Rat Race Ultra Tour of Arran: 14th & 15th April
This was a new event from rat race, and caught my eye some time ago, before the full details of the weekend were released. I hoped for a weekend of beautiful trail running in a stunning environment. What I found I was in for was (through the info email 4 weeks before the event) was a weekend of beautiful trail running, including sections of scrambling on the 2nd ultra, over the highest points on the island. Although I don’t have a head for extreme heights, I am also not one for backing out of a challenge, and decided to give it a shot anyway.
Well what can I say: it was an experience!!
A pretty tough weekend, from start to finish. Weather the week before up there had set the tone and everything was wet and boggy from setting up tent Friday to leaving again Monday
Saturday's ultra in the south was pretty brutal in comparison to what I had expected. Longer than advertised, lots of tough hills, mud, miles and miles of bog running through misty forests: navigation was a challenge. At one point I went thigh deep into bog, and kept sinking. By the time I was waist high in it I realised this could get dodgy and was glad I had taken note of past TV programmes about surviving sinking mud! Still, finished Saturday reasonably in 7.53 overall, 1.234 km of ascent and 29 miles long
A cold night of no sleep, then on to Sunday......
Well this is where it all unravelled big time. I knew from the forecast the week before that it was going to be a bit dodgy (wind gusts of 47mph) on the tops, but no one expected it so early on. The first big climb, up Caisteal Abhail was brutal. The wind hit big time, and as by now I was towards the back of the remaining field, I was also without nearby runners to help with navigation and the terrain was pretty torn up. I was blown off my feet a couple of times, which was horrible given that the 'path' was right on an edge, and I know from chatting to others afterwards (and some of them were big lads!) that people were sheltering behind boulders. The vis was poor, there was snow and ice, and my inner voice was screaming that I shouldn't be up here!
The descent, which was not on a path, was equally not my cup of tea. I think the runners who excelled were probably experienced fell runners, or perhaps not concerned by the remoteness and happy to go down full tilt. Unfortunately for me I am neither! I was very aware how easy it would have been to fall in the moss, mud and small boulders and turn an ankle or hit your head, and being by now totally on my own I didn't fancy the chances of being found any time soon if that happened, so took it steady coming down. Unfortunately that meant I came to pit stop 1 at 11.5 miles at 12.27pm, with the original cut off being 12. I was thrown a life line though, when I was told that the cut off had been extended by 30 minutes, so provided I didn't stop for any refreshment, I could in theory try to catch up (the cut off for pit stop 2 was not extended though, so I had 2 1/2 hrs to do 8.5 miles). I thought it was worth a shot and pushed on, as I knew the course profile looked flat and that in theory that was possible. I underestimated these course builders though, and after a good mile of steady running at a reasonable pace on a flat track, this suddenly became a scramble again, up and down over rocks and more mud baths in the heavy rain. I came in to pit stop 2, 20 miles, at 3pm. I needed to have left at 3 pm. The course directors were waiting and stopped me going through.
I suspect if I had argued the toss, or perhaps ignored their waves and pushed straight through the pit stop without stopping, I could maybe have carried on. But the rain was heavy, the wind picking up further, and I knew there was the more challenging scrambles and ascent still to come. All in all I knew I would be putting myself and possible the safety team at risk too if I had insisted on carrying on, and thought that maybe this was the time to embrace the other new experience that I had so far been able to elude: the DNF.
After 14 years of competing, and with recent training results showing some alarming slowing of pace, I knew it was inevitable at some point soon. I just didn't know it was going to be now! I had chosen to do this event to mark my 50th, and prove to myself that I am still capable of rising to a challenge (albeit not the challenge I had expected when I signed up). My first thoughts are that this has backfired spectacularly! There was something humiliating about being pulled from a race for not meeting cut offs, and there is a lack of any enjoyment afterwards: no blissful sinking in to a glass of wine because you've really earned it, or reliving the memories and feeling proud. However I am aware the saying is you're not a true runner until you have experienced a DNF, and I am looking for the positives where I can. I suspect it's not really about whether you're a runner or not, but whether you can rise above the immediate feelings, and use it in a positive way. I hope that it means I can stress less about events in the future, because I know you can pick yourself up and dust yourself off after a DNF and it really doesn't matter in the big picture. I know that there is perspective to be had: no one died, nothing terrible happened, and it's just another of those things that you deal with and maybe it makes you stronger.
So there we have it: 50 miles and 2.6km of ascent over the weekend. Lots of Scottish bog currently scattered across the floor near the washing machine, not to mention the amount still embedded in my feet. On the plus side, I will definitely be going back to Arran: from what I could see below the cloud line, a beautiful place that I will definitely be returning to, perhaps this time with the van as well as the tent, to explore properly at my own pace.