I am lucky enough to have built up a good selection of ultra gear to mix and match which is versatile enough to do me for most types of races, so I no longer need to go on a shopping spree every time I enter a big race. My most used kit currently is
Jacket: OMM Kamleika smock or OMM Cypher Event jacket
Trousers: OMM Kamleika Race Pants or Raidlight Surpantalon Ultralight
Base Layer: Helly Hansen or OMM Vector Zip
Shorts: Ronhill Cargo Trail or 2Xu Compression
Hat: X-bionic Soma Cap
Calf Guards: Compressport or CEP
Socks: Compressport ProRacing High Cut or Drymax Trail Running Socks – 1/4 Crew High
Pack: Ultimate Direction PB Vest or Raidlight Olmo 20l
Gloves: Sealskinz Nordic ski Gloves or Asics winter glove
Some of this stuff is quite expensive, but by patiently watching for sales, taking last year’s model or by Santa being generous I have rarely paid full price for it.
Throw in and an assortment of buffs and t-shirts and I am pretty much good to go most places.
There are however, still a few bits of kit on my Birthday, Christmas and lottery win list.
What I need it for
You don’t need much of a head torch for summer running in Scotland so for races like West Highland Way or Great Glen Ultra pretty much any head torch will do. Running in the Alps in late summer is a different matter and with TDS coming up this year I need something which will give me a good bright light for up to 8 hours at a time.
What I have:
I have various head torches which work pretty well to a greater or lesser extent. My main torch is a LED Lenser H7R
It works well and gives a nice big beam especially in darkness. It represents very good value for money and a good balance between price and brightness, especially as I got it in a sale for about £35. Having had it for a few years, I am beginning to wonder if it has seen better days as batteries seem not to last very long any more.
I have run out of patience with batteries – I have tried just about every kind under the sun and still have to change them every few hours. They are worth a separate post of their own…..
I also have the Alpkit Gamma which is the best value head torch on the market, mainly because it is so ridiculously cheap at around £15 but with a good wide beam and decent battery life.
Another very useful piece of kit is the LED Lenser Neo. This is a very small lightweight torch which is perfect as a spare or backup torch and with enough light to get you out of trouble. The battery life is very good indeed so you will get a good 12 hours out of the torch without having to change batteries. Again a very reassuring feature in an emergency backup.
What I want:
I might pick up one of the new model Alpkit Gammas or I might explore some of the high powered LED Lenser torches but I would always end up coming back to the Petzl Nao
This light isn’t cheap at over £100 and I have resisted the urge to buy one so far, but the brightness and battery life are very good and having borrowed my lovely wife’s one I have to concede that it is better than anything I have at the moment. Any torch that you can actually programme from your computer has to be good! If I was buying one I would probably also buy a spare battery for flexibility and to cover those very long races where you might be out for two nights. Again at £25 a go the spare battery isn’t cheap but better to be safe than sorry and with a spare it could be charged up on the go in your pack with a portable charger.
What I need it for
Poles are not allowed in Scottish races so it is really just for overseas ultras that I need poles. There is always a debate about poles but once you have used them in the big mountains you really feel the benefit of them. With more adventures in the Alps planned, I am looking for a pole which is very light weight which obviously means less weight to carry, but also means better balance when running with them in your hand.
They need to be strong enough to survive me being hashy with them, and they need to fold up small enough to fit inside a backpack or strap tightly to a running pack without flapping around. Ideally they will be easy to assemble and take down, especially with cold fingers and in a perfect world the length would be adjustable to allow for different types of terrain.
What I have
I have an old pair of Leki lightweight titanium walking poles. These were top of the range when I got them many years ago. There really isn’t much wrong with them. They are quite robust, are adjustable in height so can be altered depending on whether you are going uphill or downhill. They are pretty light. You notice you have them in your hand but not enough to imbalance you. I used these on the CCC race and never put them in my pack once, but strapping them to your pack can be a bit of a guddle especially when your fingers and brain are a bit fuzzy.
What I want
I am still undecided. I am tending towards the Mountain King Trail Blaze Skyrunner Carbon. This has the attraction that it is very light at only 106g per pole and by folding into 4 sections it will stash away easily and securely in my pack.
At around £90 per pair it feels like a lot of money for a piece of kit which I worry might be a bit flimsy, but the convenience is tempting.
The other pole which catches my eye is the Leki Micro Vario Carbon. This has all the features I am after but while lightweight it is heavier than the Mountain King and it is significantly more expensive at £130-£150.
It is probably more robust than the Mountain King, has a sturdier handle and has the big advantage of being adjustable.
A couple of other alternatives come in to the mix as well. The Black Diamond Ultra Distance Pole which is similar to the Mountain King, but possibly a bit more sturdy if heavier.
The final one which caught my eye was the Raidlight Carbon Trail pole. A bit heavier than the others but still quite attractive and I am a fan of Raidlight gear.
Hard to choose but on balance I would probably go for the Mountain King over the Leki, just because it is the lightest, cheaper and less complicated.
What I need it for
This is a slightly mundane item after the previous two things on my shopping list but a decent pair of gaiters really does help keep dirt and stones out of your shoes. I also need a gaiter which is robust enough to keep excess water and snow from getting in to your shoe and which will give a bit of protection to your ankles from rocks and the odd time you kick yourself.
What I have
I have tried a range of different gaiters. The Dirty Girl ones are quite pretty and keep the dry stuff out, but I find they are a pain to attach to your laces and you need to velcro them on which is also more effort than I can be bothered with. They are thin so they do get wet.
I have tried the Inov-8 sock with the built in gaiter. These are ok, but the socks aren’t my preferred sock so that isn’t a solution on a long race where you might want to change your socks. I have also tried the Inov-8 race ultra gaiter but they have attachments for Inov-8 race ultra shoes and don’t fit other shoes well.
My favourite gaiter so far is the Inov-8 Debris Gaiter 32. This is a thick gaiter with a sock cuff, which covers your laces and which keeps water out as well. My pair has seen better days and the elastic straps which hold them on have worn out, so it is time for a new pair.
What I want
The easy solution to this is just get another pair of the Inov-8 Debris gaiters. There is little to fault them and at around £15 are not going to break the bank.
I am also quite fancy the Outdoor Research gaiter. These are a bit more expensive but might do the trick in very gritty conditions. At nearly £30 these are pricey for a pair of running gaiters.
The final pair on my list is the Raidlight STOP RUN gaiter. This is probably the main contender to replace my Inov-8s. It is pretty robust, and claims to be waterproof and has the added benefit of a wee bit of padding round the ankle bones. At about £20 it is not too expensive
I could feel it coming and had to find somewhere quickly.
Unfortunately in a hot sweaty tent crammed with runners refuelling after already covering 55 mind blowingly brutal kilometers, the organisers had obviously forgotten to set aside a throwing up corner. I made a dash for the exit with my mouth clenched firmly shut but only made it as far as the table where volunteers were serving up coke and fizzy water, before the noodle soup which had decided it was leaving my stomach found my mouth shut and took the high speed diversion out my nose and all down the front of my warm mid-layer shirt. I made a second dash for the exit and found a convenient pile of wood chippings next to the timing mats at the entrance just as my stomach emptied for a second time. Looking up, slightly dazed, and being careful not to cross the Out mat which would signal me leaving Champex, I noticed the people at the Retiral table eyeing me up. Self-consciously, I wiped the worst of the puke off my shirt, got some more sparkling water poured into the folding cup attached to my backpack by a length of elastic, switched on my head torch and headed into the darkness before I became too tempted by the Retiral desk or one of the officials took the decision for me.
Champex Lac sits halfway up one of the big climbs in the CCC and it had been a struggle to get there. As I left the aid station I passed the bus half full of runners for whom enough was enough. It looked warm and dry compared to the heavy rain lit up by my torch. For a moment I contemplated heading back to the tent and stopping, but gave myself a shake and thoughts of pulling out vanished. There were people waiting for me to finish and I didnt want to be on that bus.
The CCC or Courmayeur-Chamex-Chamonix to give it its full name, is a 101K race through the Alps. It is part of the famous UTMB series of races and here I was, only half way through, travelling at a snails pace and about to head into the mountains in the dark. This was hard: 2 hours and 40 minutes to run 10K hard and it was about to get harder.
The day had started brightly enough. The trip to Courmayeur in Italy through the Mont Blanc tunnel had been pretty smooth and I was grateful for the company of fellow Scot Carol Martin on this trip as I pondered the splendid symmetry of a drive under the mountain before running back over the top. At Courmayeur we met up with Random Scottish Punters Terry, Silke and Malcolm who were all to run fantastic races. As the race started we were cheered on by epic cheer leaders George and Karen – George had somehow contrived to borrow the biggest cow bell you have ever seen and was swinging it lustily as only George can.
