While training for my first ultra, I started listening to a lot of podcasts. They’ve been a total revelation on my long runs and I’ve learned so much. One of the most useful was (and is) Scott Jones’ Becoming Ultra Project. The stories are totally relatable and Scott gives good advice that’s down to earth and doable. Listening to stuff like this doesn’t mean you won’t make mistakes, obviously. But for me, things like Becoming Ultra helps to put the lessons from running misadventures and successes into a context and helps to deepen the learning process.
So it was a real honour to feature on the show to talk about running my first ultra after recovering from pneumonia and early sepsis. I’ve written about the story on the blog before, but different things always come out when you’re talking through the thing. I had fun doing it, I hope you enjoy listening!
Another thing, if you haven’t already subscribed to the Becoming Ultra podcast, you should. I love all the podcasts about elite runners, but there’s something special about hearing about stuff you can really relate to — running and getting sick, trying to fit in training around a full time job and kids… You know, mid-pack runners like you and me.
Also I should say, Scott’s other podcast Athlete on Fire is worth a listen. Great info and interviews with some big names, but like BU, it’s always earthed in reality. Go treat your ears!
On Saturday I finally ran my first ultramarathon. I’m not sure about the technicalities of these things, am I an “ultramarathoner” now? Or is that ultrarunner? I didn’t run an actual race, but I still ran the whole 50 kilometers in one go and followed the exact Great Tartan Skidaddle race route (even up the “kind of pointless hill” according to my fellow runner at the 25k point). Seems legit in my book. So I’ll call myself and ultrarunner now, unless I’m told otherwise.
I ran the entirety of the Great Trossachs Path, from the pier in Inversnaid to the riverside carpark in Callander, 50.3k with 879m of ascent (according to the Garmin stats). Here’s a map of the route and the elevation profile:
It was a decent day to run, but it proper soaking at times. Like, “my waterproof is now sticking to my skin” wet. The worst of the weather came near the beginning of the course as we rounded Loch Katrine after passing Stronachlachar.
Sorry, I just wrote “we” there. I should back up and explain. My pal Norry from the Carron Valley Trail Runners (an experienced and fast ultrarunner) ran the first 40k with me and my long-suffering wife joined me for the last 10k. She met me and Norry at the lovely Glen Finglass Visitor Gateway run by the Woodland Trust (I know others call this Lendrick Hill carpark, but Google maps confusingly brings up the other Lendrick Hill in the Ochils). Norry started to feel a few niggles and didn’t want to exacerbate anything, so he borrowed our car from Glen Finglass and met us at the finish in Callander.
It took me a rather long 6 hours and 20 minutes to run the whole route. I found running so far to be an odd thing mentally. As I started to drop into Callander on the final descent, it felt like I had been in some trippy time-warp. My legs were definitely telling me that I had run into unknown territory (my longest run prior to this was a 4hr and 15min marathon distance run on roads into Glasgow and back). It was as if time had become compressed: I could remember the start by the waterfalls in Inversnaid clearly, everything else was a bit of a blur, and here I was above Callander running to the finish. Yet at other times during the run, it felt interminably long, usually when pouring rain coincided with running uphill. Long and short rolled into one. I don’t know if ultrarunners have some special vocabulary for this feeling?
The weather was what it was, oscillating between showers and sunshine. Far from perfect conditions, but no matter. If you waited for ideal weather in Scotland, you’d never get out on the trails. It made for some dramatic scenery between downpours, wispy clouds clinging to the mountains, lochs appearing and disappearing from view. Amazingly, the last 10k was run in glorious sunshine. A stroke of good fortune, as we could see it pouring on the other side of Loch Venachar in the Achray Forest.
It’s a beautiful route and almost impossible to get lost with the Great Trossachs Path trail markers at all the critical points. It’s a manageable route that’s never too far from civilization. I imagine it would be a good introduction to long distance walking for younger trekkers.
