Friday, July 17, 2015

West Highland Way 2015

     The most remarkable thing about my experience at West Highland Way was my crew.  I'd never met Colin before. Nonetheless, he not only agreed to go without sleep for 36 hours, and do all the other crazy things one does when pacing an ultra marathon, he also recruited his friends Wullie and Davie to join us. As a result, I had three great human companions, plus Colin's dog, Dougy, from Milngavie to Kinlochleven.  They made the entire experience possible, and so much fun.  I cannot thank them enough.  
Colin, Davie, Wully and Me: Just before the start

Just before the start: Dougy the dog being camera shy

     The West Highland Way is primarily a hiking trail, and a very popular one at that.  It begins in Milngavie, just North of Glasgow, and ends 95 miles later in Fort William, in the Highlands.  Most hikers cover the trail in four or five days.  

The Course
       The West Highland Way 95 is unlike any of the ultra marathons I have run in the United States.  There are no aid stations, just check points, and the difference is not just one of terminology.  Check points do not provide food.  Rather, runners rely on their crews. That is relatively easy, as there is a good deal of crew access along the course.  My crew knew the course particularly well, and thus was able to meet me at very regular intervals so that I did not have to carry much with me most of the race.

       Similarly, there were no course markings such as flags, ribbons or chalk.  Because the West Highland Way is a well-used hiking trail, however, there are signs at most junctions.  All that being said, the race is very well organized and thought out.  The appropriate safety measures are in place, such as checking runners in and out to make sure no one is missing, and also weighing them three times along the route to make sure they have not gained or lost excessive weight.

      I had the opportunity to talk to many of the runners, staff and volunteers, and found a tight-knit and experienced ultra running community.  Almost everyone I spoke to had at least hiked the course before, and the majority had either run the race or had run the course in sections.  The other runners were friendly, experienced, supportive and welcoming.

      Going into the race, I had no idea what to expect in terms of my own performance.  I told Colin my time could be anywhere from 18 to 26 hours.  And, I had no idea what to expect in terms of the course.  I looked at the pictures on the website, and read some of the descriptions, but still did not have a good feel for how technical the course might be.  

     The first 26.5 miles, to Rowardennan, were perhaps the easiest stretch of any ultra course I personally have run.  It was raining on and off, and there was a bit of mud in places, but the trail was well manicured and mostly flat or gently rolling.  I was running somewhat faster than I wanted, and feeling better than I expected. At that stage, I thought an 18 hour finish was possible.  And, I was mentally writing a blog post in which I referred to the fastest course around.  

      That changed quickly and dramatically in miles 34-40, between Inversnaid and Beinglas Farm.  The entire stretch is more difficult, but more importantly there is about a four mile section of slippery, rocky trail that gave me fits.  Getting through that section, even slowly, cost me a huge amount of energy. Perhaps 20 people passed me.  I passed no one.  Then, just after that section, I followed another runner off course for 200 meters or so, and ended up stepping in mud up to my ankles.

      By the 40 mile check point at Beinglas Farm, I knew that the course was not so fast after all.  I must have looked a bit punch-drunk, as well, when I stumbled into the check point.  I sat down to change my shoes and socks, and almost fell off the log and into a small stream.  My crew was kind enough not to laugh too hard.

      Nevertheless, while I knew a fast time was no longer possible, I was not upset and felt fairly confident that I would finish. Everything was as it should be.  I had my clean shoes and socks on, and was through the worst technical section.

Looking Pretty Ragged

      I had another mishap just after Auchtertyre, about 50 miles into the race.   My crew planned to meet me just 2.2 miles up the road, so I didn't take anything, not even a water bottle, for that short stretch.  Then I managed to get lost.  I thought I was following four other runners who were ahead of me, and I thought I saw them cross a small train station onto a fire road.   Wrong.  Finally, a group of hikers set me straight, and I got back on course, but not until I had run an extra six miles or so.

      My crew had been expecting me to be at the next meeting point in half an hour.  But, because of my detour, it took me about two hours to get there.  They knew something was wrong and went looking for me.  When I finally arrived, Colin was still out searching, but the rest of the crew was there, as were Dave and Alison.  

     The six bonus miles didn't bother me.  I was already headed to a relatively slow finish time, and wasn't too concerned about the additional hour and a half.  Moreover, the extra miles were all on smooth fire roads, nothing even remotely technical, and thus didn't take that much out of me.  Wullie jumped in to pace at 52 miles, and things got a lot better.  I had good company, and I knew I wouldn't get lost again.

