A Rough Ride on the Roman Road

Moments before 0830, Saturday morning. Once again I’m standing by the Old Red Phone Box on the A470, ready to test myself on The Fan Dance. Since the operation on 31 January I’ve been focusing on this moment. It’s been the reason I’ve dragged myself out of bed at 0530 to run to work, why I’ve been interrogating ingredients lists and why I’ve been ignoring the pain in the bit of me they cut off and incinerated 6 months ago.

 

Feeling good at the start. The blue thing is the bite valve for my hydration bladder.

Ken, Race Director, Special Forces Veteran, cyclist, author, dad and good bloke, gave his safety brief, a stirring welcome speech and uttered his ‘Stand By, Go’ and off we trot.Storey Arms

My pace was good, my mood was good, even the weather, unexpectedly, was good. As we sat chatting in the BBQ shelter that served as a temporary HQ the night before, one of the DS asked me ‘What time are you aiming for tomorrow?’ I said something suitably modest about only wanting to get my patch from Ken knowing I couldn’t have done any more. Bollock(s). For a while I’d been telling myself I could do it in four hours. How that unspoken thought has haunted me since.

I realise something has gone horribly wrong when I first try and drink. Bite on the valve, sook. Nothing. Bite harder on the valve. Sook harder. Still nothing. A knot ties itself in my stomach when a few things click in my mind. At the weigh in I had been surprised, and a little embarrassed when I told the DS I had 3lt of fluids on top of my obligatory 25lb of kit only to be told I was under. Quite a bit under. I assumed it was the scales I’d been using and ‘borrowed’ a rock from a wall at the front of the centre and having made the weight off I go thinking little of it. It is now clear to me , as I run up the initial slopes of Corn Du that the wet Bergen wasn’t due to sweat, or drizzle, but the hydration bladder had leaked all my fluids. I was underweight because my Bergen wasn’t carrying any water at all, never mind 3lt. There was no source to replen until RV1, the summit of Pen y Fan.

I’m embarrassed to say I was rattled, firstly by the thought of no water for a tough ascent and secondly, and probably much more damagingly, by the thought that this has been caused by my poor admin. To do as well as I should have I would need every shred of self belief I had. Instead, poor admin had leaked it away with my water.

I dug out, manned up and cracked on. Seeing friendly faces at the ‘Fan summit- with supplies of water- saw me heading down Jacob’s in a bit better nick. (Thanks Ian and Jas) and I managed to Windy Gap, down the Roman Road pacing with a first time Fan Dancing one time RAOC Driver (no name, good bloke). I checked in at the turn around in a respectable 1.50. After being gently told off and having my rag order tee shirt sorted by the time inquiring DS of Friday night, I headed off for the second half. (The DS wasn’t being a James Hunt. If he hadn’t straightened out my tee I was doomed to much more Bergen Burn than was necessary.)

Then I stopped. I fished  my trusty Jelly Babies out the lid of the Bergen, gobbed a few and passed a few encouraging words with my friend, training partner travel buddy Chris D who had caught me up. I chased him on as I knew I was only going to hold him back. I was spent. Stopping had been another terrible mistake. Why the Jelly Babies weren’t in an accessible pocket is a mystery to me. Again, poor admin bit me, hard.

Digimax A50 / KENOX Q2Each step seemed harder than the last. My calfs were knotted rope and hurt like blazes. My shoulders, having never troubled my in months of training were agony.. and I could feel the burn of blisters on my feet for the first time since buying the Magnums a year ago. What a state! More, my spirit was as raw as my feet. Ghost Gooley was almost beyond bearable. I sobbed. (Inwardly of course, it’s The Fan Dance FFS!)

Pained
Haydn Mann’s snap captures the moment.

That was the story for the rest of the route. I was in a dark, dark place and hurting. Jacobs Ladder took 37 minutes, bad enough on the clock, but in my head it felt like a lifetime. I honestly thought it was time to strike up my death song and set sail for Valhalla. Summiting Pen y Fan the second time, contouring Corn Du and descending back to the Storey Arms? All a painful blur. I have vague memories of an old woman hiker and her Black Lab keeping pace with me for a while. I’d prefer it was a hallucination but am afraid it was all too real.

