How do you train for a 24 hour running challenge when you’ve never run one before? And especially when that run is taking place at numerous venues across Britain, with each runner selecting their own route? The simplest thing I could come up with was to break the run down into manageable chunks. Ten days before the challenge I had been for a somewhat spontaneous 32 mile training run with my good friend Jim Groark. He’d called me up to ask if I could support his attempt to run from the Forth Road Bridge to the Tay Brig along the 85 mile Fife Coastal Path (a feat he managed in 17hours 2mins) – his final prep before taking on his fourth West Highland Way Race. So with one days’ notice I found myself having completed a distance of over 30 miles for the fourth time this year (including the two consecutive day marathons for RelayGB). This certainly gave me confidence that I would be able to achieve an ultra-distance again this weekend, but the question was how far would that be?
In the days leading up to the Longest Day Run 24hr Challenge I decided that rather than simply head off without purpose, it would be better to state a goal, and make sure it was both achievable and properly testing. I had a couple of ‘milestones’ in my head: Run my Age – that would have given me a 48 mile target; Running 50 miles in a 12 hour stretch seemed achievable, while the Metric Ton (100km/62.2miles) over the 24 hours would represent something of a personal dream distance. To get there I conjured up three phases which, remarkably, turned out to be almost bang-on in terms of both distances and timings. I was lucky – as the West Highland Way runners faced brutal weather in the west, the rain had stopped in Fife. Not the forecast predicted at all.
Phase One: In order to get some early and easy miles in I opted to start at HMS Unicorn in Dundee at noon on 23rd. There I met one of my PhD students, Laura Hedrick, who was also about to achieve a personal epic for The Longest Day Run. We did not run together (at this point), but encouraged each other and set off in different directions. I thought about Jim being 11 hours into his race and not even half way to the finish of the WHW. So I counted my blessings and headed off for a simple run uphill over the Tay Brig and back past my house in Tayport (c.5.5 mile eta 12.50). I then headed past Morton Lochs and through the Tentsmuir Forest to the Kinshaldy Road where Alexia met me with supplies (c.9.5 mile eta 13.40). From there I was on my own for the next 8 miles to St Andrews where Alexia again met me at the Old Course Hotel (c. 18 mile eta c. 15.00). As usual I ran without music cluttering up my head, but sucked in the natural beauty of Fife and chanted mantras when the headwind proved tough.
The St Andrews stop provided the first deviation from the timings as the head wind had sapped me quite a bit (needed a puff of the inhaler too). I took a blood test and found my blood sugars were quite low (2.8). A forced 40 min diabetic pasta break ensued before I set back off towards the Tentsmuir with another scheduled meeting with Alexia at Earlshall. I was surprised at how slowly I moved in this section and by the time I was moving down the Kinshaldy Road to the Tentsmuir Car Park I needed a boost. It arrived in the shape of Joe Engebretsen, an ex-Royal Marine who had travelled down from the Isle of Lewis to give me cycle support. He caught up with me just as I crossed the 26.2 mile mark and from there on in I had good company for the remainder of the run. Once Alexia saw that Joe had arrived she headed off to add more miles to her own LDR total (hoping to double her previous best distance of 8 miles).
This is where I thought it would be getting tough as I planned an 8 mile loop of the Tentsmuir back to Kinshaldy Car Park – the problem being that I know this forest so well, including the dozens of tracks that could get me home quickly. Mental strength required; “don’t look left, pretend there is not a hot bath/cold beers only two miles away” and press on. Joe was given his instructions – make me run this 8 mile loop, then make me run the 5 miles home without deviation. As it was we simply reminisced the whole way home about the 21 years we’ve known each other since we first met working as “Watchers” (poacher catchers) on Lewis.
When we reached the house in Tayport the 42 mile mark had been cracked. Another blood test was required, but surprisingly bloods were bang on (5.6) thanks, no doubt, to the fact that Joe kept making me eat Jelly Babies. Moreover, when we got to the house we guests: Kieran German (@Hermiston) and Peter Kushner had also arrived to join the party, and a pasta and chilli feast washed down with some lovely cold beers. We were now ready to get back out there and complete the 50 miles.
