Monday, 1 May 2017

Flingtastic - Pieces of Eight

The first race to go in the diary each year for me has to be the Highland Fling.  The "Carlsberg" of races, it's as good as it gets (maybe except for the weather - a warm sunny evening after the race would be a nice extra).

Instead of the usual chronological tale of a race (plenty of those already written in these pages), here's just a few random bits and pieces from a grand day out at the 2017 Fling.

Fingers crossed for getting through the ballot, staying injury-free and still loving the race


Beyond the predictable red carpet finish line, I loved the gnarly few miles just north of Inversnaid. That's around 36 miles in. Once things had settled after eating and drinking and at the checkpoint, it was all systems go and time to fly along this section (no trademark infringement there, ok? Not this year anyway). 

As an added bonus, I was running with my club-mate Billy and he was really strong here, as we moved through small convoys of runners along the narrow, technical path.  It's a very marmite sort of section - and if you ask a Fling runner, you'll probably get a pretty polarised view on whether it's the nightmare section, with a special "Lost" island sort of timewarp, or whether it's just great trail running, fully engaging, demanding complete concentration. I guess a lot depends on whether you're legs are cramping up with every (moving) tree root and giant boulder, or if you can still bound from boulder to boulder, trusting your footing.  The latter is always a good race target for me.

Just before the big ladder climb, there's a boulder with a three of four foot drop - I'm sure it would make a great place for future Fling photos, and we could see how the leaders leap down the whole thing without breaking stride, or how others get stuck there for fully five minutes as cramp wracks their muscles (speaking from experience here).  We had a couple of lovely walkers watching us at this point and laughing lots as we clambered down.

Race Organisation & Marshals:

Instead of leaving this to the end, I'm putting my enormous thanks in just here.  You know how there are those "rip-off" races by companies like "mouse-race" that cost way over £100 per mile and leave everyone on social media moaning? Having just seen a narrow edge of the race infrastructure that is involved in the Fling, I know not to take the bargain that the Fling is for us runners for granted. The level of organisation in putting together something on this scale just beggars belief - and John, Noanie, Sean and so, so many others just make it happen in a way that is difficult to comprehend. They have a team that love the event and willingly give up a lot more time than it takes any of us to run the thing in order to give us a good day out.

So to each and every one of the helpers, marshals, organisers, first aid heroes, massage tent miracle workers, Kirsty at ByTheWay and the many unsung heroes... Thank You. You make dreams come true.  I do hope that I'm not injured at end of April anytime soon, but if I am, the Fling will stay in my diary so I can get up even earlier than the runners and do my bit in return.

Still gloomy at 6am - chatting to Gavin at the start (sorry to the runner in yellow) (photo: Monement photography)


Some dos and don'ts.  It's probably best not to go annoying the registration Marshals by not registering until 5:45am. Sorry about that Mel. But it did avoid the queues. I'd dropped off my drop bags first - nice to see that people are learning about the idea of using a freezer bag (unless it's a Rowardennan competition challenger). Then my finish line bag got squeezed into tightly fitting liner plastic bag - again what a brilliant idea and one of those many touches that are so easy to forget - thanks for having 1000 plastic bags to keep our kit-bags dry in the rain.  Genius.  And then I belatedly got round to actually registering for the race - plenty of time really.

Having decided to stay on for the Ceilidh afterwards, I packed my kilt, sporran, long socks, kilt belt... only to find after the post-race shower that I'd not put the kilt in the bag.  Oops. Luckily, I'd added some trousers for the Sunday morning - just as well as it turned out.  Thankfully, it was the only thing forgotten for the race.

In a snap decision on the morning after the race, I joined Sean to head for breakfast at the Tyndrum Inn on the Sunday morning, but ordering at 9:15am and getting to the 10am bus back to Milngavie didn't fit. They were very busy, but with no food having arrived after 40+ minutes from ordering I had to give up and head for the bus. Noanie completed the amazing Fling treatment by delivering a bacon and black pudding sandwich to bus just minutes later - which was great and hugely appreciated (thanks Noanie). More poor timing.

Oh, the race itself - better say something about timing here. I ended up with a time under ten hours which I'm more than happy with. I've been an hour faster and (almost) an hour slower, so this one sits neatly in the middle. Could I have been a bit quicker? Yes, if I'd wanted to suffer a bit more. Does this matter? No, not in the slightest - I wanted to enjoy the big day out and certainly ticked that box, without too much suffering.  As the pictures show, I wasn't exactly in racing-snake form - this year's average weekly mileage being about 30 a week - so the target was to enjoy myself. I reckon that if you can do that, the time will be as good as it's going to be.

Heading over Conic Hill (Monument photography)
The Race

I feel that I should say something about the race itself since this is a Highland Fling Blog.  Selected memories then...

Started at the back of the ten hour pen. I've started very near the front before and also right at the back (a little unwise) and now compromise with this.  Maybe going for the second wave would be more fun since there is that bottleneck at the turn from the Milngavie shops.  Might try that next year.  I usually just head off with whoever I am chatting to at the time (Gavin this year)

6am and we're off.  Photo: Kristin Lownie

The "fast" miles to Drymen are dangerous ones. Really! It's so easy to go with the flow and run far quicker than you were planning to - it's all just so easy at this point.  I was pretty pleased to get to Drymen at 1:46 having caught up with Billy at some point.  We got into a good pack for the endless gates (not that many to be honest and lots stayed open this year - thank you).  The trick is to either accept your lot as gate opener (who remain holding it open for a few seconds) or run a few paces behind the front of your group to avoid crashing into the back of the appointed gate-opener.

