Red Wine Runner

Scotland

RACE REPORT – The Fare Challenge Half Marathon

The Fare Challenge
KR Steel Half Marathon
23rd August 2015

The Fare Challenge medal2 hours 44 minutes 2 seconds
159th of 186 Finishers
51st of 73 Females
16 of 24 F Seniors

Let’s be honest; taking part in The Fare Challenge Half Marathon less than 20 hours after completing the Speyside Way Ultramarathon (37 miles) was always going to be a bit of an ask. I’m never one to shy away from a challenge, but when I couldn’t physically fit my trail shoes onto my swollen, blistered feet the next morning, I knew I was in for a corker…

Thankfully I had been able to score a very decent night of sleep, so whilst I was physically very tired, I felt rested. My legs were fatigued, but not particularly sore. My hunger, on the other hand, was insatiable; I ate a peanut butter bagel, a banana, a flapjack bar…but it felt like they evaporated before they even reached my stomach. Before I could even think about putting any shoes on I had to deal with the blisters which had plagued my feet the day before and were still bulging like ripe cherries. I sterilised a needle and drained them all, before placing Compeed blister plasters over them and then wrapping the balls of each foot and each big toe in Rock Tape. It didn’t feel very nice but it was the best I could do before selecting a pair of suitable shoes. My Salomon Speed Cross 3s would have been ideal, but they were far too narrow for my puffed up trotters and the toe box pinched on my blisters. I selected my widest and most comfortable shoes – my Asics Gel Nimbus 15s.

the fare challenge elevation

The Fare Challenge – 1,837ft Elevation Gain

Ali and Kate picked me up at 9.45am and we headed to Raemoir House Hotel, near Banchory, where all three of the Fare Challenge races started. The race offers a 5k and 10k as well as a Half Marathon, and offers an array of food, fun and activities for families and friends so an entire day out can be enjoyed if the weather is in your favour. Unusually, North East Scotland managed a second consecutive day of beautiful weather, and the sun was shining strongly. Whilst running in heat is really not something I enjoy, the prospect of spending a few hours in the sunshine on beautiful trails made pushing through the fatigue and hunger a lot easier.

the fare challenge registration

Registration took place in a big marquee which was already busy when we arrived at 10.30. There were refreshments on sale and a variety of stalls, but like everyone else who was running, I got my number and then joined the toilet queue. There were about 12 portaloos which were just about doing the job, but there could have done with being more when you consider all of the friends and family who were attending as well.

IMG_4839

I was glad to meet up with David and Jeni before we started to get a group photo. We were all feeling a little weary but nothing was going to stop us getting the job done. At 12pm the Half Marathon start was announced and after assembling alongside the 10k runners, we were all set off at the same time. Mentally this made the start a little bit easier – for every person who shot by me I just assumed they were doing the 10k so would naturally be going faster.

Photo from The Fare Challenge

Photo from The Fare Challenge

The Fare Challenge is a trail race with lots of ups and downs but I wasn’t familiar with the course at all. It starts from the grounds of Raemoir House Hotel and curls straight up the Hill of Fare for 3 miles. I was in no hurry to push myself and took the first mile easily, assessing what was hurting and what felt ok. When we reached the start of the hill I immediately started to power walk; I was already quite near the back but this meant I temporarily slipped back even further. Within a quarter of a mile my well-honed ultra hill stomp was already catching up with those who had tackled the start of the hill with a little too much enthusiasm, and I made steady progress up and up through the hot forest until the path cleared the tree line and we were out on the exposed hillside.

It was actually very windy up on the hill so the heat was barely an issue. I was glad for my sun screen though as the sun itself would be strong. Reaching the top of the summit there was a paramedic and a landrover which was the first of many on the course – the organisers did an excellent job in putting in provisions on the remote course to look after people who might not have the best of days. From the other side of the hill I could see all the way down and up the other side to the next summit, as well as the runners who were already way along the next hillside in miles 4, 5 and 6. I really was pretty far back in the field; I would have loved to have used my tired legs as an excuse, but there was no sign of Jeni and David who had scooted away up the hill. I’m just a bit slow right now…

the fare challenge route map

I plodded on though; my feet were really, really sore but they weren’t getting worse than they had been, and splashing through the hillside streams provided icy cold relief. Despite it being a hot day it had rained torrentially the night before so there was a lot of water coming off the hills. This also made for some perilous ascents and descents for me in my road shoes; whilst the terrain was by no means technical I would have benefited from some extra grip in wet mud. As you can see from the elevation profile the route was very bumpy; up and down like a fiddler’s elbow. There was water at two miles, seven miles, and marshalls at most turning points.

At mile 7 there was a cruel out and back up a hill track which allowed you to say hello and well done to your fellow runners, or ignore them as I found out. The field was quite spread out now with runners perhaps every 200 meters or so. I smiled and said well done to everyone I passed on my way up and down; I got one reply and two acknowledgements which was a real shame. The more runners who ignored me, the bigger my smile became. If you can’t say hello and greet a fellow runner whilst out running in beautiful countryside on a sunny day, then you may as well stick to a treadmill. Even the shittest run gets better with a smile and a chat…every ultra runner knows that, and usually those at the back are the chattiest. Strange times.

However; after mile 7 we were into a narrow forest track and out of the sun. The track got good and muddy and there were lots of puddles to jump in. The sunshine was making the pine trees smell amazing and I had finally shaken out my aches and pains; a combination of this and more down hill than up meant I was able to make up some places. Miles 9 – 11 were on forestry road and gently undulating, but now completely out of the wind and very warm. The water stations provided bottles (and SIS gels at mile 9)  but I was glad to have taken a hand-held bottle with me to sip on throughout. Mile 11 had a bit of a savage downhill which gave me a dreadful stitch, but finally we got back down to road level and re-entered the hotel grounds.

The 12 mile marker was right next to the carpark entrance which cruelly took us so close to the finish before back up the hill for another half mile. We the returned the the start/finish line by the same route as the first mile, with a 100 meter uphill grass finish to cross the line. I had estimated around 2hr30 – 2hr40 for a finish time, so 2hr 44m wasn’t too far off for a lifetime worst half marathon time. Jeni did 2:16 and David did 1:59 (!!), with the male and female winners completing the course in 1hr24 and 1hr43 respectively.

fare_challenge_finisher

The medal is an absolute beast and quite heavy to hang around your neck! Upon finishing I was handed a goody bag and my medal, and tottered out to find my friends. Having started the race hungry I was feeling very empty and rather light-headed; I was desperate for a drink or a snack, so the only disappointing aspect of the day was that there was no post-race food for the runners. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by ultras and small club races, but I would expect at least a banana and a cup of tea or something. There was a little bottle of water in the goody bag which was most welcome, but I had to tap Kate for some change to go and get a can of coke from the hotel marquee. There was food available there but at quite a price, and you could even buy a bottle of champagne if you liked.

Fare_Challenge_start

At £26, the Fare Challenge is not the cheapest half marathon in the North East but it offers a unique experience and a beautiful course. The organisers have worked extremely hard to produce an event which is inclusive for all and should hopefully act as a gateway to the joys trail running for many. The route is well marshalled and very challenging; I’d love to come back and give it a go on fresh legs and see how much time I’d slice off. I’d also love to come back and see less people dropping their gel packets on the trail and being a bit cheerier on the run, but these are two things which road runners exploring the trails for the first time can sometimes be not quite up to speed on which is a real shame.

IMG_4840

It was still a stunning evening when I got home and Kynon and I enjoyed some beers and crisps in the setting sunshine before I ate my weight in Chinese food. I really enjoyed both races and would love to return to either again in the future. The back-to-back experience was a fun challenge made more enjoyable by the weather, but it was very tiring especially off the back of a summer of recovery and inconsistent training. I took a week to get back in my running shoes and even longer to get this report up – as ever, the MSc dissertation is taking priority, but I’m now in the last few weeks of hard work!

‘Til next time,

~RWR

RACE REPORT: Speyside Way Ultra

Speyside Way Ultra
22nd August 2015

speyside way ultra medal

7 hours 4 minutes 16 seconds
69th of 101 Finishers
17th of 25 Females
7th of 11 F Seniors

 

After completing the West Highland Way Race, I went on a race-entering spree to satisfy my desire to complete some races for fun; specifically, ones which would take me less than 29 hours to complete… After trawling EntryCentral I saw for the first time since I started running ultras, that the Speyside Way Ultra was not clashing with a music festival which I’ve been attending for nearly a decade. I quickly purchased an entry and contemplated signing up for the Fare Challenge Half Marathon the next day as well. It only took a little extra encouragement from my running friend David for me to decide that a back to back racing weekend of 50 mile was in fact a brilliant, totally normal idea, and before I knew it my plans for this weekend were set in stone.

