With an event of this magnitude, where there are so many participants and where the sharp end of the field is fiercely competitive, the organisers need to lay down some rigid ground rules. All runners must be on a level playing field – no benefits may be gained from a) sneaking in a warm shower at a hotel along the way b) taking food from the mess tent to eat later out on the trail (!), c) skimping on mandatory kit, d) receiving any form of trail-side assistance from family, friends or even strangers etc.
Ultra-runners are naturally quite a single-minded, self-absorbed, belligerent bunch at the best of times. I know this. As such, you need some staunch systems in place. Failing that, you would quite likely have a riot on your hands.
As a SAffer, where we generally see most rules as mere suggestions, I found this quite a challenge, and, as luck would have it, fell foul of the system quite early on.
I only have praise for Shane Ohly and his team of Ourea Events. Their day-to-day management was impeccable, and their adherence to systems and consistency around rules was most admirable. It cannot be easy – being bad cop when you are simultaneously managing an event where encouragement and support really are the order of the day.
There was, and I kid you not, a “three strikes and you’re out” rule. Out, as in, out of the race, go home, bye-bye. This struck fear in many of our over-worked little hearts, and towards the end of the week, there was some trepidation (within the ranks of the more criminally-inclined) as we tried to navigate our way through a strike-free day, as well as across the bog-saturated landscape.
I was struck down on the morning of Day 5. Yup! The shame of it! I had omitted to include gloves in my pack, you see. This being compulsory kit, I was given a strike. They were very sweet about it, and all that, but a strike was issued nonetheless. A stain against my name. Community service for me…??? No!…a 44k run instead!
One chap was issued a strike for “outside assistance”. The form of this assistance? He got a lift to the pub which was some distance away in a car by a mate for a beer! Yup….it was brutal out there.
The rules kicked in the morning of the race when we had to check our dry bags in. These were the bags Filippo and I had packed, unpacked, packed, unpacked several hundred times – both at home and in the UK. We had somehow managed to overlook the sub-text in rule 1 00 001 around dry bags. The one about weight allowance. We could only bring 20kg with us. Not a nanogram more. Our bags were being weighed by an officious fellow in a blue shirt with an electronic suspended weight machine thingy.
You can imagine the blind terror at being told that we each had to shed 5kg – before we had even started. But shed we did – all our meticulously packed clothing and food, all came out….into the car park of Fort William. Since all our other bags had been taken to Inverness the day before for retrieval at the end, we had nowhere to leave anything we did shed.
Food was the biggest casualty. Again, given the fact that we could not expect the organisers to feed us when “out on the hill”, we had to plan ahead and pack 8 days’ worth of nutrition. So the bananas, boiled potatoes, fruit squishies, energy bars were ditched. Filippo’s eye-wateringly massive quantity of nougat was ditched. It all ended up left on the front seat of the rental car – in the vague hope that the rental car people would enjoy the smorgasbord of trail running delights. I mean, who wouldn’t?
Given the weight restrictions, the take-no-food-from-meal-tent rule was a challenge for many I think. There was many a runner (in the latter stages of the race) who would stand in the queue, eagerly eyeing the tray of boiled eggs, slices of bread, bananas or sausages (no, not the sausages) and be dreaming up devious and cunning ways of smuggling items into pockets or under armpits…
We ate spectacularly well, and the catering was top draw, all served by the happiest, friendliest group of men and women. It was entirely meat-free – all week. We were told this would be the case upfront, and menus were listed upfront, so any serious carnivores had the opportunity to plan ahead and factor this into their 20kg allocation. I mean, how much can a leg of lamb really weigh?
And so we come to the bacon smuggler. He shall remain nameless, as I wish to protect his identity and future participation in all races in the UK, but, this incredibly generous soul took pity on us on the morning of Day 5. He had clearly seen our hollow, haunted looks and sagging shoulders 😉….He bought a few rashers of freshly fried up bacon at the nearby café and smuggled it into our tent! The air of subterfuge was palpable, as he entered our tent and hastily unpacked his stash, whispering loudly “eat this, quick!”.
Both F and I gobbled it up like ravenous street kids, making sure to wipe all evidence of bacon fat from our lips. The crazy thing is, I am pretty much a veggie – but THAT bacon. THAT bacon…..it filled some kind of crazy, calorie hole and our bodies were grateful.
