Sunday, 10 May 2009

A Boot in the Trossachs

Last weekend it was up to the Trossachs for the Stuc a' Chroin hill race definitely my favourite hill race. It has special memories for me since it was my very first hill race back in 1998. I was convinced, by a few hillwalking mates who had dipped their toes into the mysterious world of going-up-hills-even-faster-in-a-competitive-manner, that it would be a good idea to just turn-up in my road shoes with a bum-bag borrowed from my Dad which he got so he wouldn't look like a tourist whilst on holiday in the USA. It was a lovely sunny day, as it always is for the Stuc, I remember the summit never coming, then when it did, wondering how I was going to get back down. I remember losing any power left in my legs just before the last chin-scraping climb and fighting off cramp all the way up it, then getting to the top of the two mile track to the finish and being in such pain all the way down. When I got home I felt too ill to eat and went straight to bed. I've been hooked ever since.

So for the 11th year, (I missed one due to a dislocated shoulder) with a car full of eager Hillbillies, I was battling back up through Callandar, fighting my way through the cars filled with excited bank holiday-ers on the hunt for the Trossachs' best bargain tartan blanket and matching fridge magnet. This years journey was without incident, unlike last year when I was spectacularly pulled over in the main street packed with thimble hunters after stopping about 5 miles south of Callander and taking a slash in a bush. Sherlock Holmes read me the riot act whilst blocking all traffic heading north and probably caused fridge magnet sales to hit an all-time low for a good ten minutes, it's reassuring to know they're on the ball though.

We quickly registered, picked up our souvenir mugs and got ourselves to the start line. It was a huge field this year because the race was included in the British Championship, there was runners from all over the UK here and I saw a few familiar faces like IainR who had ran the Fling last week too. Once we got going I took the pace nice and easy until the track levelled out then I tried to push on a bit to get a decent spot before the field narrowed into single file for some of the climbs. The 1500 foot climb up Ben Each was as hard as always with everyone nose to tail climbing up through the rough heather then when it eventually levels out a bit the legs are so thrashed it's hard to get some running rythmn going again. I felt fine on the climbs but I really lacked strength on the descents and my brain seemed to be lagging a bit behind my legs today which wasn't good with such tricky terrain to negotiate. I made sure I took on water each time I passed the marshalls because it was quite warm and I was sweating buckets. Up to the summit then a big effort to hold it together on the descent to Glen Ample before the chin-scraping, quad busting climb back up again. As I hit the track I could see I was catching fellow Carnegie clubmate Pete so I pushed on and passed him and made the finish-line with about 100 yards on Pete, but missing a pb by a mere 16 seconds.

We were both trashed at the end with Pete writhing around on the ground with cramp, so the only cure was 10 minutes sitting in the freezing river. The Hillbillies came down too but thought the river was for washing in and just looked at me strangely as I sat submerged talking of the therapeutic benefits I would be reaping in the morning....

Friday, 1 May 2009

Highland Fling Race Report by 2nd placed Scott Bradley

I've managed to persuade Highland Fling runner-up and Carnegie club-mate Scott Bradley to let me put his race report on the blog, it's inspirational stuff, here it is :-

Here's my longest log entry ever...

Saturday 25th April PB - Montane Highland Fling Race 2009

For me the excitement started well before the race – probably about Wednesday in fact, when it finally sunk in that in a few days I’d be attempting to run a relatively stupid distance along the West Highland Way. Friday night was fun, final preparations with my dad, deciding what to put in each “drop-bag” labelled Balmaha, Rowerdennan, Inversnaid and Beinn Glas. I was trying to imagine how crap I was going to feel at each of these places, what fuel I could cope with (or more optimistically, crave!). I soon realised I had absolutely no idea so gave myself a fairly wide selection in each (from obvious choices such as energy gels to wacky alternatives like honey-roasted peanuts and crisps). On the day it was my stomach that would choose and a fussy bugger it was too.

Getting up at 3:50am on Saturday was the worst part of the whole adventure, but a couple of hours later, arriving at the Milngavie Station carpark on this still and misty Saturday morning, the pre-coffee grogginess was overcome with excitement (and coffee). What a pleasant morning to start out on a long journey – no nasty wind, cold nor rain. Not bad for West-coast Scotland in April. Caught some of that pre-race energy from all the other runners, a buzz of nerves and anticipation. Watched the girls & the vets set off at 6am, time seemed to accelerate from that point on – I was queuing for a portaloo when the whilste was blown for the pre-race muster. In the end I had to run from the portaloo to the car, grab the way-too-shiny-for-this Camelbak, negotiate the trackie-bottoms past the shoes then get to the start.

