Monday, July 8, 2013

West Highland Way

This is my  story of my biggest run challenge . I am now 50 years old , have done 5 x 100km, 1x85k, 2x 73km , 3x60 k , 3 x52k trail ultra  and 1x 56 k road last in the last 5 years.

A clan gathering of my wife's family  for a 90th birthday celebration planned from a year ago, saw me searching for a suitable ultra, dated a couple of weeks either side of early July .  To my delight the calendar listed the WHW race. This came to represent an obsessive and sentimental journey for me and my wife to where we had roamed, climbed, ski-ed and lived 20+  years ago before we emigrated to the other side of the world, New Zealand.

My training was  taken from a Google search of how to train for a 100 miler. I found one which advised running 5 days per week, and advised back to back runs for each weekend for the last 16 weeks of a 24 week programme. This went well until the 5th B2B, when I got lost running through unmarked hilly tussock to cover 22kms on a grueling 6 hour expedition.  This demoralised and exhausted me such that my B2B runs became B2B runs but with a day between. John Kynaston's podcasts extolled the virtue of B2B's, especially on hallowed WHW trail, and what was I , a novice at this race , doing  by breaking this holy commandment - "All thy long and longer runs shouldst be Back To Back".  Would my lack of spine be revealed on race day?

That said , I consoled myself with the knowledge that All Runs had been Faithfully Completed, even if not in the Proscribed Order. Personal bests in a 52 k ( Bedrock 50) race in February and a mountain marathon ( Arrowsmith Thee) in April were counterbalanced with a personal worst and last place in the Tarawera 100 k race in March. I had seriously doubted if could imagine continuing for a further 53km to match the WHW distance, as I crossed (with walking poles) that finish line. I was however uninjured and had run more miles ( 1276miles in 24 weeks) than I had ever done before in preparation for an ultra.

Our Airbus 320 touched down 111 hours before  the start in Milngavie.  Groggy runs from jet lag and sleeping tablets of 30-60 mins length were taken at 105, 89 and 65 hours  to countdown. A camper van was hired , visits to my schoolfriend Tim , and brother Robin were made to discuss tactics for Rannoch Moor and the Devils Staircase respectively. My son Alasdair was advised about nutrition, pace and topics for conversation from Kinlochleven to Fort William.  Alcohol remained off limits.

Thursday saw us  drive to look at parking spots beween Tyndrum and  Balmaha. We walked  a bit of the WHW round Balmaha  and slept fitfully that night. Friday saw a longish lie in, a shop round the supermarket but NO BREAKFAST MILK DRINKS? Plan B changed to include chocolate and lemon mini muffins and mini sausage rolls. Half hourly.

Registration was low key but probably the classiest goody bag I have yet to encounter with a fluoro  running top and a magenta buff. Weigh in 79 kg.

The next 3 hours was the most important part of my race. I slept and snored soundly. 12.15 am saw a rapid check of my list and dressing for action. 3 minutes late for the briefing. Ian Beattie said something about it being signposted near Fort William and to either ignore it or not ignore it.  I do not remember which it was.

The excitement mounted. Jacket on, then off , then on again.  Go.

My aim for Balmaha was to get there in 4 and a half hours. My regular training route had me at 4h45min  for 32 km with 700 metres of ascent so I was a bit apprehensive on unknown territory in the dark . I felt if I could make the Balmaha cut off I could be less concerned about the rest of the cut offs which are more generous. I ran with Keith Hughes for a bit who said our pace was on for 22-23 hours. This sounded good and bad as this was faster than I had planned. I relished my super grippy trail shoes as  I let myself drop down from Conic Hill , passing a few , and mostly avoided braking too much on the descent. Balmaha 3hrs 50mins. Excellent. Support team only just awake.

