Thursday, 18 April 2013

Ladies' Day in Lochaber

Our "Lodge" - what a front door!!!
My friend Mark and I had discussed going up north for a weekend, so he could go biking and I could go running, and last weekend was the only one that seemed to suit both of us. A colleague of Mark's offered the use of a lodge at one the Devere Hotels (Cameron House on Loch Lomond) and it seemed too good an opportunity to resist.

Judging by the Tom Scott race, I had recovered well from Barcelona, and so it seemed like a good idea to profit from all the training and run another marathon. This had been an idea developing over the past few weeks, but it had depended on finding a good marathon at the right time, and upon how long it took the spring to return to my legs. I had never run a marathon in Scotland before and Mark was happy to do his cycling up in Fort William, so the Lochaber marathon appeared to fit the bill. The only problem was that I had to be good and not make use of the sauna and steam room facilities at Cameron House on the Saturday........imagine starting a marathon dehydrated from spending too much time in the sauna!

Having entered the marathon at the last minute (number 495 out of 500), meant there was no external pressure on me for a "performance", and it helped to be staying somewhere nice and just travel up on the day. There was a speedy lady (Kim Fawke, a 2:39 marathoner) from Telford who had entered early (number 15) and was being accommodated by the race organisation, as she was hoping t break the 15 year old course that was another pressure I didn't have on me.....I could just go and run my own race.
The forecast was for pouring rain and gale-force winds......and so I started obsessively checking for updates, as if that would change anything. Whatever the day actually brought, I hoped to get a good strong run in the bank.
2nd Breakfast out of the rain

A soggy warmup
As we drove up on Sunday morning, we couldn't actually see any of the beautiful scenery as the rain was driving across Rannoch Moor, but it did seem lighter as we got to Fort William. After registering, I had a second breakfast of instant porridge and coffee in the car (my word, thermos flasks are a great invention), and then braved the elements for a soggy warmup. There were drinks provided on the course but no gels, so I arranged to meet Mark at certain places in order to grab some......and he kindly took my waterproofs from me as I headed to the start.

The race started on the shinty pitch and then we headed off through a housing estate out to the main road. I found myself passing Kim in the first mile, which surprised me, as I had been telling myself not to go off with her as it would be faster than I intended to run. I exchanged a few words with the guys running alongside me - one from Shettleston (John Duffy, who had actually won the race on two occasions) and one from Hunters Bog Trotters (HBT). We seemed to be going up and down a couple of sharp inclines and round some twisty corners......but I was sure that I'd read it was a fast flat course. They reassured me that the first and last mile were the worst (great......something to look forward to at the end when you're knackered) and that there was a drag uphill at miles 3 and 4.
In a sunny spell
After a few miles we were all spread out, with the leading 3 men visible quite a way ahead along the undulating road, and John having dropped back from us. I got slightly confused as there was no 6 mile marker, and a water station appeared earlier than the advertised 7 mile point. Mark, however, was standing in his high-viz yellow waterproof jacket (the jacket actually meant that many people asked him if he was a medic en route) at exactly our agreed 7 mile point and handed me a gel......mmmmm, tasty......not!
The weather had been improving as we'd been running, and not long after this, the sun actually came out and it became quite warm. This was amazing considering the horrendous forecast, but in true Scottish style, we were then treated to a mixture of rainy, windy and sunny spells as we continued on our way.

There was plentiful support on the roadside as we headed towards the turn around point and it was great to see the leaders heading back towards us, so we exchanged waves and "thumbs up" signs. I rounded the marshal in 5th place overall, but then watched the distinctive brown HBT vest shoot away from me at an amazing speed. It was also interesting to see that Kim was 40s behind me, with no one in between us, so I figured she'd overhaul me at any time.

Although I was now running alone and felt the wind more strongly on the return leg, I loved the encouragement from all the runners heading the other way. I felt that I was tiring but couldn't hear any cheers behind me so figured that everyone must be feeling the same.

