An ordinary woman's fascination with an extraordinary sport ... and the extraordinary people who take part

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

What the non-runner did next....

We all know how it goes. You do a first race at a distance, or achieve a PB, or some specific target, like that fabled sub-3 marathon. And the first thing that's said is "congratulations", and the second is "so, what's next?"

Of course, it was no different after Edinburgh Half last May. The appropriate response should *probably* be a faster half, or conceivably a marathon if I was feeling ambitious. Most people got the answer that I had a place in the relay for Jedburgh.

The very inappropriate answer was D33, George's 33 mile ultra marathon in March.

Two people got that response; Kate, and Donnie my trainer. He paused for a few seconds, said "we'll have to put some run walk into your training plan" and started the session. No stress, no drama, no fuss.

I knew I couldn't deal with the noise if it was public. I had absolutely no idea if I *could* even get to the starting line, if I could train for it without breaking. I needed it to be my call, right up to the last minute, whether I stood on the start line or pulled on a high viz and marshalled. Once it was public, I wouldn't have that choice. All those ultra nutters I spend my weekends hanging around with would have had something to say, just too much pressure that would make it all too much.

So I didn't tell anyone. I messaged George a few months later, asking if I could have a place without putting my name on the start list "I don't know if I can....but I don't know that I can't any more". No problem.

Don't look at my training log if you want to see how to train for an ultra. I have never had so many coughs and colds as this winter. Work was ridiculous, leading to weeks when the only training I could do was on the two days of the weekend. The increase in duration of the longest runs didn't creep up as they needed to. My longest ever run remained the WHW training weekend from a few years back of 15 miles.

So this January, it was time to go back, add a few miles on, and do another the next day.

Six miles in, I started getting pains across my lower stomach, like period pains (I don't suffer normally from anything linked to my ovaries - if you need a description, imagine someone attaching a burning rope to the inside of your hip bones and pulling it tight...). Each hill or set of steps became harder and harder, by eight miles there was only walking. I could shuffle my feet a few inches, but I couldn't bend my hips in any way. Try even walking up or down a slope or steps without your hips. There are no flat parts on that route. I got slower and slower, cold and wet, as I couldn't move fast enough to keep warm. Fortunately someone we knew drove past at the exact moment the trail edged the road and we bailed. Alcohol and ibuprofen helped. The next day there was only a dull ache, I walked along the forestry road instead for a few miles but with enough uncomfortableness to know I'd chosen wisely not to run. Diagnosis, hip flexors strained or overworked by the unfamiliar terrain.

Then a work trip to India happened. I knew before I went that there was absolutely no chance of running outside while I was there: heat, pollution, traffic, inappropriate clothing, unaccompanied western treadmill it was, fitted in as best I could in early morning sessions, trying to do intervals or hill sessions.

Three weeks out, and my longest run remained a half marathon distance. I seriously contemplated telling George I wasn't running, that I'd marshal instead. I'd be gutted but well, I wasn't trained.

I couldn't bring myself to tell Donnie that I was giving up. So one last big weekend, 30k on the Saturday, 20k on the Sunday, basically the full race distance over two days. I plotted routes, planned food and drink to try out. Storms Doris and Ernie arrived in full blast.

I ran six miles out along the canal into a headwind so fierce it brought me to a stop repeatedly, getting firmly soaked. And my hips started seizing up despite the utter flatness of the towpath. I ran walked through the university grounds, past the hotel being built with a dedicated entrance for the Scottish national football and rugby teams, then walked up the hill to Currie and onto the Water of Leith. I tried running a few times and my body refused, so somewhere around 11 miles I gave up and caught a bus home, mute with pain and frozen hands, thinking I could put the distance into the next day instead.

Sunday promised better, I left home in sunshine, but by the time I got off the train it was pouring with a strong wind across the exposed canal. And by seven miles, my hips were seizing again, forcing me to walk almost the entire route. Nowhere to bail out of this until 13 miles at Ratho, missing the bus by minutes then spending the next hour defrosting but not drying out in the pub.

I knew then that I wasn't going to be able to do it if the weather wasn't on my side. For whatever reason I wasn't strong enough to cope with the combination of rain, wind and cold. For this to happen, everything was going to have to go right. Some things I can control, some I can't, there was no reason to stress about them.

Last weekend before the race. No stupid distance, no risking of breaking myself, but a 20k loop along the canal and river. Frustrated by unexpected closures of paths that sent me up unplanned hills, there was a little more walking than desirable, but the day was glorious, blue skies greeting the sunrise.

Then taper. No more running. I discovered that taperitis is ridiculously potent as the dining room floor exploded in piles of kit and possible drop bag fuel. I freaked out about cutoffs and how to get to the race (no runner parking in the park carpark and I wasn't altogether sure I'd be able to drive afterwards anyway). Redwinerunner (who had known since the Autumn) sorted me out with a lift from the Shanksis.

I planned an early exit from both work and Edinburgh on the Friday. I failed miserably, leaving the office only minutes before five, still needing to pack before heading north. I got to within ten miles of Stonehaven before I realise I'd forgotten a coat.

A couple of medicinal gins in the Station with George, Karen and the Munros before retiring to my room to decant Irn Bru into baby bottles for drop bags. You can keep your flat coke, the orange nectar beats it hands down.

I slept reasonably well. The weather gods were smiling on me, with possibly the warmest March 11th ever, with the lightest of breezes, and only a chance of rain the morning. I'll take that. I was there the year the temperature never got above freezing, where we spent our entire shift at half way stood ankle deep in frozen mud.

No early start to be away for registration meant I even got breakfast, forcing down coffee and toast before my lift arrived. Minty pulled up, my bag went into the boot and I squeezed into the back seat alongside Mrs Shanksi and RWR. Chatter, chatter, and no one commented on why I was dressed to run, carrying a pack and finish line bag.

Until we parked up outside Duthie Park, got out and the penny dropped. I don't think I've ever seen anyone look quite so shocked and delighted at the same time. I seem to remember we were half way across the park before MrsS mentioned The Fling next year(!)

Collect my number from a santababy outraged that she hadn't known about this before, realise I don't have safety pins, then bump into the legendary twins of Fiona and Pauline who bound up from their chairs to hug me with beaming smiles at the realisation I'm holding a race number. Actually, would you mind pinning it on for me? (One day, I may acquire the ability to put a race nunber on, for the moment it's a great delight to always have a friend around to assuage my helplessness).

It's all slightly surreal. I'm here, I have a number, I'm going to start. I have absolutely no idea if I'm going to finish, if I can make the cut off at the 3/4 point. In the meantime, drop bags to be handed over. Jane and Carol are collecting for half way; again the moment of dawning comprehension that I'm wearing a race number, that I'm not marshalling (I'd been waiting all week for someone to ask why I wasn't on the list and no one did) before delighted smiles and hugs.

Later in the pub, a friend will tell me that when he arrived to register, all he heard from every second person he spoke to was "Julie's running!".

Well timed joining of the toilet queue, seek out the sweeper (another ultra friend Elaine, wife of Sandeman of the tartan shorts) who I'm going to be spending a lot of time with! More hugs, more good lucks, race briefing, then suddenly it's time to group up for the start, there's the horn and were away. Oh fuck, it's really happening.....

Trot, trot, out of the park, watching the stream of runners disappear up the zig zag onto the path, breath rasping, heart pounding, even though I'm as slow as I want to be. I thought there might be others starting at this pace but clearly not as they stretch out in front, the gap opening quickly until only one or two remain in sight. A few late starters - "I was in the toilet when I heard the horn!" - speed past, then I'm alone.

Those first miles are uphill. Not very uphill but enough for me to feel it, the old railway route rising up through the west of the city. Various leg muscles twitch and whimper, calves cramp, pins and needles settle into a foot, then at around two miles it all settles down, legs turning over into a regular, if slow, tempo,breathing lightly but controlled. It sometimes happens that way on a long run, the body grumbling for a few miles before settling down.

Three miles dead on forty minutes, slightly slower than I intended but that's fine, it's more level now, just keep tripping onwards, start with the psychological calculations: 3.3 miles is only just ahead and that's 10% down, I've only got to do it ten more times, er, no, I don't like that too much, what else is there? The diversion for the ring road is about six miles so just after that will be 6.6 miles and that's 20%, and only about a mile and a half after that is the quarter way through....yes that's better. Let's run to the diversion at least.

E catches up. We agree that in general I'm an unsociable runner, I train almost entirely alone, I'm quite happy knowing that she's somewhere behind me but not too close, but that, once we're past the turn, I may want a bit more prodding.

Bits of the route are past scheme housing but as we climb further out into the suburbs, these give way to older villas, frequently looking out over the Dee valley spread out below them, houses built when this was a busy railway for the professional classes to commute into the city. There are snowdrops everywhere, great clouds of white alongside the path. I wonder if the speeding front runners even see them.

The path isn't busy, although there are plenty of dog walkers and cyclists out. The forecast rain starts, lightly at first but with increasing intensity. I think about stopping to put a rain jacket on and think better of it, it's too warm still for a jacket and I'm in a rhythm I don't want to disturb. Six miles buzzes at almost exactly eighty minutes, an even pacing that delights me. If I can just keep this up...I ignore the question of whether it's likely that even pacing of 33 miles is possible.

The diversion is a somewhat cruel descent of a few hundred yards of black Tarmac, crossing the roadworks creating the long-awaited Aberdeen bypass. The sites are busy with men and vehicles, weekend working? An expensive practice on a construction site, so a contract that's determined to make a deadline.

At the crossing of the public road, two of the Stoney girls are waiting, bouncing up and down with delight. I walk up the steep slope towards them, grinning with their infectious optimism, while still cursing the completely unwelcome ascent. This is supposed to be a flat route, ffs.....

Shortly afterwards, I'm even more disturbed to find the end of the Tarmac as the path changes to rocky ground with mud. What? This wasn't in the deal! I know it's muddy at half way,but I thought the rest of it was Tarmac. Oh well, all that towpath training will come in useful.

I'm even less impressed when the path turns ninety degrees and goes uphill. Well this definitely isn't the old railway line route. And my hips are just starting to niggle. No, you're not doing this to me, you're not....

At the top I'm even more confused to discover that the route is along a road. A quiet narrow road, but still a road. Up ahead, through the rain, I can see a green gazebo, we've reached the first checkpoint. Keziah is bounding up and down and I'm delighted to see that Sandra and Ian are still here, when I expected them to have long gone back to prepare for finish timing. The male marshal is looking slightly concerned which is explained when the rest of the team start giggling and tell me that my face is a bit red... My hair has leaked in the rain (there may be the slightest touch of artificialness about my hair colour.... :-O ) which doesn't surprise me. I'm given tissues to scrub at it, joking that the so long as the race medic doesn't see me looking like I've got a terrible head injury, it'll be fine. Aaaah, that would be Sean who's actually stood in front of me, isn't it, who I've known for years....

