It now seems a long time since those 1st steps taken round the urological ward of ARI, following my Laparoscopic radical prostatectomy early in January 2014. The first few times following the footprints round the ward felt like I had competed in a marathon. Resting in bed after those steps I resolved to recover my fitness and run a real marathon, not just the flat street race, but undertake Britain’s toughest marathon across the Hills. This is the story of my challenge on October the 5th 2014. I hope it inspires anyone who is recovering from surgery, or contemplating surgery that we can recover, and even be stronger following the treatment for cancer.
It is now October the 4th and I am repacking my rucksack bag for the about the 4th time. Thoughts of is it too heavy have I got all the energy bars, copies of entry paper work, spare clothes, essential 1st aid that might need etc. What happens if I go of course? Do I extra need a batteries for my torch? How will I get back if I do not finish before the last bus? The anticipatory anxiety was now fully kicking in, more options rather than decisions were presenting themselves. In the end I opted for my running rucksack, spare bag with change of clothes, clothing for 2 nights overnight stay + provisions of food for 3 days. I placed all this gear in the car, kissed goodbye to Suzy and Callum and set of for the 4 hour drive. I now had time to reflect on the past 9 months and past challenges that I had undertaken before the cancer surgery. The autumn weather season had suddenly arrived with the trees splendid in there golden glory, the drive was particularly scenic, reliving pleasant memories of previous running events around Aviemore and Fort William.
Arriving at the registration tent set up in Glen Nevis it seemed almost deserted I had expected a considerable number for the marathon and although it was only ½ hour after opening few runners seemed to be present. Registration was very simple find your name there is the allocated number go to desk issued with number and timing chip for shoe. Yes there will be a baggage bus, yes there will be a time limit after which time runners will not be allowed to proceed past the ½ way point, and the final tent will close at 19:00. Easy then 10 hours to complete 26 miles and 1608m up ascent and about the same in descent you could walk it! We are talking about the last stages of the famous West highland way close to 20 miles on hard rocky trails, 5 miles through a muddy boggy and just over a mile of road the rest all in the mountains. This event is described as the Britain’s toughest marathon, and I am running in it tomorrow. No excuses, this is it the time to put myself to the test.
I had decided to stay close to the start at the red squirrel campsite in Glencoe. Luckily had managed to book a bed in SYA hostel, and drove round to the hostel to book in. Very few other walkers or runners had yet arrived so far I was the only person in the room. I selected the bed furthest from door as I thought less likely to be disturbed and after more fiddling about with bags and rucksack decided to go for a warm up jog. Late afternoon sun shining on mountains, it was a very pleasant undulating run down to the start location, nothing yet set up. Then followed the trail route part of the way along the muddy track by the A82. Took a few photos of the mountains in the setting sun and headed back. It seemed a good time to eat so dropped in at Clachaig inn for dinner and a few different beers. Normally not recommended but I find it helpful to get a good nights rest and as beer is 95% water helps with the hydration. Leaving about 20:00 it was now pitch black so ran quickly up the path in the dark why did I not take my head torch with me because it’s at the bottom of my packed bag!
Returning relaxed to the hostel a scene of frantic activity was in session with a numbers of runners discussing strategies, concerns on finishes times, equipment, level of training, food and ability to complete the course a lot seemed quite nervous, apart from some obvious confident souls who had done this wearing shirts emblazed with several other major marathons or Ultras as well! I felt a bit encouraged that I was not the only person entering this event who was unsure of their endurance ability and although they seemed to have done more training than I had, my self-confidence started to return. Here I was, now aged 61 tackling an event that would test many 30 year olds. I turned in early and settled into a good sleep.
