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

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Striding Out....

It's never a good moment when you realise that you've volunteered to marshal a race that's being held on the day after your birthday.  But the Clyde Stride is four weeks after the WHW and, with the timing of midsummer's day this year, that's the way it worked out.  The birthday - my 21st again, as it has been for quite a few years now - was spent being utterly spoilt and indulged at OneSpa in Edinburgh.  I failed entirely to remain conscious throughout the treatments and had to retire hurt after only two cocktails in town afterwards...

So after all that rest and relaxation, I should have been raring to go on the Saturday morning.  Instead I managed to switch the alarm off and only properly wake up ten minutes before I was due to leave the house.  Panic!

One strong coffee later, I was heading west along the M8 at a speed not entirely compliant with Scottish law, when I got a text from Lee, the super-lovely Race Director.  Did I have a stopwatch as she'd forgotten hers?  Um, yes, but it's 20 odd miles east...  24 hour Tesco?

Miraculously I don't get lost turning off the M8 and find myself pulling into Morrison's car park outside Partick Station at 7.30am, with a whole 15 minutes before registration is due to start.  But instead of the hive of activity I'm expecting, the place is deserted.  Christ, she's not changed the start location and I've missed it?  But there is a small group of fit skinny looking people in the corner, so it's clearly not me.

Wearing last year's bright blue race t-shirt, I wander over and say hello.  Among the group are Norrie, who's volunteered to help rather than run, and brought the family along in support.   Their day has also started badly with the car over-heating and having to be abandoned a few streets away.

A few more runners arrive and, just as I'm assuring someone that Lee will probably arrive any moment, probably taking the corners on two wheels, a white van pulls into the car park (on four wheels I hasten to add) and it's all systems go.  Tables and paperwork out, cardboard boxes for collecting drop bags, we fetch and carry and all's ready to go.  Muriel's here to assist with registration as well, so she and I do the individuals, with Norrie's son taking on the relay teams.

Then it's into auto-pilot, ticking off names, handing over numbers and safety pins, having a craic with the familiar faces, greeting old friends, calming a few nervy novices who are now wondering what the hell made them think running 40 miles was a sensible thing to do.  Our international runners are there too, among them Gerry Craig's brother Michael who has flown in from Singapore for the race, cutting it very fine with a late Friday arrival in Scotland.  Someone wishes me happy birthday but is gone before I can thank them.  A familiar name checks in and I have to think whether it's the Hewitson of The infamous banana blog (if you haven't read it yet you really should; you may never look at a banana in the same way again) but fortunately for my composure, it's the other brother.

A passing gentleman (who has clearly been imbibing Buckie for breakfast) proffers a pound coin, wanting a safety pin and a number.  He's very polite and very insistent; fortunately Muriel manages to dissuade him and he wanders off, dancing and singing.  Only in Glasgae...

Whilst leaning over to the low table, I'm rudely assaulted by a slap on the backside.  I turn round in outrage to be greeted by the giggling figure of Sandra. "I couldn't resist" she says.  Assault on a marshal indeed, and in full sight of the Chairman of Scottish Athletics too.  What is this sport coming to....???

Sophie also stuns me by turning up in a normal number of layers of clothing - only a t-shirt rather than the layers of insulation and waterproofs that she's famous for.

Stan is sweeper this year and wants to be reassured that Ray isn't running.  The legendary McCurdy has however taken a late entry and is here and ready to run.  Stan groans and threatens to go and buy a dog lead from Morrisons.  Shortly later, he comes past with a line tied between him and Ray.  I'm laughing too much to get the photo the sight deserves.

Grant Jeans was another late entry but by the time Lee has swept all the runners away for the briefing, he's not turned up.  He arrives with minutes to spare, so we take his drop bags and shoo him round to the start.

Then it's down to the road and towards the underpass.  After some further herding - yes, you do have to start by running uphill! - they're lined up ready to go.  A few words from a race sponsor and the air-horn sounds, sending 130 or so runners off on their 40 mile journey.

Back at the cars, we finish tidying up, removing every trace of our presence from the station forecourt (and probably picking up some rubbish that was there before).  Behind four vehicles are piles of drop bags to be transported along the route.  Some are already in my car boot but Norrie helps me to load the remainder.  Whilst doing so, we find a small box labelled as a present to the marshals for CP2.  Noanie Heffron has left a box of sweets and treats for each of the checkpoint teams and I'm ridiculously touched.  We always get lots of verbal thanks, but this is a first.

Loaded up, I head for Strathclyde Park via a food and fuel stop at Asda and a bizarre out and back along the M8.  What kind of idiot contractor doesn't let you turn left off the Kingston Bridge onto the new M74?  Ah, that'd be my lot actually...

It's strange getting to the checkpoint and finding it completely empty.  Last year, it was in full flow when I got there but at 10am I'm on my own.  Which is a bit disheartening when I lift the boot lid and realise just how many bags there actually are, which all need to be sorted and laid out in some logical manner.  I'm about half-way through when the Giblin support crew arrive and Paul's mum Josephine comes over and starts helping, along with a young girl who I guess is a grand-daughter.  Many hands make light work and it's soon done.  Even the two unlabelled bags have their own position, though how their owners expect to distinguish the generic supermarket carrier bags from the others is beyond me...

At which point I start getting a little concerned about the lack of other marshals.  From Lee's plan, I'm expecting the McNeills here but there's no sign of them; has the car let them down again?  Fortunately before I need to start worrying about how to deal with a checkpoint single-handed, Karen R arrives.  Soon there are plenty of vehicles arriving as relay teams and support crews get set for the halfway point.

Lee's race brief was pretty clear that NO-ONE was to park in the hotel or Beefeater restaurant but to use the public car park behind the hotel.  I've assumed that this area is the public car park but it's not and when Lee arrives, her first task is to send all the vehicles packing.  Oops.  There will be another issue here later when the manager of the restaurant comes over to complain that there are support cars filling up his car park, to the extent that genuine customers are unable to park.  These races rely on the goodwill of landowners and businesses to exist; it's so easy for a thoughtless crew to ruin that goodwill by being too lazy to walk a few hundred yards to a sensible parking place.

To our surprise, the first runner through is Donnie Campbell, which isn't quite what we expected based on the positions at CP1.  Not sure he has any business running that fast only four weeks after the WHW either...  Sadly Grant has pulled out very early on and arrives with Dave, in surprisingly good spirits.

Paul Giblin arrives later than expected, totally covered in mud.  Legs, face, head, arms - all are covered in a layer of brown sludge.  It's not clear quite how this happened - while other runners have clearly splashed through some substantial muddy puddles, none are in this state - but it looks like he's dived head first into a swamp.

Ian B was supposed to be running but had to pull out yesterday after a tooth extraction (the exertion would pose a strong risk of re-opening the wound and bleeding).  Despite the challenges of supporting Sandra and Susan, he's relaxed and cheery, having had a second breakfast between checkpoints.  I pick his brains about running with asthma and different forms of inhalers - currently it's not working for me at all.  He picks up a tweet from John K who is "At Strathclyde Park watching Clyde Stride Runners go by. #clydestride".  We assume he's only yards away from the checkpoint, but is actually some distance away in the park.  Still, he and Katrina come over to join us, which is the first time I've seen them since the WHW.

Talk turns to potential winners and someone mentions the blond dreadlocked guy who "appeared out of nowhere", won this last year and then disappeared.  Paul Raistrick did in fact win the Glen Ogle but, at the time, none of us can remember his name and are reduced to describing his appearance.  Given that one of his most outstanding characteristics was his extremely toned and buff torso, it may not be too surprising that the females in the group get accused of lechery.  As if.  

My stupid watch is too vague to take times from (very pretty but totally impractical) and I'm using my mobile to record times (having synchronised it with Lee's stopwatch after the start).  Between runners I rest it on the flat top of the fencepost by my side to avoid holding it.  This works fine until I look up and can't see it.  There is frantic searching of the surrounding area to no avail.  I then look at the bin bag also hanging from the post and, with a sinking feeling, start to wonder if it's been knocked in by accident.  Fortunately for me, Dave is willing to search through the detritus and recovers the phone.  Thanks Dave, that's definitely a few beers I owe you...

Most runners have their numbers clearly displayed to the front, although a few have it on the side of their shorts which is not great when we're trying to read it as they run into the checkpoint.  But the relay runners are posing a different challenge.  Their team names are hand-written and only legible from quite close.  Also, quite a few clubs have shown a distinct lack of originality going for [name of club] team 1, [name of club] team 2, etc.  There frequently isn't enough time to read the whole label before the runners away and on several occasions I find myself jogging over to the incoming runner to clarify the name.

There are a couple of withdrawals here, but fewer than last year.  Stephen T pulls out deciding that it is too much too soon after a tough WHW, an older man (Fraser?) recognises a pulled muscle and heads off to phone his wife for a lift; both experienced runners wise enough to know when to walk away.  The last runner in, staggering alongside Stan, is Audrey, who was marshal here last year.  This year she is defeated by the run and curls up on the grass with apparently every intention of going to sleep right there.  Sometimes it's just not your day, sometimes 20 miles is as far as your body will take you.

