Tuesday, 24 May 2011

'Might Contain Nuts' Brecon Beacons 40. 21/05/2011.

Race 6 of 12 in the 2011 Runfurther series.

My first ‘Might Contain Nuts’ event was a testing little number in the Brecon Beacons based in Talybont-on-Usk, east of Brecon itself. The Talybont Outdoor Recreation Centre in the old station building proved to be an ideal base, offering as it did modern bunkhouse accommodation for the Friday and Saturday nights as well (though the owners do need to get the drainage sorted out in those showers so the room doesn’t flood every time someone takes a shower). As I was there on Friday evening I was able to chat to the organisers and early registrants, as well as help to set up the start banner for the following morning; the cut-down saplings we found proved ideal as hoisting stakes. It was a glorious calm, clear evening.

By the 8am start on Saturday the cloud had already rolled in and the wind was blowing a little. A weather front was forecast to hit some time during the day but I was hoping I might just get lucky and finish before we got hit by the worst of it. It would be a tough 40 miles and I was hoping for a sub-10-hour finish, which would mean I’d be out there until 6pm max. I might just get caught in the final hour. What better incentive is there than an impending soaking in the mountains to get a move on?

This event would be unusual for me in two respects:
1. Save for water refills, we would have to be self sufficient;
2. It was not supposed to be a navigational exercise so the course would be marked.
Number 1 is no problem as long as we know and we can plan how to look after ourselves. Number 2 is a luxury that was really appreciated by the runners, but what a responsibility for the organisers! To mark such a long and rugged route must have taken many committed ‘person-hours’. The unusualness (for me) of the event combined with the location (I had never been to the Brecon Beacons before) would add some considerable spice to my ‘weekend at the office’.

With the provided waterproof A3 map in hand, we started with a bit of track running to reach the canal towpath, which we had to follow further than originally intended for a longer way round to the first ascent, thanks to the blocking of our intended path off the canal. At the beginning of the first climb to the summit of Tor y Foel we got sworn at by the local bad-tempered, quad-bike-riding farmer for leaving the footpath gate open. “Yu dorn’t live the bleddy gate ope-e-n du-euw?” As a sop to calm the unjustified outburst, the next runners who were just about to come through (we had better manners than to close it in their faces) opened his field gate for him to let him into the adjacent field before venturing through into the footpath field and dutifully closing the gate behind them. Perhaps it was the same farmer who fenced off the route from the canal towpath.

The sun had come out and was warming us nicely as we climbed. The first top was no molehill, yet it would be just a small taster of what was to come later. The runnable grassy descent brought us to the first checkpoint to the east of Talybont Reservoir. Following on from that was a delightful out-and back, in-and-out, sometimes precipitous old mining trail through the woods that eventually brought us to the gently ascending quarry road to the massive limestone quarries. This would have been all runnable were it not for the strong headwind blowing through the man-made pass. The quarry landscape was very different, so entertaining to my visual senses. Someone said it’s used to film Doctor Who scenes. It does not surprise me. It does look alien.

A sharp left turn took us over the moors (Bryniau Gleision) and down to the woods (Cwm Callan) for the final rocky descent to checkpoint 2 between the Pentwyn and Pontsticill Reservoirs. Garry Scott, with whom I had run the final stages of the Hardmoors 55 in March, had been playing cat and mouse with me again, alternating from behind to ahead as we each experienced our highs and lows. This time you couldn’t see him for dust as he left the checkpoint while I refilled my water and tucked into my first Marmite and cucumber sandwich.

The sun was still keeping us warm and the wind on the tops was preventing the overheating that might otherwise have occurred. Nevertheless, in anticipation of worse cooling on the next high, rugged and exposed sections I put my wind-proof Pertex on. That was a mistake because I was immediately too warm as I climbed through the woods. Mark Hartell (originator of the Runfurther series, for which I am extremely grateful) was descending the trail. His camera shutter clicked wildly as he passed a comment about it being too dark in there.

