Cheeseboard’s and Chicken Noodle Soup 2012
[Sun 7th Oct 2012]
OR The Glencoe Massacre sorry Marathon
26.2 miles with 1608 metres of ascent (5275.60 ft. old money)
It would be fair to suggest that anyone willingly entering a competition or event branded as being the toughest in its class would to a normal sane individual require some sort of psychiatric evaluation. Are you completely aware of your choice? Have you had a bump to the head recently? That cheese you ate earlier was definitely blue on purpose? Those are definitely Paracetamol tablets you’re taking? You haven’t been drinking any dodgy tap water, have you? Questions a normal sane person may ask before signing up, for me I didn’t ask these questions until about 14 miles into the Glencoe Marathon – but ultimately I never answered them because maybe a normal sane person would’ve given up. In the film Dodgeball: A true underdog story, the character played by Vince Vaughan, Peter LaFleur, says at one point that he sets his goals low so that that way he never disappoints himself – permanent win. But if you don’t set your goals high enough constantly winning becomes boring and the distinction between winning and failing becomes blurred. Sometimes testing your limits and failing is more gratifying than never losing. For me completely the toughest Marathon in the UK was my goal, a goal that allowed me to focus on one thing finishing. And finishing the toughest marathon in the UK was going to be my win.
For those of you not familiar with the location of Glencoe I shall endeavour to paint a lustrous picture of its whereabouts – failing that there’s always a map and Wikipedia.
Mel Gibson was ‘ere (he’s American don’t you know)
Glencoe is a valley or glen situated in the highlands of Scotland which runs, more or less, east to west. At the eastern end it merges with Rannoch Moor, a plateaued area of mainly bog and heather, which when looking north and east, just after the Kings House Hotel (more on this later) looks rather remote, desolate and unspectacular in its void-ness. The landscape has little or no relief and like Dartmoor is a challenge to navigate if you should get lost in it. Looking west and south from the Kings House Hotel is almost the polar opposite. The relief of the landscape changes completely and Mountains dominate a small area narrowing the glen and towering above. To the left after the Glencoe ski centre on Meall A’ Bhuirdh is the simply majestic ‘Shepherd of the Glen’ Buachaille Etive Mor (phonetically pronounced Boo-A-Sheel – it’s the only Gaelic I know how to pronounce). If you’ve ever seen pictures of mountains in Scotland I guarantee you’ve seen it before, but you probably didn’t know where it was or its name. After that there are the three Sisters of Glencoe and the hidden valley as well as numerous waterfalls and a Loch. If there was ever a spot that epitomised the idyll of the highlands and Hollywood wanted to showcase, Glencoe is it – you know it is for sure by the amount of national and international holiday coaches that visit the area and occupy all the parking bays (oh and there’s always a piper to serenade their visit). Glencoe eventually ends at the western end in the shadow of the Pap of Glencoe (another distinctive mountain of rock and not made out of pap as I am assured) and the village of Glencoe itself. If the weather is settled Glencoe is a spectacular setting, if the cloud drops and its miserable (which it often is) you could be in Ingram Valley in the rain.
Just an aside for a moment there’s a Holmback lore about the weather in this area of Scotland. In my younger years (yes I had some younger years) we used to go to the Fort William area on holiday. One year on a fortnight’s holiday we were fortunate to only see rain twice (lucky you I hear you say well… ) – once for six days and then once for seven days.
In the past when we’ve stayed in the area we’ve rented caravans (which given the weather in past years is why I like being in a caravan when it rains – water on tin roof can’t beat it) this time though we opted stay in a hotel (ooooooh). I feel like I’m waffling here and I know Mal will be getting bored so lets actually talk about what were really here to talk about - the merits of Consociationalist Democracy in multi ethnic countries. Ha ha ha had you going there, no but seriously they’re really useful don’t you think? Just look a t Belgium and Northern Ire… yeah Belgium is a sort of good example. I digress (too much).
So where are the Red Squirrels?
