Now I’ve been a bit of an ultra runner for a few years now, participating in events on long distance trails such as the Great Glen Way, Rob Roy Way, St Cuthbert’s Way and the West Highland Way. This year I took on my biggest challenge to date - running the epic 212 mile Southern Upland Way over just four days. The event is organised by GB Ultra’s, who do a fabulous job in putting together a number of ultramarathons across the UK; with the Race Across Scotland regarded as the main flagship event.
Having organised a number of walking holidays on the SUW, I am quite familiar with the route on paper, however, it was important to me to experience the entire trail first hand, albeit on a slightly shorter itinerary than most clients prefer (the trail is usually hiked over two weeks).
Preparation for the race was ok, without being full on. Along with my running partner, Alan Gray, we ran the West Highland Way over two days, used another day to run east across Rannoch Moor, completed a 30 mile recce of the SUW around Galashiels, plus a number of runs in the Pentland Hills (plus of course the bog standard training through the week). We discussed our plan of action for the race at length, preparing a solid timeline for arriving at each checkpoint along the way. If we could stick to the plan, we would complete the 215 mile race well within the 100 hour limit. As you can imagine - this was a lot easier said than done!!
To the race itself. We travelled from Edinburgh & West Lothian by train on Friday afternoon (16th August), allowed ourselves a couple of beers (what harm would it do at this stage) and talked more about our plans for tackling such an outrageous distance in such a short time. Checking into our hotel didn't quite go to plan in that they had lost our reservation. The girl at reception offered us a drink in the bar (more alcohol) while they frantically searched for a room at an already fully booked Portpatrick (which by the way is a beautiful little harbour town tucked away in the south west coast). Fortunately, we were accommodated in an apartment next door to the hotel; which did seem rather convenient given how busy the place was - we suspected one of the staff was maybe kicked out their room for the night :-)
6am Saturday morning and it was time to get things under way. All the months of training, planning and preparation led to this moment. Any doubts in our mind were swiftly put to the back of our minds as we set off up and away from the harbour with the other 75 runners - all of whom were determined to be the proud owners of the Race Across Scotland buckle after crossing the finish line in Cockburnspath - over 200 miles across the country on the east coast, just south of Dunbar. The weather was pleasant for most of the morning, in fact the sun shone brilliantly as we followed the stunning coastline for a few miles before heading inland to the first checkpoint at Castle Kennedy (13 miles). We’d been warned by the event organisers that the trail was very wet in places, which soon became apparent as we trudged through a number of cold, boggy sections only a few miles in - feet soaked already. Another point the GB Ultra’s team were very keen for us to be aware of was the importance of foot management. Taking care of your feet throughout the race was vitally important if anyone was to seriously consider crossing the finish line in one piece. I brought along talc, Sudocreme, Vasoline, umpteen socks and two spare pairs of shoes. My wife, Jenny, who acted as my main support crew, was brilliant in tending to my feet when called upon. Feet & toes very much give her the boak, so I was very thankful so could put this phobia to one side - just this once!
We reached CP1 in good spirits. A quick sock change revitalised my feet and, after a few minutes break, we set off again towards CP2, a further 9 miles along the road to New Luce. The weather was still in our favour and made us really appreciate the natural beauty surrounding this section of the trail. We made our way through mature forests as the trail wound its way around ancient trees, alongside rivers, crossing quaint little bridges - we were loving it at this stage.
We reached CP2 in good time around 11am (22 miles), approximately 30 mins ahead of schedule. I again used this for a quick change of socks. We used the food and supplies on offer here to fill our stomachs and head off refreshed. Sandwiches, pizza, cake - it was like a kid’s 5th birthday party!
The landscape was now more remote and there were a few sections where we would amble along quiet country roads in order to connect the preferable off-road paths and tracks. Not ideal but these tarmac sections did allow for us to make up some ground before the impending hill climbs. As the trail climbed higher, we caught a glimpse of what we be on our horizon for a good couple of hours - the controversial wind farm. These intimidating beasts very much divide opinion (perhaps left for another discussion). The trail does it’s best to ghost through the turbines with minimum of fuss, but you can’t help but wonder how much more pleasant this section would be if the wind farm was located elsewhere (like 10 miles off shore). This was our first proper climb, and we were rewarded by a cluster of blueberry bushes, which we quickly devoured like a grizzly bear preparing for hibernation. Forestry Commission tracks were becoming more frequent now - a surface we could really do without. The rough, hard and bumpy ground is not good for my feet and can quickly cause blisters if proper care isn’t heeded.
