My race report deals with all of the details of the race itself, but what about the lessons, what worked and what didn’t work?
I spent a fair amount of time researching pacing by looking at splits for previous races. In particular I was interested in the splits of those who finished strongly. I had a strong feeling that, ignoring the first few finishers who are statistical and physiological freaks, the vast majority of runners run the first sections too quickly, so I built my plan around splits from a number of runners but basing primarily on times from WHW and UTMB veteran Bob Allison who seems to have perfected the knack of gaining places consistently throughout the race. I was also greatly reassured reading a brilliant blog by Andy Cole about how to pace West Highland Way.
My target time for the early checkpoints allowed me to be an hour slower to Auchtertyre than my previous WHW and yet I was significantly faster to Fort William and moved up the field by a number of places over each section. I was also significantly less broken than I might otherwise have been which made for a much more pleasant second half to the race.
Having slower target times also took some pressure off and allowed me to relax more.
My gear all worked pretty well. I wore an Ultimate Direction SJ pack for most of the race. I had intended alternating it with my Inov-8 race belt, but after running the first section with the race belt, I felt it was unbalancing me and so I opted for the security of my pack. The big advantage of my pack, was that I could have my two bottles, which was great for managing fluid intake in the heat. I used one of the 500 ml ultimate direction hard bottles and one 750 raidlight bottle with a drinking straw. The raidlight bottle is good because you can drink without taking the bottle out which is good if you want to sip small and often. An unintended benefit of the raidlight bottle is that it solved the problem of farting nipples! To explain, I like to take coke in my bottles especially later in a race. The UD bottles are great, but with fizzy coke, the soft valves tend to spontaneously spurt coke spray accompanied by a disconcerting farting noise in response to fizz building up in the bottle. The drinking straw on the raidlight bottle seemed to solve that problem. Marginal gains and all that.
My shoes were good, I wore Altra Olympus for the first half and Skechers Go Run Ultra for the second half of the race. The Skechers were half a size bigger than my normal shoe which gave my sore feet lots of space to expand. the only real reason for changing shoes was beacuse I tend to suffer from sore feet regardless of which shoes I wear, so by changing to something different, it just moved the pressure points a little.
The other notable addition to my gear this year was arm sleeves. These were a freebie at a race, but I thought I would give them a go. They were good in the cool, but surprisingly where they really came into their own was in the heat. Soaking them really helped cool me down and borrowing a trick from Rob Krar which I saw in the Western States film ” This is Your Day”, stuffing ice down the arm sleeves to cool my wrists probably saved my race. I always really struggle in the heat. Using the ice both in the arm sleeves and in a buff round my neck helped cool my core. It may be coincidence, but having started using ice at Auchtertyre, my heart rate was on average 15bpm lower over the second half of the race compared to the first. I also used a Columbia hiking sun hat. The wide brim all the way round helped keep the sun off my face and neck so avoiding over heating and sunburn. It wasn’t glamorous but it was effective. Sometimes it is useful to look beyond what the running companies are trying to sell to us.
Overall my nutrition worked pretty well. The heat scuppered my eating plans as being so hot I didn’t fancy some of the more solid items on my plan. I drank a lot of milk shakes which were great. These are full of sugar, an easy texture to drink, and interesting flavours to help stimulate your palette. Rice puddings were another staple. Other successes were cheese rolls and chicken soup. I got a boost from my chocolate coffee beans though have a suspicion they may have contributed to me feeling nauseous.
The items of food which didn’t work, were both items which I had specifically asked for and planned to use. I had thought that cold beef link sausages would be a nice treat but during the race the consistency put me right off them and I hardly had any. Maybe on a cold day I would have felt differently. The other fail was my cheesy pasta. In the blistering heat, it became too dry, too hard, and just the wrong texture and too much work to eat.
The other slight food fail related to my pack. My crew would stuff food into my pack at checkpoiints and then complain when I hadn’t eaten it at the next. Probably the biggest reason for this is that with it being in my pack I had to consciously remember it was there, and when I did remember it was there, the thought of the hassle of stopping, taking my pack off, opening it up, eating a bit, putting it away etc was just too complicated for my poor fuzzy brain to process. Had I put the food in an accessible front pocket I might have grazed, so lesson learned there for the future.
