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

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Down the River

I was spoilt for choice last weekend.  Down in North Wales, some of the best runners in Britain were competing in the Commonwealth championships - including a few I'm lucky enough to know.  Over in Ayr, there was the last run of the SUMS series for 2011 - the River Ayr Way Challenge.  And in Edinburgh there was a pile of work to be done and plenty of good reasons not to be getting involved in any running events.

All of which explains why, when the alarm went off at 4.30 on Saturday morning, I glared at it for an hour or so before getting up and preparing to drive to the west coast of Scotland for a few hours.  My plan was to watch the start, head down to the sea for an hour or two and then go and watch the finishers, before heading home mid-afternoon.  Hmm I've had plans before like that.....

Every time I think I start to know Scotland, I find another piece of the country that looks nothing like the bits I already know.  Driving southwest out of Edinburgh I see pine forests and then high open land that makes me think I've been transported to the Yorkshire moors.  The road however appears to belong in Outer Kazakhstan: is there anywhere better than Scotland at taking a potholed decrepit dirt track and calling it a "A" road?

But Glenbuck arrives before the suspension packs up entirely and there are signs saying "caution - runners" and .... nothing.  The short single track road stops at a sign paying tribute to Bill Shankly who was born here.  The left hand fork goes through a small flood to a gate marked "no unauthorised admittance"; the right past a cottage and a sign saying "private".  No runners.  No signs of runners.  Despite the coach laid on to transport runners from Ayr to the start line, I expected some signs of life here barely 40 minutes from race time.

Another driver is there looking for the race as well and when she heads up the cottage road, I decide to follow her.  Round two sharp bends, through the narrowest stone gate and there is a cluster of cars and people in a wooded clearing.  There is nowhere safe to park and my reversing skills are ... limited ... so, after a 10 point turn, I drive back down the track and park on a verge where I think I'm out of the way.

There are lots of familiar faces around and, over in the far corner, is the lovely Mrs Mac who greets me with a hug.  Today she is providing support to a multi-national group of runners consisting of her English pirate, fellow Scot David Ross, and Richard from Ireland (aka The Beirut Taxi and a man who decided to run an ultra to celebrate his 40th birthday).  Not sure what the Welsh did to upset her....

The race start is delayed - something about the coach being late but there are plenty of people arriving by car here at Glenbuck.  The space fills up with old friends greeting one another, and behind every tree is a runner taking a last-minute comfort break.  Runners and bowels and bladders ... how did I get to know so much more than I ever wanted to know about these things?

The SUMS prizegiving is being held this evening in Ayr and I get asked several times if I'm going.  No, I'm heading home.  When it was going to be a ball, I didn't feel I had any entitlement to be there as a non-runner and even though it's a more casual event now (due to venue problems and lots of top runners being in Wales) that feeling didn't change.  Nor do I have any overnight bag or change of clothes, so while I'd partly like to stay and socialise, I know my evening is going to be spent back home watching X-factor.

Among the familiar faces is Andy, the "normal" runner who came third at the Devils who asks if I'll be popping up all along the course again.  Not likely when I don't have a clue where any of the checkpoints are, have never been to Ayrshire and am relying on satnav to find the finish.

Also there is Karen R who isn't competing despite being in her running gear.  Instead she's running the first 10 miles as guide runner for Hazel MacFarlane. 

Who is blind. 

Karen & Hazel
I have no words for this.  I can just about contemplate the idea of running a road race without sight.  But an uneven muddy trail overgrown with brambles and nettles, narrow to less than single track in places, with no stable ground underfoot?  I have seen some amazing performances over the past few months but this surpasses them all.

A flurry of bodies arrive as the coach finally comes in from Ayr.  Amongst the runners are the Challenge walkers who will cover the same course over the two days of the weekend.  They are laden with sensible clothing, packs, stout walking boots and poles, causing the runners to look almost naked beside them.

Having decided that everyone is here, the runners are called down to the start point.  After last minute photos, greetings and equipment adjustments, they set off just after 9.15.  A few minutes later the walkers set off behind them and crews start heading for cars.

Contrary to plans, I find myself following Lee as my guide to the first checkpoint.  There is a brief stop by the cottage when she realises the flags are not flying from her car.  Can't be a pirate support vehicle without the jolly roger....

For the first few miles, the runners are on a raised path just to the left of the main Ayr road.  I confess I'm distracted trying to look sideways.  Add in the fact that I'm following Lee who is also concentrating the race rather than the road and it's an achievement to get to Muirkirk without an accident.

