Great Glen Ultra (adult conversations and an escapee chimp)

It has been a while since D (of Conversations with the Uninitiated fame) has commented upon my running, but true to form he felt compelled to ensure that I remain grounded and understood some basic ground rules before attempting the Great Glen Ultra, my longest race to date.

A few days before the conversation went as follows:

D: Do NOT throw up either! There is this intervention you can use in case of dire medical emergency – retiral; stops exploding hearts.

Me: Spoilsport: I was planning the throw up about Drumnadrochit. I have exercised the retiral option before. Problem with that is it feels like your heart exploded.

In other words: not an option.

The post-race communication:

Me: Did not throw up; but was in tears a Drumnadrochit – pain, and on the approach to the stadium – relief and joy.

D: Yup, you KNOW that only a limited percentage of the population would recognize the elation (and most of them read S+M Weekly)

 

Here is my Great Glen Ultra story.

The Great Glen Ultra is a new ultra race from team BAM who also direct the GO33 and Glenmore 12 and 24 hour events. The new ultra is run along the Great Glen Way from Neptune’s Staircase on the Caledonian Canal at Fort William, over to Inverness, finishing at the sports stadium at Bught Park. It is a stunning pathway following the Caledonian Canal and lochs through the fault line. Much of the pathway is high up above the lochs rewarding your efforts on the climbs with stunning views. It is a good mix of paths, tracks and trails, with the odd road section thrown in, and there is a lovely mix of landscape to run through also: canal paths, woodland, forest and moorland.

It is designed to be an unsupported event with a drop bag system at the checkpoints, although this year it was possible, for support to meet at a couple of designated checkpoints where sufficient public parking is available. With drop bags available roughly every 10 miles there is no need for support other than the reassurance, and as the race grows I think that it would no longer be viable.

The logistics and support were really well organised and the marshals did a superb job offering smiles, reassurance, encouragement and support if required which was greatly appreciated; especially when they went above and beyond to put cream on my chafed back. It was a long day for the marshals too. Thanks to one and all for giving your time and making this a great event.

Prologue

I spent what free time I had available in the two days before getting my kit, drop bags and maps organised with the hope that on Friday morning I would have a long lie, a leisurely breakfast then throw the bags in the car and head up to Inverness.

In the meanwhile my chimp was doing a fair amount of chattering and at one point got out the cage and ran around screaming and hurling poo at everyone before I collared it, had a chat and got it back into the cage where it continued to chatter away in the corner. This being my longest race distance to date so of course the chimp was going to be agitated.

Typically, there was no lie in. I was awake and bright as a button at 6.45 am: deep joy. A sedate drive up to Blair Atholl courtesy of Alasdair’s recent acquisition of points 7, 8 and 9 on his licence.  Coffee, bagel, smoked salmon and cream cheese and chocolate cake in the Water Mill café before I took over the driving for a slightly faster 2nd half of the journey. We just missed seeing the Baton Relay as it passed through the village.

I hoped to snooze for an hour or so at the B&B. I dropped Alasdair off to visit Leakey’s 2nd hand book shop, checked in, unloaded the car and settled on the bed. Sleep once again eluded me, and even a bath did not induce drowsiness, so, I gave up and sorted out my kit and sealed my drop bags, before we went for an early dinner at The Kitchen. Soon it was 8.30pm and time to head up to the sports centre for the bus.

Registration

Over the next half hour we gathered outside the sports centre, a mix of familiar and new faces. There was a myriad assortment of drop bags, some small and lean, others containing the kitchen sink; mine were somewhere between the two. There was a bit of banter and chit chat as well as people sitting quietly with their own thoughts. The bus arrived; we piled on and started the drive down to Fort William. Ivan sat next to me and we chatted away about this and that whiling away the journey, which did not seem to take as long as expected. 

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On arrival we were instructed to dump our drop bags for each check point, register and then chill: quick and easy. Some people literally chilled out and had a kip, others sat quietly with a drink of some description and snacking getting some extra last minute energy on board. My egg mayo sandwich went down particularly well. We all at some point spent a bit of time sorting our backpacks, making last minute decisions on clothing and in my case being indecisive about wearing my torch on my head or round my waist: quirky, I know. Time passed quickly and soon we were asked to head out for the briefing.

