Red Wine Runner

A Scottish Running Blog

Tag: West Highland Way Race (page 1 of 6)

How To Sweep An Ultramarathon

Last month I returned to the West Highland Way Race for the seventh consecutive year. I have been involved in this race in three different ways – I ran it myself in 2015, I was support crew for runners in 2011, 2012, and 2016, and in 2013, 2014, and 2017 I have been part of the squad of race crew volunteers who make this amazing event happen. Specifically in these years, I have been part of the Sweep Team, who are a small but important group of runners outsourced by race control to look after the back end of the race. I’ve written ‘Race Reports’ of my sweeping experiences in the past (2013, 2014), but this year I’ve decided to take a more informational approach to my write-up of the 2017 West Highland Way Race. What does a sweep team actually do? How do we do it, and do we really need to be there? Read on for my thoughts on how to sweep an ultramarathon successfully, and how to avoid some common errors when planning for a task which can be surprisingly complicated…

West Highland Way Race 2013

What is a race sweeper?

A sweeper is a person, or team of persons, who stay at the very back of a race with the slowest participants to ensure their safety. Every organised race will have a sweeper or sweepers, but the longer the race, the more important they become. The reason they are there is to make sure the runners who are out the longest are given the support they need, to keep Race Control in touch with what is happening at the back of the race, and to provide additional support to marshals along the route. In the case of the West Highland Way Race, several of the team are also trained in Outdoor Emergency First Aid, and thus are able to respond professionally in a range of emergency circumstances on a route which in places can be very remote and exposed.

race sweeper

Sweepers are part of the Race Crew

The role of the individual sweeper when out on the course is very specific, but even when we’re not ‘running’ we are often required to be useful. Once the two sweepers have left each checkpoint behind the last runner, the remaining team members can help marshals to close the checkpoint, tidy up litter,  and pack up race vans before moving on up the course to the next checkpoint.  The nature of the West Highland Way Race means that sometimes there are several hours of dead time as the runners make their way up the route – occasionally we might be called upon to run back down the route to meet an injured runner or to provide other checkpoint assistance, but more often than not it’s a good opportunity for a cuppa or a snooze.

West Highland Way Race 2014

Organisation is key

Planning the execution of a sweep of a 95 mile trail race over a period of 35 hours is a real challenge, especially when the race is ‘point to point’ and your team of six sweepers are arriving by car from five different locations. Which cars do you use? Are people insured to drive other vehicles? How do you get people back to their vehicles at the end? How many miles are people capable of covering? What’s Plan B for every possible situation?

At the West Highland Way Race, experience has taught us that six is the magic number for the size of the race crew, and each member needs to be able to cover around 30-35 miles each, in two or three shifts. This means that we only need two cars for the duration of the race, and as long as most of the crew can drive vehicles that are not their own, we can share driving and running without the need for a dedicated driver. Any more than six people makes the car accommodations cramped and the logistics become more challenging. Sometimes the secret is just to keep it simple!

The final point on organisation, is that once you’ve agreed to a plan – stick to it once the race has started. Unless there’s a genuinely good reason to change plans on the hoof, the checkpoint teams and Race HQ will be relying on you being where you say you will be, and when. The sweep team race support plan is submitted to the Race Safety Officer in advance of the race, and it is generally assumed that this will not change on the day. We need to be a reliable asset to Race Management for the full 35 hours.

Make sure you’re fit

It goes without saying that if you’re going to cover 30-40 miles over the course of a weekend, then you need to be in reasonable shape. One of the unique challenges of sweeping, however, is the fact that you will very rarely be running or covering ground at your own pace. Due to being at the back of the race, much of your time on course will be spent walking, and walking very slowly in the latter half of the race. If you’re a fit road marathon runner, then you might need to do some hill walking to prepare your legs for the slog – walking for eight hours fatigues you in different ways than running for four hours does!

You’ll need to be mentally tough, too; do you know what 30 minute miles feels like when it’s 4am, you’re somewhere in the dark in the pouring rain, and you’ve been awake for 40 hours? It doesn’t feel good, but you’re not allowed to complain, ESPECIALLY within earshot of a runner. Your job is to provide support, not require it, so get ready to push through those mental barriers to do your job well.

with Marc and Scott

Take the right kit

You’ll need to be prepared for anything, especially in a race which lasts 35 hours and covers a variety of terrains in a climate which is notorious for change. Last year at the West Highland Way Race the temperature hit 25C, but this year saw a ‘feels like’ temperature of 1C and 40mph winds for much of the second half of the race. Oh, and it also rained solidly for the last 24 hours of the race, so there was that too. In June. Welcome to summer in the Highlands.

