My abiding memory of this race last year was the pain and misery I suffered over the last 8 miles from hurting my leg. That wouldn't happen this year. Could lightening strike twice? Surely not?
I wasn't in a rush, so I stopped twice on the way up to have coffee and to check that all four wheels were indeed still attached to my car. I watched a beautiful sunrise as I approached Stonehaven, which for a few minutes made me forget about the physical toils ahead.
Arrived at Duthie Park bang on 8am. The sky was clear, a perfect pale blue, with hardly a cloud to be seen. The Sun was already begining to heat up the air. Should be a perfect running day. The car park was filling up as i wandered over to get my race number and and make my presence felt. Met and said hi to Karen and George and returned to my car to get changed and check my waist pack (which i'll now admit to overpacking, but you can never be too over prepared).
I saw a lot of familar faces arriving from previous races and from talking on Facebook, most of who i run in their shadows and bow at their feet!!
This race has really exploded onto the Ultra running scene and more than deserves its place in the SUMS and is a worthy series opening race. It's set the bar high which is down to George, Karen and his merry band of willing helpers. Their enthusiasm and organisational skills make this into a fantastic day. Well done.
By 8.30am the place was bursting at the seams. I walked up through the park to the toilet and by now the sun was high in the sky and it was pleasantly warm. So much so that i decided to change out of my full length running tights (no sniggering from non runners) and long sleeved top, into shorts and used my arm warmers and a T-shirt with a light weight gillet.
Last year on the start line there were 94 starters (88 finished), this year that had swelled to 161 starters, with many running their first 'ultra'.
George ran over some housekeeping announcements, wished us luck and we were off. Right from the start Grant Jeans was off like a scaulded cat, closely followed by Scott Bradley and Marco Consani. The route of this race follows the River Dee, along the old railway line track bed to Banchory, where at 16.5 miles you turn and follow the same route back. 33 miles. Sounds simple!!
The first couple of miles of a race of this type of distance, for me, is about finding a comfortable pace. Not so much about keeping up with other people, but getting into a rhythum and maintaining it and not getting into a race with other runners around me. If they are faster, fine, let them run on, i'll stick to my own 'race' and not get too ambitious too early on. After around 3 miles I found myself in a small group of 5 others and soon felt comfortable enough to stretch out a bit and begin to pull away, albeit gradually. There was a gap of around 120 metres in front to the next group, so for the next 3 miles (to the first road crossing) i was on my own trying to bridge this gap, which for a while didn't seem to be getting any smaller. I didn't want to increase my pace anymore this early on in the day, but i had targets to try and maintain throught the day. I wanted to be at the 6 mile road crossing in around an hour. I reached this point in 50 minutes, so i knew i was doing well, if a little too quick, but felt good so stuck with it. The supporters at this point were great and very vocal!!
Once past Milltimber and the First 'checkpoint' at 8 miles (in 1 hour 10 minutes 17 seconds) the field had become spread out and lots of runners were progressing on the their own, including me. As time went on i was passed by and I passed the same people time and time again. I suppose taking turns at maintaining the steady pace.
The running surface changed throughout the day. Tarmac, dirt, grit, gravel, bouldery, rocky and muddy. A true 'trail' race.
I had noticed a large gap had opened up i front of me between me and the next group of runners, but i hadn't noticed if i was running slower, but i managed to resist the temptation to increase my pace at this point (which in hindsight I probably should have if i had known what was to come).
As i passed a couple of cottages after a road crossing (before Crathes i think) I ran past Debbie Martin -Consani (Marcos wife). I was concentrating so much on the gravel underfoot i nearly didn't hear her shout out my name as she was taking photos of each runner as they passed by. Sorry i didn't smile, I was away in my own wee world!!
As I ran past the train at Crathes, around the corner towards me came Grant Jeans. He was shifting and looked fresh as a daisy, which was annoying. He was closely followed by Scott and Marco (runners are like hillwalkers in that they always have a second to look up and acknowledge each other with a smile, wave, wink, nod or a grunt!!) We are a polite lot.
The boys were really going for it and i think these could be the three guys competing for top spot in the male title for the SUMS. After another couple of guys passed on their return leg, Lucy came storming past, with a smiling face and hardly a hair out of place (she went on to win the female title today).
It wasn't far to the halfway point and i was very happy with my progress and felt good, if just a little warm. As you leave the dirt underfoot and start on a muddier surface I was passed (on their return legs) Ian Beattie and then Sandra McDougall. I had been on Sandras coat tails earlier on in the day for around a mile or so, around Drumoak i think. This surprised me as I know her to be a far better runner than me. Maybe she had a pitstop. But it didn't last long as she had soon pulled away and i lost sight of her. She smiled and waved as we passed and she finished in under 5 hours. The route now became really bumpy and muddy and i could see a steady stream of runners approaching on their return leg. I could see the halfway checkpoint in the distance. It went pear shaped here. I was weaving in and out and jumping over puddles. On landing doing this just before the checkpoint i landed on a sharp stone on my left foot under my toes and it felt like driving a knife through the bottom of my foot. So when i got to the halfway checkpoint (2 hours 29 minutes) my first thought was 'Bugger, not again!!'
I refilled my water bottles and immediately started back, walking for about ten minutes, whist having something to eat. Throughout the outward journey i had been passed by marshalls on bikes and it was whilst walking out of the halfway CP one of them shouted out my name. I looked over, but at first didn't recognise her. It was Silke Loehndorf. She introduced herself and we said hi and she wished me luck. Silke passed me another couple of times (each time i had slowed to walk for a bit) and always shouted out words of encouragement to all the runners she passed. Thanks.
So when the mud ended and the dirt started again I gingerly started to jog, but right away i knew my target time wasn't going to be possible. It was very painful to put my full weight on my toes, so i took two ibrufen, but felt not much improvement. So on the return it was a mixture of gentle jogging and fast 'power' walking and a reluctance to give up. Anything to keep the momentum up. Common sense dictated i should probably have thrown in the towel, but i was heading in the direction of the finish anyway!!!
People who i had passed earlier in the day now began to pass me with increasing regularity. I had lots of encouagement from passing runners. On the last 6 miles (once past the road crossing) i managed to maintain a slightly higher pace by shifting how my foot contacted the ground, taking the weight off my sore toes. The only problem with that was it caused more strain on my calf muscle, which began to cramp towards the end. But this was the lesser of two evils and at least i was still moving forwards. I knew i was on the home stretch which pumped me up.
I passed a sign saying it was 3 miles to Duthie, thank god!!
I then passed a guy running in a kilt and he was running barefoot, carrying his socks and shoes. I remembered that he had overtaken me at the turning point, so im guessing he too had got into bother. Hopefully he finished without further incident.
Before i knew it i sighted the park and checked my watch for the first time since the 6 mile road crossing. I was determined to finish in under 6 hours and salvage something. I tried to increase my pace, but it was too painful. So i stuck to my hobble, better that than walk over the line. As soon as i entered the park i got encouragement to keep going. The momentum from the downhill at the end carried me over the line. I could have hugged George!! (but i didn't, as it wasn't allowed!!). He gave me my medal and beer and congratulated me for finishing. Finishing....what a feeling. After every race like this i question my sanity, it seemed like such a good idea on the start line.