Sunday, 26 July 2009

WHW 2009 - a game of two halves

I still can't get the date right on my posts, the last one appeared out of order; never mind I'll learn, it's probably just a date of birth problem. Back to business and this year's race.

A good time in the WHW wasn't originally one of this year's targets for me, I mainly wanted a good Highland Fling and a completion in the UTMB, but you know how these things work, once you get involved it seems impossible to back off from giving it your best shot. My declared aim was to get to Lundavra in daylight, but as soon as the Cole family team assembled for dinner in the Premier Inn at Milngavie I confessed that I was going for the 24 hours; it meant knocking about 2 hours 40 off my previous best, but I felt fit enough and ready to go. I had trained a few more miles than last year and had no major injuries.

Rowardennan: Schedule 5:25 Actual 5:17
I run this at about the same pace as last year, it feels pretty comfortable. Lasting impressions are the midges all the way to Drymen like rain in the headlight, more than I have noticed any previous year; also, turning off the railway line at Gartness I look back, the line of headlamps stretching back into the distance is quite a sight. Also unusual in the biggest field ever starting the race, I seem to be on my own for most of the way. But in these early stages it's all about concentrating on not wasting energy, walking up hills where you know you could run, just keep it steady. I have also decided to be much more disciplined at the stops, so I am in and out of Rowardennan in less than 5 minutes, rice pudding downed quickly and coffee and marmalade sandwich "to go". Camelbak changed, 1,5 litres of flat coke consumed since the start, 1,8 litres of flat ginger beer on board to see me to Auchtertyre. I'm happy to see the team only twice for the first half of the race, it forces me to be steady and gives them a better sleep.

Auchertyre: Schedule 11:15 Actual 10:56
The easy section to Inversnaid goes quickly, then I go cautiously on the trickier ground to the top of the Loch, easy to waste energy here. I still pass quite a few runners on this section, but have found this is normal, a lot of people seem to use the tactic of running the easy ground to Rowardennan fast then slowing down. Warning bells should be ringing however as I pass WHW Runner Ian and Graeme McC, these guys are far and away better runners than me, but it still feels comfortable. After being a bit of a mental downer in some races, the hills up to Derrydaroch pass fairly easily. The scene at Carmyle Cottage is like the finishing straight of a marathon - wall-to-wall support cars and cheering support teams - impossible to slow to a walk here! Everything is on plan, but in the forest above Crianlarich, just around the halfway distance, I make the first of a series of mistakes that will cost me my 24 hour finish. My strategy has been to eat real food in three places, Rowardennan, Auchtertyre, and Kingshouse (sort of breakfast, lunch, dinner); in between these I am diligently popping a gel every 45 minutes, and possibly more importantly using this timing to take a salt tablet ("Succeed" cap) every 90 minutes. At ten and a half hours I am due a gel and a salt tab, but it's only just down the hill to Auchtertyre, I'm looking forward to lunch, I feel OK and I don't want to stop and fiddle. I can catch up with the regime later. At Auchtertyre the team says I'm looking far better than in any previous race, I have a sit-down stop for 15 minutes or so, and take on soup, beans, a banana, grapes, a couple of coffees, oh and I'd really like an orange juice so one is bought from the shop and I down half of that too. I forget the salt tab.

Bridge of Orchy: Schedule 13:30 Actual 13:26
I walk down to the new road crossing, then start to run, but I've eaten too much too quickly, I immediately feel sick and have to walk again. I eventually start to feel better and start running again just after Tyndrum. From the highpoint, the easy track to Bridge of Orchy seems OK. I drink at my regular 45 minute intervals, but I'm now convinced that I have more than enough calories for a while, so leave off the gels. My feeble brain doesn't realise that I have broken a crucial connection, and I still forget the salt tabs. The team are ready with a quick cup of tea at the Station, I grab a half litre of fizzy water (my planned fluid medium to the finish), saying I don't need any more I still have almost a half litre of Lucozade left. Down at the checkpoint I meet Phil R, who has had to pull out this year due to injury, but who has come up anyway to sweep the Devil's Staircase section (another example of the pulling power this event has on everyone!), and we chat for a minute or two, then I'm off up the hill.

