If I had to sum up this experience in one word, it would be phenomenal. That covers the effort involved to get race ready (which I covered in this previous post), the scenery along most of the route, the hospitality shown by Inverness for the Festival, the running community in general, and my experience of the race.
I’ve said this many times before, but runners are a great bunch. Experienced runners often go out of their way to help newer runners, and I’ve benefited from this both in training, and at BHGE 10k. I also benefited hugely from this at Loch Ness Marathon. Charlotte messaged me on the Saturday morning after reading my previous post. Charlotte is a phenomenal long distance runner. At peak fitness and injury free she can run a 3:04 marathon. However, for various reasons she wasn’t looking to get a PB at Loch Ness and so, rather than just treating it as a hard training run for her next ultra in 4 weeks time, she thought it would make it more meaningful if she paced me round to ensure I comfortably got my London GFA time. Of course I jumped at the chance! I knew several folk who would be running Loch Ness, but none were looking to do my target time (not that I’d nailed it down even at that point). 26.2 miles solo is pretty lonely, even in a crowd, and I’d been unsure how to pace the race, with the largely downhill first half and infamous climb out of Dores at mile 19. Not having covered more than 20ish miles in training, the last 10k or so was a complete mystery and I didn’t know when or if I’d hit the wall. Charlotte told me to leave the pacing to her.
My partner and I set off for Inverness late on Saturday morning. He made the mistake of letting me drive and pick the route. I thought going via the Cairn o Mount and Cairngorms would be lovely as the scenery is stunning and it’s the shorter route so google maps said it would take a similar time as going via the A9. It also meant we could stop at the Clatterin Brig for lunch, where I opted for a healthy salad (but had a delicious fruit scone afterwards too). We got stuck behind a few ultra-cautious drivers though, and didn’t get to Inverness until nearly 4:30pm. I directed Michael (who was driving by this point) to the Ice Centre, and, not having a clue where to register, asked the good people on Running Friends Scotland. Rachael from BRR had already been to register, saw my plea for help, and pointed me in the right direction.
Registration was quick and painless. I bumped into Michael from Race Recce and his partner Emily whilst there, then Debbie messaged to say she was also at the Expo, so we had a quick catch up before she and her family headed off to Fort Augustus. Keen on carb loading, and keen to avoid stomach issues, I had talked my other half into making his infamous pasta bake for dinner, so that I could keep my glycogen levels topped up. Knowing we had to be up early, I tried to get an early night, and slept pretty soundly until I awoke suddenly – at 4:08am – and lay there for about 90 minutes failing to get back to sleep. A quick breakfast of overnight oats, and we were in the car shortly after 6:30am to go the bus departure point.
The logistics of a point-to-point race, especially one that starts in the middle of the highland countryside, meant we had to be there about 3 hours before the race start. I joined the bus queue, unable to find anyone I recognised. I sat down next to a nice young lady called Lucy, but spent most of the journey trying to get a bit more sleep. The bus arrived after about 30 others had already got there, and we headed towards the crowds whilst I munched down on my second breakfast (a peanut butter roll: not my first choice but I’d decided to go for something that could withstand not being refrigerated). I had wondered what we’d do for an hour, but quickly discovered all of that time would be needed in order to make use of the portaloos! With it being the middle of nowhere it must be hard to get too many of them there, and we queued for 40 minutes. Thankfully I had found Ann-Marie and Nic of BRR near the end of the queue for the loos which meant I could cut the line just a little without it upsetting those even further back, and meant I had people to talk to as we slowly made our way to the front of the queue. I’d arranged to meet Debbie, but had no internet signal, and no idea how I was going to find Charlotte. Lots of people (mostly guys) were forgoing the portaloos for the cover of trees and heather. I considered this option, but thankfully the queue moved quickly enough that we got to the front with 20 minutes to spare. Charlotte had also found us. She headed off again and said she’d meet me at the 3:30 sign.
Having picked the wrong portaloo to stand outside, and also bumped into a few folk (Michael again, Steve from BRR whom I’d forgotten had said he was taking part (his participation had been in doubt due to an injury, but he got round comfortably sub 4 – well done Steve), and Chris and Jagoda from the Footers), it was only about 10 minutes to the race start when I was ready to find Charlotte. And she had said it was 10 minutes walk to the start.
