Tuesday, 21 September 2010

The RAW - Does my bum look big in this...?

"Does my bum look big in this?", I say as I run past a male runner around mile 38 of the RAW. Well no, actually I am lying, I didn't say that but these are the kind of thoughts that crossed my mind as I tried desperately to take my mind off my flagging pace. Probably just as well I didn't, as he might have replied, "Well, yes, I was just thinking that....". Next time I am just going to run up and tap the person in front of me on the shoulder and shout "tig"!

And so on we go to the RAW...

My day started well as I saw 2 beautiful barn owls sitting together on the fence as I drove away from home - these little moments enrich life so much. It almost made up for the congealing feeling I had in my stomach from a bowl of porridge that just hadn't gone down as well as expected. It was a typically autumnal day but I felt very cold at the start of the race and was wishing that I had brought a spare bag of clothes with me (take heed for the future un-iniated ones). After 2 hours driving I was still struggling with my stomach (not unusual as it has always followed it's own agenda which sadly isn't the same as the rest of my body). With the cold as well I seriously considered withdrawing but if I could just get moving then things might improve. I set off running like Forrest Gump, before the calipers fell off, and to be honest it didn't get much better for the whole 41 miles. Funny how some days are just like that.

The route was extremely pretty. I thought that I knew most of Scotland reasonably well and then to find somewhere completely new was wonderful. My regret here is that I didn't go out and buy a proper map and study it the way I normally do. I was a bit complacent and let Tim do all the work so we could just copy them off the website. It works to get you round but I feel that I missed out on the bigger picture about where I was and what was going on around about me and that's what makes the journey come alive for me. If I was an elite runner then it wouldn't bother me because it would all be a blur anyway but that's where we less able runners score points. An elite runner will suddenly think, "I think I just passed something yellow there" whereas we will have looked at it, recorded it's spec, phoned David Bellamy to help with classification and got the area declared a site of special scientific interest.... before we have even left it behind.

The route is undulating with no really tough hills to bite into the quads. I loved running alongside water flowing in the same direction as me- very therapeutic. The terrain seemed to repeat in sections and I would have a nanosecond of panic as I thought that I was repeating but then realise that it just looked similar. Some sections were quite closed in and I had to duck and dive a bit between overhanging branches and nettles/brambles. At one point I had the oddest sensation of skin tightening on left shin but when I looked all I could see were the little tell-tale nettle welts but couldn't feel any pain. It must have been the endorphins. Maybe that's why animals run off at high speed when they have been stung.

Other sections were full of ripe brambles and I caught runners stopping for an impromptu snack a few times. There were also loads of blackthorn bushes laiden with sloe berries. Time to get picking to get the sloe gin ready for Christmas! My hunter gatherer instincts are very strong and I notice these kind of things and find it hard not to respond to my gathering need!

Running across the farm land was very enjoyable and a relief on the tired limbs but the areas where there were tarmac roads were killers. I felt my shock absorbing ability had totally gone.I suspect if I had been a car going into a garage, they would have told the owner to forget it! I began to notice that I couldn't push off through my toes. The power just seemed to have vanished. I wasn't in pain but just lacked power. It was particularly bad going up hills and I ended up having to herring bone up like a ski-ier. I am still trying to recover after my protracted lay-off in May-July but had felt before the race that I was running a bit better. I decided to try and get to 20 miles and see how it went.

Whatever my difficulties were with the technicalities of running, the environment more than compensated. I came across a wee group kids sitting on a fence trying to sell the runners blackberries at 50p each. I told them I worked for the Inland Revenue Service, took £1 off them and carried on. A bit further on, on one of the shorter road sections a beautiful dog fox popped out right ahead of me. It hesitated on the road as if to say "Is that all you've got?" then ran off down the hill. I couldn't believe it when I got to the next field and it popped back out, going in the opposite direction. It hesitated again and I swear it was laughing at me... so I shot it.

One thing that is going to remain a mystery to me is the otter. I first had contact with otters at age 6 in our kitchen and my love for them has never wained. After living in the Shetland Islands for 15 years I became quite an expert at hearing and finding them so when I heard that familiar whistle my heart leapt. I stopped (it wasn't hard) and looked but the bushes at the side of the river were just too thick to see clearly but I am sure that there was one there somewhere. You will just have to take my word for it!