Kingshouse: Schedule 16:30 Actual 16:20
I feel great great going up the hill and pass a number of runners, and I am unaware that due to my indiscipline things are now starting to go awry. I go strongly down the other side, this is one of my favourite descents, but as soon as I hit the asphalt I know something is wrong. My legs feel jelly-like and I rapidly start to feel nauseous; but you have to run this bit, it's one of the easiest miles in the whole race, so I ignore the feeling and run to the gate onto Rannoch Moor. I slow to a walk here, feeling worse and worse, and a couple of hundred yards up the track I sit gingerly down on a pile of logs and throw up. I know what's happened of course; I remember Jez Bragg telling me after the last UTMB that if you get nauseous it's usually down to lack of electrolyte, that's why I'm taking a salt tab every 90 minutes, except I haven't had one now for over 4 hours. Worse still, I can't face one now, and I drink most of my fizzy water just getting back to feel human again. I'm always amazed by coincidence, and at this very moment my phone pings, and it's a text from Mike M in Romania - "Hows it going - dig deep!" I'm sure I manage some sort of grin, and I get up and get going again. I cross the moor passing, repassing, and occasionally running with other runners; I manage to get a gel down, finish my water, but really can't stomach the Lucozade. Nevertheless, the last hill comes up soon enough and I'm down to Kingshouse, still up on schedule but not in great shape. I should eat here to see me through to the end, but I can't. I know if I rest quietly for a half hour or so
I'll be able to get some fuel in, but I don't want to give up that amount of time, so I down a couple of coffees and carry on. Still no salt tab, what am I thinking of?

Kinlochleven: Schedule 19:15 Actual 19:14
I've never run beyond Kingshouse before, so it is still with some satisfaction that I set off down the road with Julia at a steady jog. We walk up the "why does it go up here?" hill then jog down to the road at the start of the Devil's Staircase. I am drinking water OK and chewing on a few bits of crystallised ginger. We set out up the staircase at a fairly strong walk, and actually catch up the runner ahead, Graeme R who I've known since this year's Wuthering Hike. He asks how it's going and I reply truthfully that I'm feeling knackered; articulating the thought seems to have its own effect and I feel I have to sit down for a minute while Graeme forges on. For the second time I have a throwing-up interlude, then sit quietly for a few minutes to recompose myself. During this time we are passed by WHW Runner Ian and his support runner George, who I have been seeing on and off all day. They ask if I'm OK, we assure them the halt is temporary and they carry on. I am still sitting a few minutes later, and George calls down from above "Come on No 54, get going!", so I do. The rest of cimb is OK, and we manage a steady jog most of the way down to Kinlochleven, arriving surprisingly still just ahead of schedule. As we reach the smooth track by the pipes and don't have to worry too much about where to put our feet now, Julia starts to say "You know what we should do to improve things next year is...." What a team, decision made before I even started to think about it! But back to this year and I am trying to decide what I have to do to keep going at a reasonable speed. My problem is that I seem to have bags of energy left in my limbs, but as soon as I accelerate I feel nauseous again. I have scheduled no stop in Kinlochleven, but eventually decide that I have to regroup, so I stop until I can eat some soup, a banana, a couple of coffees, and (at last) a salt tablet; but this takes 45 minutes, which I don't have.

Fort William: Shedule 23:45 Actual 24:44
With John now leading the way, and slowing me down when he feels I am likely to blow it again, I take my scheduled time to cover the 14 miles to the end, but to add to the 45 minutes lost at KLL we take a tea break by the bonfire at Lundavra with Julia and Jan - at least I got to there without turning my torch on - and so end up at the finish 44 minutes adrift of my target. Pleased but disappointed, until Julia and John tell me to stop beating myself up about what I didn't do, and think about how many people have done what I've just finished. So we all go home happy, thanks to the superb efforts of the race organisers and marshalls, and for me the dedication of my family support team, who amazingly still think it's fun to spend yet another exhausting, sleep-deprived and midge-infested weekend in the Highlands.

