Friday 19 July 2019

Ultra Trail Scotland - race report

Talk Ultra podcast interview - Episode 173

Running is not just running.  It’s like dancing, there are so many disciplines.  When planning what races to enter I try to choose events that complement each other, somehow I inadvertently go from one extreme to another. 

I had once pigeon holed myself as a one-pace 24 hour jogger.  Then I moved to what I thought would be the fun stuff and became a mountain rambler, dragging my sorry ass around some the blockbuster events.  This year I wanted to go back to basics.  Real running.  Kinda bucking the ultra-trend and looking for shorter and faster.  Rather than pushing the boundaries with longer and more arduous.  No mean feat though, as it’s hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube.  

I started the year with a couple of 10k races - that hardest distance of them all.  The main focus was Manchester Marathon and then the Thames Path 100.  To mix it up and break up the monotony of canal running, I signed up for the Ultra TrailScotland - 45km with 11,000 feet of ascent on the Isle of Arran.

With winner Rob Sinclair at the start
After a few training runs on Arran last year, I was blown away by the sheer beauty of the island.  I had done Goat Fell, which is the highest and most popular peak, and the Goat Fell hill race before using traditional route to the summit - off the Calmac ferry and a straight out and back on the tourist path.   It’s a nice trail and a fabulous hill, but beyond the trig is a treasure trove of magic that few people will venture along. 

They are ‘just’ Corbetts, so Munro baggers would turn up their noses at such insignificant hills.  But they can certainly pack a good punch.  Stunning majestic backdrops, technical trails, exposed ridges, scrambles and coastal views.  Arran is known as “Scotland in Miniature” because it offers the best of Scotland - highland scenery, granite peaks, glens and rolling farmlands all compacted within its 56 mile circular coastline.  The race takes in the best that Arran has to offer.  Unfortunately that means is also cursed with Scotland’s unpredictable weather system.

It’s such a brave venture for the guys at Find Your Adrenaline as the odds are against them.  The Scottish weather doesn’t lend itself to exposed routes, there’s limited accommodation on the island and the only mode of transport there is a ferry.  Sailings are again dictated by the conditions.  But anyone who’s been on route can see the dream.  You’d be hard pushed to find a more stunning race route in Scotland - if not the world.    

This was the third edition of the race.  The first year was cancelled completely due to weather and last year was rerouted, again the weather.  This year’s race day was unfortunately sandwiched between two days of glorious sunshine.  And the filling wasn’t looking very appetising.  On race morning, I’d opened the curtains to torrential rain and the trees bending in the wind.  If I’d been faced with those conditions on any other day, there’s no way I would have ventured into the hills. 

Then there was the communication that the race had been postponed by two hours, to start at 10am.  Wise decision as the forecast at least had the wind speed dropping late morning. 

When we arrived at race HQ, it was announced that the course had been changed to take out the exposed sections and the infamous Witch’s Step. So the new route took the direct route from North Goat Fell to the saddle - taking out Coiche na Oighe ridge, Sannox Glen - and was an out-and-back to North Sannox car park.  I mentally calculated that it would lose about four miles and about 1500ft of climbing, so not a massive difference.

I won’t lie, I was pretty gutted as I’d made the effort to go over the recce the route twice.  Mainly because I don’t like surprises on race day.  From an organisational and safety point of view it was 100% the right decision for the safety of the runners and the marshals.  No disrespect to anyone running the race, but I’m sure there would have been many on the start line who’d wildly underestimated the route.  During my recces, I was still amazed that these sky-running style routes were on a teeny island like Arran. 

The race started along the beach. I despise sand, but at least it was a short section before we turned off and started heading up the hill into the mist. 

There was a bit of toing and froing on the ascent.  People battling to stay ahead.  I’m no hill runner, so settled in for some power hiking.  I was trying not to bother about what position I was in, but still managed to count five or six women ahead of me.  You know, not bothering and all that.

I got chatting to the lovely Katie Henderson.  She looked like a proper hill runner.  I had total leg envy!  We overtook a few people on the ascent, but Katie pulled away towards the summit.  When we reached the top and started on the rocky descent, Katie was gone.  Completely out of sight.

