Great Glen Ultra Logo

Great Glen Ultra Race Report

Great Glen Ultra Logo

Great Glen Ultra Logo

The Great Glen Ultra is a new Scottish Ultramarathon race which starts in Fort William and finishes 72 miles later in Inverness.

Pre-Race
Both Helen and I were running the race. The unsupported nature of the race meant it was possible for both of us to run. Being unsupported means drop bags – lots of them. With 6 checkpoints and a finish bag, we had 14 bags to organise between us. In the days leading up to the race our kitchen looked like some post apocalyptic refugee camp as food, drink and spare shoes and clothing were piled up in a vain attempt at organisation. Despite being mocked by my dear wife, I had a bit of a brainwave which worked a treat. Morrisons supermarket had strong Bag for Life type carriers in bright colours for the princely sum of 12p each. Pink for a girl, blue for a boy so they didnt get mixed up, with a distinctive pattern which made them easy to spot at checkpoints and the added bonus of a big yellow M for Munro on the front of the bag.

We had taken the day off work on Friday and after packing the car headed up to Inverness. The intention had been to arive early afternoon, have a couple of hours sleep before eating and heading out for the race start. Inevitably time frittered away and we arrived a wee bit later than planned, so after pitching the big “Old Lady Tent” we lay down for about half an hour before heading for some food. For future runners of this race, the campsite at Bught park in Inverness works really well as a base. It is 2 minutes walk from the stadium where the race finishes and where the buses leave for the start. There are plenty of toilets and free showers with lots of hot water and food is available both at the leisure centre and the Premier Inn 5 minutes away. All in all an excellent base for the race.

Transport to the start duly arrived at 9:30 in the form of luxury coaches which was a pleasant surprise and it made the 90 minute journey to Fort William comfortable and as relaxing as it can be when you are about to run 72 miles.

Registration was indoors at the Moorings Hotel and was well organised and relaxed with lots of well known faces making sure everything worked.  Eventually at 12:30 am we were walked across the lock gate for the race briefing at Neptune’s Staircase. With lots of good advice such as “Don’t fall in the canal” we made it to 1am, race start  and a snake of head torches headed up the towpath.

Ready for the Off

Ready for the Off – photo Fiona Rennie

Stage 1 – Neptunes Staircase to Clunes

This first section consists of a fairly uneventful 10K on the canal towpath to Gairlochy before an enjoyable run through the fairy woods on the side of Loch Lochy.

It never really got dark all night, but the dense forest section was pitch black and the overhanging branches and narrow path had more than a hint of Blair Witch about it, especially knowing that the Fairies were nearby.  After popping out into the road, the 10 mile checkpoint at Clunes arrived.  Drop bags were handed out, a quick rice pudding was consumed and I headed out on the next section.

Stage 2 – Clunes to Laggan

As I set out from Clunes I wasn’t feeling great. My legs were tired and I could feel my right ankle start to ache. I had had a problem with my ankle earlier in the year, so this wasn’t a promising sign. It was also way too early to hit the wall. The wee voices in my head were starting again: ” You can run a pretty decent marathon, so why can’t you run 20 miles in an ultra without falling to bits?”. There are of course many answers to this, but the only real answer is to get the head down and grunt it out until it gets better.

The sky was starting to lighten and the views up Loch Lochy as the daylight crept over the hills at the head of the Loch was quite picturesque.  I trotted up the lochside making reasonable progress, picking off a few folk who had set off a bit faster. My legs were still tired and my ankle was getting progressively worse, so as pretty as the views were, I steadfastly refused to enjoy them and grumped my way up the side of the loch.

Despite my self imposed grump, the approach to Laggan was truly ethereal.  Boats appeared to be floating on a sea of early morning mist which covered the loch. Ok watching the scenery means you run through sheep shit on the road but that is the Yin and Yang of running at 3:30 am.

Stage 3 – Laggan to Fort Augustus

I was out of Laggan checkpoint quite quickly. The run along the canal to Fort Augustus was very pretty.  Some  mist was still hanging around on the water as the early morning sun warmed things up, I was catching and passing people, and under normal circumstances you would have said it is one of those times when it is great to be alive.  However, add in the fact my ankle was killing me, my right quad was cramping and locking up, I was tired and it was all just rubbish. I had bitten off more than I could chew, there was no way I would make it to the end,  I was going to be a failure and that was it, the end of my stupid ultra running career.

