West Highland Way Race 2010
I am not a native speaker and struggle for words to describe this epic journey I had. If you are prepared to read through this you deserve your own goblet of ultra marathon reading… Here it goes:
The night before the race I read (for the 4th or 5th time) Karnazes’ story about his first 100 miler, the Western States 100. I do not really like the rest of the book "Ultra Marathon Man" very much. But that WS story is inspiring. Very inspiring.
In that story about the WS he even devotes the last mile of the race its own chapter "Robie Point to Oblivion - Mile 99 and Beyond: ...I crawled up the middle of the dark road..."
It seems almost logical that you start a 100 mile race fresh (ok the West Highland Way Race is “only” 95 miles) then you start to get gradually sore and tired. You have to dig deep and deeper and towards the end you have to crawl towards the finish for a happy ending.
But my West Highland Way Race 2010 was nothing like that...
Milngavie 19/06/2010 01am
Dario's spirit was with us when Gilian Melaragni gave the signal for us to start. I was still suffering from a few half healed injuries and I was worried sick if any of them would show at any point over the 95 miles which I and all the other 128 runners had to conquer today.
If I made it that far. I had failed twice before. DNF'd in 2008 and 2009. I had commited that I would only start this race if I was 100% fit but I just did not manage to withdraw from the race. I did not want to disappoint my support team AGAIN. Silke and Nancy both volunteered again to provide support for me.
Milngavie – Drymen (1:47ish)
The bunch make their way up the stairs into the pedestrian zone of Milngavie. Everyone is happy and excited. My plan is to run relaxed and without effort. Craig Stewart already pulls away. He had just won the Highland Fling and had shown an excellent sense for pacing since he had by far the strongest finish of all runners. Did he know what he was doing?
Not quite, because he went the wrong way and Richie shouted him back: “wrong way!”. Richie was now in the lead running next to Kate Jenkins and chatting with her. There was a larger growing bunch of runners queueing behind the two and I could not see my feet anymore. The pace was too slow for me. That was not my pace. The splits from my Garmin confirmed that. And I was getting really cold now. I decide to pass the two leaders and take the lead myself. Just to be able to find my own rhythm. Richie shouts “Thomas, this is not the Fling”. He is half joking and half serious. He does not want me to screw this race up. But I knew what I was doing. Running 8:30 on the flat will not cost me anything. I know to be carful on the climbs and not to push.
In fact I had provided my support team a spreadsheet with Neal Gibson's split times from last year (he finished 7th in 18:42). He had a relatively quick start and I found that was not a bad idea...
So I am in the lead of the WestHighlandWay race but not for long. Soon Craig Stewart passes me and a bunch of runners follow me. That is the larger group behind me is now breaking up. Craig goes a very fast pace. I do enjoy the good weather but it is cold. And I have headaches again. I am in second place when I pass the Beechtree Inn. Trust me my pace was slow. I was much slower than I ran in the Highland Fling. And I was not pushing whatsoever. I do remember what Karanazes’ said in his inspiring story about his first Western States 100 mile attempt. “Everyone can run fast at the beginning of a 100 mile race”. And I understood what he meant. And I had “do not push” engraved in my brain. I did not want to screw this race by going off too fast! But I HAD to go MY pace. I was not following anyone, or chasing split times!
After crossing the road behind the Beechtree Inn I am passed by a group of runners. I think it was Roger Greenaway and three American runners. I later learned they wanted to make it an “USA 1,2,3” but it was not to be for them. They made a “2” though. It was a relief for me not to be at the very front of the race anymore though. I did not speak much to Roger (sorry Roger) because I was having my first low point. Despite the great weather and the absence of midges I did not really enjoy my running. It was too cold, the headaches, my left hand started to swell up (what was going on there???). And I had my first doubts that I would be able to finish the race. I felt the huge pressure that I HAD to finish that race today.
I was running well though and meeting my support crew and try to appear relaxed and confident.
Drymen to Balmaha (3:05ish)
The path climbs behind Drymen and the first undulations make the running more interesting. And here I slow down on the uphills. Here I notice that the pace has to be gentle.
