Wednesday, 5 August 2015

A devil of a race

A few race stats:
  • 42 miles from Tyndrum - Fort William
  • 6,000 feet ascent
  • Part of the Triple Crown of West Highland Way ultras along with HOKA Highland Fling and West Highland Way Race
  • New Race Director: the amazing & superhuman Johnny Fling

Tyndrum start: fresh legs & all to play for
I entered late after getting my race dates mixed up. Mrs Impulsive strikes again. For some reason thought the Devil was scheduled a week later so three weeks out and too close to UTMB. Its debatable whether racing four weeks out is even advisable but I've been feeling strong lately and thought I'd give it a go with proviso I wouldn't push through anything too painful or damaging. As it was, the race would be the tame option for that weekend given the weekend training ascent Donnie has been giving me in these peak weeks leading up to UTMB.

Having run the race in 2013 in 7.12 I suspected I'd be more hill fit and consistent this year than back then (in retrospect I was also still recovering from Western States four weeks before, a few weeks later I developed a fibula stress fracture =  a lesson). Privately my hopes were high for a sub 7 finish - although knew also than Johnny's addition of a new hill finish to the route might derail this.

Friday conditions north of Tyndrum
Conditions helping the merry Devil crew set up in Fort William on Friday were APOCALYPTIC. Talking driving, persistent torrential rain. 15 degrees colder than London. And a first foray into marquee erection - some fun team work, I think Alan Sugar would have been impressed.
Weather standards having been pushed as low as they could go, I was pretty happy with the overcast showery conditions Saturday morning brought. No need for a waterproof to start. I also managed one of the best pre-race sleeps I've had, a solid six hours (standard these days).

Tyndrum to Bridge of Orchy (7 miles, 47:47)
  • Everything felt good, if taking 20 mins or so to warm into the race and pace properly. I was trying to keep a steady pace but as usual probably set off a little fast, although I could see the bobbing Salomon red of the race winners for all of two minutes. The miles absolutely sped by to Bridge of Orchy and I spent the time organising a mental checklist in my head of what I needed to do before and after each CP to make smooth transitions.

Bridge of Orchy to Glencoe (10.8 miles, 1hr38)
  • Legs & body - felt strong, didn't have to work too hard on the hill out of Bridge of Orchy and loved the downhill. Ahead of me, Ivor pointed out a stunning rainbow and I gave myself a stern talking to for not having noticed it for staring at my feet - which to be fair was the safer plan in order to run fast down through the loose stones and streams to the road. I did see the darkening clouds beyond and wonder what lay ahead over Rannoch Moor, which I don't think I've ever run in good weather.
  • State of mind - fair to middling! Felt positive running through the checkpoint but very soon after I started to feel the niggle of chafing on my legs, with the under-shorts of the running skirt I was wearing rolling around all over the place. 7 miles in - seriously? I've worn this one so much that it did have a few holes, but I'm not one to throw things out easy. I was totally kicking myself for not having thought it through properly though with today's wet conditions, which can make these things so much worse. Over the next 8 miles it became a constant fixture in my mind and I couldn't do anything about the continual friction. I began asking the guys in front if they had Vaseline, but no, then I began promising myself I'd find some at Glencoe. That or swap shorts with someone.
  • Learnings - 1) Rannoch Moor is a slippy nightmare underfoot when its raining and yes - it always rains on Rannoch Moor 2) Always carry Vaseline 3) A Buff can do a lot but it doesn't really work threaded through shorts to prevent chafing.

Glencoe to Kinlochleven (10.5 miles, 1hr46)
Summit of Devil's Staircase: thanks Fiona & Pauline :-)
  • There was no Vaseline at Glencoe. But lots of friendly WHW family faces, in fact it was rather like the who's who of Scottish ultra racing at that checkpoint. I hung out for a few minutes to track some down with Sean the medic extraordinaire and he did his best to hunt but I needed to get going.
  • Leaving the CP physically I felt great still and able to run strong and hard. Seeing Lorna and Noanie at the bottom of the road was another little high. Dipping into the bushes outside Glencoe to see if I could stick compeed on my thighs whilst being attacked by swarms of midges everywhere was not so much. The compeed stayed on for all of five minutes.
  • The Devil's Staircase came and I discovered that uphills are to be treasured as they don't bother the chafing. I love running hills at the moment anyway and have been doing many a weekend of reps on the Devil, Kinlochleven and Ben Lomond so tried to run as much as possible but ran out of steam after a while and hiked hands-on-knees. A guy I passed advised me I should be racing the men as well as the women and that I should try catch the guy in red, four men ahead. It was a nice idea but didn't quite happen. I did pass three guys on the Staircase though before spotting a couple of spectacularly dressed people at the top - Fiona Rennie and Pauline Walker. Great to see and gave me quite the lift before the niggling pain returned to say hello for the miles of rocky downhill to midge-infested Kinlochleven.

