Eight days until race day and I was sitting at work with a wet trouser leg and a puddle appearing on the carpet under my desk. The casual observer may have questioned whether the excitement of the impending race was getting to me. The more astute observer would also have noticed the bag of rapidly melting ice cubes tucked down my sock!
My preparation for this year’s race wasn’t exactly going to plan. I had been managing severe heel pain all year, London marathon performance hadn’t been great, I was even heavier than usual, I had DNF’ed the MIWOK 100K race in San Francisco after only 30 miles, 3 weeks before race day I had picked up a stinking sinus infection and to cap it all 10 days before the start of the WHW I tweaked my Achilles.
I should really have pulled out of the race but I couldn’t bring myself to give it up. Racing means a lot to me, and while I may not be very good at it, I treasure the ability to do it. Work is an artificially constructed necessity which pays the bills. Covering big distances on your own two legs is real. You can’t bluff it and no amount of fancy words or clever spreadsheets will get you from Milngavie to Fort Bill. For lots of reasons, running has been restricted for a couple of years and on the scales upon which I measure myself, I have been found wanting. The thought of another failure was not attractive.
One week out and I could barely manage a gentle 5K. I also knew that if I rested and carried out my rehab exercises there was an outside chance of my Achilles being ok for race day. Dilemma time, do I keep up the gentle jogs so at least I know whether I was fit or not, or do I do nothing and hope for the best. I was probably a bit more grumpy than usual as I wrestled with the conflicting emotions of not wanting to DNS but also not wanting to put my crew through all the effort of getting ready for the race only for me to pull out in the early stages.
Eventually, after much wailing and gnashing of teeth, race day arrived. Nervously I agreed that Helen would meet me at the Beech Tree Inn, 6 miles into the race in case my Achilles was still broken and I needed to pull out.
1am arrived. The race started, and very gingerly I started jogging towards Fort William. Up the path, smile at the speedsters who were doubling back after missing the first turn, walk up the first hill. My Achilles was stiff but not sore, and while my legs felt dead from 10 days of no running, the start of the race was pretty much going to plan. I managed to run easily through Mugdock, settling in to the back of the pack and resisting the urge to rush on. There is a saying that “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy”. In my case this was at the 4 mile point as a group of about 20 of us missed the sharp left turn at Tinkers Loan and continued a good half mile down the track. There were quite a few old hands in that group who must have run that section of trail several hundred times between us. The leader of the pack was none other than Fiona Rennie with more than 10 WHW finishes to her name. Rather sheepishly we retraced our steps and eventually caught up with the bemused sweepers.
Along the old railway track to the Beech Tree and a rather worried looking Helen was waiting and wondering why I had taken so long. She was worried sick that my Achilles had packed in. I, of course, or should that be off course, in a mixture of relief and hilarity at getting lost, had completely forgotten about my achilles by this stage. I asked for my inhaler so she reappeared at the Garden Centre in the middle of the dreaded Gate section before heading off to Balmaha. Being support crew is a thankless task.
It was a beautiful night. It was cool and clear, the full moon meant it never really got dark, and by the time I caught up with George Chalmers outside Easter Drunquassie Farm we had switched off the head torches. I have a particular affection for this little farm camp site as it was the first stop on my first journey on the WHW when I walked it with my small son many, many years ago.
My target for this race was to be faster than my previous effort and to finish in better physical condition. I did have time goals, but they were for guidance rather than targets to push for and the most important goal I was to start slowly and stay relaxed for as long as possible. As always, I had constructed a complex spreadsheet which set out my splits, checkpoint times, food and clothing choices for a whole range of possible times and conditions. As always, I didn’t want anything on the plan. Did I mention that being support crew is a thankless task?
Balmaha arrived and I was in and out quite quickly. The run to Rowardennan was relatively trouble free and I was managing to relax, run easy and avoid stress. Rowardennan was reached in good time. I was still slow, but pretty much on schedule.
Then there were midges. Not in ones or two’s, or even in clouds. There was a constant stream of midges all the way from Balmaha to Inversnaid, thousands of little black pellets hitting your face. I even ended up with a bite on my tongue. I stopped for a pee and by the time I was finished my dangly bits were covered in wee black dots. I am relieved to be able to report that they chose not to bite….
Inversnaid arrived after the excursion down the new low road. I was still trotting along quite easily, passing bodies here and there, but watching my heart rate and staying relaxed. I felt that the low road added quite a bit of time to the course, in practice it was about 12 minutes for me, but it is a nice challenge and much more in keeping than running up the fire road.
