Tuesday, 28 June 2011


I was up on Snowdon summit yesterday evening, the ground bone dry underfoot, wall to wall views and a cooling zephyr from the south. Of course I was prompted to wonder why we couldn't have had such serene weather for the West Highland Way race last weekend but on reflection that's not the point for we're happy to go whatever the weather. Many will remember the near hurricane that chased us along the Lairig Mor in 2008, the clear bright blue of the lochans on the perfect summer's day in 2010, and I'm sure those whose participation goes back beyond mine will recall the flash floods of 2005 and a lot more besides. Dario once remarked to me that we hadn't had a snowy experience for a while "but I'm sure we will again before too long". So the "atmospheric" conditions last weekend were nothing out of the ordinary and didn't detract from, and may even have contributed to, what was generally felt to be a high standard event.

And at the sharp end, so it was. 17 runners came home in under 20 hours and 30 in total in under 22 hours, compared with 12 and 28 respectively last year.  Many of these had competed before and several ran impressive PB's.

Further down the field however, the mid-pack and slower runners were having a tougher time and taking longer, so that the finishing times started to spread out more rapidly. 40th place this year got home in 23:18, whereas to get 40th last year required a 22:40 performance. Similarly for 50th place, 24:40 this year and 23:25 last. I was 2 hours 25 minutes slower than last year but only dropped 8 places, from 52nd to 60th. There were 39 DNF's. I don't think the number of starters in past races is archived anywhere (or if it is I can't find it), but from my previous involvement I think this seems much higher both as an absolute number and as a percentage (over 25%) than we have seen in recent years. There were one or two notable exceptions to this trend, but a glance at the finishing times will show that many of the "regulars" didn't have an outstanding day at the office.

Were there any external reasons for this, or was it just that the lower 75% of the field just wasn't as good as last year? Well, I have a bit of a theory (would you expect anything else?) so here goes:

1. Wet conditions underfoot are not easy. Early on, everyone in the group that I was in was taking avoiding action around puddles on the trails and the old railway track. This disrupts your rhythm, slows you down, and uses more energy. Then on rocky ground (say Conic Hill and a lot of the lochside) you cannot rely on just bouncing on the tops of individual rocks in case you slide off so you become more conservative, with the same results (slow down, more energy used).  You want to look after your feet so unless you're tough you spend time changing socks, re-applying vaseline or whatever, and this all eats up time. So if you're keeping to a schedule you might have chosen for a dry day, you're having to go faster on all the bits where you are not slowed down, with the attendant increased use of energy.

2. Running in falling rain eventually gets debilitating. It's fine, even pleasant, for maybe two or three hours, but after that I'm sure most people would rather it stopped. Regardless of your kit you are pretty well soaked through and if you slow down you start to get cold. This too zaps energy, and prompts more time-consuming changes of clothing  to get the psychological benefit of starting out feeling dry for a short while occasionally.

Last year's race was completely dry. Some commented that it was hot, but there was a cooling headwind for most of the distance and I believe for most runners the dryness more than compensated for the heat, although this is of course a personal thing.

So overall, I think that many runners this year were affected by the wet conditions underfoot throughout and the rain later on. Why not the faster ones? Well, these guys are in general better prepared, better trained, more focussed on their goals, better able to deal with a bit of adversity. They also cover more ground running (so stay warmer), and in this year's race were further up the road when it started to rain, so could maybe smell the finish rather than the prospect of a long wet day ahead.

Just excuses? Well, maybe, but the learning for me is not to expect to cover the ground at the same overall speed if conditions are continuously wet.

On my own run last Saturday, I think the above contributed. I ran slower at times and stopped at checkpoints far more than I intended to, so was left playing catch-up in between times. I didn't believe this had affected me until I ran out of steam quite badly on the last few miles of Rannoch Moor. At Glencoe I was half an hour down on last year in (for me) far less favourable conditions, and feeling roughly the same. From there I didn't find any motivation to push it to the end so settled for finishing in reasonable comfort (and slowly!)

