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July was the first month in a couple of years that I’ve run lots and this is by no means a lot by my own low standards. However, it is a lot compared to how much I have been doing in the last 3 years.

As regular readers will know I moved to Scotland last year and now, being safely ensconsed in my new home, I have the time to dedicate to running. The trouble has been that my body has been ravaged by chronic injury, weight gain and a distinct lack of fitness action and so when the GingaNinja told me that I had finally gotten fat enough, it was decided that I would start to look after myself again and this meant getting fitter.

You may well have read my piece about my poor relationship food (read it here if you like) and my various blogs about a general annoyance at logging every last iota of data from running – I’ve never ascribed to the ‘if it isn’t on Strava then it didn’t happen’ – but this month I did a number of new things;

The first was I put my massive over-eating under control. The second thing was, despite my reservations, I signed up to Strava.

I did a couple of other key things too though, the third thing was I wanted to explore my surroundings and so invested in a few maps and ensured that I sought new and interesting places to run – this was in combination with a subscription to the OS Maps app (highly recommended for easy browsing maps).

I also sought support from my family and asked them to join me on a weekly hike up a hill or mountain within relative striking diatance of home – they heartily agreed and all of this began when we bimbled up to Cairngorms for a week towards the end of June. Now though all I needed to do was commit to the idea of returning to fitness and maybe even getting back down to a weight I could be a bit happier with.

Shaming myself
There was a part of me that felt like being on Strava and Instagram was a form of public shaming and by being more open than usual I would have nowwhere to hide. Those first runs were hard and they were brutal, they lacked any form of pace, my breathing was rubbish and I really was not going that far. Worse than that I had gotten the point where my running shirts were starting to make it look like I’d bought a size too small to show off ‘the goods’ – I hadn’t though. But I was committed to the idea of sharing this information, in part, to highlight to myself how far I had fallen and more importantly how much progress I could make.

Still those first few posts were damning and I hated putting them on Strava and Instagram.

However, as each day passed and I ran a little bit more, with a little more elevation and across harder terrain I could feel the benefits kicking in. Don’t get me wrong I was not going any faster but it was getting easier and I was focusing on climbing rather than distance which made every session I was doing even harder than I would train when I lived in the South East.

To help incentivise myself I added in a few Strava challenges such as the 5km race, the 10km race, 200km in a month and 2,000 metres elevation in a month – expecting to hit only the 5km and maybe the 10km race challenges. There was also the public humiliation of giving over my information to runners I both knew and didn’t know and so logically I began following local, to me runners, who if I knew might be looking at my runs might inspire me to pick up my feet and get round a bit quicker.

Food
The added challenge was that all of this has been run on a diet of around 1400 calories a day and so has been both intense and tough. I love food, especially ‘treat’ food and I’ll reward myself for almost anything. So sticking to a better eating life has been good for me and the whole family. I’ve found myself cooking more again (and enjoying it) and I have generally eaten less – that said my consumption of sugar free Irn Bru has quadrupled (at least). The one thing that has been dropped from my diet is chocolate (not 100% but not far off) and my consumption of sugar has also been drastically reduced – all of this means that I have managed to shed nearly 3kg in weight during July.

I don’t want to make it all sound positive though and there were a couple of bad days where take away food was eaten but I’m trying not to beat myself up about that – these were social occasions and there were more good days than bad, and are that note I can seamlessly segway into the numbers of July…

The Numbers
So how do the numbers stack up for this month?

  • Time on my feet: 29hrs 45 mins
  • Activities: 30
  • Distance: 233.7km
  • Elevation Gain: 4,142 metres
  • Running: 24hrs 16mins
  • Running Distance: 209.6km
  • Running Elevation: 3,332 metres
  • Hiking: 5hrs 6mins
  • Hiking Distance: 22.3km
  • Hiking Elevation: 795 metres
  • Weight: Down 2.8kg
  • Races: 1 (Ben Vorlich Ultra)
  • Instagram Posts: 300
  • Blog Posts: 3

The numbers aren’t amazing but they do show a surge in my activity level and if I can maintain this level then I am sure that I will get faster and continue to get fitter.