With the sleeves of this new encumbrance rolled up and body hitched up as high as possible to increase cooling, I emerged into the sunshine and the LONG, north-westerly climb across open moor between the shake holes. I was alone. The pathless route was marked out by occasional flags of the appropriate nationality. Garry was a long way ahead already and surely uncatchable. The route march took me across boggy areas that were covered with white fluffy marsh grass before eventually reaching the precipitous edge and ‘other people’. Yes, our route so far had been remote and unused by others, but now we were approaching the honey pots of Corn Du and Pen y Fan. It was getting like Piccadilly Circus. I said “Hello” to all I passed and chatted to a group. I took pictures. I was slowing down. I needed food. Kellogg’s Elevenses bar to the rescue. I looked behind and the first two female competitors had just caught up! The food started to kick in and I got on with the job of running again. Mick Cooper caught up with me, true to form. We would run together for a while but the inevitable would surely happen sooner or later with him slowly disappearing into the distance on the next climb.

Checkpoint 3 (a tent and a very enthusiastic marshal) was at the col at Bwlch Duwynt. From here we did a left turn for the loop down to checkpoint 4 at the main road, round and back up via a different route. Near the beginning of the descent the path we would later climb back up came in from the right. A much speedier competitor was on the way back. I wasn’t quick enough with the camera. Down at CP4 we got our much-needed water refills. The sun was still very warming and the encumbrance had to go back into my rucksack.

I had been noticing a lot of other walkers and some runners wearing numbers who weren’t ‘one of us’. I noticed more of them on the climb back up. Some of them were carrying dummy weapons. I asked one of them what the event was. It was a ‘civilian event’ (Fan Dance?), with some wearing large rucksacks and come carrying guns as an added burden. The guns must have been heavier than they looked. This area is well used by the military services as a training area. In fact some military types were taking part in the Brecon 40.

I eventually got back up to CP3, which to me at my stage in the event was now checkpoint 5. From there was the easy jaunt to the mini peak of Corn Du before the peak proper of Pen y Fan. I thought it was Piccadilly Circus up there but marshal Colm McCoy said there were hundreds up there an hour earlier. He directed me to the descent route, where a nasty accident could easily occur if you weren't very careful. It was a climb down a cliff face of very large rock steps, blocks and muddy ledges to the ‘safety’ of a gravelly surface that sloped away steeply (see picture at the top). From there was the most amazing grassy ridge descent down the spine of Cefn Cwm Llwch. Photographs cannot do the views justice. On the way down I stopped to look back and photograph Pen y Fan and the mountain range behind me. I commented on the amazing views to a couple of passing walkers. They complimented me for taking the time to stop and take in the views when I was supposed to be running a race. I didn’t tell them it’s any excuse for a rest.

The path took me around the left-hand side of Allt Ddu at the foot of the spine and onto grassy fields. I was sheltered from the wind and I was in an oasis of sunshine. It was very warm. I caught up with Garry and Pat Mullen. (I saw Pat at Inversnaid on the Highland Fling after dehydration had forced him to retire.) In following the race route marker in the middle of the field the three of us had gone too far to the right. We could see the checkpoint across the next field. The marshals gesticulated us back across to where we should have been. I still don’t know how we lost the path to the stile.

As we were sitting down at checkpoint 6 to refill and recharge, the marshals commented: “Here come the first ladies.” Ever competitive, I was off, leaving Garry still recharging. Shortly I pulled Pat back onto route. He had lost his way in the next field. The heat was getting to him and he was beginning to cramp. The next stile nearly did him. After checking that he had enough sustenance and wishing him good luck, I carried on. I was feeling quite strong, having got my hydration and fuelling just right. The Accel Gel I had consumed a few hours earlier (bought at registration on Friday) had been very effective along with my other food.

As I climbed back up Bryn Teg towards Cribyn on the other side of the valley from where we had descended, the weather was looking ominous. The sun was a permanent feature behind me in the valley but ahead was a pall of blackness and I was climbing into it. It was not yet 3pm and it had already come. I felt mildly put-out by its premature arrival. The wind blew strongly and transiently as it turbulated from the other side. Occasional sheets of spray blew over the top and down the valley. If I couldn’t keep moving I would soon cool down too much. The sleeveless shirt and shorts that had served me so well up to now would no longer be up to it. I could not risk a slowdown so I consumed my second gel, this time with caffeine. I could feel it kick in within minutes and I climbed strongly, feeling mentally alert. Near the foot of that pyramid corner of Cribyn that I was about to ascend I stopped by the race route marker to put my Pertex back on. I struggled with it as it ballooned wildly in the wind, even trying to blow back off me again when I had got it on. The leading women had closed considerably.

