17th March 2012 – D33 Ultramarathon
5:50am, the alarm goes off, my eyes pop open and I immediately sit up and look out of the window to my left to check the weather. The skies are clear, the sun is rising and a new moon hangs low in the sky. Perfect.
I check what’s happening in the world via my phone and read the #D33 hashtag on twitter before getting up. I prepare a coffee, a glass of nuun electrolyte drink and a bowl of porridge with peanut butter.
The coffee goes down a treat even though I’m already wide awake, but the porridge sticks in my throat and I have to force it down. I still feel satisfied from my dinner the night before; eating early in the morning is my least favourite part of a race day.
I go to where my clothes are carefully laid out and put on my race gear. These are my new favourite racing shorts, I like the grey tank top as it’s long enough to cover a tall runner’s tummy, and the blue long sleeve has been a staple in my running wardrobe all winter since I got it at the Fraserburgh Half Marathon in November. Fetch buff, 2XU calf sleeves and Ronhill running gloves.
I double check my drop bags and triple check my fuel. A bottle of powerade and a bottle of water are poured into the Camelbak and the pile on the left gets packed into the pockets – hula hoops, four jaffa cakes, three caffeinated gels, two gummy chews, and a partridge in a pear tree. The pile on the right goes into my half way dropbag along with the remaining bottles. I prepare a final bag with a waist pouch and a pre-mixed bottle of powerade/water for the Fetchpoint at 27 miles as I plan to leave my Camelbak there to keep me strong for the last few miles.
Time is slipping by and already it’s 7:30am. I allow myself one final double check of everything, put on my rucksack with everything in it and step out the front door in to glorious sunlight.
The short walk to the start takes around 15 minutes and gives me plenty of time to shake off any last minute nerves. I listen to upbeat tracks on my iPod and think about how grateful I am to have made it to the morning of the race in one healthy piece and what a great day of running I have ahead of me. I make sure there is no room for negative thoughts in my head as the anticipation grows when I enter the Duthie Park for the first time that day – how am I going to feel the next time I come through these gates? What will it feel like to be completing a 33 mile race and running down this path in a few hours time?
I pass the starting line on my way to registration and another wrench of excitement and nerves twists my stomach. I’m finally here, there is no going back now. I’m about to run my first Ultramarathon.
When I got to registration I was immediately greeted by Race Director George, his glamorous assistant Karen, and Julie of Watching The Trails fame. I quickly got my number and some safety pins and took some time to wander around and say hello to everyone that had already arrived. I don’t think that up until this point I fully appreciated how many people I knew that were involved in this race; either by taking part, marshalling or supporting. If I had any remaining nerves they were quickly banished and hugged away by my friends who were all as equally excited that the day was finally here.
I made sure my drop bags were in the right places and found my parents who had graciously come down to see the early start and cheer us all on. My Dad took a couple of pictures of his fledgling ultramarathoner daughter blinking in the early morning March sunlight, probably wondering what on earth he might have done in my past for me to think that doing this was a good idea:
With George, and his fantastic race director’s shirt:
With some of my gang: L-R Me, Alan, Tommy, Annette, Ian, Donna.
After everyone was registered, George blew a whistle and the 199 starters were summoned to the starting line for the race briefing. I appreciated the warmth of the other runners around me as out of the sun, the air was quite cold. More greetings were exchanged and final good luck hugs issued as George dealt out the race instructions. Next year he needs to get a mega phone as unfortunately I did not hear a word!
After the briefing there was a final few moments wait until the clock finally hit 9am…
photo: Ian Russell
…and we were finally, finally allowed to start our journey to Banchory and back.
Miles 1-8.5 (Checkpoint 1) – 1:27’36
The relief I felt to finally get going was almost tangible. I started in the last quarter of the crowd and held pace with everyone around me until we had left the park. The picture above shows the very start of the old railway line, which is accessible by a ramp just out of shot to the right. There were one or two older ladies walking their dogs who found themselves enveloped in a sea of neon as we passed. Any other early morning users of the railway line were unfortunately sidelined until the pack had passed them, however most seemed to happily join in the cheering as we went on our way.