But in the stuff that I've already read  since last weekend, the question that has really interested me is "What was your real plan for this race?"  I said I wanted to "Finish in around 24 hours and in good shape". This sounded fine at the time but on reflection there are so many holes in it that it wasn't a plan at all. By "around 24 hours" did I mean plus or minus 15 minutes, an hour, two hours? Did I really mean under 24 hours? And how good was "good shape"? I knew I didn't want to knock myself out of contention for the Lakeland 100 five weeks later, but last year I ran the WHW just 3 weeks after a fairly arduous 100 miler and got a PB. And how much did I want to achieve the plan? Only if it came easily? If not, how much was I prepared to put in? What was my main concern, getting a time or enjoying the trip? I just hadn't made any of this clear to myself before the start. Don't get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed last weekend's event, but it's clear that I didn't have a plan, and for sure that affected the way I ran.

Well, that's enough philosophising for now. I'm also intrigued by the question "Why do you enter this (or any other) race?" but that can wait for another time.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Another Day on the West Highland Way

I posted in January that my goal for this one was "to finish in good shape in around 24 hours".  After a 23.34 PB last year and a big summer ahead I wasn't going to go for broke, but I do now feel a bit of wistful disappointment that my finish in five seconds over 26 hours could have, and probably should have, been better. On the day though I felt that the final 25 miles were quite tough enough and that pressing on harder would have hurt a fair bit.

I'll philosophise over what I think went wrong when I've had time to think a bit more about it; for now I'll just recount how my day (plus two hours!) went.

The Start
When the team (wife Jan, son John, daughter Julia) and I convene for dinner in Milngavie I confess that I haven't felt any of the nervousness  normally associated with starting an event of this length, almost as if I haven't realised that today is the day, but the buzz comes back when I get down to the start with John and meet so many people I know from previous times here. We have left the ladies asleep but John sticks around while I check in and do all the other stuff you have to do, wishes me luck, and takes the obligatory start photo. I'm standing around near the back, still doing a double take on John Vernon appearing in a full beard, when the countdown starts and we're off.

The threatened rain has either come and gone or not arrived yet and for the first half of the race atmospheric conditions are near perfect  - great temperature, not much wind, and NO midges. I take it very easily near the back of the field, spending some time with Graeme Morrison, Pete Duggan, Keith Hughes and others, cruising along at just under 12 minute mile pace. To give John and Julia some checkpoint timings I have decided to use the same schedule that I used in the two previous years. Basically this gets to Glencoe in 16 hours, after which my eventual finish time will be decided by how well I handle the final two sections - well, it seems to work that way for me.

My only concern, right from the start, is the state of conditions underfoot which are very wet with lots of big puddles along the old railway track. This is going to have two effects, (1) to make the technical rocky ground slower going, and (2) to mean that everyone will have wet feet pretty well from start to finish. I did a 60 mile run a couple of years ago with wet feet and ended up with blisters and shredded skin that took about three weeks to heal, so I determine I am going to be careful and look after my feet right from the start. This means a change of socks and new vaseline as often as possible. In last years race the only change I had was from a long to a short sleeve shirt at half way, I didn't touch my shoe laces from start to finish. This year I use five pairs of socks, three pairs of trainers, and five shirts  -  but one reliable hat does the job the whole way!

After 4 years practice they're a slick team!
I trundle into Balmaha right on schedule, change shirt and socks, drink tea, eat rice, and apologise again to John and Julia again for getting them up earlier this year (usually I don't see them until Rowardennan an hour and a half later on). They are as slick as usual and have me out just on the planned 5 minutes. I decide to use my one pair of waterproof socks over the section to Auchtertyre as it is the longest without support. I know many people are against them but they have always worked for me and even if they eventually get wet inside from a deep puddle or falling rain I find your feet stay warmer than with normal socks.

So off along the Loch. My main memory this year is that from Rowardennan to Auchtertyre I see almost no-one. Clearly the faster guys have gone and the field around me is really spreading out. A couple of miles before Inversnaid I catch up with Sandra and we run into the checkpoint together but leave at different times and I don't encounter her again until many miles later. At Inversnaid the added protein in my rice pudding is the first indication that there are still midges about, but they certainly aren't bothering the runners this year. I hit my intermediate times at Rowardennan (5.35) and Bein Glas (9.00) pretty well, and I think am still within a minute or two of my scheduled 11hrs 30min to Auchtertyre, though by then my Garmin has stopped and I will go with a normal watch until the end.

Arriving at Auchtertyre......
.......and leaving in the rain
As it is now 12.30pm I am ready for lunch, but determined not to make the mistake of previous years and eat so much I can barely move faster than a slow walk, I take on tea, soup and crisps, and save the sandwich for when I am walking up the long hill out of Tyndrum. It has now started raining, and for me this will continue to Kinlochleven.