David picked me up from my parents’ house in Aberdeen at 5:15am and we set off towards Insch to pick up Jeni, who would be the third member of our back-to-back team. The journey passed quickly and we arrived at Buckie High School to register at about 7am. There were one or two familiar faces, but with Speyside being rather out of the way for much of the Central Belt ultra crowd, many of the usual suspects were not present. It’s one of the smallest of the SUMS races, and at 36.5 miles in length, amongst the shortest. The route (mostly) follows part of the Speyside Way, which is a long distance walking route along the banks of the Spey. It’s mainly flat, but with a climb up and down Ben Aigen in the middle, and some rolling hills as well. Terrain is about two thirds on very runnable trail (forestry track and old railway line), with the remainder being on road.

There were buses to take the runners to the start, which was hosted at Cragganmore Distillery. On the bus I managed to bag a seat right at the front which was a relief, as I am prone to motion sickness on buses, especially first thing in the morning when travelling to races! It was about an hour’s journey, and I enjoyed chatting to the 2014 women’s race winner, Sophie Mullins, who was sitting up front next to me. When the two buses offloaded it was a mad rush to the portaloos, a short race briefing, and then a piper marched us to the starting line.

speyside way race start

speyside way ultra race

When the hooter went, off we trotted towards Buckie on a flat converted railway line. There were lots of bridges to cross, including bouncy ones which made everyone laugh as their stride was disrupted!

speyside way ultra race

speyside way ultra race

Even though it was only 9am, the air temperature was very warm and humid with the sun hiding behind some light cloud cover. It was forecast to reach around 22C later in the day, and I was hoping that the sun would keep hiding or else my race would be made rather difficult by the heat. Within a couple of miles I was already quite sweaty and drinking lots of water, I was glad to pick up a couple of extra cups at the first water stop at 7 miles, and very glad when Checkpoint 1 came at 12 miles as I had drank the 1.5 litres of water I had started with already.

speyside way ultra race

speyside way ultra race

speyside way ultra race

Ballindalloch – Craigellachie – 12 miles – 2 hours

I clearly wasn’t the only one who had been thirsty, as the Checkpoint was almost out of water when I arrived. I had to upturn the water bowser to pour the last of the contents out, which came to another 2 litres. The drop bags were laid out and I guzzled 250ml of Lucozade Sport whilst I re-packed my pockets. I had eaten a Nakd bar, some Mini-Cheddars and some jelly sweets in the first two hours, and had Jaffa Cakes and Hula Hoops to fuel the next two. On my way out of the check point I was looking forward to reaching the first hills of the day so I could have a little walk – it has been a while since I’ve ran 12 flat miles without a break!

speyside way ultra race

speyside way ultra race

I spent some time chatting to George Chalmers and Alyson MacPherson on the way up Ben Aigen, but we parted ways as we pursued our separate goals for the day. After this I was mainly alone for the rest of the run and enjoyed the stunning views from the top of the hill, looking all the way down the Spey and towards the eventual finish.

speyside way ultra race

Half way down the hill there was a water stop with coke, ginger beer and pretzels manned by Jenni or Moray Road Runners which was a welcome sight. It was still very warm but the sun was thankfully still out of sight. With no cooling breeze it was still very stuffy and I continued to drink a lot as I ran.

At 19 miles the route deviates from the Speyside Way and follows the roads to Fochabers. There were several miles of rolling hills here which I was pleased to be able to run continually as I locked into an efficient ultra plod. Thankfully there was not a lot of traffic so I was able to run in the middle of the road and avoid the steep camber, and I ended up passing a handful of people who were perhaps fading a little at this mid-point.

Craigellachie – CP 2, Near Fochabers – 12 miles – Split TBC

I arrived at Checkpont 2 with Neil MacRichie, and in need of a Camelbak refill again. I had drunk the two litres and ran out before the Checkpoint, so really enjoyed another 250ml of Lucozade Sport and some fresh water as well. I had a High5 tab to put in the bladder to replace some much-needed electrolytes, and with my pockets refilled with Jaffa cakes and Hula Hoops I continued on my way.

Running through Fochabers I clocked marathon distance at a shade over 5 hours which I thought was reasonable. I was feeling good (if a bit too hot) and with the exception of my feet blistering in the same places as at the West Highland Way Race and the Devil, nothing was hurting. It occurred to me that perhaps I need to replace my socks – I know Injinji socks work for me, but I’ve been rotating the same few pairs for 100s of miles now – I hope this will crack the problem of the reoccurring blisters!

speyside way ultra race

After we left Fochabers, the route turned into a single track cycling/walking trail by the River Spey which was very scenic. I spent many happy holidays in my youth at Burnside Caravan Park in Fochabers, and cycled along that path many times so it was pleasing to return to it nearly 20 years later and traverse it in a different manner. In fact, I was enjoying myself so much, I tripped over my own feet on the flat path and nearly barrel-rolled into the Spey. I was frustrated, but unharmed; nothing grazed except my ego, when realising the fishermen over on the other side had observed my tumble and were now scaring away their potential prey with screams of amusement. It’s probably just as well they didn’t see me fall the second time, not 5 minutes later, as this time I was really angry at myself for not paying attention and falling over nothing and bellowed “FOR F&*K’S SAKE PAY ATTENTION, QUINE” at nothing in particular as I nursed a deep scrape on my shin and a bashed hand.

speyside way ultra race

Trotting on, the flat miles passed as the trees thinned and the coast and Spey Bay came closer. It was nearing 30 miles and I was beginning to get weary, so I had started my favoured mental game to pass the time on each mile – run 0.4 miles, walk 0.1. Fiona Rennie was out taking pictures at Spey Bay so it was nice to say hello to her, and I welcomed the fresh sea breeze as I turned right onto the coastal road which would lead me back to Buckie.

speyside way ultra race

Picture by Fiona Rennie

speyside way ultra race

From here to the end it was very flat, and with no excuses not to run I continued to break up each mile into segments to manage my fatigue. I had hoped to finish around 6.5 – 7 hours, but I could see that becoming less of a possibility as time slipped by. At mile 32.5 it  is possible to see the twin spires of Buckie St Peter’s Church which is near the finish, over 4 miles away. This is quite cruel, but at least you have something to aim for…

speyside way ultra race

I had told myself to not be an idiot and try and finish too strongly, as my legs would not thank me the next day. However, it was hard to leave the ego at home when I could see a handful of runners up ahead which I was gradually gaining on. Without changing my pace I overtook two, and when I finally reached the outskirts of Buckie I pushed just a little to overtake another three, including two girls. I figured this might encourage them to go quicker to try and re-gain their place, so I pushed harder than was comfortable for a few minutes to try and put a gap between me and them that they would have to really try to close. I don’t know why I even cared, but it helped me pass the time and got me to the finish quicker. After a quarter of a mile I reigned myself in as I could feel a stitch brewing and I didn’t want to have to walk the last hill to the finish. Something which Mike has said a lot recently sprung to mind; “Run as fast as you need to for as long as you need to” which I think are the words of Stuart Mills, perhaps? Either way, once I was safely out of the way I concentrated on finishing the last mile sensibly, as I saw no need to sprint any harder.

speyside way ultra race

Fochabers – Buckie – 13 miles – Split TBC

36.5 miles had come and gone by the time I passed Tina, the last marshall, and I asked where on earth the finish line was – 200 meters up that hill, she said, as she directed me around a corner. I motored up slowly, and heaved a sign of relief when I saw the feather flags marking the finish area. The small crowd gave me a big cheer as I made my way across the line, and I gratefully tumbled onto the soft grass once I had received my medal and lovely goody bag.

speyside way ultra race

Picture by Jeni R-J

After running out of water again by the finish, I demolished a bottle whilst sitting on the grass chatting to Jeni and some other friendly finishers. That was over 6 litres of water I had consumed during the race, as well as 500ml Lucozade and a couple of cups of coke. I also haven’t mentioned that I hadn’t needed to go to the toilet at all – so that’s how much fluid I had sweated out in the 7 hours of running! That’s very unusual for me, but my salt encrusted skin and clothing proved how warm it had been.

speyside way ultra race

After chatting to lots of people and taking the time to thank Sarah Louise Grigor, the Race Director, I headed back to the High School to collect my bag and have a sandwich. Since David, Jeni and I had lots of recovery to do before 12pm the next day, we wasted no time at all in heading back down the road after we’d had a bite to eat, and I arrived back at my parents’ house about 7pm. I was really grateful for David driving; I felt so spangled and tired after the race that I would not have been safe to drive myself home. David finished the race in 5hr 41m so he had a bit more time to collect himself before getting behind the wheel, but even 3 hours after finishing, when I got in my own car to drive back to Stonehaven, I felt a bit funny.

