The Ochil Ultra is our local ultra, with the route literally passing our front door. Iain and I thought we weren’t going to be able to take part this year with Iain having Glasgow to Edinburgh at the start of October and with my parents planning to stay. However plans changed and my parents weren’t able to visit so I began considering whether it would be possible or sensible to enter just 4 weeks after Loch Ness 24. My recovery had gone well but I am aware that I have been asking a lot of my body over the last few months so I was unsure! I looked at the start list and saw there were only a few ladies entered in the 50 mile race, a friend was running and Iain encouraged me to enter. It didn’t take much and I entered on the last day before entries closed! At this point the race was planned to be running from Perth to Stirling which made it easy to get to the start and Iain and the kids would meet me in Stirling at the finish. I knew the first hill, Moncrieffe Hill, well but had only ever ran it in the opposite direction so I did a couple of recce runs running it in race direction. I also planned a recce run of the 10 miles from bridge of Earn up into the Ochils via the Wallace Road. I invited my friend Stephané who was also running the race and she was happy to come along. This would have been a great little practice run but for the very frisky cows in the fields around the wind farm. They were very interested in us and poor Stephané was terrified. We managed to get past the first 2 fields of cows but when a third herd came running over to see us it was too much for Steph and so we cut the run short and headed back via Forgandenny on the roads!
The week before race day the organisers let us know that they were having to change the race direction as Stirling University had suddenly told them they would no longer be able to use their track for the finish. Thankfully Perth and Kinross Council were happy for them to finish at South Inch in Perth, and Stirling University said they could start on their grounds in the morning, so we were now running Stirling to Perth! This is the direction the race was run in 2017, 2018 and 2019. I’m sure this caused a few headaches for the race organisers and some of the racers but actually worked quite well for me as it meant that I would be running towards home and would know the last 18ish miles of the route. It did take me a couple of days to get used to the idea though!
I was quite nervous about this race as it had a lot more elevation than I am used to and I knew it would be wet under foot in places. I also really wanted to finish first female and so made a race plan that would have me finishing in about 10 hours. This would mean averaging about 11 min/mile. I knew some of the big ups would be slower but hoped I would be able to pick up the pace on the flats and downs. I had no real idea if this pacing was doable but figured it was better to be ambitious and I am used to making plans that I can’t stick to on race day! After my usual look over the race route on Strava/Google maps I was good to go. I decided to carry what I needed for the full race only stopping at aid stations to pick up water as and when I needed. I was confident that KMC Isomix hydration, KMC NRG gels, fruit pastilles and Trek salted caramel flapjacks would see me to the end. I also asked Iain to have a coffee ready for me when I ran past the house at 40ish miles! He also had a second pair of shoes at hand in case I wanted to change them.
The race itself is tracked and you also have to check in at each aid station. These were roughly every 10 miles and are minimal with only water bottles available. However, labelled drop bags can be left at the start, to be taken to each of the aid stations en route. Most people seemed to be using this option. Mandatory kit was minimal and with good weather forecast I just carried a waterproof coat as an additional layer (I also had first aid kit and space blanket in case of emergencies). Registration was at the Stirling Court Hotel from 6am on race morning and then race start was 7am. This was plenty of time as it was not a big field with just over 50 runners taking on the 50 mile route. I was able to get a lift with Stephané which meant Iain and the kids could get a lie in!
Registration was straight forward and I collected my bib, tracker and timing chip and then after a short wait and race brief we were good to go! The hotel toilets were a luxury compared to the loos before most races! Just before 7 we headed down to the race start by the edge of Airthrey Loch, it was cold but I knew with a big climb in the first few miles I would soon warm up so started in just shorts and T-shirt, with a buff to keep my head warm! We started at about 7.05am and headed off up the road into a short wood section before hitting the main track up the first big climb up Dumyat hill. With only 4 female runners and wanting to finish first I had to decide if to sit behind the fastest female or go ahead and set my own pace. I briefly sat behind the leading lady but didn’t like feeling like I was running at someone else’s pace and not my own. So I nipped ahead and then pushed the pace a little (for me) to ensure I got a decent gap and wasn’t being chased too closely for the rest of the race! The downside of this was I probably pushed a bit too hard on the first 2 big climbs!
