Friday, 20 September 2013

A Happy Devil & A Glenmore Struggle

It's been a while since I've had the time or energy to report on any of the three ultras I've run since Western States (well, two and a half...more on that later) and I had to remind myself why I decided to blog in the first place, back in 2010. To have a record of my races in all their gritty glory, to help me gain perspective, learn and keep on moving forward. And hopefully improve. Despite writing this feeling slightly broken from a mixture of injury, stonking cold and bout of cockle-induced food poisoning, I am hoping this theory will be true and I'll be able to bounce back stronger next year after taking stock of all I've learnt this year and some much-needed R & R. So here's a recap of my final races of 2013...

Devil o' the Highlands
43 miles from Tyndrum to Fort William along the West Highland Way
Saturday 3rd August

A less than ideal sleep was had the night before. I managed to mess up the booking at Strathfillan Wigwams, which had me and lovely support Lizzie and James in a super compact hut. Cosy times! We're all seasoned campers and not averse to roughing it, but I told them I'd booked a lodge so they were expecting a bit more. Oops! This combined with slight worries over not having covered much distance after the Western States and whether I'd be fully recovered didn't make for the soundest night's sleep.

But 4am came and I snuck out the hut to torrential rain and dark, low cloud stretching as far as I could see. Not a surprise due to the usual pre-race obsessive forecast checking, but still didn't make for a feeling of positive anticipation. Headfirst into the ritual: wash, dress, tape feet (yes, this is what I do post-Western States), prep race belt, force feed myself greek yoghurt & fruit and wake sleeping crew. It feels like a repeat of the 2012 West Highland Way weather-wise but we try to be cheerful and head to registration at the Green Welly in Tyndrum, where Liz made me down a shot of beetroot juice. After registering and chatting to a few folk, we stupidly all huddle underneath the few bits of shelter at the start line in order to stay dry, before we run for 43 miles in the rain. 

The first miles were fantastic, my legs felt fresh and I felt like running. As soon as we started, the rain didn't bother me and I ran along chatting to a few boys, including Davie Gow who later found out he'd run the Devil with a stress fracture. First race fail was the conservative race plan I'd given Lizzie & James, which had me running through the first checkpoint at Bridge of Orchy (6.75 miles) in a little over an hour, but I found myself, as ususal, hurtling off without feeling like I was hurtling and passing through in around 53 minutes. Nope, I'm not conservative. And no crew to be seen. Fortunately a lovely guy I'd met the night before at the wigwams who was supporting his wife gave me a water refill and I didn't need anything else. The Devil is the first race I think I've ever done with no water available at checkpoints.

The lack of crew at BoO threw me for a few miles as I ran/fast-hiked the hill out, but only because I wondered if they'd stay at BoO too long wondering if I'd fallen or something had happened in the first miles. But by the road section after Inveroran I got chatting to some more dudes (sorry, names escape me) and forgot all about it. This section of over 10 miles passed surprisingly fast - I think because the last time I ran it I was slightly broken on day two of a long back to back with Fionna, Lorna, Davie and Bob - and despite wet & windy conditions and terrible visibility over Rannoch Moor it really was a lot of fun this time, and I felt so surprisingly fresh.

Running the long gentle descent towards the Glencoe checkpoint I spotted with relief the distinctive waterproofs of Liz & James. It was the swift and smooth transition  I'd hoped for as I didn't want to stop for more than a minute at each cp. They handed me a fresh handheld with sweet potato zipped into the pocket and I was off down the hill to the A82. On my own on the trail again, I took the chance to nip not too far into the bracken for a she wee. And I'm very sorry to the guy who at that minute came trotting over the hill - at that moment I was wishing the cloud cover was lower than low.

Into Lundavra avec nosebleed
Onwards to the 3 or so miles of trail before the Devil's Staircase and the wind was truly howling down the trail now. Up until then it had largely been behind us but now we were running fully into it and it was taking my breath away and massively affecting speed. The Devil was a joy, had a much-needed walking break and took down a potato and I think a gel on the hike up. The conditions up there were horrendous but two souls cheering at the top despite screaming winds astonished me - Fiona Rennie and Pauline Walker. They put a smile on my face ready for the wild descent, which was so much fun. Miles later came the fire road down into Kinlochleven, which I hadn't run in ages and it dragged a bit. I was conscious of time, and by the time I reached the village I was 10 minutes behind schedule.

