Monday, 26 April 2010

Highland Fling Race

I have been looking forward to this event for a long time, almost a year, which may not seem like much but I have only known that ultra events existed for the same length of time. The website said that the entry forms would be posted some time after the West Highland Way Race 2009 and I checked the website daily (and I mean every single day, sometimes twice a day) for a long time before finally getting a chance to send my entry form in days before they were posted on the web. Because of my excitement for this event, my blog entry is extremely long so I apologise in advance.

After escaping a stomach bug for the Compton Challenge, it finally got me and with only two weeks until the Fling I spent 3 days and 3 all nighters camped out on the toilet. I was so weak that I just sat shivering, too weak to do much. I finally got out for a 6 mile run, nearly quitting at mile 1, but progressed through the remaining week up to a steady 10 mile run and a 2 miler two days before the event. I felt good again and my injuries were only whispering. I had no concerns about the run but I had some worries about the strategy that I have devised a day before the event, which was to ditch my 15L backpack with 2L bladder, waterproofs, mountains of food, mp3 player, spare toilet roll, spare socks, map, kitchen sink etc.... Instead I was going to wear a small waist pouch, wear an ultra thin wind stopper that I could tie around my waist, and carry a handheld for water. It should not have concerned me as there were ample drop bag locations where my little parcels full of goodies would be waiting for me. In the end, going light was a good strategy that I would do again.

I had decided to say in the Premier Inn at Milngavie for the night before and after the event because of the 6 hour drive. I planned on getting up early and trying to say hello to John Kynaston as I have been following his blog on almost a daily basis and it has been one of the biggest things that has kept me motivated through the rough patches. Unfortunately, I woke a bit too late and would have missed his start by minutes. I figured he would be finished and long gone before I arrived at the finish but luckily he was still there.... more on that later. I arrived with a good hour before my start at 8am and spent some time soaking up the atmosphere. We finally headed to the famous underpass where it all starts and I shuffled from foot to foot on the line between the sub 12 hours sign which was my goal, finish good and finish strong was my thinking.

20 seconds, 10 seconds, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, go. We were off, I had no idea where to go as I have never been on any of the West Highland Way and I had no map. I set a pace that I felt comfortable with and could breathe 4 steps in and 4 steps out. The high street flashed by and we were through Allander Park before I could comprehend that I had started. I continued to just follow the line of runners through Mugdock Woods where I fell in behind a group of runners, two of whom I would continue to follow for the next 18 miles. I do not tend to socialise much when running or much in general but I enjoy the company when running. Out of Mugdock Woods, passed Scroggy Hill and on past Craigallian Loch. My breathing had switched back to my regular 3 steps in and 3 steps out. It was great running up to Dumgoyach Hill at around 5.5 miles but the next 4 miles was on a dismantled railway line and I always find them harder to run on due to the uniformity and straightness of their profile. As far as this one goes, it was well established with vegetation and better than most I have run on. During this section my left knee pain returned, first on the inside then moving to the lower right where it lingered. At the end of the track there was a road section and a small field crossing before reaching Drymen at around mile 12, in 1 hour 47 minutes, where the first timing station and water refill was located.

