Thursday, 27 December 2012

Western States 100 in 2013

The last whirlwind month has transformed all my running plans for next year. Firstly, much to my shock and excitement my name was chosen in the Western States 100 lottery. Secondly, and fortuitously, JOGLE race director Rory Coleman told me they had no choice but to cancel next year's JOGLE due to poor sign up (just 5 runners, even paying £2,200 each, does not make full back up for 860 miles worth it for the organisers). So the JOGLE is off the cards and all my training effort and energy will be going into Western States. A relief for me, mixed with disappointment of not being able to take on the JOGLE journey next year. But with the most ambitious will in the world there could have been no way to give both commitments full justice in the first 6 months of 2013, in terms of training, recovery, funds, work, other commitments etc.

And anyway, it was the phone call my Dad was waiting for! No longer does he need to worry (quite so much) about long term joint damage. And now I can safely reassure him about how much kinder the soft packed mountain trails are than hundreds of miles of tarmac.

So, to Western States! The race is 100 miles of well-maintained trail through the mountains and canyons of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in Northern California, from Squaw Valley ski resort, near Lake Tahoe, to a small town called Auburn. It will be held on 29th June next year. Originally a horse race, it was run for the first time in 1974 by Gordy Ainsleigh (whose horse was lame) leading to the concept of 100 mile races being widely adopted. It's now hugely competitive with entry through a lottery system meaning applicants who pass the entry requirements have only a 7% chance of success. I am still feeling incredibly lucky but also sorry for those UK applicants who didn't get picked.

The Western States Course Profile

I may never get the chance to run this race again so I'll be putting absolutely everything into doing my best next June. Flights are booked, crew pleas posted on forums, lists obsessively written, training plans in progress. I hope to join up with West Highland Way guys and gals for some hill training, and get out for as many mountainous hikes as humanly possible, fast-hiking up, running down, starting with the week on Knoydart over New Year. The WS course has over 22,000 feet of downhill so I need to get very comfortable to dealing with the vertical swiftly, sensibly and without injury.

Geoff Roes & Anton Krupicka running the WSER100
I am not one for idolising elite runners (they are but human!) but have to say I'm hugely excited about running (quite far behind) some of the world's fastest ultra runners. Next year will see Ellie Greenwood return to the race to defend her title - in this years Western States she became the first woman ever to run faster than 18 hours - by 50 minutes! She broke Ann Trason's course record, which previously had seemed unbeatable. The 2013 race will also see 8 of the top 2012 women return to the field, as well as male runners including Hal Koerner, who won the Hard Rock 100 this year.

One of the many downhill sections of the race
There will be some things I can't train for....California heat being one of them. Temps can reach 102 Fahrenheit (38 C) in the canyons but tend to fluctuate throughout the route, due to a chilly 5am start up in Squaw Valley. In fact temps stayed cool for most of this year's race - the second coolest of all time - leading to both male and female course records being broken. However in the history of the race this is extremely rare and many runners even turn to sauna training as part of their prep. I've been told by a couple of seasoned Western States runners that this isn't entirely necessary, what is more important is to acclimatise in the two weeks prior, so I'm heading out ten days early to get friendly with the route and the sun, spending a few days exploring either end of the trail from Auburn and Truckee.

So...if anyone fancies joining in training - or indeed a week or two of running in California - just shout. Until then, I'm looking forward to blowing the cobwebs away at the Country to Capital ultra (from Bucks to London along the Grand Union Canal) on 12th Jan, followed by the Thames Trot 50 miler (Oxford to Henley-on-Thames) in early Feb. Bring this year on!

Wishing you all a Happy Hogmanay and healthy, adventurous 2013.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Glen Ogle 33: ending on a high

It would be difficult not to have a ball running this route. 33 miles of stunningly beautiful soft paths winding through an autumnal Glen Ogle in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, near the tiny town of Strathyre.

It didn't start well though. The race prep was a disaster. I couldnt sleep AT ALL the night before. James was out, I knew I had to be up at 5am and I must have turned over 65 times. Eventually the alarm went off and I struggled to get in gear and over to meet Karl and grab a lift with Carole Fortune, thinking all the while that I'd be too exhausted to out in a good effort.

