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Toilet Issues

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


Those of you that believe that bodily fluids and especially bowel issues are something that should be neither seen or heard should probably move on from this post because it’s all about poo!

To begin I’ll draw attention to one of my top 10 list of ‘pieces of running advice’ I’ve collected over the years and at number 8 is ‘never trust a fart‘.

Damn fine advice if you ask me.

The expulsion of wind for a runner can lead to stopper being popped and the ‘trail runners supernova’ erupting all over our finest scenery.

Many of us, as trail runners, will have been caught short out on a deserted trail and will have squatted behind the nearest bush to evacuate our insides. As regular readers will know I’ve been caught short a few times, in fact quite a lot of times and therefore feel quite well informed about what causes these problems, the types of problem and the resolution.

However, I’m not all knowing and so in the last two years I’ve been doing a little research and quizzing runners about their terrible poo related tales, you guys are so willing to share! So in the interest of sharing aha furthering knowledge I bring the 10 most popular poo types on the trails.

In the interest of privacy no names (other than my own moniker) will be used.

Scoring*
As a sidebar to this post I’m curious which of the ten you may have encountered yourself, if you recognise up to and including 3 poo types you’re probably still an amateur, 4-6 would suggest you’ve been around a bit and are quite a competent trail pooper and anything beyond this suggests you’ve got rotten guts and may need to seek medical attention.

The Squirter
It was one of my first ultra marathons – Rat Races The Wall that I first encountered the notion that ultra runners shit in the woods. The gentleman I’d be running with for a little while (I say running, we were both hobbling by this point) advised he needed to stop and relieve himself. He told me to go on but we both knew that neither would make it as we were clearly using one another as a crutch to make it to the finish. So he nodded an agreement and headed off into the bushes alongside a quiet road for what I thought was a jimmy riddle.

The next thing I heard was what I believed to be the sound of a car back firing. Sadly no, it was my companion the back fire was followed by a noise that could only be described as ‘fountain like’ and something I wouldn’t encounter again until my 1 year old daughter projectile shat all over the GingaNinja.

Within a few minutes it was all over, I heard the groans of a man wiping himself on dried leaves and hoping his finger didn’t break the brittle natural loo roll. He returned and mumbled an apology to which I replied something along the lines of, ‘better out than in’. 

While I didn’t see the offending release, I did note that his lower back carried the hallmarks of poo splatter that had not been there previously and he was clearly in some distress as it shouldn’t be that yellow.

Just remember if you’re going to squirt – don’t get too close to anything – you do not want bounce back.

The Breach
I’ve recalled, in my race report, the moment on the Mouth to Mouth where I simply had to stop, spiking my arse on the only bush for miles in the process. I’d run several kilometres knowing that I couldn’t squeeze my arse cheeks tightly or there would be messy consequences and there is no feeling worse than having your guts be tumbling around as you’re in desperate need of a quiet spot and yet still trying to race. I ran Mouth to Mouth really quite well but this unfortunate stop cost me a decent time but when you’ve been torpedoed by your own lack of bowel control what can you do?

The Lightning Strike
In the distance I can hear the sound of Brian May playing some awesome guitar solo from Flash Gordon but the lightning attack is when you get an urgent need and an immediate stop is required followed by a single lightning quick unloading of your bowels. If the process from shorts down to concluding your business takes more than 30 seconds chances are this isn’t a Lightning Strike

The Double Ender
I lay baking in the midday sun, around a metre in front of me was a spray of chunky vomit and behind me – about the same distance away was a ‘Dr Octopus’ putrid green and stinking, liquid diahorrea. I genuinely thought I was going to die and was to die having experienced what has been called the double ender. During the experience I had bodily fluids pouring out of every orifice and all at the same time – my muscles didn’t know how to react to the need to lurch one way and then the next.

I should have DNF’d that day but I picked myself up, carefully avoiding the vile radioactive anal and oral offerings and make a decision that I wasn’t going to quit this one!

There are number of lessons you need to learn from my experience, the first is ‘be careful of the water you drink from in Scottish Highland streams’ and secondly ‘remove enough of your clothing that you don’t get them covered in either ends of your distress’. Had I got so much as one iota of nastiness on my race clothing I would have DNF’d there and then.

And the rock cried out, no hiding place
It was during my fail at Haria Extreme that I had a disturbing thought – I need a dump but I knew that the checkpoint was only five minutes away and this section of the course was heavily marshalled – just to guide you through the vineyard and into the loving arms of the volunteers. ‘Is there a toilet?’ I asked hopefully. The volunteers looked at me in a ‘we don’t speak English’ kind of a way – thankfully a young boy at the back piped up and said, ‘next place, 20km’. This made no sense as the next CP was at 25km and there was no checkpoint 20km from this point. I thanked them and set off

My toilet need wasn’t super urgent but it would become that way if I didn’t resolve it. By the time I reached the next checkpoint it had become the main issue and I once again asked if they had toilets but it was another negative response. Bugger.

In the distance I could see large swathes of open landscape and no cover. Bugger. However, with a ridge in the distance I could use that as cover and indeed I did find a small cave that I could perch over the opening. Phew. I positioned myself carefully and despite needing to keep myself upright using all my upper body strength I managed to begin my business. It was just as the first droppings landed that below me I could hear the scurrying of something alive. Bugger.

I felt my face go red in the middle of the movement and my natural survival instinct kicked in and I fired out a rather difficult ‘lightning strike’ and leapt up with my shorts around my ankles. Clear of the pit I peered back and could see the scurrying of some animal(s) I had disturbed.

To add insult to injury I was now half naked in the middle of Lanzarote, balls out and above me, on the ridge, several runners ran past. Regardless of my own predicament I’m sure the sight of my nudey form did nothing to enhance their experience.

