The Hebridean Way – a 156 mile FKT attempt across 10 islands (Part 5 of 5)

Part 5 – Day 4: Harris to Lewis (40.5 miles, 4083 ft ascent)

I woke, packed and went down to an enormous breakfast. The earliest Dave could give me a lift was when they had finished serving all the guest breakfasts at around 10, so I had some time to eat and think.

Isi was still waiting for her results and encouraged me to run to Scaladale and make my decision there – either bus with our kit or crack on. I still felt uneasy about carrying on as if everything was normal and chatted to my other half and my sister for advice. The words that stuck were from my sister – I’d said if I did run it, I thought there was a chance I’d spend 12-15 hours in a bad mood wishing we were doing it together. She asked why not just accept that I’d be in a bad mood and do it anyway? I could review the decision at Scaladale but nothing was going to change waiting around anyway.

When Dave was free, I asked for a lift back to Tarbert, a little short of where I’d stopped the day before. I set my watch up tracking again and set off for Scaladale.

This was the first day with no rain and the wind had dropped too and I was grateful for the way being a bit easier.

The first part of the route was along the road to a lovely lochside trail that I’ve run many times with Isi, part of the Postman’s Walk circuit that’s my favourite run in Harris. The familiar and friendly trail cheered me up (even if it doesn’t look like it in the photo!) and I settled into the routine of running, eating, and looking after myself and my kit.

It was only 9 miles to Scaladale and I got there before Isi’s test results were back. We had a chat and since she was still sitting in hospital, agreed I may as well run to Stornoway. She said she’d see me there if not before. Only 30-ish miles to go after all! The finish is in the grounds of Lews Castle, a favourite running playground of mine (where I once ran 37 miles of loops for a training run).

I grabbed my hill food from the kit stash and set off. Finally, I felt a kernel of positivity about finishing start to grow in me. Isi said she’d love if we managed to finish and our teamwork could still get a new FKT by beating the previous supported time, despite the hiatus in Tarbert.

There was an easy road section, then a pretty path through the woods at Aline, and more road, broken up by seemingly random and slightly pointless detours out onto the moor periodically. At Laxay, 16 miles in from Scaladale, the route went out onto the moor for two long stretches and I slowed to a hike most of the time.

At some point in the afternoon, while I crossed the moor, Isi got her result – lower than expected (which is good), but they wanted to keep her in overnight. Her kidney tests remained perfect and she felt well, thankfully. The next road I would reach would be less than 10 miles from the finish and we agreed I should run it in. Luckily, there was surprisingly good signal out on the moor and I rang a hotel near the hospital, booking a room for the night while I kept hiking (and nearly walked into a puddle the size of my house while I was distracted!).

I had my sights set on the road – a single track, quiet road that turns into the Pentland Road, where I’ve again run many times, including in a 10k race that’s popular for being overall downhill to the finish, near the end of the Heb Way. The miles ticked over and when I hit the road I had to restrain myself from running hard – there were still 8 miles to go and I was in no shape to run tempo pace for 8 miles.

I was absolutely exhausted, hungry but couldn’t eat, and very sore. But I was excited to finish and the war memorial tower of Stornoway was visible from miles away, steadily getting bigger and closer each time I looked.

Then I was running past houses, across the road and into the castle grounds. From here it was a good downhill road to the finish. I sped up into what felt like an all out sprint down the hills. I felt like I was running on fumes alone and my engine might just stop at any moment, but my legs kept pumping all the way to the Hebridean Way sign at the finish at 22:13 pm.

I’d finished the Hebridean Way in 88 hours, 27 minutes and 21 seconds, including stops, ferries, and sleeping time, taking 15 hours 0 minutes and 59 seconds off the previous FKT.

It was too late in the evening to visit Isi in hospital so I slowly walked to my hotel room about a mile away, had a dinner of instant noodles from my pack, showered and slept. The next morning, she was discharged from hospital and came straight to the hotel. We spent the day eating pizza, ice cream, fish pie, and chatting.

Overall, we had had a great adventure together and thankfully having been alert to the risks, had spotted the potential problem for Isi really early. I still wish we could have finished together but Isi doesn’t share my love of the familiar (that had cheered me up so much along the lochside and Pentland Road) and has no desire to redo the route so she can finish it up in one go, though she says once she’s fully recovered she’ll go back to that little lane in Harris and run up to Stornoway so she can have done the entire Heb Way.

The adventure had its epic moments, fun and hard, cold, windy, wet, stunningly beautiful. I’m a little in awe of my body, 157 miles (according to my GPS track) is a massive new distance PB and my first FKT.

There’s definitely loads of room to improve that time and I’d encourage anyone considering it to go – the islands are wonderful places to run and the route is an incredible challenge to set yourself against.

Thanks for reading!

The Hebridean Way – a 156 mile FKT attempt across 10 islands (Part 4)

Part 4 – Day 3: Berneray to South Harris (28.3 mi, 3795 ft ascent)

In the morning, we enjoyed having time to sort out feet and kit inside the terminal. Despite 3 days of wet feet, I’d managed to avoid any blisters. Once I was upright, my hips were fine again and I didn’t have any injury-like pain, just general aches and bruised feet. We had the luxury of needing to wait for the ferry and then an hour’s crossing before we could get started and I made use of it, eating and drinking loads and keeping warm and dry.

Across from Berneray into Harris, we stopped to get sausage butties from the Butty Bus at the harbour and feeling full to my ears and started at a walk. Soon the downhills on the road were too tempting and we alternated running and walking along with whatever our stomachs would allow!

Harris is very hilly and mostly moorland. The better parts had a built-up peat path where we might be able to run a hundred feet before wading or jumping a bog, but large parts of the route for the first 20 miles were across tussocky, rocky heather-covered slopes. The wayposts were few and far between so no trod has really emerged and we had to pick our own way and navigate a route to the bealach between the hills. It was slow going, despite both of us being familiar with the terrain, and I felt sorry for any walkers on the route who came along expecting footpaths. All our pictures are of the easier ground as we felt too slow on the tough stuff to stop for photos!

Coming down off the moor onto the coffin road was a relief. We’ve run the coffin road together before and it’s a great fun technical trail, where I can pretend I’m a mountain goat and enjoy a bit of nimble footwork as I try (and always fail) to keep up with Isi on the downhills. I didn’t feel up to “nimble” at this stage, but was pleased that I could still run well enough and we made good progress.

Around this point, Isi mentioned that her bladder seemed to be playing up, uncomfortable and needing to pee frequently. It was worse running so we were taking frequent short walking breaks. This ran quiet alarm bells in the back of my head and I asked her to check the colour of her pee next time she could. We both knew about rhabdomyolysis and started talking about Jamie Aarons, having both heard a talk she’s given on the risks of rhabdo during ultramarathons, having had such a serious case herself 150kms into Tors des Géants that she spent five days in hospital.

It was maybe an hour later that Isi paused to pee again and I started hiking up the next hill. As I reached the top of the hill, Isi called, “Er, Ella…”

Pee-related detail coming, TMI warning for anyone who cares!

I ran back down the hill – she had peed onto a half buried scrap of white plastic feed bag, which helpfully caught that urine sample for us to see. Dark red-brown, somewhere between the colour of cola and red wine.

“Ah,” I said.

We started walking back up the hill and discussing what to do. Rhabdo is a condition where excessive muscle breakdown releases a muscle protein called myoglobin into the blood and it is excreted by the kidneys in enough quantity to colour the urine. The real problem is that too much myoglobin can essentially clog the filters of the kidney, with the potential to cause kidney damage or knock-on effects of reduced kidney function.

On the other hand, a simple UTI can cause blood-stained pee, and there’s also a condition called march haemoglobinuria from excessive walking or running that again causes red pee. A simple urine dipstick test will show positive for all three of these without telling which it is. The only way to test is blood tests to look for another protein of muscle breakdown (CK), or to send the urine for more sophisticated testing.

The problem was, we were in the middle of nowhere Harris at about 4pm. Even if we could have driven directly to Stornoway, we couldn’t have got her blood to the lab in time to get a test run that day – it’s only a small island hospital and only very limited testing can get done overnight. We also had no way to get anywhere until we got to Tarbert, still 10 miles away, where we’d be able to catch a bus – if we got there in time.

Also, Isi understandably wasn’t keen to stop. Other than needing to pee, she felt fine. Better than previous days, even. Her legs weren’t particularly sore, she was drinking plenty, eating well. It didn’t seem like Jamie Aaron’s story of overwhelming muscle pain and exhaustion.

We’d reached a lane, a tiny single track road connecting rural villages, and stopped to think. In a moment of perfect island-life serendipity, a car came along, pulled up, and turned out to be driven by a friend of Isi’s who also happens to be an ultrarunner. We were apparently only a few miles from the house of the local GP and we decided Isi’s friend would give her a lift there to get some advice from a doctor who wasn’t her running partner.

I sat down at the side of the road for a minute, then got up and ran back to take a photo of the pee in case it would help Isi’s assessment later. Then I waited again.

They drove back round and Isi hopped out. The GP had made it clear that whether or not this was rhabdo, she shouldn’t be running another 50+ miles before finding out. Hearing it from someone other than her running buddy had made it seem more real and Isi agreed to get herself to Stornoway ASAP for blood tests. Her friend thankfully could give her a lift and we agreed I’d carry on to Tarbert and wait for news.

They drove away and feeling very strange, I set off into the Harris hills on my own. Within ten minutes I regretted letting them drive away – I should have squeezed into the back and gone with them. I didn’t care about finishing, I wanted to hang out with Isi and wait for her results with her. Isi had no signal and I left voicemails to say I’d find a taxi or get a bus from Tarbert – although realistically, there’s only one taxi company and I’d be later than the last bus there.

The hills were beautiful and much of the way was runnable. I put headphones in for the first time on the trip and tried to enjoy the miles, but the many hills between me and Tarbert made it a long 10 miles! Eventually, on the road again I had enough signal for Isi to call me back – she pointed out I’d need to stay in Tarbert regardless and encouraged me to wait to hear her results before deciding. Anyway, I may as well carry on to Scaladale to get our kit and get the bus from there tomorrow if I still wanted to quit. She said she was sure she’d be out of hospital and could come support me the rest of the way if I wanted to finish.

By the rules of FKT attempts, if I did finish, it would now count as a supported FKT regardless of anything else. Isi had run less than the full way with me, so she counted as a pacer. Not that I cared about the FKT at this point!

