Sunday, 14 October 2018

Adventures into Wonderland Ultramarathon

A new ultramarathon in my backyard? How fantastic! Kristian Delacour and Calum Anderson have been working on putting Fife on the ultramarathon map for quite a while and yesterday their plans became a reality. They put on a fantastic series of three separate races in utterly horrendous conditions and I'm not sure that many people have any idea of just how much effort, love and pain goes into creating this sort of event. Well done on creating a gem, gentlemen.

The Ulramarathon started at 7am, so I only had to pop the alarm on for 5am, have a bit of breakfast and then drive the 13 miles to Lochore Meadows. By a quirk of the Fife roads system, getting here from the west is simply inconvenient, either having to loop to the north around Benarty Hill or braving the Fife villages to the south.

Here's how amazing the route can look when the weather is kind:

The Lomond Hills at their finest (note: actual weather may differ on race day)
That's Benarty Hill in the distance on the far right, with the route heading over here from the other side, a flat section round the bottom right of Loch Leven, then the second, brutally steep climb up from Kinesswood to Bishop Hill (centre right) before heading towards us along the edge of the escarpment, plummeting down the nose of the hill and into that central glen (with that fabulous path, which you should run up and down when you get a chance - it's just one of the best ever). Then the third climb heads up West Lomond on the left of the picture before heading out of shot to East Lomond (hidden behind West Lomond in this shot). Then it heads back in a big loop, with a long (but runnable) climb back over the edge of Bishop Hill and a final climb over Benarty Hill to finish off.

So, six climbs in all, with the four biggest climbs loaded into the first half.

The weather was wet. Double raindrops all day on the BBC forecast, with spate conditions forecast for the burns and rivers. Guaranteed slippery underfoot. I don't think I've ever headed off for a race with such a dismal forecast. I toyed briefly with changing my shoes to something more agressive, maybe a pair of Walshes for maximum grip, but having run the Devil of the Highlands some years ago with a pair of these, I knew that my feet would regret this on all the trail sections in between the muddy bits. So I stuck with the Inov8 Race Ultras, for a bit of cushioning plus reasonable grip, knowing I'd have to be careful on the muddy descents.

The race set-up was very impressive. Lots of marshals, a great theme, although with it being at the end of the week featuring World Mental Health Day, I wondered if anyone might be offended by the "We're all mad here" icons - you know, political correctness and all that.

Race registration was organised well, with a partial kit check (and the promise of another half way into the race), plus timing chip put onto a wrist. With an early start, there was plenty of parking very close to race HQ, which was a welcome relief, so I could leave things in the car and faff about from there. We'd been advised to have a headtorch for the initial section, but I reckoned I could get by without one so threw mine back into the car at the last moment as we headed to the start line.

Although the weather was forecast as wet, wet, wet, it could have been far worse. It wasn't cold, at least not if you kept running, and the strong winds of the previous day had abated so this was never an issue on the exposed hills. There was clag later on, but since I knew all the hills well that could only give me a racing advantage. Just a shame not to have some great views.

A quick chat at the race start, a countdown from ten and then we were off. I started near the back with a bit of a stroll but the first 1km was on flat tarmac with occasional speed bumps to surprise some runners in the dark and I drifted forwards with an effortless pace, chatting to Daniel Kershaw about everything and nothing. Soon, just 50m ahead were the leaders - hadn't been planning on getting quite so close!

A bit of context for my race. 2018 has been a rubbish year of running for me. I went over on my ankle back in January - heard the "crack" as I went over on it - and that stopped me running for some weeks/months. I was a stone heavier than I might normally be and this year's total mileage stood just below 740 miles, about half what it would normally be, and that included solid PWs back in April and July at the Highland Fling and Lakeland 50. It even includes refereeing a few rugby matches (logged as intervals - sometimes over 4 miles a match!) That meant I had low expectations and knew I'd be running some way off what I would be able to do on a normal outing. But it's how things were and it was just great to be able to race an ultra at all.

I've done enough of these races to know when to back off, and the very first climb saw 7 or 8 runners bounce past me, heading up Harran Hill. It was a little darker here, so I latched onto one then another runner with a headtorch for that little extra light under the trees. The trick with these races is to relax on the uphills and mind that your heart-rate doesn't spike, but then enjoy the downhills and get a good speed without much effort. The flat bits are dull in comparison imho, where it's just a case of eating up the miles. I soon warmed up and removed the t-shirt I had on, leaving the base layer only, which (plus jacket later) was just right for day - no need for the gloves/hat/buff that I carried all day.

