Ultra Marathon

Virtual West Highland Way Race 2020


Stage 3: Victoria Bridge to Fort William (32 miles)

Having completed leg 2 at around 6:35am on Wednesday morning, and 2.8 miles from home, I had a very short walk to upload that run to Strava and find GPS again before setting off on the final leg. Again, I wasn’t sure how far to go, but wanted at least 10 miles if possible, and continued along the same route as the previous two days. I had my watch set to show lap details rather than overall distance and pace, and was taking it a mile at a time. If my pace dropped below 9:16 for two miles in a row then it would be time to turn back. Otherwise I would turn back around the same place as yesterday.

The weather was surprisingly cool (16 degrees) and a little rainy which made it feel much more comfortable for running than the previous five days. That made it easier, and I managed a faster than previous days 9:05 per mile average pace. I was struggling by the final mile though, clocking in a 9:27, and took a fairly long walk home rather than adding an extra third of a mile or so to the total. Only 21 miles left to go.

On updating my spreadsheet  – who doesn’t love a good spreadsheet? – I could see that sub 15 hours was definitely possible now. Leg 2 had an average pace of 09:20 per mile, and I’d done just over 1/3rd of Leg 3 at a faster pace than that. I could do 9:20s for the remaining 21 miles and be under 15 hours. I even toyed with the idea of bringing it in quicker than that, but realised there weren’t enough miles left to radically alter the goal for a second time. I vaguely considered just fiddling the figures since all of this is pointless and life is an endless descent into entropy, but I didn’t.

On Thursday, it was back out again on the same route. Same old, same old. Before I’d started picking up the pace and altering time goals, I had considered doing the Thursday miles with Solvikingarna (the running club I joined here, but haven’t run with for a few months because of Covid-19). 95 miles is a long distance to do completely solo. I had also been trying to arrange a social run with a few parkrun friends, and thought it would be nice to do the last few miles with them on the Saturday. In the end, we scheduled our meet-up for the following Saturday, and I decided it would be better to stick to the routine and do solo miles on Thursday morning. Solvikingarna sessions are coach led, and there are different pace groups. And they happen in the nature reserve. I wasn’t confident I could keep up with the 5:30 per km group there, and the 6:00 per km pace wouldn’t get me the final race time I was hoping for. I’d also been checking the weather forecast for the weekend and part of the reason for delaying the meetup was because thunderstorms were forecast. Rather than saving 5 miles or so for Saturday, I was pretty keen to get this completed on Friday if possible.

The end of Thursday’s run. Smiling because I only had 7 miles left to do.

So, Thursday morning was another 6:00am run on the same route. With 21 miles to go, I was counting down rather than up. Having done nearly 14 miles in total the previous morning, I wasn’t sure how many I would manage this morning. Again, I set my watch to lap time and took it a mile at a time. As long as I did 11 miles, that would leave only 10 for Friday. But I really wanted a shorter run on the Friday to bring it home. Despite the blisters (I was having to cut heel plasters in half for use on them) and some muscle fatigue, this was actually starting to feel easier, and Garmin said my VO2 max had increased a point. I was using a foam roller every day too, and though I definitely had trigger points in my calves they never caused issues when I was out running. I managed 14 miles on this morning, and eight of them were under 9:00 per mile. I toyed with adding a bit more, but wanted a whole number of miles for the final run, and couldn’t face doing 15. I had been winding down the final few miles and didn’t want to push my luck. I’d almost finished eating the Clif bar I’d started the race with, and didn’t want to have to open a second one.

The average pace for Thursday morning was 9:01 per mile – my fastest section so far. I could go out and do 10-minute mile pace on Friday and still meet that 15-hour goal. Absolutely no pressure. So, being me, I used a pace calculator to see exactly how much faster I would have to get to finish in 14:45. I already had a cumulative time of 13:47:49, so clearly 14:30 was out of the window. Even on top form, with a good taper and fantastic pacer buddy, my 10km PR is 43:30, so doing that plus an extra 800 metres at a faster pace was a non-starter. But what pace would it take to get 14:44:59? The calculator gave me a dispiriting answer: 8:10 per mile. I used to regularly run at that pace, but on current form even 8:40s felt tough. At the end of Leg 2 I’d said to Ann-Marie – who was having a phenomenal virtual race and was still consistently averaging below 8 minutes per mile – that I was hoping to negative split the three legs, but was worried it was more likely to be a pyramid. Now it was clear that, barring a major incident, this goal would be achieved. But not quite so dramatically. However, I also checked for 14:49:59. That gave me an extra 5 minutes to do the final 7 miles, and a hopefully more realistic pace of just over 8:50 per mile.

On Friday morning I set off even earlier – at 5:48am, sticking to the same route. If I was going to do this quicker than all previous days then I wanted to avoid having to run the cobbled section between Brunnsparken and Stenpiren twice. There aren’t any obvious landmarks for finishing a race near where I live, and I decided that Stenpiren would be a nice place to end this run. It’s a very small harbour where you can get a (free!) boat across to the north side of the river on weekdays, and is also a tram stop. I could have a bit of a rest and enjoy the river views, then get a tram back home.

Central Gothenburg looking deserted just after 7:00am on the Saturday morning.

