Dancing With The Devil – I Really Didn’t Expect That!

Devil O' The Highlands

Despite my best efforts at self sabotage (Ice Ice Baby) I did make it to the start line of The Devil O’ The Highlands. Believe me when I say that this is the closest that I have come to the dreaded DNS. Travelling down from Ellon to Fort William on the Friday morning, we stopped off briefly in Aviemore, and Harris was pretty keen to just stay there! Just like his dad, he’s not a fan of spending overly long in the car and, further, the Cairngorms is one of his favourite places. What’s more, on this particular occasion, it was actually the final destination, for a week long holiday, albeit once the ‘small matter’ of the 42 miles of The Devil O’ The Highlands was out of the way!

My tactic of leaving my ice burn blisters to heal didn’t work and, if anything, it left me hobbling on what has to be THE sorest blistering I have ever experienced. As race day approached, and with no discernible improvement, I finally took the decision to remove the blistered skin, leaving the red raw heel exposed, pretty much the thing that I had most wanted to avoid given the impending 42 mile ‘jaunt’ over the pretty rocky terrain of the ‘second half’ of the West Highland Way.

Come Friday evening, having settled into the Premier Inn Fort William, the heel was as sore as I was really questioning my decision to set a 2:30 am alarm to enable me to rise and prepare in time for the 4 am bus from Fort William to the start line at Tyndrum.

When Harris went to bed just after 8pm, I decided that it was as good a time as any for me to also try and sleep and I woke naturally just before my alarm went off. Having prepared my race kit, I then ‘hid’ in the (thankfully spacious) toilet, where I was able to prepare without disturbing Leanne and Harris.

My kit and preparations were fairly standard, other than the additional foot care that was required to see me through the day. I opted for a Compeed, with gauze to offer some padding, kept in place with a liberal dose of gaffer tape. I did experience some pain throughout the race and found myself hobbling in places. However, by and large, this was not the race day that I expected under the circumstances, and I soon found that I was able to put aside the pain and crack on with attempting to finish The Devil O’ The Highlands and complete my second ‘Triple Crown’. The heel thankfully didn’t impact on my day nearly as much as anticipated and, by the time I came to removing my makeshift compeed/gauze/gaffer tape protection back in the hotel post race, the heel actually appeared to have improved!

So, back to the race itself.

Firstly, despite the ungodly hour, I was really glad to have booked a place on the bus, which got me to the start in Tyndrum whilst leaving the family at the finish, anticipating my arrival many hours later. The bus, driving, and chat from the guy seated next to me (sorry, can’t recall your name) were all good and I arrived nice and chilled before registering and having a bacon roll and coffee for ‘second breakfast’.

Registration for the ‘Ms’ was dealt with by Lorna McMillan, who wished me luck in completing the Triple Crown. I’m still trying to work out how Lorna even knew I was attempting this. Were marshals briefed as to who was going for the Triple Crown? Was this typical Jonny Fling RD attention to detail? Regardless, it was a nice touch, so thanks Lorna. Leanne also noted the high level of attention to detail, citing as an example, the provision of not just bins, but ‘Devil bins’ and, as expected with a Jonny Fling production, everything had been thought about and prepared to a level that puts other races in the shade. No wonder there’s such a clamour to get into the Devil and the Fling.

As I polished off my bacon roll, I was approached by someone who mentioned that they read my blog. Thanks. It’s nice to think that my ramblings don’t go totally unnoticed. If you are reading this one, I hope that you had a good race.

As the 6 am start approached, I opted for a quick toilet stop, only to find that it was now lashing rain, and so opted to don my waterproof. By the time we set off from Tyndrum however, less than 10 minutes later, the rain had ceased, leaving me quickly overheating. I stepped to the side and removed the garment, packing it into my Salomon S-LAB Vest, where it remained for the duration of the race, despite the occasional showers experienced throughout the day.

For as inconvenient as it was to stop and remove the waterproof, I’m glad that I did. Sometimes it comes down to a choice between a soaking from the rain or a soaking from sweat and, with fairly high temperatures on the day, I opted to take my chances with the rain.

