Strathearn Marathon (& post-mortem on a difficult run)

best marathon mascot ever? keen eyes will notice that the squirrel has excellent taste in footwear 😉

On Sunday, I ran the Strathearn Marathon. It turned out to be a challenging day. I’m still disappointed with how it all went down. That said, I’ve gathered some thoughts now that my head is in a (slightly) better place than it has been.

First off, it needs said that the Strathearn Marathon is fantastic event. I cannot fault any aspect of how the Strathearn Harriers organise this one.  It has the friendly vibe of a smaller club race, but there are many perks that you wouldn’t get at a big city marathon for a fraction of the entry fee. In addition to a man-sized squirrel, there’s a personalised drinks service! It’s a rare chance to feel like a pro as a volunteer calls out your name and hands you your bottle as your run past.  There are bagpipers on the route who offer a shot of inspiration on the early hills (or, depending on your perspective on bagpipes, impetus to run quicker to escape?). The home baking and sandwiches at the finish were delicious. The marshals were stoked to be there, genuinely helpful and encouraging. And, as I found out, the first-aid team were attentive to struggling runners.

The course begins and ends at the Cultybraggan Camp (it held WWII POWS — a fascinating history). It’s a unique and slightly surreal setting for a race. The Perthshire scenery is stunning. It’s one of my favourite places in Scotland and the B roads look even better on foot than they do through a windshield.


As for the course, it doesn’t exactly lend itself ultra-fast time because it takes in 450m of climb (1,500ft for you who deal in old money).  With the considerable ups and downs, this marathon gives runners a course that needs to be run on its own terms. No doubt the experience returning runners bring to this one will pay dividends.

It all started so well. I had completed the training programme without injury or illness and felt great on the morning before the race. I ran comfortably for the first half. More than that, actually. I felt like I was running well within my limits and quickly slotted into an effortless rhythm after the initial hill. The kilometres started ticking by at satisfyingly consistent intervals.


There is a killer of a hill at 24k.  Looking at the route profile is one thing, but it’s another thing to experience the thing in real life.  I thought the earlier hills would be tougher than they actually were, but this one felt ridiculously steep. At this point I was still feeling fairly confident and took the hill sensibly given the gradient.  It was on the descent that things went awry.

a moment of joy before the crash (thanks to Strathearn Harriers for this shot)

On the way down I felt excruciating pain in both of my legs, which came out of nowhere.  Not localised pain, just all over.  Everything began to cramp.  My toes started curling and I had difficulty just moving my legs, leaden and stiff. I’ve never experienced anything like it. I took the pace right down, sucked a gel that had salts, but to no avail.  And that was the story for rest of the race: a painful and stiff-legged 19k slog to the finish. I had to slow to a walk regularly, even though my “run” had slowed to little more than walking pace shuffle.  Apparently my stagger looked so bad that a concerned fellow racer told a marshal to come to my aid.  The kind first-aider on a bike gave me some water and a gel and suggested that I pull out of the race. Or that if I decided to plod on, “Just don’t do anything stupid, pride isn’t worth it!”  I was tempted to give up. In retrospect, that might’ve been the wiser option?  With all my goals having quickly evaporated at this point, I gave my self a revised target of simply getting around before the 6hr cut-off. I honestly wasn’t sure if I’d make that, but it got me moving my dead legs in the right direction.

The final few kilometres were agony.  The cheers from the folk in the Cultybraggan Camp gave me a boost and it was great to see my wife at the finish line.  My kids apparently wanted to run over the finish with me, but I took so long that they got bored waiting so were playing football in the field!  I was a wreck coming over the line, physically and mentally: mildly pleased that I managed to finish, but bitterly disappointed with how badly my race had unfurled.

It was hard to accept well-meaning congratulations from friends after the race. “It’s still an accomplishment!” “You managed to push through the pain and finish!” I’m sure it is an accomplishment. But it really didn’t, and still kind of doesn’t, feel that way.  I’m disappointed and that’s that (even though I know that nobody else is disappointed). When I was less fit last year, I ran the marathon distance during training run that was quicker.  I went into the race knowing that I could run a marathon.  The goal was to run the thing well, not just finish; I already knew I could do that. Part of me feels like the commitment to training, the hard early morning runs, lung busting speed sessions, just evaporated.  All the hard graft, all the post-race pain, but without any of the satisfaction to make it feel worth it.

