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

Saturday, 23 March 2013

There Will Be Weather... says the Lord of the Bridge every June in Milngavie.

No-one said it in March.  After all, this is Scotland.  The only guarantee is that there will be weather on any given day, and lots of it.

First up, Loch Katrine Running Festival last weekend.  This was a charity day organised by Audrey as part of her fundraising for Alzheimer Scotland, part of her Antarctic Odyssey challenge.  I know mad people but running a marathon, then a 100km ultra .... in the Antarctic?  Go check her page out, see what you think.

Anyway, the Festival was a no-fuss 10km, a Half and a Full Marathon on the shores of Loch Katrine, one of those little tucked away bodies of water nestled in the Scottish hills.  Apparently some years ago, there used to be a 12km race held here but nothing recently.

I wasn't involved but, having realised I was definitely going to be in Scotland that weekend (oh the bliss of a new job that doesn't involve travelling every week...) I emailed a few days in advance and asked if I would be useful.  We agreed that I'd come along and help the willing-but-inexperienced friends and family at the start/finish.  You can never have enough marshals after all...

So on a cold Sunday morning, I'm driving west in the darkness, trying to work out if I have not enough or too many layers on, enough gloves and buffs and hats in the bag.  The car park is almost empty, not long after 7am, no sign of 250 runners and entourages about to descend.  It won't last.

The cafe had promised to open early but with no signs of life, we make the decision to hold registration at the picnic tables, trying to shelter from the intermittent wind that rips up the gorge.  It's cold and no-one yet seems to have invented gloves that allow their wearer to do things like write and sort through piles of race numbers.

Glancing down the entry list for the full marathon is like looking at the start list for an ultra.  Most of the competitors are ultra runners, heading out for a long training run (or short if you're Richie Cunningham...), although there are a few others from the saner group, including Smout and HappyTimes.  Nice to see so many old friends and put faces to a few names I've not met before, such as Flip, Sarah and Bob.

By the time we've finished registering the marathon runners (about 50 of the 60 entrants), the cafe's opened and the other races are being registered indoors, in the comfort of the roaring fire.  I'm not jealous.  But I have discovered the hot air blower in the ladies toilet which is going some way to defrost my frozen fingers.

Even the tough ultra-nutters are sheltering from the wind, albeit next to the ice-cream stand.

Smout asks if I have a spare buff.  I have - one of my treasured (if not quite earned through sore legs) WHW buffs.  I.  Want.  It.  Back.

Like herding cats, we round up the marathon runners for their briefing and start.  A few words and they're away down the private road on the north side of the loch.

And breathe...  Or maybe not, as there's a flurry of late starters, caught out by a combination of last-minute pitstop and the race starting a minute or two early to avoid standing around in the bitter cold.  Four in total, laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation as they chase after the disappearing pack.  Even the "lead bike" turns out to be "tail bike", pedalling after the brightly coloured pack as they disappear round the curve of the loch.

(There is however grumbling from the friend of the last of the four who had been sitting in the his car during the briefing.  The runner was "a favourite to win" but now "his head's messed up" by having to chase instead of lead.  I miss the complaints.  I'm not sympathetic when I hear about it - he chose not to attend the race briefing, it's his own fault.  Is that harsh?)

The half is due to set off 30 minutes later and we barely seem to draw a breath before I'm yelling in the cafe again and rounding them up.  As the larger group (ninety or so) congregate at the pier, the air starts to fill with small snow flakes.  Oh my, this could be fun.  The hills across the loch are dusted white, we've alternated between sunshine, cloud, wind and stillness all morning.  

It doesn't settle and by the time the 10k runners head off a further 30 minutes later, there's bright sunshine, their shadows etched clearly onto the tarmac.

As the last of the massed runners leave, it's time to plan for the finish.  The timers are organised, lined up in a perfect funnel between grass bank and brick wall, one calling number and time, one writing, the third keeping an independent track of positions.  With all three races taking an out and back on the same route, there will be overlap between the finishers of each race with the only distinction the number groups.

Note to runners: when we tell you to make sure we can see your number, we mean it.  Clearly displayed full size on your chest/stomach please, not folded on your outer hip, on your back, or pinned to your t-shirt which is under three other layers of tops and waterproofs.  You make our lives harder and we can't give you accurate race times.  Then you sulk because your Garmin says something else.  And while we're having to spend time and effort sorting you out, we're distracted from dealing from the other dozen runners that came in right after you.

