An ordinary woman's fascination with an extraordinary sport ... and the extraordinary people who take part

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

I am a (very slow) runner

I'm sure it's no surprise that I think ultra runners are great.  As a group, they have to be the most open-hearted, friendly and welcoming community I've ever encountered.  They're also invariably mad, with a total disregard of the accepted maxims of physical limitations and a general belief that anything is possible. 

And therein lies my problem.

That sort of thinking is contagious.

That sort of thinking is why, in the pub last Wednesday, I found myself nodding in agreement when Sandra suggested I should take part in the mile relays in the Meadows the next week.  And it was early on in the evening so I can't even blame the alcohol.  (There were a few intoxicating beverages consumed later; it was my birthday after all!).  And I was definitely sober the following night when I confirmed on fb...

This was all before I made the mistake of looking at the Sri Chinmoy website and seeing the times from last year.  Five, six, seven minutes for the mile ... fecking hell there's loads that are four minutes something!  This might be just a bit of fun, but these are serious runners.  I have no idea how fast I can run a mile - I've never tried - but I know it's going to take rather longer than that!

Whilst I'm clearly going to be the slowest person on the night, I'm less embarrassed by this than by the fact that a couple of Sandra's Fetch pals have agreed to team up with a complete stranger who can only guarantee them last place on this year's results.  Lanterne Rouge anyone....?



And so, on what feels like the hottest evening of the year, I find myself heading for the Meadows in my running gear.  Never mind that when I woke up this morning, every inch of my legs was howling in psychosomatic pain, and I've spent the entire day alternating between a desire to throw up and empty my bladder.

When I get there, I spot the Fetch vests and am warmly welcomed by Sandra.  "How are you feeling?" she asks.

"Fucking terrified!"

I really didn't see the two small children.  Sorry!

Sandra is on my team but the third runner isn't able to make it and we have a vacancy.  Sandra spots Keith talking to the HBTs and ropes him in.  Eeek!  There are three people on the field that I know, and two of them are going to be running with me.  Nobody I know has ever seen me run ....  It's going to be a night of firsts!

A mile.

It doesn't sound very far really.  I spend too much time watching and reading about runs of 40, 50, 100 miles.  When somebody points out the route and that it's basically the full way around the meadows, it looks like infinity.  The only place I want to run now is the opposite direction.  The place is full of people with beer and barbecues and footballs ... why am I not doing that instead of doing stupid things like running???

We have agreed that I am running the first leg, with Sandra second and Keith, our "fast" runner in the final circuit when he can pass others.  I am soundly expecting to get lapped by second leg runners and I think my sole objective is to not get lapped by any of the thirds!

All too soon, Adrian calls us to the start.  I try to find my appropriate place at the back and find myself between a immaculately turned out grey haired woman, and a younger woman in a brown HBT vest pushing a buggy.  Ok, this is going to be even more embarrassing than I realised.  Too late now....

As we set off, the last thing I hear is Keith yelling "run like fuck" at me.  And I do.  For about a hundred yards.  By which time, the front runners are already two hundred yards ahead of me.  And I'm already gasping for breath like I never quit smoking.

A group of young men are holding out bottles of beer by the side of the course.  "Don't tempt me" I say, which is a further waste of breath that I don't really have.  The smart answer would have been "I'll be back in ten, keep it cold for me" but that only occurs to me half way around.

I'm consoled initially by the fact that a man in red is only a few yards ahead of me, but at the first turn he carries straight on and I realise he's not in the relay.  Fortunately the older woman is still behind me jogging at a steady pace which makes me feel better.  Until she overtakes me about two thirds of the way around and pulls away.

By this point, the fast second leg runners are coming past.  By god are they fast.  Even with screaming legs and lungs I can still appreciate their speed and elegance.  What on earth am I doing this for?  I'm never going to able to do that, or anything like.

But I am going to finish this blasted mile.  If it kills me.  And it probably will judging by how much the last few hundred yards hurt.

The cheers from the Fetch gang (and the other runners around) help.  They also make me even redder than I am already.  I'm embarrassed to be so slow in this company but at the same time I know I absolutely could not have gone any faster.  So, I'm slow.  But I did it.  That's more than several hundred other people on the Meadows did tonight.

Sandra sets off and I lean against a tree, trying to pull some oxygen into my lungs.  Keith jokes that my face is the same colour as my hair.  This is not a pretty thought and I'm not looking forward to seeing the race photos....

