The Road is Always Long

My journey through the world of ultra marathons.

The Devil O’ The Highlands 2014

Kit List

  • Hoka one one Rapa Nui Trail
  • Nike Dri-fit race socks
  • Nike Combat base layer shorts
  • Adidas race shorts
  • New Balance sleeveless t-shirt
  • Ultimate Direction SJ Race vest
  • Wristband from Edinburgh AC 10k race
  • Scottish Flag Buff
  • Adidas Sunglasses.

Race Pack Contents

  • West Highland Way Map
  • Compass
  • Two GU gels
  • Toilet Paper
  • Empty water bottle – more on that later
  • Foil Blanket

In Back Up Car

  • Water – 8 litres
  • High 5 Zero Electrolyte tablets
  • Vitargo carbohydrate mix
  • Jelly babies
  • Soreen malt loaf
  • Boiled new potatoes
  • 10 GU gels, mixed caffiene and non caffiene
  • 2 Mars bars

Background

I’d entered this race many months ago.  Having completed the Glen Ogle Ultra in November 2013 I thought I needed another challenge.  I really wanted to concentrate on the marathon distance over the winter of 2013 and chose to pick a race that was later in 2014.  I’d supported Steven on his full West Highland Way race in the summer of 2013 and enjoyed running with him from Bridge of Orchy that it was right to choose the Devil as my first medium distance ultra.  I ignored the fact that a) I am rubbish at running on hills and this has over 6000ft of ascent and b) I am rubbish at running off road.  My cross country preformances for my running club Edinburgh AC are woeful.  How I thought I could run 43 miles over some of Scotland’s toughest terrain when I fall to bits in a 10k cross country course is still a mystery to me, never mind anyone who knows me.

Crew

Steven is pretty much a veteran of ultra running and without his knowledge and advice I would have been vastly underprepared for this race.  His advice about food and hydration, the organisation at the check points and meeting points was invaluable.  As was his crewing/support on the day.  He was always where he said he would be with the food/drinks that he said he would have.  I don’t think I stopped for more than 30 seconds at each check point.  I think I managed to avoid swearing at most check points but didn’t quite manage it the whole way.  I can’t think him enough for helping me through this race.

 

Pre Race Build Up

I’d completed Edinburgh marathon at the end of May in a disappointing 2:38.  I went through half way in 1:17 and felt good up to that point, then things started to go south and I struggled in the last few miles with cramp and dead legs to cross the line in 2:38.  I was only looking for the qualifying time for London Marathon in 2015 and I got that, so I was pleased to get that QT and record another sub 2:40 marathon.  I took a few days off after the marathon, just to let the legs recover a little and went out for an easy 4 mile jog on the Thursday the following week.  No real issues, a bit tired, a bit sore, but easy running and the pain was to be expected.  Then over the weekend I continued to run but I was becoming aware of a numbness in my left calf.  By the following Tuesday, on a run home from work, the numbness had turned into severe pain, where I had to limp to Haymarket station and get the train home.  A few days off running made no difference and a 4 mile run exactly a week after resulted in the same issue reappearing.  Diagnosis: calf tear and up to 6 weeks of no running.  And it took 6 weeks for the calf to heal properly, in which I cycled, swam and hit the gym as much as my boredom would allow (which wasn’t much).  I did manage to cycle to and from work most days, a round trip of 30 miles and combined with 3-4 weekly half hour swims, I managed to keep the weight down and retain some level of fitness.  A few false starts to running during that 6 week period resulted in more calf pain, so running was cut out completely.  I was getting very worried about my ability to start the Devil.  Then on the 3rd July less than a month to the race I had my first run in my new Hoka One One Rapa Nui Trail shoes.

 

I had often wondered about these shoes.  I’ve gone full circle with shoes.  Like most people I started off with just normal cushioned shoes.  I progressed to racing flats when I started to get a little quicker and more serious about it and I trained in racing flats for a lot of years.  Then the minimalist era appeared and I dipped my toes into that for a few months, but the injuries just kept coming.  People often say that you need to persevere, but I was injured for years trying this method of running.  Like most things in life, what works for one, won’t necessarily work for the other.  We have to find our own way and that goes for training, nutrition, hydration strategies, everything.  Anyone who says they have a one shoe fits all approach is misguided.  We all have different requirements.  Anyway, I got back into cushioned shoes and then onto the Hokas.  I will probably write a review of these shoes (I also have the tarmac version of them too) at some point so I will leave that for the moment.

