Toiling Titans

The Mad Hatter: “Have I gone mad?”

Alice: “I’m afraid so. You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are.”

 “The point of mythology is to point to the horizon and to point back to ourselves: This is who we are; this is where we came from; and this is where we’re going.”

 – J. Michael Straczynski

 (This post was written jointly by Julia – aka Girl Runs Wild – and Liz, her titan in crime in their latest running adventure.)

Last Saturday morning, Liz and I arrived on the slopes of Mount Olympus (otherwise known as Church Stretton High School in Shropshire, England) for the organiser’s briefing on the 12 Labours of Hercules event; an ultramarathon of 78 miles which included a leg scrambling 17000 feet of ascend, all of which had to be completed within 24 hours. We were on a mission to become titans. Let me assure you that this, for once, had nothing to do with evil plans of world domination. (*cough*). No, runners who had teamed up to take on the 12 Labours of Hercules together were called “Titans” by the race director. Who are we to argue with that? Over the course of the weekend, this pair of lady titans became known as “Caledonian Calamity” and by Zeus, did we live up to our name!

Lomg Mynd(The Long Mynd – picture taken by Richard Weremiuk)

At around 9 in the morning, Richard the Race Director finally revealed the twelve routes we would have to cover in order to complete the event. Standing in the school assembly hall, we were hanging onto his every word. Nobody knows if our undivided attention was due to the fact that our environment had triggered a long forgotten “attentive pupil” mode, or if we were all just really damn terrified that we were going to get lost at some point… probably in countless hills of the Long Mynd… almost certainly at night… with a malfunctioning headtorch thrown in for good measure… and… oh my God… have there been any “Big Cat” sightings in Shropshire lately?!?! STOP! MIND BE MY SERVANT! JUST LISTEN TO THE MAN.

Labours Briefing(Mount Olympus – photo by Wendy Weremiuk)

So, we listened, and it really didn’t sound all that bad while we were still standing on solid ground, surrounded by one hundred supremely rested and carb-loaded athletes who were chomping on their hydration bottles and raring to be unleashed upon the hills. Our task sounded simple enough; we had to visit 12 different checkpoints in the surrounding hills, and there we had to complete Herculean tasks such as wrestling supernatural lions, slaying ancient monsters, stealing flesh-eating equines, competing in ancient Olympic games and entering the underworld.

Did I say ‘enter the underworld’? Sorry, what I was meant to say is that we had to complete tasks like navigating to a cave or retrieving an item from a mountain top. After completion of each labour, the participants had to return to Mount Olympus with proof of their victory; solo competitors had to compete the whole caboodle by themselves, while those working in pairs or teams could decide to buddy up on tasks or complete the tasks individually and consecutively by using a kind of ‘tag team’ system.

Before setting out on her first official Herculean journey, Liz got the first calamity points of the day by warming up with an impromptu labour titled ‘mending her backpack five minutes before the flipping start’. As it turned out, her dog Alfie had chewed one of the buckles to smithereens, but a keyring and strategically positioned knot eventually prevented the pack from flailing about her back as though it was trying to escape this ultra-running madness.

Immediately after this frenzy, Liz set off on her mission to capture the Cretan Bull, as aspiring titans do just after breakfast. For this task, she had to climb up a ridiculously steep hill to the checkpoint, where she got further instructions to climb up the ridiculously steep hill’s ridiculously steep twin brother to find the labour. Thankfully, this did not involve dragging an actual cow off the mountain and into the school assembly hall. No, Liz merely had to retrieve a ring and her biggest challenge on her journey back to Olympus was to not get muddled up in her mythologies and to resist the call of Mordor.

Meanwhile, at Mount Olympus, Julia set an Olympic record in the number of times she visited the loo in the space of the 32 minutes before Liz’s return. Oh, and she also found out from Richard the Race Director that the hill Liz was climbing was in fact, the most ridiculously steep hill of them all. However, it sadly was far from being the highest…

As soon as Liz had returned the ring of Sauron… uhm, I mean the Cretan Bull, Julia zoomed off to the underworld on a mission to capture Cerberus. Did I just say underworld again? What she really did was zoom off to find a hidden cave on top of a REALLY big hill. Being really big, the hill itself was easy to find, and it wasn’t long before Julia was huffing and puffing up the ludicrously steep slopes of Caer Caradoc. Because she knew for certain that these slopes were not, in fact, ridiculously steep, she did two things; firstly, she told her bursting lungs and quads that they had nothing to complain about. Secondly, she had a very tough talk with herself about not being a pansie on the eventual descend. The location of the really very secret cave was easily exposed to her by the horde of runners who were entering it, and after a brief stint in the underworld Julia came flying down the slopes of the not-quite-ridiculously-steep-hill. Literally.

