Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Great Glen Way Ultra: Running A Double

Insanity is a relative term. Ultra runners often get called insane because people confuse it with dedication, hard work and sacrifice. Sometimes ideas are insane to us at one point in our lives and then become less insane later. Deciding to run the Great Glen Way twice was a bit like that; insane at first because there was nothing to prove I could do it. There was no special training, just excitement for an idea. In the lead up it became normal as it was just something I was going to be doing. I'll confess that after about 100 miles it started to feel a bit crazy again. It would be both the longest I had run for and the furthest I had run. I kept it pretty quiet; no point getting any congratulations until it was completed. The Great Glen Way has some stunning views so surely it would be a pleasure seeing them twice right?!

Every wee adventure should be preceded by an event which tests your patience, mood and relationship. This is to build resilience and serve as a good story to tell at the pub later. Our adventure capability tester came in the form of a dodgy camper van. More accurately, a shell of a van with space to sleep in the back which would break down on the outskirts of Inverness on the Thursday night. This needed to happen in the lashing rain of course. The hire company gave us two options; travel back to Edinburgh to pick up a new van and then drive back up (not a great option considering it was already 7pm) or fend for ourselves. We decided to fend for ourselves, which actually meant sending out desperate messages to folk on Facebooklet so they could fend for us. We've become a lazy generation. I tore about in the pissing rain asking hotels for spare rooms. Enormous generosity meant that our camping gear was to be stored, Scott was to be transported for the weekend, we had a tent for the Saturday night and a ride back to Edinburgh on the Sunday. Thank you all so much (Helen, John, Alexa and everyone else that offered). I started the run on Friday morning knowing that everything was all sorted. Nothing quite like running 144 miles and getting to the finish without knowing where you will be sleeping.

Low clouds looking back to Inverness (photo: Scott)

Inverness to Fort William 

Friday 3 July - 6am

My start time was just after 6am and the plan was to run for about 18 hours and arrive in Fort William at midnight, leaving enough time to have a Dundee shower and change my kit. Scott ran the first hour and a half with me up the trail. As we were staying in Inverness city centre, we'd already done a mile before we joined up with the Great Glen Way and the athletics stadium that would be the finish of tomorrow's race.

The views heading out of Inverness were stunning. It was to be a warm day. We took the climb up easy before Scott headed back to get to breakfast in time. Now alone, I was remembering parts of the trail from last year. The road section before the final checkpoint was much longer than I had remembered. Mental note saved about that for later. I dodged pot-holes and loggers. There is a sign saying that you are at the highest part of the trail about eleven miles from Inverness. At this point I do not actually believe it. Through a gate which tells me that I have run just over a half marathon and then along a wide rocky path with amazing views of Loch Ness.

Walking out of Inverness

Nathan Airess

As I come down into Drumnadrochit I got confused with times and started to get a little disheartened. I had been taking it easy for four hours and had covered 20 miles. For some reason I decided to multiply my time by five to get my predicted finish time in Fort William. This gave me 20 hours. I didn't have 20 hours; at most I had 19. I had just taken a stab that I would take 18 hours based on my race time of 12 hours 20 minutes last year. But I didn't really know. So I stomped past the Loch Ness visitor centre, angry at it's inaccurate five stars, drinking an Irn Bru and eating a snickers bar. Essentially, I was doing my best to pretend that this is what all the locals do at ten in the morning.

Now concerned about time, I put the foot down to head towards Invermoriston where Sean Maley was arriving at midday to run with me to Fort William. I hated coming down this bit last year. It seemed to take forever. The fork in the trail came where I had to decide whether I was taking the high route or the low route. The race organisers had not yet decided which route the race was going to take. I decided to take the high route. If you are going to commit to a challenge, best to make it the best challenge you can. It was a good decision; the day was beautiful, the views were stunning and it meant Sean had to start his run with a hike up a steep hill. As Sean is running La High Ultra in August he could do with the hill practice. And as this will be his only training run, there is no time like the present. If you think about, I was doing this for HIM.

