Well I did it. My first every ultra marathon. It was hard, the weather was cruel and I took ages.
I loved it.
This is a rambling and garbled regurgitation of my day.
I still can’t quite believe it, but it really happened and according to the folk that know, I am allowed to call myself an ultra runner now. On Hogmanay 2012 I ran ten miles for the first time ever, double figures for the first time – a significant day. Around that time a friend persuaded me that my steady plod could safely get me around a marathon and one way or another I found myself signed up for the Edinburgh Marathon in May 2013. I wasn’t altogether sure I’d make it to the marathon and I certainly hadn’t even considered an ultramarathon – I barely knew what one was! However, I ended up meeting some fantastic ultra runners who helped me not just to train but also to believe in myself and after the marathon I somehow got a notion that I’d like to do an ultra.
At no point was I turning into a great runner, don’t get me wrong but my slow and steady approach was proving reasonably effective in covering miles and I was certainly getting plenty of Time on Feet at my pace!
Fastforward to Saturday 2 November and I ticked box number one – I made it to the start line and was welcomed with hugs from new friends telling me they were proud of me! Before I knew it we were off – jogging uphill and someone considerably more experienced said “What’s all this running uphill in an ultra? We’ve passed the cameras now, we can walk!” and I did, quite a lot over the first couple of miles, which were a steady climb.
I soon fell in with a chatty fellow called Fletcher and then for a wee while we were joined by ultra legend Ray McCurdy who has completed over 100 Scottish ultras. I soon made the acquaintance of the sweepers on their bikes and George told me he’d already eaten the pastrami I packed for him (in the knowledge he’s a lover of red meat and follows a low carb regime). I lost Fletcher after a while and had then been blethering to a lovely couple, Ann and Robin Wombill, but Ann wasn’t having a great race and would pull out a bit later, and I ended up leaving them behind for a wee while. I passed a few words with Marianne who had been keeping ahead of me but whom I caught up on a serpentine of an uphill. I was making steady progress towards the second checkpoint and was thinking a bit about if and what to eat, having never really got the hang of that during training. I’d been sipping water and nibbling jelly babies and a flapjack in the meantime as I’d been told it was good to start eating early.
I headed over the viaduct that I had previously seen from the road and wondered if I’d be running over it – answer yup, twice. So, I guess it was round about this time that I started to meet the first men coming back the way. That’s right, I hadn’t even made it to checkpoint two yet and the first runners were already through checkpoint three and on their way home! They were going to miss the worst of the weather – unlike me! I clapped for these guys and said well done; every one of them gave me a cheery hello, well done or at least a smile and wave. This is what I’ve already come to really appreciate about ultras – it’s such a friendly and encouraging community.
Just before checkpoint two I met a friend, Clark, whose wife was running. He was out taking photos and had his dog with him – smiles and thumbs up for the camera and Clark jogged along with me before my wee hurdle over the barrier and into the checkpoint saying ‘number 41 is here! (hey I did Toughmudder, I enjoy a wee obstacle)’. I think the rain had already started at this point but wasn’t too bad. It was great to see the friendly faces at the the checkpoint – all lovely but especially good to see Lorna and Julie, as I knew them already. I had some flat coke from my drop bag and some jelly babies before being safely ushered across the road heading up towards the forest loop – I didn’t know it yet, but that would be where I’d experience my lowest moments.
Faster runners were cheerily heading past me (I got to shout words of encouragement to a bunch of FUDS, which appealed to my sense of humour. It stood for Falkirk Ultra Distance Squad) as I got to the burger van, where a cheer went up from a decent crowd there and as I headed to the gate into the forest loop I heard the welcome sound of cowbells and eagerly looked ahead to see Helen and John just the other side of the gate, decked out in hi-viz.
I grabbed a hug from Helen and then from John, who gruffly told me to keep running. They directed me (to my relief) down the hill but I clocked the massive hill other runners were coming down and knew it meant that I would have one heck of a climb ahead of me if I was going downhill now and would be coming down from up there later – I got some personal shouts of encouragement from some specks on the hill that I later worked out were Chris and Caroline that I’d met through Jedburgh Three Peaks Ultra the previous week (I was involved in the organisation, not running it).