It was evening by the time I reached Tarbert. Isi was still feeling fine, had had her initial blood tests and her kidney function tests were perfect. She wouldn’t get her CK result back until morning. Now I had the task of finding somewhere to stay in Tarbert – not so easy at last minute during tourist season. Both hotels were chock full but the very sympathetic receptionist at Hotel Hebrides gave me a list of local guest house numbers and I started to work through them, explaining the situation.

I lucked into a last minute cancellation room at the Ceol Na Mara. I couldn’t recommend them highly enough – Dave and Jane went out of their way for me. Dave drove to Tarbert to pick me up and offered a lift either back to Tarbert or up to Scaladale in the morning, whichever I needed. Their house is beautiful and I couldn’t have walked in with my socks or even bare feet – I was caked in peaty mud – so they provided slippers. There was free whiskey in my room (despite my exhaustion, I did have a taste before bed), a hot shower, and Jane even asked if I needed any spare clothes given our next kit was at Scaladale. I couldn’t take advantage of the lounge or honesty bar, or the range of tea, but I may have to go back for a holiday one day to fully appreciate it.

I’d been too late in Tarbert to get food anywhere so after a long shower I ate a large flapjack from my bag, ate all the chocolate mints from my room, had a cup of tea, and that dram of whiskey.

Isi still felt well and had been told she wouldn’t get her blood results until 11am the next day at the earliest. I updated our friends and lay down, unable to sleep for hours between concern for Isi, the return of my sore hips, and wild temperature fluctuations as my body tried to get used to being properly indoors for the first time in days. I still didn’t know what to do – I wasn’t sure I could face 40 miles the next day on my own, not so much physically but feeling as if I’d do the whole way just wishing I was up in Stornoway with Isi. Eventually, I fell into a patchy sleep.

The Hebridean Way – a 156 mile FKT attempt across 10 islands (Part 3)

Part 3: Day 2 – South Uist to Benbecula to Grimsay to North Uist to Berneray (47 mi, 2096 ft ascent)

It started to rain as we packed up our camp and made a slow start across peat bog. It was lucky neither of us had expected to have dry feet at any point along the trip! I felt surprisingly good but between calf-deep wading sections and morning kit faff to strip layers down until we were at the right running temperature, we couldn’t hit any kind of rhythm for a few miles until we hit a rocky gravel track.

The next section felt a bit monotonous, due to lots of track and road and being very flat. Not that I can complain about having a flat section! We made steady progress, only stopping 10 miles in to nip into Linaclete Co-op where I made myself very happy with a macaroni pie. For non-Scottish readers, macaroni cheese baked in a pastry pie, it’s excellent, you’re missing out. I enjoyed the next run along the coast, legs soaked by the long dune grass and was happy to hit Ruabhal, Benbecula’s only real hill. It’s not big but gave us a view all the way up North Uist to come and was a nice change for my legs.

Knowing today was our longest day, I’d told myself it was roughly halfway to Leinglas hotel, then the second half took us over the rugged South Uist hills. The forecast was worsening, with 35 mph wind and ongoing rain, and I started to worry about time – we’d set off at a leisurely 7.45am and were moving slowly. I didn’t like the idea of being in the hills in bad weather at night on nearly 100 mile tired legs.

I let this worry weigh a bit too heavily on my mind, fretting about when we’d finally get to Leinglas. Needing a morale boost, we planned to stop at the hotel and have food and a little break before tackling the hills.

On the bright side, we were crossing 5 islands today, and each causeway was another point for a little celebration.

We arrived at Leinglas in North Uist just before 5pm and I was heartbroken when they told us they couldn’t have walk ins as dinner reservations started from 5. The staff said we were welcome to buy cans of drink and cake to take away and we trooped in out of the rain. I suspect they took pity on us when they saw how wet and muddy we were as the moment we set up outside to have a picnic, someone came out and said they could squeeze us in after all. We gratefully hurried back in.

That bit of kindness (and the large slice of chocolate cake I’d inhaled), as well as knowing we were 30 miles in, lifted my energy and we left happily chatting and moving along at a good pace. The route followed tracks and the old road and was easy to move along, with beautiful lochs either side.

The approach to the hills was sadistically circuitous – we could see our path up the hillside miles before we were allowed to reach the foot of it, winding across the moor on a post-to-post join the dots necessitated by the many little duckboards and footbridges across the wet landscape. Once we reached the hill itself, it felt good to put my energy into the climb. The sky was turning red, though sunset was still a couple of hours off, and as we went over the peak we could see the ferry where it was moored overnight to await the morning crossing.

Sunset over the Uists

Too tired for excitement to actually speed us up, we ran/walked off the hill, along the empty road and across the causeway to Berneray. Exhausted, we ignored the tent in my pack and slept on the floor of the tiny ferry terminal building. It was a real luxury to have sinks and toilets right there and it took some discipline to take the time to make food and eat before sleeping.

Despite the luxury, it took me hours to get to sleep. The miles were starting to make themselves felt and my hips, which were completely comfortable while I was moving, had a deep toothache pain whichever way I lay. I enjoyed the rest and tried not to make too much noise turning over looking for the least uncomfortable position and eventually drifted off.

Our longest day was done and everything seemed to be going to plan. Little did we know!

The Hebridean Way – a 156 mile FKT attempt across 10 islands (Part 2)

Part 2: Day 1 – Vatersay to Barra to Eriskay to South Uist (41.8 mi, 3500 ft ascent)

Isi had the genius idea of buying a pack of premade pancakes and an entire jar of nutella from Barra co-op, so we started the day polishing those off while nervously waiting for our early taxi. It was already broad daylight and the drive to the Vatersay community hall was only ten minutes. We had a short faff about with kit, took a photo of the first Hebridean Way sign, our last few minutes of not being sweaty, stinky messes for the next few days, and we were off.

In terms of the route, the first day was my favourite of the trip. It may have helped that this one the one day that we actually had a tailwind some of the time, and the sun was shining for parts of it!

We started with some gently winding roads out of Vatersay, trying to rein ourselves in pace-wise and also faffing lots more with kit to get our layers right. Then it was across the first causeway and over our first hilly section.

The first 14 miles to the Barra ferry terminal

We wanted to catch the 8.55 am ferry from Barra, which meant covering 14 miles in around 3 hours – but at the same time, we were very aware that we needed to hold back and not race the first 14 miles at the cost of the remaining 141 miles! We tried to hike the ups reasonably hard but take the downhills very gently to avoid blowing up quads too soon.

The views were absolutely incredible and I felt so lucky to be out there. After the first hill, there was a gorgeous coastal section leading up to another short and sharp hill and it was climbing that hill that we started realising how tight the time was. I was breathing hard and my calves burning and we would have had to bomb it down the hill and up the next to be sure of getting the ferry. After a chat, we agreed to keep to an honest steady effort and accept that we’d miss the ferry, rather than destroy our legs for it now.

As it was, we came down the hill and watched the ferry pull away – if we had kept up our pace, we’d have missed it by 5 or 10 minutes. Instead, we slowed down to a very comfortable easy pace and gently walked/jogged in. To my delight, just as it started raining we reached the ferry terminal and discovered that the wee café there was open.

There was a crowd of cheerful cyclists already inside warming the place up and I sat down with a cup of tea and a huge millionaire brownie. Honestly, it was the size of a book and I can’t imagine being hungry enough to eat it all in one sitting outside an ultra! A group of cyclists in blue jerseys got chatting with us and were hilariously baffled – not by our decision to run the route, but by the idea that we would camp along the way. “But where will you sleep?” “Like, in tents?” The “why!?” was unspoken but obvious!

We all trotted out into the rain a couple of hours later for the 11.30 ferry and piled on. It’s a beautiful 40 minute crossing and having enjoyed the views on our way down, Isi and I mostly basked beside the radiator this time. The blue jersey cyclists photo-bombed some pictures with us as we reached Eriskay and set off on their way.

We had a little over a marathon to go for the day. After the causeway from Eriskay to South Uist a fair bit of it was on machair, my favourite surface to run on. In the summer, it’s like running on a gently sprung trampoline covered in flowers. It was a little soggy with rain hammering down for the remainder of the day (okay, it was like a paddling pool), but still beautiful. Loud kittiwakes and oystercatchers flew overhead, as well as gulls, lapwings and some smaller birds I’d tentatively identify as dunlins, and for a good hour we could hear a persevering cuckoo trying to insist it was spring despite being 7°C with sideways rain.

Around five miles along, dripping wet and keen for an excuse, we reached the Polochar Inn and decided to pop in. The reception was outrageously warm considering the state we must have looked and we cosied up beside a hot radiator for a sugary drink and packet of crisps (while watching enviously as a temptingly huge plate of fish and chips went past for the next table). I enjoyed the luxury and didn’t mind the extra time – it felt worth it knowing we’d be setting up camp in the rain that evening.

Carrying on up the coast, Isi had a bit of an energy dump that coincided with Askernish Golf Course, which borders high rolling dunes where we managed to lose the path and almost get ourselves turned around inland. Walking and forcing food in, the golf course seemed to go on forever and progress was slow. Finally, we came out the other side, probably right as the calories hit the bloodstream and we could move a bit faster.

I only had a vague idea of the mileage to our campsite if I’m completely honest. I knew it was “a few miles” past Howmore, and that Howmore was around 36 miles from the start. This uncertainty had me getting a little over-obsessed with constantly doing maths in my head about how far we’d come, potentially had to go, and theoretically how long it would take at this pace, slower, faster, etc. Since Isi had had a bit of a low spell, I’d taken the lead on setting the pace for a bit and this kept me fairly entertained and motivated- I was looking forward to an instant rehydration meal and bed!

Despite the beauty of the seaside, I was happy when we passed Howmore and the path turned inland to the moor. A change is as good as a rest! (I should say – Isi and I are both pathologically optimistic. I really do mean pathologically. Even during her ‘low spell’, Isi was probably saying things along the lines of, “Well, at least I feel rubbish now, so when I feel better it’ll be a nice contrast” and we both definitely made comments along the lines of, “It’s nice to start in the bad weather, while we’re fresh” and noting how lucky we were that some of the rain happened while we were on the ferry, therefore “using up” some of the rain time).

