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

Monday, 27 June 2011

What have you done to me?

I don't know how long it takes runners to recover from WHW race weekend - judging how quickly some of you were out on "recovery" runs, not bleeding long, it seems!  I fear I'm not so hardy....

Monday was mostly spent travelling back to Edinburgh (discovering just how loud the car stereo can go - very! - and making reckless remarks about things to be done later in the year), then unpacking and getting straight.  On Tuesday, my body finally caught up with me and insisted on me spending most of the day crashed out in the armchair, either dozing or blog writing (apologies, I think it took me longer to write about the race than it took Richie to run it....).  Wednesday was that horrible "back to work tomorrow" feeling and the real come-down from a brilliant weekend.

I knew that Jez Bragg was in the US for the Western States 100 miler but wasn't quite sure of the date until Murdo posted details of the live update websites on the WHW forum.  Hmm, I might have a quick peek at that on Saturday evening...

I peeked late afternoon when I got in from the Armed Forces Day parade.  And kept peeking ... all evening ... in between checking all the updates from my new facebook friends ... and discovering how to follow #WS100 on twitter ... and refreshing pages and suddenly it's midnight.  I can't see this race, it's happening thousands of miles away, I know of one person competing, and I'm completely hooked.  I've been up since 4.30am and my alarm is due to go off at the same time on Sunday morning and I can't tear myself away.  The best I can manage is to restrict myself to twitter and facebook on my ipod whilst I go and lie horizontally in bed, and still keep updating both.

What a contest!  The lead pack go off course, Jez leads, the incredible Kilian Jornet retakes the lead, Jez comes back, Kilian comes back, the defending champion pulls out, lead groups are running shoulder to shoulder for miles, through snow, though blazing sun ... the women's race is disrupted by a bear on the course (one Californian bear = how many Scottish midges?), for the first time a non-American wins the men's race, Jez places fourth and immediately puts a post on his blog saying thanks for all the support from the UK, a Scots woman (now resident in Canada) wins the women's ...

And by the time my alarm goes off, I've had no sleep for the second consecutive Saturday night.  Is this how it's going to be?  Is my fascination with ultras going to condemn me to only ever getting six nights sleep a week?  Have I been adopted into the family or kidnapped?

What have you done to me???

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

WHW Race 2011 - Sunday


I get about two hours sleep before waking at half ten.  Having missed most of the finish, I really want to see the prize-giving at midday.

I have more coffee and a long shower and feel a lot better than I think I should.  The fact that the sun is shining and it's a glorious day probably helps.  However I still take a can of red bull as a "just in case" back-up.

Only a few yards from the hotel, I spot a woman I recognise from the race.  Her name is Carolyn, and she was supporting her husband Neal who is walking slowly beside her.  I introduce myself and we walk to the Nevis centre together.  In previous years she has run the race with Neal but this year she has dropped out to allow him to run at his own, faster pace.

Walking through town, it's amazing how many groups there are heading in a similar direction ... and almost all containing at least one individual in very comfortable shoes and hobbling to a greater or lesser degree.

This is probably the best opportunity for runners and crews to meet up and there are lots of greetings, hugs and exchanges of race stories.  Before the race, everyone is so internally focussed and full of adrenaline, it didn't seem massively sociable, and during the race there is little opportunity.

Despite being a massive hall, it's very full and as more and more people come in, I end up helping to put out more chairs.  I feel quite guilty about sitting down but I'm reasonably sure that none of the people standing at the back are runners.

Regardless of position, every finisher is clapped and cheered by the whole audience.  Richie is clearly a popular winner, as well as being only the third man to win twice.  I'm stunned to hear that Kate has now won the women's race an incredible seven times.

Jan-Albert takes the microphone when he's awarded his second place prize and speaks of his Scottish mother who died only a few weeks ago.  He tells us how he asked her what he needed to do to win the race - she replied "be faster than Richie!".  Everyone laughs and there are tears running down my cheeks.

Some runners are not there to collect their goblets, having already left the town.  Bob Steel, a veteran runner, has as usual had to get "home to Stirling to milk the cows at 4am" and everyone laughs.  Those who are there have a variety of gaits to get them from their chairs to the front, some walk, some stagger, some hobble ... it's not always related to their finishing time.

A few groups leave immediately after collecting their goblets: shame on you, it wouldn't have hurt you to stay those few minutes longer.

In following a tradition started last year, the winners present the last goblets to the final finishers.  Today there are two final finishers (not including the sweepers who are technically the last people to cross the line); the boy and girl who left Kinlochleven at 5.00am, and there is a great round of applause as Richie and Kate give them their hard won trophies.  I am so pleased that George and Sandra got them to the end in time.

The presentation concludes with Ian confirming the date of next year's race.  I can almost hear a hundred brains thinking "I'm absolutely never doing this again ... but I'll just make a note of that date ...."

As the crowd breaks up, there is a final chance to catch up with friends and family.  Some of these friendships are kept up frequently through the year, others are annual events only but all equally heart-felt.

I finally meet the Pirate (who pulled out, having completed far more than should have been possible on his extremely minimalist training) and Lee, his fiancee who he actually met on the race.  It's a very fabulous ring sparkling on her finger.

I finally meet Sandra who now has bright red bruises on her ankles but is walking.

Karin greets me with another hug and tells me "never again".  Hmmm.....

I overhear a man trying to explain to his friend that he will have to come back again, as the number of goblets he has just doesn't look right on display.  I also hear a sentence that starts with the words "never again" and finishes with the runner being positive that he will be entering as soon as possible for 2012.

Ian asks if I have enjoyed the event and I tell him its been fabulous.  Do I want to do it again next year?  Yes if you'll have me!

I fetch my car from the hotel to give George and Karen a lift to their apartment.  Due to various logistical challenges, they don't have a vehicle here and their belongings are scattered through various cars.  Unlike almost everyone else, the boot of my car is almost empty so it makes sense.

A small group of us meet in the bar for a drink or two before heading off for a few hours rest.  Back at the hotel I fall asleep watching the sun dancing over the loch and hillside.

Sunday evening
In the evening, a larger group convenes in the Ben Nevis bar in town.  Some of us go upstairs to eat and I watch in awe as the two runners on our table devour a quantity of food totally incompatible with their physique.

Downstairs there are maybe 20-30 people from the race - some runners, some officials, some supporters.  Amongst them, I'm delighted to see, is Karen Robertson who was horribly ill during the race and withdrew at Glencoe.  Her crew were sufficiently concerned to have brought her to see the doctor.  Twenty-four hours later she looks like a different woman and is already talking of next year.

Sandra is there wearing a red dress that perfectly co-ordinates with her ankles.  She is under doctor's orders to elevate them as much as possible and sits with her feet on my lap, telling me how she started running for a 5k event in the Botanic Gardens.  I'm stunned that barely five years ago, she had to struggle to run that distance and has now completed 95 miles.  I'm also quite scared....

This is the time to relax and chat and catch up on each other's lives, to reconnect with old friends, to make new ones.