Receiving January’s Winter Edition patch from Ken was a moment of utter elation. This time all I could think of was ‘Don’t spew on his (rather nice Inov8) boots’. I had taken four and a half hours.

What have I learned? Preparation is everything. I’m not unbreakable. I’m a flawed human being the same as all you flawed human beings.

There was a casualty out on the hill (dehydration) and during the prize giving ceremony, a group of Fan Dancers and DS Tabbed off back up the track to sort him out. Awe inspiring stuff.

The journey home was a time for reflection, interrupted by numerous stops to try and untie my insanely cramped calves. Chris D was a stoic provider of coffees. I dropped him off and was home for midnight.

The journey from January to July, The Western Infirmary to The Storey Arms Centre, to the depths of my soul and back, has left me wondering what kind of man I am. I have shown a toughness and resolve I didn’t think I could find yet undid myself with schoolboy errors when it mattered most, At the moment I am far from certain I’ll do another load bearing FD. Theres the small matter of Catterick Paras’ 10 in August. I’ve booked a place on the Aviemore Half  and Glencoe Marathon in October and am looking at a few local Hill Runs to keep me focused. I’m torn between the deep respect for all that Ken, Linda and the broader Fan Dance family has given me and the realisation that the price I pay for those patches, wonderful as they are, may be beyond my physical and spiritual means.

1911667_715630578468587_328596752_n                                                     Finished

On the left, Western Infirmary, Glasgow, Valentines Day 2014. I’ve been re-admitted following complications from my op on 31 January. (delayed that op so I could do the winter FD.) Ken and Linda sent me the tee shirt as a welcome morale boost. On the right, the same tee shirt, 5 July 2014, The Old Red Phone Box.

So what now? Clean Fatigue Fan Dance? Perhaps. Glencoe Marathon? Yes. More running? More mountains? Absolutely! I titled my blog ‘Fight Back to Pen y Fan. I’ve fought back, perhaps not as triumphantly as I would have liked. All I know is like I said in the BBQ shelter on the Friday night, I arrived at that finish line having given my all. I am immensely proud to have earned a Winter and now a Summer patch. To have trod the path taken by men I hold in the highest regard is an experience I will always remember.

I may yet return, but what ever tomorrow brings I’ll stay low and move fast.

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Gods and Monsters

Blue Beanie0700, Saturday morning and I’m pulling out of the filling station in Tyndrum. A breakfast of Red Bull and Haribo is being complemented by Wolfmother on the Van stereo and my motivation is off the scale!
My plan is to tackle the ridge from Stob Coire nan Lochan to Bidean nam Bain and Stob Coire Sgreamhach then back to the Van via The Lost Valley.
As I drew up in the Three Sisters Carpark I swapped pleasantries with a father and son duo who it turned out had more or less the same plan. They set off before me and I kept a polite distance but by the time we all summited Bidean nam Bain they invited me to join them for a bite of lunch and we headed off together for Sgreamhach. I was very glad of the moral support as we debated the options for descent. The Coire head wall route from the SMC guide was a mass of decaying cornice and unstable slabs of snow so Plan B was an airy scrabble down off Beinn Fhada. The last two hundred meters to the bottom was accomplished on our bottoms as we grabbed the chance presented by an obstruction free slide- great fun!
Young Kieran and his Dad, Richard, were good company. I thoroughly enjoyed sharing my time on the hills with a great example of the next generation. I reckon the future of our sport is on safe hands.
And what of the gods and monsters? A few short centuries ago a desire to wander along the peaks above Glencoe would have marked the three of us as at best outlaws and worst crazy. The mountains were the abode of gods and monsters.
I’m no god, not many think me a monster and I’ve never actually been convicted of anything so that leaves crazy. I reckon that’s a fair cop. There is something crazy about all this, but it’s a crazy I’m happy with. I plan to continue heading for the hills, up to the abode of gods and monsters

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ML and me

Ben Ann It’s not the best news to start with, but Nell has been forced to retire from formal Munro bagging duties and also from pacing my training runs. She has had a re-occurrence of a painful condition in her left front paw which requires her to wear a mad wee boot thing. She has taken it on the chin and still runs about exuberantly on grassy surfaces but I can’t exploit her enthusiasm and risk exacerbation for my own ends.

