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

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Mountains, Miles and Marcothon

I keep on thinking that it's the end of the season ... no more races until next Spring.  Then, something comes along, and there's "just one more" to be done.

The Yamaa Trust Winter Ultra was always on the radar.  At one point, I was seriously contemplating entering the 10k run from Bridge of Orchy to Tyndrum.  However, common sense took over - the West Highland Way in December is not the place to run a first 10k.  Dave Scott, who heads up the Trust and is also the Mongolian Consul to Scotland, caught me at a weak moment in the pub after the Glen Ogle 33 and I found myself agreeing to report for marshalling duties at Kinlochleven at 7am again.

Last year, when I did this as my first ever marshalling trip, it made perfect sense to drive over from Edinburgh and back in the day.  This year, I'm looking at the map and trying to work out how to get there without setting the alarm for 3am.  I fail.  Friday night accommodation it is.  No post race drinking for me this weekend though; there are things I need to be back home for.

In the days running up to the race, the forecast is ... interesting to say the least.  Snow, gusting winds, windchill, rain, sleet.  Thursday night is spent working out just how many layers I can wear at once, and wondering if runners are really going to turn up for this.  Also sulking bitterly that the Real Food Cafe is closed for two months and I'm still not going to get the chips I've been promised since the Fling.

I've heard so many stories about the "luxury" of the Tyndrum Lodge Hotel but it seems a practical location for the Friday night.  What I don't expect (after an infuriatingly slow crawl west from Stirling stuck behind an eejit who thinks his car has a top speed of 30mph) is to see what appears to be a building in darkness with no signs of life.  Between the howling wind, torrential rain and abandoned reception, I start to wonder if I've inadvertently strayed into a Hitchcock movie.

I eventually discover a little note taped to the door of the dining room, saying "Sorry, closed.  Food available next door.  Check-in next door."  Aaah, back out into the weather.  Behind the bar in Paddy's is a very friendly man who takes some cursory details before leading me down a lopsided corridor to my room.  Oh, I see how this place has acquired its reputation....  This room was quite probably built and fitted out by an enthusiastic, if incompetent, DIYer in the late 1970's and hasn't been touched since.  And really, a vanity unit?  Oh my....

It's also completely freezing cold.  The nice man tries to fix this by adjusting the radiator and the valve promptly falls off.  We agree that I would be better in another room and he goes to fetch another key.

The second room is almost identical in build and decor but several degrees warmer.  I should, in fairness, point out that it's also scrupulously clean and the bedlinen still has the creases in it as evidence of out-of-the-packet newness.  The bathroom has its own challenges however in that it's rather, em, compact.  The toilet can only be approached backwards due to the lack of turning space.  The sink is, again, in the bedroom.

Back in Paddy's Bar, food and drink is cheap, good and plentiful.  The other customers are an intriguing mix of local families, hikers, posh English students and what appears to be the Tyndrum youth club.  Ada arrives later, with Terry and Susan as the Kirkie love bus is parked over the road.

We finish at a sensible hour and as she leaves, Susan calls back "it's stopped raining".  Famous last words.

When the alarm goes off the next morning, I can't hear either the wind or rain which I consider to be a good sign.  It is still raining, and it's breezy, but it's not ... weather.

The weather arrives about two miles up the road in a furious blast of sleet that rocks the car sideways.  It's intermittent but a healthy reminder that this is December in the Highlands and not to be taken lightly.

There's not a sign of life anywhere, no other vehicles on the road, no distant glow in the sky of reflected city streetlights.  On the climb up onto Rannoch Moor, I pull over into the viewpoint car park and stop the car.  Despite the weather, I want to stand outside for a few moments and drink in this world of utter blackness where I can't even see my own hands, never mind any sight of human impact.  It's awesome.

Despite being ten minutes late into Kinlochleven, there is no sign of life at the Ice Factor.  Dave will quite probably be late for his own funeral so no reason to expect registration to start on time!  When we do get started Geraldine is there again, as is Karen the Yamaa Trust administrator who I met at Andrew Murray's book launch.

With the weather forecast as it is, a number of runners have cancelled or just not turned up, although there are a few late entrants that bring the numbers back up.  Most of them I don't know, but I recognise the Loehndorfs - though I'm not convinced Thomas' surgeon and the Crazy German mean quite the same thing when agreeing that he can "run but nothing too strenuous".  The love bus gang are joined by Bill (having run his first post heart-attack ultra two weeks earlier and today having "forgotten" to mention that he's racing to his wife) and Mike who's sweeping the first section.  Also there is Adrian Stott, amazingly he says this is his first ultra distance race for three years.

The weather is wintry but not too horrific, although I do take pity on two shivering runners and direct them to sit in my car to get out of the wind.  But as the daylight comes through, it's strange to be able to watch cloud banks rolling in across the mountain tops and hiding them from view within seconds.  I don't think anyone's going to be complaining about mandatory kit today...

A brief speech of thanks from Andrew, a quick safety briefing from Dave and just after 8.30, we set off some thirty-odd runners on their run down to Tyndrum.  I'm sure Dave tells us we're heading directly to Bridge of Orchy but somehow this includes stops at Altnafeadh and Kingshouse Hotel ...

I stop on the way to capture some of the incredible views.  It's the first time I've seen this area in winter and it's breathtaking.  So's the wind....

Dave diverts to the Ski Centre to put up some marker flags and the three of us head on to Bridge of Orchy.  When we get there, another woman approaches us, guessing that the hi-viz jackets we're wearing mean we're part of the team she's also volunteered for.  With her are two adorable although noisy dogs.

Somehow it's already nearly half nine so I don't think it's too early to order coffee at the hotel for all of us.  Expecting best instant, we get proper Italian with little chocolates.

The original plan had been for me to go to Forest Lodge where the WHW comes down from Rannoch Moor but it makes sense for the dogs to go there instead and leave me to the A82 crossing.  In the meantime there are road signs to be set up (not that they seem to have any effect on the speeding vehicles), checkpoint supplies to be sorted out (water, crisps, chocolate, etc) but still time to wander down to the bridge and watch the waters tumbling angrily down.  None of us are quite sure where the river ends up...

Although the 10k isn't due to start until 12.30, the first runner arrives not long after 10.30 having driven over from Aberdeen.  We adjourn to the hotel for a second round of coffee and sit watching the hillside while we chat.

I'm not half way through my cup, when the first runner is spotted.  Oh f........, and we're scurrying out the door to get to the road before he arrives.  It's before eleven, which means he's covered over twenty miles in less than two and a half hours ... with a couple of hills and somewhat inclement weather thrown in ...

For me, it's the start of an almost continuous four hour stint stood outside at the crossing.  The nearby cottages block my view of the hillside so the first sight I have of any of the runners is as they come off the track onto the tarmac.  The third runner tries to head off south along the riverbank and I can't catch his attention to call him back.  Fortunately he realises quickly that he may be wrong and doubles back to talk to a family of walkers who point him over the bridge towards me.  There are many places to expect a directionally challenged runner to veer off course ... but that isn't one of them.

Fourth and fifth are Andrew Murray and Thomas who arrive chattering away.  How do they manage to make it look so effortless...?

Many times I've heard the expression that in Scotland, you get all four seasons' weather in a single day.  Today I can see all four seasons at once.  But mostly I can see the "wintry showers" coming down across Rannoch as they block out the mountains, before delivering their cargo of rain, sleet and snow.

And the wind never stops.

Thank god for a self-indulgent trip to Tiso last weekend, and the acquisition of a fur hat and very expensive gloves (I thought a requirement of keeping me warm and dry, while still being able to hold a pen, was pretty simple - apparently not!).  However I probably should have been investing in a new pair of boots as well as the left one is letting in water at an alarming rate, resulting in some significant squelching.

Ah well, at least I'm only standing here; I'm not running up on the high open ground.  I'm the sane one, right?

Not surprisingly, there aren't too many walkers out today.  As usual there's an element of curiosity as to what the race is, and what the runners are doing.  Maybe it's the fact that you have to be reasonably hardy to be walking the WHW in December, but there doesn't seem to be the same level of surprise as I've encountered on other ultras.  However the white van driver delivering down to Inverornan is sufficiently impressed to give me a pound as a donation.