I again clocked Liz & James who thrust a replacement bottle at me with some hill snacks packed in there for good measure, to eat on the final big climb out of KL. I asked them if they knew where the next female was behind me but noone knew - I'd known I was first lady since Bridge of Orchy and was keeping decent pace but wanted an idea of placings.

Up into the hike feeling good and mentally ready for the Larig Mor. The last time I'd run it had been during the 2012 West Highland Way Race and I was broken, seeing imaginary ski lifts all around me and cursing the loose rocks and streams to a long-suffering Gregg. It was amazing how fast it passed this time. I jumped at one point hearing a chirpy female voice behind me but it was just Paul Foster with his female support runner friend. We chatted about Western States a bit and kept overtaking each other. In fact I'm pretty sure they were using me as a rabbit to chase down.
shiny devils
Onto Lundavra and I wasn't sure the crew would be there but there they were, sheltering from the driving rain. It had long since stopped bothering me and I was loving being out in the wild elements and dramatic scenery, surrounded by Munros on all sides. A mile or so before the CP I'd developed a random nose bleed, so ran up to the guys asking for tissues and Lorna & Johnny Fling sprung to the rescue with some. Lorna also told me the second place female was within ten minutes of me, which served to put a rocket where it needed to be. I set off for the humps and bumps up into the forest before the descent to Fort William, running all of them steadily. By the descent I was feeling great despite the familiar ache of the right hamstring and glute, and hammered down into Braveheart car park, spotting the point Gregg and I went wrong during the WHW Race. Then came the road section, less than a mile up to finish at the roundabout in Fort William. I'd known for a while my sub 7 target was well out of reach but I'd settle for sub 7 15 in the conditions, so ran as hard as I could to reach the rather sudden pavement finish in 7.14, where James, Liz, Lorna and John stood in the rain. Delighted. 11 minutes later Gail Tait crossed the line in second then came Noanie in 7 33. Overall winner was John McLaughlin with a time of 6.02. Overall results here.

energy balls
During the race I fuelled mainly on natural energy sources - roast sweet potatoes, energy balls (made from dates, nuts, and coconut) and I think there was a cheeky carbolicious Stoats bar in there somewhere- it all worked really well for me on the day. I felt positive throughout and enjoyed every section, despite the wind & rain. Well, I think I did - it was a while ago now, race amnesia may have kicked in.

Glenmore 24
Saturday 6th September, 12 and 24 hour race options on a 4 mile loop around Glenmore Forest in the Cairngorms

My physio, Guy Van Herp, gave me the green card the week before Glenmore. I'd been to him following two long runs after the Devil, during which I'd experienced sudden knee pain, both times having to stop (can't stand stopping even for traffic lights so this was new). By the time I saw him I'd had a week off running and couldn't feel any pain in the knee anymore, so after a spot of lasering and manipulating my SI joint he said I should be fine.

Glenmore is a bit of a unique and special race. I knew this even before I'd run it, and had been meaning to since it began in 2011. There is a 12 and a 24 hour option, with the lion's share of runners taking on the 24. It is a loop race, with a 4 mile trail around Glenmore forest and Loch Morlich shaping the route. Runners pass their camping and support area every 4 miles (the Hayfield) and another half way drinks station on the other side of the loop.

Co-organiser Mike of Bill and Mike fame (BaM) had only recently given me a spot from the waiting list for the 12 and that was fine with me, what with the recent issues and summer miles in the body. I didn't have support for this one, as James was off foraging for his dinner with friends in the wilds of Perthshire and friends were all away so I rocked up in a truly ridiculous hire car that only a total girl would drive. Once again the weather had been atrocious on the drive up on Saturday morning - torrential downpours and high winds on the A9 - and negotiating the roads in the little red tin can of a car was interesting but took my mind off running 12 hours in this weather. Hold on, didn't I say I would never complain about gruesome Scottish weather again after Western States?

Support crew
There was already a cracking vibe in the Hayfield - familiar smiling faces, banter and Ada with her cattle prod for keeping runners under control (seriously). I set up my tent on my own - first time in 2 years - then laid out a box of race supplies, nutrition etc in front of the tent ready for re-fuelling each time I passed on each four mile lap. Extremely handy for self-support. Then lo and behold, the sun emerged and the clouds cleared to leave brilliant blue skies ready for the midday start. After an entertaining race briefing by Bill and Andrew Murray (little did I know the advice on painkillers would become very relevant to me) we assembled ourselves loosely around the start and set off into the sun.
Go. Thanks to BaM for pic.

