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

Monday, 23 May 2011

Oh, we're going to Kinlochleven....

Okay, it doesn't have quite the same sense of summer joy as "going to Barbados" but far more fun, from my sideways point of view.

A few months ago, in response to a forum post, I volunteered my services as marshall/helper/general dogsbody for the West Highland Way race in June.  Although I'd had a response from the "Lord of the Bridge" I wasn't sure if it was going to be accepted (not surprisingly there are plenty of "repeat" marshalls who all have their favourite locations and duties) so I didn't know where, or even if, I might be helping.

Then today, I receive a text "I have a vacancy for a marshall at kll....".

I can do that....

Now, where can I buy a midgie net......?

Monday, 9 May 2011

I'm Not a Runner

Those are the words I started this blog with.  And it's perfectly true. But....

This stuff is contagious.  I did find myself thinking "Gosh, I wish I coud run".  In the same way that I might think "I wish I could sing like Adele" or "I wish I could earn money like Alan Sugar" or "I wish I had Posh Spice's legs".  But it's never going to happen; I can't run and I will never be able to.

Then last November I was standing at Victora Bridge on the Way - watching runners - when the little voice in the back of my head shouted quite distinctly "bugger this, I'm sick of saying I can't".  A week later, I am in Run and Become, explaining that I would like to learn how to run and buying a pair of shoes that will allow me to do this without my shins breaking.

I can't wait to try them out that evening.  I get about 100 yards before my lungs go on strike.  Okay, this isn't as easy as it looks...

But I'm stubborn and I keep trying: run a little bit, walk a long bit, run a little bit, etc etc.

A week later it snows for the first time.  After this there is no more running, only careful steps in hiking boots and walking poles.

At New Year the snow clears and I manage one more session before the flu strikes and knocks me sideways for a few weeks.

I sign up for Race for Life on the day it opens to give myself an unavoidable target.

In February I go to Australia on holiday and, although I take the running shoes, it's far too hot to run.  Or walk. Or be outdoors full stop.

When I get back I realise my unavoidable deadline is now ten weeks away and I'm still struggling to run more than seven minutes out of a thirty minute session.  I need an alternative training strategy and discover C25K (Couch to 5k), a structured run walk program that promises to turn a couch potato into a semi-competent runner.  That would be me then....

I struggle with every single session, but complete them nevertheless.  I make the mistake of looking forward a few weeks and see a solid 20 minute run at the end of week 5 when I am barely completing the 3 minute sessions in week 3.  I give up smoking after 25 years.  My waist shrinks but I don't lose weight.

I'm slow and ungainly.  My fastest (and only) pace is about 4mph and I almost come to a complete halt on anything resembling an upwards slope.  I only run at dawn when there are no other people around.

Two weeks before the race, I break with the programme and try to complete a 5k route.  I don't succeed the first time but on the second attempt, I make it.  I text Keith who replies with the words "Well done ... now do it again on Thursday".

Race day arrives cool and cloudy.  I'm incredibly grateful as I can't even contemplate running in the heat of the Fling the previous weekend.  Bad enough that I will be running in public for the first time...

I arrive at Hopetoun House far too early and sit in the car, reading the paper and eating jelly babies (I have clearly spent too much time reading ultra runners' blogs and consider jelly babies to be appropriate food.....).  And the heavens open.  Proper torrents of water ... hmmm I wanted cool and damp but this is possibly going too far.  But it stops and I get out of the car and join the pink flood of women heading towards the House.  I'm trying not to read their back signs because I know they will make me cry, but I do anyway.

I have no intention of joining in communal aerobics or singing but it's impossible to not get caught up in the moment.  But I do find myself thinking that I will be worn out before the race even starts!  I really start to see the attraction of the one line briefing of the Fling.

