Monday, 30 March 2015

Way out West

Martin and I agreed, back in January, that as we were both doing the Fling this year it would make sense to do a recce at some point. Because of other races and Martin's achilles issues, the 28th and 29th of March looked like our best option. So we went ahead and made arrangements, bookings, etc.

And then watched as the weather forecast turned more and more gloomy. As Martin put it, you don't like to see that warning triangle on the BBC when you've got a big weekend planned.

But we decided to crack on anyway.

Just after parking up in Milngavie. So fresh, so green, so full of hope...
War memorial in Milngavie

Ready for the off!

And to be fair, much of Saturday was fine. We started just before 1pm and enjoyed some periods of sunshine, with the odd light shower, but the wind was sending most things over pretty quickly. As the saying about Scotland goes, if you don't like the weather, just wait 15 minutes. The running was pretty uneventful for the first 18 miles or so - not *that* scenic given this is supposed to be Scotland's premier walking route, but flat and on decent tracks for the most part.

First sight of Loch Lomond

Conic Hill looms

Much of the forest before Conic has been decimated, leaving a scarred mess of stumps

Conic Hill came and going up was a march but ok until it suddenly turned very cold and very windy at the top. So cold and windy that we probably tried to get off the top and into the shelter of the forest a little too quickly given that the descent is more technical than the ascent. So Martin had a pretty nasty fall that left his calf spasming for the rest of the day. But at least the wind was strong enough that his shouty swearing was carried away from young ears.

Not long after Martin's fall coming off of Conic Hill, which left his calf spasming for the rest of the day

The route became much more picturesque after Balmaha, as we joined the lochside. My only bugbear being the number of times we seemed to be sent up a steep incline, only to descend just as steeply on the other side, when you felt there *must* be a route that contoured around the hill.

But we got to Rowardennan eventually, and our bunkhouse accommodation was surprisingly nice given how little we had paid. And they had hot showers, decent food with huge portions, and a bar that didn't mind us sitting around in what little dry gear we had in our small backpacks. Day one total: 27 miles.

In danger of paraphrasing Sven Goran Eriksson, first half good, second half not so good. We awoke early at 6am, but really 5am in old money, because we knew the section along the North East shore of the loch was going to be tough, and we'd ambitiously booked ourselves on the bus from Tyndrum to Glasgow that left at 12:15pm.

We left Rowardennan before full light, with no breakfast (despite having paid £8.50 each for it), and accompanied by a pretty persistent drizzle that we hoped would ease before too long.

It didn't.

A section that I've been told is slow and tricky at the best of times, was not much fun while waterlogged. We experienced slippery rocks and even slippery-er tree roots, shale paths that ought to have made for nice running but instead took on the characteristics of stream beds, and horrible claggy, muddy, boggy sections that left your feet wringing wet and blisters just a matter of time. We stopped at Inversnaid so that Martin could apply a compede, but we were so wet by then that it wouldn't stick, so he resorted to wrapping yards of micropore around his feet.

Inversnaid, not long after the start of day 2

A drowned rat contemplates jumping onto a ship (ferry) to escape a sinking run

Not long after that we came across some mountain goats. And then a dead one by the side of the path. I stopped to take a photo as it wasn't too gruesome - it almost looked like it might have been sleeping, albeit it might have woken up with a bit of a crick in its neck.

A very bad omen - if they are losing their feet, what chance do I have?!

Somehow I managed to miss another dead goat a few hundred yards further on. Because the paths were so difficult and required so much attention, Martin and I separated slightly so that each had good visibility of what was coming. But we'd then regroup periodically to make sure each was ok and to console ourselves on how little we were enjoying things (sorry if this sounds like a long whine - I know that no-one was making me do it, and Jo very graciously looked after the kids all weekend so that I could go). Only after I was well past it did Martin bring up the second goat. He said that it was utterly destroyed - like it had had a Wile E. Coyote moment and had sprinted off of a cliff. I imagine it treading air, then a crater, and then a puff of dust rising.

