Well what a day that was!
Last Saturday (25th April), I left Milngavie train station at 6.05am, and arrived 53 miles away at a campsite in Tyndrum at 8.44pm.
That’s 14 hours and 39 minutes later.
This wasn’t because of an epic train delay, or a long traffic jam.
It’s because I ran (well, mostly). 53 miles.
There were big hills along the way. Lots of big hills. There were boulders, tree roots, knee high steps, ladders, stiles, bridges, gravel beaches, bogs. There was cow poo (although not as much as any of us were expecting).
I couldn’t run every single bit of all of that but I ran as much as I could.
It was a ridiculously long day that started with a 4.15 alarm. It would make a very long post if I wrote about exactly what I wore, ate, saw on the day etc, and longer still if I mentioned all the preparation and everyone I spoke to on the day. So I’ll share the highs and lows, and a few thoughts along the way.
All week, all eyes were on the weather. Every chart I looked at seemed to suggest a soggy start and a glorious finish. In the end it was even better than forecast, and while we started in the rain, it lasted about 10 minutes and wasn’t very heavy. Later on I got far too hot and managed to get rather sunburnt in the afternoon on my lochside arm.
The first best bit of the day was Dumgoyne emerging on the horizon as I ran through Mugdock. This is my least favourite part of the route – it’s pretty dull until it hits the road crossing at Carbeth when things open out a bit and it gets a bit more spectacular. Dumgoyne is the lump at the western end of the Campsies, the head of the sleeping giant that lies across the north of Glasgow, and seeing it at such an ungodly hour reminded me we wouldn’t be in the park forever. Just after the road crossing we were greeted by a fiddler and a drummer, both with big smiles. There’s often a musical element to Scottish ultras and I love how uplifting this can be.
After the road crossing, there’s a lovely drop into a wide open valley. Here you get your first view of the mountains and a sense of changing scenery, and for me it’s the first real feeling of starting to move north on your long journey. This morning, the sun was coming up over the mountains around Loch Lomond and I felt my heart start to swell out of my chest again. Ben Lomond had a tiny puff of cloud over the top and it looked like a volcano erupting.
I adore this section of the route, and I run here often. In fact I run here so often, I felt extremely comfortable. I was starting to relax and enjoy myself, but as I looked down at my watch I realised I was going far too fast so I needed to back off.
I saw my friend Kay briefly at the Drymen checkpoint, it was a lovely surprise and so good to see her. I knew she was running in the relay and hoped she’d have a good day – in fact her team won!
I started the long drag towards Conic Hill and took a look back at another favourite part of the route, this time at the whole of the Campsie Fells from ‘behind’. I normally see them from the south side and it’s always quite a sight for me seeing them the other way round.
Conic Hill is another favourite section. I had a brilliant training run here last spring, on a beautiful sunny day. I thought I’d never see Conic in better weather, but Fling day proved me utterly wrong.
I’ve never seen the loch and the mountains looking so beautiful here. I’m sure there were a few people who felt like they’d been given a bit of a gift on race day, with such clear views and blue skies. The colour of the loch was something else.
I caught up with my photographer friend Graeme as I came down the hill, it was great to see him and we had a good chuckle as both of us looked rather different from the last time we saw each other when he was taking photos at my harp concert !
I felt great coming into Balmaha but afterwards things unravelled. Whether I’d had too much fun going over Conic, or whether I was too tired or my lack of a caffeine fix was catching up with me I’m not sure, but the 7 mile stretch to the Rowardennan checkpoint was absolutely horrendous.
I had crashed completely within a few yards and couldn’t get running again. I had some food, walked a bit, waited for the energy to return from a magic Marmite sandwich, but nothing came. I tried a gel as a quick desperate pick me up, but still nothing. I had a reaction to the gel – an instant rash down the side of my arm but thankfully it passed quickly. I started to feel very sick indeed and just had to keep walking in the hope that something would come. I needed to make the next checkpoint by 1pm to be able to continue, I would have plenty of time as long as I just kept going, but I couldn’t afford to drag my heels. I was feeling every gram of weight in my pack even though I didn’t have much extra kit with me. Looking back, this leg was definitely the lowest point of the race, but at the time I was worried I would only feel worse throughout the day and wouldn’t be able to continue to the end.
I made it with time to spare but it was not a happy face that entered the checkpoint. My friend Angela was cheering and shouting at me, but I shook my head at her and walked straight past as I knew I would burst into tears if she said anything nice. Jen was just round the corner, and she sat me down, helped me sort myself out and took the things I didn’t need from my bag. There was a risk of rain so I’d packed waterproof trousers and some extra layers, but it was now clear I didn’t need any of this and everything was digging into my back through my bag. I had a long swig of Coke and started to feel better. I set off, munching another sandwich on the long climb out of the forest. I vowed that I would get running again as soon as I could, and sure enough some downhill sections came, and I started to recover. Then suddenly my left knee started to hurt, completely out of the blue. It was really sore and seemed to be a dull grinding sensation – not a pleasant feeling at all and I was really concerned. The infamous scrambling/technical section was ahead – tree roots, branches, large boulders, broken paths, mud, possible dead sheep, likely mad goats. This was not going to be fun.
I took a couple of painkillers and tried to keep going. I wasn’t in the business of carrying on risking further damage for the sake of a finish, but thankfully the pain started to ease and my pace picked up. By the time I got to Inversnaid, my energy levels had completely recovered, my knee was no longer sore and I skipped through the checkpoint as quickly as I could to try and make some time up on the next section. It was nowhere near as bad as I’d remembered and I started to feel really strong again.