The climb out of Courmayeur is breathtaking in every sense of the word. The CCC route varies a little from UTMB at this point, CCC climbing higher over Tete de la Tranche. The first 500m or so of climbing was not too bad and once above the tree line the views over the Italian side of the Alps were stunning. I kept an eye on the altimeter on my Garmin and it kept climbing. After about 6500m I could really feel the air begin to thin. The climb was at least as steep as anything you could encounter on our Munros back home in Scotland and every time you lifted your head you could see runners high above you. The scary part was if you lifted your head once more there were still runners even higher. Eventually a little respite was gained from the climb as we reached a rather exposed col with big drops and big scenery on either side, but sure enough it steepened further before another lung busting climb to the top at just over 2500m. The first 10K had taken 2.5 hours and had climbed 1500m. It was going to be a long day.
Our bibs were scanned by some hardy volunteers right on top of the mountain and without much fanfare it was over the top and downhill to Refuge Bertone some 3 Kilometres away and 500 metres below. In my race plan I had intended climbing conservatively and then using the downhill to pick up some time. I had climbed well enough but by the time I readed the top I was really feeling the altitude and was struggling to run the downhill. My brain wasn’t sharp enough to process the rocky underfoot conditions and my legs were numb from the climb. As I lumbered gingerly down the 500m descent, I was quite intimidated by large number of runners who overtook me at breakneck pace throwing themselves down hill with what seemed to me like reckless abandon. By the time I made it down to Refuge Bertone the sun was splitting the sky and I realised I was sweating like I had never sweated before. I took my pack off and discovered it was soaked through. I refilled my bottles, grabbed some coke and coffee and removed the t shirt I was wearing over my Helly Hansen base layer. At this point someone nudged me and my cup of coffee went all over my white shirt leaving a large mucky brown stain all over the front. When I took off this shirt I realised it weighed a ton with sweat so rather than carry it in my pack for another 50 miles I ditched it, knowing that I had another long sleeve top in my bag as per the mandatory kit list.
The mandatory kit list is one of the unusual and scary features of UTMB. There is an exhaustive list of kit which includes things like spare warm mid layer (minimum 185g) and a personal cup. The kit is checked at registration in the sports hall in Chamonix pre race. When you register by showing your passport they look you up on the computer and then print out a personalised kit list. On the kit list are marked 4 random items which will be checked. I got Phone, Head Torches, Waterproof Jacket and warm hat. You then need to take your kit along with the list to a table where a volunteer checks your kit thoroughly. Both head torches had to be switched on to show they work and spare batteries for both had to be shown as well. The phone had to be shown working and the taped seams were were checked for integrity. If everything is intact you can then progress to pick up your bib. If not, you need to go away, get the right gear and come back again. Even more scary was the random kit check carried out pre race in Courmayeur. Race marshalls were selecting runners and going through a full kit check, having runners empty their packs and show all 20 or or so of the mandatory items of kit. Even though my kit was correct I was extremely relieved to avoid the stress of a check.
The section from Bertone to Refuge Bonatti should be relatively straightforward but I continued to find it hard going. By Refure Bonatti at 14 miles in I was suffering from horrible cramp in my gracilis which is the muscle which runs down the inside of your thigh. At Bonatti I swallowed a couple of packets of salt which seemed to ease the cramping. Another climb came next. Those little squiggles on the elevation map turned out to be pretty big ups and downs and still sweating profusely I made it into Arnuva which is the first of the cut off points. I was relieved to see that I was in with a couple of hours to spare because I couldn’t have speeded up any if I needed to. Next up was a big hard climb to the highest point of the course at Grand Col Ferret. Despite the steep and unrelenting climb, I found this much easier than the first.
Grand Col Ferret marked the arrival into Switzerland and the next section was a good run downhill through some pretty picture postcard villages with wooden flower decked houses before a brutal 500m climb up switchbacks to Champex and the aforementioned throwing up incident.
Champex to Trient was another huge climb up Bovine where the only sound you could hear was the odd cow bell clanging in the darkness. One of the things which characterised the climbs was the silence. Despite there being runners nearby almost all of the time, there was very little talking as people concentrated on slowly putting one foot in front of another. In the pouring rain the sight of steam rising from hooded bent over runners was somewhat Orwellian. I had my first kit malfunction when my head torch started to fade rather too rapidly for my liking. I stopped at an impromptu aid station where two little girls were dishing out hot tea outside a farmhouse in the dark and pouring rain and put new batteries in my torch. Again they didnt last long and so the descent to Trient was taken very carefully as I tried to stay close to other runners who seemed to be running with lights resembling car headlamps. Having struggled to refuel in Champex my body was running on empty by the time I made it to Trient and another welcome aid station.
At Trient I managed to eat several bowls of noodle soup, bread, sausage and cheese. I swapped head torches and was relieved to find my second torch was working properly offering a bright beam and set off for Vallorcine only 11K away in quite good spirits. By now my Garmin had packed in, but I didn’t mind as I had consciously decided not to bother with a charger, and as it was only 11K it shouldnt take too long. Wrong! A combination of a steep climb over Catogne at 2009m followed by a 800m slide downhill through wet mud meant the 11K took 2 hr 50 mins! At Vallorcine I took my time and fuelled up once more.
The track out of Vallorcine looked runable but I must confess that I only ran small sections of it. Maybe I was mindful of the big climb to come or maybe I was just more secure power marching in the darkness, but in the distance I could see a line of lights perched precipitously on the steep outline of the climb from Col de Montets to Tete aux Vents. I kept reminding myself that this was the last climb and only 700m but you couldnt help but look at those torches and be awed by how steep and how high they went into the night sky. The climb up from Col de Montets was horrible. Very steep and with some clambering, I tucked in behind a lady who set a great slow but steady pace rather than the usual go-as-fast-as-you-can-then-stop-cos-you-are-dying pace that men tend to adopt (testosterone is not always your friend). We worked up through the clouds and as we neared the top, the sky began to lighten. Some flatter switchbacks gave an opportunity to look below at the head torches still climbing and as dawn broke to reveal a cloud inversion covering the whole valley the view was spectacular.
The remainder of the climb to Tete aux Vents was a bit easier flattening out to normal sized undulations and offering spectaular views of the Mont Blanc range. The views and the relief that the job was nearly done made for an enjoyable hobble in the clear early morning air.
The Tetes aux Vents checkpoint finally arrived with its iconic orange North Face dome tent, but the promised downhill turned out to be a steep and technical descent that seemed to go on forever. I had asked the marshals how far to go and they said 3K to the last aid station at Flegere and 5K from Flegere to the finish. They lied.
Once the track to Flegere eased to a sensible gradient I picked up and passed quite a few people, making a point of running through all of the ice cold streams to cool my feet and legs. There is a final climb up to the chair lift at Flegere but after so much climbing this one was just inconvenient rather than difficult. At Flegere I changed back into my shorts, and finally was able to take off my sick stained warm top and swap it for a cold sweat soaked t shirt. I downed a miniature of Great Glen Ultra whisky, filled a bottle with water and headed out with 8K to go.
I had a good run on the single track which followed the contours of the hill down into Chamonix picking up a lot of places as I passed plenty of people who were quite content to walk it out. Lots of supporters were out walking up hill to see runners and they were all so genuine in their support of what you had just achieved. Through some houses, again with support and then it was across the road and into the town of Chamonix and the famous run along the river. The crowds thckened and I spotted a Saltire waving in the distance. I was pleasantly surprised when it turned out the flag was attached to friend Norry who had volunteered to come out and watch for me. Norry passed me the flag which I attached to my walking pole making an impromptu flag pole. The cheers from the crowds on the last loop through town were amazing and as I turned the final corner to see the finish arch the Scottish contingent were going crazy, shouting and waving flags. Some high fives and a massive hug from Helen who I thought ws going to burst with excitment and I was over the line. I had finished the CCC.
I caught up with Terry and Carol and was pleased to learn they had finished safely with strong runs. We had all come here with thoughts of using CCC as a precursor to an attempt at UTMB. Our concensus on the finish line was absolutely no way! The respect for the UTMB finishers is absolute, but we were going to have to rethink our ambitions, CCC was so hard that doing more seemed impossible.
I think it took about 6 hours for us to change our minds.
Initially I was a wee bit disappointed with my finishing time of 24 hours and 10 minutes but that didnt last long. CCC is so diferent from anything I have done before and I was pleased to learn that I had picked my way through the field over the second half of the course finishing in 950th place just inside the top half of the field. You really need ot serve your apprenticeship running in the Alps and at times on the CCC I was definitely sent for the tartan paint and the Long Stand. The climbs arent just enormous but they are unrelentingly steep. The downhills are steep and technical in places. The altitude affects you. The path was muddy and treacherous in places. There is 9 hours darkness running with headtorches on technical trails in unfamiliar mountains. There is a massive drop out rate. To finish in itself is an achievement. There is nothing which can prepare you for how big it is.
