The Cateran Trail 55 Ultramarathon
17th May 2014
13hrs 32min 11sec
Position: 57th/61 finishers (7 DNF)
Gender: 14th/16 Females
The Cateran Trail Ultramarathon is a 55 mile long race ran by the intrepid partnership of George Reid and Karen Donoghue, also known as Epic Shit Racing. George is the director of the D33, but the Cateran has always been Karen’s baby, and 2014 would see the 5th running of this race in its recent form. Also on offer this year was the Double Cateran, which at 110 miles would be the longest race in Scotland. The Double Cateran runners would commence their race 13 hours before the 55 milers, and run the full route in reverse first before performing an about turn when they returned to the Spittal of Glenshee. They would then retrace their footsteps for another 55 miles until they reached the start/finish area for the 3rd time when they could finally call it a day.
Of the two races on offer I had selected the easy option and would commence my race at 7am from the Spittal of Glenshee Hotel with 70 or so other runners. In general I was feeling good about the race, but still harboured concerns about how well recovered I was from the Highland Fling three weeks previously. I had ran 35 of the 53 miles in the Fling at a very easy pace and had worked harder towards the end to finish strongly and happily. I’d had no injuries to speak of and got back to training lightly in the interim period so I saw no reason to doubt that I’d have a good race at the Cateran. The only concern at the back of the mind was knowing how long it can take to fully recover from an ultra – we push our bodies to the limit in these races, and for mortals like myself the residual effects can last for weeks…or so I had read. How would my body handle it? The only way I would find out would be to get on the starting line and see.
Kynon and I arrived at the Spittal of Glenshee late on Friday night, having opted to eat at home before the 1hr 30min drive to Glenshee. I’m not incredibly particular about my pre-race nutrition, but the Spittal did not appear to offer much in the way of vegetarian food other than chips with a side of onion rings. We found the hotel bar bursting with running friends and we settled down with a cider for some chat before heading to our room around 11pm. The accommodation at the hotel would be best described as…’rustic’, but in our room we found a clean bed and a functioning toilet which was all we really needed.
I felt oddly not nervous about the race, so fell asleep quickly and deeply. I had come to the conclusion that the race ahead of me was completely unknown territory (in every sense of the word) so there was no point in stressing or over-thinking anything. All I could do was start running at 7am with everyone else and see what happened…the rest would fall in to place after that.
I was pleased to awake to a bright morning with patchy cloud and sun. There was a lovely view out of the window which I had missed the night before, and I was able to look straight down the Glen and the first few miles of the course. I had taken my own breakfast, and due to the luxury of the race starting from the hotel my race preparation was very chilled out. At about 6.15am I strolled out of the room with my drop bags and grabbed a mug of coffee from the breakfast room and caught up with the news with friends before the race briefing with Karen at 6.30am.
She kept things simple, but made a point of reminding us of the 110 mile race runners who were out on the course . As she reminded us to be sympathetic and kind, one of the runners crested the hill and ran in to the start/finish to huge applause. I can’t fathom the mental toughness those guys and girls had to turn around and go back out there, but somehow they did it.
Just before 7am we were walked from the front of the hotel around the corner and over a bridge to the official starting line.
The atmosphere was so chilled it didn’t even feel like a race – more like a large group of friends heading out on a long training run together. I might have had a number pinned to my shorts, but I had none of my usual pre-race nerves.
There was a final word or two from Karen, and then she announced ‘Right! Off you go!‘ and away we went down the Glen, a neon caterpillar of humans growing in length as the front runners let loose and sped away.
Start – Dalnagair – 6 miles, 1hr 9 mins
I don’t remember much about the first 6 miles, other than feeling very warm very quickly. The weather was forecast to be fine for most of the day but then become wet, but for the first 6 miles I was glad to have my sunglasses and to just be wearing a vest and shorts. As usual I walked the hills and enjoyed taking the time to appreciate the scenery. Glenshee is a wild wilderness and the terrain we were on was a mix of grass, gravel path and boggy moorland peppered with plenty of gates to open and stiles to climb over.
I passed one 110 runner at about 3 miles, and met Mark and Helen Leggatt who were reverse sweeping the route and taking down all the neon tape and glowsticks which had been used to light the way for the 110ers through the night.
