Sunday 31 May 2009

My 8th Bramhall Park 5k run

This is my second recovery weekend to soak up the hot sunshine, catch up on jobs and indulge in a barbecue, so it provided a perfect opportunity to run my second 5k race in Bramhall Park in a row. I was relieved to be able to put in a slightly more respectable performance (for me, that is) compared to last week of 21:43.

My brother, visiting from France, came along and got himself a PB on his second running.

I was pleased to make the acquaintance of Andy Shirres, whom I recognised from his blog. We exchanged interesting running stories, which continued on our jog home until our paths went different ways.

Long may this hot weather continue. It's all good training for Western States, which is only 4 weeks away now.

Sunday 24 May 2009

It's a lovely weekend for a Hundred

Good luck to all the people doing the Wessex 100, which started at 10am yesterday. You've been blessed with a beautiful weekend for it. I wish I was out there with you.

This is the first LDWA 100 I did not enter since my first one in 2000. It's one of the sacrifices I chose to make to accommodate the Vasque Runfurther series Grand Slam plus various other ultras along the way. The Fellsman then Marlborough Downs Challenge then Wessex 100 on three consecutive weekends might have been a bit too much. (To tell you the truth, I was feeling unexpectedly fit after Marlborough and I did dare to email the Wessex 100 organisers to ask if it would be possible to enter on the day with a few days' advance warning. I was told in no uncertain terms where to get off. Out of the question. Entries had closed on 1st May. Thinking about it afterwards, I did understand. For one thing they would already have printed out the participant checklists for all the checkpoints, and probably the finishers' certificates as well.)

Instead I ran my local Bramhall Park 5k race yesterday (my second this year and 7th one overall). I managed a personal worst of 22:28. Over the space of 3 weeks a PB became a PW of a minute slower. Oh well. Perhaps some R & R is in order after all.
Not only that, I had to become a plumber and carry out an emergency home repair yesterday, which I would not have been able to do if I had been away. It's probably a good thing that I did spend the weekend at home after all.
My R & R will continue this afternoon with a barbecue and a long chill (warm, more like) in the sunshine.

My next event will be the Wharfedale Off-Road Marathon on 6th June.

Monday 18 May 2009

Vasque series race 6 - Marlborough Downs Challenge 33mi. Sat 16/05/2009

Marlborough Downs Challenge
“Another day at the office.” I wandered up to the Leisure Centre on Saturday morning to greet Simon Berry, who was putting up the sponsors’ flags. It was only a week since we had both run the Fellsman and here we were, about to do another one, all be it considerably less demanding – a warm-down if you will.

The Fellsman had left my calves complaining mildly for a few days, but more worrying was a painful and swollen left foot/heel/ankle that had begun to flare up on Monday. It peaked on Tues – Wed and made walking and descending stairs somewhat painful. It even disturbed a night's sleep. I didn’t run a step for the whole week; I cycled to work for the first time since January and was reminded how ultra-weakened legs lack power for energetic cycling of more than 30 seconds duration. The abstinence from running seemed to work because the rapid flare-up became an equally rapid flare-down through Thurs – Fri, and by the hiss of the starter’s air horn (it was flaccid or she may have been weak of finger) on Saturday at 9am I would hardly have known anything was wrong. I only got the occasional reminder when I tweaked it the wrong way on uneven terrain. I took it easy to avoid aggravation - I paused to take more photographs.

My journey down to Marlborough on Friday afternoon took me through several torrential downpours and a thunderstorm. I hoped the weather would be a bit kinder to us on Saturday. It was. Save for a few early showers and the ever-present strong wind, the day turned out pretty good. The rolling chalk downs of Wiltshire are very picturesque. In the early stages just before checkpoint 1 the footpath took us through a field of rape that was shoulder high. Just after checkpoint 1 we were into lush bluebell woods. I was pleased to note that the bluebells were the original English variety with drooping bells, not the invading Spanish variety with sticky-out bells (I hope you’re taking notes). Shortly afterwards the trail took us through dense beds of wild garlic with its white flowers in full bloom. The smell was pungent.

