#34: Fort William

Birds are such beautiful creatures, lovely colours and their song makes the spring feel alive. Then one day you catch a glimpse of their feet, hidden away under their body two reptilian claws.

It seems like a whole lifetime ago since I rejoined club Alba in January, only to be booted out again a matter of weeks later as Crichton then Bressay both joined the fold. I was quite content at the time to just watch from the sidelines, knowing I’d get round to them at some point. I set my running focus on cross country (which so far as I know, is still the only thing about winter that I like). To keep my eye on parkrun I tried to volunteer as much as I could. I think I naively at first went to volunteer as some sort of ‘giving something back’ exercise – but after one or two I was doing it for the very selfish reason that volunteering is absolutely brilliant.

Having a lot more weekends free also meant that I could join my Portobello club mates for some Sunday long runs, and I set my own personal focus for this year to running a half marathon PB at least once. I say at least once, since I’m confident that my current PB from EMF is fairly beatable. (Here’s me moaning about it: Edinburgh half marathon 2017). The real target is to set down a better PB in the spring at either the Verazzano half in Brooklyn next weekend, or the rescheduled Alloa Half in June, then actually follow a proper training schedule for once for the Jedburgh half at the end of October and see if I can beat my spring marker.

Around a month ago I got a message which said ‘those Scottish parkruns are coming thick and fast!’ Having not really paid much attention to the rumour mill for a while, I was caught off guard. You what? I was then informed of the THREE new courses in April. Fort William – ok, that’s quite far. Kirkwall – a shortish flight, maybe I can combine with Bressay… and Thurso. gulp. A quick look at that last one, I found that if I wanted to go by train, I would be travelling for around 9-10 hours. That’s not the end either, there are others coming soon as well… I best get my skates on.

I am personally still struggling to believe it snowed just a few weeks ago. Winter this year went on for what seemed like forever. The only positive I can draw from this is that surely those annoying people who claim that they prefer winter will now finally admit that they are wrong. At the end of summer, you never hear of people complaining that the warm weather went on too long. Having seen on the forecast a good week coming, I started scheming. During the week I was looking at the forecast to see where would be warmer, and on Thursday Fort William narrowly edged ahead. A quick look at google maps found an inexpensive room available at a large hotel chain, a quick text to wifey gave the green light and we were booked.

In following the Ladybird book of middle age, I started running around 6 years ago. In the latest move toward being a completely boring old git, I have over the last few weeks completely stopped drinking caffeine. I’d say this is entirely virtuous, except for the fact that I’ve replaced morning coffee with morning hot chocolate.

Thursday evening we were packed ready to go. On Friday evening after work we got home, threw the dinner I’d made the night before in the microwave and by half past six we were on the road. The roads were pretty clear, and as we headed to Perth the sun was splitting the blue sky. The snow became a distant memory as I donned sunglasses, some cheesy nonsense was on the radio and all was right with the world. Touching the edge of the Cairngorms national park, we hung a left at Dalwhinnie and were amused by some ominous looking clouds shrouding some of the bigger lumps. As we hit the highlands proper, we also hit said ominous looking clouds as they lashed rain down on us. Into Fort William though just for the last of the day’s light, the skies clear and a taste of the view we would wake up to come the morning. Ah Scotland, you’re not so bad eh?

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I remember in my twenties I would remark to people that I would habitually wake up either 8 hours after I went to bed, or at 8am – whichever came first. Through my thirties this has become 7am, and more lately, 6.53am. Should I be concerned? Maybe I’m just going to bed earlier. In the last few months, I’ve stopped even bothering to set an alarm during the week. This left a little time when I woke up on Saturday to search the town for a quick breakfast. In my experience, searching gmaps for ‘hipster cafe’ yields excellent results. I chanced upon the Wildcat Cafe, which serves oat milk as standard in its coffees, and had avocado on toast on the menu. Big thumbs up, so we got dressed and went off to investigate.

Arriving at the Nevis Range we quickly saw the start sign, then stood gawping, jaws open wide at Ben Nevis. It’s as if they have put a mountain on top of another mountain. The sun was starting to come out, which felt almost, dare I say it, warm, and soon we would be on our way.

