West Highland Way Race 2017

It’s been too long since I last posted an update on here. Home, family, work have all had to take priority for most of this year and that statement sums up the foundation I took into my main race for the year. Then, as if poor training and lack of race experience weren’t enough, Scotland decided to throw some weather at us on the day too. And so goes the story of the 2017 West Highland Way race.

If you are not familiar with the WHW race, take a look at my blog from last year or at the race website. In summary, it is a 95 mile race along Scotland’s most famous long distance trail. It has a unique status in the running community due to the awesomeness of the achievement, but also due to the family nature which the race enthuses in everyone who takes part. You can’t appreciate the sense of community until you take part, but once you do, it’s easy to see why so many people keep coming back for more.

This year, I was one of those who came back for more. After finishing in 22 hours and 49mins in 2016 and learning so much about how to run the race, I wanted to go back and see if I could apply the lessons I’ve learned and improve on that time. My two main areas of improvement were going to be about the time I spent in checkpoints and pacing the earlier sections of the race better. In 2016 I spent a couple of hours in total stopped, so I hoped that limiting any stop to 10 mins would help shave some time off. I was supported this year by two friends from Falkland Trail Runners, Carole and Susan, who were just amazing.  We spent some time before the race going through the details of how I wanted to approach it and, feeling prepared, we arrived in Milngavie at 9:30pm on Friday night.

My fabulous support crew before the race

After registration, I curled up on the back seat of Carole’s car and had a couple of hours sleep before the race. The 1am start time is the first challenge the race throws at you. Like most runners, life has to keep going and I’d been up since 6am with William, then a few hours work until lunchtime followed by some last minute preparations. By the time Friday evening arrived, I’d already had a full day under my belt so a 95 mile race was going to be tough. And it was.

I caught up with a bunch of running friends at the start line before the gun went off, then it was away into the darkness ahead of us. The early sections are straightforward enough and allow you to settle into the race. I was happy with my pace as we neared the Glengoyne distillery, but then a twinge in my right calf was a familiar feeling and, as I feared, before long the twinge turned into the sharp pain of a calf tear. I stopped at the side of the trail easing it out with some stretches and hoped it wasn’t as bad as I feared. It didn’t ease up so I started to walk it off, knowing I had to move forwards anyway. As I moved, I found that I could manage a hobbled walk, then a light jog, but my calf wasn’t happy. Meeting my crew at Drymen, I explained what had happened and they showed me exactly why I’d chosen them. They patted me on the back and said ok, see you at Balmaha, let’s see how you are feeling there.

Last year the weather was a crystal clear day right from the start, meaning the night-time section was run against a backdrop of clear night skies full of stars and the mid-summer sun rising early, meaning head torches were off long before Conic hill. This year was much different with grey skies overhead, that early sunshine was obscured meaning the torch stayed on until Balmaha. I tried turning it off on the way down Conic hill but immediately stumbled on a rock and rolled an ankle on the same leg as my calf. Now I felt completely justified in feeling sorry for my self. I kept moving forwards knowing food and a few minutes rest was waiting for me at the bottom of the hill. My crew were amazing again. Porridge was waiting for me, fresh water bottles and gels, then a push in the back and told to get going.

Loch Lomond from Conic Hill

By the time I reached Rowardennan I was in a poor state. My leg was still hurting and to exacerbate things, I’d become slack in my food intake thinking the CP was closer than it was. As I reached the girls, I was doing my best junkie impression looking as white as a ghost and shivery. More food, some paracetamol and some strapping, then the now familiar push in the back and a hug and I was off again.

The loch side section from Rowardennan to beyond Inversnaid has been my nemesis in every one of the three races I’ve run on the WHW so far. It is a gnarly, root and rock laden trail which feels impossible to me to maintain speed over. For whatever reason, I found it enjoyable this year. I felt like I managed to keep some momentum and the food I’d had at Rowardennan and the tablets had put paid to my aches. A quick pit stop at Inversnaid for some water and before I knew it I was running into Beinglas and my anxious crew. My smiles as I arrived put us all at rest and it was time to get moving up to Auchtertyre.


My Anaesthetists for the race – Carole and Susan


As I passed Crianlarich, the weather started to turn. It had been grey and cool with a little wind so far, which made it a) perfect running weather and b) the perfect antidote to midges who had pestered us here last year. As I came into the checkpoint at Auchtertyre, the rain and wind started and the mood of the race was changed. I reached Auchtertyre in 11h 21m, which was almost 30 minutes slower than last year. The injuries earlier in the race had put a big dent in my hopes of a faster time, but things were going ok now, so I settled into my run. The section from here to Bridge of Orchy is generally quite fast so I knew that it would be a confidence boost if I can make it through that without any more problems.

