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

Sunday, 20 November 2011

I am Not a Runner - Parkrun

Some months ago, Santababy introduced me to the world of Fetch, where there are a lot of ultra runners ... and also a lot of runners who think in much more "normal" distances.

There is a little group of Fetch beginners and we've sort of clubbed together to say nice things to one another / nag when appropriate. Two of us agreed we would both do Parkrun today - despite living 400 miles apart.  What I didn't realise at the time was that it would be a year to the day since I bought my first pair of running shoes - that's one way to celebrate an anniversary...

Having grizzled on a thread about not wanting to be 10 minutes behind everyone else (last I can handle, but not last by that much), a fellow Edinburgh Fetchie - who I've never met or had any dealings with before - offered to run it with me. How does this happen - that there is an online forum where people are quite happy to put themselves out for the benefit of a stranger they've never met?

Friday night was spent at a "Meet the Designer" event at one of my new favourite shops, drinking kir royale and buying presents (well, at least one of my purchases won't be going in my stocking...) which is possibly not the best preparation. Lack of food and a late night all contributed to being pretty late out of bed. That's okay, I know where I'm going.

I do but can I find it?? I've been to Cramond more times than I can count but today I absolutely cannot find the turn down to the river. Eventually I spot a car being driven by someone in a fluorescent top and make a u-turn to follow, gambling that they must be a runner. Phew, moments to spare..
Lyns and I have exchanged vague descriptions but I'm now convinced I won't be able to find her. She is in fact convinced that I've stood her up solely to make her run it when she's having a period with running .... But it seems there is only one shortish blonde with a Fetch buff as a head scarf, and only one overweight 40-something redhead...
No sooner have we met than the announcer is talking through the loudhailer. I don't hear what he says, other than a warning about somewhere being slippy and that there is a runner getting married this afternoon, who has brought his wedding party with him for the run. Cue all round cheers.

Then the whistle goes and I've barely got my fleece off. My arm pouch (car keys, ipod, money, barcode etc) is in my hand which is where it's going to have to stay for the duration. The Garmin isn't even turned on, never mind started and when I try and get it going, I obviously press the wrong button and the screen fills with garbage. Off!

It's a beautiful day - cold, sunlit and clear with not a breath of wind. The Forth looks like a millpond which must be unheard of.

Without the Garmin I have no idea of pace. However we're exactly where I expect to be - at the back - and I can see the whole field of runners spread out in front of us, with the front runners sprinting into the distance with every second. At the western end of Marine Drive, a runner comes the opposite way at speed and I jokingly ask Lyns to tell me he's not the leader.

"No, but we'll start seeing them by that building, at about the 1k mark".

What??? We haven't even got to1k yet and my legs hurt and I'm panting. Crap. I don't want to do this. I want to stop and go home.

It's actually past the cafe, and past the 1k point before they start coming back. My brain is trying to do the maths and failing. One of the first of the runners is someone I recognise - last seen delivering a cracking time at the Glen Ogle 33. Now this really isn't fair - how can people be fast sprinters AND fast ultra runners!!

Just before the left turn, an oncoming runner calls out to me - it's a colleague from work looking far too happy.

So that's 2k down. I run twice this distance several times a week, how can it be so hard? I can't even see the nearest runners and I'm seriously thinking about walking for a stretch. I've been counting my steps and breaths for what feels like hours and I'm not even half-way. I swear this isn't as far when I walk it.

Then again ... half-way. One of the marshals catches up with us as he's clearing the signs. "Home stretch now" he says, or something similar. I like that way of thinking and it reminds me of Fiona Rennie. However I'm also trying to ignore the fact that he seems to be walking at nearly the same pace I'm jogging at...

I should know better than to try and "run" and talk at the same time, but I do manage to contribute something to the conversation between the three of us. Like everyone in Edinburgh he has worked at RBS, like every runner in Edinburgh we have some mutual acquaintances ... and we're past 3k. "Are you enjoying it" he asks. Right now? No. But ask me later and you may just get a different answer.

