The Devil O’The Highlands Footrace
1st August 2015
10hrs 32m 24s
157th of 180 finishers (7 DNF)
43rd of 56 Females
So it turns out that, as expected, running a 43 mile trail race on the back of 6 weeks recovery and resting from the West Highland Way Race is challenging, but achievable. My plan for the Devil o’the Highlands this year was always just to achieve a finish, and thus complete the West Highland Way triple crown of the Highland Fling, the WHW Race, and the Devil within one year. When you think about it more carefully, it’s actually nothing like a year; the races all take place in a shade over 3 months. There were 29 contenders this year and I believe all but 2 completed the combined challenge, which while unofficial, has become an aspirational target for many SUMS competitors with only 117 runners with at least one completion under their belts.
So it was at 2:45am on Saturday morning that I found my alarm going off, waking me from peaceful sleep in my room in the Fort William Travelodge. Kynon and I were booked onto the shuttle bus which would take us directly to the start in Tyndrum, but it meant a ridiculously early start to the day. The night before I’d prepared everything so all we needed to do was step into our clothes, pick up our bags, and leave, which was a plan which worked well. I intended to try and sleep some more, or at least rest on the bus, and would eat when we arrived in Tyndrum at 5am. I just didn’t see the sense in hoovering breakfast any earlier, as I never normally eat in the middle of the night!
I got a little snooze on the bus and arrived in Tyndum feeling a little more alive, but was still feeling pretty spaced out. The application of coffee and some breakfast brought me back to life, and after some trips to the loo and the race briefing, it was time to line up at the start. I’d spoken to a handful of other Triple Crown hopefuls that morning and we all shared the same feeling of disbelief that we were back in Tyndrum and about to get back on to the West Highland Way again. The WHW Race seemed so long ago, but also just as though it was last week… it was confusing and somewhat disorienting.
With five minutes to go we all departed from the Green Welly Stop and made the short walk to the start. The rain had dried up just as we assembled and it looked like the skies were clearing – was the forecast for rain going to be wrong…? Other than being a bit damp, the morning was overcast and quite humid. I had selected lots of layers to wear as the temperature could fluctuate wildly throughout the day.
At 6am, Kynon and I stood towards the back of the large crowd of 189 runners and re-affirmed our commitment to stick together throughout the race. Whilst we’ve never ran an ultra together, we had decided it would be the best way to enjoy ourselves; he was a little under-trained and I was still a little tired from WHW Race. The goal was to finish happy and healthy – time didn’t matter, especially as we both have the Berlin Marathon to train for between now and the end of September. There was no point in emptying ourselves at the Devil and needing to take even more precious time for recovery.
Deciding to take it easy really took the pressure off and it meant I had no pre-race nerves at all. It felt like I was off for a long training run rather than anything else, but the festivities of the start line set the scene for another great race. As the new RD, Johnny Fling has done a great job in re-branding the Devil this year and giving the event a much-needed boost. When the hooter went at 6am, we charged up the hill through a gauntlet of supporters and marshalls, until slowing to a walk as the hill got steeper.
The field spread out quite quickly as the first 7 miles are very runnable. I had to pull over and fix one of my shoes in the first half mile and by the time I stood up it appeared were at the absolute back of the field. Ok, so this was new, but again; there was no pressure to move quickly. We trotted on, warming up the muscles nicely and passed one or two runners; I was trying not to be competitive and push on, but when I saw we were even behind the legendary Ray McC I wasn’t having that, and made sure we made swifter progress to Bridge of Orchy.
Tyndrum – Bridge of Orchy – 1hr 17m – 182nd place
I was hoping to go straight through BoO as it was just a timing checkpoint with water, but Kynon felt a blister starting and wanted to stop and put a Compeed on. I had 7 minutes of avoiding midgies until we could get going again and start clawing back a couple of places, but the irony was that I could feel blisters gurning on my feet too. As we climbed up and over Jelly Baby Hill I tried to decide whether it was worth me stopping at the bottom to check them out or not. Having carefully Sudocreme’d my feet before carefully lacing the shoes and fastening my gaiters, I really didn’t want to sit down and haphazardly pull it all off. The hot-spots were exactly where my WHW race blisters were though, where I had already placed preventative compeeds – I was worried that they might have slipped, so I decided to investigate at Inveroran.