 

I purchased the Hokas from Edinburgh’s #1 running shop, Run and Become with some vouchers I had won from the Edinburgh marathon for being the second old guy in the race.  I ran around my work’s designated grass running route, 4 miles with no pain.  Maybe, just maybe I could get to the start line.  From then until the Sunday I managed 28 miles of pain free running.  There was still a little numbness in the calf, but it never progressed to full blown pain as it had done in the previous weeks.  Following that week I spent a fabulous week in Gran Canaria with the family and I ran twice a day most days.  Not covering much distance but it accumulated to 60 miles of hilly running in the heat.  The following week I clocked up 100 miles including a Saturday run of 15 miles followed by 27 miles in the Pentland hills with Steven on Sunday and then it was time to taper!!!!  So I essentially had 2.5 weeks of training prior the race, I wasn’t holding out much hope of a good run, but I was determined to finish.  I wanted to get a qualifying race under my belt for the full route which I was still debating whether to enter the ballot for 2015 or not.  I would run the race and I would finish it, but any hopes of a decent time might just be out of my reach this time.

The Route

The Devil O’ The Highlands (in case you don’t know) is a 43 (well it was just over 42) mile footrace with around 6000ft of climb and descent from Tyndrum to Fort William in the Scottish Highlands.  The route is comprised of old drover’s roads and tracks over some of Scotland’s most beautiful scenery.  I absolutely love Glencoe, it is such a stunning place to be.  The race starts in Tyndrum and follows an easy runnable track to Bridge or Orchy (BoO) where the first climb comes.  This smallish climb charmingly called ‘Jelly Baby Hill’ or ‘Haribo Hill’ is easily runnable forestry trails which opens out at the top for the descent into Victoria Bridge. There is then around a mile on Tarmac to the start of the old drove road over Rannoch moor.  This is a gradual uphill climb for about 6 miles and then a drop into Glencoe Ski Centre car park.  The underfoot conditions are rough stone with a few very rough sections that need to be taken cautiously.   From the ski centre the route crosses the A82 onto old tarmac roads into the Kingshouse Hotel and follows a track to the bottom of the Devil’s Staircase around 21 miles into the race.  The Devil’s Staircase is a 450metre vertical ascent on some pretty rough underfoot conditions, and the descent at the other side to Kinlochleven (KLL) is even worse.  This descent really needs to be navigated as the underfoot conditions are pretty awful. More on that later. The last section of the descent into KLL is better but slippery when wet (queue Jon Bon Jovi).  There is then about a mile or two through KLL town and then onto the steeper and longer climb (650m vertical) to the Lairig Mor, a very long valley pass on the way to Fort William (FW).  The underfoot conditions are tricky for the most of it with large boulders and rocks sticking out of the ground at the tougher sections.  There is then some forestry tracks through Lundavra and a small climb up to the forestry service road that takes you down into Fort William itself.  The route finishes at the first roundabout when entering the town from the Braveheart car park road some 42 odd miles later.  While I’ve said that a lot of this route it tricky and sometimes dangerous, this route contains some of Scotland’s most beautiful scenery and nobody should be put off by the underfoot conditions if they fancy a wee walk in the highlands. It is perfectly safe to walk if you have the right gear and knowledge.  Running it, well, that is a different story!!

 

The Race

Steven and I stayed in the Tigh-na-Fraoch (House of Heather) B&B the night before the race.  Heather, the B&B owner, was also running the race and kindly allowed us to stay over the night.  Also staying the night was Kevin O’Donoghue, who was 3rd in last year’s race.  We all rose up at 4am on the day of the race to get our much needed pre race meal in our systems in plenty of time.  I hadn’t had the best sleep.  The calf tear that I struggled with for weeks was starting to play up, or at least play up in my head.  Steven gave me some pain killers that, on hindsight, may have contained caffeine, so I tossed and turned until about 1am.  So with 3 hours of sleep and a belly full of porridge and honey we headed to the Green Welly Stop for the race registration and briefing.  We got a seat up the back of the café and watched the nervous runners and crew go about their pre race routines and rituals.  On the whole most runners looked happy and nervous, there was a good vibe, and I was starting to get nervous myself.  I was keen for it to get started, my lack of training wasn’t on my mind at all and I knew that I would finish the race.  3 months prior to the race (pre calf tear) I wanted to be able to compete in the race, but now my main goal was to finish, to get that qualifying race under my belt. That was the main goal.

