GUIDE: Lessons from my first ultra marathon
Updated: Jul 1, 2020
Running to Tyndrum*
The night before the race I was feeling extremely excited, happy and impatient. It had been a long time since I last worked this hard for something and anticipated pushing my limits. It is a great feeling to attempt to achieve something that you have no idea if you can possibly succeed at.
Max, however, was having a evening full of self doubt, apprehension and fear of disappointment. Still injured he was unsure he would finish the race. I asked him to run with me until Rowerdennen (Mile 27) and then see how his ankle felt. At least he would have run a marathon.
Three miles in, Max became impatient with my 11 min mile pace and with a kiss good bye he ran off into the wilderness. I would not see him again for another 12 hours and 20 minutes.
Max and I maybe a team, but we each need to run our own race.
Max doing his thing*
Nervous to be running into the unknown alone I spent the next 2 miles catching up with a group of guys (Mike, Norrie, Neil and Martyn) Max and I had shared a dinner with when staying in Tyndrum a month earlier in our trip. As we all ran together other runners came and went, sometimes running with us for tens of miles, some only a couple hundred metres, but I remember everyone I spoke to in the race.
Running in a group gave me company, pacing and as the millage increased, essential support.
The running up to around 16 miles was relatively easy, the weather was gorgeous, but as I reached Conic hill I began to feel unexpectedly awful. A calm and logical voice in my mind let me know that maybe I needed to deal with this. I carried an emergency hydration tablet in my pack so I added it to my water and drank it as I climbed the 500m ascent. I instantly felt better. Later in the race Neil will drop out at mile 44 due to cramps, it is important to take on salts early on.
Ascending Conic Hill
Be aware of your body and act early.
I had written out a race plan, with timings, and found I had arrived at the first check point (Balmaha) an hour ahead of schedule. I was a bit concerned, but felt awesome so did not worry too much. I met the Beta running team support there and as I didn’t have my own support they helped me refill my bottles and gave me an update on Max’s progress. I found it heart warming entering the checkpoints, seeing all the volunteers and support and families there for the runners. The checkpoints are a place where you are in amongst large crowds and almost a connection to society again after running in near seclusion for hours. The next stage of the race was 7.5 miles to the half waypoint. However, this took nearly an hour LONGER than I had planned due to the undulating terrain. Thankfully I was an hour up on my schedule so as I arrived into Rowerdennen and well in front of cut off.
Just because there is a lack of contours, take into account undulating terrain when planning your timeline and pacing.
Running with the guys meant I had to be super fast out of the check points when grabbing my drop bags and tended to stuff my food into my bum bag and then carrying extra with me. The guys would wait for me, but obviously would not wait while I sat and had a picnic. This was excellent as it is all too easy to lose time at checkpoints.
At check points, grab your bag, refill water and get out. You can eat and walk and still make progress.
The next section of the course was unknown territory, this was the furthest I had ever run, but I found running OK up to mile 34, then it started to get hard. By mile 37 I was walking, as was everyone else around me. Conversation halted and the group began to split up, by mile 39 we were no longer running together. Mike had pushed on and Neil was cramping badly. Walking hurt as much as running, so I started running again. The final check point was Beinglas farm, I had told myself if I got there, then I could finish. On arrival I knew I was empty and 12 miles was still a long distance to cover, and it was up hill. At the previous check point my drop bag had been misplaced, so I was extremely relieved to find my final bag was there. After downing a coconut water, 2 cups of flat coke, a bottle of water and a diaroltye I began eating whatever was handed to me, including crisps, frubes and cake. The support for another runner adopted me, filling my water, feeding me and tidying up my rubbish. He was so lovely and told me to call him Uncle Jack! I bumped into the Beta running team again, but they had not seen Max so I didn’t get an update. It had now been 10 hours since we left Milngavie. I accidently stayed at the checkpoint too long, missing Martyn and Neil leaving. Eventually I resigned to the fact I had to leave the food and friendly faces, and leave alone.
Left to right: Martyn, Mike, me & Neil
Pack lots of ‘real’ food, with plenty of choice to satisfy cravings late in the race.
I put my iPod on and got my head down and walked. My right IT band was causing a lot of shooting pain making my leg not work too well, I sort of had to swing it to walk. At this point of the race everyone offers up words of support for each other, even though they themselves feel just as much hurt as you. I was having a terribly low moment and a lot of negative thoughts, worrying Max might not be ok, and began to feel overly emotional. I phoned Max and as soon as he told me he had already finished (!?!) my mood lightened and I was filled with determination to finish and see him again. With Macklemore’s ‘Can’t hold us’ on my iPod I took a caffeine gel and ran!
Be prepared for irrational thoughts and intense emotion as exhaustion kicks in. Dig deep and you can push through it.
Max finishing in 10 hours*
I started running 8 min miles through the ‘roller-coaster’ forest 5 miles out of Tyndrum shouting internally at myself ‘IT IS ONLY PAIN!’ At 3 miles to go I called Max to tell him I was 30 minutes away and downed two more gels.
Do NOT consume 3 caffeinated gels within 30 minutes.
My chest hurt. I did not want to tell anyone I had chest pain, at 2 miles to go I was finishing this race. I passed Norrie (I had not seen him since the sumit of Conic Hill) and met Martyn who told my Neil had dropped out. I was deeply gutted for him. I started running again desperate to see the finish, and rounded a corner to hear the sound of bagpipes and saw Neil in his normal clothes ready to cheer his teammates in. Holding down the sobs I arrived at the red carpet and searched the crowd for Max. I finished the race, promptly burst into tears and was greeted by hugs, medals, soup, champagne and then Max stuffed me into a shower and then into a physio tent to sort my ITB.
Absolute relief to reach the finish*
Have a recovery plan and eat as soon as you can on finishing. I felt worst in the hours post race than I did at any point in the race.
It was a truly amazing experience. I am so grateful to the people I met and ran with and everyone involved in the organization of the Hoka Highland Fling 53 mile Race.
10. All you need to finish an ultra is to turn up with some consistent running in the bank, and decide before you start that you will finish.
*Photos by Monument Photos