The Friday before the race start was less than ideal. I'd hoped to have a chilled day of sleeping and cooking race fuel etc but predictably awoke early with some major butterflies playing havoc. Instead of enjoying being around the flat I felt stressed and couldn't get to sleep for the rest of the day. The continual rain and growling thunder battering the flat didn't help - weather has such an effect on state of mind! Think I might have to work on the relaxation and meditation side of race prep in the future.
My support crew came round to James' for a quickie meal of deluxe mac & cheese before we headed for Milngavie around 10pm, arriving just after 11pm amidst persistent rain. I thought we had heaps of time but it filled quickly with registering, being weighed, sorting drop bags for the crewless checkpoints, catching up with Andy Cole the younger and donning kit. Given the forecast, what to wear had been a conundrum, but I decided on the OMM long tights, the Kamleika waterproof that saw me through 3 days of steady rain during Run Around Mull and my Brooks Cascadia with Injinji toe socks....James also strapped my toe up as my entire big toenail had come off that day: great timing.
Then it was time: I dashed into the middle of the 172-strong pack and ran into Karl Zeiner and his friend Lex. It was great to see them briefly and we set off into the darkness, a myriad of head torches leading the away against an impressive backdrop of cheers for the unsocialable hour of 1am.
|THE wonder pie|
I first saw them at the Beech Tree Inn - an impromptu stop at 7 miles - I didn't stop but the cheers buoyed me during a particularly torrential downpour. By this point my feet had been soaked already for a few miles. By Drymen and after the second fall - this time on the road section just ahead of Drymen at 12 miles - I was more than ready to see them again. Staying true to the nutritional strategy spreadsheet I'd handed to them earlier, they thrust a gel and refill of Peronin into my hands and I was off again, to face the next 7 miles and Conic Hill before the first official checkpoint at Balmaha.
I really enjoyed this section and in retrospect it was one of the highs of my race. Once I'd adapted to having wet feet I began to enjoy splashing through puddles and got chatting to a friendly Irish guy running the race for the second year and gearing up for the UTMB. It was one wild party up Conic hill, at one point we were all splashing up the path-turned river shin-deep in water, and I had a distinct high as the darkness subsided and the light shone through the clouds. I was uncharacteristically cautious on the way down with memory of the faceplant I did down the hill during the Highland Fling still fresh in my mind.
I had a bit of fun racing a few guys down, we all thought we'd be involved in a massive game of dominoes at any second. I arrived in a midge-infested Balmaha around 4.30am, 20 minutes shy of the gold target split. I downed a quickie bowl of cereal, refilled the Peronin, changed into dry socks and shoes and was off - shouting goodbye to the team, who I wouldn't see until Auchtertyre at 50 miles, around 7 hours later due to the next 3 checkpoints being difficult/restricted to supporters.
|My midged, damp crew|
I arrived into a drenched Rowardennan to pick up my drop bag, refill with Peronin and gels and drink some coke. Needing a toilet stop, I tried the toilets to no avail - locked. Leaving the checkpoint, I ran strong for a few more miles before passing a campsite and veering off down to its toilet block - again, locked. I gave up and headed for the trees, wasting more valuable time.
I was prepared for the next section, knowing it well know through training and the Fling - the first year of which I remember finding the gradual incline out towards Inversnaid a real struggle. I'm happy to say I quite enjoy this part of the trail now, and was running some of the gentler inclines and chatting to Donald Sandeman as we kept passing each other. I was surprised when I popped out of the trees and spotted the bridge leading over and down into the checkpoint - Inversnaid already.
|Coming into Inversnaid|
It was pouring again, and I sat beneath the awning whilst a lovely marshall refilled my water, handed me my drop bag and offered me snacks from a table overflowing with fudge, bananas and chocolate. I was hungry by then, and had a couple of pieces of fudge, banana and stashed a Mars to take on the speed hike out the checkpoint up the hill. I think I ate it too fast as almost immediately begain to feel nauseus. Looking back I think I was pretty cold by that point too after 10 hours of running in the rain (although the trusty OMM jacket and tights were doing a fantastic job) but became worried that my stomach had stopped absorbing properly.
