Sunday, 3 November 2013

River Ayr Way Challenge 2013 : Race Report

In 2010 the 41 mile River Ayr Way Challenge (RAW) was my second ultra marathon, and my first one of decent length, and each subsequent year I've wanted to return but have been unable due to injury or being otherwise occupied.  After having a great race at this year's Devil O'the Highlands I was keen for another challenge and returning to this years RAW 6 weeks later was a perfect fit.  To make things more interesting this year the race was being run in reverse, from the coast at Ayr upstream and uphill to Glenbuck Loch 41 miles away and 900 ft higher with lots of little ups and downs in between.

Recovery, Training, Taper

The Devil O' the Highlands Race took a lot out of me, and my subsequent recovery was very slow. I struggled to walk down stairs for whole week afterwards, and the top of my right foot remained painful two weeks afterwards.  After two week off I had four weeks till the RAW, so was keen to get back training to give myself a chance of running a decent race.  However, one week into very gently training my foot was still not settling so I popped along to my local physio who suggested the top of my right foot was just inflamed tendons and should be safe to train on as long as I ramped training up gently. This first week back I felt really unfit, even short gentle runs left me sore with DOMS the next day, it really felt like the Devil had reset my fitness to zero.

The second week I was out in Germany giving a training course, this gave me time in the evenings to head out for run most days.  My foot was still a little uncomfortable during my runs but gave me little concern, and I found my fitness returning and able to cruise along comfortably.  Once back in the UK and with less two weeks to go I ramped up the training putting in a 12 miler and hilly 15 miler with only a day rest in between.  This was a bit too quick a ramp up as I started the 15 miler suffering with DOMs from the 12 miler, in particular my right knee was sore, this wore off, but I definitely got warning shot that I was running a longer session too soon.   Subsequent days afterwards my right knee was tender so aimed to rest it, but then strained it doing some bowling with the family!#!  6 days before race day I'd turned a niggle into a small injury.

The final week before the RAW was taper week so I just ran one 6 mile loop at 9 min/mile pace to test out the knee and practice race pace.  The knee was a little sore but on the mend and the rest of me felt pretty comfortable, and importantly race pace felt like something I could contemplate doing for 41 miles - my good performance at this years Devil O' Highland Race has definitely has given far more confidence in keeping this easy pace up throughout the race.  With walking breaks on hills and stops at checkpoints I'd guess that on race day I should be able to look around 10 min/mile pace.

The last few days before the RAW I started eating breakfast to up the carb intake a little for race day, but otherwise didn't specifically carbo load.  In the last three days of taper week I drank a litre of beetroot juice to help top up the nitrate levels and improve circulation on race day.  I reviewed the route and created two laminated A4 sheets with the maps for the route and got all my kit ready on the Friday afternoon so that I could relax in the evening.

Reviewing my training logs, in particular the HR for a given pace and calories/per mile it was clear that I wasn't quite in the shape I was before the Devil, but should still be capable of time around 6:45 to 7:30.  I had recalibrated my time estimation formula's after doing so well with the Devil so didn't expect big surprises this time.   To quote my blog entry "River Ayr Way Challenge Q&A" that I posted the day before the race:

"The goals I'll set myself are: Gold sub 6:45, Silver sub 7:00, Broze sub 7:30.  I'm not really too fused about time though, if I run well and enjoy the day I'll be chuffed to bits."

Race Day

I got a couple hours sleep waking at 3am, it was too early to get up so I just rested and looked forward to the day.  Once up I made myself a breakfast of scrambled eggs, salad and a glass of beetroot juice - exactly the same low carb breakfast that I had before the Devil.  When something goes right don't change a thing!

My support for the day, Maz Frater, arrived to pick me up and bundled me into the car and off we headed into the sunrise, with blue sky above and sunny forecast promised a good day out, such a contrast to the low clouds, strong winds and lashing rain of the the Devil.

