Over 6 months after the race I am finally sitting down to write the race report. This one has been a hard one to write! It is the race I came closest to DNFing, I completely fell apart and somehow managed to pull myself back together mid-race to finally finish first female and fourth overall. I like to keep my in-race struggles to myself but didn’t manage this time… It is a race where I learnt a lot about the power of the mind to nearly ruin a race and then to overcome the challenges and push on. Iain’s race report from 2022 has a great description of the route which I won’t go over again as he remembers far more of the terrain details than I ever do!
The run up to the race went well, I allowed myself a couple of recovery weeks from Thames Ring 250 (no running for a week and then gradually increasing the mileage), fitted in a couple of 50ish mile weeks and then a couple of weeks taper before race day. The only thing I didn’t manage was very much hill running before the race, I was really hoping my overall fitness would mean this wouldn’t cause too many problems! I was feeling good for race day. My main concern was we were forecast a really hot weekend and I don’t like running in the heat! It ended up being 29C on the Saturday.
We made the same plan for race day as the previous year when Iain raced, dropping 3 of the 4 kids with Iain’s parents on the Friday night before heading to St John’s Town of Dalry to camp for the night before an early start (race registration and then race start at 6am). Iain and Rhona were going to crew me to Moffat (the half way check point) and then Iain was going to drop Rhona back at his parents before getting a lift to the check point at Ettrick where he would meet me and run the rest of the route with me. He is a star 😁
We were up at 4am on the Saturday to have plenty of time to register, have breakfast and get ready! Just before 6am all the runners for the 50 and 100 mile races were ready to start. I was nearer the front than I usually choose to go but knowing that there is a bottleneck at the foot bridge just after the start meant I needed to be nearer the front so as not to get held up for too long. The midges came out to see us off and at 6am we headed off to the sound of bagpipes. It is a lovely start with a great atmosphere. After a quick walk up the hill out of the village you are soon on farm track and then hill land. It is a beautiful start with amazing views and I was really enjoying myself. I was running with poles for the first time as I figured the extra weight was worth it for the benefit on all of the uphill climbs – I was glad I did.
As usual I kept to myself and my own race pacing with a few brief chats with runners around me. It is a busy start with everyone finding their own space and placing but this doesn’t detract from the beauty and peacefulness of the location. It is nice undulating start with nothing too steep and I was soon at check point 1, which is a no crew check point (although there were an awful lot of vehicles there 🤔). A quick stop at the check point to let them know I had passed and to grab a quick bite to eat. GB ultras check points are always well stocked and have amazing volunteers but I wasn’t planning to stop and was keen to head on to the next check point at Sanquhar where I would meet Iain and Rhona.
This next section is usually a wet and boggy path but this year was completely dry! It meant my feet stayed dry but the temperature had already climbed and it was hotter than I would have liked. This section also has the first big climb up Benbrack. I was happy with the pace I was managing, as I had a good walking pace up the hills and a reasonable running pace. My main concern was the heat and managing fluids and electrolyte levels as there is very little shade on a lot of the course. Once over Benbrack it was a nice run all the way to Sanquhar and the next check point. I was really looking forward to seeing Rhona and Iain after what felt like a long stretch. The final section of the run into Sanquhar was unpleasant as the heat increased dramatically as we ran into the valley, I was looking forward to being up in the hills again (hot but not as hot!). It was lovely to see Sara Fabien who was volunteering and was at one of the road turnings just before the village. An ever ready smile and cheer was a great boost in the heat.
Iain and Rhona were all set up and ready for me at the check point and I was soon stocked up and ready to go again for the next shorter section to the check point at Wanlockhead. The heat was really unpleasant over this section and I was really beginning to feel my temperature rise, all I could do was keep going at a sensible pace and make sure I was drinking and eating plenty. There were still plenty of runners around on this section and a few looking like the heat was really taking its toll. Another cheery volunteer was out on the road before Wanlockhead showing people where to go and I was soon at the check point and ready to see Iain and Rhona who had an ice cream which was just amazing. It was great to get inside for a short stop and cool down, although my legs did start to stiffen up (that lack of hill training was beginning to catch up with me)!
