Thursday, 24 July 2014

Summer holidays and return to running

I took two weeks completely off running after the West Highland Way Race, the right calf injury that I sustained at mile 80 meant that running any sooner was foolhardy.  The week after the race the top/outside of my right calf swelled up and looked like I'd grown a bicep just below my knee.  The swelling melted away during the second week but my knee was still very tender and unable to handle loads whilst flexed - I could get up and down stairs but for sure wasn't ready to return to running.

Two weeks after the race my knee has settled more and my external injuries from the race fall have healed up leaving some decent sized scabs so I had wear shorts most of the times to avoid irritating them. This wasn't a problem at it was then time for week long trip down to North Wales for a family holiday so shorts was very much appropriate holiday attire!

I couldn't run much but the weather was great so we got lots of family walks in.

 Nothing like sunshine and a rocky beach to explore.

Crag shell washed up on the rocks

Our girls loved the sandy beaches too.

Building your own Island is a right of passage!

I did a few short runs to test out my leg and found that while walking was completely problem free and running on the flat was mostly OK but running up or down hills was still a problem.  My longest run on the trip was a 4 miler with a around 400ft of ascent/descent and while the early morning view was rewarding my right knee was pretty painful by the end.

View from run looking down on Trefor where we stayed
The sun kept shinning and with lots of beaches to relax upon it really wasn't hard taking easy :-)

One of my hopes for the holiday was that I'd be fit enough to run up Snowdon and have my wife and three girls race me in the train to the summit.  With me knee still injured I had to put this dream aside and just enjoy the trip up with them.  The summit was capped in cloud as we ascended, but after ten minutes cleared to reveal some spectacular views.

View from Snowdon look north east.
View from summit cairn looking north

Panoramic showing of the dramatic vista, five minutes later it gone, replaced by white out
We elected to walk down so once the cloud returned we headed down by foot and were passed by the train.

The walk down Llanberis path was a lot more spectacular than the view from the train.

Fell runner in training!

It's almost impossible to get everyone to take photo's seriously at one time...  
 As we walked down we were passed by several fell runners on their way up. I so wanted to be following them, but that will have to wait.  Later on a few of them charged passed as they headed down.

The second half of the walk the sun came out and it was roasting - who needs holidays in the Med when the UK is sunny!

Most of the way down, just a mile out from Llanberis
On our return to Scotland we had members of extended family visit so we went to Falkirk to see the Kelpies, as an engineer I was in heaven.

Kelpies up close, easy to be transfixed by the presence

Who you looking at?

Sun even came out! Oooh Shinny!
 Another day out took us to the White Corries ski center at Glen Coe, sorry another lazy way up using the Chair lift.  Nice to get a birds eye view of where I had run just three weeks earlier.

Devil's staircase dead head.  Looks so tiny...
Since my return to Scotland I've been juggling work with the family days out and have been out running in the mornings before work or trips commence.   Last week I was just doing flat four mile runs as 10 min/mile pace and found my knee OK except for the last mile.  This week I've been able to up the runs to 6 miles and re-introduce some hills.  It's kinda hard to run more than more miles around Callander without hitting hills so I had to tackle them at some point.  My first runs with hills went OK with just a bit of discomfort during the last couple of miles and tenderness afterwards.

Today encouraged by my progress I headed out for a proper hilly route up to Bracklin Bridge

Bracklin Falls Bridge, misty tops above.
Then over the hill and on to the Scout Pool.  As I emerged from the forest above Scout Pool the low clouds cleared and rewarded me with sunshine.  The top of low clouds looked like it might be below the top of the Crags, getting above the clouds can be so enchanting I threw caution to the wind and headed up to the summit of Crags.

I climbed through the mist and emerged into Sunshine again but my hopes for a view looking down onto the clouds was dashed as the tops to the clouds surrounding the summit were another 50ft higher.  My little blue hole was nice but really not quite the view I was hoping. I descend down the new path that detours around all the fallen trees that haven't been cleared from the normal crags paths.

The new path is pretty steep so it was slow going nursing my knee down.  My knee got me home OK but is rather more tender now than it was before the run so I've clearly over-done it.  Fingers crossed I haven't set back the healing process.  It's nearly 5 weeks since the West Highland Way Race so it's a bit frustrating to be still dealing with the after effects, but wouldn't change the race for a second.

Once my knee has settled down I'll start looking at what events I might be able to fit in during the second half of 2014, in my next post will attempt to answer the question that John Kynaston posed to me shortly after the big race... WHAT NEXT?

Monday, 7 July 2014

West Highland Way Race 2014 : Race Report: Part 4

This is fourth and final part of my West Highland Way Report that cover post race, award cereomony and post race reflections.  To read previous parts click on Part 1 : Pre Race, Part 2 : First half, Part 3 :
econd half.


I was well looked after at the Leisure Center, soon after arriving I had a seat, tea and toast.

Finally I get to sit down and spend time with my family.
We eventually collected everything, and headed outside to the cars.  Very quickly I found my body temperature dropping thanks to my sweat top and the cool night air.  Shivering I quickly changed into a warm top and jumped into the car.  This caught me by surprise as up to that point I had felt few ill effects from the days running.

Farewell to my crew, heading back to the hostel to stay the night with my family.
Back at the hostel I struggled up the stairs, finally got to the bathroom and had a shower.  Alas my body decided to reject my final meal of toast which wasn't pretty but I eventually got myself to bed and I was asleep in an instant (or possibly unconscious...)

Prize Giving

The prize giving was a glorious affair.  A standing ovation for Paul Gilblin, as to be expected from such a superlative race win and new course record of 14:20.  When it came to my turn I shuffled down the steps and across to the front - the first hobbler in the Ceremony so far, below is footage that Julia caught on her phone.  

Later in the ceremony the runners that I had shared the trail and a some very civilized miles with - Paul Brown, Peter Duggan, Nonnie Hefron, Helen Legget, Ross Lawrie and Jonny Rowan all collected their goblets.  All had finished but had quite different fortunes as the race progressed from Paul who nailed a great time of 21:46 in his first WHWR to Ross and Jonny who struggled with stomach issues in the second half.  The two runners I saw fall also collected their Goblets.   Running 95 miles can be a cruel beast for those unlucky to get the wrong side of it, but 157 of us overcame fatigue and injury and proved there is something truly remarkable about being human.

When it came to announcing Fiona Rennie's 10th Goblet a tear welled up and like a dozen of so others I rose to my feet right way, and almost immediately the rest of the crowd followed - a completely spontaneous and well deserved roll call of affection and respect.  Fiona has been through so much and inspired so many including me.  For me this was the most touching moment of the ceremony.

Post Race Reflections

I couldn't then, and even now can't quite believe it, the race went far smoother and I finished far stronger than I ever expected - you can plan things on paper but it means for nothing out on the trail, it's doing it that counts.  It seems extraordinary that anyone can run 95 miles, let alone me and to be able to do it without needing to dig down into any deep mental or physical reserves. There was no battle to finish - I just ran, walked, eat, drank and enjoyed every mile as it clicked by.

My platinum goal of 20hrs was a perfect race target and to get so close shows just how well all the key ingredients went - my pacing, food, race strategy all worked very well on the day.  

Things that went wrong : Falling was likely down to lack of concentration on footing while wearing larger shoes than I had trained in.  Tightness in my calves on walking ascents likely due to lack of walking up long steep hills during training.  The blisters likely to do mixing new shoes with toe socks that were a little too large so they slipped a little.  The final calf injury was likely just lack of structural resilience for the task in hand - perhaps I skipped a bit too much on the really long runs (I only ran longer than 18 miles twice in the 6 months training.)  

All these weaknesses I can work on.  Looking at my splits and removing the effects of the medical stops and injury it looks like a time of around 19:40 was possible if I had the absolute perfect day.  This would also have seen a negative split of around 2%.  Doing a negative split isn't just a hypothetical projection - Johnny Duncan ran a blinder of a second half as well, but didn't fail after Kinlochleven like I did, and finished in a storming 19:35 with a 2.4% negative split.  However, this was eclipsed by Brain MacFarlane who ran the second half 3.5% faster recording a time of 23:24.  Prior to this race I doubted the likelihood of running a even/negative split during a long ultra race, but thanks to these guys we have an indication for the West Highland Way Race that it's perfectly possible.