In hindsight, she could have taken crashing into a fence about half way down the hill as a reminder that slowing down was an option. But because slowing down is obviously only for pansies, she proceeded to either utilise a super fast descending technique (i.e. slithering down on her bare legs and hands), or committed the second calamity of the day. It really just depends on whether you’ve pitched your tent in the camp of half-full or half-empty glasses. In any case, her descend was fast indeed and she emerged from her battle with Cerberus bloodied and covered in dust but, more to point, vigorously triumphant. Back at Olympus, she sent a slightly worried looking Liz off to calamity number three, otherwise known as the retrieval of the Girdle of Hypolyta.

This labour saw Liz enjoy what was possibly the only flat 2 mile section of the whole day. Only at this point the temperatures had soared to something very hot indeed, all while being accompanied by humidity levels of a dripping 95%, so she didn’t exactly express her joy by skipping down the road while singing folk songs to herself (that’s what Julia did approximately 12 hours later, but it had nothing to do with enjoyment then either). She then had to follow a long and winding path up a hill which was serendipitously called “Grindle”, where she found the checkpoint and instructions to take the path to the right to find the mythical Girdle of Hypolyta. Little did she know that she was in for calamity number 3, as the instructions had sent her on the wrong right path. There was, in fact, another right path, and taking the wrong right path lost us a few minutes of time. The right right path soon dwindled to nothing, so Liz continued with a heather-bashing stomp to reach a cairn adorned with an array of multi-coloured belts. And no, she wasn’t hallucinating. Yet. Thus, she grabbed a girdle from the summit of Grindle and stomped her way back down the right right path, which now had to be the right left path, right?

Long Mynd(The beautiful, painful hills of the Long Mynd – photo by Richard Weremiuk)

Julia, meanwhile, was enjoying the wonderful atmosphere at Olympus. The fact that all runners frequently returned to Olympus meant that she got to cheer on the leaders as they dipped in and out, patted the backs of those who were doing well and gave hugs and encouragement to those who were struggling. All in all, there was much enjoyable banter to be had at Olympus. In fact, the only thing that was more abundant than banter was the food. Wendy, Richard’s wife, somehow managed to fathom up an ever changing buffet of food, and Richard himself was always on hand to offer tips, encouragement and advice. Thus, while stuffing her face, a cleaned up Julia learned that they were currently amongst the top four teams and were, in fact, the only female team in the whole competition. With nothing to lose, in her head, the game was on!

After checking in at Olympus, Liz went out again to quickly slay the Stymphalian Birds. For this labour, she travelled up Carding Mill Valley, navigated through an army of picnickers and children splashing around in the pretty little stream, past the ICE CREAM SHOP and up, up, up to the checkpoint. Then down, down, down (I pity the fool who still doesn’t understand the fundamental nature of this event!), past the ICE CREAM SHOP AGAIN and back to Olympus, where a fully satiated Julia was ready to go hunt for more food. The Apples of Hesperides, that is.

This eight mile run was the flattest of the lot, which really wasn’t very flat at all. Rather than going up one big hill, the roads and paths to this labour just kept on rolling along the pretty Shropshire countryside. On the plus side, navigation to the apples (found in a place called Peartree!) was easy, even if the run itself left her out of breath approximately every other minute. The difficulty was enhanced primarily because Julia had entered race mode at this point, and was seen hurling herself around the undulating paths like a dispossessed wilderbeast. Don’t worry, she didn’t fall again. However, as a testimony to her speed and in a move that is worryingly out of character for an ultramarathon runner, she returned the Apple of Hesperides to Olympus without having taken even the slightest nibble of the forbidden fruit…

Continuing her killing spree, a bloodthirsty Liz then went on her journey to slay the nine-headed Hydra. This run basically involved her going onwards and upwards, although more upwards than onwards and then even more upwards. You get the idea. After crossing some fields she embarked on a stooped staggery run/stumble down a tiny path with overhanging branches and stingy nettles to slay the Hydra. That sounded simple. It wasn’t.

When Julia set out to capture the Golden Hind of Artemis, she was painfully aware that this was the longest run of the lot, that it was the last run she’d be completing in daylight and that the complex navigation for this route had heaps of potential to lead her firmly down the path towards calamity number four. Prior to setting out, she therefore put on her racing flats, studied the route in detail and in a desperate move proceeded to write the directions all over her forearms. And you know what? It worked! The fact that she arrived at the checkpoint and labour location resembling a badly tattooed pirate is a minor detail, because she happened to complete this particular labour faster than anyone else in the whole competition! At the checkpoint, she had to compete in a Herculean version of the Olympic games, which included a scooter slalom, a round of darts and target shooting with frisbees. Regrettably, Julia was still in racing-flat-induced-tattoo-guided-speed-mode while attempting to complete these tasks, which resulted in her failing to hit a single target and it took three officials to stop her from running off with the scooter on her way back to Olympus. Oooops.

Liz then went out on bovine adventure number two, for which she had to face the monster Greyon and obtain his cattle. This required her to run past the ICE CREAM SHOP AGAIN, and up a scrambley path onto Cow Ridge. There, she briefly enjoyed the stunning views of the valley but decided that we really didn’t have time to take photos of the stunning views. And this time, Liz really did have to bring a cow down from the mountain. A small plastic one, that is. She scrambled down the mountain, and yes, you’ve guessed it… past the ICE CREAM SHOP AGAIN… and back to Olympus.

