The West Highland Way Race 2012
95 Miles in 35 Hours
It was this time last year that I had my first experience of the unique warmth of the West Highland Way Race family. I was on Mike Raffan‘s support crew as he completed his first West Highland Way Race in 21 hours and 30 minutes; supported by his fiance Annette, Vikki Shanks and myself. You can read about that adventure HERE. For the 2012 race I returned to Milngavie as support crew again, however this time it was for Vikki’s first attempt at the Blue Riband of Scottish Ultramarathon racing. With a crew led by her husband Iain, Vikki knew that she’d be taking quite a bit longer than Mike did and she’d be needing support runners from half way, so myself and my boyfriend Kynon joined the team to help her get that prized crystal goblet.
Last year for me the race was cloaked in mystery. I had never seen such feats of endurance on display before and as a newcomer to the sport of ultramarathons, I was captivated and awed by the runners and the race itself. Inspired by this, I took my own running to the next level and completed my first Ultra in March at the D33 and since then have continued to look ahead to longer distances. I was delighted to return to experience the West Highland Way Race again and see many of my ultramarathon friends from around the country as they descended upon Milngavie, and even more delighted to once more support a dear friend as she strived to reach her ultimate running goal.
Before I had even reached the start of the race there were some minor hurdles to overcome. Work commitments saw me in Poland for the week before the race, accompanying one of the University choirs as they toured the Krakow area. Great fun, but my flight home arrived into Edinburgh at 1935 on the eve of the race; after being collected from the airport by Kynon, it was a race across the Central belt and through Glasgow to reach Milngavie on time to meet up with Vikki and Iain before the start of race at 1am. Thankfully my travel plans could not have gone smoother and we arrived in Milngavie exactly as scheduled around 9.30pm. Vikki and Iain had arrived at the same time and we even were able to park next to each other in the station car park. Everyone was in the right country, all team members were present, our runner was healthy – Team Vikki was GO!
Our first task was to get Vikki registered for the race, weighed and to collect her race goodies. We went up to the Church Hall which by 9.30pm was already a hub of excitement and filled with runners; some with drawn, nervous faces, others full of energy and hyper with excitement. We saw John Kynaston who was on Race Control duty for the weekend and caught up with him; George Reid and Karen Donoghue who were supporting John Duncan; Paul Giblin and Team Pyllon, Sandra, and many other friends and familiar faces.
After Vikki was all registered she and Iain headed back to their car for some pre-race rest and Kynon and I headed to Tesco’s to purchase our supplies for the weekend. At this point I feel I should make the first reference to the Weather. I’ve capitalised that as there was so much Weather throughout the whole race I feel I ought to give the word a bit more grandeur. The Weather on the West Coast for the previous 24 hours had consisted of heavy, tropical rain, thunder and lightning. This had continued into the evening and showed no signs of abating as the runners and support darted in between support vehicles and registration under golf umbrellas and rain jackets. In the interests of keeping as dry as possible we decided to take our car from the Station car park to Tesco! Either way it was just as well as we bought a lot of supplies…
Ultrafuel clockwise from bottom left: Water, chocolate cake mini-rolls, vegetarian butteries (AKA the Aberdeen Death Roll; comprising mainly salt, fat and dough. Ultrafuel of champions), Irn Bru, dried apricots, flapjacks, mars chocolate milk, generic brand red bull, blue Powerade, fruit smoothies, lucozade sport, bananas, salty crisps. I also purchased some comfy cropped trousers as all my other trousers were too long and getting dragged through puddles. We had fun playing the ‘spot the runner’ game, especially when we overheard a Belgian competitor frantically trying to explain to a staff member that he was looking for a map of the West Highland Way…
We returned to the station car park and organised our car before eating some dinner. This was the calm before the storm; there was an eerie air of anticipation floating around the car park as runners took last minute naps, support crews talked quietly and camera flashes punctuated the creeping darkness. The rain continued to fall.
Time slipped by quickly though and soon it was time for the race briefing at 12:30am. Standing amongst the runners and crews my heart was thumping with excitement, the air was thick with the smell of bodyglide and midgie repellant and the crowd fell silent and turned to face Race Director Ian Beattie, and Sean ‘Lord of the Bridge’ Stone as they delivered their advice.
