West Highland Way Race: the road is long

Having trained continuously for 18 months, planned meticulously and, for once, packed everything in good time, all that was left was to get excited and share the pre-race build up on the West Highland Way Family facebook page.  Spirits were high all round on Friday as we packed the team Polo with boxes of food, clothing, and myriad accessories then zoomed down the road just in time for the ferry to Troon. Once in Scotland, the last of the sunshine brightened our mood further as we travelled through the beautiful countryside to the starting point at Milgavie. Last minute supplies of fudge and duct tape were purchased from Tesco and a last ‘battered-sausage’ supper enjoyed in the open air while we watched the local youth enjoy fun past-times like ‘throw the cola bottle into the bin’. Perhaps, if it wasn’t my last battered-sausage supper of the weekend I would have fared better! Oh, I elude too early to future drama. First, we must begin…

The car-park was abuzz with registrations and preparations. Fellow NI competitor John happened to park beside us and we kept checking with each other what we were packing and planning. Eventually, there was no more that we could do and dozing seemed the only sensible thing to be at. Graeme and I reclined in the car while Mike chose to get a few hours at full stretch outside. Good job his bivvy was bright red as he nearly got trampled a few times! All too soon we were gathered by the underpass, firing up GPS watches and headtorches. My heart-rate was only 62bpm. To me, this was a good sign that I was confident and starting relaxed: no nervous energy would be wasted early on. Handshakes, hugs and photos of smiling hopefuls were captured before the clock turned 01:00 and we took the first steps into the night. There was a great crowd lining the street through Milgavie, cheering us all the way to the start of the trail. It’s a really warm atmosphere to buoy you up for the long, dark, wet, miles ahead.

I had my GPS rigged to a charging unit, so it was strapped to the back of my pack. I decided to run on feel and check it occasionally on the uphills when I was walking. Everyone was chopping and changing so much at the beginning with all their individual strategies of pacing, run/walk, or stopping to alter layers or adjust shoes and packs. I ignored it all and confidently stuck to my own plans. The rain came and went, but it was mostly light. Even the boggy field at Drymen had just enough firmness to avoid soaked shoes. This made me happy; as did the shorter than remembered climb up Conic Hill, and the technical descent in the first light of day… waking me up into the first checkpoint of the course. Going by feel, I was only 2 minutes off my 23hr schedule. The guys were in great form having enjoyed some quality nap-time while I ran through the night, and got me restocked for the next long section like a well-oiled machine. Fist-bumps and off I trotted.

I had ditched the full water-proof for a wind smock as the next 5 hours would be sheltered in forest, but the rain did return in heavy bursts. Rowardennan is a particularly soggy memory: thousands of dead midges stuck to my legs giving pleasurable retribution for their devilish feasting (liberal slathering of Smidge repellent had no useful effect on the ambushing clouds of the blighters)! It was at this point that my energy started to dip, making the section to Inversnaid seem excessively long. I hoped to have covered more ground on this leg but in reality, Rowardennan, Inversnaid, and Beinglas are about equidistant. I upped the gel intake and downed a good bit of water. The full High5 Protein Recovery shake at CP1 had made me slightly queasy, so I blamed that and decided to only take half a shake at subsequent checkpoints. The next stage to Beinglas can be frustratingly slow but I really enjoy getting immersed in the technical sections. I had to hold back a bit even with the low energy and thought how great it would be to blaze this section fresh some day. I bounced in to Beinglas to find my team boiling up second breakfast. The stove was abandoned immediately to tend my needs. I was 25mins down on schedule at this point, which I was sure I lost on the middle section. The notes show I was ‘still very fresh’, so I must have put it down to a temporary dip to be expected. The thought of extra calories did occur as I remember this was the start of the peanut butter and choc-nut spread gorging. I was 45% of the way… this could work.

The climb out was steady and I could easily motor along with the arms pumping. With a heavy pack, this section feels long and hard, but it is a nice run. It is exposed though, and cold downpours soaked us through. Cow-pat-alley was virtually clean so it wasn’t long before the forest climbs at Bogle Glen offered shelter and the chance for the blood to warm up. The steep descents didn’t favour the knees so I slowed down, but perhaps the energy was starting to dip again and this other reasoning hid the fact. I walked into Auchtertyre. The weigh-in showed my hydration was fine, so I spooned more gooeydness into the belly, changed into a fresh base-layer and topped up the anti-chafing measures after the heavy rain. Mike rolled out with me for 5 mins to get me going at a steady shuffle-run. Bridge of Orchy is pretty much the easiest section and once there I’d have 60 miles in the bag.

