The Speyside Way Ultramarathon covers 36.5 miles from Ballindalloch along the Speyside Way to the coast at Spey Bay with the last 5 miles following the coast eastward to Buckie.
The weather forecast for race day was not very inviting, there was a weather warning out for heavy rain and gale force winds for the entire weekend.
Due to our choice of accommodation (hostel in Elgin above a pub and nightclub) we had a bad night’s sleep prior to the event but woke to calm weather conditions hoping that it would at least stay like this for the early part of the race.
This was to be my first ultra distance run since the Glasgow to Edinburgh Double Marathon in 2010 and my first test into ultra running since making a decision to go for long distance running over iron distance triathlon. See the race report on Ironman Austria for a bit more detail.
I felt reasonably well prepared but also a bit overtrained with my recent 3 day weekend of long runs on 3 consecutive days and the half marathon as part of the Aberfeldy Middle Distance the week before Speyside Way Ultra.
We got to race HQ around 7am for registration and to mill around until the buses that were laid on by the organisers were ready to take us to the start in Ballindalloch.
The buses got to the start in good time allowing for a bit of a warm up, a toilet break and a listen to one of the shortest race briefings I have come across. The weather was (surprisingly) still behaving. Cool, light wind and overcast. Ideal running conditions if it stays like this. I opted for running shorts, calf guards, t-shirt, gilet and arm warmers hoping that it would be enough if rain and wind did set in.
Race strategy: 19/1 run/walk using the minute for drink/food. I was aiming to hold 5 min/km over the course of the run overall. I didn’t know what the course would be like apart from there being a few climbs and the surface being a mix of trail, land rover track and road. I opted for trail shoes over road shoes. My girlfriend Fiona and I had agreed that we would do a fuel belt exchange mid race instead of using the bag drops provided as this suited the kit I had better and gave us a bit of support team practice.
I seeded myself towards the front at the start and we were off at 9am on the button. As always for the first few km I stuck with the people around me and the pace was close to 4:30min/km. That settled quick enough when I had my first walk break. As with previous events my early walk breaks really confuse the runners around me who started asking if I was OK. Starting so early with walk breaks does mean I had to let people go that I was running with and over the first 12 miles I dropped a place or 2 every time I walked. This changed once I was through the first bag drop station at mile 12. I overtook 5-6 runners there who stopped to replenish supplies while I just ran through. Next walk break for me was just about 2 min later but I still had enough food on me. Fiona popped up for a shout at mile 10 and at the feed station which was a nice surprise as we agreed she would do her own thing until our scheduled support meet.
The first third of the route was flat if not a bit downhill and mostly on trails with some really nice scenery. Just after the feed station we started the ascent of the main climb. I have to say I should have researched this a bit better as I thought the whole race had about 200-300m of ascent. This climb alone had 200m and overall we covered 760m of ascent over the 36.5 miles and that even though it was a net descent.
While I had my walk break up the climb 2 runners caught up and overtook me. I went past them again on the next short descent before the climb restarted and they came past again. This happened once more but as the climb got more serious I pulled away from both of them. The field overall had strung out quite significantly by now and I caught one more guy just before the top. He left me standing though on the descent of the big climb. When we chatted at the end he did say he was a fell runner and wasn’t sure what happened to him on the way up. When I got to the top of the climb my average pace for the run so far had dropped to 5 min/km so the target where I wanted to be overall but it didn’t really concern me at this point, I was running well and within myself, my walk breaks were going well and with purpose and Fiona would be at the bottom of the hill with my replacement fuel belt. The timing was rather good for this too as it was just 2 min before my next walk break so I decided to use the support stop as the walk break. Quick kiss and I was on my way again with just over a minute to spare ahead of the next runner and no places dropped. Within a few km there was another short sharp climb and then things flattened out for a while with a dead straight section of over 1 km. I could see 3 runners ahead of me well spaced out and thought I might catch one or 2 of them. By the time I came round the next bend though none of them were to be seen anymore.