And so off we go jogging through the mall then out into the park, and within that first mile a pack started to form ahead and I decided I wanted to be part of it. Dropped back briefly for a chat with Duncan McGougan then very slowly caught them back up, relishing the chance to run in a group at a pace where it’s possible to enjoy the scenery! Already I was hooked – this is what I had hoped Ultras would feel like, or at least the first part of them, cruising along and enjoying the journey and company of other runners as I watched the misty scenery of Strathblane glide seemingly effortlessly by. Clearly it was mindless-optimisim to expect it to feel that way to the end, but I figured the wheels would come off when they came off, tough shit I wasn't going to ruin the moment by worrying about it now. Id run through Strathblane once before with Gail & Co on a gorgeous frosty morning last January - everything coated in hawfrost. Today it looked very different, but equally gorgeous. One image sticks in my head now - a mirror-like Loch with mist hovering over it, pine forest poking out of the mist, weak sunshine hitting the hillside behind.

Had the MP3 with me, never used it. Had the garmin on, never looked at it (until the finish), had no idea of the pace or time at any point and good job too it might have psyched me out (I was sub-7min/miling in places en-route to Drymen). I was wearing an old pair of Nike Zoom Elite road shoes instead of the trail shoe's I'd invested in and worn only once before. Never really felt right in them, and didn't like the stupid studs on the bottom, I found I kept catching roots and rocks with them probably due to my adopted marathon-runner's shuffle.

Started chatting to Kenny Valentine along the old railway line in Strathblane, miles seemed to be flying by. The lead group was about 100m ahead, I didn't realise Jez was amongst them until Kenny pointed him out, actually I had no idea that was the leading pack at all as I had assumed Jez had flown off ahead after some chap that had set off at 10k pace. Oh well, again didn't let that psyche me out the pace still felt easy. After a couple more miles the marathon-running mentality took over again though and I started to very carefully close the gap on that lead group and drag Kenny alongwith. We hit the tarmac (yee ha!) the gap was now closing way too quickly but what the hell, top of the second rise and I had rejoined the pack and got a wee buzz from it. My next thought was "My God we're in that field near Drymen already!". I didn't know how long we'd been running for but it didn't feel long at all (and yet somehow I've still managed to write half a book about it).

Unfortunately my inexerpience let me down at Drymen, I didn't realise they had a water supply for runners there and went right through. So I found myself running alone about 10 yards behind Jez who also hadn't stopped, perhaps he has a camel impant, or more likely a super efficient back-up team or drop-bag and had acquired a replacement wastpack pre-filled with water. Not to worry, my legs still felt like I was just starting out on my morning jog to work, and I observed how keen the rest of the pack was to get back in front of me so I let them and had a sneaky powergel, leaving the others to open those annoying gates for me up into the forest. I noted I was feeling strong on the hills, but held back. Jez darted off for a piss and I saw a couple of the others respond by stretching it out a bit, again I left them to it. As soon as I hit the downhill before Conic Hill, gravity took over and I was almost-accidentally back with the leaders. When Conic Hill finally appeared ahead it was lit beautifully in weak morning sunshine, at which point I realised I was really looking forward to climbing it! What a pervert! My God what was happening today? Perhaps just one of those rare lucky days when everything just feels right and in tune? Anyway, whilst I spent the next half-mile fighting with a packet of jellybabies (and losing), the green top of Allan Smalls began to move quickly ahead up onto the moorland. I stuck to my slower pace (now trying to extract jelly babies having made an inadequate small hole in the plastic) and as the other two came past as if to chase Allan I was wondering where the hell Jez was.

Jez was "conserving" it seemed. Which is also what I was doing without really realising - my mantra for today was "run at whatever pace you can still enjoy". It was a very simple mantra, it matched my goal for the day, and it obviously worked really well for me. As soon as I hit a prolonged gradient (an extreme example being Conic Hill) I'd find myself working hard, the enjoyment would drop, I would drop pace accordingly and therefore I was cruising and enjoying myself again. Besides, I'm usually very strong on descents and I knew this.