As ever with races we all talked along the way about getting lost but other than a couple of wee places, the signing was excellent as was the support at the checkpoints. I could have stocked up with Mars bars for the next year if I could have carried them! The checkpoints were really regular, about every 5-6 miles, which meant that we really didn't need to carry much, which adds to the freedom to enjoy the process of running.

This was only my fourth ultra but already I am getting to know the faces of those who are likely to be running around me and it was great to catch up and reminisce with those I had met at the Cateran, most of who were doing to RAW for the first time too. At the end of the race I noticed one of them, David Hetherington (I think) standing with his wife as I drove away. I believe he was waiting to see the last runners home which impressed me very much. I felt guilty that I wasn't doing the same but was nervous that I was getting cold again and still had the 2 hour drive home. Respect David and see you on the Fling! The fact that he was standing smoking a fag and swigging out of a can of some brew from the north east of England, obviously brought specially for the occasion, made the picture somewhat comical.

It was a bit disappointing to find the Citadel closed when I went to try and get a shower before driving home. Obviously slower runners aren't meant to sweat or need the loo!I threw on a hoodie, jumped into the car and headed for the first loo on the way out of Ayr. It happened to be at MacDonalds, right beside the racecourse which had just emptied out. I walked in to find everyone standing in 6 inch heels, foundation deeper than an inovate tread and dresses cut to thrill! You can just imagine their faces when one stinky, muddy, short-wearing woman hobbled in! I enjoyed every moment! Then it was back on the road. I was keen to get back home as at about mile 35, I had heard a text arrive on my mobile. I thought it was probably Ellen saying she was getting hypothermia and would have to go. I was wrong, it was my husband Terry and the text read "Murray has just slammed Chloe's finger in the door and we are at the Vale of Level (hospital)". Nothing like a reality check when you're running I say!My day finished off perfectly when I saw another 2 (the same?) barn owls sitting right together on the same stretch of road.

NB i)I didn't really take the money from the kids... or the blackberries!
ii)I didn't shoot the fox. I'm the saddo that lets the bluebottles out the window!


1. Even though my fitness was down, I have recovered very quickly and with no blisters or muscle trauma so am pleased that my base level fitness is holding well

2.My flat feet were extremely annoying. Since my surgery I am only just returning to hill work and speed work. I know that there are those that don't believe it necessary for endurance running, but I find both hill work and speed work help my plyometric (bouncy) fitness and it is evident to me that I need to work more specifically on this. Maybe try some skipping and jumping drills.

3.I am happy with my hydration. I even managed to get my bottle in and out of the Last Drop sack with minimal problems this time and just added electolyte tablets once.

4.My main problem continues, and probably always will, to be my ability to eat. Although I carried food with me, I only ate 1/2 banana, 1 gel and 1 sachet of complan which I got away with but think my performance would be better if I can get this cracked. I am starting to think the only way forward is to work with liquids - complan and the like, but taking them more regularly.

5.I absolutely love the brain high I get the next day after these runs and wonder if anyone else feels the same. I think the massive oxygen boost to the brain must be the cause, but I always have these moments of intellectual/creative clarity just after ultras. One of my more frivolous closing thoughts in this vein is that no wonder women have such problems with obesity/body image when they are globally depicted as a triangle with a circle on top. Think I will need to try a Banksy-esk campaign to stencil over these signs with an image of Lara Croft!

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Devil-done but not dusted....

It's 3am and I am dragging myself out of bed to face my usual pre-race big bowl of porridge and anything I can add to it - Complan, Golden Syrup - stuff I would never dream of eating normally. I'm feeling quite nervous about the day and I know the reason why. I am running in a bit of an unknown quantity. I'm not a competitive runner, the only challenge is for myself against myself but having had surgery at the end of May and only getting running again the last 6 weeks, I don't know how it is going to feel. I've done a couple of longer runs and they have been unproblematic so here's hoping.