The top of Cribyn was still visible as I began the final assault but by the time I reached it I was in cloud. A couple of marshals (at least I assumed they were marshals because who else would be standing up there at that time?) nodded in the direction that the race arrow was already pointing. I dared not stop for an instant. The wind was whipping the rain violently across the top, but fortunately it was no more than heavy drizzle. Big rain drops would have been much worse. All picture-taking would be off limits from now-on. I ran as best as the terrain and visibility allowed along the ridge, eventually descending to the last checkpoint, CP7, in the col near Fan y Big (fnarr!). Visibility was worsened and my pace was slowed more by the water droplets that coated both sides of my glasses (depending on wind direction). I was running blind. Unless the path was very obvious I could not pick it out in the haze. I was struggling to see route markers until I was almost upon them.

I did not loiter at CP7. I still had plenty of drink in my two bottles to last me for the final 8 miles, so taking the marshal’s direction I set off up the minor path, climbing yet again but still feeling strong, to keep myself just warm enough with my clumsy blind running. A long contour round to the left with precipitous death drop to the left (Craig Cwareli) brought the wind onto my back, which is always less cooling, especially when wearing a rucksack. I overtook a walker with full waterproof gear for herself and her rucksack. I must have looked naked in comparison. I knew in the back of my mind that I was pushing my luck not having used the proper waterproof that remained in my rucksack. My senses were honed for the trigger point to slip into something a little more comfortable.

I turned the right corner (Bwlch y Ddwyalit) and followed the path to a race marker arrow, where I was faced with a dilemma. The arrow could be interpreted as directing me into a peaty drainage ditch with rocks sticking out of it (how like The Fellsman) or it could be directing me along the feint path I had been following, which forked slightly to the left in more of a NE direction, but how was I to know it wouldn’t veer back to the east, where we needed to be headed? I ventured up the ‘path’, such as it was, for a short way. It did not veer right like it needed to do, it faded and I could see no markers. I turned and struggled to see my way back to the last marker I had seen. I looked back to the drainage area and could see no path or markers, but surely I had to go over there.

At that point two women came to my rescue. No, I wasn’t hypothermic and I wasn’t having my final euphoric dream. The leading two, Lucy Clayton and Sam Scott, finally caught up with me in my minute(s) of need. What perfect timing! Without glasses they could see a lot better than I could, but they were still puzzled. They knew we had to be going east to reach the reservoir, which was into the black morass, so after confirming with the compass they led the way down and up over the peat hag. Soon they could see a marker and pointed it out to me. I could not see it; then another one. I could not see that either. I removed my glasses and could suddenly see the scudding mist in the full clarity of the unobstructed blurred vision with which nature has blessed me.

At times I just about kept Lucy and Sam in sight as they ran strongly across the moor top, often on no path, or so it appeared to me. We passed the big beehive cairn, straight across the more obvious path that led others astray, in the easterly direction where my competent navigators and saviours knew we had to go. We descended steeply to finally reach Talybont Reservoir. We crossed the dam and turned left on the track back towards Talybont-on-Usk. It was too warm again in the shelter of the trees. The Pertex got hitched and the sleeves got rolled again to aid cooling. We turned left along the canal past the White Hart pub (which was heavily frequented that weekend for food and drink by a lot of ‘Nutters’). I hate flat running, especially at the end of races. I struggle to make forward progress. I do not (I CANNOT) do sprints to the finish line. I struggled to keep up but I just about held on. We left the towpath to continue our reverse of the outward route right along the track, up the scramble and across the lawn to the finish in 9:24:30.

What an epic. The climbs and descents are serious, the views are breathtaking, and if it rains, it becomes even more challenging. I would not have enjoyed such a successful final 6 miles were it not for Lucy and Sam. If you read this both, Thank You! Emma Key was 3rd in 9:39:15. Those are pretty close times for F1-2-3!

The winning time was 5:54:02 by Mark Palmer. Second was Andrew James in 6:15:40. Third was Daniel Doherty in 6:30:10. I don’t know how they do it. All the jammy speedsters beat the rain that troubled us mere mortals. Many people had navigational problems in the cloud on the final 8 miles. Some were forced to drop out as a result. Despite my fuelling that kept me motoring pretty well, and my (aided) strong finish that I would never have done on my own, I still finished joint 33rd out of 61 finishers – i.e. bottom half. I find that quite sobering. There were 12 retirements.

