Meeting the Devil at the top of her staircase

Proper Prep

By the time I’d reached Glencoe Ski Center early on Saturday morning I’d already had to stop for a numero dos at the side of the road. Now I was going to have to do it again in the car park.

It was 7am in late July. It was chilly and lashing with rain. I’d left my Glasgow flat over an hour ago to do a recce run of some technical miles of a course I’d never set foot on. I’d left so early my body hadn’t yet summoned the traction to take the obligatory pre-run dump. Nevermind, I thought, I’ll stop at Tyndrum for a ‘coffee’.

At Tyndrum the Green Welly, and their toilet, wasn’t going to be open for another two hours so I found myself a couple of miles up the road, squatting behind my car over a ditch, thankful I packed a toilet roll and that there was no traffic on this miserable morning.

I didn’t mean for this report to be about pooing but that’s how it’s turned out, I’m sorry. I’ll get to the race soon.

I did my recce in my new OMM waterproof and got about 3 miles from KLL before turning back. The heavy rain made my first taste of the course rather more aquatic than expected. I was prepared for wet feet come race day.

(I actually entered the race by accident. I got overexcited with an announcement for what I thought was the Fling. When I actually got a place in the ballot I felt obliged to give it a go, even though it was only three weeks after the Clyde Stride).

Devil o the Highlands Elevation and Checkpoints

Devil o the Highlands – Elevation and Checkpoints

Training Days

Training started in December 2016 when I joined Hawkins running to train for the Belfast marathon on 1st May. I did 5 months, 40-mile weeks mainly on the flat and ran a 20 minute PB (3:20).

After Belfast I immediately flew to Asia for a two week holiday. Then I got back into a 40-mile week and threw in some hills and recce runs to prepare for my third Clyde Stride. There I managed a 27 minute PB – the best race I’ve ever run.

So far so good. (I’d also hit a half marathon PB at Alloa in March so I was clearly in good shape.)

Only three weeks until the Devil. I didn’t manage a rec of the full course as I hoped but I wasn’t going to get any fitter so I wanted to keep my legs ticking over and work out any niggles or aches. I’ve done a lot of mobility and foam rolling this year and I really feel the benefit.

Race Day

For race day, Isla and I stayed in the Ben Doran. I woke at 4AM and jogged up to register then back to prepare. I’m a Tailwind convert these days. I absolutely love the stuff, it almost feels like cheating. I filled some bottles without a funnel and left the room looking like a set from Goodfellas.

Nutrition: Unflavoured TailWind, homemade brownies, Richmond sausages, GU gels, and Randoms.
Kit: Camelbak Octane XCT, Saucony Peregrine 7, 2 layer shorts and t-shirt, 2 buffs, OMM Kamleika Race Jacket II

Devil o the Highlands 2017 Start

Devil o the Highlands 2017 Start

The weather was pretty perfect – overcast but settled – so the midges were out. I recognised David Gow and Mark Ashby from the Clyde Stride, and I lined up quite far back. I was surprised at how quickly we spread out and I soon settled in with people who’d become familiar over the next 43 miles. Myvanwy Fenton-May who was going for the triple crown, Karen Macpherson who flew down hills, Ewout who was over from the Netherlands and Iain from Nairn who had the same shoes as me.

I’d sketched out a rough pace plan but this was my first proper hilly ultra – my longest ever race – so finishing on my feet was my main goal. Between 7 and 8 hours was likely. I got to Bridge Of Orchy in 55 minutes and was happy with how things were going.

Iain, me, and Ewout at Bridge of Orchy

Iain, me, and Ewout at Bridge of Orchy

I’d researched the course so the first ascent wasn’t a nasty surprise. I ran with Ewout and Iain then pulled away and also passed Myvanwy and Karen. The girls came flying past me again going into Glencoe showing me how I should be doing downhills.

Half way there

Isla met me in Glencoe and I stopped for a few minutes to stretch and eat. I knew the next 7 miles of the course and set off feeling pretty happy. The trail was much less wet than I expected and I made it to the Devil’s staircase with dry feet. I walked up here with Duncan Birne and then Myvanwy again – both of whom pulled away as I tentatively picked my way down the technical descents.

Refuelling at Glencoe, with some tiny passengers aboard

Refuelling at Glencoe, with some tiny passengers aboard

I approached KLL, a low flying jet provided a split second of distraction from my sore legs. I refuelled and pulled on my waterproof as the rain was picking up. I saw Iain and Karen here and ran with Iain until I lost him on the ascent to Lairig Mor.

The sun came out, the jacket went away, the miles kept getting chalked. The scenery here was stunning and I revelled in every moment. Maybe too much as I’m sure my pace could have been better. One large group of walkers who’d stopped for lunch in the sun gave me a rousing cheer and I ran between them. That moment in particular makes me grateful I can participate in this wonderful sport in this amazing place.

I stopped only briefly at the last CP for a drink of coke because I’d passed a couple of runners only a few minutes before and I was in a competitive mind to finish as high up the rankings as I could. I employed Scott Jurek’s tactic of not just passing someone but passing them as fast as you can in order to break their spirit. (Is that a bit much at this end of the rankings? I love the camaraderie and always look out for my fellow runners, but a race is a race). I squeezed everything from my numb legs to make some ground on the guys I passed and hoped it was enough to see them off.

A Final Push

Just before the long descent into Fort William I was aware of someone close behind. Ben Hopkin – who I’d passed a few miles back when he looked like he was struggling – had found some energy and was making ground. This was enough to keep me pounding down the hill as fast as my jelly legs and clumsy technique allowed. Mark Ashby passed us both at this point and I tried to work out what his secret was as he cruised down into the glen.

I was at the edge of my physical endurance but exhilarated knowing I would finish. At this point it’s easier to keep running than it is to walk. So I did. I passed another two runners here, I’m not sure I even said anything as I did so. The end was only a mile or so away, up one more hill then down to the finish line. The elation was overwhelming when I saw the red inflatable and I felt such a rush of happiness when the crowd cheers and Isla greeted me with a big cheesy grin.

Devil o the Highlands - Done

Devil o the Highlands – Done

Ruth Howie handed me a coffee, I got some chilli and a beer, then a shower. We hung around for a while to cheers finishers and enjoy the amazing post-race reception. I wish I’d organised a place to stay as we really wanted to hang around and enjoy the awesome atmosphere created by the collective goodwill and abundant endorphins of the ultra community.

I enjoyed this race immensely.

Finished 43rd of 227 in 7:39:39