Friday, July 31, 2009

43 miles? You're having a laugh...

It is just over a week until the next ultra on the circuit, the 43 mile 'Devil O'The Highlands' footrace. At this stage I should be in the middle of a relaxing taper, looking forward to a 'short' run less than half the length of the WHW, and generally feeling great. I should be planning my splits with great enthusiasm, and working out how I am going to come storming home over the last few miles, leaving others such as JK in my wake.

But I'm not. I'm sitting here wondering what on earth has happened to my body, and why it has chosen this moment to rebel against my perfectly reasonable demand to complete another ultra race. A visit to my massage lady Amanda on Wednesday evening confirmed what I already suspected: my legs are not in their best shape. In fact they are very close to their worst shape. The general condition of my body has not been helped by yet another heavy fall when I was out training on the WHW last Sunday, something that is starting to occur with depressing regularity. It was an almost identical fall to the one during the WHW race, with me landing once again on my left knee and elbow, resulting in a gaping hole in my knee which has throbbed for much of the week. To compound my embarrassment 4 lady walkers witnessed it, or at least witnessed my expletive loaded cry for help and turned around to find me lying face down in the long grass, just off the main WHW path.

In case anyone is wondering, however, I am not considering withdrawing from the Devil O. No chance. I will be there and intend to finish. I'm going to have a few days off running, and expect to feel considerably refreshed after that. It is the first ultra since Dario's death, which will make it an emotional, unmissable event; all the more so as allybea and I backed up Dario in last year's race.

In the meantime I am off to have my last gin and tonic before beginning a self imposed alcohol ban for most of the month of August. Something tells me that is going to be a more difficult challenge than the Devil O... :)

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Farewell Dario

Today was Dario's funeral. It was a lovely service; a fitting send off to a great friend and an inspiration to all of us. It was moving to see the huge turnout, including many who had travelled a long distance to be there. Among the people I spoke to were Jez Bragg, Mike Mason, Dave Waterman and Ian and Rachel McCuig, all of whom had travelled up from England to pay tribute to a man who clearly had such an impact on so many people's lives.

One of the WHW family, Jody Young, brought his bagpipes and played one of my favourite tunes, Highland Cathedral, as we left the service. I found it incredibly moving. I've put a link to a YouTube version of the tune below.

As I type this post I am sitting here drinking a Rosebank malt whisky and thinking of Dario. Rosebank Distillery is now closed, but it was located in Falkirk, a few hundred yards from where Dario's funeral was held earlier today and close to where Dario was brought up. Given Dario's love of malt whisky, I can think of nothing more appropriate.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

My friend Dario - some memories

I have been in a state of shock this week since receiving news on Sunday evening of Dario's death. I have known Dario since I first showed an interest in the West Highland Way race in 1998. I was given his name and telephone number by Jim Stewart, who was the race organiser at that time, and encouraged to call him if I had any questions or was looking for any advice. I spoke to Dario a number of times before the race, most of the calls lasting well over an hour, and even though I did not complete the race that year I valued greatly his help and support. More importantly I had made a very good friend - someone who would remain a close friend for the rest of his life.

In 2000 Dario 'moved upstairs' to become race director, or 'race co-ordinator' as he described himself in the 2005 WHW film Closing Distance. (That makes me laugh every time I see it - he did so much more than co-ordinate.) 2000 was also the year that I finished the race for the first time, and received my first goblet from him. Our friendship grew over the years - I remember him telling me after the 2001 race how glad he was to see me back again, and how much it meant to him that people came back year after year to run what he always regarded as(and always has been) the best event on the calendar.

The race developed significantly over the next few years, with numbers increasing along with the demands on the race organiser around safety issues. I think it was 2005 that 4 runners ended up in hospital, with 2 in a very serious condition. Fortunately all survived, but Dario was determined to make sure similar problems would not arise in future if at all possible, and arranged for a group of around 10 of us to meet in Edinburgh and discuss areas where improvements could be made. I've always thought that meeting said a lot about Dario - the race was a huge part of his life, and he wanted to make sure that it was as good as it possibly could be, with as little risk to the runners as possible. The involvement of Chris Ellis and his team is one of his many legacies. It has ensured that the level of medical support and knowledge is now much greater than it was back then, and everyone is much safer as a result, but the risks will never go away entirely - how can they when people are pushing themselves to the absolute limit? On a few occasions we discussed the view that a fatality during an extreme race like the WHW was almost inevitable at some point. Although Dario agreed with this, he was determined to do everything possible to minimise the risks of such a tragedy occurring and leave nothing to chance - in particular by the diligent way in which he vetted each potential entrant's application form and running experience. He would often phone the individual concerned for further information, or would even send them out on a trial run with more experienced runners, or ask other runners for informal references, before allowing them to apply for an entry form. Once accepted, you were welcomed with open arms by Dario as part of the very special WHW family.