When I ran my 50k, I just did the thing for the craic. I had no expectations, just to cover the distance in one go, to see if I could cover the distance in one go. Preparing for Strathearn was totally different. I had an tangible goal in mind (a 3:30hr to 4:00hr window), one that I knew would be more difficult than just being a “finisher.”  I was well on course for that until the cramp hit.  If I had set an easier goal (say, 4:30hr), maybe I would’ve achieved it. But there’s little satisfaction in reaching a goal where there’s no risk involved. It’s a gamble I willingly took and it didn’t work out the way I planned.

Of course, all the training hasn’t been for nothing. Through the process of marathon training, my running has improved drastically. I’ve dropped over a minute off both my 5k and 10k PBs. This isn’t nothing. I also have a better idea of the kind of pace that I can sustain and perhaps a more realistic understanding of my limits.

I don’t want to make excuses. There’s no doubt that I didn’t manage the weather well. 96% humidity isn’t a thing to be scoffed at and, in retrospect, I should’ve taken the pace down a few more notches. I trained in warm weather, but not that kind of thick muggy stuff. Who knows, even with pace adjustments, maybe the outcome would’ve been the same.  That’s the thing: there are an infinite number of irritating what-ifs swirling about in my head.

For now, I’ll focus on what went well and learn from what went wrong — once I properly figure out the reasons for that! The first half of the race was a cracker. The scenery was stunning.  I’ll never cease to have my faith in humanity restored by other runners – so many people gave me words of encouragement and water or slowed down (sacrificing their own times) to check if I was okay.


Training for a marathon is a strange thing. There’s a considerable time commitment that creates this tunnel-vision focus over a 12 week training bloc.  To train well, it’s inevitable that the race gets blown a little out of proportion – it’s constantly there on the horizon. Generally speaking, waking up for a 3hr long run along the canal at 6am in the rain isn’t number one on my list of fun morning activities. But I went out and did it because I know it needed to be done. There’s also a balancing act of pushing oneself, but also not over doing it. That meant opting out of other things (like a number of hill races) for the sake of the marathon.

struggling into the finish

In reality, my “target time” is just an arbitrary number and not particularly impressive in any objective sense. On a perfect day, a flat course, and without injury, I still feel confident that I could run 26.2mi in 3:30min. The Strathearn Marathon is not flat and Scottish weather is seldom perfect in June, but I believe a sub-4hr time on that course remains a reasonable goal.

At the end of the day, it was my first road marathon and 4:45:49 is my new marathon PB. One that shouldn’t be too difficult to better in the future.

I’ll just have to go back next year and see what happens…


post-race cool down in the kid’s paddling pool


Since writing this, I’ve received some encouraging comments from one of the coaches at Springburn Harriers and my pal Mark (an accomplished sub-3hr marathoner himself), which are worth sharing:

Damian: “…That is beauty (and pain) of marathon running for you – you’ve got to put all your eggs in one basket ( that 1 race day) – when it all works brilliant – when it doesn’t – get to the finish, recover for a few weeks and plan the next one!”

Mark: “…it’s wonderful to run a race and see all your targets smashed, but there is a sense in which the accomplishment of finishing when it goes horribly wrong, when all your erstwhile targets are laughing at you and telling you it’s no longer worth it, finishing without ego basically, is even greater. And it’s only really marathon distances that can humble even the well-trained and experienced in this way. As for doing another, it would surely be a shame not to apply such a gruelling education ;)”


A (late) 2017 Running Round-Up


Here’s a bunch of posts shoved into one! New things at work, sick kids, and taking on some new responsibilities (some freelance teaching and training) have kept me from the blog. Yes, I’m still running and have carved out some time to get back to the blog here more regularly. As follows are some pieces that I only half-finished and never posted. Here they are:


On the joys of “Advent Running”:

In the mad season before the holiday break, in reality the whole of December, everything is too busy. Work is too busy. Home life is too busy. The kids are too busy with their Christmas presentations and parties. So at first glance, it seems odd that for the past three Decembers I’ve given myself something else to do on top of all that: Advent Running.