I still felt great and was appreciating not having a very heavy backpack on. I would recommend it to anyone doing this event. The next section headed into Queens Elizabeth Forest which is a forest still managed for timber. I spent most of this time remembering my forestry education that I have locked away in my brain but alas have resigned myself to the fact that the only outcome has been a degree certificate that one day I may need to be used as emergency toilet paper. The group I was running behind was now down to only two and as we left the forest I got my first proper views of Conic Hill. After reading many blogs and accounts of previous races I was unsure what the terrain and accents would be like. After seeing Conic Hill I was undaunted as many runs in the Dark Peak and Yorkshire have given me a longing for hills (I would not have said that at mile 40 though). After crossing the Burn of Mar the accent started and I only ran if there was a flat section and walked the lot. The two runners in front became one and I walked to the crest before taking about 10 running leaps down the other side and feeling the pain returning in my right abs. I was annoyed because it had stopped me in my tracking in previous events, but fortunately when I slowed down it reduced to a mild irritation. I lost the runner in front but would see him again later at around mile 30. I was relieved when I made it to the bottom with only a slight pain in my left knee and only an aching pain in my abs. I could see runners in front and followed them in to Balmaha car park, the first drop bag point at around 20 miles. As I approached, someone asked for my race number in a very urgent manner and I got all flustered asking if he could repeat the questions a couple of times. I found out that marshals were situated in front of the drop bags to shout the number so the bags are ready for a speedy collection. I am so used to the LDWA runs where you have to wait patiently for the marshal to finish a conversation then proceed to have a conversation with them yourself for the next 5 minutes before finally punching your tally and remembering that you are supposed to be running. I sat down and ate the contents of my parcel. So far I have ate three cereal bars, one every 5 miles and now I ate a bag of crisps, 550ml of coke, a pot of rice pudding, downed an Ensure Plus and reloaded my pouch with a cereal bar and Mars bar. I thanked the marshals before leaving for their amazing effort and I could see the enthusiasm they held for the event.

As I started walking out of the car park I got a shock to bump into Jez, which gave me a boost, and we talked as I walked to the road. It was a good job he was there because I had no idea where to go and he pointed me in the right direction. As I reached the Craigie Fort section I lost the markers and started walking back before another runner told me I was on the right course. I was to run behind him for the next 6 miles to the next drop bag point. I thought this section was great and I loved running through the weaving trail sections with great views of Loch Lomond. I started passing people who had slowed down, but I was feeling great and felt like I was floating on the trails. I am so used to running on muddy slippery farm fields that I was a good feeling to have firm trails underfoot. I am fortunate to have very few problems with my feet in regards to blisters or pain and could just plough my way along without worrying where my feet landed. I don’t remember any landmarks on this section other than the occasional shoreline of the loch and a few short road sections, which mainly had the trail running alongside. The runner in front was running at such a good pace that I stuck behind him the whole way until suddenly I saw a sign for Rowardennan Hotel and was surprised to be there already at mile 27 in 4 hours 28 minutes. I had not eaten anything over the last section as it was only 6 miles but I again wolfed down the contents of my drop bag, which was the same as the first.

I walked out the checkpoint while on the phone but as soon as I started running I could feel that my stomach was feeling a bit dodgy. Too much food I though. Little and often, not lots and often. I was on my own and I found my mood swinging because of my stomach. I was still overtaking people and no one was overtaking me so I remained positive but on a downhill I suddenly started feeling a lot of pain. The pain was mainly around my appendix area but my whole lower stomach was stabbing with pain. It was only a problem on the downhill’s but it is annoying when you are walking the uphill’s and reduced to a slow run on the downs. The wider forestry track turned into a single track and my mood swung back up. I was really enjoying the terrain and got a control of the pain. I was still overtaking people and figured that I could be a lot worse, I still had all my energy and my legs were fresh. I finally arrived at Inversnaid, mile 34, where the third drop bag point was and with all the trouble I was having with my stomach I decided to go light and only downed an Ensure Plus and put an electrolyte tablet in my water as I felt a little dehydrated.