|Team multi-tasking: feeding me and patching me up|
I tried in vain to keep my feet dry but the flooding on the trail was unavoidable. I chatted to a friendly chap (can't remember his name) up from the midlands to run the race, we kept passing each other but when he ran it was at a faster pace so it wasn't possible to stay running together. I pulled my ishuffle on at this point, and despite the distracting sounds of the rainfall, the upbeat electronica sounded amazing, and really gave me a boost. My pace picked over the more runnable section 9 miles to Bridge of Orchy. I was so excited about arriving into the BoO, as I'd been thinking during all my prep that if I could get there relatively comfortably and in a decent time, even if I really struggled afterwards I could walk it in in under 35 hours. This part of the trail was exposed and I was now running into a brisker wind. I passed at least a couple of guys who were walking huddled and shivering - asking if they were ok they said they were, just cold and couldn't run any more. I think they had to call it a day at BoO which was really sad.
|Bridge of Orchy checkpoint: 60 miles|
At the top of the hill a Scotland flag marked the spot where Murdo McEwan was standing, handing out jelly babies to the runners, with lovely words of encouragement. I was fading a bit on the downhill that followed, but the constant chat with Gregg kept me distracted. Despite the bleak weather, the landscape around us was lush, green and beautiful, and the trail led us onto the road section and up the steady climb onto Rannoch Moor. Now the last time I'd run on the Moor was a fantastic training run with Antonia, in excellent weather conditions, and despite it being the second 30 miler of a back to back weekend I felt great and loved the scenery of the moorland and enclosing mountains of Glencoe.
It wasn't the same this time: there were more inclines that I remember, and the trail just went on and on. I was desperately searching for the landmark of the bridge that had been our turnaround point, but it didn't come for miles. I had to have one or two walking breaks, and a gel. I then ran out of Peronin and started to feel thirsty. We finally made it into Glencoe quite a bit behind my schedule, realising this section had been 11 not 9 miles. My ability seemed to now be closely connected to knowing exactly what to expect.
Glencoe was not a happy checkpoint experience. First I wanted to drink lots, eat and change my shoes. I'm not even sure I changed my shoes - my mind had started to go and as soon as I stopped running I felt dizzy and sick, and my quads were seizing. I brushed my teeth and didn't know what to do with myself but decided I had to start running again. My quads were agony as I set off but I only got 100 metres down the road before I realised my teeth were chattering and I was absolutely frozen. I felt my clothing and it was soaked - I hadn't changed clothes at all. Gregg - who'd continued on with me - called the crew camper and it came speeding down the hill. I jumped in and whipped my clothes off, changing into two new dry and thermal layers, dry gloves and back into my waterproof. Instantly I felt better and set off, attempting a slow jog. At this point we met Karl Zeiner and his support runner Fiona Milligan. His knees had gone and he was struggling to run. I said I'd probably see him on the Devil's Staircase in a few miles time but later heard he'd pulled out which was a real shame - but sure he'll be back.
We took the opportunity of the Devil to crack open some crisps which I was craving by then, and catch up on Peronin consumption, which by now I was mightily sick of. When we eventually reached the top I vowed to try run the entire downhill but comically as I sustained the jog I found Gregg was speed walking at the same pace. My quads were still struggling and a few miles later I began to have the familiar walking-on-glass feeling again. This time it felt like a large section of the soles of both feet were forming blisters.
The neverending stretch into Kinlochleven was all downhill and my state of mind was quickly going the same way. We could see the tantalising lights of the village long below us, nestled between the beautful hills, but it didn't seem like we'd ever reach it. Poor Gregg, I don't know how many times I fired questions at him about how far is this, how far is that, what is your estimate of this etc - he'd never even run on the WHW so I don't know what I expected! I began fantastising about being in a room. I didn't care what room, just any dry one. With a cup of tea. I don't ask for much, Gregg said.
