Monday, June 22, 2009

My race report

I thought I would write all of this down when it is still fresh in my mind. By later on this week, the whole experience will have been "wonderful", "trouble-free", and "thoroughly enjoyable" - it is quite amazing how the memory can play tricks, and how quickly the pain fades. So here is the real version, while the pain is still here, and I am able to remember the bad bits as well as the good.

I felt very nervous this year when I arrived at Milngavie. It didn't help that I had agreed to give blood (it is to be analysed on a pre race and post race basis, which will be interesting) but it left me with a big lump and bruising on my right arm. I tried not to worry too much about it, and it turned out to be insignificant compared to the mess of my left knee and elbow when I fell just 2 and a half miles into the route, having tripped over a stone. Not a great start. I brushed myself down and carried on, but it definitely nipped for a while, and was still bleeding when I met up with Allybea and George for the first time at Drymen. Still, I wasn't going to let it spoil my race, and fortunately there was no serious damage done.

I arrived at Drymen in exactly 2 hours, which was fine. I wasn't really worrying too much about the clock this year, and was determined to run my own race and not concern myself about anyone else. I still felt good as I came over Conic Hill and into Balmaha car park, although even after all these years there is still something a bit surreal about arriving in a car park in the middle of nowhere at 4.30 am on a Saturday morning, and finding it full of people, cars and vans. On to Rowardennan, still feeling good and quite relieved to pass the point where I dropped out last year, and then onto Inversnaid. So far so good - my time looked ok and I felt positive. The midges were out in their thousands and even Allybea was bitten, which is most unusual, but they weren't causing me too much distress, apart from a few of the wee buggers that found their way in my eyes.

But my positive feelings soon disappeared when I hit the northern part of Loch Lomond. This part of the course is hell on earth, particularly when it has been wet and the rocks are slippy - as it was on Saturday. It seemed to take me an age to negotiate my way along the track, and it was a great relief when I started heading up and over the hill at the head of the loch, and down towards Beinglas Farm. I had lost a lot of time but, as mentioned already, that wasn't my main concern - it was more important to be moving forward. The checkpoint had been moved this year to Carmyle Cottage, which was not very pleasant because of the huge number of cars and limited space. I was a bit grumpy here (probably for the first time in the race, but certainly not the last), and was glad to get going again, having taken onboard some soup.

It took me a while to get running again, and I needed to make an emergency pit stop in the field -never a pleasant experience, even though I was carrying toilet paper and hand gel -but once the food kicked in I felt a bit better and started to run more strongly. I arrived at the Auchtertyre checkpoint in a bit over 11 hours, and was pleased to see that my weight was fine. I had lost 2kgs by this stage which was within the acceptable range. I got another mental boost by passing through Tyndrum just a shade under 12 hours - I knew that meant I should be able to do sub 24 relatively comfortably (or as relatively comfortably as you can be while running 95 miles). I am usually strong on the next section, but wasn't as good this year, and gave another very good impression of Mr Grumpy when I arrived at the checkpoint at Bridge of Orchy. My legs were hurting, I was on a bit of a downer, I had been on the go for 13 and a half hours and I knew that I still had another 10 hours or so to go. As Allybea and George admitted afterwards, they were a bit concerned about me at that point, but they have both been doing this long enough to know that a) I go through various highs and lows throughout the race, and b) it is really crucial on these downers that they remain positive and help lift me through it. As ever, they did it superbly, and I was in a slightly happier frame of mind as I left Bridge of Orchy and headed up the hill.

That positive frame of mind saw me right onto Rannoch Moor, but before too long I hit my biggest downer of the day (and probably one of the biggest lows I have ever hit in this race). For 20 minutes or so I just couldn't run at all. My legs wouldn't move. Before it hit me I had been doing quite well, even running some of the uphill parts, and keeping close to a few other runners who were round about. Now all I could do was watch them disappear into the distance, with my body completely incapable of responding or doing anything about it. I convinced myself that I would have to walk all the way in to Fort William, as there was no way I would be able to run. I went through all my pre race motivational thoughts: 'would Ellen MacArthur keep going?', 'this is my race - don't worry about anyone else', 'we are privileged to be able to do this, so lets enjoy it'. And not one of of them made the slightest difference to the way I was feeling. I was struggling to move forward, and I was hating it.

