Sunday, 17 November 2013

Fraserburgh Half Marathon 2013

Gun Time: 01:52:03  Position: 161/292

The Fraserburgh Half Marathon (also known as the "Broch" Half) is the last half marathon of the year in the Scottish running calendar. Although Fraserburgh is about 122 miles from the village in which I reside, the thought of going cold turkey until the next Scottish half in February was far too much for me to bare. So much so, that the dreadful prospect of hauling myself out of a warm bed to face a five and a half hour return drive just so that I could put myself through another two hours of hell didn't even make me DNS. All this and I didn't even know if there would be a medal at the end of it.

The only thing I did know about Fraserburgh was from some background reading from my days studying abnormal psychology at uni, that being that it was the birthplace of infamous serial killer Dennis Nilsen. A horrific legacy for any self respecting town to bare. With this thought in mind I stumbled out into the 7:00am winter darkness, clambered into my car and set off for an epic speed camera riddled journey up the A90 to the far northeast corner of Aberdeenshire

Registration for this race was held between 9:30 and 10:30am, so about a dozen Gatso speed cameras later and a worn down set of break pads, I arrived at the James Ramsay Park Pavilion. After collecting my number and freebie technical t-shirt, I found myself a space outside the pavilion, doubled up my t-shirts and began psyching myself up with some loud music.  

The first mile leaves James Ramsay Park and continues round a circuit of a housing scheme before heading out into countryside, turning into Philorth Woods and then a loop on country roads and trail paths before a stretch on a disused railway line. The course is fairly undulating but has no real hills worth mentioning. 

At around mile seven I got chatting to Peter, a friendly Perth Road Runner from Blairgowrie who tried to persuade me to join up. I ran alongside him  for a couple of miles, chatting about all the races we had each done this year, until the path became too narrow at which point he broke away and I carried on at my own pace.

On approaching the finish line I looked around and was disappointed not see any of the other finishers wearing a medal. So it was a pleasant surprise to be handed a medal (still wrapped in cellophane) along with my goodie bag on completion of the race. There's only one thing better than being given your finishers medal at the end of a race and that is being given one when you didn't expect it.

Something I love about long distance running is the amount of guilt free food you can consume after a race! Running at an average pace of 8:29 per mile, I calculated that I burned 1727 calories, so I had no qualms about stuffing my face at the very generous post-race spread. This included a fantastic array of home baking, soup, cakes, sandwiches etc..

After the race I went for a drive around Fraserburgh to check out some of the sites. I wouldn't go as far as calling myself a pharologist, but I've always held an interest in lighthouses, to the extent that I once applied for a job with the Northern Lighthouse Board. The "Harbour Lighthouse" in the photo below is a fine example. Fraserburgh is also home to The Museum of Scottish Lighthouses, but unfortunately I just assumed this would be closed on a Sunday during the winter months and never  thought to pay it a visit. Sadly I was mistaken, so it's a definite on my list for next year. I'm beginning to sound like some kind of lighthouse nerd.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Culloden Run 17.46K 2013

Chip Time: 01:33:15  Position: 109/275

As a runner and medal collector I'm a big fan of both novelty and themed races, they provide so much promise with the hope of an unusual, bespoke medal, whilst at the same time they also take the monotony out of a long distance run. The novelty of running in fancy dress, attempting to beat Beethoven's 5th Symphony, competing against a steam train, challenging riders on horseback over 26K or carrying a sack of coal on your back whilst running all strangely appeal to me. So when I heard about the Culloden 17.46K, it didn't take too much persuasion for me to sign myself up.

Billed as "...a testing challenge over a 10.83 mile route which passes through stunning scenery and by historic landmarks; Culloden Battlefield, Clava Cairns, River Nairn and the awesome River Nairn Viaduct.", both physically and scenically this race did not disappoint and I certainly fought a personal battle around a very tough course.

Whilst struggling to find my running shorts on the morning of the race, I chanced upon the lightweight kilt I had bought for the Perth Kilt Run back in August. Believing this was some kind of providence, I decided to get another use out of it. (I had mistakenly thought there would be many kilted runners taking part. I was wrong. On arrival I counted around half a dozen.) After an early start and yet another trip up the A9, we arrived at Culloden Visitors Centre at around 10am. The race didn't start until 10:45am, so coffee, cream and jam scones and free Wi-Fi filled the gap for the next 45 minutes. I also managed to fit in the obligatory sword fight with my daughter in the gift shop.  Whilst awaiting the start of the race I was asked for a photo opportunity by an American tourist which she wanted to use on her Twitter feed. I dread to think what hashtags she used. 

