Great Glen Ultra

Named as one of Scotland’s toughest running challenges, the Great Glen Ultra starts at Fort William and covers 72 miles/116km and 9,300 feet/2,000m of climbing along the Great Glen Way all the way to Inverness.  It’s a long way to drive, let alone run!  I had a tough day out there on the route and its one race I’ll chalk up to experience, I can’t say I enjoyed much of it which I will put down to 4 main factors.  The route, the self-sufficiency/unsupported element, small field of runners and my own current state of fitness.  I’m going to giving you the nitty gritty of my experience of GG, missing any eloquent niceties and runners high garble because I had to dig really deep.  Whilst I will never again run this route, this I promise you, if you do want a challenge then its definitely one for you!

Iona & I at the 1am start line

After a bus trip down from Inverness at 9:30pm to the start line, runners congregate in The Moorings Hotel before we head out to Neptunes Staircase and take our marks.  After stern warnings of ‘don’t fall in the canal’ and ‘keep the loch on your right hand side’ and we are unceremoniously on our way.  The first 7 miles are along the canal so its easy to go out too quick but I manage to control myself and stick to a steady 9min/mile pace, the weather is tempered and I’m in my WAA skort and carrier shirt, with only gloves and a buff for extra warmth.  With the Scottish summer of late I’m carrying not only a waterproof jacket but also waterproof trousers and a spare set of gloves and shirt!  I’m glad its dark as the monotony of the canal can’t yet take hold on my mind although it already begins to bore me.  I was looking forward to day breaking and being greeted by a spectacular sunrise that might have got me motivated but alas it just discreetly became bright and that was that, a new day had begun and I was 20 odd miles into the day.  The first half of the route is relatively flat, which is because of the canals.  The 2nd leg of the canal coming into CP 3 nearly finished me off, how people can run the canal races I will never know, they just never seem to finish!  I think I’d spent the first 30miles just wanting to quit but I had to push on knowing that once I got halfway then it would be worth it to keep going.

My thoughts on the canal section

Once the route started with the unrelenting climbs it didn’t actually get that much more interesting, I found the trails along this section to be quite uninspiring (sorry Scotland you normally do this so well), the views of course from the top are always worth it but I wasn’t feeling the love today. There were no technical sections at all and all a bit too much road and canal for my liking.

Views of the loch below

Self sufficient and unsupported races are not an alien concept to me in itself having run Marathon Des Sables & Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon however this mixed with the very small field of runners meant that I spent most of the day completely on my own, and worse completely in my own head which was not a good place to be.  It’s strange but normally I enjoy running on my own but for this race due to my own current levels of fitness, I could have done with the company.  Thank goodness for the brilliant on-call support from the A-grade support crew of Dion, Rhianon and Suzan who were all at the end of the phone calling me with messages of support and not allowing me to quit when I was at my low ebbs.

Dawn breaking

The race consisted of 6 checkpoints that you could have drop bags at and one other where only water was provided (although the lovely crew there saved me with a small bag of Salt & Vinegar crisps-thank you from the bottom of my heart).  My favourite item in the drop bags this race was definitely chocolate milk, I downed one of those at each checkpoint and that kept me going  along with my Active Root sports drink.  The downfall of no support on such a long race is not seeing your loved ones along the way to give you hot food cheer you on and that is such a lovely mental boost that I really missed.  It was nice to see some familiar faces however in the crew, especially at CP5 where I had them all laughing and applauding after I’d pulled into the local chippy on the way and came through munching my hot salty chips.  It worked wonders as well as I then promptly passed 4 people on the way to the final CP.

Pine forest trails

The final 11 miles were a hard push, everything was hurting in my body and although I now knew I would finish I was eating humble pie as I gathered my thoughts and berated myself for not being as fit as I should be, or could be.  I can use the last 12 months of my life being turned upside down by Finding Gobi as an excuse; and I honestly would not change a thing as I am so happy in my life; but as a runner you know what you are capable of and I know I fell short of that.  I met my target time of getting in just under 16 hours but it hurt, it really hurt, and its a bitter pill to swallow.  It might sound facetious to non-runners to say I’m not fit enough but I know that I am capable of doing so much better and it only matters to me I know, but I consider my opinion pretty important!  So what am I going to do about it?  I’m going to recover wisely, I’m going to have some fun and go and run the Spartan Beast race in Edinburgh on 22nd July (if you fancy joining me its not too late and use ‘EDINBURGHSPARTAN’ to get 15% off your entry) and then I’m going to go and run even further and do my first ever 100 miler on the 5th August at the NDW100.