At this point the rain had mercifully decided to cease, however Sean advised that the runners ‘Might get a bit wet‘, so advised to remain prepared for some Weather throughout the race.
We took a couple of photos and wished Vikki luck before heading up to the bridge and the High Street to get the best possible view of the race start.
We could hear the countdown start as 1am approached, and when the sound of an klaxon broke the night air; the 2012 West Highland Way Race was off!
Stonehaven Running Club (Vikki’s club) were providing the sweepers for the race, who would cover the back end of the race in shifts to make sure no runner was left behind. We watched their bright yellow jackets make their way up the street and then wandered back to the car park. For many it was essential to get out of the car park as quickly as possible to make it to the first checkpoint in time to meet their runner so there was a mass exodus of the vans, cars, and motorhomes which had previously packed out the car park. Suddenly, everything was deadly silent…apart from the rain which continued to pour down loudly on the car roofs.
Team Vikki were in no hurry to get moving as our first agreed meeting point with Vikki was at Drymen around 3am. We’d planned to split into two cars for the first half of the race, with Kynon and I heading to Tyndrum to park up and try and rest whilst Iain met Vicki at Drymen and Balmaha. We would then reconvene and condense the team into one car for the rest of the race with at least one person always out on the course with Vikki from Auchtertyre onwards.
Kynon and I began to navigate along the A82 to Tyndrum in the horrendous weather. The rain was coming down in sheets – I had never seen anything like it in this country. It was thick, wet, heavy tropical-style rain which relentlessly pounded the roads, turning them into rivers. I furiously refreshed the #whwrace hashtag on twitter for updates as Kynon drove, results filtered through of the leaders going through Beech Tree but it was too dark and rainy to tell who they were. Mike and the leaders went through Drymen in 1hr 37m and reports coming from the course were apocalyptic. I could not fathom how it must have felt to be starting a 95 mile race in these conditions. The ascent and descent of Conic hill was likened to gorge-walking – the entire trail was a shin-deep river. Tweets from Iain told us that Vikki was sticking with another runner through the night (Dave Kiddell) and they had passed through Drymen in 2hrs 17m.
By now it was 0345am and we had reached Tyndrum and were parked up in Kynon’s mum’s Skoda. Sadly his rather more spacious Audi had to be taken to the garage earlier in the week, so we had to perform some interesting gymnastics to get positioned for some rest (oi, quiet in the cheap seats!). Kynon wedged himself on the backseat and I reclined the front passenger seat a bit and was able to curl up on my side. The rain was deafening as we lay there wide awake in the semi-darkness – despite the thick cloud-cover it was already getting light. I briefly entertained thoughts in the back of my mind – if the rain continues like this, could the race even continue? Would it be safe? These were conditions which would be difficult for even the most hardened bad-weather runners; there would be massively increased risks of hypothermia, tripping injuries, waterlogged skin, blisters and trench foot. I couldn’t stop worrying, but reassured myself that these were the toughest runners in the UK and if anyone could handle this – it was them.
I awoke from a doze every half hour or so as various parts of my anatomy went to sleep. I gave up on sleep around 7 and grabbed my phone to look for news on Twitter. The race was still going, which was a good start! Various results had been trickling in and I was pleased to see that Mike and Pyllon were running strong right up at the front, but also saddened to hear that races were already over for many. Predictably, people were being pulled from the course due to hypothermia and there had been many injuries through falls including one an agonising 1.5miles in, and even the great Mimi Anderson had taken a critical DNF tumble as well.
Support crews were beginning to make their way into Tyndrum and once I was out of the car I had a chat with George, Karen and Lorna and saw that Iain had made his way safely to Tyndrum as well for a rest. We got washed up at the Green Welly Stop and I changed into running gear as I would be joining Vikki when she arrived. There followed a few long and slow dead hours whilst she made her way through the remote checkpoints where there is no crew access. We settled ourselves in the Green Welly with food, hydration and phone chargers and got talking to some other support crews.
I decided a vegetarian fry-up was the best option, washed down with my favourite blue powerade and a fruit smoothie. We were expecting Vikki at Auchtertyre (50 miles) at 1.30pm at the earliest but it looked like she was running a bit later than planned, so there really was quite a bit of sitting around. Again twitter was a godsend when it came to keeping up with the race – I couldn’t access the race website to view the official splits through the checkpoint but any request for information on a specific runner through the hashtag #whwrace was quickly answered by those elsewhere sitting in front of a computer. We marveled at the performance unleashed by Terry Conway and Pyllon who were by now through 60 miles of the race and looked as though on course to break the male course record.
