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

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Out of Hibernation

I feel like a dormouse that slept through the winter, curled into a cozy nest somewhere sleeping and dreaming of spring, waiting for the next race to come.

While I was waiting I completed the Marcothon by running every day of December.  It wasn't fast and it wasn't pretty - running in a howling gale at Shap summit on the dark of Christmas Eve was perhaps not the most pleasant running experience of my life but it was much better when it was over!

And then ... finally ... the first race of the SUMS series, the D33 up in Aberdeen, organised by the lovely but mad George.  I wasn't going.  Really, I wasn't.  But it didn't take a great deal of encouragement from a few people to persuade me to offer my services and book up for a weekend in Deeside.

George gave me the option of helping at the halfway point or being race photographer.  I chose the camera duties thinking it would give me the chance to mooch in lots of places and see the start and finish, as well as maybe a few other points on the route.  For the last two years, race photos have been taken by the talented Annette but this year she was running instead.  Blimey ... I met Annette on Conic Hill in the Fling last year when she was feeding blueberries to Mike and I was sure she'd only run "shorter" distances then, 10k or maybe a half.  This is what hanging around with ultra-runners does to you; you start thinking it's normal...

There seemed to be so many people I knew entering this as their first ultra, either as a challenge to make the first step up to the beyond-marathon distance, or even as a very long slow training run for a Spring marathon. It's "only" 33 miles, it's flat, it's fun, there's cake at every stop and beer at the finish.  What more could you want?

Friday night and my Facebook home page is full of people announcing that they're in Aberdeen or Stonehaven.  I'm still in Edinburgh and wishing I'd booked for two nights, but also knowing that I would never have made it north when I didn't make it back from work until nearly eight.  Another 4.30am alarm call which is becoming almost routine.

It's dark when I wake up with the faintest lightening of the sky on the eastern horizon.  It's definitely spring with early mornings that most of the world will never see.  As I drive over the Forth, the rail bridge is glowing pink in the early dawn, beautiful and magnificent.

On the road bridge, the traffic is down to a single lane in each direction and already busy.  Overhead, engineers are carrying out emergency works to replace two failed bolts on the top of the northern tower.  I know too much about this bridge, about the bolts and bearings that hold it together and allow it to move with the wind and weather, about the cables that pull the platforms into place that are gradually unravelling and snapping.  Yet this bridge is barely 50 years old and already dying, unlike the much older iconic red rail bridge   next to it now wearing its new coat of paint and finally giving the lie to the definition of a never-ending task.

The mist and darkness fall away as I head north up the eastern coast, through another part of this country I've never visited before, leaving a glorious early morning of blue skies and blazing sunshine.  I'm very glad I remembered the sunglasses.

What I didn't remember were the gloves which comes as a bit of a shock when I get out of the car at Duthie Park.  Hmm, mid-March in Scotland, this really shouldn't be a shock!

At the edge of the carpark, I find George and Karen setting up the race paraphernalia from a large white van, with a few helpers.  There are frames to be erected, canopies to be hauled up and fastened down, generators to be set up, arches to be erected, trestle tables to be set up, race numbers and pins organised, lists, lists and more lists, t-shirts, high-viz jackets, enough food to feed the five thousand...  Karen greets me with a big hug and I am allowed to help with a few small tasks ahead of registration, and also take a few photos of the calm before the storm.  Well ... I think I do, but the camera has other ideas on the subject, although it doesn't see fit to tell me any of this for a few hours ... more later on this.

As runners start to arrive to register, I drift into helping with the on the day registration, of which there are a surprising number.  Surely no-one just wakes up on a Saturday morning and thinks "oh I'll go and race 33 miles today", do they?  Then Ross Moreland turns up and proves that, yes, some people do exactly that...

Despite the high number of first-timers in the race, I think I probably know every third or fourth person in the registration queues, even though some I've only known on-line to this point.   Among the new friends I'm delighted to finally meet properly is Rhona, the Red Wine Runner, running her first ultra only a few months after the frustrations of her first marathon.

Among the ultra stalwarts is the legendary Ray McCurdy, seeking to pay his entry fee to hopefully complete his 99th ultra today.  George is having none of this and insists on him taking a free entry.

