I can’t remember when or why I decided it might be a good idea to run an ultra.
I suppose some might say it’s a logical progression once you have done a few marathons to dip your toe in the water of an even longer distance – and I can’t resist a challenge. But it wasn’t like I had done loads of marathons, only three by the time I registered for this race, and usually in the middle of it I tell myself to stick to shorter distances in future. However, encouraged by a decent few months of running, and having sought the advice of Jan and Gilly who had run this one before, I was reassured that this would be a reasonably achievable race for an introduction to the “dark side”.
The course looked OK; a mixture of trail and tarmac, a few hills but not too bad. It was essentially a 20 mile out and back with a ten mile loop between the “out” and the “back”.
So date in the diary, I booked onto Loch Ness marathon six weeks prior as a “training run”. The plan was to run that slowly and finish fresh, feeling like I could go a few more miles. That went out the window on the day when I realised I was on for a decent time and I was completely spent by the time I finished. I hadn’t done a huge amount of long runs since then, with the exception of the Skyline which didn’t go well. So I was unsure how I was going to fare.
As usual, I hadn’t been quick enough to get the good deals on hotel rooms so we ended up in a self-catering holiday let for a couple of nights, which was lovely and actually worked out perfectly for us with the kids. We travelled up to Killin on the Friday evening. I had reset the trip meter on the car as we left the house and as I pointed out the Kelpies to the kids on the way up the road I noticed that we had come exactly 33 miles. That made me feel a bit apprehensive about the idea of running the equivalent distance the next morning.
We got there in good time so we got checked into our accommodation then went to the village hall to register and leave drop bags. I had prepared the bags the previous night and knew I had put too much in them, but being my first time I didn’t know what I would fancy and figured better too much than too little. Then we went home for a huge plate of pasta and a couple of glasses of wine and I got my kit ready for the morning.
I was up at 6am, giving me loads of time to eat some porridge, drink some tea, get dressed, faff around with my bag – taking stuff out and putting it back in, change my outfit, another tea, kiss the girls and walk down to the start area.
Alan Thornburrow and Vicky Lyon were also doing the race and I hoped to see them at the start. I found Alan immediately but unfortunately didn’t see Vicky all day. Alan told me he had a bit of a manic morning – having slept through his alarm, not waking until 5.30am, and driving all the way from West Linton. He clearly has a time machine for a car as he was in Killin by 7.25am and standing in the registration queue when I saw him.
The place was busy with the chatter of excited runners. The atmosphere was very jovial, not as serious as some road races; there was a real feeing that we were about to embark upon an adventure and we were all in it together. Mel and the kids wandered down to give me a cuddle and see me off at the start which was fantastic, though I look a bit nervous in the start-line photos.
Mel asked how long I would be, but I hadn’t a clue. I didn’t have any time goal or expectation but guessed at between 5 and 6 hours.
After what seemed like a very long pre-race briefing, all of a sudden we were off. I wasn’t quite ready, busy fiddling with my watch, and forgot to wave to the girls.
“Nice steady start, don’t get carried away” I kept telling myself. I’m generally not good at keeping myself reined in, see Loch Ness, above. I then spotted Alan just in front so pulled up alongside as we ran through the village and over the Falls of Dochart. I figured if I kept to a pace where I was able to chat it should mean I’m not going too fast.
Since running Loch Ness I had had a slightly dodgy knee, which starts nipping after about 6 or 7 miles, but today it felt it before I’d run one mile. I feared the worst but just decided to ignore it in the hope it went away, or at least didn’t get any worse.
We quickly left the road and onto forestry tracks heading steadily uphill. They were mostly runnable but on any steeper bits I made myself walk to conserve energy. After a couple of miles Alan said he was going to ease off the pace a little bit but I felt OK so kept on going. I briefly saw Alan again a few minutes later when he caught me on a walky bit, but after that, despite expecting him to overtake me any minute, I didn’t see him again for the rest of the day. I had to make lots of new friends, and set about chatting to anyone who seemed vaguely receptive to my overtures.
The first 3 and a half miles are uphill then it flattens out for bit before heading sharply downhill. I had spoken to a chap who had run the race a few times and he said he always makes the mistake of going too fast on that downhill bit, so I let him go off ahead and held myself back – for about 30 seconds – then decided there is no point fighting against gravity. After a little while the forest track evened out and joined a tarmac cycle path. There were a few groans from those around me but I was quite happy, I don’t mind tarmac – you don’t slip, you don’t get muddy, you get back what you put in. I had been advised to wear road shoes and it was definitely the right call. There were two or three times I slightly slipped on hilly trail sections, but the comfort of the road shoes more than made up for that.
We crossed the A85 and there was the first check point, not even 6 miles in. I grabbed a couple of things from my drop bag, and chucked a few bits down my throat, leaving anything that seemed like it was going be challenging to either get into (orange) or get down (dry cereal bar), stuffed the rest in my bum bag and headed off. Total time at CP1 about 2 minutes, but I thought that was too long so resolved to be quicker next time.
The next section was a nice, long, flat section on the old railway, now a cycle path, that goes over the Glen Ogle viaduct then continues above Lochearnhead, with stunning views down the loch. At this point I was averaging 8 minute miles, including time to stop and take the occasional photo, but I wasn’t worried as I was relaxed, forcing myself to eat and running easily, despite still feeling the knee. I didn’t really notice at the time but it was on a significant decline, hence it felt so easy. Somebody I talked to a little bit later said something about always struggling on the long uphill railway section on the way home, and I didn’t know what he was on about as I hadn’t noticed it being downhill on the way out.
