We are a pretty experienced support crew PT Boy, H and I. PT Boy does logistics, H does Tough Love while I do the running “encouragement”.
Sitting in a field waiting for your runner is a frustrating experience when they are not having a good day. You feel completely helpless as there is nothing you can do to speed them into the checkpoint.
After a while, some runners came through with news. “She’s not far”. Good. “She’s had a fall”. Not so good. “She’s being sick”. Not good. Time was passing rather too quickly and still she hadn’t appeared. Not good at all.
Saturday lunchtime. Midway through the West Highland Way Race and Auchtertyre Farm was busy with support crews greeting their runners as they arrived at the 50 mile point. Despite runners passing on the news of her impending arrival, she still wasn’t here yet.
The plan, in so much as there was a plan, was that I was to be the support runner over the last 26 miles of the race from Glencoe to Fort William.
This was not her first attempt at a Goblet. She had completed the race twice before. She had been my support runner the last time I had finished the race. While running 95 miles is always going to be hard, it should by now be a fairly well controlled and predictable adventure.
As the clock continued to tick by, we decided that it might be prudent to change into my running gear “just in case” even though it wasn’t in the plan to run from here. One of the most important rules about being support crew is that it is all about the runner. You are there to do whatever is necessary to help your runner get to the finish, but also to be mindful that you do it in a way which enhances your runner’s experience. It is their race after all. I kept my running gear hidden under a layer of clothes so as not to put any undue pressure on her, after all she might not want me.
When the passage of time became unbearable, H headed off to the end of the field to wait at the gate which marked the start of the checkpoint. Finally, the dejected outline of our runner could be seen in the distance. She walked up the track, gripping ominously on to H’s hand. Weigh in was duly done and finally we got our hands on her.
Despite the fact that she was pretty broken mentally, and the bottom lip was trembling as she told us how bad her knee was, and how bad her sickness had been, a quick head to toe check reassured us that yes she had a bit of a sore knee, but beyond that she was low on energy and a bit fed up and sorry for herself. I immediately felt much better. There was work to be done to save this race, but there was something we could work with here. Some food, some vaseline on the bloody knee, a couple of painkillers and a few minutes pretending to listen to how awful it all was.
After a suitable period of time I suggested that maybe I might walk with her the next 3 miles to Tyndrum. She didn’t object, so I quickly peeled off my outer layers and we set off walking out of the checkpoint.
After a short walk we sneaked in a run every time we hit a downhill and before too long despite protestations of unrelenting vomiting we settled into a decent pattern of running and walking and actually covered the ground to Tyndrum quite well.
The promised Ice Lolly was procured from Brodies store, and I picked up my backpack from the van as we made an unspoken agreement that I would maybe just keep going to Bridge of Orchy.
Again, the trip to Bridge of Orchy was covered pretty well. We played leap frog with the legendary Andy Cole for a few miles and this gave something of a rabbit to pull us along. My runner still wasn’t happy, but had at least stopped being pathetic, and was actively making progress albeit while whinging about being sick. At one point I think I had to point out that we had been running together for 90 minutes now and she hadn’t actually been sick once!
We passed a few people as we followed the flanks of Ben Dorain. All the time watching how my runner was doing, watching for the red line and trying to stay the right side of it, reminding her to eat and drink. Again we had a few moans about how long it was taking to cover the last hill before the railway station comes into sight but other than that I had a runner again.
Spirits were much better as we met PT Boy and the rest of the support just before the timing point. She still moaned about feeling sick. This time it was the Tailwind. We could actually pour out the tailwind and replace it with coke? Never thought of that. Long suffering PT Boy filled the bottles with coke.
I was still anxious about the next stage. Mentally, she was still a bit fragile and I was handing over support duties to an inexperienced runner. This was a long standing arrangement, which was necessary for lots of reasons, but was rather predicated on the assumption that my runner would be physically and mentally strong at this point. On the plus side the new support runner was well used to dealing with recalcitrant children. Pep talks were duly give to both, and the runner’s watch was symbolically taken from her pack where it was charging and placed back on her wrist – she was in charge again.
We moved on to Glencoe to await their arrival after the long slog over Rannoch Moor. Again time passed, with no sign of the runners. As time passes, as support your own positivity dips, not for your own sake but for your runner’s. You don’t want them to feel bad, but again you can’t do anything about it.
When they did finally arrive, although maybe a wee bit slower than I would have liked I was relieved to find out that she was in reasonable spirits despite complaining of being wobbly and leaning over to one side.
Once refuelled it was time to head out once more. This was familiar territory. We had done this before. Just after 9pm. Could we make it to Kinlochleven without head torches?
My runner is usually really easy to support. We don’t do much talking, there is not much motivational chat, but we have developed an understanding whereby she concentrates on running and I take care of everything else. When to eat, what to eat, when to walk, which line to take. We even have a bit of a game where I hand her something to eat and she eats it unquestioningly.
We set off from Glencoe and had a really good run down hill to what remains of the Kingshouse Hotel. The pointless slog up hill before Altnafeadh came and went with a little grumbling but no great drama.
We started to climb the Devil’s Staircase when the wheels came off spectacularly. In the space of a few minutes I had lost a runner and gained someone who was wobbly, panting, low on confidence and struggling to do more than a few metres climb at a time. The runner needed to sit down a few times, stopped to allow her heart rate to come down from its reported “too high” state.
OK, this was going to be a bit harder than I expected. My priority at this stage was to keep my runner moving, no matter how slowly. I was just a wee bit nervous as we edged upwards on the staircase. I am usually a pretty good judge of a runner’s welfare, and I was increasingly concerned that my runner was beginning to get close to crossing the line which separates the tired healthy runner from the one who needs to be pulled from the race.