The average first half/second half split this year was a 11.2% positive split, whilst last year it was a 13.4% positive split so as a community it seems we are getting better at judging pace.

My own first half/second split came in at 4.2% positive split which is a little off the 3.1% positive split that Rosie Bell achieved last year.  It was ahead of the the Macro Cosani 7% positive split, which brings me back to the discrepancy of the projected finishing time that my two crews were telling me. My first half crew were using my even splits that I had put in the crew notes as a guide to the earliest I was likely to come through, but the crew notes were not passed on to the second half crew.  The second half crew had been looking at Marco Cosani style projection splits that I had given out in the crew meeting the week before.   On race day I was tracking the even splits very closely until my calf blew up, but as I didn't have the splits to hand or memorised I didn't know this, all I knew is what my second half crew were saying didn't quite tally with how I felt the race was progressing.  This is another area I can improve next time I run such a long race - just use even splits and don't complicate life with lots of different splits that attempt to cover various possible outcomes.

Another aspect to the race was my family and friends that were watching the race unfold online.  As the day progressed they could all see me steadily moving up through the field, which was really encouraging for them.  However, my Mum reported being concerned about whether something had happened when people that I had overtaken on the way to Kinlochleven started finishing but no info was forthcoming on what had happened to me.  Of course something had happened... but nothing too bad thankfully.  It's touching to hear of all this concern, but less good to think others were worrying.  I guess Mum's are always going to worry though when you do daft stuff like run 95 miles!


First I have to thank the race committee and marshals. What a truly special event you have created - all those hours in prep and on race day(s) are very much appreciated.  For each runner and crew you gave an opportunity to experience something very unique and special.

Second, my two crews: Andrew and Toby, and Steve and Rob you made my great day possible, going above and beyond normal bounds of friendship.  After the race they have all been really inspired about the experience and are now talking about doing more ultras themselves.  I couldn't ask for better support and outcome.  Thank you guys!

Finally to my wife Julia for her support throughout training and on to our kids for support on race day. Also thanks to Julia for editing this report, making my usually poor attempt the written more readable. Just one week after the race Julia asked what I wanted for my up coming 45th birthday and I was stuck, then she proposed buying entry to the 2015 West Highland Way Race as a present.  Oh yes, that will do very nicely!

Sunday, 6 July 2014

West Highland Way Race 2014 : Race Report: Part 3

This is third part of my West Highland Way Report that will cover the second half of the race.  To read previous parts click on Part 1 : Pre Race, Part 2 : First half.

Auchtertyre to Bridge Of Orchy : 9.26 miles

Racing by heart rate meant that specific splits weren't required so I didn't run with any or try to remember them for each stage.  The only split time I had memorised was 10:30 to Auchtertyre which was the time for a 20 hour even split race.  Coming in a couple of minutes ahead was great news, and although I had aches and blisters to deal with my energy levels were great, not a single dip so far, I was still able to eat and drink and mentally I was relaxed, confident and up for the next 44 miles.  

We just needed to deal with those pesky blisters.  After the weigh in we jogged to the car and I sat down and let the guys get busy around me. Toby got the first aid kit and set about tapping up my toes, while Andrew restocked my supplies and gave me a slice of chicken to eat while Toby finished the ugly business of dealing with smelly blistered feet.  What a way to test one's friendship!

Blister repair at Auchtertyre
After an eight minute pit-stop I was back on my way.  I immediately got back running and was out on my own once again.  I had been running close the 20 hour event splits but now was behind, there would be little benefit from trying to claw back this time with a quick few miles, instead I put my trust in my heart rate monitor, if it was to be my day then I'd slowly make up the time.

I enjoyed the section up to Tyndrum, I was moving well and the various landmarks, twists and turns in the trail all came quickly.  I passed the Fling finish, it was quite eerie it being so quiet, so utterly different from back in April with the buzz of the Fling finish.  Just before the river crossing I caught up with Nonnie once again - obviously she had passed through Auchtertyre rather faster than myself.  I also caught three other runners as we approached and crossed the river and headed up to the A82 crossing at the Green Welly Stop/Brodie's store.

Across the road and past Brodie's store
Tyndrum crew hand over, Toby has had enough of my feet and tell's me where to go!  North!
I crossed the road and met up with Steve and Rob, my crew for the second half of the race, and said farewell to Toby and Andrew as their duties had now been handed over.  I didn't stop, just kept walking and let everything happen around me as I marched on up the hill.  Steve asked if I wanted anything, my answer was "Ice Cream!" so he headed back to the shop, bought the packet of cold delight and caught me up and passed on the heavenly item - it totally hit the spot.  Steve left me to march on in bliss with my second order - a bacon roll.

Once I finished my ice cream I found that I could run/walk the ascent and still stay within HR zone, I caught another runner and then ran all the level and descent.  When the sun was out it was a bit warm, but there was now a decent breeze so I found the going pretty comfortable.  Just after passing under the railway line I passed another runner and then near the bottom of the trail saw Steve and Rob running back up towards me.

The guys were in great spirits, chuffed with having bought the treasured bacon roll and being able to torment other runners on route with the delicious aroma of a treat they couldn't have!  How cruel for them, but how great was it for me to have this delivery service provide hot food in the middle of this amazing place.

Once on the old military road to Bridge of Orchy I was on my own once more, chomping away at my rather large bacon roll.  Running and eating requires a little patience so it took me until I arrived at the Railway station to finish my meal.  Along this section I passed another runner, as well as several support runners now heading back along the trail to meet their runners.

At the Railway station I moved through with lots of cheers of support, no doubt I was grinning like a Cheshire Cat.  I was eating lots of tasty grub, had kick arse support  and was going to see my gorgeous girls in less than a minute.

Arriving at Bridge Of Orchy
I charged down the hill to see Julia and my girls on the opposite side of the road, but the traffic was heavy so I had to wait for what seemed an eternity before a gap appeared and I could get across.  My gleeful hugs weren't fully appreciated, perhaps one gets a bit smelly after 60 miles!

I was still in race mode so rather than stand and chat I beckoned them to join me in a jog to the check point but noone joined me alas.  I checked in and grabbed some supplies for the short stint across to Victoria Bridge where I'd next meet Steve and Rob.

Arriving at Bridge Of Orchy CP to swipe my timing card, Steve awaits with goodies
Estimated 20hr even split for Bridge Of Orchy 59.34 miles : 1:52 from Auchtertyre, 12:23 total.
Actual split to Bridge Of Orchy:  1:54:24 (including blister repair stop) from Auchtertyre, 12:22:02 total.
Position: 21st fastest for leg,  overall: 38th, gained 7 places.
Average Pace for leg (including stop): 12:21 min/mile,  
Average pacing when moving 11:29min/mile.

Bridge Of Orchy to Glen Coe Ski Center, 10.82 miles

I was really pleased to still be moving well and felt I couldn't have lost too much time from my 20hr even splits but was a bit perplexed by what Steve and Rob had said about my progress.  They had been tracking my progress through the morning via the web updates and said I had steadily moved up through the field and was now on for a 20:30 time.  I didn't think my blister stop had been that long, and felt that I had made good progress to Bridge Of Orchy, where had I lost half and hour?

If you look at the even splits for Bridge Of Orchy above you'll see that I was almost exactly on my estimated 20hr even splits, but I didn't have a record of the splits with me and I wasn't paying that much attention to time of arriving at each check point, it's only in hindsight reviewing official timing data that I now know I was tracking so closely.  The information from Steve and Rob is all I had to go on at the time, as they in theory had all the split printouts, but this set up an internal conflict of how I felt I had been progressing and how I would continue.  It wasn't until the end of the race was I able to reconcile the discrepancies.