A steep climb up Benarty Hill with lots of steps, and again I was more than happy to let others overtake and set a faster pace. Once we headed onto the open summit, I found myself right behind two ladies and since my fast walking pace was quicker than their running pace on the twisty trail, I accepted their offer to go past. And so my tally began - two runners passed. It was a bit early (just two and a half miles in) for this sort of thing, especially since I wasn't really racing, but it's part of the mind games for me, and a bit of fun too.
Mad Hatter Ultramarathon Race Route
Off-piste we went on Benarty Hill, leaving the nice trail and going across open grassland, with sheep trods and little else for a while. I was moving a bit faster on the terrain than the next runner (vest and tattoos) so ended up passing (+3) - lots of hill running and a mountaineering background helps for being comfortable on this stuff - before passing a couple of ladies on the northern edge of the hill (+5). I didn't really know who was in front and was happy that way, but they turned out to be 1st and 2nd ladies.

The descent across the top of Benarty Hill was a blast (the Garmin shows 7.5 min/miles on this twisty & muddy section) and although I worried a bit that I was going too fast at this stage in a long race, it was too much fun to not enjoy it. I passed another runner (+6) here and was soon closing on the next as we descended through a wood section and onto the new path that would take us Vane Farm, the RSPB centre at the foot of the hill.

I caught up with Steve Doidge-Harrison, with whom I've run before, but not for some years. Like me, he's been running ultras for some years and we found plenty to talk about on the long descent. CP1 soon appeared and after a tiny square of millionaire shortbread plus hugs for the wonderful Fiona and Pauline Rennie and I headed off for the three flat miles around the SE corner of Loch Leven.

This is easy after only six miles (photo: Fiona Rennie)...
All felt good here, relaxed eight minute miles taking me through the twisting wooded trail, with a surprise chat with Jonathan Millar (watching the race before running in the cross-country races later in the day). A mile later and I passed a runner with some sort of ankle injury (was there a German accent?) which didn't sound good. I wished him luck, and headed onwards, looking through the trees to see if there were others ahead (+8 now).

The straight road away from the loch towards Kinneswood showed three runners within range, 1.5 and 2.5 minutes ahead and although I knew that it was far too early to be thinking this way, used that to keep me moving onwards. The first drop-bag was at CP2 (barely ten miles in) so I topped up the water bottle (with a high5 energy sachet - thanks to the awesome marshals!) and grabbed the couple of food bars as the vest/tatoos runner from earlier came straight past without stopping. Game on!

And so to the second climb - up and up and up. A long steady slog, with steps made out of boot-prints from over the years. Ahead I could see the four runners spotted earlier plus a green jacket half-way up the hill. I took a time check for where he was, a tactic I've used lots over the years: recite what the timer says until reaching that point then see what the gap is. And repeat. It's a good motivator to eat into a lead, maybe 10 seconds at a time, maybe a bit quicker depending on relative paces.

Again, the focus was to climb steadily. I don't wear a heart-rate monitor (just another set of numbers to deal with) but have a pretty good idea of how hard I am pushing. I dialed in a steady pace and by the time we reached the line through the crags above was back with the previous runner (vest/tattoos) and, importantly, had done so at my pace. Once we hit the plateau, I bounced away on the rough ground that I can carry good speed on.

After a recent recce of this northerly section from Bishop Hill to the "Vale" and back up John Knox's Pulpit (the glen in that fab picture at the top of this blog) I was looking forward to this section, with lots of fast running. At the northerly turn, I could see two runners ahead, slightly nearer than before, which was encouraging.

More timechecks on the reascent and the gap kept falling, then a left turn to head up the third climb of the day, West Lomond. Thankfully, the climb headed up the direct and most sensible route - the race website had indicated a more convoluted route - so I dialled in my own steady pace, with three runners now within a minute ahead. It's nice when the gap closes without too much effort.

At the wild and windy summit, the gap was closed to about half a minute. Hats off (literally) to the two marshals on the summit, having to hang around in those conditions for several hours. As an added bonus, the descent followed the main path, initially curving down the hill in the wrong direction, but then looping round the north side of the hill. The website route had had me worried, since it showed us hurtling off the steep and very slippery east side of the hill - so I was glad of the wise and much appreciated route change there.

Now the rain came on properly. We'd been lucky with an intermittent start to the day, with showers on and off, but now we had that persistent sort of rain that just goes on and on for hours. Jacket back on, mind the footing on the slippery mud and look forward to the lovely gradual descent to the east.

And so it was a lovely descent - a couple of eight minute miles on decent trail, trying hard not to kick any stones, passing the targets from the lochside to the summit. I found that the last of these (+9, +10, now +11) was Phil Humphries, another seasoned ultra veteran (super veteran actually) and it was great to share the miles to come with him. We chatted about running, races, injuries, etc. as the miles went by.