Eventually we line up - runners, joggers and walkers in separate groups.  I'm somewhere near the middle of the joggers as I know my pace isn't going to be enough to keep up with the runners.  My final text from Keith arrives: "ttfu".  I am immensely amused that it has taken him this long to say it.  We shuffle forward and forward until eventually we're through the gate and onto the course proper.

I have no idea where the route is but there are 1600 women on the course, about 500 of them in front of me and zero chance of geting lost.  Within a few hundred yards, I come across a group of women walking holding hands and become very cross that they are blocking almost the entire path.  If you want to walk, join the walkers group!  Oh dear, this is not at all charitable....

A curve and a down slope, and then there is clearly a hill in front of me.  Possibly a little carried away I try to run it but come to my senses part way up and start walking.  Every runner I know walks up hills!

I'm utterly shocked when I see a "1k" sign as I think I've been going much further than that.  I suddenly find myself thinking that 5k is actually a very long way and this is going to hurt.  The fact that I've done it once before is no longer enough.

When I run I find myself going past numbers of women who are now walking, and become quite adept at picking my way through gaps or up onto the verge to get past.  A few women come sprinting past who clearly placed themselves in the wrong groups to begin with.  I catch my ankle on a small tussock of grass and it stings sharply but I can't even swear as there are both children and grey haired women around me.  Six months ago, this would have been an excuse to stop but that ttfu is now engrained....

I walk all the up bits from here on, saving my energy for the flats and downhills.  I'm not a quick walker and some of the women I run past are retaking me on these sections.

The route moves off the path onto grass and it suddenly strikes me that I've never run off-road before.  It's a strange sensation and very odd how different each step feels.  Then back into the woodland, a sharp turn and we're running on trail.  Oh I like this, it actually feels comfortable although I'm past 3k and my lungs are burning and my left ankle grizzling loudly.  The earlier rain has left some significant puddles and mud on the path that many of the women are picking their way around.  I just charge through them, giggling as the mud and water splash up my calves.  This is something akin to being a toddler jumping in puddles.

We are obviously delicate flowers as even the tree roots have been sprayed pink where they cross the path and might possibly cause a tripping hazard.  I find myself wondering just how "technical" the trail past Loch Lomond is but remind myself sharply that this is a completely different event for a completely different group of people.

We round a corner and there, over a low wall, is the most amazing vista of the Forth, looking west to Grangemouth and the refineries, north to the hills of Fife and east to the bridges.  I would love to stop and take photos but I have a race to run and no time to stop.  I'll come back another day.

Onwards I go, more puddles and mud, past a few more walkers and suddenly out of the woods into open ground and brilliant sunshine and, oh help, it's roasting hot.  Almost instantly it feels as though my face must be as pink as the vest I'm wearing.  Then relief when the trail passes back into the woods and the temperature drops again.

I catch glimpses of the house through the wood and eventually we're out into the open again; it's nearly over.  But my legs stage a final protest and refuse to continue at anything above a walk.  But as I come past the house, the roadway is lined with people clapping and waving, it doesn't matter that none of them are there for me, suddenly I'm grinning again and sod my legs, I am going to finish this as I started - not walking but running.  So this is where my runners get that last burst of energy from to sprint for the line...

Then I'm through and the boy scouts are handing me a medal, a pink bag and a bottle of water.   I don't care that the grass is wet, I am sitting down and drinking the best water I've ever tasted.

I check the stopwatch on my ipod.  44.19.  In running terms, pretty abysmal.  In my terms, pretty damn good.  Three minutes better than my only previous 5k run and that didn't have any hills!  Oh god, I'm already thinking of it as a PB....

Never again, I think and instantly burst out laughing.  How many blogs have I read that start with those words and finish with "next year I'm going to...."?

I now crave caffeine - I always want coffee after a run - and haul myself up and over to the stalls.  As I'm buying, the heavens open again and it's pouring with rain.  I stand by the finish line cheering on the walkers; I don't mind that I'm getting wet, but I do mind that my coffee is getting watered down!

