Ultra Marathon

Virtual West Highland Way Race 2020

Stage 1: Milngavie to Inversnaid (36 miles)

Some folk in the West Highland Way Race Family Facebook group were planning to start the run at midnight on the Thursday night/ Friday morning as is traditional. I was not one of those people. It would be 1:00am here in Gothenburg. Though it’s a really safe city and rarely gets completely dark at this time of year I didn’t fancy running solo at the same time as crowds of people would be enjoying the (socially distanced, limited to 50 people per club or bar) nightlife the city has to offer during this pandemic. And, as fun as running a stupidly large amount of miles for no reason is, I didn’t think I’d be able to convince them to join in the fun. Instead, I woke up with the sunlight at 4:00 am.  I didn’t have enough sense to just get up and out before it got too warm. In the end I headed out at 6:51 am.

I’d decided Skatås was a good place to do most of the running for this. It’s full of trails, quite “undulating”, and is a beautiful nature reserve. However, being on the edge of the city means it gets very busy in good weather. It also seems to be a popular spot for pre-work exercise and dog-walking, and also part of the daily commute for many cyclists.  I spent a lot my of time getting out of people’s way. The forest also plays havoc with the GPS on my Fenix 5S, so I had no idea of my pace a lot of the time. The first mile though is mostly my commute to the nature reserve. It includes a brief stop at traffic lights to cross a busy road. And it took 10:43. It already felt warm, and my hips were still sore from Monday’s cycle run. Maybe I couldn’t even ten-minute mile this race. During the second mile, my watch readings seemed to confirm this, so I stopped to take a couple of pictures of the beautiful Härlanda tjärn. That second mile buzzed in at 11:40 including the photo break.

Härlanda tjärn
Härlanda tjärn

The third mile has a couple of climbs in it so I was expecting that to be slow. The pace readings were all over the place, but somehow it came in at a surprisingly fast (in my current condition) 8:29! It didn’t really ring true – maybe the GPS had overestimated distance on the second mile, and was short on the third?  Or maybe it had realised I was getting pretty disappointed by the times and worried I’d throw it against a wall.  Perhaps it was self-preservation.

I’ve done this route many, many times though so I’d know by the 6km post whether it had added any mileage overall. Even though I suspected it had cut this one a bit short, I knew it would be cancelled out by all the times the GPS drew straight lines through winding parts of the route. And it gave me a boost. Maybe I could average 10- minutes per mile for this after all. The following two undulating miles through the forest then flat along the north-eastern edge of Stora Delsjön, were between 9:30 and 9:50 pace, and mile 6, which includes a climb away from the lake but then a lovely descent back towards the start of the loop, was a fairly nippy 9:07.

Nearing the end of the first loop, I saw a lady I recognised running towards me from the opposite direction. This was Maria who is rather popular on Instagram (you can find her at @mariarunsit) and whom I know from Skatås parkrun. I hadn’t seen her for a while and had been meaning to message her about a not-parkrun social run a few of us were trying to organise, so I stopped for a quick chat. I mentioned I was doing a virtual race and she told me to get going. I explained it was 95 miles so a 30 second chat wouldn’t make much of a difference.

She looked pretty shocked at the distance. This may have been because I hadn’t explained it was over 9.5 days. But it could also have been because a Scandinavian mile means 10 kilometres. And they usually work in kilometres rather than miles. So, when I’ve been telling Swedes that I run 50 – 60 miles per week during marathon training, their brain immediately tells them that I am running 500 – 600 km, before they realise that something must have got lost in translation. Scandinavian miles are the dog years of distances. People taking their dogs for a walk in Sweden might be risking some kind of singularity by screwing with spacetime. I promised to message her on Instagram (which I never use) and headed off again.

Even with the short stop, I was still under 10 minutes for that mile, so it was looking good for the second lap, especially as people started to drift off to work.  It was getting rather warm, as Gothenburg has been going through something of a heatwave. I also hadn’t run this far in a while. I had another slow mile with the climb away from Härlanda tjärn, but followed it up with three that were comfortably sub 10 minutes. These included a nice downhill section towards the end of the loop. However, it also included spending about 2 kilometres leapfrogging a trio of cross-country “skiers” (on roller skis – I’m not sure if there is some sports specific terminology for these). I’d go past them on gentle uphills, then live in fear of them ski-ing into me on the downhills.  Two of them would go rushing past, but one had their ski poles out wide, dragging along the path, as if they were as skilled as me at downhill ski-ing (i.e. not at all) and I was concerned she might lose control and knock me over, or trip me up with one of the poles. I was pretty relieved when they veered off left to head back to the motioncentrum.  I don’t know if they survived.

Yet another photo of one of the lakes in Delsjön
Stora Delsjön, I think

When I had left the house, I hadn’t had a firm plan for how far I would run that morning. I’d wanted to do at least 10 miles, but the run there plus the two loops had taken me to around 11 miles. Heading straight home would take me to 12.5 miles. I hadn’t taken any nutrition and was starting to feel tired. My pale skin was probably also burning in the fierce Scandinavian sun. Seriously, southern Sweden gets warmer summers than Scotland. As Gothenburg is on pretty much the same latitude as Inverness, I was not expecting this.   Contrary to expectations, I did not come to Sweden for its weather.  I came for the ABBA museum and easy access to IKEA.

