June 2014, time about midnight and I'm half way up the Devils Staircase making a promise to myself to never, ever do the WHW Race again. 12 months later I find myself stood in Milngavie train station carpark about to embark on my 3rd crack at this iconic race. That tells its own story about the magical effect this race has on anyone who has experienced it, it just continues to draw you back in. The pain and lows are soon forgotten and before long you've started analyzing your last race and working out ways to improve next time.
My running this year has been difficult and very lacking. A new job, some minor breathing issues and real life have all conspired to make training difficult at best. If I'm honest my mojo and dare I say enjoyment for running appears to have deserted me and I don't know why. Last year I'd done about half a dozen big runs including a loop of Arran, a Glen Ogle ultra course training run, the Fling and a handful of other lengthy runs. This year in comparison bar the Fling I've struggled with anything more than ten miles. I kept telling myself I still had 4 months to go, then 3 and before I knew the Highland Fling was next weekend.
Doubting my confidence I decided to tie up with Mike Raffan, Ian Duggan and Graeme McKinnon whose plan was to start at the very back and just get round the course. I decided then that depending how it went would determine whether I toed the line in June. The Fling went well running well within myself and most importantly of all I enjoyed it. This was a huge confidence booster and made me decide there and then the WHW was a green light.
If I thought my running woes were over I'd better think again. Every training run following the Fling was tough and a letdown with most involving stopping to walk, I just didn't know what was wrong. 4 weeks before the race I told my training mateTommy I was definitely not going to do the race. I've covered the course enough to know if you don't put the training in it will kick your arse. We then set out on a ten miler training run and I felt like my old self. Despite this I assured Tommy I would not be taking part but would be there as support. That evening I started to debate with myself once again. I'd just ran an easy 10 miler and as long as the old me turned up on the day I'd be fine. It was final, I was in come hell or high water and would give it my best.
As the last few weeks ticked away, reading of people tapering when I'd literally been tapering for 6 months I knew I wasn't ready either mentally or physically but figured I would go out and just see how I go.
Before long we were on our way to Milngavie and I had already told my support crew Pam (my sister) and Ian that if I decided to pull out not to try and change my mind as it would be what I wanted and wouldnt be a decision made lightly. The fact I was talking like this was probably the writing on the wall. As we approached Milngavie I was feeling very nervous as to how I would perform and was keen to just get it underway.
Tommy's training had been the polar opposite of mine. He was also in for the CCC in Aug and as such he had been ramping the miles up and hitting the hills at every opportunity, almost a stone lighter he was in good shape and wanted a huge new PB. We decided we'd run together but at the first sign of differing pace we would split up.
The horn sounded and we were off. An ailment I have been suffering from this year can only be described as trapped wind making pace and hills tough. It usually kicks in after about 20 mins of running so I was being very cautious and hoping it would come to nothing else my race could be a very short one. I deliberately started out light wearing just a long sleeved top and carrying a hand bottle. I quickly settled in and felt really good. I was soon catching runners who are way quicker than me and knew I was either going too fast or just hitting a purple patch. I figured I'd just crack on and make the most of my good form. We ran in a group of about 6 with Tommy and me taking turns to lead the pack. The weather was cool with a light drizzle, perfect running weather.
Before long we reached Dymen and stopped briefly for a bottle refill. I pushed on and was glad to reach the trail to Conic. By now Tommy had taken the lead and was issuing orders as to when we would run and what hills would be walked. Conic was reached and the climb started. The climb up Conic has been made easier since an improvement program flattened a lot of the trail with some reckoning something has been lost challenge wise. Tommy started to move ahead and despite all efforts the gap widened. At this very stage I knew I'd be running the race myself. Mentally playing catch up with someone is tough so I was happy to let him go. I pushed on but was finding the climb increasingly tough, way tougher than any of the 4 Flings and 2 previous WHW Races had been. I was somewhat relieved to reach the summit and running as best as possible before the long descent into Balmaha. Although my legs were feeling heavy I was still feeling confident in my running and soon arrived in Balmaha and met up with the crew.
|Leaving Drymen (thanks to Chris Cowley for the picture -it turned out to be my one and only one for the race)|
I asked for my mashed potato, beans and sausages but found the consistency too dry and ended up only eating a few mouthfuls. I think I may have eaten a yoghurt and then told the guys I was off.
Running along the road I soon reached the first tough hill as you leave the road and start the climb into the forest before running along loch side towards Rowardennan. I've always hated this part of the course but this time it was feeling a lot harder than any other. I pushed on and was relieved when I hit the top before making my way down to loch side. I was feeling quite sickly at this point and stopped to walk and eat a banana to see if that would settle my tummy. I started running again but every hill seemed to be draining my legs, something I knew shouldn't be happening at this early stage in the race. I kept moving forward, running when I could and walking the hills. By now I was doing more walking and running and at this point thoughts of retiring had already entered my mind.
I kept going as best I could but was now regularly getting passed by other runners many asking if I was ok. As my mind flooded with negative thoughts I pulled out my phone to phone the crew to make them aware of my retirement intentions when I reached Rowardennan. Dampness has somehow got into the phone and despite repeated attempts the phone buttons would not respond and I was beginning to think that greater forces were at work attempting to tell me to keep going. I could really feel the energy levels drop and the legs were becoming increasingly more concrete blocks. As I hit the 'big' hill just before Rowardennan my legs were screaming with lactic acid build up forcing me to stop to rest and fight the desire to sit down. I eventually reached the top and at that moment had accepted my race was over. Feeling the way I did I knew there was simply not enough to get me over the remaining 70 miles.