I don’t know about you but at the beginning of new race, a race you’ve never run before or have been told so much about that your mind is going doolally (technical term) trying to process all the information you’ve been told about a race, I get nervous. Nervous to the point that I have several trips to the loo - and not all of them are to check my hair looks good (which you’ll have to agree it always does). Well this time despite the rather striking photo of me at the start line (hands on the back of the head, you know the one) which does look like I’m contemplating battle, I was relaxed and well not at all nervous - although the toilets at the Red Squirrel Campsite, where the start of the race was, are worth the £9 pppn (50p for kids under 12) a stay there should you like camping.
”So this is billed as the toughest marathon in the UK part of which goes up a stretch known as (dun dun der) Devils Staircase and you’re not nervous? You are mad” I hear you say. Well no not really - not according to my psychiatrist anyway. A few years back I walked the West Highland Way (WHW) – it stretches from Milngavie high street, just north of Glasgow, north for 98 miles and finishes outside of all places (surprise, surprise) a woollen mill shop in Fort William. Anyway when planning the route my father decided that because of the Devils Staircase and I mean how scary does that sound? (rhetorical don’t answer). Imagine for a moment you’re in a shop and you want get to the next floor up and someone says “oh well, you see we have a ‘normal’ escalator or the ‘Devils’ escalator to choose from” it’s ‘normal’ all the way, right? (rhetorical don’t answer). You’d be mad to try an escalator named after the caretaker of hell. Well my father afforded a single 9 mile day to that task – which meant we had to walk 22 mile the day previous to keep the schedule. Well at some point during the walk a gentleman, a seasoned WHW (by seasoned I mean been around it a while not like covered in salt and pepper) said “Oh the Devils Staircase that’s nothing that an hour and you’ll be up that” – took me less than 40 minutes from base to top - walking. It did mean we had the whole afternoon in the pub in Kinlochleven – however I was only 14 at the time though so not the most exciting place to be in for 3 hours. Anyway Devils Staircase didn’t scare me, in fact I was more worried, if I was worried at all, about the section out of Kinlochleven after halfway – more on that later.
Warning Perverts in the campsite
If I did have one concern at the start at of the race it was the distinct lack of clothing some of my competitors were wearing. It was about 3 degrees (not the When will I see you again kind the fairly cold kind) at the start and I felt I was dressed appropriately for a mountain marathon – if it’s cold at sea level it’s gonna be colder up a mountain (logical). So starting at the head, waterproof peaked hat with running beanie over top to keep my ears warm, two (that’s right two) buffs round my neck, wool based base layer, wool technical long sleeve (lovely bright orange) top, fleece lined running gloves, wicking (ahem) under crackers (technical term), thermal water repellent (god knows how they’re supposed to be washed if they repel water) running leggings, compression calf guards, running socks and trail shoes. On my back a 7 litre trail pack with 1 litre of water in a bladder (technical term), a map, a compass, my mobile, waterproof trousers, waterproof jacket, spare woolly and waterproof hat, spare gloves, an extra gillet layer, emergency bivvy bag, enough food to feed the horn of Africa for a week (it seemed) and a 750ml bottle filled with energy drink. So imagine the scene, I look like an adventure trail race shop has just thrown up on me and I’m standing all alone in the first, under 5 hour, pen just 10 minutes before start of the race and then, after a few calls from the emcee on the loud haler, I am reluctantly (it would seem) joined by the eventual winner, amongst others, who and I kid you not only had on a pair of shorts, a t-shirt, trail shoes no socks (just heel plasters) and a flimsy backpack which if it had more than just air in it I’ll be surprised. I turned to him and said “next to you I feel overdressed” he replied “Nah don’t worry about it I’m a pervert”.