Having the right crew is really important and fortunately my crew got it spot on. We had a plan, but we also had enough flexibility and experience to know that the plan would go out the window as soon as the race started. As a runner you need to trust your crew not only to do the simple things like actually being there, but to be able to assess how you are doing, feed you the right things and give you the right combination of sympathy and encouragement. You not only need the right people, but you need the right mix of people so they are able to look out for each other as well as you. They used two vehicles which allowed for a bit of flexibility in getting a bit more sleep which meant that when I saw them they were not too tired. My crew consisted of my wife Helen and friends Amanda and Clark Hamilton. Helen is very much the Queen of checkpoints having done so many but is also an experienced runner, plus she knows me inside out. Knowing she is waiting at the next checkpoint gives me huge motivation. Clark is Mr Sensible. I knew that no matter what logistical nightmares unfolded he would deal with them and would also make sure that Helen and Amanda made it to the end in one piece as well. I also knew he wouldn’t take any nonsense from me when running with me so that kept me honest. Amanda is one of the most dogged runners I know. I really admire her ability to do something I am not good at which is the relentless slow and steady thing which was why I asked her to be my support runner over the last sections. She also knows the course inside out so I could just switch off and follow her. My crew was tuned in to how I was feeling and knowing that I tend to stay fairly strong mentally in a race just gave me a rabbit to chase and the occasional gee up rather than try to jolly me along with inane encouraging drivel. It is probably no coincidence that on the couple of occasions recently when I haven’t had my usual support, my races have been unsuccessful. Any crew which has the where with all to find you ice, buy ice lollies and get you ice cream in Kinlochleven after closing time definitely has the righ credentials.
All in all I had way more successes than failures in this race, but if I have one big takeaway it is probably the importance of pacing and going much more slowly than you think you should at the start. To borrow a recent Internet meme my big lesson is we need to try to Be Like Bob (Allison)
Eight days until race day and I was sitting at work with a wet trouser leg and a puddle appearing on the carpet under my desk. The casual observer may have questioned whether the excitement of the impending race was getting to me. The more astute observer would also have noticed the bag of rapidly melting ice cubes tucked down my sock!
My preparation for this year’s race wasn’t exactly going to plan. I had been managing severe heel pain all year, London marathon performance hadn’t been great, I was even heavier than usual, I had DNF’ed the MIWOK 100K race in San Francisco after only 30 miles, 3 weeks before race day I had picked up a stinking sinus infection and to cap it all 10 days before the start of the WHW I tweaked my Achilles.
I should really have pulled out of the race but I couldn’t bring myself to give it up. Racing means a lot to me, and while I may not be very good at it, I treasure the ability to do it. Work is an artificially constructed necessity which pays the bills. Covering big distances on your own two legs is real. You can’t bluff it and no amount of fancy words or clever spreadsheets will get you from Milngavie to Fort Bill. For lots of reasons, running has been restricted for a couple of years and on the scales upon which I measure myself, I have been found wanting. The thought of another failure was not attractive.
One week out and I could barely manage a gentle 5K. I also knew that if I rested and carried out my rehab exercises there was an outside chance of my Achilles being ok for race day. Dilemma time, do I keep up the gentle jogs so at least I know whether I was fit or not, or do I do nothing and hope for the best. I was probably a bit more grumpy than usual as I wrestled with the conflicting emotions of not wanting to DNS but also not wanting to put my crew through all the effort of getting ready for the race only for me to pull out in the early stages.
Eventually, after much wailing and gnashing of teeth, race day arrived. Nervously I agreed that Helen would meet me at the Beech Tree Inn, 6 miles into the race in case my Achilles was still broken and I needed to pull out.
1am arrived. The race started, and very gingerly I started jogging towards Fort William. Up the path, smile at the speedsters who were doubling back after missing the first turn, walk up the first hill. My Achilles was stiff but not sore, and while my legs felt dead from 10 days of no running, the start of the race was pretty much going to plan. I managed to run easily through Mugdock, settling in to the back of the pack and resisting the urge to rush on. There is a saying that “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy”. In my case this was at the 4 mile point as a group of about 20 of us missed the sharp left turn at Tinkers Loan and continued a good half mile down the track. There were quite a few old hands in that group who must have run that section of trail several hundred times between us. The leader of the pack was none other than Fiona Rennie with more than 10 WHW finishes to her name. Rather sheepishly we retraced our steps and eventually caught up with the bemused sweepers.
Along the old railway track to the Beech Tree and a rather worried looking Helen was waiting and wondering why I had taken so long. She was worried sick that my Achilles had packed in. I, of course, or should that be off course, in a mixture of relief and hilarity at getting lost, had completely forgotten about my achilles by this stage. I asked for my inhaler so she reappeared at the Garden Centre in the middle of the dreaded Gate section before heading off to Balmaha. Being support crew is a thankless task.
It was a beautiful night. It was cool and clear, the full moon meant it never really got dark, and by the time I caught up with George Chalmers outside Easter Drunquassie Farm we had switched off the head torches. I have a particular affection for this little farm camp site as it was the first stop on my first journey on the WHW when I walked it with my small son many, many years ago.
My target for this race was to be faster than my previous effort and to finish in better physical condition. I did have time goals, but they were for guidance rather than targets to push for and the most important goal I was to start slowly and stay relaxed for as long as possible. As always, I had constructed a complex spreadsheet which set out my splits, checkpoint times, food and clothing choices for a whole range of possible times and conditions. As always, I didn’t want anything on the plan. Did I mention that being support crew is a thankless task?
Balmaha arrived and I was in and out quite quickly. The run to Rowardennan was relatively trouble free and I was managing to relax, run easy and avoid stress. Rowardennan was reached in good time. I was still slow, but pretty much on schedule.