After whizzing through Bridge Of Orchy I settled down to walk the assent and eat my cheese and ham sandwich (thanks Julia ;-)  I found that I just couldn't keep my heart rate up into the target zone just by walking, but the path was just a little too steep to comfortably run without going above the heart rate zone so I just relaxed and enjoyed the fact that I could walk for a while as I had had few walking breaks since topping out above Tyndrum.

At the summit Murdo was there with a gaggle of supporters, a huge Saltire flag proudly waving in the breeze.  Murdo came down and gave me my single Jelly baby, only one but it was a black one - my favourite - I was indeed having a perfect race!  It was also great to see Caroline Mackay who was part of the summit crew, she ran down and wished me good luck and told me about Paul Giblin having just arrived at Kinlochleven and being on course for another record.  It was great to hear that it was going to be another historic day for the great race, but a bit mind blowing from a personal perspective - I was running well but was 20 miles behind the race leader, how is that even possible?!?

The descent down to Inveroran Hotel and around the road to Victoria Bridge went smoothly, on the flat I was able to keep doing 10 min/miles and stay within my target HR zone.  I met Steve and Rob to collect supplies and take some more pain killers as it had now been 5 hours since I had taken the last batch.

Ready to head up across Rannoch Moor
I was out on my own for long stretches of the ascent up onto Rannoch Moor.  The sun had gone in and the wind picked up so the temperature had dropped which made running a little easier.  The lower temperature also meant my heart rate for a given pace/intensity was lower and I was rather taken aback by just how steep an incline I needed to run to stay within my target zone.  The steeper sections I'd get to walk for 10m or so before I had to get back into running.  This meant my average pace was staying up, but for the first time found myself having to consciously push myself to keep running, prior to this point everything had felt a very relaxed and comfortable pace.  After 13 hours and 65 miles I don't think I can't complain too much...

The trail up Rannoch Moor stretched out in front of me, ascending mile after mile, it looked and felt endless.  I would see people ahead and slowly reeled them in.  Mostly they were just walkers.  A mile or so before the summit I finally caught three runners, the first I had seen since Bridge Of Orchy.  I was moving much faster and more easily than they were so I passed them quickly, but not without getting comments that I was way too fresh and with a spring in my step to have run the whole route, and must be a relay runner or had been dropped off at Bridge Of Orchy.  I guess this light hearted banter was a compliment...

Finally we topped out and then turned towards Glen Coe, a magnificent sight but the trail becomes very stony so you can't look up.  After seeing so few people on the Rannoch Moor crossing suddenly I was guided up to the bustling White Corries Ski Center carpark.  Julia was waiting with the girls and took some video of me approaching, still in race mode I head on passed up to the checkpoint.

It's clear from the video that I'm still moving well and focused on moving quickly through - the video captures a wee slip that amused my girls no end, strangely I don't recall loosing my footing at all. I am now a bit embarrassed by just how little time I spent with the girls, over 14 hours running and I couldn't spare 30 seconds.  It wasn't a bad mood that made me unsociable as I was still really jolly and thoroughly enjoying the day, there wasn't any internal or an external negativity - I was just too focused on racing.

Estimated 20hr even split for Glen Coe Ski Center 70.16 miles : 2:10 from Bridge Of Orchy, 14:33 total.
Actual split to Bridge Of Orchy:  2:14:04 from Bridge Of Orchy, 14:36:06 total.
Position: 17th fastest for leg,  overall: 34th, gained 4 places.
Average Pace for leg: 12:23 min/mile

Glen Coe Skie Center to Kinlochleven : 10.55 miles

After checking in, and exchanging supplies on the hoof I headed passed my family again,  alas again nobody joined me for a little run and looking at the GPS trace I was doing 8 min/miles down to the road crossing so I obviously was meaning business and pausing for noone.  As we crossed over the A82 I was joined by a relay runner and we ran most of the way down to Kings House together.  I was now feeling the effort of running without any extended walking breaks and had to let him go and focus on reeling in other WHW runners.  As I arrived at Kings House the lady in front of me peeled off to join her support and I over took.  Later I found out this was the lady who came in fourth.

I jogged past Kings House and on the gentle incline after the bridge I rewarded myself with a short walking break.  I used it to eat and drink.  The sun had come out and it was warming up again.  I really didn't have much of an excuse for walking and with my heart rate below my target HR zone I coaxed myself back into a run.  I now focused on reeling in the runners several hundred yards ahead. The first I caught before the WHW path heads uphill away from the road, but the two runners further ahead were moving well and wouldn't be so easy to catch.

However, I slowly reeled them in just by using my HR zone as a guide, and as I approached I could see it was two women both looking strong and committed, but not quite matching my pace.  I was expecting to catch them shortly after heading up the hill but suddenly a shooting pain from my big toe on my left foot almost stopped me in my tracks. Something had clearly gone wrong with the toe blister on my left foot, thankfully I only had a couple of hundred yards to run before meeting Steve and Rob as every step was painful.

Grimace replaces smile, have to do something about that!
As soon as I arrived and had called for blister repair, the chair and medical kit were out, my shoe was off and damage inspected.  The blister on my left big toe had burst, on applying plaster and then tape to secure it, plasma oozed out from the dressing, gross.  Testing Rob and Steve's friendship now...

Blister repair completed, no gory pictures here, it's a family blog!
I took a little under 3 minutes to get my toe taped up and get back on my way.  Initially, my toe was just as painful so I wasn't looking forward putting up with it for another 21 miles, but nothing was going to stop me now.  The guys were pleased with my progress and suggested I had moved up to 20:15 pace. However, still I couldn't quite figure out exactly why their figure didn't quite tally with my own expectations - in my head I was still on for a sub 20 hour time if I ran the next two sections as strongly as the rest of the race.

In determined mood I headed up the Devil's Staircase, I felt if I could get over the Devil's Staircase and down to Kinlochleven before 6pm then I would still be in with a chance of my dream sub 20 hour time. I had taken a bottle of home-made strawberry yoghurt drink and some Tangtastic sweets with me and drank/ate them on the assent.  There were absolutely delicious, sweet nectar.  What a joy to be loving the race and still enjoying eating.

Devil's Staircase, looking back, but no turning back, Kinlochleven here I come

The weather conditions on the ascent were near perfect - the sun had gone in, there was a gentle breeze and I felt a bit tired but remarkably comfortable considering I now had 75 miles under my belt.  By the summit my toe had stopped screaming at me and I had closed the gap substantially on the two runners ahead.  The view back towards the Buachaille Etive Mor was so glorious I had to fish out my phone from my race vest and take my second photo of the view.  Not quite in focus... perhaps the lens had got a bit sweaty sitting on my back for 16 hours!

Nearing summit of Devil's Staircase, looking back to the Buachaille Etive Mor and the White Corres Ski Centre
Once over the summit the two ladies were just 100m's ahead, and steadily I whittled it down to 50m, then 25m, then 12m, but the closer I got the faster they went.  When we finally got off the stony broken path to the track I was able to catch them and they didn't respond.  When I caught up we introduced ourselves - it was Keziah Higgens, 3rd placed lady, and her support runner.  They explained they had thought I was the fourth placed lady who had been swapping places with Keziah for much of the race and they were mighty relieved that it was me.

I then moved ahead running the downhills strongly, it felt really fast, but looking at the GPS trace I only maxed out at 7:30 min/mile pace on the final long straight before crossing over the pipelines and into Kinlochleven.  I was really pleased with how well I was running, my quads were feeling it after the long descent but were still holding together and my energy levels were still rock solid.

I made it into Kinlochleven and was initially doing 9 min/mile pace along the flat road but steadily found myself in more and more pain.  The outside/front of my right calf was screaming at me. One minute earlier I had been running strongly and now I could hardly run.  I tried mixing walking breaks in with short jogs but as I went through the last wooded section before the check point found it almost unbearable to run more than 5 meters.

