Devil O the Highlands

OK, so I’m almost a month late with my story about my last adventure but hey, who’s counting?

THE DEVIL and ME – Race reports are funny things. Backin April, I spent ages on my Fling story and am now trying to work out what else to say about the Devil. Truth is that most all of the Fling story applies to my encounter with the Devil but there are a few wee twists here and there which I hope are of some intrigue. For anyone not in the know, the Highland Fling is a trail race over the first 53 miles of the West Highland Way in late April (Milngavie to Tyndrum) and the Devil o the Highlands is run over the remaining 43 miles (Tyndrum to Fort William) in early August.

POST FLING BLUES – All runners know that recovery is important but the balance between this and then ramping up for the next big adventure (and then tapering down) is yet another challenge. I used the Edinburgh Marathon as a prop (and a way of staying in the AYE Club – year 11) and then tried to squeeze some longer runs in as best I could. As always, there is never enough time: my only seriously long run was 29 miles (though having my son Andrew with me on his mountain bike made this fun) and speed work was almost none existent. However, by way of compensation, 20 miles round the Vendée countryside whilst on holiday was just sublime. All done, the confidence generated from not just surviving but actually enjoying the Fling is a powerful ally – know yourself.

GOOD FORTUNE AT WORK – working shifts has a long list of downsides but yes, there are some ups! On my 10 week rotation I have 2 lots of 6 days off and one of these just happened to start on Friday 2nd August – just perfect to get to race in good time, do it and then recover. Just occasionally, there some rewards for those long night shifts.

REST AND BE THANKFULL – for me, there was only ever going to be one place for basecamp – The Kingshouse Hotel in Glencoe. It’s well placed geographically being just 19 miles from Tyndrum and, of course, the West Highland Way / Devil route runs past the front door. Also, it has a long history for me: my Dad spent many a happy time in Glencoe climbing (including time with the legendary Robin Smith), I have also spent many exhilarating days up high on the Buachaille, the Aonach Eagach and Bidean and one of my best pals got married beside Loch Achtriochtan with reception (inevitably) held at the Kingshouse. And so it was that me and my crew headed north from West Linton.

BEHIND EVER RUNNER IS A PATIENT FAMILY – how I ever swung this one, I will never know but the chance of a night at the Kingshouse (including bar supper) followed by 3 days at North Cottage (more on this later) definitely improved my chances! I think it’s fair to say that Aileen, Andrew and Jennifer still remain to be convinced as to why on earth anyone would want to spend 11 hours running in the pouring rain especially when they have been volunteered for support crew duties. Given this, I am so lucky they agreed to this plan which would, without question, have foundered on the rocks without them.

HELLO DARKNESS MY OLD FRIEND – the biggest test for me always is (and always will) be getting out of bed when it’s a) 04:00 hrs, b) pitch black outside and c) raining like you need to head for your Ark. Still, caffeine and lashings of maple syrup helped ease the struggle. As Aileen and I headed for Tyndrum, the weather was so bad, I’m shamed to admit that I did say I was ready for a dignified withdrawal from the race if this was the right thing to do. Yea, I know, what a wimpish thing to even think, let alone say out loud before I’d even started out – don’t worry, I gathered myself, there will be no retreat and there wasn’t.

KEEN BEANS – though this was to be my 5th ultra after 3 D33’s and a Fling, at registration I found myself in awe as each person I passed seemed to be an even keener bean than the last, but this is exactly the time on any race day to take a firm grip and say ‘run my own race in my own style, be happy with what you can do, be in awe of the big mountains around you and above all, be humble that you can do’. Keen they may have seemed but the atmosphere was very relaxed and friendly. And so it was that Aileen waved me off from Tyndrum in light rain at 06:00 hrs.

HIGHWAY to HELL – OK, so I committed a minor school boy error by not turning my Garmin on 5 mins before ignition but hey, AC/DC ‘Thunderstruck’ on the iPod kind of fired me up the hill and got me going – Garmin caught up soon enough.

CAMERADERIE – The first leg from Tyndrum to Bridge of Orchy is relative straightforward and as I padded along in the rain, there were friendly exchanges with various fellow runners. By and by, a chap (Alan?) drifted alongside and not only did we have a fascinating chat but he helped to draw me along at a more lively pace. We covered life, the universe and the WHW Race which he had just done and let us just say never say never, watch this space. As my new pal advanced ahead of me, I had a very happy time to myself especially as I climbed up the drovers track from Inveroran. By now, the rain was lashing down and everything was just as it should be for a good day out on the hills in Scotland. I did smile to myself as I listen to music on my iPod – just one good track after another, how could this be? I then I remembered I had spent the past 3 years compiling this playlist – dawh! One thing I did notice on this section is that the drovers track is made up of flint like hard smooth rocks which are quite slippy in the wet.

THE COE – I always pleased to see the Coe hove into view but somehow, the appearance of the road far below me as I descended from the heavy cloud cover was extra special. It meant that real progress had been made and it was all downhill to the check point at Black Rock cottage and then over the road to my RV point at the Kingshouse. Another 2 litres of Nuun, more gels, cereal bars, mini Mars Bars and, of course, Hula Hoops – which never tasted so good! And of my support crew – never, ever underestimate the morale boost as you see them and they fuss around helping you to stay upright and cheering you on your way to relentless forward progress.