I was running in a pair of Montrail Bajadas and possibly had the wrong combination of socks which made them sit rather too snugly on my feet.  With all of the hard tarmac and mettalled tow path, things just didnt feel right. The good news was that a change of shoes was available in my drop bag. The bad news was that it definitely wasn’t the next drop bag and I couldn’t remember whether it was the mile 40 or mile 50 drop bag!

Arriving Fort Augustus

Arriving Fort Augustus

Halfway along the loch I was passed by the lovely Antonia who was going like a train.  This was one fo those Oh No moments, becasue if I was in front of someone like Antonia after 25 miles it meant that I had gone off too fast. Again. Which meant that I was going to be in a world of pain later. Again.

The route eventually made its way back to the tow path and despite my soreness I had quite a good run along the flat path before seeing the locks of Fort Augustus and the welcome sight of the support crew.

Stage 4 – Fort Augustus to Invermoriston

I slumped into a seat and started trying to make sense of the food in my bag. Too many choices. Alice asked if I was trying to feed the *expletive deleted* five thousand!  Apparently I was soaked in sweat and looking grim. “John, you are looking warm” came the advice. “Yes George” I replied. “You might want to take your jacket off?” “oh right George…” Sometimes the brain doesnt quite work properly.

Fort Augustus 1

A wee bit warm

I sat and looked at my feet for a bit.  40 miles to go. Could I pull out? Was my injury bad enough? Maybe if I just accentuated my limp a wee bit?  I looked around and considered the possibilty of getting a sympathetic reception from Susan, Alice and Ada. That was that settled then. I scrounged some tape from George, taped my ankle, popped  some painkillers and headed out.

Leaving Fort Augustus, my ankle immediately felt a little better. It wasn’t great but I could at least run. As I ran through the town I got a cheery wave from Heather McCrorie who had wowed everyone at Glenmore last year and then Neil Rutherford asked me if I knew where I was going. Erm no, I replied and Neil helpfully pointed out the wee blue sign which headed up an unexpected hill.  Said unexpected hill seemed to continue for a long time. This was a section of the route I hadn’t recce’d  and hadn’t expected it to have such a big hill! Eventually it topped out on more forest road with some stunning views over Loch Ness.  Ups and downs were followed by more ups and downs before eventually Invermoriston arrived with a big blast of ozone from the river and a spectacular view of the old Telford bridge as Lorna and Gavin stood out on the street guiding the way in to the checkpoint.

40 miles done and  it was still only 8:30 am. At least that explained why there weren’t many people in the towns and villages we had passed through!

Stage 5- Invermoriston to Drumnadrochit

Invermoriston was a midge fest. Thick swarms were attacking anything which breathed. It was great to see Stan, Carol, Noanie and John and to finally get my hands on my change of shoes. They are all lovely people but it was time to get out of there as quickly as possible. Fortunately the weather was very kind and this was the only time I had any bother at all with midges.

The hill out of Invermoriston is a big one. I laboured up the hill and as it turned into the forest once more I was passed by a couple of runners.  This section I knew pretty well so eased the ups and had a good run down to the low point of alt-sigh. The section after alt-sigh climbs on switchbacks as the forest road goes high above Loch Ness.  Just when you thought you had to be getting close to the top another corner was turned and the road climbed again.  By now though, it did occur to me that things had stopped getting worse. My ankle wasn’t hurting too much, my legs were actually hurting less than they had and I was over half way.  The only problem was the non-appearance of the expected water stop at 45 miles.  After a bit I caught up with the tartan shorted legend that is Donald Sandeman and we had a good wee moan about how hard it was before consoling ourselves with the fact there was only a marathon to go. We finally reached the elusive water station and the ever cheerful Leggets who informed us it was only another 4 or 5 miles to Drumnadrochit and that we would feel much better once we were over the hill. I didn’t have the heart to break the news that we were already well over the hill.