As I drive back to Edinburgh, the weather changes again and the sun comes out.  I can't understand why fellow drivers are looking strangely at me.  Until I get home and look in the mirror.  I had my hair dyed last Monday and the rain has washed it out in great red streams down my face and neck.  I look like an extra from Casualty. 

Much later, my legs finally take their revenge for what I've put them through and reduce me to an agonised hobble.  C'mon guys it was 5k ... I saw people run 53miles last weekend and they weren't this bad!

I sleep badly and shuffle into work, cursing the people who inspired me to think I could run.  My right leg in particular takes great exception to coming down stairs.  But by the time I get home, I'm already debating whether I can go for a gentle jog tomorrow morning... and should I work on increasing my pace or my distance....?

I'm not a runner.

But I ran my first race yesterday.


Thursday, 5 May 2011

Highland Fling - part 2

I knew it would be an infuriating drive to Tyndrum.  There are no roads up the eastern side of Loch Lomond and the only options are a long loop to the east and then north, or heading around the loch and up the main road along the western shore.  Judging by the state of the car park, there was going to be a lot of traffic on the roads - for gods sake, was half of glasgow out in the countryside?  Why couldn't they do proper bank holiday weekend things - like going to B&Q?

In Cornwall they call them grockles.  I'm sure there is a very expressive Scottish word meaning the same thing but I don't know what it is!  For anyone not familiar with the word, it means tourists who either can't or won't drive properly on the local roads and assume that the rest of the world is quite happy to sit behind them while they pootle along at a snail's pace, admiring the view ... and ignoring the queue of irate locals behind them.

Whatever the local terminology is, they were out in force on Saturday.  At one point the traffic actually came to a complete halt as I turned onto the A82.  I was quite prepared to abandon the whole idea and head home but it would have taken so long to be able to turn around, I just accepted that I would carry on crawling north.  Had I known Loch Lomond was a full 24 miles long, I may have reconsidered...

But in fits and starts we made our way up the loch shore, and I could almost forgive the grockles their distractions. 

I don't where I'd read it but there had been a quote in the run-up to the race along the lines of "if anyone thinks the stretch alongside Loch Lomond is flat, think again.  It's not."  That kept going through my mind as I peered across the water trying to pick out the path on the eastern shore, or a glimpse of runners.

What also crossed my mind was how scary it must be to be driving these roads for the first time as a support crew on the WHWR in June.  Although you would be several hours into the race and travelling in daylight, support crews are likely to have been awake since before midnight (assuming they got any sleep in the evening), tired, stressed and, north of Tarbet, on very narrow roads between rockfaces and water.  And doesn't that road go on for ever - again and again, you think you can see the head of the loch but it's yet another headland with yet more water beyond it.

But finally the loch ends and the road starts pulling upwards into the hills.  Past the Drovers Inn with its big sign "No Montane Highland Fling parking" on the side of a car (presumably an "official" sign with the logo and branding?).

Up to Crianlarich, trying to spot where the route crosses the road, then west up into Tyndrum ... which is even busier than Balmaha, with even a motorbike rally apparently taking place outside the Green Welly.

Somehow I find a parking space, even better one in the shade and consider what I'm going to do now I'm here.  It's just after a quarter to two, I don't expect the first finishers to be here until at least three and I'm hungry, having eaten all my pack-up on Conic Hill and expecting to be home by now.

I also have the problem that I don't know where the finish is.  I know where the WHW goes north from here but I don't know where it comes in from the south.  I remember something from the web site about the race finishing slightly shorter than in previous years but hadn't paid that much attention as I wasn't planning on being here.

So I decide to walk to where I know the WHW is, try and find the southern route from there and follow it until I find the race finish, which I'm expecting is populated by now at least.  Then I can come back into the village and get some food before going back in an hour.  Good plan.