George calls all the marshals together for a briefing, followed by a team photo.  We all have "A Games Legacy for Scotland" t-shirts - even George who recognises that his "D33 - Do Epic Shit" t-shirt is unlikely to feature in any mainstream media - which results in some slightly undignified changing.  As usual, sizing is a little on the miserly side, and my "female - large" is rather tight and unforgiving.  Amongst the team is Andrew Murray, in his first weeks of a post with the Scottish Government promoting physical activity.  He was down to run the race but I register only that he's in jeans and clearly not dressed to compete.  Only when he tells me that he was hit by a taxi the day before, do I notice the stitches in his forehead, black eye and wrist bandage.  My observation skills are second to none...

George wants photos of the runners coming out through the park gates - when they will still be heavily grouped together - before they turn onto the Deeside Way proper and one of the locals walks me through the park to show me the place.  I'll miss the race start proper but will have the joy of seeing the pack hurtling towards me.
Race start (Photo by Muriel D)
I find a perfect vantage point just outside the gate and jealously fend off any unwise drivers who contemplate parking there.  A minute or so after nine, I see and hear the horde approaching, raise the camera to capture Grant and the following pack, click, and ... "memory full" it bleeps.  What the....?  Click.  Bleep.  Oh f***, oh f***, oh f***, oh f***...  If you heard this, I apologise... *blushes*

I sprint to the pillar where I've tucked my bag, grab my mobile and manage to capture a few of the later runners emerging from the park.  Some race photographer I'm turning out to be. :-(

Then it's back across the park to the start line to meet up with Jim who is going to lead me to the 6-mile point for the next photo opportunity.  As I walk (and drive, oops) I'm trying to delete photos from the camera, discovering in the process that I don't have a single photo from the early morning.  Bloody machine!  

Despite an awkward right turn out of the car park (where did all these vehicles come from? ... 200 runners probably) and the inevitable snail-paced Micra on the country roads, we make it to the crossing by half nine.  Across the road Nywanda is setting up the Fetchpoint with yet more food.  A quick mental calculation tells me that Grant is likely to be here within 5-6 minutes.  I don't know who else will be with him, if anyone.

Almost exactly on cue, the lead bike arrives, closely followed by Grant and another runner.  His face is familiar to me but not well known, and I can't put a name to him immediately.
Grant and Gareth leading at 6 miles

There is a gap of a minute or two - most runners can't do six minute miles full stop, never mind contemplate them at the start of a 33-mile race - the next runners arrive.

At the point the camera goes phut and shuts down entirely.  Oh ffs, what now?  Despite being fully charged yesterday, the batteries are now entirely flat.  I'm tempted to hurl the entire thing into the River Dee but don't have time so revert to the mobile phone, knowing that this will have limited charge itself.

It also has a very delayed shutter action; I have to remember to take the photo a few seconds before I want it, else the runners are already out of shot.

Annette, Ian & Donna: led astray and loving it
Mike Raffan and Andy are amongst the early leaders, looking like two mates out for a gentle jog, rather than two very competitive runners.  No doubt that will come later...

Away from the town and the coastal breeze, it's positively warm and a few of the runners are already sweating profusely.  I'm fascinated by the variety of clothing being adopted, from vest and shorts, to long sleeve tops and tights, from sunglasses to woolly hats. Sophie as usual is clad as is for an Arctic expedition with sufficient kit and clothing in her rucksack to meet any eventuality.

The thing that nearly every runner has in common, however, is a smile.  Maybe for some of them, it's a forced response to the camera but they all look genuinely happy to be there, to be running 33 miles on a glorious day.  Even the tail runners smile and wave, particularly those doing something amazing for the first time.

What is it about this corner of north-east Scotland that produces such quantities of ultra runners?  Is there something in the air that encourages it, or is down the influence of people such as George and Mike who treat it as something normal, that everyone can do if they train for it?

By the time Elaine comes through as the tail cyclist, I've flattened the mobile phone and half the remaining power of the works blackberry (possibly inappropriate use of company assets but needs must!).  I'm seriously beginning to wonder if I can find somewhere in Aberdeen to buy either new batteries or a new camera before heading to the finish, but Jim has a camera in the car that he offers to lend to me.

Much relieved - George will have his race photos - I make my way back to Aberdeen.  Duthie Park is now heaving with children, families and exercise classes and I'm lucky to find a space to re-park the car.

As always there is a pause here, everything is happening miles away, although George's phone seems to ring non-stop.  The halfway checkpoint report that mystery runner #213 has been through in 1hr 41mins with Grant a minute behind.  This is a surprise; there was no-one in the pack expected to provide serious competition to Grant today, and even identifying #213 as Gareth Mayze provides no further illumination.  Again, his name is familiar but I still can't place him.