The big meal at the finish (I chose chilli beef on pasta) for a measly £3.50 really hit the spot after such a tough day. I cracked open the bottle of Rescue Ale I bought off Ian Winterburn after the Herod Farm fell race earlier this year, straight from the fridge and nicely chilled. That really hit the spot too (better than last week’s Wensleydale Wedge offering, it has to be said). I must get a case when I next see him.

Once showered, rehydrated and a little recovered, we wandered up to the best pub in the village for convivial drinks, packets of crisps, peanuts and chat until 12:30am. Mick sampled every hand-pulled real ale on the bar two or three times (there were plenty of them to go at). He'd already completed a round when I arrived. That's two things Mick excels at. One must enable the other, both ways. I am no match but I did polish off another 650ml of wine and never felt the effects then or the next day. Isn’t it amazing how the body metabolises alcohol without the usual undesirable after-effects when it is hungry for fuel, any fuel?

Many thanks must go to the Might Contain Nuts team. They put on a spectacular event for us and tried hard to make it a success. It was. It provided excellent training for Lakeland 100 and UTMB.

The pictures I took until the rain set in are here. Unfortunately the lens had got greased but be assured it's clean again for this weekend's Housman 100.

6 down, 6 to go.......

Monday, 16 May 2011

Marlborough Downs Challenge 33mi. 14/05/2011.

Race 5 of 12 in the 2011 Runfurther series.

“Cross bridge over stream.”
“Leave track to BEAR RIGHT up path.”
“At T-junction with concrete track, TURN RIGHT.”
“Leave track and continue STRAIGHT ON along left-hand side of field to barn. Checkpoint 6, 21.1mi.

I didn’t continue straight on; I turned right again towards Cherhill Monument, taking me away from the checkpoint I was so nearly upon.

I had not looked at the route description or map I was carrying since setting off. I had taken the calculated risk of relying on memory from my previous two completions, backed up by the green MDC arrows (when available) and sight of other runners, as confirmation of my route choice. It had gone very well up to this point, but on the descent to Checkpoint 6 I was suddenly worried. I was not recognising the route and I was losing sight of the white-shirted runner in front as the terrain closed in and became more intricate. I had to start following my nose. It worked for longer than I deserved but it couldn’t last. I had forgotten about CP6 before the climb up to the monument. I knew I had to climb to the monument eventually. It had been in sight for long enough and still we had not turned directly towards it. Finally, now must be the time, so I turned right on the track instead of continuing ahead to CP6.

And so my race became a Marlborough Downs 35 with considerably more ascent than intended, and a Personal Best performance rewarded me with a Personal Worst finishing time. My ankles are black and blue from self-kicking.

As we set off from Marlborough College at 9am the weather was perfect – dry, warm and sunny with a cooling wind on the tops. (We were so lucky compared to the Fellsman Hikers and the many runners on their personal Bob Graham Rounds that weekend, who had to endure cold squally showers.) My running was flowing effortlessly and smoothly like it hadn’t done in months, certainly not so far this year. Despite my respectable pace (by my standards) my heart rate of 165bpm was right where it should be for long-term sustainability. 10bpm higher has been more familiar this year, and that’s not sustainable for much over 2 hours.

The miles were ticking by and I felt happy, contented and in the zone as I luxuriated in the sights of the beautiful rolling chalky Wiltshire countryside. I got chatting to Javed Bhatti along the way, who confirmed what I already suspected, that I could be on for a PB. I was running so within myself, if I kept up optimal fuelling and hydration and didn’t slow down dramatically, the PB could be emphatic. Emphatic or not, it would be a first for 2011 and lay to rest my feelings that I’m finally over the hill, with last September’s Bullock Smithy Hike being my PB swansong.

Checkpoint 3 - split point for long and short routes.

Not long after here I would go horribly wrong.

