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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.