As we drive up the A82 I try to sleep but the adrenalin is already building so I give up and watch the dawn starting to break.I think to myself that poor Terry and Chloe(12) have also had to drag themselves out just for me and a little bit of guilt sets in. Tyndrum is amok with runners and crew. It's lovely to catch up people for a few minutes then it's the pre-race bit. Never heard any of it through the nervous mutterings so assume it was all about "Don't cheat, don't do anything stupid and if you do, don't blame us", sounds fair enough to me. I'll do my best.

Then we are off. OMG they have all set of like whippets out of the traps and I am immediately thinking that I have made a mistake and should have taken longer to rehab. Then I remind myself that I am only trying to get around within the 12 hours, still in a lifelike state and having had fun. I slow down to a more realistic pace and am delighted to catch up with Karen D who always makes you feel better with her sunny disposition. She has run all the big ones this summer and she is up for the UTMB in a few weeks. What a wimp I am being. We run along towards Bridge of Orchy, through the lifting morning mist, chatting happily when suddenly she launches herself forward on the ground. I quickly check and decide that she definitely isn't facing Mecca and she really has fallen but thankfully she is OK, unlike her Garmin strap - still better that than broken bones. We try to work out why she fell and realise that I had just told her to look at the beautiful view over Ben Inverveigh. Does that count as cheating? I'm just glad that she will live to fight another day, or at least a UTMB. Sorry Karen.

Quick stop, catching up with Terry and a surprisingly awake Chloe on a bike, then upwards and onwards to Victoria Bridge. I am feeling fine, there's even a wee spring left in the step so I'm feeling good. Maybe the day will go OK afterall.

As I run towards Forest Lodge I feel a wee beastie around my face as I cross the bridge....oh no. I don't think I have ever involuntarily consumed so much wild protein since my elder brother tried to force feed me a bit of corn beef covered in blue bottle eggs when we were kids (he's a vet now, no joke). I try to use a bit of empathy psychology by telling myself that the poor midges only get to live for a day and isn't it amazing how they always find you - but it doesn't work. They are awful. The route at this point is quite cobbly and greasy in the dew so it's a bit tricky under foot aswell as overhead/in face. I hope for a breeze to blow them away when we get out onto the moor but it never arrives. Inspite of that it is wonderful to be so far away from roads and traffic and I love the solitude. As I approach the end of the moor, starting the ascent I check on what I have consumed- one Zipvit bar and a good bit of water- and I start planning what to eat as we descend over into Glencoe, other than midges that is.

After a quick stop I set off along to Altnafeadh. I don't much like this bit as it goes next to the road but once again I run with Karen, and find that she has forgiven me, so that helps pass the time. I haven't been up the Devil's Staircase for years which helped because instead of dreading it I look forward to it and am not disappointed. The views from the top are amazing. If my breath hadn't already gone it would have been breath-taking! Whatever else happens the rest of the journey this will make it all worthwhile I tell myself and I still feel that way now.

Over the top and down the other side things come slightly adrift as I start the descent and I feel a sudden sharp pain on the outside of my right knee. The 2 women ahead of me get further away as I have to slow down and work this out. It doesn't take long - I'm a physio. I have lost gluteal bulk and my gluteus medius is not strong enough to support my ITB so my right knee has been twisting inwards and causing overuse on the ITB. So if I can't strengthen up mid-race how am I going to manage this? I quickly adjust my gait ever so slightly so that my foot is just a little more outwards (both legs equally to keep the balance) and make sure I try to keep my knees moving over my toes and not drifting internally. It soon starts to settle and I can forget about it again. I make a mental note to start strengthening my hip abductors and knee VMO's. I have been lucky so far since I started running in 2007, not to have had any serious injuries and today I have escaped again. One of the things I love about the endurance runs is learning to really work with my body- to listen to what it is asking for in terms of food, electrolytes and water and also to take it's gripes and groans seriously and respond as soon as they start, not ignoring at my own peril. It's very easy with today's frantic pace of living to become desensitised to yourself, not keeping everything in tune. So far so good.