Upon arrival home I put the oven on and had a quick shower before inhaling a large pizza, some doughballs, and a delicious salted caramel choux bun. After logging all my food and exercise on MyFitnessPal I still had a deficit of 1,484kcal at the end of the day; perhaps not the best preparation for a half marathon the next day, but that way just the way it was. I was in bed by 10.30pm without a drop of celebratory alcohol, and thankfully slept the sleep of the dead as my body did it’s best to recover for the challenge which lay ahead…

speyside way ultra race

In summary, this was a super race and one which I hope to do again. Speyside is a beautiful area to run through and the route is a lovely way to see it. The goody bag had some nice surprises in it including a miniature whisky, and the medal is wonderfully chunky. It would be an excellent choice for a first ultra due to the easy terrain and well-sign posted route, and the relatively short distance is the perfect bridge between marathon and 50 mile distance events.

Stay tuned for the next stage in my back-to-back challenge – I hope to have it posted by the end of the week!

RACE REPORT – West Highland Way Race 2015

The West Highland Way Race
20th June 2015

west highland way race red wine runner

28 hours 57 minutes 54 seconds
111th of 155 finishers (188 starters)
21st of 33 Females
7th of 9 F Seniors

 

Where do I even begin to start this report? I’ve had my laptop open for most of the afternoon whilst browsing the pictures and reports of the race which are beginning to emerge, whilst waiting for inspiration to come. Hours later and I’m still no further – do I start with a quote? Some inspirational song lyrics? Everything seems trite and facile really; there’s nothing that I can say that will sum it all up so briefly.

So let’s start in a car park in Milngavie four years ago. I was standing quietly in the dark, shoulder to shoulder with a crowd of around 300, listening to a man speak into a microphone. He was delivering the pre-race briefing for the West Highland Way Race, and I was back up crew for my friend Mike Raffan, who was running his first West Highland Way Race. If we fast forward four years, the tables have turned. I am running my first West Highland Way Race, and Mike is crewing for me. That night in 2011, a seed was sown. The intervening four years have seen me complete 11 ultras and 5 marathons in preparation, along with thousands of more miles in training. I had worked very, very, hard to reach the start of this race.

west highland way race start

We arrived in Milngavie at 7pm and ate in the Beefeater restaurant for convenience. I was mostly calm, but still intimidated by the onerous challenge ahead. The weather forecast wasn’t great, and starting a race at 1am in the morning is never an easy thing to get your head around. Still, I went through the motions of preparation without really thinking about it too much; registration was quick and easy, and I was weighed, tagged, and chipped like I was off to market. A bag of pre-ordered race merchandise was collected and some excitable chit-chat and hugs were partaken in. I wanted to keep away from the excitement though, so we retreated to the van for me to rest and read as the final hours ticked away.

At 11:45 I began getting ready; taping and preparing my feet, getting dressed, applying sudocreme, midgey repellant, and tying my hair firmly back. Kynon prepared my Camelbak and I was ready to go as the briefing started. I skipped over the road and got about 5 minutes into the briefing before realising in horror that I’d forgotten my head torch! After retrieving it there was 20 more minutes of excited good luck wishes and hugs, before we were instructed to line up for the start. Thankfully we managed to get all of the Stonehaven Running Club entrants together for a ‘before’ picture.

west highland way race start

 

west highland way race start

Image by Monument Photos

west highland way race start

Image by David Friel

With one minute to go I was surprised at how I felt. I thought I’d be full of butterflies, tingling with either excitement or fear, or disbelief that my turn to start the race was finally here. I wouldn’t say the start was a let down, but the way my brain was processing it (perhaps for self-protection?) was just that it was another run out of the station in Milngavie. No big deal. Done it loads. Oh there’s the hooter…Off we go…

west highland way race start

Image by Monument Photos

west highland way race start

Image by Chris Cowley

The weather at the start was perfect really; very light drizzle, no wind, vaguely warm, humid temperature. In the first few miles in the park I concentrated on not falling over mainly, whilst having a chat with Fiona Rennie, David Searil, and some others. The night was clear and quiet and the sky was a beautiful grey-blue up ahead, as we ran away from the fiery red lights of Glasgow behind us. I ate a gel and some cake, and excitedly passed off my litter to Kynon and Mike who were waiting at Beech Tree (7 miles). I remember the path being quite overgrown and feeling quite boxed in with some other runners in front and behind. I thought it was funny that I could be frustrated by a little thing like that in a race which is so long, that by the end, participants can be half an hour between each other at the finish.

In the miles on the road approaching Drymen, I began to feel a bit sick. I figured it was mainly due to the darkness and drizzle being caught in my headlight – basically I was giving myself carsickness. I reached Drymen (12 miles) in 2 hours and 17 minutes if I remember correctly; and was looking forward to a drink of powerade and a little tub of rice. The guys were waiting for me with the rice, but no juice. I was kind of frustrated as that was pretty much the first instruction on my race notes – I’d like a powerade at each check point – and Kynon knows how nuts I am about that stupid ‘Blue Juice’ when I run, but it didn’t really matter. Off I headed to Balmaha, with daylight fast approaching.

west highland way race 2015

Image by Chris Cowley

I ran through the forests after Drymen with my SRC clubmates. This made the time pass quickly as we chatted about lots of things and celebrated turning off our head torches at around 3.45am. As the dawn chorus broke I thought it was birds flying around us, until I realised I was looking at bats! Big, fat beautiful bats giving us an escort over the misty moor. Conic hill was cloaked in mist and low cloud, so my dreams of a spectacular sunrise over the hills were dashed, but climbing up through the mist was a marvel in itself. It was remarkable how disorienting it was without the landmarks around you to judge your progress – you couldn’t see anything to the side or up ahead, so you had no idea how long there was to go.

I’ll admit I struggled a bit on Conic; the phrase ‘breathing out my arse’ comes to mind as I remember struggling to haul myself up it. I was worried that I might have tapered a little too hard and that my cardio fitness had suffered. I felt really sick at points on the hill and hoped that this wasn’t going to be the theme of the day. I had a gentle descent into Balmaha and enjoyed saying hello to John K who was netted up amongst a swarm of midgies cheering runners on half a mile from the check point. I was also excited to swipe my chip for the first time which would send out an update to everyone following me online back home!

west highland way race 2015

Image by Chris Cowley

I reached Balmaha (20 miles) in 3 hours 59 minutes and was greeted by Kynon and Mike with a coffee, custard, and a buttery. “Have you got my juice?” I asked; “F&*$!” was Kynon’s reply!

west highland way race 2015

Image by Chris Cowley
“Where is my JUICE!?”

 

This time I really did want the juice, so while I ate the custard he fetched the juice, and Mike talked away to me. I got a fresh layer of midgie repellant applied and my camelbak swapped over, before walking out of the car park with Mike as I finished my coffee. About a mile outside the check point as the drizzle got heavier, I realised that the guys hadn’t switched my rain jacket over from my previous camelbak. Oh dear; they were off for a sleep now and I had no phone signal. Oh well; skin is waterproof and the rain was warm.

The loch was like a mill pond in the early morning – everything was so calm.

west highland way race 2015

My main goal for the race (other than the obvious finish) was to enjoy it; to be able to look back and remember enjoying my time running as much as possible. There were a lot of things I could have got despondent or annoyed over in the first half of the race but I figured that it just wasn’t worth it. I had a choice. I could wallow in the difficulties and dread the hours of miles to come, or just get on with it. It was almost a refusal of acknowledgement that things were bad at times, and for a while, they did get pretty bad.

On the way to Rowardennan I began to feel sicker and sicker. I didn’t want to eat but forced myself to, which in turn made me feel sicker. When you feel grotty, the way to make yourself better is not to chew up a jaffa cake until it is mush, then take a gulp of cherry orange flavour High 5 and swill it around in your mouth until you can force it down your throat, but that was pretty much my only option other than stopping running. I did quite a bit of walking, and made it to Rowardennan (27.5 miles) about 7am, which is 6 hours race time.

