Wednesday, 22 April 2015

The Great Tartan Skidaddle : Race Report 2015

I hadn't originally planned to do ultra race just two weeks before my first A race of the year - the Highland Fling, but the inaugural "The Great Tartan Skidaddle", 31 mile ultra from Inversnaid to Callander, was being held right on my doorstep.  How could I resit?

All wasn't plain sailing the in the week before the race though.  Ten days after the Loch Katrine Marathon I had felt recovered enough to do a tempo run, first one for several months.  This tempo run went fine but two days later on an easy run the extensor tendon on top of left big toe/top of my foot had become a bit sore, a type of pain I've never had before. A hilly 15 miler the next day the discomfort was largely gone, but at mile 14 suddenly turned into enough pain to stop me in my tracks and force me to run/walk the final mile.

The rest of the time before the race I backed right off on the pace and distance, sticking to relatively flat routes.  I also made sure that all my shoes were loose and ran without socks on most runs to make sure no pressure would be put on the inflamed tendon.  This worked and race day the minor injury was on the mend, but not still not quite 100% - but certainly good enough to risk running.

The avoid aggrevating the problem tendon I chose my F-Lite 232's as these give the top of my toe the most wiggle room, and used 3mm inserts rather than 6mm ones I usually use on ultra's.  This was calculated risk - less likely to cause problems with the top of my foot, but expose the bottom on my feet more to the tougher sections of trail.

Race day

Registration was in Callander a , then all the competitors boarded two mini buses for the drive to the start at Inversnaid Pier.  There event had two sets of competitors, 13 entered into the 31 mile ultra, and 10 entered into a dualathlon comprising of a run, cycle and run of 30 miles.  I believe a couple of competitors didn't turn up on the day so I'm not sure of the final figures.

The small field for the ultra meant that there was a chance that I might finally get myself a top three placing, something that has eluded me since I was teenager.  With the race so close to the Highland Fling my plan was to run it as a training run and if I so happened to end up near the front so much the better. My plan was to run with similar HR range as I did for the Loch Katrine Marathon which was 140 to 150, aiming for an average of 145.  This level of effort was easily manageable and would be ensure that I would recover quickly from the race - it worked well for the Loch Katrine Marathon, so all I needed to do was stick to the plan...

Having all competitors arrive together meant that assembling everyone for the briefing at the Inversnaid Hotel went really efficiently and soon enough we were assembling down on the pier.  There had been rain, sleet and snow forecast, and a couple of showers had already swept through on our arrival so it was felt pretty wintery at the start.

Competitors assembling on the Peir, Loch Lomond, surrounding mountains and weather gave a rather wintry feel

Ultra runners and Run/Cyclists together, contemplating the weather and miles ahead

Help!! Don't leave us stranded here! (photo courtesy of Skidaddle)

View looking up the hill to the waterfall and where we'd be ascending
As everyone was assembled, briefed and ready the horn blew and we were all off together.

Run/Cyclists leading the charge (photo courtesy of Skidaddle)

The route starts on the pier, then past the hotel and up the steps heading south along the West Highland Way.

Happy to start near the back (photo courtesy of Skidaddle)

Shortly after going past the waterfall the route heads uphill and off the West Highland Way, the route now is officially the "Great Trossachs Path" from Inversnaid to  Callander.  The race follows this newly opened path, except for the ultra runners who'd include Primrose hill above at the north east end of Loch Katrine.

Pretty quickly the field strung out walking up the steep path away from Loch Lomond.  Right away my HR was up at 150, even with just walking steadily.  The Run/Cylists had all torn off, and by the time we got to the top of the steep ascent I was running amongst the ultra runners.  I was third last at this point. 

Once the route flattened off I picked off a few places, but found my shoe choice - my inov8 F-Lite 232's a bit too minimal for the stony path so had to be careful on the short descents as we head past Loch Arklet. Was my gamble the wrong one? Too late now to worry about it so I just made sure I placed my feet carefully.

I spent a last couple of miles on the way to first check point at Stronaclacher Pier, at the west end of Loch Katrine, chatting with Roddy Cunnignham.  The showers had blown away and briefly the sun came out making for very pleasant running conditions and great views.