In 2006 I moved to Perthshire and Dario became one of my near neighbours, living no more than 5 miles away. One of my pre WHW race routines was to go round to Dario's house on the Thursday before the race, and spend an hour or so chatting about likely race winners, who was in good form, whether there were any problems with the route, and so on. I really enjoyed these chats which set me up nicely for the race. The fact Dario lived so close also meant that we were able to arrange a few whisky nights, where Dario, Phil and I would put the world to right and sample whiskies from all over Scotland - always malts and inevitably finishing with one from Islay. I will always remember Dario arriving a bit early for a whisky night at our house, when I was just finishing clearing out the garage and putting a lot of rubbish in a skip (a most unusual event, I have to say). I was hot, sweaty and enjoying a cold beer, and of course offered one to Dario. I'll never forget his response. "No thanks - I don't want to spoil my palate for the whisky tasting". I wondered if he was having a laugh, but realised quickly that he was completely serious. Among his many talents there is no question that Dario was a whisky connoisseur :)

This year we have been for a couple of runs together. The first was in early May on the section of the Cateran Trail between Alyth and Blairgowrie. This section of the route is not marked and Dario had offered to show me the route prior to the race. We had a really enjoyable run that day, and it is a tribute to Dario's navigational skills that I managed to find my way along that section on the day of the race without getting lost. The other run was on the WHW, not long before this year's race, when a group of us were doing a night run from Milngavie to Balmaha. We dropped Dario off at the Beech Tree Inn and then met up with him at the finish at Balmaha. I know that he really enjoyed it, although on more than one occasion asked us why on earth he had decided to take part in a night run, when he wasn't even running in the race.

That was followed by a great day out at this year's Scottish Cup final along with Alison (allybea) and Gordon (No 3 son). Dario and I are both Falkirk supporters, and Falkirk don't get to cup finals very often, so it was a 'must do' event. We had cracking seats in the south stand, the weather was brilliant, and Falkirk played really well, although were somewhat unfortunate to lose 1-0. Despite the defeat we all enjoyed a great day out, and after the game had the usual light-hearted chat about whether either of us would ever be alive to see Falkirk in a cup final again. Little did we know that Dario wouldn't live to see another Falkirk game, let alone another cup final. With the benefit of hindsight I'm so pleased that I was at that game with Dario. Alison and I will remember it as a very special day.

Dario had bought tickets for us to go tomorrow night to Falkirk's first ever European game, a Europa League tie against FC Vaduz. He had queued last week for an hour and a half for the tickets, and was really looking forward to it. I'm just so sad that we won't be there.

There are a few other things about Dario that many of the more recent members of the WHW family may not know. Firstly, he was a quality runner himself, with a PB for the marathon of 2.52. He told me the story of the day he turned up at a Glasgow marathon to try and pace a friend to get under 3 hours, planning to drop out about the 16 mile point. By the 16 mile point it was clear that his friend could not make 3 hours, so Dario pushed on himself to record another time in the low 2.50s. Incredible. I remember Doug Gillon (the Herald's athletics correspondent) telling me about a track and field meeting he was covering, when Dario took part for his club Harlequins. Dario was the only member of the club and did every event on the programme that day: 100m, 200m, 400m 800m, 1,500m, high jump, long jump, and everything else in between. By all accounts he was very annoyed by the official ruling that he could not take part in the 4 x 100m or 4 x 400m relays!

I am still finding it really difficult to accept Dario is no longer here. He was a great friend. I have shed many tears this week, as has Alison, but our pain must be small compared with that of his wife and close family. I hope they take some comfort from all of the great memories of Dario, and from the outpouring of love and affection that has been so apparent on the WHW forum.

Dario, thank you so much for your friendship for the last 11 years. I miss you. RIP.


Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Half term report

We are now into July, so it seems like a good time for me to have a quick look back at the first half of the year, at least from a running perspective.

In the 6 months to the end of June I completed 13 races. Although I enjoyed most of them, none was in a particularly great time, so it is probably fair to describe it as a year so far of quantity rather than quality. 4 of the 13 races were ultras (Glasgow to Edinburgh, Highland Fling, Cateran Trail and West Highland Way); 2 were half marathons (including a sub 1.30 - just - at Inverness); 3 were 10ks (all over 40 minutes); and the other 4 included a new 8 mile race at Glen Lednock and the National Cross Country, where I didn't get near to the top half of the field.

I was really pleased to finish the West Highland Way race this year, although felt I ran quite cautiously and would hope to push it a bit harder next year. The WHW is definitely the "biggie" in my running year and, despite my best attempts to stay calm, found it remains the only race where I get really nervous beforehand. It may be a bit of a surprise, but I would nominate the Cateran Trail as my favourite race of the first 6 months - perhaps because it was good to run something new which, unlike the G to E, was run over an enjoyable and scenic route in a lovely part of the country.

My mileage for the 6 months totalled 1,120. That is quite a bit less than a lot of the other guys, but given everything else that I have going on is perfectly adequate for me, and leaves me well placed to reach my target of 2,000 miles for the year.

So, what about the rest of the year? I'm planning to have an easy July before taking part in and hopefully enjoying the Devil O'The Highlands in early August. Other probable races include the Glasgow half marathon (although I haven't entered yet); the River Ayr Way (I quite fancy it but am a bit worried about getting lost, as it is not well signposted); the Loch Ness Marathon (already entered - it's my favourite road marathon); and then the 24 hour track race in Tooting. If I do all of these it will probably be time to have a bit of a rest, as that would be 7 ultras and a marathon in the space of 8 months - probably not what any of the coaching manuals would recommend.

Next year I need to focus more on quality....