I tried to make the most of the lovely downhill section but it felt a bit like a Sunday evening – just not quite as good knowing what was shortly to come! Every time I turned a corner or bend, I was expecting the climb to come. As I headed round one of the corners, I heard George say “Well done, Angela” and I wondered if he’d just got there or if I’d been unaware of him for a while, as I looked back he was taking down signs, whilst waiting to ensure Ann and Robin would follow the right route. George then caught up to me on the bike and we had a wee chat, he was frozen though and eventually cycled off to the next sign where he said he’d meet me. The next sign was the turn I knew had to be coming, time to head up, up and then some more up. Time for a walk and to take on some flapjack! It was somewhere up here, I’m not sure exactly when but the weather just got really bad. The temperature dropped and the rain started to lash and as I climbed and climbed, passing Marianne, there was even sleet and hail. This bit seemed never ending and I felt for the poor sweepers – they were frozen, my continuing effort meant I was doing not too badly temperature wise. Eventually, George said he’d head onwards and to keep going this way and I’d get to the gate. I kept on, looking for the gate but giving serious thought to packing it all in at the checkpoint and getting a lift back to the finish line in a nice, warm, dry car. When I eventually got to the gate, all the supporters were away and whilst I’d been expecting everyone to be gone (it would have been crazy for anyone to stand there in that horrendous weather) my heart sank just a little. I saw the gateway was utterly flooded and there was no way through without wading; the gate felt terribly heavy and as I looked back I saw Marianne coming – she looked very tiny (I’m a chubby ultra runner, she is quite the opposite) and utterly battered by the weather and it just seemed rude not to wait and hold the gate open. We both agreed there had been hail up there and then were delighted to receive an almighty cheer from the lovely people inside the burger van (despite the emergency money in my backpack I resisted the urge to stop for coffee, that would have meant quitting). A moment later and to my absolute delight another cheer went up – Helen and John had retreated to their car but they had waited to cheer us! We fair picked up our feet then, I can tell you. Helen, John and the folks in the burger van kept me in the race. My friend, Norrie, came into sight at the checkpoint and came to see us across the road – he was impressed as I virtually skipped into the checkpoint, little did he know that I’d been on the verge of chucking it! Again, kind marshals looked after us and I had my photo taken by another ultra legend Fiona Rennie although I knew very little of her incredible journey until later in the race – an amazing woman.
I decided I better head off, but managed to steal a sip of George’s coffee on my way. I was ahead of Marianne for a wee while but over this section we went through the process of trading places a few times and at one point Lorna even appeared, as she’d decided to run in after marshaling and was playing catch up and chatting to various runners along the way – it was nice to talk to her but she really, really could walk at the dire pace I was shuffling along. A few times I had to break into a stompy walk because it was proving more effective than the shuffle run at points!
The good thing about being on a section I’d run already was that checking off landmarks and things I remembered was psychologically helpful and I told myself if I could just get to the final checkpoint there would be no point in quitting. The sweepers went by and said if I was happy I knew the way to the next checkpoint they would ride on, but almost immediately I caught them up at the top of the serpentine hill – they had to try to get the circulation back into their fingers so they could operate their brakes.
I think it was on this hill that I once again overtook Marianne and unfortunately she was suffering some muscle cramps, the latter part of her run must’ve been really painful. Now I was ticking off landmarks but still no sign of the checkpoint I was wishing for, but salvation arrived in a different form. Suddenly a male voice behind, it was Robin. Ann, at severe risk of hypothermia, had decided to pull up at mile 18 but she had sent Robin to find me and run with me since it was my first ultra. How kind of them both! Well, Robin said that as it was my first ultra he would really like to run the rest of it with me, right to the finish line and I gratefully (and rather selfishly) accepted his kind offer.