Finally it was time to get moving and Team Vikki piled into the Shanksi Bus and headed to Auchtertyre. We discovered that due to flooding, the runners were being diverted along the A82 at Tyndrum rather than the river path, and we passed several drenched runners leaning into the driving rain working hard to keep moving forward. The Weather was still not co-operating with wild wind now added to the mix – there was no escaping the rain, if you were outside you were going to get wet.
We only had a short period to wait outside for Vicki as she was able to phone ahead. She requested a change of shoes and clothes and a pot noodle to be prepared. Iain sorted those things out whilst Kynon and I waited for her to come in. When she arrived she was smiling and chatting and looked happy, which, after 13 hours of running is a good sign! We got her weighed and checked in and took her to the car where she spent about 15 minutes. We agreed that Iain would go with her until the Brodie’s Store meeting point to test out his legs (he had been having some pain earlier in the week) and if he was ok then he’d continue with her until Bridge of Orchy, then Kynon and I would take over support runner duties to Glencoe.
I was happy to be able to update people via facebook and twitter that all was going well. Messages of support started flooding in for Vicki and I was able to relay them which she really enjoyed. Iain’s leg was feeling fine so he continued on with Vicki and we said we’d see them in an hour at Bridge of Orchy.
At this point the rain had been intermittent, at times almost stopped, and there was even the odd shaft of sunlight! This of course meant that the midges were out in force and it was time to bring out the very attractive midgey net when we got to Bridge of Itchy (Orchy).
We waited a short while and spoke to Sean, Lord of the Bridge, catching up on race gossip. We were delighted to hear that the course record had been smashed by Terry Conway in 15hrs 39min 15s and that Pyllon had come second in 17hrs.
Vikki arrived and changed shoes again. Iain got on the road in the car to Glencoe and Kynon and I were on the Way again with Vicki at 17:40 and marching swiftly up the hills.
I was impressed by how awake, happy and chatty Vicki was! I don’t know how I expected her to be but she was certainly on great form. There followed about 3 and a half hours of walking as we traversed the hills leading to Rannoch Moor, the lonely and desolate Moor itself, and the seemingly never-ending climb up to the Glencoe Ski Resort checkpoint. Thankfully it had stopped raining, and wind was no longer an issue. I found it awkward to exert myself with the midgey net on and felt very claustrophobic with the net right next to my face, but without it I would have been eaten alive. The little bastards were even nipping me through my running tights! When we got on to the Moor I could finally free my face however and enjoy the views.
Above you can see Vicki approaching former WHW Race Director Murdo McEwan, who had parked up with a Scotland flag at the top of this hill handing out jelly babies. What an exposed place to sit! He told us that as we passed the small cairn he had made that we were passing a crucial point – the 2/3 way mark. It was a nice surprise to find a supporter in such a strange place – I’m told he was up there for 10 hours in total!
We weren’t totally alone. Every hundred meters or so was another runner with his or her support runner making their way towards Fort William. Everyone was so glad of the respite from the rain and as we passed people or were passed, we shared stories of the race so far and who was doing what. Near Glencoe we discovered that Mike was nearly finished and we anxiously awaited a text message from his support crew with his result. Eventually we hear that he’d finished in an incredible 19hr 24min 40s and in 8th place. Almost exactly 2 hours off last year’s time!
Glencoe finally came into sight, with this cruel signpost taunting me. Iain had parked up and come back along the trail to meet us so the whole of Team Vicki were together at this point.