Although technically an unsupported race, there are a number of crews at this stop as there are at all the others throughout the course.  At barely 5 miles apart, sometimes it's harder for the crew to get from one to another than the runner.  I get to put some more names to some of the faces I've seen on the side of the trails.  And to admire the healthy and nutritious food available to runners from the marshalls:
The first runners are through at a blistering pace without pausing.  Strange how many different gaits there are to cover ground quickly from the long loping strides of Grant to the quick short paces of the second runner, yet their speeds are almost equal.

Race plans were for Richard to run alone to let him manage his own pace, and the two Daves to run roughly together.  The three come in separately but only a few minutes apart.  Richard runs through but the others pause briefly.

With nearly 7 miles to the next checkpoint, there is time to call into the village shop and get food and magazines for the support crew before a leisurely drive onwards. 

By Limmerhaugh the river has widened out and I squelch down the bank to the path.  Although it's now dry and starting to get warm, there has clearly been a lot of rain recently.  It's going to be a challenging surface to run through, particularly for anyone unfamiliar with the route and envisaging a tarmac towpath...

The leaders have already been through but there is a woman waiting for her partner and we get chatting.  She tells me her name is Heather and when I introduce myself she says "oh you've got a blog haven't you?" which is a quite surreal moment.  Her other half - Peter MacDonald - is in his first year of ultras and hoping to do the Triple Crown next year.  Heather is in training to be his support runner for the WHW....

Standing either side of the narrow path, clapping every runner who comes through, we feel a bit like a guard of honour.  It still feels strange that runners have the energy or mindset to acknowledge us; is it really a boost to have random people encouraging you on your way?

Lee has set up her support point a little way further up the track.  In all my races this year, I've never really seen an outdoor support point and I'm immensely impressed by how organised and equipped she is.  Camping chairs to sit on, a folding table laid out with possible needs, a clipboard with expected times and anticipated food, a portable stove for soup, hot food and coffee, giant bottles of water....  Never mind medical supplies, food, drinks, clothes - this really is a military expedition. 

Have trainers, will run?  Who are you kidding?  You really can't do it without back-up.

In previous years, this spot by a footbridge was the official checkpoint and as runners come through, many of them call out their numbers, mistaking Lee for a marshall.  Quite a number of them also try and turn up onto the bridge itself and cross the river, even when it's clearly blocked by other crews.  The bridge is pretty decrepit with unravelled stays and a pronounced wobble - it looks like a prop from the latest Indiana Jones film.  Cue small boy creeping out ... and naughty relative jumping up and down to shake it.

Our three runners are spread out now and this is the last but one point where Lee will be able to meet all of them.  It's also become blue-skyed and hot, defying the weather forecast.
At Sorn, the runners come onto the road for the first time (I'm sure there's a good reason for them to run on the road rather than the pavement but it makes for interesting encounters with car drivers...) and the route crosses the river over a hump-backed bridge closed to traffic.

I wander over and find a photographer set up to catch runners coming over the crest.  It's a vantage point that should make for great shots but with the disadvantage of no sightline along the route to see their approach.

There are heavy metal barriers at each end of the bridge to block off the traffic and the organisers have tied signs to them to direct the runners.  Unfortunately at the far end there is no gap between the barrier and the bridge and the runners keep trying to turn in from of the barrier where there's nowhere to go.  Myself and another spectator try moving cones into the space but it's not having the required effect and the barriers are going nowhere without a JCB.  The photographer suggests the sign needs to be on the opposite side of the road.  Cue some bloody minded struggling with road signs, A-frames, sandbags, mud and string to achieve this.  Apologies to Ayrshire council for messing about with your road signs - but it worked and injured runners would have made such a mess....

Back at the car, Lee is heating up oxtail soup.  Mason (dog) is getting ready to lick the bowl clean.

Being parked after the checkpoint, a number of runners have left rubbish with us.  Before we leave, we go to take this to the marshall who refuses to take it, saying its not his job.  Can I merely say that it is not good for one's health to argue with Mrs Mac on the subject of marshall's duties....?

From Sorn we take a high speed shortcut down a side road to Catrine for a flying meet and greet and then on to Mauchline.  And getting lost. Repeatedly.  After about five attempts, a map book consultation and an inquiry at a petrol station, we finally find the right road.

Richard is long ahead by now and the only way to meet the pirate is to drive up a narrow road and stop in the middle of it when we're a few hundred yards ahead of him.  Job done.  Now how to get back...?  I'm not a fan of reversing any distance, particularly with runners still coming up the narrow track.  But the consequence of turning round is that the sides of my car are now coated with a brown aromatic substance that isn't all mud....  I've been in the city too long....

The next stop is Failford which is a beautiful village with a lovely pub.  It's also on a busy road, with no pavements outside the village and fast traffic.  This would be a dangerous place for any pedestrian, but for runners tired and hot after more than 20 miles, even more so.  I flinch at a number of narrow misses between runners and lorries.