3 hours later I stumbled in nearly in tears. I could barely say the words, “it’s just so fucking hard to even walk”, as I grasped onto the car. I felt like an empty shell of a body; and my mind, unable to think straight, was trying to deal with why I was not coming out of a 4-hr dip, the fact everyone seemed to pass me on this section, and saying goodbye to not only the plan-B 24hr time I had been slipping towards, but any re-assessed time. Quitting this one wasn’t an option after all I’d put into it and asked of my friends. I knew I would go on but the enormity of pain that seemingly lay ahead was overwhelming. Luckily, my awesome support crew were one step ahead. Mike was already geared up to accompany me and they gently agreed walking on with regular breaks was the best thing for now. The sun was out and the next stop was 10 miles away… we could reassess there. Energy bar, peanut butter and Boost energy drink consumed. The caffeine, company and scenery brought me back around. It turned into a fun walk as we conquered ‘Jelly Baby hill’ and headed towards Rannoch Mor. The brief ability to converse lasted about 90 minutes before the long trek over Rannoch sapped me again. This time my vision started swirling. Looking for lines through the hard, stony path became hypnotic. Graeme met us at a still busy Glencoe where we had a proper stop before night set in. Mike and I changed socks. I had worn holes in the heel of my Inov8’s which was giving me blisters, and Mike’s new Synapse Salomons were giving him trench foot…or some kind of freaky white skin that was breaking down. Not good when he has the HRP in a week! Up to the cafe we sat down to bowls of pasta bolognese with garlic bread, and a can of Monster. Shortly after swigging some of the Monster my vision took on a white haze and my head started spinning even more… perhaps I should lay off the caffeine! At this point it was all vaguely funny. Embracing our new ‘slow, but in it to the end’ approach we donned trousers and an extra layer for the coming night. The waist pack was swapped for a back-pack with loads of food, midge net, bivvy, etc. Mike loaded up with about 10kg ‘for training purposes’, but the stove and sleeping bag were all in mind to keep me alive if I collapsed and he had to run for help.

We strode out into the fading evening. With other survivors strung loosely fore and aft, we tramped up the Devil’s Staircase howling at the supermoon as we said goodbye to another vista and tried to imagine the countless hidden miles that had already been travelled. I did not allow myself to think forwards… 10 hours of foot punishing drudgery is like a long shift in work when you are ill… after virtually no sleep in 36hrs and having already run 45 miles and walked 30 more straight after. It doesn’t do anyone any favours to think of that! “So, is this the nemesis bit you were talking about?” pipes up Mike as we hit a short descent. “ooohh no. You’ll know it when we get to it. Don’t remind me again, it’s soon enough and it never ends”… what was that about not considering what lay ahead? At least the first section of the Kinlochleven descent was broken up. Our mercenary skills took us to the tree-line before breaking out the head-torches. On the way, we met some friendly marshals bivvying out to check on us 2nd nighters filtering through as technically clad ghosts, and wondered to each other as our night-vision sparked random flashes in our peripheral vision: Was it glitchy neurons firing in an attempt to differentiate low light inputs? Far away plane strobes? In the end we reckoned it was head torches of teams behind us, over the ridge, that were faintly reflecting off the lightly cloudy air. The patchy lichen on the rocks also glowed ethereally, taking on weird appearances. We were well beyond the twilight zone…this is where the strange magic happens, and you only get to experience it when all else has gone wrong.

Tramp, tramp, tramp. Down, down, down. The other great people humble you by their presence…  dogged teams passing with deep dug determination, supporters climbing the mind-numbing trail to meet their weary heroes and guide them in, the lone guy standing in the dark on his phone directing us over the right bridge into town, Mike laughing (despite my complete lack of humour) at the funny dissonance of us emerging from the spectred mountain to walk through a sleepy residential street, and then further past a disco. So many parellel lives and motives in the one small highland village. We found the community centre where they laughed at our comprehensive packing and thought I looked too fresh to be a runner. I always thought I was openly expressive, but perhaps I’ve learnt to detach the pain. Mike had his trail-side foot repairs patched up by the friendly race doctor and I sat down for a while. People were taking naps in the hall to recharge for the final push. I just wanted to get out the door and go. I was happy to go by myself as I didn’t want Mike to risk wrecking his feet anymore before his month-long super trek. I feel perfectly safe in the hills, especially on a one-way path, but the guys weren’t sure having seen the state I was in earlier, so Graeme elected to come with me. We plodded up the continuous twisting climb but the tables turned and I started to worry about Graeme on the uneven footing in the dark. It’s second nature to me, but an ankle wrecker if you’re not used to it. He also had to drive us back later and would get no rest if he stayed out. Perhaps fortunately, he had to stop near the top. A serious lung disease last year had really knocked his capacity on the hills and, only just starting to build up again, this brute had knocked him for 6. We agreed this might not be the best idea: I assured him I would be fine with other teams going the same way and an intermediate marshal point ahead, and sent him back down to rest up. I know he felt bad, but in many ways it did me good: It affirmed how challenging the terrain is, and I was still able to manage. It also freed me from the concern of being poor company or reacting out of character to my good friends.

