Tuesday, 18 September 2012

The River Ayr Way Challenge 2012 - some like it RAW

When I entered this race, I briefly anticipated writing a reflection filled with discomfort, fighting through extreme lows, and the glory of pushing my body harder than I ever dreamed possible.  Then, I shuddered, put all anticipation of anything other than a smiley start and a relieved finish out of my head and pretended that everything would be fine.  After all, I kept saying, the race starts at the head of a river and ends at the mouth - it's all down hill, right?

The day started cool and grey, as forecast, with moderate winds (a big improvement on the gales and driving rain of the previous day).  Nic's parents kindly agreed to be crew for the day - their first ever such assignment, which saw Jeff cruelly taken from the clutches of his bed far too early for his day off.  We arrived at the start at 8AM, to find RD Anneke preparing to receive runners.  Many would register on the bus from the finish.  Those of us lucky enough to have crew (and/or like me, likely to lose their breakfast on a bus) picked up our numbers in the tiny car park above Glenbuck.

As usual, our target was to arrive early, relax, and have a bite to eat while waiting for the start.  So, when we got out of the car and I looked at the delightful woodlands surrounding us, I noticed that there were no facilities other than the boxes waiting to receive our drop bags.  I realised this really was going to be a pretty relaxed atmosphere.

Jeff, Maggie, and Nic posing for a pre-race picture in front of the ample toilet facilities.
The registration area began to fill as the buses arrived, while Nic and I realised that we weren't particularly nervous.  Considering this would be my first time over 40 miles, and her first time over 28, the chilled vibe was obviously rubbing off on us.  With about 15 minutes to spare, I had a short jog to make sure my shoes were well tied, took some pics, and was ready to go.

Race crew hard at work (behind the race crew hard at chat).
You know it's Scotland when you see red tartan lycra shorts...
The race started with a great descent to get us all up to speed and quickly took us to into the open moorland that made up the first 10 miles of the route.  Good, steady descents, a few short hills to break up the rhythm a little, and before I knew it, I was sheltering behind a few runners at about 45 seconds per mile faster than my preferred early pace.  With the steady headwinds, the firm footing, and the lack of any notable hills, I decided to stick with it for a while, to see how things went.  After all, I've not really been used to running for any length of trail without some enforced walking breaks, so I wasn't really sure how I would react to 8:45 minute miles.  Had it been a flattish road race, I would have been quite happy with the conservative speed, but for the trails, sense said I was going to have to slow down at some point.

Narrow but firm footing just alongside the River Ayr
For those not familiar with the race or the route, The River Ayr Way Challenge is organised by the East Ayrshire County Council - in particular the Countryside Services team.  It's pretty low key, well supported with regular water/feed/chat stations, and runs along the length of the River Ayr Way.  The rangers had to put in some extra hard work this year, recovering/re-routing some sections of the RAW where it had disappeared after this winter's ice floes and heavy rains.  In many places, they had even been out strimming in the days before the race.  Compared to what I normally run on, the path felt practically manicured!  We were truly spoiled in that respect.

Nic looks back on the open moorland, our first hill top for nearly 7 miles

Nice day to do a bit of fishing
The early stages of the route set the tone for the whole of the RAW.  There are pretty views in all directions, but few "wow!" moments.  Early on, we enjoyed miles of open moors, misty light on the distant hills, and plenty of slippery little wooden bridges to test the coordination.  After 11 miles, my right calf (this month's muscular liability) started to tug, so I eased back a bit.  I didn't fancy running another 30 miles on a cramping leg, and hoped that putting less strain on the leg would do the trick.  By the time I hit the first check-in point with Jeff and Maggie, the leg was doing OK and I was running fairly freely.  I was also 15 minutes ahead of schedule after only 17 miles, and wondering how bad the payback would be.  The early moorland was giving way to wooded slopes as the river carved through the low hills.  Easy running was about to take a back seat.

Catching up with the in-laws at 17 miles

The tough patch came, a bit later than expected, at around 25 miles.  We had finally had some hills - all short, all sharp, with plenty of steps to make running difficult.  Climbing up and down through the riverside woods had killed the pace and my legs.  My right quad and ITB started to object, colouring my language nicely with each new staircase.