 

I spotted John Sharp.  John is a quality runner from Inverclyde AC. He showed me a clean pair of heels at the Scottish half Marathon championships in Moray last year and at this year’s Edinburgh Marathon, so I knew his quality. I hadn’t noticed him in any ultra results, so I assumed this was his first.  He would be a threat to the leaders of the race, for sure.  Then I spotted Casey Morgan.  I didn’t know Casey before the race.  He is an established ultra and mountain runner of very good quality and he would definitely be the man to beat today. I’d recently listened to an interview with him on the Talk Ultra Podcast where he discussed his 10th place at Transgrancanaria.  He has a string of podium places over the last few years in the Ultra scene at home and abroad and is a seasoned athlete.  I had also noticed some Facebook posts from a member of Paul Giblin’s family and wondered if he might show up at the last minute, like he did for this year’s West Highland Way race.  For anyone who hasn’t heard of Paul, he is the current record holder for the WHW race at 14 hours and 20 minutes, taking a near 50 minutes of his old record from last year.  In the end he didn’t appear on the start line.  I am sure it would have been a very interesting race if he had!  There was also Neil MacNicol, a veteran runner (like me) who appears to have had a podium place on just about every ultra he has entered.  Another very good athlete.  I didn’t know Neil, but he was pointed out to me by people I knew who had been in the same races as him in the past.

 

After a race briefing from Garry we made our way up the side of Brodies store to the star line and within a few minutes we were off.  The race starts on a small uphill tarmac section and the pace was sedate, so Casey took the lead and the pace increased.  I decided to go with him at the start.  Having come from a road background the pace was still fairly steady and so I stuck with him.  With it being 6am it takes a wee while for this old engine to warm up and I was breathing pretty hard on the climb.  John Sharp had also joined us, followed closely by

Neil and Kevin and a few others.  Once we reached the level road the pace increased, looking at my watch a few times to BoO we would be clocking sub 6:30 minute miles at times.  The pace was fast but I was feeling really good, better than I expected.

 

The three of us (Casey, John and I) went through BoO together and had already put a gap between us and the rest of the field.  Then we started the first climb of the race out of BoO and I was in the lead.  After about 100m I looked behind to see Casey on my tail and John a little further back.  The start of the climb this is a single file track with long grass and ferns on either side.  When we got to a wider part of the trail, Casey took off like a mountain goat.  I have never been strong on hills, it something I have never trained. The races I would do on the road were predominantly flat, so I never saw the need.  As Casey put space between us on each foot strike, I wished I done more hill training in my running.  Within a minute he had put about 100m gap as I struggled with the climb and by the top he was at least 200m ahead as we descended into Victoria Bridge.

 

As I approached Victoria Bridge I could see Steven waiting with some supplies.  This was where I picked up my first hydration bottle.  I’d started with a bottle, but it was for show only, empty.  We’d arranged that this would be the first time I would need anything which is about 9-10 miles in and along with the bottle, which contained a Vitargo and High 5 Zero mix, I collected two gels.  My nutrition approach was a gel every half hour until I got sick of them or wanted some real food.  I had already had two gels on the route to VB, and they had settled in my stomach quite nicely.  At this point, I’d also clawed back some time on Casey and I saw him hesitate at the gate to Rannoch moor whether to hold the gate open for me as I wasn’t that far behind, but he didn’t, and I know I certainly wouldn’t have if the tables were turned.  On the long slow climb over Rannoch Moor, Casey again opened up a gap on me and that gap grew to the Glencoe Ski centre car park.  As I approached the car park from Rannoch Moor I could see Casey on the run out.  I later learned that he lost time in there looking for his crew who hadn’t made it on time.  Steven was there again for a very quick stop to replace a bottle and pick up more gels.  I could see Casey stop at a car at the main A82 and I gained some space on him here and as we approached the Kingshouse Hotel I was about 20-30 metres behind him.  This would be as close as I would get.  I started to feel tired at this point, 19 miles in and I was starting to struggle.  It was at this point I had my first doubts.  I had 23 miles still to run over the toughest part of the route and my endurance was waning.