So this is what it like to be in the leading pack
I’ve only been running seriously (by seriously I mean competitively. I did run before I started running just when I ran before I wasn’t running or something) for about 4 years. In that time I’ve always been in the middle or at the back in races I’ve never won one (admittedly I was second in the autumn relays last year but go with me on this it’s different) and I’ve never lead one either. After a short briefing and words of wisdom and encouragement from the emcee and 3 time winner of the Patagonia Challenge Duncan Bruce the countdown began (not the Richard Whitely kind). So when the countdown got to zero and we intrepid pioneers of the inaugural (that means first Mr McCabe) Glencoe Marathon set off I found myself keeping pace with the leaders of the pack (not in a Lurpack way though – butter advert to all those under the age of 24). The pace was good, brisk but not uncomfortable, and crucially for the first mile was on road. I could talk, when my backpack and diaphragm were in unison, I could admire the stunning views I was relaxed, jovial even. At the end of the road we were on we had to cross over the only road that passes through Glencoe, the A82. From there we headed east up the glen running parallel to the road on well defined, rough terrain and through occasional muddy puddles. The track was single file only for about a mile so when I started to slow as the gradient increased I found spots to move to in order to allow those behind through. At mile three the route swung right into the middle of the glen and then back left to head up to the road. As the distance and gradient increased I found I was dropping further and further behind the front four. As I reached the road to cross they were already disappearing around the bend up on the other side. Where we crossed has a rather unfortunate connection to current topical news. As the emcee put it at the start warning us about crossing the roads – it is after all a national speed limit road – we would be crossing by “Jim’ll Fix its house”. It’s a shame that a house in a beautiful location should have such a connection to an increasingly unpleasant and sordid history. Anyway having crossed the road safely the route continued over on old Drovers road about 20 metres above the height of the A82. At about mile 4 the route once again returned to the side of the A82 and at just over 5 miles into the race in a layby at the side of the road was the first of 5 feeding stations. Just after the feeding station the route took a turn to the left and the terrain dramatically changed. The rough yet solid path we had followed now transformed into a pick your own way slog through some of the heather and bog I mentioned earlier. The route was well posted however, with orange arrows of differing sizes but there was no definitive route through the 1 and a bit mile of mire. At one point the unfortunate chap in front of me went in up to his thighs – it was the kind of bog that would steal your once clean and shiny running shoes with absolutely no hope of retrieving them even if you had a snorkel.
La Escalera del Diablo (in Spanish it sounds more poetic)
The Devil’s Staircase isn’t as formidable as it sounds as I’ve already mentioned – if it’s a nice enough day and you’ve a spare couple of hours the walk up isn’t too bad and the views from top that you’ll be rewarded with are magnificent. So why if it’s not that bad a climb does it have such a terrifyingly sounding name? Well from the view at the top northeast-wards you can make out the Blackwater Reservoir – it was partly the construction of the dam for the reservoir that the name has become synonymous with diabolical tragedy. An excerpt from Wikipedia:
The Devil's Staircase was given its name by the soldiers who were part of the road building programme of General Wade, because of the difficulties of carrying building materials up that stretch of the road. Later, however, the road lived up to its name when workers building the Blackwater Dam chose to travel to the Kings House Hotel after they had been paid. For the workers at Kinlochleven the journey to the pub often proved to be more difficult than they realized and on the return trip, after a few drinks on a cold winter's night, the devil often ”claimed his own“.
So there, so long as you’re sober and it hasn’t been snowing out and you’re not trying to return home during the night it’s a nice little amble. However once we arrived there at around 6-7 miles and 55 or so minutes into the race, having just trekked through ye olde bog as the route turned left and started up the climb it thus became just a tad arduous. From when we joined the path here, up until the finish of the race, the race route was for the most part on firmer ground – mainly a combination of stone, rocks and gravel.
From here to the summit of the climb I (thanks to the advice of Dave Bradley and Steve Walker) mainly power walked – I did this for many of the hills on the route. This allowed me to conserve as much energy and strength for the forthcoming decent without completely skewering (technical term) myself trying to run – rule 101 of mountain running if you can’t run up a hill faster than walking it - WALK.
Damn you technology
A significant thing happened at 8.03 miles and 1 hour 21 minutes 55 seconds into the race – my watch broke (that’s how I know the exact time and distance). On any other race that would be a mild annoyance - I could’ve lived with it. But in this race that was the last thing I wanted to happen. As I was training for the race during the summer not only was I getting used to off-road terrain, the distance and time on my legs, I had also worked out and implemented a routine of on the run feeding. Rather than distance based, my regime was time based – given that at any one stage in my run I might cover more miles if they were downhill as opposed to others, when fewer miles would be covered going uphill. My pace was based on an average speed spread out over a large distance as well. This was designed so as to not dishearten me too much if my pace dropped during the ascents and so I wouldn’t then needlessly push harder on the descents. I was aiming at 6 miles an hour average – roughly 10 minute mile pace. I intended to first eat at 50 minutes and then every 50 minutes after the hour (i.e. 1hr 50, 2hr 50 etc… you get the picture) in order to add fuel to the fire for the next hour. So as I peaked out at the top of the climb when my watch ceased to work I was in effect running blind. Fortunately it would have to take a lot more than that to stop me finishing.