The hiking boots came off at Balmaha and I now have a pair of ballet flats on.  Great shoes for driving in but possibly not the best footwear for exploring the WHW....  Actually it's pretty easy to find as it is straight across from the village shop but it picks its way across a rocky stream bed quite quickly - that must be an interesting run when it's rained.  Even though it's dry today, it's not comfortable in shoes with thin soles.

Up onto Station Road and this is clearly the race finish line.  There are rows of drop bags laid out by the hostel, trestle tables laid out with boxes on them and a handful of men endeavouring to put up the inflatable finish arch.  They're not doing too well as it keeps falling lopsidedly across the road.

I can't get past easily and I'm always amused by watching man v machine so I stop and wait for them to win the battle.  Two women are stuffing bags at the end of the tables;I'm trying not to get in anyone's way as other people move rubbish skips, mini trailers, etc.

Never wise to stand still next to busy women for too long...

"Would you like to give us a hand?" says one. 

I've never been good at saying no and I find myself helping with bags.  These are the runners' goody bags which need to be prepped up with a number of vouchers from race sponsors and leaflets.  There is also pink champagne to go in each bag but the bottles will stay in their boxes for the moment for safety.  Big boxes of t-shirts are stacked along the tables, but as we don't know what size any runner will want, they can't go in the bags.

The three of us get quite a good production line going and chat as we work.  Both are clearly old hands at this, although one is a little bemused that her husband has nominated her as race photographer and entrusted her with a strange, very expensive looking camera that's sitting on a tripod across the road.

They introduce themselves as Muriel and Katrina, but it's not until Katrina mentions that she has run with Silke on the Way that I realise she is John Kynaston's wife (his blog has mentioned this a few times, saying how proud he is of her and her newly discovered enjoyment of running - she doesn't read it, she says).  They also lived in Leicester for some years (which is my home town) and we spend some minutes comparing locations.  What a small world....

We're joined by some more people; a woman and her young daughter and a blond man who would be running but is injured.  Time flies as the bags get filled and packed into empty boxes.  The medals are located and unpacked, with the girl allocated the responsibility of bestowing them on each finisher.

Incredibly the first runners are expected to arrive about 2.45pm.  I start trying to work out what that means in terms of a course record, obviously forgetting that the women started two hours prior to the elite men.

Faintly I can hear a piper playing but it's not until much later that I realise that he is a part of the race, standing a few hundred yards from the finish to encourage the runners.

Murdo (the race organiser) is getting radio updates from further along the course.  And almost on the dot of three, the news comes through that the first runner is close by.  Four minutes past the hour, the watchers on the final bend start clapping and the first runner arrives, clapped and cheered home.

Surprisingly to me (though maybe not to everyone else) it's a woman.  I don't recognise her but it's Kate Jenkins who strode past me hours earlier.  She's not striding now; her gait is a painful jog, face flushed and contorted in pain, clothes soaked in sweat and looking half the size she was earlier.  She also looks ready to collapse and, once across the line, is half carried onto a bench in the shade of the building.

There's a cry for water but I don't have any.  There's a big bin full of ice (and bottles of beer???) at the end of the table though, and I scoop a cupful into a paper cup and hand it over.  A few minutes later, a large butt of water is placed on the central table - it's too hot to risk not having this for any future arrivals.  Although drinking too much is frequently a greater threat to endurance athletes than too little, it's unseasonably hot today and any runner completing the course is likely to be hot and dehydrated.

Only a few minutes later, the news comes through that the first of the men are on their way.  As the clapping starts at the bend I look down the road, expecting to see Jez and am completely stunned to see someone else.  What's more he's positively sprinting up the slope, looking like he's run half a mile at an easy pace, not 53 miles in a new course record.  This is amazing - he even manages to smile and raise his arms for the camera.  

Only a few minutes later Jez arrives, looking equally unexerted.  He's broken his record - as generally expected - but Andrew James has beaten him and brought the new course record down to 7 hours 12 minutes.

