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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I digress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He asked, ‘still going up?’

To which my reply was, ‘of course’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Damn good but brutal fun.

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Key points

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can find out more at benvorlichultra.run

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