Once sitting on a stone I was able to peel back my socks to see that blisters had already formed underneath my compeeds placed just under the ball of my feet, in exactly the same spots as the WHW blisters. The compeeds basically looked like pale fried eggs, with a blister popping in the middle of each. After 9 miles!! I despair. Since there was nothing to be done, I put my socks, shoes, and gaiters back into order and looked forward to 34 more miles of unnecessarily painful steps. Some days you can take every precaution, but then it just doesn’t work…
As we were chugging over Rannoch Moor I began to notice Kynon lagging behind a bit. It seemed like he was fading so I made him eat something and take some painkillers as various parts were hurting. The day before, when we had thought about how the race would go I hypothesised that I would have a crap first 20 miles until my body remembered what it was capable of, and then I would get stronger towards the end; Kynon however would have a great first 20 before crashing and struggling to keep the momentum. It turned out my guess was partially right, but the role reversal happened at about 14 miles instead. I was able to gently pull us along, making sure that Kynon was off the rockiest parts of the trail and eating something regularly. Up until now the weather had remained bright, but we had our first rain shower of the day as we headed towards Glencoe. It looked very changeable up ahead, and it looked as if the weather forecast would deliver exactly what it had promised.
Glencoe – 3hr 45m 28s – 178th place
I had estimated an arrival at Glencoe of about 3hr 15m, so much as we were still making decent enough time the fact we were quite behind schedule was never far from my mind. As we walked up the hill to the drop bag point I realised I recognised the face beneath the hat who was calling my name and holding up my bag – it was no other than three-time winner and course record holder of the West Highland Way Race, Paul Giblin. A look around revealed that the check point was being staffed by no fewer than 4 current or former Team GB ultrarunners who were running the place like an F1 pitstop. As I was eating my custard, Paul helped me get the rest of my stuff packed whilst Lucy Colqhuon (Female WHW Race course record holder) refilled my water. Kynon was being helped by Debbie Martin-Consani (GUCR winner and course record holder, Lakeland 100 winner, Team GB 24hr runner) and Sharon Law (Team GB 24hr runner) and after only a brief pause we were on our way again, marvelling at how brilliant the sport we have chosen is. Where else would you find elite athletes working at the coal face alongside common-or-garden ultra runners? Does Mo Farah hand out water at a local 10k? Huge thanks to Glencoe Team for being out there and continuing to inspire us all.
Between Glencoe and the Devil’s Staircase the sun shone brightly which made for some stunning views. There was no escaping the fact that we were running towards The Weather though, as huge black clouds loomed ahead. Kynon had never actually covered the Staircase before and was excited to climb it, but I think the shine wore off for him about half way up. I always forget how steep it is, but I was glad to feel a hundred percent better than in my last ascent in June, after 75 miles, when I had to stop to dry-heave every 10 minutes.
Just before the summit we felt the first drops of rain. Like every other change in the weather that day it was quick, and within seconds we were scrabbling for our waterproofs as we were enveloped in rain. This was serious rain though; big heavy raindrops being pushed towards us with a harsh wind which got stronger as we crested the hill. We could barely stand up against the wind as we approached Fiona and Pauline who were sitting at the top handing out sweets and taking pictures. After a battle with her brolly, Fiona managed one for us!
Looking ahead we could see that the rain really wasn’t going anywhere this time so we had to buckle up and just get soaked. It was falling out of the sky with such ferocity it was like tropical, monsoon-style rain. I checked in with Kynon behind me and he was ok and ready to go; “Great” I said, “Then let’s get the F*%K off this hill!”.