The moor gave a great sense of progress and it also took us past a stunning alkaline loch reflecting the hills around us beautifully. Our stash was near the Lady of the Isles statue, which we knew lay just the other side of the hill ahead, and if our pace didn’t actually pick up, we moved easily knowing bed wasn’t far away.

We were very lucky and the rain eased for long enough to get our tents up dry and in no time we were both in bed. Having looked forward to it all day, my rehydrated pasta was almost inedible and I gave up on it. I’d been worried about getting cold – I often can’t control my body temperature after ultras, and I’d chosen an ultralight sleeping bag for this stop as we’d be carrying our sleep kit the next day. Thankfully, I’d planned ahead with plenty of spare dry layers, and I was only a little chilly until food and time warmed me up in my bag and I was asleep.

Progress – Day 1

The Hebridean Way – a 156 mile FKT attempt across 10 islands (Part 1)

Part 1: The Hebridean Way

The Hebridean Way is a walking route through the 10 main islands of the Outer Hebrides. The route is 156 miles (252km) of a mixture of pathless moorland and hills, well-trodden paths, and short road sections, with the added logistical complication of infrequent ferries between some islands.

With the tricky logistics, especially for anyone who hasn’t lived and worked on the islands, I’ll be fairly detailed about our planning in case others want to try the route themselves. Skip to Part 2 to get to the running! This will be Part 1 of 5.

The route

Vatersay –(causeway)- Barra –(ferry)- Eriskay –(causeway)- South Uist –(causeway)- Benbecula –(causeway)- Grimsay –(causeway)- North Uist –(causeway)- Berneray –(ferry) Harris –(hill crossing)- Lewis

The route is marked by wayposts, although these sometimes disagree with the official route marked on the OS maps, and sometimes both disagree with route descriptions on the official website. Where possible, we followed the wayposts on the ground, but there are probably slight variants that are all acceptable versions of the route.

Until recently, I lived on the north of Lewis and my friend Isi still does. We’ve both worked and played in the hills on several of the islands (all of them, in Isi’s case). We had been contemplating running the Heb Way together for a while and planned it for last year – so of course, it was postponed to this year. It’s not been run much and there are currently only supported FKTs (fastest known times)– the men’s set by Jez Bragg at just under 49 hours, which is mind-blowing and required chartered boats for the crossings, and the women’s of 103 hours, 28 minutes and 20 seconds by Kirsty Aplin, Allie Bailey, Lorna Spayne, Anna Brown, Laura Fisher, and Gillian McColl, using the public ferries.

We decided to make an attempt at a self-supported FKT. By the generally accepted rules, this means that you can use anything open to public use (shops, cafés, even hotels), and you can post or leave stashes of kit. You’re not allowed to have anyone running as a pacer who drops part-way, brings you kit, or have friends helping. If we finished, this would mean we’d have an overall FKT regardless of our time! We also had our eyes on the women’s supported time as an extra goal to motivate us along.

We chose to leave stashes of kit for ourselves as we travelled down and to wild camp along the route so our daily distances were set by what we wanted to run rather than where we could find a hotel or B&B. They were tucked out of the way outside in dry bags with notes in the top explaining what they were, when we would pick them up and asking people not to move them, and we just hoped they’d still be there when we reached them (except Scaladale, where we were kindly allowed to leave them inside).

Travel to the start

We met up in Stornoway (on Lewis) with big bags of kit and started the long journey to the start, leaving our kit drop at Scaladale outdoors centre on Harris, getting the ferry over to Berneray and leaving kit stashed there. Then it was a series of buses (with a kind driver letting us hop out to leave some kit stashed in South Uist) down to the Eriskay ferry terminal, ferry to Barra, and a bus to the hostel in Barra where we stayed the night before our start. Several of these buses had to be ‘booked’ by telephone to let them know there would be folk needing the bus that day, or else they wouldn’t run.

After a day of travel, I was getting excited for our adventure. It had taken a whole day to travel down and we hoped to run back up it in four. We went down to Café Kisimul for a very delicious dinner and got to bed early, ready for a 5.30a.m. taxi to the start.

The Outer Hebrides (from Wikipedia)

Our run begins in Part 2!

Kit used on the 2020 Spine MRT Challenge

Just a heads up – this post may be a little dry (unlike the race conditions!) for anyone not looking to prep for their own Spine or other British winter adventure. Again, I feel like I’ve benefited from lots of other people’s race reports and kit lists in the past and want to pay it forward, and I also feel like my kit worked extremely well for me this year. This isn’t a full list of what I carried- for example, my sleep set-up could have been far lighter if I’d wanted to buy a new bag, my cook kit was never used, and I had lots of extra spare layers of everything.

I’m not sponsored by anyone and didn’t get any kit for free. If you want to give me kit in return for an honest review, I wouldn’t say no! (Goretex- you surely couldn’t get better test conditions than the Outer Hebrides!)

Another FYI – I run really cold. If I go for a group run, I’m generally wearing one or two layers more than everyone else. Take this into account in measuring how much I wore against how much you might need!

In general through the race, I was wearing: Brinje short sleeve string vest, long sleeve merino base layer top, thin fleece midlayer, winter running tights, and waterproof socks.

I won’t go into detail on my tops and tights as they were a hodge podge of gear I already had and were chosen by being my favourites to run in bad weather over the last year or two. A lot of it was about specific fit to my shape and love of thumb loops. I’m not too sure how much difference the Brinje makes to warmth, but I will say it makes me feel like my next base layer dries out quicker and seems to reduce that horrible feeling of cold back sweat when you put a pack back on after a kit faff. I was also honestly surprised to hear some people were DNF’ing with hypothermia, so I guess my kit was doing something right for me.

Shoes

I wore Altra Lone Peak 4s in a half size bigger than my ‘normal’ size. I fell over twice on steep downhill muddy fields, gripped flagstones comfortably, and had no trouble in the peat. A couple of blisters that were toe-on-toe rubbing and nothing to do with the shoes. Love them, would wear the same again.

Waterproofs

My favourite piece of gear this race was my waterproof jacket. I took a bit of a risk and went with this Goretex Shakedry jacket. I only got this for Christmas so just had one long run left to test it and didn’t want to wear it on most of my training runs as I usually run with my dog on a waist-belt lead and didn’t want to risk damaging the new jacket. It’s a relatively new type of waterproof so I couldn’t find any reviews out there that could tell me its durability and waterproofing in Spine conditions – 30+ hours of potentially continuous rain, high wind, working up a sweat inside it if you’re not careful, and carrying a big pack that pins layers close in to the body.

Since there aren’t many reviews out there on it, in terms of sizing I got it in EU 38 and it fit perfectly over base layer + thin fleece, but would not have fit over anything padded or bulky. I’m roughly a size 10 UK.

It was fantastic. I did carry a spare, heavy duty North Face waterproof (ancient, not made for running, thick mesh-lined type job) because the forecast was bad, and I put that on for the most exposed section of wind and rain before Stoodley Pike. However, up until that point, I was toasty warm and dry as a bone inside my Shakedry jacket, and I was still dry in every layer when I got changed at CP1.

Besides it keeping me dry and warm, the other features I loved were the soft material lining the inner face of the top of the zip, so when done up all the way I didn’t have cold wet plastic against my face. The hood fit snugly and didn’t block my vision too much or flap in the wind. There’s the same soft material lining for one side of the end of the sleeve, which are a little stretchy at the ends instead of having adjustable flap or cinch things. The shape works really well for me, with enough stretch to pull my hands inside when it was wet but I didn’t want/need gloves, but shaped enough to keep wind out and warmth in.

The main downside to the jacket besides the price is that it is supposedly not a very durable material. I can’t see any sign of wear from the mesh backing of my decently full, 6kg pack at all, so it’s certainly held up through around 30 miles of training runs plus the full race. Given where I live, it will get plenty more testing to discover its true durability!

For trousers, I had Rab Fuse ‘pants’, whose durability I can attest to. This was their third Spine and I wear them constantly for dog walks and runs all year round. I periodically re-waterproof them and I have a tiny tear in one shin from a disagreement with a barbed wire fence. They’re a great extra layer on days with serious windchill but still light enough not to feel like you’re running in a Mr Blobby suit. I switched over to some heavier duty cheap waterproofs from Hebden and regretted it – they were a few inches too long for me even worn right up around my waist and I was constantly trying to hike them back up (eventually safety pinning them to my fleece, which was completely ineffectual and made weeing a big palaver, but seemed worthwhile at the time because they were annoying me so much). Next time, I’d keep the Rab ones the whole way.

I was fastidious to the point of tedium about putting waterproof layers on for rain (including Kinder Upfall) and taking them off if I was getting too hot. This let me dry quickly in the wind when I was working up a sweat any time the rain held off and let the inner layers of my waterproofs evaporate dry too.

Socks

I used a variety of brands in training and the race (changed twice, at CP1 and at Horton) and they seemed equally good. Sealskinz were nice and dry in training but the ones I had felt a bit clumsily thick. The ones I used in the race were all the thinnest each brand did; I think it was two calf-high Dexshell options and a pair of ankle high Verjari ones. The Verjari have the advantage of being so flexible and near normal thickness that I wear them without a liner, which gives you more feel for the ground on normal runs and gave me more room in my shoes for swollen feet towards the end of the race. They do seem to already be losing waterproofing on training runs since, however.

Pack

I ran with one of the new(ish) UD Fastpack 35s, which seemed a very popular choice this year. I’ve previously used a Fastpack 25 and I love these packs. They seem particularly useful for women as the two chest straps can be adjusted up and down to rest comfortably despite boobs, unlike many packs, though I think if you have a very large chest then the lowest position may still not be low enough. The Fastpack 35 has an additional waist belt, which makes it feel like a hiking pack when you put it on, but is really useful for reducing sway and keeping the bottom of the pack from sliding up as I run.

I used all the front pockets for snacks and navigation aids, putting water bottles in the stretchy side pockets (I didn’t buy fancy water bottles, just used the kind you’d buy water in petrol stations etc with the sports style squirty top- I’m much too malco-ordinated to drink from a normal bottle while walking). These were admittedly a little awkward to reach back for, but it worked well for leaving maximum useful little pockets and minimum bulk at the front. The side pockets still had plenty of room for stashing hats and gloves, which I had on and off over and over again to keep my temperature steady. The back stretchy mesh pocket I used for maps, kit I wanted available at short notice but didn’t expect to need (Yaktrax), extra snacks, and waterproofs. Stuffing the waterproofs in loosely at the top seemed to leave them enough air to dry out.

