Do you know the feeling when everything just seems to fall into place and things feel as though they are somehow meant to me? In many ways, I feel that way about my ultra run of the Cateran Trail.
It was during the long cold winter months that I first began to ponder the possibility of venturing beyond the marathon. Naturally, given my love of trail and hill running, as well as the joy I get from endurance running challenges, it was only a matter of time before my imagination would be captured by the world of ultramarathon running. At the start of the year, I made plans to run one of Scotland’s wonderful long distance trails over the course of a long weekend, as a first exploration of what running very long distances off road might involve. Almost immediately, I found myself flirting with the Cateran Trail; it’s not too far away from where I live and at 55 miles a good, medium length ultra distance – not to mention the fact that it’s a stunningly beautiful trail with very varied territory and a total ascend of almost 3 kilometres.
By February I was in the process of researching accommodation along the route, very much ready to put my plan into action. Just then, I got an e-mail from Liz, who I had met once before at a fell race. In that fateful e-mail, Liz serendipitously asked me if I wanted to run the Cateran Yomp with her and Louise this summer… Isn’t it funny how life has a knack for handing us exactly what we are searching for?
The Cateran Yomp is a fundraising challenge event for the ABF Soldier’s Charity, which requires teams of participants to take on a 55 mile trek (along the Cateran Trail) through the Perthshire Highlands. Liz and Louise had completed it the year before, and right from the start our plan had been to run the distance.
Thus, following a very nifty spring marathon in Rome, my training for the Cateran Yomp started in earnest back in April. I remember feeling a little weak in the knees whenever I glanced at my training plan and the many miles it called for. However, as it turned out, I have found the build-up to the event so rewarding in and by itself that the final event began to feel like the lap of honour I got to run in celebration of a wonderful training cycle. I was always aware that running an ultra would be primarily a mental challenge, but before I embarked on this journey I had never expected to find it so spiritually fulfilling. If nothing else, the many hours spent alone out in the mountains gave me much time to think and feel and play and dream, all while doing something I love and surrounded by amazing natural beauty. All these long runs have led me to countless weird and wonderful places, both mentally and physically, many of which I am sure will stay with me forever. I can think of few things that I would find more rewarding.
On the eve of battle, we all gathered in a field near Blairgowrie, which had been set up to an impressive standard to function as the Yomp Headquarters and campsite for the weekend. The atmosphere was fantastic; 570 people had gathered to take on the Cateran Yomp, with over 100 teams aiming to complete the whole distance. What was more, because it happened to be Armed Forces Day, 120 serving soldiers had joined the event, including a group of US Marines, the UK Parachute Regiment, and a team of Gurkhas (who have run exceptionally fast times in the past few years).
The competition was fierce between the different military teams, but nobody paid much attention to this random women’s non-military fundraising team. You can probably imagine their surprise (and our pleasure), when we got to lead them on a wild chase through the Scottish wilderness the following day.
We set out at 7 am on a cloudy morning, and right from the start we stuck to our strategy of walking up any hills and running everything else. This took a hefty helping of self-control on our part, as after running out of the start area, we got to stretch out our legs for a phenomenal 100 yard of road before – boom! – we were walking up our first hill. It sure felt rather silly at the time, but trust me, 12 hours later, we were glad to have stuck to our guns!
Two or three kilometres onto the trail, there was only one other runner in sight (who happened to be one of the founders of the Cateran trail). We brushed shoulders and chatted with him a few times over the next 20 kilometres or so, but eventually we left him behind and the trail ahead was ours alone.
I should add at this point that the feared gurkhas were unleashed upon the course and hour after we had started. We were fully expecting them to pass us at any point, and I glanced over my shoulder more often than I care to admit. The simple question of “I wonder what happened to the gurkhas?” was a frequently and hotly debated topic as we made our way through the wilderness. However, our explanations as to why they haven’t passed us yet became increasingly wilder and far-fetched as the day progressed. Shortly after the half way-point, just about every statement I uttered started with the words “In my head… “, and whatever rational thoughts remained were lost the moment I began to giggle at the fact that my feet were wet.
(Delirious smiles at a checkpoint around 37 miles into the race. We were so happy to see Bill, our fantastic support person – who took these pictures – waiting for us with dry socks and shoes. Ah, the little things in life!)