After her husband and friend have helped her away, Karen, Dave and I clear up every last scrap of rubbish left behind and all the remaining water and foodstuffs.  The road crossing marshal comes back with her signs, which I'm relieved to see are the two missing from my car (I really should have taken them out of the boot after the WHW but I'm sure Sean won't mind them being re-used in a good cause!).

Back onto the M74, forgetting how quickly the turn off to Lanark appears (if that was you I cut up, sorry....) and down the country road.  Climbing up into the village of Kirkfieldbank, I see two runners on the pavement, the first looks like Gerry Craig which throws me as I'd expect him to be finished by now.  Not until I've tooted the horn and gone past do I remember that I'm much earlier than last year as all the runners cleared the checkpoint much earlier.

In Lanark itself, there is a long queue of stationary traffic.  A recovery truck is clearing up after an accident - right outside the police station.  Time for a bite to eat while I wait.

Through the town centre and I'm vaguely surprised to see a relay runner on the pavement; surely the route doesn't come up this high?  Later, that runner is going to be the cause of much fuss, but for now I'm more interested in the fact that the car in front is Dave's.  I frantically beep at him when I think he's about to make a wrong turn ... only to lead both of us down a cul-de-sac.  Hmm, that's two lots of beer I owe you, yes?

Driving through New Lanark itself - such a contrast to the grubby town above it - there is clearly a rather smart wedding in progress.  I'm not sure what these dressed-up women in heels and fascinators, and immaculate men in kilts will make of the sweaty muddy runners that are about to pass in front of them.  Hopefully no-one will interrupt the photos...

On the grassy stretch by the river, the finish line operation is in smooth progress, with Lee's family in full control, down to the young cousins handing out personal goodie bags.  Best of all, there is coffee and the legendary tablet.  There is also beer but that will wait until later.  The first three runners have finished; Donnie taking first prize and proving that a WHW weeks earlier is no barrier to achievement.  For some people anyway!

Shortly after, more runners start arriving, Gerry in 5th place then not-so-normal-runner Andy in 6th, trashing a few WHW demons as he does so.  A Scottish Athletics news item the day before had pointed out his 2nd position in the SUMS table and I tease him about where he'll be on Monday - the leader Gareth Mayze being otherwise engaged on Anglo-Celtic Cup duties in Cardiff.  He's not biting, pointing out that he struggles to train consistently due to family commitments and his "taper" included climbing hills to have a picnic and eight hours gardening the previous day.  Hmmm, so what might be achieve with just a few months structured training...?

A few more WHW devils will be vanquished today, amongst them Louise Jones who hurtles across the finish with the wide smile that seems to be her trademark finish.

Another one seems to be dead and buried when I see Sandra running down the steps, only to stop at the gate and not continue despite my frantic shrieks.  Then I realise, she's waiting for Susan so they can run in together.

At the height of the busy-ness, a problems arises with the relay teams.  The team that finished first is the one whose runner was off course in Lanark.  The second placed team (by two minutes) are aware of this and not particularly content.  They had been 15 minutes ahead at CP3 and think the other team must have run short.  Unlike the club road races they're probably more used to, there's no way of judging this.  Logically the runner has probably run further (and certainly had more climb than necessary) but nothing can be proven and he doesn't have a Garmin.  The issue recedes, returns, recedes, returns, until Lee has to step away from greeting finishers to try and resolve it.  As someone who delights in greeting every finisher personally with their medal and a hug, this makes her very sad.

I'm doing my best to cover in her absence, assisted by Norrie's son (the Clan McNeill ended up here, rather than CP2, after borrowing a different vehicle) and hopefully nobody feels too hard done to.  In the middle of this, two worried parents approach me about a drop bag that couldn't be found at CP2 and they think may be in my car.  I'm sure it's not but we can go and look later.

When I can step away from the finish, I take the father down to my car and we confirm the bag isn't there.  Apparently it contains a phone and wallet; I bite my tongue at the idiocy of putting such items in a drop bag, but do point out that the mobile phone should be in possession of the runner, not sitting at a checkpoint.  Dad tells me that the son thinks he put the drop bag in a van, but that he also thinks he saw penguins on the run...  Well the penguins are clearly a common ultra runner's hallucination, but the van is probably the one containing the finish line bags.  We go and investigate the pile of bags and a very relieved dad spots the missing back-pack.

"He's never even done a marathon before" he tells me.  Nor has the son really done any training it seems.  i never learnt his name but if he can do 40 miles on no training...

Quite a few runners today appear to have missed out on the marathon stage of their progression up the distances, going straight from the 13 miles of the Half directly to an ultra.  I'm astounded.  And yet...  I know more people who've run an ultra than who've run a marathon.  But then again, I hang around with some very mad people...

Like Tim Downie who pauses feet from the line to strike a Morecambe and Wise heel-clicking dance pose, only to be cruelly overtaken by Dave Etchells, who is not missing the chance to get one over on Tim (I should point out that they are the best of friends) by putting his foot down and sprinting to the line.  The rest of us collapse in laughter.

Prize-giving starts and is interrupted over and over again by new arrivals who have to brake sharply to avoid the crowd who have stayed to cheer.  The ladies winner is Charlotte Black, wearing a jacket that indicates she's travelled down from the Shetlands.  Second is Rosie Bell, fresh from her WHW triumph.

After prize giving finishes, there is still a flurry of runners coming in.  I drive two familiar faces up to the railway station as the shuttle bus has finished and miss saying goodbye to Ian, Sandra and Susan, Andy and Jo Rae.  It might have also helped if any of us had known where the station actually was and not had to ask a pedestrian.

Nine hours twenty two minutes after leaving Partick, Stan arrives with three runners together, all grinning and happy - Noanie, Dave Egan, and Alan.

Then there is the final tidying up session, dismantling of gazebos, more lessons on asthma and running from Soph and a last beer.  Behind us we leave some mud where there was previously grass.

But scattering to the four corners of the compass are 195 runners who've all had a great day, whether they ran 10 miles or 40.  The Race Director and her team are pretty happy too...

Additional photos from Colin Knox, Gerry Craig and Lorn Pearson

Saturday, 7 July 2012

The Wettest West Highland Way

What a weekend....

Unlike last year, I'd known for months that I was marshalling this year's WHW race.  Early in the year, Sean put out his usual call for "volunteers" and sounded pleasantly surprised when I jumped at the chance of being at Kinlochleven again.  Midge central, the longest checkpoint shift ... but from my point of view, the most time to actually see the race come through and past, to watch rather than be frantically busy, time to talk to support crews if not the runners themselves.  Being indoors with access to proper toilets and hot water is also a plus, I find...

In the days running up to the race, the British summer was in full flow.  Quite literally.  As usual, the declaration in deepest southern England of drought conditions and hosepipe bans prompted the heavens to open and torrential rain to ensue.  Scotland seemed to be doing a little better - more than once I found myself leaving Edinburgh airport in bare legs and sunglasses only to arrive in Hampshire sodden and shivering.  I'm half-Scottish now; I really should know better.

In the run-up, the Facebook group page exploded as bored runners tried to fill their taper hours with something other than psychosomatic injuries and frantic list-writing.  Have I done enough?  Should I go for one last long run?  What's this pain in my foot?  How do you keep your feet dry in the rain?

And sadly, the last few names were scored off the start list.  How agonising to have to pull out only a day or two before the start.

John K and I spoke briefly on the Wednesday about the checkpoint and we agreed to change the time process slightly for Kinlochleven, as opposed to earlier checkpoints, to ensure we captured the departure time of runners.  Just in case...

And then ...


A day off work and a chance to pack bags and make sure I have everything I need for the checkpoint - pens, highlighters, scissors, food, small clock, change of clothes, midge repellent.  Midge repellent!  I bought some last year and used it on WHW and the Devils races - it worked superbly, at least on the bits of skin I remembered to apply it to - and I know there's plenty left in the bottle.  But I can't find it anywhere.  I practically demolish the spare room in trying to find it but it's gone to that place where the "other" odd socks go.  A flying trip to the nearest outdoors store where there is the choice of some feeble looking wrist and ankles bands or a bottle of Deet.  I lie to the assistant about having used Deet before in other countries and being fully aware of its lethality and safe use.

There is another slight hiccup to the days plans, although not mine.  All the goody bags and merchandise are at Run & Become's store in the West End of Edinburgh to be collected by van today.  Unfortunately some builders working on a neighbouring property choose today to discover a WW11 cache of grenade and ammunition and the entire area is sealed off.  Immutable Chinese whispers have turned "grenade" into "bomb" and I become quite nervous to calculate that this is only a few hundred yards away from me.  The situation is not helped when the heavy rain turns into thunder....

I'm not going to the start this year.  I don't have accommodation booked and I'm still tired from work.  Better to get fully prepared here and head across country on the Saturday morning to pick the route up at Crianlarich.