After a speedy change of out her running clothes into her best housewife attire, Liz went forth to clean the Augean stables. This labour required her to cross the whole of the Long Mynd; so more upwards and onwards, followed by downwards and onwards into Bridges and return. A the mist descended upon her and darkness fell, Liz did her best not to think about Stephen King’s book “The Fog”. She was very glad to have taken a road route rather than an alternative route across the open moorlands as she’s also a pansie and was getting a wee bit freaked out about being out in the misty mountains, in the darkness, surrounded by sheep, foxes, big cats and … what was that?!?… oh, a toad.

Reality Tale

Upon her arrival following the victorious completion of epic domestic duties, Liz was informed by a very bouncy Julia that they were currently in second place. The bouncing was not so much a result of excitement; rather, Julia had consumed copious amounts of caffeine at this point in order to a) stay awake (it was almost midnight) and b) psych herself up to go run across the moorlands that had already terrified Liz. In the dark. In the very foggy dark. With the big cats and stuff. Her mission: to steal the flesh-eating Mares of Diomedes. Let’s just say that this is where all the skipping and singing started for real. At the top of the Long Mynd, Julia finally encountered the big cats, or rather, some wild unicorns. Ponies. I mean ponies. She briefly contemplated how Richard the Race Director would feel about her stealing an actual horse and if this would release her from the task of having to run first down, and then back up a road with a 25% gradient… She eventually opted for the version that would not earn her a criminal record and trotted down the stupidly steep road into the little village of Handless, where at one o’clock in the morning she stuck her hand into a bucket of icey goo to retrieve a severed finger… Nice.

Long Mynd Unicorn(A unicorn on the Long Mynd?!?! – picture taken by Richard Weremiuk)

Meanwhile, at Olympus, Liz was studying the route that would lead her to the Erymanthean Boar, which she had to capture next. Because we had deemed this to be a wee half-mile out, half-mile back tootle up and down a little hill, we had saved this particular labour for the hours of darkness. But then someone called it “the Hill of Doom”. Then came reports from other competitors who had failed to reach the summit of the wee Hill of Doom altogether. This made Liz a little twitchy, so while she waited for Julia to return from her storming run with the wild horses and associated retrieval of severed body parts, Liz fretted, repeatedly checked the map, visited the loo again and again and picked the brains of all and any available people. Rumour has it that the caretaker of the school grounds is still recovering from being shaken by the shoulders and interrogated about the summit of the “Hill of Doom” at two o’clock in the morning… But Liz bravely faced the night, found – and passed – the FOOD FACTORY, flew by the Atheneum Temple (strange juxtaposition of landmarks!), tiptoed over the cattle grid, squelched up the re-entrant, scuffled and fought through gorse and heather and schlepped on up to the top of the wee hill where she found a (non-burning) bush containing the checkpoint. TRIUMPH! From there she retrieved two modelling balloons and failed to make a balloon sword. Although this was what the task called for, at two in the morning on top of a hill that had robbed her lungs of air, she decided against nurturing her creative spirit and carried two limp balloons down the hill. As it turned out, this was entirely okay as most balloon swords had perished on the descent through the Hill of Doom’s gorse bushes of doom anyway.

Finally, we embarked on our last labour together, not because the Nemean Lion would be hard to slay, but because the hill we had to climb in order to reach the beast was a wee bit tricky to navigate in the dark, especially with tired head torches, maps that have been soaked in rain, sweat and tears for the better part of 17 hours and brains that would rather be sleeping. And although we had stopped counting calamities long ago, we didn’t want to add another one to the list at three o’clock in the morning. Our combined navigation efforts soon saw us schlepping up the slopes of Ragleth. In truth, it was a wonderfully surreal experience. At this point, we were no longer able to move quickly and took our time with the navigation. The night was so quiet, so beautiful, so peaceful. Together, side by side, we felt at ease in the darkness. Gone were the thoughts of big cats and Steven King. Instead, we both just agreed that the views from the top of this hill are sure to be amazing in the light of day. We located the checkpoint with ease, and slowly trotted back down the hill, heading for Olympus one last time. A calamity-free labour! Above all, it seemed fitting to complete our adventure together.

Back in the sanctity of Olympus, neither of us could really believe what had just happened. How could it be 3:30 in the morning already? Between us, we had covered 78 miles in 17 hours and 31 minutes, completed 12 epic labours and climbed more hills than we could shake our dying head torches at. What is more, we had held on to the second place position, which was just as good as world domination, really.

Labours Trophy(We didn’t get a medal. We didn’t need a medal. We got a much cooler trophy for our efforts!)

What followed was another day of competition of ultra proportions (this time in the disciplines of eating and sleeping) which saw Julia and Liz battling and giggling it out yet again. No breadstick, chocolate bar, fruit salad, jellybaby, panini, popcorn, baguette, apple, pastry or snickers ice-cream was safe. And let’s just say that this in particular contest, there were no second places.

