Sunday on the WHW

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Officially, it was the first day of British Summer time. That meant that we’d had one hour less sleep due to the clocks changing, but it also makes you hope that you might get some clear, sunny weather. But this is Scotland, in March, on the West Highland Way. We had wind, rain, sleet, hail, snow and some sunshine. But nevertheless, it was still epic.

My mate, Scott, and I are both signed up to run in the West Highland Way race in June. This is some test of endurance as it is 95 miles over some of the most remote trails in the British Isles. We have both spent some time on the trail, either from the Hoka Higland Fling race or from various reasons to walk in this part of the world. But running it. The whole length. Well, that’s something entirely different.

In preparation, we’ve both been increasing our mileage but we know we need to spend some time on the trail itself to train effectively. Knowing where you are and what comes next in a long race like that can make all the difference. So with that in mind, we planned a long run on Easter Sunday, starting at Bridge of Orchy and running north to the top of the Devils Staircase before turning around and running back again. The whole route was expected to be just over 30 miles with about 1000m of elevation.

We met up at 5am after losing that hour of sleep I mentioned and drove over to park at the Bridge of Orchy Hotel. After a quick hot drink in the hotel and a bowl of porridge, we set off. The first section is what’s affectionately known as Jelly Baby hill. It’s not much of a hill at all in comparison with some of the Munros around the area, but in the race itself it comes about 60 miles in and will be the last thing tired legs will want to climb. With that out of the way, the path meanders up on to Rannoch moor which is a bleak, open landscape.

Rannoch Moor

Rannoch Moor

The WHW rises up over the moor for about 10 miles. It is one of the many old military roads built through the highlands centuries ago and they were built to stand the test of time. The surface is like a cobbled stone and whilst it looks smooth enough, after running on it for an hour or so you are happy to reach the tarmac at the road to the Glencoe ski centre.

WHW over Rannoch Moor

WHW over Rannoch Moor

We stopped by the A82 to take in the views down Glencoe. It is probably one of the most photographed places in Scotland and with good reason. For the next couple of hours, we were spoiled with the huge scenery, which thankfully distracted from the achy legs. We reached Kingshouse in about 2h 30mins and after a quick pit stop to refill our water bottles, we headed back out for the Devils Staircase.

A bit like Jelly Baby hill, the staircase isn’t actually all that much of a hill when you compare it to some of the nearby monsters which look down on it. However, after running for miles, it commands a level of respect and swiftly reminds you if you don’t show it sufficient levels. By this point the weather was starting to allow some sunshine to poke through the clouds and we were treated with some of the best views the planet has to offer for all our hard work.

Scott making the climb to the top of the staircase look easy

Scott making the climb to the top of the staircase look easy

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Hard not to fall in love with this place – Glencoe

With the hard work done, we celebrated at the top of the staircase with a cereal bar before turning around. With 15 miles in the bag already, we were both feeling surprisingly ok, especially Scott who had already run the best part of 100 miles that week.

Heading back down we had the enjoyment of passing all the people we’d ran past earlier, all of whom described us collectively as mad, insane and other similar badges of honour for any runner. We stopped at Kingshouse Hotel for a quick coffee and cake before crossing back over the road towards the ski center and the path back down Rannoch moor. Thankfully mostly downhill from here, we enjoyed the views some more until a freak hail storm blew in.

Anyone who has experienced a hailstorm will know they can hurt. When you are wearing next to nothing and running in temperatures which are hovering just above zero, and the hail in question is desgined to be the pointiest, sharpest bits of hail you can imagine, they hurt even more. Combine that with about 25 miles of running by two grumpy old men, then the result is a lot of muttering and swearing. I put every piece of clothing I had with me on and I could still feel the hail biting through the thick mountain hat and waterproof jacket. Thankfully it stopped just before we reached Inveroran and we could enjoy the final climb back up Jelly Baby hill and back down into Bridge of Orchy.

By the end, we’d done 32 miles in just over 6 hours. We both felt worried about what the WHW race has in store for us, but equally, we are more content now we’ve run some decent mileage on the route. We are planning another run or two on other sections before the race in June, so look out for more updates. All told though, this was a fantastic run with great company, thanks Scott! It gave me more confidence for the races ahead as my longest run otherwise had been about 20 miles. I’ve managed to get up to running about 100km a week now with a couple of longer runs mixed in so my training is going well.

