Wednesday 29 June 2011

The Dream Nineteen

I really wanted a sub:20 hour West Highland Way Race. Strange to think that when I first attempted this crazy race in 2008, all I wanted to do was break 24. This year's training and build-up races (if you can call a 100K road race and the Highland Fling build-up races) had gone well and I was fired-up and mentally ready for it.

When it comes to ultra-running, I think you’ve got to rely on a large dollop of luck and factors that are out with your control. And thankfully lady luck was on my side. I started feeling fit and injury free, the conditions suited me perfectly (apart from a few brief interludes) and my long-suffering crew were the best. The ingredients for the perfect race recipe. My race was less than perfect, but it ranks highly on my all-time favourites. I’ll TRY to keep it brief, as I realise I’m a bit late in the day to come at this. Jeez, the ladies winner has already completed three races since last weekend, but we know Kate the Great is part machine.

This was the fourth time than I’d experience the bustle of Milngavie at 1am. First time as a 30+hour completer, once on support duty and last year finishing in 20 hours. I’d like to think I’ve seen the race from a few perspectives. Regardless of how many times you see the start, it’s still quite overwhelming. I liken it to watching someone give birth on TV. It all comes flooding back.

The lovely Alison B and George were my back-up for the nightshift. After registration, weigh-in and race instructions the countdown began.

I started off slower than slow. Quite uncomfortably slow. I ran with Bob Steel (who had to finish the race to get back home to milk his cows at 4am) and Donnie Campbell (who was running an additional 90 miles to Skye to raise money for a local hospice). I felt like a total lightweight.

The field starts to split up pretty quickly, into pockets of runners. Focussing on footwork which is navigated by torchlight means the miles tick by and I was at Beech Trees in no time. The whispering cheers (now that’s an oxymoron) of support crews is always quite comical. Although I doubt the local residents get any sleep with the pitter-patter of hundreds of feet, torches and car doors and gates slamming shut anyway.

On to the narrow track to Drymen, I lead a group of headtorches. No faces, just torches. The front runner always get the raw deal, as the gates are hard work. No one took the hint when I was running on the grass verge to allow people to pass. No problem, but an acknowledgment or a thank-you for holding the gates wouldn’t have gone a miss. My two-year-old has better manners!

Getting to Drymen is like a vampire movie. When the sun comes up everything is calmer and more rational. Leaving Drymen I caught up with Richard Gilbraith. Fresh (or not-so-fresh as it turned out) from his amazing performance at the Marathon de Sables. It was nice to chat for a while, as I’m starting to soften to the idea of taking on this classic race...someday a long time away!

I’ll spare you the graphics, but my stomach had been playing up from the word go and a few miles from Drymen the emergency stops started. And pretty much continued until about 70 miles into the race.

The carpark at Balmaha (19 miles) was as crazy-busy as Milngavie. My plan was to drop off and pick up as quickly as possible at all checkpoints. George is super-slick on support. He’s quite literally all over. Amazingly committed and enthusiastic. He ran out to meet me, guided me to the car, spun my around refilled my supplies and sent me on my way. I’d asked for some Resolve to help settle my stomach. He cleaned out sports drink bottle, mixed it out, drove along the lochside and ran back to give it to me.

I played leap frog with Bob and chatted with Marc Casey for most of the way to Rowardennan. Looking back now, apart from a few more emergency stops, this section was pretty uneventful.

Into Rowardennan (27 miles), I saw Jamie sitting down next to her support team. Her ankle had let her down and she was calling it a day. She still flashed her All-American smile and shouted encouragementI changed into new trail shoes. I knew the course would be really wet and mucky up until that point and the next few (long!) sections would be drier. I was basically trying to keep my feet dry for as long as possible. Probably not the best idea to change into shoes I’d quite literally bought a few hours before the race. Thankfully I’ve never had any problems with new shoes. And they were a carbon copy of the ones I was taking off.

From Rowardennan, I stayed in third position, with the Gibbering Midget in second and Kate Jenkins in first.