Can I keep fighting off father time long enough to get a 24 hour finish next time? Well I think I can, and I suppose that's half the battle.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

A large and special gathering

I've just got back from Dario's funeral in Falkirk.

I was moved by the eloquence and humour of all the speakers, and also by seeing the huge number of WHW people who came. One of the speakers referred to the family of WHW participants in all capacities as "Dario's legacy". So we all have some responsibility to help keep his flag flying far into the future. I am sure we will.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Early encounters with the West Highland Way

It seems all my posts so far have featured the West Highland Way. I make no apology for this, because although I have now run quite a number of shorter ultras, and have aspirations to complete a bigger one, the WHW has really been the core of my introduction to this game, and will continue to be important to me as long as I can still put one foot in front of the other. I need to get some of the history down so what comes later makes sense, so I'll cover here what I feel was my "apprenticeship" to the event in 2007 and 2008. The seasoned WHW competitor will tell you that there are two journeys involved in this event, the one across the highlands on the longest Saturday of the year, and the one that finishes at the start line. Neither is easy....

Until about three years ago, I had not really heard of the WHW, either the race or the trail. This corner of Scotland for me meant climbing, padding over the Etive Slabs in the late spring sunshine or finding the way down from the big bad Ben in the darkness of a February evening. However without any real clue as to what ultras were all about, I had an ambition to complete the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc race (reasons will have to come in a later post), and I was looking at UK long distance trails as suitable places to get some miles in. I stumbled on "WHW Runner" Ian's blog which led me to the WHW Race. At first I though it would be good training for the UTMB, but the more I read of the history and the racetales, the more I just wanted to do the race for its own sake. I jotted a bit of my history on the entry form, and within a few days my name appeared on the start list for 2007. Hearing Dario talk subsequently about the vetting process applied to some suitors, I now rather feel that I got away with something I shouldn't have. Living in Chester I had some great local trails to train on, and I took ideas from the blogs of the WHW Runner and also John K, who seemed to have got interested in the race about the same time as me. I ran 30 miles a week or so, and gradually got my "long run" for the week up to several hours. I entered the Highland Fling and was pleased to come in around the middle of the field, so I thought I was on course for a WHW debut. Then disaster. After my final long training run of 55 miles on the Anglesey Coast Path, I developed a pain under my heel; I could hardly walk let alone run. I didn't consult the medical profession (a mistake), did no running at all in the final four weeks before the WHW Race (another mistake), but didn't withdraw my entry (probably a mistake but I'm a bit bloody-minded about this sort of thing). By the time we gathered for the 1am start at Milngavie Station, I could walk without pain but hadn't tried running.

2007 was a great year. Lucy Colquhoun shattered the ladies' record, the WHW Runner beat his personal best, John K exceeded his best prediction, and Mike M got impressively lost but somehow finished anyway. My race wasn't quite so enjoyable. By Drymen my foot was hurting, and continued to do so to the finish, but that wasn't the whole story. I just felt ill. According to my support crew, by Auchtertyre I was looking grey and they were concerned. By the Bridge of Orchy I was nearly out on my feet. I ate a bowl of soup (my last food for the day), shrugged into my collar, gritted my teeth and decided to walk to the finish - the thought kept going through my mind of Drama Queen Mark's broken ankle, and I just couldn't live with dropping out without a better reason. I hobbled into the Lochaber Leisure Centre in Fort William 32 hours and 27 minutes after leaving Milngavie. I had the goblet but it wasn't enough. I had hated almost every mile of the race and was disapointed with my time; six months earlier I thought I would be happy with the achievement of under 35 hours, now I wanted middle of the field respectability, and for heavens' sake I wanted to enjoy the race. I was committed to 2008 within days.