Alas, Drymen required an emergency visit to the Portaloos (again, a genius bit of race organisation which I've never appreciated before).  Hmmm, not a great start to the race and I'd known that things weren't quite right with my insides for the previous couple of days, but that's ultras for you.  Might as well get this dealt with here, so jump to the next paragraph if you're eating whilst reading this...  A good sit down was also on the agenda at Millarochy Bay just after Balmaha, and again (emergency!) at Inversnaid.  Yup, that was the low point of the race, but it could have been worse (see earlier blog on Scottish Islands Peak Race...)

Conic Hill came and went (having caught up with Billy after a few miles) with it's lovely views and flying descent which did end up putting a small pebble (probably a tiny bit of grit) into my shoe - shaken out at Balmaha.  Another few miles to catch up with Billy again just before Rowardennan. Hats off to Stan for taking the tough shift with the spot check on kit (phone and foil blanket - no excuses!)  I can only wonder at some of the awkward and disappointed conversations with those who got that wrong. 

Rowardennan (4:25) was a lovely checkpoint, filled with wonderful friends - hugs all round.  Dropbags delivered my Sandra, Susan and Nick, water sorted by Joanna and Kirstin (who went on to win the ladies relay race) and even a bonus hug to wee Katie, who I haven't seen in ages.  Bounced out of the checkpoint feeling great.

But not for too long - those flat two or three miles beyond Rowardennan are tough work.  For me anyway.  I quite like the uphill section that follows - a bit of up and down variety is no bad thing.  Up and up, past the newly re-opened low route, which I wish the race would follow.  It's not an easier route, but it is far nicer and in keeping with the idea of the West Highland Way. Maybe next year.

The lost world that is Inversnaid (Photo: Nicola May)

Into Inversnaid after an extra mile of trail (is that just me though? It always seems to be a bit further along than it should be in reality) and more fantastic people.  A race where the director of Scottish Athletics is helping out at a check-point says a lot (for both Iain and the race!) Brief words with Nicola and Duncan, shouts to the marshals and off we trundled to the fun bit of the race, as mentioned previously.

Beinglas checkpoint (7:30) felt great (really, it did - sorry if you arrived here feeling completely rubbish, but I was in a happy place still).  I knew that the finish could be reached before the ten hour mark and tried to encourage Billy. I left the checkpoint before him but said that I would keep walking until he caught up so he shouldn't make me walk for too long! Billy, sorry if the motivational chat was too much for the next few miles - lots of looking ahead for a target point where the trail got steep enough to warrant a fast walk instead of running.  At this point hills can become your friend - a welcome relief from trying to run on the flatter bits.  We were joined by Steve, who remembered that we had run some of this section together a couple of years ago (my memories were a bit hazy, but it came back to me later on the rollercoaster through Bogle Glen).

Derrydarroch, 44 miles in, with Steve and Billy (photo: Jillian Gordon)

The final leg is tough, as it should be (don't believe that last photo where you can tell that I was truly, truly suffering inside, honest).  Somewhere up Glen Falloch, Billy got a stone in his shoe and stopped to fish it out. I wasn't sure if my talk was too much or if it was genuine, so kept on going. It's so hard trying to run ultras together since each person's good and bad points are unlikely to overlap.  A gap opened up and I pushed things along a little, passing a few other runners here and there.  Jonathan Millar was having a tough time of it before the infamous "cow poo alley" and knowing exactly what he was going through (been there, done that, in exactly the same spot) I tried to say some encouraging words before pressing on.

More awesome Fling support at the big gate above Crianlarich with Fling legends Graham Kelly and Katie Hall raising spirits before the big climbs up to and through that rollercoaster.  Legs were able to zip down the steep downhills, and I was content to walk the uphills.  That seemed to work since after waiting for a gazillion cars at the A82 crossing, the tarmac towards Auchtertyre felt great with proper running, even the heady heights of nine minute miles. A couple of targets ahead kept me honest - it's always useful to have something ahead to focus on.  A metaphor for life maybe?

In keeping with the rest of the day, I was happy to walk up that final rise before turning onto the final mile to Tyndrum.  Had a quite (shouted) conversation with Mike and Rob here (they were heading off up the valley where you go if you miss that important final turn) about Rob having a pretty satisfactory sort of race - he ran it quite fast apparently.

And everyone's favorite bit where we get treated like royalty and it's all about us having our moment of glory. The stuff of legends and dreams.  Not worrying about a time now, I slowed down to enjoy it for as long as possible. What a great place to be.

High Fives with Ultra royalty (Marco) - and check out the feet, both off the ground! (photo: Stuart Macfarlane)

The moment when it's all about YOU! Gotta love this bit of the day (photos: Stuart Macfarlane)

So that's a few selected memories of the day and other random musings. Well done if you ran the race, or have been inspired to run it, or were helping out. Or just arrived here by accident and have got all this way through my ramblings - with that kind of endurance you should consider running an ultramarathon - you're clearly talented in this area.

If you haven't read any of the other tales here in this blog (not that many really), it's worth adding that this is the race that got me pulled into the world of ultramarathons. Eight races later and I'm lucky enough to still be running and enjoying every race.  Hats off to Ian Rae who completed his eleventh Fling (he was injured last year) - nice to briefly catch up with him after the race. 

