Seeking asylum in the hills & transcendence on the trails

The support of an ultra runner

GUEST POST by my sister Nicola!!!

A day in the life of an ultra marathon support person……

On Saturday 21st May my brother raced his third ever ultra marathon, The Cateran Trail 55 and until a few months ago I must admit I had never really heard much about ultras, SUMS,  Jezz Bragg etc etc. I mean it was only last year that the boy actually starting running seriously (and did a few 10k races). From then we  knew we had a little Forrest (of the not so gump variety) in the making. But what changed in 8 months or so to take it too an ultra level none of us are quite sure. The first part of his madness started with his #444 10k alarm every morning………which progressed into his longer Saturday runs…….run to sports centre at 7am on a Friday morning, followed by spin, then a swim and then a run home, and so forth, you get the picture…

There is no denying that it takes immense fitness to become an ultra runner (as well as a huge appetite), which my brother has in abundance, but as I have witnessed over the last few races, it takes much, much more than that. It takes a huge amount of dedication, but also a level of mental strength, awareness and determination that few possess.  In fact we all probably do, but few actually channel and develop it. I guess it’s this combination that helps keep numbers low for this elite club of “ultra-ers” or as I personally like to call them- “nutters”.

So to the start of the race…… this is where the pain begins for us…..pain in many different ways from the “nutters”.

Whilst these guys set off on their race mentally attuned and all pumped up, buzzing on the smell of ralgex and testosterone, yip women too, they settle into a world of scenic bliss, pondering the delights of their next snack, checkpoints, free food they might receive along the way and how many toenails they might lose (they seem to like swapping gruesome injury stories). They, I may add at this point, have the easy bit of the deal, I mean just “run, drink, eat, don’t fall, don’t get lost”, simple 5 point plan. We, on the other hand, i.e. the support crew (which on this occasion consisted of me and mama and papa pyllonswizzle) have more serious issues to deal with.  Nutrition, yup it’s 7am and where can we get breakfast.  Drop bags, kinda mega important to the boy (but I’ll come back to them).  Toilet stops (yup I forgot my Shewee). Checkpoints and navigation, which for a family with a track record like ours, is no mean feat. And the hardest part of all of the whole race- the stress and worry….

Unlike the last race (Highland Fling), we were completely unsure of the actual route and checkpoints for this race, so it was decided in case we never made any of the stops Paul would use the drop bag system for each checkpoint.  After successfully navigating our way to the first checkpoint at Dalnagair Castle and spending our time spotting the runners along the route we reclaimed the boys drop bag which had some gels in and a new water bottle filled with crazy blue stuff and waited…. You do a lot of this….you wait, chat to the lovely team already there and wait some more. In fact, I shouldn’t moan as we didn’t really have to wait long until the boy appeared leading the race with another Paul. At this point he was 6 miles down and bang on target. Now a strange thing happens at this point, relief that you have seen him and he is ok, coupled with excitement, fear, disbelief that he is out on front and stress!  Stress and worry, will he be ok, what if he gets lost, what if he falls and injures himself, what if he runs out of water, what if he burns out, what if it rains and he doesn’t have his jacket, what if it gets really sunny and he gets burnt, and so on…I worry about everything and so does my mum!

Anyway we set off to the next point along the road and actually have to drive past Paul. This is heartbreaking, seeing my wee skinny bro running along the road on his own knowing that he has another 49 miles to go. We shout words of encouragement but all I really want to do is bundle him in the car, tell him it’s stupid, feed him pies and take him home!  Mum reminds us that he is doing something he wants and loves to do.

The next two stops go relatively smoothly and at each stage the boy is still out in front. We are under meticulous instruction as to what to give him at each checkpoint and we triple check each time on our much envied race plan and rehearse handovers etc (yes we are that sad). On his little sandwich bags of jelly babies I write wee messages for him and distance, pace and time predicted until next point, thinking it will make him smile or something. Little did I know they were stuffed straight into his pocket once the jelly babies were consumed! We also overhear people at these checkpoints asking who this Paul fella is, which is kinda weird as I wanna shout out ITS MY BROTHER AND HE’S WINNING!!!