I had mixed feelings about the next 6 miles as I thought this section of the route was the best out of the entire Fling. I loved the single track and the rocks, I loved weaving through the trees and boulders, but it was now starting to go a bit wrong also. My stomach hurt like hell and I was also starting to lose some energy. I think it was mainly because of the heat as it was warming up. I carried a buff on my hand so I could dip it into all the streams I passed and use the water to cool down. I was starting to regret having put an electrolyte tablet in my water because after my very strong tasting fruit punch flavoured Ensure, the last thing I wanted was something sweet. I started craving just plain water and eyed up the streams with envy. I could remember getting to near the end of Loch Lomond and thinking when is this loch going to end. I was still passing people and only relay runners were passing me so I remained positive. As I approached the end of the loch with about 2 miles before the last drop bag point, I caught up with the runner that I had previously been behind in the section between Balmaha and Rowardennan. At a couple of uphill sections he stopped for me to pass, which I declined. He must have thought I was using him as a pacer but I just did not have enough in me to get past. As we approached Bein Glas Farm he pulled away from me and disappeared from view. I finally arrived at Bein Glas Farm, mile 41, at 7 hours 34 minutes. I got my drop bag but nothing in it appealed to me as I had reached sugar overload. All I wanted was something greasy, like a fry up. I managed to get a rice pudding down and drink some coke before loading a packet of mini eggs into my pouch and filling my hand held up with water along with my empty coke bottle. It was now that I looked at the time and realised that I was so far ahead of my 12 hour schedule but knew that the last 12 miles could blow up in my face.

As I set off for the finish, I reminded myself that these events are not meant to be easy, and I should just run when I can and walk when I couldn’t. I remembered that on John Kynaston blog he mentioned breaking down the last section into three sections consisting of a 3 mile, 6 mile, then a final 3 mile section. I could not remember quite where the end of the first section was but when I came up to a farm and saw the name above the door, I recognised it. It was Derrydaroch, and I was surprised that I had done almost 3 miles already which gave me a big mental boost. I was running on empty as my nutrition was down, I was dehydrated and in pain, but I was still enjoying the run. I arrived at the tunnel that passes under the A82 and despite thinking that I was moving too slowly, I continued to pass people. When I pass people in runs, I never get any thoughts of competitiveness because I truly believe that a person can only compete against themselves. Instead I appreciate that although my brain is telling me that I am suffering and that I should feel sorry for myself, there are others felling much worse, so I should just stop listening to my brain and let my body push on. After passing a herd of cows in the path I knew I was getting closer to Crainlarich where the route would swing left through a forest. After the last of the larger inclines of the remaining route I again caught a glimpse of the runner whom I had been trailing most of the day. This time I could not catch him and he disappeared on the downhills where I was reduced to a painful stomach clenching hobble. After winding down the track for some time, I approached the tunnel under the rail line and approached the A82 road crossing. I could hear lots of cars and though how nice it would be to stop and rest while waiting to cross. No luck for me, it was clear and I crossed over. I knew that when I hit the remains of St Fillan’s Church that there was only about 3 miles left. I could tell from the terrain that it was mostly going to be flat and I made a deal with myself that I was going to run as much as possible. I ended up running the small inclines and walking the small descents due to the pain in my stomach. I was so hungry at this point and just wanted to eat masses of savoury food with lots of fat and no sweetness. I instead ate all my mini eggs. I have to admit that this section seemed to last forever. I was wishing to see sight of the finish. As I approached the final wooded section, someone told me I was really close but because of the trees I could not see how far. I finally came out onto a road near Tyndrum Lower Station but did not know where to go. I chose left and could see some runners just up ahead. Before I could see the finish, the runners ahead turned right and I could hear bagpipes erupting into action. I turned off the road, passed the piper and could see the crowds of people waiting at the finish. Again, I am used to the LDWA events, which are usually so laid back that you can arrive in silence back to a hall where it takes you 10 minutes to surgically remove your shoes before entering and wait patiently for someone to retrieve your tally and note the time. This was an electric reception and I pushed myself through the finish line.