I met Rob at the road and relayed this new problem that had appeared out of the blue.  I was fine walking fast so he hiked to the check point where Steve was waiting with the weigh in card. As we walked through the entrance to the hall Keziah and her support runner charged past us and through onto the scales first.  I stood waiting patiently for a few seconds then realized that I might as well swipe myself in.   We then swapped and I jumped on the scales.  I had gained a little weight so the marshals were happy and Steve and Rob were well pleased.

I don't think I had drunk more since Auchtertyre, instead I suspect it was just a little cooler so I was loosing less fluids.  I guess inflammation might have begun to mount as well.  Overall I was in pretty good shape, well hydrated, plenty of energy, blister had calmed down, legs mostly in descent enough shape for the last fourteen and a bit miles - the only problem was calf injury that I had picked up.  I could walk fine so a finish was in hand, but my 20hr perfect day dream looked to be gone.

Estimated 20hr even split for Kinlochleven 80.71 miles : 2:21 from Glen Coe, 16:54 total.

Actual split to Bridge Of Orchy:  2:15:40 (including 3 min stop) from Glen Coe, 16:51:46 total.
Position: 13th fastest for leg,  overall: 24th, gained 10 places.
Average Pace for leg: 12:52 min/mile
Average pacing when moving 12:36min/mile.

Kinlochleven to Lundavra : 10.55 miles

On leaving the checkpoint I was asked if I wanted anything from the chippy or shop, and as it was still pretty warm I requested another ice cream, which appeared in an instant - what a crew. The pictures below says it all,  - we were all having a great time.

Ice cream and day out on the trails makes for one very happy team!
After finishing the ice cream Steve and Rob headed back to the car to race me around to Lundavra.  I kept trying to jog but would only get a short distance before the pain was too much to continue.  I ended up mostly walking through Kinlochleven to the assent up the hill.

I was able to walk strongly without discomfort so handled the climb out of valley without drama.  I could hear Keziah and her support running behind but I was still comfortably in front by the time the trail levelled off.  I attempted to get back running but right away my right calf screamed at me.  Back to walking.  Having to walk runnable trail meant that Keziah soon caught up with me and then disappeared into the distance.

I kept trying to run each time I crested a little hump but couldn't manage more than a few meters. I stopped and massaged the injured muscle, but this provided no benefit.  I tried running on my toes, tried running on my heels, running on the outside of my foot, inside of my foot, flat footed but nothing eased the intense pain when running.  A few more runners + support passed and I could do nothing to respond.  All I could do was keeping marching northwards.

I figured that 15 miles at walking pace would take me around 5 hours, this would still give me a 22hr finishing time, a bit outside my gold target but still very respectable for a first West Highland Way Race.  With the prospect of walking for many hours and rain clouds looming above, the issue of keeping warm added another dimension to managing the last part of the race.  Neither I or my crew had thought about taking my jacket for this section, I regretted this mistake but could do nothing about it now.  I had my space blanket in my race vest and could wrap this around me if it started to rain - darn good call that race rule.  I also made sure I was still drinking and eating regularly so my blood sugar wouldn't drop and create more problems if I did get cold.

I kept marching on and was surprised not too lose more places.  Resigned to marching the rest of the way I no longer fretted about times, my race was over but for sure I wasn't going to stop enjoying the great journey.  I got to the Tizer stop and told them about my calf not expecting any particular help but got a reply that some freeze gel was really popular during the Fling, and without delay had this blue gunk applied generously across my calf.  I never did catch the ladies name, but THANK YOU :-)

I left the Tizer stop and kept marching on, trying out running regularly but every time it was the same story, best I could get was 5 to 10 meters before I'd have to pull up.  I might not have been moving as fast as I would have liked but I was still moving, still had good energy levels and the brisk walking was keeping me warm.  Another half hour passed and another couple miles covered and I came to a gentle and long descent, and as was now custom I tried out running and found that I got to 5 then 10 meters and rather than screaming pain just got dull pain.  I kept my very gently jog going and couldn't quite believe it, somehow my calf pain had subsided to tolerable.

Not long after finding that I could get back running the woods before Lundavra came into view and I knew it wouldn't be long til I saw Rob and Steve, and John and Katrina Kynaston who were marshalling.  My confidence in being able to keep running was still weaker than soggy tissue paper so I walked even the gentle assents and gently jogged the descents taking care with every footfall.

Then Lundavra came into view and the music rang out my arrival, I found the whole pantomime thoroughly amusing.

Arriving at Lundavra, Steve and Rob provide service with a smile, photo courtesy of John Kynaston

Estimated 20hr even split for Lundavra 88.25 miles : 1:48 from Glen Coe, 18:41 total.

Actual split to Lundavra:  2:03:26  from Glen Coe, 18:55:32 total.
Position: overall: 27th,  lost 3 places.
Average pace for leg 16:25min/mile.

Lundavra to Fort William : 7.03 mles

I had been looking forward to seeing John and Katrina so it was great to finally get there, and couldn't resist just chatting for a couple of minutes - the longest non medical stop for the whole race.  To my surprise John suggested that 20:15 was still on if I got a move on.  I couldn't quite take this in.  I had walked almost all the way from Kinlochleven but somehow a time well under my Gold time was still possible.  Ya what?///?

This got us back into gear, but I have to say I was still totally out of race mode.  Rob, Steve and I walked up the hill out of Lunavra and after a couple hundred yards they wished me well and headed back to the carpark.  Shortly after they left my phone beeped a warning about low battery.  Argg.... I had been meaning to get my battery charger pack to top up my phone since Auchtertyre and forgotten at every checkpoint.  I called back to Rob and Steve, but they kept jogging on, so I ended up running after them and calling loader.  They eventually stopped and got the message to go pick up my charger and catch me up.

I set off back up the trail with the promise of only walking until I had been caught up.  The minutes passed and I progressed up the trail past the summit and heading towards the forest.  Rob was charging up the hill after me and was about to give up as he hadn't spotted me where he expected to but thankfully he rounded one last corner before giving up and there I was 100 meters ahead.  Rob caught up and was out of breath but otherwise loving the opportunity to get running.

I plugged in my phone, restarted my GPS trace, stowed the phone and we were on our way.  Rob still didn't want to intrude on my race, which was crazy as I was looking forward to him joining me.  With the extended walking break I was feeling relaxed, energy levels were good and the pain in calf was no longer stopping me in my tracks so we started jogging all the flats and descents.  Through the forest we went, down the big steps that I was dreading and found my quads able to handle them without problem. I couldn't quite believe it, 90 miles into a very hilly race and I was moving freely and lightly on my feet.

We emerged from the forest and up the final ascent, and then we on the wide forest tracks that take you down to Braveheart carpark.  The view down Glen Nevis to Fort William was magical and I just relaxed and let gravity speed us up.  We glided round the wide bends picking up speed, with an ever wider grin on my face.  We were chatting freely and cruising down the hill at sub 7 min/mile pace.  I just couldn't believe how my race had turned around, or how it was possible that I could be running so well with the finish almost in sight.  A struggling runner and support runner appeared in front and we were past in a instant.

Shortly after this the trail levelled and I was aware that my heart rate was well into the high 150's, oopps I was having a bit too much fun so I consciously slowed a little.  We were still gaining on another runner and his support who was a couple hundred meters ahead but they were regularly looking back and saw us coming and responded my charging down the next descent.   We may have got have to 50 meters behind but didn't close the gap beyond this - I was only playing and wasn't trying to over take anyone so decided to just run relaxed and stick to my original hear rate zone and make sure I finished without any more drama.

Once the trail levelled off the gap hadn't changed and I just focused on running at my own pace, I felt a bit guilty that my glee at running strongly down the hill just for fun had forced the poor runner ahead to have to push harder than he felt comfortable for far longer and was probably making his last few miles hell.   With backing off on pace he opened up a gap and we didn't see him once we arrived at Braveheart carpark.

Not having any runners around me and knowing that I had a good time in the bag I just relaxed and enjoyed the last mile along the road to the finish.  We walked the final hill, even though I really could have run it comfortably, ran to the roundabout and we were in the final straight.  I didn't know how far the finish was down the road so when I saw Steve ahead I was taken a back at just how near we were.

