On Saturday September 24, 2011 was the River Ayr Challenge – a 41 mile run from Glenbuck along the River Ayr to the town of Ayr on the coast. I lined up for this Ultra marathon 1 month after I had completed the Speyside Way Ultra. From looking at the maps my impression was that most of this would be downhill as we were starting at 280m above sea level and would end up at the coast. Although there is a basic truth there the River Ayr Way (which was opened in 2004) tries to stick to the river as much as possible. The river though is carved into a valley forcing the path back up onto the ridge numerous times. For the run this meant that the long flat sections we were going along were repeatedly interrupted by very steep ascents to take us up onto the ridge and then another steep descent to get us back down to the river’s edge. Not quite as straight forward as I had thought.

The days before the race I tried to decide, what running shoes I should wear. The options were: race flats, trail shoes or a pair of cushioned trainers. I was unlikely to run in the cushioned trainers as I very seldom run in that kind of shoe nowadays. Looking at some pictures of the race online the path looked quite firm so I considered the race flats. As these are pretty new and didn’t seem to like off road running too much I in the end decided to go with my Inov-8 trail shoes which are aging fast but still seem to do me a good service. This turned out to be the perfect choice as the path was nowhere near as firm as I thought and there were a lot of very muddy and wet sections from the recent rain. The trail shoes gave me the grip I needed although the feet still got completely soaked on a regular basis.

The mess my trail shoes were in from running in all the mud!

The mess my trail shoes were in from running in all the mud!

My target for this race was to finish in under 6 hours which would roughly equate to 5:30 min/km. This target was mostly based on my performance at the Speyside Way ultra. Early on in the race I was able to stick to the pace but it then gradually dropped off. The above mentioned short climbs took their toll, especially when the climbs had built-in steps which were very hard to run, I powerwalked most of these. The pace was also slowed down a lot by numerous gates we had to go through as the path wound its way through the countryside, the gates enabling the path to remain separated from the fields.

From the start a group of about 6 or 7 vanished in the distance not to be seen again. I gradually settled at the head of the 2nd group. Group being a very loose description as we too were quite strung  out. After around 10km I was catching one guy. Once past him I’d have no one to follow with lead group miles away. The organisers had provided us with some mini maps to help us through the “tricky bits” but also said that the route was way marked. I was hoping the way marking would be sufficient and I wouldn’t need the mini maps. It turned out that I met 4 moments of uncertainty along the route during which I lost some time. In 3 of the 4 cases one or more runners caught up with me before I got to check the maps so I got on my way pretty quickly again. The 4th time I did head in the wrong direction briefly. The lesson I learned from this though was that “if in doubt go straight on” as that would have been the right decision in 3 of the 4 cases. In terms of final placing it made no difference but it was a bit frustrating and disrupted my rhythm.

As with the Speyside Way run I was using a 19/1 minute run/walk strategy and stuck to it religiously confusing a few runners on the way again. At around km 20 I was caught by a runner in a cycling top with whom I continued to have a bit of a tete-a-tete up until around km 42. Every time one of us went ahead it would appear decisive. Between Catrine and Failford we were joined for a few km by a runner from Manchester. When he went ahead though, his move was decisive. It was around this time that I started to struggle a bit as we were coming up to the marathon mark. But as quickly as the struggle started did I get my second wind and with that my best part of running for the day between km  40 and km 50. The runner with the cycle top (who was being supported by his parents) started struggling at this point. I had gone ahead once again but expected him to pass me once more during my next walk break but he was nowhere to be seen. When I reached the next road crossing his dad exclaimed “Christ, you are going well”. Nice little extra boost when I was feeling great. Cycle top never caught me again. Just after that I caught up with another guy who was struggling with hamstring cramps but helped me a few minutes later when I wasn’t sure where to go. This was around 15 km from the finish and the last time I saw a runner.

Soon after this the lovely forest trails ended and we had a few km to run on tarmac which I disliked just as much as I did at Speyside. The lack of other competitors did also make me question if I was still on the right track. As we were getting closer to Ayr there were a few signs up again by the organisers pointing us in the right direction. The final few km were on a hard packed gravel path along the river before we had to cross a foot bridge and on to Dam Park Stadium where we got to run a ¾ lap of the track to celebrate the end of the run. I finished in 6:12 minutes based on the official results and in 8th place overall.

The pace turned out to be slower than expected but with lots of short, sharp ups and downs and all the gates it was difficult to keep a steady pace. They were also a contributing factor to slowing things down. I finished 48 minutes behind the winner and comparing the results to 2010 it looks like the course conditions might have been harder.

The route itself is beautiful with lots of nice scenery to admire and we had excellent weather to run in. A little bit on the warm side maybe when the sun was out – and it was out most of the time, and we did have a head wind but it all made for some great views.

I was overall really pleased with my race execution, stuck to my run walk plan, ate and drank a fair amount. I used my Nathan fuel belt which has 4x300ml bottles, 2 of which were filled with Infinit Run Energy drink (200cals per bottle) and the other 2 were filled with SIS Electrolyte Energy drink (150cals per bottle) and a Nuun tablet each. Along with that I had 4 SIS gels, several Jelly Babies and some Honey Stinger Energy Chews. At around half way I also had 2 pro plus tablets to perk me up a bit. I topped the drink up with water at the checkpoints.

Learning points from the run are that I could have done with taking on a bit more fuel in the last 60-90 minutes of the run. This is something I tend to get wrong quite often as I think I am nearly there so don’t need any more fuel. Nearly there can still be quite far especially when the speed drops in ultra-running. The other learning point as mentioned above is about navigation.

Most of the route is on narrow paths and trails which I really enjoyed. At times these were a bit overgrown which for me added to the fun, although I think others were a bit less joyful about this. Great run, great route! I would definitely pick it again.

I am likely to go for the Scottish Ultra Marathon Series in 2012 which consists of 9 ultra-marathons. River Ayr Challenge and Speyside Way Ultra are part of the Series.