Dalnagair – Kirkton of Glenisla – 15 mi – 2hr 58min
Even by the first checkpoint at Glen Isla the field was very stretched out and I could only see a couple of runners far ahead of me. We were on road for a few miles and then they slipped further away and out of sight until we went off-road again and began a long slog up hill. We passed the beautiful Auchintaple Loch and ran through fresh pine forest and over exposed hillsides before descending through some farms back on to the road which lead to Checkpoint 2 – Kirkton of Glenisla.
3 hours in and I was feeling quite weary but figured the feeling would pass so wasn’t too worried. I was more unhappy about my right knee which I had unceremoniously thwacked off a stile post at around 9 miles, resulting in a flash of blinding pain as I clattered the patellar tendon off the edge of the post. The ongoing throbbing had not faded and was particularly sharp when I went down hills.
Kirkton of Glenisla – Den of Alyth – 26 mi – 5hr 30m
At Checkpoint 2 I had my first drop bag, with custard and a buttery to eat and some snacks to refill my pockets. Mrs Mac and Piratical Dave were there as well as Donald and Elaine Sandeman, Lucy Colquhoun and Caroline Gibson. Caroline helped me with my food and got my water bladder topped up as I ploughed custard into my mouth using the buttery as a spoon. I couldn’t help but notice how few drop bags were left, but I decided not to care about it and just get moving again despite how much I wanted to stay and chat.
Not long after Glenisla I passed former West Highland Way race record holder Richie Cunningham who was running part of the route in reverse, and caught up with one runner, Dinah, who is distinctive by the barefoot huaraches that she runs in. We had a brief chat before I pulled away, and little did I know that she would be the last fellow runner that I would see all day.
It was somewhere around 17 or 18 miles that things started to go wrong. Some bastard had filled my legs with cement and suddenly moving forward became far more arduous. The pain that I’d been feeling in both little toes crossed over from ‘tolerable’ to ‘OW’ and stiffness in my hips and glutes became more defined. My knee still hurt too, as well as the bone in my big toe which has never been quite right since I ran the 2013 Highland Fling in those stupid rock-hard inov8 roc-lites. The multitude of increasing niggles quickly wore down my resolve and alone out there on a road in Middle Of Nowhere, Perthshire, I was flailing. I dragged out a couple of 15/16 minute miles as I struggled to pull my tired body up hills and hobbled on my sore feet down hill. I could jog the flats and gentle rolling hills, but only for 5 or so minutes at a time before the giant black dog that was sitting on my chest became too heavy to carry.
I remember this big stupid, wet grassy hill made me so cross – why on earth were we climbing up the side of a field dodging sheep poo and bloody lamb’s tails when there was a perfectly good road down to the left going exactly where we were headed? Nevertheless I followed the path and hobbled up and down the hill to rejoin the road and found my eyes stinging with anger and frustration. My feet hurt so damn much; what was wrong with those little toes? If someone had given me a Stanley knife I would have cut holes in the side of my shoes to let them out. The Injinji toe-socks and compeeds may have guarded well against toe blisters, but the extra material in the box of my shoes was obviously crushing my littlest toes harshly.
I was mildly amused by this sign on the gate to Alyth Hill but the distraction didn’t last long as I sank deeper in to the hurt locker. This was really quite serious – to be in such a state at 22 miles with a further 33 more to go was devastating. I didn’t see how I could possibly carry on – I was cloaked in fatigue and felt like I was drowning in it, I just couldn’t make myself move any quicker than a stumbling jog where every step was pain. At 22 miles!! Hidden amongst the vibrant yellow of the broom bushes I let my emotions boil over as I faced up to the realisation that I would probably DNF and big, fat salty tears spilled out of my eyes. I didn’t care that I was bawling during a race – it wasn’t like anyone was around or had been anywhere near me for hours. I was out there alone and on this day I hadn’t brought enough guts to get myself home again. I was done. My first DNF. More tears.
I continued to torture myself with the poisonous thoughts of how embarrassing it was going to be to drop out; what would I tell everyone in the pub that night? What would I say at work on Monday? What would I write in the blog? If I was going to DNF I’d have to do it at Den of Alyth because if I got to Blairgowrie at 31 miles, Kynon would be there and he wouldn’t allow me to DNF, and Sandra and Ian wouldn’t let me even think about it either, so I had to find the guts to take the number off at the next Checkpoint. What a failure. What a waste of everyone’s time.
