my car for the trip up to Inversnaid. The route there from Milngavie follows the A81 for a while and I recognised a section where the WHW crosses the road, so I pulled over to catch the race leaders as they came through. It was probably about 6 to 8 miles into the race, and when they came past, they all looked fresh and fast.

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After I’d seen a number of the front runners pass through this section, I was back in the car on off up the road to Inversnaid. The road to get to this place feels remote and weaves its way between some spectacular scenery. The weather was also amazing on Saturday, which was great for us spectators, but I did wonder how the sunshine would impact the runners if it were to hang around.

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I arrived at Inversnaid and wondered if I’d discovered the wrong place. I was the only person there except for a coach load of Lochs and Glens tourists. then I realised that it was still only 7:30am and people were due at 9am. Slowly other marshals for the day started to arrive as well as the other car with the rest of the drop bags and we all set to work sorting out 800 or more assorted zip lock, carrier, lunchbox, envelopes and other various forms of drop bag. It happened surprisingly quickly, neatly laid out in rows of 50.

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We then had a while to wait for the first runners to come through. While we were waiting a long haired, bearded guy appeared out of nowhere asking if he could expect to run into people racing if he was to run south on the WHW. We explained what was happening and in return he explained what he was up to. He had run Ben Nevis on Friday and his plan was the run the three peaks challenge, by running the whole route. He planned on reaching Scafell on Wednesday and completing the whole thing within two weeks. He then dropped into the conversation that he’d just run from Canada to Argentina before waving and setting off on his way. Ultra runners come in all sorts of shapes and sizes! Best of luck Jamie.

Inversnaid

Inversnaid Fling Team Pic:Davy Broni

 

Just after 10am the first runners appeared on the trail. That was 4hrs and a few minutes during which they have covered 34 miles and probably at least 1000m of elevation. That would be a great marathon time over that terrain, let alone for 34 miles. All of the leaders came into the checkpoint looking like they had only just started running and those who actually stopped to refuel, were in and out within a minute. The following twenty or so runners took a similar approach, in and out within seconds. Either simply picking up gels from a bag or a quick fill of a water bottle before dashing off again. It was a real insight into how the top guys deal with CP’s in these races.

The subsequent wave of runners that came through were in a varying array of states. There were some who had paced themselves well and looked as if they were starting to climb the field, some who had set off too fast and were now starting to suffer and those who were just working hard to stay steady.

The weather kept its promise to stay fine, the runners were all incredibly friendly, thankful, graceful and smiling. It was an incredible day and I’m so glad I volunteered to help. I have a renewed respect for everyone who runs in these races. From the fast guys at the front with their clinical focus on performance, through the next tier of amateurs who work incredibly hard to fill the 10-30% of the results table. Then the rest of the field who run these things to enjoy it, to meet new people, to experience things many people never experience and do so with a smile on their face.

I hope next year I get a place in the race. I am keen to go back and see how much I’ve improved since my 11h 45m results last year. I suspect a lot, but it will be nice to see exactly how much a lot is. In the meantime, I will leap at the opportunity to help out again in this and other races. It is a wonderful experience and is just as good as taking part in the race as a competitor.

Up next for me is the WHW race. I was scheduled to run Transvulcania, but now my work has produced something which means I can’t make it there for the race. IT’s a real shame as it looks like yet another amazing ultra race, but I’m looking forward to the WHW race now and that has my sole attention.

Sunday on the WHW

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Officially, it was the first day of British Summer time. That meant that we’d had one hour less sleep due to the clocks changing, but it also makes you hope that you might get some clear, sunny weather. But this is Scotland, in March, on the West Highland Way. We had wind, rain, sleet, hail, snow and some sunshine. But nevertheless, it was still epic.

My mate, Scott, and I are both signed up to run in the West Highland Way race in June. This is some test of endurance as it is 95 miles over some of the most remote trails in the British Isles. We have both spent some time on the trail, either from the Hoka Higland Fling race or from various reasons to walk in this part of the world. But running it. The whole length. Well, that’s something entirely different.

In preparation, we’ve both been increasing our mileage but we know we need to spend some time on the trail itself to train effectively. Knowing where you are and what comes next in a long race like that can make all the difference. So with that in mind, we planned a long run on Easter Sunday, starting at Bridge of Orchy and running north to the top of the Devils Staircase before turning around and running back again. The whole route was expected to be just over 30 miles with about 1000m of elevation.

