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Falkirk Ultra

Ultraboyruns: Throw a sausage roll at me or something… just chuck it in the pie hole!

What were you doing at 8pm the night before the Falkirk Ultra? Perhaps you were having a relaxing bath? Perhaps you were sorting your kit out? Or maybe you were just listening to Barry White to get you in the mood for some hot Falkirk action. What I’m sure you were not doing was sat in one of the many ‘dance of the lube’ positions while you pushed the massage gun dial to ‘11’ and proceeded to not commit a sexual act on your own bum hole while desperately seeking to resolve the hamstring, hip flexor and abductor injuries that had come hurtling back at that days race, the Chatelherault 6 (read the review here).

I’ve got a feeling I might have been alone in that endeavour.

But here I was, just 12 hours from race start desperately trying to reclaim control my old withered body. When I awoke the next morning at about 5am I sat up gingerly in bed and felt for pain – it wasn’t hard to find but it felt like a dull throb rather than being struck with lightning every five seconds as it had the night before. A very hot shower, lots of stretching and a breakfast of Weetabix and coffee followed as I stared out into the rain splattered darkness I wondered what the hell I was doing.

Anyway with my contemplations (or as other people call it, a pre race poo) done I loaded the car, said adios to the family and then headed down to sunny, sorry, rain soaked Falkirk. Thankfully by the time I arrived the rain was mostly abating but it was cold and I found myself putting on waterproof jacket, trousers and over mitts to keep warm – highly effective I might add.

I ambled down to the darkness encased registration point and despite having already collected my race number from The Foot Store a few days earlier I now needed to pick up my timing chip, I found myself waiting quietly, with my face covered due to Covid-19 being far from eliminated, but my eyesight was drawn to the runner at the registration desk who with bright lights shining behind her looked like she was rather bare bottomed! It took a second or two to register that her rather peachy pink leggings we simply creating an optical illusion but the fatherly side of me wanted to offer her something to cover this pseudo nudity – then I realised I was probably just being old fashioned and instead averted my gaze.

A moment or two later I was called forward to collect my timing chip and it was all very simple and easily done – the guys at the Falkirk Ultra know their stuff. I ambled round for a bit, dropped my kit bag off in the newly and excellently positioned checkpoint and then stripped off, ready to race.

It was about this time that I was then confronted by one the most awesome sights I would have this day and it was ‘Badge’, a gentleman I hadn’t seen since the last Falkirk Ultra (read the 2020 review here) where we had shared many little moments across the 8 hours. I had wondered if he would be at the race, perhaps even running but no he was back on support duties and it was wonderful to have him there – I would be catching up with him later!

The Falkirk Ultra is an oddity in that it’s my home race, but it’s only been my home race since 2019, yet there would be lots of runners I would know here, well, if the entrants list was anything to go by. Neil, Pauline, Graeme, a few of the Linlithgow Running Buddies and a Fiona or two were just some of the names I recognised and then there was the smorgasbord of others from Instagram and Strava that I might recognise.

Oddly, in the build up to blast off, I had seen none of them but I assumed they were going to make a late dash to the start to try and keep as cosy as possible, for as long as possible.

As the minutes to the start of the race eeked away I made my way to the start line and met a couple of lovely chaps, one of whom was asking about my Topo Athletic MTN Racer 2 and the other was a fella I had met the previous day at the Chatelherault 6. He’d managed to run about 33 miles at the race the previous day, a lot more than I had managed, and he looked incredible whenever I saw him during today’s undertaking. Talking to him reminded me there are ultra marathoners and there are ultra marathoners – he was definitely in the better category than the one I belong to.

It was while the chatter was happening that the race brief took place and the start happened, I was in my own little bubble and completely missed it and with all the urgency I could muster set off after the crowd of runners ahead of me. It’s times like this that I think I really need to pay more attention to the race itself instead of trying to enjoy myself.

There was no chance of going off like a rocket as I needed to keep an eye on the injuries that I had sustained during the previous day‘s racing. However all that massage gun therapy had left me feeling reasonable and having had a lazy start to the race I thought I’d better catch up a bit.

Just a few hundred metres into the race I saw Fiona and she shouted over to me, but just as we were about to start a brief catch up, she dropped something and I found myself in the company of Alan, a runner that I’d never met before but coincidentally had just been asking Fiona about this guy on Strava called, ‘UltraBoy’. Lucky for him Fiona not only knew him but she also knew his real name and so I started my first of many enjoyable chats of the race!

Alan though was moving at a pace that I needed to slow down from, for the sake of my injuries and as we descended, what would become, the long slow mud slide, I bade him farewell.

It was also here that I passed the ladies, Lynne and Frances that I knew from the Linlithgow Running Buddies but I had no doubt that they would be once more overtaking me any second.

I had decided that if I could have lap one as a bit of a flying lap then I would be in a better position to slow down later in the race if the injuries reared their head. Therefore as I came to the first of the many climbs in the Falkirk Ultra I knew that the only sensible thing was to take it easy and even as I saw runners battering past me I tried not to get drawn into running beyond my body’s current ability.