As I run towards the bottom of the hill I try munching another Zipvit bar. Peach and apricot is so much better than the chocolate ones in the heat. Must remember to eat the choc ones early on and save the others for later. I've had a Complan on the way to Altnafeadh and things are going OK. Well they would be if I hadn't got lost.... I can''t remember this bit of the WHW and I've just crossed a bridge where there is a path up to the left but more definite track going round to the right. I hum and ha and get my map out when I hear the little patter of Karen D feet. She saves the day and we start off towards Kinlochleven.

I grab a bit of watermelon and a banana from the ever patient crew, dive into the local pub and drag myself regretfully past the ice cool lager towards the ladies loo. Some folk can drink beer and run - I'm not one of them sadly! The hill out of Kinlochleven is as it always is -a pest. I know that I am running pretty slowly but I enjoying my "day out with runner friends" as Ellen McVey called it, like we were just going for a genteel picnic or something! I look at my watch and wonder if any of my usual training pals have got in. I hope so. As I push on up the hill I dread the gaps between the trees where the sunlight seems to concentrate into pockets of intense heat. If I had more energy I would try and speed up at these points just to get through them but not today. So it's a slog but then the wonderful breeze starts to hit me as it comes off the Lairigmoire and my spirits, if not my energy levels, lift.

I love running through the Mamores towards the spectacular Ben Nevis in the distance. I usually get into a lovely rhythm and things flow but much as I am enjoying the run, I am having to dig deep. The rocky path is tricky and I am tired so have to work really hard at placing my feet to avoid ankle injuries. As children we used to have races across beaches where we weren't allowed to touch the sand but had to jump between the rocks. We lived in our bare feet and I think the experience serves me well over terrain like this. I must try and get my own kids to have go.

Everytime I pass the rescue medics they ask me how I am feeling. I've just run 35-odd miles on a hot day, how do you think? But I appreciate why they are doing it and try to string some intelligible words together and smile sweetly so they don't make me retire. It seems to work and I thank them for turning out and carry on my way. I am such a bloody-minded person when I want to do something. It's probably helping right now.

I can see Ray McCurdy ahead of me. I feel that I should be passing him but he's getting away from me. I'm not fast but I've had the edge on him in the 2 races we've run before but it's his turn today. He's running well and I try not to look at him and just focus on my own race but it's hard. Eventually he is so far ahead he's out of sight. It's a relief.

I usually love running down into Fort William, at least until the road. I enjoy the freefall of downhill but today I am just so tired it's hard even to run downhill and I am ashamed to say I did have walky bits! Finally I see Terry and Chloe and we trot towards the finish. I imagine the light starting to fade and the theme from Midnight Cowboy playing as some old guy sweeps the empty street.... but it wasn't as bad as that and the organisers at the end gave such a lovely cheer, which must have been hard to sustain for all the stragglers but they did a sterling job.

Later I receive an email from a fellow runner which makes me smile. It says "Saw the family up a tree....". He said that he suddenly became aware of something above him but rather than some divine moment it was Terry and Chloe up a tree cheering on the finishers. I wish that I could have got in faster to see that. Maybe next year.

I ran a pretty slow race but I loved the journey and am pleased that my muscles have held up with no injuries whatsoever even after such a prolonged layoff. Just goes to show that we are capable of so much more than we often allow ourselves to believe.

I am delighted to see Sarah's 7hr 55 min time. I always knew she had it in her. Imagine what she would be able to do if she really put the specific training in! Here's hoping. I'm also delighted to see that both Ellen and Lorna (Masterton) have got PB's. I have learned so much from them. I've never run the Devil before so now I have a time to work from. Hopefully next year I will only have to fight with the Devil not my erroneous insides,and so for this runner's year the Devil O The Highlands has been done but definitely not dusted.

So what have I learned from this race?

1) I need to review transporting arrangements! The Last Drop ruck sack was very comfortable and I had no problems with dislocating my shoulder to get my water bottle because I carried a bottle belt below the sack but...... I found I didn't respond so spontaneously to my need for food or electrolytes as I had to think to remove the sack from my back which I constantly told myself I would do " at the next checkpoint" but would then forget to do. I am going back to the waist pack for next time.

