We are a pretty experienced support crew PT Boy, H and I. PT Boy does logistics, H does Tough Love while I do the running “encouragement”.
Sitting in a field waiting for your runner is a frustrating experience when they are not having a good day. You feel completely helpless as there is nothing you can do to speed them into the checkpoint.
After a while, some runners came through with news. “She’s not far”. Good. “She’s had a fall”. Not so good. “She’s being sick”. Not good. Time was passing rather too quickly and still she hadn’t appeared. Not good at all.
Saturday lunchtime. Midway through the West Highland Way Race and Auchtertyre Farm was busy with support crews greeting their runners as they arrived at the 50 mile point. Despite runners passing on the news of her impending arrival, she still wasn’t here yet.
The plan, in so much as there was a plan, was that I was to be the support runner over the last 26 miles of the race from Glencoe to Fort William.
This was not her first attempt at a Goblet. She had completed the race twice before. She had been my support runner the last time I had finished the race. While running 95 miles is always going to be hard, it should by now be a fairly well controlled and predictable adventure.
As the clock continued to tick by, we decided that it might be prudent to change into my running gear “just in case” even though it wasn’t in the plan to run from here. One of the most important rules about being support crew is that it is all about the runner. You are there to do whatever is necessary to help your runner get to the finish, but also to be mindful that you do it in a way which enhances your runner’s experience. It is their race after all. I kept my running gear hidden under a layer of clothes so as not to put any undue pressure on her, after all she might not want me.
When the passage of time became unbearable, H headed off to the end of the field to wait at the gate which marked the start of the checkpoint. Finally, the dejected outline of our runner could be seen in the distance. She walked up the track, gripping ominously on to H’s hand. Weigh in was duly done and finally we got our hands on her.
Despite the fact that she was pretty broken mentally, and the bottom lip was trembling as she told us how bad her knee was, and how bad her sickness had been, a quick head to toe check reassured us that yes she had a bit of a sore knee, but beyond that she was low on energy and a bit fed up and sorry for herself. I immediately felt much better. There was work to be done to save this race, but there was something we could work with here. Some food, some vaseline on the bloody knee, a couple of painkillers and a few minutes pretending to listen to how awful it all was.
After a suitable period of time I suggested that maybe I might walk with her the next 3 miles to Tyndrum. She didn’t object, so I quickly peeled off my outer layers and we set off walking out of the checkpoint.
After a short walk we sneaked in a run every time we hit a downhill and before too long despite protestations of unrelenting vomiting we settled into a decent pattern of running and walking and actually covered the ground to Tyndrum quite well.
The promised Ice Lolly was procured from Brodies store, and I picked up my backpack from the van as we made an unspoken agreement that I would maybe just keep going to Bridge of Orchy.
Again, the trip to Bridge of Orchy was covered pretty well. We played leap frog with the legendary Andy Cole for a few miles and this gave something of a rabbit to pull us along. My runner still wasn’t happy, but had at least stopped being pathetic, and was actively making progress albeit while whinging about being sick. At one point I think I had to point out that we had been running together for 90 minutes now and she hadn’t actually been sick once!
We passed a few people as we followed the flanks of Ben Dorain. All the time watching how my runner was doing, watching for the red line and trying to stay the right side of it, reminding her to eat and drink. Again we had a few moans about how long it was taking to cover the last hill before the railway station comes into sight but other than that I had a runner again.
Spirits were much better as we met PT Boy and the rest of the support just before the timing point. She still moaned about feeling sick. This time it was the Tailwind. We could actually pour out the tailwind and replace it with coke? Never thought of that. Long suffering PT Boy filled the bottles with coke.
I was still anxious about the next stage. Mentally, she was still a bit fragile and I was handing over support duties to an inexperienced runner. This was a long standing arrangement, which was necessary for lots of reasons, but was rather predicated on the assumption that my runner would be physically and mentally strong at this point. On the plus side the new support runner was well used to dealing with recalcitrant children. Pep talks were duly give to both, and the runner’s watch was symbolically taken from her pack where it was charging and placed back on her wrist – she was in charge again.
We moved on to Glencoe to await their arrival after the long slog over Rannoch Moor. Again time passed, with no sign of the runners. As time passes, as support your own positivity dips, not for your own sake but for your runner’s. You don’t want them to feel bad, but again you can’t do anything about it.
When they did finally arrive, although maybe a wee bit slower than I would have liked I was relieved to find out that she was in reasonable spirits despite complaining of being wobbly and leaning over to one side.
Once refuelled it was time to head out once more. This was familiar territory. We had done this before. Just after 9pm. Could we make it to Kinlochleven without head torches?
My runner is usually really easy to support. We don’t do much talking, there is not much motivational chat, but we have developed an understanding whereby she concentrates on running and I take care of everything else. When to eat, what to eat, when to walk, which line to take. We even have a bit of a game where I hand her something to eat and she eats it unquestioningly.
We set off from Glencoe and had a really good run down hill to what remains of the Kingshouse Hotel. The pointless slog up hill before Altnafeadh came and went with a little grumbling but no great drama.
We started to climb the Devil’s Staircase when the wheels came off spectacularly. In the space of a few minutes I had lost a runner and gained someone who was wobbly, panting, low on confidence and struggling to do more than a few metres climb at a time. The runner needed to sit down a few times, stopped to allow her heart rate to come down from its reported “too high” state.
OK, this was going to be a bit harder than I expected. My priority at this stage was to keep my runner moving, no matter how slowly. I was just a wee bit nervous as we edged upwards on the staircase. I am usually a pretty good judge of a runner’s welfare, and I was increasingly concerned that my runner was beginning to get close to crossing the line which separates the tired healthy runner from the one who needs to be pulled from the race.
Liquorice Allsorts were dispensed from my stock of random sweeties I carry when supporting. I encouraged her to drink some of my cookie dough milkshake. These seem like random food choices, but I like to have surprises for my runner, which are both high in sugar but which taste sufficiently odd to force their brain into a slightly more alert state of shock.
We were passed by a couple of runners but at least we were moving. All we had to do was make it to the top then it was 5 miles downhill to Kinlochleven. I was relieved when my runner had the cheek to express a preference for the pink Liquorice Allsorts with the knobbly bits on the outside. She was coming back.
Just before the top it was time to put on torches.
Still we kept going. Occasional glimpses of Kinlochleven appeared in the distance, at once both encouraging and demoralising. My runner was doing ok even though she probably didn’t feel that way. Chomping on sweets and milk shake which I handed to her at regular intervals. Fizzy ginger beer was dispensed too. Occasional wobbles happened, a few times I had to catch her before she fell, but but she kept going, never giving up. It was a beautiful night to be out and as we ran downhill we could see headtorches climbing up into the Lairig Mor on the other side of Kinlochleven. Again they were encouraging but they were a long way away.
For me, Kinlochleven couldn’t come soon enough. I knew that if we could get there then the boost of seeing the well kent faces there, as well as the care they would provide, would be enough to give her a fighting chance of making it to the finish.
We finally arrived into the haven of Kinlochleven. Runner was duly sat down and fed some sweet tea and toast. PT Boy fed her yet another instant soup thing and I scavenged around to try to find more solid food. Energy levels had gone through big peaks and troughs and I was hoping we could get something more substantial inside her to halt this.
When we left Kinlochleven I don’t know how she felt but I was full of trepidation. After the trauma of the Devil’s Staircase I was very worried about how I would get her up the climb onto the Lairig. Again my runner came up trumps. Straight out of Kinlochleven we started into a run. As we started to climb, we managed an even pace and then lo and behold we started gaining on people. The key here for me was to try to give my runner the boost of passing people without pushing so hard she would blow up or fall over. I could sense some motivation returning.
Occasionally she would get a bit unsteady and might need a guiding hand on her elbow, another slurp of weird milkshake, some more sweeties and on she would go.
Despite the trials and tribulations my runner has a lot of inner strength and a great ability just to keep on going. As we crossed the Lairig her quietly competitive spirit began to show. I never ever suggested we should try to beat the person in front, but would point out that there might be a runner ahead in the distance, or that torch doesn’t look too far ahead and without discussing it her pace would pick up, we would run a little longer before walk breaks and when we approached runners we would say our hello’s trying to sound as cheerful as possible while making sure that we ran far enough past them that they weren’t going to overtake us again. It is a slightly naughty game to play as it can be dispiriting to have a runner come past you strongly, but it is a race after all, and it was all about getting my runner to the end as strongly as possible. I confess to a vicarious pride in my runner clawing her way back up the finishing order
My only real support runner faux pas happened round about here when I inadvertently may have fed my runner some laxative. Long story, don’t ask. Fortunately no lasting effects.
As we approached the significant landmark of Jeff Smith and his station at the high point on the Lairig we were running a proper race again. She briefly protested at being fed some of her own Mrs Tilly’s fudge which I took as a good sign.
Lundavra checkpoint was a joy and we were through there very quickly. We had agreed that no support crew was needed there. PT Boy had earned a couple of hours sleep. Torches were off by now.
The remainder of the run was almost uneventful. We climbed out of Lundavra, and eventually caught sight of the top of the fire road which marks the end of the hard work and the beginning of the descent to Fort William. I could see a tear in the runner’s eye as we topped out onto the fire road. I don’t do tears, so suggested she keep that for later, offered a sip of good single malt whisky and we headed for home.
Running down the fire road you would never have guessed my runner had had any problems at all. This was a strong finish now. She was setting the pace and I was just keeping her company. She picked off some more runners and was determined to run as much of the road into Fort William as possible. Braveheart car park came and went, the interminable road section was run like a road race. Past the 30mph sign, no sign of her stopping yet. Some spectators by the roundabout, so still she ran strongly on. Round the corner, Leisure Centre car park, I stop and walk in as she runs through the finish to earn the much coveted goblet. One of my rules whether supporting or sweeping – only the runner goes through the finish, it’s not my race.
I was more tired running support than I have often been in a race. As support you feel that the physical effort you are expending doesn’t really count because you are only support and therefore aren’t really running, yet I had still been without sleep for two nights and ended up running more than 35 miles. The concentration and responsibility you feel for your runner can be quite draining especially when things aren’t going well.
I should also point out that I was starving by this point because my energy deprived runner had eaten all of my food!
We arrived in Fort William some 5 hours or more outside what would have been the target time had my runner actually got round to making a plan.
Was it a good performance by my runner? On time alone you wouldn’t think so. You could argue she made some mistakes. I would argue she made some mistakes, but even with those mistakes when you stand on the start line you have to make the best of what you have got. When she arrived at halfway she was about as low as a runner could be.
She did however get two things right – first she picked a crew she trusted to get her to the end and most importantly she never gave up.
Over the second half of the course my runner rescued her race through a show of sheer quiet guts and by trusting the people she had asked to help her.
