Saturday 25 November 2017

The North Face Endurance Challenge: a shortlived high and many lows

4am in a freezing park in Sausalito, Marin County, 12 hours after stepping off a plane in San Francisco, two days after running a work event in Edinburgh, three days after falling so hard on pavement after the first frost that my knee ballooned purple. I hadn't run more than 3 hours in a single run since the UTMB, and had struggled with training motivation, fatigue and filling life so full of priorities that at times I was breathless with self-imposed pressures. My preparation for this race was far from ideal and I tempered my expectations. Start slow, expect the struggle and stay with it.

Blindingly bright floodlights filtered across the field, lighting registration tents and an aid station. Yup, really; this race has pro facilities before you even set off. Coffee, fruit, bagels and peanut butter together with supplies of Scratch labs energy drink (my new favourite electrolyte. Sorry Tailwind, it's just not working anymore). And for the first time I've seen in any race there seemed to be enough Portaloos provided for runners, something to write home about indeed. 600 anxious bodies huddled around huge patio heaters  spread across the field, waiting for the 5am start and Dean Karnazes to appear for the motivational speech. The RD wasn't wrong when he warned it would be cooler pre-dawn in Marin than San Francisco. The colder we got, the harder I knew it would be to start sensibly slow. I'd been warned by coach Ryan Gelfi that starting paces are suicidal, so I wanted to stay away from the first hundred or so runners, at least. Dean appeared, sending us luck and strength on his local trails. Actually, I have no idea what he said, due to the buzz of nervous chatter on all sides.

Off we went. Leaving tarmac and light behind for darkness, a dusty trail and the first long climb of many, out of Sausalito. I've been coming to Northern California most years since 2010 and am head over heels in love with this state; the redwood forests, Sierra Nevada mountains, pacific coastline, unbelievable marine life and character of San Francisco, unique as cities go. I'd wanted to run on the Marin County trails for years, but was distracted by other challenges in the mountains. Here I was finally, with no shortage of passion for this place yet zero experience of what the trails were really like, where to push and where to ease back.

Ryan's course preview helped hugely, he gave me an account of what to expect from personal experience running the race several years back. So his words were fresh in mind, from the early miles until a milestone climb at mile 19, that the first four climbs were easiest and I shouldn't have a problem running them. I largely did, a snail's pace at times trying to run within a sustainable limit. As predicted, I was far from bursting with energy and strength, legs heavy and strength of mind wavering. The gradients were runnable, certainly more runnable than UTMB, but herein lay the pressure. Everyone running everything! No mental or physical breaks on the climbs, and when it came to the downhill sections that would otherwise provide the respite needed to recharge for another climb, my knee bothered me and I was fully focused on avoiding falls. If you like a level gradient in your ultra, don't sign up here. The course really has zero sustained flat ground, save a mile or two after the rolling Muir Woods section at mile 38 and before the finish in Crissy Field. What it does have is luxurious, butter-smooth trail over open, rolling hills, down dry and shady forest trails and dropping to white sand coves, with some of the best views of the San Francisco skyline I've seen.

On the climb out of Tennessee Valley, mile 13, I finally gave myself a hiking break. These climbs were starting to tear apart my morale already and I didn't feel much of the grit and confidence I had during UTMB. And then we hit the summit before the descent to Muir Beach, at mile 17. Simple beauty, almost too much to take in. It felt a crime to keep running and not savour the panoramic pacific seascape that stretched for miles ahead. I had stopped to take photos earlier, when the sun rose over the San Francisco skyline, and did so again. What the hell, I'm here to enjoy it and a few photo breaks aren't going to make or break my race or place, most probably.

Ryan had said that the climb up to the first pass through Cardiac aid station from mile 19-23 was the longest of the route, and I had this target to preserve and pace myself for. As it started, I reminded myself not to panic that it already felt a struggle. It takes a while to warm back into a climb and once you get going your body adapts and the inner metronome takes over soon enough. The narrow single track trail transitioned to an endless series of switchbacks up the mountain. If this was UTMB...I kept thinking. I'd be hiking hard, poles in hand, committed to a long climb and knowing exactly what was ahead. I suddenly felt the stark absence of poles, and realised what an unhelpful loop of thinking my comparisons to UTMB were. Back to the switchbacks, one by one. If I'm strong I should start passing other 50 milers here, Ryan had forecast. No sooner had I started on the switchbacks than a crowd of chatty runners appeared behind. Being a narrow section, passing was tough so a frustrating stop-start ensued to let them pass. I re-focused. The next set of switchbacks, keep a strong core, keep my head up into the climb. Another hoarde of runners approached, like a herd of charging buffalo. Am I crawling up this? I let them pass. Then yet another 10 or so women danced past, stride smooth and moving efficiently up the trail, as if it were a 10k race. I cast a sideways glance at the next guy passing and noticed his bib, blue for 50k. I'd totally forgotten about the 50k. Turns out it had started a few hours after us, bypassing the first loops of our course and passing through Tennessee at 3.5 miles. So they were just a few miles in, joining our course for several sections before we split. I felt better, but still had passed very few 50 mile runners. Onwards, and finally to the top of the four mile climb and start of a rocky, rooty, woodland descent to Stinson Beach. I found myself able to have more fun down here than I'd thought, passing a few women - including an incredibly noisy one who I am sure spurred speed in many a runner around that section - and a few guys, to reach Stinson and 27 miles.

After Stinson came the first of the much steeper, more technical second half climbs, with deep, slippery wooden stairs set into the hillside. And so began the power hiking. I had known this would come and enjoyed backing off the pedal and settling into a hike. I'd eaten fairly well so far and took the opportunity to take on another Torq gel. So far I'd had a Torq every hour, small bites of flapjacks, a few aid station salt-dipped potatoes and a few slices of banana (whilst wishing aids would just give out whole bananas, the blackening slices always less than appealing), as well as a lot of Scratch drink, still tasting great at mile 30.

Back at Cardiac, I ditched my Salomon gaiters, which kept popping off (despite seeing me through all the UTMB training, they now have a need to escape) and messed around with my drop bag to find some inviting fuel. Giles appeared re-applying sunscreen and I asked if he wanted to run together. I had a stark absence of chat but thought we could push the pace better together. Leaving Cardiac I was looking forward to what sounded like a beautiful 8 mile section through Muir Woods, which was advertised in San Francisco as a stunning place to experience the Marin headlands. The forest was cool and peaceful and I felt the rare fire of endurance for the next few miles. The sort where you feel your energy is boundless and you can pass runners again and again without emptying the tank. Unfortunately my tank was finite. By mile 34 I was struggling up short, sharp climbs again and feeling the fire retreat, despite eating and drinking well. Giles took the lead and I followed for a while, until we popped out next to a road for a mile, the reprieve of runnable flat terrain on tarmac and then on singletrack through thick vegetation. And then there we were back at Muir Beach, mile 39. A few seconds of refilling and refuelling and onwards for another 3 mile section to the penultimate aid. And a stinger of a steep climb from here, the one we'd cruised down much earlier as the backdrop of deep blue ocean opened up for the first time. It was a testing hike, with a few short sections of easier ground in between consistently steep rollercoaster hills.

