This year, we’ve been to all three of Selkirk Fund Runners‘ races – Feel The Burns, the Heartburn Run, and the third and final race of the year – the Philiphaugh Hill Race. It’s a great summer hill race suitable for all abilities with 4 mile and 7 mile routes. The 4 mile route is open to walkers as well as runners and is child and dog friendly, although children under 12 have to be accompanied by an adult… if they can keep up! Both races are competitive for faster runners but equally fun and accessible to those that want to challenge themselves at any pace. A friendly, low key, race with great volunteers and marshals. It’s a pay on the day event (£8 adults and £5 children) and was raising funds for the Selkirk Play Park Project.
We had had the date on the calendar for a while as Iain really enjoys these races and Julie enjoys them afterwards 🤣 (they always remind her she needs to run hills more in training and how much she really enjoys hill running!). This year it coincided with Iain’s sister and family visiting from Spain so we roped them in to running as well, making it an extended Miles Together family outing! We ran the 7 mile route and Iain’s sister and husband (Cat and Teun), Isla, Lewis and Angus all ran the 4 mile route. Their girls were a little young to walk so stayed at home with their Granny and Grandpa, Auntie Fiona and Rhona.
Registration was straightforward at Selkirk Rugby Club and then a short walk to the start at the Corbie Linn car park. Sheila Cochrane, the organiser, gave a no-nonsense race brief and we were off! Instead of going straight up the stony track, this year we went through the field used for the Feel The Burns start/finish, trading loose stones for off-camber, tussocky grass 🤷♂️ Back on the track, the route climbs steadily towards the Top Pond, where the 4 mile route turns left towards Tibbie Tamson’s grave and the 7 mile route heads straight on up to the top of the Three Brethren. It’s not that steep but after climbing for over two miles at pace it feels it! An about turn and back down again before turning right along a heathery trod and crossing the almost dry burn before heading up the “Rocky Road” and on to the top of Foulshiels Hill. From here it’s pretty much downhill all the way to the finish, starting with a steep descent on the hillside and into the woods where the 4 mile route joins back on from the left. A short section of rooty path leads back onto grassy fields before plunging back again into the forest. Finally, across of a couple of fields, over a little kicker of a rise and a downhill sprint to the finish line!
Everybody was very pleased with their results:
Iain: 56:11, 11th place – 7 minutes faster than last time (2016!)
Julie: 1:11:01, 33rd place – good pace, only a few weeks after KACR
Teun: 34:52, 2nd place
Lewis: 39:47, 6th place
Angus: 48:38, 18th place
Cat: 48:56, 19th place
Isla: 50:51, 21st place
After the finish we headed back to the rugby club for some food (only a little as roast dinner was being prepared by Granny!) and drink (the bar was open)! Sadly none of us were lucky enough to win a spot prize, but there’s always next year 🤞
Despite being a little bit down on numbers compared with pre-COVID, the event raised a total of £758.50 for a worthy cause. If you’re reading this and are in the area, please do come along to this or any of Selkirk Fund Runners events – you’ll be very welcome, and will definitely leave with a smile on your face and maybe some sore legs!
I had become interested in the KACR after Iain raced and finished second in the LLCR last year. I was interested to see what it felt like to run for that long (and if I could) and it had the added bonus that being in the summer holidays the kids could stay with my family and Iain would be able to crew me. It was going to be my A race of the year with everything else planned around it. Plan A was to finish in under 32hrs, plan B under 36hrs and plan C under 40hrs. Training had gone well and everything was in place for a great race. We were back from our long distance walk, which had been many hours on the feet and I was at the start of my taper when I started to feel ill. I tried to convince myself it was just a cold, just a sore throat, nothing too bad but no, after avoiding it for the last 2 and a half years, I finally had COVID. I was gutted, I stopped all running and rested as much as possible but with Iain away at work and the children on holiday it wasn’t easy. Thankfully it was never worse than a bad head cold and I didn’t get a fever or muscle aches but even so I was convinced my race was over. When Iain got home he was cautiously more positive and we decided that as long as I tested negative before the race I would start. It was too late for a refund so I may as well go, take it easy, enjoy the race and see how it went. I tried a couple of 2 mile runs race week and felt fine but was still struggling to feel enthusiastic about the race. Nonetheless we packed everyone and everything into the car and headed to my parents in Kent to drop off the children. An order to Boots for lateral flow tests and thankfully all were negative (everyone got to take one!) just before race day!
Having left the kids with family we drove to Taplow station where we planned to leave the car overnight and get the train in to Paddington on the new Elizabeth Line. We arrived at registration on the Thursday evening and collected my number and also paid for a race belt and Rivers Trust key for the toilets. Then we headed to our accommodation for the night at the nearby EasyHotel. We had opted for the cheapest room we could find as we were going to have to get up at 4am anyway so no point paying loads! It was everything you would expect for a small double with no windows but at £37 for the night was at least cheap and private. Having dropped off our bags we headed out to get food. We had tried to get a table at the Zizzi by the canal at Paddington but despite having lots of empty tables they weren’t taking extra bookings due to staff shortages. However I now really fancied pizza and being gluten free this isn’t always straight forward! Iain had a quick look and found another Zizzi 15min away which we booked a table at and then had an enjoyable walk across.
I still wasn’t feeling race ready but the food was great and I had a lovely gluten free pizza and we shared some olives. We walked back to the hotel, stopping at Tesco for a few bits we had forgotten! Back to the room and a nice early night. I still couldn’t believe the race was tomorrow and was still unsure how my body would respond after COVID. I had decided I would just have to go on effort (easy) and keep an eye on my heart rate and stop if things didn’t go right. This was really hard as I like to give my all at a race and be competitive! Surprisingly I feel asleep quickly while Iain tossed and turned in the small hot basement room (you could hear the underground trains passing) and then at 23.30 the fire alarm went off and we all piled out onto the pavement hoping we wouldn’t be there for too long. 10 mins later the EasyHotel worker came out to tell us he had done all the fire checks and it was just a false alarm and we were probably fine to go back to our rooms – always reassuring! It took longer to get back to sleep this time but I did manage and before I knew it the alarm was going off at 4 am. It was race day!
A quick shower while Iain went to reception to use the coffee/hot water machine for black coffee and porridge. I was running in my trailblazer Flanci shorts as I love the thigh pockets and know they are comfortable for long races. I taped both knees as a precaution (I have already had meniscal surgery on one knee and the other one has swollen on a 100 miles race before) and wore a white T-shirt because it was going to be hotter than I am used to. I left my hair wet figuring it would cool me down at the start of the race and soon dry! In my race vest I carried 1.5 litres of KMC Isomix fluid, 500ml of water, a raincoat, survival blanket, first aid kit, 6 gels, a bag of love corn and bag of jelly sweets and I had my phone in my thigh pocket. I wore Inov8 TerraUltra 270, I love these shoes but made the mistake of wearing a new pair that I had only worn for about 15 miles (I had planned to wear them during taper runs which hadn’t happened). They were comfy but the upper fabric was a bit stiff and caused bruising over the race. Lesson learnt in not wearing new shoes on race day!
We headed to Little Venice for the start just after 5 (Race start was 6 am) and we were able to get a lovely cup of tea from the race volunteers. A short queue for the canal toilets (the queue did get longer!) and then a short wait for the start. I got a fright when 2 rats ran past another runner as we waited in the queue for the toilets. I don’t know why I was surprised as we were on the canal in the middle of London! Iain had all his instructions and was calm and positive as always, he was going to have to work out my timings to aid stations on the go as I had no idea what my post COVID pace would be like! Crews weren’t allowed at the first check point so I had arranged to meet him on the canal at West Drayton (at 16 Miles) as it was right next to the train station so he could see me there before picking the car up and heading to the second check point.
Start – CP1 (Hambrough Tavern): 11.6 miles
Just before 6am Dick called all the runners together for a quick race briefing and then we headed down onto the canal path for the start. I was well aware people often head off too fast and was determined not to make the same mistake, I was starting with a 10min easy run/5 min walk strategy hoping to average about 11 min/mile. At 6 am we were off, Iain had nipped along to the next bridge so I was able to give him a wave as we headed on our way along the canal path. My pre-race nerves had calmed down and I soon found my place as the runners spaced out along the canal path, I was definitely in the middle of the pack. As is always the case at the start of long races a few people changed position over the first few miles as everyone found their own pace and rhythm. I was just happy I was running and everything felt ok!
The first 12 miles out of London to the first check point don’t have any navigation as you just stay on the left hand side of the canal. It was still a nice temperature and time passed really quickly. I started run/walking from the start and although it felt funny walking so early in the race I think it really helped me to keep running for much more of the race than I would otherwise have been able to. It also meant I was able to eat and drink regularly. I was soon at CP1 where I didn’t stop as I had plenty to get me to Iain at West Drayton and I was keen to see him and tell him I was feeling ok! About a mile on from the check point, at Bull’s Bridge you cross over the canal so you are now on the right hand side for the first time. The paths out of London are all good canal towpaths, so nice running, the main hazard being cyclists (although most did have bells) and I soon saw Iain on the canal path ahead. I topped up my water and had a quick chat before heading on. He had been able to help another runner who had already been short of water when they saw him! I was actually keeping to my race plan at this point which I was surprised and pleased about.
CP1 – CP2 (Marsh Lane): 15.4 miles
Just over a mile after seeing Iain you cross over a footbridge onto the Slough Arm of the canal and just over 5 miles later you come to the end of the canal and turn left to run down through the centre of Slough. The navigation wasn’t difficult as you just keep straight until you have passed under the M4, cross over the river and then turn right onto the Jubilee River Path. There were a lot of roads to cross but they all had pedestrian crossings which made things easy. I passed a few runners as we headed through Slough and then once we got back onto the river path a few of them overtook me again! It was hot by now and although you follow the river you don’t often get to see it as there are a lot of trees and bushes in the way. This part of the run felt really hot and the path was unpleasantly dusty. I passed a few more runners as we headed to CP2 and I had a few chats along the way. This helped as there wasn’t much of interest to look at on this section. Thankfully time was still passing quickly and I was soon at CP2 at 27 miles and was still keeping to my race plan. Iain was waiting at the check point where they noted down my bib number and then Iain ushered me to the car which was parked in the car park across the road. He had been to Tesco and had choc ices which were fantastic, I also had a cup of coke and some water melon and replenished all my gels and nibbles and fluids. I also swapped my buff for a lovely cold wet one. Iain was super organised and I was soon on my way again.
CP2 – CP3 (Flower Pot Inn): 14.4 miles
I got chatting with another runner for the next section which was nice, she was very experienced with the canal races and it was good to chat as we ran (and walked!) The next few miles go through the edge of Maidenhead and do require some navigation, but the maps provided were great (and I had looked on Google maps in advance). There had been a nasty looking car accident on the bridge but luckily by crossing over to the opposite path we were allowed to pass. It was then a right hand turn just before the roundabout to join the Thames path, a short run on pavement by the road before the river path heads behind the houses and away from the road. A mile and a half later and we were heading away from the river again and in to a little village called Cookham. I had a lovely surprise as I saw Iain parked on the roadside. He had had to take a detour because of the accident in Maidenhead and so thought he would surprise me. This was great as I could get some more water melon and it was just nice to see him. I was also able to use the public toilets in Cookham as you run straight past them in the car park. I noticed I was getting dehydrated (dark wee!) which concerned me so I made a big effort to make sure I was drinking more!
I was back running on my own now which was actually working better for me but I was yo-yoing with a couple of the other runners which was entertaining. As it got hotter I was beginning to slow a bit and during the next section I did drop off my race pace and was averaging 12 – 12:30 min/miles to the next check point. A short way out of Cookham you cross to the right hand side of the river which you follow into Marlow. Some navigation was required through Marlow but thanks to Google maps I knew where the path went between 2 brick walls so it wasn’t tricky. The section around Hurley was busy but after that it was much quieter. The path for this section is just a well worn track in the grass which was a nice change! It was still hot and I was ready for check point 3. After mile 40 you cut away from the river and head up to meet a country estate road which you run on for a short while before heading off on a path to the left. This section felt surprisingly uphill after the flat paths! Finally I saw Iain waiting for me and we walked to the car in the car park of the Flower Pot Inn and CP3. It was now mid afternoon and my legs weren’t liking the folding chair Iain had for me to use! I changed socks here, replenished supplies and grabbed another cold buff and a cup of coke.
CP3 – CP4 (The Cunning Man): 14.6 miles
I was soon on my way again, heading behind the pub and back onto the Thames path. This section follows the river round to the road where you cross over Henley bridge to run on the right hand side of the river. This section was again busy with lots of people and boats and lots to look at. My first mistake came as the Thames path heads onto a wooden walkway. A clear sign said Thames Path closed and had diversion signs. In my head I thought we had been told there were no diversions so headed out on the walk way anyway only to get 2/3rds of the way round it to find it was closed! The tourist must have been very amused by me! I retraced my steps but was completely thrown! I followed the diversions signs up the road but felt very unsure so asked a group of teenagers if I was heading the right way. They assured me I just had to go a bit further up the road before the diversion was signposted off to the left (and there were in fact runner signs). I was back on track but annoyed with myself over the whole thing. It wasn’t long before I made my second (and last) navigational mistake. While heading through Lower Shiplake I saw the Thames path signposted to the left and followed it. I was unsure if I was on the right path or not but saw 2 runners ahead which reassured me as I wasn’t feeling confident after the previous mistake! It wasn’t until I was a fair away along the path around the field that I realised I was doing a big loop around a field that I didn’t need to do. I was gutted. I got back on the correct path but was so upset with myself and phoned Iain in tears ready to stop. I was hot and tired and felt like I had added miles onto an already long race! Iain calmed me down and said he would head back and meet me at the next point he could at Sonning bridge.
I carried on run/ walking and thinking of all the reasons it was time to call it a day. I saw Iain as I headed to Sonning Bridge and burst into tears again. He was fantastic and walked me to the car where he gave me chocolate! It made a massive difference and after a few minutes I was ready to head on again. It was lucky Iain had been at the bridge as he was able to save 2 other runners from heading off course by calling them back and pointing them in the right direction. I was able to carry on chatting to another runner for a while. It was amazing how much some chocolate could improve my mood and a reminder to eat before making any rash decisions (like calling it a day!) 2 miles after Sonning bridge you have to cross onto the Kennet and Avon canal. I was being very careful not to miss the bridge!
