My first experience of anything Ultra came in the early 90’s. It was early May and myself and a handful of club mates were travelling to run the Dunoon Half Marathon. We were travelling from Alexandria early on a Sunday morning. On the way there, we passed another club mate who I thought was out for a routine Sunday morning training run. Fast forward to the race which was done and dusted and the 1st team prize was won, incidentally I was the final counter! We waited for the prize-giving when in comes Jim looking for a lift home. He had just cracked out a wee 65 miler as preparation for his up and coming West Highland Way race. He had hoped to arrive for the start of the Half Marathon but didn’t make it on time. I remember thinking he was completely mad and being impressed by this lunacy!
Many years of running and absolutely no inclination to go over 26.2 miles. But I got to know a few of these crazy people as the popularity of Ultra’s grew throughout the years. I have always been impressed by the general positivity surrounding these crazy brilliant people. Two in particular were instrumental in breaking me down: Katy Smith from Bellahouston Harriers planted the seed, and looking at her Facebook page with all her trail running exploits it always looks so inspiring see all her training that gets done on the West Highland Way; the second was Charlotte Finch who is a real tough competitor, and she was instrumental in breaking me down with some brilliant stories from many races.
I mulled this over for a couple of years. I posted to the Running Friends Scotland Facebook page looking for advice to find out a good starter into the Ultra world. Many people advised that the BAM Series would be a good place to start. Ultimately I was looking towards the Devil o’ the Highlands and The Highland Fling (these are not in the BAM series) – two races which would between them take in the entire West Highland Way. Katy raves about both races and told me that the Highland Fling is the best race day experience. However, back to the BAM series I was suitably advised that these were low key and very friendly and well run races so with this in mind after some research (i.e. I asked Charlotte) I went for the Glen Lyon race. With it being 31.5 miles I reckoned this to be good step up in distance from 26.2 miles, all be it off road. I was now fully up for this experience.
My kids are now a bit older which allows me the time to commit to a schedule that will allow me to run most days. My wife Kirsten is very understanding and supportive in all things running: in fact more than once she’s told me “piss off out for a run – you’re doing my head in”! The Ultra subject was discussed and didn’t go down too well as Kirsten has witnessed the effects the shorter 26.2 miles had on me, and so I entered Glen Lyon regardless! To avoid a face-to-face argument I posted my confirmation email on Facebook for her to find when looking online – which she duly did and lovingly shouted down stairs “you’re such a dick head”. Ah well, now she knows.
Training wise I didn’t plan on changing too much other than trying to make sure a long run was banked each week and maybe throw in a couple of back to back long runs. I have run all my 10k’s, 10 miler & half marathon pb’s in my early 20’s and with all the best intentions as I approach 50 these times are not coming back. However I still want to run decent times by my own standards at these distances, and I still have a lot to prove to myself at 26.2.
Over the winter months training went relatively well, luckily staying injury free and healthy. My Strava profile mileage chart was full of high and low weeks. Being a running anorak I’m always looking to tap into knowledge of all top runners. They all may have differing views but you can guarantee they all will say consistency is the fundamental key. However running is a hobby and other life commitments have to get in the way from time to time.
Race day approaching I was like a new runner going into my first ever race! I was so excited and looking forward to a new chapter in my running life. In the coming weeks I practiced running with my back pack on using my hydration bladder. I read and read again the race rules. I had my essential foil blanket and my locate app installed – both are to be a part of your race kit, along with a waterproof jacket. I was good to go. A few days beforehand everything was laid out. No stone was left unturned. The weather forecast was good but Glen Lyon is literally in the middle of nowhere so all eventualities were covered. Thursday before race day back pack filled and good to go. Friday unpacked, checked and packed again. This was done early as I wanted time to be relaxed before going to bed. The only thing to do was to fill my bladder with Active Root Ginger and everything was in order. 8:45pm ok fill the bladder and chill, Active Root powder was duly added, water added and to my horror it leaked badly! On inspection a small O ring had come off the tube and I could not find this anywhere. However no point crying over spilt active root, two water bottles were duly filled and stuck into the pockets of my back pack, the main problem being was that they could not be reached without taking the bag off. It is what it is so crack on.