When we reached Tennessee Valley aid for the second time at mile 40 I was not in great mental shape, having a sense of humour failure at my performance and time slipping by. I knew I could finish a 50 miler so was questioning what I have to prove and why I brought myself here. My right IT band was nagging and my quads toasted. I usually love the feeling of pushing on tired legs in the late stages of an ultra but couldn't seem to tap into that feeling no matter how hard I tried. I'd also miscalculated and thought we had 6 miles to run from here rather than 8. So sub 9.30 was no longer possible. The A goal of sub 9 had slipped out of grasp hours ago. The final major climb leaving Tennessee Valley is a smooth dirt track, and Ryan had said if I was able to run this rather than hike I'd be doing brilliantly. A few short stints of jogging were possible but that was about it. A few guys passed and we kept leap frogging until the final aid station at Alta, where I still felt shocking but decided to push with all I had for the final 6 miles to reach and cross the Golden Gate bridge. 

The trail to reach the bridge access point was nothing short of breathtaking. Winding single track with the towering curves of international orange framing the sky ahead, and the greenspace of San Francisco's Crissy Field and Golden Gate park beyond. On the bridge we were silenced by the roar of traffic and gentle upwards curve of the pavement. It ain't flat! At 1.7 miles long, I left the last of my energy there as we were directed towards the seafront bike trail for the final few miles to the finish in Crissy Field. I pushed hard until we reached the finish, crossed the line with Giles in 9 hours 42 minutes, 150th overall and 31st female, 10th in age category.

With perspective, my race reminds me of the Rules of Being Human (see below): "There are no mistakes, only lessons. Lessons are repeated until they are learned. Learning lessons does not end". Sometimes I feel I have gained mastery over my body and it can perform to my expectations. Sometimes it does not, and it's important to question why and learn from this. Negative thought patterns, IT band issues, general exhaustion do not have to be par for the course, and send me a clear message that to perform at my best this late in the year I needed to allow myself more space for training and preparation, both emotionally and physically. And maybe not fly out with less than a day to adapt to a new time zone. Somewhere between finishing UTMB and November I lost the love of climbing that summer training gave me. After such positive gains in strength from long training weekends in the alps I'd pushed my boundaries enough to enjoy and excel at long, demanding climbs by the time UTMB weekend rolled around. I didn't have the time or the training ground to recover and excel again for TNF. I'm taking away positives too; that it is in fact possible for me to get round a complicated loop course without taking a wrong turn (thanks to incredible course markings); run 50 miles without falling; and know without doubt what my body and mind needs over the next months.

Within half an hour of finishing TNF I was compulsively shaking and curled on the dirt next to an aid table, unable to stand for lightheadedness and waves of nausea. Giles took care of me, collecting drop bags and generally being superhero support despite having raced 50 miles hard himself. I'm pretty sure this is postural hypotension, and I've only ever had it after 100 mile races, West Highland Way and Western States. It's symptomatic enough that my body was working on overtime for this race. It may be connected only to pushing beyond comfort for the final few miles, blood pressure up and heart working overtime, before the sudden stop and no cool down whatsover. No doubt I'll now be aware of this in future races, and try to keep moving over the line to slow the pooling of blood in the legs and make every effort to claim that finish line beer!

A huge thanks goes to Ryan at Trails and Tarmac for keeping me accountable all year long, it's been an adventure. To Giles for looking after me, sacrificing his own post-race treats. And to all the wonderful race staff whose cheer made a difference to some dark places.

Full results here.

Saturday 9 September 2017

Stick-to-it-iveness: UTMB 2017

Trudging up a steep trail of mud and slick rock, head bowed against driving rain and hemmed in between male runners continually surging past towards the 2,500 metre Col du Bonhomme. I am always struggling here. And it's barely 25 miles into the race. Mental inventory: what's up with me?

Friday, 6.30pm. I had a strong start, edging into the first 150 runners after the elite pen, in a starting field of over 2,500. I'd learnt from 2015, any further back and I'd be walking out of Chamonix. We were a nervous, fidgeting crowd. Raw emotions and hopes. As Conquest of Paradise blasted out I felt calmer than I'd expected, stomach still, breath steady. Ready. We left Chamonix, eating into the 105 mile, 30,000 ft circle around Mont Blanc. Most of us wouldn't return until Sunday, and 850 of us would drop along the way.

As we headed along the flattest section of the trail to Les Houches, I kept a steady and measured pace. This year, no pushing on the short, sharp undulations, let others pass by. The spectator crowds blew me away. Despite a far from ideal forecast, people lined the streets many deep and late into the evening in Chamonix, Les Houches, St Gervais and Les Contamines to cushion our journey into the high mountains.

The first climb, a steep and rocky ski road up to Le Delevret, high above St Gervais, was smooth and I let what felt like 100 men pass by. I was fuelling early and often and felt strong until the deep mud up to Les Contamines began to steal my confidence and energy. People still passed me by the dozens and I longed for the peaceful later sections where egos and eagerness would have diminished, along with the constant scrape scrape of poles and sounds of human effort. Even 'allez, allez' began to grate, I needed some space and silence and perhaps the next climb would bring it.

Back on the climb to the Col du Bonhomme, the wind was whipping and rain began pounding, distorting the beams of headtorch light. I reminded myself - deal with every issue as it arises, and they will be temporary only. Physically I know I can do this. Up at the Col conditions were truly wild. I'm lucky to experience the UTMB in two years of opposing weather; in 2015 it was baking hot and today it was wintery and wild, much like Scotland. In 2015 by this point I'd already had 5 toilet stops with demoralising GI issues, this year I'd had none - so get on with it. It's just weather.

The technical ridgeline trail to the Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme was especially hardcore; a few miles of suck-it-up wind chill and ankle-bending rock. Nobody stopped along these high points, it was a race of endurance to each descent. I stopped drinking and eating and felt the effects of this 5km later in the valley, Les Chapieux. I had problems to solve quickly in the aid station; my back, just 28 miles in, was badly chafed by the bottom of my pack. Perhaps my pre-race routine was not diligent enough. I didn't feel like eating and one of my gaiters kept popping off, meaning many quick stops. A few minutes of re-applying anti-chafe, forcing calories down and a toilet break and I was back on the short road section out of the tiny village, kept company by a friendly, chirpy Australian girl called Robyn, who ran an incredible debut to finish 10th.

Over the next few hours over the Col de la Seigne my mind and stomach fell apart  temporarily. I can't explain why I wasn't eating properly, I know better. I began to feel nauseus and lacking. Yet more men came marching past and icy showers met us higher on the col. No hanging around here. I silently thanked the UTMB organisers for cutting the next technical climb to Pyramids Calcaires (which does seem an illogical detour off the TMB at any time). At Lac Combal I had a word with myself, I must fuel properly no matter how little I want to. So I ate well here, almond bars, soup and some Coke for the first time.