Sandra chases me out (quite politely for her) and we set off up the road, finishing off the maltloaf I've swiped from my bag. I'm not really hungry but I know I need to eat. The Irn Bru was genius by the way, as were the lumps of smoked cheese - the rest of it went the way of most novice drop bag contents.

I'm behind schedule now; not badly maybe ten/fifteen minutes but as we walk, my hips cramp and I realise I'm not going to be able to maintain the pace I did in the first section. I don't think I'm going to make the cutoff at the three quarter point for five and a half hours. Seventeen miles to worry about that, just keep going. It's still raining, up ahead I can hear a stream gurgling alongside the road. It's only when I get underneath do I realise that it's the electricity crackling around the pylon lines in the damp air.

E has done the route a few times and tells me that there's a downhill coming up, just ahead where the trees start. There is indeed and as I run down what feels like miles, all I can think is that this is going to make me cry on the way back. At the bottom, I completely miss the clear stream of water flooding across the road and get wet feet.

From here, the path zig-zags through fields. There's some running, some walking and I start thinking about when I might start see the front runners coming back. I decide that if I can get to ten miles I will be happy, a little target met.

Target met. Just before the wee wee woods (not me....) and the turn up to the village, the fast guys start coming back towards me. God, they're good, still flying over the ground after nearly twenty three miles.

I dint know how I'd feel about the pure out and back, that I'd get to see every single runner. But it's brilliant. I suppose it might be different if there's a volume of runners passing in both directions, but there's only me and E behind me. There's one slight disadvantage though. You know that feeling when you see another runner - especially one you know - coming towards you - and you absolutely *have* to check your form, up the pace? I got over that feeling pretty rapidly!

It felt like almost everyone wanted to say well done, congratulations, keep going. Or to offer high fives and hugs. I lost count of how many people called out to me by name, do I really know that many people in this special little world?

There are a lot of double take looks as well. It's not until past thirteen miles that E gives in to a fit of giggles and tells me just how much colour has streaked across my face. A quick look in the forward facing phone camera and I'm laughing just as much. It isn't a delicate smudge around the hairline, more an extra from casualty or a very bad glam rocker, inch wide streaks of bright red down my jaws and covering one entire eye socket. I have a selfie; I'm not sharing it.

The fallen tree after Drumoak is evil, two separate branches to be stepped over, it's good stretching. There is mud and more puddles, less clean than the first. I'm heard to mutter that if I wanted to run cross country, I wouldn't have entered an ultra.

The miles stretch out, the oncoming runners thin out and eventually we pass Ray heading back from the halfway point. (The Halfpint point is depleted this year with neither Halfpint nor flapjack, normality will have to be resumed next year, it's just Not Right). Carol runs out to meet us, fizzing with excitement, how are we, what do we need?

It's past four hours, there is no way I'm going to make the cutoff at the next checkpoint. My race is over. But I've just covered well over sixteen miles, my longest run ever, not the one I wanted but still an achievement.

I don't know how to give up, to say I'm quitting. I point out the cutoff to Johnny Fling and Noanie who are marshalling, hoping that one of them will tell me how to do this. Instead I get told "well you're not staying here, off you go". But....

Don't ever expect sympathy at an ultra checkpoint, especially not from a couple of race directors. I might just have done the same....

So back we go along the trail we've just come along, neither of us quite sure what happens now. I start wondering if I could get twenty miles out of the day, that would be something. It wouldn't be too far past the road crossing where Angela is, I'm sure she would give me a lift back. I'm not hurt, not injured, I'm still moving, just not quickly enough.

A deep breath and I tell E that I'm going to bail at the crossing.

And the first of the day's miracles happens. "If you want to keep going, I'm happy to stay with you."


"It's not like you haven't put in some long shifts over the years for the rest of us".


Angela says about the same. With added swear words.

I know but I can't ask people to do that. If I keep going, all those people at the checkpoint and the finish are going to be forced to stay long beyond the time they signed up for. When I asked George for a place, I said it would only be if I thought it wouldn't stop him getting to the pub on time. That's a good few Guinness that won't be drunk, a rugby match that won't be seen.

But, oh I so want to. I'm sore but I'm not in pain, I'm still moving. Maybe I could...

Not my decision, not ours even. So E calls Karen and asks. And more miracles happen.

Helen will come out to the checkpoint to cover the last miles with me if I still want to go on from there. Other people agree to stay on, giving up more hours.

And I keep going. There's maybe not a lot of running but there's some. Short stretches, counting to a hundred, with each number representing eight steps. And I bloody well make sure I run through that twenty mile point.

We talk, of everything and nothing, of families and work and holidays and friends. E picks up the few scraps of rubbish left behind by runners. She talks about her first triathlon, of standing at the start with her friend, two middle aged women on cheap bikes, surrounded by young skinny men with gleaming carbon fibre. Of panicking in the water and swapping to breast stroke to recover for a few minutes, only to realise that all around her, those young fit men were being rescued from the water, unable to complete the swim section. Of turning into the finish straight, hearing the cheers and cowbells and finally realising that she actually could.

The hill is far shorter than I remember going back up and I don't cry. We both nip behind a hedge for a comfort break and I mentally thank Donnie for all those squats over the last two years...

Then we turn the corner and there's the checkpoint with not only the Munros, but Elaine and Ann. I can't believe they've stayed on, an hour and forty minutes beyond the cutoff. I've got gin and ginger beer, yells Helen, which do you want? That woman knows me too well...

The ginger beer was awesome. As was the Irn Bru, and the ginger shot drinks I'd bulk bought and stashed in drop bags. A refill of water for my flask and time to go.

E apologises and asks if I mind if she gets a lift back from here. Mind? She's just done twenty five miles at someone else's speed and already been out for as long as she might have expected the full day to be.

I've probably run more miles with Helen than anyone else. She knows me. I don't get away with walking for any longer than she considers appropriate, especially once the Tarmac restarts. Let's be honest however, running here is a relative term. There's the correct movements and cadence, but it's only producing a pace around 15:x. Still, when walking is at half that speed, it's an improvement.

Just as we come into Culter, I ask if she's got her phone to hand. Why? Because in a couple of hundred yards, I'm going to have completed my first marathon and I'd like a photo of the moment. Even if it involves standing still for a minute. Time? Nah, who cares.

The miles tick on and so do the hours. Seven hours, eight hours. I've been running for EIGHT hours, how did that happen?

The rain has long since gone and the suns out. The path is busy with walkers and cyclists and children learning to ride their first bikes. And children awestruck at tadpoles, asking mummy why those frogs are kicking one another? Mummy, why is that lady's face red? :-0

Kate texts again, as she has done all day (despite it being boypie's birthday) and I get told off for texting back when I should be running. I only say "I can't..." once and get rewarded with "la, la, la," as she heads off and I have no choice but to follow.

The infamous signs pass that repeatedly state Duthie Park to be three miles away, despite being spread over two miles. Thirty miles. Oh my god, thirty miles...

It takes thirty two and a half miles before "MTFU" is uttered. Sweepers don't do sympathy, who need it? There is an alarming feeling in my little toe, I can't decide whether there's a massive blister developing or I've lost a toenail. I don't want to think about taking my socks off.

All the landmarks from the way out disappear, the bridge over the main road, the cemetery and then the glass houses appear. And quite suddenly the penny drops, for the first time I actually know I'm going to finish. Something must catch in my breathing becuase I'm firmly told that I can stop and have "a moment" now, but I am absolutely *not* allowed to cry until after I finish.

Down the zigzags to the park gates and a yell from behind; the Sandemans in their camper. Through the gates, into the park, still running. Oh good, they've used the time to take the marquee down and dismantle the arch, sensible people.

Who would have thought a dozen people could make so much noise? And I probably drown them all out when I throw my head back and roar my way across the last few yards...

There are a couple of videos on Facebook so there's no point in denying that I hugged George and sobbed and sobbed. And then hugged everyone and tried to apologise for keeping them waiting for so long and sobbed a bit more. No lass left behind....

And then I got to sit down and drink the half bottle of fizz I'd stashed in my finish bag. It was delicious. (There was a lot more fizz later but that one tasted the best).

What did I learn?

My body is so much stronger than I ever dreamed of
My mind is even stronger
You can do anything with your friends beside you

I ran an ultra. 


Saturday, 23 March 2013

There Will Be Weather... says the Lord of the Bridge every June in Milngavie.

No-one said it in March.  After all, this is Scotland.  The only guarantee is that there will be weather on any given day, and lots of it.

First up, Loch Katrine Running Festival last weekend.  This was a charity day organised by Audrey as part of her fundraising for Alzheimer Scotland, part of her Antarctic Odyssey challenge.  I know mad people but running a marathon, then a 100km ultra .... in the Antarctic?  Go check her page out, see what you think.

Anyway, the Festival was a no-fuss 10km, a Half and a Full Marathon on the shores of Loch Katrine, one of those little tucked away bodies of water nestled in the Scottish hills.  Apparently some years ago, there used to be a 12km race held here but nothing recently.

I wasn't involved but, having realised I was definitely going to be in Scotland that weekend (oh the bliss of a new job that doesn't involve travelling every week...) I emailed a few days in advance and asked if I would be useful.  We agreed that I'd come along and help the willing-but-inexperienced friends and family at the start/finish.  You can never have enough marshals after all...

So on a cold Sunday morning, I'm driving west in the darkness, trying to work out if I have not enough or too many layers on, enough gloves and buffs and hats in the bag.  The car park is almost empty, not long after 7am, no sign of 250 runners and entourages about to descend.  It won't last.

The cafe had promised to open early but with no signs of life, we make the decision to hold registration at the picnic tables, trying to shelter from the intermittent wind that rips up the gorge.  It's cold and no-one yet seems to have invented gloves that allow their wearer to do things like write and sort through piles of race numbers.

Glancing down the entry list for the full marathon is like looking at the start list for an ultra.  Most of the competitors are ultra runners, heading out for a long training run (or short if you're Richie Cunningham...), although there are a few others from the saner group, including Smout and HappyTimes.  Nice to see so many old friends and put faces to a few names I've not met before, such as Flip, Sarah and Bob.

By the time we've finished registering the marathon runners (about 50 of the 60 entrants), the cafe's opened and the other races are being registered indoors, in the comfort of the roaring fire.  I'm not jealous.  But I have discovered the hot air blower in the ladies toilet which is going some way to defrost my frozen fingers.

Even the tough ultra-nutters are sheltering from the wind, albeit next to the ice-cream stand.

Smout asks if I have a spare buff.  I have - one of my treasured (if not quite earned through sore legs) WHW buffs.  I.  Want.  It.  Back.

Like herding cats, we round up the marathon runners for their briefing and start.  A few words and they're away down the private road on the north side of the loch.

And breathe...  Or maybe not, as there's a flurry of late starters, caught out by a combination of last-minute pitstop and the race starting a minute or two early to avoid standing around in the bitter cold.  Four in total, laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation as they chase after the disappearing pack.  Even the "lead bike" turns out to be "tail bike", pedalling after the brightly coloured pack as they disappear round the curve of the loch.