We were soon out of the woods and ascending onto the rolling chalk ridges, heading for Wansdyke (an impressive ancient earthwork rampart). As we ran across ridges through fields of sheep and lambs, wide-open colourful vistas of distant fields of rape opened up before us. It was a patchwork quilt of yellow rape, light green pastures and white chalk.

The excellent organisation of the organisers provided us with direction arrows whenever they were needed – green arrow on yellow background with, where applicable, an “LS” to signify the ‘Last Sign’ for a while. Such attention to detail was well appreciated. The frequent checkpoints with friendly staff provided all the liquid refreshment we required, while some of them provided simple snacks like biscuits and Jaffa Cakes.

At the 22-mile point, we climbed the hill to the Cherhill Monument with the white horse carved in the chalk hillside to the left. I liked the part of the route description that instructed us to bear right on 102 degrees above the back end of the horse. It’s quaint. Later on, the route took us through some truly ancient English countryside. In addition to Wansdyke, we passed sarsen stones in a field before Avebury, while in Avebury we passed across Avebury Circle – a very large circle of ancient standing stones.

I plodded my way up to the last checkpoint (CP8), taking in the views along the way, and then it was 3.6 miles of mostly downhill to the finish with around half an hour left to squeeze a PB. Could I? If I didn’t try my best I may regret it. I set off without delay and ran every step of those 3.6 miles (picking off a few people on the way – most unusual for me in the closing stages of a run; the opposite usually applies) to finish in 5hrs 47mins. It was a PB by the narrowest of margins; last year it was 5:48 and I hadn’t run the Fellsman the weekend before. The last section proved to be my fastest by a considerable margin with a speed of 6.75mph, no doubt helped by a slower first three quarters combined with the downhill finish.

These ultras are friendly and addictive affairs. There are always new friends to be made. There were a few ultra first-timers who did pretty well for themselves. One of them was Stuart, who I came across on the Runner’s World forum. We ran together for a while until his better speed and stamina pulled him away to a several minute advantage at the finish – another convert to trail ultra running.

The course record was smashed this year by Matt Giles and Allen Smalls, who finished joint first in 3:54. Even the third placed finisher, Andy Davies, still broke the previous course record with his time of 4:06. Well done to all of them. The first female finisher was Susan Sleath in a time of 4:54.

After two hours of chatting and eating (that pasta was excellent, shame there wasn’t more), the hall had emptied and it was time to set off on the long journey home. I was soon caught on the edge of a squall line that seemed to chase me for 3 hours all the way home to Stockport. I just got the car away and unloaded in time. We were very lucky for the event. It could have been so much worse. All my pictures are here.

Six down, six to go. Halfway through already?!

There is a big gap until the next Vasque series event – Osmotherley Phoenix 33mi. on 4th July – but I shall not be resting until then. I have the small matter of the Western States Endurance Run the week before, and I shall certainly be finding a few other events to do to keep me on the boil until Western States. Watch this space.....

Monday 11 May 2009

Vasque series race 5 - 47th Fellsman 61mi. Sat 09/05/2009

The Fellsman
(Could alternatively be described as the Ten Peaks Fell Race.)
Date: Saturday 9th May 2009;
Time: somewhere between 2 and 3pm;
Place: around Blea Moor.
Negative thoughts were surging through my head. “This is brutal, life threatening. I can't carry on like this. I'll never survive the next stage under these conditions, let alone another 40 miles to the end. My Grand Slam attempt is in tatters. I'll have to retire at Stonehouse.”
I was in adrenaline-fuelled survival mode, running across tussocky → waterlogged → rocky terrain that I would normally walk across, in a desperate bid to keep warm. I could feel the hail, driven on the violent gale, trying to embed itself into my legs through my feather-light Montane running trousers. The sound of it on my coat hood was deafening. The wind even felt as though it was blowing through my waterproof and wind proof (with taped seams) coat to chill me still further. I felt as though I was running on dead stumps, my feet were so numb with cold. As I ran up to the tented checkpoint at Blea Moor trig point I could feel my jaw locking up as the involuntary shivering reflex began to kick in. I got my tally clipped by the hardy marshal, who shouted my number - “Four seven” - to a small opening in the dome tent by his feet. Without delay I was off running north along the ridge, crabbing sideways while leaning against the icy blast from my left, to descend to the railway tunnel ventilation shaft and the sanctuary of the woods just beyond. I stumbled clumsily down the muddy path through the trees, cold and weakened.