Thus, we really were titans…

Alice: “But that is impossible!” 

The Mad Hatter: “Only if you believe it is.”

We would like to say a huge thank you to Richard and Wendy for putting on such a fantastic event, and to all the fellow competitors, all of whom are heroes in their own right. Friends were made at Olympus that day and who knows where these new friendships will take us? New journeys and adventures begin every day…

 “Mythology and science both extend the scope of human beings. Like science, mythology is not about opting out of this world, but about enabling us to live more intensely within it.”

 – Karen Armstrong

One Epic Chase On The Cateran Trail

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.

auchintaple-loch(Auchintaple Loch, on the beautiful 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.

Yomp Start(Louise, myself and Liz – in that order – about to embark on our big adventure)

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.

Yomp Glenisla(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.

Yomp Finish Back(Just… epic!)

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.

Yomp Finish Laugh(Note the champagne making a sneaky entrance from the left…)

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!

Yomp finish(Tired, but oh so happy and definitely hungry for more!)

Run of the Inner Valkyrie

Sunday morning saw the streets of Edinburgh turn into my own personal battlefield. In my previous post, I made no secret of the fact that recent events had, perhaps for all the wrong reasons, inspired me to race the Edinburgh Half Marathon despite having done no event specific speed work. But I had been pissed off to the point of wanting to attack 1:40.

I travelled to Edinburgh with a group of friends on what we affectionately called the “Battle Bus”, which made for a very entertaining start to the day and somehow damped the blow of the fact that the day began at stupid o’clock for all of us. And just as we arrived in the city, the heavens opened to welcome us with a mighty downpour. And while that did nothing dowse my bloodlust, it did cause me to shiver miserably on the start line. But really, what would a run in the capital of Scotland be without a generous helping of proper Scottish weather?

As is normal for me in endurance races, my plan was to run the first two or three kilometres by feel alone, and to sort my pace out thereafter. However, within minutes I couldn’t ignore the fact that although my energy levels were good, my legs felt decidedly heavy and had all but withdrawn co-operation. My feet were soaked and cold before I had run a single mile, and by the time I passed the two mile marker, I was already a few seconds off my target pace.

I won’t go so far as to call it a terrible start, but coming home on the right side of 1:40 was not looking promising. In that moment, I did something that has helped me through many of the darker moments I have experienced on my long ultramarathon training runs. I did absolutely nothing. I noticed how I felt, decided that nothing was actually really wrong, and kept going without trying to change anything right there and then. Because one thing I know for certain is that everything is temporary, if you give it enough time.

Rather than worrying about the race in these early stages or beating myself up about slipping off pace, I just accepted that my body was telling me that this wasn’t the right moment to launch my attack. But the moment would come. The worst case scenario was that the opportune moment would occur not in this, but in a future race; but that was a risk I was willing to take.

The next time I looked at my watch was as I was passing the 10km point. Just over 45 minutes. There was hope! More importantly however, I noticed that my legs had finally woken up and were starting to listen to my demands. I held back for another 4 kilometres, but then, finally, it was time to race!

I had to focus to keep the pace for the last part of the race, but I can’t say that it was a real struggle. Everything had somehow fallen into place and was there for the taking. Before I knew it, the finish line appeared in front of me and I ran towards it until my lungs felt like exploding. Then I ran some more.

I emerged victorious from the battlefield after 1:38 of running my drenched socks off. The negative split was very much dictated by my body, rather than my mind, but hey – I’m not complaining.

Streakers Edinburgh

 (A victorious army, ready to return to the battle bus!)

Girl On A Mission

“The best revenge is living well.”

–          George Herbert

This Sunday will see me at the start line of the Edinburgh Half Marathon. Prior to a recent event, I must admit that I wasn’t bothered about this race at all. In fact, last weekend my level of enthusiasm had plummeted to the point that I had almost talked myself into withdrawing my entry and going for a long ultramarathon training run in the mountains instead.

But all that changed one night during the week. You see, one fateful night this week, I joined a training session with a local running group that shall not be named. Little did I know at the time that this single training session would ignite the will to race in me like I have rarely experienced it before.

The session required us to get into groups for speedwork. Because I only knew a few people in the group, I went around for a chat and soon found myself in a friendly pack of guys who seemed to run at roughly my pace. Unfortunately, the coaches hadn’t mentioned the fact that they apparently expected us to match the groups by gender as well. Yes, you’ve read that right. How very stupid of me! Without bothering to find out anything about me as a runner, they immediately started to gently nudge me into the direction of a female pack.

