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.