Phil arrives accompanied by the first withdrawal - a runner who stands, shivering in vest and shorts, until I quite bluntly tell him to get inside the hotel and get warmed up.  There may well be a foil blanket in my car but I don't wish to have to use it!  Oooh car ... in the expectation of a long stint in the middle of nowhere I made a flask of coffee first thing and it's still in the boot.  I fetch it along with a box of Jaffa cakes (not quite sure why there weren't any jelly babies - poor planning!) but Dave offers to cover the checkpoint for ten minutes while I have hotel coffee (which he's paying for).

The advantage of the A82 checkpoint is the proximity of proper toilets.  It's far too cold to be exposing any naked flesh, and with the number of layers I have on, would probably take half an hour to complete!

I try not to drip too much water in the nice restaurant area of the hotel, and also not to defrost too much as the weather isn't going to be any better when I do go back outside.

When I do go back to my post, it's to the sight of Dave handing out my coffee to some runners....

The 10k runners are a mix of serious and fun runners, including the Gobi United team in kilts ... and two runners dressed as parrots.  I can't begin to imagine what any walkers seeing those coming towards them are going to think.  Possibly check the flask and assume they've mixed up the coffee and whisky?

Back at my crossing, the runners arrive at increasingly distant intervals.  They've had four, five, six hours out on the hills in some savage weather but they're still going.  A pause for food, a brief chat, maybe a bit of friendly banter and they're away for the final stretch down to Tyndrum.

Thomas comes back with Neal Gibson (who should have been running but acquired an ankle injury on the WHW a week or so earlier).  Both Silke and Caroline are still out on the hill, Thomas having finished earlier and now onto support duties.  Their purchase of takeout coffee is inspired, especially when I get to hold one of the cups and relish the warmth.

Eventually the car comes up from the Forest Lodge checkpoint to say that the last two runners (Mark, an experienced competitor and his girlfriend on her first ultra) have just left there so will be here in 45 minutes or so.  Everyone else has come through, so the sensible thing would be to head indoors and watch out for them. Unfortunately, my mind is thinking more about the obligations of the Marcothon....

I had thought of running my 25 minutes after finishing here and heading down to Tyndrum, with the opportunity of changing into something more appropriate, but I'm tired and cold and know I won't do it.  And I certainly won't run when I get back to Edinburgh.

But I've just spent four hours looking at the West Highland Way and, well, I've never run on it and this really was where it all began.  Seems a shame not to take the chance while it's here....

So my Marcothon for the day consists of a slow jog up the hill west of Bridge of Orchy and back down again.  This is not a path, or even a trail - it's an avalanche of lumpy rocks and water tumbling down the hill, and I'm really not dressed for it in any way, from the furry hat on my head to my leaking boots - but it was fun.

Eventually Mark and his girlfriend arrive; she looks numb with cold and tiredness but still smiling and determined.  After they head off up to the station, and on the finish line, there is a checkpoint to be tidied up, rubbish bagged up, signs collected, etc

Then it's down to Tyndrum and into a heaving Paddy's bar.  More coffee and chips (okay not the Real Food Cafe chips but they were good :-) ) and chatter with those who finished hours ago, and those who are only just finishing now.  I talk to Caroline for the first time and she tells me that when she fell on the final stretch, her first thought was that she might not be able to do her Marcothon.  It's not obsessive, really....

A number of people are staying over in Tyndrum for the night, and there is some serious rehydration already started.  Sadly I have to be back in Edinburgh to keep an commitment the next day in Stirling and it already feels much later than five o'clock.  By the time I leave, I think I've promised to come back next year.

When I lose my footing on the outside steps and fall awkwardly, my first thought is that if I have broken my ankle, at least I know exactly where the nearest doctor is - even he's not entirely sober - and my second is that I won't complete the Marcothon.  Not a thought I could even have contemplated after the end of last year's event.  (Although sore for a few hours, the ankle was okay which is more than could be said for a discoloured and swollen finger).


On the Sunday morning, I'm heading back up the M9, this time on my way to Stirling University.  Overnight it has snowed and the motorway is down to a single lane through to Falkirk.  The blizzard that descends on the final stretch is even more worrying.  But it passes over.

Then starts up again as we head out to the track for the Fetch mile race.  My previous mile race was on the hottest evening of the year; this one is going to be in a snowstorm.

As I expect, I'm last by a considerable margin but much encouragement sees me cross the line at 12.13, looking like a drowned rat and not sure whether I want to laugh or cry.

And despite Hurricane Bawbag, and another snowfall, my Marcothon is still intact.

Not quite sure what's happened in the last year ... but I'm loving it.

See you in 2012.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

I am Not a Runner - Parkrun

Some months ago, Santababy introduced me to the world of Fetch, where there are a lot of ultra runners ... and also a lot of runners who think in much more "normal" distances.

There is a little group of Fetch beginners and we've sort of clubbed together to say nice things to one another / nag when appropriate. Two of us agreed we would both do Parkrun today - despite living 400 miles apart.  What I didn't realise at the time was that it would be a year to the day since I bought my first pair of running shoes - that's one way to celebrate an anniversary...

Having grizzled on a thread about not wanting to be 10 minutes behind everyone else (last I can handle, but not last by that much), a fellow Edinburgh Fetchie - who I've never met or had any dealings with before - offered to run it with me. How does this happen - that there is an online forum where people are quite happy to put themselves out for the benefit of a stranger they've never met?

Friday night was spent at a "Meet the Designer" event at one of my new favourite shops, drinking kir royale and buying presents (well, at least one of my purchases won't be going in my stocking...) which is possibly not the best preparation. Lack of food and a late night all contributed to being pretty late out of bed. That's okay, I know where I'm going.

I do but can I find it?? I've been to Cramond more times than I can count but today I absolutely cannot find the turn down to the river. Eventually I spot a car being driven by someone in a fluorescent top and make a u-turn to follow, gambling that they must be a runner. Phew, moments to spare..
Lyns and I have exchanged vague descriptions but I'm now convinced I won't be able to find her. She is in fact convinced that I've stood her up solely to make her run it when she's having a period with running .... But it seems there is only one shortish blonde with a Fetch buff as a head scarf, and only one overweight 40-something redhead...
No sooner have we met than the announcer is talking through the loudhailer. I don't hear what he says, other than a warning about somewhere being slippy and that there is a runner getting married this afternoon, who has brought his wedding party with him for the run. Cue all round cheers.

Then the whistle goes and I've barely got my fleece off. My arm pouch (car keys, ipod, money, barcode etc) is in my hand which is where it's going to have to stay for the duration. The Garmin isn't even turned on, never mind started and when I try and get it going, I obviously press the wrong button and the screen fills with garbage. Off!

It's a beautiful day - cold, sunlit and clear with not a breath of wind. The Forth looks like a millpond which must be unheard of.

Without the Garmin I have no idea of pace. However we're exactly where I expect to be - at the back - and I can see the whole field of runners spread out in front of us, with the front runners sprinting into the distance with every second. At the western end of Marine Drive, a runner comes the opposite way at speed and I jokingly ask Lyns to tell me he's not the leader.

"No, but we'll start seeing them by that building, at about the 1k mark".

What??? We haven't even got to1k yet and my legs hurt and I'm panting. Crap. I don't want to do this. I want to stop and go home.

It's actually past the cafe, and past the 1k point before they start coming back. My brain is trying to do the maths and failing. One of the first of the runners is someone I recognise - last seen delivering a cracking time at the Glen Ogle 33. Now this really isn't fair - how can people be fast sprinters AND fast ultra runners!!

Just before the left turn, an oncoming runner calls out to me - it's a colleague from work looking far too happy.

So that's 2k down. I run twice this distance several times a week, how can it be so hard? I can't even see the nearest runners and I'm seriously thinking about walking for a stretch. I've been counting my steps and breaths for what feels like hours and I'm not even half-way. I swear this isn't as far when I walk it.

Then again ... half-way. One of the marshals catches up with us as he's clearing the signs. "Home stretch now" he says, or something similar. I like that way of thinking and it reminds me of Fiona Rennie. However I'm also trying to ignore the fact that he seems to be walking at nearly the same pace I'm jogging at...