Rowardennan_f_r1

Image by Pauline Walker

west highland way race 2015

Image by Pauline Walker

west highland way race 2015

Image by Pauline Walker

Pauline, Sue and Christina were manning this checkpoint where I had a drop bag. I hadn’t wanted my crew to meet me here as I knew I’d be fine and they would need to sleep more than I needed them. I only spent about 5 minutes here; I had a seat, refilled my water and repacked my pockets with snacks which I would probably ignore. I took a little bottle of water and a bottle of milkshake in my hands and walked out of the checkpoint, to be quickly overtaken by Vikki running quite quickly! She was on a mission to get a big PB this year and the other SRC girls had sent her away out of the checkpoint once she was ready to leave instead of hanging around waiting for them.

I walked for quite some time after Rowardennan; every time I ran my stomach felt like a washing machine and I had a desire to throw up. Eventually I just gave in and retched up the contents of my stomach by the side of the trail in the hope of settling things down. I had one more puke a little later and stuck with drinking water and things began to settle down a little. I was still just focussing on one stage at a time – if I looked at the wider picture and realised I was puking my guts out 30 miles into a 95 mile race then that would do me no favours at all.

Instead I focused on enjoying the beautiful surroundings; the blossoming trees, the smell of wild garlic, and the fields of buttercups and bluebells. I’d never seen the West Highland Way look so splendid, even though the sun wasn’t out and the clouds were low. Everything was so GREEN! It was quite warm and humid, and the midgies were leaving me alone (or drowning in sweat on my legs). All digestional pyrotechnics aside, it was a perfect day for running.

I reached Inversnaid (35 miles) at 9am which was completely on schedule, and drank another milkshake. I hadn’t eaten much since Rowardennan; Amanda had passed me  two miles or so before the checkpoint telling me to eat my mini cheddars as they were doing me no good in my hand. Unfortunately they were still clutched half eaten in my paw, with the snacks in my pockets uneaten as well, when I reached the checkpoint. Sorry Amanda…

After taking some painkillers and some caffeine pills I made good time along the Lochside after Inversnaid, and my stomach seemed to sort itself out. I love this section and it’s always a joy to move in a different way and climb and scramble after 35 miles of running. I texted the crew to let them know I was on target for an 11am arrival at Beinglas and put in my food requests. I was really looking forward to seeing the guys again and eating some salty, real food. I had lots of things to choose from but specified samosas, sausages, hot borscht, peaches and ginger beer, along with a change of top.

I got into Beinglas (41 miles) around 11:05am and got tucked into my food whilst listening to the guys tell me about their day. Everyone was having a good time and I felt so much better after some solid food. I dibbed out of the checkpoint at 11:24am and set about the 10 miles over the rollercoaster hills to Auchtertyre.

west highland way race 2015

Image by Chris Cowley

I made steady progress with a mix of walking and running, but my legs were starting to hurt. I remember thinking that they felt a bit like they did when I did the Fling for the first time, and it was hard to believe I had been in such fantastic pain-free shape at this years Fling only 8 weeks prior. I contemplated what I had really expected though and realised I hadn’t given it much thought – I had just assumed that the first 50-odd miles would breeze by as they did at the Fling, or that they would even feel easier as I wasn’t pushing as hard. I was very wrong; the tiredness of running overnight had a big effect and I could not have felt more different. It was hard going, but again I had a choice and I chose to enjoy myself. I stopped for a brief selfie at around the half way point. Half way!

west highland way race 2015

I had been alone up until now from Inversnaid, but David Meldrum and I ran the last 2 miles in to Auchtertyre together and it was nice to have someone to chat to. He was looking and feeling very strong, and went on to have a fantastic race later on. I was looking forward to having Ali join me at Auchtertyre and to having a short sit down. My lower back had been tightening up and I knew if I sat down for two or three minutes it would release it. Actually getting Mike and Kynon to allow me to sit down would be a different challenge altogether; we had a chair with us but I had instructed them to not to let me sit down at all unless I needed to fix my feet…

west highland way race 2015

Image by Pauline Walker

west highland way race 2015

Image by Pauline Walker

Auchtertyre (51 miles, 2pm) was really busy and it was great to see so many friendly faces. I was weighed and had put on a kilo which I thought was odd – I had thrown up twice and also made like a bear twice, so putting ON weight was actually a mild concern. The guys wouldn’t let me sit down so I plonked myself down on the grass in protest whilst I ate some sausages and drank more borscht. It might seem an odd choice on a warm day but it’s very salty, savoury and comforting. Just before I left with Ali I wanted to apply more Sudocreme; one of the more amusing moments of the day was when I had turned my back to the guys to preserve my dignity whilst doing this and realised that I had turned to face Mike’s GoPro which was sitting on the fence post recording the checkpoint fun… Oh well; Mike now has some excellent ammunition if he ever needs to bribe me, but hopefully the usual clause of ‘What happens at WHWR stays at WHWR will apply’…!

west highland way race 2015

Image by Carolyn Kiddell

Ali and I left Auchtertyre just after 2pm and began making our way to Tyndrum. Chatting really helped pass the time and before we knew it we were at ‘By The Way’ where the Fling finishes. I was just about to moan about wishing we were finishing when I recognised a figure up ahead – it was my Mum! She and Dad had promised to come down to cheer me on here after I told them how much it would mean to me. Tyndrum1Despite having a lot of reluctance to get involved due to finding it very hard to see me put myself through some of the stuff I do voluntarily, they agreed to come down and see me here and then stay overnight in Fort William to come to the Goblet ceremony. It meant so much to me that they came and seeing them was such a boost; Dad took some great pictures which sum up how I felt for most of my race.

tyndrum3 tyndrum5 tyndrum6

We made our way to Brodie’s Store, and on the way I stopped for a quick chat about running skirts with two GB International ultra runners who I just happened to bump into…! Debs and Fionna were out running some of the route in reverse and were bouncing down the trail chatting to everyone.

Tyndrum2

Between the boost I got from my folks showing up, bumping into those superstars, and the amazing Irn Bru ice lolly which Kynon gave me from Brodie’s, at 54 miles I was feeling GOOD.

west highland way race 2015 west highland way race 2015

Pushing on out past Brodie’s and back into the wilderness, Ali and I soaked up the amazing huge scenery around us which made me feel like an ant. Every so often a car would hoot its horn from the A82 on the other side of the Glen and the runners would wave back; you could see right down the glen and little neon pairs were spaced out about every 800 metres.

On the approach to Bridge of Orchy my energy levels took a major dip. Tiredness was beginning to drag me down and my legs were heavy. My stomach felt a little upset again and I was too warm. I went from mainly running with a bit of walking each mile, to mainly walking with a bit of running. Ali and I picked out landmarks ahead to run to or start running from, and I willed Bridge Of Orchy station to appear on the horizon but it just didn’t get any closer. I literally felt like my batteries were running down and I was getting slower and slower….

Finally! Bridge of Orchy! I hobbled down the hill towards it and wobbled over the road feeling like a bag of smashed crabs. Suddenly a familiar figure came into focus again – it was Mum! What was she doing here? This isn’t good! I look and feel awful – they weren’t supposed to see this side of the race! (Kynon and I had agreed in advance that if I was in a bad way coming into Tyndrum that he would text my folks to let them know it wasn’t a good idea to come see me…) Quick! Put a smiley face on and stop hobbling!

west highland way race 2015

‘Fake it ’til you make it’ are the words I believe I said to Ali here, and to a certain extent it worked. I took a little longer than planned at Bridge of Orchy (60 miles – dibbed in at 16.44pm) but I needed it.

west highland way race 2015

Image by Carolyn Kiddell

west highland way race 2015

Image by Carolyn Kiddell What is Ali saying to George…??