There were also no time markers. How on earth was I going to find Charlotte? Luckily I found Lyn amongst the crowds, who told me Charlotte had headed all the way down to the front. As it was very crowded, I had to head out into the heather at the side of the road to get past the thousands of runners standing between me and my pacer. Debbie (who we’d been unable to find due to there being no phone or data signal in the middle of nowhere) saw me and shouted on me. I wished her luck and, uncharacteristically for me as I’m not that touchy-feely a person, gave her a hug. I then introduced her to Rachael (who happened to be standing in the same row) before continuing bounding through the heather looking anxiously for Charlotte. I finally saw her about 50 metres away, just 15 rows or so from the front, waving like mad as if using some kind of semaphore. Good job I’d picked the left hand side to run down! I quickly removed my ever-so-stylish bin bag, the grey polo top Michael had agreed I could take and discard as he’d bought it in Romania for about £3, and within a minute we were off, getting piped out by a band in full highland regalia.
As we’d started so close to the front, a lot of folk (mostly, but not all, men) went past us pretty sharpish on that steeply descending first mile. Charlotte knew a few of them and so had a few brief conversations. We’d only had time for a very brief chat about race strategy before the start. When Charlotte had messaged me regarding pacing I had said 3:38 was my goal. 20 seconds before we started, she said 3:30 was realistic for me (she may have used the phrase “well within your capabilities” but I forget), but we’d reassess it every couple of miles. I reckoned that was slightly optimistic, but she’s got a decade more experience than me so I was happy to trust her judgement.
The race starts about 1,000 metres up in the hills, and the views are breath-taking. The first few miles flew by whilst admiring the view and chatting, and before we knew it we were at the three mile marker. Although it’s remote, there had still been some supporters out cheering us on, from their farms, and going through the village of Foyers. Those few miles had all been sub 8 minutes, but none quicker than about 7:40 pace. People were still going past us, but I felt comfortable. Charlotte said that I should feel really comfortable at that point, and that we would keep running to effort. She’d occasionally tell me to ease back a little if we were speeding up too much on a descent, and would tell me to ease back on the uphills. Loch Ness has a large overall descent as a course, but it’s more undulating than some people expect, and there is a noticeable hill around 5 or 6 miles. My pace dropped to 8:11 for that mile, but we picked it back up again, with the following miles between 7:30 – 7:45 pace. My buff came off too as my head and ears were now a little too warm with it on, and I wrapped it around my wrist.
Just before mile seven you join the banks of Loch Ness. It’s just such a beautiful route. The Loch is largely tree lined, but you can easily see the Loch and mountains through the trees. There was no time to take pictures though, and I didn’t have a camera on me. I did however have: 4 High5 gels; 3 bags each containing 8 jelly babies (in case I was unable to open or consume the gels); 1 Graze protein bar; and 1 ziploc bag containing toilet roll (in case I needed to stop at a portaloo en route and it didn’t have any paper). This was quite a lot to carry given that I was wearing short shorts with quite shallow pockets. I got used to it though.
I’d been carrying my own bottle of Highland Spring that I’d taken with me on the bus, and hadn’t needed any water stops so far. At 8 miles in we found the first electrolyte station. I’d read that race day isn’t the time to be trying new fuelling strategies, but Charlotte said it would be good for me, and I didn’t want to risk getting cramps, so I took a cup. They’re hard to drink from though, and a fellow runner told me to squeeze the top to create a funnel. I had to pour half of it out to do that, and only managed about 3 gulps so I’m not sure how much good it did me. It didn’t seem to do any harm though, so I kept taking cups when offered at later stations.
I don’t usually take gels or any fuel before about 12 miles, and often do 16 miles on the back of overnight oats and nothing during the run except maybe a couple of jelly babies or a bit of Clif bar. Charlotte said that if you wait until you think you need it, it’s already too late. She’d suggested starting taking gels at mile 6, but in the end it was mile 9 when we took the first one. Thankfully it was much easier to get into than the one I’d struggled with on Wednesday, and I managed to mostly get it into my mouth rather than over my hands. I responsibly kept hold of the empty packet until the next rubbish drop point.
With such a long distance to go, you get inured to the beautiful scenery after a while, but the conversation still made the miles go in quickly and painlessly. Around mile 9 I was telling Charlotte about the Holly Rush UTMB interview on Marathon Talk a few weeks ago, when she was talking about hallucinating, serious digestive issues, and having to lie down in one of the aid stations for a full hour. A lady just in front of us overheard our conversation and joined us. She too was a regular listener and we chatted about this and that. I mentioned that I’d logged myself as doing Loch Ness in the hopes of making it onto the Marathon Talk Podium, and asked if she had done the same: it turned out that she had. We ran together for the best part of a mile, then Charlotte decided we needed to pick up the pace just a little, and so we headed off. Jo looked me up on Strava afterwards to see how we’d done, and we’re now following each other. She’d done pretty well, getting a new PB, and we’ll both hopefully be mentioned on Marathon Talk this Wednesday! Marathon Talk: bringing runners together since 2010!
