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.