2) I need not only to work out what to eat but to be a bit more systematic as to exactly when I eat. I know that I have extraneous factors coming into play here as regards my eating so I need accept that and to trial out feeding types and intervals more accurately.We all have our cross to bear and that's mine. Could be worse!!

3)After the race, even though I had such a long layoff, I didn't suffer any major muscle injuries, joint problems or biomechanical issues which is fab. Areas needing a little attention are right glut medius, right VMO. Not to say I didn't feel trashed but that would be due to loss of stamina due to layoff and resulting lack of training.Remedy; to specifically target muscle groups for strengthening and start to increase weekly mileage to rebuild endurance (download training plan from ultra website)
4) Enter RAW to have goal to help motivation
5)Introduce skipping into cross-training to improve plyometrics and intrinsic foot muscle strength. I have noticed after layoffs (there have been a few!) that my feet always feel like slabs of meat when I am running. My professional take on this is that as I have not been able to exercise, I have developed muscle wasting. The intrinsic muscles of the feet are small and therefore more affected by wasting with more obvious objective signs such as flat-footed gait.

Sunday, 25 July 2010


Sarah last Friday on the shoulder of Ben Narnain with the Cobbler behind

The Devil of the Highlands is now approaching quite fast and I am starting to really look forward to it. I am never one for taking peace. I reckon I'll rest when I'm 6 feet under but while there is living to be had-count me in!

Have been trying out different fuelling strategies on some of my longer runs. After speaking to Helen Johnson after the Cateran, I realise that I need to get this sussed better.My surgeon is developing a keen interest in sports nutrition - how handy is that! His tips were to eat oats in the morning but not cooked into porridge as it lowers the glycaemic value. His other tip was to buy bananas literally about 2 weeks before the run so they are nearly black and can almost be sucked out of their skins so are easier absorbed ...hmmm. The thought of that while sitting here makes me feel queasy, so can't imagine that one working for me after running across Rannoch Moor.

What I have found works well is the uncooked oats made up with complan in the morning and adding syrup or whatever into it. From about 2 hours in, or sooner, I am going to start nibbling Zipvit bars which are fab high calorie, taste ok and most importantly for me, are ultra-readily absorbed. I am going to try and nibble every 15 mins-30 mins as I go. Around Glencoe I am going to tip a sachet of Complan into my water, +/- electrolytes, so I can sip as I run. Then it will be back to the Zipvits and sweet bananas. When I get to Kinlochleven and am staring at that unforgiving ascent I am going to bring out my little secret weapon - the Fair Trade peppermint creams from the Co-op, made to lift one's spirits and help the breathing!

So that's how I am going to improve my fuelling or so we'll see! As for the hydration -I think over the years my body has acclimatised to any enforced changes and hydration is never something that has bothered me while running. I think the thing to do is to make sure I get enough fluids and electrolytes before starting to run. I don't get really thirsty when running but I am aware that I am not great at heat regulation (are any of us?) so getting reasonable fluids onboard before would seem a good idea.

I've had some great training runs in variable weather conditions- some solo, some with friends.I have loved being able to get out with Sarah and Ellen again and am so grateful for their words of encouragement and the fact that they never moan about having to run with their granny in tow! Running round the Red Bike route at Ardgartan can be bit numbing at times but I've enjoyed it these last few weeks as it has been perfect terrain for me to try and get back in sync with myself. It's amazing how quickly your shoulders start to creep forwards, altering the centre of gravity and inhibiting the hip from flexing.I have had to constantly remind myself to straighten up, but it's getting better now and I don't feel as if a bit of elastic is pulling me earthward all the time. Things are starting to feel in balance again. The other weird thing I have noticed is when I am descending at speed off hills (Cobbler/Ben Narnain) I keep catching my left toes as I get tired. I haven't fully fallen but have now worked out that I have adhesions in my anterior lower left abdominal/pelvic area which are preventing my left hip from fully extending. I don't feel it at all running normally, only on those steep descents. More stretching required methinks.

I'm not chasing a time, having never run the Devil before but I am hoping to enjoy the journey and get home before the cut-off. It's quite liberating not to be beating myself up about times but just to run for the love of running in beautiful places. It just feels like such a natural thing to do.

