That was Lintie's pre-race pep talk to me - words that came back to me several times over the following 13 and a bit hours as I made my way up the first half of the West Highland Way from Milngavie to Tyndrum in the 2012 Hoka Highland Fling. Inspirational words from someone who I think has always had more faith in my ability as a runner than I have myself (and I don't think she's the only one). Strangely enough, my other inspiration came from a book I haven't even read, but just the title of "Relentless Forward Progress" popped into my head a few times and kept me putting one foot in front of the other until I was across the finish line.
Overall, the race was a pretty good one. I started comfortably, running for short periods with Joopsy, mamemeister and Tommy, jonmackintosh, and for a lot of the time with Dave K. I love the views in the first section where you can see all the way up towards Conic and Ben Lomond and it's like the hills are inviting you Northwards. We reached Drymen in 2hr07 - possibly expecting to see my friends Jackie and Jane but they were still having breakfast I think - which was perhaps a little fast, but I'm not convinced that me taking it any slower to that point would have made a difference later on.
As I was enjoying the lovely views from the path through (the heavily de-forested) Garabhan forest, the leading runners (Ludo and Terry I think) went past at what seemed like an incredible speed. They were soon followed by Scott Bradley and so started a trend I was to get used to and had to be careful not to get disheartened by - quicker runners appearing from nowhere and overtaking me. The views from the top of Conic were as stunning as ever and I was careful to take my time on the descent rather than do my thighs in or risk falling with a quick descent. It was nice to arrive at Balmaha and know I was feeling so much better than last year, and to see a few familiar faces including Donna and Carolyn. Also spoke to Lapsed Athlete (who we'd had a very enjoyable dinner with on Friday) here and soon after passed Centu-Ray McCurdy, on his way to complete his 100th ultra. I also got hailed by the Top Dogs relay team as they passed in a car - thankfully I was jogging at that point and so avoided a ribbing for taking it easy. My next encounter with the relay team was a bit further on where the trail runs along the road (after Cashel I think?). This time it was 2nd leg runner, Rob, who ran past me almost as if I was standing still - good to see our lads in the lead, a position they would hold to the end. A little further on, I was making my way slowly up one of the steep climbs before Rowardennan and I was overtaken by the Under Dogs' Kyle who bounded up the hill like it was nothing. We exchanged greetings before he sped off, cheerily informing me that he possibly needed to visit the lavatory. As far as I can tell, he actually set the fastest time over that leg in Fling history - despite taking a short stop to study the flora just off the trail somewhere!
Shortly after, I trotted past two guys who told me to watch out as there was a fallen runner ahead. I expected to maybe see someone sitting at the side of the trail, so it was a shock to see a runner under a silver blanket with shoes sticking out - and the same type of shoes that mrs s wears - and with santababy and a couple of medics looking after her. Of course my first thought was that it was mrs s, so then relief when it wasn't, and then I felt awful for Ellen, and then even worse because of feeling relieved - it's probably what everyone goes through if they think something's happened to a close loved one, but it just felt so selfish. There was nothing I could do to help so just plodded on feeling somewhat selfish and helpless as I approached Rowardennan. I'm pleased to have since heard that Ellen is recovering well despite breaking her shoulder.
