Thursday, 22 September 2016

A Conspiracy ?

It definitely seemed like the Fates were conspiring against me to ensure that I didn't run the Ring of Steall skyrace up in the Highlands last weekend.

Firstly, a big last minute change of plans took away the main reason for the trip up there, so I had to decided whether to still travel up myself and catchup with, and support friends that were running the main Skyline race on Sunday. I was won over by the promise of food, banter, brownies and a puppy to look after so I decided to make the trip after all.

Secondly, my accident in Australia had done a lot more damage than I'd originally thought (bony bruising causing bleeding and swelling into the knee joint), and I'd spent a couple of weeks actually limping rather than walking and had only just got back to a couple of gentle semi-pain-free runs. I left it until the Saturday morning to decide, but when my friend Matt (a physio) offered to tape my knee up for me  (his wife was registering for the race and he himself was running on the Sunday, I decided to give it a go. I arranged to get a lift back from Glen Nevis if it hurt on the first descent and I felt that I needed to drop out partway round. 

And finally....having registered and got my tracker, I was just debating what to take with me as hill food and what to eat and drink pre-race, when my friend Jim came running up as he'd been looking for me. It turned out that IAAF antidoping had turned up to test me (though it was actually not within my registered timeslot).

Desperately trying to make the official race start!!
This then involved a stressful hour for me - I met the German couple who had come to test me, managed to find some photo ID and we found somewhere quiet and away from prying eyes for the testing. By the time the paperwork was complete and they'd taken a couple of tubes of blood, there was less than 15 minutes to go to the start of the race. No time to eat or drink anything except a can of Redbull, change my shoes, grab my pack with whatever was in it (as it turned out.....2 large choc chip cookies and a couple of mini babybels only) and leg it to the start. I'd missed the briefing (though Jim had kindly alerted Shane the race director as to my plight) and had to run down the start funnel to the line in order to get there in time. I made it with a minute or two to spare, but didn't exactly feel calm or prepared, and people nearby noticed how much my hands were shaking, but there was little I could do but just get on with it!

And they're off....
There were over 450 runners in the race so it must've looked quite a sight as we all headed down the main street of Kinlochleven and onto the West Highland Way. I remember running this section of the WHW as part of my first ultra (the Devil O'The Highlands) many years ago, but it has changed rather dramatically since then. Ok, so it's still a single track climb uphill, but it used to be very slippery and rough underfoot whereas now it is much more groomed with some large stones laid down and some formed steps. It was nice to see a few familiar faces out supporting on the hillside.
Looking back to Kinlochleven from the WHW

We had a short run along the old drovers' road before a sharp turn up onto the "proper" hillside (ie muddy, stony, rocky, slippery narrow trail). Georgia (the leading lady) just seemed to power away up the hill leaving many men trailing in her wake. Just watching her go made me wonder if I could finish the race within an hour of her (if my knee let me get beyond Glen Nevis that was).

Ascending to the first ridgeline
Not the widest place to run
Having made the initial col, we had to climb further to reach the first scary ridgeline. Jasmin and Konrad were out with their new puppy so gave me an encouraging shout. I had been hoping for a lot of cloud cover as I seem to have developed more of a fear of heights as I've aged, but unfortunately the weather was rather good (for Scotland). I managed to keep going relatively well when I didn't think about the drops below (and happily enough there was mist blocking my view a good deal of the time), but although I'd been the second lady to the top, I certainly wasn't by the end of the ridge.

At least there was a "path"
Amazingly, nobody overtook me as I ran down the initial scree descent....and I actually enjoyed it. All too soon, that section finished and it became more of the downhill that I "really dislike". Steep slopes, grass, rocks, jumps etc. There was a trail most of the way, but in places it was worn away into the hillside and I worried that I wouldn't get my feet back out from under the overhang once I'd landed, or I couldn't actually see what I was landing on, or the rocks slid as I landed on them (with my enforced panic-braking!).

Many people shot past me, though one guy stuck right behind me for most of the descent even though I kept offering for him to overtake. Still, I only had three (small) falls and though I was being cautious wrt my knee, it seemed to be holding up well. Sound carries well in the clear mountain air, and so I could hear the piper at the checkpoint from high up in the hills (my delight at hearing him soon turned to dismay once I realised that my initial thought of being almost down to the valley floor was way off!).