Peir @ Stronachlacher (photo courtesy of Skidaddle)

First of the runners to arrive at the first check point was Aron Price. He was already well ahead my this stage and must have been keeping up with the Run/Cyclists.

1st ultra runner in a CP1, Aron Price (photo courtesy of Skidaddle)
A little while later Roddy and myself arrived, with fellow Callander runner Chris Ryan not far behind.  It was Chris' first ultra.

Myself, Roddy then Chris arriving at CP1 (photo courtesy of Skidaddle)

I dropped off my empty bottle and picked up my supplies for the next section along Loch Katrine.  The sound of bagpipes welcomed us in and sent us on our way.

Event organizer Maz welcomed us in to the CP1 (photo courtesy of Skidaddle)
Roddy and I head off (photo courtesy of Skidaddle)

1st lay Bridet Halewood (photo courtesy of Skidaddle)
Chris, Roddy and myself ran together for the next few miles as we headed north along the road the goes round the north shore of Loch Katrine.  Once we hit a bigger descent I found my HR dropping so I upped the pace to keep within my target 140 to 150 zone and immediately found myself on my own.

I couldn't see any runners ahead initially, but as I scanned the opposite shore for cyclists I saw a runner, later found it was Aron Price.  Looking at my GPS trace Aron must have had a mile+ lead at this point.  I didn't know if there were any other runners ahead.

Aron cruising on the north shore in 1st (photo courtesy of Skidaddle)
The weather was very changeable - for a couple of minutes we'd have sunshine, then we'd be pelted with hail and strong winds, the next calm.  The rapidly changing weather meant it was difficult to judge where to don jackets or not.  The woodlands on the north side of the lochs provided a bit of shelter from the wind so it was possible to just run without jacket and get into my groove.

I didn't know it yet by I was in 2nd (photo courtesy of Skidaddle)
I could no longer see anyone behind as the route has lots of ups and downs, and lots of corners.  Unknown to me Chris had pushed on and was now in 3rd.

And now in 3rd Chris was going strong (photo courtesy of Skidaddle)
The north shore has lots and hills but as I'd had done the Loch Katrine Marathon three weeks which follows the same route I felt right at home.  I was able to stick to my 140 to 150 HR range without problems and was making good progress.

You can't be in the Trossachs without seeing a Highland Cow (photo courtesy of Skidaddle)
Four miles out from the next check point at the east of Loch Katrine the ultra route gets diverted off the road and up Primrose Hill.  The marshal directing me up the hill said I was in 2nd, with 1st place roughly 5 minutes ahead.  This was doubly good news - I was safely in a podium position and if the estimate was accurate I was catching up.

As I ascend through the light woodland the weather turned for the worse so I donned my new jacket and matched up the hill.  The jacket was a prize for winning John Kynaston's Hardmoors 55 Guess My Time competition, the UltraMarathonStore had very generously offered the Race Ultra Shell as a prize.  It only weighs 125g but was very effective at sheltering me from the strong winds, hail, sleet and snow that hammered in during the ascent. 

Once I got to the top of Primrose Hill there wintry shower had blown by and the sun had come out.  The reward of climbing 500ft was glorious - Loch Katrine shimmered in the sunshine, Ben Venue and Ben Lomond look magnificent. 

I was still in a race though so I didn't stop to take a photo, but regret it now, the view was just stunning.  I stowed my jacket and began the descent, gentle at first then finally a steep descent back down to the road. 

The route then follows the road eastwards towards Trossachs Pier, the views of the Loch and Ben Venue were very different in character, but still gorgeous.

Final mile before Trossachs Pier (photo courtesy of Skidaddle)

I kept looking for 1st place in the distance but only ever spotted walkers and cyclists.  Just before the end of the Loch I looked back scanning for Chris and spotted him about a 1/3 rd mile back and still looking to be running strongly.

At the check point at Trossachs Pier I picked chocolate milkshake and brioche, and inquired about 1st place, but as they were recording times I just got a vague "not sure perhaps 10 minutes".  I had been running well so had hoped to be a least not loosing further ground.  Was the original 5 minute estimate wrong? Was this one wrong.  I hadn't seen 1st place for a very long time so really didn't have a clue.

