Red Wine Runner

A Scottish Running Blog

The West Highland Way Race 2011 – RACE REPORT

Before I get started with my write-up of this race weekend, I would like to make a couple of notes first.  A year ago I had never heard of an Ultramarathon; I thought, like most people, that a marathon was pretty much the upper limit of running and it had never even crossed my mind that it would be even possible to push the human body further. I got to know Mike because he is a friend of my boyfriend and the three of us all work at the University of Aberdeen. As I got more and more into running I was grateful to have a friend who was such an endless source of information for a total n00b such as myself and I’ve admired his rapid ascent through the various distances; he obviously has a natural talent for endurance running, as well as being damn fast.

I knew that Mike’s ‘A’ race was the West Highland Way for some time, but I wasn’t asked to crew for him until just recently due to some last minute drop outs in his planned support team. Truthfully, I jumped at the chance to join his team and have a couple of days with the Scottish Ultrarunning ‘family’. When I was at the D33 in March I enjoyed it so much I allowed myself to set my sights higher than a marathon and began to hope that in time I’d be able to be running these races in the SUMS championship too. This past weekend has been equally inspirational and being around such incredible athletes in such a unique, emotionally charged atmosphere has served to further fuel the fire of my own ambition.

Now enough about me. It’s time to tell the tale of a legendary 95 mile race; ran on a historic trail where pairs of feet have tracked for centuries. It lies between Milngavie and Fort William on the West of Scotland and covers nearly 15,000ft of ascent in its duration. Competitors have 35 hours to complete the race after it starts at 1am on Saturday night. The winners will cross the finish line in around 16-18hours, but many of the finishers will endure a second night of running across the hills until they make the final descent into Fort William on Sunday morning. It is in turns both an individual and group experience; each runner has his or her own story as to how they arrive at the start line, and each runner has a very individual experience as he or she makes their way to the finish. However on Sunday morning at the prize giving there is the most phenomenal sense of camaraderie as one by one each finisher hobbled to to the front to collect their prized goblet when their name, time and place were read out – it didn’t matter whether they had finished in 17 or 35 hours; every runner had run along the same trail, crossed the same streams and climbed the same hills. They each had their own struggles but when the names of those who took the longest to finish were read out and the applause got louder and louder, it became obvious that this was a very special race and those who earn their place at the finish line gain lifelong membership to a very special club indeed. Quite simply put; there are two types of runners – those who have, and those who haven’t.

The West Highland Way Race – 95 Miles in 35 hours.

West highland way race 2011

I finished work for the week at 1pm on Friday and gleefully headed home to pack for the adventure that lay ahead. In the past week I’d been making lists of everything I could possibly need for all weather conditions and what I would need to take in terms of food and drink to keep myself in tip top condition. I got everything together and was ready to leave when Mike and Annette arrived at 5.30pm. Our first stop however, was the Brewdog Bar not far from my flat…

At last week’s beer festival Mike had the opportunity to talk to some of the owners and managers of Brewdog about his idea of a possible sponsorship/representation deal for this race, and potentially a Brewdog Racing team of sorts in the future. We weren’t looking for money, more the opportunity to represent the extreme brand that we all love so much in this extreme race. If Brewdog was a sporting event it would be something wild like a 95 mile Ultramarathon – luckily the management agreed, and we left on Friday with tshirts for the team, lots of stickers for the support vehicles, a box of beer to drink/distribute as we pleased and the Tactical Nuclear Penguin suits as well for good measure. At around 6pm we finally got out of Aberdeen and with the Ghost World soundtrack blaring I zipped down the A90 behind Mike and Annette’s car to Stonehaven where we were stopping to pick up team member #4, Vikki.

Vikki and I had only met once before briefly on Tuesday night, but we were soon getting on like a house on fire blethering away about anything and everything (but mainly running ) and before I knew it we were heading through Perth to get on the A85 which would take up directly to Tyndrum where we would be leaving my car. We had a bit of an, ahem, detour at this point and saw a bit too much of Perth city centre, but it was no major problem and we were soon back on track.

The further West we drove, the worse the weather became. It had been a gorgeous day in Aberdeen, but black clouds that had been looming in the distance were now overhead and as we reached Crieff the skies opened. We’d received reports via facebook from friends who were already in the start area that it had been pouring all day on the course, I began to feel even more apprehensive for Mike; what on earth must be going through his head right now as we drove through tropical-style downpours which showed no signs of relenting?

