Grand plans and injuries
My Devil campaign started back last year when I signed up for both the Highland Fling and the Devil O' the Highlands. My plan was to run both for their own sakes as they are great races, but also to get familiar with the route and test out just whether I felt capable of tackling the West Highland Way Race in subsequent years. With a more grey hairs on the chin last Autumn I was tempted to try my luck at entering the WHWR, but as 2012 was a year blighted by plantar fascia injury I felt I needed a year clear of injury before contemplating the big race. I'm not a risk taker by instinct, much rather build up to something than just dive in, no doubt lots of others would just jump in an enter. For this year I just settled upon the Fling and Devil as my "A" races, with the idea of doing the Lochalsh Dirty 30 in between, and any other races that fitted nicely around these.
Unfortunately after several months of great training at the start of the year I injured my left forefoot, and despite cutting my running almost completely the injury refused to mend in time for the Fling so I withdrew and helped marshal instead. As consolation I ran the Balfron 10k and Stuc a'Chroin Hill race at the beginning of May, then ran just twice more in May before I ran the Ben Ledi Hill Race and Lochalsh Dirty 30 at the beginning of June. While I ran all these races without serious discomfort from my foot the foot just wasn't healing fully. I then stopped running and any serious walks for the rest of June to rest up my foot. My mileage for the first half of this year reads Jan 190 miles, Feb 205 miles, March 110 miles, April 52 miles, May 25 miles, June 36 miles.
One month left to train for the Devil
I finally broke my period of enforced rest on the 4th of July, on my first full day of my two week Spanish holiday. I had a great holiday and loved my runs out on the trails in morning and afternoons, at the start of my holiday I still was aware of discomfort in my foot, but by the end it had mostly melted away - it seems running every day helped ease things off and speed the healing process. It might have just been that I need the full rest for three weeks to make this possible, or it could be that I should have just dived back into training much sooner. I will never know.
During my holiday I wore my new F-Lite 232's on all my runs, they are zero drop with minimal cushioning a combination which sure worked my calf thoroughly so I had sore calves through the week of my return to training. No doubt the lack of mileage in previous months had a big effect on my lack of conditioning too. Good news was that I was recovering quickly, my foot was settling and the heat training seemed to kick my aerobic fitness up a notch.
On my return to the UK I had two weeks before the Devil, two weeks that I had to fit my final long run in and taper. Complicating matters was that on my final long run in Spain I got lots of insect bits on my right calf, my ankle and foot swelled up and took five days to settle. In this time I just had to rest up, but time was ticking. Once the swelling settled I squeezed in an initial hill run, then a couple of easy runs, two 15 mile hilly runs completing the last just 7 days to go. My lack of training over the months sure made itself felt with DOMS for much of the month of July. I put away 126 miles though, this included ramping up the mileage steadily to some modest long runs at the end of July then straight into a short one week taper.
During my one week taper I ran twice, one 4 mile recovery run, then a 6 mile hill run to try out new socks and rucksack that I had purchased from ultramarathon store - trying them out on race day just didn't seem sensible. The tester run I worked out that the two front mounted 500ml water bottles were uncomfortable to run with when full, half empty they were fine so decided to use smaller 330ml fruit shoot bottles that my children drink when out and about. I wore my F-Lite 232's on the tester run but on the stony sections of trail found they didn't quite provide enough protection so decided to be cautious and wear my Trailrocs 255's. I also practised putting my running jacket on/off, stuffing it the sack, accessing pockets and eating on the move. Getting this all sussed out on the run was invaluable in just settling what I'd be wearing on race day and how it'd function.
The rest of the taper week I got my race plan together, made up printed plan for possible splits and food plan. I spent an evening local running friends Bev and Steve Field, both veterans of the Devil and got lots of great advice on the race route, Steve had very kindly agreed to do support which meant I was in very capable hands. I put together boxes of kit for the day in case of changes being required, and my food choices for the day - I used two clear bags with roughly duplicate foods one for the first half one for the second. I got this all done in time to relax on Friday evening. Unfortunately life complicates things, I had lot two members of my support crew to exotic holidays and wasn't able to secure last minutes replacement, so Steve had to do the job alone. Hunting for replacements added a bit of stress, but in the end I had to just let go of things beyond my control and just make sure the rest of preparation was perfect. Friday evening I had all food for the race, changes of clothing and maps ready for the day packed in two boxes to pop in the car on Saturday morning. I was ready, both kit wise, physically and mentally.