I should know better than to try and "run" and talk at the same time, but I do manage to contribute something to the conversation between the three of us. Like everyone in Edinburgh he has worked at RBS, like every runner in Edinburgh we have some mutual acquaintances ... and we're past 3k. "Are you enjoying it" he asks. Right now? No. But ask me later and you may just get a different answer.

The only other runners I see now are the ones who've long finished and are now running back along the front to Edinburgh. I still want to stop and walk but I'm ... blowed ... if I'm going to! Walk/run might possibly be faster but I absolutely want to run every step of this 5k, no matter how slowly. Pride will get you a long way...

I can see the finish line and it looks miles away. I can see a sign saying 4k and I don't believe it. How the hell do I know people who do this - at twice the speed or more - and keep it up for 40, 50 or 95 miles?

As we get to the trees, the marshall jokingly suggests a sprint finish. What do you mean? I am sprinting! I think he got the irony...

Amazingly the finish hasn't been packed away and we still get clapped home. How can an orange spray-painted line be such a welcome sight? Oh bliss - I can stop now.

Or maybe I shouldn't. My legs are hurting badly and I'm quite convinced that if I stop suddenly, there is going to be an awful lot of pain later and tomorrow. Keep walking, and anyway I have to collect a finish chip and then go and get my barcode scanned. Not that my brain or hands are functioning at all.

Lyns remembers to stop her Garmin. I don't want to ask - the only 5k I did before was Race for Life, it was 44 .19 and this has felt horribly slower - but I may as well get it over with and deal with the bad news now.

It might be about 41-42 minutes, she says. I want to hug her. That is amazing. My "pacer" is amazing.

My workmate is at the finish still and comes over to say hello. As do a couple who look familiar although for a moment I can't place them. Then I realise that they are the retired couple in the ground floor flat of my building. I never even realised that they were runners but apparently today was her 91st Parkrun!

Everyone disperses and I find myself talking to one of the wedding party, the father of the groom. He cheers me up by telling me that we weren't last as his cousin has just finished. However his cousin isn't on the official results so probably isn't registered (the only reason Lyns shows as last is because she deliberately stepped back at the finish to let me cross first - did I tell you she's amazing?).

The cafe is open and I sit for ten minutes in the winter sunshine with a much appreciated coffee. I can't think of anywhere I'd rather be, or how I'd rather feel.

Later the official results are published.

#239 - First Timer! - has an official time of 41.08

That'll do me.

Until the next time, that is...

Sunday, 13 November 2011

One Year On...

A year ago today, I stood in the Highlands and watched my first ultra.

In no particular order, these are the things I've learnt from runners and running.

Falling over hurts.
Getting back up hurts more.
Getting back up and running again hurts less.
Everybody has bad days and bad races.
Upright, outside and running is a damn good place to be.
Running through puddles doesn't stop being fun past the age of 5.
Ex-boyfriends are like jellyfish. 
Good shoes are not a luxury.
Midgies are evil.

Sore legs are not a reason not to go running.
Don't ask an ultra runner to decide if you're hurt or have a whingery.  They don't understand hurt.
The human body is capable of impossible things.
Running 3 minutes for the first time is harder than running 30 minutes for the first time.
Rain is a reason to go out running, not a reason to stay in.
It doesn't matter how long or short you run; sooner or later your bowels will catch you out.
Runners want other runners to do well.
The inside seam of your leggings will give way at the furthest point from home.
Only normal people have ten toenails.

It's possible to start running with tears pouring down your face. 
It's not possible to keep crying when you're running.
Learning to stretch is not optional.
Being hugged by a hot and sweaty friend at the end of their race is wonderful.
A race has a winner but never a loser.
Never say never again.
Adrenalin and joy will keep you awake for a whole weekend.
Running is addictive.
Despite being an incredibly selfish sport (in terms of time and effort committed to training and racing), ultra runners are generous and open-hearted.  Mostly.  I'm sure there must be the odd bad egg.
A mile is a very long way.
Second place to Lucy counts as a win.

Legends work in supermarkets.
True love will climb Conic Hill to deliver blueberries.
Your soulmate will walk you across the Lharig Mor in the dark and cold.

It helps to be able to see where your feet are going.
Stopping and restarting is much harder than keeping going.
Here's to the Dreamers - God bless us all!
Run as fast as you can for as long as you can may work for Stu Mills; for most of us, negative splits are the way to go.
The longer the race, the less you compete against others and more against yourself.
A good support crew is priceless.
Too much water is more lethal than too little.
Some people race and some people run.
Being sick when you run is not a big deal, continuing to be sick when you stop is.

There is at least one person who can run 90 miles on a broken ankle.
There is at least one person who can run 15 miles while having a heart attack.
Runners don't stop because they get old.
Sometimes you run away, sometimes you run home, and sometimes you run in circles.
Jelly babies are a recognised food group.
Dates and crisps are not.
Keep putting one foot in front of the other and you'll get to the end.
There are more uses for vaseline than you really want to think about.
Ultra runners have an inordinate capacity for food and alcohol.

Hazel McFarlane runs ultras.  She's also blind.
Only yoofs and wannabe rappers have white trainers.
The body can't remember pain.  The mind will rationalise it.
There will always be someone who can run faster or further than you.
But maybe not both.
And maybe not today.
Finishing last is better than not starting.

Always run from the heart.
No regrets.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Glen Ogle 33 - The Friendliest Wee Ultra

I think I'd half offered my assistance at this one a few months ago, probably as a response to how much every enjoyed the first Bill & Mike event at Glenmore (12 or 24 depending on your level of dedication/insanity - delete as appropriate).  But having met up with Mike at Andrew Murray's book launch, it became pretty inevitable...

I'd been toying with another autumn weekend in Glencoe but decided to replace that with a weekend in Strathyre: a place I'd driven through quite a few times over the last year.  Mainly at pretty high speed heading for Tyndrum, Kinlochleven, Fort William etc...  I remembered it being a pretty little village just north of Callendar with apparently every house on the main road offering B&B.  I also had a long standing memory of someone telling me how they'd like to run along the viaduct - but to this day, I can't remember who it was or the circumstances!

So I booked two nights at The Inn at Strathyre (on the basis of supporting race sponsors) and watched the entry list grow and include more and more people I knew.  Even the Pirate was heading up from London, having made a wager with Tim Downie as to their respective performance.  As this would involve some cheek kissing for the loser, he was even threatening to train for this one...

So, on a dark November Friday night, I'm driving west along the M9 again, having failed miserably to leave work early, but cheered up by watching the firework displays, the most spectacular of which is just off the motorway at Stirling.

I stop at Callendar for chips, not thinking about the "joys" of small towns on a Friday night...  Unable to get a space on the street and trying to avoid the gangs of teenagers on the street corners, I stop in a car park and realise I have to walk past a group of men enthusiastically watering the weeds on a wall... fortunately it's reasonably dark.  It's also bloody freezing and clearly several degrees colder than Edinburgh.

The last few miles are in thick freezing fog and not helped by my satnav suddenly deciding that I should be going to Manchester and stridently demanding that I "make a u-turn where possible".

The bar of the Inn is packed and, although I don't recognise any faces at a quick glance, I certainly recognise the WHW and Fling t-shirts on a few people!  No nonsense about checking in, one of the bar staff walks me up to my room and lets me in.

I think the appropriate words for the room are "quaint" and "retro".  It was clearly decorated in the height of fashion with its butterscotch bathroom suite, red flowered bathroom carpet and louvred wardrobe doors that aren't entirely mobile.  But it's spacious, scrupulously clean and warm.  And the bed is very comfortable.

Tim & Muriel are staying up the road but by the time I've unpacked and sorted, are eating downstairs so I head down to join them.  Also in the bar is the irrepressible Ada (my unexpected room-mate from Ayr) and her club mates; they are not staying in the Inn but in the "love bus", a camper van parked in the Inn's car park.  We're also joined by Scott who is braver than any of us and camping at the site just outside the village.

A tent.  In Scotland.  In November.  I know I'm a wimp but, even so.....