Registration – Is this the way to Amarillo?

After dumping my car in the tourist information car park at Tyndrum we were straight down the road towards the start at Milngavie and arrived around 11pmish. We didn’t park in the station car park which was very wise indeed, as that allowed us to miss the congestion and zip straight away after the race started to the first checkpoint. We got Mike registered and weighed in the church hall,which confusingly, was host to what appeared to be a wedding or birthday party as well in another part of the building and awful rent-a-deejay choons were being pumped out very loudly. Despite such classics by Tony Christie and the Village People creating an odd party atmosphere, there was still an air of nervous apprehension in the room interspersed with whoops, cheers and “Helloooooo!”‘s as old friends were reunited.

We returned to the car and Vikki and I decided to go and hang out in Tesco’s and give Mike and Annette some time to do their final prep, except Tesco’s was about to close so we ended up hanging out in the car park and I met lots of Vikki’s friends from Fetch and other ultra races. The car park was packed with support vehicles – cars, vans, 4x4s and motorhomes and there was quite a festival atmosphere as people played music and sat around their vehicles chatting and drinking tea. I noticed a car that had Canadian flags, and several cars with European foreign plates and I began to get shivers down my spine thinking of how exciting it must be to travel so far to compete in an event like this.

At 12.30am there was the race briefing, and all the runners and support crews gathered and listened to race control deliver the rules and recommendations one last time. Although the rain by this point had stopped for some time, the official word on the situation was “There’s going to be some weather out there so, um …deal with it”. When the briefing concluded, Vikki, Annette and I walked a little way up the high street to get a good view of the start and awaited the air horn that would signal the commencement of the 26th running of the West Highland Way Race.

West highland way race 2011

West highland way race 2011

Mike is at the front here on the right hand side of the chap in the neon yellow (his name is Flip)

West highland way race 2011

At 1am sharp, the 152 runners who had made it to the start lined up (I believe 175 were given places); a sea of head torches, reflective strips and neon clothing. The horn went and they streamed through the underpass and up the High street into the distance to rapturous applause and shouts.

West highland way race 2011

West highland way race 2011

West highland way race 2011

West highland way race 2011

West highland way race 2011

Photographs of the start used with kind permission from Charles Gordon

Bringing up the rear were George Reid and his partner Karen; two accomplished runners and multiple WHW finishers who were the race sweepers. They would be on the course the longest of all as they stayed behind the slowest runners making sure that no-one was left behind. As they walked up the High Street the crowds quickly dispersed as the support teams rushed to their vehicles to begin their own unique journey to Fort William.

 

First support stop – Beech Tree Inn (~7 mi)

Our team had a fairly inauspicious start I’m sad to say. We took a wrong turn coming out of Milngavie and ended up heading in the right direction, but on the wrong road. We were guilty of being too keen and too excited and not paying enough attention to where we were going. Thanks to the Gods of smart phones and GPS we managed to get back on track and soon found the Inn. It was extremely stressful however and not how we planned to start our race at all! The owners of the Beech Tree Inn  had generously opened up their breakfast cafe 4 hours early to provide sustenance and warm drinks for the crews and the delicious smell of bacon rolls and greasy sausages mixed with fresh coffee was in the air. This helped reprogramme my body into thinking it was first thing in the morning and not 2am at night.

We were expecting Mike to come through in around an hour, and had taken the food box with us so he could select anything he wanted. He was running with a camelbak of water and pockets full of gels, jelly beans and electrolyte/salt tabs and in the box were cereal bars, Mullerrice yogurts (fruity rice pudding), chocolate brownies, weetabix, bananas, other assorted cake bars and biscuits, jaffa cakes, nutritional milkshakes, Irn Bru, buttries (a greasy, salty, fatty Scottish bread roll), Milk, lucazade, and much, much more. After waiting about 15 minutes we began to see the light of some head torches bobbing in the distance. The race was being led by the Dutchman Jan-Albert Lantink (the European 100km champion), and he was closely followed by Scotland’s own Richie Cunningham and the American from Ohio, Mark Godale. A couple of others followed and then Mike appeared, running comfortably in the top 10. He quickly took a cereal bar and some spoonfuls of Mullerrice and sped off – he was in and out within a minute.

As we made our way back to the car through the night I noticed it was beginning to get light already. Time was slipping by very quickly for us already – but how did it feel for Mike? I hear it’s very disorientating running in the dark with a head torch.