I'd left a drink bottle with a Fetch non-runner but I can't find her and Zuzana offers me water.  My brain is so fried at this point I can't even open the bottle.  It doesn't ease my burning lungs but it tastes great.

Sandra manages to overtake a few bodies and Keith seems to produce a spectacular sprint finish with the end result that we're not last.  There is some debate around differences between garmin times and race times but I think they were 7:20 and 6:06 respectively.


My leg is recorded as 12:46.  It's slow.  But it's a PB.  And I'm actually very happy with it.

Afterwards, there is a Fetch picnic with fizzy stuff and strawberries and chocolate peanuts.  And gossip and chat and laughter...

Can't think of a better way to have spent a summer evening.

Before...
... After

Thanks to everyone who got me there, got me round and made me smile afterwards.  Some of you know who you are ... some of you don't ... but thanks anyway.

Now if I could just find a new pair of lungs, it would be great.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

A Stroll Along the Clyde

So, my third ultra, and another great experience.  Although I'm learning that every ultra has its own unique character and personality, even when many of the participants are the same...

The forecast for Saturday was warm and wet.  Very wet.  When the alarm went off at 4.30, the first thing I could hear was the rain pouring down.  Nor did I have to get out of bed to confirm that the rest of the forecast seemed to be right as well.

Not having flown back from England until late on the Friday, I was completely unprepared and wasted copious amounts of time trying to decide on clothing.  I don't do heat particularly well and the challenge of what could keep me cool - and dry - was probably too taxing for that time of day.  But just after six, I'm in the car and heading west.

At first, it's just raining but the downpour gets heavier and heavier, falling in what seems to be solid pools of water.  Despite the best efforts of the wipers, I'm struggling to see any distance and, like the small number of other vehicles on the M8, slow down further and further in an attempt to retain some safety.  Even at a crawling pace, there are a few very hair-raising moments when the car starts aqua-planing and the clever electronic bits kick in.  If I wasn't fully awake before, I am now....

For the first time ever, I don't approach the Kingston Bridge in an almost stationary queue.  But I still miss the turn for Partick and find myself doubling back up a hill so steep it should be in San Francisco, not Glasgow.  By now the rain has lightened to a sporadic drizzle and I only need to worry about the car in front that is weaving across the road in erratic curves, clearly still drunk or drugged from the night before, and travelling at 15-20 mph.

For some reason, I'm convinced that the station should be on a main road (despite Google street view!) and almost miss the turn but there's the station and Morrisons with its almost empty car park.  Feet up, magazine and first bottle of Irn-Bru out, let's sit and wait for the circus to turn up.

One or two cars pull into the car park, some clearly unconnected with the race, but the owner of the exuberant golden labrador is small and wiry, and wearing shorts and running shoes.  Quite a few pedestrians are also wearing trainers ... but the wider physiques and inevitable cigarettes seem to preclude them from being runners....

However I am quite sure that the tall man standing at the corner of the car park is part of Lee's team and when I walk over he introduces himself as Davie Hall, another member of the "family" but not one I've actually met before.

More runners arrive and eventually so does Lee in the white transit.  I can't believe how much stuff there is in the back and we start following instructions to unload the bits that are needed for the start.  The other two registration marshalls start registering the individual runners, handing out race numbers and safety pins, whilst I write out the relay teams' race badges.  As I'm kneeling, I hear a voice above me say hello and look up to see the smiling face of the lovely David Ross (he was part of the Pirate's WHW support crew and, with his wife Lorraine, part of the post race drinking crew).  He probably should be running himself but says he hasn't trained enough so is helping out by marshalling the road crossings.

Suddenly it's very busy with runners and teams registering and handing in drop bags.  Lee has caused some confusion by changing the race numbers at the last minute to accommodate the final line-up, not realising that runners have already taken "their" numbers from the website and labelled their drop bags.  Some borrow marker pens to change their labels, others just get left as they are.

Although the Clyde Stride is marketed as a perfect beginner's first ultra, there are still a lot of the high-end Scottish runners here, with the promise of some good competition.  A few of the individual runners were part of the WHW only four weeks ago, including Richie, Donnie Campbell, Debs and Sharon.  Also here is Lucy Colquhoun, fresh from winning an individual bronze for GB in the World Championship in Ireland only a week ago, and full of smiles and stories of Italian runners.  Grant Jeans is also racing; one of the favourites for the race but not a runner I've seen before as he doesn't like hills, which is a bit of a disadvantage in so many of the Scottish trail ultras.  Not forgetting the legendary Ray McCurdy, looking positively dapper (apparently he is now sponsored by the Evening Times and Greaves Sports...) but digging out his entry fee from a puzzle of coin bags.  Debs comes over, says hello and promises not to shout at me later... but says nothing about water bottles.