The whole trip was an amazing experience, all the more so for sharing it with the large contingent of Random Scottish Punters who had made the trip out to run or support. Watching people finish the various races was fantastic. Every single person was given a hero’s welcome. The Elite performances were astonishing. Despite being the hardest race I have ever done by a long way, It is in the diary for next year already whether I am succesful in the ballot or not. CCC was one of those life changing experiences and I am sure Chamionix will become a regular fixture in our travel plans.
Having seen it, UTMB has to be the next target.
As Terry said to me “We had better do it soon cos we are not getting any younger”
I have just spent a couple of days at the Highland Fling training weekend in Tyndrum. Although I am not running either the Fling or the WHW this year it was good to spend time with like minded souls, enjoy some wine and some hard training.
I spent some time running with Amanda Hamilton who is building up to her first West Highland Way Race this year and we had a chat about what worked for me as well as what went wrong as I ran my first WHW race last year. I am sure that Amanda will have a strong race as she has her head screwed on the right way and is putting in the hard miles.
So what would I do differently next time?
1. I would practice running during the night. When I left Milngavie I had no problem running in the dark, but I did have a big problem with my body clock not wanting to start running at 1 am and I really struggled to maintain what would normally have been an easy pace at the start of the race.
2. I would do more long slow runs. I struggle for patience in long runs and tend to rush them to get them over and done with as soon as possible, so while I had the distance in my legs, I didn’t necessarily have the time in my head.
3. Getting carried away and charging over to Glencoe like a demented warthog may have felt great at the time, but I probably suffered for it later. Resist the temptation to rush.
4. Spend less time at checkpoints. Despite having a strict plan for my checkpoint times, time seemed to slip away, especially later in the day.
5. Don’t worry about the weigh-in. I was getting a bit light when I left Auchtertyre, even though I felt absolutely fine and it worried both me and my crew in case I would have a problem in Kinlochleven. This resulted in me spending time at our van trying to feed up before I went in to the Leisure Centre. Daft when you look back on it sitting outside in the cold and dark when I could have been inside in the warm. Kinlochleven checkpoint is a great place. If you are well, no-one will pull you from the race. Get inside and feel the tough love being dished out.
6. The haggis and beer at the ski centre probably wasn’t a great idea either even though I enjoyed them at the time. I think I would probably try to eat more real food earlier in the race and stick to softer food in the second half.
As for the things I got right there are probably a few
1. Do the training miles but don’t do them too early and try not to get mileage envy of the nutters who are knocking out 40 mile runs at christmas.
2. Know the route inside out
3. Have a training plan and trust it. Don’t chop and change just because you hear someone else threw in an extra long run and don’t get sucked into going on every social training run just to be part of the gang.
4. Get a support crew you trust absolutely. Your needs become very childlike in the race and your crew needs to know when you need and cuddle and when you need a spank.
My final tip is that there are many ways to skin a cat and what works for me won’t necessarily work for you. You need to experiment early in the year with gear, mileage and nutrition so that when it gets to the business end you are settled on the logistics and all you need to worry about is running.
And finally no matter what you get right or wrong, at times it will get horrible and dark, but if you keep going, no matter how slowly, it won’t get any worse and might even get better, but either way, you will make it to Fort William.
It is possible to buy Head Torches from Amazon which are build around the Cree LED. They are extremely powerful and very cheap.
You can pick up a headtorch for around £12-£15. The build quality is as you would expect from cheap Chinese imports, but they do the job rather well.
My experience so far has been that the lights are indeed extremely powerful. some of them are rated as high as 1200 lumens and on a recent night run through Mugdock wood the illumination was quite spectacular. Unfortunately my battery ran out of juice after about an hour.
Most of these torches are powered by 18650 Batteries which you can also buy from Amazon. Many of the batteries available are branded as being manufactured by Ultrafire, but they are random both in their quality and their manufacture. Apparently if you peel off the cover you can find a myriad of suppliers.
Upon doing some investigation it turns out that the 18650 is in fact a laptop battery.
Even better, because the laptop manufacturers use good quality batteries, if you can source them they give much better performance than the cheap imports.
I had always assumed it was some fancy battery that was used in a laptop, but in fact it is just ordinary batteries, end to end, with a little circuitry attached to control the charging.
A clever tip from youtube is that you can recycle batteries from a laptop. It is easy to do. This video shows how to do it
Having access to old laptop batteries I gave it a go. Lo and behold, it was easy to do, and the output from the laptop battery is much stronger than the ones I bought from Amazon.
I have still to test the battery life but I am cautiously optimistic, and even if the batteries have a short life, as they are effectively free I don’t mind having lots of them for swapping out on a long run. I am declaring this little experiment a success!
The annual race from Milngavie near Glasgow to Fort William in the heart of the Scottish highlands has always seemed to embody such high levels of madness, endurance and athleticism as to be way beyond the grasp of ordinary mortals like me. At the start of this adventure I didn’t know if I would be able to run 95 miles. By the end of it I couldm’t believe I had run 95 miles
The Abridged Version
If you don’t read any further then just take it from me that the West Highland Way Race is like the best holiday of your life compressed into the space of 48 hours. It is probably not possible to describe just how good it is. It is like a really great night in the pub with the best people in the world but to “get it” you had to be there.
The short version is I started in Milngavie at 1 am, a wee bit short on training and heavy of girth, ran lots, threw up, ran some more and arrived in Fort William after 27 hours and 34 minutes. With the support of some great people who gave up their weekend to crew for me, I managed to run, walk, jog and hobble the entire West Highland Way to receive the fabled Crystal Goblet.
The Ultra Version
What follows is an epic tale of mountains, lochs, true friendship, hardship, triumph over adversity, heroism, vomit, vaseline and an unusual use for compeed.
After 6 months of training, planning and organising The Day finally arrived. I had taken the day off work, and after seeing Helen off to work, I headed back to bed for a snooze. Just as I was getting comfortable a builders lorry pulled up outside and started delivering bricks to one of the neighbours. So much for sleep! Lunchtime arrived, and then time seemed to speed up. I had anticipated a leisurely afternoon, picking up the Bongo, and then kicking back until race time. Instead, it seemed to take forever to do all the paperwork to collect the van and then an absolute age of lifting and carrying to get the van packed. Before we knew it, it was 6 o’clock so we both headed to bed for a final hour before dinner. After dinner I mulled over my plan: finish somewhere between 24 and 28 hours. Make it to Bein Glas. If I make it to Bein Glas, I will make it to Tyndrum. If I get to Tyndrum, I can make it to Fort William. Having gazed at my navel so much it was getting shiny, finally we were off on the road to Milngavie.
Nothing had prepared me for the sight that greeted us as when we arrived in Milngavie. As we turned into the Railway Station Car Park, it was lit up like a fairground. It was jam-packed with cars, campers of all shapes and sizes, the bright red “Thunderbirds” wagon of the Trossachs Search and Rescue, and there were people everywhere. The excitement was very tangible. After Helen had finished running round the car park hugging everyone we headed off to registration.
At registration the plastic band containing the number 7 was snapped on to my wrist. “We will get this off you at the end” the lady said reassuringly. The fact that someone associated with the race expected me to make it to the end made me feel slightly better. I got weighed, and was assured that no, there wasn’t a prize for heaviest runner. After collecting the hoodies I had purchased for my crew it was back to the camper. There were lots of hellos as I bumped into the Gannet, the unfortunate Robert Soutar who was later forced to pull out with a broken toe while running really well, and the always effervescent Mooneys.
It was soon 12:30am and time for the pre-race briefing. I put my long-coveted purple WHW Race buff on my head, pulled on my head torch and rucksack and headed for the underpass which marked the starting line. Race Director Ian Beattie went through the rules to a hushed audience, and as this is Scotland in the summer advised:
“Weather. There will be some. When the sun shines, it’ll be hot. When it’s raining, it’ll be cold and wet. If it’s windy, there’ll be less midges.”
Ian finished by reading some lovely words about the race by Fiona Rennie, a legend of the WHW Race who is fighting her own health battles at the moment. There were lumps in many throats.
With that, it was 15 minutes to go and the assembled throng briefly dispersed. Some returned to their vans for last-minute preparations, others stood huddled quietly in small groups. I walked back to our van only to discover it was locked as my crew had headed a little up the path to watch the race start and take some pictures. The rain started to drizzle, and with the enormity of 95 miles facing me, I suddenly felt very lonely. A big hug from Debbie Consani brought me back to the here and now.