There's a lull now and the next runner doesn't arrive for twenty five minutes.  Debbie Martin-Consani takes the women's second place, only weeks after representing Scotland in the 100k championship, to be greeted by her husband Marco (who was forced to withdraw ahead of the race due to injury) and young son, before flopping onto the grass just past the line.  She looks utterly exhausted and I don't think she moves for some time.  I also find myself wondering how she's coped as a pale skinned redhead in the heat and sunshine.

From then on, there seems to be a steady stream of finishers in varying states of exhilaration or exhaustion.  One runner, dressed in orange kit, leans onto the fence by us and doesn't move for fifteen minutes.  I'm not sure whether to be worried about him or not but there are now lots of supporters, families and runners around who would surely recognise trouble, he's still on his feet.

We're developing a steady rhythm for handing out medals, bags, t-shirts, water and/or beer with a whole group of children now competing to greet every finisher.  Muriel is taking photographs and Katrina holding the timing chip that registers each runner finishing.  My back is starting to ache from lifting boxes of champagne but I can't stop smiling.  Whilst some of the runners are incapable of speech, without fail all the others are polite and thank us for everything.  I try to congratulate everyone as I give them their bag and champagne and many of them seem stunned to be told "well done".

As more and more runners arrive, the finishing area fills up with them, their supporters and members of the relay teams who have run the earlier legs and are now waiting for their teams to complete the last stage.  Without fail every runner gets a resounding cheer and round of applause.  I realise that the smallest cheer was probably for the winners and I'm struggling to think of any other sport where this would apply.

Keith arrives at half six with glazed eyes looking catatonic.  This truly shocks me.  This is the man who decided last June to run, with George Reid, from Fort William to the start of the WHW race and then run the race itself.  They didn't quite make the full southbound trip but still completed 163 miles in not much over 2 days.  And he looks this bad after only 53 miles in eleven and a half hours?  But he disappears for a few minutes, re-appears in fresh clothes and looks much better.

Some of the runners look as if they would struggle to remember their own names and we frequently have to help them take off their timing chips as the velcro buckle is beyond their mental capacity.  One slightly plump male runner (I think he was part of a relay team) has a serious case of joggers nipple and two large scarlet bloodstains on his white t-shirt.  A few are non-finishers who took heavy falls in the race and had to drop out; Sandra McDougall and Sharon Law are amongst these and are now limping round the finish area.  A runner had to be airlifted from one of the checkpoints with a suspected heart attack (he's since been given the all clear). 

A man hands me a grey jacket and buff. A woman runner gave it to him at Carmyle Cottage; he doesn't know who she is but he said he'd bring it to the finish for her. An hour or two later a woman asks me if we have a lost property box as she gave her jacket to someone earlier and, although she doesn't hold out much hope, wonders if he's handed it in. She can't even remember what he looks like but is utterly stunned when I hand her the jacket she gave to a complete stranger hours earlier. But a young man who's lost his phone on the trail isn't so lucky.

At the height of the chaos, a woman comes to the table saying she wants to get her car down the road and how can she get through all these people? I assume she's a part of the race and tell her she'll have to wait until we've finished at 9pm, didn't she read the instructions on the website about NOT bringing cars along the road?  What website, she says and it eventually registers that she's a member of the public and we are technically blocking a public highway. There's no-one around to ask and I don't know what to do. I can't expect her to wait hours for us so tell her to go and get the car and please be careful as she drives down. Fortunately by the time she gets back to the crowd, the young blond man from earlier is around and he can walk in front of the car, shepherding runners and other bodies off the tarmac. I also yell at a few people - all those years of bar work have some advantages in learning how to raise your voice!

The young girl's mother brings me a cup of strong coffee from the hostel and I tell her I love her.  It's good and the caffeine kick is what I need.  I may not have been running but, other than the hour in the car, I've been on my feet since 7am, my legs are aching and I'm getting tired.