But FB and Twitter are starting to fill up with excited updates as runners and support crews gather.  The Red Wine Runner (supporting Mrs Shanksi this year) is travelling back from Poland and only landing in Edinburgh on the Friday evening.  Cutting it fine.  But even that is surpassed by the support runner for Keith Hughes who is flying in from Perth (... yes, the one in Western Australia!) on the Friday afternoon, running the later sections with him before returning to Amsterdam on the Sunday afternoon.  Unless aliens are planning on joining a future WHW race, there won't be a longer trip to take part than that one...

I'm not going to Milngavie.  I'm not.

Until about half-ten when I go "F*** it, I'm going".  It's only about fifty-odd miles.  Each way.

So I find myself hurtling down the M8, knowing that I'm going to get lost when I turn off the motorway, that the patches of bright sky that still shine in this last hour before midnight are going to disappear behind clouds very soon, and that I really can't bear not to see the race start.

At Milngavie, the station car park is as packed as ever; cars, vans and motorhomes squeezed into every available parking space and more besides.  I can spot the beautiful vintage VW motorhome of Martin Hooper as I walk up to registration.

It's past midnight and technically registration (in a different and much larger room than last year) is over, but there are still plenty of people milling about, chatting, using the toilets.  I'm greeted by John K with a hug and the words "I thought you weren't coming here?"  I will hear this several more times tonight...

Davie Hall is also here and warns me that the A82 lochside road will be busier than usual as the heavy rain has caused another landslip at the Rest and Be Thankful on the A83, resulting in all traffic being diverted past Loch Lomond.  As always I'm struck by how many people are working here - registration, goodie bags, merchandise, checkpoint packs, safety teams - all people that the runners will only notice if their jobs are done poorly or not at all.  Sean spots me and I find myself agreeing to take scales and timing sheets up to KLL on Saturday - which now means I have an earlier deadline for leaving home after a later night...

Andy strolls in looking entirely cool in sweatshirt and cut-off denims.  I don't think my description of him as my "normal runner" can last much longer and I don't expect to see him at my checkpoint as he should be through whilst I'm trying to rest in Fort William.

Down in the car park there are so many familiar faces.  Last year I knew only two people - only one of which will be here tonight - yet this year, every few moments there is another person greeting me by name with hugs and cheery words.  How the world changes in a short twelve months...

This year I'm close enough to hear Sean's safety briefing clearly.  The infamous line "there will be weather" has never been more apt.  Although dry now, the forecast is for unremitting rain and showers throughout Saturday.  There are very few bare legs or arms on display already.  The Carnegie girls - Fiona, Pauline and Sue - are wearing ponchos over their bright running clothes.  Tim is even more basic, keeping dry under a black bin bag.

Briefings over and more last minute greetings.  Sandra introduces me to her crew of Joopsy, Susan and son Stephen.  (We have a friendly contest scheduled around wearing heels for the Sunday night party, the choice of which is causing me much anguish.)  Antonia looks like an overexcited schoolgirl who can't wait to get going and asks me take a photo of her and her crew.  Dave, Lee, Wee Hannah and Mason, this year supporting Martin Hooper and big David Ross on his first WHW race.  Lucy supporting Richie as he attempts a third successive victory and already in possession of a cow bell to send the runners off in a cacophony of noise.  The Shanksi's down from Stonehaven with RWR and her boyfriend Kynon.  Carrie, finally making the start line after two previous years of injury.  Probably many more whose names have now blurred from my mind.  So many people and all of a sudden it's barely a minute to one and I need to be by the underpass.  I want to see the runners set off towards me, rather than looking down on them from the grassy bank.

Walking through the underpass and the sudden ridiculous thought that this is the one and only time I will ever pass through there at a race start with the likes of Richie and Mike Raffan and Andy behind me.

There are clusters of people up the steps, at the top of the ascent and even within the underpass - I hope they can run quickly when it starts but Sean walks through clearing the way, making sure everyone understands that the runners route needs to be entirely clear.

Countdown starts, the tension peaks, then the night explodes with the klaxon and cowbells, and 172 runners - silhouettes against the underpass lighting and their headlights - charge towards me, up the steps and off into the night.

Five minutes later it's raining again.


I collect the scales and paperwork - a brief moment of confusion about whether or not there should be a list of runner's names and numbers - and marvel again how rapidly the car park can empty of vehicles.  Heading east in the now heavy rain, the M8 is thick with fog that wasn't there only a few hours before.

Once home, I'm wide awake and struggle to sleep properly.  I wouldn't have missed the start for all the world but it's close to four am before I sleep which isn't a good preparation for the weekend.  Ho hum, at least I'm driving and sitting, not running or walking.

When the alarm goes off only a few hours later, the first thing I do is reach for the ipad and check FB and twitter.  I'm bitterly disappointed to see a picture of a red and swollen ankle; the cause of the totally-mad-but-very-lovely Fiona McDonald having to withdraw very early on.  (How early on I only discovered later - she fell after barely a mile and a half but plodded on to the next checkpoint to retire).  She's cross, frustrated and upset that her race has ended so early - I think I'd be bawling in a ditch somewhere.

Essential weekend supplies that I haven't yet got include jaffa cakes and Irn-Bru.  (The diet is suspended for 48 hours).  I nip into a little Tesco's on the way out of town and am delighted to spot Smidge midge-repellent  by the tills.  I know supermarkets sell everything these days but I wasn't expecting that.  A complement to the Deet, I grab a bottle.

I've forgotten about the Highland Show by the airport and find myself stuck in stationary traffic for far too long.  I'm even eyeing up the central reservation, wondering if I can do a u-turn but the numbers of police vehicles around suggest this might not be wise.  Come on people, I have a race to get to!

Even in the worsening weather, there are still the usual dithering tourists on the A82.  Yes, your car is capable of travelling at more than 37mph, no, you don't really need to brake every time the road makes a slight bend and it's really sodding bad manners to speed up on the only straight bits of the road that I might be able to overtake on!  As for motor-home drivers.... oh dear.

However the car responds to the occasional request for a burst of speed to fly past the offending vehicles and I manage not to get any later.  Poor car - it normally spends all week parked up in Edinburgh, doing less than 20 miles a week.  In the last week, it's been driven from Edinburgh to Leicester to Sheffield to Basingstoke to Edinburgh to Milngavie to Edinburgh.  And now it's going to Fort William and back.

Once through Crianlarich I start playing the usual game of trying to spot the runners.  In the driving rain there are no bright flashes of colour to be seen out on the Way.  Nor are there many walkers it seems.  In fact, it's not until I've gone through Tyndrum and climbed up into the valley into Bridge of Orchy that I start to see movement.  Mostly dressed in dark clothes with long leggings, there are a few bodies jogging comfortably north along the route.  They're too far away from the road (which I am not paying quite enough attention to for the conditions) for me to identify, but when I spy two bare legged runners running together, my brain instinctively says "oh, that's Sharon Law".  A moment later, the other part of my brain points out that a) she's not running in the race this year (having been selected to compete for Scotland again in a few weeks) and b) she's heading in the wrong direction.  (In the days later I discover that yes, it absolutely was Sharon who, along with the Consanis, decided to come along and have a run south along the WHW to encourage the competitors and make their own unique contribution to the event).

The rain is relentless now and the visible puddles and mud make it clear that it's been raining all night.  At least last year, the race was mostly dry until late Saturday afternoon so the runners covered much of the course before getting sodden - hell, Richie probably never saw the rain at all.  This year, they will have been wet and cold all the way through.  It's well past midday so that's over eleven hours already.  And just ahead of them now is the bleak expanse of Rannoch Moor; not a place to be wet cold and tired on.

"It's going to be a war of attrition today" I say to Sean when I stop at Bridge of Orchy to see how it'd going. "No need for compulsory check kits though this year" he replies.

Stupidly I'd thought that the rain might deter the midges but the evil black beasts are ever present, many of the supporters standing on the bridge watching the foaming torrents covered from head to toe, wearing nets. I pick up my race fleece and head onwards, hoping to drop into Glencoe to see Karen R who's marshalling there after breaking a bone in the Fling.

There are patches of white high up on the mountains - snow not yet melted by the summer of washed away by the rainfall - and up at the ski centre, the weather is no longer vertical rain but horizontal.  Camped out on ground to the side of the car park, Karen and George have a gazebo pegged out over the rear of the estate car and a small low tent pitched to the side (the sort that looks like a blown-up sleeping bag).  It should be a great idea but the squally wind gusting down from Rannoch Moor is threatening to rip it out of the ground and send it flying down to Glencoe valley.  And this is in a position seemingly sheltered by the mountain itself and the trees behind the car park?  How bad are conditions out on the moor?

In between trying to restrain the gazebo, Karen tells me that the first two runners have been through and the third is expected soon; his support crew parked up just down the track.  The leader is a runner called Terry Conway; not a name any of us know but there is some association with the Lake District it seems.  Added to which, he came through the checkpoint 30 minutes before Richie's time from last year.