(There is however grumbling from the friend of the last of the four who had been sitting in the his car during the briefing.  The runner was "a favourite to win" but now "his head's messed up" by having to chase instead of lead.  I miss the complaints.  I'm not sympathetic when I hear about it - he chose not to attend the race briefing, it's his own fault.  Is that harsh?)

The half is due to set off 30 minutes later and we barely seem to draw a breath before I'm yelling in the cafe again and rounding them up.  As the larger group (ninety or so) congregate at the pier, the air starts to fill with small snow flakes.  Oh my, this could be fun.  The hills across the loch are dusted white, we've alternated between sunshine, cloud, wind and stillness all morning.  

It doesn't settle and by the time the 10k runners head off a further 30 minutes later, there's bright sunshine, their shadows etched clearly onto the tarmac.

As the last of the massed runners leave, it's time to plan for the finish.  The timers are organised, lined up in a perfect funnel between grass bank and brick wall, one calling number and time, one writing, the third keeping an independent track of positions.  With all three races taking an out and back on the same route, there will be overlap between the finishers of each race with the only distinction the number groups.

Note to runners: when we tell you to make sure we can see your number, we mean it.  Clearly displayed full size on your chest/stomach please, not folded on your outer hip, on your back, or pinned to your t-shirt which is under three other layers of tops and waterproofs.  You make our lives harder and we can't give you accurate race times.  Then you sulk because your Garmin says something else.  And while we're having to spend time and effort sorting you out, we're distracted from dealing from the other dozen runners that came in right after you.

No frills finish lines are simple - a medal (with ribbon to denote the particular race), a tunnocks bar and a glass of water.  Plus a few bottles of wine for first male/female finishers in each race.  But how long?  The disadvantage of a "new" race, on a undulating/hilly course is that there's little reference.  I'm guessing at 35 minutes for the 10k and 90 for the half.  However when asked about the marathon, I stupidly think that "they're ultra-runners, they're not fast road runners" and estimate 3:30.  Er.... the picture above shows at least two very good reasons why that was a very stupid statement.

It feels like we've barely breathed when we spot the first bright spot of lycra heading back to us.  The 10k winner finishes in about 37 minutes, voluble and delighted, chattering away in what transpires to be unintelligible Hungarian.  He and his wife are working at a nearby hotel and she begged for a late entry for him.  Good choice though.

No let up from then on, a constant stream of runners coming back in.  We're very nearly caught out when the  winner of the half finishes less than 15 minutes after the winner of the 10k, the staggered start throwing us all. 1:18 on a hilly course is impressive - even more so to realise that this isn't an "official" race, won't count for official PBs, anyone truly "racing" is doing so purely for their own satisfaction.

More and more runners, more wind, hands and feet edging closer to frozen, a few cars coming up and down the lochside road.  Then the marathon "lead bike" appears, pedalling furiously - what's going on, we're not even at three hours - to tell us the marathon winner is approaching fast.  I *know* how fast Richie runs on hills; why am I surprised that he can also run a sub-three road marathon?  And look like he's just been out for a gentle jog at the end of it?  Gerry is only a few minutes later.

More and more runners, colder and colder, feet and hands now aching and painful despite the thick padded gloves.  How the marshal with bare hands is managing to write numbers and times I can't imagine.  The ice cream kiosk is selling hot soup which is blissful.  And as time progresses, the runners change from those who enjoyed their unaccustomed day out on a new route to those testing themselves physically and suffering from the distance or conditions.  Never believe that a lochside route is flat; there are some quite tough hills on this road as it weaves its away around the shoreline.

photo from James Watson
The one and only DNF of the day arrives in a returning marshals' car; Flip, unexpectedly and painfully crippled by random foot pains and unable to walk without agony.  Finally we are waiting only for one runner - the inimitable Ray McCurdy - and Robin, the sweeper for the day.  The snow has started again, now in heavy swirling flakes that start to cover the ground and remaining cars.

Of course, on driving home, the snow disappears within ten miles and I have sunglasses on for the stretch past Stirling.  Don't you just love Scotland?

Loch Katrine was intended to be a one-off but, despite the weather, it was a great race, through amazing scenery.  Lots of requests for it to be repeated next year - ask Audrey nicely if you'd like to have a chance to join in next time.

This is how good it really looked : photos from Charles Gordon

Fast forward a week and it's time for the new ultra season to kick off up in Aberdeen.  I love George to bits but his lovely race always clashes with the final day of the Six Nations.  The day it clashes with the Calcutta Cup, I won't be there, but until then...

I don't learn from previous years.  Instead of sensibly travelling up on the Friday night (and not indulging too heavily in the pre-race partying) I'm driving up on the Saturday morning.  To make things even earlier, I'm giving Christina a lift up.  Setting the alarm for 3.45am is not a pleasant experience...

So up in the dark and cold, heading north as the light starts to break over eastern Scotland.  The thermostat drops north of Dundee as the landscape fills with snow.  The race route had been covered in snow earlier in the week but the last update from George says it's cleared, leaving only small patches of ice, and a cold and wet forecast for the day.  When we stop for a toilet break at a random service station, it's almost as cold inside as out, an icy wind cutting through the dawn.

At Duthie Park, there are a few cars and vans in the car park - which was only re-opened the day before - with the race registration/start/finish now at the top of the slope.  No downhill sprint for the line this year.

And it must be cold; George doesn't have shorts on.  I'm not sure I've ever seen George in anything other than shorts or a kilt.

Time to start on registration.  Jane and myself scoring off names and handing out numbers, Sarah on the clipboard, Karen and Les dipping in and out, George here there and everywhere.  So many familiar faces from the last few years, and new faces to put to names known only from facebook.  A nervous looking Scott, wondering what his irrepressible Antonia has got him into now.  The massed invasion of the Stonehaven Running Club.  (Later in the day we will talk of normalisation but I still wonder if there is anyone in the SRC who hasn't been infected with the ultra madness?).  Ray starting his latest SUMS series as dishevelled as ever.  Audrey running rather than directing this week.  The Pirate having actually trained, and Ada having barely run all year.

There are special numbers for three runners: 33 and 330 for twin brother and sister Alex and Katie "celebrating" their 33rd birthday by running 33 miles, and 40 for Caron celebrating that "life begins..." birthday.

In the blink of an eye, it's nine o'clock and the 240 or so starters are massed on the wide path.  A few words from George (now appropriately kilted) and they're away.  No pause for the checkpoint marshals, the last bits into the cars and we're away.  With a last minute change of plan, I'm driving and Laurie navigating to our first stop, the Tesco store at Banchory for our last access to indoor facilities and a stock-up on warm food.  The rain and sleet has already started, it's going to be another cold one.

Johnny Fling and Kynon are just at the half-way parking point (a residential cul-de-sac) when we get there and the process of carting shelters and tarpaulins and water and dropbags along the muddy path begins.  Not forgetting the priceless ultra flapjack (I manage to sneak a piece this year ... oh wow).

After the first load I volunteer to sort the drop bags rather than carry.  I'm becoming an expert on this.  On searching for the tiny number scrawled on yet another Sainsbury's carrier bag.  Of giant sports bags containing enough food and clothes for a week's holiday.  Of bags with no number at all.    Of discovering the bag of goodies from Noanie for the marshals.

Already the path is muddy, getting worse as the precipitation seeps through the trees.  By the time the main pack of runners come through, this will be inches deep, even after John has shovelled lumps of it away using a tea tray.  The tray will need to go back to Morrisons afterwards :-0

We plan our roles:  Kynon down the path calling out numbers, John and HP on times and writing, me on finding drop bags ready to hand over as the runner approaches.  Ah well at least I get to keep my gloves on - both layers of them.  Yes it *is* that cold when you're standing around.

And in no time at all, the first runners arrive and we're off.  At first singly but close together, then in twos and threes and groups, the mud deepens, the rubbish bags fill, the flapjack vanishes, the chatter gets longer and more time-consuming as runners take a break before the homewards leg.  Minty arrives almost shivering in a short-sleeved t-shirt and bare hands, but refuses my offer of gloves; I'm sure the fact that they're bright pink has nothing to do with it.  John M arrives holding an umbrella over Helen and we joke that he's escorted her all the way from Aberdeen like that.  I'm not quite sure what kind of massage he delivers on her glutes and thighs but it's certainly, um, intimate!

Almost the last to arrive are a group of three girls from north-east England.  Clubmates of Flip, they never intended to complete the full event and two leave here to go in search of Morrisons and the bus back to Aberdeen.  Somehow they don't find the supermarket which is only a few hundred yards away.

The sweeper bike arrives just ahead of the last runner and when we've seen him safe away, it's time to start packing up.  Other than the mud and churned up ground, there won't be a trace of our presence here once we're away, every scrap of rubbish bagged up and taken away.

Laurie and I are far more bedraggled on this visit to Tesco, leaving a trail of mud and water as we try to defrost under the hot air dryers and inhale doughnuts in the car.  Then it's back to Aberdeen and a miraculous parking space by the pond.

The finish line is in full swing now and little for us to do but shelter from the wind and cold.  Somehow I end up in possession of George's phone and handing over a few foil blankets - to both finishers and under-dressed wedding guests heading for the Winter Gardens - before old habits take over and I find myself as barmaid.  If you ever want to be hear the words "I love you", hand an ultra-runner an opened bottle of beer.

Officially there was no beer.  We did not hide it all when the police came visiting, of course not. :-)

I've missed the fast runners but there's far more joy in seeing the slower runners finish, those who've battled the elements for hours longer before achieving something that was inconceivable months ago and still in doubt at breakfast.  Running, jogging or walking, they all cross the line to be enveloped in a George hug before being given the most unique medals in Britain (made by this talented lady)..

When they're finally all home, we pack up and dismantle, drinking our own beers before heading south to Stonehaven and the legendary after-party at the Station.  The drinks take away the pain of the rugby results and soothe the aching legs.

photo (and medal earned) by Neil Harkness
In the morning, it's still cold and wet.  There was indeed weather.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

A Slippery Slope...

Where did the rest of 2012 go?  In my case, disappeared under a lot of different stresses all arriving at once, time spent keeping my head above water and little else.

What was the very first sentence of this blog?  "I'm not a runner".  It was true when I wrote it but, er, well things have changed a bit since then.  There are of course runners and runners...

For someone who'd never covered more than ten miles (on the flat), it was definitely a case of having eyes bigger than my tummy to sign up for the WHW training weekend and a 15-ish miles run up and down the Way. Mind you, caught in the heavy snowfall on the motorway on Friday night, I was more concerned about getting to Balmaha in one piece than surviving the run. Good distraction approach...

At the Oak Tree Inn, I was directed to a simple but comfortable room in the neighbouring cottage. Tucked into the eaves, it was a very clever use of the space but the steeply sloping ceiling promised an instant headache for a careless standing out of bed. After idly watching a programme about the unintelligible poetry of Rabbie Burns, I picked my way back through the snow and slush to the bar, now full of many familiar faces, a subset of the small and friendly world of the Scottish ultra family. A few drinks and an early night, falling asleep to the sight of snowflakes falling onto the roof-light above my head.

