Devil O’ The highlands race report 2009
Aka My daft race
I've often read other people's race reports and they're so good, I feel like I was there. I'm fairly apprehensive now about writing my first ultra report. An exaggeration to say more nervous than actually running the ultra but it is a consideration.............
I applied to the DOTH back in January and I ended up in 13th place on the reserve list. I was told I'd a good chance of getting in as they usually have about 20 people drop out. I had this race in my sights all year - through the spring runs, 3 day WHW trip and the Edinburgh marathon the following week. In early July, I got word that I had a place. I promptly went for a run in the Ochils and ripped/split my trail shoes! I bought a pair of Innov8 mudrocks and tried them on holiday in France. As well as a few short runs, I managed a 5 hour and a 6 hour in the Pyrenees running along the Spanish border. Not a huge distance covered - about 20 mile both times - but plenty of climbing and heat training and the shoes were great.
Back from holiday I was straight into long hours at work (summer shutdown season in the oil industry) so 12-14 hour days meant an enforced taper. My mileage in the 10 days preceding the race couldn't have been above 6 miles. I had the Friday off before the race and spent it sorting out kit and food, and arranging BBC and STV interviews for some Fife guides in the build up to our Girlguiding centenary. At least it took my mind off the race.
On Friday night, we headed up to Bridge of Orchy with Ken, Fiona and Pauline. We dumped our stuff in the bunk house and headed into the bar for a night cap. Who should we meet but Scott Bradley and dad, John? Scott had taken a bad tumble on his bike a few days before and had withdrawn from the race. Still, he soon veered the conversation to the race, the joys of running and the satisfaction/relief of open air poos!
We got up at 4am, I had my usual cereal breakfast (with thawed milk I'd taken up with me) and headed down to Tyndrum at 5am. I didn't feel nervous - I just wanted to start. I didn't have any really hard targets for the race. I wanted to finish intact and having enjoyed it. My ultimate was to run under 10 hours though I had put together some estimates of splits for everything from 12 hours to 8.5 hours.
At last, after a bit of faffing with kit, we were off. I ran alongside Karen and George, Mandy (a racy runner!) and a couple of girls from Skye and Lochalsh. We ran most of the way to Bridge of Orchy together arriving a few minutes ahead of 9.30 pace.
I had a pain in my back at BofO and applied some Vaseline. Only walking up the hill munching on a jam doughnut did it dawn on me what the problem was. I'd slackened the straps of my bum bag when putting it on, but had forgotten to tighten it up afterwards so the bouncing bag had rubbed me raw. (That was a real ouch when I went under the shower!). Going on to Rannoch moor was a real highlight for me. It was a beautiful day, I couldn't see or hear any walkers or runners and I felt I was all alone in the world, in a most beautiful place. Wonderful. After a couple of miles I started to feel cramp developing in my right foot so I stopped and loosened my laces. It didn't seem to help. I'd been drinking a reasonable amount - I thought. With hindsight (I've a lot of that); I hadn't drunk enough between Tyndrum and BofO - barely a mouthful, though I made up for it after BofO. I had to take a pit stop on the moor - letting quite a large group past me - and it was hard (and inappropriate) not to think of Scott as I went!
Reaching Black rock cottage, all was well and I walked along with Pauline to the road end - or at least until she reminded me I could be running! My calves felt tight when I started to run.
My problems started at the top of the pointless wee hill between Kingshouse and Altnafeadh. I cramped - all over my legs. I tried stopping and stretching and it helped for a few paces. Going over the stile was agony. One of the Skye and Lochalsh girls gave me a bottle of Nunn juice to drink and I obliged by draining it. Fortunately for her she was getting a top-up at the foot of the staircase. I couldn't shake the cramp off. I found a packet of stale salted nuts in my bum bag, drained my bottle of ginger beer - in only 3 miles which is a record for me -, and took some pain killers. This was not going to beat me. Still it must have taken me about 30 minutes longer than it should to get to Altnafeadh. When I reached it, I asked Ken and Pauline for salted crisps at Kinlochleven.
I didn’t enjoy the cramp one bit but it did allow me to experience the kindness and generosity of my fellow runners from the Skye girl sharing her Nunn juice near Altnafeadh to Karen asking her support to pass on succeed tablets for me at Kinlochleven to various others offering their sympathy and support.
I walked up the Devil's staircase dropping my nuts on the way. Thank you Karen for picking them up for me and saving me going back for them. There were crowds of people at the top. Some bus load of Spanish or Portuguese tourists. They were all dressed appropriately for the hills. I wondered what they thought as lots of runners passed by dressed only in shorts and a vest and carrying a small bum bag. It must have flown against all of the advice they were given about suitable clothing for walking in the unpredictable Scottish Highlands.
Fiona was waiting at the top of the Devil's Staircase with her iPod playing Highland Cathedral. She had poured Dario's farewell malt on the cairn at the top. I think she reduced a fair few to tears there.
My legs still felt tight but didn't cramp unless I lost rhythm or stumbled. I tripped over one stone on the descent and everything just went. Fiona offered to rub it better but it was too sore to touch! I managed to walk it off and I was able to descend the rest OK, provided I keep the rhythm going. Once into Kinlochleven, I picked up some Succeed tablets - thank you to Karen and Jane for those - and my salty crisps. Pauline was chumming me along the final section to Fort William. I managed OK on the hill up to the Larig Mhor except for one wee stumble when I ended up in one of those drainage ditches. That did make me give a yelp but it was only cramp and not damage! Pauline gave me a tip about slowing the exhale part of breathing and focusing on relaxing muscle groups. That seemed to help. I still had to take a couple of walk breaks to get through some cramping. Tipping my hips slightly further forward also helped with avoiding cramp. Concentrating on breathing and hips at least took my mind off it! It didn’t seem too long before we were through the spooky woods and on the motorway down to Fort William. I knew then that I was going to finish the race. I also knew then and said to Pauline that I wanted to do it again without cramp next time. She seemed surprised that I was saying that before I finished.
It was great to reach the Braveheart carpark and see Ken and Fiona. Pauline left me then to drive to the finish, to allow me to run the glory mile unaccompanied. I managed to pick off another runner in the run in to the finish (my 3rd since Lundavra!) and I finished in 9:27 and some seconds in 80th place out of 100 starters and 96 finishers. It is a great feeling to have completed the race. Thank you to my 3 fantastic supporters: Ken, Fiona and Pauline.
Learnings for next time:
I’ll improve my hydration. Although I rarely drink a lot when running, and Saturday was nothing unusual in that, I do wonder with hindsight if I drank enough in the early stages. I’ll use a camel back whether it’s hot, cold or whether or not I want too. If the tube is there, I’ll sip from it rather than reach behind (or not) for a bottle.
I’ll try out Nunn tablets, succeed tablets, (gin and) tonic and more bananas for my next attempt to ward off cramp.
I need to check back properly and see if I ate enough. I heard George’s alarm go off a couple of times in the early stages when I was running with him. He’d set a 20 minute reminder as an eating alert. I might try the same.
Finally, if I get the chance to do it again with such a supportive team behind me, I’ll be a very lucky lady.
Sue Walker 10th August 2009