Sunday, 7 July 2013

Monday, 1 July 2013

West Highland Way Race 2013

Everything was so different this time round. The build-up, the pre-race emotions, the feelings as I ran the race and the immediate post-race aftermath were all so far removed from how I felt in 2010 when I last toed the start line in Milngavie.

This year, I have made a few tweaks to my training; slightly increasing the overall mileage (though still not in the same ball-park as others), I've thrown in more back to back long runs and also added some carbo-depletion sessions, all in the hope of a big improvement on my PB of 20:21 hours from three years ago.

In more recent weeks, I've also experimented with my pack and hydration system, trying to avoid having a bum bag tight round my stomach, to this end I have been training with a small back pack and a hand-held bottle. After much deliberation, I decided to start with the pack and hand-held bottle, having the option to swap to the trusted bum bag if I wanted.

The really significant difference this year, compared to 2010, was my psychological state going into the race. Three years ago, although I was confident, it was still a step into the unknown and much of my pre-race emotion was focussed on trepidation and some anxiety as to how I would cope. This time, partly after the confidence boost of last year's performance in the Lakeland 100 and partly due to the solid training undertaken this year, I went into the race without any anxiety, only excitement; I wasn't here to get round in an OK time, I was here with my game face on!

A change to the support crew this year seemed appropriate as most other elements have been tweaked; my step-father Paul teamed up with Tracey to look after me for the duration of the race and what a super job they did.

Team Troman 2013

I did not want to spend too long at registration as I knew it would be easy to stand around chatting, spending time on my feet that I could better use later in the proceedings, so it was in and out very efficiently and back to the hotel to get my feet up. I do remember feeling restless during the evening, spending a lot of time fidgeting around with kit and race food - just something to occupy myself with really.

As with all runners, it is simply a relief once the briefing is finished and we can finally think about putting one foot in front of the other in a bid to get to Fort William.

Minutes to go before the start

I had a quick chat with John Kynaston just before the start and it was good to hear him being so positive about the challenge ahead and even more pleasing to see that he managed to put together a great run. Then it was the hooter sounding and off into the crowded pedestrian street of down town Milngavie.

They're off!

The general game plan was to run a good, solid first half to Auchtertyre and then hope that I could put together one of my strong 2nd half runs to keep things going when all around me fell apart. What I did discover during the course of the day is that nearer the front of the field there is a lot less falling apart, everyone runs their own race, at their own pace and no one really slackens off; I suppose it's the difference between completing and racing!

I settled in nicely to various small groups, usually tucking in at the back, letting any early whippets have their rope, confident I would see most of them again later and met Tracey and Paul for the first time at Gartness. I prefer this spot for a splash and dash pit stop as it divides up the run from Milngavie to Balmaha into a more even split and avoids the chaos at Drymen. Tracey counted me through Gartness in about 32nd place which sounded about right, giving me plenty of runners to use as a hare over the next couple of hours.

In 2010, I remember it was a crystal clear night and I could have turned my headtorch off before Drymen; again, 2013 was a different beast altogether. I finally felt safe to go with natural light somewhere after the large deer fence on the way to Conic Hill, had a great climb up there, then promptly needed to light up again as I went into the woods on the drop to the car park.

Like most runners, I just wanted to reach Balmaha without any dramas and feel that I'm ready to take on the loch-side route up to Beinglas Farm. Paul met me at the trail entrance to the car park, quick dib and jog across to the car. Like a well drilled pit crew, Tracey and Paul and all my various options ready and I just grabbed what I needed to get the Rowardennan, said a quick hello, thanks and goodbye and trotted out of the car park - no fuss and ready to do the next battle. (15th place apparently, 3:02 hours)