Out on the road
If you wanted to think about something apart from where the next mile marker was, you just had to look up and be inspired by the beauty of the surrounding snow-covered peaks.......or you could focus on the road and be entertained by the traffic. The road isn't closed for the race, and although runners are told to keep to the side of the road and run no more than 2 abreast, there were times when cars and lorries were on completely the wrong side of the road. At one point a lorry kindly waited for a good time to pass runners when a car decided to pass it on the wrong side of the road and a cyclist also tried to cut through the gap. It was tempting to tag alongside the lorry and use it as a windbreak, but it just wasn't possible.

I heard that the gap behind me had narrowed to 100m but I gave myself a good talking to, reminding myself just how stubborn I can be. I figured that I had to keep driving on, so that if anyone passed me then it was because they were running well, not because of me flagging. By this point I had moved up into 4th position and was over halfway back. 

I was spurred on by seeing that the gap to the man in front (from Kilmarnock) was closing up, but felt guilty when I saw how much he was struggling, possibly due to his fast start. I passed him at the 21 mile marker though I did ask him if he was ok (and to give him credit, he carried on to finish under the 3 hr mark). I was very relieved to crest the hill at 23 miles as I knew that apart from the sting in the tail of the race, it was mainly downhill. Grabbing a last gel from Mark, he reassured me that the gap behind had opened up and I just needed to keep going for the win. I tried to calculate how much faster than me someone would need to run every remaining mile in order to go past, but I knew that it wasn't over until that line was crossed. In the next 2 miles the man in front (this time from Ayr - SW Scotland seemed to be dominating the sharp end of the race) also came back significantly, so that he was only about 20m ahead when he missed a right turn. I screamed his name and the marshals chased him to get him back on course. As we were within the final windy mile, which included those sharp inclines, I fully expected him to charge back past any minute.

Finishing on the shinty pitch

Not sure about my "finishing face"...
It was an amazing feeling to make the final turn out of the houses and towards the finish gantry on the soggy wet shinty pitch.

Everyone was very surprised to see me as the second finisher overall and they desperately tried to create a finish tape for me to break.
Unfortunately the only bit of tape they had was only about 50cm wide, but at least it made me smile!
It was only after finishing that I heard the announcement that I'd broken the 15year old course record by 4 and a half minutes. And what a day for the ladies, as the second lady finished in 4th place overall, in a time that was also under the previous record! Girlpower!

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Record Breaking Running

...........and I don't mean me.......though I did break a club record......but that's not the point here......

The decision about which 10 mile race to run at the weekend was almost an academic one, due to me having developed a great case of manflu after the weekend in Perth. I was having difficulty just breathing, and so the ability to sleep for longer than an hour seemed to have gone out of the window. Luckily, the bugs all stayed above the neck (so running actually eased the congestion), and by the weekend I was winning the fight. 

Saturday's 10 mile race was an inaugural one at Longtown, which my club was using as the second counter in our annual road race Grand Prix. Sunday's 10 miler was the 51st running of the Tom Scott memorial road race in Strathclyde Park, which was being used as the Scottish 10 mile championships, the West District championships and also the Scottish Veteran Harrier championships. The championship field would be a much greater test for me, which is why I opted for that race, though when I saw the beautiful wind free day on Saturday, I wondered if I'd made the wrong choice (but then again, I did have an extra 24 hrs to improve my breathing skills).

Sunday was also a clear day with no wind, though it was near freezing when I left Dumfries. Luckily the drive up the road saw the temperature rise a couple of degrees and as I have never been to Strathclyde Park without it being windy, it boded well for some good running.
And they're off.....

I had a slight drama right on the startline when my hair elastic snapped and I didn't have a spare. I didn't fancy running 10 miles constantly trying to get my hair out of my eyes, nose and mouth, but luckily my friend Fiona came to my rescue and lent me her spare one (note to self, secure your ponytail with 2 elastics just in case!).

The race was chip timed, but strangely enough their was no chip mat at the start. I guess the chips were there just to help with close finishes, but I hate starting at the front of races, as it takes me about 50+ metres to get my joints going. I still started my usual several rows back, but knew that I might have to actually get my head around racing right to the line if necessary (yes, I know most people do that anyway, but I've never been able to sprint so rely on distance).