As I relaxed in my B&B in Ingleton on Friday evening, content with a full belly of fish and double-chips, I had seen the future and it was not good. The forecasters had predicted a slow-moving weather front over us that would bring rain for most of the event, just for us. The rest of the country would enjoy warm sunshine. Typical. Oh deep joy. However, by the 9am start on Saturday the rain still hadn't arrived, though the cloud could be interpreted as ominous by the more pessimistic. I set off uncharacteristically with covered legs to avoid the inconvenience of having to put trousers on later. I wouldn't normally bother with leg covering but the moors and hill-tops, where we would be spending most of our time, would be cold and windy and this is a long, tough, exposed event whose rules stipulate that we must wear leg covering at night anyway.

I liked the optimism of most of the runners, who were exposing varying amounts of arm and leg appropriate to the conditions at the start. As we climbed towards the first peak – Ingleborough – unsurprisingly I began to overheat. I rolled my sleeves up. I soon rolled them down again when I reached the summit and felt the strength of the cold wind. Shower proof top zipped up, unzipped, sleeves up, sleeves down; Buff around neck, over head, around wrist – this continued as my temperature regulation regime over the next summits of Whernside, Gragareth and Great Coum.

The descent to Checkpoint 8, Dent (19mi.) brought the first substantial food. I luxuriated in a cup of baked beans (an unusual drink) and a sausage roll. I was 26 minutes up on my previous fastest time at this point. My overweight rucksack, heavier than ever before on this event and weighed down by the essential kit requirements plus personal pick-me-ups like gels, malt loaf, fig rolls, cereal bars, Ensure Plus, electrolytes and a litre of Coke (that life-giving elixir for the ultra runner), can't have proved too burdensome, though at the start Jez was concerned that I might have packed the kitchen sink by mistake.

I was soon refuelled and off on the long haul towards Blea Moor. We had enjoyed five bonus hours without rain, apart from a brief shower on the descent from Whernside. We had even glimpsed the sun from time to time. That was about to change. The wind was blowing ever stronger as I climbed the track. It started to rain. “Just another shower”, I told myself. The rain became heavier and the wind stronger. I looked behind me and saw the view had disappeared into a wall of precipitation, and no end was in sight. My lightweight shower proof top was no longer sufficient and I would shortly be veering left off-path across the long, exposed section, without any shelter, to Blea Moor summit. I seized the opportunity to shelter behind the last available stone wall to change to my heavier, weatherproof coat before re-emerging into the storm.

I had made another three minutes on the climb to Blea Moor to build up a 29-minute advantage, and that included the stop for the coat change. I had run for my life. That would take its toll later on.

I emerged from the woods into a farmyard of free-range birds. Two turkeys were putting on a display. I shuffled down the road towards Checkpoint 10, Stonehouse (27mi.), still trying to get warm, and noticed that the rain had stopped. The sun was trying to show itself and some patches of blue sky were appearing. That would prove to be the last of the rain. A forecast day's worth of rain had been squeezed into an hour-long violent onslaught. The wind had been strong enough to destroy the marquee tents at the lower level checkpoints with refreshment facilities. The marshals did a valiant job in cobbling some sort of shelter together to allow them to continue to provide their invaluable service for we crazy Hikers.

The scene at Stonehouse was a sorry sight, the tents crammed with Hikers in various states of distress and disbelief at what we had just experienced. There were several retirements. The tomato pasta was in great demand. My Montane trousers were clinging very damply to my legs and hampering my warming process. The addition of a dry pair of leggings between them and me provided a nice warm combination to keep me going through the cold and windy, though mercifully dry, remaining 33 miles. My Grand Slam attempt might just be alive again.

