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

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

What the non-runner did next....

We all know how it goes. You do a first race at a distance, or achieve a PB, or some specific target, like that fabled sub-3 marathon. And the first thing that's said is "congratulations", and the second is "so, what's next?"

Of course, it was no different after Edinburgh Half last May. The appropriate response should *probably* be a faster half, or conceivably a marathon if I was feeling ambitious. Most people got the answer that I had a place in the relay for Jedburgh.

The very inappropriate answer was D33, George's 33 mile ultra marathon in March.

Two people got that response; Kate, and Donnie my trainer. He paused for a few seconds, said "we'll have to put some run walk into your training plan" and started the session. No stress, no drama, no fuss.

I knew I couldn't deal with the noise if it was public. I had absolutely no idea if I *could* even get to the starting line, if I could train for it without breaking. I needed it to be my call, right up to the last minute, whether I stood on the start line or pulled on a high viz and marshalled. Once it was public, I wouldn't have that choice. All those ultra nutters I spend my weekends hanging around with would have had something to say, just too much pressure that would make it all too much.

So I didn't tell anyone. I messaged George a few months later, asking if I could have a place without putting my name on the start list "I don't know if I can....but I don't know that I can't any more". No problem.

Don't look at my training log if you want to see how to train for an ultra. I have never had so many coughs and colds as this winter. Work was ridiculous, leading to weeks when the only training I could do was on the two days of the weekend. The increase in duration of the longest runs didn't creep up as they needed to. My longest ever run remained the WHW training weekend from a few years back of 15 miles.

So this January, it was time to go back, add a few miles on, and do another the next day.

Six miles in, I started getting pains across my lower stomach, like period pains (I don't suffer normally from anything linked to my ovaries - if you need a description, imagine someone attaching a burning rope to the inside of your hip bones and pulling it tight...). Each hill or set of steps became harder and harder, by eight miles there was only walking. I could shuffle my feet a few inches, but I couldn't bend my hips in any way. Try even walking up or down a slope or steps without your hips. There are no flat parts on that route. I got slower and slower, cold and wet, as I couldn't move fast enough to keep warm. Fortunately someone we knew drove past at the exact moment the trail edged the road and we bailed. Alcohol and ibuprofen helped. The next day there was only a dull ache, I walked along the forestry road instead for a few miles but with enough uncomfortableness to know I'd chosen wisely not to run. Diagnosis, hip flexors strained or overworked by the unfamiliar terrain.

Then a work trip to India happened. I knew before I went that there was absolutely no chance of running outside while I was there: heat, pollution, traffic, inappropriate clothing, unaccompanied western treadmill it was, fitted in as best I could in early morning sessions, trying to do intervals or hill sessions.

Three weeks out, and my longest run remained a half marathon distance. I seriously contemplated telling George I wasn't running, that I'd marshal instead. I'd be gutted but well, I wasn't trained.

I couldn't bring myself to tell Donnie that I was giving up. So one last big weekend, 30k on the Saturday, 20k on the Sunday, basically the full race distance over two days. I plotted routes, planned food and drink to try out. Storms Doris and Ernie arrived in full blast.

I ran six miles out along the canal into a headwind so fierce it brought me to a stop repeatedly, getting firmly soaked. And my hips started seizing up despite the utter flatness of the towpath. I ran walked through the university grounds, past the hotel being built with a dedicated entrance for the Scottish national football and rugby teams, then walked up the hill to Currie and onto the Water of Leith. I tried running a few times and my body refused, so somewhere around 11 miles I gave up and caught a bus home, mute with pain and frozen hands, thinking I could put the distance into the next day instead.

Sunday promised better, I left home in sunshine, but by the time I got off the train it was pouring with a strong wind across the exposed canal. And by seven miles, my hips were seizing again, forcing me to walk almost the entire route. Nowhere to bail out of this until 13 miles at Ratho, missing the bus by minutes then spending the next hour defrosting but not drying out in the pub.