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Physical and Mental Wellbeing
I’ve discussed several times that running keeps me healthy both physically and mentally and that when I don’t run then both suffer and while it is bad for my body to be unfit when my mind is unfit I become a much less decent human being. When I was running through London on a daily basis as part of my commute I found this rather stressful and was often having to reach a point by a certain moment or running to another train station because London Bridge was closed or Cannon Street had been flooded or Dartford  was closed so I would then have to wake up tired legs to run the final leg home. Now I am running for pleasure with the greatest pressure deciding on where I need to run – it won’t always be like this but for the moment I am enjoying the freedom afforded by my job, my drive to work and the locations I pass through – which are filled with rich, luxourious landscapes.

My mental wellbeing is as good as it has ever been, if not better and my life feels lighter – of course nothing is perfect and something terrible could happen tomorrow but I’m working on the assumption that it won’t and so as my physical wellbeing improves through the running so does my mental wellbeing and perhaps I’ll get to a point where I won’t be thinking about the next potential disaster situation and rather be thinking about the next step upward.

The Routes
The routes have been the most spectacular part of returning to running and I’ve explored lots of my little part of Scotland, there have been mountains, waterfalls, hills, lots of mud, some tarmac and head high grass at almost place I’ve run – this has been tremendously exciting. Some of my favourite places have been Polmont Woods& Burn, Blackness Castle & The John Muir Way, Torphichen & the Cairnpapple, Muiravonside & the Avon Aqueduct, The Kinneil Estate, Westquarter, The Union Canal,  Dechmont Law, Ben Vorlich, Dumyat & Castle Law, Miekle Bin, Meall a Bhuachaille, Steall Falls, Ravencraig & The Knook, Greendykes Bing, Seafield Law and Rough Castle & The Falkirk Wheel. I can highly recommend trying out some or all of them – it is true to say that these aren’t The Highlands but they are no less fun. I’ll be continuing to explore over the following months more and more areas, I’ll be spending more hours poring over maps to find places that nobody else goes to and I’ll be continuing to get lost as I increasingly seek the off trail routes (my legs have been stung so much this last month).

 

Highlights
The highlights are actually pretty easy and it has little to do with running and more about achieving fitness – climbing up Dumyat & Castle Law in the Ochils with ASK and the GingaNinja and also the climb up The Law was lots of fun. Hoerver, it was more than that, it was excellent preparation for running up hills and testing myself – forcing myself to go slower with a 4 year in tow up a 700 metre ascent means that I have developed patience. So thanks family for helping me get back on track.

The Future
There is much in the diary already – first up is the Thieves Road in a week but I consider that a stepping stone to more challenging oportunities further down the line. The Ambleside 60 in September will take me back to a true love of mine – The Lake District and to a place I spent many happy days during my 20s – from here though things get a little more serious. The Ochil Ultra at the end of September will be hard and at 50 miles it will be a test of how far I have come and will very much determine whether I race the Rebellion. The Rebellion at 135 miles is the furthest I will ever have run – I will have no support crew and I will need to be on point and fit as I can be. If successful I then have four weeks to recover before my 2019 A race – The Montane Cheviot Goat, I am very much looking forward to this and will hopfully serve as reward for several months of hard work – but we shall see.

But the future is about more than races, the future is about my health and wellbeing and that of those around me.

ASK asks me when I am going to die and the answer I give her is that, ‘I’ll die one day, maybe tomorrow, maybe next year or maybe a long time away’. I always remind her that the reason I run and want an active life for all of us is to make sure that I am, and we are, around for as long as possible and it is the reason I ask that she join me on runs and hikes – so that she will live, in her words, ‘a very long time’. There are things I cannot control but this is something that I can influence.

If we can maintain this as a family then we will succeed and I have learnt that I really can’t do it alone and it is not just the support of family I’ve found the social thing much more useful this time around too.

When ‘the social family’ is sending kudos on Strava or liking pictures on Instagram or reading this blog then know that you are making a difference to ensuring I succeed, but not in the way you might imagine I still don’t really care if anybody reads this and if no Kudos or Likes are received then that is fine – I’m not really needy about stuff like that. But exposing myself to social scrutiny is a valuable lesson for me, in that it ensures I am looking at developing an ongoing healthy relationship with my own honesty towards wellbeing and I’d hate to be dishonest so if everyone ignored it I that’s fine because its for my own self satisfaction. Maybe self satisfaction is what this needs to be about – something for me to think about as August comes around.