But fortunately enough the adrenalin kicked in and the beautifully fresh air of the Trossachs helped me wake up. My muscles felt fine after last weekend and we concluded all the mud at Jedburgh had softened the impact. The start line had been changed from last year in a bid to lengthen the race to its promised 33 miles so we walked a wee while up the forest path to get to it, squeezing past cheery, surprised looking blokes in massive farm-type machinery. Then we were off, to face the first hill of a fair few in the first miles, which was a welcome way to control my early pace tendencies. To my surprise I felt great, enjoying the steady effort and the crisp freshness of the morning. It had been pouring with rain en route to Strathyre but had cleared to leave a gentle mist and scattering of hail and we were surrounded by the gorgeous snow capped hills.

A dusting of snow/ice on the paths through the glen
I didn't really want to stop to walk on any of the hills but was forced into it on the main steep incline up to the old railway line above the road. At the top, the flat path that runs above the railway arches is just spectacular, with views down to Loch Earn and through the misty forest. I'd seen a few ladies I knew were fast on the start line so was expecting them to trot past at any moment, but it didn't happen until around mile 14, when Alison from Aberdeen drew up beside me. We chatted and ran together for a while and almost immediately Emma Baker appeared also before dropping back again. We continued that way for miles before Alison gained a few hundred metres. We headed through checkpoint 3 at mile 18 and I stopped for just seconds to grab some coke, half a bagel and a chia flapjack for later.

The route is roughly out and back, with the exception of extra miles added to the return to take you down sleepy Balqhuidder B roads after coming down from the hill instead of the path we'd headed out on from Strathyre. After checkpoint 3, we were back on the same beautiful railway path, and the sun was just beginning to emerge from behind the morning's snow clouds. I still felt strong but and incredibly free without my Garmin, with just the trusty OMM waist pack for company (it survived the mud of Jedburgh; unlike my white top). I knew I'd begin to tire soon so was just trying to keep the pace steady and run efficiently, concentrating on my stride and contact with the ground.

A few miles later Emma appeared again and passed me, she looked strong too and I did my best to stick behind her. We hit the downhill in what seemed like no time at all, which I think I hammered slightly too hard. After that I stuck my my iPod on for a diversion, the album reminding me of the elation of finishing Jedburgh. I recalled from last year that the last 6ish miles of road through Balquidder were really quite undulating and predictably this did drag on a bit again this year, but knowing they were coming, I tackled every hill with an 'I can take you on' attitude. Another reason why knowing the course helps so much - not just navigationally but as a mental motivator too.

And then all at once the shoogly bridge preceeding the finish line appeared, and the finish was right there with Ada's cheers and my go-much-faster friend Karl already getting changed.

With Michael and Ian Beattie at the finish
Considering Jedburgh Three Peaks the week before was just 5 miles longer than Glen Ogle, at 38 miles, it could hardly have been a more different race experience in terms of terrain (did I mention Jedburgh was muddy?) and runnability. This goes to show in the results - my Jedburgh time was 7.16 and I finished Glen Ogle in 4.39 as third lady. I saw Emma Baker who'd finished second lady and she said she'd only been in for two minutes. Alison had run a belting final 10 miles and finished seven minutes ahead. Craig Reid won overall in 3.43. All in all I was delighted with my time given a few miles had been added on to the course this year to make it up to (almost) 33 miles.

The marshalls were all incredible - great to see Lorna, Ada, John et al - and must have been freezing their a*ses off by the end of the afternoon, it was baltic! The fire they'd set up at the finish was amazing, and we huddled round it for a while drinking the GO33 beer like dutiful ultra runners. Congrats to all who ran, particularly Karl, Michael, Carole, Helen, Emma and Ian, who didn't have a good day out on the race but stayed around for hours to cheer folk on.

So, feeling great at the moment, I'm reluctant to admit defeat and not race again until the New Year, but the decision has been made for me (for Scottish ultras anyway) as I'm back on Mull the weekend of the Winter Ultra on 7th December.

My running energies instead will be focused on using the winter months to get in some speed work, get back into the gym to build core strength and plan an adventure to run half way down to Dad's in Cheshire for Christmas, leaving a day ahead of James. 2 out of the 3 wouldn't be too bad if I still can't face the gym claustrophobia....

Happy winter running

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Jedburgh Ultra Mudathon & Loch Ness Marathon

I signed up to Jedburgh Three Peaks Ultra in a bid to get the body moving long distance again after the few months of injury and recovery post-West Highland Way, and approached the race in the most relaxed way I think I've ever approached an ultra. I was more apprehensive about the Loch Ness marathon which I decided to run as a last-minute challenge in September to join Julie in her first foray into the marathon. Despite wanting to see Loch Ness as a 'training run', that distance for me seems to come with a certain pressure for speed and temptation to compete with my own  PB (3.26 in San Francisco, when I actually used to go to interval sessions!) Needless to say getting anywhere near this PB was an unrealistic aim after a summer of injury and lack of speedwork.