Next up is transporting. These last 2 ultras I have run with my OMM waist belt. It has worked ok but keeps twisting round, no matter what I try, and I feel it, in the words of a lady from Lancashire, "an embuggerance"! I just like carrying the load on my back, maybe it''s a woman thing, but I don't want to have to dislocate my shoulder everytime I want a drink and I'm not that keen on bladders. However the last 2 runs I've been on recently I have worn my Last Drop (which I love) on my back with a bottle belt below which has worked well. Had a look on the web but oddly can't find a good lightweight sac with a bottle holder on the side strap. I know there are some out there but all the ones I looked at were so bulky looking. You can by bottle holder attachments but had a go with one of those and my feeling is that unless your chest is as flat as a pancake, and mine isn't, then it doesn't stay still and starts to get really uncomfortable. I wonder what the chances are of getting Bravissimo to design an ultralightweight sac for females?

My last point of consideration is how I am going to cope with the weather. Don't mind the rain or the wind, much, but if it's a flat calm day and blazing sun that's going to be a killer. At least there are not many road sections and plenty of burns to soak one's buff/feet/entire body in. I'll just do as Mum always told me and clatch on the suncream, wear a hat and shades - even if I do look a bit like an assassin. Afterall, if these madmen and women can run across Death Valley or the Sahara surely to God I can do it on the last half of the WHW!!

Monday, 21 June 2010

Looking down the Gareloch towards Helensburgh

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June 21st - Realisations

I'm new to this so without stopping to think I am going to dive in and repent, if need be, later. I have been following the West Highland Way Race and have realised that I want to enter next year if they'll let me. I am bloody-minded and not averse to ridiculously early starts for training runs (because of family commitments) so reckon that they might be useful attributes. I just want to slouch on the sofa and be able to glance across the room at the crystal glass and think "I did that"

To date I have only run 2 ultras - the Highland Fling and the Cateran 55 but managed to get round them without too many hiccups. My next run will be the Devil of the Highlands - if I can regain my fitness after a recent fight with a scalpel. Actually I am lucky because the surgeon is a sporty fellow and he definitely focusses on what I can do rather than the so many well-meaning folk who keep trying to tell me what I can't do. So we'll keep working towards it and see what happens. I have had quite a lot of surgery over the years and I feel that if anything it has given me certain strengths for ultras - I have done and dusted pain lots, I have done despair (at less successful ops) and had to pick myself up and get on with it and I have had to learn to really work with my body rather than ignore/fight against it - perfect training grounds really :-)

I loved the Highland Fling, my first ultra. I didn't eat enough, put too many electolytes in my water and felt barfy around Rowardennan but got it sorted and carried on. I think the training runs really helped as there was nothing too intimidating - all familiar turf. I'm so lucky that I live pretty near the WHW. It makes me smile when people think I am mad for trail-running but, without a thought, they cross horrendous roads everyday -to me, far more terrifying. I thought the HF was a race of real character, right down to the bagpipes calling us home the last mile. Ellen McVey says that she has never met an ultra runner she didn't really like. Going by that race, I know what she means. Everyone wants the best for each other and speaks as they run past-get caught up. Kind of brings out the better qualities of human beings. But there probably are some real sh--s out there, we just haven't met them yet!

I have run twice in the last few days. Feel a bit guilty as still not allowed back to work but able to jog along up in the woods. It's not a gazelle like performance but neither was it before! Feels great to get out, and at the end of the day collagen fibres in scar tissue align themselves better, to give a more flexible scar, when they are stressed as they heal. I absolutely believe that we are locomotory animals and are always better if we can keep moving.

I need to increase my mileage and get the refuelling thing sorted out. I think if I carry two bottles and always have one for fresh water, I can keep the other one for adding complan/electolytes. I like using complan as I find it energy-giving but light on the stomach and I can sip as I run. Small sweet bananas-not the big tough ones- also work for me. I find it really interesting what other runners eat. It's like we are all searching for the holy grail of ultra-marathon grub!

Tomorrow I am going to hit the pool for a bit of cross-training. Can't beat dodging the phlegm to sharpen up the reflexes!