Race dayThe nerves had been building all week but found it easy to turn them into positive excitement. Even when I only got half an hours sleep on Friday night rather than toss and turn and stress about not getting sleep and I just accepted it was adrenaline that there to prepare me for the day ahead, and not fight it, just enjoyed the buzz and clarity of focus and just rest awake in bed. I got up just after 3am.
After finding that porridge for breakfast had left me a little low by lunchtime earlier in the week, I decided to keep the carb intake before the race modest, having a breakfast of scrambled egg, lettuce, tomato with a drink of Beetroot juice and cherry juice. Steve picked me right on schedule at 4:00am and we headed off up the road as the rain started to fall.
The rain had obviously moved in earlier than forecast and with cloudbase low, wind gusty and we headed north through the rain showers. Forecasts had predicted showers for the day and while not ideal it didn't bother me, for sure it was not likely to get anything as bad as the weather got during this year Stuc a' Chroin hill race where we endured gale force winds, driving rain and sleet, near zero temperatures at the summit.
We arrived at Tyndrum and Green Welly Stop was buzzing with runners and support crews. I registered, then relaxed with cup of tea for the Briefing. Then we all were heading outside, a brief photo call and assembled at the start.
|Start how you mean to go on, I was just happy and excited|
In the week prior to the race I had looked at what WHW triple crown runners achieve with their Devil's and Fling times, and found on average their Devil time was 73% of their Fling time, so at best I expected around 8hrs given my 2012 Fling time of 10:46. However, my training for the Fling had gone great, this time around training had been rather pitiful in comparison, so hoped rather than expected to get near 8hrs which I set myself as my Gold target, with Silver sub 8:15, Bronze sub 8:30.
Caroline was here to race and made here way towards the front leaving me at the back getting my phone GPS app ready and generally soaking up the atmosphere rather than getting ready to race. I never actually noticed the race start, I only noticed that the people around me were beginning to move forward.
|Race has started, Synchronize watches! I'm in the middle of the frame.|
A hundred yards in and it became clear that my relaxed attitude at the start meant that I was now walking with the mass of competitors around me as we started to climb the shallow hill as the road headed up to the WHW trail. A glance down to the my HR told me that this was too a shallow a hill for me to walk already, but had to wait my time to get past walkers and slower runners. By the time we hit the top we had all got into our stride and found a position amongst runners of similar pace.
For the first few miles I found myself keeping pace on uphills, and flats and over taking downhills, by four miles in the field had now spread out with various runners juggling positions around me. After swapping places a few times I eventually fell in step with a chatted with Nonnie Heffron. It's was Nonnie's first Devil race too, she mentioned that she'd done the Fling this year in 12 hours but she was clearly running very comfortably. A mile before Bridge of Ochy she slowed to take on food and moved ahead. On this stage I eat one my experimental homemade Chocolate + Coconut Oil bars, 100 calories mostly from fat, much of which is the form of highly digestible and usable MCT's. The C+C bar went down a treat.
Bridge of Orchy : Distance 6.7 miles, time 7:02am, elapsed 1:01I arrived at Bridge of Ochy pretty well in the center of the splits I had given Steve. I'd kept my HR below 160 pretty well all the way and felt very comfortable and while the rain showers had left one a bit damp it certainly wasn't enough to dampen the spirits.
I met Steve just over the bridge and took water and a banana for next section over to Victoria Bridge where Steve would meet me again. I ate the banana on the climb out from Bridge of Ochy and used my HR monitor to gauge when to walk and when to run. I got overtaken by half a dozen or so runners on the climb up Mam Carraigh, running by HR meant that I didn't get sucked into racing anyone up the hill. Once near the top I was back running and by ran the descent strongly overtaking all those had over taken me on the climb and possibly a few more as well.
Victoria Bridge : time 7:34am, elapsed 1:33
|View back towards Mam Carraigh|
I stuck to running by my HR monitor which meant that I held position on climbs, but caught up on flats and descents, by the later half of Rannoch Moor I was catching people on the gentle climbs as well. It rained on and off on the run across Rannoch Moor so I had my jacket on most of the time. I exchanged positions with Nonnie a few more times on the crossing, before eventually pulling ahead on the downhill to Black Rock Cottage. Now close to 18 miles I had run furthest I had run since the Dirty 30 at the beginning of June and was now starting to feel the distance in my quads and my feet. I still felt strong and with plenty of energy and was revelling in the experience.
