Glen Lyon Ultra

Glen Lyon Ultra

Posted on May 9, 2016. Filed under: Glen Lyon Ultra, race report, race review, running, ultra running |

Unkempt beard : check

Race vest that smells like a mangy rodent crawled into it and died : check

Trainers that look like a peat bog troll has been dancing a strip the willow in them : check

Packing for an ultra is easy. After too many years of packing aero wotsits and carbon gizmos and caffeinated, gluten free, super, cyber gels for triathlon there was a levity to final ultra preparations.

Likewise the race briefing. No turgid powerpoint presentations of drafting zones and transition layout: “We have one rule – look after each other out there. Oh, and can everybody swim? The risk assessment says there is a risk of drowning”.

And, of course, no race briefing is complete without some new information: “Yeah and the course may be slightly longer than 30 miles, maybe nearer 31”. Oh.

To recap, back in November I had a brain fart and decided to do an ultra. Something that I had no interest in before and goes to prove that reading blogs is not good for you (you have now been warned).

I toyed with a few races but I kept coming back to BaM Racing, mainly because they make me smile. Their website is called runyabam.com which makes me chuckle every time I type it. Their rules include things like “nae dugs” and “don’t park like a fanny”. They talk like I do, it’s probably a Scottish thing. And more importantly they run races in amazing places. My choice was simple. But which race.

Glen Lyon is in a part of Scotland that is about as remote as it gets. If you follow the signs to The Back of Beyond and then keep driving long after the roads have stopped being roads then you are getting pretty close. Having hiked there before I know how tough the terrain is and how stunning the scenery would be.

We stayed in a wigwam in Morenish and the 17 miles from there to the race briefing took about an hour. Red squirrels, sheep and hydro workers are the only living things seen in these parts. For very good reason – it is hard country – bleak and beautiful and enticing and scary.

The race had been run in 2013 as the Tigh Nam Bodach ultra but it had never caught on and this was being run as a test event for BaM and limited to a small field. Entries opened on 14th February and I was there poised like a coiled serpent to hit the entry button. Which, ironically, was the last thing that I did fast in this race.

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As a dreadnought class runner the course was not ideal for me but what’s the point on taking on a challenge if it’s not a stupid challenge?

It is basically a tale of two glens – a loop of Loch Lyon and then over a muckle great hill, a loop of the neighbouring glen and back over the hill. If you say it fast it doesn’t sound so bad but hitting a big hill at 26 miles was always going to be character building. And so it proved.

 

Just before 9:30am 80 of us stood in the shadow of the colossal Lubreoch Dam getting our final briefing and then we were called to the start line.

At Ironman Austria they played the Austrian national anthem, blasted a cannon and started a fireworks display to mark the start. At the Glen Lyon Ultra Bill blew his whistle.

We were off.

Down a wee hill, up a wee hill, down another wee hill, turn a corner, walk. WALK.

A-MAY-ZING.

Everything they say about ultra is true. 600 metres in we were walking. I LOVE ULTRAS!

I settled into a march, it continued for about a kilometre gaining about 100m and taking us above the dam. I realised I was walking beside Rhona whose West Highland Way race report was one of the contributory factors that had got me into this mess. We chatted briefly as we walked up the hill and then ran together over the next couple of hills as I tried to extract as many tips from her as I could before I realised I needed to slow to a more modest pace.

And also to take some pictures:

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Although the terrain map hints towards a flat first loop it was anything but. The gentle undulations are masked by the gargantuan climbs later in the race. While the ups and downs kinda cancelled each other out the lumps were still of a significant size to the gravitationally challenged.

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The path and terrain were genuinely enjoyable around Loch Lyon and, like an Ironman, we were presented with some water obstacles (hence the risk of drowning). From about 5 miles onwards we were in wet shoes as we crossed 5 rivers – some just above the ankle and, for the stumpy legged like me, the deepest just skirting the gusset.

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Climbing up from the first water obstacle I paused to take a picture back down the Glen and a runner, Laura, offered to take one with me in it. No selfie stick or other dickery involved and no runners obstructed because there were only 80 of us on 15 miles of trail. Here is a rare picture of me obscuring the view of Scotland at it’s very best.