Finish line smiles & tears

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Ding! Ding! I did The Fling!

I’m not really sure what drew me to sign up for The Fling, a 53 mile race from Milngavie to Tyndrum along the West Highland Way, considering I don’t do a lot of local races, preferring to race abroad, and also that the WHW is part of my regular training run but for some reason I was drawn to ticking this off my ever growing list of must do races.

The race came around quicker than I had hoped. The start to the year had been more hectic than I planned; starting a new job with Village Hotel Edinburgh along with finally having Dion and Gobi home from China (see Finding Gobi for more on this adventure); all of which I’d imagined as being the start to a new ‘routine’, a steady state of life to crack back on with training and life in general. As they say about the best laid plans….exactly that! Life was far from routine. It took a couple of months for Dion and Gobi to find their new rhythm alongside Lara and I, and amongst it all both Dion and I were finding it hard to sync our training around the demands of our new girl Gobi and their subsequent book releases, which resulted in more days out having a walk and finishing at a cafe or pub rather than putting in the required training. Not that the weather helped either mind you. I try to be hardy but I’m a fair weather runner at heart.

I had glimpses of getting back to training properly with a few solid mileage weeks and making good use of my new run commute into my amazing new gym (a perk of the job) with a strong focus on building strength in my legs and glutes with the aid of my PT. My PT Huw has got me strengthening the key muscles to make me a stronger mountain and endurance runner and I can certainly feel it has been working. A lot of work on single leg exercises, deadlifts, squats, lunges and a combination of upper body has made my body hurt in ways I didn’t know possible but it has reaped benefits. My legs felt strong throughout the race and I was out doing a recovery hike the following 2 days which certainly is testament to stronger muscles.

When I’d signed up for the race in late 2016 I’d envisaged my training going so well I’d be aiming for a sub 10 hour finish but as race day approached I knew this wasn’t realistic and had revised back to a sub 12 hour finish. Through the positivity of Dion and a visiting friend Euan, we revised this to still push for 10 and see where it took me. My ultimate goal is to finish feeling strong and with a smile on my face.

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Rhianon, me and Em at the start line, all smiles.

Race day! Milngavie only gets this busy twice a year, at Fling time and of course for the West Highland Way race which takes in the full 97 miles of the route. Out of the 1,000 runners congregated I felt like I knew most of them so there was a lot of pre race chat as we gathered to head off. I started off way too fast, chatting with a pal Em before she pushed on and I dropped back to a more sustainable pace. Glad I did when I later found out Em had finished in 9hrs 42m!  She was on top form, well done to her.

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Reaching the top of Conic Hill

The first 19 miles of this race are hard to hold back on as it is very runnable and mixed with the adrenaline of a race can be a dangerous mix. I was excited to reach Balmaha and see Dion to refuel and swiftly carry on. I felt strong coming into Rowardennan which was the halfway point, one marathon down, just one to go 😉 my feeling of contentment was shattered soon after as I was enjoying a little jog out of the checkpoint drinking my coconut water and tripped! Bruised ego and blood ensued (just a minor cut on my palm) but back into it. From here the route gets a bit more technical and with a marathon already under your belt the pace tends to drop as everyone is taking a bit more care through this section.

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A-Team support crew, Rhianon

Reaching Bein Glas I am lifted by the sight of not only Rhianon holding one of her infamous motivational signs and cheering but she’s even managed to get Dion to hold up a sign! After a quick lick for good luck from Gobi I’m off again. There’s just half a marathon to go and this is the stage I know I just have to dig deep and get it done. The legs are fatigued, feet a little sore and I’m feeling quite sluggish not long after I leave the checkpoint.

It’s a tough slog through cow pat alley before I reach Crianlarich hill where my lovely support crew are along with the wonderful Beardy and Blondie, it’s a party atmosphere on the hill giving my spirit a boost before the last final climb. It’s a slow climb up and the rain starts so I faff around putting a jacket on as my body is now fatigued I immediately feel cold. The descent over the other side is hard work on the quads (more work needed on those) but I’m rewarded with a surprise crew cheer spot just before Auchtertyre by Dion and Rhianon hiding out in a farm shed. I’d realised just before reaching there that with only 3 miles left to run, if I could maintain 10min/mile I could make it in 11 hours which spurred me on so much I don’t think I let my excitement of seeing them show enough as I just ran straight through!