No frills finish lines are simple - a medal (with ribbon to denote the particular race), a tunnocks bar and a glass of water.  Plus a few bottles of wine for first male/female finishers in each race.  But how long?  The disadvantage of a "new" race, on a undulating/hilly course is that there's little reference.  I'm guessing at 35 minutes for the 10k and 90 for the half.  However when asked about the marathon, I stupidly think that "they're ultra-runners, they're not fast road runners" and estimate 3:30.  Er.... the picture above shows at least two very good reasons why that was a very stupid statement.

It feels like we've barely breathed when we spot the first bright spot of lycra heading back to us.  The 10k winner finishes in about 37 minutes, voluble and delighted, chattering away in what transpires to be unintelligible Hungarian.  He and his wife are working at a nearby hotel and she begged for a late entry for him.  Good choice though.

No let up from then on, a constant stream of runners coming back in.  We're very nearly caught out when the  winner of the half finishes less than 15 minutes after the winner of the 10k, the staggered start throwing us all. 1:18 on a hilly course is impressive - even more so to realise that this isn't an "official" race, won't count for official PBs, anyone truly "racing" is doing so purely for their own satisfaction.

More and more runners, more wind, hands and feet edging closer to frozen, a few cars coming up and down the lochside road.  Then the marathon "lead bike" appears, pedalling furiously - what's going on, we're not even at three hours - to tell us the marathon winner is approaching fast.  I *know* how fast Richie runs on hills; why am I surprised that he can also run a sub-three road marathon?  And look like he's just been out for a gentle jog at the end of it?  Gerry is only a few minutes later.

More and more runners, colder and colder, feet and hands now aching and painful despite the thick padded gloves.  How the marshal with bare hands is managing to write numbers and times I can't imagine.  The ice cream kiosk is selling hot soup which is blissful.  And as time progresses, the runners change from those who enjoyed their unaccustomed day out on a new route to those testing themselves physically and suffering from the distance or conditions.  Never believe that a lochside route is flat; there are some quite tough hills on this road as it weaves its away around the shoreline.

photo from James Watson
The one and only DNF of the day arrives in a returning marshals' car; Flip, unexpectedly and painfully crippled by random foot pains and unable to walk without agony.  Finally we are waiting only for one runner - the inimitable Ray McCurdy - and Robin, the sweeper for the day.  The snow has started again, now in heavy swirling flakes that start to cover the ground and remaining cars.

Of course, on driving home, the snow disappears within ten miles and I have sunglasses on for the stretch past Stirling.  Don't you just love Scotland?

Loch Katrine was intended to be a one-off but, despite the weather, it was a great race, through amazing scenery.  Lots of requests for it to be repeated next year - ask Audrey nicely if you'd like to have a chance to join in next time.

This is how good it really looked : photos from Charles Gordon

Fast forward a week and it's time for the new ultra season to kick off up in Aberdeen.  I love George to bits but his lovely race always clashes with the final day of the Six Nations.  The day it clashes with the Calcutta Cup, I won't be there, but until then...

I don't learn from previous years.  Instead of sensibly travelling up on the Friday night (and not indulging too heavily in the pre-race partying) I'm driving up on the Saturday morning.  To make things even earlier, I'm giving Christina a lift up.  Setting the alarm for 3.45am is not a pleasant experience...

So up in the dark and cold, heading north as the light starts to break over eastern Scotland.  The thermostat drops north of Dundee as the landscape fills with snow.  The race route had been covered in snow earlier in the week but the last update from George says it's cleared, leaving only small patches of ice, and a cold and wet forecast for the day.  When we stop for a toilet break at a random service station, it's almost as cold inside as out, an icy wind cutting through the dawn.

At Duthie Park, there are a few cars and vans in the car park - which was only re-opened the day before - with the race registration/start/finish now at the top of the slope.  No downhill sprint for the line this year.

And it must be cold; George doesn't have shorts on.  I'm not sure I've ever seen George in anything other than shorts or a kilt.

Time to start on registration.  Jane and myself scoring off names and handing out numbers, Sarah on the clipboard, Karen and Les dipping in and out, George here there and everywhere.  So many familiar faces from the last few years, and new faces to put to names known only from facebook.  A nervous looking Scott, wondering what his irrepressible Antonia has got him into now.  The massed invasion of the Stonehaven Running Club.  (Later in the day we will talk of normalisation but I still wonder if there is anyone in the SRC who hasn't been infected with the ultra madness?).  Ray starting his latest SUMS series as dishevelled as ever.  Audrey running rather than directing this week.  The Pirate having actually trained, and Ada having barely run all year.

