Red Wine Runner

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Tag: Mike Raffan (page 1 of 3)

West Highland Way Race 2015 – RACE REPORT

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Great Glen Ultra 2014 – RACE REPORT

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

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

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

The Great Glen Way - Coast to Coast

The Great Glen Way – Coast to Coast

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loch Linhe

Loch Linnhe

Loch Linhe

Looking towards the Great Glen

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

with Ben Nevis in the background

with Ben Nevis in the background

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

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

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

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Picture – Fiona Rennie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Picture – Carol Martin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cateran Trail 55 Ultramarathon 2014 – RACE REPORT

The Cateran Trail 55 Ultramarathon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Start – Dalnagair – 6 miles, 1hr 9 mins

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

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

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

Photo - Jenni Coelho

Photo – Jenni Coelho

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Welcome to the Den of Alyth Ceilidh”

Wuh!?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

S_McD_BlairgowriePictures by Sandra McDougall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

S_finish4S_finish3Pictures by Sandra McDougall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

West Highland Way Race 2013 – RACE REPORT

It’s 1230am on midsummer’s eve, in a car park outside a railway station in Milngavie. A man stands half way up an embankment in a yellow jacket with a microphone, addressing the crowd before him. They hang on his every word; no-one makes a sound and you could cut the atmosphere with a knife.

Ian Beattie, Director of the West Highland Way Race is delivering the pre-race briefing to 183 runners, their crew, and dozens of marshalls and supporters. Once a year, always on the longest day, we come together in this anonymous station car park in the middle of the night to start what is regarded by many to be the greatest race in Scotland. Friends from far and wide gather here, united by a love of running, the route and the people who run on it.

Months and years of training have gone into this for every runner on the starting line, and it means everything to them. They have 35 hours to complete the 95 mile journey from Milngavie to Fort William, a remarkable tour de force of the beauty which Scotland has to offer. From the suburban car park out into a country park, to the top of Conic Hill and around the edge of Loch Lomond. Through the lush forests of Crianlarich down to the valley of Tyndrum, over the exposed Rannoch Moor and through the stark beauty of Glencoe. Up the Devil’s Staircase and down the crippling descent to Kinlochleven, before the final climb through the desolate Lairig Mor and the last stagger down to Fort William. The race finishes as it starts, in a car park; but the journey in between will change a person. He who commences this race is not the same man who completes it.

I returned to the race for the third time, this year as part of the sweep team with 5 other runners from Stonehaven. We would work in pairs and take turns to look after the slow and the vulnerable at the back of the race; each covering about 30 miles of the route in total over the 35 hours. Whilst not comparable to the running of the entire race, it was an ultra endurance test in its own right with us being mentally and physically stretched to the limit. Naturally, I couldn’t wait to get started.

Thursday night saw us raiding Asda and filling a shopping trolley full of supplies. When we spoke to the lady on the check out she casually asked where we were off to with all our supplies; “An adventure on the West Highland Way!” we replied. No further details required.

West highland way race 2013

West highland way race 2013

We savoured our last sleep on Thursday night, not knowing when our heads would rest on a pillow again. After work, we packed the car and picked up Scott before heading down to Milngavie to arrive at about 11pm.

Everything was completely familiar – the red Trossachs Search and Rescue Unit, the Kirky Krazies Ultramarathon Support Vehicle, the motorhomes in various states of repair, the support crews sitting on deckchairs outside their cars and some runners darting around excitedly greeting old friends. Others sat in their cars in darkness, focusing on the task ahead.

We made our way up to the Church Hall and checked in with Race Control. There we received our lovely blue West Highland Way Race ‘Crew’ jackets and pink 2013 WHW Race Buffs. After saying hello to plenty of people we headed back outside and met up with the rest of Team Sweep.

West highland way race 2013

Left to right: Me, Kynon, Alex, Scott, Marc, Neil.

We filled in time being treated to some great friendly hospitality from Alan and Angela at the International Fire and Rescue Association van and learned about some of the work their charity does, whilst enjoying a coffee and a sandwich. It’s an impressive vehicle with a lot of history, including its first job being the incident control unit at the Lockerbie Air Disaster.

