Over the last couple of weekends I have done 3 day and a 2 day back-to-back runs totalling 152 miles.
I have 2 target races for this year. One is a second attempt at the West Highland Way Race (95 miles) after my aborted attempt in 2012. The other is the Ring of Fire Ultra Marathon, a 3 day stage race on Anglesey in Wales covering a total of 131 miles.
As I usually work on a Saturday except when there are school holidays Easter weekend and the following weekend offered opportunities to recce two race courses.
On the Easter weekend I went over to the Scottish west coast to run the West Highland Way over 3 days. Last weekend I did the Cateran Trail in the Grampian Mountains over 2 days as I am doing the Cateran 55 Ultra Marathon in the build-up to the West Highland Way Race.
First to the West Highland Way weekend:
With the March weather that we had I was expecting 3 very tough days but in the final few days leading into the Easter weekend the forecast seemed to be getting constantly better, promising cold but calm weather, no rain and sun instead. Remarkably this turned out to be true.
The plan was to run Milngavie to Inversnaid on day 1 and stay at the bunkhouse there. On day two I would run up to Victoria Bridge from Inversnaid but stay in Tyndrum. On the final day I’d then run from Victoria Bridge to Fort William passing the low points from last year’s race.
Fiona – my girlfriend – was going to be support car for the weekend. We had agreed that she would be doing her own thing during the day and we’d meet at my finishing points each evening. Doing her own thing for Fiona meant a total of 227km of cycling, climbing a Corbett and running 14km. Having the car was the reason why I could finish at Victoria Bridge on Day 2 and then be driven back to Tyndrum for the night.
Day ONE – Friday March 29 (34 miles):
I had advertised the run on the West Highland Way Facebook Group and a number of runners turned out on Friday morning at Milngavie station to join me for the early part of the run and see me off. My thanks to all of them 🙂
One of the runners – Debbie – was also going to run the full 3 days with me so I would have some company all the way which would be great. Ian would be joining us for the full first day. Sadly Ian decided to call it a day after the first 20 miles as his ankle was bothering him and Debbie didn’t start day 2 for the same reason.
The pace on the first day was between easy and steady with a reasonable amount of stopping to wait for others. I was rather glad about this as it would mean that I wouldn’t go too fast on day one and then suffer on the next 2 days. The trail was mostly in very good condition and really dry so nice to run on. The only part where this wasn’t the case was over Conic Hill as they wer
e repairing the track and the surface, which I hope is temporary, was very muddy.
The temperature was pleasant although I was overdressed
the sun warming
more than expected and a lack of wind.
Thanks to the weather there were some great views.
Day TWO – Saturday March 30 (29 miles):
After Debbie decided to retire from the run due to her ankle I was expecting to be running
the rest of the route by myself over the next 2 days. However, whilst having dinner at the Inversnaid Bunkhouse I got a call from John Duncan (Highland Fling Race Director) that he and a few others were thinking of joining me for a few miles in the morning. Excellent, so I had company for the first 10 miles of day 2.
Woke up to a frosty but cloudless morning, with another stunning day in store. For the first time in 4 attempts the rough section at the North end of Loch Lomond didn’t feel all that unpleasant as the five of us bounded along. We traded places a couple times with 2 other runners who remarkably were trying to achieve the same as me over three days. Their first day though had taken them 10 hours and the 2nd was planned to be a mammoth day. I’d like to know if they were able to finish their challenge. They did seem a bit out of their depth.
My support runners turned back half way between Beinglas farm and Crianlarich. I had a good run up to Crianlarich just before which I met another group of runners who were on a day run and knew that I was doing the whole route.
The forest stretch after Crianlarich was very snowy but hard packed and good to run on so no problems and as with the section after Inversnaid it was the first time that I comfortably descended through the forest there.
Coming through Tyndrum I was greeted by Kirsty, the owner of the By The Way Hostel which was nice. She knew I’d be coming through and kept an eye out. We returned a few hours later as we would be spending the night there.
As I was heading over to Bridge Of Orchy I was getting confused about the planned distance as I was expecting another 20 km but didn’t feel the day’s finish would be that far away. As it turned out it wasn’t. I had miscalculated and my planned 31 miles turned out to be 27, I added an extra mile and a half by actually running to Victoria Bridge and not stopping at the Iveroran Hotel. Returned to the hotel after and waited for Fiona in the bar. A long wait as she had been out for a long cycle.
Quiet evening in Tyndrum after that.
Day THREE – Sunday March 31 (34 miles):
Day 3 dawned with very high mist and a very cold morning. The forecast was for sunny but it never transpired. Legs were a bit tired for the first time. If it wasn’t for the clocks changing then it would have been an early start.
Got going just after 10 am and had a great run over Rannoch Moor. Legs got going soon enough and I got to the Kingshouse in around 90 min. Rannoch Moor was where I had decided during the race last year that I was going to retire. Not much running was done on that section that day. In contrast on Easter Sunday I ran the whole of Rannoch Moor passing a number of people who I had seen in the Inveroran Hotel the evening before and were walking the route. I did think you could run all of Rannoch Moor. Loved it.
On I went to the Devil’s Staircase and the point where I actually retired from the West Highland Way Race. Not necessarily planned but I stopped at the foot of the Devil at the spot where I had retired to put some more clothes on before the ascent. From here on in it was going to be new territory. Ascending the Devil’s Staircase was OK with the snow getting more substantial towards the top. The popularity of the WHW did mean that there were a lot of walkers about and the snow was well packed.