Anyway, so see you out there and enjoy your running.

 

I’d signed up to the Ben Vorlich Ultra on the back of my entry the Ochil Ultra (also organised by Wee Run Events) and to be fair had not really done much research – but I knew that it ran up a mountain I had been keen to climb and when you combine this with a bit of running then how could you possibly go wrong?

I drove down to the Cultybraggan Camp from sunny Polmont to ensure I left the start line at the earliest possible time – so it was an early kick off. Thankfully the roads were clear and I’d gotten up in time to get ready properly and have breakfast – something that often eludes me pre-race and I always pay the price for it later. Sadly my early morning coffee had not worked other things loose so that might become a problem later in the race (but I did have my tissues with me).

Preparations had been somewhat disrupted that weekend by the GingaNinja having to work late on Friday night, my daughter spending the rest of Friday evening puking her guts up and my Saturday being taken up by the purchase and installation of a treadmil in my garage.

Still it was now Sunday morning and I had arrived, registration was swift and clear –  my number, tracker and  timing band were handed over. There were decent facilities at Cultybraggan Camp  (including what looked like the option of showers). The weather was reasonable, so as a consequence the runners were milling around the starting point rather than being huddled in vehicles or hiding in the registration hut.

The race should have kicked out at 7am, with the runners being allowed to leave anytime after this point – the only stipulation being that you were finished by 10pm – there was small delay to sending us out but nothing significant and with the shout ‘Go!’ we were sent on our merry way.

I felt that the pace of the runners ahead of me was going to be significantly faster than I, and I was right. A lack of training, fitness and being overweight meant that I was going to drop back pretty quickly, however, I didn’t really consider this a problem as I knew that my participation was more about completing the event than trying to get a decent time.

The route headed out of Cultybraggan and towards Comrie along a deep dark path along the River Earn – there were lovely tree roots everywhere, there was mud and there was waist high grass, stinging nettles and thorns that on a wet day would give you some strife. I bounded along the route here thinking that if the entire route was like this then we’d be in for a really good time. This lasted for a couple of miles before arring at the delightful, chocolate box town of Comrie, at 7.30 in the morning Comrie was a sleepy village with a few dog walkers out but later in the day the GingaNinja informed me that it very much became a hotbed of English tourists visiting the area – presumably to taste what she described as he best fish and chips she had ever had.

I digress.

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The route wound its way towards Loch Earn via an old railway line, much of which, for the first half, has been transformed to what can only be described as excellent cycle paths, while the back end is a little more hard packed trail but ultimately both sections were very runnable.

I found myself making rather better time than I imagined I was going to given that my longest run since returning to running has been 19km. Although I was near the back of the pack I really did not mind – I was enjoying the moderate solitude of the event and the surrounds were truly stunning and as I hadn’t been to the Trossachs before I considered this a real opportunity.

I bimbled along the route until arriving into the first checkpoint where I was greeted by some of the lovely race volunteers – water, timing point and importantly a toilet where on offer and I was grateful for the water as my own supply was being quickly exhausted by the conditions which felt a little muggy on this side of the loch (and I do poorly once conditions warm up)!

After a lovely little chat with the checkpoint team I headed out again with a greater understanding of the task at hand. Having trundled along one side of Loch Earn it was now time to travel the opposite side and head to the finish – with just the small matter of Ben Vorlich to negotiate.

Where the first section had been the old converted railway line, this track was the road that ran alongside the loch. Even though it was festooned with signs saying this was ‘walker and cyclist friendly’ I was unconvinced and therefore happy, whenever I met a vehicular foe, to step aside into the undergrowth to allow them to pass. This slowed my progress to the climb and had I been either braver or faster I would probably have made life a little tighter for the drivers, but I’m not, so I didn’t.

