April was one of the craziest months I’ve had in years.
It started in Kintyre – with a twitter buddy who I had finally met in real life, a castle, and a couple of beaches. That weekend was about getting some time away and putting the finishing touches to the gig I was working towards.
Then came the gig itself. It went really well, but the emotional intensity of it combined with the physical effect of so many late nights on the bounce left me in a bit of a mess.
Every single bit of me was absolutely exhausted.
My reward for surviving the gig was a trip to Skye over Easter weekend, the extra days off making the drive that bit more worthwhile. I had entered the Skye Trail Ultra race and I wanted to check out some of the route, but there was another reason too.
My friend Ali is the head chef at the Sligachan hotel and kindly offered some floor space almost at the bottom of the Cuillins. I’d consulted the Skye bus timetables and I had a plan all laid out to spend Good Friday checking out the first section of the ridge as far as the Storr, and then to head out on Easter Saturday to find my way back along the Boreraig beach section which I’d probably be doing in darkness.
I arrived late on Thursday night, to a huge hug from Ali and most of a bottle of red wine. It was so good to see him after so long, and it was a rather later night than either of us had intended.
Friday morning came, and I felt awful. This wasn’t due to the wine, surprisingly. I was beyond tired, and was dipping into exhaustion and overwroughtness (if that’s even a word).
Still, I stuck to the plan – 09.24 bus from the Old Man of Storr car park, get off at Duntulm, trudge along ridge as far as the Storr, collect car. The weather looked pretty murky, but it was dry at least. I arrived at the layby in plenty of time, parked up and looked up at the ridge.
The ridge was thick with mist that was boiling away down the rock formations around the Old Man of Storr. It looked thoroughly evil up there, and I was consumed with a really brief but strange sense of dread and foreboding. The best way I can describe it is like the Dementors’ kiss, and in that instance I knew that today was no day for me to be up there.
I drove a little further up the road trying to think of another plan, and cursed myself as it got clearer and clearer the further north I went. I could turn round and maybe still catch the bus, but it would be tight.
I turned round and decided to leave my fate in the hands of the bus service. If I made the bus, I’d go. If I missed the bus, so be it and I was not meant to be up there that day.
Just as I came round the last corner towards the car park, there was the bus. No ridge for me.
I thought for a few minutes and contemplated having a sleep in the car. I decided to try and salvage something, and set off to walk up to the Old Man of Storr for a bit of a look round before heading back to Sligachan to check out the Glen. I’d not seen this part of Skye before apart from driving past it, and at least it would be some good steep uphill training.
I tried to keep up a decent intensity as I walked but there was nothing in my legs or anywhere else. I got up past the Old Man and stopped for a little while to have a look out across the sea to Applecross. I’d covered about a mile and a half.
I plodded back down, not in any rush, and reached the layby which was now filling up with cars. I needed another plan, I wanted to make best use of my time here and at least see some of the race route on both days.
I’d wanted to save Glen Sligachan for the race itself – there shouldn’t be any navigational issues here, it was just one path (or so I thought) all the way to Elgol.
The words “in the shadow of the Cuillin where only footsteps can take you” I’d read in one the various race reports had filled me with excitement and anticipation when I read the race route description, and I wanted to have something special to look forward to on race day.
But here I was, with by now half a day left before I had told Ali to expect me back at the hotel. I decided to check out Glen Sligachan after all, intending to get to the beach at Camasunary and then turn back and retrace my steps – an out and back of about 12-13 miles.
I set off down Glen Sligachan. It was a good path but as promised, it was soaking wet in places with many streams to cross. I was wearing my X-Claws expecting to be up on the ridge, and they were not the thing for this path. The studs on the bottom are a little soft and very flexible which is great on wet grass and mud, but here on the soaking wet rock, I kept feeling my feet sliding about and it made me rather nervous.
The path felt far more hilly than I had expected, and I couldn’t get into any rhythm at all. Everything felt like a massive effort and I got really disheartened. This was meant to be one of the easier, flatter bits of the race route and here I was, struggling and feeling all my confidence melting away.
And then, in one of the bigger streams just before the glen changes direction slightly towards Camasunary, I felt a horrendous sharp pain in my left calf. It came from nowhere, and straight away there was this horrible sensation in the bottom of my stomach which usually tells me I’ve done something pretty serious.
Despite this (and runners will understand this although most other people will think it’s a stupid thing to do and they’d be right) I still tried to run on for a couple of steps just in case, but I was in agony every time my left foot hit the ground. It was no good, I would have to turn back, no easy feat in the middle of a stream on stepping stones when every motion sent pain shooting through my leg.