At closing time, a group of us head on to the Station Bar.  I suspect others followed and then decided not to - it's probably the only late opening bar in town and is full of drunk teenagers, snogging smoking and arguing in the street.  But we have fun, shouting and laughing over the music.  I can't believe that Keith can dance on those feet...


I thought I was going to enjoy this, but I don't think I realised how much.  I thought I might get tired and bored at some point during the night, but I never did. 

So to everyone who was a part of it, whether as runner, organiser, supporter, mountain rescue, etc I hope you realise what a special event you were part of.  Whether you won a goblet or not, whether you achieved your objective, I hope you enjoyed it (in hindsight at least) as much as I did.

I hope I see you again.

Milngavie Station Car Park, 1am, Saturday 23rd June 2012 ......?

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

WHW Race 2011 - Saturday

Travelling North

Despite the late night, I wake up at 4.30am and 6.30am.  Each time my first thought is "where are the runners now?" and my second is "whose race is already over?"

When I wake for the final time at 9.30am, there is a third thought: that there will be no more sleep until at least six on Sunday morning.  I have had many Saturday nights that go on that far, but this may well be the first that doesn't involve alcohol or loud music.

After a disappointing breakfast, I load the car up and get ready to leave.  Mindful of my unexpected detour the previous day - and that I absolutely have to deliver the paperwork to the checkpoint before it opens - I find the sat nav and ask it for a route to Kinlochleven.  And hit my first problem.

The support brief was quite clear that the route away from the start involves turning right out of the car park, then left at the lights.  I watched nearly two hundred vehicles do exactly that earlier this morning.  But the sat nav is adamant that I should go west before the town centre and gets increasingly cross as I try to ignore it and follow the brief.  After ten minutes arguing, I give up and find myself having to do a complicated about turn against the weight of the Saturday morning traffic.

After another ten minutes, I realise why there is a disparity.  Support crews are heading up to the checkpoints at Drymen and Balmaha on the eastern shores of Loch Lomond.  I only need to get onto the A82 which will run up the western shoreline.  Although the recurring signs to Erskine Bridge are disconcerting as I know that will take me south across the Clyde which is definitely not the route north!

In no time I am past Balloch (what on earth is that concrete and wire crown on the roundabout?) and on the same road I crawled up on the day of the Fling.  What a difference.  The threatened rain hasn't descended yet but it's grey and cool (albeit still dry) and the road is much quieter.  From this point onwards I am trying to work out where I am in relation to the runners.  The tail runners might still be on the banks of the loch but the cut-off at Balmaha was hours ago and all the crews should be north by now, even if they're waiting to go into Auchtertyre.

Across the water I can see Conic Hill dipping down to the loch like a sleeping dragon.  This is where the Highlands start for me with the gentle landscape of the central belt giving way to the raw ancient mountains.  Further up, Ben Lomond is tipped in cloud.  It may be the most climbed mountain in Scotland but the views from the summit today will be disappointing.

At the end of Loch Lomond I see my first evidence of the race; "Caution - Runners" signs by the road.  Just like at the Fling, there is a "no parking" sign at the Drovers Inn.  It seems a shame that, for the couple of days a year that there is a major event on the Way, these businesses can't engage with the competitors and their support.  But they obviously feel that the disruption outweighs the benefits of a captive audience of several hundred people.

I am pretty sure that from this point I will be level with the race and probably become a slightly distracted driver by permanently looking off to the side trying to spot my first runners.  It's not until I'm a mile or so from Tyndrum that I spot them.  From there through to Bridge of Orchy I can see them at regular intervals along the path.  They all look to be going well and moving reasonably easily although it's hard to tell at this distance.  They're not the leaders who I suspect will be out on Rannoch Moor by now but they're certainly near the front of the pack.

Also visible along the path are numbers of walkers and the comparison between walkers and runners is significant.  The walkers are covered from neck to wrist to ankle and invariably carrying large packs - the runners have bare legs and arms with small packs on either back or waist.  I wonder who has the greatest doubts about the others' sanity?  Perhaps it's like the difference between motorcyclists and car drivers.

Climbing up to Rannoch Moor, I do what I've never yet done before and pull over at the viewpoint on the A82 that looks out over Loch Tulla to take photos.  The view is spectacular and I've never been able to capture it before.  Unfortunately the photos (along with all the others I took over the weekend) are stuck on my camera as I can't find the cable I need to transfer them to the laptop!

Just before one o'clock, I'm driving past the Glencoe ski centre.  A man is running down the side of the road with race signs in his arms.  I think it's Adrian but I'm not sure.  Although I don't see any runners between here and the foot of the Devil's Staircase, the first and second placed men were battling though here at this time, having left the ski centre only minutes earlier. 

I have a great affection for the Devils.  The name of it was one of the very first things that stuck in my brain when I heard of the WHW and fed my fascination.  Not surprisingly it was also the very first part of the Way that I walked on last November.  It took me an hour - and numerous stops - to get to the top.  How do you run up a hill like that?  Bad enough on fresh legs, but after 76 miles ....?

Through the dark and brooding Glencoe valley, then onto the twisting lochside road to Kinlochleven.  I like this road but some people are going to find it very scary later on, particularly if they travel it for the first time in the rain and darkness.

At the community centre, there are three people sitting on the sofas inside - a young blond couple and a woman with curly hair.  "Race control?" I ask.  Introductions all round, and a certain relief that it seems as though we'll all get on.  Although strangers, we are going to be working together for most of the next twelve hours.

The curly haired woman is Lesley, my fellow marshall.  Rob & Ash are taking the first stint on Race Control and have already been there a few hours.  Race Control is the nerve centre of the day itself, being the central point that all the checkpoints feed data into: capturing times in and out of checkpoints, withdrawals through injury or incapacity, confirming all runners and sweepers are accounted for before closing their station.  If a runner drops off the radar, Race Control also has the task of phoning the contact details of the support crew.  If the support crew can't be contacted, the next call is to the recorded next of kin. 

If runners quit, they (or their crews) are supposed to notify the marshall at the next checkpoint.  It's much easier if it's done this way, then we know exactly who's where on the route.  Just sloping off to the cafe for a hot meal causes us concern - you know you're safe and well, your crew know, but as far as we know you left one checkpoint and didn't make it to the next one.  The sweepers have come in and not seen you, therefore we have to assume that you've gone off the path somewhere and are either ill or injured.  We worry about you.  If you come back next year, please don't do it again.

My intention was to just drop off the paperwork and head round to Fort William to get a few hours rest before coming back for 5.00pm.  Like a lot of the weekend's schedules, it didn't go to plan. 

After twelve hours, there was a lot of information already through from the early checkpoints and I want to find out how people I know are doing.  This is where I find out that Norman has pulled out, and also Marco Consani who was expected to be a strong contender.  Although not fully recovered from the injury that ruled him out of the Fling and with limited training, he was declared fit to run this one.  One day, there just might be a Consani double in the WHW which would be incredible....