I took a sandwich and sweets and hugged my crew. It would be a long time before I saw them again. I hooked up with Ross - who had to apologise for hurling abuse at me after initially mistaking me for the GM – and ran with him for the next 5/6 miles. After an hour of clasping a dough ball sandwich, I gave up and threw it for the birds. We later caught up with Andy, who like Ross was settling unfinished business from 2010. After a bit of chatting they discovered the reason they DNFd last year, was because they were racing each other into Bridge or Orchy and completely blew up. They mentioned they both just wanted sub-24. When I told them I was looking for sub:20 hours and they’d smash their expectations, they dropped back a bit.

Into Inversnaid, the lovely lady from the Trossachs’ Search and Rescue Team replenished my baby wipes supply. Thank heavens. It was like déjà vu catching JK. On his backside. Eating. James Quigley – and now fellow Garscubian - was there too. I picked up some supplies as quickly as possible to escape the midges, and headed out with JK. Passing JK on the lochside is becoming a bit of a habit. It would have been nice to run with him for longer, but he was starting his own battle. He went on to finish his fifth race, but not without a fight.

I really like the Lochside section and it was good to run with Graham for a while. WHW supremo George Cairns was his support for the day and his wife (Graham’s wife that is) was giving him leg massages at checkpoints. I felt a bit cheated :-)

Beinglas Farm (41 miles) – or Stargate as I call it – was quieter this year, as there was a drop bag operation in place to discourage support vehicles. It was lovely to see Ian B there and even nicer that he helped with my supplies, as my hands were no longer working. I took another sandwich – which again was fed to the birds - and headed up the hill with Dale and Drew, passing a less than cheery looking Mike R on the way.

This section is always a lot harder than it looks, but it was a comfort to know that I would see my crew again soon. And with the new additions Kas, Jill and Emma who were taking over from Alison and George.

Heading towards Coo-poo junction Kevin caught up with me. I was to see a lot of Kevin for the next 50 miles! It was Kevin’s 5th (and final, according to Mrs Kevin) attempt at the race, so I was glad to see 50 miles worth of him.

I then caught up with John (with the Geordie accent) and ran with him for a couple of miles. He had to call it a day last year, because of a stress fracture. I lost him on the descents. I was later to discover his knees were given him jip and caused him to slower considerable from there on in. He finished nonetheless.

Heading towards Auchtertyre Farm (50 miles), the long-awaited support point, I saw Big John (nobody knows why his name is affixed with “big”) from Sonic’s support sitting on a gate. Similar to the position I saw him in at the finish of the Fling, except this time he wasn’t shouting only a few hundred metres to go. I asked how Sonic was doing to which he wrinkled his nose and shook his head. I wasn’t long before I saw Sonic off the course all layered-up.

Readers of Sonic’s blog will know that it was a bit touch and go for him. Injury and a series of knock-on-effect injuries had him side-lined for a few weeks. He had barely run a step this month. The race was hugely important to him, but I’m sure not whether I thought it was brave or silly to start. Starting a 95 miles injured or not being 100% fit and focussed is a bit like drink driving. You might get away with for a bit and maybe even have fun, but you will soon be caught out. It was his first DNF, so I knew it would be hard decision for him. I was glad to hear, that at 48 miles, he’d called time (…before his wife caught him!)

I saw Emma as I approached Auchtertyre and it took me while to focus on what was on her T-shirt. This was the best surprise EVER. I could have cried when I saw them all. I gave me a right giggle and a much-needed boost.

I said my farewells to George and Alison – and probably didn’t thank them enough – and headed on the 2/3 mile “nasty section” to Tyndrum where I was planning on stopping for a proper supply top-up. It was no surprise that I was struggling to take on food. Kas had gone for a run, leaving Emma and Jill trying to force feed me and threatening the wrath of Kas. Even that didn’t work. Although Kas has a heart of gold, she’s got a tongue that makes me look like Hannah Montana.

I can’t even remember what I took, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t eat it. There were a couple of runners behind me, including Kevin. I was hoping he would soon pass me as I was in need of a comfort break. He must have thought my rubber necking was my competitive streak. The gap wasn’t closing, so I had to try to be as discreet as possible and hoped he too was starting to suffer from blurry vision. I doubt it was discreet at all.

Passing over the railway bridge I meet Gail and Steven coming in the opposite direction. It was so lovely to see them I stopped to chat for a minute and let Kevin soldier on.

