Great Glen Way recce

It is only a few weeks now until the Great Glen Ultra (GGU). I found in the fling that knowing sections of the course helped a lot mentally and, conversely, the sections I hadn’t run before were my mentally toughest parts of the race. With this in mind I teamed up with a friend of mine from the village to head north for a day taking in what we could of the tougher sections of the course.

My original plan was to run the last 15 to 20 miles of the course. The GGU is 72 miles long, so I figured that finding somewhere I knew 20 miles from the end would be a good mental crutch to see me through in the hardest part of the race. After some discussion though we decided to do a section from Invermoriston to Drumnadochit. I’m very glad we did.

Here is the profile of the full race:

GGU Race Profile

GGU Race Profile

Those two bumpy bits from 40 miles onwards is where we were aiming for. As it turns out, with some work having been done on the Great Glen Way itself, the actual route now takes a more….interesting profile:

Yesterdays out and back profile

Yesterdays out and back profile

Notice the more spikey bits on the first hump? We certainly did! As it turns out, the route is amazing. The trail is exceptionally well made and perfectly signed with lovely bright blue markers at any point of intersection. The weather was perfect and as we reached the highest point on that elevation profile, the views back down Loch Ness were worth the days effort in themselves.

Looking down Loch Ness from the Great Glen Way

Looking down Loch Ness from the Great Glen Way

This section comes after what look like comparatively flat sections in the race but quite a distance in after the start in Fort William. The trail up from Invermoriston takes an immediately steep climb on an access road before heading into the forest on prepared trails. The ups and downs reminded me of the roller coaster section of the WHW near to Crianlarich and, given the distance in the race, are likely to have a similar mental and physical effect. At least now I know it is coming and prepare for it during the race.

By the end of the day yesterday, I was buckled I have to admit. My legs were still slightly tired after last weeks Edinburgh marathon and it was a pretty warm day so water intake was high. I’m really looking forward to the race now though. I think a slow plod out from the start to Fort Augustus, saving as much as I can for those hills we found yesterday before a final 12 miles into Inverness after Drumnadrochit. Should be fun!

Link to Strava activity.

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

 

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

WP_20150424_004

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.