Sunday, 26 May 2013

First Night of Wild Camping

Undeterred by last week's extremely soggy camping experience in Arran, we spent Friday evening ruminating over which tent would suit our needs best. Ideally we were looking for a spacious three man tent, weighing less than 2kg and costing about £75. In the end we settled on the Wild Country Aspect 3, serendipitously on offer at Cotswold Outdoors for £150. Tent bought, and weather glorious we headed off to Tyninghame, our favourite beachy haunt.

Kitted up.
Super grass.

Little boy blue.
I was sure that the perfect weather would have drawn wild campers in their droves to the beach, but no, it was deserted. We chose a little plateau half way up the huge dunes. Nice and sheltered, with views of the vast beach, and no risk of getting washed away by the incoming tide.  Tents were pitched with ease (Matt swooned over the quality of the shiny new poles), the sleeping mats inflated themselves (hurray for science!) and the junior sleeping bags were tested for cocoonability (they passed with distinction).

Arcadian domesticity.

Message on a bottle.
Beer and wine flowed as we slaved over a hot camping stove making our three course meal: veggie frankfurters in wraps, followed by baked beans straight from the tin, and topped off with a Tunnock's Snowball. It was generally agreed that this was one of the best meals evah, infinitely superior to the pish that gets forced on them all at home.
Tunnocks. The only snowball acceptable in May.

Dusk fell slowly and beautifully. The smaller clan members ferreted around in the dunes, and M and I watched the pulses of the lighthouses around the coast and listened to the shushing of the waves. I loved the feeling that we were all achieving deep contentment from the environment in our different ways.

 In my whole 37 years of avid moon-gazing, I don't think I've witnessed a moon-rise as heart-stoppingly wonderful as this one. Full and golden, it floated up over the headland with such speed that I felt a brief interplanetary giddiness. Hope triumphed over experience yet again, as I snapped away with my phone camera with predicatbly disappointing results. 

The moon. It was stunning, honest!
As the moon grew higher and more silvery we headed for our beds. The night was so mild that we left the door open on our tent so we could look at the stars (and possibly keep an eye on errant children).
 Despite the comfiness of our sleeping quarters, I had a slightly restless night. The tide came in, and in the delirium of half-sleep the waves sounded very loud and fearsome. I had to peer out several times to reassure myself that they were in fact gently rolling at a safe distance.

By 6am the sun and tide were both fully out again. After hot chocolate and croissants I spent a long time lying on the cool sand in my sleeping bag doing very little. My phone battery had died (worn out from futile moon photography!) and I felt regretful that I couldn't snap the rest of the family playing in the dune grasses. It was a morning full of "kairos time".

Eventually I was coaxed out of my cocoon by Matt's suggestion of sprintervals: 30 seconds of full-pelt running along the beach, followed by 30 seconds of rest x 10. We ran from opposing directions so as to see the whites of each other's eyes as we passed midway. That, plus a cursory wash in the sea, set me up for a cup of tea and a some more lounging on the warming sand. Eventually hunger forced us homewards, and after a leisurely disassembling of our camp we headed off to Luca's for lunch.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Goatfell 2013

It's a cold, dark afternoon in February. I'm sitting in Starbucks dodging my essay writing, frittering time on Facebook. A little red flag appears...a message...a kosher distraction!

Jim Hardie: Are you or Matt entering Goatfell this year? It's one of the championship races, and it's filling fast.


So I quickly and obediently signed myself and Matt up. Within days Jim had secured himself a watertight excuse for bailing out of the race. Splitter.

In the ensuing months, we convinced our ├╝ber-neighbour, Gillian, to come with us for a “fun weekend in Arran”. She would look after our rabble for a few hours as we raced, and in return she'd get to enjoy a million rounds of I-Spy, and be appointed Managing Director of the tent.

My race preparation consisted largely of looking at photos of boulder fields and bloodied runners from previous years, and fretting about whether the route was 15.5km (as per SHR website) or 13km (as per SiEntries). A brief chat with a sporty looking couple on the ferry to Brodick threw a third possible distance of 17.5km into the mix. Pacing strategies were abandoned at this point in favour of a more modest plan of not falling over.


 Goatfell looked every bit as ominous as I'd anticipated: a sodden lump of granite looming over the bay as the ferry sailed into Brodick harbour. The sullen weather demanded anxious swithering over legwear. Digby recommended longs, not least because it might offer the “Gordon Effect” whereby partially severed limbs are held in place by fast-wicking fabric.

Legwear vacillations.