Once on The Kennet and Avon canal you head into Reading, again the maps provided were great and having looked at Google maps in advance I was feeling more confident (if a little cautious) about navigation! I chatted to another runner as we headed into Reading which also helped with my mood. It is funny running through shopping areas and restaurants but meant there was lots to look at. I don’t remember much of the next few miles until check point 4 where it was nice to see Iain again. He was parked by the bridge just before the check point and had everything ready for me again. A quick stop, some food, replenish supplies and a new wet buff (I was still finding it too hot!). I picked up my bag of night time supplies (head torch, spare battery, small power bank) just in case I didn’t make it to check point 5 before dark. It was also nice to get a quick chat with another runners crew – he had been struggling after getting too hot during the day. I was soon on my way past the check point, making sure they noted my number as I passed. I was looking forward to reaching check point 5 as that is where buddy runners were allowed and Iain was going to run short sections with me.
CP4 – CP5 (Bull’s Swing Bridge): 13.1 miles
Again this next section just passed by, I had got back into a run/walk rhythm and although my pace had slowed I was doing ok, there were a couple of slow miles but most were around 13mins. I met some nice folk on this section with people asking what the race was – when I explained people were surprised and impressed! One gentleman said I was a hero which nearly made me cry in my slightly fragile emotional state! There was also a field of cows but they all seemed quite friendly and used to people on the canal path. Iain actually met me before the check point at the bridge crossing in Thatcham as I had asked for cheesy chips but he had miscalculated my timings so had them ready too early. The were pretty much cold and he had eaten half of them but I didn’t mind too much and still enjoyed eating them as I walked along the canal. It seemed to take forever to reach check point 5 but finally I was there. You have to cross Bull’s swing bridge to the check point and Iain had the car parked on the road behind. I realised at this check point that sitting on the back of the car was a lot more comfortable than trying to get up and down into the folding chair!
CP5 – CP6 (Oakhill Down Bridge): 13.4 miles
Iain was able to join me as a buddy runner from this check point which was a real boost as he ran the next 3 miles with me. We headed off at about 9pm, overtaking a few runners and I was feeling better now the temperature had dropped a bit. Iain was with me as we ran through Newbury which was great as he was able to take charge of navigation. Having looked at Google maps before hand was again a great help as it meant I was more confident in the town. I needed my head torch from Newbury on but was feeling surprisingly awake if a little sore legged! Iain left me just after Newbury to run back to the car and after crossing to the right hand side of the canal navigation was again easy as there were no crossings for about 7 miles. I had managed 13min/miles with Iain but after he left my pace again slowed. This was mainly because the path became more overgrown and harder to run on as you went on! A runner earlier in the day had commented on how the paths were uneven and overgrown between CP5 and CP7 (it was actually a bit further than this), at the time I hadn’t thought too much of it but it did make it hard going and meant I walked more than intended! There was also a lot of low branches at head height which required lots of ducking and was annoying in the light of the head torch as they created lots of glare and made it harder to see the path ahead. I passed some other support crews at different road crossings along the way and they were always very helpful asking if I needed anything, luckily I was fine! Just before 80 miles (about 83 on my watch) you cross to the left hand side of the canal which you stay on for about 15 miles. Thankfully check point 6 was only about 3.5 miles along but it’s funny how long that can seem to take when you are tired and moving slowly!
CP6 – CP7 (The Barge Inn): 15.4 miles
Iain was again there to meet me and had everything ready for a quick stop. A cup of tea went down really well here, although I was still moaning about being too hot! Iain was also able to tell me I had moved up to second place lady which was a big shock and a bit of a confidence boost. I hadn’t seen any ladies on the last section so I think they must have still been at CP5 when we left. We left CP 6 at 12.30am and Iain got to experience how horrible the paths were (they actually got worse) with head height overgrowth and uneven footing. I was also anxious about accidentally running into some giant hogweed (there was a lot of very large cow parsley along the path but no giant hogweed that I saw) or accidentally falling in the canal on the uneven paths some of which were eroded into the canal. My feet were also beginning to get a bit sore. But I was still moving OK, if at a slightly slower pace and I was still running sections where I could. I averaged just under 16min/mile for this section. Iain again ran about 4 miles with me which was fantastic. At one point we ran past a house next to the canal that had left goodies out for runners as they passed. This again nearly had me in tears at such a kind and thoughtful act. Iain headed off back to the car using the road part of the way to avoid some of the overgrowth! He was hoping to get a little sleep at the next check point which I was pleased about as I was worried about him doing so much running, driving and not sleeping.
Surprisingly I didn’t struggle with tiredness through the night. I got into a rhythm of fast walking/ running when the path allowed, put my head down and just got on with it. The overgrowth was annoying and my legs and feet hurt (and I was still too hot) but time passed by. At about 95 miles (on my watch) I saw a runner stopped up ahead. As I got close I saw it was the first placed lady. I asked if she was ok and she said she was fine, she was busy sorting her bag, so I headed on past realising I was now in first place. I couldn’t believe it! A couple of miles later I was carefully checking bridge numbers to make sure I didn’t miss the crossing to the left hand side of the canal. The bridge numbers make this easy but I was still nervous of making another navigational mistake. I passed 100miles on my watch in about 22 and a half hours which I was really pleased with as it was my first sub 24hr 100miles. And then I saw Iain up ahead as he had ran a mile and a half out of the checkpoint. He had managed a 15min power nap and was feeling much better for it. CP 7 was in the car park of the Barge Inn and they were kindly allowing runners to use their toilets, which was much appreciated! The fantastic volunteers here made me a wonderful cup of tea and Iain sorted out all of my supplies for the next section. I also put on a long sleeved top here as I was beginning to feel cold. We mentioned to the volunteers to keep an eye out for the lady who I had passed and then headed back on our way at about 4.30am.
CP7 – CP8 (Parsons Bridge): 17.6 miles
Dawn was breaking and the temperature had dropped notably. Iain just ran a mile and a half with me as we had arranged for him to meet me at Caen Hill Locks with a bacon roll. I was on my own again and this next section was harder – there was now a mist over the canal and all of the overgrowth was wet. I was soon soaked and ended up putting on my rain coat to keep warm but was still shivering at times. My feet were also now really sore especially if my feet slipped at all in my shoes which was happening a lot on the uneven paths. My feet were squelching with every step with the amount of water in my shoes from the wet overgrowth. It was lovely to see a lot of herons on the canal in the early morning and they didn’t seem too bothered by my presence as I was able to get quite close to them. I think I had overcompensated for slightly dark wee on the Friday by drinking more than I needed! It meant I spent the second half of the night (and a lot of the Saturday) needing to wee all the time. This became more of a problem on Saturday as it got busier but was also not kind on tired legs! It also made it hard to gauge how much to drink on the Saturday as it got hotter through the day.
Iain again ran out a mile and half from the Caen Hill car park with bacon roll all ready for me. It was wonderful! I even managed a couple of 15min/miles to the car! The stop at Caen Hill was a chance to sort out very sore wet feet. It turned out I had had a blister on the ball of my foot that the top had torn off which was why it was so painful. Feet were dried and KT was used to hold the blister top down. New socks and new shoes (I swapped into my Hoka Torrent 2) and I was good to go. I was determined to run the only notable down hill of the race, but regretted it when I had, as it really irritated my knee and sore legs! I think I would probably have done better sticking to short runs and walks! Iain came a mile or so with me before heading back to be ready at the next check point where he was again planning to run out and meet me (with another bacon roll). He had the fun of running back up the flight of locks we had just ran down!
It was this next section as it began to warm up that the tiredness hit me and I really began to struggle. I had done the math in my head and couldn’t get my head around the idea of walking (with a little running) for another 12 hours. The doubts began to creep in and I became more and more unsure that I would be able to keep going and finish. It’s also hard knowing you are in first place and not knowing how far others are behind you. Actually when I look back on Strava my pace wasn’t too bad and I had actually sped up a bit now the paths were finally runnable, I was still managing short runs between walks and was doing ok. But my head had gone to a difficult place and made the rest of Saturday harder than I think it should have been. After Caen Hill Locks the route crossed to the right hand side of the canal which we stayed on for about 11 miles. Iain again parked the car near the next check point and then ran back to meet me with a bacon roll. These were going down a treat! It was hot by now and this wasn’t helping my mood!
CP8 – CP9 (Bath): 14.1 miles
We ran back to the car, which Iain had had to park a short way before the check point and an annoying few meters off the route (more added distance!) where I ate and drank something (can’t even remember what!), collected a lovely cold wet buff and then headed on to Check Point 7 (at about 9.30am) where we said a quick hello and Iain took a photo with the CP volunteers and their dog. Iain came a little further with me before heading back to the car to go on the hunt for some ice lollies. I was finding it harder to keep my mood up every time Iain left. It was hot again and I was now worrying because my hands were beginning to swell. The next few miles were slow going and it seemed forever before Iain met me with a Callipo ice lolly which was very much appreciated. Poor Iain had me being a bit of a grump and trying to give up again. He was super encouraging again but then had to head back to the car.
Despite this bit of the canal being really pretty I headed on feeling very sorry for myself and then talked myself into a complete panic about my swollen hands. I phoned Iain in a state ready to stop then and there and call it a day! Iain was a calm and reassuring voice pointing out they were only swollen because of exercising in the heat and that it wasn’t a reason to stop. He changed his plans again so he could meet me sooner than check point 9 and instead parked near the next aqueduct and came back to meet me. Thankfully the 2 aqueducts in this section were easy to navigate and the maps were again easy to follow. When I met Iain he gave me a bit of a talking to and told me I had to sort myself out and actually want to finish the race. I think he felt a bit bad being so firm but it was actually what I needed to hear and after he had headed off back to the car I started chanting a mantra in my head (and sometimes out loud if there weren’t too many people around). Unfortunately I had left it too long since running and I could not convince the legs to run even a little way! But I was able to set a good walking pace and average 16min/ miles to check point 9 (the final check point).
The canal path into Bath was really busy with walkers and bikes which was sometimes a challenge! There is an interesting section where the canal path goes under a house but again it was all easy to navigate and Iain met me shortly after the steps that go down next to a Tesco back onto the canal (128 miles on the map). By this point I was desperate for a wee and there was nowhere to go! Thankfully just as I thought I couldn’t wait any longer we saw a bus station and Iain nipped in to check and yes they had public toilets. Thank goodness! We were soon moving again and Iain saw me safely across the road crossings. I then got grumpy again as I was sure we should be nearly at the check point. Iain wasn’t sure how far it was as he had been focussed on getting back to me and hadn’t been paying too much attention. A helpful passerby shouted it wasn’t too far to the check point but it turned out there idea of close was different to mine and it still took another 15 minutes or so to get there. I finally arrived at check point 9 at about 2 pm.
CP9 – Finish (Bristol): 12.5 miles
Iain had to nip up to the car to get what I needed – new socks, some talc for the feet, a wet buff, gels and fluid refills and some rice pudding and I was just happy to sit in a chair and have a rest! There was another runner who had arrived at the check point just before me and it was good to get a chat – he was the first runner I had seen all day. He was suffering with a swollen ankle from twisting it earlier on which was definitely slowing him down. Iain got back and I got sorted out and was soon ready to go again. Iain wasn’t coming with me this time as I wanted him to head to the finish, park the car and then run back to me so he could do as many miles with me at the end as possible. I had been looking forward to the next section as you head away from the canal and instead follow the Bristol and Bath railway path for a while. It is just under 4miles of completely straight and flat tarmac path which wasn’t nearly as interesting as I had hoped! It also has the challenge of being used by lots of bikes that were going fast! This was slight problem as I was struggling to walk in a straight line unless I was really concentrating! I managed to keep a good walking pace on these miles until you turn off to follow the path along the side of the River Avon. I was gutted to find this was just a track in grass field and very uneven which was very painful on my blistered feet. This slowed my pace considerably to near 20min/mile and was very demoralising! But I put my head down and kept plodding on hoping it wouldn’t be too long until I saw Iain. It was about 3 miles until I saw him in the distance which was a huge relief as I knew I now had him with me the rest of the way.
I was still complaining of being far too hot and Iain assured me he had seen a coffee van in the park a couple of miles away where we would be able to get a cold drink or ice lolly. We crossed a field and annoyingly had to climb over a gate at far side, then down a short section of road before running past a couple of pubs which were busy with afternoon drinkers enjoying the sun! Time seemed to have slowed and it felt like we would never reach this carpark where the coffee van was, and then we saw it in the distance and I couldn’t believe it, they were packing up for the day. Saying I was gutted is an understatement! But we pushed on as we were getting closer and closer to the finish. At mile 140 on the route there is a stile you have to climb over, this must have looked comically funny as I struggled to get my legs to step over it! I was not happy! Thankfully there was only the one.
It was great having Iain with me as I no longer had to think about navigation and could just concentrate on trying to walk as quickly as I could! We got into Bristol and plodded along the side of busy roads, I was still worried second place lady would come whizzing past me in these last few miles but still didn’t have it in me to try and start running! At about a mile from the finish you have to cross 2 busy roads at pedestrian crossings, these were awful – we hit them all on red and they took forever to change to green. Standing still was really uncomfortable and I was fidgeting on the spot to try and keep my legs working. Iain took a photo of me leaning against one of the crossing buttons and I look like I am just posing for the photo when in reality I was barely able to stand up and leaning against it to try and relieve some of the discomfort in my legs and feet! We finally got across the roads and hobbled on to the finish where I managed to run the last 100m and cross the finish line in 36hrs and 10mins. 11th place overall and First Lady. I was made up and couldn’t believe it. It didn’t matter I was slower than I had hoped, I had given it my all and kept going even when it got tough! My watch recording has my run at 146.8 miles so I had added about 3 miles overall to the route due to my navigational mishaps!
Massive thanks go to Iain who was the best crew and buddy runner I could have had. Looking back one of the hardest things for me was having Iain run some of the second half with me and then have to leave me for sections. In future I think it would be better to either have a buddy runner the whole way from mile 70 or not at all. I became dependent on having Iain there but of course he couldn’t always be there and that was when I would fall apart! Thanks to the organisers and volunteers for an awesome race, well organised, great check points, brilliant maps and lots of fun (and challenges!) And a big thanks to my family for looking after the kids to make it possible for me to have these amazing adventures. Thanks everyone 🙏
The biggest learning point for me is to not be thrown when things don’t go to plan pre-race (or during the race). I had convinced myself that I wouldn’t be able to do well because of having COVID just before the race and if it hadn’t been for Iain I would have listened to all of those doubts and probably not finished. I need to believe in myself more and have confidence in the training I have done and not let the doubts creep in!
You might already have heard of Gary and Cheryl Mort a.k.a. The Trail Running Couple as they have a great YouTube Channel full of videos from their trail and hill running adventures. Last week they took on their first 100 miler – the Centurion Running North Downs Way 100 – and we caught up with them afterwards to find out how they got on!
Great to meet you guys and congrats on (spoiler alert) finishing your first ever 100 miler! To start with, please introduce yourself to our readers.
I’m Gary, a 49 year old electrician and my wife, Cheryl, is a 42 year old teaching assistant. We live in the Manchester area and met through running around 6 years ago. We both frequented a local running club and started long runs together over the weekends. The rest is history!
