Looking back at my running year so far, it’s amusing to see how the start-of-season shorter ultras which take up the guts of a Saturday, have now morphed in to 4-day long epics. Last weekend the West Highland Way Race was upon us again which saw pretty much everyone in Scottish Ultrarunning, alongside plenty of others from around the world, descend on Milngavie to take on Scotland’s greatest running challenge. If you weren’t running you were crewing, if you weren’t crewing you were marshalling, if you weren’t marshalling you were cheering. If you weren’t any of those, then you were probably hanging out at the back with my gang – the sweep team.
Stonehaven Running Club once more assumed the duties of being the back markers of the race, and this year due to our fearless leader Neil breaking his ankle three weeks ago, I took over as team leader. This was to be my fourth year involved with the race – in 2011 I crewed for Mike Raffan, in 2012 I crewed for Vikki Shanks, and in 2013 I was on the Sweep Team.
Sweeping can be a deceptively tough job. In this race it tends to be more walking than running, and never at your own comfortable pace. Whilst tremendously sleep-deprived, at its worst you will be dealing with angry runners who really don’t want to be near you, upset runners who are injured and are having to pull out, grown men in floods of tears and perhaps friends going through their own personal hell. Alternatively you get the satisfaction of seeing people finish after overcoming tremendous difficulty, you see the raw heart and soul that runners put in to this race and the true love and dedication of the crews to their runners. It is a difficult but truly rewarding way to spend a weekend.
So it was once again that I found myself in a car park in Milngavie at 12:30am on the Summer Solstice, standing amongst a huge crowd listening to Ian Beattie brief the runners of the 2014 West Highland Way Race.
After plenty of good luck hugs to everyone we knew that was running (especially Vikki and Nicola from our club) we took a good position up the High St to watch the start. I’ve never seen Milngavie High St in real life – I’ve only ever been there at either 6am as part of a snake of Highland Fling runners, or at 1am screaming my heart out at the start of this race.
This year I brought a cowbell and rang it as hard as I could whilst hollering and taking pictures for the duration of the 193 runners’ passing. Apparently there are people who live above the shops there… Well, sorry for disturbing you, residents; but if you were in bed you missed out on seeing the remarkable start of the greatest West Highland Way race yet. Paul Giblin had returned to defend his title and 15hr 07m course record from young Englishman Robbie Britton, who had come with a target of running under 15 hours and the two men set upon the course at suicide pace. The record was decimated by Paul in an incredible finish time of 14hr 20m with Robbie finishing in 14hr 47m. You can read more about their race HERE; for this blog is telling the tales from the back of the pack, and the runners who came home nearly 20 hours later.
The team structure was a bit more splintered than last year. Firstly Mike and Karen would cover the first 18.5 miles from the start to Balmaha, then Mike would head back home and Karen would commence reverse-sweeping from further up the course with George. Myself, Kynon, Ali, Scott and Marc would cover the remaining 76.5 miles North between us in rolling shifts, but Marc and Ali weren’t coming down to join us until lunchtime on Saturday.
After cheering Mike and Karen on as they trotted up the High Street behind the runners at 1am, Kynon, Scott and I headed for the car to make our way to Balmaha where the last runner would be expected at about 5.30am. Our first challenge was to successfully get some rest in the car park – three of us piled into an Audi A3 full of kit.
Kynon and I were in the front of the car in the upright seats with Scott in the back. Within moments the lads were asleep and breathing heavily, and I sat awake watching the car windows steam up gradually. Pulling my eyemask down over my eyes to block the breaking dawn and clutching a pillow to support my head, I chuckled at my life now. My Friday night fun could not have been more different from what I used to enjoy a few years ago, but I truly could not be happier.