I finally meet the famous Ali B and am delighted to find out that she is every bit as nice as her reputation.  Karin is here too but not running, having accepted only a few days ago that her legs have not recovered sufficiently from her lengthy WHW - she also confesses that she took about two weeks to go from "never again" to "definitely again"... Tim Downie is sweeping (with Sophie) and has come correctly kitted out for his role:



Lee delivers the race briefing round the corner which I hear very little of, as we're still finishing the last registration tasks.  I'm slightly confused by the relay team who have called themselves "The Waitresses" as there seems to be some definite gender mis-match.



As I'm trotting down to the start line, a couple stop me and the man asks in a very thick Glasgow accent what the runners are doing.  Not for the last time that day, I reply "40 miles along the Clyde to Lanark".  His jaw drops and I learn some new Scottish words...

Then the hooter goes and they're away, the front runners sprinting as if there were 5k ahead of them, not 40 miles.

Back to the car park, and start packing up.  Drop bags in the boxes, ready to be taken to the relevant checkpoints.  Bags for the finish line; although the briefing was "one small bag", there are a large number of bags of a size sufficient for a family of four on a week's holiday!  DQ and Geraldine are there, they are manning checkpoint 3 and will have no runners for 3-4 hours.  Davie sets off quickly for the first checkpoint where it will be a challenge to get ready and set out for the first runners.  Lee has given us our goodie bags and we're all delighted to see they include race medals.  Totally unearned but a nice touch.

Officially I'm done now and I could go home ... but it was never going to happen.  So a convoy of three vehicles sets off, headed up by Lee and Ali in the van and me at the back.  Within a few minutes I've completely lost my bearings and there are a few close calls with other vehicles and changing traffic lights as I try to keep up.  We briefly touch familiar territory by the Kingston Bridge and then are over the Clyde into south Glasgow and some "interesting" areas.  One wrong turn on an industrial estate and we pull up at the first checkpoint at Cambuslang.

The drop bags are laid out along the side of the path and Lee puts the two other registration marshalls on point to be responsible for picking up the correct runners bag, whilst Davie and his sidekick concentrate on recording times.

There's some debate as to who will be first through - Grant or Richie - and my money's on Grant: it's a flat fast course which plays to his strengths.  Almost exactly an hour into the race, the shout of "runner" goes up and everyone turns to see who it is.  Charging along, dressed all in black, it's Grant.  Somehow he seems to bounce without ever touching the ground ... and good heavens he's fast. 

He almost misses the turn after the checkpoint and has to be shouted right.  Lee asks me to stand on the junction and make sure everyone goes the right way. 

A few minutes later, the next runner arrives but it's not Richie.  It's a young man in a white t-shirt with bleached blond hair who looks as though he should be on a surfboard.  He charges through the checkpoint and, as he passes me, wants only to know "how far ahead is he?"  I tell him about five minutes and can almost see him putting his head down and increasing his speed.

Another few minutes pause and then there's a steady flow of runners coming through.  For relay teams, this is the first changeover and I think some of them are surprised how fast the full-distance runners are travelling.

Some runners stop at the checkpoint but others just grab dropbags and keep going.  One asks if he can give me an empty bag and I start collecting rubbish.  This works quite well until Debs comes through and throws her half empty water bottle towards me ... the top isn't fastened and the contents fly out and soak me from the waist downwards.  Oh well, I'm still expecting to get wet in the promised rainstorms and at least it was water, not sticky electrolyte drink!

Whilst I'm standing here, my mobile rings.  It's my credit card company trying to solve a security problem and I get stuck into a lengthy conversation.  But the race doesn't stop and I'm trying to multi-task and keep clapping and directing runners as they go through.  The poor man on the other end of the phone is totally confused as to why I keep interrupting him with words like "no, THAT way" or "about ten miles" ....

Eventually Lee decides that she needs to leave for the next checkpoint to have any chance of seeing the first runners through and asks me to move on as well.  We make a quick stop at (yet another) Morrisons to stock up on bottled water for the checkpoints and fuel the van.  I'm not quite sure what the other shoppers and staff make of the three women in race t-shirts and fluorescent jackets buying a trolley full of bottled water.