What led to you deciding to take on the NDW100?
Our real passion is mountains in the Lake District and Snowdonia. We love long unsupported days out to really challenge our ability of being self sufficient on technical terrain. Our favourite places would be the Scafell and Helvellyn ranges of the Lake District and Tryfan in Snowdonia.
Cheryl always wanted to tick off a 100 miler, I wasn’t so sure due to the fear of sleep deprivation. I don’t know why but at a point last year I just said let’s go for it and see what happens. We then had to find an event that would fall within both our holidays and the NDW100 fit perfectly. It also had the added bonus of not being too flat nor too hilly – a perfect first 100 for us. On paper anyway!
When we’ve run long distances together we’ve found that our paces don’t always match up… what has been your experience?
We always run together. It helps having a similar pace but more because running is a passion we share together. We always train together and will also take injury breaks for each other. During events we always have highs and lows at differing times and together we’re best placed to get through them. Its what we do!
So what were your favourite bits of the NDW100 then?
Waking up on race day, focusing on what we need to do and knowing we’ve trained for it. Andy, a friend who we met through YouTube who has done many Centurion Events was stood on course at Box Hill, around 24 miles in. That really picked us up seeing him. Any technical terrain we came across always helps with focus and enjoyment. All the aid stations, staffed by fantastic volunteers who would do anything for you. Oh, the iced coffee at Wrotham. It was such a warm day and it helped us so much!
And the bad bits?
We both took tumbles and still have the pain from them now. Easy done on tired legs but that’s not a first! Sickness – I, Gary was sick multiple times at the Bluebell Hill aid station at 76 miles in which took a little time to recover from with the help of the staff. Very sore feet for the last 15 miles, incredibly sore for the last 3 miles.
Every race is a learning experience, especially your first time at 100 miles distance. What did you learn from this one?
I think if we did this event again (or any other 100) we would pay more attention to shoe choice. We opted for a less cushioned Altra Lone Peak 6 and whilst it’s a fantastic shoe and previous tested to 73 miles over a triple Yorkshire 3 Peaks we found its limits (for us) around the 90 mile mark. The ground became increasingly hard which caused lots of foot pain, turning severe for the last 3 miles. We had a plan in place to change shoes to a more cushioned Hoka Speedgoat 5 at the 82 mile aid station at Detling. As our feet still felt fine on arrival we decided to stick with the Lone Peaks instead of sticking with our plan. It cost us lots of time by the end of the race.
I’ve also learned that over a distance like this you’re going to feel sick at some point, maybe even be sick. You just need to take a few minutes out, recompose and start again. It gets better. Also lack of sleep due to running through the night wasn’t the big issue I always feared, senses become more focused which helps a lot. Also as dawn breaks and it starts to become light it’s a magical feeling and your day starts again.
The sickness part seems to affect some of us more than others. Julie never has an issue, but Iain regularly pukes on long ultras, especially if it’s hot! Anyway, what’s up next for you guys?
We’ve got Lakes in a Day in October, a 50 mile / 4000m ascent event starting at the very top of the Lake District at Caldbeck and ending up at the very bottom in Cartmel. On paper it looks pretty tough so looking forward to that. We’ve also got plans to enter the ballot for Lakeland 100 in 2023 which is a race neither of us ever dreamed we could do. I think the NDW100 has given us lots of confidence moving forward.
Bucket list runs would be multi day events like the Dragons Back and Spine Race. It’s a shame work gets in the way but hopefully one day we’ll be in a position to consider an entry. The Arc of Attrition also looks interesting with a tough cutoff. Other than that something abroad like the UTMB.
You don’t need to convince us, but what would you say to anyone thinking of tackling a long run with someone else for the first time?
Our advice for anybody looking towards long runs with a friend or partner would be to have fun without pressure and try to run in nice places where possible, the distance soon passes. It can also help if you’re of similar ability and improve at a similar rate. We listen to each other and work as a team, challenging ourselves along the way. Also don’t be afraid of cutting your long run short for any reason, or even extending it if your both feeling good. Treat it dynamically with a positive attitude.
Great advice – totally agree with you!Thanks for talking to us for the blog, and good luck with Lakes in a Day 👍
That’s all for this post… we hope you enjoyed getting to know Gary and Cheryl a bit. If you want to follow their adventures some more, you can find them on Facebook, YouTube and of course Strava!
This year I’ve not had a lot of races booked far in advance – in fact after Ultra Scotland in June I had nothing in the diary. Julie had been telling me how much she’d enjoyed St. Cuthbert’s Way last year and how it was “my kind of course” so when I saw that their entries were filling up I signed up… 4 weeks after Ultra Scotland would be plenty of time to recover, right? In the end, my “recovery” was 10 days of no running, a week’s worth of gradually increasing my distance from 2 up to 9 (long run!) miles, 5 days of walking the Speyside Way and a two-day rest/taper. Not exactly a textbook training plan 🤣
As race day approached I was feeling pretty good, but had basically no idea whether my ankle would hold up, or what sort of pace I was capable of. I settled on two goals for the race – firstly to enjoy it, and secondly to beat Julie’s time from last year. Evidently my competitive streak trumps marital harmony! When I signed up I had opted to run in the later wave without thinking too much about it, but when I plotted Julie’s splits against this year’s second wave start time (wave 1 was at 12.30am, wave 2 at 4.30am due to the tide times at Holy Island), I realised she was right up against the cut-offs having run in wave 1 last year! So for the first time I was seriously worried about being cut off if I had a bad day, which was eminently possible given the lead up to the race – it was now a case of beat Julie’s time or bust!
I’ll save you a blow-by-blow, detailed account of the route as Julie already covered that last year. Instead I’ll just share some of the highlights. From the start in Melrose to CP3 in Morebattle was great fun – an interesting combination of country roads, rural paths and twisty single track along the banks of the Tweed and Teviot. CP1 for some reason was moved to a very early location – only 5 miles in, and CP2 was also an understated affair. I had planned not to stop and had plenty of supplies on board to last to Morebattle, plus Julie, Rhona and Angus walked in from Harestanes to hand me some watermelon as I passed by. Unlike Julie, I enjoyed the twisty path along Dere Street – in fact apart from the initial climb over the Eildons and a couple of short climbs after CP2 everything was very runnable and I reached Morebattle in around 4h20. This was about an hour ahead of my planned schedule and my ankle and legs were holding up well, despite my unorthodox “training block” leading up to the race. At least now I could stop worrying about the cut-offs!
The middle of the course has the majority of the climbing, and after cool conditions in the morning the sun broke through and it got really hot! Wideopen Hill, down into Kirk Yetholm, up and over the border, down to Hethpool, and then over and down to Wooler. This was the first time I’ve really been up in the Cheviot hills and there were lovely views all around, although I think I would have enjoyed it more if it hadn’t been quite so hot! Despite the hard going, I arrived at CP5 at Wooler Youth Hostel about 1h45 up on my planned pace. I didn’t stop here as Julie had parked the car and was waiting for me a little further on, down at the river about half a mile after the checkpoint. Perfectly timed, Rhona had bought a tub of passionfruit sorbet from the local ice cream shop. It was so good I would not have been surprised to see unicorns bounding through rainbow-filled skies as I ate it on my way out of Wooler.
From Wooler to the A1 Crossing (CP6) is the longest section of the route, and while there are no really big climbs, there are many smaller ones, and quite a bit of ‘false flat’ roads. To be honest this bit was a bit of a slog, although I was still running quite well, and by now passing a lot of runners from wave 1. I negotiated a herd of cows (including patrolling bull!) after St. Cuthbert’s Cave, and successfully avoided Julie’s navigational mishap where St Oswald’s way branches off. The run down to Fenwick and the checkpoint is through a nice forest, although the path was blocked in several places by fallen trees, and quite overgrown. Angus came up the road and ran down the last half mile into Fenwick with me, which was a great boost!
The final 6 miles from the A1 to the finish on Holy Island are pretty much flat, although there is a little kicker of a climb just before crossing the railway that no-one warned me about! My goal was to run this whole section but in the end I had a few short walk breaks. I thought there was another wave 2 runner within sight behind me who had been pretty close to me since Wooler, so that provided some motivation, but the final results showed the gap to the next finisher was 50 mins. So who knows? Anyway, after crossing the causeway, I ran the last two miles in, and even had enough in my legs for a bit of a sprint finish! Official finish time 12:39:50 and 9th place overall – two full hours ahead of my plan (and Julie’s time) of 14h40 🎉
Every ultra race is a learning experience, so what went well:
Goals – I definitely enjoyed myself (particularly the first third of the race). Once it got hot there were definite elements of ‘type 2’ fun, but I smashed my planned schedule by two hours!
Pacing – I’d built my pacing plan mainly from the actual paces I’d maintained over similar climbs and distance into the race during Ultra Scotland. In the end, I was able to run consistently 1-2 mins/mile faster than planned, and maintain that all the way to the end of the race. The last split from the A1 to the finish was my fastest of the race (also the flattest, but we’ll forget about that) – so I think I paced it just right.
Starting time – Running in the second wave was definitely the right call. By starting at 4.30am I got the entire course done in daylight, and still had a couple of hours to spare before the tide cut-off at Holy Island.
Race prep – Not at all how I would have planned things, but the base fitness I’d built in the Spring served me well. Maybe I should build in more long-distance hiking with a heavy pack to my regular training!
Shoes – I ran the whole race in my Salomon Sense Ride 3 GTX. It helped that it was a dry day, so no soggy feet or need to change socks. No damage done to feet or legs and after a couple of days recovery I was back to training again.
Nutrition – I went for a much simpler choice of foods for this race, sticking to a combination of watermelon, SIS gels, Chia bars and a few honey & sesame wafers. I had a bag of Love, Corn with me too but didn’t really get into it. And of course the bonus sorbet in Wooler. No puking this time, and plenty of energy to keep pushing right to the end, so very happy with this!
Crew – Julie and the kids are brilliant at this – they were exactly where I needed them at the right times with exactly what I needed. Only 25 minutes non-moving time in the whole event (including five crew stops, plus pee breaks etc.) is pretty slick! Great encouragement too when I needed it – thanks 😍
A few points for improvement:
Hydration – I thought I was drinking plenty, but it turned out I was pretty dehydrated by the end. I started with SIS Hydro and later on switched to a bit of Julie’s KMC Isomix which was a nice change – may try to use this more in future as it has additional calories as well as electrolytes. And force myself to drink more (or listen to my crew telling me to), especially when it’s hot!
Mixed waves – one down side of running in the second wave was that most of the runners were in the first wave. By the time I was catching them I had already made up a four hour deficit and was clearly running faster than them. So while it was kind of motivational to be speeding past people, it also made it very difficult to judge your true pace relative to others! Early on, there were also plenty of 45 mile racers who were finishing in Wooler. A bit confusing!
Overall, a great day out! Organisation by Trail Outlaws was spot on, so if you haven’t tried any of their events before and you’re based in the North of England or South Scotland, I recommend you check them out. Plenty of well-stocked aid stations, course marking when it was needed (St. Cuthbert’s Way markers most of the way), friendly volunteers and staff at the CPs, and a nice medal, shirt and memento at the finish.
Special thanks to Julie for convincing me to enter the race – on our wedding anniversary, too!
How best to follow a last year’s successful long distance walking family holiday? With another one of course! This year we picked out the Speyside Way, an 87 mile route that largely follows the River Spey from Newtonmore, through the Cairngorms National Park to finish at Buckie on the Moray coast. Slightly shorter than the Kintyre Way with generally much better paths and, since we chose to travel Southwest to Northeast, the prevailing wind behind us as well as an overall slight downhill gradient, we planned out a rough 5 day schedule. Iain booked time off work for the first week of the school summer holidays, and we hoped for decent weather! Last year, we had ended up walking in a heat wave, but this year the forecast was for a wetter first couple of days, then overcast but dry for the rest of the week. We’d learned a few things from last year too so were able to pack a little bit lighter – less spare clothes, no swimming stuff (apart from the end we wouldn’t be near the coast), and no trainers to change into. We did have Spud the dog with us for the first time – and the longest walk he has ever done was around 10 miles. With all of the kids a year older and stronger, and Isla now used to carrying a heavy pack after completing the Duke of Edinburgh’s Silver Award – it should be easy, right?
On Saturday morning we packed our final few bits and pieces and hopped on the bus into Perth to catch the train North. When the train arrived, we piled on with all our gear – and found it was packed! We ended up crammed into one of the vestibule areas until past Pitlochry, when we were able to get seats for the second half of the journey up over Drumochter. We were the only people getting off the train on the single platform at Newtonmore. The cloud was down and a light drizzle was falling, so we put our jackets on, hoisted our rucksacks for the first time, and set off.
Day 1: Newtonmore – Uath Lochan (11 miles)
Half a mile from the station led to the official start of the route – a marker stone on the main street of Newtonmore. The rain didn’t amount to much, and we had good walking conditions for the first 3 miles along the pavement and cycle path to Kingussie. From here, the Way turns off the main road and we got to see a Shinty match in progress before passing Ruthven Barracks, climbing gradually on a windy minor road. We left the road as the Speyside Way joins up with the start of the Badenoch Way and heads along good gravel paths and tracks through woodland past the villages of Drumguish, Inveruglass and Insh.
From Insh, the route joins a forestry road and makes its first major climb up through Inshriach Forest. By now it was around 4pm and for the first time, the heavens opened and we were drenched as we plodded up the hill, hoping for some shelter among the trees. The climb was less than a mile, but seemed to last much longer! On the way back down the other side, the rain slackened off but the ground was sodden and we all got wet feet. We arrived at Uath Lochan and decided it was time to find a spot to camp for the night. After scouting a couple of spots but finding them too boggy or too small for our tent, we arrived at the forestry commission car park and found a good location at the edge of the parking area.
The tent was soon up, and the midges weren’t too bad as we got some water on to boil for cups of tea, hot chocolate or juice, and pot-noodles for tea! Everyone was tired and mostly dried out as we bedded down for the first night of the trip. Although it was summer it got colder than expected in the night – more layers than expected were required for insulation, as our sleeping bags were rather lightweight and we didn’t bring camping mats to save weight!
Day 2: Uath Lochans – Nethy Bridge (21 miles)
After a relatively successful first night’s sleep, we were all awake by about 6am – it had been light since before 5. Iain was turfed outside with Spud to boil the kettle for a cup of tea, while inside the tent everyone else ate breakfast and tidied up.
