RACE REPORT: Callanish Stones Marathon

Callanish Stones Marathon
2nd August 2014

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Time: 4hrs 28 minutes
Place: 67th /126 finishers
Gender: 20th / 58 females
Category: 4th / 12 female Seniors

After I finished the Great Glen Ultra I felt strong and unstoppable; worlds away from the days after the Fling and the Cateran when I felt worn out and blistered. When I returned to Stonehaven I felt empowered by the new distance I’d conquered and was ready to throw myself back into training hard again, so when ripples of discussion amongst running friends quickly amounted to credit cards being flexed, I jumped right in and added my name to the Callanish Stones Marathon starting line-up alongside Jemma, Naomi and Rachel.

Picture - www.isle-of-lewis.com

Picture – www.isle-of-lewis.com

The Callanish Stones are on the West side of the Isle of Lewis, which is part of the Outer Hebrides and the last stop in the UK before you hit the Atlantic Ocean. I’ve never visited the Outer Hebrides, but I love the West Coast and was delighted to get the chance to explore further afield. Jemma moved up to North Lewis two months ago and had plenty of spare bedrooms to accommodate our group, so not only would we get to visit Stornoway and run around the area surrounding the Callanish Stones, but we would also get to visit her little community of Ness and get much more of a feel of island life. The marathon was being organised as a one-off for 2014 by Stornoway Running and Athletics Club which made the attraction to sign up even greater, as if by then I needed any more persuasion.

Illustration by Rachel

Illustration by Rachel (medalslut.com)

STN-NessThe journey to reach our final destination was a lengthy one. First I drove to Aberdeen to pick up Naomi and Rachel, then we made our way north to Ullapool via Inverness. We parked in the long stay carpark and then got some lunch and a couple of beers whilst we waited for the rain to clear up.

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Before the ferry arrived we did a little tourist shopping, then collected our luggage and stood by the embarkation area waiting for the ferry to be ready to board. The popular game ‘spot the runner’ helped us pass the time – this was the last crossing to Stornaway before the race so many of the visiting runners were on it.

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Unfortunately the boat was a bit late in departing, but we were rewarded for our patience with beautiful scenery in the evening sunshine as we left Loch Broom and headed North West to the Outer Hebrides.

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We enjoyed one more beer in the bar and wandered around outside enjoying the sunshine and the breeze on deck. The crossing was 2hr 45min in length so the sun was still shining when the imposing cliffs of Lewis approached on the horizon, and the stark green moorland on the hills shone brightly in the light.

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Upon disembarkation, Jemma took us to Lewis’ only Tesco where we purchased some pizza and supplies before commencing the car journey North to Ness. I hadn’t quite appreciated how far it was, but it was easy to pass the time by taking in the unfamiliar surroundings and admiring the striking and isolated beauty of the island. There are no trees outside of the shelter of Stornoway; few plants other than heather can survive so even now at the height of summer there is not much colour to be found other than khaki green and grey road. The houses are dotted here and there next to the road, bunched together for protection against the prevailing winds which roar across the island off the Atlantic all year round. The only large buildings to be seen are the chunky gable ends of Free Presbytarian Churches which rise bleakly above the communities they preside over.

It was late when we arrived at Jemma’s. I left my house at 0820 and I think we finally set down in Ness at about 2230 which made for quite an exhausting day. We quickly ate our pizzas and decided on a time to leave in the morning before turning in for as much sleep as possible.

It was a very civilised start at 10am which meant we didn’t leave until 0845. The weather was bright and breezy with some sunshine but it looked changeable so I decided to keep a long-sleeved top with me just in case.

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We were able to park and get ready without fuss, and met our friend (and Fetchie) Gavin, who was attempting to break the Guinness World Record for the fastest marathon ran in full Highland dress. He needed to run it in under 5 hours but since he is a runner with a sub-3 marathon under his belt there was little doubt he would achieve his goal.

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The race had thoughtfully provided an earlier start for slower runners and walkers in order to maximise participation. This had meant that our friend Carol was able to chose this small and friendly marathon for her first rather than travel for a Big City race. She had started at 8am and as luck would have it, she was passing the start at her 6 mile point not long after we arrived. She was happy and positive and said she’d see us out on the course later as we cheered her on our way.

After one last snap it was time for us to line up and assemble for the start.

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A noted local archealogist whose name escapes me had the honour of setting us off, and at shortly after 10am we charged down the gentle decline on to the road which would take us out for the first 6 mile loop.

Sandiephotos.com

Sandiephotos.com

The initial miles were flat and Rachel, Naomi and I trotted along happily together at a steady pace letting ourselves warm up and chatting with fellow runners. None of us were out to achieve a goal or set a PB, but Jemma was certainly the most rested of us all and she had bounded ahead from the start. I had decided that I’d be happy with anything under 4hr 30m, but most of all I just wanted a good long, steady and painfree run. The course might have been ‘hilly’ but it certainly didn’t compare to what I’ve been running on this year so far so I wanted to make sure I could still run for a long time without walking and fuel breaks! Ultra training can make you quite lazy so I wanted to make sure I could still quash my frequent desires to walk, as in a well-executed road marathon that really ought not to be part of the plan…

Miles 1-6: 9.23 / 9.56 / 10.01 / 9.42 / 9.44 / 9.24

The first loop had us pass the finish and the stone circles so we knew where we would be headed a few hours later, then there was an out and back which lead us back to the start. I had decided to leave my long sleeved top here as I had underestimated how warm the sun would be and was already sweating too much. I also sprinted into the loos as in the open countryside there was absolutely nowhere for the discreet, over-hydrated runner to hide behind, and despite wearing a running skirt, I wanted to avoid giving my fellow runners any cheap thrills.

After re-appearing on the course again I saw Naomi up ahead being chased down by Rachel who had also stopped for the loo. We were on a gradual incline so I didn’t want to burn off too much steam by pushing hard to join them – it was still early days and I figured I would catch them up sooner or later. There were some significant ups and downs where I leapfrogged with the same bunch of runners, but by about 10 miles the field had well settled down and everyone was spread out about 100 meters apart.

Miles 7 - 12: 9.24 / 9.34 / 9.43 / 9.55 / 10.11 / 9.53

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As we passed mile 12 and approached the village of Carloway, the route turned left for another out-and-back, which then looped down under a bridge on the route and off towards the East. This meant you could see a lot of what was happening in the race. To my right I saw Carol below me still plugging away but just out of earshot, and to my left the sharp end of the field was coming towards me. The out-and-back took us towards the blackhouse village of Gearrannan which clings to the cliffs above the Atlantic. On the way I exchanged several high fives and “Well Done”s with 99% of the other runners which kept me pushing hard up the short and sharp hills on the windy uneven road.

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Gearrannan was stunning and I wished I could have stayed to check it out. A quick google reveals that one can actually rent the cottages for a holiday there – perhaps an adventure for next year?!

gearrannanwww.gearannan.com

I was very grateful for the frequent water stations as the temperature rose. Thankfully the wind was mostly keeping me cool, but it was still very warm and I could feel my skin glowing in the sun. I had followed my usual plan of a gel every 5 miles but I was beginning to get hungry; I had noticed lucozade was available at the bridge where the route crosses itself but when I came through they had run out. This was at 15.5 miles so I had two more gels, or 200 calories, to take in the next 10 miles of running and my stomach was grumbling ferociously. I’d never been so hungry in a race before! Was I just too used to hitting up an all-you-can-eat buffet every couple of hours at Ultra aid stations with a rucksack full of supplementary snack on the side?

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Here began my lower point in the race – falling typically in the no-mans land between 16 and 20 miles, where the finish feels like a lifetime away but it still feels like you’ve already been running all day. I spotted a couple of cast-away lucozade bottles and decided if I was hungry enough to pick one up – they were full 500ml bottles and when I lifted one it was 3/4 full. I didn’t want to have to suffer any more than required so I twisted off the screw cap and poured the juice into the water bottle I was carrying before drinking hungrily. Within 10 minutes or so I felt a lot more energised as the sugar and calories did their tricks. The next task was to get my head around the road which stretched in front of me across the moor, for miles…and miles…and miles…

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Miles 13 – 18: 9.50 / 10.26 / 10.08 / 10.07 / 11.44 / 11.30

From mile 16 is a long slow killer of an incline which pushes slowly up along the straight Pentland Road which extends over barren moorland. The wind was blowing right into my face but I kept grinding away for half a mile at a time before having a short walking break to get my breath back. I decided to listen to my iPod and put on the West Highland Way Race podcast, listening to the episodes which I had already listened to at the Great Glen Way. I didn’t care though – it was nice to have familiar voices chatting away in the background as I slogged away.

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I passed Carol again around 20 miles when she was going through a bad patch. I could see she was upset, but whilst she was telling me how bad she felt she was still powerwalking/jogging away at a steady pace which betrayed no sign of injuries or problems. I reassured her that she was, in fact, doing brilliantly as she was still moving forward and that’s all she needed to do until she got to the finish. A bit of patience, one foot in front of the other, and I promised her she would get there. I was reminded of my own tired and blinkered thinking during the Cateran when I swore I was doing dreadfully and in tears, was convinced I was ready to DNF. What I couldn’t see for myself at the time was that I was actually running up a hill, and therefore was, and would be, absolutely fine.

Finally we turned off the Pentland road at 21 miles and headed back in the direction of the Stones. The wind was behind us now and that with the addition of more lucazade and a 20 mile warm up meant I was ready to pick up the pace and get the race done. For the first time in a few hours I began passing people who were beginning to tire as I was just beginning to wake up. Each person ahead was reeled in and passed comfortably as I crawled my way back up the field.

Miles 19 – 26: 11.58 / 11.38 / 10.49 / 10.19 / 10.04 / 9.59 / 9.05 / 9.04

Just before mile 25 we ran through the start area again and retraced our footsteps towards the stones. I was able to overtake one last girl on the cruelly sharp incline as I focused on my glutes pushing me up the hill strongly towards the finish. With wobbly legs I navigated the uneven tussocky grass in the last 25 meters before the finish and crossed the line happily amongst the standing stones in 4 hours and 28 minutes on the dot.

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Jemma had finished 10 minutes before me and after receiving my goody bag we sat together and cheered in the rest of the runners. Rachel and Naomi weren’t far behind in 4hr 47m and 4hr 50m respectively, and then 20 minutes later at 7hr 09m 48s race time we were able to cheer Carol home to her first marathon finish, which is always such a happy moment.

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We caught a lift back to the start where there was a great spread of soup and sandwiches on offer, then we headed back to Ness where lovely showers, cold beers and bottles of prosecco awaited. We even saw fit to demolish the Chocolate Cookie Mallow Cheesecake we’d bought the night before in lieu of a proper dinner since we’d all had such a good day. At 7.30 we headed out to get the bus to Stornoway for the race ceilidh, which made the whole event feel even more like an ultramarathon as we danced away our stiff muscles.

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The next morning I was awoken at 07.30 by howling wind and rain lashing against the window. The Lewis weather had turned on a sixpence and we were now being treated to the worst that summer had to offer up there. With a penchance for travel sickness at the best of times which can be exacerbated by the mildest of hangovers, I lay in bed dreading the ferry crossing. “The Minch”, which separates Lewis from the mainland, is some of the roughest waters around the UK at the best of times so the journey home had the potential to become very unpleasant.

Lewis, however, is full of surprises. When we arrived in Stornoway there were blue skies and just a hint of a wind. Travelling 25 miles south and heading to the East coast of the island made a huge difference in the weather. We departed Stornoway in the sunshine on the top deck, watching the island get smaller and smaller.

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Just as I was beginning to relax and settle down for the journey, Rachel came over and said to me “Dude, have you looked behind you?!”. A 180 degree turn revealed that apparently we were sailing straight into the mouth of hell, as the skies behind us were pitch black. The Captain warned over the tannoy that there ‘might be some discomfort’ up ahead, and after trying to take a panorama to illustrate the drastic difference in the skies we headed straight inside when thunder and lightning began to start around us.

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After about an hour of pitching and rolling, the seas calmed down and we’d traversed the storm. Naomi, a seasoned North Sea sailor due to the nature of her job took it all her stride and fell asleep, whilst Rachel and I clung to the floor in the lounge groaning as the boat rose and fell on the waves.

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If that is how the crossing can be in summer, I can’t imagine how treacherous it must be in winter. Rather you than me, Jemma…

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The skies cleared and we enjoyed a dramatic view on our way back into Ullapool, which we found quite literally at the end of this rainbow…

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We wasted no time getting off the boat and beginning the next stage of our journey back home in the car. I finally arrived back in Stonehaven at 10pm and regaled Kynon with the tales of my weekend after presenting him with the enormous Black Pudding which came in my race goody bag which was surplus to requirement for this vegetarian.

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It was one of the best goody bags I’ve ever had; featuring food and drink (consumed), a Harris tweed keepsake, Hebridean soup, plaque, t-shirt, a commemorative print and of course, the Black pudding.

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If this race is ever run again I would strongly recommend it to anyone who has the time to make the journey up for a mini-break. The organisation was flawless, the course was stunning yet challenging, and the Hebridean welcome was warm. I look forward to returning in future to explore more of the Hebrides whether for running or not, but will always be sure to pack for all weathers whilst keeping my fingers crossed for the sun.

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Mud, Hills and Adventures

In the three weeks since the Great Glen Ultra I have kept myself very busy, both in and out of my running shoes. Oddly I haven’t suffered anywhere near as much fatigue as after the Cateran Trail 55 in May, and as soon as my joints stopped aching I was gagging to get back out running again. After being in a state of constant taper/recovery since the end of the Highland Fling in April, I was really ready to get back into a structured training regime to get me in the best shape possible for the Glenmore 12 hour race in September.

Heart of the Park Challenge route

Heart of the Park Challenge route

A week after the Great Glen on the 13th July, Kynon and I drove out to do the Heart of the Park Challenge in Braemar. This is a small and low key off-road 12k adventure race around Braemar, with three river crossings, some sharp hills and lots of mud. I’d had a run the day beforehand to make sure my legs were ok, and they were mostly fine apart from a sore bit on my foot. Kynon and I decided to run together for fun and just enjoy the race together in the sun – something that never happens as we’re far too competitive if left to our own devices in races.

Picture - Kevin Masson

Picture – Kevin Masson

I unfortunately suffered from a bit of car sickness on the drive out and my stomach had not quite settled by the time the gun went. I hammered it up the first hills without doing a warm up and I quickly felt decidedly rough about the guts when I got to the top. Across a cooling river, over a field, through a deep bog and up another sharp hill was as much as my stomach could take before I had to adopt the tripod stance against a tree and puke what was left of my breakfast up. I wouldn’t normally have been too bothered about this, but the poor young marshal who couldn’t have been over 12 years old looked utterly traumatised so I felt a bit guilty!

Kynon showed no concern whatsoever and was happy to get a move on once my periodic retching had stopped, and we sailed through the rest of the course enjoying the technical terrain. The route is beautiful and well worth an explore, if you can figure out how to dodge the thigh-deep mud baths.

Photo - John Mill

Photo – John Mill

Photo - Heater Barnett

Photo – Heather Barnett

The rivers were lovely to run through and felt great on my throbbing left foot which felt like someone had hit it right across the top. This was the pain which had been bothering me through the week and running on rocky trails had really inflamed it. Since I was favouring it whilst running, I unfortunately then managed to somehow kick the underside of a rock like a football and go flying face first onto some grass. I’d hit the top of my second toe on my left foot which was now throbbing painfully as well.