Liquorice Allsorts were dispensed from my stock of random sweeties I carry when supporting. I encouraged her to drink some of my cookie dough milkshake. These seem like random food choices, but I like to have surprises for my runner, which are both high in sugar but which taste sufficiently odd to force their brain into a slightly more alert state of shock.
We were passed by a couple of runners but at least we were moving. All we had to do was make it to the top then it was 5 miles downhill to Kinlochleven. I was relieved when my runner had the cheek to express a preference for the pink Liquorice Allsorts with the knobbly bits on the outside. She was coming back.
Just before the top it was time to put on torches.
Still we kept going. Occasional glimpses of Kinlochleven appeared in the distance, at once both encouraging and demoralising. My runner was doing ok even though she probably didn’t feel that way. Chomping on sweets and milk shake which I handed to her at regular intervals. Fizzy ginger beer was dispensed too. Occasional wobbles happened, a few times I had to catch her before she fell, but but she kept going, never giving up. It was a beautiful night to be out and as we ran downhill we could see headtorches climbing up into the Lairig Mor on the other side of Kinlochleven. Again they were encouraging but they were a long way away.
For me, Kinlochleven couldn’t come soon enough. I knew that if we could get there then the boost of seeing the well kent faces there, as well as the care they would provide, would be enough to give her a fighting chance of making it to the finish.
We finally arrived into the haven of Kinlochleven. Runner was duly sat down and fed some sweet tea and toast. PT Boy fed her yet another instant soup thing and I scavenged around to try to find more solid food. Energy levels had gone through big peaks and troughs and I was hoping we could get something more substantial inside her to halt this.
When we left Kinlochleven I don’t know how she felt but I was full of trepidation. After the trauma of the Devil’s Staircase I was very worried about how I would get her up the climb onto the Lairig. Again my runner came up trumps. Straight out of Kinlochleven we started into a run. As we started to climb, we managed an even pace and then lo and behold we started gaining on people. The key here for me was to try to give my runner the boost of passing people without pushing so hard she would blow up or fall over. I could sense some motivation returning.
Occasionally she would get a bit unsteady and might need a guiding hand on her elbow, another slurp of weird milkshake, some more sweeties and on she would go.
Despite the trials and tribulations my runner has a lot of inner strength and a great ability just to keep on going. As we crossed the Lairig her quietly competitive spirit began to show. I never ever suggested we should try to beat the person in front, but would point out that there might be a runner ahead in the distance, or that torch doesn’t look too far ahead and without discussing it her pace would pick up, we would run a little longer before walk breaks and when we approached runners we would say our hello’s trying to sound as cheerful as possible while making sure that we ran far enough past them that they weren’t going to overtake us again. It is a slightly naughty game to play as it can be dispiriting to have a runner come past you strongly, but it is a race after all, and it was all about getting my runner to the end as strongly as possible. I confess to a vicarious pride in my runner clawing her way back up the finishing order
My only real support runner faux pas happened round about here when I inadvertently may have fed my runner some laxative. Long story, don’t ask. Fortunately no lasting effects.
As we approached the significant landmark of Jeff Smith and his station at the high point on the Lairig we were running a proper race again. She briefly protested at being fed some of her own Mrs Tilly’s fudge which I took as a good sign.
Lundavra checkpoint was a joy and we were through there very quickly. We had agreed that no support crew was needed there. PT Boy had earned a couple of hours sleep. Torches were off by now.
The remainder of the run was almost uneventful. We climbed out of Lundavra, and eventually caught sight of the top of the fire road which marks the end of the hard work and the beginning of the descent to Fort William. I could see a tear in the runner’s eye as we topped out onto the fire road. I don’t do tears, so suggested she keep that for later, offered a sip of good single malt whisky and we headed for home.
Running down the fire road you would never have guessed my runner had had any problems at all. This was a strong finish now. She was setting the pace and I was just keeping her company. She picked off some more runners and was determined to run as much of the road into Fort William as possible. Braveheart car park came and went, the interminable road section was run like a road race. Past the 30mph sign, no sign of her stopping yet. Some spectators by the roundabout, so still she ran strongly on. Round the corner, Leisure Centre car park, I stop and walk in as she runs through the finish to earn the much coveted goblet. One of my rules whether supporting or sweeping – only the runner goes through the finish, it’s not my race.
I was more tired running support than I have often been in a race. As support you feel that the physical effort you are expending doesn’t really count because you are only support and therefore aren’t really running, yet I had still been without sleep for two nights and ended up running more than 35 miles. The concentration and responsibility you feel for your runner can be quite draining especially when things aren’t going well.
I should also point out that I was starving by this point because my energy deprived runner had eaten all of my food!
We arrived in Fort William some 5 hours or more outside what would have been the target time had my runner actually got round to making a plan.
Was it a good performance by my runner? On time alone you wouldn’t think so. You could argue she made some mistakes. I would argue she made some mistakes, but even with those mistakes when you stand on the start line you have to make the best of what you have got. When she arrived at halfway she was about as low as a runner could be.
She did however get two things right – first she picked a crew she trusted to get her to the end and most importantly she never gave up.
Over the second half of the course my runner rescued her race through a show of sheer quiet guts and by trusting the people she had asked to help her.
Was it a good performance. You bet it was. And no matter what she says, she was only sick once!
It had been a rough ride but my lasting impression is that we had done something pretty special together and in truth I wouldn’t have swapped it for the world.