To be awoken by the sound of heavy rain, that ceased before the daylight came and I could see the view across the loch instead. Breakfast and more chatter and change into running clothes, checking and re-checking the contents of my rucksack. Numerous last-minute trips to the ladies before gathering in the bar and outside, joined by the runners coming just for the day. In all, maybe fifty runners in total, some planning on 30 miles to Inversnaid and back, some to Rowardennan and back, and a few variants. A few words, a few group photos and away down the road, a flock of bright-coloured runners against the snow and slush.

Along the tarmac (bar the traditionalists sticking to the snowy path behind the wall) and up onto the trail. Yes, hills are a good excuse to walk but that doesn't stop them being hills. At the top, Fiona is taking photos of the amazing view and takes one of myself and Pauline:

Far more experienced and sure-footed than me, the rest of the back of the pack heads off down the slope while I carefully pick my way down the slightly slippery rocks. Sean-the-Lord-of-the-Bridge, as bike-riding sweeper for the day, is just behind me and I suspect he's going to spend a lot of time today looking at my back. I curse the mud and tree roots while picking my way along the flatter trail, catching occasional bright flashes of colour ahead in the trees. The view is amazing across the water to the snow covered hills and it's a real effort to watch my feet on the uneven ground.

Just before the beach, Sean tells me he's going to head onwards up the trail and come back in a while to check on me and any of the late starters who are still behind. Down on the shore, we catch up with Heather who I've met a few times supporting her partner Peter. We agree to join forces and travel together, both being reasonably new and slow runners. Without this, I think we would both have had a much lonelier and slower day, keeping one another going with chatter, laughter and shared food. We run and walk as we feel fit, not always associated with the steepness of the path or the depth of snow and slush. We curse and swear at the muddier bits and the depth of slush, vocally expressing our sentiments at feet rudely soaked in mud and freezing water, and laugh and giggle at the sheer joy of being able to do this. Chastised by an oncoming walker - "aren't you supposed to be running?" - we jointly declare ourselves to be on a food break, both well trained to eat and drink before we feel hungry or cold.  And somewhere in the day, we realise that at some point over the last 18 months, we moved from being the outsiders, the newcomers, to being "old hands".

The distant hills disappear behind what looks like fog but proves to be a icy rainshower when it crosses the loch. I briefly think of putting a jacket on but it's passed within a few minutes before we get more than a little wet. The further north we go, the deeper the snow gets, although it's been well tramped down by the runners ahead of us. There are only a few hardy walkers out, despite the now-beautiful day, but we pass a few clusters of tents perched under the trees. I'm heartily grateful for my warm room and hot shower.

Heading up from the isolated boathouse, we pick our way up an unnervingly steep and snowy hill and try not to think that what goes up will need to come back down on the way back. By a bridge, we meet a runner heading back who stops to ask how we're doing and promises us it's ten minutes to Rowardennan. Ten minutes at what pace, I wonder, and spot a sign by the path that says 2k. Perhaps a little more than ten minutes...

On now tired legs, we spot the Rowardennan chalets and agree to run the last stretch along the road to the pub where we know the other "short" runners are gathering. Inside, a roaring fire makes it almost *too* warm as we leave puddles of melted snow and gulp down cans of coke. For the first time, I understand the attraction of a cold alcoholic pint on a long run... And resist :-)

Two hours twenty-five for about seven and a half miles (my Garmin says a little more, Heather's a little less). Try not to think too much that there's the same distance to do heading back, and no way of bailing out. Ssshhhh, what the legs don't know won't hurt them. Quick trip to the ladies (no, I still have no wish to imitate a bear) and back we go, legs a little stiffened from the break.

In the wintery sunshine, lots of the thinner snowfall has melted and there is far more bare track and rock underfoot in many places, sometimes replaced by mud and puddles. Although there's more walking, and it feels harder than the northbound leg, we seem to reach remembered landmarks quicker. A trio of fast-moving runners come past and tell us they turned at around ten miles which is reassuring - being passed here by the 30-milers would be *very* discouraging! There are more walkers out now, including a very burly man, carrying a tiny pug in a pink coat down the steep puddled steps. Everyone we pass is friendly, exchanging greetings and often stepping to the side of the path to allow us to trot past.

Up in the deeper snow of the woods, we stop to talk to a couple who ask if there's a race on, having seen a number of runners. We explain it's a training weekend for the WHW race and they ask if we're doing it... :-) They ask where we've run from and when we tell them Rowardennan, ask if we were dropped off there to run back. When we explain that we ran up from Balmaha, they're very impressed and congratulatory. Sometimes it takes an outsider to remind us that whilst we may be slow, and we may be running much shorter distances, it's only as a comparison to the mad people we know, rather than the world at large.

The steep hill is still covered and even slippier going downhill. If I had the brains I was born with, I'd have stopped and put Yaktrax on but I don't. I therefore have nobody but myself to blame when my feet slide out from under me and I land firmly on my backside in the snow, skidding a few feet down the slope before coming to a stop, flat on my back and helpless with laughter.

The legs are tired now but not complaining too loudly, knowing that at ten miles they'll be stopping. After all, that's what's always happened before. It takes until the middle of the twelfth mile for them to catch on and register their dislike of this strange occurrence.

On a stretch of road, we hear two runners behind and automatically up the pace a little to see how long we can hold them off for. Had I realised it was Thomas the Crazy German, I would have known better than to try, even on fresh legs. "Looking good girls, are you enjoying yourselves?" he calls out, as he and his companion disappear into the distance. None of the other full distance runners will pass us until the foot of Craigie Fort.

The running parts are slower, shorter and less frequent now, focused on reaching a particular tree or rock, not always successfully, but we pull one another along as the miles tick over. Earlier, we'd talked of entered races and aspirations and I'd said that, despite suggestions, I had no intention of running a half this year. But as the Garmin bleeps, Heather points out that I've just completed one anyway, and there is a heavy-legged victory jig to celebrate. 

And I have to point out that Heather is doing a half-marathon this spring.  As her first-ever race.  And her second?  Glenmore 12 in September ... now that's in at the deep end!

Most of the snow has gone now, leaving behind mud and puddles. No energy to avoid them now, just splash through and deal with cold and wet feet by the knowledge that warmth is less than two miles away. And force the legs to keep going, although they now feel solid and heavy, aching from thighs to ankles. Heather stops to stretch out a cramped calf on the painfully steep ascent of Craigie Fort (oh, to be weak enough to have cheated and run around the flat footway) and I keep going in fear of not being able to start again if I stop, but knowing she'll catch me up shortly.

Three or four full distance runners pass us on the climb over, looking equally tired. Heading southwards are an increasing number of walkers despite the approaching dusk. They stare at us strangely, two women in bright lycra with wide smiles and unsteady gait and I wonder what they're thinking. Casting aspersions on our sanity, no doubt...

Down on the tarmac and we agree to run the final stretch back to the Inn. The road seems much steeper than when we ran down it five hours earlier but that final hidden burst of energy keeps us going and, with wide smiles, we run together to the gate to be warmly greeted and congratulated by the earlier finishers, both outside and inside.

Heather heads for a hot bath and clean clothes. I head for the bar, wanting a pint of Koppaberg and hot food. In that order. :-)

After an hour, I hobble carefully back to my room and exchange muddy and stinking clothes for a hot shower. I'm wise enough to keep moving and ignore my legs demands for complete immobility.

Back to the bar through the now torrential rain and drink, relax and chatter. A taint to the evening of bad news and worry from elsewhere, but not my story to tell. Old friends and new, a camaraderie like no other.

My legs ache although not intolerably.  I may have a little more sympathy for the stiff-legged hobblers in June.  But don't bank on it.

The commonest question of the evening? Did you enjoy that? Not sure that "enjoy" is quite the right word but, oh, I can't wait to do it again!

Tis a slippery slope, in more ways than one....

(photos from Fiona R, John K)

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Striding Out....

It's never a good moment when you realise that you've volunteered to marshal a race that's being held on the day after your birthday.  But the Clyde Stride is four weeks after the WHW and, with the timing of midsummer's day this year, that's the way it worked out.  The birthday - my 21st again, as it has been for quite a few years now - was spent being utterly spoilt and indulged at OneSpa in Edinburgh.  I failed entirely to remain conscious throughout the treatments and had to retire hurt after only two cocktails in town afterwards...

So after all that rest and relaxation, I should have been raring to go on the Saturday morning.  Instead I managed to switch the alarm off and only properly wake up ten minutes before I was due to leave the house.  Panic!

One strong coffee later, I was heading west along the M8 at a speed not entirely compliant with Scottish law, when I got a text from Lee, the super-lovely Race Director.  Did I have a stopwatch as she'd forgotten hers?  Um, yes, but it's 20 odd miles east...  24 hour Tesco?

Miraculously I don't get lost turning off the M8 and find myself pulling into Morrison's car park outside Partick Station at 7.30am, with a whole 15 minutes before registration is due to start.  But instead of the hive of activity I'm expecting, the place is deserted.  Christ, she's not changed the start location and I've missed it?  But there is a small group of fit skinny looking people in the corner, so it's clearly not me.

Wearing last year's bright blue race t-shirt, I wander over and say hello.  Among the group are Norrie, who's volunteered to help rather than run, and brought the family along in support.   Their day has also started badly with the car over-heating and having to be abandoned a few streets away.

A few more runners arrive and, just as I'm assuring someone that Lee will probably arrive any moment, probably taking the corners on two wheels, a white van pulls into the car park (on four wheels I hasten to add) and it's all systems go.  Tables and paperwork out, cardboard boxes for collecting drop bags, we fetch and carry and all's ready to go.  Muriel's here to assist with registration as well, so she and I do the individuals, with Norrie's son taking on the relay teams.

Then it's into auto-pilot, ticking off names, handing over numbers and safety pins, having a craic with the familiar faces, greeting old friends, calming a few nervy novices who are now wondering what the hell made them think running 40 miles was a sensible thing to do.  Our international runners are there too, among them Gerry Craig's brother Michael who has flown in from Singapore for the race, cutting it very fine with a late Friday arrival in Scotland.  Someone wishes me happy birthday but is gone before I can thank them.  A familiar name checks in and I have to think whether it's the Hewitson of The infamous banana blog (if you haven't read it yet you really should; you may never look at a banana in the same way again) but fortunately for my composure, it's the other brother.

A passing gentleman (who has clearly been imbibing Buckie for breakfast) proffers a pound coin, wanting a safety pin and a number.  He's very polite and very insistent; fortunately Muriel manages to dissuade him and he wanders off, dancing and singing.  Only in Glasgae...

Whilst leaning over to the low table, I'm rudely assaulted by a slap on the backside.  I turn round in outrage to be greeted by the giggling figure of Sandra. "I couldn't resist" she says.  Assault on a marshal indeed, and in full sight of the Chairman of Scottish Athletics too.  What is this sport coming to....???