The opposite ended up happening for both races - Jedburgh was extremely hard work, a struggle throughout the entire race, and Loch Ness was a chilled steady run against a backdrop of beautiful weather and a sparkling loch. So I thought I'd compare and contrast the two little adventures:

The camping barn in Fort Augustus

Loch Ness -  A two week holiday ending with a night camping in a chilly Fort Augustus barn with rain battering the roof may not have been the best precurser to a happy race but I knew my recent hilly, weather-battered runs on Mull would be good prep. Plus having having run Loch Ness as my first marathon in 2009, I had a good feel for what to expect, and the forecast was looking good for Sunday. My main plan was just to take it easy, run steady and finish under 4 hours feeling comfortable and with no achilles pain.

Jedburgh - Similarly, I hoped running Loch Ness at the end of September followed by a few weekends of tough, hilly Pentland runs afterwards would serve as a good base endurance for Jedburgh. Having not trained on the route at all it was hard to know what to expect but I had a good look at the route online and through John Kynaston's recce vid - leaving no excuse for what happened during the race! To suss out a time goal, I compared it with the Speyside Way ultra which also had a fair few ups and downs and was just a few miles shorter at 35 miles, and give myself a 7 hour aim.

Loch Ness - a shaky start, as the crowds of runners streaming out of the 37 buses made for a frustrating queue to the start line, and with 10 minutes to the start, the portaloos were a complete no go. Julie and I lost each other and I worried she wouldn't have made it to the start on time and would be beginning the run under stress. I started in the 3.30 group which quickly turned into a bottleneck and it took a few minutes to get going, past the pair of pipers who set us off. I'll spare you the mile by mile monotony but after a quick loo stop at mile 3 I got into the stride and was feeling good, with plenty of energy and enthusiasm for the run - the sunshine streaming down on the loch helped. I have no excuse having run the race before but was surprised again by the number of undulations from early on that didnt seem to show up in the route profile. After the long hill at mile18, I was feeling pressure down my right hamstring and the old glute pain had returned. It didn't worsen though, so I ticked the miles off slowly until the memorable run into Inverness and over the bridge to the seemingly endless strip on the other side to finish in Bught Park.

Karl Zeiner & I: pearly white before mudfest
Jedburgh - It was good to see some friendly faces at registration and we set off in slight drizzle at 8am, running on the main road out of Jedburgh and onto paths leading out to the little village of Maxton, then St Boswells. From around miles 4 or 5 the path began to get muddy and I came round to the idea that my feet wouldn't stay dry for long. Having unpleasant visions of the macerated state they ended up in during the WHW, this was the first introduction to what would become some of the most frustrating terrain I've run on. For many miles the path took us through ankle deep mud and I slipped and slid all over the place, crashing into stiles and brambles. From mile 13ish Sharon Law caught up and we started chatting. In fact we must have been so deep in conversation we missed the right turn just before St Boswells as we both ended up in completely the wrong place. Fortunately one of the race organisers - thankfully they were everywhere - found us and stuck us back on the right track. Mentally, that threw me for a while and I was out of my pace as we arrived into the checkpoint at Rhymers Stone, mile 18. The three peaks came next and I can honestly say hiking them was a welcome break from running through mud on flat ground - plus the views were stunning. We had more time for a chat with some other folk and had an excellent cheer from the marshalls on the top of the third peak. It was fantastic to run and talk to Sharon for a while before she took off on an incredible downhill display of speed. Thinking about our navigational adventures, they were really just a good example of part of what ultras are about - running into challenges and getting through them without giving up.
I ran alone again for a few miles afterwards, and took a good body slam into the mud on the track through the forest after the third peak. I was covered in mud with a few bloody scrapes which made for an interesting marble effect on the legs. I think I even shouted 'Right, that's it, I'm done!' at the trees before breaking into a run again to channel the mud anger into something useful.

From the Eildons
Later on I met John Kynaston, who got me back on the right track after yet another veer off the path, and we ran for a few miles together. We talked for a while and I began feeling positive and fairly energetic again. I then ran alone up until the bridge at mile 35 ish, where who else but my Dad jumped out shouting 'Hi sweetie!'. He'd driven up from Cheshire to see me finish and come stay in Edinburgh for a few days and had floated the idea of running out to meet me but I didnt really think it would logistically work, so it was fabulous to see him! I felt as good as new then, and we chatted and caught up all the way back into Jedburgh, where Lisa and Jodie, who'd run the half marathon, were waiting for us.