On to Bridge of Orchy (60 miles) I checked in with Sean Lord-of-the Bridge and picked up a bottle of something and maybe some sweets. Who knows? The conditions were fairly mild, although wet and Sean has warned me that the hills and Moor would be cold and to take a jacket. I told him the gals were meeting me at Victoria Bridge and disappeared before he could make me change that decision.

The lovely Murdo was waiting at the top of the Orchy Hills with his old faithfully saltire, supply of jelly babies and never-ending smile.

The descent into Inveroran was fairly tricky. Not just because the rocks were wet, but I couldn’t get my eyes to focus properly. I ran with Dale on the road round to Victoria Bridge car-park. This bit is probably my least favourite bit on the whole course. And from the look on Dale’s face I guess he was thinking the same. Either that or his inability to shake me off was his least favourite part! My money’s on the latter.

Emma had come along to the corner to ask what I wanted in my bottle belt. It was pouring with rain and she ran back along with her hood up, zig-zagging across the road as a van was trying to pass. I nearly fainted trying to shout at her, but she couldn’t hear a thing. I’m not sure if she knows how close she was to being squashed.

On arrival, Kas was being her usually sympathetic self and cursing, shrieking and threatening blue murder if I didn’t eat. Her no bullshit approach to support is just what I need. I took some of her homemade banana cake and walked along whilst Emma tried to detangle the headphones for my ipod. I chuckled when Emma whispered: “Jill and I ate your sandwiches, so Kas wouldn’t shout at you”. You gotta love it. The banana cake was going down quite well to which I said: “Don’t tell Kas, but this is actually quite nice”. As we giggled, you could hear the shrieks in the background “Has she thrown that away? Has seen thrown that away?” That was my cue to get my butt moving and get out of there.

I really enjoyed the Rannoch Mor section. Nine hilly miles of vast exposure is not really the best on a driech day, but I’d added a new playlist to my ipod which put a spring in my step. Again, playing leapfrog with Kevin and Dale. Graham was not too far in front either.

Looking back, this was probably one of my favourite sections. Prior to race day, I hoped and prayed for no sun and I really got my wish. I’m not one for running with a jacket on, but I wore mine for the last 35 miles. I actually love running in the rain, so the conditions suited me. This was to be the calm before the storm. The descent into the ski centre (71 miles) was pretty jerky as my toes were bashed to bits. Flat were ok, but the downhills squashed them to bits. New shoes were no problem. Putting lock laces into the new shoes was a big mistake. They allowed too much movement. I think it would have worked OK if my feet were drier. Oh well, we live and learn. I just wish I hadn’t learnt this on race day.

Summer in Glencoe...

After Sonic’s retirement, my crew had now become equipped with some Walkie Talkies. Emma met me at the corner of the detour of the ski centre checkpoint and signalled to Jill and Kas that I was looking for 1) banana smoothie 2) babywipes 3) banana cake. Brilliant, eh? Until Emma came bounding across with only a slimfast shake :-)

My plan was to carry nothing and pick up some supplies at the bottom of the Devil’s Staircase. The four miles there were pretty uneventful, but I felt like I had 70 odd miles in my legs.

Jill with Babywipes: I think I might have made a bit of a drama about this :-)

I thought Jill had come along to meet me, but really it was to warn me that Kas was on the warpath. On arrival I was instructed to “stand there and not move until you’ve eaten this sandwich”. I wish there was a video of me running along Altnafeadh with Kas chasing me. I can still hear Emma and Jill laughing. Thankfully I wasn’t caught chucking the food to the birds, although I’m sure I could hear Kas shouting for some time.

(Kas on the chase!)

If I thought the ascent was tough work, the descent was even worse. I can safety say, this was my only real “struggle point”. But I wasn’t alone on this one, so I won’t moan. The path had turned into a river and I had no confidence as to where my feet were landing so was resigned to doing some ridiculous hopping and jerking action. I wanted to run, but I would have been better off walking. My feet were slipping about in the shoes so much and regardless of the amount of times I tighten the locks, the elastic laces allowed too much movement.

