Tuesday, June 26, 2012

West Highland Way race report: a DNT

I have concluded that we runners are missing a term for a certain kind of race:  the kind where you get to the finish line, you get your official finish time, and somehow, after all that work, you still have the unmistakable feeling that you didn't really do any better than a DNF.  Until someone comes up with a term for that, I'll call this the DNT:  did not try.

The West Highland Way is a 95 mile path from just north of Glasgow to Fort William.  It's hard to describe what the path is like because it varies so much--some of it is road-race style flat, some of it is big hills (one descent is 1800 feet in a little over 3 miles.  That's about the same steepness as Hope Pass, and nearly as long.) and a lot of it is rolling hills, sort of Kettle Moraine-style.  And the path itself varies from totally smooth to barely runnable, although there are a lot more smooth-ish bits than rough bits.  Here are a couple of photos from a training run on the WHW a few weeks before the race, during a rare moment of it not raining:

When I first entered the race, I had thought of it as an interesting, scenic race that I would probably do just to finish.  But as things worked out, I ended up with a decent amount of time to train for the race and I was ready to have my first try at actually racing, as opposed to just trying to finish, 100-ish miles.  Having heard how "flat" (ha!  I still can't believe I fell for this) the course was, I was first aiming for 21:30.  A training run on the course a few weeks before the race told me that was wildly out of the question, and I moved the goal to 22:30, with sub-24 as a backup goal.    

                                                                     Race start

The conditions for the DNT started well before the start line and included lack of sleep, lack of decent food, and enormous amounts of rain for several days before the race.  The rain briefly stopped the evening of the race (the race starts at 1 am) but quickly resumed normal service within a few miles of us having started off.  And, unsurprisingly, the running was hard work.  I was sleepy from the general lack of sleep the week before and not running particularly well because of either a lack of training--I really should have done a 50-miler in the weeks leading up to the race--and/or lack of decent food the week before.  The details of most of the race would be horribly boring, so just imagine lots of sinking into mud, running through trail that was mostly a river, feeling wet and miserable, being eaten alive by midges every time the rain let up, and slipping over rocks.  And those were the good parts.

No, actually, the good part was seeing my support crew at various points along the race. The WHW race is like Badwater in that all the runners have to have their own support crew in a car, although that is probably the only possible similarity you could find between the WHW and Badwater!  I had Nick, a runner friend, and Dave, a climber friend, as my team.  

                             The support crew dream team:  Nick (above) and Dave (below)

They had never crewed before but somehow managed to do everything exactly right, from surprising me with hot soup when I was so cold at mile 50 to being super fast with getting stuff ready and having a change of clothes and a hot burger (yes, hot, Dave had a lunchbox insulator to keep it warm!) for me later on.  And Nick had a 3 am checkpoint to be at near the start of the race so he had to be up for the entire race.  Both of them must have been cold, bored, and midge-bitten for the whole ordeal, and I’d say they are saints for having put up with this. 

So that was the good part, but the mud, water, midges, and rocks were still the sort-of-good parts when compared to the general failure that was my race, i.e. the DNT.  Basically, although I dragged myself to the finish in 26:31, my mind gave up somewhere around mile 50.  I was 30 minutes behind my planned schedule getting into the mile 50 checkpoint and I must have spent at least 20 minutes at that checkpoint, drinking my soup, fixing my gloves (or whatever it was I thought I was doing!) and trying to warm up, all of which were very nice but none of which were necessary:  I was cold but not "Round Rotherham" cold, and I knew the next section was flat and runnable and that I would warm up in no time if I just got going.  I wasn't consciously aware of unnecessarily wasting time here but I think it was the product of being behind schedule, being frustrated with the cold and wet, and being convinced that a decent time was out of the question.  

                                    At the Glencoe checkpoint, mile 70ish.  Stalling as long as I could.

Over the next few sections I slowly lost interest in racing and went into "just finishing" mode, which included walking when I didn't have to, stopping for ages each time I saw my crew, changing clothes more times than necessary, stopping to stretch out on a mat at the mile 81 checkpoint, and not keeping up with my food after I started feeling sick.  Dave paced me from mile 81 to the end and did an excellent job of force-feeding me and speeding me up a bit, but I shouldn't have needed that much prodding just to do a bit of jogging; my ankles were in rough shape but the rest of me was fine, or at least fine in the grand scheme of being at mile 81+.  

They were definitely an enjoyable last 15 miles, since we got to have a nice leisurely chat and a good run in the last 3 or 4 miles when I finally managed to start doing some running again, but I knew I had totally failed at my goals for the race.  The fact is that as appalling as the conditions were, the men's winner broke the course record, with the previous record not being at all soft.  So it *was* possible to have had a good race.  Even if the slow conditions would have made it hard for me to do 22:30, I could have adjusted my schedule to focus on trying for under 24, which could have been highly doable.  Instead, I went for the easygoing-run-during-the-day/death-march-at-night approach, which I can't call an achievement in any sense other than just physically making it to the finishing line; having done Arrowhead, I already knew I could pull off a long slog if necessary, so doing that didn’t break any personal new ground.  

The combination of months of good training plus having such a good support crew made for an excellent opportunity which I feel pretty depressed to have wasted.  I’m glad I finished, partly because I’d travelled so far for the race and partly because the last few miles were so much fun, but that’s a pretty small amount of satisfaction compared with how I feel about my poor effort.  The DNT was an unusual outcome for me in particular, since my general plan of action with most things is to have no talent but to try really hard.  I’m trying to figure out what the lesson to be learnt is, other than the obvious reminder not to waste a good race opportunity, but I’m not coming up with much:  do more 100s to eventually get better at them?  Work harder on the mental aspect of a 100?    Opt for 5k’s in the future?!

                                   Whatever races I do next, it would be nice if there are a 
                                 bit fewer midges involved.  The aftermath of the race-day midge carnage:


This has become quite the doom and gloom race report, so I’ll point out now that there were also plenty of good moments in the race:
 -Nick’s hilarious glow-in-the-dark antennae for easy crew finding
-running with some nice people for a few short periods—Helen, after Balmaha, and Carrie, for a while before Auchtertyre
-a runner in an orange jacket who gave me some peanuts when I was busy vomiting between Crianlarich and Auchtertyre.  Thank you, whoever you were, they were perfect and they did settle my stomach!  
-doing some running up the hill around mile 62 and meeting a man who is apparently named Murdo and who offered some very kind words and a welcome sweet
-the excellent views looking back down the Devils Staircase
-the last few miles down into Glen Nevis and along the flat to Fort William