Thursday, 27 June 2013

West Highland Way Race 2013

I love this race. No straightforward reason, I'm not Scottish and it doesn't really play to my strengths  -  too much running and not enough technical ground for my liking  -  but put to the ultimate Desert Island Discs test, if all but one of your selections were washed away, then yes, this is the one that I would save.

Maybe it's the simple logic of the course; you start somewhere and head for somewhere else, a real journey rather than a constructed circle of difficulty getting you back to where you started. Maybe it's the scenery, on a scale we don't get south of the border. Maybe the escalating wildness from the rural farmland of the lowlands to the empty loneliness of the Lairig Mor. Maybe the commitment required, for there are many sections where you don't see habitation for many miles and there is no option of ducking out, just a choice between going on or going back. Maybe all of these, but I'm sure the main thing that sees me and many others returning year after year is to share the experience again with all the folk who organise, marshal, support, and run this iconic event. The West Highland Way "family" is indeed real.

This year the weather gods were much kinder after two years of deluge, Race Director Ian Beattie and his team upped the professionalism a further notch with immaculate organisation including chip timing for the first time, and the runners responded with an avalanche of superb performances.

Paul Giblin arrived in Fort William just 15 hours and 7 minutes after leaving Milngavie, breaking what we all thought was an outstanding record already by a cool half hour plus. The figure that I personally find hard to get my head around is that Paul covered the 95 miles, with its 14700ft of ascent, rocky and bouldery trails, stream and road crossings, and countless gates and stiles, at an average pace of 9 minutes 33 seconds per mile - amazing. Marco Consani got second place with a time that would have won the race in every other year of its history except for the record-breaking runs of Jez Bragg, Terry Conway, and of course Paul. Richie Cunningham came third, recording his fourth sub 17-hour finish, a consistency no other runner can come near. And Gareth Bryan-Jones finished in just over 26 hours at the age of 70, beating nearly half the starters in the process. For the ladies, Rosie Bell retained her title with a substantial improvement on her personal best, which she needed because in the nine weeks since the Highland Fling Race, Lorna McMillan emerged as a rising star to push her all the way. This year, the Scots claimed their premier ultra as their own!

Against this background my own day out seems pretty pedestrian, but I'll tell the story anyway.

After managing to crack 24 hours back in 2010, I had rather lost my way with the race. For the past two years I'd come without a real plan which resulted in two mediocre performances. This year I thought it was time to give it my best shot again.  I did a bit more "WHW-specific" training and decided I was good enough to go for the Saturday finish, that is to complete the course in just under 23 hours. To give myself a bit of wiggle room I put together a schedule for 22 and a half hours.

The usual suspects were there in the station yard on Friday evening. We spent time meeting and catching up, wishing each other luck, complained that we hadn't done the training we should have done, then we listened to Ian's briefing and headed off into the night. I had decided to start more aggressively and set myself a target of 2:09 to Drymen, which I beat by 5 minutes and still ended up squarely in the second half of the field  -  it seems almost everyone starts this race fast! My strategy after this initial "sprint" was simple  -  walk everything uphill and jog the rest, hopefully to the finish.

As the darkness turned into mist, we had an inkling that the promised very wet forecast wasn't going to be right. In fact, the day turned into almost perfect running conditions, cool with almost no wind, just the occasional heavy shower. Garabhan and Conic were uneventful and I sidled in to the first checkpoint, Balmaha (19 miles), on 3:34 in 77th place. I'd told the crew (Jan and Julia at this stage) to get me out of checkpoints as quickly as possible  -  my schedule didn't allow for stops but I had 30 minutes overall to play with - so it was a quick milkshake, change the water bottle and off along Loch Lomond.

I'm always surprised at how quickly a field of nearly two hundred gets spaced out along this course, and apart from a short while with Ian Rae I was on my own for most of the way to Rowardennan (27 miles) which came up in 5:18, spot on schedule. Looking at John Kynston's post-race spreadsheet, I now know I was 54th fastest from Balmaha to Rowardennan, so speeding up relative to the field but it felt easy enough. I know that I have to be careful from Rowardennan to Beinglas because it's country that I enjoy and can cover fast, but if I overdo it I know that I will pay later, as I have on several previous races. So I carried on walking every hill and arrived at Inversnaid (34 miles) in 6:55. A very midgie place but a novel idea of a "midge-free tent" provided by the marshals here, so I snuck inside for a custard and my first sit-down since Milngavie.