Sophie also stuns me by turning up in a normal number of layers of clothing - only a t-shirt rather than the layers of insulation and waterproofs that she's famous for.

Stan is sweeper this year and wants to be reassured that Ray isn't running.  The legendary McCurdy has however taken a late entry and is here and ready to run.  Stan groans and threatens to go and buy a dog lead from Morrisons.  Shortly later, he comes past with a line tied between him and Ray.  I'm laughing too much to get the photo the sight deserves.

Grant Jeans was another late entry but by the time Lee has swept all the runners away for the briefing, he's not turned up.  He arrives with minutes to spare, so we take his drop bags and shoo him round to the start.

Then it's down to the road and towards the underpass.  After some further herding - yes, you do have to start by running uphill! - they're lined up ready to go.  A few words from a race sponsor and the air-horn sounds, sending 130 or so runners off on their 40 mile journey.

Back at the cars, we finish tidying up, removing every trace of our presence from the station forecourt (and probably picking up some rubbish that was there before).  Behind four vehicles are piles of drop bags to be transported along the route.  Some are already in my car boot but Norrie helps me to load the remainder.  Whilst doing so, we find a small box labelled as a present to the marshals for CP2.  Noanie Heffron has left a box of sweets and treats for each of the checkpoint teams and I'm ridiculously touched.  We always get lots of verbal thanks, but this is a first.

Loaded up, I head for Strathclyde Park via a food and fuel stop at Asda and a bizarre out and back along the M8.  What kind of idiot contractor doesn't let you turn left off the Kingston Bridge onto the new M74?  Ah, that'd be my lot actually...

It's strange getting to the checkpoint and finding it completely empty.  Last year, it was in full flow when I got there but at 10am I'm on my own.  Which is a bit disheartening when I lift the boot lid and realise just how many bags there actually are, which all need to be sorted and laid out in some logical manner.  I'm about half-way through when the Giblin support crew arrive and Paul's mum Josephine comes over and starts helping, along with a young girl who I guess is a grand-daughter.  Many hands make light work and it's soon done.  Even the two unlabelled bags have their own position, though how their owners expect to distinguish the generic supermarket carrier bags from the others is beyond me...

At which point I start getting a little concerned about the lack of other marshals.  From Lee's plan, I'm expecting the McNeills here but there's no sign of them; has the car let them down again?  Fortunately before I need to start worrying about how to deal with a checkpoint single-handed, Karen R arrives.  Soon there are plenty of vehicles arriving as relay teams and support crews get set for the halfway point.

Lee's race brief was pretty clear that NO-ONE was to park in the hotel or Beefeater restaurant but to use the public car park behind the hotel.  I've assumed that this area is the public car park but it's not and when Lee arrives, her first task is to send all the vehicles packing.  Oops.  There will be another issue here later when the manager of the restaurant comes over to complain that there are support cars filling up his car park, to the extent that genuine customers are unable to park.  These races rely on the goodwill of landowners and businesses to exist; it's so easy for a thoughtless crew to ruin that goodwill by being too lazy to walk a few hundred yards to a sensible parking place.

To our surprise, the first runner through is Donnie Campbell, which isn't quite what we expected based on the positions at CP1.  Not sure he has any business running that fast only four weeks after the WHW either...  Sadly Grant has pulled out very early on and arrives with Dave, in surprisingly good spirits.

Paul Giblin arrives later than expected, totally covered in mud.  Legs, face, head, arms - all are covered in a layer of brown sludge.  It's not clear quite how this happened - while other runners have clearly splashed through some substantial muddy puddles, none are in this state - but it looks like he's dived head first into a swamp.

Ian B was supposed to be running but had to pull out yesterday after a tooth extraction (the exertion would pose a strong risk of re-opening the wound and bleeding).  Despite the challenges of supporting Sandra and Susan, he's relaxed and cheery, having had a second breakfast between checkpoints.  I pick his brains about running with asthma and different forms of inhalers - currently it's not working for me at all.  He picks up a tweet from John K who is "At Strathclyde Park watching Clyde Stride Runners go by. #clydestride".  We assume he's only yards away from the checkpoint, but is actually some distance away in the park.  Still, he and Katrina come over to join us, which is the first time I've seen them since the WHW.

Talk turns to potential winners and someone mentions the blond dreadlocked guy who "appeared out of nowhere", won this last year and then disappeared.  Paul Raistrick did in fact win the Glen Ogle but, at the time, none of us can remember his name and are reduced to describing his appearance.  Given that one of his most outstanding characteristics was his extremely toned and buff torso, it may not be too surprising that the females in the group get accused of lechery.  As if.  

My stupid watch is too vague to take times from (very pretty but totally impractical) and I'm using my mobile to record times (having synchronised it with Lee's stopwatch after the start).  Between runners I rest it on the flat top of the fencepost by my side to avoid holding it.  This works fine until I look up and can't see it.  There is frantic searching of the surrounding area to no avail.  I then look at the bin bag also hanging from the post and, with a sinking feeling, start to wonder if it's been knocked in by accident.  Fortunately for me, Dave is willing to search through the detritus and recovers the phone.  Thanks Dave, that's definitely a few beers I owe you...

Most runners have their numbers clearly displayed to the front, although a few have it on the side of their shorts which is not great when we're trying to read it as they run into the checkpoint.  But the relay runners are posing a different challenge.  Their team names are hand-written and only legible from quite close.  Also, quite a few clubs have shown a distinct lack of originality going for [name of club] team 1, [name of club] team 2, etc.  There frequently isn't enough time to read the whole label before the runners away and on several occasions I find myself jogging over to the incoming runner to clarify the name.

There are a couple of withdrawals here, but fewer than last year.  Stephen T pulls out deciding that it is too much too soon after a tough WHW, an older man (Fraser?) recognises a pulled muscle and heads off to phone his wife for a lift; both experienced runners wise enough to know when to walk away.  The last runner in, staggering alongside Stan, is Audrey, who was marshal here last year.  This year she is defeated by the run and curls up on the grass with apparently every intention of going to sleep right there.  Sometimes it's just not your day, sometimes 20 miles is as far as your body will take you.

After her husband and friend have helped her away, Karen, Dave and I clear up every last scrap of rubbish left behind and all the remaining water and foodstuffs.  The road crossing marshal comes back with her signs, which I'm relieved to see are the two missing from my car (I really should have taken them out of the boot after the WHW but I'm sure Sean won't mind them being re-used in a good cause!).

Back onto the M74, forgetting how quickly the turn off to Lanark appears (if that was you I cut up, sorry....) and down the country road.  Climbing up into the village of Kirkfieldbank, I see two runners on the pavement, the first looks like Gerry Craig which throws me as I'd expect him to be finished by now.  Not until I've tooted the horn and gone past do I remember that I'm much earlier than last year as all the runners cleared the checkpoint much earlier.

In Lanark itself, there is a long queue of stationary traffic.  A recovery truck is clearing up after an accident - right outside the police station.  Time for a bite to eat while I wait.

Through the town centre and I'm vaguely surprised to see a relay runner on the pavement; surely the route doesn't come up this high?  Later, that runner is going to be the cause of much fuss, but for now I'm more interested in the fact that the car in front is Dave's.  I frantically beep at him when I think he's about to make a wrong turn ... only to lead both of us down a cul-de-sac.  Hmm, that's two lots of beer I owe you, yes?

Driving through New Lanark itself - such a contrast to the grubby town above it - there is clearly a rather smart wedding in progress.  I'm not sure what these dressed-up women in heels and fascinators, and immaculate men in kilts will make of the sweaty muddy runners that are about to pass in front of them.  Hopefully no-one will interrupt the photos...

On the grassy stretch by the river, the finish line operation is in smooth progress, with Lee's family in full control, down to the young cousins handing out personal goodie bags.  Best of all, there is coffee and the legendary tablet.  There is also beer but that will wait until later.  The first three runners have finished; Donnie taking first prize and proving that a WHW weeks earlier is no barrier to achievement.  For some people anyway!

Shortly after, more runners start arriving, Gerry in 5th place then not-so-normal-runner Andy in 6th, trashing a few WHW demons as he does so.  A Scottish Athletics news item the day before had pointed out his 2nd position in the SUMS table and I tease him about where he'll be on Monday - the leader Gareth Mayze being otherwise engaged on Anglo-Celtic Cup duties in Cardiff.  He's not biting, pointing out that he struggles to train consistently due to family commitments and his "taper" included climbing hills to have a picnic and eight hours gardening the previous day.  Hmmm, so what might be achieve with just a few months structured training...?

A few more WHW devils will be vanquished today, amongst them Louise Jones who hurtles across the finish with the wide smile that seems to be her trademark finish.

Another one seems to be dead and buried when I see Sandra running down the steps, only to stop at the gate and not continue despite my frantic shrieks.  Then I realise, she's waiting for Susan so they can run in together.

At the height of the busy-ness, a problems arises with the relay teams.  The team that finished first is the one whose runner was off course in Lanark.  The second placed team (by two minutes) are aware of this and not particularly content.  They had been 15 minutes ahead at CP3 and think the other team must have run short.  Unlike the club road races they're probably more used to, there's no way of judging this.  Logically the runner has probably run further (and certainly had more climb than necessary) but nothing can be proven and he doesn't have a Garmin.  The issue recedes, returns, recedes, returns, until Lee has to step away from greeting finishers to try and resolve it.  As someone who delights in greeting every finisher personally with their medal and a hug, this makes her very sad.

I'm doing my best to cover in her absence, assisted by Norrie's son (the Clan McNeill ended up here, rather than CP2, after borrowing a different vehicle) and hopefully nobody feels too hard done to.  In the middle of this, two worried parents approach me about a drop bag that couldn't be found at CP2 and they think may be in my car.  I'm sure it's not but we can go and look later.

When I can step away from the finish, I take the father down to my car and we confirm the bag isn't there.  Apparently it contains a phone and wallet; I bite my tongue at the idiocy of putting such items in a drop bag, but do point out that the mobile phone should be in possession of the runner, not sitting at a checkpoint.  Dad tells me that the son thinks he put the drop bag in a van, but that he also thinks he saw penguins on the run...  Well the penguins are clearly a common ultra runner's hallucination, but the van is probably the one containing the finish line bags.  We go and investigate the pile of bags and a very relieved dad spots the missing back-pack.

"He's never even done a marathon before" he tells me.  Nor has the son really done any training it seems.  i never learnt his name but if he can do 40 miles on no training...

Quite a few runners today appear to have missed out on the marathon stage of their progression up the distances, going straight from the 13 miles of the Half directly to an ultra.  I'm astounded.  And yet...  I know more people who've run an ultra than who've run a marathon.  But then again, I hang around with some very mad people...

Like Tim Downie who pauses feet from the line to strike a Morecambe and Wise heel-clicking dance pose, only to be cruelly overtaken by Dave Etchells, who is not missing the chance to get one over on Tim (I should point out that they are the best of friends) by putting his foot down and sprinting to the line.  The rest of us collapse in laughter.

