My first ultra: Running the Ochil Ultra 50k
When I turned 50, I decided to set myself a challenge. I have no idea why, but “run 50k” seemed like a good one. (I have also said I would try to run 50 miles but I am definitely not sure about that just now.)
My 50th was in May and for a while I simply “thought about” entering an ultra running race. By the time I chose the Ochil Ultra 50k (there is also an 80k course) I had only eight weeks left to train.
Why did I choose the Ochil Ultra?
- It offered a route of 50k exactly
- It is not so far from my home
- I have seen the hills so many times while travelling to Stirling and Perth
- I thought the hills looked like god running hills
- Many people who ran the inaugural event last year, loved it.
Training for an ultra
Prior to my Ochil Ultra entry, I had been building up my mileage a little and I was fairly comfortable running 10 to 12 miles. I entered a race in the Alps in July on the spur of the moment. I was travelling around the Alps and I thought the Gran Trail Courmayeur 30k seemed achievable. It was, but it was very painful. Read my race report.
I was also in contact with a coach, John Hampshire Coaching, who said he reckoned I had enough time to train for the Ochil Ultra 50k so that I would be able to finish. That gave me some confidence – and, crucially, some accountability. I respond well to training programmes.
The plan was 15 to 20 mile runs on a weekend with an interval session and a shorter hilly session in the week. I did well for the first five or six weeks and then work got in the way.
Annoyingly, on race day my brain focused on what I hadn’t done in training rather than what I had done. See a few hit and miss weeks.
Race day nerves
I slept until 4.30am on the day of the race and then felt horribly nervous. I kept telling myself it was simply a nice day out in the hills, with some walking and some running. The weather looked good and I had nothing to prove. I just wanted to get to the finish line.
But my stomach went into meltdown and I was nauseous almost until the countdown for the race to start. I think there were too many unknowns for me: Could I run that far? Would my body hold up? Did I put the right things in my drop bags (I had never done a drop bag before)? Would I start to feel sick? Etc etc.
But, as normal, once we were off, my nerves left me. I was happy to be running.
The first leg of the Ochil Ultra
The 50k (short course!) starts at Glendevon and finishes at Perth. It is basically split into three sections with two checkpoints. These were each about (16k) 10 miles apart. I had been advised to focus on each leg of the race.
(The Ochil Ultra 80k starts at Stirling and finishes at Perth.)
I had run/walked the first eight miles of the course about three weeks before the race so I knew there was a big hill at the start. I kept telling myself not to go too fast. Everyone tells you to stay well within your comfort zone at the start.
But I couldn’t help myself. I fell into a small group of people running uphill towards a set of wind turbines. Should I have been walking then? I will never know.
I chatted briefly to a woman from Alaska, Meredyth. She was on holiday in Scotland with her husband and had decided to enter the race. She was strong on the hills and soon left me behind. (In fact, she was second lady at the finish.)
I was passed by a few guys but I was happy doing my own thing. I chatted briefly to a man from Bridge of Earn. He liked the idea of a race on his doorstep. It was his first ultra, too.
The first part of the race was great because there were people to chat to, my legs felt fresh and I was full of hope.
Soon after, another woman called Nadine was suddenly by my side. We fell into chatting and for the next wee while I hardly noticed the miles. Nadine is 28 and studying for a PhD at Stirling Uni. She is wonderfully upbeat and it was a joy to share some of the race with her.
We ran and walked fast and chatted and chatted.
Then at a section of wooded moorland I could tell I was holding her up and I told her to run on. She did – and she ended up winning!
Towards the end of the first section, I found myself running on my own and I started to doubt whether I was still on the course. There did not seem to be many waymarkers. At one point I stopped and retraced my steps. I waited for a couple of men, who thought we were on the right course, and so I ran with them for a bit.
Checkpoint 1 to Checkpoint 2
By the time I reached CP1, I needed more water (I had a litre with me in my new Salomon 5 Adv Skin 3 pack). It was turning out to be a warm day, although it was windy on the hills (a tailwind thankfully!). I had already eaten a few jelly babies and I was unsure what to take from my drop bag.
In the end I decided on a Babybel cheese and an oatcake cheese sandwich. I would normally only eat jelly sweets but I was aware I would need more to get through 50k.
We turned on to a short section of tarmac road and as I jogged I ate a Babybel. I was praying that it would not upset my stomach. Next I tried to eat half an oatcake sandwich. It was hard to swallow and I gulped in water at the same time.
The second section of the race included another hill, climbing towards more wind turbines. It seemed like a very long hill, although never steep. I ran and walked – and wished the miles to go by.
There were sections were I got lost due to a lack of markers and, I confess, I started to lose my sense of humour. I heard later that people shooting in the area had removed some of the markers. I was thankful for another runner for helping me to find the right route across a tricky section of moorland (we helped each other by trying to see where the next marker was).
I ran on myself from there but then ended up losing sight of the markers again. I decided to wait for a small group of runners behind me. Thankfully they had run the race the year before and had a loose idea of where we were headed.
We ran through a farm, around a field of cattle and then on towards the turbines. I found I was running on my own again. When I race I simply run at my own pace and that meant I pulled ahead of the small group. In retrospect, running with them for a little longer would have been a good idea because I was then faced with another section of uncertainty. Was I running the right way? Would I see another marker? Had I missed a marker? It made me nervous.
A large herd of cows made me even more nervous. I tried to skirt around them and I hoped they would move away from me, but they stood still and stared. I kept saying to myself: “Stay calm, move smoothly but not too fast..” and I continually checked over my shoulder to make sure they were not about to chase me.
As I ran off safely I heard some loud moos. I think the group of runners behind me scared the cows and they sounded much less than happy.