I hadn’t mentioned this before but I’m being interviewed in the run up to the West Highland Way race in the podcasts series expertly run by John Kynaston. Head over to the race website to hear the first two instalments.

Mud, mud and more mud

My training over the past two months since the Ben Nevis race has been poor at best. I haven’t really run more than 10 miles for months, so taking on 38 miles of trails in an ultra in the Scottish Borders was a daunting prospect.

As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, my work life has been pretty busy recently so running has had to take a back seat for a while. Despite this, I was still keen to get to the start line of the Jedburgh 3 Peaks Ultra and enjoy the race. I’d never done this kind of distance before and had only seen 10 miles of the route in a previous race, so I didn’t really have any indication of what time to aim for. Looking at the previous runs of this race, under 7 hours seemed to be a very respectable time and anywhere around 6 hours and below was probably going to see you in the top 10% of the race.

Despite the crap training, I was feeling good about this race, putting aside the obvious nerves during the 24hours leading up to it. So far, without fail, at lunchtime the day before a race, everything that is inside my body decides it wants to exit and to do so as rapidly as possible! I do wonder if that feeling will ever get easier. That sensation aside, I went down to the race with my training buddy, Scott. We drove down the morning of the race which meant a very early start from Fife. We both mused about how bloody stupid we were on the way down as we followed a long snake of cars. At 6am on a Saturday morning we suspected that they could only be heading to the same place we were meaning we weren’t the only lunatics involved in this. Pre-race jitters were put aside for a moment as the lady in the car parked next to us went into a 20 second frenzy thinking she had left her waterproof at home, which was comical to watch as a bystander as she almost immediately spotted it right in front of her, but at the same time summed up how tense everyone is before a race

Pre-race briefing in the rugby club - my only photo of the day!

Pre-race briefing in the rugby club – my only photo of the day!

The race starts in Jedburgh and the local rugby club building was a hub of activity as we arrived to register. The BBC’s Adventure Show was recording the race and the camera crew and presenters were cornering unsuspecting folk to ask them questions pre-race. I really didn’t feel like being on screen given how nervous I was feeling so managed to dodge their advances. Their cameras were also dotted around the route later in the day, sneakily positioned to catch you as you came panting around a corner dripping in sweat looking like some beastie dying of a horrible disease. The show will apparently go out next year, so it will be interesting to see if I make an inglorious TV debut at some point, probably muttering and swearing to myself as I run past a camera.

The race is a fairly straight forward out and back route from Jedburgh to the outskirts of Melrose along river side trails. At the mid-point of the race are the 3 Eildon hills which give the race its name (and a dose of spice after 17 miles or so!). If I were to describe the race it is a bit like two half trail marathons back to back, with a Class AS hill race thrown into the middle to keep you on your toes.

I’d run the route around the hills in a trail race last March so knew this loop section. It is beautiful countryside around there and the views throughout the day really didn’t disappoint. The main challenge of the day was the conditions under foot. I think that given most of the trails are around the rivers of the area, the ground must get regularly saturated with water heading into them and that creates a pretty soggy path. Add to this natural problem 240 runners trampling twice through what are probably otherwise infrequently used paths, as they go out and back, and you can imagine the results.

I remember thinking about 20 miles into the race that I never wanted to see another muddy path again. My shoes after the race looked like a pair of mud slippers and my strongest memories of the race are of slipping about trying to get purchase on a few of the worst sections. The weather forecast for the day was horrible and in particular heavy rain was due to start at the same time of the race and finish, roughly as most of the field were crossing the finish line, so the outlook was bleak. As it turned out, we lucked out as other than a heavy squall that blew through about an hour into the race, we had clear skies and some sunshine.

One of my aims for the race was to try to keep a relatively steady pace. In the Ultraks race in August I’d done better than previously, but still wanted to improve. The distance suggested that I might be able to run almost all the race except the 3 hills, and I wanted to try to achieve that, and I did. I also wanted to get under 7 hours if possible.