Alas, no train to distract from the sore legs

The difficult patch carried on into the new addition for this year's running, a diversion near Stair where the old path unfortunately has now joined with the river itself.  We slogged up a short hill through a nice, soupy pasture where the "mud" had a nice oily sheen to it.  Best not to think about it all, really, but I did laugh that I had finally reached some trail that was like what I've been enjoying throughout this rather moist summer.  The cattle at the top of the hill looked on bemused, and I was happy to reach them with both shoes still on my feet.

A couple of miles later, though, we ran through ankle deep water for long enough to wash the shoes.  I splashed along, enjoying the cold water on my feet and keeping my hands above my head so I would still be happy to eat with them later.  Unfortunately, I also managed to wash some large bits of grit into the shoes, in spite of my gaiters.  By this time, I was 30 miles in, a little cranky, and more than just a little confused by anything that required much thought.  At the 32-mile check point, luckily, the in-laws were waiting with some extra brain cells for me to use.

I stopped for a drink and a little chat, forgetting about my gritty feet.  After a minute or two, I suddenly remembered that my shoes were full of ick.  So, I sat down to empty my shoes and found that the grit had helped me to mangle my socks.  With toes poking through the end, I knew another 10 miles would be manageable, but possibly a bit irritating, and stared blankly at my feet.  Maggie asked if I had any socks in my end-of-race bag (in the car boot).  It took far too long for my brain to kick into gear, but I did have a spare pair for after the run, so was able to change socks.  I ditched the gaiters while I was shoeless, and suddenly felt a lot lighter without the extra layer of wet fabric.

Getting up wasn't easy.  The rest while I tended my feet did me some good, but it also cooled me off.  So, as I walked up the next hill, I changed into my spare t-shirt.  The clouds were firmly in place, so I didn't need to worry about getting too warm as the afternoon continued.  At 34 miles, I grabbed a drink and a bag of jelly worms from my drop bag, and carried on.  With only 7 miles left, I knew I would be able to get it together and finish, even though I had lost any hope of a 7-hour time.

I always carry a phone for emergencies on a long run, and feared the worst when mine rang as I left the check point - surely Nic had fallen, broken her arms and legs, and was being rushed to hospital.  Clearly, rational thought was taking a nap.  Thankfully, the only problem was that, as tired as I was, I was still running better than the car.  Jeff was calling to let me know that my bag might make it to the line before my crew.

Gradually, I gathered myself and started to push on, trying to catch one person at a time in a battle of "who can slow down the least".  The underfoot conditions eased again as we neared the finish.  With firm paths, tracks, and road, I was able to get back into a consistent running rhythm, getting back to 10-minute miles for the final few.  It's easy to get down about working so hard to run so much slower than my normal pace, but I had already figured that I would be straining hard to even run.  I just kept concentrating on getting each mile as close to that 10:00 as I could, until I finally started to see the 9 on my watch.  As long as I didn't have to go up or turn a corner, I was moving well.

As I approached the finish, I heard someone say "there's only about 100 yards left" and put on a "sprint" for the line.  At nearly 7:15, I finished 20 minutes slower than my "good day" or "plan A" time, but inside of my "plan B" - pretty good for my first foray over 40 miles.  If I had only managed a few minutes faster, I would even have beaten the car back to the finish - the issues had been dealt with and our ace crew had made it just in time.

After getting cleaned up and refuelling a bit, I headed back up the course to cheer Nic into the finishing straight.  Luckily for her, I had about half a mile of the route in view, and could pick her out in time to position myself for a good bellow of encouragement followed by a picture.  Her plan B was "don't finish last", and her plan A was "sub 10:00".  A 9:05 time showed that running conservatively for the first ultra was probably a good idea, and that there's definitely more ability there than she gave herself credit for.

Still smiling at 40 miles.

It looks so much further when you look at it afterwards...

One of the bucolic views along the river (courtesy of Jeff)

Much like the route itself, there were no outstanding high or low points to my race.  I had expected to hit the wall, struggle to carry on, battle with my usually temperamental digestion, feel elated when I finished, etc. etc.      The reality was that everything just kind of ticked along.  The weather was moderate.  The marshals, supporters, and passers-by were all very friendly. As the race went on, I felt mostly in control (as much as one ever is), never particularly strong, nor overly weak.  I got tired, cranky, cheery, chatty, and quiet, much as I do over the course of any full day.  Overall, it was just a normal, nice day out on some scenic trails among like-minded runners, with the added bonus of great support - what better way to spend a Saturday?