My fractured left metatarsal may have been long mended and forgotten about, but my mind was full of doubt and uncertainty on Friday as I sat on the train to Dunkeld, right knee groaning with dull pain that radiated throughout my leg. I was prepared for one of two outcomes during the coming weekend – an early Saturday retirement and volunteering my services instead if the knee took umbrage, or dragging myself through a survival march to a slow completion on Sunday evening if the knee responded in a positive way and my untrained muscles withstood the shock of the surprise endurance exercise. Either outcome would be expected, therefore acceptable. I was resigned and strangely contented as I watched the dry, sunny countryside whiz past the train window.
I was met at Dunkeld station by very good friend Geoff Holburt, who kindly guided me to my hotel. He knew the area well, having spent several days there on reconnoitres. We had plenty of time to kill, so we walked up to the last checkpoint location at Rumbling Bridge, back to the finish at Birnam then back to Dunkeld, doing a spot of sightseeing in the process. I felt like an imposter walking among the tanned and well-trained long distance walkers, me pasty-skinned due to not being out every weekend enjoying this year's amazing weather while keeping myself fit. 7 or more miles in the legs were perfect to work up our appetites for dinner.
Saturday brought us more dry, warm, sunny weather. Birnam can’t have known what had hit it as it heaved with hundreds of ultra athletes raring to go. I was already impressed by the seamless and obviously massive logistical exercise by the organisers. A bagpipe band beckoned us through the stone arch to the starting area, where the biggest first wave of starters gathered for the 10:00 start. John Stewart barked his essential instructions through his megaphone before setting us off 4 minutes early.
I set off at an easy walk, chatting to those around me as I went. The first checkpoint at 6 miles would only be a bucket drop, which I took to mean no food, but I was already getting hungry before I got there and was lusting after a savoury sandwich. I could hardly believe my eyes when the ‘bucket drop’ contained a big tent that housed loads of salad sandwiches and other goodies. I tucked-in in thankful disbelief. This set the tone for the duration of the event – the most amazing food, always with the essential and preferred savoury options, to keep us going from beginning to end.
My legs, unused to any running or endurance exercise for the best part of 4 months, were getting a little trashed by Checkpoint 2 at 15 miles. An early 200mg Ibuprofen soon took care of that. The knee complained quietly, especially on the descents, but it didn't get worse. If anything, the predicted muscle pain was masking it. Things were looking good.
The first 50 miles through checkpoints at Loch Ordie, Kirkmichael, Daldhu, Shinagag, Blair Atholl, Calvine and Dalnacardoch led us into a false sense of security. It was mostly undulating roads, tracks and single paths through heather, quite runnable if you were fit to do so. New footpaths through the heather, with new way-marker posts, were clear to see. The weather was being amazingly kind to us. The sun was warm and the ground was dry.
A most captivating section was The Falls of Bruar at the self clip, prior to Checkpoint 6 at Calvine. The falls and polished rocks were spectacular. Shortly after, the big concrete pipe that formed the underpass beneath the A9 brought out the child in me, aided and abetted by my scientific mind. The ambient noise was making the pipe’s resonant frequency very noticeable to my ears. I felt compelled to excite it properly. I hummed loudly at the appropriate frequency and fair deafened myself and a fellow walker who happened to be there at the same time.
At 10:30pm as we jogged between Checkpoints 6 and 7 in the fading light and spitting rain along the old A-road that's now a cycle track, I heard a cuckoo calling in the valley to my left. At the next checkpoint it was head torches and waterproofs on. Coming up was the first serious off-road section. Ticks are prevalent in Scotland and I fully intended to have my legs covered. Rain was setting in properly now. Head torches went on at 11pm. The rain started to pour and the cold wind blew. On the several miles of country lane before the off-road, I saw many frogs hopping across the road and one toad crawling ponderously. Some remained squashed on the road, having been got by car wheels.
The 8+ mile section before the breakfast stop at 62 miles was a shock - a rude awakening. Much of it was off-path, heather and tussock bashing on compass bearings, heading for a self-clip that remained elusive until we climbed the flank of the mountain and saw the flashing red beacon in the distance. Then followed an impossibly steep Fellsmanesque climb alongside a big deer fence on newly wetted and slimy peat (2 steps forward, 1 step back). It seemed to go on forever. Pace was 1mph at best. Everyone in our group was suffering the same. Some hung onto the fence, heaving and retching from nausea. The rain had stopped and dawn was beginning to break behind us. Head torches went off at 4am, making a 5-hour night. It would have been 4 hours had the sky been clear.
Daylight returned just in time for a very difficult navigational bit that reminded me of the Pumlumon Challenge – off-path and tussocky. It was handy to see where we were heading for. I was wearing new shoes (Walsh PB Trail), which would have been very comfortable had they been size 11 instead of size 10. My little toes were clamped and had become entombed in massive, single blisters, but worse were my big toes, which came perilously close to the end of the shoes on steep descents. I had the laces tied tightly to prevent my feet from sliding forward but it was not enough. On the final steep rocky descent to the breakfast stop, my left foot was brought to an instant stop on a rock. My big toenail smashed into the end of the shoe and I felt the nail bed get rammed back into my toe. Oh spiffing. That's that written off then, I thought to myself. I was glad I'd packed an old pair of comfortable road shoes in my drop back to change into just in case. The 8+ mile section to the breakfast stop took not far off 4 hours.
I had no right to have got this far. I had expected to be forced to retire during the first day, if not from a trashed knee, from trashed untrained leg muscles. Miraculously the knee was bearing up well to the gentle exercise and giving no trouble. If anything it seemed to be benefiting from the experience. Only when I sat down at checkpoints did it scream out at me. The leg muscles were just about sustaining the reduced intensity of the walk/shuffle strategy. My feet felt just as sore with the fresh shoes; the damage had already been done.