I plodded off trying to do hard algebra in my head which would explain why I still had 4 miles to go when I had done 49 and the checkpoint was at 50. This kept me occupied for a bit. After more ups and downs,  the rain started to pour, and a big down finally brought Drumnadrochit checkpoint at around 54 miles.

I should at this stage apologise to the marshalls at this checkpoint for the slightly intemperate language used in expressing my opinion that the accuracy of the race brief may have been lacking somewhat in its depiction of the location of this checkpoint.  It was possibly slightly unjust of me to question so loudly the parentage of Race Director Bill Heirs at this point.

Stage 6 -  Drumnadrochit to Loch Laide

Arriving Checkpoint 6

Arriving Checkpoint 6

The run out of Drumnadrochit heads along the A82 for a couple of exceedingly long miles. It feels like the turn up hill is never coming, but when it does, oh boy it climbs.  By this stage in the day it was scorching hot. As a wee aside my Ultimate Direction Race Vest was working well. I was really glad of the bottles which meant I could use one for a mix of coke and Nuun, and the other for water.  Most of the water was poured over my head, but the ability to do that was very welcome. The only problem with using water to cool was my backpack was starting to have a cheese wire effect on  my under arms.  After a stoater of a climb the path open out onto the top of the hill and turns into a lovely track across some high moorland. My legs were working quite well by now and I passed a few more people. With 15 miles to go there was no doubt I would finsh.  All I had to do was keep putting one foot in front of the other.

It occured to me that I had survived. I had got through the lack of energy. I had sorted the debilitating sore ankle an dthe aching quads.  I have even overcome the grumpiness. Unusually for me I was  coping with the heat.  Now I was just running. It wasnt fast and it wasn’t pretty but it was steady.

Single Malt recovery drink

Single Malt recovery drink

With the added incentive of a pie and a small bottle of Macallan in the drop bag I picked up the pace and was able to run freely down to the last checkpoint at Abriachan.

CP 6 was a great wee checkpoint. Enthusiasm and TLC were being dispensed in equal measure by Elaine, Angela and Fiona. The sun was shining. A wee dram was shared and there was no more than 10 miles to go.

Stage 7 – Loch Laide to Inverness

Reluctantly I left the checkpoint and headed for home. The first section is a bit of a slog, through the nature reserve, then on the road again for a bit, before hitting a section of bridle path which eventually led to the top of the hill. It really was all downhilll from here. A quick pit stop at the last water stop. Self Service this one as Lorna and Carol were indulging in some post vin beauty sleep in the car.

The Finish

The Finish

The final few miles are downhill on a proper trail, with soft mud and everything. Such a relief. It is the sort of trail it would be really good to run on fresh legs just for the pleasure of being there.  Soon Inverness came into sight although still some way in the distance. I wasn’t entirely sure how far it was to go, but I had worked out that I shouldnt be far from 15 hours which is a time I would be really pleased with. After a few more miles I encountered dog walkers which meant I had to be close. I asked one how far it was to the Canal. “Not that far” she helpfully replied.

I kept plodding away and finally civilisation appeared. The path did that weird thing as it enters Inverness and meanders through a housing estate. After miles of not seeing anyone I passed a couple of runners and this gave me a big boost. Soon I popped out onto the canal and could see some Hi Viz jackets standing by the swing bridge.

I crossed the main road onto the running track at the stadium and sprinted (yes really) for the finish.    Over the line in 14 hours and 28 minutes, a pleasing time, some demons conquered,  lessons learned, mojo restored and feeling pretty pleased with myself for working hard to get there.

Conclusion

presentationThat was hard.  Much harder than I expected. It was a really challenging route, on an interesting and beautiful course.

The race organisation was efficient, relaxed and sympathetic to the runners.

I wasn’t sure about doing an unsupported long ultra, but in practice it worked out fine.  All of the checkpoints were manned  by teams of experienced folks who knew exactly what to do and how to look after tired and dopey runners. Arriving at a checkpoint was like wandering into a good going party where all your pals were pleased to see you, and that pretty much sums up the whole weekend.

The Great Glen isn’t the West Highland Way. It is very different, but in its own right is a seriously hard race which has all the attributes to hopefully become a classic ultra and a permanent fixture in the Scottish ultra calendar.