We met up at 5am after losing that hour of sleep I mentioned and drove over to park at the Bridge of Orchy Hotel. After a quick hot drink in the hotel and a bowl of porridge, we set off. The first section is what’s affectionately known as Jelly Baby hill. It’s not much of a hill at all in comparison with some of the Munros around the area, but in the race itself it comes about 60 miles in and will be the last thing tired legs will want to climb. With that out of the way, the path meanders up on to Rannoch moor which is a bleak, open landscape.

Rannoch Moor

Rannoch Moor

The WHW rises up over the moor for about 10 miles. It is one of the many old military roads built through the highlands centuries ago and they were built to stand the test of time. The surface is like a cobbled stone and whilst it looks smooth enough, after running on it for an hour or so you are happy to reach the tarmac at the road to the Glencoe ski centre.

WHW over Rannoch Moor

WHW over Rannoch Moor

We stopped by the A82 to take in the views down Glencoe. It is probably one of the most photographed places in Scotland and with good reason. For the next couple of hours, we were spoiled with the huge scenery, which thankfully distracted from the achy legs. We reached Kingshouse in about 2h 30mins and after a quick pit stop to refill our water bottles, we headed back out for the Devils Staircase.

A bit like Jelly Baby hill, the staircase isn’t actually all that much of a hill when you compare it to some of the nearby monsters which look down on it. However, after running for miles, it commands a level of respect and swiftly reminds you if you don’t show it sufficient levels. By this point the weather was starting to allow some sunshine to poke through the clouds and we were treated with some of the best views the planet has to offer for all our hard work.

Scott making the climb to the top of the staircase look easy

Scott making the climb to the top of the staircase look easy

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Hard not to fall in love with this place – Glencoe

With the hard work done, we celebrated at the top of the staircase with a cereal bar before turning around. With 15 miles in the bag already, we were both feeling surprisingly ok, especially Scott who had already run the best part of 100 miles that week.

Heading back down we had the enjoyment of passing all the people we’d ran past earlier, all of whom described us collectively as mad, insane and other similar badges of honour for any runner. We stopped at Kingshouse Hotel for a quick coffee and cake before crossing back over the road towards the ski center and the path back down Rannoch moor. Thankfully mostly downhill from here, we enjoyed the views some more until a freak hail storm blew in.

Anyone who has experienced a hailstorm will know they can hurt. When you are wearing next to nothing and running in temperatures which are hovering just above zero, and the hail in question is desgined to be the pointiest, sharpest bits of hail you can imagine, they hurt even more. Combine that with about 25 miles of running by two grumpy old men, then the result is a lot of muttering and swearing. I put every piece of clothing I had with me on and I could still feel the hail biting through the thick mountain hat and waterproof jacket. Thankfully it stopped just before we reached Inveroran and we could enjoy the final climb back up Jelly Baby hill and back down into Bridge of Orchy.

By the end, we’d done 32 miles in just over 6 hours. We both felt worried about what the WHW race has in store for us, but equally, we are more content now we’ve run some decent mileage on the route. We are planning another run or two on other sections before the race in June, so look out for more updates. All told though, this was a fantastic run with great company, thanks Scott! It gave me more confidence for the races ahead as my longest run otherwise had been about 20 miles. I’ve managed to get up to running about 100km a week now with a couple of longer runs mixed in so my training is going well.

I hadn’t mentioned this before but I’m being interviewed in the run up to the West Highland Way race in the podcasts series expertly run by John Kynaston. Head over to the race website to hear the first two instalments.

Ashmei Ambassador

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been fortunate enough to be shortlisted to become an ambassador for Ashmei. In case you haven’t discovered Ashmei yet, they make clothing for runners and cyclists using really high quality materials and with a style you simply don’t find anywhere else in this type of clothing.

I’ve had a couple of their long sleeve merino tops for a while and they are outstanding quality, and I’m not just saying that because I’m possibly going to be an ambassador for them. Their motto is to outperform the best and I feel they certainly do that well. Their clothes fit really well, they look fantastic and they wash great and as anyone who runs a lot knows, your kit gets washed a lot!

They are having an ambassador day at their HQ this coming weekend for the people on the shortlist, but sadly due to family commitments I won’t be able to make it. Words can’t describe how disappointed I am not to be there, but family has to come first. Fortunately, the team at Ashmei recognise that not everyone might make it so we have the opportunity to create a 2 minute video to introduce ourselves and show them what we’ve got to offer. As someone who is working hard to overcome years of bodily neglect and become comfortable with how I look, making a video all about me isn’t something that comes easy, let me tell you!

Despite my inhibitions, I set off out on Saturday in a rare day of sunshine to have a short run up my local hill to do some filming. Armed with my trusty phone and a mini tripod I took about an hour of footage in short clips that I planned to edit together using some simple video software. Having never done this before, I was excited to play around with all of this, but also unaware of what it takes to make a good quality video.