We start going through our own list, scoring out all those who have either not started or already pulled out.  This way we will have a clearer indication of who we are/aren't expecting.

Chris Ellis, the Race Doctor, arrives in a van which we help unload.  There is medical kit including copious quantities of bandages and tape, a defibrillator kit and a giant roll of clingfilm.  I mean to ask later what the clingfilm is for but never remember.

The second van load produces three mattresses which are laid out in the sports hall.  There are even pillows and blankets for added comfort.

Finally Chris and Ash walk back to the surgery and carry back the examination table.

Shortly afterwards it starts raining and won't stop until long past dark.  It's several hours later than forecast but it gets here eventually.

Auchtertyre marshalls ring in regularly with updates.  From them we learn that Kate Jenkins is leading the women with Sharon Law about 25 minutes behind, and Debbie Martin-Consani the same again behind her.  Whilst these are exactly the three names I expected, it's still exciting.

The Glencoe team call in and tell us that Riche Cunningham and Jan-Albert Lantink are leading the mens by some distance.  Jan-Albert is about five minutes ahead but seems to be struggling now whilst Richie still looks good.  This is going to be interesting....

Both men left the ski centre just after 12.45 and we start trying to calculate how long it will take to get here.  Although it's "only" ten miles, there is the steep ascent of the Devils Staircase and a tortuous winding descent into Kinlochleven that has destroyed many a runner's quads.  But if they're that close, the temptation to push a little harder may bring their speed up which might bring them into the checkpoint by 2.15pm. 

I was fully resigned to not seeing this part of the race but it seems ridiculous to leave now and not see the battle as it comes past, so I decide to stay a little longer.

While we're waiting an injured runner arrives - I think his name is Jamie.  He has pulled out of the race much earlier but wants to ask the doctor to check his knee.  He tells us he knew that he was injured at Beinglas but foolishly carried on to Auchtertyre.

Around a quarter past two, Richie's support crew arrive.  This is Lucy Colquhoun (a damn good runner in her own right and holder of the women's course record), his girlfriend Helen and a man whose name I don't catch.  Helen looks quite tired but Lucy is bubbly and chatty.  She asks how long we're here for.  "I'm here till five", I tell her, then add the words "tomorrow morning" and her jaw drops. 

I assure her that I am getting a few hours rest before I officially start and, as they don't expect Richie to arrive until 2.40pm, I decide to leave now and miss the leaders arriving.  I know that if I stay, I will be staying and staying and get no opportunity to relax that afternoon.

The final drive into Fort William seems to take forever, mostly due to a dithering driver who seems to think that his car has only two gears and that it's unsafe to take even the gentlest bend at anything more than 15mph.  Not a useful attitude on that winding road...

The hotel is sweet and old-fashioned.  I'm conscious that I'll only be using my room for a few hours this afternoon and then not again until breakfast on the Sunday, so it's arguably an unnecessary indulgence.  But it's my treat to myself - a hot shower and a room to myself are going to be unbeatable.

Just as I'm settling down for an hour or two's cat nap, a diesel engine starts up outside my window followed by a loud bleeping.  I do my best to ignore it ... and fail miserably.  Looking out, there are a team of painters working from a cherry picker.  It looks as though I can kiss goodbye to sleep this afternoon.  Then a worse thought hits me - what if they are also working on the Sunday?

I open the window lean out and call to them.  Yes they're working the next day, what time would I like them to start?  Umm, how about midday....?  They ask if I'm out partying (Fort William doesn't strike me as the sort of place where it's possible to party all night) and I tell them no, I'm spending the night marshalling runners and won't be getting to bed until at least six.  After a string of barely intelligible words delivered in a strong accent - that I take to be casting aspersions on the sanity of people who run 95 miles - they laugh and promise to work on the opposite wall to avoid disturbing me.  And they are  as good as their word and do exactly that.

Kinlochleven - the Saturday night shift

I get back to the checkpoint at about 4.45pm.  I manage to get a car parking space and go inside to get the latest updates.  Richie arrived right on schedule but had overtaken Jan-Albert and moved into the lead by about 5 minutes.  About half a dozen men have been through and I have just missed Kate Jenkins leaving.

The checkpoint is much busier now with most of the parking spots taken, and the inside starting to fill up with crews awaiting their runner.  Marco is sitting on a sofa chatting.  Nearby, a team wearing tshirts branded "Debbie's Angels" have bags of kit spread out on the pool table.

It wouldn't be strictly true to say that we hear Sharon Law before we see her, but she is talking as she comes down the driveway, talks non-stop through the 60 seconds she is in the building and talks as she leaves.  Wearing black knee length socks and black hot pants, looking like she's jogged from the corner and more likely to be heading for a night out on Sauchiehall Street, I am absolutely awestruck.  There is a brief strop that her crew don't have exactly the jacket she wants to take with her (the one they were holding looked red to me, but obviously wasn't the right red one!).  Then like a blonde whirlwind she's gone again, pursuing Kate across the Lairigmor.

Debbie Martin-Consani arrives 20 minutes later.  I think the diplomatic word would be "focussed"; the one I wrote down at the time was "stroppy".  But I did also write a smiley next to it, so it was funny-stroppy not offensive-stroppy.  At that level, isn't it reasonable to expect your support team to be as slick and efficient as an F1 pit crew?  And they clearly loved her and took it to be totally normal.

From five, there is a pretty regular stream of runners into the checkpoint.  Sitting directly opposite the doors, we can see them coming down the driveway which gives us time to get the list and pen and tap the scales into life.  This is necessary but we appreciate it's an interruption for you and we want it to be as quick and smooth as possible.

If Rob's not on the phone, he stands by the door to clap the runner in.  Then Lesley or I take over, asking the runner their number as we guide them to the scales.  Mostly the crews have the weight cards that were completed at the start and Auchtertyre - sometimes they've given them to the runners as they come in - we don't mind who hands it over.  On the scales, write the weight on the card and the checkpoint list, write the time on the sheet, hand back the card, whilst writing we ask if the runner's stopping or "running through".  If they're stopping we ask the crew to let us know when they've left.  Hopefully this takes only a few seconds and we're done with them.

As the night wears on, the process will become much slower as runners stop focussing on times and start thinking only about finishing.  For some, the effort of lifting their feet the inch onto the scales is visibly torture and some have to be reminded to stop leaning on the table for support.  We try to add in a few words of encouragement, or ask how they're getting on.  For some we slow the process right down and try to have a short conversation.  These are the ones whose weight is showing a significant drop or a gain that is outside the range the doctor has given us.  No-one is going to get pulled just because of a weight change but if they're showing any other signs of mental of physical distress, it would be time to ask them to talk to the doctor.  Throughout the night, everyone passes these tests.

There's a clear pattern that peoples' weights were down at Auchtertyre but are now showing as higher.  Initially we put this down to the fact that they are now waterlogged from the rain and undoubtedly wearing more layers of clothing.  But as the night wears on, we realise that there must be a difference in the calibration of the two sets of scales.  We are using the same set that were used at registration and we only use that value as our reference point.

