Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Rule No 1: Don't underestimate the West Highland Way

Sitting on the tailgate of the car, drinking tea in the warm sunshine at the Bridge of Orchy station, chatting with Jan and Julia and John Kynaston. Finally admitting that this probably wasn't the most sensible project I'd undertaken. Grin from JK "Since when has conventional wisdom governed any of this stuff for you?" Ten minutes later, walking up Murdo's hill with Jon Steele, Jon's having a funny sort of day too. We console ourselves that we still have 19 hours left to cover 35 miles.

It all started back in the autumn of last year. An event that had been crying out to be put on, a race along Alfred Wainwright's famous "Coast to Coast" route, the most popular long distance path in the country, had finally been taken up by James Thurlow's "Open Adventure" team and would be run in 2016 under the banner "The Northern Traverse". Open Adventure had invented the "Lakes in a Day" which I had run for the past two years so I knew their organisation was top notch. The combination was too good to miss and I got my entry in almost as soon as they opened. Then around came 1st November and the West Highland Way entry. I'd missed last year and needed my Scottish fix. I got my name in without thinking twice. I had a vague idea that the two events were close, but chose not to dwell on the details of that. I knew how to do the West Highland Way, I'd already completed eight for heaven's sake, it would be fine.

Fast forward to this summer. At around 7.30pm on Thursday 2nd June I jogged into Robin Hood's Bay at the end of the Northern Traverse feeling pretty pleased. 3 days and 9 hours of stunning countryside and mixed weather and I was home inside the first 20 with no injuries, no blisters and a general sense of having survived well. I took it easy until the following Wednesday, then went for a gentle undulating 6 miles in the forest, everything still worked. With my typical occasionally unthinking enthusiasm I went back around the same route two days later, this time at well under 8 minute mile pace; the result was a very sore hamstring and a feeling of foolishness. Just a week to the West Highland Way race, better be no more exercise until then.

At the Friday evening conference with the smaller than normal crew (John had taken his family to France for the week, sensible fellow, leaving Jan and Julia with the unenviable task of trying to limit my mistakes during the weekend to manageable proportions) I pulled out a handwritten back of envelope schedule to get me to Fort William in 25 hours. Could go up or down, I said (probably more likely up, I thought) but we'll stick with it to Auchtertyre then re-assess. I left them to their sleep and wandered off down to the start to face the music.

The first few miles rumbled by, punctuated by only two incidents of note. First, somewhere on one of the very early stoney tracks I tripped over a rock and made a reasonable impression of a commando roll, leaving me with sore palms and a sizeable gash on the knee which I didn't discover until I had a shower thirty hours later. It woke me up a bit but clearly not enough as I then took the Mike Mason turn a few miles further on; fortunately after a couple of hundred yards I sensed I was in the wrong place and back-tracked to the correct route without losing more than a minute or two. My feeling of incompetence was only mitigated slightly by learning from Graeme McClymont in the pub afterwards that he and Fiona Rennie, with almost 20 completions between them, had made the same mistake just a few moments after me.

At Gartness I caught up with Adrian Stott, engaged on his 15th trip up the course. I should have known better than to ask why. On the road he was pulling me along a bit on the flats but I think I'm a slightly faster uphill walker so I didn't see him after that. It had been a short, moonlit night and the torch went off in the field up to Drymen. I had to run one or two uphills that I would maybe liked to have walked before Conic Hill, but the path up the hill itself has been improved so much that it seems to have no steep bits at all now;  so overall the first 19 miles didn't seem too arduous and by the time I clocked in with Big Davie at Balmaha I was spot on the 4 hours my schedule required and went on to a surprisingly midge-free meeting with Julia further down the car park. My dodgy hamstring had been getting a bit sore during the running so I had previewed a bit of taping to be done, but then remembered I'd left the first aid kit in the hotel and hadn't brought it down to the car the evening before, in spite of assuring the girls that I had everything sorted and they should just get some sleep. I had also made up some drinks and put them in the coolbag, another item I'd now left in the hotel. After a cool display of efficiency in my last event I was approaching Frank Spencer like competence in this one. Never mind, we coped with what we had and I said cheerio see you at Beinglas.