Prize-giving starts and is interrupted over and over again by new arrivals who have to brake sharply to avoid the crowd who have stayed to cheer.  The ladies winner is Charlotte Black, wearing a jacket that indicates she's travelled down from the Shetlands.  Second is Rosie Bell, fresh from her WHW triumph.

After prize giving finishes, there is still a flurry of runners coming in.  I drive two familiar faces up to the railway station as the shuttle bus has finished and miss saying goodbye to Ian, Sandra and Susan, Andy and Jo Rae.  It might have also helped if any of us had known where the station actually was and not had to ask a pedestrian.

Nine hours twenty two minutes after leaving Partick, Stan arrives with three runners together, all grinning and happy - Noanie, Dave Egan, and Alan.

Then there is the final tidying up session, dismantling of gazebos, more lessons on asthma and running from Soph and a last beer.  Behind us we leave some mud where there was previously grass.

But scattering to the four corners of the compass are 195 runners who've all had a great day, whether they ran 10 miles or 40.  The Race Director and her team are pretty happy too...

Additional photos from Colin Knox, Gerry Craig and Lorn Pearson

Saturday, 7 July 2012

The Wettest West Highland Way

What a weekend....

Unlike last year, I'd known for months that I was marshalling this year's WHW race.  Early in the year, Sean put out his usual call for "volunteers" and sounded pleasantly surprised when I jumped at the chance of being at Kinlochleven again.  Midge central, the longest checkpoint shift ... but from my point of view, the most time to actually see the race come through and past, to watch rather than be frantically busy, time to talk to support crews if not the runners themselves.  Being indoors with access to proper toilets and hot water is also a plus, I find...

In the days running up to the race, the British summer was in full flow.  Quite literally.  As usual, the declaration in deepest southern England of drought conditions and hosepipe bans prompted the heavens to open and torrential rain to ensue.  Scotland seemed to be doing a little better - more than once I found myself leaving Edinburgh airport in bare legs and sunglasses only to arrive in Hampshire sodden and shivering.  I'm half-Scottish now; I really should know better.

In the run-up, the Facebook group page exploded as bored runners tried to fill their taper hours with something other than psychosomatic injuries and frantic list-writing.  Have I done enough?  Should I go for one last long run?  What's this pain in my foot?  How do you keep your feet dry in the rain?

And sadly, the last few names were scored off the start list.  How agonising to have to pull out only a day or two before the start.

John K and I spoke briefly on the Wednesday about the checkpoint and we agreed to change the time process slightly for Kinlochleven, as opposed to earlier checkpoints, to ensure we captured the departure time of runners.  Just in case...

And then ...


A day off work and a chance to pack bags and make sure I have everything I need for the checkpoint - pens, highlighters, scissors, food, small clock, change of clothes, midge repellent.  Midge repellent!  I bought some last year and used it on WHW and the Devils races - it worked superbly, at least on the bits of skin I remembered to apply it to - and I know there's plenty left in the bottle.  But I can't find it anywhere.  I practically demolish the spare room in trying to find it but it's gone to that place where the "other" odd socks go.  A flying trip to the nearest outdoors store where there is the choice of some feeble looking wrist and ankles bands or a bottle of Deet.  I lie to the assistant about having used Deet before in other countries and being fully aware of its lethality and safe use.

There is another slight hiccup to the days plans, although not mine.  All the goody bags and merchandise are at Run & Become's store in the West End of Edinburgh to be collected by van today.  Unfortunately some builders working on a neighbouring property choose today to discover a WW11 cache of grenade and ammunition and the entire area is sealed off.  Immutable Chinese whispers have turned "grenade" into "bomb" and I become quite nervous to calculate that this is only a few hundred yards away from me.  The situation is not helped when the heavy rain turns into thunder....

I'm not going to the start this year.  I don't have accommodation booked and I'm still tired from work.  Better to get fully prepared here and head across country on the Saturday morning to pick the route up at Crianlarich.

But FB and Twitter are starting to fill up with excited updates as runners and support crews gather.  The Red Wine Runner (supporting Mrs Shanksi this year) is travelling back from Poland and only landing in Edinburgh on the Friday evening.  Cutting it fine.  But even that is surpassed by the support runner for Keith Hughes who is flying in from Perth (... yes, the one in Western Australia!) on the Friday afternoon, running the later sections with him before returning to Amsterdam on the Sunday afternoon.  Unless aliens are planning on joining a future WHW race, there won't be a longer trip to take part than that one...

I'm not going to Milngavie.  I'm not.

Until about half-ten when I go "F*** it, I'm going".  It's only about fifty-odd miles.  Each way.

So I find myself hurtling down the M8, knowing that I'm going to get lost when I turn off the motorway, that the patches of bright sky that still shine in this last hour before midnight are going to disappear behind clouds very soon, and that I really can't bear not to see the race start.

At Milngavie, the station car park is as packed as ever; cars, vans and motorhomes squeezed into every available parking space and more besides.  I can spot the beautiful vintage VW motorhome of Martin Hooper as I walk up to registration.

It's past midnight and technically registration (in a different and much larger room than last year) is over, but there are still plenty of people milling about, chatting, using the toilets.  I'm greeted by John K with a hug and the words "I thought you weren't coming here?"  I will hear this several more times tonight...

Davie Hall is also here and warns me that the A82 lochside road will be busier than usual as the heavy rain has caused another landslip at the Rest and Be Thankful on the A83, resulting in all traffic being diverted past Loch Lomond.  As always I'm struck by how many people are working here - registration, goodie bags, merchandise, checkpoint packs, safety teams - all people that the runners will only notice if their jobs are done poorly or not at all.  Sean spots me and I find myself agreeing to take scales and timing sheets up to KLL on Saturday - which now means I have an earlier deadline for leaving home after a later night...

Andy strolls in looking entirely cool in sweatshirt and cut-off denims.  I don't think my description of him as my "normal runner" can last much longer and I don't expect to see him at my checkpoint as he should be through whilst I'm trying to rest in Fort William.

Down in the car park there are so many familiar faces.  Last year I knew only two people - only one of which will be here tonight - yet this year, every few moments there is another person greeting me by name with hugs and cheery words.  How the world changes in a short twelve months...

This year I'm close enough to hear Sean's safety briefing clearly.  The infamous line "there will be weather" has never been more apt.  Although dry now, the forecast is for unremitting rain and showers throughout Saturday.  There are very few bare legs or arms on display already.  The Carnegie girls - Fiona, Pauline and Sue - are wearing ponchos over their bright running clothes.  Tim is even more basic, keeping dry under a black bin bag.

Briefings over and more last minute greetings.  Sandra introduces me to her crew of Joopsy, Susan and son Stephen.  (We have a friendly contest scheduled around wearing heels for the Sunday night party, the choice of which is causing me much anguish.)  Antonia looks like an overexcited schoolgirl who can't wait to get going and asks me take a photo of her and her crew.  Dave, Lee, Wee Hannah and Mason, this year supporting Martin Hooper and big David Ross on his first WHW race.  Lucy supporting Richie as he attempts a third successive victory and already in possession of a cow bell to send the runners off in a cacophony of noise.  The Shanksi's down from Stonehaven with RWR and her boyfriend Kynon.  Carrie, finally making the start line after two previous years of injury.  Probably many more whose names have now blurred from my mind.  So many people and all of a sudden it's barely a minute to one and I need to be by the underpass.  I want to see the runners set off towards me, rather than looking down on them from the grassy bank.

Walking through the underpass and the sudden ridiculous thought that this is the one and only time I will ever pass through there at a race start with the likes of Richie and Mike Raffan and Andy behind me.

There are clusters of people up the steps, at the top of the ascent and even within the underpass - I hope they can run quickly when it starts but Sean walks through clearing the way, making sure everyone understands that the runners route needs to be entirely clear.

Countdown starts, the tension peaks, then the night explodes with the klaxon and cowbells, and 172 runners - silhouettes against the underpass lighting and their headlights - charge towards me, up the steps and off into the night.

Five minutes later it's raining again.


I collect the scales and paperwork - a brief moment of confusion about whether or not there should be a list of runner's names and numbers - and marvel again how rapidly the car park can empty of vehicles.  Heading east in the now heavy rain, the M8 is thick with fog that wasn't there only a few hours before.

Once home, I'm wide awake and struggle to sleep properly.  I wouldn't have missed the start for all the world but it's close to four am before I sleep which isn't a good preparation for the weekend.  Ho hum, at least I'm driving and sitting, not running or walking.

When the alarm goes off only a few hours later, the first thing I do is reach for the ipad and check FB and twitter.  I'm bitterly disappointed to see a picture of a red and swollen ankle; the cause of the totally-mad-but-very-lovely Fiona McDonald having to withdraw very early on.  (How early on I only discovered later - she fell after barely a mile and a half but plodded on to the next checkpoint to retire).  She's cross, frustrated and upset that her race has ended so early - I think I'd be bawling in a ditch somewhere.

Essential weekend supplies that I haven't yet got include jaffa cakes and Irn-Bru.  (The diet is suspended for 48 hours).  I nip into a little Tesco's on the way out of town and am delighted to spot Smidge midge-repellent  by the tills.  I know supermarkets sell everything these days but I wasn't expecting that.  A complement to the Deet, I grab a bottle.

I've forgotten about the Highland Show by the airport and find myself stuck in stationary traffic for far too long.  I'm even eyeing up the central reservation, wondering if I can do a u-turn but the numbers of police vehicles around suggest this might not be wise.  Come on people, I have a race to get to!

Even in the worsening weather, there are still the usual dithering tourists on the A82.  Yes, your car is capable of travelling at more than 37mph, no, you don't really need to brake every time the road makes a slight bend and it's really sodding bad manners to speed up on the only straight bits of the road that I might be able to overtake on!  As for motor-home drivers.... oh dear.

However the car responds to the occasional request for a burst of speed to fly past the offending vehicles and I manage not to get any later.  Poor car - it normally spends all week parked up in Edinburgh, doing less than 20 miles a week.  In the last week, it's been driven from Edinburgh to Leicester to Sheffield to Basingstoke to Edinburgh to Milngavie to Edinburgh.  And now it's going to Fort William and back.

Once through Crianlarich I start playing the usual game of trying to spot the runners.  In the driving rain there are no bright flashes of colour to be seen out on the Way.  Nor are there many walkers it seems.  In fact, it's not until I've gone through Tyndrum and climbed up into the valley into Bridge of Orchy that I start to see movement.  Mostly dressed in dark clothes with long leggings, there are a few bodies jogging comfortably north along the route.  They're too far away from the road (which I am not paying quite enough attention to for the conditions) for me to identify, but when I spy two bare legged runners running together, my brain instinctively says "oh, that's Sharon Law".  A moment later, the other part of my brain points out that a) she's not running in the race this year (having been selected to compete for Scotland again in a few weeks) and b) she's heading in the wrong direction.  (In the days later I discover that yes, it absolutely was Sharon who, along with the Consanis, decided to come along and have a run south along the WHW to encourage the competitors and make their own unique contribution to the event).