Fling Bling through the years

According to John Kynaston race statistics, there are seven of us that have run eight Flings now:

Adapted from John Kynaston's race stats
[Update: John has updated his spreadsheet and it shows that also with 8 Flings finished are Andy Cole, Graeme Morrison and Ian King]

Neil MacRitchie was unable to run this year but was in the first aid tent at the finish line, being one of the aforementioned unsung heroes of the day.  The right hand column is the one I've added for 2017 - but no doubt John is right now working on a full and thorough analysis of this sort of thing - or will do it next, such is his skill with data and excel!  On countback, Colin Knox and Ellen McVey might get the nod since they have started nine Flings (or maybe more, since I could have missed some DNF numbers somewhere - apologies if I have).  Already looking forward to next year.

Job done. (photo: Stuart Macfarlane)

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Lakeland 205

The Lakeland 50 - it's more than just a race
Spoiler - I got this (pimped) medal
The Lakeland 50/100 is something you need to experience in order to understand. The whole event is just immense. For many, it’s a chance to push their limits by completing 50 miles through the finest scenery in England, whether by running or walking. For others, it’s a chance to test themselves at high speed over a hilly route, or to push their limits by completing 105 miles in one outing (but let’s just round this down to 100 from here on, it seems to be the done thing).

The standard approach is to have a go at the 50 mile race, maybe more than once, and finally pluck up the courage to have a go at the 100. Until the last couple of years this has had a completion rate averaging just 56% - it really is that brutal a race, giving so many good reasons to not continue when things get tough and/or breaking the body to the extent that continuing is genuinely not an option.

Not wanting to do things in the normal way, I started with the 100 route, back in 2014, the year of the heatwave. Since this is meant to be a few notes about my 2016 L50 race, I will not digress for too long, but since I never got round to writing anything about the L100 a couple of years ago, I had better put a paragraph or two in place.  In a nutshell, I had a race of two halves.

Love this early morning pic I captured above Ullswater
The first half was epic, with a warm and starlit night, perfect navigation and everything generally going well. I climbed steadily through the field, topping out at 55th by Dockray but then slowed as the Saturday morning rolled on and the temperature climbed well above 30oC. I had blisters for the first time in a race, chafing in multiple places that shouldn’t be mentioned so early in this tale, and leg issues that seemed insurmountable.  Watching the L50 leaders bounce past on their way up Fusedale was fun, but a huge energy crash and being unable to run anymore at High Kop left me battling my inner demons and resigning myself to having to stop at the most inconvenient place on the course, at Mardale Head.
Hot, hot, hot conditions

The L50 Leaders bouncing up Fusedale in 2014 
I fell in with a couple of hikers as the L50 field streamed past and they put me on the spot by saying that they were parked just a mile away at the north end of Haweswater and could drive me around to Dalemain so I could get a lift back to Coniston from there. This was just what I needed – instead of a gradual descent into retiring, I had to make a forced decision. I said that I would have a go at jogging very slowly for a bit and when they caught me up I’d go with them. And, would you believe it, that pace turned into a fast jog and then a run – soon I was dropping down to Haweswater with the L50 runners. I spent the next four miles feeling superb, swapping places with surprised L50 runners. I’d hoped that was me sorted to the end – something similar had happened to me during the West Highland Way Race in 2012 – but, alas, the double climb over to Kentmere sucked the energy out of me and despite getting there in 24 hours (82 miles covered), that was the end of any running for me.

It’s not all bad though. I could still walk and with the resolve of simple maths telling me that 16 hours and 23 miles could fit if I could somehow keep moving, on I went, now with Andy Bristow, with whom I had run some of the previous night section, for company.  Dreams of a sub-30 hour finished now seemed quite irrelevant and finishing was all that mattered. 11 hours later, with no profound emotion and just a weary feeling of getting the job done, we crossed the line in Coniston together. No tears, no elation, just relief. Much to my surprise we were still in the top 100, a sign of how utterly brutal the L100 is.

Wind on to 2015 and I secured my L50 entry (but only just!) and enjoyed a great day out at the event. Tackling the L100 certainly gives one the perspective to focus on just enjoying the L50. In spite of being told not to, it is reasonable to describe it as “only” the 50 mile race if your benchmark is the 100 mile race; it’s a totally different beast.  If you ran the L50 and said positive things to all the L100 runners that you passed, I hope that you meant it: they really are doing a truly amazing thing.

Now to the present and a tale of my 2016 L50 race. Or rather, the whole event, since that is just as important as the running bit in the middle.  I’d easily rate it as the best in England, no doubt about that. Admittedly, of the three dozen ultras I’ve done, they’ve all been in Scotland barring the Lakeland ones, but it’s still a quite superb set-up. The time and effort that goes into giving the runners the very best experience is quite something. So maybe here is as good a place as any to thank Marc and Terry, and the huge team of helpers and marshals who gave us such a good weekend party; there were just so many little touches that many will have missed, but will have taken so much planning to get right – thank you.

Let’s skip the lovely day chilling out at race HQ on Friday, the excellent morning briefing and the coach journey to Dalemain. We’ll jump into the start pen with a few minutes to go if that’s alright with you, ok?