Arriving into Bridge of Orchy

By the time I reached my team at Bridge of Orchy I felt like I was on cloud nine. I’d had a great run, taking 2h 23m, which given the driving rain and headwind we were all running into, I was happy despite being a further 10 mins slower than last year. My running was settled, I felt good about drink and calorie intake. These long races mean that you have to ride the lows to get to the highs.

Next up was Rannoch Moor. This long, desolate stretch of path was miserable last year because of the dehydrating high temperatures and lack of places to hide from the sun. This year, I was begging for that sunshine to come back as a biting northerly wind took hold of the heavy rain and turned it into a weapon against everyone one of us crossing that barren landscape. Determined to get through it, I was faster over this section this year by 15 mins. Sheltering in the car in the car park at Glencoe was like a haven from the horrible conditions. After some more food and a change of clothing into full on cold weather gear, I was kicked out of the car and sent on my way.


From the 2017 wild weather collection on the Devils Staircase


My crew met me at the bottom of the devil’s staircase. The run from the ski center to this point had been horrible. The wind and rain had increased and Glencoe is a bleak place when weather like that is blowing through. There was nobody ahead or behind me in sight so it felt continually more and more isolating. Carole and Susan came up the staircase with me encouraging me on which I was hugely grateful for. I left them about half way up so they could get around to Kinlochleven in time for me. As I went over the top of the hill, I rolled my right ankle again for the second time. This time it wasn’t something I could run off. I’d slipped on some wet rock and was struggling to keep upright in the high wind. I kept moving and eventually limped down to Kinlochleven in just over 3 hours, 20 minutes slower than last year.

Soup-er food for runners

With warm soup waiting for me and the knowledge that there was ‘only’ Lairig Mor left to do, I wasn’t going to give up here. Some strapping for my ankle helped, as did a change into dry clothes, some clean socks and a different pair of trainers with more grip. The by now familiar kick up the arse and sent on my way was administered and I promised to see the girls in Fort William.

The climb out of Kinlochleven is always longer and steeper than I remember it being. It was tough and then, just as you reach the top, you step into the driving rain that you’d been protected from as you climbed up through the trees. From this point onwards, there was only one story and it involved the weather. I was tired, cold, wet, hurting and long out into the distance was that lonely track. Half way across it was Jeff Smith and his Wilderness emergency team, looking out for people like me stupid enough to be crossing that lonely place in exactly these kinds of conditions. He took this photo which gives you a sense of what we were dealing with:

Lairig Mor. Pic courtesy of Jeff Smith

There was so much rain, the rocky track was inches deep in water and it was like running through a river. Lundavra eventually appeared on the horizon and I was so happy to know that the worst was over. The trail from Lundavra through to Glen Nevis used to be a pleasant experience but recent forestry work with some heavy machinery has put paid to that. In the darkness, one section of trail appeared to end as it went head first into knee deep tracks left behind by a digger of some sort. The familiar trees were gone which made for a disorientating experience for those of us who knew that area. Finally, the last small climb to the fire road which winds down through Glen Nevis was in front of me and I could see the head torches of other people ahead of me for the first time in hours.

It turned out that some of those torches were from my crew who had come out to meet me as they were so worried after seeing my ankle at KLL. I was over the moon to see a friendly face after the experience of Lairig Mor. I explained that it was downhill all the way and that I had something like 48 minutes to get in under 24 hours and, providing my ankle would let me, I was planning on going fast down the track all the way to the finish. I’m not sure they quite expected it, but running 5min\km downhill at the tail end of a 95 mile ultra wasn’t quite what they were expecting.

Sadly, it wasn’t enough and I crossed the line in 24hrs and 2 mins. It didn’t matter one bit though, I was so happy to have finished given how tough things had been throughout the day. I know that if it hadn’t been for my crew, I would have given up on the race early in the day and missed the opportunity to finish. They were amazing and I will be forever grateful to them. Races of this length require more than just physical fitness. You can plan for things going well, but you have to accept when things don’t go well and disrupt that plan. The experience of doing this kind of race is incredible and as someone reminded me at Bridge of Orchy, there is a world full of people who can’t imagine what it is like to complete something like this and we are all doing this on their behalf. I feel proud of finishing this tough race twice in respectable times. All the people involved in making it happen contribute to those of us lucky enough to run in it and I say a huge thank you to all of you.