At the end of the forrest Richie Cunningham catches up with me. That was expected. I was still running inside a (potential) 16 hour finishing time. And I had huge confidence in Richie. I knew and I hoped he was about to have a strong race and for me he was the man to beat.
Do not get me wrong. I did not plan to follow him or run 16 hours. But I had confidence in HIM. Not so much in ME. I wished him good luck when he started to pull away. And I meant it. He flies up Conic Hill. And that’s the last I see of him… and he would in deed win that race!
I am following my own “do not push” directive and take it much easier. It was dry today and I was running in road shoes. It was more the descent of Conic Hill I was worried about but I manage to reach Balamaha in good shape. I am particulary happy that my shin injury which I suffered from during the last four weeks during training did not show (yet).
Balmaha to Rowardennan (4:27)
I drink some warm soup at the Balmaha car park. Off I am and I am approaching a crucial “check point”: The climb up to the viewpoint. In both races 2008 and 2009 (which I both did not finish) I felt my first fatigue when I walked up here. I follow Kate Jenkins (who won the WHW Race a few times herself) who is moving up that hill confidently and quickly. And I am relieved that I can follow her without feeling that horrible fatigue from the previous races.
In fact all the ups and downs between Balmaha and Rowardennan are relatively easy. But I also do not push. I reach Rowardennan after 4:27 which is 45 minutes slower than my Highland Fling split.
Rowardennan Beinglas (7:22).
I ensure Silke and Nancy that I am feeling much better than in any of the previous attempts. And let them make the long journey to Beinglas at the other end of Loch Lomond. I do feel a huge responsibility to get this right today. That long drive to Beinglas, the midge attacks. The missing night sleep. They do that for me! And they want to see me finish!
I can see Marco “Sonic” Consani leaving the checkpoint and I catch up with him. Marco is a very good friend and we have done a lot of our training together. He has also done the 2008 and 2009 races and although he finished both he did not have a really good race yet. His training has gone well and he hoped for a better experience this year. He knows I am always moaning and here it goes:
I tell him I am slightly depressed and having a low. “That’s normal. You have not slept and you will cheer up later”. Something like that. And it helped! I am feeling better.
Although he is much faster walking the uphills than me. So I decide to shuffle and pull away from him. No I was not pushing! In fact my legs start to awake. They warm up and I start to feel really good. I am going relaxed but brisker than before. Breathing is much more fun too.
I open a gap and cannot see him behind me. I was not “racing” him though. We do race each other in training runs. But not in races! Sounds weird, but it is true. In fact it is not wise to race anyone at all in ultra races! You can only run as good as YOU can. If you finish ahead of someone that is rather secondary. Ok, there is one exception: Imagine there was a sprint finish… Here you can race. Since the race is behind you and you cannot spoil it anymore.
But what was about to happen now turned all my plans and anticipations into chaos.
After 30ish miles on one of those long but steep descents of the forrest track I do feel a numb pain in my right shin. That soon turns into a hammering sharp stabbing pain each time my right foot hits the ground.
That’s it. That race is over. Another DNF. I shake my head. Panic. Silence.
I stop. try to jog again but the pain is still there. Gets even worse. I cry for a moment, but that does not help. “Why me” I shout (but in my head only). I hobble downhill to check again if that injury was still there. It was. I start using strong language. Using the f word a lot (Dave Waterman would be proud of me if he could have heard me). No way I could finish this. How will I manage to break that news to Silke?
I still had to move on. At least to Inversnaid. I continue hobbling and limping downhill. Each time my right leg had any impact on the downhill it feels like running into a knife. I am moving forward though. And it turns out when it became flatter I could actually move forward in a running kind of way.
I take my shoe off, the gaiter and the compression sock. Massage the injury. Stretch. I need to make my way forward to Inversnaid. And as ridiculous as it actually was I still tried to move forward quickly. My competitive element was still working.
But the steps downwards to the Inversnaid Hotel were killers. No, I cannot finish this.