From the start I managed to avoid the temptation of racing off at 5min\km and hung back with a more steady bunch of runners. I saw about 30 runners ahead of me race off (my buddy Scott included) and over the first 10 miles to the first CP a few more went ahead. Compared to other races, I didn’t let these runners passing me make a mental impact. In the past I’ve ended up pushing a bit harder as they come by, and inevitably that takes its toll later in the race. I remember thinking that I might see a few of them later if I played this right and I certainly did.

I kept my stops at the CP’s below a couple of minutes, just long enough to refill my water bottle and top it up with Tailwind which once again got me through the race perfectly. I used my Salomon running vest this time with soft flasks as my hand held bottle I used in the Great Glen ultra has been giving me pain in my shoulder from carrying it in the same hand for too long. I might try to go back to using a hand held some time in the future, but I’m getting better at limiting how much I carry when I use the vest, so I will probably stick to using that for the near term for races.

At different parts of the race I was convinced I was either way ahead of where I actually was in the field or way behind where I actually was. I’d lost track of how many people were ahead of me and I wasn’t paying attention at the checkpoints as to how many people managed to leapfrog me despite my quick pit stops. As it turns out, looking at the stats from the race, I was pretty much in the same position all the way through. I also seemed to manage to keep a relatively consistent pace with about a 20% drop off in the 2nd half.

After the first leg I felt good and so my focus then shifted to the second CP which I knew was at the base of the 3 hills. I knew the hills were going to be tough and, from my memory of last years race, that the second hill was worse than the first. The slog up the first felt horrible though on Saturday with 17 miles of running already in my legs, but as I got to the top I saw that people who were behind me had dropped away a bit so I felt like I’d done well. Coming down off the hills felt like a glorious release letting my legs go, only to run into what felt like a brick wall of a climb on the second hill. The third and smallest hill came and went without any problems and I knew then from studying the race profile that I had a few miles of down hill slope to enjoy.

Around parts of the course were boardwalks and wooden stairs to get around natural landscapes. On one of the stairs I caught a toe due to tired legs and tripped. The fall only dented my ego thankfully, but as I tried to get up my right hamstring cramped up. It was the first time I’d ever had cramp in a race and it felt like a bastard. I stopped for a minute to have a stretch as a couple of guys around me checked if I was ok. One of them encouraged me to keep moving and run it off and I glad I did. Thank you, whoever you were, for the encouragement.

We found ourselves back on the outward route not long after the hills and I knew that CP3 was the same place as CP1 was, just in reverse. I remember my mind playing tricks on me telling me that the CP was just around a corner or just up ahead half a dozen times. It wasn’t. This dented my progress a bit as I have worked out that when I know where I am and how far I have to go I can deal with things. When I feel out of touch of where I am that’s when fatigue sets in and this certainly happened on Saturday. I was running with a group of about 3 or 4 guys and we were all keeping pace. But as the miles rolled on and no CP was in sight I started to flag.

At the CP I refulled and headed straight out. As I left, so did most of the folk who were running around me so I felt spurred on to keep going. I knew there was 10 miles to the finish from that point and also that I’d done it in 1h 30m on the way out. My legs were obviously heavier by now so I reckoned it might end p taking me 2hrs to get back to the finish. I’d hit the CP at 4h 58m so if I wanted to be sure to be under 7hrs, I had to keep moving to make it.

A big chunk of the ten miles that make the first\last part of the course follow the route of a Roman Road through some fields. On a map it looks like a straight path along a single contour line but in reality it is a weaving trail which goes up and down over rolling terrain. Added to this were what seemed like a hundred styles to clamber over. Eventually, the path hits some trees and aims to cross the river before heading back into Jedburgh. About 4 miles out I felt fatigued and after yet another style crossing, I let the guys around me pull away quite a bit. Within seconds I was furious for feeling so bloody sorry for myself that I slowed down in the first place, so I took a gel I had in a pocket and kicked myself up the bahooky and set off again.

I started to get a second wind from the gel and managed to up the pace. About 3 miles from the finish I pushed a bit harder and before long I had the guys who’d passed me back in sight. This spurred me on and in the last mile on the road into the finish at Jedburgh I pushed a bit harder still and managed to pass all of the guys who’d been around me as well as a couple of guys who were struggling to push to the finish. I think I was more spurred on at this point by the thought of a beer at the finish than any idea of finishing strongly!