In the cafĂ© I did notice that a particular side from the Scottish Independence debate had attempted to hijack the event with their own agenda. Putting aside my own views on this issue, I would be opposed to either side promoting their political beliefs during a race. For me running should always remain apolitical. The bond runners feel toward one another transcends politics, sex, race and religion. For those hours we are out running together, life is on hold and we're all out fighting the same battle, heading in the same direction and working toward the same goal. To me this has always been part of the attraction of running races and should not be spoiled no matter how passionate folk are about their cause.

As my only running endeavour since the Aviemore half marathon two weeks previous was (whilst dressed in a stiflingly hot eagle outfit) the Beat Beethoven 5K the week before, I wasn't feeling greatly confident at the start of this race. (I've ran four races over the course of the year dressed as a Golden Eagle in support of Scottish Natural Heritage's Big 5 celebrations. As such I like to think I did my bit in promoting the eagle and am pleased to say that it won taking almost 40% of the vote.)

Anyway, better get started on to the race report. Although this course was only 10.8 miles, I would say it was as tough as any of the eight half marathons I have ran so far this year. The 17.46K race follows the same route as the majority of the 10K which is also scheduled for the same day. Runners depart from the visitors centre and gently descend South for 3kms along the B9006. The route then takes a sharp left just before Westhill followed by a hard, drawn out 2km climb to the long awaited first water station at Nairnside village. This hill was tough and even this early on in the race I passed quite a number of runners who had stopped to walk before reaching the top.

From here there is a short descent followed by another 3km of undulating road past the Culloden Battlefield with a fantastic view of the Highland Railway viaduct. At the crossroads at the 8.5kms point the 10k and 17.46k routes part company, the 10K runners head straight on, whilst the 17.46k participants turn right and take a steep descent until they cross the river Nairn. At the 10.5km point there is a sharp left hand turn followed by 1.5kms of  soul destroying, steep hill climbs, taking you under the Highland railway line before you turn left at the Culdoich Junction.

After the preceding hills, the next 1.5kms came as quite a relief. At the 13.5K point the route took a sharp left, with a steep descent followed by an ever welcome water station. (As opposed to bottles, water was handed out in disposable cups. When this is the case, rather than stopping, I usually take a couple of sips and then throw the rest in my face to cool down.) From here we travelled under the imposing railway viaduct and then uphill for another 1km, re-joining the remainder of the 10K route to end back at the visitor centre. I was very thankful to see Clare and my children cheering me on at the finish line. After collecting my medal, collapsing on the grass and allowing my children to raid my goodie bag, I hobbled off to the "chip van" to pick up my race time receipt which showed a time of 1:33:15. My position was 109, coincidentally same as my race number!

All-in-all, a fantastic race with stunning scenery, but not one for the faint-hearted. The medal could also have been slightly more imaginative, but if you look very closely you can make out a sword on it so I'll settle for that.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Aviemore Half Marathon 2013

Chip Time: 01:52:10  Position: 391/841

So I'm awoken by my alarm at 6:00am on Sunday morning. Eh.. What?! For a moment I have no idea why! It's not Monday morning yet surely?! I'm not working today am I?! Then the horrible truth sets in. I have to get up and drive 80 miles up the A9 to run the Aviemore Half Marathon. Registration for the race finishes at 8:30am which means that I have to leave the house at 6:30am. It's cold and still extremely  dark outside. I remember over doing it at a BBQ the previous evening and I have the first signs of a cold coming on. Once collated, I find all of  this new information extremely disturbing.

Negative thoughts begin to creep into my mind.. along with excuses to ease my own conscience.. Why am I even doing this? Do I even like running? How can I possibly run another half marathon? Sometimes I struggle even to walk and my legs feel sore just lying in bed! Can I even stand up? However, all along at the back of my mind, I know there is no backing down. I had signed up and paid to enter this race. No matter how painful it was going to be (and that was just the getting out of bed bit), the disappointment I would feel in myself for dropping out would hurt so much more. So with that thought in my head, my legs creak out of bed, I say goodbye to my partner and creep down the stairs so as to not wake the children.

For breakfast I rush down a bowl of "Branana". This is something I like to think I named. Sometimes I even claim to have invented this super-food. Which I obviously didn't, as in reality it's just a bowl of bran flakes with a banana sliced on top. (It's great fuel for running though!) Then after throwing on my kit, I hobble out the door, de-ice the car and climb in. Radio coverage is poor to non-existent on certain stretches of the A9 so I plug my mp3 player into the USB socket on the dash, turn up the volume and hit the road. Chris Rea's "Road to Hell" begins to come to life.