The only other runners I see now are the ones who've long finished and are now running back along the front to Edinburgh. I still want to stop and walk but I'm ... blowed ... if I'm going to! Walk/run might possibly be faster but I absolutely want to run every step of this 5k, no matter how slowly. Pride will get you a long way...

I can see the finish line and it looks miles away. I can see a sign saying 4k and I don't believe it. How the hell do I know people who do this - at twice the speed or more - and keep it up for 40, 50 or 95 miles?

As we get to the trees, the marshall jokingly suggests a sprint finish. What do you mean? I am sprinting! I think he got the irony...

Amazingly the finish hasn't been packed away and we still get clapped home. How can an orange spray-painted line be such a welcome sight? Oh bliss - I can stop now.

Or maybe I shouldn't. My legs are hurting badly and I'm quite convinced that if I stop suddenly, there is going to be an awful lot of pain later and tomorrow. Keep walking, and anyway I have to collect a finish chip and then go and get my barcode scanned. Not that my brain or hands are functioning at all.

Lyns remembers to stop her Garmin. I don't want to ask - the only 5k I did before was Race for Life, it was 44 .19 and this has felt horribly slower - but I may as well get it over with and deal with the bad news now.

It might be about 41-42 minutes, she says. I want to hug her. That is amazing. My "pacer" is amazing.

My workmate is at the finish still and comes over to say hello. As do a couple who look familiar although for a moment I can't place them. Then I realise that they are the retired couple in the ground floor flat of my building. I never even realised that they were runners but apparently today was her 91st Parkrun!

Everyone disperses and I find myself talking to one of the wedding party, the father of the groom. He cheers me up by telling me that we weren't last as his cousin has just finished. However his cousin isn't on the official results so probably isn't registered (the only reason Lyns shows as last is because she deliberately stepped back at the finish to let me cross first - did I tell you she's amazing?).

The cafe is open and I sit for ten minutes in the winter sunshine with a much appreciated coffee. I can't think of anywhere I'd rather be, or how I'd rather feel.

Later the official results are published.

#239 - First Timer! - has an official time of 41.08

That'll do me.

Until the next time, that is...

Sunday, 13 November 2011

One Year On...

A year ago today, I stood in the Highlands and watched my first ultra.

In no particular order, these are the things I've learnt from runners and running.

Falling over hurts.
Getting back up hurts more.
Getting back up and running again hurts less.
Everybody has bad days and bad races.
Upright, outside and running is a damn good place to be.
Running through puddles doesn't stop being fun past the age of 5.
Ex-boyfriends are like jellyfish. 
Good shoes are not a luxury.
Midgies are evil.

Sore legs are not a reason not to go running.
Don't ask an ultra runner to decide if you're hurt or have a whingery.  They don't understand hurt.
The human body is capable of impossible things.
Running 3 minutes for the first time is harder than running 30 minutes for the first time.
Rain is a reason to go out running, not a reason to stay in.
It doesn't matter how long or short you run; sooner or later your bowels will catch you out.
Runners want other runners to do well.
The inside seam of your leggings will give way at the furthest point from home.
Only normal people have ten toenails.

It's possible to start running with tears pouring down your face. 
It's not possible to keep crying when you're running.
Learning to stretch is not optional.
Being hugged by a hot and sweaty friend at the end of their race is wonderful.
A race has a winner but never a loser.
Never say never again.
Adrenalin and joy will keep you awake for a whole weekend.
Running is addictive.
Despite being an incredibly selfish sport (in terms of time and effort committed to training and racing), ultra runners are generous and open-hearted.  Mostly.  I'm sure there must be the odd bad egg.
A mile is a very long way.
Second place to Lucy counts as a win.

Legends work in supermarkets.
True love will climb Conic Hill to deliver blueberries.
Your soulmate will walk you across the Lharig Mor in the dark and cold.