Was it a good performance. You bet it was. And no matter what she says, she was only sick once!
It had been a rough ride but my lasting impression is that we had done something pretty special together and in truth I wouldn’t have swapped it for the world.
What follows is the tale of an adventure. Others who ran this race will have a different adventure. Theirs will undoubtedly be faster with much less sweating and swearing.
This is mine. It may bear no resemblance to what actually happened but it is how I remember it.
Cilaos, Cilaos, oh Cilaos
I arrived in the checkpoint of Mare a Boue around 8 in the morning. A large collection of tents were set up in a field and the farm road leading in to the field was busy with spectators and support crew. The sun was rapidly burning off the slight morning chill and despite it being breakfast time, I collected my plate of roast chicken, rice and vegetables from the energetic ladies behind the food counter and was given a bottle of Dynamalt a malt drink which tasted strange but which over the remaining 40 hours of the race I would grow to love.
Let me just say that again. I had run all night and still had 40 hours to go. I will confess that when I left Mare a Boue after diligently putting my suncream on, I wasn’t anticipating being out for another 40 hours. The Diagonale has a fearsome reputation, and my realistic pre race goal was sub 50 hours, but I had run well in the cool of the night. Despite it being uphill for the first 26 miles I had climbed strongly and had run comfortably on the flats and downs. Only 10K to Cilaos the first major checkpoint and drop bag. I was feeling quite upbeat about the whole endeavour. Yes it had been hard, but the start had been exhilirating, the climb through the night had been ok, the views were spectacular as the sun rose and I had already covered the best part of 30 miles. It couldn’t possibly take me 50 hours. Maybe this wasn’t going to be so bad after all.
If you are anything like me you probably didn’t know much about the Diagonale des Fous. I had seen the occasional reference to it in race literature but it wasn’t part of the mainstream ultra consciousness. There was a feeling that if it was a big race then it was a bit “French”. The more intrigued I became, the more it drew me in. First of all where was it? The clue is in the other name for the race – the Grand Raid de la Reunion.
Reunion Island is a tiny volcanic dot in the Indian Ocean somewhere between Mauritius and Madagascar. Investigate further and there are tales of it being harder than UTMB, tales of Kilian taking more than 24 hours to finish it, Francois D’Haene winning it multiple times. Tales of the whole island coming out to support. Tales of a 60 hour time limit. Tales of the final finishers being followed live on tv and the finishers, the “Fools” who survived the crossing of the island being treated as heroes by the locals.
Cilaos. Only 10K away. Cilaos, a word which still makes a knot in my stomach. 2 hours. I thought I was being conservative. That 2 hours was to turn into much more.
I am writing this some 3 months after the race. The numbness in my toes has finally gone in the last couple of weeks. As I try to recount the story of running the 165 kilometres of the Diagonale des Fous, it is frustrating because there are huge chunks that I can’t quite remember or can’t remember in the correct order and I really, really want to remember the detail because I know it was good, so good in fact that I just want to lie down and roll around in it and relive the feeling of being inside that magical mad bubble.
A set of happy coincidences conspired to make it possible to enter the race this year instead of the planned “some point in the future”, and so what started as a bucket list dream became reality.
The race starts in the town of Saint Pierre in the south of Reunion. St Pierre is a bustling seaside town, very much in keeping with places like Nice, with a long boulevard adjacent to a busy beach which slopes into the Indian Ocean.
The sun sets spectacularly on the Indian Ocean at 6:30 every evening, so it was dark when we set off from our hotel, laden with drop bags, for the short walk to the start corral. Immediately there was an atmosphere.
It was hot and humid.
The streets had no cars, instead they were busy with runners and spectators. Then the music started. The music of Reunion is mainly a style called Sega. It is a vibrant mix of jazz, calypso and creole with African sounds and rhythms thrown in. It is loud, happy, strident, at times almost aggressive, music and as we walked towards the start, it defined the race as being quite unique.
We really were a long way from home and the heat, the music, the dancers, the drums and the smells from the street food outlets confirmed that this was something different. I walked to the start with a big grin on my face.
This picture was not that grin. This picture was a wee boy from far away about to go off on his own to do something really hard.
The start corral is a large fenced area next to the beach. It is open for 4 hours prior to the the 10pm start time. Adjacent to the start corral is a full sized concert stage. Trying to figure out what is going on at a new race is always tricky, even trickier when everything is done in French. After some faffing I kissed Helen goodbye and headed into the arena. First up was the baggage trucks where I duly handed over my two drop bags which I would hopefully see again at some point.
From the drop bags, it was into the kit check. Every item on the extensive list was checked thoroughly and after some discussion over the validity of one of my two elastic bandages I was through. I just about managed with my schoolboy french but it would have been helpful if my french teacher had told me how to say foil blanket or nipples.
Once through the kit check it was time to pick up some sandwiches and a drink and settle down on the parched grass to await the start. I was a bit early and had nearly two hours to wait for the start so lay back on the grass and tried to zone out as the arena filled with runners and the speakers from the stage blasted out concert sets by Reunion pop stars Sega’El and MissTy.
One of the quirks of the Grand Raid de la Reunion is that all runners are required to wear the same official race shirt at the start and again at the finish. Runners are actually given two race shirts at registration along with a sahara style technical cap. It seems a bit odd, but it does make for an impressive sight to see everyone in the same shirt. It also serves a bit of a practical purpose as each of the three races has a different colour and while the shirts are otherwise identical the colour of the shoulders matches the colour for your particular race, so it is easy to identify which race people are in when they come charging past you later in the course once all of the race routes converge..
Time passed, music played, the start pen filled and then it was time for the off. 2500 runners set off on a cavalry charge along the boulevard. I have never seen so many spectators at a race before, not even in a big city marathon. There were bands every few hundred metres. Adults and children alike tried to grab High-5’s.
Somehow, even the high 5’s were different. they didn’t just slap your fingers they actually grasped your hand and wished you “courage”. It was quite an emotional transference of energy from supporter to runner. For the best part of 4 kilometres this continued. Crowds at times 10 deep, sometimes crowding in to create a narrow tunnel. A quick wave to Helen and her saltire . Allegedly I was grinning from ear to ear.
Regular chants of “On n’est pas fatigue” which turns out to be a French cheesy disco song, along with variations on “We’re all going to La Redoute” bounced through the warm night air. Fireworks were set off over the harbour as we reached the end of the boulevard, and after some raucous support in some smaller villages we finally hit the first climb and the start of the hard work. Having left the town and Helen behind, I was on my own, it was real and I was going to have to do this. Despite running at a very sedate pace, I was dripping with sweat and my shirt was soaked through. This was going to be an interesting experience for the Scotsman who struggles once the thermometer reaches 15C.
We turned off the road and started to climb gently through a narrow avenue cut through a field of head high sugar cane. The climb was to continue for the next 24 miles. There was a quick water stop which I ignored and the trail continued upwards, taking a pretty straight line up the hill alternating between fields of sugar, popping out to cross roads and bundling through noisy groups of spectators before disappearing into the night once more. Twice we came to a complete stand still as the mass of runners navigated the first bits of technical ground. We seemed to be stopped for an age but in reality it was at most a few minutes. I tried hard to remind myself that there was no point in fretting over a couple of minutes when I was going to be out for 2 days.
I was feeling quite relaxed and being as economical as I could. I was also being economical with my head torch. I had run the first 5 miles of the race in the light of other runner’s torches, and each time we came to a halt I either switched it off or dimmed it. My batteries were going to have to last a long time and managing energy consumption was going to be important.
Domaine Vidot: Time of Day 23:59pm, Race Time 01:59, Distance 14.6Km, Elevation Gain 655m
After about 10 miles we arrived at the first proper aid station in a place called Domaine Vidot. The hall was damp, sweaty and noisy as runners piled in from the darkness. This was the end of the prologue. like many others I removed my race t-shirt and was pulling on my normal running gear when Ashok bounded through the door with a big grin on his face and gave me a welcoming hug. A reunion in Reunion. It is a small world.
I didn’t really expect to see Ash again but actually ended up passing him a few hours later while he slept under a tree at the side of the trail.
After leaving Domaine Vidot there was a sense of the race beginning properly. The temperature dropped a bit in the early hours and the more it dropped the stronger I felt. Despite being punctuated by repeated drops into ravines we continued to climb upwards. It was a clear night and the stars were incredibly bright as we made our way upwards on the side of a steep gorge
Eventually the climb topped out and we arrived at the first plateau as dawn arrived. It was pleasantly warm. Other runners wrapped in multiple layers but for a Scotsman this was still tops off weather.
Nez de Boeuf: Time of Day 06:17am, Race Time 08:17, Distance 38Km, Elevation Gain 2406m
An aid station arrived followed by a run on relatively easy trail crossing some farm roads. There were a couple of unofficial aid stations at road crossings where crews were meeting their runners. One of the pieces of local knowledge which visitors aren’t aware of.
Some ups and downs and I arrived a the aid station of Mare a Boue feeling surprisingly good. I had survived the first night, had climbed well and had made much better time than expected.
On to Cilaos.
Mare a Boue means sea of mud but so far I hadn’t seen much in the way of mud. In fact the first section after the aid station had been on surprisingly run-able trail. Then gradually things started to get a bit gnarly. Farm tracks became trail, which became single track, which started to climb. The sea of mud arrived but the weather had been dry for a few weeks so it was much more benign than it might have been. Logs and branches had been laid in the mud to help the passage. Mare a Boue complete. On to Cilaos and my drop bag.
By now the sun was high in the sky and as the path narrowed and climbed, the path demanded concentration with lots of rocks to clamber up and the path was bordered by large trees, however a look to the side confirmed that we were navigating some pretty narrow ridges with serious drops either side. I decided that I would maybe be just a little more careful jumping down off of rocks for a wee while.
After a fair bit of ridge hopping I reached the top of the Caldera. By this time it wasn’t just hot, it was sweltering.
On the elevation chart the drop to Cilaos looks quite steep. On the google maps flyover the trail just seems to go over the edge of the Caldera and go straight down to Cilaos, but these things always exaggerate the terrain and things are never as bad a they look on the map.
Not this time.
The sides of a Caldera are not just steep they are almost vertical. The drop from the top was around 3000 feet. I have never been so scared on a hill in my life.
Yes there were zig zags. Narrow zig zags with big drops. Sections of rock to slither down while pressed hard against the vertical cliff walls. Big drops down boulders which are fine if you are young, lithe and confident. I am neither young nor lithe and my confidence was diminishing with each nervous drop making me slower and more cautious with each step of the descent. I should add here that there was nothing which was actually dangerous, but when you have been running for more than 12 hours it certainly focussed the mind.
Cilaos was only a few kilometres away. I could hear the music and the announcer in the stadium. The only problem was that one of those kilometres was straight down.