It wouldn't be long before the sun came up but the next few hours before dawn were bitterly cold on the 500m climb up to Arete de Mont Favre - one of the most breathtaking vistas on the course. Now just a 7km undulating then steep descent down into Courmayeur. The field was mercifully thinning and less men were charging by. 'Run mindful' mantras ran through my mind constantly as I passed technical sections of trail where in the past I've fallen or sprained an ankle. The descent was a joy this time around. Would Liz meet me in Courmayeur? I'd said I didn't need anyone but secretly hoped she would be there for ten minutes of human connection and a smooth transition.

And there, outside the sports centre, she was, cheering and positive. I had no idea where I was in the ladies field but reckoned nowhere near the top 30, yet Liz told me I was closing a gap to reaching it, and Sally McRae had left the aid ten minutes earlier. I ate well - pasta and rehydration salts - and re-stocked with gels and bars for the next long stage. In 2015 it was 11 hours from here until Champex Lac and my crew.

On a good day, I love the steady dry switchbacks up to Refuge Bertone, a halfway landmark from fun recce weekends, and enjoyed a laidback chat with a guy from Montana and then Amy Sproston. Amy had already passed me no fewer than four times in the last 20 miles, continually having to stop due to GI issues but running an inspirational pace with a smooth and strong gait in between. It was surreal being around world class runners and I felt detached, like I was in a different race. Towards the top of the climb I passed Sally McRae, who seemed to be battling some issues.

It was extremely cold up there on the ridge between Bertone and Bonatti, a favourite section of fairly runnable single track. Bonatti would be a milestone, where I'd said I'd text Liz and Giles an update. Now I had elites chasing me and was entering the thick of the race, just over halfway which I always feel is harder mentally than the latter sections. So far to go, hard to run the inclines, getting tough to stop and start constantly, fuel is entirely unappealing, runners starting to drop at checkpoints.

We ran out of Italy and into a storm. After Arnouvaz, thick clouds formed and a brutal wind picked up, throwing down hard showers of hail and, higher up, snow, just as I set foot on the Grand Col Ferret climb. I can't stand running in waterproofs but had no option but to stop and put on pretty much all my spare kit. It felt like a slow climb, with all of my focus taken on moving forward into the wind and not much left for eating and drinking. The col was beautiful, dusted with fresh snow and surrounded by a skyline of white peaks.

On the way down to La Peule I passed several women but still felt slow. Every time I took off my waterproof the rain would start again. At La Fouly I took care of myself properly knowing I would spiral if I didn't; salty crackers and cheese, soup and coke restored me a little. As I left I saw Sabrina Verjee, recent Lakeland 100 winner, just behind me. It was soon apparent that the route from La Fouly to Praz de Fort had also been changed, and instead of the riverside trail and narrow singletrack through the forest we were re-directed 7km along the main road. I loved it and ran well, the road was nothing short of a respite. As we finally left it to rejoin the trail at Praz de Fort I felt surprisingly upbeat, excited even. Just another few miles to the climb I'd grown to love up to Champex, and my crew. Sabrina caught me and it was refreshing to talk to her on the ascent, which was a mudbath. I felt almost deliriously positive but worried a crash may follow so forced a chocolate flapjack down. If in doubt, eat.

It was amazing to see Giles and Liz and in the warm madness of the huge marquee I attempted to change clothes, socks, deal with chafing, eat, drink and talk, a messy whirlwind. They'd brought an impressive savoury selection and quiche and rice salad tasted so good. I left in just under 20 minutes ahead of Sabrina and got into a good stride after the road climb out of the town. The miles to Plan De L'eau melted away and I knew I could take on the climb, the first of the final three. I knew it well now, its brutally steep rocky sections but the gentler switchback reprieves that came after. Up above on the ridge the brightness in the sky gave me a new confidence, reminding me that by this stage in 2015 I was running into the twilight. Next came more mud, technical rooty descent and being saved again and again by poles. From Champex to the finish last year took 12 hours, with this section to Trient taking 4. In the recce Jamie and I had taken 3 so I knew I could improve here and capitalise on how I was feeling. It felt amazing to run into Trient in 3 hours 11 minutes and this stoked the fire to finish as fast as I could. On the last mile into the aid I passed Magda Boulet and Amanda Basham although I didn't register who they were at the time.

12 minutes in the tent: potatoes, raclette, rehydration salts, painkillers - G & L had it all! Together with my iPod fired up for the first time I felt ready for the penultimate 900m climb up to Les Tseppes. Marching up the track to the start of the switchbacks, I could hear Magda, Amanda and KC Lickteig behind me, forming a team and chanting "two more climbs". They were upbeat and I let them pass, their pace was inspiring but I wanted my own space and to keep my own. I was comforted by comparing my state tonight to the state I was in here two years ago, when I'd tried unsuccessfully to snooze at the side of the trail. The descent finally came around, bringing with it deep pole and ankle-sucking mud and horizontal rain. Visibility was terrible and it was all I could do to stay on the trail with a very slow jogging pace. Grit flew everywhere and it was hard to fuel myself and keep focus so I just concentrated on small sections; the muddy mountain bike switchbacks; the rooty flatter section to the ski lifts marking the border back into France; the rocky few km's of ski road; the final technical rocky descent into Vallorcine. I arrived in 2.40, well below my 3 hour target, overjoyed but shaky and undernourished.

Giles was purveyor of the saltiest fries I've ever eaten - tasted amazing - and together with Liz worked to re-stock and refuel me for the final push, the re-routed section from Col des Montets through to Tre-le-Champs and up to Flegere. Sabrina was back and we worked together until the Col but as we started up the difficult ground I felt the first struggles of sleep deprivation and was weaving around the trail with many an involuntary thought popping into my head. I got music back on and tried to get into a steady stride. The normal race route to Flegere is a continuous climb but this new route had us climbing 300m before dropping almost to Argentiere and climbing another 500m from there. The less said about this section the better, it sapped all I had mentally and physically. Several folk became concerned on the descent that we were off route, that we'd followed OCC signage rather than UTMB. A group of us called race control and then Gavin, who'd run the CCC, and both confirmed we were on the right course. We'd wasted 20 minutes standing still and I was kicking myself for not being assertive and carrying on, as I'd never doubted the UTMB course markings before - they were nothing short of exceptional throughout.

I cracked on, burning through with a reserve energy I didn't know I had. An hour later we reached a long stony ski road and I knew we were close. Thick fog and neon course markings distorted my view and I felt like we were on another planet. Every time we saw a new light I was sure it was Flegere, and every time it was another course marking. We were now a pack of runners, talking in Spanish, English and French but working together. But here was Flegere finally, a ghostly tent on vast grey terrain. I was done stopping and starting so walking right through to start the descent.

My memory of the 8km down to Chamonix is of pure endurance section by section. After 3km of technical rooty, slippy trail comes La Floria, after which the technicality eases significantly. Then a runnable but rocky fire road and, eventually, the final 1.5km road loop through Chamonix to reach the finish line. I remember zoning back into my body with a jolt, feeling like I'd not been in my own head for minutes. How was my body still running on it's own? A strange and incredible autopilot had kicked in to seemingly save my last remaining energy.

In Chamonix I wanted to smile, laugh and cry but my internal zombie runner was now in charge. The spectator noise was deafening even at this unsociable hour of 2am, and soon I saw my lovely crowd; Giles, Liz, Lorna, Gavin, Damian, Louisa and Julie. The finish line was a confusing assault on the senses, which I crossed in 31.42, 189th overall, 20th female and 14th senior female.

