Glenmore 24 Hour Relay Race 2015 – my first ultra running experience (5th-6th Sep, 2015)

7th December, 2014.  My 37th birthday.  #teamsub4 is 6 months old, and not content with the prospect of running a sub-4 hour marathon next May, we’ve decided to enter a relay team in the 5th annual Glenmore 24 hour race in September.  The event also includes a 12 hour race, but this is the first time that Glenmore will host a relay, and with coach James looking to settle a score following the 2014 event, it’s an event everyone wants to be part of.

Entries open at 9pm and there’s limited places for the relay; the only question is who will enter which event?  Following a great deal of chat and a modicum of confusion, mostly instigated by Barry, we have a team of 4 confirmed for the relay, with Des entering the 12, Barry the 24, and James plotting his own brand of revenge in the 24.

Over the next 9 months, I will run my first sub-4 hour marathon, I will lower my 10k PB by 2 minutes, and my half marathon PB by nearly 6 minutes.  As summer ticks over into autumn, I’m on 1300 miles for 2015.  At the same time in 2014, I had run less than 600 miles.  I’m in the shape of my life and am really looking forward to this.  I figure if all goes to plan I will hit 40 miles this weekend.  As a team, we’re targeting 160 miles in the 24 hours.  Ambitious, but achievable.

5th/6th September, 2015.  Race weekend.  So far, I’ve been gearing up for a race.  It feels safe, though a familiar sense of dread is engulfing my whole being.  My head is full of negativity.  What could go wrong?  How will the team fare?  Will someone get injured?  Will I?  Can I manage the miles?  What will I eat?  Will I cramp up as I have in the past?  And even will I be able to get some sleep in between laps?  Oh aye, I’ve not mentioned the relay format.  It’s a 4 mile loop, so Skoosh does a lap, then me, then Brian and lastly Scott.  Then repeat.  For 24 hours.  There will be a tent to sleep in when we’re not running, and there will most definitely NOT be any 80’s tunes pumping out the gazebo next door while Brian’s trying to get to sleep.

This is more than a race.  In fact, it feels like the race is not the event.  The EVENT is the event.  This is an Ultra Marathon.  There are about 250 runners here across the different races, plus organisers, plus support crews.  And about 240 of them seem to be celebrities.  Everyone knows everyone.  Or if they don’t then they soon will.  The “Hayfield”, our base for the next 24+ hours, is stacked full of tents, camper vans, more tents, cars, people, … oh, and let’s not forget the midgies.

This is more than a race.  This is a culture; a philosophy; a way of life.  A religion?  OK well I’ve only been here 5 minutes so I shouldn’t really judge on that.  But I am not afraid to say that I feel a little intimidated.  I am the new boy at the school gates, but I have my mates with me and I know we are going to enjoy this.  So let’s get the car unpacked, put our tent up and pretend we belong.

This is more than a race.  This is the end of 9 months worth of 40-50 mile weeks, early mornings, 3-runs-in-a-day, speed sessions, hills, long runs, dry boaking after knocking out 45 laps of the track down at the lab, more hills…this has been a long time coming, and when we entered I knew that it would be a completely new experience.  I just didn’t know exactly what to expect.  I wasn’t going to be disappointed.

Once the tent was up, thoughts switched to the race again.  Folk were getting their game faces on.  With purpose.  Conversation was morphing from social chit-chat into race plans.  How far do you think we’ll go?  What pace are you going out at?  That looks a steep hill.  Do we have to run up that?  Jeezo, James is looking pretty confident eh?  That type of thing.  We even managed to get a wee team photo in before the start.

#teamsub4 relay team and others before the start – from left Barry (24), me, Des (12), Scott, Brian, Skoosh, James (24 – winner!), Michael (12) and Gerry (12 – winner)

12pm.  The hooter hooted.  This is now a race.

Skoosh went out first for #teamsub4.  I missed the start.  I was in the tent getting changed into my running gear and was pretty annoyed at myself.  However, shortly after the start the course loops round the Hayfield and past our feeding station, so within two minutes I was able to see Skoosh in about 4th or 5th place, alongside Chris from my work, who was running in a different relay team.  I gave them both a clap and a cheer, watched James float past, bent down to tie my lace and missed Des and Barry – to shouts of “cheers for the support, John!”  Sorry guys.

I was expecting Skoosh back around 1230, and I wasn’t disappointed.  The metronome completed the 3.94 miles (as per my Garmin!) in a shade over 29 minutes.  About 7:30 per mile.  He would go on to do every subsequent lap in 30-32 minutes, just an incredible level of consistency.  Skoosh was a joy to watch all weekend.  He floats over the ground with minimal effort, he’s a demon on hills.  I think ultras are made for Skoosh.