Everything else went into the main roll-top compartment and all the mandatory kit fit easily, despite my carrying several extra layers above the minimum and a bit of a flabby sleeping bag.

My favourite upgrade on the Fastpack 35 was they’ve now made the material of the main compartment waterproof. I still had my emergency layers in a dry bag to be on the safe side, but it honestly didn’t seem necessary. The only kit that got wet was from when I lazily put wet gloves in the main section during a kit change. I’d definitely recommend this pack for multi-day adventures as well as races with big kit lists.

Food & fuel

This one is hugely personal and my ability to eat through the race wasn’t great, so not sure I should be giving tips!

My one fuel success from this race was using Caffeine Bullets for my caffeine intake. They’re mint flavoured sweets and even when I felt pretty nauseated, I quite enjoyed them. I started feeling sick before I took my first, so I can’t blame the caffeine there, and I felt they helped me get up and get going after my laps by taking one beforehand. Looking forward to having these on hand for my Last One Standing event next week!

Summary

At the end of the day, most of my kit decisions were down to having had plenty of practice in “interesting” weather conditions and learning the little things that did or didn’t work for me. Although I risked it a bit with my waterproof, everything else was tried and tested. Kit is obviously a very personal choice and I learned what I wanted just so (e.g. fit of base layers, squirty top water bottles) and what I could basically wing on the day (e.g. choice of buff/hats).

I hope this might be of use to someone planning their own Spine or other colourfully weathered adventure. Now I’m off to write my packing list for my next no doubt weatherful adventure in six days 😀

Preparing for the MRT Spine Challenge

In the run up to my first Spine race, I devoured other people’s blogs to try to work out what to buy, how to train, and how to plan for my race. I’m hoping other people might find it useful to hear what worked for me- but I’m not claiming by any means that there’s any one recipe for success. I’m also aware I’m not the fastest finisher out there- but this year was a huge improvement for me and preparation was a big part of that.

The first and major change I made was in paying for a running coach. This is certainly not essential, but I am lucky I was able to do it and it made my running life much more fun as I could trust my coach to work out what mileage or workout I needed to be doing and I could just get up and do my run. Definitely a privilege but I see it as my main expenditure on myself and hobbies outside work.

My coach is Liza Howard of Sherman Ultra coaching and I would 100% recommend her to anyone. As well as guiding me in my running, Liza was someone I could bounce kit, foot, and sleep ideas around with and she also helped me with my mental attitude and psychological approach to the inevitable lows. We noticed I had terrible discipline in managing my kit when I knew I could “get away with it” and she helped come up with a strategy to train myself out of those bad habits (see below), which I think was an important part of why I was warm and dry despite hypothermia-inducing conditions for many on race day.

Living in the Outer Hebrides meant popping down for recces was going to take a bit too long, so while recces are a very important part of many people’s race prep, they weren’t an option for me. However, we do have plenty of weather to train in, and I did my best to take advantage of bad weather conditions to test kit and train myself in the self-discipline of using kit properly. Getting up in the early hours to drag myself out into 40mph wind and hail made me grumble on occasion, but I had plenty of practise with running in the dark and trying different numbers and types of layers for the weather.

Deep-down I’m actually kinda lazy, despite what appearances of doing ultras for fun might suggest to people. If I start getting too hot, hungry, thirsty, wet on a run, but I know I’ll be finished in half an hour or so, I am literally too lazy to make myself more comfortable and will let myself run in discomfort. That’s fine and dandy when the run finishes in half an hour with a shower, change into dry clothes, and whatever food or drink you need. It’s no good in the middle of a 100 miler in challenging conditions and any of those minor discomforts could lead to DNF level issues further down the line. Liza and I were trying to work out how to combat my natural tendency here and decided I would have to rate how well I had managed self-care stuff during long runs so that I had an incentive to do it properly even if it was ‘only’ 20 miles and I knew I’d be safe even if I got cold/hungry/wet. This worked like a charm for my gamefication-happy brain and also I’m a goody two-shoes so once I had to admit if I’d been lazy, that was suddenly enough incentive not to be so lazy. Practising self-care properly helped me fine-tune layers, where to keep snacks, how much water to carry, etc., and also ingrained good habits for race day.

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More selfie practice needed…

I won’t be too detailed about my running schedule, because I don’t think there’s any one formula that works. In general, my training didn’t look too different to marathon training, except with less speed/tempo work and extra hiking and weighted work in the later, more race specific phase. There was still a bit of speedwork and hill repeats throughout, and more so in the earlier phase. Because I have time during the week where I can fit in a quick gym session but not run, and I enjoy it, I also did weight-lifting two or three times a week.

I certainly ran more miles than last year – roughly 50 miles/week as the average for the peak few weeks, which is nothing for some fast runners but as a slower paced runner with a full-time job it takes a fair amount of time and I was happy with the mileage. My longest long run in training was a 30 mile run, which I really enjoyed, and again was helpful for practising strategy things like kit, pacing, and eating. As the race day got closer, one or two ‘runs’ a week were intentionally hikes, aiming to get my hiking pace up, since inevitably the Spine is more walking than running for most of us normal humans. I added a weighted pack to the hikes initially, then to long runs, to get my back and legs used to having something to carry (I can recommend dog food and lentils as decent weights to add to your pack; I do not recommend medical textbooks).

Probably unusually for a trail runner, I’m also a fan of treadmills. Winter in the Outer Hebrides means a lot of running in the dark, in horizontal rain, and on boggy ground. Sometimes getting up at 5am is just a little bit easier when you can run in the dry on a treadmill and watch TV! My coach had me doing 15% incline treadmill hikes with my pack, which were good opportunities to catch up on Netflix, and I also found the treadmill handy for intervals that could be a bit tricky when the ground got icy.

In the absence of recces, I made sure to refresh my memory of the route on the maps and marked my maps up with this year’s diversions despite planning to primarily use my GPS for navigation. I also dug out a card I made the first year I ran with short (5-7 mile) interval landmarks that I could aim for rather than having nothing but the 46 mile checkpoint to be thinking of from the start, and then another 62 miles to think of ’til the finish! These helped me keep a sense of progress and avoid letting the whole distance loom over me during the race.

Finally I packed and repacked my kit, wanting to be sure I knew where to find every little thing once I was sleep-deprived. I sorted my food out into a packet of 3000kcal to start, and another of the same to pick up at the halfway checkpoint, with a good variety of foods to try to appeal to myself across the way.

Actually, not quite finally. The last thing I did was sit down a few nights before the race and think of my 3am Whys mentioned at the head of my race report. I’d done all the hard work and didn’t want myself to throw it away in a fit of pique during a low point of the race.

Credit should also, of course, go to Captain Dog- my number one training companion (sorry Isi), excellent trainer in how-to-stop-suddenly-to-avoid-flipping-over-a-dog and expert at looking cheerful to be out on a run in galeforce rain.

The Montane Spine MRT Challenge 2020

*Warning* Very long post ahead! Make a cup of tea.

The MRT Spine Challenge is a British winter ultramarathon along the southern half of the Pennine Way. Every year is a very different race as the weather conditions always radically up the challenge for racers, from snow to torrential rain to wind, and often a little of all three. This year, thanks to flooding and course diversions, the route would be around 110 miles with 18,000 feet of elevation gain.

I’ve started the Spine MRT Challenge twice before – in 2017 it was my first 100 miler, it was a slightly different race in that support crews were allowed (and I had an absolutely amazing support crew that kept me going), and I finished pretty narrowly before the cut off in 58 hours 18. This gave me the indisputable accolade of last finisher as well as winner, being the only female finisher.

I came back in 2019 after a great year of running hoping to improve- and had to retire around the halfway mark with wind blindness due to inadequate self-care in very high wind conditions. In hindsight, I always wondered if I could have rested up in the checkpoint for the maximum allowable time (probably another 8+ hours) as my vision may have improved pretty quickly. Regardless, it left me with a strong draw back for 2020 (cue pun about my visual acuity this year?) and determination not to be left with regrets this year.

This is inevitably going to be a really long write-up, so I’m going to divide it into three parts:

  • Race report
  • How I prepared
  • Kit, what went well, what went badly

On to the race report!

 

The Montane Spine MRT Challenge 2020 race

Lining up on the start line, I was less nervous than I expected to be. There’s this restful apprehension I have where I know I’m guaranteed to experience some pain and real psychological lows in the coming challenge, but I’ve accepted it as the price to pay for the experience. I went into this race with three purposes, more than goals, and wrote them on my hand, saying to my brother, “I know they’ll rub off, I just hope they sink in!”

Don’t get me wrong- I do ultras because I enjoy them and I love that they give me the incentive to go running most days, which makes me happier and healthier. But at 3am out in the rain when you feel like throwing up, sometimes there needs to be a bigger ‘why’ not to just throw in the towel then and there. These were my 3am whys.

  • PR or ER
    • I didn’t mean it quite literally, but I was determined that the only reasons I would DNF this race were injury, timing out, or completion. That decision is already made, so 3am Me, you may as well keep running ‘cause that’ll get you to the finish sooner.
  • Who do you want to be?
    • I feel like these races make me stronger, tougher, more resilient. It’s hard for a reason, that’s the whole point.
  • Who are you?
    • And I also feel like the total commitment of ultras helps me unmask myself and learn more about who I am. After 30+ hours of physical exertion and discomfort, there isn’t a lot of energy for pretences and I have come to cherish the moments where I feel pared down to the barest essence of who I am. Push through the lows and find out who you really are.

With those personal goals in mind, as well as the less lofty ones of enjoying the beautiful Pennines and getting to know some of my fellow runners, I set off with the rest of the mountain rescue runners to the friendly blip of a siren.

So as not to panic and run straight back to my bunk, I didn’t let myself contemplate the entire distance at any point. At all times, the only distance I could think about was to the next place written on a tiny scribbled piece of paper I had tucked behind my compass that divided it into non-panic-worthy sized chunks of 5-10 miles. I also broke the race up into hours, with the plan of eating a 200kcal snack at the top of each hour. More on that later.