Now, after a few days of tinkering around trying to make it as good as I can, I feel like I’ve got the final edit ready to send through to Ashmei.

I also have to submit two Polaroids; one of myself in any pose and one of my choosing related to my sport.

Do you have any idea how hard choosing these can be? 🙂

The one of myself was easily narrowed down to a few pictures. I don’t find myself particularly photogenic in running shots, mainly because I always seem to get snapped at my lowest point! However, I do have some good images so here is the shortlist I got to:

For each, you need a story:

The Ben Nevis shot is me coming down after a torturous ‘run’ to the summit in my first Ben Nevis race last year. I was utterly exhausted and the down hill was at least as horrible as the uphill. Despite that, the sense of achievement was mind-blowing to run in that iconic race. So much so I signed up again this year!

The Cascades is from my training run around the Alpine Lake area in the Cascades Mountains in Washington state, America. This was at the end of a work trip last Summer and was by far the best day adventure I’ve had. The weather was incredible, scenery even more incredible and running across big mountains fuelled even more running obsession for me.

The Carnethy race is from this years first hill race and, I think, is the best running picture I’ve seen of me. The race was run in a blizzard, which I loved, and despite the weather I knocked 4 minutes off my time from the first time I ran it last year. It was a great measure for how far I’ve come in the year I’ve been running hill races.

I’m still working on the final picture of the set. I want one that captures the fun I have of running with other people. I belong to two running clubs as you know, Falkland Trail Runners and Lomond Hill Runners. Both clubs have different focuses, but both embrace a strong sense of community and social running. I never knew this existed and I believe it is why I’ve enjoyed my exploration of running so much in the past few years. Here’s the picture I’m thinking of choosing:

Summit Community

Summit Community

This was taken on a frosty winter run to the summit of West Lomond with the trail runners. As is the norm, we stopped on the summit and took in the views. While everyone else was staring at the big peaks of the Cairngorms and Trossachs on the horizon, I chose to capture my friends as they enjoyed the moment.

If you have any feedback before I submit my Polaroids, I’d love to hear from you.

West Highland Way Race

I heard on Monday night that I have a place in the 2016 WHW race. For me, this is one of the ultimate challenges in UK Ultra running and is a considerable stretch beyond what I’ve entered so far. It covers 95 miles of some pretty rugged Scottish countryside from just outside Glasgow all the way up to Fort William.

map

 

I’m nervously excited to have a place, but that really does feel like the easy bit is now over. Training for this is going to take a completely different effort from what I’ve done so far, but I’m determined to train hard and put in the best performance I can. I’ve been watching and listening to the various videos and podcasts that exist about this legendary race and they are all helping. For now, I’m going to enjoy a few weeks rest leading up to Christmas, then begin to build the distances up in the New Year. Exciting stuff!

 

Mud, mud and more mud

My training over the past two months since the Ben Nevis race has been poor at best. I haven’t really run more than 10 miles for months, so taking on 38 miles of trails in an ultra in the Scottish Borders was a daunting prospect.

As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, my work life has been pretty busy recently so running has had to take a back seat for a while. Despite this, I was still keen to get to the start line of the Jedburgh 3 Peaks Ultra and enjoy the race. I’d never done this kind of distance before and had only seen 10 miles of the route in a previous race, so I didn’t really have any indication of what time to aim for. Looking at the previous runs of this race, under 7 hours seemed to be a very respectable time and anywhere around 6 hours and below was probably going to see you in the top 10% of the race.

Despite the crap training, I was feeling good about this race, putting aside the obvious nerves during the 24hours leading up to it. So far, without fail, at lunchtime the day before a race, everything that is inside my body decides it wants to exit and to do so as rapidly as possible! I do wonder if that feeling will ever get easier. That sensation aside, I went down to the race with my training buddy, Scott. We drove down the morning of the race which meant a very early start from Fife. We both mused about how bloody stupid we were on the way down as we followed a long snake of cars. At 6am on a Saturday morning we suspected that they could only be heading to the same place we were meaning we weren’t the only lunatics involved in this. Pre-race jitters were put aside for a moment as the lady in the car parked next to us went into a 20 second frenzy thinking she had left her waterproof at home, which was comical to watch as a bystander as she almost immediately spotted it right in front of her, but at the same time summed up how tense everyone is before a race

Pre-race briefing in the rugby club - my only photo of the day!

Pre-race briefing in the rugby club – my only photo of the day!