East Lomond came next, with a mixture a fast walking on the steeper bits and running whenever it flattened out. A small detour at the top, since it's just wrong not to touch the summit marker, and then began one of the race highlights: a long descent down the eastern edge of the route, which was just a lovely gradient for several miles. I loved it.

Lomonds of Fife section
Guilty admission - my Garmin shows mile 19 as 7:05 min/miles, which includes a slight uphill section, so I really was having fun here. Only slightly tinged with knowing this was still the first half of the race. Phil was having none of it and kept pretty close behind, all the way to CP3 at 20 miles.

In the car-park at Pitcairn and a check-point in a portakabin, where I grabbed a drop-bag, showed other items for a kit check and chatted to Martyn, who turned out to be the target from much earlier in the green jacket (+12)  An effieicent stop, pot of custard consumed, flat coke drunk, racevest bottle refilled, then I was off, on my own this time.

Everything was going well, and although I didn't know how many runners were ahead of me, I guessed I might have been 18th after the first couple of miles, so there couldn't that many. There was even a bit of clear space behind me, confirmed as the trail did a curious switchback on itself and I was releived that we weren't having to add a random climb over Rhind Hill (the website map had shown this). Nevertheless, this was one section of the route that I was most worried about, to the extent that I had printed out a bit of the OS map and laminated it in an attempt to follow the trails around suburbia at the edge of Glenrothes.

But I needn't have worried, it all went well and soon I was on the final bit of round heading out of the housing estates, heading west towards a huge quarry.

Except, I wasn't. The path at the end of the final road turned left... and a bit more left... and more left again. I was now heading south east and it was, plain and simply, wrong. I slowed, made a snap decision and headed back the way I'd come. Maybe there was a path I'd missed? A short detour at the end of the dead-end road followed, but to no avail. Then I looked at the map and realised there was one final turn down another cul-de-sac, straight after the previous right turn - and I'd missed this.

The only sign of this was a bit of red/white marker tape discretely attached to a post a little up here (there were later tales of signs going missing). I was hugely relieved to be back on track and thankful that Martyn and Phil had not yet appeared, so continued on my own.  Here's what happened:

Red arrows show the race route - my extra half mile in blue.

It could have been worse, but extra distance plays with your mind, and I did feel despondent at this point. Add to this the low point in the race, with glycogen depletion kicking in at 20+ miles, the worst "scenery" of the route (the quarry wasn't great, and the unkempt farms next to it had a real Deliverance feel to them), with long mind-numbing tracks (and short very muddy one) that were all slightly uphill.  Having measured my extra detour, it was exactly half a mile, and that equates to 4:30 to 5:00 minutes lost. Others had it worse here, so I've heard.

Oops at mile 22
At almost 25 miles, approaching the Holl reservior (viewing Google satellite images and staring at maps before the race meant I was ready for that section), I was surprised to see two runners not too far ahead. A time check of two and a half minutes meant they were within reach. Jo Murphy and Lesley Halstead were a bundle of happy vibes at the checkpoint and told me I was in 6th place (so I thought my previous 18th on Benarty Hill had been a lucky guess) and to get on up the hill and catch the two runners just in front.

The marathon route joined us here. With their race starting at 9am, only one runner was already through and it was great to hear that the leader was female. The second place runner arrived just as I set off.

The fifth climb was a long one, back over the edge of Bishop Hill (the southerly summit, called White Craigs) and the sting in the tale was that this was a gradual incline and all runnable. That meant digging deep and working a bit harder. To add to the challenge, it all heads west, with some long straight sections that don't do much except climb and climb.

It took me until the wooded section at the very top (thankfully taking the direct route to the "golf ball" at near the top of the hill) that I closed down on another runner in a green jacket. Actually, it was just like Martyn's green jacket. And it looked just like Martyn too...

Martyn was just as surprised to see me.  So the reason I'd not seen them during my scenic detour was beacuse they'd been and gone whilst I was out of sight. Martyn said that Phil had done the same as me, but he'd called him back. Out of the woods and to the top of White Craigs and the marathon runner who was now just in front of me was wondering which way to head off the hill. Years of running and racing up there meant I didn't pause and he followed me down. Phil was just the other side and I shouted which way to go for him too. As well as muttering something about not getting lost. So I was now back to +12 in terms of overtaking.

We all headed down together, careful on the muddy and slippery grass sections. There was a worrying unmarked turn just before the eastern-most hair-pin bend in the trail and I knew that it was a useful short-cut. Although the temptation was strong to "accidentally" head that way and save two or three minutes, I also knew the official route was meant to head onwards and then double back lower down, so said as much as we headed on. I do wonder how many others took the quicker route since there were no markings to be seen here.

A fast descent and then I was leading our group of three along the lovely trail back towards Kinnesswood, where local knowledge meant that I knew the best line (straight down) at the edge of golf course (again, no marking after leaving the trail). Straight through the checkpoint below with more encouragement from Jo who popped up again. The downhill sections helped towards a 8:30 min/mile - it felt faster but such is the effect of the terrain and the previous 30 miles.