Also bear in mind that you will be covering your miles in two or maybe three shifts – if it rains as much as it did this year, that’s three entirely separate sets of kit. Waterproof jackets work well to a point, but even the best ones start to fail after being subject to hours of heavy precipitation, and there will be no way to dry anything until you’re home again on the Monday. Pack ALL your winter weather gear, and then go to your friend’s house to borrow theirs as well. Don’t forget to pack some binbags too – multiple sets of wet and sweaty kit in a car boot for a couple of days smells just as bad as you might imagine it does…

You’ll also need some peripheral equipment – a head torch, a spare head torch, spare batteries, spare batteries for your spare batteries, a midgy net, anti-midge spray, torch, first aid kit, and a backpack big enough for the emergency equipment we have to carry (bivvy bags, emergency shelter, radio, emergency flares). What are you going to eat? Are you sure you’re going to want to eat that at 4am in Kinlochleven? Preparing to be on a sweep team is a mammoth effort, but worth doing well for your own comfort and sanity.

west highland way race 2017

The runner always comes first

Sweeping a race, especially a huge challenge like the West Highland Way Race, is a very rewarding and enjoyable experience. But it’s not about you. Your number one priority at all times has to be the runners – from cheering them off on their way at 1am on Saturday morning, to coaxing the last one over the line 34 and a half hours later, your sole focus needs to be on their well-being and safety at all times.  It’s not an opportunity for a free race entry, it’s not about time on feet training, and it’s not about the opportunity to recce a route or just have a nice day out on the trails. As a member of the Race Team, you are there to do a job.

It’s about making sure the back of the field are moving quickly enough to meet the cut offs in the early stages. It’s about keeping the appropriate distance from them so you’ve got them in sight, but they don’t feel pressure about being last. It’s about making sure you leave no-one behind. It’s about providing stern encouragement to keep going when the first doubts start to come in at half way. It’s about staying close behind them climbing the Devil’s Staircase in the darkness in order to provide them extra light with your head torch.  It’s about making sure they’re eating enough in the latter stages when even their support runner is struggling to think straight. It’s about pushing them on relentlessly, yet kindly, in the last miles, when the tears are flowing and it hurts so much, but they still want it so badly. It’s about jogging into the Leisure Centre carpark a few steps behind and then subtly peeling off into the crowds to be invisible, so that nothing detracts from their moment of victory.

The final West Highland Way Race finisher of 2017. Photo by Christopher Burns.

Be flexible, and be ready for anything

There was that time one of our sweepers fell and twisted his ankle 12 miles in, and suddenly the careful mileage plan for everyone went in to the bin. Then there was that time when a car accident blocked the A82 and none of the support crews could get into Beinglas to fuel their runners. Or, what about that time someone got so angry at being timed out at Auchtertyre, that they threw a strop at the marshals and kept on running anyway? Or the one time that a runner was hallucinating so badly on Rannoch Moor that we had to carry them in to the next checkpoint, because he was so determined that the Mini Cooper blocking the path ahead was there to drive him home…

I have a lot of fond memories from my years as a West Highland Way Race sweeper, and I look forward to many more in future. It’s one of the most challenging things I’ve done outside of running the race myself, in fact, I’m sure I’ve been quoted as saying that I took a break from organising the sweep team in 2015 in order to run the race for a rest!

I firmly believe that everyone who runs ultramarathons needs to take a step off the trails to volunteer a few times a year. The satisfaction of giving back to your sport is huge, and the alternative perspective of seeing others execute their races is fascinating. It really builds the sense of community as well; ultramarathon communities are known for their family feel which keeps people coming back for more, and there’s nothing like volunteering at an event to whet your thirst to get back on a starting line yourself!

Have you ever swept a race before?
What’s your favourite way to give back to the running community?