It wasn’t long at all before we had the tent down, everything packed up and were ready to head off again. There hadn’t been much more rain overnight, but the ground was still damp and it was quite overcast as we set off the short forest track and onto the road to Kincraig. A path merging in from the direction of Feshiebridge was where Iain and Julie had run a loop from Coylumbridge last year, so the next day’s walking would be on familiar paths. We had a quick snack stop in Kincraig (very quietly as it was around 8.30 on Sunday morning!), and for the first time (but not the last) a little bit of foot taping was applied to avoid the risk of blisters as Iain had made the mistake of sleeping in slightly damp socks 🤦♂️
After a twisty rollercoaster of a route through the woods out of Kincraig, the way runs parallel to the main railway line almost all the way to Aviemore, and we were rewarded with a view of a passing LNER service making the long journey down to London. The early morning clouds rolled away and soon we all had jackets off as we arrived in Aviemore after about 10 miles of walking, conveniently in time for brunch. We had researched ahead (partly a strategy to motivate the kids) and identified Cobb’s Cafe as a dog-friendly and gluten-free-serving all-day-breakfast venue. As it turned out they had dropped the gluten free options from their menu, but we all still had more than enough to fill us up for an afternoon’s walking. We also took advantage of the water fountain just along the high street to refill all our bottles, which were close to empty after a day on the trail.
The next obvious section of the walk is the 5-and-a-half miles to Boat of Garten. The Way passed underneath both the main railway line and the heritage Strathspey Railway, which it then follows quite closely most of the way to Boat of Garten. We caught a glimpse of a steam train running through a cutting in the woods, and then left the railway behind as we followed first a track, then a road down into Boat of Garten. Sadly both the village shop and the cafe were both shut on a Sunday, so we had a DIY tea break on the benches outside the station, and made use of their ‘facilities’ in return for a small donation. We didn’t have time to stop and visit the model railway museum, but we timed our stop perfectly to see the train pull up, take on water, then head off again towards Broomhill.
After Boat of Garten, we had planned possible camp spots either in the woods near Loch Garten, or either side of Nethy Bridge. In the end we arrived a little bit too early at Loch Garten to want to stop, but the last “few” miles over to Nethy Bridge proved quite hard work for Lewis and Angus! In the end, we found a passable camp-site and then stopped just before the village, leaving Iain to run ahead to see if anything better was available within walking distance. He returned (eventually!) having found a nice spot by the River Nethy, just downstream of the village, but most importantly also had bought chips from the hotel to power everyone for the last half mile to the camp site. We also found that the community centre had a very clean, tidy, and importantly, 24/7 open public toilet!
After pitching the tent, the evening’s dinner consisted of canned beans and sausages. Everyone was hungry and tired after a long day on our feet and we were all bedded down to sleep by about 8pm!
Day 3: Nethy Bridge – Garvault (18 miles)
Our second morning on the Speyside Way was bright and dry. We had a good routine now of Iain outside making tea while everyone else packed up inside the tent. Before long we were all loaded up and made a quick detour back into the Nethy Bridge to visit the aforementioned loo and to fill up water bottles at the nearby standpipe. At 8am, the village farm shop opened so we bought (and ate) a punnet of locally-grown strawberries. We were back on route and walking shortly after 8am, and the route followed the old trackbed of the disused Strathspey railway – the first section of many to come! Easy walking for the first 4-5 miles, although we had our first encounter with what we named the “jaws of death” – a particular kind of metal stile/gate which had a habit of slamming shut on the heels of the unwary user. Consider yourself warned if you pass this way!
We crossed the Spey again on one of General Wade’s many bridges and a short stretch of tarmac led into Anagach Woods. We sheltered here for a few minutes from a heavy shower, but it didn’t amount to much and we arrived in Grantown-on-Spey in time for a tea break. Unfortunately both of the coffee shops that were dog friendly were both closed on a Monday, and the one that was open wasn’t dog friendly, so we had a takeaway and sat on a bench in the square. Once everyone was refuelled, Julie went to the shop to restock our provisions and Iain went in search of some new footwear for Angus, who was complaining of sore feet as his boots were a bit on the tight side! Although Cairngorm Outdoors no longer seems to be in business, the local bike shop stocked some new socks which promised a padded sole, blister proof and water resistant. Placebo or not, Angus was very happy with them and his feet seemed much better after swapping into them.
From Grantown, we headed across the golf course and back down into Anagach Woods. Another hour’s walk along some very nice woodland trails led to re-crossing the Spey and rejoining the railway alignment outside Cromdale village. Just past the old station (now converted to self-catering accommodation) we stopped at a convenient bench to eat the lunch we’d picked up in Grantown earlier. A bit of a wind was blowing across us, so we didn’t stop long. Although it was no longer raining, the next mile of the railway path was quite overgrown with long, damp grass and we all got wet feet.
Leaving the railway, we crossed the road and headed into what is definitely the toughest section of the route. There are several stiff climbs, firstly on dry stony forestry roads, then muddy trails. As we dropped out of the woods we were unfortunate to corner a group of five sheep at the end of a fenced-off lane. Eventually they decided that as we got closer the lesser of two evils was to charge past us, hopping surprisingly high on the way! Now we were mostly in farmland, but the going was tougher. A lot of the SW here runs in fenced-off lanes between fields, and in a lot of places there are tumble-down walls which are now partly overgrown making it difficult to pick your way between the rocks and grass, not to mention lots and lots more “jaws of death” to negotiate. A hawthorn hedge had also been recently cut back at one point, leaving thorns all over the path. Rhona managed to tread on one, and we eventually managed to remove the inch-long spike that had pieced the sole of her boot right through to her foot! After a couple of hours of this, everyone was tired and we took a rest stop at a very nice viewpoint, looking back up Strathspey. We even unpacked the stove and made a cup of tea to keep us all going.
We had originally hoped to make another 20 mile day to stop near Cragganmore, but it was clear that the tough terrain had taken its toll, and by the time we started climbing up through the Garvault plantation we had resolved to keep our eyes open for the first viable camping spot. After a short walk down the forest road, we found a wide, fairly flat clearing to the side of the path and pitched the tent at around 6pm. We were all very ready to get our damp socks and shoes off and have some food – this time it was cans of soup from Grantown. We heard a couple of other walkers pass by as we were already zipped up inside the tent, ready for another early night!
Day 4: Garvault – Woods of Arndilly (20 miles)
With our morning routine now pretty slick, we were ready to set off by 7.30am. There was a bit of rain around as we made our way down from the hillside, and across farmland to reach the old railway path again. Lots of long grass, boggy in parts, and even the railway path was covered in long grass initially. The rain came on heavily for about an hour and spirits plummeted at the prospect of another day (and one to come) on wet and sore feet. There was no real option but to keep moving, although we were entertaining serious thoughts about abandoning the trip at Aberlour, the next major town.
In hindsight, it was good we had camped where we did as there didn’t seem to be any good spots until we reached a designated camp site at Cragganmore, about 3.5 miles in to the day – a distance that would certainly not have been feasible the previous day! Here at least the path turned back to well maintained packed gravel, and the rain gradually faded away and the sun came out. By mid morning it was starting to get quite warm, and we stopped at a bench at Blacksboat Station. We were in need of filling up our water bottles as we had not resupplied since Nethy Bridge, but although the Cragganmore site and Blacksboat both had standpipes, they were marked as unsuitable for drinking. Fortunately, the forestry ranger workshop were able to top us up from their own supply with more than enough to get us to Aberlour.
The walk to Aberlour (or Charlestown of Aberlour to give it its full name!) is easy and gradually downhill but a long way – ten miles from when we joined the railway path. Along the way we passed the Knockando, Tamdhu and Dalmunach distilleries but the best surprise was in the small village of Carron. A sign on the SW promised a snack bar and pointed towards an old red phone box across the road. Inside was an array of canned drinks, water, crisps, chocolate and cereal bars – and even a box of dog biscuits! We helped ourselves, left a note in their guest book, and made a note of their paypal address so we could send a donation as soon as we were back in phone signal! Thank you Carron Community Association for this amazing facility 👏👏👏
The last three miles to Aberlour still seemed to take forever, but we arrived in time for a late lunch at the Gather’n cafe (also a wool shop!). They were very welcoming to a family of 6 tired and smelly walkers with huge rucksacks and dog in tow, and the food was great – huge burgers, all-day breakfasts, sandwiches, paninis and toasties (plus dog biscuits for Spud). Totally recommend anyone to pop in if they are passing! Now fed, under a hot sun and feeling more positive we restocked again at the local co-op for the remainder of the trip.
A couple of easy miles further along the railway path (including some dramatic cuttings and a tunnel) led to Craigellachie, where we stopped for an ice cream. A word of warning though – the local convenience shop is about half a mile off the route! From here we left the railway path and joined a minor road that rose gradually above the river past the Arndilly Estate. With over 16 miles in his legs the uphill was too much for Spud and he ground to a halt. Most of the rest of the day was walked with him slung across Iain’s shoulders! We left the road on a forest track up towards Ben Aigen, on the lookout for a good camping spot. The rangers who had given us water in the morning had suggested there were good locations up near a viewpoint at the top of the climb. I’m not sure that they had anticipated we had a single large tent rather than several smaller ones, but once we reached the view point we eventually found a clearing that was big enough – just! – to take the tent.
Apart from there being quite a lot of flies, it was a lovely spot to camp, and the viewpoint faced North giving us our first glimpse of Spey Bay and the Moray Firth. With about 20 miles left of the Speyside Way we knew that a good day’s effort would be enough to take us to the finish, so we bedded down for the final night in the tent, aiming for a good night’s sleep before an early start in the morning.
Day 5: Woods of Arndilly – Buckie (20 miles)
For the final morning, we were up and walking not long after 7am! Spud was still not that keen on walking, so we had re-arranged our bags so he could be fitted in one of the boys’ rucksacks and carried on someone’s front. Julie, Isla and I all took turns throughout the morning. The first three miles descend gradually on forestry tracks and paths under damp skies before briefly coming out on the banks of the Spey at Boat O’ Brig. The route turns back inland though, and makes its last significant climb up to run alongside Woods of Cairnty on a minor road. This road continues pretty much straight for another five miles, passing the Earth Pillars viewpoint, through Ordiquish and into Fochabers. On entering the town, Spud seemed to get a bit of a second wind and was happy to walk for the rest of the day! We detoured slightly from the official route here, instead passing via the public toilets and down the main street to pick up some lunch in the Coop. Rejoining the SW in the park on the far side of the town, we stopped at a picnic bench to eat our lunch.
The next section of five miles to the promontary of Spey Bay has quite a distinctly different feel to the rest of the route. Although it does still wind in and out of woodland, the soil becomes sandy and more coastal plants and trees can be seen. The paths were generally good and descend very gradually, following the river quite closely. Along the way we passed the “10 miles to go” mark, and everyone was motivated to keep up a good pace. Angus started to tire a bit was we got closer to Spey Bay and the sun shone down, although there was a bit of a breeze picking up too. Before too long, the barrel-vaulted profile of the Tugnet ice houses and the Spey Bay visitor’s centre came into view. We stopped here briefly for an ice cream, drinks and to apply more sun-cream ready for the final six mile stretch to Buckie.
Leaving the coast behind, our route turned slightly inland to pass behind the Spey Bay Links golf course. We wove our way through a stretch of woodland, which had clearly been decimated by the storms earlier in the year, but a passable route through had been cleared. Less pleasant was a short stretch where we passed close by and downwind of the local landfill! Emerging from the woods, we joined the track bed of the disused Moray Coast Railway and followed it for about a mile. Without much warning, the weather changed and what had been a nice cooling breeze turned into a driving rain squall, blowing cold and hard across us from the sea on our left. Conditions were pretty wild as we passed through Portgordon and on into Buckpool – on a good day the views would have been great, but we had our hoods up, heads down and marched on. The rain finally stopped as we made our way into Buckie. Turning inland for the last time, up a short rise into the town and we arrived at the official end of the Speyside Way near Cluny Square. 87 miles and 4-and-a-half days of walking and we had made it!
We’d worked out that if we could make it to Buckie in time to catch the 4.30 or 5.30pm bus we’d be able to make it back to Inverness for a connecting train home. In the end we made it with about 20 minutes to spare – just enough time to pick up some well deserved chips, before catching the bus. Earlier in the day, we’d checked our travel plans and made the unfortunate discovery that due to the Scotrail staff dispute and resulting timetable changes, the later trains from Inverness were no longer running, and there was no way we could make it back in time to make our connection! A quick replan followed (all done while walking in the rain) and we were able to make our way home via a change of bus in Fochabers, heading now for Aberdeen, train from Aberdeen to Dundee (thankfully staff accepted our tickets), and finally the Ember bus to Bridge of Earn where we finally arrived home just before midnight! All’s well that end’s well and we managed to avoid having to make an unplanned extra night in the tent.
Looking back, the Speyside Way was a very different experience to the Kintyre Way – although it is shorter and mostly easier walking, it is generally much less remote. This made the logistics easier and we were able to pack a bit lighter. Strangely it didn’t feel that much easier – perhaps due to the wet weather and resulting wet and sore feet that most of us had at one time or another. Still a great achievement for everyone though, and although he is a year older this time we believe Angus is still the youngest known walker to complete the route end-to-end… and maybe Spud is the youngest dog! Anyone know differently?
We’ve not decided for sure, but maybe next year it’s time to try something different – and we’ve been looking at the Hebridean Way, but by bike this time. We shall see! Before then we’ve got lots more adventures to come this summer with ultra races for both Iain and Julie, and probably a spot more camping too if the weather is good.
A hilly hundred miler across the heart of the Scottish Southern Uplands was never going to be easy was it? Only now, nearly two weeks on from completing Ultra Scotland 100, have I been back out for a (short, slow) run again. The recovery has begun, and I’m feeling ready to start blogging about the race!
Originally, I’d entered Ultra Scotland back in 2020, just after we’d moved back to Scotland. Having grown up in Selkirk, only a few miles from finish of the route, and walked and run along several sections of the Southern Upland Way over the years it felt like a bit of a “home race” and I’d been really looking forward to it – the race was even due to be held on my Birthday! Unfortunately, like pretty much everything else, the race was cancelled in 2020 and then in 2021 only the 50 mile variant could go ahead due to access issues in the second half of the course. Finally, after more than two years the race was on and I felt in good shape having recovered well and put in some solid training since the Cow Shed Backyard in April. I had put together a pacing plan which would put me on track for a 24-hour finish – only time would tell if I could keep to it!
In the week leading up to the race, the weather was looking decidedly grim, with 40+ mph wind gusting, heavy rain, and cloud base down below 1000 ft. However, after dropping 3 out of 4 kids (and the dog) with my parents, we headed down to St. John’s Town of Dalry on a windy but bright Friday evening. The forecast was still for gusty but not quite as strong winds (mostly tail-wind too!), higher cloud base, and the rain seemed to have broken up a bit – much better than expected.