In the end I crossed the line in 6h and 51m. I was very pleased with this and in general with my overall run in the race. I need to work on not letting things like CP’s being further than I hoped getting me down mid race, but I think that is related to my stamina and endurance which was probably pretty low given the low grade of training I’ve had recently. Link to the Strava activity here.

As races go, this one was great. A good honest ultra run by runners with everything you need. A nice medal and T-shirt to take home and food and drink at the finish. The marshals were all fantastic and cheery, I even got a water bottle filled by Johnny Fling himself, which if I hadn’t been a jabbering wreck by that point I might have swooned at. Looking back I really enjoyed the whole day and would do it again some time. The distance felt great and enough of a challenge without leaving you limping for weeks afterwards and the route was beautiful. I also met some new running friends, which seems to be the norm for every race, so all in all it was a grand day out.

That’s it for races now for me this year. I was entered into Glen Ogle 33 in two weeks time but work commitments mean I have to miss it. Now it’s going to be a long winter of training for next year and working on some areas I need to focus on to start competing in these races.

Enchanted by the Lakes

I’ve been in Seattle across in America for the past week on a business trip. Due to a number of reasons I didn’t get to fly home until Sunday afternoon but had all Saturday free so I decided I would plan a little running adventure into the nearby Cascade mountain range to help train for the Matterhorn Ultraks coming up later in August..

The Cascades are a range of mountains which run from British Columbia in Canada down the western coastline of the USA down to California. They are an impressive range of mountains with numerous volcanic peaks which top out above 4000m. Compared to what I’m used to in Scotland, the Cascades are a lot more rugged and rocky mountains. They have an abundance of peaks over 1000m and, thanks to a combination of a famous Scotsman and an over-active US Forestry Service, there is an comprehensive range of marked and unmarked trails all over the map of the National Parks in America.

Map of Alpine Lakes area

Map of Alpine Lakes area

After some research online, I found a circular route which took in what looked to be an area of outstanding beauty. The Enchantment Lakes sit in an area South West of a town called Leavenworth in the North Cascades. More about Leavenworth later as it is itself, a very interesting little town. I chose the route for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it was a reasonable distance. I wanted something over 40km long to make sure I got some distance in my legs. Secondly, I wanted something with plenty of elevation and in trails which would be similar to what I’m likely to find in Zermatt later this month. That meant steep climbs on rocky trails with some 2000m+ of elevation and the enchantments seemed to offer all of the above.

It was difficult to get an exact distance for this route as most people do a section of the loop. In America the trails in this type of place are marked with a trail head, which often has a carp park and some simple facilities. The route I was doing had two trail heads whose trails met in the middle, but there was also a road which linked the two trail heads in the opposing direction which enabled you to form a loop. Most guidance suggested that you leave a car at one trail head and then drive up to the other and start your hike from there. That is all well and good when you are part of a group, but as someone who was out for a day on his own, I opted to run from one trail head to the other to start the day.

With my route planning done, I invested in a map of the route from the wonderful REI (we need a comprehensive outdoor shop like this in the UK!) and stocked up on bottled water and Tailwind to get me through the day.  The weather was forecast to be 39 degrees, blue skies and barely any wind, so I packed some factor 50 sunblock too. I set off early from my hotel in Bellevue and drove for 2 hours to make it to the start of the run at 7am. After some last minute checks to make sure I had everything, I set off North up the road from Snow Lake trail head towards Stuart Lake trail head. Already, the views from the car park were outstanding and I knew I was in for a great day.

View from my start point in Snow Lake Trail Head car park

View from my start point in Snow Lake Trail Head car park

In my preparation I’d found someone on Strava who had done this same run in reverse. That meant I knew the elevation profile I was heading for and so set off at a leisurely pace. At this time of the morning the road was getting a bit of traffic from other people heading up to the higher trail head and I could see some people staring at me as they went past wondering who the crazy guy as running up the road. I later passed people on the trail who were hugely supportive and were amazed someone was actually running this thing. It did worry me a bit about what was to come as they were so overly amazed.