West Highland Way Race 2016 – Support Crew Race Report

West Highland Way Race 2016
The West Highland Way Race 2016
Support Crew Report

My 2016 has been…interesting so far, so in the end it was no surprise that the 2016 West Highland Way Race ended up being a bit of a strange one for me. I decided quite quickly after my own West Highland Way Race in 2015 that I didn’t want to come back for a second attempt in 2016, so I hoped that I would be able to support someone else to achieve their goals at the race this year instead. When the time came to put crews together, I agreed to support my friend Jemma in her first attempt to claim the goblet. As it happened, 2016 was not to be her West Highland Way Race year, so in May I found myself potentially missing the race for the first time in 5 years. It was around then that a Jury summons arrived in the mail for Kynon, messing up any potential plans for this most important of annual events even more. If selected, his presence would be required in Aberdeen High Court at 8:30am the morning after the race and of course the way the UK judicial system works, you call up the court the night before you are required to find out if the case is still scheduled to start on time. Hugely frustrating, but we wouldn’t even be certain if he would need to attend court until the very last minute. Everything was up in the air.

Enter Steve. Steve comes from Los Angeles and was heading over to Scotland for his second attempt at the West Highland Way Race, after DNFing with hypothermia at the same point in last year’s race which nearly ruined me. Steve needed a crew and put out a shout in the West Highland Way Race Family Facebook group, asking for some local assistance. I was more than happy to help and put myself in touch with him immediately to see if we could work something out.

It took quite an exchange of emails before the final plan was made, but the important thing was; at around 8pm on Friday the 17th June, Steve’s team assembled in Milngavie to start a big adventure. There was myself, Jemma, Patrick, and an Astra hatchback stuffed full of supplies, ready for the journey ahead.

West Highland Way Race 2016

In short, we had a (dreadful) meal at the Milngavie West Highland Gate Beefeater (they’ve changed the menu since last year and the service was a horror show) before heading to Tesco to stock up on food. Next was registration, then the usual dance of hellos, hugs and well-wishes before we put Steve to bed in the car to rest for a bit and joined Mike, Jeni, and Sharon (David Scott’s crew) to chill out and chat in the last hour before the off.

It was amazing to be back at the race, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t harbouring a few nerves. Whilst I have supported twice before, I’ve never been 100% in charge of a crew, and indeed, someone’s race. Jemma and Patrick were newbies to the race – which is no impediment if you’re smart, committed, and in possession of an enduring spirit – but in general everyone will do better if there’s someone in your crew who knows what they’re doing and can take the lead.

At 12.30am we got Steve to the start and joined the Midnight hubbub of activity. Alongside the crowd of around 500 people there was the usual confused amazement of those alighting from the last train back from Glasgow, and an assortment of local neds scooting around getting in everyone’s way. I caught up with the Stonehaven Running Club crew and wished them all well, and managed to get around most other friends to deliver hugs and well wishes. It brought a lot of memories back. It was hard to believe that I was one of the runners 365 days before, but it was not the time to dwell on those meandering thoughts.

After the briefing we said our final goodbyes and took up a good position on the High Street in Milngavie to shout and cheer our loudest for the runners. It was the most perfect night – about 15C, clear skies, and with a full moon hanging above the hills. If you’re going to pick a night to run though – this was it.

A ripple of cheers flowed up from down the street as the runners came towards us. Headlights dancing, eyes bright and faces stretched with smiles. They were doing it! It was actually happening! As my eyes brimmed with tears and I screamed and hollered for them, for a moment I was one of them again. Running up a Scottish high street on Midsummer’s eve into the darkness, and towards the hills.

But, this isn’t about me. This is about Steve who came to Scotland from California to avenge the demons he left behind on the Lhairig Mhor in 2015. Steve wasn’t sure how fast he was going to run, which made it challenging to work out how best we could crew for him. He declined any assistance until Balmaha at 19 miles which was very useful – it allowed us to drive straight there and attempt to get a little sleep. Together we had previously estimated his arrival at 5am, and alarms were set accordingly…imagine our surprise when the agreed ’10 minute warning’ phone call came at 4am!
This was a little miracle – we had agreed that Steve would call at the top of Conic Hill and my phone was placed on the dashboard in full signal, ready. Except it didn’t ring. I woke up about 4:05am and decided to check the time, only to see a message received from Steve only minutes before. Had my sixth sense not been on the ball that morning them we would have been in trouble, but some things you just can’t explain I guess.