I am not a huge fan of the loch side, but as I ran up Loch Lomond on such a great day I couldn’t help but think what a great experience this must be for our overseas visitors to the race.
Beinglas came reasonably easily. No great traumas on the difficult loch side section. By now it was getting warm. Again the checkpoint was smooth. My crew was by now a well oiled machine. “What do you want?” “Don’t know” “Here, eat this and quit whining”
Beinglas is a significant milestone for me. Make it to Beinglas and you will make it to Tyndrum. Make it to Tyndrum and you will get to Fort William is how it plays out in my head.
The next section up to Auchtertyre is quite good to run as there are lots of little markers – Derrydarroch, the cattle creep, the top of the hill, cow poo alley, the Big Gate. Each one can be ticked off and the it is on to the roller coaster in Bogle Glen. The sun was splitting the sky, but the views were glorious and I was still steadily making progress. In the low points my next big focal point was to get to Jelly Baby hill and deliver a wee bottle of whisky to Murdo the Magnificent. In what seemed like no time I was through the big gate and puffing my way up that first hill into the forest.
I ran the roller coaster reasonably efficiently so was slightly surprised to see a figure sprinting down hill and gaining on me rapidly. It turned out to be the smiling figure of Frank Chong, all the way from Malaysia for a Goblet, who was desperate for some selfie action with his Go Pro.
Frank and I ran together into Auchtertyre which was a wonderful sight in the sunshine with a real carnival atmosphere. I got weighed in, down 4kg which is quite a lot but I was feeling well and still drinking and peeing so all was good. I told my team I was going to take a wee break here, so we had a leisurely stop, fuelled up, stretched out, scrubbed some of the midges off my face and chest. It was such a good atmosphere it would have been very tempting just to sleep in the sun all afternoon! Major brownie points for my crew here when Clark and Amanda were able to produce some ice cubes from their van. I put some ice down my arm sleeves to cool my wrists and some more round my neck wrapped in a buff. The big sun hat went on and the look was complete!
I hadn’t exactly planned to be quite so sartorial. I had started in a rather elegant black top and black shorts combo with the multicoloured arm sleeves which were only supposed to stay on through the night. My calves were feeling tired so I pulled on the calf sleeves; then my quad was starting to cramp so I opted for the blue compression shorts which I had only thrown in the bag as an afterthought. The yellow shirt was the thinnest shirt I own, so on it went. By Auchtertyre and the blazing sunshine, it was time for the Dora the Explorer hat. The arm sleeves and buff stayed on so that I could fill them with ice (fantastic trick I picked up from watching Rob Krar’s Western States film). If anyone was freaked out by the ultra minion, I do apologise!
Back to the race. It was a bit of a trudge round to Tyndrum on stiff legs, but I had been promised an iced lolly when I got there so had an incentive to keep going. Even better than the lolly was the sight of Dod Reid cheering on the runners outside Brodies store. Everyone who knows George knows how much he means to the West Highland Way community and he continues to be inspirational in the way he fights his current health problems. Feeling suitably motivated I marched up the hill sucking on my blissfully cold lolly. With impeccable timing it was finished at the top of the hill so it was time to get the legs moving and run along the side of Beinn Dorain to Bridge of Orchy.
Beinn Dorain is a sexy big beast of a hill and I remember always being totally awe-struck by it on rare childhood car trips into the highlands. To run under its shadow remains a privilege.
Life got very difficult for me at this point in my previous attempt at WHW race so I was very nervous approaching Bridge of Orchy as I waited for the wheels to come off. To my surprise, the wheels were still intact so I made a very quick pit stop, topped up my ice and collected support runner Clark.
The climb up Murdo’s Mount was slow but steady and we arrived in the great man’s presence to the strains of Star Wars played on the whistle. Liquid sacrifices were exchanged for jelly babies and from there a good pace was kept until Victoria Bridge.