Right enough as soon as I was over the crest beyond the Saltire Flag I let gravity take me back to the leading pack, forgetting a couple of times I wasn't wearing mudclaws and having a few Nike Zoom moments, but no harm done I got down to Balmaha at the same time as the others, and Lynne was standing there she gave me a real boost simply by saying "You're doing really, really well!". I replied "Yeah until the wheels come off", my expectation was that this would happen somewhere between here and Rowardennan, but I'd had so much fun today already I didn't care, I'd just deal with that when I had to. For now I had to hunt for my bloody drop-bag. Where the hell is it? Ah that's it. Now I had to get water in the shiny camelbak. Help! And some lucozade sport. Let's also try a Kelloggs Nutragrain (and let's not try a Kellogs Nutragrain again - yuk). Eventually got going again but only to find my camelbak pouring water on me. Another minute went by as I fumbled with the screw-cap for a while, and much to my surprise Jez had only just appeared at Balmaha, again with his camel implant he seemed to go straight through and so I tagged onto him and here started my education of how the master does it. I got such a buzz from this, what freaking right did I have to be here on the West Highland Way running with the legend himself? His pacing was excellent as well, I didn't need to rely on my mantra for the hills cos he just walked up them gently. We ran like this all the way over the multitude of sharp rises and falls that exist along this section of Loch Lomond, and I loved every minute of it. I've done a few training runs along here before and found those lumps surprisingly tough going, but today felt easier than any of those for some reason. Jez darted off for a pit-stop and I said "Good idea" and did the same, but when I noticed his pit-stop was a bit less simple than mine I decided not to wait and head on gently. Actually I got to Rowardennan and he hadn't caught me, but as I was doing my usual 2min camelbak faff beside my drop-bag (and being very grateful for those wonderful helpers at the drop stations), Jez did his usual and stormed straight by. He was out of sight by the time I got going again. I reckoned that was the last I'd see of him anyway. Not to worry. I was now running up the prolonged uphill along a wide forest track, passing the occasional 6am starter and exchanging encouraging banter (what a great attitude everyone has!), twice I had to tell myself to ease off.

I was in 4th place at this time, but didn't really think about that, there was way too far to go and my main aim was get to Inversnaid as comfortably as possible. I soon realised a 7am starter was ahead judging by the relative speed. As I gained on him I recognised his top from earlier, Andy Rankin (Thinking back now, the speed with which I caught him suggests I was probably pushing myself too hard along this section). I came alongside and started chatting. At this point we came alongside Mike Thompson who must have recognised my voice as he looked over and shouted. It was a great boost to see a familiar face, he pointed out that Jez was only about 2 minutes ahead (and has since told me that on hearing this I started to pull away from Andy - was there some crazy subconcious ambitious racer lurking beneath my mantra? It was subconcious if so, but I won't deny it). Off on my own again, but still feeling good. I got onto the rocky singletrack and enjoyed its wee ups and downs, Allan Smalls came into view ahead, seemingly going through a bad patch and I came past and said hello but at this point we were moving at very different speeds. Descending down to the bothy, my legs still didn't mind the abuse. Finally saw Inversnaid ahead and as I started climbing up to the bridge beneath the waterfall and I saw Jez for the first time in a while, he had just descended the steps and was into the carpark. Again I have to commend the efficiency of the crew here at the drop-bag station, really appreciated it. When I started to run again I half expected my legs to feel like concrete, but thankfully they were still happy. Great. The "mental section" by Loch Lomond was ahead, and my frame of mind was to look forward to it rather than fear it. Sure enough I enjoyed the gnarliness (don't care if that word doesn't exist, it seems appropriate), just got stuck in, ducking branches, swinging my weight over rocks, plenty to keep my mind busy. Although I can't deny the relief I felt when I hit the turfy flat section near the end of the loch.

First sign of fatigue finally got to me as I hit the ascent up the hill before Ben Glas. It was just a warning sign, and if I'd read it I might have saved myself a wee bit of trouble in the latter miles, but nevermind I ran all the way up that hill (I bet Jez was smarter and walked a couple bits) and enjoyed the rush of reaching the top knowing it was downhill to Ben Glas. As usual I waited until I had an audience (couple of walkers) before going head-over-arse on a rock. Got down to Ben Glas and loved the cheering supporters there - I was asked "How come you look so fresh?" and I don't care if everyone else after me was asked the same, it was another wee boost! Here was my biggest mistake today though - not filling the camelbak fully. I underestimated how far it was to Tyndrum from here (the ascent up Glen Falloch drags the distance out significantly especially when your legs have done 40+ miles). My stomach hadn't been interested in solid food and I had a single gel left. Oops.