Race Control spend some time tracking down "lost" runners.  Some of the data from the early checkpoints is inconsistent.  Sometimes runners don't appear at all in a checkpoint's returns and then show up at a later point.  Fiona Rennie's times seem to be missing and there is a possibility that she has been timed out at a check point.  A brave man to try and tell her she's out of the race....  The four of us debate what would happen if a runner refused to quit and carried on going after being timed out.  Strictly speaking the sweepers should ignore them, but could you really abandon a fellow runner like that?

Dr Chris is called out to support the local mountain rescue team.  A climber has hurt his knee and needs bringing down.  During the rescue, one of the team hurts his back so the doctor ends up with two casualties.  Neither are serious, although the climber will be heading towards the nearest hospital by ambulance.  The hospital is 30 minutes away in Fort William.  The second nearest is Paisley, south of the Clyde.  The back injury will probably create more paperwork: most mountain rescue teams are made up of self-employed individuals such as farmers, fisherman, etc.  If they can't work due to injury, they have no income and the police (who technically control them) will have to compensate them for their losses.

Mike Raffan's team are here for ages and discussing penguin suits.  Brewdog, who sponsor Mike, gave them a load of goodies which apparently includes two penguin suits.  It seems perfectly reasonable that two of the team should put them on and run in with Mike to the finish line....  The Lairigmor is notorious for runners hallucinating strange things but I doubt anyone has seen giant penguins in Fort Williams before.  I don't know if they actually did it but I'd love to see the photos...

We ask all the runners (or their crews) to let us know when they leave.  Not everybody does and it's frustrating.  It doesn't take more than a few seconds and it's for your own benefit.

For the early arrivals who stay only a few minutes, if at all, it's not so much of an issue.  But as time goes by, knowing if you left after five minutes or an hour can be important if you get lost.  It gives the rescue teams, your support crew and the sweepers a range to work in.  Even on battered legs, you can get a long way in an hour.  On a cold and wet night, an hour might make the distance between someone finding you before you get hypothermia.

We get the call we've been waiting for from Ian in Fort William.  Richie has won for the second year in a row and everyone's delighted.  Jan-Albert is second and only eight minutes behind him.  Apparently Richie overtook him going up the Devil's Staircase but there were never more than a few minutes between them all the way home.

Twitter has rumours that Kate has finished but it doesn't make sense as the time would be impossible.  We wonder if it actually means that she has finished running and pulled out (she was unhappy even at KLL).  Eventually we get the news that she has retained her first place amongst the ladies, although Sharon had caught up to three minutes.  (On the Sunday I am told that she did want to quit at Lundavra but her support team persuaded her to continue.  Good decision, if it's true).

We get asked so many times about the finishers that we eventually beg paper and blu-tack from the office and put up a sign over our table "Richie Cunningham 1st place 16.24".

This prevents a number of questions but also causes another issue.  From almost the time I arrived, support crews have been asking if their runner will be allowed a support runner.  No, not until 18.40 which is four hours from Richie's arrival here as first runner.  In fact, we have already created a sign stating this.  But now, the news of his victory prompts my first and only bad experience of a support team member.  He is adamant that, as Richie has won and "the race is over", his runner should be allowed to take a support runner.  Unfortunately, this isn't how the four "officials" here interpret the rules and he's not happy and keeps coming back to try to convince us to see things his way.  He's never rude but it's irritating.

As the evening wears on, the runners look weaker and weaker as they arrive.  Support crews start sporting midgie nets and everyone is more bedraggled. 

Keith arrives about a quarter to eight looking slightly better than he did at the end of the Fling but not much.  Before he can be weighed he vanishes into the toilets and stays there for some time.  When he finally does emerge, he produces a weight card that looks as though it has been for a swim and is practically disintegrating.

Sandra McDougall's support team arrive.  I've seen Susan at both Scotland 2 Sahara and the Fling and ask her how Sandra's getting on.  Predictably she is absolutely loving it and really happy.  But the expected time passes and she doesn't arrive.  The dark haired man in her team changes into running gear and starts going out to look for her but comes back empty handed several times.

Katrina Kynaston arrives looking tired and drawn.  For John to make any of his race targets, he should have been here hours ago; the fact that he's not implies that things are not going to plan.  At one point, I see her sat in the car, resting her head on the steering wheel as if she's trying to catch up on some sleep.

Sandra's supporter comes back in and asks if the doctor has any compression bandages, as she's hurt her ankles and will need treatment.  No, but he has tubigrip.  Sandra hobbles in at ten to nine and announces that "my ankles feel like they've been smashed with a sledge hammer".  I decide to ignore her request below for me to "slap her and introduce myself" and let her become the doctor's first real patient.

Whilst she's being treated, John Kynaston arrives.  "You must be Julie" he declares and hugs me "it's great to meet you".  Blimey.  After 80 miles I wouldn't recognise my own mother, never mind a stranger.  He also needs to see the doctor, "something for my heels" which I assume is due to running in new shoes.  Although clearly tired, he's laughing and joking with us, telling us about being needing an urgent loo break only to be passed by a female runner who tells her crew at the next stop that she's just seen "more of John Kynaston than I really wanted to".  His crew buy him (and them) fish and chips and there are more jokes about the diet of athletes.  At no time would I have guessed what an utterly horrendous race he was having, and one that was only going to get worse.  See here for the details.

At 9.20 we get our first retiree - Stan Bland - and Lesley cuts off his wristband.  Once we've managed to find a pair of scissors that is.

Throughout the night we have only three withdrawals at our checkpoint.  I don't know if anyone pulled out later but I think it probably proves that if you can make it to us, you will make it to the finish line.  You may well walk or crawl but you'll make it.

The second withdrawal is a youngish man who tells me he's quitting, he can't keep anything down and promptly bolts to the toilets.   The fact that he continues vomiting long after he's stopped running concerns the doctor more than anything else that night.  There is a lengthy period of treatment and observation both in the sports hall and then in the surgery over the road.  Eventually he is allowed to leave with his support, although a blood sample has been taken for follow up.  We hear later that, although he seemed well in the car home to the Borders, he then collapsed and was taken to the local hospital for observation. 

The flow of runners starts to slow as darkness finally starts to arrive.

A woman asks me what to say to motivate her husband who is running.  I haven't the heart to tell her I've never been in that situation and try and remember all the good things I've read on the forum, but without knowing her or her husband it's a little difficult to decide whether to emphasise "ttfu" or more gentle forms of persuasion.

A woman in Mark Moore's support crew tells me that three of them have come over from New Zealand for the race.  Mark had to complete an 85k race to qualify for the WHW and as soon as he did, he was emailing Stan as he was so eager to take part.  Now he is saying "never again"...  His back has been rubbed raw by his pack and the doctor provides the three nurses in the support team with the materials to patch him up.

Pauline Walker leaves around half eleven wearing a fluorescent green and orange Carnegie top, turquoise trousers, orange leggings and floral socks.  It's a dazzling sight...