And then, as if by magic, it lifted. I tried running again and, to my great suprise, I was able to do so. I was too scared to stop, in case I couldn't get going again, so I just kept running - down towards Ba Bridge, across the bridge and all the way along to the climb off Rannoch Moor. I must have run for close to half an hour without a stop. It was such a relief. Suddenly I was positive again - I was going to finish this, and I was going to finish it in a bloody good time. I headed towards Kingshouse with a spring in my step, the only disappointment being where I passed a clearly injured Thomas hobbling slowly down the path. It was obvious that he would not be going much further, despite the great encouragement he was getting from Silke, and I was gutted for him. That's 2 years in a row he has had to drop out at Kingshouse. Hopefully next year will be 3rd time lucky. He is an incredibly talented athlete, and it would be great to see him collect his long awaited goblet at next year's prizegiving.

George - who with Allybea, was doing my support - ran with me from Kingshouse. I had been running more or less on my own for the last 50 miles or so, and was really needing the company. It was therefore a great relief to find that I was a lot more than 4 hours behind the race leader and was allowed a support runner at that stage. I ran well along to the Devil's Staircase, but the climb up was the usual torture. Whose idea was it to put in a 1,000 foot climb, 75 miles into a race? And if I thought the assent was bad, the descent was 10 times worse, with my quads screaming all the way down the steep path.

I arrived in Kinlochleven after exactly 19 hours' running. I was weighed - my weight seemed to be fine, although I can't remember what it was at that stage - and had a quick word with Karen and Al from our club, who had travelled all the way to offer some support and see what the race was all about. (Incidentally Karen did the Highland Fling this year and I will be amazed if she does not enter next year's WHW race. There was even a rumour she was taking some notes!). After some more soup - to be honest I was getting a bit fed up with soup, but couldn't face anything else - George and I headed off up the next 1,000 foot climb onto the Lairig Mor. The Lairig Mor was the usual long hard slog, but eventually we turned the corner and I knew we were getting closer to the end. I stopped briefly at the checkpoint at Lundavra and tried to eat a banana, but only succeeded in bringing up everything I had eaten over the last few hours. Not very pleasant. I quickly headed on my way before Uncle Dunc, the checkpoint marshall, had time to question whether or not I was in a fit state to continue. I was definitely finishing now and nobody was going to stop me.

It was starting to get dark. This slowed me down, as there were sections where it was just not sensible to run, but I was quite happy to power walk at a good pace across the stones. About 4 miles from the end we passed Marco and Debbie. Marco was going slowly and was clearly dead on his feet, but there was no way he was stopping. He eventually managed to keep going all the way to the end to come in well under 24 hours, which was a great effort and must have taken some amount of willpower. Or perhaps he was just too scared of Debbie's reaction if he stopped. She can be a fierce woman when she puts her mind to it and according to reports from the Lundavra checkpoint, she appears to know an impressively large number of expletives, many of which were used to 'motivate' Marco.

The last section down the forest track to Fort William seemed to last for ever, and I was getting quite cold - I should have changed out of my shorts a bit earlier on - but eventually George and I passed the Braveheart car park and hit the road for the final mile. I ran the bits I could run, walked hard when I couldn't, and after 23 hours 11 minutes arrived at the finish at Fort William Leisure Centre. I was 33rd from 122 finishers. I had expected it to be a hugely emotional moment, especially after last year's failure, but it wasn't at all. I just felt completely relieved it was all over and glad I could stop.

As soon as I finished I was weighed and found I had lost a total of 5.5 kgs over the course of the day, 12 lbs in old money. As I felt a bit light headed I didn't give blood at that stage, although came back and gave it the following morning when I felt a lot better. I had a quick massage and headed back to the Premier Inn. As usual after this race my body was just too sore to sleep comfortably, so I ended up getting up at 6 am, having a bath, then going back up to the Leisure Centre to watch some of the finishers come in.

So, mission accomplished. I have now completed 8 WHW races, and have moved up to 5th pace on the all time list for the number of completions. It is still far too early to say that I am looking forward to next year, but I'm suspect that by Thursday I'll be phoning the Premier Inn to confirm our annual booking...

There were some great performances from many people. As this is my race report I am not going to comment specifically on these, but well done to everyone who finished - it is a great achievement. Finally, a huge thanks to my support crew Allybea and George, who, as ever, were quite superb. They have been my support crew since my first WHW race finish in 2000, and I couldn't ask for anything more from them. I am incredibly lucky to have 2 people who are so committed to helping me do this race as well as I can. They put up with my highs and lows, and keep smiling throughout. I couldn't do it without them, and am hugely appreciative of all their efforts. And a huge thanks as well to Dario, the race organiser, who puts in so much work to ensure that this remains far and away Scotland's top running event.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

West Highland Way race

Just a very quick post to say that I completed this year's WHW race in 23 hours and 11 minutes, finishing in 33rd place from just over 120 finishers (and 147 starters). I would describe my run as "satisfactory" - I've been faster, but the whole objective this year was to finish and put last year's DNF to the sword. As you would expect it was hard, really hard at times, but I'm delighted to say I came through these difficult stretches to record my 8th finish.