Balmaha at 4am was oddly devoid of midges. No nets were needed and the air was calm and moist – it didn’t make sense at all, but we just got on with the job. For those who had been standing still it was cold, but the runners all came in dripping with sweat. Steve was running fine and with nothing to report, so we just refilled his pockets with gels and his Camelbak with TailWind and off he went. There was one thing which made crewing infinitely easier, which was Steve’s choice of nutrition. Coming from the school of ‘stick with what works’, with a side of ‘keep it simple’ he just eats gels – one GU every 30 minutes and that’s it. No really – that’s really it.

West Highland Way Race 2016

After we saw Steve off, we drove up North for some more sleep after a hot drink and a breakfast roll at the Oak Tree Inn. Here’s where the insider knowledge comes in handy – there is a public car park half way between Balmaha and Beinglas where you can park and rest in peace until you need to meet your runner hours later at Beinglas. No slamming doors, no engines, no chat – just silence. We arrived before 6am and clocked up another chunk of rest, before arriving at Beinglas in glorious sunshine before 8am.

We really had no idea when Steve would arrive, but given his accelerated performance in the first 20 miles I didn’t want to take any risks. It became immediately obvious where all the Balmaha midges were hanging out when we reached the checkpoint area at Beinglas and were instantly swarmed with bugs. Jemma and I wrapped up to defend ourselves whilst we left Patrick to sleep in the car.

West Highland Way Race 2016

Steve came blasting through at about 9:20am looking and feeling well. He had really struggled over the Lochside section in 2015 so getting through that was a big mental hurdle for him. I was very pleased to see how ok he was and began preparing for him to reach the quicker end of his projected potential finish time.

By now it was really shaping up to be the most glorious day – clear skies and hot sun. Glorious if you are a Southern Californian perhaps, but all of our Scottish compatriots were having to seriously consider their options and ration their water in between check points. Not something we’re usually used to doing, but the West Highland Way Race has been well over-due a scorcher for several years. A race in June in Scotland, does not guarantee good weather; in case that was ever in doubt.

West Highland Way Race 2016

So we fast forward another 12 miles to Auchtertyre, and the half way point. We arrived around 10:30 and enjoyed catching up with the other crews with runners around Steve’s pace who were now becoming familiar. We basked in the sunshine and I got ready to run the first support segment, although it would be touch and go whether I would be able leave with him to due to race regulations. The revised criteria for 2016 state that runners may have a support runner after Auchertyre after 11:30am only – with Steve going at the speed he was he would be faced with waiting until 11:30, or pushing on for the next 10 miles to Bridge of Orchy alone.

However. Right on target I received a phone call from Steve, calmly reporting that he’d cracked his head off the sheep tunnel about 5 miles out from Auchtertyre and it ‘looks a lot worse than it is’. Right then. I had a quick chat with the medics to forewarn them and spoke to a runner who arrived who had been with him when he did it. When our warrior turned up, it was obvious he was right; it did look a bit drastic, but once the blood was wiped off it was just a soft tissue scrape. Steve passed the medical test despite having lost a chunk of weight, but we weren’t too worried as it was 11:31am and we were allowed to leave the checkpoint together.

West Highland Way Race 2016

Off we trotted and I got the chance to gauge how he was really doing. All in all he was fine and he even managed to cope with my dreadful chat which I was pumping out just to pass the time and keep him distracted. I soaked up the sunshine and couldn’t believe how lucky we were to be out there enjoying it.

West Highland Way Race 2016

It goes without saying that the weather was basically Scotland turned up to 11 and the run could not have been more beautiful. This section remains one of my favourite parts of the route.

West Highland Way Race 2016

West Highland Way Race 2016

West Highland Way Race 2016

At Bridge of Orchy, Jemma took over pacing duties. Everything was going perfectly so I have nothing else to report other than we refilled his fluids, took his litter, and gave him more gels, before kicking him out on his way. F1-standard ultrarunning at its finest.