I was mincing around on the initial downs, trying to get my legs to change gear.  I’d bought some new VJ XTRMS for the race and wasn’t so sure of the traction on the wet ground and slippy rocks.  I soon got into my groove and realised the shoes were indeed going to live up to the hype.  To be fair, the granite rock on Arran is pretty grippy anyway. 

Over to North Goatfell, Sarah was ahead of me.  She was really strong on the ups, running up with a back-pack that was almost the same size as her, but possibly lacked the confidence to take the downhills.

I was trusting my new grippy shoes and having a great chat with a few lads.  I was just happy.  Really content and just trying to move swiftly without destroying my quads.  There was no pressure, no goals but I was damn sure I was going to do my best.

Katie was now nowhere in sight.  I couldn’t even see her on the climb to Cir Mhor.  She must have smashed the descent.  Strava segment tells me I dropped from North Goal Fell to the saddle (0.82 miles -29%)  in 16:46 and she did it in 12:30.  That a substantial difference and I wasn’t hanging about either.

I was starting to pull away from the guys on the ascent to Cir Mhor.  The mist was starting to clear near the Saddle and the views were spectacular.  Not that anyone could enjoy the scenery as it’s pretty much face-in-rock on this ascent. It’s like climbing up a wall. I know it’s a bitch because I’ve done it twice before, so was mentally prepared for the torture.  And bagged myself a little Strava crown too. 

It was a shame to miss the views up to Caisteal.  When I saw the global snapping sensation that is Ian Corless hiding behind a rock, cowering from the elements, I felt disappointed that he wasn’t going to see the full beauty of the route.  On his post race podcast interview with RD Casey, he promised to return with good weather next year. 

I checked in with the poor souls charged with the Caistel marshal point and headed on the long descent to North Sannock.   It was long before I saw the ever-smiling Rob Sinclair on his way back up to Caisteal for the second time.

He’s definitely right up there as one of the best ultra-runners in the UK just now.  His triple records on the West Highland Way races were world-class and he’s quite simply one of the loveliest guys you’ll meet.  We exchanged a few shrieking mutual gratifications, high-fived and I continued on the muddy descent to the river crossing.

On the flats it’s a manky, slippy and tussocky bog fest.  But I needn’t have worried about the mud, as there was a thigh deep river crossing to wash it all off.  Mid river-crossing I met my club mate, Grant MacDonald coming the other way.  We were standing on parallel rocks hilariously trying to high five and we both nearly fell up.  I gave up with slimey rock jumping and just waded through on the basis that it was just safer.

I was high-fiving and cheering everyone that was passing on the return leg from the checkpoint.  It was more for my benefit though, because if I’m chipper externally then I’m happy and positive on the inside too. 

Katie went passed less than ½ mile from the checkpoint looking strong and smooth.  I was mentally trying to work out how far she was ahead of me.  Maybe six or seven minutes.  When I got to the checkpoint, Ruth Stanley was standing there sorting out her drop bag.  I hadn’t even seen her from the start, so she must have been way ahead.  Quick top up on the ActiveRoot and back out I went. 

I was enjoying the out-and-back section, because you can gauge where you are in the race.  This is after all when the real race starts.  But also there was a lot of energy from the other runners. 

I was just focusing on maintaining my position.  I knew I was moving fine and still overtaking other guys.  I felt like I still had loads of energy and was mentally all over it, but I was aware that I could have easily fuck it all up with a fall or neglecting to take in any fuel.

I tinkered over the boggy ground like an old women but once I hit the ascent to Sail an Im I was on a mission.  Strong power hiking, running the bits I should be running and not slacking off.  Don’t get comfortable.  Focus.  Don’t lose positions. 

As the route bends around Garbh Choire, I could see Katie in the distance. On the steep rocky climb to Caisteal I was gaining on her and she knew it, but there was no way she was going to back down.  She’s a feisty one.

Peaking Caisteal and hitting the 1000ft rocky descent to Garbh Chore Dubh, this is when Katie turned on her superpower.   Everything I’d worked to gain in the ascent was gone in about two minutes.  She was off.