Put simply, the challenge of Advent Running is to run (or some other form of exercise) for 30min every day leading up to and including Christmas. The Guardian did a piece on it, which you can read here. There are a number of other similar challenges, like the popular Marcothon.

Back in 2015, taking part in Advent Running was when I shifted from seeing running merely as a cost-effective (if not dull) form of exercis, to having a major psychological shift where I started to enjoy the act running itself. December, at first glance, seems a strange time to #FallInLoveWithRunning because the weather is awful and it’s dark and there’s not enough time… and you get the gist.

The challenge of a run streak, however, turns battling the elements into an adventure. An online community that has formed around the slight-madness of trying to run 25 in 25. The Advent Running group on Facebook is a nexus of bonhomie, where people of all abilities support each other in the pursuit of trying to live a little healthier over the holidays. I’ll admit that I’m inclined to cynicism and melancholic by nature. Yet I don’t find the support of fellow Advent Runners cheesy or contrived (like that forced smile of the waitress last time I was in an IHOP). So much is wrong in the world and there’s a lot to be angry about and many reasons to be sad — something a tumultuous 2017 has only confirmed. The Advent Running community is something that reminds me, in the midst of everything, how good people can be and that there is a lot of joy to be found in the everyday. The ability to share what might seem like inconsequential victories and stumbles (“I had a terrible week, but I at least managed to get out the door for a 5k in the rain…”) feels liberating. As Boris Pasternak once wrote, “And so it turned out that only a life similar to the life of those around us, merging with it without a ripple, is genuine life, and that an unshared happiness is not happiness.” Maybe that’s making too much into it, but if so, I wonder why I’ve kept coming back to it three years in a row?

The other thing about making time to run every day is the realisation that there actually is time. When work leaves me tired, I’ll plop myself on the settee and sucked to a blue-black hole of social media scrolling. Before I know it, it has eaten up a half hour of life. Realistically, I can find time to run. I can also find time to sit and play a game of “Fireman Sam Snap” with my son. It’s a reminder that in the busiest time, there is still time. There’s also the reality that taking a break from the tyranny of urgent workstuff actually makes me more productive.

Here’s to Advent Running!


Race Report: Kirk Craigs Christmas Cracker


My final race of 2017 was the Kirk Craigs Christmas Cracker, a perfect way to cap off a year of running. I was hoping to go under 1hr, but managed 57:48, which was good for me. Still worth saying that only put me 51st out of 73 racers. This stuff is humbling.

Kirk Craigs captures the no-frills thrills and unstated brilliance of hill and fell running. Jonny Muir made this apt observation:


The race stats in a field, goes straight up, and “down to big stone and return via same route.” There was prize giving and homebaking in the village hall afterwards. It was great to catch up with some of my fellow Carron Valley Trail Runners because I haven’t been able to get out for the midweek runs recently.

It’s little brute of a race, packing 536m of climb into 6.8k. It was also my first run in the Ochils and it set the bar pretty high — lovely hills and more mountain like than my local Campsies. The initial quad busting incline is flowed by a glorious fast and flat-ish section along the top that gives that unparalleled feeling I only get when racing in the hills: a sense of presence that come from being immersed in the elements while pushing at the edge of physical ability. It feels a bit like flying. Is that what the cool kids call “flow state?”

me, all festive, at “the big stone” / photo credit: Pat Fitzpatrick (



I ran 1,000 Miles

I’m happy to say that I reached my goal of running 1,000 miles in 2017. It was a fun challenge that Trail Running Magazine put to their readers. A bit like Advent Running, they’ve hosted a virtual community where runners of all abilities can find mutual support, ask questions, and argue about the best shoes.

I was happy to get to 1,000 miles in the end after a number of weeks out due to my adventures with pneumonia and sepsis!

I feel like my running has really progressed this year, so I’m hoping to run 2,018 kilometers in 2018. As I pace and mentally calculate distances in kilometres, I’m happy to set a goal in metric because it means less maths.