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At the start with Isi, my Hebrides mountain rescue team mate

Start to Snake Pass (10 miles, 2 hours 46)

The run over to Snake Pass goes up and over Kinder Scout, which was “a bit breezy” by Hebridean standards- around 50mph wind with gusts that could knock you off your stride. After last year’s fiasco I was quick to put my goggles on but otherwise the conditions didn’t bother me too much as I’ve trained in plenty of the same. The main disadvantage of the high wind is the risk of dropping kit and extra effort getting anything in or out of bags. It was also pretty fun, though, and so long as I can find my footing the sensation of being thrown around by the wind makes me laugh. Coming down off Kinder, I passed my first person from the main Challenger, a slight lady who’d had her confidence battered a bit by the winds and was struggling to keep her feet. There were several MRT runners who were backwards and forwards with me to chat with.

Snake Pass to Wessenden reservoir (26 miles, 7 hours 3)

There’s a lovely bit of trail over to Torside reservoir- narrow paths winding along the hillsides that are just great fun to run along, and no massive climbs to take the wind out of your sails. The reservoir suddenly pops into view ahead and beneath the trail, inviting a run down to it. I was gradually overtaking Challenger runners here and there, which was a boost to morale, and I was still feeling good and eating well. Another runner, Jon, ended up matching pace with me for a while and we trotted down into Torside chatting happily. I went through the MRT tent for a quick water refill and hiked some of the woods chatting to a guy in the main Challenger I’d met on the train down the day before, Alex, who was taking it steady.

Black Hill is a deceptive little climb with some short sharp bits. My legs felt great hiking up and I overtook a few, but my stomach started some warning grumbles and the beginnings of nausea hit here. Still, I could eat and enjoyed the varied terrain. Most importantly, I didn’t let myself get into my own head and worry about it being like this for another 70 miles (which was true) and kept living in the moment. After the hill, the moor is flatter and I could see a few groups spread out that I could judge my pace by. I’d look up ahead for them, settle into my pace, check again and hope to be a bit closer, eventually passing them and aiming for the next. This kept me ticking along and entertained to Wessenden.

Wessenden to M62 crossing (33 miles, 10 hours 3)

I made it along the runnable section by the reservoirs to put my light on as I climbed down the steps to climb back up out and onto the moor. I was using a lightbelt, a waistbelt light, which meant one extra strap to deal with when changing layers but meant I could have hats on and off for warmth easily enough, no headache, and a much better view of the ground than any headtorch I’ve owned. It also gives a nice wide beam, which helped with picking a path through the boggy bits, and boggy bits were coming up!

The wind was back in force over the exposed moorland and in the darkness it felt pretty bleak. At this point, I intentionally paired up with other runners- it’s a part of the course where people start struggling mentally and physically, so running with others is safer as well as providing welcome company and distraction. I was joined again by Jon from earlier, and his running buddy David. David was beginning to feel the cold and slow down, leaving Jon in the difficult position of trying to judge how much to cajole him along for warmth and progress versus risking pushing too hard and tiring out. We were caught by a pair of Challenger runners, Estelle and Jude, and with Jon and David’s understanding I pushed on with their slightly quicker pace.

We reached a safety stop at a road crossing where race official safety teams were checking on everyone’s condition and giving help where it was needed. Steph – the MRT lady course record holder, who has become a friend of mine through the Spine – was one of these and I was delighted to see her. There’s a special lift of the spirits to be had from a friendly and familiar face on a cold, dark night. She told us racers were dropping like flies with hypothermia and advised to get any spare layers on that we had. Goggles were also mandatory for the next section. I was genuinely surprised as I was warm and dry in my layers, being lucky enough to have great kit for these exact conditions (thanks to near identical training conditions) and sacrificing the few minutes it took to faff with waterproofs on and off whenever it started raining or there was an opportunity to dry off, but I saw Estelle and Jude were struggling with cold more than I’d realised while we were moving. I decided to add an extra windproof layer I was carrying since we had even more exposed miles ahead, and we set off again.

M62 to Hebden checkpoint (46 miles, 15 hours, 50)

Jon soon caught up and explained David had decided to stay longer at the safety point as he was struggling. Unsurprisingly since it’s so hard to get warm once you get past that dangerous tipping point, we later found out he had retired there. We made good headway to Stoodley Pike monument, a cheering landmark not too far from the first and only proper checkpoint in the race at Hebden Bridge. We did lots of fantastic and terrible, loud singing into the wind (and I still haven’t got my voice back at the time of writing).

Shortly after this, I made a stupid and annoying navigation error, handrailing along a reservoir on our left when it should have been on our right. We went over a mile in the wrong direction before Jon realised he didn’t recognise the area and we turned back. I had been being careful to the point of paranoid with an attitude of “trust but verify” for navigation travelling with others up to this point so I was furious with myself for being the cause of the mistake and not regularly checking. I did my best not to waste energy on annoyance and funnel it into a decent pace.

By this time I was definitely feeling sick and in the pouring rain it was easy to ignore the time passing when I was overdue to eat. I decided I could afford to wait ‘til the checkpoint, where there would be hot food and a chance to rest and digest. My race plan had been for an hour’s sleep at Hebden and I was very glad of it.

The climb down to the checkpoint is like a helter-skelter of deep, soft mud hiding randomly placed rocks and it demands attention. I don’t think there can be many people going down it 46 miles into the race without gritted teeth, but the lights of the checkpoint below drew me on at the best pace I could manage safely. Once in the warm, bright lights, with incredibly enthusiastic volunteers helping with whatever they could, the tiredness and pains faded into the background. I changed into a dry set of clothes, put electronics on to charge and went round to the unbelievably well catered canteen for two bowls of pasta and a cup of tea. The weather forecast was improving but I decided I’d rather carry a bit of extra weight than risk running out of something on the last legs and added some spare layers to my pack and switched into heavier duty waterproof trousers (which did keep me warm but proved a bit of a hindrance later).

Feeling as if I could fall asleep upright, I ate a caffeine bullet, set an alarm for an hour and lay down in a bunk, only for both my hips, the only parts of my legs not hurting at all on the move, to instantly fill with a sick hot pain that only seemed to get worse changing positions. After a while, I heard Estelle and Jude come in and agree to set a 20 minute timer, then I heard their alarm go off, then mine. I’m sure I slept at some point but it can’t have been for long. Unfortunately, Estelle had to retire shortly after, having been unable to get the energy to warm up after getting cold over the moor.

One mercy was that my nausea had gone – until I tried eating a bag of salty crisps, when it came straight back. I headed downstairs meeting Jon en route, we pulled our wet, muddy shoes back on and went back out into the dark.

Hebden to Gargrave (28 hours 45, 80 miles)

Suffice to say that the stretch from Hebden to Malham is not my favourite part of the Pennine Way. The majority of it is made up of field crossings, which in a British winter are guaranteed to be quagmire by the time the middle of the pack of the race reach them. After the heavy rain (and with more showers), they were splashing wet and comically slippery. I had one excellent comedy arse over elbows fall and lots of skidding. Jon and I chatted and strode along as best we could, running on the flats and downs when it was safe, and our spirits were high but the mud was hugely energy-sapping. The extra miles of several road diversions around flooded sections were more than worthwhile avoiding more mud.

The pattern of nausea, a growing awareness of my need to eat, eventual forced eating and redoubling of nausea was now a background challenge for me. This did result in one particularly graceful fall when I had a chocolate bar in one hand, water bottle in the other (I was swigging chewed food down like swallowing tablets, it was so unappetising and my mouth so dry) walking along some submerged flagstones. I failed to notice the missing flagstone, put my foot down in deep mud and face planted into half a foot of muddy water, chocolate bar halfway to my mouth. I’m pretty sure I sprayed half the contents of my water bottle over myself as I landed, and smushed the chocolate bar into my jaw. I came up spluttering and Jon and a few Challengers we were with at the time hurried to check I was OK, far too polite to still be laughing – by the time I surfaced anyway. I shoved the mud-dripping remains of the chocolate bar into a pocket of my pack accusingly and kept going!

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There was a tent hosted by Craven Energy Triathlon Club in a little village called Lothersdale, where we were again greeted by lovely madly enthusiastic volunteers. I sat down for a quick bowl of soup, which magically was delicious and not nauseating, while Jon stood to eat his as he said if his feet had a rest they had to be broken in all over again. There was a cosy interior that I didn’t dare even look inside and we moved on quickly, again cheered up by the incredible community and atmosphere that the Spine creates around it.

Gargrave was an exciting landmark to aim for as from there on I can count on one hand the obstacles left between me and the finish. The climb up Malham Cove; Fountains Fell, a long, long hill with seemingly endless false summits; Pen y Ghent, a steep hill with rock clambering at the top followed by a knee-grinding descent; finally, the Cam High Road- not so steep but miles of uphill, some deceptive ups and downs, and at last the downhill to Hawes and the finish. Friends of Jon’s were in Gargrave to cheer him in and I felt buoyant. We each bought a pastry (actually, I still owe Jon for mine…) and like the soup, this went down an absolute treat.

I found out from texts from family that Isi had had to retire with a knee injury at Hebden. They assured me she was OK and would be getting a lift to Hawes to be looked after by my brother and his girlfriend (Isie and Inger).

Gargrave to Horton (97 miles, 39 hours 20)

It was only a few more mud-fest fields to Malham, where it got dark as we climbed up the side of Malham Cove. The weather was unbelievably beautiful for this section- the stars and near full moon were coming out, so the white limestone of the cove was glowing in the dark. I giraffe-walked awkwardly across the limestone pavement, my balance trashed by the fatigue and stiffness in my legs, and we hiked up to the top, where the Tarn shone in the darkness. Another friend of Jon’s was waiting here and they chattered happily as we headed into checkpoint 1.5 (no drop bag or food, maximum 30min stay indoors allowed) where Steph appeared again. She filmed a little interview with me and after a quick cup of tea we were on our way again.

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Going up Fountains Fell, the sleep deprivation started telling again and I felt pretty glum. We sang Disney songs to cheer up and keep the pace up. Nearing the top, I was surprised to catch up to somebody – it had been hours since we had seen anyone else. Jen Scotney told us she was having chaffing problems from letting her trousers get and stay wet and it seemed to be agony for her just to walk a few paces. We tried to encourage her to come with us but she couldn’t walk. I asked if she’d tried taping over the worst parts and the idea seemed to be a relief to her – she told us to go on ahead so she could do that and we set off again, a little worried that she’d soon get cold up here if she stayed still much longer. Thankfully, shortly afterwards a member of the safety team came past and we let him know to check on her (he was actually en route to check somebody else), and a little after that Marcus Scotney was passing us at speed too, obviously having been tracking Jen and seen her dot crawl to a stop.

