So how do I follow on from such an epic tale, like the one penned by my buddy Rob? I don’t think I can. It even crossed my mind to leave it at that; to leave his fantastic interpretation of the West Highland Way as a fitting end to our journey. However, as is always the case with me I discovered a couple of things I feel are worth sharing and in addition, I know I must pen my own take on events and those leading up to one of the biggest days of my life so far, for future reference.
Up until a few years ago I believed anyone was capable of achieving whatever they wanted too; beating drug or alcohol addiction, attaining a professional qualification, climbing the career ladder, conquering their fears and of course aligning their expectations with their ultra running performance.
Then for reasons explained previously I failed my first attempt at the Bob Graham Round (BGR) last year. Despite the cause of that failure being outwith my hands the experience has had me relentlessly questioning my beliefs since.
My initial response was to return to the BGR and conquer it 4 weeks later. However, I was disappointed with my fitness, performance and inability to enjoy the day. In short, I still had unfinished business with myself.
Next up I decided to throw myself into becoming competitive for the Highlander Mountain Marathon (HMM) 2011; a top 5 performance was not beyond our capabilities. My partner in crime for this venture was to be the ever present Rob Kennedy.
Rob and I met about 12 years ago whilst we were both in the Army. I knew the instant I shook his hand and looked in his eyes that we would be close friends for a long time to come. I could see he had the same burning desire for life – for cherishing every moment - as I did. I knew straight away that he would challenge himself willingly even if it meant the odd failure because like me he knew that failure always had an upside – a chance to learn.
It turned out that Rob was the only person I had got to know who was going to challenge me more than I could. I made him my best man a year after that first handshake and since that day our lives have eerily followed the same path; we are now both ‘civvies’, both married and both have an eldest daughter and a younger son – of roughly the same ages.
After a brief interlude with mountain marathon exposure during 2008 and 2009, Rob suggested we do the BGR in 2010. Looking back (as has been documented) it’s no wonder I struggled so much in 2010 but as I always say, the most important thing is I did it. In my view, this is the difference between people who talk about doing something and those who actually just get it done, no matter what.
So leading up to this year’s HMM I had a few demons to deal with. My fitness had always been a problem; I had a tendency to over train and I perceived myself to be inferior to Rob as a runner. He had always been the constant; always managing to be patient with me during my periods of struggle, of which there happened to be many. Conversely Rob, was always fitter and more switched on than me. There had never been a time in my company when I had the need to be concerned for his welfare. Indeed, when it came to that, he had an uncanny knack of calling it at exactly the right time.
During the training for the HMM it became apparent that I had an injury which was holding me back in the fells; a posterior impingement. I tried to ignore it but unfortunately overlooked the fact that I was yet again leading into the overtraining zone!
Within 15mins of day 1 of that HMM (near Ullapool) I knew I was not at the races. We came 7th on day 1. God knows how but day 2 was a whole different ball game as a newly formed achilles bursitis added to my woes and delayed our progress further.
Two weeks later and filled with fear due to my physical condition (fitness and three injuries) I tried to run the Highland Fling. It was a disaster.
I had now got as low as I could possibly go. I thought I had done everything I could have done to conquer the HMM. Instead I was a failure yet again. 18 hours a-week training – and failure was becoming commonplace with me! The demons were revelling in my self pity.
However, as is always the case, something happened on that day, on the Way that I did not expect to happen. I enjoyed the camaraderie and spirit of the Fling so much that something inside me lit up. That’s when I found out about blogging; had it not been for the likes of John Kynaston and Debbie MC, I don’t think I would have got this far in terms of running ability. It is for this reason that I write a blog; to be able to be of help to anyone else desperate to find the answers which will help them achieve their aims.
After the HMM, Rob and I made a pact that we would concentrate more on ultra’s from now on (as we feel they are more rewarding than MM’s). That said we have also agreed that we have unfinished business with the OMM and HMM (if I ever get my bone spur removed).
With my new found enthusiasm I started training – proper running, for the first time in my life; this despite being recently told to give it up by an orthopaedic surgeon.
Anyway, when I phoned my constant a few months ago to tell him that I was going to do the West Highland Way, he offered to come along too. At the time I was really pleased. I knew my fitness was the best it had ever been and under these circumstances I was unlikely to hold him back. In fact this time if he wanted to push on I was confident that I might be able to stick with him.