 

The Devil’s Staircase is a winding path up and over the Aonagh Eagach ridge and is around a 400m vertical climb.  The actual distance of the path I am not sure, but it is a tough climb.  I ran the first section of the climb and I could see Casey a few ‘rungs’ up the hill, running hard.  After a few hundred metres I had to walk, the climb became too steep and difficult to run.  There are a few sections that actually look like stairs, I suspect they have been there since General Wade’s day!!!  I started to run again as I approached the top and cresting over the summit, Casey was nowhere to be seen.  This initial descent is treacherous, uneven exposed rock face and rocks sticking up out the ground everywhere.  After about 100m, I tripped on an exposed rock and went flying forward, landing on my hands and knees.  A small fall, and I quickly got back up onto my feet.  Then about 100m later and tripped again, same foot, same toe and I went flying on this one, landing heavily on my left hand side.  I lay there with rocks poking in my back and pain in my left leg and right foot.  This one hurt!  After a minute and a bit of shouting and swearing I got up and started to hobble/jog, being very apprehensive of my descent while the pain subsided.  A couple of minutes later I was off again navigating my way down and over the terrain, taking it easy when I needed to.  You can see KLL from the top of the Devil, and it looks so close, only 14 miles from there, but it is actually miles away and a good hour over this type of underfoot conditions.  It is a tough descent.  I was glad to reach the relatively sedate paths that ran along the hydro station equipment and then eventually onto, my friend, tarmac as I entered KLL.  Steven was again there as expected with all that was needed and said the Casey was about 10 minutes ahead.  I knew there was no way I was going to catch him, now it was just a matter of finishing and hopefully retaining second place. KLL is about 29 miles into the race and I hadn’t ran this distance since November 2013, over 9 months previously.  I hadn’t thought about this at the time, but I’d only had one longer than marathon run in 2014 and that was 2 weeks prior to the race.  What did I really expect?  Sometimes I can be very tough on myself.  I was disappointed that I could not longer challenge and I was angry with myself for slowing, but I was determined to finish this race.  It has struck me since the race that ultra running is far more than your current physical state, your state of mind is probably of equal importance.  At no time in this race did I contemplate pulling out, not once.  Although physically I wasn’t ready for it, I am delighted with the way I mentally approached the race as it happened.  I can keep going and that is exactly what I did leaving KLL.

 

The climb out of KLL is a toughie.  It’s around 650m of vertical climb through forest, but the underfoot conditions are not as tough as the Devil.  However, with my physical state deteriorating, I was forced to walk large parts of the climb, in fact pretty much all of it.  And that run/walk mode lasted the entire way along the Lairig Mor.  As this was now mid morning, there were a lot of walkers out on the route, many taking their final walk on the full WHW into Fort William.  All were very pleasant, wishing me luck, and congratulating me, while I was wishing that I was walking with them.  My average pace over the route had slipped from 6:30-6:40 at Glencoe to 8:30-8:40 on the Lairig Mor.  This was a really tough section and I was leaking time.  Some self talk or shout motivation was needed and as I started to run at a reasonable pace I tripped again, this time I could feel the toe crunch in my shoe, always the same foot that caught.  And I tumbled and tumbled.  This time there was blood and pain almost everywhere.  I lay there, unable to move.  I could see some walkers further down the hill, but they were moving away from me.  I thought, is this it, have a broken something and do I need to be helicoptered out of here.  All I could think of was the embarrassment of it.  The pain stated to subside and I started to move a little until I sat up.  My arm left side (again!!) had taken the brunt of the impact but there were cuts on both sides.  The left was worse and there was a large road rash type injury at the bottom of my left leg, cuts to my left and right arm and strangely my left stomach. I could feel impact points on my back and right side.  I needed to get up, to assess the damage, to assess my chances of finishing.  So I got up.  Believe it or not, after 30 odd miles of running it’s only the running motion that doesn’t hurt.  Trying to do anything else is painful!  Getting up off the ground must have taken me 3 minutes! Seriously! I could stand and I could walk, so I could finish.  And I plodded on until the pain had gone to a level I was comfortable with and I started to run again.  Coming into Lundavra and Steven was there, as usual.  I had gone off the gels at this point and wanted no more food, but I was thirsty and took on some water and then took the electrolyte bottle and was off again.  Steven had told me I was about 10 minutes ahead of 3rd at KLL.  I had lost so much time on the Lairig Mor that I was very conscious that I could be caught.