From New Luce to CP3 at Glentrool, it was a fair distance at 23 miles. Just before the tiny hamlet of Knowe, the heavens opened and we were greeted with our first downpour. There was also a bearded guy standing outside his home offering us bits and pieces from his larder. He mentioned that he only just heard about the race so didn’t get a chance to go shopping - electing instead to offer anything he could find from the kitchen. We’d managed 9 hours without rain - that must be some kind of Scottish record. From Knowe, we headed back in to the hills and some good old boggy terrain, which was now all too commonplace. At Bargrennan, we knew CP3 wasn’t too far away, although it was frustrating to see from the map that Glentrool was only a couple of miles by road, whereas, the trail took us on a big wide 4 mile detour along the river, which was actually very pleasant. At 45 miles, we very much in need of a rest and some proper sustenance. We arrived at 6:30pm, a good hour ahead of schedule. CP3 was the first location we were permitted to be helped by our support crew. My amazing family were there to greet us at the checkpoint. It was wonderful to get a big hug and a kiss from Jenny, Arran (10) and Laura (8) - not to mention Baxter, our 9 month old Lab.
Alan was distinctly unimpressed by the 1.5 mile diversion from the trail to the check-point itself. Of course, it’s not ideal, but in places as remote as this, not everywhere to rest with a roof over your head can be found directly on the trail itself.
The plan was now to head to CP4 at St Johns Town of Dalry, a further 22 miles away - which would of course mean our first night time run. We said our goodbyes and set off at 7:45pm, which would give us a good 90 mins before darkness set in. The rain had stayed away so we were confident of reaching Dalry by our planned time of 4:30am, where we would have our first proper rest and shut eye.
The section immediately after leaving CP4 was a lovely part of the SUW. The trail followed the river on its way to Loch Trool and was relatively easy going. As darkness set in, we switched on our head torches for the night ahead. The dusky sky offered a beautiful back drop, with the trees providing a stunning silhouette against the deep waters of Loch Trool and the twinkling dark blue sky. This area is known for its ‘dark skies’ and tonight certainly did not disappoint. The moon and stars were out in force, almost guiding us along the path towards Dalry. It was so pleasant that our fatigue was temporarily relinquished with our attention drawn to our surroundings - it meant nothing that we’d been running for 15 hours straight. On approach to Clatteringshaws Loch, a twin beam shone at us from further along the trail. Where some would perhaps expect something from E.T. to appear in front of our eyes, it turned out to be a couple of volunteers from the race (they did ask if we wanted to phone home). A quick chat and a drink of Coke and we were off. Soon after, the harsh forest track gave way to a fence post and stile, which we hopped across onto the hillside once again. This soft soggy ground offered fantastic respite from the hard surface which we had walked and jogged on for the last 10-15 miles, however, we were soaked through once again. Bog after bog, squelch after squelch, we edged our way through the forest and onto the open hillside, where we were met by a thick jungle of ferns, 3-4 feet in height and almost completely disguising the trail path. Without our GPS device and in the darkness, it would have been extremely difficult to navigate through the army of bracken soldiers, desperate to take us down. I cursed loudly on a few occasions as the path continued to vanish, only for us to re-trace once again, 10 metres further along and up the hill. The ferns eventually dispersed and we made it to the farm track, which soon took us on the road to Dalry. As we neared the CP, there was one more venture into the black, this time on the wettest section so far. With each step, our feet would disappear in sludge, sucking us in up to our knees, slowing us down to a crawl. Fortunately, this only lasted a few minutes and we made the last climb up and over before descending towards the night lights of Dalry. CP4 reached at 4:00am after 22 hours and 67 miles into the race.
Getting some sleep at CP4 wasn’t particularly straightforward. There were no airbeds available so we had to wait an hour before the opportunity to put our heads down. Even then, with throbbing muscles (not that kind) and the mumbling background noise - sleeping wasn’t easy. I reckon I got about 90 mins before we readied ourselves for the day ahead. Jenny appeared at 8am to help restock my pack and put on fresh gear. It was 26 miles to the next checkpoint at Sanquhar, so it was important to be prepared. Matters were not helped upon realising it was peeing down outside and was likely to do so for most of the morning. Heads held high beneath our sexy waterproof hoods, we set off in pretty good spirits - it’s only rain after all.