The second checkpoint is at Strathclyde Park to the side of a hotel.  By now the sun is out, the sky is clear and I'm cursing leaving my sunglasses at home.  The checkpoint is busy with cars, supporters and relay teams and we've missed the first few runners.  Audrey and Eric are already here but with a third marshall, Eric can concentrate on drop bags, whilst Audrey and I concentrate on recording runners and times.  She calls out the clock time and the race numbers while I write.

At Kinlochleven there were always gaps between runners but this is only twenty miles in and it feels like non-stop arrivals.  Some runners are making it even more challenging by not displaying numbers or having them in random places.  Some come past us, pick up drop bags, then double back to the car park and come past us again which is a challenge trying to keep the numbers straight.  We do quite well but as I transpose the numbers onto the time sheets, we have two numbers duplicated - 64 and 77.  I try and mark the sheet to show this, but it will make Lee's life a bit more challenging when she tries to put the splits together (so don't get cross with her that they're not available the next day!).

We start getting withdrawals here - in general they're experienced runners making an informed decision to stop before they do damage (the first to pull out is only just outside the top ten but knows his knee isn't right).  In what must be another frustration in an unlucky season, Sharon leaves the checkpoint but comes back soon after to withdraw.  As an unsupported race, we commit to transporting anyone who pulls out but, as a testament to the community of runners, not a single person needs us.

Davie turns up and tells us that three runners weren't captured at his checkpoint and can we keep an eye out for them coming through.  The flurry of runners slows to an erratic trickle and the long row of drop bags shrinks.  Audrey ran the race last year and is quite pleased when the clock ticks past the time she came through; she says that this proves that she was running with an exceptionally speedy bunch!

Eventually the sweepers arrive with the last runner.  Tim is still carrying his brush and Soph seems to be wearing enough layers to survive a winter night in the Highlands.  A lengthy pause for food and drink and the three of them head onwards.

Two of Davie's "missing" runners have turned up but the third is still a blank on our sheets.  After speaking to Lee, I offer to phone the runner and his contact.  I'm hoping to hear a sheepish voice admitting to an early exit but the runner's phone eventually goes to voicemail.  Then I call his wife's number and my heart sinks when she says she's not heard from him.  There isn't much we can do but somewhere in the last 20 miles, a runner has vanished and there are now lots of bad possibilities running through my brain.  I've already left a voicemail on his number but Lee suggests sending a text as well which I do.  I set off for Lanark hoping for my mobile to ring...

Once I turn off the M74, I'm back onto unknown territory and it's quite pretty but somehow doesn't feel at all like Scotland, more like Somerset?  The road twists and turns alongside the river - at one point making a strange D-shaped loop over two bridges and back to the same side - and as usual I'm peering through the woods looking for runners.  It's not until I'm high up in a village that I see two pounding the pavement and beep my horn in support.

The traffic crawls through Lanark town centre which isn't what I was expecting at all from a heritage site, but eventually I start twisting and turning down the hill.  Just as I pass the sign for New Lanark car park, my phone rings and I stop where I am to answer it.  It's the wife of the missing runner now quite anxious having left several messages without response.  I finally think to ask her what I should have done before, and she tells me that he had three drop bags in bright pink.  Curiouser and curiouser as there were none left over at the checkpoint ... could he be sneaking through without a number?  Even better she tells me the name of someone he was running with.  I recognise the name as someone who pulled out at checkpoint two ... and whose number I have in the checkpoint folder that's sitting on my passenger seat.

I call the second runner and explain who I am and why I'm calling.  I'm delighted to hear him tell me that the missing runner was definitely at checkpoint two, and he can even tell me the approximate time he came in.  As I thank him and hang up, I remember something from registration that I'd forgotten: when runner 77 registered, his number couldn't be found and one was written by hand for him.  So if my missing runner was given the original 77 sign by mistake, that would explain why we haven't logged him at any checkpoint - and also why I had duplicate times for #77 at Strathclyde Park (but not #64) as there are two runners with the same number on the course...  Feeling much better, I call his wife back and explain my theory.  I calculate he will be finishing in about an hour and promise to get him to call her as soon as he arrives.  She tells me to slap him for causing so much worry...

Although Audrey had told me how to drive to the finish line, I've clearly gone wrong as the car park is high above the village but as I stand at the top of the path I can hear a round of applause from way below me and realise I'm hearing a runner come home.