West highland way race 2013West highland way race 2013

Kynon and Graeme were taking the first shift from Milngavie to Drymen, and were dressed and ready to go at midnight. I joked around with the other guys and caught up with friends whilst waiting for the race briefing at 1230. Ian addressed us with the usual warnings and regulations, but this year he included some words written by Fiona Rennie, great WHW Race stalwart, who is currently fighting her strongest battle yet against cancer and could not be on the starting line that night for the first time in nearly a decade. It stirred emotion in many and made the runners more determined than ever to conquer the race since she couldn’t.

West highland way race 2013

As ever, the time flew by and it was time to assemble. We positioned ourselves some distance up the High Street and listened for the count down and the klaxon at 0100.

West highland way race 2013

As expected, the rain began falling in sheets right before the horn went – after all it wouldn’t be the West Highland Way race without a bit of precipitation. After a few minutes silence we heard the horn, and they were off.

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As quickly as they flew past us, they were gone. Kynon and Scott made their way up the High Street at the very back of the field and the adventure had begun.

My first task was to change into my running gear as I was taking the second shift after Drymen with Alex. When everyone was ready we headed out in convoy to the first stop along the way – the Beech Tree Inn. The lads were keen for some bacon rolls, but I was still well fuelled from my earlier snacks. I stood under my umbrella and awaited the lead pack, who at 6 miles and about 45 minutes race time were expected soon.

Paul Giblin and his distinctive running style flew by in first place without breaking pace, followed by Robert Souter, Marco Consani and Mike Raffan closely after. After a three minute break the rest of the runners started dribbling through, but we weren’t hanging around and got quickly on the way to Drymen to rest before the crew change.

The dead-end road which the Way crosses at Drymen was already filled with cars, so we pulled in as close as we could. It was 03:00am when I slipped into the passenger seat and reclined it back as far as it would go to try and rest. My mind was going a mile a minute – the adrenaline from the race was surging through me and it was difficult to go into sleep mode, so I settled for just lying in the dark with my eyes closed. I gradually wound down and relaxed, but with the hubub of the race going on around me sleep was never going to happen. Every time a car roared past I got a fright from the noise and the lights shining into my car, but I kept my eyes closed tight and told myself to relax.

I heard a text message notification and sat up. It was 03:45am. I looked around me and all the cars were gone; what had been such a hive of activity was now eerily quiet in the hazy dawn light. The message was from Kynon; he reckoned they were about a mile out, but were walking with a likely DNF. I got out of the car and jumped about to try and wake up as I was very cold, whilst eating another half sandwich. I woke the boys up and we drove closer to the Way to await the arrival of the Crew, whilst speaking to the remaining runners’ support. He informed us that it was his Dad who was out there, but that his training had gone badly and he’d suffered from two chest infections this year so far. He didn’t look hopeful, but was diligently awaiting as instructed, clutching a Mullerice and a banana.

Kynon and Scott arrived in great spirits, but as soon as they took us aside they told us that they’d been walking behind the runner since mile 1.5. They let us know how he was feeling and what was going wrong, and then Neil spoke to the crew who was adamant that the runner was continuing regardless of how close he was going to get to the 6am cut-off at Balmaha.

At 0415am our runner left the checkpoint and headed off up the trail. Despite walking he was covering ground quickly enough and Alex and I followed about 20 feet behind, shooting the breeze on what had turned out to be a hazy, cloudy, but dry morning. Our runner got slower and slower and really struggled with the hills. We decided to get closer and see how he was doing, and he told us that he had last completed the race in 1997 but had had several DNFs since. He told the same story about his illnesses in the year so far and explained how his legs were giving him terrible bother.

He willed himself on, but I could see the frustration  flicker across his face. I could tell that he was the kind of person that would rather DNF than DNS and would have started the race regardless of condition. Eventually he ground to a halt and we gently broached the subject of cut-off times. It was now 5:30am and we weren’t even on the approach to Conic Hill, and we had to be on the other side of it by 06:00am. It was agreed that he would pull out and that his support would come up from the road and meet him.

It was at this point that we were able to appreciate the priceless role that George Reid and Karen Donaghue were playing in the event. They were always ahead of the sweep crew by one check point and ready to come down the course at a minute’s notice to assist with a DNF to allow the sweepers to push on quickly to catch up with the next remaining runners. By this point there was such a gap that we called Neil and Mark who were ready and waiting to sweep stage 3, and told them to go as soon as the last runner came through as there was no way that we would be able to make up the time.

