Thursday, 27 March 2014

Loch Katrine Marathon : Race/Training Run Report

The Loch Katrine Marathon is my fourth marathon, but for the first time I was running a marathon as a training run, as part of my build up to doing the West Highland Way Race in June.  My main goal for the race was to provide a training effect of improving the structural resilience of my muscles, ligament, tendons and bones and enhancing my metabolic resilience by training my muscles to burn primarily fats for fuel.

Training vs Racing and Expectations

The training goal meant running a measured race, hard enough to provide a good training stimulus, but not so hard to require weeks of recovery - I wanted to back doing normal training within a week of the race.  As it was primarily for training I didn't do the usual taper,  in fact originally I hadn't planned to taper at all except for a couple of days of taking it easy, but after put in my longest ever training week of 65 miles the previous week my my muscles were feeling rather fatigued and achy so decided upon a five day taper where I did three 4 mile recovery runs and had two rest days where I just did a short walk.  The purpose of this short taper was to freshen myself up and make sure I could run a good marathon, and thus maximize the training effect I could get from it.

A secondary goal was lurking behind the scenes I had already put in quite a few miles in training so far this year, and while I had a few mixed signals about my fitness I had the feeling that I could have a good stab at setting a new personal best without needing to push too hard.  I set my marathon PB of 3:32:26 at the Edinburgh Marathon in 2010, something I tried to beat at the Kielder Marathon in 2011 and 2012 but failed on both occasions, crashing and burning in the last six miles, recording times of 3:54:59 and 3:36:34 respectively.  Loch Katrine is even hillier than the Kielder Marathon course, but  after doing well in the Devil, RAW and Jedburgh 3 Peaks Ultras last Autumn I felt that I was no longer the same athlete, my fat burning capacity had improved, my legs are now toughened up and crucially I am now more experienced and better at managing pace.

Using my training logs, calibrated to previous races, I had a range of estimates of what time I might be able to do and at what level of intensity, if I were to match the fitness of my better recent training runs then a time of 3:30 with an average HR of around 161 look possible.  My average HR for previous marathon had been in the 169-171 range, so 161 looked like a reasonable easing back.  My training had been mixed though, my heart rate drift on longer runs had been low, but my resting HR has been elevated and the calories per mile reported by the HR monitor hasn't that great so I wasn't confident in the predictions and really didn't know what to expect.

Race day

The morning of the race dawned clear and frosty.  I had struggled to sleep through the night, only falling to sleep around a hour and half before I had to rise, and the short sleep I did get was restless.  My body just didn't want to shut down, I felt hot and couldn't get comfortable, it was like my blood chemistry was set up to keep me awake.  When the alarm went off a 6:00 am I got up and hobbled down the stairs with my right knee painful and feeling unstable, it had been fine the afternoon before, taper madness?   Not a good sign, but made worse by seeing my that I had the ashen complexion of vampire victim drained of blood?!  I am used to pre-race nerves but this was quite bizarre.

The marathon happening even if my body had just checked out of the morgue so I made myself my now customary scrambled eggs, oat cakes and beetroot juice drink for breakfast.  A cup of tea helped too, by the time I was ready to leave at 7:10am I had some semblance of readiness.   I headed out into the clear frosty morning to catch my lift to the start (thanks Caroline, Paddy and Chris :-)

We arrived nice and early, sat by the fire at the cafe with hot drinks and swapped ultra-marathon/marathon stories, marathon first timer Chris and I registered and headed down to the start to join the other hundred or so runners lining up for the marathon.

Runners assembling
I spotted a number of ultra-marathon regulars at the start by the harbour, wished them good luck and settled in a few rows back from the start.

Race briefing from race director Audrey McIntosh

Race begins, without the racing...

Just before 9:00 am we were on out way.  A few runners tore off and disappeared into the distance there but for the most part the start seemed very restrained and found myself running gently along around the middle of the park.

My pacing plan was loosely based on the online MARCO calculator, starting easy with my Heat Rate (HR) below 150 for the first two miles, aiming for 8:15 pace, and then let the pace and intensity rise a little once my muscles had warmed up and my aerobic system was fully up and running.  As the route is very hilly I planned to use my HR as a guide to what intensity to run up and down hills rather than going by feel, or trying to match those who were around me.  I expected HR drift to steadily take my HR upwards as the race progressed and expected to need to HR of around 160 by the half way point to keep my pace on target, and to progress upwards towards 170 by the end.  My overall pacing I was aiming for an even split, or perhaps slightly negative.  However, with so many hills, and my own fitness still a big unknown I was prepared to deal with whatever came good or bad.