The route to Beinn Glas saw my only race low and the first of several highs. The rain and cold past Rowardennan took its toll and I felt some self pity as several overtook me on the climb through the forest. However as I was self sufficient there was no need to stop for a drop bag so I regained a few places as others stopped. I regained my spirits too , as I passed a few runners round the slippery loch side. This is the sort of trail I love as I  like rock hopping. It's fun.

I was met by my well oiled support team at Beinn Glas. Dry socks, dry shirt, food restock. In and out in 10 minutes. 1 hour ahead of schedule. I caught up  with Keith Hughes again and we chatted about previous races, Australia/New Zealand, cricket, split national loyalties and  we soon passed an hour - at times in torrential rain. We approached halfway, I stopped to eat and Keith padded off to stay ahead of me for the rest of the race.

Things dried off by Auchtertyre to be fed and watered. It stayed dry and things improved   as I got to share a sunny down hill jog with Angus from Edinburgh, to Bridge of Orchy. Angus advised  that they used to determine the size of the stones for the old roads as being a size which should close off a small child's mouth. From Bridge of Orchy,  Tim supported me in a walk/ jog regime across Rannoch Moor  to save our energy for a proper run downhill to Glencoe.  Rannoch Moor was  fantastic as it was my first traverse across the moor, plus made  that much more special by being accompanied by Tim whom I had not seen for 12 years. Another change of top and warmer clothes at Glencoe as it was now cooling. My wife, Moira jogged down with me to the road from whence I went solo as far as the Devil's Staircase  to be joined by my brother.  A steady walk up the hill  enabled catch up on more family news and an appreciation of the cloud/light and rainbow display below us in Glencoe. A further farewell and we went our separate ways at the top. I found the downhill to Kinlochleven  very rough and began to be passed by a few other runners at this stage, but still managed to reach Kinlocheleven by 2148 as I was led down by my brother in law , Colin who had run up to meet me.

A longer stop than anticipated ( 25 mins) saw the 24 hour  threshold become less achievable but I was fortunately still fairly alert and had so far escaped any hallucinations ( apart from mistaking a rock for a goat). My son Alasdair accompanied me for this last leg as the drizzle and rain returned en route to Lundavra. Most of this was walked as  a blister on the sole of my left foot slowed progress.  Full darkness was encountered as we entered the forest. This was where spooky mind games set in. We backtracked a couple of times to the previous runner to ensure that we were going the right way. My memory from the map was mistaken as I had visualised that we should have been going down with the valley to the right much sooner. The following runners kept us right. Finally we hit the gently graded forest track and the downhill momentum carried us at a good pace to overtake 3 others. However this was of little gain as instead of following the forest track ahead we traced 2 sides of a triangle to follow the WHW thistle posts to the road. We hit the road wondering why there were no  other runners , but  soon saw headtorches converging with us from the true run route on our left. We  had a good head of steam by now  to overtake those that we had previously overtaken further up the forest track. Faster still we went as we saw a group of four  just before the roundabout. They sprinted.  We sprinted. Neck and neck in to the carpark, we  joined hands  and cheered as one to finish.

25 hours 2 minutes, 8 seconds.

And so this was my race. Better than my anticipated 27-28 hours. Not sub 24 - perhaps the price for not doing the back to back runs as advised. Although this event is not the most remote it is more varied in terms of terrain /track and weather than those I have done in New Zealand and Australia. Will I back? I would like to think so. One day.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Grand Finale - The Blue Mountains North Face 100. Long day, Long Blog

We departed Christchurch in the early hours of Friday with a small tremor farewelling us a few hours before. The Customs Officer at Sydney Airport greeted us, on seeing our destination of Katoomba on our declaration form,  with "its cold there , they had snow last night." 

As we had a day to explore, we looked at some of the stunning landscape that I was going to run through. The support crew were all keen and ready.

The pre-race briefing on Saturday was introduced at 6.10 am with a welcome from  an elder of the local Guddungarra people giving hints about what to do if approached by an emu ( stand next to a short person as they always attack the shortest)  and some suggestions on which plants we could and could not eat. We were advised that 150 of us were not expected to finish.