I was soon on my way again with a steep climb up Lowther Hill and over to the next check point at the A702. Iain had warned me that the section after Lowther Hill was actually really tough with a steep descent and equally steep climb back up before the descent to the road. I still seriously underestimated this section and in hindsight in the heat pushed too hard. The climb up Lowther Hill is steep but not difficult – it is the section after that really tests you. I don’t know why but I was determined to keep pushing hard and in the heat it was a mistake, I was exhausted, my legs hurt and I was beginning to really feel the heat. I arrived at the next check point beginning to question if I had it in me to finish but rather than having a proper break I had a short pit stop and quickly pushed on. At least one female runner passed me while I was at the check point and I let this bother me, it also played a part in my quick stop. I had gone into this race wanting to finish first female and beat Iain’s time from last year and it felt like it was all falling apart.
This is where things began to go really wrong. In hindsight I think I should have had a proper stop and lie down at this check point and then I would have had more energy and drive for the next section. I also let other people’s races affect how I was feeling about my own and the doubts really began to creep in. I quickly left the check point for what should be a really runnable section to Daer Reservoir. Instead I walked along feeling sorry for myself. I tried the odd run but just couldn’t find it in me. I was too hot, my legs were really sore and I wasn’t even half way etc. etc. The doubts and reasons to stop went round and round in my mind as I plodded along. Loads of people from both the 50 and 100 mile races started passing and I felt rubbish. By the time I got to the extra water point at the dam (put on because of the heat), I was not happy and did what I always try not to do – I started moaning to other runners and the volunteers. I always try to have a smile for volunteers and a positive word for other runners so I am really sorry to anyone who had to listen to me moaning about the heat. I also started to voice that I was going to stop at Moffat.
Then I noticed all the cars and families at the reservoir enjoying the gloriously hot day and decided to phone Iain and get him to collect me from the reservoir. I gave him a call and asked to be picked up. He wasn’t keen and said I should get to Moffat before making a decision, particularly as it was now past the hottest part of the day and would soon start to cool down. I wasn’t happy and threw all my toys out the pram having a good cry and strop. Poor Iain, I’m sorry! I then saw Assistant Race Director Laura at the water point before the climb up from Daer Reservoir and I again had a good moan, but thankfully didn’t hand my tracker in then and there! I headed up the hill feeling very sorry for myself and in a real state, still convinced I was going to stop when I next saw Iain. He had agreed to come up and meet me at the forestry carpark just before Beattock and a few miles from Moffat but it still felt a long way away in the heat.
This section lasted forever, it should again have been very runnable, and plenty of people were, but I had given up and was just doing what I needed to do to get to the car! As I had said to Iain I didn’t want to just finish I had wanted to finish first female and now that wasn’t even a possibility I didn’t see the point of carrying on (not a good mindset for a race). I finally got through the forestry section and saw Iain, Rhona and the car. They had put the bed roll out in the shade and I lay down and shut my eyes. It was great to be off my feet and feel a little cooler. I was still trying to talk myself out of the race but there was also a little stubborn fire inside that wanted to carry on… that desire won and after a 10 min lie down and some food and drink I headed on down the road. I made myself start running (it was after all down hill and tarmac all the way to Moffat) and found I was enjoying myself again and my determination and spark gradually came back as I ran to Moffat. By the time I arrived I was back in the game and determined to carry on and finish.
At Moffat I had another lie down and some more food and drink and then said goodbye to Rhona who I wouldn’t see again until after the race and headed off up the road for the next section. I felt like a new person, I had cooled down a lot and was looking forward to the night. I love night running. After a couple of miles there is a woodland section and then I was soon up in the forestry plantation. The weather was OK so we were able to take the high route of the Southern Upland Way (although it was still quite windy on the top) and I was soon walking as quickly as I could up the steep paths. I soon had to stop to get my head torch out as in the trees it was now pretty dark. I finally reached the summit of Gateshaw Rig in the dark and then had the most amazing run along the narrow path in the heather in the dark. It was amazing and the best bit of the whole run. There was a strong breeze which was cooling me down and being somewhere so remote on my own I really felt alive. I could see a couple of head torches in the distance but otherwise it was just wilderness. Once at Croft Head the path zig zags down steeply and I took my time to be careful in the dark. I soon reached a slightly easier path and around here passed another runner which was exciting. I can’t find the words to express how amazing this section was and how alive it made me feel. It was just what I needed at that point after the low of the afternoon.