The route descended sharply for about half a mile and then another climb up to the highest point of the race at over 550 metres. From there the route dropped down back to sea level at the halfway point covering roughly 4 miles in the process. You’d think the descent would’ve been a lot easier than climbing and in some aspects it is – its quicker and less tiring - but if anything descending is more technical and challenging especial more when you include marble like pebbles and big jagged rocks (try to stop suddenly and you might as well brace yourself for the inevitable backside over head). I had reached the halfway check point, as I was to find out later, in just under 2 hours 7 minutes. Having just run 4 miles downhill the flat section through Kinlochleven felt like an uphill struggle on my legs – they were feeling jellified (technical term). No sooner had I started to find my running rhythm on the flat though, the route started on the next uphill section, which though not as steep or as high as the first was actually tougher – that sounds counterintuitive I know but you’ve got to factor in distance and terrain already travelled.
“Back in old Napoli that’s Mamore”
The first section of the second half of the marathon takes place through the Mamore Forest in the shadow of the mountain range of the same name (Mamore that is). Occasionally through breaks in the trees glimpses of Loch Leven and Kinlochleven can be seen. Thanks to the fantastic weather we’d been lucky enough to enjoy – dry, no wind, clear skies – the views were stunning. However, once the route passed up through and out of the forest the remoteness of this section of the race becomes significantly apparent. As the route passes between the Mamore mountains to the north and the mountains of Beinn Na Caillich and Mam Na Gualainn to the south, the derelict crofters cottage at Tigh – na – sleubhaich demonstrates how isolated a life in this area used to be and how inhospitable it can be. Just before the crofters cottage was the fourth feeding station (nothing happened at two and three) here there were such delights as High 5 Juice, Lucozade (of which I did partake of a cup), sweets, energy gels, and rather surprisingly a cheeseboard and chicken noodle soup. Up to this point I had steadily been going backwards (as far as the standings were going) it was roughly 17 miles into the race and for the most part from here it was downhill. For most of the last 3 miles to the feeding station, which had been uphill, I had walked and I was getting seriously annoyed at myself for doing so. The next couple of miles I tried my best to run as much as possible but at some point I’d started getting muscle pain in my left quad which made that task a little awkward. Something weird also happened at around this point in the race. Have you ever read the book or seen the film Touching the Void? (if you haven’t they are both equally superb). Anyway for those who haven’t, it’s about two climbers who whilst attempting to climb Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes (where are they? at the end of the armies) met with near tragic consequences. Without giving too much away one of the climbers during a tough period starts hearing a song in his head. Well my tough time was nowhere near as bad as Joe Simpson’s but I too started to hear a song. For me rather than Brown Girl in the Ring by Boney M, I started to hear and joined in with The Renegades of Funk by Rage Against the Machine (“No matter how hard you try you can’t stop us now”). Well it kept me going – I wasn’t singing loud by the way.
Brawndo – It’s got electrolytes
Up to this point I’d been garnering time and distance checks off people who seemingly sauntered past me. At one point two chaps came running past me. Suddenly I decided I needed to get moving again and so I asked for a time and distance check as I caught them back up. Not knowing where I was or how long I’d been running had caused me to start doubting my capability to complete the race. So when the reply came back “Just over 19 miles and 3 hours 26 minutes” I knew I was still capable of finishing and within 5 hours. So I found a renewed vigour and tagged along with my new running buddies Colin and Gareth. Like me they were both novices to mountain marathons but what impressed upon me was that as soon as we started a climb, where I suddenly thought they’re going to run away from me here, Colin determinedly and with great authority said (and here I paraphrase) “We’re walking here”. So I had stumbled (quiet literally I was stumbling) upon perfect allies for the remainder of the race – l knew in that instant I could tag along. We got to the final en route feeding station, at about 20 miles where we all swigged (technical term) back some High 5 – which is an energy drink with electrolytes (we had a discussion on this) – had a bit of banter with the Doctor and pressed on for the finish.