The 900 runners self selected themselves to start into four waves  (elite/fast/average/slow)

I set my watch/GPS to start in the slow group, and at 7.02am we were off.

We soon caught up with the average group as the large field concertina-ed into a single file once we bottlenecked on the single track at 6 km.

The morning temperature was 2 degrees C with a moderate wind. Thermals were worn from the start. The rising sun reflected off the sandstone cliffs of Mt Solitary as we ran underneath the cliffs of  Leura and Katoomba

14km saw the runners having to pick their way through the debris of an old landslide.  So far I was feeling good as I had not really run much yet. Pleasingly  I was managing approx 6 km/h on this tricky track.

At 16km a steep staircase , (Golden Stairs) took us up to  a broad 4WD track, and the first Check Point at Narrow Neck (18km). The terrain was high and gently undulating with a fantastic panorama.

The early chill disappeared so I rolled up my sleeves on Narrow Neck Plateau

Fixed ropes were in place for the  descent of the Tarros Ladder at 28km. Because of the queue, I decided to take a 300m alternative route which gained me a couple of places.

This is the welcoming sight of Check Point 2, Dunphy's camp (38km). There was a gear check to ensure that we had a head torch and a back up.

Iron Pot Ridge was the next feature, and these Gundungarra people encouraged us with drumming sounds whilst we climbed uphill, and again as we passed them on the way back down from the ridge. This was now 43 km and I was smoking the trail with my new grippy trail shoes sticking like glue on the firm but dusty downhill track. I even temporarily caught up with Lisa Tamati (a famous NZ ultramarathon runner) !

The support team were cheering in full voice at Checkpoint 3 (54km). This is  the intersection with Six Foot Track ( route of another well known Aussie run) and I was pleased to have hit the time of an average runner ( 8 hrs 17min). Tepid noodles never tasted so good.

The next stretch was 11km  back to  Katoomba. This consisted of 7km  of gently rising track and then the 2 km of brutally steep steps going up Nellie's Glen to get back onto the plateau.

I got to the top of Nellie's Glen just as it was getting dusk to look back across the country I had spent the past 10 hours traversing.

Check point 4 ( 65km) saw the team help me prepare for the next stage with a change of shoes and socks and  arranging the compulsory fluoro jacket. 

I was all set now for a style attack on the night life of Katoomba. The next leg of 24 km to Checkpoint 5 was the longest. This started off well enough with 5 km of  jogging along the flat edge of the plateau in the dark. The view would have been  stunning but as it was dark that had to wait to be revisited the next day from the comfort of a car. The steep  Giant Stairs of 900 steps started to make an impact on my thighs as I dropped down to the Jamison Valley. A lot of people began to pass me on the first  of  two bad spells on the run. Although the rest of the downhill was not very steep, my thighs became very sore on the descent. This was compounded by a feeling that something was not right and I tried to eat and drink as much as I could handle, to remedy that feeling. Only when I came to a  marshal point with a gloriously burning brazier did I realise that I was actually very cold ( it was -1) and no sooner after putting a fleece top on, I was instantly better.  This was a big relief as I then fast walked the 600m uphill, in the company of another runner much more positively, as we both encouraged one another to get back up on the Plateau. 

Check Point 5 saw a lot of cold people being warmed up by gas heaters and blankets. Having got this far, the next 11km ought to have been easy - of which the next 5 were . The last 6km however presented me with the most demoralising  " short " run I have ever encountered. Usually towards the end of a run you experience a growing sense of anticipation as you nudge to the finish line. WRONG! This was down,  then up, then down , through mud, then up then down then up and then,  I think,  I finished. In 18 hrs 39 minutes and 56 seconds. Bronze buckle. Yay.

Down but not beaten. 

So what now?

10 months of running and training are now at an end. That has added up to 3286 km and 376 hours on my feet since August 8th 2010.