I set off from Ben Glas and slowly the enjoyment began to fade. The scene ahead was bleak - yellow tussock grass with a wide landrover track that wanted to go uphill in a succession of sharp rises. My mindset changed. I was no longer here to enjoy myself. I was now in a race. There hadn't been one moment in the whole day that I thought I might be able to keep up with Jez - and I think that's a good thing given the circumstances. However, it occurred to me that here I was, in 2nd place, with only 10 miles to hold-out. Yes, racing mode was engaged and now I was concentrating really hard on keeping moving, without panicing, trying to find the optimal speed now, not the optimal enjoyment. I didn't dare glace behind me, not until I got to the rise before the bridge at Derrydarroch when I chanced a brief look back down Glen Falloch. You can see literally for miles behind, and I didn't see anyone. Relief. Are you sure? Another glance, a few dots noticed, perhaps one of them is... I got a nice clap as I came to the bridge, and another one as I came up the nasty rise to the A82. "Which way?" I shouted, "up here?" I asked as I started going up a dirt track onto the old road. They nodded and beckoned me on excitedly as if I was about to miss a departing train. That's kind of how it felt at this time. Don't blow it son. You've done really well. But don't blow it. Oh the joy.

Managed not to decapitate myself using the dwarve's tunnel under the A82, then straight onto the sharp slope where I told myself "Jez will have walked this so you should too." I think I was learning the bloody psychology of ultra running. At this point I noticed my camelbak was empty. I had taken my last gel. I was in trouble now. And it was uphill to the forest. I looked ahead, the cow track seemed to stretch uphill for miles ahead. In the distance I saw a white dot moving towards the forest at the top. That was the last I would see of Jez until the finish-line. But at least I saw him. I got to the kissing-gates into forest myself about 7 minutes later (pure guess), suddenly realising how ridiculous it was to be wearing a helly hansen on this warm sunny day. I didn't need my mantra to tell me to walk up the steep hill after the gate, there was no longer any choice. Yet there was positivity still there, I'd turned "the corner" and was on "the final straight" as far as I was concerned. Downhill all the way to the road and the river I thought. (Liar!). After riding the rollercoaster trail through the forest and emerging at the A85 I could swear I was smiling again. Bad timing (or perhaps good) as I was forced to stand at the roadside watching half of Scotland's holiday traffic follow a caravan towards Tyndrum. Then through the horses field and over the bridge, I was moving smoothly again now the gradient was level. I will never forget that wee boy at Auchentyre Farm standing out there on his own to shout encouragement at the crazy runners coming by, "Excellent running!" he said, and in my fatigued state it was almost emotionally moving. Through the farm, more nice support, then onto tarmac. Tarmac! You have no idea how my Nikes responded to that - I swear I was sub 7min/miling. I was flying. As I crossed the A85 for the last stretch to Tyndrum, having glanced behind enough to know I was still 2nd, my glee was suddenly replaced by paranoia that I was going to throw my achievement away by drowning in the 6 inch deep river or braining myself on a tree.

As if on queue, I had my first cramp on the final sharp rise after crossing the river. "Not now" I said alloud. "Nearly there". I had to focus on shifting my stride pattern slightly and relaxing my legs, I was seriously dehydrated (the brown urine an hour ago said as much) and so the cramp could easily bring me to a standstill. (Addendum: its now Thurs night as I type this and I still carry an injury in the right calf which I suspect may have happened during that cramp). Thankfully my leg responded positively. And so over the bare hillside by the old lead mine and into the trees by the river. Wow. I'd freakin well done it. Past "By the Way" cabins, up to a style. "What's your number?" I was asked. "Three, zero, six" I shouted, remembering the instructions in the briefing doc. Then onwards down the trail to the final 1 inch-deep river I might drown in, looked up, and my God there's the flags ahead (Richie Cunningham's bouncy castle), and that's the finishing straight. There are the people waiting to welcome me back to the real world. I was definately smiling now. There's photos to prove it. And so I finished, and finished in a very unexpected time. I looked at my garmin for the first time since the start. 7:33 it said. It meant nothing to me at the time, it means a lot more to me now of course. But forget that. The most important thing about today was how much enjoyment I got from running those 53miles - and I'm talking about the actual "doing" here, not just basking in the "having done". As I said in my "thank-you" email to Murdo and Ellen, this was a day of fond memories that will stay with me hopefuly forever. (if not partly thanks to this ridiculously long log entry).

Scott Bradley 2009