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Forest Trail 1599.1

After about an hour of running to cover the 10km from the car park I reached the higher level trail head. I’d already broken into a fast hill walk on a couple of occasions as the climb was gradual, but in places quite steep. It was a relief to finally exit the road and get onto narrow forest trails to make the last bit of climb before the first lake of the day which was Colchuck Lake.

The first trail section from Stuart Lake Trail Head to Colchuck Lake seemed to go quite quickly. It was fairly steady going all the way but a little technical in places and a few slopes that meant it was difficult to do much more than a fast walk. There was also a junction about two thirds of the way along this trail, from which one direction went to a dead end at Stuart Lake and the other broke off towards Colchuck Lake. Fortunately I managed to spot this, but I really was fortunate. The marker boards on these trails are made out of wood that has weathered well to camouflage itself against the surrounding trees at just above head height. If you have your head down and sweat in your eyes, it is difficult to spot them, so you have to keep your eyes open and also use your map to anticipate where these points might come about.

I eventually reached Colchuck Lake and from here the trail traverses the shoreline for about a kilometre or so. This was a relief as it felt like I was now in the run proper and the fun bits were still ahead of me. At the far end of the lake the trail loses its structure and crosses a boulder field. There were cairns marking a general direction, but it was fun boulder hopping and this section passed pretty quickly. At the end of the boulder field was a small beach which was being used as a campsite and I took the opportunity for my first dip of the day from this beach. The water was welcoming and cool as the air temperature was already above 30 degrees and it was only about 10am. I’d also started to warm up here as the trail was now out in open rocks rather than woodland. From this point on it was going to be a very hot day. But the views were already making up for it!

Colchuck Lake from the Start of the boulder field

Colchuck Lake from the Start of the boulder field

The next section was Aasgard Pass. This is a steep climb between a couple of gnarly, jagged peaks which gives access to the upper enchantment lake area. Having seen the photo’s online of what was waiting for me at the top, I was keen to get the climb over and done with as quickly as possible. The pass rises about 600m over just over a kilometre in distance. I’d stopped to chat to a guy before the boulder field who was heading back the way I’d come after coming down off the top. He explained that the way up was to stick to the left, away from a waterfall that comes right down the middle of the pass. I was glad of the guidance as I could see others heading to the right and that route got much steeper the higher you climbed.

Aasgard Pass

Aasgard Pass – You can see the waterfall coming down the center

This was one tough climb for sure. I was going pretty well for the first third of it, with frequent stops at the little streams which fed off the waterfall for a quick dunk of my hat to cool off. The combination of heat, climbing and tough rocky terrain was too much to result in anything but a slow slog to the top. I took every opportunity for some shade amongst the random tree along the way and large boulder I passed. There was some scrambling to be done about 100m from the top of the pass and from here it started to level out and I knew the worst was over.

Creeping over the final section, looking back the views were fantastic, but I was already starting to see what lay ahead and my energy levels rose as a result.

At the top of the pass my first priority was to cool down, so Tranquil Lake, the first one you hit as you come over the pass, got the honour of me diving into it. The water was beautifully cold and I immediately realised how over-heated I’d become on the climb up. I took some time here to get my temperature back down and take on some fluids and calories before making a start on the winding trail that now lay ahead of me through the rest of the lakes.

When I was reading up on this area I learnt that there was a large population of mountain goats up here and that most people are likely to see one or two during their hike. I’d already spotted one on the way up the pass, but once up in the main lake area, these things were everywhere. They seemed calm enough, but were keeping a distance from the many humans that were around up there. I later took a pee against some rocks and within seconds a goat appeared from nowhere, attracted by the prospect of licking the salt that would be left behind on the stone. It politely stood its distance until I’d finished then promptly stepped in and started to go at it. A strange encounter for sure.

One of the many Mountain Goats in the area

One of the many Mountain Goats in the area

I knew that from here it was all down hill. The trail was still indistinct and someone had generously created cairns of all sizes to give a rough indication of the way to go. The conditions from here ranged from slab rock, boulders, open grassed area and what I’d call a sheep path, barely a foot wide but enough to run on. From my study of the map in planning, I recognised that the pass was the hard bit and after that I should be able to enjoy myself with the long loping down hill section. I hadn’t really paid attention though to the distance. I recognised as I started weaving my way through the lakes, that actually I still had about 25km to go!

