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

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

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.)

1 comment:

  1. Great report ... it's always really interesting to see what it's like for the marshals.

    I look forward to the rest ...