I knew then that I wasn't going to be able to do it if the weather wasn't on my side. For whatever reason I wasn't strong enough to cope with the combination of rain, wind and cold. For this to happen, everything was going to have to go right. Some things I can control, some I can't, there was no reason to stress about them.

Last weekend before the race. No stupid distance, no risking of breaking myself, but a 20k loop along the canal and river. Frustrated by unexpected closures of paths that sent me up unplanned hills, there was a little more walking than desirable, but the day was glorious, blue skies greeting the sunrise.

Then taper. No more running. I discovered that taperitis is ridiculously potent as the dining room floor exploded in piles of kit and possible drop bag fuel. I freaked out about cutoffs and how to get to the race (no runner parking in the park carpark and I wasn't altogether sure I'd be able to drive afterwards anyway). Redwinerunner (who had known since the Autumn) sorted me out with a lift from the Shanksis.

I planned an early exit from both work and Edinburgh on the Friday. I failed miserably, leaving the office only minutes before five, still needing to pack before heading north. I got to within ten miles of Stonehaven before I realise I'd forgotten a coat.

A couple of medicinal gins in the Station with George, Karen and the Munros before retiring to my room to decant Irn Bru into baby bottles for drop bags. You can keep your flat coke, the orange nectar beats it hands down.

I slept reasonably well. The weather gods were smiling on me, with possibly the warmest March 11th ever, with the lightest of breezes, and only a chance of rain the morning. I'll take that. I was there the year the temperature never got above freezing, where we spent our entire shift at half way stood ankle deep in frozen mud.

No early start to be away for registration meant I even got breakfast, forcing down coffee and toast before my lift arrived. Minty pulled up, my bag went into the boot and I squeezed into the back seat alongside Mrs Shanksi and RWR. Chatter, chatter, and no one commented on why I was dressed to run, carrying a pack and finish line bag.

Until we parked up outside Duthie Park, got out and the penny dropped. I don't think I've ever seen anyone look quite so shocked and delighted at the same time. I seem to remember we were half way across the park before MrsS mentioned The Fling next year(!)

Collect my number from a santababy outraged that she hadn't known about this before, realise I don't have safety pins, then bump into the legendary twins of Fiona and Pauline who bound up from their chairs to hug me with beaming smiles at the realisation I'm holding a race number. Actually, would you mind pinning it on for me? (One day, I may acquire the ability to put a race nunber on, for the moment it's a great delight to always have a friend around to assuage my helplessness).

It's all slightly surreal. I'm here, I have a number, I'm going to start. I have absolutely no idea if I'm going to finish, if I can make the cut off at the 3/4 point. In the meantime, drop bags to be handed over. Jane and Carol are collecting for half way; again the moment of dawning comprehension that I'm wearing a race number, that I'm not marshalling (I'd been waiting all week for someone to ask why I wasn't on the list and no one did) before delighted smiles and hugs.

Later in the pub, a friend will tell me that when he arrived to register, all he heard from every second person he spoke to was "Julie's running!".

Well timed joining of the toilet queue, seek out the sweeper (another ultra friend Elaine, wife of Sandeman of the tartan shorts) who I'm going to be spending a lot of time with! More hugs, more good lucks, race briefing, then suddenly it's time to group up for the start, there's the horn and were away. Oh fuck, it's really happening.....

Trot, trot, out of the park, watching the stream of runners disappear up the zig zag onto the path, breath rasping, heart pounding, even though I'm as slow as I want to be. I thought there might be others starting at this pace but clearly not as they stretch out in front, the gap opening quickly until only one or two remain in sight. A few late starters - "I was in the toilet when I heard the horn!" - speed past, then I'm alone.

Those first miles are uphill. Not very uphill but enough for me to feel it, the old railway route rising up through the west of the city. Various leg muscles twitch and whimper, calves cramp, pins and needles settle into a foot, then at around two miles it all settles down, legs turning over into a regular, if slow, tempo,breathing lightly but controlled. It sometimes happens that way on a long run, the body grumbling for a few miles before settling down.

