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Hoka Highland Fling 2014 Preview

hoka highland fling ultra

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

hoka highland fling ultra

Pacing and race plan

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

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

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

hoka highland fling ultra

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


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

hoka highland fling ultra


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

hoka highland fling ultra


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


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


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

hoka highland fling ultra

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



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


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

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

See you in Milngavie!

5 tips for Budding Ultramarathoners

I’ve had this post written in my drafts for nearly a year now; building on it, adjusting it, finally finding the right time to post it. We’re now in the middle of the second month of the year, which means many runners will be knee deep in training for their first ultramarathon and perhaps wondering what on earth they’ve got themselves into. The sheen of starting training has worn off, you’ve got months still to go, and you feel like you’ve been hit by a truck. Welcome to ultra. I promise it’s worth it in the end, but it’s a hell of a journey to get there.20130202_121217

So, I present to you: Check yourself before you wreck yourself – a very average ultrarunner’s guide to staying happily in the middle of the pack. There are umpteen books and training guides out there which cover everything you might need to become the best ultra runner you can be – but what if you’d just like to finish happily and healthily, and with enough enthusiasm to sign up for another? I can’t tell you how to race tactically to win, to go from a tortoise to a hare, or issue you with plant-based diet plans which will turn you into Scott Jurek v.2.0, but I can offer you some experience on being a normal person trying to happily juggle life and ultra training in a hectic world.

Last year I made some definite mistakes and learned a lot about how to not train for a 50 miler. The same could be applied to training for a 50k ultra or anywhere in-between or beyond those distances. Allow me to share these lessons with you.

[disclaimer: I am not a medical or sports professional, and have no formal training or qualifications to back these thoughts up. This is what works for me, but it may not work for you. I learned the following the hard way, and chances are you’re going to have to do the same; but maybe this might help guide you a bit. Don’t be a dumbass, don’t put yourself in danger and always remember Mike Raffan’s rule #1- don’t be a dick.]


1) The biggest challenge is finding the right balance of dedicating yourself to your training, whilst still being able to maintain a shred of a life so that you can let your hair down every now and then and still retain your identity. There is no point in doing this if you don’t want to, or you are not enjoying it. Whilst you will benefit from considering yourself to be an athlete who has to prioritise training above anything else, the crux of the matter is that you aren’t. You are not a professional, no-one is paying you to do this and you’re accountable to no-one but yourself. Ultra marathons and their associated training aren’t for everyone and you really need to want to do it and also know why you want to do it. Why did you sign up? What is your motivation? Beware of ‘FOMO’ (fear of missing out) as described in the book ‘Relentless Forward Progress’; ultras are becoming so popular these days and so many people are doing them that it’s natural to want to do the same amazing events as what your friends are doing – but are you ready? You’ll soon find out.

20120212_112351Training for my first ultra, the 2012 D33

2) Pick your training plan extremely wisely. This is a no-brainer, but I managed to mess this one up a bit last year. I used Relentless Forward Progress’ 50k plan to do my first D33 and it worked perfectly, so I didn’t think twice when filling in my calendar with the mileage for their 50 mile plan last year. That plan was far too much for me – I realised when I had scheduled doing bigger back-to-backs than my friends who were training for the West Highland Way race for no good reason other than it was in the plan. Take advice from other runners who have trained for your race before, ask to see their training, consider whether you are similar runners – are they consistently faster and stronger than you? Maybe their plan will be too much for you and could use a tweak or two. Ask questions and soak up the answers – there is no right answer on how to train for an ultra, you have to figure out what works for you. Some of my club train 6 days a week, others only 3; but everyone has always finished their races.

L - R: Kynon, Vicki, Iain and Me

Kynon, Vikki, Iain and RWR after Vikki’s first WHW race finish in 2012

20130126_085041sD33 training in 2013

3) Sleep is your BIGGEST weapon. When your mileage gets high and you’re training more than you ever have, your body is going to freak out a bit. The best way you can cope with this is sleep and rest; take your recovery after your long runs seriously and try and schedule yourself some proper time resting up if you can. Coming home from 28 miles and eating on the hoof whilst trying to shower and change to go out to meet friends is not the best way to do it. Also, get yourself to bed early as many nights a week as you can – I have a self-imposed curfew of 10.30pm on week nights or else I would just sit and blog/watch TV/read until I fell asleep. I get up at 05.30am and get home at 6.00pm Monday to Friday so I absolutely need to get as much sleep as possible, or else I just can’t function. You have to make rest and recovery as much as a priority as running, and unfortunately that means saying no to some cool stuff sometimes.

20120212_154308Do this lots.

4) Food. Food = fuel. Fuel = food. One of the first things people always ask is ‘What should I eat to fuel myself on runs?’ and no-one can answer that for you. The short answer is take different things that appeal to you and try them on training runs. Some will work, some won’t. Pay attention to what you crave when you come home from a long run and take that with you on your next run.


