Friday, 30 June 2017

Dragons and Devils

I've been a bit remiss in keeping up to date on here lately. I could blame pressure of other activities, nothing to write about, lack of motivation, a host of things maybe, but what it comes down to really is that it's much easier to write about success than failure and I've had a setback or two over the last month or so. Two long-anticipated and treasured events, the Dragon's Back and my tenth West Highland Way race have both ended in DNF's. But since I started this blog I've covered all my events for better or worse so I won't start ducking out of my responsibilities just yet.

I came so close to getting through the Dragon's Back in 2015 that in spite of being a couple of years older I just had to give it another shot. In 2015 I got into the second half of Day 3 and had I managed to complete that, the statistics show that almost everyone goes on to complete the race from there. I needed to be just a bit fitter. Preparations were good until a misplaced foot in a short event in February left me with a fairly bad knee. I won't bore you with the details, if you're a follower of my blog you'll already have read too much about it already. By the end of February I was sure the DB wasn't on as I couldn't run at all. I did however keep on walking in the hills, building up plenty of distance and height gain though all at a fairly pedestrian pace. As the days got longer in March and April I covered a fair bit of the course in 25-35 mile days and they seemed to go OK. I still couldn't run beyond about an hour of jogging without pain but I convinced myself that walking would get me round. I broke the rule that I had set myself only the previous summer, that I would never again go into an event on the limit of my capabilities carrying an injury; I turned up for the start in Conwy on 22nd May.

Day 1 went well. We had good visibility over the Carneddau and I made it to the midpoint base at Ogwen half an hour faster than in 2015. Thick mist over the Glyders cost a few minutes in careful navigation but I found a better line down from Glyder Fawr to Pen-y-Pass so still ended up in credit. The final leg of the day round the Snowdon horseshoe was also misty but uneventful and I was pleased to finish the day in around 13 and a half hours, over an hour faster than in 2015,  feeling in good shape and ready for Day 2. I had felt a couple of knee twinges on the steep descents from Snowdon and Lliwedd but nothing too serious and I was sure that with the overnight rest everything would be fine. I ate well, slept well, and was ready for a 6am startvthe next day.

Very thick mist and drizzle made the ascent of Cnicht a bit depressing but it went quickly enough. From here though the recommended route follows a very steep trackless descent over bits of rock, scree and grass. In 2015 the visibility was good so you could navigate several hundred yards ahead and then concentrate fully on your footing. This year though, constant vigilance on the route as well as foot placement was necessary and somehow this combination took its toll on my knee to the extent that by the time the ground levelled out I was in some trouble. I got into a bit of a negative spiral here as the very poor visibility, the mostly trackless ground and the significant pain from my knee made the longish ascent of Moelwyn Mawr a bit of a trial. The steep rocky descent to the col between the Moelwyns was worse, putting more stress on the knee. I took a bit of a psychological battering here also as faster runners who had set out later than me came dancing past. I used to be able to do that, I was thinking, but I just can't now. I was reduced to planting my poles down the hill and leaning heavily on them to make each down hill step; it was a slow process. Things improved a bit on the relatively easy ascent and descent of Moelwyn Bach, and the steep but much easier descent down the old quarry inclines to the Tan-y-Grisiau lake. I was still relying on the poles a lot but at least I could get into some sort of rhythm. The mist had now dispersed, the day was looking up, and I was able to get into a slow shuffle along the old railway path and down through the woods to Maentwrog.  Easy ground and quiet lanes followed, gaining a bit of height to the north end of the Trawsffynydd lake.

I took another psychological hit here. In 2015 around half the field, including me, had done the next section by following the main road to the east of the lake then cutting back to the half-way checkpoint for the day by the Roman Steps via a marked track over an easy col. This had been fast and easy. We knew the main road was going to be out of bounds for this year but I had still scoped out and reccied a good option which I thought would be at least half an hour faster than the recommended route; unfortunately when we got our event maps at registration, my route was off the edge of the map so could not be used; we all had to take a route over very rough ground to the west of the northern Rhinog ridge. A couple of miles of this was through trackless heather and rocks where I went painfully slowly because not only was my knee hurting at every step but I was worried about damaging it further if I hit one of the hidden holes in the ground that you get in this type of territory. I was leaking time fast here, and was concerned that I would miss the  cut-off at the Roman Steps checkpoint. The final steep descent down to the checkpoint was the final nail. I reached the checkpoint with about five minutes to get out again, but then I knew that I had the hardest ground of the day still to come over the Rhinogs, and at the speed I was going I had no chance of covering it at the pace required. so I reluctantly called it a day.

I was really disappointed as I won't get another shot at what must be one of the most rewarding mountain races in the world, and still one which I think without the February knee crash I could have completed.

I hadn't thought much about the West Highland Way race, four weeks later, as most of my thoughts this year had been on the Dragon's Back, but I was looking forward to the event as it would be my tenth start, a bit of a landmark as I had never failed to finish. It had been my first long ultra back in 2007, when I didn't really understand what I was getting into and struggled to the finish in thirty two and a half hours. Following that, a quest for improvement saw better times year on year, and I eventually reached the average respectability target of sub 24 hours in 2010.  There followed a couple of years when my focus was really elsewhere but I couldn't resist turning up in Milngavie so resulted in mediocre finishes around the 26 hour mark. The following year, 2013, I decided to make the race my main focus for the year and I trained specifically for the course. It's much more runnable than most mountain ultras, with very few "in-your-face" climbs and only very short sections of technical trail underfoot, so the ability to run consistently through to the finish is important. The training paid off and I achieved my personal best for the race of just under 22 and a half hours when I was just short of my 65th birthday, so I'm sure I'll never see that time again.  In contrast in 2014 I edged my way conservatively to a 29 and a half hour finish about 12 weeks after having some knee surgery. In 2015 the timing was a direct clash with the Dragon's Back so for the first time in now 11 years overall I didn't make it to the start in Milngavie. In 2016 I turned up for the start just two weeks after finishing the 190 mile Northern Traverse race; it wasn't a stylish trip but I made the finish in just over 30 hours.