Some of the more mature ladies including myself assembled near the back and to one side. Someone piped up: ‘Oh, it’s the menopause club’.

The race briefing was a mix of the humorous and the serious. When Bill stressed the importance of taking care and not falling in the canal and explained about the life buoys at the side of the canal Helen piped up; ‘not those sort of boys Jenni’.

Plenty of good humour around: this was going to be a good race. Within minutes we were off up the staircase and into the darkness.

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Fort William – Clunes

Whilst I have had plenty of training in the dark on a variety of surfaces, both with and without a head torch, running an event in the dark was a first for me. I had run through the night before, in Antarctica, but it was constant daylight. Any initial nervousness I had soon dissipated: the main obstacles being the slugs, and there were some whoppers. I fell into a steady rhythm of run/walk intervals along the inside of the canal path. I noticed that it was not totally dark and there was a chink of light in the sky all night.

At Gairlochy we were directed across the bridge onto the road briefly and then back onto the path. Loch Lochy was now on our right, and the water was to remain on our right for the rest of the route. At this point, a small group of us came together and more joined us through the woods, whether this was the Fairy Glen effect or simply the natural ebb and flow I don’t know. The spooky Fairy Glen passed me by: I was totally unaware of it; perhaps that was the benefit of having the torch round my waist. I realised later that I had peed in the Fairy Glen, risking the wrath of the fairies, or at least ones I had not drowned.

We ran along in companionable silence punctured now and again with a bit of chat. As we arrived at a small beach, we all stopped in unison, our breath taken away by the beauty of the dawn breaking between the mountains at the far end of the loch. We paused, took photos and then took the time to walk across the beach appreciating the view before gently starting to run again. Soon we cut back onto the road and in no time at all saw the lights of the first check point. 

There was a lively bustle and excitement at the check point. My drop bag was handed to me instantly already open: now that is service!  I sorted out what I wanted and put what I did not want or need into a labelled return bag that I had included. Some creamed rice, and a can of espresso shot sufficed, and I took a gel and a small bag of cashews away. In and out in about 5 minutes.

Clunes – Laggan

I headed out along the forestry track at a walk to let the food settle. So far, so good; I was relaxed, had plenty of energy and was running strong. As we climbed up through the trees it got lighter and within 20 minutes or so the torch was off. Wow, could Lois stride! I really envied her for her long legs and the distance she was covering. I briefly caught up with Karen who was going strong and enjoying herself. Karen and I would leapfrog along as far as Fort Augustus, at which point she forged ahead: similarly with Alyson.

As we reached the top of the climb and came out of the trees we were greeted by an atmospheric view of mist and cloud hanging over the boats down at the top end of the loch. Similar to earlier people were pausing to drink it in and take photos. I felt privileged to be witnessing such beauty.

This was another steady, uneventful section, although my head did play tricks a bit and it felt long: from a distance I mistook Kilfinnan for Laggan.  As we dropped down we headed into the mist and early morning damp and it was warm and humid. The route was easy to follow at Laggan with no dubiety as to which way we had to go to take the ‘alternative’ route up the left side of Loch Oich, and soon I was at the Laggan check point. The midgies were pretty bad, so there was no incentive to hang about, but there was a good buzz going on.  I had some coke; home-made fruit salad of orange, kiwi and ginger with a light syrup and flapjack. I picked up a bottle of energy drink and the remains of my flapjack to go. The gels and sweets were put in the return bag along with my head torch and jacket. It was another quick stop of a bit over 5 minutes.

Laggan – Fort Augustus

I set out just behind Karen and a couple of others, again walking briskly up the climb along the track. This was another pretty section with a real mix of landscape and terrain through forestry and woods, then the canal path. This is always good as it provides variety, but also means that you are changing your pace and gait adapting to the terrain, which in turn is good for your body as it utilises a good variety of muscles.

I was, however, unnerved when my quads started to  bleat loudly on the descents. I was also getting a bit of discomfort feeling like a trapped nerve in my hip flexors.  Net result was a touch of panic and a huge sense of frustration that I was not able to take the descents at a reasonable pace. There was nothing technical about them, and even I, the world’s worst descender, could have taken them a decent clip. The Chimp started to chatter and rattle loudly at the bars of the cage.

