In my post-Fling enthusiasm, I entered a couple more ultras as casually as one might order whipped cream with their hot chocolate. They sounded like a good addition to my race calendar, especially as my focus this year has been quality, not quantity. One of these races was the Speyside Way Ultra, and encouraged by fellow runner Tina, who was in the middle of a comeback following injury, I signed up. Jemma, who hosted us for the Callanish Stones marathon a few weeks ago, also took the bait and signed up. It was shaping up to be quite a social, relaxed day out.
A couple of weeks before the race, Tina got in touch to tell me she would have to pull out due to injury. A few days later, Jemma told me she wasn’t feeling it, and had withdrawn. Not only was I now faced with a lonely day out, I was also minus a ride to and from the event. The dark part of my brain that sometimes thinks things like I wonder how much it would hurt if I threw myself in front of that bus? or how fun would it be to really let my frustration out on an expensive car equipped only with a baseball bat? began to doubt whether I would be able to take part (spoiler: I managed).
Thanks to a fabulous (and slightly deranged) online ultra community, my call for help was answered by my knight-in-shiny-lycra-calf-guards, Dave, who I had met once before during a 28 mile winter training run earlier in the year. Despite knowing that he’d be waiting around for a fair amount of time if he was going to give me a lift back, he insisted it wasn’t a problem, and we arranged pick-up details. Dave, you are my hero.
The week before the race was my first week back at work after the summer holidays. It was also my first week living at Ian’s mum’s after handing in the keys to my flat on my way to work. Obviously, this was not the most relaxing taper week I’ve experienced, but being run off my feet did help distract me from worrying about the race.
Saturday morning arrived, and so did my 4:30 alarm. I wish I could say it was music to my ears, and that I had leapt out of bed with boundless enthusiasm, but in truth, hitting snooze and curling up under the duvet was the most appealing thing at the time. I dragged myself up, and blundered around the room throwing ‘possibly useful items’ into a rucksack in between putting on various items of running kit. I also had a look at the information pdf sent out to runners and realized that there were two drop bag locations at roughly 12 and 24 miles. The day got a little brighter, as I knew I didn’t have to carry all of my stuff! I also called myself a few names for being so disorganized.
At 5:30, Dave was outside, and we set off for the coastal town of Buckie. We had some good chat in the car on the way, but seeing him eating globs of porridge at intervals only reminded me that my porridge was still sitting on the kitchen counter. Who needs breakfast though, right?
We arrived just after 7 at the school, and went inside to register, hand over our drop bags, use real toilets, and mingle. I ran into a few familiar faces, one being David (not to be confused with Dave), who I chatted to as we waited for the bus.
Before too long, two bus-loads of runners were grabbing seats and preparing for the hour longish journey to Ballindalloch, where the race would start. At about 8:40, 96 starters were vomited out into the wild, with only the briefest of race briefings and a short queue for the portaloo between us and the beginning of the Speyside Way. After wishing everyone good luck, we all gathered at the start before that familiar forward surge drove home the fact that I was 36.5 miles away from a medal.
Within about half a mile, everyone’s feet were muddy. There had been heavy rainfall recently, and there was no avoiding getting a bit wet. I decided to stick to running for 3 miles and then walking to take on fuel. 6 miles into the race, I decided I should probably start sticking to my plan, so I had a cake bar and took a walk, letting a few people overtake me. Once I started running again, I caught up to two ladies, Beth and Pam, who were running a similar pace and proved to be fantastic company for the next 20+ miles. They were running 4 miles before taking on fuel, and I was happy enough to fall in sync with them.
We made it to the first drop bag stop at Craigellachie, and I was feeling good. I still had plenty of snacks to keep me going, and I was glad I didn’t bother leaving anything for myself here. After we left the checkpoint, we took a left turn and began the long, slow incline up Ben Aigen. We walked most of the steep sections and jogged when it leveled out. My brief look at the elevation profile earlier told me that this would be the main hill on the course, so I was relieved that it wasn’t as bad as I had been expecting as we neared the top.
After the slippery descent, we were on our way to Fochabers, and this is where I began to struggle a little. I was out of water and I had eaten all of my snacks, so I was eager to get to 24 miles to refuel and take a walk break. When it finally arrived, we were on road for a few undulations, and I remember this being the hardest part of the course, mentally. I was dying for a walk break, but I was also keen for company, as we were still over 10 miles from the finish, so I knuckled down and pushed on until mile 28, and the penultimate (planned) walk/fuel break.
I had intended to fall back here, but decided to keep running for as long as possible. Unfortunately my lapse in snacking had ill-effects and I was out of breath after less than a quarter of a mile, so when my Garmin beeped at 30 miles, I waved on Beth and Pam, who sailed away into the distance, and chatted briefly to Katie, who had a fling buff on, before she too left me in her dust. The next 3 miles were a dark period. I wallowed in my pain. I winced every time a rock in my shoe pressed against a hot spot. I took a pitiful selfie.
I also took some time to eat something and text Ian, who was away for the weekend, to let him know I was getting close to the finish. Soon I began to feel a bit perkier, and I took out my music for some motivation. I walked for .15 miles and ran for .35 or for the length of a song, whichever was longer (apart from O’Malley’s Bar by Nick Cave because it’s like 15 minutes long).
About 4 miles from the end I saw Katie in the distance and made it my goal to catch up to her, which I eventually did, though we leapfrogged until the end, with her eventually coming in ahead. About 3 miles from the end I started chatting with Ally, who was running his first ultra, and had some quality in-race chat. He used to be a teacher, and we bonded over funny stories and rudeness as we struggled towards the end. With about 500m to go, Ally convinced me to pick up the pace, UP A SHITTING HILL, towards the flags that signaled the finish, passing his dad on the way, and even after I clocked Dave taking a photo of my finish with his phone, I didn’t realize I could stop running until a marshal told me, “that’s it, no more!” The confusion yielded possibly one of the most confused/ridiculous finishers’ photos I’ve ever seen.
I shook Ally’s hand and asked Dave how his race went (very well), and another marshal came over with my medal, which I had completely forgotten about, and my goody bag, which Dave collected for me. It had some soup, some shortbread (which Ian’s mum got later), a whisky miniature, and some water in a canvas bag.
Although he offered to wait for me to get a massage/shower/have something to eat, I felt guilty that Dave had been forced to hang about for in the region of two hours for me to finish, so I collected my hoodie from the school (I’d left it with a marshal after the bus ride) and we set off for Aberdeen, managing to have one of the first conversations about the independence referendum I’ve had with no fear of temper tantrums or hurt feelings. Remarkable.
We got back to Aberdeen at around 6, and after I was dropped off I jumped in the shower to begin a pretty lethargic attempt to make myself presentable for Naomi’s birthday drinks. Having not had anything to eat since the race, I was grateful for Ronnie’s offer of a lift to the pub, and even more grateful that they were still serving food after 8pm. I did miss out on ordering my desert before the cut-off, but I managed to bribe a bartender to ‘whip something up’ for me. I was delighted:
Overall, I really enjoyed my day. The race was well-organized, friendly, and challenging, but the company I encountered was great and the weather was kind to us all.