The down side to the early stop was that it left me at the absolute back of the field, having to work my way back through the field, and finding myself queuing at the occasional bottleneck points early on in the race.

The plus side (every cloud and all that), is that it tempered my pace, enabling a gradual start and let the heel settle in nicely. The gamble of my untested gauze and gaffer tape concoction was far more effective in reducing pain than I could ever have imagined and I soon found myself working my way up through the field, finding a natural position where I ended up playing ‘cat and mouse’ with the same faces for much of the day.

Quite unexpectedly, I had what I consider to be a good race, with energy levels only really starting to dip in the last few miles, when I did finally lose sight of some of those familiar faces.

I experimented with GU gels throughout the race, admittedly not something that anyone advocates, with the sound advice being to stick to tried and tested foods and strategies. However, given just how badly both the Hoka Highland Fling and The West Highland Way Race went for me in terms of energy levels dropping significantly, and given just how little (long/any) running I had done since The West Highland Way Race, it was a gamble that I felt was worth taking.

It was a gamble that paid off.

This was the first race in as long as I can remember when I didn’t, at any point, question why I was doing this, why I put myself through this etc etc.

My Devil O’ The Highlands race day was essentially about getting to the finish, about completing the ‘Triple Crown’, and about trying to enjoy it as much as possible, all whilst remembering how I felt at any given point during The West Highland Way Race.

I achieved all of the above!

I thoroughly enjoyed the race and even found myself reminiscing fondly about my West Highland Way Race experiences, thinking back to the parts run with Carolyn and Allan, my support crew for that weekend. Typically, what seemed like ‘hell on earth’ back then, was viewed through the rose tinted glasses of completion this time around.

Throughout the race, I enjoyed the chat from fellow runners, many of whom were themselves involved in the West Highland Way Race in some shape or form.

I thoroughly enjoyed the ascent up and over The Devil’s Staircase and I even found myself enjoying the technical, never ending descent down into Kinlochleven, which had almost seen me DNF back at The West Highland Way Race.

As I left Kinlochleven I was massively surprised to see that there was even potential for a PB!

This didn’t, however, take into account the ‘sting in the tail’ that I had heard of from fellow runners, the new finish to The Devil O’ The Highlands, implemented by RD Jonny Fling when he took over the race in 2015. Now I had heard of ‘the hill’ at the finish. What I didn’t appreciate was just how much of a hill it was, with each turn round a corner revealing yet another steep ascent. With energy levels dropping by this point, and with the sounds of the finish line looming ever closer, I just wanted to be finished, ideally with that unexpected PB.

I was admittedly relieved when the path finally started to drop down to the finish at the Sports Centre and, as I entered the back of the Sports Centre field, I was joined by Harris who ran the final yards with me to the finish line.

The introduction of ‘the hill’ certainly adds to the race, and is a considerable improvement to the previous, road-side, route. Next time, I will be better prepared for it and will, at least, know what to expect. There’s something quite ominous about unknown parts of a route, doubly so when you are chasing a PB!

With every turn, and every new bit of ascent, I was concerned that I was going to be robbed of my new personal best time. However, this was (thankfully) not to be, and I crossed the line in a time of 09:46:09, taking a few minutes off of my previous 09:50:55.

An unexpected PB to say the least, especially given my self inflicted heel issues, but a most welcome one, and a great start to my holidays, with an excellent (albeit often very wet) week in the Cairngorms that followed.

Huge thanks to all of the helpers and marshals who made the day possible and, of course, to Race Director Jonny Fling, who has certainly made his mark on The Devil O’ The Highlands.

Thanks also to all of those who took photographs and made them available to the runners via Facebook, including, Fiona Rennie and Pauline Walker, Willie Irvine, Kirsten Cowling, Ray Woods, Phil Dawson and, of course, Graeme and Josh Hewitson of Monument Photos. Apologies if I’ve missed anyone.