I walked almost all the way from Inversnaid to Beinglas, most of it in company with Keith Ainslie who was running his first WHW and hoping to get under 24 hours (he did!).  Even at a gentle pace the miles seemed to pass quickly. We caught up with Tony Thistlethwaite after a couple of miles or so. Tony is a fellow "vintage" runner who I have shared many miles with along this course over the years. He kept saying that he wasn't bothered about the time, he just wanted to finish as this would be his tenth completion, but Tony is a class act and still went on to finish well under 23 hours. Beinglas came up in 8:38, just a couple of minutes ahead of plan. What a difference an hour or so makes. In this year's Fling I was here in 7:30 and knew I was going to have a bit of a battle to keep going - now I was absolutely fine and raring to continue. I was 45th fastest from Rowardennan to here, still speeding up but still conservative. It was good to see Jan and Julia again but this was another "splash and dash" stop so I was there only a couple of minutes.

I left Beinglas with Tony but he was jogging some of the uphills so he soon opened up a gap of a few hundred yards. I've had some tough times on this bit so I took it gently. The only thing of note was how clean and dry the track was in the area where the cows normally congregate. No cows today, nor the hundred yards or so of ankle-deep agricultural slop that goes with them - a real bonus. I caught Tony again at the big gate above Bogle Glen - the halfway point of the race in distance - and we continued more or less together to Auchtertyre (50 miles), which I reached in 10:49. I was 27th fastest from Beinglas which really surprised me as it didn't feel fast at all. I think I maybe know the ground so well now that I know where to run and where to save energy on this mainly uphill stretch.                                         

Topping up supplies at Auchtertyre

Auchteryre is lunchtime, especially if you've been up since 1.00am, but I've made the mistake in the past of eating too much too quickly here and then not being able to move at a more than a waddle for the next several miles, so now I grab the sausage rolls, Mars bars, ginger beer and so on and eat them at a more leisurely pace on the long uphill out of Tyndrum. This meant I was able to run quite a bit of the few miles from Auchtertyre to Tyndrum before this. As I walked up the hill munching away Jon Steele came down the track in the opposite direction. Jon and Shirley were not running today but supporting Garry Scott, who was always half an hour or so ahead of me -  and an hour and a quarter at the end!

From the top of the hill, I know it is really easy running all the way to Bridge of Orchy so I carried on at a steady pace all the way, breaking my rule of not running the uphills, because on this stretch they are so gentle. At Auchtertyre I had thought I'd seen Jan for the last time for the day, and Julia for the last time until Kinlochleven. John was unable to join the team at the start because he'd been to a friend's wedding on the Friday, and we'd speculated what time he would be able to arrive, but he'd contacted the ladies and they were meeting for lunch in the Real Food Cafe in Tyndrum after I was through Auchtertyre. The plan was for the ladies to go to Fort William, check in and have some sleep while John covered the Bridge of Orchy and Glencoe stops. So I was quite surprised to see them all at our usual meeting point in the station car park. Julia's greeting was "Slow down, you're going too fast!". I was into the station in 12:46, about 15 minutes ahead of plan, so maybe I should have taken it a bit easier but it felt good at the time. They had decided that Jan would stay in Fort William after this stop, but that John and Julia were happy to go through to the end.

I used a bit of my time cushion to have a cup of tea, then set out down the road to the Bridge of Orchy checkpoint (60 miles) which I reached in 12:56. Tim and Muriel Downie were marshalling here this year but only Muriel was in evidence as I checked in. She said Tim was back in their camper. I set off at a steady walk up the hill but before I'd gone a hundred yards or so I heard running footsteps behind me, and Tim came flying past. "Couldn't let a West Highland Way Race go by without overtaking you at some point!" We walked a few yards then he wished me well, and I carried on up to Murdo and the jelly babies. At least it wasn't raining continuously on Murdo this year. He told me that John Kynaston was half an hour or so ahead of me, but he also had the news that Paul Giblin was well through Kinlochleven and looked on for a new course record. We chatted a minute or two then I pressed on, enjoying the downhill to Victoria Bridge.