I also achieved my goal of completing to 50 parkruns this year. Making sure that I dragged my arse out of bed all those Saturday mornings helped me cross that 1,000 mile finish line.

cheesy photo with the #Run1000Miles pledge — this appeared in the 2018 Run1000Miles supplement!


Some racing, but less racing in 2017!

I did a lot of racing in 2017. I’m going to step back from bigger events. The running community is wonderful, so I’m hoping to give something back and do more volunteering this year.

I signed up for the Strathearn Marathon. I don’t think road marathoning is my “thing” but I’m keen to give it a bash. I think it will set a good marker as to where I’m at with my running. It’s not a flat or fast course (as evidenced by the men’s record being 2.39.33!), but I’d like to run close to 3h 30min, or at least sub-4hr if training or the race day goes pear-shaped. The Strathearn Marathon is my main focus this year. It also means that I have the marathon under my belt, so I can put my name in the hat for bigger races like the Highland Fling in the future.

I also love that this race is organised by the Strathearn Harriers and is good value for money. If I’m honest, I find the cost of bigger city marathons off-putting. Maybe I’m just getting more stingy as I get older?

I’m toying with the idea running of the Ochil Ultra later in October, but we’ll see how training goes and if I’m able to keep my mileage up. If last year taught me anything, it’s the danger of committing to too much. Increasing training and intensity too quickly is the direct route to injury.


Au revoir!


stupid pneumonia


As it turned out, I never managed to run the Great Tartan Skidaddle.  So as of yet, I still haven’t jumped over that “ultra” hurdle.  Which is really frustrating. So my goal of finishing all the races that I enter….?  Will need to rethink that one.

The last week of my taper started so well, aside from waking with a slightly scratchy throat the day it all went pear shaped.

I took an easy run around Colzium Estate and I really enjoyed myself.  My legs felt fresh and I enjoyed exploring the place, which I usually just ignore and head further up the hills or to the top of Tomtian.

But when I got home, I got this raging fever that came out of nowhere, accompanied by the worst headache that I’ve ever experienced, hallucinations in the mix as well.  To make a long story short, I was eventually taken by ambulance to the Royal Infirmary and underwent a series of tests to find out what was wrong.  The doctors were initially concerned that I had meningitis due to the level of infection showing in my blood tests.  Turns out it was (thankfully) “just” pneumonia, but the infection hit me really hard for some reason.

So I spent race day in the hospital on a drip.


I’m thankful for the great care I received from the NHS and that they got to the bottom of what was wrong.  Still, the whole thing was frustrating.  A weekend in the hospital was the last thing I wanted.  Seeing photos of the event online only increased that sense of missing out on something I had been looking forward to for months.

12 weeks of injury-free training. All good.  And this infection seems to have come out of nowhere.  This is the first time anything like this has happened, but it has knocked my confidence a bit.  I suppose it’s one of those freak things that just happen, but now I’ll probably have more “what if” doubts when I embark on another long training plan.  That’s always there when you commit to something like a longer race, but now I know the feeling of disappointment when I can’t even make it to the starting line.

Still, I’m determined to do the race in one way or another.  Once I’m back to full strength (and that could be a while — still on my medication and the doctor ordered at least two weeks of complete rest and then need to ease my way back slowly), I’m going to run the whole Great Tartan Skidaddle course solo, or with some friends.  It won’t be the same, sure, but it’s something that I still really want to do.

I’ve been stuck inside for a week.  Honestly, I’m a bit fed up and can’t wait to get out running again.  But I need to take my recovery seriously so I can get back to what I love.  This in mind, I might also miss out on the ATRX in a month’s time, I just may not be ready.  In that case, I’ll see if I’m well enough to volunteer to take photos or something.  In the meantime, time to enjoy other good things in life.  Resting and listen to lots of good music and reading good books.

Once I’m well though — can’t wait to do the route that I didn’t get to do.  Also thinking that I might be able to put some proper effort toward getting a good time at the Strathearn Marathon…


I’ve attached a few photos from Colzium Estate below.  It’s lovely and seems a bit underused. Worth exploring and a good park if you’ve got little people: