RACE REPORT – The Devil O’ The Highlands Ultra Marathon 2016

The Devil O’The Highlands Footrace 2016

TIME: 7 Hours 47 Minutes and 10 Seconds

OVERALL : 55th/256 finishers (5 DNF)

GENDER: 9th/72 females

CATEGORY: 6th/29 senior females

It’s 2:45am on Saturday morning and my alarm is screeching at me. Already the dog is awake and has her nose up on the bed: clearly she thinks it’s time to get up and that of course means breakfast! I shoo her away and go back to sleep for a further 15 minutes.

The start. Photo - Kirsten Cowling
The start. Photo – Kirsten Cowling

3am – My second alarm bursts into life and I dragged myself out of bed to get ready. I can’t even open my eyes but I somehow manage to get all my kit on in the right order, tie my hair back tightly and finish packing my bags before force feeding myself porridge and coffee. The coffee does the trick and before I know it I’m ready to hit the road North and back to my favourite running spot of the year; the wonderful West Highland Way.

This will be my second year running this race but I can’t even think how many times I’ve been on this part of the route over the past 12 months. Through winter training, spring training and of course the West Highland Way Race itself, I now feel I know this part of the course like the back of my hand. I was nervous though as it had only been 6 weeks since the WHW race and I wasn’t feeling 100% recovered yet but apart from a slight twinge in my knee and a dull ache in my hip flexor, I was just raring to get going.

I arrived in Tyndrum just after 5am, handed in my drop bags, registered and went about saying hello to my equally tired running friends. There was an air of nervous excitement; a lot of people were running their first ultra, a lot were chasing a time and quite a few, like me, were there to complete the infamous ‘triple crown’ series. This involves runners completing all three of the ultra marathons on the West Highland Way (the Fling in April, The WHW race in June and the Devil in August) in the same year and although an unofficial title, one that runners really push to achieve. So here we were on the WHW at silly o’clock in the morning. Again!

Race briefing over, we all walked round to the race start line which was next to Brodies store. I stood for a few minutes with my WCH friends and then spotted Jeni Rees-Jenkins, Jo Murphy and Emma Wright up ahead. Now, I’m not quite in the same league as these ladies but I fancied my chances today so I shimmied further forward to the starting line and found myself ridiculously close to the front of the pack. Probably a bit too close but too late to go back now. I might as well give it my all!

See you in Fort William! Photo - Kirsten Cowling
See you in Fort William! Photo – Kirsten Cowling

There was a count down from 10, a horn and with a cheer we were off; running up a hill! I was chatting away to Emma and we were both worried our legs wouldn’t hold up if we started off at this pace but I think we were also a bit surprised by how fresh we felt given we were running and chatting on the way up a pretty decent gradient! I slowed down to tiptoe my way around a puddle as I didn’t fancy soggy feet this early in a race and by the time I had got my speed back up, Emma had floated away in front and I had a chat with Kirsty Burnett for a while. The first section is pretty straight forward with lots of flat, runnable sections and I had to bring my speed down once or twice when I found myself getting a bit carried away. There was lots of light hearted chat and before I knew it I was trotting down the steps underneath the train station at Bridge of Orchy.

Enjoying the chat and moving along fairly swiftly! -Photo - Kirsten Cowling
Enjoying the chat and moving along fairly swiftly! -Photo – Kirsten Cowling

(BoO split 55:49 Position – 63rd)

I felt pretty good as I ran through the checkpoint. I didn’t stop but slowed on the hill to eat something as I definitely wasn’t going to let my inability to eat in the early stages of a race slow me down in the latter stages, so I kept force feeding myself with shot bloks. Not exactly nutritious, but definitely better than nothing! The climb up Jelly Baby hill was quite pleasant; my legs felt good, my breathing was steady and I was still catching people on the way up. There was a cool breeze and definitely rain clouds up ahead, but for now I was fine just running in a vest and arm sleeves. Up and over JBH and back down towards Inveroran, still feeling powerful and passing a few more people I started to wonder if I was doing this all wrong. Was I going to crash and burn by the time I got to Glencoe? I had my usual grumble to myself as I hit the Drovers road as in trail shoes it’s pretty impossible to get any sort of grip. I found myself running along the overgrown grass verge now really wishing I’d either worn longer socks or gaiters as little bits of grass, grit and seeds got into my socks, however I was still feeling pretty good as I pushed along Rannoch Moor, knowing that the first big check point and some tasty goodies in my drop bag awaited me. Suddenly the rain that had been looming on the horizon appeared, and within a couple of minutes I was soaking. It wasn’t cold and I felt I was travelling a descent enough pace to keep warm, so I didn’t bother putting my jacket on. The rain quickly cleared and it got slightly warmer, but along with that came the midges and by time I got to Glencoe I was swimming in them!

I still felt okay as I pushed up towards the check point at the ski area, but the midges were really annoying me. I’d stupidly not applied any repellent and the tops of my arms and my ankles were getting munched. The poor marshals were surrounded by them and were brilliant at quickly refilling my bottles and getting my drop bag. I changed my plans from stopping to eat something to getting out of there as quickly as possible to prevent my eyeballs from being devoured by the carnivorous beasts! As I trundled down the path towards the road crossing I had a think back to how I’d felt so low at this point in the race last year. My head had been down and I’d felt queasy I just couldn’t see how it would be possible to finish the race. I’d started to feel low at the exact same point but I now know that it passes and before long I’d feel good again, so once over the road crossing and on to my least favourite section of the race, I dropped my shoulders and picked up the pace again.