I still pick up my drop bag but do not really know what to do with it. I take out one gel. I allow myself the first caffeine gel. I did not start taking caffeine too early in the race. But this was an emergency. Maybe it helps? I refill my bottle but return all the other goodies to the marshalls. One marshall tells me I am high up the field. Well done. Not much runners ahead. “Have you done the race before?”. “No” I said. But this is my third attempt. Ouch (that was a mental “outch”).
Marco had caught up with me. I tell him my shin injury is back. “What are you gonna do?” “Soldier through this?”. I told him that my race was “probably” over (did I say probably?).
Anyway I ask him to tell Silke about the injury and that it will take a bit longer for me to get to BeinGlas. It was only six miles but I knew it would be difficult to get there.
My head was spinning. I almost went mad. Why did I even start the race??? I knew that injury was not healed properly. And after last year’s DNF I had sworn NEVER to start that race unless 100% fit!
And although I had (probably) done enough miles in training (all done on last minute though) my legs were not healthy. In fact two weeks before the race I had picked up my mobile and had Ian Beattie’s number on the display and wanted to tell him I am not doing the race. Not fit. Not enough training. Injured. But I could not press the call button. I just could not. I had a big lump in my throat.
And all those tiring discussions with Silke (she suffers a lot from that “my husband is a WestHighandWay Race addict but he never finishes” disease)… do the race, don’t do the race.
I knew I was approaching Dune Bothy now and Dario’s spirit was unmistakably present. No his spirit did not take the pain away. Although I have to confess that I hoped he would.
But did I not spot Chris Moon at the start? Would he give up now? Surely not! And what about Mark Hamiltons Journey? 90 miles with a broken ankle! He finished! And he got the Goblet. Although telling that broken ankle story got him that nickname “Drama Queeen” ;-)
So the question for me was: HOW BLOODY MUCH DO YOU WANT THAT GOBLET??? And that was a question easy to answer. It was not just me who wanted to finish. There was a good bunch of people out there who wanted me to finish! I had to try at least! Despite the agonizing pain. As long as I could move forward.
My legs were actually relatively fresh. So I could still try to continue! Pain is a subjective experience. I am sure 90% of all runners in the race will suffer from some sort of pain and some severe pain. But what does it mean? The body wants to tell you something. But what if I ignored it? What would happen? What’s the worst? I could try to ignore it. Also uphill was not going too badly as long as I did not push (and frankly today was not the day for “hill reps” anyway).
So here I was and I was actually moving forward. In particular the steady uphills at the end of the Loch felt rather good since almost painless. So why not continue to Auchtertyre? See how it goes?
I did reach BeinGlas much quicker than I had thought after the injury shocker. And Silke was in shock too. It would be not just another DNF for me. It would be another DNF for her. And it would be also another DNF for Nancy who had again volunteered to support me. And it would be another DNF for so many friends who wanted me to finish that race. Go to the prize giving and receive the Goblet.
One of those friends was Marco. Where was he actually? Being worried about myself (a lot) I had no idea that he got into trouble himself. but his support team surely spoilt him rotten. Rob, John, Athole were almost everywhere (no not in Glen Falloch!) Equipped with walkie talkies in permanent communication standing on hill tops to watching over their runner. And they gave me encouragement all the way too (thanks guys!). Marco struggled as much as I did during that race. Different story. But he had a phantastic recovery!
When I thought about the steep descents above Crianlarich I was really worried what would happen with my leg but there was a lot of uphill to get there first and I was looking forward to the uphills now.
I think at that stage I was already over eating and over drinking. I just took on too much “just in case”. A lesson learned. After leaving Bein Glas I almost throw up. A runner (Matthew Davis) checks if I am ok. Yes I am fine I reply. I would see a lot of him today. There was no way however I could run together with him since my rhythm for the rest of the day was: quick on the uphills and slow on the downhills. He might have thought I was a bit anti social but my rhythm just was like that today. So climbing up Glen Falloch I pulled away from him but he would catch up soon.
Approaching “Coo Poo” junction just before bogle glen a runner with a bright yellow vest is approaching. Relaxed, bouncy, very quick. Unmistakably George Cairns, although I was surprised to see him so “late”. I did not have much power to talk to him and did not want to stop him so I wish him good luck. He would have a very strong second half and finished in 3rd place.