As we were running, I jokingly asked the guys why the coaches keep picking on me. One of them just shrugged his shoulders and answered: “Because you are a girl?” In what those of you who know me understand is an incredibly rare occurrence, I was actually lost for words. But I was also determined to stand my ground, and although it was a tough workout, I stuck it out with the guys for a while. But my resolve eventually faltered when two of the three coaches came over to my group in the middle of the session and downright ordered me to go run with the women’s group on the other side of the field instead. Really, I couldn’t make this up.

superwoman glass ceiling

Now, please don’t get me wrong. The women were lovely and I am more than happy to run with them. But excuse my naivety for thinking that speedwork groups should be matched by – how can I put this? – actual running speed, rather than anatomy. I didn’t think it was possible in the 21st century, but I think I might have hit some kind of glass ceiling in a running group.

I was, and still am, pretty frustrated by the whole escapade. It goes without saying that I won’t be found training with this group-which-must-not-be-named in future. But even as my own personal anger subsided, I started to feel bad for the women who regularly train with this them. What kind of message are the trainers hammering into them, week in, week out?

As a result of all of this, I have not only decided to run the half marathon on Sunday after all, but I am going to take all that fury to the start line with me and hurl it at the road ahead of me. While I don’t feel as though I have anything to prove, I’m going to try and put the wisdom of George Herbert’s words to the test and see if the best revenge in the running world is racing well. Wish me luck!

Speed ≠ Everything

“How can you tell if someone has run a marathon? – Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.”

It’s so true, isn’t it? Over the past month or so, whether they wanted to or not, my friends, family, acquaintances, co-workers, the mailman, my dentist, etc. have all been subjected to the details of my marathon escapades in Rome. Their responses predictably fell into one of two categories. The non-runners tried to make polite conversation by asking how long this marathon was, all while backing away slowly, of course. That one just never gets old, does it?

The runners’ response was somewhat more inviting, albeit just as predictable: “Cool. What was your time?” This prompted me to launch into a well-rehearsed monologue of explanations as to why I had decided take it easy in Rome, before – much like a catholic schoolgirl on Sunday mornings – all but confessing my finishing time of 3:48.

I know I can run faster than that. My running buddies, of course, are well aware of this, too. However, the point is that in Rome I made a conscious decision not to run all out, mostly because the race didn’t fit into my training and racing schedule at all. I still loved every second of it, and it actually taught me a lot about finishing a marathon feeling strong. The whole thing has made me think – are we, as runners, too hung up on speed sometimes? What’s that all about?

Friends who take up running often tell me how far they have run and how long it took them. Of course, quantifiable improvements in running performance are very nice, but why don’t they tell me how they felt, how much (or little) fun they had, or where they went or what they saw on the run?

Please don’t get me wrong, I too find it really fun to run really fast sometimes. I like it as much as the next person and like many other runners, I include workouts in my training which are specifically designed to improve my speed. However, this is certainly not my only goal in training, or running in general. It’s not even the most important one, not by a long shot.

Many runs (and sometimes even races) have a very different purpose. A prime example of this is the long run, of course. Not only is speed not important on these runs, it can actually be counter-productive in training. Yet, being hung up about pace on the long run and going too fast has got to be one of the most common rookie running mistakes that I see time and time again.

My easy runs and recovery runs are for the pure joy and relaxation of the sport. I must say that over time, these runs have become more important than ever to me. Some call them “junk miles”, but I couldn’t disagree more. On these runs I just relax and enjoy the scenery and my hard-earned fitness. Having fun on these runs is paramount to everything, and they are so important to keep the passion alive. I never really remember how fast I ran anything, and apart from a few meaningful personal bests, I don’t even recall the finishing times of the races I have done. I do, however, remember the places where I have run, the sights I have seen and the people that I have met.

auchintaple-loch(Auchintaple Loch: a place which I passed – slowly! – on a recent long run.)

As a long-time (and hopefully life-long) runner, I find that this constant focus on speed is just not sustainable. It’s not feasible to constantly hunt those personal bests, for my part, I’m certain that I’d get very, very frustrated before eventually burning out entirely. This is not to say that I don’t have goals in my running or racing, when I’m not focussing on speed and finishing times, I might work on my running form, make a conscious effort to improve my cadence, aim for a clean negative split, try to high-five at least 5 spectators per kilometre, or tweak my nutritional strategy in an effort to avoid those dreaded pit-stops (the seldom talked about arch nemesis of virtually every runner).

Running is so much more to me than simply moving fast. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that I’d almost depreciate what running means to me in my life if I were to quantify it only in numbers. When a fellow runner comes to tell me about a recent run or race, I’m making a point to ask them: “Awesome – how was it?” They might still only tell me about their speed and times, but at least I am keeping the doors wide open.

That Happy Place

My happy place is a wonderful place to be; everything is fluffy and warm there and the sun always shines. It’s the place where I go to in my head when life hands me lemons and the juicer is broken. Yesterday, I spent the better part of 1 hour and 44 minutes hanging out there while running the St. Andrews Half Marathon.

My single biggest mistake was lining up at the start in the first place. You see, I had registered for the race many months ago, long before I started to go steady with this ultramarathon beast. It just so happened that I did a 24 mile trail training run the day before running the St. Andrews Half Marathon.