Three miles dead on forty minutes, slightly slower than I intended but that's fine, it's more level now, just keep tripping onwards, start with the psychological calculations: 3.3 miles is only just ahead and that's 10% down, I've only got to do it ten more times, er, no, I don't like that too much, what else is there? The diversion for the ring road is about six miles so just after that will be 6.6 miles and that's 20%, and only about a mile and a half after that is the quarter way through....yes that's better. Let's run to the diversion at least.

E catches up. We agree that in general I'm an unsociable runner, I train almost entirely alone, I'm quite happy knowing that she's somewhere behind me but not too close, but that, once we're past the turn, I may want a bit more prodding.

Bits of the route are past scheme housing but as we climb further out into the suburbs, these give way to older villas, frequently looking out over the Dee valley spread out below them, houses built when this was a busy railway for the professional classes to commute into the city. There are snowdrops everywhere, great clouds of white alongside the path. I wonder if the speeding front runners even see them.

The path isn't busy, although there are plenty of dog walkers and cyclists out. The forecast rain starts, lightly at first but with increasing intensity. I think about stopping to put a rain jacket on and think better of it, it's too warm still for a jacket and I'm in a rhythm I don't want to disturb. Six miles buzzes at almost exactly eighty minutes, an even pacing that delights me. If I can just keep this up...I ignore the question of whether it's likely that even pacing of 33 miles is possible.

The diversion is a somewhat cruel descent of a few hundred yards of black Tarmac, crossing the roadworks creating the long-awaited Aberdeen bypass. The sites are busy with men and vehicles, weekend working? An expensive practice on a construction site, so a contract that's determined to make a deadline.

At the crossing of the public road, two of the Stoney girls are waiting, bouncing up and down with delight. I walk up the steep slope towards them, grinning with their infectious optimism, while still cursing the completely unwelcome ascent. This is supposed to be a flat route, ffs.....

Shortly afterwards, I'm even more disturbed to find the end of the Tarmac as the path changes to rocky ground with mud. What? This wasn't in the deal! I know it's muddy at half way,but I thought the rest of it was Tarmac. Oh well, all that towpath training will come in useful.

I'm even less impressed when the path turns ninety degrees and goes uphill. Well this definitely isn't the old railway line route. And my hips are just starting to niggle. No, you're not doing this to me, you're not....

At the top I'm even more confused to discover that the route is along a road. A quiet narrow road, but still a road. Up ahead, through the rain, I can see a green gazebo, we've reached the first checkpoint. Keziah is bounding up and down and I'm delighted to see that Sandra and Ian are still here, when I expected them to have long gone back to prepare for finish timing. The male marshal is looking slightly concerned which is explained when the rest of the team start giggling and tell me that my face is a bit red... My hair has leaked in the rain (there may be the slightest touch of artificialness about my hair colour.... :-O ) which doesn't surprise me. I'm given tissues to scrub at it, joking that the so long as the race medic doesn't see me looking like I've got a terrible head injury, it'll be fine. Aaaah, that would be Sean who's actually stood in front of me, isn't it, who I've known for years....

Sandra chases me out (quite politely for her) and we set off up the road, finishing off the maltloaf I've swiped from my bag. I'm not really hungry but I know I need to eat. The Irn Bru was genius by the way, as were the lumps of smoked cheese - the rest of it went the way of most novice drop bag contents.

I'm behind schedule now; not badly maybe ten/fifteen minutes but as we walk, my hips cramp and I realise I'm not going to be able to maintain the pace I did in the first section. I don't think I'm going to make the cutoff at the three quarter point for five and a half hours. Seventeen miles to worry about that, just keep going. It's still raining, up ahead I can hear a stream gurgling alongside the road. It's only when I get underneath do I realise that it's the electricity crackling around the pylon lines in the damp air.

E has done the route a few times and tells me that there's a downhill coming up, just ahead where the trees start. There is indeed and as I run down what feels like miles, all I can think is that this is going to make me cry on the way back. At the bottom, I completely miss the clear stream of water flooding across the road and get wet feet.