Photo - John Mill

Photo – John Mill

Photo - John Mill

Photo – John Mill

We made it to the finish in 1hr 32m 6 seconds and then enjoyed sitting on the warm grass eating crisps and drinking coke whilst the last finishers came in. The top of my foot was swollen and throbbing and my stubbed toe was swollen and purple and blue – that in itself was less concerning as the day went on than the loss of movement in my toes, which I couldn’t lift off the ground or clench. With great annoyance I arrived at A+E later that evening and was assessed by a Doctor who wanted to x-ray, but the Department was closed for the night. On my return the next morning I was seen by a nurse who had treated someone just a few days prior who had come in with a post-Great Glen injury as well, so at least she wasn’t surprised as the Doctor when I said I ran 72 miles, not 7 point 2.

In the end the x-ray revealed no breaks or stress fractures, and it was just a bad thump for the toe. It remained lovely shades of blue and purple all week and the swelling on the top of my foot went down with a course of anti-inflammatories. I’m glad I went to A+E to get a definite answer and am grateful that I live in a country where I didn’t come home with a bill for several thousand pounds for the hospital’s time.


With no lasting significant pain, the next Saturday it was time to take part in the Laurencekirk Gala Tower Hill Race again. This is a 3.2 mile race up and down a hill to a tower and back, which takes place in Laurencekirk, during Gala week. The clues are in the name. Last year I ran to Laurencekirk with Vikki and Kate which gave us a total of 21 miles for our long run that day, but this year we took the car as I didn’t trust my foot with that distance.

It was also absolutely pouring with rain. The Howe o’ the Mearns was filled with mist and surrounded by thunderclouds which rumbled ominously around us. After paying our £4 each, the 25 or so runners lined up behind a line drawn in the mud on the road. After a short period of dryness, the heavens opened in time with the starters’ whistle and within 200 meters we were all soaked to the skin. The rain was heavy and tropical, and as lightning flashed and thunder crashed around us, I wondered if running up the highest hill around towards some power lines and a tower was really in our best interests.

However I got to the top and ran around the tower to return, to see that I was 4th last and performing fairly poorly as usual. I am really tremendously crap at running up hills and I struggle to get any speed or momentum going. One day I will actually train properly to improve myself in this area rather than churning out poor result after poor result and moaning about it, but that day will have to be when I get bored of running ultras which I don’t see coming very soon.

Very wet SRC runners

Very wet SRC runners

I finished in 34.39; 4th last and 4th of four Stonehaven ladies for 17 SRC Championship points. I am currently 3rd in the Club Championship; this is about the time of year where my excelling in points due to presentee-ism is overtaken by those who are actually decent runners. There are three more races in the Championship series but I am only around for one of them, which will complete my five finishes to be eligible for the Championship. It’s a 5k, so there is no danger of me threatening any Championship podium positions this year, unless no SRC ladies turns up for any of the three remaining races…


After a very enjoyable weekend at the Commonwealth Games (we saw Rugby 7s, the marathon, and athletics) I am feeling very inspired for this weekend’s Callanish Stones marathon. Naomi, Rachel and I are driving to Ullapool on Friday before getting the ferry over to Stornaway and being met by Jemma for a fun weekend in the Hebrides. I have no desire to hit a particular time in this race, but I’d like to think I could cruise under 4hr 30m without too much bother. I’m not feeling the Great Glen in my legs at the moment but it might be a bit different after running 20 miles; on the other hand I might just be able to lock onto a pace and use my endurance to ride out a time nearer 4 hours. Either way I’m looking forward to a great weekend away with my friends in a place I’ve never been to before.

Here’s to marathon number 6!

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RACE REPORT: Great Glen Ultra 2014

The Inaugural Great Glen Ultra
5th July 2014
72 Miles and 10,800ft of ascent.

Glreat Glen Ultra logoFinish time: 17 hours, 42 minutes and 14 seconds
Position: 67th/76 finishers (10 DNF)
Gender: 17/20 female finishers

The Great Glen is Scotland’s longest glen and runs coast to coast across the country from Fort William to Inverness. The glen was formed by the Great Glen Fault which divides the North-West Highland from the Grampian mountains, and holds many deep lochs, the most famous being of course, Loch Ness. The Great Glen route has been historically used by travellers from the ice-age, hunter-gatherers, clansmen and farmers, and in more recent times after the Caledonian Canal was built, vessels were able to avoid the treacherous journey around the North of Scotland by traversing through the country on water. The Great Glen is still an important passage as it carries the main road between the biggest city (Inverness) and the biggest town (Fort William) in the Highlands. (adapted from Footprint Maps – footprintmaps.co.uk)

The Great Glen Way - Coast to Coast

The Great Glen Way – Coast to Coast

The Great Glen Way path was ‘opened’ in April 2002 and is a popular 75 mile path. Last year BaM racing ran a recce run with 5 runners to ascertain the suitability of running an ultramarathon along the route and deemed it to have huge potential. The inaugural race was scheduled for the 5th of July 2014 and would start at 1am from the Neptune’s Staircase area of Fort William and continue for 72 miles with a finish in Inverness Athletics Stadium and a time limit of 24 hours. With 6 drop-bag check points the race was designed to be ran unsupported and runners were asked not to have support crews with them, although they would be allowed to have friends/family meet them at two of the checkpoints held in public car parks if they wished.

My personal preparation for the race had consisted of a hard 3 months training at the start of the year culminating with the D33 ultra, and then the 53 mile Highland Fling and the Cateran 55 mile Ultra with recovery in between. The Cateran was harder than I expected and recovery from the the two 50+ mile ultras within 3 weeks hit me harder than expected so I was nervous and felt under-trained when the start of July arrived. However it is always better to arrive at a start line of an ultra a bit under-trained than over-trained, and I had every confidence that I would be able to complete the race if I engaged the right frame of mind.

I had taken the Friday off work to prepare, and spent it sleeping in as late as possible and then pottering about the house preparing my drop bags. As I mentioned in my last post there were some discrepancies in the information provided as to the exact distances between some of the later check-points so I had some difficulties in deciding what and how much to pack. I stuck with familiar items though – walkers salted crisps (I’m fed up of hula hoops!), lemon cake bars (I found chocolate ones stick in the mouth too much at the Cateran), Chia charge salted caramel bars, cheese and tomato pizza, Ambrosia custard, butteries, muller rice, nature valley cereal bars, and gels and chews in case my stomach freaked out and decided it didn’t want real food. For drinks I had my camelbak with High5 Zero tablets, but also half bottles of blue Powerade, little Irn bru bottles and cans of Starbucks Espresso. As previously mentioned, I had prepared a little bottle containing a healthy measure of Jura single malt for the last check point too.

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Kynon arrived home with the ultra van (kindly on loan from Mum and Dad RWR again) at about 3pm, and after some duel flapping and last minute packing, we shipped out of Stonehaven at around 5pm. The weather was really mixed – beautiful blue skies and sunshine interspersed with really heavy rain, but a steady hot and humid temperature either way. This was exactly what the weather predications had been for the whole weekend, but since we were heading across to the other side of the country where the weather is notoriously always at polar opposites to the East, there was really no way of predicting what we were up against for the race.

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The plan was to have some food about 9pm at the Fort William Wetherspoons before registering for the race and then having a lie down before the start. It was really strange to be back in Fort Bill so soon after the West Highland Way race; it’s usually a once-a-year trip over to that side of the country for us, so driving through the town without the context of the WHW weekend was a bit odd, especially passing the deserted leisure centre which was lifeless without the finishing arch.

I’d had a large lunch so planned to order a salad for dinner. They had run out of salads (how?!) so I ended up having vegetarian sausages, mash, peas and gravy which was really nice but a bit heavier than I’d intended. Still, with 4 hours until the race start I didn’t think it would be a problem.

Loch Linhe

Loch Linnhe

Loch Linhe

Looking towards the Great Glen

We drove over to the Moorings Hotel and found a car park with motor homes, cars and lots of familiar faces. The vast majority of runners would be arriving on a bus from Inverness at midnight, but because Kynon was marshalling we just drove directly to the start. After saying a few hellos and ditching my drop bags we collected my number and went back to the van for a sleep at 10pm.

with Ben Nevis in the background

with Ben Nevis in the background

I managed to rest for about an hour before dozing off for a short while and being awoken by my alarm at midnight. The fact I had slept a little really helped convince me that I was waking up for a new day, rather than keeping Friday going right through into Saturday! I quickly got dressed and coated myself in midgey repellent, and just when I thought I had loads of time I heard the rest of the runners walking through the car park to the start. Up until this point that night I had successfully relegated the start of this epic run to ostrich territory – I had my head in the sand about it all and didn’t want to think about it lest I realised what a tough thing I was about to start and freak out. I was just dressed in my running gear, standing on a canal path with 85 others at 12:30am on a Saturday morning. Totally normal.

IMG_0431Stonehaven Running Club ladies

I found the temperature really warm so had elected to leave my long sleeve top in my bag and just start the race in a vest. Everyone else was in jackets or long sleeves and quite a lot in tights as well and commented on my minimalist kit in surprise; I did double think it but then I knew I’d be roasting after I started running so there was no point in changing just because everyone thought I’d get cold.

After the briefing there was nervous hugging and chatter until the final countdown and a conservative ‘GO’ from the RDs, given the time of night. Even as I started running I was in total denial about the whole thing – 72 miles? Nahhh, surely not…

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Picture – Fiona Rennie

I ran the first few miles with Claire and Nicola from my club. My plan was to slow to a 5 minute walk every 25 minutes to eat something and conserve energy in the early flat miles along the canal. The field spread out quickly and we were moving faster than I would have been doing had I been running alone. I reluctantly conceded to running my own race and let them pull away, although they went on to be only 25ft or so ahead of me. The ground underfoot was packed gravel and easy to run on, but there were lots of puddles to dodge. After a sneaky toilet stop under cover of darkness I ended up running with Karen D for a while which was great as she knew exactly where she was going, having been a part of the recce race last year.

At Garilochy we were met by Lorna McMillan who was directing runners to the left over a bridge to leave the canal path, and then off up into what Karen referred to as the ‘Fairy Forest’. Up until now it really hadn’t been dark at all – a classic Northern summer sky which with the exception of a few clouds was a cloak of midnight blue and with an ever-growing smear of aquamarine on the horizon. When we entered the forest it was very dark however and I needed to concentrate hard on what I was doing with my feet.

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The trees thinned as we ran closer to the beachy shore of Loch Lochy and more of the lightening sky was revealed. We were literally running towards the light as the sun was thinking about rising and it was totally magical. There was not a breath of wind and the Loch  was like a mirror, reflecting the growing fiery horizon perfectly. It looked like my dreams were going to come true and we were going to get a spectacular summer sunrise.

Just before the 1st checkpoint at 10.5 miles at Clunes (2hrs-ish race time, 3am) we ran on the road for a little while. I didn’t even need my head torch here, but after a quick stop for a buttery and custard we re-entered the forest and I reluctantly had to put it back on for guidance.

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The next section stretched for 6.5 miles along the side of Loch Lochy and had a few long hills to walk up. The birds were beginning to burst into a deafening morning song, there were bats flitting overhead and looking down to the Loch on my left there was a misty cloud inversion hanging over the water. There was nobody else around me in front or behind and my spirits were soaring as I took it all in; I just felt so lucky to be out there running in this race and it was such a privilege to see this part of the world at such a mysterious time of day. It made me wonder why I’ve never done it before – what’s stopping me from going out and running up and down a hill overnight for the sake of it? Maybe I need to shake up my training a little.

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The trail spat us out of the forest at Laggan Locks at around 18 miles, and just when I thought I’d seen it all, we were presented with an even more breath-taking sight.

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Another runner was just behind me and we both paused to walk and take it all in; the sky was fuschia, orange and aqua, there was mist hanging above the Locks which were peppered with still moored boats, and fields with sheep quietly pottering about and observing their human visitors curiously.

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Four other runners had stopped to take some pictures and they offered to take one of me before moving on. Amongst other things, it’s moments like this that makes it all worth it…this was definitely one for the memory bank.

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Pushing on, I knew I was only a mile or two away from the next check point where Kynon and his crew would be waiting. I was looking forward to seeing him and getting a hug, and also having my first can of espresso of the day. So far I hadn’t felt that the lack of sleep was affecting me but I certainly didn’t feel very sharp, especially after spending the last hour trotting along grinning at the world around me in euphoric ecstasy. The coffee went down a treat as well as another custard and buttery, and I repacked my pockets with more crisps and gels.

Unfortunately it wasn’t all good news I gave to Kynon, as by this point my right ITB had begun hurting a little. I get occasional tightness in my ITBs, usually after long runs, but a bit of foam rolling sorts them right out. This kind of more intense, acute pain at the outside knee was something I hadn’t experienced since the 2011 Loch Ness Marathon where it destroyed my race from 13 miles in and had me seeing stars with the intensity which it escalated to. It was concerning, but I knew I had to keep my mental game smart – at 20 miles it was still early days and anything could happen, the worst thing I could do at this point was let it get to me. After a goodbye kiss and a cuddle I started up the long haul up into the forest to Invergarry.

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It was fully daylight now, although some morning mist was still burning off creating a lovely mysterious haze. There was  big climb up a technical switchback trail out of Invergarry and the beautiful views over Loch Oich distracted me from the growing ITB knee pain.

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I’d been running away from the girls I knew, but after I’d popped behind a bush to take care of some morning business I ran into Karen D again and we ran the descent towards the Caledonian Canal together where the route hits 26 miles. She warned me that this was the toughest bit of the race for her and that it was 5 miles of flat canal path. She wanted to walk to get her head in the right place to tackle it so I ran on, saying hello to the four Irish chaps that I’d been running near and speaking to throughout the race so far. They were lying on a pontoon with their feet up having a drink and enjoying the morning sun blazing down – whoever said running these races was hard work?!

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Whilst I understood why Karen wouldn’t like this section I was secretly really relieved to get a long, flat run to try and shake out my ITB. In the previous hilly and scrambly miles it had begun to really hurt so I knew that I was in for some trouble from it. I decided to tackle the flat miles with a walk/run interval of 0.1 walk/0.4 run which would break it up into manageable small chunks. My knee shut up a bit as I made steady progress in the sunshine which was really very warm already even though it was only just 7am. The sweat was pouring off me as I ran and I had to ration my water supplies until I hit the next checkpoint at Fort Augustus at 30.5 miles.

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At Fort Augustus we were welcomed by Ada, Susan and the rest of the team, who quickly and efficiently got my bladder re-poured, my face wiped and even a bonus skoosh of deodorant. These ladies really knew how to run a check point. I had another can of espresso and some other bits and bobs but I wasn’t feeling particularly hungry because of the heat. Still I packed the gels and everything else I could squeeze into my pockets and left before I got too comfortable. Just around the corner I bumped into Claire, Nicola and Karen so we took a Stonehaven girls 30 mile selfie!