My parents had left the starting area before the gun went to get a good spot a little way up the route to take some pictures. They picked the old Holburn Railway station which gave them a great (and safe!) elevated view of us all as we streaked past.
Ultras are of course, known for their sociable reputation. Not even a mile in and I’d already made a new friend to chat to – Jenny, in pink.
“See you at half way!” I called and off they went to get on with their morning.
I kept checking my pace these first few miles and happily it was steadily at 10:00 minute miles which was exactly what I wanted. I felt ecstatic as I made my way up the trail in the sunlight with the Spring birdsong in my ears; I had my iPod with me to use later on in the race but for now I was happy to talk to my fellow racers and soak up the atmosphere.
After 3 miles it was time to take my first, reluctant, walking break and a gel. I reminded myself how important these early fuel breaks were and willed the five minutes away so I could get moving properly again.
For a while I spoke to a lady named Ann who was from Stonehaven Running Club. She and her friend run half the race – 33 miles is too much for them these days she said, but just to be able to participate in half of a wonderful race like this is a huge draw for them.
At around 6 miles we came to cross a relatively busy main road which was manned by a bunch of Fetchies. Haggis (yellow jacket) was in charge of stopping traffic, Duchess (Julie) was taking photos and Nywanda and MummyNy were manning a small refreshment table. Even early on, seeing friends was a huge boost; by now the field was quite spread out and at times it was hard to remember we were running a race.
After we got out of Peterculter and away from houses I was ready to take an alfresco leak so started looking for suitable bushes. A big bonus for training on this route is that I know when I can expect to safely and discreetly be able to, er, relieve myself, when required. Shortly after, the route went onto the road for the first time and before I knew it I had completed a quarter of my race and was saying hello to Naomi and Carol at Checkpoint one!
1 – 10:09
2 – 10:21
3 – 10:43
4 – 11:31
5 – 10:23
6 – 10:01
7 – 11:37
8 – 11:10
Miles 8.5 – 16.5 (Halfway Checkpoint) – 1:32’15 – accrued time 2:58’39
I was very happy to see the check point and more friendly smiling faces. They were standing under a gazebo with a table of food, water and drop bags. I had debated getting rid of my long sleeve top here for a few miles – after emerging from the relatively shaded built up area of Peterculter, running in the direct sunshine was getting toasty. There were gusts of a fairly brisk breeze every now and then though so I decided to hold on to it until half way as planned.
There was a spread of sandwiches and jelly sweets but nothing really appealed. I sipped on a cup of water briefly to rinse my mouth out and quickly got on the move – my mile splits show I can’t have spent more than 30 seconds at the check point.
Despite the array of food I was a little mystified as to where my hunger was. Usually in training runs the thought of my next food break is always appealing but so far I’d had to force fuel down. Whilst I was running there was a constant low level of nausea which perpetuated the lack of appetite – not enough to disturb my rhythm but enough for me to take note. Gels seemed to be going down the easiest so I was glad I had several with me.
After leaving the checkpoint I felt truly alone – I could see no runner in front nor behind me, so I decided it was time to listen to some music and picked Florence and the Machine’s new album. At an hour and a half in length the duration would see me through to half way, I settled in for the long haul feeling very comfortable and the miles ticked by steadily without event.
Shortly after passing Drumoak at about 12 miles I realised the leaders would soon be passing me. I got excited and looked forward to seeing my faster friends and the boost that it would give me. At 12.8 miles I was passed by the leader who I didn’t recognise – how exciting; we all expected Grant Jeans to lead from the start and he was obviously facing some competition today. A minute or two later Grant passed me and one by one the fastest runners came into sight ahead. I passed Team Pyllon who were excitedly waiting for Paul to come through, unfortunately not long after he passed me walking with a furrowed brow looking most unhappy. I tried to think of something motivational on the spot to say but fumbled my words and blurted something like “Keep going Paul!” which is probably the least tactful thing I could have come out with – sorry pal, my running brain doesn’t think on its feet very well.
