This was my big race of the year. What I thought was an over-ambitious goal to shift the baby weight turned out to be the race of my life.
The Scottish ultra-running scene has become very popular over the last few years and is now hugely competitive. When I signed up for the Devil o' the Highlands (43 with 6200ft of ascent) my main goal was to complete rather than compete. If I got a PB, bonus. If I got under eight hours, double-bonus.
My training had gone better than expected and I actually felt stronger and faster than I left it last year. I didn't have a race plan per se. I was just going to go with the flow. I had a general idea of when I would like to get to checkpoints, but I never put a schedule together. It was all about running to effort level and comfort.
Sonic and Cairn were my support for the day. After my long training run a few weeks ago, I knew Sonic was going to be ace. Cairn, on the other hand, was a bit of an amateur :-) The plan was not to stop. Just a run-through-drop-of-an-pick-up.
The race kicked-off at 6am. The start of an ultra-marathon is so civilised. There's no scramble to get to the front. No elbowing and frantic sprints. The "gun" goes off and everyone saunters up the hill chatting away.
I chatted with JK and Ian as the field started to divide. After a mile or so, JK pushed on and I ran with Ian for a while before settling into my own pace. I stayed in third female position, but could see the first and second not far in front. It was way too early to start "racing", so I wasn't even remotely bothered about where I was placed in the field.
I arrived at Bridge of Orchy in (approx) 55 minutes, grabbed a gel and a bottle of Lucozade and headed up the hill. I met Sonic again at Victoria Bridge and took my backpack for Rannoch Moor. The long incline on the Drover's Road usually kills my thighs, but I felt great. I had a few low points over the next few miles, but started to pick-up (with the help of gel with caffeine) as I headed out of the Moors. Murdo was waiting at the top, so it was nice to see a friendly. Even nicer when he informed me JK wasn't too far in front :-)
The descent down to the ski centre is one of my favourite bits. The steep free fall on the rocky path is almost like brain training. Unfortunately/fortunately my feet work faster than my brain, so there's generally a few stumbles. Maybe I should contact Nintendo about a brain trainging game for the DS.
I arrived at the first official checkpoint - the glencoe ski centre - in 2:42. I couldn't say it was ahead of schedule, because I didn't have a schedule. But it was faster than I expected. When I met up with Sonic in Kingshouse, he seemed slightly concerned about my speedy arrival. Neal, Caroline, Chris and Davie H were also there and had chalked a welcome message on the ground, which unfortunately my brain couldn't process. Sonic had to explain it. Thanks for the thought guys. And thanks Sue for the banner.
In my head, Kingshouse was when the race should REALLY start. 19 miles in with two main sections to go. I still felt strong, but was looking forward to the walk up the Devil's Staircase. On the way up I spotted Aileen (2nd female) zig-zagging her way up. I remember saying to Sonic during one of his WHWR training runs that it was great when he was wearing a white t-shirt, as I could see him coming miles away. Probably not so good when your colour choice spurs on your nearest rival. Sorry, Aileen. It gave me a real boost. I had a self-motivating chat with myself and shouted out "OK, let's go!"...only to discover my nearest rival was about three feet away from me. Doh! I tried to hum and cough to disguise my outburst, but he must of thought I was a bit mental. After an introduction I chatted to Richard most of the way up. Only on a ultra-run would you not blink an eye stomping up a hill with a guy wearing a vest, cycling shorts and knee-length compression socks :-)
At the top of the Devil's Staircase Neal, Caroline and Chris were there cheering me on again. I was looking forward the descent, as it's one of my strengths. The no-fear factor really helps. Richard informed me he was going to push-on and wished me well. I watched him for a minute or so, humouring him. I wasn't out to compete with boys, but I knew I had to put him in his place. After passing and widening the gap I heard him shouting "you must be better on trails than me". Mmm you'd think.
Arriving in Kinlochleven, I heard Sonic shouting "Two minutes. Second lady is two minutes in front". It was great to see John and Lesley there and looking so excited. Making the 200 mile trip to come out and support me was really appreciated. Thanks guys. Good job I was doing well or they might have asked me for the petrol money.