The route descends steeply overall for the first 10 miles (though there are some uphills in there), then largely undulates slightly around a fairly constant elevation for the next 7 or so, until you get to Dores. Charlotte checked her watch at 10 miles and saw we’d gone through it in about 1:19. That’s 6 or 7 minutes slower than my 10 mile PB, and is a nice training run pace – for that distance. So I was still feeling pretty comfortable, something that the first half being primarily downhill would definitely have helped with. Miles 11 to 13 ticked along at just below the 8 minute pace on average, and we went through the half marathon checkpoint in around 1:43 (Strava says 1:43:14. But it also says it’s my half marathon PB as it thought the Dundee Half DRAM was short, so it’s probably not accurate to the second…). Given that we were aiming for 3:29:59 or thereabouts, that meant we had nearly 7 minutes in the bank for the tougher second half.
Charlotte was clearly feeling optimistic. I definitely felt a lot better at the halfway point than I had felt at the end of the Dundee Half DRAM, and had plenty of miles in me. I didn’t really have any fatigue at that point, and, all credit to André at Sole Body Soul, my feet were completely pain free. But I was aware of a slight tightening in my left hamstring, and my hips were threatening to tighten up. Charlotte has paced a lot of people and she’s pretty good at telling how they’re feeling and if they’re starting to wilt. I think she maybe thought I was just slightly fresher than I was, though. Either that, or she was going for positive reinforcement.
Up until the top of that first hill, we’d had more people go past us than the other way around. There were a couple of Anster Haddies ladies though (who may have been mother and daughter) who we kept leapfrogging. I recognised them from Tay Ten due to their club vests, the younger ladies hairstyle (dual braids) and the pink compression socks they were both wearing. They seemed like they had their strategy all worked out, with the older of the two conserving energy on the climbs (at which points we would slowly overtake her) then speeding off past us on the descents, shaking out her arms to loosen off. We last passed her around mile 8 and said “See you soon”, but I don’t recall seeing them after that. I hope they had a good race. We started going past more people than we were getting passed by.
Around the halfway point, this became more noticeable: we were overtaking a lot more runners. Charlotte said this would either be because they had gone out too fast and were tiring, or they had checked their half split and realised they needed to make a conscious decision to slow down. Her money was on the first being the likely reason for the majority of them though. It’s not that I was happy that people were tiring, but it does give you a bit of a psychological boost to be working your way up the field. There were still clearly hundreds of runners ahead of us, but not as many as there had been, and there were thousands behind us. And we had time in the bank. Mile 15 was quite a slow one (8:15). I’m not sure what happened there other than another electrolyte station. The other miles until mile 19 stayed between 7:45 to 8 minutes per mile, just ticking along nicely. Somewhere along there, we passed a Bellahouston club runner whom I’d had in my sights for several miles. She was clearly racing solo. I said something to her about it being a long way to run by yourself and we headed off. Charlotte did mention something about the camber of the road, and could we swap sides, but she still looked really comfortable so I didn’t think too much about it. It did remind me that my custom insoles were worth every penny!
I’m not sure exactly when we left the banks of Loch Ness. But we entered Dores around mile 17 I think. It’s a very pretty village, and the locals had come out in droves to offer support. We got a few shouts of “Well done ladies” and “Come on Arbroath”, “Come on Brechin”, and offers of jelly babies. We decided to stick to our gels though, and had our second gels before the famed hill that was fast approaching. Either the ease with which the first one opened was a fluke, or my body was struggling to maintain full functionality, as I struggled to open my second gel. Charlotte had to open it for me in the end. She had to open the third one I took as well – at mile 23 when it was all getting tough. Thanks for ensuring I didn’t run out of fuel Charlotte.