About a third of the way down the hill, the back of my left knee decides to stop the whinging it's been doing for the previous two days and buckles completely.  The resulting yelp of pain is loud enough to bring a middle-aged couple trotting back up the slope to me in concern.  Whilst this isn't the best place to be injured, it doesn't compare with many places on the trails and I decide to continue down the hill and figure out how I'll get back up to the car later!

It's a lovely place to finish a race - a grassy strip alongside the river that the runners reach down a flight of steps and through a open doorway in a wall.  There is a line of tents along one side containing finish marshalls, drop bags and, best of all, a mini kitchen supplying tea coffee and tablet.

Two years ago I had never even heard of tablet ... my teeth ache just looking at it ... but mmmmmm....

So many faces from the start are here already, many of them looking much more relaxed now it's finished.  To avoid putting my foot in it, I ask Ali who won and hear that it's the young blond man who was in second place earlier.  His name is Paul Raistrick and, although he runs with an Inverness club, no-one seems to know much about him.  General consensus is that Scottish ultra racing is going to know quite a lot about him in the near future...

Not surprisingly Lucy has won the ladies' race, which is impressive after the Connemara race only seven days earlier.  Debs is second, which is as good as a win when you're racing Lucy!

Davie is taking photos of every finisher - when he misses one, he cajoles him into going back and running in again for the camera - and Lee greets every finisher with a hug.

Our "missing" runner comes in - wearing the duplicate number we gave him hours earlier - both Dave and I apologise and I put my phone into his hand for him to talk to his wife. 

John K and Katrina are there and he comes over to say hello.  Nice to see that, running or not, the family still turns out for one another.  Either that, or I'm not the only one who can't stay away!

Prizegiving has to wait until the third lady arrives and when it does start, there is still one eye on the course to send up the cry of "runner" and everything pauses for them to come home.

Although Keith isn't running I still have a passenger home to Edinburgh; a young New Zealander called Antonia.  She had the (mis)fortune to meet Keith about the same time I did last year and hear about ultra running.  The difference being that, being already an accomplished marathon and cross-country runner, she's now an active ultra participant and building up to her first 12 hour race up in Aviemore later this summer.  I know of her through Keith but this is the first time we've met and we chatter all the way back to Edinburgh.  As we head north-east, it's clear that the Clyde Stride escaped the worst of the weather, as we plough through floods and watch the lightening crackling over the city.


So another great day out... Lee tells me I am already booked for next year. 

Hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.

See you at the next one....


*photos by Muriel D, Ali B, Davie H & me

Monday, 18 July 2011

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Heading West

As you may have gathered, I had a brilliant time marshalling at the WHW Race.  I met some extraordinary people, whether as organisers, runners, supporters or general family.

So, not surprisingly I found myself offering my services to the lovely Mrs Mac who is the Race Director of the next one in the SUMS championship: the Clyde Stride.  There might have been one or two intoxicating beverages consumed prior to the conversation taking place :-) so thought it sensible to confirm that I did mean it by an fb message a few days later.

Today the email landed confirming the arrangements for the weekend ... and it seems I will be taking my first ever non-work related trip to Glasgow.  Or, to be precise, to Partick Railway Station.

Now as an Englishwoman who has only been resident north of Hadrian's Wall for just over two years, Partick is one of those mythological places that only really exists in association with a football team.  English football clubs have ordinary sounding names like "united" or "city" ... Scottish clubs have exotic names like "Partick Thistle" or "Queen of the South".

(Talking of football ... the first time I ever went to Glasgow was for an industry lunch some years ago.  Me and about 400 men and a very politically incorrect comedian - oh the joys of the construction industry...  I asked what the dress code was, and was told "Anything you like - so long as it's not green or blue",  "But I'm English?".  Nope.  Not green or blue.  Mind you it's not every day you walk into a hotel meeting room at 10.00am and someone hands you a large glass of whiskey...)

Anyway, at an early hour on Saturday morning I will be heading west to see what a mythological town looks like.  It's probably as well that Mrs Mac chose to allocate me to registration as all the other checkpoints come only with map grid references.  I used to be able to read a proper map but I'm failing miserably at any attempt in converting these to actual locations!

However the race finish at New Lanark I am very sure I can find.  Even when I was still English resident, I travelled up to central Scotland on a regular basis with work.  On numerous occasions, I would see the signs off the M74 for "New Lanark Heritage Village".  On numerous occasions, I told myself that it looked interesting and I should come back sometime and see it.  I never did.

But it looks as though this weekend I finally will.

And hopefully so will all the runners.

PS If you want to hear a very bizarre sounding description of the Clyde Walkway, click this link to the qwiki website ...