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.

1 comment:

  1. Meticulous as ever Robert. I felt comfortable up to Auchtertyre but perhaps in hindsight I did start off too fast. I'm so impressed that you manage to increase your pace while maintaining a constant heart rate. Looking forward to the business end of the race report.