The forecast was rain. Actually to be precise the forecast was for a lot of rain. And as we re-consulted it day by day, it didn't change or go away so by Thursday it was a stone certainty that we were going to get wet. This made things pretty straightforward, take the right gear and MTFU as they say nowadays. Then I had a small logistics issue; one that I was more than happy to have you understand, I just became a grandfather so a key member of my usual support team had far more important things to do looking after his brand-new daughter than spending the weekend running around Scotland in the rain. I was saved by the generosity of Steve Walker who I knew was crewing for Jon Steele, and who agreed to stand in as emergency support for me at Balmaha so my ladies could get some sleep on the Friday night and meet me at Auchtertyre, 50 miles in. To keep things simple I decided not to involve Steve in provisions or clothes, but to carry what I thought I might need and rely on drop bags at Rowardennan at 27 miles and Beinn Glas at 41 miles, so I arrived at Milngavie Station Yard with one and a half litres of flat coke, full waterproofs, space blanket, a light fleece in case things got chilly, hat, gloves, torch, gels, Mars bars, you get the picture, this was not going to be a lightweight exercise.
It had rained all day but just before the start it stopped, or almost did. It felt quite warm, we were overdressed, jackets came off, the guys in shorts looked smug, had the Met actually got it all wrong, we wondered? Then we were off into the night.
The honeymoon lasted about an hour. As I hit the old railway line section at 6 miles the rain started properly again and it was clear that it meant business. The path started to fill up into a continuous puddle. The couple of miles of road between Gartness and Drymen were interesting; the tarmac was completely covered in water for most of the way, the depth varying from an inch or less to above the ankle, but of course in the dark you couldn't see where the deep bits were. The short, normally boggy field obstacle just before Drymen didn't present any decisions at all, feet couldn't get any wetter by now.
On through the treeless Garabhan forest and up the stream which was once a path onto Conic Hill. For me the rain persisted only occasionally uninterrupted through to Kinlochleven at 80 miles, but because of its effect on the ground underfoot in the darkness, the first 20 miles were the worst. I'm normally quite philosophical anyway about bad conditions, can't take a joke shouldn't have joined sort of approach, but in addition two images helped to keep me going through this stretch. Firstly, it was not going to get as bad as last year's UTMB, when four hours of torrential rain were followed by a rapid drop in temperature and a snowstorm on one of the highest cols on the route, and secondly the thought of Debbie Consani falling in the canal in the middle of the night on the Grand Union Canal Race, reasoning that she was already so wet it wouldn't make much difference, and going on to win the race. Can't throw in the towel in the face of that sort of example.
Hokas are comfy but steep grass and wet rocks are not their best territory so I descended the far side of Conic much more carefully than usual, silly to ruin your day with a fall this early on. I couldn't find Steve immediately at the packed fairground that was Balmaha car park but got him on the phone to say I was fine and carrying straight on. From here to Rowardennan was weirdly uneventful. After the crowds at Balmaha I saw almost no-one for the next 7 miles, the ground underfoot improved, the rain didn't seem so bad and I arrived spot on my target of 5 hours 30 minutes. I had set out on a 23-24 hour schedule; I knew I was underprepared this year due to around 6 weeks out with a rib injury but it seemed a bit wimpish not to give it a go. The drop bag was welcome as I had been sucking on empty for 3 or 4 miles, a milkshake downed and a litre of flat ginger beer in the bag. I had decided to fuel mostly with liquids this year and it seemed to be going OK so far.
On along the Loch. Through Inversnaid without stopping then the tortuous bit which I was quite happy to walk mostly, a quick pause to look back from Dario's post, then on along the bit which always seems further than it is to Beinn Glas. I passed Graeme McClymont who said he was struggling this year; I knew he'd get it back and I told him he would be OK (he was, he went on to finish in 22nd place in 22.15) At Beinn Glas I chatted with Graeme Reid who arrived about the same time, and John K who was not running for the first time in many years but acting as Race Control (which I think means he's supposed to know where most of the runners are most of the time.......). I always enjoy the next bit up to Derrydaroch, then dislike it from there to the last hill in the forest above Crianlarich; Saturday was no different but at least we didn't have cows all over the track like we usually do. I met Marco as I crossed the main road, then plodded up the hill to the cow track, along there in company with another runner who I'd not met before, then the hard work in the forest. Eventually I saw the WHW sign that signals the start of the last little hill, then it was soon down, down, across the road and jog round to Auchtertyre to meet my crew for the first time. At 11:25 from the start I was still on schedule despite the conditions.
It was worth the psychological boost to get a quick cup of tea, change to a dry shirt and pick up my favorite hat (which is sadly incompatible with a headtorch) but the shoes and socks stayed on without change until Fort William. Ditch the rucksack at last, pick up the bottle belt with one of Complan and one of fizzy water (time to switch to more savoury sensations), a marmite butty for the hill out of Tyndrum and hit the road again.
|Pit stop at Bridge of Orchy|
The section went well. On the open ground just before Tyndrum I heard shouts ahead, two runners coming in the opposite direction turned out to be Debbie and Sharon, neither competing this year, out to meet the crowds. Hugs from both, a word of congratulation from me on the GUCR and we carried on our separate ways. The ford in Tyndrum was to be avoided we were told by the marshal at Auchtertyre, so down the lane from the station and along the main road to rejoin the WHW at Brodie's store - easier in the conditions maybe, but I'm sure it felt longer. I walked steadily up the hill, eating and drinking most of the way, then a conservative but continuous jog all the way to Bridge of Orchy, rain all the way. I met Jan and Julia again here and decided not to stop but just picked up more Complan and fizzy water and carried on.