Out of all the roads I have encountered in Scotland, I think I detest certain stretches of the Perth to Inverness section of the A9 the most. They're so bleak and depressing with perpetual mist and rain. The kind of place only the Hound of the Baskervilles would choose to live. (And even it would require a heavy dose of canine Prozac so as not to throw itself under the first passing articulated lorry.) Average speed cameras may be the last straw for me ever driving the full length of this road again. Even at Scotrail prices the train seems like a more viable option. Roll on dualling!

But I digress. I arrived at the MacDonald Hotel Resort in Aviemore at around 8am and headed off to registration to collect my number. On the way I was greeted by a fellow race addict whom I had met on mile twenty-five of the Loch Ness Marathon two weeks previous. His friendly reception lifted my spirits. After collecting my envelope, attaching my number to my top and the timing chip to my shoe, I stashed my remaining belongings back in the car, then joined the ever growing coach queue. After standing for twenty minutes, in what seemed like freezing conditions, I managed to get the last place on a coach and we were ferried off to the start at Badaguish Outdoor Centre.

Dropped off in the middle of a forest, we had to walk about 500m to the outdoor centre itself. As usual I was unprepared, wearing only a short sleeved technical running top and shorts. Everyone else seemed very well kitted out, some in full tracksuits, others with space blankets. Whilst I was freezing my arse off, I tried my hardest to pity these people, wondering how they would survive the inevitable zombie apocalypse without all of their home comforts. As my body started to shiver and my teeth began to chatter, I found this little consolation.

There was a great reception put on for the runners of both the half marathon and 10k at Badaguish, this included porridge with honey, tea and biscuits, music and the usual warm up  motivator. Despite trying everything on offer, nothing kept the cold at bay. I wandered around shivering for about 45 minutes before the race began. I did bump into a couple of work colleagues. One an ultra-marathon runner who works in the same office as me just outside of Perth. He was undertaking the 10k. The other, an aspiring runner from our Inverness office who was running his first half-marathon. After a chat, I wished them well and made my way to my designated starting position.

The course is a mixture of stony forest track, paths and road. My knees were the first to notice the difference between these surfaces and found it difficult to adapt when they hit tarmac. The first seven miles take you through Glenmore Forest Park and Glenmore village before crossing the road onto another forest track which takes you around the beautiful Loch Morlich (which was used during World War II as a commando training area, for proposed operations in Norway, due to its similarity to the Norwegian landscape). From here you join the main road running past Coylumbridge and Inverdruie. You cross the Spey River by footbridge, then travel under the main Highland Railway line, across Aviemore High Street to the finish line back at the MacDonald Hotel. I was happy to complete this race in 01:52:10. (Although my knees would have preferred if I took much longer). After receiving my finishing medal *Hooray* then wolfing down a banana and some shortbread, I hobbled up the hill back to the car park and set off for home.

I have few complaints with this race. (Apart from being over taken by a charity runner dressed like he was riding a horse!) It was very well organised and marshalled and I definitely plan on running it again. So if you are looking for a half marathon with some of the most stunning scenery Scotland has to offer, I would say that this one is up there with the best of them!

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Great Scottish Run 2013

Chip Time: 01:54:28  Position: 3754

The Great Scottish Run has to be one of my favourite half marathons in Scotland. It may not have the shortbread tin views that many of the rural races do, but what it lacks in scenery, it compensates for with atmosphere and character. It's not everyday that swathes of Glasgow city center are cordoned off just to allow you out for a carefree, traffic free run. (The opportunity to run over a temporarily pedestrianised Kingston Bridge is fantastic!) I'd previously completed this race back in 2011 in a time of 01:59:53, however the course route changed this year, so unfortunately I am unable to directly compare this year's time with that one.

Glasgow will always hold a fond place in my heart. Having spent four years drinking studying there in the mid nineties and a few more working, I know the city well and we have been through a lot of great times (and a few hard ones) together. Some of both I can even remember. So the chance to go back again for a weekend (with the added excuse of undertaking a healthy pursuit) was irresistible to me. We booked a family room in the Novotel on Pitt Street just along from the Strathclyde Police HQ (around the corner from an old favourite drinking haunt of mine.. Nice 'n' Sleazy.)

