Friday, 24 July 2009

Saying Goodbye

The West Highland Way family turned out in force yesterday to say farewell to Dario, coming from far and wide to pay their respects. It was a very emotional day, so many race tops, buffs, and T-shirts.

Every now and then I would forget for a minute and expect to see him with flourescent top and big smile, clipboard in hand, running around.

During the service his sister, Diana, asked us to pick a memory of Dario and treasure it and remember him that way. Well, mine would be from the night run we did just a couple of weeks before this years race. I ran on ahead of the group over Conic Hill and down to the car-park in Balmaha where Dario was waiting to meet us after his run. It was after 3am and my torch beam caught sight of his flourescent jacket and as soon as he recognised me he started chatting away, he laughed and said "I don't know why I'm doing this, I'm not even running the race!" then he beamed and said "yes, but it's great fun, isn't it?" And it was.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Thanks Dario

The West Highland Way Race has taken over my life for the past five years so I was really sad to learn last week of the passing of Dario Melaragni who has been responsible for organising the previous ten races. He also organised this years Cateran Trail Ultra, one of the loveliest, friendliest wee races I've had the pleasure of taking part in. He even hand-drew each runners race number! That says so much about the man and his attention to detail and just how much he loved the sport of ultra-running in Scotland. They don't make them like that anymore, he'll be missed by many.

The hand-drawn race number from the Cateran Trail

Dario presenting me with my prize at this years WHW race
(pic by Alan Young)

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

The West Highland Way Race 2009

Sitting down in Lochaber Leisure Centre with a poly bag between my feet throwing up and shivering uncontrollably as people mill around hardly batting an eyelid. I might not have looked it but I was happy. Elated in fact. Not only because I'd been thinking about the finish line and having a good puke for hours now, but also because I'd got there faster than I'd ever thought I could on my own two feet.

Team Carnegie (well most of us!) at the start

Before the race I had felt confident of knocking a good bit off my previous best of 18 hours 27 mins, I had even written out some splits for the dream time I thought I could do one day with a wind behind me and all the luck in the world on my side. Whisper it... 17 hours. But quicker than that was beyond me. Or so I thought.
I was really nervous at Milngavie as I queued for registration, seeing some familiar faces and trying to avoid getting into conversation with anyone because I felt so uptight. As I waited race director Dario came over and told me to introduce myself to the TV people because they might want a few words with me, oh no, I thought. After collecting my race number I went outside, was put in front of a camera, waffled for a few minutes about I don't know what (bound to end up on the cutting room floor...please!) and then I was changed into my kit and off to the start.
My plan was to run near the front but to be careful and not get pulled into the early miles too fast. I was running with Adrian D and Paul H and we were to stick together for about 35 miles being joined by George C and swapping places all the way, pushing each other on.

pic courtesy of Alan Young

At Balmaha (20 miles) I was feeling good but a little concerned that I was going too fast. I decided to stick with these three guys though because the pace felt comfortable. I chatted with Adrian on the way up Loch Lomondside and said to him a couple of times that I was going way too fast for my split times but I felt ok so would stick with it. Through Rowardennen at 27 miles and I still felt fresh, grabbing some mashed potatos and ketchup, a full drink bottle and some sweets and off again. The midges were terrible here, they seemed to cling to the hair on my legs and the itching was driving me nuts. The good thing was it made me run hard to try to create a breeze, I'm seriously considering shaving them for next year though! As I was running I was thinking about how bad I felt at this point last year, how I had been so close to DNFing, should I be more cautious and cool the pace or roll the dice and risk blowing it? I had to go for it, if I wasn't going to push myself to the very limit in this race then when was I? I would keep pushing myself to the very edge and if I ended up in a mess then I'd deal with that when it happened. George and myself were pretty evenly matched and Paul and Adrian are experienced runners so if the pace was ok for them then it was ok for me I thought.

