An inaugural event and my first ever 24hr looped race! The course was a 7km loop on the banks of Loch Ness just outside the small village of Dores and incorporated approx 300ft of elevation per loop, forest paths (with a lot of tree roots), a pebble beach and some fields. The organisers advertised it as the toughest 24hr race in the UK:
“This incredible mix of forest trails, pebble beaches and rolling grassy hillsides makes for THE toughest and most spectacular 24hr relay course in the UK”https://www.lochness24.co.uk/
The event was open to teams (large, small and pairs) as well as solo runners. When I saw the race and it fitted in to my race calendar I was keen to give it a go – it had the added advantage of not being too far from home and Iain and the kids could come for the weekend for support and to enjoy the atmosphere. I was slightly concerned about running a second big race 5 weeks after KACR but figured if I didn’t try I wouldn’t know if it was possible!
The forecast running up to race weekend looked great with highs of 18 during the day, lows of 10 overnight, light cloud and hardly any breeze – perfect running conditions. On the Friday this changed to sun on the Saturday but still said highs of 18 – all good just a little extra suncream required! In the end it turned out to be really hot on the Saturday which was unexpected and added an additional challenge – thankfully most of the route was in the shade of the forest!
As usual organising for us all to go camping for the weekend was a massive operation, making sure Iain and the kids had everything they needed camping and plenty of food plus planning what I needed for a 24hr race.
My plan was to start steady at an average of 12min/mile pace, walk the first hill from the start, the pebble beach and then the final hill before the end. I would then add in more walking through the night. My goal was to run 100 miles in the 24 hours. I had managed this on KACR but that was a very different course (and flat!) so I didn’t know if I could manage on trail paths with over 7000ft of elevation. I planned to carry fluid and a gel in a waist belt and pick up extra food at the start of each lap from Iain and a table he set up at the side of the course. I could then walk the first hill eating whatever I had collected. I hoped I wouldn’t have to stop at all unless I needed a sock change etc. I had also hoped for portaloos accessible directly from the course but they turned out to be a short walk away!
Camping was available on the Friday night so after the kids had finished school and Iain had finished work we headed off up the A9 to Loch Ness. It was meant to take about 2hr 30min but it turned out the A9 had been shut since 2pm due to an accident and there were massive delays. I had packed all the food in the trailer which was a mistake! The beautiful scenery made queueing slightly more bearable but by 6pm everyone was hungry and getting grumpy so we nipped into a lay-by (at least there are plenty!) and I grabbed as much snack food out of the trailer as I could to keep everyone going – onion rings, apple pies and chocolate bars for tea! By the time we reached Dalwhinnie the road was reopened but traffic was still moving slowly. We finally arrived at the campsite at about 8.30pm (2 hours later than we had been expecting). The field was well signposted from the outskirts of Inverness and when we arrived there were loads of helpful marshals directing us to our camping spot.
Thankfully Iain and I now have putting the tent up down to a fine art, so with a little help from Isla and Rhona we soon had the tent up and organised. I went across and registered and picked up my race number and goodies (I had to go the next morning to collect my dibber to record my laps). It was by now dark and everyone was a little grumpy so we quickly got tea on the go. Pasta with pesto and cheese for tea and then we were soon tucked up in bed just back of 10 hoping to get a good sleep before race day. Everyone else seemed to sleep reasonably well but I tossed and turned! The dog was quite unsettled, there was campsite noise and it was milder than I had expected so I had too many clothes on and was hot!
People started to stir at about 6.30am on race morning and after my bad nights sleep I admit I was a bit grumpy, I hadn’t realised how hard I would find being mum at the same time as getting in the right frame of mind for a big race and I must admit I didn’t do it very well. By breakfast time Iain asked me to stop grumping at everyone and I didn’t cope with it well. I got really upset and was wanting to go home and not race. I’ve never struggled like this before a race and I didn’t like it! I went and got my dibber but still wasn’t wanting to race! Just after 9am (the race started at 10) I managed to sort myself out enough to get into my running kit, drink a coffee and get to the pre race briefing at 9.45. I was hoping once I started I would get into the race and it would all be ok (and that’s what happened – once I could just focus on running things were easier!).
