Friday 13 April 2012

Running Around Mull

Running 133 miles around the coastline of Mull in 29 hours, over 3 days: I'm extremely relieved to be able to recount this, rather than my experience of what its like to run half or three quarters of the way around the island - which was a very real fear on the second night of my challenge.

James and I arrived on Mull on Wednesday night, leaving just a day to 'prepare' for the start of Run Around Mull on Friday at 7am: read more obsessive weather-checking, packing, panicking, re-packing and media stuff. I accepted the weather would be less than ideal - steady, heavy rain on days one and three, with showers on two. What would be would be.

DAY ONE: Ulva Ferry/Calgary/Dervaig/Glengorm/Tobermory/Salen/Craignure/Lochdon (55 miles)
Friday came and as with the morning of any major run, I awoke feeling fuelled with plentiful supplies of adrenalin. Being at 7am on the quiet Ulva Ferry road, and given the fact we were running slightly late, our start was rather underwhelming, but it was a lovely reassurance to have Julie, James, Don and Gregg there. Gregg would be running with me for as long as was comfortable for him, and we set off from outside home to the north west, heading for Calgary Bay. I had split the route into 10-12 mile sections, between which we would stop for a few minutes to meet Don and the rest of the crew, eat, drink and re-fill.

After half an hour the rain began, the kind of heavy drizzle which makes you feel as though you've been immersed in a tepid bath for an hour. I was so glad to have my Kamleika Lady waterproof, courtesy of Footworks Edinburgh and OMM, which kept my core warm and dry and my mind sane. I really felt for Gregg whose jacket was not so watertight, but true to his resilient form it didn't seem to bother him and we made it through to Calgary ahead of target time, in great spirits and ready for a bagel.

Don, James and Julie met us at the head of the beach, and we were also joined by Cally Fleming from the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust, with her beautiful collies. After a quickie toilet stop, bagel and shot of chia seeds we set off again, kept company by Cally who jogged with us for a few minutes before we hit the hill out of Calgary to continue the B road round to Derviag via the Croig road turn. This stretch was fairly uneventful, bar the darkening skies and heavier rainfall we faced as we began to tackle the horseshoe bends and steep rises of the 7 mile Devraig-Tobermory road. We would only be running 3 or so miles of this road before taking a track another 4 miles out to Glengorm, with the intention of chasing the coastline.

We were joined on this stretch by local runners Alan Parker and Andy Murphy, who admirably were ready to take on the elements with us all the way to Glengorm, and perhaps Tobermory, depsite berating us for not choosing to run another earlier path to Glengorm, which had more tree cover and shelter. James also hopped on the mountain bike to watch out for us on this car-less stretch.

The first half of the path was rough and exposed leading us through farmland into forestry. I had a few slips on the muddy terrain and one into a stream crossing, wherein my feet were soaked. Always a demoraliser for me due to the worry of blisters, I tried to forget it and count down the minutes into the more sheltered forest. We made it to Glengorm in fairly decent time, due to stop for a few minutes to meet Don, but I forgoe this to crack on with the 3.5 miles to Tobermory and a quick lunch stop there. By our map calculations up until Tobermory was due to be 22 miles, but we later found out it was closer to 29 miles - note to self, do not use straightforward mapping software for an island route in the future - it does not incorporate undulations!

Gregg decided to call it time for the day in Tobermory, he'd run an incredible 29 miles with very few training miles in his legs, great work! I shelved plans for heading down the Main Street in favour of being able to leave the town by 1.15pm, so had a quick bowl of macaroni cheese, shot of chia and changed to dry shoes & socks which felt amazing. James joined me on the MTB as I set off for Salen - strangely although I was 29 miles down I was feeling great, and well-adapted to the rain. I was looking forward to this very measurable section of my route: 11 miles to Salen followed by 11 miles to Craignure, then I'd try for a few more miles before the end of the day before finishing before 7pm.

