After Man vs. Lakes in 2017, I promised myself ‘OK, that’s it…no more longer races. Let’s stick to shorter trails’. I’ve never been good at listening to myself.
To keep up with the personal mission of taking on new challenges every year, 2018’s big race was Rat Race Ultra Tour of Edinburgh. *Technically* Man vs. Lakes was my first Ultra, if we’re going by the ‘anything over a marathon distance’ definition, but UTE would be a real 55km event to train for and finish.
What made this run extra special is that I used it to celebrate my 30th, and also used the weekend as an excuse for mine and my girlfriend’s parents to meet for the first time.
When: 21st October 2018
Distance: 55-57ish km
Like every Rat Race event, the start is anything but average. The official run blurb on their website:
“Dawn breaks and in the crisp autumn air of Scotland’s Capital a quite remarkable event gets underway. Enveloped within the beating heart of this most famous of cities, the runners of the Ultra Tour of Edinburgh set off with a Braveheart charge down the most famous street in Scotland – the Royal Mile”.
Learning from my first trail marathon last year, I’d made a couple of promises to myself. To make the most of the day, finish strong and avoid injury, I told myself to:
- Avoid excessive stopping: unless I’ve got a stone in my shoe, or I feel pain, just keep going, and DON’T sit down
- Avoid stopping completely at the first drinks station: I’ve got enough water and snacks to keep me going, don’t binge on the freebies!
- Keep moving forward: unless I’m injured or feeling sick, just go – running is better than power walking, power walking is better than shuffling, shuffling is better than standing still
- Don’t keep thinking of the full 55km distance: break it up into smaller sections mentally – 11 park runs, in my mind, feels more manageable than one giant distance
- Enjoy it!: keep the music going, take the occasional photo to remember the day, and keep picturing that pint at the finish line
Following the mandatory kit requirements from Rat Race, I went with:
- Inov-8 Trail Talon 290: these were my first real trail/road hybrids I bought 5 weeks before the run, so I had plenty of training time in them. They worked a dream on the say, and gave me a more comfortable ride than my Speedcross 3s on the pavement sections
- Salomon Agile 12 running pack w/ my Camelbak 2 ltr
- Kalenji calf guards: in past races I’d gone with tights, but always struggled with calf cramp in the final third of my races. I’d trained with calf guards for something a little tighter and more supportive
- Salomon running shorts
- Under Amour waterproof jacket (ticking the mandatory kit list)
The start line was something special to savour. Seeing the turnout at the Royal Mile at 7am was pretty cool. It was the big day, but I felt more excited than nervous, and I was so grateful to have my family there to see me off, and get it all on film.
Heading down towards Holyrood felt super quick, as everyone seemed to stay together in large groups to keep pace.
The first 10-15km, I felt fantastic. I stuck to my game plan of running when I could, taking the steep parts steadily, and taking gels/water before I began to feel too dehydrated. It was all working perfectly! It’s a beautiful and serene route for the most parts, and early on you’ll climb up Hermitage of Braid and Blackford Hill Local Nature Reserve, past the observatory. Here you’ll get a brilliant view of the city, and eye up Pentland Hills straight ahead.
Before I knew it, I was getting closer to the first water station at 16km. For the majority of this section, everyone had seemed to bunch up, meaning there was a great crowd cheering each other on – aside from the Ultra-gods, who at this point were probably half way done on the course.
Sticking to my tactics, I walked past and ignored the freebies at the drinks point just carried on. I’d made the mistake of stopping at Man vs. Mountain a few years ago, and it still gives me nightmares.
Just after this water station is where it got interesting. You start the steady climb to the ridge on Pentland Hills, which really tests the quads and calves.
I’d read a really interesting quote in Feet In the Clouds, by Richard Askwith (outstanding book for trail runners by the way), about runners being a different kind of hard and tough.
There’s gym tough. There’s runner tough. And then there’s trail tough. Being trail tough meant pushing through the innocuous bruises and pains, and powering on with a smile.
It was something that stuck with me in the 6 months of training, where I tried different local trail routes, and worked on my technique and strengthening my legs through longer elevation trail runs and running on consecutive days.
If you’re an intermediate runner, this is the part of the course where experience comes in ti play. I’ve never been too confident on running at pace upward, especially on unknown courses, but using the hands-on-knees technique worked pretty well. Inov-8 have some great tips here.
The first couple of KM are fairly steady. It’s pretty much a single line route, so difficult to overtake or go at pace unless you’re flying ahead. The view at every turn is phenomenal (brilliant photo point), but once you reach what you think is the top, you just keep going. And going. And going.
Around about this point, the weather really started to turn and the wind and rain picked up.
** Runner tip **: it’s probably better to put your rain jacket on before the weather gets out of control. Don’t do what I did, and wait to do it at the top our Pentland Hills section, as it felt like getting dressed in a wind tunnel. This video gives you an idea of what it’s like:
On the downhill sections, you hit some great quick technical trail. It’s here that you can make up a lot of time, but be wary it’s slippy under foot from the loose rocks. After about 3 -4 km, the route blends into parks and side streets, heading towards the water point #2 near Murrayfield. It’s such a shame we didn’t end this year’s race on the pitch (as advertised) but you at least get to run past and around it.
Water point #2
I was making good progress, and decided that the second water station at 30km would be a good time to stretch and eat and drink something properly.
I was about 400m away, when I noticed this red headed spectator starting to run alongside me with a mobile phone, and didn’t realise until he shouted my name that it was my brother! My girlfriend had actually managed to follow me using the GPS tracker, and get our families into an Uber to meet me! It was such a mood booster to have people cheering me on.
