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Out and back

I decided at twenty past eight. No thought of it beforehand. It all of a sudden just seemed right to celebrate the 31st running day of December, in the company of other runners.

More clouds, less sun than last time. More runners, more layers, more puddles and more mud. Less speed, but no less enjoyment.

Kingston parkrun. And a marker to beat early next year.

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Gradually coming back

After all the drama, dedication and excitement, I was looking forward to that point when I could just head out the door and  ‘go for a run’ again. Not a recce, not a recovery run. Not a pretend-it’s-the-Devil’s-Staircase hill run. Just a run for no purpose other than the simple pleasure of it.

And, after a week of easy jogs along the towpath and between the bridges, you know what? I think it’s gradually coming back. I got up today and wanted to try the Kingston parkrun. We’re lucky in having a number of Parkruns close by, including the original one at Bushy Park, but I reckon Kingston may be the closest. And of the ones locally, it’s also the newest. (And perhaps the smallest field? No bad thing, maybe….it was easy to chat to folks.)

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First time since the WHWR that my legs were going faster than ‘easy’. I enjoyed dialing the speed up to ‘enjoy’ and keeping it there.

I’m looking forward to the next few weeks of ‘just going for a run’.

Here’s a video that gets pretty close to that feeling. At the end, I almost put my shoes on and headed out again.

WHW race 2010

How quickly fades the pain of the struggle. The brain is already shuffling the images, the memories; sorting to the fore the elation and pride, burying deeper the raw and the painful. The goblet is won. I’m deeply satisfied. But, Jings, the path to winning it was so completely at odds with my innocent prior vision.

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Here’s the tale.

I’m not sleeping, just resting for a couple of hours at the hotel. I’ve already registered, been weighed and tagged. All other luggage has gone with Andrew1 in the car. Midnight! Time to go. I make a slow, energy-conserving half-mile amble to the start. A full car park in the midnight darkness and a press of runners and supporters. I wander a bit, but happen not to see any familiar faces yet. I’m calm. I feel confident in my preparation. Around me is not the excited buzz of the Fling, but a more subdued, studied note of runners preparing for a serious task. I’m fine until 10 minutes before the start when I start shivering. Just nerves, I reason. Pure and simple.

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The momentum gathers, and time swings faster towards the off. A safety briefing. Fine words to acknowledge Duncan Watson and Bobby Shields, the original WHW racers, who will lead us out. Warm words for Dario Melaragni, and a minute of respectful applause from the field. Then the countdown and Gillian Melaragni starts the 2010 WHW race.

To Rowardennan, 27 miles:
We’re through the underpass and along the High Street, then onto the Way itself and soon it’s not the town anymore. It’s a sparkling chain of headtorches, bobbing and twisting through the forest. We’re bunched together, lighting the path sure enough, but also darkening the darkness just beyond. Past Beech Tree (7m) I find myself in a group, which is handy for gate-opening, but I keep wanting to drop off the back. I recognise John K’s voice, for it is he in the dark, and we joke about letting the peloton shield us from the wind. I’ve not settled yet, feeling various aches, and I finally decide that I’m cold, so out comes the jacket. Straight through Drymen, and then onto the forest tracks. I’m overtaken on Conic Hill by a fast clambering Peter Duggan.

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I find a reasonably soft and grassy line down Conic and then straight through Balmaha, pausing only to re-fill with water. Walking out of the carpark, eating, and along by the loch, I’m thinking for the first (and as it turns out, only) time today ‘This is what it should be like’. The sun’s not yet up, but the loch is calm and beautiful.

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Into Rowardennan broadly on schedule. A few doubts are whispering in my ear, but I brush them aside. I’m glad to see Andrew1, with a good cup of tea and something decent to eat.

To Auchtertyre, 50 miles:
After Rowardennan, I make sure to walk all the way up the hill, then I’m running the downhill and the single track to Inversnaid. It’s a beautiful morning now, with the sun full on the other side of the loch, and our side still in shadow. In fact, it’s still nicely cool.