The climb up Dumyat is on a good ‘tourist’ path and I was soon at the top with beautiful views over Stirling. The path off the back of Dumyat is less well trodden, steep and grassy and wet at this time in the morning! Iain had forewarned me it was a trickier decent having run it the week before. I’m not good on steep grassy down hills so tried to take it cautiously! A few runners nipped past at this point but I was happy to go slightly slower and not have a tumble. One guy in front did have a big slip but managed to only roll once before getting back on his feet. It was at this point I realised I had a problem with my shoes. I was wearing my goretex Scarpa Spin Infinity shoes having previously only worn them on shorter and less steep runs. I had swapped the laces that came with them with elasticated ones which I find work well in my Inov8 TerraUltras however these particular laces slipped as I ran downhill and as they loosened my toes started pounding off the front of my shoe. Rather than stopping and trying to sort them I carried on and by the time I got to the bottom the damage was done with one very tender big toe – not the best start but thankfully other than slowing my decents slightly it didn’t give me much bother through the rest of the race. After Dumyat there is a road section and then small climb into a wood before reaching Tillicoultry and the first check point. I started chatting with some other runners along the road and it was great to hear that a lot of them were also aiming for around 10 hours – I figured my pacing wasn’t going too badly!
A quick stop to use the loo at the check point and I was on my way again, heading up Upper Mill Street in Tillicoultry to where the path up into the Ochils starts. The route was really well signed posted so you don’t need to be able to navigate for this ultra, although I did have the GPX on my watch. The route on the GPX file did not exactly match where the route markers went which did cause some confusion at a couple of points, though! The climb up into the Ochils is really steep for a mile or so (this was my slowest mile of the route at 24:19 mins and the only one over 20 mins!) before it eases off and you can catch your breath (even with walking!) The path is soon grassy tracks, at some points clearer than others! At about 10 miles there was split in the path. I headed up the right hand fork with some others runners in front of me but was then shouted from behind to say I was on the wrong path and should be on the left hand path that contoured round the hill rather than going up and over. I nipped back across to the left path but then saw the next marker in the distance on the path I had just left. I pointed it out to the runner who had called me back but he was sticking to the GPX route on his watch! I then ran back across to the path I was originally on deciding I would prefer to stick to the marked course even if it did mean adding in some more climbing! The grassy and now slightly boggy tracks continued and I was loving being up in the hills, and enjoying myself a lot. I had expected to find the runners well spread out by now but actually there were quite a few of us running close together so I was enjoying the odd chat as I went along. The downhill from this top was hard work on grassy, boggy, tussocky tracks, not helped by my sore toe! I was slower than I wanted (or expected) on this section and was pleased when we hit a tarmac track about 14 miles in. It was a nice easy couple of miles running along this road by the side of Upper and Lower Glendevon reservoirs. It was turning into a beautiful day.
At 17 miles you say goodbye to the tarmac and are back onto single track path for a mile and a half until you reach check point 2. Good running with easy navigation, although the path does get slightly lost in the final field before the check point! I just stopped long enough to check in and then I was on my way again. I was happy I had enough water to the next check point and plenty of food. My legs were sore from the tough terrain and steep descents and my pace was slower than I had initially intended but it was a glorious day, with beautiful scenery, good chat and I was happy as long as I finished 1st lady! I knew the next mile or two of the route from a family hill walk and knew we had a steep climb up from the reservoir through the forest! I found myself again running with a couple of guys, Nathan and Gerhard and I was enjoying chatting with other runners, hopefully not boring them too much with stories of other races!
From check point 2 it is a short run up the road before turning off and running across the top of the dam. It is then a short steep climb into the forest and onto the forestry track which you then follow at a slightly gentler incline before again turning off onto a short steep muddy path up through the trees to a deer gate at the top. The route then headed on downhill into Glendevon on a path I hadn’t been on before. I was feeling ridiculously tired at this point and kept tripping over my own feet and stumbling on the path, so I slowed the pace down and took it easy on the single track down hill. It was good running but with tired legs and body I was concerned I may do my self an injury if I wasn’t careful. Nathan, Gerhard and I were all now running at similar paces, running some sections together and then splitting up for a section before finding ourselves back at the same pace again. I really enjoyed running with others and was happy to chat and run/walk along. As the race progressed we ended up running more of it together which I really enjoyed as a lot of my races this year I have been running on my own.