As I ran through Rowardennan car park, I was well aware that that's where last year's adventure had finally ended for me, so it was good to look at my watch, know that I was making good time, and that I was feeling pretty good, considering. IanS and LorraineS were there waiting for JammyLu to hand over the relay baton so I stopped for a few minutes to chat, try and find out how other runners were doing, and to make sure some food went down. As I was preparing to set off, Dave K came in and I considered waiting for him, but guessed (correctly) that he'd catch me up on the climb and set off with my crisps in hand. In fact, Dave K was far from the only person to catch me up on the next section. It seemed like a lot of the 8am starters, and a large number of runners from the mixed and female relay teams overtook us which had certain benefits - I mean of course the chance to say hi to a few different people. Unfortunately for me, as we descended back down to loch side, Dave was running much more strongly than I was, and I dropped off his pace - I didn't see him again until the finish so I was mainly running on my own, although there were still runners passing me at various intervals to break up the run. As expected, the technical section before and after Inversnaid was very slow going - even slower as my legs started to feel a bit sore and I couldn't descend easily because my toes were hurting. It took me at least half an hour to realise that the sore toes were at least partly because my feet were sliding forward and maybe I should tighten my laces a bit. Duh! I'd also forgotten just how tricky the terrain North of Inversnaid is, not having been on that section for at least a couple of years, but didn't get frustrated - I knew it would be slow going but also that I had time and just had to keep going and I'd get there in the end. That said, I was pleased to get out to the grassier bits, and even more pleased to see Dario's post (the first time for me since it had been put there) and a number of supporters who had come up from Bein Glas to see their runners which meant it wasn't far to go to the next checkpoint. Ju1ia and Alison were there so I stopped and had a quick chat to them before heading off again, briefly stopping to say hello to Robin and Ann on the way. I checked my watch here and knew I had over 4 hours to get to the finish which was just as well, as there wasn't much more running going on. My legs were getting sore and heavy but I knew that I just had to keep going - walk if needed and try and run a few steps every so often when I felt up to it.
I really get the feeling that farmers round this bit don't like having the WHW going past their farms and have even less desire to see runners using the way. Why else would they put feeders right on the trail so that you have to warily pass huge beasts whilst stepping through what cows are well known for. There's a section of the path marked by a plaque noting that it was renovated thanks to money raised by the Caledonian Challenge (or something) - what it doesn't say is that after that, the farmer fed and watered all his cattle rounded them up in this narrow stretch and scared them senseless so that they would empty their bowels to maximum effect. It's generally known as Cow Shit Alley to many of the runners.
Anyone, relentless forward progress and all that - up past Bogle Glen to Hendo's bench where I finally decided to do something about the small stones that had been rubbing inside my shoe for the last couple of miles (note to self - sort things out straight away before they get worse) and then on into Ewich Forest with fantastic views to the snow capped Ben More and it's less easily remembered neighbours. Much as I was, I'm sure you'll be relieved to know we're getting near the end now, and just as well as the clouds are threatening rain so I put on my windshirt for extra protection just as I'm passed by a guy with no shirt on. I recognised him from a previous race as he has form for this sort of exhibitionism. And after just a bit more trudging, I'm past the old lead mine, and soon after within earshot of the piper. I decided to make a bit of an effort to run in the last wee bit and it was great to see first Jackie, then the crowds at the finish who were all cheering and applauding and one or two even calling out my name as I stumbled across the line to get my medal and several hugs from so many very special friends - Dave K and Carolyn, jonathon, the relay guys (Steve, Rob, Neil and Kevin), santababy, Lapsed Athlete and others who I will no doubt remember about later and feel awful for not mentioning now. Huge hugs from mrs s of course, and Liliaicha and from Lintie (thanks for all the encouragement) and from Dod who was handing out the beer - seemed like a particularly appropriate job for him. It was also great to see Angus - his race hadn't gone well thanks to a sore foot, but he was still there cheering people on and handing out crisps.
It was already pretty late by the time we got to the pub, and although it was good to have a wee blether with Wee Rhino and Jo and dave_m and Al and Tommy as well as many of the aforementioned people, I was shattered and needed to get to bed after just a couple of beers.
It was a really good day, and I was pleased to finish - my time was 13:22ish which wasn't particularly important except that it was under the 14 hour cut off - and to have had a good day on the trails in the company of many lovely people. I'll be looking forward to some more of those in the future, hopefully at races and maybe just on training runs or mini-adventures if schedules allow.
I know most of the people who will read this blog, and so I know that Lintie's words apply to most of you guys as well. With a little training and the right attitude, YOU can run further, faster, more fluidly than you probably realise.
We are all better than we think we are!