Monday, 20 November 2017

tweed valley ultra

I really didn't want to run a 40 mile race in the rain or horizontal sleet, so held off till the last minute before entering this event. On Tuesday it looked like the high pressure that has been giving us blue skies and frosty mornings would hold out till Sunday evening - just long enough to get this done in decent conditions. I signed up and the weather held. In fact it would be hard to imagine better weather for what turned out to be quite a day.

Fergus had also signed up for the 65k, the longer of the 2 options, and so I was able to get a lift with him to Glentress Bikey Place just beyond Peebles where the race started. One of the problems with a Winter Ultra is there are only so many hours of daylight. So they have to start ungodly early. We arrived there not fully awake just before 7am: race start 7.30. I deeply hated having to set the alarm for a figure with a 4 at the front of it and lay in bed feeling sick when it went off. 

I hoped I had remembered everything. I had heard good things about High Terrain Events, but their pre-race email sounded overly serious (1 hour time penalty if you fold your race number! Yikes!) and had a long list of mandatory kit, including blister plasters, wound dressing, headtorch and spare batteries for headtorch. I was fairly sure I wouldn't be using a headtorch but still carried an old small one and spare batteries. However all this was contrary to the bunch of people organising on the day - I guess they relaxed a tad when the weather turned out fine. And right enough if it had been bad weather things can go wrong and people could die up on these hills. I missed a lot of the race briefing as the queue for 2 toilets was a continual 8 deep. Another problem with early starts and another reason I no longer have any interest in Glen Ogle 33. Leaving Edinburgh at 5am does not agree with my internal combustion. Anyway I just had time to scoff a protein bar before we were herded to the start line and set off at exactly 7.30. (Also did everyone get the technical t-shirt promised in the email? I don't remember being offered one or even seeing one, but it could easily have been me - I wasn't properly awake till about mile 10.)

Initially we went up the hill and into the woods on a pretty but steep single track. This was a surprise to me. I had done a recce of the middle 25 miles but hadn't checked the start and finish. The pace was not bad, most starting very moderately and I found myself working through the top ten and into the top five or 6 who ran in a bunch once the trails widened. And even for a brief moment edged into the lead on a downhill section dropping out of the woods. However places are meaningless in the first few miles of a long run and the going was fairly casual with runners chatting and places swapping regularly. 


The sun was still behind the hills when we set off and although it was light enough not to require a headtorch the camera was struggling and would only take blurry shots (I wasn't going to stop for a pic) until we got out the trees. Hugh came up and ran alongside which made for a cheery couple of miles. I was sorry to hear of his troubles and that he hadn't really been putting in decent training for this event. I suspected this was the case as he finished behind me at the Skyline a few weeks ago. Fergus had started beside me but after a short while dropped back a bit. He was not fully fit suspecting he was suffering from a bug or virus. Not a good way to start a 40 miler. (There was an opportunity up the hills to change from the 65k to the 50k and he was one of 5 folk who took it.)

Cheery Hugh with Fergus perhaps behind
Fergus has a distinctive running style but I'm not sure it's that distinctive!

Now these 2 photos were taken within seconds. You can either expose for the sky (below) or the ground (above). But not both unless you use bracketing or HDR which I was not going to set up while running.

One thing I was prepared to stop for was the Suunto. Only once it was going could I turn it to sat-nav mode. I had uploaded the gpx file High Terrain had put on the website (an excellent help) into my Suunto which meant once I pushed the right sequence of buttons a little arrow appears in the centre of the watch and the line to follow moves from the top of the screen to the bottom. And you can zoom out to show the whole route if required. If you are approaching a junction it becomes obvious which way to go. I also wanted to toggle between this function and the normal readout of distance and pace. I had been practising how to do this the day before at Gullane because if you press the wrong button you stop recording data (I did on the recce.) However I stayed in sat-nav mode pretty much all race and just got the distance readout from the mile number bleeping up at the start of every mile. 

This was how much ground I lost dicking around with the Suunto.
Able to make it up in 300 yards

Now as it turns out the course was excellently marked. They had said no navigation was necessary and it is surely a great relief for the navigationally challenged (and those without sat-nav facility) that this is the case - it was what had drawn me to the event. After 20 miles at race pace I have trouble comprehending road signs never mind fine tuning a map, a compass bearing and contour lines. And you never find out till too late if someone's idea of no nav required matches your own ineptitude. So it was great reassurance to have an arrow and a line to follow the whole way.

There were a few miles of Tweedside tarmac and cyclepath before we crossed the river and (after CP1) into Cardrona Forest. Things got fun quickly and we headed up this steep track and across the forest to emerge and run parallel to the Tweed before joining the Southern Upland Way at Traquair then heading up the BIG HILL. The sun was blasting us full in the face and everything was magic!

approaching Traquair

A few folk had eased ahead, I could no longer see the leaders but reckoned I was just inside the top ten. On the upside when I heard a mile bleep I thought it would be about 4 and it was 9. Which was a good sign. I wasn't pushing things but cruising along at a reasonable pace. When we got to Traquair there was a village hall or church that we went into only to find cups of water and people setting up the aid station. I drank some water quickly then headed back out wondering why runners seemed to be hanging around. I had overtaken the young dude who had started at my pace but gone on ahead. He caught up as we set off up the BIG HILL. 