The race starts in Jedburgh and the local rugby club building was a hub of activity as we arrived to register. The BBC’s Adventure Show was recording the race and the camera crew and presenters were cornering unsuspecting folk to ask them questions pre-race. I really didn’t feel like being on screen given how nervous I was feeling so managed to dodge their advances. Their cameras were also dotted around the route later in the day, sneakily positioned to catch you as you came panting around a corner dripping in sweat looking like some beastie dying of a horrible disease. The show will apparently go out next year, so it will be interesting to see if I make an inglorious TV debut at some point, probably muttering and swearing to myself as I run past a camera.

The race is a fairly straight forward out and back route from Jedburgh to the outskirts of Melrose along river side trails. At the mid-point of the race are the 3 Eildon hills which give the race its name (and a dose of spice after 17 miles or so!). If I were to describe the race it is a bit like two half trail marathons back to back, with a Class AS hill race thrown into the middle to keep you on your toes.

I’d run the route around the hills in a trail race last March so knew this loop section. It is beautiful countryside around there and the views throughout the day really didn’t disappoint. The main challenge of the day was the conditions under foot. I think that given most of the trails are around the rivers of the area, the ground must get regularly saturated with water heading into them and that creates a pretty soggy path. Add to this natural problem 240 runners trampling twice through what are probably otherwise infrequently used paths, as they go out and back, and you can imagine the results.

I remember thinking about 20 miles into the race that I never wanted to see another muddy path again. My shoes after the race looked like a pair of mud slippers and my strongest memories of the race are of slipping about trying to get purchase on a few of the worst sections. The weather forecast for the day was horrible and in particular heavy rain was due to start at the same time of the race and finish, roughly as most of the field were crossing the finish line, so the outlook was bleak. As it turned out, we lucked out as other than a heavy squall that blew through about an hour into the race, we had clear skies and some sunshine.

One of my aims for the race was to try to keep a relatively steady pace. In the Ultraks race in August I’d done better than previously, but still wanted to improve. The distance suggested that I might be able to run almost all the race except the 3 hills, and I wanted to try to achieve that, and I did. I also wanted to get under 7 hours if possible.

From the start I managed to avoid the temptation of racing off at 5min\km and hung back with a more steady bunch of runners. I saw about 30 runners ahead of me race off (my buddy Scott included) and over the first 10 miles to the first CP a few more went ahead. Compared to other races, I didn’t let these runners passing me make a mental impact. In the past I’ve ended up pushing a bit harder as they come by, and inevitably that takes its toll later in the race. I remember thinking that I might see a few of them later if I played this right and I certainly did.

I kept my stops at the CP’s below a couple of minutes, just long enough to refill my water bottle and top it up with Tailwind which once again got me through the race perfectly. I used my Salomon running vest this time with soft flasks as my hand held bottle I used in the Great Glen ultra has been giving me pain in my shoulder from carrying it in the same hand for too long. I might try to go back to using a hand held some time in the future, but I’m getting better at limiting how much I carry when I use the vest, so I will probably stick to using that for the near term for races.

At different parts of the race I was convinced I was either way ahead of where I actually was in the field or way behind where I actually was. I’d lost track of how many people were ahead of me and I wasn’t paying attention at the checkpoints as to how many people managed to leapfrog me despite my quick pit stops. As it turns out, looking at the stats from the race, I was pretty much in the same position all the way through. I also seemed to manage to keep a relatively consistent pace with about a 20% drop off in the 2nd half.

After the first leg I felt good and so my focus then shifted to the second CP which I knew was at the base of the 3 hills. I knew the hills were going to be tough and, from my memory of last years race, that the second hill was worse than the first. The slog up the first felt horrible though on Saturday with 17 miles of running already in my legs, but as I got to the top I saw that people who were behind me had dropped away a bit so I felt like I’d done well. Coming down off the hills felt like a glorious release letting my legs go, only to run into what felt like a brick wall of a climb on the second hill. The third and smallest hill came and went without any problems and I knew then from studying the race profile that I had a few miles of down hill slope to enjoy.

Around parts of the course were boardwalks and wooden stairs to get around natural landscapes. On one of the stairs I caught a toe due to tired legs and tripped. The fall only dented my ego thankfully, but as I tried to get up my right hamstring cramped up. It was the first time I’d ever had cramp in a race and it felt like a bastard. I stopped for a minute to have a stretch as a couple of guys around me checked if I was ok. One of them encouraged me to keep moving and run it off and I glad I did. Thank you, whoever you were, for the encouragement.

We found ourselves back on the outward route not long after the hills and I knew that CP3 was the same place as CP1 was, just in reverse. I remember my mind playing tricks on me telling me that the CP was just around a corner or just up ahead half a dozen times. It wasn’t. This dented my progress a bit as I have worked out that when I know where I am and how far I have to go I can deal with things. When I feel out of touch of where I am that’s when fatigue sets in and this certainly happened on Saturday. I was running with a group of about 3 or 4 guys and we were all keeping pace. But as the miles rolled on and no CP was in sight I started to flag.