5am came and my alarm sprung in to life but I’d been awake for 15 minutes prior, listening to the mayhem outside as the race continued in full swing. I would have loved to have opened the car door to step out and join in but even after clearing the condensation off the window I could see how thick the clouds of midgies were outside. I treasured the last minutes of my weekend that would not be nibbled by these carnivorous little bastards until my bladder had other ideas and I was forced to make a run to the boot to find my midgie net. The smarter sweeper would have been prepared with it in her pocket and ready to go, but this East Coaster makes a point of blocking the insect memories every year and always forgets just quite how mercenary these little beasties are. Rummaging around in the boot I woke the sleeping gentlemen with a combination of thumps and swearing as the clouds of midgies swarmed into the hot vehicle. Sorry lads; time to get moving.
After a quick trip to the Oak Tree Inn for a comfort break, I spoke to the check point control and then ascertained with Mike that they were about 30 minutes out with a drop out. I returned to the car and made sure Scott was awake and alive, and grabbed my pre-prepared kit bag to head back to the Oak Tree to get changed. Scott and I were taking the next shift and would cover from Balmaha to Beinglas – 22 miles and roughly 7 hours – and it was shaping up to be an absolute stunner of a day. Light cloud and blue skies with warm air heralded a potential scorcher which begged the question – Which goes on first; suncream or midgie spray?
Mike came in and updated on us on our last customer, who was running very slowly but walking fast. After checking the rest of the cars left in the car park, Scott and I left for the trail, eating breakfast as we went.
It was one of those mornings where I could not have been happier to have been alive. The breathtaking beauty of this area never fails to still my heart every single time I run through it and this gorgeous sunny morning was no different.
I really didn’t like these new path ‘improvements’ up the steeper hills though; endless stairs are not my friend.
We arrived in Rowardennan and met the check point crew earlier than they were expecting. After swearing blind that we really were the sweepers and that everyone was ahead, our guy who we had swept out of Balmaha appeared behind us. Obviously he had stepped off the trail for a comfort break. We took some refreshments from the piles of abandoned drop bags and headed out after the final runner 10 minutes later.
A few hours later I enjoyed arriving into Inversnaid and being able to take my time to enjoy the waterfalls without being in a race.
Again the check point crew were surprised to see us earlier than scheduled, but at this point the whole race was just moving quicker throughout the field than usual. Unfortunately the check point staff from the Trossachs SAR crew were unconvinced that we had everyone in and started quizzing us on names – some people had come through without taking their drop bags, or their time and number hadn’t been recorded. They had no times for about 20 people on their list – which was in fact the start list from a few days before the race, not the actual list of starters from several hours earlier. I knew several runners had DNSd at the last minute, but it was difficult trying to convince them that we had not in fact lost several runners along the way, and that they had missed manually recording the times of a few runners as they went through. It is really hard to keep communications open between these remote check points, but I was able to glean some 3G from somewhere and the Sport iDent Race App helped convince them that we had done our job.
Just as we were about to head out, news came through the radio that there had been a serious accident on the A82 which was blocking the race support crews from heading North from Auchtertyre (the next checkpoint up from Beinglas, at about 50 miles). The road was blocked both ways, which mean that Ali and Marc who were heading South on the A82 to take over from us at Beinglas would be unable to reach that check point either. As the news sunk in we realised how absolutely terminal this could be for the race – this was peak time at Beinglas checkpoint which would mean the majority of race crews could not get further North without a 300 mile detour around the full circumference of Loch Lomond. Without support, the runners would be very limited in what they could do – they could only go so far on a finite amount of food. Stuck out in the races most remote check point with no phone signal or information my instinct was panic, but experience told me that I was a very, very small piece in a big race and the only thing I could was my own job, which was to bring up the rear of the race and get the runners to the next point safely and race control would take it from there. Scott and I decided to load our packs with as much fuel as we could in case we ended up in a situation with runners with no food, so the Trossachs gang loaded us up until nothing else could be crammed into our bags. Having spent ages at Inversnaid, our back marker was well ahead of us, so Scott and I put our feet on the pedals and for the first time I was able to hit the adventure playground of the Lochside with fresh legs and we hit as hard as we could…which was for about 15 minutes before we caught up to the final runner.
Time during the West Highland Way Weekend passes in a very odd way. At times hours slip by in seconds, sometimes they take twice as long as they ought to. It didn’t feel like 7 hours that Scott and I were out for, but after leaving at 5.45am we trundled into Beinglas 6hrs and 54 minutes later with our charge. About two hours after leaving Inversnaid we’d hear that the road had been cleared so there had been no real problems and the next pair of sweepers were waiting for us. Kynon and Ali took over and headed out, and I was grateful to get my trail shoes off and slip into some flip flops and a change of kit. It had been a warm morning so I changed everything and tied it up in a sealed bag ready for the washing machine when I made it back to real life on Monday.
Scott, Marc and myself then headed to the Green Welly for some food and spent the next couple of hours sitting outside our cars where the route passes Brodie’s store cheering on runners and catching up with our friends who were crewing. It was at this point we learned that the race had been won and the course record annihilated by Paul Giblin. It almost felt cruel to tell the result to those runners who asked, when they were only just over half way to the finish.
The sweepers arrived, we swapped out Kynon for Marc and Team Sweep headed further up the course to Bridge Of Orchy. It was still an absolutely gorgeous day and I was enjoying wearing shorts and flip flops whilst sitting in a breeze at the midgie-free check point. This was unheard of – Bridge of Orchy is usually referred to as Midge of Orchy due to the thick clouds of insects the crews usually have to battle. Whilst chatting to the check point team I saw a speck of dirt on my ankle; I absent-mindedly tried to brush it off but it wouldn’t budge. Upon closer inspection it appeared to have legs and was burrowing deeply into my flesh. A tick! Gross!!!
Thankfully Sean the Race medic was at this check point and soon wielded a ‘tick pick’ and got the little bugger out of my foot quickly. I’ve never had a tick before and didn’t want to risk getting another so ran back to the car quickly to change into long tights, only to find a further two bigger and fatter ticks stuck into my calf. Sean worked his magic again and they were gone without any fuss other than Sean granting me the nickname Tick Lady for the rest of the weekend.
Ali was replaced by Scott for the next stage to Glencoe and Marc continued on with him. The rest of us headed to Glencoe to rest up and prepare for the next overnight stint to Kinlochleven which would be covered by myself and Ali.
I had a coffee and some pizza and chips in the cafe before heading back to the car for a rest. I didn’t sleep but it was good to block everything out for half an hour or so and prepare for one of the more challenging sections of the course.
The Checkpoint, ran by the International Fire and Rescue Association
The last runner into Glencoe had actually been timed out before he reached the checkpoint and was in a very bad way. Whilst Ali and I set off into the darkness, the rest of the crew went back down the route to help get him in as he was almost incapable of movement.
Glencoe – Kinlochleven is only 11 miles, but for slower runners still on the course at the back of the field it is covered in their second night of running. The impact of the darkness can have a lot of negative effects as the body attempts to shut down to go to sleep whilst the runner battles onwards. This section last year was very challenging for all concerned, but this year sadly we had three DNFs at the bottom of the Devil’s Staircase as the runners realised there was no way they’d be able to get up the 1,000ft of climbing to the top of the hill, or the 1,500ft of decent from the top down to Kinlochleven at sea level. This left us with a very lucid and capable runner to look after who was moving well and was mentally fine, and running with his son as support. He was well ahead of us up the Devil’s Staircase so in total contrast to last year I was stomping up the hill with sweat pouring off me – I really didn’t need that second fleece, nor my thermal tracksuit bottoms.
We were out for only 4 hours and 14 minutes this year and came into Kinlochleven feeling happy and positive.
The check point at Kinlochleven was the usual disaster zone however. In the gym hall there were several bodies comatose on gym mats, Dr Chris Ellis was attending to several patients with their feet elevated and iced, an exhausted support crew were arguing with their runner insisting that he was fine and needed to get on his way whilst he wanted to quit, and other sleeping figures were dotted around the area catching some precious rest before the checkpoint closed. I grabbed some snacks from our supplies and let the rest of the team take over. All I needed to do now was get in to the car for some sleep before I completed the journey to Fort William.