I passed through Inversnaid hardly stopping to grab my drop bag, I asked how far ahead the leaders were and was told about 10 minutes. It was my clubmate Scott B and the Dutchman Jan Albert who were up-front, neither of them had completed the WHW before, so I felt ok about running comfortably behind and just trying to keep in touch.
As we went through Carmyle Cottage I noticed Adrian had dropped off the back and as I left only George was chasing behind. We swapped places a few times going over the hills above Crianlarich then as we crossed the main road I ran hard to try to open a gap but George wasn't for letting go and was only a minute or so behind at Auchtertyre.

This was my crew change here. Lucy and Ken were taking over from the night-shift of Mark and Neil who had done a great job of moving me through the checkpoints with maximum efficiency. This was a crucial point in the race for me, all the good work of the last 50 miles could be lost with one bad section, which is what has happened to me in previous races, it was really important for me to be taking on food as well and I was relying on Lucy and Ken to manage this for me. I had my first real stop of the race here, maybe about 3 minutes, to shovel in some mashed tatties and ketchup and get a refilled drinks bottle then it was on my way again. My stomach was being good to me today as well, which was really significant. I had been eating well, with a little potatoe about every hour or so and sweets and energy bars too. I had to make sure I didn't let that slip though.

As I passed through Tyndrum I grabbed a few more bits of food and hit the track for Bridge of Orchy. The last few years I've ran this section hard so I wanted to do the same again and I knew on the long stretches you can see a mile or two in front so I might catch a glimpse of the front two if I'm lucky, that would give me a real boost. The mileage was starting to bite, I was running hard and George was right on my tail so I knew I had to keep this going if I didn't want to slip back a place. As I ran toward Bridge of Orchy train station I was met by Ken and Lucy with a tray containing virtually one of every type of food I had but, you guessed it, they didn't have what I wanted. I was feeling quite sick at this point but because I had ran the last hour or so hard my energy reserves were low and I had to eat something. Lucy ran off to the car to make up a Complan drink and Ken tried to persuade me with all sorts of things but the thought of solid food just made me feel sick. I gulped down some complan at the car and took a few biscuits but ended up throwing them away, I was managing to eat Shot Bloks and Fruit Pastilles though so that would have to do.

Over the hill and down to the Inveroran Hotel and George was still right behind me so I decided to hammer the mile or so tarmac stretch and try to move out of sight of him. A quick fill up of my bag at Forest Lodge and then I ran up the track towards Rannoch Moor. This section was what I had decided beforehand would be the crux of my race. I fell apart in a big way here the last two years and was determined to stay strong this time. It was getting warm too and the sweat was pouring off me and soaking my top, I reached for my bottle as I should be drinking small amounts constantly to stop getting dehydrated. Damn! I'd forgotten to pick it up! Ok, I thought, the only way to solve this is to get to Blackrock Cottage as fast as I can and get a drink there.

I ran the climb steadily then as it levelled out I really let go, still no sign of anyone in front as the track stretched out into the distance, surely I must be getting closer running at this pace. I pushed on until I rounded the bend above Glencoe and I could see a figure moving fast in the distance, surely that was Scott in front. This gave me a massive boost when I needed it most, the hairs on my neck stood on end as I realised I was in this race now. I reached the car and had to take 3 or 4 minutes to get some food into me as Lucy told me I was catching the two in front and her and Ken sorted my bag whilst giving me words of encouragement. The role of the crew is so important at this stage in a race because I find I'm so "stripped down" physically and emotionally that any positive or negative things can have a huge effect on me. Their enthusiam was really driving me on at this point.

