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

Sunday, 14 August 2011

The Devil of the Highland Midgies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, almost....

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


  1. Excellent blog Julie. Those ankles look angry!
    Yep, always satisfying to beat Tim ... Lol

  2. Thanks for your support over the race. It was great to see you on the Rannoch Moor and at the end.

    Loved the write up.

    Hope your legs are feeling a lot better by now.

  3. Great write-up Julie. I'm sure the Saltire flag was appreciated by everyone; it made me feel like I was there! But I'll need to get a pink midge hat thingie. Not so sure about bareing a small bit of flesh twixt bottom of trouser leg 'n top of sock, though. I guess you won't make that mistake again!


  4. 'Cree-an-lah-rick' (with a 'k'), Julie? So who told you that one?

    But 'Tyne-drum' is fine (take note, folks... never, never 'Tin-drum')!

  5. Avon Skin So Soft works for me. Also (I've never remembered in time) if you eat Marmite every day for a week before entering a midgefest I think it's supposed to stop them biting, they don't like the taste either.

  6. Fair enough Pete, that's the second Devil's blog corrected for you!
    Fiona, if Marmite deterred midgies, there wouldn't have been one within 40 miles of me - think I've eaten it every day of my life. :-)