Kids despatched with Gillian, we gathered in the sports field of the Ormidale Pavilion for a pleasantly low key start. Well, as low key as it can be with 200 odd runners: roughly double the turn out of non-SHR-championship years. Matt ran with me around the lap of the sports field and for the rest of the first mile along the road out of Brodick, then gradually edged away. Alarmed at the unsustainability of a 7 minute mile pace, I settled into a steady “I'll be running for two hours” speed. Some kindly spectators cheered us on at the end of the road/beginning of the forest trail. They said I was “doing really well! Good running!”. I have my suspicions that they say this to everyone.

I found myself running behind a guy with an orange top and rucksack, and decided to stick with him. We meandered upwards, and I surrendered myself (too early, as always) to walking interludes. I still haven't worked out if it's a Bad Thing to be walking at the same speed as slow runners. I have a niggling feeling that it's better to maintain a running momentum, albeit at walking speed, but hey ho.

The trail led up over a wooden bridge and past the deer fence, and at this point the views seemed to really open out. A burn gushed down through the granite boulders, and we were serenaded by a very relaxed sounding cuckoo. I kept forgetting to run. The path grew ever rockier and slabbier, and I experienced a mounting dread at the prospect of running back down. It looked lethal. After another mile or so I edged ahead of OrangeTop and found myself leaderless. The nearest runners were quite far ahead. Some bloke seemed to be deploying a curious strategy of sprinting ahead of me, then yelping with pain and lagging behind. I considered offering him my iffy first aid skills, but then realised that injured or not, he was intermittently faster than me, so could fend for himself.

Artist's impression of the ascent.

At about 50 minutes Finlay Wild descended past me. I still had (I guessed) nearly a mile to go before reaching the summit. Andy Fallas sped past a minute or two later. A trickle of fast descenders turned into a steady stream as I hit the final scramble up the ridge. I was pretty sure there was some sort of hill-running etiquette regarding which way to throw yourself out of the path on on-comers, but couldn't remember, and settled for flattening myself against the nearest tractor-sized boulder and bellowing my apologies.

The weather by this point had taken a serious turn for the worse, with gale force winds and hail. I reached the summit at about 1.09, and braced myself (after the briefest of glances at The View) for the descent. Now it's at this point in a race that I usually get overtaken by all and sundry. I clambered down over giant slabs of granite and resigned myself to herds of goat-like people leaping over my shoulder. Astonishingly, it didn't seem to happen. The occasional runner edged passed me, but I actually managed to overtake other people! As the descent became less precipitous and more “technical” I gathered pace, picking off a runner every couple of minutes. My MudClaws gripped the abrasive granite and I gained confidence. It was exhilarating and (I never thought I'd say this...) FUN! With visions of last year's “Hammond Head”, my concentration was maxed out, watching my feet hopping from boulder to boulder, sneaking between slabs, focussing no more than 10 feet ahead of me. It was like dancing downhill.

Unfortunately this joyousness came to a screeching halt as soon as the track flattened out. Without gravity on my side, my legs felt like lead. I'd noted the route to the summit was just under five miles, and realised I had about three miles to go in 24 minutes if I was to achieve my desired sub-two hour time. I pulled out all the stops and ran a 6.44 minute mile (yay!) but deteriorated on hitting the tarmac. Even the cheers from those same kindly supporters (“Great running! Well done!”) failed to add vavavoom to my legs.

The last section of road into Brodick was just awful. My legs were killing me and I just wanted it to be over. The section was very well marshalled (to stop wretched runners from hurling themselves under cars, I suppose), and I had to refrain from pleadingly asking every marshal if I was nearly there yet. During the final straight stretch I could see that I still had at least three minutes running ahead of me, followed by the cruelly enforced lap of the sports pitch. I was close to sobbing, but the sub-two-hour time was in sight so I stiffened my upper lip and pressed on.

The sports pitch was squelchy and heavy-going. I dragged foot in front of foot and heard Carnethy voices urging me on. “Hurry up! She's catching you!!” I was aware of a runner gaining on me on the final hundred metres or so, and Could Not Care Less. By this point the only thing keeping me going was momentum. The idea of increasing my speed was laughable. The runner turboed past me, and I fell through the finishing line in 1:57:18.

Post-race chat (over several cups of tea and some tasty home-baking) established that Matt had relished the descent and achieved a magnificent finishing time of 1:42:43. Finlay Wild had managed a near course record of 1:15:56, thereby screwing my SHR percentage. Cheers Finlay. And so, my quest to nudge my way into the top half of the field continues...