Just as my pity party was really hitting full swing, two figures emerged from around a corner who I quickly recognised as Dave and Carolyn Kiddell. Ah, crap; there’s no hiding here, and he’s got a camera as well – best try and move it a bit and wipe the snot and tears away. “Well done! You’re doing great! How are you feeling?” they called out, but their kind smiles and friendly faces dislodged my thinly veiled cover. Tears spilled again and my voice cracked when I managed to respond “Dreadful! I’m having a terrible day! I’ve got nothing in my legs! Nothing!”. Dave has been there; he knows how bad things can get deep in a race, and Carolyn has seen it all before in her years of supporting him; they calmly told me to take it one mile at a time and just get to the next checkpoint and take it from there.
I nod and stagger on up the hill, as the realisation slowly dawns on me that I’ve just jogged past my friends up a hill whilst simultaneously telling them that I had nothing in my legs…
Den of Alyth – Blairgowrie – 31 miles, 6hrs 54 min
Not long after passing Dave and Carolyn the route took a long slow downhill road into the checkpoint which I was able to jog. Bumping into two friends whilst having a cry gave me a taster of how mortifying I would find it if I made the decision to DNF at Den of Alyth. Did I really want to do that? Was I really all that incapable if I could suddenly start running again on command?! Just as I was contemplating these things I arrived in to the Den of Alyth checkpoint which was at the end of a long field with some signs.
“Welcome to the Den of Alyth Ceilidh”
Underneath the gazebo was Johnny Fling in a shirt, tie and kilt, playing ceilidh music through an amplifier, with Lorna and an assortment of others in kilts bouncing around, dancing and cheering. I started laughing hysterically as I came in and asked if I was hallucinating – they didn’t dignify that with an answer as they took my pack from me and filled it up whilst I fed myself from the tremendous array of Scottish snacks.
Lorna offered me some whisky and I took a hearty nip of Glenfiddich, washed down with a cup of Irn Bru and some tablet. This was amazing! I didn’t want to leave! However I was quickly strapped back in to my bag and hustled out of the check point before I knew what was happening, and seconds later I was tramping through the forest alone once more.
Did that just happen? What was I saying about DNFing again?! And that is the power of a good check point in an ultra. You need people who can lift you up when you’re down, take care of your refuelling needs like a formula 1 pit-stop team, feed you booze and snacks and turn you around and kick you back out again before you know what’s going on.
So it had been decided. I was going to finish. As previously mentioned, DNFing at a checkpoint manned by Sandra ‘Get a move on or I’ll set you on fire‘ McDougall is not an option, and she was posted at Blairgowrie which was my next stop at 31 miles. After that the next one was at 38 miles and if I could get that far I knew I’d finish. Perhaps it was the whisky, but everything seemed a little sharper – Karen didn’t go to the bother of organising this race so her runners could drop out on her, and besides, I really, really wanted my finisher’s quaich.
I focused on the thought of being presented with my quaich with everyone in the pub later and settled in for the long haul. Once I’d made my peace with the fact that it was going to be a really long day, all my aches and pains seemed to stabilise. It was unfortunate that everything seemed to fall to bits so early on, but after Den of Alyth nothing seemed to get worse. I accepted the pain and just got on with it.
Blairgowrie – Bridge of Cally – 38 miles, 8hr 42min
Ironically after deciding that DNFing wasn’t going to happen, I realised I’d need to get a move on if I was to make the Blairgowrie checkpoint by 2.30pm (7.5 hours). I was taking so much time to cover the miles that if I didn’t shift it then I’d risk cutting it fine. As it happened I made it in at about 2:05pm and was warmly welcomed by dear husband and Sandra and Ian.
Kynon said he was a little concerned about how long it had taken me; looking at the drop bags I saw there were only 5 or 6 left which was a bit of a shock – I hadn’t realised I was quite that far back in the field! However I was still moving and that was all that mattered.
The journey out of Blairgowrie was very beautiful, with thick, lush greenery surrounding the path and some beautiful houses and gardens. There was a long climb where I passed a couple of walkers who asked about my race number – they nearly fell over when I told them about the race.
By the time I reached the top of the climb out of Blairgowrie there were some very sinister looking clouds in the distance back towards Glenshee. On the exposed hill I finally conceded to putting a long sleeve top on over my vest, but did my best to ignore the spots of rain for as long as possible. I really didn’t like this bit of the route – it went through plain farmland and along the edges of fields, before climbing up to an expanse of desolate moorland.