George and Karen looked after the runner and allowed us to finally stretch our legs with a run to Balmaha where they’d meet us. We merrily galloped through the last of the forest and down the track towards Conic, stopping only to take a couple of pictures.

West highland way race 2013

The view was quite different from when I came through here during the Fling. The blue skies were well hidden and Conic Hill was cloaked in a thick cloud.

West highland way race 2013

West highland way race 2013

West highland way race 2013Here’s where George and Karen had been camping out with a flag until we called them.

West highland way race 2013

West highland way race 2013A very misty descent back through the clouds led us down to Balmaha for 7am and in to the Oak Tree Inn which had opened especially for the occasion. Lots of race people and race crew were here, grabbing a cup of coffee, a bacon roll and some charge for their phones. I had some of my snacks, but kept off the coffee as I was hopeful for a snooze soon.

We shipped out about 7:45 and drove to Beinglas Farm where we would meet Marc and Neil after their epic lochside stint, and Graeme and I would take over. As soon as we parked up I had my seat reclined back and curled up on my side hugging a cushion. I needed no rocking at all this time as I slept for two delicious hours until 10:30am.

West highland way race 2013I had this feast for breakfast. That’s a buttery, dipped in Ambrosia Devon Custard, with a side of sour cola belts and a can of Coke.

We spent the next 2 hours pottering about Beinglas, talking to the other marshals and cheering on runners. There was lots of race gossip to catch up on including the news that Paul Giblin was absolutely tearing up the course and was on track to obliterate the course record.

West highland way race 2013

West highland way race 2013It was warm, but the weather was extremely changeable. Every 5 minutes it would change from being sunny to pouring rain. The midgies were out in force so Deet-based products were being slathered on all exposed skin. Just before 1pm we greeted Marc and Neil who had been out for 7 hours along the lochside. They came in with three runners plus George and Karen and everyone seemed to be in good spirits. This was now over 12 hours of race time and 40 miles of running.

West highland way race 2013

Kynon and I left Beinglas together at about 1pm and began the journey to Auchtertyre. You will perhaps note our unusual choice of headwear – peaked caps are excellent for keeping midgie-nets off your face when you’re walking/running. The WHW isn’t really a place for fashion.

West highland way race 2013I remember how barren this part of the Way was in April when I ran the Fling. To see all of the trees in full bloom and beautiful greenery everywhere was a pleasure. It started to get really warm  and we were able to lose a few of our layers and enjoy our trek in the sunshine.

West highland way race 2013

The runner we were with was fine, but he was going quite slowly. After a few miles we spent some time talking with him about the various pros and cons of the race check points; it was obvious that he wasn’t going to make the cut off in time unless he picked up the pace but that didn’t seem to bother him too much.

After a while I ran on to check on the other runners who were ahead and left Kynon to hold court at the back. I passed a couple of ladies who were doing fine until I found a lady sitting on a stile. She said she was DNFing and had called her support, but she was fine and didn’t need my help. Since she didn’t have a definite plan I decided I would stay with her until she was absolutely sure who was coming to get her and when. It was just as well I did as due to multiple phone calls with mixed messages and dodgy phone signals cutting out, the support were looking for her in the wrong place.

After she was collected, the next challenge was to get me caught up with the race. Further mixed information had meant that Race Control had intended that I was to be taken to the next check point by the runner’s support, but that message hadn’t got through so I was happily awaiting collection by George, who was in turn oblivious to this. After 10 minutes I called again to find out what was happening, and in the end one of the Trossachs Search and Rescue cars came to get me. When they turned up however, they thought I was the DNFing runner! Eventually I was taken further up the course where I got back on the Way and started running back towards Kynon who was still with the same runner, now on pace to be about 30 minutes late for the Auchtertyre cut off. At 4pm we had called the next sweep team to tell them to leave on time and we’d see the last runner in.

West highland way race 2013He’d been warned, and warned and warned; but still, it wasn’t pretty and he was not a happy individual. We were glad to be objective and not part of the race management, and just headed towards the car and the rest of the sweep team to make the next plan.