We tried in vain to keep our feet dry as long as possible, however, after about a 1/2 mile, they were soaked through again. The going from Dalry to Stroanpatrick was relatively straightforward if not very wet and boggy. We were on exposed moorland here so very much open to everything the elements has to throw at us. With nowhere to hide, we marched off the hill to Stroanpatrick, to be met by a group who offered us a packet of crisps each. Now this might seem to be nothing overly special, however, I wasn't doing great at this point (feeling nauseous and generally lacking in energy) and, being a self-confessed ‘crispaholic’, I was suddenly brought back to life, like Popeye guzzling a can of spinach. We made good time over the next few miles as the rain eased and the sun came out to play. Not long after, we reached the base of what was the most severe ascent on the trail so far. The climb up Benbrack was a direct 200m ascent - no messing about - just straight up to the top. For the next while, there were a few more ups and downs as trail traversed a number of mini peaks before descending towards Polskeoch. We were truly sodden by this time with the rain from above and the bogs from below. We knew that, a couple of miles further along the road was Polgowan Farm, where the owner Kirsty was offering bacon rolls and a cup of tea to runners. I know Kirsty from booking clients into her B&B, so it was great to sit down and chat for a little while before we made the final 7 mile climb and descent into Sanquhar. As is commonplace for almost all towns on the SUW, the final mile or two follows a road, this time into Sanquhar. I personally don’t like any road section, particularly when your feet are tired and sore and the town ahead appears to be within touching distance - but never seems to get any closer. We arrived at CP5 a few minutes before Jenny, so I sat myself down, took off my shoes and relaxed. 93 miles down and it was 5:30pm, 35 hours into the race. We were feeling good and just about keeping to the schedule - all going to plan. My feet were holding up pretty well. Blisters were threatening but had not yet materialised. I did have a little niggling soreness in my right shin, but nothing to concern myself over at this stage.
7:00pm and we headed off towards Wanlockhead. We had stayed at the CP a bit longer than planned, but worked out that arriving at the next CP by 10pm would still be absolutely fine. It was only 8 miles so we should make it with relative ease. The rain had gone for now, which give us a little more incentive to reach CP6 before it started again. With Wanlockhead being the highest village in Scotland, there was a good deal of climbing involved, however, it didn’t slow us down too much. As darkness fell, we got out the torches and made our way more slowly along the trail. A little after 10pm we arrived at CP7, a lovely village hall in Wanlockhead. The sleeping quarters were in a different room this time so much more chance of a good sleep. We’d given ourselves 3 hours here to re-fuel, refresh and get some sleep. 90 mins kip and the alarm buzzed. In military like fashion, we quickly rolled up the sleeping bags, threw on our gear and shovelled down some food and drink before leaving at 1:30am. Now of course it’s dark at night time, but this was proper black hole stuff! The rain had started to fall and, as we left the village, it became quickly apparent that we were also in the clouds. So it was pitch black, pouring with rain, extremely windy and now foggy. Because of the mist and rain, the light from our head torches reflected straight back at us, making it much harder to see the trail ahead. We climbed and climbed for sometime, mostly on a winding narrow road, before eventually leaving the asphalt onto the hillside in progressively worsening conditions. A glowing red light appeared ahead, which was to us very unusual and somewhat out of place (was in the same E.T. guys from earlier?). We had no idea what it was as we drew closer and closer, one eye on the red light and one on the narrow, faint trail. A tall, prison like fence came into view, barricading in what appeared to be some sort of Area 51 facility at the top of the hill. The weather at this point was so bad I considered taking out the bivvy bag and pressing the SOS button on the tracker. With visibility almost zero, we veered off course a few times. Similar to the fern monsters before Dalry, without my GPS device (which was the Ordnance Survey app on my iPhone), it would have been so very easy to get lost up there. We were relieved to read from the map that the trail loosely followed a fence for a mile or two, which was a great point of reference and made navigation much easier. I read from another blog that this section offered wonderful views of the surrounding area. Next year I think I might plan things so that we take on this stage in the daylight!!
Upon reaching Overfingland, Alan decided to call it a day. He was clearly suffering from being exposed to the elements for most of the night and, with hypothermia threatening to set in, he called for help and was taken on to Beattock for a good rub. So I was on my own for the final 107 miles. I couldn’t quite work out if I was happy or sad at the prospect - happy to be able to do it at my own pace and only have myself to worry about, or sad that my running buddy had to DNF when we’d planned it for so long together. Either way, it was time to focus on the sticking to the timetable.