Balmaha

I must admit that the exact sequencing of events and in particular, people that I met and briefly ran with are very sketchy from this point on. My over-riding memory of the rest of the day is that I basically ran on my own for the next 15:30 hours all the way to Fort William. Obviously I passed a few runners, some at checkpoints, some out on the trail, we always chat, pass the time of day, encourage each other, offer food or a drink if it seems that it might be needed, usually these social events are imprinted on my memory as they are so important in an event such as this; one might say they are integral to the race but this time it's all a bit of a blur. Again, I think for me, it's the difference between running with a game face focus from an early stage of the race rather than just clocking up the hours before the later battles. Another sign of this was how little I took out my little video camera during the race; regular readers will know that I usually do quite a bit of filming during my races but this time I think I only took the camera out 5 times - don't worry though, I still have enough photos and footage from a number of sources to put together a video of the day!

The section to Rowardennan went well apart from a confidence crisis as I made one of the small climbs and thought "this doesn't quite look right", I tried to convince myself that I was on the wrong path and that I should be on a lower one. Fortunately, just as I was about to blast through the woods to find another track, I recognised a large boulder and short steep bit of path and had a right go at myself for being so stupid. I managed to pull up a couple of places and reached Rowardennan in 13th place, 4:26 hours.

Rowardennan

In the Fling, back in April, I managed to run all of the hill out of Rowardennan, just managing to set a nice easy jog all the way which covered the ground so much faster than walking but didn't do much damage to my legs; same again this time, I thought to myself. Once I had made that decision, it gave me the motivation to do it and it was a real confidence boost to make such good use of the forest road. Little boosts like this are all part of running a race like this and even more so along this section, where you do not see your support crew for such a long time.

I always like to reach Inversnaid. The marshals did a great job of sorting drop bags, helping me with my bottle and taking any rubbish I wanted to get rid of. A metaphorical rub of the hands and off into one of my favourite sections of the race. I've said this before, but there is no secret to getting through this technical section - all you have to do is stay relaxed, don't fight the trail and remember that everyone around you will cover the ground slower too. The more frustrated you get, the more energy you will waste. Simples!!

Without seeing many runners along the trail, I had somehow managed to pull myself up to 9th palce (7:10 hours) by the time I reached Beinglas Farm; where your support crew are fighting sleep and midges. I always feel that I should spend a bit more time with my crew at this point as they have stood around waiting for me, not leaving a single bare patch of skin open to the little blighters and I just rock up, say hello and get the hell out of there before I get attacked. Selfish, I know.

Beinglas Farm

Leaving Beinglas Farm, quickly!
I was really pleased with the way I was covering the ground, still running almost everything but I was conscious of the fact that I was finding it more and more difficult to get drink and food into me. A few years ago, this would have really bothered me but I have learnt that there is no need to panic or get frustrated as this only makes matters worse, the body will cope, so I just got in what I could, little bits at a time.

 I managed to avoid the bad patch through the rollercoaster woods that I endured in the Fling and felt pretty good as I arrived at Auchtertyre knowing I was going to have a slightly longer stop and change my clothing and shoes - aahh, bliss. My weight had dropped down to the lower limit at this point but I felt good and was certainly running a good steady pace, though I made a mental note to try and get some more into me before I got to Kinlochleven.

It was great to spend just a few minutes with Tracey and Paul instead of just a few seconds, so I had a sit down and a full kit change which always reinvigorates me and sets me up for the second half.

Time for some Skin-so-Soft

2nd half here we come!

Having arrived at Auchtertyre in 7th place (9:04 hours plus a 9 minute stop) I was thinking somewhere between 18:15 and 18:30 hours would be a target for the full distance if I could hold things together. On my last long training run on the WHW, about three weeks before the race, I had tried to run much of the 2nd half at a really easy jog, with the minimum outlay of energy. This was to be my approach again in the race; run as much as I could without pushing myself into the red zone. I kept thinking back to 2010 and the places where I walked then, using that as a stick to keep me running as much as possible this time.