The roller coaster above Crianlarich is unpleasant and I produce a lot of groaning noises. but it does not kill me and my leg is still in one piece. And the uphills again are not too bad. Eventually I reach the road. a major milestone. I reach Auchtertyre. There was a lot of flat running ahead and running the flat bits was almost like normal running (unless I tried to stride out too far with my right leg).
I am more positive now. I already see myself in Bridge of Orchy. I am not sure what Silke and Nancy are thinking but I do not show any signs of giving up and despite the injury my legs were still in good shape.
In Tyndrum (leaving it after 9:50 running time I think) I take advantage of the Green Welly toilet facilities since I urgently need a toilet now. Ok it costs a few minutes but it was totally worth it (I think the facilities even received an award!).
We have had quite some headwind today but on those more exposed bits towards Bridge of Orchy I have to use some force just to move forward. The weather however is top class and the good news is that the strong winds blew the midgies away.
Running down into Bridge Of Orchy is a must since I spot Nancy and want to show that I am running well. The pain in my shin is hammering though, telling me not to do that and it is not getting better. However, I did not feel any real signs of fatigue. So my legs were still ok and rather fresh.
I remember the hill behind Bridge Of Orchy being a killer in my previous races 2008/2009. And in both races I was already about empty.
But not today. I am not running much of the climb though. Not waste any energy. The view from the top is great. A fresh breeze and a blue saltire and Murdo (t M) greets the runners and offers jelly babies.
The downhill is brutal and since I did not control my right foot properly anymore I start hitting rocks badly. And I was still running in road shoes! So when I get down and spot Nancy I tell her to get my trail shoes since they have toe protection. This was crucial since all my mind was now on the “Devil’s Staircase”. Not because of the climb up but because of the dangerous sharp rocks and drops it had to offer. And there was of course the nightmare of descent into Kinlochleven…
At Victoria Bridge I change my shoes. I now start to refuse to drink electrolytes and drink only water. In fact I do not drink that much for the rest of the race.
I set off to tackle the Rannoch More. Both of my previous races (attempts) ended here (or just behind). My legs just went solid. I am worried. Will my race end here again?
Matthew Davies is ahead. And I gain on the uphills and drop back on the downhills again.
And no. My race is not over here. I am enjoying the Rannoch more. I take my time. Need to preserve energy. The descent is the usual struggle and a lot of groaning but my energy levels are still ok. My mind is on the Staircase now. I will get to Altnafealdh. No question. I got this far so I’ll get further. Quitting the race is now out of question. The only question is in what state will my shin muscles be in Kinlochleven? Will they be in one piece?
Silke passed on messages to me. My club the Glenpark Harriers have an annual club race in Glen Massan but Silke has been in contact with them and they send me messages of encouragement. Fellow German Jens Lukas (who won the race in 2008) sends me encouragements. So does Maya Lukas (who had to withdraw from the race because of injury). She was following the race from the continent as well.
But I was thankfully still full of running. Just after the Kingshouse Hotel I am overtaken by Matthew Davies again (he had a longer fuel stop at the Ski Center). He is running well and I tell him that. He asks me how are you doing and I tell him “sore”. He opens a gap and moves up the staircase quickly. I follow him and notice my legs are still really fresh. I am extremely pleased with that. But it is now all about navigating through to the other side over those dangerous sharp edged boulders and Matthew is soon out of sight. It takes ages for me to get to the top of the Power Station Pipes and here the descent into Kinlochleven starts. I am groaning a lot. Agony. Stabbing, stabbing. Groan.
I remember John Kynaston once walked bits of the downhill backwards. I did not try that out though. But I make progress. Slowly, painfully. There is someone looking familiar coming up the hill. Well done he said. How’s it going? “Sore” I groan. But he laughs. “No one likes that descent”. It is Alan Kay who finished the race himself many times. Last year I even wore his number after he had to withdraw (11 I think because it was his 11th time).
I reach the Kinlochleven Checkpoint (16:12).