I love the run to Glencoe. I had trained lots on it this year and usually enjoyed running all the climbs. Not today. Slightly despondently I stomped up the long climb onto the Black Mount, getting increasingly frustrated at not running. I was becoming even more dejected as I tried to do some calculations in my head about how I was doing. I looked at my watch, added various numbers together and came up with an answer somewhere in excess of 28 hours. Despite the mental maths going on in my head, Clark kept me moving. Even when walking he stayed that half step ahead which meant there was no scope for slacking. Eventually the climb eased and the legs decided to run again. The sun was brutal at this stage in the afternoon and by the time we reached an unusually dry Ba Bridge I had emptied both bottles. Clark did a good mountain goat impression by climbing down into the river to refill them for me. We made a decent job of the climb and at the top of the last hill I had a eureka moment when I realised that my calculations had basically been shite and that I was still pretty much on schedule. Relieved we ran steadily into Glencoe.
I refuelled in the car park at Glencoe. No idea what I had to eat, but you can bet it wasn’t what was on my plan. All was going swimmingly until I felt the rising tide of bile and the last few mouthfuls ended up on the road at my feet. I started to panic. This was what happened last time and last time it happened all the way to Kinlochleven. I was just settling into the chair for another retch when Helen and Amanda decided I had been there too long and kicked me out.
I didn’t enjoy the mile to Kingshouse but at least it was downhill. I had a real notion for a pint of orange and lemonade with ice but resisted the temptation. The tarmac section after Kingshouse was the first of my really grumpy phases. The little detour uphill before coming back down to Altnafeadh was an even grumpier phase. It always seems so pointless that bit, it is horrible underfoot on the way up so you can’t get any sort of rhythmn at all. After what seemed like an eternity we arrived at the bottom of the Devil’s Staircase. With absolutely no pretence of running we set about stomping up Devil. Amanda set the pace and I followed doing my best just to keep going. It seemed a long drag but after giving in for just the one water break we made it to the top. Despite there now being a little breeze I was seriously struggling in the heat and the sun seemed to mockingly refuse to dip behind the hills. At the top of the Staircase Amanda waxed lyrical about the views. I assumed the role of truculent five year old and said I didn’t want to look at the views. Actually I included one or two colourful adjectives which would have got me a very red bottom if I was a five year old!
On the subject of red bottoms I am pleased to report that there was no repeat of the infamous vaseline incident. Generous application of lubricant, albeit on a self-service basis, seemed to keep the undercarriage well oiled.
Amanda did a grand job of leading me down the tricky path to Kinlochleven and it was good to switch off a little and just follow her feet through the treacherous jaggy underfoot conditions. Once on the pipe road we cruised down the hill and into the Community Centre.
This was much better. Last time I had been here, I was a complete shivering vomiting wreck. This time I was reasonably in control and even able to give some cheek to Julie and Sarah who were manning the scales and dishing out tough love by the bucketful.
I made myself comfy on one of the couches, ate some chicken soup, a roll and some more rice pudding while exchanging banter with Alan Robertson who had run over from Fort William.
True to form just as I finished my coffee, I could feel my stomach objecting and sent Helen off on an urgent search for a bucket as I really didn’t want to have to explain to Julie Clarke that I had spewed over her floor. The moment was captured for posterity by support crew member Clark who was obviously concerned for my well-being.
We set off on the 1000ft climb up the Lairig Mor in reasonably good spirits. It was still daylight which meant that we were doing pretty well for time. We knuckled down and surprisingly made it up the hill in good shape, however instead of kicking on I started to get slightly fed up. I think at one point I complained about being bored! I wasn’t overly sore, but mentally it was tough going. There was no chance of me chucking it and I wanted my goblet, but I wasn’t enjoying the process. I was too hot, I was tired and I wanted my bed. Despite my crankiness, we did keep moving. I had been warned that Jeff Smith wouldn’t be in his usual place at the top of the climb in the middle of Lairig, but being forewarned didn’t make me any less grumpy about him not being where I expected. We reached his usual spot surprisingly soon but then I spent the next while wondering where the hell he was, and why weren’t we at the corner that marks the end of the Lairig yet. Amanda was doing a good job of giving me the rubber ear treatment and keeping a few paces ahead of me while relentlessly dragging me onwards.
Finally we saw the glow sticks and found Jeff and Patricia with a table full of lovely absurd drinks. I mean, who drinks Lilt and Tizer nowadays? They tasted great. Don’t tell anyone this, but I declined a dram. We said our farewells, headed off and before we knew it , we could see the bonfire at Lundavra.