Here we were doing another crew switch. I was ravenous and wanted some proper food, Kynon had finished his stint as support runner and was taking over as driver, and Iain was rejoining Vicki. Vicki stayed at Glencoe long enough to order some salty, vinegary chips and skipped off down the path in delight with them and Iain in hand. I refueled with our supplies – I hoovered a banana, a mars chocolate milk drink, a buttery, several flapjacks and half a tube of Pringles washed down with Irn Bru. Kynon ordered a burger at the Glencoe cafe and I stole some chips as well and felt right back to normal shortly after. We knew we had about an hour before they would get to Altnafeadh and the bottom of the Devil’s Staircase where I would rejoin Vicki for the rest of the race, so after we finished eating we headed straight to Altnafeadh where after 10 minutes they arrived at 10:15pm. I kissed Kynon goodbye and grabbed a head torch and my rucksack – I knew this would be a long stint and probably where the wheels might start to come off for Vicki. It was beginning to get dark again and my body was crying out for sleep – with no option for rest for at least 14 more hours it was time to face our game and play it. Time to dig deep.
I was actually quite excited to be ascending the Devil’s Staircase for the very first time. The view back down towards Buachaillie Etive Mor was breathtaking even though darkness was falling. There were still many runners with their support runner near us, including Silke and Thomas Loehndorf who are in the picture above.
Vicki handled the climb well but I could tell she was getting tired. We switched our head torches on as we crested the top of the Devil and looking ahead took my breath away; for miles and miles down into the Glen ahead all you could see were little pairs of light pinpricks bobbing away into the distance. Far, far FAR away on a hill in the distance I could see some orange light which seemed to be flickering – I wondered if that might be the bonfire at Lundavra, but Iain said that was impossible.
We began the descent to Kinlochleven; long, steep, technical and winding. It was treacherous in the dark and very wet with all the water pouring off the hills. Iain was leading the way and I tried to stay behind Vicki if I could, so that she had someone both in front and behind. The jagged stones were beginning to bother her a lot and she was picking her way carefully down, so I tried to keep my light shining ahead of her so that she could see better where to put her feet. The trail was continuous switchbacks and it felt like we were descending for hours, but finally after about 2 hours we reached the Fire Road and some easier terrain. I turned around and looked back – still so many little pairs of pinpoints of light behind us. I wondered if the runners up above were looking down and taking the same comfort in seeing my light as I did from seeing the lights of others ahead of me two hours prior. It was like a message: “It’s ok, we’re here too. You’re not alone in this!”
Iain said that at some point soon we would see the lights of Kinlochleven, Vicki was desperate to see them – the relentless downhill had destroyed her legs and she was really starting to hurt. When the lights of civilisation came into view around a corner she was delighted; however we were still quite high up above Kinlochleven and there was something about the descent into Kinlochleven which stuck in my mind from last year’s race blogs…something about it being endless, and something about Kinlochleven being like Brigadoon in that you see it then it disappears for another few miles and then it pops up again, and then disappears, only to finally reappear for good when you least expect it. I texted Kynon to say we were about a half hour away – I thought that was a conservative estimate, but when he spoke to Julie who was on marshal duty at KLL; she shook her head and said we’d be another half hour. Experience has taught her that every runner that *thinks* they are close to KLL is actually a good half hour further away than they think. She was, of course, spot on.
Team Vicki stumbled into Kinlochleven at 01:14am. I had never been so relieved to see friendly faces, and fell into Kynon’s arms for a cuddle. The darkness of the trail and the tiredness and mental exhaustion of the race was beginning to warp my mind. It was now after 1am on Sunday morning and I’d been awake since 9am on Friday morning, with the exception of the Skodasnooze on Saturday morning. I didn’t even contemplate entertaining the feeling of tiredness as it wasn’t worth it – 14 miles to go and my job was to get Vicki to the finish.
In the interim period Kynon had blossomed from UltraNewbie to seasoned support crew professional. He’d had a nap in one of the Doctor’s bunks in the KLL sports hall so he was raring to go. He had all the kit and fuel we could possibly need laid out in crates and within moments of arriving we all had beverages and snacks in hand. Vicki was weighed first, but before she had removed outer layers, so there was a bit of confusion as to why her weight had gone up (alarm bells!), but it was ok in the end.
The Team left Kinlochleven at about 01:50am and it was strange going from the warm welcoming normality of the checkpoint, back into the creeping, lonely darkness. The climb out of KLL was steep and slippery but we had left around the same time as a few other runners, so there was a steady stream of people up ahead. Iain commented that it looked like a scene from Tron, what with the head torches illuminating the reflective strips on the runner’s clothing!