The runners start taking longer and longer breaks at the checkpoint, with some opting for short breaks on the mattresses, first 5 minutes, then 10, then 30 ....  Most years at least one person opts to sleep through the few hours of darkness but not this year.

The midges have found their way into the hall but the spray I bought seems to be working and nothing's bitten me yet.  However just as I'm congratulating myself on this, a corps of them decide to commit suicide by flying down my throat and attempting to choke me to death. 

Just after one, Lesley leaves for the night.  Rob and Ash finished at around eleven and handed over to Graham who will be there to the end (and then go on to the finish and help there).  Instead of counting numbers arrived, we're now down to counting who's left.  The Glencoe checkpoint closed at midnight so anyone left is within ten miles of us.

Shortly after this, John Maclean almost reduces me to tears by thanking me, saying "it's a wonderful thing you're all doing, giving up your night like this for us".  He has been travelling for 24 hours but still has the courtesy and composure to say something like this.

Still they come, some hobbling shells of people, others still bright eyed and cheerful.  For these runners, the only race is against themselves.  Finishing the course within the thirty five hours is their only objective.  The doctor is kept busy with treating blisters and general sore feet, but there are no significant injuries.  The rain has been a mixed blessing, keeping the trails soft and forgiving, but also soaking shoes and socks and adding to the strain the feet have to undergo.

By ten past three, the sky is lightening and I'm waiting for only nine runners, including the two sweepers.  My back aches and my legs are tired (it's been a long time since I was able to occupy one of the chairs in the centre as they're full of crews and runners) but I'm wide awake.  I've had only a few cups of coffee and no red bull or pro-plus; it's the adrenaline and joy of the event that's keeping me going.

Fiona Rennie arrives at half three, declaring herself to be sick of chocolate.  Whilst she's in the hall, she never quite stands still, flexing her hips and bending her knees whilst eating from a saucepan.

At ten to four, the last of the runners I'm looking out for, Karin McKendrick, arrives.  She greets me with a hug, looking grey with exhaustion but still determined.

Thirty minutes later, the sweepers arrive with the last two runners.  This nearly didn't happen as one of them decided to nip into their support vehicle at the bottom of the Devils for a cup of tea.  Sweeping the route is one thing ... checking the occupants of parked vehicles is not in the job description.  If the sweepers had gone past, it wouldn't have been until Kinlochleven that we could have identified a missing runner and the sweepers would have had to backtrack to hunt for him.

The girl's feet are sore and the doctor does one last duty of strapping them up to provide a little extra cushioning.

George and Karen look tired but ready to finish the final section.  Usually sweepers just cover sections of the course but, this year, it was difficult to recruit a sweep team and they agreed to do the full route as well as being competitors.  So they have spent the last 80 miles running at paces they would never normally do, either trudging to accompany the back runners or racing to catch up after each retiral.

But just before five, they're out the door with their charges and heading for the finish line.  There is one final mini-drama when we realise that the boy's support team have left their vehicle parked in the school car park which we need to lock up.  The contact list gets used for the final time as we call the driver back to move it outside the gate and then we're done.

The doctor needs to drop off Kirstie, the centre manager, at her home.  She wasn't able to get any other staff to provide cover so she's been here since 11am on Saturday morning.  That's longer than any of the race team but she says she doesn't mind - she's got loads of work done and will be able to trade the hours for additional time off in lieu, that she will spend with her kids in the summer.

Graham and I follow the doctor to his house where he makes us breakfast.  He sniffs the coffee as he puts it on the kitchen table and warns it may be a bit strong.  I take one sip and immediately feel as though I won't sleep for a week!  Perhaps we should get Dr Chris handing out coffee at the checkpoint....

It's full daylight and the sun is shining.  Loch Leven looks like a mirror, with a perfect still reflection of the hills around it.  There are rabbits running across the road by the metal bridge and I have to brake several times.

I'm following Graham to the leisure centre to hand back the scales.  I ought to know where it is but I've never been before and my brain is now fuzzy from lack of sleep and I'm happy to have a navigator.

At the door of the leisure centre, Ian is greeting every finisher home, before they go inside to be weighed and have their photograph taken.  There is a giant bottle of whiskey on the counter.

I'm there a few minutes and see two runners come home.  I saw them hours ago in the darkness at KLL but I can't remember their names.  It's past seven on the Sunday morning and they've taken over 30 hours to get here, but they have made it.

And finally I make it back to my hotel, and try to rest while my body fights between being wide awake and desperately tired.

WHW Race 2011 - Friday

This could be a very long post...  I think I've spent the whole weekend watching, listening, scribbling down brief notes about things I don't want to forget and now I have the challenge of trying to turn it into something coherent.  And it's been a very long weekend.....

I think I'll break it down into days.  So probably three posts, but hopefully of a bearable length!

But first, a list of people I need to say "thank you" to.

And before this turns into an Oscars speech, that's every single person I met over the weekend.  Whether you were runners, supporters or organisers, you were without doubt the nicest bunch of people.  Okay, some of you weren't exactly on your best behaviour but that's not what I'm talking about.  It's the people that make this amazing.

I guess you all know that Richie Cunningham won the men's race in 16 hours 24 minutes and Kate Jenkins won the ladies.  As I expected, the first time I saw either of them was at the prize giving on Sunday lunchtime.  So this isn't really going to be about the "pointy" end of the race or the elite runners but more about those who were competing for themselves; testing themselves against the 95 miles of hard distance, the Scottish climate, and their own bodies and minds.  And the people who support them, who make the whole thing possible.

Friday evening

I had plans for Friday that didn't include driving from Edinburgh to Glasgow in the rush hour.  They also didn't include taking the wrong turn off the M8 and driving through a rather "interesting" district of Glasgow - the sort of place where you try not to stop at red lights as neither you nor your car would be still intact when the lights went green.

I thought Milngavie was a suburb of Glasgow so I was quite surprised to eventually find myself driving through open countryside.  What a view of the hills up ahead.  And that gap between them, is that where the Way starts its journey north?

I drive up to the station just to check that I know where it is and how far it will take to get there from my hotel.  It looks like any other commuter belt railway station, maybe a third full of cars waiting for their owners to come back from Glasgow.  But in a corner are a number of motorhomes parked up with the foil blinds covering the windows.  Are these some of "ours".....?

So down to the Premier Inn for a few hours' rest and food.  There is a Beefeater in front of the hotel which acts as the hotel restaurant.  There would seem to be a wedding reception in progress judging by the couple of people standing outside in the drizzle; including a bridesmaid in a pale peach satin strapless dress ... with tattoos up her arms, a cigarette in one hand and a can of beer in the other.