At the CP I refulled and headed straight out. As I left, so did most of the folk who were running around me so I felt spurred on to keep going. I knew there was 10 miles to the finish from that point and also that I’d done it in 1h 30m on the way out. My legs were obviously heavier by now so I reckoned it might end p taking me 2hrs to get back to the finish. I’d hit the CP at 4h 58m so if I wanted to be sure to be under 7hrs, I had to keep moving to make it.

A big chunk of the ten miles that make the first\last part of the course follow the route of a Roman Road through some fields. On a map it looks like a straight path along a single contour line but in reality it is a weaving trail which goes up and down over rolling terrain. Added to this were what seemed like a hundred styles to clamber over. Eventually, the path hits some trees and aims to cross the river before heading back into Jedburgh. About 4 miles out I felt fatigued and after yet another style crossing, I let the guys around me pull away quite a bit. Within seconds I was furious for feeling so bloody sorry for myself that I slowed down in the first place, so I took a gel I had in a pocket and kicked myself up the bahooky and set off again.

I started to get a second wind from the gel and managed to up the pace. About 3 miles from the finish I pushed a bit harder and before long I had the guys who’d passed me back in sight. This spurred me on and in the last mile on the road into the finish at Jedburgh I pushed a bit harder still and managed to pass all of the guys who’d been around me as well as a couple of guys who were struggling to push to the finish. I think I was more spurred on at this point by the thought of a beer at the finish than any idea of finishing strongly!

In the end I crossed the line in 6h and 51m. I was very pleased with this and in general with my overall run in the race. I need to work on not letting things like CP’s being further than I hoped getting me down mid race, but I think that is related to my stamina and endurance which was probably pretty low given the low grade of training I’ve had recently. Link to the Strava activity here.

As races go, this one was great. A good honest ultra run by runners with everything you need. A nice medal and T-shirt to take home and food and drink at the finish. The marshals were all fantastic and cheery, I even got a water bottle filled by Johnny Fling himself, which if I hadn’t been a jabbering wreck by that point I might have swooned at. Looking back I really enjoyed the whole day and would do it again some time. The distance felt great and enough of a challenge without leaving you limping for weeks afterwards and the route was beautiful. I also met some new running friends, which seems to be the norm for every race, so all in all it was a grand day out.

That’s it for races now for me this year. I was entered into Glen Ogle 33 in two weeks time but work commitments mean I have to miss it. Now it’s going to be a long winter of training for next year and working on some areas I need to focus on to start competing in these races.

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.

The Great Glen Ultra

If you have to run 72 miles, then I can’t think of a better place that I’d like to do it.

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Loch Ness from Dores Inn

Pre-Race

I’d set out my strategy for the race during the week leading up to it. I wanted to run light, to spend less time at checkpoints and to pace well to last the distance. This meant that my drop bags were simple enough this time to arrange and on Thursday, I got 6 ziplock bags and placed a sachet of Tailwind in each one along with a cereal bar or two just in case the liquids weren’t working well for me. I also threw some gels into the last 3 of the 6 bags for the later stages of the race in case I needed some more calories along these legs which looked longer and steeper than the first 30 or so miles. Tailwind was the foundation of my nutrition for this race and it worked amazingly well. I’m so happy I discovered this stuff and I now feel really confident in using it for other races.

With everything packed, Thursday nights sleep was restless. I was worried about if the tailwind approach would work or if I would starve after 10 miles. I was taking a bum bag on the race with a windproof smock, foil blanket, headtorch, a light snack and a spare buff. This was far less than I’ve carried before in the big Salomon vest I used in the fling, which was part of the travel light approach, but it made me worry that I would need more.

Friday I caught the train via Perth up to Inverness and met up with a friend who was also running the race. He and his wife had a hotel room which they kindly allowed me to use for a shower before we headed to the coach which would take us to the start. Before then though we had a few hours to kill in Inverness. It was a lovely summers evening and we ended up at the Dores Inn for dinner. This gave us an amazing view down the glen across Loch Ness. It was scary looking off into the distance of the picture at the start of this post and realising that as far as we could see, wasn’t even half way distance of the race! With a meal inside us, and a shower and quick change back at their hotel, we headed off on the coach to the start line. By now it was 10pm and my sleep triggers were kicking in. I curled up on the back seat of the coach and managed to get some broken sleep during the 1h 30m drive. But the excitement was preventing me from really resting.