It felt like people were streaming past me on the descent. All of the people I had passed on the ups. I was sure they were laughing at me descending like my grandmother.
That’s the thing about Reunion, it messes with your head. I would pass all of those people again later but as I crept downhill I felt like I was out of my depth. The heat, the terrain, I was definitely out of my depth.
After what felt like the slowest descent I have ever done I made it to the checkpoint at the bottom. At least I had made it to Cilaos. Only I hadn’t. This was only an intermediate checkpoint. Cilaos was still a few Kilometres away. A chance to redeem myself and get running again. I looked back to see where we had come from, and in hindsight I wish I had taken a picture because there was a Kilometre high vertical wall, covered in lush vegetation. If I hadn’t been on that path , I would never have thought it was possible to have a path there.
Cilaos. I was so looking forward to picking up my drop bag. I coaxed my legs into running once more, passed some small hamlets and then when Cilaos was almost in sight, the Diagonale did what the Diagonale does, it went down a ravine. And of course at the bottom of every ravine is a river crossing, and on the other side of every ravine is a steep climb up, usually scrambling up loose dirt, or over tree roots and boulders.There is also very little air in the bottom of a ravine. In fact it is like being in a damp oven.
After what felt like forever I popped out at the top of the last ravine to be met by some cheery volunteers who scanned my bib and pointed me to the road.
Cilaos: Time of Day 12:52pm, Race Time 14:52, Distance 65Km, Elevation Gain 3265m
Finally I had made it to Cilaos. I sent Helen a text
The checkpoint at Cilaos is in a sports stadium. A massive marquee was set up on the running track where you could collect the drop bag. Another marquee hosted beds and physio tables. It felt more like the end of a race, and for a number it was. It was also quite eerie because despite all of the infrastructure there weren’t many people milling around. I soon found them. They were all in the small changing rooms under the grandstand.
I managed to squeeze into a tiny space on the bench and tried to organise my clothes and my head. Lots of runners were taking advantage of the showers. I did not have the mental strength to take off my shoes, socks, calf guards, however I did take my turn under the shower soaking my head and chest under the cold water.
It was a struggle but I got dressed, took what I wanted and dumped the flotsam into the drop bag, took it back to the bag tent and went in search of food. Another meal was dispensed in yet another hall and finally it was time to set off again.
The final sting in the tail from Cilaos was I set off in the wrong direction!
Mafate – a slave to the rythmn
The heat was immense and the afternoon was spent picking my way through an interminable succession of ravines, steadily working my way upwards and out of the Caldera once more. I had picked up a small towel from my drop bag and decided to carry it with me. I soaked this at every opportunity and went through the ritual of wiping my face, wipng my arms, squeezing it over my head before finally wrapping it round my neck. I repeated this every time I came across some water.
At some point in the afternoon, while making yet another climb through the forest we encountered a rustic wooden house which doubled as a cafe. We were welcomed effusively by mine host who was dressed as some sort of King Arthur character, while his wife who was dressed in full hippy gear offered cups of broth and tea which was dispensed by a very laid back black guy with long dreadlocks. The whole area was pungent with the sweet aroma of some decidedly strange smelling substances. Meanwhile their children were running wild through the forest climbing rocks and trees and shouting to the runners. It was all very weird but the liquid was welcome and I filled my water bottles from the spout they had set up using banana leaves.
Still the sun shone, the hills came and went, checkpoints were ticked off and progress was made.
My next goal was to make it to darkness because with the darkness would come some respite from the heat and I would hopefully be able to run more freely again.
In hindsight I now understand what the trail was doing at this point. It was working round the edge of the great circle that is the Cirque de Mafate, sometimes climbing up to the top sometimes descending to the bottom crossing ravines which cut into the edges of the old volcano. I wish I had studied the route more carefully as I had no clear sense of where we were other than that every up had downs in it and every down was awful.
Marla: Time of Day 18:13, Race Time 20:13, Distance 80Km, Elevation Gain 4572m
As darkness fell I arrived in one of the significant staging points in the race, a checkpoint called Marla. Almost halway. There was a sleep station set up here and after having a meal, I was feeling quite traumatised and vulnerable and very wary of heading out into the darkness of another climb knowing what the previous climbs had been like. I decided to take a short sleep to clear my head and build up my fortitude before heading out.
I lay down on the large tarpaulin, wrapped myself in some blankets and promptly became wide awake. Tried again but no, my body was not for sleeping.
Headtorch back on and a little reluctantly I headed out into my second night.. I got into a train of runners as we picked our way over yet another set of ridges before eventually settling into some steep downhill running on good trails through forests of pine and eucalyptus.
The night made no sense to me. It was an endless grind up and down steep ravines. I had no sense of where I was or where I was going. This time however it didn’t cool down at night. I sweated like I have never sweated in my life. I drank as much as I dared conscious of the perils of drinking too much water. I filled my bottle at every stream. I soaked my towel, soaked my shirt, took my shirt off, ran with it rolled up under my bag, my waterlogged belly bouncing around as I clambered over piles of rocks in the dark. Strangely despite my overheating I was still moving and still moving quite well.
The hours ticked by one after another. A bright moon came out and lit up the prehistoric landscape. The edge of the caldera was perforated by steep sided inlets and we had to go down and up each one.
The run downhill on the second night, things started to get a bit strange. I began to feel slightly spaced out and a wee bit semi-detached. I was running quite well but couldn’t have told you why I was doing it if you had asked. This was one of the ways the tiredness hit me. I knew I had to get to La Redoute, but I had no idea why I was going there. It didn’t occur to me to stop, but I had forgotten I was in a race, and was just going to La Redoute because that was where everyone had to go to.
The side of the trail was littered with dozens of bodies. Small clumps of runners were curled up under the trees, wrapped in foil blankets, taking the opportunity to sleep.
Without huge incident I made it to the bottom of the hill. I was feeling very sleepy by now and was starting to see and hear things in the woods. I could hear monkeys throwing coconuts at each other in the tops of huge clumps of giant bamboo. I have no idea whether there are monkeys or coconuts on Reunion Island, but something was making a racket in the treetops. If I was hallucinating these were just disconcerting, there was more to come. A wee while later I found myself muttering that I really must have a word with Ian Beattie about the state of this course, you can’t have people running over paths as bad as this! Ian is of course the race director of the West Highland Way Race and has no connection whatsoever with Reunion Island!
Grand Place: Time of Day 01:43am, Race Time 27:43, Distance 98.5Km, Elevation Gain 5573m
In due course I lumbered into the checkpoint at Grand Place had some food and decided to take advantage of the next sleep station. It was after midnight again, and at times I felt very far from home. I found a space on the communal sleeping mat, wrapped myself in tinfoil like an oversize tartan turkey and immediately found myself staring wide eyed at a sky full of giant stars. This time I wasn’t imagining it. I must have stopped for all of 10 minutes, but it was enough to clear my head so it was time to continue.
A few more ravines, and one final lung busting climb saw dawn break.
Down in the valley dozens of steep green peaks poked through a thick early morning cloud inversion. Roche Plate was in sight. It was on the other side of the valley but it was in sight. There was of course some climbing yet be done. This was the race of the fools after all,
Roche Plate: Time of Day 06:06m, Race Time 32:06, Distance 106Km, Elevation Gain 6519m
Roche Plate is perched halfway up a hill and is squashed into the hillside. The checkpoint was in the village school and it has hard to imagine anyone living there let alone enough people to merit a school. It had a vaguely Nepalese look to it. It also looked like a refugee camp. A row of bodies lay against an outside wall, each wrapped in a foil blanket. Some slept. All looked gaunt and haunted. Having spent the last few hours worrying about my overheating, I joined the queue to see the doctor. She spoke a little English and I spoke a little French and somehow I explained that if someone had come into one of my checkpoints with those symptoms I would ask them to see a medic, so could she check me out. My temperature, pulse and blood pressure all checked out and I was pronounced fit to continue. She wished me good luck and advised that I should perhaps slow down and not work so hard.
By the time I left Roche Plate the sun was up but I took the time to look around. We had circumnavigated about three quarters of this giant caldera. In the valley sunken below hundreds of sharp little volcanic mounds jutted skywards all covered in dense foliage. It was like the land that time forgot. I fully expected to see pterodactyls swooping below me.
Having sucked in the views and lungfuls of thin air I was still purposeful in moving forward. It was around 9 am, I had been out for two whole nights, but that didn’t matter any more. I had no sense of time. I wasn’t even particularly tired. I was completely absorbed in the adventure and the only thing which mattered was the next step.
Upon turning away from the landscape below me I turned to face the direction of travel and the vertical of wall of rock ahead, I remember quite distinctly thinking “WOW! that is an impressive hill, but that isn’t climbable so I wonder where the path goes”
Guess where the path went? Yes you got it first time. There is a 4500 feet climb out of Roche Plate. Initially up a rocky outcrop set at 90 degrees to the main wall of the caldera. Up past some shrines including a memorial to a runner who died during the race a few years ago. After a couple of hours climbing, the path became visible. A long narrow scar on the cliff, rising diagonally in a long traverse until it finally reaches the top far in the distance. The next few hours were among the most rewarding I have ever spent. The views were almost indescribable and as we finally approached the top a thick crowd of people spilled over the lip.
Photo Credit: JP Vidot/Grand Raid
Photo Credit: JP Vidot/Grand Raid
Photo Credit: JP Vidot/Grand Raid
Photo Credit: JP Vidot/Grand Raid
Photo Credit: JP Vidot/Grand Raid
Photo Credit: JP Vidot/Grand Raid
The last few hundred metres of the climb were like being in the Tour de France. Supporters lined both sides of the path, some were perched a bit too precariously for my liking, but they shouted, cheered, patted you on the back, offered you “courage” and despite the heat and the tiredness, when you hit the top of the volcano you did it with a massive grin on your face. The fools were going to La Redoute and indeed “on n’est pas fatigue”
Mentally I had reached a significant point in the race. That was the last big climb done, I was through the magic 100K mark, and there was a 13K run downhill to the next drop bag at San Souci. There was still lots of work to be done, but surely it would be relatively easy now we were off the volcano and were heading for the coast. I may have mentioned it isn’t called the diagonal of the fools for nothing.
Maido tete Dure: Time of Day 08:59m, Race Time 34:59, Distance 113Km, Elevation Gain 7598m
After something of a lap of honour running along the rim of the volcano admiring the scenery and waving at the helicopters which appeared from below us, followed by the usual throwing up incident in the field hospital which had been set up on top of the mountain, this also delivered by by helicopter, the downhill finally kicked in.
The run to Sans Souci took all morning. The sun was scorching so it was a relief of sorts to get into the shade of the forest once more. Some good running on pleasant trails, some indescribably horrendous ups and downs.