Black Rock Cottage : Distance 17.6 miles, time 8:51am, elapsed 2:50
However, my little detour wasn't required, I lost a bit of time before I got back on the track.
I hadn't finished all my water and milk shake so just picked up some crisps and some pain killers for the next section up to the Devil Staircase. The pain killers were to keep a lid on the discomfort that was beginning to seep in. Steve wasn't happy with my not taking water but I insisted I was fine and just back running quickly as I could.
On the road section to Kingshouse and up to towards Devil Staircase I was making my quick progress through the field - runners were slowing around me and no one had swapped places for me for quite a few miles. While my quads and feet were complaining a bit it was all manageable and didn't affect my gait, pace or my mental resolve, it was dawning on me that I was getting to the half way point feeling strong and this would be a great day for me as long as I didn't blow it doing something stupid, I found myself fighting positive emotions that bumbling up. I had misplaced a few footings on the uneven trails already so was sharply aware of the potential of spraining an ankle, so I kept my head down and concentrated on placing my feet well, and making sure I drank, eat and paced well.
Devil Staircase : Distance 21 miles, time 9:35am, elapsed 3:34As I approach the head of Glen Coe the weather began to close in, Glen Coe itself was a boiling mass of clouds and blustery showers. It was beautiful and exhilarating to be out running in it.
I met Steve at the base of the Devil's Staircase, he had raced ahead and put on the stove to make a soup for me, to plan we walked up the hill together, chatting about progress, me slurping the soup. After five minutes I had finished the soup and gave Steve the cup to take back with him. I also took a Caffeine tablet to help keep up the energy levels in the second half and also to help keep a lid on pain levels.
Almost as soon as Steve left to head back down the hill, Nonnie appeared seemingly out of nowhere and charged uphill past me. I had my hood down and drawn up tight so really wasn't too aware of what was much more than a few feet ahead so I was a little startled to be caught. I attempted to say a cheerful hello but Nonnie was drawn into her own world with earphones in. Checking my HR monitor it was clear I had taken the walk up a bit too easy, got my head down and pushed on and overtook Nonnie and set about catching the next competitor who had opened up a decent gap during my walk with Steve. My competitive edge was clearly cutting in as I powered up the last part of the climb, checking my HR monitor revealed that for the first time I had exceed my target HR, and was up at 165 bpm. My ego had got the better of me.
Once at the top my HR fell back down below 160 again, but shortly after the descent began I got a small cramp in my left calf, it was very brief and more of warning shot than a full cramp but it was enough to send a clear message that while I felt good I was still suffering from fatigue and had pushed on too hard on the climb. Shortly after the summit I caught and passed second placed female, Gayle Tait, who was struggling with stomach issues. I had to reign in my pace a bit on the descent but still was able to run strongly so picked up quite a few more places.
The path down the mountain had become a river as the runoff found the most direct way down the hill. Up to this point I had been carefully treading around puddles to keep my feet dry, this was no longer an option with the whole path several inches deep in a torrent of water.
On the whole descent I was passing runners, but finally got caught and overtaken by one during the descent down to Kinlochleven as I struggled to stow my jacket in my minimal vest/rucksack. I stuck with him for the rest of the descent and as soon as we hit the level on arrival to Kinlochleven I took back my place. I felt great, sure my quads had been seriously fried by the long descent but I still felt strong and full of energy. On previous ultra's my gait has typically been reduced to a bit of hobble towards the end with pain dominating my gait, but somehow, despite running for nearly five hours on bruising terrain, my body was strong and my mind was positive and focused on the task ahead.
Kinlochleven : Distance 27 miles, time 10:50am, elapsed 4:49As I approached the checkpoint at the centre of Kinlochleven I saw Steve on the opposite side of the road, I waved and ran straight through. I had made up lots of time on my splits arriving bang on my fastest possible split, the one I only put in for reference, never expecting to get anywhere near it. But here I was going great so I just ran straight through not stopping to find the car, instead relying upon Steve to catch me up - it now looked like a sub 8 hour time was on the cards so I was not going to stop for anything, game on!
I left Kinlochleven village and headed up the WHW path and Steve still wasn't around. I started to wonder if Steve had seen me at all so dug out my phone and called him. Steve answered but was rather out of breath as he was now running uphill to catch me. Relieved and also amused I turned around to see Steve approaching. We walked up hill together for a couple of minutes while we exchange empties and I picked up another milk shake, water and two S-tabs. A quick photo and I was on my way.