At half seven, the prizes are awarded and there is more cheering.  By now the sun is dropping and the temperature with it, but it seems almost everyone is still here.  Runners are still arriving although much more infrequently now.

Keith appears again and asks if I can give him a lift home.  He has a lift with a friend but Ian lives in Polmont and it will save him an unnecessary 40 mile trip if he doesn't have to come into Edinburgh.

By about half eight, there is little happening and someone offers to take over the bags.  I go over to tell Murdo I'm leaving and thank him for a great day.  You've got a bottle of champagne haven't you, he says, and a t-shirt?  Woohoo, bonus!

We set off slowly up the road to the car.  Apparently the Real Food Cafe does the best chips ever but the queue is massive so we decide to stop in Callendar instead.  Keith stops to talk to the Jim's who are veterans and legends of the WHW.  What can you say about a man of 78 finishing his 12th race....?

I'm too tired to overtake any slow vehicles as we head east and the chips are just what is needed.  It's nearly eleven when I drop Keith off; he can't decide whether to brave a cold bath or have a hot shower.  He texts me later to say he went for the hot shower; he's also weighed in and has lost 5kg in the day.

They're all mad.  But I think I almost understand why they do this.

I had a great day.  I'd like to do it again sometime.


Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Having my First Fling

I'm not a runner.  I'm not crazy.  Therefore I don't want to take part in an ultra.  But I do want to watch them.

There are three classic trail ultras along the West Highland Way in Scotland:
  • The Highland Fling - 53 miles from Milnagive to Tyndrum
  • The Devil o' the Highlands - 43 miles from Tyndrum to Fort William
  • West Highland Way - 96 miles from Milngavie to Fort William
That's not denigrating any of the other races in Scotland, or indeed anywhere else in the world, but it was the West Highland Way Race I first heard of and is therefore the origin of this fascination with the whole subject.

The Fling is the first of the three to be held each year.  It originated as a training run for the main race seven weeks later and is now the largest of the three, accepting both solo runners and relay teams.

For 2011, it is not only a respected race in its own right but the Scottish and UK Championship race; also the selection race for the British team for the World Championships in July.  So this year it was truly a race for all classes; from relay teams trying out trail running for the first time, through the plodders (who are often much better than they ever admit), the hill runners, the tough as old boots veterans, to the cream of British runners such as Jez Bragg.

Prior to the race, the only speculation on the blogs and forums about the men's winner was how much Jez would break his course record by (having broken it every time he's competed, on one occasion taking over an hour of the previous record), and who would come second.  So how many sports can you name where a world class athlete of that calibre would be competing with "ordinary" runners?  Then again, anyone who can run 53 miles across Scotland can't really be considered ordinary, can they....?

With over 400 runners taking part, car parking is one of the major logistical challenges of the Fling.  Although the race is officially unsupported - operating on a series of drop bags at checkpoints along the way - most runners will have friends or family along the way.  Combined with the regular tourist traffic in a beautiful part of Scotland comparatively close to Glasgow, on a long Bank Holiday weekend but without the road network to support high volumes of vehicles, it would be very easy to overload the transport infrastructure and the goodwill of various landowners that the races all rely on.

So I asked for suggestions on the race forum - where can I go that isn't going to cause a problem?  And no, I really don't want to stand at Milngavie railway station for hours at the start; somewhere with a bit of landscape would be good.  Added to which I've never been to this section of the WHW so it's all new countryside to me.

Both respondents came up with the same suggestion - up Conic Hill alongside Loch Lomond.  The second gave very precise directions to a vantage point and concluded:

I've watched from this spot a couple of times, with a large Saltire flag fluttering in the breeze. (There's usually a breeze. Make sure you wrap up warm in case it's a big breeze, with rain.) This seems to motivate / demotivate the runners depending on their loyalties ;). Most folk have really appreciated my being there, and the flag.
I'll be marshalling this year, probably @ Balmaha check; so I won't be up @ that Conic Hill spot. It would be great to have someone there!! 