This was where the rain really started pelting and I had to stop to put my rain jacket on. The boggy and muddy moorland track was really hard to run on and it felt like I was on a travelator – no matter how much effort I put into moving along the straight track I never seemed to make any progress as the land all looked the same. Looking at the map it is only 3 miles but it felt double that.
Bridge of Cally – Enochdhu – 49 miles – 11hr 42m
A lovely surprise was waiting for me at Bridge of Cally, which was in the shape of a Kynon who had popped up to say hello having just closed the checkpoint at Blairgowrie. Also waiting were Jane MacAskill and Helen Munro who saw that I was well fed and watered before being turfed back out into the rain. I had pizza in this drop bag which really hit the spot – a definite for all future drop bags.
Not long after I left I saw Mark and Helen Leggatt again performing reverse sweeping who were full of positive encouragement. After this it was a long stint alone again for 11 miles lay between these two check points. I couldn’t stop thinking about whether I would end up being the last finisher and being caught by the sweeper, Keith Hughes, who was hungry for slow runners. Every so often I thought I heard his antipodean tones calling ‘Haallaow!’ from behind me, but he was never there. I guess I was getting tired.
There’s not much else to say about this section but that it was wet, boggy and hard to run on. I was concentrating hard on following the route from post to post which kept me alert, as I could have gone wrong quite easily. It rained a lot, but it wasn’t cold. Other than the official route posts there was no race signage unless absolutely necessary. I did have a route map with me but thankfully I didn’t ever have to refer to it.
At one point around 43 miles I took a wrong turning and ended up taking the long route around a field, I got a bit confused but thankfully got back on track quickly without adding too much extra on. However, at around 45 miles I could see a green gazebo and a lot of balloons in the distance next to the road – how on earth had I managed to cut so much out of the route? Was I really at 49 miles already? I felt excitement that I was nearly there but a bit disappointed that I’d obviously made a mistake…however as I got closer I realised it was not a check point, but in fact a backyard birthday celebration for someone’s 45th birthday. Gutted!
I saw this sign in Kirkmichael and had to stop for a photograph – I was finally within reach of that quaich and the distance left was down to single digits. I made my way into to Enochdhu in the pouring rain and arrived to a lovely warm welcome from Caroline and Neal Gibson again. I had more cake and pizza, washed down with more Irn Bru. I put caffeinated nuun in my camelbak to try and perk me up for the final long haul up hill and got on my way for the last time to earn that quaich.
Enochdhu – Spittal of Glenshee – 55 miles – 13hr 32min 11sec
I knew from here to the finish despite being only 6 miles, it was uphill all the way until the last mile. My poor hips were so sore, my feet continued to be a source of total agony (especially the torn open blister on my arch caused by a stone in my shoe), and everything else just hurt. I allowed myself to reflect happily though – I couldn’t believe I’d actually got this far in a race which I’d all but written off 30 miles previously. Deep down though, I know that this would happen as I’d never have the guts to drop out unless I actually had a lower limb hanging off, and despaired at the unnecessary fuss I made for myself so many hours ago.
I think I needed the tears though; I needed the release, the time alone, the helplessness, and the stripping back of self to the bare minimum. I needed to know that I could cope in a tough situation, and that I could trust my belief in myself to get through it eventually. There is a sense of renewal that comes from these long races; when you hit rock bottom you can’t get any lower and you know the only person who can get you back out is yourself. I was climbing, and had climbed right from the bottom back to the top again. The race had transported us from the bare loneliness of Glenshee, to the lush and leafy Perthshire hillsides and all the way back again.
The landscape was stark and powerful and I decided that the perfect accompaniment for the last few miles was an album by Explosions in the Sky: All of a sudden I miss everyone. The music carried me over the beautiful landscape in contentment, back to my friends and ultra family who were waiting just over the last hill after 55 miles.
Spotting a figure in the distance snapped me out of my reverie and as I grew closer I recognised him as my friend Neil Easton from my club, and fellow West Highland Way Race sweeper. He was chumming tired runners up to the brim of the last of the steep hill and making sure that that everyone headed for home in the right direction. I was so pleased to see him and telling him all about my rollercoaster of a day was the perfect distraction from the steep climb. He got me to the top and then told me he’d see me in the bar shortly – there were only four behind me so his hours of hill-reps were nearly over.
