It was during my training for the Devil o’ the Highlands down on holiday in Wiltshire that I heard about this new Ochil Ultra marathon. I had had a few good runs around the New Forest and along the canals between Bath and Devizes, and so after one too many scrumpy ciders in the tent one night I booked the full 50 mile ultra on my phone. In the morning I remembered this and thought, what have I done, I’ve entered a 50 mile hill race by accident!!! 😮
Things got a bit more worrying when I checked out the route which was coming through bit by bit on their Facebook page. It looked very rough ground with little in the way of actual trails. I was thinking I’ll get lost for sure. There is little information about the race on their website apart from booking it. All the details are on their Facebook page and the organisers get back to you really quickly if you ask a question. I asked about maps and they said I’d not need one as it would be well marked with arrows and tape along the full race. I was still not assured by this and got an OS map anyway which I marked down the full route on (Perth & Alloa OS58). There’s the full 50 mile route which starts at Stirling University on the outskirts of the city to Perth which has 5 sections with 4 drop bag posts. There’s also the 30 mile option which starts at check point 2 at Glendevon. I was still glad I went for the 50 miler as I wanted to see the full stretch of the Ochil hills. I’d ran the Alloa half marathon a few years earlier and they looked great as we ran past then from the road.
My training had been going well with many runs around the Pentlands and John Clerk Estate, taking in as many hills as possible as well as The Ben Nevis Hill race. I looked into hotels in Stirling where I found the Stirling Court Hotel which is in the University grounds where the race starts. There was a bus put on for us to take people from Perth to the start line so runners would have their car at the end (Had to be booked and paid for well in advance). This was a very early start though and would involve booking a hotel in Perth anyway, so I opted not to do this and have longer in bed and register from 5:30 on the morning of the race in Stirling. In Perth you could register on the Friday too.
On arriving at Stirling Court hotel I was surprised they actually offered to take my breakfast up to my room at 4:30! This was great to have orange juice, some toast and a good coffee first thing. The cereal packet was smaller than I’d give the kids though so I was very glad that I’d taken a porridge pot that you just add water to from the kettle. This worked out great and I was all set. I had done all my faffing about with bags and info the night before so just headed down to registration. It was clear I was in with some serious ultra runners for this race and I was correct in thinking I’d be very far back in the pack during the race which I was fine with. Finishing without missing the cut off time was all that mattered. They had made the cut off point just after check point 4 where you head up into the woods overlooking Perth as they didn’t want people going up there after dusk at 7:30. Their cut off time was 7:28 at that point and they were operating a soft cut off, so runners would still finish the race but get diverted away from the proper route and go round the side road into Perth. This would be faster and much easier but I wouldn’t feel like I had done the course properly at all.
We got our race briefing and issued with a very handy route leaflet with lots of information in it. The race started at 7:00 and we were off. The weather was fantastic and I thought I’d been so lucky with the few races I’d done this year as the weather was set to be terrible the next day. We headed up to the first hill and were rewarded by brilliant views of Stirling below with the Wallace monument on our side of the city. We then got into the hills properly which were much the same as the Pentlands to start with. As we came to the first descent there were a lot of people slipping in the mud. It was then that I realised that they had road shoes on!!! One guy said his Hocas weren’t too good and I wasn’t surprised as I noticed there was no tread on them. I then heard a big thud as he landed fully on his back behind me. There were quite a few runners in road shoes.
As we came down from the first few hills to the little town of Menstrie my hamstring felt very tight, so I thought I’d best stretch it rather than keep up with the others. I was very glad I did as it was really stiff. I had to keep doing this quite a number of times over the first section but it got better later. It was quite an easy stretch now all the way to Tillicoultry where there was an excellent 1st check point where you had to place your chip over the scanner. I was so glad I had put this on my wrist and not my ankle like normal, as I was expecting it to get lost in a bog if I had done this. It also made it much easier to be scanned by the marshals at the check points who had it on the table. There was lots of great home baking and water here. We then headed back up into the Ochil hills. This section was very hard going with there being so much rain over the past few days, really muddy and slippy on the downhill. My trail shoes were okay with it apart from a few 180 degrees twirls! It really slowed me down though and was very tiring on the legs. I was told by a local couple who had ran the sections before that it got easier after check point 2. This was great to hear as I was starting to think how am I going to get through 50 miles of this!