I'll spare you the messy finish details but soon enough my old friend low blood pressure was back and I was dizzy, nauseus and completely out of it. I narrowly avoided sickness in the taxi home and found myself wiped down enough to crawl into bed. I'm eternally grateful to all those who were there for me: sent me words of encouragement before, during and after; were there through thick and thin in the race (Giles, Liz); pushed me around three punishing recce weekends (Jamie, Carrie); ran faster than me in the race and inspired me to follow; and peeled my sweaty clothes off in the men's toilet off a pub straight after the race, not taking no for an answer (Lorna!). Coach Ryan you have been a constant and responsive support through my training, helping me develop the tools to find another gear in this race, thank you. The reciprocal culture of the ultrarunning community is nothing short of special and forms bonds that are never forgotten.

More than once in the race I was reminded of a quote I have pinned to my office wall:

"The three great essentials for achieving something worthwhile are hard work, stick-to-it-iveness and common sense" (Thomas Edison)

Sometimes in life I feel I struggle with sticking to it but race experiences like this show me I can, in races and elsewhere. With a few days of perspective some of the things that helped me were:
  • Sticking to the pacing plan, and letting the hoards of men pass by early on
  • Letting myself be inspired not threatened by the formidable elite women around me
  • Knowing all discomfort will be temporary and knowing myself well enough to remember I love the feeling of pushing hard on tired legs at the end of a race; always try to get to this stage
  • All of the steep and ruthless sections of trail are followed at some stage by kinder sections where I can breathe and recover - the relief and reprieve will always come.
The full results are here.

The I Run Far results article is here.

A Scottish Athletics write-up is here.

Essential kit
The start
Fresh clothes and support at Champex Lac

Reaching Trient
Food choices at Trient
My only photo from the race, high above the Swiss valley en route to Trient

Chamonix from Flegere (taken pre-race)

 Congratulations fellow gilet-wearers :-)

 Some of our team, recovery hike to La Jonction

Monday 19 December 2016

My Winter West Highland Way

I learnt a few important things during the West Highland Way run this weekend which I won't forget soon. These may make more sense after reading what unfolded throughout.
  • My friends, family and running community are nothing short of amazing, and accepting help is ok sometimes. THANK YOU to all those who kept me going and to every single donor. You were all part of this and it was through and through a team event.
  • No matter how much you want such challenges to run smoothly, no matter how much running experience you have, they seldom do and you just have to accept the difficulties. Don't give in because of perfectionism. I'm reminded of a quote from The Rules of Being Human "A lesson is repeated until learned. It is presented to you in various forms until you learn it".
Why this?
I'd had the idea to run a midwinter West Highland Way earlier this year, and it crystalised after I started working for Link Community Development and visited Ethiopia, seeing the struggles that children go through to access a decent education. I realised I hadn't raised money through my running for a few years and it all seemed to fit together for this winter, whilst Ethiopia was still fresh in my mind to talk to people about. The lovely Murdo McEwan said I might be the first woman to complete this, and whilst I hadn't been aware of this we thought it would be a good hook to raise the profile of Link's work. I wasn't concerned about following the 'rules' of midwinter West Highland Way attempts - I just wanted to cover the miles as close to midwinter as I could - but running north to south seemed a great idea to change things up from always racing south to north, plus finishing in the central belt closer to everyone's homes was an attractive proposition.

The plan
1) Run north to south, starting 9pm on Friday in Fort William
2) Definitely a supported run: two crews for the day: Giles, Jamie and several of our Trustees Alasdair and Mark through the night, switching to my Dad, Julie and Liz from Tyndrum/Beinglas. Support runners and amazing cheerleaders Lorna, Carol, Dawn, Matt, Gavin for the final miles from Balmaha.
3) Strategy: stay present, no pace pressure, no racing, take things section by section. When feeling rough, eat and drink.

The start

I didn't expect this to be the hardest part. Jamie was kindly running with me for the night section, and we set off from Lochaber Leisure Centre - the finish line of the West Highland Way Race - just after 9pm. We felt great - fresh legs, a bright moon, very light rain but mild temps and lots to discuss. We hiked/jogged the few miles up above Fort William, with Ben Nevis looming to our left beneath a starry night sky. The West Highland Way follows the fire road to a left turn onto rolling single track trail, 7 miles total from Fort William to Lundavra. I'd known about this section of the trail being closed for forestry works but wanted to see if we could get through - failing this we could still climb back up to the fire road and take the diversion (the signs indicated following the road 7.5km would take us to Lundavra). Around 1.5 miles down the trail we came up against a heap of felled trees but this looked passable to trail beyond. Clambering over, we were faced with ankle-deep mud with the original trail becoming unrecognisable, into a network of mud tracks created for forestry vehicles. After following what we thought would be the main track through to Lundavra for another 10 minutes or so, this ended at a muddy drop, with no trail in sight. We were so close to the road but there was no way through. In darkness and with no idea where the trail was, we decided the best plan was to retreat back to the fireroad for the diversion - demoralising though backtracking 1.5 miles at this stage was.

We managed to cut up to the fire road and ran back along this to check diversion signs at the trail turning once again - with no phone signal and the very unclear forestry map on the signage we thought we'd try follow the fire road back up the way we'd just run, surely this was the 7.5km indicated in the forestry signage (returning to Fort William and along the B road would be well over 10km). We ran along the fire road for a second time, another mile or so, but yet again this ended in a dead end, a steep drop down to the river - with no trail or other road in sight and no sensible option rather than to return back to Fort William. Still no phone signal and a sense of dread rising inside. We were stressed and haemorraging time - this could end the run.

Thankfully, halfway down the hill back to town we found a few signal bars and got through to Giles, who had been waiting in Lundavra for nearly 3 hours now (this split was scheduled to take 1.5 hours). He drove to Braveheart car park at the bottom of the hill and met us. We had no options to make this a 'clean' run now - we'd now run nearly 12.5 miles and to follow the B road would take us up to a crazy 19 miles for what should have been just 7 miles, making the 95 mile plan into a 107 mile run and putting the entire thing at risk. I didn't want to callit a night and restart in the morning as this would mess logistics up for crew and be extremely difficult mentally. So given the extra miles we'd already covered we jumped in the car and drove to Lundavra, restarting the run from there, 1 hour 40 minutes behind schedule. I struggled with the stress of this for a while, and got pretty cold in the meantime from all the hanging about discussing what to do - but after a few miles Jamie and I got back into our stride across the rocky Larig Mor. It ended up a strong and steady section give or take one fall in which I managed to rip my lovely new all weather tights. We reached Kinlochleven in 1.34, making up a little time.

Kinlochleven to Tyndrum
A quick stop for a falafel sandwich and on we went, hiking the climb out of the village. It was chilly up towards the Devil's Staircase, with a cold wind picking up. But nothing compared to the winter weather we could have had - it didn't drop below freezing at all and the moon helped light the trail. My favourite part of the West Highland Way, this was special to run at night, and descending the Devil wasn't as dicey as I'd imagined. Down to Altnafeadh and a quick drink and bite of pasta from Giles before a steady few miles up to Glencoe ski centre. I felt strong again and wondered how much more time I could make up. I didn't ever think I'd be struggling to make a sub-24 hour run but the morning's mishaps had seriously put that into question. Section by section, stay present, I remind myself.