Well, that just settled it, Conic Hill it was to be.  Mind you, he also described it as "a 30 minute brisk walk up from the car park"....

Saturday dawned bright and clear with the promise of another glorious day (to all my fellow Sassenachs down south, yes we do get lots of glorious days in Scotland - they just don't always coincide with summer!).  And at half five I was in the car heading west from Edinburgh.  At about six am, the first runners - women, male super-veterans (50+) - were set off from Milngavie after the infamously short race briefing: "there's only one rule - if you drop out, let us know".

There was one minor directional mishap - when I disagreed with the sat nav pointing me down what appeared to be a dirt track, only to find the alternative route to be little more than a wide footpath.  But the skies were blue, the sun was shining and the flat countryside west of Stirling was beautiful, with the central belt hills to the south and the start of the Highland peaks off to the north.  And in the distance a great ridge of ground rising out of the landscape, so glad I was only going up a hill and not that mountain.

But as the distance left grew shorter and shorter it became eminently clear that I was heading directly for the base of the ridge and it was undoubtedly Conic Hill itself.  My first thought was "oh sh$t, how am I going to walk up that?".  My second was "oh ****, they're going to run up that!".

I arrived at Balmaha car park at 7am, just as the male veterans (40+, excluding those who wanted to run with the younger men at 8am and compete for the British team) were leaving Glasgow.  My friendly adviser had told me I needed to start walking up at about 8.15 to meet the first runners but as it was clearly going to take rather more than 30 minutes (!) I decided to start up anyway at 7.15, on the basis that I could sit in the sunshine at the top as easily as at the bottom.  I decided to take the fleece but leave the jacket as there wasn't a cloud in the sky and the sunglasses were clearly more critical.

There were maybe a dozen other vehicles in the car park, all of which were covered in dew and had clearly been there all night.  Other than one (presumably local?) runner coming down the trail, there wasn't a living soul in sight or a human noise to be heard.  Bar my increasingly short breath and the curses as I found yet another series of steps or tumbling stream of rocks... seriously who thinks it's a good idea to cut steps into the side of a mountain???

But when the steps lead to views like this, how can you complain?

The path was deceptive in that a summit frequently appeared only to disappear in another ascent.  I also discovered that my friend's definition of a breeze was as understated as his sense of distance....

Eventually I relented, sat down and poured a cup of coffee.  Fortified by the caffeine, and the realisation that I couldn't stop there without being a complete wimp, I carried on upwards and finally made it onto the north side of the summit and was rewarded by an amazing view of the islands in the loch.

And even better, the path flattened out and I was comfortably striding along, only to be confronted by a choice of paths - huh that wasn't in the directions!  I made the decision to carry along the level path and eventually came to the spot mentioned with a view of the WHW curving round from the south, "only" an hour after leaving the car park.
Bag down, more coffee and a quick survey of the glorious view, wondering how long it would be before I saw my first runners ... 30 minutes until they're likely to be here (according to my friend) ... so how long to come along that path ... 15 minutes? ... wait a minute, there's someone coming up the slope already!

I was so surprised to see the tanned brunette striding up the hill that I couldn't decide if she was part of the Fling or not; could she really have got here that quickly?  And in what must be one of the stupider questions of the day, blurted out "Are you racing?".  "Yes" she replied, already several feet past me.  Although I didn't recognise her, it was Kate Jenkins who, less than seven hours later, would be the first person to cross the finish line, thereby adding the Fling to her collection of six WHW wins.