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Out of Fort Augustus were some fairly steep hills and some ups and downs which really made my knee hurt a lot. My patience with this problem was wearing thin and I was so annoyed that this issue had sprung up completely out of the blue! At least I knew what the pain was (unlike at Loch Ness Marathon where I thought I’d torn a tendon or something) and that I could do walking intervals to keep moving, but it was so frustrating to think that my race would potentially take so much longer because of it.

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I am proud to say that unlike the Cateran I was completely in control and whilst it had occurred to me that it could potentially be an injury that could see me DNF,  I knew that even if I got to 40 miles and then had to walk the rest of the way that I would finish due to the generous cut-off times. I hit half way at 7hrs 50, so even if I walked at an injured 3 miles an hour I would finish under 20 hours. I was kind of annoyed that there was literally no excuses here and I was just going to have to slog it out; patience is not a virtue of mine.

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It was in this section that I met Sharon and Fiona, two friends from Glasgow, who were running together and were very cheerful and chatty. We leapfrogged each other for pretty much the rest of the race and it was great to have some chatter to distract me from the pain. They were keen to fill me up with drugs and look after me but I was eagerly awaiting 9.45am when I could take my next dosage of codeine/paracetamol pills which had worked for a while but were wearing off.

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I was trying really hard to stay positive but I was slipping into a low point as I ran into Invermoriston check point at 38.5 miles, where Kynon, Noanie and Johnny Fling had the place running like a fayre. I realised that I was a bit out of it as Kynon and Noanie asked me questions about what I wanted or how they could help and I couldn’t really get a proper sentence together. I managed to articulate that I needed Compeeds and that I felt really crap, but other than that I was in danger of entering into blubbering wreck territory. I had put a spare top and socks in my drop bag so changed into these, and applied some Compeed plasters onto the inside of my ankles. My new shoes (mens Asics Gel Nimbus – bought specifically for the race for their extra padding and roomy toe box) were supremely comfortable underfoot so far, but had decided to give me blisters where I’d never had them before. I thought I’d broken them in well, but you can never tell what obstacles will be thrown in your way come race day so I just strapped my feet up as best I could and got moving again.

Before I left, Kynon gave me a knee strap which Karen had left for me as she knew I was having difficulty with my ITB. She said it would stop the muscles moving so much and stabilise my knee apparently, so I decided to give it a go. As I was yomping up the steep switchbacks out of Invermoriston it felt ok, but there were a couple of rolling hills where stabs of pain radiated from me knee that were stronger than ever before. I immediately took the strap off as the extra pressure clearly wasn’t working for me, but the damage had been done and the pain was at another level. Thankfully it was time for some more painkillers and I decided just to walk for a while and forget about running until I got my head in a better place.

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Up and up we climbed, out of Invermoriston and high above Loch Ness. I was able to look over the water to the roads on the other side and remembered running along them only two and a half years ago at my first marathon, with equal amounts of ITB pain. What was it with running towards Inverness and my right knee?! It really doesn’t seem to agree with it.

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After a time I caught up with Sharon and Fiona again and we shared some peanuts and some chat. My painkillers had kicked in so after a few miles of walking I was ready to take advantage of the boost and move a bit quicker after the big climb was over. It was getting very hot again as it was nearer midday and the sun was out at full strength. I had drunk a lot of water again, but didn’t waste time refilling at Invermoriston (38 miles) as I still had lots at that point and expected a water stop to be at the advertised 45 miles. Unfortunately 45 miles came and went and it wasn’t until 48 miles came that myself and my new friend Darryl spotted an oasis shaped like a parked car, where we could refill our camelbaks and drink delicious cups of coke and Ribena. Thank you Mark and Helen Leggatt for being there – other than the finish you were the most welcome sight of the day! I also spoke to Steve who reassured us that the vertiginous descent into Inverness was not as bad as it looked on the course profile. Unfortunately he also confirmed that the next checkpoint would be in fact at 53 miles, not the advertised 50. The distance between the two checkpoints was pretty much the worst case scenario out of all the possible mileage points I’d been given on Friday, however there was not much to be done other than push on. It made no difference to the food I’d require as I was struggling to eat anything other than gels (and I didn’t even want to eat them!) but it was a blow to know it would be so much further until the next drop bag and general boost.

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The next three miles were hot, sunny and on road – my least favourite kind of running. I pulled my white buff over my head to try and keep cool and stuck to the shade as much as I could, but I knew it wouldn’t last as there were lots of clouds about.

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The descent into Drumnadrochit and Checkpoint 5 was cruel and my knee hated every step. Sharon, Fiona and Darryl passed me again and I tried to cling on, but their pace was just that bit quicker than mine and I couldn’t quite keep up with them. My mood had lifted a lot since CP4 as I knew I’d broken the back of the race and it was under 20 miles to go. Again, I knew I could walk it in and I’d get there eventually, so knowing that I would definitely finish was a huge boost.

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Kynon was working at Drumnadrochit with Julie and Karen O, who were all still going strong. It has to be noted that the marshals put in a terrific shift as well – they may not have been running but they were up all night too, and dealing with tired and disoriented runners from sunrise to sunset.

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I parked myself on a wall and Karen took my camelbak for a refill whilst I consumed as many liquid calories as I could. Real food just wasn’t going down well so I was thankful for Mars chocolate milk, Irn bru, Powerade and espresso. I just tried not to think about how it looked all mixed up in my stomach. I also brushed my teeth which felt amazing after 13 hours of sugary crap, then waved goodbye to Kynon, Julie and Karen’s little puppy Dug, and headed back out towards Inverness.

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Sharon and Fiona and I posed for a picture with the first sign we’d seen showing Inverness, before I jogged on and they walked for a bit. This next section was on the pavement right next to a busy road with lorries and buses flying by which was quite unnerving. I ran past a bus stop with a bus going to Inverness waiting at it…the day could have ended so easily right there!

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As I commenced the monster slog up the hill after Drumnadrochit I could feel my phone pinging in my pocket; I’d asked Kynon to get my friends to send me some encouraging texts to read in the last sections to keep my spirits up and I read one or two every mile or so. It was a great lift to hear from so many people – thank you so much. The climb out of Drumnadrochit was relentless and was nearly 1,200 feet of climb in 4.5 miles.

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When I reached the top after emerging from the tree line, the route was now a bouldery trail winding through a rugged moorland, but with amazing views back over Loch Ness.

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It had started to rain heavily and the wind was quite cold, so for the first time since the 1am start I conceded to the weather and put on a long sleeve top and my waterproof jacket. I knew that I was tired and sweaty and if I got wet I might struggle to warm up again if I wasn’t running hard. The last thing I wanted was to be pulled from the course with hypothermia – not what you’d expect in July, but entirely possible.

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I had no idea where the final checkpoint would be – from the information I had it could be anywhere from 58 – 64 miles, but I was still surprised that out of the appearing out of the heat haze rising from the path (now the rain was off and the sun was beating down again) at 59 miles was some parked cars and the final check point.

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Here I was welcomed by Elaine Sandeman and Fiona Rennie and I plonked myself down in a chair, deciding to take as long as I needed here. They asked if I was ok and I really was, but I think I was looking a little below par and didn’t do my best job of convincing them as I stared at my dropbag vacantly trying to figure out what I was looking at. I started by drinking the whisky I’d packed which went down a treat, especially followed by some Irn Bru. I then think I ate some chia charge bar and some Muller rice but to be honest my memory is really sketchy. I do remember deciding to save my last espresso can in case of an emergency so asked Elaine to pack it into my camelbak, and got on the move clutching a buttery which I really wanted to eat but could only stomach a tiny mouthful at a time.

I was really confused leaving the checkpoint as to how far I had left and my over-tired, overheated, over-caffeinated brain couldn’t handle it. I had 59 miles on the garmin, but the RDs had told the checkpoint that they were at nearly 62. Was there really only 10 miles to go? Was my watch that far off? I didn’t know what to believe any more. Never mind; just keep running.

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Out of the check point we crossed a road and entered a really over-grown forest path which went through a nature reserve.

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We then ended up back on the road where we slogged across moorland for miles in the sun. Thankfully Sharon, Fiona and Darryl caught me up again and we chatted for a while which passed the time. We’d been informed that due to the heat there would be one last water stop at 66 miles and before I knew it, I rounded a corner and Lorna and Carol Martin were bouncing around and cheering!

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Picture – Carol Martin

Lorna was very excited to tell me that she had a bottle of red wine in the car that she’d been saving for when I came through – she cracked it open and poured me a cup and it tasted delicious. What a shame I couldn’t stick around for more!

Sharon, Fiona and Darryl came through and I left behind them, but within 100 meters or so I just couldn’t keep up with them. It wasn’t like they were even moving very fast, but I just *couldn’t* run.  I was annoyed as I would have loved their company in the last few miles but I just settled into a power walk and tried to move as quickly as I could to get the last 6 miles over and done with.

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The last few miles were on soft, earthy, forestry trails and for the most part were slightly down hill but there was nothing that I could do to get myself going – I double dropped gels and took more painkillers but there was nothing left at all.

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I was delighted when through a break in the trees I realised I was looking at Inverness! A little further on and the path went into a field and the view opened up – there was only about 2.5 miles to go and I’d finally be done. I could see the sea and saw that I had run from Coast to Coast across the country, which felt amazing.

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I was still suffering from a lack of ability to move much faster than a walk though. It goes without saying that every step was absolute agony but I had long passed the point in ultras where pain becomes just an insignificant distraction. I was just exhausted. I put my iPod on shuffle and listened to the most upbeat songs I could find and tried to keep my spirits up, even when I thought I’d reached the edge of the city but in fact it was an Industrial estate on the outskirts and there was clearly still some way to go.

I shuffled through a housing estate and saw my first glimpse of the rest of the ‘real’ world for 17 hours – people with buggies who would not move and didn’t realise what an arduous and painful task it was to step down off the kerb and back up again, or dogs off the lead which were very excited to see me but who I was unable to dodge safely. I tried not to be annoyed though – this was a good thing because it meant I was nearly home.

The run ended as it started – with a stretch alongside the Caledonian Canal…

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Part of me didn’t want the journey to end, part of me never wanted to run again and the rest was just so excited to see the finish. It was a delicious fusion of emotions and euphoria as I saw a bridge in the distance and noted that a figure had spotted me and was jumping up and down and waving. I took my ear phones out and saw it was Alice and Susan who were manning the final road crossing. There were quite a lot of cars so they carefully shepherded me and my spent Bambi legs across and directed me down a path which went through a hedge. I could see the orange running track through the foliage and knew that this was it – I was done.

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As I stepped on to the track 200 meters from the finishing arch, the finish-line magic crept into my legs and relieved me of all pain and hurt. I was free to run strongly again and my legs extended far in front and behind me as if it was the first mile of the day. The shout of ‘RUNNER!’ echoed back to me and I saw people getting to their feet and starting to cheer, and Kynon, easily spotted in his yellow West Highland Way Race hoodie, stood under the finishing arch waiting for me with his arms wide open as usual.

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Over the previous 72 miles I’d thought about how I might like to cross the finish line; with a jump? An air punch? Maybe even a heel-kick or a classic airplane finish, but in the end I was too exhausted to do anything other than grin like an idiot and keep pumping my arms back and forth until the end.

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And then it was over. There were some hugs and I was handed my goodie bag, and I stumbled a few last steps towards the soft grass to sit down in the evening sunshine. Taking the weight off my feet and laying back on the ground felt amazing – it was so nice to be still for the first time in over 17 and a half hours.

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After staying at the finish line for a while, drinking beer and speaking to friends, I gingerly walked the short distance from the stadium to the Campsite next door where we had booked a space for the van. I was able to shower and get changed and we headed to the nearby Brewer’s Fayre pub for a quick and plentiful meal with a crowd of others. I was feeling really light-headed and dizzy by the time we sat down and ordered so couldn’t wait for the food to arrive. Some of the others left before us and I was so grateful when Antonia offered me the remnants of her bowl of chips to tide me over! In the end I inhaled a double Quorn quarter-pounder with salad and chips and a side of macaroni and cheese and it didn’t even touch the sides. At first more beer seemed like a great idea, but I struggled to finish half a pint so it was straight home to bed, with one last stop at the finish to cheer in Helen, who was the gutsy final finisher in 21 hours 51 minutes as the sun set.

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The next morning we made our way to the presentation at the Leisure Centre at 10am. Each finisher was congratulated and presented with a crystal whisky tumbler, and a little whisky miniature to christen it with.

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Along with the beer bottle and Great Glen vest (or t-shirt – a choice was offered) the race provided a number of lovely keepsakes. My hard-earned tumbler is sitting proudly on our mantelpiece next to the Cateran 55 quaich, representing 6 months of very hard work and sacrifice.

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At some point before the end of the year I’ll need to think about whether I would like to try and earn another one, or will the possibility of a West Highland Way Race goblet for the middle of the mantelpiece be too much of a pull? It was very special to be involved in the first running of this race, and now I’ve done it once I’d love to go back with experience and try to do better. It goes without saying that for the latter 12 hours of the race I was cursing myself and swearing I’d never, ever run another ultra let alone the West Highland Way, but of course that is all a distant memory now as my DOMS has gone and I feel ready to run again. Surely it can’t have been all that bad…?

Sitting in the King’s Highway on Sunday after the ceremony with my ultra friends, I reflected on how much had changed since the last time I had sat in that particular pub. Two and a half years earlier I’d been drinking there with Mike and our friends after the Loch Ness Marathon – my very first. Now thousands of miles later we found ourselves back there again, knocking back the beers in great company with some even bigger achievements under our belts (in case you didn’t know – Mike actually won the race on Saturday, in a time of 10 hours 48 mins 43 seconds). I never imagined I’d get this far, and to be honest the disbelief that I actually completed this race is still fading.

I don’t know what I’ll do next – whether that’s the West Highland Way Race, the Great Glen again, or even something different altogether. I’ll take my time with that decision and for the time being I will concentrate on building my mileage and general fitness back up so that I’m in great shape for Glenmore 12 hour race in 8 weeks time. In the meantime I have a couple of club hill races, a multi-terrain thing on Sunday and an exciting road trip to Lewis for the the Callanish Stones Marathon in 3 weeks planned with Rachel and Naomi. The rest of summer is looking good and I can’t wait to get back out there!

Posted in Race Reports, Races, Running, Scotland, Ultramarathon | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Inaugural Great Glen Ultra Preview

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I’m about 9 hours out from the start of my biggest challenge yet, the 72 mile Great Glen Ultra. This has been my big goal for the year with all of my races so far being, in theory, training runs. At the moment I’m feeling apprehensive and nervous, but also bubbling over with excitement as I can’t wait to see what happens in the 24 hours after I leave Fort William and head North East up the Great Glen Way.

On the other hand I can honestly say I’ve never started a race feeling so out of shape. I’m a stone heavier than I was in March for the D33, I’ve really struggled to recover from the Cateran 55 and I haven’t actually trained consistently since March. I always knew that this would be a difficult year to fit my training around but I thought I’d get around it one way or the other. It turns out that ‘getting around it’ has meant…not doing very much. However, I put in a tremendous amount of work at the start of the year with a lot of miles going into the bank. I hope that tonight and tomorrow I can make one last big withdrawal and power through the 72 miles on muscle memory and heart, if not my legs.