As I check in, I find myself wondering if there are any other guests there for the race, maybe taking a few hours sleep after a long drive, before the 1am start.  (Anybody planning on this approach in future years may I recommend bringing earplugs?  Milngavie would appear to be on the direct approach route to Glasgow airport judging by the number of low flying very noisy planes passing overhead).  And later in the restaurant, I'm looking round trying to guess if any of the diners are runners or support crews.  Not quite sure how I could tell but it's a fun game and passes the time.  I don't see any faces that I recognise later at the checkpoint but a few of the cars turn up in Kinlochleven.  There is a group of seven men and one woman on an adjacent table who are talking loudly about setting off early the next morning to walk the Way and how hard the next week is going to be.  I'm amused by the comparison but on any other night would be quite impressed by the challenge ahead of them (and certainly not one I could contemplate).  It's not an easy walk for anyone ... judging by the number of pints they're putting away, they plan on making it even harder by starting late and with hangovers.

The Start

Feeling quite wimpish, I decide to drive the short distance to the start.  I could claim it's through looking after my personal safety by not walking back alone in a strange location in the early hours but if I'm being entirely honest it has rather more to do with not wanting to get my hair wet!  Vanity, thy name is woman....  (I can live with wet hair - just not the day after I've paid the hairdresser to make it look good!)

I decide to park in the Tesco's car park next door and leave the station car park for support vehicles.  Whilst I'm there, I'll just pop in and pick up a few bits of food I didn't bring earlier.  I'm not quite sure how much I think I'm going to need to keep me awake on Saturday night (I already seem to have a bag full in the boot) but it is clearly essential that I now have biscuits, jelly beans, satsumas, etc. 

Despite it being 10.15pm, Tesco is not as quiet as it should be.  As well as the lone shoppers doing their routine shops, there are a significant numbers of groups of people frantically hunting full fat coke, peanuts, crisps, pot noodles, chocolate.  Despite being mostly groups of youngish men, they are clearly not suffering from an attack of chemically induced munchies which might be the normal assumption for a late Friday night.  One of each group is usually short, skinny and wearing shorts....

I am particularly struck by the large group of very fit-looking men wearing matching red jackets who are buying large bottles of water in sufficient quantities to fill a swimming pool.  Just how thirsty do they think their runner is going to be?  Have they ever heard of hyponatraemia?  It's only later than I realise they are the Trossachs Search and Rescue crew who are providing a drop bag and support service at Inversnaid, a remote location on the banks of Loch Lomond that isn't practical for support teams to get to.

At first the station car park seems quite peaceful, although much busier than normal for a late Friday evening.  But it fills up with more and more cars, vans, motorhomes, firstly parked neatly in spaces, then along the side of every access road, in the taxi rank, on verges....  Are there really only 170 runners?  How can they produce so many vehicles?

There are still late trains coming in from Glasgow and the looks of surprise on the faces of the disembarking passengers is stunning.  Particularly those who are coming home from an evening out and have had a drink or two; it's clearly not quite what they were expecting! 

A couple of taxi drivers seem a little disgusted by the intrusion into their space but there is a clean route through the car park for them to collect their fares.  A man in dress tartan starts talking to me.  He's been to an event in Glasgow but he knows about the race and is both amused and awed by the runners.  He did a 50k walk near Arnhem a year ago (no jokes about Holland being flat please, apparently this is the one region with hills) and tells me he couldn't walk for a week afterwards.  To run three times the distance is staggering to him.  He's waiting for a bus that's due just after midnight but when it arrives the driver doesn't even try to come into the car park and stops on the road instead, forcing my new friend to make a dash across the car park.  Definitely the only man running in a kilt tonight!

As I'm walking across the car park, a voice calls out "Haven't you got anything better to do on a Friday night?".  I turn and see Norman Duncan who I work with.  He introduces me to George, his support driver.  We chat for a few minutes and Norman repeats the joke about me making George tea at Kinlochleven.  Nope, my tea making skills are atrocious!  But I will make coffee and we agree on double espressos.  "Assuming he makes it to KLL of course" says George.  "He'd better", I reply "or he'll not hear the last of it at work for the next twelve months".  (Later I feel very guilty about this craic as Norman has to pull out quite early on.  I won't see him until at least Wednesday to find out what went wrong but Keith tells me later that Norman was ahead of him in the early stages, despite having a slower target time, so it may be a too-quick start that couldn't be sustained.)

Runner registration is in a hall to the side of St Joseph's church.  The normal hall isn't available tonight and for a moment, it looks as though the signs are directing us to a portacabin but it's actually a small room inside the building.  I look in from the lobby but go no further as there's little free space inside and I have no valid reason to take up any of it.

Ian Beattie seems to be greeting every runner as they come in.  This is the first year Ian hasn't run the race himself and it must be strange to be on the opposite side of the line tonight.  But he looks happy and has already stated on his blog how much he's been looking forward to tonight.

I see a face I recognise and we exchange greetings; it's Annette, the girl I was talking to on Conic Hill at the Fling.  She's supporting her boyfriend Mike and all his team seem to have matching t-shirts from the brewery that sponsors him.  Hmm there are worse sponsors to have.....!

Back in the car park, there are little groups appearing of runners and their support crews.  Like some choreographed modern dance, they ebb and flow as old friends meet up, cameras flash and hyperactive runners bounce around.  Why don't they sit still for this last hour?  And rest????

There are cars with scottish flags flying, at least one with the canadian maple leaf, and in the corner, a small red car sports the skull and crossbones.  Is this the pirate ship of an infamous London fireman?

A vintage grey VW camper van turns the wrong way into the car park and nearly collides with a vehicle coming out.  "Don't tell anyone" mouthes the passenger to me.  It's a beautiful vehicle but I'm not sure how comfortable it will be on the long drive north.

There is a group wearing matching red and black outfits supporting their runner.  This is Donnie Campbell's crew.  Donnie is the outright winner of this year's "how to make it even harder" challenge by running the race, then continuing on to Mallaig, catching a ferry to Skye and running across the island to his home town of Portree.  His Glasgow 2 Skye challenge requires him to run 184 miles in under 48 hours to raise money for the charity Skye Cancer Care.  Donate here if you feel sufficiently impressed to throw in a few pennies.  (Apologies for the spoiler but he completed the run with 4 hours to spare ... )

I go to stand with Keith and he introduces me to Matt, his "first leg" support who will be driving through to Rowardennan.  I've always assumed that support crews sign up for the whole stint but this seems a very sensible idea (which isn't always a word to be associated with Keith).  Obviously it only works if all your support are reasonably local but it takes away a major risk of having tired drivers after one or even two nights erratic or non-existent sleep.  Does everyone do this?  Later I see the contact details schedules that Race Control have, and it is quite common, particularly amongst the more experienced runners.

At half past twelve, there is a race briefing in the corner of the car park.  Much of it is a repeat of information already given in race briefing notes, on the forum, with a few last minute updates.  Following high winds across Scotland a few weeks back, the path was blocked in a few locations by fallen trees.  These are now cleared away with no diversions from the official route.  However there are a few places where there are piles of logs obscuring the route signs which runners need to be aware of.  There are a number of locations that were once official checkpoints or unofficial support points that are now "out of bounds" due to safety or consideration to local residents.  One of these has agreed at the last minute to allow support vehicles into their site - but only on payment of a £10 parking charge.  An alternative location is suggested...