View of Loch Ness

By Invermoriston I had almost run out of liquids. Just before we jumped into the dodgy camper I received a box of Nathan kit to test. I was uber excited and went with the new VaporAiress to trial for my journey down. It was a brilliant decision and it fit like a glove. I decided not to take a bladder in it, preferring the convenience of the bottles on the front (two 330ml insulated bottles). I'd also had two cans of Irn Bru in the back pocket but as it was warm, I'd been drinking more than usual. So with more sugary drinks and water on board we had a short climb over to Fort Augustus, again opting to take the high route like true mountain goats.

Elderly Americans on coach tours love the Scottish Highlands. Most of them were in Fort Augustus with us, presumably to help celebrate our arrival. We snuck into the public toilets without paying like badasses. I'm so rebellious it scares me sometimes.

The guess is that we are about halfway and I have been moving for nine hours. The next section is a very long flat run next to the canal which they had clearly recently resurfaced with shingle just to annoy us. Ohhh, it is so hard to keep plodding on the flat after being on your feet for so long already. What was once a charming canal with boats is now a dull piece of water with a shingled footpath leading us to ultimate depression. So some suffering began. It was always going to. Fortunately, Sean is no stranger to suffering having run the entire length of Britain in April. We trudged on at what would turn out to be a pace faster than we probably should have. I was desperately hoping that we had less than 30 miles to go now, Never mind the extra 72 miles that I would be doing tomorrow.

Eventually, eagle-eyed Sean spotted a foreign teenager drinking a can of fizz outside a canal boat. By this stage we were well parched and had to decide if we were robbing the teenager or taking the risk of entering the canal boat in search of goods. The risk-taker that I am followed Sean cautiously down the stairs of the boat. And what did we find? A pub! And what a local pub to have; wherever we were. The order was amusing; multiple cans of coke, Irn Bru, sprite, pints of orange juice, some water and some kit kats. Athletes through and through. My legs really seized and it was a struggle to get going again. There was some good news though; only 18 miles to go! Yuss.

Canal boat pub at Laggan Locks

With six hours left before midnight we had a few choices as to how we would approach the last miles. We had the luxury of walking the last few miles if we wanted which would be good for the the legs but no so good if it cooled down as I only had my Compressport arm warmers to keep me warm if we walked. So we just dropped the pace a little and trundled along taking another sit down spot a few hours later only to be devoured by midgies. The last flat canal section into Fort William was much longer than I remember from last year but we kept positive by singing songs badly. Sean's not a bad singer actually but I am horrific, so much so that sometimes at school the music teacher has to ask the children to repeat song lines again as they were sounding so out of tune. But I was actually the problem, singing Puff the Magic Dragon lyrics a little too boldly.

There's some excitement. Sean has spotted Fort William but doesn't want to say anything because is not sure where the canal ends. I can hear cars and know that the race starts where the canal meets a road. We have done this. We jog in as the bus from Inverness approaches. You mean I could have taken a bus?! We arrived in about 15 hours 30 minutes. Ahead of schedule which means I can scavenge some people's dinner left-overs and take a nap in the Love Bus (all ready in my running kit to start again in a few hours). My legs twitch constantly and my body can't decide if it wants to sweat or shiver. It does not matter how easy you take 72 miles; it is still a long way and a toll on your body. 

Thank you so much to Sean for driving three hours, running over 40 miles and then driving another three hours to wake your pal up at an unreasonable hour to drink beer (and check out some boats).

Arriving in Fort William

Fort William to Inverness 

Saturday 4 July - 1am

Race day. I'm starving so rummage through Terry's running sweets bag and steal chocolate bars and jelly beans. I try to pop a blister but it's barely there anyway. The legs are actually moving ok and I sneak to the back of the start line. The hooter goes and I can jog! Bill Heirs asks where I am as last year I was still in the bushes when the race started! 

Jogging at the start! (photo: Fiona Rennie)
72 miles down, 72 more to go

Wow, I can really jog here. It feels incredible. Everyone else clearly feels incredible too though as they have shot off. Lights from runner's head lamps can't even be seen ahead of me now. Seriously? I know I've got 72 miles in my legs already but I feel like I've got a brilliant pace going. How fast are they all sprinting? There are about three runners behind me with the sweepers but there is quite a gap. Before I started this adventure I thought the first day would be the hard bit and the second day would be easier because there would be so many people to help pull me along. I was very wrong. I am running very alone. 

My solid plod continues and things feel pretty good coming into the first checkpoint at about ten miles. That was quite a bit of plodding to do. The midgies are fierce; just as hungry for my banana as I am. Someone comments that I am consuming my custard in a way that suggests I might be a bit hungry. Huge understatement. 

The next part is mostly undulating and the light is really nice as the sun starts to rise. I splashed out on a new headtorch after struggling for years and it really is brilliant. Our lights are not on for long though as we are treated to the sunrise. I share this romantic moment with bright yellow t-shirt man. Awwww. A sprinkle of rain begins and I hope to get to the second checkpoint before having to stop and put my rain jacket on. A gaggle of us arrive together and climb up towards Invergarry. 

I start to struggle a bit and the miles until the start of the canal leading to Fort Augustus are a bit of a blur. I remember really enjoying this last year but this year I was just holding on until I had a breakdown. When I reach Fort Augustus I will have covered over 100 miles. Surely that'll help add some spring to my step? I love walking up hills but on the Friday I had deliberately taken them easy to save my quads. Today, nothing is particularly hurting but I don't have much extra strength to push up the hills. It's lashing with rain. The weather reports that I had been checking had only said there were going to be showers. I better braid my ponytail. I got this straightened on Thursday. What a waste. 

When I get to the start of the canal I know that I am going to need to plod the whole way to prevent it from being a slow death march. Oh, and it is long. Every corner I hope is the last. I see one other runner, Jan, and a dog walker who I take forever to catch. I'll wait until Invermoriston before I have a breakdown. If I can get through to the halfway point (or three quarters, depending the way you look at things) then the aftermath of the meltdown won't be as bad. Eventually I see the boats and make the left turn to the checkpoint. The wee rebellious tiger in me uses the public toilets without paying again. I've got capri tights in my bag which  I thought I might need as I ran into the second evening but decide to put them on now. My body wasn't really sure whether it was hot from being in the rain jacket or cold from being wet. I felt my legs. They felt cold. The decision was tights. 

Faking it 'til I make it in Fort Augustus

As I arrived into the checkpoint I was taken in by the Love Bus. I decided to have my breakdown here. It was raining like a pissing cow outside so I took my time with a Red Bull and coffee combination. I'd packed a fruit pot for this stop. A fruit pot? It's bloody freezing outside; why would I want a fruit pot? But of course, the weather report had told me it was still going to be warm so I'd packed summer foods. Yesterday was a scorcher but how silly of me to expect two warm days in a row in a Scottish summer. We are tougher than that. 

When I arrived at the checkpoint there were about ten drop bags still there but by now another handful of runners have come in and some runners had been pulled out of the race, I suddenly panicked; the sweeper was probably here. I didn't mind being last at all but I did not want to be timed out and I did not want to keep the sweeper out for hours longer than they needed to. Other than this break, I was moving forward and only walking the inclines. It is quite remarkable how fast some people can run. Today I am proof that it is also remarkable how slow one can run as well. I tear out of the checkpoint. OK, so it was probably less 'tearing' and more 'jogging with intent' but I was giving it a good go nonetheless. 

The next section over to Invermoriston is only about seven miles or something. My hill walking improved and I relaxed a little going down the hills. The break had worked, I felt strong again. On the way down I had taken the high route so I didn't remember this low route section from the previous year. Once my adventure finished, I was looking over comments about the race on social networks. Someone asked how I was doing and got the response that I was struggling at Invermoriston. They clearly didn't see the state of me at all the other checkpoints because I probably looked my best at Invermoriston! Scott is marshaling here and helps with my stuff while Helen Munro sprays my face with Smidge. I can't really talk properly so I just sort of push Scott's hands to do the things I want. 

Then comes the climb out of Invermoriston, the first climb of the course according to the race profile. It is here I meet my first angel; Louise Jones. I am not going as fast as her but she spends the next 13 miles hanging back with me; helping me trudge slowly up the hills and shuffle when I can. It takes forever. I wish we were doing the high route; at least then there are no false summits. At one point we find ourselves edging around trucks and diggers. I am a bit annoyed that I have to keep running around them. Then there are some uncomfortable slippery slates to run across. I am getting very cranky and barely holding in the tears... and then... a deadend. Louise and I are devastated. It may only be half a mile that we've gone off-track but emotionally even a metre off and it would be too much for me. It's a cry or run situation. We run. I use the term 'running' very loosely. But we were attempting to move faster than a walk. We re-pass a group of walkers that we passed at the start of this section. Seriously?!

We finally make it to the top and start the long decent. It is much longer than I remember (and I only just ran this part yesterday). I'm pleased Louise doesn't turn around too often because I've screwed my face up like a crying baby. I am a little worried that my right foot may have caught the ever-contagious plantar fasciitis from my left food. And then I think that maybe I can feel that pelvis pain that has hounded me this year but I so thought was cured... 

The water stop finally appears accompanied by my howling. I burst into tears. I don't think Norry was expecting to get an irrational blubbering woman when he signed up for this support station. Eventually Louise coaxes me to continue and after a chunk of walking up a gradual incline we start a plod. Louise is doing a jog followed by a walk because she is much faster. I tell her to keep going, promising her I will keep plodding until the checkpoint. And I kept that promise, somehow dragging myself into Drumnadrochit. Then I stumbled into a chair and had a rest. I had been hanging on for a long time. 

Taking it easy in Drumnadrochit (CP5) 

I was pretty cold. There had been much more rain that I had expected and it was windy at the hill tops too. Some of us didn't get to read Friday's updated forecasts; we were too busy running to the start line. So I have to confess that I was a bit unprepared. It didn't help that without the camper, I didn't have a lot of time to think about what kit I wanted to have taken down to Fort William. Everyone pitched in at the checkpoint, making me coffee, getting me extra layers etc. I wasn't in a hurry to leave and told Louise to push on. I just needed a wee break. I sat next to Ivan for a bit who had flown past me down the hills. He said something about running myself into the ground. I knew I was going to finish, it was just whether I had any more running left in me. Last year I ran 12 hours and 20 minutes which meant that this time last year I would have been finished. Somewhat depressing. I left the checkpoint in Norry's hoody, my rain jacket, Mike's woolen hat and a foil blanket stuffed down my t-shirt. I looked a riot. That's 125 miles done, another mile and it will be the furthest I've ever run. 

Armed with the knowledge that we could walk the last 19 miles to the finish, Helen Buxton and I set out through Drumnadrochit and climbed the 'second' hill of the day. We were reacquainted with bright yellow t-shirt man who had been carrying an injury since early in the race. It's certainly not a race walking pace but there is a freedom in knowing that we can feel guilt-free as at least we are going up a hill. Slowly, layers come off and I end up with my foil blanket stuffed on the outside of my pack and my rain jacket tied around my waist. I am baffled as to why I spent so long colour coordinating my outfits. The rain totally ruined everything. I've got my sunhat flapping about too. Haven't needed that today. When we come to the gate with a half marathon to go, I tell them that the climbing should be over now. It wasn't intentional but it turns out I told a lie. Once the downhill did finally come we all did our best to plod down to the final checkpoint. 

Looking good 133 miles in

Having trouble dodging the pot holes
I'd packed a beer for this checkpoint but decided that I didn't have enough of my brain left functioning to drink it. By the time I got there the rain had stopped and I was warm so left the foil blanket, hoody and woolen hat behind. It was better to be safe than sorry on the hill though. By this stage my body couldn't regulate my temperature. Nor could it control my bladder which thought I needed to pee every half hour despite barely drinking anything. I'm hesitant to leave my sunhat behind; I want it to cover my shattered face and wild hair in the finishing photo.

But off I went, Inverness-bound. My relief at the annoying overgrown plants was short-lived when I ran into two monster black pigs. I'd been doing a little bit of hallucinating but these were definitely there. The big one was on the trail and snorted at me. I was a bit pissed off; how dare you stand in my bloody way? Don't you know how far I have run? I will not have 'killed by pig at the end of a grand adventure' written on my headstone thank you. But I wouldn't put any money on myself at being able to climb any of these trees if I needed to either. So I inched past, opened the gate slowly (the smaller one was on that side) and started walking along the road. Once I was out of sight, I got an epic plodding pace back on and caught up to Helen. We were both alive (she was actually a bit braver and stopped to take a picture).