We walked the main hill out on the new road before following the parallel path for a couple of miles, and emerging back out onto the winding road. Again, I know this road so well that running it even when fatigued was reassuring, and I counted down the well-known landmarks - Arle Lodge, Aros, Richard Greaves' dilapidated boats - and chatted to James as we neared Salen. The next exciting thing would be meeting the ferry traffic - my brother and sister-in-law Richard and Kirsty were due to meet us off the 2pm ferry, as were friends Sally, Liz, Jodie and Shona. Perfectly on cue, the whole crew of ferry folk drove into the village as we made it into the Salen Hotel car park and we had a blissful 15 minutes of hellos and hugs punctuated by peanut butter sandwiches and refills. All too short and so off to Craignure, joined by the lovely supporter extraordinaire Julie.

Julie's plan was to run with me for 5 or so miles then jump in the car with James who'd taken over driving. 11 miles later and Julie is still with me as we run into Craignure, what an effort! It was brilliant to have her there, cheery and buoyant, watching out for oncoming traffic as we ran down the right hand side of the busy A road, hopping up to run along the verge when vehicles appeared - pretty painful with my tired quads! We counted down the landmarks with satisfaction - the rugby club, the Fishnish ferry turning, the golf club, the Isle of Mull Hotel - until at last we reached the 30 mph signs and the welcome whoops of Gregg and the rest of the team. By then I knew I had a blister, which I tentatively inspected, wondering if I should continue for the extra 4 miles I wanted to do or call it a night. Still making decent time, I decided after a quick bite to eat I'd keep running - if you could call it that by this point - until 6.30pm, giving excellent recovery time for the night.

We made around 3.5 miles in that time, to south of Lochdon, amid stunning evening rainbows and sunshine, but I was pretty tired, aching and entirely ready to stop. So much so that I found it hard to focus enough to look up at the beautiful hen harrier spotted by the guys, circling above the support cars as we stopped.

Back at Ulva Ferry, Richard and Kirsty had concocted an interesting re-fuelling feast involving pasta, veg and cumberland sausages, and we formed a slick routine of shower, eat, sort kit, massage and sleep.

DAY TWO: Lochdon/Lochbuie/Carsaig/Pennyghael/Bunessan/Fionnphort/Bunessan/Pennyghael (51 miles)
Don drove us to back to Lochdon for a 7.30am start - my body was complaining but I instinctively knew how much the evening's massage had helped rid my muscles of lactic acid for the second punishing day - it could have been a lot worse. I set out alone with my iPod and made it to the Lochbuie turning, where after a few miles a new car pulled up behind me and out jumped Nigel, a family friend from the Ross of Mull. It was lovely to jog with him for half a mile or so as we neared my parent's old mussel farm and smokery, and Don's old house - all depressingly dilapidated now. But the morning was calm and silent and it felt good to be running down this familiar, beautiful part of the coastline. A few miles later and I sensed another few folk running up behind me - this time my brilliant Dad and Step-Mum Hazel, who'd just come off the first ferry after a trip from Cheshire.

Seeing Dad and Hazel was a fantastic distraction so the next 6 or 7 miles to the end of the road at Lochbuie were a delight - and weather conditions were as peaceful as the still waters of Loch Uisk we were running past.

We stopped and met wonderful Don with his cups of tea and bagels at the road end in Lochbuie at the head of the 5 mile coastal path to Carsaig - one of the most challenging parts of my route, but one I knew would be so scenic I was looking forward to it. After a 10 minute stop, we waved Don goodbye as he headed back up the same road to take the main road south to Pennghael and Carsaig on the other side of the path. Both Dad and James ran with me along grassy trails, which merged into an increasingly boggy path, weaving in and out amongst a rocky shoreline at the foot of Carsaig's dramatic cliffs. To our right stood imposing basalt formations, caves and spectacular waterfalls, but looking up was not condusive to safe running - every step and foothold had to be carefully monitored.

It was a refreshing change from the tarmac of Mull, but after 3 or so miles I was ready for road again. I slipped countless times, tore my ankles on brambles and we encountered the distressing sight of a sheep stuck in a bog. Sadly, when the guys pulled it free was clearly unable to walk. Dad alerted two walkers heading the other direction toward the farm.