Once we reached the first stretch of relative flat though we all realised that today was going to be heavy going. The course was churned up pretty badly and this usually pretty quick stretch was muddy and claggy and easy to get bogged down in. Most runners were moving to the sides to get through but such is my desire to embrace the filth I simply went straight through the middle and leaped across the mud attempting to clear the worst of the wet in a single bound. Obviously this was the action of a runner on their first lap, it would not be the action of this runner on his second or third lap, I’d simply stumble through the mud desperate to keep my feet.

However, for now I chuntered through the trail, doing my best impression of a runner and trying to stay in the 33 mile game. If the course was the same as the first time I ran this in 2020 then it should be fine, there would be a significant stretch of flat ahead and I would be able to keep it together for 8 of those kind of loops. Up on to the hard packed trail I could see some more volunteers in the distance but instead of letting us go past they were directing us to the right, or as I like to think of it, upwards.

Bugger.

Here I saw Badger once more, armed with a massive grin as he saw my face at what awaited us. The notion crossed my mind that he had asked for this marshalling point because he has that wickedly cheeky grin about him that would both soothe and infuriate runners as he sent them on their way. Part of me wondered if he had asked for it so he could have a laugh at my expense, I mean that’s what I would have done had the roles been reversed.

Anyway after our first bit of banter he told me to get going and so it was that I joined the throngs of other runners, attempting to make the best of the new, seemingly more challenging route. Here I saw some of the runners running up the hill but I knew that if I wanted to make it much past the first lap I was going to have to move uphill at a more sedate pace and so I slowed to a fast walk. The great thing about a fast walk up a hill is that it can often be more effective than running and I found myself stomping past people who had taken the first 100 metres of the hill at a fair old lick and then slowed to a crawl, and although they would catch me when we finally reached the inevitable downhill I knew that my running strategy for the day would work if my leg held together.

At the top of the hill the route flattened out for a little bit and this whole section was good running and when the downhill arrived it wasn’t so severe that you felt out of control, in fact, I found myself thoroughly enjoying the race, albeit that this was the first lap.

Round and down we continued and past more lovely volunteers, all looking pretty freezing, but all super enthusiastic and there was the water stop for the route – very considerately, not located at the start. It takes a great race director to think that you might not need water at the start line but that it might be better placed on the route somewhere, especially when that same RD has provided a massive tent for you and the other competitors to keep your own supplies in at the start. This was good thinking Falkirk Ultra.

Thankfully it was too early in the event to be needing water and I was carrying my own supplies anyway and so I carried on to the next volunteers just a couple of hundred metres along, presumably stationed to stop you running down the path and making a significant wrong turn. The two ladies here seemed quite comfy with a couple of seats and possibly even a hot drink, so I did suggest they could get me a nice hot cuppa for my next loop – I thought I heard them say they’d do their best but the tea never materialised, ha!

We now looped back on ourselves and I was finding that this iteration of the route was much more fun and possibly even a bit faster than the previous edition I had run. As I was bimbling along I could now hear the buzz of the race village next to Callendar House and it really gave me a little lift even though I had no real idea how much more winding and wending around the park I was going to have to do before I would return to the start. The reality was that I was probably only 2km from the start again but before I got there I needed a little stop on the last downhill of the loop.

This stop was to be my regular, built in stop that would give me a minute or two to stretch both my hip flexor and my hamstring and try and bring them under some form of control. All the way round the loop I had been able to feel my hamstring and given that I had been pushing a little bit this was unsurprising but the exercises I had been given, and my own variations on them, to maximise their effectiveness, proved both timely and race saving. When I returned to the race, a couple of minutes later, my leg felt a more secure and certainly more warmed up then about half an hour ago.

I arrived at the turning of the first climb to be greeted by a tremendous volunteer who must have had a sheet with the names and numbers of the runners on as he greeted so many of us by name and had a little joke or word of encouragement for everyone and not generic encouragement either, he was a brilliant volunteer amongst the sea of brilliant volunteers, this coupled with his buddy at the entrance to the run round the lake (the chap with the music) was such a wonderful sight to see on each of the loops but on the first loop it was such a nice surprise and one that delighted and inspired in equal measure each time I saw them (twice per lap).

From here it was a relatively relaxed bimble back to the start but I continued to press harder on this first lap so that I really could slow down and with a little under 40 minutes on the clock I was feeling pretty good that I could slow down by about 10 minutes per lap and therefore manage my body to the finish.

Before I reached lap 2 though I was greeted by two wonderful volunteers who I shared a little dance with and this became a recurring theme throughout the event as I looked to up the ante each time I would amble past them. This was one of the highlights of each loop and as these volunteers stayed in position for the whole event I needed to plumb the depths of my dancing knowledge to do something a little different on each rotation.

I battered on past them though and headed straight past the checkpoint area, stopping only to moan at poor Pauline who, along with Fiona, have had to listen to my griping since we first crossed paths all those years ago at the Skye Trail Ultra. I’m sure I should buy these lovely runners a pair of ear defenders each with the words, ‘sod off’ emblazoned on them so that when they see me coming they can just put them on!