After crossing the line someone asked to remove my timing chip and when I looked up I was shocked to see it was John Kynaston. I even said something like ‘sorry, it’s such a shock’, at which point I felt like such a prat that I didn’t say anything else. When my bag was handed to me I nearly dropped it and found it hard to lift it up, before the marshal kindly took my empty coke bottle and I could use both hands. I wolfed down my fish supper but I was feeling a bit rough. When I looked at the time I knew that I had smashed my 12 hour plan and have came in under 10 hours 30 minutes. I decided to get my kit bag as soon as possible and get changed before I got too cold as I was starting the shiver. I bought some pasties from the shop to get rid of the taste of sugar in my stomach. I then got a bit of courage to go and say hello to John Kynaston before retreating to sit on a wall where I did not move for a long time. I was feeling really rough now. I had lost all feeling in both my hands and some way up my right arm. I had waves of dizziness coming over me. But I’ve felt worse and knew I would live, so I sat it out. It was great seeing the awards ceremony. By the time I got on the bus at 9pm to go back the Milngavie, I started feeling better and got feeling back in my hands. What a hell of an event. I will definitely be back before the end of the year to run the last section of West Highland Way..... I will just wait will the midges have dwindled in numbers first.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

The 14th Compton Challenge

The Compton Challenge is a 40 mile figure of eight route which also includes a 20 mile option for completing only the first loop. It was a race to the start for this run as both my daughters where projectile vomiting with a stomach bug, and I was covered on a number of occasions as a result. Luckily I made it to the event without contracting the plague. I headed down the night before to use the free ‘camping facilities’ at the school hall, with the intention of getting some decent sleep and not having to get up at 5am. It was raining heavy that night and with a forecast for rain the next day, I was ready for a wet one. The morning of the race ended up being cold and dry. I was torn between wanting to take only a handheld water bottle and a bit of food, or taking my backpack with 2L of water, spare waterproof jacket and lots of supplies. I ended up taking the heavier option.

We all made out way to the start line at the schools playing field and stood shivering. I was wearing a long sleeved thermal top and a fleece but most people were only in vests. Just before the start, the sun came out and I could tell it was going to get hot. We had a countdown and were off, which first involved a lap around the field before heading into single track through woods, involving lots of people franticly jumping through trees to avoid the bottle necks. I soon got into a rhythm and fell in with other runners, slowly playing leap-frog with them until I found a group that suited my pace best. I started getting really hot and wanted to take my fleece off but decided to wait until the first checkpoint. There were eight checkpoints in total, and the first was at 4.5 miles. The journey there involved running through a mixture of fields, tracks, roads and footpaths which on the whole where fairly muddy from the recent rain but it was only shallow mud that allowed easy passage through. After a close encounter with postman pat (who did not want to slow down), I arrived at Hampstead Norreys and at checkpoint 1. It was only a water station and with 2L only my back I ran straight through.

The start of the next section involved climbing a hill and I used the time to take off my fleece and tie it around my waist. The top of the hill levelled out and a long section of running of flat could be seen ahead. The constant changing between tracks, fields and footpaths enclosed in woodland gave a really good sense of progression through this run, with very few long views of the route ahead to allow for negative dwelling about the remaining distance. Through Ashampstead, through more woodland and up a few hills, the next checkpoint arrived at mile 10. As this was a proper running race I thought the checkpoints would be just water and a bit of sugary fuel, although the checkpoints were similar to the LDWA with a variety of food and drinks.

Next there was a steep hill to climb, although very short in length, and as the top levelled off my energy returned immediately. I had been running at an average of 9 minute miles, which involved running 7 to 8 minute miles of the flats and down hills to compensate for the slower uphill accents. I was worried about burning out in the later miles of the run but wanted to get an idea of pace for the Highland Fling Race which I need a 9 min/mile pace for the first 12 miles. I continued on through more woodland and onto Lardon Chase, giving views out over Streatley and the surrounding hills. A steep downhill section brought a bit of pain to my knee but a level section of running made it go away. Running through Aldworth brought imminent arrival of the next checkpoint at 15.5 miles.

The next section was mostly all on track and included a section of the Ridgway bridleway. Although good for running fast, it brought less stimulation for the brain. Up until this point I had been feeling good and had ample energy but I could start to feel it fading slightly. I had always wanted to pass the 19.5 mark feeling good as this was where the route split for the 20 mile route and I did not want to battle with my mind if I was in a low and wanted to quickly divert back the finish and call it a day. Luckily I arrived at the next checkpoint where the route splits and was still feeling good.