Proud to receive my 2nd race goblet

The award ceremony on Sunday morning was another emotional experience. The winner, Rob Sinclair, set a new astounding course record of 13h 41m. An incredible performance which is really difficult to comprehend how it is achieved. The final finisher finished 20 minutes before the ceremony and was handed her goblet by the winner, as is the tradition of this race, and was given a standing ovation by everyone in the hall as a mark of respect.

Now, it’s time to recover. I put my body through some serious conditions on Saturday and I suspect it is going to take a lot of time to recover. That’s ok though. I’m happy to relax, take the time to recover and be satisfied with what I’ve achieved.

My fabulous crew who deserve the goblet as much as I do


The Great Glen Ultra

If you have to run 72 miles, then I can’t think of a better place that I’d like to do it.


Loch Ness from Dores Inn


I’d set out my strategy for the race during the week leading up to it. I wanted to run light, to spend less time at checkpoints and to pace well to last the distance. This meant that my drop bags were simple enough this time to arrange and on Thursday, I got 6 ziplock bags and placed a sachet of Tailwind in each one along with a cereal bar or two just in case the liquids weren’t working well for me. I also threw some gels into the last 3 of the 6 bags for the later stages of the race in case I needed some more calories along these legs which looked longer and steeper than the first 30 or so miles. Tailwind was the foundation of my nutrition for this race and it worked amazingly well. I’m so happy I discovered this stuff and I now feel really confident in using it for other races.

With everything packed, Thursday nights sleep was restless. I was worried about if the tailwind approach would work or if I would starve after 10 miles. I was taking a bum bag on the race with a windproof smock, foil blanket, headtorch, a light snack and a spare buff. This was far less than I’ve carried before in the big Salomon vest I used in the fling, which was part of the travel light approach, but it made me worry that I would need more.

Friday I caught the train via Perth up to Inverness and met up with a friend who was also running the race. He and his wife had a hotel room which they kindly allowed me to use for a shower before we headed to the coach which would take us to the start. Before then though we had a few hours to kill in Inverness. It was a lovely summers evening and we ended up at the Dores Inn for dinner. This gave us an amazing view down the glen across Loch Ness. It was scary looking off into the distance of the picture at the start of this post and realising that as far as we could see, wasn’t even half way distance of the race! With a meal inside us, and a shower and quick change back at their hotel, we headed off on the coach to the start line. By now it was 10pm and my sleep triggers were kicking in. I curled up on the back seat of the coach and managed to get some broken sleep during the 1h 30m drive. But the excitement was preventing me from really resting.

The Race

After handing in drop bags and picking up my race number, it was time to wait again before the start. A few minutes to 1am we all walked across to the bottom of Neptunes Staircase for a pre-race briefing and finally, we were off.

Race Briefing Photo: Fiona Rennie

Race Briefing Photo: Fiona Rennie

Despite my best intentions, I allowed myself to get pulled along for the first few miles with an average pace of about 5m30s\km, which was about a minute faster per km than I wanted to be. Scott and I were running along together for the first mile but he pulled away after that and I let him go. He’s far too good a runner for me to keep up with. I fell in with a couple of guys who were more sensibly paced, but still faster than my target pace. I went along with these guys until CP1 where I let them get away from me and I then settled into my pace.

10 miles in and it was still dark, or at least as dark as it gets in the Highlands mid summer. The first 10 miles had been almost all on canal path, which was quite hard and compacted, but now we were into forest trails and fire roads which were much more enjoyable. We also hit some of the first elevation of the course. This surprised me as I’d thought the first 20 to 30 miles were all very flat. None of the climb was high or tough, just rolling forest trails, but it meant it sapped your energy. At 3am in the morning after being up for over 24 hrs and the adrenalin rush of pre-race nerves, it all took its toll on me.

CP2 came and went and looking back now, all I remember were midges galore eating me alive as I filled my water bottle. It was somewhere in the forest near Laggan and I just wanted to get moving again. I shuffled out of the CP and as I climbed the next trail I realised the guys in front had turned off their head torches as the twilight was starting to brighten. This gave me a considerable lift as I knew I’d got through the night time stage now. It was all going to be brighter from here onwards. And then this happened:

Sunrise over the Great Glen

Sunrise over the Great Glen

Sunrise clouds Picture: Norman Mcneill

Sunrise clouds Picture: Norman Mcneill

I’ve discovered so many wonderful things from running, but it is moments that produce that kind of view that stop you in your tracks. It is unlikely I would ever have been stood, alone in a forest in the middle of the great glen at 4 in the morning to see the sun come up and produce such a spectacular display.