I was worried for Paul, but quickly focused on saying “Good job!” , “Well done”, “Nice running!” to the trickle of runners that were passing. Just about everyone greeted each other with a smile and a cheery greeting – the sense of camaraderie in the shared experience was amazing and I felt like I was running on cloud 9. I felt so lucky to be a part of the race and felt inspired by those speedier than myself.
In the distance I recognised Mike and waved excitedly, we passed each other with a big high 5 and wide grins; on the outside he looked strong and happy. Further on in the distance I saw a little red car I recognised and realised my Mum had pulled up ahead and was waiting for me. Hurrah, more smiley high fives! This was truly unlike any race I’ve ever experienced and was so far a walk in the park compared to Loch Ness. I saw her little fiat 500 carry on further up the road to the next checkpoint and wondered how many cars passing by were full of support excitedly scanning the trail for their runner, hoping to see them running strong and looking happy.
Much as I was enjoying greeting every runner, my enthusiasm was getting a bit out of hand as I kept on catching myself running far too fast. Easy as it felt, I knew I had to hold back if I was going to finish strong in a couple of hours.
The sun was getting more intense as it got closer to midday, but it was probably only about 12C. Whilst this is March and the sun doesn’t even get that high in the sky this far North at this time of year, for runners who have training in the cold all winter it is a shock to the system to have to work hard in the sunshine.
Looking at my watch I realised half way was tantalisingly close. Eventually I could see some people moving in the distance and breathed a sigh of relief as I could get some cold water and get rid of my top. As I got closer I couldn’t see the recognisable figures of my Mum or my friends. Where were they? Maybe behind that crowd? No… By the gazebo? No. What? How is this happening?! Where are they?
There were cheers as I came in but I was anxiously scanning the small crowd for my support. No, my eyes weren’t deceiving me; they were definitely 100% not present. Looking at my watch revealed I was 5 minutes ahead of schedule – not a drastic deviation from The Plan at all. What the hell had happened to them?!
“My support isn’t here!” I exclaim incredulously to Fetchies Laurie and Susie who are manning the checkpoint; “I can’t believe this, I had this planned so well – they should be here!! Whenever they do turn up – please tell them they suck and I’ll see them at the finish…”
Rather than have assistance to sort things out I realised I was going to have to get my heat and mileage muddled mind in gear and do everything I needed to do myself. I located my drop bag and silently thanked my instincts which had told me to leave the drop bag with the half way crew and not my Mum, JUST IN CASE. I peeled off my top and poured the contents of my bag on to the ground, staring vacantly at it trying to figure out what I needed to do. “Dammit this is why we have support” I thought; “I can’t even tell you what my name is after 16.5 miles never mind figure this puzzle out”.
“Right, Mitchell. Wise up; what are you doing? Quit doddering!” I chide myself; no time to waste energy on being annoyed. I crouch down on the ground and my calf muscles scream at me. “Empty gel wrappers and rubbish out, new gels in. Hula hoops in. Take some jaffa cakes out of the packet and put them in a ziplock. Put them in. Close the pockets. Right – unzip the bladder pocket and take out the bladder, no; unhook it first dumbass…” I speak to myself like a wayward child as my sweaty, swollen fingers fumble with the unco-operative twist lock of the camelbak. I can’t seem to figure out how to free the drinking tube so whilst I’m filling it up with powerade the whole backpack swings around precariously attached to the bladder. I eventually get the excess air squeezed out and the thing back into the backpack but not without excreting some language that would make a sailor blush.
