Sunday, 4 August 2013

'I couldn't find you, you're not on the last page...'

One of the nicest things my husband has ever said to me!

This might sound a little strange but it has topped off a fantastic weekend for me :-)
Yesterday I ran the Devil O' the Highlands 43 mile Footrace from Tyndrum to Fort William.  An undulating route which climbs from the start, and keeps on climbing!  Over 6000 feet of ups and downs across some of Scotland's most beautiful countryside in what can only be described as 'challenging' weather.  When the results were published today I wasn't on the last page :-)

A little bit of background... last year I wanted to take part in this race but I got injured in May after the Women's 10K and couldn't get the distance training in on time, so had to withdraw my entry.  However John indulged me and we went up to Glencoe the night before the race and stayed overnight in a Hobbit house at the ski centre, had a lovely meal in the Kingshouse Hotel, enjoyed an impromptu jam session and then on Saturday morning, ran up and over the hill with two large flags and a supply of jelly babies to support the runners at about 16miles.  We have since become good friends with many of those whom we spoke to, photographed and shared jelly babies with - that's the beauty of the running community :-)

This year, my goal was to complete the Highland Fling, however on returning from Boston, we both had nasty chest infections, so neither of us were able to toe the start line... Topped up on antibiotics we still managed to go and support our friends and it was lovely to be part of such a great event.  Bitterly disappoined at missing my race of the year, for which I had trained all winter, I sent an email to the Devil crew, the race was already full, but they operate a reserve list.  I heard nothing for a few weeks, and then got an email saying I was on the list. Not long after I broke a wisdom tooth and developed another really nasty infection which completely floored me, so in all, I missed about 9 weeks of training and had resigned myself to not being able to take part this year either.  Checking the reserve list, there wasn't much movement for a few weeks and then there was a wee bit of activity so I started to swither about whether I could up my training in time or whether I should withdraw?  2 weeks ago after much ummin and ahing, I decided to do a run on part of the course and then I would categorically make up my mind whether to hope I moved further up the list or not.  Long story short, on the Saturday I wasn't going, I was fed up and full of doubt, John convinced me I should go so we got up at 5am and headed off, not particularly well prepared for a long run but off to give it a go... I was to run from Tyndrum where the race starts, to Kinlochleven, about 30miles into the race and the start of the last big climb.  Cutting the story even shorter, it was a scorcher of a day, I've never seen the sky up there so cloudless, there was NO water on the mountains, but I had a brilliant day out and completed the run in just shy of 7 and half hours.  First thing I said to John when I met him at the finish was "I'm still not doing the race"  He asked if I thought I could have gone up over the hill to the end, and I said yes so we then had a lengthy debate as to whether or not I should hold off on withdrawing my entry.  When we got home that evening we looked at previous results, and my garmin data for the day, I reckoned I could do the run in about 7hours if it was a race, and we agreed that I'd need to do that in order to finish within the 12 hours. Then a friend messaged me telling me I was no. 37!! Soon followed  by an email offering me the place, and true enough my name was on the start list!  I really didn't know what to do... I spoke to a couple of friends who said I should do it, and asked my very experienced ultra running friend Karen, her advice.  She said if my head was in the right place, I'd be fine, I had plenty training from earlier in the year and that I should go for it.  So on Monday I accepted the place.  12 days til race day!