"There will be weather" says Sean, which is apparently traditional and produces a ripple of laughter.  It may be midsummer weekend but it's Scotland and the forecast for Saturday day time is cool and wet.  Only a few years ago, the race had to be abandoned due to torrential rain.  Some of the tops of the mountains the route passes by will still have patches of snow in sheltered spots.  There will be a compulsory kit check at Bridge of Orchy to ensure that runners have sufficient kit to cross Rannoch Moor.

When the briefing ends there are maybe ten minutes left.  Keith wants a photo with Norman but can't find him.  There are more greetings with old friends not seen in too long a time.

With five minutes to go, runners start lining up at the underpass, with the supporters climbing up the banks to the sides.  The grass is wet and slippy and I have a horrible thought of falling over and knocking over a dozen people like a delinquent bowling ball.  The countdown begins and the tension cranks up.  A few supporters call out good wishes to their runners by name, cameras flash everywhere.  We're looking down onto runners heads - with hats and head torches on, I can't see how anyone could spot "their" runner except by the colour of their jacket.  I can't spot Keith or Norman, or anyone else whose face I would recognise.

Then the hooter sounds and, to the sound of raucous cheering and clapping, they're off.  The fast boys have placed themselves at the front and start running immediately, but the rest have to walk for a few steps before there's enough space to run.  Even George and Karen, who are sweeping the full course this year, are running off which is yet another surprise as I had assumed they would start well behind the main group.

The supporters start scrambling down from the banks, heading for vehicles but before I can follow, there's an explosion of noise and flashing lights from well behind me.  I turn and see that across the road, where the underpass comes up a flight of steps into the town centre, there is another large group of supporters cheering and taking photos.  I wonder if the runners notice the wall of noise and light?  Or are they so hyped up and focussed at that point that it doesn't even register?

And that's it, they're gone.  It's one in the morning and, although I may spot some runners from the side of the road as I drive north tomorrow (today!), I won't meet them again for at least sixteen hours until I start my shift at Kinlochleven.  Some of the support crews seem to be treating the start as a re-run of Le Mans and running to vehicles in a desparate hurry to clear the car park quickly.  Why? 

As I'm walking back up to the path, I see Sean and introduce myself.  We've never met or spoken before, with all our communciation by email or text (I only know who he is due to his blue jacket with the words "Lord of the Bridge" on the back).  He assumes (and I don't correct him) that I'm there to collect stuff for the checkpoint so I find myself heading back to the registration hall with him.  Only the marshalls are in there now but it's still busy as the boxes, bags and signs are packed up to be taken to their new locations.  Amongst the team is a very thin man wearing a Great Britain track suit - and it's one that he got the hard way.  This is Adrian Stott who manages the Edinburgh store of Run and Become, one of the race sponsors. (As well as being race sponsors, their staff are all damn nice people and passionate about running.  When I had my "I want to run" epiphany, they spent as much care and attention on finding the right shoes for this complete beginner as for an elite runner, and even threw in a bit of coaching.  I think they're awesome).

Whilst Sean is hunting for the KLL paperwork, Ian Beattie comes over and introduces himself.  He says he recognises me from my blog and compliments me on it, saying how great it is to read about ultra running from a different perspective.  I'm ridiculously pleased by this.

The other marshalls present are all heading for early points on the route and there's some debate about times and places.  Some are not at "official" points but to "guide" runners along the correct route in particular places or to keep control of parking at congested locations.  One is trying to decide if he has time to catch some sleep in his car before the first runners arrive at his spot.

Each checkpoint has a five page document with a list of all the starters (it was printed a day or so ago so includes some very late Did Not Starts (DNS)) with columns to record times In and Out.  The weighing stations of Auchtertyre and KLL also have a column to record runners' weight (significant weight loss - or even worse weight gain - is a potential indicator of a medical problem).  This is one bit of my duties I'm slightly concerned about as I'm not sure about the boundaries between what's acceptable and what's worrying.  Fortunately the race doctor is at the same location, so it's something I can ask the expert about later.

I'm also asked to deliver a sheaf of paper to Race Control who are also going to be based at KLL.  This is the list of contact details for all the runners and their support crews.  If anything happens to a runner, this is the bible for who needs to be talked to.  It even covers vehicle details and registration numbers so marshalls can pick out the right team in a crowded checkpoint carpark.  The list I have is a duplicate so it doesn't matter that I won't be there until one/two o'clock.

Eventually we have plans for all the paperwork and we start to disperse.  I drive back to the hotel, passing a few groups of teenage boys and am grateful I took the car.  As I reach my room, the answer to a puzzle springs into my head.  Several times around the car park, I'd seen someone whose face looked very familiar but couldn't place.  Eventually I'd recognised him as someone I worked with before I moved to Edinburgh two years ago (different company, same group) but I absolutely could not remember his name.  Suddenly I do but I am still astounded by how long the odds on seeing someone I know should be.

Bizarrely when I marshalled at the Scotland 2 Sahara ultra last November, one of the supporters there was an HR Manager at another sister company.  Do I work in a secret nest of ultra supporters?

It's 02.00am and I'm still wide awake.  I don't mind as I'm trying to roll my body clock forward to deal with the 05.00am finish on Sunday morning, but am slightly concerned that I won't be able to sleep at all!  But I do.  And the final thought in my head is "are all ultra runners short?  And skinny?"

(I was right - this was a very long post.  Sorry.)

Friday, 17 June 2011


Now we're all in limbo, waiting for tomorrow night, waiting to press the button and start the race.

Most people will - I guess - have finished work now and have tomorrow scheduled as a day of rest.  Not everyone though - there are at least two teachers amongst the runners who have no choice but to work as normal.  One is even having her school inspected this week ... this may be taking the distraction approach to tapering a little too far ....

There are still a flurry of announcements coming through on the website, forum and facebook, so the organisers are still busy fine tuning details.  Technology is starting to come into play with a first attempt at live streaming the race Click here to view although apparently not working if you use IE9.  And twitter also becomes a main information source this year with the new #whwrace tag being used by organisers, runners and support alike for updates and encouragement.

This particular marshall has managed to indulge herself by finishing work on the Wednesday with a whole week of time off to come.  (Talking of work, I have discovered that Norman, who works in the same company as me and is competing for the second time this year, has been reading this blog.  Hello Norman.  Norman's crew - whatever he's told you, I am NOT making you tea at KLL.  Coffee maybe....)

Today has been an indulgent and lazy day with the intention to now try and stay up late and start rolling my body clock forward to cope with Saturday night.  Not an advised strategy for runners but then I have every intention of sleeping on the Friday night.  In my third summer in Scotland, I still find it amazing how short the summer nights are; that it still seems to be full daylight at half ten and later.