After stuffing everything back into the drawstring drop bag I take a good look at the amazing spread of fuel – again the thought of anything solid turns my stomach. I force myself to eat one or two hula hoops and look longingly at the ‘ultra flapjacks’, made with almonds, cherries and pistachio which I’d looked forward to trying for so long, but my stomach was having none of it. “Alright guys, I’m off – see you at the finish!” I bid farewell and head back down the track with a final look back to see if I can see my support. For a moment I think I catch a glimspe of my Mum’s red hair in the distance but I tell myself I can’t wait and I need to focus on the task in hand: running back home to Aberdeen.
9 – 10:14
10 – 11:34
11 – 10:50
12 – 9:54
13 – 11:06
14 – 10:03
15 – 10:04
16 – 10:27
Miles 16.5 – 24.8 – 1:33’44 – accrued time 4:31:05
On this return journey home for the first few miles I was able to see how many people were behind me and to greet the rest of my friends who I had yet to see – Sheri was looking strong, Ian and Donna were running together and both looked quite happy to me but sadly Ian dropped out shortly after when he became a bit ill.
The feeling of the sun on my skin was good, but I was missing the suncream that I’d asked my support to bring. Some mild irritation remained but in the end their absence hadn’t affected my race, however the irony wasn’t lost on me that a similar thing happened to me when supporting Mike on the West Highland Way race last year – he ran a stage slightly faster than expected and we missed him by mere minutes.
A mile or two in and I passed the last runner, again I found myself entirely alone in the race. As it got hotter I began to feel tired, my legs felt strong but I recognised that the easy bit was over and I’d need to start digging deep. I spotted a red flash out of the corner of my eye and realised it was my Mum’s car speeding past me and I felt minor relief – I had a small worry that she’d perhaps had an accident and that’s why she’d missed me at half way. An irrational fear but the mind can play tricks on you when it’s tired. Not long up ahead she found a place to leap out and ran towards me with some suncream, she ran with me for a minute or so until I had coated myself sufficiently with the stuff and said she’d see me in a few miles again and that Niall and Fiona were finding a place up ahead to catch me as well.
I think miles 18 – 21 were probably the hardest of the race for me. It was an unfamiliar part of the route, I was fatiguing a bit and I lost some of my positive attitude as I ploughed on alone. My stomach was still a little funny but was accepting of the gels and hula hoops I force fed myself. I made sure to keep on drinking as well, even though my fluid was warm and sickly to taste.
Mum, Niall and Fiona all caught me at about 19 miles and it was great to see them all cheering for me. I was deep in the burn and couldn’t think of anything else to blurt out other than the mileage showing on my garmin and keep on putting one foot in front of the other. After I passed them I realised the chilled out music I was listening to wasn’t really doing me any favours and decided to switch to something far more upbeat. The difference was instant – what did I have to be feeling grim about? Nothing was hurting badly, I still had loads left in the tank, I was making great time, and all I needed to do was concentrate on running for the next 30 minutes. I didn’t allow myself to think any further than 3 miles/30 minutes at a time – negative thoughts of how long I still had to go tried to creep in but as long as I just thought of 30 minute chunks of running at a time it seemed perfectly achievable.
Miles ticked by one by one and soon I was back on familiar trails. I maintained my speed but passed slower runners as they either slowed down or lost steam. Everyone I passed said “Hello! doing ok? Feeling good? Good work!” or some variant and carried on their own race with a smile. Again the camaraderie of the shared journey shone through – everyone wants everyone to have the best race they can and we all know that the tiniest bit of encouragement can give the biggest boost to a runner.
I knew there would be the big, slow hill at mile 22/23 to account for, but I felt I was ready for it. I really wanted to keep running up it as I thought walking would hurt more. I weighed up the options and decided to go for it, after all it was the last hill of the race and after that everything was downhill (ish). I kept the pace steady and slow and passed three runners who were walking, including Robin who I had spoken to during the Devilla 15k. He was running with a Carnegie Harriers runner named Sue and asked me what on earth I was doing – ultramarathoners don’t run up hills!? I said “I’m feeling ok actually, I’m just going to go for it!” and kept on chugging. I was determined to stick to my run 30/walk 5 for as long as possible and was proud to have somehow conserved enough energy to keep going uphill.