I set off on the next stage towards the 6th summit, Great Knoutberry, soon catching up with Stef French. We plodded up the track together, both happy for a companion to chat with. However, my previous exertions had left me spent. I had assumed that the pasta and Coke I had just consumed would soon work their magic and restore energy to the legs for the slog up Great Knoutberry, but it wasn't happening. I watched Stef disappear to the checkpoint at the trig point and reappear to pass me on the way down as I continued my weak trudge upwards. I sat down at the top to eat a fig roll and finish my bottle of Coke to force something into the legs for the run back down and across to Redshaw.

Through Stonehouse, Great Knoutberry, Redshaw and Snaizeholme Fell I lost 19 of the 29 minutes I had gained up to Blea Moor, but through Dodd Fell, Fleet Moss, Middle Tongue, Stake Moss, Cray and beyond into the night, things began to pick up and I clawed back time ever faster. The weather continued to improve. The wind, though remaining cold (everyone had a permanent shiny top lip), began to drop and the sky cleared to give us usable light until 10pm. Navigation went like clockwork and I arrived at Checkpoint 18, Cray (44mi.) at just gone 9pm with daylight to spare. My camera finally succumbed to the dampness here and stopped taking any further photographs.

The customary Cray luxury was absent this year – no tent city, no heated tent. The wind had demolished the usual big tent as people sat inside. The volunteers had managed to rebuild their checkpoint using an animal-transporting trailer borrowed from the local friendly farmer and a gate to form the frame for another makeshift tent. The necessarily limited menu was served up on tables, al fresco. Thank goodness the rain never came back and the wind dropped sufficiently to not blow the sandwiches off the table!

Obligatory grouping into a minimum of four took place here. I was grouped with five others – Andrew and Amanda Heading, Mark Pearce and another lady and gent (sorry, I can't remember names or work out who you were, even after the results have been published). We climbed to Checkpoint 19 at the top of Buckden Pike in the last remnants of daylight before having to switch on our head torches. We formed a perfect group. Our paces were well matched and navigation went like a dream. As we romped on towards Checkpoint 20, Top Mere (48mi.), appearing on the horizon we saw the full moon – a giant, dim red globe shining through and adding an eerie red glow to bands of cloud. Above our heads, stars shone brightly.

The approach to Checkpoint 21, Park Rash, across wide open pastures is deceiving. On the long approach it remains out of sight until you are very close, when you are suddenly greeted by a glowing tented oasis in the middle of nowhere. Once inside I had never seen such a brightly lit tent. A generator hummed outside to power copious fluorescent lighting. As we six sat snugly inside the shrunken tent (necessarily modified after the earlier storm) drinking our soup and eating our Marmite sandwiches, a marshal came in with a laminated list in his hand and a surprise kit check on his mind. We were already wearing most of what he asked for, apart from the first aid kit and emergency rations that SHALL NOT BE TOUCHED without disqualification.

I continued to make big advances on my previous times as we climbed to the 10th and final peak (Great Whernside, CP22) then descended, again with perfect navigation, to Capplestone Gate (CP23). The route to Yarnbury was magical – picked out to the horizon by flashing beacons to guide the way along the paths and tracks across fields. At Yarnbury, the 24th and final checkpoint with 2.1 road miles to go, we were de grouped, after which it was 'every man for himself'. I never do well here and always get left behind. I shuffled my way to the finish, getting cheered by a drunken couple (it was just past 2am) staggering their way in the opposite direction to Grassington, to arrive at the school in Threshfield in 17:10. I'd knocked 1hr 34mins off my previous fastest time on my 5th completion of The Fellsman. Our group of six congratulated one another on a job very well done.

I spent the next ten hours variously drinking tea, acquiring the gastronomic delights prepared by the catering staff in the kitchen and eating them in the machine shop-cum-dining room, chatting with fellow Hikers, trying to sleep on the hall floor, getting a £5 leg massage from Karen and attending the presentation of prizes from the comfort of my sleeping bag. Massage and presentation excepted, I did all of them more than once. Much more.

The caterers deserve special mention. We could not do this without them.

With the exception of that hour-long period mid-afternoon, which must have been as traumatic for the volunteers as it was for the participants, the 47th Fellsman was a very rewarding experience filled with friendship and camaraderie. It filled almost to capacity for the first time in many years. Congratulations to all who completed this extreme ultra fell event, commiserations to those who did not and many thanks to the organisers and volunteers who make it possible every year. We participants cannot fail to notice what a massive organisational undertaking it is.