There are 3 endings to this adventure and they are all happy.

The first is that for me, running makes me immensely happy, content, and very fit. The converse is that not running makes me grumpy and  and suprisingly stiff. There may well come a stage that I won't run but hopefully that will be a long time away.

The second is that running for Beating Bowel Cancer Aotearoa has helped raise some very useful money in order to increase peoples awareness about combatting this very common disease, and which in many many circumstances can be cured. My sincere thanks to all of you who have contributed to this cause.

The third ending is that my sister, Carol is nearly a year post-treatment, is back working and sailing, and is now disease free.

And that for me is the best ending of all.  

Kia Kaha.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

50 Hours to go. New nationality

I have just returned from my last tapering jog in mild nor-westery conditions. My next run will be in the Blue Mountains. The pre-race tension has been overshadowed by anxiety over my expired passport which was seen to be out of date when I went to sort out visas last week. Getting a new passport in 3 days has been a touch and go challenge - I never knew bureacracy could be such an extreme sport.

Everyone else is all excited and the family are eagerly anticipating 5 days out of school. The weather for Saturday and Sunday in Katoomba are forecast as cool, possibly slight frost but sunny during the day. It seems strange to go to Australia for it to be cooler than it is here in NZ.

All things are lookng promising. I feel good, I have no injuries, I have remembered to pack my shoes and the rest of my checklist is now ticked.

All systems go.

Ka kite.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Tapering again

The last 2 weeks have been a bit up and down as my long mileage weekend was tougher than expected. The training plan has been mostly adhered to  but I omitted one long 5 hour run at the end of  a 120 km week as I was just too stuffed! I think I have made up missing part of that with a few runs and mountain bike sorties in the Twizel area over Easter, although not for 5 hours. The picture above is of the Lower Hopkins Valley by Lake Ohau which is an area we have never been to before.

Fundraising has gone up to $3500 which is greatly appreciated given that every other run has coincided with an earthquake.

It has gone all frosty the last few days so have my dark morning runs have been at minus 2 with plenty thermals.

There are 2 weeks to the North Face 100 Blue Mountains Run. From here I will have a few 2hour max runs with 5-12km runs during the week. 

Kia Kaha

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Staggeringly Stunning Arrowsmith Thee

The second of my long runs this weekend was the "Arrowsmith Thee" mountain run. This is in the high country of the Ashburton river source and lakes. There was a frost in the valley as we drove to the start.  

The frost and mist soon burned off in the morning sun

The start of the run climbed quickly in the first 12km. Not much running was done by me from here

Richard Green and Andy Macfarlane near the high point

Stunning views towards the Arrowsmith Mountain Range

The run dropped down to the Ashburton River valley.

Not much running now - more of a stagger

View down to the river gorge

10km to go

The finish at last. 6hrs 45min later. Speedsters there to greet me home.

The day was just stunning with  another windless sunny day and 360 degree alpine scenery. Slept for 11 hours afterwards.

Ka kite.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Yabbadabbadoo . The Bedrock 50

Today I took part in an inaugural 52km running event in the foothills near Oxford. The day started chilly but the cloud burned off after a couple of hours to have a brilliantly sunny and windless autumnal day.  40 competitors assembled which was a promising turnout for this event.

The first 10 km involved a steady climb through bush. Plenty of bellbirds singing.

At 24km the run followed flat straight gravel roads for approx 15km

The flat road was followed by this killer of a hill going up 600m  over 1km

The top was followed by a mostly steady downhill to the finish. A few bogs had to be negotiated. The winner managed this in 4h38m. I felt pretty pleased coming in at 7h55m

Yet another event which has to be done again next year! The "Bedrock 50" Rocks!

Monday, April 4, 2011

Pretty picture

Just thought I would post this picture from a Hill run up the Mt Hutt Ski Road this morning. Just Beautiful.

Ka Kite