The pirate turns up unexpectedly whilst Mrs Mac is taking Mason (dog) for a comfort break and I discover that I am not a good support.  I don't know where anything is in the car, or even if we have the right things that are wanted.  Fortunately the expert is back on hand within moments and normal service resumes.

From here onwards, Richard is being met by a friend from Edinburgh who he will be staying with before heading home the next day.  His bags are all in the pirate wagon and it's suggested that I take them and go on from Failford to the finish rather than continuing through all the checkpoints.

I've enjoyed my look at a race from a support perspective but also quite happy to go back to observer status.  Support looks like a lot of hard work!

So, onwards down to Ayr and a touch of deja vu to find Muriel at the finish line with a camera.  Isn't this where I came in?

Sure enough I find myself handing out goody bags again, along with medals and bottles of water.  The winner - Grant Jeans not surprisingly - is long since home but I'm in time to see Andy come in as 4th male.
He's furiously trying to calculate if his time will have scored him the points he needs to get an age group prize in the SUMS championship and comes back to Anneke, the Race Director, several times to check finishing times.

For a while runners come in singly and some distance apart, but then they start arriving in groups which is harder to keep up with.  I decide to copy the Fling and hijack some nearby children to help with water and medals.  This reminds me why I didn't follow the family profession and become a teacher...

As I hand over labelled goody bags, it strikes me how many of these people I know by name.  Some I can even identify as they run into the track.  This is a very small world....

Richard makes it in with the widest smile on his face.  He'll be back....

As the afternoon wears on, I'm becoming less and less enthusiastic about going home.  A few drinks to say goodbye to the season and a chance to catch up with people ... However I have nowhere to stay, no change of clothes, no toiletries.  Muriel clinches it by pointing out that the Station Hotel is a big hotel and is bound to have rooms.  Everything else can be fixed by shopping...

There is an interesting challenge to getting the final SUMS positions calculated.  The chief statistician - Tim Downie - is running the race himself and will need to finish in a respectable time, feed today's results into spreadsheets and make it to the prizegiving.  There is such a thing as trying to do too much at once!

The pirate makes it to the finish in a decent time, proving once again that no training and excess alcohol consumption is no barrier to completing an ultra.

David Ross also finishes looking tired but happy.

A couple of runners (I think Rachel and Brian?) even manage to have a sprinting contest on the final few hundred yards, overtaking a very tired looking runner in the process.  I still haven't worked out how anyone has the capacity to sprint after 30, 40, 50 miles or more - no matter how many times I see it done!

The receptionist at the hotel gives me a slightly confused look when, with no more baggage than a very small handbag, I ask for a room but gives me a decent room rate which leaves me with just enough time for a trip to the supermarket for some basic essentials.  Morrisons doesn't sell clothes but there is a clean top in my car boot for some reason so I feel slightly less grubby after a shower and change.

Due to the Commonwealth championships, a lot of the SUMS prizewinners are absent, including the amazing Lucy Colquhoun who retains her ladies title by winning every race she ran, thereby scoring an unsurpassable 2000 points.  For various reasons, a number of race directors are also absent.  But everyone who's there is determined to enjoy themselves...

But the first prize of the night goes to Hazel Macfarlane for proving that there are truly no limits.

Almost as impressive is the special award to Frank Skachill for being the first to complete all 9 SUMS races in a single season.  The legendary Ray McCurdy was the first to enter all 9 last year but didn't complete them all (I hear he got lost once or twice....).  That's the first man, first lady is still up for grabs if anyone's interested.

This year's lifetime award goes to one of the grand old men of Scottish running, Jim Robertson, both for his ultra achievements (12 WHW finishes, including the oldest finisher, being only a small part of it) and his Jog Scotland coaching over the last ten years to bring hundreds of runners into the sport.  His award is presented by the "other" Jim - Jim Drummond.  Between them, those two have stories to keep you entertained for a lifetime of ultras....

And when the formalities are over, it's time for drinking and chatting and catching up with friends old and new, hearing gossip and plans, and more drinks and more chatter.  Until it's long past four in the morning and even the hardest drinkers are starting to flag.

So, to bed, and an unanticipated room-mate whose accommodation planning is even more slapdash than mine.  In the morning, three flights of stairs and no lift is a serious challenge for an ultra runner with 40 miles in their legs....  and possibly a breach of the Geneva convention.

And so ends the SUMS for this year.  But not quite the end of the ultra season...

Almost everyone I know seems to be heading for Glen Ogle on the 5th November.... See you there?


  1. Great report Julie. See you in Glen Ogle. ;-)

  2. Great write-up Julie!

    See you around :)


  3. Hi Julie,

    You make me sound better than I ever could myself! Thanks for all your support on the day. It was great to become part of the ultra family in Scotland.