Normally when doing marathon races I find my HR responds to the race day adrenalin and immediately spikes higher than it would in training for a given pace.  However, I found that I was moving comfortable along and my HR was comfortably staying below 150.  I went through the first two miles at 8:15 pace bang on target, far more by fluke than judgement.   The discomfort in my knee that was apparent when walking up/down stairs had largely melted away too.  Signs so far were all positive.

The views looking from south from the loch side road where stunning, Ben Venue looked glorious capped into a fresh snow, shining brightly against the clear blue sky.   I was torn whether to stop and take a photo but resisted the urge - I was supposed to be in race!  I regret now as I would have loved to be able to share just how stunning the view was.

After the first mile the route starts undulating through woodland, no big hills, but enough to start seeing patterns in pacing that various runners were adopting - using my HR monitor as I guide to keep the intensity roughly constant I found myself loosing ground going uphill, but catching up on downhills. After the second mile those around me where now running at pretty similar average speed so the juggling of places settled down and we all got on quietly with running and drinking up the view.

You have to love those hills

The route starts off quite flat for the first mile and progressively becomes more hilly so by the third mile I had was nearly 2 minutes behind a 8 min/mile schedule required for a 3:30 marathon.  Mile four was more downhill on average so I was able to pull back a minute and looked soon to be back on a 8 min/mile average but then we were faced with the 6 miles of lots of pretty big ascents/descents didn't see any progress on my average pace and was still a minute a half behind by mile 10.

I was however, making my steadily through the field, overtaking people both on the ascents and descents.  At the summit of the hill at mile 9 a small home-made sign had been planted with the words "graveyard hill" with lots of cartoon gravestones placed around - clearly one of race organizers has a black sense of humour as we'd be coming back this way to meet the hill at mile 17!

One of the advantages of racing by HR is that it keeps your effort level going up hill very similar to what it is going on the flat or downhill so the hills don't become the lung and leg busters that might be otherwise.  This even level of intensity helps make sure you are burning glycogen most efficiently - avoiding the anaerobic spikes that can occur if you push on too hard, and also keeps your temperature nearer a constant level which helps your body keeper nearer to homoeostasis, together this all means that your central governor doesn't get any shocks so doesn't need to go to any desperate measures to try and rescue you from over-doing it by causing fatigue to slow you down.

View from graveyeard hill looking towards the Stronachlochar  and the turn round point.

At mile ten the route paces along the west side of Loch Katrine and heads to the turn round point just beyond the hamlet of Stronachlochar where the pier for the Loch Katrine ferry boat arrives/leaves at. The three miles to turn round point is underlating by the hills are all far less steep or long so my average pace increased and found myself comfortably putting in sub 7:30 to 8:00 min/miles.  I kept steadily catching up with and passing runners, mile my mile my deficit was reducing and most surprising was that my HR was staying quite low, hovering around 155 bpm, nicely below my the 160 bpm range that I had expected to need by this point.

A couple of miles before the half way point I caught up with fellow ultra marathon Donald Sandeman, in his tartan shorts as usual.  I had met Donald at the RAW and the Jedburgh ultra marathons so spent the the miles to the turn round point chatting about ultra-marathons past and future.  Race leader Andrew Murry breezed passed looking strong already a few miles ahead of us and now heading back home.  A few minutes later Gerry Craig passed in second place looking strong as well.

Half way miracle, 1:45:09

At the half way point I was aware that Donald was breathing a bit harder so without realising it I'm afraid I might have dragged him along a bit too fast for that section.  Once past the turn round point I wished Donald good luck and pushed on.  I checked my watch, 1:45:09 for the half marathon point, I couldn't quite believe it, all those hills, speed fluctuating between 10 min/mile and 6 min/mile and somehow it all averaged out perfectly.

The next few miles heading back towards the hills we were passing the rest of the field who were still heading out to the half way point.  I rather ran out of different ways to call out encouragement.  I was chuffed to be able to spot and call out encouragement to Scottish ultra-marathon legend Fiona Rennie. It seemed like half the field were ultra marathoners!

By mile 16 I was now a minute ahead of schedule, but knew that the next 6 miles were going to be very hilly and would loose all of this buffer and more, so it was a case of keeping steady and relying upon the last four miles of less undulating terrain at the end of the race to get back to my 3:30 target.

HR was still staying below 160 for most of the time, only on the very steep hills was it migrating a bit higher.  Along with less heart rate drift than I was expecting my energy levels were feeling great, no signs of glycogen depletion or low blood sugar despite just drinking just water on route.  The only warning sign that I need to manage was that by mile 16 I was aware that muscle damage in my quads was accumulating - the net effect of running of roads with lots of steep descents.  Perhaps 5 days taper wasn't quite enough?

Once back on the north side of the loch the big hills return, again using the HR monitor helped keep my intensity level down to safe levels, so even graveyard hill didn't present any problems - apart from crawling up it at 12 min/mile pace!