I had already decided that my "walk the uphills" strategy had to be compromised for Rannoch Moor, because it's very nearly all uphill and would take forever walking. In previous years I had adopted a run/walk strategy, walking for a few hundred yards every so often to get a breather. This time, apart from a couple of short sections on the first long hill, and the last steeper half mile to the final summit, I ran the lot. On this last steeper bit I passed Karl Zeiner, which surprised me as he is a much better runner than me but he was obviously going through a bad patch (he came through it OK and finally re-passed me shortly after Lundavra)
Approaching Glencoe checkpoint (photo Jonathan Bellarby)

I felt OK coming down the slope to the checkpoint, but for the first time that day I also felt that I'd already come a long way - not quite the spring in the step I'd had at Balmaha!

I reached Glencoe in 15:22 which was 27 minutes ahead of my plan. The leg from Bridge of Orchy to here was my best relative to the rest of the field, I was 22nd fastest.

But I'd gained a bit more "cushion" and I was still going relatively well and feeling very positive that this was going to be a good year for me. Soup and tea at the checkpoint, flat coke and gels to go and I was away down the road towards Kingshouse. I felt I was slow over the Devil's Staircase leg, but on reflection I walked the ups steadily, jogged the downs and flats and didn't stop at all, so it was still done in 2:45 compared with my 3:00 plan (again 27th fastest).

And so to Kinlochleven. Through the checkpoint door and there was John K. I was pleased to have finally caught him but I knew I wouldn't see him again  -  he looked fighting fit and ready for action, but I was now feeling very tired. I sat on the back of the car with John and Julia and took stock. John had already decided he would run with me over the last stretch. I had reached Kinlochleven in 18:07, in 32nd place overall.  I wasn't feeling great, but I was as good as I've ever been at this point in the race, and much quicker. I had almost 5 hours to get to the end and still break 23 hours, but 22 was tantalisingly close. On the other hand I didn't want to push too hard and blow up with the prize in sight. I wasted 10 minutes or so changing my shirt and drinking a couple of cups of tea. Ian Beattie wandered past, come on he said, three and a half hours from here, you'll be there before eleven o'clock.

No excuse for hanging around longer so John and I were away, leaving Julia to drive around to the finish. I was stronger up the hill to the jeep track than ever before, still overtaking the odd runner. The Lairig Mor, which holds a lot of memories for me of just wanting the whole thing to end, was OK. We walked the ups and ran the downs, although "running" was a very relative term by this stage, I doubt whether we made much more than 12 minute miling at best.
In the Lairig Mor, photo by Wilderness Response Team
But it was daylight, and dry, and the trees appeared much quicker than usual. Soon we could see the white gazebo of the Lundavra checkpoint, and a wisp of smoke from the bonfire. Then we heard strains of the "Rocky" theme drifting towards us. The Lundavra checkpoint was brilliant, with the fire, music and party atmosphere it was like something on the UTMB.

But we weren't stopping. I think I said something like "I'm totally knackered now, but I will finish today" to Caroline as I went past. My elapsed time was 20:25. An hour and a half from here to the end would have done it, plenty of people cover the ground in this time. But it wasn't going to happen for me today. I just got slower and slower up the hill to the forest, then quite unexpectedly a couple of coughs turned into 20 seconds of retching and I had to pause for a few minutes. I got going again OK but decided I better not blow it at this stage. I said to John that I would walk now until we were up the last climb.  A lot of runners passed me in the two miles between this point and the start of the final run down to Fort William. My 32nd place at Kinlochleven turned into 41st at the end. When we were in the forest it was tempting to run the downhills but I knew I was very tired and didn't want to fail on the last uphill. But it was great to cover this section in daylight for the first time, we only clicked on torches for a few yards in the depths of the trees, then they were off again to the finish. Eventually we started the last climb and it went steadily enough, with Donald Sandeman in his tartan shorts as ever passing me just before the top. Once the final uphill was done, we got into a steady jog all the way down the wide forest road to the Braveheart Car Park, and as we hit the road  John phoned the ladies to say we were near to the finish.