 

Support stop 2 – Drymen (12.6mi)

Mike arrived here at about 02:45am, still in the top 10. Jan Albert was still leading with Mark and Ritchie close behind. Mark was clinging to Richie at this point as his head torch had broken and he was relying on being able to follow Richie along the trail – his support team appealed for some help to everyone waiting at the check point but sadly no-one had a spare head torch and Mark rushed off into the darkness. Shortly after, the first lady Kate Jenkins came through looking very strong and not long after, still in the top ten, came Mike. “First aid kit!” He shouted “I need plasters!” I scrabbled around and brought out ones of various sizes thinking he must have already been suffering from blisters which would have been a disaster – but as he reached inside his singlet mumbling about a stupid school boy error we realised he had forgotten to apply appropriate nipple coverage. Once he was taped up he ate some more Mullerice and lucozade and shot off again in to the darkness, obviously keen to maintain his early lead.

 

Checkpoint 1 – Balmaha (19 mi)

We we one of the first crews to reach Balmaha car park as daylight broke just after 3am. I needed the toilet and ventured to try and use the public facilities but found them in a semi demolished unusable state, so I was able to utilise a bush under cover of darkness before too many other people turned up. We weren’t expect Mike to arrive until after 4am so we were able to relax for a little bit and I ate some fruit before wandering around to talk to some of the other support crews. We were playing cat and mouse with the same crews all weekend so we saw the same faces  all the time and it was interesting to see what other runners had set up for them in their support vehicles. The first runners came through about 3.45am; the leading men hadn’t changed and Kate Jenkins was still leading the woman’s race. Balmaha car park is at the bottom of Conic Hill and the trail emerges straight from the forest into the car park. Some support crews were sending runners up the trail to meet their competitor and find out what they wanted before sprinting back to the car, but we knew that Mike would be pretty chilled out at this point so there wasn’t any need for us to do anything out of the ordinary. As Kate Jenkins arrived, we heard what sounded like “PEN” being shouted from the forest. Her crew recognised her voice and shouted to let her know they were waiting for her but she only replied “PEN!! PEN!!”. She emerged from the forest like a bat out of hell and went straight to the passenger side of her support vehicle f’ing and blinding about the worst timing in the world, and emerged with what I first thought was a glowstick. I realised however that it must have been an Epi-pen and that she must have been stung by something, or was having an allergic reaction. I don’t know for sure what the story was, but she ran off out of the checkpoint as strong as ever, so she seemed ok after some treatment.

When Mike arrived he was running differently to before – he seemed hunched over and his stride was shorter. He looked so fragile coming out of the forest in the darkness by himself that I became a little worried at this point. We ran with him to the car and he gave us his head torch (since it was now light) and his long sleeved top before inhaling some brownies and nutritional milkshake. “Drive around the corner and meet me at the start of the path – I need more water and I want one more of those brownies” he said and ran off, and as his dutiful crew we set to our tasks. Re-filling the camelbak and removing the excess air from the bladder is a fiddly task and it took longer than we wanted. By the time we’d done it and driven across the car park and to where the path re-started, Mike was waiting in exasperation for us and grabbed the food and ran, putting the camelbak on as he headed back off up the path. He left Balmaha still in the top 20 and having completed 19 miles in 3hrs 10minutes.

We drove on to Tyndrum where my car was waiting. It was about 5 am and we weren’t needed until roughly 9.30am so we had scheduled a rest stop. Vikki and Annette slept in their car (a large enough estate car) and I made a nest in the back of my Ford Ka. No, I’m not kidding. I put the back seats down and the passenger seat forward and laid a camping mat and a fleece blanket on the inclined collapsed back seats. I then wedged a rucksack into the gap between the passenger seat and the back seat to put a pillow on. I had umpteen cushions scattered about and a sleeping bag to cover me – as soon as I had set an alarm for 8.30am I was asleep.

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I awoke at around 8am in pain because my back side had gone to sleep. I attempted to turn over to ease the pins and needles but realised there was a spare tyre in the way. I sat up, cracked my head off the roof and scrambled over the steering wheel to exit my vehicle with an undignified crump as I tumbled out of the drivers door on hands and knees. A group of German tourists standing by their car gazed on in amazement as I looked up and nodded good morning to them.  I stretched and shook the sleep out of my body and was pleased to find the weather damp and chilly but dry. Skies were cloudy but not too sinister – perfect running weather.

I could see movement coming from the other car as well so it seemed that everyone had woken up naturally at the same time. We took our toothbrushes over to the Green Welly stop and freshened up before having a cup of coffee and a bite to eat. Despite the early hour it was already going like a fair with plenty of motorcyclists, walkers and drivers having breakfast before a day on the hills.

 

Checkpoint 2 – Auchtertyre Farm (~50miles)

Feeling refreshed, we shifted our support vehicle a couple of miles over to Auchtertyre farm and parked up next to lots of other support vehicles and motorhomes who were getting ready to meet their runners. At just after 9am the first runners came through – Jan Albert, Ritchie and Mark leading the men and Kate Jenkins still miles ahead of any of the other women. We were expecting Mike to arrive any time between 9.30am onwards, so we were ready and waiting around about then and waited with the other crews who were becoming familiar. This checkpoint had a weigh point as well – runners weight was monitored throughout the race and if weight loss was too severe to be healthy, or if there were other mitigating circumstances alongside weight loss, Marshalls had the power to bin someone from the race for their own safety.

10.30am passed and we began to wonder where he might be. More runners had came through including Sharon Law and Debbie Martin-Consani who were running 2nd and 3rd place in the women’s race. One racer who I was unable to identify, had a Domino’s pizza waiting for them at the checkpoint! It got to 11am and I think all three of us were wondering whether we should start to worry. If he was going to be much later than his schedule we’d need to consider whether we needed to send one of us back down the trail to check that he was ok. Of course it was made harder by the fact that we hadn’t seen him since 4.30am and he’d run the equivalent of a marathon in that period and passed the half way point. It was hard to tell whether we should worry or not. There were two check points at Rowardennan and Bein Glas farm in the intervening time but Mike hadn’t wanted us to be there and had arranged drop bags to be taken to the check points instead.

Finally at about 11.15am he appeared. He asked for Weetabix with milk, mushed up chocolate brownies and sliced bananas to eat, more water and lucozade. I stayed with him to get him weighed and checked out of the checkpoint whilst Vikki and Annette ran back the 200m or so to the car to prepare the food. He said the last section had been really tough and he’d had some grim stomach problems which had slowed him down. When he was weighed he’d lost 2kgs and he said he knew where that had gone and made some reference to fertilising the ground near Bein Glas farm…

I was recording pretty much everything with the camcorder to make a video blog for Brewdog, and as we ran to the car he said to the camera “51 miles, that’s a decent warm up, do you know what a good warm up beer is? 5AM SAINT!! The race starts NOW!”. He later said that thinking up these cheesy anecdotes kept his mind busy during the long periods between checkpoints – from this point on he had a new one for every stop. At the car he refuelled and changed his top. He then set off and asked us to meet him further down the road with new shoes ready and a refilled camelbak for him.

 

Tyndrum

Tyndrum wasn’t an official checkpoint or support stop, but the route crosses the road here so we parked up so we could cheer him on anyway and give him a cup of milkshake. We also met up with the remaining two members of the team, Alan and Tommy, and their driver Ian who would be with us for the rest of the race. They were hoping to be able to run with Mike a while, however we had to explain how well he was doing and that it was looking very unlikely that anyone was going to get a run at all! (Rules state that a competitor is only allowed a support runner on the course with them if they are more than 4 hours behind the leader – at this point Mike was at around 2.5hrs). As Mike approached the road he was with another runner; Alan called out “So are we gonnae get a run today Mike?” “Don’t count on it!!” He whooped as he streaked past. Obviously the new shoes and the big breakfast were doing the trick and he was very much back on course.

West highland way race 2011

L-R: Alan and Tommy

West highland way race 2011

West highland way race 2011

Mike at Tyndrum (pictures used with thanks to Ian Russell)

West highland way race 2011

Me at Tyndrum, with more bags under my eyes than at Terminal 5

 

Checkpoint 3 – Bridge of Orchy (~60mi)

When we got to Orchy it started raining and the wind was ripping down the valley that we were sitting at the bottom of. Completely typical West Highland weather – lovely one minute, violent the next. We got into our waterproofs and stuck it out, we tried not to worry about Mike but given how miserable it was getting it was hard not to. Again, he took a little longer than scheduled but when he did come through he seemed happy enough despite the weather. I asked him if he was warm enough and he said he was almost too warm! Annette said that the waterproof jacket he was wearing was new and he’d treated himself to something pretty high tech for this very race – it was obviously doing it’s job!

West highland way race 2011

West highland way race 2011

Telling the camera about another beer…

West highland way race 2011

Thanks again to Ian Russell for these pictures

He spent very little time at this checkpoint – he basically just ran straight through and drank some milkshake. He checked out at 13.35pm and at this point had covered 60 miles in 12hrs 35 minutes.

 

Support Stop – Victoria Bridge

This was another support stop about 4 miles down the track where Mike had asked us to meet him shortly after Orchy. We were parked by the track and he ran up beside the car and told us to go to the end of the road and he’d want more salt tabs and to brush his teeth when he got there. Whilst he was brushing his teeth we set to replenishing his camelbak with water and refilling the pockets with gels and jelly beans. All this time he was talking to the camera about beer – I’m looking forward to reading his blog to see if he thought about anything else at ALL during this race.

West highland way race 2011

 

Checkpoint 4 – Glen Coe Ski Lodge (70 mi)

The journey from Vicki Bridge to Glen Coe is one of toughest as you have to traverse the extensive and exposed Rannoch Mor. We looked at the predicted schedule and expected him to come in at around 4.15pm, so when we arrived at the Lodge at 3pm we decided to get something to eat and drink. I’d taken everything I’d need to eat and drink with me in the car in the interest of saving money, but I would have loved a hot chocolate at this point as I was feeling a bit cold and damp.

There were lots of runners support crews in the lodge and it seemed to be a popular place to refuel with hot food – I was glad I wasn’t hungry though as they were charging upwards of £5 for a toastie… Everyone on our team to the opportunity to relax – it was nice not to be in a moving vehicle for once! Annette, who’d been driving, had a snooze and Vikki did a cross word whilst I gave up all shame and put my head in my arms on the table and tried to rest. I was beginning to suffer from fatigue as I’d been up constantly since 6.30am on Friday morning and it was now nearing 4pm on Saturday. However the minute I started thinking negative thoughts I chastised myself – challenging as the task is, the support crews have it easy and our runner was out there crossing Rannoch Mor by himself in the wind and blowing rain. I started to feel a bit emotional and found myself welling up repeatedly at the thought of all of the runners out there and what they were going through and how far they still had to go. Being tired and emotional I found it all a little over-whelming at this point and the mix of pride and worry for Mike was exhausting.

West highland way race 2011

Not a lot of glamour in this job.

Now, for the most part our support plan was flawless. I’m sure if Mike does this event in future he’ll make changes but what we had in place seemed to work and for the most part everything went smoothly. Apart from this part: we missed Mike at the Glen Coe checkpoint.

As mentioned earlier, we calculated using his spread sheets that he’d be arriving in Glen Coe at around 4.15pm and we were there in plenty of time. At some point on Rannoch Mor however he started making up time and arrived in Glen Coe at 4.00pm. We left the cafe at 4pm to go out and prepare for his arrival, but when we got to the car there was an empty bottle of lucozade on the roof and no Mike. “You’ve missed him” said the support crew next to us. “He’s just left and he said he’ll see you at Altnafeadh”. We were, understandably, freaking OUT. We jumped in the car and tore off down the track, I opened my window and called out to him asking what he needed but he just waved at the distance and said he’d see us at Altnafeadh. We decided to meet him at another point before then where the track crosses a road at the Kingshouse Hotel just in case he realised he did need something before the support stop at Altnafeadh. We’d got him a baked potato with cheese and beans at Glen Coe after he’d mentioned the lack of baked potatoes at Auchtertyre Farm (it turns out they started handing them out after he’d gone through), so we had that ready for him as well as more milkshake. He came running into the hotel car park and shouted that this wasn’t Altnafeadh and he hadn’t wanted us to be here but he seemed to perk up when we offered him the tattie. We tried to apologise/explain why we hadn’t been waiting for him at the car but he said he wasn’t interested in wasting energy on being angry and ran off again.