I started being sensible. I discovered that my foot problem was plantar fasciitis, and while I was unlikely to find a complete cure there are good coping strategies. I wasn't qualified to enter the UTMB in 2007 so had I entered the "CCC" (Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix) at just over half the distance. Two months after the WHW allowed me to recover and train on a few hills, and I had a good race coming in 419th out of around 1500 starters. Time to take stock, it seemed that I could do a good fifty mile race but not a hundred. I asked the boys on the WHW forum how I could get the distance. Drama Queen said train more miles, the Aussie said train fewer miles, a lot of people said it's just in your head........I think the best bit of advice I got from a number of people was not even to think about a hundred miles, just think of the next checkpoint. In the autumn, I did start upping the miles to around 50, sometimes 55 a week. At first it paid off, I did the 50 mile Rotherham Round in a shade over 9 hours, my best ultra to date. But it was too much too soon and in late December I was rewarded with a pulled hamstring. The bad news was that it stopped me running for 3 weeks, the good news was that I did the sensible thing and found a great physiotherapist, and I determined not to average more than 40 miles a week.

I started meeting WHW runners at other events, and by the time the Wuthering Hike in Yorkshire came round the purple buff seemed to have established itself as the badge of recognition. I met Shirley, Ritchie and Hugh and I know there were others around. I also met Phil, another WHW blogger and 2008 entrant. I was starting to understand what Dario called the "family". Two weeks before the 2008 Highland Fling I finally managed to crack 3:30 for a marathon at my eighth attempt; the Fling also went well, I knocked about 50 minutes off my previous year's time and by now there seemed to be familiar faces everywhere. I rounded off my training with a double crossing of the Cheshire Sandstone Trail, 66 miles, in a comfortable 15 hours. I felt good about the big day.Then it happened again. An innocuous run in my local forest, three weeks before D-Day I pulled the other hamstring. I was straight round to Karen the physio the next day to see what damage limitation could be done. Get on your bike, she said, but absolutely no running for two weeks, and we might get you to the start line. I had my last session on the Tuesday before the race - any other race, she said, I'm sure you'd be OK, but I can't guarantee you this one. I went for a gentle 5 mile jog that evening. I could feel where the damage had been, but it was more itch than pain; I called the support team and told them it was on. I wasn't confident, in fact I said to one of my closest friends when we parted after a pub lunch on Thursday that I didn't really expect to finish, but I had no concrete reason why I shouldn't start, so 1am on 21st June 2008 sees me at Milngavie again.

With the memories of the year before and the nervousness about my too-recent injury, I am determined to run a conservative race and enjoy it. I have sketched out a 25 hour schedule but am happy to let that slip a couple of hours or so if things get uncomfortable. After the long descent in the dark last year, my main aim is to get to Kinlochleven in daylight. The team comes for the start, then I send them away to get some sleep, saying I will meet them at Rowardennan in five and a half hours - they are not to come earlier, if I am getting ahead of the pace I will slow down. Halfway along the railway line to Drymen the leg starts to hurt. I try to think about something else. I don't know where it stops, maybe on the climb up to Conic Hill but that's it, I have no noticeable pain in anything from there to the finish.

I don't remember much about pace and times, what I do remember is that I have a magical day. The crisp chill and the moonlight along the early section remind me of a lifetime of Alpine starts, the views over the Loch as we crest Conic Hill are stunning. Balmaha is a hive of activity, I break stride just long enough to say hello to Mike M then carry on through. The stretch to Rowardennan, my least favourite on all previous trips, floats by as I simply walk the uphills and run the rest. A few hundred yards before Rowardennan I am caught by Phil R; it's good to see him as I missed him at the start, and we check in together then go to find our respective teams.

