Friday, 9 July 2010

West Highland Way Race 2010

Boom or bust. That's how I felt this one was going to go. As I drove the last few miles into Milngavie with a cracker of an orange sunset, Iron Maiden's classic "A Matter of Life and Death" album drowning out any sense of nervousness and apprehension and replacing it with an overwhelming desire to shout out the window "scream for me Milngavie...!!" and run through Mugdock Park playing air guitar. Instead I went straight to race registration, got all my bits and pieces, said hello to all the familiar faces then got back to my support team, who had parked in a nice quiet spot away from all the bustle of the car park.
I was trying to stay "in the moment" and not think about the race and how it would pan out. All my thinking had been done earlier. The plan was to do my own thing and not get caught up in anyone elses race, stay in touch with the leaders until Glencoe (70 miles) then give it all I had. I wanted to win this year after coming so close last year, I didn't care about times, splits or anything else it was the result that mattered.

Ready to go
This was my 6th year in a row on the start line of this fantastic race. Of all the race starts I've been to this one has an atmosphere which is totally unique, maybe it's just me but the sense of excitement, anticipation and nervousness at that Milngavie underpass on a warm June night is like no other. The start hooter went off and around 150 pairs of feet made for Fort Bill.
I chatted for a bit with Kate as we ran the first few miles finding ourselves at the front after a couple of runners took the wrong turn and were shouted back. They came flying past to regain the lead and this seemed to jolt quite a number of runners into action as 4 or 5 more flew past in the darkness and others started to jostle for position. As I watched the torchlights disappear ahead into the night the thoughts flashed through my mind, should I be chasing? Am I letting them run off into the distance leaving me behind? Patience is the key here. Think about how fast I will be running in 90 miles time. Save it for later.
Running through the Drymen Checkpoint (12 miles) I knew I was about 4 minutes down on last year but I felt like I was running the right pace and what's 4 mins this early on, I told myself. Uncertainty was still eating away at my thoughts. Over Conic Hill passing Thomas earlier on, we chatted briefly and I ran on really hoping he would get the finish this year after two heartbreaking DNF's. The view from the top of Conic looking up Loch Lomond was inspiring and I had to remind myself to take the steep descent easy, trashed quads at this point wouldn't be a good idea!
I ran through the car park at Balmaha (20 miles) with lots of support teams cheering and clapping and met Mark and Neil, my first half support guys, who refilled my bumbag and gave me my WHW staple of mashed tatties and ketchup. Still 4 mins down on pace meant I was now running the same pace as last year without thinking about it. Still early days I told myself.
I ran the short section to the bottom of the climb up to Craigie Fort then power hiked the steep climb to the top, where Alan and Stan sent me on my way smiling with their words of "encouragement"! On to Rowardennan (27 miles) I kept telling myself to run conservatively and keep eating small amounts regularly as I had been right from the start. I met Mark and Neil again and stuffed as much mashed tatties as i could into me, reloaded my bumbag and off up the lochside knowing I wouldn't see them again for a good few hours and when I did things would be starting to bite ...and they wouldn't just be the midgies!
I hadn't been concerning myself with my splits or where the runners in front or behind were up until now, but I was starting to think maybe I was running too easy, losing ground and needed to step it up a bit. A few more miles and I was still keeping the easy pace when I looked behind and saw someone gaining on me, I was going to be passed here if I didn't up a gear, so time to start pushing! I never saw that runner again but he certainly gave me a shot of adreneline that I needed. I was running hard now thinking about catching up with the two Americans in front and as the Inversnaid checkpoint came into view I saw them both collecting their dropbags and ran down to catch them. I quickly devoured my bag of mashed tatties and ketchup, which got me some strange looks, grabbed a full bottle of juice and chased after the Americans. I soon caught up with them and we ran together chatting for a bit then they let me go ahead and I knew it was just Craig Stewart in front but I wasn't sure how far.
I came into Beinglas still grinning at Keith and George's "beetroot rules" sign on the door of the Doune Bothy! I was well ahead of schedule after having ran really well up the lochside and I was sure I'd put some distance between me and the Americans, hoping that might be the last I would see of them. There were quite a few people around all with midgie nets on making them unidentifiable so I stopped and looked around expecting Mark or Neil to appear then someone asked if I had a drop bag. I said no, and that I was meeting my support but it looks like they're not here. Someone offered me a biscuit which I took and someone else ran off to look for Mark and Neil in the car park. Should I run on or wait?? Save myself a few minutes and run on without my food and sports drink or wait here and lose those hard fought minutes I'd gained on the guys behind?? I walked on a bit then back again as Mark appeared sprinting towards me, they quickly got me sorted out and off I went. It was frustrating but I was about 20mins quicker than had been expected so it was just one of those things, I ran on and after a mile or two glanced back to see a figure behind in hot pursuit. The runner behind was Mark Godale an American who had come over especially to run the race and a guy with an impressive running CV which until recently included the U.S 24 hour record of 162 miles. This guy knew his stuff! A few more miles, though and we'd be onto the hilly section above Crianlarich a good push up there might give me some space.
I ran this section feeling really strong and pushed the descent down to the road really hard, I felt like I was into the "ultra zone" now and could keep this going forever. As I crossed the bridge and ran hard on the flat section towards the 50mile checkpoint at Auchtertyre Farm I felt I must have gained some distance on Mark and was quite dismayed when I looked over my shoulder to see him running hard not far behind. Maybe this guy could run hills as well I thought!
