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Edinburgh Spartan Race | Spartan Beast Race Report

Edinburgh Spartan Race 2017
Spartan Beast – 15 miles

Edinburgh Spartan Race Medal

5 hours 40 minutes 25 seconds
‘Open’ Category
346th of 869
51st of 196 Females
14th of in 38 in Age Category

This time a couple of weeks ago, I was seriously considering my life choices. By 11am, I had been up since 6am and had been running up, down, and around the Pentland Hills in lashing rain and wind for nearly two and a half hours. Two months prior, I had been challenged by the race to take on the event of my choice from the Edinburgh Spartan Beast, UltraBeast, and Sprint weekend. This event was two days of obstacle course races which promised to challenge mental strength, endurance, grit, and perseverance as we tackled challenging obstacles in addition to running over punishing Pentland hills and terrain. I’m usually up for a challenge, so I decided to give it a go…

Spartan Race Edinburgh Route Map

From the events on offer, I selected the Beast distance which was stated to be between 12-14 miles. I was tempted by the UltraBeast until I saw it was a double loop of the Beast course, and thought that doing the course once would probably be enough. Spartan kindly offered me a place for a friend as well, so, being the generous wife I am, I signed Kynon up so that we could share the experience together.

spartan race logo

If you are a regular reader of RedWineRunner, you will know that I have never ran an obstacle course race before, but that I am a regular competitor in Scotland’s toughest and longest off-road ultramarathons. Distance, climbing, and endurance are my bread and butter, but I rarely step foot in a gym. Functional training looks like fun, but I never have time to go to the outdoor boot camp classes I see happening around Edinburgh. As a result, I can run for (actual) days but I don’t have a great deal of upper body strength beyond being able to bust out some push ups on command, and flex a mediocre gun show on occasion. My right arm is stronger than my left, as that’s the one I lift my pints with.

Earlier this year I shared my thoughts on tackling my first obstacle course race, and why I had decided to take part in a type of event which I have been known to be quite disparaging about. You can read the post HERE, but to re-cap; I always strive to provide evidence-based argument, and I was keen to see what all the fuss was about regarding obstacle course racing. It’s one of the fastest growing and most lucrative sports markets in the world, and a lot of people seem to be quite intimidated by it. To be a ‘Spartan’ is to allegedly have bragging rights, to have proven yourself against something (the thing is not actually defined – but it is said “You’ll know at the finish line”) and to have a selection of Spartan-branded ‘bad-ass’ pictures to share on your social media accounts (defined as a finisher benefit in race communications).

None of these factors hold any real draw for me at all, but I certainly was not intimidated by the concept of throwing myself around an obstacle course, even if some of it is was fire.  So, I accepted the challenge and went undercover to try and understand the mentality of the Spartans and their sub-culture. What makes people spend all their money to come back to these races around the country? What would being part of the Spartan Family feel like? And what on earth was I going to find out at the finish line?!

Edinburgh Spartan Beast

The awful weather was never going to be in doubt. The forecast all week had been for rain and wind all Saturday, but given how wet I knew I would get anyway, I didn’t really care. We arrived at the Spittal Farm site about 7.30am and got parked up before heading to the Race Festival. Spartan Race offers camping; useful since it’s in the middle of nowhere, so many people had elected to stay over the night before. This meant there were food trucks, coffee trucks, plenty of toilets, and a fairly genial festival atmosphere despite the rain. It’s worth noting that I obviously didn’t take my phone with me on the course, but I also didn’t take any pictures at the start because of the weather, so all photos from now on are used with kind permission of Spartan Race.

Edinburgh Spartan Race

The race crew provided fantastic service and we were able to check in and get rid of our bags quickly and easily. We then sat down on some hay bales, ate some bananas, and took in the atmosphere. Edinburgh Spartan Race is a huge event, with waves of competitors starting from 6am to well into the afternoon. This meant there were 100s of people wandering around, upon whom I made the following observations:

  • Nearly everyone wears branded kit to participate – you enter the race through the Merchandise tent, and you can buy everything from Spartan shoes, to leggings, to iron-on patches.
  • OCR teams and clubs are a thing – lots of people were wearing custom team kit, which looks a lot slicker than your average running club vest.
  • It was a really international event! There were dozens of different languages being spoken, in addition to large numbers of Americans and Canadians, and over 30 countries were represented.
  • OCR racing has a very diverse participant profile and puts the Scottish Ultra scene to shame.
  • There were a number of people walking around on crutches or in orthopedic moon boots. This seemed to be a badge of honour.
  • Even though they were about to trek around an obstacle course, some people still wear costumes. There was a man in an actual Spartan outfit.
  • OCR racers don’t know how to use bins. The amount of litter being thrown around was atrocious.

We didn’t have too long to wait until our start at 8:40am, but in the meantime we chatted to Abby and her husband Jamie. It was nice to meet Abby in real life and they shared some last tips for survival with us. We had both elected to wear finger-less mountain bike glove-mitt things to protect our hands – apparently this is quite controversial in the scene, and you are either in Team Glove or definitely not. Maybe this is like the minimal/maximal footwear debate in ultras? Who knows.

At the start, there was a lot of shouting. A lady had a microphone and people were responding with vigour to her shouts, and jumping and cheering a lot. It was all a bit enthusiastic for first thing in the morning for me, and I also couldn’t hear what she was saying. However, off we went, and our big adventure had begun! I felt quite excited until I had to stop running after 50 meters to queue to traverse a small stream, and I hoped that this would not be a theme for the day.