I was only vaguely aware of Invergarry as we passed by and soon we were at Oich Bridge. It was lovely and sunny now.

I was beginning to feel a bit off at this point between my legs and the sensation that my stomach might be about to play up. I had been wishing for a flat stretch to try and settle into a steady pace and give the quads and hip flexors a break, but you should always be careful what you wish for. The canal path from Oich Bridge to Fort Augustus seemed interminable and was really hard under foot. I was not happy, and was even less happy when I had to dive into the bushes at the side of the path. Damn! Was this going to be the start of gut issues: I was less than 30 miles in for God’s sake! Whilst I was stopped I realised that I also had quite bad chafing on my back; yet more joy. Cue the chimp clambering out of the cage and running around.

George appeared on his bike to say it was only another 1.5 miles to go. It could not come soon enough. Soon I recognised landmarks from when I had run along the canal on a holiday, and finally reached the check point. As I came in Ada and co asked what I needed: a secluded spot to change, some cream, a top up of water and some food. I changed as discreetly as I could behind the camper van (avoiding the ‘nudity’ spot prize; I left that to Sharon and Fiona at Invermoriston) and the girls gently applied some sudocream: bliss. I gobbled down some more rice and espresso shot, and took a carton of apple and ginger juice and bag of Ritz crackers to go. Convinced that I was massively behind schedule, I texted Alasdair.

Fort Augustus – Invermoriston

Perhaps I had stopped too long, but I was really hobbling as I headed out. I popped into the public loos on the way past, before continuing to hirple up out of Fort Augustus. It was from here that the real climbing started and where the men would be separated from the boys. My quads were in agony, and I was actually relishing the climbs and hating the descents. I was feeling very sorry for myself, letting the chimp run around and swing from the trees uncontrolled again.

Just not good enough: so I gave myself a shake, grabbed the chimp, told it to behave and shoved it back in the cage. Fact: my quads were mashed (they still had the WHW support run in them)and I was just going to have MTFU (Rule #5) and get on with it, which I did and in no time I was in Invermoriston, having failed to realise that this was short section. There was a great welcome from Noanie, John and Stan which immediately raised the spirits, and confirmed that I was actually doing OK.

Alasdair had wanted to spend the day exploring this side of Loch Ness and as this was one of the checkpoints where we were allowed to meet so I expected him to be there, but no sign. Hmmm, maybe he was being especially discreet and considerate about parking. I called and got voicemail. Next thing he was calling back: he was 12 miles away! What?

Alasdair: What are you doing there already? You are way ahead of schedule? I am on schedule.

Me: What? Am I?

Alasdair:  Yes. You are not very good with your timings.

Well shoot me, I think.

Me: I have no idea what is going on! I am fecked! I will sort myself out and carry on, but you will need to get my drop bag – it has kit in it.

Alasdair: Great. I drive 25 miles to pick up a plastic bag

That was adult. God, I sounded like a recalcitrant teenager. In fact we both did.

I decided to change my socks. Now, I expect this will be the first and last time that Noanie has been rendered near speechless.

Noanie: Is that a toe ring? You run with a toe ring on? Well, I’ve seen it all now!

My response: I always run with it on, even in Antarctica!

The midgies were bad and all over us. Slight problem, I had sent one bottle of Skin So Soft back to the finish, and Alasdair had the other one: great planning. Sharon kindly came to the rescue. I had some coke, an l-carnitine gel (a mistake, as far as my gut was concerned) and popped a bottle of electrolyte drink in my vest pocket and set off nibbling some homemade chocolate and almond cake.

Invermoriston – Drumnadrochit

A small group of us set out close together, and we were to remain fairly close together for the rest of the race, sometimes together , sometimes apart, passing, being passed, catching up, being caught. We were Sharon and Fiona, Colin, Daryll, Cath, Rhona, Stuart and me.