I was the same height as Rob when I left Milngavie, look how much I shrank!
Round the bend and the finish was right there in front.  My family were cheering me on, and Julia caught my finish on video:

I ran strongly to the finish and swiped my chip: 26th of 157 finishers, 20:18:46.  One very happy man.

Estimated 20hr even split for Lundavra 94.28 miles : 1:18:55 from Lundavra, 20:00 total.
Actual split to Fort William:  1:23:14  from Lundavra, 20:18:46 total.
Position: overall: 26th,  gained 1 place since Lundavra, was 26th fastest from Kinlochleven
Average pace for leg 11:31min/mile (2nd fastest leg of whole race)

Part 4 will cover the time directly after the race, the ceremony and my post race reflections.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

West Highland Way Race 2014 : Race Report: Part 2, Race to Auchtertyre

This is second part of my West Highland Way Report that will cover the first half of the race.  To read previous parts click on Part 1.

Race start : 1am, 21st June, Milngavie to Drymen, 12 miles 

It seemed to take forever, waiting for the start horn.  When it does go we all shuffled off, starting watches and phone GPS logging, stowing phones etc.

On we're off, synchronize watches!
Through the underpass, up the steps and then past the supporters that lined the high street.   Once past the bottleneck at the official start of the West Highland Way we head off into the darkness of Mugdock park. With all our head torches on it was quite a bizarre sight:- midnight, 193 runners packed three abreast on the path all quietly making their way northwards, lights bobbing.   What adventures would we all have?

Within the first mile a runner fell less than 5 meters ahead, she got to her feet quickly and seemed OK and we were all back on our way.  A few runners were chatting but most, like myself, were quiet with our thoughts and focus on the stony trail ahead.

My plan for the race was to continue my experiment in using my heart rate monitor to guide my pace. For the first 12 miles to Drymen my intention was to stick to a 135 to 140bpm range, then aim for a 140 to 145 range for the rest of the race.  Keeping my heart rate down was a struggle and I had to walk most of the hills through Mugdock park. Adrenalin was clearly playing a part, but rather than ignore it I kept things nice and slow.  This did mean that I was steadily overtaken by the majority of the field and by Craigallien Loch I was mostly running on my own with a steam of runners ahead and almost no one behind. A lonely couple of lights occasionally appeared behind, was I so far back that it could be the sweepers?

Once past the Loch I started passing a few runners that were taking comfort breaks along the trail, finally I wasn't a tail ender!   After leaving Mugdock park you run along a short road section and I finally found my running groove and was able maintain my heart rate in the appropriate zone more easily despite the gentle uphill, while others around me were talking and taking walking breaks. I recognized fellow WHW bloggers Amanda Hamilton and Fiona Rennie as I passed a gaggle of runners.  I wanted to wish them good luck, but as they were all deep in conversation I quietly glided by. 

After the short road section we trail running again and I continued to overtake runners, especially on the descents. We could see sky brightening but as yet no real light was reaching the ground so the broken descents needed to be taken especially carefully as they were only lit by head torches.  The field was quite stretched out so I was able to just run at my own pace, flowing like water over the ups and downs. 

The path then goes along an old railway line, straight and narrow through to the Beech Tree.  Here I was moving steadily through the field but had to do some nimble footwork to get round runners that were slowing.  Here I caught Paul Brown, we'd ran together for much of this section during the Fling so it was good to catch up with him.  The Beech Tree crossing was abuzz with supporters and I passed through while Paul stopped for supplies.  

The path then became narrower leading to a stream of runners all moving single file at the same pace, this was a little slower than I felt comfortable with.  The next mile or so was a bit awkward running in a close procession with runners, occasionally getting a chance to pass.   With the slow start through Mugdock and now a slow section behind other runners I found myself impatient about getting to Drymen rather too slowly.

Once we popped out on the road before Drymen I was able to get back into running at my own pace and was pleased to be able to run the gentle inclines, steadily move through the field and still stay within my target zone.  My head torch was now getting a bit uncomfortable on my forehead so I took advantage of the easier underfoot conditions to run without it.  Drymen arrived sooner than expected, and I walked up most of the way through the field and arrived at the check point at 3:12pm.

Here I met Toby and Andy at the check point exchanged the 500ml energy drink I had emptied for a banana and drink and headed off without stopping.   2:12 elapsed was very close to the 2:10 time my 20hrs even splits suggested so I was delighted to be making good time despite it feeling slow.

Estimated 20hr even split for Drymen : 2:10
Actual split to Drymen:  12.13miles, 2:12:41, 10:56 pace
Average Pace for leg: 10:56 min/mile

Drymen to Balmaha, 6.82 miles

After leaving Drymen the character of the route changes, you start ascending towards Conic Hill via forestry tracks, but the forest has now been largely felled leaving it barren and uninviting, but it does mean you see more of the surrounding country side.  

The increasing elevation also rewards you with your first glimpse of Loch Lomond, breath taking in the clear early morning air.  By 3:30am there was enough light to dispense with the head torch so it was stowed and I was able to move freely, soaking up the panoramas that were opening up around us.   

Along this undulating ex forest section I fell into step with Peter Duggan, then Paul Brown caught us up and we all started chatting.  Peter had gone faster with every WHWR he'd done, with a best of 20:44, so first timers Paul and I were in good company.  We chatted about pacing strategies and Peter took me to task for describing the relative slow start we had just done as conservative. To paraphrase Peter, he said how could it be conservative when you set out at the same pace you planned to race for the whole day?  It's rare to find an ultra runner so confident about bucking the trend of fast starts.

Peter's philosophy that I picked up was : Going out slower than your planned finish speed is conservative.  Going out faster is reckless.  Pacing by even intensity is just sensible.

This mirrors my own approach, but I guess being an engineer/science geek it's in my DNA to complicate things and look for deeper mechanisms at play.  As I mentioned in my race plan, this geeky side has no place come race day.  Peter's distillation sits very nicely with my own approach.

Both Peter and Paul were moving on the ascents quicker than I was happy to push on at, with my heart rate heading above 145 I backed off and let them moved ahead as we approached Conic hill and was back on my own, cruising along happily in the cool early morning breeze.  I cruised down the final descent before Conic hill enjoying the view, Life was good.

BAM : I eat dirt

With one misplaced foot I clipped a stone and tripped over while moving a good speed downhill. Suddenly I was in the the air then slammed in the hard parked trail.  Shocked, I stood up checked myself over.  I was covered head to toe in brown dust - the trail was bone dry and rock hard.  My knees hurt, my right elbow stung and left hand hurt.  I brushed myself off and inspected for damage, my left knee was bleeding as was my left hand, and when I peeled back my right sleeve my right elbow had been skint too.  I walked on, assessing the situation.

I was still moving OK, a gently jog showed that I was still able to run relatively well even if my knees were in pain.  There was nothing to do but keep moving forward and assess the situation as the day evolved. I was still moving well enough to know that should be able to keep going, but I also knew that dealing with the pain just added a little more stress for my mind to deal with, a potential excuse that might entice me to slow down later, something that could eat away at my resolve to keep going.

I also ran through the possible causes of the fall - lack of concentration on trail, the diffuse twilight making the trail more difficult to judge, cutting tolerances too fine and not compensating for wearing larger shoes than normal all looked to be likely culprits. Solution would be to concentrate more on the trail and less on the scenery and make sure I was lifting my feet properly.  With the potential issues and solutions identified I could put the incident behind me.

I headed up Conic hill, the climb went quickly and was rewarded by beautiful landscape and cloud scape.

View looking west towards Loch Lomond from summit of Conic Hill.
Descents are usually one of my strongest parts of a race but after my fall my knees were sore and my confidence in my foot placement low so I found my usual flowing style replaced by an slow, awkward style.  I didn't enjoy the descent like I usually do but at least I got down safely.

Down from Conic Hill safely, but with a bit of explaining to do....
I arrived at the checkpoint, swiped my ident card.

