When the ladies’ course record holder blogs that *she* found the race tricky, you know it’s been a toughie…
I met Rachel via TrailfestScotland‘s Maps for Trail Runners project at the tail end of last year and read her thoughts on this year’s Glentress Trail Marathon a couple of days after the event.
I’d ended up – I say that like it was an accident – entered into the Glentress Trail Marathon when the organisers were good enough to take my ankle ligament damage into account back in November and allow me to transfer my place in their Ultra Marathon to this event.
Living in the Highlands, it’s easy to think of the hills of the Borders as rolling countryside with gentle undulations. That’s categorically not the case at Glentress. For one thing it’s a mountain biking centre, home to daredevil black runs and vertiginous singletrack sections.
See? Hills and everything!
Arriving the day before I had my usual pre-big-event rubbish sleep but got up feeling rested enough and very much looking forward to the day. A glorious, if chilly sub-zero morning, greeted me in Peebles and I sorted out my kit, taking the brave decision – at minus 4 degrees – to go for shorts. I’d decided the Inov8 Roclite would be the right choice for the feet…
Parking and registration were straightforward enough and I had time for a coffee pre-race and a chat with some other runners…
… before getting down to the serious business of panicking about kit choice and whether I’d be warm enough in shorts. Turned out that about midway through lap two I wasn’t but by then I was too tired to care.
Briefing was – unusually in my race day experience – audible and before long we were away on the very dot of ten am.
Clear blue skies, the slightest breeze and glorious surroundings. Perfect running conditions. The hill I spotted didn’t, at this point, look too ominous.
Under the archway and down the hill, worrying as I heard people say things like ” yeah I’ll stick to 9, maybe 8 minute miles…” but trying not to pay too much attention as I tried to work out my own rhythm and pace. I don’t run for times, places or prizes; I’m not fast enough and have long since lost any competitive streak where sports are concerned. I run because I love it, I like to run in new places and, as I’ve said here before, it protects my mental health. This relaxed attitude doesn’t make setting a pace particularly easy but I just wanted to enjoy myself.
Nice and easy just about five miles in…
On the first of the two loops – and what a psychological nightmare they would turn out to be – I can honestly say I had a thoroughly brilliant time. It was hard going and seemed to be mostly uphill, managing to defy the laws of physics. As more than one person remarked on the day, “how can it all be up the way?”
The whole thing was brilliantly runnable, freezing temperatures had turned patches of mud to hard packed technical permafrost-bog and it was fun to be leaping over lumps of earth and hurdling tree roots in the forest canopy’s single track sections. But the climbs. Oh the climbs. The highest point on the course (here) …
… wasn’t even close to being the toughest ascent, following as it did a nice switchback zigzag section through a carpet of pine needles under the towering forestry stock. The views from the top were quite breathtaking and by that point there wasn’t much breath to take. A truly glorious day to be running.
The hardest climb was mercifully short and came around the ten mile mark. A near vertical dry earth and scrub face after a relatively easy but hugely enjoyable technical section in the forest, finding the route by following red and white tape hung from branches in a kind of Hansel and Gretel meets the Barkley Marathons style…
Four seconds was as much as I could manage to film what with trying to breathe and all…
It was brutal. A word that kept popping into my head all the way through both loops. But obviously more so on the second. Walking up that slope and the second, thankfully shorter one, which soon followed allowed some respite from the annoying rubbing on the inside of my left foot. I’d first noticed it after getting a bit wet on a muddy section about five or six miles in and had thought I’d maybe stop and investigate when I reached the summit as I’d figured I’d be stopping for some photos then anyway. As it turned out I decided just to adjust my sock a bit and that seemed to do the trick. The shoes were okay at this point, enough grip when needed and enough cushioning when running form allowed a decent forefoot strike…something which was to become an issue later on as tiredness set in.
Downhill sections were mostly good fun up to this point, fast and slightly hair-raising but on soft peaty tracks or covered forest sections with some give in the dry earth underfoot…this all changed after about the 11 mile mark when it was quite literally downhill all the way for a good mile or so of hard, rutted tree-rooty permafrost. It was really tough on the knees and feet and I was having difficulty maintaining pace without falling over. The pounding on my legs – down to poor conditioning on my part, I’m under no illusions – was a real downer and it was on the brief climb back into the forest at the end of this section that I began to have real thoughts of just stopping when I got to the end of the loop. There was the option to drop out at half way and get a time for the half marathon distance. This felt like a good idea, it was knocking on for 2hrs25 by this point and I honestly couldn’t see myself managing to get back out for the same distance again, particularly when I knew now what the course entailed.
As the final downhill section before the start/finish/halfway checkpoint area opened out in front of me I was still trying to decide what to do. I knew I’d be annoyed with myself if I didn’t at least try to finish but equally I was all too aware of how hard it had already been and didn’t know if I could force another thirteen miles out of my legs.
Coming into the aid station and turnaround there was great enthusiasm and encouragement from the volunteers and HiTerrain staff. I grabbed some flat Irn-Bru and a handful of salted peanuts (bliss!) and got them down before heading to the toilet block. I genuinely still hadn’t decided what to do but I took off my annoying shoe, messed about with the insole and my sock and put it back on anyway. It felt immediately more comfortable and I went back out, took some more Irn-Bru and headed out for round two.
As I was fixing my shoe a chap – who I later learned as we chatted on the trail was Polish – said to me “the half for the body is done, now it’s the half for the mind”. A very profound and pretty accurate thought, though my body was complaining pretty bitterly by about mile 22!