Edinburgh Spartan Race

Over the whole course there were over 30 obstacles. I’m not going to describe each one as I don’t have all day and neither do you. The first ones were mainly climbing over things and going through mud pits which was all fun and games, until we got the the first significant water obstacle. This was constructed using the natural environment and utilised a huge pond full of reeds, upon which was floating a large, wooden ladder-shaped construction, where the ‘steps’ of the ladder shape were actually about 3 feet wide. The challenge was to get into the water and then swim under the three wide wooden planks. This didn’t seem too bad from a distance, but when you were actually submerged in the freezing water, with your muscles paralysed with cold, getting underneath a flat, floating structure and out the other side safely, provoked a genuine ‘fight or flight’ fear reaction in me. For a second I wasn’t sure if I could do it, and nearly ducked out to do the 30 burpee penalty for skipping the obstacle, but my brain kicked in and took control – I’m in charge of what scares me, nothing else – and I took a deep breath and swum under.

HORRIFIC BRAIN FREEZE. I can’t describe the shock of the cold – I’ve never felt anything like it before other than being hit directly on the head with a blunt object. I emerged on the other side gasping and hyperventilating, before taking a few seconds to calm down and then swimming under the second, and the third. Getting out of the water, I jumped up and down and jogged around to try and regain full control over my body, and waited for Kynon to complete his burpee penalty after he decided he couldn’t do the obstacle. We went on together, and that was the last time I was dry until I finished five and a half hours later…

Edinburgh Spartan Race

The next few hours were a Tour de Force of physical challenges – not just climbing over and under things, but dragging breeze blocks on chains, balancing on posts, memory tests, carrying sandbags, tyres, buckets of stones, swimming across a loch, and huge leg sapping climbs to the summits of the hills. I can’t deny that this event was TOUGH, and challenged me in ways which I’ve never experienced. To that end, I also found I could do things that I didn’t know I could – apparently I’m actually a pretty solid contender in carrying a 20kg sandbag on my shoulders up and down a hill on  uneven, wet and treacherous terrain. I passed dozens of people collapsed around the carrying course, some just lying on the ground crying next to their sandbags. Guys, cheer up – you are PAYING to do this.

Edinburgh Spartan Race

Mentally, the course was designed to mess with your head. You could see what was coming ahead in some places, and the carrying challenges were especially cruel as you could see how far your had to carry your bucket of rocks up ahead and how far you had to climb, only to come right back down the the start. There were some running sections between obstacles which were simply a hill rep – down half a mile over wet tussocky reeds and grass, around a cone, and back up again, just to be particularly cruel.

Edinburgh Spartan Race

Don’t forget  the weather of course – the rain continued to lash down and the wind made the conditions on the tops of the hills very, very harsh. There was thick clag (fog) on the tops which at times extended all the way down to the Race Festival. Visibility was very poor and sometimes down to only a few feet in front of you. I’ve said this before, but, welcome to Scotland in July…

Edinburgh Spartan Race

Teamwork is a major part of many people’s Spartan Race. Operating as a pair we weren’t very efficient at climbing over the huge things, but just having someone there to encourage you was good. Sometimes other Spartans would help out too, but I didn’t see too much of the collegiate atmosphere which so many websites write about. On one occasion I helped a girl over a barrier and then she just ran off instead of helping me too – cheers mate, much appreciated. So I was glad that I had Kynon to keep my spirits up; that is, until he was done at about 10 miles/3h 30m in. The less said about this the better, probably, but the weather, lack of food and water, and water submersions took their toll and he was definitely done for the day when he was visibly blue, talking nonsense, and with numb hands and pins and needles in both arms. It’s not very nice to use your recently acquired Outdoor Emergency First Aid training on your own husband, nor to have him carted away with a body temperature of 35C and for you to keep going on the course, but I wasn’t going to let the Beast get both of us.

Edinburgh Spartan Race

You might understand that I had a bit of a sense of humour failure at this point. I was royally fed up of being wet and cold, I had no idea how far I had to go to the finish or how long it would take, and this daft event with its stupid testosterone-fuelled, all-or-nothing culture had hurt my husband. Amusingly, it was just after this that the event photographers popped up.

Edinburgh Spartan Race

Edinburgh Spartan Race

So I charged on, sprinting past dozens of people who were just walking between the obstacles at this point, and just tried to get done as quickly as possible. I noticed that I was passing people from the elite and competitive waves which started before us, and there were no other women around (and actually, few other competitors in general). I wondered for a bit if I was going to inadvertently show up and accidentally place in my age category, which I found hilarious especially since I’d spent ages hanging around with Kynon when he was sick, and had done several time-consuming burpee penalties for failing obstacles.

Edinburgh Spartan Race

The route took you cruelly close the the finish before fucking off up another hill for another mile to carry some logs, and then you came back down to the finish area. “Well done lady! You are putting all the men to shame!” said a marshal. Cool, but I just want to get this event done so I can make sure my husband isn’t dead.

Edinburgh Spartan Race

The last obstacles were right next to the finish festival. I gave them my best shot but I just couldn’t do the ‘Twister’ hanging traverse thing, and found myself doing more burpees in front of a handful of fed-up looking bedraggled spectators.  The final obstacle was two 8 foot walls which, by myself, I tried to get over and failed. No cheering, no encouragement, more burpees whilst people just stared at me throwing myself repeatedly into the muddy ground. This is what I found out at the finish line.

Edinburgh Spartan Race

Five hours and forty minutes later I took the ‘Fire Jump’ in my stride, declining the opportunity for the bad-ass social media photograph, and finally finished the race.  Having consumed 200 calories of gels in since my previously consumed banana at 8am, I was delirious with hunger and consumed the finish-line offerings like a rabid dog – I’ve never been so excited to drink a bottled bro-tein shake in my life.

I can imagine that if it had been a lovely hot July day it would have been great to dry out in the sunshine and enjoy a burger and a beer, but I was just so cold and done that I wanted to get home as quickly as possible. I got my kit bag and headed for the showers, only to find that they were just water bowsers with hoses. I couldn’t handle any more cold water, so I peeled off my wet clothes and struggled into some dry ones, and it was finally time to go home.