Then comes one of the few bits of bad news. I haven't noticed a single midge until I waddle out of Rowardennan full of tea and breakfast, now they are everywhere. I haven't used Deet this year, wondering if the early rain last year washing it from my face into my mouth was one of the causes of my problems then, so I just screw up my face and suffer. I'm not alone, I see wallpaper patterns on the back of many legs. We gradually get used to it. Inversnaid comes and goes, I don't stop. Previously I've run most of the technical ground at the top end of the loch, simply because I can, but I realised on the last Fling that this takes its toll in energy spent, so today I walk nearly all of it. Near Doune Bothy we start to lose the midges; I pass Debbie with her big smile, then catch up George and we chat until Beinn Glas, where he is stopping and I'm not. Of the four "marathons" which make up this race, I think Rowardennan to Auchtertyre is the big one, and I've determined not to see my team again until it's safely over. I see various runners on the hills up to Derrydaroch, but none for long, then it's under the main road, along the long farm track to the big gate and into the forest above Crianlarich. The track here is a real switchback and I've had tough times in the past trying to go too fast, but not with my gently does it approach today. Alyson and I pass and repass each other, I'm walking the uphills where she goes strongly but I'm more comfortable on the downs. We cross the main road and she holds a gate for me, so we jog together to Auchtertyre. She tells me how she had to stop at Lundavra last year, which at less than seven miles from the finish must be just about as bad as it gets. At the farm gate our respective crews are waiting for us, hers observing "you two are just talking too much". I'm ready for lunch.

My first sit-down stop of the day is welcome, and after eating I decide to change trainers to get on a pair where the cushioning hasn't had fifty miles of hammer. As I unlace them I say I don't want to change socks in case I don't like what that reveals, but the decision is made for me - I normally wear comfortable Falke socks which have left and right feet, but I now notice that last night I have put on two "rights". Sure enough, this has caused a blister on one of my left toes, so a couple of minutes are spent popping and taping. It hurts for the first few yards down the track as I eat my post-lunch grapes (great tip from John K) and then goes away for good, before the steady climb to the highpoint and the long descent to the Bridge of Orchy. On the straight by the railway I can hear a runner a few yards behind but he isn't getting any closer; eventually I turn round and wait a few seconds. It's Graeme McC, says he's having a bad patch and just couldn't quite catch me; it turns out to be a very temporary setback for him, as he goes on to finish in 22 hours 28 minutes! After ten minutes or so he's clearly going better again and disappears off into the distance. I had originally planned not to see my team again until Kingshouse, but they say it will work to meet at Bridge of Orchy station and another cup of tea is very welcome. This allows George to catch me again and we set off together up the hill, now with a number of his enthusiastic support runners. They ask me if I am happy without support, but I'll be fine until the Kingshouse. Over the crest of the hill I start to pull away again; downhills are never really a problem to me, I guess as the result of a lifetime of moutaineering - climbers aren't usually as fit as proper runners but we have good quads and know where to put our feet! I maintain the run along the road and over Victoria Bridge, and at the gate onto Rannoch Moor I start the long walk up the hill. The moor passes with a combination of walking and gentle running, but I see no-one other than walkers, all of whom seemed to be American. I am starting to tire now and glad when Kingshouse arrives.

All support teams are heroes but mine are extra special for me as twenty-five years ago I was reading them bedtime stories. Daughter Julia takes the Devil's Staircase section. We last ran together in the New York Marathon in November, she hasn't done a lot since but is still stronger than me at this stage of the game, and sets the pace for me and another couple of runners to the top. I would like to run down, but I need to save some juice for the final stretch so settle for a more economical walk. Julia makes an involuntary jump sideways past a creaking tree, the wind getting quite fierce now, but we make it down to Kinlochleven and in daylight! In the Health Centre checkpoint I am weighed by none other than the race director himself. Weighing at points along the course is a new feature this year, I am well inside the limit having not deviated by more than 2kg since the start. I rest a bit longer than I should here, it's getting cold and I want something hot. Two coffees and a mug of soup later I am feeling much better, although I'm not good at eating enough later on in races, something I must improve. Julia is off to bed in the hotel in Fort William where my wife Jan is waiting, leaving son John to see me home. We don't intend to stop at Lundavra, we'll call the ladies if we need anything.

