D33 (Deeside Way 33 mile Ultra, Aberdeen to Banchory and back)
Like most years, since I took up 'Ultra-Marathon' running, I once again made my first event of the year the D33. The word 'Purgatory' comes to mind when I find myself on the start line of this ever growing Ultra. I mean no disrespect by this, but even though it's a flat out and back route I always seem to make a meal out of it and finish feeling as if I have actually run twice the distance with Bill Heirs on my back. I knew when I entered it this year that I was probably going to be struggling to get anything near my PB on this route. Back on the 1st of December last year I had fractured my big toe at work and had an enforced 5 weeks of no running to content with. January wasn't really a great month of training either, with only a few short and very slow paced runs, being a bit nervous about trying to push too much and end up being out for longer. I'm an 'ever present' at this event and didn't want the lack of training to stop me running it again, so had to concede that it would just be a plod and not to worry too much about when I finished, as long as I actually finished would be enough for this year.
With it being a mostly flat route I normally start off too quick and pay the price in the latter stages. So it was no surprise when it was more of the same this year and to throw into the mix that my fitness was around 40% less than this time the previous year made for a mental battle over the last 6 or so miles. I thought wearing Hokas would help protect my still healing toe, but not long after the turn I began getting a 'niggle' which came and went over the second half.
I was determined not to get a PW time today and adopted the 'Ultra Shuffle' over the last section, after the road crossing, and even though I was 45 minutes slower than last year managed to avoid this. It was an eye opener to just how much fitness I had actually lost since last year and realised I had a lot of work to do to get back on track in time for the next months 'Fling'.
Highland Fling (53 miles, Milngavie to Tyndrum along the West Highland Way)
When I sit down and plan out a years worth of races this one is always the first I write down in my calendar, in pen not pencil. Its my 'must do' event every year. It was my first ever Ultra marathon. my favourite in so many ways. This year was my 7th start at this event and as with every year I've always targeted getting a Sub 12 hour finish. I've failed to get this target time in all the previous years, having a wide variety of finishing times, including the infamous '3 miles from the finish DNF'. With my fitness issues leading up to this years Fling I wasn't confident of a great finishing time, but would, as in previous years, give it a go anyway.
Like so many of the Scottish Ultras the Fling has exploded in popularity and this year there were 1000 entries and like it or not seeing that number of runners squeezing through the underpass is a fantastic spectacle. I wont bore you with the usual stories of who I saw and talked to, how many times I went to the toilets and being told to remember to tie the 'chip' to my wrist and not my ankle.
I normally run the first section to Drymen in under 2 hours so decided to ease off a bit over the first few hours and take it a bit slower until the lochside started. I had been working hard since the D33 to get my fitness back and had concentrated a lot on hill training to get my leg muscles stronger and to be able to deal with this route. I've been up and down Conic Hill so many times that I was up, over and down without taking much notice.
By the time I reached Balmaha I felt I was going well and kept a steady and consistent pace, not thinking too much about previous years times and who was running around me. The Balmaha Checkpoint always has that special buzz about it and the Marshalls here run it like a well oiled military machine to get us in and out as quickly as possible. There was, as in previous years, a massive crowd of supporters here. I took the Balmaha to Rowardennan section easier from previous years as I find it can be hard going with all those nasty wee short sharp climbs. I had managed to keep eating little bits all day and having creamed rice and custard at each CP and keeping my fluid intake sufficient. Eating throughout a long distance race has always been my main failing, which bites me on the arse in the latter stages of races like the Fling. I had packed stuff I could eat on the go, rather than having to stop at CP's and phaff around. I was using Weetabix milkshake drinks today which turned out to be a great choice to supplement my other fluids. Rowardennan was a throng of activity and had a great wee chat with Al (Gannet) who was marshalling here which perked me up a bit for the next section. Rowardennan to Inversnaid is my favourite Fling section and found myself pulling back time on both the climbs and downhills. At Inversnaid I took comfort in seeing runners here that are normally miles in front of me by this stage. I wasn't sure if they were having a bad day or if I was having a good one. I took the next 7 miles easy, not that I've ever done the Inversnaid to Bein Ghlas section any other way! and arrived at the last CP still feeling good. After a quick refuel I was off again. Every other year when I've left from here I've walked for a wee while, but when I checked my time on leaving discovered that I was doing better than I thought and right away thoughts of a Sub 12 sprang to mind. Mind you, I always think this at this point in the day. So I started to run a bit, walk a bit, run a bit. I was running more than I was walking. Makes a pleasant change. I was running on and off with others over the next few miles, passing more than passed me. Again, a pleasant change. I checked my watch every mile or so and calculating if I ran at so many minutes per mile I would finish in such a time, recalculating every time I checked my watch. I should probably buy a garmin rather than the £4.99 digital watch I wear. But I suppose doing mental arithmetic in the latter stages keeps me alert and gives me something to do. Like so many other runners I dread the approaching 'rollercoaster' above Crainlarich. However this year I ran the ups, downs, ups, ups and downs faster than any previous year. From the A82 crossing to Kirkton I decided it was all or nothing over the last few miles. I was so close to the 12 hour barrier I've tried so many years to try and break. By now I was doing the arithmetic out loud. I knew at the least that I would get a PB, but by how much and on what side of 12 hours?