Then there were midges. Not in ones or two’s, or even in clouds. There was a constant stream of midges all the way from Balmaha to Inversnaid, thousands of little black pellets hitting your face. I even ended up with a bite on my tongue. I stopped for a pee and by the time I was finished my dangly bits were covered in wee black dots. I am relieved to be able to report that they chose not to bite….
Inversnaid arrived after the excursion down the new low road. I was still trotting along quite easily, passing bodies here and there, but watching my heart rate and staying relaxed. I felt that the low road added quite a bit of time to the course, in practice it was about 12 minutes for me, but it is a nice challenge and much more in keeping than running up the fire road.
I am not a huge fan of the loch side, but as I ran up Loch Lomond on such a great day I couldn’t help but think what a great experience this must be for our overseas visitors to the race.
Beinglas came reasonably easily. No great traumas on the difficult loch side section. By now it was getting warm. Again the checkpoint was smooth. My crew was by now a well oiled machine. “What do you want?” “Don’t know” “Here, eat this and quit whining”
Beinglas is a significant milestone for me. Make it to Beinglas and you will make it to Tyndrum. Make it to Tyndrum and you will get to Fort William is how it plays out in my head.
The next section up to Auchtertyre is quite good to run as there are lots of little markers – Derrydarroch, the cattle creep, the top of the hill, cow poo alley, the Big Gate. Each one can be ticked off and the it is on to the roller coaster in Bogle Glen. The sun was splitting the sky, but the views were glorious and I was still steadily making progress. In the low points my next big focal point was to get to Jelly Baby hill and deliver a wee bottle of whisky to Murdo the Magnificent. In what seemed like no time I was through the big gate and puffing my way up that first hill into the forest.
I ran the roller coaster reasonably efficiently so was slightly surprised to see a figure sprinting down hill and gaining on me rapidly. It turned out to be the smiling figure of Frank Chong, all the way from Malaysia for a Goblet, who was desperate for some selfie action with his Go Pro.
Frank and I ran together into Auchtertyre which was a wonderful sight in the sunshine with a real carnival atmosphere. I got weighed in, down 4kg which is quite a lot but I was feeling well and still drinking and peeing so all was good. I told my team I was going to take a wee break here, so we had a leisurely stop, fuelled up, stretched out, scrubbed some of the midges off my face and chest. It was such a good atmosphere it would have been very tempting just to sleep in the sun all afternoon! Major brownie points for my crew here when Clark and Amanda were able to produce some ice cubes from their van. I put some ice down my arm sleeves to cool my wrists and some more round my neck wrapped in a buff. The big sun hat went on and the look was complete!
I hadn’t exactly planned to be quite so sartorial. I had started in a rather elegant black top and black shorts combo with the multicoloured arm sleeves which were only supposed to stay on through the night. My calves were feeling tired so I pulled on the calf sleeves; then my quad was starting to cramp so I opted for the blue compression shorts which I had only thrown in the bag as an afterthought. The yellow shirt was the thinnest shirt I own, so on it went. By Auchtertyre and the blazing sunshine, it was time for the Dora the Explorer hat. The arm sleeves and buff stayed on so that I could fill them with ice (fantastic trick I picked up from watching Rob Krar’s Western States film). If anyone was freaked out by the ultra minion, I do apologise!
Back to the race. It was a bit of a trudge round to Tyndrum on stiff legs, but I had been promised an iced lolly when I got there so had an incentive to keep going. Even better than the lolly was the sight of Dod Reid cheering on the runners outside Brodies store. Everyone who knows George knows how much he means to the West Highland Way community and he continues to be inspirational in the way he fights his current health problems. Feeling suitably motivated I marched up the hill sucking on my blissfully cold lolly. With impeccable timing it was finished at the top of the hill so it was time to get the legs moving and run along the side of Beinn Dorain to Bridge of Orchy.
Beinn Dorain is a sexy big beast of a hill and I remember always being totally awe-struck by it on rare childhood car trips into the highlands. To run under its shadow remains a privilege.
Life got very difficult for me at this point in my previous attempt at WHW race so I was very nervous approaching Bridge of Orchy as I waited for the wheels to come off. To my surprise, the wheels were still intact so I made a very quick pit stop, topped up my ice and collected support runner Clark.
The climb up Murdo’s Mount was slow but steady and we arrived in the great man’s presence to the strains of Star Wars played on the whistle. Liquid sacrifices were exchanged for jelly babies and from there a good pace was kept until Victoria Bridge.