It starts to rain as we set off, and it will be dark as we hit the level ground at the top of the main climb, hoods up and the howling wind preventing any sustained conversation. We don't stop to rest, eat, drink, or anything else until the end, and we go about as fast as the darkness and rain, the ground underfoot, and the small pools from our headlights will allow. We barely break stride to check in with the marshall at Lundavra, then carry on through. We've been speculating whether his traditional bonfire will be alight in the conditions but of course it is, a welcoming beacon, flames streaming horizontally far into the night, what a hero. John leads me through the darkness and uncertain ground of the forest, and at times I just focus on the two reflective strips on the heels of his trainers and drift off into a hundred thoughts of the day. Suddenly we are out onto the forest road that leads downhill to the end. I could run now if I had to, but the few minutes this might save seem somehow unimportant and we savour these last few miles, striding out at a steady four miles an hour pace, finally able to talk without raising our voices. We disturb the ladies from their sleep and they're there at the finish, big hugs all round. The marshalls are cheerful and welcoming in spite of what must already seem a long night, and a lot more yet to go. We thank them and wander off to bed; after the mind-numbing attrition of last year the whole family is on a high.
26 hours 36 minutes - six hours faster than last year. In the morning I feel great, able to walk easily even up and down stairs, and we have a long lazy breakfast. I learn at the prizegiving that I have come 60th out of 127 starters. I am pleased with my effort, but humbled by the sheer quality of the field in front of me. 43 runners have broken 23 hours to achieve the coveted "same day finish". Keith the Aussie puts it into perspective for me in the bar of the Nevis Bank later that evening - "Don't worry mate, for most mortals the first one you survive, the second one you learn, and after that you can start worrying about what your best time might be."

Maybe that's how the apprenticeship works. I knew that I would be over 60 before I posted my entry for the following year just a few weeks later, but I sort of held onto the hope that 2008 might be just the "end of the begining". The 2009 race has now come and gone. Details later.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Previous Post

I just noticed the date on my previous post. Of course I wrote the edited version this evening, when I learned the news, and forgot to change the date. Distracted by the contents.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Dario and the West Highland Way

A few minutes ago when I was about to publish a much longer post, I learned of the sudden death of Dario Melaragni, race director of the West Highland Way Race, while out running in the Cairngorms. Sometimes life just isn't fair on the good guys. On quick reflection, I've stuck with the first few paragraphs of what I was going to say anyway. I first wrote the words a couple of days after my second WHW completion in 2008, and they capture for me what the race - Dario's Race, for to me it will always be that - is all about.

"If you have run the West Highland Way you will already know this story. You will have one of your own. The details will differ but the story will be the same. If you have not, or maybe not yet, thrown your hat into this particular ring, then be very, very careful. The event has a siren effect on all who come near, and will not let go easily.

You may be entranced by the perfect unfurling of the scene along your journey, from quiet beginnings in the gentle farmlands north of Glasgow to the first suggestion over Conic Hill of sterner things to come, along the bonny but tortuous banks of Loch Lomond to the wastes of Rannoch Moor, the stark beauty of Glencoe and the final crescendo as Ben Nevis breaks into view to beckon you to the finish in Fort William.

You may be stirred by the certainty that this is still a wild trail, for along its 95 miles you will find no flower-decked chalets or welcoming buvettes, no rustic hamlets ransacked for holiday homes; a couple of villages, a few lonely farms and a handful of hotels, built in the time when travelling the highlands by any means was an adventure, will be your only brushes with civilisation.

But I think, no I'm sure, that it will be the people who create, run, and make the history of this race who will draw you in with their achievements, their stories, and their welcome. Alan and "Mad Jim" with 13 completions each; "WHW Runner" Ian who could double that number if his current enthusiasm holds; "Drama Queen" Mark who broke an ankle 5 miles from the start but decided to carry on and finish anyway; "Backwards Tim" who, depressed that injury kept him from the start line for two years out of three, ran the course from Fort William to Glasgow on the shortest day of the year in a time that many summer finishers would be proud of; "JK" who's unstoppable enthusiasm is only matched by his detailed blogging of training for the race; "Mad Aussie" Keith completing each year in fine style while pretending he doesn't really take it too seriously, and the athletes like Ritchie and Murdo up at the front, turning in performances every year that most runners would be pleased with once in a lifetime, but who will offer you their advice so readily and unassumingly.