Tears on Boylston

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There were tears on Boylston
On the day the runners came back.
Wrapped in scarves imbued with courage
The blue and yellow jackets of ’13
the first ones to arrive
In a race for restitution
For their numbers to be counted
they stood in contemplation
At the finish line rebuilt.
Boston Strong, they walked in quiet tribute
Along the street that was hurt

And the hopeful yellow daffodils,
wrapped in Boston blue,
Lined the street like supporters
Cheering those who passed.
The daffodils made me cry.

Quit while you are ahead

The second half of last year saw me injured with an achilles injury which took nearly 6 months to get better.  Since January my achilles has been behaving, though it still niggles,  but I have also been struck down with plantar fasciatis, a sore ankle caused by bruised cartilege, a long running sinus infection, and a really busy work schedule.

Foremost in my mind has been my appointment in Hopkinton on Monday April 21st and the need to get there in one piece.

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Boston ’13 eyeing up the finish line

Now normally when I train, I am  of the blood,  sweat and snotters school of training.  No finesse but lots of effort.

This year, with so many ailments I have had to adopt a painfully cautious approach to training.  I have tried to follow the 10% rule, upping my mileage slowly. I have been disciplined in my long runs, turning back early in some of the long group runs on the West Highland Way when it would have been easier just to slog them out with my chums who were all running longer. Turning back when you are competitive is really hard. I even dropped out of the D33 race at 25 miles because my foot just wasn’t right. My first ever DNF  and those who know me will appreciate how painful that is.

I have done next to no speed work. My usual set of Yasso 800′s has slipped off my plan. Even tempo runs have been done at about 80%.  I started training without a base and whereas last year I was running 200-250 miles per month this year I have been in the region of 175-190.  This time last year I raced a pretty speedy half marathon and got a new PB. This year I haven’t raced at all.  Not even a parkrun.

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Boston ’14 training miles

 

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Boston ’13 training miles

 

I am  undertrained. I have no speed.  I feel like I am about 4-6 weeks away from full fitness, so having been cautious all year, I am going to have to keep the caution going and run the race with my head and not with my heart which is what usually gets me into trouble anyway.

My mantra throughout this whole training programme has been to quit while I’m ahead.

So where does that leave me?

First off it means that barring accidents I am uninjured and ready to go run Boston. Success!

My goal for race day? To run safely and sensibly for 20 miles and get over heartbreak hill with 6 miles to go and be feeling strong.  If I can do that then I should be in with a chance of beating last year’s time. The trick will be to resist the temptation to push on and to remember where I am now, not where I used to be and tailor my ambitions accordingly.

Despite being tedious at times, I have plodded through the last 16 weeks doing what had to be done, to be safe rather than sorry. It has been frustrating and it hasn’t been enjoyable, but it has been successful and I will be on the start line with a semblance of fitnes

It is now taper time, and I will be getting wrapped in cotton wool because at the moment I am just about ahead, so definitely time to quit until race day.

 

 

My Left Foot

My Left foot

isn’t handsome like Daniel Day Lewis

and though it leans to the left

and occasionally extracts the Michael,

it doesn’t wear a donkey jacket.

Most days, my left foot and I get along fine and dandy

much better than my knees, which make me look bandy.

My left foot has been frozen in snow, soaked in puddles,

stained brown with mud, peat and smelly brown sludge excreted by flatulent bovines.

But just when I need it most, my left foot throws a tantrum.

It  develops an attitude, becomes uptight and high maintenance

like a hormonal teenager it decides it has feelings

and firing stinging barbs into my delicate heel

it pouts, shrugs and declares that it has a Plantar Fascia

and what do you mean you don’t know what it is?

everyone else has one, you are just sooo out of touch!

If it wasn’t for the stabbing pain I am sure my left foot would stamp.

Please,  Plantar Fascia,  fascinating you may be,

but you are strung out like an over wrought piano string

I’m feeling like I stood on a key and there are too many sharps.

It is Friday night, have a glass and relax.

Cut me a little slack, hang loose.

Don’t force me to wrap you up in sticky brown tape

so I can’t hear you scream

while I  kidnap you,  hoping for stockholm syndrome.