Although Kate was clearly off to a flying start, so were plenty of others and there was an almost continual flow of runners past me from that point onwards.  Almost all were walking up the hill but at a superb pace, with a few brave souls jogging a few yards here and there.  This after maybe 17 miles knowing there was a further 36 to go ... I felt positively ashamed of my pathetic crawl up the hill earlier :-(

I did my best to greet everyone who passed me, offer my encouragement and have a craic with anyone who wanted.  Also a certain amount of teasing about the flag - a union flag in honour of both my own nationality and the UK Championship.  C'mon, I can happily cheer Scotland at the rugby but I'm not totally sure a Saltire and an English accent go together!

I also lost count of the number of runners who said either:
  •  "you're brave" ... huh?  I'm not the one running 53 miles
  •  "you must be freezing" ... I'm wearing leggings and a fleece, you're wearing a vest and shorts, and you think I must be cold...
Told you ultra runners were mad.

With the phased starts (there were also the relay teams starting at 9am), Conic Hill was clearly at just the right distance for overtaking, with an almost continuous stream of runners for the next three hours, with first the middle group of men coming through and then the younger male runners coming through.

I stood slack-jawed as the first of the elite (Jez and two others) flew past at a speed I would consider to be sprinting on the flat, with only a few yards between them.  Mountain goats in human form ... the ancient Greeks would probably have considered them to be gods in disguise.

But as well as the elite, it was wonderful to see in person the "family" members whose blogs I've read, or read about, for the last eight months - John Kynaston, Debbie Martin-Consani, Sharon Law, Richie Cunnigham, Andy Cole, Stuart Mills, Pete Duggan, Sandra McDougall, Ian Beattie.  Not forgetting the legend that is Fiona Rennie who loves the WHW so much she has it tattooed on her leg. 

Also not forgetting my ex-next door neighbour, the mad Aussie Keith Hughes who was the first person to say the words "ultra marathon" to me, and who is entirely to blame for my interest as a result.  Not having seen him for months, he greeted me with some abusive remarks about my flag and a hug, then trotted off with the words "not stopping". 

A special mention also for a girl called Annette who came up the hill from Balmaha carrying a Saltire on a walking pole to meet her boyfriend Mike.  We stood chatting for about 20 minutes whilst she waited for him.  Mike is doing the WHW for the first time in June this year.  When he arrived up the path, Annette greeted him with a hug, a kiss and a mouthful of blueberries before he continued onwards, having spent maybe 20 seconds with her.  That's it?  I think my definition of true love may now include supporting your other half on an ultra...  I think he did well in the Fling and will hopefully have a great time on the big one.  As she left she asked if I was going to Tyndrum.  "No, I'll be heading home from here" I replied.  "Oh well, maybe see you in June" she said.

I also spent quite some time talking to bemused walkers who were intrigued by all the scantily clad runners charging past them.  To those of them doing the traditional seven day walk of the WHW, the concept of running over half in a matter of hours was interesting to say the least...

About 11.30 the flood of runners had slowed considerably with only intermittent relay runners coming through so I decided to call it a day and head back to the car.

I think the descent was almost worse than the climb; the boots that had been so comfortable all last autumn and winter seemed to bruise my toes on every stride, and the steps seemed to be exactly the wrong height for my leg muscles.  I had even more respect for the runners who still came past me at speed, running down the rocky path I was painstakingly picking my way down. 

I did my best to get out of the way of every runner and most expressed their thanks, either verbally or with a raised hand.  Fortunately none wanted to come past on the narrowest stretches of the path as my legs were determinedly sticking to slow.

It was incredible how much the temperature rose as I descended.  From being windswept and craving gloves at my vantage point, I was down to a vest before I reached the car park.  And what a change it was there - every space was taken, there were hordes of people milling about and a queue stretching out of the village shop.  I think I preferred it at 7am!

Craving ice cream, I bought a magnum in the shop and sat in the sunshine deliberating what to do next.  Having been up since four with my eyes already sore from the wind, did I really want to drive three quarters of the way around Loch Lomond and up to Tyndrum and make it an even longer day?  

Ah sod it, I'll drive up and see the first of the finishers, then head home about half three...