The trails now were coming back down to loch side and eventually hit Invergarry where you drop into the village and cross over a small river before climbing back up again alongside the loch. This bit confused the hell out of me and I was convinced I’d taken a wrong turn and was heading back down the opposite side of loch lochy. I eventually got my phone out and switched on the GPS signal to see where I was on the map, of course to be reassured I was heading in the right direction. Now it seems utterly stupid of me to have become so disoriented, but in the race things like this just happen I guess.

After more forest trails the route eventually got on to the canal path leading to Fort Augustus. During the race, this felt like very early on, but I realise now that I was probably a good 26+ miles in. After the dark and then the ups and downs of the forest trails combined with overnight tiredness and fatigue, this flat path alongside the Caledonian canal became my nemesis. I knew where Fort Augustus was, which was the next CP and end of this path. In my mind though I thought the path was much shorter and every twist and turn exposed yet another long sweep of path into the distance with no sign of the locks and boats that signal the town. I hit a real low point here.

In my head I was having a conversation about why I was doing this, what was I achieving. My running had been great and I’d done the fling and Edinburgh marathon, so why was I even here at all? I was starting to make up excuses in my head about how and why I should drop out at the CP. Eventually the locks came into sight and I knew the car park for the CP was only a few minutes away. I knew what I was going to do, walk in, say thank you, but I’m done, please take me away.

Unfortunately for me the CP was staffed by those people in life who you just can’t help but smile at because they make you feel great, no matter how sorry you feel for yourself. There was banter in the air and a few other runners were still there sorting themselves out. I was overwhelmed and before I knew it I was feeling great, eating a cereal bar from my drop bag and filling my water bottle. All the doubts were gone from this point on and I was going to finish this thing. Those ladies at the CP did an amazing job of lifting me out of my slump and at the time they didn’t know it. The people who volunteer for this kind of thing always impress me and now inspire me to help out at events. You all do a wonderful job people and thank you for giving up your time to help people like me who feel sorry for themselves when they hit your check point!

Arriving at CP3 ready to quit Photo: Fiona Rennie

Arriving at CP3 ready to quit. Photo: Fiona Rennie

So now I was back out and up the road. A short residential bit in Fort Augustus before back on the trail. The trail markers were a problem throughout the day. Whilst they are a vivid pastel blue colour, during a race like this when your mind is all over the place, they were sometimes hard to spot. A guy about 500m ahead of me missed the marker as we exited Fort Augustus and headed north on the A82! I was worried as it is a fast stretch of road and the path had ended. I tried to call him back but he was too far gone and there was no way my legs were up to sprinting to get him, so I call race control and let those guys chase him down. I hope he was ok and made it safely back; it was so easy to miss those markers.

This next stretch to Invermoriston was all up and down forest trail so I had plenty of time to walk and get myself back together after the low point. About 5 minutes out of the CP I realised I hadn’t been listening to music, so I switched on my phone and plugged my earphones in. It was amazing how it lifted me and looking back at my times around here, it had a material effect and I need to remember that for future races. After about 30 minutes a guy caught up with me and started chatting. By this time I’d been on my own for an hour or two so was glad of the company. Stephen was from Edinburgh and it was his first time in the race too. We got on really well and eventually ended up running the rest of the race together and having a great time.

Early morning above Loch Ness

Early morning above Loch Ness

We hit Invermoriston feeling pretty good and ready to get moving quickly. It had been raining heavily by now and everyone was soaked to the skin. Thankfully the temperature didn’t drop too much so it made it quite pleasant to run in and certainly manageable as long as you kept moving. I knew the hill out of Invermoriston was short and very sharp so it was head down and paced it up there and get it out of the way. At the top was the big decision of the day for most people. The Great Glen Way has a high and a low route. The race brief told us we were taking the low route and thankfully, due to the recce Scott and I did a few weeks ago, I knew exactly where to make the choice. Sadly, lots of others didn’t and it turns out most of the race followed those pesky trail markers to another few hundred meters of elevation to add to their race.

Before Invermoriston we’d also bumped into a few others who were running around us at about the same pace. We were surprised later down the course to see them come up behind us as they’d left the CP before us, but they’d taken the high route and suffered as a consequence. Ah well! Invermoriston to Drumnadrochit is a long section and there was a water point about half way. About two miles before this Stephen and I came across another runner in the race who was clearly not having a good time. We ended up walking to the water point with him to make sure he was safe as neither of us felt he could or should be left on his own as his condition was too poor. I later found out he had been up the front of the race until around this area and running with my friend Scott who said he seemed like a really strong runner. It just shows that anyone can have a bad day. We left him with the CP but there was no phone signal so had to run on to the next CP to let them know he was there. Because it was raining and we’d been going so slow, both Stephen and I were in pretty poor shape too at this point through low body temperature and stiff legs. The jog down to Drumnadrochit helped warm us up and we caught up on the way with Pauline and Derek who we also spent much of the rest of the race with as a big group.