Estimated 20hr even split for Balmaha 18.95miles : 1:22 from Drymen, 3:32 total from start
Actual split to Balmaha:  1:24:46 from Drymen, 3:37:27 from start
Position: 105th for leg/overall  (I guess I was probably around 160th+ leaving Mugdock park)
Average Pace for leg: 12:26 min/mile

Balmaha to Rowardennan, 7.7 miles

I jogged through the car park to Toby's car to clean up with some water an anti-septic wipes. Swapped supplies and then was off with just over two minutes stop.

Clean up operation at Balmaha
Andy ran ahead to take photo's

Back running, heading north and back in my happy place
The next section to Balmaha is a mix of road, trail and a short beach section.  I was moving OK, and while my impact injuries were sore they grew less of a distraction as the leg progressed.  Only my knees remained sore on descents but it wasn't a muscle or tendon issue so I was happy enough, I hoped that as the day would wear on inflammation would subside. If they didn't, then well... there is always pain killers... and other distractions...

The nearer we got to Rowardennan the worse the midgies got, some sections I'd have to run with my head down, chin tucked in, breathing only through my nose to avoid the worst of the midgies from getting in my eyes and mouth.  I have never run in conditions where midges were so bad whilst moving.  The odd running posture was also causing neck ache and back ache.  The midges were just HORRIBLE.  A day after the race I sat down and counted the bites on my arms and legs but gave up after 91!

I was regularly moving through the field, but was finding that my heart rate was elevated for the pace, with it staying in the 145 to 150 range.  The pace felt right so a kept things easy and walked any-time my heart rate looked like it was heading over 150.  I couldn't pinpoint why my heart rate was elevated, it could be that it was warmer and more humid when running through woodland trails, or perhaps an effect of adrenalin associated with the shock of falling.  Perhaps it was just the annoyance associated with all those darn midges.

One runner that wasn't slowing ahead was Paul Brown.  He would stop with crew occasionally and I'd catch up, but his general running pace at this stage was a little faster than mine so he'd pull away, then later I'd spot him again.  I felt I really should be able to stick with Paul but doing so would have pushed my heart rate up too high so I just stayed patient and ran my own race.

Two miles from Rowardennan and on the approach to the hill at Ross Wood a runner fell heavily just round the corner ahead of me.  I came around the corner to see him laying motionless, one arm extended out awkwardly.  Runners ahead came back to help and we attempted to check how he was, he was conscious but didn't initially respond to us.  After a little while he began moving his left arm outstretched arm with his other arm to move it.  One runner noted his number and ran on to Rowardennan to call for help.

Still unresponsive to us he eventually sat up, and he began talking quietly and suggested we just move on.  It was a great relief to see that apart from the arm he seemed to be OK, his arm already was bandaged so it looked like he had exacerbated an old injury.   One of the runners said he'd stay with him, regardless of his objections, as it was clear he didn't want a crowd I moved on.

Shortly before Rowardennan I caught the other runner, attempted to remember the number and went on to the check point and passed on the information that a runner had fallen and that I suspect a dislocated shoulder.   I fully expected him to have to pull out, but at the ceremony on Sunday he turned up to pick up his Goblet.   An impressive gutsy performance.

My part in the drama over I checked in at Rowardennan.

Estimated 20hr even split for Rowardennan 26.65 miles : 1:42 from Balmaha, 5:14 total from start.
Actual split to Rowardennan:  1:38:38 from Balmaha, 5:16:04 from start.
Position: 58th fastest for leg,  overall: 85th, gained 20 places.
Pace for leg: 12:49 min/mile

Rowardennan to Inversnaid, 7.33 miles

The route passed the car so I was able to quickly refill supplies, change my top in something cooler, and importantly to get my sunglasses, the sun might not have been shinning yet but for sure I needed them to keep the midges out of my eyes.  As my knees still hurt so I took some paracetamol to take the edge off the discomfort.  

Toby and Andrew had now got used to me coming in close to my estimated best case splits and were chuffed that were able to stay in the car till the last minute before jumping out to see me, thus avoiding the worst of midges. They smugly had watched other support crews waiting out of their cars being eaten alive.  As Inversnaid is not accessible from Rowardennan I wouldn't see them next till Beinglas Farm at mile 40.

Leaving Rowardennan, supporting eye protection at last.
I really enjoyed the next section.  My heart rate had settled back into the 140 to 145 zone and was able to run all flats, gentle inclines and descents.  I also catching folks and eventually fell into step first with Paul Brown, then Jonny Rowan, then Helen Legget.  Our little group would separate, join other groups, split then coalesce later.  We all chatted away merrily and hills and miles flew by.

Whilst chatting away in our group we were passing other runners and one of them I recognized from earlier.  Peter Duggan was taking a walking break, I slowed and checked if he was all right and found that he was being plagued by stomach issues, I really felt for Peter as he'd being going so well before Conic hill and was focused on keeping he track record of setting a PB in each of the WHW races he'd done.  There wasn't anything I could do to help so moved on.

The wide forest tracks eventually give way to footpath path and our group splintered more or went on single file, we were alone with our thoughts and the beauty of the place once more.    I ended leading most of the way along the path to Inversnaid but in the last mile Jonny Rowan started running strongly over the more technical parts of the path and left us behind.

Suddenly Inversnaid was upon us, over the bridge, down the steps.  Number called out, drop bag produced in an instant and I was on my way without stopping.  I passed Johnny who was laying out on the grass along with half a dozen other runners, others in our group also stopped leaving me out on my own.  I didn't know it at the time but Jonny too was starting to suffer with stomach issues.

Estimated 20hr even split for Inversnaid 33.98 miles : 1:34 from Rowardennan, 6:48 total from start.
Actual split to Inversnaid:  1:29:48 from Rowardennan, 6:45:53 from start.
Average Pace for leg: 12:15 min/mile

Inversnaid To Beinglas Farm : 6.56 miles

I was out on my own for a little while after Inversnaid before spotting Ross Lawrie ahead who was make slow progress ahead.  Ross when he was running was moving well but kept stopping to take photo's!  It was great to meet Ross in person as he'd helped me out with putting artwork together a hoodie for my 10 year old daughter - something I had to do as the official hoodies were just too big for her.

Ross and I shared the trail together for a mile or so before Helen and Paul caught up with us then the four of us formed a very sociably convoy, with me up front most of the time.  We talked of adventures past and future and the joy of running through this section.  The trail becomes more and more technical after Inversnaid but as I was up front I was in the lucky position of running at my own pace.  I took special care not to trip or bash my toes like I had done in the Fling and really enjoyed clambering over the rocks and roots.

The route finally leaves the rocky section behind and at the north side of the loch we came across a meadow where the path disappeared into a bog.  We couldn't spot an obvious way through so I headed uphill and around the bog while the others waited for feedback on a decent route through.  Turns out that I had gone the long way round because by the time I called to say the route was clear another runner had caught the group up and pointed a shorter route through slightly below the bog.  I came out slightly in front and on the descent that immediately followed I relaxed and run freely down.  When I turned around I had expected them to be right behind me there was a 50m gap.  Puzzled I just got me head down and got back to racing in my zone.

A passed several more runners in the last mile into Beinglas and was joined by Toby and Andrew who had walked out to meet me.  There were both in great mood, chuffed at how well things were going and despite having disappeared up a trail for 3 hours was still chugging along on the splits I had put into my race brief.

Arriving at Beinglas Farm
I checked in and exchanged supplies with Toby and on my way without stopping for more than twenty seconds.  As packed my race vest as I walked passed the line of suppers and runners having a picnic at the side of trail, it was quite an atmosphere and quite tempting to stop and enjoy but my race plan was to keep moving forward, never waste time or energy so on I went.

Restocking supplies. at Beinglas Picnic zone.. but no chocolate milk to be found...