Round for the first lap: short, sharp uphill on the grass, gorgeous wooded trail to the Loch, flat paths around the Loch, up a few gentle rises to the half-way checkpoint (excellent tunes!), up a longer gentle rise then down and round some trails back to the Hayfield. I need to do this 16 times for the minimum mileage I'd be happy with. I really want to do it 18 times. Simple, right?

Johnny Fling and I ran much of the first few laps together and it just felt like a training run. Except we were probably running a bit faster. He was feeling great, racing me for a 10k best it seemed and flying past on all the downhills. It was so sunny, the trail was beautiful and my knee felt good, all my excuses for flying off at a similar rate. We had some good chats, and passed through the Hayfield to complete the first four mile lap in just over 30 minutes. Oh dear. I dropped back and ended up trailing close behind Johnny Downhill for a few more laps, whilst chatting to a few others at various points too, including the picture of radiance Antonia, who was literally bouncing up the trail. We had a nice catch up until we reached the Hayfield again and our respective support points - her cheering Scott and my plastic box.

Lap 5 came and went, followed by a sinking feeling from some familiar sharp pains around the outer right knee and the mental downer that came with it. I ran on my own as felt I needed to focus and think about what to do.

The beautiful Loch Morlich (thanks BaM)
Lap 8 (mile 32) and I was now in real pain - across the knee, down the hamstring, deep in the glute and up my back, all connected. The main downhill on the course was really hurting and my form was blown to pieces as I was putting a lot of weight on the other leg. I decided to stop in the physio tent (thank goodness for this creation!) and had a mini meltdown as I hobbled in with a lump in my throat, pretty sure I was going to have to DNF this amazing race when I wasn't even halfway through. The physio, from Active Health in Edinburgh - whose name escapes me, sorry - took a look and agreed it was the ITB problem and that my hamstring was in spasm too. She spent 15 minutes or so getting right in there and stripping out the tough bits. Andrew Murray gave me some paracetamol and they both surprised me by telling me to get back out there and try another lap after taking in some calories. I'd been concerned about doing more damage but when they told me this wouldn't really happen with the ITB it gave me the kick I needed to suck it up and get back out there. In two minutes I was back on the trail, with dramatic improvement. The leg felt looser with hardly any pressure around the knee.

I looped around for 3 or so more laps, feeling so much better and hoping it would last. The addition of the i-Shuffle helped massively to put me in a better place, 80's classics were the theme to Glenmore. Mentioning no names. After mile 44 things began to get blurry again and the pain came back with a vengeance. I took more paracetamol but it didn't seem to make any difference. It was getting dark too, and I held off on the headtorch for as long as possible, wanting to run in the evening light.

I was also having stomach problems for one of the first times in a race and was wondering if I'd taken in too many calories, or too much sugar for my system. I'd certainly had more than usual in races - sweet potatoes but also quite a few gels and Clif Builder bars.

Bob Steel ran my final lap with me and it was great to catch up about his UTMB experience and have my mind taken off the dud leg. I think he might have told me to man up, but stuck with me the whole way round even though he was running a relay and could have gone a lot faster. I'd already decided this was my last big lap and I didn't want to do any mini ones.

Wincing through the wee loops
But back to Hayfield and the mini-laps were starting - runners without enough time to start another 4 mile would now run around on a 0.2 mile stretch of undulating grass until the 12 hour whistle was blown. I decided in the grand scheme of things it was only another 40 minutes. I tried to start it against the grain but BaM called me back and set me right. I don't know how many laps I did but it felt like about 15 and I was physically and mentally done by this point, with every downhill jarring my knee. Lorna and a heap of others were cheering us round on every lap which was lovely. Meanwhile, the brave crew of 24 hour runners were heading out on more big laps. I couldn't imagine anything more terrible at this point and think I needed to be told to man up again. We were doing the sprint option after all. With a few minutes to go we were all given our own special tent peg with our race number taped onto it, to plug into the ground wherever we were when time was up, so BaM could measure our additional distance. I ended up slap bang right outside my tent. Done.

Grand plans of staying up over some beers didn't really happen, I managed a seat and a laugh with the others for half an hour instead. With a Yop. Then a night wrapped up three times like a sausage in a damp duvet I thought would be cosy (James never lets me take it on our joint camping trips) and I got up to see the 24'ers still plugging away. Amazing. Sadly I had to get back to Edinburgh to hand back the tin-car but found out placings first and learnt of Antonia's impressive mileage, winning with 75 miles clocked. My mileage was 0.1 beneath 67 (third female), with Melanie Sinclair coming second female with 68 miles. Full results here.