Above all, race director Dario, who after a year's work organising the whole show, diligently ensuring that each accepted participant has a fighting chance of making the finish, and getting all the right people and equipment to the start line in the middle of a midsummer's night, knows for certain that he will spend the next 35 sleepless hours dealing with lost, damaged, often incoherent and occasionally hospitalised competitors, keeping the peace between over-zealous support crews and local residents, and being constantly aware of not only where everyone is, but of the changing Scottish weather in case the race needs to be modified or competitors rescued. Immediately after this he will MC the prizegiving ceremony for a further 2 hours with the skill and charm of a seasoned TV presenter."

Dario was more than a superb race director, he was a friend and confidant to every participant throughout the year, a guy who made our lives richer just by being who he was and doing what he did.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009


I follow the blogs of quite a few ultra runners; they're all different and all fascinating, so I've decided to make my contribution to the pool. It won't be a blow-by-blow account of my training, I'm nowhere near disciplined enough (either with the training or the writing), and it will certainly be about the "middle-to-back-of-pack" view of things as I'll never be a competitive runner, but maybe I'll be able to hit on a point or two of interest now and then. I'll try to post about once a week, on things that affect me or events I'm involved in, and how I'm feeling about them. I suspect also that sharing your hopes and aspirations helps to keep them realistic!

So how did I get involved in this game?

I used to spend my spare time climbing, ski-ing, mountain biking and most other ways of playing in the mountains. Then I got a job in Rotterdam. They don't have mountains there, not within hundreds of miles, so I had to find something else to do. The Rotterdam Marathon was being talked about at work, still six months to go to the race, so I entered, trained, and eventually made it round the course in a bit over three and a half hours, enjoying every minute except the last few miles. I was 55 years old but I had found a new sport. I started running two marathons a year, "collecting" the big city ones, Amsterdam. London, Paris, New York. I was now, after a fashion, a runner.

Three years later I was back in England, climbing again, but found out about the West Highland Way Race, a non-stop event along the 95 mile long trail from the outskirts of Glasgow to Fort William. The maximum time allowed was 35 hours. I just didn't know such races existed, but idiocy on this scale appeals to a lot of mountaineers so I had to have a go. I thought it would be a one-off, I would do the event, feel some satisfaction at having (hopefully) pulled it off, and that would be that. I had no idea as I sent off that first entry form that I was stumbling into the strange world of ultra running, and that it would have a serious impact on my life. Since then I have completed the West Highland Way Race three times, plus a number of other ultras of varying lengths, and I'm hooked.

Why do I do it? Probably impossible to answer but I'll tell you a few of the aspects that keep me coming back for more. Firstly, ultras nearly always cover great countryside, forests, moorland, mountains, the sort of places you want to be anyway, a million miles from pounding the asphalt in road races. Looking up the length of Loch Lomond in the early dawn, or battling the Pennine moors on a wild March day, these experiences stay with you a long time after the event. Secondly, although maybe the athletes up at the front of the field won't agree with me here, you don't actually have to run very fast. You get tired but not out of breath, you can enjoy the progression along the way, hear the sounds and smell the smells. In a fast (for me) half marathon, I'm gasping from about mile three to the end; in an ultra, if I ever get below a nine minute mile it's because it's downhill. Thirdly, the people you meet in this game are amazing. It's a friendly community and no matter how well or how badly you run there is some sort of recognition that everyone who commits to the journey is worthwhile. My daughter, having observed my progressive immersion from the fringes, says that ultra runners appear a sociable bunch of attractively deranged characters who behave as though what they are doing is completely normal.

Maybe that's the key. The idea of running 50 or 100 miles either appeals to you or it doesn't, and we shouldn't look for deeper meanings.

Enough for now.