From here, the path zig-zags through fields. There's some running, some walking and I start thinking about when I might start see the front runners coming back. I decide that if I can get to ten miles I will be happy, a little target met.

Target met. Just before the wee wee woods (not me....) and the turn up to the village, the fast guys start coming back towards me. God, they're good, still flying over the ground after nearly twenty three miles.

I dint know how I'd feel about the pure out and back, that I'd get to see every single runner. But it's brilliant. I suppose it might be different if there's a volume of runners passing in both directions, but there's only me and E behind me. There's one slight disadvantage though. You know that feeling when you see another runner - especially one you know - coming towards you - and you absolutely *have* to check your form, up the pace? I got over that feeling pretty rapidly!

It felt like almost everyone wanted to say well done, congratulations, keep going. Or to offer high fives and hugs. I lost count of how many people called out to me by name, do I really know that many people in this special little world?

There are a lot of double take looks as well. It's not until past thirteen miles that E gives in to a fit of giggles and tells me just how much colour has streaked across my face. A quick look in the forward facing phone camera and I'm laughing just as much. It isn't a delicate smudge around the hairline, more an extra from casualty or a very bad glam rocker, inch wide streaks of bright red down my jaws and covering one entire eye socket. I have a selfie; I'm not sharing it.

The fallen tree after Drumoak is evil, two separate branches to be stepped over, it's good stretching. There is mud and more puddles, less clean than the first. I'm heard to mutter that if I wanted to run cross country, I wouldn't have entered an ultra.

The miles stretch out, the oncoming runners thin out and eventually we pass Ray heading back from the halfway point. (The Halfpint point is depleted this year with neither Halfpint nor flapjack, normality will have to be resumed next year, it's just Not Right). Carol runs out to meet us, fizzing with excitement, how are we, what do we need?

It's past four hours, there is no way I'm going to make the cutoff at the next checkpoint. My race is over. But I've just covered well over sixteen miles, my longest run ever, not the one I wanted but still an achievement.

I don't know how to give up, to say I'm quitting. I point out the cutoff to Johnny Fling and Noanie who are marshalling, hoping that one of them will tell me how to do this. Instead I get told "well you're not staying here, off you go". But....

Don't ever expect sympathy at an ultra checkpoint, especially not from a couple of race directors. I might just have done the same....

So back we go along the trail we've just come along, neither of us quite sure what happens now. I start wondering if I could get twenty miles out of the day, that would be something. It wouldn't be too far past the road crossing where Angela is, I'm sure she would give me a lift back. I'm not hurt, not injured, I'm still moving, just not quickly enough.

A deep breath and I tell E that I'm going to bail at the crossing.

And the first of the day's miracles happens. "If you want to keep going, I'm happy to stay with you."


"It's not like you haven't put in some long shifts over the years for the rest of us".


Angela says about the same. With added swear words.

I know but I can't ask people to do that. If I keep going, all those people at the checkpoint and the finish are going to be forced to stay long beyond the time they signed up for. When I asked George for a place, I said it would only be if I thought it wouldn't stop him getting to the pub on time. That's a good few Guinness that won't be drunk, a rugby match that won't be seen.

But, oh I so want to. I'm sore but I'm not in pain, I'm still moving. Maybe I could...

Not my decision, not ours even. So E calls Karen and asks. And more miracles happen.

Helen will come out to the checkpoint to cover the last miles with me if I still want to go on from there. Other people agree to stay on, giving up more hours.

And I keep going. There's maybe not a lot of running but there's some. Short stretches, counting to a hundred, with each number representing eight steps. And I bloody well make sure I run through that twenty mile point.

We talk, of everything and nothing, of families and work and holidays and friends. E picks up the few scraps of rubbish left behind by runners. She talks about her first triathlon, of standing at the start with her friend, two middle aged women on cheap bikes, surrounded by young skinny men with gleaming carbon fibre. Of panicking in the water and swapping to breast stroke to recover for a few minutes, only to realise that all around her, those young fit men were being rescued from the water, unable to complete the swim section. Of turning into the finish straight, hearing the cheers and cowbells and finally realising that she actually could.