Gayle and Melanie were totally in control at Lundavra which is a great feeling when you arrive there. They offered up some goodies which I politely declined saying I would get my rice pudding from my crew. “they aren’t here” she said! Oh well, these things happen so I grabbed a handful of vinegar crisps which I proceeded to stare at for a while until I figured out what I was meant to do with them. At that point the Car arrived with Clark and Helen. I set off to walk to the car. “Don’t move” scolded Gayle maternally “Let them come to you!” So like a well behaved wee boy I waited until my rice pudding was brought to me. Helen asked me how I was doing. I replied that I was fine. According to Amanda “you are grumpy as fuck”
Out of Lundavra and all was going swimmingly. Barring catastrophes I was going to finish and get that goblet. Up the hill, round the winding sheep track and splat! I hit the ground like a ton of bricks. One of those nasty little stones embedded solidly in the clay with just enough sticking up to trip you up. I’m not sure who got the bigger fright, me or Amanda. Slowly I made a mental check of all the bits which hurt. Nothing was broken, my knee was really sore but still worked and most importantly my Garmin was still intact. We walked a bit to regain some composure and then it was the last struggle through the forest, down the dreaded ladder and finally out into the last fellled section of forest which always reminds me of an elephants graveyard.
We were moving well now and passed quite a few people. I was aware that Amanda kept checking her watch. I wasnt sure what for, and didn’t want to ask, but assumed there was either some target she was chasing or she was thinking we were too slow and had been out too long. The trail had one last sting in its trail as we ascended to the fire road which marks the end of the trail section. A heather root which was sticking out got stuck in my shoe and I was flat on my face once more. That however was that. We exchanged pleasantries with some runners at the start of the fire road and then Amanda announced we were cruising all the way in. “Aye right”, thought I, but sure enough we got into a rhythm and we toughed it out down the hill getting steadily faster and moving more freely all the time. “Is Helen coming to Braveheart?” “Don’t think so” “If she is, we aren’t stopping” Amanda was in full on competition mode now. We were striding out and passing people. We toughed out the never ending mile to Braveheart Car Park with WHW arrows teasing us all the way. Down through Braveheart and by now it had turned into a game. Could we make it to the end without a stop.?
The last mile along the road into Fort William was my fastest mile of the whole race. It felt like we were flying. The watch briefly dipped below 8 min miles at one point which is crazy and before we knew it we were past the roundabout, round the corner and into the leisure centre. Again Amanda showed her support running credentials and stopped me running straight past the entrance!
Clocked in, weighed, hugs and toast, and that was it over. A second Goblet.
Overall, I am very content with my race. I feel that I managed it well. Obviously it hurt, but I had no great lows and no great physical disasters. I just kept ticking away, sticking to my slow and steady race plan. I feel that I worked hard and didn’t take the easy option of walking too often, though on reflection you can always find parts of the race where maybe I walked a little too soon or for too long, but on balance I am happy that I gave it a good go and respected the challenge. I made it to the end in much better physical condition than my previous attempt and I was 2 hours and 25 minutes faster. An interesting side note, my average heart rate was almost 15 beats per minute lower in the second half of the race compared with the first half. I am not quite sure what this means, my body may just have slipped into a lower gear, or I might just not have been working hard enough.
My approach seems to have been effective in that I progressed steadily through the field picking up places in most stages moving from 158th at Balmaha to 88th at the finish.
That is probably me done with racing West Highland Way for a while. Next time I run WHW will be to chase a time, but to chase a time would require me to lose tonnes of weight and focus solely on WHW instead of my usual trick of trying to balance marathons and other adventures in the same training period. Maybe one day I will have a bash at it, but at the moment there are other adventures to be had.
While I may not run it again for a while I will definitely be involved in one way or another. The race itself is one of the great races in the world. Through familiarity we probably underestimate just how stunning the course is, but the journey northwards from Milngavie is something I never tire of.
There is so much more to the West Highland Way Race than the course. It is the sort of event which always teaches you lessons. Lessons about community, about shared endeavours and about triumph over adversity, about humility, trust and the importance of friendship. There is something intrinsically noble about undertaking a grand adventure and there is something optimistic about running towards something, even if it is slightly quixotic and even if that something is only a leisure centre door 95 miles away.
Why do you keep running when it gets tough? Well for starters ou are always running towards your crew who have given up so much time and sleep because they believe in you, how can you let them down? Every single person in the West Highland Way Family is willing you to succeed, how can you not go on? Ultimately it is because you have committed to do something and must see it through. If you don’t see it through, you don’t win the prize
To quote the late David Bowie “We can be heroes, just for one day”
I can imagine no better place to watch heroes than somewhere on the West Highland Way in the middle of June.