That isn’t what this section is about though – of equal importance is what you eat when you’re not running. Last year when I started to get really worn down I examined what I was eating very closely. I kept a detailed food and exercise diary for two weeks using and was pretty surprised by what it revealed – I wasn’t eating anywhere near enough food to support myself. I’m not one to shy away from carbs and big dinners, but without paying attention to what I was eating I was effectively starving myself. I was easily burning a minimum of 800 kcal a day through exercise, although some days it would be near 2500. With my base metabolic rate being around 1500kcal a day I needed to be eating a lot more than what I was consuming to keep my energy levels high. I visited a nutritionist at Aberdeen Sports Village to get some guidance and soon was back on track. Many gyms have these facilities available to members, or if not they can put you in touch with someone qualified to help you. Don’t try and figure it out yourself if you don’t know what you’re doing.

ianrusselstart01The D33 – Do Epic Shit

5) Physical Maintenance: Book a sports massage now. Don’t wait until something starts hurting! If you’re training for your first ultra, you’re probably working your body harder than you ever have and you need to take care of it. I book a sports massage every month towards the end of my ‘cut back’ week regardless if I’m broken or not – the flush out is wonderful for the legs and you can get back in to training hard the next week with a brand new set of legs. Most runners will find that to a certain extent, they are never 100% right whilst training anyway. There’s always something; a niggle, an ache, never-ending DOMS. You just have to learn what’s normal for you and recognise when something isn’t right.

Also, be prepared for your feet to potentially do nasty things that you could never even imagine. You can do everything possible to wear the right shoes and socks to prevent blisters and damaged toenails, but the reality of it is that some people are just more susceptible than others. I’ve lost all my toenails several times and it’s just something I’ve learned to deal with. In the last year they’ve stopped being quite so flimsy though, apart from this time after the 2013 D33…


Blisters on blisters on blisters which took weeks to heal. I had nothing of the sort after the Fling though…


That’s all I’ve got for now. I didn’t want to write a book on this – there are already plenty out there, and as you all know I’m no particular expert. But these are things which I wish I had been told (or that I had listened to…) when I first started ultrarunning. Why did I start this nonsense anyway? Partly to move on and distract myself from a break up, partly because the races were there and they weren’t going to run themselves. I wanted to push myself outside of my comfort zones to find out the kind of person I could be. Turns out, I like that version of myself best of all.

wpid-20130427_191140.jpgAfter the finish of the 53 mile Highland Fling, in 2013

Ultramarathon training is HARD, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. If you’re not finding it hard then maybe you’re the next Kilian Jornet or Rory Bosio and you ought to be pushing yourself harder? For the rest of you though – embrace it. Surrender your life to it for a few months and it will give you a lot more in return than you might imagine. Starting with moments like this….


DSC_9621…and then this;

IMG_3707IMG_3709…and then you’ll wonder why you ever doubted yourself. It’s all a mental game anyway – forget the physical prowess; the biggest trick you’ll ever learn is to fool yourself that you’re feeling great when you’re really not, closely followed by having the courage to believe that you WILL finish regardless of how you feel. You can go from feeling brilliant to terrible to brilliant in the space of 10 minutes in an ultra, so never lose hope that things could pick up and just keep putting one foot in front of the other until you get to the finish. It really is that simple.


Are you training for your 1st ultra this Spring, or your 50th?
How is your training going?
What do you wish you’d been told when you first ventured into ultras?
Leave your tips for other readers in the comments!

Countdown to the Moray Marathon

background13Marathon number four and my first attempt at a sub-four hour time is now quickly approaching. At the time of typing I have approximately 21 hours until the starter’s horn and I couldn’t feel more prepared and ready! This is an acute improvement on last year when at this point before the race I was ready to run as hard and as fast as I could in the opposite direction.

Despite my somewhat patchy training this summer, another years’ experience has taught me again that ticking off every run on the schedule isn’t the most important part of race preparation and success so I feel 100% ready to smash my goal. When I think about the state of my knee and how tired I was when I started the Paris Marathon I’m filled with confidence for tomorrow – I’ve never felt fitter or stronger and I believe that tomorrow is going to be a very strong race for me.


Bronze – 3:59:59 or quicker.
It’s a marathon time with a 3 at the start at that’s what I’m setting out to come home with.

Silver – 3:55 or quicker.
A solid sub-4 time which requires 26 sub-9 minute miles.

Gold – 3:50 or quicker.Ambitious, but not impossible. This could happen if tomorrow ends up being beautifully executed and I get the perfect race, meaning 20 steady 8:50ish miles and a strong finish. Stranger things have happened.

All things considered however, I won’t be too upset even if I do have a total stinker and blow up. As long as I finish and clock up another 26.2 then I’ll consider it a general success. I really like the idea of getting a strong marathon time but it’s not my biggest goal in running; as we know my sights are already firmly set on a 2015 West Highland Way Race and everything I run between now and Milngavie in June 2015 is training for that race.

The weather is looking perfect; cloudy and 12-13C with a slight Westerly wind which will help in the long, straight middle miles on the straight West facing road to Lossiemouth. I’ve spent the last 21ish hours following the live progress of the UTMB in France and am feeling pumped up and inspired by these amazing runners and breathtaking performances. It’s scarey to think that there will still be runners out on than course when I start my race tomorrow – after 40+ hours of running!

I don’t know anyone else who is running the marathon tomorrow but a couple of friends are doing the Half. I’ve made a pumping emergency playlist for the tough and lonely miles but as usual I won’t be running with my iPod for the whole race. It’s quite a barren course with few other runners and not a lot to look at so I think I’ll be grateful for the musical distraction when things get tough.

Moray Marathon 2012

Another finish like this please.

Kynon is providing support duties as he did last year and will be popping up at 10, 15 and 20 miles with my favourite blue Powerade. My parents are rumoured to be in the area with their camper van as well so I may well have a good welcome waiting for me when I cross the finish line. Just thinking about it now is giving me good shivers – I am so ready to race this hard and I can’t wait to get started!!

See you on the other side,


RACE REPORT: West Highland Way Race 2013

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.

West highland way race 2013 West highland way race 2013 West highland way race 2013 West highland way race 2013 West highland way race 2013 West highland way race 2013

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.