The Race

After handing in drop bags and picking up my race number, it was time to wait again before the start. A few minutes to 1am we all walked across to the bottom of Neptunes Staircase for a pre-race briefing and finally, we were off.

Race Briefing Photo: Fiona Rennie

Race Briefing Photo: Fiona Rennie

Despite my best intentions, I allowed myself to get pulled along for the first few miles with an average pace of about 5m30s\km, which was about a minute faster per km than I wanted to be. Scott and I were running along together for the first mile but he pulled away after that and I let him go. He’s far too good a runner for me to keep up with. I fell in with a couple of guys who were more sensibly paced, but still faster than my target pace. I went along with these guys until CP1 where I let them get away from me and I then settled into my pace.

10 miles in and it was still dark, or at least as dark as it gets in the Highlands mid summer. The first 10 miles had been almost all on canal path, which was quite hard and compacted, but now we were into forest trails and fire roads which were much more enjoyable. We also hit some of the first elevation of the course. This surprised me as I’d thought the first 20 to 30 miles were all very flat. None of the climb was high or tough, just rolling forest trails, but it meant it sapped your energy. At 3am in the morning after being up for over 24 hrs and the adrenalin rush of pre-race nerves, it all took its toll on me.

CP2 came and went and looking back now, all I remember were midges galore eating me alive as I filled my water bottle. It was somewhere in the forest near Laggan and I just wanted to get moving again. I shuffled out of the CP and as I climbed the next trail I realised the guys in front had turned off their head torches as the twilight was starting to brighten. This gave me a considerable lift as I knew I’d got through the night time stage now. It was all going to be brighter from here onwards. And then this happened:

Sunrise over the Great Glen

Sunrise over the Great Glen

Sunrise clouds Picture: Norman Mcneill

Sunrise clouds Picture: Norman Mcneill

I’ve discovered so many wonderful things from running, but it is moments that produce that kind of view that stop you in your tracks. It is unlikely I would ever have been stood, alone in a forest in the middle of the great glen at 4 in the morning to see the sun come up and produce such a spectacular display.

The trails now were coming back down to loch side and eventually hit Invergarry where you drop into the village and cross over a small river before climbing back up again alongside the loch. This bit confused the hell out of me and I was convinced I’d taken a wrong turn and was heading back down the opposite side of loch lochy. I eventually got my phone out and switched on the GPS signal to see where I was on the map, of course to be reassured I was heading in the right direction. Now it seems utterly stupid of me to have become so disoriented, but in the race things like this just happen I guess.

After more forest trails the route eventually got on to the canal path leading to Fort Augustus. During the race, this felt like very early on, but I realise now that I was probably a good 26+ miles in. After the dark and then the ups and downs of the forest trails combined with overnight tiredness and fatigue, this flat path alongside the Caledonian canal became my nemesis. I knew where Fort Augustus was, which was the next CP and end of this path. In my mind though I thought the path was much shorter and every twist and turn exposed yet another long sweep of path into the distance with no sign of the locks and boats that signal the town. I hit a real low point here.

In my head I was having a conversation about why I was doing this, what was I achieving. My running had been great and I’d done the fling and Edinburgh marathon, so why was I even here at all? I was starting to make up excuses in my head about how and why I should drop out at the CP. Eventually the locks came into sight and I knew the car park for the CP was only a few minutes away. I knew what I was going to do, walk in, say thank you, but I’m done, please take me away.

Unfortunately for me the CP was staffed by those people in life who you just can’t help but smile at because they make you feel great, no matter how sorry you feel for yourself. There was banter in the air and a few other runners were still there sorting themselves out. I was overwhelmed and before I knew it I was feeling great, eating a cereal bar from my drop bag and filling my water bottle. All the doubts were gone from this point on and I was going to finish this thing. Those ladies at the CP did an amazing job of lifting me out of my slump and at the time they didn’t know it. The people who volunteer for this kind of thing always impress me and now inspire me to help out at events. You all do a wonderful job people and thank you for giving up your time to help people like me who feel sorry for themselves when they hit your check point!

Arriving at CP3 ready to quit Photo: Fiona Rennie

Arriving at CP3 ready to quit. Photo: Fiona Rennie

So now I was back out and up the road. A short residential bit in Fort Augustus before back on the trail. The trail markers were a problem throughout the day. Whilst they are a vivid pastel blue colour, during a race like this when your mind is all over the place, they were sometimes hard to spot. A guy about 500m ahead of me missed the marker as we exited Fort Augustus and headed north on the A82! I was worried as it is a fast stretch of road and the path had ended. I tried to call him back but he was too far gone and there was no way my legs were up to sprinting to get him, so I call race control and let those guys chase him down. I hope he was ok and made it safely back; it was so easy to miss those markers.