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As I come into Inversnaid, I‘m forced to admit that something is amiss today. There’s no spring in my step. Everything is just that bit harder than it should be. I grab my drop bag and wander over to a sunny spot to re-fuel and to ponder. Well, let’s get on to Beinglas. Bridget and Andrew2 will be there and I can re-assess. The next rocky bit of trail is actually easier than I expect. I can hear the sleeper train clattering up the other side of the loch bringing Bridget and Andrew2 to Ardlui, and suddenly I’m really looking forward to meeting them at Beinglas. Hug needed. A happy meet-up with all my support team at Beinglas. A seat. A cup of tea. Re-fuel.

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I don’t want to admit to them (just arrived) that I’m not going well today. Nor do I want to admit it to myself. So, off out again. Walk and jog, walk and jog up Glen Falloch. And then the switchbacks. I’ve decided to walk them today, ostensibly to protect my legs for later on, but truth be told, it was all I could do. Back at ground level, I can just about raise a run into Auchtertyre.

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Andrew2 does a great job of ‘spotting’, and reports ahead by walkie-talkie that I need a change of shoes. And yes to a rice pudding please. I deal with the blister and change shoes. My shoulders slump a bit. Here I am at Auchtertyre, an hour slower than in the Fling. It should be that much easier and yet I feel worse. Empty. Drained. In the previous 4-5 weeks, I reckoned I had given myself the perfect build-up. Well, it may have been the perfect build-up for younger legs than mine. In reality, I probably drained all energy through my various recces and relays. Hindsight is great isn’t it? So, now begins the painful process of re-adjusting the goals for the day.

Quit?

Not today.

OK, Iain, let’s slug it out, then. I jettison my camera here – as much for the mental significance of stripping everything down for the challenge. Just 45 miles to go.

To Bridge of Orchy, 60 miles:
Heading out of Auchtertyre, I’m pleased to say hello to Andy Cole, who seems to have arrived ahead of his support. He’ll pass me again soon, going well. A quick meet again with my team at Brodie’s in Tyndrum. Grab an iced tea and a change of hat. Walk up the hill.

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The sun is so intense, the air so sparkling clear. Beinn Dorain is standing guard over Bridge of Orchy. There’s a strong and cool north wind in our faces. At the watershed, where road and railway meet, folk driving along are tooting their support. I’m grateful for it. The best I can manage on this section is a shuffle. I’m so pleased to see Andrew2 sitting on a rock, in the distance waiting for me. And we head down to the checkpoint.

To Glencoe, 71 miles:
Bridget and the Andrews do a grand job of cheering me up, and we arrange to meet again over the hill at Inveroran. After slogging up the hill, (is this the hottest part of the day?) it’s great to see Murdo at the top with his Saltire. I muster a bit of a jog down the hill. My team are at Inveroran.

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A quick Coke and then off along the next road section to Victoria Bridge. I have a nice civilised chat with a couple of walkers about what a fine day it is and how lucky we are to be out in this lovely place. I’m then through the gate and on the long military road up to Rannoch Moor. This is where all hope of a decent finish leaves me. My spirit drains. My legs are dead. The way curves to the horizon and not a step I make brings the crest any closer. Folk are passing me and taking hope with them. Eventually I see Bridget, just down from the Glencoe checkpoint, watching with concern. Emotion wells up inside me. I’m so relieved to see her. It’s also knowing my support team have put such a superb operation together just for me. I take Bridget’s hand. I know I’ve turned the corner. To finish is my only target now.

To Kinlochleven, 81 miles
At the Glencoe checkpoint, Andrew2 is geared up to run the next section with me and I’m energised by his enthusiasm. Doubt is replaced by certainty. We set off down the hill to Kingshouse.

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It’s great to have his company after the despair of Rannoch Moor. What fantastic evening shadows there are on Buchaille Etive Mor. Wee toy cars zoom past below in the warm orange glow of the lowering sun. I regret now my leaving my camera. Andrew2 rejoins the car at Altnafeadh.

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I’ll see them next at KLL. I slog up the Devil’s Staircase. No-one in sight behind and just a few folk visible on the zigzags ahead and above. What glorious light at the top. I break into a desultory jog on the downhill, but am soon cursing the rocks. Every step risks a stumble now.