 

I had a seat, some painkillers and caffeine pills, a coffee, and I attempted to eat a Mullerrice and managed about half. As I sank into the chair my eyes dipped and I realised I was hitting my first real low of the race. I was so weary, I would have given anything to sit there for just a little while…

west highland way race 2015

Kynon came over and had a quiet word, my eyes prickled a little and I closed them; “This is beginning to get quite hard” I whispered. I can’t remember what Kynon said but he gave me a kiss on my forehead and helped me up. Once again I had to make the right choice – this was hard enough to do without my head dragging me down with thoughts of how far I still had to go. On to my aching shoulders went the back pack, a goodbye hug with my Mum and Dad, and Ali and I went off up the hill towards Rannoch Moor, Glencoe, and the next 10 miles.

west highland way race 2015

The following is textbook ultramarathon – I went from being at my lowest point in the race, to 20 minutes later being as perky and happy as I ever had been. The sun was out and it was a stunning, clear evening, and as we reached the top of Jelly Baby Hill, the sight of Mike ‘Krupicka’ Raffan confirmed that the weather was “TAPS AFF”.

west highland way race 2015

west highland way race 2015

 

Mike had driven to Glencoe and then ran back to meet Ali and I, and was waiting on top of JBH with Murdo the Magnificent (wearing a pair of the loudest trousers known to man) and Pete Duggan playing some beautiful tunes on a penny whistle. This was a real highlight of the race for me; I took my jelly baby and danced down the hill in the sunshine with my friends, the shadows which had cloaked me at Bridge of Orchy cast away.

west highland way race 2015

In good company, Rannoch Moor passed quickly. An abiding memory is the tremendous flatulence which had plagued my backside since not long after Tyndrum; at times I felt like I was literally propelling myself along with the velocity of the hot air being dispelled from my system. Now I love a good fart joke at the best of times, but this was almost getting out of hand. It was clearly better out than in though, so I kept trumpeting along, each time worrying if a flock of seagulls would be following after.

Glencoe_AliR

Let me raise the tone a little now and share this beautiful picture which Ali took at about mile 70 on my way into Glencoe. The evening light and the low cloud was breathtaking and made the experience even more magical than usual, and this photograph captures the scale of the beautiful surroundings. Arriving into Glencoe (71 miles, 8pm) I was greeted by Kynon and a box of chips, which are pretty much my two favourite things on the planet. I took a seat and tucked in whilst drinking a cup of coffee, and heard that Vikki was still at the checkpoint having a sleep. I was surprised by this as I thought she’d be hours ahead by now.

west highland way race 2015

Image by Kynon

The marshalls informed us that there was now a weather warning issued to the course, and everyone had to be carrying a full set of waterproofs. I was already set as I’d been carrying mine since Bridge of Orchy, much to my confusion when it was so hot. However, there was definitely weather coming, and they wanted us to be prepared. I left Glencoe with extra layers on top, and wearing waterproof trousers over my skirt to see how they felt without tights underneath, as I really didn’t want to take my shoes off to put tights on. I asked Kynon to meet us at the Kingshouse hotel about a mile down the road with my backpack – I really wanted a break from carrying it as my shoulders were killing me. I was glad to see him so soon as the trousers had me dripping in sweat inside and were making me colder than I would have been with them off, so they went back in the backpack and I carried on in my skirt.

Vikki had left Glencoe just after me but was making quicker progress, and passed me on the way to Altnafeadh. I saw them already a little way up the Devil when I arrived, but was greeted by both her support crew and mine, which was a lovely crowd of Stonehaven support. I was nervous about the Devil given how sick I had been whilst climbing hills earlier in the day, but it wasn’t going to climb itself so off I went.

west highland way race 2015

Image by Claire Clark

It was hard, hard work. I don’t know what caused it, but it felt like I was very carsick – perhaps tiredness and a constantly moving horizon was messing up my inner ear, but I was having to stop after every couple of zig zags to lean on my knees and quell the urge to throw up. I just felt so rough, and the climb went on forever; not even a pause to turn around and look at the stunning view back down Glencoe and towards Buachaille Etive Mor could cheer me up. Seeing Vikki disappear into the distance was hard too; I had hoped we might be able to run together for a bit but we were just at totally different strengths at that point.

After reaching the summit after 45 minutes of climb, it took me a while to settle my stomach enough to start running again but gradually I came back to life. Mike went ahead and I followed his footsteps as he showed me the best route down. We needed head torches from about 11.00pm to see our feet clearly but the sky was still quite light. I passed Team Vikki on the descent as I had got my energy back just as she was having a dip, but that’s not to say I was feeling particularly brilliant. The going underfoot was ROUGH. After coming off the trail onto the fire road track, there was almost no difference underfoot. The track had obviously been ‘re-surfaced’ lately, and by re-surfaced I mean – someone had emptied tonnes of loose boulders and rocks onto the road and called it a job well done. I was so cross, I couldn’t get a rhythm going, every step was a liability, and the road was steeper than I had ever remembered.

Kinlochleven (AKA Bridgadoon) took its usual sweet time in appearing out of the night. I’ve come down that descent many times in the dark, but it’s never been this hard before (as in, I’ve never had 80 miles in my legs before…). It just took forever to get out of the woods; down, down, down, down, more down, down some more, down down. The total descent from the top of the Devil to Kinlochleven is 1,804 feet down to sea level in case you were wondering…

Mike tried to pull me into a run when we finally got onto the road at the bottom, but I just had absolutely nothing left in my legs at all. I remember telling him I’d never felt so gubbed on a run before; that this was brand new territory in terms of exhaustion and I was sorry to say it. Usually I can smack myself into some kind of shape and start moving, but every inch I moved hurt in some way and after carefully descending for the guts of an hour, my muscles felt like jelly now they were on the flat. I think I did manage to break out into a brief shuffle though, if only to get to the welcoming warmth of the checkpoint quicker where there were tea and biscuits waiting.

I staggered in to Kinlochleven (81 miles, 11:50pm) after Mike, and some people clapped and cheered, including Julie, Queen of Kinlochleven. I was pretty demotivated though and was only interested in getting to the toilet before I was weighed again, in the hope of preventing as little of a further recorded weight increase as possible. Still, when I stood on the scales I was up another kilogram to 70kg. For someone who had been running for 23 hours this was less than ideal, but the medical staff seemed happy enough. I staggered over to where Kynon and Ali were sitting and they took my pack off me and gave me tea and ginger biscuits as they prepared the new camelbak. I had asked just for gels and chews to be put in the pockets for the last section as real food was now definitely off the menu. Friends were talking to me but I wasn’t really listening; my mind was already focussed on how I was going to try to get myself back out of Kinlochleven – another 400ft straight up to the Lairig Mhor. After the traumatic climb up the Devil I was totally dreading it; my wells of positivity had run dry. I still had a choice in how to deal with the difficulties, but now it had narrowed down to ‘Put up, or shut up’. Before I got too comfortable I was pulled up, hugged, congratulated by George for managing two biscuits, then turned around and punted out the door into the night by my dear husband and friends after a total time of 15 minutes. 14 miles to go.

The climb wasn’t great, but it didn’t make me nearly as sick as the Devil. I took it very slowly with little steps, and held my head torch in my hard rather than on my head. Maybe this helped, but either way I made it to the top in half an hour, just as the rain started to fall. “The Weather” had arrived. My thermal fleece top is pretty shower-proof so I kept that on, but after 10 minutes the rain was getting so heavy that we needed to concede and put on the waterproofs. I opened my bag and couldn’t really focus on the contents, but I couldn’t see my rain jacket. Where was it? I checked all the pockets. No rain jacket. I stopped walking. “Mike. MIKE!“. He stopped and came back. “The guys haven’t put my jacket in my bag.” “What?” “The jacket. They didn’t switch it to this bag. They’ve put my phone and stuff in, but no jacket…I’ve got no waterproofs.” This, as the rain pelted down heavier by the minute, was pretty catastrophic, however because Mike is basically superman, he had a spare windshell in his bag. Not so much waterproof as wind and showerproof, but it was enough to keep any heat I could generate inside for a bit longer. The challenge was now generating the heat.

At some point in every ultra, something generally goes a bit sour. These are the bits we forget in order to continue doing the sport – no one wants to remember the bad bits, so we dwell on the happy times and the good memories. It is going to take me a very long time to forget how it felt to cross the Lhairig Mhor in torrential rain, soaked to the skin, with bare legs and only a windshell for protection, in miles 81 – 88 of the West Highland Way Race. It took us 3 hours to cover the 7 miles. Three hours. The path was a river, with more rivers crossing it, every step on the jagged rocks was daggers into my battered feet, and the gradual slope upwards was just enough to prevent me from running which would have kept me warm. My eyes were down, closely examining the rocky trail trying to pick out where to put my feet. All I saw for two hours, was an illuminated circle of pink, black and white rocks moving forward in front of me like I was walking on a rocky treadmill. Mike was still leading the way, but we crossed the Mor in silence; both of us refusing to acknowledge out loud how bad the situation was, because if we talked about it then it would be real.