As I come towards Tyndrum the sound of bagpipes fill the air followed by the ringing of the cowbells; the finish line! It’s here! I’m still running and I’m smiling and I’m finishing in 11 hours! I hit the red carpet to the cheers of the crowd, including Dion, Gobi and Rhianon and the finishers medal is mine.

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Smiling and still running along the red carpet to the finish line👍

Making Plans

After such a big year in 2016, particularly with my personal challenge of running #500kin5days with Marina Ranger in Simply Runderful; my body needed a rest.  So did my heart and my mind. I’d had a lot going on in the back end of the year with my husband, Dion living in China from August until January with Finding Gobi and this had left me drained emotionally, the extent of which I didn’t realise until even after a DNF (Did Not Finish) at UTMB in August but into September when ‘life’ began to feel all a little too much for me and I resigned from my full time job to take some time out and focus on Finding Gobi with Dion and support him until we could all be reunited.  Needless to say effective training and eating went out the window as there wasn’t much time or desire to push myself physically.

I think it’s important for everyone to take stock sometimes and realise that you have to prioritise and it may not be exactly how you planned it in your head but life never goes to plan after all does it?!  Plans are meant to change and although it was a tough end to the year it was worth all the heartache and stress throughout as I now have both Dion and Gobi home with me safe, sound and most importantly happy.

Dion & Gobi enjoying their new Scottish playground

Now it’s time to refocus on my challenges for the year.  I’ve managed to kick start my training with my new job managing the Village Hotel in Edinburgh, which in case you didn’t know has state of the art leisure facilities of which I am making good use of and have just started getting some personal training with Huw Davis to focus on building some strong glutes for the upcoming mountain racing season.  I’ve had a couple of good weeks getting back into serious training, building up the miles consistently.  In my week I try to always fit in a strength & conditioning session, speed intervals, hill repeats and a long run as the basic week and fill around that; always with a rest day or more depending on how my body feels.

What is the plan for the year then I suppose your wondering?

I’m heading to Morocco in a few weeks to run the 3 day race Tizi n Trail, which is a chance to escape the Scottish winter for a few days in the hope Moroccan sun, it’s no Marathon Des Sables, and the crew of the race carry all your luggage, cook for you, provide accommodation and there’s even showers and the runners run from point A to B each day with approximately 20km distance to cover each day.  It will still be challenging terrain but it will be stunningly beautiful and a great way to revisit Morocco and kick start the years racing.

In April I’m running local!  I’m running The Highland Fling which is a 53 mile race along the first half of the West Highland Way from Milngavie to Tyndrum.  It’s a challenging day out and the race is always full of a strong field of runners.

Then it’s time to head off to the mountains!  As I didn’t get into the ballot for UTMB I’ve entered the Zugspitz Ultra in Germany, a 100km mountain race with 5,400m of ascent it will give me valuable points to enter the ballot for UTMB again for next year as well as ‘if’ I can complete the race in under 22 hours it’s a qualifier for Western States Endurance Run which I’d love to run one day.

The Scottish hills call again and after running the Vertical Kilometre last year as part of the Skyline Race series, I’ve decided to run the 110km Ben Nevis Ultra which is a new addition to the series this year with a hefty 4,000m of ascent.

Climbing the VK route last year – photo(c) http://www.facebook.com/jordisaragossa

With a deep love of the Scottish hills I couldn’t go past running the Glencoe Marathon this year, road marathons don’t interest me but the trails certainly do and with Glencoe being billed as one of the most beautiful and challenging off-road marathons I couldn’t resist.  This is on the 1st October and I’d love to see some familiar faces joining me so if you fancy coming along then enter here and get a 10% discount off your entry (discount code: VHLcjGMG2017, valid until 31st May 2017 so be quick!).  Or take on the half marathon or 10k if you don’t really fancy the full 26.2 miles.

Glencoe Marathon (Photo from Glencoe Marathon)

I’m still throwing around some ideas for the other months of the year, and making good use of a fab new website Race Base World where you can search by month or location to find that perfect race, but this is certainly a good start to the calendar.  Let me know if you’ve done some of these races or if you are coming along to them this year, would love to hear all about them or say hi at the events.