We chatted along, Robin doing a bit more of the talking as he’s the far more competent ultra runner! This was when I heard about his experiences of other ultras including the West Highland Way Race, but also more about the inspirational lady Fiona, that I had met at the previous checkpoint and who is good friends with Robin. Well, hearing the things she has achieved really did inspire me to finish. When you hear about someone so fantastic in spite of facing incredible challenges, you realise that you’re very lucky to have your health and you really have no excuse for not just getting on with it. As I said I’d been wishing quite hard for checkpoint four but somehow it still managed to appear from nowhere and surprise me.
I downed more flat cola and decided to try some custard – not easy without a spoon but I think pretty effective as a fuel and off we headed. The rain actually eased off for parts of the last section, it even brightened a little as we passed Rob Roy’s grave. This last bit is all on road and quite undulating but we managed to limit the walking to the uphill and Robin gave me a lot of encouragement, saying that my shuffling technique was effective and that he thought this was the fastest he’d done this particular section in a couple of years – I’m not sure if that was true, but it felt good.
Just as I had wished for checkpoint four, I began to wish for the finish line and when we saw a 20mph sign and houses come into sight we knew it couldn’t be much further – how big could the village be?! Suddenly, Robin was pointing out an arrow and telling me that it really was no more than about 400 yards, just into the trees, over the bridge and down to where we could see caravans. Oh boy, I felt the choked up feeling and tears in my eyes that I’d experienced going into the finishing funnel at the marathon but reminded myself I’d be needing to breathe to finish.
As we came into sight, cheers went up and I heard someone (I suspect Noanie) shout the words ‘sprint finish’, I checked in with Robin and he said to go for it. So I did. I don’t know where it comes from but somehow there’s always a wee bit left for the finish line. What a great feeling coming over the line to see my boyfriend Tom with my dog Brin, Noanie, Emily with her wee dog Isla (looking a bit bedraggled and fed up), my mum appearing from another direction, and my friends and dafties like John and Norry huddled around the fire but supping cool beers which is the ultimate ultra tradition.
Obviously I went straight to my dog before hugging everyone else, you have to get your priorities right 😉 I forgot to stop my garmin and when I looked at it during the hugging frenzy it blinked off anyway, as I’d run it to the end of its battery pretty much. I reckoned it was about 7 hours and 40 minutes but it turned out to be 7:33 so I was delighted. I had hoped to stay under 8 hours and however close I got to 7 hours would be a bonus. If it hadn’t been for Robin’s company I might well have been pushing 8 hours, his company made a huge difference. I waited to cheer Marianne over the line, a fantastic lady who would have been well ahead of me if the cold and damp hadn’t caused her such painful cramps.
When I got to the pub, I was met with plenty more hugs and a very welcome bowl of soup and a hot coffee. It was great chatting with the other runners, congratulating each other and reliving the race. I could barely believe I was one of the people that had actually done it, although anyone that saw my attempts at walking probably considered it patently obvious.
So here’s what I learnt:
– I’m still slow and not that great a runner, but losing weight and training more will help with that. I doubt I’ll every be fast though.
– There are lot of inspiring people and I know quite a few. Folks overcome incredible odds to achieve so much and it’s a good reminder to me to MTFU and get on with it.
– I am bloody stubborn, this is very useful especially for ultras.
– I will run for hugs.
– A finish line does funny things to me. I find a wee surge of energy that I didn’t think was there. A bit like the way you can almost always find room for dessert, you know?
– I really am a social runner and will need to work on the inevitable alone time element of ultra running.
– I wittered on so much in my ‘race report’ that it got rather long without managing to talk about just how beautiful the route was with the autumn leaves and fantastic views. Must report more about the natural beauty that is such an important part of ultra running.
– I really, really, really want to run more ultras.
Last but not least a huge thanks to all the people that made the event possible – the organisers, marshals and sweepers who stayed out in the cold for as long as it took me to get home. Also thank you to the Ultra Dafties, without whom I never would have done this.
(Photos courtesy of Fiona Rennie)