Jamie stopped with Giles at Glencoe, having given me fantastic company for most of the night. I left here after more pasta, to experience Rannoch Moor at night and on my own for the very first time. I still felt good, watch reading over 30 miles in, glad I was on this section when still relatively fresh - the boulders and their shadows could easily take on human forms to a tired mind. The coldest section for sure, there was a vicious headwind at points and I allowed myself a few 30 second hike breaks before spotting Giles running up towards me from Victoria Bridge. A quick sock and shoe change (Stance socks - absolutely worth the money!) and off again down the road to Inveroran. Jamie joined again for a slog up Jelly Baby Hill and we'd just been chatting about Murdo when we found a plastic wallet full of jelly babies and lovely wishes. He'd been here on schedule just a few hours earlier! Amazing kindness from the King of JBH.

Bridge of Orchy was a good milestone, one of our Trustees Mark Beaumont (not that one) was due to join on his MTB to cycle with me over to Tyndrum. Quick eats and bottle change and off we went. A little headwind again and a lot of standing water on this section but it unfolded fairly smoothly.

Down into Tyndrum - and hello to Murdo, who popped up in person, then my lovely Dad, Giles and Jamie. Mark sent me on my way with a shot of his home ground Ethiopian coffee (really mastering the middle class running nutrition today) and I had a few spoons of oats and was able to take off my headtorch for the first time - absolute joy! Then off solo to Auchtertyre. I have to say this was one of the highlights - a bruised red and purple winter sky dominating the landscape ahead, and enjoying the beautiful single track trail next to the river for a few miles.

Into the south
Into Auchtertyre I stopped for another 5 minutes for more oats - ready for a long section of rolling hills to Beinglas Farm, and another milestone where I'd see Julie and Liz for the first time and have running company until the finish. Murdo joined me to hike up the first major hill, then I soaked up the solitude and some iPod time until Jamie met me a mile or so before Carmyle Cottage. The Crianlarich hills and a windy coo poo alley had my quads complaining, and by Carmyle I had a few more spoons of oats and some of the most incredible tasting ginger beer, which became coke replacement for the day.

Giles ran with me for 4 miles until Beinglas, and pepped me up by reading out messages on Facebook in funny accents, and stopping to film at the most unflattering angles possible. We had a giggle and hiked the little hills to reach Beinglas campsite - stocking up point. I wouldn't see any crew for 14 tough miles around the Loch Lomond shore and through the remote Inversnaid. My triathlete friend Liz joined me for the section - her first run on the West Highland Way after crewing for me in the summer, and on probably the most technical terrain - doing a cracking job of chatting now and again and setting the pace. Her chat of starting pro triathlete training of 3 sessions a day actually made me glad to just be running!

More mental calculus - if I can manage Beinglas to Inversnaid in under 2 hours, then same again to Rowardennan then I can bank a little more time. We reached Inversnaid Hotel in around 1.45 and stopped for 5 minutes for flapjack and water before heading up the rollercoaster trail to Rowardennan. Quite a bit of walking here but still reached the car park and Dad/Julie by 14.40 - 3 hours 30 minutes after leaving Beinglas. A little time in bank, I found a spot for a total clothes/shoe change (something I never ususally do in races) and was presented with the most delicious-tasting veggie burger Dad got from the hotel. I didn't realise how hungry I was and wolfed half of it down before heading out with Julie, for her turn to support run - and first West Highland Way experience also. Things were starting to hurt and a marathon to go didn't seem insubstantial. Just a few miles down the trail and John and Katrina Kynaston appear with a few cheers, turning to run with us back to Balmaha - and all of a sudden we had a little team on the go which helped the time and miles melt away. I was surprised at how messy my quads felt, really tight on the downhills. The lack of formal training and less mileage since CCC and UROC was showing.

Thanks to Murdo McEwan for pic
Balmaha - any ultra runner will know the feeling of anticipating arrival to a checkpoint for so long, just to arrive and feel there is still so far to go. I'd felt better at this stage in races where I was running a lot faster. Despite trying to run in the moment, the mental calculus of trying to finish sub 24 after such a rocky start was exhausting. Giles had messaged me at one point to say I should aim to finish before 10pm and not 9pm, given how the extra mileage would balance out the sub-24. On one hand I wanted it to be a 'clean' sub-24 for the sake of Link's profile and an achievement not to be repeated, but on the other I didn't want to care about time at all.

Running into the carpark, we were met by the incredible cheer of Dawn, Lorna, Carol, Dad, Liz and Giles, all set with another veggie burger and ginger beer. Another few bites (still so good, one plus for this stage in the run!) and off with lovely Dawn up and over Conic Hill. I've barely run this direction so forgot how steep it was from the Balmaha side. Those deep steps. My quads did not like, and I had zero chat for Dawn but that fortunately didn't phase her cheeriness. Near the top, I stopped suddenly, sensing a massive shape centre trail ahead, and Dawn very nearly ran into the rear end of a large highland cow. It followed her instruction to get off the trail and only later did she say how terrified she is of them - amazing effort.

After a caffeine gel I regained some chat and the few miles down and over the forestry track to Drymen forest carpark seemed more bearable (though I was still having flashbacks to forestry nightmares of last night!). It was absolutely amazing here - a peaceful forest with barn owls calling, a special place to be in the dark and reminding me of Mum and her love of owls. My primary school friend Judy appeared with her family along with all the others from Balmaha. Yet more ginger beer and another gel for the road. Next I would run with Lorna, a scary prospect as she had goals for me.

We left Drymen round 7pm. Over the field and onto the rollercoaster road out of the village, we walked the hills and ran the flats and downs, although she tried a few tricks such as "this is actually flat, the hill you can see is way in the distance" - I wasn't convinced.We had 6 miles together, and a few miles in Gavin and Matt appeared from nowhere - another lovely surprise which helped my chat and pace a little.

The end
We reach the Beech Tree and a small crowd of happy faces. I can't stop or think about what I need, as my feet and quads are in bits, I'm feeling emotional and I know I won't make sub 24 and Milngavie by 9pm, although by this point my watch has gone crazy with the detouring and is registering over 100 miles. A swig of ginger beer and off again, this time with Carol Martin, who does an amazing job in picking up from Lorna's mantel and keeping my mind occupied with chat. 2 miles to the end of the flat cycle path, then a right turn back on to the trail and gentle uphill to Carbeth. Then just 4 miles to go. Giles, Jamie, Dawn and the lovely 'fluffies', Jamie's dogs, appear again. I had to stop for a few tears with Giles to get some of this out before the finish. Pirate (one fluffy) manages to make us giggle by trying to lead the way and turn right back to their cottage instead of straight onto Milngavie. Probably wondering what the hell the humans were up to.