Hurried arrangements were made for a place to camp at By The Way for the night before, then at the last minute wonderful friends offered us a room in their cabin - fortuitous indeed, given the monsoon rain that fell on Friday night.  We drove up to Tyndrum and shared a lovely dinner with Bob and Amanda, Said hi to Jenni, Rob & Jo, then walked over to the pub for an hour and met George & Karen, Noanie, Sarah and a few other running acquaintances.
Saturday morning 4am, alarm goes off... no major queues for the loo, no fighting over the kitchen, breakfasts made and eaten - except for me, first time ever I've not been able to eat before a race!  Registration was between 0430 and 0530 at the Green Welly, we headed over in the car and got there about 5ish - I honestly can't remember what time it was!  Collected number and T Shirt, said hello to a few other friends, one last visit to the loo and then race briefing.  Soon as Gary was finished I wanted to go outside as was too warm in the building in my waterproof jacket - that would be the jacket I'd hoped to carry in my bag not wear!  It was freezing outside, blowing a gale and raining heavily.  The huddle of runners trying to shelter in vain grew ever bigger and before long we were all heading to the start and then it was 3,2,1 and we were off.  The route starts straight up a hill and I was determined I wasn't going to run up it as with no warmup it is a calf killer, a few hardy souls sprinted off, but it was reassuring that a large contingent seemed happy to march smartly up the slope, I fell in at the back and settled down.  I was convinced I would be the last finisher but I was quite happy about that, as long as the sweepers weren't breathing down my neck.  They were great, I only heard their voices once and they kept a respectful distance as I slowly eased in to my run/walk pattern, it was still p'ing down and blowing a hoolie!
Checkpoint 1:  Bridge of Orchy - 6miles into the race, I reckoned 1h30 was as slow as I could afford to be and I think it was about 1h20 when I got there, it's a lovely run along the side of Ben Dorain, but I had slipped going up onto a large rock and my foot slipped downwards putting a lot of strain on my achilles/lower calf, I was a bit worried as the pain was shooting under my foot and I was getting a fluttering in my mid calf - I remember thinking 'I can't pull out at Bridge of Orchy, I have to keep going even if it means the rest of my races this year are out the window'... John was waiting for me and I took a drink and a babybel from him and set off to climb the first proper climb of the day.  There is no official time taken at this checkpoint, it's just a check that everyone is through in one piece.  I was pleased with my climb and was soon up at Murdo's mount and then running down to Inveroran.  This isn't an official checkpoint, but John was there to meet me and David Meldrum was there too, it was nice to see them, I took a sandwich to walk with, and drank some coke.  Off down the road to Victoria Bridge then the climb up to Glencoe.  I was still in last place at this point but comfortable having had a good run down off the hill.
The journey up Telford's parliamentary road to Ba' Bridge and then across Glencoe is undulating (ok lots of ups and downs!) so I marched up the hills and ran on the downs and the flats, again I felt like I was strong and coping well, the sandwich went in the bushes for the wildlife as it was just too hard to eat, but I had my first pouch of organic baby food and it went down fine.

Checkpoint 2:  Glencoe ski centre - about 18miles.  4h04m.  I had a fab run down into the checkpoint, there was a beautiful full rainbow and it looked like we were going to run under it.  I passed about 10 people though they didn't stop here so they passed me back.  Sarah Self, David Mooney & David Meldrum were here with John, I ate a boiled egg and I think I'd an espresso shot (can't remember) then set off down the road to cross the main A82 and into Kingshouse.  The group I passed on the run down to the checkpoint had stopped here for a cup of tea/refuel and I passed them again.  By now the weather had got even worse, wild headwinds and driving rain blowing right up the glen into our faces.  A tough run along the road in the wind, then a wee climb up the hill before the trail descends again to parallel the main road in the approach to Altna Feadh.  David Mooney was waiting with John at the start of the Devil's staircase, I picked up a gel from them and a bottle of irn bru, assured them I didn't need a change of clothes, I was soaked but warm and had no chafing issues, was delighted to report that nobody had passed me back and by this time I'd passed another couple.and it was off up 'The Staircase'.  This is a mighty climb, it just goes up and up, then there's a cheeky wee false summit about 200m from the top, but I climbed well and didn't stop at all, passing some walkers who were finding it tougher than I was.  At the top I stopped for a few seconds and raised my irn bru to the cairn in a toast - 'made it' :-)
Of course, what goes up must come down and down you go, all the way to sea level in Kinlochleven.  When I'd been up a fortnight ago, it was hot and dry, so the run down was tough but I'd felt reasonably confident about my footing, yesterday was a completely different story - the water was roaring down the hillside in all the burns and gullies, and places I'd hopped and skipped down were now slippery slopes that I took more cautiously.  It's deceptive too because although it's a big downhill, there are some sneaky 'ups' in it, however I got onto the road to the Alcan works and that's the start of a non stop descent to the river, across the mdf bridge and along past some houses, then back into the woodland and up to the road.  