Mike & Bill are in and out during the evening as they're still putting up race signs around the course.  I've never met Bill before, although he's tagged in a few of my photos from the Devil o the Highlands.  He's also the runner who had a heart attack in the Fling and left in a helicopter.  What I didn't realise until tonight was that he ran for about 15-20 miles whilst having the heart attack, thinking it was acid reflux.

By the time the drinks and talk are complete, it's the wrong side of midnight, which probably isn't the best preparation for race day but it's been too nice to leave the open fire and friendly chat.

The alarm goes off at stupid o'clock, which is still later than Bill & Mike who needed to get out early to try and finish all the signage.  Off road ultras are great, but it can be pretty challenging getting race "furniture" to remote locations...

Outside at 6.00am the village is dark and silent, and covered in a thick blanket of cold wet fog.  There is no sign of life anywhere, including the car park where (wrongly) I believe registration is due to start in 30 minutes.  This is when I wish I was smart enough to own a torch.  Ambling up the pavement, I see a man in running gear standing outside the B&B smoking.  This has to be Norry; there can't be that many ultra runners with a nicotine habit.  Further up, the legendary Ray McCurdy is jogging up and down the road.

I head south out of the village and to my right, see lights flickering away far down the picnic site.  It looks like something from ET.  It's also close enough to Hallowe'en for me to think of tales of Will-o'-the-wisp as I head through the trees towards the lights.

On drawing near, there are (fortunately) no mischievous spirits, only Mike and Bill and another hive of activity.  For novice race directors, they're incredibly well organised and equipped: trestle table, generators, tent, free-standing lights, maps, vouchers, race numbers, even the SA permit pinned to the inside of the tent.

Soon enough the first runners start arriving; some I know, some I don't, some I know through FB or blogs or photos but this is the first time we've met properly.  Amongst them is yakhunter, the author of "This Runner's World" (linked over >>>>>) which has some amazing photography that always reminds me how beautiful a part of the country I'm lucky enough to live in.

As more and more runners arrive, registration becomes the art of doing several things at once - one hand searching out race numbers, the other ticking off names, whilst independently holding a conversation or pointing out where to put the drop bags.  Amazing how many runners can forget their medical forms... but no point getting cross, just hand over a blank form and a pen, and tease them instead.  It actually reminds me of working behind a bar, a feeling reinforced when I greet the lovely Antonia (winner of Glenmore 12 in her first ultra season) with the words "hello gorgeous" and the next runner in the queue (definitely in the more senior male veteran category) calls out "hope you're going to be saying that to me".  Of course I am...

Registration done, Mike sounds the air horn and all the runners head across the road to the start point.  For the first time I realise it's now daylight - when did that happen?

In the pause while the race starts, the start/finish line crew introduce ourselves.  Geraldine thinks she knows me and it only takes a few moments to realise we both helped at the S2S Ultra nearly a year earlier.

Bill disappears immediately after the start and we barely see him again for the rest of the day as he's sorting out signs, keeping in touch with checkpoints, fetching and carrying whatever's needed.

There's no rest for the wicked - or marshalls - and the five of us start on packing up goodie bags.  This is where I came in, I think....  Somehow it seems to be getting colder not warmer and I'm soon trying to pack bags wearing pink fluffy gloves.  But there's nothing I can do to defrost my feet that feel like blocks of ice on the cold mud.  But when we finish the bags and step out of the tent into the sunshine, it feels blissfully warm and we're happy to drink coffee and chatter.

Davie Hall arrives with the exuberant Millie who decides that my pink glove would make a perfect chewing toy.  Which it might if my hand wasn't still in it.

Suddenly we get the news that the first two runners are through the final checkpoint much earlier than anyone anticipated.  As it's the first year, and no-one's run the route before, there are no benchmarks for time and it's a real hybrid of a course, mixing up trail and road, flat and hill.  Four hours seemed to be a common expectation for the fast runners but I'd thought closer to three and a half for the winner.

Even so, I'm still half stunned when at barely twenty past eleven the cry goes up of "runner, runner!" and we see the blonde dreadlocks of Paul Raistrick hurtling along the path and down into the finish area.

Three hours and 21 minutes to cover roughly 31 miles ... that's a continual pace of six and a half minute miles ... wow.

The second man arrives six minutes later.  Gareth Mayze isn't someone I know but apparently he and Paul had been neck and neck through to the last few miles when Paul just put his foot down and found another gear.

There's a break of 12 minutes or so until the third male arrives, closely followed by numbers four and five, not one of which has the decency to look like they've been working hard.

"First lady" comes the cry a few minutes later.  "That'll be Lucy" I say without even looking up, and sure enough it is.  Another win and record to add to her collection.

In total, there are fifteen runners finishing under the four hour mark, which includes the second woman and Andy, the "normal" runner who still seems stunned at just how good his season has been.

There are five of us at the finish line and we mean to swap roles around after an hour but five hours later I'm still at the finish line with stopwatch in hand, calling out numbers and times.  The layout of the finish is great in that the runners come round a loop to the finish and we can cheer them down to the line.

As each hour approaches, I find myself absolutely screaming at runners to make it to the finish before the watch clicks over.  There may have even been some bad language ... sorry but it did help some of them, because they came back to tell me so!

I also find myself screaming at Ian B when he's too busy chatting to notice Sandra coming along the path.

Antonia finishes in 4.38 which is pretty good for someone claiming not to be fit...

Tim comes in at 5.49 ... would the Pirate have beaten him we'll never know.  (A combination of missed alarms (the dog switched off the mobile ... yes, really!) and points failure have trapped him in London and he doesn't make the race or the post-race drinks.)  There will be a next time and a next wager, I'm sure...

Three Carnegie runners - Robin, Pauline Walker and Sue - cross the line hand in hand with wide grins.  But not so wide as the invincible Fiona 2 minutes later...

At nearly half two I find myself screaming at a female runner who stops yards from the line.  But she's deliberately stopped to wait for her friend so they can finish together.  What I only find out later is that it was her first ultra and her friend had shepherded her round the route despite being injured and expecting to pull out at 20 miles.

A woman asks if I know Karen D and gives me the keys to her car so Karen can get to her stuff if she finishes whilst the driver's away.  I love this - where else would you give a complete stranger the keys to your car...?

Karen Robertson finishes and immediately goes into the stiff-legged shuffle that seems to be her trademark after a successful ultra.  She tells me she has to work the next day which looks as though it could be ... interesting.

By three o'clock, there are only two runners left to come back - Jim Drummond and Jim McIntyre.  The third Jim - Jim Robertson - isn't well and is supporting by car.  Earlier in the day, Davie had told me about writing an article on the 3 of them and realising they had a combined age of 200....

Whilst we're waiting, I get some coaching advice from Jim R - how often am I going to get a chance to get advice from someone with that pedigree....?

Just before half three, the last two Jims come home and a flurry of sledging ensues between them.  I could listen to them for hours but the sun is setting, it's getting cold and it's time to start packing up the finish.

Amazing how much "stuff" there is to put away, and how much rubbish we've produced in the day.  An aside to some of the newcomers on their first rural ultra - this is not a road marathon, do not throw your rubbish on the ground, there are no roadsweepers in the countryside...

The Inn is packed with runners enjoying their complimentary soup and beer.  I have to say that bowl of soup was possibly the best I've ever tasted...

And one drink turns into another ... and another ... and somehow this englishwoman with two left feet gets inveigled into taking part in her first ceilidh.

Ceilidh - now that could be the subject of a whole essay as a defining factor between the English and the Scots....

But by 3am we've put the world to rights (several times), the locals have gone home and there's only a yawning barman left.  It's time to go to sleep and relax after a great day.

Whatever it is that makes a great event, these two seem to have figured it out.  Everyone had a great day, everyone seemed to leave with the words "see you next year"...

There are hundreds of photos but this one seems to sum up the day for me, 31 miles, a shoogly bridge and the widest smile:

Oh and if you're a very lucky ultra runner, you may just be getting an invitation to something rather interesting next year...

Photos from The Inn at Strathyre, GO33, Ray Woods, 

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Down the River

I was spoilt for choice last weekend.  Down in North Wales, some of the best runners in Britain were competing in the Commonwealth championships - including a few I'm lucky enough to know.  Over in Ayr, there was the last run of the SUMS series for 2011 - the River Ayr Way Challenge.  And in Edinburgh there was a pile of work to be done and plenty of good reasons not to be getting involved in any running events.