As I left the car and ran through the Kingshouse checkpoint my body was feeling bad, I was having to concentrate to maintain a proper stride but my mind felt so strong. I was sure I was going to catch the leaders now. As I left the short stretch of tarmac after Kingshouse, climbed the short section then arrived at the road again, Lucy and Ken met me and made sure I ate some more, gave me more positive words and off I went up the Devils Staircase. I kept a good steady pace here, powerhiking the steep climb and as I looked up I could see Scott with only a small gap between us and above him I could see Jan Albert. Game on! Scott seemed to be moving very slowly and Jan Albert not much faster, I was instantly energised. I wasn't going to do anything crazy here though, there wasn't any point in blowing myself to bits to catch up so I'd just keep it moving nice and steady. As I got to the top I could see Scott about 50 yards below so I let rip on the descent and caught him up. He was really struggling, saying he was out of it and talking very negatively. I told him he was fine it was all just peaks and troughs and told him to hang on and we'd run into Kinlochleven together. He responded and we ran strongly over the rocks and down the never ending, knee buckling descent into KLL.

Scott and I on the Lairig Mor (pic courtesy of Tim Downie)
I was really feeling it now, but the adrenaline was pumping as Ken and Lucy told me Jan Albert was only a few minutes ahead. There were also camera crews buzzing about asking questions and seeming to be fascinated by my mashed tatties and ketchup which I was ramming into my mouth and trying very hard to swallow before joining Scott for the last big climb of the race onto the Lairig Mor. I've ran this section loads of times in training so I was starting to see the end in sight now. We powered up the climb, I was battling with my stomach but I was also determined to keep the pace going with Scott for this last section. As the track flattened out as much as it does over the Lairig Mor Scott and I got into a good fast rythmn and as Jan Albert came into view it spurred us on even more. Walkers were giving us encouragement and telling us he was about 7 minutes in front as we pushed each other on but as we got about a mile from Lundavra I started to crash, badly. I told Scott to go for it and I battled with my body and my mind but I couldn't make myself go any faster.

I stumbled into Lundavra and Lucy and Ken were shouting that it was all to play for, they were only 5 minutes or so in front. I was destroyed though, I told them I was struggling and was in mid-moan when someone else pitched in and said something, I can't remember what, but it hit home and I took off my bum-bag emptied it on the ground, grabbed a bottle and ran up the hill absolutely fired-up again!

I looked at my watch as I left Lundavra, 15 hours 15 mins it said. The slowest I'd ever done this section was 1 hour 50 mins and the fastest was 1 hour 15. Sub 17 was definitely on and sub 16:30 a possibility and if I can catch up with the other two....

My quads were screaming on the downhills, the pain was getting really bad. I could still run hard on the uphills and the flats though so I just kept pushing on along the ever undulating track until I reached the new bulldozed track section then I knew all I had to do was grit my teeth and let gravity pull me down to Fort William. I remembered it took me about 30 minutes from here last year and looked at my watch, 15:55, sub 16:30 was more than on!
I passed Alan Y taking photos and he told me Jan Albert had been passed by Scott but he was only a few minutes in front, my mind had wondered elsewhere though. When I first became aware of the WHW race and started to think one day I might be able to do it, I remembered how I had looked at the race record at the time of 16:26 and thought what an amazing record that was. Could I run inside that old record?

I ran through the Braveheart car park and passed George's wife and son and gave them my bumbag, then hit the road as hard as I could run. I stared straight ahead trying to put every ounce of energy I posessed into moving myself forward, the tarmac was agony on my legs but only a matter of minutes now, the speed limit signs, the roundabout then the clapping and cheering as I reached the Leisure Centre and the sounds of the piper meaning it was all over. It was all just a blur, Lucy and Ken were there to congratulate me and hold me up, I said no to the quaich of whisky this year, I wasn't going to need that to be sick this time.

My finish time was 16:24 exactly and 3rd place.

A special thanks to my support crew of Mark and Neil on the nightshift and Lucy and Ken who took over, you made it all possible and without your help, encouragement and inspiration I couldn't have done it. Also to Dario and all the volunteers who make this race possible, all the other runners out there and the walkers who encouraged us along the way, a big thankyou to all of you.

...and next year?? I've got a new time in my head but I daren't even whisper that one....