With maybe half a mile to go a figure appeared out of the gloom, running towards us. It was Tim Downie. "What kept you, I've been waiting for you?" he said. My rather ungracious reply was "I'm going to beat your time, Tim!" "And about   ****ing time too!" was the response. The three of us jogged on to the finish.

With Jan at the finish
After the congratulations and family hugs, I said "What I could really do with now is a beer !" A guy who I had never seen before in my life immediately produced one, had the cap off, and gave it to me. Everyone you meet involved with this race is special.

My time of 22:23:13 was a personal best by an hour and 11 minutes, on my seventh completion of the course. I would have settled for that at the start of the day.  Had I got home in, say, 22:50, I would have thought job done, no way you're going to beat that, relax and smell the flowers in future. But 23 minutes? It must be possible to find that from somewhere, we're learning all the time.........

The prizegiving next morning and session in the Nevis bar Sunday evening were as good as ever, great to catch up with people and hear their tales. It was particularly good to learn of runners who had been able to lay some ghosts after a disappointing year or two, producing times that truly reflect their abilities.

Someone once told me that the seventh finish is the dangerous one. Six goblets is a nice set, seven and you're probably in for the long haul. I'm afraid for me there was never any doubt. I shall keep turning up at that crazy hour in Mingavie station yard every year until someone says I can't.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Reunion with Wales

Just because my affair with the Lake District is still going strong, it doesn't mean that I haven't forgotten the dalliances of my formative years. They may not have the gentle charm and clear beauty of Cumbria but the Snowdonia hills have more of an in-your-face brashness, a "So you think you're hard enough then?" swagger which tempts, maybe even dares you to take them on.

Most years around this time, my climbing club organises a trip over the Welsh Three Thousanders. Having a hut on the steep little road that leads to the "tourist track" to Snowdon summit, it always makes sense for us take the journey North to South, starting from Abergwyngregan and finishing at our hut in Llanberis. In the 70's and 80's, maybe 20 or 30 of us would pile around to the start in the early hours of a Saturday morning, with the fittest getting back in 10 hours or less and the night shift in upwards of 20. There was a pecking order but this was by no means a race, for the majority of us did no running, we just assumed our normal activities on the hills would be preparation enough to see us round. It was more of an "outing", a bit of communally shared joy and pain, and also a yardstick to check how easy (or hard) you were likely to find the Alpine season ahead.

Over recent years its popularity has dwindled, but last Friday evening there were still half a dozen aspirants down at the hut discussing start times and tactics. Peter decided he would be slow so opted for a solo 3am start; this meant the remaining five of us would fit in one car, which we left at the tiny car park above Aber just in time for the more traditional 5am getaway and hopefully a "torchless" journey back to Llanberis. The forecast was pretty good but there was mist on the tops which we expected would disperse as the day warmed up. I hadn't done the trip for some years so was intrigued as to whether my ultra training would have any beneficial effect.

Over the first 3 or 4 miles it gradually became clear that Dave and Rupert were finding a mutually convenient pace, and likewise Kerry and Nev, so I was pretty much left to my own devices. I continued with the faster pair to the first top Foel Fras. We stopped briefly for something to eat, but the mist was still thick and the wind whipping across; I hadn't really brought enough clothes for stopping so I wished them well and jogged off into the gloom. I thought I knew these hills and I do, but I paid for a rather casual approach with two navigational errors. The first one came because I forgot to take the slight left turn from the second top Garnedd Ugain and ended up in territory that didn't feel right. Map and compass out, a quick bearing and maybe only 5 minutes lost. I was more careful in the poor visibility from there, taking bearings to find the correct direction off both Foel Grach and Carnedd Llewellyn. Returning to the col near Yr Elen after the short out and back to the summit I met Dave and Rupert coming in the opposite direction, now probably just 10 or 15 minutes behind me. From here I made my second and much bigger navigational error. Again rather arrogantly not bothering to look at the map, I remembered that a traverse of the hillside from the col should bring me out on the Llewellyn-Dafydd ridge. Easy in good visibility, in the mist I must have drifted far too low down; not reaching the ridge by the time I felt it should have arrived, I eventually worked out that I was in an area almost below the Black Ladders cliff on Dafydd, requiring a re-ascent of a few hundred feet to get back on track again.