Auchtertyre was my crew change-over, Ken and Robbie took over from Mark and Neil and told me I was only a few minutes behind Craig and he wasn't looking too good. Wow, I thought, this wasn't in the plan. Did I want to catch him so early and then be the hunted for the rest of the race? Run my own race, that was the plan so I pushed on feeling comfortable and passed Craig just after the road crossing at Tyndrum. He was walking at that point, we chatted breifly and I ran on planning to step up the pace again. There was a strong headwind now but I decided to stick with the plan. This section is pretty flat and running hard here can gain you vital minutes so after the initial undulating section then under the railway line I blasted it into Bridge of Orchy not looking behind at all because if those guys were still keeping up, quite frankly, I didn't want to know!
More food at the checkpoint then into the short climb over to Inveroran. As I headed up into the forest I looked back and there was Mark still behind. I worked hard over this section and was further inspired by Murdo the Magnificent standing waving like a madman on top of the hill with the Saltire flag flying against the blue sky. He gave me a jelly baby and I ran hard down to the road briefly looking up to see Mark starting the descent.
     Pic courtesy of Murdo the Magnificent
There was a huge cheer from all the people sitting outside the hotel in the sunshine as I passed, now was the time to hit it hard. I felt strong and in the groove, even with this wind. I thought if I was Mark I'd sit on the shoulder of the local guy, let him do the work then go for it with a few miles to go. I really needed to lose him quick. I hit the road at full speed, ran hard for the mile or so to Forest Lodge, quickly ate some food then blasted onto the trail over Rannoch Moor. I felt brilliant here, running at full tilt, hammering all the little downs and pushing hard on the ups imagining myself eating up the route like some sort of little Pac-Man computer game. Push, push, push. Don't ease off one bit and no looking behind. The real race starts at Glencoe.
I ran into the car park at the Glencoe checkpoint (70miles) so early that Ken and Robbie were still eating lunch and had to sprint down to meet me, I wasn't so keen on food now and had to force a little down, I was still drinking sports drink all the time and eating sweets so I could manage on this in the meantime.
Hard running to Altnafaedh and a little food from my crew at the bottom of the Devils Staircase, then a strong run/walk got me to the top in around 10 minutes. Alan Young was there taking pictures and a large crowd of walkers gave me a great big cheer as I passed sending me hurtling down the other side at full speed after a quick glance behind to see no-one in sight for the first time, I was getting some space!
This was the real high point in my race, I was flying here and felt like I could go on forever. I remembered running the descent into Kinlochleven really hard last year, so as I hit the smooth track I blasted down glancing at my watch and aiming to be at the checkpoint within 15 minutes. As I got lower down and out of the wind I noticed how warm it was, the back of my top was soaking with sweat and it was lashing off me now. I got into the checkpoint (81 miles) and was quickly weighed and sent on my way with encouragement from Caroline and Neil who were manning the aid station. Ken, Robbie and Adrian walked with me trying to get me to eat a bit more but I had it fixed in my mind that I could keep going with a squirt of honey and not much else thus gaining 10 minutes on last year when I stopped here for a good feed. Someone said they thought I had a 35 minute lead and I was also starting to think a sub 16 hour finish was possible so I ran on and started the climb out of Kinlochleven.
As I got to the track at the top of the climb I gulped back the last of my drink, the heat was noticable here with it being sheltered from the wind and I ran on looking for a stream to get some water. I didn't really care whether I filled up from the dirtiest of trickles now as I was so thirsty and before any nastyness could affect my stomach I'd be finished anyway, but it was so dry there was nothing at all. Meanwhile I was getting low on energy so I ate a gel and eventually found a stream and climbed down to fill up. I gulped back a full bottle, filled it again and ran on. My pace was slowing and my stomach was sloshing, the wheels were coming off I thought. Flashes of the 2005 race went through my mind, when Paddy Jumelle had a huge lead only to blow up and lose it. Would I be Jan Alberted? Passed in Glen Nevis with only a few painful miles to go. Did I care? Did I really want to put myself through all this pain for some mad race? As I went through the sheep pens a mile or so from Lundavra I wanted to walk, to stop, to give up. I remembered my 4 day training run and told myself to keep any kind of meaningful run going, at least to the checkpoint. When I got to Lundavra (89 miles) I had already decided I was going to stop for 5 minutes and sort myself out. As I sat with my head in my hands Ken and Robbie were really concerned as I said I just needed to stop for 5 then I'll be ok. I think I ate a small amount of food, but I knew finishing this was all in my mind nothing to do with my legs or my stomach, my fuel would come from my head, my thoughts, if I could sort that out I would do it. How was I going to achieve it? The same way I got this far, break it down into small parts and take each part as it comes, #1 from here to the spooky woods #2 through the woods to the track #3 down the track to the junction #4 the junction to Braveheart car park #5 along the road to the finish. Easy. Go.
I shuffled out of Lundavra, a shuffle became a jog and a jog a run, I took each small section at a time and as I approached Braveheart I knew I had done it and had a mixture of joy and sadness thinking about how strange it would be not to see Dario at the finish. Minutes later I thumped the doors of the leisure centre, supped whisky from the quaich, said my "never agains" and collapsed on the bench at the finish after 16 hours and 36 minutes of running and reflected on what had been the most fantastic of days.

I'd just like to say a big thanks to my support, Mark, Neil, Ken and Robbie. To the race committee for the brilliant job they did in making the whole thing happen and to all the volounteers and supporters who gave me masses of encouragement on the day. The thing that made it all the more special was the spirit of the race, the camaraderie between the runners, the support crews and all the people out on the Way cheering and supporting. That's what sets this race apart from the others.