As the clocked ticked closer to 1am, the runners returned to the start, the electric hum of quiet voices grew and with a deep breath I stepped into the group and took my place as a West Highland Way Race Runner.
After what seemed like an age the horn sounded and we were off. As forecast, ominously, the rain started to pour. The torchlit processional run through the centre of Milngavie was quite surreal. The noise was superb and the huge excitement was a great send off. Then with a sharp right turn, we were through the Arch and into the night. The race was on.
The run through Mugdock woods was surprisingly uneventful. Runners settled into groups of bobbing head torches. Some folk ran silently, others chatted. One bloke behind me seemed determined to find out the entire life story of everyone around him and the thought of him talking all the way to Fort William encouraged me to hurry on a little.
Running in the dark wasn’t as difficult as I had feared. We mostly ran in groups and the torches illuminated to path well enough. The lack of visible landmarks seemed to make the time pass quickly. A couple of miles in and I thought I was having my first hallucination, but no, the runner passing me confirmed that yes, he was indeed wearing bright yellow tights under his shorts.
We soon reached the famous huts at Carbeth where Alan Lindsay was doing a grand job of stopping the traffic while keeping us amused with the music blaring out of his speakers. Perfectly normal behaviour at 1:45am it appears! The scene as we crossed the road at Tinkers Loan was like something from an old SciFi movie – there were cars lining the road, all with headlights on lighting up the rain which was pouring down. Hooded faceless people stood in the road, waving torches. I was fully expecting to see a space ship or at least some sinister looking CIA Suits, but the cheers from behind the midge nets gave me quite a lift.
The Beech Tree Inn arrived shortly afterwards, and with it the first chance to see my support crew. A quick hello without stopping. James chased after me to find out if I wanted them at Drymen but I said no, just go straight to Balmaha.
The remainder of the run to Drymen was pretty smooth. I was concerned that I wasn’t running quickly. I should be able to run faster than this I was thinking. At the same time I felt strong and was doing well on the hills. I ran through the checkpoint at Drymen and on towards Conic Hill. The run through Gharabhain forest is deceptively big climb and my legs felt dead. It was around 3:30 am when I broke out of the forest and got a look at Loch Lomond as the first hints of daylight lightened a heavy sky. I was cursing the newly repaired trail down to the start of Conic Hill. The rain had covered the path with a layer of slippery wet clay. Determined not to have a fall I took this section very gingerly. I climbed well to the top of Conic and headed down the long steep descent on the other side. A quick hello to George Reid and Karen Donoghue who were heading uphill to start their mammoth effort of sweeping duties, and I was off the hill.
A fog of tiredness hit me as I ran the last little section into Balmaha and was struggling to stay awake in the half-light. However, mindful of an audience I sucked in my stomach and ran into the first checkpoint arriving at 04:40 am.
As we walked across the Car Park to the support van I remember being slightly narked at how far away it was, even though I was going to have to run past it anyway to continue on the track. Such are things the race does to your brain. “How are you doing” was the first question from my crew. “Shit” I replied. Helen raised her eyebrows, having seen it all before, and sat me down in the chair. It is at this point that an understanding Support Crew comes into its own. “Take my sock off and cut my left foot off” I barked. Helen got the scissors and started to cut away at the intricate taping which my physio had used to strap up my foot to protect me from the Plantar Fascia pain which has been causing me problems in the lead up to the race. Ouch! Just as I was distracted my lovely wife got one end of the tape and ripped the whole thing off in one go giving me an instant foot waxing as the hairs on my foot were ripped out! At least that wakened me up!
Loch Lomond – Balmaha to Bein Glas
I set off for Rowardennan with a degree of trepidation. I had suffered badly on this stage a number of times in the past, and as it was now early morning having had no sleep I was fearful of what was to come. As it was, I ran fairly steadily on this section, picked up a few places. The only problem had been that every time the path entered the woods, the gloomy half-light caused me to start to nod off to sleep. More than once I closed my eyes and could feel myself drifting off as I ran. Before too long Rowardennan arrived, 26 miles done, 6:30 in the morning. I was covered in midges and my official status was still “shit” but it was normal shit so that was fine. My support crew were starting to get into the swing of things and soon had me fed, repaired the rubbing on my back and saw me off on the journey up the side of Loch Lomond.
I was feeling quite relaxed at this stage. With a marathon behind me, I had come through the first energy dip which I always seem to get around the 18 mile mark, and now was plodding solidly onwards. In my head, I knew that if I could make it to Bein Glas at 40 miles, then I would be able to make it to Tyndrum at 53 and if I made it to Tyndrum then I could walk the last 40 miles if I had to, but I would make it to Fort William. The section from Rowardennan to the hotel at Inversnaid is a relatively straightforward piece of running. It has a massive climb, but it is on easy track and then there is a long rewarding downhill before you get to Inversnaid.
I had spent some time on Friday morning putting some motivational music on my iPod for when times got tough. I had really enjoyed listening to my music for the last few hours. I had Vangelis Conquest of Paradise as I came over Conic Hill and as I ran up the lochside I was running to The Gael imagining I was Daniel day Lewis running though the forest in the Last of the Mohicans. It was only when I got to Inversnaid that I realised that I didn’t actually have my headphones in, I had just been playing these tunes over and over in my head.
At Inversnaid the air was thick with midges. Trossachs Search and Rescue had erected a midge free tent which made for a great place to eat your sandwiches. One of the great things about checkpoints in ultra races is scavenging through the food others have left behind. I spotted a bottle of coke, which I grabbed.
The next section along the Loch from Inversnaid onwards is traditionally the most frustrating part of the West Highland Way. Lots of big rocks, tree roots, narrow ledges all conspiring to slow you down and remove any spring you had in your legs as the old hip flexors take a beating lifting feet up and down high rocky steps. For once, this passed without trauma as I took my time and sucked on my bottle of coke. Picturesque Doune Bothy came and went and before long I was up the hill to Dario’s post with its view down the length of Loch Lomond. I knew things were going pretty well when I reached the Big Stile. The Big Stile has been my nemesis many times. It is four or five steps high, with a wider step on to top which straddles a wall. Several times in the past I have become stuck on top of this stile unable to move up or down, as my legs have gone into cramp while trying to lift them over the top. This time I swung my leg over, my left hip flexor went ouch, but no cramp and I was down the other side and on my way.
The run into Bein Glas is one of my favourite sections of the Way. The route goes over a high meadow like pass which nestles in the hills, before tumbling down hill to get back to Bein Glas farm. I had a really good run down here and was storming down hill when I nearly bowled into George and Karen who were climbing up for more sweeping duties.
The amount of work that goes into supporting a race like the WHW is enormous, and people like George, Karen and many others give up so many hours of their time, going without sleep for a whole weekend, to give every runner the best chance possible of making it to Fort William. From a runners perspective it really is very humbling.
I ran strongly into the checkpoint feeling pretty good. I’m thinking Mo Farah, the world probably saw Pumbaa the Warthog from the Lion King. However, that was 41 miles done which was as far as my longest training run this year. And according to my logic, if I made it here, I would make it to Tyndrum. And if I made it to Tyndrum, well you know the rest. My crew was waiting for me with a seat and mat ready, and by now were getting to be a pretty well oiled machine. Of course I then asked for a change of shoes which was the one thing which wasn’t on my list, so someone had to run down to the car park to retrieve my shoes. Noanie Heffron was manning the checkpoint in her distinctive over excited labrador puppy style, but she still found time to come over to take a picture and give me abuse for wearing Injinji socks after being less than complimentary about her wearing them earlier in the year. I should also apologise at this point to everyone at this check point who got inadvertently mooned when I pulled my shorts down slightly too far to get the bottom of my back covered in vaseline.
Bein Glas to Auchtertyre
I left Bein Glas in good spirits. The next section is undulating but the views up Glen Falloch are spectacular and the seeing the peaks of Ben More and Cruach Ardrain for me marks the entrance to the Highlands. I was doing ok for time. I had set myself a goal of finishing between 24 and 28 hours. I had been spookily accurate with my predicted splits, so on paper was running to time but was a wee bit behind where in my head I wanted to be. The heavens opened just after the falls of Derrydarroch and as I crossed under the main A82 road, the rain seemed to get even heavier. As well as the rain it was unseasonably humid, as it had been all day.
I had been playing leap-frog with two runners, frequently passing each other. Just as we passed the famous Cow Poo Alley, which was disappointly dry and clear of manure, while one of the guys nipped into a ditch for a toilet stop, I had a conversation with the other. As the rain poured down, we remarked on the sheer glorious futility of the fact it was only 11am, we had been running for 10 hours, it was pouring with rain and we still had 55 miles to go. “All for a crystal goblet and the chance to say I did it”. “It is worse than that” he said, there are some of us from the club doing the triple crown (WHW Race, Highland Fling and Devil o the Highlands) as a club challenge. All for a fucking hoodie!”