Now back to reality. On the unfamiliar track I finally looked at my printed Tracklogs route and confirmed that I needed to approach the monument in an easterly direction. I climbed via track then over stiles (I never climbed over a fence), keeping as far left as fences allowed while keeping the monument over to my right. After a hard climb in the hot sunshine I glimpsed some runners along the ridge line up ahead. I climbed towards them, realising I had overshot the checkpoint but I didn’t know by how much. I veered left onto the track I should have already ascended by now and ran back down for far too long in search of the checkpoint. Other runners I had previously left in my wake gave me quizzical looks or asked if I was OK. My nonchalant response: “Oh, just trying to find the checkpoint. Is it far?”

I still felt strong as I ran back up to Cherhill Monument but realised that any hopes of a PB were probably out of the window. Nevertheless I pushed as hard as I could towards that finish line, but finally began to fade and slow on the final leg from the last checkpoint. My Coke had run out and I knew my slowing was due to lack of fuel. The extra distance and climb had just pushed me over the edge into fuel deficit just that bit too soon before the finish. I chewed a bit more Soreen loaf but it was too late to remedy the situation now. I lost 4 minutes on that final leg compared to my post-Fellsman PB finish of 2009.

Bright chalk track throws the clouds into stark contrast.

I crossed the finishing line in 5:56:34, which was 8 minutes slower than my previous PW of 2008. Without the navigational error, which cost me at least 15 minutes, and the subsequent slowing that probably cost me another 5 minutes or more, my time would have been 5:35 at worst. 78th place would have been 52nd. 671 Runfurther points would have been 713. A PB by 11 minutes would have been the first for 2011. SO WHAT? It’s all “would haves”. What’s done is done. I have no-one to blame but myself. Get over it. What does matter is that it was a PB performance and I finished feeling fit and well without any after-effects and without injury. The Grand Slam is still alive.

I chatted with loads of other runners before, during and after the race, including several from the Runner’s World forum. It was a perfectly organised and friendly event on yet another perfect day. I could not wish for anything more.

Andrew James, winner of the Highland Fling two weeks previously, won the race in 3:59:05. That man is a machine, just like Jez Bragg (who incidentally won the Fellsman in record time on the same day).

In the sports hall afterwards, as part of my post-race fuelling and rehydration I cracked open the bottle of commemorative beer we received at last November’s Wensleydale Wedge. It did hit the spot. I also ate two dinners (very nice pasta and salad), but by 8pm I was hungry again and fancied a quality Italian. I ventured forth from The Lamb Inn where I was staying and asked a couple of ladies out for a stroll if they could recommend a good Italian restaurant. They pointed out Pino’s just behind me, which was so understated I had wandered past it without noticing. They said it was THE BEST Italian in Marlborough. I was immediately sold and they were right. The tomato, mozzarella, basil and mango salad was larger than usual and to die for, but the calzone was a bloated monster fit for two. I scoffed the lot and washed it down with a large glass of beautiful wine. I declined a dessert for fear of an explosion and retired to the B&B to sleep it off. It had gone down by morning.

Because I was pushing the pace I took fewer pictures than I would have liked, but what I did take can be found here.

5 down, 7 to go.......

Rainow 5 fell race. 5mi + 750’. Wed 11/05/2011.

I ran this local evening race as part of my final training for the Marlborough Downs Challenge on Saturday. The route took us up past White Nancy and beyond before turning for home back to the Rainow Institute. I’d been feeling strong and continued to feel so during this race, such that I finished in the top half for, I think, only the second time in a short fell race. (I won’t mention the fact that the popular and iconic Burbage Skyline race took place the previous evening and may have removed some of the stiffest competition from this race.) I finished 64th out of 134 finishers with a time of 0:43:45. Things are looking good for Saturday.

Running past White Nancy

Winning time was 0:32:09 by MJ Jack Ross of Mow Cop Runners.

The race was slickly organised and the awards ceremony afterwards in Rainow Institute flowed smoothly and quickly without a hitch. Why was that? The results were processed the old-fashioned way with stickers on boards, not a computer in sight.

Despite this being a short, fast, furious race I managed to take quite a few pictures. They give a good flavour of the friendly local evening fell race scene. The conditions were perfect as you will see. We finished with clean shoes.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

6th Montane Highland Fling 53mi. 30/04/2011.

Race 4 of 12 in the 2011 Runfurther series.

Before 6am on Saturday I was trying on a pair of La Sportiva Raptor size 45s in the car park of Milngavie railway station, courtesy of Mark Barnes from Climbers Shop in Ambleside. “Perfect! They fit like a glove, just like the Crosslites. I’ll wear them for the race.” These shoes are like gold dust in this country.

