Hoka Highland Fling 2014

Time: 14:20:30

Medal: Yes

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Let me just state, before I go on, that I have an irrational fear of death. I pretty much see it as the end of the line, and it terrifies me that I have a shelf life that there’s nothing I can do about it. Because of this, I have grown to be scared of things that I used to be fine about when I was a kid. Like flying. Turbulence is a white-knuckle experience, without fail, and can bring me to tears. And Space, because I can’t deal with not knowing where everything ends. And my health.

I have, on more occasions that I care to admit, worn my heart rate monitor to bed because I had convinced myself that my heartbeat was irregular, and that I would have a heart attack in the middle of the night. It’s reassuring to be able to see that it’s normal (for me), and I can start to relax and go to sleep. I get paranoid whenever my body does weird stuff: heart palpitations, tingles, strange pains that occur anywhere (even if they last less than a second and never appear again), feeling faint – this list continues ad nauseam. It’s a really, really, really annoying thing to deal with sometimes, though I can tolerate it more now that I seem to have stopped getting panic attacks regularly. That made things like going to watch a film pretty much futile, because I’d spend half the time in the bathroom analyzing my pupils with my fingers glued to my neck checking my pulse like a moron.  Basically, irrational freak outs are a thing with me, but I would rather look like a lunatic than worry about my imminent death.

During the Highland Fling, there were moments where I felt I would have welcomed death. My fingers were swollen to the point that they resembled link sausages, my ankle felt like it was being stabbed, the blisters on my feet were getting blisters, and at one point I was shin deep in cow shit asking myself why I thought this was a reasonable idea and stating, clearly and resolutely, “Never again.” But finally crossing that line, totally buzzing despite it being several hours after the fastest runners had come through, was enough to change that, “Never again,” to, “Maybe.”

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Let’s rewind to Friday. After I finished work, I dragged all of my kit, in the pouring rain, to Aberdeen train station, where I boarded my train to Glasgow. I was soggy, the train was packed, I spent the entire journey worrying about my suitcase falling on my head. It was a less than fabulous experience. My friend, Grant, met me at the station, and we got a taxi back to his (via the shop for some supplies). And then we ordered a colossal amount of pizza, and watched a couple of episodes of ‘Freaks and Geeks’, which I had never heard of before, and probably would never have watched thanks to the title alone had Grant not convinced me that it is, in fact, a fabulous representation of what high school was like in the 90’s. I eventually got to sleep sometime after 11pm, with my alarm set for 3:30. In the morning.

I had arranged to share a taxi to Milgavie, about 10 miles north of Glasgow city centre, with two fellow runners, Belo and Maja, who were running the race while on holiday from Slovakia. The forecast for the day was abysmal, and as I watched the trees get battered by rain and wind outside as I got dressed, my heart sank. Thankfully, the rain had dwindled to a drizzle by the time I got a text from Belo saying they were on their way, and I lugged my belongings downstairs (Grant lives on the 7 millionth floor) to wait. The taxi arrived at about 4:20am, and about 20 minutes later we were at Milgavie train station to register.

To everyone’s relief, the drizzle was as bad as it got, and by about 5:30, the sky was overcast, but the rain had cleared. I had handed over my kit bag for the finish line, and stripped down to what I considered to be suitable layers for the day (gloves that could withstand -30 C temperatures, and my tornado-proof hiking jacket), feeling a tad overdressed next to some of the runners in lycra short shorts and a vest top, but whatever, I’m Texan.

 

I feel ya, Calvin.

I feel ya, Calvin.

As well as my kit bag, I had also handed over my drop bags, which was arguably as big a deal as turning up to the start line for me. Knowing I would not be breaking any course records is nothing new – I’m not the fastest runner, and I’ve only managed to ‘win’ a prize for finishing first female once. During a charity event’s inaugural run. Dressed as Santa. I’m pretty competitive when I know I have a chance of winning something, so when I found out there was a competition for the best drop bag at the first main check point, Balmaha, I basically devoted the week in the lead-up to the Fling to the creation of my drop bag. Because there was an actual chance I could win something! 4 rolls of duct tape, an empty coffee jar, a small cardboard box, 3 toilet roll tubes, and a packet of Sharpies later, I had created my masterpiece:

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10275296_10154008058380234_302507006197446341_oI gingerly handed over my entry to one of the marshalls, and set about finding some familiar faces, the first being Rhona and Graeme next to their ‘ultravan’. Graeme was marshalling, so he was busy collecting in drop bags, while Rhona and I went in search of some of the other ladies we were planning on running with. We found Iona and Jemma, who were sweeping the first half of the race and wished us good luck, then listened to the race director, ‘Johnny Fling’, brief us from the kit truck.