My trusty OMM waist pack toughed it out with me throughout Jedburgh, and survived well despite being slammed into the mud. Its super light but spacious - one of my favourite pieces of kit at the moment. I cant say the same for the Under Armour top - yes, in white - which was also thrown into mud and attacked by brambles and is still lying sadly in the washing basket. And never again will I be wearing road shoes in conditions like that....especially not when I have 4 decent pairs of trails at home! What was I thinking? Fuel-wise the race was uneventful - I ate regularly without problems - homemade chia/cranberry flapjacks, banana, coke, gels - and drank mainly electrolytes - flavoured by mud post-fall.

Loch Ness was also uneventful fuel/kit-wise, but it was a dream to run light with a pocket full of gels and a handheld bottle. The race being sponsored by Clif, I just picked up additional gels along the route, although I wasnt impressed when I managed to grab the strongest caffeine variety going pretty early on - not a good plan.

Julie and I pre-Loch Ness

Loch Ness - I finished feeling good despite the glute pain and seizing up which was to come during the car journey home. At 3.42 I was a minute under my previous Loch Ness time and largely happy with the way it unfolded. Guy Van Herp sorted me out after in physio by cracking my sacroiliac joint in my hip back into place, which he said had been jammed and would have been affecting my hamstring. Julie ran a real beauty of a race for her first marathon coming in at just minutes over 4 hours and raising over £600 for the Scoliosis Society in the process. Well done to that girl.

Jedburgh - after all the issues I was elated to cross the line at all, and even more so to come in at 7.16 as third lady, behind Sharon in second (7.04) and Izzy Knox in first (6.46). The organisers made us laugh as they whipped us immediately on to the podium wanting to get the prizegiving done, despite me being absolutely caked in mud. The race directors and marshalls really were amazing throughout and kept us going with so much encouragement. Well done to them all, and everyone else who ran and supported.

On Saturday I'm running Glen Ogle 33, which will be the first time I've run two ultras on consecutive weeks - not intentional but Glen Ogle gave me a place from the waiting list after I'd signed up to Jedburgh. Hopefully a good way to end the season until January when JOGLE training in earnest will begin - bring it on!

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Road to Recovery and the JOGLE

If there's one thing about getting injured, it's that it allows too much thinking time about what's next. It may be twisted logic, but since I injured both my achilles in the West Highland Way Race in June I've spent so much time doing what I should to recover the tendons that I feel I've earnt the right to take on a real wishlist race next year.

The Mull 10k/half marathon in August
On strict physio instruction after finding out the left achilles did have a minor tear, I took the month after the WHW completely off running, and started slow 3 mile runs again in August. I was gutted not to be able to run the Devil O' the Highlands and the Speyside Way Ultra as planned but the scare of the injury was enough to teach me to listen to the physio - pretty important to recover before going back into racing otherwise a persistent case of tendonitis was apparently likely. Thankfully improvement came amazingly suddenly and the scar tissue bumps have now shrunk to almost nothing. In August we headed to Mull for the half marathon weekend (Julie's first very successful half!) and I ran the 10k. Proof if I needed any more that I find shorter races harder and less enjoyable than ultras, but running the distance with no pain was still an absolute joy.

A sunrise run
My recovery strategies have been rest, a heady regular mix of Voltarol and arnica, Rocktape and slowly starting to run again with walking breaks. I've also been breaking my runs up into shorter outings of a couple per day. I've fallen in love with running first thing and then again at lunch, and my energy levels have gone through the roof.

So to the wishlist, I have a place on the JOGLE race - a 16 day running race from John O' Groats to Lands End next April - May. Gregg and I considered running the UK as an expedition a while back so the seed was planted long ago. Organised by Ultra Race, which in itself is led by a couple of super experienced ultra runners Rory Coleman and Jen Salter, the race will have a max of 16 runners, all of whom will tackle an average of 55 miles per day as part of the route. Rory and Jen coordinate the race from start to finish with runners starting early and running through the day (cut offs for disqualification are midnight). We'll sleep on a 'rock & roll luxury sleeper' with chef on hand to feed us. 

No women have actually ever finished the race, which is an intimidating stat in itself, and in 2011 none of the starters finished at all. I followed 2012's race through its blog - aghast as one by one every runner DNF'd until just one, Rainer Koch, was left. He completed in an astonishing time, and had maintained an average speed of 9 min miles throughout the 16 days.