West highland way race 2013

We headed to the Bridge of Orchy hotel with Neil and Mark and settled in for some serious R n R. I had a complete change of clothes and a baby-wipe wash in the bathroom and then enjoyed a box of mashed potato, baked beans and quorn sausages that I had prepared the day before. Paired with some freshly deep fried onion rings, a pint of lemonade and a sofa and I was fully refreshed. It was about 6pm and my next stint wasn’t until midnight so I had some time to recover.

West highland way race 2013

We were just finished our food when a call from George notified us that a runner had collapsed outside Bridge of Orchy and that he needed help to stretcher him off the hill. The lads all scampered off, eager to help, but I stayed put, figuring I wouldn’t be much use in amongst a crowd of much stronger humans and I would probably just get in the way.

West highland way race 2013

It had turned into a stunner of an evening and the sun was shining brightly. I realised that in my three years of crewing on the Way I had never seen the hills surrounding Bridge of Orchy as they’ve always been cloaked in thick cloud. Whilst we waited for the sweepers to re-appear I admired the beautiful landscape and was thankful to be out and about enjoying it.

West highland way race 2013

Our next stop was Inveroran where Scott and Alex were ready to head out over Rannoch Moor. We parked both cars side by side with the windows down and sat and told silly jokes and told dirty tales. The tiredness was working in our favour; people’s humour was just getting silly, not dissolving and it felt like the group was really gelling.

West highland way race 2013The drive through Glencoe to the ski centre and the next check point is always breathtaking in it’s beauty. At the time of night the sun was pouring through gaps in the chunk clouds creating a beautiful effect on the hills. My phone camera couldn’t capture it, but a member of a support team called Jonathan Bellarby took this remarkable image looking down Glencoe at this time. The Way clings to the side of the Glen to the right and then goes up over the hills in the middle – over the fearsome Devil’s Staircase.

West highland way race 2013

Picture by Jonathan Bellarby

Upon arrival at Glencoe we were able to catch up with our friends in the big red fire rescue truck and share another cup of coffee. People’s races were starting to get tough here, light was fading and the runners were facing their second night on the trail.

West highland way race 2013

West highland way race 2013We set up in the ski cafe to charge phones and Garmins and settled down for a couple of hours. There was much amusement however, when a young deer came along to hang out!

West highland way race 2013

He quite contentedly wandered around the support vehicles, cheekily asking for snacks and gently taking them from hands.

West highland way race 2013

I passed the time looking at Facebook and marveling at the athletic performances which had been unleashed. Paul Giblin had destroyed the course record in 15hrs and 7 minutes, taking 35 minutes off Terry Conway’s record set the previous year. The people who we would be finishing the race with would take more than double that time to complete the course which is a hard thing to get your head around at times.

The toughest part of the weekend ended up not being anything to do with the running or walking, but in fact it was the hours of waiting around which provided the biggest challenge. The final runners and the sweepers arrived at Glencoe around 11pm, but it was closer to Midnight before we were able to leave with the last runner, who had spent the intervening time shut in his van vomiting.

The temperature had dropped considerably when darkness fell and there was a wicked wind screaming down the Glen that cut right through everything I had on. Memories of the near-hypothermic state I ended up in last year on the Saturday night reminded me that there probably was no such thing as wearing too much clothes. We would be moving very slowly for several hours; not quickly enough to keep our body temperatures up without a lot of extra help, so I re-dressed with extra layers.  I believe the sum total was three long sleeve tops, a thick waterproof running jacket, my crew jacket and a waterproof/windproof anorak over the top. Running tights with compression knee-socks on over the top on my bottom half, and  associated hats, buffs and gloves to keep the peripherals warm. I felt cosy, but not too hot.

I was covering the next section to Kinlochleven with Neil. We checked all of the parked vehicles for sleeping runners/crew until we were sure that we just had our final runner remaining. We spoke to his crew and I realised I actually knew the guy in question; unfortunately he was not feeling very well at all. His crew said he’d be on the move soon, but that he’d prefer if we weren’t breathing down his neck so could we keep our distance. At just before midnight we finally departed and headed into the darkness, head torches switched off as between the last glimmer of daylight and the moon they were not required.

Neil and I stayed about 100 meters behind the runner and his support runner and chatted about running stuff to pass the time. Despite the thick cloud it was still beautiful to walk through the Glen in the deepest part of the night; when else would you get the opportunity to do something like this? The runner’s crew met him at the Kingshouse Hotel and forced him to eat some more; despite his stomach troubles he seemed to be moving at a fair clip across the flat terrain.