I love the run to Glencoe. I had trained lots on it this year and usually enjoyed running all the climbs. Not today. Slightly despondently I stomped up the long climb onto the Black Mount, getting increasingly frustrated at not running. I was becoming even more dejected as I tried to do some calculations in my head about how I was doing. I looked at my watch, added various numbers together and came up with an answer somewhere in excess of 28 hours. Despite the mental maths going on in my head, Clark kept me moving. Even when walking he stayed that half step ahead which meant there was no scope for slacking. Eventually the climb eased and the legs decided to run again. The sun was brutal at this stage in the afternoon and by the time we reached an unusually dry Ba Bridge I had emptied both bottles. Clark did a good mountain goat impression by climbing down into the river to refill them for me. We made a decent job of the climb and at the top of the last hill I had a eureka moment when I realised that my calculations had basically been shite and that I was still pretty much on schedule. Relieved we ran steadily into Glencoe.
I refuelled in the car park at Glencoe. No idea what I had to eat, but you can bet it wasn’t what was on my plan. All was going swimmingly until I felt the rising tide of bile and the last few mouthfuls ended up on the road at my feet. I started to panic. This was what happened last time and last time it happened all the way to Kinlochleven. I was just settling into the chair for another retch when Helen and Amanda decided I had been there too long and kicked me out.
I didn’t enjoy the mile to Kingshouse but at least it was downhill. I had a real notion for a pint of orange and lemonade with ice but resisted the temptation. The tarmac section after Kingshouse was the first of my really grumpy phases. The little detour uphill before coming back down to Altnafeadh was an even grumpier phase. It always seems so pointless that bit, it is horrible underfoot on the way up so you can’t get any sort of rhythmn at all. After what seemed like an eternity we arrived at the bottom of the Devil’s Staircase. With absolutely no pretence of running we set about stomping up Devil. Amanda set the pace and I followed doing my best just to keep going. It seemed a long drag but after giving in for just the one water break we made it to the top. Despite there now being a little breeze I was seriously struggling in the heat and the sun seemed to mockingly refuse to dip behind the hills. At the top of the Staircase Amanda waxed lyrical about the views. I assumed the role of truculent five year old and said I didn’t want to look at the views. Actually I included one or two colourful adjectives which would have got me a very red bottom if I was a five year old!
On the subject of red bottoms I am pleased to report that there was no repeat of the infamous vaseline incident. Generous application of lubricant, albeit on a self-service basis, seemed to keep the undercarriage well oiled.
Amanda did a grand job of leading me down the tricky path to Kinlochleven and it was good to switch off a little and just follow her feet through the treacherous jaggy underfoot conditions. Once on the pipe road we cruised down the hill and into the Community Centre.
This was much better. Last time I had been here, I was a complete shivering vomiting wreck. This time I was reasonably in control and even able to give some cheek to Julie and Sarah who were manning the scales and dishing out tough love by the bucketful.
I made myself comfy on one of the couches, ate some chicken soup, a roll and some more rice pudding while exchanging banter with Alan Robertson who had run over from Fort William.
True to form just as I finished my coffee, I could feel my stomach objecting and sent Helen off on an urgent search for a bucket as I really didn’t want to have to explain to Julie Clarke that I had spewed over her floor. The moment was captured for posterity by support crew member Clark who was obviously concerned for my well-being.
We set off on the 1000ft climb up the Lairig Mor in reasonably good spirits. It was still daylight which meant that we were doing pretty well for time. We knuckled down and surprisingly made it up the hill in good shape, however instead of kicking on I started to get slightly fed up. I think at one point I complained about being bored! I wasn’t overly sore, but mentally it was tough going. There was no chance of me chucking it and I wanted my goblet, but I wasn’t enjoying the process. I was too hot, I was tired and I wanted my bed. Despite my crankiness, we did keep moving. I had been warned that Jeff Smith wouldn’t be in his usual place at the top of the climb in the middle of Lairig, but being forewarned didn’t make me any less grumpy about him not being where I expected. We reached his usual spot surprisingly soon but then I spent the next while wondering where the hell he was, and why weren’t we at the corner that marks the end of the Lairig yet. Amanda was doing a good job of giving me the rubber ear treatment and keeping a few paces ahead of me while relentlessly dragging me onwards.
Finally we saw the glow sticks and found Jeff and Patricia with a table full of lovely absurd drinks. I mean, who drinks Lilt and Tizer nowadays? They tasted great. Don’t tell anyone this, but I declined a dram. We said our farewells, headed off and before we knew it , we could see the bonfire at Lundavra.
Gayle and Melanie were totally in control at Lundavra which is a great feeling when you arrive there. They offered up some goodies which I politely declined saying I would get my rice pudding from my crew. “they aren’t here” she said! Oh well, these things happen so I grabbed a handful of vinegar crisps which I proceeded to stare at for a while until I figured out what I was meant to do with them. At that point the Car arrived with Clark and Helen. I set off to walk to the car. “Don’t move” scolded Gayle maternally “Let them come to you!” So like a well behaved wee boy I waited until my rice pudding was brought to me. Helen asked me how I was doing. I replied that I was fine. According to Amanda “you are grumpy as fuck”
Out of Lundavra and all was going swimmingly. Barring catastrophes I was going to finish and get that goblet. Up the hill, round the winding sheep track and splat! I hit the ground like a ton of bricks. One of those nasty little stones embedded solidly in the clay with just enough sticking up to trip you up. I’m not sure who got the bigger fright, me or Amanda. Slowly I made a mental check of all the bits which hurt. Nothing was broken, my knee was really sore but still worked and most importantly my Garmin was still intact. We walked a bit to regain some composure and then it was the last struggle through the forest, down the dreaded ladder and finally out into the last fellled section of forest which always reminds me of an elephants graveyard.