I’m in the golden light one moment, shadow the next. I have to walk the steep downhill track into KLL. Everything is just too painful and tender. Even the memory is tender of me being able to fly down here only the previous month. The last of the direct sun has gone as I come into KLL. I’m weighed, just on my limit. I have a seat inside and re-group for the final section. Andrew1 makes the brilliant suggestion of sausage and chips. Yum. Real food.

To the Finish, 95 miles:
How ‘right’ it is for Andrew2 to be my support through the night on this final section. I’m happy and as proud as a father can be to be putting my trust in him.

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I can’t run any more, just to walk in from here is the objective. But we make good time on the climb up to the Lairig Mhor, the half-moon ever bright on our shoulder. Our last glimpse of Kinlochleven. In the dusk, we pass the re-assuring presence of the mountain medics at their post.

My knee is beginning to grumble now. Since Auchtertyre, I’ve been favouring the leg where the heel is blistered, and now the imbalance is crocking my knee. But just slog on.

In the gloaming now, I’m seeing visions. Strange signposts, buildings with lights, which only resolve at the last minute into the reflections they are of the moon in puddles. I’m getting slower, and Andrew is ever so patient, doling out encouraging rations of raisins every so often to keep up the momentum.

Will the flames of Lundavra never appear? They do of course and we take a 5 minute rest at the bonfire. Then more up-hills and into the forest gloom, all vision limited to the circle of headtorch light at our feet. (And the big spiders just beyond!)

At last, we’re at the head of the forest trail above Glen Nevis and we can call ahead to alert Bridget and Andrew1. It seems a long, long way down. Bridget joins us at the Braveheart carpark for the final mile together. Coming up the steps of the Leisure Centre, I touch the finish. I’m there! We’re there. Shake hands, sup the whisky.

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I’m so pleased finally to have done it, so grateful for their support, so proud of Andrew, so tired, so satisfied. A finish. My time, 27:04:45, on a day when time became the least consideration.

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This finish is truly dedicated to my support team. Bridget, and the two Andrews. I could not have done it without you. Fantastic job. Thank you! And to the many, many people – race committee, marshals, volunteers, mountain rescue folks, those runners who finished, those who didn’t finish this time –  and all those others, sung and unsung, who keep this race alive and thriving.

Yes, it is a long way…

I did have a plan, and I never expected it to be easy, but on the day I struggled. Somewhere between Beinglas and Auchtertyre, my plan ran away from me, over the hills and out of sight, leaving me just a poor shadow on the trail. From then I felt every jagged stone, cursed every up, muttered at every down, and despaired across every inch of Rannoch Moor.

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Thank goodness for my support team (Andrew1, Bridget and Andew2), who lifted my spirits at every stop, and Andrew2’s perfect company through the last long 14 night-time miles from Kinlochleven. Without them, I’d not have  made it to the end.

27:04:45, a goblet and a big grin (now, that is!)

So. The 95 miles of the West Highland Way race is completed – and oh, am I pleased. It’s long been a dream target and I’m enjoying having a wee bask in the glow of having finished it.

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More details to come, once I’ve recovered a bit. In the meantime though, many congratulations to the Race Committee for their successful organisation of a great event, and huge thanks to all the marshalls, volunteers, the medical and mountain rescue folk.

A tale of two relays

I love the Green Belt Relay.

There’s something of the rolling circus about it, as 40 teams of 11 runners apply themselves to a 220 mile circuit of London’s Green Belt. 22 stages over two days (22/23 May), with everyone running one leg on each day. No batons are passed though. Each stage starts at a set time through the day, roughly when the fastest runner will finish the previous stage. The route is primarily off-road; basically 220 miles of trails, tracks, footpaths and towpaths in a big circle around London. And as has been pointed out, the 22 stage descriptions provide brilliant inspiration for individual runs and expeditions for the rest of the year.

