PARENTAL WARNING: This report contains graphic descriptions of pain and suffering.
I’ve wanted to do an ultra-marathon since back in 2011, which was even before I joined ERN. Since I joined in 2012 I have often marveled at the exploits of Phil, Russell, Michael. J, Rachel, Jo. V and Myvanwy but I hadn’t really had much success in the 2 marathons I had completed so never got round to doing an ultra. Late last year I decided I was going to give the Tiree 35 mile ultra marathon a go in September this year. I thought I would just do lots of training without planning to do any races or marathons to prepare. However, early in the year events in my personal life took an unexpected turn which disrupted my planning somewhat. I was feeling pretty down but my friends suggested to me that I just needed to set myself new goals to take my mind off things, so that’s what I did. First I signed up for the Strathearn marathon and then I happened to look at the Clyde Stride facebook page one day and noticed there was only one place left. I knew Jo was already doing it so I signed up immediately. What could possibly go wrong?
I did quite a lot of training but I was careful not too push myself too much and made sure that I had regular “easy” weeks. In May I got new PB’s at parkrun, the Black Rock 5, the Edinburgh half marathon and the Strathearn marathon. I was on a roll and on a whim I decided to join Jo at the Lochalsh Dirty 30 the following week. It’s not really an official race as more people walk it than run it but it was my first time over 26 miles, I had a great time, really enjoyed it and thought it was the best race I’d ever done. I felt surprisingly good afterwards but the next weekend I went out running and felt pain in my right knee. I tried running through it for a couple of weeks before going to the physio who diagnosed a strained tendon. In the 3 weeks before Clyde Stride I only managed a total of 30 miles and one of those runs was 26 miles (which I really struggled on) so I was either going to be really well tapered or lacking in fitness! My knee was still sore but not any worse so I hoped it would survive 40 miles. To add to my pre-race concerns I developed a sore throat, sore head and runny nose in the days leading up to it. I dosed myself up with lemsips, hot drinks and hoped for the best.
Jo was hoping to finish in under 7 hours so I had set myself an A goal of 7 hours something, a B goal of 8 hours something and a C goal of 9 hours something with the time limit being 10 hours. I had warned Jo she might have a long wait at the finish but I think we both hoped I wouldn’t be too far behind her.
Jo and I got the train through to Glasgow on Friday afternoon, checked into our hotel, went out to an Italian restaurant for some pasta loading and then relaxed watching the films Fantastic Mr Fox (surely George Clooney’s best ever film?) followed by Paul. I didn’t really get much sleep, partly because of nerves/excitement and partly because of the traffic noise from street below the window. A dog howling and crying for most of the night didn’t help either!
After breakfast we got a taxi along to the start at Partick subway station, picked up our numbers and deposited our drop bags for the checkpoints and the finish in the back of some cars. We then had about 50 minutes or so to hang around inside a Morrisons supermarket waiting anxiously for the start. The forecast in the days leading up to the race had been pretty awful although it did seem to change ever time I looked at it. In the morning the forecast was saying it would be dry, windy with some sunshine later on. As we gathered for the race briefing at 8.45am it was raining so I put my jacket on despite not really wanting to carry it with me all day.
We lined up for the start, there was a countdown from 10, the hooter sounded and we were off. Unfortunately, I knew within the first mile that I was going to have a tough day. We planned to take the first section nice and easy doing 9 minute miles. I was following Jo as she weaved in and out of other runners trying to find some space. I thought that she was going to fast as it felt like we we going too quickly. I was fully expecting to to see an 8 minute mile (or faster) on my watch when we got to 1 mile so I got a shock when I saw we were bang on 9 minutes. If I’m struggling with this pace now what am I going to be like later on? Much, much slower as it turned out!