The run into Glendevon over a small bridge is really pretty and then a short section along the road (not so fun) before another big climb up out of the valley, a couple of slower miles before the running again became easier and you hit a landrover track at about 24 miles. All the big climbs were now complete until Moncrieffe hill, I found this a big boost and we were now pretty much half way. I was also looking forward to reaching the more familiar section of the route. After following the track to where it meets the road you cross over to follow a path along the side of a forest. In all honesty I don’t remember much of this next section to check point 3. It mainly either follows forestry tracks or paths at the sides of forests, some of these were pretty uneven and trickier to keep up a pace on! However check point 3 finally arrived and I grabbed a bottle of water to see me through to Bridge of Earn where Iain and the kids would have supplies ready for me.
I had got over my low point and was enjoying myself again! I headed on down the road while Gerhard and Nathan stopped to sort out a few bits and told them to catch me up! I was happy going at a slower pace as I knew I had plenty of time on the second place lady! So I took it easy along the road having a good drink and some food. The path then heads up another short hill before contouring round a few upland fields. I didn’t see a route marker on a gate during this section and had just realised (my watch was frantically beeping at me that I was off course) when the runner behind also gave a shout to say I had missed the turn! Back I trotted and through the gate and next field, I was just approaching the road when Gerhard and Nathan caught me up after their slightly longer stop.
The terrain now changes to farm tracks and upland fields and we ran/walked, chatting as we went. At 34 miles we reached the point in the route where I now knew the rest of the course. When I had reccied this section this field had had some very lively and interested cows in it but thankfully the farmer had shut them in the other half of the field so they were only able to watch us over the gate! After this field there is a road section before the route turns into the wind farm where it eventually meets the Wallace Road (not really much of a road any more!). I like this section through the wind farm although was nervous as the cows had been so frisky last time I had been up here! There was no sign of cows in the first field so I am guessing the farmer had moved them and then the cows in the second field were completely chilled out and not interested in us at all! We were soon on the Wallace Road where I know from previous runs there is a very wet section by the stile. I warned Gerhard and Nathan and managed to get across without getting wet by heading straight up to the fence line after the stile. Gerhard decided to try and avoid the stile altogether with a resultant very wet foot.
I was really enjoying myself now and although really tired was looking forward to getting home and seeing Iain and the kids and nipping to the loo in the comfort of my own home! The run down from the wind farm is fun and easy going and after a short road section and a path between the fields we were heading along the road to check point 4 where I left Gerhard and Nathan and headed on for home (I told them to catch me up once they were sorted!). A slow run through the village (I was finding it hard to push myself when I knew that my pace was slow and that I had plenty of time on the second place lady) and I was heading for home with Iain, the kids and some friends all in the street to give me a cheer – it was a massive boost to see everyone, thank you! A quick loo stop, a coffee (all ready for me) and drink refill and I headed on again. It was hard to get going and I ran/walked along the Rhynd Road to the Moncrieffe car park. I have never enjoyed this long, flat, straight road and today was no exception.
Gerhard and Nathan caught me up as I was heading up the road to the car park. Gerhard still had plenty to give so we soon encouraged him to head on and get to the finish. Nathan and I were happy running/walking at a similar pace so plodded on slightly more slowly. It was great to have company and the chat. Moncrieffe Hill is one of my happy places and even though I was sore and tired I still enjoyed being there. My only annoyance was the little added loop on the downhill section as it was frustrating to take the longer path as it doesn’t even have any good views! However we were soon at the car park where Iain and the kids were there again to cheer us on.
Turning left out of the car park and it is all road running to the finish, an undulating road into Perth and then a downhill to the harbour road and a run through the industrial units to the finish at South Inch (the least scenic section of the whole run!). Iain and the kids were at the finish ready with a big cheer and hug. I was surprised to find the finish as soon as we arrived on the Inch as I had expected it to be by the car park end! A sprint finish and it was done, finishing as 1st lady in a time of 11 hours and 14 minutes. I was happy with that! The route is beautiful and challenging with varied terrain and plenty of ascents and steep descents. My legs have taken a while to recover. Could I have run it faster? I’m not sure, but this run was about a beautiful route with good company along the way. A great day out! I think Iain may be tempted next year 😉
I was able to get home, have a quick shower and some food before heading back out to cheer Stephané over the last couple of miles to the finish. It was lovely to see her finish in 13 hours and 41 mins. I know she found it a tough course and she did amazingly sticking at it to the end. Well done!
The route was well marked with arrows, red and white tape and spray painted arrows on the ground. This worked well for navigation but was a bit frustrating when Iain and I had to remove several signs and tape from Bridge of Earn and Moncrieffe Hill over a week after the event. The sprayed arrows are still visible 4 weeks later 😠 Maybe something to improve on for next time?
Some of the photos are from Stewart Reid – thanks!