I’m standing there near the front (actually, at the front – I’m sure most of the field are nervously hanging back) and not feeling nervous at all. There must be something to do expectations and preparation and experience, and I’m sure a good psychologist could tell me why. I am just looking forward to a good day out over a lovely route – living in the moment and hoping to enjoy as much of it as possible.  For the first time ever in a race I will be running with someone else and I hope that this works out during the day. No, I’d not managed to click quickly enough back on entry day the previous September to get a pairs entry. Instead, an old university friend had been persuaded to enter the event and had said that this would be a good way to catch up on a couple of decades of news.  We’ve not met up for 17 years so Dan and I have loads to chat about. More on that later, but for now, we are heading off with the mass start to a cheering crowd and a noisy stampede on our heels.

My brother spotted me loitering near the front (from official race video)

I’m not near the front for long. I’m too wise to follow others’ pace and actively try to slow things down for the first few miles. It works and I am more than happy to see plenty of other runners race past up the hills; there’s a long way to go yet. I am hoping to get to Howtown about five minutes slower than last year – all part of a better pacing strategy that will leave more in the tank later in the race. Also, my training mileage hasn’t been anything to write home about this year (not even hitting 30 miles a week, and that’s including races) and I’m carrying more weight than I should be doing, so it all makes sense to slow things down. A PB would be nice, but anything close to the 2015 time, combined with a memorable day out, will suit me fine.
Men in Black (pic: Susan Gallagher)
Leaving Dalemain is always a positive – the journey properly starts now – and the path to Pooley Bridge is a joy. And so is the support in town, where there are just so many people clapping and cheering. I go for a couple of tactical walk/drink breaks on the climb beyond town and then it’s just fun, fun, fun on that descending path to Howtown, which is always that little bit further round the corner than you first expect.
Farewell Howtown (pic: Gerry Hughes)

A very quick pause here for a chia bar (eaten on the following climb) and then it’s off for a stroll up Fusedale. A couple of heel-clicks for the waiting photographers and then it’s a mixture of running where sensible and walking when more appropriate.

Sometimes you get stuck behind a crowd and just have to relax for several minutes knowing that a few seconds here or there will amount to nothing over the course of the day. Over the top and we hit the highest point of the route, which is very run-able, as is the ensuing descent down to Haweswater – what a contrast to a couple of years ago up here.

Apparently, you gain a lot of height in Fusedale (pic from 2015, but the 2016 ones look similar)
This is where the first problem of the day hits – a combination of my bad communication, tummy issues and my descending. I mention to Dan that I might need to grab some moss and head into the bracken once we’re off the hill and then I let my legs go as we plummet downwards. Descending is something that I can do pretty well. With no real effort, I somehow pick up my stride length and cadence and just fall more quickly than most other runners – Dan has acknowledged that he does not descend so fast but he is such a strong runner in every other way that I know that this is no problem and he can easily catch up. I’m not kidding here – he has quite a pedigree, having won three of the six ultras that he ran in last year, and having come in the top ten at the infamous Spine race back in January. He has said that he is content to amble round the route this year to get a feel for it, with numbers not mattering at all. I’m pretty sure that he’ll be in the top ten for L100 next year.

Once we (sorry, I) hit the path alongside Haweswater, my insides feel a bit more normal and I wonder if I can make it to the hallowed portaloos at Mardale Head. Let’s find out – I’m feeling good and love the next four miles of interesting trail (if you don’t like this section, you don’t get trail running!) and Dan will be catching up any moment soon. Except that he doesn’t.

The four miles tick by but even when the view opens up around Riggindale Beck, I still cannot see him. I cling to the logical answer that he must have waited for me after the descent and will soon be along – please, please, let this be so.  I pass a good friend Keith who is having “technical issues” with his shoes – we’ve run together before in races, and I’ve always finished in front, but he has been improving considerably this year and his positive start to the day underlines that – I’m expecting a big PB from him today.

I bounce into the checkpoint, full of optimism, and quickly grab a couple of drinks and a big cup of tea to take up the path with me (not sure if this strategy was better than just downing it in the checkpoint, especially for later checkpoints with no immediate ascent). A few minutes in the portaloo, pack left outside so that Dan could see the name and number, with an awkward moment of washing my hands from outside so I could see Dan and then I spot him, coming into the checkpoint as I leave – what a sense of relief.  I know that he’ll catch up on the climb up Gatescarth and indeed he does, running halfway up until he gets to me – no harm done, thankfully.

We catch up with Keith at the top and share the descent together; it’s much better than last year thanks to the Inov8 RaceUltras that I am wearing. That extra cushioning does make such a difference on this tough route. Even the climb up from Sadgill feels quite short and before we know it, we’re in a big queue for the crazy Kentmere stiles – which is a bit of unfortunate timing.  Into the (Hogwarts) checkpoint at 5:10 – exactly the same time as a year ago, but feeling much better (or so I hope) – maybe there’s a chance to get a PB?
You're doing this for fun - might as well enjoy it (pic: Dan Robson)

The Garburn pass is the last really big climb and it does go on for longer than most people expect.  I leave Kentmere with my big mug of tea, plus half a banana and a biscuit. The road is initially very runnable and I question the wisdom of walking it while eating and drinking, but hope this will help long-term. In any case, it’s a long ascent and is soon all about walking as fast as possible. Keith has gone through the checkpoint like greased lightning and is a minute or two ahead, but I know there is a long descent down to Troutbeck and look forward to letting the legs go on that. And so it proves – I can descend at a good nick and we are again running as a trio through Troutbeck (great support here!) and climbing up to the path for Ambleside.
Keith leading the way through Troutbeck (pic:Ann Brown)

I mention something about the pace being close to that ten hour mark and after Dan makes a comment, have a go at running uphill – which I promptly regret since both Keith and Dan immediately head past me with more speed in their legs. Not to worry though, since the undulations and downhills towards Ambleside bring us all together, roused by Keith's recitation of Tam o’Shanter (he’s really quite good at it). He moves ahead as we pass the crowds and I faff with a drink, having decided that there’s no point in getting to a checkpoint with fluid still in the bottle.