Eventually I was told to get a move on and so I beat a hasty retreat to the course and did as I was told.

From here it was then a mental battle of could I keep going and beat my next target of halfway before the 4 hour mark. If I couldn’t get to the halfway distance by the end of half the time then I would call it a day and try and save my aching for the following weekends pair of races in Kent.

Over the course of the next couple of hours I ran, trudged and grumbled my way round the challengingly fun course and met oodles of amazing runners and volunteers that just kept me going that little bit longer.

I would be extremely fortunate to meet runners old and new that would provide good conversation to keep me going, I got a sizeable update from the amazing Fiona and I chatted to a wonderful athlete called Elspbeth who had come from Orkney to race at Falkirk, just two of those little chats that make this such a great race to compete in. The one runner I didn’t see though was Graeme and this was disappointing because he is a big character and the kind of guy you’d want on the course to give you a big dose of reality and to put a big smile on your face. However, despite him not being there the race had lots of tremendous personalities and you were never short of someone to share a few moments with.

I suppose my trouble wasn’t a lack of interesting running buddies, my trouble was that as the race grew further into the day I could feel the difficulties brewing in the injury department.

Sadly no amount of stretching, chocolate milkshake stops, chitty chat or dancing volunteers could take away from the fact that I was ruined and I’d decided, long before the fourth hour ended my race by not being further than halfway, I would retire by my own hand.

Fate however, has a way of really pissing me off and I ran into some faces that I knew from the Linlithgow Running Buddies and there’s something in my DNA that can’t give up when there’s a face I recognise. Had I not seen Lynne and Frances then maybe I’d just have finished my lap and said thanks very much for the memories, but, I did run into them, and then kept running into them. Let me assure readers that I really wanted them to sod off so I could stop – but they didn’t and so instead of stopping I kept going.

I found something of a second wind, or as I like to think of it, the telling of some ‘poo stories’ and suddenly the idea of stopping seemed ludicrous.

More running was done and even after the guys from the Running Buddies had finally left me behind the race seemed to know what I needed and there in all her running awesomeness was Linda… Linda of Doune!

‘Doune!’ I cried, ‘Harvey Maps!’

And suddenly I found myself deep in conversation with a delightful runner and learnt all about the little town that I’d been through a thousand times to get to races, but never stopped at, despite being desperate to visit Harvey Maps. (Linda should you be reading this I did, the day after the race, finally get to go to Doune, where I ordered a bespoke map from Harvey Maps, visited the shop, went and bought a ton of plants from the wonderful little plant shop opposite, had amazing curry, chips and curry pie from the little take-out place and best of all got muddily, soaking wet in and around the lovely Doune Ponds).

Sadly, Linda told me she was cutting her race short at five laps – having not raced for quite some time – but even as we parted she looked really strong and I look forward to coming across her again at some point.

It was these interactions that were keeping me going but then two massive things ensured that I wouldn’t give in at one of my favourite events. The first was the arrival of a very familiar voice coming at pace from behind me. I could feel the hot breathe and even hotter feet of Neil chasing me down, looking to lap me. Well bugger that for a game of tennis, he wasn’t getting past me without a fight and suddenly my aching muscles found their way out of third gear for a moment and made the good doctor work for his overtake.

As we ambled along together for a while I realised I hadn’t seen him in about 2 years and yet he is one of those people you just immediately are pleased to see, even if he is overtaking you (three times). Now that overtake was inevitable but came much later than I thought it might, I feel this was mostly due to Neil running with another chap who was racing an absolute blinder but perhaps not quite at Neil’s usual race pace. This slither of good fortune meant I didn’t watch them running off into the distance until I had finished lap 5 and was back down at the bottom of ‘the mudslide’ and cosying up to another musically inclined and incredibly supportive volunteer!

I mentioned two things happened though, the first was seeing Neil but the second and perhaps most important thing happened, the family turned up. One of the runners said to me that having them there must be a real lift and truth to tell I doubt he understood just how right he was. Seeing ASK and the GingaNinja is always a boost, especially when I’m finding it gruelling and rest assured dear reader I was finding this incredibly gruelling. With my family hanging around for the remaining laps I knew I had the incentive to keep going to the end and with time now firmly on my side I could only see a positive conclusion to the race.

Obviously there were the remaining laps to conclude and with runners now entering final laps and the large groups of runners thinning as the laps counted down it became harder to maintain the momentum from the various boosts I had received. However the on course support from the volunteers was immense as I pounded inch by inch closer to that 33 mile finish line.

As I approached the conclusion of my 7th lap I still had more than 90 minutes remaining before the race cut off of 8 hours was reached and there was a moment where I realised that even if I walked the route slowly I would reach the finish before the end of the event and even with the cheering at the race village I slowed to a bit of a meander for that final loop – I did not have it in me to run.

On the mudslide I could see ASK at the bottom alongside the GingaNinja and the wonderful volunteer who had sung and danced through the last 7 hours of the race and I gave it a little bit of welly to make sure I didn’t disgrace myself in front of the child. I then gingerly moved along the tarmac and back into the woods were I slowed to a crawling pace, ensuring I got all the stops I needed by having a little chuckle with the lovely marshals and waving at the passing runners I knew who were soon to be finishing.