The 2011 run of dry weather was set to continue in spectacular style as Western Scotland was forecast to enjoy the warmest temperatures with wall-to-wall sunshine without a cloud in the sky. (Get this remarkable statistic; in my events, which have been at least weekly, it hasn’t rained since last October’s Snowdonia Marathon. Well, it did snow on me in December’s Tour de Helvellyn but that doesn’t count, since minus ten was far too cold for anything to be wet, including the contents of my drink bottles!)

The Montane Highland Fling covers the first 53 miles of the well waymarked West Highland Way from Milngavie (pronounced “Mulguy”) on the outskirts of Glasgow to Tyndrum. It has four starts:
6am for all Females and Male Vet 50s and above;
7am for Male Vet 40s;
8am for Males and elite MV40s;
9am for the relay runners (4 runners per team);
- giving maximum finishing times of 15, 14, 13 and 12 hours respectively. This is as good a way as any to split up the field, which this year at 450 registered was the biggest so far. Despite the field size, the trail never seemed to be crowded after the first mile or so. The encounters with hikers seemed to be as frequent as encounters with other ‘Flingers’. The West Highland Way is certainly a popular trail.

We cheered the early starters off through the underpass before awaiting our turn. Some of us found the station’s waiting room to offer good shelter from the cold easterly wind. Murdo gave us our briefing then it was our turn to stand in the gloaming ready for the ‘Go’. I positioned myself at the sub-11-hour marker. I managed 10:34 in 2009 and, allowing for a minor decline in performance with my advancing years, was still hoping for a sub-11 finish, to be sure so I was, oh yes, really……

Early on in the woods we followed the crowd straight on instead of forking left to follow the thistle waymarker. Fortunately I had only gone a few yards the wrong way when the call came from behind. I soon settled in with everyone else into what seemed like an easy, sustainable jog that I feel I can maintain all day. Well, it always feels that way but for some reason rarely works out in practice. As is often the case I found myself quite comfortably overtaking Ian Hodge, who I know always finishes ahead of me in ultras, but when my overtaking flows so freely I have to go for it. To do any less feels like a wasted opportunity and valuable time lost. A few miles further on, William Harris caught up with me with a comment about these fast starts. But he was behind me, and he always finishes way ahead of me, and he thought the start was fast? I think my perception of speed is way up the creek, even after all these years.

Although the easterly wind was cold, the unbroken sunshine on our backs and the effort of running made it seem very warm. I soon had to roll up my sleeves, and knew that once over Conic Hill and into the shelter of the hills to our east, my thin long-sleeved top would be relegated to my backpack.

I made good time to the first water stop at Drymen (12.1 miles). 1:51 was 2 minutes faster than in 2009. I drank a mug of electrolyte (half a nuun tablet). I had decided on this strategy at every water stop to complement the water and Coke I was drinking on the run from my hand-held bottles, to keep my hydration in perfect order. While I faffed with my hydration, Ian overtook me. William had passed through three minutes earlier. Normal status was taking shape.

As I climbed Conic Hill at a walk I began to glance behind me for the first 8am starters. The time was approaching 3 hours elapsed for me and 2 hours for them, and I reckoned on the first overtaking occurring soon. Close to the high point on the right-hand shoulder of the hill with Loch Lomond set out before me, the familiar image of Jez Bragg in his white The North Face sleeveless shirt appeared down the trail. As he loped effortlessly up the trail past me I offered words of encouragement. He was in the zone, devoting all his attention to the job in hand. I know what it feels like (in my own back-of-the-pack world, you’ll understand). Following close on Jez’ heels was Andrew James, a new name to me. He had a similarly effortless lope. Not far behind Andrew was Stuart Mills, whose grimace of determination gave the only true picture of what these elite runners must have been going through. More encouragement elicited the same ‘in-the-zone-not-to-be-disturbed’ response. Don’t worry lads, I understand. On the descent of Conic Hill, several more of the ‘racing snakes’ including Allen Smalls overtook me but I was paying too much attention to the technical descent to be taking any more pictures.

Conic Hill with Loch Lomond below.

