Compared to my recent outings on the ultramarathon race scene I was planning to make some changes to my race plan. These were mostly nutrition based and also around when I would plan my feed/walk breaks.

Over those last races I had a system of feeding every 25 minutes and also using this as an opportunity to walk. The walk break would last as long as it took me to eat. I’d eat a mixture of gels, energy chews, cereal bars and jelly babies. This system worked well as the regularity of the feed meant that I could keep energy/sugar lows under control.

In recent months I have been trying to practice with a more paleo and low carb nutrition approach and wanted to bring this into my racing too. I had success with this in my 2 back to back training weekends on the West Highland Way and on the Cateran Trail (Follow the links for reports on these).

The way the weather was looking I would also be able to learn to improve on how to deal with challenging weather conditions. The forecast was for a potentially dry but very windy warning with heavy rain in the afternoon accompanied by the same wind. The temperature forecast was reasonably warm (over 10 degrees) which should at least mean that I wouldn’t get as cold as at the D33 a couple of month earlier. But then this race is longer (55 instead of 33 miles) and memories of last year’s WHW race could come back to haunt me where temperatures were just under 10 degrees but 14 hours of torrential rain and wind took its toll.

We drove up on Friday night and stayed at the Braemar youth hostel as I had been too late to book into the Spittal of Glenshee hotel where the race HQ is. They do a special deal for the race at 2 nights for the price of 1. Dinner was sausages, carrots, leeks, onions and potatoes and a couple of beers. The hostel warden commented that this didn’t seem a typical long distance runners meal.

We got up next morning to a bacon and egg breakfast and drove over to Spittal, registered and were ready to be walked over to the race start just after 6:30am. I was still quite sleepy and the wind made everyone feel the cold. I had high hopes for this race. It had a small field and I secretly was thinking I could get a top 5 finish or maybe even better. The top 2 podium places would definitely be going to Donnie Campbell and Mike Raffan in that order. It turned out that way too.

The gun (or Karen’s 3, 2, 1, go) went at 7am and I initially settled in 3rd dropping back to 5th swiftly. With my ambition though for a top finish I definitely went off too fast but was struggling to control my speed over the first hour covering the first 10k to checkpoint one in 50 min. Nonetheless I still dropped to 9th by the time I was through checkpoint 1.

Cold Start! (photo by Julia Simpson)

Having stood around at the start feeling extremely cold in the wind that was blasting us at 20-30 mph the sun came out just after we started and it started to feel decidedly warm, too warm dare I say. I started the race in a t-shirt, arm warmers, and a windproof on my top and compression tights, compression socks and shorts on my legs. It wouldn’t take long for me to start over heating and I was not the only one. I was dressed for the forecasted wind and heavy rain and not wind and sunshine. I was told after the race that temperatures had gone up to nearly 20 degrees at one point.

Once I’d let a few runners drift away from me after checkpoint one I tried to settle into a comfortable pace and get into my planned run/walk rhythm and start feeding. Compared to the above mentioned foods I was today feeding on chorizo, bacon, cocktail sausages and potato scones. Along with those I also had some 9 bars (seed bars). With the exception of the cocktail sausages everything had been tried and tested in training. Oddly though the only thing I didn’t struggle with were the chorizo pieces. Nonetheless I did eat most of my foods though grabbing 2-3 pieces every 30 min. Between km 15-18 I ran with Phil Humphries for a bit but then let him drift away so that I could stick with my plan. If things went to plan I would see him again.

Coming into Checkpoint 2 – (photo by Victoria Farron Perry)

The 2nd checkpoint was at Kirkton of Glenisla after about 20 miles. I ran straight through this one too re-passing a couple of runners who had passed me on the last section. My first checkpoint stop was to be Den of Alyth. Although the weather was too hot it was great to be running in such fine conditions, the wind being the only thing that was troubling us. It was a direct headwind for about 5km after the first checkpoint and then again half way to Den of Alyth. In the first half though we also had a lot of tailwind. The worst head wind was to come in the last five miles when we would also have to deal with the last climb which would take us over the highest point of the race.

Overall I felt I was running pretty well, just not as fast as others around me. I had gradually dropped to 15th and briefly regained a few places at the second checkpoint. I didn’t seem to be descending well. This may be because I had picked up my old pair of trainers which are a bit too worn out or it was because of an aching tendon which has been bothering me over recent weeks. As the race went on descending got better though as I got more used to both issues.

The first time that I started feeling that things were starting to click was going up the gradual climb before you drop down to Alyth. I seemed to be gaining on the guy ahead and runners behind me weren’t closing in anymore. This only lasted to the descent though as they made better work of that.

The way I dealt with checkpoints though was a winner. I came into Den of Alyth together with 3 others. I left Den of Alyth on my own with the others still at the checkpoint. For me they are not places to hang around. I usually have a bottle to replace and a zip lock bag to replace, would have these ready to be handed over, get my drop bag with the new bottle and zip lock bag. Once those are back in the front pockets of my Salomon S-Lab and the bottles in my fuel belt refilled I am off. Max stay 1-2 min. I’d only eat around the checkpoint if it coincides with a scheduled feed. There were 6 checkpoints in the Cateran race. I only had a drop bag at checkpoint 3 and 5. In both cases I passed three runners whilst at the checkpoint. I briefly stopped at checkpoint 4 to refill my fuel belt bottles and passed a couple of runners there too. I ran through checkpoint 6 which was the last time I passed a runner before the finish.