The Novotel is a good hotel. I have very few complaints about it. The staff are friendly and very accommodating, the food is good, the underground car park is handy and the gym, sauna and steam room are also very welcoming. On this visit the running machines were of particular interest to my partner, Clare. She is in training for her first 5K and was keen to use them on both nights we stayed. (Although she claims she's not born to run and that I have just gradually worn her down, I don't believe a word of it! I can see the medal envy in her eyes and I know she just can't wait to get her hands on her first one.) My only complaint with our stay, which certainly couldn't be held against the hotel,  was the incessant car alarm which went off for about four hours through our first night. It kept my children awake and therefore us awake until the early hours. I'm sure I was not the only person that night, who fantasised about smashing that car up before setting it on fire, whilst it's owner looked on in horror.

These days I usually eat healthily before a race, but after heading down to the dining room for breakfast and gawping in awe at the fine selection of items on offer, I opted for three mugs of strong coffee and a full Scottish breakfast. I can hear the "Tut! Tuts!" of so many disapproving runners, but hey, I'm happy and still alive at the time of writing. Besides, I pride myself at doing things the hard way.

The Great Scottish Run starts in George Square, in the heart of the city. The runners are separated into starting areas by the colour on their race numbers (which correspond with their expected finish times.) My estimated time of completion meant that I started in Cochrane St. (approx. 150m from the chip timed start line). As I consider myself an amateur (or even a non-runner), it is always exciting to know that I am running a race in which truly great athletes are competing in. (I can always tell my grand-children that I ran in the same race against Haile Gebrselassie.)

Having the support of my family at the start and end of a race means a lot to me. Unfortunately this is not always possible as pre-registration for events often starts very early in the morning, miles away from home, whilst my young children are sound asleep. So having them with me in Glasgow was a great bonus. Clare hung around with the children as long as she could until the proposed start of the race, but as it was delayed and I had to go and stand in a crowd, she wisely decided to take them off to Hamley's toyshop in the St. Enoch centre (As opposed to playing Where's Wally to find me waiting amongst the other runners.) In the photo below, my son Jack (always the ladies man), seems to have just spotted a group of extremely pretty ladies who were running for Macmillan Cancer Support. :-)

The first mile of this urban race takes you up St. Vincent Street and over the brow of the hill, past King Tut's Wah Wah Hut and the former Britoil building. There I had previously spent two miserable interesting years working for a popular mutual assurance company in their pensions department (before it was purchased by a large Spanish banking group.) From this point the route crosses Charing Cross past Tay House which is part of the Bridge To Nowhere. (Ironically that nickname sums up my feelings for the place when I worked there for Barclays Bank as a night shift data inputter during my student days.) Memories (some repressed, some very funny) came flooding back as I ran past these once foreboding financial institutions.

The second mile of this race sees you cross the Kingston Bridge and the third takes you onto Paisley Road West. The route is designed so that for the two miles you are running down Paisley Road West toward Bellahouston Park, you see faster runners heading up the other side to turn toward Pacific Quay at around mile eight. Somehow I managed to completely miss the first water station. (I blame Lemmy Kilmister, who was blasting out his very own take on Rock n Roll on my mp3 player.) The only reason I know of it's existence is the amount of discarded water bottles I noticed just after I passed it.

After a circuit of Bellahouston Park and the return trip back along Paisley Road West, the route takes you over the Clyde Arc (AKA the Squinty Bridge), up Stobcross Road (passing iconic sites and structures such as the Finnieston Crane, the Clyde Auditorium and then around the Riverside Museum.) After this, miles ten, eleven and twelve double back eastwards, heading down Pointhouse Rd., Lancefield and Anderson Quays, then onto Clyde Street for mile thirteen, through the McLennan Arch to the long awaited finish on Glasgow Green. 

As I was still recovering from the Inverness Marathon the previous weekend, I was satisfied to complete this race in 01:54:28. Although Haile Gebrselassie won't be quaking in his boots, I am happy with my time and of course another medal to add to the collection.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Loch Ness Marathon 2013

Chip Time: 04:09:19  Position: 1309/2702

After running a Tough Mudder, three half marathons and various 10ks in the past five weeks, my body seems to have relented and stopped nagging me with pain over the Achilles Tendinitis I have been suffering from. As the day of the Loch Ness Marathon finally arrived, I couldn't be happier to have hope that I may be able to run it without suffering excruciating pain with every step.

My knowledge of medical science has always been quite limited to say the least. In fact it is very much like The Numskulls who used to appear in the Beano comic. Little people who live inside the body and operate it with levers. They do their best to look after it and limit the damage despite all the gruelling punishment my mind has in store. Although they don't always get their way, I know they try and I usually appreciate that. However, the Numskull who had been poking the inside of my ankle with sharp needles every step I ran had finally relented and sodded off to do something more rewarding. The relief was incredible.