I used every tactic I had to save my race; if I wasn’t smart then I could succumb to hypothermia, which generally is a bad thing, but to be pulled at 88 miles into a 95 mile race would be devastating. I pushed gels into my mouth – give the body something to do, digest the food, absorb the sugar. Count to 100, give the brain something to do, keep aware, sing songs in your head – do anything, but just think! Don’t switch off! I pumped my arms back and forward to generate some warmth and tried whenever I could to run, even for just literally a few steps at a time. We were covering the ground at a reasonable pace as we power-walked, but it still dragged on forever. Three hours.

Skipping back a moment, before it all got soggy, I had said to Mike on the way up out of Kinlochleven that I had two things to focus on and look forward to – the Wilderness Medics and their dogs half way along the Mhor, and the bonfire at Lundavra. Fiery beacons to light the way in the darkest final miles of the race. Eventually the torches of the Wilderness Medics appeared on the horizon; a landmark up ahead to focus on. Unfortunately when we arrived the torches and the tents were deserted, as the guys manning the outpost had had to remove an injured runner from the hill in their truck. I had been looking forward to a cup of Irn Bru and a hug from the dogs, but the place was deserted. It’s easy to forget that the guys aren’t really out there to give you sweeties, but to save your life. I hope that runner was ok in the end.

The Lundavra bonfire never did come into view, as the torrential rain had put it out. Dawn was creeping on the horizon and the velvet cloak of darkness was lifting, allowing for recognition of some landmarks around 3am. Unfortunately the legendary Lundavra all-night bonfire party which I’d been looking forward to had been completely rained out; the only people waiting were hiding in their cars, and the bonfire was a smouldering pile. The consolation prize was the amazing ultravan with its heating blasting hot air. Mike and I piled into the hot van without speaking and peeled off our soaking wet clothes and pulled on layer upon layer of dry ones. There was no choice – I was going to have to take my shoes off to get running tights on, and I nearly bit through my lip trying not to scream as the pain of pulling against blisters the size of cherries made me see stars with agony, but what was the choice? Do that, or not finish.

Kynon and Ali had been quiet in the front seats, and without saying anything much had assisted Mike and I in getting the things we needed ready for us to leave again. Someone had made a bit of an error back down the trail, but I really did not care. Yes, things were a little rougher than they should have been, but that’s why you train hard to fight easy. The more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in battle. I’ve spent months, and years, running in the shittest possible conditions in our winters to train my body and mind to deal with things when the chips are down. When it came to it on the battlefield, I was ready and I dealt with it. The only choice is to face your game and play it. I just wish I had been strong enough to run more in that section to make the time pass more quickly.

After half an hour in the van warming up, drying off and eating some food, Mike and I were ready to get going again and thankfully it was almost daylight. I had asked if Ali would come too just to bring a fresh mind to the collective, and he quickly suited up in his waterproofs and was ready to go. As I stepped out of the van, my right calf seized and stiffened, completely locked up and unwilling to straighten the leg as I stood. Super; because this wasn’t going to be hard enough. I limped on my way hoping that it would loosen off soon, if not, then I would hop, or crawl, or something. Relentless forward progress, I believe is the term.

In the end I ended up holding on to Ali’s arm as he helped me pull myself up the last sets of hills, and steadied me on the way down. The rain had lessened but everything in this section was still very muddy and slippy, which provided somewhat of a challenge for my Hoka Stinsons. They are great for the 80% of the rest of the West Highland Way which consists of rocks, but they are hopeless on mud and on one or two occasions I found myself slipping dangerously. I was quickly entered into the World Mud Dance Championships and my final performance was a 10ft long slide with a slip kick, turning into a solid flat footed landing in to the ditch with further one legged slide, until Mike caught my arm and managed to stop me from going further down the hill. I stood blinking in surprise and Ali asked how on earth I had managed that; did I ever mention in a past life I was a figure skater…?!

The slip n’ slide at least revealed some last scraps of humour which lightened the mood a little. The rain had mainly stopped and it was totally light as we emerged from the last of the woods into the fallen forest. We were mainly walking but I had been able to kick myself into a run every so often, usually for only about 30 seconds at a time. Either way we were making good progress, but not as good as Vikki who emerged from behind us with Chris and Kate in hot pursuit. She had nailed a Mars bar and was taking advantage of everything it had given her while she could, whilst I had almost nothing left to give. It was hard for me to push harder as knew either way I would still be will under 30 hours which was my main goal, and I was so deep in the hurt locker I didn’t think I could go any faster just for the sake of a few minutes.

There was one last climb. If you know the WHW you know the one; up to the fire road, one last sting in the tail. I staggered up, clinging on to Ali’s arm and stopping every so often to lean on my knees and come close to death until I caught my breath. There is a WHW post at the top of the climb and that’s when you know you’re done, and I clung to it like my life depended on it until I caught my breath. Maybe it did.

Mike pushed to run when we reached the descending road, but it took me a little while longer to prepare myself. Who ever thought that running downhill would be hard? You just let gravity do the work and move your legs in time. Perhaps that was the problem – my brain was having difficulty pairing leg instructions with, well, anything, and I just couldn’t make it happen. In the past few weeks after my training weekend on this section I had dreamed about powering down here in the final miles, but in the end I was trotting and stumbling my way behind Mike and Ali. “Guys! Come back! Guys! GUYYSS! I can’t keep-Wait. They’re doing this on purpose. Swines. Right, I’ll just run and catch them up. Bastards, they’re running too now – No, guys, I don’t want to run I just want to walk with you! Screw you I’m walking. Ok, now they’re walking too. This is never going to work. ‘Sake.” Stomp stomp stomp.

As the fire road went on for days, I saw the Glen Nevis campsite down to our right and kept my mind occupied by trying to spot my parents’ motorhome down below. There was no logical ability for me to be able to see it, but we did ruminate briefly on how amusing it would be to drop in and say hello. It was about 4:30am then, so no big deal really. Either way, this meant that the end was really nearly here. Kynon was parked at the finish and had made his way to Braveheart car park where he was now climbing back up the route to meet us. When he finally came into view he was a sight for sore eyes; he held my hand all the way down the rest of my trail and endured my constant questioning as to when the car park was coming. Finally it came and I knew it was a mile. Just a mile.

The first glance at my watch in about 12 hours showed that if I could cover the last mile in 15 minutes then I would bring it in under 29 hours. I couldn’t do anything about the hours of time lost so far, but I could stop the clock ticking over on to another hour if I didn’t just walk it in. The fact I could still run at 94 miles was not lost on me and I kicked myself in a roughly 20s run/20s walk along the last piece of road before we passed the 30 MPH sight (half a mile!) and reached the roundabout where the sign said 400m to go. Mike had run ahead to give his GoPro to someone to film the final moments and was waiting for us with about 50 meters to go before the Leisure Centre. “Come on lads; let’s bring it home” I said, as we rounded the corner, and the small crowd of people under the gantry started to cheer. We ran to the finish as a team, with me crossing the line and dibbing my chip for the final time at 28 hours 54 minutes and 57 seconds.

west highland way race 2015

Image by Chris Cowley

west highland way race 2015

Image by Chris Cowley

west highland way race 2015

Image by Chris Cowley

west highland way race 2015

Image by Carolyn Kiddell

west highland way race 2015

Image by Carolyn Kiddell

What happened next? Hugs, lots and lots of hugs. And thanks. I symbolically placed my hands on the Leisure Centre doors before going in, and finally taking a seat to remove my shoes. I had been thinking about doing this for hours and it felt incredible to peel my socks off and set my feet free. I drank some tea and then went for a shower and had a lovely massage where I fell asleep face first on the table within seconds. Our van was parked outside the leisure centre, so with great luck all I had to do was hobble 30ft to the van and climb in (hahaha!) and pass out.

After sleeping for three hours, I woke up at 10am and turned on my phone. It sprung to life with a deluge of texts, facebook messages and twitter notifications and as I read through them all I was overwhelmed by the tremendous support which had been given to me, and big, fat, happy tears started tumbling down my cheeks. I almost couldn’t believe it was real.

I was able to see the last three finishers come in before we picked up my Mum and Dad and headed to the Goblet ceremony at 12. Mike advised me to take some food and drink as sitting in the hot hall for over an hour can sometimes be difficult.

west highland way race 2015

west highland way race 2015

Image by Monument Photos

One by one the names were called and cheers rung out for friends and loved ones. I made my way painfully down the stairs when my name was announced and shook John Kynaston’s hand when he gave me my goblet. A beautiful piece of crystal; the result of thousands of miles of hard work and dedication. I thought that I’d be a mess of tired and emotional tears, but as it happened I was quite calm.

west highland way race 2015

The rest of the afternoon was filled with catch ups, beers, photos and napping, before an epic night in the pub to finish the weekend off. All six Stonehaven Running Club members made it to the finish; tired and victorious, but unscathed.