I had done the 2 miles of (1200') ascent out of Traquair on the recce and it took me 35 minutes but I was stopping for photos and to admire the heather sculpture towards the top. I was not looking forward to it but know the scenery improves as you climb and once passed you can tick off another obstacle completed.

Just had a look at the Suunto readout and it took 28mins
from bottom of hill to top.

There follows some rocky paths with frozen mud until you meet up with the Feel the Burns course at Minch Moor. The 50k course has already turned off left (there was a marshal there) heading down towards Glenbenna and Walkerburn. We pass Hare Law then climb Brown Knowe before the long descent and contour along to the Three Brethren.

The Three Brethren

another rocky descent

My shoes, Hoka Speedgoat 2s were excellent. However with all the fast descents I could feel a hot spot on my left big toe knuckle. By the time you feel that, unless you stop and put a compeed on, it's already too late. I tried to do all the braking with my right foot and just let my left foot coast but I lost a bit of skin by the end of the race. Apart from that, the Hokas were excellent. I felt sorry for those (including Fergus) who wore hill shoes, as there was just too many miles of tarmac. And the hills were not soft but frozen hard and with harsh rocky trails a lot of the time. So it benefited greatly to be wearing a shoe with cushioning and grip. I didn't see anyone "bold" enough to be wearing minimal shoes, running flipflops, vibram 5 fingers or any of those other items, fashionable for beaches and groomed fairways but not real world trail running in winter.

I had noticed a dude in mostly black catching up from before the 3 Brethren. At this single track descent I stopped to catch my breath and let him whiz by. I couldn't understand where he had been till now, as he passed at a good lick and although I kept him in sight for a while, less than a mile later I never saw him again.

Shortly after this point where the trail meets the riverside road at Yair, I put my camera away in anticipation of CP3. Obvs I had been asleep in class again, as it didn't appear until a few miles later at Peel. I had been feeling very low and was hoping a refuel would help. I had been eating various bars but when racing I never have much of an appetite and have to force stuff down. So lots of the course is missing from this section because the camera was put away. I also fished out 3 paracetamols and knocked them back. I was concerned it was only halfway through the race and I felt pretty poor. Then again I'd just raced 20+ miles over rough ground, what did I expect? And I find that in longer races; you deteriorate to a point of pain and misery, and wonder how you will survive. However the pain and misery don't get any worse and sometimes lift slightly. So you go through good patches and bad patches and count off the miles as they go by. You probably won't die so suck it up and push on! At the Check Point I caught back up to the young dude, who was taking his time to consume things. Good idea. But I grabbed my drop bag liquid breakfast drink and headed out, drinking it as I went. 

In the past I have dabbled with Muller Rice tubs (something I never eat between ultras) and various homemade concoctions in cup-flasks. Recently I came across these liquid breakfast cartons that provide protein, fibre and vitamins and they seem to work well. I forced myself over the next mile to drink a chocolate Fuel breakfast drink (20g protein). They are not too sweet and don't leave that bad a taste in your mouth. And much easier to race than a sandwich.

Further along the road you take a left on a large trail then another left on a small trail. I would have missed both these turn-offs on the recce had I not had the benefit of the Suunto sat-nav. They were both well marked on race day. I was delighted the organisers thought fit to have us run up a small dirt trail into the woods rather than follow the main riverside drag. It showed a love of adventure right there. And made for a more fun journey. And when you're having fun, the miles go by quicker.

second turn-off left into the trees!

zooming down here so fast the pic is blurred

My pal Neil lives in a wooden house in Glenbenna, which we run right past. I had tried to guesstimate what time I'd be going past, thinking the distance was about 30 miles. I had said 12.30. In fact it was just over 29 miles and I was there about 11.50. He must have been watching, as he came out as I arrived and took a pic. I promised to make more of a visit next time and dashed off. It gave me a big lift even though I wasn't able to eat the banana he thoughtfully offered. It was good to be on the homeward journey and my legs still felt pretty good. Also I was now overtaking the tailend 50k-ers and that was also fun, saying hello and having a bit of interaction. (They started 30mins behind us but missed ten miles of the middle section.)