Some Closing Thoughts

  • Spartan Race is an extremely well-organised event, and it’s easy to see why it costs as much as it does to participate. The course was very well designed, and decorated with some very high quality obstacles. I would have liked to see some fuel on the course though – there was one water stop with bananas, but other than that the only thing which was on offer was water.
  • The litter situation was completely unacceptable. Participants were throwing litter away all over the course – in Scottish Hill and Ultra races, this is an offence which will result in disqualification. Hopefully Spartan Race collected it all, but they need to do more to change participants’ attitude.
  • The medal is amazing; very heavy duty and good quality, strung on thick, satin ribbon. Attached to it is a segment which you can use to complete a memento of completing a ‘trifecta’ of Spartan events. The Finisher TShirt is also great quality and very soft technical fabric.
  • Unfortunately, the ‘Fast Pass’ is a complete rip-off. I purchased two £12.50 ‘Fast Passes’ which give the user the benefit of ‘free’ parking and bag-check (usually £5 and £2), the ability to skip queues, and 10% off merchandise. Firstly, there were no queues and even if there were any later on, there was no dedicated FastPass lane. Secondly, in order to get any value from the 10% discount, you would need to spend over £55 in merchandise before you would see any benefit. So, I paid £24 to park one car and check two bags – things which could be purchased on the day for a total of £9.
  • I requested a breakdown of results from Spartan Race for the Beast, since it was clear that the race had taken its toll on a lot of entrants. Allegedly across all waves in the Beast, there were 1135 starters, and 1134 finishers, so only one DNF. Given that there was a guy who was literally unconscious in the ambulance with Kynon when he was being taken off the course, I’m reasonably convinced there were at least two… and that’s without going into detail about the dozens of other people in the medical tent. Kynon also received a ‘Congratulations on Finishing’ email the next day despite not being included in the race results, so I am not convinced about the accuracy of the race result processing. I’ve requested further updated results or comment from Spartan, but they are satisfied that these statistics are accurate.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to have experienced this type of event for the first time. OCR racing is a different world from normal running, and is clearly developing a thriving community with their own standards and traditions. There’s no denying that the weather impacted my enjoyment of the event, but in general, I’m in no hurry to return to the Spartan or wider OCR scene. Kynon was fine once he got warmed up and fed, but I don’t think he’ll be back either…

Once again I’ve found that smaller, low-key events are what I enjoy the most. Thankfully there’s a wide selection of events out there to suit all tastes, so I’ll leave the Spartans to do their thing and I’ll go back to ultramarathons.

Did you take part in the Edinburgh Spartan Race?
Have you ever taken part in an event like this?

 

 

Stirling Marathon Race Report | Stirling Marathon 2017

Stirling Marathon

21st May 2017

stirling marathon medal
4h 16m 49s
2065th place overall
510th Female
149th Female Senior

In May 2016, it was announced that the Great Run group was extending their Great Run British Marathon Series, and that Scotland was to get a new marathon. Billed as the Stirling Scottish Marathon, the event was received with enthusiasm by many as a ‘big city’ alternative to the Edinburgh Marathon Festival, with a route which would combine scenic running through the Heart of Scotland with an impressive finish in the shadow of Stirling Castle.

I was excited to hear about the new race and was delighted to receive a media place from Great Run in order to cover the event for Red Wine Runner. My original Spring 2017 plans were to PB at the London Marathon and then have a jog around Stirling for fun, taking the opportunity to soak in as much of the race atmosphere as possible. However, after my London plans were derailed by a nasty bout of flu, I found myself on recovery mode for a little longer than planned. I headed to Stirling with legs which were very well rested, but still with no intentions to try and set a new personal best. I wasn’t really sure what I would get on the day, but I just I wanted to enjoy myself and clock up my 28th marathon finish at this exciting, inaugural event.

I arrived at my friend Jemma’s house in Stirling on Saturday afternoon, and we spent the evening with her husband and his sister, Iona, eating food, drinking wine and discussing our plans for the race. We had to think about which shuttle bus to get to the start, and our cheering squad had to figure out their logistics too. It really could not be over-estimated how much Stirling had embraced this new event – with the entire city centre and surrounding roads being completely shut down to accommodate the runners, the race had pretty much taken over Central Scotland.

Race Morning

After a good night’s sleep we got up at 6am for coffee and breakfast. With all our gear ready, we left the house an hour later, intending to catch the 0720am shuttle bus from Stirling Bus Station. Due to so many roads being closed, the race had provided shuttle transport to the start at Blair Drummond Safari Park which all runners were strongly encouraged to take. There were various park and ride collection points around the Stirling area, with all runners allegedly being accounted for for transport. I was a bit nervous about this – 6,500 runners is a lot of people, and I didn’t recall being asked where I was intending to travel from on race morning. How would they know how many buses to send, and where?

Unfortunately when we arrived at the bus station, we were joining a queue several hundred people long which extended all the way around the concourse. Jemma spotted a friend near the start who had been waiting since 0630, and had seen only two buses turn up, both only able to take a tiny handful of runners due to them being full from earlier collection points out of town. This wasn’t the greatest start to the day, and with no event staff on the ground, communications on how the issue was to be solved was poor. I busied myself on my phone to try and get an answer via Twitter, if only to avoid thinking about how much I needed the toilet…

stirling marathon shuttle bus

Two empty double-decker buses showed up about 0745 though, so in the grand scheme of things we were not inconvenienced too greatly. Some Security personnel directed the long snake of the queue across the concourse to the bus stands and started herding us on to the second bus from the back of the queue first, which understandably *really* irritated some of the runners who had been waiting for much longer. This was regrettable, but we really didn’t have a choice other than to get on as directed. The buses pulled away to a selection of colourful language and two-fingered salutes from the crowd that was left with just over an hour until the start of the race.

