Devil O’ The Highlands Footrace – 42 mile Ultra
This race has been a long time coming for me. I first entered it back in 2010 with my brother, the plan being to run it together. The race was full and we were put on the waiting list assured by those in the know that a place would come up closer to race day – in the meantime I did no training and my brother was injured. Needless to say we got a place and had to let it go. Fast forward a few years and with a few more races under my belt and a change of race organiser I was still keen to give it a try.
When entries opened I was at my keyboard primed and ready and soon realised that despite clicking enter bang on 9pm the hot ticket entry was full immediately and I was not going to get a place. I saw other friends all rejoicing at getting a place and I sat gutted wondering why I was so upset. After half an hour or so of reading FB posts and making myself thoroughly miserable I was given a lifeline – a waiting list was going to be opened as there were a few in the same predicament as me (and had been wholly more vocal than me about it) I was holding my breath as I clicked enter again – and it went through! Fingers crossed I would get a place. A few weeks later I got the hugely anticipated email that I was in!
The race picks up where the Highland Fling ends, in Tyndrum and follows the 2nd half of the West Highland Way. I have only run a couple of short sections of this route so was excited to see what would await me – especially the much talked about Devils Staircase and descent into Kinlochleven.
It was an early start with a 4am bus from Fort William to Tyndrum with a 6am start time. Chris and I were the only Harriers running and I had hardly seen Chris, I was lucky to spot him just as we took our positions waiting for the start and then it was the countdown and lots of cowbells and air horns and we were off. I started running and despite the fact I had been coughing and hacking like a 60 a day smoker for the last fortnight I was feeling surprisingly good. I was managing a good pace and was holding my own, I was a bit worried I was running a bit too fast and I was running hills that I would normally walk and I told myself more than once to take it easy or the wheels would fall off and I would be regretting it later on – but I kept going. I decided early on I would run to feel and push as much as I could while I could and see what happened. Before I knew it we were at the first checkpoint – Bridge of Orchy. I was a bit surprised I was there so soon. I ran straight through and was ready for the climb I knew awaited me. I was in a little group and was just trying to maintain my position as I am so rubbish on the hills, I surprised myself by keeping up and not being passed and then it was the downhill and I was off – I love downhill! I managed to make up a few places and I knew I needed to as my legs would die when we hit the path through Glencoe. It’s a section I had run once before and it sounds like it should be easy, an old military road (I think?!) wide and hard packed stones in a sort of ancient concrete but I find it so draining, although the views are stunning I still find it a bit of a slog. It was around here I had sore calves, then sore legs and then sore hips and then everything was a bit of a struggle and then in the way of ultras, you ignore it and keep running and it kind of goes away. There’s a bit of a climb and again I was running more than normal and then another descent and before I knew it I had arrived at Glencoe Ski Centre. I had last been here in June waiting for Chris on his WHW journey and so many of my thoughts were connected to that weekend and especially here as I had stood waiting on Chris and Yan to appear out of the approaching dark!
I grabbed my drop bag, fuelled up and ran down the road. I was most excited about this next section as it is the part I had heard so much about from runners and walkers but never experienced for myself. The path goes down to Kingshouse then starts to climb, I asked a runner next to me if this was the start of the staircase as I could not see where the path led. No she laughed it just climbs a bit and then drops back to the road and follows it for a while and then you will know it when you see it! She was right, we passed a sign saying footpath to Kinlochleven and then it was indeed a staircase – up! There was a brightly coloured snake leading all the way up and I dug in and climbed. This is when I realised I was taking this way more seriously than my previous races as normally I would be taking loads of photos but not today, well maybe one or two:) I was just intent on reaching the top and trying not to let too many people pass me. Some people are total machines on the hill! I don’t know how they ascend with such speed and power and one guy in particular who I had passed a while back came powering passed me and was almost out of sight in what seemed a few minutes. I was trying not to look behind me at all in this race, my focus was on the person in front not those chasing me, but I did take a moment to look down the hill at all the runners still climbing. The poor walkers that day must have thought they picked a bad day to be walking the WHW. As we reached the top the fab guys from Monument Photos were there to catch the moment, (they do like to catch you at the top of hills – they sit at the top of Conic for the Fling) but it’s a good incentive to get running again. Then Fiona Rennie and her sister were there, Fiona in full Devils get up and her sister with horns to cheer everyone on – they are awesome and it’s such a lift that people come out to support the runners like they do. Then came the technical descent I had heard so much about and it lived up to expectations. It was very rocky and steep and hard to get a flow going as it is so rugged, but I loved it. I had to stop and give myself a talking to a few times as I tripped and caught my foot or kicked a giant boulder. Breath. Take your time. You want to reach the bottom in one piece. And then I would be off again. The descent gets so steep as you come into KLL I was glad to be going down and not up.