When I passed the Pines Holiday Park I knew I was onto a Sub 12 finish, but rather than settle for just under wanted a good few minutes under so put all I had left into it. Turned into the' By The Way' site and into the best finish approach for any Ultra I've done.
Finally, a Sub 12 hour finish, by 7 minutes. I was over the moon to finally achieve what I had been trying to do for 7 bloody years. Considering the fitness issues I had at the turn of the year made this all the more enjoyable. Already I'm looking towards next years Fling and the possibilities.
Dumyat (5 mile Hill Race, Stirling University)
This was my 4th time doing this Hill Race. It's a well organised and attended race, with the same familiar faces turning up each year. I was still recovering from the Fling so it was never going to be a spectacular run. I do this event more for the lung bursting climbing and then the taps aff decent than for the fun factor, although it is fun. The fun bit comes on the lowers slopes on the way down whist sliding down the muddy bits having mud forced up......well use your imagination.
Lochalsh Dirty 30 (30 miles, Glenelg and Shiel Bridge Circuit)
I ran this event last year to fill a gap in June and was 'pleasantly' surprised by it. It turned out to be a tough wee bugger. I've described it like the WHWR condensed. The toughest bit coming in the form of a 2600ft climb halfway round the route with an equally daunting decent. It has it all...tarmac, trail, mud, hills and plenty of technical terrain too. Having missed this years Cateran Trail Ultra I wanted to use this as prep for the Great Glen Ultra and would be rested going into it. As with last year, there were a few familiar faces running again this year. I decided to surprise the girls on Skye by joining them for some Pie at the 'Skye Pie Cafe' for lunch on the Friday.
I spent the night at a B&B in the middle of nowhere that I wouldn't recommend. No Internet access, WiFi or TV!! The only advantage was that the owner was doing the Walking event so could provide an early breakfast before heading out. I picked up Karen from her midge infested campsite a few miles away and then headed to Glenelg to meet up with the others running.
This year I knew what was coming on the route so knew to take it easy until the big climb at Shiel Bridge. The local communities that the route passes through were fantastic at providing encouragement, water, sweets and whisky. The first section is very straightforward, passing the Ferry and hugs the coastline for a few miles until the first CP, its just after here that the route splits, one way for the 30mile route and the other for the 12 mile route (which Donald was doing).
Not long after we have a very muddy dense forrest section which you really cant get any speed on. Although when we eventually emerge from it you get spectacular views of Eileen Donan Castle. Then its a horrible tarmac section into Shiel Bridge. I felt great into Shiel Bridge, but on the climb I suffered. It was a clamy muggy day and I don't do well in those conditions. Folk began to catch and pass me including, annoyingly, Andy O'Grady, who thundered past me on the decent. I wanted to keep him in sight for as long as I could.
He remained a few minutes in front at the next CP and then I lost sight of him just passing the bothy. Just after the Bothy on a small climb I spotted someone sitting on a rock beside the path watching the runners passing. Only when I got closer did I realise it was Donald! He commented that he had been having a laugh watching me and Andy approaching and that we had both gone the wrong way. So by now I was getting pretty tired and folk were still catching and passing me. I knew that Fiona and Karen were still somewhere behind me and thought I should be able to hold them off. Every now and again I turned to check.