Still feeling in control, I pushed on and was soon at the landmark of the Big Gate. The Big Gate marks the start of the forest at Bogle Glen above Crianlarich. Psychologically it is an important landmark because once out of the forest you are pretty close to the 50 mile mark and it tends to mark the end of the hard work on the southern section of the Way. As anyone who has run it will attest, this is of course complete rubbish. The Rollercoaster as it is affectionately known consists of multiple big climbs and steep drops before finally dropping back down to the A82.
I also had at this point the beginnings of a technical failure. The rain had soaked through my compression shorts and the seam in my expensive, hold you in, go faster, underwear had turned into something resembling a Bow Saw which felt like it was steadfastly trying to saw through my right testicle every time I took a stride forward. I tried running with my hand down my shorts, but that just made me stumble. I pulled them up, twisted them round but still no relief. Eventually by pulling my shorts down so they were barely hanging off my hips, with the crotch somewhere south of my knees, I managed to find a temporary solution. Other than this , the miles passed quite pleasantly. My legs were fine which was a nice surprise, and the walkers I passed, who were probably on at least day 4 of their trek to Fort William, were really encouraging, all of them wishing me “Good Luck” in various international accents. None of them asked why I was running as if I had had an accident in my pants.
Despite my wardrobe malfunction I was relatively stress free as I crossed the main road and arrived, a happy bunny, at the Auchtertyre checkpoint, 50 miles in, 11 hours and 40 minutes done. I checked in and got weighed. This was a bit alarming as I was warned that I had lost quite a bit of weight and was only 0.5 kilos above the maximum allowed weight loss. This unsettled me, because I had been eating and drinking quite regularly, and more importantly I felt well and wasn’t unduly struggling.
Helen had parked the van next to the cow shed, and I was slightly wary that my crew were about to lock me into the cattle crush for “inspection”. I decided to change out of my compression shorts into my loose trail shorts in the hope of alleviating my “injury”. I then had something approaching a brain wave. At least it felt like a smart idea to a brain which had been running for nearly twelve hours. My cunning plan was to stick a compeed on to my scrotum. Now, as anyone who has ever attempted this will confirm, sticking a compeed onto one’s right nut is like trying to put wallpaper on a jelly. Add to the fact that after running for twelve hours, the nether regions of your average ultra runner tend to shrink to less than flattering proportions. Eventually, after two attempts, the compeed did indeed stick, and with an interesting gait I set off for Tyndrum.
Auchtertyre to Glencoe
I had asked Sarah, one of my support crew, to run this short section with me. Sarah is just starting out as a runner and like many others still thinks she can’t do it. I wanted her to get a taste of what it was like, and I also knew that not only would she cope fine, but that she would be running just about the perfect pace for me at this point in the race. We worked my stiff legs back into a bit of a rhythm and made progress on the good surface. It was nice to run with someone again after long sections on my own, and the chat and the fact that at least I thought I was looking out for Sarah helped keep my mind off my weary legs. We nearly had a fight when we encountered a family out walking their dogs and we had to share the big deer gate on the road into Tyndrum. One of the collies jumped up on me which after 12 hours of running didn’t really go down well. Then when a second dog ran across in front of me causing me to pull up and I pulled a face and pushed the dog away. The stroppy woman in charge of the dogs (and I use the words in charge in their loosest sense) took it upon herself to explain to me that the path was “for walking dogs too”. I replied politely that it might be a good idea to keep them under control, to which her husband made some macho comment while at the same time making sure that the gate was firmly between him and me. Much as I was raging I decided that the good name of the race was more important than my indignation, so just muttered under my breath and headed onwards.
Before long we passed By The Way – the finishing line of the Highland Fling Race which took me into unknown territory further than I had ever run before. My pacer did a grand job over that wee section apart from nearly dropping my Garmin and abandoning me when I stopped for a pee in the bushes!
There was a fair wee crowd of people when we arrived at Brodies Store in Tyndrum, where I was to swap Sarah for George who was to take me to Glencoe. I asked Helen to get me some vaseline at Bridge of Orchy. Boy Scout George kindly produced a small tin of vaseline from his pack and Helen performed the wifely duties of putting her hand up my shorts and applying vaseline to my chaffed dangly bits much to the amusement of the assembled crowd. For some unknown reason George didn’t need the vaseline for his lips after that.
George started to trot up the hill to which I explained, bugger that, just because you have been up all night and are desperate to run, I am not running up that hill for anyone! To be fair, I had been a bit naughty a few weeks before. George is a good strong runner, but doesn’t have much off-road experience. To break him in for support duties I ran him hard from Tyndrum to the top of the Devil’s Staircase, barely walking a step. Poor soul was knackered while I pretended this was normal! I suspected that he might be about to exact his revenge big time!
The sun came out so the Boy Scout found a cap in his pack for me to wear. By this time I was starting to flag. I normally enjoy this section as it is maybe the easiest section of the whole race, but I was starting to slow, my calfs were really nipping and the heat was getting to me. Eventually we got closer to Bridge of Orchy when we spotted a mad collie dog running towards us. I initially thought is was mad Al the Gannet, but turned out it was friends Bob and Amanda. Amanda is a physio and was kindly providing massages for the runners at the end of the race in Fort William. They asked how I was doing, and slightly pathetically I said “shit”. ” My calfs are killing me” I whined. I think my inner Ultra Diva thought that if I sounded pathetic enough, Amanda would offer to stop and rub out my sore legs for me. My inner Diva was to be rebuffed as Amanda told me to “Man the Fuck Up you’ve only done 60 miles!” before running off up the track.
We hobbled down the steep hill in to Bridge of Orchy and it was nice to see the circus had arrived here. I spotted Helen and James in their race hoodies. I think they expected me just to fuel up and get on up the next hill. I wanted a seat. Guess what? They hadn’t brought the seat from the van. My inner Diva just couldn’t believe how you can meet your runner without a seat! Fortunately the nice mountain rescue people had a seat and I slumped into it, feeling really done in.
I couldn’t figure it out, I had been running really well just seven miles previously and now I was slumped in a seat, my legs in agony with only 60 miles done and another 36 to go. The only person who looked worse than me was George who had turned a ghostly white shade of pale (apologies procol harum) at the prospect of having to get me over Rannoch Moor in this condition. The Mountain Rescue people provided a couple of ice packs, so Helen used one on my calf while the other was placed on the back of my neck to cool me down. I could see George whispering conspiratorially with James out of the corner of my eye. My guess was that they were hatching some plan for all the bad things which they expected to happen to me. As I became more self-indulgent, Helen in her usual supportive style suggested that if I was going to be like that I could always pull out! That was enough of a slap to get me going.
We didn’t get off to a good start. God only knows how, but we missed the path up the hill out of Bridge of Orchy and had to suffer the embarassment of doubling back on ourselves while pretending that we knew where we were going! Once on the correct path we worked our way up the hill of Mam Carraigh known as Murdo’s Mount which is a big climb to do with 60 miles in the legs. On the way up I regaled George with tales of this Mystical Murdo the Magnificent who apparently lives in a Cave on top of the hill and feeds Jelly Babies to worthy runners.
We didn’t run much on the way up the hill, but did keep moving forward. The view from the top of Mam Carraigh over Loch Tulla is one of the best in all of Scotland and is well worth the cost of the climb. As we reached the top of the hill, there indeed was the great man, a vision in wellies and waterproofs. “You will be THE John Munro” pronounced Murdo. This impressed the hell out of me, because I had never actually met Murdo before. “And you will be Murdo the Magnificent” I replied. One of Murdo’s magical Jelly Babies was duly dispensed and with some sage words ringing in our ears we set off back down the other side of the hill towards the old drovers inn at Inveroran. The landscape here is so vast that combined with meeting the Magnificent one on top the hill, I felt like I had stepped into a scene from Lord of the Rings. The run down the hill was hard, my legs had no flexibility left, but eventually we made it on to the flat and began the section on the tarred road towards Victoria Bridge.
I knew at this stage I was in trouble. The prospect of walking all the way to Glencoe was just too bad to contemplate. I had to get moving. I tried to shuffle. Just a few steps at a time. The first few times were a struggle, but the pain didn’t get any worse. Lets try 100’s I said to George. Studiously counting each time my left foot painfully hit the road I managed the first hundred. I lost count on the walking steps so waited until what seemed like a sensible amount of time and started again. This hundred wasnt so bad. and then the next hundred. By the time we reached Victoria Bridge and the start of the old military road across Rannoch Moor I had at least reached a compromise with my legs. If I gave them a rest every hundred steps, they wouldn’t get any more sore and I could get closer to Glencoe.