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Today I’ve had the day off work and spent the time resting, blethering on the internet and packing up my drop bags. There are 6 drop bag stations at roughly 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 and 60 miles, however I’ve seen three different sets of numbers of where the check points are, with the later ones being particularly different from what is listed in the race briefing. I’m trying to be a relaxed and cool ultra runner about this, but the fact I don’t know whether the final check point is at 59, 60 or 64 miles is stressing me out. At that point in the race, 5 miles will be a long, LONG way.

great glen route profileThe Great Glen Ultra route profile

There is a strange sense of calm setting in though as I know that all this is completely out of my control. All I need to do is drive to Fort William safely and show up to the race briefing and start running at 1am. I know I can gut it out through the toughest of times and that I’ll get to the finish eventually. I think a good estimate for a finish for me would be between 18 and 20 hours, but it’s really hard to predict. It’s a brand new race with no previous results to study or performances to compare, so a lot of this is complete guesswork.

The first 30 miles are relatively flat, but as you can see above there are some cruel ascents and descents towards the end of the race which will be rather torturous I think. I’ve got some whiskey in my final drop bag though which will be a good incentive to keep moving.

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If you are interested in following the race, there is a website which will be updated with splits when internet is available. It might not be updated in live race time, but they will do what they can when they get the information – I’m number 18: http://racesplitter.com/races/4A04BEEA5

Well, it’s time to go. Victory is waiting for me out there on the trail and some exciting new horizons await. Onwards!

 

 

 

Posted in Races, Running, Scotland, Training, Ultramarathon | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

RACE REPORT: West Highland Way Race 2014

Looking back at my running year so far, it’s amusing to see how the start-of-season shorter ultras which take up the guts of a Saturday, have now morphed in to 4-day long epics. Last weekend the West Highland Way Race was upon us again which saw pretty much everyone in Scottish Ultrarunning, alongside plenty of others from around the world, descend on Milngavie to take on Scotland’s greatest running challenge. If you weren’t running you were crewing, if you weren’t crewing you were marshalling, if you weren’t marshalling you were cheering. If you weren’t any of those, then you were probably hanging out at the back with my gang – the sweep team.

Stonehaven Running Club once more assumed the duties of being the back markers of the race, and this year due to our fearless leader Neil breaking his ankle three weeks ago, I took over as team leader. This was to be my fourth year involved with the race – in 2011 I crewed for Mike Raffan, in 2012 I crewed for Vikki Shanks, and in 2013 I was on the Sweep Team.

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Sweeping can be a deceptively tough job. In this race it tends to be more walking than running, and never at your own comfortable pace. Whilst tremendously sleep-deprived, at its worst you will be dealing with angry runners who really don’t want to be near you, upset runners who are injured and are having to pull out, grown men in floods of tears and perhaps friends going through their own personal hell. Alternatively you get the satisfaction of seeing people finish after overcoming tremendous difficulty, you see the raw heart and soul that runners put in to this race and the true love and dedication of the crews to their runners. It is a difficult but truly rewarding way to spend a weekend.

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Photo – Graeme Hewitson – Momentumphotos.co.uk

So it was once again that I found myself in a car park in Milngavie at 12:30am on the Summer Solstice, standing amongst a huge crowd listening to Ian Beattie brief the runners of the 2014 West Highland Way Race.

Photo - Graeme Hewitson - Momentumphotos.co.uk

Photo – Graeme Hewitson – Momentumphotos.co.uk

After plenty of good luck hugs to everyone we knew that was running (especially Vikki and Nicola from our club) we took a good position up the High St to watch the start. I’ve never seen Milngavie High St in real life – I’ve only ever been there at either 6am as part of a snake of Highland Fling runners, or at 1am screaming my heart out at the start of this race.

Photo - Graeme Hewitson - Momentumphotos.co.uk

Photo – Graeme Hewitson – Momentumphotos.co.uk

This year I brought a cowbell and rang it as hard as I could whilst hollering and taking pictures for the duration of the 193 runners’ passing. Apparently there are people who live above the shops there… Well, sorry for disturbing you, residents; but if you were in bed you missed out on seeing the remarkable start of the greatest West Highland Way race yet. Paul Giblin had returned to defend his title and 15hr 07m course record from young Englishman Robbie Britton, who had come with a target of running under 15 hours and the two men set upon the course at suicide pace. The record was decimated by Paul in an incredible finish time of 14hr 20m with Robbie finishing in 14hr 47m. You can read more about their race HERE; for this blog is telling the tales from the back of the pack, and the runners who came home nearly 20 hours later.

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The team structure was a bit more splintered than last year. Firstly Mike and Karen would cover the first 18.5 miles from the start to Balmaha, then Mike would head back home and Karen would commence reverse-sweeping from further up the course with George. Myself, Kynon, Ali, Scott and Marc would cover the remaining 76.5 miles North between us in rolling shifts, but Marc and Ali weren’t coming down to join us until lunchtime on Saturday.

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After cheering Mike and Karen on as they trotted up the High Street behind the runners at 1am, Kynon, Scott and I headed for the car to make our way to Balmaha where the last runner would be expected at about 5.30am. Our first challenge was to successfully get some rest in the car park – three of us piled into an Audi A3 full of kit.

Kynon and I were in the front of the car in the upright seats with Scott in the back. Within moments the lads were asleep and breathing heavily, and I sat awake watching the car windows steam up gradually. Pulling my eyemask down over my eyes to block the breaking dawn and clutching a pillow to support my head, I chuckled at my life now. My Friday night fun could not have been more different from what I used to enjoy a few years ago, but I truly could not be happier.

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5am came and my alarm sprung in to life but I’d been awake for 15 minutes prior, listening to the mayhem outside as the race continued in full swing. I would have loved to have opened the car door to step out and join in but even after clearing the condensation off the window I could see how thick the clouds of midgies were outside. I treasured the last minutes of my weekend that would not be nibbled by these carnivorous little bastards until my bladder had other ideas and I was forced to make a run to the boot to find my midgie net. The smarter sweeper would have been prepared with it in her pocket and ready to go, but this East Coaster makes a point of blocking the insect memories every year and always forgets just quite how mercenary these little beasties are. Rummaging around in the boot I woke the sleeping gentlemen with a combination of thumps and swearing as the clouds of midgies swarmed into the hot vehicle. Sorry lads; time to get moving.

Conic Hill at 5am

Conic Hill at 5am

After a quick trip to the Oak Tree Inn for a comfort break, I spoke to the check point control and then ascertained with Mike that they were about 30 minutes out with a drop out. I returned to the car and made sure Scott was awake and alive, and grabbed my pre-prepared kit bag to head back to the Oak Tree to get changed. Scott and I were taking the next shift and would cover from Balmaha to Beinglas – 22 miles and roughly 7 hours – and it was shaping up to be an absolute stunner of a day. Light cloud and blue skies with warm air heralded a potential scorcher which begged the question – Which goes on first; suncream or midgie spray?

Mike came in and updated on us on our last customer, who was running very slowly but walking fast. After checking the rest of the cars left in the car park, Scott and I left for the trail, eating breakfast as we went.

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It was one of those mornings where I could not have been happier to have been alive. The breathtaking beauty of this area never fails to still my heart every single time I run through it and this gorgeous sunny morning was no different.

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I really didn’t like these new path ‘improvements’ up the steeper hills though; endless stairs are not my friend.

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We arrived in Rowardennan and met the check point crew earlier than they were expecting. After swearing blind that we really were the sweepers and that everyone was ahead, our guy who we had swept out of Balmaha appeared behind us. Obviously he had stepped off the trail for a comfort break. We took some refreshments from the piles of abandoned drop bags and headed out after the final runner 10 minutes later.

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A few hours later I enjoyed arriving into Inversnaid and being able to take my time to enjoy the waterfalls without being in a race.

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Again the check point crew were surprised to see us earlier than scheduled, but at this point the whole race was just moving quicker throughout the field than usual. Unfortunately the check point staff from the Trossachs SAR crew were unconvinced that we had everyone in and started quizzing us on names – some people had come through without taking their drop bags, or their time and number hadn’t been recorded. They had no times for about 20 people on their list – which was in fact the start list from a few days before the race, not the actual list of starters from several hours earlier. I knew several runners had DNSd at the last minute, but it was difficult trying to convince them that we had not in fact lost several runners along the way, and that they had missed manually recording the times of a few runners as they went through. It is really hard to keep communications open between these remote check points, but I was able to glean some 3G from somewhere and the Sport iDent Race App helped convince them that we had done our job.

Just as we were about to head out, news came through the radio that there had been a serious accident on the A82 which was blocking the race support crews from heading North from Auchtertyre (the next checkpoint up from Beinglas, at about 50 miles). The road was blocked both ways, which mean that Ali and Marc who were heading South on the A82 to take over from us at Beinglas  would be unable to reach that check point either. As the news sunk in we realised how absolutely terminal this could be for the race – this was peak time at Beinglas checkpoint which would mean the majority of race crews could not get further North without a 300 mile detour around the full circumference of Loch Lomond. Without support, the runners would be very limited in what they could do – they could only go so far on a finite amount of food. Stuck out in the races most remote check point with no phone signal or information my instinct was panic, but experience told me that I was a very, very small piece in a big race and the only thing I could was my own job, which was to bring up the rear of the race and get the runners to the next point safely and race control would take it from there. Scott and I decided to load our packs with as much fuel as we could in case we ended up in a situation with runners with no food, so the Trossachs gang loaded us up until nothing else could be crammed into our bags. Having spent ages at Inversnaid, our back marker was well ahead of us, so Scott and I put our feet on the pedals and for the first time I was able to hit the adventure playground of the Lochside with fresh legs and we  hit as hard as we could…which was for about 15 minutes before we caught up to the final runner.

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Dario Melaragni's memorial post

Dario Melaragni’s memorial post

Time during the West Highland Way Weekend passes in a very odd way. At times hours slip by in seconds, sometimes they take twice as long as they ought to. It didn’t feel like 7 hours that Scott and I were out for, but after leaving at 5.45am we trundled into Beinglas 6hrs and 54 minutes later with our charge. About two hours after leaving Inversnaid we’d hear that the road had been cleared so there had been no real problems and the next pair of sweepers were waiting for us. Kynon and Ali took over and headed out, and I was grateful to get my trail shoes off and slip into some flip flops and a change of kit. It had been a warm morning so I changed everything and tied it up in a sealed bag ready for the washing machine when I made it back to real life on Monday.

with Marc and Scott

with Marc and Scott

Scott, Marc and myself then headed to the Green Welly for some food and spent the next couple of hours sitting outside our cars where the route passes Brodie’s store cheering on runners and catching up with our friends who were crewing. It was at this point we learned that the race had been won and the course record annihilated by Paul Giblin. It almost felt cruel to tell the result to those runners who asked, when they were only just over half way to the finish.

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The sweepers arrived, we swapped out Kynon for Marc and Team Sweep headed further up the course to Bridge Of Orchy. It was still an absolutely gorgeous day and I was enjoying wearing shorts and flip flops whilst sitting in a breeze at the midgie-free check point. This was unheard of – Bridge of Orchy is usually referred to as Midge of Orchy due to the thick clouds of insects the crews usually have to battle. Whilst chatting to the check point team I saw a speck of dirt on my ankle; I absent-mindedly tried to brush it off but it wouldn’t budge. Upon closer inspection it appeared to have legs and was burrowing deeply into my flesh. A tick! Gross!!!

Thankfully Sean the Race medic was at this check point and soon wielded a ‘tick pick’ and got the little bugger out of my foot quickly. I’ve never had a tick before and didn’t want to risk getting another so ran back to the car quickly to change into long tights, only to find a further two bigger and fatter ticks stuck into my calf. Sean worked his magic again and they were gone without any fuss other than Sean granting me the nickname Tick Lady for the rest of the weekend.

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Most of Team Sweep 2014

Most of Team Sweep 2014

Ali was replaced by Scott for the next stage to Glencoe and Marc continued on with him. The rest of us headed to Glencoe to rest up and prepare for the next overnight stint to Kinlochleven which would be covered by myself and Ali.

IMG_0261The majesty of Glencoe can never be underestimated.

Photo - Graeme Hewit - momentumphotos.co.uk

Photo – Graeme Hewitson – momentumphotos.co.uk

I had a coffee and some pizza and chips in the cafe before heading back to the car for a rest. I didn’t sleep but it was good to block everything out for half an hour or so and prepare for one of the more challenging sections of the course.

IMG_0262The Checkpoint, ran by the International Fire and Rescue Association

The last runner into Glencoe had actually been timed out before he reached the checkpoint and was in a very bad way. Whilst Ali and I set off into the darkness, the rest of the crew went back down the route to help get him in as he was almost incapable of movement.

Glencoe – Kinlochleven is only 11 miles, but for slower runners still on the course at the back of the field it is covered in their second night of running. The impact of the darkness can have a lot of negative effects as the body attempts to shut down to go to sleep whilst the runner battles onwards. This section last year was very challenging for all concerned, but this year sadly we had three DNFs at the bottom of the Devil’s Staircase as the runners realised there was no way they’d be able to get up the 1,000ft of climbing to the top of the hill, or the 1,500ft of decent from the top down to Kinlochleven at sea level. This left us with a very lucid and capable runner to look after who was moving well and was mentally fine, and running with his son as support. He was well ahead of us up the Devil’s Staircase so in total contrast to last year I was stomping up the hill with sweat pouring off me – I really didn’t need that second fleece, nor my thermal tracksuit bottoms.

Frog!There were frogs everywhere this year – even up the Devil’s Staircase!

We were out for only 4 hours and 14 minutes this year and came into Kinlochleven feeling happy and positive.

The check point at Kinlochleven was the usual disaster zone however. In the gym hall there were several bodies comatose on gym mats, Dr Chris Ellis was attending to several patients with their feet elevated and iced, an exhausted support crew were arguing with their runner insisting that he was fine and needed to get on his way whilst he wanted to quit, and other sleeping figures were dotted around the area catching some precious rest before the checkpoint closed. I grabbed some snacks from our supplies and let the rest of the team take over. All I needed to do now was get in to the car for some sleep before I completed the journey to Fort William.

As the check point began to close, the sleeping runners were being woken so that they could decide if they could carry on or not. Most of them got on the move eventually, but one sad figure was the last to slowly leave the hall in floods of tears with her face contorted in pain as she could barely move herself forwards. She could hardly breath without coughing as she apologised profusely and needlessly to the checkpoint staff and her crew, it was clear there was absolutely nothing left in her and she had truly reached the end of her race. My heart broke; I’ve seen her at other races and saw on her blog and the facebook group how much this race meant to her, but it just was not to be this year. Ali was crashed out on the ground next to me and shook his head; “Why do we even do this to ourselves?!” he mused quietly. It is so sad to see a race come to an end like that, and so undeserving.

I gave Kynon a kiss goodbye as he and the other lads headed out to cover the last 14 miles. Scott had decided he wanted to go along too as it was obvious all Ali and I were going to do was fall asleep in our cars. I grabbed some ice in a bag for one of my ankles which was creaking, and set to making a nest in the reclined passenger seat of the car. Assisted by pillows and a blanket I could not have been more comfortable and drifted away from the early morning mayhem of the checkpoint into deep, exhausted sleep.

