For once it’s been a good build up to a race: for sure I’ve been having a few problems with the asthma due to the dampness in the air, but for the most part I’ve remained largely injury free since the two ankle twists earlier in the year. So for the first time in 2012 I had more than two weeks of quality running in succession and a proper taper week. I also managed to pick up a PB on course to this event (at the Mull Half Marathon a couple of weeks back) knocking over 4.5 mins of my previous best. That was a bonus as I had that run in my mind simply as a training run for this one.
So feeling in pretty good spirits Alexia and I took a drive to my mother’s home town of Buckie on the Friday in prep for the Speyside Ultra Marathon. We took a scenic drive north from Fife taking in part of the race route to spot places Alexia might wait in support (or laugh loudly as she desired). This recce drive turned out to be a brilliant move on our part as will become apparent below.
The day got off to an odd start. I drove with two other runners to the registration point (Andy Johns & Judith Dobson) at 06.30, then back for an early breakfast at 7 before boarding the bus at 07.30 for the drive out to the start. I should have guessed something was up – I must have been having a slight diabetic low as I forgot to take my medicine with breakfast, neglected to take a blood test before the race start, mis-labled one of my drop bags and left some of my other gear in the car. But luckily Alexia was on the ball and caught up with us at the start line some 37 miles away with most of the missing gear. So, not the best of starts, and it seemed like getting even more interesting as the weather got progressively worse.
What made this race something of an epic was the torrential rain from the start and throughout the first half of the race. Soaked before we started, and after a short briefing, we set off along a drenched footpath. There was no point in trying to dodge puddles, the paths were washed out with mud and you were likely to do yourself more harm slipping to avoid puddles than simply piling straight through them. We’d have been no wetter had we simply swam the Spey. But what this did mean was that the first 12.5 miles were absolutely sapping and the accumulation of grit and mud even inside the socks was threatening to cause severe blisters. Despite this I got in to the checkpoint at Craigellachie only a couple of minutes behind schedule and did a blood test. It was bang on where I hoped (BGL 7.2), but I took the time to make sure I loaded up with enough carbs to see me through the climb up Ben Aigen section and the subsequent hairpin climbs and descents to the next checkpoint at mile 24 [Diabetic info: 51g Zipvit carbogel plus a Banana taken on here]. Moreover, apart from a pre-race puff of the Ventolin, the asthma made no appearance throughout the race.
Given the massive carb smack, the pull up Ben Aigen was not too bad, especially given that all my training is in the flat lands of Tentsmuir. I only slowed to a walk for about two minutes to ‘take in the view’ near the crest. However the downhill section turned nasty once you came off the land-rover track and once again joined a mud-fest of a path. So it was slowly, slowly down for me – the old war wound in the right knee made its presence felt and I was delighted to get back onto a rough, but dry track nearer the bottom of the hill. Oddly, even by this point my feet were still freezing – I’ve never had cold feet running before, even when wet or on sub-zero runs in the snow. Moreover, I could feel the rubbing of the grit and was sure I was entering big blister territory. But then the recce of the course from the day before paid out its first dividend.
In a fit of genius I’d packed spare trainers and socks in the car on the Friday – something I have never done for a race before. As we reached the tarmac at c.mile 19 I could feel my legs heavy/my feet cold and a rubbing sensation particularly in my left foot. Within a few hundred yards I saw Alexia standing by the car in the lay-by we’d scoped out the previous day. We’d originally agreed she’d just press on to Fochabers from Craigellachie, but she’d read the weather and took a detour to take in this extra stop. It cost me almost 4 mins to stop, sit in the car, clean & dry my feet and change out both socks and shoes. I got some interesting comments from other runners on the way past, usually along the lines of “wish I’d thought of that!” but sometimes more Anglo-Saxon in nature. Once I took off again I seemed to have a second wind and started to push past quite a few runners – not just those who passed me in the lay-by, but soon groups of other runners I thought were much further ahead. Got quite a few comments about running strong. I reckon in the long run the psycholigical and physical benefits of the warm dry feet gained me at least 15 minutes so the stop had been well worth it.