The run into the next check point in Ettrick village feels like it goes on for ever. It starts as forestry track and then turns into single track road and then goes on for miles and miles. I was still managing to keep up a good pace but beginning to feel tired again but then I saw a head torch heading up the road towards me and there was Iain ready to run the rest of the race with me. It was lovely to see him and a real boost. We headed on down the road together, catching up on chat and just enjoying running with the odd walk break added in. It was nice to know Iain could take over the navigation having run the race the year before and having the route on his watch. We were soon at Ettrick for a quick stop. I had a lie down and stretch and enjoyed the food provided. Iain had to make do with what he carried as as a support runner wasn’t allowed to use the aid station food. After a quick stop we were soon on our way heading back the way we had come back onto the Southern Upland Way. Iain was amazed with how well I was moving considering the mess I had been in in the afternoon!
I enjoyed this next climb up and over to St Mary’s Loch and we passed a few more runners which felt good. We did catch up with another runner and their support runner who were very confused about the route. I didn’t want to stop or slow down as I really had the bit between my teeth, so after we had reassured them they were in fact on the correct path and offered that they could run with us but it would need to be at our pace so we headed on our way and they followed behind. I was slightly concerned that Iain was going to slow me down as he had his usual struggle to stay awake in the early hours, but once we reached St Mary’s Loch and the sky began to lighten he picked back up again and was raring to go! I am not sure when but at some point over night I discovered I was first female as several runners had dropped out, second place female wasn’t too far behind so it was a real motivator to keep moving as quickly as possible and thankfully the legs were now working again! It started to rain as we ran along the bank of St Mary’s Loch and we did have to stop and put rain coats on. I was still warm from the temperatures the day before but didn’t want to get soaked so decided the rain coat was the best option.
After St Mary’s Loch it is a steep climb on a very unclear path and then a lovely run in remote hill land before running down the road to Traquair. We were soon at Traquair, although this year the check point wasn’t in the village hall and was a gazebo in a field! Iain and I enjoyed a good reminisce about his hallucinations in the Traquair Village Hall loos as we headed on our way. I now had very tired legs and feet but was determined to keep a reasonable pace to stay first female and it was nice to know the finish wasn’t too far off. I was also looking forward to the next section having run parts on the Tweed Valley Ultra and shorter hill races. This next section is more stoney underfoot which I was really noticing but the views, good company and generally feeling so much better than the day before meant I was having fun. My only small annoyance was my watch battery died – I had thought it would have plenty of life for this race but hadn’t factored in using navigation in the dark and how much battery this would use. It was annoying that I wouldn’t have the last 10 miles of the race recorded but Iain had the map on his watch so navigation would not be a problem!
We were soon at Fairnilee and the final checkpoint, another quick stop and we were on our way again for the final section through Galashiels to the finish at Langlee. I was still running as much as I could not wanting to risk anyone catching up and actually I was still having fun. I was ready for the finish but still enjoying the morning. We had an amusing few chats with runners out for their Sunday morning runs and soon we were on the last short climb up to the finish at Langlee community centre. I didn’t manage to beat Iain’s time from last year (he was relieved) but did finish first female and fourth overall.
This race highlighted to me how important it is to base your goals on your own timings/pacing and not worry about placings until the later stages of a long ultra. As this race highlighted things can change really quickly. I also learned the importance of a positive mental outlook – when I was planning to quit I saw everything in that light. As soon as I decided I was finishing the race everything became easier. Legs were still tired and feet were sore but I had decided I was running the race and so everything became more enjoyable and therefore easier. Having that desire and drive to finish and keeping that flame alive makes all the difference in a race.
I have been left feeling I didn’t give this race my best but rather than run it again I have signed up for Race Across Scotland this year. I am sure the whole of the Southern Upland Way will have more lessons to teach me. And I can’t wait to get back and enjoy the amazing views!