It helps to be able to see where your feet are going.
Stopping and restarting is much harder than keeping going.
Here's to the Dreamers - God bless us all!
Run as fast as you can for as long as you can may work for Stu Mills; for most of us, negative splits are the way to go.
The longer the race, the less you compete against others and more against yourself.
A good support crew is priceless.
Too much water is more lethal than too little.
Some people race and some people run.
Being sick when you run is not a big deal, continuing to be sick when you stop is.

There is at least one person who can run 90 miles on a broken ankle.
There is at least one person who can run 15 miles while having a heart attack.
Runners don't stop because they get old.
Sometimes you run away, sometimes you run home, and sometimes you run in circles.
Jelly babies are a recognised food group.
Dates and crisps are not.
Keep putting one foot in front of the other and you'll get to the end.
There are more uses for vaseline than you really want to think about.
Ultra runners have an inordinate capacity for food and alcohol.

Hazel McFarlane runs ultras.  She's also blind.
Only yoofs and wannabe rappers have white trainers.
The body can't remember pain.  The mind will rationalise it.
There will always be someone who can run faster or further than you.
But maybe not both.
And maybe not today.
Finishing last is better than not starting.

Always run from the heart.
No regrets.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Glen Ogle 33 - The Friendliest Wee Ultra

I think I'd half offered my assistance at this one a few months ago, probably as a response to how much every enjoyed the first Bill & Mike event at Glenmore (12 or 24 depending on your level of dedication/insanity - delete as appropriate).  But having met up with Mike at Andrew Murray's book launch, it became pretty inevitable...

I'd been toying with another autumn weekend in Glencoe but decided to replace that with a weekend in Strathyre: a place I'd driven through quite a few times over the last year.  Mainly at pretty high speed heading for Tyndrum, Kinlochleven, Fort William etc...  I remembered it being a pretty little village just north of Callendar with apparently every house on the main road offering B&B.  I also had a long standing memory of someone telling me how they'd like to run along the viaduct - but to this day, I can't remember who it was or the circumstances!

So I booked two nights at The Inn at Strathyre (on the basis of supporting race sponsors) and watched the entry list grow and include more and more people I knew.  Even the Pirate was heading up from London, having made a wager with Tim Downie as to their respective performance.  As this would involve some cheek kissing for the loser, he was even threatening to train for this one...

So, on a dark November Friday night, I'm driving west along the M9 again, having failed miserably to leave work early, but cheered up by watching the firework displays, the most spectacular of which is just off the motorway at Stirling.

I stop at Callendar for chips, not thinking about the "joys" of small towns on a Friday night...  Unable to get a space on the street and trying to avoid the gangs of teenagers on the street corners, I stop in a car park and realise I have to walk past a group of men enthusiastically watering the weeds on a wall... fortunately it's reasonably dark.  It's also bloody freezing and clearly several degrees colder than Edinburgh.

The last few miles are in thick freezing fog and not helped by my satnav suddenly deciding that I should be going to Manchester and stridently demanding that I "make a u-turn where possible".

The bar of the Inn is packed and, although I don't recognise any faces at a quick glance, I certainly recognise the WHW and Fling t-shirts on a few people!  No nonsense about checking in, one of the bar staff walks me up to my room and lets me in.

I think the appropriate words for the room are "quaint" and "retro".  It was clearly decorated in the height of fashion with its butterscotch bathroom suite, red flowered bathroom carpet and louvred wardrobe doors that aren't entirely mobile.  But it's spacious, scrupulously clean and warm.  And the bed is very comfortable.

Tim & Muriel are staying up the road but by the time I've unpacked and sorted, are eating downstairs so I head down to join them.  Also in the bar is the irrepressible Ada (my unexpected room-mate from Ayr) and her club mates; they are not staying in the Inn but in the "love bus", a camper van parked in the Inn's car park.  We're also joined by Scott who is braver than any of us and camping at the site just outside the village.

A tent.  In Scotland.  In November.  I know I'm a wimp but, even so.....

Mike & Bill are in and out during the evening as they're still putting up race signs around the course.  I've never met Bill before, although he's tagged in a few of my photos from the Devil o the Highlands.  He's also the runner who had a heart attack in the Fling and left in a helicopter.  What I didn't realise until tonight was that he ran for about 15-20 miles whilst having the heart attack, thinking it was acid reflux.