Murdo tM was in his normal spot near the top of the first little hill, together with a gaggle of young ladies (how does he do this?). I stopped for a chat, was required to autograph a hat for a reason that escaped me both then and now, thanked him for the regulation jelly baby, and crested the hill. I heard later that Murdo was at that spot for around 10 hours, what a hero.
At this point the track turns downhill, and so did my race. I'm normally happy to bound down here, it's a gentle gradient and an easy surface, but I suddenly felt overwhelmingly weary. It would be convenient to think that Murdo had spiked my jelly baby, but on reflection I think it was just payback time for the miles I've missed this year and the extra effort I put in in keeping to my schedule for the first 60 miles in the fairly difficult conditions. I had run a reasonable Highland Fling a few weeks previously but finished it feeling much more tired than in previous years although I didn't want to admit this to myself at the time. From this point onward I was just slow. I didn't feel bad, I was hydrated and maintaining weight, and eating more than enough to keep going; I just found making progress was hard work. Still, I ran to the start of the Moor, walked most of the first long hill, then shuffled most of the rest. Somewhere along here, on what is generally felt to be the bleakest part of the course, the rain stopped for a while and for all of two minutes the sun came out. As good as a shot of adrenalin. But it wasn't to last and by the time I was on the final down hill to the Glencoe Ski Centre it was gloomy and wet again. As I chugged in to the checkpoint Graeme Reade was just leaving, he'd been making up time on me steadily ever since Beinn Glas and would go on to beat me by nearly two hours this year, a solid performance.
I had blown any chance of a respectable time by now, but I knew I could and would finish OK so it was just a question of how much more time to trade for a comfortable final marathon. The weather was closing in again (photo at the head of this post) so I dallied for a cup of hot Oxo then trundled off down the road towards the Kingshouse. The ladies were off to check in at the hotel in Fort William, I said I would be around 3 hours to Kinlochleven. The first half of this section to Altnafeadh always goes quite quickly, to nearly 5 of the 10 miles done before tackling the Devil's Staircase gives you a bit of a boost, and the subsequent climb was slow but continuous and uneventful. I jogged easily down the other side, slower than some years, faster than others, reflecting that this is real Hoka territory, no need to pick out individual stones to land on or avoid, just cruise through the lot.
As I reached Kinlochleven the rain was slackening and the sky was lightening all round, it finally looked as though the weather was going to improve. The flip side was that the midgies which had barely bothered me all day could now get out to play. There was quite a social scene inside the checkpoint, people sitting around in comfort with cups of tea, George Reid (supporting rather than running this year) who I had been seeing on and off all day, John K, local man Peter Duggan. I paused for a minute or two while Julia hunted my weight card. I was feeling good enough but very tired; I'm getting too old for this game I said, ah you were already too old when you started replied marshal Julie. At the weighing I was the same as at Milngavie, it's just a question of putting on more clothes to balance the weight loss I explained.
I was prepared to go through to the end on my own but Julia made the offer of company and I readily accepted. It's a bit bizarre she said later, I would normally think of a 15 mile trip in the hills as a full day out, with preparations, packed lunches and so on, but here I just turn up at 10pm, look for a spare jacket in the car, grab a headtorch and wander off into the night. We were not pushed for time so I delayed the start for tea and a sausage roll (definitely one of the all time best ultra foods for me on several occasions), then off on the last leg. It took a while, and I was passed by several runners going more strongly, Tony Thistlethwaite en route to his 9th completion, Tim Downie who has passed me here on more than one occasion before, and somewhere by Jon Steele who I had managed to keep my nose in front of all day but who came through to a storming last leg. The Lairig Mor was long, the hills in the forest tiring, but then all that was left was to drift easily down the big track to the road and on to a 26 hour 23 minute finish.
Not one of my better times, but not one of the worst either. I found out at the prizegiving next morning that out of 172 starters, only 119 runners had finished. In 59th place I just squeaked into the top half of the field, I'll take that given the preceding and concurrent circumstances. I picked up my 6th goblet and also a prize for being the "oldest finisher" - a lovely piece of glassware but I'm not sure it matches my self image as a dynamic young ultra-athlete......
It was sad to see that so many friends with so many completions each had not made the finish. It just wasn't your year guys, you'll be back. But it was also great to see the first time entrants who had made it, a dream that started a year ago now fulfilled, runners like Silke and Caroline, who had put in their hard miles in conditions far worse than Saturday's so were able to shrug off the conditions and make it to the finish. And the winning run by Terry Conway, breaking Jez Bragg's long standing course record by 6 minutes was a truly top drawer performance. Julia had to leave on Sunday morning but Jan and I were able to drift off after the prizegiving to catch up on some sleep. I resurfaced for the celebrations at the Nevis Bar, all happy relaxed faces now, looking back a day or so and forward a year, you know how it goes. Good to catch up with Ian Beattie, thanks to him and the whole organising team for what was as always a memorable couple of days.
We left early Monday morning and the Scottish weather, having shown us who was boss over the weekend, went into siren mode to lure us back. We drove through a dry, sunlit Glencoe, my mind wandering back over the visits of our youth, for in our memory the weather is always good. Perched on a belay on the Buchaille's Rannoch Wall gazing dreamily out over the Moor while a companion struggled with difficulties above, creeping over the bald vastness of the Trilleachan Slabs down the Etive valley, making sure you hit the obligatory hundred miles an hour over the bridge by the Kingshouse on the way home. Jan and I headed south at a more responsible speed, and stopped for breakfast at 8.30 at the Bonnie Braes cafe somewhere opposite Inversnaid. We sat outside in the warm sunshine under a cloudless sky, eating our bacon butties and looking out over a millpond-calm Loch Lomond. Rain? What Rain?