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There’s such goodwill and camaraderie amongst the teams. One team over from Holland wore the biggest orange top-hats. (I’m sure I saw those hats again this week doing duty at the Holland v Denmark match.) And one team ran in gold body suits. Full lycra body suits! But there’s also some seriously good running going on. Method and madness are on display too. Method, in the plans and logistics involved in getting 11 runners to and from their respective starts and finishes, never mind re-uniting them with their kitbags. Madness, in overcoming the inevitable navigation glitches all under the stopwatch. Some teams hire minibuses for the weekend. We had 2 minibuses and 2 teams – and we still needed to make use of our ‘floating’ car to keep things together.

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I ran stage 7 (12 miles in 1:21) on the Saturday and stage 16 (13.3 hot and hilly miles in 1:45) on the Sunday and my legs were dead almost from the off. Perhaps to be expected only 3 clear days after my whw recce. Our A team was 8th overall and second mixed team behind Beckenham Mixed. Our B team, also mixed, 30th out of 39 teams finishing. Thankfully, the 2 folk in our team who were showing signs of sunstroke on the Saturday evening made a good recovery overnight to contribute fully again on the Sunday.

Forward 2 weeks to the 5th June and an event of contrasting character. Challenging and memorable in its own way. The South Downs Way 100 Mile Relay.

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This is a one-day race (with batons!) along the full length of the Way, Beachy Head to Winchester. Teams of 6 runners, each running 3 non-consecutive legs. Average 5-6 miles each leg. The route is tough. Climbing up to the tops of the Downs and then descending back to road or river valley a number of times along the route. And I charged off on my first leg – and I don’t think I’m alone here – as if it were a single 5 mile race. Ah well. Here’s to better pacing next time. And not for the first time, we suffered in the heat and made a course error. Perhaps we put ourselves under too much pressure. For me though, I’m just pleased to be out running the Downs with good company.

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(This post written from Milngavie base camp, where tomorrow morning is allocated to flaffing with food, drink and spare clothes. 95 miles in one go deserves some flaffing.)

Tom, Dick or Harry*

Well, it’s not as convenient as living in Milngavie, obviously. Nor indeed, Fort William. But Twickenham ain’t a bad starting point for a 2 day recce on the West Highland Way. Being 500 miles away is no real barrier, as long as the 500 miles is in the general direction of London, and Euston station in particular. And the secret to this Great Escape? The Sleeper train.

You leave home late Sunday evening, travel overnight, in a comfy bed, waking up as you arrive in Glasgow, in time for connections to Milngavie (or in my case Balmaha). Ready and running at 9am alongside the Loch in bright sunshine. Full day running on the whw to Bridge of Orchy (41 miles). Stay over. Run next day to Fort William (35 miles). Shower in the station. Pint in the pub. Haggis and Neeps on the Sleeper back from Fort William. Back at work at 9am. Two days of joy and running.

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Random thoughts looking back over it now…

I reckon it’s a pleasure and a privilege to be out there running in such country. Chuck away the HRM and the watch (err… unless you need it to catch a train back, that is) and just head out there.

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At the end of each day, my legs didn’t want to run anymore. But they were OK to start Day 2.

95 miles in one go still feels like a huge step up from this.

The worst bits to manage – for me, anyway – are the steep downhills, particularly above Crianlarich and down into Kinlochleven. I haven’t yet found a comfortable pace, style or rhythm to deal with them.

Never underestimate the restorative power of a cup of tea. Worked wonders at the Bein Glas Café, the Glen Coe Ski café and the Tailrace Inn. (Or was it the sitting down? Or the toastie?)

Some bits of the trail, well quite a lot actually, are very hard, stony going. Lots of loose rocks underfoot requiring particular foot placement. Especially the Lairig Mor and the section after the Devil’s staircase. By contrast, I enjoy the rough trail at the top of Loch Lomond.

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Overall, as a 2-day escape, it’s hard to beat.

* The three tunnels in ‘The Great Escape’. They found Tom. Harry was completed.

Green Belt recce :: stage 7

Came out to St Albans to recce my stage of the Green Belt Relay next weekend. 12miles from St Albans to Letty Green. Most of it is along an old railway line and therefore no navigation problems.

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But there’s a tricky bit through the woods. Glad I came. It took me ages to work out the right line.

Heading off tonight for a wee warm up on the whw.