There was a steep zig-zag section of switchbacks on the path taking us down to some nice trails and before I knew it checkpoint 2 was there at about 11 miles in. I guzzled my smoothie, took a few things I thought I could stomach and left the rest of my drop bags to be picked over by anyone else. That checkpoint seemed a bit slicker, but my Strava tells me I was still there for two minutes.
At this point I got chatting to a nice woman, Gayle, from Tinto Hill Runners who was telling me she had done the 120km UTMB six weeks previously where she had been second FV40 and has another big run in four weeks time so was just doing this as a training run. We hung out together for the next few miles chatting away. It was good to chat to her as it stopped me from getting too eager and going too fast, just kept it nice and relaxed, reminding myself to eat and drink.
We passed a signpost pointing us towards Rob Roy’s grave at Balquhidder. I was slightly disappointed not have time to go in for a look. It was mostly undulating, hard-packed, but slightly muddy tracks at this point, as it was until we came to the timing point at the halfway mark at Strathyre. I dibbed my dobber, filled up my water bottle and was on the move again in 30 seconds, crossing the A84 then heading uphill on forest tracks.
As we made our way up the track then we were suddenly presented with the most amazing rainbow I have ever seen. I slowed down as I fumbled to get my phone out my bag for a photo and waited for it to switch on, just about walking so I wouldn’t go past it, but it took ages and by the time I got a photo I was well past the place it had been most impressive. The photo I did get doesn’t do it justice at all. One for the memory banks instead of the hard drive.
After 1.5 miles of uphill we came down the other side for 2 miles which was nice and quick, then it was under the A84 and back to the point where the 10 mile loop had begun. I was now heading home. A mile of trails and checkpoint 3 was right there so I pushed on and got to my third drop bag, where I had stashed some cola and a few other goodies I thought I would like. But when I got there I pretty much didn’t fancy anything. I took a couple of swigs of my cola, grabbed my cheese spread and crisp sandwich and tried to force it down my neck over the next 4 miles.
At just over 24 miles I was back on the switchbacks, but this time climbing rather than descending the hill. Then it was the long railway section that I had so enjoyed on the way out. I swear, somehow the path had been tilted since I came the other way, it definitely wasn’t anything like this sort of incline earlier. The words of the runner who had basically predicted my misery came back to haunt me at this point and I struggled on with a jog/walk strategy for the next couple of miles, trying to eat a dry sandwich washed down with warm electrolyte drink. This was probably the low point of my race.
A good number of runners were overtaking me on this stretch, so I eventually pulled myself together and got going properly again. Crossing the viaduct I came across Fishy Gordon who had chosen that spot to take his photos. I don’t know how he did it but the picture he took definitely shows that he managed to tease a smile out of me with his enthusiasm and energy.
From there it wasn’t far back to the final checkpoint where a lovely lady peeled my orange for me when I was just staring at it wondering what the heck to do with it. The guy who spoke for ages at the start line was at the checkpoint encouraging people on. “Only four miles to go, all downhill to Killin!” he was shouting. Looking at my watch, I was trying to do the maths – I only had a tad over 28 on my watch so clearly 4 wasn’t going to add up to 33, therefore he was talking rubbish and couldn’t be trusted. I was convinced it was going to be 5 miles of hills.
But as it turns out, he was a nice man who didn’t tell porkies, the paths and trails to the finish were downhill and it was just a bit over 4 miles, along lovely cycle paths through the woods. At 30 miles I started to imagine the finish line and how Mel would be there with the girls, who would both run to me and I would cross the finish holding hands with them both. I got quite emotional at this image and really hoped it would come true.
I managed to run reasonably strongly to the end, making back a place or two that I had lost earlier as I ran through the village. I turned into the park and saw the finish arch, but was sent for a lap round the park. As I plodded round I was looking to see if my family were there but couldn’t spot them. As I got closer I realised they weren’t. As I crossed the finish line I felt a strange mix of emotions. Satisfied to have completed the race, but a little bit deflated.
I was disappointed that I had crashed a bit towards the end and had to walk on bits that weren’t that hilly, and disappointed that I didn’t have anybody there to welcome me in, and weirdly a little bit sad that it was over. But the disappointment didn’t last long; I was pleased to have got round without incident and I was happy with my time of 5 hours 15 minutes – towards the lower end of my prediction.
I went inside to get some dry clothes and was just getting changed when Mel and the girls showed up. They had been sitting having lunch in a cafe when they saw me running past. It made me feel better that at least they had seen me. I want all of them to be proud of this old man. We hung around at the village hall for a while waiting for Alan to come in, me drinking tea, the kids eating cakes. I wasn’t remotely hungry after the moving feast of the race. Eventually we decided that we must have missed Alan and went home where I had a long shower and a nice lie down.
Rob and Andrea were staying the night in Killin so we made plans to hook up with them for some drinks in the Killin hotel. They went off for dinner, we stayed where we were for dinner, then the plan was to meet up again at the post-race Ceilidh. But when we got there it was busy, there were no seats available and it was getting on and we were all kind of tired so just headed for bed, and back home in the morning.
It was a great weekend. An experience which I loved, and such a fantastic race. But now I think I could have done it quicker…
I’m now looking forward to doing another ultra – which is just as well as I’m in the Fling next year!