The hill is far shorter than I remember going back up and I don't cry. We both nip behind a hedge for a comfort break and I mentally thank Donnie for all those squats over the last two years...

Then we turn the corner and there's the checkpoint with not only the Munros, but Elaine and Ann. I can't believe they've stayed on, an hour and forty minutes beyond the cutoff. I've got gin and ginger beer, yells Helen, which do you want? That woman knows me too well...

The ginger beer was awesome. As was the Irn Bru, and the ginger shot drinks I'd bulk bought and stashed in drop bags. A refill of water for my flask and time to go.

E apologises and asks if I mind if she gets a lift back from here. Mind? She's just done twenty five miles at someone else's speed and already been out for as long as she might have expected the full day to be.

I've probably run more miles with Helen than anyone else. She knows me. I don't get away with walking for any longer than she considers appropriate, especially once the Tarmac restarts. Let's be honest however, running here is a relative term. There's the correct movements and cadence, but it's only producing a pace around 15:x. Still, when walking is at half that speed, it's an improvement.

Just as we come into Culter, I ask if she's got her phone to hand. Why? Because in a couple of hundred yards, I'm going to have completed my first marathon and I'd like a photo of the moment. Even if it involves standing still for a minute. Time? Nah, who cares.

The miles tick on and so do the hours. Seven hours, eight hours. I've been running for EIGHT hours, how did that happen?

The rain has long since gone and the suns out. The path is busy with walkers and cyclists and children learning to ride their first bikes. And children awestruck at tadpoles, asking mummy why those frogs are kicking one another? Mummy, why is that lady's face red? :-0

Kate texts again, as she has done all day (despite it being boypie's birthday) and I get told off for texting back when I should be running. I only say "I can't..." once and get rewarded with "la, la, la," as she heads off and I have no choice but to follow.

The infamous signs pass that repeatedly state Duthie Park to be three miles away, despite being spread over two miles. Thirty miles. Oh my god, thirty miles...

It takes thirty two and a half miles before "MTFU" is uttered. Sweepers don't do sympathy, who need it? There is an alarming feeling in my little toe, I can't decide whether there's a massive blister developing or I've lost a toenail. I don't want to think about taking my socks off.

All the landmarks from the way out disappear, the bridge over the main road, the cemetery and then the glass houses appear. And quite suddenly the penny drops, for the first time I actually know I'm going to finish. Something must catch in my breathing becuase I'm firmly told that I can stop and have "a moment" now, but I am absolutely *not* allowed to cry until after I finish.

Down the zigzags to the park gates and a yell from behind; the Sandemans in their camper. Through the gates, into the park, still running. Oh good, they've used the time to take the marquee down and dismantle the arch, sensible people.

Who would have thought a dozen people could make so much noise? And I probably drown them all out when I throw my head back and roar my way across the last few yards...

There are a couple of videos on Facebook so there's no point in denying that I hugged George and sobbed and sobbed. And then hugged everyone and tried to apologise for keeping them waiting for so long and sobbed a bit more. No lass left behind....

And then I got to sit down and drink the half bottle of fizz I'd stashed in my finish bag. It was delicious. (There was a lot more fizz later but that one tasted the best).

What did I learn?

My body is so much stronger than I ever dreamed of
My mind is even stronger
You can do anything with your friends beside you

I ran an ultra. 



  1. A wonderful read and achievement, you are an inspiration and I'll carry you in my heart when I need a bit of strength. xxx

  2. Amazing Julie! I don't know you in person but I've seen you at ultras (who could miss that red hair!). This is the most inspirational story I've read in a long time. I'm in tears at my desk as I read it. A massive congratulations and when's the next one???

  3. Fantastic guts and determination! Sorry I missed it but every time I've heard the tale it's bringing tears to my eyes! Epic! X