Finally reached the last CP, which is around 5 miles from the end and no more 'hills'. Whilst I was filling my water bottles I heard them. Fiona and Karen had caught me. Bugger, i'll never hear the end of that. I started to chat about how crap I was now feeling expecting to get some sympathy, but instead got told to bugger off on my way and that they would catch me up. Sod that I thought and off I went, determined not to see them again until Glenelg. But like a wild animal I was hunted down and shown feck all mercy from these two. It took about a mile or so for them to catch me. We exchanged pleasantries, with me wishing them well and good luck and to push on. That's when the 'abuse' started!! 'Move yer arse Knoxy' was one of the more pleasant responses that came my way for the remaining miles. I kept telling them to push on. I had been keeping an eye on my timings over the last few miles and had been targeting a Sub 7 hour finish, which had been perfectly doable up until the last CP. I was gubbed, the heat had done me in. I knew the girls were capable of getting either close to, if not just under a 7 hour finish if they steamed on ahead. But they were having none of it and kept shouting at me to keep up and 'stop bloody walking', their 'encouragement' was working, although only through fear of getting slapped or worse if I didn't respond. On we plodded then it was Fionas turn to suffer when her backside fell out and after making a roadside deposit soon caught up and on we went. We were now entering the outskirts of Glenelg and knew we wouldn't get Sub 7, but it would be damn close to it. Last year I had remembered a householder had set up a table with cups, soft drinks and a bottle of whisky. I prayed and prayed and...........woooooohooooo.....there it was again. So while the girls had Orange juice and tango I downed a cup of whisky and BANG!! that perked me up. Fiona then started to gag as she thought she was going to spew from the flat tango. But on we went. One last wee climb before the main street of the village and we were done. Literally.
Although my target had been sub 7 hours and I hadn't achieved it, it was still good to get a PB by 2 minutes. Thanks to the girls dragging me along over the last few miles. I was drained so after a shower I had soup and a roll before dropping Karen back at her campsite. My initial plan had been to stop and camp at Fort William and 'maybe' do Ben Nevis the next morning. But I was knackered so after getting something to eat in Fort William decided that as it was still early to drive home and do hee haw the next day.
As for doing this next year? Initially I had said I would probably do the Skye Half which is always on the same day. However, now that I've reflected on it...............
Great Glen Way (73 miles, Fort William to Inverness)
My second year running this event from the BaM boys. After I finished last year I 'declared' that I found this tougher than the WHWR and opinion amongst those who have done both was evenly split. After this years running of it, I repeat this belief!
On the back of two PB events I was confident of the same here, hoping for Sub 17 hours this year. I knew there had been lots of work being carried out on the route but there had been no changes to the route being run. So I had arrived in Inverness in the afternoon and went into town for something to eat and a wander. Had a chat to various folks and then boarded the bus for the hour long journey south to the start at Neptunes Staircase. After a chat with Jonathan I tried to get some sleep and drifted in and out for around 40 minutes. This year there were no midges at the start, bliss. Deposited my various drop bags and got registered in the Hotel. There were fewer starting this year, with around 70 registered. Found a comfy chair, had a pot of Tea and again tried to get some sleep but didn't get much with all that was going on around. After a final check of my kit it was off out to the start area. After what seemed like an age it was headtorch on and we were off. It was 1am.
Off into the dark we went. The first section is mainly flat being spent running alongside the anal side. I had a few pee stops on this section as a result of the litre of Tea in the hotel. Soon after crossing over the canal we, myself and around 5 others, headed up the first small incline of the early hours section. As we ran along we became aware that no one was in front or behind and began wondering..........My excuse was that I was just following the guy in front. We could see headtorches around a half mile over to our right, below us. Either they were going the wrong way or we were. Guess who?! We kept going hoping to eventually join up, which we did around a mile from the first CP. By the time we got there everyone we had passed before going 'wrong' had caught up and passed us. It was beginning to get muggy and I don't do muggy.