But because I clearly have an affinity for acts of futility and because my legs were feeling alright, I decided to make my way to the start line regardless and see what happens. After all, if I didn’t try this, how would I ever know whether or not a 5 hour trail run the day before is a winning strategy for an endurance race?

The event itself was complete chaos*; the whole thing was so poorly organised it had blasted right through the borders of the land of ridiculousness and had settled somewhere in the world of great entertainment value. With this being a local race, there were many familiar faces and we shared many a giggle about the latest race day calamity. But really, when has a little mayhem and complete disregard for basic health and safety ever been able to eclipse the fun of running with good friends and being cheered on by others?

My legs continued to feel pretty good as I was busy running my laps and going loopy on the beach in St. Andrews. However and predictably, after blowing all my fuel on the trails the day before, there was nothing in the tank for me to run on. There was no power in the engine, and when I commanded my legs to turn over a little faster shortly after the half-way point, they simply handed over their P45s.

I was bonking pretty hard, and the water station’s untimely demise also put an end to my chances of wolfing down an energy gel. Physically, I was totally spent and running on empty.

But mentally, interesting things were starting to happen. I’d like to say that I have experiencing something akin to an epiphany, but I wouldn’t rule out exhaustion-induced hallucinations either. Mentally, I felt strong – while there was none of the joy usually associated with running, I did feel a quiet determination in my mind to win the battle against the empty tank and disobedient legs. I thought a lot about the ultra challenge ahead, and what it really means to run an endurance race. I have accepted that the whole essence of endurance is that things will get tough and uncomfortable, and that I have to learn to keep going regardless. And that’s precisely what I am training for. With that in mind, I simply embraced the run for what it was – a valuable experience – and told myself that all I had to do was to keep going.

But then all these stubborn and inconsequential thoughts about training made way to a much more important and meaningful realisation. I suddenly thought about all of those people who can’t do what I’m doing. My thoughts turned to loved ones who are no longer with me. I thought about friends and family who are battling devastating illnesses and are fighting every day for the energy to make it through the day. Then I thought about my injured running friends. And that’s when I realised how lucky I am. I didn’t have to keep going – I was able to keep going. I am able to run, and in that moment that was the greatest privilege of them all.

Of course the official times for the race aren’t published yet, and I’m not holding my breath for any remotely meaningful information to ever be released. My sportswatch informed me that I crossed the finish line after 1:44 and that the course was 21.78 km in length. Physically, it was one of the hardest runs I have ever gutted out. I’m so glad that I did it though, because I have learned something very important. This particular run has made me fully realise that it’s gratitude that brings me happiness.

St. Andrews Half

 (A tired, but happy me arriving at – or near – the finish line)

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The organisation of the St. Andrews Half Marathon was very reliable and consistent: the organisers unfailingly messed up on virtually all aspects of the racing experience. Personal favourites included several changes to the start time and route in the days leading up to the event, and the fact that the start line was still being assembled when the official start time came and went. We did eventually start by running into a field of parked cars and then the route took us straight into oncoming traffic. There were a total of three marshals on the entire route and the aid station promptly ran out of water.

The half marathon route was changed more times that I can shake a stick at, and on the day it involved running four laps of the 5km route, which actually turned out to be close to 22 km in length. That’s if you actually ran four laps of the course, because nobody was counting. Really, I couldn’t make this up. I felt so sorry for the first time runners. At the end of the day, I’m just really happy that nobody came to any harm.

Running Rome

Thou art in Rome! A thousand busy thoughts
Rush on my mind, a thousand images;
And I spring up as girt to run a race!

– Samuel Rogers, Rome.

There is one feeling that overrides all others now that I have returned from my long marathon weekend in Rome, and it is that I wish I had more time to spend in the eternal city. There isn’t a single word that can adequately describe the whole experience, but these two come pretty close: friggin’ awesome!

Everything in Rome is elegantly excessive and massively impressive: the sights were endless and phenomenal, the meals were plentiful and indulgent, the wine flowed freely and the people were friendly and generally seemed to have a lot to smile about.

I couldn’t help but get a little carried away by the grandiosity of it all, and prior to the marathon I found myself powerless against the temptations of the eternal city. Thus, I committed countless acts of marathon muppetry on the day before the race, and went to bed with feet that were tired from endless sightseeing and a stomach stuffed with Roman specialty pizza (i.e. carbs that were unfamiliar to my stomach).

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(This is what a sight-seeing marathon muppet looks like.)

In keeping with all things Roman, the Rome marathon was also an exceedingly grand affair. Despite my earlier transgressions, I’m delighted to be able to say that my own experience of running the Rome marathon was an overwhelmingly positive one.

As I have pointed out in an earlier post, my goal for Rome was to take it easy, in order to give my body a bit of a break from my recent races (as far as that’s possible while running a marathon!). It was my spring vacation, something to enjoy after a long winter. My goal for the marathon was to just enjoy the race and the amazing scenery it promised to pass. As such, I made a last-minute decision to ditch my watch, hoping that without it I’d spend more time looking at more interesting things than numbers.

