Well what can I say. I did it. 13 hrs 13 minutes. What a fantastic journey. Over the moon to say the least.
The day started at 4.30 am where a quick look out of the window at our Glasgow West End hotel was enough to see that the rain was sheeting down. My other half and our boy had accompanied me up from South Shields as my good running mate Dave ‘the original fridgeman” Taylor had knackered his knee and had reluctantly had to pull out. The tear to the MCL ligament of his right knee was the exact same injury I had suffered a year before and which had led to me piling on the pounds. Last year we had set out on the Fling and had made slow but steady progress over to Balmaha in about 4 1/2 hours. I had read a lot of the Blog write ups of the Highland Fling before the event which had invariably had a series of stunning views of the Loch taken right on the shoreline. I had blithely assumed therefore that the tough bit of the race was over and we were going to complete it no problem. Surely it couldn’t take more than 1.5-2 hrs to do the three 7 mile chunks that take you up to the Beinglas checkpoint ? Reality hit painfully as this blase attitude led to lots of dawdling and timewasting and then later I was just knackered. In the end I mentally threw in the towel for us both at the Inversnaid checkpoint when I announced loudly that we would never make it to Beinglas in time to beat the cut off – and so it came to pass.
Anyhow, I was back again and determined to finish and at least I was under no illusions as to the nature of the terrain. My plan was to go as quick as I could and just keep going, no stops for photos, minimal stops at checkpoints and just generally no fannying around at all. Off I went and this year was very much in a line of runners for the first 15 miles or so, only on approaching Conic Hill did things thin out a bit. Being a bit lighter I went faster and even ran a bit of a flattish section half way up Conic. I went fairly swiftly down the other side and was soon running into the checkpoint at Balmaha. It was only then that I dared to look at my watch 3hrs 50 mins Yeehaa I’m going do it. I’m going to do it. I said to myself while stuffing in a gluten free wrap filled with feta cheese, ham, pickle, salad and mayonnaise – went down a treat. In no more than 4 mins I was on my way again. I had awful memories of the steep uphills over headlands and promontory’s from last year but it didn’t seem anywhere near as bad as I remembered which gave me a great mental boost. The long track uphill from Rowardennan allowed me to take a breather and once the path became a bit knarly I discovered a new technique for getting going again when reaching a runnable bit. Just start leaning forward and at the point I am going to fall flat on my face just get my foot out to break my fall and then keep going. I was really enjoying the afternoon and had learned to eat even when I didn’t feel hungry. I got into Beinglas at 15.50 a good 1hr 40 mins outside the cutoff. Good Stuff. The next section I found tiring, the path is described as a bit of a roller coaster but really the roller coaster just went higher and higher and the proportion that I felt inclined to run was pathetically small. It was great to go past all the landmarks that I had read about and I was even disappointed to find that Cow poo alley didn’t have any poo on it at all just a ittle bit of mud. Through the gate at the forest above Crianlarich there was a slight miscommunication with the marshalls as I responded with a “You’ll be lucky” to their “It’s time to speed up a bit now” only for it to transpire that they had actually said “Well done you’ve only a wee bit to go now”.
I was flagging going up the ever rising path into the forested hills and started to bitterly curse whoever it was who was responsible for the West Highland Way being routed up such pointlessly stupid and vindictive inclines.
The return to the valley was a welcome relief though my knees hurt too much to run on the tarmac sections though I managed to knock out a decent shuffle on the trail sections. I was under the impression that I still had a way to go when a passerby said the finish is just beyond those trees at which point are heard the strains of the Bagpiper welcoming runners as they approached the finish. I suddenly felt quite overwhelmed and had to make fair bit of effort to suppress any outward signs of emotional weakness but running strong I came around the corner, into the campsite and up the red carpet to the finish.
I have been doing the Allendale a fair few years now, and it is as it says a challenge as much as a run. I had set myself a target of running without stop until the road turned to rocky path on the uphill from Ninebanks and I am pleased to say I managed this without too much difficulty. Onwards and up onto the moors where you always forget quite how squelchy and soft the bogs are until you are actually trying to run across them again. I must admit I was fairly feeble and ran less than I should/could have done but I soon got to Black Hill checkpoint where I was revived by a nice cup of tea, enjoying the short lived relief from the howling wind that the refreshment tent provided. The route over to Killhope seemed much boggier than usual and I pretty much fell in line with the snake of walkers apart from several intense “scuttle runs” that allowed me to overtake here and there.