5th October Race day
If you are unlucky, there will always be one or more persons in a shared room who cannot help but make noise and tonight we had Mr Engles from Norway. Late in around 23:00 he falls about climbing the bunk, as soon as he is in the bunk, he is down again then up and rustling as he is trying to make the bed up, find something in the dark or whatever. Wish I had remembered eye mask and ear plugs, eventually the room quietened and I fall back to sleep. 03:45 he is up toilet break! Of course now I have to go as well. Then he is up again rustling, up down in and out of room eventually at 05:45 I get up no point sleeping any more wide awake so got some breakfast and there he is drinking a bottle of beer! Yes he spotted me and as the only other person in the dining room I am forced to engage in conversation. I thought he was a very strange man. He kept going outside and then back and asking weird questions. Well at least he was not running in the marathon he must have thought that I was just as odd. Anyway an early start and not wanting to return to my room before 08:00 to avoid waking up the others meant that I had an early breakfast, as other runners turned up most were in that focused solitary zone and conversation was limited. No time left now to stress about kit etc. just put it on and walk to the start. Weather outside was damp and slight drizzle it did not seem cold and no significant wind. I elected to run in normal long sleeved shirt with heavier short sleeve shirt over and long pants. Waterproofs and thermal layer in ruck sack.
08:30 Red Squirrel campsite a hive of activity close to 800 runners so I was told milling about, only felt like a 500 or so. As we are all wearing timing chips on our shoes, to avoid congestion on the narrow paths we are to be started in waves, those god like runners sub 4 hours will go first, followed in 5 minutes by fast runners, then 10 minutes average runners and 15 minutes later the last wave, myself and the rest of the pack competing just to finish. It felt good to be starting a race in group of elite runners all who seemed were accomplished marathoners, and despite my lack of distance, training, It felt I had earned the right to be here. This is it my goal, no more training runs, no more self-doubt, this is the real thing, my ultimate test and I felt good. The weather was really overcast, mountain tops covered with cloud, but no significant wind good to be running conditions. Although rain and high winds were predicted.
Waiting with the runners at the back there was lots of mutual encouragement and good wishes shared between us and then suddenly we were over the line and off, proceeding slowly in a pack spread across the road. Off course just after we started cars and minibuses also wanted to pass down the single track road so we all had to move on the verges to let them pass through. Cheers and waves as we passed the Clachaig and then down to A82 crossing. Marshalls were carefully guiding us across and then we were off on to the muddy track. It was a lot more churned up now probably 700 in front and 100 behind as track narrow it is not really possible to pass so we are like a giant multi-coloured caterpillar of runners stretched out as far down the track as you can see.
Towards the rear we were keeping a good slow pace, it seemed all the most of others were doing the same, but at front I could see it was stretching out a bit. Now into a nice rhythm legs working well and new shoes reasonably stable despite the slippery track, the rucksack and legs felt ok. Could feel the urge in the bladder rising and knew that soon I would have to find a bush. Not easy with so many ladies following behind. As the track dipped down, over to the left there was a discrete bush sheltering a couple other guys with a similar predicament. A few moments later I was ready to catch up maybe 20 had now passed me. Put on a spurt and soon caught up position. We again crossed the A82 and now we had a boggy marsh to stumble through, my years of running with Aberdeen Hash had prepared me for this and I found myself steadily gaining position over some of the other competitors. Hard work on the legs and very wet occasionally up past knees in mud we reached the first refreshment point at the base of the devils stair case, did that water taste good. Checked my watch now 90 minutes has elapsed and maybe only 7 miles. The marsh thankfully was over and now we had a winding traverse steep climb for 500m. I power walked up this, passing a few where track was wide enough and reached the top in 1hr 55 minutes. The marshals were checking our race numbers, some poor soul was shivering in a survival bag awaiting medical assistance. I hope they were ok. The view was incredible with maybe a 100 competitors behind and as far as you could see runners stretched out ahead running on an undulating trail. It was now very cool and lightly raining, thought about putting wet weather gear on but decided it was not hard enough to waste time on unpacking rucksack. Set off down the trail, managing a good downhill pace soon warmed up and rain held off. I seemed to be catching others up, bit of