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I ran with Laura for the next 5 or 6 miles as we were moving at a pace that I was pretty comfortable with and knowing that there were still two mahoooosive hills to come.

Just after 9 miles, and after a very deep river crossing we hit the first water station and I filled my empty bottle. Walking up from the water station I had half a packet of BBQ Hula Hoops and we pressed on.  By now there was a noticeable headwind which was slowing progress and in a Glen of this size there are no hiding places.

When the Dam came back into view I was pleased with progress. My initial plan had been to be back at the Dam within 3 hours so that the second loop with the hills could be taken at a more, ahem, leisurely pace. Ideally, I wanted to be finished in 7 hours. This plan still seemed to be on.

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Rhona’s husband was marshalling the end of the Dam and cheered everyone onto the Dam. I’m quite a simple man but running across the top of the dam was probably my favourite part of the day even if the path was a bit clatchy underfoot.

I ran down the banking into the aid station and declined the change of trainers that I had in my drop bag. I chugged half a can of coke, stashed another packet of hula hoops and walked out munching an excellent piece of fruit cake.

And then the climb started. I made no pretence of running. Up and up it went. According to my watch it was 2.8k and about 200m of ascent. By the time I had reached the top I had drunk 500ml of water.

The road is probably marked as tarmac on the OS map but, in reality, I imagine there are roads in the midst of civil war in Syria that are in better nick. It was fine going up but I knew it was going to be challenging on the way down. Not least because I descend like an uncontrolled brick. Only slower.

As I was nearing the top I saw James, the winner, coming down at a sprint. I expected to see a chase pack but it was nearly half an hour before I saw the next runners. A crushing victory.

At the bottom of the descent I took on some water and headed along the high path. The climb had taken the last spring out of my legs and as I went through 20 miles I felt like a leaden hooved clodhopper. I started counting steps to keep up momentum. Walk 100 steps, run 200 steps. I continued this strategy until the next climb.

This loop seemed never ending with kissing gates every few hundred metres. Some full to the ankle with sheep shit. Looking at the low path 200m below was a constant reminder that there were big descents and ascents to come.

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The drop to the low road, when it finally came, was my least favourite part of the day. The path was steep, with switchbacks and treacherous under foot. I had expected to run down but opted to walk most of it to save Mountain Rescue and Air Ambulance a trip to pick pieces of me up to shovel me into a full body stookie.

The return up the glen was uneventful save for the headwind and then I saw the climb. More correctly, I saw a lorry bearing down a path at a 45 degree angle. In this direction the climb was awful. Even more awful. 4.5 kilometres and 280 metres of climbing.

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I filled both bottles at the last water station even though it was (theoretically) only 5k to go. Great words of encouragement from the marshalls. And upwards I continued. Actually, continued is far too vigorous a verb. Upwards I trudged on deadened legs.

My watch beeped 48k in just under 7 hours, but the end was not in sight. Literally not in sight despite being halfway up a mountain.

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Cat passed in the car – I told her I’d done 48k, she smiled and without a word handed me a piece of tablet and drove off.

And then, finally, I could see the dam. It was all downhill from here. I just pretended I couldn’t feel the pain in my feet, but it seemed fair that they were sore having taken 64,000 steps.

I could see the bottom, I crossed the bridged. I walked the wee hill.

I saw Rory running out to meet me and we ran the last 100 metres together.

Beep. 50.7km.  Well, that will save me signing up to do a 50k ultra.

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I can honestly say I loved every second of it, even the bonus 2.7k. Two big lessons for me were to run on much rougher terrain and not just forestry tracks – I wasn’t prepared for the rocky paths. And to practise marching up steep hills ready to run on the other side. My calves and hamstrings really suffered on the hills.

Bam Racing and their volunteer marshalls laid on an incredible race. It was safe and stunning and incredibly well supported. And also, there is a lesson for triathlon here – a £32 race fee and a shitload of great stuff.

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Will I do another ultra?

There is something quite magical about doing a race in a stunning place that is easier to get to on foot than by car.

So, hell yeah I will.

 

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