I'll post a more detailed report when I am not so tired.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Diary of the week before the race: Saturday to Wednesday

Saturday 13 June

I had decided that today would be my last hard run before the WHW race. There was a 10k on in Milngavie, organised by Marco’s club, Garscube Harriers, so I decided to go for it and use it as my last hard run. There were 2 main reasons for this: to sample the atmosphere of Milngavie one week before the WHW race, and to repeat my preparation from 2003, which was the year that I finished under 22 hours for the first time.

Allybea was driving down to Kilmarnock to see her mum and dad, so rather than take 2 cars all the way to Ayrshire I decided that I would just get the train to Milngavie, and then take the train down to Kilmarnock after the race. The first sign that this might be a problem came at Dunblane station. I explained to the Scotrail ticket man that I wanted to travel from Dunblane to Glasgow Queen Street, then on to Milngavie, then back to Queen Street, then walk to Glasgow Central, then finally get a train to Kilmarnock. I would not be coming back by train, as I would get a lift from Allybea. What was the best ticket I could buy? Oh, and before he answered, he might want to take account of the fact that I had a half price voucher that I wanted to use.

It was not a surprise to find out he had no idea of the best ticket. He eventually sold me a return from Dunblane to Kilmarnock, with my half price discount, but forgot to give me a ticket for Queen Street to Milngavie and back. As the queue was getting longer and longer, and a train was about to arrive, I settled for this and got my Milngavie ticket from the guard on the train.

I had more hassle when I arrived and registered for the race. Having paid my £8, I asked the girl at registration if there was somewhere I could leave my bag. “No, I don’t think so” I was told. “Can you not leave it in your car?” “No, I don’t have my car with me - I came in the train”, I said. “Do you not have any mates you could leave it with?” “No, I don’t have any mates”. She shrugged her shoulders and gave me a look which left me in no doubt it was my problem, not hers. Fortunately at that moment JB appeared,with whom I used to run at lunchtime when I worked in Glasgow. He was going to be doing the results and suggested I leave my bag in the results room, beside him. So, problem solved. I still needed to get changed behind an ice cream van as there didn’t seem to be anywhere else.

The race began at 11.30am from the centre of the Highland Games field. I started off at a steady pace and worked away solidly in the heat. At about the half way point I passed Graeme Reid, and managed to stay in front of him for the rest of the route. The last few kilometres up the hills were hard work, but I finished in a time of 41.39, which I was perfectly happy with. It had not been easy, but was exactly the session I had hoped for. Now on to my taper!

The journey from Milngavie to Kilmarnock was a nightmare. When I reached Central Station I realised that there were no trains to Kilmarnock, due to engineering works. It would have been nice to have been told that earlier on when I bought my ticket. Instead I had to get a train to Barrhead then change to a rail replacement bus – the only problem was that these buses were only running every hour, so I had to sit on a wall outside Barrhead station for about 45 minutes before the bus was ready to leave. It was roasting and I had no sun cream on. I finally arrived in Kilmarnock at 5.40pm, a full 4 hours after setting out for the train in Milngavie. What a nightmare. Next time I’ll be ignoring the green agenda and taking my car.

Sunday 14 June

I had a quiet and relaxing day today. I slept until 10 am, clearly needing the extra sleep after my busy week at work. After a leisurely breakfast, I took Lucy (Dog No 3) for an hour’s walk in the grounds around Braco castle, including a swim in the river. She loved it. Then in the early evening I went to Amanda for my pre race massage. My quads and calves were a bit tight and it was sore when she got right into them, but generally I think my body is in reasonably good shape,and I am feeling relaxed. Both Allybea and I are determined to enjoy the whole experience of this year’s race, trying hard to remain calm and not get too worked up about things. Hopefully that will continue throughout the week.

Monday 15 June

Back at work today. Things were going fine until I had a meeting with someone at 10.00. Imagine my horror when, after making the introductions, he said "Sorry, I've been feeling completely lousy all weekend (cough), think I'm getting back to normal (cough cough), feeling at least 80% which is 75% than I was feeling yesterday (splutter splutter cough spit)". A look of horror crossed my face and I spent the entire meeting trying to stay out of his line of breathing. I almost fell out of the meeting room door at one stage, so far away from him I had moved. I can't remember much about the meeting at all, but I do remember that as soon as it was finished I rushed to the toilet, washed my hands at least 3 times, and put on some of that disinfectant gel intended to prevent the spread of swine flu.