A few more miles of real discomfort in the feet and quads and we were there - to the most incredible welcoming committee in the town centre. We all ran from the bridge to the railway tunnel together, and it was over. The time was 9.35pm (thanks Helen and John! And no thanks to Suunto, which died three miles back!), so a time of 24 hours 35 minutes for a run distance of around 101 miles. See here for the confusing data (if anyone into data wants to try work out my actual time please go ahead, my post-run brain is barely working).

Finish video

A haze of group hugs, a few more tears and prosecco and pizza appeared from nowhere (thanks Lorna and Kate). Unfortunately, as I'd anticipated, within a few minutes I had the dizziness and sickness I'd had after June's race and had to retreat behind the car where I felt like passing out. Not the most social of finishes, but I hope everyone there knew I wanted it to be otherwise. Giles bundles me in the car and let's just say it was lucky Andy donated some sick bags for the drive to my brother and sister in law's in Bridge of Weir.

So I mentioned learning: perhaps reccying forestry works should be part of that :-) It was certainly an adventure. Doing something like this - although you wonder again and again why you put yourself up for such a battering - certainly gives you an appreciation of everything after the event. Especially people and what matters. Thank you again to all those who've given and been part of this, either in person or from a distance. So far our team has raised over £3,400 for Link's work in Africa to benefit children, especially girls, in the most remote communities who cannot access education or opportunities as we can - read more about it here.

If you haven't donated or can pass the Virgin Money Giving link on, please do. Perhaps we can make £4,000 by Christmas.

Thursday 18 August 2016

Climbing Mont Blanc: Trois Monts route

Ok, not running but I wanted to capture our day yesterday climbing Mont Blanc. An entirely new experience from throwing on shoes and running, and challenging mentally and physically in so many more ways than I imagined.

An experienced mountaineer and trained international mountain leader, this would be Giles' fourth 4,000 metre Alps peak in two weeks and 30th overall, and he'd climbed Mont Blanc a decade before. So even though I've just learnt how to use crampons, ice axes etc., I felt safe.

We decided on the Three Monts route up - which would climb 1,450m to the summit at 4,809m - and to descend via the Gouter route, or the 'normal' route people take up the mountain. The Three Monts is more technical and some books give it a harder grade, but the huts for a Gouter ascent were full and we thought given the fine forecast it would be do-able. Plus passing Mont Maudit would give the opportunity for Giles to climb a 4,000 he hadn't yet (the Three Monts traverses past the summits of Mont Blanc du Tacul and Mont Maudit en route to Mont Blanc). Some thorough forecast checking in the days earlier showed Tuesday and Wednesday with clear skies, warm temps and almost wind-free at high altitude, just 10km p/h predicted for the summit, before a break and rain on Thursday.

So Tuesday afternoon we caught the Aiguille du Midi telepherique, roasting in full mountain gear sardined in with hoardes of tourists from a 28 degree Chamonix. Heading out of the viewing station at the top through the ice tunnel and onto the east ridge of the Midi was sobering. A steep descent onto a ridge just a few feet wide with super steep drops hundreds of metres either side, and slushy late-afternoon conditions made for tentative progress down to the Col du Midi where we made our way to the Cosmiques hut for the night - just in time before snow clouds descended on the mountain for a few hours.

Cosmiques arĂȘte down to the refuge

The view across the Mont Blanc massif was incredible. The Bossons glacier sprawling in front of us, the Aiguilles du Midi, Chamonix a few km below and most relevant, the steep slopes of Mont Blanc du Tacul illustrating what the first section of the climb would entail. Quite honestly, I couldn't imagine climbing this - it looked so steep and fraught with crevasses. For an hour and a half as we ate dinner with a hundred gnarly-looking mountaineers (I did not feel one of them!) I watched two parties of climbers descend Tacul; slow, exhausted steps down the serac-laden route trying to reach the refuge before night fall. I was both fearful and excited for the unknown and what lay ahead.

First climb up to the shoulder of Mont Blanc du Tacul (4248m)

What better way for Giles to fully enjoy his birthday than get up at 12.40am for breakfast and climb a mountain! Most climbers start at 1.30am - 2am, aiming to summit by 9am and safely descend before snow melt causes more risks of rock fall. Neither of us had slept in the crammed, snore-fest of a bunk room, but I felt fine considering - full of adrenaline - and we forced down some muesli and tea before gearing up and heading out into the snow to join a long line of headtorches up to the Tacul ascent. There were some pretty steep, calf-burning sections as well as more sustainable zig-zag lines, but on the whole it wasn't as challenging to hike up than it had looked from the hut window. When you're right there on it, you don't see the crevassed terrain in the same perspective, and the crevasse crossings had wide bridges and felt safe. It felt tough but the kind of tough that also feels amazing - how could it not when you're surrounded by the beauty of the Mont Blanc massif shrouded in moonlight, and Chamonix glistening 3 km's below us. Overtaking other groups was at times challenging - at least 200 people would try to summit today - but we had to be patient and I had to remind myself constantly that a sustainable pace was all that was needed, we were not racing anyone.

We reached the top - the shoulder of Mont Tacul - in just less than two hours, ahead of schedule, and had a brief respite of slight downhill to Col Maudit before another steep climb up to the second Col du Mont Maudit (yes, confusing), stopping en route to insert hand warmers into gloves and don buffs to protect our faces. It started with the zig-zags criss crossing across the crevassed glacier but after another hour we reached a queue of climbers. Here was an imposing wall of icy snow and teams were lining up to clip onto a fixed line, with some taking out two ice axes for safety. Our hands and feet were getting cold hanging around at the base, but we had to wait for people to make their way up. As our turn came, we clipped in and started the climb steadily. I was as safe as I could be, attached to the line, roped to Giles and an ice axe, but I tangibly felt the open space behind me as I edged up. Giles waited ahead at a rocky outcrop and as I climbed I realised with panic that not one but both crampons were coming loose. We thought we'd been careful to work out the bindings but I'd hired warmer high altitude boots and combined with the steep climbing this must have affected the fitting. Imagining my crampons tumbling 1000 feet below I was even more careful with my footing and securing the axe in place before moving, and reaching the outcrop we refixed them for the final pitch ahead. Giles moved to reach the top of the col and belay me up, but our progress was hampered by another party and their guide climbing over our rope and racing to the top.

At the top we were very cold and I was shaking with the adrenaline of the ice climb. Ahead lay a narrow and icy ridge path just a foot wide, above snow cliffs dropping off to the right; it was a dramatic, exhilarating hike leading up to the next col, Col de la Brenva. Around us the sky was now lightening and the shadowy mountain skyline waking up with a dusky pink alpenglow. I'd thought we'd take in some tea and refuel here but we couldn't even face stopping to put on our down jackets, with windchill the temp must have been -15 to -20 and we were quickly realising the wind was much stronger than forecast, whipping and whistling fiercely across the col. We headed forwards as swiftly as altitude would allow to try and escape it on the next climb to Mur de la Cote, the penultimate ascent before the final summit ascent.

But there was barely a respite on the climb, one switchback we'd be head first into blasting bitter wind and the return would be a steeper gradient - tough ground for tired legs and gasping lungs. I knew Giles was cold and we needed to get our down on and get some fuel in so when we spotted a rock with other climbers crouching behind we took our chance and stopped there for 5 minutes. A quick layering up, some warm hut tea and a few bites of spinach tart and back we went into the wind.