Next stop: Glencoe. On the road this is a short journey so we arrived a good couple of hours before Steve would arrive and allowed us to enjoy the breath-taking beauty of Glencoe in perfect summer. There were parasailers circling high up above us, having launched themselves off the ski slopes, and if we weren’t surrounded by scorched heather there would have almost been an alpine feel to the day. I’ve never seen Glencoe look like that before; we arrived at 2pm and enjoyed an afternoon in the sun at one of Scotland’s ski resorts – when can you ever say that?

West Highland Way Race 2016

West Highland Way Race 2016

West Highland Way Race 2016

Steve arrived at 4:30pm and we sent him off with Patrick, who would then take him though to Lundavra. I then drove Patrick’s car along the road to Altnafeadh which blew my mind; despite my own car also being an Astra, it is ten years older than his and from an era when electronic handbrakes, clutches, and lights on the dashboard telling you what to do were not a thing. I can think of fewer times when I have been more anxious than when I was trying to negotiate Patrick’s car in and out of the hilly boulder field which passes for a road at Altnafeadh, with nothing but an electric handbrake for support. If this is the future of driving then I am not impressed at all.

Jemma and I then headed to Kinlochleven where we basked in the last of the evening sunlight. It was clear that barring disaster, Steve was going to really smash it. His vague goals or expectations had been, maybe around 24 hours, 21 on a really good day, but maybe 30 if things aren’t ok. Parking the car at Kinlochleven, we were expecting him around 8pm, with a potential 22 hour finish on the cards.

I wasn’t due to run until Lundavra and had a raging craving for some hot food, so I went to the chip shop and enjoyed a portion of hot salty chips. It came as a little bit of a surprise when our support runner rang on time as expected, but letting us know that he didn’t want to run any further because he was tired. He also offered a suggestion that we might not bother going to Lundavra and just go straight to Fort William, for a sleep. The less said about that the better, but unsurprisingly I found myself saddling up to run another 14 miles with a belly recently stuffed full of fried food.

Before long I found myself back on the trail which I both love and hate the most. I have never managed to enjoy a crossing of the Lharig Mhor; it’s always at the end of something – a race, a support stint, a big back-to-back. I want to love the desolate beauty, but every step I take there is always full of wishes that I could traverse it more quickly.

West Highland Way Race 2016

I knew I needed to bring my strongest self for this section as I could see Steve start to flag in places. He still had a lot of fight in him but it was getting to the point where he was going to benefit from a secondary mind working on his behalf. I told him when to run, when to walk, and when to eat. I mostly ran a few steps ahead of him, setting the pace and willing him on behind me; pulling him on in the obscene cat and mouse chase which is ultramarathon pacing. We worked well together and didn’t need to say much; I gave him walking rests when he needed them but kept the relentless forward progress ongoing. All with a belly bursting full of chips.

My early concern in this section was the temperature. There was a cold wind rushing down the glen which chilled my sweaty, sunburned skin to the bone. I was concerned that Steve might not have enough clothes on and kept in contact by text message with Jemma, asking her to run back towards us from Lundavra when arrived, with a thicker jacket for Steve. My main concern, as was his, was getting him past the milepost of Lundavra and on to the final 7 miles. There is a reason why there are Wilderness Medics out on Lharig Mhor; it is a cruel and barren place where the weather can turn on a sixpence, ending the strongest of races without mercy.

Despite Steve’s physical strength he was beginning to give me clues that things were beginning to get tough. He constantly asked how far we were away until the next checkpoint and other than that, the chat had dried up. There was an unspoken knowledge that the time had come to dig in and work together to move onwards as efficiently as possible as a pair.

When Jemma came into view there was less than a mile to go to Lundavra. Knowing this seemed to fire up Steve into another gear and he shifted his position to be in front of us with us chasing behind. Chasing is the right word; when he reached Lundavra, he blasted right through and on up the hill at speed. I paused for a cup of red bull, thinking I’d be able to catch him up quickly, until I saw him rapidly disappearing into the distance as he RAN up the hill.

Jemma and I hastily chased after him and for the next few miles we had to work really hard to keep pace. Steve was pausing for no-one; even when I tripped over my own feet and ended up tumbling off the path and smashing my elbow on a rock with a yelp, he gave nothing more than a cursory glance behind him as he continued onwards without pause.
Just before the final ascent up towards the fire road, we took a walking break for one last gel as I talked Steve through the final couple of miles of the course and what he had left to cover. Moments after he summited the hill Steve took off again, and we began the quad-juddering descent into Fort William at a comfortable but swift pace.