Phase Two: In order to break up the day I thought it would be interesting to throw in something completely different and fun (running is about fun, right?). So we opted for an 8 mile night loop of the Tentsmuir Forest without head torches or any form of illumination. This is a standard lap for me, but I’d never ran it in the dark. We headed out at 10.30pm into the last of the light, but once under the forest canopy it was really dark. The route was largely on good track, but for variety we sometimes took in some of the hidden small paths (like the top half of the Grocer’s Road). Kieran, Peter and I ran it, Joe was in close support on the bike, Laura had headed home.
I confess that for the last 3 miles this was an exercise in completion. I enjoyed hearing the guys get to know each other (surprisingly they’d never met previously). I said next to nothing, just kept my head down to keep moving forward. Remarkably no one fell over – we kept a steady pace and reveled in something really quite challenging, yet also inspiring listening to the forest at night – seals barking on the coast; the husky pack howling “hello” as we trotted past and the odd owl hooting with laughter at us. We had just been back into the street lights of Tayport a few minutes when the 50 mile mark was reached. A huge handshake from Joe and the guys and a gentle 5 minute stroll back to the house. This felt really good.
Day one over, two phases complete, first milestone nailed. Nothing for it – out came the Glendronach 18 Year Old whisky and another cold one from the fridge. It was 2am when the adrenalin had subsided enough to attempt bed.
Phase Three: Two things made this part of the run difficult; broken sleep caused by excitement and an absolute searing pain in my left knee which finally got me up at 6.30am. This was BAD news as that is my GOOD knee (the other is missing the ACL). Less than 4 hours sleep in total and a gammy leg! My initial thoughts were that there would be no running for me today. I’d promised to call Peter Kushner to confirm we’d be leaving the house at 9am. When I rang a part of me thought I might say “I can’t do this” but when the words came out they were “Hi Pete – yes let’s finish this. See you soon”. Well that was that settled then! Blood-test, breakfast and some yoga to try to stretch out the stiffness.
There was a good vibe as Peter and I left the house on foot and Joe in close support on the bike. But a change of plan occurred – Joe wanted in on this running action and was now determined to get some miles in for LDR too despite having two seriously injured feet (after an incident involving a giraffe – another story). So at mile 4 (54) he headed back to Tayport to grab a lift into St Andrews with Alexia. It took until mile 5 (55) before I felt I was actually running with any kind of ease of stride, and from here on in it was simply a case of imagining the objective (naturally a cold beer and a dram in The Central Bar). At mile 9 (59) we met Joe again. When we reached St Andrews we made sure the iconic Swilcan Bridge on the 1/18th hole of the Old Course was included in the route. By this time Alexia was also running with us. I had joked the night before that we’d complete the epic by running out to the end of the West Sands so we could finish on the beach where the iconic scene from Chariots of Fire was filmed. When I said I was game the others gave unconditional support for the extra miles. The second milestone, The Metric Ton (100km/62.2miles), was cleared on this section and the day’s half marathon distance done in 2hrs 20 – 41 minutes off my pace this year. I wonder why?
As we left the beach and entered the town we agreed the final objective would be the cathedral – bang on 65 miles. From there it was only o.2 miles to the bar – promises of cold libations were kept and drams all round.
I cannot thank my wife Alexia and my very good friends Joe, Kieran and Peter for pulling me through these last two phases. I am also immeasurably proud of the rest of the “Tentsmuir Collective” running posse who stepped up to a number of personal challenges. A huge ‘hats off’ to Jim Groark (@FireyJim) who ran the West Highland Way 95 mile race in 26 hours 40 mins. Jim would be the first to congratulate those others of the Collective who stepped up to attack their own personal mountains and I take the liberty of mentioning the whole crew here. Some ran for the first time ever; some, despite being injured, ran anyway; Alexia doubled the previous distances she had run. And all continue to inspire me and make me smile – unassuming runners with a lust for life. As an unexpected surprise Jim came over to the house fresh from the WHW. He shook my hand, looked me in the eye and said “well done mate”. With friends like these, who needs medals?
The Tentsmuir Collective LDR Mileage Chart
Jim Groark – 95
Steve Murdoch – 65.2
Peter Kushner – 23.1
Alexia Grosjean – 16
Jasmine Witmer (in the USA) – 13.12
Bjorn Nordgren (in Sweden) – 9.32
J0e Engebretsen – 5.5
Adam Marks – 5.1
Halsted Bernard – 1.66
Max Gordon (my foster-son, age 6) – 1.55
Tanya Gordon (first ever run) – 1.55
Total logged so far: 237