 We all knew it was a big climb up out of Invermoriston and set out with resolution and a steady pace. Lois later described it as the hill that just kept giving, and it did, over and over, on and on. As well as water I took regular sips of energy drink, and another gel. We were rewarded with a phenomenal view at the top but boy it was tough, and the biggest climb was still to come.  The quads were not getting any better on the descents, but I was managing to forge up the climbs. The hip flexors had settled down though. There were some lovely sections of path here down through mixed woodland, looking at its best with the sunlight dappling through the leaves.

 As I tired I started to look at my Garmin and got confused: what had happened to the Altsigh water station? Had we gone wrong with the path? No there were plenty of markers. Maybe they had not bothered with the water stop. I had done  about 8 or 9 miles so must be close to Drumnadrochit. What I had not appreciated was that this leg was a long one. I was distraught when I reached Altsigh and was told there was another 5 – 5.5 miles to Drumnadrochit. My energy levels were low and I did not have a lot of food with me. I did have gels, but my gut was still a little uncertain and I did not want to take too many. I was also very hot.

 I took a bizarre mix of Ribena and cheese and onion crisps. Mmm, tasty. What possessed me? Yeuch. Rhona and I set out together and trudged on in silence along a section of blisteringly hot road with little or no shade. Eventually there was some mobile signal. I called Alasdair, explained that I thought I had screwed up my timings again and that I was about an hour away. I also requested a toothbrush and paste; my teeth were dissolving. I could sense the withering look down the phone. Those 5 miles were not one of my finest moments and I hobbled very slowly down the last hill to the road finally reaching the check-point in a bad mood and in pretty bad shape: sore, tired, hot and hungry and incapable of making a decision.

 I saw the car, but no Alasdair, so sat down grumpily to poke about feebly in my drop bag, spilling a bag of sweets in my backpack, covering everything with sugar: fantastic! Ivan who I had not seen since the start and whose dust I had been eating was lying on the grass wrapped up. He was not great either but OK, needing a bit of a break to restore his energy. This clearly worked because once he set out I did not see him again until after the finish. Alasdair appeared moaning that my timing’s were terrible and I was early again. There then followed what can best be described as an exchange with a toddler. Whilst this is not literal it sums the situation up quite well.

 MWah! Wah! Wah! What do you want? Nnngggg, nnnggg! Do you want this? No! Do you want this? No! Wah! Wah! I don’t know what you want. USE YOUR WORDS.

 Eventually, I got myself sorted. Alasdair produced a tooth brush and paste. What a star. I took a slightly longer break and tried to get a fair amount of food down. I had spotted that I was visibly losing weight. I had half a sandwich, some coke and rice pudding; checked that I had a couple of gels and some more flapjack and a pack of mini cheddars to take away; and topped up my water. Time to get moving, which was easier said than done. I was in so much pain as I heaved myself up, and tears started to well up (I blame the chimp). Alasdair insisted on some paracetemol before I hobbled off scaring the tourists.

 Drumnadrochit – CP6

It took me a while to get going and the others in my little group pushed on ahead. A heavy downpour started just as I got into the trees. They provided good shelter and so I did not get too wet. Somehow, whilst ploughing my way up through the trees I had found a second wind and strength, maybe because I just took it steady.

At one point I was startled by a red flash in the trees to my left. I stopped and looked convinced that I had seen something moving through the trees, but nothing. Later Jenni had a chimp throwing pine cones at her in these woods. Alasdair reckons it was my chimp, and that what I saw was him making a run for it in his little red trousers. (Even the chimp had had enough).

I caught up with some of the others and we plugged away at the climb encouraging each other and chatting away.  After coming out of the trees and onto the track I spotted a large cairn, and I think that we all thought that was the top of the climb. The climb was not steep now and the track undulated along and I for one was not aware that we were still climbing until we spotted a sign marking the top of the climb. My inability to count and judge distance was proving exceptional today. I thought the check point was still about 3 miles off, and was amazed and delighted when it came into view after about a mile and I saw Angela bouncing around on the track and waving at us. We all sped up.

The last check point; I was going to finish this. There were murmurings of an 18 hour finish: no surely not? My Garmin had given out about 2 miles short of Drumnadrochit and I had no idea what was going on: maybe 19 hours, but surely not 18. I was in much, much better shape here than I had been at Drumnadrochit, mentally and physically. The paracetemol had helped quite a bit with the quad pain, and knowing that I had done the last big climb and was in the final stage gave a huge mental boost. It was probably some strange adrenalin fuelled mania.