Upon reaching Braveheart car park we took a final walking break to catch our breath before the final push. As a group we locked into a solid pace and covered the last mile towards the leisure centre in just over ten minutes. It doesn’t matter whether you are running, crewing, or sweeping, making that final turn into the car park is very special and my heart leapt when I was finally able to tell Steve “Go on – it’s all yours” as we peeled away from him to give him his moment of glory sprinting towards the finishing arch and the end of the race.

Everyone is happy when they finish a race, but Steve had to be one of the most ecstatic finishers I’ve ever seen. He seemed genuinely surprised and delighted to have achieved his goal – as if it were ever in doubt! Steve completed the race in 22hrs 39m 17s. He didn’t want to hang around at the finish line, so within half an hour we had checked into our hotel and Steve was getting ready to have some well earned rest. I was certainly tired, but having a runner that finishes well under 24 hours makes a massive difference, so Jemma and I spent some time reflecting on the weekend in our room before we went to sleep, drinking warm beer and eating cheese and chocolate.

The next morning, after checking on Steve and eating some breakfast, we went back to the finish line to cheer in the final finishers. It was as emotional as it always is, and seeing those final warriors come in to reach the finish after 33 or 34 hours is amazing. Cheering Norma (the oldest female finisher ever) and Adrian (achieving his 15th goblet!) reduced me to a blubbering wreck of happy tears.

West Highland Way Race 2016

West Highland Way Race 2016

We then headed to the goblet ceremony and cheered all 159 finishers until our voices cracked and our hands hurt from clapping. I got the chance to catch up with most of my friends before we parted ways, but Steve had booked us an extra night in the hotel so I still had the after-party with lots of peole to look forward to later on that evening. We both went back to the hotel for lunch and then to rest for a little bit, but I ended up taking a little walk back down the course in the rain to see one last runner cover his last miles of the day…

Whilst the race was officially over, Keith was still out on the course. He had a legitimate excuse though, as he had started his run on Thursday evening in Fort William. Having ran 95 miles to the start in Milngavie, he turned around and came right back again, just because he could. After shooting the breeze with Lucy, Dod and Karen, a very tired looking figure came into sight as he entered Braveheart carpark. He stopped to say hello before his support runners chided him for not moving, so we quickly drove back to the Leisure Centre to be there when he finished.

In the pouring rain and devoid of any gantries or ceremony at all, the finish of this run looked quite different to the official race finish a couple of hours earlier, but the small group of supporters cheered like banshees when he inexplicably sprinted into the carpark after finding one last burst of energy. The amazing accomplishment was complete when Keith slapped his hands on the Leisure Centre doors in traditional ceremonial style, much to the surprise of the staff inside. A lady came out and disapprovingly wiped the doors clean of his hand prints – quickly erasing any lasting visual evidence of the 190 miles of hard work which had been clocked. A sobering reminder that not everyone ‘gets’ it.

Wrapped in an embrace of warm, happy running feelings, I went back for another nap before the party. I finally got to my bed at 4am after the after-after party and drinking champagne with a bunch of friends including esteemed guest, Hal Koerner, but that’s perhaps another story for another day.

West Highland Way Race 2016

West Highland Way Training Weekend

Last weekend I took my first trip back to the Southern half of the West Highland Way, since the West Highland Way Race in June 2015. The annual January training weekend was taking place once more at The Oak Tree Inn, and despite not running the race this year, to miss the annual January get-together was unthinkable.

 

After a hairy drive across Scotland going head-on into Storm Gertrude, we arrived at the Oak Tree around gin o’clock. Thankfully, despite passing one car accident and three over-turned lorries on the way, we achieved safe passage without incident. After a couple of drinks and a substantial meal to fuel the next day’s efforts, we retired to bed as the wind screamed through the trees around us creating ominous noises.

west highland way race training weekend

The next morning we awoke to a scattering of snow on the ground and continuing relentless wind. There was no two ways about it – the forecast was extremely poor…

balmaha weather

The wind was pushing off Loch Lomond from the West in huge gusts and creating big waves on the water. It seemed like the weather was changing every five minutes – when I sat down to breakfast the sun was shining, but by the time I’d ordered my coffee it was hammering down with hail.