Physically, I was totally spent at the end. Encouragement from Norry and my wife really helped when I was struggling to get my legs turning over. But the exhaustion and tiredness wasn’t anything unbearable. I was quite surprised by how well my body coped. No gut bombs or bonks, nor did I hit the “wall” of marathoning lore. Maybe that was a matter of the conditions and terrain keeping my pace down? Who knows. I’m lucky that my stomach copes fine with gels (I used Wiggle and SiS). I sucked one down every 45min or so to keep up my calorie intake. I had two litres of water in a HydraPak reservoir, carried in my Inov8 Rac Pac 4. No leaks, no uncomfortable rubbing. I had tested all this kit and nutrition before the run, but pleased that it all worked tickety-boo on the day. Oh, I also ate some Beond organic snack bars. I kept them as treats to reward myself with after getting to the top of a hill. Delicious, not to sweet, they taste like “real food” but a lot more convenient to store than a punnet of berries.
Now that I’m on the topic of gear, here’s a bit more geekery: When I rain the Antoine Trial Race half-marathon last year, I wore shorts with the built-in liners. The shower afterwards was agony — imagine scenes like that quintessential scene from Psycho (the screams, not the stabby part). So I got myself some Runderwear and put on some Bodyglide (sorry, not TMI I hope?). I had high expectations and was delighted that they were surpassed. Not a hint of chafage. I mean, none whatsoever. That’s after running 50k in rain, sun, and sweaty humidity. My Saucony Palladium jacket kept the worst of the rain off, it’s super light, and it packs away into nothing. Perfect for a run like this where the weather kept changing. My Tribe Sports top wicked as well as it always does and, again, no chafing — that’s with the added weight of the backpack (no offence to the good people at Tribe, but I got this top in a sale. It was before they went prohibitively expensive in their current “sexy scowling running models with gratuitous bum shots” phase, not sure I fit that image; still, they support parkrun and that’s cool). I wore Skins Active Compression socks. I don’t know if the compression actually does anything, but the fit was great and protected my calves from tussock-scratch. I wore my go-to trail shoes — Saucony Peregrine 5s (actually on my second pair of these shoes, I love them that much). They’re a jack-of-all-trades trail shoe with a fairly aggressive grip and low drop. They do well on the muddy fells and trails, which are my usual playground. I wasn’t sure how they’d do on such a long run, but they were brilliant. They offered just enough support, even on the paved sections. I’d say the Peregrines are jack of all trades and master of all. No blisters, no black toenails, my feet were left remarkably intact.
Despite the general fatigue, my body experienced no real carnage. Granted, 50k is at the lower end of the ultra spectrum and I wasn’t running terribly fast. Anyway, I had tested all my kit and trusted all of it. The adage of “nothing new on race day” holds up. I also spent a lot of time trying to take on the ultrarunning tips from podcasts like Trailrunner Nation and Becoming Ultra. I’ve learned a lot from these podcasts and think that they’ve enhanced my training and preparation. Whether a runner is an elite or not, so many of the things people learn on the trail have universal application. I’m glad trailrunners are so willing to share their stories. The community is very cool in that regard — the honesty and readiness to support each other on the journey.
Did I already mention that I ran a beautiful route? This being a month after my hospitalisation (ugh, yes, I’m going on about the blood infection again like a broken record) it felt wonderful to be well enough to run through such stunning scenery. What a privilege to have this adventure! I wholly enjoyed running my 50k and would love to do the actual Great Tartan Skidaddle next year (it feels like unfinished business… that said, the Kintyre Way Ultra has caught my eye).
My first ultrarunning experience was a good one and I can finally see the attraction. Though I don’t think I’d want to do more than one a year! I’m not that hardcore yet. I’ve put up a few photos from the day below.
I’ve been listening to my body and feel like I need a break now, so I’ve decided no to run the Strathearn Marathon. So now, the focus is on the Ring of Steall Skyrace in September. Time to get my power hike on!