After Killhope I ran the vast majority of the rest including the drag where I had an little internal conversation with myself “Why not walk this bit it’s not going to matter, No if you don’t run the drag then you are not going to go to the Fling that is final. But I really want to do the fling though… Well then, just run up the drag and don’t stop” So up and up and along the drag I went and though it was not much more than a shuffle it was a least good to have some rhythm on a fairly even surface and I knew that I was keeping going when the majority of other runners (I was with) had given in and this I suppose is the difference between the ultrarunner and the “out for a few hours” type fellrunner.
In other words I had the edge as far as mental strength went ! I carried on to the end, finishing feeling less tired than I have ever done before, though my extra weight meant that I was an 1hr 17 mins outside my personal best crossing the threshold of Allendale village hall in 6hr 13 mins. Quite pleased and though my right knee particularly on any stretches with hard surfaces was quite painful, the pain always seemed transitory rather than indicative of permanent damage. A good result though a reminder of how my natural pace has dropped compared to what it used to be.
It was time for my big run, as part of my training for the Hoka Highland Fling, 35 miles or so following the gloriously scenic Northumberland coast. It looked a superb route and I was really looking forward to the section from Holy Island causeway down to Bamburgh. The St Oswald’s way headed well inland over hills beyond the A1 at this point and there must be a path following the coast I thought, despite nothing being marked on the map, so it would just be a matter of following my nose with the chance to use my OS Map App bluetoothed to a state of the art Garmin GPS Reciever for the first time in earnest.
Things immediately failed to go to plan as I got on the 7.38 to Berwick only to hear the train guard say welcome to the Virgin Cross Country train to Southampton ! After (rather sheepishly) having to explain my mistake to more than a few station/train personnel I eventually arrived at Berwick a little over an hour after I had decanted at Durham. This prompted a little twinge of anxiety as I knew the last train to Newcastle from Alnmouth was at 18.58 so I didn’t have huge amounts of spare time to fanny about.
Steady rain was falling as I started my run over old berwick bridge and worked my way along to spittal and the Northumberland coastal path. Things got increasingly scenic though hardly tranquil as the main east coast line absolutely hugged the coast at this point. Slowly the sky began to clear and I could see Holy Island and Bamburgh castles as small blobs on the horizon and I started to really feel as if I was on an epic journey across the landscape. I was feeling really good and once past Holy island causeway I started my quest into the unknown as I attempted to follow the coastline south. Things went pearshaped fairly quicky though. Huge tussocks replaced any discernable path and then I hit the first of many muddy creeks that dissected the landscape. Up and down looking for places to cross without getting stuck up to my neck I went. This seemed to go on for ever but eventually I got back to reasonably dry land. Knackered ! The next section was lumpy and wet as I traversed the shoreline of Lindisfarne nature reserve, with the sun really starting to beat down at this point. I had a bit of a walk eating my sandwiches and stuffing in some trailmix hoping that I would soon feel better, I didn’t until I finally ate a bag of crisps and almost immediately felt fine. I carried on attemping to run but there was no path as such and it was tiring. Eventually I came to a point where a road intersected the coastline and I decided enough was enough and it was time to take an alternative route.
My Phone and Garmin Reciever worked superbly with my position pinpointed onto a downloaded 1:25k map pretty much instantaneously. The only trouble was that I was losing about 1% of my battery for every 1 minute of use not really what you need for an all dayer out in the sticks.
Much of the next section was totally forgettable as I tried to follow sections of public footpath, getting lost and spending hours running along tarmaced roads, not exactly how I had envisaged things. I eventually circumnavigated Budle Bay and was finally able to enjoy the terrain as I headed up the beach eventually getting into Bamburgh around 3.30pm. 22 Miles.
My plan of getting to Alnmouth and catching the train was in tatters as it was almost the same mileage away again and I didn’t have a clue about the transport options on route. Psychologically I was defeated and so I gave up and tramped around Bamburgh looking for a bus stop. It turned out there was a bus in just over an hour and so even though I could easily have run down to Beadnell or at least Seahouses I didn’t and decided to go to the pub instead. With a minimum spend of £10.00 on a card I managed to force down 3 pints before getting on a bus to Alnwick that pulled in shortly before 6pm. At least there was a connecting bus down to newcastle leaving at 18.12 though it was near enough a two hour trip ! I headed into the next door Morrisons getting a sandwich, 4 mini bottles of red wine and a paper to ease the tedium of my journey. Finally back home to South Shields for 9pm. Feeling more than a little deflated through the haze of alcohol.