Lesson? Check the hole you’re about to deposit in – especially when it might be an animals home.

The Meconium
Meconium is the tough first, very dark poo your child does and when racing I had cause to stop during my first ultra and learn a very valuable lesson. Thankfully this happened at a checkpoint, on a toilet, in a village hall on the White Cliffs 50.

I had clearly not been drinking enough, was hugely dehydrated and when I needed to visit the little boys room but everything was super difficult to deliver, small, tough, dark and poisonous smelling. It didn’t impact my racing that day but it did remind me of the value of food and drink as I race.

The Galloping Trots
The trots are very different from the ‘Lightning Strike’ and ‘The Gift That Keeps on Giving’ in that you’re completely immobile for quite a significant period of time and there is a small tonne of it. I suppose the lesson to learn from the trots is that you need to give your stomach what it needs rather than what it wants and in the run up to CCC I’d been more socially active than normal and had spent the week eating out and eating lovely, sometimes quite rich food.

I wasn’t running very well at the CCC as I’d fallen quite badly coming off the first descent and this was made all the worse but the revenge of my week long holiday food choices. It was somewhere between CP1 and CP2 that I pulled up to tend my wounds properly and also to deal with my groaning, moaning stomach. I journeyed a little way off the route and into deep bushes – taking my pack off and moving all my kit to higher ground. I could feel the grumbling inside myself and it was pure agony as a stream of solid, then less solid, then liquid materials streamed out of me.

Coming in waves as these things invariably do I would think I was finished only to move and hear my stomach turn again. I was lucky that I was elevated from the ground between two big tree branches and therefore protected from splatter but 20 miles of too hot running, a bit of dehydration and a week of holiday eating had not made my bowels a scent sensation you’d enjoy.

I crept away, as you do, having defiled this sacred trail running ground. Feeling so rough I managed another 30km before the inevitable DNF and believe me my stomach felt every metre.

The Gift that Keeps on Giving
The first time I ever needed to stop on a race was during the South Downs Way 50. I remember I’d been struggling for about 2 miles and had to slow down enough that I felt like I was really losing ground. I was running with a buddy in a very casual way, in that we would hurl abuse at each other as we went by one another but at about 10 miles I needed to find a quiet place.

Thankfully a location rocked up quickly and I disposed of the offending item discreetly and set off again but less than 3 miles later I was pain again. I dug a small hole and delivered again but it still wasn’t enough – in a little over 15 miles I needed 5 stops, each worse than the last and my concern about the amount of toilet tissue I was carrying was growing.

At my first stop I’d been quite generous with my loo roll but as the stops became more frequent I had to ration it and as the releases became less solid I felt I needed more paper – this was a no win situation.

My solution was that I stopped eating before the halfway point and I took very small amounts of water fearing that I might end up in a situation where I’d have to use my much loved buff to wipe. I didn’t, I finished and the Buff survived.

Sugar Loaf Mountain
This is a very specific moment in my running career and there will be people who read this and know the incident I’m talking about. It was 2014 and my first time at Country to Capital – in the gents there are two cubicles. It’s fair to say both were incredibly busy but it’s equally fair to say that only one of them was flushing. Upon reaching the front of the queue I was offered the right hand side cubicle – I headed in and looked down, though not far down as the peak of the poo mountain was creeping over the rim. I stepped back, choking slightly on my own vomit and offered the opportunity to the man behind me and risking the other cubicle.

I’m not sure what disgusted me more – the sight of so much poo or the fact that so many runners were happy to give this a go. Nasty.

The Heaver
I was running in a 45 mile race when I met a lovely lady who offered some insight into what I’ve dubbed ‘the heaver’. The lady in question who told me about this was in the middle of a mountain marathon and had gotten caught a little short, ‘I know what it’s like,’ as I was discussing my concerns about needing a toilet break as we raced.

She had decided to stop at a small clump of bushes and then fell into distress – she says she was pushing and pushing with only the smallest of results but knowing that there was a real need to deal with this . I’ll quote her directly as this has never left me, ‘I heaved and I heaved but the house just wouldn’t blow down’.

After some 20 minutes (according to her Garmin) she had managed to fire off a small pile of rabbit like pebbles – which to her seemed inconsistent with the trouble her bowels had been giving her. Still she did complete her mountain marathon but said I shouldn’t worry if I ever need a noisy poo as she was sure every runner who went past her probably heard her trying to push that one out.

Ah the honesty of ultra runners.

My Solution
There’s no magic wand for issues like this, if it happens you simply need to deal with it but my pre-race preparation now at least offers me a chance of getting it all out of the way before I set off.

The Flat White coffee seems to be the trigger for helping me pass the contents of my innards before a race start. It’s not a perfect solution, it doesn’t always work and if I get the timings wrong then it can cause more problems than it solves but since trying this method I’ve had a greater deal of control out on a route – because undoubtedly I suffer from a really shitty problem (sometimes)!

You’ll all have your own magic treatments and pre-race routines and I’d love to hear them because I’ve seen and been involved in some pretty horrendous states and anything we can all do together to reduce this can only be a good thing.

So please feel free to share…

Lessons

  1. Watch for back splash
  2. Always carry enough toilet paper/tissues
  3. Deal with it quickly, don’t wait until it is a serious issue
  4. Beware small furry animals
  5. Ensure you use the facilities before your run/race
  6. Ensure you are suitably secluded if you need to use the trail
  7. Don’t overburden your stomach pre-race
  8. Never trust a fart
  9. Make sure you are finished
  10. Try not to care what other people think

I hope this post hasn’t distressed or disturbed you all too much and I hope that what you take from this is, ‘be prepared’ and ‘it’s not just bears that shit in the woods’

*Thanks to GCJ for suggesting the scoring system

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