I was utterly stunned to come across a group of blind walkers (with guides). This section of the West Highland Way involves using all available hands and feet – there are some big stretches and some very loose ground. I was so impressed with how much detail the guides included in their description of the route and the actions required by the blind walkers, and in awe of the trust that was being placed in the guides in return. I forgot everything I’d been feeling, the pain and the lack of energy, and began to concentrate more on what I was doing. Or I started to at least – it didn’t last long as I managed to smack my head on a large section of tree root that was overhanging the path. Fortunately no lasting effects beyond a rather large egg and even bigger dent to my pride.
I pushed on towards the only stretch of the route I hadn’t seen before. This was just north of Ardlui up to Beinglas, and as many Scottish ultra runners know, on this section Dario’s post sits looking back over the loch. I decided to save this bit and keep it as a surprise for the day and I wasn’t disappointed. It is truly a beautiful place for a memorial. I never met him but so many of my friends hold him in very high regard and it was a very special spot to spend a few moments.
I made it into Beinglas Farm with time to spare. I knew what was in store so I took the opportunity to munch on some of the goodies I’d put in my drop bag. Walk up the hills as fast as I can manage, and run down them carefully so I don’t trip. This is a really tough bit after such a long distance, but again I knew as long as I didn’t hang around, I could complete the race by walking now and so the time pressure was lifted.
I came across a field of cows just before going under the road. The smell was pretty awful. Unfortunately it lingered after I left them, and I had the dreadful realisation that the smell was a sweaty sticky runner smell and it was me.
I bashed my head again coming out from the tunnel, once again just a lack of concentration. But this was a bigger bang and I looked round to see if anyone was about just in case I was bleeding or concussed. A few tears threatened but I managed to pull myself back together and carry on.
Here it felt like I was walking constantly – just a gradual incline but so many rocks and potholes made it quite tricky on such tired legs, and I felt safer going that bit slower so as not to bash anything else.
I got to Ewich forest, to the dreaded rollercoaster section. I knew what to expect but it just seemed to go on forever. I had been leap-frogging the same runners since Beinglas and it was really quite funny passing and being passed back. My stomach had held out pretty well all day but suddenly put in a huge protest. I lost a few minutes but felt much better and got going once again. Soon, I got to the last road crossing – just three miles to go and much easier underfoot.
I ran through the farm and almost tried to cross the road again in my tired state, but was redirected by another couple of even more tired runners. I pushed on, and on, and on, and then I could hear a crowd. I carried on towards the party in the forest. I heard the pipes. I turned the corner and saw the piper. I gave him a nod and a big smile and at last there was the red carpet, and the flags, and the finishing line.
Somehow I was still running. People were cheering, I was smiling and I couldn’t wait to finish. My friend Elizabeth was marshalling and she was the first person to give me a huge hug, then the rest of my Carron Valley friends, and Ross, and Norry. Ross had run brilliantly, as had Norry and I was thrilled for both of them. I was given my medal and a bottle of water and was then ushered off to collect my goodie bag. It’s hard to imagine a better one, stashed with a buff, a t-shirt (properly sized too!) and a bottle of prosecco.
A word about Norry. I frequently refer to him as my running Yoda. If I have a question, or a worry, I ask him. He knew how nervous I was about making it on the day. The Sunday before the race, he struck a bet that if I finished, inside 15 hours, with a smile on my face, he would give up smoking. Not many things leave me speechless but that really did. He announced he’d backed a dead cert, and while it could have made me even more worried, it actually gave me a lot of confidence because I figured he wouldn’t have set me up to fail and so he must have really believed I could do it. I took a lot of strength from this on the day. After I crossed the line, he gave me a massive hug and handed me his tobacco tin and rolling papers.
I met some wonderful people along the way – too many to mention everyone, but Twitter buddy Rhalou, Donna, Ashly and another Fiona all helped make the day a special one. Julie, smiling as ever, filled my bottles up at Balmaha and chased me away to the loo while she did so. Jen took me under her wing and sorted me out at Rowardennan. Gannet kept me smiling and reminded me to put another layer on as I left the forest now I was out of the sun. Stewart helped me realise that ceilidh dancing after running for almost 15 hours was all well and good until it involved spinning round.
And now some reflection. I love running. I have been on the most incredible journey since I started running three years ago, training for the Clacton triathlon to raise money for a cancer charity, then a few weeks after that moving up to Scotland and joining Kay’s Sunday band of off-road coaching guinea pigs. Last place at my first half marathon got me a new friend and then more new running friends than I knew what to do with, and then a new man to boot.
Running has been my way of exploring my new home, of dealing with my worries and of keeping myself fit. It has given me an incredible social network, taken me to some beautiful parts of Scotland and I’ve now got a body (and a mind) that can endure incredible things. People rarely change, but through running I really have – I used to be a real lazy bones, too frightened to do too much exercise in case I damaged my already trashed ankle or made my severe asthma even worse.
But it takes up an awful lot of time training for things like this. It is a massive commitment of time and energy and effort. It means training runs in conditions I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Last year I spent about £50 on clothes for me, and several times that on running kit and race entries. I’m not sure yet if I’d do it again. I proved I was up to the required standard, as I suspected I was but worried I wasn’t. But it never feels like enough, which can be both positive and extremely negative.
In the past I’ve found it very easy for life to become completely consumed by and built around one thing – be it playing the harp, racing motorbikes or now running. Everything is rosy when it’s going well, but when it’s not, it can be really soul destroying, and things can feel very empty when it’s time to take a break or move on. I need to balance it with something else, but I’m not sure what just yet.
I sometimes hate the sitting pondering plotting phase, wondering what’s next, but I know that when I work out what that is, I’ll be off again chasing after it with a big smile on my face (mostly) and an unshakable urge to keep going to the end. This is what distance running has taught me.