My morale was struggling by the time we reached the Carsaig road at around midday (later than anticipated), but we were met by Richard running towards us, then Kirsty and Don with video cameras and smiles. I didn't want to lose more time so headed straight for the endless hill road out of the bay - over 2 miles of steep hill. James heroicly walked with me despite earlier vowing he wouldn't be joining for this hill! After the beautiful conditions of the morning, the drizzle again began to pervade. Still - onwards to the next 'checkpoint', and by far the best!
The previous day Julie had met a lady named Jane in the Coffee Pot in Salen who'd urged us to stop by her house the next day, near the Pennyghael road end. Her charming small children ran out to meet me as I neared, and we were welcomed by her beautifully baked cupcakes, brownies and mugs of steaming tea. Thank you so much Jane, it was an incredible boost - and the delicious cakes kept me and many friends and family going!

From the left turn off the Carsaig road, the rest of the route for the day would be out and back - an approx 28 mile round trip from Pennyghael to Fionnphort and back again. It began to feel tough as the rain closed back in around me and I was alone for the first time in a while. Dad jumped out soon after and joined me for another couple of brave miles - for the man who'd only run a maximum of 2 miles recently he had run over 11 today!

After Dad, Liz hopped out Julie's car and ran with me right up until Fionnphort, far further than she'd planned. She did a fantastic job of taking my mind off the many miles to go, as by this point I was struggling and not in the best of spirits. The 9 miles to the next stop in Bunessan seemed to take forever. As Richard and co asked me what I needed as I walked in, I couldn't think what to answer, I had no idea what to do with myself once I stopped running. So the only answer was to try eat and drink. We stopped only for a few minutes before heading up yet another hill on the 5 mile stretch to Fionnphort, a section which was regularly interpersed with cattle, sheep on the road and unknown people who bizarrely kept stopping ahead to take photos of us. A tourist attraction - Liz and I had made it!

At the turnaround point in Fionnphort, Liz - after having run an amazing 13 miles with me - swapped with Sally, who I hadn't had a chance to chat to properly yet. Unfortunately my conversation skills weren't up to much but it was brilliant to have Sal there and James on the bike again with us. Just listening to them exchanging inane chat and leftfield Dragon's Den ideas was comforting. The deterioration in weather matched my failing morale as we reached a grey, drenched Bunessan for the second time that day. My shins were painful, everything else ached and I wasn't sure I'd make it the 9 hilly miles back up to Pennyghael. Sally and James persevered with me. The miles were slow but Julie brightened up a dark few hours by crawling ahead of us in her car, windows down and Frankie Goes to Hollywood blasting the evening air and waking up the Ross of Mull.

En route to Pennyghael I started feeling pressured by time and by the pains building in my shins and right calf, which I hadn't experienced in any ultra before. With every step, the tendons running down the front to my ankle strained, feeling like taught elastic bands charged with painful volts of electricity. I had to stop twice on hills as I couldn't catch my breath in a mild panic attack. I was scared to stop running as I knew my body would struggle to cope with what I'd been done to it for the last 11 hours.

We reached the Carsaig turning and the finish for day two at 8.10pm, encouraged and cheered by Gregg, Julie et al. I found it difficult to utter any words and fell into a sorry heap in Don's car. The journey home was genuinely more uncomfortable than the last few miles of running - I couldn't get settled in any position and my calf muscles, shins and feet were all on fire, and my stomach fragile. I couldn't strong a sentence together and just wanted someone to pick me out of the car and put me into bed. Neither could I bear the thought of eating. I've been lucky enough to never experience severe stomach problems in ultras but despite Rich and Kirsty's comfort food feast I only managed a paltry half baked potato and beans before another agonising massage and collapse into bed. I fell into a deep sleep, convinced I wouldn't be able to walk the final day, let alone run.

DAY THREE: Pennyghael/Gribun Road/Glen Seilisdeir/Killechronan/Ulva Ferry (28 miles)
Awaking at 5.45am I was relieved to at least be able to think clearly and logically again. I gingerly got out of bed and hobbled to the kicthen to prep food and kit, heeding a gentle reminder from Don that I shouldn't run if I was going to do damage to myself. I was sore but the night's sleep had made a world of difference. My cousins James and Pete were coming up from Bucks to join me for the full final day, and spirits lifted as they arrived and we set off.

