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Ultra runner Mark Hutchison sets 52km Union Canal FKT

Written by Fiona

June 01 2021

On May 29, Mark Hutchison, off Coatbridge, set a new Fastest Known Time (FKT) for the 52km Union Canal route. He ran 3:38 to beat the previous male record of 4:05 set by Sam Heward last June. Sophie Mullins holds the female record of 4:07.

Mark, 38, who is married with two sons, had been hoping to run the West Highland Race this year. When it was cancelled, he decided to set his own challenge of the Union Canal from Falkirk to Edinburgh.

Mark, vice president – control & governance manager at Barclays, was keen to run a fast and flat point-to-point route. He says: “Canals paths are usually ideal for this. It is also a beautiful route and travels through some iconic towns and villages, such as Linlithgow and Ratho.

“The route was also a good one for having a support crew because there are numerous meeting points along the way and for train travel to and from the start and finish points.”

What is the Union Canal?

The Union Canal,= stretches from the iconic Falkirk Wheel to the heart of Scotland’s capital city. Its full name is the Edinburgh and Glasgow Union Canal and it was opened in 1822 to bring minerals, especially coal, to Edinburgh.

The canal is listed as three individual scheduled monuments by Historic Scotland, according to the three former counties, Midlothian, West Lothian and Stirlingshire, through which it flows.

Mark and his father-in-law David at the start of the Union Canal FKT at Falkirk.
Mark with David and Rob at the finish in Edinburgh.

Training for the FKT

Mark had already been training hard during the winter to run 95 miles on the WHW, so he knew his running endurance was in the right place. Then, when the WHW Race was cancelling in March, he switched his focus to speed work, alongside the endurance.

He says: “In 2021, I have already run around a dozen marathons as part of my long training runs and a few 50ks, with my longest run being 57k.  My longest run on the canal pre-FKT was 44k, running from Polmont to Edinburgh.

“I did this so I would know the route better, the terrain and any potential navigation pitfalls. It also gave me a solid understanding of what to expect on the day.

“I replicated the same anticipated start and finish times in Edinburgh as well, to give me an understanding of the crowds and busy sections.  In training, I ran seven to eight times a week, with a mix of speed work, hill reps and long steady runs. I also did strength conditioning work and mobility sessions every day.” 

Mark had not ran the whole route before the FKT, but he did cover approximately 44km of the 52k route. He says: “I also walked the first 3k with my family a couple of weeks before my attempt.” 

Mark and his sons.
Mark and his wife Donna.

Highlights of Union Canal FKT

Mark says: “My race nutrition and pacing strategy all went to plan and I felt very strong. My support crew were amazing at clearing the path and passing me water and gels every 30 minutes.

“I set a new marathon PB of 2:55; a new 50k PB of 3:29 and the new FKT of 3:38 so it went well. I also had to persevere with constant tightness in my hamstrings from 39k onwards but I still finished just a few minutes over my target of 3:35. 

“On reflection, I also know that if I hadn’t experienced the hamstring issue, I could have run under 3:30 on the day and backed up how well my training had gone.”

Mark and his coach James Stewart focus on fast finishes and running a negative split. Mark says: “I paced the FKT to run the first half steady and then raise the pace after 26k. I felt I was on track for this again until I hit 39k, when my hamstrings started to get tight and were twinging towards cramp.

“I decided to slow down a little until I met one of my running friends Rob Turner, who was going to pace me over the last 10 to 15k. By the time I reached Rob, I was fully nursing my hamstrings to avoid cramp and inevitable walking/potentially stopping all together.  

“In a 100k-plus race, this might have been an option or to stop and stretch, but as this was a time trial to me, I didn’t see this as an possibility.  

“As we approached the last 7k, I tried again to push the pace, which initially worked, but then I got another sharp warning from both hamstrings and, at that point, I knew I just had to cruise myself to the finish line.”

Mark reveals he was happy overall with his performance, although he admits he was a little disappointed not to have run well under his goal of 3:35.

He says: “My training, mindset and approach to the FKT had all gone to plan and had been very positive. On the day, it was very warm and humid and I had a small but noticeable headwind. I think the heat played it’s part in the tightness of my legs so far out from the finish.

“I’ve always had to work hard in the closing miles of any race, but not usually this far out when you are trying to run hard and fast.”

How to run an FKT

Mark believes that to be successful at ultra running, you need to have consistency in training, nutrition, sleeping and recovery, while also having a positive growth mindset.

He says: “I work with a great coach and I am part of the phenomenal Team Pyllon, who support me with all my training goals. You need to train specific to the event you want to race and be relentless in your approach.  

Mark thanks his support team

Mark is very grateful to David Murphy, his father in Law, who supported the full run on his bike. Mark says: “When he found out I was taking on the challenge, he was first to offer to support. He was absolutely brilliant at keeping me fuelled up, pushing me on and telling other path users that I was coming through behind him.

“This made a huge difference and it also included getting an escaped llama off the canal path and back in its field.”

Rob Turner was also keen to support the run. Mark says: “Rob’s running record speaks for itself [Rob was part of the Team Pyllon that ran Scotland north to south] and to have him in my corner had me super excited.  

“Although, on the day, I couldn’t show him the boosters for the last five miles, he was still great at just keeping me moving forward.”

Mark is also thankful to his coach James for “getting me into the best shape physically and mentally as possible for this specific goal”. Mark says: “I’ve worked with James for three years and it’s been an incredible journey, where I’m still learning and developing as an athlete.”

Finally, and most importantly, Mark gives special thanks to his wife Donna and children, Luke and Adam. He says: “They are always there supporting me with all my challenges no matter how big or small.”

More FKTs to read about:

Cape Wrath Trail FKT

Fife Pilgrim Way FKT

Southern Upland Way FKT

Fife Coastal Path FKT.

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