So it was a tough one. I don't wish I hadn't stopped in the physio tent - yes, I might have been able to squeeze in another lap and increase the mileage but on the other hand I know that the pain wouldn't have temporarily improved and my brain would have been telling me running through it was wrong. Both the physio and Andrew Murray played a big role in helping me finished so huge thanks to them :-)

I really want to go back and run Glenmore when I am 100% healthy and feeling good. The forest, the camping, the party, the people, it's a special one that I checked out of far too early this year. Thanks so much BaM, what an amazing weekend you've created. And massive respect and well done to all the other 12 and especially 24 hour runners and selfless, cheerful supporters and marshalls.

River Ayr Way 2013
Saturday 14th September, reverse course of 41.2 miles from Ayr to Glenbuck

RAW start
I'd regsitered for RAW, or WAR, given 2013 would see the first reverse running of the course, several months ago, and given the potential for more SUMS points (RAW was the final SUMS race so the last chance to increase score) I thought even despite the obvious onset of injury I may as well give it a crack. Sometimes injury pain can mysteriously disappear. 

But not this one...we set off from the centre of Ayr against a backdrop of clear blue skies and the sparkling River Ayr and from the second mile I could feel my knee throbbing. As the miles ticked by down the trail and road sections things got worse until I was pulling all kinds of faces on the downhills, which were just gentle slopes. I'd slowed considerably by the first checkpoint at mile 9 and a mile or so past there Kathy Henly passed me and I decided I'd try hang in there until the next major checkpoint at mile 19 then drop. Despite pain up what felt like my entire leg and terrible, unbalanced form, I was struggling to accept I'd have to DNF for the first time. What would it feel like not reaching the finish of a race? Feeling like I'd failed? Like this could happen again if I let it happen this time? I let these thoughts in for a short while then had a stern chat with myself. It's just a race. There are far more important things going on all around us all of the time and it'd be pure ego to focus on the failure for any longer than several minutes.

I stopped running a few miles ahead of the mile 19 checkpoint and took a stroll in the sun. Soon as I stopped I felt relieved and really enjoyed just walking up the trail in the bright sunshine, stretching the leg off and chatting to the folk passing me, including Kirsty Burnett who would come second lady, Carrie Craig who would finish third and Robert Osfield who helped me with his metabolic efficiency research for the Western States and finished a brilliant race in seventh place. A few guys even walked with me for a short while which was lovely, and when I reached the checkpoint I dropped and hung out with the marshalls for a while at a few different points. 

Anneke put on a great race again, and the route was even prettier than I remember from 2011, especially in the autumn sunshine. Like Glenmore, I'm keen to get back and run the race when fit and healthy to do so.
The Scottish Ultra Marathon Series was reinvented this year, with the premise being that runners have to run a minimum of three of the thirteen eligible Scottish ultra to compete and if they run more than three their best three scores will count. My results from the Highland Fling, the Devil and Glenmore counted as my three and I placed second overall female behind Rosie Bell and ahead of Kathy Henly (winner of River Ayr this year). The pretty little crystal glass is working the mantlepiece next to my 2011 SUMS decanter, though I have a feeling James is soon going to relegate some of these to the spare room with all the Mull half marathon bling. Full SUMS results here.

Rest. Yoga. Core work. Physio and osteopath. That's about it for this year until I feel this injury is truly healed. I'm not messing about trying to run here and there with just more days off in between. I also have some mental strengthening to do for when I am in pain. I feel I can cope well with that exhausted, end of race pain - if you can call it that - and I actually enjoy it up to a point when I feel race-fit, but when it comes to staying positive through injury pain that's another thing altogether. Admittedly it isn't sensible to run or race at all with an injury, even on the miles that I felt slightly better it was hard to shake the negative mindset and stop counting the miles down to the end of the race. I'm not racing again until 2014 but looking forward to the change. And working on the race plan for next year :-)

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Western States in Photos

Thanks so much to Dan, Facchino Photography and Tonya Richards for this collection of photos from Western States - a permanent reminder of my race experience and all the people involved. They sure bring back all the highs, lows, heat, pain, stunning surroundings and support that made race day everything it was.

Pre-race abode: Dan & Kathy's holiday trailer in the beautiful setting of Truckee
Thursday: Western States Veteran's Panel - Gordy Ainsleigh the founder second from right

Race Briefing on Friday: 2012 Top 10/Elite Men

2012 Top 10 Women

Ready to start at Squaw: these clothes will never be this white again
Start of the climb up to Emigrant Pass (taken Thursday)
Some fast dudes at the front. Probably about to run up Emigrant Pass!