 

Support Stop – Altnafeadh

West highland way race 2011

This support stop is just a few miles down the A82 and is right at the bottom of the Devil’s Staircase. It was pouring with rain whilst we were waiting here and it felt like we were waiting a long time. In the time it took for Mike to arrive two runners had passed me as I stood by the side of the trail; the first one I said some encouraging words to as he half ran half staggered to the top of the short incline we were at; I told him he was doing great work and that he was amazing. He looked up and me with glazed eyes and shook his head as he passed, absolutely drenched in the driving rain, and my heart broke for him. He looked like he was in such a dark place and I willed him on safely to the finish line. The second runner I recognised from several checkpoints as to me, he looked like he might have been struggling. He was making good pace but he appeared hunched over when he ran and had an uneven gait. Never the less when I encouraged him on to the top of the hill he looked at the food carton in my hands and said “Oooh I bet someone’s looking forward to that!” and carried on with a smile.

Eventually we spotted Mike in the distance, but to my dismay he appeared to be walking. As we watched him got closer it seemed like he was doing some kind of walk/run strategy, but he was clearly suffering a bit. I ran up to him and asked what he wanted, and he gasped “Irn Bru!” and I ran to the car to get some. He paused with us for a few minutes whilst we refilled his water again and he ate a combination of jaffa cakes, yogurt and Irn Bru. When he left I don’t think any of us wanted to say it, but he wasn’t looking nearly as strong as he had been. I had no doubt that he would finish, but completing the race in sub-20hrs was becoming less realistic for him.

 

Checkpoint 5 – Kinlochleven (~81mi)

Kinlochleven is the final check point where the race doctor is based and the runners are weighed and cleared to run the final 14 miles in to Fort William. Luckily this check point is inside a leisure centre so we were able to stay warm and dry whilst waiting for him. It wasn’t long after we arrived that the checkpoint received confirmation that the race had been won by Richie Cunningham in 16 hours and 40 minutes with Jan Albert Lantink in 2nd place and Mark Godale 3rd. We were expecting Mike in around 6.30pm and the four hour cut off mark was 6.45pm so we were wondering what he’d want to do – if he came in early would he want to wait and leave with support runners when he was allowed to do so at 6.45? I doubted that, but we had to be prepared so Vikki, Alan and Tommy got ready to run. I had originally planned to run with them but I decided to stay with Annette and we would join everyone for the last couple of miles. I had a sneaking suspicion that Mike had something up his sleeve and that if I ran with them I would be left behind – they are all fast runners and experienced marathoners I doubted I would be able to keep up, I didn’t want to do anything to put myself in danger or jeopardise Mike’s race in any way so I though it best for me to keep out of it this year.

In the end Mike turned up just after 6.45 and stormed in to be weighed. He’d asked for fresh shoes, socks and a fresh top and towel to be ready for him but he had completely changed his mind and was running straight through the checkpoint with Vikki, Alan and Tommy in tow.

West highland way race 2011

On his way out he said he wanted a buttery and could we bring it to him. It took us ages to find one and when we did I grabbed it and took off after them. They’d covered quite some distance in the short period and it was after sprinting about 3/4 of a mile through Kinlochleven that I finally caught up with them and handed him that bloody buttery. I hoped it tasted amazing and that would be the catalyst for an amazing finish for him…

West highland way race 2011

I tweeted this picture after the update I was able to give to everyone on Mike’s progress; it summed up the sheer mental and physical exhaustion of the race.

 

Final Checkpoint – Lundabhra

We were so close to completing the race now that every minute spent waiting at this check point felt like an hour. Some smart lads had built a big bonfire so it was lovely and warm – I bet it was a welcome sight to see for some of the later runners coming over the hill in the dark. After hanging around for half an hour I was still getting cold though and I had a running itch I wanted to scratch so I set off down the trail to meet the group and join in. I got about a mile down and saw some fluorescent jackets coming towards me really quickly. I jumped up and down and said hello to everyone and joined them as they passed. Mike was on great form and was galloping along periodically roaring as he threw himself into each hill on the trail. “Who’s that? Who’s that ahead?! He’s MINE! I’M HAVING HIM!!!” He yelled when he saw a guy running ahead – the funny thing is he was a random foreign tourist and not part of the race at all, but Mike picked him and some other walkers off as he gained momentum the closer he got to the checkpoint. When we got back to Lundabhra he ran straight through shouting “Runner 157 going straight through” but due to what can only be described as the Doppler effect, the marshals didn’t hear him and I had to tell them his number and that he wasn’t stopping. He was clear at this point he wouldn’t be stopping for anyone until he’d put his hands on that finish line. Later on he was spotted running down a hill doing an ‘aeroplane’…

West highland way race 2011

Picture courtesy of Colin Knox

The Finish – Fort William (95mi)

Annette and I reached the finish line at about 9.30pm and begin the anxious wait for the gang to bring him home. Three or four runners came in in the hour we had to wait, including the chap who didn’t think he was amazing at the bottom of the devil’s staircase – he came in strongly with a support runner closely followed by the guy who I thought had been struggling and in pain, who also finished still smiling.