The rise up on to Rannoch Moor is a long grinding climb. Over the course of several miles the road rises relentlessly nearly 1000 feet. On a good day it is truly beautiful. On a bad day it is one of the most desolate places on earth. The thought of having to walk up the hill was soul-destroying. I had managed to run on the flat. Maybe the hundreds would work on the hill. The first one was ok, so I tried another. Now I don’t know if it was the magic jelly baby or my leg rub at the Bridge, but my legs started easing off. Each hundred was a wee bit easier than the last. The hundreds became two hundreds, and by the time we reached the top of the climb and could look down to Ba Bridge and across the vast emptiness of Rannoch, I could run. We could see the top of the climb a few miles away and beyond that hill was an easy downhill into Glencoe. If I could make it to Glencoe then surely I could make it to Fort William even if I did have to walk. I was back in the game.
We ran down to Ba Bridge getting faster and stronger all of the time. My legs had stopped hurting. 13 minute miles became 12s, then 10s, then surely that must be a mistake, we can’t possibly be doing 8 minute
miles? This wasn’t possible. It was over 65 miles into the race, I had been down and out a few short miles ago, yet it felt like we were flying, grinning like dafties, in God’s own country, caught in one of those perfect moments. Ba Burn was immense as we approached, the massive roar of white water pouring through the gorge filling the air with ozone which just added to our buzz. We bowled over the bridge and stormed up hill. When we crested the top of the hill and the majesty of Glencoe opened up before us, we paused to gather our breath, before launching over the top like skiers out of the gate and we skipped and bounded downhill getting every closer to the ski centre and the next checkpoint.
Caught up in a massive high I bounded off the main track and followed the path to the ski centre. I spotted Sarah waiting at the end of the track and she seemed to be getting more and more excited as we approached. We were leaping over burns, jumping rocks like it was a 10K race not 95 miles. With a huge lungful of air and a big grin I surged off the trail and powered up the road to the ski centre with everyone running after me. I had totally lost my common sense and was running like a man possessed but we were in Glencoe and that great big beautiful lump of rock was Buchaille Etive Mor which meant that it was only 26 miles to go.
I shared a handshake with George, thanked him for getting me across the moor and settled into the chair for a baked potato, haggis and a bottle of beer! The difference in the mood in the camp from Bridge of Orchy was incredible. There was real excitement that I was back and that yes we would do this thing. I maybe sat a little too long here, but I had prescribed this stop as dinner time so took a while to make sure I refueled.
Glencoe to Kinlochleven
We had made up good time in the last section so set off on a bit of a high. James took over support duties and he was determined that over exuberance was not going to ruin my race. He started the way he meant to go on, telling me what pace we were running and how long it was until my next feed in 20 minutes time.
We passed through Kingshouse where a large adult stag was prowling the car park, then it was on to the run to Altnafeadh. This section can be difficult because it climbs away from the road which seems pointless, however we covered it very steadily and arrived at Altnafeadh in good time and started to climb the Devils Staircase.
I generally pride myself on my ability to climb. I had climbed strongly throughout the entire race and had made a good job of all the big climbs so far. The Devil has a fearsome reputation, but it isn’t really so bad and isn’t even the biggest climb in the race. I have climbed it many times. I started off the climb aggressively, still feeling very positive after Glencoe and a good controlled run here with James. Up, over the hill, a quick stop in Kinlochleven and I might still make it to the Finish under 24 hours. Then like being punched in the face, I ground to a halt. About halfway up the climb all of my energy vanished and I was rooted to the spot.
The power march to the top became a trudge, stopping every few turns to gasp for air. James tried to slow me down and get some sort of pattern to my movement again, but this was horrible. As we climbed, the weather cleared and the views behind of Glencoe were inspirational, the light and shadow accentuating the cliffs and ridges on the mountains. No amount of inspiration was going to get me over the hill any quicker though. Eventually we lumbered over the top to be rewarded with a spectacular view of the Mamore Mountains and the Blackwater Reservoir. I was sick.
I had hit another massive low again. It was only a few miles downhill to Kinlochleven, a run I had done many times, all I had to do was get there, get patched up and then I would be ready to tackle the last 14 miles to Fort William. I had covered the best part of 80 miles. I kept telling myself to jkeep going to the bottom of the hill and everything would be ok. By this time James was force feeding me Jaffa cakes to try to get my energy levels back up again. Now Jaffa cakes are wonderful things but when your mouth is a dry as sandpaper they stick to the inside of your mouth and are murder to shift. Every time I finished one, he would hand me another. Here we were in some of the most glorious scenery in the world and I was being lectured to eat my Jaffa Cakes like a petulant five-year old. James was prodding me to run every time we came to a downhill and slowly we were making progress again. Just when it seemed like I was getting going again I was sick once more. James sympathetically suggested that it was only the top layer so most of the food was still inside me so I would be fine! After a couple of further vomiting episodes we started to get confused, because despite throwing up, the haggis hadn’t come out yet.
I felt a little better each time I was sick, so managed little bits of running until it was time to be sick again. We finally made the Pipe road which plays a nasty trick on you because you can see the town of Kinlochleven, but the road takes you away from the town for what seems like an eternity before you finally make your way down a painfully steep hill to the town itself.
There was no pretense of running in to the check point at the community centre. I walked in, and by the faces of my crew I must have looked as bad as I felt. We had been worried about my weight having been low at Auchtertyre. The plan was to fill me up at the van before going in to get weighed just to avoid any awkward discussions or time delays. I was poured into my warm jacket, towels put over me to warm me up while I refueled.
On my list I had asked for chips, but after all of the sickness the chips were off the agenda. I wanted an ice cream. After 9 o’clock on a Saturday night in Kinlochleven and I wanted an ice cream. Boy Scout George ran off and soon reappeared with a choc ice. Unfortunately a few bites and it joined the rest of the contents of my stomach on the pavement.
This was going downhill fast. I knew time was passing. I also knew that there was no way I could climb the Lairig Mor in my current condition. I needed food, but the food wouldn’t stay down and I was starting to shiver. I decided to go get checked in, hoping that the movement would get my brain and my stomach under control again.
The Comunity Centre was warm, I got checked in, having lost maybe 30 minutes sitting outside. I got weighed and my weight was ok so that was a start. I sat for a bit to try to get warm and eat some soup. A quick rush to the loo to be sick once more confirmed that my stomach still hadn’t settled. Some runners came in and left again. I saw Graeme Lawson from Falkirk Parkrun who was crewing for a friend who had had to pull out. Poor Spikey looked awful. It reminded me how much the support crews invest in their runners. This blackened my mood. The rational part of me was still working out splits and figuring out that even if I had to wait here a while I could still get away in the daylight and finish the race with the allotted 35 hours. I didn’t want to wait, and I was fighting hard to stay awake and recover but it was a losing battle. I was starting to panic. I couldnt possibly fail having come so far with only 14 miles to go. George and Karen appeared once more having successfully closed down Glencoe checkpoint. Rab Lee was wandering around in his kilt, suffering the same affliction as me. Eventually Helen suggested I lie down on the couch for a bit to rest. She promised to wake me in 30 minutes. An hour later she woke me, and started feeding me tea. I successfuly managed one cup so we tried another. Then some yoghurt. Then a cheese roll. It was staying down. Never has the humble cheese roll been so heroic. Finally, it was time to go wake James, George and Sarah and get back on the road.
Almost exactly at midnight, we switched on the headtorches and walked out of the Community Centre. We were going to Fort William.
Kinlochleven to Fort William
The climb out of Kinlochleven is a big one. A little over 1000 feet and pretty much straight up on stone steps. Not only were we moving, but we were catching and passing people. The climbing legs were back. Why couldn’t they have been there on the Devil? It was a warm night and the layers I had put on to protect my shivering wreck of a carcass from the night were quickly removed as I started to over heat.
Despite the path being strewn with large boulders which made for tricky foot finding in the dark, we started to make good ground. James kept a strict eye on pace keeping me going and it was good to seem him relax as I started to recover. Even in the darkness the massive shapes of the mountains stood out, watching over us. If ever you need reminded of your insignificance, then running the Lairig Mor in the dark is the place to be.
Our head torches were giving us enough light to make reasonable progress. We were running the flats and down and walking the ups. The Lichen on the rocks was gleaming white in the torchlight and it is very easy to understand how many a tired runner has seen the rocks turn into sheep.
In the distance we could see orange lights. These had to be the torches of the Wilderness Response who set up camp in the middle of the Lairig for the duration of the race.