The Ochils looked great in the sun, the grass was golden yellow on the various rolling hills that stretched on and on. Although I liked getting glimpses of the views I was starting to notice how long it was taking to cover this stretch, and started to think of the cut off time after check point 4. At last I got off the really slippy last hill here and ran down past the upper and lower Glendevon reservoirs. This was a great stretch and I was glad to see this at last as it was a main point on the route map. I was on mile 17 or so at that point and my legs were already very tired, but thankfully I had no cramp. I had taken some salty peanuts earlier to help stop this. This road section was great for a change after the slippy hills and I looked out for more arrows for keeping me on the right route. There were times I got quite worried I’d not seen an arrow for a very long time, but this was really as the route was obvious at that point. It was a relief to come to the next arrow though so I knew I hadn’t zoned out and missed a turning. The route then took us through some nice wooded areas along and over River Devon and up to check point 2 at last (This is where the 30 mile Ultra starts)! I then stopped to call Jan to say I was going to be over my expected 12 hours. I had some sandwiches before heading further into the hills and eventually back into very wooded areas and check point 3 at Middle Rig. The marshals were great and very encouraging and I knew at this point I was going to be okay for the cut off time as long as I kept going. This was around mile 30 and I was really knackered, but fine really as the other runners I had been chatting to were the same. One woman had ran 72 ultras!!! Crazy people you meet on these races.
The route was quite varied now with obvious roads and tracks, then through hills and back through woods and fields which were very scenic. It had however not eased up in the amount of bog in many parts. At one point I had to get over a gate which had an enormous puddle of mud and cow poo before it. I tried to jump onto one bit of mud which quickly sank and I plunged deep into the sludge! I wiped my trainers on the grass as my feet were heavy with it. I then felt that I should stretch my leg and lent against a fence for support. I got two bursts of electricity right up my arm…. This has turned into Tough Mudder! I think it was this recharge that got me through the last twenty miles!
Next came a forestry track which wasn’t finished and so I had to clamber over a big fallen tree at one point which thankfully caused no trouble with my hamstring. It then got better and I was onto a great downhill open trail for quite some time. I was really wanting to get to check point 4 now and I asked a few marshals how far it was along the way, but none really knew. I got speaking to another couple on this stretch and the guy knew the area well and it was down the hill we were on, overlooked the town of Kintillo. Kilgraston School was the name of check point 3, but it was actually just a couple of marshals in a field next to the road. Even though I knew I’d make the cut off time now I was concerned about how long it may take me to do this last stretch of around 10 miles, as I knew the course actually packed up at 9:00. I set off as quickly as I could which was more a shuffle in sections now, and got to the cut off point with about an hour and twenty minutes to spare. There was a brilliant marshal at this stage who was most enthusiastic about my progress, even though I knew I was very slow. He assured me I was “Totally awesome!” 🙂
It was just a mile down the road now till I headed up into the woods overlooking Perth. There was still plenty light to start with but as I got further on in it got darker as dusk was 7:30 and there were quite a few hills to get over here too in the dark. It was then that I realised I’d not changed the batteries in my head torch for some time and it was quite dim. I was okay with this as I had a back up in my bag, but it was just too much trouble to get unless I really needed it. It was getting colder too and my hands started to turn to the death claw Raynauds I get. I was actually just walking now as every time I tried to run a little I’d trip over the uneven ground. The torch showed obvious bumps and rocks but not the smaller mounds. The woods were beautiful though and I did enjoy the parts I could see earlier. I was very glad to do this section and not be timed out and sent along the bypass to Perth. I would have got a much quicker time and position that way but it would not have been the full course and very boring. My GPS watch had given up at mile 32 so I was very glad I had my normal watch and knew I would make it to the finish line as long as I didn’t take a wrong turning. I shuffled up the dark trail to a marshal with a very bright head torch which blinded me every time I looked up to talk to him. I marked down my number on the tracker log. They had a fantastic tracker system which worked by giving every runner a GPS which they had to have at the top of their bag. This was great for you to call in if you were lost but also good for friends to see where you were on the course from the web link they provided.
I then had one more hill to go over in the woods before my descent down into Perth. There was a group of friendly marshals at the bottom who pointed me on my way and I was heading down into Perth at last. I picked up a little here and could manage a very slow jog as long as there was no ascent. There were about another three marshal points as I was pointed down towards the harbour area and finally to the finish line in the main park!
I was wondering if Jan and the kids would be there by the time I got in but I thought they may be as it was around 8:45 by now. I was delighted to see our three kids run down to do a group finish run with me which made a fantastic finish photo. I had actually done it! I got a fantastic medal and very cool T-shirt in the tent at the side where I sorted myself out before getting driven home. I couldn’t get into the car covered in mud and cow poo but it took me ages to get my shoes off with my cold claw hands which had also puffed up and gone red! What did help was Jan had two chilled ales in a cool box for me on the way down the road….. What a woman! 🙂
50 mile route from Stirling University: 13:54:21
30 mile route from Glendevon: 6:24:18