The crowds are quite fantastic and provide a real high point of the day. Much cheering and clapping and I’m in a frame of mind to lap it all up, working the crowds with big hand gestures, which is a lot of fun. Big grins abound as this continues at the checkpoint, with the unexpected bonus of not having to clamber up the stairs and go inside this year.  I’m sorted out quickly and shout to Dan that I’m pressing on across the park. Again, big cup of tea in hand, plus a sarnie and again thinking that this is the wrong approach for the flat bit of tarmac here, where I should be running.  Keith has shot through here very efficiently and is out of sight already.

Up to Loughrigg and there is no running during most of this climb for me – I am still working on trying to keep my heart-rate even and not dig too deep on the ascents. This seems to be working and the descent to Skelwith Bridge feels that it is at a decent pace and we arrive here before I was expecting.

One of my race targets had been for the next couple of flat miles, with hopes of running these at a half-decent pace. Alas, this is not to be. I feel ponderously slow and although we close on runners ahead, I had hoped that this would be a little faster. Superb support from the crowd in the beer garden in Chapel Stile, then that nasty concrete path through the campsite (too hard on the feet after 40 miles) and, exactly the same as last year, I had to stop at the Portaloo just before the checkpoint marquee. A sorry six minutes was lost here, before even dibbing in, but Dan was later very sanguine about it – when you have to go, you have to go. I hope that would see me through to the end.

A hurried bowl of veg stew, a panic of my cup being missing from my bag (it’s on the table in front of me where I had just made a cup of tea – brain not thinking so clearly now, eh?) and then off for the final ten miles. And yet again, I walk to the next house to drink that cup of tea – maybe embracing the idea of having your own cup and “one for the road” a little too much. 

Things pick up through the Langdales and I push the pace along the trail, although the climb at the end of the valley, and the sneaky extra rise after crossing the road (remember that one?) are hard work now.  The technical trail is good for the concentration and I don’t care too much about getting wet feet as we head to the unmanned dibber point since we are now closing in the finish.

The road descent goes well, but the climb over the crazy, rocky path over to Tilberthwaite is tough, as might be expected after 44 miles. There is a lot of walking and lot of mental effort needed to break into a run on the flatter sections. I know that a ten hour finish went out of the window at the Chapel Stile checkpoint, but a PB is certainly on the cards, so it’s all to play for.  And there’s no doubt about finishing without needing to use a head-torch, which is a huge advantage.

The final checkpoint! I get real munchies at Tilberthwaite – four jam sandwiches (minus crust, seriously, that’s a step too far) are scoffed and I head off with the cup of tea, which is a good plan for the steep climb that follows (note to self for 2017). Three minutes exactly at the checkpoint had vanished in the blink of an eye – I used to be much better at checkpoint discipline, but have become overly relaxed these days.

The climb is good and I really enjoy it. I think it’s close enough to the end with that feeling of “this is the last climb!” so that there is no need to hold anything back anymore. I run everything I can and speed-walk the rest – it helps that there are no issues with cramp or blisters, etc. On the horizon ahead there are three or four runners and I use these targets to help me dig deep; the gap between us closes.

Dan had earlier suggested that he should maybe go a couple of minutes ahead of me on this final climb over the corner of Wetherlam but such thoughts had been forgotten. That was a real shame since disaster almost struck on the final mile and a half. With legs in good working order, I threw myself down that final descent, with a “on your left” here and an “on your right” there as I bounced past four other runners (plus a couple of L100, but with only words of awe and respect for them) like I’d been out for a short fell race. It was a real treat to be able to finish at such speed. Eight minute miles on the technical stuff, became seven minute miles on easier road down into Coniston.  And here’s the potential disaster – after our day out together, I had to dib in with Dan at the finish – it had to be together. Looking a hundred metres back up the road, he wasn’t in sight at all.

What a dilemma – what would I do if I got to the finish, with a PB time, and then stood around waiting for him? What if I’d just passed a bunch of other runners (race mode now engaged) and then stood at the finish waiting? What if he had had a fall behind me? And a whole bunch of others similar daft ideas in rapid succession.
Dan working very hard in Coniston (photo: Ann Brown)
In the end, it all worked out though, as the huge cheers from the crowds in Coniston hinted as I passed the main garage. Dan finished at an even more ridiculous pace than me once he’d hit the better road through Coniston and had sprinted flat out in order to catch up (I said he was fast). I arrived, a little panicked, at the finish line with worried shouts of needing two dibbers, not one, and he arrived a second or two later so we could finish together, 44 minutes after leaving Tilberthwaite. Anything else would have simply been wrong. What a fantastic way to end the day!
Stats: The Garmin says I spent 18 minutes not moving, so that needs improving

Going into the hall I was still buzzing and bouncing – 11 minutes quicker than last year was a bonus, on top of great company throughout the day. Keith had powered through the last sections and finished four minutes ahead of us for a huge PB. Pasta, ice-cream, lots of cheering and clapping for any finishing runners, a splash in the showers (why do they always flood?) and then a good night’s sleep – so much easier than what the 100 mile runners have to do.