We arrived after 8pm, pitched our tent in the field behind the start line, and were able to register in the St. John’s town hall before bedding down for an early night! Despite a bit of coming and going and noise as the event team dismantled and moved the start gantry during the night, I slept well until woken by my alarm at 4am. Plenty of time for breakfast, couple of cups of tea, visit to the loo, sort out my gear, food and drink, collect my race tracker, second trip to the loo (long queues by this time!) and still made it to the start line by 5.55am. It was good to have a brief catch up with my cousin Douglas MacQueen and ex-clubmate Darren Wilson from Run Sandymoor, both of whom were running the 50 mile course. We had a minute’s silence in memory of 100 mile entrant Ewan Hitchell, who had died unexpectedly a couple of weeks before the race. A cheer for the cameras, and then we were set off to the sound of a lone bagpiper!
St. John’s Town of Dalry (Start) – Stroanpatrick (CP1): 8 miles
Right away, there was a bit frantic dash as there was less than 100m from the start line to a narrow wooden suspension bridge, which allowed a maximum of 8 people to cross at once! Fortunately I was within the first dozen or so and only had to wait 10 or 15 seconds till I was allowed across by the marshals – it must have been quite a wait for those at the back, though. After a short climb up from the river, we passed the town hall, and headed off up Dalry Main Street – much to the interest of a few of the locals who had come out on their doorsteps to watch us pass. We soon passed out of the town and onto first farm tracks and then open hill farm land. I was careful to keep my pace nice and easy, walking on the uphills, and taking it easy on everything else. I could see Douglas, Darren and quite a few of the 50 mile racers out ahead of me, but was still within sight of the front of the race. The route was undulating but rarely steep or difficult, and generally hard ground with short grass – excellent for running on. After a few miles, we had a short section along a quiet country road before more open countryside. Dropping down by Culmark farm, another mile or so along the farm track led and the GB Ultras flags of CP1 came into view. I had plenty of food and fluids on board so just ran up to the checkpoint, gave my number and headed straight back out onto the next section.
Stroanpatrick – Sanquhar (CP2): 18 miles
As I passed through CP1, I learned that I was actually placed second overall… so much for taking it easy at the start! I was also about 5 minutes up on my planned schedule, but feeling good. The next section was much longer, and contained the first major climb of the route, the 1,909 foot Benbrack. Immediately from the checkpoint, the course headed off road on much rougher terrain than before. The SUW rangers had helpfully mown down most of the long grass, but the ground was much boggier and uneven underfoot. As we reached the foothills before Benbrack, I had my first siting of the GB Ultras camera crew and race director Wayne on a small climb, which probably made me run a little bit more than I should! Before long we reached Benbrack itself, which was a definite walk. Here, the weather took its first turn for the worse, with a steady rain, stronger wind and cloud just skimming the top. I had started running with a long-sleeve base layer and a short-sleeved shirt over the top, so I decided against stopping to put on my jacket and just push on for the top. A quick selfie stop in front of the Benbrack “striding arch”, and I was aware to turn sharp left where many people seem to have got lost in the past. The descent follows a broad, mossy ridge which is very wet in places and on one downhill I lost my feet and made a long muddy slide on my backside. No harm done, and soon I was down out of the wind and the rain eased off again – keeping the jacket off had been a good choice! The route then entered a forest section, winding in and out of the trees for a while and passing Allan’s Cairn. The worst of the fallen trees from storms earlier in the year had been cleared, but there were a few spots where you needed to duck. Quite a few hundred mile runners passed me during this section, but I was happy to let them go as it was still early in the race!
After a mile or so in the forest, we dropped out onto a forest road for an easy run down to the Chalk Memorial Bothy and Polskeoch. A friendly local had left a barrow full of bottled water out for the runners at the end of their drive, but I just gave them a wave as I passed. An undulating tarmac road led down the valley for a few miles and my legs were still feeling good as I was running between 9 and 10 minutes per mile without too much effort. At Polgown farm the SUW cuts left and climbs very gradually up the hillside as the road drops down, following the Scaur Water. Many of the SUW marker posts had been decorated in bright patterns, with poetry or quotations added to them. One I remember said “Run, run as fast as you can” (presumably referencing the story of the gingerbread man and the fox), although I was content to walk and jog through this section. Once passed “Cloud Hill” (it wasn’t cloudy, though) a few more miles of grassy downhill led back to a road with bridges over the Euchan Water and the River Nith and on into Sanquhar. A little dog-leg bend in the main street and suddenly the Town Hall was in view, and my first sighting of Julie and Rhona, my crew!
I was now running in fifth place, but about 15-20 minutes up on my planned schedule, and most importantly still feeling good! I was planning to make a brief stop at this checkpoint, taking on some more fluids, some new gels and food. Due to the relatively cool weather, I’d drunk less than a litre so far – Julie warned me to start drinking more! Excellent crew service (although they did forget to unpack a chair for me from the car), they had chunks of watermelon ready for me, which is my favourite checkpoint food and even a cup of Irn-Bru! In less than 5 minutes I was heading off down Sanquhar High Street, chomping on a home-made chia and chocolate bar.
Sanquhar – Wanlockhead (CP3): 8 miles
After not seeing my crew for the first 26 miles, the next section was a relatively short 8 miles. As it was now late morning, there was even a little bit of sun peeping through the clouds at time but still good conditions for running. This section featured two straightforward climbs – firstly up and out of Nithsdale, past Bogg (although the ground was largely dry 🤷♂️) and down to the remote farm of Cogshead. The second passes close to Glengaber Hill before dropping down and crossing the Wanlock Water for the last couple of miles on road and track into Wanlockhead. This area bears the scars of the lead mining industry and there are many abandoned quarries, ruined industrial buildings and rusting equipment scattered everywhere. The last section into Wanlockhead followed a Heritage Trail which had many interesting-looking info boards – I wasn’t stopping to read them though!
In every ultra there comes a point where running stops feeling easy, and this was where I first started to feel it! My legs were feeling pretty heavy by the time I caught sight of Julie waiting for me a short distance ahead of the checkpoint. Nevertheless, I was still in seventh place and about 25 minutes ahead of schedule, with no specific niggles to note. With only 8 miles since the last checkpoint, and another short segment to come I barely stopped here, just checking in with the marshals before gobbling some more watermelon, and heading back off on the course.
Wanlockhead – A702 (CP4): 6 miles
Although short at only 6 miles, this is the steepest section of the race with an average of around 250 feet per mile, and also passes over the highest point of the whole SUW, the 2,379 foot Lowther Hill. Heading out of Wanlockhead, the route takes an uncompromisingly steep path straight up the side of the hill, zig-zagging with the access road to the ski centre and radar station at the top of Lowther Hill. The cloud was down on the top of the hill, and as the route turned South-East, the wind which had been largely behind us became a chilly crosswind. Fortunately, there was not much rain, but the going was hard – even running into the wind on the downhills took quite some effort in parts!
The descent from Lowther Hill is a bit of a rollercoaster, with several smaller hills to climb, but the worst is saved for last. After a tantalising glimpse of the A702 a mile or so ahead, Laght Hill provides a short but incredibly steep little kicker that needs to be overcome before you finally descend to the road. The climbing, combined with more boggy terrain and the wind, made this section quite draining and I think I must have looked pretty knackered as I jogged in to the windswept gazebo of CP4 in a desolate layby on the A702! Even so, I was now about 40 minutes up on my schedule and still lying seventh. I’d also somehow managed to have missed the worst of the rain which the folks at the CP said had been battering them for the last half hour. So only a short stop here to take on a bit more food, and I was on my way again.
A702 – Moffat (CP5): 15 miles
This was quite a long and remote section, although it would take me to the finish of the “50” miler which was actually around 57 miles, and passed the half-way mark of my race. Leaving the A702 behind, the route passed through a lovely open woodland section, before hitting a gravel road for a couple of very runnable miles towards the dam at the Daer Reservoir. Here the SUW turns right and then heads across the top of the dam, however due to maintenance works the path was closed and we had been advised of a diversion via the road, across the Daer Water and back up to the far side of the dam. It was a shame to miss out on the crossing, as it looked quite dramatic when seen from the climb up to Hods Hill. The race photographers and Wayne were lying in wait on this climb, and I remember joking with them that if they were expecting me to run for the cameras at this point they were very much mistaken 🤣 . The climb was actually quite gradual, spread over two miles – but was definitely a walk!
After passing by the barren expanse of Hods Hill and the summit of Beld Knowe, the route dropped back into forest again and we were treated to a bit of sunshine. With all the wet undergrowth, it was actually quite hot and humid! I had been running quite close to a 50 mile runner at this point, and he was just ahead of me when we came to a path junction that proved to be a bit tricky. It looked like a straight on from the map, but as the path turned by 90 degrees a few meters earlier it was actually a left turn! I correctly spotted the SUW marker (unhelpfully hidden in bushes) and called back the runner in front of me who was headed off the wrong way. Several others made the same mistake according to their GPS tracks, including my cousin Douglas who lost around half an hour heading up and down the trail, looking for the correct route!
More good grassy and earthy forest trails followed before the route joined a minor for the run down towards Beattock. On the way down, the weather that had been threatening on and off all morning finally broke, and it bucketed with rain for about an hour. I made a quick stop to put on my jacket but was still absolutely soaked as I passed by Beattock and followed a mile or so of the main road into Moffat. I must have enjoyed running in the rain on a level surface, as I put in a couple of miles in the low 11 minute range – faster than I had gone since the run down to Sanquhar, 30 miles earlier. Nevertheless, my estimated time for this section was totally unrealistic, and I was now about 30 minutes behind schedule. Approaching the checkpoint, Julie was out to meet me on the road and I admitted my chances of finishing in under 24 hours had pretty much gone.
I had a slightly longer stop at the Moffat CP. I stripped off my wet jacket, popped to the loo, and had a seat while drinking a cup of coffee and replenishing all my supplies for the next section. I decided to switch from purely electrolyte drink to SIS energy drink, as I often had trouble in the past eating during the later stages of a race. This proved to be a good plan, as Julie had warmed up a hot dog for me, which was a nice idea but had dramatic consequences… I’d only eaten half of it when I proceeded to throw it up over the floor outside the checkpoint! My aunt Frances was waiting for Douglas to arrive and suggested I should be quitting – but no, I assured her, this was completelynormal and nothing to worry about! I had assumed that Douglas would have already finished, but I must have passed him while he was getting lost on the previous section, and he ended up finishing about 10 minutes after I reached the CP. We had a quick photo together before I set off again for the second half of the route!
Moffat – Ettrick (CP6): 16 miles
Despite the evening sun being out, I had cooled down quite a lot while stopped at the checkpoint, and my legs had started to stiffen up a bit. Fortunately, there were a couple of miles of runnable road to warm up on, and I was also able to start getting some food back in to me… and most importantly, keep it there! There was another route diversion here around what looked like it would have been quite a nice woodland section, but the landowner was blocking access, sadly. Before long, the path turned uphill, passing through a farm before entering another forestry plantation. Here the SUW branched, offering a lower, poor weather option which followed the foresty track up the glen but the race route followed the higher option, and after crossing the Cornal Burn and a short forest road, headed steeply uphill to reach the summit of Gateshaw Rig. The cloud was right down, and the narrow, heathery ridge along to Croft Head (2,090 feet high) was dramatic, with steep drops to both sides. It had cooled down quite a bit, as it was getting late and I put my jacket back on mainly for warmth, as although it wasn’t raining I was effectively running in the cloud!
A steep, zig-zag path led back down into the glen, before an almost-as-steep climb back up and over the watershed and into the head of the Ettrick Valley. I was looking forward to getting here as I grew up and lived nearly 25 years in total in Selkirk on the banks of the Ettrick, so this felt like I was back in home territory, although I had never actually been right to the top of the valley. The route to the checkpoint in Ettrick village was an interminable 8 miles, first on forestry track, passing the Over Phawhope bothy and onto tarmac road for the gradual run down the valley. I mostly ran the first four miles, but was becoming increasingly aware of a growing pain in the front of my left ankle which was making flexing it for running quite difficult. I can’t pinpoint exactly what I had done to it, although I do remember rolling my ankle somewhere – it might have been on this section, but I’m not sure!
On the way down the road I met Wayne who had driven up to see how the runners were getting on, and asked about conditions on the route. I had found it not too bad, but it seems that sometime after I passed through Moffat, some later runners were being advised to take the lower route, saving them about 1000 feet of climbing! I didn’t mind as the high route was actually my favourite part of the race, properly remote and dramatic scenery (or at least as dramatic as it gets in the Borders 🤣 ). I found that walking was much more comfortable for my ankle, and I was able to keep up a decent pace, only a couple of minutes per mile slower than the run/jog that I had been doing at the top of the valley, so I stuck to that for the last 4 miles down to Ettrick. It finally got properly dark at this point, and I put on my head torch. Unfortunately this had the effect of attracting the midges, so I quickly switched it off again and let my eyes adjust to the darkness. Amusingly, I also drove a small flock of about 10 sheep at least a mile down the road before they figured out they could just step to the side and I would happily pass by them! It must have been around 11pm by the time I reached Ettrick, nearly two-and-a-half hours down on my planned schedule. I think someone must have dropped out at Moffat as I think I was still in sixth place at this point!
The runners in front were a long way ahead, as there was about a mile out-and-back to the CP, and I didn’t see anyone. I had the place to myself as I took more fluid and food, and layered up for the night ahead – warm hat, overtrousers and gloves. I wasn’t particularly cold at this point, but better to stay that way! I also put on plenty of midge repellent, and picked up a power bank to charge my watch, which was down to about 20% by this time. So far, Rhona and Julie had both been looking after me at the checkpoints, but Rhona was firmly asleep in the back seat of the car. She had asked to be woken when I arrived, and although she did eventually stumble in to the hall to see me, I’m not convinced she was actually conscious!
Ettrick – Traquair (CP7): 18 miles
As I headed back up the road to rejoin the SUW, I met three other runners who were fairly close behind me. At least one of them had been wandering back up and down the road looking for the checkpoint, so I was able to point them in the right direction and assure them it was only a quarter of a mile or so away! Turning off the road, the route went steeply uphill, parallel to the Scabcleuch Burn. This was the first climbing I’d had to do for about 10 miles, and the front half of both my feet were objecting to it, each step felt like I had a layer of broken glass under the balls of my feet! I had expected a bit of blistering and there wasn’t much I could do about it out on the trail, so I plodded on, resigning myself that to the fact that the rest of the race was going to be mainly walking. As I came over the top of the pass the route was heading straight North, and the cross-wind whipped across with a vengeance, this time from the left, lashing me with rain. For about a mile, I had to walk with my left eye shut as to keep the stinging rain out of my eye! Fortunately, it wasn’t too long till we began to descend again and the lights of Tibbie Shiels’ Inn at the Western end of St. Mary’s Loch came into view.
From here on, I had walked or run all of the route – admittedly some of it more than 20 years ago, in daylight and in the other direction! Neverthless it felt like I was on the home stretch. While the total distance to the next checkpoint was 18 miles, the loch was only 3 miles long, then Julie was planning to meet me where the SUW crosses the A701. From the end of the loch, the route crossed a very wet field before finally reaching the road, where Julie was waiting, which was a great boost as it was now around 3am!