 

So I started running out of Lundavra as fast as I could.  There is around 7 miles to go in the race, mostly downhill and I thought I need to keep moving, I need to keep 2nd place.  If you had told me I would be 2nd in Tyndrum at 6am that morning, I would have laughed it off.  In all honesty, if I was 20th or 30th or last but finished the race I would have been happy, but the competitor in me wanted to hold onto this position. So I ran as much as I could, walked when the climbs were too steep for me and ran as hard as I could on the descents.  It was an absolute relief when I crested onto the service road. Nearly 40 miles in and it was runnable track and road all the way to the finish.  I wouldn’t be caught now.

 

About 2 miles from the end on a flat, stable part of the road I felt this excruciating pain on the inside of my right leg.  It was so sore I couldn’t run another step.  I stopped, tried to stretch it, tried to massage it, nothing gave relief and so I started walking. Never stop!  It started to ease and so I started to jog again, and as it subsided more I could pick up to a run again.  At this point I was doing the ultimate no no and looking behind me.  Nobody there, just keep going, I told myself.  I’ve since googled the muscle in question, the gracilis.  It appears to be a pretty pointless muscle, but trust me when that spasms, it is agony!  Not long after that I approached a walker, heading up the hill.  An old guy in his 70’s maybe 80’s in what looked like 60’s walking gear.  As it was still morning, I said, “Good Morning”, he looked at me, emotionless and replied “Hurry Up!”.

 

The sense of relief as I saw the Braveheart car park was immense, about a mile to go and I actually broke into a half decent pace on the tarmac path to the finish.  There was a small gathering of people standing around in the rain clapping and cheering and it I felt such a sense of achievement as I crossed the line.  I’d just completed the Devil O’ the Highlands in 6 hours and a couple of seconds, finishing second behind the very impressive Casey Morgan who broke the 6 year old Jez Bragg record in 5:13 minutes.  A full 47 minutes ahead of me.  I didn’t care that I had lost a further 35 minutes from KLL to the end, I had walked a lot of that section, I was delighted to finish and a podium place is a podium place.  Neil MacNicol had closed me down to almost 2 minutes as he crossed the line in 6:02 with Kevin coming in 4th  in 6:06.  John, who had been with us at the start, unfortunately had to pull out at Glencoe, I hope he is ok.

 

Race Organisation

All I can say is brilliant.  There have been a lot of negative vibes going around before this race started and I have no idea why or what they were and to be honest I couldn’t care less. I have been unaffected by it. This race is very well organised and managed.  I spoke with both Garry and Gemma after the race and they were thoroughly nice people, who care passionately about the race.  I’ve heard some rumblings about the race being run for profit.  As are most high level road races.  If you don’t like that aspect, don’t enter, surely that is the best way to protest about it.   Sitting in the house as the keyboard warrior is not the way forward.  If I have any complaints about the whole experience is the on line presence of the race.  The Devil website is badly in need of an update, I hope they do that soon.

 

Post Race Reflection

I am delighted that I have finished the race and to podium is a level higher than I expected.  I went into this race under prepared and I needed a lot more training.  However, it has shown me that I can compete at these types of distances and I do have some of the qualities that are needed in ultra races, particularly the mental aspect.  There are a number of aspects to my ‘game’ that I need to work on, but these are all workable and I will tailor my future training to that.  I am looking forward to progressing on this path, I feel that the ultra world is offering me a new challenge in my running and I’ve got a new eagerness to explore it.

4 responses to “The Devil O’ The Highlands 2014

  1. tina McLeod August 7, 2014 at 8:58 am

    My first devil too and I loved it. That medal is amazing

    Like

  2. Davie Clark August 8, 2014 at 6:52 pm

    Outstanding Boab. I can’t believe how well you did from so little training. And that’s great news for Neil as well. He lives a few streets from me and I’ve been a few runs with him. Top guy, well chuffed for him getting another podium.

    Daviec

    Like

  3. Pingback: Edinburgh parkrun # 279 – 28/02/2015 | The Road is Always Long

  4. Pingback: Glasgow to Edinburgh Ultra Marathon – Pre Race | The Road is Always Long

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