Mental arithmetic time.  If Terry can maintain the pace over the Staircase, he'll be in Kinlochleven 30 minutes before Richie was last year.  That's 2.40pm less 30 minutes puts him there at 2.10pm.  Which is just about the time that Jez Bragg made it when he set the course record...  I'm not a stats geek; I only know this because I'd looked up times only a day or two before while agreeing with Lesley what time the checkpoint needed to be open.  I'd made a joking remark that 2.00pm would be fine, unless someone was after the record.  Looks like someone is...

Think I better get a move on; it's a long haul round to Kinlochleven through Glencoe.  The low fuel light is starting to flash on the dashboard but I suspect I don't have time to stop and fill up.  I didn't expect to be racing a runner along this stretch.

At the community centre, Lesley and the doctor are mostly set up but nervously awaiting the papers and scales.  On a "just in case" basis, the surgery scales have been brought over in case I didn't make it in time.  There are crews already here and the buzz of an imminent arrival.  Peter Duggan wanders in - he's seen some of the times being posted from checkpoints and thinks "something special" might be going to happen.  Lesley tells me that it seems Richie has pulled out and I'm disappointed that his run of great finishes and two wins has come to an end.

Last year I never got to see the leaders at all, this year there's no doubt of it.  But even so, I'm still caught a little by surprise when he sprints into the checkpoint.  The first thing I register are the shorts and bare legs, hardly the most appropriate for the weather?  He looks fast and happy, like he's just jogged a 5k, not 80 hard miles in brutal weather.  He's in and out so fast we almost don't catch his time.  12:59 ... Christ, that's ten minutes ahead of Jez.

A few minutes after he's gone, John K rings to warn us that we may have an early arrival.  You're a bit late, I reply, he's been and gone.  You do realise that he's ahead of the record?  On a day like this?

John asks if we can text the times of the first three runners through to him so he can update Twitter, and then to start phoning through times in batches.  I remind him that I'm leaving for a few hours but Lesley will be in touch.

I have good intentions but some Australian walkers come into the centre and start asking about the race.  They are doing the traditional multi-day walk north and heartily glad to be stopped for the day.  Pete keeps them entertained for some time.

Paul Giblin's crew are waiting for him to come in as second place.  Consisting of the Giblin family, they've become a familiar and popular sight at many ultras over the last year or so.  On last year's WHW, Paul took a wrong turn coming into the village that cost him an hour in time.  His sister tells me about shouting at him in the checkpoint when he was angry with his mistake and needed refocussing.  Everyone has fingers crossed that he won't do the same again this year.

He arrives safely but now an hour behind Terry, having lost time from Glencoe.  I wonder if he took the descent a lot slower in a deliberate plan not to get lost.  Whatever the reason, it doesn't seem likely he's going to catch the leader; barring a major drama up on the Lharig Mor.

It's now gone 3.00pm, I need to get away from here.  By the time I've bought fuel (the garage owner tries to tell me that this is the first day it's properly rained in Lochaber this year and I really can't decide if he's being truthful or merely bored of telling tourists about the three legged haggis) and queued at the multiple roadworks on the way into Fort William, it doesn't seem likely I'm going to get any sleep this afternoon.  Just as well when JK gets his phone numbers mixed up and phones me twice (on two different phones) trying to call the checkpoint.

Before leaving we'd debated long about Terry's possible arrival time into the finish line.  Jez's record is 15:44 but with what is widely held to be an incredibly fast final 14 miles.  I probably should go straight back to Kinlochleven but I'm only a half mile away from the leisure centre and it seems crazy to miss what may be the only year I ever get to see a race winner.  As for seeing that record broken...

As I park up, I'm really sad to see Sandra standing on the steps with her crew.  I was under strict instructions to give her a hug at Kinlochleven and then kick her out.  Same as last year, her ankles have let her down.  But this time much earlier and she pulled herself out at Auchtertyre.  She's smiling but there's an undercurrent of bitter disappointment in her voice.

There is a moment of panic when a large 4x4 parks in the line of sight across the car park.  I trot over to stand on the grass bank where I can see down the road.  Someone else is far more pragmatic and asks the driver to move.

There are crew down on the pavement watching out for the winner, I keep scanning my watch as the seconds tick away.  Oh god, it's getting close.  Why don't I have a watch that tells the time properly instead of making me guess at the minutes and seconds?

Suddenly there's a frantic semaphore from down on the road.  He's coming!  I yell across to the waiting group at the centre doors.  No doubt now, the record has gone.  Here he is, flying across the car park at a pace most 5k runners would envy, up the steps, greeted by Ian and the whooping and hollering of the small group who have just witnessed something very special.

15 hours 39 minutes 15 seconds

95 miles in horrendous weather

Jubilation over, I call Lesley to tell her the news - you have no idea how many times we'll get asked about finishing times through the night - and reassure her that I'm on my way back.  On the drive alongside the loch, I even see a patch of blue sky and sunshine.  It doesn't last long.

Back at the checkpoint, there have been about nine runners through, including the first withdrawal - sadly from the third placed runner.  How frustrating to be doing so well, but to have to pull out through injury.  Despite the fast pace of the early runners, this is a lot fewer through than the same time last year.  No women either; this time last year Kate had been and gone, with Debbie and Sharon not far behind, showing why they run in their country's colours this summer.

Two runners - Charlie and Ed - come in exactly together.  This is unusual for this position in the field, normally it's much further back that runners group together for moral support.   I assume it's a fluke of timing and only much later do I realise they've covered the entire course side by side, finishing in joint 10th position.

The clock ticks over at six o'clock, allowing competitors to have a support runner, being four hours since the leader.  Only one person has even asked about this so far and sounded quite relieved that their runner was too early, clearly not relishing the threat of 14 miles in the continuing weather.

Ten minutes later the first lady is through.  Rosie Bell, I know the name if not the person.  Hot on her heels, barely a minute behind is the second, Gaynor Prior.  (Before I came to Scotland I'd never heard of ultras but, to reinforce the small world concept, Gaynor lives in the small village next to the small village I spent sixteen years living in prior to moving to Edinburgh.)  Gaynor's crew asks about the permissibility of a support runner, Rosie's doesn't and the two women leave, mere seconds apart, but one with a support and one without.  This prompts some debate in the checkpoint - is there an advantage to having the moral support of a de facto pacer?  Should there be a separate time period applied to the women - these two will not take overall placings, but they are certainly competing for the ladies' prize.

Shortly after Ross Moreland comes through, there is a lull in the incoming runners and I take the opportunity to phone John and give him timings for the runners that have come through already.  He's also able to confirm to us the runners who have withdrawn earlier in the course; some familiar names among them, amongst them David Ross, Bob Steel, Louise Jones.  So disappointed that people I know and like have been defeated by the day.

I start to spot familiar faces in the support crews - brown clad HBT girls supporting Carrie on her "third time lucky" race entry, HappyG supporting Andy...  wait a minute he should have been and gone already?  No, he's had a bad section and struggled for some distance.  But when he arrives at the checkpoint, looking utterly bedraggled in a red waterproof, he still has the character to strike a pose as he comes through the doors.  Right now shift your arse out of here and go get that goblet, Mr Normal Runner!

Antonia is also having a tough time and I spend quite some time chatting to her fiancee Scott.  I've seen him at a few races but not really spoken; this evening we have a united desire to see the small blonde New Zealander collect her first goblet.  Unfortunately I actually miss her coming through the checkpoint as I've gone on a food run to the neighbouring chippy to get supplies for myself and Lesley!

My apologies to the runners who came through while we were eating chips - we did try to keep them out of sight, but the delicious smell was irrepressible!

More familiar faces:  Terry Addison (the first of the Kirky crazies) and his support crew, Peter Macdonald whose wife (and final section support runner tonight) Heather I first met on the banks of the River Ayr late last summer.  The checkpoint's starting to get busier with both crews and runners avoiding the continuing rain by heading indoors.  Peter Duggan has been out for a run along the route (other than this, he spends almost the entire night at the checkpoint - even when you don't run the race, it still has its hooks into you, it seems...)  and spots a familiar face amongst the crews.  I know less than nothing about mountain climbing (other than that I get vertigo on a step ladder and have absolutely no desire to find out what effect a cliff face or narrow ridge would have on me) but apparently "Scotland's best climber" is part of a runner's support team.

Donald arrives in the infamous and legendary tartan shorts.  And he's incoherently talking complete and utter gibberish.  I'm half convinced his wife Elaine is going to pull him from the race but she tells me he's actually in better state than last year.  I'm decidedly unconvinced by this, especially when he picks up my bottle of Deet and repeatedly sprays it directly into his face.  Um, I'm really *not* sure that's edible....  Once again I'm astounded by what this race can do to people mentally and physically.

And what not so normal people can do in return.

Into the later hours of the evening and the "rush hour" begins.  Runners come through every few minutes in varying states of physical and mental energy.  Last year Lesley and I took it in turns to look after runners; this year we're joining forces and most people get the two of us working as a tag team - I bring the runner to the scales and call out their number and weight, Lesley reads off the race time and writes it down.  This year the cards are in zip-loc bags - a great idea to keep them dry, but a bloody pain in the arse to get open.  More than one gets ripped apart in frustration, sometimes even by the marshals.