HELL AIN’T A BAD PLACE TO BE – as route follows along the valley, the giant Buchaille disappears into the mist and I did become a little weary of long legged 20 years olds with huge rucksacks marching along at a remarkable pace and leaving me behind as I started my way up the Devils Staircase. This climb is seriously hard work but by some strange quirk of coincidence, as I neared the top, what should be playing in my ears but ‘Misty Mountain Top’ from Local Hero soundtrack. Happy days at the summit cause it’s more or less downhill all the way to Kinlochleven. The path becomes a track as it descends in an increasingly green valley with more and more trees dripping with rain. One strange thing was that during the Fling, I had absolutely no cramp but did suffer recurring bouts of nausea (though I never did end up chucking). Here, on the slopes down to the Loch Leven, it was the other way round. No nausea but a couple of chunky cramp attacks which were duly stretched on and then run out.

FOIL VILLAGE – Even from my first and all be rather brief visit, Kinlochleven is a truly remarkable place. It sits at the head of the loch with unbelievably steep slopes up to huge cliffs looming. And of course, for many years Alcan had an aluminium smelter there and the legacy of some extraordinary and very large buildings are still there. Some very clever people have even turned one of them into a giant freezer so that you can go ice climbing all the year round. The second formal checkpoint is in the middle of the village and a very cheery marshal welcomed me – the efforts and smiley faces of people who volunteer for these roles cannot be praised too much – especially when the rain is lashing down. I was also greeted by the uber support crew and filled up with yet more supplies. I was asked if I was up for the final push to the Fort Bill and of course you know the answer . . .

HERE COMES THE SUN – I had been warned of yet another 1,000 foot climb up into the Lairig Mor and so it was. The one blessing here was that the forecast had predicted that the rain would finally give up and eventually it did. No sun yet, but there clearly are some advantages to not being hugely swift along the trail. My one big regret here was not changing socks at Kinlochleven – while I was certainly still mobile, my feet were so wrinkly from the rain that they were beginning to suffer a little. The climb rises up through the trees and then onto yet more open hillside. Eventually, as you start to turn the corner towards Fort Billingham and begin loosing altitude again, you enter major forestry country.

THIS IS THE BEN, MY OLD FRIEND – just when I was starting to think this adventure couldn’t get any better, two very specials things happened. Firstly, as I turned a corner, there in front of me was the unmistakable mass of my old friend, the Ben! Not only was this a simply stunning sight but it also signaled the very last stretch of the encounter with the Devil with downhill pretty much all the way to the finish line. And secondly, as the weather improved and some kind of sun appeared, my jacket was finally stowed away and the signature shades worn. It may be that I could and should have started to run faster earlier but my cue was meeting the Glen Nevis road. I rose to decent speed over the last mile and was absolutely delighted to reach the finish at the original end of the WHW. Warm welcome from the finish team, other runners and, of course, my crew. Received what is definitely the most original race momento yet – a perfectly race shoe fashioned in some alloy.

SHOWERS, CHIPS and a HIGHLAND RETREAT – rarely do showers feel quite so good as they do after 9 hours in heavy rain! We then jumped in the car and headed north to Kyle for a fish supper and the onward to Applecross and 3 days of retreat and recovery at our wee place in heaven. Lots of good food, fine wine, hours in front of a peat fire and gentle walks all worked wonders for the weary legs. And as if this were all not enough, I have always been a keen ocean swimmer and huge fan of the therapy that swimming in the cold salty sea brings and the swim on this visit was just brilliant, complete with sunshine and a view across to the Cuillins – sublime!

So, another adventure completed. I can honestly say that for most all of the race I was truly happy and that is how it’s meant to be. I never forget one of my big inspirational figures, Paula Radcliffe, being asked just how long she will keep on running and the answer was clear – “as long as I’m enjoying it”. Yes, there is a lot of sweat, strain, self doubt and occasional swearing involved but these things are all part of a will that allows for relentless forward progress and lets you Run and Become.

Postscript: a massive thank you to the organisers and marshals – an absolutely fantastic job all round in very challenging conditions.OK, so I’m almost a month late with my story about my last adventure but, hey, who’s count in?

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4 comments on Devil O the Highlands

  1. Rob Wilson says:

    it was exhausting just reading the report 🙂

  2. Mike Brooks says:

    Great stuff Chris mega achievement, inspiring report.
    Desperate to do this, a surfboard forced me to pull out the day before two years ago dont ask!!, hopefully next year.

  3. Susan says:

    Wow. What more can I say. I don’t know how you do it Chris but I enjoy reading about it. You have a very positive outlook and a strong mind! The race memento sounds very unusual…but then this was no run of the mill race so it’s quite fitting.

    Well done again!

  4. Alan says:

    Great Chris, I’m doing the DOTH next year so enjoyed reading about your exploits 🙂

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