I got back into my running and found my HR below the 140 range despite charging down the gently descending road at 7 min/mile pace, I was a bit surprised by the HR reading, was it playing up? 

After half a mile the route turns right heading south west, then across a small bridge, then left then right again, then left again all the while threading through the woodland and heading gently uphill towards the Duke Pass road crossing.  I had never been on this trail before so it was fun to explore a new part of the Trossachs, just before Duke Pass road crossing the woodland cleared to provide a great view of Loch Achray, and surrounding mountains and forest. 

During this climb my HR monitor had been either reading in the 130's or the 150's and little in between.  The trail is mostly up, but with a few short descents, but I'm generally pretty good at running at even intensity these days so to get such erratic readings was frustrating.  It seemed to be getting stuck in one extreme, then getting stuck in the other.  The Wahoo Tickr bluetooth HR monitor that I use now just doesn't seem as reliable as my old tech Polar HR monitor watch.

The sun had come out and with the forest sheltering one from the wind it was quick warm on the final ascent up the last hill before the road crossing.  A marshal pointed me left and down a steep slope to the road crossing.  The marshal estimated that 1st place was around 3 minutes ahead.  This rather surprised me, but my tree was shaken even more when as I descend the trail and spotted 1st place just leaving the road crossing, the lead was now a hundred meters or so.  23 miles down, 8 mile to go, Game on!

I crossed the road and headed downhill along the forest trail with 1st place in sight, and left with a decision to make about what tactics to use.  I had been running entirely by HR and feel when the HR was playing up, my pace had been pretty stable throughout the race and I was now catching up.  Should I stick with this?  Would 1st place respond and lift the pace?  Should I pick up the pace to make a decisive move?

I decided to keep to my own pace and be patient, and half way along the Loch Achray I caught up with 1st place.  Aron was stilling running well, looking comfortable doing 9 min/miles.  We ran and chatted for a few minutes, but I found myself itching to get on, taking it easier for a couple of minutes meant that I had plenty in the tank so decided to move on.  I decided to move on decisively and try to get a couple of minute lead before the next check point about a mile further on at the foot of Lendick Hill. 

I picked up the pace aiming for a 160 to 170 HR zone, this meant I was now doing 7 min/mile pace.  This slowed a little as I ascend up along the road through the village of Brig-O-Turk, I kept the pressure on till I got to the Lendrick Hill/Glen finglass carpark check point.  I quickly picked up my final drink and headed on to the final big climb of the day.

The ascent takes you through woodland so I couldn't see Aron arrive at the checkpoint but I heard the cheers from the marshals so I knew I must have a couple of minute lead.  My aim with the surge was to get out of sight to break the elastic that might pull Aron along if was still feeling competitive.  With a couple of minutes in hand I dropped the effort level and kept my HR in the 150 to 160 range as there was little point in risking blowing up with 6 hilly miles left to do.

I felt strong, good energy levels, but my calves were feeling the effort and the bottoms of my feet were a bit sore, nothing that would slow me down though. The tendon issue on my big toe had melted away and didn't show any signs of recurring so it was a relief not to be risking making an injury worse.  Being in 1st place first time for 30 years added a different dimension to the race, the thought of sticking to my plan of using the run as pure training run was out of the window. 

When I first got back into running 5 years ago my children would ask if I had won each time I did a race, I had always had to reply that I had come 30th, 300th, the closest I had ever come was in very small races such as the Lochalsh Dirty 30.  Over the years they had got used to the fact that I never win anything and stopped asking.  Sure this race was very small field so no comparison to really competitive race like the Fling or West Highland Way Race, but I wasn't about to squander 1st place so kept the pace up.

I didn't take any photo's as I was racing, but the views were gorgous, follows are a couple of photo's from previous runs along the new path on the North side of Loch Venachar:

View from the Great Trossachs Path in winter

Summery view of Loch Venachar from the new path, taken only a few weeks later!

Once past the highest point above Loch Venachar I checked my average pace, it was 9:10 min/mile pace.  In planning before the race I had in mind the possibility of average 9 min/mile pace on the route, I was so close to this that I set this as my goal, running the descents as swiftly as my sore feet would permit.