As I gingerly pussyfooted my way down into Kinlochleven, Kevin came passed and asked how far away it was. When I informed him it was about two miles, he had a mild tantrum about being able to see to the town. I felt the need to apologise, but it was still two miles away

I was bit grumpy on arrival at Kinlochleven and I managed to nearly strangle myself with tangled earphones. I think I must go into some kind of trance/tunnel/state of shock, as I don’t really remember being there. Although I remember I nearly left without anything and then repeatedly asked for my rucksack - which sent my crew in a frenzy – when really I wanted the bottle belt I’d left on the table. Oops!

On my way into Kinlochleven, Adam was on his way out getting stuck into a bag of chips - only in ultra-running. I caught up with him on the hill out of the town.

I’d spent most of the day catching up with guys that the Gibbering Midget has left in her wake. Some of their comments were quite comical. Adam summed it up quite nicely when he described her as “awesome and just keeps going” and “in the midst of all this awesomeness, just talks non-stop”. Although Adam got dealt another short-straw, as I asked him about million questions across Lairig Mor. I did say I wasn’t being nosey, just taking the focus off the situation.

I’d like to think I kept Adam going, but I think he was more hell-bent on not letting another girl beat him. He echoed me step for step. I ran. He ran. I walked. He walked. I didn’t even attempt to shake him off. It was actually quite nice to have some company for the final leg. And the fact that he was more gubbed than me perked me up a bit. Sorry, Adam!

Lairig Mor was long, but I was in better shape than I was last year when my ankles felt like I’d done a round with Kathy Bates. This year, my body was ok, but my fuelling was letting me down. I probably took on 2000 calories max and that was mostly sports drink and coke.

I stopped at Lundarva to change my socks and put on my road shoes. I’ve done this on a few races, so thought this was a good plan. Bad move as it wasted time and made my feet feel worse, as the socks were tight round my toes. Plus, Adam thought he was making a sly get away. Wrong! I caught up with him within half a mile.

I really enjoyed the woodland area all the way to the track. I could see two runners in front (Kevin and Mark Caldwell), but I didn’t have the inclination to care. I was just happy doing my own thing and working through it.

Starting on the track on the descent to Fort William, was like trying to wind up and old clock. There were various involuntary sounds and then I eased off and I was on the home straight. I focussed on staying positive and took the advice from Andy Cole and used the time to reflect on what I have achieved.
(Photo by Colin Knox)
Adam and I barely muttered a word of the next couple of miles. It should have been uncomfortably silent, but neither of us cared. Just before the beautiful sight that is the Braveheart Carpark, Emma was on the track full of excitement. She disappeared with the walkie-talkie shouting: “Right, girls, we’re bringing our runner back to the Mothership for a massive PB”.

Hitting the pavement for the final stretch was amazing. Especially when it was only 8.30pm! My gals passed in the car like a mobile hen do - complete with matching tshirts - screaming, cheering, honking horns and flying flags.

I was willing the 30mph sign to appear, mainly because Adam kept asking me how far to go :-) Some walkers were coming towards us in the opposite direction forcing me to jump on and off the pavement, which seemed a little cruel. As we rounded the bend I could hear and see the mini gathering outside the pub. I practically ran across the roundabout and along the road. Sonic’s crew were on the left and my crew on the right. I think I was smiling from ear to ear, but I’m not sure my facial muscles still worked.

Finished in 19.39:57. 3rd gal and 13th overall.

I may look totally shocked, but I was ecstatic. I’m now on the list of girls who’ve run sub: 20 hours.

I said I would try to keep it brief. I lied. If you’re still with me, thanks for reading. I’m glad I wrote this down now, but does anyone else get emotional writing race reports? Jeezo, I’m getting soft in my old age.

I don’t even know where to start with my thank you bit. First things first: My crew. Again, you were truly amazing...and so entertaining :-) Sonic and Team Sonic for chipping in at the end. The organisers, stewards, race officials, medics, search and rescue teams without them the race wouldn’t exist. It’s not like a 10K when you volunteer for a couple of hours. This is a full weekend’s commitment.

Congratulations to everyone who finished and who put up with me. Well done to the champions who put up a brave fight and those that were sensible anough to postpone their success for another year.