Not long after midday, an STV camera crew arrive.  Down by the smelly lake, they interview both George and Andrew, although it's George's words that are broadcast later  News comes in that the leaders are through the final checkpoint and there is a possibility that the course record will be broken.  Also that there is now a clear gap between the leading pair with Gareth in front and Grant struggling with a back injury.

The minutes tick away and there will be no course record.  A helper is sent to stand at the top of the slope to watch for the leader and we all look up to him constantly.  We have no priority of use of the park and the paths are full of people enjoying the spring sunshine.  Every one of the runners will have to dodge small children, pushchairs, dogs and cyclists, even the winner.  The best we can do is to ask people to keep to one side of the finishing slope.

Finally the marshal waves; the wait for the winner to appear is seemingly interminable but finally Gareth arrives, sprinting down the hill to be greeted by a round of applause and a hug from George.  The finishers' medals (designed by Annette) are, as ever, unique and wonderful - this year they are branded wood harvested from the carnage of Hurricane Bawbag.

Almost immediately, the tv crew interview Gareth who is remarkably coherent and articulate for a man who's just run 33 miles in a final time of 3hrs 32mins 32 seconds.  At a constant pace, that's about 6 mins 24 seconds per mile, which many of the runners I know would be happy with for a single mile...

Grant arrives over ten minutes later, still fast but visibly pained and immediately lies down on the ground to ease his back.  It's never good to see injured runners, but still astounding that he can achieve a race like that whilst not totally fit.

Craig Stewart, the third placed runner, comes in at 3:51 and after that they arrive thick and fast, including the familiar faces of Gerry Craig and Andy breaking the four hour barrier, along with the first lady, Rebecca Johnson (second lady at the Glen Ogle 33).  I'm pretty sure now that I remember Gareth from that race but it's not until I get home that I can verify this and confirm that he was second placed there.

For the next three hours it feels as though there is a continual stream of finishers, everyone managing to produce a smile and a credible attempt at running to finish.  Each crosses the line to cheers and applause, to be greeted by name by George and hugged, prior to being given their medal and goodie bag.

The one and only Ray McCurdy at finish #99 (photo by Laurie M)

Ray finishes to a chant of "Ninety-nine!  Ninety-nine!" and actually seems to smile.  Hopefully he'll finish #100 in Edinburgh next weekend to an even louder cheer.

Some of the loudest cheers are for the first-timers, the locals inspired to "do epic shit" including the girl who is raising money for a local special care nursery and has reached her target of a thousand pounds.  She crosses the line smiling then bursts into tears.  She cries even more when George gives her an additional donation.

So many finishers - 192 in total of the 199 that started - that I can't remember them all.  But I remember Mr Shanksi celebrating his 40th birthday, Triplet Dad completing his first with such a wide grin, the Pirate completing another ultra on almost zero training (he swears there will be no more and no-one believes him), big David Ross and two Strathaven Striders finishing with Irish leprechaun hats on to honour St Patrick's Day,  Mrs Shanksi having trashed her race-day haircut, Fiona of the Wee Grumpies, Ada, Terry, Bill, Colin (only stopping for 2 photos - unheard of!), Robin, Sue, Anne, Tim, M1nty, John Duncan (the Fling RD), Antonia, IanS, Sand Demon in the infamous tartan shorts, the Rentboy, Soph (finishing last having stopped to rescue a bird from a railway carriage), the young bet-losing squaddie (having stopped to smoke at checkpoints) and many more.

Annette is one of the final finishers and falls into Mike's arms.  I suspect I would be more inclined to kill a fiancee that had induced me to run 33 miles but I find myself snivelling and wiping my eyes along with everyone else.

But my favourite finish of the day is Rhona.  When I first started reading her blogs (after she supported Mike on the WHW last June) she was a "wannabe marathon runner" who ran her first last autumn, finding it hard, painful and unsatisfying, following an ITB injury.  Today she finishes with the widest smile, arms wide and I greet her with a hug, delighted to have been there for the first of what will undoubtedly be many ultra finishes.

Rhona  (photo by Rhona' s dad)
This is why we run.

This is why those of us who can't run still want to be a part of it.

See you at the Fling.


  1. Great write up Julie, see you at the Fling somewhere!

  2. That captures it perfectly Julie. Thanks for the reminder of what a great day it was.