Two hours later a horrendous beeping noise was pulling me from slumber. Pushing my eyemask off my face I slowly took stock of what was going on and deduced that the beeping was coming from my phone. An alarm. How cunning. It was telling me that it was 7am and that it was time to drive to Fort William. Looking out the window I could see no signs of life at all coming from Ali’s car parked across the deserted car park, and the only signs that the race had happened at all was the slowly melting pile of ice chips next to the door which Dr Chris had discarded after he left. After assessing the situation I decided I was in no hurry to get to Fort William and that we could go when Ali wanted to go, and that he could wake me up whenever that was. The front seat of an Audi has never been so comfortable.

It was an hour later that he was chapping on my window as he was keen to find some comfort facilities that weren’t under a bush, so we got our cars back on the road and made the sleepy drive to the finish at Fort William by about 9am. After a shower, a massage and some food, the next few hours were spent catching up with various friends and welcoming our exhausted later finishers home. It was wonderful to see the guys that we had swept at the back at various points of the course arrive at the finish, but it was the final runner who made the greatest impression. Ali and I ran out to meet the sweepers at about 11am to run in as a team, and Fritz from Holland was on his last legs in front of them with his wife by his side cajoling him along the road step by step. There aren’t many hills in Holland and the last time we’d seen him was at Kinlochleven when he was trying to quit; nobody would let him as he still was clearly ok and had hours to crawl it in to the finish. With plenty of comedy false kicks up the back side from his wife and several cigarettes on the way, he’d finally made it to Fort William and crossed the finish line victoriously in a time of 34 hours 19 minutes and 50 seconds.

When everyone was showered and fed we made it across to the Nevis Centre for the Prizegiving at 12.30pm.

Prizegiving

There were standing ovations for both Paul Giblin and his incredible finish, and the very emotional presentation of Fiona Rennie’s 10th Goblet which has been fought and strived for harder than any of us can imagine.

Photo - Graeme Hewitson - momentumphotos.co.uk

Photo – Graeme Hewitson – momentumphotos.co.uk

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Happily, Fritz van der Lubben made it to the presentation and gleefully accepted his goblet from Paul Giblin in a continuation of one of the traditions which makes the West Highland Way Race so special.

Photo - Graeme Hewitson - momentumphotos.co.uk

Photo – Graeme Hewitson – momentumphotos.co.uk

And so another year in the WHW Race cycle has come to a close. Team Sweep definitely got an easier ride this year, but no two races are the same and we were no less tired when it came to crashing out on Sunday afternoon before heading for a curry. I covered nearly 34 miles over the two days which for the most part barely registered in my legs, apart from the aforementioned creaky ankle muscle. This will hopefully take me neatly to the start of the Great Glen Ultra for a good race when I return to Fort William this Friday.

The 1am start and 73 mile length of the Great Glen Ultra makes it an excellent warm up for the West Highland Way race. Since everyone has been asking; yes, it is definitely my intention to run in next years West Highland Way Race, so everything between now and the 20th of June 2015 is a countdown to Milngavie. I’m thinking differently about it all already – it’s no longer a distant dream but a tangible goal on the horizon, and under a year away. There’s a lot of work to do, starting with this weekend…

Posted in Race Reports, Races, Running, Scotland, Ultramarathon | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Recent Running Reading

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Recovering  from the Cateran Trail Ultra has been tougher than I expected. I’m used to just bouncing back after races after the soreness goes away, but since the race three weeks ago I’ve been enveloped in fatigue which is just not shifting. I didn’t run or exercise for 9 days afterwards, and since then I’ve done one 2 mile jog to an exercise class, one club tempo session, circuit classes, yoga, some swimming and one 3.5 mile hill race (Krunce - it was awful and I was 5th last in 40 minutes).

Everything I attempt to do is such an effort – it is hard to accept that my body is just taking a normal amount of time to recover. I don’t like being out of a normal training programme; it makes me feel lazy and sluggish which is not conducive to a positive outlook for the Great Glen Ultra in 4 weeks time. It’s true what they say about the racing being the easy bit…

However I know I just need to be patient – it will come back and I will run long again. In the meantime it doesn’t give me much to write about here though, so I’ve decided to share with you some running things that I’ve enjoyed reading recently.

Running Free: Richard Askwith
Yellow Jersey Press

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I got an email from a publisher a couple of months ago asking if I’d like a copy of this book. Free book? Free running book?! Of course my answer was yes. I took it with me on honeymoon and whilst lying on a beach in the Maldives, soaking its pages with sweat, Askwith’s wonderful descriptions of British running transported me back home to rainy, muddy fields in an instant.

Askwith is best known for his book Feet in the Clouds which describes the demanding and reckless world of Fell-Running. The book gained an almost cult-like status amongst runners after it was released, so his second running title has been highly anticipated.
The book is an account of Askwith’s love affair with running and how he found his place in the sport. The overwhelming message from the book is a question however – how can something so simple have become so complicated? Why are we spending so much money on something which we can experience for free? It’s something I find myself wondering frequently myself as I find myself once again browsing race listings and parting with chunks of my salary for the privilege of running a route I could run for free any other day of the week.

I began turning down the corners of pages on which there were statements which I particularly agreed with, but after the first Chapter I found that this was a silly exercise as the book could have been a conversation with myself and my friends during a long run. One sentence in the first chapters jumps out however and it simply has to be shared:

Runners are born free, and everywhere they run in chains. Or, if you prefer, chain stores. This book is written in the hope of helping at least some of these runners to liberate themselves”

Askwith questions the relatively new phenomenon of expensive obstacle racing (Tough Mudder? Spartan Race, anyone?) where inner city fitness fanatics take themselves out into his countryside and pay extortionate race fees to subject themselves to carefully regulated amounts of mud, ice and water; everything which he sees on a daily basis without any of the hassle or Health and Safety disclaimers. Askwith also documents enjoyable runs with Hash House Harriers where off-road antics are the norm and free of charge, and mentions a notorious Scottish Hash near Aberdeen which is known as being pretty hard core… I’d like to think that that is the Mearns Hash!

Alongside beautifully descriptive prose about the 100 different types of mud we have in Britain, he also outlines how the most simple of sports has been commercialised and queries how we have managed to come so far from a sport which is perhaps the most simple of all. Within a few pages I found myself nodding with every page I turned, and laughing along with his observances of the idiosyncrasies of running which I am as guilty of as any other runner. However along with the humour comes food for thought and the concept of ‘mindful’ running. Askwith no longer wears a watch to time his runs and rarely enters races. Towards the end of the book he muses:

“If the idea of a run that isn’t overlaid with gamified incentives doesn’t excite you, you might want to consider another sport. Or alternatively, to look again at the kind of running you do, and ask yourself if there might not be a more exciting way of doing it.”

This book is for anyone who’s ever given Big Running Co. the side eye, or anyone who has  questioned the sense in commodification of such a simple activity. If you’re very proud of the fact that a sub-4 marathon time earns you the right to buy an orange Xempo running shirt and define yourself by such material things, you might want to give it a swerve.

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Hal Higon – 4:09:43
Published by Human Kinetics

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I think most people reading this blog will have a fair idea about this book by now, if they don’t own a copy already, that is. Hal Higdon, contributing editor of Runner’s World, has done a remarkable job of pulling together the tales of several runners’ experiences throughout the dreadful events of the day of the Boston Marathon Bombings of 2013. He collected tales from blogs, facebook posts and letters and has woven them in a real-time format to document the day from several points of view as the clock ticked down to 4 hours 9 minutes and 43 seconds – the time the race clock showed when the first bomb went off.

I first heard about this book when I read somewhere in a facebook group that a mutual friend and fellow Scottish Ultra runners account of the race from his blog was going to be featured. I remember watching the news update in horror knowing that John and Helen Munro were out there and frantically refreshed facebook until someone posted news that they were both safe. Before I go any further I want to link you to both John and Helen’s accounts of the day; they are heart-stopping and tremendously well written, and say more about everything than I ever could.

John: Achilles Niggle
Helen: Running Through 2011

I still find John’s blog intensely moving and it generally makes my eyes well up if I re-read it. Prior to the bombings I didn’t have much interest in becoming a ‘fast’ marathon runner, or in other words, qualify for Boston. I enjoyed my ultra runner status of being slow and steady over much greater distances too much. But like so many others, I now aspire to earn my place on that starting line one day – however that is a different story for a different day.

The book is short and gripping – I finished it in three lunch breaks at work – but it says all it needs to say. I wondered if within it there would be the same tremendous miles of of lyrical editorial content about the race and the bombings that the newspapers and websites published, but Higdon keeps it completely simple and sticks to the words which were written by his subjects, although perhaps with a little tweak  and some artistic licence here and there. It would have been very easy to make this book an over-dramatic, sensationalist tribute but he has hit it just right – he wanted to publish these stories and he has done it correctly, and respectfully.

John’s blog is featured throughout, and he even has the honour of almost having the last word in the book. That honour is given to the American President however, which as he admits in a later blog, is quite alright really.

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Like The Wind magazine - http://www.likethewindmagazine.com/

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“Like the Wind magazine is a collection of stories about running, from the track, trail and road. There are personal anecdotes, inspirational tales and wonderful pictures, all designed to inspire and delight”

I heard about Like The Wind on twitter. I saw people exclaiming their delight for the first issue and decided it looked like something I would want to read. I’m sick to the back teeth with the content of most modern running magazines and their insistence on publishing crap that insinuates that the reason all women do exercise is to lose weight and look good for men. Or raise money for charity. Or socialise with their friends. Of course there may or may not be elements of all of the above for many female runners but for the most part any female fitness publication in the shops these days is patronising, infantile and seven shades of hypocritical. An article on how to love your curves, opposite an advertorial for Zaggora weight-loss compression shorts? Bollocks. The publishing industry owes us more than that.

Like The Wind is published by freestak, who describe themselves as a social media and marketing agency for running and endurance sports brands. Corporate nonsense aside, they’re doing a stellar job of filling in a tremendous gap in the market where people desire to hear running tales and lore from around the world, presented in a relatable format and without an advert in sight.

I was captivated by my magazine when it arrived and loved the quality of the paper it was printed on. Each beautiful illustration could be examined for ages and I soaked up the words of the articles as slowly as I could. I savoured the magazine and read one article a night until I ran out – I really didn’t want it to end. This is a publication to cherish, filled with passion and heart, and written by people with the art of inspiration flowing from their fingers. It’s not a magazine about running, it’s a magazine about how life is when you fill it with running and the thoughts that go through your head, the relationships you build, the battles you fight, the unexplainable lows and the indescribable highs.

You can order your copy from their shop for £9, although only limited editions of issue 1 remain. After purchasing issue 1 I have subscribed for a four issue subscription for £40 which will deliver me issues 2, 3 and 4. I received issue 2 the other day and I am almost too excited to begin reading it as I know that I’ll want to plough through it in one go, but it is a work of art which must be savoured.

If you like running and thinking, and think while you run, or run while you think; do yourself a favour and get a subscription immediately. I cannot praise this publication highly enough. They welcome submissions from anyone, and I thought that I might try and write something to submit, but I am not sure where to start just yet. Everything they publish seems to come from the heart though, so I don’t think I can force it. Suggestions welcome…

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Disclaimer Note: I was sent ‘Running Free’ for free, but was not asked to write about it. I wrote about everything here because I wanted to share my thoughts with you, not because a PR company paid me to do it.
I can’t believe the blogging world has become so convoluted that I have to disclose that my thoughts are my own and not something that’s been paid for. I think I’ve just found the topic of my next post…

Posted in Life, Reviews, Running | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

RACE REPORT: Cateran Trail 55 Ultramarathon 2014

The Cateran Trail 55 Ultramarathon

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17th May 2014
13hrs 32min 11sec
Position: 57th/61 finishers (7 DNF)
Gender: 14th/16 Females

The Cateran Trail Ultramarathon is a 55 mile long race ran by the intrepid partnership of George Reid and Karen Donoghue, also known as Epic Shit Racing. George is the director of the D33, but the Cateran has always been Karen’s baby, and 2014 would see the 5th running of this race in its recent form. Also on offer this year was the Double Cateran, which at 110 miles would be the longest race in Scotland. The Double Cateran runners would commence their race 13 hours before the 55 milers, and run the full route in reverse first before performing an about turn when they returned to the Spittal of Glenshee. They would then retrace their footsteps for another 55 miles until they reached the start/finish area for the 3rd time when they could finally call it a day.

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Of the two races on offer I had selected the easy option and would commence my race at 7am from the Spittal of Glenshee Hotel with 70 or so other runners. In general I was feeling good about the race, but still harboured concerns about how well recovered I was from the Highland Fling three weeks previously. I had ran 35 of the 53 miles in the Fling at a very easy pace and had worked harder towards the end to finish strongly and happily. I’d had no injuries to speak of and got back to training lightly in the interim period so I saw no reason to doubt that I’d have a good race at the Cateran. The only concern at the back of the mind was knowing how long it can take to fully recover from an ultra – we push our bodies to the limit in these races, and for mortals like myself the residual effects can last for weeks…or so I had read. How would my body handle it? The only way I would find out would be to get on the starting line and see.

Kynon and I arrived at the Spittal of Glenshee late on Friday night, having opted to eat at home before the 1hr 30min drive to Glenshee. I’m not incredibly particular about my pre-race nutrition, but the Spittal did not appear to offer much in the way of vegetarian food other than chips with a side of onion rings. We found the hotel bar bursting with running friends and we settled down with a cider for some chat before heading to our room around 11pm. The accommodation at the hotel would be best described as…’rustic’, but in our room we found a clean bed and a functioning toilet which was all we really needed.

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I felt oddly not nervous about the race, so fell asleep quickly and deeply. I had come to the conclusion that the race ahead of me was completely unknown territory (in every sense of the word) so there was no point in stressing or over-thinking anything. All I could do was start running at 7am with everyone else and see what happened…the rest would fall in to place after that.

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I was pleased to awake to a bright morning with patchy cloud and sun. There was a lovely view out of the window which I had missed the night before, and I was able to look straight down the Glen and the first few miles of the course. I had taken my own breakfast, and due to the luxury of the race starting from the hotel my race preparation was very chilled out. At about 6.15am I strolled out of the room with my drop bags and grabbed a mug of coffee from the breakfast room and caught up with the news with friends before the race briefing with Karen at 6.30am.

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She kept things simple, but made a point of reminding us of the 110 mile race runners who were out on the course . As she reminded us to be sympathetic and kind, one of the runners crested the hill and ran in to the start/finish to huge applause. I can’t fathom the mental toughness those guys and girls had to turn around and go back out there, but somehow they did it.

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Just before 7am we were walked from the front of the hotel around the corner and over a bridge to the official starting line.

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The atmosphere  was so chilled it didn’t even feel like a race – more like a large group of friends heading out on a long training run together. I might have had a number pinned to my shorts, but I had none of my usual pre-race nerves.

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There was a final word or two from Karen, and then she announced ‘Right! Off you go!‘ and away we went down the Glen, a neon caterpillar of humans growing in length as the front runners let loose and sped away.

Start – Dalnagair – 6 miles, 1hr 9 mins

I don’t remember much about the first 6 miles, other than feeling very warm very quickly. The weather was forecast to be fine for most of the day but then become wet, but for the first 6 miles I was glad to have my sunglasses and to just be wearing a vest and shorts. As usual I walked the hills and enjoyed taking the time to appreciate the scenery. Glenshee is a wild wilderness and the terrain we were on was a mix of grass, gravel path and boggy moorland peppered with plenty of gates to open and stiles to climb over.