The Kingshouse Hotel seemed quiet on the outside, but we passed around the back which had a door open into the bar where there were some smokers. It was such a strange juxtaposition – the silence and tranquility of Glencoe at 1am, and a bar stuffed to the gunnels with people having a rager. It was getting to the point in the race where real life seems weird and a distant memory; tiredness does strange things to the mind and to me at that time, partying and having some beer seemed very obscure.

The runners support met him once more at Altnafeadh, just before we began the ascent of the Devil’s Staircase. We let him get a little head start and then followed after, but we had caught up in moments. The incline was proving to be a real challenge for the runner and as expected, it was a very slow journey up. We followed in silence, stepping quietly behind and halting every few seconds when he did. Every so often the incline would almost cause the runner to over-balance and I put my hands out to attempt to catch him should he fall backwards. For over two hours we didn’t say a word, the runner and his support were silent and the only sound was four pairs of feet moving forwards slowly, inch by inch.

The tiredness was becoming almost disabling. In the darkness and moving so slowly, I felt myself falling asleep on my feet. Every time we paused, my eyes would slide shut and I’d almost drift off but then force myself awake before I fell over. It was a most unnerving feeling and before long it felt like I was having an out of body experience and I was aware of myself making my way up the hill but not particularly conscious of it. This year’s hallucinations were not as cool as last year’s peacocks and dogs, but I was convinced there were wrapped Christmas gifts by the side of the trail, and kept on seeing rubbish that wasn’t there.

We eventually reached the Wilderness Response Team tent which was being staffed by two cold and tired chaps who were very glad to see us so they could pack up and go home. They would have been on that hill since about 12pm the previous day, providing cheery smiles and care if required in one of the most remote parts of the course. By now it was getting light and the headtorches were turned off again. We were now closer to Kinlochleven and were witness to a spectacular cloud inversion which saw us looking down upon thick mists in the valleys below.

Once again we were met by George and Karen who were waiting about 2 miles out of Kinlochleven. We all sat down and had a rest and some food and assessed how the runner was doing; he looked completely out of it and was going to need some serious TLC at Kinlochleven if he was going to continue. It was 4am so he had enough time to get going, but he certainly couldn’t hang around as the checkpoint closed at 5. Karen and I decided to run down and speak to the support to keep them in the picture and get them ready to receive him for a fast turn around, whilst George and Neil got the runner going again and down the hill as soon as possible.

Karen and I took off and ran our fastest miles of the weekend downhill through the clouds and into the town. When I entered the leisure centre everyone looked up in hope of seeing the last runner, but instead they were treated to a sweaty zombie sweeper – my 6 layers of clothes were less of a good idea for 25 minutes of sprinting. Kynon and Julie came up and talked to me; but I don’t remember what they said. The rest of the sweep team had been here since about 1am and had all got a few hours sleep in the gym hall; passing out on one of those mattresses was all I could think of. I clocked an empty one and saw that the race Doctor was starting to pack up his stuff in the hall – sleepy logic dictated that if I managed to get on that mattress then he wouldn’t be able to move it. I stripped off five of my six layers, dumped them and my camelbak on a sofa and grabbed Kynon’s sleeping bag. I wondered briefly if I ought to ask permission but then realised I wasn’t capable of speech so just staggered towards the mattress and flumped on my side. I was asleep before I even had the chance to pull the sleeping bag over me.

An hour later and Kynon is desperately trying to wake me up without physically shaking me – he and Julie have been trying to figure out whose responsibility it is to remove the comatose sweepers from the hall so that they can close the check point. It was decided that Kynon had assumed those duties when he put a ring on my finger last year so he had bravely ventured into the gym hall where I was doing a very convincing impression of a chainsaw. I’m known for sleeping particularly deeply (example HERE) so it was always going to be quite a task to get me conscious again, especially on this occasion. I don’t really remember anything else from Kinlochleven other than seeing Neil completely passed out on a sofa and thinking it was good that he’d got some rest as well.