By now I was starting to descend, first on wide fire trails and then on to a grassy path, heading towards Bridge of Earn. I section of road took me to CP2.
I had felt like CP2 had been much further than 16km/10 miles. I refilled my water bottles with water and Active Root. I grabbed another Babybel, oatcake sandwich and a small piece of Kendal Mintcake. The mintcake went down really well and I wished I had more of that stashed in my drop bag.
The final 16km
From 30k/20 miles I was running into new territory. I have once run a marathon (aged 40) but since then my furthest run was 20 miles. My legs were tight and sore and I was worried I was losing energy because I could hardly eat anything.
I stuffed down some jelly babies, drank water and then Active Root and thought about the oatcakes. In the end, I reached for an emergency High Five energy gel. I hate gels but I figured I needed something.
The rest of the race was a mind game. I am very determined and I think that helped a great deal. At the last checkpoint, the volunteers had mentioned that I was third lady. I couldn’t believe it but, at the same time, I wanted to believe it.
I had it in my mind that I wanted to hold this place but I thought there must be several women at my heels.
I think this pushed me on. But, really, I could only go as fast as I could go. I had nothing left in reserve to give me the ability to run harder.
Then came the last hill. It was a bitch. I knew it would come but I had no idea what it would be like. After a long section of tarmac road out of Bridge of Earn we turned up on to the trail to Moncreiffe Hill.
I passed a man who had slowed to a shuffling walk. He said he was ok but he had clearly hit the wall.
At first, the ascent was fairly gentle. I couldn’t run uphill so I was resigned to walking fast. I was very thankful for my long legs and for training in the hills.
When the trail flattened a little or descended I tried to run but it was painful even to do that. I was hopeful that this brutal part of the race would soon be over but it kept going on and on.
I looked at my watch and realised there was still 14km to go. That’s EIGHT MILES! I was horrified.
I didn’t think I could make it. I stuffed an oatcake into my mouth and tried to chew. I choked and then swallowed some water but that caught in my throat, too. I felt like I was falling apart.
I felt a bit dizzy and nauseous and my legs were so ridiculously useless.
And still the bloody hill went on and on. It was not a kind hill because it suggested it would go downhill but then turned a corner and went up, steeper and steeper. I wasn’t even sure my legs would walk me upwards anymore.
Finally there came the downhill. By now I was running on legs that were not my own. As much as I willed them to run and to take bigger strides they would not. I was reduced to a stiff shuffle-run-walk.
I could see Perth below me although I had no idea where in Perth I was headed. At a car park at the bottom of Moncreiffe Hill, a marshall told me to head along the road. I asked (actually, I whimpered): “How far to go?” She said: 2 miles. I asked if there were more hills. She said she had been told it was downhill from here.
I looked at my watch and it said 5.5km. In my foggy brain I managed to work out that was more than two miles. Oh god, I was in agony. My legs were broken and my head felt weepy.
And that road did not just go downhill. It had ups as well and all I could do was walk. I was sure, at any point, a load of runners would come flying past me. I cursed myself for running too fast at the start. I wasn’t sure I could go another step. But something inside me made me see the finish line.
I remembered someone on Facebook telling me how great it would be to blog about finishing. And Hubby G had told me that morning I would love writing about it all after I finished. But, even there, with 5km to go, I thought I would prefer to stop and go home.
There was a long section of road and pavement through an industrial area of Perth. I could vaguely see another runner with an orange t-shirt ahead. I was therefore fairly sure I was going in the right direction but I also knew I had a long way still to run. He seemed so far ahead of me.
Those final kilometres were agony, both physically and mentally. As I reached South Inch Park, I still had no idea where the finish was. Then I spotted the orange t-shirt walking away from something. I thought he must have already finished. He had!
I finally saw the finish line. I saw Hubby G and Wispa the Wonder Whippet. I could do nothing more than shuffle onwards. Normally I have a wee sprint left in my legs to reach the finish line but I felt like dropping to the ground and crying.
Never before have I been so relieved to finish a race. I could hardly make a sentence for the next five minutes and I am not sure I knew where I was. Eventually my brain started working again and I found I was sat down. I didn’t think I would be able to get up again.
Third place in my first ultra
Then Ben Finch, the race organiser, said I was, indeed, third lady. I was amazed. The race had been the hardest I have ever done yet I managed to come home third lady. I am sure all the best runners were doing the 80km course but, still, it was my chosen race and I was third.
I am also a fair bit older than Nadine and second placed Meredith. Despite the pain and stiffness in my legs, I was absolutely thrilled.
I am sure that the achievement is as much to do with mental determination as physical ability. I can be very stubborn and I am competitive.
But, this morning, as I reflected on the race with G I asked why is it not possible for me to simply “do” an event, rather than “race” one?
If I had walked more and run less and if I had taken my time to do the race, I doubt I would be feeling so broken today. I just don’t seem to have the ability not to race.
Anyway, that’s the 50k at 50 race ticked off!
Top 3 men and women in Ochil Ultra 50k
Both the male and female records were smashed in 2018. Robbie Dunlop, age 29, won the Ochil Ultra 2018 in 3:45:20. (1:15 faster than 2017’s winner).
Robbie said after the race: “It went like my dream race. I am very pleased with the result.”
Nadine Thomas (Gilmour), 28, won the female race in 4:57:10. The female winner in 2017 was 5:11. Nadine was 10th overall.
Nadine said: “I really enjoyed the race. I loved the hills and the views. It has been a great event.”
Men’s second and third went to: Keir Allen, 49, in 4:07:21 and David Elder, 19, in 4:14:01 respectively.
The women’s second and third places were: Meredyth Richards, 31, in 5:13:16 (14th overall) and me in 5:26:32 (16th overall).