 

Photo: Stuart McFarlane

Photo: Stuart MacFarlane

Finally, with about 7 minutes before the race start, we stumbled upon Kate, Vicky, Tracey, and some other Stonehaven runners, managing a quick photo.

 

Photo: Rhona (redwinerunner.co.uk)

Photo: Rhona (www.redwinerunner.co.uk)

A few of us, being Fling virgins, had decided to run as a group, and we made nervous/excited chatter until we heard the horn go off signalling the start. We shuffled forwards under a bridge, beeping over the starting mats and heading straight up some stairs, before veering left towards the start of the West Highland Way.

 

Photo: Iona MacKay

Photo: Iona MacKay

I was under the impression that the first 12ish miles to Drymen were flat, but I quickly understood that to mean ‘flat’.  As in, undulating, but no really steep ascents.  That part was nice, and we happily bumbled along as a group, chatting about quitting jobs, weddings, and selling and buying houses.  A couple of miles before Drymen, I realized, to my horror, that I needed the toilet.  In more than a 30-seconds-by-the-side-of-the-road kind of way.  Sadly, the queue for the single porta loo at Drymen was substantial, and I was convinced to hold on until Balmaha for some respite.  And so we continued.

Me - 40 layers.  Everyone else - shorts + shirt.

Me – 40 layers. Everyone else – shorts + shirt.

Rhona and I pulled ahead a little before Balmaha as there was a bathroom break by a couple of our group, and I was getting cold standing around.  Besides – none of us were planning on bombing through the checkpoint, so we intended to meet each other there.  Just after 19 miles, and we turned a corner into the check point.  The atmosphere was amazing (thank you marshalls!), and Graeme handed my my drop bag, telling me, “You’ve won!”  I was confused for a moment until I realized he meant the drop bag competition (my brain was clearly not firing on all cylinders), and that was just the pick-me-up I needed after 7 miles of churning bowels.  Vicky, Tracey, and Kate were only a couple of minutes behind us, and once we had all refilled our camelbaks and taken on the food we wanted, we set off towards Rowardennan.

Thankfully, a little after the Balmaha checkpoint there are some fancy public toilets.  As Rhona and I were a little ahead of the others, I took the necessary decision to seek sweet relief in the luxurious cubicle (plumbing, toilet seat, loo roll, AND a hook for my camelbak), and though an incomplete evacuation, it was enough to help me feel like I wasn’t going to soil myself.  I vocalized my pleasure to the group as I returned, and we set off again.

Photo: Ian Russell

Photo: Ian Russell

This part of the course was a little bit more technical than the start, and it was a nice distraction having to concentrate on where your feet were going.  Before I knew it, we were coming into Inversnaid.

Photo: Stuart MacFarlane

Photo: Stuart MacFarlane

As Rhona and I had been a little ahead for the last while, I had forgotten, in the absense of task master Vicky, to take on food at regular intervals, and I had started to feel dizzy, nauseous, and tired.  I started cranking up the food intake, and thankfully after about half an hour I started to feel a bit more human, but I felt like I’d gone from feeling fine, to struggling in the space of a couple of miles.

From here, things get a bit blurry.  I know the lochside leg was slow and there was quite a bit of clambering over slippery rocks.  Though I did crack my bad ankle on a rock, and Kate had a nasty looking fall, thankfully none of us suffered the same fate as one poor woman who fell and smashed her jaw in five places and had to be taken to hospital for surgery (though I hear she still ran the 5 miles to the next checkpoint after her extreme tumble).  Rhona went ahead on her own, and that’s the last we saw of her until the end.