And so there I found myself, on the final lap, sort of alone, happy in my thoughts, going as fast as possible but without putting too much pressure on myself.

Lovely.

But in the near distance another runner was slowly gaining on me, she too seemed to be having a lovely day and when she finally caught me at the top of the first of the two biggest hills in the woods we got chatting and my gentle amble to the finish line turned into an experience that I really, really enjoyed.

I’d bumped into the wife of one of the race organisers and I was able to pass on my most genuine thanks through her for everything and everyone that makes the Falkirk Ultra the absolute blast that it is. Much like me though I think she was rather tired of the course amendment of the additional hill but it was something we could complain about together and Lynn made a fantastic running companion for these final few kilometres.

Maybe I shouldn’t be so grateful to her because she ruined my opportunity for a slow jaunt to the finish, instead she inspired me to do things like running even when my legs really didn’t want to and as we came around the lake for the final time she kept me going at a fair old lick.

As we passed the side of Callendar House I saw that ASK was waiting, cheering in that mildly patronising way she does, but this was the time for a dad and daughter to finish the race together – I waved Lynn onwards to the finish, thanking her as she went and then ASK and I started running together.

There is something about holding the hand of your 7 year old daughter that fills you with both joy and energy at the end of a race and with a final blast I could feel the burning of my heart, pumping blood back into my veins. My feet lifted off the ground and ASK and I blasted to the finish, dipping ahead of Lynn on the line and roaring to the end of 33 bloody, muddy, amazing miles.

What an awesome race this was.

Overview

  • Distance: 4.15 mile loop (ish)
  • Ascent: Couple of small climbs
  • Date: February 2022
  • Location: Falkirk
  • Cost: £33
  • Terrain: Muddy, undulating, fun
  • Tough Rating: 2.5/5

Route
Since any of us last ran the route in 2020 there have been a few changes, there is a little bit more climb and little bit more descent. The key change is the amount of fun you are going to have on the route, in 2020 the route was pretty much perfect but in 2022 the organisers have actually managed to improve on it. Yes the ascent is a little bit tougher but the descent is such fun, it is the kind of the thing that makes you go ‘weeeeeeeeeeee’ as you’re running. However, it is not just the addition of the new climb it is also the way that we took back to the beginning which is much less like a mud bath and infinitely more runnable and these aspects make the course a little faster overall in my opinion.

Could you get bored doing 8 hours on this loop? Not a chance, it has a little something for everyone, for me that thing was the wet and the mud and the route has enough of this to keep you interested and ensure that you go home with filthy running shoes and wet feet.

The route, as was the case in my previous running, incredibly well signed and also heavily marshalled in a truly supportive way, I always felt like there was someone with a kind word to get me through to the next bit. I love this route, because you get something of everything and you’ll never be quite sure what you will get on the day, if the Falkirk Ultra had a very rainy year then this route would be an absolute trudge fest but a wet, fun trudge fest, if it was snowy or icy then that would present a different type of test again, if it is reasonably dry as it was this year then you get good, pacey running and people lapping you (well if you’re at the back like me).

Everyone should give the Falkirk Ultra a go, it really is an absolute cracker.

Organisation
There were a few changes compared to last time such as the opportunity to grab your number and goody bag in the week leading up to the race and I felt that this was a really good move – not just because of Covid but because it improved the pace of everything on race day. Runners were able to arrive ready to run and the queue for the collection of timing chips was a swift moving affair.

That whole organisation of the event is tremendous and while I am sure it is incredibly stressful and challenging putting this together, especially under the glare of the pandemic, the guys make it look easy. There should be nothing but respect for both the organisers and the marshalling team that help bring this together.

Value for money
I’ve said it before and I will say it again, this race is too cheap and while I understand the ethos behind trying to bring a great value event to runners I am sure they could charge a few extra pounds and make sure that it keeps coming back year and year and I have no doubt that the runners will still come even if we had to pay a few extra pennies.

Let’s look at what you got… this year we had the t-shirt, the bespoke medal, the awesome Falkirk Ultra bobble hat, beer, Irn Bru Extra, Tunnocks wafer and of course all the gubbins associated with the event itself. I cannot express how amazingly good value this event is. I mean part of me doesn’t want to mention it for fear that you’ll beat me to a place in the 2023 edition but there we have it, at a time when everything else seems to be offering you less for more money, the Falkirk Ultra offers you more for less money. Thanks guys.