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Seven Skies

"I tell you what would be a great route for a Carnethy Ultra", says I at a club committee meeting, "the Seven Hills route PLUS the skyline. Yeah. That would be great." Okay, so I'd unimaginatively suggested the most preposterous local route I could think of that included Carnethy Hill. Fast forward a few weeks and keen bean Matt has adopted this as a Great Idea, and booked a day off work for it. Even if it gets the brush off as a club ultra route, it looks like I'm not escaping it. Despite the fact that I've never run further than 22 miles, and significantly less than that recently.

Kids safely despatched to school, we availed ourselves of giant cups of tea, and headed for the bus to take us to Calton Hill.  It took an astonishingly long time to get there from Tollcross, which gave us time to drink our far too hot tea. The views from Calton Hill were lovely...and terrifying. The distant hazy Pentlands only hinted at the extent of our intended journey. Fretting over my knee (which felt for all the world like someone was repeatedly pinging the back of my leg with an elastic band) we jogged over to the Castle esplanade and took a couple of minutes to stretch and apply ibu-gel. 

Matt suggested taking the Tollcross/Morrison Steet route to Corstorphine Hill, and I toddled happily along, glad not to actually have to *think* about navigation. Corstorphine Hill was leafy and shady and we revelled in the loveliness of the sunshine and gentle breezes. A quick snack of salty peanuts and some water saw us on to Craiglockhart. That steep ascent is surprisingly tricky with dry ground and road shoes. I clung to roots and whimpered a bit.

Our intention had been to get to Swanston by 11ish, and we were already about half an hour behind schedule. A minor detour through Oxgangs didn't help (MattNav had an incurred unexpected error). At this point we would have sold our souls for ice-cream, but so many corners and so few shops! We made it to Swanston by about 11.45 and opted for the more nourishing option of tomato and lentil soup and a roll. We refilled our water and I changed shoes (yes, in a fit of preciousness I has decided I needed both my road shoes and hill shoes. A decision which proved quite sensible, I think).

 I warned M that I would be taking it easy round the reverse/butchered skyline route, and this meant walking the ascents. Despite my adherence to this rule, I felt worryingly tired and breathless on the ascent of Allermuir from Swanston. I noted that my fingernails had also gone blueish. Yikes. My guess is that my body had (not unreasonably) decided that 11 miles followed by lunch probably meant going-home time, and had diverted the blood supply away from locomotive extremities to the all-important task of digesting.

 Several upward undulations later and my fingers had pinked up and we were on top of Allermuir. I stashed my road shoes by a fence. Unfortunately the resultant half-emptiness of my little rucksack amplified jiggling, and by the top of Capelaw I'd had to deploy two buffs to protect my chafed collarbone. Sweat was trickling into my eyes by this point. Man, it stings! I was regretting having given Matt Grove my cap in a moment of ill-advised generosity. We marvelled at the fact that only a few days previously there had been hypothermia and exposure victims at Stuc a Chroin. Go home, Scottish weather. You're drunk!

 Harbour and Bells hills were infinitely more pleasant when tackled with relatively untrashed legs. They seemed like benign, rounded, grassy hillocks, compared with the hallucination-inducing, energy-sapping leg-wobblers of the proper skyline route. We traversed Black Hill (the most ominous monster of a hill, whichever way you approach it) and Hare Hill. The track was runnable but by this point both of us were feeling weary. With about 18 miles under our belts, which was officially, yet dispiritingly, Nearly Half Way, we settled under some shady trees for lunch Mk2. A very noisy bee bumbled beside me as I undertook some repairs and maintenance: paracetamol, another smearing of ibu-gel and a pathetically inadequate plaster on my blistering heel. Matt insisted that I eat a dry and dismal peanut butter sandwich. I had to force it down, feeling literally sick and tired at this point. Couldn't think of anything appealing to eat, until I passed a man with a banana. I wanted his banana. I wanted it so bad.

The track sweeping round to the Kips offered good running, heart-lifting scenery and excitable bird-chirping. It did seem to go on a bit though, and at the foot of West Kip I was feeling spent and dispirited at the prospect of a very hilly return leg. I think it was at around this point that I was having an inner argument with my legs which went along the lines of:

Legs: ow
Me: shut up
Legs: no YOU shut up
Legs: I hate you

This went on for quite some time.

 By the top of Scald Law we'd done about 22 miles which was The Furthest I've Ever Run. I say run...there was a fair bit of walking and shuffling by this point. Approaching Carnethy, we were buoyed to see Kate and Jess bounding towards us. I hadn't been convinced that our planned rendezvous was going to happen, so had the triple boost of Things Going To Plan, cheery chat, and plus fresh legs by proxy. We pottered off Turnhouse for a coke in the pub. Not my usual choice of drink (in fact the only time I've wanted it before has been during pregnancy) but wow, it did the trick. Castle Law had been a worrying prospect for the duration on the run, and Flotterstone had been earmarked as a potential bail-out point, but I was feeling unexpectedly strong and felt that if we were ever going to do this route this golden and benevolent May day was the day to it.

