Sunday, 26 August 2012

Speyside Way Ultra 2012

Rain, Pain and Ben Aigan


Speyside Way Ultramarathon - 25th August 2012


I’m sitting with a group of runners in the school hall in the town of Buckie, up in the North East of Scotland.  We’ve all just run 36.5 miles along the Speyside Way, a race that involved a lot of ankle deep splashing along trails, with a hill of almost 1,000 feet thrown in for good measure.  We all look a bit tired, but at least I’ve managed to get a shower and something to eat.


“Did you see those guys at the start?” asks one of the other runners.  “They just sprinted off like gazelles and disappeared out of sight as soon as the race begun.” I like the imagery of gazelles, although I’m not convinced it’s completely right on this occasion. I raise my hand a little and give a guilty sort of nod. “Hmm, yeah.  That was me.  I needed to warm up at the start…”


I’ve led a race before, but never beyond about 100 metres at the very most.  But this time I was feeling like enjoying myself so just let the legs go and ended up leading until over 12 miles into the race.  It was fun. Then we reached the long, long climb up the hill.


Rewind back a couple of months to the hardest race I’ve yet done.  The West Highland Way Race was the main goal for me in 2012.  It was epic.  Maybe it didn’t quite go according to plan, when I couldn’t manage more than a walk after 50 miles, but I picked it up later and finished in a decent enough time. And was soon thinking about recovery until my ankles swelled up for a week, not helped by the fact that I was straight back at work for the following week (no choice there) so that didn’t help.  And the following week I managed to run just 7 miles, so it was going to take a while.  Since I’d got used to heading out for a five mile (slow) run the day after any of my previous ultras, this was bad news.


Others had told me that I should expect a good three months to get back to how I felt before the race – that’s quite a while for post-race recovery.  I didn’t want to be twiddling my thumbs for that long so had entered the Cyldestride 40 just four weeks afterwards, not expecting to be racing at top speed, but just wanting something else in the diary to work towards.  After a couple of weeks of recovery I was having to think about tapering already and started worrying about a lack of training miles.


The Clydestride turned out to be great fun – 40 miles of exploring trails that were new to me (and the centre of Glasgow).  My legs did feel deeply tired though and I felt bad around miles 22 to 27, but things picked up towards the end and I picked up a few places to finish in 5:42 and 7th place.  I was more than happy with that, all things considered.


That was followed by three weeks of travelling with a car-full of kids and suitcases, covering a big triangle down the East side of England, followed by a week and a half in Devon.  Last year on holiday I did the typical running ‘Dad’ thing and set the alarm for 6am each morning to get out for 1½ to 2 hours before everyone else was up.  This year was completely different, since trying some new shoes while in Yorkshire left me having to walk the final half a mile of that run back to the in-laws’, something that’s never happened to me before.  I ended up deciding it was plantaris tendonitis and the stabbing pain down the inside of my lower leg, coupled with a bit of swelling around the ankle fitted with a self-diagnosis via Google.  The only cure seemed to be to not run for a while.


That was bad news, but I guess it could have been worse.  Instead of building up some really good mileage and getting race fit again, I ended having a summer off-season with next to no running at all.  Added to that, all the friends and family we were visiting, combined with holiday eating and drinking meant I quickly put on half a stone (and a bit more) and I had been more hippo than gazelle to begin with anyway. 


So I stood in the pouring rain in Ballindalloch on Saturday 25th August, just before 9am, with very well rested legs.  Just 48 miles of running in all of August had followed after tearing (?) my calf muscle at the end of the previous week, so I’d had another week with no miles in my legs at all.  The reasonable and calculated thing to do here would be to react and adapt to the circumstances, to have a sensible plan like starting the race gently and seeing how the legs would cope.

Rain, rain and more rain

But that would hardly be much fun would it?


The rain wasn’t the light showers that had been promised.  It maybe wasn’t quite the apocalyptic conditions of two months earlier, but it was hammering down, and I was questioning my decision to just wear my club vest and a very thin jacket, which has almost zero waterproofness.  The emergency buff was called into play but I was still very cold and starting to shiver as I strained to hear the race briefing above the falling rain.

Splashing straight through the puddles as the race started

A short wander down to the nearby pond, which doubled as a disused railway line and in fact was the start line for the race, with RD Sarah simply saying, “ok, off you go” and we started moving.  I was now feeling cold, wanting to move, so I went off at a good pace, with not much of a plan apart from getting myself warmed up.  Being right at the front was actually a big help in deciding which puddles were best for splashing through.  Before long I was with (doc) Andrew Murray and Donnie Campbell and we chatted away, catching up on how things had been since we’d last seen each other on training runs and races. 


It’s said that being able to hold a steady conversation is a good way to regulate your speed, but we still averaged seven minute miles to the first check point.  Gareth Mayze soon joined the group and I ended up having a great time chatting to these guys, who I have so much respect for (all race winners in 2012) – thanks for your company (if you’re reading this), it was a pleasure running with you.