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I passed one 110 runner at about 3 miles, and met Mark and Helen Leggatt who were reverse sweeping the route and taking down all the neon tape and glowsticks which had been used to light the way for the 110ers through the night.

Dalnagair – Kirkton of Glenisla – 15 mi – 2hr 58min

Photo - Jenni Coelho

Photo – Jenni Coelho

Even by the first checkpoint at Glen Isla the field was very stretched out and I could only see a couple of runners far ahead of me. We were on road for a few miles and then they slipped further away and out of sight until we went off-road again and began a long slog up hill. We passed the beautiful Auchintaple Loch  and ran through fresh pine forest and over exposed hillsides before descending through some farms back on to the road which lead to Checkpoint 2 – Kirkton of Glenisla.

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3 hours in and I was feeling quite weary but figured the feeling would pass so wasn’t too worried. I was more unhappy about my right knee which I had unceremoniously thwacked off a stile post at around 9 miles, resulting in a flash of blinding pain as I clattered the patellar tendon off the edge of the post. The ongoing throbbing had not faded and was particularly sharp when I went down hills.

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Kirkton of Glenisla – Den of Alyth – 26 mi - 5hr 30m

At Checkpoint 2 I had my first drop bag, with custard and a buttery to eat and some snacks to refill my pockets. Mrs Mac and Piratical Dave were there as well as Donald and Elaine Sandeman, Lucy Colquhoun and Caroline Gibson. Caroline helped me with my food and got my water bladder topped up as I ploughed custard into my mouth using the buttery as a spoon. I couldn’t help but notice how few drop bags were left, but I decided not to care about it and just get moving again despite how much I wanted to stay and chat.

Not long after Glenisla I passed former West Highland Way race record holder Richie Cunningham who was running part of the route in reverse, and caught up with one runner, Dinah, who is distinctive by the barefoot huaraches that she runs in. We had a brief chat before I pulled away, and little did I know that she would be the last fellow runner that I would see all day.

It was somewhere around 17 or 18 miles that things started to go wrong. Some bastard had filled my legs with cement and suddenly moving forward became far more arduous. The pain that I’d been feeling in both little toes crossed over from ‘tolerable’ to ‘OW’ and stiffness in my hips and glutes became more defined. My knee still hurt too, as well as the bone in my big toe which has never been quite right since I ran the 2013 Highland Fling in those stupid rock-hard inov8 roc-lites. The multitude of increasing niggles quickly wore down my resolve and alone out there on a road in Middle Of Nowhere, Perthshire, I was flailing. I dragged out a couple of 15/16 minute miles as I struggled to pull my tired body up hills and hobbled on my sore feet down hill. I could jog the flats and gentle rolling hills, but only for 5 or so minutes at a time before the giant black dog that was sitting on my chest became too heavy to carry.

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I remember this big stupid, wet grassy hill made me so cross – why on earth were we climbing up the side of a field dodging sheep poo and bloody lamb’s tails when there was a perfectly good road down to the left going exactly where we were headed? Nevertheless I followed the path and hobbled up and down the hill to rejoin the road and found my eyes stinging with anger and frustration. My feet hurt so damn much; what was wrong with those little toes? If someone had given me a Stanley knife I would have cut holes in the side of my shoes to let them out. The Injinji toe-socks and compeeds may have guarded well against toe blisters, but the extra material in the box of my shoes was obviously crushing my littlest toes harshly.

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I was mildly amused by this sign on the gate to Alyth Hill but the distraction didn’t last long as I sank deeper in to the hurt locker. This was really quite serious – to be in such a state at 22 miles with a further 33 more to go was devastating. I didn’t see how I could possibly carry on – I was cloaked in fatigue and felt like I was drowning in it, I just couldn’t make myself move any quicker than a stumbling jog where every step was pain. At 22 miles!! Hidden amongst the vibrant yellow of the broom bushes I let my emotions boil over as I faced up to the realisation that I would probably DNF and big, fat salty tears spilled out of my eyes. I didn’t care that I was bawling  during a race – it wasn’t like anyone was around or had been anywhere near me for hours. I was out there alone and on this day I hadn’t brought enough guts to get myself home again. I was done. My first DNF. More tears.

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I continued to torture myself with the poisonous thoughts of how embarrassing it was going to be to drop out; what would I tell everyone in the pub that night? What would I say at work on Monday? What would I write in the blog? If I was going to DNF I’d have to do it at Den of Alyth because if I got to Blairgowrie at 31 miles, Kynon would be there and he wouldn’t allow me to DNF, and Sandra and Ian wouldn’t let me even think about it either, so I had to find the guts to take the number off at the next Checkpoint. What a failure. What a waste of everyone’s time.

Just as my pity party was really hitting full swing, two figures emerged from around a corner who I quickly recognised as Dave and Carolyn Kiddell. Ah, crap; there’s no hiding here, and he’s got a camera as well – best try and move it a bit and wipe the snot and tears away. “Well done! You’re doing great! How are you feeling?” they called out, but their kind smiles and friendly faces dislodged my thinly veiled cover. Tears spilled again and my voice cracked when I managed to respond “Dreadful! I’m having a terrible day! I’ve got nothing in my legs! Nothing!”. Dave has been there; he knows how bad things can get deep in a race, and Carolyn has seen it all before in her years of supporting him; they calmly told me to take it one mile at a time and just get to the next checkpoint and take it from there.

I nod and stagger on up the hill, as the realisation slowly dawns on me that I’ve just jogged past my friends up a hill whilst simultaneously telling them that I had nothing in my legs…

Den of Alyth – Blairgowrie – 31 miles, 6hrs 54 min

Not long after passing Dave and Carolyn the route took a long slow downhill road into the checkpoint which I was able to jog. Bumping into two friends whilst having a cry gave me a taster of how mortifying I would find it if I made the decision to DNF at Den of Alyth. Did I really want to do that? Was I really all that incapable if I could suddenly start running again on command?! Just as I was contemplating these things I arrived in to the Den of Alyth checkpoint which was at the end of a long field with some signs.

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“Welcome to the Den of Alyth Ceilidh”

Wuh!?

Underneath the gazebo was Johnny Fling in a shirt, tie and kilt, playing ceilidh music through an amplifier, with Lorna and an assortment of others in kilts bouncing around, dancing and cheering. I started laughing hysterically as I came in and asked if I was hallucinating – they didn’t dignify that with an answer as they took my pack from me and filled it up whilst I fed myself from the tremendous array of Scottish snacks.

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Lorna offered me some whisky and I took a hearty nip of Glenfiddich, washed down with a cup of Irn Bru and some tablet. This was amazing! I didn’t want to leave! However I was quickly strapped back in to my bag and hustled out of the check point before I knew what was happening, and seconds later I was tramping through the forest alone once more.

Did that just happen? What was I saying about DNFing again?! And that is the power of a good check point in an ultra. You need people who can lift you up when you’re down, take care of your refuelling needs like a formula 1 pit-stop team, feed you booze and snacks and turn you around and kick you back out again before you know what’s going on.

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So it had been decided. I was going to finish. As previously mentioned, DNFing at a checkpoint manned by Sandra ‘Get a move on or I’ll set you on fire‘ McDougall is not an option, and she was posted at Blairgowrie which was my next stop at 31 miles. After that the next one was at 38 miles and if I could get that far I knew I’d finish. Perhaps it was the whisky, but everything seemed a little sharper – Karen didn’t go to the bother of organising this race so her runners could drop out on her, and besides, I really, really wanted my finisher’s quaich.

I focused on the thought of being presented with my quaich with everyone in the pub later and settled in for the long haul. Once I’d made my peace with the fact that it was going to be a really long day, all my aches and pains seemed to stabilise. It was unfortunate that everything seemed to fall to bits so early on, but after Den of Alyth nothing seemed to get worse. I accepted the pain and just got on with it.

Blairgowrie – Bridge of Cally – 38 miles, 8hr 42min

Ironically after deciding that DNFing wasn’t going to happen, I realised I’d need to get a move on if I was to make the Blairgowrie checkpoint by 2.30pm (7.5 hours). I was taking so much time to cover the miles that if I didn’t shift it then I’d risk cutting it fine. As it happened I made it in at about 2:05pm and was warmly welcomed by dear husband and Sandra and Ian.

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Kynon said he was a little concerned about how long it had taken me; looking at the drop bags I saw there were only 5 or 6 left which was a bit of a shock – I hadn’t realised I was quite that far back in the field! However I was still moving and that was all that mattered.

S_McD_BlairgowriePictures by Sandra McDougall

The journey out of Blairgowrie was very beautiful, with thick, lush greenery surrounding the path and some beautiful houses and gardens. There was a long climb where I passed a couple of walkers who asked about my race number – they nearly fell over when I told them about the race.

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By the time I reached the top of the climb out of Blairgowrie there were some very sinister looking clouds in the distance back towards Glenshee. On the exposed hill I finally conceded to putting a long sleeve top on over my vest, but did my best to ignore the spots of rain for as long as possible. I really didn’t like this bit of the route – it went through plain farmland and along the edges of fields, before climbing up to an expanse of desolate moorland.

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This was where the rain really started pelting and I had to stop to put my rain jacket on. The boggy and muddy moorland track was really hard to run on and it felt like I was on a travelator – no matter how much effort I put into moving along the straight track I never seemed to make any progress as the land all looked the same. Looking at the map it is only 3 miles but it felt double that.

Bridge of Cally – Enochdhu – 49 miles – 11hr 42m

A lovely surprise was waiting for me at Bridge of Cally, which was in the shape of a Kynon who had popped up to say hello having just closed the checkpoint at Blairgowrie. Also waiting were Jane MacAskill and Helen Munro who saw that I was well fed and watered before being turfed back out into the rain. I had pizza in this drop bag which really hit the spot – a definite for all future drop bags.

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Not long after I left I saw Mark and Helen Leggatt again performing reverse sweeping who were full of positive encouragement. After this it was a long stint alone again for 11 miles lay between these two check points. I couldn’t stop thinking about whether I would end up being the last finisher and being caught by the sweeper, Keith Hughes, who was hungry for slow runners. Every so often I thought I heard his antipodean tones calling ‘Haallaow!’ from behind me, but he was never there. I guess I was getting tired.

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There’s not much else to say about this section but that it was wet, boggy and hard to run on. I was concentrating hard on following the route from post to post which kept me alert, as I could have gone wrong quite easily. It rained a lot, but it wasn’t cold. Other than the official route posts there was no race signage unless absolutely necessary. I did have a route map with me but thankfully I didn’t ever have to refer to it.

At one point around 43 miles I took a wrong turning and ended up taking the long route around a field, I got a bit confused but thankfully got back on track quickly without adding too much extra on. However, at around 45 miles I could see a green gazebo and a lot of balloons in the distance next to the road – how on earth had I managed to cut so much out of the route? Was I really at 49 miles already? I felt excitement that I was nearly there but a bit disappointed that I’d obviously made a mistake…however as I got closer I realised it was not a check point, but in fact a backyard birthday celebration for someone’s 45th birthday. Gutted!

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I saw this sign in Kirkmichael and had to stop for a photograph – I was finally within reach of that quaich and the distance left was down to single digits. I made my way into to Enochdhu in the pouring rain and arrived to a lovely warm welcome from Caroline and Neal Gibson again. I had more cake and pizza, washed down with more Irn Bru. I put caffeinated nuun in my camelbak to try and perk me up for the final long haul up hill and got on my way for the last time to earn that quaich.

Enochdhu – Spittal of Glenshee – 55 miles – 13hr 32min 11sec

IMG_0069Heading for the hills in the distance

I knew from here to the finish despite being only 6 miles, it was uphill all the way until the last mile. My poor hips were so sore, my feet continued to be a source of total agony (especially the torn open blister on my arch caused by a stone in my shoe), and everything else just hurt. I allowed myself to reflect happily though – I couldn’t believe I’d actually got this far in a race which I’d all but written off 30 miles previously. Deep down though, I know that this would happen as I’d never have the guts to drop out unless I actually had a lower limb hanging off, and despaired at the unnecessary fuss I made for myself so many hours ago.

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I think I needed the tears though; I needed the release, the time alone, the helplessness, and the stripping back of self to the bare minimum. I needed to know that I could cope in a tough situation, and that I could trust my belief in myself to get through it eventually. There is a sense of renewal that comes from these long races; when you hit rock bottom you can’t get any lower and you know the only person who can get you back out is yourself. I was climbing, and had climbed right from the bottom back to the top again. The race had transported us from the bare loneliness of Glenshee, to the lush and leafy Perthshire hillsides and all the way back again.

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The landscape was stark and powerful and I decided that the perfect accompaniment for the last few miles was an album by Explosions in the Sky: All of a sudden I miss everyone. The music carried me over the beautiful landscape in contentment, back to my friends and ultra family who were waiting just over the last hill after 55 miles.

Spotting a figure in the distance snapped me out of my reverie and as I grew closer I recognised him as my friend Neil Easton from my club, and fellow West Highland Way Race sweeper. He was chumming tired runners up to the brim of the last of the steep hill and making sure that that everyone headed for home in the right direction. I was so pleased to see him and telling him all about my rollercoaster of a day was the perfect distraction from the steep climb. He got me to the top and then told me he’d see me in the bar shortly – there were only four behind me so his hours of hill-reps were nearly over.

IMG_0073Looking down towards the Spittal at the bottom

This was the longest mile of my life – I could see the Spittal, but it just would not get any closer. It disappeared and reappeared as I negotiated dips and rises, with every downhill step making pain coarse through my legs and feet.

With about 400 meters to go I passed Neil Rutherford walking up the course who must have finished hours previously. He gave some applause and a hearty pat on the shoulder assuring me that I was really, almost there. Not long after, the handful of people at the finish line spotted me in my bright blue jacket picking my way down the last of the hill in the fading light and burst into shouts and cheers of encouragement until I reached the final gate to the road.

A short final trot lead me to the finishing gantry and their enthusiastic cheers and applause carried me over the line with a huge smile into Kynon’s arms.

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I think the relief written all over my face says it all.

S_finish4S_finish3Pictures by Sandra McDougall

After I’d caught my breath and hugged everyone in sight, I made my way into the hotel and the bar area which was filled with finishers and supporters having drinks and food. Kynon was behind me and started clapping, then everyone looked up from their pints and broke into loud cheering and applause! Everyone who finished was getting this huge welcome by their fellow finishers when they came in, but it really took me by surprised and my eyes might have leaked a bit again. It was quite over-whelming.

Kynon sat me down and asked what I wanted. It was quite simple – a cold pint of lager and some chips.

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The beer was quickly taken care of, and I was able to trough into the hot buffet to my hearts content before the last finishers arrived in with the sweeper about 50 minutes later. Shortly after there was the presentation, where there were some very warm and kind words from Karen for the 55 mile finishers first of all, before George moved on to the 110 milers.

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It hurt to get up and shuffle over, but it felt just as good as I’d been imagining since 26 miles when I started focusing on receiving the little box from Karen to get me to the finish. For those who don’t know, a quaich is a traditional Scottish two-handed drinking cup of friendship which is often given as a gift, a trophy, or involved in ceremonial drinking.