At the start of the race, I lined up with thousands of other runners at the Colloseum and alongside the Roman Forum, but sadly I didn’t get a chance to enjoy these sights all that much at the time. Moments after I dropped off my bag and jacket, leaving my skin clad in nothing but shorts and a vest, the heavens opened and rained upon the horde of dismayed, and now increasingly cold, runners. In a desperate bid to stay warm, I bounced around on the spot for a little while, but soon realised that this was a pointless endeavour. All I could really do at this point was to go to that little happy place in my head and hope for the race to start soon so I could get moving and warmed up.

Thankfully, the start came soon enough, but unfortunately, it was all rather messy and confusing – so much so that I almost missed the start line entirely. Perhaps I had retreated a little too much to my happy place, but the fact remains I was only 20 yards from the start line when I recognised it for what it was. Somewhat worse was the fact that I was still surrounded by a mix of runners intended for literally all different start waves. Thus I may have started by journey around Rome feeling rather confused about where I was, but more importantly, I was incredibly happy to be moving.

Despite the huge crowd of runners, I was able to run the moment I crossed the start line. Well, let’s say I was able to plod, which suited me fine at the time, as the start of the race was in the historic centre of Rome and there was much to see.

However, I eventually got rather bored with the exceedingly slow pace, and thus I started passing people. Little did I know at the time that I’d be perfecting the art of passing people over the course of the next three hours or so. I found my own rhythm and danced around slower runners, always making sure that I didn’t get in their way as I did so. I had yet to spot a single pacer, and given that I hadn’t brought my watch, they were my only external indication of my approximate pace. It was time to start the hunt.

The route was rather boring as soon as we were out of the centre of the town, so the passing game kept me nicely entertained while the scenery was decidedly more ordinary. After about 4km I caught the first glimpse of balloons bobbling over the heads of some runners further ahead. Pacers! How very exciting! However, my heart sank when I got near enough to read the numbers that were printed in big, black letters on the merrily bouncing purple balloons: 5:00. How on earth did I get stuck so far behind the 5:00 pacer when I should have been in the 3:40 – 4:00 start wave?

And this was where the passing game began in earnest. I first passed the huge blob of runners clinging to the purple 5:00 balloons, and picked up the trail leading me to the 4:45 pacers. Then I chased down the 4:30 pacers. By the time I had caught up with the 4:15 pacers, we were nearing the 17th kilometre of the race and were crossing the Tiber for the second time. I kept my eyes open as I knew what lay in wait on the other side of the bridge: the Vatican.

This part of the route was an amazing highlight for me, despite the fact that I arrived at the Vatican just in time for the next big rain shower. Everyone knows the sight of St. Peters Basilica, but to run up to, past, and around it as part of a marathon was absolutely epic. The crowd support was wonderful on this part of the course as well, and it was lovely to see so many nuns and priests lining the road and cheering for the runners too!

I don’t know if it was the hype of running though the Vatican, but once I had left it behind and found myself running, once again, along the banks of the Tiber I experienced my first and only minor low point of the race. My body was feeling good, but my head hit the inevitable moment in any endurance race when it finally realises what I’ve gotten us into and reminds me that the distance I am running is really rather far. I find it highly entertaining.

In that moment I thought of something Emelie Forsberg said in an interview, about what she does when the going gets tough during a race. She said that she slows down until she enjoys it again, and then she finds that the pace naturally comes back to her. While I didn’t slow down as such (I didn’t need to because my body was feeling fine), I agree with Emelie on the point about enjoying the run. Running is a hobby, one that makes me happy and is healthy. What’s the point, then, in struggling with it? I made it a point to spend the next two kilometres smiling; at first it was a forced smile, but it soon turned into a delirious one. I smiled at everyone unfortunate enough to catch my eye, waved at the spectators, focussed on high-fiving the crowd supporters, giving thumbs up and winks at other runners and generally just bouncing along the tunes I was listening to.

The strategy worked well for me, as I was flying again with a genuine smile on my face by the time I reached the half-way point of the marathon. In fact, I felt so strong and happy that I decided to pass the 4:15 pacers as well and go look for the 4:00 pacers. Part of my plan was to run this marathon in over four hours, so I had set myself the explicit rule of not passing the next group of pacers. I was just getting a little bored again and felt good and comfortable enough to push the pace a little.

The next 10km or so of the course were rather common again, so my hunt and passing game kept me entertained once again. There was nothing unpleasant about it, but equally, there were no awesome landmarks or anything particularly Roman about it.

If I was flying in the 20 kilometre section of the marathon, I was positively soaring by the time I reached the 30 kilometre marker. Perhaps it’s due to my usual high mileage running, or the recent addition of serious speed work to my training, or the fact that my head is in ultramarathon mode. Perhaps it was just sheer good luck on the day, but somehow I actually felt better and stronger the further I got into the race. As with any marathon, at this point a lot of runners were visibly starting to struggle (and heaven knows I’ve been there too!), but not today! I had found the 4:00 pacers, and couldn’t help but notice that the four runners with pink 4:00 balloons tied to their backs were quite spread out. I told myself that as long as I don’t pass the first of these runners, I’d be running within my own rules.