My new companion and I headed off down the slope and back onto the road that leads to the trails, it was a quick walk more than anything else at this point as we chatted about other events we’d done and how tough this course was. My legs were glad of the rest but after a while his suggestion of “run a little?” seemed a good one and we settled into a couple of miles of walk-run-chat. He had far more stamina than me and after a couple of miles he was away on his own again.
Soon after, following a long uphill stretch I thought I was done. I was seriously considering walking the 3.5 miles or so back down to the start/finish line and calling it a day. Here I happened upon my second inspirational figure of the day; a young lady who didn’t look more than about 19 or 20 was standing, hands on hips, shaking her head and said to me, “I’m giving up. No. Am I?” I asked how annoyed she’d be if she quit. “I made it my new year’s resolution not to hate running…but…ach…on we go!” and she was away. Onwards, not quitting. I asked myself the same question. How annoyed would I be?
One foot in front of the other. No one is going to do it for you Bryan. If I walk the whole thing it will only take about another four hours anyway. Positive thinking and the next couple of miles disappeared. I was passed by the guy I’d met at breakfast at the hotel who had also done the 10k the day before, “single figures now!” he shouted as he strode past. This was a nice long, gentle downhill on fairly groomed trails and I resolved to let gravity do the work and run where I could. Back into a bit of woodland before the views into the valleys below opened up to Peebles nestled at the foot of the hills…
…then a brief text exchange with my other half who offered support for my flagging morale with a “you know you’ve got this” message. Positive thinking. I did a lot of negative thinking on this run – this half for the mind! – mostly complaining to myself that I wasn’t suited to running and certainly not to this distance and these kind of climbs. But, and here’s the thing, I did a lot more positive thinking – “what a stunning day”, “I love running in new places”, “I can do this, how satisfying is it going to be to finish this?” and it really helped.
I’ve blogged before about the mantra from Chris McDougall’s Born To Run that running on trails should be:
Easy, smooth, light and fast…and if easy’s all you get, that’s not so bad
I kept saying this to myself even though it was far from easy. The photo below was just after coming out of one particular section of techical forest trail – loads of rocks and tree roots and boulders to negotiate. Not easy but definitely – despite my weariness – smooth, light and fast, I have a vivid recollection of landing after a small jump and saying out loud, “see? This is what you run for!” Truly exhilerating.
The slightly flatter zigzags and switchbacks leading to the summit for a second time were a welcome sight and I ran as much of them as I could before a short walk-run jaunt through now defrosted muddier trails to the top. The wind was really howling as I stopped to get some more photos but it was worth the effort.
The benefit of it being the second lap now was that I knew what was to come with just about 5 miles to go. The downside to it being the second lap now was that I knew what was to come with just about 5 miles to go.
The evil hill.
At this point I felt like I’d been running on my own for a good while. The twists and turns meaning that even when other runners weren’t too far away, you often went for a good few minutes without seeing them as they disappeared around a bend or into the trees…I caught another runner on the zigzags after the summit and walked with her for a bit until the peaty track across the exposed heather moor. The wind was really coming in and my feet were sore but the springy peat is familiar from my home runs and it’s a delight to run on so I fairly bounded across the narrow trail before hitting the switchback leading to the trees and the return to the evil hill.
A sensible power walk with hands pushing down knees approach saw this pass more comfortably than first time around bizarrely and then it was out onto an open section of moorland and over a bike track before the last aid station. A quick, “no, you’re fine thanks” to the ever cheery marshalls and it was onto the quad-trashing, foot-pounding penultimate descent over the rutted bike trails. My legs were well and truly done by this point – maybe mile 23.5? – but I knew I wanted to run as much as I could of what remained. A very short bout of walking after coming off this tricky downhill gave me a chance to catch my breath before I saw a marshall clapping me onwards with a shout of “brilliant effort, last click and you’re in” which I thought must mean I was nearly home.
Back off the forest road and into the trees again, spurred on by this thought I somehow got my pace up and legs moving again with what I’m going to describe as textbook uphill technique: up on the balls of my feet, leaning forward, arms really driving; I don’t know where the energy came from but the end was most definitely in sight. Metaphorically at any rate.
Round the top car park and into a short downhill section where the tracks converged and there were lots of bikers around. One stopped to let me through an opening, “go on mate, great effort!” I managed a “Cheers, nearly there thank Christ!” which got a laugh and a “Yeah, fantastic, last push!” which further inspired me – he could’ve just let me go through and nodded but he took time to cheer me on my way. This thought brought me to the final section – across the access road and past the marshall onto more pine needle covered trails through the last forest part of the course. The six hour mark was approaching and I still had a good half mile to go so that wasn’t going to happen but the sheer joy of knowing it was nearly over gave me enough of a boost to keep the legs turning for a non-stop run all the way to the end.
The last 30yards or so are all uphill on the steep access slope to the wooden “wigwams” at Glentress and I found the energy from goodness only knows where to give it everything on the hill to get under the finishing arch to an “amazing sprint finish on that hill!” from the man presenting me with my medal.
I was delighted to finish in 6:03:42. Slow I know but I’m really chuffed to have kept going and I can honestly say I had more positive thoughts on the way round than negative ones. It was a stunning day to be running, a beautiful setting and some amazing trails. I probably had the wrong shoes on – feet, knees and ankles were really sore by the end but by that point I had a cup of tea and some milk chocolate raisins from the amazing HiTerrain team so I wasn’t caring.
About 17 miles or so in I was definitely questioning my life choices…but I’m already planning to come back next year!