We climbed higher and higher until we could look back down towards KLL and the clouds which hung in the Glen. We finally reached the empty desolation of Lairig Mor and continued on on the sharp, jagged rocks which were ruining everyone’s feet. Vicki was really, really cross at the trail and how it was hurting her! We rounded a corner and suddenly in the distance we saw the funny orange lights that we’d seen so long ago, but now much closer and clearer. Suddenly it clicked – it was the Wilderness Response Team! They had manned a couple of campsites over the Lairig Mor to make sure that people were doing ok and had water, encouraging words and even cute dogs! When we approached they had a couple of their friendly rescue dogs running around; they were gorgeous Border Collies and I got a quick cuddle from one of them. They took our picture and cheered us on, we left with our spirits lifted as we plodded on once more into the darkness.
Although light was coming again, it felt like spirits were darkening. The path was never-ending, and whilst we tried to work out how far to the check point at Lundavra was using my garmin it never seemed to get any closer. I remember feeling like I was on a travellator – the path was moving under me but the scenery remained the same. We were moving very slowly now as Vicki was in so much pain – 25 – 30 minute miles – and I was getting colder and colder. I was wearing thermal tights, shorts, baselayer, vest, l/s top, t-shirt, a light hoody and a weatherproof jacket teamed with buff and gloves; but we still weren’t moving enough to generate sufficient body heat. I had begun hallucinating as well – I was sure I kept on seeing peacocks by the trail and dogs running along side me. It was of course just patterns in the rocks and plants, but every time I ‘saw’ one I got a fright.
The above was our never-ending view once daylight came for the second time in the race. We passed another Wilderness Response camp but this time I was scared – they had a red emergency light blinking which you could see for miles, I was scared a runner had fallen and needed help and we weren’t getting to them quick enough, but of course it turned out to be a cheerful Mountain Rescue man. I don’t think any of us had the energy left to do much more than smile and groan. That man must have seen some sights that night/morning.
It was about 5am when the team as a whole reached the lowest point. Vicki was in so much pain and had a stone stuck in her shoe, the noises she made getting that shoe off and on were horrendous and there was just nothing we could do to help relieve her agony. After we got moving again she snapped; shouting at the ground, the rocks, and the endless water on the path; screaming at Lundavra and asking it why it wasn’t here yet and in general, she was just desperate for the pain and the race to end. Iain was in the best state of all of us and he was able to help Vicki walk on and was talking to her; I was shivering uncontrollably and hallucinating that Kynon was standing up in the road in front of me, but of course he wasn’t. I used the last of my lucid thought to figure out what to do; continue with Vicki and Iain and become a liability which might risk her race, or leave with Kynon at Lundavra and be useful in another way. I said to Iain I thought it might be best if I didn’t continue and he agreed.
We reached Lundavra at around 05:30am and Kynon came to ask if we needed anything but he was met with a speechless silence and shaking heads, no-one could articulate anything worth saying. Iain and Vicki walked slowly up the hill and on through the checkpoint, I walked over to Kynon and said “I’m coming with you”. I got into the car and pulled off my midgey net and fell into Kynon’s arms sobbing. I felt so helpless being unable to help Vicki and make her feel better; it’s so, so hard to see your friends going through such extreme pain and to be able to do nothing. I also felt like such a failure by not being able to see her the last 7 miles right through the the finish line. The fact I’d been awake for 44 hours, on my feet for 12 hours, covered 28 miles overnight and was hypothermic was moot as far as I was concerned; it’s the West Highland Way Race, all that is part of the package and in my tired mind I had failed in my job. I’m still not entirely sure whether I did the right thing or not.
I knew she would finish though; I estimated around 2 and a half hours for them to do the final 7 miles. It would be hell, but she would get there. After sitting in the car with the heating up and being cuddled by Kynon for half an hour I felt like I had got my shit together again and was ready to get back on it. When we reached the finish line and the leisure centre, we sorted out the car and made sure Vicki’s things were all readily available should she wish them. We then went in to join everyone at the finish and enjoyed some wonderful hot, sweet tea which was being churned out relentlessly by some wonderful volunteers. There were various sleeping bodies lying around on mats including some under spaceblankets – finishers or support who had come in and just had nothing left. There were plenty of anxious looking support crews awaiting their runner for the final time, and several runners who had just finished and were in the initial joyful stages of recovery.