The race briefing mostly focussed on how to use the dibber to make sure that each lap was counted. I had been nervous about this but it was actually very straightforward. The dibber was on a lanyard (1 per team or 1 each for solo runners) which you could wear around your wrist or neck. I put mine on my wrist as I didn’t like the idea of it swinging around my neck. Each lap you stuck the dibber in the hole in one of the control boxes at the Start/finish line – it beeped and flashed and recorded your lap. All nice and easy which was a relief! If you left the course you dibbed in and out at separate control boxes, and teams swapped over the dibber in the transition area just after the start/ finish line.
At 10am the race started and we were led off by the Loch Ness Monster, carrying several green flares! I was very good and walked the first hill despite the temptation to race up with lots of others! Because there were also teams taking part it meant that there were a good few runners who were running fast 7km loops before swapping with a team mate, I had to be sensible and run my own race (and get used to people dashing past me for the full 24 hours!).
The course itself was really interesting, after the first climb up a grassy field it dropped steeply back down to enter the forest track. You headed left in the forest and soon met the first check point crew (0.4 miles) at a junction in the track which was divided by tape to ensure we headed the right way and no course cutting took place! We headed off right and met the first of the tree roots! This section was fun running although did require you to keep a close eye on where you were placing your feet (especially as you got more tired and at night). At about 0.8 miles there is a sharp turn where you head back to the first check point. Again this section was fun running as long as you kept an eye on the tree roots! At about 1.1 miles you pass check point 1 again before heading right onto a narrower track. This next section until about 1.8 miles is down hill, it has some big tree roots to contend with but then has a nice fast downhill section with only one tight turn. You pop out of the forest onto a path that heads out towards Dores beyond the beach.
At 2 miles you reach the next check point (and water station) before heading back on yourself along the pebble beach and back towards the forest. 0.2 miles of pebble beach feels like a long way! The view was beautiful and it was great to see lots of people on the beach enjoying their Saturday. I walked the pebble beach as I wasn’t sure my ankles had the strength for repeated loops running it, but a fair few people seemed to run it just fine (and at least it would be over quicker then!). At 2.2 miles it was back in the forest for the most technical section of the course – uneven ground, tree roots, rocks and trees to avoid! This section was runnable and I did run it during the Saturday but decided not to even try at night when I was tired (a few people did run it at night but I did see one person have a tumble).
This section lasts to the next check point at 2.6 miles where you hit forest track and good running for nearly a mile. The next check point is at 3.4 miles before a steep climb up and out of the forest (nearly everyone walked this hill!). The final mile and a bit is through grass fields, the grass was short and the ground wasn’t too tussocky. A short, fast, downhill section (less fun after 90 odd miles!) before a little climb up to the far end of the camping field. The last section of the loop heads around the edge of the camping field where it was lovely to hear people cheering you on. At the end of each loop you dibbed your dibber and were then good to go again.
Because this was a short looped course the check points were mainly to check people were OK and to help if there was problem or injury. Water was available at the half way point and start/finish and everyone obviously had access to their crew/ team members every loop for whatever else they required. I thought that number of check points would feel a lot but it actually made it easy to break each loop into smaller sections and I began really looking forward to seeing the lovely volunteers at each check point as they always had a smile even in the middle of the night. These points on the course were lit throughout the night with blue/green lights and most had music playing which was a good boost.
The first few loops of the course soon went by, I was running them slightly faster than I had intended (but had expected I would struggle to keep to a slower pace) and having some great chat with the other runners. It was brilliant to hear so many people that were trying to push themselves to further than they had ever run before and a fair few with 100k and 100 mile goals. My plan of not stopping and just picking up food/drink each lap was working and although it was hot I was enjoying myself. I had got over my morning grump and was in my zone having fun! I swapped into a lighter t-shirt after 3 laps as it was far hotter than had been forecast!
Because of the loop design Iain and/or some of the kids was able to meet me at the far end of the camping field to find out if there was anything I needed and have little chat while they ran through the campsite and I ran on the course! Iain would then nip off and get ready whatever I needed before I passed through the start/finish and headed for the table we had set up just before the first hill. Early afternoon the kids and Spud walked into Dores, to have a play on the beach so it was nice to see them at the start of the beach section as I headed past.
Then on lap 5 things began to go a bit wrong – I had lower back pain that was getting worse and started getting terrible stomach cramps. I thought it may be the waist belt I was wearing as I hadn’t used it on any longer runs before and I thought the stomach cramps must be something I had eaten, so hoped they would just settle with time. I slowed down a bit to see if that helped and when I saw Iain at the end of the lap we both agreed I should stop using the waist belt and use the hand held flask and pockets of my shorts to carry anything I needed. I broke my rule of not stopping and had a sit in one of the camping chairs for a couple of minutes before heading off on the next lap.