We made it to the top of the hill and the torches which lined the path. We were astonished to see that these giant flames we had been heading towards for miles, were in fact tiny orange glow sticks. It was hard to believe they had been visible all that way.
We were greeted by Jeff of the Wilderness Response and invited to help ourselves to drinks from the tent. Never in my life has Irn Bru tasted so good! Unfortunately Jeff had received a call of a runner in trouble further up the track. His dog, which I think was called Shuthefuckup, was going mental in the back of the vehicle as he tried to turn the car which got its back wheel stuck in a ditch. So there we were, 86 miles into the race, in the middle of nowhere in the dark, and we had to get into the ditch and put our shoulders into the back of the 4×4 while the dog barked, the driver shoited at the dog, the engine screamed and the wheels spun covering us in grass and dirt while getting a face full of exhaust fumes.
One big grunt and the car was off. We watched the lights of the car head slowly towards Lundavra several miles away. The lights seemed to climb a bit further than I would have liked, but it didn’t matter. We were on the Lairig and we were going to finish! A quick stop at the abandoned cottage for some more food then we set off once more, accompanied by the sound of unseen rivers and burns. The path became wetter and I started running through the puddles. The cool water splashing my calfs was refreshing and I was enjoying the sensation of running properly again. James was doing his best to keep his feet dry but after a while even he gave in and joined me in the nighttime splash fest. We passed a few runners and were running strongly once more, all the while listening for the music and the bonfire at Lundavra. Before too long we saw it and made a point of running strongly into the checkpoint. It was big hugs all round, as we met the rest of the crew before setting off on the final leg. After 88 miles there was just a little over 10K to go.
The last section dragged a little. We passed some people, ran well for a bit and then got into a train with a group going through the forest. We could have gone past, but it was very dark in this section and I knew the footing wasnt great in places, so for a while I was content just to sit in the group and follow their pace.
After 45 minutes we broke out of the forest and could see the last climb up to the fire road which leads down into Fort William. Feeling rested from following the group we passed and made a good job of the last climb. We had done it. We could see Fort William.
I knew that this next section was much longer than you think. We switched off our torches and set off down the road. We ran steadily down hill, James setting a comfortable pace for me to follow. We ran much more than I expected to, stopping only for me to have one last dry heave. The fire road seemed to go on forever. It is maybe only a couple of miles long, but it just goes on and on and on. We were searching for the Braveheart Car Park which would lead us down to the main road. Finally I thought we were nearly there. I was sure I could see George Reid’s Epic Van parked at the side of the road. George must have come up to marshall the Car Park turn. I was so disappointed when George’s van turned into a big pile of logs!
Now it was just about grinding it out. We eventually found the gap in the trees and following the arrows painted on the road ran down through the Car Park and on to the main road. We were back at sea level. We had climbed 14000 feet and were within touching distance of the finish. I had bad memories of running along this road at the end of the 43 mile Devil of the Highlands Race. How hard would it be? James just kept me ticking along and the road passed. Then elation we saw some houses. Still a way to go, but these were real civilised houses! Couldn’t be far now. In the distance we saw the roundabout which marks the entrance to Fort William. We were getting faster. We passed the roundabout at a clip. 400 metres to go said the sign on the pavement.
We had run through the night together, climbed a mountain both literally and metaphorically. James had nursed me back to strength and now just as we passed the 400 metre mark, in a gesture of great generosity, James shook my hand and told me to go finish it. I looked back, but he waved me on. This was my race. With a bit of a lump in my throat I summoned up everything I had left and stretched my legs.
I ran into the finish at the Lochaber Leisure Centre at 4:34am the day after I had left Milngavie. I handed over my chip, accepted the welcome handshake from Ian Beattie and walked into Helen’s arms.
I wanted to sit in the Leisure Centre and just soak it all up. I was no longer tired. My crew of James, George, Sarah and Helen on the other hand were exhausted. We headed off to bed for a few hours and after breakfast with the super speedy Jo Rae it was time for the prizegiving.
One by one, the Crystal Goblets were awarded. Each one as hard-earned as the next. I collected mine, returned to my seat and held on to the moment.
I had joined the West Highland Way Race Family.
On the Canongate Wall in the Scottish Parliament is a famous verse by Alexander Gray from his poem Scotland. For me, this sums up the people and the places of the West Highland Way Race.
This is my country,
The land that begat me.
These windy spaces
Are surely my own.
And those who toil here
In the sweat of their faces
Are flesh of my flesh,
And bone of my bone.
It is getting to that time when I have to make some decisions about what kit I will wear on the West Highland Way Race. After much trial and error, I am just about settled on my kit list. So barring exceptional weather I shall be wearing some combination of the following:
OMM Kamleika Smock I love my OMM jacket. It keeps me dry in all sorts of weather, pulls down over my hands and has a good hood. Nice and light so can be carried “just in case”. Hope I don’t need it.
OMM Kamleika trousers Hopefully I wont need to wear these but they are a fantastic over trouser. Easy to slip on and off, keep the wind and rain out, and are articulated so you can actually run comfortably in them.
Swiss Alpine Marathon Race Jacket – this is a lightweight rip-stop nylon zip jacket, keeps the wind off and weighs nothing at all so really handy for keeping the chill off on a dry day. This was a freebie at the 25th Anniversary race.
Buff Everyone needs a buff. Multipurpose, keeps you warm, keeps the sun off, stops the sweat dripping into your eyes.
OMM Vector Tee Long sleeved shirt, this is a really great base layer which really keeps you warm, but at the same time works well in the warm. Expecting this to be my night time wear and potentially my all day wear too if the weather is iffy.
Ronhill Trail zipped shirt A good compromise for a warm day. I really like the long zip which is a great way to cool down. This shirt comes with a zip pocket on the back as well as two elasticated hip pockets. To be honest I have never used these as I don’t like things bouncing around on my back, and if I have stuff to carry then I prefer my belt or rucksack.
X Bionic boxer shorts I did think Helen was being a wee bit cheeky when I received these as a gift but they actually are very good. They stay dry and provide a wee bit of support. They also help avoid nasty chaffing in the upper thigh/groin
Hoko 3/4 compression tights Discovered these in Spain at the Barcelona marathon. Heavy duty compression, but comfortable with it. Expecting to pull these on at some point after Rannoch moor to try to keep my legs moving in something approaching the right direction.
2XU compression shorts I don’t really like wearing these but they do help. Expecting to wear them over the first half
Ronhill Cargo Trail shorts these are comfortable very lightweight shorts with a huge array of pockets and gel holders. None of which I use except for the secure zipped pocket on the waist. These will get an outing if it is a warm day if I decide that I don’t want to wear my 2XU compression shorts.
CEP Calf Sleeves I am a recent convert to Calf Sleeves. Having suffered some calf troubles earlier in the year I now wear these regularly when racing. These give great support, and help keep you warm. Funky colours as well.
Injinji Trail socks The latest fad. I have to admit I was very sceptical about these as socks with toes are just downright unnatural, verging on pervy. However I am a convert. Since wearing these I have had very few blisters and they are extremely comfortable. They are however a pig to get on and off especially if like me you have funny shaped toes. Fortunately on race day I fully expect someone else to do any foot care which is required (thanks support crew) as my chance of having either the flexibility to reach my feet or the coordination to remove socks successfully is slim to none.
Drymax Trail socks Again another item which is becoming increasingly popular with the ultra community. I have yet to learn to love these, but think I will wear them as a second pair on top of my injinjis just to give additional cushioning.
Brooks Pure Grit shoes Love my Grits, they give great flexibility and contact with the ground. Hoping to wear them through the first half of the race. Unfortunately as luck (or bad planning) would have it, I wore them today and came to the conclusion that my current pair really have reached the end of their life. Eek! only 10 days to find and break in another pair. Fortunately they don’t need any breaking in, they are comfortable straight from the box.
Brooks Cascadia shoes these are a new addition to my shoe cupboard, but I expect to wear these over the second half of the race which is much more stoney under foot and where the stability and support will be more use to me than my speedy Grits.
Salomon XA 20 backpack does the job nicely. maybe a little large but it carries all my stuff and is comfortable with handy pockets on the waist belt.
Inov-8 Race Elite belt expect to alternate this with my backpack, just to give me a change of posture. Will use this on the shorter sections. Has great roomy pockets without being too big.
Petzl Tikkina Headtorch. Probably frowned on by those who have big expensive head torches, but I have run plenty miles with this one in the winter so expect that it will be adequate. However bought a second bigger torch just in case. Will probably wear this one on my wrist to help give additional light where I need it.
