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?


Anonymous said...

Congratulations again on an amazing achievement! Loved seeing you finish even if it wasn't exactly part of my plan! Caroline x

Thomas said...

Absolutely fantastic performance! After that brilliant 9h 100k earlier this year one would wonder what you can do in an 24 hour race ;-)
Great report (as always).

Peter Duggan said...

Top marks from an admiring male reader, Debs...

You're on the list of girls who've run sub-20 and I'm on the list of guys who haven't. You deserved it and you're a warrior!


runforit said...

It was so great to see you along the journey. You were awesome Debs!
Congratulations on a great performance.

Carolyn (from Canada)

The Sunday Adventure Club said...

Debs that was bloomin' amazing! To go from 30+ hours to sub 20 is incredible. You rock!

Johann said...

Fantastic run, well done! Lovely report as well, I enjoyed reading about your journey. Awesome!

Dale Jamieson said...

outstanding and great read once again!

Andy Cole said...

Great performance and report.

emmarathon said...

My hero :-)

Tho I thought we had agreed to keep the 'eating of the sandwich' story to ourselves?? What happens on the WHW stays on the WHW, no?! Oh naw, Kaz ain't gonna be happy with me & Jill now the truth is out ;-) Awesome day, and happy to support again for a runner who even finishes before the pubs close! Well done xxx

Santababy said...

just amazing. As i've said before you're my inspiration. Love the pic of you, Sharon & Kate, you all look fabulous.
Well done

John Kynaston said...

Congratulations again Debs on another superb performance.

The improvement you have made over the past two years is amazing and this result was just reward for all the effort you have put in.

I loved your report ... thanks for writing it down.

My favourite bit was your support team eating your sandwiches for you to save you from the wrath of Kaz ... priceless.

I would have loved to have been able to run with you for longer after Inversnaid but we were on opposite sides of the running well curve!

Well done again and welcome to the sub 20hr club!!

I think the only thing I have left is 2x sub 20hr times ... but that will be equalled next year!

Marco Consani said...

Absolutely fantastic. You were rocking and running effortlessly. I had to fake injury cause I was feart that you would overtake me.
What a brilliant year of racing you have had so far and we are only half way through. What does the rest of the year have in store for you and I think that you will get even better next year.

Cairn and me are very proud.

Marco xx

ultra collie said...

great account debs..bloody well done on your time. loving gibbering midgets name too! take care and hope sonic fully mended soon

Silke said...

Fantastic run! What an achievement! Congratulations again. Well done to your crew too! Silke

Weirrunner said...

As always Debs, very entertaining blog,had a lump in my throat and some chuckles, giving a real sense of the journey. Sub 20...What an amazing result, cannot believe how strong and relaxed you looked powering down the main road, guess I will ned to be in the Fort even earlier next year....

Enjoy your recovery and the rest of your plans for 2011.

Billy said...

Fantastic run Debbie. Impressed with your consistency this year. Great report too. Well done!

flanker said...

Fantastic write-up. Not a bad run either! :) I'm going to make reading this part of my training for next year.

neets next mara said...

brill report supergirl!! had me greeting too!! you are amazing! xxx