The plan was to arrive in plenty time to minimise any unrequired stress so I left Brechin at 5:30am. Through the Glen Lyon group chat I’d arranged to pick up a couple of fellow runners from their accommodation in Aberfeldy and Fortingall. First pickup was Brian Couper. Like myself Brian was preparing to pop his Ultra Cherry. Second pick up was Stuart Macdonald. Travelling in, it soon became clear Stuart had a few Ultra’s under his belt. It was fine to have some company as my nerves were now starting to kick in. Arriving at Glen Lyon Dam, to my unartistic eye it was really somehow stunningly magnificent in all its concrete ugliness in what is an absolutely glorious back drop.
Sir Walter Scott described Glen Lyon as the longest, loneliest and loveliest glen in Scotland. Parking was well marshalled. We parked up in the field, and there were plenty tents, campervans etc. We went to get our numbers. I was instantly captivated by the friendly and relaxed atmosphere. Registration was quick, friendly and super-efficient: goody bags handed out with tee-shirt included. Stuart seemed to know almost everyone. Brian and myself stuck together – with his easy-going nature helping to keep me relaxed we messed around getting numbers and stuff arranged, then went for some coffee. As will become clear, an Americano an hour before a race with hindsight was not such a good idea! All shall be revealed later.
I had my race strategy planned out. Being my first every time over 26.2 miles, my main purpose was not to blow up and have a miserable day then be fearful of the Devil o’ the Highlands in August. I knew there was a hill which was a fair climb right at the start. Charlotte told me if I ran up this hill I wouldn’t go much faster than I would walking, so I’d walk/jog right from the start. I never thought I’d see the day when I’d plan to walk any part of a race let alone at the start.
Weather wise it was excellent conditions: sunny over head with a cold wind but by no means freezing. We were called in for our race brief and I was feeling relaxed and eager to just get going. We were instructed to look after each other as per the unwritten ultra-rules. All us newbies were asked for a show of hands, and I was far from alone in this respect. We were also told as there are a few river crossings our feet were going to get wet and to be mindful of rocks being slippery underfoot. Briefing over we were on our way. It was the strangest feeling to start a race and boom we’re jogging I mean really jogging. I settled into the climb up the hill. Within ½ mile I thought what’s the point there 31.5 miles I shall walk up the hill conserve energy then crack on. Rising quickly, the views over the dam and up Loch Lyon were stunning.
My game plan was to break the run into 6 mile sections with a gel as a treat at the end of each section. Also in my bag I had the magic formula of Jelly Babies, and flat diet coke in my water bottles. I was carrying Active Root Ginger. At the top of the hill we settled onto a fairly rough but definitely runnable track. The views were simply stunning! I had to remember to look at my footing, keeping an eye out 10 to 15 feet ahead and not get caught up in the views too much. I was warned that the second loop around the neighboring glen would be harder going and not to be tempted to get down to 7:30 min/miles. This turned out to be excellent advice as I was loving life, feeling good, and could easily have gotten excited and carried away. However, I settled into a nice comfortable rhythm around 7:50 to 8:00 min/miles running comfortably within myself although this felt relatively slow. This pace would not be feeling slow in the second loop!
The first two water crossings were easily negotiated using the rocks as the river wasn’t in spate. So far my feet were dry. As I deliberately started nearer the back of the starting pack I was now passing runners. As I was taught from an early age go past anyone hard and fast I did this a few times until I had a simple thought – it happens and they generally are simple – “whit are ye dain you’re running 30+ miles!!” I calmed down with this strategy and indulged in some idle banter with my fellow Ultra friends.
We hit a river crossing and now this was where my feet were going to get wet. The river crossing was not too bad – maybe only 10 yards and just over ankle deep, this in the past has been knee deep. However we plough through and feet will dry. Sure enough ten minutes later the feet are all dry and comfy again. The next few miles pretty much blended into each other, feeling comfortable and fully in control and focusing on the six mile segments. The dam then came into sight so the end of the first lap and all is good: these ultras are easy right? Coming off the rough track and crossing the dam was a real treat. Coming off the dam we are now back to the start where we can fill up our water. Active Root was provided which is a nice boost. Water bottles filled, handful of Jelly Babies and a glug of Coca Cola and I’m off again.