The path was very slippy but I enjoyed dancing down it; I figured the weather was so ridiculous I may as well have some fun and jump in the puddles. There were some miserable looking walkers who looked at me like they thought I was crazy, but I was having a lot more fun than they were. Within the hour my waterproof had given up the ghost so every inch of me was soaked through and I wished I had a visor or some kind of cap to keep the rain out of my eyes. I continued to lead, but Kynon really struggled coming down the fire road and we ended up walking most of it. We lost a lot of time here but he kept on fighting; I didn’t want to say it, but other than a stiff hip climbing up hills I was feeling fine…
Kinlochleven – 6hr 31m 55s – 163rd place
The biggest credit of the day has to go to the Kinlochleven marshalls who had nothing but a bus shelter to hide from the rain in and were out for just as long as we were, except they had to stand still. I had barely eaten anything since Glencoe as my jacket was over my rucksack due to the rain, so I tucked in hungrily from my drop bag, and put some more snacks in my pockets. As we left, Audrey McIntosh emerged from a car and joined us running out of town; I don’t think if I’d had the opportunity to get somewhere warm and dry I would have taken it, as I’m not sure I could have left! A tree had fallen and was blocking the road out of town, and a man with a chainsaw was tackling it. There was something very unnerving about passing him working away looking ever so slightly wild eyed, so maybe that’s what gave me the extra boost to scoot away up the hill out of Kinlochleven into Lairig Mhor. We made good time and by the time we reached the top the rain had ceased to a drizzle. Such relief! It was windy though so I kept my jacket on to stay warm, especially as Kynon had stiffened up and was keen to do a bit more walking than I.
Crossing Lairig Mhor was a lot more tolerable than last time, and by the time we were within a mile of Lundravra the sun was out! The sun was hot and quickly dried up the wet kit we had on and made this latter stage of the race a lot more enjoyable. There were more friendly faces at Lundavra who provided juice and water re-fills, and then it was time for the final push and one last attempt to try and claw back some places.
Lundravra – 8hr 45m – 158th place
There’s not really much to report from the last 7 miles; as I am writing this nearly two weeks after the event I am struggling to recall much other than really struggling to get up hills efficiently due to pain deep inside my hips. This, and general fatigue, made it easier to run at Kynon’s pace and we worked together setting mini-goals to pass the distance on the long downhill; such as run for 0.5 mile, then a 100 step walk, and repeat…
Now, much attention has been given to the new finish with it’s off-road final 1.5 miles, but I feel I need to add my tuppence. Previously in the Devil (or WHW Race) you would descend to the main road into Fort William and then the final mile would be flat. Now, one descends and then turns back up another trail which runs parallel to the road as it climbs up and up, and it is aptly named ‘Cow Hill’. It was a cruel finish, but a very apt end to a race named ‘The Devil O’the Highlands’ really.
Staggering down the other side was as painful for Kynon as it was for me to stagger up it, but we got there eventually and heard the sounds of the finish on the breeze. Running into the field hand in hand, there were lots of cheers and music, and a finish line mention for me on completion of my Triple Crown. It felt right to finish with Kynon; he’s held my hand both physically and metaphorically through much of this journey and has been a pillar of support. To complete the final miles with him was perfect.
Finish – 10hr 32m 24s – 157th place
I’d lost track of time as both of our Garmins had died, so I asked someone what time it was – 4.35pm they said, I did the sums and gasped! Ten and a half hours?! Surely not! Oops. Well that had been somewhat of a relaxed day out, but a finish is a finish; the weather certainly impacted us, but most importantly we saved ourselves for the last bit of training for the McKinnon Berlin Marathon show-down in 6 weeks time. There will be no hand-holding on that particular adventure, as I grapple to retain my title of fastest McKinnon Marathoner…!
So that’s it; the Triple Crown is done. I thought I would feel a lot more emotional about it, but it’s just…over. I will definitely do the Devil next year to see how quickly I can complete it solo; I think I’d be close to 8.5 hours if I had fresh legs. Next up is the Speyside Way / Fare Challenge back-to-back challenge on the 22nd and 23rd of August. 50 miles of Trail Racing; earlier in the year this would have been a doddle, but again I’ll be taking it easy to preserve myself for Berlin. At the moment, losing some weight is of the greatest importance; I may not have peak speed for Berlin but at least I can do myself a favour by not carrying any extra ballast. I’ll try and keep some updates coming in other than race reports in the next few weeks, but I’m now deep in the writing of my MSc thesis so that is demanding a lot of my time…
‘Til next time!