Volunteers
I’ve been fortunate to run at events with some truly inspiring volunteers – the St Peter’s Way, Vigo Tough Love 10, Skye Trail Ultra, The Yorkshire Three Peaks Ultra, Jedburgh Three Peaks and many, many more but there is something about the atmosphere that the marshals and organisers bring to the Falkirk Ultra that is extra special. You never get all the volunteers names and I’m writing this several weeks after the event and therefore I really have forgotten all the names I collected but what I haven’t forgotten are those special individuals that made this event possible. The pair of chaps at the entrance to the woods and the entrance to the run alongside the water those two were absolutely amazing and really kept me going when I felt like giving up. The pair of young ladies at the waterside who shouted, ‘dancer’ at me on nearly every single lap and had to put up with the least effective twerking that any human being has ever witnessed. The lone chap with the wonderful beard who stood there smiling for 8 long hours, the lady at the bottom of the mud slide who jigged her way through 8 hours of supporting runners, the guys who laughed and joked with the runners from their secluded position under the trees (I think these poor guys had to listen to my terrible jokes), the ladies who stopped us heading off to the road and all the water point marshalling volunteers – all brilliant. And of course there were the volunteers who sent us up the new hill (not a euphemism), including the awesome Badger (disappointingly bordering on cleanly shaven), all of whom gave us the positive vibes needed to keep going with clapping, cheering and cow belling you could ask for – thanks guys! What I can say is that I will have forgotten people, such as all the team in the main ‘race village’ area and to anyone else out on the course that I have missed, you too were awesome.

Awards
A simple and very effective medal and I certainly earned that medal this year.

I’ll probably treasure this medal even more than the 2020 one because of the way I managed to hold it together despite the injuries and the pain. As mentioned in the value for money section there was also another awesome branded bobble hat and a simple, branded black technical t shirt. You get a lot of useful stuff for your money at this event – other race directors take note!

My race
Can I complain about how I got on? No of course I can’t because I finished and about 12 hours before the finish there was still a massive question mark over whether I would even get past the starting line. It took every ounce of control I have to run gently, to remember to stop and stretch, to not get over excited and caught up in running with other people (although this did happen a bit when I came across runners I knew). I understood that my body wasn’t in any shape to do this event and yet I managed to manage things well enough to get round. The Falkirk Ultra remains in my top 10 races and rightly so, because it is a tremendous event, and I was very keen to make sure I started and I was equally keen to make sure I finished and I did just that.

Conclusion
‘Life is a lemon and I want my money back’ sang Meat Loaf, but had he met me at the end of the Falkirk Ultra he would have realised that life is anything but a lemon and I’d pay again and again to live these kinds of 8 hours again, hence why if the race returns for 2023, 2024, 2025… (you get the idea), I will be back.

In 2020 I went to the Falkirk Ultra with no expectations because I had never done it before but in 2022 I went with expectations that were sky high because of my amazing previous experience. I am pleased to conclude that the 2022 edition of the Falkirk Ultra exceeded all my expectations.

To find out more about the Falkirk Ultra visit their Facebook page.


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Time: 8 Hours
Target: 8 Laps

It was about 5.30am, I’d had a lovely big mug of coffee whilst sitting upon the old porcelain throne and yet no matter how much I jiggled and wriggled – nothing would be released. So with much trepidation I rose from my perch and slapped on a handful of lubricant and squeezed it into every crevice before putting on my running kit – for today was Falkirk 8 hour Ultra day.

Surprisingly I’d been quite relaxed about the race as my week had been busy with a disaster situation over Scotland’s status in the European Union and Saturday had brought me the opportunity to go racing with my daughter and also join a pro-independence rally at Holyrood Park. So the reality is that the Falkirk Ultra came as something of a light hearted surprise to my week.

Let me roll back about three weeks to my status as a very unfit, very overweight, very slow runner who was about to attempt Tyndrum 24 (read about it here). While I had very much enjoyed the event I’d also been left feeling a bereft, missing my fitness and my turn of pace but mostly I was missing my ability to endure. I’d run less than 8hrs in good conditions and managed a paltry 30 miles in that time – Falkirk with forecasted cruddy conditions seemed to be headed to an even worse result.

Still with a coffee inside me and dressed for a race I drove the few short miles to the car parking and then grabbed my stuff with the aim to be at the registration tent nice and early. As I ambled through the park I wasn’t quite sure what would greet me outside Callendar House but I hadn’t imagined that an entire race village would be being constructed – yet here it was, being built before my very eyes.

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There were dozens of little tents and shelters going up for groups of clubs and runners and suddenly I realised that there might not be anywhere for the solo entrant to dispense with their stuff, thankfully my fears were unfounded and the registration tent would become the excellent location for drop bags. But I’m getting ahead of myself, I dipped into an empty registration tent at about 6.45am and picked up my bits, including a goody bag. Now normally goody bags are rubbish and when you’ve entered a race that costs £30 you don’t expect much in the way of extras but this was different.

In the paper bag we were given a Tunnocks tea cake, some Brewdog beer but most importantly was a lovely lightweight hoody and a pretty cool buff. I’d requested one of the cowbells too and made an £8 purchase of the race woolly hat. I felt like I was fully loaded on merchandise.

For the next hour I ambled around making a nuisance of myself as runners I knew came in for registration and said hello and had lovely chats with them all. There were a couple of guys from the Tyndrum 24, some local runners that I’ve gotten to know over the past few months and even a few of the Linlithgow Running Buddies that I’d had run with a few times.

The Falkirk Ultra was turning into a bit of an ultra meetup and there is nothing wrong with that.