Skoosh handing the “baton” (our number on a belt) over to me. Faster than Bolt out of the blocks, me.

I’m not going to go lap by lap.  But I will describe the course.  The start around the Hayfield is pretty flat grass until you get to a steep hill about 300m in.  That lasts about 50m; the 12-24 individual racers walk up this hill pretty much every lap.  You then go through a tight, rocky, ferny section of a couple of hundred metres.  This is tough at night.  It then opens up onto a landrover track for a bit, before branching off to the right onto a really runnable trail path which is wide enough for two people to pass each other.  This winds around for about half a mile and is undulating in parts but overall is pretty flat.  You then come back onto the landrover track, hit the mile mark, and it’s on this surface that you’ll stay until the final left turn near the end of the lap.

Mile 2 is pretty, but pretty uneventful.  Loch Morlich to your right, with its beach and watersports centre, hills beyond, and more heather than you can shake a caber at.  It’s a pleasant run, but it seems a long mile because the terrain is flat and the surface doesn’t change.  Save for a few twists and turns, which will take me 3-4 laps to remember, there are no real landmarks.

You cannot beat this setting. Think this is my second lap – still feeling fresh and yes I did consciously improve my running form for this pic!

Almost as soon as the watch beeps for the start of mile 3, the hill hits.  I was prepared for this hill.  I’d done worse hills in training.  This one is about 1k long, with about 200ft ascent.  There is a water station in the middle.  The first half is steeper than the second, and once you get past the water station, it’s “shootie-in”.  That’s the theory anyway.  It’s certainly not a monster, but it does seem to go on for a helluva long time.  Not the first time, or the second, or even the 6th time in the middle of the night.  But by the time I ran up it around 8am on Sunday, I’d had enough of it.  God knows how the souls who had to negotiate this 20, 30 or more times felt.  Running the relay is different though.  Most of the field were walking at least part of the hill, if not all of it.  At one point, Des was standing chatting (shock horror!) to the marshals at the water station, and shouted up the hill “John, ask Sarah to make me a jam sandwich!”  What a diva.  But I asked, she made it, and all was right with the world.  But I digress.  In the relay, we were getting a big long rest after 4 miles, so I was running the hill.  The top is just before the 3 mile beep, which arrives as you’re enjoying a nice descent and you can start building momentum for a grandstand finish.

At least, in the early laps I loved “tanning it” down the hill (not said that since primary school) but in later laps my worn out quads were making it really difficult to hold my form running downhill so I backed off here.  It was also more treacherous at night anyway as there were a lot of wee uneven bits and small rocks peeking out that the head torch wasn’t quite helping with.  There’s a “sneaky bastard” hill – (c) J.Stewart – just before the end of the lap.  It’s only about 50 yards long but a lot of the 12-24 hour runners slowed to a walk even here, even on lap 1.  This sums up the ethos of ultrarunning for me – it’s all about conserving energy, running efficiently and covering the absolute maximum distance you can whilst experiencing the least pain possible.  Finally, there’s a left turn down some steps before a sprint finish; make sure you shout your number really loud to Ada in the timing tent so she can hear you and shout it back.  Then hand over to Brian, put on Scott’s down jacket and head back to base for the next 90 minutes or so before you have to get ready to do it all again!

So, I did that 10 times.  My fastest lap was lap 1, in just under 30 minutes.  My slowest lap was my 10th and last lap at just over 45 minutes.

The breaks between laps were difficult, I must admit.  At first it was fine, but through the night it was tough.  It was not freezing but it was cold, and cooling down after running 4 miles outside is quite a quick process.  I got into a good rhythm of swapping out of tech gear into cotton tee and hoodie within 5 minutes of stopping, but I was under-prepared for the length of time spent outside, and it was impossible to get any sleep in the tent.  Partly because of the carnival atmosphere with YMCA and the Weathergirls on repeat.  I won’t repeat what Brian said as he was trying to get a 30 minute powernap in the tent while all this was kicking off!

The rest periods were where Sarah and Andy came into their own for us, especially after midnight once the 12 hour race was finished.  As well as doing a great job in support of the five 12-24 runners that they were there crewing for, they provided excellent and much needed support and advice to all of us ultra newbies.  They kept the chat going, made sure we had enough food and drink, and didn’t get too cold – looking after us as though they were crewing for us as well.  It was great to get an insight into what crewing at an ultra actually looks like.  Sarah even helped us pitch our tent!  Andy cooked us breakfast in the morning and also lent us the back seat of his spanking new Zafira for power napping.  Skoosh says it’s the comfiest night’s sleep he’s ever had.