Jez Bragg continued his runaway (pun intended) successful year with a win in 10hrs 50mins, 1hr 31mins ahead of second place finisher Andy Rankin. To achieve that time as a novice must rank as a record in itself. I have described Jez in a previous post as a machine. I have just upgraded him to 'animal' status. Sarah Rowell took the women's prize with a time of 13hrs 45mins.

There's a really evocative report with pictures on Grough.

5 down, 7 to go. Let's hope I can recover in time for the Marlborough Downs Challenge next weekend, after which it will be a nice long rest until Osmotherley Phoenix on the 4th July. Yeah right.

Pictures are here. Thanks to Alan Greenwood for the loan of his camera for the last two due to my camera still feeling rather damp.

Wednesday 6 May 2009

Treadmill torture at the Human Performance Centre

Yesterday I went to the Human Performance Centre at Lincoln University for my third treadmill session. My first and second tests were in May and December last year. I am one of several ultra runners in the UK who volunteered as Paul Murgatroyd's research subjects.

Paul, from the Department of Sport, Coaching and Exercise Science, is analysing ultra runners and the intensity relative to our natural ability at which we run our ultras. So far he has carried out two analyses in the field, where we are monitored during the course of an ultra. The first one was the 50-mile Rowbotham's Round Rotherham last December and the second was the 36-mile Calderdale Hike a few weeks ago. In order to find our natural ability we must be put through our paces on the treadmill. In order to get an accurate measure relative to the field study results, we must be analysed close to those events. Only then can accurate comparisons be made, hence the need for three treadmill sessions so far. I can tell you it is not a comfortable experience. For a start, the intensity means that you are well advised to fast beforehand so that you do it on an empty stomach, otherwise effort-induced nausea will surely result in you giving less than your best.

The laboratory is modern and impressively equipped. The treadmill is extremely spacious, since it is designed to accommodate bicycles and wheelchairs. I seem to recall that it can go up to 40mph. It's a serious piece of kit. A runner feels rather lonely and exposed on such a wide expanse of belt. “Do I run on the left, right or down the middle? I think I'll position myself close to the emergency stop button, wherever that is.”

First, a finger prick draws a spot of blood to measure resting blood lactate level. A chest strap detects heart rate and transmits it to the monitoring equipment. A quite lengthy warm-up run gives Paul an idea of heart rate versus speed so he has an idea of what speed to start the calibration test.

A face mask is fitted, which monitors flow rate of inhaled / exhaled air and samples the exhaled air for carbon dioxide content, then the calibration test can begin. The calibration test involves three-minute intervals at zero incline and speeds that increase by 1km/h each time. A blood sample is taken close to the end of each interval to monitor blood lactate. The test continues until two turn points in blood lactate (Lactate Threshold and Lactate Turn Point) have revealed themselves. Holding the left hand still every three minutes for the stab-and-sample can be fun as the belt forces you to run ever faster. It's tough, but not as tough as the final test, the run-to-the-point-of-collapse test.

After a cross-legged recovery sit-down on the treadmill I'm up again, face mask re-fitted and I'm ready to roll. The speed is fixed at 2km/h slower than the maximum speed in the calibration test but the incline increases by 1% every minute. The idea is to keep going until you can't do it any more.

It seems quite comfortable at first, almost sedate. I concentrate on my stride, lengthening it, which slows it down. It seems to make it easier and more bearable. I need to keep doing that for as long as possible. The gradient is increasing. It still feels comfortable. Thoughts are flitting through my mind. Some thoughts are calming but most are not. “Think calming thoughts. Hold it together.” The gradient increases further. I need something to take my mind off the creeping discomfort. I stare at the picture on the wall in front of me with the cyclist on the very treadmill I'm running on. The researchers are monitoring the cyclist intently. I suppose Paul must be doing a similar thing with me but he is out of my vision. I can't look sideways. I hear his voice giving encouragement but it never seems enough. There are too many pauses. I need a running commentary, a bigger distraction, something more intense. Perhaps a sergeant major bellowing his orders every few seconds. My gaze fixes on the big chromium electric fan on the table in front of me blowing its cooling air onto my shirtless body. The temperature is only 18°C but I'd be burning up without the fan.