Somewhat reluctantly I swallowed some cement and hardened myself up, and turned out for the start of the run at 9:50. There was a huge turnout, with many more people arriving on the morning than had stayed the night before. After a brief introduction from Ian we set off en masse at 10am, being battered from all sides by the wind.

west highland way craigie fort

I had given some consideration as to how far I wanted to run, but after the weather forecast veered into dangerous territory, I decided to call it on the day. I knew at a minimum I wanted to run to Rowardennan and back (around 16 miles) which would be a sensible distance for my first ‘long run’ of the year; if I was enjoying myself more then I would continue.

Ben Lomond west highland way

Ben Lomond in the snow

Either way my priority was to socialise and enjoy myself, which is why I was disappointed to find myself running alone for the first 8 miles. As usual – too fast to be slow and too slow to be fast. I am also a pig for sticking at exactly my own pace,  so unless someone else is running at exactly that on a group run, I rarely end up with close company on long runs.

Loch Lomond National Park Memorial Scuplture

Loch Lomond National Park Memorial Scuplture

The weather was very changeable, but careful dressing meant I was able to regulate my temperature well. On the sections away from the Lochside it was quite calm and snowy, but on the more exposed sections you really had to get your head down and shield your face from the hail. I’ve never seen the Loch look so rough as it did on Saturday!

Milarochy Bay west highland way

Milarochy Bay

I stopped at the war memorial at Rowardennan when I hit 8 miles and decided I would make my way back after a snack. As I wandered around eating some biscuits, I bumped into Fiona and Pauline who were heading back too, so I stuck with them on the return journey. It was the right decision to make as the intervals of sun became more and more infrequent and the wind and hail increasingly more violent! Violent is the right word; the pea-sized hail really stung your bare skin as it flew in sideways at speed. It got so bad it was fun – at least it wasn’t rain and we stayed mostly dry!

photo by Fiona

photo by Fiona

photo by Fiona

photo by Fiona

(link to video – click)

We made it back to base about three and a half hours after starting, just in time to get the last of the lunchtime soup at the Oak Tree. After defrosting and enjoying a couple of beers, I headed back for a lovely hot shower and a snooze before the evening’s festivities began.

The next morning, Kynon and I blew the cobwebs away with an ascent and descent of Conic Hill. I’d love to share some photos, but the cloud was so thick and low that you couldn’t see a thing. Here’s one of my favourites from last year instead…

whw training 7

It was interesting to be back on the West Highland Way for the first time since the race. I had a few flashback memories along the way of things that I’d forgotten about from the race, and as ever, the trail didn’t fail to shine despite the changeable weather. I’d forgotten how beautiful some of the forest sections near Rowardennan are.

After a few weeks of speed training I was satisfied with my first ‘Long’ run in a while and am looking forward to increasing my mileage in preparation for the Sri Chinmoy 50k at the end of March. Next up – 18 miles on the road, tomorrow!

Have you trained through the nasty weather recently?
What’s your favourite part of the West Highland Way?

Earn The Right

Inside my front door, there are thirteen pairs of running shoes which belong to me.  Make your way up the stairs, and you’ll pass coat hooks with several running jackets hanging next to a fuel belt and a couple of hydration packs. If you stray into the kitchen, you might open a cupboard and see boxes of energy gels, flapjacks, protein bars, and a shelf of various paraphernalia; a head torch, a packet of Compeed, a half used roll of athletic tape.

Walking into the living room, a bookshelf dominates one wall: ‘Born to Run, ‘Eat and Run’, ‘Why We Run’, ‘Run or Die’, ‘Runner’, ‘Running for Women’, ‘Relentless Forward Progress’, autobiographies of Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis, Paula Radcliffe, with several issues of Like The Wind magazine piled on top. Behind the couch is a pile of medals, sprawling in a mess since their collective hanging weight nearly pulled a light fitting off the wall last month. The focal point of the room is the fireplace; in the centre of the mantlepiece is a crystal goblet, flanked on either side by several other small mementos, quaichs, and plaques. Anyone would think that a runner lived in this house.