[On a side note, the above activity was entirely legit. We could make use of local shops and pubs, if we wanted to, if access was there for everyone. So I am not sure why there was any guilt attached to the bacon fiasco, perhaps just because we were in a designated meat-free zone?!]
From bacon smugglers to budgie smugglers…or the lack thereof, in Filippo’s case. Given his extraordinary speed and technical skills out on the route each day, Filippo would be at camp long before me. This gave him ample time to unpack his 20kg bag, lay out his bedding and get himself washed. This involved getting oneself to the closest river, dancing over the slippery pebbles and doing as deft a body wash as possible. In the first three days, this was in very chilly weather and with wet, skanky towels. Deeply unpleasant. Added to that, there was no element of privacy. For someone like me, with all manner of hang-ups (as alluded to in Part 1), washing one’s naked body in full daylight, standing up in a river, in full view of a bunch of strange men – yar, well, it had its moments.
I was shy and anxious on Days 1-5 and would try and walk miles upriver to avoid detection…..by Day 6, I really didn’t give a rat’s arse about who saw what. Funny what a bit of shared pain and adventure does to inhibitions.
Filippo had no such qualms from Day 1. This man – who admittedly only had a small face towel to work with (bigger towel ditched to make the 20kg, you understand) – was unphased by any vague notions of self-consciousness. He was frequently spotted – completely kaalgat/starkers – walking casually from the river washing area back to his tent, past all the volunteers and any other runners who may have also come in.
Granted there were not many of those. Given his great speed.
Still, after a while, the volunteers came to speak of him as “the naked one”. Much to my intense embarrassment. That embarrassment was all mine, and mine alone.
So why will I never trust a Scotsman again? Well, on Day 3, which was incredibly long and incredibly difficult, with more peaks and climbs and bog crossings than in all the days combined, I came across the kilted one having a late evening stroll down a road. I was spent. Done. Tickets. I had been running for well on 10 hours and I needed to know that home was in sight.
My watch had run out of juice earlier that day, so I had no idea how far I had run. As I staggered past him, he put his meaty hands together and clapped, congratulating me and telling me Porker #1 “Yer looking soooo strong, keep goin’, well done!”.
“How much further?” I ask.
“Ogh eye….yer jes hafta pop o’er that wee hill o’er there, and the campsite’ll be right there!”
“Oh phew, thank you!” I pant….and continue.
Only then do I really engage with the direction in which our kilted friend has pointed. There are no real hills, to speak of. There’s a vague bump in the road in the horizon, granted. But not a hill. Beyond that I see a very ominous mountain – it’s peak smothered in rolling, grey cloud. So which is it, I wonder?
I spend the best part of the next hour pondering the Scottish definition of hills and mountains and then as I crest the “hill”, I look down into a valley – utterly bereft of any civilisation – and certainly no tent in sight.
Right about then, I had one of those all-fall-down moments, which I think all adventure racers/ultra-runners have. I wept a little and bellowed “Nooooooooo!”. Nobody heard me. Nobody cared. I was alone.
I then promptly stepped right into a deep bog. More tears and wailing and extraordinary expletives – even I didn’t know I was capable of uttering.
I remember breaking into a very earnest and loud conversation – it may well have been for Angus’s benefit – something along the lines of: “Ooooh look, what do we have HERE…..I do believe that’s another f*%ing bog!….Oh, and over there? Oooooh, goody….! that’ll be another f&%ing mountain!”
Once I got over all that, there was nothing for it but to knuckle down and gather myself….and climb. Yet. Another. Effing. Mountain.
I staggered into camp at 7-30 that night. A solid day out really. One which started shortly after 8am!
That night I was a little gloomy, but all that melted away when one of the volunteers “knocked” on our tent door and announced “Ultra-mail for Tent 7!”
This was the most wonderful feature of tent life. Supporters from far-flung corners of the globe could communicate with you via the tracking site. It was all sent to a central PC and printed out. These little pieces of paper with lovely words of encouragement from friends and family were little positive treasures – they quite literally saved the day.
Any blog on this race would be incomplete without mention of Angus – my happy, hairy coo and my most loyal running buddy. He did the full 400k, he did, and didn’t complain ONCE. I take my hat off to him for that – stoic little bugger. On Day 8, as we neared the finish line and had the lighthouse in full, glorious view, I grabbed him out of his comfortable pozzi on the back of my pack and slotted him in between the straps across my chest so he could watch the finish and us carrying the SA flag.
I swear that his little grin got a whole lot broader right then. As did mine.