The first few miles were quite pleasant running through Glasgow at the side of the Clyde. I did try slowing Jo down by a few seconds when I gave her my Camelbak to carry while I took off my jacket as I was already too warm but it didn’t seem to help! I knew beforehand that I was unlikely to see Jo again after the first checkpoint at 10 miles as she wasn’t stopping to pick up a drop bag but I was struggling just to keep up with her at 9 minute mile pace. By 9 miles I was desperate to stop but didn’t really want to tell Jo I was struggling so early. I didn’t think I could keep up to 10 miles and I was just about to tell her to push on without me when we rounded a corner and saw the checkpoint ahead. Phew, what a relief!. I quickly wished her good luck and said I would see her at the finish (hopefully).
I had a friendly marshal help me get the contents of my drop bag into camelbak and I walked round the corner, over a bridge intending to eat my sandwich. I managed 1 bite of it and found it too difficult to eat. I trudged on and tried to eat a banana instead. It was a little easier to chew and I managed about 3/4 of it. A mile after the checkpoint we got off the tarmac path and onto the first trail section. I found it quite tough going as the trail was quite narrow and I kept having to step into the undergrowth to let other runners pass me. The long grass reminded me of the film Field of Dreams and I kept expecting to find a clearing with Kevin Costner and Ray Liotta playing baseball. Sadly I wasn’t treated to that spectacle.
I knew the 2nd checkpoint was at 18 miles but I was moving so slowly it was going to take me a while (I think it took about 90 minutes to do the 8 miles). I got onto a road section which involved a bit of a diversion near Raith interchange. I was feeling quite sorry for myself but I did catch a guy who was limping along and was covered in mud. I stopped to see if he was ok and he said that he had fallen and hurt himself so would have to drop out at the next checkpoint. I had been debating with myself whether I should stop at the checkpoint but it helped me realise that as bad as I was feeling at least was still able to walk. Luckily just after I left him a car stopped and it looked like he got a lift to end his suffering. Mine still had a long way to go but I reminded myself of Martin Luther King Jr’s quote “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do keep moving forward”.
I finally reached the 2nd checkpoint at Strathclyde Country Park. I took off my camelbak so a marshal could top it up with water for me. I didn’t really take much of the food out of my drop bag as I just couldn’t face eating anything. I just took some gels, a bottle of lucozade. Complan milkshake and some crisps, put my camelbak back on and set off again. 22 miles to go and it was going to be a long, slow death march to the finish if I could get there. There was a rowing event on at Strathclyde Loch so there were a lot of people about. I felt like a bit of a fraud just walking along as fast as I could but by now the sun was shining and I was feeling really hot. I did have to break into a run at one point though as there was someone taking pictures and thought I should try to make it look like I was running. By now my left knee cap was starting to get really sore and every jarring step of running was hurting.
At the end of the Loch the trail went into a more wooded area again so I got some relief from the sunshine at least. I plodded on and at 22 miles I thought I should really phone my Dad to let him know I wouldn’t be anywhere near New Lanark at 4pm. It wasn’t an easy call to make as I knew he would be worried about me and when I told him I’d been struggling since 10 miles he suggested that I should just call it a day. He told me I didn’t have anything to prove and that everyone has bad days (even it feels like I have more than most). I told him I wasn’t stopping and suggested that it might be better if my Mum didn’t come to the finish as I wouldn’t be a pretty sight. He did suggest coming to the final checkpoint at 28 miles but I didn’t want to see him as then the temptation to stop might have been too much. Instead I said I’d phone again once I got to the final checkpoint as I would see how I was when I got there. I also sent Jo a text message to let her know she might have a long wait at the finish.
Strangely I actually felt a bit better after the call. I still had no energy to run but my head felt a little bit less foggy. I knew that as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t stop and I couldn’t quit, not today. There were only 3 ways I wasn’t going to finish – 1) my legs fell off 2) I fell in the Clyde and drowned or 3) I was timed out at the final checkpoint or at the finish which was becoming a very real worry in my head. I knew I had to eat something so I managed to eat about 3/4 of a Chia Charge bar and half a packet of mini-cheddars. When I got to 5 hours I remembered that I had my ipod in my pocket and I had even prepared a Clyde Stride playlist so I dug that out and put it on.