All in all, a great weekend away, with a lovely bit of running in the middle of it. Huge thanks (again) to all those that made it happen.  I hope I wasn’t the only one with tears rolling down my cheeks during the closing presentation (Congrats and best wishes to Marc Laithwaite and Natasha!)

See you in 2017 to do it all again.

P.S. And if you haven't watched this yet, turn up the volume and be inspired:

Thursday, 21 May 2015


Cateran Trail Race – 55 miles of Perthshire countryside. This was my third time at this race, with a 6th and 7th place finish previously – and my 30th ultra-marathon to boot. I’d missed for the past couple of years following the dream of the Scottish Islands Peaks Race, an adventure that has taught me the true meaning of the phrase, “worse things happen at sea” – when people say that phrase near me these days I just go a bit quiet with a far-away vacant look and mutter, “oh yes, that’s so true” in a quiet voice. 

At least with a simple ultra you can curl up in a foetal position at the side of the trail and have a slim chance of recovery; on the deck of a violently pitching boat, with hypothermia and exhaustion, serious concerns at the loss of bodily fluids and function there is limited chance for this. Sorry, I might mention that I have a score to settle with the SIPR, but didn’t have the most “fun” experience of it last year (and in 2013 we bobbed around off the Mull of Kintyre for about 12 hours with no wind predicted by the forecast and so put the engine on).

Back to the Spittal of Glenshee and the Cateran Trail.  I’ve only ever run the race three weeks after the 53-mile Highland Fling and that’s not long enough to recover properly – not if you want to be able to push hard in the second half of the race.  After the Fling, my legs were surprisingly ok – the following Thursday I had even managed to run a local 10k and was surprised that I had been cheeky enough to duck under 40 minutes on an undulating course.  It had been business as usual since then and I’d even pushed a bit too hard on the Wednesday before the race with a lovely round of three 2,000ft hills in the Ochils – because the weather was nice and legs felt fine.

Waiting for the start 

Fast-forward to just before 7am and strolling along to the wee bridge that marks the race start, catching up with David Grieg whom I have epic memories of crossing Rannoch Moor with during the West Highland Way Race a few years ago.  And all of a sudden, Karen is giving a final count down and we’re off. That transition from a static and relaxed world in to one of constant motion for hours on end, punctuated only by the frenetic activity at a check-point.

And they're off! Tim Downie contemplates pushing for the race lead. Photo: Muriel Donie
Already chilling out - although there's a big target painted on my back

I set off at a very relaxed and comfortable pace – no-one else is with me for a moment so I have a minor worry that I’m going to “do a Raffan” and battle it out at the front for a few hours. Luckily Paul Hart passes by for a chat and then kicks up the hill whilst I keep my heart-rate down and amble up at my own pace.  Luckily the others have woken up by now and everyone settles into their own pace. I chat to others as they head through, with Richie and Derek clearly wanting to push on and Olly sticking near them.
Gorgeous countryside as the field heads off at 7am - there's a prize for spotting me
This was not planned, as Mike Raffan said in 2012, it's not your fault if the others start too slow 

The cows have made a field at mile three into a lumpy and unpleasant quagmire (worse was to come) and we all safely pick our way across this to a stile and a jink in the route that has caught out others in the past. I’m now in tenth place which feels about right – there is a bit of a gap behind.

A bit of careless navigation (look up! Don’t just follow those ahead!), a bit of bog trotting, a steeper washed-out track and we’re at the first checkpoint already – Dalnagair castle, 49 minutes, all is good.  Almost all – I’m roasting due to wearing an extra base layer and make the wise decision to get rid of this for the rest of the day since I’m already soaked in sweat. Many thanks to John Munro for getting that back to race HQ.

I’m running with Nicholas Wolverson – he tells me that he runs a 2:43 marathon, but didn’t have a great run recently at the VLM, but still ran 2:57 – he looks the part of a good runner.  Abi from Canada pause at the road junction before the awesome wee castle at Forter so we run together until leaving the road. As the trail kicks up for a 500ft climb, they both move ahead, firstly due to a huge stile and then because I am stubbornly running to my own pace – I’ll see them on the downhill if it’s meant to be.

The descent to CP2 at Kirkton of Glenisla is excellent. I’m relaxed, everything feels good, and I’m closing in on the other runners after losing a minute admiring the scenery discretely back in the woods.  15 miles in and we’re a group of about six – I tactically hang at the back. Craig Mackay gives me a shout – he’s pausing after 70 miles of his double-Cateran race. James Crozier says that he’s dropping out due to aggravating some injury.

There is 80s music and neon, with Julie, Sandra and Helen dancing; I decline a glass of Buck’s Fizz.  Food in, waste a bit of time with plasters (nipples!) and then off we go – ninth place now. Those ahead have crossed the jiggly bridge and gone different ways – the route has been diverted from the usual climb here and I shout to Tony and Allan who have headed the wrong way. Beyond the detour Nicholas and Abi head up the hill where the usual route descends – we call them back and end up running with or near each other for some miles.