Some great performance from Richie (his second, well-deserved, win), Thomas (the diva moments were worth the huge PB), Kate (7th win. Yes, 7th) and the GM (who put the shitters up Kate to finish in an AMAZING time of 9hr 11) Click here for full results

The GM (2nd), Kate (1st) and Me (3rd)

I may have suggested I’m not doing the race again. Not because I didn’t enjoy it, because I loved it. I’m just not sure I can better it. Anyway, I’ve forgotten about that announcement already. Same time next year, folks?

Thursday 9 June 2011

Friday 3 June 2011

Taper time (again!)

Last weekend saw the start of the three week taper. And the end of the bargain Citylink bus tickets. Being from a rival newspaper, it pains me to say the Daily Record struck gold with their £2 ticket deal.

Saturday, the GM and I finished the last piece of the WHW puzzle, by running from Kingshouse to Fort William. We drove up to Kingshouse, ran the 23.5 miles to Fort William and got the bus back. Simples? Not quite.

I don't want to wibber on about the weather (again!) but anyone who's been on the Scottish hills, knows it can make or break your day. On Saturday, it did both. Intermittent is a good word to describe it. Flipping from icy cold rain to glorious sunshine. But always with a strong head wind. Character building I'd say.

When we left Kingshouse, the driving rain would strip the fake tan off you ;-) There were lots of walkers huddled waiting to embark on their day's trek. All goretex up. You should have seen their faces when the GM rolled up in her signature pants and socks. One mile down the road - whilst being stoned to death by hail - We stopped to layer up. Then continued to run while shielding our faces, which were being battered from the left. By the time we'd reached the Devil Staircase (only a few miles away) the sun had come out and we were sheltered from the wind... and guess what?...we were nearly fainting in the heat. Only in Scotland, eh? Layers off and we settled into the run from there.

(Overlooking Kinlochleven. I really need to work on my photo posing)

After I got over the initial shock, I really enoughed the day. Sometimes, you've just got to put your head down and get on with it. The day zipped passed and we were at Lundarva in no time (well, actually, lots of time!) and in need for a full-fat Coke break.

Every run needs a bit of drama and this is when the GM lost the clip for her one-strap rucksack. After some searching we were resigned to fixing it with my hair band. I did remind her that she wouldn't have that kind of back-up if she'd chosen to run with that big guy again :-)

I really enjoy the woodland sections above Fort William (only on fresh legs, of course) so it was a bit of a shock stepping into a vast open space where all the trees had been cleared. I had seen Richie's pictures, but I couldn't work out where it was. No wonder. It looks completely different and very surreal. Quite sad too.

There were lots of walkers out on the Way that day. Mostly walking in the "wrong direction". You could tell it was panic training for the Caledonian Challenge. I felt like an air steward for most of the day. Good morning. Hello. Good morning. Hello. I'm glad the Caledonian Challenge is on a different day from the WHWR now. I loose social skills around 50 miles. Just ask my support team.

This was the first time this year that I'd actually run into Fort William. And it's hard to believe the next time I'll be doing it,is at the end of the race in two weeks time.

We ran straight on to Morrisons. Eager to get changed and pick up some supplies for the bus. I've decided I'm going to rename the ladies toilets in Morrisons to the Hall of Horrors. I don't think I've look at a mirror in there and not got the shock of my life.

We'd timed it quite nicely for the bus. And no Glasgow-bound Citylink bus trip would be complete without a couple of vocal chaps with Tennants tinnies. Whilst passing the mighty Munros one commented that it would be "great to get up there with a massive cargo" (that's a large supply of alcohol to non-natives). During a mobile phone conversation the other summed up the day's condition quite nicely by saying " was nice. Then it was shite. Then it was nice. Then it was shite". I wish the BBC would offer up this kind of straight-up weather forecast in future.

We got off the bus at Kingshouse into another hail storm. The GM started to run towards the car and I followed suit - mainly because I had the car keys. The vocal chaps on the bus must have got the last laugh watching me trying to run down the hill in full waterproofs, stiff legs and swinging a Morrisons poly bag with eight cans of Pepsi Max and that day's paper. You can't buy class.

It was a huge relief to get into the car and leave the storm behind. Even more so to get the heating on full and start heading home. The GM was certainly enjoying the comfort and sunk back and said: "couldn't you just go for a wee nap?" To which I had to reply: "Not really, sweetie. I'm driving"