This next stretch to Invermoriston was all up and down forest trail so I had plenty of time to walk and get myself back together after the low point. About 5 minutes out of the CP I realised I hadn’t been listening to music, so I switched on my phone and plugged my earphones in. It was amazing how it lifted me and looking back at my times around here, it had a material effect and I need to remember that for future races. After about 30 minutes a guy caught up with me and started chatting. By this time I’d been on my own for an hour or two so was glad of the company. Stephen was from Edinburgh and it was his first time in the race too. We got on really well and eventually ended up running the rest of the race together and having a great time.

Early morning above Loch Ness

Early morning above Loch Ness

We hit Invermoriston feeling pretty good and ready to get moving quickly. It had been raining heavily by now and everyone was soaked to the skin. Thankfully the temperature didn’t drop too much so it made it quite pleasant to run in and certainly manageable as long as you kept moving. I knew the hill out of Invermoriston was short and very sharp so it was head down and paced it up there and get it out of the way. At the top was the big decision of the day for most people. The Great Glen Way has a high and a low route. The race brief told us we were taking the low route and thankfully, due to the recce Scott and I did a few weeks ago, I knew exactly where to make the choice. Sadly, lots of others didn’t and it turns out most of the race followed those pesky trail markers to another few hundred meters of elevation to add to their race.

Before Invermoriston we’d also bumped into a few others who were running around us at about the same pace. We were surprised later down the course to see them come up behind us as they’d left the CP before us, but they’d taken the high route and suffered as a consequence. Ah well! Invermoriston to Drumnadrochit is a long section and there was a water point about half way. About two miles before this Stephen and I came across another runner in the race who was clearly not having a good time. We ended up walking to the water point with him to make sure he was safe as neither of us felt he could or should be left on his own as his condition was too poor. I later found out he had been up the front of the race until around this area and running with my friend Scott who said he seemed like a really strong runner. It just shows that anyone can have a bad day. We left him with the CP but there was no phone signal so had to run on to the next CP to let them know he was there. Because it was raining and we’d been going so slow, both Stephen and I were in pretty poor shape too at this point through low body temperature and stiff legs. The jog down to Drumnadrochit helped warm us up and we caught up on the way with Pauline and Derek who we also spent much of the rest of the race with as a big group.

I have to say, all the people I met in this race were amazing. We all shared our stories and experiences during the hours we had together and all of them were just incredibly nice and genuine people who I would love to remain friends with. Amongst all the positive things from the race, the people I met was the best thing.

Drumnadrochit came and went. I met Mike who is part of the BaM race organising team and who I actually bought the shoes I was wearing in the race from about 9 months ago. We got an update on the guy who wasn’t well and heard he was recovering well which made us all smile. Then it was off again. A long sweeping road around the town before a narrow track heads back up hill. This climb was one of the toughest and a little technical in places. It eventually deposited us out onto a forest road which meandered towards the next CP.

Stephen and I arriving in CP6

Stephen and I arriving in CP6

 

This CP came about much faster than I anticipated and I knew we were on the home straight from here. Pauline who was with us had run the race before and explained our route from here to give everyone a taste of these last 12 miles.

The final CP was once again a happy place with fantastic helpers. We heard that almost everyone had taken the high route and when I explained we’d taken the low route, someone joked that myself and Stephen were now in first and second place, which produced the wildest look I’ve ever soon of myself in a photo:

On hearing we were in the few who had taken the correct race route. Photo: Fiona Rennie

On hearing we were in the few who had taken the correct race route. Photo: Fiona Rennie

The trail here headed through a section which felt like we were going to emerge in a snow covered land like Narnia. The trail was narrow and had trees growing in from both sides creating a face slapping experience that we probably all needed to get our backsides moving again. Then came the road.

Oh that road. It felt like it went on and on and on.

It did actually, it went almost all the way to Inverness. By now we were a group of about five of us. Along the road Pauline and John who had been running with us showed us exactly how strong and experienced they were and set off along the road. The rest of us were too fatigued to keep pace but we kept the in sight long enough to see where we turned off the road and back on to the trail. Then a long, relatively flat forest trail eventually led to a clearing which allowed us to see Inverness for the first time and, amazingly, the sun came out just in time to make it look even more appealing.

The trail headed down hill steeply here which actually felt good on the legs. In contract to the fling, my quads were in great shape despite having around 1000m of more climbing to do in this race. I don’t know if I just paced better here or if I am strong or a combination of the two. As we reached the bottom, Derek pointed out that if we picked up the pace, we could still make it in under 15 hours and 30 minutes; the challenge was set!