For the next hour or so I was convinced I was coming down with the mother and father of all colds, probably a virus, and that there was no way I would be fit for Saturday. At lunchtime I went out for an easy run (my second last before the race), and I was relieved to feel, er, normal. In fact I would almost say I felt good. I had an easy 4 mile trot through the streets of Edinburgh, and that helped to calm me down.

The rest of the day was fairly uneventful. I arrived home from work at about half 7, had some tea, took the dogs for a short walk, then relaxed in the bath for half an hour. I made it to bed by 10.30, and slept like a log.

Tuesday 16 June

A rest day today (at least in terms of running) although very busy at work. That was undoubtedly a good thing, as I had no time at all to worry about getting / being ill or having sore legs, feet, knees or other parts of my body. My stomach was a bit sore, but that was because I had drunk too much coffee today at all my meetings. As I write this it is 6.50 and I am about to leave the office for the long journey back to Perthshire. Allybea is going out at the school show and has left a voicemail on my phone, telling me that I'll need to pick up some tea from Sainsburys on the way back home. I better choose something easy and quick to cook, high in carbohydrates: perhaps a pizza or a couple of scotch eggs?

Update: just as I left the office Mr Race Director phoned, so it was good to have a quick chat with him. And I went for the sensible option for tea – ravioli with smoked salmon. Yum.

Wednesday 17 June

At a sportscotland meeting in the morning, then back to the office for a quick check of my emails before heading across Edinburgh to meet a number of the WHW runners for some lunch. It was great to catch up with everyone – the excitement is certainly starting to build. This was my last day in the office, so I finished quite late then headed out for my last pre race run, a 4 mile jog round the centre of Edinburgh. To be honest it was a bit of a waste of time, and I might have been better not bothering at all. I felt like I was going through the motions and my legs felt a bit heavy after a few really busy days. Still, I followed my plan and did it, with no ill effects. The next time I run will be from Milngavie station, early on Saturday morning. Can’t wait!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Problems in the country

I've been meaning to do this post for a few weeks, ever since some idiot thought it was a good idea to scatter carpet tacks around the halfway point of the Etape Caledonia cycle, somewhere near Kinloch Rannoch. A 62 year old man (solicitor, church elder and leader of the local community council, if you believe the local press) has been charged with a number of offences relating to that incident, so in the interests of justice it is probably best that I don't comment directly on him or on his alleged acts. It does however highlight a more general point that has been concerning me recently - why do people who live in the country have a problem sharing the countryside with others?

As well as the Etape incident, there were problems in last year's WHW race and in this year's Highland Fling. Both arose from the fact that a lot of people were wanting to support the runners but there were inadequate facilities for parking, particularly around Beinglas Farm and the Kingshouse Hotel. At Kingshouse someone contrived to park their camper van on the hotel's front lawn, which quite understandably did not go down well at all with the owner. However I have sensed a general antagonism from many land owners to runners which is not at all healthy, and seems to me to be based on a selfish desire to keep the countryside to themselves: "this is my countryside and I don't want you anywhere near it, you smelly runner". Surely the countryside is big enough for all of us to enjoy? And I am surprised that the owners of local businesses, such as Beinglas Farm campsite and Kingshouse Hotel, are not able to see the opportunities of attracting the running fratenity - if each support person bought something from the Kingshouse hotel, for example, their day's takings would probably be up by more than £1,000. For a small business that seems worthwhile.

I should say quickly that not all businesses on the WHW are the same. The Real Food Cafe and the Green Welly Stop in Tyndrum are very welcoming, and have both been involved as sponsors of the WHW race, the Highland Fling or the Devil O. And guess what - these are places we (and many friends) make a point of visiting when we are on our way through Tyndrum. It is no surprise to me at all they are both successful, thriving businesses - they know the importance of looking after their customer base, and the need to make their customers feel welcome. Auchtertyre Farm is another good example of a business that puts its customers first, and Tony Waterhouse, the manager there and a past president of Central AC, has been a great help in allowing the Farm to be used as a WHW checkpoint.

However if we are going to be welcomed in the countryside, then we need to respect it. I have to say that I was really disappointed by the amount of rubbish that was left on the route during the Fling - things like gel packets, sports drink bottles and so on which had clearly been dropped by runners. That is just unacceptable. The Scottish Outdoor Access Code is a fantastic piece of legislation that gives us the right to run just about anywhere in Scotland, but with that comes responsibilities, one of which is 'care for your environment'. That includes taking your litter with you, so here is my plea to all runners and support taking part in the WHW race next week: DO NOT DROP RUBBISH ANYWHERE ON THE WHW ROUTE. Put it in your bag and take it to the next checkpoint. If everyone does that there will be far fewer problems, and we can all enjoy the countryside in our different ways.