We assembled at our modest start line in a Pennyghael parking place, under leaden clouds and gentle drizzle. James made me giggle with his energy gel on the startline tactics. At the urges of friends and Don/Dad I'd decided - given the horrendous forecast of wind, rain and low cloud for the entire day - to cut Ben More from the plan. I didn't want to risk finishing the core coastal route around Mull, or extending to 4 days. It was a good decision and realistic amendment to the venture!

So I re-discovered my running legs and found I could manage between 4 and 5 mph. Definitely slower than my strong road running and rowing cousins but good enough to complete the 28 miles in a reasonable time if I could sustain it and fend off injury. After running without a Garmin for 2 days it was bliss to have regular updates from James and his 305. As we neared the lingering slopes of Glen Seilisdeir, a few more cars caught up and out jumped Hazel, Dad then Gregg and Liz. It was a fantastic lift to be able to run with them and my optimism returned in full force from then on, despite being faced with a tunnel of wind howling between the gribun hills. We had our usual 10 mile for 10 minute stop, which was enlivened by Jane's gorgeous brownies. Time and miles were edging away from us and I began to find it easier to keep jogging than stopping or walking at all - change was not my friend.

To my surprise, as we neared the end of the Gribun road for the junction of the 7 mile road to Ulva Ferry and 3 mile road to Salen, out jumped Richard, promising to run with us for the entire 10 mile home stretch. We now had a group of 6 and I felt like a female Forrest Gump in a very special situation.

I knew from the 7 mile road turning to Ulva I was in safe hands and would make it, even if I had to walk. I know this road so well and have done many a training run out and back. By this point James' knee was suffering and everyone else around me was soaked. My James valiantly rode out on the road bike to meet us with 4 miles to go. We all agreed a sprint finish was in order.

Our 'sprint' went largely unrecognised as it was probably the equivalent of 6 mph, but seeing home and everyone huddled around the finish 'line' was an absolute delight, if a little surreal. And sitting inside in the warmth with champagne and cupcakes didn't make the last three days sink in any further. I remained in a dazed state for some time!

This run certainly pushed me to a limit - on day two - which I don't think I've reached before, mentally and physically. But I've learnt the incredible value of massage and sleep, and most of all the importance of friends, family, encouragement and self-belief. Its inevitable after a tough physical exersion to forget the pain, but after this I instinctively feel that every time I can propel myself through a seriously tough run/race situation by whatever means - kit, nutrition, walking breaks, mind games - the next hardship I face will seem more physically bearable purely because I know its possible. Its been bloody good training for the West Highland Way Race in June!

I can really identify with the old saying 'Pain is a luxury for the living' (courtesy of Fiona Rennie, West Highland Way Race Inspiration Evening). Experiencing something difficult and challenging can make you feel at your most alive in ways you didn't think possible, and bring the rest of life into sharp focus.

Apart from part of my right foot still being numb to touch (physio believes this is trapped skin nerves due to muscle swelling during days 2 and 3) I feel stronger than ever and absolutely pain and ache-free, which I didn't expect at all. Its a great feeling knowing my experimentations with footwear, blister prevention and re-fuelling seem to have mostly worked in this instance.

I couldn't have run around Mull without the selfless support of my family and friends: including Don, my amazing step dad who trailed me in support vehicle for over 29 hours over the weekend, stopping to make tea, take donations and fend off traffic. As well as my Dad and step mum, who joined for days two and three, running with me for far longer than they've run in any recent years! And of course Julie, Gregg, James, Richard, Kirsty, Sally, Liz, Shona, Jodie and my two cousins James and Peter - who ran with me, cycled with me, supported with more vehicles, blasted out Barry White's words of encouragement through the dark times, massaged painful muscles, cooked dinners and baked the most delicious cake!

My sponsorship from Edinburgh's Footworks - who are also barefoot running specialists - and OMM, with my running waterproof, was truly a game saver. Without this high quality waterproof kit I really don't think I would've kept the important parts dry and sane enough to continue.

As for all those generous people out there who have donated or helped me promote, you've made it all worthwhile and helped raise over £3,400 for HWDT and RSPB Scotland, to protect Scotland's special wildlife - thank you.

For anyone who can still donate, my donation page remains open for a wee while, through!

This run was for Alice Lambert, who was with us all the way in memory.

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