We were moving well now and passed quite a few people. I was aware that Amanda kept checking her watch. I wasnt sure what for, and didn’t want to ask, but assumed there was either some target she was chasing or she was thinking we were too slow and had been out too long. The trail had one last sting in its trail as we ascended to the fire road which marks the end of the trail section. A heather root which was sticking out got stuck in my shoe and I was flat on my face once more. That however was that. We exchanged pleasantries with some runners at the start of the fire road and then Amanda announced we were cruising all the way in. “Aye right”, thought I, but sure enough we got into a rhythm and we toughed it out down the hill getting steadily faster and moving more freely all the time. “Is Helen coming to Braveheart?” “Don’t think so” “If she is, we aren’t stopping” Amanda was in full on competition mode now. We were striding out and passing people. We toughed out the never ending mile to Braveheart Car Park with WHW arrows teasing us all the way. Down through Braveheart and by now it had turned into a game. Could we make it to the end without a stop.?
The last mile along the road into Fort William was my fastest mile of the whole race. It felt like we were flying. The watch briefly dipped below 8 min miles at one point which is crazy and before we knew it we were past the roundabout, round the corner and into the leisure centre. Again Amanda showed her support running credentials and stopped me running straight past the entrance!
Clocked in, weighed, hugs and toast, and that was it over. A second Goblet.
Overall, I am very content with my race. I feel that I managed it well. Obviously it hurt, but I had no great lows and no great physical disasters. I just kept ticking away, sticking to my slow and steady race plan. I feel that I worked hard and didn’t take the easy option of walking too often, though on reflection you can always find parts of the race where maybe I walked a little too soon or for too long, but on balance I am happy that I gave it a good go and respected the challenge. I made it to the end in much better physical condition than my previous attempt and I was 2 hours and 25 minutes faster. An interesting side note, my average heart rate was almost 15 beats per minute lower in the second half of the race compared with the first half. I am not quite sure what this means, my body may just have slipped into a lower gear, or I might just not have been working hard enough.
My approach seems to have been effective in that I progressed steadily through the field picking up places in most stages moving from 158th at Balmaha to 88th at the finish.
That is probably me done with racing West Highland Way for a while. Next time I run WHW will be to chase a time, but to chase a time would require me to lose tonnes of weight and focus solely on WHW instead of my usual trick of trying to balance marathons and other adventures in the same training period. Maybe one day I will have a bash at it, but at the moment there are other adventures to be had.
While I may not run it again for a while I will definitely be involved in one way or another. The race itself is one of the great races in the world. Through familiarity we probably underestimate just how stunning the course is, but the journey northwards from Milngavie is something I never tire of.
There is so much more to the West Highland Way Race than the course. It is the sort of event which always teaches you lessons. Lessons about community, about shared endeavours and about triumph over adversity, about humility, trust and the importance of friendship. There is something intrinsically noble about undertaking a grand adventure and there is something optimistic about running towards something, even if it is slightly quixotic and even if that something is only a leisure centre door 95 miles away.
Why do you keep running when it gets tough? Well for starters ou are always running towards your crew who have given up so much time and sleep because they believe in you, how can you let them down? Every single person in the West Highland Way Family is willing you to succeed, how can you not go on? Ultimately it is because you have committed to do something and must see it through. If you don’t see it through, you don’t win the prize
To quote the late David Bowie “We can be heroes, just for one day”
I can imagine no better place to watch heroes than somewhere on the West Highland Way in the middle of June.
On a rainy Saturday morning we took a wee trip to Rowardennan. The West Highland passes through Rowardennan before heading off into the relative wilderness of the East side of Loch Lomond.
After many years the “Low Road” has been cleared, the path upgraded and it is now open to walkers and runners once more. I was last on the low road nearly 20 years ago when I walked the West Highland Way carrying heavy rucksacks with my son Hamish who at the time was only 8 years old or so.
This time the point of the trip was to run to Inversnaid and back, carrying out a recce of the Low Road as I expect to be “racing” on it in June. I put the word racing in quotes because I always find that I am pretty wrecked by the time I get to Rowardennan about 26 miles in to the route regardless of which race I am doing. Fortunately I usually recover later on, but the prospect of actually racing at this point is unlikely!
The total distance from Rowardennan to Inversnaid is around 7.5 miles. It is described on the official WHW web site here
The first section is along a good road which works its way past the Youth Hostel until it bears right and starts to climb uphill through a gate just after Ptarmigan Lodge.