The final ascent to summit
By this point we could clearly see the summit, smooth yet steeply rounded and shrouded in alpenglow, but we had a further 325 metres of hard climbing to reach it. Switchback by switchback with hardly a word said. At this point I was just trying to keep a sustainable rhythm, and attempting to work out the best way to keep my face covered yet still be able to breathe as deeply as I needed to - a tricky balance! It was almost impossible to appreciate the scenery around us whilst ascending in the wind but as we approached the summit I couldn't stop the lump in my throat and pure relief that we'd made it in the time we needed to. It was 8.20am - the climb had taken us 6 hours 20 minutes from the hut. If we kept strong we could descend in 5 hours via Gouter and make one of the late afternoon trams back to the valley.

Standing on the highest point in Western Europe was surreal, with coloured cloud banks and mountains stretching all around and below. A couple were sitting down on one of the south slopes out of the worst of the wind so we followed suit and had a quick break before taking off for the descent to Gouter, first towards the west via the Bosses ridge. Another dramatic, beautiful ridge winding for hundreds of metres ahead, similar to the Midi east ridge. We dropped down over the Petite Bosse then the Grand Bosse crossing into the Italian side of the ridge, exposed but easy ground. I'd naively thought that the 'normal' route wouldn't have many or any technical sections but we soon found ourselves in yet another queue of people at a tricky set of snow steps above a gaping hole into a crevasse. We were growing colder as we waited in the bitterly wind and I can see why queues like this can make for dangerous climbing - and as well as the cold there's pressure to down climb the section fast to let others through. Giles roped me down and I clung to a step above the crevasse, with a narrow snow bridge to jump down to over the crevasse, one of those situations where the longer you think about it the harder it becomes. A few minutes later I was down and the guides behind us had it mastered in seconds by facing forwards and jumping without the axe - but I don't think this strategy would have ended well for clumsy me!

Safely through and with shaky legs, we were back on firmer ground, a steady ridge past the Vallot emergency shelter across to the Col du Dome, before traversing around the Dome du Gouter. At 10.30am we reached the Gouter refuge, an impressive, space-age building set into the rockface of the Aiguile du Gouter. A little spaced out ourselves, we refuelled on a 10 Euro slice of quiche (French huts aint too cheap these days), coffee and hot chocolate. We couldn't let ourselves rest too long - we still had around 3 hours of descending on tired quads and sleep deprived brains.

Gouter refuge: great coffee and quiche but you pay for it!

The beautiful Aiguille de Bionnassay ridge
Next came a technical, via ferrata-style descent down the rocky ridge next to the Grand Couloir. There was no snow to be seen so we packed the crampons, ropes and axes away and used the fixed support lines down the rocks. This drop of 600 metres took around an hour and a half, with the distinctive echoes of rocks trickling down the couloir reminding us on several occasions of the danger of the section below us. We'd have to cross directly through the bottom of this couloir - one of the infamous sections of Mont Blanc where over 70 people have lost their lives through rock fall or avalanche over the past two decades. There is almost constant rock fall here through the summer months, and especially in the afternoons, when snow melt higher up in the gully unsettles loose rocks which set off chain reactions down the long, steep face.

At the bottom we waited for other groups to clear the crossing before studying the ground above for movement and listening for rocks. One by one we crossed, half running, half hiking. It takes a matter of minutes to reach safer ground and we celebrated by breaking out the walking poles and sliding over a snowy field - the last of the day - to pass the Tete Rousse hut (another point people start the climb from) and another rocky but more hikable hour of descent to the tiny Rognes refuge. We were trying to find the Nid D'Aigle station - the highest stop for the small train from St. Gervais - and thought the Rognes refuge was it, but something was telling me the descent wouldn't end this easily and sure enough some walkers told us the station was yet another hour down rocky terrain. We found some energy and hiked down in under 40 minutes to sneakily catch the 3.20 train as it was edging into the platform. Those poor tourists who found themselves next to us, dehydrated, depleted and seriously stinky from 11 hours of hard work.

I felt battered and shattered last night but a new person today - grateful for ten hours of sleep, being back in the valley and deserving of some real R&R before the CCC. Taper time indeed.

I have no idea how Kilian Jornet speed climbs this mountain - there is no straightforward hiking route either up or down and it surely is not a mountain for any ability much less than his to go fast and light. We used every piece of clothing and most equipment in our heavy bags on what was set to be a perfect summer's forecast! Yet overall it was one special day that will stay with me for a long time. Happy birthday Giles! :-)

Monday 20 June 2016

West Highland Way Race 2016

"Running is how I renew my soul. I come back a new woman, a better mother, a better wife and a better friend. It gives me confidence, makes me realize how endless the possibilities are, and what can be achieved, even when I’m so tired and feel like I can’t go another step there always is another step, another hill that can be climbed."

Terry Toffelmire, thanks to Sally McCrae for this quote from her site

Like so many other ultra runners, there were many times in the second half of the West Highland Way Race where I questioned why we do this. What am I doing to my body? I just want to be sitting with my feet in that river instead of hiking this hill. I want to rest at the top of the Devil's Staircase like the walkers I can see, rather than starting to run again as soon as I reach the top.

Training had been good. Through May and June, since the Highland Fling, I'd focused on hills and climbed over 42,000 feet. I felt great physically, although more than ready to taper and rest. I'd run a decent Fling, a hard fought 8.54 finish not without one or two mistakes. I felt strong and ready to test my strength and endurance in trying for a sub-20 hour West Highland Way, but I'd always maintained a healthy respect for the 96 mile route after my first attempt at it in 2012.

Pre-race I was excited, just to be out there on the trail all day from start to finish in what were promising to be beautiful conditions. This forecast was such a relief to see. My 2012 race featured pouring rain for over 20 hours, macerated feet, an amateur endurance level and an Achilles injury, and I dragged myself over the line in 26 hours 45.

Some highlights, some struggles

The start, 1am in Milngavie (credit: Phil McCloy)

The first few sections were a beautiful joy to run. I was enjoying running steady and easy, and talking to people along the way. The night sky was so bright with a near-full moon that we hardly needed head torches. Even a fall four miles in whilst chatting to Lorna didn't phase me too much, fortunately I managed a roll into long grass and came off lightly.

Approaching Conic Hill the moon's reflection was cast across Loch Lomond and it was spectacular. I hoped Julie and Liz - my morning crew - were enjoying the views in Balmaha and not being eaten alive by midges. After a fast-hike up the hill I came down to the CP in 3:03 and it was great to see them there - oats, coffee and encouragement - and I got to ditch the headtorch and head forwards for a fresh day ahead.

Rowardennan at 27 miles came along in good time, 1 hour 28, a section run so many times but today to be enjoyed and not raced. I was feeling good still. But just as soon as Lorna and I had been talking about the midges not being bad so far we were hit by clouds of them. Only a few minutes in the CP were bearable to wolf down a few bites, replace fluids and take supplies for the next 14 mile stretch to Beinglas, which would be without support (the next CP Inversnaid is too remote for crew access).