The four of us kept each other going, our main mission to get to Bein Glas before the 5:30 pm cut-off, which we managed with plenty of time to spare.  From there, we consoled ourselves that there were ‘only’ 12 miles left.  I’m so glad I didn’t extensively study the course elevation profile before, because if I knew what was to come I might have cried. From about 45 miles, every time I tried to run, my ankle was screaming at me, and eventually I told Vicky that I was pretty sure I’d have to walk my way in.

Highland Fling elevation profile

Highland Fling elevation profile

I think Vicky was suffering a bit as well, so Kate and Tracey went on ahead, and Vicky and I resorted to speed-walking.  We went through the infamous Cow Poo Alley (which was ripe thanks to all the recent rain), and at one point I was shin deep in muck.  We met an impass in the trail at one point due to a herd of unfriendly looking cows, and opted to climb up the hill and around them as a detour.  And about 4 miles from the end, my bowels felt as though they would erupt, so I sent Vicky ahead a few paces, and went scurrying into the woods for my first ever al fresco crap.  It was definitely a low point in my life.

Looking back at the bastard cows.

Looking back at the bastard cows.

At this stage I had thrown all my toys out of the pram and was sulkily wading through the streams instead of nimbly prancing over the rocks to keep my feet dry.  After all, I had a thick, creamy layer of cow shit to wash off.  My Garmin, which is a dirty fucking liar, beeped for mile 53, but there was no end in sight.  Despite my inner tantrums, Vicky and I managed to stay cheerful by chatting all the way to Tyndnrum, finally being encouraged by the marshalls shouting, “only 600 metres to go!”.  Vicky and I had made a pact to run across the line, and as soon as we saw the red carpet laid out for us, we picked up to a trot, and finished as we’d started – chatting and smiling:

858697_1472344089648928_2818653848334701613_oAfter having the chip cut off from my ankle, getting my medal, tech shirt, and goody bag (complete with bottle of fizz!), I made my way into a heated marquee and had a seat with some amazing lentil soup.

Before long, I was being presented with my prize for the winning drop bag, which is WAY more than I was expecting, and I did wonder how I would manage to cart everything upstairs to my apartment when I got home the next day (thankfully Ian was in).  I didn’t really get a chance to explore the Scottish hamper until I got back to Aberdeen, and it was better than Christmas.  Everything on that table?  Currently on my living room floor.  Apart from wee Nessie – that’s in bed with the stuffed huskies I couldn’t bear to part with after pulling them behind me at Loch Ness last year.

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Photo: Stuart MacFarlane

Photo: Stuart MacFarlane

Photo: Stuart MacFarlane

Photo: Stuart MacFarlane

After hobbling off the podium, Graeme and Vicky’s husband, Ian, helped collect my bags, and Jemma and Iona helped me take my stuff to the bed and breakfast (Oh my god, thank you so much!), where I showered and put on some clean clothes, before heading with Kate and her husband, Ali, up to the hall for some food.

After nearly falling asleep into our dinner, we said goodnight, and I slept like a baby.  Until my work alarm, which I had forgotten to disable, woke me up.  Thanks, idiot me.

Despite the pain of the last 7-8 miles, I can honestly say I had a great experience.  The course was more challenging than I was expecting, and it’s always nerve-wracking running in unknown territory (for me, anything over 33 miles), but the whole event was so well organized, and all the helpers and runners were on top form.  Free booze at the end also helps soften the blow.  Commiserations to any of the runners who had to DNF, despite putting in a tough slog, but there’s always next year.

Considering on Saturday I probably would have been willing to break my own legs to have a legitimate reason not to run this ever again, I’m rather disconcerted that I am genuinely considering returning in 2015.*

Photo: Lorna McMillan

Photo: Lorna McMillan

 

 

*To defend my title, obviously.

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D33 Ultramarathon 2014

Time:  6:20:00

Medal: Yes

IMG_20140315_171853The D33 was set up by George Reid as a longer distance race to help build up to the Highland Fling in April.  The same Highland Fling that somehow I am going to attempt to complete in just over a month.  Entries for the D33 opened a little early this time around, just before midnight on New Year’s Eve, and as I sat at my parents’ kitchen table in Houston eating pasta and preparing for the Texas marathon, I became the 42nd person to enter this year’s race.