The loch eventually came to an end, but not remotely soon enough, and not before I'd overtaken Martin on the falls count. The first was completely benign because I was taking the worst terrain very Paul Scholes (i.e. gingerly - sorry Sally). I fell backwards at low speed and managed to catch myself without my back or anything else important making contact with the ground. The second, typically, was when we'd waved goodbye to the loch, the terrain had opened up, my concentration had slipped, the speed had increased, and I was starting to look around at the scenery again. I hit some muddy ground and wiped out spectacularly. It was one of those where you wallop off of the ground without realising it is happening, so make no effort to protect yourself, and spend a few moments wondering what the f*#k, why can I taste dirt?!

Good riddance to that feckin' awful (beautiful) loch...

A quick wash off in a cross- stream revealed a pretty nasty gash to my hand, a so-so gash to my right knee, and worst of all a hole in the sleeve of my favourite merino wool running top.

A stop at the shop at Beinglas perked my flagging spirits up though - a banana and can of Red Bull really hit the spot. But the drizzle meant that any pause at all caused you to rapidly lose warmth. Handy then that the caffeine started to kick in, the paths improved for a while and I became keener to run up some slopes to get the heart pumping.

Hello lightness my old friend - a welcome appearance after 18 miles of day 2.

At mile 18 (agg. 45) the sun started to suggest that it might be trying to poke through the clouds (think "The Eclipse" last week), and the drizzle finally went off. Things were looking up slightly, although it had started to become a race against the clock - the pace was looking perilously close to us missing our bus from Tyndrum. I started praying (notwithstanding the fact that I am an atheist) that the paths would remain smooth and well-defined, and that the height would stay more or less constant.

A troll in search of billy goats gruff

But the paths turned back to crap. There was a plaque that celebrated the efforts of the Caledonian Challenge to raise funds for the maintenance work on the section that followed. And then, like a terribly predictable punchline, the next mile was almost exclusively deep mud, and there was no verge to avoid it. Well done guys, give yourselves a pat on the back, and I'll buy you all a pint the next time I see you.

After a while, the path forked and there was a signpost pointing left to Tyndrum and right to Crianlarich. The time was 11am, and because my Garmin's battery had packed in (at least enough that I'd been forced to switch off the GPS and leave what little remained for simple time-keeping) that I wasn't sure how far there was to go. Martin and I had by this time agreed to separate a little more definitively - he wanted to save himself on some of the uphills given the effect his achilles issues have had on his CV fitness. So I couldn't fall back on his experience - remember that this is a man who is just doing the Fling to gain points for his third assault on the UTMB this August. Discretion being the better part of valour, I elected to bail out and go to Crianlarich, texting Martin to tell him then plan.  Day two total: 21 miles.

Which turned out to be the best decision I could have made. After much fumbling in the disabled bog at Crianlarich "bus station" (get your mind out of the gutter - I was suffering from cramps and struggled to get my Ron Hills on!) I followed my nose and found that the Crianlarich Hotel did *awesome* take out pizzas. Before noon would ordinarily have been too early for me, but it was the undoubted highlight of the day.

Toasting the Fallen with a pizza - the highlight of the day

The bus journey back to Glasgow was fine, the train from Central Station to Milngavie was timely, I held it together to drive us back to Edinburgh, and my Mum had a bath ready for my arrival.

Despite the gripes, it was great to spend some proper time with Martin. And I do at least now have a better idea of what I have let myself in for. I had naively been thinking that it would be like doing a couple of marathons back to back. That was pretty daunting on its own. But now I've seen how difficult the terrain and conditions are/can be. I've had a look at some of the results from previous years as well, and am seriously impressed by some of the times posted. Finishing was always the goal anyway, but this has really reinforced that there is no point even having a time in mind. You could be having a nice day out and then take a tumble in a split second of inattention and end your race.

Anyway, huge thanks to Martin, and a special mention to Niall, whose 40th ought to have been on Saturday (RIP).