 The gentle incline up Castle Law started well as I trotted ahead of Matthew, but I had a sudden onset of extreme weariness on the final steep climb to the top. Shuffling along, looking at my feet I noticed the terrain was hoaching with deadly obstacles, like pebbles 'n small twigs 'n stuff. Someone needs to sort that out. The inner row between me and my legs escalated as we hobbled along towards Allermuir, and we were just about to fall out big time, when we were greeted by Kate and a blur of waggy tail and zippy legs. We briefly took in the view, and marvelled at being able to pick out pretty much the whole route. 

The impending second half of the seven hills looked SO flat, with Braid, Blackford and Calton hills being all but imperceptible. Even Arthur's Seat looked small, although we had to admit that this was partly due to it being Very Far Away. Kate gently escorted us off Caerketton and offered us a final escape option at Hillend car-park, but by this time we were determined to crash on. 

We realised that we were unlikely to be able to pick up the children from their playdate at 6.30 as arranged, unless we set a blistering pace. Unfortunately our pace was pretty much the only thing NOT blistering, and my dear friend Joy agreed to an extra hour of child-wrangling. After thirty miles, a paltry six or seven more seemed manageable, and I slipped into my road shoes. Mmmm. Comfy.

We girded our loins for the slog along the A702 into town. By this point I had developed a crusty layer of salt on my face, and more sweat was trickling into my eyes, necessitating one-eyed running. Matthew was hobbling and grimacing as his IT band was aggravated by the tarmac. As our ragged bodies reeled and swaggered into town, I imagined that we looked like a pair of old sea-dogs re-entering civilisation after a raging tempest of hills. But we were so near to our goal! Braid Hill's ascent compared favourably to the last few Pentlands, and the early evening air was scented with gorse's incongruously tropical fragrance. The gently rolling terrain had acquired a Teletubby-like quality.

Blackford steps were basically just shit. Anything that required a stepping motion reactivated the twangy back of knee. It made me cross. From the top of Blackford Hill, Arthur's Seat still looked depressingly far away. A quick time check from Matthew indicated that we were still pretty much on schedule, if only we could up our pace to a nippy 11min/mile. I staggered on, amazed that my legs were still apparently demurring to my authority. Every bit of them was hurting by this point, including my hitherto compliant hips. They felt for all the world like I might just jiggle them out of their sockets. My inner juke box played hip-related tracks by Shakira and the Sugar Hill Gang, and my inner monologue rambled on about pain just being in your head. I fantasised about stuffing the sides of my pants with frozen peas.

The tarmacky trek from Blackford to Arthur's Seat seemed interminable, and I was hungry and thirsty. I was sure someone had told me that Graham Nash would lick his arms for salt during ultra runs. This may have been an unkind ploy to have me running around looking like a crazy arm-licking lady, but I tried it anyway. Elaborating on this theme, I hypothesised that my snot (ever abundant while running) was not only salty, but also full of H2O. I regretted wasting my natural source of fluids and electrolytes for the last 35 miles (and Kate, just think: it's genuinely free of artificial additives!).

By Arthur's Seat we were both utterly trashed. Limbs were flailing seemingly at random, and those steps made me want to cry. My inner monologue took a further turn for the worse, with unbridled belligerence towards unsuspecting passers by. I had imaginary confrontations which went along the lines of:

Passer by: Hey lady! Why are you so SLOW??
Me: Because I've just run 36 miles, YOU TWUNT!!

 Fantasy rage powered me to the summit, and I waited, poised, with the camera for Matt who mysteriously appeared from the “wrong” side.

 It was 7pm, and a difficult decision needed to be made. We needed to leave at least 10 minutes to get from Calton Hill to pick up the kids, to avoid our childcare favour moving from the Slightly Rude zone into Bloody Liberty. This left twenty minutes to get from Arthur's Seat to the top of Calton Hill and back down and into a taxi. Do-able if on normal form, but we were far, far from normal. Matthew, usually a demon descender, was struggling with even the gentle track down to Queen's Drive. Calton Hill looked so tantalisingly close. I took a photo, and with the merest twist of regret hailed a cab. As we trundled homewards Matt reminded me that if we were doing the West Highland Way, that would be roughly the first of three laps. If I ever so much as suggest giving the WHW a go, feel free to shoot me.