As usual the logistics were difficult. We left it a bit late to book family accommodation in Inverness, so opted for a room in the Premier Inn in Elgin. This meant having to add a 45 minute drive to Inverness onto an already early start. The marathon bus departed Inverness at 7:30. So after spending an almost sleepless night in a hotel room which my children had already began to transform into a scene from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, I awoke to a lukewarm shower and to find the cream scone I had been saving had already been eaten by a hungry little mouth. This was devastating as the hotel didn't start serving breakfast until 7am. Not the best start to the day.

After arriving at Brught Park and parking the car, I made my way to the coach pickup point, joined the endless toilet queue and popped an Ibuprofen. I generally don't take pain killers at all, usually believing that pain is there for a reason, but as I was about to run 26.2 miles fearing that my Achilles pain could return with a vengeance at any moment and that the tendon might even snap, I felt I had little choice.

I grabbed a seat at the back of a coach and was soon joined by a couple of guys who struck up conversation about my Tough Mudder t-shirt. They had completed it too. (This became a bit of a theme for the day, in fact it seems everyone I spoke to was a Mudder.) Loch Ness was their first marathon and they were excited about doing it in around 3:30. Having planned to do my first marathon in sub 4 hours in 2009 and failing dramatically, I recalled that feeling all too well. I'm planning on telling that tale one day if anyone is interested in hearing it.

Soon after arriving at the start, somewhere North East of Fort Augustus on the South side of the Loch, I was interviewed by a German journalist for Runner's World magazine. He asked me everything from what I tell my children about the Loch Ness monster through to what motivational quotes go through my head when I usually hit my own personal wall around mile 18. Without thinking, I told him "Winston Churchill - If you're going through hell, keep going!" Not so sure my interview will be published after that faux pas.

I was expecting to have to run a good few miles for the endorphins to kick in and ease any remaining pain in my heel, but was surprised to find that the first mile was painless, in fact I am writing this two days later and although I'm still struggling to walk I have no Achilles pain. The first six miles of Loch Ness are a gradual descent and passed easily. I'd created a feel good playlist specifically for this race and the miles I covered reached double figures pretty quickly and with relative ease. Miles 10 to 17 are undulating but not too troublesome, but having ran this race back in 2011 I knew what was coming when I reached Dores at mile 18. A two mile hill climb!

As well as hydrating at every water station along the route, I'd also filled my pockets with various jellies and gels I had been handed. Whilst I had eaten some nice ones earlier in the race, I made the mistake of eating a couple of chocolate gels at the bottom of the hill. They were absolutely disgusting and made me want to vomit. The sickly chocolate mixed with phlegm to create a disgusting brown mucus that I spent the next few miles coughing back up. Once over the hill around mile 23, I met one of the first time marathoners I had met on the bus. He had crashed at mile 20 and started to walk. I ran-walked with him for a couple of miles before we reached the final leg.

At mile 25 my stomach started to cramp badly due to the energy gels and jellies I had been guzzling along the route. I'd never used these before and am not sure if I will again! (At least not in that quantity or chocolate flavoured). I had reduced my pace to a fast walk when a fellow runner came up behind me and put his arm on my shoulder to offer encouragement. When you're going through pain together, sometimes the realisation that a fellow runner understands and cares enough to put their hand out to you is enough to get you up and running again.
Whoever designed the last mile of this race must have been a great admirer of the Marquis de Sade. Whilst there is a perfectly good footbridge which takes you straight across to Brught Park, you are forced to run past this (for what at this point seems like eternity), over the main road bridge, doubling back on yourself across the river down to the finish. One of my work colleagues, Sharon, was waiting at the beginning of mile 26 to cheer on her husband who was also enduring the same hell as me. A cheer from her inspired me to pick up pace and keep going. At this point, a fellow runner also commented that he had seen me at every race he had done this year. Seems I'm running every other race he has planned too. The thought that I hadn't missed any raised my spirits.

As I approached the finish, I put on a sprint and completed the marathon in a chip time of 04:09:19 (almost vomiting as I crossed the line). I picked up my medal, t-shirt and goodie bag. My partner (and running widow) Clare, was waiting there to greet me with my children and as usual my daughter took great pride in wearing my medal. It's moments like this that make all the torment so worthwhile.

We spent the following day in recovery mode, eating cake and drinking coffee whilst wandering around the Findhorn Foundation. One of the things I love about running these races is getting out and seeing places I would never normally have any other reason or excuse to visit.