Glen Nevis
Having reached Glen Nevis, I decided that instead of pulling out there, I go to the next checkpoint, as I wondered if I might be able to record the fastest split of the day on that section of course. According to the route map, there was a couple of miles between the checkpoints and it was mainly road, followed by some good runnable relatively flat walking trails. I grabbed a couple of cups of water (but stupidly didn't enter the tent to check out the food on offer) and headed off. 

I soon realised what I'd missed in the pre-race briefing (while I was otherwise occupied with the drugs testers)......a landslide earlier in the week had forced us into an alternative route. Instead of the lovely road and trail I'd been counting on, we now had a boggy "track" through rough ground on the other side of the river. It was "mostly" obvious where to go, if you didn't mind ending up in mud to your knees, but I did add in an extra scramble or two trying to find the route in places (and I gather I wasn't the only one).

It seemed as if the new route had us heading up out of Glen Nevis earlier than planned, but this was a false hope, as although we climbed some way up above the river, we then descended back down to it for a wade crossing of a large tributary.

I'd made up several places on this section despite the lack of road, and worried that I'd gone off course as I couldn't see anyone ahead, but luckily found the next checkpoint and happily headed up towards the next ridge. My knee seemed better on ascents, and so I munched on the food I had in my pack (yummmm.....large chocolate cookies), refilled my waterbottle whenever I crossed a stream, and power hiked up. Well, I think it was a power hike (of sorts) and it seemed to be taking me skywards faster than several of the guys around me. 

On the Ring Of Steall
Several people had told me that the second ridge of the Ring was worse than the first so I was rather dreading reaching it. In fact, I found this part of the race much more enjoyable than the previous ridge as you had to scramble along it, using your hands as well as your feet. Having several points of contact made me feel much more secure. What I was less happy about was the fact that everytime I thought I'd reached the end of the ridge and started to descend, I had to climb back up to another peak (that'll teach me for not wearing the race profile tattoo!). It became a to and fro game with a couple of guys as they'd shoot past me on the descent, and then I'd close them back down as we climbed back up. 

Starting the descent
Finally, we were over the last peak and heading down to the point at which we'd joined the Ring so many hours ago. From there it was "simply" a case of retracing our steps to the start. When I say "simply".......the ascent had been quite step, slow, rocky, rough and muddy so I was not at all sure how I'd fare going down it, but as I had now moved up into the top 5 ladies, I really wanted to try to maintain that position. My friend Ant was out of the course with his camera, so so encouraged me to keep pushing down the hill as the lady behind wasn't in sight. 

Crossing the stream
Halfway down the rough descent, there was a stream to cross, and 2 other friends (Jim and Liz) were on the far side of it cheering me on. Jim though that I had about 3.5 minutes to make up over the last 2 miles to make the podium, and he thought that I was moving better than the ladies in front. This really surprised me, as I'd see. How much better they were at descending than me in the first half of the race. Still, he kept encouraging me to keep pushing and closing the gap, running along in front, behind and alongside me.I felt that I was moving faster than I ever had down a rough hillside, but occasionally my brain would kick in and "remind" me what a "bad descender" I am and then the brakes would go on. 

I was exhausted by the time I reached the Drover's road (1-2 weeks out might be classed as a taper, 4-5 weeks kinds of means that the fitness has gone somewhat) and I couldn't manage to run all of the upslopes....though it wasn't for lack of support from Ant and Jim.

I picked it back up for the final run down the West Highland Way and was going as fast as my body would take me....even rolling my ankle rather painfully just heat the bottom. I popped out onto the tarmac road but for once I wasn't really in my element on this. I couldn't understand why I couldn't see the girls in front if I'd been going that fast, and only had that gap to close up, and the descent had taken more out of me than I realised. 

With my clubmates at the finish
I wasn't even sure if I'd manage to run all the way to the finish line, but I did....reeling in the man in front so he ended up only 6s ahead. 

I was actually ecstatic to have got round in one piece, and 4th place was a lot higher than I could possibly have expected to finish so all's well that ends well. Looking at the results breakdown, I also gained a lot of personal confidence as I moved up 20 or so positions in the second half of the race, for once nobody overtook me on a descent, and I did really close the gap on the ladies in front (it was just that they had started descending about 10 minutes before I did.....thanks Jim!!!! But seriously, thanks Jim, as I wouldn't have even tried to go that speed if it wasn't for him)!!!