In the build up he began to warn me that his fitness wouldn’t be as up-to-scratch as mine – which I duly ignored. Then during the taper he got a chest infection. So what, I thought, he’ll still be fine and if he’s not it’ll be obvious and he’ll pull out.
Well in advance of the big day I announced our challenge on the WHW race website forum. From that point it was obvious that I had set myself up for what could turn out to be the end of my running days. I was so confident of success that I had overlooked the possibility of failure. Thankfully the famous WHW family were extremely generous in their support of me. Murdo the Magnificent, Debbie MC, John Kynaston and Ali Bryan-Jones all emailed me personally before the event. In fact the latter three had even offered to join Rob and me but for reasons that conspired against us they were all unable to make it; a blessing in disguise that would turn out to be.
I met Rob on the train as it stopped on its way through Lockerbie, on our way to Milngavie on Friday the 25th November. Scotland was going to be experiencing some severe, storm force conditions during the night of our challenge, according to the weather forecasts. I immediately conceded to Rob that the time we completed our challenge in was now a non-issue and reiterated my most important message; we would finish it, no matter what. He agreed.
We met Paul who I immediately recognised from the fling where he had been running just in front of me for the first couple of hours out of Milngavie. This was a good sign I told myself. We were soon off. In a bid to keep the pace down I was wearing my heart rate monitor. We got to Drymen in 1hr 57mins running/jogging at about 65% (of MHR) effort which I was happy with. Thereafter, until about 2 or 3 miles south of Rowardennan I struggled, mentally.
We took a detour at the forest ahead of Drymen but as it was only 20 minutes it didn’t concern me. What did annoy me was seeing my heart rate up around 70-75% at times. I was beginning to have serious doubts about my ability to complete this mammoth challenge; my biggest to date. In an effort to turn things around in my head I decided I was going to bin the bloody HRM at the next change over.
Again, it’s odd looking back, much of the day is a blur to me; the weather didn’t really bother me, nor did the effort level required at times and with much of the run being in the dark I suppose it’s not too surprising that my memory isn’t awash with stories. In fact my over riding memory is of just how effortless the challenge was for me, how alert I was for large portions of the day - how in the zone I was, certainly after the first 4 hours and before the last 2 or 3 anyway; this all contrasts sharply with Rob’s adventure despite us being in close proximity the whole time.
From about Conic to just after Bein Glas I was happy. In fact I was buzzing and this is something I never experienced on my BGR. Rob kept niggling at me to cool the jets which I took to be a good thing as I can sometimes be a bit eager to press on. It was good that my constant was here to rein me in at the time when I needed it most – that was what I was telling myself anyway. After all, we had additionally agreed on the train that it was vital we got to Tyndrum without feeling as though we had just covered 53miles, if that was possible. Looking back this was the first signs that something was amiss with Rob. I had a feeling that my pace was quite slow, certainly slower than I was comfortable with but I, as always, had full trust in my buddy and did so without question. His complaint of feeling light headed went in one ear and out of the other!
When we got to Bein Glas it was good to see my work colleagues Alan and Alison. Paul mentioned that Santababy had passed on her best wishes. How ironic I thought to myself, as it was here during the fling when I had the pleasure of meeting the beauty as she was unfortunately forced to withdraw due to injury; I helped myself to believe that this was simply another calling I had in my favour i.e. that I was meant to be here, that nothing was going to stop me achieving my most desired of goals.
It was probably this intense focus that led me to overlook the welfare of my mate because out of Bein Glas he wasn’t in the mood for much jogging. It was around this time that I started needing to urinate an awful lot too.
I believed he was just having a rough patch and that he would snap out of it. I’d seen plenty of these, they were nothing new. We regularly took turns at amusing ourselves at the others expense on various training runs in the past. It was the norm and so, I was still unconcerned.
At the other side of Crianlarich forest however, Rob started to fall back quite badly. Out of there and crossing the A82 I noted that he was slurring his words. With experience of hypothermia myself I began to verbally question his condition to which he immediately assured me that he was fine and dandy. However, the lack of running was starting to become a recurring theme and for the first time I began to think something just wasn’t right.
We pretty much walked it to Tyndrum. When we went past By The Way, Kirsty popped her head out to see how we were getting on, nice touch ;-) another example of the close community that makes the WHW such a special thing to be part of. She must’ve been very patient waiting for us to pass by, especially in those conditions.