Having no real plan for any race strategy was probably a good thing.  I was just enjoying being in the moment, pushing the pace a bit, but never over-extending myself, and always being in control of the pace.  I’d looked at last year’s results and had felt that five hours was a pretty good target to aim for, partly because my friend Mike had run 5:01 last year and I reckoned it might annoy him a bit if I could be quicker.  But that averaged out at just over eight minute miles which felt pretty daunting. 


At one point as we ran passed the distinctive smell of distilleries I was running with Donnie at the front and he picked up the pace, but I was comfortable to go with him, not realising that he’d only sped up because he was about to head behind a tree for a wee break.  So I enjoyed a short time completely on my own before things came back together after we reached the car-park in Craggelachie, forcing the marshal from their car to hurriedly put her hi-vis vest on and direct us towards the riverside path.

Check point one at 12 miles and the rain is getting serious

Wading into the first checkpoint - Gareth tries to avoid getting splashed

I came into the first check point with Gareth and had to hunt for my drop-bag.  Found it, nope that was another identical one with the wrong number, then looked again and got the right one.  I grabbed it, unopened, and headed off with Jim Robertson helpfully directing my in the right direction, through the biggest “puddle” of the day.  Across the road bridge and starting to climb the hill before Ben Aigan – to find that I was all on my own again for a short while.  But it wasn’t long before Andrew caught up, with the true gazelles soon bringing the group back together and we ran four abreast for a while, sharing thoughts on the world.  Happy days.


I sorted the drop-bag on the run – a couple of gels stowed away, a cereal bar into another pocket.  Drink bottle into main pocket of the bumbag, and banana eaten last of all.  Then we hit the main climb and the group splintered.


I’d had Donnie and Gareth down as my picks for the top two places and, true to form, they headed up that hill at a blistering pace.  After the “comfortable” pace up to this point, there was no way I was going to try and climb the hill like that, so I “let them go” (!) with Andrew trying to stick with them, but with a gap opening up.  The race was on and I now had to think about getting to the end without the company of those early miles.


I’m used to climbing hills.  It’s what I did before getting into running, and it’s where I do much of my training.  But throw in over 700ft of ascent halfway through a big race like this and it fells quite different.  I concentrated on relaxed running with a good turnover and was mightily relieved when the Garmin said I was up to 960ft and the trail headed downhill for good.  It was a steep downhill at that, and the pounding soon had me looking about uncomfortably for the right tree to pause behind.

Note the steep bit in the middle

With only a couple of minutes wasted in the undergrowth, I watched a couple of runners zipping past, making the most of the downhill.  So what was that? 4th and 5th now gone, putting me in 6th place. Once I know what the number is I can’t forget it, even though it was still much too early to worry about such things.


Hitting the tarmac at 19 miles there was a mile long section along the road and I could see the two runners just in front of me.  But I also glanced behind me as I turned onto the road and could see three more runners, one after the other, closing down on me.  The mile along the road went on for longer that I was expecting it, with a bit of a climb in the middle, and the first two runners headed past me with some good, fast road-running.  I had a few words with Craig Stewart, who I’d been expecting to see at some point and followed him down the trail towards the river, enjoying the downhill and a good bit of pace again.


But I didn’t enjoy the steep hairpin just beyond, with a sharp pull at the top of it.  Again, I lost another place, and even found myself thinking that this might be a day to be pleased with a top ten finish – no shame in that with so many strong runners and my list of excuses.  The next corner brought a strange sight: the road was completely straight for a little over half a mile and there in front of me were spread no fewer than the next six runners.  I glanced at the watch for a time check and found that we were all covered by just four minutes, so there was still plenty that could happen before the end of the race.  But would I slow down or would I pick it up later on? Had my crazy (but fun) early miles been too foolhardy?  And a glance behind me on that long bit of road showed the tenth place runner just a couple of minutes behind.  Time to suck it up and get on with some running.

Targets ahead

After 24 miles was the second drop-bag station.  Just before here I had my only walk of the day – for less than a minute, but it was a steep climb and I’d have saved little by running it – and it was good to use different muscles, even briefly.   I called out my number to the waiting marshal ahead and was then distraught to find that the marshals, in an attempt to be helpful, had opened my bag and laid the contents out on the table. Noooo! So I had to grab things and stuff them into the relevant pockets rather than just grabbing the bag and shooting straight off.  Oh well, no real harm done, just half a minute lost.


I headed towards the delightfully named town of Fochabers eating my pot of custard (I’d remembered to put a spoon into the bag too), and then looking for a bin to dump the pot, along with the empty bottle of flat coke that I’d washed down the yogurt with.  Gotta love this ultra-food!

And that’s when I saw Craig ahead, walking - and limping.  He’d damaged his knee and soon had to call it a day.  The next two runners were a little closer now, so I tried to pick up the pace a bit, knowing that 7th and 6th places were within a minute of me again.


One of the great things about the race was the excellent signs, markings and marshals.  We were well guided through the town, and I was soon running with, and then past, the next runner, who had to stretch out some cramp for a few seconds at one point but told me he had to keep going since he was from Buckie so had to get back home.  26.2 miles came and went with 3:29 on the clock.