We make the Blairgowrie checkpoint by the skin of our teeth, having been given directions to take the “scenic route”. At this point my mum and I are practically hyperventilating and my dad has driven like Michael Schumacher to get us there on time. None of us could face the wrath of the boy of not being there or being responsible for precious seconds being lost as he had to seek out his drop bag himself. In fact one of the marshals (good looking bloke in a black north face jacket) asked if I was always like this at Pauls races. Yes!! But this was worse as he was out in front!! We realised at this point we were also out of diesel and quickly sought out fuel after a shout on twitter! (Thanks Angela).

At Bridge of Cally the boy was rocking and had completed 38 miles. He actually stopped for a quick chat and looked mega fresh before he set off on the next 11 miles. We actually hung out for a while to see when the next runner appeared and realise Paul is a good 15/20 minutes ahead. Is it too soon to get excited and believe that he might actually win this?!??!? OMG!! Our nerves are shattered at this point. We also realise that none of us has actually touched the mammoth picnic wee josie doll (my mum) has made as we feel too nervous and sick.

We head to the last check point at Enochdhu and start to panic in true family style as no one is there. Have we got to the wrong point, what if his drop back doesn’t appear. I quickly cobble together another drop bag from our extras in case and the team eventually appear. Us forgetting they were still waiting on the last of the runners at an earlier checkpoint and that our boy is way out in front. Last checkpoint sees Paul in great spirits and heading up the hardest and highest part of the race over an ascent of 2000ft and six miles to go. To say we are nearly “wetting our pants” with excitement here is an understatement! We jump in the car and head for the finish line.

They are setting up the finish line with balloons and stuff when we get there and we pace up and down little noting the rain pissing down and keep checking our watches, where is he? what if he has fallen on the last few miles? My dad heads up the hill with his binoculars (or pervoculars as I like to call them). Several minutes later he starts waving his arms about and a classic quote from my mum ”do you think he is trying to tell us something”. Er YES, “I think he must be able to see the boy Mum!

Nothing can describe the immense pride we feel seeing my brother run down the last part of the race whooping and screaming and me shouting in true Nicola style “don’t slip on your ass boy”. Tears in all of our eyes, seeing him cross the line to the sound of bagpipes in the Scottish rain. Immense, and one of the proudest moments of my life.

One of the strangest things on a day like this is actually how quickly the day goes for us, checkpoint to checkpoint and ensuring we have all the stuff for the boy we are supposed to,  as well as anticipating anything else he might need like food, ibuprofen gel, jacket etc. But the weirdest part by far is knowing in the back of your mind that through all this travel, tea stops, chit chat with others etc, the boy is actually STILL RUNNING!!

Watching someone you love deeply put themselves through a huge mental and physical challenge is really tough to deal with. You worry beyond belief and genuinely feel physically sick. Winning was the cherry on top for sure. But the biggest part is getting your loved one back in one piece and wondering why the hell he puts himself and us through it (whilst secretly wondering when the next one is)!

Well done Paul we are very, very proud.


5 responses

  1. Amazing write up Nicola ….. brilliant !!

    June 11, 2011 at 7:56 pm

  2. The politically correct term is Ultra-nutters 🙂

    June 13, 2011 at 3:26 pm

    • Yeah, you might have a point! 😀

      June 16, 2011 at 6:51 pm

  3. It was great to meet your Mum today. She sent me a link to your blog.

    Congrats on your Cateran win and I look forward to meeting up one day.

    June 20, 2011 at 7:14 pm

    • John, would love to meet you!!

      Thank you so much for saving the stuff we left in Fort William! It was really kind of you.

      Hope you’re recovering well from the WHW. Maybe we can meet up for a run sometime (even just over the braes) as I’m only a few minutes from you.

      Thanks again, and well done for completing another WHW – amazing!


      June 20, 2011 at 7:38 pm

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