Further along the riverside was CP4. The last chance to fuel up for the final 10 miles. I was keen to maybe make up a few more places. The marshal at the last CP said I was in ninth with the young lad eighth. I met him again at CP4. I wasn't in conversational mood though and barked my number, from a distance, at the helpers before realising they weren't going to hand me my dropbag. Just point me at the pile. But they were laid out in order and it was easy to find my last breakfast drink. A fruit flavoured one and a bit strange, I took a few mouthfuls then binned it and ran on. I took a couple squares of fudge and trusted I could do 10 miles on fumes. This was maybe about the only mistake I made in the whole race as I ran short of fuel in the last couple of miles. However I left the station feeling strong and headed over the bridge and through the woods feeling a bit confused by the not-very-obvious route. The next mile was over very lumpy grass and I was glad to get to the tarmac cyclepath (Tweed Valley Railway Path) that followed. However we then had an awful lot of tarmac and it just went on and on. The path started at mile 33 and it was another 5 miles of humdrum flat road run before we crossed the road and climbed the hill at mile 38. Somewhere along the way my youthful companion dropped off the pace. I tried to keep pushing the pace and felt I was doing 7minute miles but Mr. Suunto says it was more like 8.40

I passed this guy, David and said hello. He said you are Peter Buchanan and I read your blog. I said thank you and now you can be in it. And it all came true!

I found it slightly worrying that I'd see 50k-ers ahead and they would be running slowly. I was running swiftly and like the wind but would take ages to catch up and overtake. Something in the space time continuum was broken and I hoped it wasn't me. I did enjoy having slower moving targets to aim at though and it helped keep my focus.

When we did eventually get a change of scene it was like out the frying pan and into the fire. Again I was unfamiliar with this part of the course and although all the info was there in the maps and route profile (and we had run it in reverse just 6 hours ago) I had mistaken this bit for a little hill a few undulations then down to the finish. It was probably not helped by running low on fuel but this hill was long and steep and just awful. I decided early on to run the whole thing rather than slow to a walk. However I seemed to be running on the spot and that hill just kept on coming.


and yet more

and yet more

And then I looked behind for a change of view and saw some bastard legging it up the hill within catching distance. I took a second look to double check he was a 50k-er and couldn't see the band of blue on his number that marked him for a 65k-er. Oh well that's ok. Sort of. A second later he was at my shoulder calling out my name. It was Neil R and he was FAR too chipper. When I replied with a singular expletive to his enquiry as to how I was doing, he asked why. I didn't have the energy to explain I'd just run 39 miles and was about to expire. Now that shouldn't have been a surprise to him as on closer inspection he did have a blue band on his number and he romped off saying see you at the finish. Just a moment ago I was fairly sure I'd left the young lad behind me and was now in 8th. I had been thinking I'd prefer an odd number to an even, (that 7th might be preferable). I was going to get my wish but it would be 9th. I was too tired to work out how I felt about this, Neil is a star of the ultra world so there was no surprise in his going past, (only that he left it so late). Nor could I do anything about it. He put 5mins between us in less than 2 miles. It was just him looking and sounding so fresh, like maybe he had run 4 or 5 miles earlier. 

I realised I was falling to bits and fished out the last of my fudge. I chewed it down and felt it going into my bloodstream. I realised I was not home and dry and disgrace was as close as the finish line. I didn't really go any faster but nor did I trip over the roots and stones on the final descents into Glentress which would be all too easy. 

Even in my near death state I still appreciated the effort of the whoever felt the wee wobbly path would be better than the big old road. Mary and I ran these paths many moons ago and it left a trail in the recesses of my brain. Nearly home. I was still taking pics which is a good sign. 

and just for fun a nice steep hill to finish

thank goodness

Despite what Neil was telling me after the finish the results say I was 9th to his 8th. Very pleased with a top ten finish. I just got in before the first woman who would have overtaken if it was half a mile longer. And more alarming, the second MV50 was only 2.5mins behind. I bet he made up a load of ground over the last couple of miles. Anyway I got 1st 50 which they were kind enough to give me before prizegiving as Fergus was keen to head off. Now I realise it is superbly crass to complain about the quality or quantity of a prize so perhaps I'll just say, particularly in regard of the £50 entry fee, that I look forward to going to Run4 It with the £10 token and choosing a sock.

Before this event I said I was having doubts about the wisdom of racing it. Because I really enjoyed the recce and I doubted the race would be as good. I was right. I love being out on a good course and the recce was all the good bits of this without the bad. If you are doing it as a fun run try taking the train to Gala and doing the middle section, heading west along the riverside bit to Traquair then up into the hills for the return to Yair, returning to Gala. It doesn't involve all those tarmac miles.

The weather on race day was fabulous. I did feel it was a shame not to be able to stop and compose a photo and I know there was a lot of scenery shouting at me panto-style, "it's behind you!" Mostly I'd like to thank the organisers for putting this on and for all the arrows being in the right places. They are doing it as a business though and so it maybe doesn't have some of the love you might get when a running club puts on an event. But I get the feeling their hearts are in right places, with reservation, and that they have put on a real adventure here. Just wear shoes with a bit of grip and a bit of cushioning.

So while I'd give this one the thumbs up, I probably wouldn't be tempted back. But I think that is more about where my head is these days. I'd rather plan my own adventures and do them at an enjoyable pace with time to take photos and chat with friends along the way. And be able to walk the next day instead of having 2 planks of wood, and having phone in my apologies I'll not be at work today.