The tedious next three miles took us around Loch Leven again, and what had been easy miles were now a struggle. Phil showed his strength by catching up and setting a good pace that I had to work hard to keep with at this stage. Just before the RSPB final CP, I was looking forward to a slight rise for a bit of variety (and the first gel of the day) before we were walking through the tunnel and building works section.

Jo was here again, as positive as ever, saying that third place had only just left. A quick faff with the drop bag - a handful of gels for this final seven mile leg, eat the pot of custard quickly (but not quickly enough as Phil headed off in front of me), glug the wee bottle of coke and then set off up the final climb.

Phil was clearly in race mode, trying to run uphill sections whenever the gradient eased but my uphill walking pace was good and I was soon alongside him as we climbed up into the cloud and cooler wind. It was lovely to see Elaine Sandeman at the highest point of the return leg over Benarty Hill and she said was having a good time and enjoying the Mad Haffer route.

And then it was so busy! There were 6 or 7 people at the end of the trail where the forest tracks begun, wondering which way to go and I recognised Hugh McInnes, one of my two picks for winning the ultra race: he asked which way the route was meant to go. My local knowledge meant I didn't break stride and headed straight on, following the forest trail as it descended south.

So this was a fine thing - 3rd, 4th and 5th in the race, plus the 2nd place (and first male, Paul Young) for the marathon event, all together blasting down the final hill. And the pace was good too (7:30 min/mile) on the rough track. There was a short climb after this and Hugh was in full race mode, running all of it, picking up 30 seconds on Phil and I before we headed down the steps that we had climbed in the gloom at the start of the day.

Heading back over Harran Hill, the final slight climb, I ran it all, and so did Phil, hot on my heels. I let go on the descent and closed the 100m or so to Hugh despite the slippery mud all the way down. Might as well give it all I had.  Alas, this was not to be enough. Although it was great to be racing, properly racing, after 37 miles of an event, Hugh was just too strong, and although I almost closed up on him at the SW corner of Loch Ore, he managed to pull away along the south side of the loch. And to add to this, the earlier strength that Phil had shown on the flat meant that he came alongside and moved away from me.

Sure, I tried, but on the final little rise that parkrunners at Loch Ore will know all about, he opened up the slightest of gaps and it just kept getting wider. My lack of training miles were catching up now  and then I noticed the clock was now past 7 hours (a nominal early finish goal).  The final sting in the tail was getting back to the finish only to be told that we had to keep going round the loch until the next marshal. I'd not been expecting that! The finish was just away to the right, but we had to add an extra mile. Proper humour failure here, especially as I was feeling bad about not having the legs to compete right at the end (maybe getting greedy, but that's racing for you). With no-one behind and no-one to catch in front I even walked a bit (yes! on the flat!) feeling despondent and not caring about a few minutes in the results. That's ultras for you - the highs and the lows; it's always good to finish on a high, but not today: I think I'd used up my supply of those earlier on (mostly on the descents).

Luckily, almost at the finish, I saw the excellent Gordon Donnachie and knowing that his photos are good at showing everyone at their best, got on with a bit of a run towards the finish. Thanks for the kind words and great picture (as ever) Gordon!

The final straight (photo: Gordon Donnachie)
Then I turned the final corner and strolled across the grass to the finish. No crazy sprint finish, no glorious hands-in the air moment. Just the end of a wet day of continual movement. Hey, I know that sounds a bit flat and ungrateful, but it's just where my mind was at that point. Too competitive, eh?

None of that takes away from having a fantatsic race experience, in spite of the weather, controlling the race well throughout (except the last two miles) and getting a result that far exceeded my expectations. Phil ended up in fourth place and took the 1st MV50 place, which meant that I got 1st MV40. That all means that if I'd been a little older, I'd have needed to run that bit harder. On the bright side, it's also inspirational that it's possible to remain competitive as the years roll by.

Wet, wet, wet
A wee note for my clubmate Judith, who finished fifth and second female in the marathon. As far as inspiration goes, she's in her sixites and still racing competitively - how amazing is that?  And to have the marathon event won by a female is great for our sport too. But to top it all is that the female winner of the Ultramarathon was called Alice - something straight from down the rabbit-hole. You couldn't write this stuff (except Lewis Carroll did, of course).

So an awesome thank you to Kristian and Calum for making this all happen. For daring to dream that it could happen, not being daunted by the inclement forecast, recruiting a team of amazing marshals and sorting out more things than I can even think of to make our day out in Wonderland take place. They're planning on doing it again next February - ice axe and crampons may be on the kit list...

Race Bling

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