Not long after here it then began rain too, which normally I don't mind but I was overheating too and felt a bit queezy. I was now on my todd and by the time I got into CP 2 was feeling a bit rough. Only 20 miles done and already I was talking about chucking it. Not long out of CP2 I did Chuck, not it but up!! It wasn't in the style of the exorcist but it wasn't ideal at this early stage. I was getting slower and slower and feeling drained on the canal side section between Bridge of Oich and Fort Augustus. By now it was Pishing down and I was getting cold too. Normally I would have warmed up by running but I was exhausted and couldn't. It really had gone 'tits up'. I had been passed by so many people that I thought that it wouldn't be long until either Terry or Mike, who were taking turns to sweep, would appear. I could see another runner behind gaining on me, it was Vicki Williamson. On I plodded, then someone on a bike caught up and I realised it was Mike. Bugger. He checked if I was ok and said he would see me at the CP just up ahead at Fort Augustus. So I was second from last. The rain wasn't letting up. I was cold, tired, miserable and right hacked off with how things were going today. Again I muttered that I was thinking of chucking it soon. Even Ada was quiet!! Vicki had caught up and left the CP before me. I was now last runner on the route. I had managed to force some food down and marched on behind Vicki determined not to finish in last place. Although there is nothing wrong with that in a race of this length. I caught up with Vicki and a group of four others just leaving the village and not long after I had passed them. I felt a bit better mentally now and soon after passed another couple of runners, I was feeling stronger as I reached the Invermoriston CP. My folks were here to meet me and told them of my woes, not that it got much sympathy! Helen helped sort me out at the CP in exchange for a G&T!! Things then began to go off the rails again after leaving here. I was going from being a high to being demoralised. My energy levels ebbed away again and then I took a wrong turn, again, and for 20 minutes ran the wrong way to appear at a dead end! Can't really repeat what I shouted out loud at this point. So all in I lost, wasted, around 40 to 50 minutes due to this and by then all the hard work of working my arse off to pass those folk earlier had been lost as by the time I got back onto the right path they had all passed me. For a while I was wondering if I was also behind the sweepers too!! The decent into Drumnadrochit was a nightmare. At one point I ended up clinging onto a fence throwing up, thinking my intestines were on their way out, sounding like a rutting stag. There was no food left in my stomach so it was bile and water. That it was it I said to myself......there's no way I have anything left to give. So from the top of the hill above the village I ended up walking probably 80% of the distance. When I arrived at the CP I announced that I had had enough. However I was again talked into sitting down for a bit, have something to eat and give it a few minutes before deciding for sure. My thanks to my folks and all the Marshalls here for not letting me chuck it. I had almost a complete change of kit. I decided to chuck the Hokas and put on my La Sportiva Raptors and almost immediately the difference was noticeable. Ahhhhhhhhh..........Then Terry and the last runner Jan arrived. He was just as knackered as me and as he sat down to rest I decided that now was the time to man up, strap on a pair and get out of dodge. I managed to run the whole way from the CP to where the route leaves the A82 and heads uphill.
The sun was out now and it was cooking me but head down and on I went. On the uphills I found myself falling asleep and was weaving around with my eyes shut! I could see Mike and Jan in the distance, catching up. They weren't running but I was moving so slowly and I had gone down another wrong path again. Approaching the last CP they were 2 or 3 minutes behind so I had to be quick at the CP. Fiona Rennie was manning here and I knew if I hung about too long she would be having 'words' with me so as soon as Jan arrived I was out of there.
I ran for a few minutes at a time and pushed as hard as I could, determined not to be caught again. The last few miles has a long tarmac section which is pretty open so you can see for a fair distance. I kept looking over my shoulder and thee was no sign of Mike and Jan so I was confident of at least finishing before them.
I tried to maintain a slow but steady jog on the final trail section above Inverness. Finally going downhill I knew it was around 2 miles to go.
Once passed the old Hospital it was flat and onto the canal side, over the bridge and into Inverness, over the road, down the path and onto the track. I managed to run round the track to cross the line. I can't remember if I swore as I finished, but if I did I make no apologies. That was brutal and was more mentally tough than physical this year. But I had finished, now I just wanted a shower, something to eat and bed. After apologising for keeping everyone from the pub Pauline Walker came out with the best thing I heard all weekend.... 'You took so long you've grown a beard'.
I headed to my B&B, had a shower and put on the telly, laid back on bed whilst the kettle boiled for a cup of tea and zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.......The next morning I felt better and after an enormous breakfast headed down to the presentations. My folks even got an award for all their hanging about at races, well done and very well deserved.
I had seriously considered entering the West Highland Way Race again for 2016, but I now want to come back and do the Great Glen justice. I might have finished this year, but it was 2 and a half hours slower than in 2014 and I know if things had gone to plan I would have done it sub 17, so I'm going to come back next year again and nail it.
So that's us half way through the year.......after a Marshalling stint at the Devil O' the Highlands I have my 4th Speyside Ultra, which I hope goes to plan!!!