We got a breathless call from Tommy saying Mike didn’t want us to run the last mile with him and we were to put the penguin suits on and wait at the gates for him. Well, when you’re on a WHW runner’s support crew you do what they say on pain of death – so we did what we were told and waited with a bottle of Hardcore IPA for him. We were honked at several times and even had some handsome young Police officers stop and speak to us as well. I guess that was probably the most exciting thing they saw all night in ke-razy Fort Bill.

West highland way race 2011

A minute or two before 10.30pm we saw Mike come around the corner on to the street, being chased by Vikki, Al and Tommy. They literally could not keep up with him! He ran across the car park like a bat out of hell and roaring like a man possessed. He slammed his hands on to the leisure centre doors as his EXHAUSTED support runners came in a few seconds later. After 95 miles he still managed to run three marathoners into the ground with sub-8 and even some sub-7 miles in his last 14.

West highland way race 2011

West highland way race 2011

West Highland Way Race Finisher 2011 – 21hrs 30mins 4secs. 26th Place

West highland way race 2011

Team Brewdog – photos courtesy of Ian Russell

We stayed at the finish for about a further 45 minutes soaking up the atmosphere and Mike got a sports massage and distributed some Brewdog beer to the organisers. I took that as a sign to sit myself down and retrieve one of my own beers to enjoy – after all it was 11pm on Saturday night. It would have been rude not to.

Shortly after we headed to the holiday cottage which Mike had booked for us all and quickly settled in with pizza in the oven and Prosecco in hand. We de-briefed a little but we were all so dazed and shell shocked by the whole experience that nothing of great significance occurred and we were all tucked up in bed by 1am.

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Prize giving – Sunday 12pm

We woke up around 10am and set about getting fed and watered and ready to leave the cottage to walk to the finish line and welcome the final finishers across the line. It blew my mind that whilst I was lying on a sofa bed checking facebook 12 hours after Mike had finished, there were still some warriors out on the course making their way to the finish. In fact when we arrived, George and Karen (the sweepers) had just arrived 10 minutes after the last finishers and the race was declared complete after 33 hours 59 minutes and 54 seconds. We walked (slowly) down to the prize giving which was to be held at the Nevis Sports Centre, with some people finding their limbs more functional than others! I enjoyed speaking to some more finishers and hearing other people’s tales from the race, and prepared for some seriously girly empathetic tears at the presentation.

The race was won by Richie Cunningham in 16hrs 40minutes.

West highland way race 2011

West highland way race 2011

With second and third place going to Jan Albert Lantink and Mark Godale respectively.

West highland way race 2011

West highland way race 2011

Jan-Albert made a short speech saying that his Scottish mother had passed away just three weeks before, and that he had told him to ‘go and beat that Cunningham’; so he’ll be back again next year!

West highland way race 2011

Mark Godale.

The women’s race was an all Scottish podium, won by Kate Jenkins in 19hr 08m

West highland way race 2011

West highland way race 2011

Sharon Law came in 2nd, only 3 MINUTES after Kate!

West highland way race 2011

And Debbie Martin-Consani came third in 19hr 39m

West highland way race 2011

Each finisher’s name was read out with their place, finishing time and any other information as well – such as how many times they’ve finished the race.

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Here’s Peter Duggan, who had finished the race on several occasions but got a special mention this year as he had completed Ramsay’s Round.

Each name was read out to tumultuous applause, and in 26th place was Mike.

West highland way race 2011

West highland way race 2011

Sandra finished her first WHW in 25hrs 57m

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…and here are the sweepers, George and Karen, straight off the course after a quick freshen up!

West highland way race 2011

West highland way race 2011

In what I thought was a lovely touch since the last people on the course finished at the same time, the first male and female presented the awards to the last male and female; further emphasising the fact that finishing the race at all is a huge achievement, never mind your time.

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West highland way race 2011

Team Brewdog.