Cresting the Escarpment at 3.5 miles in, 8.700 ft

 View from Emigrant Pass (taken Thursday)
Around or nearby Lyon Star Ridge (I think) after 10 miles
The heat is turned on: heading down from Duncan Canyon ahead of the climb to Robinson Flat
One of the creek crossings: hard not to just dive in and stay there
Being doused by one of the incredible volunteers (Duncan Canyon I think)


Encouraging crowds of vols, crews, supporters at Michigan Bluff, 55 miles
Running into Michigan Bluff aid station, after the toasting 110 degree canyons

Crew extraordinaire Dan with Ellie Greenwood at Michigan Bluff

Crew wheels
With my incredible pacers/support Tera and Erik at Foresthill. 6pm and still roasting.
Rob Krar (second place) coming through Foresthill
Mike Morton (third place) coming through Foresthill
My other pacer Marc (Green Gate to Highway 49) - was he saying how far I still had to go?!
At last! At the Rucky Chucky River Crossing (mile 78)  - one of the highlights of my entire race.
Out and into a 2 mile climb to Green Gate
No Hands Bridge, mile 96: NOT taken on race day, when it was all lit up in the dark!

The finish line in Auburn just before 4am. Dazed and confused.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Western States: Surviving the Sauna

As per my last post, I was delighted when the day of the 'Big Dance' finally came around, after so many months of preparation, not to mention 10 nervous, forecast-checking days in California/Nevada beforehand. It was so much more than I expected in many ways: the huge level of support and kindness shown by those involved with the race, the scale of the ascent and descent, the pain and discomfort, the importance of crew and pacers in reaching goals. Oh and the heat. More a life experience than just an ultra marathon.

After the few days of cool temps and rain in the week before, the heat was turned back on before race day, with a heat wave forecast for inland California for the weekend of around 102 Fahrenheit (around 38 Celsius). Dan - my main crew, who lives in Reno - had offered up his holiday trailer in Truckee, 20 mins from Squaw Valley, so we stayed there after registration and an exciting race briefing on Friday, which was full of ultra stars. RD Craig Thornley presented the male and female favourites for the top ten then preceded to give a very specific weather forecast, with the stellar advice for every runner to throw their split goals away and aim to adjust them not only by 10 or 15 minutes but by a good couple of hours. The day before we'd been to a WS veterans panel and ultra legend Ann Trason - who won WS 14 times and held the female record for 20 years until Ellie Greenwood broke it last year - gave similar advice, to 'respect the heat'. 

Predicably I hardly slept the night before, but reassured myself that I'd had a solid ten days of early nights and good 8 hour sleeps behind me - rock & roll I know. We had a timing issue in the morning due to watches and alarms not being in sync so ended up being in a bit of a stress to get to the bib pick up for 4.15am, but we made it and the atmosphere and electricity at the start was incredible. Lots of hollering and whooping, motivational music and spectators and crews lining the steep trail 3.5 miles up to Emigrant Pass. 

The start took my breath away, literally. We'd hiked up the pass a few days earlier and I'd been relieved to feel no effects of altitude at all. But the race was a different story. Not sure if it was the results of adrenalin, nerves or tiredness but I could feel a tightness and slight wheeze as we neared the summit at 8,700 feet and for some miles after. Most of the climb was too steep to run but I fast-hiked/ran the gentler parts. From Emigrant Pass came a large section of the trail I had never seen and from the elevation chart it looked like this would be a steady, largely runnable section to just before Robinson Flat at mile 29, but there were far more climbs than I expected. 

I was in a longish chain of male runners for what seemed like miles and was keen to get some of my own space, so passed a few whilst trying to keep my heart rate steady. I was determined to stick to my goal mantras to not ever let my heart rate or exertion level climb too much, to run my own race and to constantly remind myself that it is the mind that controls my body, not the other way round - where the mind goes the body will follow. The first goal would prove to be impossible with the heat and climbs.

The oven was switched on earlier than expected, not helped by some exposed areas from Lion's to Red Star Ridge (miles 10.5-16) and surprisingly I found this early section really tough as my body was adapting to the conditions. Coming into Duncan Canyon at 23 miles was a boost, as the aid station was really lively and I had an ice sponge down by cheering volunteers, the first of very many to come.