I can't contain my excitement and the planning spreadsheets have been started already - its going to be a winter of building major distance and I plan to make the back to back training sessions mini adventures in themselves. I'll be building up VERY slowly and staying in tune with myself to stop at any flare up of achilles issues. Even so, after the WHW telling my Dad was another matter completely!

And for now, encouraged by feeling so much improvement in the tendons, I recently floated the idea of registering for the Glenmore 12 hour - perhaps a step too far - before deciding instead to take on the Loch Ness marathon at the end of the month. Julie is running it as her first marathon, so it'll be an exciting weekend.

Major plan for me is NOT to race, not to focus on time, and just to enjoy the scenery and being able, hopefully, to run longer again. Saying that, it will be interesting to see if I've lost or managed to maintain any speed at all in relation to my San Francisco marathon PB a few years back.

Peace, fresh air and stretching the legs await over the next few weeks off work on Mull and in the Cairngorms - just enough time to bank some final miles!

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

The West Highland Way: Race to Remember

It was hard for me to imagine what running 30 miles longer that I've ever run before in a day would be like, both mentally and physically, but it was easy to make targets beforehand. I love an ambitious goal, but they went out the window (or more likely washed away by the rain) during Saturday's race. Still, I'm absolutely delighted to say I was still able to collect a certain beautiful crystal goblet on Sunday to mark my finish in the West Highland Way Race.

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.

I remember thinking, despite the rain, how much I was enjoying running along this trail again and using my legs after the long taper. The first of two falls during he first 12 miles interrupted my thoughts, and I hit the ground hard, softening the blow with my hand and bottle. I wasn't used to running with a headtorch and the rain was disorientating, so I don't think I was judging my foot placement well.

THE wonder pie
So, to introduce my lovely crew, I was incredibly lucky to be looked after by: James - driver of camper and chef of the daddy of all crew fuel: THE game pie; Julie - driver of second crew car and all-round amazing, supportive, selfless lady who never seems to tire; Gregg - head of crew banter and Dad jokes, and a runner who can bang out 30 miles without any training; and last but not least Cat - head of social media and the health & beauty cabinet of the camper for the weekend.

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 left for the next section, 7 miles to Rowardennan, feeling good and running strong. However, after a brief respite on Conic during which the clouds parted, it began again, this time persistent and heavy. Combined with the unbelievable clouds of midges attacking us as we ran, this really dampened my state of mind. I'd been warned about the midges but didn't actually think I'd get bitten badly whilst running a decent pace. I stand corrected, as they were everywhere, down my waterproof, on the ankles, all over my face, and I'd stupidly refused the repellant at Balmaha, saying I'd get some later. If there is a next time, a midge net will be top of the list.

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
The lovely Mountain Rescue Team were a welcome sight, as they ushered me to a seat with my drop bag and offering Skin So Soft, next to some other runners munching on sandwiches and coke. I couldn't help laughing with them that we looked a picture, a random selection of folk out for a bizarre picnic in the monsoon. I sat only for a minute - much better to walk and eat. I set off down the trail, attempting to eat one of my race fuel creations of a tattie scone/peanut butter sandwich and heading for the iconic but difficult lochside section, thinking "I'm welcoming you". Clambering over boulders, tree roots, huge steps and through streams and rivers bursting at their banks on their way down the hill to the loch was of course difficult but I always find the seemingly endless couple of miles into Beinglas checkpoint after the lochside worse. No matter my nutritional intake, I always seem to arrive into Beinglas with low blood sugar, feeling everything is becoming a struggle.

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
Over this long section of 10 miles, I ran when I could and speed hiked the many hills through the forest above Crianlarich until I was nearing the next checkpoint at Auchtertyre, a few miles out of Tyndrum. On one of the sharp downhills I had a sudden pain in my right toes, which felt like I was running on glass. Blisters. It would have been a small miracle if it hadn't happened, given the rain. I made the mistake of sitting on the trailside to take my shoes off and look. A massive blister had formed over my big toe where we'd taped it prior to the start. I promptly put it back on, gritted my teeth and got down the hill and the further mile to the CP. I met the team shortly after midday, whom I hadn't seen for hours, since Balmaha. The poor guys were soaked and huddled under umbrellas. but were fantastic - taking me to the weigh point, dealing with the blister and feeding me. My waist pack had been bruising my back after running with it for 11 hours so I swapped to Gregg's camelbak and set off with a feeble hobble until the toe pain numbed, then I was running again, through the final miles into Tyndrum, to cross into the eagerly-awaited northern half of the WHW.