When we arrived at the horse box I immediately noticed the lack of a certain person (check the video). Yes, Paul had done one! I think both Rob and I were a bit gutted at the time as we were looking forward to a bit of different chat and company but given what followed, he made a great decision to bail out. I can’t help wondering though that if Paul had remained would Rob have persuaded him to fill in whilst he himself bailed.
We spent a while getting changed and warmed up ready for the next assault. Alan and Alison were absolutely fantastic as I knew they would be. If I had to hang my hat on two people being totally dependable it was them two, it was the very reason I asked Alan to help – and they had to be because of the rapidly deteriorating conditions.
For the benefit of Tim (Downie); I changed my marmot mica for my mountain equipment Morpheus (jacket) i.e. my summertime waterproof for my ‘bombproof’ waterproof. I also added my waterproof gloves, sealskin socks, snood and waterproof trousers for good measure; I had a feeling things might get a bit tasty and with the amount of walking we had been doing combined with the ever increasing number of pee stops I was taking, I didn’t fancy getting much colder!
I had told Rob that the next section was quite easy and as it turned out it was; funny how the head works at times. We made decent time on that section (Tyndrum to Bridge of Orchy) given the conditions and the previous state Rob had been in.
From here to Kingshouse is a bit of a blur I’m afraid. I know we struggled to move very fast but I can’t remember why. I also remember the weather being full-on but as it was slightly behind us and pushing us on I didn’t feel it was all that bad. My recurring pee stops were beginning to frustrate the life out of me – I was up to 5 or 6 per hour!
In the horse box at Kingshouse (hotel) my abiding memory once again is of how alert I was in comparison to Rob who was falling asleep into his coffee. It still never occurred to me that this may have been a fight too far for him though, as I nudged and laughed at him for being in such a state.
We got our stuff together after yet another solid performance by Alan and Alison and were on our way into the breach. By now we were facing right into the worst the weather had for us. Rob wasn’t up for much running and I assumed at the time that he just wanted to save himself for the Devils Staircase.
What followed was the scariest time I’ve ever had on the hills (and I’ve had one or two). This was the first time the whole day that Rob confided in me that he was worried! And in an instant I realised just how bad he was.
In a split second all sorts started whirling around in my head. I didn’t know what to do, I felt so helpless. Rob was hallucinating, stumbling, falling and telling me that all he wanted to do was go to sleep. I tried to play it cool at first. By portraying this image I hoped it would give Rob some confidence that it wasn’t as bad as he perceived. It didn’t work but he did manage to continue to slowly put one foot in front of the other.
It must’ve taken what felt like half a day to get to the top of the staircase and even then when it should’ve been plain sailing we were still in the danger zone and my pee stops were not helping the dire straits. It was around this point when I decided to gamble by telling Rob that we would be giving up at Kinlochleven. I didn’t mean it but I needed him to believe that I was willing to give up with him. He agreed after a little more persuasion by me.
It started to break into dawn as we neared the top of the hill. I was keen for Rob to open up and get some blood pumping but he couldn’t muster much.
Sometime later, just before we got into Kinlochleven I confided in Rob that I would be continuing. I knew a half decent time was out of the question but I had no reason for quitting. Besides, I was also using this challenge as an opportunity to raise some money for a charity due to a recent family bereavement which I reminded Rob of.
This, and the strengthening daylight, seemed to stir something in Rob. He responded a short while later by insisting that he would continue to accompany me. He refused to listen to my expletives which as it turned out is just as well he did.
From Kinlochleven to Fort William he was the stronger of the two of us. After our last pit stop we both made it to the top of the hill out of Kinlochleven in good time. Unfortunately though the food I had eaten recently was not leaving my stomach. I was therefore in a bad way with burping, a lack of energy and of course my continual need to pee. We walked for most of the path into what felt like 60mph winds; this time Rob being patient with me.
When we eventually turned the corner before the sheep pen I managed to break into a painfully slow jog. However, almost in tandem the pair of us completely seized just after Lundavra. I had been living with a thigh and lateral knee ligament strain since the 4th hour, neither of which particularly bothered me as I just pushed them to the back of my mind. Now however, they were unbelievably painful. My right foot was feeling as though a red hot poker was being forced into it with every step I was taking and my toes were in rag order. Every time I stopped for a pee I could barely get going again. Pain the likes of which I have never experienced before. Rob was in a similar state with pains of his own. We were in no state to jog down the hill into Fort William. No matter how hard we tried we just couldn’t out of pure agony. Instead we hobbled very slowly all the way to the leisure centre.