There is training to be done in the morning, and my left foot has an appointment with Mr Brooks

Every Day is a School Day

Black Mount

Hopefully the road to Glencoe will be easier for runners in June

I have just spent a couple of days at the Highland Fling training weekend in Tyndrum. Although I am not running either the Fling or the WHW this year it was good to spend time with like minded souls, enjoy some wine and some hard training.

I spent some time running with Amanda Hamilton who is building up to her first West Highland Way Race this year and we had a chat about what worked for me as well as what went wrong as I ran my first WHW race last year.  I am sure that Amanda will have a strong race as she has her head screwed on the right way and is putting in the hard miles.

So what would I do differently next time?

1. I would practice running during the night.  When I left Milngavie I had no problem running in the dark, but I did have a big problem with my body clock not wanting to start running at 1 am and I really struggled to maintain what would normally have been an easy pace at the start of the race.

2. I would do more long slow runs. I struggle for patience in long runs and tend to rush them to get them over and done with as soon as possible, so while I had the distance in my legs, I didn’t necessarily have the time in my head.

3. Getting carried away and charging over to Glencoe like a demented warthog may have felt great at the time, but I probably suffered for it later.  Resist the temptation to rush.

4. Spend less time at checkpoints. Despite having a strict plan for my checkpoint times, time seemed to slip away, especially later in the day.

5. Don’t worry about the weigh-in. I was getting a bit light when I left Auchtertyre, even though I felt absolutely fine and it worried both me and my crew in case I would have a problem in Kinlochleven. This resulted in me spending time at our van trying to feed up before I went in to the Leisure Centre. Daft when you look back on it sitting outside in the cold and dark when I could have been inside in the warm.  Kinlochleven checkpoint is a great place. If you are well, no-one will pull you from the race. Get inside and feel the tough love being dished out.

6. The haggis and beer at the ski centre probably wasn’t a great idea either even though I enjoyed them at the time.  I think I would probably try to eat more real food earlier in the race and stick to softer food in the second half.

As for the things I got right there are probably a few

1. Do the training miles but don’t do them too early and try not to  get mileage envy of the nutters who are knocking out 40 mile runs at christmas.

2. Know the route inside out

3. Have a training plan and trust it. Don’t chop and change just because you hear someone else threw in an extra long run and don’t get sucked into going on every social training run just to be part of the gang.

4. Get a support crew you trust absolutely. Your needs become very childlike in the race and your crew needs to know when you need and cuddle and when you need a spank.

My final tip is that there are many ways to skin a cat and what works for me won’t necessarily work for you. You need to experiment early in the year with gear, mileage and nutrition so that when it gets to the business end you are settled on the logistics and all you need to worry about is running.

And finally no matter what you get right or wrong, at times it will get horrible and dark, but if you keep going, no matter how slowly, it won’t get any worse and might even get better, but either way, you will make it to Fort William.

Brooks Pure Flow 3

this is the second year I have been fortunate to take part in the Try It On promotion by Brooks where they let you have a pair of shoes to trial for a week.

I am a big fan of Brooks shoes. Most of my running shoes are Brooks.  I have been running in the Pure range of shoes pretty much since they were launched.

20140205-202148.jpgMy favourite Pure Project shoe remains the original Pure Grit trail shoe.  Despite the fact the grip on the sole wasn’t great, as a shoe, for fit,  feel and comfort it was pretty much perfect.

Last year’s update to version 2 of the Pure shoes didn’t work so well for me. I bought a pair of Pure Cadence 2 but they just didn’t feel as good as the version 1 shoes.  I tried the Pure Flow 2 as part of Brooks’ Try It On promotion and just couldn’t love them. They were too big, too soft and the upper rubbed my little toe. I blogged about them here.

I have been running in a pair of Pure Flow 3 for the past week as part of this year’s Brooks Try it On Promotion.

This year’s model feels much improved. These shoes are immediately comfortable and you can run in them straight out the box.

The ride feels lower and while there is plenty of cushioning,  it is a very responsive shoe.   There is plenty of cushioning to support my heavier frame. The shoe feels very well balanced. It nudges you towards a midfoot/forefoot strike rather than pushes you.  The shoe is very flexible,  allowing you to run fast, but still manages to feel substantial enough to protect you from the pavement.