I'd read detailed course descriptions obsessively, including AJW's and Craig Thornley's, but I seemed to forget how major the climb up to Robinson Flat was, 4 miles in total. With the heat increasing by the hour and knowing I still had the major canyons to come, this was tough. I hiked as fast I could and reached Robinson (29 miles) by 6.12, 8 mins ahead of 24hr pace. There was a lot going on there, and another lovely boost to see Rick Moyer, who I'd run with the w/e before. He was waiting for his runner Anna to come through. I was weighed and met Dan, already I didn't want the savoury food planned but took half an avocado turkey wrap, changed from Buff to cap for ice storing, picked up an iced neckerchief and set off for the mile climb out.

Next came the canyons, or so I thought. After the climb we began a steady descent into Miller's Defeat aid station at mile 34 and the trail turned out to be very runnable for 16 or so miles from Robinson. The heat was radiating but I felt good and energetic, with the neckerchief really making a difference (thanks Dan). At Dusty Corners aid station I got creative with ice on the suggestion of the vollies - down the back, bra, in the cap. I was also taking s caps every hour and forcing down the odd potato with salt and piece of banana at each aid station. I ran into Last Chance station at 43 miles in 8hrs 47, 8 mins ahead of 24 hr pace, although I wasn't checking goal splits at the time as didn't want to get too obsessed. It was pointless as to a large degree the level of shade was guiding pace. I saw lots of runners stopping to walk as they entered exposed and baking ground. Last Chance is named for its stunning views of Screwauger canyon and is also the starting point for the descent into the first major canyon, Deadwood, which comes before the notoriously steep 2 mile Devil's Thumb climb up the other side. After refuelling for what would be a 1hr 20 min 4 miles, I set off on the first real quad thrashing descent of the day. Reaching the creek in the airless depths helped with cooling down for a moment, but the grade of the climb up to DT aid station was still punishing, and sapped my strength. A guy and girl appeared behind power hiking super strong and chatting about doing the Grand Slam, so I left them pass and tried to get into a rhythm. I was incredibly thirsty all of a sudden and drained a lot of water. Murdo McEwan had told me he had a friend working the DT station above so that was nice to look forward to, and when I arrived he was brilliant fun, telling me he was related to the McKay's and moving me swiftly through the pit stop of being weighed, watered, iced and sunscreened. I can't remember if it was DT or another aid station but a some point I was told I'd lost 8 pounds and asked not for the first time if i was peeing. They said I would need to drink and eat much more in order not to be stopped by the next medical team until I gained again. 

Eldorado Canyon came next, with a 5 mile downhill thought to be the best in the course, and a longer ascent than DT but gentler gradient. The descent was the hottest of the entire race, literally like running into a hairdryer, and I was wholly uncomfortable for the first time in the race. The aid station at the bottom, with its buckets of ice, was simply an oasis and respect to all the volunteers who stuck it out there for hours.  I felt stronger hiking out than I had at DT though and passed a few folk, including an English man living in America wearing a tutu. It was definitely too early for hallucinations. He assured me Badwater was hotter than this and I silently swore (not for the first time either) never to consider that race.  

Michigan Bluff at 55.7 miles arrived in 12.16, 4 minutes ahead of silver buckle pace (again, had no idea it was this close). The atmosphere was fantastic despite the heat there, with big groups of people sat outside their houses with picnics and beers, cheering and whooping. My weight was back up again and I stopped just for a few minutes with Dan to decide whether to get my now blistered feet patched up here. We decided on Foresthill and I grabbed a chia bar and banana and moved out fast to tackle the next and final canyon, Volcano. Tutu man and I kept swapping position until I finally passed him for good on the road climb before the descent. Once again it was baking and by the climb out and up to Bath Road my energy was dwindling. After a refill and sprite I cracked on, just 2 miles on the road to get to Foresthill and mile 62.

Running into Foresthill I felt strong and excited to meet my pacers, the Dubes, and pass the turning point into the more runnable section of the race. What can I say about the Dubes - I knew I was lucky to have them help me out when I mentioned them to a few people before the race and was met with big smiles and recognition, they are really well known and loved in the Californian running community. Plus, with 10 WS finishes between them they are extremely well versed with the WS trail and pacing.

The plan was Erik would pace me until Green Gate, then his brother Marc would take over, with Tera running with me from Highway 49 to the finish. Erik first took me to Brad Payton, who I'd run with in Auburn last weekend - he's an ex-firefighter and was on medical and foot care duties at FH. He patched me up and I gritted my teeth for the first few painful steps of running, after Dan and Tera had refuelled me and walked us out the station.

