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.

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