Approaching Bridge of Orchy
After the long walk up the hill, I run all the way to the Bridge of Orchy checkpoint. It is easy enough but bleak today, rain all the way and no-one in sight until I am almost at the station. I normally stop in the station yard so I have asked John to check with the marshal whether there is any mandatory gear for Rannoch Moor. The word is rainjacket and leg covering. I haven't planned to stop for more than two minutes here but the weather is getting worse so I put on another layer and stop for a cup of tea before jogging off across the main road and up the first little hill.

Near the top is Murdo. He was at the same spot last year but in today's conditions it must be something of a trial. I stop for a minute or two's chat and he tells me the weather was worse yesterday when he was out walking Munros on the opposite side of the valley. He also says that Sandra is five minutes or so ahead and John Kynaston about a quarter of an hour. The latter surprises me as I thought he would be past Glencoe by now, but he is having a tough time today. But Fort William is still a bit of a trek, so I gratefully accept the jelly baby and go on my merry way.

Down the hill and round the road are always quite good bits for me, but they are sort of the calm before the storm. The next hill up on the moor is never very steep, and it's all runnable, but it does go on a bit. I can see two runners in the distance, the first for quite a while, so I use them as a target and very slowly over the next mile or two I catch them up. It turns out to be Sandra and her support runner, we carry on for a little way but then I stop to walk for a drink and something to eat and they carry on. After this I just can't seem to get going again and go through a longish bad patch. I don't feel bad, my legs are OK, I just seem to feel very tired. The conditions are miserable, definitely not my favourite but certainly not dire, but I feel I am fighting them a bit more than I need to. Finally at the top of the last uphill I get running again make it down to the Glencoe checkpoint.
Arriving at Glencoe
Just as I am getting there I see John K heading out. I say something like "Oh no, not again!" because although John is a far better runner than me I had caught him in exactly the same place last year. That time we had carried on together to Altnafaidh then he got a second wind and beat me to the end by nearly an hour and a half; I was assuming the same was going to happen today. But my slowness over the moor has cost me, and at Glencoe I am half an hour adrift. I also need some food and to warm up, so my scheduled 10 minute stop is doubled.

Top of the Devil's Staircase
My kids normally run with me in turn from here to the end but conditions are still far from ideal so I say I'll be happy enough carrying on by myself. They're having none of it, John is suited up and ready to go, so we're off down the road at what I describe to a pair of runners that we shortly catch as "classic ultra shuffle" speed.  The daft little hill up and down then the Devil's Staircase both come and go. They seem easier than when I was pushing last year, probably because I am going slower! This is a section that I normally run with Julia but they have agreed to swap for a change. John last did this section with me on my very first WHW race four years ago; on that occasion we lost the last of the light going up the Staircase and did all the descent in the dark, with me hallucinating most of the way down. He is interested to see what it looks like in daylight. A long slow jog sees us down to Kinlochleven, but by now I am an hour behind my last year's time. Then, determined to get my first 24 hour finish, I  grabbed a cup of coke and pressed on immediately. Today, with any chance of that now gone, I luxuriate in a couple of large coffees and a shirt change. Going into the community centre for the last weighing, I meet John K busy bandaging his feet. He had been forced to run in very new and largely untried shoes but he says that isn't the whole problem. I say I am also finding it tough now. Just get to the finish, plenty of time for the thinking later.

Up into a long, gloomy Lairig Mor
So off up the hill with Julia, then the long, gloomy Lairig Mor.  The Mountain Rescue guys doing a brilliant job, asking everyone how they're doing, offering drinks, real heroes. Over the first rise and the path is a stream in places, no need to bother where you're putting your feet. Is it better in daylight says Julia, yes and no I say, you can see where to go but also how far it is to the next summit .....which never seems to be the last one. But Fort William is coming back to us, bit by bit, and it's not going to get away. Eventually we meet people coming the other way, supporters from Lundavra working back to meet their runners, and soon after we're there. Again, I haven't stopped here recently but tonight the fire is too tempting, it's stopped raining, so it's five or ten minutes of gentle warmth, a cup of coffee from the flask and a word or two with Uncle Duncan. 