With 14 miles still to go to Beattock and CP7, I needed to pick up the pace a little to stay on track. I found a sudden burst of energy and scampered along the trail for the next couple of miles. To my dread, I met another forestry track, which would last all the way to Daer Reservoir. Whether walking or running on this surface, I am easily drained of energy and my feet get very sore and tired. I was delighted to shift across the dam at the Reservoir and climb the hill away from what is a vast stretch of water. At the top of the hill, the views were fantastic and I was enjoying the tranquility of being the only person in view for miles around. The hill was gradually descending and the sun was out again. Further down the hill the run-off again gathered, creating more boggy conditions underfoot. This continued for a while, with sometimes no way around other than straight through. As I edged closer to Beattock, my feet were now very sore and tired, and the pain in my right shin was gradually getting worse. At some downhill sections, I found myself walking sideways as if on some steep spiral staircase. The path abruptly ended and again it was a road section into Beattock (I really dislike roads). I now felt quite dazed, eyes rolling around my head, feeling lightheaded and sick - all down to a combination of lack of sleep, dehydrated and perhaps also an element of malnutrition. You think you are eating and drinking enough while on the run, but with the number of calories we were burning, it is very hard to fill up with everything the body needs to function to its full potential (it’s all about learning from the experience).
I reached CP7 at around 09:30am, still pretty much on schedule - which I was delighted with, given the trials and tribulations of the last stage. Jenny was on hand to re-dress my feet. She did an amazing patch up job, in fact I never really suffered from blisters at all through the race. I felt emotional coming into CP7 and needed a cuddle. ‘I’m not sure I can go any further’, were my first words to Jenny. It was a low point and I seriously did consider handing in the towel. However, after a few minutes rest and some positive words from Jenny and the terrific GB Ultra Support crew, I decided to press on. Also, seeing the kids, even for a few minutes is such an inspiration - there’s no way I could let them down by quitting now. By this time, I was hearing of more and more runners dropping out from the race, which further highlights just how tough the conditions were out there.
Before leaving CP7, I gave myself 6 hours to make the 17 mile stretch to Scabcleuch. Sticking to the schedule was no longer so important - it was more about making each CP by a certain time and giving myself enough time for a rest before the cut off ensued. The first couple of miles into stage 8 were great. I bounded along the road and through a quaint little forest before heading across a field and - oh no not again - a damn forestry track. We were advised to take the ‘low route’, as the high route was deemed too dangerous due to the conditions. I remember the very friendly lady saying, ‘the good thing about this is that it’s flat’. ‘Wonderful news’ I retorted quite jovially. Turns out this was the most frustrating of climbs I’ve ever endured. A forestry commission track which went on and on, climbing steadily and never ending. It’s little wonder the main trail now takes the high and more interesting route, as this low section was thoroughly wearing me down. I was delighted when the path diverted into the trees for a beautiful little section as it followed a narrow, fast flowing stream which meandered quickly off the hillside. The weather had again turned for the worse - in fact I was now hiding in the trees as the rain drops were similar in size to golf balls (maybe just a slight exaggeration but not far off).
Physically, I wasn’t in a great place by now. My shin was hurting more with every mile and my feet were telling me to stop. They felt like that little eraser on the back of a pencil as they were constantly rubbed and eroded by the unforgiving roads and rough forestry tracks. I knew by this stage that another 75 miles after the next checkpoint just wasn’t an option. The 7 mile stretch along the road was the final straw. I had decided that my race was over. The pain in my shin was not relinquishing and I had resorted to shuffling along like an old man in his slippers, heading to the newsagent for his morning paper. This was no way to run an ultramarathon and was not my vision in the build up to the event. I have to come back fitter and stronger. Mentally there is no problem at all - in fact maybe I listen to my sensible side too much. Could I have progressed another check point or two? Probably. Could I have finished the race in 100 hours? I seriously doubt it. And if I did, I would be endangering my own long term fitness by battling through something my body was clearly saying no to. For me, the Race Across Scotland is well within my capabilities - I just need to be better prepared next year. Think more about time spend at CPs, how to fully maximise the support crew, spend more time training ‘time on feet’ as opposed to just running, and above all - learn to enjoy running on roads and forest tracks!!