The first section can be seen in the following short video clip
About 300m after the gate the new low road drops sharply to the left at a big bend in the road. It is likely that this route will be used by the West Highland Way Race this June (2016). The Highland Fling race will continue to use the “High Road” so Fling runners will not turn on to the low road but will continue up hill for another 2.5 miles. The Fling route is easier running but not nearly as interesting as the Low Road.
The Low Road can be seen here, slightly speeded up. Apologies also for the slightly jaunty angle of the video at times. Either my camera was squint or my head was, not sure which.
The Low Road joins the High Road once more and descends to the lochside for a nice 2.5 mile run through some nice forested trail with the odd waterfall to skip through for good measure before finally arriving at Inversnaid Hotel and the spectacular waterfalls there.
Inversnaid is a pretty god forsaken place on race day. Most people arrive there feeling horrible, there are very few supporters because it is too far to get there by road. It is only 7ish miles by foot and more than 30 miles by road. When you arrive in Inversnaid on race day you usually find the midges have already eaten the contents of your drop bag, and you have only the slowest most technical part of the course still to come in the next 6 miles to Beinglas farm.
Despite the rain, I thoroughly enjoyed my wee jaunt on the new improved Low Road and I didn’t even mind the run back to Rowardennan up the hills of the high road. And anyway, all roads lead to Milngavie in June.
Some people like to run for the joy of running. That isn’t my bag. I need a purpose to get me out the door.
Some people like to run randomly and tackle races in whatever fitness they have at that time.
With my lack of any natural ability, I need a very structured training programme to arrive at my goal race in any sort of shape.
My goal races this year are London Marathon, MIWOK 100K, West Highland Race and TDS.
To complete my year successfully there are certain things I need to do
I need to increase my basic speed. With speed comes efficiency and improved speed will provide a foundation for a half decent attempt at a marathon as well as providing more of a cushion between my flat out speed and my ultra speed. The bigger the gap, hopefully the easier the ultra speed will feel.
I need to develop some speed endurance, otherwise my marathon will be slow, painful and disappointing.
I need to develop the ability to run easily for many hours at a time and practice that feeling which comes in an ultra where you feel really bad, but if you stick it out for another couple of hours you start to feel better again.
I need to be able to climb hills. MIWOK and West Highland Way are both hilly and TDS is extremely hilly.
There are different views on how you build your training. One school of thought says build endurance and then add speed, another says build speed and once you have that, add endurance. Which ever one you follow, it is pretty much agreed you should only focus on one of these at a time.
In an ideal world I would do a full marathon cycle, recover then a full ultra cycle for MIWOK, WHW and TDS. The timing and nature of these races mean some compromises need to be
My thinking is that while I want to have a decent attempt at London, but it can really only be treated as speedwork for the following ultras and so i will need to miss some marathon specific training and will probably only have a mini taper as opposed to a full taper. London becomes the last long run before MIWOK.
MIWOK is a hilly 100k. With only two weeks between London and MIWOK, London recovery becomes MIWOK taper. At 100k, MIWOK is also an ok distance to prepare for West Highland Way. If I can be fit for MIWOK, then I really just need to recover, maintain fitness and do a bit of fine tuning before WHW 6 weeks later. After WHW it is recover for a few weeks and hit the mountains until TDS in August.
My training programme started at the beginning of December and runs through to the end of August. I have no Autumn races scheduled this year. I reckon that if I make it through my goal races then my body will have done more than enough for one year and a period of down time will give me a chance to recover.
My training year runs through a number of distinct phases:
Within each phase are a series of workouts which get progressively harder, on a two hard one easy cycle.
In Calendar terms it looks like this
December – Base. Building consistency and regular running. getting enough fitness to allow proper training.
January – Focus on speed
February – Speed then Endurance
March – Endurance and Speed endurance
April – Speed endurance. Mini taper for London marathon
May – Race MIWOK. Recovery and Endurance
June – Endurance, Taper, West Highland Way
July – Recover and Hills
August – Hills, Taper and TDS
We are now in February. I have been doing lots of tempo and interval work to build up speed, and hopefully shift some weight. I am getting faster, and am hitting most of my targets, though still have some way to go. It is hard finding the energy and time for midweek workouts. My ultra endurance is frustrating, and I look on with mileage envy at those folks who can go out for a long run of 30+ miles and make it look effortless. However, long ultra miles are still to come so hopefully like the good weather they will come eventually.
This is my programme, it will hopefully work for me. I need to go through my own phases and not be distracted by what others are doing, even if that means missing out on some potentially fun runs and races. Whether it is successful or not we shall find out in August!
Ultras are usually quite complicated logistically. They are usually also longer and harder than you expect. Here a few questions to ask before you enter your next Ultra. I go through this list every time I want to enter a new race
Where does it start?
Do you actually know where that is?
Are you sure?
What time does it start?
How will you get to the start?
Where does it finish?
Do you know where that is?
How will you get home?
How far is the race?
Do you have a reasonable hope of training to run that far?
Does the race have cut offs?
Are you likely to meet the cut off time?