Running with Fiona
The 10mile and 3.75mile race started simultaneously so it was impossible to work out who was racing who. I wasn't expecting an amazing performance after having the cold, so just ran on feel. Everybody seemed to go off incredibly fast, and although I tried my hardest not to be dragged along by the other ladies, I still went through the first mile in a much faster pace than I could maintain. I consciously steadied my pace to run my own race and was rewarded by being back in the leading pack of ladies at the point when the races separated. The long drag uphill alongside an amusement park seemed to go on forever, but when we finally returned to the lake shore, it was a relief to know that the whole of the second half of the race would be within sight of the water. Fiona Matheson and I were running side by side with Jennifer Emsley just behind, but at the head of the lake, Fiona pushed on and shortly afterwards Jennifer moved past me to chase her down. I knew that if I went with them, it would end messily for me, but I still had to give myself a good talking to as it would have been easy to slow down completely, and allow the whole field to pass me by.

Pushing to the line

Working my legs on the sharp rises made me realise that Jennifer was coming back to me, and surprisingly, I was just behind her again with a mile to go. It was tempting to just tuck in behind her, but as I know I don't have a sprint finish....and her legs are much longer than mine......I knew I had to go past early and then keep kicking.
I found it really hard to keep pushing all the way to the line, but managed it was rewarded with a shiny new PB, much faster than I could have dreamt of.

1 Race, 3 Medals...random!

Fiona had run a pressure-free race as her watch battery had died before the start, and so she couldn't keep checking her pace, splits and overall time. It worked really well for her, as she had a fantastic run, not only finishing as Scottish 10 mile champion, but also breaking the LV50 World Record for 10 miles........inspirational!
And, just quietly, I'm hanging on to that lucky hair elastic, as it was once owned by a record-breaker!!!

Saturday, 6 April 2013

View From The Other Side

The period after a marathon can be a difficult time, leading many people to develop "post marathon blues". Suddenly you find yourself not training, but nor are you tapering, and you don't have that goal ahead to focus on. Rather than going over and over the race in your head, thinking "what if" and "if only" or making rash decisions about training and racing in the future, it's important to take some time out and have fun. 

Snow in Dumfries

The good old British weather did play a part in this for me as, having driven through snow on the way back from the airport, and it just got worse from there. On a couple of occasions during that first week, all the roads in and out of Dumfries were closed either by snow, or by drivers skidding in the snow. 

Still, I managed to get out with the girls from work for an afternoon and evening in the pub(s), which ended up involving karaoke, and when the roads cleared, my mother came to stay for a few days (which was lovely though she did say we did nothing but eat as I introduced her to my favourite coffee shops). I also caught up with a few friends who've been working overseas, but one of the main things I've done is to give something back to running and support others in their endeavours.
The "Self Transcendence 100k/50k" was being held in North Inch Park in Perth (no unfortunately not Australia). The 100k incorporated the Anglo-Celtic Plate home countries international and UK Championships, while both the 50k and the 100k were the Scottish Championships. The course consisted of flat traffic-free 2.4k loops around the park along the banks of the River Tay.

I had declined to run as part of the Scotland team so soon after the marathon, but when race organiser Adrian Stott asked me if would be the race doctor, I was keen to help out, support others, catch-up with some of the GB squad and actually get to know some more of the Scottish runners. I am fairly selective and so don't run that many races, especially not long distance ones, and of those that I do run, most are big races overseas so it was the first time I'd actually chatted to many of the Scottish squad (though strangely enough, I knew almost all of the English team).

Path up Kinnoull Hill

It was lovely to be able to enjoy the evening in Perth without worrying about racing the next day, so I got out for a trot up Kinnoull Hill (beautiful to be on the top, standing in the sun but surrounded by snow) and then checked out a lap of the course. It looked like it was going to be a fast race as the park was completely clear of snow an ice and there was a dead calm with no wind forecast. We were hoping that we might see several runners finish under the 7hr mark, as 3 of the English men had run sub 2:18 marathons.

At the evening briefing I gathered up all the medical forms and labelled them in race number order, highlighting any with pre-existing medical conditions, and divided them into 50k and 100k runners, as in an emergency, I might have had to ask an assistant to dig out a form for me. I took the opportunity to listen in to the Scottish team pep talk, which reminded the guys that although many of the English runners had faster marathon times, they didn't have so much ultra experience and so there was a good chance that they might fade later on into the event. Wise words from Adrian there!