The climb out of Kinlochleven had quite a few walkers on it, so one had to jostle a little to get past. As it was uphill I mostly power walked up. As the climbed leveled off and I begun to run I got another short cramp in my calf, and the near to cramping sensation stayed for the next half hour so I eased off on my pace just enough to stop going into a full cramp. I found if I ran at a HR under 155 the hints of cramps would die away, above this on I could sense the cramp twitches wanting to jump out and bite me. I still felt strong and with plenty of energy but one can't bluff your way out of cramp. You just have to ease off till it melts away.
With easing off on intensity I stopped reducing the gaps to runners ahead and for the first time found myself caught by a runner that looked strong and eased passed comfortably and pulled away. I could do nothing about it with cramp still haunting my stride every few minutes. I fully expected that would be the last I'd see of him but eventually my cramp sensations eased I got was able to able pick up the pace a little so started to keep pace, then suddenly he stopped to walk on climb and I cruised passed.
The stretch to Lundava seemed to take a long time, the wind howled directly in our faces and the rain was pretty relentless. I was warm in my jacket so the weather didn't bother me, it was more of annoyed not to be able to put down the hood and enjoy the view. Still I found it amusing passing all the walkers that were heavily clad in waterproofs and big boots, none seemed to be enjoying the weather as much as me.
The stony trail was more of problem though, the underside of my right forefoot was feeling bruised and the front of my ankle was a little tender where I had injured back in Span three weeks before. My left foot was holding up fine, but my toes were beginning to hurt on both feet - the new socks were thicker than normally wear and left far less room. On the descent I was beginning to be very aware of my toes being under strain.
Lundava : Distance 35 miles, time 12:10, elapsed 6:09Just before Lundava I glanced over my shoulder and saw runner perhaps a hundred metres behind who looked to be mostly clad in black. I had passed a runner in similar attire a few miles earlier, but the runner behind me was running far too strong to be the same person. It puzzled me, was it the same runner found a second wind?
I was still running my own race so I just kept focused on pacing against my HR, making sure I finished my drinks before meeting Steve at Lundava. I stopped for perhaps 20 seconds to drop off my jacket - it has stopped raining and felt that any more showers wouldn't bother me. I picked up some more water and another liquorice stick and headed on my way.
After an hour in the wilderness suddenly Lundava appeared with lots of smiling faces and good cheer - no doubt helped by it having stopped raining for the first time in while.
|Soaked through, but still loving every minute!|
The cramp in my legs had not bothered me for half an hour so I was able to push on more, with HR heading back towards the high 150's. My stomach felt great so I eat my liquorish more out of the love of the taste rather than any regard for energy levels which had been rock solid all day. With keeping the intensity up I began catching a runner ahead, and looked likely to catch him before entering the forest. Nature called though so I had to take my third comfort break for the day, each time my consumption of beetroot juice was evident as I had bright purple pee! Not sure what medics would have made of it...
Through the forest I caught another competitor that had been reduced to walking even the flats, but it took another mile before I caught up with the runner that I had nearly caught before the forest. I was able to run flats and gentle inclines so steadily caught up once we hit some inclines. I power walked passed him and as soon as the hill level a little got back in to running, my competitive edge had finally kicked in and I wanted to make sure I passed decisively. Cramp quickly put me in my place though, as soon as I took my first step back running my calf fired a quick warning shot. Back to power walking it is then.. Thankfully once I crested the final little sumit I was able to gently get back into jogging then running as the long descent began as the forest path opened up into a wide forest track.
Ben Nevis was opposite but almost entirely obscured by cloud, I had to settle for the view of the trails heading down Glen Nevis to Fort William. I didn't know the exact distances left by guessed that a sub 7:30 time was now possible as long as I kept running. The descent seemed to go on for a long way, I passed a couple of support runners heading the uphill to meet their runners, they all gave words of support and encouragement as did walkers that I passed, it all made for a great feeling on the long descent - sure my quads and feet were shouting out on every step, but I was 40 miles in still running strong, it was my day.
Near to the bottom of a long straight on the descent I heard pounding feet behind me, and looked around fully expecting a runner to be right on my tail. I had be overtaking runners for so long I hadn't occurred to me that I might being chased by another run finishing strong. Despite the loud sound the runner was actually still a bit back, maybe 50 or 100 meters, I don't know as I only briefly glanced over my shoulder. I didn't want to loose my place this late in the race, so was determined to keep running strongly - if they caught and over took me then it'd because they were better than me on the day, not that I had rolled over and given up.