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As light came the little race village that had been built the atmosphere began to grow and then the music started and the PA system kicked in – all systems started to ramp up and then we heard the announcement that we would be kicking off at 8.15am – so take your place behind the line and get ready to go. Here it was that I ran into Frances and Kieron from the Linlithgow Running Buddies – I felt compelled to complain about his wearing of ‘Shites’ (shorts and tights) but before we could get into the rights and wrongs of it we were off.

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Now for those of us that are local we will have been  well aware that Falkirk had recently enjoyed a healthy dose of rainfall and some snow too – this meant that the course was bound to boggy and with hundreds of runners passing through the route on multiple occasions the surface was going to be churned up extensively. The course itself had undergone some reconfiguration in the days leading up to the race due to the creation of a small temporary duck pond/lake just outside the main house – therefore what the next eight hours looked like were anyone’s guess.

For the first lap I went out pretty hard  – I knew that the aim was to produce 1 lap per hour or thereabouts and if I could add in some contingency while my hip and back were in decent shape then I could slow down later without too much concern about finishing. I put myself in the middle of the pack and gently hunkered down to my race strategy, not keen to chat to anyone on the first lap – I barely acknowledged the wonderful volunteers and marshals that were at regular intervals on the course.

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I ran to the first and only significant climb on the course and for the first lap made great strides up it, I was determined that I would run up this bugger at least once today and I managed that but no more (I promised myself, it hurt far too much) and it was a decision that a number of runners would make.

As I reached the top of the hill I could see ahead of me the ‘shit show of mud’ that awaited us – on a good day with fresh legs or being a good strong runner you’d eat this up but being neither strong or good I was going to struggle through this – and I did. I enjoyed this section of the course, it felt the most ‘trail’ and despite it being a little bit narrow because the mud was so churned up it was still a delight to see it on each and every lap.

In the early laps I could see runners both slow and fast avoiding the worst of the conditions trying to protect their feet but for me I was confident that my combination of Lone Peaks, Drymax socks and Injinji toe liners could easily go through the worst of it and still protect my rather sensitive tootsies. Infact in these early laps as others went around mud I chose to go straight through it and enjoyed it as it the spray attached itself to my legs. I do love it when you’re absolutely coated in mud before you’ve done your first mile and this reminded of running my beloved Vigo Tough Love 10.

As I came out of the mud and back onto the more traditional country park paths I found myself slowing down a little bit, this was harder packed and therefore less good for my old and knackered hips but still very runnable and much more to my tastes than the harder trails of Tyndrum 24. I bumbled along letting runners go past me and occasionally overtaking a runner and soon found myself heading downwards to more enthusiastic volunteers – possibly the most enthusiastic I saw all day, however, at this point I was still on a mission – how fast could I get round that first lap.

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The lap from this point was still headed in a generally downward direction and it was still going through the more heavily wooded area of Callendar Park  – this was rather enjoyable and I was confident that I knew were headed to the turn out of the woods before rejoining the park a bit further down and then along the tarmac back to the start.

Sadly I was only half right.

I was right about the downward curvature back into the park but in the distance I saw a procession of runners heading back to the tarmac via a rather dippy, slippy field and even at this early stage you could see runners pretending to be aeroplanes with arms aloft looking for balance.

I reached the turning back on to the grass and moved slowly down it – this was nasty already and I swiftly sought out a return to what looked like a path. I ran along down into the dip and then climbed back out with all the skill of man with no skill whatsoever. This climb down and the clamber up proved to be some of the most comical viewing during the day and would give you a little smile as you watched runners struggling with it and knowing that you’d shortly be the entertainment for some other poor unfortunate!

But it was soon over and we were back on flat, sensible tarmac… but that was not a good thing. I didn’t yet know it but this section of the route would be the real mental test, every looped race has one, the bit you really hate, the bit that makes you think you should pack it all in and for me it was where you hit the tarmac again until you were back at the checkpoint.

Thankfully the Falkirk 8 Hour Ultra had something of an ace up its sleeve and that was the four sets of checkpoint volunteers that saw you through this horrible chore and even on lap one I needed the inspirational words of these lovely people. Ambling alongside the lake for what felt like an age I looked enviously towards the other side of the water to witness runners completing their first lap or in some cases getting well into their second. It wasn’t until I made it to the other side of the lake that I wished I was back on the other side…

Before a single runner had set foot on the checkpoint side of the lake it was already a well churned bog – the runners weren’t going to improve that but it was going to make for an interesting battle between us and sliding feet first in the cold lake just a few feet below us. I crossed the thick oozy mud in good time and propelled myself forward in about 33 minutes but a toilet and food stop made it more like 39 minutes before I set off again.

My stop was probably the longest one I had during the whole event as I’d missed breakfast and wanted to make sure I ate regularly. I chowed down on some kinder chocolate, a couple of delicious Caramel Freddo and a chocolate milkshake before filling up my water with Active Root – damn fine stuff that is, probably stopped me crapping myself!