By the time the drinks and talk are complete, it's the wrong side of midnight, which probably isn't the best preparation for race day but it's been too nice to leave the open fire and friendly chat.

The alarm goes off at stupid o'clock, which is still later than Bill & Mike who needed to get out early to try and finish all the signage.  Off road ultras are great, but it can be pretty challenging getting race "furniture" to remote locations...

Outside at 6.00am the village is dark and silent, and covered in a thick blanket of cold wet fog.  There is no sign of life anywhere, including the car park where (wrongly) I believe registration is due to start in 30 minutes.  This is when I wish I was smart enough to own a torch.  Ambling up the pavement, I see a man in running gear standing outside the B&B smoking.  This has to be Norry; there can't be that many ultra runners with a nicotine habit.  Further up, the legendary Ray McCurdy is jogging up and down the road.

I head south out of the village and to my right, see lights flickering away far down the picnic site.  It looks like something from ET.  It's also close enough to Hallowe'en for me to think of tales of Will-o'-the-wisp as I head through the trees towards the lights.

On drawing near, there are (fortunately) no mischievous spirits, only Mike and Bill and another hive of activity.  For novice race directors, they're incredibly well organised and equipped: trestle table, generators, tent, free-standing lights, maps, vouchers, race numbers, even the SA permit pinned to the inside of the tent.

Soon enough the first runners start arriving; some I know, some I don't, some I know through FB or blogs or photos but this is the first time we've met properly.  Amongst them is yakhunter, the author of "This Runner's World" (linked over >>>>>) which has some amazing photography that always reminds me how beautiful a part of the country I'm lucky enough to live in.

As more and more runners arrive, registration becomes the art of doing several things at once - one hand searching out race numbers, the other ticking off names, whilst independently holding a conversation or pointing out where to put the drop bags.  Amazing how many runners can forget their medical forms... but no point getting cross, just hand over a blank form and a pen, and tease them instead.  It actually reminds me of working behind a bar, a feeling reinforced when I greet the lovely Antonia (winner of Glenmore 12 in her first ultra season) with the words "hello gorgeous" and the next runner in the queue (definitely in the more senior male veteran category) calls out "hope you're going to be saying that to me".  Of course I am...

Registration done, Mike sounds the air horn and all the runners head across the road to the start point.  For the first time I realise it's now daylight - when did that happen?

In the pause while the race starts, the start/finish line crew introduce ourselves.  Geraldine thinks she knows me and it only takes a few moments to realise we both helped at the S2S Ultra nearly a year earlier.

Bill disappears immediately after the start and we barely see him again for the rest of the day as he's sorting out signs, keeping in touch with checkpoints, fetching and carrying whatever's needed.

There's no rest for the wicked - or marshalls - and the five of us start on packing up goodie bags.  This is where I came in, I think....  Somehow it seems to be getting colder not warmer and I'm soon trying to pack bags wearing pink fluffy gloves.  But there's nothing I can do to defrost my feet that feel like blocks of ice on the cold mud.  But when we finish the bags and step out of the tent into the sunshine, it feels blissfully warm and we're happy to drink coffee and chatter.

Davie Hall arrives with the exuberant Millie who decides that my pink glove would make a perfect chewing toy.  Which it might if my hand wasn't still in it.

Suddenly we get the news that the first two runners are through the final checkpoint much earlier than anyone anticipated.  As it's the first year, and no-one's run the route before, there are no benchmarks for time and it's a real hybrid of a course, mixing up trail and road, flat and hill.  Four hours seemed to be a common expectation for the fast runners but I'd thought closer to three and a half for the winner.

Even so, I'm still half stunned when at barely twenty past eleven the cry goes up of "runner, runner!" and we see the blonde dreadlocks of Paul Raistrick hurtling along the path and down into the finish area.