The gradient continues to increase. I can really feel myself running uphill now. I'm breathing very heavily. I can't keep this up much longer. The long, controlled strides are falling apart. It has become an uphill struggle. I notice the intense nausea is not enveloping me like it did last time. The fasting must have worked well. Thirty seconds seem like a lifetime; it takes forever for Paul to say, “Half way through”. I want to stop but I must keep going at least to the end of this stage. I'm dragging my feet upwards for the next enforced stride that must occur at the allotted time, followed by the next, and the next..... I'm on the brink. I hear “Just ten more seconds to the end of this stage. See how far you can go in the next stage”, plus various other encouraging words. Ten seconds are a lifetime now. I just about make it to the end of the stage and indicate a halt to Paul. I could not have reached out to my right to hit the emergency stop button. The belt quickly ramps down to a stop and I remain standing for just long enough for Paul to remove the mask before I descend rapidly to the cross-legged recovery position. My panting slows rapidly and within thirty seconds I'm up to take a few swigs from my water bottle. I managed to take it further than ever before.

The results came through today. I'm not getting any faster but the lactate turn points are increasing and my heart rate is reducing markedly – all good news and confirmation of what I have observed on the events. I can sustain a respectable pace for longer, with the correct fuelling.

'Running economy' (amount of oxygen used compared with body mass compared with running speed) is another matter. It was unbelievably bad before and has just got worse, leaving me not far off the bottom of the scale and well down in the bottom of six categories, described as “Poor”. It can't get much worse.
I went further in the test this time so I processed more oxygen, I'm a lightweight and I can't run particularly fast, so my 'running economy' result is diabolical. It's a marvel I can run at all, let alone run ultras. Perhaps I should put some weight on to bring my 'running economy' figure down. More pizza washed down with lashings of beer, perhaps? As if I don't do that already – just replace lashings of beer with lashings of wine and live it up a little. I'll 'ave the lot and I shan't be as sick as a dog in the morning.

Sunday 3 May 2009

May 2nd - parkrun 5k - so short but so intense

This was my first free weekend for a long time, so I went along to my local "parkrun" at Bramhall park. The parkruns are a series of 5k races up and down the country, which take place every Saturday throughout the year. They form an impressively professional set-up with full results service that gets people of all abilities out there running, for no charge whatsoever. Results to the second and photographs are up on the website within a few hours.

The last time I ran this (or any short race, for that matter) was on 1st November 2008. I noticed a distinct change to the park around the start/finish area after my 6-month absence. Where there was once grass is now compressed dirt due to the weekly trampling by hundreds of feet. I could not believe how popular the race has become now. Hundreds were there to put themselves through their paces.

5km, or 3.125 miles, may be ludicrously short but the intensity gives it a unique toughness of its own that I never get to experience on the ultras, where I am always holding back and saving myself for the hours ahead. For a change, today I got to run flat-out and finish on the verge of throwing up. I have not trained once at the Harriers this year and my preparation in the 24 hours leading up to the race was, let's just say, 'unprofessional'. Naturally I assumed any semblance of speed would have deserted me. I finished in 21:30. I could not remember my previous fastest time on this undulating course. I found out later that I got a PB by 16 seconds. Furthermore, my average and maximum heart rates were markedly lower. My short daily runs to/from work must be doing more good than I ever imagined.

Saturday 2 May 2009

Vasque series race 4 - Montane Highland Fling 53mi. Sat 25/04/2009

Montane Highland Fling
The 4th Highland Fling took place last Saturday 25th April. It covers the first 53 miles of the 95-mile West Highland Way from Milngavie (pronounced ‘Milguy’) to Tyndrum. This was my first venture north of the border into Scotland to run an event. I made a long weekend of it and the whole new experience made a real mark on me – the spellbinding scenery from the train window and through which we ran, the great welcoming friendliness of the Scottish people, Murdo MacDonald and his wonderful team of helpers, and the memorable new trail experience.