self-delusion at this point, because once the trail starts going uphill everyone is now going slower, once you get to this point you also slow down, so the relative positions are unchanging. Up and down the trail with other competitors getting nearer or further away. Generally I was starting to pass a few and the trail meandered on, till we came to the forest road down into Kinlochleven, this wide downhill road seemed endless and hard on knees. Only a few West Highland way markers I had noticed, I started wondering if I had missed the turn off and now heading away. Just then the sound of sprinting trainers behind me, I was being passed by one guy in blue top running at an amazing pace almost like Usan Bolt! Why was he this far back? Maybe he was a late starter at least I am not the only one if I am on the wrong trail, my knees are now really being worked running downhill. Once the trail flattened out at the bottom I suddenly found my legs would not let me run on the flat, so dropped to a walk for about 2 -3 minutes then started to jog again. I turned round the corner and there it was, the halfway point at 2 hours 55, almost 50 minutes longer then my ½ marathon time in June! This was a really great refreshment stop plenty of water, power aid, bananas, chocolate bar and other snacks. In my training I had not often managed runs of longer than 3 hours so I was moving into unknown endurance at this point. Took on some energy drink and some bananas and set off at a slow pace to tackle the next hill. Legs feeling really tired and energy felt low, I took encouragement that I got to the race cut-off point with over an hour to spare so even if now only walked the other 13.2 miles I would not be a DNF. I cross the road and started up the steep climb out of Kinlochleven. Not feeling too good, I now started to feel sore with chaffing in the genital area. Stopped in the wood and applied Vaseline to some very sore areas, took some water, noticed several other competitors passing by and set again. This climb was really hard work and had to dig deep to keep on going. I started to feel better as we reached the top and managed to break into a slow jog again. Continuing on a rough rocky track called General Wades Way, energy drink is now starting to kick in and managing to run the downhill stretches and walk the uphill sections. Wind is blowing quite hard in your face at this point and you quickly feel cool if you slow down. We continue on and the sun breaks out this is a big lift and the scenery is awesome. It is hard to take in the beauty of the trail as so much focus is on planting your feet on the rocks so that you don’t twist an ankle etc. Saw a few other competitors fall over all seemed ok, we are now over 4 hours on this trail and I think that concentration lapses and tired muscles are contributing to the falls. At this point heading up the trail is a Land Rover Ambulance. I hoped whoever that was to help was not seriously hurt. Despite the time now nearly 4 hours 30 on trail, I am feeling encouraged that I am still mostly running although at a fairly slow pace, I am feeling more confident that I can finish this challenge. At this point in the event you start travelling in a wave of competitors and generally chatting as either they pass you or you catch up and pass them as you are running and they are walking. Generally the group is all travelling together at the same speed and we just change places. I seemed to be managing more running and gradually moving up this group of competitors you start to recognise people that you met at the start or passed you a while back. Got to the top of a hilly section the marshal encouragingly said, just a few 100m you will have reached the 20 mile point there is a food and water station. With the promise of energy resupply despite carrying about Kg of energy food in the rucksack, I broke into a run and set off for this promised oasis. What a treat was in store hot fruit punches, power aid, water, cheeses, sweets, biscuits, crisps as well as tea and coffee, amazing thank you organizers! If it was a hash we would have had a beer stop here sadly not today. Consumed two hot fruit punches, some water and feeling mentally pleased as now 5 hours into this challenge and only 6.2 miles to go, I knew a lot of that will be downhill. At this point I knew I would finish, it was just a question of would it be 6 or 7 hours. I also knew that the fruit sugar would take 10 -15 minutes to start giving me energy again. So set off at a steady pace, a few competitors passed me as I marched on, felt a few cramp pains in my calves so started jogging again. Started to feel the energy flowing so actually managing to move a bit faster and catching up a few of those that passed me from the refreshment point. The trail is now starting to move into the forest section, I had done this trail in 2003 and now it seemed different as less trees and harder ground. Running a lot of the sections now although the pace is fairly slow, legs tired and a few ankle turns gave me a scare that I still could injure myself. Had to take particular care over down some really slippery rock steps, crossing a bridge