Still moving pretty slowly, I had been caught and passed by a couple of runners since the last checkpoint, but I caught up with one of them again on the climb up from the road. The trail was indistinct on the hillside among lots of sheep trods and the waymarkers were quite widely spaced. I was able to follow the route pretty well thanks to a good head torch and my watch, but the guy would head off ahead of me, veer off course, search around a bit, and then catch up with me again. This happened two or three times before reaching Blackhouse and a clearer path up through the woods. The sky was beginning to lighten, but I must have been pretty tired as I logged my slowest mile of the entire route. The grass was glistening with pre-dawn due and my eyes started playing tricks on me. I remember seeing a sheep that turned back into a tree-stump as I passed. Fortunately, it was dawn before too long, and emerging from the trees onto the open hillside I was able to turn off my light. The next few miles are a gradual, grassy descent, followed by a good road into Traquair. this should have been quite runnable but the pain in my feet had reduced me to a walk. I tried a little run on reaching the road, but soon settled into a tired shuffle! Julie met me half a mile or so from the checkpoint and we walked in together.
One of the runners ahead of me was in pretty bad shape and had been asleep at the checkpoint and headed off as I arrived. At least one other also abandonded the race at this point. I had just a short stop for more supplies to last me the next section, but not before having a really weird visual hallucination – the pattern on the floor of the toilets turned into dancing animals and nothing I could do would make them stop… definitely time to get a move on!
Traquair – Fairnilee (CP8): 9 miles
It was now about 5am in the morning, and although I was tired, the sun was up and a bright day was dawning as I headed up the Minch Moor. Reaching the top, I tried again to get into a running rhythm, but my feet were so sore that I was basically just swinging my arms, but not moving my feet any faster than just walking. Annoyingly, my legs seemed to have got a bit of a second wind, but my feet were stopping me making use of it. At least there was less than 15 miles still to go! Between Brown Knowe and the Three Brethren I was caught by another runner – he was a local from Melrose and we walked and talked for a mile or so which helped me keep my pace up. As the route turned downhill again he sped off into the distance and I hobbled behind – I was actually faster on the flat than I was going downhill. I managed to find a reasonably sturdy stick to use, which helped take the weight off my legs, but the descent down into the Tweed valley seemed to take a very long time indeed. A quarter mile or so along the road led to Yair Bridge, where Julie was waiting – with an ambulance and two parademics! I know I wasn’t doing too well at this point, but still that was a bit insulting 🤣 In fact, it was just a coincidence and they weren’t there for me, or so they said!
Over the bridge, the final checkpoint awaited at Fairnilee hut. I had been here many times for kayaking trips and slaloms when I was younger, but it had undergone major renovations from how I remember it! I grabbed a bench outside and Julie helped to strip off my waterproofs and hat – it was mid-morning and the sun was shining now. One last chunk of watermelon and I was off, munching on another home-made energy bar.
Fairnilee – Langlee (Finish): 8 miles
The final leg of the race is 8 miles according to the nominal checkpoint distances, in fact I had passed 100 miles already and only about 6 miles remained. I was also aware there was another runner closing in – only a mile or less behind as I headed up and over Hog Hill and down the Gala Policies. Again, I was able to find a good solid stick to take the weight off my feet, but despite my best efforts, the going was still slow. Julie and Rhona had driven round to meet me where the route passed by Gala swimming pool, she made the mistake of asking how I was doing – the answer is not printable!
Armed with another energy bar, I headed off up past Gala Academy for the final climb of the course. The sun was really beating down at this point and it was getting properly hot. Quite a few Sunday morning runners were out and about, and were amazed to hear that I’d covered over 100 miles. One asked how I was doing and I said my feet were killing me. They produced some sticking plasters, but I think at that point I needed a new pair of feet! On the last descent from Gala hill back down towards the Tweed, the runner who had been following me zoomed past, running strongly now with less than two miles to go to the finish.
Reaching the river at Boleside, I had a little over a mile to go. A quick check of the tracker showed that the next runner was still the other side of Gala, so a top-10 finish was safe! The climb up Winston Road seemed to take forever, and I stopped to take a quick photo at the last SUW way-marker of the day as it turned right towards Tweedbank. A few hundred metres more and Julie was waiting at the Langlee road. The road is quite wide at that point, fortunately there was little traffic as I shuffled across and up the steps. Turning the corner at the top, the Community Centre and the finish flags came into sight. I even managed a little bit of a run (Laura was pointing a camera at me!) and enjoyed a great flood of relief as I crossed the finish line. Ultra Scotland 100 was done – 9th place overall, with an official finishing time of 29:03:10, my longest run (by duration) ever!
It was only short distance in to the community centre, where I could finally sit down and see what the damage was to my feet. Shoes came off OK, but my feet were so sore I had to have my socks cut off! Inspection revealed big blisters on the inside of both heels (I hadn’t even noticed them while running!), a fairly bad set of maceration and blisters on the balls of both feet and my toes, various abrasions on my toes, plus a nice angry red swelling on the front of my left ankle! Within minutes everything had stiffened up, so I was glad when Julie drove the car right to the entrance and I could be whisked off to get cleaned up, and get some sleep. Originally we’d both been looking forward to me finishing early in the morning, several hours sleep and then Sunday lunch at my parents’ – in the end we asked for lunch to be delayed till 2pm and both got an hour of sleep, although my legs hurt too much to do anything but lie face down on the bed!
Over the next couple of days I did my best to keep my legs (especially the left one) elevated, but both my feet and lower legs swelled up – Julie was amused to point out that I’d developed a good pair of ‘cankles’! It took about a week for the swelling to go down, by which time all the blisters had hardened up. I managed a couple of short walks during the week, but it was a full 12 days before I was ready to try a couple of tentative miles running. The ankle is still a bit twingy from time to time, but there doesn’t seem to be any lasting damage and I’m looking forward to getting some more miles in again soon.
Every race of this sort of distance is a learning experience, with its own unique challenges. Looking back what went well, and what could I learn from? Starting with the positives:
Crew – Julie and Rhona were brilliant throughout, they had pretty much everything I needed and contributed to me spending as little time as possible sitting still (not much more than an hour over 7 crewed checkpoints). I think I even managed to be nice to them – and mostly hide how much I was suffering for the last 30 miles or so!
Food and drink – despite the mid-race puke, I count this as a success. I managed to eat a good variety of foods, including my new favourite salty snack “Love, Corn”, as well as the usual dozen or more SIS gels, dried fruit, honey roasted nuts, jelly babies, Chia Charge bars, watermelon (of course) and several home-made energy bars (we’ll share the recipe soon!). I also tried SIS GO energy powder for the first time on an ultra and it seemed to go down well.
Navigation – the SUW is well marked throughout by wayposts and signs. Combined with having the course on my watch and knowing the last 20 miles of the route I made no mistakes of any consequence.
Clothing choice – as the forecast had been quite grim a few days beforehand (with “Feels Like 0C” promised on some tops), I had been thinking about wearing full leg tights and a winter base layer. In the end I opted for shorts and a thin base layer under a short-sleeved top. I had my jacket on for about an hour or two during the day, and at night I put on overtrousers, a warm hat and gloves with waterproof mittens. I could have done with taking my overtrousers off at Traquair, as it was quite warm by the time I got to Fairnilee but it didn’t make any real difference overall. I never felt significantly cold at any point – all good!
Training and preparation – Since the backyard ultra in April, I had made a sensible recovery, averaged over 50 miles a week with a good mix of speed work (including a 10 mile race), longer and hillier runs. I even managed a good taper, mixing in some hill walks to keep my legs in shape. I don’t think I could have done much more to be in good shape at the start of the race!
What could be improved:
Footcare – while the sore ankle definitely slowed me down, I”m not sure there was much I could have done to avoid it. However, I should have taken the time to stop and change my socks and possibly shoes at Moffat, if not earlier. The first half of the course was quite wet underfoot in places and contributed to the blistering and maceration that made running too painful later on. Next time, fresh socks and talcum powder will be worth a try!
Pacing plan – Aside from slowing down once I couldn’t run, I think the fact that my legs still felt relatively fresh towards the end was a sign that I didn’t go out too fast at the start. Still, the schedule that I’d set up turned out to be unachievable as I simply didn’t give myself enough time between the CP4 (A702) and CP5 (Moffat). I need to take more care to consider the climbs and terrain, not just the average elevation gain on a section.
In the middle miles of the race I’d been having some pretty low moments and was ready to cancel all my upcoming race plans and stick to marathon racing – it might be hard work but at least they only last 3-and-a-bit hours! Two weeks on, I’m feeling much more positive and looking forward to more ultra distance adventures. Ultra Scotland 100 was my first GB Ultras event, and they did a great job putting on a fun, challenging and memorable event. Thanks to the organisers and all the volunteers, marshals and everyone else involved in holding the event. Whether or not I’ll come back for another try at the race to get down to the magic 24 hour mark I’m not sure. For now, we’ve volunteered to help at Race Across Scotland in August, which follows the entire 215 miles of the SUW from Portpatrick to Cockburnspath. Maybe one for next year?
Oh, and don’t forget to scroll down for some more manky feet pics (you have been warned)!
This was an unexpected addition to my race calendar after the Stirling marathon was cancelled. The route looked interesting and it wasn’t too far to travel. A 50k race fitted in well with my training plan for the KACR which is my A race this year. As it got nearer to the race date I was getting nervous as I knew I could run the distance and would therefore be pushing the pace which just sounded hard work! Training had gone really well over the last few months though and I had the added bonus of a cold and wet recce run of the second half of the race with a friend a few weeks before the race.
The race takes place at the top of the remote and beautiful Glen Lyon. Leave plenty of time to get there as the way in is along narrow and long single track roads! The start/finish and half way checkpoint are in front of the dam at the end of Loch Lyon. The first mile is an uphill run from the dam up onto the landrover track that circles the loch. You basically stick to this landrover track for the next 14 miles and travel anticlockwise around the loch. The track is undulating with numerous river crossings (expect wet feet) and it’s a rough track so you do have to watch your foot placement as it would be easy to trip or go over on an ankle. The views are stunning when the sun shines and it is a bleak landscape if cloud is low and it’s windy and wet! This part of the route is easy running and there lies the danger! Having looked at previous racers’ splits on Strava they suggested it was easy to go too fast on the first half and make for a tough second half!
Once round the loch you get to run across the dam, nip down to drop bags at the midway point before heading up the dreaded hill road for the climb up and over into Glen Lochay. This climb is steep and long but depending on how your race is going is definitely runnable (or at least run/walkable). It levels off before a steep downhill into Glen Lochay. Stunning and remote, the views are amazing. Glen Lochay has numerous kissing gates in the deer fences the first of which you meet on the road before you turn off onto another landrover track that goes along the side of the valley. A water station at the turn off is well located to fill up bottles before the run along the glen. This path gradually climbs as it heads along the side of the valley, but is shorter than the loop on the first half. There aren’t any river crossings but there are places you can wet a buff/hat on a warm day. After just a few miles you reach the steep zigzag path down to the valley bottom for the run back along next to the river. This is the flattest section of the course! At about 27 miles you find yourself back at the bottom of the steep and long road up and over into Glen Lyon, before finishing where you started back in front of the dam!
The forecast in the run up to the race said it was going to be hot and Saturday morning didn’t disappoint! Any cloud cover there was burnt off as we drove up the Glen. Iain was driving (the road was too scary for me) and we had Lewis, Angus and Spud the dog with us along with our friend Steph who was also running the race. It was an early start in order to get up the Glen in time for registration before the race start at 10am. Race registration was well organised and straight forward with good banter from the volunteers! A drop bag could be left for half way, which I did, although if all was going well I planned not to use it.
My target time for the race was 5hr 15 which worked out at an average 10min/mi pace but would require most miles nearer to 9.15 min/mi to save some time for the climbs. I had really wanted to run most of the climbs but with the heat I rapidly revised my plan to a run/walk strategy to try and minimise body temp increases. Plenty of sun cream, sunglasses and trusty buff and I was good to go. Mandatory kit was minimal and I planned to use energy gels for fuelling (I carried 7 gels, one for every 4 miles with caffeinated gels for before each of the big climbs). I carried some salted peanuts and homemade energy bar just in case and had 2 x 750ml soft flasks with energy/electrolyte mix in them.
We congregated by the start line for a short race briefing and then we were off. A small group raced off at speed and then I was in the next group of runners. I made myself walk up the first incline which was hard and then I had to hold myself back from trying to keep pace with the front of this group of runners. After a couple of miles I found myself at the back of this pack, a couple of ladies briefly overtook me before dropping back again. I was able to keep a steady pace around Loch Lyon at roughly 9.15 min/mi but in the heat it was slightly harder work than I would have liked! The river crossings were only ankle deep and were wonderful in the heat. I dunked my buff in every one before putting it back on my head. I didn’t stop at the water station just after the end of the loch but carried on, heading back towards the dam. I spent most of this first section on my own having only brief chats with a couple of other runners. It’s a race that easily breaks down into sections which you can tick off mentally as you go, so although I was a bit concerned I was working harder than I should be time was passing quickly and I was pleased with how I was doing. I thought there were at least 5 or 6 women in front of me so adjusted my expectations of where I would finish (I had hoped for a top 3 female finish).
When I reached the dam it was a quick climb over a fence and then run along the dam which was hot! Over another fence and down a grassy slope to the drop bags. I still had a bit of water in my bottles and knew how far it was until the next water station so decided to just push on and tackle the big climb. As I ran through a couple of female runners dashed off in front of me and headed up the hill. I kept them in sight up the hill alternating running and walking. I had a few peanuts and an energy bar while I was walking. I passed a couple of runners on the hill and when I reached the top the two ladies were still in sight. A run down to the first deer gate and then a short distance further to the water station where they told me I was 3rd female and the 2 ladies I had been following were in fact first and second! I couldn’t quite believe it as I had been sure there were more women in front! My bottle was refilled and I was on my way again. I pushed hard for the next mile but every time I narrowed the gap the ladies sped off again! They were definitely faster than me on the flats and downhills! I was beginning to find it hard to keep up a decent pace and was pleased when I saw the guy in front of me nip off to the side to soak his hat. A quick stop to wet my buff and I was off again.
I caught up with the guy and two ladies at the zigzag downhill at the end of the Glen Lochay loop. We had a bit of a race down the hill but as soon as we hit the bottom they sped off and I stopped chasing and just tried to keep my pace up. I really struggled on this path back along the river, for me it was the hardest bit of the course and I just couldn’t get into a rhythm. I could also feel my leg muscles begin to tighten as if they would cramp. I ate some more peanuts and drank more than I had been (I knew I would be able to fill my bottles before the climb). A couple of cyclists that I had seen at the bottom of the zigzags shouted some encouraging words as they headed past and finally I made it to the bottom of the hill for the final big climb. I wasn’t sure how much I would be able to run, I planned to walk up as far as the water station and then see how it went from there!