Support tent and runners pre-start

After a sleepless night, made shorter by the clocks going forward, we were making sure that everyone was awake at 5 and having a good breakfast before heading down to the park (having to scrape ice off the windscreen didn't bode well for those standing around to support). There was a slight delay but it wasn't long after 7am that the runners set off on the first of their 42 laps. I didn't think there would be many medical dramas early on (except maybe frostbite in those trying to sort out food for the runners) so I took the opportunity to check out the medical room in the sports centre with its ice machine and defibrillator (fingers crossed for that not being needed). It was still quiet so I stripped off an outer layer of clothing and took the opportunity of running myself to appreciate the quietness of the park in the early morning (and mainly to keep warm). As per Hilary (the race referee), I started off in an anticlockwise direction, as the race was run in clockwise loops. I stuck to the outside of the cones so as not to impede anyone, but it was quite tight when passing through the feed stations and avoiding the timing mat, so I started running backwards and forwards in 3/4 laps, turning each time before I got near the pinch points. In order to ensure I didn't appear to be pacing anyone, I ran with different people each time I was going in the same direction as the racers, and made sure I included a Welsh, an English and a Scottish runner, and a mix of male and females. Hopefully, it was also nice for them to have someone different to chat to on one of their laps. It was lovely to be out running again, but I was happy to stop after a few laps........and didn't even slightly wish that I was racing, so had obviously made the right decision!

My only regret in the timing of my run, was that by the time I'd showered and changed, the feed station had no more hot bacon butties....but then again, their porridge was pretty fabulous!
 In a race such as this one, participants are generally quite experienced, so I didn't get the funny requests for medical aid that I've had before (eg bleeding nipples, or a splinter). In fact, after the 50k started at 10pm, the biggest casualties were actually members of the GB 24 hour squad, though luckily there was nothing serious to deal with.
It was great to watch how different race plans we'd expected, some people went off very fast, but unfortunately didn't manage to take enough nutrition on board to sustain their efforts and so faded, while others got stronger and stronger as the race progressed. Experience really did show, and this was also reflected in the 50k race, especially in the ladies' field.

The lap counting/leader  board
Maybe it was the clock-change, maybe the weather, or maybe some totally unconnected reason, but unfortunately some of the volunteers didn't turn up to help.....or wandered off after helping for a short time. I couldn't help to support individual runners as I had to maintain "neutrality", but as long as I kept within sight of the medical tent and had my phone on me, I decided to get stuck in helping the others out (well, I needed to do something to break up my chain-eating of all the amazing cakes available). I ended up manning the 50k lap board. I now have total respect for those that do this job, as it is very hard to keep track of even a small number of runners in a lapped race. We had to look out for those in the 50k, both male and female, while ignoring the 100k runners, bearing in mind that they were all going different speeds and lapping each other. From time to time, we'd get a backup sheet from the chip timing system, but this was sometimes out of date by the time it got across to us. Add in to this, the difficulty of moving pins, names and numbers on a pin board when your fingers are freezing as you cannot do it in gloves, and then also having supporters and bystanders continually hassling you to correct certain runners' lap numbers and getting upset that you didn't do it yesterday! Volunteers are amazing.......the hard work they put in, while often getting lots of criticism from people who have no realisation that they are doing the best they can do!

Dan, the 100K champion

Helping with this job did have a big bonus......we knew exactly when people started their last lap so could let the announcer know, and got to cheer everybody home as they finished their race.....with proud smiles and flags flying.

The 100k was won in style by Dan Doherty of Ireland, who ran a steady race and stuck to his plan all the way through, and the Scottish boys came through to win the team competition as Adrian had predicted, using their experience of long races both on and off road. Emily Gelder of Wales won for the ladies.......for the 4th consecutive year, again showing how invaluable previous experience is. To back this up this observation , the clear winners of the 50k race were Paul Fernandez and Sue Harrison, both of who, I have met before at the world 50k championships and both of whom are experienced English ultra runners.

As for me, I had no regrets about not being out there running from a competitive point of view, but I also really appreciated the opportunity to watch and support others and just generally muck in and help as needed, often doing jobs that as a runner, I'd take for granted!