I get to have a craic with most runners, be it teasing them about how effective their diet has been (when they're showing a weight loss), promising them there's "only a half marathon left" (well, give or take a mile or so), making a younger male runner blush when I tell him not to strip off too far before he gets on the scales.  And occasionally there are slightly sharper questions, maybe asking runners for their childrens' dates of birth when the scales show a weight gain and they're showing signs of tiredness that may just be the result of 80 miles hard work in twenty-plus hours, or may be the start of a serious physical problem...

Around this time, the casualties start coming in and the doctor starts patching up blisters and soreness.  Through the night I will see far too many feet that have been wet for twenty four hours or more; it's really not a pretty sight...  But there are also an increasing number coming in with painful ankles and shins.  Much later when we talk about it, the consensus is that the wet and slippy conditions have put massively increased strains on the soft tissues around the ankles in trying to keep the body stable on unstable terrain.  Unlike last year, there will be a lot of withdrawals at this final checkpoint; runners who recognise that they can go no further, that the weather and their bodies have said enough.  It's bitterly sad to watch - one young runner is practically in tears when I cut off his wristband and all I want to do is hug him and tell him it's okay.  Instead I ask if he wants to see the doctor and help him through.

At times during the night, the checkpoint looks like a casualty station with bodies stretched out on chairs, on the floor.  But there are no major issues and no summons for the doctor from the mountain rescue team either.  The bad weather is presumably keeping many of the tourists off the paths and summits.

Karen and George are in, whilst waiting for Johnny Fling to arrive.  Right now, Karen has the thing I most want in the world - ginger beer.  Fabulous.  When John arrives, he is as cheerful and mad as ever.  (I have since seen a race photo of him dancing in the rain at Inversnaid ... it sums him up perfectly).  He wants to stop and chat but his support team are having none of it: "No time for that!" and he's hustled out the door with George's foot only a metaphorical inch from his backside.

Adrian Stott (of Run and Become) arrives.  A man who has a very large collection of race finishes, some from the years when that didn't earn you a goblet, merely the satisfaction of knowing what you had achieved.  When he ran the winter ultra last December, I'm sure he said that it was his first ultra in several years.  Some things the body - and mind - doesn't forget.  Although, rather inappropriately for a member of the race committee, he's not easy to pin down long enough to get onto the scales and his weight card retrieved!

Midnight comes and goes without us even noticing.  This time last year, there were only isolated runners coming through and it wasn't difficult for Lesley to leave around one.  Tonight we're still busy with the weather slowing most of the pack down.  It will be nearly 2.30am before she leaves and only then because I convince her to.  In the few minutes between arrivals, I'm trying to keep up with Facebook and Twitter to get the race news.  With no wi-fi signal, this is being done on the work's Blackberry.  I have yet to confess to my boss but will no doubt have to do so when the bill arrives.

Kynon arrives to wait for Mrs Shanksi, the rest of her crew with her on the long walk over the Devil's Staircase.  We chat for some time but he's looking exhausted, as do many of the support crews.  When he gets a text indicating what time they will be arriving, I suggest he lies down on one of the mattresses in the sports hall and sleeps for an hour or so.  I promise to wake him before Vicky's due in (he's under orders to have a cup of tea waiting) and warn him that he'll be evicted from the bed if it's needed for a casualty.  We all worry and fret about the runners being awake and on the go for so many hours but the time frame is just as bad for the support crews.  No wonder so many of the old hands use two crews.

John K had told me he wouldn't be at Kinlochleven but has been convinced to visit by Dino, the Race Princess and legendary Race Control of previous years.  Added to which he wants to see the progress of some of his local runners, mostly Silke and Caroline, who are hunting their first goblets after years of supporting their respective husbands.  Mostly he's enjoying the new challenge of Race Control but his logical mind is immensely frustrated by runners who seem to vanish at one checkpoint, only to appear at a later one.  Or worse, those who he has been told pulled out at Glencoe but are still coming into Kinlochleven as competitors.  Sometimes it's like herding cats...

When Silke arrives, her crew seat her at the end of the pool table we are using as our marshal station and fuss around her.  She looks like a queen holding court.  She also looks like a woman on a mission; nothing is going to come between her and her goblet this weekend.

Just before 1am Fiona Rennie arrives.  She's probably the only runner outside the top ten to have the same arrival and departure time, standing still only long enough to be weighed.  I haven't learnt yet, I instinctively still ask her crew to let me know when she leaves, only to be told "Ah'm going now".  Another warrior queen that will stop for nothing before Fort William.

Ten minute later, a dark-haired woman hobbles into the centre on stiff unbending legs but with the widest smile.  She's the tiniest slip of a thing, in a field of small and slender athletes and I swear she barely reaches my waist in height.  How can this tiny creature cover 95 miles?  But Lesley will complete her race, even if she doesn't manage to collect her goblet in person.

After ten, every runner leaving the checkpoint is supposed to be accompanied, either by their own support runner or by buddying up with another competitor.  It's not actually easy to police, but many runners are with their support by the time they reach us anyway.  Even so, we spot a couple who seem to be leaving alone.  They're pulled back and reminded of the rules.  The explanation is a little challenging when the runner (Paul?) appears to speak no English, but the message is finally understood and his son gets changed into wet weather running gear to go with him.

Not long after 2.00am there is a kerfuffle at the door and Caroline arrives in the midst of her support crew.  In over a year of marshalling I don't think I've ever seen a runner in such a state; she can't walk or talk, seems barely conscious, and it takes three of us to keep her upright on the scales.  I've practically written DNF on the list already.  But Neal her husband is adamant she'll be fine and bears her away to a chair where she's surrounded by the dozen or so family and friends making up her support crew.

The doctor goes over to investigate and catches her as she falls from the chair.  Sweeping her up, he carries her into the sports hall and lies her down on a mattress to sleep, ordering that she's not to be disturbed.

I've thought through this many times since.  I'm not a doctor or a nurse; I have no medical training beyond basic workplace first aid.  I'm not a runner, I can't draw on my own experience.  But throughout the time that Caroline is in the checkpoint, I can't conceive that she is going to be capable of walking out of the building, never mind covering the 14 miles to the end.  Her crew are determined she's going to continue but I can't help wondering if they're projecting their own determination onto a body that's defeated.  Are they going to carry her over the Mor?  Even with the benefit of hindsight, I still think that - had I been at that checkpoint alone without medical support - I would have refused to let her continue.  Not that I think I know better, but that I think it would take considerable medical skill to have been sure that there is nothing seriously wrong with her; that continuing is not going to cause her serious harm.  Or worse.

Ultimately I don't have to make that decision.  Doc Ellis talks to her at length once she wakes up and has eaten.  Whilst still a little groggy, she can now talk and move without support.  His verdict is that she is exhausted, nothing more, nothing less.  There are enough people going over the next section with her to be able to carry her out without risking a rescue crew.  It's his call to let her continue but I still fret over her until prize-giving the next day.  As does he; when he comes into the Nevis Centre, his first question to me is "did she make it?" having first been to the Belford Hospital to see if she was there.  The answer is yes, Caroline now has her first goblet.

I haven't heard her post-race podcast yet.  I've been saving it until after I finish this.  I think it's going to be fascinating to hear how many different ways a scenario can appear to the people present.

I'm delighted to see Fiona McD in the checkpoint.  Although out of the race herself, she's now joined Vicky O'Reilly's support crew and cheering everyone up around her. Vicky is limping slightly and the doctor is highly amused by the sight of one injured runner being supported round the checkpoint by another even-more-injured runner.

We're down to the last few runners now.  Before he arrives, Charles Gordon's support crew warn us that he's suffering with his feet and is "a bit grumpy".  Ah, no wisecracks at the scales for him then.  In an unusual piece of medical practice, the doctor offers to craft some temporary orthotics to support his battered feet over the final stretch.  Peter (who will be there until we close) fetches some from home that can be adapted as required.  But even after all this, and a period of rest, finally Charles has to decide that he can't carry on.

The final support crew arrive in the shape of Dave W and Dino.  Mrs Mac and Wee Hannah are sleeping in the car, DQ is out on the trail, coaching Hooper over long slow painful miles.   It's a long wait in the growing light and we eat cake and drink coffee.

Twenty-seven hours and 39 minutes after leaving Milngavie, Hooper shuffles his way down the drive and into the centre.  We have already agreed that he will use every last minute available to him by resting, then leaving at fifteen minutes after five, the last possible time for a runner to clear the checkpoint.  But when the time comes, he can't walk.  Heartbreakingly, this is the end of the race for him; a man in such physical pain, he flinches with every pulse of blood through his aching and battered feet.

The fast guys and girls, they make it look easy.  But don't ever let anyone tell you that's true - this sport will take you and do its best to destroy you physically and mentally.  It's tough at the back.

The checkpoint finally closes at 5.45am after I've tidied up, washed up and bagged the lost and found items. Breakfast at the doctors' again, deliver scales, stopwatch and paperwork to the finish line, then finally back to the hotel.