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In summary, it was without a doubt one of the most amazing things I’ve ever had the honour to be involved in and Mike was a pleasure to support. It goes without saying that one day I will do this race; not next year, and probably not even the year after – but one day I will. At 31 years of age, Mike was one of the youngest racers on the course and I would put the average vintage of the competitors at around 45, so I feel under no pressure to achieve this immediately. The hills aren’t going anywhere, so I will respect this race and take my time until I’m good and ready to tackle it.

That’s all for now; thank you for reading and please do share this amongst the other WHW runners if you’ve enjoyed it. I hope to one day join you all in this amazing race and earn my very own goblet and my place in the coveted finishers club.

22 Comments

  1. Rhona, what a fantastic write up, youve really captured the atmosphere and emotions, great stuff.

    Oh it was Tommy who phoned not me.

    😉

  2. Wow – superb write up Rhona. I feel gutted I missed out on being on Mike’s crew as it was the wee lads birthday but hopefully there wont be a clash in the future. Sounds like an incredible experience.

    • Yeah it was a shame about the bad date clash! I’m sure you’ll get to crew at some point soon since there’s so many people in the North East planning on completing it at various times 😉

  3. Great write up, Rhona. A fantastic run from Mike, but one he couldn’t have done without such great support. Like you, I hope to run this race in a couple of years but will hopefully be supporting V next year.

  4. Excellent. Can’t wait for next year 🙂

  5. Loved the race report, sounds like you all did a excellent job in supporting Mike and of course well done to the man himself for a superb effort in his first attempt.

  6. Fantastic blog, running and crewing 🙂 I had a little tear in my eye reading that! Well done everyone. I don’t know if I could ever run 95 miles, though I am toying with D33 next year…. (sounds like nothing in comparison!). Good luck with the Loch Ness training – my race report from last year (it was my first marathon) is on my blog if you’re interested…

    • I find it amusing how trivial a marathon sounds to me now – I’m sure that feeling won’t last as I get deeper and deeper into my training in the coming months!
      As long as I remain healthy I’m definitely going to give D33 a shot. It seems like a gentle introduction to the ultra club!

  7. It’s how I remember it Rhona! Brill write up! It was an awe-inspiring day and my first to witness it first hand. I tip my hat to Mike and to you and the girls for making it possible. Thanks for the mention on my photo’s btw.

  8. What a great report of the day. Team Mike did superb and it’s really interesting to hear all about it from your perspective.

    All the best for your own running and I look forward to following your progress as you aim for that goblet.

    PS … I’ve added your blog to the whwblog roll so hopefully more people will see it and read it.

  9. Ah, to see oursels as ithers see us…

    Hunched over when he ran? Tick (sure, I’ve seen enough photos!).
    Had an uneven gait? Maybe (but you’ve got a photo of Mike on the road near Victoria Bridge with a foot flapping about just like mine…).
    Struggling from early on? Never! 😉

    Also note that the Ramsay Round was five weeks after the WHW Race last year and your link’s broke because you’ve spelled it wrong…

    Think my crew gave Mike the peanut butter & banana sandwich I’d turned down at Glen Coe, but no idea whether he ate it or not (hope it helped rather than hindered if he did). Great report of a great race, however, and adding you to my Google Reader now! 🙂

    • Oh well – I knew I’d get some facts wrong. I was relying on memories of the ceremony so I apologise for the error – it’s fixed now.
      Obviously I meant no offence in describing how you ran – I found it fascinating to see the different postures everyone had settled into after so many miles. Mike runs rather uniquely at the best of times with his feet and elbows turned out which makes him easy to spot! We were worried in case you were in pain but I’m glad to hear you were doing just fine 🙂

      • Absolutely no offence taken, Rhona (you should have seen the smile on my face as I considered ‘mysel as ithers see me’), and the Ramsay thing was more for the link than anything else. Also can’t believe I posted two consecutive comments starting with ‘Ah’, so am smiling yet!

  10. Ah, don’t need to do the Google Reader when John’s added you to the blogroll (handy thing, that)!

  11. Sandra McDougall

    June 23, 2011 at 11:30 am

    Cracking report Rhona and fab to finally meet you 🙂 see you soon no doubt! xx

  12. Wow, what a report!

    Just be warned this ultra stuff is very contagious … one day you’re a perfectly sane runner who hopes to do a marathon … the next you think running 95 miles makes perfect sense …!

    Will hopefully see you again in the future … with your running shoes on!

  13. Brilliant write-up. I’ll show it to my support crew next year (when I bully them into it) so they have an idea of what they are up against. And so they make sure not to miss me anywhere 🙂

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