stirling marathon start

As previously mentioned, the race starts in the impressive surroundings of Blair Drummond Safari Park. The buses dropped us off at the gates and then we had about a mile’s walk to the start area. When we arrived, Jemma and I went straight to the toilet queues as we were both absolutely bursting. Regrettably there seemed to be somewhat less Portaloos than the demand required, and we spent the next 30 mins inching forward bit by bit. The Portaloos were in addition to other park toilets, but I had hoped that the queues for the Portaloos would move more quickly…

At 9am when the runners were called to their pens for the warm up I was still in the queue with my kit bag, as I still was when the Orange Wave, which I was placed in, started their race. Upon exiting my Portaloo, I raced to where Jemma and Chris were sorting their kit and quickly did some last minute checks before sprinting to my allocated baggage bus to deposit my bag. Together we jogged towards the back of the next wave who had been brought up to the starting line, and with a sigh of relief realised that we could finally get on with the easy bit – running the marathon.

stirling marathon start

The Great Run Group do sporting ceremony very well, and we all felt roused by the music and announcements in the minutes before we crossed the line. Dozens of park rangers were lining the first part of the route alongside cute jungle animal characters; despite the stressful start to the day, as soon as I got a high-five from a Lion and an Elephant I knew everything was going to be just fine.

stirling marathon start

stirling marathon start

Speaking of elephants… this guy came out to cheer too:

stirling marathon safari park

 And this majestic beast was overseeing proceedings from the sidelines. Also spotted – a common-or-garden Red Wine Runner not looking where she is going.

Image from the Metro

Image from the Metro

So we were finally on our way; through the Safari Park before on to the closed A84 road heading towards Doune. There was a little out-and-back where I was able to shout to some friends including Naomi, who was just up ahead. It was truly amazing how many people I knew taking part, especially people from the Scottish ultrarunning community who hadn’t run a road marathon in years, if ever. It seemed like everyone had wanted to be a part of the first running of the Stirling Marathon even if they had sworn off tarmac running for good.

After about a mile I caught up with Naomi, and she and I spent the next 6 miles trotting along together steadily and catching up. It turned out that she had had quite a stressful morning getting to the start via the Park and Ride service; given the amount of feedback which has been deluged on the Stirling Marathon Facebook page, I do hope they can use this first year as a steep learning curve and improve the transport for next year.

stirling marathon route

At four miles we ran through the tiny town of Doune, where there were pipe bands, drummers, and 100s of enthusiastic supporters. Even at this early stage we had seen that the people who lived along the route were willing to turn out their full support for the race and make us feel welcomed as we ran through their towns and villages. Between six and seven miles Naomi and I went our separate ways; we’ve ran together for years now and I was aware that I was pulling her on a bit – she’s not daft enough to burn out too early in a marathon so I drifted ahead as we approached Dunblane.

The route swept through the town from the West to the South, and from the first hand-made ‘Welcome To Dunblane!’ banner, the road was packed with crowds for the entire two miles. The outpouring of support was phenomenal; young and old, they cheered us through their town and offered jelly beans, orange slices, and high fives. My face actually started to ache from all the smiling – I know the support in London is legendary, but this somehow felt so much more authentic and closer to home.

Next up at ten miles was Bridge of Allan. Again, even though the rain was now steadily pouring, the crowds stayed out to cheer. The route then presented a tough hill as we took a brief lollipop shaped tour around the University of Stirling, and by the time we were running past the foot of the Wallace Monument, we had hit half way and it was time to look out for Iona, Duncan, and other assorted friends waiting to see us and deliver high-fives.

I did a quick body-check at half way to assess how I felt. I had passed half way in 2hrs 06m which was promising, as I was feeling really good and my legs definitely had some pep in them. I had been checking my watch occasionally the last few miles and was comfortably running around 9:30/9:40 pace without trying, so I decided to try and stick to that and see what happened. I knew we’d hit Stirling city centre and the laps at about 18 miles, and I had been mentally visualising the race as a sprint finish with an 18 mile warm up.

stirling marathon finish

A lot of people had been apprehensive of how the lap system would work. The route map showed that we would go around the city two and a half times before finishing at the foot of the castle, where there was a lane system in place – keep right to carry on, keep left to finish. There were also timing maps to verify that every finisher had completed the correct distance. I think this system worked ok, but completing the lapped section was very tough mentally and I had to work hard to keep my head together.

stirling marathon laps

Upon entering the city loop, we immediately merged with fast runners who were completing their final loop and were sprinting through the city. I was conscious to not get in people’s way, but it was hard when they were ducking and weaving around the slower runners. The support from the crowd was brilliant but I quickly realised I had to ignore it as I still had 7 miles to run, despite the well meaning shouts of ‘you’re nearly there!’ and the big signs announcing ‘800m To Go’, and ‘400m To Go’. Running past the finish line area not just once, but twice, was quite soul destroying, and required a degree of tenacity to keep going.

The loop consisted of a climb into the city centre then a section going right through the middle of the town. It had been raining for a couple of hours which made the paving underfoot very slippery, and the sections of road which were cobbled were treacherous! After passing through the centre, the loop went past the finish and then negotiated a couple of steep underpasses on a roundabout which were narrow and slippery. We then went through a housing estate with lots of friendly supporters, and then returned to the start of the loop after climbing up a nasty lung-bursting hill.

Eventually it was my turn to complete a final lap of the city and finally let the rousing cheers of the crowd spur me on. There were quite a few friends scattered around and seeing them on my way gave me a last boost for a strong finish, as I finally got to ‘Keep Left’ and cross the line.

stirling marathon medal

I was really pleased with my race. I felt very strong throughout most of the miles and maintained a really even pace without a single walking break.  I haven’t had many good runs after London and I was worried that I’d lost a lot of fitness, but this is clearly not the case and I am more recovered from my illness than I thought! I’m excited to get back to training again, and will be tackling the Strathearn Marathon in two weeks’ time with renewed confidence.

stirling marathon

All in all, I think the Stirling Marathon has the potential to be a really great race. There are one or two issues which stand out which need change or improvement, such as the situations with the buses and the toilets, but hopefully the organisers will listen to the feedback from runners and improve for next year. I’m still not convinced about the loops of the city however, and would be in favour of accommodating a few miles elsewhere earlier in the route in order to reduce the amount of laps.