There are special numbers for three runners: 33 and 330 for twin brother and sister Alex and Katie "celebrating" their 33rd birthday by running 33 miles, and 40 for Caron celebrating that "life begins..." birthday.

In the blink of an eye, it's nine o'clock and the 240 or so starters are massed on the wide path.  A few words from George (now appropriately kilted) and they're away.  No pause for the checkpoint marshals, the last bits into the cars and we're away.  With a last minute change of plan, I'm driving and Laurie navigating to our first stop, the Tesco store at Banchory for our last access to indoor facilities and a stock-up on warm food.  The rain and sleet has already started, it's going to be another cold one.

Johnny Fling and Kynon are just at the half-way parking point (a residential cul-de-sac) when we get there and the process of carting shelters and tarpaulins and water and dropbags along the muddy path begins.  Not forgetting the priceless ultra flapjack (I manage to sneak a piece this year ... oh wow).

After the first load I volunteer to sort the drop bags rather than carry.  I'm becoming an expert on this.  On searching for the tiny number scrawled on yet another Sainsbury's carrier bag.  Of giant sports bags containing enough food and clothes for a week's holiday.  Of bags with no number at all.    Of discovering the bag of goodies from Noanie for the marshals.

Already the path is muddy, getting worse as the precipitation seeps through the trees.  By the time the main pack of runners come through, this will be inches deep, even after John has shovelled lumps of it away using a tea tray.  The tray will need to go back to Morrisons afterwards :-0

We plan our roles:  Kynon down the path calling out numbers, John and HP on times and writing, me on finding drop bags ready to hand over as the runner approaches.  Ah well at least I get to keep my gloves on - both layers of them.  Yes it *is* that cold when you're standing around.

And in no time at all, the first runners arrive and we're off.  At first singly but close together, then in twos and threes and groups, the mud deepens, the rubbish bags fill, the flapjack vanishes, the chatter gets longer and more time-consuming as runners take a break before the homewards leg.  Minty arrives almost shivering in a short-sleeved t-shirt and bare hands, but refuses my offer of gloves; I'm sure the fact that they're bright pink has nothing to do with it.  John M arrives holding an umbrella over Helen and we joke that he's escorted her all the way from Aberdeen like that.  I'm not quite sure what kind of massage he delivers on her glutes and thighs but it's certainly, um, intimate!

Almost the last to arrive are a group of three girls from north-east England.  Clubmates of Flip, they never intended to complete the full event and two leave here to go in search of Morrisons and the bus back to Aberdeen.  Somehow they don't find the supermarket which is only a few hundred yards away.

The sweeper bike arrives just ahead of the last runner and when we've seen him safe away, it's time to start packing up.  Other than the mud and churned up ground, there won't be a trace of our presence here once we're away, every scrap of rubbish bagged up and taken away.

Laurie and I are far more bedraggled on this visit to Tesco, leaving a trail of mud and water as we try to defrost under the hot air dryers and inhale doughnuts in the car.  Then it's back to Aberdeen and a miraculous parking space by the pond.

The finish line is in full swing now and little for us to do but shelter from the wind and cold.  Somehow I end up in possession of George's phone and handing over a few foil blankets - to both finishers and under-dressed wedding guests heading for the Winter Gardens - before old habits take over and I find myself as barmaid.  If you ever want to be hear the words "I love you", hand an ultra-runner an opened bottle of beer.

Officially there was no beer.  We did not hide it all when the police came visiting, of course not. :-)

I've missed the fast runners but there's far more joy in seeing the slower runners finish, those who've battled the elements for hours longer before achieving something that was inconceivable months ago and still in doubt at breakfast.  Running, jogging or walking, they all cross the line to be enveloped in a George hug before being given the most unique medals in Britain (made by this talented lady)..

When they're finally all home, we pack up and dismantle, drinking our own beers before heading south to Stonehaven and the legendary after-party at the Station.  The drinks take away the pain of the rugby results and soothe the aching legs.

photo (and medal earned) by Neil Harkness
In the morning, it's still cold and wet.  There was indeed weather.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

A Slippery Slope...

Where did the rest of 2012 go?  In my case, disappeared under a lot of different stresses all arriving at once, time spent keeping my head above water and little else.

What was the very first sentence of this blog?  "I'm not a runner".  It was true when I wrote it but, er, well things have changed a bit since then.  There are of course runners and runners...