On the other hand I knew that not long after the hill I would be back at Checkpoint 1 and Naomi and Carol would be waiting with smiles and hugs. I couldn’t wait to see them! I was so happy that things were still going ok and felt like I was having the race of my life.
17 – 15:19
18 – 10:14
19 – 10:35
20 – 12:19
21 – 10:22
22 – 10:33
23 – 11:49
24 – 10:48
Miles 24.8 – 33 – 1:25’43 – Finish time 5:56’48
I was greeted by the checkpoint team with big cheers and smiles. There was one other runner there who was looking weary but was enjoying some jelly sweets and a laugh with Naomi. I gulped hungrily at the cool cups of water and washed the taste of powerade out of my mouth but again did not fancy eating any solid fuel. I didn’t want to lose momentum so pushed on and left the checkpoint, I knew at this point that if I made it this far then I would definitely finish and I felt relieved and excited that it was going to happen soon!
I reached Peterculter and the marathon point in roughly 4hrs 40 minutes if I recall correctly – that time is 32 minutes off my Loch Ness Marathon time and includes all check point pauses and walking breaks. I shook my head in disbelief and couldn’t believe the difference in these two races! I made up my mind to definitely sign up for an Autumn marathon soon to destroy my marathon Person Best officially.
Niall, Fiona and Mum popped up again, still full of endless enthusiasm and high fives. I blurted out my ‘marathon’ time and raised my hands in disbelief – everything was going better than I could possibly imagine, and I was about to lose my excess weight at the Fetchpoint for the final push.
Just before the Fetchpoint and the final road crossing (27 miles) something started feeling a bit funny in my left knee. Funny, as in, grumbly ITB funny. It wasn’t a sharp pain but more of an unpleasant wrench and I became very aware of my knee. On the approach to the Fetchpoint I rummaged in my pockets and found my emergency paracetamol – prevention rather than cure, I needed everything I had for the last 10k.
Nywanda, Haggis et all were all still holding fort strongly hours after I had first passed them. It goes without saying but the input of the volunteers at Saturday’s race was amazing – they selflessly volunteered their entire Saturday to look after us all and did such stellar jobs with their cheering. Nywanda had my waist pouch ready and helped me wriggle out of my camelbak whilst I grabbed my phone and two gels. “Right! I’m ready to get this job DONE!” I shouted as I left.
I took out my iPod and found the hour-long playlist I had entitled ‘Last gasp’ which was going to pump me up sufficiently to get me home in good time. Before anyone asks – no I will not share it as my taste in music for running is horrendous, embarrassing, and not for your eyes! I took the time to assess how everything felt now that I had the rucksack off; the knee was fine, my feet felt good, my shoulders were stiff but loosening up now they were free from carrying the camelbak. A quick look at my watch revealed I was yet to pass 5 hours – I forced my befuddled brain to do some maths – I was at 27.5 miles at nearly 5 hours, so that meant even if I ran 11 minute miles to the finish I would finish under 6 hours. It didn’t sink in for a minute or two as I thought I was making a mistake – how has this happened? Where did this speed come from?! I vowed to leave nothing on the course and beast these last 6 miles as hard as possible to come in as far under 6 hours as I could. I decided I’d go for three sub-10 miles, take a short walk and a gel, then go as hard as I could for the final three to the finish.
When my watch passed 30 miles I grinned and said “WHAT?!” out loud – “30 miles?! I’ve run 30 miles today?!” It was an amazing feeling to have. I passed a few male runners around this point who were doing an ultra shuffle towards the finish – they all seemed pretty tired, but there was a young girl up ahead of me who’d over taken them too and looked strong so I decided to try and keep in pace behind her. I don’t really remember much from these miles – there wasn’t really very much in my brain other than focusing on the girl’s (I later found out her name was Noanie Heffron) swishing ponytail.