I really enjoyed the trail heading north from Fochabers to Spey Bay.  This was a very runnable part of the trail, flat and a good surface, without the giant puddles and ponds we’d had earlier.  Except for one section of farm track between tall hedges, where there were lots of cut-back gorse (?) stumps sticking out of the ground.  This was just as I came round a corner, still tracking the 6th place runner in front of me to find we were closing in on 5th place – maybe I got distracted for half a moment.  Before I knew it my foot had caught a wee stump and I was heading rapidly down to the floor, perilously close to impaling myself on another two inch bit of wood sticking out of the ground. My left hamstring tightened with the force and shock of the impact and I was suddenly looking along the track towards the two runners ahead, now moving quickly away.


“Get up!” my brain screamed. And I did, immediately starting running again, not too fast at first – that’s cramp for you, balancing out the adrenaline burst – but gradually picking the pace up to what it had been before. And as the next couple of miles clocked up, 28 miles – tick, 29 miles – tick, I gained another couple of places, as the 5th placed runner started to walk with cramp and then, just before Spey Bay, we passed Andrew Murray, who was having a bad time of it, despite putting a positive face on as we passed.


So what was that now? Back up to fifth place, and fourth was the same runner who had been slightly ahead since the previous drop-bag station.  We were very well matched for pace, keeping a steady gap of about 20 seconds for mile after mile.  That changed at the water station when he stopped briefly to meet a support crew and I glugged a cup of water and headed straight off.  Wow! Fourth place – again, but instead of this being after 14 miles, we’d now covered 32, so only 4½ to go.


Time to get moving now as the trail rolled over and round and through a very pleasant bit of woodland where getting any sort of decent rhythm proved tricky.  But it wasn’t just the terrain that was difficult now – all that early speed, and the lack of miles in the legs… and maybe the deep weariness from two months earlier… it all combined to make those last few miles very tough.  I wanted to run smoothly and efficiently but my legs were not having it.  The earlier fall which had started the cramp in my hamstring hadn’t helped, and despite taking plenty of regular energy gels and keeping the fluid intake steady, I was finding the pace hard going.  As might be expected after 32 miles and more.


And the bad news was that the previous runner was there just behind me after what must have been a very short stop at Spey Bay.  At 33 miles we came out of the woods and along another old railway line path – one where there is no hiding and you can see what is ahead and behind for a long way.  I wanted to hang on to fourth place and was used to finishing pretty strongly, but today I just couldn’t do so.  In fact, by the time we hit the road at mile 34, he was right behind me and very quickly moved ahead.  I’d never been racing like this so close to the end of an ultra and we both knew that fourth place, and probably the 1st MV trophy was up for grabs.  But he had closed easily on me and was now moving away so my head was telling that I was beaten.


Time for another “dig deep, and then a bit deeper still” moment.  I wasn’t about to give this one up without giving it 100%.  I’d do all I could and then hang on until the end – even after 36.5 miles I’d still back myself in a sprint (it’s what I’m built for really).  So I dug that bit deeper and tucked in, focusing on every step, every swing of each arm, counting to 100 a few times to try to keep some sort of rhythm.  This was proper, serious racing now.  There was no conversation, apart from a moment where the official route was signed onto the beach and I said the race instructions were to stick with the pavement.  For two miles, I clung on, never with a thought of running alongside or trying to get ahead, just giving every fibre of my being over to not letting go.


And it hurt. As we came into Buckie, with just half a mile to go, I could feel tingling in my arms and legs – not a good sign.  And then my right leg started to threaten to cramp, all along the inside of the quads, the last thing I needed for a good finish.  Looking at the splits it was pretty desperate racing – those last three miles were only just under nine minute miles, so it was way off the easy pace earlier that day.  And then the bungee between us stretched and stretched and the gap in front of me opened.  And the bungee snapped.  I kept pushing, since you never know what might happen in these situations, but through the pain that must have been showing on my grimacing face there must have been some sort of realisation that this battle wasn’t going to end my way today.  I’d dug deeper than I thought I could but had been properly beaten by a runner who had the edge on the day.


Still, it wasn’t all bad, since that top-ten finish was looking pretty secure now and that final effort looked to have made the five hour target come true.  Another corner and a steep pull up the final short and sharp hill and then I could see the finish line, with the first three runners chatting and waiting.  A look at the watch and I knew that five hours was looking good so I relaxed and finished things off, trying to look like I was in control and not fearing that my legs would cramp up, leaving my crawling over the line, like you might have seen happen in that Ironman video on youtube.

Vital rehydration strategy

I’d have bitten your hand off for that time and place earlier in the day – 4:58:46 and 5th place – so was pretty pleased that things had worked out.  I’d had my cake and eaten it (but no icing on the cake today).  Donnie turned out to have won in 4:31, about ten minutes ahead of Gareth (I’d predicted 4:25 for a winning time, so not too far away), and the a guy with a crazy Mohawk had run a great race to finish in third.


Now is as good a time as any to say a big thank you to Sarah and all the other marshals for making the race such a success – I made a point of thanking every marshal I passed since the race can only happen if they’re willing to stand about in the rain and give up their time so we can do these crazy things.


Next up is the River Ayr Way Race in just under three weeks.  I reckon that gives me a week to recover followed by a fortnight for a taper.