This River Ayr Challenge (RAW) was my first race back after the West Highland Way Race DNF with the exception of the 10k Handicap race I did in August. The RAW is a 40 mile run from Glenbuck Reservoir to Ayr mostly along the River Ayr.

Although fully recovered I didn’t go into RAW with particularly high expectations. Work had been busy and my left foot had been plaguing me with a niggle that I couldn’t throw off. Trying to keep to my running every day for a year challenge felt like a bit of a struggle and for the three weeks before RAW I only did my mandatory 3km daily. At one point I was tempted to write a blog on how to run a 40 miler on 3km a day.

The week leading into the race I had a bit of a cold too and I only sent my cheque off a few days before on a day when I felt reasonably good. I did say to Fiona to expect a phone call on the day as I had pulled out somewhere.

Anyway so those are my excuses out of the way. Weather forecast was good though except that we were expecting a fairly fierce headwind. This in the end didn’t turn out to be a problem as we were mostly running in the valley and the wind would blow over the top.

The race set up is that everyone goes to Ayr and then gets bussed to the start. You can though choose to go to the start (generally no parking and no facilities). We went for the latter. Fiona drove me there, dropped me off, watched me start and then went for a long cycle around East and South Ayrshire.

My plan was to go off at a conservative pace and then see what happens. Nonetheless I positioned myself towards the front at the start so as not to get too tied up with trying to get through the gates in the early part of the run (there are lots of them). I also planned to stick to my recently tested plan of running 25 minutes before taking a walk/food break.
I immediately ignored this after the first 25 minutes (the walk bit) but had some food. 25 minutes later though I had a walk break of 2-3 minutes with food and toilet stop. I had estimated that after the start there were approximately 15 runners in front of me and I let around 10 more go through during my first walk break. I settled into a nice rhythm with my 25 minutes although as always it will have irritated some runners. The walk breaks varied in length depending on what I was eating – for a gel around 1 minute, for Shot blocks up to 2 or a bit more. I had a reasonable mix of foods with me: SIS Go Gels, Shot Blocks, Jelly Babies, cereal bar(s), energy bar (which I didn’t eat) and a Nectar gel (which I hated). I also had Infinit Energy drink with me and later on would have some coke.

There were a total of 8 drop bag options and I chose to leave stuff at drop box 3, 5 and 7 (or mile 15, 25 and 35). I never picked up the drop bag at mile 35 as I still had enough with me, although the person there very kindly had it already for me (coincidental apparently, more on that later).

As usual with run/walk initially I was losing places before the momentum would start to swing my way. This definitely was the case for the first 20 miles but as with the previous time I did this race, I was enjoying the scenery running along the early part of the river as it winds its way through East Ayrshire. The run goes along quite mixed terrain from old railway tracks to single track to some boggy marshland. The river is crossed frequently with a wide variety of bridges on display. Early on the wind was noticeable as there wasn’t much of a valley to run in. Approximately 10 miles in the path suddenly turns sharp right and heads nearly vertically up to cut a more direct line over the hill top. A few kilometres later we would drop back down again. I was gradually catching up with one guy wearing a blue top who I would exchange places with for a while as I would do my walk breaks.

Just before Sorn (where I had my first drop bag) we caught up with a group of 4 other runners including Craig MacKay whom I had met for the first time at the Highland Fling. The group basically stuck together into Sorn and then split up a bit as we all dealt with our drop bags in our own way.

Out of Sorn blue T-shirt guy was ahead and I had a bit of a slow restart sorting some stuff out and having some food. I caught him again at the foot bridge in Catrine. He looked lost. I pointed him in the right direction and we ran through Catrine together. Catrine was the first place where I got lost last year so it was good to know and remember where to go. I started to feel very good here and was picking up the pace. Blue-t-shirt guy stayed with me and we ran past a group of three others who had started ahead of us including 2nd female. The guy in the blue top was obviously worried about getting lost again as when I had my next walk break he stayed behind me. I wasn’t trying to shake him off but once I got going again a gap opened and by the time I had my next walk break he was neither behind me nor did he come past me. I did worry a bit that he would get lost again but he finished about 2 places behind me so all was good.

I had found my groove though and my early conservatism was out of the window. I was coming through some of the sectors of the course that I really enjoyed the previous year, half way up the valley on planked paths running up and down short climbs. Popped out at Haugh Farm (Checkpoint 4) and saw another runner walking ahead of me. Thought I’d overtake him a few moments later, it took over 10km to finally get in front of him – he was just having a food break out of a checkpoint – so walking for a reason not because he had to, just like my walk breaks. He actually caught up with the top female just ahead and they ran together while I was run/walking a safe distance behind them.