Sans Souci arrived and I was buzzing. I ran the last kilometre into the checkpoint like it was a 10K race.
Sans Souci: Time of Day 12:09pm, Race Time 38:09, Distance 126Km, Elevation Gain 7665m
Looking back now, I arrived in San Souci feeling quite pleased with my performance. I had just completed a 13K downhill run in 3 hours!
There was a real festival atmosphere at the checkpoint. The facilities were spread throughout the school. The supporters were all smiles and encouragement and it seemed that everyone for miles around had come to watch the race run through. I had a good feed, a clean up and got my feet patched up by the team of podiatrists who were spending all day draining blisters, injecting iodine into the blisters before applying dressings.
Only a marathon to go, what could possibly go wrong?
I was in good spirits when I left Sans Souci. It was still early in the day, only 26 miles to go and according the the elevation charts the worst of the big hills were done. The calculations I was doing in my head were telling me that I should be finished before darkness, way ahead of my target time. Only 26 miles and not too hilly what could possibly go wrong?
The first thing to go wrong was that I had changed my shoes in Sans Souci, taking off my Brooks Caldera and replacing them with Skechers Go Trail Ultra, which are like boats in comparison. While they are great for plodding on flat trail, they turned out to be useless on technical ground. Getting my blisters treated was also a bit of a mistake in hindsight because the dressings were making my feet more uncomfortable than the blisters had been. The downhill rock hopping became even slower and more tentative than before.
First up was a wide river crossing, with a vocal group of spectators who I am sure were waiting to see if you fell in from the giant stepping stones, then a clamber up a ladder and a bizarre pantomime crossing of a large pipe.
A little section on road with a nice interlude where two little girls had a table set up and they were dishing out coke and water melon. I was really taken with their enthusiasm and generosity when it was obvious from the surroundings that this was a family of very humble means. Still making good time, still feeling positive, then the trail headed up hill once more. In my head I was expecting a few ups and downs and then an easy procession through the towns on the coast before arriving back in Saint Denis. The reality was chastening. Alarming descents slithering down steep hillsides.
One memorable downhill had a temporary rope slung through trees before being anchored at the bottom by a giant tractor tyre.
The was yet another 1000 feet climb before another painful steep descent and then finally the trail eased out and I settled into a relieved group of runners who headed into the school at La Possession.
La Possession Ecole: Time of Day 17:38pm, Race Time 43:38, Distance 148Km, Elevation Gain 8391m
I slumped onto the bench in the playground of the school at La Possession, then spent a few minutes ducking my head under the cold water in the big stone sinks.
The ladies at the aid station were wonderfully warm and cheery, and determined to fill me with food. We had a bit of banter in franglais and they shared a sip from the small bottle of Glenfiddich I produced from my race bag. The water of life indeed. By now it was dinner time in the real world. In my world it meant my hopes of being finished in the daylight had been left behind on the steep ups and downs of the previous section. However there was now only 20K to go. Less than a half marathon. An hour and a half in a race, two and a bit on the trails, time to suck it up and get the job done.
Symbolically I pulled my official race shirt from my bag and put it on, because I would need that for the finish and I was going to finish.
Out of La Possession school and miraculously we were in civilisation. This was an actual town, with cars and houses and lovely flat tarmac. A nice mile along the sea front to get to the start of the famous Chemin des Anglais.
The Chemin des anglais is a 4K stretch of cobbled path which makes its way along the headland between La Possession and Grande Chaloupe. Sounds fairly straight forward. This of course is the Diagonale des Fous so these cobbles were volcanic blocks, about 30cm square, which instead of being flat, were buckled and twisted by time and jutted out of the ground at ankle-breaking jaunty angles which made progress frustratingly slow. I had stopped halfway up the first climb (of course there is always a climb) to put my torch back on, and just tried to be as patient as possible as I made my way along the Chemin. What goes up must come down, so there was a slithery, nervous run down the cobbles to the checkpoint at Grande Chaloupe.
Grande Chaloupe: Time of Day 19:55pm, Race Time 45:55, Distance 51Km, Elevation Gain 8701m
There was so much excitement at Grande Chaloupe that initially I thought I had reached the finish, or at least had reached Colorado which is the last high point on the course. A quick refuel and slightly disappointed I headed out of the checkpoint and immediately it headed sharply up hill on more of those blasted cobbles. I thought I was making quite good progress, when in the distance I saw two figures standing at the top of the hill. I assumed they were marshals so that gave me a boost. As I got closer, it seemed that they were wearing costumes of some sort. When I got close enough to pick them out in my torch, it turned out to be a couple dressed in Amish type farm clothes, one of them holding a pitchfork. A little closer and fortunately they turned back into a large rock covered in lichen.
Time was passing, and distance was ticking off. There was a very long uphill haul which I climbed strongly, but again I lost my bearings a little and couldn’t quite figure out why we were going in the direction we were. I got a bit frustrated at what seemed to be pointless meanders up and down through awkward little hills and trails before finally getting to Colorado.
Colorado: Time of Day 22:12pm, Race Time 48:12, Distance 161Km, Elevation Gain 9532 m
It’s all downhill from here
Colorado. 161Km done. So close to the finish. only 5K to go. How many times have I run 5K in training.
After a brief incident trying to persuade an over enthussiastic doctor that I was ok an dthat I wasnt really neading his asistance and that I had only sat down on the chair outside his tent for a rest, it was time to head to the finish.
The first Kilometre was ok. Nice running on a gentle downhill, but I had this nagging feeling that there might just be one more surprise.
I then entered the woods. At this time my head torch was starting to fade. I knew I had spare batteries in my bag, but it hadn’t faded completely, it was just dim enough to dent my confidence and I was suffering from runners brain and not making smart decisions. I should have changed the batteries, but I couldn’t face the mental challenge of lining them up the correct way round and reassembling my torch. With a clear head I might also have remembered that I had a spare torch with me as well.
The the real downhills started. Runners flew past me. I limped down rocks, blisters screaming each time I jumped down. It felt like the longest 5K I had ever done. Every time I thought the downhill should end, it dropped again. when finally I broke out of the forest on to the very edge of the hillside and could see the lights of St Denis, they still seemed a very long way away, and I began to wonder if I would ever finish or if I would just fall off the edge and have a nice long sleep. I wouldn’t have been the only one. I passed a runner curled up sleeping less than 3K from the finish.
The course dropped 600metres in the space of 5K. Runners hurtled past me, fueled with the prospect of finishing. I seemed to get slower and slower. I was sure that 100 runners passed me. In reality I lost 8 places on the descent. 90 minutes it took me, but it felt like a lifetime.
And then there was a checkpoint, with a band playing, and if there was a band playing it must be near the road otherwise how would they get the instruments up there? Yes! From the checkpoint you could see the road at the bottom of the hill.
A quick exchange of texts with Helen to let her know that I was on my way.
I rushed down the last section and made it to the pavement and to the underpass where Helen was waiting. I was in a bit of panic because I wanted to finish under 50 hours, and I wasn’t quite sure what time it was or how far it was to the finish line.
She told me I was fine and we ran down the road together to the entrance of the stadium. It was nearly midnight, still warm and the stadium was still jumping with people. We unfurled a saltire and jogged leisurely round the running red dirt running track to the finish line. The organisers had even managed to fly a saltire over the stadium. That was a nice touch and meant a lot.
Over the line, to be given a medal which the volunteer insisted Helen put round my neck, and an interview with the finish line announcer before getting a well earned seat.
I enjoyed the last of my whisky and shared it with a fellow fool sitting next to me. His face was a picture as my Glenfiddich woke him up quite spectacularly
I survived. I really did.
I like the concept of a Grand Raid – a big adventure, which is what it was. A race is just too hurried in comparison and this was about finishing, not about beating anyone else, even if I did beat Jim Walmsley!
It is a fantastic island and the people who organise the race do so fantastically well and go out of their way to help runners finish. The crowds and the support from the locals is second to none. The race was live on tv and the race demanded a special edition of the local newspaper.
It really is all about the journey.
I loved every minute of it, even the bits that scared me, and there were many of those, the times when I was tired, confused, depressed and sore.
It transpired that it wasn’t just me enjoying the journey. There was a whole community of friends back home avidly dot watching on the tracker and following Helen’s facebook updates. It was a brilliant, funny and inspiring experience to go back and read all the threads afterwards. I almost wish I had been following me as it looked a lot of fun.
I started not knowing if I could finish. I finished 49 hours and 39 minutes later in 976th position having been 1824th at the first checkpoint. I had executed the race as well as I could have hoped for. For those 49 hours it was about me and the climb up that next step.
Even now, months later, I find my mind drifting back to Reunion, and the fleeting thought that yes, I really did that.
The Diagonale des Fous was big, hard, scary, eye opening and inspirational. Everything I could have hoped for and more.
It is more or less 4 weeks since I ran the Madeira Island Ultra Trail which took me the best part of 30 hours.
I still have a little numbness in my toes and the remnants of my blisters are still visible and finishing the healing process with new skin growing in.
It doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to consider that if the outward signs of damage take this long to repair, then the invisible damage to muscles, chemical imbalances and general fatigue of the energy systems may also take that long to recover.
Too many people are running too far too often and burning out.
Maybe, just maybe, I will add a new check: if you can still see or feel any damage from a previous race, then you aren’t ready to work hard again yet.
I have been thinking a lot about motivation recently.
I find running really difficult and many times not particularly pleasant experience, so why do I keep doing it.
Motivation is one of the four legs which support the ultra running table upon which we dine – Motivation, Resilience, Training and Execution.
Take away any one of these and unless the others are unusually strong, that table is likely to fall over.
Take away two of these and that table is more likely than not to fall over.
Take away three of them and unless the last one is massive that table is on the floor.
Motivation is inextricably linked with the other three legs holding up this table. If you are not motivated you will not achieve the consistency or quality in your training required to give you the fitness and skills required to finish your chosen course.
If you are not motivated then your resilience will be compromised. You will have fewer reasons to keep going when things get tough, and as we know, at some point in an ultra, things are going to get tough.
If you are not motivated it is highly unlikely you will have the focus and concentration needed to make smart decisions and execute your race properly.
When I think about my own running, motivation is very important to me.
In the small self selecting group of weirdos who run ultras, ie most of my friends, running stupidly long distances every other weekend is seen as normal.
Unfortunately, I do not have those genes or that natural ability. For me, running long distances is a big deal. I can’t just go and knock out a 30 mile run for the fun of it. I need something to get my adrenaline flowing because without the adrenaline the running becomes a chore.