For someone who'd never covered more than ten miles (on the flat), it was definitely a case of having eyes bigger than my tummy to sign up for the WHW training weekend and a 15-ish miles run up and down the Way. Mind you, caught in the heavy snowfall on the motorway on Friday night, I was more concerned about getting to Balmaha in one piece than surviving the run. Good distraction approach...

At the Oak Tree Inn, I was directed to a simple but comfortable room in the neighbouring cottage. Tucked into the eaves, it was a very clever use of the space but the steeply sloping ceiling promised an instant headache for a careless standing out of bed. After idly watching a programme about the unintelligible poetry of Rabbie Burns, I picked my way back through the snow and slush to the bar, now full of many familiar faces, a subset of the small and friendly world of the Scottish ultra family. A few drinks and an early night, falling asleep to the sight of snowflakes falling onto the roof-light above my head.

To be awoken by the sound of heavy rain, that ceased before the daylight came and I could see the view across the loch instead. Breakfast and more chatter and change into running clothes, checking and re-checking the contents of my rucksack. Numerous last-minute trips to the ladies before gathering in the bar and outside, joined by the runners coming just for the day. In all, maybe fifty runners in total, some planning on 30 miles to Inversnaid and back, some to Rowardennan and back, and a few variants. A few words, a few group photos and away down the road, a flock of bright-coloured runners against the snow and slush.

Along the tarmac (bar the traditionalists sticking to the snowy path behind the wall) and up onto the trail. Yes, hills are a good excuse to walk but that doesn't stop them being hills. At the top, Fiona is taking photos of the amazing view and takes one of myself and Pauline:

Far more experienced and sure-footed than me, the rest of the back of the pack heads off down the slope while I carefully pick my way down the slightly slippery rocks. Sean-the-Lord-of-the-Bridge, as bike-riding sweeper for the day, is just behind me and I suspect he's going to spend a lot of time today looking at my back. I curse the mud and tree roots while picking my way along the flatter trail, catching occasional bright flashes of colour ahead in the trees. The view is amazing across the water to the snow covered hills and it's a real effort to watch my feet on the uneven ground.

Just before the beach, Sean tells me he's going to head onwards up the trail and come back in a while to check on me and any of the late starters who are still behind. Down on the shore, we catch up with Heather who I've met a few times supporting her partner Peter. We agree to join forces and travel together, both being reasonably new and slow runners. Without this, I think we would both have had a much lonelier and slower day, keeping one another going with chatter, laughter and shared food. We run and walk as we feel fit, not always associated with the steepness of the path or the depth of snow and slush. We curse and swear at the muddier bits and the depth of slush, vocally expressing our sentiments at feet rudely soaked in mud and freezing water, and laugh and giggle at the sheer joy of being able to do this. Chastised by an oncoming walker - "aren't you supposed to be running?" - we jointly declare ourselves to be on a food break, both well trained to eat and drink before we feel hungry or cold.  And somewhere in the day, we realise that at some point over the last 18 months, we moved from being the outsiders, the newcomers, to being "old hands".

The distant hills disappear behind what looks like fog but proves to be a icy rainshower when it crosses the loch. I briefly think of putting a jacket on but it's passed within a few minutes before we get more than a little wet. The further north we go, the deeper the snow gets, although it's been well tramped down by the runners ahead of us. There are only a few hardy walkers out, despite the now-beautiful day, but we pass a few clusters of tents perched under the trees. I'm heartily grateful for my warm room and hot shower.

Heading up from the isolated boathouse, we pick our way up an unnervingly steep and snowy hill and try not to think that what goes up will need to come back down on the way back. By a bridge, we meet a runner heading back who stops to ask how we're doing and promises us it's ten minutes to Rowardennan. Ten minutes at what pace, I wonder, and spot a sign by the path that says 2k. Perhaps a little more than ten minutes...

On now tired legs, we spot the Rowardennan chalets and agree to run the last stretch along the road to the pub where we know the other "short" runners are gathering. Inside, a roaring fire makes it almost *too* warm as we leave puddles of melted snow and gulp down cans of coke. For the first time, I understand the attraction of a cold alcoholic pint on a long run... And resist :-)

Two hours twenty-five for about seven and a half miles (my Garmin says a little more, Heather's a little less). Try not to think too much that there's the same distance to do heading back, and no way of bailing out. Ssshhhh, what the legs don't know won't hurt them. Quick trip to the ladies (no, I still have no wish to imitate a bear) and back we go, legs a little stiffened from the break.

