Another West Highland Way Race (my third and last as a competitor!), another mixed experience and another style of report to set alongside 2007’s dual-perspective runner’s/support crew narratives and 2010’s bullet-point summary…
Now, this was the race that wasn’t supposed to be (with 2010 my sole serious attempt to go sub-20 hours) but allowed to happen on the assumption (maybe presumption!) that I could still run sub-20, was going to and basically had to to justify the obsessional effort and sustained sacrifice (not much climbing done this winter after juggling WHW training with WML preparation!) required to get there. So why am I apparently happy with a new (5 min) PB of 20:44:26 when I should be gutted to miss the big target and the effort that’s gone into this year’s marginal improvement doesn’t even begin to compute?
Well (for a start), it doesn’t have to ‘compute’. So it might have been (was!) obsessional and sustained enough to stop me doing much else and might even have cost (at a quick guestimate) an hour’s training per second improvement, but scoring it purely on those terms can only belittle so many independently worthwhile days and evenings (things that bring me alive regardless of ‘purpose’) spent on hill and trail. What’s more, it’s the absurdity of this training/improvement ratio that ultimately brings (rather than denies) satisfaction with the achievement and the acceptance (knowing I’m still wide of the mark despite my best shape and strategy ever) that was still eluding me after last year’s race. You might think me defeatist for conceding an element of wishful thinking and abandoning the quest now but, with three finishes from three starts (2007, 2010 and 2011, and each quicker than the last), Saturday’s race completed in pretty good shape (no blistered soles, trashed quads/hams etc.) bar the tibialis anterior tendon sheath inflammation (nope, I hadn’t heard of it either!) that’s kept me off work for the first time on a post-race Monday (+ Tuesday!) and no evidence whatsoever to suggest I’m capable of going much faster, it’s time to call it a day as a competitor in this race.
So what about this ‘best shape and strategy ever’? Taking the shape as read (best training/taper, most miles and fewest niggles, with only last week’s cold really messing things up at all) and concentrating on the strategy, my even-paced 12-minute miling (no partying on the hills!) was spot-on in taking me a long way on fresh legs and proving that I’d learned not to spoil previous steady starts with the kind of romps over Conic Hill and up Loch Lomondside that bite back 50 miles later. Might add that, in also managing to follow another of my golden rules (don’t sit down… and I never did!) from start to finish, it was never my legs that were the problem (with only the increasing discomfort at the base of my right shin a concern) when they’ve more often than not been the limiting factor before. Since it wasn’t my heart or lungs (neither of which were ever stressed) either, that pretty well just leaves my head and stomach, and here’s where things start getting more difficult to assess. You’d think your head should be able to keep pushing you along fine when legs, heart and lungs all seem to be going well, but it’s just not that simple. So I wasn’t surprised to drop off the 12-minute pace for a bit north of Inversnaid with the most tortuous section of the course made slow and slippery by conditions otherwise suiting me much better than the 2011 Fling/2010 WHW heat, but more at a loss to explain why I couldn’t get back on it through Beinglas and beyond (Angus sounded so disappointed when I phoned him my time) when experience told me I should have been able to maintain it most of the way. But sometimes you just can’t maintain voluntary control of your head… you might think ‘mind over matter’ and all that and assume that finding the pace many hours later to cover the final 3.5 miles down Glen Nevis in just over half an hour equates to holding back too much earlier, but take note of Matt Fitzgerald’s words in Brain Training for Runners, where he says ‘the fact that exercise fatigue is brain-centered rather than muscle-based does not make it any less real or any more surmountable by willpower.’ So it’s not necessarily a sign of mental weakness to find yourself struggling (as I did) to maintain 13- to 14-minute miles when you’re convinced you should be doing 12s and yet be able to pull those 7s, 8s and 9s out of the bag with the end in sight (Fitzgerald’s ‘end spurt phenomenon’). As for my stomach, ultra hydration/nutrition is never easy but, with Angus’s records showing me to have been maintaining as steady an input as reasonable, some occasional inability to keep taking more on is no more or less than you’d expect… although whether I could forgive anyone but my brother, three-times support crew and companion on many, many adventures for feeding me hot Accelerade some 60 or 70 miles up the course is another matter!
Some bad patches to report where at one point I’d (delusionally!) seen myself serenely 12-minute miling up the course without any, but nothing especially grim by ultra standards with one slight ‘can’t eat or drink’ queasy spell somewhere I can’t quite remember and a series of minor mishaps (spontaneously bleeding nose, falling asleep on my feet after a mere 20 minutes’ in-car kip since Friday morning and a tortuously slow walking climb from Ba Bridge) between Forest Lodge and Glencoe about the worst of it. Some moments shared with friends whose plans were unfolding with varying degrees of success including Keith Hughes (on his way to a PB) early on, Gav McKinlay at Beinglas (surprised to catch him there, but happy to see him finishing strongly later) and John Kynaston not much further north (in a bright green top and about to become embroiled in a unpredictably prolonged battle to the finish). Then a surprisingly tired-looking Mike Raffan, who caught me again later in time to start playing leapfrog (along with Neil Rutherford) through Glencoe Ski Centre and Kings House, and a succession of encounters up to and through the Lairig Mor with Ross Moreland (‘no, Ross, I’m not showboating on home ground when I should be going much faster and I don’t care if I get beaten by a ginger!’), Ali Bryan-Jones and Drew Sheffield… with Ali and Drew nearly paying the price (quote, ‘there’s some guy catching us up’) for waltzing past in my own backyard when a mere 50 seconds separated the three of us at the end (not to mention Craig Stewart, who I don’t remember seeing, just another 119 seconds ahead of Drew) after my second- or third-wind, bringing-back-the-nosebleed, Glen Nevis sprint!
So what’s left after all that? The usual inadequate but heartfelt thanks to my indispensible support crew of Angus, Jon (who finally got to join me at Lundavra after being told I was still too fast at Kinloch!) and Eileen, and same to the whole race team and everybody involved. Congrats to Richie and Jan-Albert for the sharp-end battle that once again left me four hours adrift at the final checkpoint, to Thomas for his stunning PB in 4th place and to Kate, Sharon and Debs for a ladies’ battle of equal class. So perhaps I might have hoped to beat all the girls till I heard Kate was running, but now also concede Sharon (who by all accounts gave Kate the fright/fight of her life) and Debs (who told me at the start she was going to whip my ass… and did!) to have been out of my league (PS you’re a warrior, Debs). As for me, think things went well enough even if we could argue that I was found wanting in the end… it’s so easy to say you’re targeting sub-20 (or whatever), it’s non-negotiable and nothing else will do, but so hard to actually go get it. And hard to be sorry when I managed to salvage both sub-21 and the PB with that kick all the way down Glen Nevis (what a buzz that was)… not to mention the small bonus of later realising that I’d got (just) within 5 hours of Jez’s record! So I’m done with competing in this race and comfortable with that where I wasn’t last time. But of course there are other things to go for… not sure they’ll necessarily be racing when I’m wanting to get back to climbing, sailing (incuding yacht racing, yes!), the big hill rounds and running for the sheer joy of it rather than because I have to (please, I’m just a guy who likes running!), but we’ll see.
All photos © Angus Duggan