     Somewhere out around 75 miles or so, Colin was pacing me and doing his best to keep my mind occupied with stories.  After an interesting lesson in Scottish history, and lively discussion about the recent independence referendum, I got an interesting lesson in Scottish wildlife.  I never knew about this critter before:

Wild Haggis
Unfortunately, we did not see any wild haggis on route, so I had to grab a stock picture off the Internet to include here.  Looks very majestic.  I am sure I will see one next time.

     I felt progressively better after Mile 52, when Colin and Wullie started pacing.  By Mile 81, at Kinlochleven, I felt confident that I would finish in a respectable 26 hours or so.   In fact, I was feeling a bit smug.  I left the Kinlochleven checkpoint at about 11:30pm, with 12.5 hours left to complete the course under the official cut-off.      

Feeling a lot better later in the day
before Glencoe, I think
     Between Mile 81 and 88, the course gets really wet.  We kept crossing small streams, and there was no way to keep my feet dry.  I was dressed just as in the picture above, without a beanie and without a full rain suit (in violation of the race rules).  The rain got a little more steady.  Around Mile 85 I started to feel uncomfortably cold, but there was really not much to do about it, and frankly I wasn't even worried until it was too late.  

      At Mile 88 there was a small unofficial check point, with a race official and a bonfire.  By the time I got there I was starting to go into hypothermia.  A race official put me into an empty van, but did not have the keys to turn on the heat.   Wullie called the rest of the crew, who were there in less than half an hour, but by that time I was still shivering and hyperventilating.  

     The race official strongly urged me to drop out.  I was reluctant to do so.  I had a complete changes of dry clean clothes in the car.  I still had ten hours to cover the last seven miles, and theoretically I could have spent three hours in the back of the car, getting warm, before starting again.  Then I would still have seven hours to go seven miles.

      The problem, as Colin gently explained, was that there is no crew access the final seven miles of the course.  And, it was still raining.  Had I continued, and had I gone back into hypothermia a few miles down the road, there would be no way for the crew to get me out safely.  So I dropped out with just seven miles to go.

     Part of me will never accept a DNF in any race, for any reason. But these days, that part of me is pretty small.  I realize it would have been stupid to continue: risk to myself, rude to my crew and rude to the race (a rescue attempt is costly and could harm the chances of getting a permit next year).  The wise and appropriate thing to do was to drop, so I did.

      West Highland Way was an incredible experience.  As with most of my ultra running adventures, it was not what I expected and it had a bit more drama than was needed (see my last post about Marshall's Santa Barbara 100 for an example of a drama-free ultra).  Even so, it was my adventure, and it was full of kind and generous people.  I wouldn't trade it for anything.

     This blog is primarily about running, but I'll sneak in a few pictures from the trip I took after the race.  In chronological order:

Smoo Cave, Scotland

Near Handa Island, Scotland

Breakfast in Inverness: Alison, Paul, Aiden and me

Somewhere in Lofoten, Norway

Nyksund, Norway

Kabelvog, Norway
Lofoten (for John)


Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Santa Barbara 100 Mile - July 2015

      Here's a quick report and a few photos from the 2015 Santa Barbara 100 Miler. 

      Tiffany and I crewed Marshall, and I paced the past 30 miles. Working with Tiffany and Marshall is about as easy as it gets when it comes to ultras.  They really know what they are doing, and there is never a complaint to be heard.

      It is a tough course, with about 24,000 feet of climbing.  It was a small field, with about 40 to 50 runners starting the 100 miler, and less than that in the 100k.  The 100 miler started at 6pm Friday, so all the running in the dark is towards the beginning of the race.   Unfortunately, it also meant that the technical downhills were mostly in the dark, while the big climbs were in the heat of the day.

     Marshall ran a strong race.  He was in third place much of the way, dropped back to fifth at one point in the heat on Saturday afternoon, then came back and finished fourth.  The one runner we lost was the first woman, and she ran a great race, finishing strong the last 40 miles or so.  Marshall ran - not shuffled - almost the entire last five miles.  His final time was 25:43, two hours faster than he ran last year at the same race.  A successful and fun weekend all around.

Coming into the Mile 10 Aid Station,
with Dean Karnazas in the foreground

Mile 57 Aid Station

At the Mile 70 Aid Station in the morning

Leaving the Aid Station at Mile 70

Leaving the Aid Station at Mile 83.  We were running with a fellow named Matt, whose son was yelling "go dad!" as we left

The Finish Line

Tiffany, Marshall and Me