All of which explains why, when the alarm went off at 4.30 on Saturday morning, I glared at it for an hour or so before getting up and preparing to drive to the west coast of Scotland for a few hours.  My plan was to watch the start, head down to the sea for an hour or two and then go and watch the finishers, before heading home mid-afternoon.  Hmm I've had plans before like that.....

Every time I think I start to know Scotland, I find another piece of the country that looks nothing like the bits I already know.  Driving southwest out of Edinburgh I see pine forests and then high open land that makes me think I've been transported to the Yorkshire moors.  The road however appears to belong in Outer Kazakhstan: is there anywhere better than Scotland at taking a potholed decrepit dirt track and calling it a "A" road?

But Glenbuck arrives before the suspension packs up entirely and there are signs saying "caution - runners" and .... nothing.  The short single track road stops at a sign paying tribute to Bill Shankly who was born here.  The left hand fork goes through a small flood to a gate marked "no unauthorised admittance"; the right past a cottage and a sign saying "private".  No runners.  No signs of runners.  Despite the coach laid on to transport runners from Ayr to the start line, I expected some signs of life here barely 40 minutes from race time.

Another driver is there looking for the race as well and when she heads up the cottage road, I decide to follow her.  Round two sharp bends, through the narrowest stone gate and there is a cluster of cars and people in a wooded clearing.  There is nowhere safe to park and my reversing skills are ... limited ... so, after a 10 point turn, I drive back down the track and park on a verge where I think I'm out of the way.

There are lots of familiar faces around and, over in the far corner, is the lovely Mrs Mac who greets me with a hug.  Today she is providing support to a multi-national group of runners consisting of her English pirate, fellow Scot David Ross, and Richard from Ireland (aka The Beirut Taxi and a man who decided to run an ultra to celebrate his 40th birthday).  Not sure what the Welsh did to upset her....

The race start is delayed - something about the coach being late but there are plenty of people arriving by car here at Glenbuck.  The space fills up with old friends greeting one another, and behind every tree is a runner taking a last-minute comfort break.  Runners and bowels and bladders ... how did I get to know so much more than I ever wanted to know about these things?

The SUMS prizegiving is being held this evening in Ayr and I get asked several times if I'm going.  No, I'm heading home.  When it was going to be a ball, I didn't feel I had any entitlement to be there as a non-runner and even though it's a more casual event now (due to venue problems and lots of top runners being in Wales) that feeling didn't change.  Nor do I have any overnight bag or change of clothes, so while I'd partly like to stay and socialise, I know my evening is going to be spent back home watching X-factor.

Among the familiar faces is Andy, the "normal" runner who came third at the Devils who asks if I'll be popping up all along the course again.  Not likely when I don't have a clue where any of the checkpoints are, have never been to Ayrshire and am relying on satnav to find the finish.

Also there is Karen R who isn't competing despite being in her running gear.  Instead she's running the first 10 miles as guide runner for Hazel MacFarlane. 

Who is blind. 

Karen & Hazel
I have no words for this.  I can just about contemplate the idea of running a road race without sight.  But an uneven muddy trail overgrown with brambles and nettles, narrow to less than single track in places, with no stable ground underfoot?  I have seen some amazing performances over the past few months but this surpasses them all.

A flurry of bodies arrive as the coach finally comes in from Ayr.  Amongst the runners are the Challenge walkers who will cover the same course over the two days of the weekend.  They are laden with sensible clothing, packs, stout walking boots and poles, causing the runners to look almost naked beside them.

Having decided that everyone is here, the runners are called down to the start point.  After last minute photos, greetings and equipment adjustments, they set off just after 9.15.  A few minutes later the walkers set off behind them and crews start heading for cars.

Contrary to plans, I find myself following Lee as my guide to the first checkpoint.  There is a brief stop by the cottage when she realises the flags are not flying from her car.  Can't be a pirate support vehicle without the jolly roger....

For the first few miles, the runners are on a raised path just to the left of the main Ayr road.  I confess I'm distracted trying to look sideways.  Add in the fact that I'm following Lee who is also concentrating the race rather than the road and it's an achievement to get to Muirkirk without an accident.

Although technically an unsupported race, there are a number of crews at this stop as there are at all the others throughout the course.  At barely 5 miles apart, sometimes it's harder for the crew to get from one to another than the runner.  I get to put some more names to some of the faces I've seen on the side of the trails.  And to admire the healthy and nutritious food available to runners from the marshalls:
The first runners are through at a blistering pace without pausing.  Strange how many different gaits there are to cover ground quickly from the long loping strides of Grant to the quick short paces of the second runner, yet their speeds are almost equal.

Race plans were for Richard to run alone to let him manage his own pace, and the two Daves to run roughly together.  The three come in separately but only a few minutes apart.  Richard runs through but the others pause briefly.

With nearly 7 miles to the next checkpoint, there is time to call into the village shop and get food and magazines for the support crew before a leisurely drive onwards. 

By Limmerhaugh the river has widened out and I squelch down the bank to the path.  Although it's now dry and starting to get warm, there has clearly been a lot of rain recently.  It's going to be a challenging surface to run through, particularly for anyone unfamiliar with the route and envisaging a tarmac towpath...

The leaders have already been through but there is a woman waiting for her partner and we get chatting.  She tells me her name is Heather and when I introduce myself she says "oh you've got a blog haven't you?" which is a quite surreal moment.  Her other half - Peter MacDonald - is in his first year of ultras and hoping to do the Triple Crown next year.  Heather is in training to be his support runner for the WHW....

Standing either side of the narrow path, clapping every runner who comes through, we feel a bit like a guard of honour.  It still feels strange that runners have the energy or mindset to acknowledge us; is it really a boost to have random people encouraging you on your way?

Lee has set up her support point a little way further up the track.  In all my races this year, I've never really seen an outdoor support point and I'm immensely impressed by how organised and equipped she is.  Camping chairs to sit on, a folding table laid out with possible needs, a clipboard with expected times and anticipated food, a portable stove for soup, hot food and coffee, giant bottles of water....  Never mind medical supplies, food, drinks, clothes - this really is a military expedition. 

Have trainers, will run?  Who are you kidding?  You really can't do it without back-up.

In previous years, this spot by a footbridge was the official checkpoint and as runners come through, many of them call out their numbers, mistaking Lee for a marshall.  Quite a number of them also try and turn up onto the bridge itself and cross the river, even when it's clearly blocked by other crews.  The bridge is pretty decrepit with unravelled stays and a pronounced wobble - it looks like a prop from the latest Indiana Jones film.  Cue small boy creeping out ... and naughty relative jumping up and down to shake it.

Our three runners are spread out now and this is the last but one point where Lee will be able to meet all of them.  It's also become blue-skyed and hot, defying the weather forecast.
At Sorn, the runners come onto the road for the first time (I'm sure there's a good reason for them to run on the road rather than the pavement but it makes for interesting encounters with car drivers...) and the route crosses the river over a hump-backed bridge closed to traffic.

I wander over and find a photographer set up to catch runners coming over the crest.  It's a vantage point that should make for great shots but with the disadvantage of no sightline along the route to see their approach.

There are heavy metal barriers at each end of the bridge to block off the traffic and the organisers have tied signs to them to direct the runners.  Unfortunately at the far end there is no gap between the barrier and the bridge and the runners keep trying to turn in from of the barrier where there's nowhere to go.  Myself and another spectator try moving cones into the space but it's not having the required effect and the barriers are going nowhere without a JCB.  The photographer suggests the sign needs to be on the opposite side of the road.  Cue some bloody minded struggling with road signs, A-frames, sandbags, mud and string to achieve this.  Apologies to Ayrshire council for messing about with your road signs - but it worked and injured runners would have made such a mess....

Back at the car, Lee is heating up oxtail soup.  Mason (dog) is getting ready to lick the bowl clean.

Being parked after the checkpoint, a number of runners have left rubbish with us.  Before we leave, we go to take this to the marshall who refuses to take it, saying its not his job.  Can I merely say that it is not good for one's health to argue with Mrs Mac on the subject of marshall's duties....?