From here the way is straightforward and I soon reached the 6th top, Carnedd Dafydd. A couple of guys on top were setting up some sort of checkpoint and seemed quite surprised to see me. I later found that they were marshals on the Welsh 1000 metre tops race which was held on Saturday. After Dafydd I finally came out of the mist and could see where I was heading. I celebrated by speeding up and almost immediately tripped on a rock, resulting in a two-inch gash on the palm of one hand. This was turning out a rather incompetent section for me! I carried on over Pen yr Oleu Wen then the long descent down to the A5 at Ogwen to meet the real heroine of the day, Tanya, who had volunteered to spend her day at the valley crossings, making tea for weary walkers and ferrying them back to the hut in the event that they decided not to continue.

But at Ogwen it was early days yet. I washed my hand in the lake and patched it up with an impressive looking length of surgical tape, then as it was quite pleasant weather down here I decided to hang around until I knew where everyone was. Dave and Rupert arrived before long, stayed half an hour then pushed on over the Glyders. A phone call revealed that Peter had missed Tanya but was now nearly up Tryfan, and after another hour or so Nev and Kerry turned up, had their teas and a little rest and were ready to go. I started with them but decided to have a bit of a blast over the next section as the weather was by now looking pretty good and clear, though there was still a chill wind. A very direct 2000ft of ascent brought Tryfan up quickly, then down over the boulders to the col and another steep pull up to Glyder Fach. From here, the Glyders relent a bit. I chatted briefly to the 1000m race marshal on Glyder Fawr, which has been not too long ago remeasured as a 1000m peak, making the race a lot tougher than it once was, then down the rather threadbare screes to the lake and on up Y Garn. Descending Y Garn I ran straight past Peter without recognising him as we both concentrated on the ground underfoot, then I enjoyed the long almost level path for a mile or so before the ascent of Elidir Fawr. Just before the top I caught Dave and Rupert again, we celebrated the last Glyder together, then I carried on down the 2500ft descent to Nant Peris, to find Tanya waiting in the car park, now in warm sunshine. I lay on the grass, drinking tea and soaking up the warmth. Dave, then Rupert soon appeared. They were tired but determined and left after a fairly brief stop. Sometime later Peter appeared and decided that he'd had enough for the day - back another time for the full monte he said. We had a text from Nev and Kerry on Y Garn and waited an hour or so. We reasoned that they were OK, just going slowly so by the time they reached us they would have run out of either steam or time so were unlikely to continue. I decided to set off after Dave and Rupert  who by now had almost an hour start on me over the last section. Twelve tops down, three to go.

I had said to Dave earlier that you are allowed to get pretty well knackered on the ascent of Crib Goch, because it's the last big one, and I decided to practice what I had been preaching so I jogged purposefully up the road to the CC hut at Ynys Ettws. From here, the way to Crib Goch summit is pretty unrelenting, up a steep grassy cwm, then scrambling up alongside the stream to the left of the Waterfall Cliff, more grass and scree, then the final ridge, pointy and exposed. No track to speak of the whole way, just get your head down and swallow the nearly 2500ft to the top. I caught the boys just as they reached the summit, and just as we all disappeared into the mist again.

From here we took things carefully. Tired people have paid for mistakes with their lives up here so the exposed ridge was taken at a steady plod, as was the scrambling up to Crib y Ddysggl, as false summit after false summit appeared out of the mist. It was safer to keep the party together, and the three of us arrived eventually at Snowdon summit, the 15th and final top, for congratulations all round. From here it is an easy and safe path back to the hut, so as I was getting cold again I pushed on and ran the final four miles down to a warm shower and dry clothes, arriving just after 9.30pm, sixteen and a half hours after leaving Aber.  I had spent just over 4 hours lazing around at Ogwen and Nant Peris, so my moving time for the trip was around twelve and a half hours, nine hours from first summit to last - for which the record, last time I looked, is somewhere around 4 hours! From Aber back to our hut is around 33 miles and just under 13,000ft of ascent.

But the figures are not so important. Those of us who set out all had a good day in the hills. Three of us made it round, and the others all got to Nant Peris, no mean feat in itself. Wales is still OK.