From checkpoint 4 at Blairgowrie where I got some encouraging words from Sandra and Bill things started to luck better. I was moving back into the top 10 and feeling stronger. The weather on the other hand was changing for the worse. I was expecting more of a headwind as we were starting to turn north. Just before Blairgowrie we got the first spots of rain. This wasn’t substantial enough for me to change into wet weather kit and it seemed too warm for this also. I powered up the short climbs after Blairgowrie passing one runner as the rain started getting stronger. There were 4 of us now not far from each other and a sub 10 place seemed close but never quite happened.

During a longer climb through a couple of farms up to the moorland before Bridge of Cally I decided that the rain and wind were strong enough for the rain jacket to come out. I had also cooled down enough. The other runners were already wearing theirs. The moorland section was in much better condition than it had been during the recce a few weeks ago and great to run along. The group I was with was spread out but all in sight. Bridge Of Cally Checkpoint was the other checkpoint I had food and drink to pick up. I also had spare gloves and another baselayer in my drop bag there but asked the marshals if they could take those back to base as I wouldn’t need them. Within less than 2 minutes I was again powering up the long climb out of Bridge of Cally. I was now back in the top 10 and feeling good. It was at Bridge of Cally that I repassed Phill Humphries who I had run with around mile 10.

Derek who was with me early on and then ran away was just up ahead. He had been struggling after Den of Alyth but then refound his form to come past me through just before the moorland. As I now could see him up ahead again I was secretly hoping that he was flagging a second time. From our chat after the race he was well aware that I was breathing down his neck. It kept us both going. I was also aware that Phil may be going well behind me and when approaching the last hill I could see Phil and one other runner up behind me. So I had both a target and a chaser. I never caught the target and was never chased down. It is nice to have some virtual company in the latter stages of a 50 plus miler though as it can be a bit lonely out there at times.

The route after Bridge of Cally is quiet, beautiful and remote with a good mix of trail, land rover tracks and a very small bit of road. After Enochdu which is the final checkpoint which is roughly 6 miles from the finish the route goes over a 650m high pass leaving you with a final 1 mile descent.

Mile 45 approximately (photo by Helen Munro)

The climb itself is fantastic but was made very challenging with the winds we were having. There are a number of sections where the path flattens out enough to make it runnable but the wind was straight in your face and the runnable sections felt like going steep uphill so I was reduced to power walking these too.

One of my pre-race targets was to get under 10 hours for the run. The clock struck 10 hours as I went over the top of the pass and the I finished in 10:14 hours. It is safe to say that the wind had a part in slowing all of us down a bit except for Donnie who ran a new course record. And with this in mind I am very pleased with the time. I finished in 8th place with only small gaps to the runners ahead of me. On a better weather day I believe I could go under 10 hours on that course.

The course itself is very runnable in a lot of sections with just a few substantial climbs. I really enjoyed the route itself as it is nice and quiet. I prefer it to the West Highland Way route as you hear traffic there far too much. Here all you hear is nature.

Things that influenced my race:

–          Early pacing: I have no doubt I went off too fast in the belief I could hold a top five from the off. I paid for that in most of the first half until I managed to settle everything down, let the legs find there pace and just find my rhythm.

–          Weather – heat, wind and rain: One of the thing I got wrong early as most runners did was clothing as it turned out to be much warmer than expected. As mentioned I had dressed for cold, wet and windy. Early on I also started getting a head ache which doesn’t usually happen to me. I didn’t drink enough during the first half as I usually only drink when I have something to eat – so approximately every 30 min. From Den of Alyth onwards I would start drinking more regularly and refilling my water bottles and later on my headache faded away. It was a bit of a bother but didn’t actually have an effect on the race itself.

–          The rain didn’t affect the race to the degree I expected as we never got the forecasted continuous heavy rain. I basically ran through 2 15-20 min heavy showers. I was much more plagued by the wind and had to concede at one point that a cap on head and cross winds was actually slowing me down. Luckily it would fit very nicely in one of my bottle holders.

–          Feeding every 30 min worked fine. Various foods didn’t work as well as I had expected: cocktail sausages – too dry, bacon – too chewy, potato scones – too dry. Chorizo and 9 bars were good. In the 2nd half I also had 2x250ml bottles of flat coke.

–          Even with the above food assessment I did eat most of the food I had taken with me so managed to keep my calorie intake regular.

–          Did the low carb approach work: This is difficult to say as there were a whole host of elements effecting my race, especially in the first half (heat and pace in particular). What I believe did work is that I didn’t have any emotional lows but felt reasonably good throughout. An experience that I also had during my run up the West Highland Way over Easter. So I don’t know if it makes me run faster but it makes me feel better throughout which most likely makes me run better.

I am tempted to run the Transvulcania Race in May 2014 so would have to give Cateran 55 a miss if I do. Would definitely give this race a big thumbs up though. Great route, great organization and it ends outside a pub.