The photo is from February 2012 when we climbed our first ‘hill’ together (Ben A’an!) Nell The Greyhound, we salute you!

In other news, I’ve made it through Mountain Leader training and am now in what the Mountain Training Association refer to as ‘Consolidation’. This can be summed up as ‘we’ve shown you what is required so go practice’.

My week at Sport Scotland’s Glenmore Lodge National Outdoor Centre (No wonder it’s better known as ‘The Lodge’) taught me a pile of things about navigation, about ecology, about people and about me.

Navigation? I’d been labouring under the misconception I could navigate but as Deek the Instructor reminded me ‘Nav is not a matter of opinion’. I recovered from initially feeling frankly inadequate and by the end managed to navigate to a ‘single contour feature’ 10 feet across at night in the rain and mist.

Ecology?

Digimax A50 / KENOX Q2
Common Lizard

This fellow is a Common Lizard, who In  my experience isn’t very common at all. In fact, he’s the first I’ve ever met. I nearly stood on him / her wandering in the Mondhliath Mountains but managed this quick, badly composed snap instead. You never know what’s under your feet- tread carefully, friends.

 

Rizocarpon geographicom

Here we have some Map Lichen on a boulder on the Cairngorm Plateau. Not much to look at? The patches were almost a meter across. They grow at a mil every 10 years. You do the maths- they’ve been growing there since the last ice age over 10,000 years ago. Well, it impressed me!

People? We were an eclectic bunch on the course and over the week I saw those I thought very capable, crumble and the seemingly fragile step up. It was heartening to see a co-operative, collegiate side of human nature very much in evidence and as regularly happens  when I’m in the company of walkers and climbers, I came away with my faith in the essential goodness of human beings reinforced. It was part training course, part social experiment!Digimax A50 / KENOX Q2

There were numerous occasions were a hand was extended, physically and metaphorically or resources shared, sometimes food, sometimes knowledge. Our temporary community served as a parable of how things could be between people, far from the rat race. As a wiser person than me once said, if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.

Finally, me. What did I learn about me? I’m far too interested in ptarmigan shit, that’s a given, but beyond that? I’m a flawed, wonderful Human Being, much like all you other flawed, wonderful Human Beings. I also love the mountains and am coming to believe that I might actually  make a passable Mountain Leader one day.

Anyway, time to get the running shoes on and take another step on my journey back up Pen y Fan. July 5 is fast approaching…

 

On the Right Track

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It’s been a busy old life since my last lot of musings, but I’ve got a definite feeling of heading in the right direction. The picture is of The West Highland Line at St Fillan’s Chapel where I had to cross to climb Beinn Challum on Thursday but I’m getting ahead of myself.

A couple of weeks back I finally made the trip to Corrour Bothy to learn the arcane and ancient art of composting toilet maintenance. My guide / guru / captor was Cairngorm Wanderer who writes a much better blog elsewhere on WordPress so I won’t mention that in case I lose my reader(s). Shifting huge bags of shit while dressed as Walt n Jessie may not seem obvious prep for The Fan Dance Race and the Paras’10 but fortitude in the face of adversity (and stench) is a useful attribute to any aspiring endurance athlete!

I love The Cairngorms and to be (slightly) serious – and flirt with worthiness for a moment – it is great to be able to contribute in a wee way to enabling others to enjoy it up there and keep the place as magical as it is. It’s not glamorous work but I’m told that before the Corrour loo was built the environs of the bothy were rapidly becoming a health hazard. Well done to The Mountain Bothy Association and  the hardy souls who sorted that out.