Steady progress up the loch was the plan; 2 hours to Rowardennan, 2 hours to Inversnaid, 2 hours to Beinglas. The first bit went fine. Just before Rowardennan I caught up with Ian Rae with whom I've spent more than a mile or two on this course. He had a sore foot from an injury more than two months ago. He thought he would drop at Rowardennan; it would be a hard decision, with 11 finishes already he knows how to get to Fort William. We jogged into the checkpoint together, I hoped he would continue (in the end his injury finally stopped him and I last saw him driving out of Glencoe, where he wished me well for the finish). In the few miles to Rowardennan the midges had started to make their presence felt, but when I stopped to pick up my drop bag they really hit with a vengeance. It was impossible to do anything standing still, you had to keep moving to achieve anything. I walked out eating rice pudding and midges. For the next 10 miles to where the route leaves the lochside, all you could really think about was the midges, they were worse than I had ever known before. I saw runners wearing nets, again a sight new to this year. I took off a T-shirt and made a hood of it, with just the squashed neck-hole to peer through. It helped but not much. We were used to passing through clouds of midges, par for the course, but this was just wall to wall continuous insects. In the end I found the most (but not very) effective method was to hold the spare T-shirt in a hand and make continuous swishing moves in front of my face.

A slight distraction was the new lower route between Rowardennan and Inversnaid, much more attractive than the dull forest road we'd used in the past. Along here I caught up Jonny Rowan and we carried on together to Inversnaid, where I picked up another pot of something to be eaten al transito  - slow down and you just get more midge than custard. Jonny stopped for a bit of TLC to painful knees, but he caught me up later and we eventually outran the insects on the climb up to Dario's post. I sidled into the Beinglas checkpoint within a minute of target at 11am. The ladies were there with milkshakes and ginger biscuits (my requirements) and sunscreen (Jan's requirement for me) then I was off again up Glen Falloch.

The ten miles from Beinglas to Auchtertyre are hard, maybe the toughest on the whole course. A few short, steep descents and the rest is continuous uphill, the gradient changes but never relents. It's a rocky track and today it was hot. By the time the track crossed the main road I was aware that it was hard work. But the reward is that after Auchtertyre all the technical stuff is done, just one foot in front of the other to the end. At 12 hours and 40 minutes from the start I was 10 minutes down on schedule when I reached the checkpoint but was able to tell myself that I still felt good. The fact that I had already lost 3kg in weight maybe told a different story.

I have a regular plan for the next stage. Pick up lunch at Auchtertyre, jog the easy bits through to Tyndrum, eat lunch walking up the long hill after Brodie's shop then run all the easy stuff to Bridge of Orchy.  I met Shirley Steele just after crossing the river so Jon must be around somewhere near, then George Reid with a sizeable entourage was at the road crossing, excuse for a brief chat stop, then up the hill and out with the butties. I started running again just after the creep under the railway, but in a few hundred yards I heard voices behind, which turned out to be Jon Steele and Sarah Colquhoun. Jon said he wasn't having a great day but Sarah said he was going to finish OK. I suspect they wouldn't have let him back in the car if he'd stopped, I know how tough these all-female support teams can be.....

We stayed together down to the bridge at the low point but Jon was clearly a bit faster than me so from here they went on ahead. But I expected to run pretty well all the ground from here to the station, normally a very easy section for me, and was a bit concerned to find that I just couldn't. Any semblance of a jog was just too hard, so I ended up walking almost all of it. By the time I met Jan and Julia at Bridge of Orchy station I was almost an hour down on my 25 hour schedule and the only thing certain was that it was going to get worse. My Northern Traverse chickens had come home to roost. With so many bigger, gnarlier events around these days it's easy to think of the West Highland Way, however beautiful and classic, as being in effort terms a fairly gentle 100-miler that you ought to be able to do any day of the week. It isn't. None of them are. 95 miles on foot is still a long way. Rule No 1  -  don't underestimate the West Highland Way.

I took a breather, drank some tea and had a bit of a think. If I couldn't run to here then I wouldn't be able to run Rannoch Moor, which my schedule depended on. It was time for a Plan B.

I told the girls that I would walk from here to Glencoe to get some composure back. I would still be there in plenty of time to leave before the requirement for a support runner over to Kinlochleven, and from then on I would just adjust my pace to whatever I had to do to stay in the game to the finish. I was sorry but they would be getting to bed rather later than we had planned. They were remarkably relaxed and positive, just do what you have to do was the response, plenty of time left to get to Fort William.

After a few yards with Jon near the start of Murdo's hill, I left him to digest his lunch and moved ahead, walking steadily. This sort of stuff I could do all day. Murdo was today accompanied by Peter Duggan and his whistle, and I was welcomed with the Star Wars theme. On a sunny day it was a wonderful if rather bizarre scene. Easily down the hill and round over Victoria Bridge to the gate at the start of the moor and the first long hill. Walking gently over the moor in wall to wall sunshine was brilliant. I relaxed and just took it all in.