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
I ran past the hotel over the bridge but couldn't find the team. Sean Stone advised me to check in the hotel carpark as a few support vehicles had had to park there. As I started back up the road, I saw the welcome blue jacket of MeJulie, running towards me waving. Behind her trotted Cat, James and Gregg, with all I needed in hand. I refilled with Peronin, munched another tattie scone (too good!!) and decided a quick stop into the hotel toilet was in order. Gregg had decided to support run with me - which we thought was 9 miles to Glencoe. I asked him if he'd taken into consideration we now had a long ascent out of BoO - he hadn't but was game anyway! It was fantastic to have company and we marched up the hill, surrounded by another bank of rain clouds.

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!
Like KL, the sparkling lights of Fort William took an age to descend to. But we did, and emerged into the town with the Lochaber leisure centre ahead of us. I was quite confused but Julie and Cat were shouting at me to knock on the door, and I was greeted with a hug by Ian Beattie to a backdrop of claps and cheers. My time was 26 hours 45 minutes and 7th lady position, a good deal past my sub 24 target but I was just happy to finish at all. Even the achilles pain seemed to go away with the delight of finishing.

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
So what have I learnt? That running in the rain for 24 hours WILL make you cold, and regular warm up's/shoe/clothes changes should be priority - but the beautiful OMM Kamleika still does the job. That I need sturdier trail shoes for the West Highland Way, possibly Roclites. That Peronin is excellent race fuel. That I should not stop for more than a matter of minutes at checkpoints. That it is possible to go through a hellish low and recover enough to continue. I was reduced to an incredibly low mental and physical state at certain points, which has since made me really appreciate the simple comforts in life - like being in rooms and drinking tea. Despite going back to work on Tuesday with some major projects on my plate, I feel like nothing can phase me after Saturday's endurance. I do wish it would stop raining now though!

THE Team (minus Gregg, who should be in this!)

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

The West Highland Wait

Today is Tuesday, and the West Highland Way Race is now just over 3 days away. I thought a before and after post might be an idea: to record my plans and see how the actual events measure up.

The past few weeks have been busy - with a trip to Amsterdam, a work venture to London and surprise party celebrations for James' 40th, and whilst I've been organised with getting the kit I need, I haven't had time to think or obsess about the race. And maybe its due to the experience of Run Around Mull, but I haven't felt as nervous or worried as I thought I might - just the adrenalin buzz of nervous excitement at the adventure and team aspect of the race.

Final Training
A flooded Pentlands during a Friday night run
Post Highland Fling I've run several back to back training weekends, consisting of a long run of 3 hours on Friday and another on Saturday morning of 3-6 hours, combining these with two or three short, sharp, difficult hill rep sessions and the odd (not often enough) core gym session during the week. For one of the weekends I ran with the lovely Antonia from Tyndrum up to just shy of Glencoe and back (30 miles) - it was an incredibly positive experience, and I got to know and like this part of the route more. I'll be looking forward to this section after the first half of the Race, knowing the trail is more forgiving and the spectacular scenery of Glencoe is a stone's throw in the grand scheme of the WHW. I didn't find Rannoch Moor bleak and difficult as many report, but then I was running it on a beautiful, sunny Saturday afternoon, and not setting off from Milngavie 55 miles earlier in the middle of the night.

As the race has drawn closer, I've cut the mileage back and ran my last long (ish) run on 3rd June, 16 miles back from Aberlady to Edinburgh before my own birthday picnic - it was a beautiful run and its difficulty paled in comparison to the birthday rounders and cricket my friends put me through for the rest of the afternoon, followed by a game of squash next morning. Unbelievable aches!

So, taperitis? No - I'm having a lovely time of the taper. Whilst I'm doing lots of walking every day and the odd 5km run, it's allowing me the time post-work to catch up on other preps. I think the hard part is purely psychological, with the danger of thinking you will have lost fitness and legs will be stiff at the race start, but I'm trying to rationalise my thinking that losing fitness in a few weeks is highly unlikely.

Final Prep
My plan is simple: early to bed each night this week for 8 plus hours sleep, healthy (not over-) eating,  and no coffee - though my tea intake had probably risen to equal that of a coffee! Great in theory but the increasing load of adrenalin does play havoc, and encourages the habit of waking early, whilst thinking about ridiculously mundane things like which fruit to buy, weather reports and how many times I should change toe socks during the 95 miles.