I have done a few training runs with some of the Stonehaven running club runners, and this race was in the schedule as the longest training run before April’s race.  I had a few goals for this, the most important being: don’t get injured, have fun, and finish.  Joining in the pre-race chatter online, I had been invited to run with Kate, Vicki, and Geraldine as our final training run as a group.  The thought of having company throughout the race was appealing, especially the race was on Kate’s birthday, so spirits were bound to be high.

Race morning was overcast and a bit breezy, but nothing that would blow tiles off a roof.  I had been keeping my eye on the forecast all week, and it fluctuated between sunshine and 14 degrees, and rain and 7 degrees.  But relying on the forecast in this country is futile, so I was pleased that it wasn’t too windy, but worried about the heavy cloud.

At about 7:30, I left my apartment and walked about a mile to Duthie Park to register.  Several friends were volunteering and it was nice to see familiar faces ordering me about with instructions on where to put my (pitiful) drop bags for the 1/4, 1/2, and 3/4 checkpoints.  Eventually more and more runners descended upon my local park, and I ran into more recognizable faces, some also popping their ultra cherry.

Eventually Kate, Vicki, Geraldine and I all found each other.  They were decked out in club vests and some rather flashy socks in their club colours which attracted a lot of attention during the day, and 3 of us were all wearing the same purple Camelbak.  We also found Tina, from Aberdeen Metro runners, who was cautious because she was running on a dodgy ankle and fancied a steady group to keep her company.

Kate and I missed the race briefing because we were in a queue for the porta loo, but made it back to our group on the start line with a couple of minutes to spare.  Then came a countdown, and we were off!

The railway line that I normally ran along was packed with neon flashes as we churned out the first mile.  Tina and I fell in behind a group of women that were keeping us at a reasonable pace, and were chatting about a training weekend along part of the Fling route in a couple of weeks.  We were soon joined by another woman and Claudia.  I noticed that we were a little ahead of Kate, Geraldine, and Vicki, so when Tina overtook the group after a couple of miles, I fell back and the rest went ahead, looking strong. Unfortunately, a mile or so later, the four of us ran past Tina, Claudia, and +1 off to the side, Tina holding a tissue covered in blood, and blood all over her knee.  I asked if they were ok, and Tina seemed in good enough spirits and said she was fine, so we kept going, assuming she had just scraped her knee and was otherwise alright.  It turns out, she had gone over her ankle (again), and decided to be sensible and pull out.  Photos of her swollen ankle that turned up later on Facebook confirmed that she probably made the best decision, but she was, and is, understandably gutted.

It was around this point that I noticed a host of niggles that I panicked would leave me at the side of the course, writhing in agony later on, but thankfully most of these gradually faded away throughout the day.  The same couldn’t quite be said for birthday girl Kate, however, as she had been suffering from plantar fasciitis, and had even been told by her physio not to run the race.  On her birthday.  With friends.  So obviously she ignored that, and for the start, at least, everything seemed to be going smoothly.

Photo: Ryan Roberts

Photo: Ryan Roberts

Vicki was a strict task master, and we were following her run for 30 minutes/walk for 3 rule.  The walk breaks gave us an opportunity to take in fuel, an assortment of sweet and salty snacks, as well as let our heartrates come down a bit/stretch out any tight areas.  Initially, it felt a bit silly to be walking 30 minutes into a race when we were running at such a conversational pace, but if that’s what it takes to run 33 miles with no ill-effects afterwards, then I’m a believer.

We hit checkpoint one/three (it’s an out and back course), where Naomi and Suzy were waiting to hand us our drop bags (a bag of salted crisps for me), and chatted for a bit before setting off again, hoping that we were still as cheerful on the way back.  After about 14 miles, we hit Milton of Crathes, where Kate’s family were all waiting for her, and we stopped again for a toilet/oatmeal raisin cookie break (to the creator of those, they were amazing!).  I also took this opportunity to text ahead as someone marshalling at the halfway checkpoint wanted to present Kate with a ‘birthday flapjack’ (flapjack with a candle rammed inside it).