Again, I stuck to the tactics of not sitting down, keeping the legs moving, and eating and drinking slowly. Both my mum and Clare’s mum made sure I did this with constant, but loving, taps on the shoulder and shouting ‘KEEP MOVING’ in my ears.
Both mentally and physically I felt great and ready to carry on. I thought that the hardest part of the trail route was done. But the challenge now would be the mental focus. 30k down – 25km to go.
5ish park runs. That’s all it is.
The next water station is 11km away, at 41km. If I make it there, that’s near marathon distance, which again is another great mental boost.
Water point #3 – the final section
The last water point is just past the coastal part of the run, after Leith docks.
** Runner tip **: Keep an eye out for traffic and pedestrians, as this is where accidents can happen. There’s a couple of road crossings, and a run through an apartment estate, with cards coming in and out. When you’ve been running a while, it’s easy for the mind to wander and something stupid will happen. It usually does for me anyway – I’m the type of runner that comes out of trail challenges and OCRs relatively unscathed, but will roll my ankle falling off a curb when walking to the car park after the race.
Again the family had made it, and I was in such high spirits as they cheered me to the drinks point. The running crowd had started to thin out at this point, and the groups I’d been keeping pace with were breaking up. I don’t know whether I was getting in my head too much, but I was really starting to feel it.
I kept again saying to myself as I was leaving, “it’s OK I can do this, I love running”.
Hitting the wall
I f*cking hate running.
It’s amazing how your mood can change so quickly when you switch off that mental focus for a moment.
Leaving the last water point at 41km meant there was just 15km left. On any other run, 15km feels achievable and no real big deal, especially after training for so long. I’ve never experienced ‘the wall’ before, but I’d heard about it so many times on blogs, and from friends on runs. After some odd pacing, and some stops to take off my jacket, at 49km with just over 6km to go I hit it. And hit it hard. I’d hit my Forrest Gump moment.
I felt so drained, and just ‘done’ with today. Going through The Meadows park, I looked up and couldn’t see any other runners in front of me or behind. Just members of the public, walking dogs, chatting, doing normal stuff. I vividly remember stopping, standing still and thinking ‘I want to go home now’. It was the worst feeling.
It took a lot to just keep walking forward. The weather wasn’t too bad, but every minute I wasn’t moving I was getting colder and could feel the legs seizing up.
That last 5 to 6km through the city centre felt longer and harder than the first 10 to 20km.
I started munching on a bag of Haribo starmix, and putting my old gym playlist on, just to try and keep the tempo going. I’d hobbled for about 15 minutes, more power walking than anything, but I really struggled to get back into a rhythm of running.
This is where that mental game comes in, to just keep going. I’d worked up enough umph to just get going again, and managed to catch up with 2 other guys (I can’t quite remember their names) running together.
I got chatting to them and it became a case of keeping each other going. This is another great part of Rat Race events, and most trail events actually – everyone might be there for their own personal reason, but we’re all in it together. We’ve all got that adventurous, daft streak in us that made us turn up today, and to not enjoy the last part is the worst feeling.
We kept a good jogging pace for about 20 minutes, and ended up talking about things like travel and food, just to pass that time and refocus. One of them actually recognised me from the second water point and asked about my travelling fan base:
Runner 1: So, you’ve invited your family, and your girlfriend’s family on a weekend away…and it’s the first time they’ve all met?
Runner 1: …and you’ve left your girlfriend with them. For 7 hours. While you bugger off for a run in the hills?
Runner 1: What a dude!
The final 1 – 2 km actually involves going through the same housing estate you went through at the start, including the tunnel. It’s a nice way to finish, and remind you just how far you’ve gone – seriously, at that point you’ll struggle to realise it’s all happened in the same day.
It’s weird how your mind works. Once I’d realised it was just that tunnel, and a short hill run left, that last little bit of energy kicked in. My calves were starting to cramp up, but I didn’t feel exhausted. The mind and soul is willing to keep going, but the body wasn’t as keen.
I’m a huge fan of Trainspotting and Irvine Welsh, and although the race route doesn’t go through any of the famous locations like Princes Street, it was a good excuse at that point to stick on a mixture of Born Slippy by Underworld, and Iggy Pop’s Lust of Life. Weirdly fitting songs for an event like this.
As you come out of the tunnel, and up on to Queen’s Drive, you can hear that sweet sound of the crowd and commentator on the speakers at the finish line. That last 400 metres flies by.
Tips and tricks
- Invest in a good waterproof running jacket: Scotland lived up to its reputation of having every kind of weather in the first hour of the run alone, including torrential rain and gusts on the top of the Pentland Hills. Waterproof jackets are mandatory, but make sure you’ve got a decent one that’ll keep you warm
- Get trail tough: Train the legs under shifting terrain as much as possible. I said the same thing after doing Man vs. Lakes, but sticking to a treadmill and the occasional park run won’t cut it. Get used to running between concrete and trail, and in different weather as well
- Supporters: It’s a great city to bring family and friends, if you can bring supporters along. Getting to water points 2 & 3 are fairly straightforward – according to my very supportive and understanding girlfriend – with Uber and local taxis. Out of all of the Rat Race events I’ve done, this is by far the most accessible for supporters
- Keep an eye out for pedestrians: Event organisers always make a point of noting other people around you, but in this run it’s especially important. The final 10km takes you through parks, the outer parts of the city centre, and busy housing estates
I can officially say I’ve run a complete trail ultramarathon* event. And that is my one and only ultra. I really mean it this time, I’m going to focus on shorter events next year.
Nope. That’s it. No more huge distances.
OK, maybe in 2020.
*I’ve done an official ultra – based on the ‘anything over a marathon’ definition, and not the ‘100 miler or nothing’ psychopath definition.