Here’s a shot of the bothy. The mountain you can’t see for the cloud is Bod an Deamhain (The Demon’s Penis), renamed by Queen Victoria’s ghillie (Billy Connolly I believe) as ‘The Devils Point’.

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Corrour Bothy

It’s a wonderful location, even in low cloud and I was struck by the peace of the place. As Arnie said ‘I’ll be back’. Anyway, I can’t talk about Corrour without a shot of the shit bags.

Big Bags of Shit
Bags of Shit

There you are- just be grateful you’ve not downloaded the scratch n sniff app! I can make up for it though by giving you a Grouse.

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A Famous Grouse. Slainte!

The walk from Bob Scott’s Bothy up Glen Laoigh Bheag  and The Lairig Ghru is littered with them – they fair wake you up when they take flight noisily a nanosecond before you stand on their well camouflaged selves!

A smashing couple of days with good company in good surroundings, and although not physically demanding will serve me well in other ways.

Onwards and upwards, and back to the grind. The shock of having to earn a living was lessened by trying out a run to work second day back. I managed the 11.5miles in a gentle 2 hours. This will definitely become a regular feature of my training. The effort was fueled by Liz Pepper’s ‘Original Power Cookie’ which she developed for husband Al’s Marathon des Sables earlier in April. (Congrats to Al who completed that epic in 51 hours. Inspirational.)

The next jaunt for me was Beinn Challum, near Tyndrum at the northern end of The Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park.

The wind was rattling along the glen when I parked the Van at Auchtertyre Farm (home of the Strathfillan Wigwams you see advertised along the A84). The flag isn’t just a subliminal ‘Vote Yes’ message but illustrates the wind. Honest!

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I mentioned the rail line at the start – this is where you have to cross to gain the hill side. It was a bright but very blowy day.  I passed three veteran Munro baggers huddled in a hollow with a flask of tea at 300m who didn’t fill me with confidence when they said they’d turned back from the summit ridge due to the strength of the wind… Anyway, off I trod and I’m glad I did. The wind was an embuggerance but everything else more than made up for it. The views were the best I’ve had this year and as I sat at the top with more of Liz’s bars, Jeanette’s fruitcake and lashings of black coffee, I could pick out Ben More, Stob Binnien, Beinn Tuaichean and Cruach Ardrain. (left to right in the pic)

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Looking due south I could see Ben Lui

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I count myself a very lucky man to have stood atop all these magnificent mountains and I was inspired to plan for the others I could see that hadn’t had the dubious pleasure of my Scarpa’s on their summit. Beinn Dubhchraig, Ben Oss and Beinn ‘a Chleibh you have been warned…

I jogged off the summit fair full of the joys of spring and was soon (too soon?) back in Strathfillan. There was still more to the day though. I took a moment to contemplate the ruins of St Fillans Priory from the 12th century and adjoining burial ground which has been dated back to the 700’s.Image

It was thought provoking to say the least. I’m not sure where I stand, metaphysically, these days but it was undeniable that it was moving to see the care our predecessors had taken to acknowledge the transcendent. Those stones in my crappy photograph were placed on top of each other nigh on 1000 years ago. That certainly gave me pause for thought.

All that was left to do was tootle home along the A84 in Van with AC/DC rattling the windows and a grin on my face that would envy Heath Ledger(RIP)

It’s great to be alive!

 

 

 

The Long and Winding Road (well, path actually but Lennon and McCartney never had to contend with 21st C traffic)

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I am feeling just a bit pleased with myself. Today I managed 10 miles. It was slow (1hr 47min) and I had no Bergen or boots to contend with but boy it felt good. The venue wasn’t too shoddy either, I did a meandering tour of my home town and lovely it was too in the overcast light of a March morning.I passed a couple of the houses I used to live in, a wildlife sanctuary, Roman relics and a Mosque under construction. It’s not The Cairngorms, or Brecon Beacons, Glencoe or Torridon but it’s home. And I was content.

This is just a short blog and not overly creative but sometimes the ordinary, mundane even, is just fine thank you very much.