The five of us run at different paces – it’s interesting to see how it varies. Nicholas is very strong on the flat and ends up pulling away on the uphill climb over to Alyth. Abi runs very well on every uphill – conversely, I take it easier on the way up, but descend quickly. Tony and Allan run comfortably and efficiently.  We end up arriving at CP3, Den of Alyth a couple of minutes behind Nicholas and I try duct tape this time for my chest. It doesn’t last long, but it did avoid any chaffing issues later in the race so was probably worth it.  Graeme is a star with filling the water bottle and even accepts my (unused) gloves which I decide I’ll not need today.  I exchange a few words with Paul Hart who has had to drop out here – a knee injury spoiling his day out.

27 miles in and the trail is beautiful, with dappled sunlight and a carpet of beech nuts. I know there is a long climb coming up – 500ft of steady, runnable ascent in about two miles but am enjoying running by the burn before this.  I run the long climb on my own, with Tony and Allan ahead to try to chase down. I manage to run more than I walk but it’s not enough to close down on them and the gap stays at about a minute for the rest of this section, although I manage to close it down on the long two mile descent into Blairgowrie – the tarmac is pretty unforgiving for this.

I decide to try to make up for my tardy checkpoint times here and quickly down most of (half?) of my bottle of flat coke, pack other things quickly away and head off with a banana in hand, too quickly to truly appreciate the awesome minion theme of the checkpoint. I cross the bridge below the carpark and as I head away I see Tony crossing the bridge – fast. He soon catches up and is fantastic company for the next seven miles. I can tell that he is stronger than me – it’s that extra step that he takes on every climb – he’s running within himself and looking good. I’ve been mulling over race position in my head and decide that I’m not in a race with him – we’re just sharing the same path on this journey. I tell that I reckon he’s looking good for first MV in the race and that 2nd MV is more than I was expecting today. He’s completely chilled out about this and we both agree that numbers on a spreadsheet soon get forgotten, but the shared journey is what is remembered. Having said that, when there’s an opportunity to do well, it’s worth trying a bit harder: more on that later.

The climb out of Blairgowrie is another long one – over 400ft and I know I should be trying to run this but the legs are feeling too tired. My head says that it’s still too early to be digging deep and that mixing up walking with a bit of running is fine. I know this to be a lie, but go for the fast walk anyway.  Things improve across the fields and down to the Lornty Burn, but the almost-400ft climb (again!) up to the open moor is walked – hindsight says that I wish I had the resolve to go for a slow run up here, but fear of crashing and burning later in the race were in the back of my mind.

Over the moor we take a while to catch up with Morgan, who has now run over 90 miles and is still moving well.  She asks something about others running the 110 double so clearly still has her race-head on. We tell her she is amazing and press on, enjoying the easy descent down to the checkpoint – CP5, Bridge of Cally, 38 miles in.

The next 11 miles were my low point during the race. Not a catastrophe-ridden crash, but more of a slow draining away of my energy. The stats of the race confirm this – maybe only a minute a mile slower than a “good” split but that’s enough to make the difference.  I left the checkpoint feeling full, after a pot of custard and a bottle of banana milk – more than I wanted to eat, but I knew that I needed to get the energy in somehow. Trying to run the next almost 400ft climb through the woods after that was not fun.

In my head, I was hoping to feel like I had in the fling three weeks earlier at this point in the race, with good pace control and steady feeding giving the chance to push on and run well. Nope, that wasn’t going to happen. The uphills were now a proper struggle and the flat bits were becoming far slower than they should have been. 

It was time to speak about what was on my mind – Tony had been a complete star and I truly appreciated his company. He helped to keep me pushing along a bit further and faster than I would have done on my own and he was content to keep it this way. But I felt that I would be denying him places near the front of the race and told him so; it was the right thing to do and I would have been guilty of being selfish if I had said nothing. He ran up the rest of the climb and finished 17 minutes in front of me in third place, so I am glad that he went off to run his own race. Tony – thank you for your company.

I should have been enjoying these beautiful miles far more than I was. The terrain is fabulous, the sun was shining through the trees – the back of my neck got pretty burnt – but it was never too warm, the breeze saw to that. After not seeing any of the trail for three years it was lovely to tread over forgotten twists and turns, with half-remembered views coming and going. There was a short climb at 43 miles past where I had been unpleasantly sick four years back and onto a section of rough narrow path through boggy moorland. I wasn’t going anything like as fast as I had planned here and feel that I must have drifted along in my own world, wanting to get back to the normal track where I could run with some sort of routine.  I wasn’t living in the moment and had started to think ahead about getting to the villages of Kirkmichael and Enochdhu, to the top of the final climb and to the finish itself.  This never helps how you perform in a race.

The track approaching Kirkmichael has been covered in horrible sharp stones. These are a nightmare surface for my Inov8 X-Talons which have next to zero cushioning. I end up balancing on a narrow strip of mud at the side of the track, careful not to fall onto the barb-wire fence. There are people now, generously applauding and saying kind words, and then an unofficial (?) water station, for which I am so grateful. Amanda Hamilton says positive words, fills up my bottle and offers more food – I say I am fine for the latter. Elaine Omand is there too, with lots of positive support.

The next mile is pretty but is one long white bit of track. I pass a group with big rucksacks and ask a couple of questions – they are on day one of two days of a wee expedition and can’t read maps at all. Not a worry for them since they have a supervisor with an even bigger rucksack 20 yards behind them – not the full wilderness experience, but a start.