The rain is relentless now and the visible puddles and mud make it clear that it's been raining all night.  At least last year, the race was mostly dry until late Saturday afternoon so the runners covered much of the course before getting sodden - hell, Richie probably never saw the rain at all.  This year, they will have been wet and cold all the way through.  It's well past midday so that's over eleven hours already.  And just ahead of them now is the bleak expanse of Rannoch Moor; not a place to be wet cold and tired on.

"It's going to be a war of attrition today" I say to Sean when I stop at Bridge of Orchy to see how it'd going. "No need for compulsory check kits though this year" he replies.

Stupidly I'd thought that the rain might deter the midges but the evil black beasts are ever present, many of the supporters standing on the bridge watching the foaming torrents covered from head to toe, wearing nets. I pick up my race fleece and head onwards, hoping to drop into Glencoe to see Karen R who's marshalling there after breaking a bone in the Fling.

There are patches of white high up on the mountains - snow not yet melted by the summer of washed away by the rainfall - and up at the ski centre, the weather is no longer vertical rain but horizontal.  Camped out on ground to the side of the car park, Karen and George have a gazebo pegged out over the rear of the estate car and a small low tent pitched to the side (the sort that looks like a blown-up sleeping bag).  It should be a great idea but the squally wind gusting down from Rannoch Moor is threatening to rip it out of the ground and send it flying down to Glencoe valley.  And this is in a position seemingly sheltered by the mountain itself and the trees behind the car park?  How bad are conditions out on the moor?

In between trying to restrain the gazebo, Karen tells me that the first two runners have been through and the third is expected soon; his support crew parked up just down the track.  The leader is a runner called Terry Conway; not a name any of us know but there is some association with the Lake District it seems.  Added to which, he came through the checkpoint 30 minutes before Richie's time from last year.

Mental arithmetic time.  If Terry can maintain the pace over the Staircase, he'll be in Kinlochleven 30 minutes before Richie was last year.  That's 2.40pm less 30 minutes puts him there at 2.10pm.  Which is just about the time that Jez Bragg made it when he set the course record...  I'm not a stats geek; I only know this because I'd looked up times only a day or two before while agreeing with Lesley what time the checkpoint needed to be open.  I'd made a joking remark that 2.00pm would be fine, unless someone was after the record.  Looks like someone is...

Think I better get a move on; it's a long haul round to Kinlochleven through Glencoe.  The low fuel light is starting to flash on the dashboard but I suspect I don't have time to stop and fill up.  I didn't expect to be racing a runner along this stretch.

At the community centre, Lesley and the doctor are mostly set up but nervously awaiting the papers and scales.  On a "just in case" basis, the surgery scales have been brought over in case I didn't make it in time.  There are crews already here and the buzz of an imminent arrival.  Peter Duggan wanders in - he's seen some of the times being posted from checkpoints and thinks "something special" might be going to happen.  Lesley tells me that it seems Richie has pulled out and I'm disappointed that his run of great finishes and two wins has come to an end.

Last year I never got to see the leaders at all, this year there's no doubt of it.  But even so, I'm still caught a little by surprise when he sprints into the checkpoint.  The first thing I register are the shorts and bare legs, hardly the most appropriate for the weather?  He looks fast and happy, like he's just jogged a 5k, not 80 hard miles in brutal weather.  He's in and out so fast we almost don't catch his time.  12:59 ... Christ, that's ten minutes ahead of Jez.

A few minutes after he's gone, John K rings to warn us that we may have an early arrival.  You're a bit late, I reply, he's been and gone.  You do realise that he's ahead of the record?  On a day like this?

John asks if we can text the times of the first three runners through to him so he can update Twitter, and then to start phoning through times in batches.  I remind him that I'm leaving for a few hours but Lesley will be in touch.

I have good intentions but some Australian walkers come into the centre and start asking about the race.  They are doing the traditional multi-day walk north and heartily glad to be stopped for the day.  Pete keeps them entertained for some time.

Paul Giblin's crew are waiting for him to come in as second place.  Consisting of the Giblin family, they've become a familiar and popular sight at many ultras over the last year or so.  On last year's WHW, Paul took a wrong turn coming into the village that cost him an hour in time.  His sister tells me about shouting at him in the checkpoint when he was angry with his mistake and needed refocussing.  Everyone has fingers crossed that he won't do the same again this year.

He arrives safely but now an hour behind Terry, having lost time from Glencoe.  I wonder if he took the descent a lot slower in a deliberate plan not to get lost.  Whatever the reason, it doesn't seem likely he's going to catch the leader; barring a major drama up on the Lharig Mor.

It's now gone 3.00pm, I need to get away from here.  By the time I've bought fuel (the garage owner tries to tell me that this is the first day it's properly rained in Lochaber this year and I really can't decide if he's being truthful or merely bored of telling tourists about the three legged haggis) and queued at the multiple roadworks on the way into Fort William, it doesn't seem likely I'm going to get any sleep this afternoon.  Just as well when JK gets his phone numbers mixed up and phones me twice (on two different phones) trying to call the checkpoint.

Before leaving we'd debated long about Terry's possible arrival time into the finish line.  Jez's record is 15:44 but with what is widely held to be an incredibly fast final 14 miles.  I probably should go straight back to Kinlochleven but I'm only a half mile away from the leisure centre and it seems crazy to miss what may be the only year I ever get to see a race winner.  As for seeing that record broken...

As I park up, I'm really sad to see Sandra standing on the steps with her crew.  I was under strict instructions to give her a hug at Kinlochleven and then kick her out.  Same as last year, her ankles have let her down.  But this time much earlier and she pulled herself out at Auchtertyre.  She's smiling but there's an undercurrent of bitter disappointment in her voice.

There is a moment of panic when a large 4x4 parks in the line of sight across the car park.  I trot over to stand on the grass bank where I can see down the road.  Someone else is far more pragmatic and asks the driver to move.

There are crew down on the pavement watching out for the winner, I keep scanning my watch as the seconds tick away.  Oh god, it's getting close.  Why don't I have a watch that tells the time properly instead of making me guess at the minutes and seconds?

Suddenly there's a frantic semaphore from down on the road.  He's coming!  I yell across to the waiting group at the centre doors.  No doubt now, the record has gone.  Here he is, flying across the car park at a pace most 5k runners would envy, up the steps, greeted by Ian and the whooping and hollering of the small group who have just witnessed something very special.

15 hours 39 minutes 15 seconds

95 miles in horrendous weather

Jubilation over, I call Lesley to tell her the news - you have no idea how many times we'll get asked about finishing times through the night - and reassure her that I'm on my way back.  On the drive alongside the loch, I even see a patch of blue sky and sunshine.  It doesn't last long.

Back at the checkpoint, there have been about nine runners through, including the first withdrawal - sadly from the third placed runner.  How frustrating to be doing so well, but to have to pull out through injury.  Despite the fast pace of the early runners, this is a lot fewer through than the same time last year.  No women either; this time last year Kate had been and gone, with Debbie and Sharon not far behind, showing why they run in their country's colours this summer.

Two runners - Charlie and Ed - come in exactly together.  This is unusual for this position in the field, normally it's much further back that runners group together for moral support.   I assume it's a fluke of timing and only much later do I realise they've covered the entire course side by side, finishing in joint 10th position.

The clock ticks over at six o'clock, allowing competitors to have a support runner, being four hours since the leader.  Only one person has even asked about this so far and sounded quite relieved that their runner was too early, clearly not relishing the threat of 14 miles in the continuing weather.

Ten minutes later the first lady is through.  Rosie Bell, I know the name if not the person.  Hot on her heels, barely a minute behind is the second, Gaynor Prior.  (Before I came to Scotland I'd never heard of ultras but, to reinforce the small world concept, Gaynor lives in the small village next to the small village I spent sixteen years living in prior to moving to Edinburgh.)  Gaynor's crew asks about the permissibility of a support runner, Rosie's doesn't and the two women leave, mere seconds apart, but one with a support and one without.  This prompts some debate in the checkpoint - is there an advantage to having the moral support of a de facto pacer?  Should there be a separate time period applied to the women - these two will not take overall placings, but they are certainly competing for the ladies' prize.

Shortly after Ross Moreland comes through, there is a lull in the incoming runners and I take the opportunity to phone John and give him timings for the runners that have come through already.  He's also able to confirm to us the runners who have withdrawn earlier in the course; some familiar names among them, amongst them David Ross, Bob Steel, Louise Jones.  So disappointed that people I know and like have been defeated by the day.

I start to spot familiar faces in the support crews - brown clad HBT girls supporting Carrie on her "third time lucky" race entry, HappyG supporting Andy...  wait a minute he should have been and gone already?  No, he's had a bad section and struggled for some distance.  But when he arrives at the checkpoint, looking utterly bedraggled in a red waterproof, he still has the character to strike a pose as he comes through the doors.  Right now shift your arse out of here and go get that goblet, Mr Normal Runner!

Antonia is also having a tough time and I spend quite some time chatting to her fiancee Scott.  I've seen him at a few races but not really spoken; this evening we have a united desire to see the small blonde New Zealander collect her first goblet.  Unfortunately I actually miss her coming through the checkpoint as I've gone on a food run to the neighbouring chippy to get supplies for myself and Lesley!

My apologies to the runners who came through while we were eating chips - we did try to keep them out of sight, but the delicious smell was irrepressible!

More familiar faces:  Terry Addison (the first of the Kirky crazies) and his support crew, Peter Macdonald whose wife (and final section support runner tonight) Heather I first met on the banks of the River Ayr late last summer.  The checkpoint's starting to get busier with both crews and runners avoiding the continuing rain by heading indoors.  Peter Duggan has been out for a run along the route (other than this, he spends almost the entire night at the checkpoint - even when you don't run the race, it still has its hooks into you, it seems...)  and spots a familiar face amongst the crews.  I know less than nothing about mountain climbing (other than that I get vertigo on a step ladder and have absolutely no desire to find out what effect a cliff face or narrow ridge would have on me) but apparently "Scotland's best climber" is part of a runner's support team.

Donald arrives in the infamous and legendary tartan shorts.  And he's incoherently talking complete and utter gibberish.  I'm half convinced his wife Elaine is going to pull him from the race but she tells me he's actually in better state than last year.  I'm decidedly unconvinced by this, especially when he picks up my bottle of Deet and repeatedly sprays it directly into his face.  Um, I'm really *not* sure that's edible....  Once again I'm astounded by what this race can do to people mentally and physically.

And what not so normal people can do in return.

Into the later hours of the evening and the "rush hour" begins.  Runners come through every few minutes in varying states of physical and mental energy.  Last year Lesley and I took it in turns to look after runners; this year we're joining forces and most people get the two of us working as a tag team - I bring the runner to the scales and call out their number and weight, Lesley reads off the race time and writes it down.  This year the cards are in zip-loc bags - a great idea to keep them dry, but a bloody pain in the arse to get open.  More than one gets ripped apart in frustration, sometimes even by the marshals.