We had made it to the Bridge of Orchy in around 14hrs and from there it took us in the region of 13 hrs to get to Fort William. We both knew a good time was out of the question on this day but to counter that we had a fairly good idea that we would be suitably rewarded for our endeavours.
From my perspective it was a perfect end to 18 weeks of perfect training and a lot of planning. I had managed to train consistently for the first time in my life and had also managed to complete the WHW during some quite arduous conditions. I also know that if I were to do the exact same training programme in the build up to a summer race attempt I would be confident of breaking 20hrs.
I didn’t really know how I was going to list my thoughts for this one. I had conceded in a text to Ali (Bryan-Jones) immediately after our challenge that I felt a bit fraudulent. After all, I was the one getting all the well done messages but I didn’t feel as though I had deserved the accolades. As Rob has so astutely put it to me since that day, we were both put into an alien environment, neither of us really knowing how to deal with it. He wasn’t able to spot the danger and I was the stronger of the two for a change. For what I witnessed on that day I am immensely proud to be associated with him.
As for my demons, they are well and truly vanquished. I owe the blogging fraternity massive thanks for sharing their knowledge with me. And here is a little bit in return.
1. Get some waterproof gloves for a challenge like this. Also, some sealskin socks and a ‘bombproof’ waterproof. I got my mountain equipment Morpheus jacket after suffering with hypothermia a few years back. This jacket is quite possibly the best use of my hard earned cash, ever.
2. Paul Houston informed me of a useful internet based information hotspot for ultra runners; type in ‘ultra list dartmouth’ within a search engine and there you will find a whole myriad of forums to register with. The Ultra forum is used worldwide so I would use a personal email address to register with as opposed your works email as it will be inundated with emails daily. This is where I found the answer to the next issue;
3. The constant pee-ing!!! It turns out that we have an anti diuretic hormone called Arginine Vasopressin (AVP). In the absence of this hormone the collecting ducts of the kidneys are virtually impermeable to water which therefore flows straight out as urine. When you drop off the pace and begin to get cold i.e. like we did post Bein Glas, then the body suppresses production of AVP. Throw in caffeine for good measure and you’ll be going like there’s no tomorrow. How do you sort this on the hoof? Well you need to increase plasma osmolarity. Now I’m no Biologist so if there are any out there, please correct my interpretation but I would have thought this means increasing ones salt intake. Let’s just say some salt caps may be added to my emergency pack in future!
4. If anyone wants a copy of my training programmes and associated literature I’d be happy to provide them as I have done with Paul. My email address is email@example.com. The training programme itself is on an excel spreadsheet and is exactly what I did for the 18 weeks leading up to the challenge. I must say though, it did not start out in its current guise as I tended to revise it often based on my attempts at avoiding overtraining. The stand out thing about this programme, for me, is the fact that I actually trained less for the WHW than I did for this year’s HMM.
5. Nutrition; as I progressed through the challenge I found it more difficult to eat solids. A great way I found of getting the nutrients on board was to have some little 250ml bottles pre-filled with Rego (by SIS) which were taken at each stop. Cheese spread sandwiches worked a treat too.
After that feedback, I have a question of my own;
· What’s with my toenails? I have 5 black toenails but the one on my big toe on my right foot is causing me the most concern. It has been leaking blood constantly for a week now. It is also causing me great discomfort. I have been to see my GP who has told me that there is nothing he can do for me and that I should see a podiatrist. It just so happens that podiatry is not provided on the NHS. Mega.
So that’s it then, the end of a great adventure and one which has provided two great friends with some memories which will last their lifetime. Thanks once again to all the support that came our way, it means a lot to us. Thanks also to the many sponsors I received. In memory of my niece, I managed to raise almost £750 for the SANDS charity which given the limited time I pursued it, I’m delighted with.
I hope to engage with more of you at some point in the future. For the time being though there is the small matter of finishing my distance learning honours degree and trying to get this bone spur removed, on the NHS – a situation that is looking increasingly unlikely as the months pass-by!
I won’t be running much in the next year or so (which frustrates me deeply) and whilst I may have to accept that fell running may be a thing of the past, ultra running is still very much on the agenda J