John Kynaston, Ian Beattie and Sean ‘Lord of The Bridge’ Stone were all there welcoming each finisher in personally with a handshake and/or hug. There are no words to describe the relief etched on the faces of a finisher; just thinking about it now is still making me well up with emotion. The extraordinary displays of endurance this year were made even more remarkable by the atrocious conditions and each finisher this year will be able to count themselves as one who completed the race in ‘that’ year. Out of 177 starters, 55 were taken from the race for various reasons. This is a merciless course and only those who can demonstrate true grit and tenacity can complete it on a good day; this year’s finishers are truly remarkable.
At around 0745am I got a call from Vicki – they were on the outskirts of Fort William! Kynon and I put on our jackets and headed out up the course to meet them. I texted Mike just in case he was awake and wanted to come down too, I got a quick response as he was up and about – he jumped straight in his car and was ready to cheer her in within 10 minutes! We walked about a half mile up to the edge of town and waited. And waited. Jonathan and his support, Minty, went by and then we waited a little more… then finally..!
Vicki was a different person from the lady I had left at Lundavra, but Iain was in bits. Not long after I had left Vicki had had a funny turn and wanted to go to sleep in he woods. Iain managed to keep her going but then not long before they saw us, it was his turn to go all funny. Vicki was back to normal by that point however and was able to get him to the finish line in one piece where he was swiftly seen to by Sean the Medic and promptly spent 45 minutes asleep under a space blanket as mild hypothermia had put him into shock. I imagine I would have been in a similar state had I continued with Vicki after Lundavra. Human endurance is an odd thing but eventually it has its limits…insert something about the blind leading the blind here…
Vicki finished the 95 Mile West Highland Way Race in 31 hours 6 minutes and 55 seconds. Her first words upon putting her hands on the Leisure Centre doors were “NEVER AGAIN!”
It was around 08:15 when Vicki finished, so we still had 4 hours to go before the presentation ceremony. As I was standing in the shower at the Leisure Centre, delighted to finally rinse away some of the filth of the past 48 hours, I remembered something I thought about last year. And I quote last year’s race recap: “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.“. Those at the front end of the field run a completely different race to those at the back, and for me it’s been a very eye-opening experience to be able to crew for two entirely differently paced runners. Last year Mike made it look easy, this year seeing Vicki hit rock bottom really brought it home to me what it means to endure in this race. I’m under no false impressions now – if and when I do this race I will be at the back end of the field just like Vicki, so this is what I’m to prepare myself for.
After a slap up feed in Morrison’s cafe, Team Vicki made our way to the Nevis Centre for the prize giving. I can truly say I’ve never known tiredness like I experienced that day! After each name was read out we clapped enthusiastically, but by the time Ian Beattie had finished reading out the time of the next finisher my head was on my chest again – I was like a nodding dog! Embarrassingly we were sitting in the front row; however I’m sure Ian, JK et al have seen it all before.
As last year, it was a delight to watch all the finishers hobble their way to the front to be presented with their goblet. There were some heroic inspiring stories this year and every single runner is amazing.
After the presentation we made our way to the accommodation Vicki had booked and were all asleep within minutes. We had three glorious hours’ sleep and when we woke up at 6pm it was like a new day. It was hard to believe we were the same four people who were struggling excuses for human beings 12 hours earlier. The memories of crossing Lairig Mor were shady and dream-like already; had it really been real? One look at Vicki attempting to come down the stairs confirmed that I hadn’t dreamt it. I quickly grabbed my notebook to write down some blog notes – I wanted to remember everything!
We went to the pub to have some food and drinks with many of the other finishers and support crews and it was a great evening relaxing and hearing everyone’s stories from the race. At first glance, the Ben Nevis bar was just any other pub full of ordinary people having a drink on a Sunday night; dig a little deeper though (and look at their weeping, sandal-ed feet!) and you’d find a pub full of the most extraordinary, inspirational, warm-hearted and tenacious people you’re ever likely to meet and I am proud to know so many of them and count them as my friends.
It has been another extraordinary Ultramarathon weekend. There’s a saying in the Scottish Ultra community, that all roads lead to Milngavie. With another year of running under my belt this has never felt truer as I feel I inch closer to the starting line of this race month by month, race by race. Last year I said not this year or the year after, and that statement still stands, but after that? Well, perhaps by then I’ll find myself at the end of the road.