This weighed down on me a bit as I think I’d somehow convinced myself that once over the pass it would be easy. Whilst it was downhill, it was far from easy. The term technical is often used to describe trails, but it wasn’t until I’d run this that I felt authorised to use the term. As the way meandered through the different lakes, to descend the elevation there is effectively a step between each lake. It makes sense of course now I say it, but it came as a shock on the day. Some of the steps were considerably significant and dropping a 100m or more at a time, often over boulders, slab rock and rarely via switch-back paths.

I quickly got used to running over the slabs and the boulders and would even describe it as fun. I was passing people now who were gingerly tip-toeing down and I must have looked like a lunatic as I went whizzing past shouting my hello’s. On a couple of occasions I clipped a toe or missed a footing and had to check myself. By now I was about 20km+ into the wilderness and attempting to make my way back from here with a sprain or worse would be a nightmare. I reminded myself that I was here to enjoy myself and the scenery and so slowed down again. Every lake I passed which offered the opportunity to swim in from a beach or shallow shoreline, I swam. Every waterfall that came of the bits of remaining glacier, I drank from. I went through half a bottle of sunscreen and took pictures with wild abandon. I was in my element.

I’d stopped paying attention to where I was but after a while I could feel myself tiring. I took out my map and eventually worked out that I was by the outlet of Perfection Lake into Sprite Lake. that meant that I had about 15km still left to go. I’m not sure where about around this area it happened, but I got to a point where I realised I was looking down a valley that I still had to run through to get back and, given how challenging and slow the running was going due to the conditions of the trail, I knew I was in for a long day.

Still a long way to go!

Still a long way to go!

From here, it was head down and keep moving. My experiences from the ultra marathons kicked in and I knew I just had to keep forward momentum, keep eating and keep drinking and it would be fine. I slowed my pace down to conserve energy as I was running low on fuel. I also took out my map and worked out where I was going to have the remaining stocks of things to eat and drink along the way. this helped, it made me feel like I had a plan and that I knew how to do it.

Long way down

Long way down

A couple of hours later I was heading out of the end of the valley and hitting the last section of switch back tracks which led back down to the car park where I’d set off from 10h 30m earlier. The valley had been in the shade most of the afternoon. With the water cascading down it, the air was lovely and refreshing. As I neared the end, the trail turned the corner and went back into the sunshine. Wow what a difference! It was like running into a furnace. when I got back to the car, the temperature gauge was reading 42° centigrade as it sat in the sunshine.

I took the opportunity to cool down in a river which ran past the carpark, stripping down to my shorts and taking the equivalent of an ice bath in there. Despite the warm weather, the water temperature was still ice cold, which was perfect for giving my tired legs some well earned relief. Back at the car I met two girls who were preparing for doing the run between the two trail heads the next day. They were asking me about how the route was and any tips. They were also kind enough to share a beer with me in return. thanks guys and I hope you enjoyed your run the next day!

Before driving back to Seattle for the night I stopped off in the town of Leavenworth. Most people probably haven’t heard of this place, but everyone who gets the opportunity should visit it. Leavenworth was a mining town until a few decades ago when the mining business became unprofitable. The clever folks who lived there came up with the idea of turning it into a theme town to attract tourist dollars, and for whatever reason chose Bavaria as the theme. given its Alpine like location, it actually works pretty well. Almost all the building are chocolate box houses, with German and Bavarian flags hanging off every balcony. There are people in the streets with lederhosen and felt hats. If it wasn’t for the thick American accents you could easily be forgiven for thinking you were in a town just outside Munich. The best part about it though? They have their own brewery which, for a tired runner like me, provided just what I needed to end a perfect day.

If you are ever fortunate enough to get to this part of the world, you could do a hell of a lot worse than visit the Enchantment Lakes. they are possibly the most beautiful place I’ve ever been to and even now, days later, I am still on a massive high. My run wasn’t fast or particularly special in any way, but I am so happy I took the time to make this trip and see this place. I think it was also great preparation for my Matterhorn Ultraks race in a few weeks time. I’ve now seen what running in these high mountains can be like and can mentally prepare. Next stop Zermatt!

Link to Strava activity and below are some more photographs from this amazing day out.