I have to say, all the people I met in this race were amazing. We all shared our stories and experiences during the hours we had together and all of them were just incredibly nice and genuine people who I would love to remain friends with. Amongst all the positive things from the race, the people I met was the best thing.

Drumnadrochit came and went. I met Mike who is part of the BaM race organising team and who I actually bought the shoes I was wearing in the race from about 9 months ago. We got an update on the guy who wasn’t well and heard he was recovering well which made us all smile. Then it was off again. A long sweeping road around the town before a narrow track heads back up hill. This climb was one of the toughest and a little technical in places. It eventually deposited us out onto a forest road which meandered towards the next CP.

Stephen and I arriving in CP6

Stephen and I arriving in CP6


This CP came about much faster than I anticipated and I knew we were on the home straight from here. Pauline who was with us had run the race before and explained our route from here to give everyone a taste of these last 12 miles.

The final CP was once again a happy place with fantastic helpers. We heard that almost everyone had taken the high route and when I explained we’d taken the low route, someone joked that myself and Stephen were now in first and second place, which produced the wildest look I’ve ever soon of myself in a photo:

On hearing we were in the few who had taken the correct race route. Photo: Fiona Rennie

On hearing we were in the few who had taken the correct race route. Photo: Fiona Rennie

The trail here headed through a section which felt like we were going to emerge in a snow covered land like Narnia. The trail was narrow and had trees growing in from both sides creating a face slapping experience that we probably all needed to get our backsides moving again. Then came the road.

Oh that road. It felt like it went on and on and on.

It did actually, it went almost all the way to Inverness. By now we were a group of about five of us. Along the road Pauline and John who had been running with us showed us exactly how strong and experienced they were and set off along the road. The rest of us were too fatigued to keep pace but we kept the in sight long enough to see where we turned off the road and back on to the trail. Then a long, relatively flat forest trail eventually led to a clearing which allowed us to see Inverness for the first time and, amazingly, the sun came out just in time to make it look even more appealing.

The trail headed down hill steeply here which actually felt good on the legs. In contract to the fling, my quads were in great shape despite having around 1000m of more climbing to do in this race. I don’t know if I just paced better here or if I am strong or a combination of the two. As we reached the bottom, Derek pointed out that if we picked up the pace, we could still make it in under 15 hours and 30 minutes; the challenge was set!

We hit a residential area, around a golf course then popped up on the canal. By now we had less than two minutes to make it. We had a bridge to cross and a road, then on to the athletics track in the stadium before a 200m dash for the finish. Myself, Stephen and Derek all picked up the pace perfectly and ended up crossing in a very respectable 15hours 29 minutes and 47 seconds.

Me, Stephen and Derek in a sprint finish

L to R – Myself, Stephen and Derek in a sprint finish with a smile!

Crossing the line in the sunshine felt amazing and doing it with these two guys made it even better. They were fantastic company the whole way and we all helped each other along throughout the day. We were handed goodie bags and Derek got some ritual abuse for choosing the high route, and then we were done.

Link to Strava activity.

Post Race

Saturday I stayed in Inverness and met up with Scott and his wife Lisa again. We headed out for a post race meal, which Scott and I nearly fell asleep at. Despite that, we ended up having a really enjoyable night. I ended up having a stroll around the city afterwards to stretch my restless legs, which I think helped with recovery and my legs felt fine after that.

Inverness looking great in the twilight

Inverness looking great in the twilight

The following day we had a ceremony for the prize giving and every finisher received a whisky tumbler and a miniature bottle. Mike Raffan won the race for the 2nd year in a row in a breath taking 11h 30m. My friend Scott finished 4th despite twisting his ankle around 20 miles in! Incredible performances.

The finishers glass and a nip

The finishers glass and a nip

Looking back, I am still overwhelmed with how fantastic this race was. I loved all of it, even the low parts and would love to head back and do it all again. There are things I have learnt from this which will help me in more ultras now. My shoes were not a good choice and I needed something more cushioned. My travel light approach worked brilliantly and the hand held bottle is definitely the way to go in future. My nutrition was perfect and I felt fuelled all day, thank you Tailwind! I love the distance, you need to respect it, but it gives you time to correct things and still achieve a respectable time. I loved the route. We are so lucky to have such amazing places like this near by to run through. I think a few more additional race direction arrows might have helped as some of the blue way markers are amazingly difficult to spot especially when tired. I imagine managing a course of this length though is tough work and the guys at BaM put on a great race so no complaints at all from me.