We started the famously runnable section 16 miles 'downhill' to the river, which was broken up by 3 aid stations, Cal 1, 2 and 3. I felt relatively strong and determined to prove to myself I was in good running condition for this crucial section. It was great to chat to Erik who did a thorough job of briefing me on all that was coming up. 

But soon I hit a low, between Cal 2-3. With still 30 miles to go I was struggling to deal with the fact it hadn't cooled off. On hot days in Europe,  it cools after sun down and you need sleeves! Here, I needed the river! It was still in the mid 80's f/30 c and I felt like I couldn't get my core body temp under control, with my head glowing and claustrophobic. The aid stations helped, and I continued with the ice rituals. I also began taking Gu Roctane caffeine gel to help my energy levels, as I couldn't eat much else.

Reaching the Rucky Chucky river crossing at mile 78 was incredible, I couldnt wait to get in. There were aid stations on both sides and a guide line manned by 20 or so volunteers in wetsuits. It was dark and head torch time by now, and the entire area was beautifully lit by glow sticks and night lights. the vollies seemed worried we'd find it hard to wade waist deep but I would have dived in if theyd let me. It was over all too soon and Erik had us moving through fast to tackle the 2 mile climb up to Green Gate, mile 80, which we reached in 18.07, 13 minutes ahead of 24 hour pace. Thank you Erik!

We couldn't find Marc at GG and it turned out there'd been a slight mix up with timings. With a quick 'come on, lets do this!' Erik got back on the trail with me. My brain was getting fuzzy though, as when a runner came up behind me I stopped to let him pass and didn't even realise it was Marc, who had arrived after all. They swapped and Erik headed back. I'd like to say I got chatting to Marc but pretty soon I was feeling sick again, and I was getting blurry, double vision as I had in the last stages of the West Highland Way race. We ran/hiked until Auburn Lake Trails, where I hit a new low, sitting down for a minute with medical volunteers asking me questions. I couldn't focus on their faces properly and didn't know what would make me feel better. They asked was I peeing? Was I eating? It didnt help my confusion that the aid station was decorated with Merry Christmas signs and lights (I'd read about its Christmas-in-June theme but forgotten about this in my fog). Marc pointed out the vision issues were probably due to glycogen depletion, perhaps the onset of hypoglycemia, and he was totally right. I had another caffeine gel, a few bites of quesadilla and some coke and we set off again for the 4.7 miles to Brown's Bar. I don't have much memory of this section but I ran when I could, taking a few minutes walk here and there. Brown's Bar was even wilder than Auburn Lake Trails and is known for its parties, beer and loud music. We heard it a mile before we saw it and didn't stop long, just a quick refill, coke and out. I will need to get back there one day to join the party!

I was surprised to discover we were still on 24 hour target en route to Highway 49, at mile 93.5, in fact 15 or so minutes ahead of plan. 6.7 miles sounds so close now, but I still wasn't convinced I would make it. I never considered DNF'ing but the soles and sides of both feet were becoming agony with every step, I could feel large, new blisters and the loose stones on the descents were torturous.

At Highway 49 Tera couldn't be there so Erik swapped with Marc to run with me again to the finish. There was a climb then a few miles of trail I'd run previously with Rick, but it was so different in the dark. Erik tried to make me take another gel and I should have, to give me energy for the Robie climb, but I couldnt. The miles up to No Hands Bridge were just gritting my feet against the foot pain, but when we reached the bridge it was so beautiful, lit up with fairy lights. We had an hour or so to make it up the steep climb up Robie point and another mile and a bit on road, including a steep climb. I felt like even in training the Robie climb had taken a while and I had zero energy for it. But it turned out shorter than I remember at around 20 minutes, leaving a safety net to get to the track. People say its all downhill from Robie and the top of the road climb into the High School, but it all seemed uphill to me! 

Marc joined us and then all of a sudden I was on the Placer High track, with 300 metres to go. I crossed in 23 hrs 39 mins. It was brilliant to see everyone on the other side, but nothing sunk in. I needed to get my feet seen to and predictably, as in the West Highland Way, as soon as I sat down in the podiatry tent, I felt sick and ready to pass out. They switched me to the medical tent, in between people on IV's, and took my blood pressure which was low but not too low. You'll be glad to know we didn't get any photos of the feet, but they were certainly a picture.