and up another steep bank. Still moving on time and distance is passing each step is nearer to the finish. Passed a Marshall he said about 1 ½ miles to go and it’s all downhill. I started to speed up now. Caught up with a couple of youngsters maybe less than 30 who had slowed right down briefly chatted with them, then ego got the better of me as I told them they would finish in 6 hours something and unless they got going they would be behind a 61 year old recovering from a cancer operation, at that point I charged for the finish line. They were not going to beat me, quite a downhill run now various walkers coming up all cheers me on, I am sprinting at this point my legs aching but still I am going round bend where is it I know I turn off somewhere, more walkers cheering me on, legs failing at this point drop to a jog behind a pair of ladies pass me I cheer them along as legs not responding. I can hear the PA of the finish but still cannot see it. Then I see it the arrow off to the finish line. The wave of tiredness lifts, I manage to pick my legs up and start speeding through this forest section, this was not a formal path but 300 or so footprints leave a clear trial then the trees end and there it is 100m to go. I race and power over the timer and along a very boggy field the PA calls out my name I have done it! The marshal hands me a medal another cuts the timing chip from shoe, people are talking my brain is going slow. I feel on top of the world, another marshal points to tent you get your time in there, I enter my race number 106 it prints out 6 Hours, 15 minutes and 51 seconds I am dazed, at the start I was hoping to finish in under 8 hours. Walked into the competitor’s tent what a feast was inside, hog roast, pie and beans, bar, tea coffee cakes. I elected for a roast sandwich and coffee! Sadly no real ale in the bar or I would have celebrated there and then. Met several of the other competitors and we all agreed what an incredible experience everyone pleased with themselves. Recovered my change of clothes and remembered that I had not even photographed myself at the finish! Located my camera at bottom of the rucksack and asked another competitor to take the photo. Sorry UCAN I forgot to take my sweater off.
It’s been over an hour since I have finished so think about finding the bus that is returning to the start. It’s now starting to rain moderately and I am feel cold. Luckily the bus just comes and I get on it and sit down. With other competitors we exchange our stories, I call Suzy and Callum at home to let them know I have finished and my time. Back to the hostel shower I change and still have legs to walk the mile to the Clachaig for a celebratory big meal, quite a few beers, chat with the other finishers, what a great day I well pleased with myself!
Prior to starting the event, I said that my aims were:
- Finish the event
- Not be the last competitor to finish
- The time is just a statistic
Of course during the event the time and position became important, 1st not to miss the cut off point, 2nd not to miss the bus back to the start point and 3rd not to be last competitor to finish. The most important thing was that I enjoyed the event, felt good about my performance that I overcame adversity and managed to raise awareness and funds for UCAN and the Northern Lights project. Would I do the race again, I don’t think so, I have nothing to prove. I am sure l will travel over this trail again for pleasure, without the pressure of a race, maybe stop at places to take photos and remember the day that I ran with the elite hill runners. There are other challenges that are waiting for me.
For the record I was placed 352 out of the 417 male & female competitors finishers listed!
My o fficial time printed out on the day has been recorded as 6:21:51. This was probably to do with the wave start time. It was a bit chaotic, back at the start point as I recall. I am placed in the over 60 age group of which there were eleven competitors of either gender and I was 7th in that group. Not bad considering I only started running properly in April.
For information on the Glencoe Marathon see the following link: http://glencoemarathon.co.uk/ For photos of the event, I am afraid none of then caught me, I must have been going too fast but at least they show the fantastic scenery and some of the other competitors:https://www.flickr.com/photos/wildfoxevents/sets/72157648042446379/
Friends, family and colleagues have all sponsored me by donating to UCAN for funding the installation of the RASS in Aberdeen Royal Infirmary. I hope my event has raised £1500 to the £2.5 M appeal. I also am contributing to the Project Northern Lights’ youth development work in Scotland.
I would like to thank all those who have supported me in my recovery, and all those that have contributed to appeal. Most of all I would like to thank my wife Suzy for giving me the encouragement and time to train and make this challenge a reality. By undertaking event it has closed my story on recovery from Prostate Cancer. I hope this story inspires and helps others suffering or recovering from Cancer.
Christopher James Richardson aged 61.