Before I list the things which motivate me, perhaps I should first list the things which don’t motivate me. Races which involve the following things just don’t do it for me at all, despite being hugely popular with some other people
running in circles – I cannot do looped races, they just mess my head. Running is not enjoyable enough to do it for hours and end up back in the same place
low key marathons on open roads – without the crowds, how is this different from a training run?
short ultras – too long to run fast, too short to run slow, they are just pointless and they hurt
FOMO – running a race just because everyone else is doing it
Races at the wrong time of year – if I am not fit, running is going to hurt more than usual, so why do it.
If those things don’t do it for me then what does?
the journey – I like the feeling of going somewhere in a point to point race
Big mountains – the bigger the scenery the more my motivation
Support Crew – I like the feeling of having my trusty crew to run towards, knowing they will look after me no matter what
Epic Adventures – big and scary, stepping into the unknown in terms of my capabilities. The sort of races which take over your life for 6 months
Travel – racing in new and different places
Razzmatazz – I love big city marathons, crowds and race expos
Logistics – races which are big enough to require serious planning
Breaking new ground – finding new races which are a bit off the beaten track
The Classics – chasing qualification and then running the big classic races
Competition – maintaining your place in the private pecking order which exists inside your head
Failure – or more specifically fear of failure
not being very good – if I ever actually became any good at it, I probably wouldn’t have any reason to keep doing it
Races which combine some or all of the above are the ones which light a fire in me, which give me a target to chase, which get me out the door on cold winters morning and which give me the motivation to keep going when things get tough.
The psychologists talk of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. The extrinsic motivators are those external things: the prize money, the medal, the praise for doing well. While it is nice to get a pat on the back from your peers when you run well, I am never going to win anything so there are few extrinsic motivations for me.
The intrinsic motivations are the ones to do with sense of achievement, enjoyment, curiosity, self esteem. Why am I doing this? what do I want to achieve? Why do I need to finish this thing? The intrinsic motivations are the ones which I suspect are linked to greater resilience. One of my favorite lines is a quote from the movie Chariots of Fire, attributed to the Flying Scot Eric Liddell: “Everyone runs in her own way, or his own way. And where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? From within”
We are all different and I am sure we are all motivated by different things. The one thing we all have in common is that no matter how talented you are, without motivation you are not going to get very far.
Motivation is about finding that power within you to make you want to make it to the end of the race.
Don’t be fooled by the weirdos, if you are a mere mortal, running long distances is hard and you need to have a reason to make you want to do it, because it is going to hurt.
After writing this piece I had a Facebook conversation with Murdo the Magnificent which adds some more colour to this subject. I add it below for completeness
MtM:You mention competition. Is this more “against yourself”; or against peer group rivals who you sometimes finish ahead of / sometimes not?
Me:an interesting question and one which I realise I hadn’t fully explored. It is a bit of both. It is about competing against yourself to finish in a given time or in the top 20%, 50% whatever. It is about competing against the age graded percentages. It is about racing your PBs from previous years or beating as many younger people as possible. It is about staying ahead of some peers in the performance stakes (this is not necessarily a particularly nice trait) . The actual in race competition against peers is mostly sport and while it can spur you on to a performance on the day, that is a short term motivation and isn’t strong enough to sustain the effort required to prepare for some of our more arduous adventures.
MtM:I’d agree with all of that. And possibly add a distinction between this competition element during the lengthy training period, and the competition element on “race day”. With the latter, part of it will depend on how the training has gone, and how intact / uninjured you are as you toe the start line. All good stuff to mull over
Me:yes I agree, my race day motivations are very much dependent on the possibilities for performance – going into a race well prepared, fit and in a good state of mind creates the possibility of a good performance. When this possibility exists I am more motivated to focus and suffer.
A week has passed and I can almost feel my sausage toes again which prompts me to try to jot down some thoughts on the Madeira Island Ultra Trail, so here goes…..
MIUT was one of those races which you don’t remember in order. Random moments jump into your consciousness and these little vignettes invariably cause the edges of your mouth to curl in conspiratorial smile. Lizards, rats, green pipes, broken poles, scary mountains, darkness, scary drops and Glenfiddich. You see, MIUT was one of those races where you had to be there. There is no recounting of events which can adequately describe just how mind-blowingly awful and wonderful it was. In the same way as the sober observer might recognise a good going party, they can never feel the conspiratorial camaraderie and exhilaration of the intoxicated participants.
But back to the beginning and MIUT set off at midnight in darkness from the little fishing village of Port Moniz, perched on a rocky outcrop on the north west coast of the lump of volcanic rock which is Madeira. The destination was Machico some 115Km away on the opposite edge of the island. The route would take us over the mountains which run down the spine of Madeira and would involve climbing and descending 7200 metres.
“its like UTMB – just make it to morning and then everything changes”. Craig Hamilton had offered these words of wisdom as we waited for the start of the race. Craig is a hell of a runner and I have enormous respect for his running achievements, so listened carefully.
It is funny the little things you notice. We were sat on granite steps watching traditional Madeiran dancers entertain the assembling runners. It was 11pm at night yet the stone wasn’t cold. If you are Scottish you will understand just how weird that is.
Then there were the lizards. The first climb out of Port Moniz was on narrow concrete roads which headed upwards at angles so steep you can’t imagine cars going up them until you have to bypass the cars parked outside the houses. Houses built in places where houses shouldn’t be, served by roads so steep they shouldn’t be roads because cars shouldn’t be able to get to them. Yet all these things exist and 800 runners lit by head torches are running and walking up these roads and when not on the roads they are climbing thousands of stone steps which link the different vertiginous road networks reaching into the sky. So to the Lizards which scuttle across the concrete by day as they bask in the sun. Quite a number of them were obviously taken by surprise by the stampeding hordes and met an untimely end leaving a flat gelatinous lizard shaped gloop on the concrete.
What goes up must come down and the road hurtled down to a river crossing and a small village of Ribeira de Janela. A noisy, excited and unexpectedly numerous group of supporters cheered us across the river and on to the hill. A look behind and a stunning snake of head torches zig zagged from the sky to the sea set against the black outline of the hill. A glance at the route profile helpfully printed upside down on the bottom edge of the race number provided the metaphorical poke with a sharp stick when I realised that the first climb hadn’t in fact been the first climb. That cheeky little 1000ft climb followed by 1000ft descent in the first 5K was just the warm up. Now was time for the proper hills.
Darkness brings with it the fear. Fear of what you can see and fear of what you can’t see. Fear of the loneliness of the challenge. Fear of failure. Fear of sleep. Fear of time slipping away. Fear of time cutoffs. Fear of a mis-step and the drops you know are off the path. Last year had not been particularly kind to me on a racing front. I had failed to finish in two big races and while I had the physical excuse of excruciatingly sore heels on both occasions, I suspect that the real reasons for the DNFs were mental failures rather than physical failure and the fear haunted me as I climbed relentlessly upwards into the night. That fear that my sore heels might return or even worse, the fear that the voice in your head saying stop would grow too loud to ignore.
I had prepared for the distance and I had prepared for the climbs. After all, as Craig and I had discussed, we have both run further and climbed higher. How hard could it be? As my watch had stopped telling me anything meaningful, ticking over with yet another Personal Worst for 5K and 10K, just how hard it could be was becoming self evident. This wasn’t Chamonix and these weren’t the hard metalled paths switch backing elegantly up hill. These paths were going straight up in an ever changing mix of dirt, tree roots, stone steps and unevenly spaced log steps.
After what seemed like an eternity the checkpoint of Faval was reached. More than 1100 metres climbed, the equivalent of one of the bigger Scottish Munros. Time to take stock and head off down hill once more. Only 800 metres to the bottom of the hill. If I thought it was steep on the way up it was even more steep on the way down. Step followed cautious lumbering step. Rocks followed logs which followed grassy banks which followed treacherous dirt slopes, all shrouded in darkness. “Make it to morning” became my crutch as I picked my way downhill while the younger lycra clad European mountain goats flew recklessly past me taking advantage of lightness and elasticity that my knees and hip flexors can only dream.
“make it to morning” kept ringing in my head. I needed to finish this race as I needed the points it offered to complete my registration for my goal race of the year the Diagonale des Fous on Reunion Island. Flights and accommodation were booked and it would be an awful long way to go not to get to race because of a DNF. Cloaked in darkness, I made sure that I reached the bottom of the hill without any slips falls or twisted ankles.
A deep breath at the checkpoint, still comfortably ahead of the cut off times, feeling a little bit pleased that the first really big climb was done. Ok it was 3:45am, dark, it had taken me nearly 4 hours to run 20K and I was about to set off up another mountain, but things were ok.
As I climbed, making good use of my poles, my internal conversation turned into a swear fest. “F*ckin hills, b@starding tree roots, oh ya b@satrd not another f*cking big step” and so it continued for the next 2 hours as I made my way up the never ending mountain. After 2 hours I was about three quarters of the way up the climb when the wheels came off. Puffing and panting I had to step off the the path and let people start passing me. Looking up a line of torches sparkled demoralisingly high above me. Several times I repeated the routine of climb, puff, step aside, look up, get depressed, repeat. After an eternity I made it into the sky, there was nothing else above me. The torches were going sideways instead of up. I had made it to the top, 1580 metres in total, higher than Ben Nevis, and there was now just a tinge of pink on the horizon. Into the next check point and a quick text to Helen “Have a good race. Mine is hard as fuck but still safe and still ahead of cut offs. marathon done 8 hours”
Despite the ridiculous nature of the climbs I was finding that I was recovering quickly and well so was reassured that my race wasn’t quite over yet.
Thinking that the big climbs were out of the way I managed to run the first half of the descent with the daylight arriving just before the next technical section. I had made it to morning. By coincidence having made it to morning I also caught up with Craig as we crossed a narrow volcanic ridge. I was more than a bit surprised as I hadn’t expected to see him again. The night hadn’t been kind to him, Craig told me he had officially retired from all trail running 4 times during the night, but catching him gave me a lift and we ran together down the remainder of the descent through forest trails and down hundreds of steep log steps until we arrived in Rosario. We had survived the night, and the sun was up. everything was different.
The morning was spent in a sweaty blur covering the constant ups and downs of kilometers 40 to 60. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, there was another steep up or an awkward technical down, it was so bad you just had to smile. This was the race that kept on giving.
Did I mention the rat? A moment of light relief when trundling through the forest in a multilingual train we picked up a great big rat in the head lamps. It wasn’t in the least bit concerned by us and just looked at us as if we were daft.
Then there was the water pipe. After yet another dip into a ravine, and yet another clamber up a grassy bank, the next section of path followed the line of a large green empty water pipe as it clung to the hill at some ridiculously steep angle. I know it was empty by the hollow ringing sound it made as I banged my head on it on each of the three occasions that the path ducked underneath it. I also use the word path very loosely. There was a very narrow sheep track which followed the line of the pipe, sandwiched between the pipe and a bowel-looseningly sheer drop. Just to make it interesting there were sequences of oddly spaced steps cut into the hill, with some big steps which tested both your bravery and your concentration. With 11 hours climbing in your legs not falling off the hill became something of a priority.