Goblet_Girls Goblet_Group Goblet_R_G

It has taken a few days to sink in properly – I’ve finally done it. I’ve completed the West Highland Way Race. After years of work, I’ve ran 95 miles to earn my place in a group of less than 1000 people who have completed this iconic race, and it was an incredible journey.

west highland way race 2015

I think it was Kilian Jornet who said ‘A race is a lifetime which begins and ends in a day’. Worthy is the runner who is courageous enough to take on this particular lifetime, who dares to believe, who keeps the devotion through every stumble and fall, who fights fatigue on the hills to see the sun rise after a second night of running as they make their way to the finish.  The West Highland Way Race is built upon legends, traditions, and family; valiant is the family who bands together, courageous in the face of challenge, humble at the foot of mountains, but strong in triumph together at the top.

A race is nothing without the people, and my finest hour, the achievement of all that I had worked towards, was made possible with the support of so many people – Kynon, Mike, Ali, my Mum and Dad, Stonehaven Running Club, and the whole West Highland Way Race family. Without us we’re nothing. Thank you.

west highland way race 2015

RACE REPORT: Hoka Highland Fling 2015

Hoka Highland Fling 2015

hoka highland fling medal
53 Mile Ultramarathon 
25th April 2015

11 hours 44 minutes 7 seconds
Finish Position: 321 of 647 finishers (49 DNF)
Gender Position: 53rd / 160 Females
Category Position: 27th / 64 Female Seniors

This race report arrives a little later than I would have liked because of a big University submission being due last week. Having three days completely ‘off grid’ in the week before the submission was not ideal, but I’d worked hard in the week before the race in order to really enjoy my weekend and totally dedicate my mind to the task in hand (the 53 mile race, not the 5,000 word research proposal…)

Kynon and I headed to Tyndrum on Friday afternoon to park up our camper van before getting the train down to Milngavie that evening. It was a beautiful day and we enjoyed eating an entire loaf of fresh bread with cheese between us in the sunshine, with a cold beer for extra carbs. The finish area was utterly silent other than peaceful birdsong; how strange to think of the mayhem which would be happening here in under 24 hours time.

hoka highland fling finish

HHF05

In general I was feeling pretty calm about the race, but I had taken a couple of my favourite running books to read from on the train to really get my head in the game. I love Kilian Jornet’s ‘Run or Die'; the passion which he injects into his running is just as strong in his written word. I read the first few chapters before switching to Scott Jurek’s ‘Eat and Run’ whilst intermittently staring out of the train window. The beautiful hills of earlier in the journey had shrunk back into the ground and been replaced by low-rise council housing developments. Thick grey cloud is cloaking the outskirts of Glasgow and raindrops are now crawling across the train window, which is the only barrier between me and the hustle of rush hour commuters in the rain. Away from the Highland dreams and a return to reality; the journey had gone too quickly. The only way back was to run.

When the alarm went off at 4.15am I felt relaxed. Prior to falling asleep I had envisioned every element of the race and pictured how I would traverse the course. I had had at least 5 hours of good sleep which was enough, and I quickly set about making coffee and eating a rice pudding, banana, and a cereal bar. Everything had been laid out the night before so I didn’t need to think at all; just put my kit on, eat, and keep calm. When Kynon was using the bathroom I cast my eyes over Kilian Jornet’s Skyrunner’s manifesto once more; there was something about his words which was sticking in my mind and giving me focus. Kiss or kill. Besa o mata. Kiss glory or die in the attempt. Losing is death; winning is life. The winning and dying are metaphors in my case, perhaps less so for Mr Jornet, but his sentiments are the same as mine. The secret isn’t in your legs, but in your strength of mind.

5.20am and we have begun the short walk to the station, sharing the weight of the bag of drop bags between us. Kynon wants to chat, I prefer silence. I try to keep my mind clear of everything, but soon we’ve reached the throngs of people crowding the station car park and there are plenty of people to say hello to.

hoka highland fling 2015

We catch up with most of the Stonehaven Running Club runners and catch a photo as it begins to get light. The rainclouds don’t lift along with the darkness however and rain is still spotting down, but it’s a great temperature for running with no wind to speak of.

hoka highland fling 2015

We’ve timed our arrival perfectly and after a final photograph and a hug and kiss goodbye and good luck, Kynon and I part ways to our respective corals – him to the 12 hours plus, and me to the 10 – 12 hours. I’m not really sure why I’m in here or especially why I’m so far forward, but since I’m standing next to Amanda Hamilton I’m happy for the company and stay where I am during the race countdown.

hoka highland fling 2015

At 6am the first wave is released, and 90 seconds later we’re shuffling on towards the underpass and the eerie whine of the timing chips activating. Up the stairs and along the high street with cheers and waves, and then we’re down into Mugdock Park onto the muddy path through the forest.

hoka highland fling 2015

With thanks to Monument Photos – www.monumentphotos.co.uk

Milngavie – Drymen

My plan was always to take it very easy on the way to Drymen. Nothing below 10 minute miles, heart rate as low as possible, and conserve as much energy as I could. I stuck to my plan, even as hordes of runners streamed by me in the first few miles and bimbled along in my own head. It was very busy; the runners didn’t thin out until Drymen, and at points there were even elbow bashing as I fought to keep my place to the left of the narrow track.

I had been bursting for a pee since the first mile and had patiently waited until my usual spot behind a wall at about 8 miles which has served me so well in the last two years, only to find the gate closed and access for my straining bladder was prohibited. I hung on a few miles gathering fury at all the men merrily emptying themselves by the side of the trail – how dare they enjoy such convenience?! Eventually I conceded I would need to scale the railway embankment to relieve myself discretely, and lost a good minute to answering the call of nature.

In the approach to Drymen I was just…annoyed. Annoyed about a lot of things; too many people around me, the rain, I was too hot, my gamin wasn’t working…I just wasn’t really enjoying myself and couldn’t wait to get the flat section done and to get out into the hills.

hoka highland fling 2015

Picture by Iain Shanks

Milngavie – Drymen
Split time = 2hr 10m 46s
Race time = 2hr 10m 46s
491st place

Drymen – Balmaha

I ran straight through Drymen and enjoyed briefly seeing Shanksi and the relay team from our club. Jemma had caught up with me and we passed the miles up and to through Garadhban chatting which made the time pass quickly.

hoka highland fling 2015

Slowly but surely the clouds cleared up and as we approached Conic Hill, the sun began to shine!

hoka highland fling 2015

hoka highland fling 2015

hoka highland fling 2015

With Thanks to Monument Photos

The view from the top was stunning in the morning sunshine, especially as there was still snow on the hills in the distance.

hoka highland fling 2015

I walked down Conic carefully, practicing how I will descend in the West Highland Way race. Any other day of the week I could fly down,  but I really wanted to take my time. Any time lost here would be made up with my strength saved for later in the day.

Balmaha was a bustling fayre, with Big Davie the Polis in charge of his team of red-clad heroes. My drop bag was pressed into my hand and before I tucked in I was able to give George Reid a hug, who was waiting in the crowd cheering everyone on. I ate my custard and drank my powerade as I tried to re-fill my pockets – oops, no room. I hadn’t eaten anything other than a little cake bar so far. That wasn’t the plan at all. Hula hoops and cereal bar went on the communal table and I left the check point holding my buttery, but I really didn’t want to eat it.

Balmaha – Rowardennan

hoka highland fling 2015

All my early-morning frustrations about busyness and weather had long melted away and I really enjoyed the section to Rowardennan in the sun as it got warmer. My garmin wasn’t working but I did have a watch, so I had judged it by time – it was only going to be about a 1hr 45 minute run which seemed tiny. I tried and tried to get the buttery down but it just wasn’t happening so I conceded and took a gel instead. I just was not hungry – I felt absolutely fine, but didn’t want to eat food at all. What is this witchcraft?!

hoka highland fling 2015

The day was stunning and Loch Lomond had never looked better. Knowing the route better than ever meant I knew what was coming around every turn and I predicted my arrival time into Rowardennan perfectly. I refilled my water and again failed to take on more food from my drop bag, but enjoyed my 300ml bottle of Powerade – perhaps the magical blue juice was going to be my source of strength for the day.