From Sorn we take a high speed shortcut down a side road to Catrine for a flying meet and greet and then on to Mauchline.  And getting lost. Repeatedly.  After about five attempts, a map book consultation and an inquiry at a petrol station, we finally find the right road.

Richard is long ahead by now and the only way to meet the pirate is to drive up a narrow road and stop in the middle of it when we're a few hundred yards ahead of him.  Job done.  Now how to get back...?  I'm not a fan of reversing any distance, particularly with runners still coming up the narrow track.  But the consequence of turning round is that the sides of my car are now coated with a brown aromatic substance that isn't all mud....  I've been in the city too long....

The next stop is Failford which is a beautiful village with a lovely pub.  It's also on a busy road, with no pavements outside the village and fast traffic.  This would be a dangerous place for any pedestrian, but for runners tired and hot after more than 20 miles, even more so.  I flinch at a number of narrow misses between runners and lorries.

The pirate turns up unexpectedly whilst Mrs Mac is taking Mason (dog) for a comfort break and I discover that I am not a good support.  I don't know where anything is in the car, or even if we have the right things that are wanted.  Fortunately the expert is back on hand within moments and normal service resumes.

From here onwards, Richard is being met by a friend from Edinburgh who he will be staying with before heading home the next day.  His bags are all in the pirate wagon and it's suggested that I take them and go on from Failford to the finish rather than continuing through all the checkpoints.

I've enjoyed my look at a race from a support perspective but also quite happy to go back to observer status.  Support looks like a lot of hard work!

So, onwards down to Ayr and a touch of deja vu to find Muriel at the finish line with a camera.  Isn't this where I came in?

Sure enough I find myself handing out goody bags again, along with medals and bottles of water.  The winner - Grant Jeans not surprisingly - is long since home but I'm in time to see Andy come in as 4th male.
He's furiously trying to calculate if his time will have scored him the points he needs to get an age group prize in the SUMS championship and comes back to Anneke, the Race Director, several times to check finishing times.

For a while runners come in singly and some distance apart, but then they start arriving in groups which is harder to keep up with.  I decide to copy the Fling and hijack some nearby children to help with water and medals.  This reminds me why I didn't follow the family profession and become a teacher...

As I hand over labelled goody bags, it strikes me how many of these people I know by name.  Some I can even identify as they run into the track.  This is a very small world....

Richard makes it in with the widest smile on his face.  He'll be back....

As the afternoon wears on, I'm becoming less and less enthusiastic about going home.  A few drinks to say goodbye to the season and a chance to catch up with people ... However I have nowhere to stay, no change of clothes, no toiletries.  Muriel clinches it by pointing out that the Station Hotel is a big hotel and is bound to have rooms.  Everything else can be fixed by shopping...

There is an interesting challenge to getting the final SUMS positions calculated.  The chief statistician - Tim Downie - is running the race himself and will need to finish in a respectable time, feed today's results into spreadsheets and make it to the prizegiving.  There is such a thing as trying to do too much at once!

The pirate makes it to the finish in a decent time, proving once again that no training and excess alcohol consumption is no barrier to completing an ultra.

David Ross also finishes looking tired but happy.

A couple of runners (I think Rachel and Brian?) even manage to have a sprinting contest on the final few hundred yards, overtaking a very tired looking runner in the process.  I still haven't worked out how anyone has the capacity to sprint after 30, 40, 50 miles or more - no matter how many times I see it done!

The receptionist at the hotel gives me a slightly confused look when, with no more baggage than a very small handbag, I ask for a room but gives me a decent room rate which leaves me with just enough time for a trip to the supermarket for some basic essentials.  Morrisons doesn't sell clothes but there is a clean top in my car boot for some reason so I feel slightly less grubby after a shower and change.

Due to the Commonwealth championships, a lot of the SUMS prizewinners are absent, including the amazing Lucy Colquhoun who retains her ladies title by winning every race she ran, thereby scoring an unsurpassable 2000 points.  For various reasons, a number of race directors are also absent.  But everyone who's there is determined to enjoy themselves...

But the first prize of the night goes to Hazel Macfarlane for proving that there are truly no limits.

Almost as impressive is the special award to Frank Skachill for being the first to complete all 9 SUMS races in a single season.  The legendary Ray McCurdy was the first to enter all 9 last year but didn't complete them all (I hear he got lost once or twice....).  That's the first man, first lady is still up for grabs if anyone's interested.

This year's lifetime award goes to one of the grand old men of Scottish running, Jim Robertson, both for his ultra achievements (12 WHW finishes, including the oldest finisher, being only a small part of it) and his Jog Scotland coaching over the last ten years to bring hundreds of runners into the sport.  His award is presented by the "other" Jim - Jim Drummond.  Between them, those two have stories to keep you entertained for a lifetime of ultras....

And when the formalities are over, it's time for drinking and chatting and catching up with friends old and new, hearing gossip and plans, and more drinks and more chatter.  Until it's long past four in the morning and even the hardest drinkers are starting to flag.

So, to bed, and an unanticipated room-mate whose accommodation planning is even more slapdash than mine.  In the morning, three flights of stairs and no lift is a serious challenge for an ultra runner with 40 miles in their legs....  and possibly a breach of the Geneva convention.

And so ends the SUMS for this year.  But not quite the end of the ultra season...

Almost everyone I know seems to be heading for Glen Ogle on the 5th November.... See you there?

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Running Beyond Limits

Probably about a year ago, I heard about a Scottish doctor who was planning to run from John O Groats to the Sahara to raise funds for a charity (Yamaa Trust).  Now there's long distance running and then there's two thousand, six hundred and fifty miles of running....

As part of his route across Scotland, there was to be a charity ultra along 28 miles of the West Highland Way.  When a request came out for anyone who was willing to help on the day, I jumped at the chance and, despite my openly declared lack of experience in anything to do with running or races, the organisers seemed happy to have me.

So, on a cold dark November morning, I drove west across Scotland to Kinlochleven to see my first ultra.  There was snow up on the Devils Staircase that hadn't been there a few weeks ago and a bunch of runners in kilts, fancy dress and big smiles.  Everyone seemed to know one another (except me who knew nobody) and it felt like a party.

After coffee and cake at Altnafeadh, I ended up at Victoria Bridge with some packs of water, a semi-accurate list of runners and ..... my own company.  In fits and starts, the runners came past: the first ones bounding past at speed without stopping, the later ones stopping for water and a chat and every one of them looking as though they were having the time of their lives.  Even the dark haired girl being chivvied by her friend (a small blonde in the shortest kilt and the widest smile) that she absolutely could finish the remaining ten miles...

And as I watched  them bound past, I had my "bugger this, I'm sick of saying I can't" moment, which finds me buying a pair of running shoes a week later.

Five months later, The Adventure Show documentary is broadcast which reminds me that, as well as the fundraising, Andrew Murray's run was intended to promote the benefits of exercise.  Finally I get in touch with him to thank him for what S2S did to change my life.  His reply is personal and immensely inspiring.

Since completing the run, he's got married, undertaken a lot of public speaking and engaged with politicians to help develop strategies to improve the health of the country through exercise.  Oh and he wrote a book as well.

The book was finally published today, with a launch event at Snowlines Footworks in Edinburgh.  (If you want to buy a copy, try here.  Or here).  Amongst other things, there was a 5k fun run advertised for 10am.  I ummed and aahed for a long time - whilst I wanted to do it, I have no illusions about the competitive nature of most runners and doubted very much it would be at any speed I'm capable of considering as fun - finally making my mind up only the day before.

Despite the prevailing Edinburgh weather of cold and wet, the morning became hot and dry.  I knew I was going to suffer when Ian B arrived dripping with sweat having run the mile or so from home.  It was also too fast!  If I'm ever going to start running regularly with other people I need to learn to set my own pace and not try to keep up with others.  I know I can run 5k almost every time - but only if I start at my own slow pace and stick to it...

Andrew did, very charmingly, drop back to talk with me but even at that speed, I can't run and talk.  I found myself instead jogging with a lovely older woman with a black dog. who turned out to be Andrew's mother.  We made a strategic decision to cut out the second lap and head for the finish line to be cheerleaders instead.