We quickly hit one of the big climbs so try to power walk up here getting a bit of a blether as we go. Top of the hill around 17 miles time to get running. The neighboring Glen was equally stunning. However the terrain, while still runnable, was technically more challenging to run on. Cast one’s mind back to the Americano! This was starting to bring on some stomach issues but put to the back of my mind: crack on and run the mile I’m in and all’s good. The next section for the next three to four miles gives us some gates to negotiate so getting any rhythm going is hard, but feeling okay – maybe just getting a wee bit heavy in the legs and stomach issues are now harder to ignore. Run from the knees down, it will go away. Twenty miles in my legs are barking back now. Weaving from side to side to find the smoothest possible route is something that I should have been practicing with more time on the trails. Still all good I’m sure? Twenty two miles brought a real downhill stretch. Charlotte advised to really use these downhills and go for it. Charlotte is a far more gifted and experienced runner on these runs. If I went for it on my now tiring legs I’d guarantee to face plant.
Around mile 25 my Americano was proving to be a bad mix with my gels, and a stop behind a rock was really called for: never has a buff came in handier! By this time I was starting to feel the miles but not for blowing up and detonating. I knew there was a monster climb at around 27 miles so the plan was to keep running and the use the hill to climb and get a break from running.
I went through the marathon in 4:07:35, had a giggle at my third best marathon time and cracked on to the foot of the hill. The hill went from 27 to 29 miles and was 925 feet of climbing. There was no way I was even thinking about running up this thing, so with a handful of Jelly Babies I got to walking up this hill. I wasn’t bothered about placing, but I did lose around 4 places with people power walking up the hill. Moving on, this is a learning point I shall take away with me. I filled up one of my water bottles at the marshal point around half way up the hill. Some of the back markers were coming down the hill in the opposite direction and getting pretty much started on their second loop. I really admired them as they were in for a long day out, but as I said hello and we passed on encouragement to each other they all appeared to be in really good spirits. As my uphill walk continued the wind stared to suddenly feel really cold but I didn’t want the hill to end as the prospect of starting to run again really didn’t appeal to me.
29 miles in at the top of the hill the gradient became something approaching runnable. I tried to get into a run, but immediately a cramp shot right up my quad and took me back to a walk. A few minutes later I tried again. I just wanted this to be done. I was now pissed off, fed up, in a foul mood and feeling pretty sorry for myself. I managed to get into some sort of running, all be it now getting really slow, but I started to pick up a couple of places that I lost coming up the hill. Now the main aim is to keep moving forward, it will soon be over. I did manage to get into a steady rhythm while now feeling drained but not broken. We were now approaching the top of the last hill. I knew the final stretch was all downhill, however this was up there beside my Dads funeral for sheer entertainment value. Somewhere over the 30 mile mark I could see downhill to the finish. Only 1.5 miles to go. Never once did I think I was not going to do this but now seeing the finish (bear in mind I have a cold black heart and one of my great faults is an inability show any emotion) out of nowhere I had a lump in my throat like a tennis ball and my bottom lip was going faster than my legs. Going down the steep hill I had the most rapid of mood swings from being in the darkest, foulest mood to being a quivering emotional state. I wanted to be an airplane, get the arms out and cruise down the hill.
Over the bridge and to the slightly uphill last 50 yards: it was done, now I’m an Ultra runner! I took my medal and really wanted to sit down, but I had to get away from everyone. I needed a couple of minutes on my own. After the 4 marathons I have completed without fail I have said never again, for a couple of hours at least anyway. Not this time – this is what I want – I want more of this madness. The Devil o’ the Highland can’t come quickly enough. I now know what it feels like, now to get more back to back long runs and get further up the field and get as good as I can get.
I hung around for a while after finishing. I didn’t see Stuart, but saw Brian come over the line and I was so glad to see that he was equally delighted with his run and his day. A man hug and it was time for me to say cheerio to my new pal. I have a feeling we’ll see one another in the middle of nowhere at some point in the future.
I was instructed to call home as soon as I could: my other half told me she’s got my insurance policies ready. When I got a signal I found a few folk had been waiting on a Strava update that wasn’t forthcoming. my eldest son had been looking with a bit of concern and started to think I had an epic fail. I was able to reassure them both. Despite the stomach issues, wet feet, and final miles mood swings, I thoroughly loved this experience. As I said at the finish, I want more of this madness. Time to get ready to take on the Devil.