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.
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.
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.
- 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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
‘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.