The rest of the route from here on in was undulating but steady going. I did have to stop and walk a couple of times after two of the hairpins, but with the warm dry feet I was going well. I was slightly disappointed to realize that my second drop-bag was not at the checkpoint (my bad as it happens as I’d cocked up at registration), but there were goodies a plenty had I needed them. Luckily I didn’t. Not only do I always carry an extra 100g more than I expect to use in carbo-gels for just such situations, but I knew that Alexia was parked up on the outskirts of Fochabers only a mile or so further down the hill. This was the second pay out from the recce drive, simply knowing the lack of drop-bag was no big issue. Here I took time out for another blood test. I was slightly lower this time (BGL 5.9), but knew I was ‘on the way down’. I took time to take on some pasta and shortbread and gave myself a couple minutes to let it all wash down and settle. I also binned my camel-back and running jacket, opting instead to keep the Inov8 running belt with the carbogels/inhaler and a bottle of water I collected from Lex. I set off and almost immediately crossed the 26.2 mile at 4:14:25. Just over 10 miles to go.
After the pasta stop I was able to maintain a good pace on the road sections and even through the woods. I had good company from about mile 26 from Niall McAlinden (a physicist from Strathclyde) and we gabbed about everything from the Big Bang Theory to Scottish Devolution for about the next 6 miles (even getting a bollocking from spectators at Spey Bay for being too fresh and chatting!). Alexia was again in place had I needed her, but I opted not to stop and just take an extra carbo-gel on the hoof as we headed into another wooded section. As we left the last of the off-road sections we were caught up by an antipodean lass, Antonia Johnson, and as we started back on tarmac I was surprised that Niall decided he’d walk for a bit more (I thought he was dragging me along – he later said I was pushing him; perception is a funny thing). So I headed off swapping places with Antonia several times before we both took a slightly wrong turn at one point (note to self – do not blindly follow the runner in front!). It was only now that my calf muscle started to really play up and about every two minutes it seemed to spasm; so I’d push a bit, the calf would spasm, I’d slow down til I thought it was ok, then push on. This carried on for the last three miles. But I was very aware of the clock at this point. Overall I think I’ve never felt stronger or more consistent on a long run as this one. I knew that all I had to do to break my goal of under 6 hours was to keep the last three miles at under 10 mins per mile – and even with the dodgy calf that proved straightforward enough. Naturally that last pull up the brae felt like a bastard, but I crossed the line in 5:59:52 (Course Stats on Garmin) – a very happy bunny indeed coming in 28th out of 97 starters. [Diabetic stats: BGL 10 – too high, put this down to no metformin with pasta carb intake mile 26 and the last carbogel perhaps not needed]
Alexia in perfect support role was waiting for me with a cold beer. The young lad helping at the end came out with a classic line…. As I joked with one of the marshals about “should I be drinking in a public place?”, the youngster turned round and said “you’ve just ran 36.5 miles, enjoy your beer!” There has been some excellent parenting somewhere down the line there.
I really enjoyed this race – it was well conceived, brilliantly organized and marshalled with friendliness and efficiency (especially given how long these folks had to stand out in the rain). Thanks to Sarah, Leanne and all their crew for putting on this excellent event (and especially to Leanne for the warmest personal welcome I’ve had at a race). The ceilidh after was fun and despite tired legs, I managed to birl Alexia round the dance floor. Obviously too much energy left, should have tried harder?
I will be strongly recommending it to others for next year. I only hope the weather is better. Then again, as we retell this tale in the future, it is possible the grey cells will remember the puddles much deeper, the mud thicker and the rain more torrential; it was not up to the ankles, but over the knees they might say – The Speyside Way Ultra 2012 has the potential to become a legendary epic adventure.