Then it’s a fun mile through the woods which twists and turns; I wish I could do it justice and speed up. I wish my eyes would adjust a bit quicker to the change in light levels but the effects of over eight hours of running are taking their toll. Across the field, yet another gate or two, across a bridge, follow the orange paint and the Enochdhu checkpoint (CP6) is here. I do speed up and try to look relaxed and in control, in case the next runner asks any questions about the competition up ahead. Flip and Jane are here and I chat as I try to down my bottle of coke (no problem there) and take what I’ll need whilst leaving anything surplus to requirements. They say the next runner is ten minutes ahead but offer encouraging words.

And then it’s over four miles of uphill. The final couple of miles involve a 1000ft descent and I’m looking forward to that, which is more than can be said for the monster climb, the real sting in the tail of this race. 

I amble up the road. It’s not too steep and I run some of it, but not all, even though I could and maybe should.  The mind is a big deal in an ultra and it takes something special to find that extra motivation to push even deeper when it gets hard towards the end.  I didn’t know it, but I was about to get some of that motivation back.

Less than a mile from the checkpoint the path jinks through a farmyard. With no-one to chase and no-one in sight behind me, I had settled into getting to the end in a decent shape and not caring too much about the time on the clock. Yup, guilty as charged. My head is full of getting the job done and enjoying the downhill and being able to stop at the finish. Then I look back down the trail and this all changes.

There is a runner there! And I can tell they are a serious runner since they have the obligatory pair of chest bottles on their ultra-vest. My mind goes into a brief negative cycle: they must be stronger than me to have caught up so fast, they will soon catch me and I’ll have nothing left to fight them leaving me behind. Maybe Nicholas is running well ahead and will make the podium, pushing someone else down to 1st MV, with Tony next and this chasing runner taking 3rd MV from me. There’s nothing like a bit of worrying to make you dig deep!

And I do dig deep. I now have to run everything I could – and maybe a bit more that I thought I couldn’t. I run all the way to next big gate, then all the way to the junction, which is flatter but I try to inject a bit of speed and form now. Then I run into the woods and over a huge stile, over a wee bridge and run all the way to the top of the woods. I slow to look behind once but manage a good shout at myself and break back into a run. Once out of the woods I run the open moor and realise that I am having more fun trying to push harder. There is one tiny, steep rise that I power-walk just after a stream, but then it’s running all the way to the final climb over the pass.

The final Climb - pushing hard (photo: John Mill)

 Then it’s time for things to move the other way, hunter becomes hunted and all that. The chasing runner behind is no longer visible – where are they hiding? Maybe so close now that they will appear from a hidden dip in the path. But someone else is now visible ahead, much to my surprise. From the colours I guess it is Nicholas but only confirm this at the top of the climb.

Checking behind, just in case
Not fast, but it's still running uphill

I take time splits to help me keep pushing – the sign at bottom of that final climb sees me glance at my watch when the runner ahead passes it and again as I get there – 3½ minutes behind. Immediately this is repeated – a twist in the path ahead and when I get there the gap is 2½ minutes. Through a boggy section and repeat for a rock ahead and we’re at 1:10 – this is looking good now, and all the more so since I’d not expected to be able to make up those ten minutes from the previous check-point.

The descent to the finish - as taken by Nicholas Olverson just in front of me

It’s a huge relief to get to the top of the pass where the wind is howling past – I’m looking forward to dropping down the other side where the finish can be seen far below: a couple of miles away and 1000ft below.  Nicholas has stopped to take a photo and I am in complete race-mode now. My hamstrings both threaten to derail my plans with each twinging with cramp, one after the other. I beat them with my fists without slowing down, pleading with them to behave and as the gradient eases slightly, they do.

I pass Nicholas who has clearly been finding things tough and I don’t pause, going for an extra bit of speed down the path. Everything feels great and I am relieved that I can relax and carry the speed with me. I’m loving the descent. Not just being a mile from the end of the race but the way that my legs are behaving and let me fly down the hill – a couple of glances at the watch shows me hitting seven minute miles on the twisting path.

I crash through the new gate that turns the trail onto the final 200m of tarmac and can see no-one behind, although that doesn’t stop me from pushing to the end, even over the pretty bridge (quite a climb!) at the very end. I even reckon my legs will let me get away with a heel click as I go under the arch – I’m told it’s the first of the day, but there’s no prize for that.

Safe landing. It doesn't do to get this sort of thing wrong.

My time is 9:31 and although I’d had hopes of beating my previous 9:21, I was still pleased. 6th place and 2nd MV (again!)  Nicholas arrived a couple of minutes later and my pursuer of five miles earlier turned out to be Peter Harper who finished ten minutes behind me in the end.

Photos: Muriel Downie (thanks!)
All in all, a grand day out. Weather much better than anticipated (again), a better result than expected and so many wonderful people making it all happen. Food, beer and numerous conversations all follow over the next few hours before I turn in early, having to clamber up to the top bunk in Gulabin hostel since the wise runner that arrived earlier than me took the lower bunks.

As ever, the army of organisers, marshals, cook, time-keepers, etc. are too many to be named so I’ll settle for just one sentence of massive thanks for allowing me to have such a good day out.

Lessons learned? The pacing was pretty sensible, but I should have pushed a bit more in the second half. Maybe. These things are so easy to think about with hindsight, but at the time it’s all about managing the hurty parts and treading that fine line between over-doing it and just being a bit lazy. Perhaps I should just count myself lucky that it all went pretty well on the day and look forward to the next one.

That’s the Lakeland 50 in July. And I am looking forward to it, having learned a LOT from the Lakeland 100 heatwave survival epic last summer.