Thanks again to Great Run for the opportunity to run at this new event!

Did you run the Stirling Marathon?
What do you think of races with laps?

London Marathon 2017 | Race Report

London Marathon 2017London Marathon Medal 2017

23rd April 2017

Time: 4h 22m 0s

Place: 18,533 of 39,349
Gender: 5030 of 14,468
Category: 2750 of 8768

Getting to the start of the London Marathon has not been a straight forward journey for me. Entry through the general race ballot is notoriously hard to achieve, and even more so nowadays when the ballot is open for five days. Estimates put your chances of gaining one of the precious 10,000 ballot places at odds of around 1 in 26, with your other options being a Good For Age place, a UK Athletics Running Club place (one granted per 50 members of an affiliated club), or taking on the responsibility of a charity place with the associated fundraising.

After seven consecutive years of failing in the ballot, I was royally fed up. It seemed that year after year I defied the increasingly smaller odds to continue to miss out on a place which I found endlessly frustrating. My running club is not affiliated to Scottish Athletics, I chose increasing distance over increasing my speed a long time ago, and other than my very first race seven years ago I have never been a charity runner…

When I was offered the opportunity to run the race with Reebok as part of a team of ambassadors celebrating the launch of their new Floatride shoe, I was utterly delighted. Not only a place in the race which had evaded me for years, but the services of a coach, a bundle of kit, and two pairs of shoes as well! I felt very lucky that the blog which I set up so many years ago to write about my training has blossomed into something which attracts opportunities such as this.

Then, the week before the race I got the flu…

I have already covered the gory details in my previous post, but I was very ill in the seven days before the race and was only able to make the final decision to race less than 24 hours before the starting gun went. Not ideal preparation by anyone’s standards, but let it never be left unsaid that when I’m determined to achieve something I will fight tooth and nail until I achieve my goal. I was sitting in a hotel room under a mile from the start of the London Marathon 2017 – and nothing was going to stop me crossing that finish line.


I was staying in Canary Wharf, so my journey to the Red Start was very straight forward. A quick ride on the DLR and I was in Greenwich and walking with the masses to the starting area. I had no idea what the best time to arrive would be, so I aimed for about 8.30am which seemed sensibly early for the 10 am start. I went to the toilet before finding a tree to sit down under and lean against and tried to listen to some music. Unfortunately the mobile networks seemed to be overwhelmed already and I couldn’t connect to Spotify, so instead, I just people-watched and tried to relax.


I was nervous in case I had radically misjudged how recovered I was; perhaps I might get a couple of hours into the race and then have to pull out. Unlike most pre-race nerves I couldn’t rationalise this away – it was a real concern and a very valid one. I kept on worrying in case I had made a poor choice and one that I would live (or not) to regret.

I ate a banana at 9.30am and went for one last pee before moving to my corral. I was in Red 4, which was relatively close to the starting line meaning no half hour wait to get going after the gun went! I had purchased a cheap Primark hoody to wear to keep warm in the final hours which reluctantly I stripped off and threw to the side as we started moving forward; in the sunshine it was warm, but there was an early morning chill in the air which was cold on my bare skin – thankfully I’ve been running long enough to know that these conditions were perfect, and within 10 minutes of the race I would be perfectly warm.


I wasn’t sure how I was feeling; sadly the week’s illness had really taken some of the shine off the experience for me. I was expecting some huge waves of emotion to hit as I finally found myself on the starting line of the London Marathon, but in all honesty I couldn’t think beyond the first 5k. I didn’t know anyone in the Red Start to meet up with, and I’m an antisocial creature at the best of times so I wasn’t talking to anyone around me. I was excited to finally get moving, but was underwhelmed by the starting line experience – the footage you see on the television with the grandstands, the music, and the hot air balloons is the Blue and Green start…the Red Start has a gantry and a timing mat with a sprinkling of people clapping and that’s it – you’re on your way.


I’ve been thinking about how to write this race report in an engaging manner – there is only so much you can say about running the 26.2 mile distance when you do it over and over again, especially if on an occasion your effort is just to finish rather than to reach a goal. There’s no point in listing my mile splits – I ran a metronomic 10 minute mile pace for almost the entire race, splitting the first five 5k splits around 30 minutes each, before slowing a little for the last three 5k splits, recording 31:34, 32:21 and 32:22 in the final 15k after having a couple of short walking breaks. Here’s some of the data provided by the race – a very solidly average performance…

london marathon 2017

london marathon 2017

So what did I see on on my 26.2 mile journey?

The first 5k heads out East, deep into residential London; I knew about this but was pleasantly surprised to still see moderate support out and about at just after 10am. People were sitting in their gardens in the sunshine enjoying a glass of fizz with their breakfast, and there were already community bands out performing. We passed a couple of huge Evangelical or Baptist churches where the congregation was out in force with megaphones and music, piling blessings and encouragement upon us all as we danced by.

I loved how engaged the crowds were; every pub was open early and people were getting stuck into the booze and shouting with the enthusiasm that only an Englishman on his third pint of pre-noon Carling on St Georges day can deliver.   It’s the British way; if there is live sport on, you grab a beer and go and shout at the underdogs. We’re so used to being shit at sport that we are born happy to get out there and cheer on competitors, especially if they’re not winning. We love to see people fighting hard for whatever it is they are working for, and events such as the 2012 Olympics and the Commonwealth Games have only brought mass participation sport further into the public eye.