View from bridge near start, looking back towards the Citidel

We arrived at the Citidel in Ayr with plenty of time, registered and got ready.  Maz freaked out when I put on my new Nike toes socks, funny how toe socks can provoke such an entertaining reaction :-)

Race Start

For the race start we were led from the Citidel, over the first bridge and then assembled a car park next to the river.  There was a briefing but as I was near the back of the assembled runners didn't hear too much, then suddenly we were off, catching me off guard - second time in a row that I've been caught dawdling at the start.

Start to Oswald'd Brig : 40 minutes, Distance ~5 miles

Once I got going I started my phone's GPS software to track the run, and pressed start on my Heat Rate (HR) monitor, but no reading - it then dawned on me that I had forgotten to put on my HR strap while faffing about at car.  As Maz was doing support along route I was asked her to track down the strap and give me it on-route. My plan was to pace by HR like I did with success at the Devil O'Highlands race, with the HR monitor I aimed to take it easy looking to average around 9 minute/mile pace for the initial flat section.

Starting at the back I steadily my way through the field and then feel in step with a fellow veteran of the RAW and we chatted all the way through the first check point.  I looked down at my watch and was a bit shocked to see 40 minutes, 5 minutes up on my fast start splits, this alarmed me till I realized that we had walked up the road and over the first bridge to start rather than at the Citadel, cutting roughly a quarter mile off the total distance, so while still a bit fast at around 8 min/mile pace it wasn't too foolhardy.

Oswald's Brig to Tarholm Bridge : 21:33 minutes, Elapsed 1:01:14, Distance 7.21 miles

After the first check-point the route leaves the road and become a forest track and river path most of the way to Annbank.  My companion decided to ease off on the pace so I moved ahead on my own. Shortly before Annbank I met Maz at the second check point and picked up my HR monitor.  On switching it on it immediately read out a HR of 161, oops just an hour in the race and I was already over my target HR.  My aim was to aim for an average HR of 160 for the day, but holding it down to 160 required me to keep a much tighter reign on my pace than I had for the first hour - while it wasn't hot it was clear the bright sunshine was adding extra work to keep myself cool, it seems all my adaptations to the heat of Spain 8 weeks on have departed.

Tarholm Bridge to Annbank : 22:22min,  Elapsed 1:23:37, Distance 9.44 miles

At Annbank I met Maz again, picked up my drop bag with milk shake, banana and liquish and quickly moved through.  On the way to Stair the field was quite spread out so for long stretches I was running on my own. I would slowly reel in runner, catch up then chat for a minute or two then moving ahead.

Annbank to Stair (path junction with road) : 21:43 min, Elapsed 1:45:30, Distance 11.71 miles

On the section to I was now catching runners at a much faster rate, I felt really comfortable and running smoothly but my HR monitor kept challenging me on how hard my body was working vs my perception, I felt it was easy, my HR monitor saying slow down.  I convinced myself that it was just a warm day so my HR would naturally be HR so allowed myself a bit more headroom, allowing my HR to climb up to 160-165 range.  Whether it was a risk or sensible adjustment only time would tell...

Stair to Failford : 40:46 min, Elapsed 2:26:16, Distance 15.45 miles

I passed through the Failford check point just before Maz arrived who was walking up the road ahead of me.  She had a chance to turnaround and snap a picture before I was off.  I'm afraid being a support crew isn't the most sociable of duties.

Passing through check point at
I kept catching runners ahead, sometimes it would take me a long time to reel them in, other's I'd close more quickly as they took walking breaks.  I was taken aback to catch Caroline McKay who was walking.  I stopped and walked with her for a minute to two, long enough to find out that she was injured and pulling out, this was heart breaking to hear as I knew that if had put away a good performance at the RAW there was a good chance of here winning the SUMS series.  I continued on my way and took a couple of minutes to regain my race focus, then I was back to spotting runners ahead and aiming to catch them - as fast as my HR monitor would allow me!

Failford to Haugh Farm : 33:48 mins, Elapsed 3:00:05, Distance 19.08 miles

At the Haugh Farm check point I picked up my second drop bag and left at the same time as Craig MacKay, we fell in step and started chatting.  We had met a few years before at the Lochalsh Dirty 30, then it was both our first Ultra, we continued chatting avidly all the way to Catrine. Despite both of us having run the RAW before we missed the left turning across the foot bridge and ended up on a main road in Catrine, but not any where we recognized.