West Highland Way Triple Crown

Much thought has been given in the past as to at what point it is permissible to call oneself a ‘runner’. Many people incorporate a small amount of running as part of a larger training regime, but they would not call themselves a ‘runner’. Some people will run five days a week but never compete in a race, thus will refuse to call themselves a ‘runner’. There is also the elitist mindset that believes that someone moving at anything less than a certain pace is a jogger, not a runner. I’ve always been of the mindset that if you run, then you’re a runner.

So what am I, if I have not been running?

Regardless of what speed you move at, you have to actually partake in the activity to be a part of it. You can own all the running shoes in the world, but unless you are running in them then you are not a runner. You have to earn the right to call yourself a runner. Since entering life without a structured training plan, in the last few months I’ve been feeling like I’ve been slipping further and further away from the title, leading to somewhat of a loss of identity at times. My monthly mileage from September to December 2015 even when combined does not exceed or even remotely equal the total achieved in each month in the early part of the year, which is a strange situation to find oneself in when you are commonly referred to as an ‘ultrarunner’.

West Highland Way Race

Training for completion of the West Highland Way Race and the accompanying Triple Crown races was such a long labour of love that it almost felt natural to step back for a little while and reassess where I wanted to go next. The combination of that step back, complete dedication to the completion and submission of my MSc in October, and perhaps an added sprinkle of residual over-training syndrome or cumulative fatigue has led to a different situation at the start of 2016 – I have no idea what my goals are, still. Having no plans whatsoever was fun at first – a totally open calendar felt like an amazing opportunity, but now having still found no direction I feel I am flailing a bit.

To this end, I decided not to indulge in the blogger’s bread and butter in December and post a 2015 round up. To me it didn’t make sense to conclude one year without a clear vision for the next. Taking a brief look back though, despite going out with a fizzle rather than a bang, 2015 was alright.

Another PB at the D33:

d33 ultra

An amazing 1hr 21m PB at the Highland Fling – a race I still credit as my strongest yet:

hoka highland fling

Photo by Clark Hamilton

Finally getting *that* Goblet:

west highland way race 2015

Finishing the Devil o’the Highlands, and achieving the Triple Crown, hand in hand in the pouring rain with my husband:

devil o the highlands race 2015

Photo by Clark Hamilton

Submitting my MSc and heading off to Berlin to fun-run the marathon:

berlin marathon finish

And graduating. The work was worth it, and I passed with a Distinction:

Graduation

So how on earth does one follow a year like that? Without major goals, I need to re-immerse myself slowly. I need to re-earn the right to call myself a runner again. I’ve already had a couple of false starts at getting into a training routine;  partially due to my work situation at the moment, it’s challenging just to get into and keep a routine in general.

Earn the right

[Embedded video link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0B-SIJedZJg]

Once upon a time I was a student at the University of Texas at Austin. Even now over a decade later, I still follow the football programme avidly and my blood still flows burnt orange as a lifelong Longhorn fan. The Texas Longhorns have a great YouTube channel and the above video stuck with me the first time I watched it. Despite it now being a few years old I often rewatch it when I need a boost or a reminder why I need to keep working every single day.

“We constantly say that you’re not given anything in life. Even if you’re given an opportunity, you have to earn the right to keep it.”

I’m lucky in that my hiatus from running has been more or less a choice. Many are not so lucky and have been sidelined by injury or other circumstances. It has been humbling to go back out and find that running 8 miles without a break is quite exhausting, humbling to be reminded that the speed I once had is no longer there, and downright frustrating when I’m reminded how much harder it is to run when you’re carrying an extra stone around. The saying “Once a runner, always a runner” may be true, but for me I want to earn the right to keep it.

So what’s the plan?

I’d like to try some different things this year. After four consecutive Springs of training for the D33 Ultra and three training for the Highland Fling, it was almost a relief when I realised I was not going to be free on either race weekend in 2016. I will miss the social for sure, but this is forcing me to look beyond my usual routine and push me out of my comfort zone. You don’t get any better by doing the same things every year!

To this end I’ve decided to focus on the Sri Chinmoy Perth 50k at the end of March, and choose an Autumn marathon to target train for and really claw back some speed. I won a place on twitter for the Fort William Marathon in July, and I’m considering if I would like to return to the Devil o’the Highlands for a second time.  Other than that, my calendar is wide open and I’m looking for new races to try.

What’s on your 2016 calendar?
Are you setting any new goals?
Do you have any suggestions for new races I should run?

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