Many people had warned me about the ascent out of Dores. At first, I didn’t know what they were talking about, as it seemed like a nice, gradual slope to me. Sure, it was long, and a bit of a grind, but it was much easier than most of the hills around Brechin. But it lulls you into a false sense of security or superiority. Then the gradient increases, and it starts to hurt. Though the weather had been perfect racing conditions at the start: cold but clear and calm and dry, the heavens decided to open on that hill, and we got a heavy downpour all the way up it. It was so bad that I could barely see through my glasses. In a way, that was beneficial as it meant I couldn’t see how steep the hill was, or how long it kept climbing for. Mile 19 ate heavily into our buffer, taking around 8:45. Charlotte kept on up the hill, chatting away to two guys who had passed us offering encouragement to keep going. She seemed really comfortable, whereas I was struggling to do 10 minute mile pace, and was getting passed by a lot of runners, including the Bellahouston lady we had passed several miles back. I saw her again after the finish and congratulated her. She said she had been amazed that we had been running having a normal conversation. We had managed that until Dores, but after that climb I got a lot quieter. It finally levels out though, and after 15 seconds or so I got back into some kind or rhythm. Charlotte offered encouragement about my managing it up the hill, and the next mile was an 8:21 – which I think included the end of the climb.
When we got to mile 20 Charlotte told me how long we had to do the final 10k, but I forget now. I think she thought we would be comfortably sub 3:30 at that point and said “The good thing about 20 miles is you know you’re not going to blow up now or it’d have happened already.” She also told me that the final 6 miles of the race are where all the training kicks in. I thought I’d be fine as, though my quads and glutes were feeling a little tired by this point, the hill hadn’t completely drained me. I put that down to the fact you cannot fail to do a lot of hill work around Brechin, and also the benefits of years of weight training. Mile 21 was downhill and a surprisingly fast 7:34.
Then it started to slowly unravel. A sign after the Dores climb had said “It’s all downhill from here (sort of)”, but I knew there was another climb, and though it’s the smaller of the two it took more out of me than I was expecting. Mile 22 took 8:25. Charlotte kept glancing at her watch. I said I’d be really happy with a time in the low 3:30s, but she was determined to get me round in under 3:30. She told me that it was rare to get such good conditions for racing, and I might not have as good a chance again for a long while. And though I was tired I knew she was right. I needed another gel though. I’d been planning to take one at mile 22, but that was a downhill and Charlotte said there was a danger it might give me a stitch: better to wait until the route flattened out again. By the time we got to mile 23, I was suddenly very tired. I had to ask her to open my final gel, which she did. I think by this point my brain had stopped working clearly, and I didn’t know what to do with the empty packet. We were into Inverness at this point, and a very nice gentleman was standing in the middle of the road (on a traffic island I think) with a huge tub of jelly babies. I ran over to him and, rather than accepting jelly babies, asked if he would take my empty gel packet. Which he kindly did. If he’s reading this (highly unlikely, I know) I’m sorry I gave you a sticky gel wrapper. I was just trying not to drop litter, and wasn’t capable of clear thought by that point.
Just past mile 22 Charlotte told me we had 4 miles to go, and I needed to maintain 8:30 pace or faster: and she knew I could do it. I wasn’t quite so sure. It felt like I was doing 7:40s in terms of effort, but my watch insisted I was only doing 8:45 pace. Charlotte ran off slightly in front of me, trying to set the pace like a metronome, but I wasn’t able to catch back up to her. She kept looking over her shoulder, and adjusting her pace but staying in front of me. This meant I overhead a snatch of conversation that she didn’t, but unfortunately I didn’t catch all of it. Heading round a roundabout around about 23 and a half miles (there’s a lot of rounds in this sentence!) I overheard a guy saying “She’s remarkable. She did…” but I didn’t catch the rest of it. Charlotte had gone past them just a second or two in front of me, and there were no other women nearby us, so he had to be talking about one of us. I’ve not done anything remarkable: I’m reasonably good for my age, gender, and relative inexperience as a runner, but Charlotte’s the one who has won a lot of bling at Half Marathon up to Ultra distance over the years. I tried to tell her about it, but discovered speaking was too difficult by this point.
Although we had been passing a lot of folk up to that climb out of Dores, and then again during mile 21, the reverse was happening now: I was being overtaken by a lot of runners. And when you’re suddenly feeling really tired and struggling to focus, it’s pretty demoralising. Charlotte just would not stop though, and kept making sure I was following. She told me to dig in, and I really tried to. And we were passing some people who had got cramp or just hit the wall and started walking. Unlike passing runners around the mid-point of the race I felt a lot more empathy towards them – having got so close to their target time then watching it slip away, but I was feeling pretty terrible myself and was in danger of missing my target. I had to force myself to soldier on, trying not to drop too far behind Charlotte. At mile 25 you’re heading along the river, but on the opposite side from the finish. There were a lot of spectators, and they got to see me gurning and looking completely spent. Those final three full mile splits came in at 8:24, 8:19 and 8:29. Someone helpfully said “one mile to go” and I prayed my GPS wasn’t 0.65 miles out as it said 25.85 miles and I was trying to work out how many more minutes I had to keep pushing for before this would end.