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I soon returned to the drizzle and the course having removed my long sleeved layer in an attempt to stop me overheating. I am led out waving at those who gave a cheery hello or supportive wave and offered encouragement to those coming in – loops makes it easier to wish people well and you’ll sometimes remember those who, like myself, might benefit from a word or three of encouragement.

My second lap was nowhere near as energetic and the first section of the loop was getting muddier and more treacherous with every step, but this I was enjoying and the volunteers at the bottom of the slope seemed to be having fun with it too (well as much as you can have within health and safety guidelines of getting your runners safely through). I continued to stretch my legs until I reached the bottom of the hill and then my body told me that this was it, each loop was now going to be a case of hanging on and seeing if we could get to the magic 8 loops.

What happened next is a bit of a haze of names, hiking and sheer bloody mindedness. I met Ed a few times who was a lovely runner that was having a bit of a day of it – but actually going really rather well, there was Heather who had this awesome hat on that had a charm almost as big as it’s owner and then there was the lovely Susan who I ran a really brilliant lap with having a lovely chat with.

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The ever amazing Neil passed me a couple of times – always with practical words of encouragement and Fiona 1 and Fiona 2 both gave me lovely supportive boosts as they too saw fit to pass by me. It wasn’t just people I’ve met before though – there was Julie from Strava that turned round in the registration queue to say hello and I ran into a couple of other runners who shouted out, ‘hey are you UltraBoy?’ To which I of course reply, ‘ sort of…’ and I was either known through this blog or Strava.

The Falkirk Ultra really was a running community event.

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However, I did meet one runner that made me laugh every second I was with her and that was Tracy (without an e). I think we were both on lap 5 she was ready to call it a day over an injury concern and I should have been thinking the same thing as my hip and groin were ruined. But some days you meet a person who lifts your spirits enough that you forget about the trauma and you’re reminded that you’re actually going okay.

In the time we ran together I found new energy, I was a bit lighter on my feet and I forget about the previous laps and the tiredness of my legs. I did promise she’d make it into this blog and she makes it in not so much for how brilliant she was (although she was) she makes it in because she said, ‘my mums at the bridge, I’m getting a hug’.

Well that’s a red rag to a bull.

‘I’m getting a cuddle too. What’s your mums name? I’ll ask her does she remember me, dip in for the cuddle and then tell her it was a hot steamy night in ’83 – she had the white wine spritzer and I had the babysham’.

I have no idea what Tracy’s mum must have thought but I hope she understands that what happens at an ultra stays at an ultra (wink, wink – I joke).

Tracy (and mum) were awesome and I am pleased to say that both of us made it back out on another lap.

By lap 7though I was sore, really sore and although I was still well within my strategised time I was hoping the short loop would open soon so I could forget the long loop and I’d probably still reach 50km (a shorter loop opened up at 3pm to allow runners to continue running without forfeiting distance when the bell went for the finish at 4.15pm).

However, I finished lap 7 with about 90 minutes remaining – I felt the need to go and do the big loop one final time – despite having already said most of my thanks to amazing volunteers. It very much felt like the only sensible thing to do… well maybe not sensible but I was doing it anyway.

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So steeled for one final battle I headed out and this time with nobody but myself and the clock to run against I found my second wind and started running up inclines, more fool me of course but I was making a much better fist of lap 8 than I had on a couple of the others.

I danced and twirled my way around the course – daring the mud to take me – daring it to cast me groundwards bit it never did. In truth, despite the conditions I remained sure footed throughout but never more so than now. I battled down the hill to a meeting with ‘The Badger’ (more on him later) and onwards toward the finish – there would be no short loops for me.

As I crossed the tarmac in the distance I could see my daughter waving feverishly toward me, and I to her. I picked up my feet and my pace to continue the illusion that her dad is the worlds greatest runner and as she called out I lifted her high into my arms in a display of muscular movement I did not consider possible.

I stopped for a few moments to talk to her but time was pressing and I wanted to make sure this lap counted and so I waved goodbye to my family, thanking the lovely marshal at the turning point and then I headed for home.

One final lurch across the mud and there I saw the finish and most other runners on the short lap – I didn’t want to limply cross that line – I wished to show my mettle and so with the GingaNinja and ASK at the finish I picked up my feet with 100metres to go and raised hell with a sprint that swerved between the short loop runners and crossed the line in a flurry of my own excitement.

I’d actually done it.

I’d made it.

  • Distance: 3.8mile loop (ish)
  • Ascent: Nothing hideous – just felt it (under 100 metres per lap)
  • Date: February 2020
  • Location: Falkirk
  • Cost: £30
  • Entrants: 350 (inc. relay runners)
  • Terrain: Muddy, undulating
  • Tough Rating: 2.5/5

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Route
What do you want from your route? A route that will be predictable or one that surprises you? The Falkirk 8 Hour Ultra has something for everyone to love and something to loathe. I loved it for the most part, the mud was challenging, the inclines & the declines were awesome and the tarmac that threaded it together was minimised.

Even with last minute changes to the route this still felt well prepared and overall you’d be silly not to fall in love with this. Obviously I’m a little biased as I live near Falkirk and run often in or around the park but this route took in some fun bits and even in the grey weather we had it’s still a lovely place to run.