Drymen – Rowardennan
Split time = 3hr 23m 29s
Race time = 5hr 34m 15s
493rd place (2 places lost)

Rowardennan – Inversnaid

hoka highland fling 2015

I left Rowardennan behind Mags and Scott from my club and soon caught up for some chat on the hills. Again, knowledge of the route allowed me to run a bit more of this section this year as I knew what was coming and where I could push on. We passed the point where I turned around at the training weekend and reached the start of the more technical part of the race which I always enjoy. I slotted into a conga line of runners all running at the same speed along the single track trail, which pulled me along from the front and pushed me along from behind in a steady rhythm over the ground. Without Garmin data I can only guess how long this section took, but it felt like I reached Inversnaid quicker than ever and this is when I began my steady upward climb through the placings. I don’t have much more to say about this section as it flew by so quickly. It was getting hotter though and I could feel a fine t-shirt tan developing; thankfully there was a refreshing breeze to keep us mostly cool.

Inversnaid – Beinglas

hoka highland fling 2015

Inversnaid had a crack team of marshals sorting everyone out quickly. I hoovered another custard and powerade and picked up some more gels, and left whilst chatting with Antonia. There was a tight group of about 5 of us who were running together through the technical section here. Thankfully most slower runners stopped to let us pass and I thank them for that, but the lochside is no place for headphones and blocking yourself out from your surroundings. Antonia has hit the nail on the head with this one so I will quote her words (emphasis mine): “Some runners wear headphones so we try to pass them whenever we can as they are unpredictable to run behind as they aren’t aware of us other runners. Don’t wear headphones in a race guys, enjoy the trail. If you can’t enjoy the trail, go back to the gym.”. 

I enjoyed running with Antonia, Scott, and Scott, but soon it was time to move on. My legs were feeling stronger than ever and for the first time in a 50+ miler, almost nothing was hurting. Usually my hip flexors, glutes and piriformus are complaining by this point and my feet are a bloody mess, but except from some of the usual foot pain in my bones I was feeling great from top to toe. I just had no desire to walk and ran all the way into Beinglas with the exception of yomping up a couple of steeper hills, and pausing to take a snap from near Dario’s Post.

hoka highland fling 2015

I saluted the man who I never got the chance to meet and continued to steam past runner after runner on my way to the final check point. My natural instinct was to reign it in, but again, my familiarity of the course was a huge help. I knew what was coming and every signal I was getting from my legs and body said go for it. Something special was happening. It was as exciting as it was worrying, but I wasn’t going to waste the chance I had been given.

Rowardennan – Beinglas 
Split = 3h 33m 40s.
Race time = 9hr 07m 55s
394th place (99 places gained)

Beinglas – Tyndrum

hoka highland fling 2015

With thanks to Running In Scotland

 

Arriving into Beinglas, the checkpoint was very busy. I was handed my drop bag and I kept walking looking for a space to stop and take care of myself, until I heard someone say my name and I saw Matt Williamson gesturing at me to come over. “What do you need, how can I help?” he asked; he quickly took care of refilling my camelbak and refilling my pockets with gels, as I tried to swallow as much custard as possible and eat some crisps for the salt. The sun had been shining all day and whilst a breeze had kept me cool, I had been sweating sufficiently to be covered in sticky, crusty salt. My fingers had swollen up too, and whilst I was feeling ok, I knew that a lack of salt and electrolytes could quickly give me a turn for the worse. When Matt asked how I was feeling I said I was terrified, that I’d never felt so good in an ultra and that I was frightened I might blow up. Looking at my watch, it was 3:15pm; I ascertained that if I could cover the final 12 miles in a decent pace it could be possible to even get under 12 hours – this was unfathomable to me, but the clock wasn’t lying. Matt wished me luck and sent me on my way, and I went out to give the last miles everything I had.

hoka highland fling 2015

In theory it was possible to cover these 12 miles in two and a half hours, but it seemed a lofty goal. Even with the sun still beating down I inexplicably still felt amazing, there was not a drop of fatigue in my legs and this was reflected in my continued efforts up and down the hills where I passed the steady stream of walking/jogging runners making their way towards Tyndrum. Cow Poo alley was a dream – it was dusty and dry instead of the usual shin-deep quagmire – and I reached the bottom of the hills above Crianlarich ready to tackle them strongly.

hoka highland fling

Thanks to Lucja Leonard for the photo and pop-up support!

 

This was the reason why I had so carefully walked down Conic Hill 30 miles earlier. My legs were fresh and ready to go, and I bombed the downhills like I was on fire. I let gravity do its job and glided down to the road crossing in a series of fearless descents. One day perhaps I will pay for ripping down hills like this and will trip over something and lose my nerve, but until that day, my legs were made for descending.

hoka highland fling

Crossing the A82 I knew I had 3.5ish miles to go. I nailed a caffeine gel. A quick look at my watch showed it was about 5:10pm; the gel would kick in in about 10 minutes, and then I would take another to get as much of a boost as possible into my last mile. Bleeeerrgh, I feel like crap. Hang on; 5:10pm. 3.5 miles to go. That’s 11 hours 10 minutes race time. That means, barring utter catastrophe, I can get in UNDER 12 HOURS. What’s that sparkly thing? Ooh, there’s another! F*&k, I’m seeing stars. I am actually seeing stars. No wonder I feel so rough. Shite, am I about to pass out? What if I pass out? What if I get to 1 mile to go and keel over and DNF? Ohshitohshitohshit better just keep running. Don’t do this to me body, come on, we’ve got this! Take another gel! Drink water! Count to 100! Just keep going!

One final cursory glance at my watch as I approached the piper in Tyndrum showed 5:4Xpm. A big lump in my throat formed as I pushed past one final runner in my approach to the last hill to the By The Way entrance, and there it was; that beautiful finish once again. Flags blowing in the wind ushered me along the red carpet to the finish and I raised my arms in a silent howl of victory.

hoka highland fling

With thanks to Clark Hamilton

hoka highland fling

With thanks to Clark Hamilton

Beinglas – Tyndrum
Split = 2hr 36m 12s 
Race time = 11hr 44m 7s
321st place (73 places gained)

A medal was hung around my neck and water pushed into my hand. I took a few more steps before the tears of disbelief came on thick and fast and before I knew it I was bawling like a bairn. Amanda had finished just before me and had scored a PB and we happy-cried on each other, before I moved on to blubbing all over Julie, Keith, Sandra and Sarah.

hoka highland fling

With thanks to Sandra Mcdougall

I don’t even remember Sandra taking this picture. Spangled doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt, but I somehow managed to get myself to a chair to eat some soup and drink some water in some steps towards re-joining the human race. Soon after Scott and some of the SRC girls finished and joined me as we all celebrated PBs (or first finishes, in Scott’s case). A congratulatory text from my Mother In Law confirmed my final chip time of 11 hours 44 minute and 7 seconds which took my breath away all over again. I had hardly dared to dream that I could get under 12 hours, never mind under 11hrs 45m. What had happened to me? Whose legs had I stolen? What had Matt put in my camelbak at Beinglas?

hoka highland fling finish

After I had gently come back down to earth, I got changed into some warm clothes and began the anxious wait for Kynon. Early reports suggested that he’d left Beinglas in good spirits and still running about 4:30pm which meant he would probably take around three hours to finish if he could keep moving well. I anxiously waited near the finish for signs of him until I spotted him come around the corner, and then headed back to the finish gantry to give him a big hug when he crossed the line.

hoka highland fling finishIMG_3633

Kynon finished in 13 hours 27 minutes and 41 seconds, and was a very happy man. His race was not without its difficulties, but like a true ultra runner he fought through and overcame them to finish strong and happy. I am very proud.

We spent the rest of the evening at the ceilidh rehydrating, before collapsing in the van for a few hours sleep. The changeable nature of highland weather was never felt more acutely than the next day, when snowflakes falling on my neck soothed my stinging sunburn, as we fought to tear down and store the finish area in intermittent rain, sleet and blizzards.

Phpt by John Arthur

Photo by John Arthur

 

Over a week later I’m back training happily with no injuries and no (read that again: NO) blisters to speak of! There are now seven weeks to go until the West Highland Way Race, so I have about a months more training to do. So what went right last Saturday? What can I learn that I can take away from this? I have a few ideas which I will cover in my next post, but it’s safe to say I remain delighted by my performance, which, relative to my own past experience, is probably the best run I’ve ever done.

Onwards and upwards… 7 weeks until the Big One!

hoka highland fling finish medal