photo thanks to Dave & Julie
Checkpoint 3:  Kinlochleven - almost 30 miles, 6h55m (bang on target) John and David Mooney were here again and we were joined by David's girlfriend Julie (wonderwoman) Docherty who had run from Glencoe to Kinlochleven supporting a friend Katy.  I'd another boiled egg here and a can of Gin & Tonic! It was delicious!!  I also ate a couple of spoonfuls of rice pudding - John was sure I wasn't eating enough although I felt fine, I'd had a pouch of yoghurt on the way down the staircase and was feeling in great fettle, I also took a banana which I nibbled half of as I checked in and out of the checkpoint and walked along the road to the start of the climb.  Here I met George & Karen so quick hugs and reassurances that I was looking great and it was across the road and ready to tackle the third and toughest climb of the day.  It is a tough climb, relentless upward slope and some big stone steps all of which take their toll on you, respect to all the runners who ran WHW in June, it's 83miles into their race!
Eventually you get to the top and I was delighted to discover that my legs were still happy to run on the flats and downs and even on some of the gentler ups.  At no point so far had I suffered any slumps in my energy levels and it was great to get a break from the relentless rythm of climbing.  By now the weather could be best described as FOUL!  The wind was blowing from all directions and of course the Lairig is a pass - a valley - so it's like a wind tunnel, I don't think the rain stopped at all up here, I just think it's ferocity varied!  There was water running across the paths, some of the times it was calf deep, but I just ran right through the middle of it, I don't bother trying to skirt round it and it's quite refreshing on hot tired feet :-)  After about an hour I could see a saltire fluttering in the distance and a mile or so later at the top of the hill, there was Jeff from the Wilderness Rescue team with his supply of drinks and his camera.  A welcome sight indeed!  A quick cup of irnbru and a few cheery words then off I went.  In the distance I could see the ruined cottage which is a landmark I love as I try to imagine what it was like to live up there in the middle of nowhere, I ran up there in May with John so it was familiar territory and similar weather so I kind of felt I was on the home stretch.  The next few miles passed and soon I was running down into Lundavra and there he was again, my amazing supporter, with hot coffee, a puff of my inhaler and words of encouragement about how brilliantly I was doing - 7 miles to go and I had 2h40m to get in under the 12 hours.  I remember excitedly telling him that STILL nobody had passed me - this meant I wasn't last! 
A climb out of Lundavra made all the more interesting as the sandy soil was gloopy, sticky mud but I managed to get up the hill and along the wee track on the side of it without incident and was able to run down to the gate then into the woods.  Through the woods which in places were as dark as night and disappointingly unable to get a good run down due to the slippery conditions, then back up the other side and at long last the horrid, horrid wee climb up to the Fire Road.  The Fire Road marks the end of the trail and is a fabulous couple of miles of downhill on a fairly good surface.  I was really pleased with my performance here as I settled into a nice steady rythm and was able to keep it going all the way down, I passed a couple of guys here and my wonderful friend Bob.  I had a few pangs of guilt here because I'd been joking on Wednesday with him that if there was the remotes possibility of me catching up with him we'd cross the line 'oldies' together - I asked if he was ok, and he said yes but he could only walk, 'can you not jog with me?' No he replied on you go I'll see you at the finish.
At the bottom of the hill the Run Route sign pointed left and there at the end of the road was John again - this was a HUGE surprise as I didn't expect to see him there and it was lovely to see the huge grin on his face when he realised I'd passed the guys who'd been ahead of me earlier - that was, it I was at Braveheart car park 1 mile to go and it wasn't quite 11hours!  I was going to be in under the 12 hours and I wasn't going to be last!  I was on a real high and he topped it off by telling me our friend Noanie had had a storming run to finish 3rd female!  If ever I needed something to push me on to the end that was it :-)
I ran/walked in a steady 50/50 rythm to the end of the houses, then I saw Karen across the road, waving like a true daftie and shouting encouragement, I could feel myself starting to well up and I shouted back to her 'I think I'm going to cry!'  I kept on running and as I rounded the corner I was met with a wall of cheering and a crowd of our friends all whooping and hollering!  I found myself somehow managing to run just a wee bit faster as the line approached - not quite a sprint finish but it felt like it - and the most amazing sense of elation and emotions overwhelmed me - I genuinely could not believe I'd done it!  It wasn't about the distance, it was about not being last and about having passed people and never being overtaken and about feeling strong and healthy at the finish and having wonderful friends to support me/us and I flung my arms round John's neck sobbing!  But they were happy tears!  A few friends have told me that everyone joined in :-)  It was amazing!  Oh and the bloody rain stopped about 3miles from the end!
photo thanks to Fiona Rennie
Finish: Fort William - 43 miles 11h08m42s
So there you go, I did the Devil and I wasn't last and when the results were published today, John couldn't find me because I wasn't on the last page...
I can't put into words what that means, but I'm sure there are some of you who will understand :-)

footnote (no pun intended - no blisters, no chafing, no injuries, just a sore big toe from stubbing it on a rock!)


  1. Lovely blog Helen. So happy you got through it and overcame all your doubts and fears. Well done!

  2. Flippin' fantastic - very well done, I'm so proud of you. x x

  3. Brilliant read well done again x