So I ran with the man who ran 2650 miles last winter, even if it was only 100 yards or so. 

Afterwards there is coffee and cake back at the shop and more chatting with the other runners and friends who've come along.  Among them is Mike Adams who I've not seen since he was sweeper at S2S but has just put on an incredibly successful race of his own - the Glenmore 24 - with the Glen Ogle 33 to come in November.

The Yamaa Trust are repeating the S2S Ultra again this year, together with the 10k fun run from Bridge of Orchy to Tyndrum (details under upcoming events).  Having told someone only two weeks ago that I was nowhere near ready for a 10k, the idea of this is becoming disturbingly attractive.  Mike doesn't help by telling me how much fun it would be, and that it's a flat route.

My first 10k ... on the West Highland Way ... in December?  Madness or magical?

Sunday, 14 August 2011

The Devil of the Highland Midgies

This should be about an ultra.  But there were midgies. 
Lots of them.

I've discovered that midgies love me. 
This feeling is not reciprocated.

So whilst I try and relate the day of the Devil o the Highlands footrace, I apologise in advance for the unwarranted intrusion of thousands of small Scottish insects.

The Devil is the third of the West Highland Way ultras.  Along with the Fling and the WHWR itself, it makes up the Scottish Triple Crown.   I couldn't not be there for this one...

Mind you, I nearly reconsidered that when I realised that it started at six in the morning.  Add on a two hour drive from Edinburgh to Tyndrum, time for registration, etc and I calculated I was looking at a three o'clock alarm call to see the start.  No.  There are limits.  This is not going to happen.

So I'm going to be in the same position that I was for the Fling - somewhere on the route to watch the race go past me.  And, as for the Fling, I seek advice on where to be.  However this time I can go directly to the oracle himself - Murdo the Magnificent - and ask his opinion on a good spot (and also make sure I'm not treading on his toes by turning up in the same place!).  He tells me he's not going to be at this one, and points me in the direction of a good spot on Rannoch Moor.  I also realise that this time I really am going to have to give in and become an honorary Scot for the day ... what other flag but the Saltire can there be today?

Friday evening was spent working out how to turn a walking pole into a flag carrier, and getting to bed at a time that wouldn't make me too grumpy when the alarm went off at 4am...  Despite my best efforts I was pretty late leaving Edinburgh; there may have been one or two speed limits broken on the way west.  There were certainly a few unsuspecting tourists being overtaken when they weren't expecting it!  Ah well, it woke them up.

Driving into Crianlarich, the roadside signs were displaying "Warning.  Heavy rain.  Drive with Care".  Such a sign looks quite bizarre through sunglasses.  It's all a question of timing....

At Tyndrum I though I might see some vestiges of the race start but not a trace.  Amazing how several hundred people can vanish like that.  But on the road through to Bridge of Orchy, I can see little brightly coloured dots spread out along the Way.  It doesn't matter how many times I do this, I'm still as excited spotting my first runners.

Coming up to Bridge of Orchy, I can see signs saying "Caution. Runners" and slow down, realising that there is a possibility of one charging across the A82 in front of me.  As I approach the hotel, a man in a yellow jacket steps out into the road and puts his hand up to stop me and the other cars.  I'm grinning like an idiot - which may not be the response he gets from other motorists - as a man in a white top runs across without breaking stride.  Even in the car with the music turned up, I can hear the cheers and clapping from the crowd by the hotel.  There are lots of cars, lots of people and lots of midgie nets...

I head on up to the Glencoe Ski Centre and have a near miss with a deer carcass on a blind bend.  Poor thing.  One of my most magical memories is of hearing rutting stags calling to one another across the valley at the top of the Devil's Staircase last autumn.  A day and a place for believing that anything was possible, that fear will get you nowhere but putting one foot in front of the other will take you anywhere, even when it hurts...

I park at the foot of the car park, apply another dose of anti-midge spray and open the boot to get my rucksac and flag.  Instantly there is a soft fluttering across my face and I realise I've had my first contact with midges.  Annoying but no bites.  Though just how am I supposed to keep them out of the car while the door's open?

I have a confession.  For some reason I thought the path over Rannoch Moor was (reasonably) flat.  In hindsight this makes no sense, as the A82 is very much not flat.  But still I'm surprised to find myself heading upwards.  If this is the old military road, who on earth thought it was a good idea to build it over a hill?  Why not down on the flatter landscape where the modern road runs? 

I have knocked a long time off the sat nav prediction to get here but Murdo's prediction of 30 minutes walking is, on this occasion, absolutely spot on.  Either he's getting better at estimating time or I'm getting a bit fitter - I suspect the latter.

At first I can see the A82 - and all the support vehicles starting to pull into Blackrock Cottage - but soon I'm out of sight and sound of everything.  I disturb a pair of birds in the verge and as they jink off into the sky, I realise they're probably grouse.  And only then do I realise why some runners hold this to be their favourite part of the Way ... spectacular mind-blowing Rannoch Moor...

Just over the brow of the hill I meet a walker coming the other way.  He laughs and expresses his surprise at seeing someone else this early; and laughs even more when I tell him he's about to get run over by a hundred plus runners on their way to Fort William.

The view is spectacular: down to the river with the Way coming round the side of the slope in front of me.  An inspired suggestion by Murdo yet again.  I stop, shrug my backpack off and suddenly my vision fuzzes over.  What the hell?  I blink furiously, thinking I have something in my eyes, and only as the sun flashes through a gap in the cloud do I realise that my vision is fine ... but I am surrounded by a cloud of midgies.  I'm starting to understand why they're so notorious....

I've judged my timing quite well and the first runners are just visible coming up the hill towards me.  At the Fling, the first runners I saw (excluding Kate) were the veterans travelling at a restrained speed.  Here these are fast boys and they are seriously motoring.  Hell I can't run at that speed on the flat....

There are only a few feet between first and second and while I don't recognise the leader, I'm delighted to see the second is Thomas aka the Crazy German and honorary Scotsman.  To his credit he is totally unphased by a strange woman greeting him by name in the middle of nowhere!
There are a few minutes gap to the third man but then there is a regular procession, all going well and racing hard.

As for me, I'm rapidly losing patience with the midgies swarming around me whenever I stand still.  The last straw is when one tangles itself into my eyelashes; which is unpleasant for both of us.  I surrender and get out the very fetching pink midgie hood I bought for the WHW and never used.  Haha, you can't get me now, vile creatures.  My hands and arms are the only exposed skin and are protected by the repellent spray.  My leggings look like roses with greenfly due to the hundreds of resting beasties but I'm not bothered by how I look.

What I haven't realised is that the walk up to here has created a tiny gap between my leggings and socks ... I am going to pay for this later.

In maybe sixth or seventh position, I'm delighted to see the tiny frame of Lucy Colquhoun flying up the path.  As I greet her, she apologises for not recognising me.  Er, I'm wearing a pink midgie net, I'm not sure my own mother would recognise me at the moment!

Though Bob Steel does a few places later which makes me laugh.  He points out that he's not talking nonsense this time (cf the Clyde Stride) which also amuses me.

Only a place or two behind Lucy is a man in a yellow vest who totally ruins my theory of ultra trail runners all being small and slenderly built.  He's tall and, well normal,  but he's travelling well and looking good.  (Just to prove how little I know, he finishes third male.)  "Nice touch" he says, as he goes past, gesturing to the Saltire.

A couple of runners comment on the flag.  A few also say that they saw it and assumed it was Murdo.  They were then slightly confused to get closer and realise that "Murdo" was wearing a skirt...  The pink top was presumably also rather disconcerting.  Well I hope it was!

At the WHW I joked about hearing Sharon Law approaching the checkpoint.  This time I'm not joking.  I can hear her voice carrying through the silence of the Moor as soon as she comes round the side of the hill.  In the few gaps of sound I can hear an unmistakeable Scouse accent which can belong only to John Kynaston.  And where those two are, you can be sure that Debs Martin Consani won't be too far away.  Sure enough, the three of them pass me almost together.  Fortunately on this occasion, there is no water being thrown.  Or temper tantrums!