My low continued when we descended onto the road and despite the good ground, walked to the base of Pen y Ghent. I felt so sick but simultaneously empty and decided I had to eat before the climb. It took me an hour to eat a tiny cereal bar while we walked, washing every tiny bite down with water. The only positive about this low was that I had insight into it – I knew it was just the sleep and calorie deprivation talking, and just telling myself that would be enough to dispel it for a few minutes, before it would creep back in like a fog.

Starting the climb up Pen y Ghent, my eyes started playing tricks on me. They weren’t nearly so bad as my 2017 Spine, when I occasionally struggled to tell imagination from reality. In fact, this time they made me smile as I was glad of the entertainment, seeing every rock had a face or peculiar creature grinning out at me. If I looked properly, I could see it was just a damp patch or a shadow. Eyes seemed to peer out at me from both sides. Fortunately, perhaps because I still felt physically capable and safe, there was no creepy or unpleasant atmosphere.

I said in my post-race interview that I didn’t trust myself on the climb over Pen y Ghent, but I meant I couldn’t trust myself to clamber it the way I would fresh on a hill day. It’s a shame, as Pen y Ghent is a really fun ascent. I told Jon I needed a minute’s breather before tackling the clamber, wanting to be able to climb to the summit in a single go. There wasn’t much point in a long rest, though – the only real way to recover was to get over it and down to Horton, where we’d agreed we would both have an hour’s sleep for our second night.

I was exhausted and my feet were so sore that I couldn’t feel the terrain under them properly, so I practically crawled up the climb. At the start, I briefly wondered if I could do this, and laughed to myself- there really wasn’t any question. I was doing it. I started talking aloud, “Left hand, right hand, left foot, right foot”. Boulder by boulder, step by step, I followed Jon up to the summit, where the wind was back and neither of us even paused to celebrate, pushing quickly on to get off the exposed top and start down into the village.

The steep stone cut steps down were almost worse than the ascent. They finally spilled us into the lane and we walked in silence for a while, until I suggested playing some music to give us a rhythm to hike quicker to. We could only play it for a while until we got closer to the residential areas but it gave me a much needed lift. I was deep, deep in my worst low of the race at this point, mentally rehearsing how I would ask to speak to a medic in a side room when we got to Horton, because I was so sure I would burst into tears and didn’t want to do it in front of everyone. Of course, when we arrived to the brightly lit building full of energetic and friendly faces, the pall hanging over me vanished and I regained the perspective I needed. It’s just a race – a long, dark one, but a race. And there are all these people helping us.

I made myself eat a packet of hula hoops while a lovely ICU reg taped up my feet. There was a moment of adrenaline when I asked where the next MRT lady was and someone checked the trackers and said she was just coming down off Pen y Ghent. All credit to Jon and our newly forged team- I looked across at him and he said, “We’ll do whatever you need to do, mate.” As I started trying to mentally gear up to set aside the hour’s sleep and just get back out, the volunteer realised she’d looked at the wrong dot and in fact I had almost 18 miles on the next MRT lady. I relaxed. The hour’s sleep was back on.

Since Horton is not an official checkpoint there are no real places to sleep. I blew up my roll mat and lay under a table to block some of the light. Again, instantly my hips were full of a nasty needling pain. I put an arm over my eyes and told myself that just lying still would do me some good. This time I definitely slept as my alarm woke me with a jolt. The temptation to turn it off and go back to sleep was almost unbearable. I had plenty of time ahead of second place after all… But that wouldn’t have been running the race I wanted to run. I wanted it to be an honest, all-out effort. I rolled onto my hands and knees, wrestled my roll mat back into its bag and hobbled back over to the main room. Jon sleepily waved from a corner and we got ourselves ready. “Just” the Cam High Road to go.

Horton to the finish

Sleep is a magical thing. My low had vanished and I could think clearly again. I still couldn’t eat, but with just 14 miles to go, I knew that would no longer be a deciding factor in my finish. Of course, an hour lying down is a little rest but a lot of staying still, so it was also very painful to get moving again, feet burning and my right leg struggling to straighten all the way.

We were both much more capable of conversation again and went back to playing games to keep alert. Still, two hours of sleep in two nights isn’t quite enough and I wouldn’t have said we were at our smartest. We played ‘word association’ and the long pauses after each word as each of us tried to think of a single related word would have been pretty funny to a fully awake listener. There was lots of, “Stone.” “Rock.” “Stone.” “No, we’ve had that.” “Oh. Er… rock… er… um… hill?”

Jon put his watch onto tracking so we could tick off the miles and the sense of relentless progress was wonderful. I started being able to picture the finish and occasionally was just hiking along beaming to myself. The wind came back to batter us around for a bit, but we must not have been fun targets as it settled after a while and the only on-going battle was against the slippery wet and my nausea. I had now started to have crampy pain too and kept stopping to see if a call of nature would help – it only made my bum cold and required enormous faff every time, as I had (in a move that made 100% sense at the time) safety pinned my overly loose waterproof trousers to my midlayer to hold them up and minimise any extra flapping making my legs work harder). Every toilet stop involved gloves off, waterproof off, undo safety pin, two layers of trousers down, nope, don’t need to go, layers back on safety pin and all, catch up to Jon.

We passed two small groups of other runners, seeing their headtorches off on incorrect side tracks and trying to shout and wave to show them the right path. After hours that only feel short in hindsight, we were descending towards Hawes and I was injected with new energy as absolute elation filled me. We reached the road and I convinced myself there was just half a mile to go and started run/walking with gradually increasing stretches of running as the muscles warmed up to it again. There was in fact about a mile and a half to go, as I soon realised, but it was just after 7.45 when we hit the road and I decided to push to try to get in before 8. Jon was game and we pulled each other along with false promises: “Run to the gate? … Actually, let’s get to those bins… Or to the corner…”

We turned onto the high street and a Spine official popped up. “You’re going to make it!” I put on what felt like a sprint finish at the time, happy-crying and trying to wipe snot from my face as the Spine guy had a camera on me. Isie, Inger, and Isi were waiting at the finish line as we ran in, Jon sending me ahead of him. Strangely, during that ‘sprint finish’ nothing hurt at all. Over the finish line and I hugged Jon then my friends and family, then sat down in the chair I’d been looking forward to for 110 miles.

 

The finish: 110 miles, 46 hours 54.

I finished with a massive 10+ hour PB, first woman in the MRT Spine Challenge, 5th overall in the MRT Challenge, and with a time that would have made me 21st overall out of 64 finishers combining both the main and MRT Challengers, with 71 other racers having retired from the race.

I’m so thankful to the organisers and volunteers who make the race so special, and make it safe to go out and give it your all, knowing that you can really give it everything. Huge thanks to Isie and Inger for meeting me at the finish, the promise of seeing family at the end was a huge boost, and to everyone who dot-watched or sent me encouraging messages throughout, as it feels really special out there knowing someone is watching your progress and willing you on.

I’m still absorbing everything about this race almost a week later. I usually consider myself a back-of-the-pack runner, so winning is a novel experience and a fun one. I’m trying to resist deprecating it with the reality that there were only 2 finishers in a small field to begin with, because while that’s true, that’s the race I entered and the race I won. The fact that 53% of the field DNF’d says something for the challenge too. But even more than my finishing position, my happiness with this race is because I feel like I achieved the three goals I set out to achieve- I committed whole-heartedly to finishing, worked hard to race it like the person I’d like to be, and hard enough to spend some of the race feeling like I was getting a real glimpse of myself.

The West Highland Way Race 2019

One year on, a completely different experience.

I recently read a race report from a runner who won a Last Man Standing race; he’s a good runner who podiums at races now and again, and who certainly experiences the “pointy end” of races. He described in his report how it was a novel experience to be chasing cut-offs during a race, as he’s never had to worry about DNF-by-sweeper before. It made me think how different various runners’ experiences of the same race can be – likewise, I’ve never experienced the unique pressures at the front of the race, the mind games, strategy, and competitive camaraderie front runners race with.

I certainly wasn’t at the pointy end of the WHW this year, but I had a new experience of genuinely racing an ultra. I was running not just to finish, but wanting to run it well. Rather than setting out slow and hanging on, I wanted to be mindful of the right pace, not just the easiest pace, from the start. My time last year was 32:26 and training this year went so well that I had my eye on a sub-28 goal and hoped I might be capable of better. But there was also that lurking fear that anything can happen over nearly a hundred miles, and fitness isn’t everything.

Here’s how it went.

 

Milngavie to Balmaha (0 miles, 01:00 Saturday morning)

With the race starting at 1am, I did my best to sleep for a few hours in the evening and completely failed. Still, I tried to appreciate the luxury of lying down with eyes closed and feet up. If all went to plan, it was going to be quite a long time until I got to enjoy that again.

At 11pm, I gave up the ghost and went to get myself registered then sat with my crew chatting over a cup of tea and tried not to waste energy on nerves. “Que será  será” was stuck in my head and turned out to be my mantra all race.

WHW43

After briefings, silence for missed friends, and the promise of weather, we set off into the not-quite-dark of Scottish midsummer. I had a huge grin on my face through streets of Milngavie, determined to enjoy the beautiful route more than last year and to find out what hard work could earn me.

Most people are guilty of starting out too fast, but I’m pretty good at starting slow. If anything, I’m happy to mosey along and wanted to make sure I was keeping an ‘honest’ pace from the start. That’s a difficult thing to gauge at 1am in the dark but I ambled along happily enough, taking the cue from others for when a hill was hilly enough to hike.

My only mistake on this section was that I chose to carry just one 500ml bottle and not to ask my crew to meet me at Drymen. Well before dawn, the day was becoming warm and muggy and to be honest, even on a cool day 500ml for 19 miles is pushing it at my pace. On the bright side, this was the first opportunity to practise my mental strategy for the day – relax, enjoy it, que será será. I accepted that I’d run out a little before Balmaha and I did.

WHW2

The schlep up Conic Hill was brightened by a stunning pre-dawn sky and I had my torch off well before then. I enjoyed the slightly tricky footing on the way down and ran into Balmaha pretty much on schedule and happy.

The plan was to minimise time in CPs, as I had sat down, however briefly, in every one last year. Tom met me with Captain, the team dog, and walked with me through the checkpoint. I passed a good number of people in each CP this way, although some would catch me over the next section. I refilled my bottle and drank half another bottle, then jogged back out, Captain Dog making loudly known how much he disapproved of me going for a run without him.

