Ross is aiming to complete 9 Ultra Marathons this year, including the Triple Crown of the Highland Fling, West Highland Way and Devil O The Highlands (only 185 people have ever completed it!). At the end of March he competed in the John Muir Way 50k Ultra an event made all the more gruelling by the constant freezing rain and headwind for 15miles. Here he documents his race and lets us know what he learnt for next time.
Now that the Foxtrail Winter Series of runs have come to an end, it’s time for the training to ratchet up a notch as we (hopefully!) move into Spring.My first big race of each of the last 2 years has been the John Muir Ultra as it’s right on my doorstep in East Lothian and it’s run by the brilliant Foxtrail team.
After registering at Foxlake and getting the bus to the start line at Port Seton, I had a chance to meet up with a few friends who were also running and we chatted and bounced around on the prom trying to keep warm and contain our pre-race jitters. After a quick briefing, we lined up and we were off. The start was staggered into 3 waves with the speed demons in the first wave, the sensible ones (like me!) in the second wave and the first timers and plodders going off last.
I had recce’d the whole course recently in addition to having run the race twice before so I was prepared for the differences in terrain and knew that the biggest issue in the first half would be battling the wind as we went around the coast. The first few miles roll by quite quickly as people find their rhythm and pace themselves according to their own goals. The first 5 miles bring you into Aberlady and it was around here that I had a brief pit stop to take off my waterproof and hat and gloves as I was now beginning to get a bit clammy. As I started up again, I got talking to a runner from Tiree who I was able to chat to and maintain my pace of around 9 minute miles. (I was also able to interrogate him a bit about the Tiree Ultra that I will be running later in the year as part of the 9 Ultras I’ll be running in 2018!)
We chatted away the next 5 miles until we reached the Archerfield Walled Garden checkpoint at mile 10 and I briefly stopped to check in with my Father-in-law who was waiting for me there. I was bang on my predicted arrival time but due to my change of clothes he didn’t notice me arrive. With hindsight, the couple of minutes I spent stopping here was one of the biggest mistakes I made on the day. I had company and was feeling good and the miles were ticking by without thinking about them and this stop made me lose my rhythm and my running buddy. I would have felt bad about just blasting through the checkpoint without stopping to say hi but I absolutely should have. Lesson learned for next time!
The tough middle miles
The next few miles were spent trying to catch up with my running buddy but I had to give up fairly quickly as I knew I would struggle to catch him and the rain and wind were starting to pick up again. I made another stop on the golf course track to change back into my waterproof and hat combo and then again to visit the toilets at Yellowcraig. Once you get into the habit of stopping then it’s easy to keep stopping and the deteriorating weather conditions were giving me the perfect excuse. The next couple of miles were very stop/start and I was getting grumpy with myself and letting negative thoughts creep in. I slogged out the course into North Berwick along the roads and pounded out the couple of hundred yards of beach until I got to the halfway point at the Lifeboat Station.
I spent a few minutes here chatting with my Father-in-law again and trying to pull myself out of the slump I had found myself in so that I could get going again for the second half. I knew that once I was off the beach section then I wouldn’t be fighting with the wind as much as the course turned inland and I should be able to get running again with a lot less effort. I quickly polished off my peanut butter and jam sandwich, glugged down some of my Active Root sports drink, grabbed a couple of slices of banana from the aid station to eat on the go and launched myself out onto the open beach. The sand was soaking and the wind was right in my face all the way across but once I was off the beach, the running got much easier. A few twists and turns up the hill and I was heading through the houses towards Berwick Law.
The lonely final stretch
This is one of the places that I run most often in training so I know this section like the back of my hand. I was keeping pace with a few of the relay runners who had just started so I was feeling ok. It was nice to have others around me to chat to again and it was just the boost I needed at this point. The next couple of miles went in quite quickly and I was soon heading into the trees of the Balgone Estate. I knew from previous experience that the route around the lake is usually pretty wet and muddy but today it was like a swamp. The mud was thick and deep and running was impossible if you wanted to stay upright. As I’m quite short and have a low centre of gravity I do have a bit of an advantage over taller runners here and I did manage to pass a few weary souls who were finding the going really tough. I was also spurred on because I knew that two of my friends, Mandy and Ali, were manning the checkpoint on the far side of the lake and would be waiting with smiles and hugs and would give me a kick up the arse if I needed it. I picked my way around the lake to their aid station and was given all three and sent on my way with 10 miles to go. Although I was glad to see the girls, I hit a bit of a lull again after I left them as I knew I was pretty much on my own now until the finish line. The wind and rain of the first section and picking my way through the mud around Balgone has sapped my energy and I was starting to feel a bit tired and sore. The course was a bit stretched out now and I found myself on my own quite a lot over the next couple of miles which didn’t do anything to lift my spirits. I hoped I would be able to reel a few people in as we approached the final big climb into East Linton. Knowing the course so well has its advantages!
I did manage to catch and pass a few other runners coming up the hill and down through Smeaton. I stopped briefly at the aid station to chat to my physio who was waiting on her husband who was running in his first ever Ultra race. Again it was a longer stop than I should have taken but seeing a friendly face and knowing that my friend was still on course behind me gave me a good boost going into the final 5 miles. The route along the river actually flew by and although my pace wasn’t great, I was in a much better place mentally than I had been a few miles back. I was starting to feel a bit of strength coming back into my legs and I focussed on reeling in the runners that were flagging ahead of me. I passed a few runners coming around the narrow tracks at the Tynemouth as my low centre of gravity advantage kicked in again and as I cut into the woods I knew that the finish line at Foxlake was just ahead. Having struggled on a few sections of the race, I now felt like I had another 10 miles left in me if I needed them. I decided against a sprint finish just to be on the safe side though.
Crossing the line
Crossing the finish line in 5:51:04 was an improvement on last years time in much worse conditions so I can’t be disappointed but I think I learned quite a lot from this race. I need to do a bit more work on my race management before the next Ultra at the end of April but there was a lot to be happy with. A lot will be made of the conditions on the day and rightly so, but credit to the organisers as usual for putting on a great event. Respect to the marshals on the course for standing out there all day in everything that Mother Nature threw at them and smiling through it and cheering us on. Well done to all the other runners out there who gave it their all and ran their own race whether it was fast or slow, good or bad. I’ll be back next year doing it all over again (hopefully in the sunshine next time!) but for now, the first of nine is done and dusted. Next up is my debut at the Highland Fling. Better get some more hill training in!