I performed some dry heaving following by some real sickness later on and after a while I passed out for 2 hours on the cot Dan had set up for me in the camping area, awoken by the blazing 90 f sun and no shade. I heard the announcer shout out for fellow Brit and Team Buff UK athlete Stuart Blofeld and then Ultra 168's Marcus Warner coming into finish. It was great to hear Stuart finish, he'd passed me early on in a blaze of cheering and positivity, and had struggled with foot problems in the last miles. I was amazed at the strength and dedication of the runners coming in later and later, having to run into a second day of roasting heat. Sunday was hotter still, at 107 f in Auburn, and sitting out with hundreds of others the award ceremony would prove to be an endurance challenge in itself.

When Erik told me I had finished 17th female I was surprised, I thought I had drifted into the 20's or 30's. He also filled me in on the top performances, an incredible run by Tim Olsen of 15.17, showing he could win in the second hottest year ever as well as a freak cool year, and an equally amazing run by Pam Smith of 18.37 who just last year had finished in 28 hours - a PB by 10 hours!

The Western States further confirmed one thing. Completing races like this isn't just about running long; they introduce me to inspirational new people, help me see special places, build mental fortitude for other areas of life - and generally make me one very happy girl. I also think that when you are pushing so hard that you need encouragement (from crew/pacers) with the very basic of human needs - water, sustenance, movement - this fosters a lot of goodwill and connections to other people, which for a sport that is essentially very solitary is quite amazing.

Thank you so much to my wonderful crew and pacers as well as the hundreds of volunteers and organisers involved, who played such a huge role in getting me to the finish line in sub 24 without blowing up. Thank you also to all my lovely friends and family at home who followed and supported so closely from afar, as well as Buff UK, Likeys and for their sponsorship of my kit.

You'll all be glad to know my peeing is back to normal, and my feet are definitely on the mend. I have vowed to take care of my body through R & R until getting home and back into training for the next ultra, the Devil O' the Highlands. I'm also keen to work out where the bad blister problems originated from, as in other races this year I've managed to avoid them and I am certain I could have run faster in the last 20 miles if wasn't for this. Perhaps just the extent of the heat or perhaps I need to start taping my feet before long races. 

Another post coming soon with more photographic evidence :-)

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Final Thoughts & Sunshine Kit

I get up, sit in the sun, think about the impending race, run on the trail, think more about the race, walk on the trail, rest and repeat...don't get me wrong, I am loving this schedule but it's like groundhog day waiting for the Western States.

Northern California is one of the most incredible places I've visited. It has it all: high country and mountain ranges, stunning Pacific coastline, blue as blue skies, wildlife, pine-scented trails, fresh local produce. It is a joy to have some relaxed time out here ahead of Saturday.

I've been out on 3 trail runs along the WS course so far, covering c40 miles total and around 30 of the course, including the Michigan Bluff to Foresthill area and Green Gate to the finish in Auburn, mostly during midday to late afternoon when the day is at its hottest. Temps have reached early 90's Fahrenheit with a cool 70 today and even a rain shower. The heat is hard on the sections with no cover, making steady, conserved running and drinking all the more important. I've been fortunate to have some local runners show me around, and we also covered the last canyon of the course, Volcano Canyon, after Michigan Bluff. The canyons are different to how I imagined (i.e. not smaller versions of the Grand Canyon!). They have more tree cover with the Volcano climbs and descent being partly on a road.

Tomorrow I drive over the state line to Nevada to stay with my crew Dan and do some easy hiking and a recce drive from the Squaw Valley end (just an hour away from Reno).

The race starts on 5am Saturday (1pm UK time) and I can be tracked through using name or bib number 83. Think it will really help with motivation knowing this tracking system is in place.

I've also made final decisions on kit after trail testing. So the sunshine kit will be:
*Men's Brooks Cascadia in yet a half size bigger than normal. Needed for my boat feet after heat swelling, and so comfy!
* Injinji Run OW socks, tried and v trusted
* A couple of Buffs to alternate, for the chilly Squaw start and then for much-needed creek-dousing
*UltrAspire Kinetic double bottle pack: no bounce, light but with two large 26 ounce bottles. Thanks to
*Accessories: sun cream by the bucket load, Sudo cream and Tiger balm. Oh and a really bad tan line which starts at the ankle, heads to the upper arm and is completed by some bizarre looking arm patches from long window-down highway journeys.

Huge congratulations to everyone who ran the West Highland Way Race yesterday, it's been inspirational following you all.

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

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