A Half to Celebrate Freshers’ Please

The day before Kenyan super human Eliud Kipchoge claimed a new world record by a whole minute and 18 seconds at the Berlin Marathon, 369 runners gathered to participate in the annual Crathes Half Marathon on a sunny September day. These runners gathering on the beautiful grounds of Crathes Castle weren’t going to come away from their experience with the same plaudits as the 33-year-old Olympic Champion, but would likely be fulfilled by a sense of great achievement at tackling 13 miles, perhaps as fast as their legs could carry them.

Finishing a half marathon is no mean feat, and this course can actually prove quite a challenging one if your used to smooth, flat road running. Several rocky off-road sections and some slight undulations can really take a toll on the legs, especially towards the end of the course. Apart from the pain, which lest we forget is an important part of becoming a faster runner, the scenery is idyllic as competitors race down quiet roads in a fairly flat landscape with livestock as their predominant spectators.

I had signed up for the Crathes Half a couple of months ago, keen to compete at a distance I had never raced at. It was only until a week before the event I realised it would come at the end of Freshers Week, seven days in which first years at university – i.e. Yours truly – participate in a fair amount of drinking. Feeling slightly rough on the day before I knew I couldn’t go out on the eve of the race and was given a good excuse to visit my grandparents instead.

On race day I felt fresher (no pun intended) and I think was slightly overexcited at breakfast tucking into some sausages. Probably never a good idea before any physical activity. I thankfully didn’t feel too bad as I lined up on the start line at Crathes Castle with my poor taste of music pounding in my ears. I’ve never listened to music in a race before but I think it helped.

Kyle Greig of Metro Aberdeen was first around the course in an impressive hour and 10 minutes, meaning he surely would have covered the first 10 kilometres of the course in under 35 minutes. I didn’t expect to be anywhere near matching those kinds of splits and knew it was key I remained focussed on setting a sensible pace. As per usual this didn’t quite happen and I raced out of the blocks, averaging around four minute Ks for the first two miles.

I soon realised I wouldn’t be able to sustain that pace and slowed down considerably finding a fellow runner and staying by his side for most of the race. I’m not sure how my new pacemaker felt about this. I never asked. This worked well and I actually managed to overtake several runners in the last few miles, seemingly sneaking past them as they slowed on sections that had a gradual incline. Having been quite lazy with my running recently my legs hadn’t hurt this much in a long time and in a way, it felt good as a remembered how much I enjoy pushing myself to my physical limit.

Managing a brief and painful sprint in the last 100 metres I completed my Crathes Half Marathon in 1:33:08. Not too shabby for a first time outing at this distance on the back of an alcohol fuelled, sleepless Freshers’ Week! Kipchoge may have completed 26 miles in just a quarter more of the time I completed 13 in, but I bet he didn’t go home and eat a big pizza. There’s no argument that his world-breaking run was truly inspirational though.

Glas Tulaichean Uphill – 26/05/18

Last Saturday afternoon I competed in my first ever uphill running race, it also only being the third time I’ve competed this year. It was actually the first time I’ve run up a munro which I found rather surprising when I think about it. The finish line was atop Glas Tulaichean, a munro a few miles west of the Spittal of Glenshee. Two of the most keen runners I know, my Auntie Marie and her partner Stuart, where running and had encouraged me to join them earlier in the week.

With my usual anxiety towards actually participating in races I desperately searched for a good excuse and as usual couldn’t find one. However, instead of looking for a bad excuse, on this occasion I decided that I needed to just go for it. I realised that I didn’t need to worry about placings or speed, I just needed to test my fitness by putting a good effort.

On race day Marie swung by the house and we chatted about the race on the short 30 minute journey. We were accompanied by my cousin, Katie, and our mad new-ish dog, Cora. It would be Katie’s responsibility to look after this hairy wrecking ball. I would be more positive about this good natured dog if I hadn’t returned home yesterday to find it had destroyed my Fijian diary. Don’t worry I can’t stay mad at dogs for long.

Arriving at the start line near Dalmunzie Hotel, we were met by stunning views up a valley with steep slopes, gradients I was secretly hoping we wouldn’t be attempting to run up. The scorching weather added to the beautiful scenery and there was little cloud cover in the sky. If I could survive running in Fiji then surely I would be able to cope with temperatures around 5 degrees cooler.