Estimated 20hr even split for Beinglas 40.54 miles : 1:38 from Inversnaid, 8:26 total from start.
Actual split to Beinglas:  1:40:00 from Inversnaid, 8:25:53 from start.
Position: 30th fastest for leg from Rowardennan,  overall: 52nd, gained 33 places from Rowardennan
Average Pace for leg: 15:15 min/mile

It is worth mentioning that I wasn't racing to specific splits, and the feedback I got from Andrew and Toby was only in general terms of my tracking my splits, to the extent that they had started calling me an automaton, but actual times ahead or behind were never mentioned.   All I knew was that I was going well, tracking not too far from my perfect day splits - this was all the feedback I needed, I was doing well and sticking to running just by heart rate was doing a great job of keeping moving consistently.  To be so close to my estimated splits is really far more co-incidence than skill.

Beinglas to Auchtertyre : 9.54 miles

Walking out from Beinglas I called my wife Julia to ask for her to make some sandwiches as I had planned or make some myself but ran out of time.  Julia was going to drive up from Callander with our three girls to meet up at Bridge Of Orchy.  I didn't get beyond "could you make some Sandwiches" before the line went dead.  I expected to get signal further up the hill but never got any reception so after twenty minutes stowed the phone back in my race vest and focused on run/walking the hills and eating/drinking.

The sun had came out when I arrived at Beinglas and it steadily got warmer as I progressed along towards the A82. The tunnel underneath the road was a welcome relief from the sun baking down, but the along the track to Cow Poo Ally the sun was unrelenting.  There were some dark clouds on the horizon but just a blue hole all the way to the forest above Crainlarch.   When I passed through Cow Poo Ally is was thankfully dry and cow free, but it was getting hot and I was soon looking at the bottom of my bottle of water and energy drink.

I hadn't seen a single runner ahead since Beinglas and only as got onto the narrow track before the Forest did I spot a runner ahead.  I was slowly closing but sticking to my heart rate zone meant that I was running my own race rather than getting caught up with upping effort level to catch runners.  I wasn't without company on the trail though, walkers were now out in force and as I passed the gates to the forest I got some great support for WHWR marshals and supporters.  I headed up the hill with the next runner a 100m ahead.

I walked steadily up the hill, through trees, around bends and when passing through a more open section recognized the runner ahead - Nonnie Hefron.  Nonnie looked back and down to where I was and let exclaimed my name with surprise and enthusiasm.  I guess Nonnie had been on her own for quite some while too, it was quite nice to suddenly see a familiar face.  Nonnie and I had leap frogged places all the way to Devil's Staircase in the Devil O'Highlands race back in 2013, and briefly shared the trail during the Fling as well.  I caught up and we chatted for a couple of minutes before we topped ou.  Once we hit the downhill I wished her luck and let gravity do it's thing and cruised down the descents.

I still wasn't descending as well as I normally do, and despite the pain killers felt lots more aches and pains that I did at a similar point during the Fling.  On the ascents I found the top of my calves tight behind my knees, something I had never experienced before.  This really didn't seem fair, I was progressing at over a minute a mile slower and had hoped that I'd get to Auchteryre with feel aches and pains.  My large intestine wasn't happy with all the bouncing and peculiar race foods, I felt the need for a toilet stop but not so strong as to require dash to bushes yet.   Another area of discomfort I hadn't expected were hot spots under my left big toe, and right 2nd toe - I hardly ever get blisters but knew that this was likely happening today and would need to get them seen to at Auchtetyre.

Once past the descents I spotted another runner not far ahead.  We both got over the A82 crossing without delay and made our way over to road towards Auchtertyre.  It was still pretty warm but clouds had now gathered and a little wind made the running more comfortable.  While I had a number of aches and pains I was still moving well and passed the runner just before the check point.

Arriving at Auchtertye, happy to see crew and to be past the half way, and well just... happy :-)

I got weighed - I had lost 2% of my body weight so the marshals were happy that I was right in the middle of expect weight loss.

Public weigh in... they've got to know which boxing class you fall in at each check point...
Estimated 20hr even split for Auchtertyre 50.8 miles : 2:04 from Beinglas, 10:31 total from start.
Actual split to Auchtertyre:  2:01:45 from Beinglas, 10:27:38 from start.
Position: 21st fastest for leg,  overall: 45th, gained 7 places (5 must have been stopped at Beinglas having a picnic!)
Average Pace for leg: 12:46 min/mile

Part 3 will cover the second half of the race.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

West Highland Way Race 2014 : Race Report: Part 1

Ten days on from the biggest race of my life, the scrapes and strains are healing up nicely but I've still not come to terms with being able to run 95 miles. The number of miles still seems ridiculous, crazy, impossible, surely 157 of us can't have run that far?

Yet with good preparation and support it's not only possible to do, but possible to do in style. Being able to run 95 miles well is something I planned for but never really expected. This is the story of one awesome day, but go fetch yourself a drink and food supplies, this post is as long as the race itself! So long in fact I'm going to post it in sections. First up, planning, preparation and getting to the church on time!

Race Plan

I really didn't know what to expect from the race as I had never gone further than the 53 miles of the Highland Fling before. What I did know is that I wanted to not only finish but finish in the best possible time I could muster on the day.  What time this might be I really didn't have any good idea, so I set myself a series of goals:
  • Platinum - 20hrs : The is my perfect race performance. Looking at how other runners of similar capability at shorter races there is a small but not impossible chance that this might happen. You can dream though :-)
  • Gold - 21hrs 17minutes:  This figure is based on the 2.19 multiplier of my Highland Fling Time of 9:43 that I set this April.  The 2.19 value is the average ratio of previous Fling and WHWR finishers that blogger and ultra runner John Kynaston worked on this spring.  As this is an average it seems appropriate to give myself a 50:50 chance of hitting this target.
  • Sliver - sub 24hrs : Doing a sub 24hr WHWR is something that 69 runners out of the 181 starters achieved in the 2013 race, so it's a very good performance and one I'd be very happy to achieve on my first attempt at running such a grand distance.
  • Bronze - sub 35hrs : Finishing within the 35hr cut off will mean that I'll achieve my main objective and this is to finish and receive my WHWR finishers Goblet.  In theory I should be able to do a sub 24hr time, but running 95 miles is no small undertaking, many things can and will go wrong when running for so long.   If it does turn out that I'm finishing over 24hrs it's likely that I've really struggled over the last part of the race walking in during a second night and having to be awake and moving forward.  A time over 24hr would signify a greater struggle and determination to finish than will likely to be required if all goes well, so even just finishing I'll be very very chuffed with.
For pacing strategy on the day I was going to use my heart rate monitor as a guide, aiming around 80% of my lactate threshold heart rate, which equates to a zone of 140 to 145 bpm's.  This meant specific splits weren't required so I didn't carry any, I'd just run/walk watching what my heart was doing and responding by slowing or speeding up. I did however, produce a set of splits for my support team as a guide to the earliest time I was likely to come through checkpoints - these I based on a 20 hour finish with even splits.

For those watching the race and the general running community I also created a spreadsheet calculator and race predictor based on a range of pace profiles, from even split through to the average splits where runners start fast and finish slower, publishing this in my pre race post West Highland Way Splits.
From a theoretical standpoint I believe that even splits should be optimal but really didn't know whether it'd be possible to run in a similar way to an even split as no one in the 2013 race that I had analysed had done an even paced first  half/second.

Pacing purely by heart-rate is also a completely internally based process quite unconnected to the specifics of running to particular splits, any similarity between my race day splits and previously published splits would be co-incidence.  The general trends would be important though, if my pace profile was an even split then one would see a strong finish and a quick time, while a pace profile that emerged on the day more like average splits would see a weaker finish and slower time. By matching actual day splits to a range of split profiles it would be possible to estimate how long each leg might take and what my projected finishing time would be.

The next crucial part of my pacing plan was to, as far as possible, not stop at check points, but rather just exchange empties and pick up my drinks and food on the move as I passed my team.  My view was that for every minute stopped at a check point it was another minute that I'd have to run rather than walk to achieve a given finishing time.