I passed Aileen who had stopped at the Kinlochleven checkpoint to refuel. I felt a bit of a fraud as Aileen ran a storming 95-race only five weeks previous. After many words of encouragement from the gathering crowds, I grabbed my backpack and headed up to Lairig Mor. There were two male runners behind me on the ascent. I was slightly conscious of the fact that my compression tights are pretty transparent when I bend over, but the hands-on-knees technique always helps with the steep ascent. Sorry guys, but it was a case of victory over modesty.
Although Lairig Mor is a beautiful section, it is notorious for its soul-sucking ability. It's the Bermuda Triangle of the WHW. As suspected I had a few low-points, which were unexplainable. I still had energy, no aches or pains and the weather was favourable. I had many serious chats with myself. This time out of ear-shot. I tried to eat some jelly babies (which I usually swear by) but they were making me gag. I couldn't even drink the juice in my hydration pack as it tasted too sweet. From a girl who takes five sweeteners in coffee, that was not the norm.
I perked up a lot when I caught and passed another runner (again, spurred on by his white t-shirt). On the flats I could see Aileen. There was enough of a gap, but I knew I couldn't slack off.
When I arrived at Lundarva, I was delighted to dump the backpack and change into my lovely Nike Lunaglide. I had collected a bit of gravel in my trail shoes and was glad to shake it off. I had invested in some lock laces before the race and the change over was super-slick. I took a bottle of coke and my new found spring in my step and started on the last section. It was bang on six hours, so I knew I was well within my 7:30 hour dream target.
The shoe change was a brilliant plan. The lightness meant I could mentally and physically change gear. I could run up the hills that I would have more than likely walked up. I passed lots of trekkers who were all cheering me on. Onwards and upwards through the forestry I was on a total high. Not just because of my time, but mostly because it was nearly over.
When I hit the track to embark on the last three miles that's when my lightweight trainers came into play. There was no pressure for time, so I didn't blast it. As I passed through the gates to the Braveheart carpark, Sonic, John and Lesley were screaming at me. I vaguely remember John shouting that I looked strong and to push it. Turning the corner to roadside in 7:01 I was on the home straight. After passing the 30mph sign (the most beautiful signpost in the world) I reached the houses on the outskirt of the town. At the small incline I slowed to fix my hat and wipe the snotters from my nose (hey, I knew there would be cameras) and picked up the pace for my grand finale.
I could hear everyone cheering and I saw Sonic and Cairn waiting at the finish line. It was 10 seconds of my life that I will never forget. I finished in 7:08:59. Second lady and 16th overall. Only one minute slower than the previous ladies record! I can't even put into words how pleased I am. The response I've had since has been pretty overwhelming. Especially as most people were as shocked as I was.
Thanks to Sonic for being so fabulous. I really think the support can make or break a good race time and he was amazing. Thanks to John, Lesley, Sharon, Davie B, George (I was in the bushes!!), Davie H, Jim R, Neal, Caroline, Chris, Adrian and Murdo for your cheers, pictures and videos. And everyone else who was out supporting.
Special congratulations to JK for a fabulous time of 6:55, Silke for completing her first ultra in 9:22, Ian for banking another ultra-marathon, Helen for breaking the ladies record, Aileen for a PB by nearly one hour, Karen for a fab PB and for putting up with George the whole way and to George and Richie for being super-fast as always.
During the race I ran with a small picture of Dario pinned to my top. I joked about pinning in to my bum, so he didn't finish in front of me :-) I'm sure he was watching over us all. When the sun threaten to hinder performances, there was drizzle and cool breeze to save the day. After the awards' presentation we were in the hotel having a celebratory beer when Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run came over the speakers - the song played at Dario's funeral. I'd like to believe it was a sign.
Here's the race video - directed by Sonic the Maccer. It's worth watching just to see the finish. I've only watched it about 100 times already.