As it approached starting time my only real worry was some nasty blisters which I had on my feet.  I had counted at least five this morning, a result of running in new shoes which I hadn’t properly worn in yet. I had been forced to make a last minute purchase as my old innovates which I loved dearly had long passed there best before date. The soles were falling off and there was very little grip left. Not a good pair of shoes to be running in. This meant that my sole test of my new shoes had been 10k run the day before.

Apart from the blisters I was feeling confident, knowing I just had to give it my best shot. At 2pm we were ushered to the start line and the race to the summit started. The first three kilometres or so were raced at a high pace as we made our way along the valley floor to the bottom of Glas Tuilachen. With a race distance of seven kilometres, much of the next 4K was raced up a frighteningly steep gradient, made harder by the fact you could see the rest of the climb ahead at all times.

Passing through a river at the bottom of the climb my blisters had stung as water had filled my shoes and I really started to feel them getting worse as I slowly ascended the steep land rover track. I was maybe overtaken by four runners on the climb. I have a bad habit of starting races too fast. I was however motivated by the fact that I could see the runners walking like most hill runners should at some point. I am not one of these runners and like to continue running even when it is obviously more efficient to put your hands on your knees and walk.

I manged to catch one of these fellow competitors in the last few hundred meters, to take back a position I had lost. 50 minutes and 47 seconds after starting this 7.2 kilometre race I had reached the finish line. As I collapsed in a heap (okay it wasn’t that dramatic, I took a seat) I was able to take fantastic 360 views of the surrounding hills and munros, looking up the Larig Ghru and down on the highest peaks in Perthshire.

I was pleased that I had been able to keep running the whole way and hadn’t given into the incredible pain which I was now feeling in my feet. I was also pleased for Marie who smashed her 1 hour target by at least 3 minutes, while Stuart finished far ahead of me in a very respectable eight place out of a 44 strong field. I had finished 13th and had learnt a bit about my form with the Highland Cross approaching in four weeks time.

I had also learnt that you shouldn’t race in new shoes you haven’t worn in yet. Running back down to the start line with the others, I tentatively plodded along the land rover track as my feet felt like they were on fire. Returning to the car, I surveyed the damage and found lots of blood and some impressive holes in my heels. This had been a bit of a learning curve.

At least I have an excuse to blow the cobwebs of the bike this week! Despite the blisters it had been a great experience and again reminded me of the perks of racing in terms of being a good motivator to go out and put in the effort. Hopefully I able to get my running shoes on again by the weekend. Now where can I get some compeads?

 

Dess Woods Night Race (26/01/18)

On a chilly Friday evening my Mother and I embarked on another adventure down the Deeside Valley to participate in our second race of the year respectively. This time we would be stopping just short of the village of Lumphanan, the destination being a sizable area of woodland two miles short of where we had ran the detox three weeks previously.

This had been a race which I had wanted to take part in for while, taking place in my old training grounds, Dess Woods. These woods were located on a sloping hill, about a mile outside Kincardine O’ Neil, the village which had spent the first 17 years of my life living in. With lots of different trails to explore alongside steep climbs and technical descents it played in major part in kick starting my running obsession. Many a moonlit night had been spent testing my legs in these woods so I was excited to be returning. I was also excited and partly nervous to see how my legs would fare in a full out trail race.

After the Lumphanan Detox at the start of the year, my training had gone into a slight decline again, before I had reversed this in the ten days or so before this next race. I had been doing a lot of trail running, but had struggled slightly as Braemar had been coated by a relatively thick layer of snow for the last couple of weeks. I knew that I wouldn’t be competing for the top places but had the target of perhaps finishing in the top 10. I had looked at the times from the two previous years and thought this was a realistic target if I decided to really push myself.

As I had often been free during the day in recent months I hadn’t done much night running, an activity which I used to love. The fact that this was a night race also added a tinge of excitement as I packed my head torch along with my ‘Garmin’ watch that I had finally got to work!