Do you know what the terrain is like?
How hilly is the route?
Do you still have a chance of making the cut offs?
How long does it take the winner/mid pack/last finisher to complete the course?
Still think you can finish within the cut offs?
What time of day are you likely to finish?
When you finish, where will your clothes/car keys/car be?
Will it still be daylight when you finish?
Do you need a support crew?
Will you need drop bags?
Do you know what the drop bag rules are?
When does race entry open?
How do you enter?
How quickly did it fill up last year?
Does the race have a web site or Facebook page?
Have you read either of them?
Does the race fit round the other races in your schedule and give you time to train/recover?
I am lucky enough to have built up a good selection of ultra gear to mix and match which is versatile enough to do me for most types of races, so I no longer need to go on a shopping spree every time I enter a big race. My most used kit currently is
Jacket: OMM Kamleika smock or OMM Cypher Event jacket
Trousers: OMM Kamleika Race Pants or Raidlight Surpantalon Ultralight
Base Layer: Helly Hansen or OMM Vector Zip
Shorts: Ronhill Cargo Trail or 2Xu Compression
Hat: X-bionic Soma Cap
Calf Guards: Compressport or CEP
Socks: Compressport ProRacing High Cut or Drymax Trail Running Socks – 1/4 Crew High
Pack: Ultimate Direction PB Vest or Raidlight Olmo 20l
Gloves: Sealskinz Nordic ski Gloves or Asics winter glove
Some of this stuff is quite expensive, but by patiently watching for sales, taking last year’s model or by Santa being generous I have rarely paid full price for it.
Throw in and an assortment of buffs and t-shirts and I am pretty much good to go most places.
There are however, still a few bits of kit on my Birthday, Christmas and lottery win list.
What I need it for
You don’t need much of a head torch for summer running in Scotland so for races like West Highland Way or Great Glen Ultra pretty much any head torch will do. Running in the Alps in late summer is a different matter and with TDS coming up this year I need something which will give me a good bright light for up to 8 hours at a time.
What I have:
I have various head torches which work pretty well to a greater or lesser extent. My main torch is a LED Lenser H7R
It works well and gives a nice big beam especially in darkness. It represents very good value for money and a good balance between price and brightness, especially as I got it in a sale for about £35. Having had it for a few years, I am beginning to wonder if it has seen better days as batteries seem not to last very long any more.
I have run out of patience with batteries – I have tried just about every kind under the sun and still have to change them every few hours. They are worth a separate post of their own…..
I also have the Alpkit Gamma which is the best value head torch on the market, mainly because it is so ridiculously cheap at around £15 but with a good wide beam and decent battery life.
Another very useful piece of kit is the LED Lenser Neo. This is a very small lightweight torch which is perfect as a spare or backup torch and with enough light to get you out of trouble. The battery life is very good indeed so you will get a good 12 hours out of the torch without having to change batteries. Again a very reassuring feature in an emergency backup.
What I want:
I might pick up one of the new model Alpkit Gammas or I might explore some of the high powered LED Lenser torches but I would always end up coming back to the Petzl Nao
This light isn’t cheap at over £100 and I have resisted the urge to buy one so far, but the brightness and battery life are very good and having borrowed my lovely wife’s one I have to concede that it is better than anything I have at the moment. Any torch that you can actually programme from your computer has to be good! If I was buying one I would probably also buy a spare battery for flexibility and to cover those very long races where you might be out for two nights. Again at £25 a go the spare battery isn’t cheap but better to be safe than sorry and with a spare it could be charged up on the go in your pack with a portable charger.
What I need it for
Poles are not allowed in Scottish races so it is really just for overseas ultras that I need poles. There is always a debate about poles but once you have used them in the big mountains you really feel the benefit of them. With more adventures in the Alps planned, I am looking for a pole which is very light weight which obviously means less weight to carry, but also means better balance when running with them in your hand.
They need to be strong enough to survive me being hashy with them, and they need to fold up small enough to fit inside a backpack or strap tightly to a running pack without flapping around. Ideally they will be easy to assemble and take down, especially with cold fingers and in a perfect world the length would be adjustable to allow for different types of terrain.
What I have
I have an old pair of Leki lightweight titanium walking poles. These were top of the range when I got them many years ago. There really isn’t much wrong with them. They are quite robust, are adjustable in height so can be altered depending on whether you are going uphill or downhill. They are pretty light. You notice you have them in your hand but not enough to imbalance you. I used these on the CCC race and never put them in my pack once, but strapping them to your pack can be a bit of a guddle especially when your fingers and brain are a bit fuzzy.
What I want
I am still undecided. I am tending towards the Mountain King Trail Blaze Skyrunner Carbon. This has the attraction that it is very light at only 106g per pole and by folding into 4 sections it will stash away easily and securely in my pack.
At around £90 per pair it feels like a lot of money for a piece of kit which I worry might be a bit flimsy, but the convenience is tempting.