I get to have a craic with most runners, be it teasing them about how effective their diet has been (when they're showing a weight loss), promising them there's "only a half marathon left" (well, give or take a mile or so), making a younger male runner blush when I tell him not to strip off too far before he gets on the scales.  And occasionally there are slightly sharper questions, maybe asking runners for their childrens' dates of birth when the scales show a weight gain and they're showing signs of tiredness that may just be the result of 80 miles hard work in twenty-plus hours, or may be the start of a serious physical problem...

Around this time, the casualties start coming in and the doctor starts patching up blisters and soreness.  Through the night I will see far too many feet that have been wet for twenty four hours or more; it's really not a pretty sight...  But there are also an increasing number coming in with painful ankles and shins.  Much later when we talk about it, the consensus is that the wet and slippy conditions have put massively increased strains on the soft tissues around the ankles in trying to keep the body stable on unstable terrain.  Unlike last year, there will be a lot of withdrawals at this final checkpoint; runners who recognise that they can go no further, that the weather and their bodies have said enough.  It's bitterly sad to watch - one young runner is practically in tears when I cut off his wristband and all I want to do is hug him and tell him it's okay.  Instead I ask if he wants to see the doctor and help him through.

At times during the night, the checkpoint looks like a casualty station with bodies stretched out on chairs, on the floor.  But there are no major issues and no summons for the doctor from the mountain rescue team either.  The bad weather is presumably keeping many of the tourists off the paths and summits.

Karen and George are in, whilst waiting for Johnny Fling to arrive.  Right now, Karen has the thing I most want in the world - ginger beer.  Fabulous.  When John arrives, he is as cheerful and mad as ever.  (I have since seen a race photo of him dancing in the rain at Inversnaid ... it sums him up perfectly).  He wants to stop and chat but his support team are having none of it: "No time for that!" and he's hustled out the door with George's foot only a metaphorical inch from his backside.

Adrian Stott (of Run and Become) arrives.  A man who has a very large collection of race finishes, some from the years when that didn't earn you a goblet, merely the satisfaction of knowing what you had achieved.  When he ran the winter ultra last December, I'm sure he said that it was his first ultra in several years.  Some things the body - and mind - doesn't forget.  Although, rather inappropriately for a member of the race committee, he's not easy to pin down long enough to get onto the scales and his weight card retrieved!

Midnight comes and goes without us even noticing.  This time last year, there were only isolated runners coming through and it wasn't difficult for Lesley to leave around one.  Tonight we're still busy with the weather slowing most of the pack down.  It will be nearly 2.30am before she leaves and only then because I convince her to.  In the few minutes between arrivals, I'm trying to keep up with Facebook and Twitter to get the race news.  With no wi-fi signal, this is being done on the work's Blackberry.  I have yet to confess to my boss but will no doubt have to do so when the bill arrives.

Kynon arrives to wait for Mrs Shanksi, the rest of her crew with her on the long walk over the Devil's Staircase.  We chat for some time but he's looking exhausted, as do many of the support crews.  When he gets a text indicating what time they will be arriving, I suggest he lies down on one of the mattresses in the sports hall and sleeps for an hour or so.  I promise to wake him before Vicky's due in (he's under orders to have a cup of tea waiting) and warn him that he'll be evicted from the bed if it's needed for a casualty.  We all worry and fret about the runners being awake and on the go for so many hours but the time frame is just as bad for the support crews.  No wonder so many of the old hands use two crews.

John K had told me he wouldn't be at Kinlochleven but has been convinced to visit by Dino, the Race Princess and legendary Race Control of previous years.  Added to which he wants to see the progress of some of his local runners, mostly Silke and Caroline, who are hunting their first goblets after years of supporting their respective husbands.  Mostly he's enjoying the new challenge of Race Control but his logical mind is immensely frustrated by runners who seem to vanish at one checkpoint, only to appear at a later one.  Or worse, those who he has been told pulled out at Glencoe but are still coming into Kinlochleven as competitors.  Sometimes it's like herding cats...

When Silke arrives, her crew seat her at the end of the pool table we are using as our marshal station and fuss around her.  She looks like a queen holding court.  She also looks like a woman on a mission; nothing is going to come between her and her goblet this weekend.

Just before 1am Fiona Rennie arrives.  She's probably the only runner outside the top ten to have the same arrival and departure time, standing still only long enough to be weighed.  I haven't learnt yet, I instinctively still ask her crew to let me know when she leaves, only to be told "Ah'm going now".  Another warrior queen that will stop for nothing before Fort William.

Ten minute later, a dark-haired woman hobbles into the centre on stiff unbending legs but with the widest smile.  She's the tiniest slip of a thing, in a field of small and slender athletes and I swear she barely reaches my waist in height.  How can this tiny creature cover 95 miles?  But Lesley will complete her race, even if she doesn't manage to collect her goblet in person.

After ten, every runner leaving the checkpoint is supposed to be accompanied, either by their own support runner or by buddying up with another competitor.  It's not actually easy to police, but many runners are with their support by the time they reach us anyway.  Even so, we spot a couple who seem to be leaving alone.  They're pulled back and reminded of the rules.  The explanation is a little challenging when the runner (Paul?) appears to speak no English, but the message is finally understood and his son gets changed into wet weather running gear to go with him.

Not long after 2.00am there is a kerfuffle at the door and Caroline arrives in the midst of her support crew.  In over a year of marshalling I don't think I've ever seen a runner in such a state; she can't walk or talk, seems barely conscious, and it takes three of us to keep her upright on the scales.  I've practically written DNF on the list already.  But Neal her husband is adamant she'll be fine and bears her away to a chair where she's surrounded by the dozen or so family and friends making up her support crew.

The doctor goes over to investigate and catches her as she falls from the chair.  Sweeping her up, he carries her into the sports hall and lies her down on a mattress to sleep, ordering that she's not to be disturbed.

I've thought through this many times since.  I'm not a doctor or a nurse; I have no medical training beyond basic workplace first aid.  I'm not a runner, I can't draw on my own experience.  But throughout the time that Caroline is in the checkpoint, I can't conceive that she is going to be capable of walking out of the building, never mind covering the 14 miles to the end.  Her crew are determined she's going to continue but I can't help wondering if they're projecting their own determination onto a body that's defeated.  Are they going to carry her over the Mor?  Even with the benefit of hindsight, I still think that - had I been at that checkpoint alone without medical support - I would have refused to let her continue.  Not that I think I know better, but that I think it would take considerable medical skill to have been sure that there is nothing seriously wrong with her; that continuing is not going to cause her serious harm.  Or worse.

Ultimately I don't have to make that decision.  Doc Ellis talks to her at length once she wakes up and has eaten.  Whilst still a little groggy, she can now talk and move without support.  His verdict is that she is exhausted, nothing more, nothing less.  There are enough people going over the next section with her to be able to carry her out without risking a rescue crew.  It's his call to let her continue but I still fret over her until prize-giving the next day.  As does he; when he comes into the Nevis Centre, his first question to me is "did she make it?" having first been to the Belford Hospital to see if she was there.  The answer is yes, Caroline now has her first goblet.

I haven't heard her post-race podcast yet.  I've been saving it until after I finish this.  I think it's going to be fascinating to hear how many different ways a scenario can appear to the people present.

I'm delighted to see Fiona McD in the checkpoint.  Although out of the race herself, she's now joined Vicky O'Reilly's support crew and cheering everyone up around her. Vicky is limping slightly and the doctor is highly amused by the sight of one injured runner being supported round the checkpoint by another even-more-injured runner.

We're down to the last few runners now.  Before he arrives, Charles Gordon's support crew warn us that he's suffering with his feet and is "a bit grumpy".  Ah, no wisecracks at the scales for him then.  In an unusual piece of medical practice, the doctor offers to craft some temporary orthotics to support his battered feet over the final stretch.  Peter (who will be there until we close) fetches some from home that can be adapted as required.  But even after all this, and a period of rest, finally Charles has to decide that he can't carry on.

The final support crew arrive in the shape of Dave W and Dino.  Mrs Mac and Wee Hannah are sleeping in the car, DQ is out on the trail, coaching Hooper over long slow painful miles.   It's a long wait in the growing light and we eat cake and drink coffee.

Twenty-seven hours and 39 minutes after leaving Milngavie, Hooper shuffles his way down the drive and into the centre.  We have already agreed that he will use every last minute available to him by resting, then leaving at fifteen minutes after five, the last possible time for a runner to clear the checkpoint.  But when the time comes, he can't walk.  Heartbreakingly, this is the end of the race for him; a man in such physical pain, he flinches with every pulse of blood through his aching and battered feet.

The fast guys and girls, they make it look easy.  But don't ever let anyone tell you that's true - this sport will take you and do its best to destroy you physically and mentally.  It's tough at the back.

The checkpoint finally closes at 5.45am after I've tidied up, washed up and bagged the lost and found items. Breakfast at the doctors' again, deliver scales, stopwatch and paperwork to the finish line, then finally back to the hotel.


A little sleep, never enough and it's time to get down to the prize-giving.  Unlike last year, it's cold and grey still and I choose to drive the few hundred yards.  Even there, there are still more things to be done.  Goblets to be taken out of their crates and stacked onto the table, race merchandise to be unpacked and sorted.

Adrian is there in his capacity as runner, as shopkeeper and as reporter for Scottish Athletics.  Barely hours after running 95 miles.  My respect goes up another notch and I mentally slap myself for feeling tired and whingy.

Hopefully I will see this many times in the future and I suspect it will always be something special, something unlike any other event.  And every year, I suspect there will be those few things that cause the audience to cheer a little louder.  This year, there are new champions and a new record to be cheered for, there is a special award for Dino in recognition of her ten years service to the race, there is Ada collecting her goblet in a wheelchair, there is a cheer for Lesley who cannot collect her goblet as she's been admitted to hospital.  But the loudest and longest may well be for Pauline Walker (Fiona's twin) as she joins the exclusive ten club, being the first woman to complete ten WHW races.

Afterwards I help Adrian sell t-shirts and fleeces and buffs and barely get to talk to anyone as they drift off.

Despite my tiredness, I don't sleep in the afternoon, which is not the best preparation for the evening social at the Nevis Bar.  But I mooch along in my best Stella McCartney heels (Sandra and I agree that we have a draw on the heels contest) expecting to last an hour or so.

Ian greets me with the words "So are you running it next year?"  That man has a very strange sense of humour...

There are lots of drinks and chat and gossip and fizzy stuff with Sandra (we tried for champagne but it obviously wasn't that sort of place...).  There are friends and family old and new.  I even cope with England going out of the football (it was to Italy, I have divided loyalties!).  And sometime after midnight, the bar staff finally throw us out.

Just to prove what a warped sense of humour Mother Nature has in the Highlands, I wake to bright sunshine and blue skies at 4.30am.

See you next year?  I'm sure we're due a dry one...