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.
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.
On a rainy Saturday morning we took a wee trip to Rowardennan. The West Highland passes through Rowardennan before heading off into the relative wilderness of the East side of Loch Lomond.
After many years the “Low Road” has been cleared, the path upgraded and it is now open to walkers and runners once more. I was last on the low road nearly 20 years ago when I walked the West Highland Way carrying heavy rucksacks with my son Hamish who at the time was only 8 years old or so.
This time the point of the trip was to run to Inversnaid and back, carrying out a recce of the Low Road as I expect to be “racing” on it in June. I put the word racing in quotes because I always find that I am pretty wrecked by the time I get to Rowardennan about 26 miles in to the route regardless of which race I am doing. Fortunately I usually recover later on, but the prospect of actually racing at this point is unlikely!
The total distance from Rowardennan to Inversnaid is around 7.5 miles. It is described on the official WHW web site here
The first section is along a good road which works its way past the Youth Hostel until it bears right and starts to climb uphill through a gate just after Ptarmigan Lodge.
The first section can be seen in the following short video clip
About 300m after the gate the new low road drops sharply to the left at a big bend in the road. It is likely that this route will be used by the West Highland Way Race this June (2016). The Highland Fling race will continue to use the “High Road” so Fling runners will not turn on to the low road but will continue up hill for another 2.5 miles. The Fling route is easier running but not nearly as interesting as the Low Road.
The Low Road can be seen here, slightly speeded up. Apologies also for the slightly jaunty angle of the video at times. Either my camera was squint or my head was, not sure which.
The Low Road joins the High Road once more and descends to the lochside for a nice 2.5 mile run through some nice forested trail with the odd waterfall to skip through for good measure before finally arriving at Inversnaid Hotel and the spectacular waterfalls there.
Inversnaid is a pretty god forsaken place on race day. Most people arrive there feeling horrible, there are very few supporters because it is too far to get there by road. It is only 7ish miles by foot and more than 30 miles by road. When you arrive in Inversnaid on race day you usually find the midges have already eaten the contents of your drop bag, and you have only the slowest most technical part of the course still to come in the next 6 miles to Beinglas farm.
Despite the rain, I thoroughly enjoyed my wee jaunt on the new improved Low Road and I didn’t even mind the run back to Rowardennan up the hills of the high road. And anyway, all roads lead to Milngavie in June.
Ultras are usually quite complicated logistically. They are usually also longer and harder than you expect. Here a few questions to ask before you enter your next Ultra. I go through this list every time I want to enter a new race
Where does it start?
Do you actually know where that is?
Are you sure?
What time does it start?
How will you get to the start?
Where does it finish?
Do you know where that is?
How will you get home?
How far is the race?
Do you have a reasonable hope of training to run that far?
Does the race have cut offs?
Are you likely to meet the cut off time?
Do you know what the terrain is like?
How hilly is the route?
Do you still have a chance of making the cut offs?
How long does it take the winner/mid pack/last finisher to complete the course?
Still think you can finish within the cut offs?
What time of day are you likely to finish?
When you finish, where will your clothes/car keys/car be?
Will it still be daylight when you finish?
Do you need a support crew?
Will you need drop bags?
Do you know what the drop bag rules are?
When does race entry open?
How do you enter?
How quickly did it fill up last year?
Does the race have a web site or Facebook page?
Have you read either of them?
Does the race fit round the other races in your schedule and give you time to train/recover?
I am lucky enough to have built up a good selection of ultra gear to mix and match which is versatile enough to do me for most types of races, so I no longer need to go on a shopping spree every time I enter a big race. My most used kit currently is
Jacket: OMM Kamleika smock or OMM Cypher Event jacket
Trousers: OMM Kamleika Race Pants or Raidlight Surpantalon Ultralight
Base Layer: Helly Hansen or OMM Vector Zip
Shorts: Ronhill Cargo Trail or 2Xu Compression
Hat: X-bionic Soma Cap
Calf Guards: Compressport or CEP
Socks: Compressport ProRacing High Cut or Drymax Trail Running Socks – 1/4 Crew High
Pack: Ultimate Direction PB Vest or Raidlight Olmo 20l
Gloves: Sealskinz Nordic ski Gloves or Asics winter glove
Some of this stuff is quite expensive, but by patiently watching for sales, taking last year’s model or by Santa being generous I have rarely paid full price for it.
Throw in and an assortment of buffs and t-shirts and I am pretty much good to go most places.
There are however, still a few bits of kit on my Birthday, Christmas and lottery win list.
What I need it for
You don’t need much of a head torch for summer running in Scotland so for races like West Highland Way or Great Glen Ultra pretty much any head torch will do. Running in the Alps in late summer is a different matter and with TDS coming up this year I need something which will give me a good bright light for up to 8 hours at a time.
What I have:
I have various head torches which work pretty well to a greater or lesser extent. My main torch is a LED Lenser H7R
It works well and gives a nice big beam especially in darkness. It represents very good value for money and a good balance between price and brightness, especially as I got it in a sale for about £35. Having had it for a few years, I am beginning to wonder if it has seen better days as batteries seem not to last very long any more.
