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

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)


  1. Great read as always! I think it is amazing how you became a runner yourself, from watching the trails to running the trails. The slippery slope towards the Devil continues ... :-) Enjoy! Silke

  2. Yeah, your going to have to change the name of your blog now to running the trails. Saturday was a cracking day, glad you "enjoyed" it.
    Fiona x

  3. Well done for completing that section from Balmaha to Rowardennan and back!
    But yeah, that slippery slope does not end in Balmaha :-)
    It would not surprise me to see you finishing your first ultra soon and at some point I'll see you at a certain Prize Giving in Fort William receiving a Goblet...

  4. A very enjoyable day! That photo with us together is now on my desktop at work to banish those "indoor office miseries". Pauline W

  5. Well done Julie. It was great to see you over the weekend and even better to see you out on the way running.

    The first of many!

  6. It was good to see you at Cramond on Saturday, vile conditions notwithstanding. When you're an ultra-runner (it's clearly your destiny), please think fondly back on us slow, ploddy parkrunners! :) x