I had a leisurely journey up on Friday by train. After the brief shock of Glasgow’s suburbs I arrived at Milngavie, where I met Jez Bragg. After a rather restless night in the local Premier Inn Hotel, I wandered up to the start at Milngavie Station with Jez and Allen Smalls to register for the 7am Males and Male Veterans start. (The Women and Male Super Veterans had started at 6am, while the relay runners were to start at 8am.)

As we waited in the station car park for Murdo’s speech, the sun began to show itself through a haze of humidity, portending a warm day ahead. I noticed several familiar faces from previous events. I managed to grab a few words with most of them. Dave Donaghue was there with ‘Charlie’ the Border Collie. Charlie loves the ultras and enjoys considerable fame on the blogs and in the running press. David Palmer was there too, and what he was about to take on filled me with a mixture of awe, foreboding, fear, loneliness, pity…. Not only was he going to complete the 53-mile Highland Fling, which is essentially a self-supported event, he was to continue to the end of the West Highland Way, all 95 miles of it and all self supported. Respect to that man!

The event is very low-key with as few rules as possible; we take the responsibility for looking after ourselves. It's the way it should be. Only water was provided at widely spaced checkpoints. All food had to be self-provided, either carried or via drop-bags.

I was travelling light with my preferred bum bag because I feel like I run more efficiently and with less effort than with a backpack, even a small one. I had one drop-bag at Inversnaid at the 34-mile point.

Once Murdo had given his brief instructions we crossed the road in a very long line to the starting funnel on the other side. (The underpass from the station was closed off due to building works.) I took up my rightful place far from the front. I reckoned on somewhere between 11 and 12 hours.

We were soon off and I eased myself into the customary easy run I reserve for ultras that I always hope will get me to the finish as quickly as possible without blowing up. I had the route map with me plotted out on 11 sides of A4, but I quickly realised that the West Highland Way is so well way-marked by idealised thistle symbols, a map isn’t really necessary. It was nice to monitor where I was, though.

I passed through the first water stop at Drymen (12 miles) and the trail was proving to be flatter and more runnable than I was accustomed to. I looked longingly at the passing hills and mountains. “I’d normally be climbing those,” I thought to myself. “They’d provide a nice excuse for a walk and a rest.” My wish was soon granted as Conic Hill loomed ahead. Reaching the top brought the first glimpse of Loch Lomond below. Rested from the welcome uphill walk, it was a nice, gravity-assisted run down the other side to Balmaha (19.5 miles).

Balmaha signified the right turn along the eastern shore of Loch Lomond, which remained with us for hour upon hour of very variable trail. Some of it was runnable, some of it was a slog that was so technical it became a hands-and-feet scramble. It was rarely flat. At times it was quite steep and precipitous. It was always spectacularly picturesque.

We passed through Rowardennan (27 miles) and Inversnaid (34 miles) before finally leaving the Loch behind shortly before Beinglas Farm (41 miles). As I climbed upwards with the Loch receding over my left shoulder, or more correctly under my left armpit, the sun was beating down, the breeze had gone and the temperature was rising. I was loving it. The conditions on the ground were pretty good as well, thanks to the recent dry period. Even Loch Lomond had been looking a little depleted.

After Beinglas Farm, with fewer than 12 miles to go, we found ourselves on a twisting, technical, single-track trail beside the River Falloch, where passing was all but impossible. There was a long line of us snaking along left and right, up and down through the trees. The speed of the person at the front was just right as I followed, trying to hold it together. I could feel my energy reserves beginning to drop.

I felt a few spots of rain from a nearby shower but we outran it and we remained dry. I was slowing down. I had been keeping the food and drink going down but it was no longer enough to maintain the speed. I needed another Coke boost but I had already consumed my meagre supplies. (Lesson learned – take more Coke!) Then people began to overtake me. Norman Neilson, for whom this was his first ultra, caught up with me again. (He and several others had been falling back and re-overtaking for many miles as we each went through our strong and less strong periods. This is a fact of ultra running to which I have become well accustomed.) He asked me about our finishing time. “Could we get a sub-10? It’s only 12-minute-miling.” “No chance,” I replied. “I can’t keep up that speed any longer. I need my walking breaks now, but you look as though you’re running strong, so you go for it.” With that he was off. I could not believe how quickly he had vanished into the distance. He was eventually to make up 22 minutes on me in the last 10 miles, but unfortunately he did not beat 10 hours. Nonetheless, well done Norman for a top performance on your first ultra! This was my 103rd, but hey-ho, some have got it and some haven't, eh? :-)