We hit a residential area, around a golf course then popped up on the canal. By now we had less than two minutes to make it. We had a bridge to cross and a road, then on to the athletics track in the stadium before a 200m dash for the finish. Myself, Stephen and Derek all picked up the pace perfectly and ended up crossing in a very respectable 15hours 29 minutes and 47 seconds.

Me, Stephen and Derek in a sprint finish

L to R – Myself, Stephen and Derek in a sprint finish with a smile!

Crossing the line in the sunshine felt amazing and doing it with these two guys made it even better. They were fantastic company the whole way and we all helped each other along throughout the day. We were handed goodie bags and Derek got some ritual abuse for choosing the high route, and then we were done.

Link to Strava activity.

Post Race

Saturday I stayed in Inverness and met up with Scott and his wife Lisa again. We headed out for a post race meal, which Scott and I nearly fell asleep at. Despite that, we ended up having a really enjoyable night. I ended up having a stroll around the city afterwards to stretch my restless legs, which I think helped with recovery and my legs felt fine after that.

Inverness looking great in the twilight

Inverness looking great in the twilight

The following day we had a ceremony for the prize giving and every finisher received a whisky tumbler and a miniature bottle. Mike Raffan won the race for the 2nd year in a row in a breath taking 11h 30m. My friend Scott finished 4th despite twisting his ankle around 20 miles in! Incredible performances.

The finishers glass and a nip

The finishers glass and a nip

Looking back, I am still overwhelmed with how fantastic this race was. I loved all of it, even the low parts and would love to head back and do it all again. There are things I have learnt from this which will help me in more ultras now. My shoes were not a good choice and I needed something more cushioned. My travel light approach worked brilliantly and the hand held bottle is definitely the way to go in future. My nutrition was perfect and I felt fuelled all day, thank you Tailwind! I love the distance, you need to respect it, but it gives you time to correct things and still achieve a respectable time. I loved the route. We are so lucky to have such amazing places like this near by to run through. I think a few more additional race direction arrows might have helped as some of the blue way markers are amazingly difficult to spot especially when tired. I imagine managing a course of this length though is tough work and the guys at BaM put on a great race so no complaints at all from me.

 

Warming up

No, not the thing we are meant to do before a run, the weather! Just in time for the Great Glen Ultra too I might point out. It appears Scotland has finally caught up with the rest of the world and decided that it is summer after all and the weather over the next few days is looking warm and humid. Now I’m obviously not long into this whole ultra running thing, but my experience so far suggests that running an ultra on a hot and muggy day probably isn’t the best experience possible. Looking at the forecast for Inverness which is where the race ends, it actually isn’t looking too bad for Saturday:

Inverness Weather Source: BBC Weather

Inverness Weather Source: BBC Weather

The race is 72 miles long and the only question I have about it now is how long I will take. Of course, it is all subjective as to what happens on the day and I am doing my best not to pressure myself to achieving any particular time. It is 19 miles longer than the fling which took me 11h 45m for 53 miles. Assuming I perform similarly, then I would expect a 15h’ish finish.

Of course, I’d like to do better than that though. the fling was my first ultra and I had no real idea what to expect. On reflection there are so many things I would like to do better, but I am conscious trying to resolve them all is likely to lead to problems. For the GGU then, I am focusing on two things; pace and CP discipline.

Looking at pace, I am determined to try and keep a singular average pace throughout the day. Ideally about 6min\km. With 72 miles, or 116km, to do, the likelihood of me maintaining a pace over that time and distance will be a huge challenge and the key will be to set off slowly. I’ve read it so many times, people have told me, but doing it is a completely different thing. But the intent is there, my watch is set up to show me my pace and I want to try to get on top of this so I can go on to enjoy more ultras in the future. If I get my 6km\hr pace right, then I could be looking at a 12h finish time with CP stops included.

Speaking of CP’s, my performance at CP’s is a definite area for improvement. In the fling I ended up spending over an hour in CP’s overall. At the time, it felt right to stop and take a break at a couple of them. That was also partly due to the food I had in my drop bags. It’s hard to eat a sandwich on the move. This time, my diet will be 80% liquid and the 20% will be snack food to eat whilst on the move. The other thing is that, mentally, I wasn’t sure if I could cover the distance. Now I feel more confident that I can do this as long as I keep pace down and eat\drink enough throughout.

At the moment, my feet are up resting on a chair, my last run has been done and I’m feeling good. I’m trying to get as much sleep as possible this week as the 1am start on Saturday will be tough. Hopefully the nerves will allow me long, restful sleeps.

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.