The field had now spread out so while I was still catching runners, I was mostly running on my own.  Running back eastwards meant that the wind was behind us, the sun was beating down and the hills kept coming and found myself sweating enough that my nipples had begun to chaffe and become sore. Rather than risking bloody nipples by the end and wasting previous fluids on sweating I pulled my top off, tied it around my waste and ran for the next 6 miles bare chested.

View from the north side of Loch Katrine, looking south, Highland Cows complete the picture postcard views!
The hills came and went and my buffer disappeared and turned into a couple of minute deficit by mile 21. Thankfully I had now passed the highest point and had some downhill and less undulating miles ahead. Despite mounting discomfort in my quads I was still running strongly and could comfortably power down the hills. At the water point just after mile 22 I caught the first lady, then shortly after passed Chris who had run strongly so far but now was struggling a bit with hamstring that were showing signs of cramping up, he was still moving at a reasonable pace so looked good for finishing in a good time.

Taking the breaks off

With 3 miles to go my quads were painfully but the rest of me was feeling fresh, strong and moving smoothly.  I was now back on schedule for finishing in 3:30, all I now had to do was put away 3 more miles of 8 min/miles and I'd reach my target time and have a nice PB to boot.  After the water stop there was a mile of mostly downhill and I just relaxed and let the pace naturally speed up, looking at my GPS trace now I see that I put that mile away at 6:50 pace, my fastest in the race so far.

At mile 24 I was now a under my 3:30 target, the anxiety about possible cramp or running out of fuel that had plagued the last few miles of previous marathon had evaporated, I was now running fast for the pure joy of running.  For the last few miles I was regularly catching either tail enders of the half marathon or fellow marathoners, I found it easier to pass on words of encouragement to the half marathoners, but with the marathoners felt slightly guilty about finishing so strongly.

Once the final mile marker had passed I just let the breaks off completely and my speed just naturally increased, sub seven minute miles turned into sub six minute miles and the final quarter mile I was in full flight gleefully hitting 5 minute mile pace.  There wasn't any conscious decision to run so fast, there was no mental battle against the pain or exhaustion, for those last few minutes there was none, I just ran that way my body was wanting to run, with me just along to enjoy the ride.

As I tore round the last bend into the finish straight I over took one last runner, just as the photographer was lining up to take a photograph of him.  I had a suddenly jolt of indecision which side of the runner to pass but really didn't have time to choose and passed between the photographer and my fellow marathoner.  I do hope I didn't ruin the picture with me tearing past like a crazed banshee.

As I approached the finish I spotted my wife and our three girls who were all waving enthusiastically from the crowd at the harbour side.  I waved back and crossed the line at near full speed.  I couldn't see a clear finishing line so kept moving swiftly till I arrived at the line of marshals who were handing out medals and suddenly had to jam my breaks on to avoid bowling them over.  Finishing so strongly caused plenty of amusement at the finish and even got a hug and medal from race organize Audrey.

Once I had moved over the side I joined my family, one of the first things I heard was "if you could finish so strongly you clearly didn't try hard enough for the rest of the race!" I couldn't really say well it was supposed to be a training run, average 6:10 pace for the last mile really can't even be explained away as long run with a fast finish... A 25 mile long training run and practising from running away from a very hungry bear would probably be more appropriate.

Marathon PB.  Job done.

Checking with the time keepers I found me time to be 3:26:50 and 14th place overall.  A PB by 5:42 on much hillier terrain, and ten minutes faster than my best Kielder marathoner which has more similar terrain.

My average HR was just 157, well below the 169 average I saw when I last ran the Kielder marathon back in 2012.  The average was also below the 161 average I expected to need to reach my target of 3:30, an indication that my HR drift was well below that assumed by the MARCO calculator and my better than my training logs had hinted at.

My energy levels throughout the race were rock solid.  The only food I consumed on the run was 5 Jelly Babies at the mile 18 water stop, more out of fancying the tasty sweet than concern over energy levels. I drank a small cup of water at each of the water stops at mile 4, 8, 13, 18 and 24.  I never felt thirsty, tired or lacking in energy.  My good energy levels and low heart drift all point to my fat burning capabilities having improved significantly - all great signs for my up coming ultra marathons.

My only real discomfort was that my quads steadily became more painful in the second half of the race. The discomfort thankfully wasn't backed up with any issues with energy levels, dehydration or cramp so didn't effect my form or ability to push on a very fast pace at the end.  The pain in my quads is sign that either I haven't trained with enough fast descents on roads, done enough long runs, or simply that I hadn't recovered enough from a very big mileage week prior to my 5 day taper. Or perhaps a combination of all of these.