By 10k I was beginning to realise there was a common theme to the shout outs being thrown in my direction – they all seemed to involve Jesus in some regard, so I should have been less surprised when I was overtaken by a bearded and shaggy haired man, naked but for a loin cloth and a massive crucifix strapped to his back, running barefoot. Obviously. I’ve come across Barefoot Jesus before and he’s a pain in the backside. His cross has a habit of bashing you on the shoulder, and he doesn’t like people taking selfies with him. You need a sense of humor if you’re going to be that much of a twat in a race, but he obviously didn’t have room to pack one in his minimal attire. He’s been pestering runners at World Marathon Majors around the world for a while, and on Sunday it was my turn…

london marathon 2017

I feel like it is at this point in the story that I should mention that my friend Mary’s very, very Catholic Mother was quite worried on my behalf when Mary told me that I was poorly, but was still attempting to run the race. Mary’s Mum decided to say a decade of the Rosary for me to help me on my way. Due to me being a massive Atheist I guess the prayers got a little diluted, and what I got instead was my own personal Jesus following me around the course, annoying me into going faster to get away from him. I guess the Lord works in mysterious ways…

Moving on, and a highlight of passing Trinity College was the balcony of people dressed in slightly disheveled Tuxedos and ball gowns still going hard on the Champagne after a marathon session of their own. 10/10 awarded for enthusiasm and some superb singing to Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing. This was quickly contrasted with the slightly more gritty streets of Bermondsey where there were DJs playing some dank beats straight out of their Mum’s front garden bringing a different flavour of party out on to the streets altogether. Everything which I had read and heard was true – the London Marathon is a Tour de Force of the best parts of British culture, served with a healthy dollop of London attitude.

13 miles in

Before I knew it I had danced myself half way around the course and the iconic crossing of Tower Bridge was upon me. Here I took my one and only picture during the race; it was so, so busy that I was scared to drop my phone and then have to stop to collect it, causing a runner pile-up and being a huge pain in the ass.


By now my face was hurting a little from grinning so hard; the vibes from the crowd were INSANE, I’ve never experienced so many people giving a crap about the sport which I graft away at day-in-day-out. They were cheering every single last runner like they meant the world to them, and it filled my heart right up to the brim. Of course I wasn’t feeling great; I was feeling dizzy, nauseated, and coughing like a drain, but those crowds made it easy to ignore the struggle and focus on anything other than my churning insides.


Turning a hard right after we crossed the bridge took us on to the two-way section where the fastest UK club runners were making their way through their last five miles. This was a welcome distraction from the rising temperatures as I saw so many awesome International athletes grinding away – Devon Yanko, Chrissie Wellington, Scott Overall – along with a selection of familiar vests from Scotland including the three speedy Metro Aberdeen lasses who went under 3 hours. I wanted to join in the shouts of support to the other side of the road, but my breathing was a tricky balance and I needed to keep my heart rate under control.

I had known since the start that to succeed in the race I would need to keep my heart rate low and not work too hard – basically I needed to ‘ultra shuffle’ my way around and never get out of breath. Thankfully there are no serious hills on the London Marathon course so trotting around on minimal effort was easy. However, as the heat rose to somewhere perhaps around 16C, it became more of a challenge and I started to feel a bit more ‘spangly’ – dizzy, anxious, and panicky. I took on a sensible amount of water and Lucozade when each were offered, but also used the remaining water in my bottles to cool myself down which helped a lot.

The crowds on the Isle of Dogs were less intense and contrary to many reports I’ve read, there were actually some gaps at the barriers between miles 15 and 20. This was almost a welcome break from the noise, but these were tough miles for me (as they are in every marathon) and I had to play some mental tricks to keep my head in the game. I knew that as soon as I hit 20 I would be fine, and the ‘difficult’ five miles of a marathon are usually over in 45-50 minutes. When you think about it that way, I think it seems much less of a challenge.

One in 40,000

At this point I will address the crowding on the course. We all know how busy the London Marathon is and you just need to look at any of the television coverage of the masses to know how challenging it is to run in your own space unless you really are up the very sharp end of the race. I knew that this was going to be a hazard and I tried to not let it bother me, but by 20 miles in, many of my fellow runners were working my last nerve. Stopping dead in the middle of the road, diving across peoples paths to go and see supporters, throwing bottles or litter with no due attention, slowing to a walk without moving to the side, and then there was the monstrosities which were the Pace Groups; filled with many runners who believed that their right to a time they desired trumped my right to run a safe race… In particular, the Red Sub-4 hour pace group, comprised of a cloud of a couple of hundred runners taking over the entire road, steamrolling past and shoving runners out of the way. I was ‘run over’ by them about 10 miles in and I wanted to clothes-line the whole bunch for their bad race etiquette – very poor behaviour indeed.

But – it’s London, and that’s what you get out there. I’m just glad I didn’t try to achieve a Personal Best as the crowds would have made it impossible and I recorded a distance of 26.7 miles as I ducked and weaved around those who exist within their own oblivious bubble.

The Final Push

As I eased into the last 6 miles the miles became less easy, and I started to have to try a little harder to keep it moving steadily. However, impossible as it may seem, the crowds were getting even more enthusiastic and they pulled me on when I was desperate for just a tiny walking break. I took my first walk of the whole race somewhere in the 23rd mile, and one final one in the Blackfriars Underpass in mile 24, where a festival-sized PA system was blaring the Chase and Status song ‘Blind Faith’ which gave me chills as I got ready to run again. In an amazing bit of timing, the chorus dropped just as I left the tunnel to the roar of the crowd cheering us like heroes as we ran out into the sunshine – it was here that the emotion finally hit and I found tears prickling my eyes as I ran into the final mile of the race.