I was passing lots of Tarsuinn Trail runners who were on the ascent to Caisteal and was taking lots of energy from interactions with them, but at the same time as keeping an eye on Katie.  And having those usual internal conversations with myself << You don’t know until you try.  Being second is a great achievement.  You don’t know until you try.  You’re not a hill runner, Katie is.  You don’t know until you try.  Don’t let third place catch you >>

As the route skirts round the mountain on the way to Beinn Tarsuinn, I was gaining on Katie every minute.   We were about 20ft apart for around two miles.  Then when I closed in before the climb up, she just stepped off the path and let me pass.  I signalled for her to come with me.  But before long I couldn’t hear any footsteps.  Surely she’s not going to give up this easy?

I then passed Mark Whooler who was going in hard with some Scottish tablet - the local runner’s crack cocaine.  After about five minutes the route zig zags slightly, so I was able to take a peek behind to see how far Kaite was.  You know, the sneaky side eye peek without moving my head tactic.  I couldn’t see her.

The ascent went on for way longer than I remember.  Clambering up boulders, squeezing through tight spaces.  I was feeling a bit wobbly on feet and my legs were tingling on the cusp of cramping, so was concentrating on moving quickly so I didn’t stumble back.

I was using two guys in the Tarsuinn Trail race to help keep pace.  I’ll just clip on behind them. As the trail plateaus at the peaks I passed them, but they soon overtook me on the descent.

After some self praise for having no accidents thus far, I tripped on a rock, decked it and my legs instantly jerked into cramped.  I’d hit me knee on the way down, as my instincts were to protect an already sore hand from a fall a few weeks prior. I didn’t even notice my knee was bleeding until further on the descent, so it definitely looked worse than it was.

I kept telling myself to focus on getting to Glen Rosa. If I got to the flat stuff still in the lead, it was in the bag. I still felt energised and knew I had enough for the road section.  During one of my recces I had to dig in during the last few miles to make it back to Brodick to make the ferry off the island.  So I could the exact same in the race.  Plus I’ve overhead Katie telling another runner she really disliked the road section in the Goat Fell hill race.  So sorry, Katie.  But you gave me that one for free.

Now my focus was on not cramping.  And trying to get my legs to move smoothly, but I’m so shite on bog and thick grass.  The Tarsuinn guys were hardly breaking pace and I could only manage a little more than awkward jog

At the river crossing, one of the guys stepped back and held out his hand to help me across.  I was so thankful, as my legs were all over the place.  I like to think of myself as a fiercely independent women, but I can also ham up the damsel in distress when it suits me. 

I was so glad to go out of the bog and tackle the awkward descent to the bridge.  It’s pretty fast running from there, but my brain was frazzled and I had a terrible fear of falling which kept me vigilant. 

Less than 5km to go.  I wasn’t going to use ‘just a parkrun to go’ because that’s the worst analogy ever.  I had to just keep running.  No heroics required, as I was fairly confident I was moving OK to hold off any positions.  Just plugging away on forward motion, it wasn’t long before I was along the beachfront and could see the finish gantry.

It was amazing to be part of such a great race.  I was buzzing the whole way.  One of those rare days when your head and legs are in the right place.  The vibes and spirit from the other competitors was really uplifting. 

With Katie Henderson
Thanks to the organisers and amazing volunteers.  I’d love to go back next year and run the full course.  I doubt I’ll be defending my title.  I am under no illusion that a hill runner with a hunger for endurance will destroy that course.  I hope this year’s events have raised awareness of the race and attracts a lot of speedsters to the island.  Rob’s performance was again world-class.  And if he rocked up again, he’d be hard pushed to be beat

Rob Sinclair (Salomon UK) 4:20:54
Stewart Whitlie (Carnethy) 5:11:44
Michael Reid (Carnethy) 5:25:07

Debbie Martin-Consani (Garscube) 6:24:59
Katie Henderson (Deeside Runners) 6:34:30
Ruth Stanley (Shettleston Harriers) 6:59:15