Eventually though it passed and I found the trail which would finally lead to the half way checkpoint and my drop bag at Cural das Freiras. Presumably because it was getting too easy, the sun was now beating down and playing havoc with my celtic genes and my once red hair. I was surprised to catch up with Craig once more and even more surprised to learn that he was struggling. I was still doing sums in my head and was reasonably reassured to calculate that despite all the traumas of the previous 12 hours I was pretty much on schedule to achieve my 24 hour target. Oh how naive I was! I wished Craig well and headed forwards. Before long I could see the town below which was good, but then began to have that nagging doubt that something was wrong. The thing that was wrong was that I was level with the town but it was still a long, long way below me which could mean only one thing. Yep, turned the corner and the path plummeted down hill. A few comforting switch backs eased the nerves, but the rest was done on steps, ladders, rocks and tree roots. After an eternity and much swearing I crawled into the checkpoint at Cural das Freiras, retrieved my drop bag and set about repairing the damage. I changed my socks and shoes (La Sportiva Mutants off, Skechers Go Trail Ultra on), waxed my legs when I tore off the K-Tape. Craig arrived at the checkpoint happy in the knowledge that he had organised a taxi back to the hotel and despite offering him a swig from my miniature of Glenfiddich he was having none of it and his day was done. I will confess that I gave serious contemplation to writing this race off as one adventure too far and joining him for a warm bed and a beer.
I was deliberating whether or not to change my top, when I felt the familiar checkpoint sensation of my stomach rejecting the food it had just taken in. I hobbled to the toilet as fast as I could but only made it as far as the outer door before the projectile vomit exploded through my hand, half going up over my face onto the ceiling and the rest going down over my shirt. I made my apologies to the lady who was just coming out of the cubicle at that point, found a mop from the cleaners cupboard, made an attempt at cleaning up my mess and headed back inside to change my shirt.
I left the checkpoint into the heat of the afternoon in reasonable spirits thinking the worst of the climbs were behind me and knowing that I was now heading into the scenic bit. The race photographer caught me doing my best Beau Geste impression as I headed up hill trying to be patient, knowing that I probably had a 3 hour climb ahead of me. We were heading for Pico Riuva, the highest point on the island. On the whole the path was of better quality than most we had been on, but it just kept going higher and higher. Up through the clouds to some jaggy pinnacles looming high above. We can’t be going up there surely? Oh shit yes we are. Relentless upwards progress and the top came closer.
A number of runners were in quite a sorry state by this point, and one Portuguese runner had completely given up and was lying prone at the side of the trail, looking grey and trying to sleep. I spent a wee bit of time with him and then as it was only a short distance to the top reported him to the firemen at the aid station who sent a rescue squad back down the track to retrieve him. Pico Riuvo was done. The aid station was slightly surreal as the power had failed so there were no lights in the hut which housed the food and drink.
It wasn’t yet 6pm and next stop was Pico do Areeiro which really was the last high peak on the course. My ambition was to get there and down the other side before dark. According to the map it was only 5K away and 300 metres lower so it should be straightforward. Nope, it involved a drop of 800 metres down steps and ladders with sheer drops. A trip through two 100 meter long tunnels through the mountain and then a horrific scramble back up another 600 metres of stairs, , steps, rocks and ladders. The guide ropes provided some reassurance, but there was still lots of this ..
Once at the top it was freezing cold with a strong wind, but it was only 20 or so miles to go. We were on the course used by the marathon which Helen was running and which had started in the morning. I was feeling more than a bit nervous at her prospects if the rest of the course was anything like the stuff I had just come up, but fortunately the path became quite runnable and I relaxed knowing that she would have managed fine and that I would be able to make some progress towards the finish. According to the race plan there were just two features still to navigate, one last wee bump of a hill at a place called Ribeiro Frei and a final downhill describe in the race brief as a “technical descent”.
Darkness fell, but I was ticking off the miles and was going to finish. Maybe wouldn’t be my 24 hour target but I would get there. I had done all the hard work. In and out of the Ribeiro Freia checkpoint. The board said it was only a 500 metre climb. Let’s be having you. I made my way to where the path turned up hill and started to climb. OH MY GOD what are they trying to do to us. No real path, just a near vertical scramble up a dirt bank which was torn up from the hundreds of pairs of feet going up it earlier in the day. It was unrelenting and at that point, in the dark I wanted to give up. Two things kept me from giving up at that point, firstly the aid station boss had been a bit grumpy and I I didn’t think I would be treated very sympathetically and more pressingly how on earth was I going to get back down the hill without killing myself? Upwards it was. I got in tow behind a chap with green shorts whom I had seen on and off all day. I knew I climbed faster than him and he kept looking over his shoulder for me to go past. Big scaredy cat that I am, I let him beat the trail and I was happy to be rabbited up at his pace.
It passed, I made it to Posio at the top of the hill, sent Helen a text to say really sorry I might be a bit late, threw up a couple more times and then had the panic that it was nearly midnight and the next cut off was at 2:30 nearly 9K away. Now under normal circumstances having two and a half hours to run 9K downhill would seem ridiculously easy but after everything else the race had thrown at us, I set off like a scalded cat for Portello the next checkpoint. As it was I arrived in plenty of time, refuelled once more and headed for the last technical downhill. It was a wee bit disconcerting when first I was passed by an ambulance and then by the mountain rescue, but as it was they were just out lending support. The route headed into the woods and I could hear the sea. A wee while of normal trail and then it started to drop. Numerous bid drops down steep dirt banks or big steps down off and between rocks. All of this would have been bad enough in its own right, but the realisation that your head torch was picking out the tops of the trees on your right side and that if you fell, if you were lucky you would land in the tree branches, if you didn’t hit the tree branches then you were probably in the sea several hundred feet below. I picked up a Portuguese runner at this point who’s head torch had failed so the pair of us gingerly worked our way to the last major checkpoint.
As a minor aside the darkness brought some interesting complications. First one of my poles started collapsing of its own volition which was less than helpful when I was depending on it getting me up and down hills. Next I found a new way of staving of the sleep which washes over you on the second night: I was using soft flasks and discovered that if you fill the flask with coke the first time you try to drink it by biting the nozzle, you would get a high speed burst of CO2 fired into your mouth which shot up the back of your nose and squirted out your nostrils. A sort of coke breathing Smaug the dragon. I got quite into this and did it regularly over the course of the night. Don’t ask me why, I just did. I can also recommend 18 year old Glenfiddich as a particularly fine wee pick me up for those moments when spirits are flagging.
Coming out of the last checkpoint we also got in tow with a french runner who was happy for the company. We swapped race tales and he told me reassuringly that Madeira was very like Reunion except that Madeira was more technical! We shall find out in October.
5 miles more. 5 miles along a good path. 5 miles along a good path 2 metres wide and perched precariously on a sea cliff with a 500 feet drop into the Atlantic. Oh well, it was that kind of race. Probably just as well that section was in the dark. Except my Frenchman then announced that he was soon to have a problem as his torch was fading! So we have this league of nations trotting gingerly along this cliff path in the dark with one working head torch between us. Bizarrely we were all smiling.
It was slow but finally into the final checkpoint and only 4K to go. There was a hint of light in the sky and some lights from cottages provided some help so I sucked in some air and started running. For the first time in 24 hours I felt like I was running properly. I left my companions behind and picked up even more speed. Along the narrow concrete path at the side of the last Levada, I passed a good number of people and felt stronger and stronger. Cockerels were crowing down in the valley and I could see the bay of Machico getting closer. As always there was a detour, another uphill which I ran much to the amusement of the Marshals, down a steep grassy bank, some steps and bounded out on to the road by the beach. Job done. round the corner, follow the cones over the footbridge and there is the Arch. It is 5:30 am and I am sprinting towards the finish line. Up and over the ramp and inexplicably in a mixture of exuberance and relief I jumped through the finish line.
It was without a doubt the hardest race I have ever done. It is brutal, awesome and wonderful all at the same time. I have no idea how the elites can run that course in the time they do. The daylight sections I can get, but how they do those 3000ft technical descents in the dark I have no idea.
Did I enjoy it? Absolutely! When recounting the adventure to various people these last few days I found myself grinning excitedly as I tell the tale. Would I recommend this race? Absolutely not. There are some of my friends who would love this race, but it is the sort of race you need to find yourself. The potential for misery is so great that I would not want to be responsible for recommending that misery to someone.
This is the first race I have done where I have been genuinely pleased just to finish. I didn’t even look at the results for a few days. For all that my 29.5 hours was slow, my heel injury didn’t reoccur, I climbed all those hills, battled a few demons and I didn’t give up. I was a proper ultra runner again and that was all that mattered. “Do you dare?” is one of the race strap lines. “Too fucking right I did” was my response as I sat in the dark covered in dirt, sipping my beer and I was proud as punch about that.
My race report deals with all of the details of the race itself, but what about the lessons, what worked and what didn’t work?
I spent a fair amount of time researching pacing by looking at splits for previous races. In particular I was interested in the splits of those who finished strongly. I had a strong feeling that, ignoring the first few finishers who are statistical and physiological freaks, the vast majority of runners run the first sections too quickly, so I built my plan around splits from a number of runners but basing primarily on times from WHW and UTMB veteran Bob Allison who seems to have perfected the knack of gaining places consistently throughout the race. I was also greatly reassured reading a brilliant blog by Andy Cole about how to pace West Highland Way.
My target time for the early checkpoints allowed me to be an hour slower to Auchtertyre than my previous WHW and yet I was significantly faster to Fort William and moved up the field by a number of places over each section. I was also significantly less broken than I might otherwise have been which made for a much more pleasant second half to the race.
Having slower target times also took some pressure off and allowed me to relax more.
My gear all worked pretty well. I wore an Ultimate Direction SJ pack for most of the race. I had intended alternating it with my Inov-8 race belt, but after running the first section with the race belt, I felt it was unbalancing me and so I opted for the security of my pack. The big advantage of my pack, was that I could have my two bottles, which was great for managing fluid intake in the heat. I used one of the 500 ml ultimate direction hard bottles and one 750 raidlight bottle with a drinking straw. The raidlight bottle is good because you can drink without taking the bottle out which is good if you want to sip small and often. An unintended benefit of the raidlight bottle is that it solved the problem of farting nipples! To explain, I like to take coke in my bottles especially later in a race. The UD bottles are great, but with fizzy coke, the soft valves tend to spontaneously spurt coke spray accompanied by a disconcerting farting noise in response to fizz building up in the bottle. The drinking straw on the raidlight bottle seemed to solve that problem. Marginal gains and all that.
