On a rainy Saturday morning we took a wee trip to Rowardennan. The West Highland passes through Rowardennan before heading off into the relative wilderness of the East side of Loch Lomond.
After many years the “Low Road” has been cleared, the path upgraded and it is now open to walkers and runners once more. I was last on the low road nearly 20 years ago when I walked the West Highland Way carrying heavy rucksacks with my son Hamish who at the time was only 8 years old or so.
This time the point of the trip was to run to Inversnaid and back, carrying out a recce of the Low Road as I expect to be “racing” on it in June. I put the word racing in quotes because I always find that I am pretty wrecked by the time I get to Rowardennan about 26 miles in to the route regardless of which race I am doing. Fortunately I usually recover later on, but the prospect of actually racing at this point is unlikely!
The total distance from Rowardennan to Inversnaid is around 7.5 miles. It is described on the official WHW web site here
The first section is along a good road which works its way past the Youth Hostel until it bears right and starts to climb uphill through a gate just after Ptarmigan Lodge.
The first section can be seen in the following short video clip
About 300m after the gate the new low road drops sharply to the left at a big bend in the road. It is likely that this route will be used by the West Highland Way Race this June (2016). The Highland Fling race will continue to use the “High Road” so Fling runners will not turn on to the low road but will continue up hill for another 2.5 miles. The Fling route is easier running but not nearly as interesting as the Low Road.
The Low Road can be seen here, slightly speeded up. Apologies also for the slightly jaunty angle of the video at times. Either my camera was squint or my head was, not sure which.
The Low Road joins the High Road once more and descends to the lochside for a nice 2.5 mile run through some nice forested trail with the odd waterfall to skip through for good measure before finally arriving at Inversnaid Hotel and the spectacular waterfalls there.
Inversnaid is a pretty god forsaken place on race day. Most people arrive there feeling horrible, there are very few supporters because it is too far to get there by road. It is only 7ish miles by foot and more than 30 miles by road. When you arrive in Inversnaid on race day you usually find the midges have already eaten the contents of your drop bag, and you have only the slowest most technical part of the course still to come in the next 6 miles to Beinglas farm.
Despite the rain, I thoroughly enjoyed my wee jaunt on the new improved Low Road and I didn’t even mind the run back to Rowardennan up the hills of the high road. And anyway, all roads lead to Milngavie in June.
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.
The WHW Race is so much more than just 2 days in June.
It is now half way through November which means that is it is half way through the entry period for the West Highland Way Race 2014. Lots of people will be waiting anxiously for the end of November to discover whether or not they have a place in next year’s race.
I haven’t entered this time around. Despite it being the best thing I have ever done, I shall be trying different races, though I do hope to be involved supporting the race in one way or another.
The West Highland Way Race is all consuming, especially for a first-timer. 5 months on from the race and it still influences me. Apart from my ongoing achilles injury which I picked up as a result of not resting sufficiently after the race there are other little reminders, like the favourites list on the BBC Weather website which popped up this afternoon and which made me smile at the pervasive nature of the race.
That’s the thing about being a glass half empty sort of person – while running is not really an enjoyable experience, NOT running is an even worse experience.
I am injured. Nothing serious, but bad enough that I am NOT running. My Achilles and its eponymous niggle has flared up again.
I have had this injury several times before and I know how to rehab it. Unfortunately this takes time, patience and NOT running.
It is bad enough that I finished the West Highland Way Race with my glass filled nearly up to the top and a real enthusiasm to get out and train for my Autumn marathons, which are now approaching at an alarming rate while I am NOT running.