Over the course of the next few hours, we nevertheless enjoyed the privilege of being the first participants to visit the aid stations. This not only meant that we could gorge ourselves on the untouched and perfectly symmetrical mountains of chocolate and crisps and cakes that the yomp had to offer; it also meant that we got to enjoy the undivided attention and admiration of the volunteers at each aid station. Their enthusiasm certainly contributed to our relentless forward progress. Although the responses we got were overwhelmingly supportive and positive, there was one fool of a volunteer at the penultimate aid station who evidently thought he was being funny when he decided to mess with a girl who had just run in excess of 80 kilometres for fun. While I was busy answering a call of nature, he must thought it would be a good idea to shout dumb comments at me, followed by what I can only describe as a very dirty laugh indeed. I’ll leave it to your imagination to decide if he lived to tell the tale or if the wolves of Drimmie wood are gnawing on his bones as I type this…
Although the conditions were good, the run itself was, of course, not always easy; there were swamps to traverse and mountains to climb and one serious downpour we had to weather during the day. Liz and Louise both battled with blisters and I had twisted an ankle only 20 kilometres into the run. In addition, I spent the last hour of our journey wrestling with a stomach that was on the verge of staging a dirty riot. Despite all of this, my overwhelming feeling was one of serene enjoyment. The journey was absolutely epic and more than anything, I felt confident in my ability to tackle whatever beast might rear its ugly head along the way. My body was strong and powerful from the many hours of training and my faithful legs were happy to carry me all day long.
It was towards the end of our run that things started to get seriously epic. Our first clue that something special might happen came in the form of random supporters, who were clearly related to the event, and who had come out to meet and greet us at several road crossings along the way. At one point two official looking men met us in a forest and pleaded with us to slow down long enough to allow them to snap a photo of us, which made us laugh and oblige. We were still somehow leading the whole race at this point, still wondering what on earth had happened to the gurkhas…
When we finally arrived back in Blairgowrie, we received a reception which quickly deluded us into believing that we were skyrunning celebrities. We were effectively the first team to cross the finish line, and in no bad way at all, the first thing I personally did was to burst into tears. This turned out to be rather embarrassing, as there were reporters waiting to take pictures of us, and I just bawled into their cameras for a little while. There were hugs and more tears and champagne (which none of us was fit to drink!) and more pictures. More hugs, more pictures, more cheers. Then, when two reporters asked us for quotes and an interview for a newspaper article, we uttered what I now firmly believe were the least coherent and uninspired phrases that have ever been heard on the meadows of Perthshire. With our bodies tired from fatigue and our brains twisted after hours and hours of focussing on happily plodding along, I think the reporters should consider themselves lucky to not have been trampled to death by our stampede to the food tent.
The gurkhas finally made their appearance only minutes after we had finished our journey. Although they never managed to pass us on the course, they did of course beat us by time, completing the 55 mile Cateran trail in just over 12 hours. However, our finishing time of 12 hours and 55 minutes made us the second fastest team of the day, as well as the fastest female team and fastest non-military team. We went back later to cheer some of the other soldiers across the finish line, and I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t feel really cool to have so many of the soldiers, organisers and other competitors come up to shake our hands (in the shower block, over dinner, on the way to the toilets, on the finish line, going to bed, emerging from our tents, over breakfast…) to congratulate us for our speedy traverse of the wilderness.
Please don’t get me wrong though; I have nothing but respect for what these guys are doing every day. I know that in the real world, I would have nothing on these soldiers in terms of toughness and endurance. However, it’s nice to know that in this one particular niche event, this trio of crazy ladies could give an army of very fit young men a run for their money.
As for my recovery, let it suffice for now to say that I spent the following day eating and sleeping like a feral beast. This is not an exaggeration; I woke up at 4 in the morning and proceeded to eat like an animal that has just emerged from hibernation, devouring anything and everything that wasn’t firmly nailed down until I went back to hibernate just after lunchtime. I woke up briefly around midnight, put on my pyjamas and went back to sleep until my alarm clock told me it was time to get up for work on Monday morning. Which I did, feeling surprisingly human.
I couldn’t have wished for a more wonderful introduction to ultramarathon running. I think that every normal runner, upon completion of their first marathon, immediately vows to never do such a crazy thing ever again. It usually takes a few weeks or months to forget the pain and then the mind slowly begins to ponder the “what ifs” and dares to try again. In my case, however, my first taste of ultra running has done nothing but leaving me hungry for more. I guess I’ll just have to come to terms with the fact that there won’t be champagne and reporters and celebrity receptions at the end of every race from now on…
Ladies, it’s been an honour running with you. Thank you, thank you, thank you!