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Balmaha to Auchtertyre (19 mi, 05:58 Saturday morning)

The next section would be a long one before I saw my crew again, but there were 3 points with drop bags- Rowardennan, Inversnaid and Beinglas Farm. My drop-bags were very simple- I had a sandwich bag of food prepacked for every CP, crewed or otherwise, with 100kcal snacks per 3ish miles of the next section, eating 100kcal every half an hour when my watch beeped. It kept the calories trickling steadily in and took decision-making responsibilities away from my running brain.

I enjoy the technical lochside section, although must admit I was finding the slow pace frustrating at times. I’ve since read a fantastic quotation from Fiona Rennie (legend and 15 time finisher of WHW), “If you fight it, it bites you”. It’s totally futile fighting the lochside, you just have to play along and get through.

The volunteers were heroically cheerful at midgie-infested lochside checkpoints and I had my bottle refilled, food bags swapped, and was on my way without any faff.

It felt good to stretch my legs off the lochside and once through Beinglas farm I was getting excited to see my crew. About halfway along this 10 mile section though, I started feeling very woozy and peculiar. I was struggling to focus my vision, feeling light-headed and stumbling. I felt much better running than walking, but was struggling with motivation to run on the flat. I decided it was lack of sleep and tried to get chatting to a woman who was of a pace with me, but she was struggling with stomach cramp and not in the mood for my admittedly shit chat.

Luckily, at this point another runner, Alasdair, caught me up and was very much in a chatting mood. Kept awake by talking, I was suddenly motivated to run to keep up with him, and the two of us kept ourselves going at an honest clip by not wanting to be the first one to slow to a walk or last to start running again. We went through Crianlarich gate much happier and I texted my crew to let them know I was close, before the twists and turns of the forest reminded me just how deceptive those last couple of miles in can feel.

Methini met me in Auchtertyre with food and drink but no van, explaining I was a full hour ahead of expected time and Robin would meet me at Tyndrum if I needed anything else. I drank plenty of water and asked for an ice lolly at Tyndrum, as I was feeling hot and sticky, and trotted off.

 

Auchtertyre to Bridge of Orchy (51 miles, 13:24 Saturday lunchtime)

I promptly rejected the ice lolly at Tyndrum. I certainly enjoyed the run to Bridge of Orchy more than last year, when I was in a sulk and walking far more than I should, but the sleepy dizziness restarted after a while and was quite annoying. I started reciting “The Jabberwocky” out loud to keep myself awake, with occasional enactment of taking one’s vorpal sword in hand (but luckily not of resting by a tumtum tree), which was all very well but clearly not entirely effective as my pace over this section was a bit slow compared to the field.

Luckily, a runner and his very chipper support runner caught up to me and let me tag along with them and their cheerful chat. I asked them their names several times and have still forgotten, but they were hugely helpful and got me running at a better pace once we were together, banishing the sleep demons – for now.

I had my first brief sit down in a chair at Bridge of Orchy swapping water for coca cola in the hope of driving away the drowsiness and changing into a dry shirt for the evening. The low patch was passing, I had caffeine, and I was feeling good.

WHW26.jpeg

 

Bridge of Orchy to Glencoe (61 miles, 16:08 Saturday afternoon)

I’m genuinely proud of this section. It was my best of the race by far, and a total transformation compared to last year. I distinctly remember harbouring a dread of the Rannoch Moor by the time I left it last year. I crossed it at a shuffle, tired and grumbling about every false summit, unable to believe how long it went on and insisting that the rocky track was essentially unrunnable.

This year, I felt completely different. My attitude was intentional and started out as “fake it ‘til you make it”, transforming quickly into my real attitude. Que será será. An odd philosophy vaguely based on that song and a very loose understanding of proper physicists’ explanations about time being just another dimension of space had popped fully formed into my increasingly peculiar brain. The moor wasn’t going anywhere, so I may as well run, and at some point in the future I’m already off it, so it’s a done deal and I should just accept that right now this is what life is.

I ran some of it with a few men who were all very experienced Scottish hill runners and ultrarunners, enjoying some easy conversation, but gradually I pulled away ahead, running the flats and downs, hiking the ups with purpose.

This year, I could enjoy the stunning scenery and my immense fortune in being able to be out there running in it. Glencoe CP came into sight and I ran full pelt up the hill to it, truly excited. In my head, Glencoe is where I can start picturing the finish – Devil’s staircase to Kinlochleven, then just the matter of a 15 mile trundle to the finish.

In my excitement, I started gabbing very enthusiastically to Stacey Holloway, a volunteer at the CP who I met very briefly on the Lairig Mor last year in her lowest low patch and who was featured on John Kynaston’s fantastic blog such that I completely forgot she didn’t actually know me. She humoured me very well and I only realised this with a jolt after a good sleep on Sunday…

WHW39

 

Glencoe to Kinlochleven (71 miles, 18:59 Saturday afternoon)

Methini and I had a good chat as we made our way along the sneakily hilly approach to the base of the Devil’s Staircase. Here is where I made my only real mistake of the race. I started feeling sick as we climbed and the plan had been – if I feel sick, accept it as inevitable, swtich to just water, hike until it passes. But I had only brought coca cola with me from the CP. I had also not eaten yet in the hour or so since we left Glencoe. I decided to try a piece of fudge and continue sipping coke and instantly knew I needed to puke.

For all that it was a mistake and I was feeling fairly sorry for myself- to put it in context, last year this section took me over 5 hours, feeling sick and awful almost the whole way. This year, it took me just under 3.5 hours because I kept hiking and we were over the top by the time things got their worst. Seeing as we had just passed the highest water on the hill, I emptied my coke out and asked Methini to fill it from the stream while I started hiking down. She dutifully, midway through her second ever marathon distance run, climbed back up the part we’d already descended, checked on a runner with a leg injury and stayed with him ‘til he started moving again, then ran and caught me up. Legend!

WHW24.jpeg

The descent into Kinlochleven was miles better too, not least because it was still daylight. We jogged most it and were back to chatting – mildly worried that I would weigh-in underweight having now eaten nothing and drunk very little since Glencoe, plus throwing up and a toilet stop.

Luckily, I weighed in at exactly the lowest allowable weight (4% weight loss, I think it is). I had my longest sit down, enjoying chatting with Robin while I got a packet of hula hoops in, emptied half the Devil’s staircase out of my shoes and socks, and watched other runners with their crews and the volunteers. I was trying to do maths to work out what time I could aim for, but it was too hard. I knew it would be over 24 hours and, barring disaster, under 30, but that was about it.

 

Kinlochleven to Fort William (81 miles, 22:23 Saturday night)

The hill out of Kinlochleven doesn’t seem to upset me as much as others. It’s a big old hill, but it’s easy underfoot and by this stage I think I’m quite glad of any excuse not to run. We passed a runner and his support runner having a rest (but in very good spirits) halfway up then set out onto the Lairig Mor.

If the Rannoch Moor was my best section, this was definitely my worst. Blaming sleep deprivation is easy, but I guess it’s also that I let my firm hold on my positive attitude slip. I resented every water crossing (there were many), fell back into old habits of claiming the rocky terrain was too risky to run in the dark, paranoid that we were going the wrong way, and became jumpy and distracted by mild hallucinations of big cats and men looming at the side of the road, a tank in the middle of the track, and other bits and bobs.

whw36.jpg

I’m smiling but I’m just pretending. Photo credit to Jeff Smith.

Methini was unbelievably patient with me and we managed to chat about normal things in between my whinging. The mountain rescue fizzy juice station was visible from miles away but simultaneously seemed to appear out of nowhere and I claimed a little sit down on the side while Methini got a drink. After several declarations that Lundavra checkpoint didn’t exist, and the admission that it isn’t visible until you’re right on top of it, we heard cowbells and cheering ringing through the darkness towards us. Even that wasn’t enough to get me to run until we rounded the last corner and their lights came into sight. It was a huge lift, not quite enough to make me happy, but it switched my sulk into anger at my own dillydallying and determination to pick my feet up.

After posing for a photo in the incongruous photobooth we decided to turn on my phone’s tracking so that it would announce every half mile travelled, for the boost of positive progress. I set off running up the short hill, announcing I was getting the hell off this moor. Possibly in slightly stronger language.

The path to and through the forestry had been mildly confusing in daylight last year and I was full of fear that I would take a wrong turn now. Hesitating at a fork, we were passed by a runner (possibly Rowena?) and her support runner who had recce’d it recently and was sure of the way. She was moving incredibly strongly and ran off into the night. I decided I needed to keep up with them or I would definitely get lost and probably die in the forest. It was the kind of pointless stupidity that makes a lot of sense after 24 hours of running.

I was pushing as hard as I could, legging it down hills and marching up them, trying to keep up with this pair as they inexorably pulled further and further away. My certainty of foresty doom if I lost them had lit a fire under me, though, and I was moving as fast as I could – however unimpressive that pace is objectively when I look at it now!

Unsurprisingly, my fears were misplaced and the path was clearly marked by arrows. At last, we were at the top of the long downhill to Braveheart car park and looking at my watch, I saw that I had around 45 minutes to get in under 27 hours. I couldn’t remember if it was 4 miles to the road (and then 1.5mi to the finish) or in total, so I started running as hard as I could. I passed the runner I had been chasing, then a couple of men walking, and kept running.

It was magical, actually.

After 25+ hours on my feet, several hours of walking and crying and begging for a nap by the side of the track, I was running and I felt amazing. Not good, obviously. It hurt. But my breathing was steady and my legs were moving. It felt wonderful.

Methini shouted to me that I should go ahead – a sprint finish wasn’t what her legs had in mind after a weekend of crewing, a marathon spent looking after my every whim and an extra jaunt back up the Devil’s Staircase. At first I wanted her to come with me, but I quickly realised I was being a bit too demanding to expect another couple of miles out of her just so she could see me finish. I phoned Tom to let him know I was coming into the finish and to ask him to get Robin to pick up Methini, and kept running.

The last comedic twist was to come as I ran into town. I knew the way to the old finish, and that the new finish was some way past it and around a bend, but I wasn’t quite sure where. I was pushing hard, still not sure how much time I had to my arbitrary new time goal, looking frantically around for signs to the new finish. A fluorescent yellow arrow pointed straight past the old finish and I ran on. Another pointed left a little while later, but I could see runners straight ahead and tape hanging from lamp-posts.