With faint head-torches painting wandering questions in the distance, I stuck my head down and slipped back into the zone. I was walking. I WAS walking. My mind was still save for instinct. I started to fall asleep, blacking out as I stumbled through the rubble. My feet still seemed to find their way so I saw no reason to stop, but then came across a nice sheltered hollow at the side of the trail so acquiesced to a 10 minute nap to reset the brain. Midge net on and jacket zipped tight I curled up and dozed strange visions of electrical circuits pumping fluorescent tubes around. It made sense; as if some kind of administrative back-log was being worked through. I was being recharged. There was no fear of sleeping-in as I knew another team would come along and check if I was alive. Sure enough I heard their crunching feet around the corner and jumped back into action before they caught up with me.

Soon I reached the tail-end of the bonfire rave at Lundavra and was offered a seat, cup of tea, and a jam sandwich. Not a bad way to greet the dawn. 3 or 4 other teams appeared as I breakfasted, but I was soon ahead of them again with my steady gait. I had declined to run earlier, knowing I was on a tightrope of energy and it would throw me off again. I decided not to run now, even though there was only 10K remaining. The time was irrelevant, and who was I kidding… The final steep climbs burst my heel open and the long, boring descent felt like the death of the universe… a virtual eternity of the last photons dissipating. Fecking Brian Cox, feeding my mind with greater than previously imaginable scales with which to concoct outrageous metaphors after an already tough day!

The feet still move and I start blacking out again as I cover the last mile along the road to Fort William. No need for a nap when it is this close, just don’t get hit by a car. Leisure centre, steps, unmanned timing station… beep, beep… seat. I can’t say there was elation, or even relief. It just was finished. Mike and Graeme appeared, some other people finished, some devine entity handed out bacon rolls with egg, and I fell asleep. I was so in the present, existing in that chair, that some external direction to ‘perhaps freshen up’ was needed. I got changed then slept in the car for 2 hours before the award ceremony. What a crowd! It was amazing to see all the runners and supporters gathered together. Seeing the fastest runners (course record smashed by Paul Giblin in 15:07), the oldest runner (at 70, he beat me by 4 hours), and those who had joined the club of 10 successful completions. From about 181 starters there were 149 finishers, and I was the 121st name to be called out to go up and collect the coveted crystal goblet. 95 miles, 14760ft ascent, 30hrs 18min 25 sec.

The ceremony was rounded off by the winner presenting the goblet to the final finisher; a really nice gesture that shows the inclusive respect among the race ‘family’. It is amazing the people who merrily stand in the pissing rain and midges at all hours to support and look after the runners. There is a real love for the event that comes through everyone involved. I certainly owe a huge thanks to Mike and Graeme who gave up their weekend, sleep and sanity to follow around a zero-craic zombie who then slept most of the way home! They were always cheery, efficient, comprehensive and coming up with good ideas. Next time, just don’t talk to me when I’m suffering about the most amazing burgers you have ever eaten, or the UTMB… “fuck next year, Mike. Seriously, this can’t be healthy. Shoot me if I ever think about doing this again” ;D

The journey home is tales of cancelled ferries, me missing the best burgers in the world at Bridge of Orchy hotel (but getting pretty amazing fish & chips, plus bacon toasty to go in Stranraer) and not forgetting some determined abuse of the system by our man Graeme to get us on the early boat literally, at the last minute when all hope had gone. Getting home by 11pm rather than just boarding the boat at that time made all the difference. What an all-star team I had!!!

*** I’ll update this post with a few photos when I get them, and as it’s already too long I’ll do another post on my reflections of doing a race like this and some of the gear that I used ***

2 Replies to “West Highland Way Race: the road is long”

  1. Thanks Sandra, it was epic alright. Brilliant run yourself (more what I hoped to have run)! Now if these midgy bites would go away then I’d be fully recovered 🙂

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