The route was incredibly well marked and heavily marshalled but not in an intrusive way, you just felt secure in the knowledge that the race really did have your back.

My hope is that the route recovers quickly from so many runners racing around it so the event is welcomed back next year – this is a great place and a great place to have a route of this nature on. Scotland needs ultra marathons during the winter to support runners like myself and Falkirk will benefit from the goodwill of runners and a deepening reputation as a place where great events can be held (let us not mention Epic from the week before!)

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Organisation
I’ve been to a few races in my time and I’ve seen good and bad organisation but let me assure you that the organisation, preparation and selflessness of the organisers went so far above and beyond any expectations I had.

The organisers deserve a huge amount of credit for producing an event par excellence!

I was impressed by the race village that popped up (which the organisers might not be 100% responsible for but made sure it was sensibly located, etc), facilities such as toilets were excellent, parking was sensible given we, quite rightly, couldn’t use the main facilities at Callendar Park.

Even the organisation of the short loop, the updates for race timings seemed to be so effortless, it was a joy to behold – you, as the runner could simply get on with the business of dying out on the insanely fun course! Of course we all know that only a lot of hard work makes something like this look effortless, so my huge congratulations.

As a solo runner I was also mightily impressed about the way the big registration tent was cleared down and our bags were elevated off the ground to ensure that we had very easy access to our kit and I found myself very happily dipping in their briefly each lap and then coming back out onto the course to be welcomed by the race supporters – it was really nice.

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Value for Money
I normally have to question just how good the value of an event is but I can be effusive in my praise that this is probably the best value race you’ll ever do – £30! Let me put this into perspective – that’s the same as coffee and a toasted sandwich at Starbucks for two – and this race gives you a lot more than any corporate monster will.

Compare this with say the Epic Falkirk race at Callendar Park a few days earlier and you can immediately see the difference.

The route was fun, the time and dedication of the people who put this together was clearly evident. The excellent thought that went into the items in the goody bag was really appreciated and then the bespoke medal – what a corker.

People of Falkirk, people of Scotland, people of the world – this is an amazingly good value event and while I would highly recommend it to all of you could you make sure that I get a place every year as this is my local ultra and I’m going to look forward to it year in, year out!

Volunteers
I promised I would get to ‘The Badger’ and here we are but first I want to say a huge thank you to every single one of the marshalling team, on a cold, wet day at the start of February you stood out and supported hundreds of runners that you probably didn’t know and you gave each and every one of love and encouragement from start to whatever our finish was.

I was particularly fortunate, I got to have cuddles with just about everyone, the lovely ladies who were at the bottom of the hill and gave me both cuddles and the odd kick up the arse. The cowbell ladies who must have had ringing ears by the end of the day and the poor young lady who lost her leopard skin print gloves – amazing. The dancing ladies, the downhill turning point marshals, the chaps as we ran back into the park – all of them had a cheery smile no matter how many times I told terrible jokes.

The guys on the tarmac – couple of lovely beards there (one ginger and one badger), these guys I looked forward to seeing each lap and got lots of big hugs from them. There is something wonderful about drawing big chaps into a cuddle with a fool like me – plus it gives you a lift and hopefully it reminds them just how much they are appreciated.

I’d also like to say thanks to the great ladies who were at the two bridges who accepted my flirtatious charm with all the humour it was intended with.

And then the couple of guys at the run back to the checkpoint, one to advise us to get closer to the water as the ground grew ever more treacherous and one to bang his piece of metal with a drum stick – I may on lap 7 have suggested that I knew were he could put that drumstick… you can guess the rest.

If I missed anyone out, believe me you aren’t forgotten – every marshal and member of the team contributed a massive amount to its success and I am confident all the runners would bow down before your dedication and tenacity. Brilliant, just brilliant.

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Awards
Lovely hoody, lovely buff, Tunnocks teacake and an awesome bespoke medal. Do I need to say anymore? Brilliant

Conclusion
This looped race jumps to the top of the list of my favourite looped races and just a favourite race in general – toppling the Brutal Enduro for loops and I am sure my enthusiasm for this race will live long. If you have never attempted the Falkirk 8 Hour Ultra then you should consider it, if you aren’t an ultra runner then get involved in the relay as that looked incredibly competitive and you could have all the fun without the pain.

As for me, well I had a lot of fun but my hips will pay the price for that fun – they started to feel pretty crappy at about the 25km mark, this though is a significant improvement on the 5 miles they managed at Tyndrum 24. The important thing for me was that I am starting to improve – it’s true I’m still a shit runner but a shit runner that is getting mildly fitter and with that I’ll hope to improve pace and distance.

I went into the Falkirk Ultra with no expectations but hopes that I would make this my 53rd ultra finish and I managed that – it might have been at the bottom end of the ultra distances but after a rubbish 2019 of running I’m pleased with the way this weekend went. I can now go to the F50K with a bit more confidence (just need to learn to navigate).

Ultimately what can I say other than this was stunning and I hope to see you all next year for a few extra laps.

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