My shoes were good, I wore Altra Olympus for the first half and Skechers Go Run Ultra for the second half of the race. The Skechers were half a size bigger than my normal shoe which gave my sore feet lots of space to expand. the only real reason for changing shoes was beacuse I tend to suffer from sore feet regardless of which shoes I wear, so by changing to something different, it just moved the pressure points a little.
The other notable addition to my gear this year was arm sleeves. These were a freebie at a race, but I thought I would give them a go. They were good in the cool, but surprisingly where they really came into their own was in the heat. Soaking them really helped cool me down and borrowing a trick from Rob Krar which I saw in the Western States film ” This is Your Day”, stuffing ice down the arm sleeves to cool my wrists probably saved my race. I always really struggle in the heat. Using the ice both in the arm sleeves and in a buff round my neck helped cool my core. It may be coincidence, but having started using ice at Auchtertyre, my heart rate was on average 15bpm lower over the second half of the race compared to the first. I also used a Columbia hiking sun hat. The wide brim all the way round helped keep the sun off my face and neck so avoiding over heating and sunburn. It wasn’t glamorous but it was effective. Sometimes it is useful to look beyond what the running companies are trying to sell to us.
Overall my nutrition worked pretty well. The heat scuppered my eating plans as being so hot I didn’t fancy some of the more solid items on my plan. I drank a lot of milk shakes which were great. These are full of sugar, an easy texture to drink, and interesting flavours to help stimulate your palette. Rice puddings were another staple. Other successes were cheese rolls and chicken soup. I got a boost from my chocolate coffee beans though have a suspicion they may have contributed to me feeling nauseous.
The items of food which didn’t work, were both items which I had specifically asked for and planned to use. I had thought that cold beef link sausages would be a nice treat but during the race the consistency put me right off them and I hardly had any. Maybe on a cold day I would have felt differently. The other fail was my cheesy pasta. In the blistering heat, it became too dry, too hard, and just the wrong texture and too much work to eat.
The other slight food fail related to my pack. My crew would stuff food into my pack at checkpoiints and then complain when I hadn’t eaten it at the next. Probably the biggest reason for this is that with it being in my pack I had to consciously remember it was there, and when I did remember it was there, the thought of the hassle of stopping, taking my pack off, opening it up, eating a bit, putting it away etc was just too complicated for my poor fuzzy brain to process. Had I put the food in an accessible front pocket I might have grazed, so lesson learned there for the future.
Having the right crew is really important and fortunately my crew got it spot on. We had a plan, but we also had enough flexibility and experience to know that the plan would go out the window as soon as the race started. As a runner you need to trust your crew not only to do the simple things like actually being there, but to be able to assess how you are doing, feed you the right things and give you the right combination of sympathy and encouragement. You not only need the right people, but you need the right mix of people so they are able to look out for each other as well as you. They used two vehicles which allowed for a bit of flexibility in getting a bit more sleep which meant that when I saw them they were not too tired. My crew consisted of my wife Helen and friends Amanda and Clark Hamilton. Helen is very much the Queen of checkpoints having done so many but is also an experienced runner, plus she knows me inside out. Knowing she is waiting at the next checkpoint gives me huge motivation. Clark is Mr Sensible. I knew that no matter what logistical nightmares unfolded he would deal with them and would also make sure that Helen and Amanda made it to the end in one piece as well. I also knew he wouldn’t take any nonsense from me when running with me so that kept me honest. Amanda is one of the most dogged runners I know. I really admire her ability to do something I am not good at which is the relentless slow and steady thing which was why I asked her to be my support runner over the last sections. She also knows the course inside out so I could just switch off and follow her. My crew was tuned in to how I was feeling and knowing that I tend to stay fairly strong mentally in a race just gave me a rabbit to chase and the occasional gee up rather than try to jolly me along with inane encouraging drivel. It is probably no coincidence that on the couple of occasions recently when I haven’t had my usual support, my races have been unsuccessful. Any crew which has the where with all to find you ice, buy ice lollies and get you ice cream in Kinlochleven after closing time definitely has the righ credentials.
All in all I had way more successes than failures in this race, but if I have one big takeaway it is probably the importance of pacing and going much more slowly than you think you should at the start. To borrow a recent Internet meme my big lesson is we need to try to Be Like Bob (Allison)
Eight days until race day and I was sitting at work with a wet trouser leg and a puddle appearing on the carpet under my desk. The casual observer may have questioned whether the excitement of the impending race was getting to me. The more astute observer would also have noticed the bag of rapidly melting ice cubes tucked down my sock!
My preparation for this year’s race wasn’t exactly going to plan. I had been managing severe heel pain all year, London marathon performance hadn’t been great, I was even heavier than usual, I had DNF’ed the MIWOK 100K race in San Francisco after only 30 miles, 3 weeks before race day I had picked up a stinking sinus infection and to cap it all 10 days before the start of the WHW I tweaked my Achilles.
I should really have pulled out of the race but I couldn’t bring myself to give it up. Racing means a lot to me, and while I may not be very good at it, I treasure the ability to do it. Work is an artificially constructed necessity which pays the bills. Covering big distances on your own two legs is real. You can’t bluff it and no amount of fancy words or clever spreadsheets will get you from Milngavie to Fort Bill. For lots of reasons, running has been restricted for a couple of years and on the scales upon which I measure myself, I have been found wanting. The thought of another failure was not attractive.
One week out and I could barely manage a gentle 5K. I also knew that if I rested and carried out my rehab exercises there was an outside chance of my Achilles being ok for race day. Dilemma time, do I keep up the gentle jogs so at least I know whether I was fit or not, or do I do nothing and hope for the best. I was probably a bit more grumpy than usual as I wrestled with the conflicting emotions of not wanting to DNS but also not wanting to put my crew through all the effort of getting ready for the race only for me to pull out in the early stages.
Eventually, after much wailing and gnashing of teeth, race day arrived. Nervously I agreed that Helen would meet me at the Beech Tree Inn, 6 miles into the race in case my Achilles was still broken and I needed to pull out.
1am arrived. The race started, and very gingerly I started jogging towards Fort William. Up the path, smile at the speedsters who were doubling back after missing the first turn, walk up the first hill. My Achilles was stiff but not sore, and while my legs felt dead from 10 days of no running, the start of the race was pretty much going to plan. I managed to run easily through Mugdock, settling in to the back of the pack and resisting the urge to rush on. There is a saying that “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy”. In my case this was at the 4 mile point as a group of about 20 of us missed the sharp left turn at Tinkers Loan and continued a good half mile down the track. There were quite a few old hands in that group who must have run that section of trail several hundred times between us. The leader of the pack was none other than Fiona Rennie with more than 10 WHW finishes to her name. Rather sheepishly we retraced our steps and eventually caught up with the bemused sweepers.
Along the old railway track to the Beech Tree and a rather worried looking Helen was waiting and wondering why I had taken so long. She was worried sick that my Achilles had packed in. I, of course, or should that be off course, in a mixture of relief and hilarity at getting lost, had completely forgotten about my achilles by this stage. I asked for my inhaler so she reappeared at the Garden Centre in the middle of the dreaded Gate section before heading off to Balmaha. Being support crew is a thankless task.
It was a beautiful night. It was cool and clear, the full moon meant it never really got dark, and by the time I caught up with George Chalmers outside Easter Drunquassie Farm we had switched off the head torches. I have a particular affection for this little farm camp site as it was the first stop on my first journey on the WHW when I walked it with my small son many, many years ago.
My target for this race was to be faster than my previous effort and to finish in better physical condition. I did have time goals, but they were for guidance rather than targets to push for and the most important goal I was to start slowly and stay relaxed for as long as possible. As always, I had constructed a complex spreadsheet which set out my splits, checkpoint times, food and clothing choices for a whole range of possible times and conditions. As always, I didn’t want anything on the plan. Did I mention that being support crew is a thankless task?
Balmaha arrived and I was in and out quite quickly. The run to Rowardennan was relatively trouble free and I was managing to relax, run easy and avoid stress. Rowardennan was reached in good time. I was still slow, but pretty much on schedule.
Then there were midges. Not in ones or two’s, or even in clouds. There was a constant stream of midges all the way from Balmaha to Inversnaid, thousands of little black pellets hitting your face. I even ended up with a bite on my tongue. I stopped for a pee and by the time I was finished my dangly bits were covered in wee black dots. I am relieved to be able to report that they chose not to bite….
Inversnaid arrived after the excursion down the new low road. I was still trotting along quite easily, passing bodies here and there, but watching my heart rate and staying relaxed. I felt that the low road added quite a bit of time to the course, in practice it was about 12 minutes for me, but it is a nice challenge and much more in keeping than running up the fire road.
I am not a huge fan of the loch side, but as I ran up Loch Lomond on such a great day I couldn’t help but think what a great experience this must be for our overseas visitors to the race.
Beinglas came reasonably easily. No great traumas on the difficult loch side section. By now it was getting warm. Again the checkpoint was smooth. My crew was by now a well oiled machine. “What do you want?” “Don’t know” “Here, eat this and quit whining”
Beinglas is a significant milestone for me. Make it to Beinglas and you will make it to Tyndrum. Make it to Tyndrum and you will get to Fort William is how it plays out in my head.
The next section up to Auchtertyre is quite good to run as there are lots of little markers – Derrydarroch, the cattle creep, the top of the hill, cow poo alley, the Big Gate. Each one can be ticked off and the it is on to the roller coaster in Bogle Glen. The sun was splitting the sky, but the views were glorious and I was still steadily making progress. In the low points my next big focal point was to get to Jelly Baby hill and deliver a wee bottle of whisky to Murdo the Magnificent. In what seemed like no time I was through the big gate and puffing my way up that first hill into the forest.
I ran the roller coaster reasonably efficiently so was slightly surprised to see a figure sprinting down hill and gaining on me rapidly. It turned out to be the smiling figure of Frank Chong, all the way from Malaysia for a Goblet, who was desperate for some selfie action with his Go Pro.
Frank and I ran together into Auchtertyre which was a wonderful sight in the sunshine with a real carnival atmosphere. I got weighed in, down 4kg which is quite a lot but I was feeling well and still drinking and peeing so all was good. I told my team I was going to take a wee break here, so we had a leisurely stop, fuelled up, stretched out, scrubbed some of the midges off my face and chest. It was such a good atmosphere it would have been very tempting just to sleep in the sun all afternoon! Major brownie points for my crew here when Clark and Amanda were able to produce some ice cubes from their van. I put some ice down my arm sleeves to cool my wrists and some more round my neck wrapped in a buff. The big sun hat went on and the look was complete!