I hardly walked at all on the way to Bridge of Orchy, only pausing to put on my jacket for one particularly heavy shower. I'm not saying it was a fast run, far from it, but psychologically it felt great to still be running at this point in the race.

Running into Bridge of Orchy checkpoint

Being near the front of the field (still in 7th place, 10:53 hours) meant that Tracey and Paul were able to get the car parked at the checkpoint so I had a full choice of drink and food for the yomp over the hill to Victoria Bridge. Once again, I set myself the target of running some (but not all) of the climb out of BoO and was pleased to at least look like I was running well as I met Murdo on his knoll at the top of the climb. Your support crew have to tell you that you are looking good and running well, its their job, but it was nice to be told that be someone outside of Team Troman, so thanks for that Murdo!

I met Tracey and Paul again at the car park just before the Forest Lodge and decided that Rannoch Moor warranted some music as it was going to be a lonely couple of hours over to the ski station. So, earphones in, I trudged off to battle the moor. I stuck to my plan of slow run all the way which seemed to be working, rather than mixing walk/run and managed to get a little more liquid in me on the way. Apart from the half mile climb before the final drop, I managed to run all the way to the ski station but I was a little disappointed to not see another runner anywhere ahead of me; I half hoped I would see someone to give me a little boost and perhaps a target to chase.

Glencoe Ski Centre (7th place, 13:03 hours) is always a sight for sore eyes after the desolation and isolation of Rannoch Moor. Paul ran down the access road to meet me and find out what I wanted at the support point - ever efficient!

Approaching Glencoe Ski Centre

Clocked in
It was another sub-1-minute stop and as I left, the marshals commented on what an efficient crew I had - nothing I didn't already know! This was illustrated perfectly at Kingshouse where Paul, a doctor, decided he should force a pit stop on me and make sure I had taken another small drink and a gel before I was about to tackle the Devil's Staircase. That is the crew doing the thinking for the runner as he starts to make less than satisfactory decisions - top crewing.

Leaving Kingshouse

On the way to the base of the Devil's Staircase, I started to convince myself that there was another runner closing in on me. At each of the last two checkpoints I saw the same support crew, then again at Altnafeadh they were there, looking back down as I made the long climb, I thought I could see someone gaining but Paul, who had ran up the climb ahead of me just to take a few photos (bless!) told me, when I reached the top, that there was no one in sight.

Climbing the Devil's Staircase

It was on the long drop into Kinlochleven that I really had my first difficult patch. It was not that I was suffering badly, I just could not get my legs to carry me as fast as I thought I should be going. By this point I had realised that my finish time would be a lot closer to 18:30 hours than it would be to 18:00 hours so, in a way I felt that a bit of pressure was lifted and I could afford to just make steady progress down into the village. On the way down I met Peter Duggan running up and we quickly said hello and remembered when we had ran together for a number of hours in the 2010 race.

At the checkpoint in Kinlochleven (yes, still in 7th, 15:21 hours) I was pleased that I had managed to put a bit of weight back on, though I was still under my starting weight. Now you feel that you are heading for home but it is still quite a trek to those leisure centre doors. I split this long section into a few mini-targets; reach the top of the climb and onto the military road, the large ruin just after the col, round to Lundavra, on to the forest road, Braveheart car park and finally the finish. Sounds easy!

Leaving Kinlochleven

As soon as I started the climb out of Kinlochleven, I knew I was going to have to really dig in for this last section. I felt like I was having to put in an inordinate amount of effort for relatively little forward progress. I thought back to the Lakeland 100, where my plan was not to go into the red on any climbs so I could run the rest and I guessed this would be a good time to replay that scenario. I was near the end of a super run, looking at a top 7 finish but was suddenly faced with blowing it all and crumbling over this last section. I took the climb nice and easy and told myself that I would get back to running once I was on the military road. Once on the main track, I did manage to get into a run but I say that in the widest sense of the word; I just figured that my slow run was comfortable enough and much faster than a walk so on I trudged.