On arrival at Dess Woods we met my Auntie and her partner and went about picking up our race numbers and safety pins. With our numbers pinned to our clothing, we studied the race route…

The route would be completed by doing two loops, with the first of the loops being completed twice. At 8.7 kilometers it was as hilly as I expected it would be, starting with a tough climb up from the Deeside Activity Park at the bottom of the woods, up to the gate at right at the top of the woods. After this steep fire track climb lasting about 900 meters, there was a slight grassy descent before a left turn took you up through some undulating fields.

When I had trained here I had affectionately referred to these as being part of the ‘sheep fields’ due to the creatures of a wooly nature which usually habited these parts. Great views up and down the valley where gained from this high point, though in the darkness the lights of Kincardine O’Neil could still be viewed, lighting up the valley floor to the east.

After a short loop in these fields a technical bit of the route would have to be negotiated, with an off-piste jump over a wall and a fence to access Dess Woods again. This was followed by an easier section which completed the first loop, with a long-ish descent, in which the route crosses the climb which the runners will have started they’re race on. The route then returns to being undulating, passing a waterfall which is another place which I used to love past.

Following on from the waterfall, is a very steep climb taking competitors on a windy route between the trees before eventually coming to a forest break. This break in the woodland doesn’t last long however, as after a short descent there the route rejoins the first climb, returning runners to the first loop which they will have to complete again before a long descent to the finish line which they will hopefully reach in one piece.

Having completed a short warm-up and taken part in some pre-race chat, I lined up on the start line, hoping that I would be able to hurt enough to finish in a position or time I was happy with. With my trusty innovates I decided to just wear on layer, a long sleeved top knowing I would warm up quite fast. I was also wearing running leggings to try and keep my legs and their muscles warm. If you can’t tell I’m very scientific when it comes to these details.

Soon enough we were off, with 60 so running being unleashed like a frantic group of wild dogs. It took while to find my breath, but when I did I surprisingly felt good on the first climb, deciding to push myself harder than I probably should have and by the time I reached the gate at the top my legs were already shot. “Damn that was stupid!”, my legs shouted.

Making my way towards the ‘Sheep Fields”, it was good to get out into the open, as the lights in the valley below were joined by a starry night sky. This provided an atmospheric background to some tough running over muddy ground which was as equally hard in some places as it was soft in others. At least ice was minimal! The fields where lit up by runners weaving between the old walls and rocks which littered the grassy surface.

After some undulation, it was nice to then get a long descent, on slightly interrupted by the hurdle section over a wall and fence to get back into the woods. On arrival into the woods I felt that there was another runner close behind and I fell back a place on the latter half of the descent towards the waterfall. I attempted to keep her in sight for as long as possible, but lost sight of my fellow competitor on the hard ascent back through the trees.

I was annoyed at myself for letting this happen but was slightly more sympathetic when I found out later that she was the current Scottish Hill Racing Champion. However, I realised I had to carry on pushing on completion of the second loop, continued to push myself as hard as possible up the final ascent of the race, returning to the first loop including the difficult terrain of the fields.

At this point my legs felt like led and I was hurting physically, but still loving it mentally. Again the view of the stars reminded me why I loved running in the great outdoors and I savored every minute of the squidgy ground as my head torch picked up the eyes of deer, rabbits and other creatures acting as the race’s accidental spectators.

Crossing into the woods for the second time, I pounded the long descent hard, aiming to keep three as the maximum number of people that had managed to overtook me when I reached that finish line. Reaching this target, I crossed the line in 13th. It wasn’t a top 10 position but it would do.

That had been tough but I there was no doubt that I was glad that I had taken part. It had provided me with another boost in my confidence and I was realizing that I needed to stop being so hesitant to take part in events like this one. I had ran the hilly 8.7K in just over 41 minutes, so was happy with my overall pace and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. My Auntie wasn’t too far behind finishing in 18th place while my Mother came home well of last position, a placing which she had been convinced she would have finished in.

 

Lumphanan Detox 10K 2018

With the festive period coming to a close, there seemed no better option than to make the short journey down the Deeside valley to the village of Lumphanan to participate in the aptly named “Detox” race. After a lull in my running addiction in recent weeks, this seemed the perfect opportunity to create a benchmark at the start of a new year. This challenging 10K race is the only one that is nailed down in my calendar and it has always been a family affair, even before I debuted on the hilly, muddy and often weather beaten course four years ago.