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Next, the finishers of the 110 mile race received their quaichs. Out of 13 entrants, 12 made the starting line, only 6 finished and 2 ended up in hospital. The winner was my amazing friend Mike Raffan in  22hrs 25 minutes – an incredible two and a half hours clear of 2nd place.

After the presentation I went to the room for a shower but found no hot water. A hobo wash was had by the sink with some soap and wet-wipes, before I quickly returned to the bar for more rehydration and to hear everyone’s tales.

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There was still one man out on the course from the 110 mile race however; he knew he’d be timed out from the check points after a certain point, but asked to continue on with his own support and make it to the finish under his own steam. George was happy with that, so John McLean continued by himself until he made it back to the Spittal of Glenshee. Just before midnight George stuck his head in the door and shouted that the last finisher was due, and then every single person that was able to move (and a lot that probably shouldn’t have as well) poured out of the pub to cheer him down off the hill. We saw the blink of a head torch approach and began shouting as loudly as possible whilst forming a long guard of honour for him to run down to meet George and Karen at the end. The clapping and cheering was deafening as we welcomed him home, and after 29 hours and 57 minutes we had all our finishers back safely.

That was the most most memorable moment of the weekend for me – not the starting, the finishing, anything that happened in between, or even the lovely welcome I was given as I arrived back into the pub at the end. That sparkling display of goodwill and camaraderie is enough to melt the toughest heart and sums up everything I love about this sport. Moments like that make it so easy to forget the agony we go through at times; it is all so very, very worth it.

I learned a lot on Saturday. The lessons were tough but I’m glad I got them, and it underlined what I’ve known for some time about how in an ultra you have to just believe that the lowest of lows are usually temporary and that your race can turn around in an instant. It’s six weeks on Saturday until the Great Glen Ultra where I will line up for a 73 mile journey from Fort William to Inverness at 1am in the morning, so now the most important thing for me to do is rest. On the whole, four days later I’m fine and have retained no lasting injuries than two lost toenails and some nasty sports bra chafing. My knee that I hit on the stile is the sorest bit left, so I’ll need to look after it very carefully in the days to come. The good news is that my Injinji socks and preventative compeeds worked and I had no blisters in between my toes, but I definitely need to review the sizing of my trail shoes if this is the solution to that problem.

For now it’s a week of rest as I figure out what to do with myself for the next 6 weeks and write a training plan to keep myself occupied, but uninjured…

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Cateran Countdown

At some point in October last year I decided that it was a good idea to run both the Highland Fling and the Cateran Trail Ultra this Spring. After a bit of dithering I took the advice of some friends and decided to just go for it and really level up my ultra running this year. Neither race in itself is a monster challenge, but the fact that they are only three weeks apart is quite intimidating.

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The last few months have held plenty of distractions as we know, and without a structured training plan for the last two months after the D33 it has been very easy to forget about the larger challenges on the horizons of this year like this double-header. My tactic for sanity, much like last year, was to take each week at a time to stop myself from freaking out over the thought of multiple 50+ mile races (and that big 70+ mile one too), and just do my best to keep uninjured.

Despite having a great Fling, I’ve been desperately trying to put off thinking about the Cateran in the hope that it would make the time in between the two last longer. It made absolutely no difference of course, and now with just over 12 hours to go I must face up to some more race planning and strategising to get the best out of my day tomorrow.

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image from bamff.co.uk

I have 15 hours to run the 55 miles of the Cateran trail after the race starts at 7am. It’s a pretty small race, with 84 registered runners in the 55 mile race and 15 runners in the 110 mile Double Cateran race. The race starts and finishes at the Spittal of Glenshee hotel, which is about an hour and a half drive South West from Stonehaven, and the route follows a circular route on a mix of roads, trails and farm tracks. It appears to have none of the rugged terrain that the Fling/West Highland Way is known for, but it still packs plenty of proper hills including a monster 5 mile long climb at the finish. The total ascent is 5754ft.

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Elevation profile borrowed from Jonathan at pixelscotland.com

The race is unsupported with 6 drop bags at check points at 6, 15, 26, 31, 28, and 49 miles. I’ve packed the following for checkpoints 2 onwards:

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There are quorn sausages and slices of pizza to be added when they are cooked tonight after work.

The weather is looking weird – it’s supposed to be very warm all weekend but the forecast for where we will be is 10 – 12C with rain. Given how wrong the forecast for the Fling was I’ll just pack all my suitable kit and pick it on the morning. I’m hoping for cloudy and warm.

I have taken some advice and will try toe socks on my feet this time and will see if they make any difference to my horrific between-toe blisters. I will wear the same shoes (Salomon speedcross 3′s) and hopefully will see some improvement as I really need to crack this problem before the Great Glen Way in July.

In terms of time, I’m hoping to come in around 12 or 12.5 hours. I’m ready to work really hard and throw everything I’ve got at this race and really test myself. I know what it feels like for me to run for this kind of time and distance now, so it’s time to start trimming the fat off my time and get more efficient at this distance. On the other hand I don’t really know what to expect out there as I don’t know the course, so anything can happen.

I’ve had a challenging couple of days, so at the base of it all I’m really just looking forward to a day out to myself in the hills working hard and running away from the world. Of course the course is a circle so whatever I run away from I will eventually have to return to, but hopefully I’ll have found some peace along the way.

~Rwr

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RACE REPORT: Highland Fling 2014

Hoka Highland Fling 53 Mile Ultramarathon
26th April 2014

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Chip time: 13hrs 20m 53s
Finish Position: 447th / 566 finishers (57 DNF)
Gender: 77th / 130 Females
Category: 32nd / 56 Senior Females

This time last year I had a lot of thinking to do. I had only just finished my first 50+ mile Ultramarathon at the Highland Fling and achieved my big goal for the Spring, but everyone wanted to know if I would do it again. Definitely in the future, I had answered, but not next year; after all we were getting married only a month beforehand! As the rest of 2013 slipped by, my thoughts changed however. My memories of the race were some of my very happiest  and I simply could not imagine not being a part of it again. With wedding and honeymoon plans firmly in place by October I was able to decide if a second Highland Fling finish was achievable, and my decision was definitely yes. It might be a bit risky and it certainly wouldn’t be ideal, but I’d be there and I’d give it my best shot.

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Fast forward to the 25th of April and once again we’re all in the Burnbrae pub in Milngavie, picking up our race numbers and catching up with ultra friends. I had run once between the D33 and the wedding as I desperately tried to heal my blisters, and in addition to one club running session I had completed two 10 mile runs after we arrived back from our honeymoon. The one thing that was going in my favour was that I was excellently rested and with not an injury to speak of, but still I had a lot of niggling doubts in my head which got louder as the evening went on. The last time I’d ran for more than 1hr 30mins was six weeks ago – was this really sensible?!

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Photo: Sandra McDougall

After retreating to the Premier Inn we snatched around 4 hours sleep before the alarm sounded at 3.30am and wrenched us out of bed. Kynon was marshalling once more and was required at the start by 4.45am – I won’t mention how jealous I was of my running chums who weren’t even out of bed by then…

My first move was to go straight to the window to look out. Rain was lashing down and the trees were swinging in the wind. My heart sank even further as for once the weather forecast seemed to be correct. This day could turn out to be a tremendous ordeal, I thought. I went through the motions of preparing coffee and forcing down a little breakfast; we ate very late the night before so I really wasn’t hungry, however I managed a rice pudding and a bottle of SiS ReGo carb drink.

I decided to wear shorts and long socks, with a vest, a long sleeved top and club vest on top. After a few more minutes deliberating I decided to put on a second long sleeve top, and put some dry clothes in my Camelbak just in case. After a last minute kit check we made our exit, and along with dozens of other people carrying bags and boxes made a silent departure out to the car park.

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Milngavie Railway Station was going like a fayre already and the car park slowly filling with runners. Kynon got the ultravan parked in the correct space, and I slipped into the back to finish my drop bags by making a couple of sandwiches. Unfortunately some enthusiastic runners kept on trying to give me their drop bags for Balmaha as I tried to sort out my things. My kingdom for a moment’s peace!

By some miracle I managed to bump into Rachel as I was wandering around in the crowd. Together we pottered about and said hello to lots of others including Iona and Jemma who were sweeping the first half. As the light came it seemed to get warmer – I should note here that by now the rain had stopped and the wind had dropped – so I made the executive decision to lose one long-sleeved top and the spare clothes in my bag. Rachel put her bags in the back of our van as we both made outfit changes – I lost a layer, she added a thick hillwalking jacket. And still people kept on trying to give us their drop bags.

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We found the other Stonehaven Runners and posed for a group shot. We were all intending to start at the back and take it easy, nobody was looking for a fast finish time as most of us have bigger challenges on the horizon soon. Before we knew it Johnny Fling was giving the race briefing, and the 5 minute warning was issued.

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Kynon! I realised I hadn’t said goodbye to my husband! I hadn’t seen him since I got out of the van over an hour prior, so I ducked and weaved through the crowds to find him and gave him a big cuddle. I would next see him at Balmaha, which seemed a very long way away.

Photo: Ian Russell

Photo: Ian Russell

The 10 second countdown began, and I scuttled back through the crowd to my friends as everyone burst in to cheers when the klaxon went. Ripples of applause followed the front runners up the High Street, but it took nearly two minutes until our group finally crossed over the starting mat. The eerie whine of the timing chips activating rung in my ears as we charged gently up the stairs, faces lit up with smiles as the crowd cheered us on our way. With the crowd of us in our black and purple club vests and socks, we solicited plenty of shouts of ‘GO STONEHAVEN!’ and ‘GO STONEY GIRLS!’ as we ran up the high street and the support felt so encouraging.

Photo: Ian Russell

Photo: Ian Russell

Photo: Ian Russell

Photo: Ian Russell

Milngavie – Drymen – 12 miles – 2hr 20m

Despite the excitement which comes at the start, I’ve decided that this is my least favourite part of the route. It is mainly flat and on easy path or road, and can be filed as ‘very runnable’. You must be very careful not to shoot off at half or even full marathon pace as energy conservation here is key for the rest of the race.

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Within a mile or so we had all regretted putting on waterproof shell jackets and quickly took them off and packed them away. Whilst the air was very damp it was also humid and warm, so my buff and gloves came off as well. In the end I had decided to leave the dry bag of dry clothes at the start. I had decided I had a feeling that we weren’t going to get wet and that they would be needless extra weight. Looking towards Conic Hill was very sinister though as it was cloaked in mist and cloud – what was hiding up there on top of the hill and beyond?

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We took each hill very gently and chatted our way through the first section. Due to the size of our group there was a natural divide, with Vikki, Kate, Rachel, and Tracey and I moving on a little quicker than the others and quickly opening up a gap. We enjoyed talking to our fellow racers and admiring the kit of our Norwegian visitors from Romerike Ultraloperklubbe – a 30 strong contingent of runners from an Ultra club in Norway, who all wore a fantastic black and yellow running kit.

Approaching Drymen. Photo: Stuart Macfarlane

Approaching Drymen. Photo: Stuart Macfarlane

Enjoying every minute. Photo: Stuart Macfarlane

Enjoying every minute. Photo: Stuart Macfarlane

 

Drymen – Balmaha – 7 miles – 1hr 41, cumulative: 4hr 01m (19 miles)

I was looking forward to Drymen as it meant there would be some hills to walk and we’d get in to the more remote parts of the course. When we arrived there was a huge crowd cheering as it was the first relay handover with lots of familiar faces. The atmosphere really perked me up and I was ready to push on, but some of the girls wanted to wait in the queue for the portaloo. This would have taken the guts of 10 minutes so we managed to convince them that in an ultra, the world is their toilet and they should just embrace it. Off we went into Garabhan forest with just the slightest speckle of sunlight finally breaking through the clouds.

It wasn’t long until a toilet stop was called for again. It was decided that we’d all wait, but after a few minutes I felt myself stiffening and really wanted to get moving. Rachel and I walked on a little and came across a photographer, so of course we had to run! We waited a few more minutes here but when there was still no sign of them we decided just to go, and began the approach to Conic.

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The mist had cleared and we were bathed in sunlight as we climbed higher and higher up the hill. I found it easier this year and my legs and lungs burned less. The views back down the course were spectacular and we saw our friends not far behind us.

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The top of Conic was less impressive than last year, but no less beautiful. The view up the Loch never fails to take my breath away each time I see it.

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On the descent I concentrated on keeping as loose as possible and carefully placing my feet. I would have loved to bomb down the hill as fearlessly as I would in a training run, but leg conservation was key so I took it very easily. I loved knowing that Kynon was at the bottom waiting for me at the check point and couldn’t wait to give him a hug.

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Rachel and I bounced into Balmaha and quickly got stuck into our drop bags. I had a Mullerrice to eat and cake bars and crisps to restock my backpack with. I was very thirsty and had already consumed a litre of electrolyte water, so I filled up with another litre and drank deeply from a bottle of Lucozade sport left on the ‘free’ table. The others arrived as I was ready to go, but we waited until they were ready in the spirit of taking it easy together. I’ve never run a race in this manner before and I was beginning to find that holding myself back was somewhat of a challenge, but I reminded myself that it was all about time on feet and that I’d thank myself for taking it easy at the Cateran 55 three weeks later.

Balmaha – Rowardennan – 8 miles – 1hr 59, cumulative: 6hrs (27.5 miles)

After coming through Balmaha we receiving some playful banter from marshal Sarah who directed us up the next steep hill. After some lumps and bumps we made it back to the beautiful Lochside which would keep us company for the next 20odd miles. There was another toilet stop at Milarrochy and I found myself stationary again with my legs stiffening up. Regardless of how we planned to run the race, it went against my every instinct to be standing still in the middle of a race with fellow participants passing by – I wanted to be moving!

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When we got back on the trail, Rachel and I seemed to be running a slightly quicker pace and a gap began to open up between us and the other three. We chattered away, taking turns to lead, and the time passed quickly on my second least favourite part of the course which lasts until Rowardennan. It was distinctly different underfoot this year as ongoing path ‘improvements’ have been taking place. Tonnes of smashed rock have been packed down on top of the solid earth path which has given it a very sanitised feel. I felt like I was in the grounds of a country estate not running the rugged West Highland Way; I didn’t particularly care for the ‘improvements’, especially as it felt awful underfoot on weary feet.

Photo: Stuart Macfarlane

Photo: Stuart Macfarlane

The Rowardennan checkpoint came out of nowhere sooner than expected just like last year which was a pleasant surprise. Tiredness was beginning to factor a little and I was feeling a bit jaded as Mrs Mac cheered and called out ‘You OK toots?’ to me as I crossed the timing mat. That really cheered me up and brought me back down to earth as I smiled and said hello; it’s little bits of personal support like that which makes these races so special – I love that I know so many people taking part, marshalling and supporting who all just want the best for each other.

Standing in the checkpoint I took stock of myself and figured out what was going on – I felt infinitely better than last year both physically and mentally, nothing in particular was hurting and everything was fine other than being very thirsty. I felt like I could be working a lot harder, but then I might have been suffering more. I nailed another Mullerrice and refilled my pockets and water supplies. Scanning the left-over food table I swatched some cherry sport beans – my favourite flavour – and put them in my pocket. What a coup!

Photo: Ian Russell

Photo: Ian Russell

The other girls came in and whilst they were fuelling up I took the time to chat to a massive floofy Newfoundland who belonged to the Wilderness Medic team. They were providing their usual stellar cheery and humorous service in the remote spots, where if someone fell ill it would take a long time to get an ambulance to them.