The next element of my race plan was to eat and drink regularly before and during the race, consuming roughly a 1:1:4 combination of easily digestible fats, protein and carbohydrates.  I eat only a moderate amount of carbs, roughly 30%, in my daily diet but come race day carbs would be my main food. This should benefit my liver as I believe keeping the liver stocked with glycogen and the blood sugar level topped up helps avoid the body from going into emergency rationing where the hormone Cortisol is released in significant quantities telling the liver to release glycogen to prop up blood sugar.  Cortisol also signals for the muscles to not take up blood sugar, instead reserving blood sugar for the brain, and triggers a catabolic state where muscle protein is broken down and released into the blood stream for the liver to mop and covert to liver glycogen via gluconeogenesis.  I believe this catabolic state is responsible for a large part of the classic 'hitting the wall' and subsequent significant muscle damage.

Pacing to a even intensity (roughly constant heat rate) also plays a role in making sure there are no peaks in intensity where the body shuts down digestion to preserve blood flow to the muscles.  By pacing an even intensity the gut keeps digesting food at a constant rate and keeps release fats, protein and sugar into the blood stream and to the liver (fructose and lactose sugars are shunted directly from small intestine to the liver.)  If this balance can be achieved then the body can remain in homeostatis and will not need to implement emergency fight or flight measures, letting you tick along at a nice steady rate.

A final bit of the jigsaw in my race plan was to not just to "think positive" but to be positive and mindful about how I ran, the environment, how I interacted with others and how I responded to things that happen along the way.  Staying in positive and constructive frame of mind helps maintain a set of hormones floating around in the blood stream that support low stress and healthy bodily function.

Staying in a positive frame of mind also depends upon subconscious assessment of how one is doing and how far from homoeostasis one is pushing the body.  Here there big overlap to the effects of exercise intensity and nutrition/hydration.  One can't stay in a positive frame of mind if the body is collapsing around you, but if your body stays in a healthy place then any dips in mood are easy to rectify.  A positive outlook also helps give the subconscious a signal that the present departures from homoeostasis are safe and only temporary, basically reassuring it there is no need to panic, the body is in safe hands.

The positive approach isn't possible without a team that is equally positive and supportive of your race and race approach.  For this I was lucky to have four friends who are also runners. I initially felt a bit of guilt about stealing them away from their families and hobbies for the day but found that actually they were all excited about the grand day out.

OK. This approach is based on theory that I've cobbled together from various books and online resources and applied to the specifics of ultra running, it's not proven strategy - so the race was partly a big experiment as to whether the theory and approach would work.  You can't, however, race and think about all the details, so distilling it down is crucial.

Simply put: listen to my heart, eat and drink regularly, keep moving forward, be positive.

Taper? Or crazy caper?

My training had gone pretty well, putting in 200 mile months every month from February through to May.  I had never been able to put back to back big mileage months together before as I'd always got some injury that stopped me in my tracks, This year I listened more to my body and backed off any time a niggle looked like it was stepping over into injury territory.  

This conservative approach kept my training consistent, but it also meant that I didn't run a few of harder, longer training runs I had planned. I had intended to do a hilly 30 miler three weeks before the race, but had to drop this as niggle looked on the cusp of turning into an injury.  For the whole of my training the longest I had run in training was 18 miles, the only times I'd ventured further than this was for Loch Katrine marathon in March and the 53 mile Highland Fling in April.  

With no big last run before the race to recovery from I was able to keep training through the first half of June albeit at a maintenance level of 40 mile weeks.  I did my last hilly 15 miler one week before the big day as a dress rehearsal and practice pacing with my heart rate monitor in the zone and at the pace I was planning to run at.  This went well enough but I found my hip flexors oddly tight, and the Nike Wildhorse on my feet were really comfortable except for the toe-box that was tight enough to cause concern about running for 20+ hours in them.

With little time left to find a suitable replacement I ordered a pair of Altra Lone Peak 1.5's, in theory a shoe with plenty of room for my wide feet, but alas on trying them on found them tighter around the mid-foot than Nike Wildhorse and Inov-8 F-Lite that I had used in training.  During a 6 mile run on the Tuesday before the race in the Lone Peaks I had sharp pain on my left ankle that I couldn't pinpoint the cause of.  Was it the shoes?  An awkward foot placement?  Was this a new injury that would affect race day?

On my return from this unfortunate test run I reluctantly ordered pair of Nike Wildhorse a half size up and these arrived on the Thursday.  They fitted well, were very comfortable, and had enough room around the toe box to allay concerns.  It was too late to run in them though, they were going to be my race day shoe but fresh out of the box. It was risk, but I felt it was less of a risk than going with the Altra's or going with a shoe that was a little tight around the toes, or a shoe like my F-Lite that are super comfortable but just don't have the underfoot protection to handle 95 miles on rough stony trails.  Once the decision was made I didn't let it worry me.

Get me to the church on time!

More of a concern was just getting everything else ready.  The logistics of having two crews and a family to meet along route and support me was daunting. I had an easy week of work to avoid trying to fit all the preparation into the last day, but still found myself on Friday afternoon without all the prep completed that I wanted.  

I had struggled to sleep more than a couple of hours each night too all week, and really wanted to sleep on the afternoon as the possibility of two nights without sleep and on my feet was one of the issues I was most concerned about.  Rather than continue with the frantic prep I downed tools at 3 pm and spent a couple of hours trying to get so sleep.  First I tried a meditation CD, I was relaxed but failed to properly meditate or sleep, I then tried an old Mike Oldfield CD (Hergest Ridge) that I had unearthed in my collection and this got me out of thinking about the race but didn't help me sleep either.  After a couple of hours I gave in.  I had been off my feet, had been relaxing.  It'd have to do.

After pasta and salmon for dinner, I got all my kit ready by the door, so when Andrew and Toby, my crew up to Tyndrum, arrived just after 9:30pm I was ready. I got changed into my running kit applying plenty of Smidge and Glide to fight the midges and chaffing respectively.  I was deliberately taking things slow to keep myself calm.  When I got down stairs the car had been parked and everyone was waiting to go so I said my goodbyes to my family and we headed off with plenty time to get to the registration for 11pm.

A good way along the route we were full of banter in the car, life was good, and for some reason I checked my pockets and my pre race bag for my phone.  I couldn't find it in any of the usual places. We called my number but heard nothing in the car.  A hurried call  home to get my wife to locate the phone and we were off back to the house.  Toby was confident we could get back to Callander and then back to Milngavie before registration closed at 12pm but it'd be a close.  The drive upped the adrenalin levels and wasn't quite the calm sedate mood that I was aiming for pre-race, but strangely I was able to not worry about it.  I had messed up but we'd spotted the problem, fixed it and nothing else would get us to Milngavie quicker.

We arrived at the St. Jospeph's church for registration with a few minutes to spare, I jumped out of the car and registered, got my goodies, race tag, my wrist band with my number 30, got weighed and was back out into the cool night air.  Not quite according to the pre-race plan I had in mind, but there safely.

I spent the next half hour going through the race plan with Toby and Andrew and fretting about what food/drink to have at what point to fit in with my drop bag at Inversnaid - I didn't want to eat and drink the same thing on consecutive legs.  To add some confusion I couldn't find one of the cherry juice and yoghurt drinks I had made up and assumed that I must have left it at home.

After the briefing I double checked all my kit.  The forecast was good, the atmosphere in the station car park was great, a little apprehension and excitement but all quite restrained.   I found myself surprisingly calm as we lined up outside the under pass.  I was ready, there were few thoughts of the enormity of the challenge ahead - 42 miles further than I had ever run before, there was nothing to gain from over thinking the length of run and possible outcomes so I didn't.   I was in the best shape of my adult life, I was with like minded runners, I was about to run all day, but I love running the trails in Scotland.  I was exactly were I wanted to be and knew exactly where I was going. 95 miles to Fort William along the beautiful West Highland Way on the longest day of the year. Bring it on!

Calm and Confident? Obviously I didn't t look at how far I had to run!
Part 2 will cover the race itself.