A little sleep, never enough and it's time to get down to the prize-giving.  Unlike last year, it's cold and grey still and I choose to drive the few hundred yards.  Even there, there are still more things to be done.  Goblets to be taken out of their crates and stacked onto the table, race merchandise to be unpacked and sorted.

Adrian is there in his capacity as runner, as shopkeeper and as reporter for Scottish Athletics.  Barely hours after running 95 miles.  My respect goes up another notch and I mentally slap myself for feeling tired and whingy.

Hopefully I will see this many times in the future and I suspect it will always be something special, something unlike any other event.  And every year, I suspect there will be those few things that cause the audience to cheer a little louder.  This year, there are new champions and a new record to be cheered for, there is a special award for Dino in recognition of her ten years service to the race, there is Ada collecting her goblet in a wheelchair, there is a cheer for Lesley who cannot collect her goblet as she's been admitted to hospital.  But the loudest and longest may well be for Pauline Walker (Fiona's twin) as she joins the exclusive ten club, being the first woman to complete ten WHW races.

Afterwards I help Adrian sell t-shirts and fleeces and buffs and barely get to talk to anyone as they drift off.

Despite my tiredness, I don't sleep in the afternoon, which is not the best preparation for the evening social at the Nevis Bar.  But I mooch along in my best Stella McCartney heels (Sandra and I agree that we have a draw on the heels contest) expecting to last an hour or so.

Ian greets me with the words "So are you running it next year?"  That man has a very strange sense of humour...

There are lots of drinks and chat and gossip and fizzy stuff with Sandra (we tried for champagne but it obviously wasn't that sort of place...).  There are friends and family old and new.  I even cope with England going out of the football (it was to Italy, I have divided loyalties!).  And sometime after midnight, the bar staff finally throw us out.

Just to prove what a warped sense of humour Mother Nature has in the Highlands, I wake to bright sunshine and blue skies at 4.30am.

See you next year?  I'm sure we're due a dry one...

Thursday, 24 May 2012

A Far-Off Fling

I've been told off - there was no Fling blog.  Mea culpa, I've been busy, I've been travelling and working too hard, I kept on thinking I'd do it tomorrow or maybe next week or sometime, there's other stuff going on in life.  But like running, the first step out of the door is the hardest, so here we are.  A few weeks late but someone has to be last don't they?

This is (sort of) my birthday race.  A year ago I hauled myself up Conic Hill and watched my first competitive ultra.  All the things, all the people that's led me to...

Stupidly I made no arrangements for accommodation before or after the race.  Work is ... interesting ... at the moment and I was struggling to predict where I'd be on the Friday, knowing only that there wasn't a cat in hell's chance of me not taking a day off.  I didn't catch up with John Duncan (the new Race Director) until nearly a week before the event, finally agreeing that I'd be on finish line duties.  Deja vu all over again.  But this year there would definitely be no Katrina Kynaston; this year she had moved over to the dark side and was running the Fling herself.

I looked to see if there was any late accommodation but not a chance.  The two "big" hotels in Tyndrum take only coach parties, not individual bookings and Tyndrum Lodge had been full for months.  I grizzled on Facebook and Bill Heirs offered a spare bed in his room at the By The Way Hostel.  Great - no need for a long drive home and a chance for a few drinks afterwards.  Don't think I've stayed at a hostel since primary school trips but everyone raves about By The Way; it'll be fine...

Friday saw me in London, doing battle with the DLR and Tube and thinking wistfully of how much better the scenery and people were going to be 24 hours later.  In the early evening I sat at City Airport, watching increasingly frustrated status updates from would-be Flingers trying to fly from Heathrow and Gatwick into Glasgow.  And the early notes and photos from the latest mad jaunt of George and Karen on the first leg of their down and up Fling double...

A slightly late start on the Saturday morning, bags packed and I'm heading west for the first time this year.  Too early for midgies, the sun is blazing down with the promise of another glorious day.  Does the Fling have a booking for it, a deal with Mother Nature to show several hundred runners western Scotland at its magnificent best?

In no time at all I'm at Tyndrum, bumping down the road to Lower Tyndrum station (despite being a tiny settlement, Tyndrum has two railway stations.  On two entirely separate lines that have no connection; to travel from one to the other by rail involves a journey of several hundred miles) past the finish line.  Already there are a few people here unloading boxes and vans, starting to deal with the finishing arch.

I intended to go and have lunch at the Real Food Cafe - maybe to have the chips I never yet ate - but I introduce myself to a man who looks enough like John to clearly be a relevant.  I make the fatal mistake of asking if there is anything I can do to help and find myself eyeing up two tarpaulins and a pile of finish bags that range from small supermarket carrier bags to full scale suitcases.  There are nearly 500 individual runners in the Fling and another 200 or so in the relay teams.  It looks like each and every one of them has sent a bag through to the finish line...

So myself and another set to work trying to lay them out in some type of order.  Most have numbers attached (in varying degrees of clarity and accessibility), some have nothing and will just go into a pile together - hopefully the runner will have enough wit left after 53 miles to recognise their own, if not enough to  put a number on in the first place.

Many of the bags have names on as well and I'm quite stunned by how many I recognise.  This world of Scottish ultras is small; slightly too large to be a family but perhaps a small tribe instead.

When all this is done, I retrieve a can of ginger beer from the car and wander back to the finish point where the arch is now up and tethered.  I'm torn between sadness and delight to see the familiar faces of George and Karen.  Two of the nicest people I know, I'm always happy to see them, but they should be out on the Way, heading north with the other runners.  Instead they pulled out overnight, after George fell on the the southbound leg and hurt his knee.  No doubt he carried on for many more miles than any sane person would but eventually decided that the damage and pain were beyond dealing with.  So no double and no Fling.  But Karen tells me of looking at the stars blazing down on them and the snow-topped hills during the night and you remember that, much of the time, the journey far outweighs the destination.

Then I really am back where it all started, looking at a table with stacks of boxes and bags on.  Embryonic goody bags - those things you get handed at the end of a race containing food and vouchers and alcohol and magnets.  And every one of them needs to be packed.  Several hundred of them for this race.  So time to get going on it.  Get a head start now, before any finishers, and hopefully we'll never run out, even though I'll still be packing as darkness falls into the evening...  Time for the women to start a production line...  Even Muriel is here again, packing bags before starting her stint as finish line photographer (not a role I ever wish to sign up for after my incompetence at the D33).

This year, the Fling is sponsored by Hoka, makers of the controversial running shoes.  To celebrate they've sent their sponsored runners to compete.  An interesting dynamic to add these semi-professional runners to the predictions - this year there are no Consanis, no Jez, no Kate or Lucy, in some ways the most open contest for a while, in others the most obscure.

One of the weird things about the Fling is the staggered start times.  It makes perfect sense - and you can't possibly deal with letting 500+ runners loose in Milngavie at once - but it also means that the first person to cross the finish line isn't necessarily the winner.  Even more confusingly, there is an option for the older men to join the last wave which leaves at 8am rather than their scheduled 6am or 7am start.  Add in the relay teams and it makes it all far too confusing to follow.  There is also a problem with the chip timing system:  the information from the earlier checkpoints feeds to a server in Holland which is not issuing any data.  Without this vital piece of technology, Race Control has no idea what's happening down the course

Not surprisingly however the first arrival - signalled as always by the sounds of the piper echoing up the path (and a radio call from George on the bridge) - is Emma Roca, the Hoka female runner.  There is a camera crew interviewing all the early finishers, which I assume is for some Hoka promotional material but never really find out.

Not far behind are the second and third females; an Irish sounding girl I don't recognise and Sharon Law, looking as pretty and unexerted as ever.  Somewhere there is a bad photo of that girl, but it probably doesn't involve her wearing running gear...

The first man to finish is Thomas, the Crazy German, who really can't have that nickname much longer, having been selected to run for Scotland later in the summer.  This year there are no medical dramas only a few hundred yards from the line and he finishes with a wide grin to be greeted by the Consani family who are his support crew today, Silke his wife is also running the full Fling ahead of her first assault on the WHW next month.

The mens winner arrives later; someone I've heard of but not met or seen before.  Scott Bradley who features heavily in the Adventure Show episode about the WHW Race from a few years ago.  He was taken seriously ill after a Hardmoors ultra last year but is now back and racing very well.  His father, who has been at the finish for some time and also seems to know everyone, looks very relieved.  Scott just looks happy...

As well as sponsored runners, Hoka have a stall at the finish promoting their product.  In the gaps between arrivals, I get talking to one of the team.  He tells me that Ludo (their male runner) is not keen on the route, it's "too flat".  I make a strange strangled noise...  My legs still remember Conic Hill from twelve months ago and all the photos of the ups and downs alongside the Loch and the "roller-coaster" into Crianlarich.  "Too flat"????  But after a few more questions, I realise that for some people, anything that doesn't involve going up and down mountains is "flat".  I'm stunned and impressed ... and realise how little I still know.