My leg is still in one piece! Nancy gives me a painkiller (Voltaren and right under the eyes of Race Dr Chris Ellis!). He gives me a big fat warning about kidney failure (Chris, noted). But I swallow it anyway. Apart from that glowing pain in my leg I feel fresh like a Daisy. Neal and Caroline Gibson were at the checkpoint and it was agreed beforer the race that there was no way they would let me pull out here! :-)
But fortunately pulling out was the last thing on my mind!
Coming Home (Kinlochleven - Fort William)
The weather is stunningly gorgeous. And I just love the Lairig Mor. I was looking forward to the climb and I was looking forward to even walking all the way to Fort William if I had to. My mind set is now positive. Pure. I can do this! I will finish that race. Today. The three year quest will be over.
When I walk up towards the old military road I do not feel any fatigue. I anticipate the finish. I will reach the Leisure Centre and Silke will be there and see me finish. Tears are filling my eyes. My sight gets blurry though since I am wearing contacts.
Why is that climb so easy? I reach the top and I am on the road. That long winding road through the high pass to Fort William. There is a slightly steep downhill section. I try to jog. The pain is now not as sharp as it was before. Rather numb. Was that the pain killer? I ran faster. My heart rate goes up slightly and I am breathing more of that fresh air up here. That path is not well runnable. Often almost completely covered with rocks and it requires full focus. But I am loving it. What a place this is! It is full of spirit. History and peace. Why is running now so easy? I am flying. I think about what time it is. I can still do a sub 20hour finish. I start calculating… What were those old splits?
I remember I did the Lairigmor race once in just over 90 minutes. Surely not today. But I am now in the zone. I run the uphills. And I run the downhills! Unbelievable. All the punishing agony is gone.
Was this the reward? For pushing on through that injury? When will that euphoria stop? Did I deserve this? I run and run and run and only stop a few times to enjoy the view. Even that “competitor” which is part of my personality is rewarded. When I approach Lundavra I check the time and it seems even a sub 19 hours finish is possible. Am I dreaming this?
I am at Lundavra 17:47
... but cannot spot Silke or Nancy. I am not too surprised because I am now ahead of schedule. So what do I do? Wait for them? I check with the marshalls if it was ok if they could tell my support team that I was already gone. And the marshall says no problem.
I was worried though that Silke and Nancy would not be at the finish…
But I just cannot wait to get running again. I refuse any offer of drinks or other help on the checkpoint. Honestly I had eaten enough today for two races. And my camel bag was still half full with water.
Now I even caught up with Matthew again. He is walking up the hill behind the checkpoint but I feel more like running so I pass him saying a quick “how is it going”. Not very polite I think and I apologise. But I just enjoy my running so much and that’s what we are here for…
I enjoyed every inch of the rest of the run. I was still moving very well and comfortable. I run almost every climb apart from a couple of steep bits “to preserve energy”. Well preserve for what?
I pass Kate Jenkins who had some problems but still managed to finish sub 19hours and 1st female.
I was a bit nervous about the descent over that wide forest track but my shin was just numb and I storm downhill. Half way down I spot Marco who was going a more comfortable pace but when he noticed me speeding downhill he switched the turbo on and boy, he can run fast! So he pulled away.
I had a very, very big worry now: Was Silke at the finish? And of course Nancy? Did she get the message and did she make it to the finish from Lundavra?
They were not at the Braveheart car park… But when I turn into the Leisure Centre I can spot her holding a camera high into the air. I get a big shout from the crowd who is there. Although Dario is not there to welcome me I feel his spirit.
I give Silke a hug. “you need to touch the door” someone shouts. Ok, I run to the door. My time is taken. I am spoiled with a 6th place and a fantastic 18:49.
What a race. What a journey. So much pain and frustration. But what a reward! I could not have asked for more!
Big thanks to the organisers for keeping that race alive in Dario's spirit. They did a brilliant job! Thanks Gilian for being there at the start and the prize giving. Thanks Silke and Nancy for the 3rd time! Thanks for the volunteers, marshalls and others involved. Thanks for all the encouragement from the Greenock Glenpark Harriers. Maya and Jens Lukas. Murdo t M. And even many of the runners who wanted me to finish. Thanks folks!