I decided to add an extra little bit to take it just over the half marathon distance. That led to the final two miles being slightly below my hoped-for average pace of 10 minutes per mile, but would take me closer to the first checkpoint. I live near the top of a hill, and there are five different routes to approach my apartment. All five of these involve running up a hill. Still, it’s easier than in Scotland where even going downhill somehow involves going upwards.

There is one option that involved running down a hill – but you have to run up an even worse hill to run down that one. I mean, that’s how all hills work but this one is a bit more upfront about it. I was very relieved to finally finish this first section of the race, clocking in at an average pace of 9:59 per mile. The distance had been such a shock to the system that I struggled to climb the 68 steps to our top (4th) floor apartment. It wasn’t looking promising for the rest of the distance.

On the Saturday morning I decided on a river route. Skatås is always busiest at weekends, and my legs (particularly my hips) felt like they would benefit from a flatter route. And also perhaps being attached to someone who wasn’t making them participate in this race. I wasn’t sure how far I was going to go, but wanted at least 10 miles. The only problem with this is I don’t have any 10-mile routes that are not in the nature reserve – other than a flat but boring out-and-back to Partille along a main road. I mean, I can just point myself in any direction and run for five miles and back. That’s how distance works.  But I wanted something that wasn’t quite as grim as running ten miles through built-up neighbourhoods.

Part of the river route.

I decided an out-and-back along the river would be more scenic than heading to Partille, and I’d just have to decide when to turn back based on how I was feeling. Although I’d woken up at 4:30am, I didn’t head out until about 7:20am, debating whether to put on sun screen and deciding not to after it clouded over. I had cause to regret that decision before 8:00am, as the clouds quickly burned off and it became uncomfortably hot. Weather in Scotland is changeable, but in Gothenburg the sun occasionally arrives with all the unexpected and covert momentum of a mugging.

At least I had brought water, and a Clif bar. The route starts on a downhill, so even though my legs took a couple of miles to stop feeling incredibly stiff, those first few miles were still comfortably sub 10. The fourth mile though takes me through part of the central shopping area, which is quite quiet at that time of the morning.  It does involve a few short delays to get across roads and tram lines though. That mile came in at 10:09. Past Stenpiren, and I got to enjoy the views across the river to Lindholmen. I picked up the pace in mile 5, but realised that, to feel comfortable, around 9:30s was going to be as good as it got. I had to weigh my options between better times and a fatal heat inflicted stroke. Eventually I decided surviving the run was more important.

I hadn’t decided how far to head out along the river. Apparently you can get all the way to Saltholmen, but I’d tried to cycle there and got lost. The signs just end abruptly, or send you round in a triangle. Plus, I can get lost while following a map. A Google Map. One of the ones that tell you every step of the way when to turn.   I once got myself and my partner lost in a small business park for the better part of half an hour.   At the first turning back point I’d decided to carry on, but at the second point, I decided heading back was the safer option, and turned left. I could always head south for a bit to head back via Majorna.

I was wary of having to spend too much time at traffic lights though. I was finding it hard enough trying to stay under my 10-minute mile pace without having to compensate for enforced stops. I took a detour through the town centre and along the side of Trädgårdsföreningen, then along the canal back towards Orgryte and the mile-long hill back to my apartment. I added on another little loop to take it up to 12 miles. I didn’t have the energy to make it another half marathon. This route was much flatter than the first section, but my average pace was only an ever-so-slightly faster 9:50 per mile. After yesterday, I realised I needed to stretch in the apartment entrance before attempting to get up the stairs.  At least if I didn’t want to crawl up them like a mountaineer dying from exposure. One of my neighbours came back from working nightshift at 09:00am and gave me a quizzical look before heading up the stairs with her normally functioning legs.  It was several minutes before I could do the same. Unlike Friday, I managed to get up them two at a time – that’s my default stair-climbing technique when not suffering from excessive DOMS because I am still mentally three years old.   My legs didn’t feel quite as beaten up this time. I took the time to do some foam rolling, and was feeling a bit better about my chances of reaching the first checkpoint without any problems.  Or at the very least if I was going to die it wouldn’t be because my legs straight-up fell off.

The palm house in Trädgårdsföreningen.

This left me with 10.8 miles to the first checkpoint. On Sunday I again headed out about 7:30am, and decided to just run out and back along the river route again. It was ever so slightly cooler and slightly less humid, and I had a bottle of water with me. I also had headphones, and listened to Spotify. , I ran out slightly further than the 5.4 miles needed on the grounds that it’s harder psychologically to add a bit on at the end if you come up slightly short. This worked out well as it meant I stopped on a gentle incline rather than the final steep hill before my apartment. The short walk back to the apartment acted as a bit of a cool down and the stretches were easier. The average pace for this run had been 9:16 per mile.

I calculated my average pace to reach the checkpoint: 9:43 per mile. At that pace I would be looking at around 15 ½ hours for the entire race. I calculated what I would need to get it below 15 hours, and it seemed too fast. If I’d started off running 9:30s it would have been achievable, but being over a third of the way there the increase in average speed required seemed a bit of a stretch.

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