There's bad news from down the course.  One of the women - Ellen - has taken a bad fall near Loch Lomond.  It's not clear if she's broken or dislocated her shoulder and there's a long wait for an ambulance, which is not surprising in the location.  Despite the heat of the day, both she, and Santa who stopped with her, are struggling to keep warm whilst immobile.  Those little metallic heat blankets have since become mandatory kit for the WHW.

In the early stages, the finishers arrive singly with gaps and there's time to keep an eye out for runners I know.  Richie finishes well; whereas last year he was greeted at the finish by his new girlfriend, this year he has a wife and son to welcome him.  It's nice to see that fatherhood hasn't slowed him down and I can't help thinking what he's going to achieve in the WHW...

The lovely Antonia arrives about ten to four.

For someone only starting her second season of ultras, she's delivering some great performances.  Even more interestingly, she's the youngest contestant in the WHW by far.  I think back to a drunken conversation at the SUMS presentation last year debating that many of the top Scottish runners only moved to the distance at a much older age - how much better might they be if they had started in their 20's, at the alleged peak of their physical fitness?

Just behind her is Andy, my "normal" runner from the Devils.  Also the man whose tongue in cheek advice led me to run my fastest ever mile a few weeks earlier.  Although older than Antonia, he's another newcomer to the distance still learning how good he can be.

Soon after this the runners start coming thick and fast and I lose sight of who's finishing.  I'm also that bit further away from the roadway and have no sightline through the crowds of finishers and supporters.

Though I do hear the roar when John and Katrina finish.  Katrina is a pace or two ahead and I'm sure John is far too much of a gentleman to claim he allowed her to do so.  

Runners arrive in all states and conditions, some battered and bruised, some almost beaten but most managing to run the last few hundred yards up to the finish line.  But one of the most striking has to be the runner who arrives in buff, shorts and shoes and nothing else.  I'm told he ran the entire course in this state of undress...
No race would be complete without the Carnegie colours.  And no race on the WHW without Fiona and Pauline, on this occasion finishing with Sue in a blaze of smiles as bright as their club vests and as Scottish as the mini-kilts.

The sunshine lasts all day ... until there's a blast of hail during the prize-giving as dusk starts to fall.  I'm still packing and handing out bags, cursing the boxes of pink fizz that have to be opened and lifted.  My back and legs are aching, proving my lack of fitness.

And as day turns to evening, people finally drift off.  There are still a few runners out on the course, not least the two Daves who are sweeping the final stretch from Beinglas

But most of all, out there still is the legend that is Ray McCurdy on his 100th ultra.
It's not over until the fat lady sings.
It's not over until Ray crosses the finish line...

He keeps us waiting but finally...

Despite the shortness of my day, I feel I could sleep for a week.  But I also feel like celebrating with the "family" so time to find my berth, maybe change some clothes and head up to the ceilidh.  Bill's told me which cabin we're in, and I know Fiona McD and McRae are here as well.  Unfortunately by the time I get there, it's locked and empty.  Ah....

Too tired to think, I abandon my bags on the porch and go hunting.  There is no sign of any of them in Paddy's Bar so I go looking for the village hall.  I think it's up behind Brodie's store which is a very dark path by now.  Then I can hear the noise of a party and there we are.

White wine, veggie curry and rice (other than a cup of soup, my first food of the day), friends to talk to and all is right with the world.  I no doubt talk nonsense at some point, getting carried away by the adrenalin of the day, but I do at least have the wit not to dance.   Fiona is here, and somehow Bill is texting George whilst I'm sat at the same table so I know I will be able to get into the cabin to sleep later.

There is a presentation for Ray for his achievement - only a few other people have ever achieved 100 ultras. Amongst the awards is free entry to the SUMS races for life, so maybe there will be a lot more than 100...  however I think the McCurdy sandwich is the highlight of Ray's night...

Too long living in the city has left me entirely unprepared for the fact that the road to the hostel is unlit and therefore pitch black at the wrong side of midnight.  I manage not to fall over any kerbs or bounce into any cars but it's close.  Back at the cabins, I'm totally horrified to discover that I am sleeping in a bunk.  A top bunk.

Climbing into a top bunk may be fun when you're a small skinny child.  When you're overweight and middle aged, it's bloody awkward and alarmingly creaky.  I also feel guilty about disturbing the three people who have run 53 miles each today.

There also isn't any bed linen.  Due to my own stupidity I don't have a sleeping bag either.  Oh well, I'll sleep in my clothes with the single blanket I have in my bag.  Good plan.  But it's absolutely fecking freezing.  I'm told I did sleep briefly as I snored very loudly - I don't remember sleeping at all.  When I start shivering to the point that I'm shaking the bunk unit, I realise I can't spend the night like that.  Whilst it's cold outside, I swear it's warmer than inside the cabin.

The toilet/shower block is warm but rank and damp - I can't stay there.  But there is a kitchen room in the same building and I doze on a plastic chair.  As dawn breaks, I have an inspiration, filling and boiling the kettle to turn it into a hot water bottle.  And so Fiona finds me later, hugging a kettle.  I fear I may never hear the last of it...

Next time, better planning....

I didn't make the Cateran race.  But judging by reports, I missed a great weekend.  Next year.

And in just over four weeks, I'll be at Kinlochleven again.  I can't wait.

photos from Muriel and George

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Out of Hibernation

I feel like a dormouse that slept through the winter, curled into a cozy nest somewhere sleeping and dreaming of spring, waiting for the next race to come.

While I was waiting I completed the Marcothon by running every day of December.  It wasn't fast and it wasn't pretty - running in a howling gale at Shap summit on the dark of Christmas Eve was perhaps not the most pleasant running experience of my life but it was much better when it was over!

And then ... finally ... the first race of the SUMS series, the D33 up in Aberdeen, organised by the lovely but mad George.  I wasn't going.  Really, I wasn't.  But it didn't take a great deal of encouragement from a few people to persuade me to offer my services and book up for a weekend in Deeside.

George gave me the option of helping at the halfway point or being race photographer.  I chose the camera duties thinking it would give me the chance to mooch in lots of places and see the start and finish, as well as maybe a few other points on the route.  For the last two years, race photos have been taken by the talented Annette but this year she was running instead.  Blimey ... I met Annette on Conic Hill in the Fling last year when she was feeding blueberries to Mike and I was sure she'd only run "shorter" distances then, 10k or maybe a half.  This is what hanging around with ultra-runners does to you; you start thinking it's normal...

There seemed to be so many people I knew entering this as their first ultra, either as a challenge to make the first step up to the beyond-marathon distance, or even as a very long slow training run for a Spring marathon. It's "only" 33 miles, it's flat, it's fun, there's cake at every stop and beer at the finish.  What more could you want?

Friday night and my Facebook home page is full of people announcing that they're in Aberdeen or Stonehaven.  I'm still in Edinburgh and wishing I'd booked for two nights, but also knowing that I would never have made it north when I didn't make it back from work until nearly eight.  Another 4.30am alarm call which is becoming almost routine.

It's dark when I wake up with the faintest lightening of the sky on the eastern horizon.  It's definitely spring with early mornings that most of the world will never see.  As I drive over the Forth, the rail bridge is glowing pink in the early dawn, beautiful and magnificent.

On the road bridge, the traffic is down to a single lane in each direction and already busy.  Overhead, engineers are carrying out emergency works to replace two failed bolts on the top of the northern tower.  I know too much about this bridge, about the bolts and bearings that hold it together and allow it to move with the wind and weather, about the cables that pull the platforms into place that are gradually unravelling and snapping.  Yet this bridge is barely 50 years old and already dying, unlike the much older iconic red rail bridge   next to it now wearing its new coat of paint and finally giving the lie to the definition of a never-ending task.

The mist and darkness fall away as I head north up the eastern coast, through another part of this country I've never visited before, leaving a glorious early morning of blue skies and blazing sunshine.  I'm very glad I remembered the sunglasses.

What I didn't remember were the gloves which comes as a bit of a shock when I get out of the car at Duthie Park.  Hmm, mid-March in Scotland, this really shouldn't be a shock!

At the edge of the carpark, I find George and Karen setting up the race paraphernalia from a large white van, with a few helpers.  There are frames to be erected, canopies to be hauled up and fastened down, generators to be set up, arches to be erected, trestle tables to be set up, race numbers and pins organised, lists, lists and more lists, t-shirts, high-viz jackets, enough food to feed the five thousand...  Karen greets me with a big hug and I am allowed to help with a few small tasks ahead of registration, and also take a few photos of the calm before the storm.  Well ... I think I do, but the camera has other ideas on the subject, although it doesn't see fit to tell me any of this for a few hours ... more later on this.

As runners start to arrive to register, I drift into helping with the on the day registration, of which there are a surprising number.  Surely no-one just wakes up on a Saturday morning and thinks "oh I'll go and race 33 miles today", do they?  Then Ross Moreland turns up and proves that, yes, some people do exactly that...

Despite the high number of first-timers in the race, I think I probably know every third or fourth person in the registration queues, even though some I've only known on-line to this point.   Among the new friends I'm delighted to finally meet properly is Rhona, the Red Wine Runner, running her first ultra only a few months after the frustrations of her first marathon.