As the check point began to close, the sleeping runners were being woken so that they could decide if they could carry on or not. Most of them got on the move eventually, but one sad figure was the last to slowly leave the hall in floods of tears with her face contorted in pain as she could barely move herself forwards. She could hardly breath without coughing as she apologised profusely and needlessly to the checkpoint staff and her crew, it was clear there was absolutely nothing left in her and she had truly reached the end of her race. My heart broke; I’ve seen her at other races and saw on her blog and the facebook group how much this race meant to her, but it just was not to be this year. Ali was crashed out on the ground next to me and shook his head; “Why do we even do this to ourselves?!” he mused quietly. It is so sad to see a race come to an end like that, and so undeserving.
I gave Kynon a kiss goodbye as he and the other lads headed out to cover the last 14 miles. Scott had decided he wanted to go along too as it was obvious all Ali and I were going to do was fall asleep in our cars. I grabbed some ice in a bag for one of my ankles which was creaking, and set to making a nest in the reclined passenger seat of the car. Assisted by pillows and a blanket I could not have been more comfortable and drifted away from the early morning mayhem of the checkpoint into deep, exhausted sleep.
Two hours later a horrendous beeping noise was pulling me from slumber. Pushing my eyemask off my face I slowly took stock of what was going on and deduced that the beeping was coming from my phone. An alarm. How cunning. It was telling me that it was 7am and that it was time to drive to Fort William. Looking out the window I could see no signs of life at all coming from Ali’s car parked across the deserted car park, and the only signs that the race had happened at all was the slowly melting pile of ice chips next to the door which Dr Chris had discarded after he left. After assessing the situation I decided I was in no hurry to get to Fort William and that we could go when Ali wanted to go, and that he could wake me up whenever that was. The front seat of an Audi has never been so comfortable.
It was an hour later that he was chapping on my window as he was keen to find some comfort facilities that weren’t under a bush, so we got our cars back on the road and made the sleepy drive to the finish at Fort William by about 9am. After a shower, a massage and some food, the next few hours were spent catching up with various friends and welcoming our exhausted later finishers home. It was wonderful to see the guys that we had swept at the back at various points of the course arrive at the finish, but it was the final runner who made the greatest impression. Ali and I ran out to meet the sweepers at about 11am to run in as a team, and Fritz from Holland was on his last legs in front of them with his wife by his side cajoling him along the road step by step. There aren’t many hills in Holland and the last time we’d seen him was at Kinlochleven when he was trying to quit; nobody would let him as he still was clearly ok and had hours to crawl it in to the finish. With plenty of comedy false kicks up the back side from his wife and several cigarettes on the way, he’d finally made it to Fort William and crossed the finish line victoriously in a time of 34 hours 19 minutes and 50 seconds.
When everyone was showered and fed we made it across to the Nevis Centre for the Prizegiving at 12.30pm.
There were standing ovations for both Paul Giblin and his incredible finish, and the very emotional presentation of Fiona Rennie’s 10th Goblet which has been fought and strived for harder than any of us can imagine.
Happily, Fritz van der Lubben made it to the presentation and gleefully accepted his goblet from Paul Giblin in a continuation of one of the traditions which makes the West Highland Way Race so special.
And so another year in the WHW Race cycle has come to a close. Team Sweep definitely got an easier ride this year, but no two races are the same and we were no less tired when it came to crashing out on Sunday afternoon before heading for a curry. I covered nearly 34 miles over the two days which for the most part barely registered in my legs, apart from the aforementioned creaky ankle muscle. This will hopefully take me neatly to the start of the Great Glen Ultra for a good race when I return to Fort William this Friday.
The 1am start and 73 mile length of the Great Glen Ultra makes it an excellent warm up for the West Highland Way race. Since everyone has been asking; yes, it is definitely my intention to run in next years West Highland Way Race, so everything between now and the 20th of June 2015 is a countdown to Milngavie. I’m thinking differently about it all already – it’s no longer a distant dream but a tangible goal on the horizon, and under a year away. There’s a lot of work to do, starting with this weekend…