Three hours and 21 minutes to cover roughly 31 miles ... that's a continual pace of six and a half minute miles ... wow.

The second man arrives six minutes later.  Gareth Mayze isn't someone I know but apparently he and Paul had been neck and neck through to the last few miles when Paul just put his foot down and found another gear.

There's a break of 12 minutes or so until the third male arrives, closely followed by numbers four and five, not one of which has the decency to look like they've been working hard.

"First lady" comes the cry a few minutes later.  "That'll be Lucy" I say without even looking up, and sure enough it is.  Another win and record to add to her collection.

In total, there are fifteen runners finishing under the four hour mark, which includes the second woman and Andy, the "normal" runner who still seems stunned at just how good his season has been.

There are five of us at the finish line and we mean to swap roles around after an hour but five hours later I'm still at the finish line with stopwatch in hand, calling out numbers and times.  The layout of the finish is great in that the runners come round a loop to the finish and we can cheer them down to the line.

As each hour approaches, I find myself absolutely screaming at runners to make it to the finish before the watch clicks over.  There may have even been some bad language ... sorry but it did help some of them, because they came back to tell me so!

I also find myself screaming at Ian B when he's too busy chatting to notice Sandra coming along the path.

Antonia finishes in 4.38 which is pretty good for someone claiming not to be fit...

Tim comes in at 5.49 ... would the Pirate have beaten him we'll never know.  (A combination of missed alarms (the dog switched off the mobile ... yes, really!) and points failure have trapped him in London and he doesn't make the race or the post-race drinks.)  There will be a next time and a next wager, I'm sure...

Three Carnegie runners - Robin, Pauline Walker and Sue - cross the line hand in hand with wide grins.  But not so wide as the invincible Fiona 2 minutes later...

At nearly half two I find myself screaming at a female runner who stops yards from the line.  But she's deliberately stopped to wait for her friend so they can finish together.  What I only find out later is that it was her first ultra and her friend had shepherded her round the route despite being injured and expecting to pull out at 20 miles.

A woman asks if I know Karen D and gives me the keys to her car so Karen can get to her stuff if she finishes whilst the driver's away.  I love this - where else would you give a complete stranger the keys to your car...?

Karen Robertson finishes and immediately goes into the stiff-legged shuffle that seems to be her trademark after a successful ultra.  She tells me she has to work the next day which looks as though it could be ... interesting.

By three o'clock, there are only two runners left to come back - Jim Drummond and Jim McIntyre.  The third Jim - Jim Robertson - isn't well and is supporting by car.  Earlier in the day, Davie had told me about writing an article on the 3 of them and realising they had a combined age of 200....

Whilst we're waiting, I get some coaching advice from Jim R - how often am I going to get a chance to get advice from someone with that pedigree....?

Just before half three, the last two Jims come home and a flurry of sledging ensues between them.  I could listen to them for hours but the sun is setting, it's getting cold and it's time to start packing up the finish.

Amazing how much "stuff" there is to put away, and how much rubbish we've produced in the day.  An aside to some of the newcomers on their first rural ultra - this is not a road marathon, do not throw your rubbish on the ground, there are no roadsweepers in the countryside...

The Inn is packed with runners enjoying their complimentary soup and beer.  I have to say that bowl of soup was possibly the best I've ever tasted...

And one drink turns into another ... and another ... and somehow this englishwoman with two left feet gets inveigled into taking part in her first ceilidh.

Ceilidh - now that could be the subject of a whole essay as a defining factor between the English and the Scots....

But by 3am we've put the world to rights (several times), the locals have gone home and there's only a yawning barman left.  It's time to go to sleep and relax after a great day.

Whatever it is that makes a great event, these two seem to have figured it out.  Everyone had a great day, everyone seemed to leave with the words "see you next year"...

There are hundreds of photos but this one seems to sum up the day for me, 31 miles, a shoogly bridge and the widest smile:

Oh and if you're a very lucky ultra runner, you may just be getting an invitation to something rather interesting next year...

Photos from The Inn at Strathyre, GO33, Ray Woods,