I eventually reached the CP and despite knowing I was to retire wanted to be seen running into the check point. As I approached the timing chip, people shouted "Well done" and "You’re looking strong" not knowing they were looking at a man on the brink of failure. I scanned my chip and as I approached my crew I did the neck cut gesture signaling it was over.
The guys though surprised given how strong i'd looked at Balmaha made no attempts to talk me out of my decison. I felt ashamed and down and wanted Ian to tell them my race was over but he insisted it would have to be myself since it was unlikely they would accept someone else. I went back to the timing point and told them I was retiring. I was asked why and said I simply never had it in me today.
I was relieved the pain was over but felt hollow and empty. I changed in Roy’s van and we were soon on our way to Balmaha. I felt the need to explain to Roy why I'd pulled out and he was completely understanding and told me I had nothing to prove. Arriving at Balmaha this was a new experience. I had never crewed before and indeed never driven the course before, the other 7 or 8 times I'd always been on foot running.
I was dreading Tommy arriving as I'd have to face people and no doubt questions. There's a running joke (no pun intended) about anyone thinking of retiring in an ultra should " Man the f**k up" and this was resonating with me and I just felt like a failure though did my best to hide it and remain upbeat for everyone else’s sake none less Tommy who was running brilliantly. Tommy soon arrived and had sat quite far down the path. I put on my midgie hat for the obvious reason but also felt it would also give me a hiding place. As I made my way towards Tommy I spotted a few mates and others I knew but intentionally walked right passed, I just couldn't bring myself to face them, not right now. Tommy was understanding and said if I felt it was the right thing to do then it was.
As we left the checkpoint I insisted on walking with Tommy for a bit as I wanted to explain how I felt. He reiterated what Roy had told me in that. I had already completed the race twice and had nothing left to prove to anyone. I hugged Tommy and wished him well before returning back to the others.
As the checkpoints and hours passed it felt like I’d never even taken part in the race and it felt very odd.
At Glencoe, Ian Duggan who was my intended support runner had agreed to run with Tommy as Roy had a calf injury making running painful though had managed to run from Inveroran to Glencoe. The lads left in good spirits with the sun still shining. This had always been our aim, to get up and over the Devils before sunset and Tommy was bang on course.
We arrived at Kinlochleven and closed our eyes for a few hours. Ahead of schedule, Tommy and Ian arrived so we all made our way into the centre. Both guys were looking great and it felt odd not being part of this now. Talking to a few others one person commented to me that a rather large blouse was in the wardrobe in my size. I smiled and pretended to laugh but that comment really hit home. Any ultra runner who has had to retire will know the all encompassing feeling of abject failure, and hearing a comment like that was painful to hear joke or not. I was glad to leave the checkpoint at this point and we were soon on our way to Fort William. Not long after arriving the weather turned into torrential rain and I couldn't help wondering how the lads and other runners were doing.
Drifting in and out of sleep, the hours seemed to be dragging in. Suddenly there was a tap at the window, it was Ian, he'd just had a text from Ian to say they would be home in about 20 minutes. This was incredible, Tommy had set out for a 27 and a half hour finish and was on course for an hour every faster. We made our way to the finish line and before long the lads entered the car park with Tommy crossing in just over 26 and a half hours; what a performance.
After showering, we returned to the vehicles to try and grab a few more hours sleep before the awards presentation at midday. I was dreading this point not knowing how I would feel but surprisingly really enjoyed hearing of some stonking performances none more so than yet another course record by Paul Giblin.
We booked in to the Travelodge and grabbed a few hours sleep before heading out for a meal and catch up with the other guys in Wetherspoons. Despite my personal disappointment it was nice to catch up with my other ultra friends and listen to them recount their own personal journey.
It's now been over a week since the race and I've had time to reflect. In hindsight with the poor training I probably should have stuck with my decision to not race and crew. A race like this commands good training, confidence, focus and 100% positivity, I had none of these.
Leading into the race the fact I'd already accepted I may not complete it was the writing on the wall.
Reading various finisher's blogs I've realised I was not the only one suffering out there and I've already debated with myself that perhaps I could and should have kept going. I've completed about 15 ultras and until this never not finished one so I know I have the mental strength which I seemed to have forgotten to pack on Friday.
It is at the end of the day just a hobby and just a race. If anything, it reinforced to me you only get out what you put in. I've skirted with training and thought I could wing it on the day but the course found me out. If anything positive can come from this it's been a leveler / a reality check and something to build on. I’d already decided prior to the race I would volunteer in both this and the Fling next year and that is still my intention.
Blogs are usually about success, achievement and personal goals. In this one it was about failure and how we learn from it. I think the result was inevitable and the failure wasnt just down to lack of training, lack of preparation, it's been the fact I've been struggling with running as a whole this year.
If anyone else who never completed the race or indeed any ultra reads this please accept the fact you gave it a go means you're a hero. You may have not completed the distance but I'm sure you'll know where you went wrong and you'll return stronger, fitter and even more determined.
I intend to embark on some new challenges next year, as yet undecided but first I have to find my mojo and passion. It will return I'm sure of it and so will I.