At Milton of Crathes.  No idea why it looks like I'm checking out Kate's rack.

At Milton of Crathes. No idea why it looks like I’m checking out Kate’s rack.

By this point, the faster runners had started to pass us on their way back, and we encouraged them as they all flew by.  Eventually, we made the halfway point and stopped for a chat, some snacks, and to refill camelbaks.  I think once we set off, we were all a little bit happier because we knew every step we took took us closer to the finish line instead of farther away.  The sun came out.  I was nearly what I would classify as ‘warm’.  I was happy.

There weren’t too many people behind us, which became apparent on our way back.  Soon we ran past the ‘Grim Sweeper’, looking cheerful at the back.  By this point, Kate’s feet were causing her a lot of pain, and there were murmurings of stopping at the 3/4 checkpoint, but we stuck with the run/walk strategy and pushed on.  We were also picking off a few walkers who were clearly hurting, and we were grateful that on the whole, we were feeling comfortable.

The 3/4 checkpoint arrived, and we took a little while to chat/replenish supplies.  I packed some dried fruit into my camelback and added a little water, as I’d run out.  I also drank half a bottle of lucozade, but chucked the rest, and added the rest of my food to the ‘free-for-all’ pile on the table.

At the 3/4 checkpoint

At the 3/4 checkpoint

1926824_10201508899193102_717979712_nBy this point, Kate reasoned that she couldn’t really do too much more damage to her feet in another 8-ish miles, so the four of us continued as a group.  I phoned Ian to let him know roughly when we’d be finished, but also requested that he bring something to hand over to me before the finish line.

I remember looking down at my Garmin at about 26 miles and thinking how strong I felt for completeing a marathon distance, when normally I’m ready to crumble in a heap and go for a nap.  The next time I looked down, the distance read 27.2 miles, and I was out of known territory!  With about 5 miles to go, we all stopped for a photo with a sign somebody had put out for Kate’s birthday:

1907565_10152314998593792_666196150_nWith less than a 5k to go, I found myself involuntarily speeding up, and then trying to reel myself in.  Then Ian appeared on his bike and cycled beside us.

Now, I wanted to finish my first ultra in style, so obviously I had asked for Ian to bring me a pair of high heels to cross the finish line in.  About a mile from the end, we came across Vicki’s husband, Ian, who was struggling.  Vicki told me to go on ahead and that they would walk with Ian for a bit.  Ian (my Ian) and I went on, and as I turned the corner into Duthie park, he produced my heels from his rucksack, and cycled off to the side. Ronnie had been for his long run already, so was at the finish with his camera in hand:

Appraching the finish line.  Carrying heels.

Appraching the finish line. Carrying heels.

About 10 feet before the finish line, I stopped and stepped to the side.  One of the marshalls told me, “You’re not finished yet, love, you need to go a bit further.”  Then I put my heels on the ground and started untying the laces of my trainers.  She laughed, as did the crowd at the finish line.  I managed to wedge my feet into my heels, and, somehow, stand up unaided, before strutting across the finish line as Kate, Vicki, and Geraldine came in behind me, holding hands.

Because, why not?

Because, why not?

Geraldine, Vicki, and Kate.

Geraldine, Vicki, and Kate.

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And with that, I was an ultramarathoner.  And I felt OK!  I got my medal, goody bag, and swapped my heels for flip flops, and spoke to some of the other finishers, and some of my friends who had come down to watch the finish and cheer in runners.  Not long after, Ian and I walked back to my flat, where I showered and threw on compression socks, and had a failed nap attempt before heading to the train station en route to the after party in Stonehaven.  Many a beer were enjoyed (although I’m pretty sure I owe a few people a round), and I clumsily made it back to my own bed via the second to last train home.

This morning I am suffering no more than I would had I gone out for a 15 mile run, which gives me a bit more confidence for the Fling.  However, despite getting through an ultra marathon with no hassle, I did end up bleeding and in tears after thwacking myself in the face with my mobile phone this morning, which is swelling up a treat, and will no doubt look terrific for work tomorrow.

For now though?  A burger I think.

D33 route

D33 route