There was a gentle breeze around the water which made for pleasant running but still I was hugely grateful to see the checkpoint and my drop bag full of goodies. I helped myself to two chocolate milkshakes, a curry pie and a caramel Freddo (yes I know how to live it up) and also caught up with Ed who was looking for his first ultra finish.

He asked, ‘still going up?’

To which my reply was, ‘of course’.

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It was at this point that the race leader flew into the checkpoint and I felt that actually I must be doing okay as he was only an up and down faster than I was! and so with a cheery wave to the volunteers I headed up – little knowing what was awaiting me.

How much I regretted that decision on the way up – but I wasn’t to fully appreciate that until about 20 minutes into my ascent as realisation crept across my brow. As I started my ascent I noted the succession of runners all making their way down, all looking strong, all contenders for the lead if truth be told, whereas I looked out of place and exhausted – but regardless I moved relentlessly forward.

I had also noted that some of the runners where choosing to use poles – something that I had considered but then given I came to Scotland to learn how to race up mountains without poles it seemed silly to use them here, as this was a genuine test of my training in the nearby home hills. However, as I passed the RD by the side of the path, counting us on the mountain and off it, I regretted my poles decision but, I put in all the effort I could and even when the weather started to close in I simply put on my jacket and dug in.

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The path up Ben Vorlich is clear and easy to follow but it’s rocky, technically demanding and unrelentingly steep with a number of little false summits that lull you into a false sense of completion.

I lumbered my way up and around the loose rock, bruising the underside of my feet as I leaped over sections of tricky wet rock and landing upon sharp jagged stones. As each metre was added to my Suunto ascent total I knew I was slowly nearing the top and as the final peak to the top of the Ben presented itself I pushed hard into the mist – determined to make it.

Being scared of heights made this all the more terrifying at the final moment and I bent down to hands and knees as I thundered that final 10 metres of climb to touch the trig point and grab some photographs. I probably spent 10 minutes up there admiring the view before I remembered this was a race and quickly set off. I say quickly but when you look down from Ben Vorlich you realise just how steep it is and you are forced to slow down. Here I saw Ed for what would be the final time and for the first time I realised that if I wanted to finish anything other than last I would have to move quicker.

 

Once clear of the most severe of the descent I pressed harder down the hill, throwing myself at the rocks and refusing to slow until I saw the RD once more. ‘Alright?’ he said. ‘Got what I came for,’ I replied, ‘to climb Ben Vorlich’ and with that I said goodbye and pressed downwards to the checkpoint once more. My legs were like jelly when I hit the bottom but despite this I offered two young ladies (I’ll assume related to the marshalls) a race back to the checkpoint – which while a physical mistake was a brilliant boost mentally.

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I spent a few minutes with the checkpoint guys, again – properly awesome – and then kicked on knowing that the Ben Vorlich Ultra, for me, had gone from a test of the physical to a test of mental strength. My legs were battered to pieces but I knew they would make it – the problem was going to be knowing that I would be retracing my steps back to the finish and knowing that I had finished with the superb views of mountains. However, there was still the remainder of Loch Earn to negotiate and given how my body was feeling this too was going to be testing. I walked a couple of those road kilometres to try and reduce the effect on my back, hip flexor, right calf and bowels but when I got back to the turn for home I knew I had to start running again.

Thankfully it was about here that the rain kicks in properly and I felt quite content jumping back into my beloved Montane Minimus and I adopted the faithful run/walk strategy through the next 12km or so and it wasn’t until I knew I was in the home strait that I was willing to open the taps a little more and on the old railway I began to run. I smiled as I passed through Comrie and I upped the pace a little further through the trails, refusing to slow even when the waist high grass soaked my feet – I could smell home or so I thought.

The GPS route shouted at me, ‘you’re here’ but as I looked around I can assure you I wasn’t! Frantic I looked round for a sign, it looked so familiar but I was in meltdown – I called the GingaNinja and said, ‘I’m at Cultybraggan Farm but I don’t know where…’ and as I turned round I saw the old barracks in the distance. I’ll be honest I let out a little tear and then put my foot on the accelerator – I ran to the gates and saw my daughter waiting at the far end. I dare not disappoint and so I gave it all I had as she gave some welly to the cow bells.

