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‘Human sheepdog’ brought up on Turnalt Farm wins Long Series Award at Scottish Ultra Marathon awards

[Updated 22.45] Neil MacNicol, a 43 year old former Royal Marine Commando  who was brought up on Turnalt Farm at Barbeck near Oban and now lives at Burntisland, has been signally honoured at the 2015 Scottish Ultra Marathon Series Awards.

He has been given the Long Series Award for races of over 50 miles.

Neil’s performances in the 2015 series included two second places – in the West Highland Way race [Scotland’s oldest official long distance footpath]; and in the Glenmore 24 hour race – as well as a top ten finish in the Highland Fling. This is an annual 53 mile contest following the West Highland Way through the Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park.

It pales in comparison to the Glenmore 24 hour, though. In this Ultra you just keep on running round the course, with the 12 hour posse dropping off in celebratory mode leavimg the 24 hour competitors confronting the additional challenge they face. Neil ran – wait for it – between 142 and 143 miles in the 2015 Glenmore. And this summer, in July, he’s running a 100 miler in the Lake Distruct – a loop course from Coniston which takes in great deal of the steep uphills and downhills in the Lakes.

He;s starting to prepare for it this weekend, running from Coniston to the head of Wastwater = after leaving home at 04-30 to drive there in three hours- and starting to run about half an hour after getting there. Tomorrow hes doing the next leg – and plans to have checked out every leg of this massively testing challenge in good time.

For those of us who find the West Highland Way had enough walking – and particularly the section along Loch Lomond from Inversnaid – how the ultra competitors run it is beyond imagining.

IMG_1137 copyNeil MacNicol has said, disarmingly, that he was ‘kept fit as a human sheep dog’ on the family farm at Barbreck and that while he ‘didn’t compete much at school, as a teenager he did a few hill races at Highland Games.

He says he started running seriously when he wanted to join the Marines which he did in 1993 – after which he proves he belongs to a different race in saying: ‘There I was introduced to the joys of many endurance challenges such as load carrying and speed marching’.

When he left the Marines in 2000 he left fit by running 10ks and half marathons, doing his first full road marathon in 2005 – merely to get a ‘good for age’ rating for the 2006 London Marathon.

His 2 hours 50 mins performance in London was the start of moving on up, with his first Ultra – the Highland Fling, coming in 2011.

He has now done 12 ultras and 3 marathons and by 2014 was second overall in the Scottish Ultra Marathon series – first in the senior male category and first also in the short series.

People like Neil are indeed a race apart – people understanding the value of self-discipline and keeping that value alive by constantly challenging themselves in ways the molycoddles that are the est of us could not contemplate.

Anyone who heard the Canadian astronaut, Commander Chris Hadfield, on Desert Island Discs this morning, 20th December [a memorable edition], will have listened to someone of the same breed as Neil MacNicol.

Interestingly, Hadfield’s parents decided to bring their boys up in the country; and he spoke of appreciating hard and disciplined physical work with a real purpose – putting food on your plate, of being comfortable in the outside world and of having a deep curiosity about it.

He too went for the military life [in the airforce as an engineer and a fast jet test pilot] – as the best way into what he had decided to do at the age of nine – be an astronaut. At that age, he had been galvanised by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s first moon landing and determined that, if he was ‘going to grow up to be anything , which was sort of likely, why not grow up to be this?’

Neil MacNicol, while running into being an inspirational figure himself, also runs his own business in run coaching and massage therapy. He also finds time to coach the Burntisland Beacon Runners.

Running a running business

Neil MacNicol’s attitude to his business, Run Recover, is typically thorough.

The recovery side of it – the first wimp’s like us think about being the aftershock – is centred on massage. He could have gone straight to do a recognised qualification in Sports Massage – the deep massage necessary to help serious athletes to recover and maintain physical condition. He chose the longer route – of course he did – and took the recommended first qualification in Swedish massage, where you learn all of the fundamental biomechanical basis of massage. He is now just completing the Sports massage qualification which, in running terms, goes the extra miles.

On the running side of the business, Neil coaches running – not track running but endurance running, starting with classes amusingly known in the trade as  ‘Couch to 5k’. These aim to get people off the horizontal and running [jogging] 5k in nine weeks. Neil’s courses last 10 weeks, to allow for any adaptation to the needs of the class members.

He also coaches individuals, creating training plans and advising on the progressive challenges they should take on. Some of his recent clients are making substantial headway with one of them running the 53 mile Highand Fling along with Neil this coming April.

He is also delighted that his own club, Burntisland Beacon Runners, where he helps with the coaching, will see every one of the club;s relay team who ran 12 miles each of the Glenmore 24 hour this year, are to run full Ultras as individuals this year – starting with the Highland Fling.

Neil says that, after he’d run his own first 53 mile Fling in 2014, he wondered inwardly what more there was after 53 miles – and what  more would feel like? After his Glen Mor this year, with that stonking 142-3 miles he clocked up, he has now learned what that unknown ‘more’ is like.

So what’s the answer? ‘Nothing different, really. You just keep going.’

He did say, though, that recovery from what the Glen Mor did to his body took a week. A week? Did we say that people like Neil are a ace apart? We didn’t even come close.

And he hopes to drive back to Fife from running a second section of the Lakes 100 Mile tomorrow – in time for the club’s Christmas run n the evening. It has to be said that, during our conversation, he sounded a cheerful and happy man. ‘Couch to 5k’ anyone?

Note: Checking out the current points scores on the Scottish Ultra Marathon Sries website, we found Caroline McKay, the endurance runner whose progress we followed when, four years ago, she ran 133 miles in the three day challenge she set herself to run around the coastline of Mull, as a tribute to her late mother.




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