At Balmaha (19.0 miles) my prediction was correct. I had already been baking on the leeward descent of Conic Hill, so off came the long-sleeved top. Balmaha was the first of four drop-bag stations but I did not have one here. My two bags would be at the 2nd and 4th stations. More hydration faffing ensued and many more runners overtook me before I was off along the eastern side of Loch Lomond for the next few hours of up-down twisting, turning and stumbling. I sensed that my pace had slowed compared to what it was in 2009. How much slower would it be if I wasn’t looking after my hydration so diligently? I wouldn’t want to know.

As we ran along the trail and through the water stations, the friendliness and enthusiastic support we received from marshals and spectators was as good as I remembered in 2009. However, what was different was the comparative absence of supporters’ vehicles this year. Supporters are actively discouraged by the organisers as unnecessary because we already have five water stations and four drop bag stations. Their absence ‘levels the playing field’ for those like me who cannot arrange such support.

I continued to slow and fall further behind my 2009 schedule as the sun baked me from behind and a steady stream of the later faster ‘Flingers’ overtook me. There is a lot of exposed trail on the West Highland Way. My mind began to wander as I thought of things to take my mind off the discomfort. At times the dry, narrow trail, deep blue sky peeking through the trees above and the smell of the sun-warmed pine forest reminded me of the early, high altitude miles of the Western States 100. The strength of the scent might have been a fraction of that in Northern California but I was still transported there in my thoughts quite a few times with the right stimuli.

My first drop bag was at Rowardennan at 26.5 miles. The Coke refill was warm and the mini pork pie was sweating nicely. I timed in here at 5:09, which was 25 minutes behind my 2009 schedule. I did not rush the taking care of food and hydration. I might have been slower but I wanted at least to finish, without trashing myself. It would take as long as necessary.

After Rowardennan the trail began to get technical and impossible to run unless you were fresh, which naturally I was not. This continued through Inversnaid (33.8 miles) and beyond. It provided multiple excuses to walk, which I really appreciated. I had no drop bag at Inversnaid. I was pleased about this because they were cooking in the blazing sun. I had a chat with Pat, who had retired with vomiting and dehydration. Quite a few were similarly affected by the heat.

Technical trail.


I also caught up with early starter Dave here. He had an epic plan to continue self supported to the end of the West Highland Way at Fort William. However he seemed to be struggling with an old injury and I was genuinely concerned whether he would be able to make it in time for his transport arrangements, or at all, for that matter. As I continued onwards along the remaining 19 miles his situation played on my mind. I was working out how I could help out if he did have to call it a day at Tyndrum. Would there be space at my B & B for him to doss down, and what about a change of clothes? His bag was already waiting for him at Fort William. So many questions.

8am starter Chris Webb caught up with me just before Beinglas (40.4 miles), and what a friendly and warm checkpoint this was (warm in two senses – there was a lot of basking going on). My second and final drop bag was here. The Coke was hot and lively, the Snickers bar was melted and the pork pie had escaped and was rampaging somewhere in the undergrowth. Chris Webb told me that his Coke had already exploded, so he was denied his sugar-caffeine fix. All this sun and heat, we are talking Scotland in April here; unbelievable! My time here was 8:54, which was 1:02 behind 2009’s schedule. So what; it was hot and this was as fast as I could go while just about enjoying the experience. If I don’t enjoy it, why do it?


I watched Chris gradually pull away into the distance as I began the final 12 miles to the finish. At the speed I had been going on the previous two sections I reckoned that I would struggle to a sub 13 hour finish. What a comedown from the sub 11 I had been assuming. The thought of the cold bottle of Coors beer at the finish had been driving me on for several hours and the draw was getting stronger. The end of an ultra is one of the few times when I really fancy a cold beer because it seems to revive and rehydrate pretty well.

Once into the wide open again, the cooling wind began to restore a vestige of relative speed to my shuffle. Other runners remarked afterwards that they were able to pick the speed up again as the evening cooled. This was certainly the case for me. I was still struggling at the two ‘duck or grouse’ points (where the colourful lady I had caught up with earlier overtook me again for the final time) and past the mucky farm track, but by the left turn into the forest near Crianlarich I could feel sufficient energy return to the legs such that I was able to run properly again, even energetically on the downhills. The legs were hurting less. I found myself overtaking other runners on the up-and-down woodland trail. I kept glancing at my watch and realised that I was heading for closer to 12 hours if I could keep the running up. Another runner was close behind and I used him as an incentive to keep running as best I could so as not to get overtaken. I crossed the old lead-mining bare patch to the gate and on to the newly made footpath towards Tyndrum Lower Station. A bagpiper stood beside the final gate playing a slow tune, which ramped up to a faster, upbeat number as I came into view to signify the imminent arrival of (yet) another runner.