The midgie hood is doing a sterling job but it's an interesting challenge when I try to have a cup of coffee and a bite to eat.  I discover that if I walk in circles fast enough whilst drinking, they can't get to me.  But after the fifth time I try to eat a biscuit through the netting, I've had enough.  The hood comes off, and the combined hat/net goes on.  Sadly it has black netting which is nowhere near as flash as my pale pink hood :(

Ian B comes past on his way to meet Sandra and also jokes that he mistook me for Murdo briefly.  When the two of them, with another runner, come past Sandra certainly doesn't look like a woman who hasn't run more than five miles at a time since damaging her ankles in the WHW.  Ian asks if I'll be further along the course.  I tell them I'll be at the finish "don't keep me waiting too long!"

I'm more concerned by the half-naked runner who comes past.  It's far too early in the morning for that amount of flesh to be on display ... and there are also far too many midgies.  I am in pain just thinking about it....

As the flood of runners becomes an erratic trickle, I decide to pack up and head for the car.  I'd like to get to Fort William for the first finishers and, as usual, I have no idea where the finish is or where I can park...

Coming to the crest of the hill, I step off the path to allow a woman to run past.  "I've been following that flag for ages" she tells me in a broad scottish accent "brought a tear to the eye.  Mind you, doesn't take much!"  I love how attached the Scots are to their flag, no ugly xenophobia but lots of sentiment.

I'm also passed by Karen Robertson who is smiling, having clearly exorcised her Rannoch Moor demons from a nightmare run at the WHW.

It's starting to get very warm now (well it is August after all, even in Scotland) but one runner comes past all bundled up as if it's midwinter.  I think it's Sophie who was sweeper at Clyde Stride but it's a bit difficult to tell under all those layers.

Back on the road, I want to see if I can spot anyone running up the Devil's Staircase but with all the cars parked at the foot of it, I daren't even take my eyes off the road.  I've never seen it so busy and I strongly disapprove.  The Highlands should be full of wild lonely places, not packed with cars and people like an urban park.

Having dealt with more ambling tourists on the drive around to Fort William, I choose to park by the Nevis Centre.  Taking photos on the moor has flattened the batteries in my camera and phone.  The phone I've managed to partially recharge in the car but I need new batteries for the camera and Morrisons seems as good a place as any (much good they do as the camera refuses to work with them and I have to beg some others from Davie).  Also, it can't be that far on foot to the finish line, can it?

Probably not, but after the leisure centre, I'm on new ground.  The only thing I can remember is that the race finishes at a roundabout and, whilst the traditional direction of travel on the WHW is north, there must surely be signs to follow southbound out of town?  Maybe not....

But eventually, here we are.  No finish arch here, no bottle of whiskey, but a small gazebo on a patch of grass, a finish line spray painted across the pavement and a race banner facing away from town.  The first person I see is Davie Hall, complete with camera, followed by Pete Duggan, not running but supporting.

While we're waiting for the winner I get a lesson in the correct pronunciation of scottish place names - Cree-an-lah-rick (* see Peter's comment below, it's only "rick" if "loch" is "lock"!) and Tyne-drum if you're interested - and meet Silke, Thomas's wife.  Thomas has had a good race, and been leading at various stages, but another runner has been gradually working his way up the field.  And in the now blazing heat it is this runner - the relative novice Matt Williamson - who crosses the line first in five hours thirty two minutes.  Thomas arrives only three minutes later. 

No-one is sure who might be third and we're all taking turns to keep watch up the road for incoming runners.   Less than fifteen minutes pass before the third finisher arrives in the tiny form of Lucy, who has blown away the women's record by over an hour to finish in five hours forty seven minutes.

She has also inadvertently ignited a debate as to what prize she should be awarded - should she be rewarded for first female or third finisher?  If she was to win an event outright (as she nearly did on the WHW a few years ago) should she get the "first man" prize which is traditionally assumed to be superior to "first lady"?   To extend the argument, Lucy is classed as a female "veteran", so should she be awarded first lady and first ladies' vet?  Or should the veteran prize pass to the next finisher in that class?  Should a runner win multiple prizes?  Or one only per race?

I should perhaps point out that the race organisers have no interest in the debate, having firm opinions on their particular prize rules.  Nor has Lucy, who is more interested in downing several pints of fizzy water and a large bag of salty pretzels.  Not to mention being reunited with her dog, or how to resolve the problem that her fresh clothes, shoes, wallet etc are all in her car ... which is still parked in Tyndrum.

Her support provides her with his sweatshirt which hangs almost to her knees, and for the next few hours she pads around barefoot, looking like a fresh faced school girl.
It's a long half hour wait for the next finisher which is the "normal" looking runner I saw earlier on the moor.  He's greeted by a whole team of supporters in yellow race t-shirts, including the young boy in the picture (left).

After this there is a reasonably frequent arrival of runners, coming in to cheers from the small crowd now gathering on the grass. 

Just before one o'clock the second lady arrives in the form of none other than Debs Martin Consani, falling into the arms of her husband Marco who has had the thankless task of supporting her today.  But today nothing has been thrown, with his runner on her best behaviour. 

Well, almost....

Team Kynaston are here in the form of Katrina (only weeks away from her first marathon, and now a media star thanks to Debs), two daughters and a friend.  I suggest this is enough to have a Kynaston relay team for next year's Fling but one daughter is having none of this, and adamant there are enough runners in the family without her starting.

The third woman arrives just past seven hours, with her right shin covered in caked and fresh blood.  It's a pretty gruesome sight and I'm stunned to be told that she fell early in the race but refused to stop and have it properly treated as she didn't want to lose time.

Sharon Law arrives around twenty minutes later.  I had been feeling as though I was her jinx this year with two DNFs in races I was at.  The good finish here - giving her first ladies' veteran prize - stops me feeling irrationally guilty!

Throughout the afternoon, more and more runners come home but somehow it never seems to get crowded at the finish.  With showers and changing facilities some distance away, it seems that a lot of finishers head away and don't always come back.  It's a shame and makes me realise how great the Fling finish is.

As at the Clyde Stride, Davie misses one runner at the finish and send him back to get his finishing photo.  If you ignore the open drink bottle, you'd never know...

John Kynaston arrives well into the afternoon, having had another hard run and suffered with the heat and his breathing.

The amazing Fiona Rennie arrives at the finish.  She tells me she's never missed a Devils race day but has never run it.  This year again she's in a supporter's role but I suspect she will have run the odd mile or two...

There are a whole load of Fetch people here - both runners and supporters - including Ian and Lorraine who were at the mile relay in the Meadows a few weeks ago.  Sandra comes in, greets me with a hot and sweaty hug, then heads off back to Edinburgh to catch a Festival show.

Karen arrives having run the last few miles at an entirely inappropriately fast pace and while she starts hobbling soon after, is clearly delighted to have finished.  Even better to have finished ahead of Tim...

The prize giving is back in the centre of town at the Nevis Centre.  It's the same hall used for the WHW prize giving and it seems odd to see it so much emptier.  The family members are sat together on the left and it doesn't feel too strange to join them.  JK is giving me advice on operating my Garmin and asking after my running plans (which are now very vague having realised how non-flat Rannoch Moor is!).  Lucy (who has managed to borrow some clothes that nearly fit her) interrupts him to congratulate me on my mile relay.  Never mind the fact that every one of her 43 miles today was at a pace far faster than my single one; this is on a par with David Beckham praising my performance in a pub team kick-around.  Ridiculous but delightfully satisfying!
Debs, Thomas, Lucy, Matt

As we leave, the rain starts that was forecast for hours earlier.  By the time I pass the warning sign at Crianlarich, my car is aquaplaning through serious puddles and the wipers are working overtime.

And my ankles are itchy.  Very itchy....

I know better than to scratch them.  Even when the itching wakes me up in the middle of the night.  Even so, this is how they look the next day, red, swollen and blistered:

It seems that not only do I find midgies incredibly annoying, I'm also allergic to them!  Great....

Must get that sorted before next year....  Right now I'm thinking bio-hazard suit...

As usual thanks to everyone who made it another fabulous day: organisers, runners, supporters, followers, friends, family. 
What am I going to do over the winter without you???


I took a ridiculous amount of photos on the day which you can see here on Flickr.  I'm neither professional nor posessive, so if there are any you'd like, help yourself.