So with this experience, overall I was confident that whatever the circumstances I could somehow get to Fort William for my tenth finish. I had had ups and downs with the knee since pulling out of the Dragon's Back. I couldn't really run but I could jog efficiently enough. As a last test I had an outing on my local long-distance footpath, the Cheshire Sandstone trail, a couple of weeks before the WHW. The 34 miles and 3500 ft of ascent took a gentle seven and a half hours, well over an hour slower than my best effort over the ground, but good enough as a confidence-builder.

I turned up at Milngavie with a schedule that should get me to Fort William in 28 and a half hours, leaving six and a half more to cater for things going wrong.

The usual team of my wife Jan, son John and daughter Julia, my crew for every single start in MIlngavie, were assembled for dinner in the Premier Inn and everything seemed fine. I went down for the start in good spirits and set off right at the back when the field set off. We were promised some weather this year and over the first nineteen miles to Balmaha this resulted in a total absence of midgies which was an unusual but very welcome state of affairs. After walking all the ups and jogging the rest I arrived in Balmaha spot on the 4 and a half hour plan to meet John for a quick bite and off up the loch. 

I had allowed myself an extra half hour on my previous most conservative time to Beinglas, with the result that I was in danger of arriving early so had to slow down to a walk for the final mile or so to avoid getting there ahead of Julia. As it was I was still a little ahead of the 11 hour plan. Along the way I had met and chatted to many other runners, Neil MacRitchie, Fiona Rennie, Nicole Brown, although I was going slowly there were were still plenty of folk around. 

Another conservative leg saw me to Auchtertyre 14 hours after the start, feeling nicely warmed up and pleased that I was now over half way with the majority of the technical ground behind me. The knee had hurt consistently from the start, but I was taking paracetamol every 6 hours and it wasn't getting worse so I felt it would likely be OK through to the finish.

On the next leg to Bridge of Orchy the wind seemed to be getting up and the promised rain started to arrive. When I met the team at the station I decided to swap my lightweight jacket for a heavier version as it looked like the weather could only get worse. Murdo and his crew were doing a grand job up on Jelly Baby Hill, it looked like they had been wet for some time.  For me the crossing of Rannoch Moor was a bit bleak, quite a strong wind and some lengthy heavy showers. It was probably a mistake that I had not put on waterproof trousers at Bridge of Orchy as everything I had on from the waist down got completely soaked in the first shower and stayed that way to Glen Coe. Nevertheless I managed to run a lot more of the moor than I had the previous year and I trundled into Ski Centre checkpoint around 19 and a half hours from the start.  From here I had over 15 hours to cover the remaining 23 miles, no problem now.

I stopped at Glen Coe to change lower half and have a cup of tea and some soup. The crew had decided I would be accompanied from here so Julia and I set out after maybe half an hour. Up and down the "false start" hill then on to the Devil's Staircase. I wasn't fast but we didn't stop and the top seemed to come up quickly enough.

Something changed for me here. I can't put my finger on what, but from the top of the Staircase onwards the whole thing seemed to change from steady progress to a struggle. I think one factor was that because of my very conservative schedule and also because of the heavy cloud cover, it was soon dark. I had only ever done this descent in the dark once before, on my very first WHW race, and I remember vowing at the time that I wouldn't do it again. Tonight, with the fierce wind and rain, my knee now hurting at every step, the difficulty of picking out the track in the darkness and the continuous bouldery ground, it seemed a real energy-sapping trial. I was conscious of having to apologise frequently to Julia for my slowness. When we finally made it to Kinlochleven I was aware that I had to have a rest. I didn't feel great, not feeling like eating or drinking, but I had been in that situation before and still made it to the end. I still had no doubts about finishing.

I expected to crash out for an hour or so as I had on many previous races, including this one, and wake feeling 100% better and ready to finish it off. The problem was that once stretched out in the warm I just didn't feel like sleep.

A couple of hours later I still felt the same. It was puzzling and frustrating. I discussed what to do with John and Julia. The longer I waited,the more was the chance that I would perk up; but if I then didn't, it would mean I would have to move faster over the last 14 miles in no better shape than I was now. At about 3.30am, feeling no better than I had when I arrived three hours earlier, I set off with John. I had drunk a couple of cups of tea and some Coke and eaten a few ginger biscuits, fuel which I hoped would at least see me well into the final leg. I was very slow up the hill to the jeep track with one stop for a moment or two of dry retching, but we made it eventually. For the first time in ten years, John asked me whether I felt we should go on. I was still walking and unwilling to admit defeat so I said we should carry on up to the jeep track. I had built my hopes around the feeling that once we got onto the track it would be easier. It starts off with some gentle downhill and we were making progress even if it was quite slow. But when the gradient changed to uphill I was brought almost to a standstill. About a mile along the track it was clear that I was not going to make it to Fort William. I reluctantly admitted it to John and we turned round and retraced our steps slowly down to Kinlochleven.

Even now a week later I'm not clear on what went wrong. I suspect a lack of overall fitness from not training at a high enough quality may be part of it, but certainly I didn't manage the day well. A result that was straightforward finish from Glencoe became impossible 10 miles later and letting that happen was just naive. I'll think about it and learn from it.

One positive that came out of my WHW experience was that although it was a bit painful at times, my knee stood up to 83 miles of activity and was not swollen afterwards so there can't be anything drastically wrong with it. I'm going to push on through and trust that it will improve over time.

Will I be back for another midnight in Milngavie?  Of course.

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