The finish is just as spectacular as it looks on television. Curving around the last bend on to The Mall, with the flags flying, the grandstands full of people, and the finishing gantries… is an amazing feeling. I looked for the finish line cameras and waved and blew kisses, keeping everything crossed that Kynon and my family would be watching at home. I know I put them through a lot of worry at times and my poor Mother was probably beside herself following me on the tracker all day in case I stopped moving, so I really wanted them to see that I was ok.

london marathon 2017

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were handing out finishers medals in one finishing chute but I didn’t fancy my chances of not throwing up all over the Royals, so I gave that chute a swerve and chose the one right next to it instead. It goes without saying that I am fully on board with their #HeadsTogether charity campaign which has gained so much publicity from the race and associated media coverage. I’m not the biggest fan of the Royal family, but it is fantastic to see the younger generation put their platform to excellent use.


After snapping a quick victory selfie, I began the long stagger to get my kit bag which was unfortunately in the furthest away lorry – a good quarter mile or so down the Mall! I desperately wanted to sit down in the shade but I knew the sensible thing to do was to get my kit so that I could crash and then stay on the ground as long as I liked.

That turned out to be a good half hour – there was a muscle in my back which wouldn’t stop cramping and I felt very dizzy. I found a free patch of kerb next to a lorry and sat myself down and made myself eat and drink as much as I could stomach from the goody bag, whilst wrapped up in my foil blanket like a freshly baked potato. After a short while I managed to make it over to the reunion area where I met the previously mentioned Mary and her husband, Jo, who had come up from Reading to cheer me on, and then we all went to drink wine on the South Bank in the evening sunshine, and it was the perfect end to a pretty damn good day.


And with that – against all odds – London is finally done.

Some Final Thoughts

The London Marathon effect is weird. People get obsessed with doing it for a variety of reasons and I’ve certainly been guilty of that for long enough. Outside of the world of running, it’s one of the few races that most people know about and it gets very grating having to explain why you haven’t done it to people that don’t understand. They don’t understand that other marathons are the same distance as London and can be just as tough to run but London is toughest to get in to! Unless you’ve done London, the one race they can relate to, they don’t see you as a real marathon runner. It’s exhausting and boring to explain, especially justifying why running for charity in order to get a place is not really a viable option.

However the flip side of this is that when you DO run London, it’s the one day of the year where there is a huge interest in a sport which normally nobody cares about. Friends download the app and track you, they excitedly tell you that they are going to look for you on the television, colleagues ask how you got on. This is not normally what happens when you’re a long distance runner.

It’s both satisfying and frustrating; running is my hobby and my life. I graft away at it 365 days a year in one way or the other, and for 364 days of the year, nobody gives a shit. People glaze over when you tell them about your training runs, they call you crazy, they try and get you to stay out for ‘just one more’, they cannot get their head around the concept of running an ultramarathon or getting up with a hangover and doing a marathon as a training run for fun. It’s nice to have people care about my sport and be interested for once, but I’ve already done a marathon and two ultras this year so far and no-one outside of my silo of running friends really knows or cares… and I kind of like it that way.

So my final line on it is this – the London Marathon is amazing and every distance runner should try to do it once, if only to remember why they run and what it is that they like best about their sport. Is it the iconic British tradition, the television coverage, the social media circus, crowds screaming your name, tripping over someone taking a selfie, or broadcasting the experience on Facebook Live? Or is it the quiet local races, familiar faces, signing up on the day, pensioners with clipboards out in the rain, and weak orange squash at the finish? There is no right or wrong answer here; running is running and I am not here to pass judgement on anyone’s experiential preference.


London, you were incredible and I’m so glad I finally got to tread your streets and see you at your sporting best. For the first time in nearly a decade though, this year the 1st of May did not see me submit my name into your public ballot and I’m not sure when I will again. That’s the only thing that’s changed though…next April I’ll still be running; pounding the trails out there somewhere in the countryside, and quietly getting on with it on my own terms…

Do you prefer big races or small races?
Have you entered the 2018 London Marathon ballot?
What’s the stupidest costume you’ve ever seen in a race?

 

John Muir Ultra | 50k Race Report 2017

The John Muir Way Ultramarathon

John Muir 50k 2017

John Muir 50k
1st April 2017

5hr 37m 47s
105th of 165 Runners
32nd of 65 Females

The John Muir Ultra is a relatively new race on the Scottish Ultramarathon scene, with the 2017 race being only the second running of the event. The race is delivered by the same team who run the Foxtrail Winter Running Series, and it follows 50km of beautiful East Lothian trails and roads from Port Seton to Dunbar along the John Muir Way.

john muir ultra

The race first came to my attention when I read about Antonia’s third place finish last year; it was then consequently on my radar when I was looking for races to do this Spring to keep my long runs longer in the lead up to the Cateran 55 in May. Without a training squad and adequate transport to get places that are beyond the reach of Lothian Buses, I’ve not been doing any exciting running so far this year; this was a great opportunity to go somewhere I hadn’t been before and knock out a little ultra in preparation for the upcoming medium-sized ultra.

As it happened, the week before the race was somewhat stress-heavy and I found myself lacking in enthusiasm for what should have been a great day out. Kynon was still in Stonehaven for the weekend and with a slightly heavy head from one too many beers consumed the night before, I found myself sitting alone in my kitchen in the dark at 5:30am on race morning, eating a breakfast I had no appetite for, and seriously questioning my motives.

It was a mix of a crisis of confidence and a slight fear of the unknown; perhaps I underestimate how much I rely on Kynon’s support to lift me up, and finding myself at the end of a hard week without him at the last minute due to a clash of events, I started doubting whether my legs had it in them to carry me so far that day. It was reminiscent of the singular time I’ve come close to a DNF at the Cateran 55 in 2014, when troubles in my head overtook the strength in my legs and nearly pulled me under. We all know that in this sport the body will try to give up long before the mind will, so keeping a strong head throughout the ups and downs of ultramarathoning is imperative.