I have run out of patience with batteries – I have tried just about every kind under the sun and still have to change them every few hours. They are worth a separate post of their own…..
I also have the Alpkit Gamma which is the best value head torch on the market, mainly because it is so ridiculously cheap at around £15 but with a good wide beam and decent battery life.
Another very useful piece of kit is the LED Lenser Neo. This is a very small lightweight torch which is perfect as a spare or backup torch and with enough light to get you out of trouble. The battery life is very good indeed so you will get a good 12 hours out of the torch without having to change batteries. Again a very reassuring feature in an emergency backup.
What I want:
I might pick up one of the new model Alpkit Gammas or I might explore some of the high powered LED Lenser torches but I would always end up coming back to the Petzl Nao
This light isn’t cheap at over £100 and I have resisted the urge to buy one so far, but the brightness and battery life are very good and having borrowed my lovely wife’s one I have to concede that it is better than anything I have at the moment. Any torch that you can actually programme from your computer has to be good! If I was buying one I would probably also buy a spare battery for flexibility and to cover those very long races where you might be out for two nights. Again at £25 a go the spare battery isn’t cheap but better to be safe than sorry and with a spare it could be charged up on the go in your pack with a portable charger.
What I need it for
Poles are not allowed in Scottish races so it is really just for overseas ultras that I need poles. There is always a debate about poles but once you have used them in the big mountains you really feel the benefit of them. With more adventures in the Alps planned, I am looking for a pole which is very light weight which obviously means less weight to carry, but also means better balance when running with them in your hand.
They need to be strong enough to survive me being hashy with them, and they need to fold up small enough to fit inside a backpack or strap tightly to a running pack without flapping around. Ideally they will be easy to assemble and take down, especially with cold fingers and in a perfect world the length would be adjustable to allow for different types of terrain.
What I have
I have an old pair of Leki lightweight titanium walking poles. These were top of the range when I got them many years ago. There really isn’t much wrong with them. They are quite robust, are adjustable in height so can be altered depending on whether you are going uphill or downhill. They are pretty light. You notice you have them in your hand but not enough to imbalance you. I used these on the CCC race and never put them in my pack once, but strapping them to your pack can be a bit of a guddle especially when your fingers and brain are a bit fuzzy.
What I want
I am still undecided. I am tending towards the Mountain King Trail Blaze Skyrunner Carbon. This has the attraction that it is very light at only 106g per pole and by folding into 4 sections it will stash away easily and securely in my pack.
At around £90 per pair it feels like a lot of money for a piece of kit which I worry might be a bit flimsy, but the convenience is tempting.
The other pole which catches my eye is the Leki Micro Vario Carbon. This has all the features I am after but while lightweight it is heavier than the Mountain King and it is significantly more expensive at £130-£150.
It is probably more robust than the Mountain King, has a sturdier handle and has the big advantage of being adjustable.
A couple of other alternatives come in to the mix as well. The Black Diamond Ultra Distance Pole which is similar to the Mountain King, but possibly a bit more sturdy if heavier.
The final one which caught my eye was the Raidlight Carbon Trail pole. A bit heavier than the others but still quite attractive and I am a fan of Raidlight gear.
Hard to choose but on balance I would probably go for the Mountain King over the Leki, just because it is the lightest, cheaper and less complicated.
What I need it for
This is a slightly mundane item after the previous two things on my shopping list but a decent pair of gaiters really does help keep dirt and stones out of your shoes. I also need a gaiter which is robust enough to keep excess water and snow from getting in to your shoe and which will give a bit of protection to your ankles from rocks and the odd time you kick yourself.
What I have
I have tried a range of different gaiters. The Dirty Girl ones are quite pretty and keep the dry stuff out, but I find they are a pain to attach to your laces and you need to velcro them on which is also more effort than I can be bothered with. They are thin so they do get wet.
I have tried the Inov-8 sock with the built in gaiter. These are ok, but the socks aren’t my preferred sock so that isn’t a solution on a long race where you might want to change your socks. I have also tried the Inov-8 race ultra gaiter but they have attachments for Inov-8 race ultra shoes and don’t fit other shoes well.
My favourite gaiter so far is the Inov-8 Debris Gaiter 32. This is a thick gaiter with a sock cuff, which covers your laces and which keeps water out as well. My pair has seen better days and the elastic straps which hold them on have worn out, so it is time for a new pair.
What I want
The easy solution to this is just get another pair of the Inov-8 Debris gaiters. There is little to fault them and at around £15 are not going to break the bank.
I am also quite fancy the Outdoor Research gaiter. These are a bit more expensive but might do the trick in very gritty conditions. At nearly £30 these are pricey for a pair of running gaiters.
The final pair on my list is the Raidlight STOP RUN gaiter. This is probably the main contender to replace my Inov-8s. It is pretty robust, and claims to be waterproof and has the added benefit of a wee bit of padding round the ankle bones. At about £20 it is not too expensive