As I started marching up the hill I realised I was catching the first and second place women and as I drew level we had a brief chat. They were clearly struggling with the climb so I decided to push hard on the up and see if I could get enough distance between us that they wouldn’t catch me on the down! The race was on! As I neared the water station my bottle was at the ready for a quick refill and the lovely volunteers even wet my buff for me. Then a final push up the hill – I couldn’t run much but walked as fast as I could with the odd little run when the incline eased off. My legs were still misbehaving with my right calf in particular threaten to cramp. I kept looking over my shoulder but couldn’t see anyone. A few cars passed by, a couple of bikes and some DofE hiking groups, otherwise I was on my own convinced I was going to be chased down on my way to the finish! When the incline levelled off I started running and I didn’t stop til the bottom of the hill, I didn’t look over my shoulder I just gave it my all and managed a couple of miles at a decent pace. With the final half mile to go I was exhausted and still convinced I was going to pipped to the post! As I crossed the bridge I could hear Iain and the boys cheering I reached the bottom of the last incline and had to walk – it was that or throw up! Lewis, bless him, tried to encourage me to run but it wasn’t happening – Iain captured it perfectly in a photo! Over the top of the incline and a final run to the finish with Lewis, Angus and Spud and it was done! I finished in 5hr 13min and 52s, just under my target time and the added bonus of finishing First Lady. It was in fact 7 minutes before the second placed lady crossed the finish line. I had done what I needed to do on that final hill! An absolutely fantastic race in very very hot conditions!
I was presented with a lovely framed picture of the elevation profile for the race, a First Lady plaque and my medal and then sat for a while with Iain and the kids to catch my breath and cheer in the next few runners. Iain provided me with a cup of tea and then I took a quick dip in the river to ease the poor leg muscles! We stayed and cheered in our friend Steph who also managed to finish under her target time. Everyone also gets a Glen Lyon t-shirt and goodie bag with sweets and beer (Iain enjoyed mine).
This is a great race in a beautiful setting. The running isn’t technical or single track but it offers its own challenges and the remoteness and scenery are well worth the drive! It’s a well organised event, relaxed and friendly with great volunteers and marshals. The water stations are well spaced and access to a drop bag at the mid way point is useful for many runners. I will definitely be looking at other races run by Run Ya Rocket in the future.
Organised by UK Running Series, and the second race in their Central Lowlands Challenge, Race the Kelpies was a flat loop course offering 5k (1 loop), 10k (2 loops) and half marathon (4 loops and a bit!) distances as well as a kids 3k race. I signed up for the half marathon as part of my training plan for the Stirling marathon which has since been cancelled. However it still fitted in well with my other training and was a good chance to try and set a new half marathon PB. Pre race I was very nervous of not being able to run as fast as I would like. I hadn’t managed any speed work for a few weeks and had a niggly glute that wasn’t getting any better (luckily it wasn’t getting worse either). In preparation instead of doing intervals I added in a few hills runs, running most of the uphills! This was great for my mood and my legs!
The half marathon started at 9am, with registration open from 8.15am. This meant an early (but not too early) start. Iain, Rhona, Angus and Spud (the dog) came down to cheer me on and enjoy a walk (and ice cream) around the Kelpies and Helix Park. Registration was straight forward, with friendly and helpful volunteers and organisers. Bottles could be left or refilled at the aid station at the start/ finish/turning point on the loops. The toilets at the cafe were open a short walk from the start.
At 8.55am the half marathon runners congregated at the start for a short race briefing and description of the route. Twice around the “Great Lawn” before heading through the start for the first loop – a there and back again down the side of the lawn, past the park and around the lagoon before heading down the path leading to The Kelpies, a marshalled road crossing and on to the canal path before running to the turning point by the shops. It was all well signposted and marshalled.
It was not a big race and around 40 racers started. We started promptly at 9am and I found myself near the front of the group. I had already decided to start at a roughly 8min/mile pace (if it felt comfortably uncomfortable!) and see how long I could hold on for (unknown territory running so fast!). A couple of ladies passed me on the first loop of the grass and were clearly going at a slightly faster pace. No other women came past so if I could maintain the pace I would be able to finish 3rd Female. That set a good goal to work for. I found a couple of male runners who were running at just under an 8 min/mile pace and decided to try and stick with them!
The first loop went really quickly, the park was still quiet so there weren’t too many people to dodge, the pace felt manageable and the route was interesting with plenty to look at. The bonus of a loop course was that at each turning point I was able to see how far behind the 4th and 5th lady were! The second loop was harder work as the sun came out from behind the clouds and it got hotter. I hadn’t carried any water but was able to grab my bottle from my support crew when I needed and then hand it back when I next passed them. It was nice to see them all at different points on the route on each loop. All of the paths were wide enough that passing people was never a problem and there were only 2 points on later loops where I needed to nip onto the grass to pass slower runners. I also had a KMC NRG gel on the second and third loop when I began to tire – these definitely gave me an energy boost!
I finished the second loop 5 minutes before the 10k race started which was ideal as it meant that by the time the 10k racers reached me they had spaced out and only the fastest went passed. I didn’t even notice when the 5k runners started as everyone was well spaced out by then. Seeing runners each lap meant that for the third and fourth loops I was able to encourage slower runners – a lot had headphones in so probably didn’t hear me but I enjoyed it! It is always impressive seeing people challenging themselves and pushing their own limits. The third and fourth laps were harder work and by the fourth I had to work hard to maintain the pace. I was holding my position well but even when the sun went behind a cloud and it cooled down a bit it was still hard work! I fell back on counting from 1-8 repeatedly in time with my steps. I find this really helps me keep going and keep a pace. Overtaking the guy I had been following in the last lap also gave me a boost! A final push to the finish and it was done. A finish time of 1:45:22, a big new PB, 3rd female and 14th overall. Not a bad morning’s work!
All in all this was great event, well organised and everyone was very friendly and helpful. A great flat course for people to try a longer distance, go for a new PB or just have an enjoyable run.
Last weekend, we travelled to Wheelbirks Farm in the Northumberland countryside so I could run my first ever Backyard Ultra. Since the first “Big’s Backyard Ultra“, hosted by the legendary Lazarus Lake in his literal backyard in Bell Buckle, Tennessee in 2011, hundreds of similar events have spawned worldwide, each of which gives entrants the change to qualify for the individual or national championships. If you’ve never heard of it, the format of the race is very simple. Taking place on a 4-and-one-sixth mile loop, runners must complete each loop and be ready to start the next before the hour is up. This repeats unless all but one runners have quit or timed out – leaving the last man (or woman) standing to complete one final victory loop, with all the others recording a DNF (Did Not Finish). The world record, set by Harvey Lewis at Big’s in 2021 currently stands at 85 yards – that’s 354 miles in a little over 3.5 days! The backyard is designed that it’s not too hard to complete a single loop, but gradually fatigue and tiredness creep up on you, making it truly possible to find your own limit. Sounds like my idea of fun 🙃
The race was due to start at noon on Saturday, but with registration and the camping field open from Friday afternoon we made sure to arrive early enough to grab a prime site, right next to the start/finish corral. Saving a few metres at the end of each lap could add up to quite a lot and make a difference as the race went on – marginal gains! Julie and Rhona were to be crewing for me (the rest of the kids were left with their grandparents for the weekend), and between us we quickly got our tent up. We brought our family 6-sleeper tent, which was more space than we’d need for sleeping but had plenty room to move our aid station indoors if needed. As the afternoon went on the field filled up with at least 50 or so other runners with tents and camper vans. At registration, I had a chance to chat to the organisers from Greener Miles Running who said that in addition to the nearly 100 solo entrants, there would be another 40 runners making up the Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales teams as the race was part of the Four Nations Trophy series. So it would be a busy start, and we could expect a long race!
After a hearty pasta dinner we settled down for an early night in the tent and slept well until morning. Good thing, as we were not expecting to be getting much sleep on Saturday night! The day dawned dry, hazy and cold – but the forecast was set fair all weekend, with a little bit of cloud. After several days of dry weather, the conditions looked pretty benign. By mid-morning, the campsite had filled up even more, plus there were runners who were planning only for a few loops. There was a real buzz about the place, and it was nice to meet to some of the Team Scotland runners – I’m sure we’ll cross paths again in future. Each entrant had been given a £10 voucher for the Wheelbirks Ice Cream Parlour so Julie and Rhona set off to investigate that, leaving me to have an early lunch and get changed ready for the race. After a few last minute photos, all the runners were gathered in the starting corral for a short race briefing, followed by the 3-minute, 2-minute and 1-minute whistle blasts, a 10 second countdown to the hour, and we were off!
The exact course was a bit of a mystery before the race. It’s on private, working farm land so we were asked not to recce it, and there were several changes to the previous year’s route as well as a different start/finish location. From the start line, we climbed gradually through a few grassy fields before crossing the farm access road and heading straight up a half mile climb on a gravel track. Turning sharply back at the top, a short descent through another field made up the end of the first mile. Rejoining a track, we continued back down towards the farm buildings before turning right and following a grassy track along hedge line out towards the boundary of the farm and a nearby forestry plantation. Zig-zagging through a clear-felled area with good grassy and heathery ground underfoot, we entered the forest itself, with dry, rooty and pine cone strewn floor to reach the end of the second mile. We came briefly out of the forest again before a short, wooded, plunging descent down to the Stocksfield Burn. The path here was very muddy in parts, but great fun to run down and actually quite easy on the legs. Crossing the burn on a narrow plank bridge led to a short but steep ascent on a very boggy and slippery path, which only got worse as hundreds of runners slithered up it lap after lap. A nice bit of single track through open woodland led out onto more fields, and a gradual descent to end the of the third mile. The fourth mile started with a large loop around the perimeter of a field, before another short descent on hard packed dry ground through trees to a tarmac road. Re-crossing the now larger burn on a stone bridge, we made a short, sharp climb on the road before heading back into farmland. Following yet another wide track around the edge of a field, we popped out at another plank bridge over a ditch. This led directly back into the lower corner of the camping field, and a short rise over the grassy ground back up to the start/finish line. With over 400 ft of elevation gain and loss on each lap, and boggy and rough underfoot in places this was definitely not an easy course! Nevertheless it was definitely achievable in well under an hour.
Loop by loop
Note that these recollections might not be 100% accurate! As you’ll imagine, it’s hard to tell one loop apart from another…
Loop 1 (47:19) The first loop was really all about learning the course. Feeling fresh, I was able to walk everything that was even slightly uphill, gentle runs on the downhills and still finish well under my planned pace of 12 minute per mile (which works out to a 50 minute loop). It was still overcast, with a little bit of a breeze and I started with a thin long-sleeved base layer. By the end of the loop the sun had come out and I was heating up! Off with the base layer, on with the sun cream and plenty of time to rest up before starting the next lap. One runner came in near the end of the hour, but was unable or unwilling to complete the next.
Loop 2 (47:25) The sun was fully out now, but there was a cool breeze on the higher parts of the course. My legs were still feeling strong, and I found I was able to start slowly, but pass a lot of people on the walk up the first big hill. Overall I was probably still going a bit too fast, but still feeling good!
Loop 3 (48:21) Managed to get the initial adrenaline rush out of my system and slowed down a little bit!
Loop 4 (47:52) Sweating bucketloads in the heat of the afternoon, but drinking plenty and eating a variety of food – mainly salty stuff like crisps, some dried fruit and nuts, and my all-time favourite – watermelon!
Loop 5 (47:35) One runner said that the furthest she had ever run before was a half marathon, but completed 4 loops (16.67 miles) and headed out for the fifth. Sadly, she wasn’t able to finish in the hour.
Loop 6 (47:48) 25 miles completed! It was dinner time in camp, and Julie had prepared a hot dog and roll for me, which I wolfed down.
Loop 7 (48:13) As we set off, the news went round that last year’s winner had dropped out with an injury! This loop passed the marathon mark so we were now officially running an ultra. It seems this was enough for many as this was the last completed loop for 13 runners.
Loop 8 (48:40) Still in short sleeves, but off with the sun hat and on with the buff and head torch. It was still light at the start of the loop, but dark enough to need the torch in the forest sections. While I was out, Julie and Rhona moved our aid station inside the tent, so I could sit down and eat in the warm.
Loop 9 (48:33) The first proper night loop. Although it was still quite mild, I switched into a thermal base layer. I was still sweating a lot so I knew I could easily get cold. A full moon rose in the East, glowing through the clouds that had rolled in.
Loop 10 (49:43) As night fell, I was hitting a bit of a low. I had 40+ miles in my legs and my glutes in particular were starting to feel it. Nothing else for it, I just kept plodding on – I wasn’t actually much slower than the previous lap anyway.
Loop 11 (48:32) The temperature was dropping a bit, and the breeze which had been nice during the day was still blowing, making it a bit chilly along the exposed second mile from the top of the first hill to the forest. I grabbed an extra buff to wear round my neck, which worked well.
Loop 12 (50:13) 50 miles in the bag, and again this was the point for many runners to call it quits, with 19 pulling out or failing to complete the next loop. This loop ended up being the my slowest so far (although only by a minute or so), so I gave myself a bit of a talking to when I got back to camp and resolved to work harder at the next loop.
Loop 13 (47:17) With some renewed effort, I put in a much faster loop – in fact faster than I’d done at any point in the race so far! So the legs were doing fine, I just needed to keep going…
Loop 14 (47:34) It was now 2am and the mid-way point of the night. Julie was having a hard time with repeatedly having her sleep interrupted by me turning up at the end of the loop. She was still making sure I was eating, and otherwise OK, but when the first whistle went and I got up to return to the corral, she managed to jam the zip of the tent and had forgotten to refill my hand-held bottle! In the end, both were solved in well under a minute with plenty of time to get into the corral.
Loop 15 (48:00) Completing this loop would mark the 100k distance, but it didn’t start well! On my way to the corral my stomach was feeling decidedly dodgy, and on cue I started throwing up 30 seconds before the bell. I couldn’t risk leaving the corral, so just hung my head over the edge and let fly! When the loop started I was still coughing up for the first minute or so, but after that I was OK again. The only good thing about being sick on an ultra is that you always feel much better straight after. It wasn’t ideal that I had another 4 miles to go before I could start replenishing the lost calories though. The rest of the loop passed without incident and I refuelled again back in the tent.
Loop 16 (47:56) At the end of this loop, I had my only proper sleep of the race. It only lasted a few minutes but I was sound asleep when the whistles blew. Julie woke me up and apparently I just stared straight through her, looking completely disoriented!