No Waymarking on Open Hill

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As I headed for Ben Lomond from Rowardennan Carpark last week this wee gem of a message stopped me in my tracks. It struck me as deeply profound, with layers of meaning- a poem on a post.

I’ve been using the nom de plume ‘Raindog’ in various fora for years now, inspired by the Tom Waites image of being lost, like a dog after a rainstorm when all it’s urine markers have been washed away. The Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority must be Tom Waits fans too, going by this. Undeterred by the kind warning that I would be uncomforted by waymarkers I plodded on through a steady smir and emerged from the trees onto the slopes of Scotland’s most bagged Munro.

This hill, like the post is to me imbued with layer upon layer of meaning. It is a National War Memorial. It is a playground. It is a 974m lump of Dalriadan rock. To me it is a sentinel, standing guard over a landscape that hums with memory. To get here, I drive along the Blane Valley and through Drymen where my Dad grew up and where in 2009 his ashes were scattered. When the skies are clear I can see much of The Trossachs and out towards Aberfoyle with memories on every corner and a growing number of relatives ‘over the bridge’ in the graveyard.

There are memories all around, piled knee deep like the snow I encounter higher up the hunched flanks. Ben Lomond 5Mar14 007 (5)

I wander on, mulling over all this history and enjoying a deep sense of belonging. I’m particularly reflective today as I head up my first Munro after surgery. It’s a tough day, with strong winds, deepening snow and steady sleet in my face. It is none the less a good day. I decide to turn back at just over 800m as conditions deteriorate and the effort of high-stepping through the snow nags at my scar.

I’m not sure if the photo conveys to others the contentment I felt in the wind and sleet, but I see it through the orange lens. A good day on a good hill.

Ben Lomond 5Mar14 007Next, I’ll be packing the tent for a couple of nights under the stars. The Mamores? Ring of Steil? Watch this space…

A Bimble to Meikle Bin

The way to the top, 28Feb 2014
The way to the top, 28Feb 2014

It was with some trepidation I set off for The Carron Valley this morning. I’ve been working hard since the operation exactly four weeks ago to regain some fitness and this was likely to be a proper test, not just of physiology but resolve.

I’d prepared well- my kit is as good as it gets- Magnum Vipers on my feet, the Helly Hansen base layer and the Keela Munro jacket had all proved there worth again and again. On my back is a true hill classic, a Berghaus Munro day sac containing some safety gear (storm shelter, dry layers) and my fluids and food. I’d chosen to try out biltong and had a flask of fresh ground black coffee. The only doubt I had was about me.

Carron Reavoir Dam

Passing the dam, the white water cascading down signaled a damp day ahead- experience has shown that is the reservoir is behaving like that, the whole glen will be sodden. The grey skies were a bit of a clue to the likely weather. It was also steadily raining, but I do like a bit of folklore to leaven direct observation. However, the 100% humidity did nothing to dampen my mood. It was a real joy to be back in one of my favourite spots.

Firts sight of the reservoir

I was feeling good and soaking in the atmosphere, loving the fresh air and the scenery. It seems a lot longer than two weeks since I was sitting in a hospital bed in Glasgow Western Infirmary, a lifetime away in fact.

The walk proceeded without incident but with an increasing confidence on my part. I left the waterside behind and began the steady climb through the Sitka plantations to the hillside proper. I had intended to go no further than the end of the engineered path but nobody who knows me at all will be surprised to read I abandoned that idea as soon as I saw Meikle Bin rising beyond the tree line and into the cloud. Plod plod plod and I was at the summit trig point.

Selfie at the top

The hood on my jacket isn’t sewn on squinty, nor is my head. It was blowing a hooley, so one quick snap of the view East from Meikle Bin

and back off down to the relative cover of the trees.

The skies opened on the way back but as expected the kit did it’s job, the coffee was cheering and the biltong was a hit.

The trip was three and a half hours, covering 11 miles and 1,417ft of climbing. I am quietly pleased with myself and glad to say my doubts proved unfounded. I have a way to go- a few short months ago I would have ran this- but I am pleased to have come through today. A stern test passed. Onward and upward!