Kinlochleven to Lundavra (7 miles, 1hr 23)
  • Well the kind folks at KLL found me some Vaseline and Bodyglide (thanks Matt and lady I don't know the name of!) and this was reassuring for a short while but it was too late and made little difference. I was actually wondering whether this would affect me finishing, I felt like it was slowing me down from my potential. Like the other checkpoints, I grabbed supplies for en route and ate fairly well (coconut & chia flapjack, banana, juice) before heading for the final of the three major hills of the race.
  • I enjoyed the climb and fast-hiked/jogged as I could manage up onto Lairig Mor. Memories from the recent West Highland Way Race and support running with Jamie Aarons up here flooded my mind and I channeled her strength. After the steep climb, the gentle uphill undulations seemed to go on for an age but I was willing them to continue as it didn't hurt as much.
  • There were heaps of walkers out, colourful waterproof backpacks bobbing ahead and I dodged them with the puddles to some lovely supportive cheers. I was five minutes slower than I hoped to reach the small CP of Lundavra but told myself I could still manage a sub-7. It was back on in my head - close enough to grit the teeth and just ignore the layer of skin I was missing. After a quick fix of coke and hello's with the marshalls I set off for the final section.

Lundavra to Fort William (7 miles, 1hr 08)
  • Remind me to never live in FW, wettest place in the UK by many accounts. A microclimate of monsoon. The heavens opened on this section but it didn't really matter now. Having recently run the short sharp hills out of the CP into (what used to be more of) a forest and beyond I knew what to expect and counted them down one by one. Some I was good to run and some not. I had no idea where second lady was, no one at any of the CP's had known, so for all I knew she was minutes behind, I couldn't slow down now.
  • But soon came the winding single track uphill that wound up at the fire road, sooner than I thought, and I glanced at my watch. 6.12. With what I calculated as 7k to go - I was going to have to push this. I ran as hard as I could down the 5k road of downhill, ticking the k's off one by one, to a soundtrack of Moderat and Royskopp.
  • Finish in the fields: 6:45, 1st lady &12th overall
  • I knew John had changed the finish from a mile flat on road to a mile of climb/sharp downhill so the finish could be in playing fields of the leisure centre, a great improvement with heaps of space for spectators and finish tents. A slow mile and I was so surprised to look once again at the watch upon seeing the finish line from high above and see that I may be able to still aim for a 6.45. And I made it, crossing the line across the flooded fields in exactly that time, most of the pain forgotten - especially when presented with John and family's incredible veggie chilli and a cup of tea. Although I lasted all of two minutes in the shower. Seriously - no pain like it since the post-Western States shower!

I love this race. Like many, after running longer races it feels like a dream to be able to push more through this course, and the trail is just so beautiful in whatever the conditions throw at us. We may have low standards for weather but the Devil leaves you incredibly high standards for all-round trail beauty and superb and seamless race directing, not to mention the Scottish trail community. Thank you to every one of the marshals and support and coach Donnie for all the support and pushing me. Congrats to Donnie and Casey Morgan for their joint first finish!

Lessons learnt though, you think you've got it sorted after a few years of ultra racing but you can still get it wrong. Never take the small stuff, preparation and kit testing for granted. That said, I couldn't have wished for a better result and still shocked to have run the second fastest female time in the race's history (Devil finisher PB spreadsheet here, thanks John Kynaston).

Men's overall winners
Joint first: Donnie Campbell and Casey Morgan 5:28
Third: Kevin O' Donoghue 5:46

Women's overall winners
First: Caroline McKay 6:45
Second: Nicola Adams-Hendry 7:27
Third: Lynne Allen 7:36

Full results are here


  1. Really enjoyed reading that, Caroline - thanks! Always good to get a competitive runner's perspective on races that most of us are about reaching the end... albeit ideally within a target time!
    (And good luck with UTMB, not least with the final training / tapering leading up to it!)

  2. Great to see the training coming together in a well executed race. Slashing 30 minutes off your previous time and posting the 2nd faster women's time on a harder course is a real testament to how well you ultra fitness has progressed.


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