At one point I met a couple coming towards me and I cheekily asked if they would mind taking my empty lucozade bottle off my hands as I was fed up carrying it. To my relief they said no problem. Thank you! I had to pass through a field of cows which I had been warned about in advance. I was slightly concerned that most of them appeared to have horns and knew I wouldn’t be able to outrun them in my current state so I just quietly made my way through them and thankfully they didn’t seem too bothered by me.
I hadn’t sen any other runners for a very long time but I caught up with a couple of guys after about 25 or 26 miles and they said that they were pulling out at the next checkpoint. Again this helped to strengthen my resolve to keep on going however slowly I was moving. When I reached the final checkpoint at 28 miles the marshals were again on hand to top up my camelbak with water. I took my bottle of fanta, another Chia Charge bar, crisps and gels out of my drop bag and loaded up. While I was doing this I noticed that I had been carrying my Complan milkshake for the last 10 miles and hadn’t drunk it! One of the marshals told me I only had about 10.5 miles to go but I thought he was maybe just making it sound better as I was still expecting another 12 miles to go but it turned out he was right.
I headed out the checkpoint knowing I had another 3 or 4 hours walk ahead of me. I took out my phone and called my Dad to tell him I was still going and he said that he and my Mum were somewhere near the final checkpoint. I was a little bit relieved they had missed me. I told him I thought I went through another town somewhere along the road. I had my hands full with my water bottle and phone and I tried looking at my map but the town was on another page. I thought maybe the town was called Crossford which my dad managed to find on his map and said they would try to meet me there and walk with me for a bit.
I opened up my Complan milkshake and drunk it as I walked along a timber boardwalk with several of the boards actually missing. I was concerned that I was going to put my foot through one of the holes with my next step. I got a little bit down (ok even further down!) when I remembered that this last section was also the hilliest. I was climbing up small, sharp hills and then there were also the dreaded steps. I could only hobble up them one at a time and going down wasn’t much better as both my knees was really hurting and my legs felt like solid lumps of concrete attached to my body. I think it was during this section that I started singing along to the music on my ipod. It wasn’t as though there was anybody around to hear my terrible singing. If my legs had been working properly I may have thrown in some dance moves too but I had to settle for some air guitar/drumming instead.
I finished off my bottle of fanta, ate a little bit of my Chia Charge bar and nibbled on a few crisps. I try to take salt tablets every hour to help fight off cramp that I’m prone to getting but sometimes I can find them hard to swallow. I had a couple of go’s at swallowing but only managed to gag and choke myself. I tried a third time and was just about to congratulate myself for managing to swallow when I promptly threw up the contents of my stomach at the side of the path. Excellent, just what I really needed!
I carried on and as I rounded the next corner I saw my Mum and Dad waiting for me. It was good to see them but unbelievably my Dad thought this would be a good time to take my picture and asked me to smile for the camera. Seriously?! Anyway, once he had taken a “happy snap” he walked with me (I was still moving faster than my Mum at least) along the trail for a bit. I said there was a shop further on in the next village and maybe they could get me a sugary drink but even better than that they had a bottle of lucozade in the car so my Dad ran ahead to get it for me. It was much needed! I said I would see him again at the finish and continued off on my own again.
The next section seemed to last forever, probably because I was getting slower, it was quite up and down and I was starting to get twinges of cramp from my hamstrings. I remember chanting to myself not to give up now and to keep on going. I reminded myself of John F Kennedy’s quote about not doing things because they are easy but because they are hard. Well this was really feeling hard now.
At one point I saw a pretty looking castle in the distance only to discover as I got closer that it was actually just a tree! Oh dear. I then passed a field with a couple of horses in it. One of them came walking towards me and I didn’t want to be rude so I stopped to pat it on the nose and spent about 30 seconds speaking to it (no I didn’t bore it with the story of my day or I may still have been there now!).