2010 Fling Report

Milngavie. 6am. Misty. Calm. Drop bags dropped; thoughts gathered. Murdo’s pre-race briefing must surely be the shortest in the world, especially measured by words per race-mile. Warm and welcoming, though. Then 3-2-1, GO!



To Drymen: Soon we’re away from the town. Layers of mist are draped about the trees. The day feels like its keeping its head firmly under the duvet for the moment.

Img_2730 I want an initial pace that feels on the easy side of comfortable – and I’m happy to let people get ahead, including John Kynaston and Sharon Law, who I ran this first part with last year, and Peter Foxall, who is entered for the Spartathlon (and who knows the scenic route from the Premier Inn to Tesco’s). I manage a stop-go conversation with Catherine Todd(?), who does her running in the deserts and wadis of Dubai. So, a fairly seamless transition to the WHW for her then! Drymen at 12 miles (1:51:29). About five minutes down on last year. No worries.

To Rowardennan:
I must have put on a bit of a sprint for benefit of the photographer in the field there, because next I knew there was no-one in sight ahead or behind. I had Garabhan Forest to myself and most of Conic Hill too it seemed.

Img_2735 I was in a lovely wee bubble watching the mist peel itself back off the hills above Loch Lomond and hearing a cuckoo off to the right.

Img_2736 It’s hard not to go steaming down Conic Hill, but I kept thinking save the quads for later – and took it as gentle as I could into Balmaha. Had a coke and an electrolytically-balanced sausage roll from my drop bag. And a chat with (the other) Murdo. It’s lovely when people who don’t know you are so generous with encouragement. Spent too long faffing, not having a support crew to kick me out. The next section came as the sun was burning off the mist and the loch looked hazy and calm.

Img_2743 Last year, I worked the ups and downs here. Daft. This year I just floated along. Rowardennan at 27 miles (4:42:11). About 20 mins down. Should I try and work harder now? On balance I think I’ll to try get to Beinglas (40 miles) in good shape and then see what’s left in the tank.

To Beinglas: Thomas L comes striding past in excellent shape on his way to 2nd place overall. Up the long grind on the forest road, then carefully down to the single track to Inversnaid. I’m starting to pass folk. Last year, this is where I began to struggle, but I’m pinching myself now because all still feels fine. Then the jiggedy-jaggedy bit of trail after Inversnaid finally emerging for the climb at the head of the loch. Remember to cast your eye back. Up and over to Beinglas, dunking my cap in all the streams. Beinglas at 40 miles (7:37:12) Pulled back 3 mins.

To Tyndrum: Still picking off people. Am able to run far more of this section to Derrydarroch.

Img_2748 After Carmyle Cottage and towards the farm it’s getting tough but I’m still drawing strength from how long the enjoyment has lasted. I catch up with JK, who I know wanted to be ahead of where he is, and try to pass a few words of encouragement. And now the coos, the bl**dy coos, have decided to hang around in a big gang blocking the Way. Well, I’m sorry boys, I’ve got no spare energy for detours, and I’m not in the mood for negotiations. Coming through! At least 3 of them scattered, ooh, a whole 12 inches off to the side and I was on my way. But in the switchback hills in the woods above Crianlarich, all of a sudden I throw a bit of a wobbler. I can’t cope. My legs are trashed. I’ve got cramp. Buzzing in my head. Strange pins and needles in my arms. Arms? My arms are sore? What’s that about? And the wobble lasts all the way down to the road – where, just as quickly, it’s gone and I can manage the last flattish 3 miles. Well done to the piper at the end. By the evidence of this photo, maybe I wasn’t in as good a shape as I thought. (The piper is quite vertical. I perhaps am not).

Img_2751 Tyndrum at 53 (10:09:24) Pulled back another 15 mins, and more importantly was able to enjoy nearly all of the last stage.

Thanks to Murdo and Ellen for organising a superbly happy event, and thanks also to all the marshals and volunteers. Fantastic job. And running 53 miles sure makes for the best-tasting cold beer at the finish.

I had a nice surprise to learn I was 3rd Supervet. A shiny plate to take home and dead chuffed to shake hands with Jez Bragg.

Img_2755 I’m hoping for just a little bit of that magic dust to stick.