After around 35 kilometres, the route took us back into the historic centre of Rome, and this is when things progressed from epic to legendary. The crowds were utterly amazing and the route kept on carrying us from one awesome sight to the next. I can’t count the number of times a stranger in the crowd shouted my name in support (it was printed on the bib number) and there were also countless moments when the sights drew an audible “oh, wow!” from my lips.

The moment we reached the 40km maker my resolve to run this marathon easy crumbled to oblivion. I had so much left in the tank and so little of the route left to blow it on, that I just had to let rip. I flew past the last 4:00 pacer and chucked everything I had left at the finish line. The final kilometre of the race was no doubt my fastest and was also the only one that was genuine hard work.

Just when I crossed the finish line, the heavens opened up yet again, which I wasn’t all that unhappy about, as I was busy stumbling towards the medals all while enjoying/suffering my usual euphoric/exhausted post-marathon blubber and if nothing else, rain is good at hiding the tears.

Having run without a watch, I had only a vague idea of my finish time. At the finish line, the gun time was still under 4 hours, which genuinely surprised me. Once the results were published, I was dumbfounded to learn that I had just run an “easy” marathon in 3:48 minutes.

Despite deliberately aiming to finish this race in over four hours, I categorically can’t consider this a fail. The most amazing part of it was to finish it feeling so strong. It’s a feeling I genuinely wish upon everyone and hope that all you other runners out there get to experience!

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(post marathon selfie: soaked in a mixture of sweat, rain, tears and spilled energy drinks, but still all smiles)

Some (hopefully) helpful tips for those who want to run the Rome Marathon:

With over 19,000 registered runners, it most certainly was a big city marathon with all the fun and games this entails. The expo was unsurprisingly busy, but had some great exhibits and was extremely well organised. One thing that I liked was that they handed out the numbers and race packs at the start, meaning that you didn’t have to be squeezed past the alleys of trade stands by a slow moving gooey mass of crowd if you didn’t feel like it.

The race itself prides itself with following a great route that passes countless historic sites and landmarks and is meant to impress. I found that this was true in parts – especially the start, the middle section (which passes though the Vatican) and the finish (which takes the course back into the historic centre of Rome) were incredibly impressive. However, in between this there were long sections where the route is also rather ordinary, so don’t bank on the sights to carry you around the course! Having said that, the crowd support was really lovely all the way around, but again, particularly awesome in the historic parts of town.

The course itself is overall flat and generally follows the course of the river. There are a few inclines, but nothing that ever made me feel as though I’m working to get up (or down) a hill. Many runners had warned me beforehand that much of the route is run on cobble stones, which is certainly the case. I’d say that roughly a quarter of it was run on cobbles, but this didn’t bother me in the slightest. I don’t know if that’s because I do a lot of training on uneven surfaces, or down to the fact that my marathon shoes are well cushioned and have pretty good grip for a road shoe, but I just bounced over the cobbles without a care in the world.

With the sheer number of runners, the start of the race was naturally rather crowded. However, it was also incredibly disorganised. Although runners were supposed to be starting in different areas, these were not marked at all. There were starting tunnels, but they all funnelled back into the same area. There were no announcements, no fireworks, no balloons – nothing that told me that the race had started apart from the fact that the crowd eventually began to shift towards the start line. As far as I could tell, there were no starting waves – just a mass start with everyone rolling towards the start line. In fact, I almost missed the start entirely. All of a sudden there was this big arch ahead of me and I figured this must be it.

This mass start had repercussions all the way through the race. Although it was possible to run straight away, it was very crowded and the going was slow. Similarly, the aid stations (which were set up every 5km of the course and were excellent in principle), simply couldn’t keep up with the volume of runners coming through them all at the same time. It was simply impossible for the poor volunteers to keep up with the demand and the runners had to stop and wait for a drink to be poured for them.

The start and finish area is one and the same, and despite the messy start, the finish was really well organised. I immediately got my lovely medal and a space blanket, as well as a drinks and food to refuel. The bag drop system also worked really well, in the form of lorries parked along the start area. A final word of warning, perhaps, is that although there were toilets in the start/finish area, as well as along the route, these were nowhere near enough to cater for the volume of runners, so the queues were the longest I’ve ever seen at a race and all the toilet paper had disappeared long before the start area was even full of runners.

The bottom line is that this is a big city race, which brings many, many runners together to run together in an amazing city. The organisation was overall really good and I’d definitely take part in this event again. Despite the very flat course, I’d say that this is not a PB course – it’s simply too crowded and the fact that it’s not possible to run through the aid stations if you want a drink will slow you down significantly. However, for a running tourist who wants to take part in what must be one of the world’s grandest marathons, this race has an awful lot to offer. Given that I wasn’t at all bothered with finishing in a particular time, I can genuinely say that loved every moment of it!