As I headed into the trees on this lap I suddenly realised what the back ache, stomach cramps and earlier grumpiness meant – my period had started early! I had a short dilemma of what to do but soon realised I would just need to run this lap, hope for the best and then get sorted at the end of the lap. It was a slow and mentally challenging lap but I got round and found Iain and Isla waiting at the end of the campsite, I explained what had happened and what I needed and they dashed off to get everything sorted. I dibbed off course for a while, got sorted, took some paracetamol for the cramps and then headed back out feeling a lot better – at least I now knew what was going on! I had been thinking about quitting but once the stomach cramps settled I was feeling more positive again. Thanks to my awesome crew for dealing with the unexpected I only lost about 20 minutes sorting everything out.
Iain headed off to Tesco during this next lap (it was only 10 minutess down the road) so when I got back to the start he had a watermelon flavoured ice lolly waiting for me. This was great as it was still hot. I can’t really remember much of the next few laps. I got into a rhythm of running and walking, enjoyed chat with the other runners, enjoyed passing the check points and ticking off each lap. Early evening I enjoyed some salty chips from the onsite catering (these went down well) and was pleased as it cooled in the evening. I was a little behind my optimistic schedule but still had time to complete 100 miles in the 24 hours. However mentally I wasn’t really there and each lap felt like calling it a day, or stopping at 100k! I definitely need to improve how I manage this, especially on a looped course.
When it started getting dark and head torches were required I cut back on my running on the more rooty sections of the course. I was worried that I would either fall over or twist an ankle on them as I don’t have a huge amount of experience of night time running. Having a good head torch really helped and I only needed to use it on medium beam. The course had really thinned out and apart from the odd fast team runner I didn’t see a huge number of people through the night. Once we got to the wee hours of the night I seemed to get over my negativity and got a real second wind where running felt great and I was just really enjoying myself. Again I didn’t suffer too much from the lack of sleep and had a great few laps. I was still having a brief sit at the end of each lap while I had a cup a soup or something else to eat. In hindsight this was a real mistake and an unnecessary luxury – they don’t say ‘beware the chair’ for no reason! It cost me minutes every lap but once I had started sitting down I soon expected it very lap!
When it became light I had my usual dip in energy levels but bacon rolls and then sausages from Iain made a big difference and were something to look forward to at the end of each lap. I knew I was 3rd female at this point and had convinced myself I was happy with that but Iain kept encouraging me that I could still get 1st place if I pushed hard. I did try for a couple of laps, running a lot more of the course and trying hard to make time on second place, I even gave up the chair! But after a couple of laps I realised I wasn’t going to manage it. I also had a sharp pain in the front of my left shin which was concerning me so I decided to just take it easy and enjoy myself for the final 2 laps that I could fit into the time available. For the Loch Ness 24 you are allowed to complete the last lap you start before the 24hrs are up. This meant I had until around 11 am (25hrs) to complete my last lap.
I had some great chats on those last couple of laps and was glad I had made the decision to slow down and just enjoy them, although interestingly this is the first race where at the end I have found it more uncomfortable to walk than run! I also had pain at the front of both shins that I have never had before and when I finished I had bruising on both shins – I thought I had done myself an injury but with a few days rest, the bruising was gone and I have had no pain when running since. I completed my 23rd lap and 100 miles at just over 23hrs and at this point found out that the lady who had been in first place and looking strong had unfortunately injured herself (I had passed her limping a lap or 2 earlier) and had stopped at 23 laps. This meant that by completing my 24th lap I finished 2nd female and 6th overall, only 20mins behind 1st place female.
This was a really well organised event and I am sure it will only get better in future years. The atmosphere was great and the course was interesting and varied. It was a lovely location and it was wonderful to look out across the Loch on every lap, although I must admit to hating the pebble beach by the end! I was really pleased to get my 100miles in 24hours on a challenging course with over 7000ft of elevation but I must also admit to coming away feeling slightly dissatisfied with how I mentally managed the run. I spent too much of the race wanting to stop and looking for excuses why I should stop (a bit like at KACR) and yet I was actually running well and in a good position. I need to start believing in myself more and looking at the positives!
I think Iain is keen to give the course a go next year if it fits in his race calendar and I am looking forward to November when Iain and I have entered God’s Own Backyard Ultra and I really will have to have self belief in bucketloads as only one person can finish the race! For now its back to training and enjoying getting out close to home!