Friday, 8 July 2011

A Run in with the Devil 2011

I ran 43 miles yesterday, and broke most of the rules about doing that sort of daft thing. I went off much too fast, I ran up every hill I could, and when I did walk, it was fast, with bits of running every now and then. I didn’t stop at all, even at the checkpoints. I didn’t even put sun-cream on (and boy do I burn well) so when the heat-wave sunshine hit after four hours, I cooked nicely.

But I did have the best run of my life, no question about that. They say you’ve got to be in it to win it, and although it’s not really sunk in, the trophy for “third Male” sitting in front of me on the table looks real, although I have to keep checking in case it’s not actually there and it was all a dream. This is something I’ve never experienced before – I’m no athlete, just a big bloke that likes to run. I have no regular training plan – four small children at home and a busy job see to that, so I just run on opportunity, any spare hour during the week gets filled with a run, and if things are too busy I just have a quiet week. I don’t have a huge base mileage that ultra runners are meant to have. So I’m not sure how all this has happened.

It’s starting to sink in, slowly. I just listened to this - (go on, it’ll be good background music as you read the rest of this, even if you think it's a bit cheesy) – and the whole enormity of yesterday came flooding home in a wave of emotion (I think there must be something in my eye) and these lines just hit the spot:

“So I step out of the ordinary,
I can feel my soul ascending,
I’m on my way – can’t stop me now,
And you can do the same”

That means something today that it didn’t yesterday. Running 43 miles through big mountains isn’t *ordinary* and it’s an experience that I genuinely struggle to put into words. That positive vibe of the day will stay with me forever – so many wonderful people to share the whole experience – far more than the hurty bits during the last couple of hours.

Here’s an odd thing – the race went by so quickly for me. Breaking it (mentally) down into several short sections maybe helped (Tyndrum – Bridge of Orchy – Inveroran Hotel – Glencoe – Devil’s Staircase – Kinlochleven – Lundavra – Fort William) but I’d only based my plan around split times for the three checkpoints, and knew my support crew would fill in the gaps if I was faster or slower. Actually, I couldn’t find that bit of paper at 5am before the race so ended up giving them last year’s times instead...

The first 29 miles were great. I relaxed, didn’t push too hard (so why is my third mile split 6:35?), settled into 7th/8th place and tortured myself with thoughts of a large number of excellent runners just behind me, who would chase me down and head off into the distance if I slowed down at any stage. After Glencoe, Gerry who’d been good company over Rannoch Moor, disappeared – I think he stopped for a couple of minutes at the checkpoint, and Ian in front seemed to be coming back towards me . Before the devil’s Staircase I caught up with him and we ran together a bit but I was soon pulling away and after giving a couple of gates a good push so that he could get through too, I let the third one close since the gap had opened up. Hmm, sixth place and no-one in sight behind.

The Devil’s staircase starts halfway into the race at 21 miles – in my head this was the end of the warm-up and the start of the race proper. I could see the amazing Lucy Colquhon high up ahead several switchback up and she had passed one of the leading group of four. A quick time check and he was only a couple of minutes ahead. I walked for the first time during the race, and ran whenever I could, and was pleased that my two mile splits that covered the lower and upper parts of the climb were 12 and 14 minutes respectively (although latter includes a sharp downhill afterwards).

The gap closed to 90s, then 70s, then 40s and I just concentrated on running over the very rough trail after kicking a stone. The descent to Kinlochleven was great and I was soon chatting to Craig Cunningham who was great company for a couple of miles – he’s an outstanding athlete but wasn’t quite 100% today after his 10th place finish in the recent West Highland Way Race. He said that he was hoping for a top ten place today and knew he’d be slowing (I never quite believe people when they say this, but he was right and finished 13 minutes behind me to take the 1st Male vet trophy).

Kinlochleven soon came and went (3:52 was ahead of my best estimate of four hours), with a no-stop strategy again. I grabbed a couple of bottles (water and coke this time), a couple more gels and a banana to eat on the next climb (1000ft in a mile). Jules told me that Paul Hart had dropped out from the leading group so I was now in fourth place – and third male. Hadn’t seen that one coming.

Cue heat-wave conditions for the rest of the race (and this is Scotland!) I think I’d forgotten how rough and uphill the next five miles were. The Lairig Mor path stretches out ahead of you, gradually climbing for mile after mile, with extra ‘undulations’ all the time. I re-filled my water-bottle a few times from streams and drank lots and poured plenty of water over my head. I felt that I was crawling along and wondered what all the walkers on the path would make of my laboured running. That might sound odd considering where I was in the race, but this was a real low point in my race. After cruising along to this point the abruptness of the change in effort was enormous.

My head started fighting my body and encouraging it to walk on easy ascents, and when I did run, it was a slow trot instead. Dark times under blazing skies.

There are a couple of downhill miles before Lundavra, but the trail is very rocky for these so the pace is again hit hard for this section. My early pace was now being paid for and I was only a couple of minutes faster than last year for this section, and wondering if I was going to fade and be enveloped by the chasing pack.

The climb out of Lundavra was tough, but little goals like ‘run to the next corner then walk’ helped get me through here. As did the big goal of a podium finish. After this things improved a bit and seeing Karen and Helen (who were running the route in the opposite direction as UTMB training) was a massive lift. The two miles to the edge of the forest soon passed, I promptly took a flier after kicking a rock here, but managed to land ok on my knee and side. After a good shout at myself I headed off and quite enjoyed the next couple of miles through the woods, which are now less spooky since half of the trees have been cut down. I must confess to spending a lot of time looking back down the trail during the final climb out of the woods, even more than Andy Schleck in the Tour de France. Not sure that I could have worked any harder if someone had appeared out of the woods behind me, but I wanted to know if anyone was there.

The last three miles were great, with some very runnable downhill sections on good trail and Ben Nevis looming above to the right. Relax, concentrate on good running form, don’t trip up, hit 7 min-miles on the downhill sections – just what I’d dreamt of for this section. The flat trail to the Braveheart car-park went on longer than I’d remembered, but I knew that it was less than a mile to the end from here and I almost stopped worrying about losing my lifetime chance to get a podium spot.

The final five minutes along the road was still hard (as it maybe should be after 41+ miles) but being so close to the finish this hardly mattered. My legs still worked and I could run to the finish with a big smile on my face. Result: 6:21:22, which was quicker than even my most ambitious dream target.

As for the question of ‘what next?’ the simple answer is that I’m just going to enjoy the moment and not worry about that sort of thing. Not yet anyway.

Dave Morrow took this amazing picture, which deserves a full page spread in runners world, it brilliantly captures a bit of the *why* that makes us do these crazy races. Thanks Dave.

My biggest thanks of all has to be to the three amigos, Steve, Scott and Jules (plus Steve's son) who made all this possible – I really had a great support crew and I’m sorry that you didn’t get to run any of the sections guys. The old cliché of “you can’t do it without support” has never been truer.