The quality of the trail gets better the nearer you get to Callander so the last three miles I was able to run assertively, with my feet and calves holding up just fine.  The average pace steadily dropped but with two miles to most of the descents behind I was still adrift. 

 The last mile is along the old railway line that takes to the finish at Callander Meadows, it's a route that I run several times I week I knew exactly how far was left and was able to pick up the pace a ran this last mile at 6:40 min/mile pace.  Half a mile to go and my watch finally clicked to 9:00 min/mile average pace.

I didn't back off though, I was enjoying running strongly and still had enough left to pick up the pace for the final stretch to the finish.  I crossed the line in 4:39:31, and 1st person to have ever run the newly opened Great Trossachs Path!

(photo courtesy of Skidaddle)
Julia took this photo, with me keeping warm in my new jacket, obviously brings me good luck!
9 minutes later Aron Price came in second.

2nd place, Aron Price 4:48:51 (photo courtesy of Skidaddle)
Chris Ryan came in third in his first ultra.

Chris Ryna, 3rd place, 5:00:33 (photo courtesy of Skidaddle)
First lady Bridget Halewood arrived 50 minutes later.

Bridget Halewod, 1st lady 5:51:43 (photo courtesy of Skidaddle)

Stats for the day

Recorded by my phone GPS/WahooTickr/Pebble watch combo:

   31.2 miles
   3268ft of ascent
   Average Pace 8:58 min/mile (fastest ultra I've ever done)
   Average HR 151 (ooops a bit higher than planned, but still 5bpm lower
   than any ultra I've raced before!)

The route profile is actually rather like a mini Highland Fling, starting lower than the finish, with lots of ups and downs in between, and mixture of narrow trails, wide forest tracks and roads.  

My strava trace for the event:

Recovery and beyond

Racing the last 8 miles wasn't in the plan so I there was a real risk of not recovering quickly from the race.  I had DOMs for a couple of days but nothing too severe.  The problem with the tendon above my left big toe felt good for the first week after the race, but this week it's returned a little.  Should be fine for the Fling though.

With a week of recovery runs over this week is now taper week for the Highland Fling, which entails pretty well the same thing as my recovery week!  Daily gentle runs at 9 to 10 min/mile pace of 4 to 7 miles in length.  Now just three nights left to my first really big race of the year - the 53 mile Highland Fling.

My training and races this year all point to a being able to good performance at the Fling, but I'm fully aware of how easy it is to get big ultras wrong on the day. My training log analysis suggest that I may be able to manage running a minute a mile faster than last year and go sub 9hrs, but the thought of managing this for 53 miles is hugely daunting, it doesn't really feel possible.  Fingers and toes crossed.


Thanks goes to Skidaddle and all the helpers that made this great wee event possible.  The route is beautiful from start to finish, passing 5 lochs, lots of mountains and forests.  I was a real pleasure to be able to see some of the best views that the Trossachs has to offer.  I guess I have geology and nature to thank as well then :-)


  1. Hey congratulations, quite an unexpected result! Savour the moment, things like that do not happen too often! Well done, now bask in the glory for a while!

    1. Thanks Thomas. For me the art of winning a race seems to be finding a race obscure enough that only 11 ultra runners turn up! It'll be tougher next year, it's such a great course that it deserves to get a big crowd running it.

  2. Brilliant run, and great write-up!! :-) Looking forward to seeing how you get on at the Fling. x

  3. P.S. - Did you ask your children to start asking if you won, again?

    1. I'd be lucky if they ask how I got on, let alone ask if I won! It's just Dad doing another run of a daft distance, they have too used to it now.

  4. Congratulations You continue to be in great condition, and you make the most of it by running with a well-considered strategy. Well done with handling the problem with the extensor tendon. It sound like a lovely course. Good luck for the Fling.

    1. Thanks Canute, Fling already completed, finihed in 9:10, a 33 minute PB but boy it hurt. My racing the Great Tartan Skidaddle proved to be close in time to Fling, two weeks wasn't enough so had to deal with a lot of fatigue quite early in the race. Full writ up coming soon.