The sun was becoming stronger at this point and I had salt build-up round my eyes from sweat. My heavy backpack was causing my back to sweat excessively also and I made sure I was drinking enough to prevent dehydration. The route to the next checkpoint involved long straight sections that allowed you to see how little progress you are making and how far you have left. I started having my low point here. A number of runners passed me as I started plodding with my head down. I pushed on, but halfway to the checkpoint I started feeling a pain in my abs, the same pain as in my run the weekend previously. As the pain increased I slowed further until I was reduced to a walk. I was furious at the pain. It would subside when walking only to increase again when running. I continued with a run/walk approach to the checkpoint on the outskirts of Chilton.

After the checkpoint I decided to tighten the waist belt on my backpack so that it would hold my abs as tight as possible to try and reduce the pain. I found that this, along with straining my stomach out, started to ease the pain, but it was another 4 miles before reaching the next checkpoint at East Hendred that the pain would go completely. On the approach to this checkpoint another runner passed me but as the pain subsided, I managed to catch up with him and we both reached the checkpoint together.

We both refuelled and set off together but I found myself ahead of the other runner, slowly gaining more and more ground between up. At this point I started felling great after my low point, and I mean really good. My pace increased and my legs started feeling fresher. There was a half marathon distance of 13 miles left to go and I started ticking off the miles. I passed two more runners at East Ginge, which was the 30 mile mark, and headed along tracks towards checkpoint 7. There was a hill on the approach and I could see a runner catching up from behind. I was still feeling great and pushed on to arrive at the checkpoint.

On leaving the checkpoint the runner who was catching up arrived but was getting a cup of tea and I did not see him again. It was just less than 5 miles to the next checkpoint and I still felt good. It started to rain at this point. I continued on down a bridleway which included random horse jumps, some looked like little castle walls and other made into great wooden structures. I arrived in West Ilsley at the 33 mile mark and headed on a long detoured route along bridleways towards East Ilsley where the last checkpoint was located. My energy was started to subside a bit now but I was having such a mental high. All my recent runs have finished in me feeling like death and were a battle to finish. Here I was having run 36 miles and I was feeling almost as fresh as mile 6. I arrived at the final checkpoint just as the rain started to get heavier and turned into a downpour.

I left the checkpoint on my final 4 miles, climbing the hill through East Ilsley and following the Ilsley Down Riding Route bridleway. There was a steep uphill where I could see another runner at the top and I walked the hill using the time to put my fleece back on to warm up a bit in the rain. I pushed now and soon caught the runner ahead and passed by. I was soon running back on a leg of the outward route and knew exactly where to go. I started to run most of the uphills now and was pushing hard. I could see another runner ahead but had no incentive to pass him, only to finish strong and on a high. I started feeling a bit sick on the last mile but only because I was pushing myself and as I approached the finish, the sickness soon went. I returned through the single track and ran onto the school playing fields where it all began, before being greeted at the finish line.

I got my winners t-shire and a Cadbury’s Cream Egg for an Easter treat before making my way back to the canteen and wolfing down some amazing sausage, chips and beans. It was a long drive back so I got ready quickly and headed off home in the rain. I passed through East Ilsley where the last checkpoint was and could see a number of runners in the pouring rain looking miserable and wet, but I was still on a massive high. I never mention my running times because I only care about making the distances but my time for this was 6 hours and 49 minutes, which is amazing for me. My best 50 miler was just over 10 hours but I feel that I could have done an 8.5 – 9 hour 50 miler that day. On reviewing my Garmin watch I could see that there was a reduction in pace when I hit my low and I was in pain, but my final 13 miles were almost as fast as my first 20 miles. I am now in high spirits for the 53 miles of the Highland Fling Race in three weeks time and have to make sure to rest properly as it will not be an easy one, with lots of accent and difficult terrain in the second half. I can only hope for that amazing feeling at mile 40 again which I why we all keep coming back for more.