As I approached ASK she asked to run those final few metres with me and so as a family we all crossed the line. Awesome. Never have I been so happy to finish a race.

Damn good but brutal fun.

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Key points

  • Distance: 60km (ish)
  • Profile: Deceptive and killer
  • Date: July 2019
  • Location: Loch Earn
  • Cost: £55
  • Terrain: Very Mixed
  • Tough Rating: 2.5/5

Route
This is an odd one as I really hate tarmac and there was a decent amount of tarmac here but there was also a decent amount of trail, the views for the most part were spectacular and the route would cover most bases for all but the most dogmatic of trail runners. Therefore I have to say I really, genuinely enjoyed it.

Obviously I was there for Ben Vorlich itself and so the low road that ignored it would not have interested me as much but the going up the mountain really makes this a race to do. That said the route without the mountain climb would make for a really good and fast short distance ultra with only a few hundred metres of climb across the 50km. Ultimately the route has a little bit of something for everyone. I’d say if you’re looking to move up from marathon then the 50km is ace, if you like a bit of tough as old boots climbing then the 60km will test you and if you like something else we’ll you’ll probably enjoy it anyway.

Organisation
I was supposed to run the Ochil Ultra last year with Wee Run Events but given I was moving up to Scotland that day I had to DNS. Therefore I was very much looking forward to meeting the guys as I’d heard the Ochils was a really nice, well organised event. It’s worth taking into account this was a first running of the Ben Vorlich Ultra and as an inaugural event though you expect the team to be ironing things out a little as they find their feet but actually it all seemed pretty smooth – yes there was a minor delay in setting off but this served only to make sure that as many people as possible set off together. The checkpoints were sound and there was water at every stop – what more do you need? The route signage was really good, the marshals were all brilliant, the supplied map was okay, there was tracking and a timing chip and most importantly there was a good base camp which meant your supporters didn’t have to freeze to death. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can bestow is that the RDs looked very much liked they cared about the race and the runners.

Awards
Nicely designed vest (would love a technical version of it, even if this was a race extra) and a cute bespoke wooden medal which was really nice. All the Scottish races I’ve done so far have avoided too many frills and this was no exception the focus has instead been on a couple of really nice items rather than lots of rubbish.

Value for Money
This is always very subjective but the Ben Vorlich Ultra was well organised and well executed. The bespoke medal, cheery volunteers and live tracking, for me, ensure this is well on the right side of good value. As runners you don’t always get to see how much hard work goes on behind the scenes but these guys earned much kudos and I have no hesitation in saying you’d feel it was money well spent if you signed up for the 2020 edition of the Ben Vorlich Ultra.

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Conclusion
Interesting route, great mountain to climb and a lovely medal for completing a tough ultra at the shorter end of the distances we run. Don’t be fooled though and do not underestimate the challenge of Ben Vorlich on the high or the low route as it will give you a kicking if you fail to show respect. The organising team and the volunteers were fabulous on the day and deserve a lot of credit for making it a smooth and enjoyable experience.

I had my issues on the day such as a lack of fitness and a tummy that has been giving me some grief recently (and a rusty bullet hole post race that is so hot I dare not go near it) but that has nothing to do with my conclusions about the race I just wanted to ensure that you, dear reader, understand that despite my relative lack of action both in running and blogging I’ll never forget to add a bit of poo to a race tale.

On a more serious note there are improvements that could be made – a bit more trail running on the route in the second half would make it easier on jelly legs and perhaps an FAQ section on the website to answer questions like, ‘can you use poles?’

Both of these I feel would elevate a really good race to an unmissable race. However, take nothing away from this event it was brilliant and it’s small tweaks rather than significant change that I feel would benefit everyone. The one significant change I might consider would be a single start time – I do like the starting with everyone else and think it might make it easier logistically for the race team but then I can see the flip side that it’s not a massive distance and so you are enabling runners from further afield to attend.

Ultimately I’d give this a go, it’s an unusual ultra but all the better for defying expectations and if I can offer one recommendation and that is I’d always take the high road – it really is worth it. And if it’s any measure of how much I enjoyed it, yes I would certainly go again.

You can find out more at benvorlichultra.run

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