This section of approx. 10k was all on tarmac which in hindsight I didn’t like at all. Early on I felt fine but in the flat section I very notably faded which was even more emphasised when one of the two runners I dropped up the hill came past me with ease. Luckily the next feedstation wasn’t far and that signified the start of the final 3rd of the race. I decided to take two caffeine tablets at the feed, together with a gel, some water and some jelly babies. Before we got to the feed though we had to go through the (for me) most painful section of the course, a short descent (about 40m in alt.), followed by 2 hairpins and an ascent to regain the height. The descent really hurt (my quads, hamstrings and knees) and I was glad for the feed which was at the top of the hill and timed perfectly with a another walk break. I walked in had the gel, a cup of water and walk off with 3 jelly babies. I regained the spot I had lost to the other runner through the feed which spurred me on but forgot to have the caffeine tablets so took a brief walk break for those. I did find a second wind here for a bit and that seemed to be before the caffeine tablets kicked in. A gentle tarmac descent down to Fochabers felt good and I could see the sea in the distance thinking: That is where I am heading. Weather update: It is still perfect, temperatures unchanged, the occasional sun ray and the wind from the North West meaning it was side on occasionally but we had enough trees to shelter us.
Running through the streets of Fochabers and rejoining the trail along the river, Fiona pops up and joins me for about half a km. I leave her a bit breathless with the speed I am going at. This wasn’t to last though. Quick walk break after that and my nemesis (the runner I seem to be changing places with constantly) catches me again. I am back on his heels a couple of minutes later as we run through some narrow trails. Quick exchange of words. “You running faster?” “Yes” and he lets me through. We go past another runner who had passed me in the first half hour of the race but was struggling now with walk breaks. In my next walk break I let my nemesis pass again and this is the last I see of him as he gradually opens up an ever increasing lead. It was interesting to watch: land rover tracks and tarmac were his preferred surface, narrow trails mine. Another day, a different course and I would be ahead but as the trails subsided his lead increased.
We reached the coast and headed East, with the wind behind us but a mix of tarmac, old train line and trails through an old wooded section. The old wooded section was amazing, the wind was blowing through the trees making them move and creek and talk. I dubbed it spooky wood and my highlight section of the race. When I popped out of there we had a long straight ahead of us and I could see my nemesis scampering away in the distance but I also saw what I thought was another runner. 4 miles left, could I get him. Sounds doable doesn’t it. Well we had a lot more tarmac to come too which I wasn’t enjoying but with 500m to go I passed him. The finish was up a short final hill (thank you to the organisers for that one). I crossed the line in 5:09 hrs and in 12th place, 5th in my category.
A few race observations:
In parts a 19/1 run walk didn’t feel quite right. It can take a bit to get into running after the walk break, there is often a mid section where I run really well and then a final section before the walk break where I struggle a bit. On the other hand I had it on a beep this time which kept me on my toes. Also compared to previously the walk breaks were much more with purpose, with the exception of 1 or 2 all of them were under 10min/km pace.
Regarding my like/dislike for trails over tarmac I think the fact that I was running in trail shoes is partly to blame for this. Equally the choice of trail shoes was right for the first section of the race as there were some very muddy sections.
I had set out for a target pace of 5:00 min/km and finished on an average pace of 5:17 min/km. My target pace didn’t include 760m of ascent and with that in mind I am pleased with the pace of the race and the finish time.
Loved the race itself, some really nice scenery, some tough sections, spooky wood was fun and I had a strong finish. It was nice to be able to pass someone so close to the finish. I am likely to be back!
Walking back to the High School for showers wasn’t much of a walk but more a shuffle. We stopped at the car briefly and after that my shuffle vanished and I was able to walk normally. Legs were achy but not too bad. The following two days more of the same. The usual “can’t walk downstairs” didn’t happen which stunned me. I have a few possible explanations but not sure about any of them. In terms of pace I guess it was a long training run as I went through the marathon in 3:36 and the half marathon in just under 1:45 so maybe that is part of it.
Anyway, it bodes well for the River Ayr Challenge in 4 weeks which goes over 44 miles.