The final runner had left Kinlochleven with time to spare and had headed off with Marc and Alex. Neil, Scott, Kynon and I headed to the outskirts of Fort William to sleep some more before Neil would drive Scott and Kynon up to take the final shift from Lundavra to the finish. We managed a further power snooze of about an hour and a half before it was time to go; in the intervening time the runner that we had escorted over the Devil had unfortunately pulled out and a good friend, Minty, had collapsed just outside Lundavra and hit his head hard. The race takes no prisoners and it will eat you alive if you’re not tough enough. Minty kept going and went on to finish his first West Highland Way Race in 27hrs 26 minutes.

West highland way race 2013

Neil left about 07:15 to drive the final sweepers up to Lundavra and I contemplated the race journey so far and made some blog notes. It is always the most amazing experience, but it is the most extreme test of mental endurance I face each year. One year soon I will take a break and run the race instead – I’m told so frequently that running the race is far less stressful than crewing!

With the final sweepers on the way with a trio of cheerful runners who were definitely going to finish, Marc, Scott, Neil and I departed to Morrisons at 08:00am to get a hot breakfast. The fact that we all stared blankly at the food menu in the supermarket for a good 5 minutes trying to figure out what we wanted and how to order is telling of the mental state we were in. After eating our plates of sausages, beans and eggs washed down with toast and coffee, we decided to wander around Ellis Brigham Mountain Sports to fill in some time. The race was expected to finish about 11am and we headed up to the finish about 10:30am and caught up with the race HQ and assorted others hanging around.

West highland way race 2013

I watched a few runners come in and got that familiar feeling of the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end when I saw them greeted by their families who were simply bursting with pride. A few of the highly placed finishers and their families had come down to watch the last runners come in as well, which speaks volumes about the inclusive, ‘family’ feel of the event. Everyone looks out for one another, fast and slow, and the camaraderie between runners is incredible. I heard someone compare it to the camaraderie he had experienced in his time in the Armed forces which he hadn’t seen anywhere else in civilian life.

At 11:04 am, the last runner crossed the line with Scott. Kynon followed not long after, having stopped to help a support runner who had hurt her back. He crossed the line, shook Ian’s hand and declared the course to be clear – the race was done! After a quick change we all departed to the Nevis Centre hall for the prizegiving which was bursting at the seams with runners and their supporters. There had to be well over 500 people in that hall and the applause for everyone’s achievements was deafening.

West highland way race 2013

Paul Giblin received a standing ovation for his record breaking run. I cheered extra loudly for Mike who continues to improve and this year came 6th in a time of 18hrs 18 mins.  There were huge cheers for those who had completed their tenth race and the biggest cheer (and another standing ovation) went to Gareth Bryan-Jones who at the age of SEVENTY completed the race in 26 hours and 15 minutes.

I came away from the ceremony emotionally charged and inspired. Being a part of this race keeps me hungry for more and encourages me to push myself further every time I train, in the hope that one day soon I will also be able to earn my own crystal goblet. As ever, it’s not a young persons race and competitors under the age of 30 are rare – there were only 5 female finishers in the F Senior category which extends to the age of 39.

The rest of the day saw us checking into our accommodation and groaning in delight as we lay down on the soft beds. I had the best shower of my life and then enjoyed a couple of bottles of beer with my feet up whilst de-briefing with the rest of the gang. We headed to the after-party at 8pm and proceeded to drink the Ben Nevis bar dry until we got kicked out at 1am.

West highland way race 2013

I lost count of the amount of people who asked me if I was running the race next year, including race directer Ian Beattie, who opened our conversation with “So I’ll be awarding you a goblet this time this year then, will I?”. To this I say: I don’t know, but I don’t think so. If it weren’t for the wedding and the honeymoon I might be thinking differently, but they fall at a time next year when training would need to be at its peak. As I said above, the race takes no prisoners; I am not going into this less than 100% prepared and I will not attempt to wing it – I have far too much respect for this race. At times I struggled in the Fling, so I know I can, and need to, get stronger.

Goals are good. Long term goals are even better, and from here I can see the next two years’ training shaping up very nicely. I will not be putting my name in the hat for the 2014 WHW Race ballot, but from now on every mile I run will be one mile closer to Milngavie Railway station in 2015. I will stand in the crowd on Midsummer’s night once more, but this time as a runner. I will listen to Ian give his briefing, before taking my place at the start and awaiting the horn and running up the High Street in to the darkness and the unknown adventure of the fabled 95 miles. It will be a long hard journey over the next two years to get there, but the goal has been set and the work starts now.

 

 

 

 

 

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