Haugh Farm to Catrine : 28:33 mins, Elapsed 3:39:39, Distance 21.72 miles

Confused we stopped at looked around, nothing was familiar, we started to run straight over the road but my spider senses shouted out that it was the wrong direction.  I go my map out and while I couldn't spot exactly where we were guessed that we needed to hear left.  We arrived at the next junction still a bit confused before I spotted the main bridge over the river, turns out that we were the wrong side of the river so had to head back left again over the bridge and then finally rejoined the race route.  We passed through Catrine without passing the check-point, but as we had already lots a couple of minutes just headed on along the route.

Missing the check-point turned out to be a bit of problem for poor Maz, who had arrived at the check-point intending to meet me and waited with the marshal insisting I must still be on route.  A couple of hours passed before Maz could convince the Marshal that I must have passed or pulled out and asked to find out if I had passed the next check point.  There didn't seem to be any system in place to get this information relayed so it took a while before Maz felt sure it was appropriate to move on.

Catrine to Sorn : 21:30 mins, Elapsed 3:50:10, Distance 24:04 miles

I ran with Craig through to Sorn ever mindful of the fact that I was often on the upper end of my newly increased HR range, but was having too much fun to heed the warning.  We passed the check point at Sorn Main Bridge but was so busy chatting that I didn't stop and fill up my bottles that were now empty, shortly after passing through I found myself getting thirsty and kicked myself for not being more disciplined about getting more water.  At the far end of Sorn we spotted Donald Sandeman in his tartan shorts and caught up shortly after.

Having missed Maz at Catrine and Sorn I tried to phone but without reception just had to I hope that she'd guess that I was moving well and within my estimated splits and would head up to the next check point. With no means of contact I just had to get on with my race.

A couple of miles out from Sorn Craig began to go quieter, and rather than leading as he often had earlier was now letting me dictate the pace.  Craig was having to dig deep, having run 70 miles the previous weekend at the Glenmore 24 it was a miracle has was running at all.  We passed the marathon point in 4:10, just a bit more than half marathon left to go.  Shortly after Craig reported that he was struggling and needed to back off and left me to head off on my own.

I was moving well and keeping up pace around 9 to 10 minute mile pace and feeling confident, then only a mile short of the next check-point a first warning short hit.  When I crossed a style a short cramp shot down my left calf.  This was as much as mental knock as it was physical.  I have now had to manage cramp quite a few times in races so know what I have to do - back off the pace, keep the HR down.  It was really frustrating as I felt strong, plenty of energy, I could see runners ahead too, if only my cramp would melt away I would catch them.

On one decent just before the checkpoint I glimpsed a runner a minute or so back moving well, I assumed it was Craig having a second wind so was chuffed to he was still moving well.  Later I was to find out it wasn't Craig.

Sorn to North Limmerhaugh (Fisherman's Bridge) 57:56mins, Elapsed 4:48:07, 29.63 miles 

I arrived at North Limmerhaugh and Maz wasn't around and hadn't been seen.  I unpacked my supplies from my drop bag and tried to phone but again no reception.  I couldn't do anything more than continue on.

I over took a runner that was now walking shortly after the checkpoint, other runners were ahead in the distance. Thoughts of catching them were curtailed by twinges of cramp in my calves that came when I pushed on too hard, too hard begin anything faster than 10 min/mile pace, this was frustrating as my energy levels were good and my legs generally felt strong and capable of going faster, but you can't fight cramp.

With 10 miles to go I resigned myself to maintenance mode, I drank consistently to make up with the lack of water in the previous hour, I took S-caps as I had been doing ever couple of hours, I kept eating moderately and I kept my HR and pace down, walking the steeper of the little hillocks along the trail but gingerly running the rest of the trail.  I was averaging just 11 min/miles but it sure was better than walking.

Whilst climbing a bridge across the river I glanced over my shoulder to see that the runner that I had seen behind four miles earlier was still there but now less than a 100m's.  Looking at race results I think it was probably Graeme Dunbar.  Graeme was moving well and inching closer with each mile.  Despite the cramp I was now in race mode, I was now lying in 9th and for sure didn't want to squander a place.