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With the time getting on, we went off for a quick warm up along the car park. I spotted a small trail heading off, and thinking myself rather clever I went off to investigate. The trail took us into some woods and up and down some very steep short hills, then at the top I spotted a parkrun arrow pointing back the way we had just come. I’m sure I’d read somewhere that the course was ‘relatively flat’. For those not familiar, ‘relatively flat’ often means ‘not in the least bit flat, but definitely not a hill race’.

Back to the start and the briefing is getting under way. We’ve a merry band gathered now, all looking up the trail and wondering what is hidden around that bend snaking upwards.

Off we go and we’re gradually going up hill turning steadily to the left. Into the trees we go and we’re on a forestry road, mainly firm packed and occasional bigger lumps of stone but otherwise good going. There are gentle curves in the path as we now get into a groove. Ahead of me, two runners have set off ahead and are going into the distance, and with me are two other runners all going at a similar pace. It’s not escaped me that I’m now in fifth, and the earlier plan of taking it easy today and it being more important to enjoy the course has gone out of the window. The pace starts to increase as the trail descends. There are points where I can see no one ahead, and all I’m aware of are the trees either side and the other two runners in our merry band. Mile #1 is done in 6.49.

The sun occasionally glints through the trees and now we start descending more rapidly. On this sort of slope my gangly legs are quite handy, and briefly I take the lead of the group. We snake right over a wooden bridge, then we’re descending rapidly again. I’m checking the ground for the larger lumps, but the trail is still firm packed and feels great to run on. One of our group has started to drop back now, so the two of us continue up the path where we see a marshal pointing us round a hairpin right hander, and down a short slope. The slope is now much more lumpy under foot, comes to another hairpin bend back in our original direction and we’re launched onto what looks like a runaway train roller coaster ride with just the wooden sleepers left and held together with chicken wire. The train tracks fidget left then right in brilliant curves, then stop abruptly as we’re deposited back onto sandy trail bits with peaty puddles. We alternate between trails and tracks for a while, meandering up and down as we do it, all the while I’m trying to keep on the heels of my partner in crime. I’ve not really been able to look around me for a while, since I’m having to keep a firm eye on where my feet are landing, but then I notice the light around me changes. We’re tracing a stone wall and dodging some tree roots. Then suddenly we’re in the clear, the trees to my left fall away and I have a view out over fields toward a mountain in the distance. I’m pushing hard, but I’m loving this. Mile #2 7.20

With all the descent in the first mile, we would definitely need to start climbing soon. I had fortunately seen a little of the end of the course on my warm up, so I had an inkling of what was coming. Up ahead I saw one of the leading duo was now dropping back. He joined our group, and seemed to know my running partner. Both seemed to say that they were ‘taking it easy’ today, and after not too long he dropped back and left me with my previous partner and only one other runner ahead. Not much after this I see the lead runner ahead who has stopped and is looking around him to see if he’s still going the right way, he sees us and carries on. We were greeted by a marshal and a right turn back onto the forestry road, and now started the slow grind up and up and up. My partner, though taking it easy was rather spritely on the climbs. I’m sure at times he would just let me go past him, but then think better of it and ease past me moments later.  I now had a chance to take my highest ever position at a parkrun, so I started to scheme. I had noticed earlier than I had a small advantage descending, and I knew that the final section was in the sharp ups and downs through the trees near the start. As we got near that section I pushed on to get to the right turn into the trees ahead. Over the top of the hill, I launched myself down the first drop, round the tree to the left and steeply down again into a half pipe and up again round another tree. Heart rate at this point through the roof, but nothing I can do about it now down again and hurtling back up the trees came to an end and out into the carpark. Have I now done enough? Hang on, where on earth is the finish? Agonisingly the arrows taunt me as we go up again. I am completely burst and am making the sort of pathetic wheezes I hope no-one ever hears. Another arrow, and more up on the grass and I’m expecting to see my friend surge past me any second, but nothing… have I done enough? finally the hill ends, and the last stretch is in front of me, it’s straight back down the track we started on… go go go and over the line.

I’ve given a paper medal for my efforts, which I will treasure for many years yet. Parkrun is of course not a race, but with London marathon distracting most of the faster boys, 2nd place is the best result I’ve ever had at any parkrun, and I doubt I’ll ever beat it.

Scores! 22.38, 2nd place!

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