With about 1.75 miles to go, suddenly Maz and her daughter popped up again on their bikes – they’d been at the Fetchpoint and were riding up and down the trail cheering runners on. “You look amazing! Finish strong!” they screeched “SUB-6 OR BUST BABY!” I bellowed as I ran past.
I was quite close to Noanie now and she kept on looking behind her so I decided to pull up by her side and say hello. “Are you out for sub-6?” She asked? “I am now” I replied “Come on; we can totally do this, let’s go!” Due to the nature of the trail we couldn’t run side by side as there were too many kids on bikes, families walking hand in hand or wayward dogs with sticks. I slipped in behind her though and pushed hard to keep with her pace, but she started pulling away gradually and I just didn’t have it in me to keep up. A glance at my watch revealed sub-9 minute mile pace – it was inconceivable to me that after 31 miles I could run like this.
I passed the Old Holburn railway station where my Mum and Dad had stood so many hours before, and although I knew I only had less than a mile to go I felt myself flagging; there was just nothing left in me to keep up the pace. I allowed myself a 30 second walking break to get my breath back and re-steele myself for the final, final push to the finish where so many loved ones would be waiting. I’d been deliberately not looking at my watch but I allowed myself one last peek – 5hrs 50 – and sighed with relief, it was ok – I had the sub 6 finish in the bag.
My eyes scour the distance for the Granite pillars which with show me I’ve come to the end of the railway line and the entrance to the park. I’ve run this route so many times before and I know how far I have left but I seek out the pillars regardless – hoping for a sign that it’s nearly time to stop. My lungs are on fire but my legs are still pushing strong and I send up a prayer of thanks to the running Gods for letting me race without injury. I finally spot the pillars and push my arms back and forth drawing myself closer to them, and safely navigate the twisted path which takes you in to the carpark. A van pulls in up ahead of me and I glower at the driver – no mate, after 33 miles you wait for ME to cross.
I finally sail through the gates and force myself to concentrate on the potential hazards ahead by the children’s play area; animals and toddlers are on the loose, sweet Grandparents are shuffling in to my path and I run the risk of getting clotheslined by a dog leash but I make it safely past and move my gaze to the distance where I can see crowds of supporters anxiously awaiting their runner.
The crowds come in to focus and some of the blobs start jumping up and down shouting my name and my face breaks in to the biggest of smiles – after 33 miles and nearly six hours on my feet I’ve made it home.
Upon crossing the finish I stagger towards Julie, George and Karen laughing. I’m incredulous and struggle to find words other than “Wow, ohmygosh, that was amazing!” and variants thereof.
Julie gives me a big hug and Karen puts my medal around my neck and I’m swamped with hugs from my Mum, my Dad, Laurie, Naomi, Carol, Niall, Fiona and countless other runners. The next half hour is a whirl of excitement as I catch up with everyone and find out how they got on, interspersed with breaks to cheer others as they finish. Everyone crosses the line with the most wonderful smile but the biggest smile belongs to Mike’s girlfriend Annette who finishes with her arms held high about her head – finishing her first ultra after four months of training and only a couple of short races under her belt. She falls in to Mike’s arms and everyone’s heart melts
My flatmate Scott and his girlfriend Alo arrive, shortly followed by Kynon who’s been in the pub watching the rugby. I ask the score…and then immediately regret it. I grab myself some cake and force it down before allowing myself to open the bottle of beer which has found it’s way in to my hand. It might be Miller, but it’s the best beer I’ve ever had.
So here I am, an ultramarathoner. Days later I’m still glowing with the memories of what a wonderful day it was. Naturally I’m already trying to decide which race on the Scottish Ultra circuit I want to do next – dipping my toe in to this wonderful world is not enough for me. It wasn’t long after I finished that I said to myself – I can do better. I can go for longer, go faster, run harder…
This is the start of something big.