With my grandmother’s house located along the last kilometre of the race, it often feels like any family members who are competing have been gifted their own personal fan club. This year there was three of us taking part, with my mother and Auntie braving the cold,wet conditions to get their year’s of to a good start. We were also joined by my Auntie’s partner, a strong runner from the local club, Deeside Runners and three of Braemar’s finest, often labelled as the ‘Triplets’ for obvious reasons. These three siblings would act as a personal motivator. If I could finish before, or simply keep one of them in my sites for the whole race I would be pleased.

All of the above including other extended family including my brother, Auntie Claire, Uncle Mark and my three cousins descended on my Grandmother’s house, as the air buzzed with nervous energy and anticipation as the runners amongst us prepared to feel the burn. As we jogged the few hundred meters down to the start line, I started to visual the route in my head, taking in the atmosphere of a quiet rural community which had been enlivened by the arrival of 450 so runners.

Beginning in a grass park in the centre of the village, the often chaotic start to the race was quickly interrupted by a tough mile long incline leading up a minor road averaging just under 6%. A good warm up and often many people’s least favorite part of the route for obvious reasons. After this climb competitors are rewarded by a long descent which continues almost uninterrupted for the next three kilometers, before becoming more gradual, eventually taking the form of a flat incline.

The course creator then throws a spanner in the works for the road runners amongst the field with a challenging two kilometre section along a often icy and always very muddy farm track, before rejoining the main road resulting in a fast finish to agonizingly close to the finish line. With the line in site the route takes you away from the award for your efforts, with a painful 300 metre loop around a housing estate to ensure you’ve done your ten kilometers.

With this mind we entered the village hall and collected our race numbers, discussing how many layers should be worn and what footwear would be best. That morning I had taken a risk and decided to wear my ‘innovates’ or “mudblasters” as I liked to call them. These were ultra grippy shoes and this being Scotland in January it was a reasonable guess to think that there would be lots of mud and ice along the route.

The downside was that they didn’t have a very thick sole and weren’t really that well suited to road running, increasing risk of injury through impact. Having needed three stitches in my knee in muddy conditions a few months previously it was a risk I was willing to take.

Soon enough 11am rolled around and the usual struggle to decide where to place myself amongst the relatively large field took place. I wanted to be quite near the front, but realised with the first runner likely to come in up to ten minutes before yours truly that I needed to choose were to stand with a note of modesty. I also felt the pressure of the ‘Triplets’ taking part in their first ‘Detox’ looking to me in terms of where they should position themselves. All I had to do was stay with one of them…..

The struggle for position continued after the starting pistol had been fired, with a frantic and totally uncontrolled (pacing wise) start. The hill climb was first on the menu and I kept an eye on one of the ‘Triplets’ as the legs started to burn. As the climb winded upwards, I pulled alongside my target and we shared a breathless greeting. Team Braemar was on the move and it was great to feel a bit of companionship as the pain continued.

When we reached the summit of this first challenge, he pulled away and I was overtaken by the usual suspects who I had overtaken on the ascent but were much faster on fast rolling descents. Continuing on to the flat I managed to catch my companion again as I encouraged him to try and catch his brother that just about remained in our eye line.

This section on a south facing road is notorious for there being a headwind and I took off my lucky green hat, worried that it was going to blow away. Passing the halfway water station I managed to wish an old school mate a Happy New Year before reaching the infamous mud fest which was the farm track.

With some slight ice patches this is my least favorite part of the course, as we plodded on through the mud, returning to the tarmac after what felt like an age. From there the fellow Braemarian and I were neck and neck, getting a big cheer as we reached the fan base at my Grandmother’s house. It was the final short descent that made the difference as my speed was again highlighted as something to work on. My go to excuse is that I have short legs.

Finishing a place behind the ‘Triplet’ I felt like death for about a minute before making queries about my time. That had been tough and I knew that my fitness levels hadn’t been particularly high entering the New Year. I reckoned I had ran it in around 45 minutes but was pleased to find out that I had ran a 42:20.

Not a PB but not too far off and I felt more confident that my running was in a better place than it had been previously. It was a successful day for Team Braemar and my Auntie Marie and Mother both ran across the finish line in 46:34 and 58:24 respectively. A good day for all involved and if able to run next time around I have no doubt I will be making my sixth appearance at the 2019 ‘Lumphanan Detox’.