After the first A82 crossing (“Duck or Grouse!”) I noted an almost full, 2 litre bottle of de-gassed Coke languishing beside a supporter who was waiting for her runner to come through. I plucked up the courage to beg for some of it to be decanted into one of my water bottles. She was amazing. She obliged, saying her runner would never need all of it. To that lady and her runner I owe a big debt of gratitude. It helped to stem too much further slowing of pace as I shuffled the remaining few miles. (I bet her runner still overtook me anyway.)

Not far from the finish a more substantial sprinkling of rain caught us, but that never came to anything either. Suddenly the finish was in sight, which came as a surprise. I wasn’t quite expecting it. I turned a bend and there were the finishing flags. I stopped to take (another) picture and Julie Gardner, who was sitting by the side cheering us in, said: “Come on Nick, try to put a bit more effort in.” That was funny; I still laugh at it now.

Once through the inflatable arch in 10:35 I wasted little time in searching out the “stovies” (mashed-up potato and beef – very nice), which were fast running out even at 5:30pm. Then I ‘enjoyed’ a free, 'deep' leg massage. My fingernail marks in the masseur’s table will remain as a permanent record of its intensity. Upon emerging from my torture I met Jean-Pierre Gendrault. He had become a familiar face for seven days in July 2008 during the Swiss Jura Marathon. It was a pleasant reunion. The ultra running community is a world-wide happy family.

I heard that Jez beat his own record again despite suffering from an upper respiratory infection that took hold after his 80 miles in the Lake District on the previous weekend. With a time of 7:19, that man's a machine, simply amazing.

The ‘goodie bag’ was rather novel. It contained a bottle of ‘Champagne’ (not the real McCoy of course – think of the cost), a bottle of ice cold Coors Light beer, which went down very nicely with minimal delay, a finisher’s medal, a stick of The North Face lippie on a rope, and a “magic mug”. The magic mug is a traveller’s mug from the nearby Real Food CafĂ© that gets you free tea or coffee in perpetuity, as long as you have it with you when you visit. I made use of it later that evening with my fish and chip supper. The food and establishment are superb - on similar lines to but a scaled down version of Pete's Eats in Llanberis. The walls are lined with well-deserved awards.

Later that evening I went along to the ceilidh in the village hall up the hill a little further along the West Highland Way, on the way helping Murdo to ferry tables and event paraphernalia to his car and also having another chat with Dave with ultra collie ‘Charlie’; he was waiting for the bus to go back to Milngavie. I heard that the later runners had got caught in a thunderstorm, to which I had remained oblivious as I soaked in a nice warm bath at the Tyndrum Lodge Hotel. I didn’t envy them one bit.

The ceilidh was an absolute blast. The live band (with bagpipes at appropriate times) was very good and got us up performing all sorts of wonderful dances. The proceedings were well lubricated by an impressive selection of drinks. The merriment went on until 1am and provided a superb end to a superb day and amazing new experience for me.

Sunday dawned wet, the rain having set in overnight. We had just grabbed the last of the fine weather on Saturday. We were so lucky but I soon thought of David Palmer still slogging on his solo journey up the rugged end of the West Highland Way. I felt a twinge of concern.

I returned home on Monday, but not before acquiring a memento – the “Fling” Finish sign. It was beginning to delaminate at the edges as it clung forlornly to the fence by its very wet Blu Tak, which had almost lost its grip in the cold rain. I couldn’t just leave it there to drop off by itself, so I rescued it.

The single track train journey from Upper Tyndrum station was extremely scenic. I watched the views intently; trying to follow the path we had run two days earlier up to the point when the line veered right away from Loch Lomond and away from the West Highland Way. I had spotted the point where the West Highland Way went under the railway to the first A82 crossing (you'll definitely grouse if you don't duck).

I took quite a few photos over the extended weekend. A selection is here.

4 down, 8 to go......