Among the ultra stalwarts is the legendary Ray McCurdy, seeking to pay his entry fee to hopefully complete his 99th ultra today.  George is having none of this and insists on him taking a free entry.

George calls all the marshals together for a briefing, followed by a team photo.  We all have "A Games Legacy for Scotland" t-shirts - even George who recognises that his "D33 - Do Epic Shit" t-shirt is unlikely to feature in any mainstream media - which results in some slightly undignified changing.  As usual, sizing is a little on the miserly side, and my "female - large" is rather tight and unforgiving.  Amongst the team is Andrew Murray, in his first weeks of a post with the Scottish Government promoting physical activity.  He was down to run the race but I register only that he's in jeans and clearly not dressed to compete.  Only when he tells me that he was hit by a taxi the day before, do I notice the stitches in his forehead, black eye and wrist bandage.  My observation skills are second to none...

George wants photos of the runners coming out through the park gates - when they will still be heavily grouped together - before they turn onto the Deeside Way proper and one of the locals walks me through the park to show me the place.  I'll miss the race start proper but will have the joy of seeing the pack hurtling towards me.
Race start (Photo by Muriel D)
I find a perfect vantage point just outside the gate and jealously fend off any unwise drivers who contemplate parking there.  A minute or so after nine, I see and hear the horde approaching, raise the camera to capture Grant and the following pack, click, and ... "memory full" it bleeps.  What the....?  Click.  Bleep.  Oh f***, oh f***, oh f***, oh f***...  If you heard this, I apologise... *blushes*

I sprint to the pillar where I've tucked my bag, grab my mobile and manage to capture a few of the later runners emerging from the park.  Some race photographer I'm turning out to be. :-(

Then it's back across the park to the start line to meet up with Jim who is going to lead me to the 6-mile point for the next photo opportunity.  As I walk (and drive, oops) I'm trying to delete photos from the camera, discovering in the process that I don't have a single photo from the early morning.  Bloody machine!  

Despite an awkward right turn out of the car park (where did all these vehicles come from? ... 200 runners probably) and the inevitable snail-paced Micra on the country roads, we make it to the crossing by half nine.  Across the road Nywanda is setting up the Fetchpoint with yet more food.  A quick mental calculation tells me that Grant is likely to be here within 5-6 minutes.  I don't know who else will be with him, if anyone.

Almost exactly on cue, the lead bike arrives, closely followed by Grant and another runner.  His face is familiar to me but not well known, and I can't put a name to him immediately.
Grant and Gareth leading at 6 miles

There is a gap of a minute or two - most runners can't do six minute miles full stop, never mind contemplate them at the start of a 33-mile race - the next runners arrive.

At the point the camera goes phut and shuts down entirely.  Oh ffs, what now?  Despite being fully charged yesterday, the batteries are now entirely flat.  I'm tempted to hurl the entire thing into the River Dee but don't have time so revert to the mobile phone, knowing that this will have limited charge itself.

It also has a very delayed shutter action; I have to remember to take the photo a few seconds before I want it, else the runners are already out of shot.

Annette, Ian & Donna: led astray and loving it
Mike Raffan and Andy are amongst the early leaders, looking like two mates out for a gentle jog, rather than two very competitive runners.  No doubt that will come later...

Away from the town and the coastal breeze, it's positively warm and a few of the runners are already sweating profusely.  I'm fascinated by the variety of clothing being adopted, from vest and shorts, to long sleeve tops and tights, from sunglasses to woolly hats. Sophie as usual is clad as is for an Arctic expedition with sufficient kit and clothing in her rucksack to meet any eventuality.

The thing that nearly every runner has in common, however, is a smile.  Maybe for some of them, it's a forced response to the camera but they all look genuinely happy to be there, to be running 33 miles on a glorious day.  Even the tail runners smile and wave, particularly those doing something amazing for the first time.

What is it about this corner of north-east Scotland that produces such quantities of ultra runners?  Is there something in the air that encourages it, or is down the influence of people such as George and Mike who treat it as something normal, that everyone can do if they train for it?

By the time Elaine comes through as the tail cyclist, I've flattened the mobile phone and half the remaining power of the works blackberry (possibly inappropriate use of company assets but needs must!).  I'm seriously beginning to wonder if I can find somewhere in Aberdeen to buy either new batteries or a new camera before heading to the finish, but Jim has a camera in the car that he offers to lend to me.

Much relieved - George will have his race photos - I make my way back to Aberdeen.  Duthie Park is now heaving with children, families and exercise classes and I'm lucky to find a space to re-park the car.

As always there is a pause here, everything is happening miles away, although George's phone seems to ring non-stop.  The halfway checkpoint report that mystery runner #213 has been through in 1hr 41mins with Grant a minute behind.  This is a surprise; there was no-one in the pack expected to provide serious competition to Grant today, and even identifying #213 as Gareth Mayze provides no further illumination.  Again, his name is familiar but I still can't place him.

Not long after midday, an STV camera crew arrive.  Down by the smelly lake, they interview both George and Andrew, although it's George's words that are broadcast later  News comes in that the leaders are through the final checkpoint and there is a possibility that the course record will be broken.  Also that there is now a clear gap between the leading pair with Gareth in front and Grant struggling with a back injury.

The minutes tick away and there will be no course record.  A helper is sent to stand at the top of the slope to watch for the leader and we all look up to him constantly.  We have no priority of use of the park and the paths are full of people enjoying the spring sunshine.  Every one of the runners will have to dodge small children, pushchairs, dogs and cyclists, even the winner.  The best we can do is to ask people to keep to one side of the finishing slope.

Finally the marshal waves; the wait for the winner to appear is seemingly interminable but finally Gareth arrives, sprinting down the hill to be greeted by a round of applause and a hug from George.  The finishers' medals (designed by Annette) are, as ever, unique and wonderful - this year they are branded wood harvested from the carnage of Hurricane Bawbag.

Almost immediately, the tv crew interview Gareth who is remarkably coherent and articulate for a man who's just run 33 miles in a final time of 3hrs 32mins 32 seconds.  At a constant pace, that's about 6 mins 24 seconds per mile, which many of the runners I know would be happy with for a single mile...

Grant arrives over ten minutes later, still fast but visibly pained and immediately lies down on the ground to ease his back.  It's never good to see injured runners, but still astounding that he can achieve a race like that whilst not totally fit.

Craig Stewart, the third placed runner, comes in at 3:51 and after that they arrive thick and fast, including the familiar faces of Gerry Craig and Andy breaking the four hour barrier, along with the first lady, Rebecca Johnson (second lady at the Glen Ogle 33).  I'm pretty sure now that I remember Gareth from that race but it's not until I get home that I can verify this and confirm that he was second placed there.

For the next three hours it feels as though there is a continual stream of finishers, everyone managing to produce a smile and a credible attempt at running to finish.  Each crosses the line to cheers and applause, to be greeted by name by George and hugged, prior to being given their medal and goodie bag.

The one and only Ray McCurdy at finish #99 (photo by Laurie M)

Ray finishes to a chant of "Ninety-nine!  Ninety-nine!" and actually seems to smile.  Hopefully he'll finish #100 in Edinburgh next weekend to an even louder cheer.

Some of the loudest cheers are for the first-timers, the locals inspired to "do epic shit" including the girl who is raising money for a local special care nursery and has reached her target of a thousand pounds.  She crosses the line smiling then bursts into tears.  She cries even more when George gives her an additional donation.

So many finishers - 192 in total of the 199 that started - that I can't remember them all.  But I remember Mr Shanksi celebrating his 40th birthday, Triplet Dad completing his first with such a wide grin, the Pirate completing another ultra on almost zero training (he swears there will be no more and no-one believes him), big David Ross and two Strathaven Striders finishing with Irish leprechaun hats on to honour St Patrick's Day,  Mrs Shanksi having trashed her race-day haircut, Fiona of the Wee Grumpies, Ada, Terry, Bill, Colin (only stopping for 2 photos - unheard of!), Robin, Sue, Anne, Tim, M1nty, John Duncan (the Fling RD), Antonia, IanS, Sand Demon in the infamous tartan shorts, the Rentboy, Soph (finishing last having stopped to rescue a bird from a railway carriage), the young bet-losing squaddie (having stopped to smoke at checkpoints) and many more.

Annette is one of the final finishers and falls into Mike's arms.  I suspect I would be more inclined to kill a fiancee that had induced me to run 33 miles but I find myself snivelling and wiping my eyes along with everyone else.

But my favourite finish of the day is Rhona.  When I first started reading her blogs (after she supported Mike on the WHW last June) she was a "wannabe marathon runner" who ran her first last autumn, finding it hard, painful and unsatisfying, following an ITB injury.  Today she finishes with the widest smile, arms wide and I greet her with a hug, delighted to have been there for the first of what will undoubtedly be many ultra finishes.

Rhona  (photo by Rhona' s dad)
This is why we run.

This is why those of us who can't run still want to be a part of it.

See you at the Fling.