Race Plans
I'm meeting my amazing support crew - James, Julie, Gregg and Cat - on Friday for dinner and we're heading to Milngavie for 11.30pm to join the nervous crowds. They have proposed a Top Gun theme to the support, so I dread to think what kind of cheers I'll hear, and what kind of 80's running I may be tempted to try. I'm equally concerned about how tired they might be throughout the day, with only a couple of them taking Friday off work, but will try encourage them to sleep in the long break between supporting at Balmaha and Auchtertyre.

Recently in a bid to feel completely organised I devised gold, silver and bronze timing targets with corresponding split/checkpoint targets, as many WHW runners do in order to minimise disappointment if something doesn't go to plan. The bronze, of course, is to finish the course in the cut off time of under 35 hours, but really my target is to complete in under 24 hours. I cant bring myself to state the gold but it will be in the back of my mind (and perhaps on a laminated sheet in my waist bag!)

I'll be taking the excellent advice to try to relax and avoid rushing around pre-race at Milngavie, in order to channel my nervous excitement fully into where it is most needed. I'm hoping it will carry me through a good portion of the first half and as I'm looking forward to the second half so much I'm visualising a couple of race highs through that section, especially when I have the opportunity to have some of my crew run with me. Gregg, Julie and possibly James will be running, and will be fantastic company - I have warned them I might not be at my chattiest but their banter will be appreciated regardless!
The kit - this is only clothes changes!

Re kit: I have a couple of quality OMM pieces of gear, including the waist pack I tested recently and used in the Highland Fling. Its incredibly portable and light yet holds a surprising amount of supplies. If the weather brings rain, I will actually be excited to don the OMM Kamleika again - it reminds me so much of the Mull challenge and all its highs and lows, which I love.
Re fuelling, I've written a strategy for each checkpoint to help my crew, which consists of av. 260 calories an hour, mainly of Peronin - a high performance carb powder which is absorbed much quicker than food, which Andy from OMM recommended. I will combine this with small meals at checkpoints around normal meal times, supplementation with gels and of course the usual water and electrolytes. All good in theory but looking at the spreadsheet its still a hell of a lot of complex calories to get down and it may have to be a flexible plan.

So there we go....this is before, and I'll report back after! Thanks massively to all those who've given their advice, and in advance to my support crew for giving up their entire weekends and many hours of sleep to join me in the adventure.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

The Fling and the Final Countdown

Is it really nearing the end of May? The sand timer of the Scottish summer is swiftly running towards midsummer, which for me and around 200 other ultra runners in Scotland means one thing only, that the biggie West Highland Way Race is just a month away.

Four weeks ago, I ran the Highland Fling Ultra for the second year. This year, running the Fling was about getting the distance in for the WHW Race, and covering the southern half of the course as a training run but improving my time from last year. Wait - don't those two aims conflict? Its no wonder I was so disappointed with myself after this race. I ran a time 9 mins slower than last year (10.43) and didn't finish feeling like I was capable of continuing for another 42 miles as will be my goal in June. With retrospect I am now giving myself a break as I realise it was over ambitious to run a fast Highland Fling just 3 weeks after the 133 miles of Mull.

I set off strong and steady, after James expertly delivered us to Milngavie from Edinburgh with the time to spare I'd been hoping for. The prep was relaxed compared to my usual panic stations and the females and senior males set off in the 6am start from under the bridge. My main aim for the first (flat) 12.6 miles to Drymen was to run slower and steadier than last year and conserve more vital energy for the many hills, undulations and challenging terrain of later. Last year I'd torn off behind Kate jenkins for a while before consciously slowing myself but still made it to Drymen in 1.40 or so. This year I was pleased with getting there in 1.54.

It made a massive difference knowing in more detail what to expect of the route. Last year I'd hardly been on the trail. So I was prepared to speed hike Conic Hill just before the first checkpoint of Balmaha at 19 miles. The clear, sunny conditions gave stunning visibility over the loch below and chatting to folk around me whiled away the climb. On the more challenging downhill into Balmaha (see photo on right), my race unravelled slightly when I tripped and face planted hard on the ground, bashing my knee and painfully jamming my feet into the front of my shoes.
I dusted myself off, a bit shaken, and continued with the descent but felt slower and aware of my aching toes. Another runner, Karen Robertson, tripped and broke her ankle on this downhill section, which must have been a difficult blow to her plans - hhopefully her recovery will be swift.

At Balmaha checkpoint I made the most sensible decision of the race and took one of my two pairs of socks off - instantly my toes had more room and could breathe again. Doubling up doesnt make sense with steep downhills and I wont be doing that in the WHH Race. After a re-fill and attempting to ingest a bag of mashed sweet potato I left for the loch.