The relief I felt when I saw the Finish clock was immense. You don’t see the finish until you’re almost upon it – it seemed like maybe 60 metres. And the clock said 3:29:43 when I saw it. Charlotte sprinted off, and somehow finished about 15 seconds ahead of me. I knew my other half wasn’t going to be at the finish line, as he thought parking would be impossible and I’d had no idea what time he could expect to see me. So I wasn’t expecting anyone to recognise me. Then I heard a female voice shout “Pauline”. It was Emily, who was there from Montrose where I regularly go to Parkrun, and for a nice young lady who is small in stature, she has powerful lungs. I was delighted to have someone cheering me over the line, and I attempted to sprint. My body was really fighting all attempts at forward momentum by this point though, so it was far from impressive. I dipped over the line with the clock time at 3:29:57 so I knew I’d managed a sub 3:30! Just! In my first marathon! I slowed to a walk, discovered my balance wasn’t great and staggered sideways a little. Charlotte ran over shouting “Stop your watch.” She had to tell me twice before I managed it. She then gave me a hug, and someone put a medal over my head. Charlotte guided me out of the finish funnel, and to the baggage reclamation. We got our goody bags and t-shirts, and spoke to a few of the folk we’d had brief conversations with whilst going past them, or being overtaken by them. One of them was a guy she used to run with in Dundee, and he gave me a hug too. I felt a bit emotional, but mostly I felt drained. I welled up a bit at several points during the day, but I never cried. I felt a lot better once I’d had the complimentary soup and chilli. I also discovered that finishing far up the field means there’s only a very short queue for your meal: finish in the 4:00 – 4:30 window and that queue is immense.
Loch Ness was a phenomenal experience, and the scenery makes it worth the early start. I really enjoyed the first 18 miles, which was more like being out for a training run with a friend than anything else. Those last 8 miles were harder, and the final couple of miles were so, so, tough. You can’t train to that distance, so you never know when it’s going to hit you, or how hard. Charlotte was amazing, and there’s no way I would have managed a sub 3:30 without her. I’m pretty sure I could have gone sub 3:40, maybe even 3:35, but not 3:30. I definitely have her to thank for that, and she did it whilst in a lot of pain for the final 10 miles! When she’d said something about a niggle and the camber of the road, I thought she was just having some minor discomfort. But she changed her shoes the minute she got her bag back, and told me it had been much worse than she had let on. And yet she kept on running like a metronome, and encouraging me. She’s one tough lady.
Loch Ness was fairly well attended by Brechin Road Runners. Ann-Marie and Nic both got round with new PBs – Ann-Marie was comfortably sub 3:55, and Nic was a few minutes under the 3:45 London GFA threshold, and Steve also ran a sub 4. After getting injured just before Stirling, Rachael has now completed her first marathon, and in a great time. Debbie will be sharing her experience of Loch Ness in her own blog post later this week. A few Footers were also participating, with Chris getting his best marathon time in 3 years.
I’m not sure whether I’ll do Loch Ness again next year. It was a fantastic experience, but there are so many more marathons out there and you can only really train for two a year. My time was good enough to be pretty sure of a London GFA place for 2020, so I plan to do that. And it’s also a Boston Qualifying Time! Which is a dream of many runners, but it’s hard to do that given my current job so I’ll have to investigate whether it’s an option or not. At mile 25 I never wanted to run another marathon again, but I’m already planning the next one. And it looks like Jo and I might both get a mention on Marathon Talk this week.
I finished Loch Ness in a time of 3:29:42. I was 290th out of around 3,000 runners overall. Slightly more impressive sounding, I was 16th in the F40 category, and 34th female in a field of over 1200 women. Charlotte was 32nd female, but could easily have been in the top 15 if she hadn’t given up her race to pace me. She made my first marathon experience a lot more enjoyable than it otherwise would have been, and for that I am very grateful.
If you fancy trying a marathon, I can definitely recommend this one. It’s a goldilocks-sized event. It’s got stunning scenery, some crowd support, and you get enough room to run without feeling claustrophobic. Unlike Dundee there’s enough people running it and enough supporters on the route that you’ll get motivation when you most need it. And unlike big city marathons like London it doesn’t have congestion stopping you hitting your rhythm – certainly at least if you start far enough up the field. And you never know, you might even spot Nessie.