Photo: Ian Russell

Photo: Ian Russell

 

Rowardennan – Inversnaid – 7.5 miles: 2 hours, cumulative: 8hrs (35 miles)

Moving out of Rowardennan, Rachel and I took the lead again until we reached the long steady slog upwards, which is just that little bit too steep for your average common-or-garden ultrarunner to actually  run. I pulled off the path to stop for my first pee of the day, but re-emerged to find that this time no-one had stopped, so I had a 10 minute powerjog chase up the hill until I finally caught them up again. The hill went on forever – I didn’t remember this from last year but in hindsight I recall that I spent my time chatting to Terry Addison at this part of last year’s race which clearly distracted me well.

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Eventually the crest of the hill came and some gentle descent relieved the climbing muscles. Rachel and I just let go and let gravity take us down to the Lochside where the trail begins to get a little technical. I was so looking forward to this part and slotted ahead on the single person track with Rachel close behind. The others were making slower progress and we lost sight of them after a while, I really didn’t want to slow down though as I fell my momentum was building and I was ready to work hard just at the right point in the race which needs the extra effort. At 34 miles I called back and reminded Rachel that she was in new distance territory which she was pleased about (I think; at least as pleased as a person who’d run that far could be).

It was nearly 8 hours into the race and we were still dry – I couldn’t believe our luck given the forecasts we’d all been poring over with dread for the last week. It had been supposed to rain all day and night, with some slight respite in the afternoon. The forecast could not have been more wrong and it had remained completely dry, cloudy and humid at about 12C which was perfect running weather.

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Rachel was really needing the Inversnaid checkpoint and was annoyed that her garmin was telling lies and was reading over 35 miles. We’d been out of synch all day, but I knew that 35 miles and the checkpoint was coming soon as I could hear the thunderous waterfalls. We rounded the side of the Inversnaid hotel and were greeted by John, Katrina, Sandra, Ian and team who were quick to furnish us with dropbags, refill camelbaks, and dispense gentle kicks up the backside. John and I had a quick chat as I awaited the others; I was trying to decide how long I would wait for them when they came in, so I then decided to eat some more and make one more attempt to relax and stick with the group.

Inversnaid – Beinglas – 6miles – 2hrs 14, cumulative: 10hr 14 (41 miles)

We left Inversnaid at 8hrs 10m race time, which was over half an hour slower than my time from last year. This had been playing on my mind and I no longer felt like I was running my own race; the others were taking it down a gear for the technical section when I was ready to level-up and really work hard. I was torn; I didn’t want to offend anyone by flying off but then I really didn’t want to walk any more, so I just kept a steady jog in the first mile out. The others slipped further behind but I didn’t slow down this time, I realised that my decision had been made and it was time to go on by myself.

Letting myself loose on the technical terrain felt great. My legs turned to springs as I hopped, bounced and twisted my way around trees, branches and rocks. Last year the section scared me a little as I felt I wasn’t in control of my legs but this year I felt I had laser precision as I gambolled along like a mountain goat. I live for this kind of running and it felt incredible to be able to enjoy it strongly this year!

Everyone else was walking, and as I passed runner after runner, my competitive instinct caught whiff of a challenge. I felt awesome and strong with an easy, slow start to the race – how many places could I climb between check points and the finish? The last timing mat was at Rowardennan so I’d get information from there, Beinglas and the finish. My restrained side reminded me of Raffan’s Rule #1: Don’t Be A Dick, but then the devil on my shoulder asked WWRD: What would Raffan Do? and the answer was run the best race he could. It was time to fly.

I made steady progress towards the end of the loch and just as I emerged from the relative shelter of trees, the rain made its first appearance of the day. It was heavy, wet rain and it didn’t look like it was just a shower so I stopped to put my Montane Minimus jacket on, but 20 minutes later it was off again and that was the last we saw of the rain.

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Beinglas – Finish – 12 miles – 3hrs 06m, cumulative: 13hrs 22m (53 miles)

I was feeling very positive as I came into Beinglas Farm and these feelings were boosted by the marvellous crew there. There were a lot of people who were suffering and they were being well looked after by the team, who were dispensing tea and coffee and helping to refill the backpacks of weary runners. I enjoyed some Quorn sausages and a tub of custard, washed down with a can of gin and tonic whilst chatting to some fellow runners. I didn’t hang around and finished the last of my sausages and gin whilst walking out of the check point, and decided to listen to some music to keep my momentum going.

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I love this part of the route as the scenery is so dramatic. I was joined on the path by some very new lambs and their grumpy Mum, who was quick to shoo them away from me.

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What really helped me from Beinglas to the finish this year is that I feel like I know this section well now, having covered it twice in the last year at the Fling and the West Highland Way race. I knew I had the race in the bag now and it was just a question of ticking off each stage – over the rollercoaster hills, past Derrydarroch cottage, along by the river, through the sheep passage under the A82, along cow poo alley….tick, tick, tick.

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I was still passing runners as I kept a steady jog as much as I possibly could. Whenever I found myself walking I asked myself ‘Is there any good reason for you to be walking right now?’ and usually the answer was no so I could push a little harder. Everyone else was walking this section so I felt like I’d really nailed the pacing of the race – I remember walking so much here last year and each mile taking forever, however the miles slipped by mostly painlessly and I reached the climb into the Crianlarich hills happily. There was another Wilderness Medic chap with his dog at the edge of the forest cheering us on. I stopped to pet the big, cuddly Newfoundland and asked if I could saddle him up and ride him down to the finish. The response was unfortunately no, but the handler said that if I’d fallen in the Loch earlier on he’d have been sent in after to fetch me. Not just a cute fluffy face after all then.

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I trundled up the hill safe in the knowledge that this was the last big climb of the day. The sun was hanging low in the sky, creating beautiful shafts of lights in the forest. Despite some aches and pains and being a bit tired, I could not have been happier. My feet were hurting and I could feel I had some tremendous blisters and battered toenails, but other than that and a nagging pain in my hip my legs were fine. I was able to navigate the decent quite speedily with no quad, knee or ITB bother at all which I found remarkable, although I found yet again that the path ‘improvements’ actually made it harder. The same smashed rocks had been used to fill in crevices and smooth over cracks and boulders, which meant there were no lumps and bumps to bounce off of and absorb speed when descending.

I continued to pass people and slowed to chat with anyone I knew, including a blether with Fiona Rennie who was looking strong. I pulled up about 50 meters behind a pair of girls who were running roughly the same pace as me, and kept them in my peripheral vision as we headed down to the A82. When the path spat me out on the road I realised however that they had taken a wrong turn somewhere and the three of us were no where near the road crossing. Thankfully I knew the area so I turned left and ran up the side of the road knowing that eventually I’d meet the crossing but I was a bit worried that I’d messed up by not paying attention. It wasn’t long until we reached the part where the West Highland Way runs parallel to the road after it crosses the railway so we were able to hop back on to the path. My garmin had died at 12 hours so I had no idea how much extra it added on, but thankfully our diversion didn’t last long.

In remarkable coincidence just as I was crossing the road, I noticed Mike’s car was the first in the queue of traffic held by the marshals! He honked the horn loudly and shouted out of the window at me as I ran over the road which gave me a huge boost and really brought it home that I was nearly done for the day. As I approached Strathfillan Wigwams I took my last two caffeinated gels and texted Kynon to let him know I was about 30 minutes out from the finish.

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The last two miles are naturally the longest in the race. Despite being very close to Tyndrum it feels like you’re in the middle of nowhere until the very last moment when you actually hear the finish before you see it. I kept my thoughts on my silly goal of passing as many runners as possible and reeled them in one by one, wishing them ‘well done’ as I slipped by. Other than that, all I could think of was getting my shoes off and revealing the horror inside my Salomons.

The sound of the pipes came into range and made the sweaty hairs on the back of my neck stick up. I pushed harder into an actual run, determined to sprint into the finish in style. A bunch of people over the river in the campsite recognised me and cheered ‘Go Rhonaaa!!’  but I couldn’t see who they were, and from the other side through the trees came screaming and whooping from a blonde figure who looked a lot like Sandra. The final incline was lined with supporters and I high-fived Ali and Iain who stood awaiting Kate and Vikki, and gave my last push to round the corner to the glorious red carpet finish.

Phot: Stuart Macfarlane

Photo: Stuart Macfarlane

The crowd noticed another finisher coming in and leapt into life which is the most incredible feeling. You’d think I’d have won the entire race from the racket they made for each finisher – I heard my name being shouted, I ran as hard as I could, I high-fived Jemma and Iona, I punched the air in delight and sprinted down that flag-lined red carpet with the biggest smile on my face.

Photo: Staurt Macfarlane

Photo: Stuart Macfarlane

My darling husband awaited me under the gantry and crashing into his arms was heaven. He held me up as my legs gave way from under me and cuddled me tight until I got my breath back. No tears this year, just smiles and laughter.

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There was soup and beer and a cracking goody bag with a beautiful medal as well. Free massages and showers, and endless tales of strength and bravery from finishers and those who were less fortunate, such as the amazing Susan Johnston who fell and broke her jaw in five places on the Lochside, but continued on for 5 miles until the next checkpoint where she reluctantly pulled out in favour of a trip to hospital.

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In the end I finished only 14 minutes slower than last year, but I finished stronger, happier and with greater ease than I could have ever imagined. My challenge to pass as many people as I could resulted in me climbing 43 places from Rowardennan to Beinglas, and a further 45 from Beinglas to the finish – a climb from 546th at Rowardennan to an eventual placing of 447th of 566 finishers.

I had blisters the size of grapes in between the toes of my left foot and I’ll lose a couple more toenails, but other than that I have suffered nothing other than some standard DOMS which were gone by Tuesday. It is remarkable to see and feel the steady improvement in my running over the last year, which gives me confidence to tackle the Cateran 55 miler in only two weeks time, and the confidence to feel like I am going to be well prepared by the start of July for the Great Glen 73 miler.

There’s not a lot left to be said about the Highland Fling that hasn’t already been said all over the internet this week, but I feel I’d be remiss in not including my thanks to Johnny Fling and team, for creating the best and most beautiful running event in Scotland, or perhaps even the UK. The whole day is a lesson in event management and value for money and many others would do well to learn from it. If this race isn’t on your to-do list, get it on there immediately and I’ll see you all in Milngavie next April.

Posted in Race Reports, Races, Running, Scotland, Ultramarathon | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Hoka Highland Fling 2014 Preview

Highland Fling Logo_FINAL

With 3 days to go until my second attempt at the Hoka Highland Fling, I’m in full on planning mode. Big ultras are superb fun, but they involve such a lot of thought and packing to be prepared for every eventuality. I can benefit from a certain amount of knowledge having done this race before, but it doesn’t detract the actual amount of purchasing and packing required in the next few days. Here are my thoughts so far…

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Pacing and race plan

This race is part of my training for the Great Glen Ultra on the 5th/6th July, so I am running it with my eye on the horizon at all times. I finished last year in 13 hours and 6 minutes and whilst I know I could improve on that, I need to take it easy and not push my pace to hit a randomly defined goal for the sake of it. I also have the Cateran Trail 55 mile race three weeks after the Fling which I need to be just as strong for, so the biggest challenge of Saturday will not be to complete the race or achieve a time, but to finish and not be too gubbed to start another 50+ miler in three weeks.

I will be running with my friends Vikki and Kate from Stonehaven Running Club, and we will also be joined by Rachel. Vikki has done the Fling several times but it is Kate and Rachel’s first go at a 50 miler. I’m confident that as a group we’ll be able to make the experience as enjoyable as possible and pull each other through any dark patches. Last year I was alone for the entirety for the race which was ok, but isolating. I will benefit from having my friends and training partners by my side and hopefully the miles will drift by.

For those of you doing the Fling for the first time I’d like to pass on some advice which my friend Sandra gave to Fling virgins on my favourite running siteDon’t over-analyse it if it’s your first time. Turn up, take what’s thrown at you and deal with it. It’s the only way. You cannot anticipate what’s ahead. You’ll feel crap, but hang in there. You’ll feel good again – you will!

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It is true – you will feel so crap at times, but it is all so worth it.

Shoes

I have elected to go with my Salomon Speedcross 3s. Unfortunately the forecast this week is a little messy and it looks to extend to the weekend, so I think this is the only sensible option.

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Kit

Ideally I would like to wear something very similar to last year – Long socks, shorts, top layers of t-shirt, long sleeve top and club vest, with water-proof in the Camelbak. I’ll start the day off with gloves and buff as well as it’s very cold that early in the morning at this time of year (the race starts at 0600). The only problem is that it’s forecast to rain, which makes me worry a lot. The weather up the West Highland Way can be brutal and very changeable. I may carry an extra layer in a zip-lock bag in my Camelbak.

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Fuel

As last year I am planning to make little drop-boxes for each check point. I will eat every 30 minutes and alternate gels with real food, and save any with caffeine until Beinglas. Much like last year I will eat a mix of cake bars, hula hoops, and dried fruit on the run, with Muller rice or custard to eat at the first two check points. I remember desperately craving salty and savoury snacks at Inversnaid and Beinglas last year, so instead of Muller rice here I will have quorn sausages and tattie scones with marmite.

marmite

For liquids I will be sticking with High-5 electrolyte tabs in my Camelbak, a bottle of lucozade at Balmaha and a gin and tonic and Beinglas.

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I am nervous about the race, but I really can’t complain. Unlike last year I am not nursing an injury, but I do feel a little under-trained. This is probably just in my mind though, but it’s been 6 weeks since my last long run! I would have liked one 20ish mile run in between the honeymoon and Fling, but it didn’t happen so I can just consider myself to be very well rested after a tough D33. I think half the reason the D33 was so tough was due to build up of life-fatigue and lack of sleep. You cannot prepare for a big race by being extremely stressed and sleeping 5 hours a night or less for weeks, as well as training hard. I am coming into this race relaxed and rested, so as long as I show up with the right attitude and don’t give up without a fight I know I can finish this race again.

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Excitingly, at the finish line I will have the newly christened RedWineRunner Ultravan waiting for me! And my husband, obviously, who I hope will forgive me for having a Fling only 5 weeks into our marriage (hahaaaaaar… Sorry). Anyway, this van belongs to my Dad who has kindly agreed for us to borrow it for our running adventures this year. It very easily solved the problem of finding accommodation in Tyndrum on Saturday night, and also will make this year’s West Highland Way Race and Glenmore 12/24 infinitely more comfortable.

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Here’s to lots of adventures in this wagon! There’s something very middle aged about sitting outside a camper van drinking coffee on a Sunday morning in Braemar, but we very much enjoyed our one night test-run last weekend and I’m definitely not middle-aged, so it must be fine.

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After we left Braemar we went for a lovely walk up Linn O Dee and Glen Lui. The weather was gorgeous and I was gagging to be running; this scenery really whet my appetite for running on the magical West Highland Way on Saturday.

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So this is it – here we go again. Kynon is marshaling at Balmaha again so if you see him do say hello. I hope that everyone’s taper and preparation has gone as well as possible and that the traditionally beautiful weather comes out for the Fling once more.

See you in Milgavie!

Posted in Life, Races, Running, Scotland, Ultramarathon | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments