Sunday, 30 September 2012


River Ayr Way Ultra - September 2012

That title is a cryptic anagram. Bonus marks for solving it before the end of this blog

How quickly a week sails by. Actually, it's beena fortnight since I ran the River Ayr Way Challenge - 40 and a bit miles of trails and XC, with dollops of mud thrown in for good measure, dozens and dozens of those kissing gates (I stopped counting after four miles) and more ups and downs than you would think are possible for a path that is meant to 'follow' a river.

And so many steps all over the place too. Still, it's a great race, and the course is good too, being a source to sea sort of route, so there's plenty of variety.

The race went really well in many ways. Since running the West Highland Way Race back in June my legs have taken over two months to get back to normal. I was warned about this taking some time and to all those wise people who said it would take time, I say, "yes, you were completely right". Admittedly, I did run a couple of ultras in July and August (40 and 37 miles) but wasn't able to go as well as I might have hoped (Hey idiot! What do you expect after running 95 miles!)
Gavin and me check for a pulse
Back to Ayrshire, the weekend before last. I was lucky enough to have been offered a lift to the race by a clubmate, and since her husband was driving, that meant we could go direct to the start of the race instead of getting up at 5am (as I did last year) and going to the end of the race in Ayr and getting a coach back to the start. Lots of the usual chatting and meeting friends - the Scottish ultra community is great for its friendliness - and then a wander down to the race start.
After all the waiting, it's always good to get moving
With a couple of seriously fast runners (Marco and Gareth) on the start list not starting the race, I reckoned there were three or four others (that I knew of) who would be at the sharp end of the race. I had no real plan, which meant I had convinced myself that it would be fine to run at a 'relaxed and comfortable' pace for the first third (a half-marathon), then try to push on at a steady pace for the middle HM, and then see what was left for the final HM (and a bit).
100m into the race and enjoying the downhill start
The result of this careful planning was that I sprinted off from the rest of the field during the first half mile, with Robert Soutar for company. Nothing wrong with a seven minute mile at the start of a 40 mile trail race is there? Or for the first ten miles?
Robert tries hiding behind a signpost, but it doesn't work

But it all felt very comfortable and I was enjoying myself, so I just went along and enjoyed it. After 4.5 miles Robert pushed the pace and since I reckoned that 6.5 min/miles really was beyond that 'comfortable' zone for me, I didn't try to stick with him.
Ayrshire - land of strimmered grass

Along I trundled and was suddenly caught up after 16 miles by Craig Reid, the only other runner who had stayed close to us at the start. We ran together for over a mile before he sped up to chase down first place. It was all very amiable, we were just running our own strategies. In my head I was now settled in for third place and waiting for Gavin Harvie to overtake me (and he runs a 2:44 marathon, so I was fully expecting that to happen pretty soon).
Running with Craig through SORN, the village where the none of the cars have tax-discs
Having run the race a year ago was a huge advantage. not just in terms of navigation, but just knowing where the climbs and descents were going to be, and what the terrain would be like ahead.

At 25 miles, everything changed.

I rounded a corner in a wooded section and there were the two leaders, heading up a steep climb (there were steps, so that means it was pretty steep in my book). I was feeling good, so bounced up towards them and saw that they were both going much slower than I'd have expected. Of course they were - I'd not have seen them until the end otherwise.

So I headed past them, with a bit of a wee surge if the truth be told, 'cos that's what you do in this sort of situation, and shot past without a backward glance. I never looked behind for the next two miles. And only then because the route headed off up a steep muddy field, filled with cows, ankle deep mud (and other stuff, just ask the cows), to see them maybe 3 minutes below me as I ran the entire way up that hill, before pushing hard down the (steep) downhill side to make sure I stayed ahead.

Really, I didn't take this position seriously. I was quite sure that I had simply 'borrowed' the lead of the race for a wee while before someone would tap me on the shoulder and ask for it back. But I was still feeling good (yes, even beyond 30 miles), and still able to run properly. Actually running 'properly' was a big, big race focus for me. I had been thinking about 'being in the moment' and keeping good running form for much of the race - inspired by Stuart Mills' blogs - and will keep you reading for hours and hours if that's your cup of tea.
Mile 35 and it's all feeling good.
"Mum, why's that man covered in mud...?"
And it worked. Despite running for the rest of the race looking back along all the long straights for the 'thin and fast' chasing runners to come bearing down on me at top speed, that just didn't happen. Maybe me running quite fast played a factor in that, but my brain wouldn't accept that the race win would be mine until crossing over the final bridge in the centre of Ayr, where I could see that no-one was within three minutes of me along the river bank, with only a half mile to go.

Blimey, this really was going to happen! I dodged past the Saturday shoppers, looked for a gap between the traffic before just lifting my hand firmly to an oncoming car at the final road crossing (and it worked too - in that it didn't run me over - there must have been a pretty determined look on my face) and then relaxed to enjoy the final section to the finish, where there was enough space so that no more weekend shoppers had to be dodged around.
The finishing straight, after dodging the shoppers in Ayr
Almost there.
Milking the moment.
Still milking it
Phew. And breathe.
 I waited for a few minutes as what had happened did its best to sink in (and failed) before realising that my kit-bag wasn't at the finish since I'd left it in my clubmate's car. Not wanting to get too cold, I went for a wee run (!) It was partly an aesthetic thing in that I quite wanted to complete the RAW to the very end of the river, which meant down to the beach and to the end of the pier, and also because I wanted a moment to let things soak in. I also texted MikeR, since he had asked me to his wedding that day and after a bit of serious thinking, I had declined for a bunch of (family) reasons. But I had wanted to wish him well and let him know the news.

A couple of miles out to the end of the pier and then back to the finish and I found that the second and third placed runners had come in. Despite my fears of being caught, there were over 17 minutes back to second place. Wow. I wondered what would have been the effect of knowing that if someone had told me during the last five miles. Would I have slowed down a bit? Probably not - I think I would have been in denial and just got on with running.

If you'd like some numbers, the time was just under 5 hours 35 minutes, with HM splits of 1:40 (much easier flatter terrain), 1:50 and 1:55 (plus an extra 10 minutes for the final mile and a bit). The terrain and ups and downs make it tricky to compare those times to flat tarmac races.
With Richard Cronin, whose race blog is like poetry.  You should read it.

So there it was, my first race win - never saw that coming - I'd been hoping for 4th or 5th, but just had a race where it all went well. Actually, that's not quite true. Halfway through I had a stabbing pain on the inside of my lower right leg during a long and steep downhill section, which echoed a tendon issue that I'd had back in August. That alone could have ended my race. I had cramp problems, which included a couple of painful episodes which stopped me for a moment each time, but walking, then running seemed to get rid of. My drop-bag at mile 11 simply wasn't there (I think the crate of drop bags was still in someone's car - maybe what you get for arriving too early) but I luckily had enough spare stuff to keep me going. On four or five occasions, the water at the checkpoints was in six large bottles, tightly bound with plastic - and I repeatedly had to rip these open and then struggle to open a bottle in order to glug the water into my drinks bottle.

As for some other numbers and stats and such like, since I know some people like this sort of things, here's a picture of how this year's race went compared to last year.  Not an entirly fair comparison since this year the route was a mile longer with *that* muddy/boggy/hilly diversion, which counts for well over a mile of extra racing.

Spiky race-graph thing, inspired by Stu Mills and Thomas Loendorf
So nothing is ever perfect, but today was pretty close to it, and worth all the more since it was genuinely unexpected. As an added bonus, this secured me 3rd pace in the Scottish Ultramarathon Series for 2012, and first Male Vet to boot - Link (roll over me to see where I go) - which is a bit bloody good and something that I'm pretty pleased with. Don't take this the wrong way, there are many other runners in Scotland who are way, way better than me at this sort of thing. But they didn't target the race series, or had DNFs, or ran with a Scotland vest at other races. I've been told it's the classic "in it to win it" thing.

Wow, well worth the effort.
SUMS prize (with thanks to John Duncan for making this happen)

It turns out that I ran 7 of the 9 SUMS races this year, which was more than anyone else, along with Jonathan Mackintosh - and only a couple of folks ran even 6 of them. Maybe that's why I kept feeling tired then.

In the evening, the SUMS prizes were presented.  I'd known that I was in with a shout of something this year.  Again, it all depended on who else turned up for the RAW - anything from 3rd to 6th could have been up to grabs.  I'd never really contemplated that I might actually hang to third place.  There was a bit of a dilemma when it turned out that there were lots of shiny prizes, which Tim Downie and John Duncan had magically produced, and since I was offered a choice of a wee glass for third place or a nice, shiny decanter for first Male Vet, I obviously went for the what would look best on the mantelpiece at home.  All presentations starred the lovely Lee MacLean.
SUMS 3rd place - 1st MV
And tonight's raffle winner is...
And as if this wasn't enough, my clubmate Judith had finished off her season with another great run to finish in 3rd place on the day, 3rd place in the SUMS championship, and 1st FSV - for which she got a shiny decanter too.  Not bad for a club called Kinross Road Runners, which has a good hill-running section too these days. 
Kinross Road Runners' Judith Dobson takes 1st FSV (and 3rd overall)
So what next? Where do I take things from here? Now that's BIG and difficult question, with lots and lots of answers. Once I have some sort of idea, I'll let you know.

P.S. I lied about the anagram, but well done if you got "u rainy swarms" which describes the Scottish summer for 2012.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Speyside Way Ultra 2012

Rain, Pain and Ben Aigan


Speyside Way Ultramarathon - 25th August 2012


I’m sitting with a group of runners in the school hall in the town of Buckie, up in the North East of Scotland.  We’ve all just run 36.5 miles along the Speyside Way, a race that involved a lot of ankle deep splashing along trails, with a hill of almost 1,000 feet thrown in for good measure.  We all look a bit tired, but at least I’ve managed to get a shower and something to eat.


“Did you see those guys at the start?” asks one of the other runners.  “They just sprinted off like gazelles and disappeared out of sight as soon as the race begun.” I like the imagery of gazelles, although I’m not convinced it’s completely right on this occasion. I raise my hand a little and give a guilty sort of nod. “Hmm, yeah.  That was me.  I needed to warm up at the start…”


I’ve led a race before, but never beyond about 100 metres at the very most.  But this time I was feeling like enjoying myself so just let the legs go and ended up leading until over 12 miles into the race.  It was fun. Then we reached the long, long climb up the hill.


Rewind back a couple of months to the hardest race I’ve yet done.  The West Highland Way Race was the main goal for me in 2012.  It was epic.  Maybe it didn’t quite go according to plan, when I couldn’t manage more than a walk after 50 miles, but I picked it up later and finished in a decent enough time. And was soon thinking about recovery until my ankles swelled up for a week, not helped by the fact that I was straight back at work for the following week (no choice there) so that didn’t help.  And the following week I managed to run just 7 miles, so it was going to take a while.  Since I’d got used to heading out for a five mile (slow) run the day after any of my previous ultras, this was bad news.


Others had told me that I should expect a good three months to get back to how I felt before the race – that’s quite a while for post-race recovery.  I didn’t want to be twiddling my thumbs for that long so had entered the Cyldestride 40 just four weeks afterwards, not expecting to be racing at top speed, but just wanting something else in the diary to work towards.  After a couple of weeks of recovery I was having to think about tapering already and started worrying about a lack of training miles.


The Clydestride turned out to be great fun – 40 miles of exploring trails that were new to me (and the centre of Glasgow).  My legs did feel deeply tired though and I felt bad around miles 22 to 27, but things picked up towards the end and I picked up a few places to finish in 5:42 and 7th place.  I was more than happy with that, all things considered.


That was followed by three weeks of travelling with a car-full of kids and suitcases, covering a big triangle down the East side of England, followed by a week and a half in Devon.  Last year on holiday I did the typical running ‘Dad’ thing and set the alarm for 6am each morning to get out for 1½ to 2 hours before everyone else was up.  This year was completely different, since trying some new shoes while in Yorkshire left me having to walk the final half a mile of that run back to the in-laws’, something that’s never happened to me before.  I ended up deciding it was plantaris tendonitis and the stabbing pain down the inside of my lower leg, coupled with a bit of swelling around the ankle fitted with a self-diagnosis via Google.  The only cure seemed to be to not run for a while.


That was bad news, but I guess it could have been worse.  Instead of building up some really good mileage and getting race fit again, I ended having a summer off-season with next to no running at all.  Added to that, all the friends and family we were visiting, combined with holiday eating and drinking meant I quickly put on half a stone (and a bit more) and I had been more hippo than gazelle to begin with anyway. 


So I stood in the pouring rain in Ballindalloch on Saturday 25th August, just before 9am, with very well rested legs.  Just 48 miles of running in all of August had followed after tearing (?) my calf muscle at the end of the previous week, so I’d had another week with no miles in my legs at all.  The reasonable and calculated thing to do here would be to react and adapt to the circumstances, to have a sensible plan like starting the race gently and seeing how the legs would cope.

Rain, rain and more rain

But that would hardly be much fun would it?


The rain wasn’t the light showers that had been promised.  It maybe wasn’t quite the apocalyptic conditions of two months earlier, but it was hammering down, and I was questioning my decision to just wear my club vest and a very thin jacket, which has almost zero waterproofness.  The emergency buff was called into play but I was still very cold and starting to shiver as I strained to hear the race briefing above the falling rain.

Splashing straight through the puddles as the race started

A short wander down to the nearby pond, which doubled as a disused railway line and in fact was the start line for the race, with RD Sarah simply saying, “ok, off you go” and we started moving.  I was now feeling cold, wanting to move, so I went off at a good pace, with not much of a plan apart from getting myself warmed up.  Being right at the front was actually a big help in deciding which puddles were best for splashing through.  Before long I was with (doc) Andrew Murray and Donnie Campbell and we chatted away, catching up on how things had been since we’d last seen each other on training runs and races. 


It’s said that being able to hold a steady conversation is a good way to regulate your speed, but we still averaged seven minute miles to the first check point.  Gareth Mayze soon joined the group and I ended up having a great time chatting to these guys, who I have so much respect for (all race winners in 2012) – thanks for your company (if you’re reading this), it was a pleasure running with you.


Having no real plan for any race strategy was probably a good thing.  I was just enjoying being in the moment, pushing the pace a bit, but never over-extending myself, and always being in control of the pace.  I’d looked at last year’s results and had felt that five hours was a pretty good target to aim for, partly because my friend Mike had run 5:01 last year and I reckoned it might annoy him a bit if I could be quicker.  But that averaged out at just over eight minute miles which felt pretty daunting. 


At one point as we ran passed the distinctive smell of distilleries I was running with Donnie at the front and he picked up the pace, but I was comfortable to go with him, not realising that he’d only sped up because he was about to head behind a tree for a wee break.  So I enjoyed a short time completely on my own before things came back together after we reached the car-park in Craggelachie, forcing the marshal from their car to hurriedly put her hi-vis vest on and direct us towards the riverside path.

Check point one at 12 miles and the rain is getting serious

Wading into the first checkpoint - Gareth tries to avoid getting splashed

I came into the first check point with Gareth and had to hunt for my drop-bag.  Found it, nope that was another identical one with the wrong number, then looked again and got the right one.  I grabbed it, unopened, and headed off with Jim Robertson helpfully directing my in the right direction, through the biggest “puddle” of the day.  Across the road bridge and starting to climb the hill before Ben Aigan – to find that I was all on my own again for a short while.  But it wasn’t long before Andrew caught up, with the true gazelles soon bringing the group back together and we ran four abreast for a while, sharing thoughts on the world.  Happy days.


I sorted the drop-bag on the run – a couple of gels stowed away, a cereal bar into another pocket.  Drink bottle into main pocket of the bumbag, and banana eaten last of all.  Then we hit the main climb and the group splintered.


I’d had Donnie and Gareth down as my picks for the top two places and, true to form, they headed up that hill at a blistering pace.  After the “comfortable” pace up to this point, there was no way I was going to try and climb the hill like that, so I “let them go” (!) with Andrew trying to stick with them, but with a gap opening up.  The race was on and I now had to think about getting to the end without the company of those early miles.


I’m used to climbing hills.  It’s what I did before getting into running, and it’s where I do much of my training.  But throw in over 700ft of ascent halfway through a big race like this and it fells quite different.  I concentrated on relaxed running with a good turnover and was mightily relieved when the Garmin said I was up to 960ft and the trail headed downhill for good.  It was a steep downhill at that, and the pounding soon had me looking about uncomfortably for the right tree to pause behind.

Note the steep bit in the middle

With only a couple of minutes wasted in the undergrowth, I watched a couple of runners zipping past, making the most of the downhill.  So what was that? 4th and 5th now gone, putting me in 6th place. Once I know what the number is I can’t forget it, even though it was still much too early to worry about such things.


Hitting the tarmac at 19 miles there was a mile long section along the road and I could see the two runners just in front of me.  But I also glanced behind me as I turned onto the road and could see three more runners, one after the other, closing down on me.  The mile along the road went on for longer that I was expecting it, with a bit of a climb in the middle, and the first two runners headed past me with some good, fast road-running.  I had a few words with Craig Stewart, who I’d been expecting to see at some point and followed him down the trail towards the river, enjoying the downhill and a good bit of pace again.


But I didn’t enjoy the steep hairpin just beyond, with a sharp pull at the top of it.  Again, I lost another place, and even found myself thinking that this might be a day to be pleased with a top ten finish – no shame in that with so many strong runners and my list of excuses.  The next corner brought a strange sight: the road was completely straight for a little over half a mile and there in front of me were spread no fewer than the next six runners.  I glanced at the watch for a time check and found that we were all covered by just four minutes, so there was still plenty that could happen before the end of the race.  But would I slow down or would I pick it up later on? Had my crazy (but fun) early miles been too foolhardy?  And a glance behind me on that long bit of road showed the tenth place runner just a couple of minutes behind.  Time to suck it up and get on with some running.

Targets ahead

After 24 miles was the second drop-bag station.  Just before here I had my only walk of the day – for less than a minute, but it was a steep climb and I’d have saved little by running it – and it was good to use different muscles, even briefly.   I called out my number to the waiting marshal ahead and was then distraught to find that the marshals, in an attempt to be helpful, had opened my bag and laid the contents out on the table. Noooo! So I had to grab things and stuff them into the relevant pockets rather than just grabbing the bag and shooting straight off.  Oh well, no real harm done, just half a minute lost.


I headed towards the delightfully named town of Fochabers eating my pot of custard (I’d remembered to put a spoon into the bag too), and then looking for a bin to dump the pot, along with the empty bottle of flat coke that I’d washed down the yogurt with.  Gotta love this ultra-food!

And that’s when I saw Craig ahead, walking - and limping.  He’d damaged his knee and soon had to call it a day.  The next two runners were a little closer now, so I tried to pick up the pace a bit, knowing that 7th and 6th places were within a minute of me again.


One of the great things about the race was the excellent signs, markings and marshals.  We were well guided through the town, and I was soon running with, and then past, the next runner, who had to stretch out some cramp for a few seconds at one point but told me he had to keep going since he was from Buckie so had to get back home.  26.2 miles came and went with 3:29 on the clock.


I really enjoyed the trail heading north from Fochabers to Spey Bay.  This was a very runnable part of the trail, flat and a good surface, without the giant puddles and ponds we’d had earlier.  Except for one section of farm track between tall hedges, where there were lots of cut-back gorse (?) stumps sticking out of the ground.  This was just as I came round a corner, still tracking the 6th place runner in front of me to find we were closing in on 5th place – maybe I got distracted for half a moment.  Before I knew it my foot had caught a wee stump and I was heading rapidly down to the floor, perilously close to impaling myself on another two inch bit of wood sticking out of the ground. My left hamstring tightened with the force and shock of the impact and I was suddenly looking along the track towards the two runners ahead, now moving quickly away.


“Get up!” my brain screamed. And I did, immediately starting running again, not too fast at first – that’s cramp for you, balancing out the adrenaline burst – but gradually picking the pace up to what it had been before. And as the next couple of miles clocked up, 28 miles – tick, 29 miles – tick, I gained another couple of places, as the 5th placed runner started to walk with cramp and then, just before Spey Bay, we passed Andrew Murray, who was having a bad time of it, despite putting a positive face on as we passed.


So what was that now? Back up to fifth place, and fourth was the same runner who had been slightly ahead since the previous drop-bag station.  We were very well matched for pace, keeping a steady gap of about 20 seconds for mile after mile.  That changed at the water station when he stopped briefly to meet a support crew and I glugged a cup of water and headed straight off.  Wow! Fourth place – again, but instead of this being after 14 miles, we’d now covered 32, so only 4½ to go.


Time to get moving now as the trail rolled over and round and through a very pleasant bit of woodland where getting any sort of decent rhythm proved tricky.  But it wasn’t just the terrain that was difficult now – all that early speed, and the lack of miles in the legs… and maybe the deep weariness from two months earlier… it all combined to make those last few miles very tough.  I wanted to run smoothly and efficiently but my legs were not having it.  The earlier fall which had started the cramp in my hamstring hadn’t helped, and despite taking plenty of regular energy gels and keeping the fluid intake steady, I was finding the pace hard going.  As might be expected after 32 miles and more.


And the bad news was that the previous runner was there just behind me after what must have been a very short stop at Spey Bay.  At 33 miles we came out of the woods and along another old railway line path – one where there is no hiding and you can see what is ahead and behind for a long way.  I wanted to hang on to fourth place and was used to finishing pretty strongly, but today I just couldn’t do so.  In fact, by the time we hit the road at mile 34, he was right behind me and very quickly moved ahead.  I’d never been racing like this so close to the end of an ultra and we both knew that fourth place, and probably the 1st MV trophy was up for grabs.  But he had closed easily on me and was now moving away so my head was telling that I was beaten.


Time for another “dig deep, and then a bit deeper still” moment.  I wasn’t about to give this one up without giving it 100%.  I’d do all I could and then hang on until the end – even after 36.5 miles I’d still back myself in a sprint (it’s what I’m built for really).  So I dug that bit deeper and tucked in, focusing on every step, every swing of each arm, counting to 100 a few times to try to keep some sort of rhythm.  This was proper, serious racing now.  There was no conversation, apart from a moment where the official route was signed onto the beach and I said the race instructions were to stick with the pavement.  For two miles, I clung on, never with a thought of running alongside or trying to get ahead, just giving every fibre of my being over to not letting go.


And it hurt. As we came into Buckie, with just half a mile to go, I could feel tingling in my arms and legs – not a good sign.  And then my right leg started to threaten to cramp, all along the inside of the quads, the last thing I needed for a good finish.  Looking at the splits it was pretty desperate racing – those last three miles were only just under nine minute miles, so it was way off the easy pace earlier that day.  And then the bungee between us stretched and stretched and the gap in front of me opened.  And the bungee snapped.  I kept pushing, since you never know what might happen in these situations, but through the pain that must have been showing on my grimacing face there must have been some sort of realisation that this battle wasn’t going to end my way today.  I’d dug deeper than I thought I could but had been properly beaten by a runner who had the edge on the day.


Still, it wasn’t all bad, since that top-ten finish was looking pretty secure now and that final effort looked to have made the five hour target come true.  Another corner and a steep pull up the final short and sharp hill and then I could see the finish line, with the first three runners chatting and waiting.  A look at the watch and I knew that five hours was looking good so I relaxed and finished things off, trying to look like I was in control and not fearing that my legs would cramp up, leaving my crawling over the line, like you might have seen happen in that Ironman video on youtube.

Vital rehydration strategy

I’d have bitten your hand off for that time and place earlier in the day – 4:58:46 and 5th place – so was pretty pleased that things had worked out.  I’d had my cake and eaten it (but no icing on the cake today).  Donnie turned out to have won in 4:31, about ten minutes ahead of Gareth (I’d predicted 4:25 for a winning time, so not too far away), and the a guy with a crazy Mohawk had run a great race to finish in third.


Now is as good a time as any to say a big thank you to Sarah and all the other marshals for making the race such a success – I made a point of thanking every marshal I passed since the race can only happen if they’re willing to stand about in the rain and give up their time so we can do these crazy things.


Next up is the River Ayr Way Race in just under three weeks.  I reckon that gives me a week to recover followed by a fortnight for a taper.




Tuesday, 10 July 2012

The Big Dipper

You know it's a long way when you need a road map to explain it

Andy's WHW Race Blog 2012


In the title of this blog, I’ve added a year.

This is quite significant.

On the 23rd of June I was ‘out there’ on the West Highland Way, running from Milngavie in Glasgow to Fort William, 95 miles to the north.  It’s quite a long way.  I finished the race in spite of a bit of rain, in just under 22 hours.  This blog is my attempt at getting it all down on (virtual) paper – there’s a story to tell from this epic adventure, and lessons to learn.  There are all sorts of metaphors for life and other big things that can be packed into this race – I felt the lowest I have ever felt in a race, and the finish has to count as an unbelievably-exhausted-euphoria that you will never find in a local 10k, no matter what.

Graeme Hewitson's shiny logo

Race build-up (getting to the start-line)

The 2012 Scottish Ultra season started in March and I had run an ultra a month since then, with the D33 in March, the Highland Fling in April and the Cateran Trail 55 in May.  These had all gone well, especially the first two, and although wise ultra-runners had cautioned me that the Cateran was a bit close to the whw race (just 5 weeks beforehand), I really wanted to do the race because it makes for such a good weekend away.  Results had been good and recovery had gone very well.  My only worry was that I had a cycle of taper, race, recovery repeated three times in two months.  Never mind, it’s good fun, although I know I have missed a lot of great local (short) races this year, but that’s ultras for you.  I did squeeze in the Dunfermline 10k just 10 days before the whw race and everything was in good working order, with no niggles to complain about.  If there was one slight worry, it was a bit of tightness in my left calf which might be a problem after 95 miles – as it turned out this wasn’t an issue at all.  I spent the whole week (and more) worrying in a way that I never have before, packing all my things into two crates, one race-kit and the other race spares, and sending numerous emails to my support crew, some of which might have been relevant.  Alas, there was no option of taking any days off work, so I just got on with everything the week before, tried to lie down in a darkened room early evening on Friday to sleep (fail) and then sorted my stuff out all over again before driving off at 9pm.

It rained.  A lot.
Registration and all that stuff (0 miles)

You either know what goes on here or you don’t.  Or don’t care.  Let’s just skip this and hang about nervously in front of Milngavie’s world-famous underpass.  Much nervousness, big crowd, shaking hands, many head-torches on despite the streetlights, a long countdown (not like the Fling where I missed the start), horn goes, and off we all toddle.

Milngavie to Balmaha (19 miles)

In the beginning there was darkness.  And then a lot of rain.  Conditions so bad no-one would be out in it out of choice.  Unless backed into a corner by having entered some daft race that started at 1am.  The difference between the amazing feeling of running through a shopping centre with a bunch of others crazy enough to have entered this race with lots of clapping, cheering, the cowbell (nice one Lucy, we need more of those) and watching Paul, Craig and Terry dance away into the night as if they had signed up for the first night-time Milngavie park-run, to the utter depths of loneliness wading up Conic Hill a little under three hours later has to be felt to be fully understood.

Me second from left (so I led the race until the airhorn went)

Early memories include these.  Running with Mike and Richie from the start until ten miles in, where the tarmac rises up and I wished Richie all the best for another win and announced that I’d be walking the uphill coming up (yeah – sensible head on, even if the shared torchlight was useful), and running most of those next two miles without the headtorch on, just because I could; feeling guilty that Richie was opening all the gates and going in front to take my turn at this (come on Mike – although to be fair we never really gave him a chance); using the spare torch (both Alpkit gammas since 5 for £55 was too good a deal to miss) with green and flashing red LEDs so my support knew who I was at Drymen, where I grabbed a bottle and something else to eat; running a bit with a tall guy who kept blinding me by waving his torch about all over the place until I plucked up the courage to ask him if he’d mind not killing my night-vision waving it about with every step (Rob finished in 5th place – nice one); letting Rob and someone else (George Cairns perhaps) ‘go’ as soon as the ascent of Conic Hill started – just too early to be racing and you have to go at your own pace; climbing Conic Hill in the *most* torrential of downpours I have ever been out in bar none, with so much water cascading down the stream that was meant to be the path, with the light reflecting from the surface so you never quite knew just how deep each step would be; pausing for one moment to look back down from near the top of Conic Hill at the awesome line of white dots spread over the hillside and forest for miles and miles behind (you’re not alone in the world after all! Wow!); carefully descending Conic Hill completely on my own, with one runner’s light disappearing as I started the descent, and another’s appearing at the top as I cut into the stony gully; battling with stomach cramps for several miles and trying to hold on until Balmaha (five minutes spent at the Oak Tree Inn, not a good sign).

Jules and his girlfriend Fionna were doing my support until Tyndrum and Jules met me and guided me through the very busy car-park to the car.  Torches and rubbish were handed over and then the visit to the bright lights of the gents before heading along the road grabbing refills from Jules, and a banana to eat during the climb – so good not to need the torch anymore, although I hadn’t found the spare batteries yet which were lost somewhere at the bottom of one of the bum-bag pockets (I don’t like the faff involved in a backpack – all that taking it off and putting it back on again).  I’d not yet looked at the old stopwatch I was wearing but was told that I was one minute out from my schedule (which was complete fluke) – I had no idea what random number I’d written down for Balmaha, so still had no idea about the time, but that was no bad thing, but it was 3:10 when I got going (all times quoted are race times, rather than time of day).

Balmaha to Rowardenan (27 miles)

Along the roller-coaster path, first over Craigie Fort and along to Millorchy bay (for another rendezvous with the crew) but declining to change clothes – it was going to be wet, so I’d wait until later to swap.  Another runner came past here, going well – it would have been Marc Casey based on the race splits and he went on to have a great race.  There was a bit of a dip after Balmaha which I put down to a 20 mile fat-burning change (?) and I was aware that my left knee really wasn’t quite right at all – a sharp pain that was a first in any race.  But nothing too bad – the BIG DIP was still ahead, several hours to the north.  The next hour and a half were a bit of a transition section, with no other runner seen at all (once Marc opened up enough of a gap to disappear from sight).  Midgies were BAD here – one attempt to water the undergrowth had to be abandoned in the hope that there might be a slight breeze at the top of a hill somewhere (there wasn’t).  I walked all the uphills sensibly, including the huge one from the University research place just north of Sallochy Bay and tried to keep eating steadily, even if that’s not what my body would normally do at 5am.  But running through the night isn’t what it normally does either.  4h44 for the 27 miles (a little slower than planned), and a quick change of top layers, a pot of rice pudding on the move and then a long farewell to the support crew for the long 20 miles up the side of Loch Lomond.

Rowardenan to Beinglas Farm (41 miles)

Doune bothy (thanks to Scott McMurtrey for the photo)

The long uphill section beyond Rowardenan was mostly walked, except for the bits where it’s hardly uphill and a bit of running is needed to break things up (and after another unpleasant moment which saw me finding that perfect tree – not too far from the path, yet not too close and wasting another couple of minutes, hoping that no-one would come running along the path).  Near the top Roger Greenaway caught up and we ran together until the forest road ended, chatting about mutual friends and the race.  He was clearly pushing for a good time today and with three goblets at home and a PB of 19:22 he knew what he was about.  It’s very weird in these races how someone stops for a quick moment (like, behind a tree) and then you don’t see them for hours as the pace of each of you then varies slightly and/or you leapfrog each other at checkpoints.  The next 4 or 5 miles to Inversnaid twist and turn so much that it’s not possible to see who is in front or behind until you are very close.  As Roger vanished, I ran with Paul (I think, it’s a bit hazy) from Winchester and we chatted about all sorts.  I think we both had a bit of a dip and I picked up as we arrived at Inversnaid where the river was a deafening torrent, and another awesome thing to behold (I’m careful about overplaying the word ‘awesome’ like some Americans do, but it is just the right word to use here).  Another odd thing about grabbing my drop-bag at Inversnaid was the way that a whole bunch of other runners appeared from the trail just behind in the couple of minutes that I paused for.  One ran straight through, another did so after a very quick stop to grab his drop-bag, and although it was still too early to be racing, that was another couple of places disappearing up the trail, so I got a move on and walked and ate, before running again. 

Before Rob Roy’s cave, I got chatting to Scott, who had come over from Seattle to run the race and then do some travelling; I think I apologised for the weather being so bad.  We were soon holding up another runner (Tony Curtis) who declined the offer to go past but I’m pretty sure that both Scott and I were slowing a bit and eventually he went past and sprinted off up the trail.  I do remember that this was the start of the tough times and the end of the loch, which should have been a time for some better running, seemed to be a really slow patch.  I quite needed to stop behind another tree, but Scott maintained a steady pace just a dozen or two yards behind and the time was never quite right.  During the drop down to Beinglas Farm it got noisy as Charlie and Ed, a couple of guys from Leeds, caught us up but didn’t go past.  They ran the whole thing together and must have had some great chat since they seemed to be talking to each other the entire way.  The four of us arrived at the checkpoint together at 8:01, with another group of four behind us (so the race splits have me in 16th, but that could have easily been 23rd).
Two pictures from Dario’s post – the only two photos I took all day long.

Wet, wet, wet. Still an inspiring view.

Beinglas Farm to Auchtertyre (50 miles)

Running backwards – or at least that’s how it felt.  Actually, walking backwards would be closer to the mark.  After a brief pause to chat to John Kynaston (I must have been a bit of a grump by now) I grabbed my things and headed off to sort them out on the move.  Scott had not even broken stride and I never saw him again – sorry to hear that he had to withdraw at KLL after taking seven and a half hours to cover the 10 miles from Glencoe to KLL (there is a tale to tell there). I quickly cursed forgetting to use the toilets at the checkpoint (idiot) and soon found a spot where there were some rocks that could bury any evidence.  Something was not at all right in that department and I had no doubt that this was not helping keep my energy levels up where they needed to be.  Memories of the long trudge up to TBG (The Big Gate, above Crianlarich) are that it was rubbish.  I did run a bit, but any uphills meant I was walking and it felt like a steady stream of runners were heading by.  The race splits show me dropping from 16th to 29th over these ten miles, so that would fit.  Welcome to the painful road to doom and failure.

A serious problem was that I was soon struggling to run at all.  The knee that had started complaining after 20 miles had upped its moaning to a stabbing pain on the inside of the knee (medial ligament I’ve been told) and bending it was hurting.  I just felt miserable and wet and cold too, since as soon as the pace drops off, the body stops generating anything like as much heat and soon I put on another layer as the wind was getting up in places.    One runner, who I won’t name, caught up and said that he was collecting an extra jacket from his support at Carmyle Cottage.  I pointed out that he was risking being disqualified by being met anywhere in Glen Falloch before Crianlarich – it was there in the race rules.  My warning was ignored, so I added, “I’d be quick about it if I was you” just after the cattle creep (mind your head!) when there was just one car plus supporter waiting.  Clearly, it was a quiet morning in Glen Falloch since he wasn’t DQ’d and finished the race, but it would have been a horribly uncomfortable moment if a marshal had been there at the same time and he was removed from the race; surely a risk not worth taking for the sake of waiting another two or five miles.  The uphill beyond the tunnel under the road made the knee hurt a bit more and then I struggled to run at all on the flatter path above this, always making some excuse to faff with food or drink.  A couple more runners came past as the big gate (TBG) was approached, including the first lady (Gaynor Prior). 
I couldn’t be seen walking to TBG so upped the effort and ran once the crowd came into view.  It was a pretty desolate spot to be waiting with midgies and rain (and I told them so), but it was great to see Gavin and Steve for the first time (the second half of the support team), even if they had been waiting for almost an hour (sorry guys).  We headed up and up and up and I put on more clothes, ate, drank, swapped a bottle and got an hour-old text message from them telling me they were waiting for me, which caused a moment of confusion for me.  It was only three miles from here to Auchtertyre, but it would take almost an hour.  I walked the entire uphill section above TBG and then shuffled on the downward path, but had to stop and walk some of the downhills when the legs told me to.  This was almost the deepest, darkest place my running had taken me to, a steady downwards spiral of despair and misery.  I was over two hours slower to this point than during April’s Fling race, and in far, far worse shape – what was this all about?  It’s true that it’s possible to over-analyse things but your mind bounces all these thoughts round and round in your head until the noise of the ricochet can be overwhelming.  A photo of me taken just after crossing of the A82 captures this so completely – that look of abject misery, shoulders slumped, just not in a happy place (thanks to Andrew Scott for the pictures).   This is a difficult picture for me to include here since it shows me at my weakest: completely vulnerable and forlorn.

Not a happy bunny

Seeing someone with a camera snapped me back to where I was and what I was meant to be doing and I started to run again and tried to look a bit more cheery.  Not sure that that really worked.

Approaching 'Ouchtertyre’, Fionna Ross caught up with me – I had walked all the way along the flat tarmac road to Kirkton Farm having realised that a slow shuffle was about the same pace as a fast walk, which I could cope with quite well.  I was very sanguine about what was going on and said (for the first of many times that day) that I had 45 miles to complete in over 24 hours, so I was going to finish, even if it meant walking.  There was a great reception at Auchtertyre but I didn’t even look at the crowd – I just dived straight into the toilet – needs must.  The cruel thing about the next five minutes was hearing that cow-bell and lots of cheering outside and I built up a picture of maybe a dozen runners heading through while I had stepped to one side of the path, temporarily having left the state of motion that filled the previous ten and a half hours (actually, only three runners went by – mind playing tricks again).

So much for the quick grab-and-go tactics that had been planned for the checkpoints.  I got weighed (no change) and then spent time under the checkpoint gazebo getting things sorted out.  A change of both top layers, both waterproof jackets on, over an extra fleece layer, hat, snood (fleecy buff), gloves.  Oh, and maybe I should put on the waterproof trousers that I had carried with me all the way to this point (!) – this was a real faff, but we managed it without taking my shoes off.  Jules tells me that I spent 17 minutes here, which was desperately too long, and all the while ten more runners appeared and quickly headed off – this wasn’t fair at all!

Auchtertyre to Bridge of Orchy (60 miles)

 Still feeling decidedly damp, I headed off along the road, where cars were trying to head in each direction (this doesn’t work easily on a single track road).  With a car behind me wanting to get past and another ahead doing a bad job of pulling to one side of the road, I realised that I needed to loosen my left shoe lace.  So I waited until there was a nice big space to the left for the car behind to pull into, so the traffic could clear and then knelt down to sort out the lace (double knotted, so a bit of a faff to undo and then re-tie).  And then cursed the car behind that had completely ignored the passing place in order to cause complete gridlock and was now waiting right behind me.  I’m normally pretty thoughtful about other road users, but was so annoyed at the idiot behind that I just got on with what I needed to do to the shoe and everyone waited – for God’s sake, pull into the passing place so the other car can get by instead of just keeping going.  Sorry if that was you who ended up waiting, but what were you thinking?  Ok, no need for a rant just there, but I thought I’d mention it since it shows where my head was at this stage.  Needless to say, I reached the A82 before the car behind which had to pull in several more times. 

Under the road, the water was looking pretty high next to the path, and the next ‘wee’ stream involved some splashing.  The short section to Tyndrum took forty minutes and another three runners came by since I walked most of this section.  It was good to see the support crew at Tyndrum and there I had the genius move of taking a couple of Ibuprofen for the painful knee.   There’s a huge debate about these things (‘NSAID’s – google that one) but now seemed like a time I could perhaps justify taking them.  Wet, Wet, Wet was playing from the car stereo and something positive was said about the music (I think) – I had made a couple of CDs for each of the support cars for the day and the mixture was carefully chosen: “I Will Survive”, “If This Is It”, “Dare You to Move”, “Bad Day”, “Time of Your Life” and “Rain Down” were there, along with these one-liners… “in the middle of the pouring rain”, “we can’t fast forward to the end”, “people couldn’t believe what I’d become”, “those were the best days of my life”.  There are bonus points if you got all of those. 

A few minutes of eating and drinking (chocolate milkshake was great here), a couple more runners passing by as I was collecting things from the car boot and then I was walking up the hill out of Tyndrum.  And walk I did, for the entire climb – none of the 8 or 9 minute miles at the start of the Devil o’ the Highlands race, just a long and steady march up the hill – relentless forward progress (that would make a good title for a book).

It was a real lift to see Sharon and Debbie bounding down the hill towards me near the top, but I felt like apologising when Debs said, “what are you doing back here?” and maybe went for the ‘40 miles can be walked in 23 hours’ line again.  There was more walking to where the trail goes under the railway and then the first sign of climbing out of the bad place where mind and body had been.  Here I was caught up by David Greig and then Bob Steel.  Bob was not in a good place at all and complained that he was wanting to stop and he hadn’t been allowed to at Auchtertyre or Tyndrum (by his support crew presumably).  So he was heading to BoO and would be stopping there since he just was so wet and miserable.  And off he headed at a seemingly great speed.

This gave David and me something to talk about, as well everything else in the world.  We were both in a pretty bad state but at least we could share this, as well as loads of other things.  Now I’m sure it was the ibuprofen kicking in, but who knows?  Things started to change.  Started, please note – this was no road to Damascus and the clouds weren’t planning on moving to let any ethereal light shine through.  But I didn’t feel quite so bad and even felt that I could run (if you call it that) and make some use of the downhill section.  It wasn’t a fast section – for the Devil I’d expect 55 minutes to BoO and it was 1:35 today, which is quite a lot slower.  Even so, we soon caught up with Roger again (he had headed past at Tyndrum while I was grabbing stuff from the boot of the car and I’d not noticed); he was really struggling but seemed quite shocked to find that I was behind him now (he made it to Glencoe but no further this year).  I now felt hungry which was a positive thing; in fact, I was seriously hungry and set to work eating just about all the food I had on me.  Not a problem since there was a car full of more food just ahead.  Running with David was absolutely brilliant – the conversation was good, sharing thoughts about racing, ultras, family, life, etc. – and the pace felt perfect.  We set small goals such as running to the next rise in the trail.  Running together was so good that I agreed to wait a bit at the BoO checkpoint while he changed clothes so we could head over Rannoch Moor together.

Bridge of Orchy to Glencoe Ski Centre (70 miles)

Break out the emergency rations!  And that meant a pork pie, which had been added to the cool bag for when I might want real food; and another cold chocolate milkshake (one of the For Goodness Shakes ones since they’d been on special offer at the supermarket that week).  And other stuff too – brilliant.  There were a few uncomfortable minutes when I recalled that David had said that he was changing his clothes and I hoped I wouldn’t be waiting around for a big chunk of time.  In the end it was only eight minutes in total, but I had refuelled well and had a moment to get my head slightly in order and now felt in a much better frame of mind.  To help for the next stage, I had agreed to meet Gavin and Steve at both Inveroran and Forest Lodge up ahead, which was a psychological boost.

Two other runners appeared – one from a car in front of us, one from somewhere else - so we even had some company up the hill, although we quickly passed them, which was the first sign that something was starting to go right.  Murdo was bouncing around at the top of the hill and asking for our numbers in a very official sort of way and handing out jelly babies like the Grandfather from the Werther’s Originals advert.  I again gave my ’34 miles in 21½ hours even at a walk’ line but I had started re-thinking that since I had been running (and walking) with David.  There was still a chance if finishing inside 24 hours and for a while I had been working on a fast walk of 4mph to convince myself that it could be done.  From Murdo on the Mam Carraigh (I don’t know how to pronounce it either) that meant another  10½ hours, so in my head I tried to work out what pace that would need.  Of course, I struggled to do that (it’s tricky enough now) but 15 min/miles seemed like a doable target if we could manage running on the flats and uphills.  Of course there was a flaw in this plan which the reader may have spotted – that final 14 mile section from KLL to the end would need to be run in 3½ hours and only 16 runners last year had managed this (only 14 did so this year).  Luckily I hadn’t spotted this problem yet, to say nothing of the time it would take to climb the Devil’s Staircase – ignorance, as they say, is bliss.

Rannoch Moor was a pretty good section since having David for company helped to pass the miles away.  The long uphill pull from the road end, which is never steep enough to walk during the Devil was now a good excuse for a long steady walk with an occasional run if it flattened out.  Gavin added some entertainment here.  On Mike Raffan’s advice, I had put a toothbrush and toothpaste into the kit crate, in a labelled bag and asked for this at Forest Lodge (aka Victoria Bridge, aka Sandra’s dream house).  This caused much hunting through all the kit and I told the guys not to worry, but a few minutes later Gavin caught up with up, apologised for not finding my bag and instead offered Steve’s toothbrush… um, no thanks I said, not wanting to appear ungrateful, but the idea of using someone else’s toothbrush kind of defeats the purpose of cleaning your teeth.  Never mind, maybe at Glencoe.  Gavin disappeared back to the road end and on David and I headed.  Several minutes later, another runners catches up with us and he’s really sprinting up the hill – it turns out be Gavin again and he now had my toothbrush – perfect, what a star. 

Rannoch Moor was pretty uneventful.  Only one other runner came past us, Graeme McClymont on his bouncy Hokas, and we even had two minutes where the sun almost came out.  Or did we imagine that?  The miles past, many walked, some run and we did manage to run all the way down to ski car-park when the downhill finally came.  And it actually felt as if I could run the downhill – maybe the pain in my legs was being subsumed by everything else aching so much.

Glencoe to Kinlochleven (KLL) (81 miles)

Two other runners left the checkpoint ahead of me and the theme from now on went with Noah’s Ark and floods – all runners were travelling two by two, with support runners now allowed.  I immediately lost ground since the downhill from the ski car park was just too painful on my legs and I had to walk.  Walking downhill! That was never part of the plan.  On the plus side, Gavin said nothing about this and just chatted away which was a great distraction from the bad, hurty things that were going on.  Soon enough we were passing Kingshouse and then along the strip of tarmac behind to the slightly-longer-than-anyone-remembers-it climb up above the road.  David plus his support runner closed in here and for a while Gavin waited to hold gates open, but once we hit the flat, I found I could run.  And it didn’t feel so bad, actually.  In fact, I could maintain a pretty good pace along the short section to Altnafeadh (the bottom of the Devil’s Staircase for the gealically-challenged), where Jules gave me my Garmin so I could be distracted by some confusing numbers for the final 21 miles.

Things finally felt not-so-bad, all things considered and I set off upwards, now with Jules for company.  This was hard work.  Not Jules, he was great company and I think he did most of the talking all the way.  The climb was tough because of the steepness, which meant lifting my knees and leg a bit higher than previously and this extra articulation really, really hurt.  The knee problem that had so rudely interrupted over 50 miles earlier hadn’t gone away and now it reminded me of this.  Onwards, upwards, step – ouch – by – ouch – step.  The 16 hairpins were counted off and the two cairns at the top were reached.

The two runners who had been up the path from the earlier were still up there – nothing like the Devil’s Staircase to close the race up visually, like a hairpin in Formula One racing, and although the gap was still pretty big, it was good to have something to chase.  Twenty miles to go, so racing was now allowed.  If you know the route, you’ll know that immediately after plummeting down the other side of the staircase, there’s a nasty rise (with that yellow ‘thing’ wrapped around a cairn – what was that about?) and then another big descent before a long and ‘undulating’ traverse to the Blackwater Dam pumping station (if that’s what it is). 

And I could run again.

If anyone knows what dark magic (aka physiology/psychology) causes these changes then I’d like to know.  Ok, Roger Bannister would have nothing to fear, but running along a rough trail is a lot faster than even the fastest walk anyone can manage.  That first descent saw me bouncing down at a pretty good lick to the stepping stones and then some proper power walking (is that an oxymoron?) up the other side.  By the bridge at the bottom of the second descent the gap had been closed and we had worked out that the runner ahead had two support runners with him.  Or looking at the KLL checkpoint times, it may have been two runners plus one support runner.  Still barely able to believe that my legs were working properly, we bounced past and I used this as an excuse to keep a bit of speed on – you take it when it’s there.

Earlier in the day (a lifetime ago) I had been at the other end of this in Glen Falloch with runner after runner bouncing past and me not being able to respond in the slightest.  So I could understand how it must have felt the other way round, even if the 75+ miles already gone meant that I shouldn’t be running as if out for a Sunday morning training run.

The descent into Kinlochleven took exactly as long as it was meant to.  Had to say that since so many others have complained about it going on and on for longer than they expected.  Once you’ve run it a few times, you know what’s there and what to expect (that was a bit of advice for a few training reps out of KLL, folks!).  The descent was painfully steep at the top but I ran it anyway and soon reached the half-way-down bridge where the path rises for a moment.  There was a walker sitting on a rock on his own here, clad in a midgie-net.  He didn’t respond to our greetings and I was left thinking there are some odd people out in the hills sometimes.

We were soon trying to pick the best line through the razor-sharp rocks as the path followed the Kinlochleven leisure centre flume rides and I took the tricky right turn to take us round the back of KLL on the whw route – easy to miss that one.  A bit of sub-urban running, concentrating on good running form, elbows in, chin up, good mid-foot-strike, and soon we were at the checkpoint, along with several million midgies.

Kinlochleven to Fort William (95 miles)

Into the community centre, say hello to Julie, get weighed, off to the gents, out to the car-park to drink more milkshake, grab more food, replace the bottle again and off we go.  Not as slick as it should have been, but there’s always next year for that.  A sneaky left turn and up the next street – it’s a bit more direct than back the way we had come in (you can recce ultras using google street view) – then along the road and up the 1,000ft climb, which felt tough.  More having to lift the knee up a bit too high, especially on the steeper sections near the top, but we were soon in the Lairig Mor and heading along the long, long path towards Lundavra.  The good news is that things got better and better for me as we headed along here.  Maybe it was the chat from Gavin, or the singing (mostly from me), but once we passed the Wilderness Rescue guys and their dogs, I found I could run pretty well and somehow sucked in all the hurting and aching feelings and got on with the job in hand.  Somehow I reckoned that there was no need to hold back anymore, which had become such a strong thought for the first hours of the race that it had got stuck in my head.  Time to swing those arms and get a bit out of breath for the first time all day.

Men in black

Lundavra finally appeared, all of a sudden, since you only get to see it at the last moment, and Steve had done a heroic job of bringing the crate of ‘stuff’ to the checkpoint.  To thank him for this, I said I was ok for food apart from one bottle since I was still carrying too much food – four gels and a muesli bar would do me to the end now.  Although it cost time, I did a Houdini-style removal of the waterproof trousers here, since they were sticking to my legs and it had actually stopped raining for the first time since 2am (ish).  This seemed to take ages as they kept getting caught over my shoes.  I’d managed the entire race in the same socks and shoes and didn’t want to take these off now (Debbie’s GUCR words of ‘don’t look until the end’ still seemed like good advice).  On that note, I ran in a new pair of Inov8 X-Talons which should have been more worn in, but never mind.  I’d only done about 40 miles in them, longest run had been 12 miles, but I ended up without a single blister.  This is not what the sage advice about running ultras will tell you to do, but sometimes the foot gods will smile on you.

The final seven miles to the end would need to see some sort of miracle to get me there within that 22 hour target, but if you don’t aim for the unreachable, then you’ll never have a chance of reaching it – that’s a bit of Zen thinking apparently.  There’s a steep pull up from Lundavra and I remember having to walk it last August in the Devil: this time I ran more of it, which is slightly insane with the extra 53 miles in the legs.  But around every corner there were pairs of runners making their way along the path and I bounced past over half a dozen of them before the woods up ahead.  Being able to still run here was part of the ideal race plan, except it should have been happening two or three hours earlier in the day at this part of the race.  Why I was able to run like this now, when it had seemed so impossible many hours earlier is still something I struggle to get my head round.

Then through the woods, where it was now getting dark under the trees, but not needing a torch yet.  Down the long descent, careful, aching steps down the wooden steps, stepping over the bigger boulders, and all of a sudden the last deforested uphill climb was ahead of me.  I asked Gavin to keep an eye out behind me throughout the climb, but no-one came into view.  The climb was fine, nothing to worry about – the steep bits were ok for a fast walk and there were some flatter bits in the middle which could be run.  And finally the top came and I knew it was four miles to finish, but 37 minutes for that 22 hour target meant I’d need to be able to run hard for that long 900ft descent down to the finish.

And run I did, although the initial drop from the top of the track was a bit too steep and every step was painful there.  As I came around the final hairpin, I was surprised to see two walkers, clad in black.  Were they part of the race or not? I couldn’t tell in the gloomy conditions until we got closer.  It turned out that it was Graham Nash, who had had a really good race by all accounts – until this final section where he was reduced to a slow walk, but he held it together to finish in a great time of 22:23.

The descent from here was great and I managed to focus on a good running form and just let the legs go.  That flat bit of track at the bottom dragged on for too long but the joy of getting to the Braveheart car-park meant I sped down to the road, enjoying the cheers from the rest of the support crew.  The final mile along the road was filled with good memories.  Yes, everything hurt, but it was so close to the end that none of this mattered, and I just felt I was going faster and faster.  I didn’t get fooled by the 30mph signs – it’s still some way to the roundabout from there – but I really picked it up for the final 200 yards.  The Garmin shows max speeds of 6:07 and 6:05 min/miles during each of the last two miles which I’m pretty stunned at.

Across the car-park at the Leisure centre, having to dance between parked cars and then up the three steps – I’d worried about tripping over these, like a steeplechaser crashing into one of the final hurdles on the last lap, but I needn’t have been concerned, since I could leap straight up the steps and bounce off the shiny new doors.  Job done.  And  the impossible achieved: 21:57:06.

Post-race reflections and stuff
Oh goodness, where to begin?  Hang on, I haven’t done the over-the-top huge thanks to my fabulous support team – you were great guys!  I keep telling them so, just in case they missed it before.  And the race marshals and organisers and helpers without whom the race could not exist – you are all fantastic, even if the tired runners don’t manage to say so on the day.

The champagne at the end was great (thanks Jules), although the bubbles went straight to my head so I only had a few tiny sips, the post-race midnight massage was good, tea and toast was spot on, there was a wee fuzzy moment on standing up after this had me lying down on one of the comfy mats with Sandra being Mum for a while; I need to say thanks to her for looking after me, in spite of her race going pear-shaped.  I could have just slept there all night, but the others were keen to get a proper night in the apartment I’d booked just along the road, so we trundled off to the car and I managed 5½ hours of unbroken sleep, just collapsing onto the bed as soon as I got there.  In the morning, we hit Morrison’s for breakfast and frozen peas for the ankles and then I napped in the car before heading into the prize-giving, where there 119 winners.  Iain, Sean and John did the honours with the goblets and many a proud photo was taken.  I managed to remove the frozen peas from where I'd tied them round my ankles just in time to hobble up and collect mine - what a great feeling.
Somehow the table didn't collapse

One truly humbling thought in that packed sports hall was that there were just so many people there – all those hundreds and hundreds were there for the few that had completed the race.  I have a lot to give back in years to come to make this sort of thing possible for other runners.

Well done, you’ve almost made it to the end!  But since you’ve come this far, you might be ready to hear a full-blown analysis and plans for further adventures.  Did I go off too fast?  What happened during that middle section of the race? Do I need to read up on Imodium use?  I could go on, but that’s something to save for another day.  One thing worth saying is that this was the hardest thing I have done in one day - but not the hardest thing outright.  Let's be honest, we're in control of being out there - there are lots of people looking after us and we can step off the trail at lots of places if we need to.  It's nothing like as challenging as bringing up four children for example, which is way more difficult (and seriously limits the hours of training).
They say a picture is worth a thousand words.  That’s me in orange, Ursa Major, ploughing a furrow along the West Highland Way.  Now, if I could just avoid that wee dip for 40 miles in the middle, I’d be fine.  Let’s see about that next time.

Hmm, that says it all really.