After a weekend of no runs at all due to family commitments (mother’s day etc) I was determined to fit in a run at the next available opportunity. I was down in London on Monday and thought there might be just enough time to squeeze in a run before getting the train back, so I packed my running stuff in with the rest of my gear. Once out of the meeting I headed straight back to Kings Cross changed in the loos, dropped my bag at left luggage and then headed up Euston Road and into Regent’s Park. It was noticeable how totally unphased the park wildlife – ducks, geese, squirrels etc were even when running right alongside. Half way around Regent’s Park I diverted up onto Primrose Hill. Though it was hardly Conic Hill in scale and in fact was much more reminiscent of Cow Hill on Newcastle’s Town Moor which is my regular place for an after work run. There were lots of tall buildings visible from the top but it was so grey and clagged in that it was hardly worth a picture (though my phone had ran out of juice anyway). I traversed the back side of Primrose Hill and then returned to complete my circuit of Regents Park. Next an unpleasant and somewhat dangerous section along the busy commuter choked pavements of Baker Street and Edgware Road to Marble Arch and Hyde Park. I was looking forward to the specially formatted bridleways for horses that run the length of the park but found in reality that they were composed of hard compacted sand, very lumpy and generally unpleasant to run on so stuck to grass wherever possible. After the long haul up to Kensington Palace it was back down again towards Hyde Park Corner and in the gathering gloom I headed past Buckingham Palace and into St James’ Park running past horse guards parade (rendevous point after the London Marathon). Finally it was down the Mall and into Green Park coming to a halt outside Green Park tube. It was nearly dark by this time and I didn’t have a lot of time to spare so it was straight into the tube station without any cool down/stretch only to find myself walking like a duck as my right foot started to cramp going down the escalators. I Picked up my luggage and got onto the 19.00 train back with about 5 minutes to spare. 10.22 miles
Time to be upping the mileage a bit more if I am to have a decent chance at the Hoka Highland Fling at the end of April, so it was up to Kielder Reservoir this Sunday.
Kielder is fantastic for me, not so much for the setting and the views (which are fantastic) but for the nature of the trail which is nice and soft and very forgiving on the knees. The Kielder circumnavigation is also perfect for bicycles which meant the rest of the family could accompany me too.
Starting from the Dam we proceeded in a clockwise direction, following the Lakeside route in its entirety apart from cutting over the big peninsular that jutts out after Tower Knowe so as to reduce the total mileage to something that would be manageable. I felt a step up in my ability today as I am nearly down to 12 stone which about 2 or 3 years ago was the limit for me running at all. I had springs in my legs on all the uphills (of which there were more than a few) and despite tiring towards the end, really felt fine and muscles and fueling all felt in sync. I had a large bowl of curried chicken with onions and avocado for breakfast and then only needed one gluten free nakd bar all the way around. Very pleased with how I got on and particularly the knees which were fine. 23 Miles.
High winds, cold and general apathy meant that a planned trip up to Kielder did not go ahead and so it was my local coastal strip that was the venue for todays longer run. It is a lovely coastline but for someone who still shys away from running on pavement there is only about a 5 mile section that can be done on trails, never mind I thought I will just have to take it easy. First stop was The Groyne at the mouth of the Tyne, an attempt to run down to the end of Shield’s main pier was thwarted as the gates were shut, so it was on up the coast to Souter lighthouse, round the point, past Seaburn lighthouse and then finally along to Roker Pier in Sunderland which was also closed off. I returned along the same route. This was a run where getting fuel to my muscles was not a problem at all (a result of the mini carb. binge on Friday night ?) knee and calf pain was evident throughout though which I had to distract myself from and meant I adopted a scooting technique on the off-trail sections. Definitely some soreness in the MCL area of my right knee this evening which I shall have to be careful of. 17.22 miles
After a run on Tuesday up to Souter Lighthouse and back it was time for another as I start to crank up (very slowly) my weekly mileage. I live right next to the beach but unless the tide is right out then you have to run on a slope and my knees give me gyp so I tend to give it a miss. I did on the off chance decide to check last night and as luck would have it Low Tide was at 09.23. So it was a quick (250yd) walk down to where South Shields pier met the beach and off I went. Being on the beach at low tide always has a slightly ethereal quality to it. You are that much further away from all the touristy beach side paraphernalia and there are all sorts of channels and sandbars to navigate around. As one comes up to the headland there is also the opportunity to head in front of the cliffs over the seaweed clad rocks and get through to the next bay. This is always special as you have to time it right on low tide for this to be possible. It looked good so I started around hopping from one rock to another. Approaching the next bay though the water was way further in than I expected so I ended up with a bit of impromptu rock climbing to get around without having to wade. It was then that I recalled that there are low low tides and high low tides depending on what the moon is doing. The rest of the run up to Souter and back was uneventful under the dark & gloomy skys. 6.6 miles.