I’m usually good at using running as both a cathartic release and/or a way to hide from my troubles in life, but when life gets particularly bad, the fight becomes a lot harder. I really didn’t want to run. I wanted to get back into my bed, turn my alarms off, and sleep until I woke up again. For any new readers, my husband and I have been living apart for 10 months now due to various shitty circumstances, and it ain’t great.  Right now life is hard and confusing, both financially and mentally, and the irony was that the only thing which was guaranteed to fix me, was the one thing I didn’t want to do.

However, striding down Clerk St at 6am in the morning, wearing my favourite Houston Texans bobble hat and my lucky racing skirt, I knew I had taken the hardest step of the day. I got the train from Edinburgh to Dunbar and then hitched a lift from the station to Foxlake Adventures with a chap called Norrie, who was a solid gold legend for helping me out at the last minute. I got myself registered easily and looked out for any familiar faces; I knew a handful of others doing the race, but it was an unusual situation where there were very few friends running this particular race. The buses to the start at Port Seton left promptly at 8am, and by 8:45am, the runners were assembling for a pre-race photograph and briefing.

John Muir Ultra

I had studied the course briefly at the last minute and knew to expect three aid stations, but I had no real idea what to expect in terms of terrain. I should have read Antonia’s helpful blog again, because then I would have been less surprised to be on sandy beach paths quite so quickly after the start! Even though there were only 165 in the full 50k ultra, the narrow paths were quickly crowded and we followed one another in single file, carefully watching where our feet were going.

John Muir Ultra

It was quite a bright, warm morning, and the first 4 miles on the beach gave us some lovely views. Passing through Aberlady at 6 miles gave us a little water stop, and then we headed onto some walking paths and roads to take us to Gullane.

Picture - Neil Scott

Picture – Neil Scott

Even though the sun wasn’t really out, it was a humid and ‘close’ day which meant I stripped off my outer layers quickly and drank my full litre of water before the first check point at Archerfield Walled Garden. I drank deeply from the cups on offer and refilled both my soft-flasks before swiftly moving on, following a winding path through a forest filled with daffodils.

John Muir Ultra

One of the features of Archerfield is a beautiful ‘Fairy Trail’ where little houses are hidden in tree-stumps and roots. I would have loved to stop to examine them all closely, but I just stopped by this one for a brief photographic memory.

John Muir Ultra

We continued on with the sea on our left towards North Berwick and the half-way checkpoint. I’ve never been to North Berwick and I enjoyed the brief detour through the town which allowed me to admire some beautiful houses. The route took us across the West Bay on the sand, before we reached to Lifeboat Station where the checkpoint was based. Here, I refilled my flasks again and enjoyed some banana chunks and fresh orange slices, before heading out across Milsey Bay on the sand towards the imposing loom of Berwick Law.

Thankfully the route didn’t take us anywhere near the summit and we circumnavigated around the base avoiding any serious incline. The next few miles were then across farmland and fields which would have been very muddy had it been a wet day (or even a wet week!) but thankfully we traversed the packed earth relatively unscathed and approached the next water stop at mile 20 deep in a forest, by a fishing lake.

John Muir Ultra

This little checkpoint was the first to be equipped with the nectar of ultrarunning, full fat coke. I also had two slices of a vanilla traybake birthday cake which was inexplicably delicious. The miles which followed saw me skip through the forest with a smile on my face in genuine delight – I had finally cheered up and achieved the sweet release of the runner’s high which keeps me coming back to these events. I felt strong and capable once more, and ready to fight home to the finish.

Amazing, happy picture by John Lochhead

Amazing, happy picture by John Lochhead

The miles leading to 26.2 and the final checkpoint were largely nondescript, although I found the going tougher as the clouds had burned off and the temperature began to rise. There was also some kind of factory processing plant which was giving off the most horrific smell I have ever had the misfortune to breathe into my body; I think it was processing animal or fish material for fertiliser, and was polluting about half a mile of the route with the awful stench. I dry-heaved a couple of times as I ran as fast as I could to get upwind of it…

Passing through the last checkpoint at 26.2 miles, the amazingly cheerful marshalls buoyed us with reminders that it was only 8km to go. Not being a metric thinker, 5.5 miles seemed a lot longer in my head. I ran a little with Amanda and Fiona around this point, but eventually the direct sunshine started to get the better of me and I threw in some walking breaks. The last few miles were definitely my favourite part of the route; a little pathway by a river for a while which lead to a coastal path where the beautiful white beaches reminded me of the Moray coast.

John Muir Ultra

John Muir Ultra

John Muir Ultra

The race concluded with a glory lap of the Fox Lake itself, and a final sprint towards race HQ. I finished in 5hr 37m 47s and thoroughly enjoyed a good sit down in the sunshine on the deck for a while afterwards, pumping myself full of orange squash. I was feeling decidedly ropey for a while upon finishing; having drank an estimated four litres of fluid during the race, I had yet to need to go to the toilet. I was dizzy and nauseated; these early Spring races are always so hard when the temperature sneaks up on you and you’re used to running in the snow!

Remarkably, despite my body’s best efforts to the contrary, I managed to pull off a top quality finishing pose in the last twenty meters which was captured perfectly by Bob Marshall Sports Photography. I’ll await my ‘Best Actress’ Oscar nomination in the post…

John Muir Ultra 2017

So all in all, the John Muir Ultra is a great day out and I’d love to do it again. For a brand new race, they’ve got all of the important race features executed perfectly, and served with a side of East Lothian’s cheeriest marshalls. A stunning route and a very achievable distance for a first trail ultramarathon, I expect that the popularity of this little race will explode very soon.

Once my nausea had cleared I headed home on the train and was back in my flat in Edinburgh within an hour. The morning’s troubles seemed like a distant memory from another lifetime ago and I headed out for some beers in the sunshine. One of my friends had commented earlier in the day on my reluctance to do the race by saying ‘I don’t know why you do something you don’t want to do?’. Well; not a lot of things in life make sense, least of all ultrarunning. I do it because sometimes, I feel it’s all I can do.

Next up: London Marathon…

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