Then 14 miles of MIDGE TORTURE - out in volume I'd never seen before due to the absence of any wind and the still cloudy early morning conditions. Black swathes of them hitting the eyes, nose, mouth, legs constantly, from the moment we left Rowardennan to Beinglas, only easing a little as we approached the checkpoint. My cap was pointless in staving them off and every few minutes I had to try remove them from my eyes as couldn't see properly. Ahead, Lorna had grabbed some bracken and I followed suit, trying to bat the clouds away. The Adventure Show were filming this year's race and I'm glad they weren't here for this part, although I'm sure it'd be entertaining.

Those creatures (courtesy of Monument Photos)

Beinglas farm with Julie

By Beinglas I was praying the midge-fest was over (it was) and after a quick hike through with pasta and pesto I decided I needed music to see me through this tough section - still under halfway with 9 miles of tricky undulations to the next CP at Auchtertyre. I'd planned to only put the iPod on after halfway but I needed something to lift me up from the difficult miles before, and it worked. Ahead I was excited to see Julie & Liz again at the Crianlarich deer fence and also couldn't wait to see Giles and Fraser (crew for the second half) for the first time. The rollercoaster hills rolled by and after 9 hours 22 of running I'd reached half way at Auchtertyre, greeted by Giles full of beans and positivity at the gate. A brief few minutes of being weighed and re-stocked before heading onwards for Tyndrum and the northern half.

After seeing Giles and Fraser again at Brodies in Tyndrum for a dose of sunscreen and Coke, I set off over the most runnable (trail) section of the route. I usually love this section (especially in the Devil O' The Highlands when you're fresh as a daisy) as it's such a reprieve from the earlier undulations but with the dramatic glens and highland hills unfolding for the first time before you. But it was getting hard and it was getting hot - I began to think how exposed the entire trail ahead was - Rannoch Moor, the Devil's Staircase, the Larig Mor - and how there were no clouds in the sky. Hotter than forecast, apparently it reached 24c yet I'd been expecting highs of 17. Focus on the 7 miles to Bridge of Orchy alone, I reminded myself, you CAN do this.

Lorna was running a fierce race, with such tenacity in the second half. I could see her just two minutes ahead of me leaving Tyndrum but this would be the last time, she reached Fort William in 18 hours 23 - a stunning run!

A minute at Bridge of Orchy was spent refilling water and being force fed almond butter by Giles - this got me out of the CP fast. I was not eating well and instructed to think about what I most want to eat at Glencoe. Giles & Fraser were amazing - as proactive and intuitive as a crew could possibly be. From Glencoe to the finish they rallied to source the widest array of foods that might tempt me into eating - a different selections of gels, ice creams, savoury food I might fancy ranging from veggie burger and chips, dips and hummus, soup to cous cous, and coffees. From this I barely handled a couple of chips and a few bites of ice lolly before just coke, ginger beer and a couple of gels over the final 25 miles. When I think about the time spent cooking and preparing as much variety as possible the week before - everything from sweet potato to veggie haggis pies, pasta and pesto to all varieties of flapjack, dried fruit, nuts, bakewells etc. it seems ridiculously wasteful. I guess sometimes in heat, I can't eat. Liquid nutrition strategies needed.

After the boost of seeing Murdo after Bridge of Orchy and one little red jelly baby to give me fire to the finish, I ran strong over Rannoch Moor, jogging the uphills until the final big slog into Glencoe when I'd drained both soft flasks and hit a real energy wall. I was slipping a little behind schedule and wondering how I'd restore my energy for the final 25 when I was so thirsty but couldn't eat.

By Altnafeadh I felt bloated and over hydrated, things weren't feeling right at all and I constantly had a raging thirst no matter how much I drank. Giles gave me an anti nausea tablet and sent me on my way, telling me to fast hike the Devil's Staircase. The heat was getting to me and I just wanted to stop in one of the streams but wasn't sure I'd get up again. Despite how I felt I managed the hike in 30 minutes and forced the running again, negotiating the technical descent until the welcome fire road down into Kinlochleven.

I felt more bloated and sick than ever, on the scales I was 2.5 kg up from Auchtertyre despite not eating, but I was determined not to have a repeat of 2012 when I stopped here in the medical room due to low blood pressure for 45 minutes. I had to keep moving. Giles walked me out to the foot of the 1000ft climb and not for the first time I desperately wanted him to be able to run with me but the new rule of no support runners for those running sub 21 hours put paid to that.

I know we seem to forget the pain and discomfort of long races pretty fast, but I won't forget this section for a while. My stomach was in bits and it took all my effort to keep moving steady. Up on the Larig Mor it took a while to get running again but when I did I found I could sustain an even 11-12 minute mile pace for most of the undulating miles, it was cooling down and the mountains were stunning. And like all the struggles, it passed - fuelled by Fanta from Jeff at the wilderness response team base - and before long I could see Giles' waving arms again and hear the tones of Cyndi Lauper blasting out from Lundavra. A hug from Gayle Tait and all the friendly faces helped and I knew I still had a decent chance of a sub 20 hour finish, unless I imploded on the final 7 miles.

It's a tough 3 miles of short, sharp ups before the long descent into Fort William. I just had to run all these and then I could hurt myself on the down and it wouldn't matter anymore. At Braveheart carpark, the whole crew were back and I surprised them by being 7 minutes up on schedule, sub 20 was achievable after a final mile along the road to the Leisure Centre.


Fort William finish line
I crossed the line in 19 hrs 34 minutes, 16th position overall and fourth lady behind Lorna. Then sickness! I'd wondered if I'd get the same post-exertional low blood pressure as in the 2012 race and it was back with a vengeance, perhaps worse due to the heat and stomach issues - I'd held off being sick for over 20 miles.

Delighted to have run this time in spite of what my body was doing. I've struggled again and again in the past with pacing and this time I succeeded in running steady in the first half, moving from 30th position at Balmaha, 19 miles, to 16th position at the finish. And although I'm disappointed not to have been able to enjoy and savour the entire trail as I'd hoped, this has been another adventure that I'll always remember with my crew.

And on the plus side, I didn't experience any hallucinations this time round, and not much sleepiness to speak of at all. My body and muscles are recovering fast and well, although the stomach is taking a little while to catch up. But does anyone ever run a race like this with a perfect day and no issue? Perhaps not, or perhaps we should keep trying to find out. But for now I'm going to be happy with the way this race played out for all its struggles, and enjoy the achievement :-)

I'm amazed and proud at the women's achievements this year. The standard was superb, with the top 3 ladies running under 19 hours and in the top 10 overall, led by Lizzie Wraith in 17.42. And not forgetting overall winner James Stewart with an incredible run of 15.15. Full results here.

The lovely crew
Prize giving

**Thanks to Ian and all who organised/supported this special race. And another enormous thanks to my crew - Julie, Liz, Giles and Fraser - without whom my finish would not have been possible, and more than that - not as memorable or with as many laughs
(ok not so much during but before and after) **

The North Face Endurance Challenge: a shortlived high and many lows

4am in a freezing park in Sausalito, Marin County, 12 hours after stepping off a plane in San Francisco, two days after running a work event...