Recovery week

For the Monday and Tuesday after the Marathon my quads were very sore so I did a one mile and two mile walks respectively, just to loosen the legs and get the blood flowing.  Wednesday my quads were less sore so I ventured out for a flat four mile recovery run, averaging 10 min/mile pace and HR of 132. Today my quads were still sore but improved over the previous day so I headed out for a undulating local 6.5 mile trail route - my quads were definitely tender on the down-hills.

I will keep doing easy runs until my legs start feeling strong and pain free, fingers crossed it won't last much longer as I need to start building up towards the long hill runs I have planned to train for the Highland Fling at the end of April.

For my previous Fling back in 2012 for my longest training run I completed a 30 mile, 5000ft ascent/descent tour of the three Callander peaks - Ben Guilipen, Ben Ledi and the Callander Crags.  During the race my quads held up really well right to the finish - the only thing that slowed me down was running out of energy - I just relied upon carbs for muscle fuel too much back then.  Today I've addressed the fuel utilization issue pretty well, but given how my quads feel after just 26 miles, let alone the 53 miles required during the Fling, it looks like I'll be in need of doing the three Callander peaks once again to toughen them up.

If I work in a three week taper then I'll need to do the Callander peaks in just ten days time, so really need to recover quickly this week.  I now partly regret being quite so exuberant with my fast last mile, training wise it didn't really make much sense....

But... oh boy it was glorious fun :-)


My thanks to Audrey McIntosh for organizing such a great race.  Thanks also to all the volunteers who helped mark the course out so well and did such a friendly job marshalling the course, water stops, and start/finish.


  1. Very well done, congratulations on the PB and there is obviously a lot more where that came from! You're in very good shape and anyone who can crank out a 6:10 mile at the end of a marathon is clearly poised for better things.

    P.S. As much as I'm impressed by your running, I think teh scenery was even better. :)

  2. Thanks Thomas. How I got on in the Marathon is certainly a great boost for my confidence in how well my training is progressing. The last crazy mile is probably the fastest I've run a mile in the past year!

    One thing that this little silliness at the end does provide is that doing lots of training at a low speed doesn't make you slow. My average speed over the last three months training was between 9 and 10 min/mile pace, with just half a dozen runs in the 7:30 to 8:00 min/mile range as my "marathon" paced runs. This period of training was all about building ability to tolerate a high volume of running, building my aerobic base, fat burning capacity and my running economy at ultra race pace (i.e 9-10min/miles).

    Given this slow training background, being able to put away a mile at 5k pace at the end of hilly marathon, despite never doing a mile at that pace in training rather surprises me, particularly in the style I did it in - it felt pretty effortless, no lung busting or heavy legs filled with lactate, instead just cruising along at a faster and faster rate. Even now I'm rather perplexed - was it really me? Did I make a pack with devil and take on someone else body at mile 23?

    It's been back to earth with a bump this week though, for sure I feel like I have quads of someone that's run a hilly marathon and finished it with a crazy mile.

    As for scenery, yep upstaged everyone, even Andrew Murray (not the Tennis player, but local ultra runner) setting s 2:49 course record. The scenery is really why I live here in the Trossachs, it just swallows you up and inspires one to run further and higher. No doubt the west coast of Ireland will have a few nice views too :-)

  3. Robert,
    That was brilliant.

    It appears that you have developed the ability to utilise fat very effectively. The low HR suggests that you are also using oxygen efficiently. Maybe the fast finish wasn’t a wise contribution to your preparation for the Fling and for the subsequent WHWR, though the sheer fun was worth it. In fact it might even prove to have been a good work out for your quads. You will probably find out if that was so in you planned training over the three Callander peaks in the near future.

    1. Thanks Canute.

      Through last week recovery was progressing slowly by steadily with my quads and hip flexors getting more confortable each day till yesterday's 6 mile run when they felt pretty normal.

      However, on yesterdays run out of no-where I developed a niggle in my left calf at the bigging of the run that didn't get worse or better through the run. I fully expected it to be fine today but right at the beginning of my planned my left calf was sore and rather than ease off as it warmed up got worse and had to turn back after a mile.

      I am quite surprised that my calf has decided to develop a strain as there were no warning signs in the Marathon or in my other four recovery runs last week - my calves had been comfortable and pretty loose. I believe this injury isn't too serious, hopefully will just be some scar tissue or malformed repair that will settle given a bit more rest and message.

      Frustrating though, was really keen to get back onto proper training and build up two my tour of the Callander peaks. Looks likely that I'll need to postpone it beyond next Weekend. Fingers crossed my quads will be toughened up for it thanks to the Marathon so it won't affect me too much. Last time I did this route it took me 10 days to recover, leaving only a week left before the Fling, something I'd rather not repeat.

      You do have to work with what you got though... How I recovery from this calf strain will likely determine how the rest of this months prep for the Fling goes.