As soon as I started running, I knew 8:10 pace was not possible. Maybe with a few months training, but not just now. Given how (comparatively) well I used to run, this was somewhat depressing, but it is what it is. Sub 8:50s seemed a possibility though. The first mile is mostly downhill, and was an 8:28. I managed to hold the pace pretty steady along the riverside and through the building site section, with miles 2 and 3 coming in at 8:29 and 8:30. Mile 4 though includes that cobbled section through part of the main shopping area of Gothenburg, and that was a slightly slower 8:39. I reached Stenpiren at around 3.8 miles and calculated I should turn around just before 5.5 miles in order to finish there. That took me past the junction where I’d had a couple of close encounters with cyclists on previous mornings, but thankfully there were no near misses today. It also meant I got to turn back just before a climb.

I’d hoped to be able to pick up the pace for the last 5km. Charlotte says you can endure anything for half an hour, although she perhaps hasn’t spent enough time with Michael talking about board games to really be a credible authority on the topic. I’d already done 88 miles in the preceding 7 days though, and was feeling pretty empty. I held pretty steady at 8:33 and 8:28 for miles 5 and 6. When my watch buzzed mile 6, I decided I had to try and pick it up a little. It would be great to manage at least one sub 8-minute mile. I managed to increase my cadence, but my hips steadfastly refused to let me extend my stride length, and the pace on my watch resolutely stayed above that currently unrealistic target. I pushed again in the final few hundred metres, but reached the end with more of a shuffle than a sprint. My watch buzzed 7 miles (and 8:10) just before Stenpiren, and I immediately sagged, though I kept going for a few seconds as Strava tends to round down ever so slightly compared to Garmin. Then I just stopped and felt – nothing. I’d thought I might get emotional, but I was just tired.

Finished! I know my forehead looks really red, but it’s mainly sunburn: the sunscreen just sweats off.

There was one other random person around, and nobody to acknowledge that I had completed the race, or offer congratulations or a goody bag. I walked slowly over to the pier, and took a few photos, enjoying the sunshine at 7:00am a little more now that I wasn’t trying to run in it. Michael would still be asleep, like a sensible person, as would most of my fellow virtual racers (it was 6:00am UK time). I just wandered through the mostly deserted streets of Gothenburg’s old town to Brunnsparken before taking a tram home. Once home, I calculated my time and average pace for Leg 3. Those final 7 miles had been at an average pace of 8:30 per mile. Slower than my marathon pace just last October, but 1:29 per mile faster than the first section of this virtual race just 8 days beforehand. The average pace for Leg 3 was 8:55 per mile. And the total time for the 94 miles was 14:47:21. After waiting a couple of days for everyone to finish and upload their results, I discovered this put me in 267th place out of over 1,000 participants and 996 finishers.

David Wilson had managed a phenomenal 19th place, comfortably under his 11:30 target in a time of 11:19:37, and he was 3rd MV50! He managed an amazing average pace of 7:09 per mile. Basically, he went out every day and ran around 10 miles at a faster pace than my 10-mile PR pace. Ann-Marie and I were panicking a little as he hadn’t put his results in for the final leg with the deadline fast approaching. I messaged the BRR chat group, but he wasn’t logged in. Thankfully he got the results in before it stopped accepting submissions. Ann-Marie had also had an amazing race, being consistently faster than her marathon pace, and with a strong final run with her running buddy Nic. She was 5th female overall, and had averaged a pace of just over 7:45 per mile for the entire race. She’s been running really strongly this year and it’s such a shame there aren’t any actual races to use it at just now. She’s going to be smashing all her PRs when races resume.

Concluding thoughts

I’d love to be able to say that I’m now an ultra-runner. But I don’t think that’s fair to say, given that I got to complete the distance over 8 days rather than in one go. Keith Black however can now claim to be an ultra-runner. Despite never having done a marathon (I think he was signed up for one, but it was cancelled due to Covid-19), after doing some speedy shorter runs to Victoria Bridge, he went out and did the 32 miles of Leg 3 in a single impressive run.

I really enjoyed doing this virtual race for a few reasons, even if it doesn’t sound like it from this post. Firstly, it was very effective as a kick up the behind to get back to running regularly. I did my highest ever mileage week after a couple of months of doing very little running. I managed to be sensible and cautious, didn’t get injured (other than a few blisters, and the usual niggles you get when drastically upping the mileage), and my pace actually improved noticeably across the short timespan of the race.

Fort William has changed a bit since I was there last year. (It’s actually Stenpiren, where I finished the virtual race.)

It also felt great to be part of the Scottish running scene again, even in a virtual manner. The Scottish running community is fantastic, and I got so much support on Strava from fellow club runners, parkrun buddies, and even some complete strangers who were in the Strava group created for the event. It was quite hard to do solo though. Racing is easier when you have people chasing you, and folk to chase down.  Basically, it becomes most enjoyable when you can imagine you’re hunting other people for sport while avoiding being hunted yourself.  A kind of Hunger Games dynamic.  When you’re the only person who knows you’re doing a race, and there’s nobody physically nearby to race with or against, it’s hard to know just how much you can push yourself. And clearly it was a very different experience from running the actual West Highland Way.

Of all the virtual races that have been happening, this was the only one that really tempted me, and I’m really glad I did it. I’d do it again, preferably with better preparation, but it’s almost certainly a one-off. It’s still not convinced me to tackle the actual race. But I might start looking into some short trail ultras in Sweden next year. If you’re struggling with motivation due to cancelled races and the parkrun hiatus, something like this might be just what you need to get your motivation back.

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