Loop 17 (48:35) The moon was now starting to dip towards the horizon, and the sky was beginning to light slightly, even though it was only 5am. After 8 solid night loops, dawn was within touching distance.
Loop 18 (47:39) It was starting to get properly light now and by the end of the loop I was able to ditch the head torch entirely. As the dawn broke, my spirits lifted and my legs came back to life – these next few loops around dawn were the ones I enjoyed most out of the whole race. At the end of this loop, Julie had cooked a bacon roll – but one nibble and I knew I couldn’t stomach it. More for Rhona!
Loop 19 (46:48) The first fully light loop of the morning – I had survived the night! Despite my stomach not being entirely settled, I ran my fastest loop of the race. When I finished the loop I had plenty of time to switch into day mode. Toilet stop, teeth brushed, off with the thermal top and buff, and on with sun cream and hat. The sun was coming up, and the forecast was for another hot day.
Loop 20 (47:11) There’s nothing quite like running in the morning after going through a whole night. This is the third time I’ve done it in a race, and it’s always a great feeling! I wasn’t taking in much food at this point – just a gel and picking at a few things in between laps – but had plenty of energy and was still keeping up a good pace.
Loop 21 (47:48) The field had thinned out by now, with only 14 runners left by the end of this loop. Those of us that remained were focussed on the next three loops that would take us up to the 100 mile marker.
Loop 22 (47:35) I was really not feeling like eating by this point. I’d been taking a gel each lap, plus whatever else I felt I could manage, as well as sipping on coke. Julie made a great discovery – there were Chia Charge bars being given away – which were 150 calories each, and seemed to be acceptable to my stomach.
Loop 23 (48:50) As the day really started to heat up, I started to slow again. More coke and chia bars kept me going. Sadly, a Team Scotland runner – one of the only two remaining ladies – couldn’t complete this lap and finished 8 miles short of the 100. The winner of Last Lady Standing was decided (although she was still going strong).
Loop 24 (49:31) The hundred mile loop was a strange one. I knew I was going to complete it, but I was definitely starting to struggle. Although I did make it in under 50 minutes, there were a lot of negative thoughts starting to creep in. One of the runners was looking very strong – sprinting ahead at the start of every lap, and looking like a shoe-in for the win. My right quad in particular was starting to hurt quite a bit on the descents. Not enough to stop me actually moving, but enough to be a constant niggle, and (since I’d effectively ruled myself out of the win) make me doubt the wisdom of carrying on.
Loop 25 (50:15) 6 runners quit after completing the 100 mile distance, leaving 7 of us in the starting corral to start the second day of racing. I was still moving OK, but starting to move with less speed and purpose, and in a really bad place mentally.
Loop 26 (52:24) 5 of us gathered in the corral to start this loop, but one stopped as soon as the bell rang to set us off, leaving only 4 remaining runners. Getting off the start line I was really stiff and sore, although I was able to break into a bit of a shuffle and get myself round the loop. By the time I finished, I was mentally checked out and ready to quit. Julie had other ideas, however! She pointed out I still had over 7 minutes spare – I should just keep pushing and see if I could turn it around. Who was I to argue? I made my way back to the corral to start loop 27.
Loop 27 (56:02) Julie could see I was really suffering as we set off, and was feeling pretty bad for sending me back out – but I appreciate it, and would have done the same had it been the other way round! I didn’t want to be out on this loop, and I knew it was my last. It was a strange making my way round the familiar loop, passing each landmark for what I knew was going to be the last time. On every other lap, I had walked all the way up the finish field, but this time I did my best to manage a bit of a jog. Crossing the line, I had an emotional hug with Julie and collapsed in the chair. Even now, she still had a gel ready and opened, and a bottle of Irn-Bru, but I was done!
As the whistles blew to count down to the start of loop 28, I did at least make it back up to the corral, but with no intention of running the loop. When the bell rang to start the lap, I clapped the last three runners off and dropped out of the race.
After lying on my back with my legs up for a while, we decided it was better to take down our tent and head home – the race might well go on for several hours (or even days), and apart from the remaining runners/crews, the Four Nations marquee, and the registration tent, everyone else had already gone. Plus we had vouchers for the ice cream parlour and it closed in an hour! Julie and Rhona did most of the hard work getting packed away, while I hobbled around and recieved my DNF memento. Before long, we were ready to go for a swift ice cream and head home.
I was keeping an eye on updates on the event Facebook page to see how the race panned out. The biggest surprise was Robert, who had looked so strong throughout, dropped after completing the 29th loop! The last two runners, Paul and Sarah, carried on until dusk, when Paul dropped after the 32nd loop, leaving Sarah to complete her 33rd and final loop for a well deserved win 👏👏👏
Looking back on the race a week later (still with sore legs!) I have mixed feelings. In one sense I’m happy to have placed as high as 4th (even if it still counts as a DNF), and while I maybe didn’t give quite my 100% on the day, I don’t think I could have gone on from how I was feeling on lap 27 to complete another 6 of more hours of racing. However, overall there definitely was room for improvement! Some of the things that went well:
My crew were brilliant throughout. They had everything ready for me, when I needed it (even in the middle of the night), knew when to give me space, and pushed me that little bit harder than I would have pushed myself right at the very end. Thanks Julie and Rhona 😍
Up until the last few laps, I managed to maintain a consistent pace of around 47-49 minutes per loop, despite the crowds for the first few laps, changing temperature and ground conditions.
Fuelling and hydration. I do seem to get a dodgy stomach when it’s hot, but with the variety of food I had available, I was able to keep to my plan of around 200 calories and 250 ml of electrolyte drink per lap. I was never hungry, low on energy or cramping up.
Shoe choice. After having major foot issues on the Lady Anne’s Way, I bought a pair of Salomon Sense Ride 3 GTX and had run about 50 miles in them before the backyard to wear them in. I used to run in Gore-Tex shoes a few years ago, and while they’re no use if it’s really wet (like very heavy rain, river crossings, marshy ground) as water will get in one way or another, they are great when there is a little bit of damp, like the few squishy patches and lots of wet dewy grass overnight. My feet stayed dry and had no major blistering, even though I managed to wear through a brand new pair of socks at the heel!
Race prep. With the Friday off work, we were able to get our tent pitched early, no stress, a solid night’s sleep and plenty of time to fuel up in the morning. As a result I think I was in pretty much top form for the race and had no issues staying awake through the night.
My watch. I recently reviewed the Garmin Fēnix 6, and although this time I did charge it a little bit after loops 22 and 23 – there was enough battery left to easily reach 26 or 27 hours. The better battery life was probably due to not using navigation mode, and having less hours of night (so less use of the backlight). The “Ultra Run” mode was also great as I was able to use the split button at the end of each loop to start a rest period and the split again to start the next loop. With pace and elapsed time displayed each mile (re-starting at each loop), it was easy to know how I was pacing myself throughout the loop.
Some points for improvement:
Choice of pace. In hindsight, I think aiming for 12 minutes per mile (50 mins per loop) was a bit too fast, plus I was actually slightly faster than that overall anyway. Having around 12 minutes rest each loop was more than I really needed. Although I sat with my eyes shut for 5 mins quite a few times, there was only once that I actually slept, and even then only for a couple of minutes. I ended up getting quite stiff and cold by the time I had to return to the corral to start each loop. I think it would be better to aim for something like 53 or 54 minutes per loop, and only putting in a faster loop if I needed the time for a loo break or a sleep.
Being more adaptable. For most of the first day, I was hitting pretty close to 12 minutes for the first mile, but as night fell and my walking pace started to slow I was getting closer to or over 13 minutes. My response was to speed up on miles 2 and 4 (which have the most downhill) to make up time and hit my goal pace. In fact, as I just mentioned I had plenty of time to spare so it would have been better to be more relaxed about the pace, let my lap time slip slightly but conserve energy by walking more rather than running needlessly to make up time. I believe it’s also quite normal to slow a bit at night anyway – so not something to be overly concerned about!
Goal setting & motivation. Coming into the race, in my head unless I picked up a major injury, my minimal goal was to get to the 100 mile mark, something I’ve done before (albiet not with this much elevation). Apart from that my next goals were to get to 150 miles – further than I’ve ever gone before (not to mention further than Julie will go when she does the KACR 145 in July 😳), and then finally I had hoped I might be able to challenge for the win. I’d already found the going much harder than I had expected quite early in the race, and after passing the 100 mile mark, I was thinking about what I should be aiming for next. I definitely wanted to do a few more loops, just to see how things went, but 150 miles seemed a long way off – another 12 hours of running, and the other 3 remaining runners looked much stronger so I didn’t believe I had a real chance of winning. Firstly, the strongest-looking runner dropped only 2 loops after me – so I should learn not to care about what everyone else is doing. Secondly, I need to find goals that are more achievable, or bite-sized. I realised afterwards that my longest ever running duration was 27 hours and 12 minutes, so doing the 28th loop would have beat that. Then I would have only been 3 more loops to beat my longest ever distance… and then the 150 mile might have been within reach after all. Ultimately, it’s about getting yourself in the zone to keep pushing out one more loop… and staying there!
Overall, I had a great time at the Cow Shed – thanks to all of the other runners and supporters, the marshals, organisers and of course my own crew for their part in that 👏👏👏 As it was my first time in a backyard, it’s definitely given me an itch to scratch. Unfortunately I can’t make it to either the Welsh or Scottish legs of the Four Nations Backyard Trophy – but there’s always next year, plus a couple of other possible events I have an eye on! If you’ve never tried a Backyard Ultra before, I totally recommend it, no matter how far you think you can go.
Last weekend I travelled down to Edinburgh to take part in “The Drop“. If you haven’t come across it before, the concept is simple but makes for an interesting event. Competitors are blindfolded, bussed out to an unknown location a set distance from the finish location and race to make their way back – but no maps, GPS, or any other navigational aids are allowed. They have regular events all round the country and I’d run in one before, the 30 mile 2019 “Christmas Special” event in Huddersfield (which I won – although there were only 5 competitors)!
For the Edinburgh event, the finish location was at Pedal House – a cycle/row fitness club near the Edinburgh International Conference Centre in the West End. 10 and 15 mile distances were on offer, and I had opted for the 15 miler. I was pretty confident in my navigation within Edinburgh, although I’m a bit hazy on the details of the area around the West End itself so I spent a bit of time the week before studying maps of Edinburgh and the surrounding area. Plotting a 15 mile radius around the finish gave possible start locations as far afield as Kirkcaldy or Dunfermline (evil as it would require a detour over the Forth Road Bridge!), West Lothian (Linlithgow, Bathgate etc.), either NW or E of the Pentlands, A7 or A68 corridors to the South, or East Lothian (Humbie, Haddington or Aberlady). My experience from 2019 was that there are two basic challenges to solve. Firstly, once you are dropped, working out (roughly) where you are and therefore which direction to set off in. Secondly, keeping a roughly optimal course towards the finish location. Plus of course running as fast as you can while doing so!
On the day of the race I took the excellent Ember bus service which runs direct from Bridge of Earn to Edinburgh, getting off at Haymarket. This was only a short walk to the finish, and was a handy way to familiarise myself with the immediate surroundings (and grab a cup of tea and second breakfast). Registration at Pedal House was quick and easy, and there was space to get ready and also leave a drop bag with a change of clothes for afterwards. We were all given a small sealable bag for phone and watch to go in (don’t forget to start your watch before sealing it). Just before 10am, all 25 or so of the competitors (for both distances) were taken to the waiting coach and after a short briefing, blindfolded and off we went!
Of course we couldn’t see anything, but it was a bright day and you could tell which side of the coach the sun was shining on. As a result I was fairly convinced that we were headed East or Southeast, so was fully expecting to be dropped somewhere in East Lothian. After dropping off the 10 mile runners, eventually the coach stopped again and we could remove the blindfolds. Stepping off the coach, we were right at a bus stop labelled “Bo’ness”, so the first challenge was solved right away! Re-orienting myself with the sun to the south I headed off East down the street, trying to remember the best way back to Edinburgh. Compared to 2019 when we were dropped at an unmarked T-junction in the countryside, and had to guess the initial direction this was much less stressful! A short distance later there was a sign for the waterfront path which seemed like a good bet.
After having sat on the bus for an hour, fully hydrated, I had to make a pit stop at the first available bushes and watched as everyone else ran past! Setting off again, I reached the waterfront and picked up signs for National Cycle Network route 76. I remembered that this went all the way to Edinburgh via North Queensferry, and sure enough came across a sign indicating 20 miles to Edinburgh. Before long I’d passed a big group and pair of runners, but I was pretty convinced there were still at least three people ahead, but there was no sign of them – either they were already far ahead, or had taken a different route. After a few miles I came to the village of Blackness, where I made my only real navigational error. The cycle path turned inland, but the footpath was signed straight on. I followed the footpath, but in the end it just went right round the headland past Blackness Castle, and rejoined the cycle path which had cut about a quarter of a mile off!
The next five miles were straightforward to navigate as the path wound through woodlands, passed through the grounds of Hopetoun House, and then followed a minor road until entering South Queensferry. Passing under the Queensferry Crossing and the Forth Road Bridge, I knew from my map reconnaissance that NCN76 went straight on, but a shorter route was to turn right as I passed under the Forth Rail Bridge. Turns out several other runners did follow NCN76, adding a couple of extra miles around the headland and past Dalmeny House. Probably very scenic but not the fastest route!
After the short climb out of South Queensferry, it wasn’t long before reaching the A90. Not the most scenic route but direct and with a good cycle path all the way alongside it. Navigation was simple here as I could follow the dual carriageway as it entered the city and turned into Queensferry Road. There was a surprising amount of climb here (previously I had only taken this route by car and in my head it was fairly flat) but before long I had passed the Barnton, Quality Street and Blackhall junctions and knew I only had a couple of miles remaining. Turning right before Stewart Melville’s college, there were a few short climbs up to the art galleries and up from the Water of Leith into the West End proper. A dash past the cathedral, over the tram lines and finally up to the EICC and the finish!
Arriving back at Pedal House, I was able to open my bag, stop my watch and found out that I had finished second overall, with a time of 2 hours and 13 minutes and 17 miles covered. The winner had finished just under 2 hours, following essentially the same route (minus the Blackness detour) – an excellent effort, and far enough ahead that I didn’t feel I might have caught him if only I had gone a little faster! One of the side effects of having no GPS watch or phone is that you have to judge your pace by feel. Besides the first few mile when I went off like a bat out of hell (catching up the field after a wee stop), I was pretty consistently in the mid 7 mins/mi, so I’m happy with that 😄 I got a nice wooden finisher’s memento for my troubles and had time to get changed, see the third placed runner come in, before grabbing a quick lunch, pint and the bus home!
It looks like organisers are running another Drop in Glasgow later this year, and also launching a new event called the Renegade where you have to get as far away from the start within a time limit. I may just have to give it a go… will you?