Tomorrow I have good plans to make the most of the day off and go and stretch my legs around Flotterstone reservoir.  After Sandra's comment below, I nearly burnt my running shoes in sheer terror at the slippery slope I might be starting on!  But I figure my complete and utter lack of talent or aptitude will rescue me from any foolish inclinations regarding racing :-)  In the meantime I am a very slow and ungainly plodder who still gains an immense amount of satisfaction from what I can do compared to what I couldn't do only a few months ago.  For the runners, I should point out that the phrase "stretching my legs" means a distance of 2-3 miles at best.  And no hills.

Then it will be a leisurely drive over to Milngavie, a few hours rest at the hotel and then down to the station to watch the start.  I saw the end of the Fling but this will be my first start and I can't wait to see the atmosphere.  Or try and distinguish between the "old" family members and the new ones taking on this challenge for the first time.  Is it more scary as an unknown quantity, a previously tried and failed event, or once you know how it feels to complete the 95 miles and bang on the door of the leisure centre?  Maybe scary isn't the right word; although any runner should certainly be respectful of the hours ahead of them. 

(Bizarre thing - if you google images of "Fort William Leisure Centre" an awful lot of them have runners in the picture!)

I wasn't totally sure about going to Milngavie, but I've had to realise that it's very unlikely that I will see any of the runners come home as I'll still be in Kinlochleven when most of them come through; and probably sleeping while the last of them arrive.  I'll miss seeing that but hopefully a few hours sleep should see me refreshed enough to come through to the prize giving at midday.

And now we're 24 hours away from the pre-race briefing.  Still on pause, waiting to go...

For all those taking part, I hope you have a wonderful race whether it's your first or your fifteenth, whether you finish in sixteen hours or thirty-five.  Or not at all - it will still be there next year for you.  It's an amazing thing to do, in an amazing stretch of countryside.  Enjoy it.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Tick, Tock, ...

We're in the final countdown.  Eight days to go....

The runners are tapering, making final support plans, grizzling and grumbling, checking and re-checking food and kit, fretting over every last niggle - not an injury!  not this close!, thinking about weather - is good weather bad or vice versa? is there such a thing as bad weather, only unprepared runners?, getting the last of their support team details into the organisers, debating the finer points of the route and if the fallen trees in the forest will be cleared before race day, thinking about the race, not thinking about the race....

Support teams are getting ready for a weekend of pandering to friends and family who insist on doing this strange activity, of going over finely tuned (and laminated!) plans that will be quite probably be thrown out of the window within hours as timings change and favoured foods become repulsive, and listening to the above on repeat....

No doubt also hoping that the latter part of this paragraph in the Support Team Brief is accurate:
What is the role of the support team? To be completely subservient to runners’ every whim for as long as it takes them to complete the route and for them to be forever ever grateful, buy you a load of beer, several dinners and whatever else they can extract; one supporter got a new Mini One. 
And also getting prepared for this:
A good crew will anticipate the change of mind that runners have at every checkpoint. They will have the agreed food/drink ready but know that you will want something else. They will forgive the temper tantrums, occasional bad language and unreasonable demands (an ice cream at 1am in Kinlochleven, for ****s sake!). They will be cheerful and encouraging whatever that means for you. For some that could mean an appropriate kick up the backside – "you wanted to do this" or sing songs etc
Ice cream???

The organising committee are no doubt managing all the last minute preparations behind the scenes.  Logistics, people, race day kit, entry lists, support partners, mountain rescue teams, medical support, support crew details, testing communications for giving live updates on race day, facilities, locations, merchandise, goody bags, goblets....  And all of it pretty invisible to the 170 runners who just want to turn up and run....

And the marshals, well we have our sets of instructions as well.  Who's where and when, contact numbers for Race Control, safety officer and race doctor, names of sweepers, what we're supposed to do, what we're not supposed to do, how best to help in an emergency, weighing instructions, and most importantly "Don't forget to enjoy yourselves..."

I have my midgie net, spray and long sleeved clothing (if there's a biting insect within ten miles, it will find me ... and then invite every member of its extended family round for supper), a good idea of where I'm going and a hotel booked in Fort Bill (not that I'll be seeing much of it due to the hours that Kinlochleven is open).  There is coffee, red bull and pro plus to be stocked up on - and probably lots of chocolate, strawberries and fruit to keep me happy.  Not planning on having ice cream so please don't ask!

My fellow marshall - Lesley - at KLL is also new to doing this officially, having previously been the Race Director's "chauffeur" and occasional relief marshall.  But we both volunteered for this and we're both looking forward to doing it.  Rather than us both doing the full fifteen hours, we're doing overlapping shifts so, if you or your runner is extra speedy you'll only meet Lesley, and if you're coming through in the early hours of Sunday you'll probably only meet me.

I don't know about the rest of you but I'm getting stupidly excited!

See you in Kinlochleven....?

Friday, 3 June 2011

Why Run an Ultra?

Every weekend, throughout Britain, tens or even hundreds of thousands of runners line up at the start of races.  The London Marathon alone has a field of nearly fifty thousand.  And for the vast majority of these people, a marathon is the ultimate challenge, "The Big One".  There's no arguing with that - twenty six point something miles is a damn long way; even to walk it would take an average person between seven and nine hours.

Rightly we celebrate those who take on this challenge and become world class.  Probably 90% of the British population have heard of Paula Radcliffe, Haile Gebrselassie is known around the world and famous beyond the world of athletics.

So what makes someone keep going beyond the marathon?  At what point does twenty six miles become a routine training distance as opposed to an event to be trained and planned for over a six month period?  How does it become reasonable to run thirty, fifty, a hundred miles or more?

Long distance running as an organised activity has been around for a lot longer than you might imagine.  A hundred and thirty years ago, multi-day races were one of the biggest draws in the Victorian sporting scene with maybe ten thousand punters paying to watch top class events, massive sums changing hands in betting and the best athletes earning prize pots equal to modern day footballers.  Some of the records set during that time still stand today.

During the 1980s I read a novel - half a century old even then - by Nevil Shute called An Old Captivity.  Woven amongst the story of a 1930s pilot was the tale of two Scots captured by Vikings and finding themselves part of Leif Ericson's voyage of discovery to North America centuries prior to Columbus.  Both have an ability to run for hours and are sent off as Leif's scouts into this new land, thereby becoming the first Europeans to see large tracts of the continent.  After all these years, I can't remember if they made it back to Scotland, but I can assure you their spiritual descendants are alive and running well in the lowlands and highlands to this day.....

Every ultra runner worthy of the name has read Christopher McDougall's Born to Run, and devoured the story of the Indian tribe who run for hundreds of miles barefoot and in pleasure, as they have for centuries.

The Spartathlon is a 245 kilometre race aross Greece, following the legendary run of Pheidippides from Athens to Sparta in the Battle of Marathon in 490BC.  Now that truly is a run at the end of which a messenger might drop down dead.

So for millenia, men and women have run distances that defy logic, sometimes with a country's fate hanging in the balance, sometimes for hunting and sustenance, sometimes for the challenge of trying to find their personal limits and sometimes for sheer joy.

Maybe it's the wrong question.  Maybe it's not "why run an ultra?" but "why not?"