It doesn’t feel too dissimilar to my beloved Racer ST5′s which are my preferred marathon race shoe.  After only a week’s running in them I am pretty confident that I could happily run a marathon in these shoes and be happy wearing them.

The fit is comfortable. The toe box is wide enough for my wide feet, without feeling too large. There isn’t too much excess volume on the top of the shoe. The fabric is soft and comfortable and hugs your foot very nicely. The heel is comfortably snug and doesnt rub. The asymmetric lacing has changed shape and is much more comfotable. The previous version tended to put pressure on the top of my foot (I have high arches) whereas the different shape is very comfortable. The tongue is stitched in place on the inside which again helps to keep the foot secure and in place.

I am still not convinced that either the Nav Band or the split toe add much to the shoe, but then again the shoe works very well so who am I to argue.

All in all there is very little more to say about these shoes. They are probably the best shoe I have tried for a long time and a shoe which I would be confident wearing for long distances and which are a significant improvement on the Pure Flow 2.

I will almost certainly part with my hard earned cash to buy a pair as I can see them becoming my workhorse marathon training shoe.

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If? (an exceedingly good question)

“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;”

It is time for the obligatory review of 2013 post. For me 2013 has been a year of two halves to pinch a football cliche.

The first half of the year saw me achieve my two biggest running goals: to take part in the Boston Marathon and the West Highland Way Race. Plenty of words have been written about both of these events so I won’t repeat them here, except to say that I am truly honoured and humbled to have taken part in both of these unique and inspiring races.

The second half of the year has been a complete washout. An achilles injury just two weeks after completing the West Highland Way has restricted me to next to no running for 5 long frustrating months.

My running improved a little this year – I managed a new PB for the Half Marathon, but apart from that, despite good training,  my racing performances were on the whole a wee bit disappointing.

Overall 2013 has been a year of learning. Learning a bit more about myself, about what things do and don’t work, about my strengths and weaknesses.  2013 has also been a year of watching a whole load of friends achieve amazing things. Probably too many to mention, but watching Helen run her Devil O’ The Highlands race in horrendous conditions and then run 50 miles in the Glenmore 12 hour race have been particular highlights. Biggest lesson I suppose is that running, like life, has ups and downs so to paraphrase Mr Kipling’s quote at the start of this post, MTFU and get over it.

My running hero of 2013? Lots of amazing performances, people running fast, people running long, but my running hero of 2103 is Andrew Moodie. Andrew is a stalwart of Falkirk parkrun, who just gets out there and gets it done time after time in his own quiet unassuming way.  He offers heartfelt, genuine support to anyone trying to get started with running. Despite his self deprecating claims of being an “auld fat man” (and his weight loss story is inspiring) he has run over 1300 miles this year which is a fantastic achievement especially considering how hard he works in the day job.

I will go into 2014 nervously. As always,  ambitious plans are afoot.  No point in putting them off, “you’re a lang time deid” as they say.  However this time I go in with an achilles which still isnt healed properly so I will need to learn to be patient and very specific with my training.  My first goal for the year is to return to Boston and run well.  I have a lot of weight to lose and a lot of training to do if I am to line up in Hopkinton on Patriots Day and run in a way which honours the race in what will be a very special race coming one year after the bombings.  I am fearful that my achilles will impede my training so my biggest challenge will be staying healthy and uninjured. Next up are goals of running well at the Cateran 55 mile race and the 72 miles of  the Great Glen Ultra. There are one or two other plans being hatched but they can wait until they are confirmed before I share them.

Why do I keep doing this? After all I am only a decidedly average runner and it doesn’t get any easier.  The answer to that question gets clearer each year. I run to scare myself, to hurt, to improve, to overcome adversity, to explore wild places and be rewarded with views and experiences which have to be earned.  I run to allow me to stand on a start line knowing that the only thing which will get me to the finish is my strength of mind and body.  Not digital, not virtual but a reality that can’t be manufactured.  That and the ability to drink beer with nice like minded dafties.

Will I succeed in the challenges lined up for 2014?  We shall see…….