The other pole which catches my eye is the Leki Micro Vario Carbon. This has all the features I am after but while lightweight it is heavier than the Mountain King and it is significantly more expensive at £130-£150.
It is probably more robust than the Mountain King, has a sturdier handle and has the big advantage of being adjustable.
A couple of other alternatives come in to the mix as well. The Black Diamond Ultra Distance Pole which is similar to the Mountain King, but possibly a bit more sturdy if heavier.
The final one which caught my eye was the Raidlight Carbon Trail pole. A bit heavier than the others but still quite attractive and I am a fan of Raidlight gear.
Hard to choose but on balance I would probably go for the Mountain King over the Leki, just because it is the lightest, cheaper and less complicated.
What I need it for
This is a slightly mundane item after the previous two things on my shopping list but a decent pair of gaiters really does help keep dirt and stones out of your shoes. I also need a gaiter which is robust enough to keep excess water and snow from getting in to your shoe and which will give a bit of protection to your ankles from rocks and the odd time you kick yourself.
What I have
I have tried a range of different gaiters. The Dirty Girl ones are quite pretty and keep the dry stuff out, but I find they are a pain to attach to your laces and you need to velcro them on which is also more effort than I can be bothered with. They are thin so they do get wet.
I have tried the Inov-8 sock with the built in gaiter. These are ok, but the socks aren’t my preferred sock so that isn’t a solution on a long race where you might want to change your socks. I have also tried the Inov-8 race ultra gaiter but they have attachments for Inov-8 race ultra shoes and don’t fit other shoes well.
My favourite gaiter so far is the Inov-8 Debris Gaiter 32. This is a thick gaiter with a sock cuff, which covers your laces and which keeps water out as well. My pair has seen better days and the elastic straps which hold them on have worn out, so it is time for a new pair.
What I want
The easy solution to this is just get another pair of the Inov-8 Debris gaiters. There is little to fault them and at around £15 are not going to break the bank.
I am also quite fancy the Outdoor Research gaiter. These are a bit more expensive but might do the trick in very gritty conditions. At nearly £30 these are pricey for a pair of running gaiters.
The final pair on my list is the Raidlight STOP RUN gaiter. This is probably the main contender to replace my Inov-8s. It is pretty robust, and claims to be waterproof and has the added benefit of a wee bit of padding round the ankle bones. At about £20 it is not too expensive
I went for a run on Saturday. I parked up at Loch Turret Dam and ran up the side of the Loch with the intention of running up Ben Chonzie.
Ben Chonzie has a reputation as the most boring Munro in Scotland, however from this approach it is quite runable, and with some snow on the tops it would make for a good run which was also relatively safe in the conditions.
There is an undulating 4 mile run on a rough track to the start of the climb. There were a number of small rivers and waterfalls which crossed the path, which in dry weather could either be avoided or crossed on stepping stones. With all the recent rain and the quick melting snow there was a good volume of water swelling the burns which meant there was no option but to get your feet wet.
I don’t mind wet feet and when you are moving they drain pretty quickly and stay warm.
The path peters out and then the main climb begins across open moorland. I had last climbed this hill more than 20 years ago and I had vague recollections of this section being boggy. With all the melting snow this turned into a half mile uphill trudge through deep bog and running water until I finally made it to the snow line.
Despite being a relatively mild day, there was a cutting wind blowing, and I became aware that my soaked feet were becoming increasingly cold and sore. A few more minutes climbing and the snow was knee deep and my feet were turning to blocks of ice.
Another ten minutes climbing and I would have made it on to the wide ridge which leads up to the summit and a nice run back over some tops to the starting point at the head of the loch.
Instead I took the decision to turn back. There wasn’t any drama and I was in no immediate danger, but I just wasn’t comfortable with where I was and how I was feeling at that particular moment in time. My feet had turned into blocks of ice. The repeated soakings followed by plunging into snow had made them in my mind dangerously cold, and more importantly they were distracting me and impacting on my judgement and awareness. On another day I might just have ploughed on. I was after all, well equipped. I had my Kahtoolas and poles which was plenty for the conditions. I had a rucksack full of good gear (plus a foil blanket and a plastic emergency bag). If I was feeling energetic and robust I would probably have pushed on. However I was feeling far from energetic. It had been a hard week at work and a hard training week and my energy levels were low. With company, I might have pushed on, but I was solo.
I could claim that I weighed up all of those risks and with no reason to have to push to the top made the sensible decision. Maybe subconsciously I did. All I knew was I wasn’t comfortable, and if you are not comfortable in the mountains in winter then the best thing to do is get out of there.
Did I chicken out? did I fail in what I set out to do? Probably. It wasn’t the toughest of climbs or the toughest of conditions and by the time I was safely back on the track and running again my feet came back to life.
I made it back in one piece, no damage done and most importantly no-one had to come and find me. Pride slightly dented but equally happy that on that day I made the right decision for me.
There is a fine line between brave and stupid and on that day I didn’t have the energy to be brave so chose not to be stupid.