I felt sick. I’d covered 5 ¾ miles and it would be a long walk back, if I could even walk that far.
I had to walk. There was no question of it. There was no way to reach anyone to come and get me, and no road for miles. There were a couple of people a way behind me and I could see they had some walking poles, so if it got too bad I figured I could wait and ask them if they could lend me their poles.
I figured out a way of moving, slowly and carefully, with my toes pointing inwards on my bad leg.
I had to laugh here, as the usual bad leg was promoted to good leg status. I was effectively walking on half a good leg. This kept my spirits up all the way back, it really was quite ridiculous and there was just no point in letting myself get miserable. I figured it was probably going to take me a good three hours to get back so I resigned myself to it and tried to keep moving.
I decided to count the streams, minor and major, for something to keep my mind focused on rather than the pain in my leg.
Every step was painful but the stream crossings were horrendous. I couldn’t twist or flex my left foot/leg at all without feeling sick due to the pain, and the reduced rotational motion I have in my right leg meant that things weren’t great on that side either. I was really scared of slipping because of the pain that would ensue, but I was also conscious that if I didn’t try and relax, I would be more likely to fall and hurt myself even more.
I’m guilty of overpacking for long runs, and due to the likelihood of bad weather I had even more kit with me than usual. In the end, I was grateful of every last bit of spare kit as I ended up wearing everything I had and still feeling a little cold towards the end. I also ate everything I had and could have eaten more. Eventually I made it back to the hotel.
The upside of this was that I got to try out Ali’s new menu, which was launching that night. I was pretty sure there was no chance of me running or even walking the route round Boreraig beach now, so I could spend some time with Ali after his shift and take my time the next day.
The food was tremendous although I must have looked a sight limping around the hotel, and I was so tired after my rather-more-exciting-than-anticipated day out that I could hardly keep my eyes open through my pudding. I’d planned to have a whisky in the bar after, but headed straight off to the comfort of my incredibly toasty sleeping bag.
Ali came in after his shift ended, about 10.30 I think, I heard him and woke up and thought I should really say hi and ask how his shift and the new menu had gone, but before I knew it, it was morning.
I was so glad of the time with Ali. He is one of the kindest people I know, and a long time ago we were more than friends. I was horrible to him. It was too soon after a disastrous relationship I’d been in, and I wasn’t ready to believe that I was worth being treated properly. He did just that, and I was just awful towards him. We split up after a short time together, agreed to stay in touch and I hoped that one day we would meet again in better circumstances.
I can’t think of a better way to do so, he had forgiven me, I have almost forgiven me and it was wonderful to spend that time seeing his new life, seeing how much he loves his work and getting to eat some more of his amazing food.
All those years ago when I was a climber, I would never have imagined coming to the Cuillin and running past them instead of going up them, and I laughed to myself when I realised that it was 20 years since I last climbed and here I was, still kipping on someone’s floor to save money to go and play in the hills.
It was an uncomfortable drive home, but with a bit of rest my calf started to feel better and I managed an evening of incredibly enthusiastic dancing with my friend Laurie on Easter Sunday with no ill effects.
I also managed a 5 mile run with Angela on the Tuesday before seeing my osteopath Daniel who diagnosed nothing serious, prodded in some very painful places and shooed me off with the words “just keep bloody running”. I was careful on it for a few days and it started to feel better.
That is, until I got a bit carried away on the way down from Cort ma Law. I love running up there so much and was so glad to be there after a few months that I switched off completely and with the car park in sight, I jumped off a little rock on the path, just as I normally would.
There was a horrible crunching tearing ripping sensation in the same place as before, and even more pain than the last time.
The next day I had to sit down to get dressed, the dog walk was painfully slow and I couldn’t get up and down the stairs at work without holding onto the hand rail.
Back to Daniel, taped up again, still nothing major, “a divot but not a tear”, but climbing mountains in the Lake District for three days as part of the GL3D was now not a sensible option. This was meant to be my big mileage weekend before Skye, and I was doubtful that I would be healed in time.
With an empty bank holiday weekend, I headed back to Kintyre again.
The month ended as it had started, looking out across the beach towards Arran. I heeded the warnings that my body was desperately trying to give me, and I took things very easy indeed although I did manage a gentle walk along the Kintyre Way in an attempt to keep up at least some mileage.
Things kept healing and I decided to try a big run the next weekend.
My longest run all year had been 22 miles so I really needed another big one.
If I managed without any issues, Skye was on, but if not, I had to be brave and honest with myself and accept it would be yet another DNS and another year before I would get to do the race.
I was amazed to manage just shy of 30 very hot hilly miles out in the Trossachs with no pain, no twinges, good energy levels and good spirits.
Skye was on.