Fed, watered and with new route description in hand, I shuffled my way back out. I was spending a long time at the checkpoints, almost an hour at breakfast and amounting to well over three hours in total. Getting going again took some effort of pushing through the pain barrier. There followed another tough 8+ mile section with a lot of off-path tussock and heather bashing a la Pumlumon Challenge. Mountain rescue were out to guide us across a river intersection out in the wilds, recently swollen by the overnight rain. An interminable slog uphill with no easy option eventually brought us to the track that had been tormenting us for half an hour or more. Then it was up, up, forever bearing right around a hill, where the corner never seemed to end. I swear we must have done a 360 degree turn.
The col was eventually reached, and then a descent brought us to Checkpoint 10 at Pheiginn Bothy, bleak in the cold wind of early morning in the middle of nowhere. A log was burning in the fireplace, candles burned on the mantelpiece and the smell of incense pervaded the air. I detected a woman’s touch. How homely and welcoming. I was absolutely shot and I sank to the floor. The knee would not allow me to rest on the narrow wooden perches. I was suddenly aware of the marshal calling out and rushing towards the old chap perching to my left. I looked up and saw him, ashen-faced, falling to the left. I grabbed hold of his arm to stop him falling over completely. We hoisted him into a proper chair where it was much safer to recover.
I made sure my water bottles were filled (we had to do this at every checkpoint; even so I had to fill up from a mountain stream on the previous section, which tasted strangely musky) and set off shuffling down the track. I needed to relieve myself so I started the familiar juggling act of arranging both bottles and the route book into one hand so I could 'take care of business'. Route book, WHERE'S THE ROUTE BOOK? I'd left it at the bothy. I turned around and trudged back up the hill at 2mph to retrieve it. I needed the exercise you know.
The next 6-mile section off the mountain ended with a long out and back road stretch to Checkpoint 11 at Fortingall. It provided a nice opportunity to say 'ow do to those ahead and those behind. I could only walk in but fuelling at the checkpoint brought the jog back to the legs upon leaving, once I'd pushed through the familiar pain barrier of blistered feet and brutalised big toenail. With 77 miles and two major brutal sections behind us, the worst was over. At this point I knew I would finish. I felt contented as I jogged along and walked over the bouncy suspension bridge. Ahead remained undulating tracks, many in forestry. The sun was getting warm again.
After Checkpoint 13 as I passed the distillery in Aberfeldy on Sunday I was very tempted to pop into the shop to purchase a few tipples. It was around 14:30 and the visitor's centre was open. There was a tour group outside. I thought better of imposing my dishevelled, smelly self upon them.
It was a survival game now. Checkpoints were getting closer together and food and drink was kept trickling in to keep the legs working. I was amazed how regularly I needed to eat now. It made the difference between being able to jog along feeling positive, to only being able to trudge very slowly in a cloud of negative thoughts and misery, with any pain magnified tenfold. I've been there so many times I know the warning signs and what to do about it. Never is Coke as useful as when running an ultra. Combined with something savoury like a sausage roll, it's turbo fuel.
I had been chatting to others as we went. 36 hours seemed to be the target to aim for. If I got this far I'd hoped for better than that. I was feeling stronger with the easier terrain and the knee was not causing any issue. The only pain came from my feet and untrained leg muscles. I knew that was only temporary and could be disregarded. I pushed on as fast as I could go, alone, with only my route description to show the way. My brain constantly calculated pace and likely finishing time. I MUST be able to beat 36 hours. Sub-35 was beginning to look more of a possibility now that the 2mph average speed of earlier sections had increased to more than 4mph.
At 94 miles with only 12 to go, I put my foot down and shuffled what felt like my fastest two sections to 103 miles. The sun was beating down and I was running on fumes by the final checkpoint, which had no supplies. It finished me. I could not run a step of the final 3 miles to the finish.
I walked across the threshold of the Drill Hall in Birnam in 34:22 to loud applause and a ringing of a hand bell. I was utterly drained and not far off collapse. I had to sit down right there. I removed my (dry) shoes and first pair of socks. Attempted removal of the Injinji socks soon made me realise that my toenail was mobile, stuck to the sock and trying to come off with it. A wave of nausea and cold sweat swept over me. I lay down for 5 minutes to recover and resolved to leave the Injinjis on until I got home. At least they were clean and dry, so good were the conditions through Sunday. Geoff, who had started 4 hours after me and finished 4 hours before me(!), was on hand to get me food and drink and get my bags from the baggage store. What a gent.
Though still on the floor, luckily I had recovered sufficiently when the cameraman thrust his appliance in my face and started probing and pumping for information. I hope I didn't let the side down.
I was soon crashed-out on a top bunk in the dormitory, so exhausted that multiple loud snores, the constant squeaking and banging of the door and the new arrivals through the night provided no hindrance to 7 hours of restorative slumber. Monday dawned crisp and bright, when I rose for breakfast and to cheer in the final finishers. Having spent the best part of two days and two nights out there, they always get the biggest rounds of applause.
I had no right to expect to finish the HoS100. It was a massive gamble that could have gone either way. The final outcome could not have been better. It evolved from a worst-case scenario of retiring early on Saturday through finishing, finishing before the second nightfall, finishing in less than 36 hours to finishing in 34:22. It might have been one of my slowest performances but boy was I pleased anyway. The knee actually benefited from the exercise. Contrary to expectations, the train journey home was more comfortable than the outward journey.
I'm so glad I travelled up to take my place on the event and I feel so thankful for the outcome. The event was filled with over 500 registered. It was a massive logistical exercise and the support and food we received were second to none. The organisers and volunteers deserve the highest praise.
I took a few pictures along the way.