Once the descent finished and the trail level off, for the first time in the whole run, I found it hard to keep the pace up. Perhaps it was the transition from the long descent or perhaps finally the fatigue had caught up with me, I had to make a conscious effort to keep the intensity up. When I did though my calf started to twinge with cramp so had to back off on the pace and get my HR back below 155 bpm. I was running as fast as my cramp would allow. By the time we got down to the road my pursuer had not appeared and my cramp had also not resurfaced so I was able to push on in the last km. The finish finally appeared with a big crowd braving the weather.
Fort William : Distance 42 miles, time 2:18pm, elapsed 7:17:42I ran strongly right to the finish, my GPS race suggest I was doing only 8 min/mile pace but it felt like much faster. I just couldn't fathom quite how I had done it, but here I was running strongly right to the finish.
My form held up too, I was surprised by this final photo that Steve took, mid-foot strike, no over-striding, well balanced and smooth gait after 7 hours 17 minutes of running. My official finish time of 7:17:42 and 22nd place.
At the finish I met up with Caroline McKay, she had finished 4 minutes ahead of me and was first lady. She reported that she found the section over Lundava tough. I was rather bemused and rather in shock that I had finished so quickly - an hour quicker than I had expected, and truthfully replied that I hadn't found any section particular tough. Which is true - I never had dig deep to keep running, I was running close to the limit of what I was capable of, but there was no mental battles, the pace came naturally. I had flirted with cramp for several hours, my quads and feet were really sore but my head was always clear, focused, I was always enjoying it and possibly annoyingly cheerful!
I showered at the Glen Nevis afterwards and had a full on Ultra marathon post race hobble. Getting in and out of the car was a struggle as was walking, sitting, getting changed. We ate but didn't hang around for the prize giving as we wanted to get back to our families.
Post Race reflectionsFor a week after the race I struggled to get up and down stairs as my quads were the sorest they've been since my first marathon back in 2010. My right foot was also a bit swollen and very painful to walk on for the first few days, enough that I suspected a stress fracture. It turned out to be just soft tissue damage to the tendons on the front on my ankle and top of my foot, but even now nearly 6 weeks later it's not fully healed. What is clear I pushed my body about as far as I could, even though it felt remarkably effortless at the time.
The combination of pacing by HR and the nutrition (a mix of easily digestible fats, carbs and proteins) I adopted on the day worked extremely well. Caffeine and pain killers also likely to been a factor in helping avoiding fatigue causing a deterioration in gait and pace that I might have otherwise expected on the day. An important factor in my success is likely have been having changed to a diet higher in fat and lower in carbohydrate made, despite my poor running training in build up I was still able to run strongly for over 7 hours and place well, with no low energy points.
I also believe I got preparation right in the final few days, I had gone over the route and was mentally prepared for the ups and downs of the course. Also for the first time before a big race I didn't fight or get anxious about the pre race nerves, the adrenalin was their building up as usual, I as much as I tried to chill I couldn't switch off and completely relax, but I just decided to accept it for what it was - it's just my bodies way of preparing itself for a big challenge.
Pacing by HRThe use of a HR monitor to determine pacing deserves a series of articles to follow up so I won't dive into too much more here. One curious finding is that my % splits for the Devil were very close to that of the this years winners, and also very close to men and female records. Only a handful of other runners this year ran with similar splits, I don't believe it's just coincidence that winners, course record holders and those running to an even intensity level achieve similar split %. Using a HR monitor to gauge my pacing has enabled me to pace like the best of the elite runners, there was never any referencing to splits, working out whether to speed up or slow down on the next section - it was as simple as checking the HR monitor every few minutes, if I was over I slowed or walked, if I was under I knew I could push on, instant feedback. Even cramp was fixable my using HR monitor - I just dialled down the HR I ran to until the hints of cramp subsided and then stuck to this to let me body settle.
My average HR for this years Devil was 154bpm, while I had targeted 158-159 most of the time, the descents I didn't quite keep up the HR and while tackling cramp kept HR below 155. My lactate threshold (LT) is up around 176, so my average was ~88% of my LT. For shorter races I'd be able to use a higher target % of my LT, while longer races I'd use a lower target. I'll be writing a follow up post on the topic so I'll expand on the topic there.