On top of all of these I have various items as options for extreme weather, including woolly hats, goretex gloves, goretex shell, etc, etc etc
Having organised all of these variations and options you just know that I am going to wear the same few things from start to finish! And they say that running is a simple sport because all you need are some shoes…….. 🙂
My big toe is niggling. It isn’t really sore but it doesnt feel right. It is a bit tender if I press it and feels slightly swollen. It doesn’t stop me running, but it is uncomfortable and I am worried that it is altering my gait which in turn will lead to some biomechanical issues.
My toe issues are real, but they may well also be a metaphor for how I feel about my West Highland Way training. For various reasons I haven’t managed to do some of the training that I wanted to. I am still getting back to fitness after a few weeks down with the lurgy and I am worried that I am running out of time. The support network on Facebook is great but it can also be slightly intimidating as people post updates on their latest million mile mega long run which just fuels the fear of not having done enough. I am not alone, there is a good description of the ups and downs of WHW preparation over on the Beirut Taxi blog.
With only a little over a month to go I have only a couple of weeks training left to build more fitness and more confidence. If only my big toe would stop niggling……
The Kintyre Way Ultra and Relays is a 67 mile ultra which runs from Tarbert to Campbeltown along the Kintyre Way. My plan when I entered this race was to do the full thing, but having been struck down with a bug for a few weeks my sensible head prevailed and I changed to the 35 mile option instead.
I had got back into some proper training over the bank holiday weekend which I wrote about in my last post, so taking on a race 4 days later seemed liked a good way to get some miles on tired legs.
I had been less than enthusiastic about this race, mainly because work has been really busy and the logistics of the Kintyre Way are a wee bit complex so I ddint really have the motivation to get it all sorted in my head. Despite my reservations we managed to finish work sharp on Friday and headed off for Tarbert with me in a grump as we got stuck behind every slow driver on the 3 hour drive down the road in the rain.
The scenery lifted my spirits a bit as we drove over the Rest and Be Thankful and we duly arrived, checked into our B&B, registered for the race and headed for the Tarbert Hotel for dinner. Margaret, Alastair, and David who were taking part in the Relay with Helen, were already there, while James and Sheela were en route. You sort of knew it was going to be one of those places when we discovered that Margaret had a shopping bag containing milk and dog biscuits, because her landlady Isabella had asked her to pick some up from the shop while she was out. It got even more bizarre when the milk ended up in the Hotel fridge courtesy of Mairi who was working the bar and was Isabella’s best friend. We had a really nice meal and a few pints of liquid carbs, even though the service was incredibly slow.
Race day dawned and Helen and I headed off to watch the 67 mile runners head off in the pouring rain, before heading back to our lodgings for the obligatory full Scottish breakfast.
Helen dropped me in Tayinloan and after a delayed start (Kintyre seems to operate at that pace) we were off, Race Director Rob Reid running the first few hundred yards to guide us through a couple of streets before heading down onto the beach. Half a mile or so of beach and bog and then we hit the first hill which continued straight up for approximately 4 miles rising to a height of 1100 feet. About half way up I caught up with a lady who was running the hill by zig zagging a traverse from one side of the road to the other. I jokingly made acomment about running twice the distance which I think she must have taken umbrage to, as she muttered something which I didnt quite catch and stormed off up the hill leaving me behind!
After a bit the rain eased and eventually the sun came out and it turned into a lovely day for running. I crested the top of the hill, past the windfarm and eventually after many ups and downs arrived at Carradale for the first checkpoint 15.5 miles in 2 hours 30 which I was pleased with considering I had allocated 3 hours for this leg.. I had a quick bathroom stop, munched down a rice pudding and then explained to a slightly bemused Marshal that yes, a scotch pie really was a good thing to be eating 15 miles into an ultra race!
As I set off again he said “the next bit might be tricky because the tide is in, and the tide isnt normally in for the race. Just stay as close to the cliff as you can” Words to send you off with confidence or what!
Through the little coastal village of Carradale the views were idyllic in the sunshine. Pristine beaches, blue skies and sparkling sea for as far as the eye could see. Then the path disappeared.
He hadn’t been joking. There really wasnt a path. It was every man for himself, clambering and hopping over seaside rocks while trying to persuade your hip flexors that just because they had run up and down a hill for 15 miles was no reason not to pretend you were a 5 year old enjoying a day at the seaside. Eventually after much cursing, dry land was reached followed by an ankle deep dance through a bog, some circuitous navigation and an abortive attempt at straddling a barbed wire fence, the main road was reached and it was time to head inland once more.
The good weather had decided to bugger off and the wind was whipping up as the path headed into the hills once more. The bizzareness of this leg continued with a massive climb, followed by a wee slalom through a dense forest, some bog hopping, burn crossing and an overgrown path through a large deforested hillside. Eventually I made it to the second checkpoint at Ifferdale farm, where the lovely people there filled my bladder and made me a cup of coffee!
At this point I was going through my obligatory 20 mile slump. I changed into my compression shorts, pulled on a warm base layer, swallowed 2 paracetamol and headed out again. Out of the farm the heavens opened and it started to pour. As the path climbed I was passed by a couple of relay runners who were the first runners I had seen for several hours. I was still feeling pretty low and was trying to make progress up the hill into a headwind (why is it always a headwind?) . As luck would have it every time I managed to coax myself into something resembling a trot I had to stop to cross a cattle grid, open a gate or one occasion tell a nice lady on a bike that no I hadnt seen number 29.
The climb seemed to go on forever and as the path opened out on to the top of the hill it is hard to describe just how horrible it was on the exposed hill with torrential rain and a howling headwind. The rain I can cope with, but the wind was just soul destroying. I was conscious that I was starting to feel a bit better and was pleasantly surprised to notice that I had gone through marathon distance in 5:07. With the wind howling and blowing hailstones into my face I was trying to do calculations in my head. Did that mean it was only 9 miles to go? If so why did I keep adding on 14 because 14 was the leg length not the distance from where I passed the 26 mile point. And if I could run it at 10 minute mile pace what finishing time would it get me? etc etc such is the random nonsense which goes through your head when you are stuck in the middle of nowhere with screaming quads, stinging skin and wind swirling round your head. Eventually the path started heading downhill and I started to pick up so by the time I hit the relatively flat section alongside Loch Lussa I was actually running reasonably well. The route description says that from here to the end in Campbeltown is “undulating”. No shit Sherlock! Undulating as in up a f*@king big hill then down a f*@king big hill, then up another even bigger hill and then repeat!
On one of these sections Paul Giblin the race winner trotted past me in his very distinctive running style looking fresh as a daisy after 63 miles of running. This gave me a bit of a boost and I found myself almost smiling as I picked up pace and even started running the ups again. By this stage the wind and rain were of Biblical proportions and I was so grateful for my OMM Kamleika smock ( though if Mr and Mrs OMM and the wee OMM elves could do something about the cuffs saturating that would be much appreciated).
On to the main road into Campbeltown and it did occur to me that I couldnt see any of the distinctive arrows which had highlighted the route through most of the way. Remember at the start I said that I couldnt really be bothered preparing properly for this? So of course I didnt bring my map, hadnt read the instructions for the last bit into the town and assumed there would be signs pointing to the finish. Wrong! Despite being within 100 metres of the finish I proceeded to run straight past the road junction before doing a tour of Campbeltown while trying to get a map on my phone. Slightly shame faced I finally made it to the finish at the Aqualibrium arriving from completely the wrong direction.
Even with my detour I made it to the finsh in 6:57 on my watch which I am grumblingly pleased with even though I would have preferred not to add on an extra mile!
I collected my bag, had a hot shower, headed to Tesco to buy some beer and then met up with David, Margaret and Alastair and was pleased to learn that they had had a good day out and had all enjoyed good runs.
We enjoyed the free Loch Fyne beer while we waited for Helen to finish her relay leg. She came storming home in a really good time of 3 hours having braved some horrendous weather.
It wasn’t until sitting afterwards sharing a few beers with ultra legends George, Karen and Lorna that I realised that my grumps had gone, something had shifted physically and mentally. Funny how a day filled with pain, solitude and pissing rain can do that for you.
Overall, despite my reservations this turned into a really good weekend with good running and good people.
this is a good event, run by nice folk, but a wee bit more organisation and the addition of a proper finish line would make it into a great race.
I am getting better at running hills.
I still shouldnt run up hills in the first few miles just because I can. It comes back to bite later on.
Pies are indeed the perfect ultra food.
OMM jackets are the dogs bollocks.
Wind is depressing.
Miles 26+ are much easier than miles 20-26 so dont get depressed and just keep going.
Pure Grit shoes shed water better than anything else I have tried.
Despite being unnatural and pervy Injinji toe socks do in fact keep your feet comfortable and blister free
Don’t know whether it is the beer or the endorphins, but ultra runners do seem to be an unfeasibly cheerful bunch.