This was the longest mile of my life – I could see the Spittal, but it just would not get any closer. It disappeared and reappeared as I negotiated dips and rises, with every downhill step making pain coarse through my legs and feet.
With about 400 meters to go I passed Neil Rutherford walking up the course who must have finished hours previously. He gave some applause and a hearty pat on the shoulder assuring me that I was really, almost there. Not long after, the handful of people at the finish line spotted me in my bright blue jacket picking my way down the last of the hill in the fading light and burst into shouts and cheers of encouragement until I reached the final gate to the road.
A short final trot lead me to the finishing gantry and their enthusiastic cheers and applause carried me over the line with a huge smile into Kynon’s arms.
I think the relief written all over my face says it all.
After I’d caught my breath and hugged everyone in sight, I made my way into the hotel and the bar area which was filled with finishers and supporters having drinks and food. Kynon was behind me and started clapping, then everyone looked up from their pints and broke into loud cheering and applause! Everyone who finished was getting this huge welcome by their fellow finishers when they came in, but it really took me by surprised and my eyes might have leaked a bit again. It was quite over-whelming.
Kynon sat me down and asked what I wanted. It was quite simple – a cold pint of lager and some chips.
The beer was quickly taken care of, and I was able to trough into the hot buffet to my hearts content before the last finishers arrived in with the sweeper about 50 minutes later. Shortly after there was the presentation, where there were some very warm and kind words from Karen for the 55 mile finishers first of all, before George moved on to the 110 milers.
It hurt to get up and shuffle over, but it felt just as good as I’d been imagining since 26 miles when I started focusing on receiving the little box from Karen to get me to the finish. For those who don’t know, a quaich is a traditional Scottish two-handed drinking cup of friendship which is often given as a gift, a trophy, or involved in ceremonial drinking.
Next, the finishers of the 110 mile race received their quaichs. Out of 13 entrants, 12 made the starting line, only 6 finished and 2 ended up in hospital. The winner was my amazing friend Mike Raffan in 22hrs 25 minutes – an incredible two and a half hours clear of 2nd place.
After the presentation I went to the room for a shower but found no hot water. A hobo wash was had by the sink with some soap and wet-wipes, before I quickly returned to the bar for more rehydration and to hear everyone’s tales.
There was still one man out on the course from the 110 mile race however; he knew he’d be timed out from the check points after a certain point, but asked to continue on with his own support and make it to the finish under his own steam. George was happy with that, so John McLean continued by himself until he made it back to the Spittal of Glenshee. Just before midnight George stuck his head in the door and shouted that the last finisher was due, and then every single person that was able to move (and a lot that probably shouldn’t have as well) poured out of the pub to cheer him down off the hill. We saw the blink of a head torch approach and began shouting as loudly as possible whilst forming a long guard of honour for him to run down to meet George and Karen at the end. The clapping and cheering was deafening as we welcomed him home, and after 29 hours and 57 minutes we had all our finishers back safely.
That was the most most memorable moment of the weekend for me – not the starting, the finishing, anything that happened in between, or even the lovely welcome I was given as I arrived back into the pub at the end. That sparkling display of goodwill and camaraderie is enough to melt the toughest heart and sums up everything I love about this sport. Moments like that make it so easy to forget the agony we go through at times; it is all so very, very worth it.
I learned a lot on Saturday. The lessons were tough but I’m glad I got them, and it underlined what I’ve known for some time about how in an ultra you have to just believe that the lowest of lows are usually temporary and that your race can turn around in an instant. It’s six weeks on Saturday until the Great Glen Ultra where I will line up for a 73 mile journey from Fort William to Inverness at 1am in the morning, so now the most important thing for me to do is rest. On the whole, four days later I’m fine and have retained no lasting injuries than two lost toenails and some nasty sports bra chafing. My knee that I hit on the stile is the sorest bit left, so I’ll need to look after it very carefully in the days to come. The good news is that my Injinji socks and preventative compeeds worked and I had no blisters in between my toes, but I definitely need to review the sizing of my trail shoes if this is the solution to that problem.
For now it’s a week of rest as I figure out what to do with myself for the next 6 weeks and write a training plan to keep myself occupied, but uninjured…