I felt close to tears as we ran into the village and thought I'd be tipped over the edge when I saw James jogging towards us. i just wanted a hug but didn't think any sympathy would be a good idea. I didn't feel I could continue from KL without my blisters being dealt with and feet strapped up. The race doctor Chris Ellis is based in KL and at the checkpoint all night for any runners needing treatement before continuing. James asked him if he could deal with my feet and I was taken into the gym where I lay on the medical bed and immediately felt like passing out. I was aware my head was lolling and I people's voices were fading in and out. I then thought I was going to be sick and a second younger doctor helping Chirs brought me a sick bowl. Chris explained that after such long endurance efforts, when the body stops said effort the heart can slow down/fluctuate so much that blood pressure drops and fainting/sickness can occur. Its not dangerous but felt horrible.
Chris looked at my feet and said there were no blisters on the underside, which felt unbelievable to me given the pain. He said the skin had been wet for so long it was very loose on both feet though. He re-strapped my toe and strapped up both feet. If he'd told the team I couldn't continue I don't think I would've argued, but I got up and tried to force feed a peanut butter roll and a can of coke. Someone mentioned only 6 women had made it through KL so far and up to 50 had DNF'd the race out of 172.
Gregg had become my trail angel and decided to continue with me for the next section too, probably because I looked like such a state by now. James led us out onto the road to the base of the steep climb out of KL and said goodbye until Lundavra in 7.5 miles. Just walking again felt better, and the sickness subsided as quickly as it had come. We reached the peak of the hill and I began seeing large white crates lining the hillside. "What are they?" I asked Gregg. Glancing up, the response came "rocks, Caroline, rocks". A while later I felt inclined to ask what the huge angular objects on the left side of the trail were. "Is there a cable car up here?". No, said Gregg - these again are rocks. I cold have sworn this white cable car was rising up towards the trail. I became pretty obsessed with the objects on the hills, and felt like I was in some sinister cartoon.
Both Gregg and myself quickly became tired of the terrain, and the concentration required not to fall on loose rocks, deep puddles and stream crossings. There were a lot of slippages and I was worried about Gregg's dodgy ankle. The last few miles wore on and at last we saw the glittering lights of the bonfire at Lundavra. I realised it was 1am, and could have burst into tears again at realising how long I'd stayed at KL and how behind my gold and silver targets I'd become. But mainly I was worried about my crew being tired.
As soon as I stopped in their cosy huddle, I felt sick and like I was going to pass out again. I just needed to keep going until the end now, so set off up the hill with a pocket full of jelly babies and some Peronin. Gregg said he'd carry on with me and I was delighted, I'm not sure I would have made it without him, without crashing into a river or off the trail. By this point my achilles and quads were really struggling, so I was speed walking all parts of the trail that weren't completely flat (not many). Then, on a sharp uphill leading into the forested path before the downhill into Fort William, I felt a sharp pain in my right achilles, with horrific twinges right up my calf. This time I did burst into tears, as thought I'd torn it. Gregg came to get me and took my arm as we decided what to do. We calculated only a couple of miles left and there was no way I was going to DNF now. I put weight back on the foot but whilst still on the uphill it was agony. When back on flat or downhill the twinges subsided. So we started the long walk into Fort William, which turned out to be 3 or 4 miles rather that 2. I began imagining what type of room I'd be in tonight (Cat's B & B) and what it would feel like to be indoors. Gregg called the team and warned them we might be a while.
|95 miles later - and confused!|
I really can't say thank you enough to Julie, Gregg, James and Cat for giving up their weekends to support me. They must have been exhausted as the normally super healthy team resorted to not one but two McDonalds breakfasts on Sunday morning. But they were constantly cheerful, always there with exactly what I'd asked for, and took care of everything - James and Julie were the sole drivers of both vehicles for two days solid, with sleep of just 4 hours. And I truly don't think I would've made it through the last section if Gregg hadn't beensupport runner extraordinaire.
|Me and Doctor Chris, who saved my race|
|THE Team (minus Gregg, who should be in this!)|