The hardest bit of all though was stiffening up during the 90 minutes or so between runs.  I’d expected this to happen but I didn’t really know what it’d be like.  You can’t really prepare for something like this.  At the end of lap 7 I tried to get some sleep and I reckon I dozed off for about 20 minutes in Scott’s “two man” tent.  Those men must’ve been action men or something, certainly not full size humans.  When I tried to manoeuvre out of the tent I got the worst cramp I have ever experienced – in the hamstrings in both legs as well as my right quads.  That’s the definition of between a rock and a hard place right there.  I screamed, possibly like a girl.  All I could do was lie back and wait till the pain subsided, then wait longer till I was ready to get up.  Thankfully, it didn’t come back again during the next run or next rest, but I didn’t attempt another sleep!

My favourite lap was my first full night time lap.  It started at 9:03pm, and took about 35 minutes, but the time and the journey just seemed to fly by.  If you’ve ever driven on a motorway at night, it always feels faster than when you drive at the same speed during the day.  It was like that.  I don’t normally run at night, at least not in this kind of night.  For a short while after I finished the lap, I felt a proper runner’s high – not just the normal chemical response you get to running, but this super sensory night time experience carried a new level of excitement for me.  Scott was there, he’ll verify this.  I reckon I was like a child at Christmas for about 10 minutes.

I knew I would come down from this, which I did on the next lap.  It started at 11:35pm and finished after midnight.  I was actually proper gutted that I missed the finish of the 12 hour race; I’d have loved to have seen Des finish, seeing as I missed him starting (!) as well as fellow labrats Graham and David who I’d ambled a few hundred yards with on one of the early laps.  We’ve shared plenty of miles on the track of a Thursday evening for the last 9 months, and they are sources of much inspiration to me and the rest of #teamsub4.  Congrats on your achievements dudes!

Fast forward to 10:15am, when I started my 10th and last lap.  I walked a lot of this one, not because I couldn’t run, but because I needed to finish the lap after 11am.  Unfortunately, Brian had picked up a knee injury on lap 8 but fair play to the big man, he walked round a full 4 mile lap on lap 9, but wouldn’t be able to do so again on lap 10.  After 11am the party starts – folk stop doing the big 4 mile loop, and everyone starts running the “wee lap” round the Hayfield, which is just under 400m, until the hooter hoots for the last time to signal midday and the end of the race.  This last hour might sound easy in theory, like running round a track or football pitch, but it’s not.  You have to go up the big hill at the start on every lap, and come back down a slippery grassy slope at the end.  Anyway, we had to make sure Brian started after 11am so that he’d be able to do one wee lap before proudly planting peg #177 in the ground to mark the end of our race.

When the race ended, it’s fair to say there was a release.  It was an awesome feeling to know that it was done, that we’d achieved a total of 38 laps as a team, 152 miles (and a quarter) in total.  There were hugs-a-plenty and a variety of high fives and awkward handshake/fistpump combos which is always a joy.

#teamsub4 relay squad from left – Alan (Skoosh), me, Brian and Scott. Even managed to get in running order.

What have I forgotten?  Oh aye the individual 24 hour result, the reason we agreed to sign up 9 months ago, coach’s Glenmore revenge mission.  Of course, James won in an absolute masterclass of race planning, pacing and race management; he executed his plan to perfection to smash the course record completing 144 miles – just 8 miles less than our whole team!  Congrats also to Barry who defied all the odds and did himself proud in the 24 as well.

Overall, it was an awesome weekend and as an introduction to ultrarunning I reckon you’d struggle to find a more enjoyable event.  There were 1 or 2 niggles – could’ve had more toilets, prize giving ceremony was a bit long (especially as we never won anything!!) leaderboard didn’t quite work – but these are small things and quickly forgotten in the grand scheme.  Oh, the goodie bag was pretty good too.  I still don’t have my cider though Scott.  Folk to thank as well.  At these events there are always loads of people doing great work behind the scenes to make it happen and help the day run smoothly.  I’m new to the scene so I don’t really know any of them.  But I’m grateful to every single one of them.

Last but not least, I’m extremely proud of each and every one of #teamsub4, and honoured to be a part of it.  We did it.  I will never forget it.

9 thoughts on “Glenmore 24 Hour Relay Race 2015 – my first ultra running experience (5th-6th Sep, 2015)

  1. I was one of the relay runners as well…RTC Roasters. Brilliant blog. Relay was tough, think I would have preferd to do the 12 hour run. Found it hard to get motivated for the laps through the night, but was brilliant when it was all done. Well done to you & your team.

    Liked by 2 people

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