I had some fresh kit in my bag and decided to change. I was going to finish in style in clean shorts and my ‘Do Epic Ship’ vest. Changing was a good idea as it made me feel more refreshed. I ate some more rice and had another espresso shot, ditched the sports drink, sandwiches and gels, and took another carton of apple and ginger juice with me. Time to strike out for the last 9 miles, or maybe 10 or was it 11? There seemed to be a bit of uncertainty there and I sure as hell had no idea. Fiona reckoned I could finish in 2.5 hours maybe a little faster.

CP6 - Bught Stadium

I found the path just after CP6 far more creepy and uncomfortable than the woods during the night. It was narrow, overgrown and stiflingly hot, and the various signs and totem poles for the eco café were just weird. Although I was one of the first of the group to leave the checkpoint the others soon caught up and went past as I struggled with the claustrophobia.

Soon the path joined the road and there was a bit of a hot slog as it undulated long with no shade from the sun. The others really pulled ahead at this point, and I could see them disappearing into the distance. I started to feel a bit miserable again, but applied rule #5 again. I was going to finish, and finish under my predicted 21 hours and it did not matter how much under.

The route moved back onto a path over a bit of moorland and back into woodland. It was lovely, and I really appreciated the patches of shade. Once again I caught up with the others. Clearly we were all going through good and bad patches, our pace decreasing and increasing with our individual energy flow. Someone mentioned another water stop (similar to Altsigh) and right enough as we popped out from a section of trees there it was. One last oasis, and what an oasis: red wine on offer. I had a similar experience to Altsigh, in that I was devastated to find that we still had 6 miles to go and not the 4 I had hoped. So that last section must be about 12 miles; it definitely felt as if I had done 6 since the checkpoint. Some water and some crisps and we were on the last stretch.

Colin, Sharon, Fiona and Daryll found some speed and energy that I just did not have and took off pulling well ahead. This was another really beautiful path through mixed woodland and flat. I could not increase my pace and knew that I could not run all of the last 6 miles even on the flat and so reverted to run/walk intervals trying to keep the walking intervals as short as possible. Colin and I leapfrogged for 4 miles. At one point he said we were heading for a 17.5 hour finish. I just could not rationalise that at all.

As we went through a gate to start the last 2 miles down to Inverness Colin also pulled away speeding up and managing to descend at a good pace. That last 2 miles was tortuous, I  could not descend at any speed:  getting angry and frustrated with myself. Once down and back on the flat at the edge of Inverness I could not get my bearings and had no notion for how far I still had to go. I just kept going. As I was starting to lose hope the path popped out at the edge of the canal and I could see the marshals on the bridge in the distance waving like crazy.

Huge, wracking, heavy sobs came out and then tears: the sense of relief was overwhelming. My pace picked up, I was directed across the road, down the path and, bam, there I was in the stadium. Throwing my back pack to the side I picked up the pace and crossed the finish line in an unbelievable (to me) 17 hours 32 minutes. I was surprised and pleased to see so many people there; I had not fallen quite so far back as I had thought.

I had completed my longest race to date and had done so creditably with only a couple of  minor tantrums and one escapee chimp.  I lay down on the grass in the evening sun and had a well-earned beer before Alasdair heaved me up and guided me to the car and back to the B&B for much needed bath.

Sunday

You know that you have participated in an event of substance when you come away with bling! In this case a lovely crystal whisky glass.

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Having a race presentation is a great way to finish off an event like this. It gives everyone a chance to catch up, share the experience and stories and to recognise the achievement, and there were some great achievements and stories of great determination.

After an uncomfortable night with much whimpering (so I’m told) and an enormous and delicious breakfast we headed back to the sports centre for the presentations. The car park and the hall looked like a scene from a zombies meets the ministry of funny walks themed movie as we all made our way in a varying states of mobility and discomfort.

At Drumnadrochit I told Alasdair that I would not do it again, but as times passes, similar to childbirth, the pain is forgotten and the question is will I or won’t I ……