But I wasn't done with a challenge or two yet. This is always one of my favourite sections of the course, and I'm normally running it at a reasonable speed so it seems to fly by. But today it seemed to be taking a long time. I felt like I should be getting near to Glencoe but then a reality check  -  I hadn't even got to Ba Bridge yet, and that was miles from the end. My Suunto watch had run out of battery at Bridge of Orchy so I just had a normal watch to go by, with no real judge of speed. Jon Steele had come past me again miles back, going at a much better pace than I could raise. I must be going really slowly, I needed to speed up. I walked faster but it seemed a real effort. Ba Bridge and the trees came and went, then the final long hill to the high point, but even the downhill mile or so to the checkpoint seemed hard work. I struggled into the Ski Centre car park at just before 8pm. For the first time that day I just slumped in the passenger seat of the car, not thinking about what lay ahead, just glad to have stopped moving.

I couldn't see myself leaving without a long rest. I had a cup of tea and some soup, and asked Julia to find out what the checkpoint closure time was; midnight was the answer. I could certainly recuperate if I stayed here until just before midnight, but it would end up being a long, long day for the crew, and it would cause another problem. If I left after 9pm, Julia would have to accompany me over to Kinlochleven which meant that she wouldn't be able to do the last stage, she knew two stages were too far for her. For a minute or two it all seemed too complex, too hard, and wouldn't it be easier just to drive around to Fort William and collapse into a warm bed. But of course this was immediately followed by the thought of the ridiculousness of pulling out of an event with only 25 miles to go and over 15 hours left on the clock. It was just a question of getting the logistics right. At 8.45pm I made the decision; "OK ladies, I can do this, I'm out of here. See you in Kinlochleven." Out of the car and down the road. I didn't feel great, but I knew I could do the next stage, and I was moving again.

The sunny day had turned into a clear but cool evening, now with a sharp little breeze. I was glad of a jacket for the first few miles to Altnafeadh but soon warmed up climbing the Devil's Staircase. I have had  one or two tough times up here over the years but this evening everything seemed fine. I wasn't going fast but nothing was hurting, I was making steady progress and enjoying the fading day. I finally had to switch a light on just before reaching the smooth works road a couple of miles before Kinlochleven, and finally reached the community centre checkpoint just after 12.30am.  I was pleased to find that my weight had stayed constant since Auchtertyre, but what I needed most of all now was a sleep. I agreed with Julia that we would set out at 3am, but after a good hour or so I was awake and much refreshed. We fortified ourselves with tea, coffee and marmite sandwiches and eventually got out of the door at around 2.30am.

Again, I've had some fairly bad experiences in this last 14 miles, pushing on near the edge of exhaustion to achieve some particular time target, unable to eat or drink much, just toughing it out to the finish. Today, with Plan B now firmly on track and no doubt about the outcome, it was just a pleasant walk. By the time we reached the top of the first climb it was light enough for torches to be put away, and we just made our way along the wild valley, chatting and admiring the views. Lundavra didn't come along any quicker than previous years but it somehow seemed not quite the effort we were expecting. The ground underfoot was dry, no paddling through puddles or streams today. (In fact the whole course was as dry as I have ever known it; I wore one pair of shoes from start to finish, and afterwards they were still clean enough to be worn to the prizegiving and the pub that evening). As we approached Lundavra we could see the smoke from the bonfire and heard Queen drifting towards us "......don't stop me now, I'm having a good time...." Seemed appropriate and we managed a dance move or two into the checkpoint.

Five minutes by the fire then onto the last lap. Still some hills to be done but not so big now, Julia getting tired too but then we see the last hill up to the fire road at the high point and from there it's downhill all the way to the finish. We jog the slopes and walk the flats and it goes quickly. At the road we call Jan and she's there at the finish, appearing in the car park just as we arrive.

30:48:20.  Nearly six hours over the plan, eight and a half over the PB, but somehow it doesn't matter too much. All finishes are worth having. Fewer mistakes next year, I think. Well, that's the plan.

Thanks to Ian Beattie and all his team for continuing to arrange this wonderful weekend's holiday every year, the lack of sleep after all the work involved beforehand must be hard, we owe you a lot.

And of course to my long-suffering yet always charming and elegant crew, Jan and Julia, you know it couldn't be done without you.


John Cassidy said...

Awesome read Andy, many thanks for posting. My obsession is in in the mental strength shown by ultra runners, and it's there in abundance in your race report. Well done, John.

John Kynaston said...

Congratulations Andy on another goblet. Not your fastest but coming so close to the Northern Traverse very impressive indeed. Recover well and see you sometime soon!

Robert Osfield said...

The last few paragraphs left a smile on my face, great to see you finishing in a positive spirit after struggling with pace and motivation. The West Highland Way Race wouldn't be the same without your name being called out at the Ceremony :-)

Rob said...

Absolutely amazing that you could do this just 15 days after completing the Northern Traverse!