Can’t see the top of your head Ben
The last six miles of the race were possibly the most challenging and technical of the whole race. Bad enough that you’ve already ran so far and your legs and shoulders are tired and aching. My calf’s were screaming to the point of pinging (both technical terms) on even the slightest of inclines. Now the race entered more forest which offered up tree roots, over hanging branches, steep and constantly direction switching routes and a set of wooden steps - anyone who has ran a marathon or an especially tough race knows that stairs or steps, especially in the days after, are your worst enemy (they seem insurmountable and almost mock you with their straightforward conveyance up or down a hill). So having them in the race was not fun. So concentration levels went up a notch, one false step or jump and having come so far and with so little left to go your race could be prematurely over. When we eventually exited the technical forest section and started to run down into Glen Nevis, the route became a rough road through the forest, the prospect of finishing and the finish line itself spurred me on to complete the race. With seemingly renewed strength we upped the pace and aimed to finish strong. Alas it wasn’t to last long, and with about half a mile to go tiredness crept in and, in the shadow of Britain’s highest mountain (summit shrouded, like 90% of the time, in cloud) all I could do was coast into the finish. I finished in 39th place in a time of 4 hours 56 minutes and 16 seconds having taken 2 hours 49 minutes 18 seconds to complete the second half of the race. 150 people took part in the race with 145 completing it. I was very thankful to Colin and Gareth, as well as all the other runners that had given me encouragement and chatted with me en route. As well as the marshals, photographers and doctors (though I didn’t require them their presence was very assuring) en route. Thanks also go to the organisers for wonderfully orchestrating the whole event and the support from small, but by no means insignificant, crowds en route. A big thanks to family and friends, to all those at the running club and from work too who offered up support and encouragement. Finally special thanks to my mum and dad for graciously supporting me during the training on the on the day of the race.
My quest to complete the toughest marathon in the UK started the moment I crossed the line, disappointed and dejected, at the Edinburgh Marathon in May. I had had a rotten race that day. It’s fair to say I had had a rotten time of it recently too. Last December I learnt of the death of a friend, Solomon Nour, from Beit Jala in the West Bank, in January my Brother-in-laws mum passed away after a short battle with cancer and a fortnight before Edinburgh my Grandma died at the age of 92. Though in June I became an uncle for the fourth time to my second niece, in July the death of an old family friend also added to the sorrowful year, compounded more by me having spoken on the phone to her just days before she passed away. So back in May I was feeling low and angry as I sat in the field at the finish area of the Edinburgh Marathon. There’s nothing worse than disappointing yourself – there’s no one else to blame. So my decision to run Glencoe probably was more to do with punishing myself to excise some demons than to prove any sort of machismo. I didn’t go actively searching for Glencoe in a way it happened by chance. After Edinburgh I was all for running another road marathon to prove I could do better – there was one I could’ve entered on the 1st July. Always for 2012 though, I had planned to devote the second part of the year after the marathon to off road running but only shorter fell runs or trails. So earlier in the year I had started buying Trail Running Magazine – which was initially only out once a quarter (now, due to popularity, every two months). Like in the back of most running periodicals there is a list of up and coming races with the necessary bumpf (technical term) for entry etc… Glancing through these one afternoon in early June I noticed the listing for the Glencoe Marathon and my first reaction was that would be nice, I like Glencoe – very dramatic scenery – and a marathon that was far enough away that I could focus on myself for myself. But then having reread the piece about it being the toughest marathon in the UK I started to have doubts. So for a few days I hummed and hawed over the decision to enter. Eventually I said to myself why not, and the rest as they say is history.
Apologies for boring you yet again.
Please check out the website at http://glencoemarathon.co.uk/ for more info on the run.
If you haven’t already checked them out there are excellent photo’s here http://www.flickr.com/photos/wildfoxevents/sets/72157631724956206/ try to see if you can spot me.
Oh and here’s some more bongo’s