Not much foot lift there!

No matter how many times you run over Lairigmor, you never get a feeling for how far it will feel come race day when you have 80 plus miles in your legs; it just goes on for ever. One thing that kept me going was the memory of how hard I found this in 2010 when it was a subtle blend of run, walk, swear, walk, run, cry, run, etc; at least this time I was running most of the trail and was able to feed off that psychologically.

Eventually, the checkpoint at Lundavra came into view and it was nice to be greeted by some familiar faces in the Neil and Caroline, who whooped it up for me (and long into the night, I hear) and sent me on my merry way feeling better. I almost forgot to refill my bottle for the last leg but Neil sorted me out and off I trotted on the final push.

Even this last section felt different; there was no beaming smile and inner glow of satisfaction at having completed the route that I had in 2010, this time it was still very much concentrate and finish the job off - more pragmatic than euphoric.

I'm glad that I had a look at this final section a few weeks ago as it looks so different now that there has been a load of felling; it is still an obvious track, just not how I remembered it. I had a few final checks behind and could see no one in sight so didn't really have to go full bore on the long drop to the Braveheart car park and, at last, started to let the events of the day and the final outcome start to sink in, let a smile edge across my face.

Braveheart car park
  
I finally reached the leisure centre and the finish of the West Highland Way Race 2013 in 7th place with an official time of 18 hours 30 minutes and 59 seconds - knocking 1:50 hours off my time from three years ago - well happy with that!!

Finished!

Tracey and Paul were right there to join in the celebrations (relief?!) and we had a few minutes together enjoying the moment. I think there were a number of others around who passed on their congratulations; sorry, but I was in no fit state to acknowledge you. I got reweighed and discovered that I had dropped just below my lower limit for weight loss which was a bit of a worry (and something I need to work on for my next adventure) but the main problem was my usual blood pressure drop as soon as I stop running these stupid distances.

No need to panic - I know the drill; lie down with my feet elevated to keep blood flowing round my core and head. To this end, I spent the next 20 minutes lying on the floor in the leisure centre next to Mike Raffan (6th place) as we both tried to recover. Apart from feeling a bit light headed, I didn't feel too bad so after some soothing from Tracey and light medical support from Silke (thanks), Paul brought the car right up to the steps of the leisure centre and I readied myself for the big push - well, 20 yards to the car! With Paul supporting me, I hobbled to the top of the steps and then it all went horribly wrong! To put it simply, I passed out and ended up being held up by Paul. Tracey, meanwhile, was standing by the car, under the impression that I was larking around, as I usually do, until Paul shouted up that I was really gone! As I write this now, I have a nagging thought at the back of my mind - something to do with a boy, a wolf and some crying?!

Somehow they managed to get me into the back of the car but I have no recollection of the 5 minute journey to the B & B and woke up some three hours later on my bed, still dressed in my running kit. I peeled off the kit, had a drink and slept again until 8am on Sunday. Then I had a shower!!

On Sunday morning I finally got to read all the texts and tweets I received the night before and got all emotional, stuffed my face at breakfast and headed up to the prize giving to catch up with everyone. It is always an emotional time with tales of joy and woe in equal measure. Tracey commented on how great it is that everyone has their moment in the sun and you get the same appreciation regardless of your finishing time - I guess that one line on it's own sums up this event.

I think I have rambled on for long enough now but I cannot finish without a few closing words. Thank you to my team mates for this adventure; Tracey and Paul, I couldn't have done this without you. To the West Highland Way Race committee - I have no idea how you manage to do it, but please keep doing it - this race means so much to so many people, thanks again. Thanks to everyone who gave words of encouragement in whatever form before, during and after the event - they really help. Paul Giblin, how the hell did you do that? Gareth B-J, you are an inspiration.  Finally, thanks to Mark and Kate (told you I would give you a mention!) for your help in the build up, you know what I mean.

Phew!