I hadn’t exactly planned to be quite so sartorial. I had started in a rather elegant black top and black shorts combo with the multicoloured arm sleeves which were only supposed to stay on through the night. My calves were feeling tired so I pulled on the calf sleeves; then my quad was starting to cramp so I opted for the blue compression shorts which I had only thrown in the bag as an afterthought. The yellow shirt was the thinnest shirt I own, so on it went. By Auchtertyre and the blazing sunshine, it was time for the Dora the Explorer hat. The arm sleeves and buff stayed on so that I could fill them with ice (fantastic trick I picked up from watching Rob Krar’s Western States film). If anyone was freaked out by the ultra minion, I do apologise!
Back to the race. It was a bit of a trudge round to Tyndrum on stiff legs, but I had been promised an iced lolly when I got there so had an incentive to keep going. Even better than the lolly was the sight of Dod Reid cheering on the runners outside Brodies store. Everyone who knows George knows how much he means to the West Highland Way community and he continues to be inspirational in the way he fights his current health problems. Feeling suitably motivated I marched up the hill sucking on my blissfully cold lolly. With impeccable timing it was finished at the top of the hill so it was time to get the legs moving and run along the side of Beinn Dorain to Bridge of Orchy.
Beinn Dorain is a sexy big beast of a hill and I remember always being totally awe-struck by it on rare childhood car trips into the highlands. To run under its shadow remains a privilege.
Life got very difficult for me at this point in my previous attempt at WHW race so I was very nervous approaching Bridge of Orchy as I waited for the wheels to come off. To my surprise, the wheels were still intact so I made a very quick pit stop, topped up my ice and collected support runner Clark.
The climb up Murdo’s Mount was slow but steady and we arrived in the great man’s presence to the strains of Star Wars played on the whistle. Liquid sacrifices were exchanged for jelly babies and from there a good pace was kept until Victoria Bridge.
I love the run to Glencoe. I had trained lots on it this year and usually enjoyed running all the climbs. Not today. Slightly despondently I stomped up the long climb onto the Black Mount, getting increasingly frustrated at not running. I was becoming even more dejected as I tried to do some calculations in my head about how I was doing. I looked at my watch, added various numbers together and came up with an answer somewhere in excess of 28 hours. Despite the mental maths going on in my head, Clark kept me moving. Even when walking he stayed that half step ahead which meant there was no scope for slacking. Eventually the climb eased and the legs decided to run again. The sun was brutal at this stage in the afternoon and by the time we reached an unusually dry Ba Bridge I had emptied both bottles. Clark did a good mountain goat impression by climbing down into the river to refill them for me. We made a decent job of the climb and at the top of the last hill I had a eureka moment when I realised that my calculations had basically been shite and that I was still pretty much on schedule. Relieved we ran steadily into Glencoe.
I refuelled in the car park at Glencoe. No idea what I had to eat, but you can bet it wasn’t what was on my plan. All was going swimmingly until I felt the rising tide of bile and the last few mouthfuls ended up on the road at my feet. I started to panic. This was what happened last time and last time it happened all the way to Kinlochleven. I was just settling into the chair for another retch when Helen and Amanda decided I had been there too long and kicked me out.
I didn’t enjoy the mile to Kingshouse but at least it was downhill. I had a real notion for a pint of orange and lemonade with ice but resisted the temptation. The tarmac section after Kingshouse was the first of my really grumpy phases. The little detour uphill before coming back down to Altnafeadh was an even grumpier phase. It always seems so pointless that bit, it is horrible underfoot on the way up so you can’t get any sort of rhythmn at all. After what seemed like an eternity we arrived at the bottom of the Devil’s Staircase. With absolutely no pretence of running we set about stomping up Devil. Amanda set the pace and I followed doing my best just to keep going. It seemed a long drag but after giving in for just the one water break we made it to the top. Despite there now being a little breeze I was seriously struggling in the heat and the sun seemed to mockingly refuse to dip behind the hills. At the top of the Staircase Amanda waxed lyrical about the views. I assumed the role of truculent five year old and said I didn’t want to look at the views. Actually I included one or two colourful adjectives which would have got me a very red bottom if I was a five year old!
On the subject of red bottoms I am pleased to report that there was no repeat of the infamous vaseline incident. Generous application of lubricant, albeit on a self-service basis, seemed to keep the undercarriage well oiled.
Amanda did a grand job of leading me down the tricky path to Kinlochleven and it was good to switch off a little and just follow her feet through the treacherous jaggy underfoot conditions. Once on the pipe road we cruised down the hill and into the Community Centre.
This was much better. Last time I had been here, I was a complete shivering vomiting wreck. This time I was reasonably in control and even able to give some cheek to Julie and Sarah who were manning the scales and dishing out tough love by the bucketful.
I made myself comfy on one of the couches, ate some chicken soup, a roll and some more rice pudding while exchanging banter with Alan Robertson who had run over from Fort William.
True to form just as I finished my coffee, I could feel my stomach objecting and sent Helen off on an urgent search for a bucket as I really didn’t want to have to explain to Julie Clarke that I had spewed over her floor. The moment was captured for posterity by support crew member Clark who was obviously concerned for my well-being.
We set off on the 1000ft climb up the Lairig Mor in reasonably good spirits. It was still daylight which meant that we were doing pretty well for time. We knuckled down and surprisingly made it up the hill in good shape, however instead of kicking on I started to get slightly fed up. I think at one point I complained about being bored! I wasn’t overly sore, but mentally it was tough going. There was no chance of me chucking it and I wanted my goblet, but I wasn’t enjoying the process. I was too hot, I was tired and I wanted my bed. Despite my crankiness, we did keep moving. I had been warned that Jeff Smith wouldn’t be in his usual place at the top of the climb in the middle of Lairig, but being forewarned didn’t make me any less grumpy about him not being where I expected. We reached his usual spot surprisingly soon but then I spent the next while wondering where the hell he was, and why weren’t we at the corner that marks the end of the Lairig yet. Amanda was doing a good job of giving me the rubber ear treatment and keeping a few paces ahead of me while relentlessly dragging me onwards.
Finally we saw the glow sticks and found Jeff and Patricia with a table full of lovely absurd drinks. I mean, who drinks Lilt and Tizer nowadays? They tasted great. Don’t tell anyone this, but I declined a dram. We said our farewells, headed off and before we knew it , we could see the bonfire at Lundavra.
Gayle and Melanie were totally in control at Lundavra which is a great feeling when you arrive there. They offered up some goodies which I politely declined saying I would get my rice pudding from my crew. “they aren’t here” she said! Oh well, these things happen so I grabbed a handful of vinegar crisps which I proceeded to stare at for a while until I figured out what I was meant to do with them. At that point the Car arrived with Clark and Helen. I set off to walk to the car. “Don’t move” scolded Gayle maternally “Let them come to you!” So like a well behaved wee boy I waited until my rice pudding was brought to me. Helen asked me how I was doing. I replied that I was fine. According to Amanda “you are grumpy as fuck”
Out of Lundavra and all was going swimmingly. Barring catastrophes I was going to finish and get that goblet. Up the hill, round the winding sheep track and splat! I hit the ground like a ton of bricks. One of those nasty little stones embedded solidly in the clay with just enough sticking up to trip you up. I’m not sure who got the bigger fright, me or Amanda. Slowly I made a mental check of all the bits which hurt. Nothing was broken, my knee was really sore but still worked and most importantly my Garmin was still intact. We walked a bit to regain some composure and then it was the last struggle through the forest, down the dreaded ladder and finally out into the last fellled section of forest which always reminds me of an elephants graveyard.
We were moving well now and passed quite a few people. I was aware that Amanda kept checking her watch. I wasnt sure what for, and didn’t want to ask, but assumed there was either some target she was chasing or she was thinking we were too slow and had been out too long. The trail had one last sting in its trail as we ascended to the fire road which marks the end of the trail section. A heather root which was sticking out got stuck in my shoe and I was flat on my face once more. That however was that. We exchanged pleasantries with some runners at the start of the fire road and then Amanda announced we were cruising all the way in. “Aye right”, thought I, but sure enough we got into a rhythm and we toughed it out down the hill getting steadily faster and moving more freely all the time. “Is Helen coming to Braveheart?” “Don’t think so” “If she is, we aren’t stopping” Amanda was in full on competition mode now. We were striding out and passing people. We toughed out the never ending mile to Braveheart Car Park with WHW arrows teasing us all the way. Down through Braveheart and by now it had turned into a game. Could we make it to the end without a stop.?
The last mile along the road into Fort William was my fastest mile of the whole race. It felt like we were flying. The watch briefly dipped below 8 min miles at one point which is crazy and before we knew it we were past the roundabout, round the corner and into the leisure centre. Again Amanda showed her support running credentials and stopped me running straight past the entrance!
Clocked in, weighed, hugs and toast, and that was it over. A second Goblet.
Overall, I am very content with my race. I feel that I managed it well. Obviously it hurt, but I had no great lows and no great physical disasters. I just kept ticking away, sticking to my slow and steady race plan. I feel that I worked hard and didn’t take the easy option of walking too often, though on reflection you can always find parts of the race where maybe I walked a little too soon or for too long, but on balance I am happy that I gave it a good go and respected the challenge. I made it to the end in much better physical condition than my previous attempt and I was 2 hours and 25 minutes faster. An interesting side note, my average heart rate was almost 15 beats per minute lower in the second half of the race compared with the first half. I am not quite sure what this means, my body may just have slipped into a lower gear, or I might just not have been working hard enough.
My approach seems to have been effective in that I progressed steadily through the field picking up places in most stages moving from 158th at Balmaha to 88th at the finish.
That is probably me done with racing West Highland Way for a while. Next time I run WHW will be to chase a time, but to chase a time would require me to lose tonnes of weight and focus solely on WHW instead of my usual trick of trying to balance marathons and other adventures in the same training period. Maybe one day I will have a bash at it, but at the moment there are other adventures to be had.
While I may not run it again for a while I will definitely be involved in one way or another. The race itself is one of the great races in the world. Through familiarity we probably underestimate just how stunning the course is, but the journey northwards from Milngavie is something I never tire of.
There is so much more to the West Highland Way Race than the course. It is the sort of event which always teaches you lessons. Lessons about community, about shared endeavours and about triumph over adversity, about humility, trust and the importance of friendship. There is something intrinsically noble about undertaking a grand adventure and there is something optimistic about running towards something, even if it is slightly quixotic and even if that something is only a leisure centre door 95 miles away.
Why do you keep running when it gets tough? Well for starters ou are always running towards your crew who have given up so much time and sleep because they believe in you, how can you let them down? Every single person in the West Highland Way Family is willing you to succeed, how can you not go on? Ultimately it is because you have committed to do something and must see it through. If you don’t see it through, you don’t win the prize
To quote the late David Bowie “We can be heroes, just for one day”
I can imagine no better place to watch heroes than somewhere on the West Highland Way in the middle of June.