When I came past the Kingshouse earlier there were lots of Mountain Rescue vehicles there and walking up the Devil’s Staircase there was the constant sound of a helicopter over the Glencoe Ski Area. Tragically a skier died in an avalanche the previous day and the search operation was still underway. The skier who died was a good friend of Colin who owns the Footworks running store in Edinburgh. It was a stark reminder how harsh the Scottish Highlands can be.
Once over the top of the Devil I had a very snowy descent towards Kinlochleven this being the North side. How much the snow slowed my progress was apparent with the lack of impact the descent made on my average pace (NONE). When I got to Kinlochleven I stopped for a coffee at the climbing centre before tackling the last 14 miles.
A steady climb out of Kinlochleven took me past some burnt woodland which had only recently been caught by wildfire (Scotland in winter!). Once over the top here it felt a bit like its all downhill from here. Not quite though and I got to Lundavra with a bit of an ascent left. Before that though there was the matter of signs advising me to take the road down to Fort William as the path is impassable due to fallen trees!! I texted Fiona and she assured me that I could get through. So off I headed. After 2-3 km we had a rather funny text conversation as Fiona suddenly thought I may have headed off down the road after all. She was coming up the path towards me at this time. Once we had finally established that we were both on the path I ran round the bend and there she was. Doh! 🙂
Annoyingly Fiona told me I had another 7km left. According to my calculations I had 4. Where did that one go wrong? The fallen trees were a bit of fun after 92 miles of running and then the final descent into Fort William which I knew from reading race blogs does go on a bit, and it does go on a bit. The last few kms were the only ones in the 3 days that felt like a real drag.
When I got to the Leisure Centre (where the race finishes) I decided that I wanted to go to the actual finish of the WHW. New there are two – the old one and the new one. I had already passed the old one on the way to the Leisure Centre and thought the new one would be roughly in the town square. It was actually at the other end of town! So after my run being 3k longer than expected I added another 2k. Why not!
Observation 1 – Nutrition:
One of the things I wanted to try out during the three days was to see if I could run on a low carb based nutrition. Something I have been meaning to do but was so far not prepared to risk.
On this run I had a traditional back up (Snickers and Jelly Babies) with me should the plan not work out. On day 1 and 3 my pre run breakfast was bacon and eggs (with potato waffles on day 1 and potato scones on day 3). I had to make do with a bacon sandwich, some toast and a yogurt on day 2 as the Inversnaid bunkhouse didn’t have the option of a fry up.
During the run I had chorizo pieces, roast chicken pieces (both of which I got from Sainsburys but would in future make myself) and potato scones. I also ate some 9bars which taste fantastic. Added to that I drank an electrolyte drink, approx. 600 ml per day. I ate less than I had expected but didn’t feel I needed more.
What was a revelation was that at no point during the run did a feel a low point. Generally my mood level stayed good all the way and this in part I would attribute to the lack of sugars in my nutrition choices.
Over the 3 days I didn’t have a single gel, shot block or jelly baby (well I had 4 with around 3 km to go).
Once I had finished my days running I made sure that I had a meal with a good amount of carbs and protein in it to replenish energy stores and help the muscles recover.
Observation 2 – Soreness:
Over the 3 days there was little muscle soreness considering the mileage. This was a surprise to me as I had not really run all that much in the 3 months leading up to this and only 2 weeks prior ran the D33 Ultra. After day 1 my quads were a bit stiff and my knees hurt. I believe the knees were hurting due to the slow pace and therefore an unnatural running style. Over the 3 days they calmed down.
A bit of stretching on the evening of day 1 settled the quads. I happily sprinted down the stairs on the start of day 2. By the start of day 3 the quads were a bit more achy but settled in quite nicely once I started running over Rannoch Moor.
I got a couple of blisters towards the end of day 3 but that was about all that could be reported in terms of aches and pains from the 3 days. Even on Monday I could still walk down a flight of stairs normally. I was stiff on the Sunday evening.
Although my mileage wasn’t that high leading into that weekend I have been running constantly due to my challenge of running every day for a year which was in its last month at the time. This I believe has helped in giving me an overall endurance base to draw from which makes a 3 day ultra marathon challenge very doable, along with the food and recovery choices – stretching and compression.
Observation 3 – Pace:
Each one of the 3 days I thought was slow and would expect to have to go notably faster on race day. When I finished though I started doing some maths:
Day 1: 6:21 hours – average pace: 6:56 min/km
Day 2: 5:33 hours – average pace: 7:01 min/km
Day 3: 6:31 hours – average pace: 7:10 min/km
Time over the 3 days: 18:25 hours.
As mentioned above, I thought it felt slow but a cumulative running time of 18.5 hours for the full distance (which includes a couple of extra miles) is not slow in terms of race time – the record being just over 15.5 hours.
My target for last year was to go under 20 hours. Looking at the above numbers that is very realistic. One of the plans will be to tackle the first 3rd in a similar pace as what I did over the Easter weekend and then keep an even pace for the remainder.
My food choices worked very well over that weekend and it is something I will build on. My relatively slow pace which ended in a relatively fast time surprised me. My knees struggled under the slow pace. My plan is to practice some longer runs at the slower pace to get myself and my knees used to this seeing as this pace will still allow me a possible finishing time of between 18.5-20 hours. The signs are good for the 2013 race and the signs are very good for tackling the 3 day Ring of Fire.
I was going to write about the Cateran Run here too but will leave that for a separate blog post.