Fisherman's Bridge to A70 crossing: 33:24mins, Elapsed 5:22:05, 32.64 miles

I crossed over the A70 a couple and filled my bottles at the checkpoint and got on as quickly as I could aware that Graeme wasn't far behind.  The route then along the edge of a short bit of woodland then path peters out a bit and becomes a bit intermittent of where to go.  A runner 50m ahead had gone right onto a small ridge line but my gut instinct told me to head on down as I knew we should be running along the river again for this section.  My hunch was right and I rejoined the official trail and called the other runner down who was now backtracking.  He rejoined the path behind me so I gained another place it.

The trail around the river was quite muddy in places and passed a group of mountain bikers who were having fun in it.  They kindly stopped and let me past.  I was wary of every step trying to stay as relaxed and consistent as I could to avoid cramp, rather difficult on uneven and muddy ground.  The route then climbed up away from the river and got drier but with the gentle climb my calves started more fleeting cramps, and finally I had a full cramp in my left calf and was forced to stop stretch and walk it off.  At this month Graeme cruised passed effortlessly.  I could do nothing about it, my heart was in it but will no amount of will power can switch off cramp.

The cramp eased off and and once the route joined on old railway track I was able to get back into a gentle run, the consistent and flat trail allowed me to coax my body up to about 10:30min/mile pace. Graeme had now over a 100m lead and still moving away but I wasn't going to give in.

A70 to Kames car park, Muirkirk, 38:42 mins, Elapsed 6:00:42, Distance 36.4miles

Finally I got reception on my phone and spoke to Maz, she had conflicting reports so had headed up towards the finish.  I took a couple of phone calls on the run to establish where to meet next, and a few minutes later we finally me at up at the Kames car park near Muirkirk. I refilled my bottles and headed on.  Maz took lots of photo over the next minute and cheered us on to catch Graeme and another runner 100 meters ahead whom Graeme had quickly passed.

Shortly after Kames the route rejoins the old railway line then comes to path junction, but I couldn't find any River Ayr Way markers, race markers or any signs, it was just a small path while the railway line still had a path on it.  The runner ahead, from the race results it I'd guess it was Alastair Bloxham, had chosen to stick with the railway line and I followed for 30 metres before getting my map out and decide that the path was probably the correct route so I back tracked.  Once on the path it felt right and further up I passed a farmers gate to the field with railway line to the right, Alastair had now figured out that something was wrong and had descended down to gate.  I suggested that the path was probably correct and he joined it just behind me.

With Alastair not far behind I tried to keep the pace up as much as I felt was possible with cramp never too far away.  The route then briefly joins a road goes uphill to rejoin the railway track and here I decided to walk to avoid cramp.  The gap I had built up disappeared rapidly but I knew that it was better to loose a place than risk bringing on another full cramp.  With Alastair right on my heels we turned off the road onto short undulating path that take you up to the railway track, here we catch up with Graeme who has just been hit by cramp and now reduced to walking.

Once we are back on the railway track the flat and even surface allows me to fine tune my running gait and pace so that I running smoothly and as fast as I can without cramping up.  Twinges of cramp surfaced any time I push it too fast.  I am able to maintain 9:40 min/miles, I don't look over my shoulder and just keep focused on my own running.  It seems like to take forever running along the track towards the hills above the finish, the hills just don't seem to get any closer.

A mile out from the finish and in the middle of farmers field I see Maz standing, playing her Bagpipes. After nearly 40 miles of running it's a great pick me up, heartily amused and silly grin on my face I head on while Maz jumps back in the car to head to the finish.

I cross the A70 and the join the road up to the finish.  It's uphill but I still feel strong and energy left so try to push on for a good finish, but within a minute I get a full cramp in my calf and have to walk it off for a few strides.   The sound of bag pipes resonates through the woodland, I can hear the finish even if I can't yet see it.

The cramp eases off and allows me to run once more.  I make it to the final straight, pass Maz and try to muster a fast finish but again cramp hits so I complete the race with face contorted up in pain.