“Which way is the finish?” I called as I ran to them.

“Follow the arrows and tape!”

A chalk arrow pointed straight ahead on the road. Another yellow arrow was across the road from me, pointing away towards what looked like a residential street. I slowed down, staring at it, and it dissolved into nothing before my eyes.

I was hallucinating arrows!

This was unhelpful, but at least now I knew not to trust my senses!

I kept running and approached another pair of runners.

“Which way!?” I called.

“Follow the arrows!”

“I’m hallucinating arrows!”

They laughed and shouted directions, and I kept running. I realised I could trust the chalk arrows and concentrated on the ground. Finally, the Nevis Centre came into sight. The old tradition was to touch the front door of the leisure centre at the finish and I ran in to do that only to be urged to keep moving into the centre and across the finish line with a time of 26:44:43.

 

Fort William, 96 miles 03:44am Sunday morning

I dibbed my dobber, sat down, and promptly burst into happy, exhausted tears.

 

 

Reflections

I have a lot of reflections on this race, particularly on what changes I made that gave me an almost 6 hour PB, but this report is already long enough so I’ll save them for another time.

The West Highland Way Race is a spectacular race – not only is the scenery unremittingly stunning, the atmosphere of the event is unsurpassable and epitomised by the celebration at the prize-giving and huge cheer as the last finisher was presented with his goblet by the winner of the race. I definitely want to come back and run again, but I think next year I’d like to give back by being on the other side of the race as crew or volunteer along the way. I know I devoured others’ blogs for race inspiration and preparation so hopefully this rambling report might help another runner that I may see along the way next year!

The Inaugural 50 Mile Half Marathon

The what?

I’m training for my second go at the West Highland Way this summer and it’s not too uncommon for training plans to include a 50 mile tune-up race. As most people know, there’s some evidence training runs over 3 hours long have diminishing fitness returns for higher injury risk, but many people also find for ultras that they need practice at that time on feet, eating strategies, and all the rest, enough to justify the longer long runs. I’ve finished two hundred milers before without 50 mile training runs, but wanted to try it this time.

Only problem is, I live on an island that doesn’t host any ultras and is pretty expensive and time-consuming to travel from. Plus, I couldn’t really justify taking time off work for a training run. However! There is a half marathon on the island, and by coincidence it fell exactly on the weekend I wanted my longest training run. A plan formed.

I figured it would be more fun to finish with people than finish a race with friends and then toddle off on my own, so decided I could just fit in a slightly longer than usual warm-up for the half, then join the race and finish with company for the last few miles and a celebratory finish line.

The West Highland Way starts at 1am, so I also decided this was the ideal opportunity to test my night running kit, how my stomach felt taking fuel in the early hours, and everything in between. Perfect!

Now, some might argue this is a training run report not a race report, but it finished with a race, so this is my warm-up run and race report for the Inaugural 50 Mile Half Marathon. I’m hoping my experience might be slightly useful for anyone else wanting to do something similar for themselves.

Training

Training has been going really well. For the first time, I signed up with a coach (distance coaching because island) and have had the most consistent and focussed training I’ve ever done for an ultra. I’m generally a back-of-the-pack runner so the only person I’m racing is myself, and I’ve never run particularly big mileage.

Starting in February, I’ve built up to around 50 miles/week, peaked at 67, and done several 20-22 mile training runs back-to-back with ~10 miles the next day. A new thing in my plan was also treadmill incline hiking, which has made a noticeable difference to my uphill walking pace, a very important part of a slower ultra-runner’s race day plan! It’s also been a good chance to escape some atrocious weather and catch up on rubbish TV, so I’ve enjoyed it more than I thought I might.

Pre-race

My race was going to start at 1am on Saturday. I managed to have an hour’s nap at in the afternoon after work, had a bowl of pasta and went to bed at 8pm with an alarm set for midnight. I set out my running clothes for the “morning”, with a change of clothes for the half marathon (mainly because I didn’t want to alarm and confuse people when I turned up at the start line looking battered and exhausted).

I decided to run the warm-up as 5 mile loops of a trail I know well that’s a mile from the start of the half. It meant I could pass my van at regular intervals, I wouldn’t get lost in the dark, and it has enough variation underfoot to use different muscles and gears.

Running snacks got packed in portions that correspond to when I’ll be able to get food during the West Highland Way- the checkpoints are very unevenly spread and it’s crew-supported rather than aid stations, so I wanted to test what I will be packing for the big day. In the first 50 miles, I’ll be able to access crew or drop bags at 19, 27 34, and 51 miles, so I filled sandwich bags labelled 1, 2, and 3 and picked them up in order during my warm-up run from my van as I ran past it. Some may notice the checkpoints and distances I would pass the van don’t line up – this very simple problem occupied a lot of my tiny, confused long-run brain as I figured out on which loop to pick up the next “checkpoint” pack.

I woke up half an hour before my alarm and nervously snoozed, checking the time every five minutes. Eventually, I got up, apologised to the dog for not taking him with me despite the running clothes, and got out the door.

Warm-up run: Miles [0] to [37]

After some putting-off-the-inevitable fiddling with my phone, I started. It was cloudy and pitch black in the wooded parts of the trail, with a short section that was lit by streetlamps towards the end of each loop. I ran the first loop with a headtorch – despite fresh batteries, it kept dimming and blinking and was pretty lame, but gave a small puddle of light that was plenty for smooth bits of the trail and only mildly inadequate for the rocky sections.

I have to admit I was a bit jumpy for the first loop. I’ve done night running in training and in races before, but rarely at this time of night or along a trail where there might be people (usually out in the wilderness where I know I’m on my own). I decided not to wear headphones while it was dark and ended up really enjoying the night sounds – except when a deer came crashing out of the trees, made me scream and put my heart rate into zone 5.

I already mentioned that my brain is fried by long runs, and this was no exception. I was doing my best to only let myself think about one section at a time- 50 miles is intimidating, but I know I can run 19 or 8 miles at a time. I spent the first three hours of the run trying and failing to do basic maths about loop numbers, which was a nice distraction. The dark loops were pretty uneventful, except for a short staring match with a hedgehog and two near falls. I switched to a handheld torch that was miles better than the headtorch and only mildly annoying to carry (but made eating slightly more of a palaver as I kept inadvertently blinding myself pointing it in my face while I dug around in pockets for food).

Because I always under-eat during ultras, fuelling has been a part of my training that I’ve tried to be more disciplined about this time around. I wore a cheap digital watch that beeped every 30 minutes and I would eat around 100kcal snack each time. It’s quite a nice way to break up the time, gives me a minute or two walking break every half hour, and initially was something to look forward to. After around 20 miles, I got a bit bored of eating and it became a negotiation with myself as to what I’d eat next and whether I had to wait for an uphill to walk and eat or just got to take a walking break regardless of terrain.

The pre-dawn light was enough to ditch the torch by 4am and the daylight really brightened my mood. Also, enjoyed seeing several herons and at one point got excited about seeing a seal, which turned out to be a rock (the run was along the coast in my defence, I wasn’t completely mad even by this stage). I did slow down a bit according to the splits, but that will including swapping food into my pack and refilling water bottles. I also started hiking the hills that I’d been jogging in the dark, because I’m spacially challenged and was more or less oblivious to half of them when I couldn’t see them. It started raining at some point but the temperature was perfect. It’s been hail and 50mph winds here half the time over winter, so 8 degrees and light drizzle was great!

In the third leg, with just 10 miles to go, I started getting very sleepy and was tempted to stop early to have a nap. The fact that it would mean doing extra miles after celebrating the finish of the half marathon was enough to shut down the idea, though, and I kept on plodding. I eventually finished with just over an hour to go ’til the start of the half and was chuffed. I changed into dry things, wiped myself down with wet wipes, wrapped myself up in a warm coat and moved the van to the start of the half. I also gulped down two caffeinated shotbloks and immediately felt very nauseated, so spent half the rest time going back and forth to toilets hoping I might be sick.

Half marathon: Miles [37] to [50.1]

Just a half marathon to go!

It was great to see quite a few friends at the start line. One or two knew that I’d been planning a little pre-run and quite reasonably thought I was mad. A good running friend was feeling undertrained for the half and decided she’d prefer to pace me than race, which meant I had company and motivation for the final stretch. She made a huge difference to how fun the half was, and definitely nudged my pace up.

Going from running alone in the dark to running with people all around me was surreal. I mean – don’t go picturing Boston or London, it’s still a small place, but there were a couple of hundred runners and, despite the rain, lots of friends and family outside houses to clap us past. Not wanting to look massively overenthusiastic running a half marathon with a big pack, I’d stuffed a bag of sweets in the pocket of my waterproof and shovelled a small handful into my mouth every 3 miles, just before each water station. It felt good to ditch the backpack and I think in the West Highland Way once I’m allowed a pacer I’ll switch to a waistbelt for mandatory gear and not carry so much extra kit.

The course for the half was a loop of quiet residential roads, then onto the trails I’d spent all night on. Hitting the trail for the last time I felt great. Somewhat sore knees and feet, but nothing more than I’d expect for the hours on my feet. My mood was in that weird very-long-run detached mode, but my motivation was absolutely solid. I became a bit less chatty in the last 3 miles, needing to focus on keeping moving, but the elation of a definite finish was beginning to well up inside me. The last mile felt like a sprint but was barely any faster than my baseline speed.

I’d been worried that 50 miles was too far for a training run, worried about injury, worried about needing to death march it in and inconvenience the race organisers by being last out on the course (there was no official cut-off time), but all those worries were totally dispelled in those last few miles. I ended up finishing the half in 2:19 and 9:50 overall (discounting my little rest), which is a ~30 minute 50 mile PB!

Post-race

I was pretty stiff and sore once I stopped moving, but went home for a bath, in which I promptly fell asleep, followed by pizza. Since it was raining for the best part of the last 5 hours of the run, my feet had a little early trenchfoot and I had some impressive chafing from the wet (may have done a little yelp scream as I got into the bath with that), but otherwise everything seemed intact. Just after I’d decided I was never moving again, there was a minor lamb-related emergency and I had to hobble around hefting sheep hurdles and small sheep around, which was probably much better for me than lying around anyway. The bit I’m happiest about is the following day, no knee pain, no blisters, sitting down on toilets without yelping and able to get out walking the dog.