The last ten miles are brilliant fun if you have the legs to run. If you don't, they are cruel. I would rather have a hill to walk up as I would feel less guilty about the walking part. There wasn't much running done on the road. With about six miles to go, I had a meltdown. It wasn't any pain in particular, I just needed off my feet. I knew I was going to finish but I really couldn't do it right now. My feet were burning as they were swelling and Mr Plantar Fasciitis was understandably getting a little sick of being poked at with stones. I sat on a rock until Helen talked me into continuing on. When I stood up I had pins and needles. They didn't hurt, just felt unusual. And there was some cut on my leg oozing. My body was officially broken. 

For a little bit I shuffled as I counted 800 steps while Helen walked at the same pace. I think walking hurt more than whatever it was that I was currently doing. Then I gave that shuffle up and walked slowly. The forest took forever. How dare it! Another lady came up behind us (I had been running near her most of the race) and Helen and her started jogging. Helen had been worried to leave me in case I collapsed once she was gone. I couldn't assure her that I wouldn't collapse, just that there would be runners behind me to help if I did. I leaned on a gate crying as some walkers came towards me. I must have looked a right sight. They ask where I've run from. When I tell them their only response is that I am close to Inverness. I know I am close! BUT IT IS STILL TOO FAR. 

Finally the downhill began and so did my shuffling. Down through the woods, through some houses, along some grass... right turn onto the water any minute now... But no. There was a whole chunk of other stuff before the water that I didn't remember. Must keep moving legs. You are jogging. Jogging is so good. I caught the other lady again. I didn't want to pass her but I had to keep running otherwise I probably would have just collapsed. Up ahead I could now see Helen walking. I yelled at her to go and go she did, only to have to wait for some cars before she could cross the road. I was too hot in my rain jacket again but couldn't risk doing anything that might stop my current shuffle.  

During the last two days I had been emotional on several occasions. Sometimes it was because I was so overwhelmed and exhausted and other times because I was picturing myself finishing. I thought that I would finish crying but with so many happy people cheering, it just didn't seem fitting. So I gave it my best effort all the way down the finishing straight. Within moments of stepping over the line, I had arms all over me holding me up. I'd been holding on all day and now the dizziness and exhaustion took over, I had a sleep in the medical room while they checked me over. I passed all the tests; just had general exhaustion, dehydration and supreme hunger. Missing Friday's lunch and dinner and Saturday's breakfast and lunch meant I was running on empty all of Saturday. Helen and John Munro had very kindly brought a tent for us but the medical staff and Scott thought that maybe he should try get us a hotel room! 

Double fist pump for the finish (photo: Fiona Rennie)

It wasn't until Sunday night that I started to feel a bit proud. When I finished I just felt like I'd run a really slow Great Glen Way and had let myself down by walking so much. I had finished the Saturday in about 18 hours 30 minutes bringing my total running time to 34 hours. Faster than my aim of 36 hours. Currently, I can't decide if the adventure has given me more confidence that I can cover 150 miles or less confidence (because it was just so darn hard). The jury is out. 

Leg recovery is going much better than I thought but the brain is a bit foggy. I missed my train stop on my way to work on Monday! Blister count: 0. Plantar fasciitis count: just the one foot still. Win. A huge thank you to BAM who let me partake in my crazy adventure and to everyone who gave me so much support over the weekend. 


  1. Absolutely amazing run, well done - and another brilliant write-up too. You're a bloody star. Hope the pelvis flare-up is just a one-off, in protest to such an incredibly epic distance ran. x x

    1. Thanks Sarah, seems to just have been a protest flare-up :)

  2. this is inspirational stuff well done amazing!!

    1. Thank you! I think it has finally sunk in :)

  3. Insane, but utterly awesome effort Antonia. Inspirational stuff, well done :-)

  4. Wow, full on stuff Antonia, I have signed up for the run next year (just the one way though!), but to do it both ways is amazing. Respect indeed.


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