What is even worse is that the reason I am NOT running is because I am STUPID. I finished WHW in fine fettle and recovered well. I started doing some speedwork and all was well. I picked up a wee bit of soreness running on the Clyde Walkway. Instead of taking some rest, I followed this up with two consecutive days of hard runs, and after the second one I couldn’t run at all. This was Wednesday. Arran Half Marathon was Sunday, so stayed off the foot until the Sunday and managed to warm up, but was a bit achy. STUPID mode kicks in. It’s a race, I am here, what is the worst that could happen, after all my plan is to take it easy and just use it as a training run, especially in the heat. Gun goes, off goes STUPID, a full minute a mile faster than plan. By 2 miles it was getting sore, but being STUPID I assured myself it was just a bit stiff and would ease out as it warmed up. By 4 miles it was so sore that I had to stop. Police car stops while I am stretching against a telegraph pole and asked if I was ok or did I need help? STUPID says I’ll be fine and just stretch it out. Police car drives off and STUPID determines that he is as well continuing because it is too far to walk back now. Next, STUPID tries to make a bandage from his calf sleeve doubling it over until the ankle is supported enough to get going. Eventually after much hobbling STUPID made it to the finish in 1 painful hour and 41 STUPID minutes.
Two weeks later and I am still NOT running because I am STUPID. And because I am NOT running it is making me frustrated, tetchy, fed up, and even more grumpy than usual. Or so I am told!
I will admit to being just the teensiest less jolly than usual, while my stomach swells up to the size of a bloated gas-filled dead water buffalo and my legs become as stiff as the legs on the aforementioned maggot ridden corpse.
I am missing my daily dose of pain. So now I am miserable because I can’t get my daily misery fix because I am STUPID and NOT RUNNING.
Grump. Grump. Wanders off into the distance muttering something about Flax….
Living inside the intense race bubble was an incredible experience and I found it difficult to give up the adrenaline and support network which existed in that bubble and return to real life.
Physically I am pretty well healed. I have run a few times since the race and while I am still a little tired I don’t have any race related niggles. I have picked up a bit of an achilles injury which didn’t come from the race itself but may be an indicator of trying to do a wee bit too much too soon. Or it could just be bad luck.
Some random thoughts on my race
Feet – My feet were great, I had no issues at all. The taping I used over potential hot spots worked well and despite being on my feet for 27 hours I had only one small blister and a bashed toe but nothing which affected my ability to run.
Toilet – unlike some others, I had no bother with toilet issues. In fact I didnt need to poo all the time I was running.
Sleep – doing without sleep wasn’t a huge problem. It was a bit of a struggle the first night, especially the half light in the early hours when I would fall asleep while running through the woods. Once the sun came up I seemed to get past being sleepy and although I had an unplanned sleep of an hour at Kinlochleven, I wasn’t unduly tired on the second night.
Shoes – my shoes worked well for me. I ran the first section in Brooks Pure Grits. I changed into Inov-8 Roclite 365’s to take me from Balmaha to Bein Glas and ran the remainder of the Way in Brooks Cascadias. The Cascadias in particular did a good job over the stoney trails of the second half of the Way.
Gear – I had posted about all the gear I had prepared for the race. In the end I used quite a bit of it. The only gear surprise was that I wore compression shorts and calf guards over the first half of the race and discarded them for the second half which is the opposite of what I was expecting to happen. I had a bit of a wardrobe failure when my 2XU shorts and X-bionic pants got soaked and the seams caused some nasty chaffing.
My headtorches worked well. The Tikkina torch gave plenty light and the battery life meant no issues with batteries. Wearing a second torch on my wrist was genius as the ability to target light made a massive difference.
My OMM Kamleika smock was awesome. Despite some horrendous rain, it kept me dry and the ability to vent using the large zip helped keep me cool as well.
Food – on the whole my food worked reasonably well. I probably didn’t eat enough in the middle section of the race which may have contributed to my big slump and subsequent vomitting on the Devil’s Staircase. My breakfast of yoghurt and muesli at Balmaha worked well and I should perhaps have eaten some more of this at later checkpoints. Cheese rolls were tasty. Soup was quite good, but I struggled with the texture of real chicken. I had asked for baked potato and haggis at Glencoe but it didn’t really work – it was too difficult to eat at that stage which meant I probably had less of it than I should have. Despite having trained with trail mix as my snack of choice for eating on the go, on the day I couldn’t face it which was doubly unfortunate because Helen had spent ages preparing lots of little bags of it for me!