I'd run the Balmaha to Rowardennan stage twice in training and felt good about it, myself and a few girls were tag teaming and catching up with each other and it was good to chat to a few. It went without a glitch and I arrived into the Rowardennan checkpoint(27.2 miles) at 4.54. Stopping for a scant minute to pick up a Stoats bar and have a coke (first ever race with coke - its incredible!) I kept going for the tough and scrambly lochside section. I knew exactly what to expect and yes there were the obligatory trips and twists but I think I swore less than last year - this is progress!

I reached the penultimate checkpoint at the stunning Inversnaid and felt like I was running a lone race, with hardly any runners in front or behind. Once again, I re-filled and shot straight through, with my Garmin warning me I was off track for a 10.30 finish. My hopes were pinned on getting to Bein Glas with 2.5 hours to tackle the final 12 mile stretch, but this wasn't to be. I was running all the flats and walking/hopping over the stones and boulders where need be, but I just couldn't get my base speed up.

Coming into Bein Glas I was thankful for being in a better state than last year, with my torn feet, low blood sugar and state of bodily shock at the heatwave! I felt tired but stronger, and stopped for just a minute to grab the mars bar, jelly babies and banana which would fuel me for the final section. I felt buoyed by a guy running past me on the way out with cheerful words of encouragement, telling me how strong I looked. I asked him when he started the race and he replied 8am - so he was 2 hours ahead of me and I hope he realised just how amazingly strong he was going himself, both mentally and physically. With this inspiration I zipped my (wo)man suit up and set off in a jog. This last 12 miles is still fairly punishing, there are some short and sharp hills and plenty more undulations to struggle with. Around the same time, the shin I'd hurt running for 3 days on the tarmac around Mull began complaining, with shooting pains up the right outer side as I put my foot down heavily or tackled a downhill. This in turn didnt help my mental stamina and I knew I wouldn't make it to Tyndrum with a 10.30 time. But when I entered the final approach and heard the piper, I was surprised to check my time of 10.43 and tried to remind myself this isn't too far off, but my leg was giving me some real pain now.

James met me at the finish, and at once it was over for another year (or two months). It was great to see some friendly faces - John Duncan, Lorna, Donnie and Colin etc - and John and his marshalls did an incredible job of organising the race and providing as much support as possible to us runners.

I do still feel perplexed about why it didn't go better for me given the fly-through strategy at checkpoints and how much I pushed myself to run all the flatter ground and gentler hills. I wish it was possible to pinpoint to one factor, but life isn't like that! I'll settle for a mix of still-fatigued legs from Mull, lack of speed training this year in favour of long & slow and the shin niggles that returned with a vengance. Its definitely informed the training I'm focusing on during these last peak weeks, and this is indeed a positive.

West Highland Way Training
So since the Fling and subsequent week of recovery, I've been back in peak training mode, with my rough weekly schedule consisting of one or two tough hill work sessions of an hour plus, an interval treadmill session, a core gym session and long back to back weekend runs on Friday and Saturday. With the recent downpours I've yet again been thanking the heavens which keep opening up for my OMM waterproof - its consistently done the job, even in near-monsoon conditions last weekend in the pentlands. A couple of weekends ago I ran 4 hours on the black mountain bike route at Glentress in the borders - which turned into a bit of a hairy night run with the hill running fiend Andy. We'd left from work in Edinburgh to drive down on Friday eve but I'd forgotten my head torch, leaving us with just one to share. We reckoned we'd be finished by dark but unfortunately ended up running the last hour of the route in the darkness with his torch battery failing and mountains of mud to content with on the downhills. Another lesson learnt. The morning after I ran a 2 hour hill run in better conditions, and felt good afterwards, with the Fling/Mull niggles behaving themselves nicely.

This past weekend was my peak training weekend, and consisted of a 4 hour evening run in the Pentlands on Friday night, then a 30 mile/6 hour run on the West Highland Way (Tyndrum to Glencoe and back) on Saturday with Antonia, who's also training for the WHW and will be the youngest runner!
This was a fantastic, confidence-boosting run for me, on the only section of the WHW I hadn't yet trained on. This section north from Tyndrum now gives me something to look forward to after the tough undulations of the first 53 miles - there are plentiful runnable sections and an absolutely stunning backdrop - clusters of snow-tipped munros which fringe the wilds of Rannoch Moor.

So now to my easy week - a break in Amsterdam for a friend's wedding, possibly with 3 or 4 easy runs around the Vondelpark. Bliss!

The sand timer continues!

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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