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.