What a finish. I turned left to a rousing welcome of clapping, cheering and photo-taking to run under the big inflatable arch in 12 hours and 12 minutes. A youngster put the rather handsome Montane finisher’s medal around my neck and I was issued with my goody bag containing vouchers, leaflets, bottle of bubbly and technical T-shirt. I sank to the ground to recover from the final effort. Now where’s that Coors. Just run out? Only 300 ordered for 450 runners?? Oh.

**A polite note to the Highland Fling organisers: Either order enough beer to go round or don’t bother at all. Put the entry price up if necessary; just don’t knowingly deny those who are out there the longest. Do the back-of-the-packers really deserve guaranteed disappointment?

My final time was 1:38 slower than in 2009, so another 36 minutes were lost on the final leg despite my late recovery and “resurgence of power” (OK, I can fantasise, can’t I?). William Harris kept going to finish 2:27 ahead. Ian Hodge also didn't slow and finished 1:43 ahead, while Chris Webb gained 35 minutes on me over the final 12 miles to match my speed in 2009, and over the whole event, to finish in 10:33. I keep wondering how I ever managed 10:34 in 2009. What went wrong between then and now?

View from the other side.

Despite the warmer than usual conditions that slowed most others, Jez Bragg still broke his record, but he finished second. Andrew James was first in 7:12, Jez second in 7:15 and Allen Smalls third (and first MV40) in 7:43. Only one relay team beat Andrew and Jez. That is one impressive statistic.

First female was Kate Jenkins in 9:04, followed by Debbie Martin-Consani in second with 9:39 and Heather Caulderwood in third with 9:43.

The prize presentation had ended, it was getting cold and I needed to search out my B & B, yet I was still worrying about Dave. I didn’t even know if he had finished yet. I was just discussing leaving my phone number with the timekeeper for him to call me, when he ran across the line. Much to my relief he seemed surprisingly chipper and confident that he had plenty of time and capability to carry on all the way to the end. I explained the big container of water with a few solitary bits of ice floating on the surface. He was equally miffed.

Dave went to the Real Food Café to get refuelled and dressed to venture out into the cold clear night. I registered at the B & B then joined him in the café ready to see him off on his second leg. He had a beer already waiting for me as well as one for himself ‘for the road’. What a top bloke. It was a proper Scottish brew and much better than the Coors I would otherwise have had. Every cloud has a silver lining.

Dave took his time to make sure everything was right before setting off at gone 10pm towards the deep blue dusk that still glowed above the hills. I walked with him up the hill until the village hall, where the Ceilidh was in full swing. I was well over an hour late and the tickets had sold out months ago. I expected it to be packed and was looking forward to chatting with fellow runners. It was anything but packed. I was surprised at the poor turnout. None of the runners I’d been looking forward to chatting with were there. Lightweights ;-)

Seriously though, the no-shows no doubt indicated the toughness of the day, and the fact that they pushed themselves closer to the edge than I did. All was not lost though. I enjoyed two bowls of superb chicken curry washed down by 1.5 litres of water, a good chat with a Scottish group after imposing myself upon them to perch my curry on their table, and a dance. I left early at midnight for bed, on the way staring for many minutes at the clear, inky-black sky that was filled with more stars than I have ever seen. A crystal clear atmosphere of low humidity combined with little light pollution brought the night sky alive. I was once again reminded of Northern California.

How about the Raptors? 'Dead comfortable' is the answer. La Sportiva make the only foot-shaped shoes out there. The only gripe (there always has to be one) is that the soles offer no cushioning. They are rock hard; it's almost like running on blocks of wood (ultra clogs, anyone?). If anything the Crosslites with their studs offer better cushioning. I'll have to investigate thick Sorbothane insoles.

I took quite a few pictures again. The clarity of the atmosphere is clear to see (pun intended).

That's 4 down, 8 to go.......