In the wintery sunshine, lots of the thinner snowfall has melted and there is far more bare track and rock underfoot in many places, sometimes replaced by mud and puddles. Although there's more walking, and it feels harder than the northbound leg, we seem to reach remembered landmarks quicker. A trio of fast-moving runners come past and tell us they turned at around ten miles which is reassuring - being passed here by the 30-milers would be *very* discouraging! There are more walkers out now, including a very burly man, carrying a tiny pug in a pink coat down the steep puddled steps. Everyone we pass is friendly, exchanging greetings and often stepping to the side of the path to allow us to trot past.

Up in the deeper snow of the woods, we stop to talk to a couple who ask if there's a race on, having seen a number of runners. We explain it's a training weekend for the WHW race and they ask if we're doing it... :-) They ask where we've run from and when we tell them Rowardennan, ask if we were dropped off there to run back. When we explain that we ran up from Balmaha, they're very impressed and congratulatory. Sometimes it takes an outsider to remind us that whilst we may be slow, and we may be running much shorter distances, it's only as a comparison to the mad people we know, rather than the world at large.

The steep hill is still covered and even slippier going downhill. If I had the brains I was born with, I'd have stopped and put Yaktrax on but I don't. I therefore have nobody but myself to blame when my feet slide out from under me and I land firmly on my backside in the snow, skidding a few feet down the slope before coming to a stop, flat on my back and helpless with laughter.

The legs are tired now but not complaining too loudly, knowing that at ten miles they'll be stopping. After all, that's what's always happened before. It takes until the middle of the twelfth mile for them to catch on and register their dislike of this strange occurrence.

On a stretch of road, we hear two runners behind and automatically up the pace a little to see how long we can hold them off for. Had I realised it was Thomas the Crazy German, I would have known better than to try, even on fresh legs. "Looking good girls, are you enjoying yourselves?" he calls out, as he and his companion disappear into the distance. None of the other full distance runners will pass us until the foot of Craigie Fort.

The running parts are slower, shorter and less frequent now, focused on reaching a particular tree or rock, not always successfully, but we pull one another along as the miles tick over. Earlier, we'd talked of entered races and aspirations and I'd said that, despite suggestions, I had no intention of running a half this year. But as the Garmin bleeps, Heather points out that I've just completed one anyway, and there is a heavy-legged victory jig to celebrate. 

And I have to point out that Heather is doing a half-marathon this spring.  As her first-ever race.  And her second?  Glenmore 12 in September ... now that's in at the deep end!

Most of the snow has gone now, leaving behind mud and puddles. No energy to avoid them now, just splash through and deal with cold and wet feet by the knowledge that warmth is less than two miles away. And force the legs to keep going, although they now feel solid and heavy, aching from thighs to ankles. Heather stops to stretch out a cramped calf on the painfully steep ascent of Craigie Fort (oh, to be weak enough to have cheated and run around the flat footway) and I keep going in fear of not being able to start again if I stop, but knowing she'll catch me up shortly.

Three or four full distance runners pass us on the climb over, looking equally tired. Heading southwards are an increasing number of walkers despite the approaching dusk. They stare at us strangely, two women in bright lycra with wide smiles and unsteady gait and I wonder what they're thinking. Casting aspersions on our sanity, no doubt...

Down on the tarmac and we agree to run the final stretch back to the Inn. The road seems much steeper than when we ran down it five hours earlier but that final hidden burst of energy keeps us going and, with wide smiles, we run together to the gate to be warmly greeted and congratulated by the earlier finishers, both outside and inside.

Heather heads for a hot bath and clean clothes. I head for the bar, wanting a pint of Koppaberg and hot food. In that order. :-)

After an hour, I hobble carefully back to my room and exchange muddy and stinking clothes for a hot shower. I'm wise enough to keep moving and ignore my legs demands for complete immobility.

Back to the bar through the now torrential rain and drink, relax and chatter. A taint to the evening of bad news and worry from elsewhere, but not my story to tell. Old friends and new, a camaraderie like no other.

My legs ache although not intolerably.  I may have a little more sympathy for the stiff-legged hobblers in June.  But don't bank on it.

The commonest question of the evening? Did you enjoy that? Not sure that "enjoy" is quite the right word but, oh, I can't wait to do it again!

Tis a slippery slope, in more ways than one....

(photos from Fiona R, John K)