Overall I was pretty happy with my first West Highland Way Race. I was disappointed that I got delayed at Kinlochleven and lost lots of time there, but equally I was pleased that I managed to get going again and finish well. I was pleasantly surprised at how well the actual running parts of the race went. Lots of lessons were learned. With a wee bit more experience I think I could shave a few hours off my time and I can’t wait to have another go at it.
Even if I am not running next year, I will definitely be somewhere between Milngavie and Fort William on West Highland Way weekend.
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 Tuesday 18 June. I have two more days to work this week and then it will be time for the West Highland Way Race.
I am for the most part packed. I have made my choices and piled a mountain of gear ready to be crammed into the van on Friday. My support crew, to whom I am eternally grateful, are primed and ready to do whatever is necessary to get me from Milngavie to Fort William.
I could write about all of the niggles I have – my dodgy hip, my sore right foot, the wee bit plantar fasciatis I am experiencing in my left foot, or the weight I haven’t managed to lose or the training I have missed, but in truth none of that matters.
I will be on the start line in Milngavie.
For the last six months I have been surrounded by people for whom the prospect of running 95 miles is normal. That in itself provides a reassuring coccoon in which to train and accept that running such a distance is not only possible, but is in fact an eminently sensible thing to do. In such company your perception of normal shifts, and you just accept that the seemingly impossible is in fact entirely possible.
The people who do the West Highland Way Race are quite unusual, in that they are all “normal”, well balanced, ordinary people who just happen to have a passion for running stupidly long distances through spectacular landscape. For people who do such extraordinary things, they also have a complete lack of ego. Maybe it is because of the enormity of the task, the knowledge that you will succeed only if you recognise and accept your limitations, or the recognition that in such vast landscape you are a tiny insignificant dot, but it is remarkable that even amongst the very fastest runners there is no arrogance.
I am 49 years old. I have seen most of the traumas that life generally throws at people and dealt with them. I have a busy job with enough responsibility to keep me on my toes and deal with the dramas both real and imagined of holding a reasonably senior position in a large organisation. I am one those lucky people who have managed to be successful in a number of different areas through a wee bit talent and a propensity for hard work.
But I Haven’t Run 95 miles.
and that for me is the real beauty of the West Highland Way. I get to do something for the first time and I get to do something that can’t be bluffed, blagged or dressed up in management bullshit. I get to stand on a start line not knowing if I can make it to the finish. The furthest I have ever run is 53 miles and I am now attempting to run 95. That is crazy.
Am I nervous? Oh yes! Am I afraid? Not at all. I have confidence in the race organisers and my support crew to look after me. I am resolved that barring accident I shall make it to Fort William, if only because I have never considered the possibility of not making it to Fort William.
At some point in this race my legs will stop working, it will hurt a great deal and I will have to look inwards and decide if I have what it takes. The anticipation of pain is not the same as experiencing pain and in some ways I am looking forward to the pain because that means the race has really started and while it is still in the relatively safe environment of a race, you are transported back to more primal times and it is just about your ability to keep moving in wild places.
It has to be possible to make it to Fort William because other people have made it there year after year. I also know that people I respect have not made it there some years. I cannot contemplate that. The prospect of living with the failure is something which will keep me moving forward. I have always been someone who has been driven by fear of failure rather than desire for success in my sporting endeavours, despite actually being pretty successful at sport over the years. I am probably the modern sports psychologists nightmare. Maybe it is down to my good Scottish upbringing where if you were 2nd, rather than a pat on the back you get asked why you weren’t first, or if you won at rugby you get asked did you score? Anyway, enough of my demons, there are whole generations of Scotsmen with the same baggage and generally speaking it made us more successful as a nation than the current trend of making everyone a winner whether they succeeded or not.
So to Milngavie it is. A massive step into the unknown. Let the weather and the midges do their worst and here’s hoping I earn the right to hobble up to receive my Crystal Goblet on Sunday lunchtime.