Finish 7th placed overall, 2nd male vet, Elapsed 39.89 miles, 6:46:58

I hang around at the finish for quarter of an hour to see Alastair, then Graeme finish in 6:53 and 6:54 respectively. Just as we were about to drive away for me to get showered and changed Craig Mackay and Donald Sandeman cross the line together in with a time of 6:59:00.  Craig struggled after dropping behind, was overtaken by Donald but then had a second wind and they finished together.  Donald got a sub 7 hour time for the first time, an excellent achievement as this years direction change meant a net 900ft climb rather than descent.

Showers were graciously provided by the Muirkirk caravan park, so while I made myself human Maz headed to the bar with the ladies winner Kathy Henly, who finished 7 minutes before me, and Caroline McKay who was staying for the SUMS prize giving.  Cleaned up I joined the girls at the bar for a very welcome pot of tea.  It was tempting to stay for the party but the lure of rejoining my family back in Callander was too strong so we headed home.

I'll close by saying a big thanks to the organizers and marshals on the day, it made for a really friendly and enjoyable day out.  Organizing such brilliant weather was just amazing.  Special thanks to Maz too, being driven to and far the event, and being pipped in at the finish make for great memories.

Full race results can be found on my previous post River Ayr Way Challanege 2013 Race Results.

My trusty F-Lite 232's that carried me all the way, might be muddy but still my favourite shoe!


  1. Not a bad race running purely on the fumes of previous training. I guess the cramps might have been a sign of eroding fitness, but since you are smiling broadly in all the photos I'd wager a guess that you had lots of fun.

    You still owe us a post outlining all the HR-base racing stuff!

  2. My RAW report was rather over due... finished the write up after finishing the Jedburgh 3 Peaks Ultra (Sunday 27th October)... so definitely a backlog, work and home DIY projects are rather competing for my time.

    In the last 9 miles of the Jedburgh Ultra I also suffered from a bit of cramp although not half as bad as during the RAW and the Devil. I had been able to fit in more training before the Jedburgh Ultra which certainly helped, but alas didn't cure all my cramp problems. I take electrolytes during races (S-caps) and have been supplementing with magnesium during training but still the cramps come. With experience I have become better at managing cramp during races so have been able to keep moving, albeit losing around minute a mile in pace.

    Despite the cramp issues I'm still finishing stronger than most competitors around me which can't be done to better training, as for most of this my training had really been compromised through the spring and early summer. I believe a change in diet from quite high carb and modest fat, to moderate in carbs, moderate/high in fat has helped with my ability to keep moving well late on in races.

    The other big factor is that Pacing by HR monitor has ensured that I'm not starting off too fast and instead have a pace that is far more even throughout the race. I still slow through the race but it's now in the 5 to 10% range rather than the 30%+ range that it used to be. My pacing profile during the Devil was very similar (less than a 1 percentage different) to this year's and previous winners so I believe that racing by HR has lead me to pace like the best of the elites when they have a good day. I don't think this is just co-incidence, to me it suggests that the best of elites when they run well are able to manage a very even effort level throughout the race. There are lots of factors in this - which deserves dedicated blog post on it and I will writing it all up. Work and DIY projects will have to take precedence though, so please be patient :-)

    And ohh, yes I did have lots of fun, the great weather during the RAW certainly helped! I've really enjoyed all my ultra this year, my diet and pacing strategies looked to help improve my performances significantly, but done the easy way - I don't really start to dig in until the last quarter of the races I've done, the rest of the race is just a warm up while I enjoy the view and steadily move through the field chatting to folk as I go.

  3. You are running extremely well. Improved ability to utilize fats is almost certainly a major factor. It is intriguing to speculate on the relative contributions to you improvement from the increased fat content of your diet and from training in a fasted state. I certainly believe that a moderately high fat proportion and modest amount of carbohydrate is beneficial for an endurance athlete. While I continue to be concerned about the risk of chronic inflammation as a result of training in a fasted state when training hard, I am inclined to think that if you have only very limited opportunity to train, training in a fasted state might be worthwhile as the potential benefit of increased capacity to utilise fats might outweigh the risk of chronic inflammation in this situation.