(Glencoe split: 1:54:00, running time 2:49:49. Position – 71st)

During the West Highland Way race, this is where I’d started to struggle. The weather had been beautiful but everything had been hurting after 60+ miles on the go. I had a giggle to myself as I remembered Kat putting pressure on a point in my shoulder (she’s a Physio, she wasn’t just being cruel!) and me almost crumbling with the pain, but if I wanted the pain to ease off, I had to keep moving forward and this got me through a lot of this silly section. This time round I only walked when absolutely necessary, had a good chat with the same people I’d been running with for quite a while now and got to the bottom of the Staircase in what seemed like no time at all. Now for the hard parts…

The Devil's staircase - again! Photo - Patrick Burns
The Devil’s staircase – again! Photo – Patrick Burns

I looked up and sighed. Here we go again, but this time – no knee pain so no excuses! Adrian Dingwall caught up with me here and we had a good chat all the way up that took my mind off how long a climb it actually was. The clouds cleared just as we got to the top and I had a spectacular view down the valley just as I reached the summit. All smiles for the photographers, a jelly baby from Pauline Walker and another photo opportunity from Fiona Rennie and then it was onto the wonderful down section. From here until the finish my thoughts mainly consisted of “does it hurt as much as it did last time you were here? No? Then suck it up and get on with it!”, which definitely gave me a mental kick up the backside. Down, down, down the quad trashing hill into Kinlochleven. Yes, I knew I would pay and be agony for the majority of the following week, but I was having fun and I was feeling good.

Pretending I ran all the way up the staircase! Photo - Josh Hewitson
Pretending I ran all the way up the staircase! Photo – Josh Hewitson
The magic jelly babies working their wonders again! Photo - Fiona Rennie
The magic jelly babies working their wonders again! Photo – Fiona Rennie
Photo - Fiona Rennie
Photo – Fiona Rennie

(KLL split: 2:02:28, running time 4:52:17. Position – 67th)

I was fairly moving as I ran into the checkpoint and a quick watch glance revealed that if I kept it up I was on for a pretty hefty personal best, so once my bottles were full I grabbed a mars bar and some cheese and was running back out the check point. If these legs were still playing ball, I was going to use them to the best of their ability! The rain had stopped and it was now getting quite warm, but I pushed all the way to the top of the climb out of KLL and back into a jog once I reached the top. I could see quite a few runners bobbing their way along Lairig Mor and as always at this point, I made it my mission to start catching them. I picked up my pace on every flat and down section and power walked up the hills, making sure I was still eating regularly and drinking plenty and in the distance I spotted Emma’s pony tail swishing about. There was no way I was catching her now, but it was the first time I’d seen her since Tyndrum! My pace was increasing and I was leaping over rocks and rivers all the way to Lundavra where I got a huge hug from Angela. I whooped with delight when I saw the check point as this time 6 weeks ago I had been in tears at this point and I was just amazed with how strong I was feeling. A quick glug of coke, a thanks to the marshals and I was on my way to the finish line.

(Lundavra split: 1:33:13, running time 6:25:30. Position – 55th)

Running along the last section things started to hurt a bit as I dug deep for one last push to the finish. I was determined not to let anyone catch me but more than anything I wanted to get down that fire road at a decent pace! There was no one in front of me or behind me that I could see, but this spurred me on even more as my competitive nature couldn’t deal with the thought of someone passing me with a mile to go! The final slog up cow hill was once again a sting in the tail but the clock was ticking and I was desperate to get to that finish line in under 8 hours. There were families making their way up the last sections of path to meet their runners and it was lovely to get cheers and high fives as I made my way to the park and to the finish line.

(Fort William split: 1:21:40, running time 7:47:10. Final position – 55th)

Finish line grins! Photo  - Willie Irvine
Finish line grins! Photo – Willie Irvine

I bounded down the hill and onto the grass and a quick glance at the finish clock revealed I had smashed my target time by quite a bit and I was absolutely elated! I was given my amazing medal, goody bag and t-shirt and the hugs were dished out by the bucket load. Another brilliant race organised by Johnny Fling and a wonderful finish line, buffet and drinks in the tent were to follow. I was so happy to be finished and couldn’t wait to get in the shower, but I was torn between wanting to be warm and dry and waiting to see all my team mates finish. When I started to shiver Ruth Howie marched me in the direction of the leisure center to get a heat back in me. I caught up with the girls in the changing rooms; Emma had finished 7 minutes ahead of me with a brilliant run, Jeni had yet another storming run and Jo managed to bag 3rd lady with an absolutely amazing performance. I couldn’t be happier for them and we’d all finished in the top 10 ladies! Once washed and warm again we headed back to the marquee for chat and tea and then I headed for some well needed lunch with my Mum who had come up to see me finish and my little brother Duncan who was on bar duties for the day.

Once again, another brilliant day out. I’m so chuffed with my time and overall performance and I’ll be back at some point in the future to try and take even more time off. I think next year I’ll miss out on the WHW races and offer my help to marshal instead and focus on some other races that have caught my eye. Unfortunately we can’t run them all, but we can definitely support so these amazing races keep happening!

Huge thanks to everyone involved from the race organisers and marshals, to the photographers and people who gave up their day to come along and support. You all make it what it is!

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