As I hit the road in Kinlochleven I was looking for Alan as he said he would meet me. It was so good to see him there and he helped me get fuelled up and refill my water and then it was what in my head was the last section. This was the bit I had done with Chris on the WHW so I knew what to expect and I was chuffed as I knew I was running well, feeling good and only had about 15 miles to go. I started climbing out of KLL and up onto the Lairigmhor. I was amazed at how I was still running and passing people and still feeling strong. I don’t often feel like this in races and it was a bit of a new experience for me. The rain started to come down and people were stopping and putting on their waterproofs but I thought I would just keep going, the rain felt quite refreshing and at this point I stopped jumping puddles and carefully fording streams and just went for it – I thought if the rest of me is wet then my feet can be too. Not got far now and my feet can’t get into too bad a state now. It was quite liberating and it was such an enjoyable stretch passing people and splashing through rivers. The final checkpoint came into view and I thanked the marshalls who were now sitting in the pissing rain with no shelter grabbed a coke and thought 6 more miles and feeling good. I have various mantras that go through my head at different points in a long run but the one that popped into my head now was “let’s do this shit!”! I had not passed anyone for a while and even though no one had passed me and I was running strong I could not catch up with the runner in front of me. Where are they? I kept thinking as I rounded each corner and finally, I could see a figure in black up ahead. My mission was to now catch him, unfortunately he had seen me coming and his mission was obviously not to let me pass him, the path goes through a wooded section and just when I thought I had him, he would pull away again and it was like this until we eventually came out on the forestry commission road about 3 miles outside of Fort William. I knew this was a long downhill from when I had run with Chris and the end was close so again “let’s do this shit!” And I was pushing hard, I passed the man in black and suddenly there were lots of runners – where had they all been hiding? I ran on down the track passing a few more but as the path levelled out my legs suddenly realised they had come quite far and were feeling heavy. I had to walk a bit here and I also knew that the finish deviated from the WHW which followed the road. The Devil now finished with a sting in the tail – a big hill at mile 42! I was wanting to try to retain some energy for the final climb and it was a longer steeper climb than I was expecting! I could see the finish. I could hear the finish. But I was still going up! Eventually it flattened out and I could hear some runners behind me. “Let’s do this shit!” And I started running again. The path took a turn downhill and it was downhill all the way to the finish, it finishes in a park and I was praying please no final effing lap of the park before the finish line but no it was a beeline for the giant inflatable finish arch! Yayyyy! I crossed the line in 9.31.17. I had reckoned I might take about 10 hours to do this race, 9.45 on a good day so to finish in 9.31 was fantastic.
Now that John Duncan has taken over as race director it is the same amazing thought and consideration for runners as you get at the Fling. As well as medal, Tshirt, buff, wrist band and badge you get a beer thrust into your hand and the most amazing spread of food cooked by his mum and dad. Fantastic lentil or tomato soup and a choice of about 5 dishes from chilli to veg tagine, rice, couscous, bread in a nice cosy marque and then a hot shower at the leisure centre.
I worried about writing this report, firstly it’s way too long and that’s cutting out all the bits about the weather, the view, the midgies etc etc but mostly that when people know how awesome a race it is. I will never manage to get a place again and this will be my only shot of running it!
In the hope of putting people off the race is 42 or 43 miles long (still not very sure) with around 5,000ft ascent and an early start and lots of midgies 🙂
174 – Gilly Marshall – 9.31.17
242 – Christopher Burns – 11.03.37