The last bit is always hard, but it's not too long. This year they've cut the trees down on the last steep little hill and as we approach it we can see torchlights way up high, I never knew it was that far up, but then we're up it and we can wander down the wide track. I could run again here if pushed, but the discomfort involved for the sake of fifteen minutes or so doesn't seem worth it so we just keep up a brisk walk, Julia, just like John normally, taking two strides to my three with her long legs. As we near the road she phones John, then we're out on the pavement, torches off, enjoying the last few steps before the end. Jan and John meet us just before the roundabout and turn round to walk in with us but Jan can't keep up so she has to break into a run. 

Then it's done. Fifth West Highland Way completion. Life seems pretty good. 

The family says I look in better shape than after any previous finish and it feels that way to me, so at least that part went to plan. I have no aches or pains the following day and am out running again by Tuesday.

Back next year?  These days I don't even have to wait until after the prizegiving to know.  In the car, driving back to the hotel after the finish, I'm mentally registered already. 

A big thanks to all the organising committee, marshals, mountain rescue teams, and everyone else who puts in so much time so that we can go out and play each year on this wonderful course.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Diversion and Contemplation

They say you're not supposed to do much running in the week or two before a long one, but you need something to spend the free time on so it was up to the Lakes for me last weekend. Long sunny days in teeshirts on Gimmer Crag and Sca Fell. Then on to Stranraer and over the sea to what is often claimed to be "the greatest expanse of climbable rock in the UK" at Fair Head in Northern Ireland. By then the British summer had returned and two fleeces and a jacket were the order of the day, snatching climbs between the showers, but even this couldn't dampen the enthusiasm for this big, wild, gothic cliff. I went for a run in the rain one morning, 7 or 8 miles just to keep ticking over but the work should be done by now. Back home on Saturday night with aches in different places and just a few days left to contemplate the event of next weekend, the 95 mile West Highland Way Race.

This time last year I wrote a short post a few days ahead of the race. The thoughts still echo so I make no apologies for repeating it, slightly updated, here..

French alpinists have an expression "retour au pays des vaches". After the adventure, when you step off the last bit of glacier or dangerous ground onto the easy hillside below, you've returned to the land of the cows  -  you're safe, you've survived the trip. And as you wander down for maybe an hour or two through the high meadows and the pinewoods, no more stress involved, no more decisions to make, tired but somehow no longer tired, it's a short but precious time to contemplate and savour what you've just achieved, before you have to face the music and return to the world of normality.

There is a mile of tarmac at the end of the West Highland Way; you come out of the Glen Nevis forest at the Braveheart carpark then follow the road along to the finish. This stretch is despised, even hated by some, I've heard it complained of and sometimes roundly abused, but for me this bit of the journey is the "pays des vaches". Job done, whatever pain you have is going to stop soon, time to enjoy the last bit before it's all over and you get to the bright lights, the congratulations, the shuffle off to a well-earned rest. So if you run the West Highland Way, when you reach and travel this last mile, whether it takes you seven minutes or half an hour, just take a moment or two to reflect on how you came to be here, Glasgow to Fort William on foot, not a bad effort, you don't do that sort of thing every day.

At the end of my first trip I came to this point when the sun was well up into Sunday, thirty-odd hours after the start. There was another runner, or walker for that's what we both were by this stage, just ahead of me. Now known as the Subversive Runner or the Pirate, he had at that time not acquired either soubriquet. A hundred yards from the finish he stopped. Go on, I said, I'm not going to pass you now. It's OK, he said, I'll just wait for my mate to catch up, he's not far behind you. So my deserved seventy-first place became an undeserved seventieth and I carried on to the Leisure Centre carpark. There I was welcomed by a shortish, balding fellow with a smile as wide as his face, in spite I suspect of not having slept in the past forty-eight hours. "Really well done," he said, "you look in pretty good shape." I didn't of course, but I'm sure I grew an inch at that moment. I heard him greet the runner behind me, "Hi Dave, well done, good to see you back," and it occurred to me that he had probably seen home every finisher before me and would no doubt wait for the few still to come. One way or another, he's been there at all my subsequent completions, whatever time I arrived, with the same smile and a word or two of encouragement.

I hope to be seeing the tarmac again soon, sometime in the darkness between next Saturday and Sunday. And as I make my way over those final few steps to the finish,  I know the short guy will be there with me again.