Around this time as we headed into the fields and woods section before getting to Failford I had my one low point of the run. Remarkably it was nearly the same spot as last year. I took some Pro Plus and a couple of Paracetamol and ate three shot blocks. I got going again before I was caught by blue-t-shirt guy. This section is a bit strange, it actually feels a bit dark and lost. I popped out into Failford (there’s a short road descent here which gives you a nice boost), grabbed my second drop bag which included my first coke bottle (250ml) and got going again, 25 miles now in the bag. Once I left Failford spirits were back to normal (Pro Plus had kicked in) and I was closing in on the guy I had been chasing for the best part of the last 10k and the female leader Rosie Bell. At a path junction which doesn’t make it 100 % clear if it is straight on or left the guy went straight on. Rosie and I both indicated to him that it is down to the left and off we dashed – and I was ahead of them.

My pace was that good at this point that by the time I had my next walk break they weren’t to be seen anymore. Last year I had a blast of a run from here to roughly Tarholm Bridge. This year turned out to be similar. There was one interruption to this though – a diversion through a cow field. It slowed me down but it didn’t change how good my run felt. The cow field was something different though. Due to a landslip they had to divert the route so it went round the outside if this farm into a cow field and up a steep slope. It was the boggiest and muddiest part of the whole run. I was even less impressed when I saw that the cows were guarding the exit of the field. Half way up though was a water trough which was half in the field/half outside the field, hedge either side and a barbed wire running through it. I decided I could scale it climb over the fence and jump onto the rode on the other side. It worked, “up yours cows”, I thought! The rest of the diversion was fine.

Got back onto the real path soon and I have to mention at this point that the trimming job the organisers had made along the route was fantastic. Just after Stair there was a section last year which I dubbed “nettle alley”. No nettles this year although there were some rather deep puddles but they were useful to wash the mud off from the cow field.

The run got very quiet after this. I caught up with one more guy (Phil Humphries) at Annbank, we briefly got lost together, in a spot I managed to get lost the previous year. Doh’! and I think the only place where another marker is needed otherwise the route is really well marked. Thankfully the owner of the property, whose drive we were running up, put us right.

The rest of the run was uneventful in the sense of: I felt good, I continued to feel good, I was still feeling good … I’d crossed the finish line. When you are feeling good there is actually not that much to report, except for enjoying the scenery and the running and the weather all of which was great.

A couple of things though: Coming up to the seventh checkpoint I had already decided that I didn’t need the contents of my drop bag and felt a bit embarrassed that the woman who was manning the checkpoint had it all ready for me. Apparently though she was just sorting the bags out in order for the runners coming in, had picked up bag number 85, looked up and there was runner number 85 (me) approaching. What a coincidence!
Over the last few checkpoints a guy who was obviously out supporting one of the other runners regularly said to me that I was still looking good. When I came past him at checkpoint 8 I had to say to him that I was still feeling really good too. Last year after checkpoint 8 with approximately 5 miles still to go my form and pace and everything went downhill badly. This year I came through checkpoint 8 strong and kept form and pace through to the finish. I thought I had caught a glimpse of the guy ahead of me around that point but never saw him again until the finish. Last year the final kms where a huge drag and seemed to go on forever. This year everything seemed to turn up really quickly. Having been there before does help a lot.

The finish had been moved from where it was last year making the route approximately 1km longer (it had actually gone back to the finish from 2 years ago). I came past last year’s finish 3 min faster and reached this year’s finish in 6:15 hours having done pretty well in forging a way through the shoppers in Ayr’s city centre. I was expecting to finish somewhere just outside the top 10 and was very surprised when I was told I was 6th. I didn’t think I had overtaken that many runners after my walk breaks.

This turned out to be the best ultra I had run to date: Pacing was good throughout, walk breaks worked well – especially as there was no pressure to restart, nutrition worked exceptionally well (I had roughly 90-100 calories every 25 minutes and never got fed up with the food choices I had on offer).

A great day’s racing and it goes to show what you can achieve when the pressure is off.
Recovery from the event was swift too. Did an easy 3k the next day and was back out running proper 48 hours after the event. Next event now is the Pentland Skyline which is a 25km fell race on October 14.