It was good to get some encouraging text messages from Jo at the finish and she confirmed that it was “only” 38.5 miles which made me feel a little bit better. Eventually I crossed a bridge over the Clyde and I popped out on a main road through the final village before the finish. I knew the shop was up ahead but didn’t really feel like stopping for anything. I then noticed my Mum & Dad’s car parked up ahead. My Dad got out and walked with me a little bit and helped to motivate me to the finish.
I got off the main road, crossed a bridge and dropped down a little hill only to be faced with a large gate across the road. My brain was obviously mush by this stage as I couldn’t work out how to open it. I was looking at it thinking there was no way I’d be able to climb over it in my current state. Help! After a bit of panicking I did manage to get it open so I continued onwards up quite a steep hill. I knew from reading the race instructions beforehand that I wasn’t far from New Lanark now. Annoyingly the route then took a steep, zig-zagging route back down into the valley to reach the side of the Clyde again just as the rain started to come on. Then through the trees I could see New Lanark in the distance but I knew I would have to climb back up to get there. Guess what? More steps and lots of them! I groaned and cursed with every one of them before emerging onto the road downhill into New Lanark.
I then surprised myself and did something I hadn’t tried in about 20+ miles – I broke into a slow shuffling run. There were a few cars coming up the road and people were shouting well done, almost there, etc as they drove past. Next thing my Dad was driving past me with the window down shouting that I had to get in before 6pm. I had long since given up trying and failing to do the maths to estimate when I’d finish but I looked at my watch and saw it was 5.45pm. Unfortunately, I knew I had about a mile to go and it had been several hours and many miles since I’d last managed to do a sub 15 minute mile. But I thought I’m already pretty well broken so what more damage can I do now. I can probably crawl the last mile if I have to. I shuffled down the bottom of the hill into the village but I knew I had to go past the finish, up a hill and loop back round. I surprised myself greatly by getting almost half way up the hill before slowing to a walk again. Once it flattened out again I tried running again and then it dropped back down beside the river and I knew I didn’t have far to go now. I hobbled and groaned with every excruciating step but I was determined that I wanted to run across the finish line. There was one more small climb, along a little trail and then there were more steps to go down but I saw my Mum waiting at a hole in the wall with her camera out. I better try to smile! I gingerly made my way down the steps and onto the short grass section with the finish line looming. There wasn’t any sprint finish but compared to the speed I’d spent most of the day going at I now felt like I was Usain Bolt! I crossed the line, stopped my watch and collapsed into the arms of Lee Maclean the race organiser who hands out hugs to all the finishers. I had made it in just under 9 hours which unbelievably meant I had achieved my B goal despite all of my problems.
I got my medal, goody bag, bottle of beer and a cup of soup, met my Mum & Dad and poor Jo who had been waiting a very long time for me to finish. After I got changed and managed to get my legs maneuvered into the car we headed off home. After a quick shower I went to Jo’s to finish off a very long, interesting, painful, somehow enjoyable, physically and mentally challenging day in the only way appropriate – with wine and pizza (possibly the best pizza I’ve ever tasted too)!
The route was really quite scenic for most of it (I had plenty time to admire the views) but it was definitely a bit more challenging than I thought it would be in terms of terrain and hills. I have mixed feeling about the results now. It feels like a typically Scottish glorious failure. A failure that I had to walk so much but glorious that I managed to finish my first ultra marathon despite spending almost 30 miles debating with myself how easy it would be to just give up and lie down at the side of the path for a sleep. I’m still not really sure what went wrong. I never expected to run 40 miles but I had expected to mange more than 10 miles. I know I can normally run more than 10 miles at 9 minute mile pace so I’ll just have to go back for some more torture next year and try again. Surely I can’t be any slower!
Well done to Jo on another great time and finishing 6th place lady in her 2nd longest ultra to date. Thanks to Lee Maclean for organising such a great race and thanks to all the friendly, helpful marshals for their help and encouragement at the checkpoints and various road crossings.