Red Wine Runner

A Scottish Running Blog

Category: West Highland Way Race (page 1 of 4)

How To Sweep An Ultramarathon

Last month I returned to the West Highland Way Race for the seventh consecutive year. I have been involved in this race in three different ways – I ran it myself in 2015, I was support crew for runners in 2011, 2012, and 2016, and in 2013, 2014, and 2017 I have been part of the squad of race crew volunteers who make this amazing event happen. Specifically in these years, I have been part of the Sweep Team, who are a small but important group of runners outsourced by race control to look after the back end of the race. I’ve written ‘Race Reports’ of my sweeping experiences in the past (2013, 2014), but this year I’ve decided to take a more informational approach to my write-up of the 2017 West Highland Way Race. What does a sweep team actually do? How do we do it, and do we really need to be there? Read on for my thoughts on how to sweep an ultramarathon successfully, and how to avoid some common errors when planning for a task which can be surprisingly complicated…

West Highland Way Race 2013

What is a race sweeper?

A sweeper is a person, or team of persons, who stay at the very back of a race with the slowest participants to ensure their safety. Every organised race will have a sweeper or sweepers, but the longer the race, the more important they become. The reason they are there is to make sure the runners who are out the longest are given the support they need, to keep Race Control in touch with what is happening at the back of the race, and to provide additional support to marshals along the route. In the case of the West Highland Way Race, several of the team are also trained in Outdoor Emergency First Aid, and thus are able to respond professionally in a range of emergency circumstances on a route which in places can be very remote and exposed.

race sweeper

Sweepers are part of the Race Crew

The role of the individual sweeper when out on the course is very specific, but even when we’re not ‘running’ we are often required to be useful. Once the two sweepers have left each checkpoint behind the last runner, the remaining team members can help marshals to close the checkpoint, tidy up litter,  and pack up race vans before moving on up the course to the next checkpoint.  The nature of the West Highland Way Race means that sometimes there are several hours of dead time as the runners make their way up the route – occasionally we might be called upon to run back down the route to meet an injured runner or to provide other checkpoint assistance, but more often than not it’s a good opportunity for a cuppa or a snooze.

West Highland Way Race 2014

Organisation is key

Planning the execution of a sweep of a 95 mile trail race over a period of 35 hours is a real challenge, especially when the race is ‘point to point’ and your team of six sweepers are arriving by car from five different locations. Which cars do you use? Are people insured to drive other vehicles? How do you get people back to their vehicles at the end? How many miles are people capable of covering? What’s Plan B for every possible situation?

At the West Highland Way Race, experience has taught us that six is the magic number for the size of the race crew, and each member needs to be able to cover around 30-35 miles each, in two or three shifts. This means that we only need two cars for the duration of the race, and as long as most of the crew can drive vehicles that are not their own, we can share driving and running without the need for a dedicated driver. Any more than six people makes the car accommodations cramped and the logistics become more challenging. Sometimes the secret is just to keep it simple!

The final point on organisation, is that once you’ve agreed to a plan – stick to it once the race has started. Unless there’s a genuinely good reason to change plans on the hoof, the checkpoint teams and Race HQ will be relying on you being where you say you will be, and when. The sweep team race support plan is submitted to the Race Safety Officer in advance of the race, and it is generally assumed that this will not change on the day. We need to be a reliable asset to Race Management for the full 35 hours.

Make sure you’re fit

It goes without saying that if you’re going to cover 30-40 miles over the course of a weekend, then you need to be in reasonable shape. One of the unique challenges of sweeping, however, is the fact that you will very rarely be running or covering ground at your own pace. Due to being at the back of the race, much of your time on course will be spent walking, and walking very slowly in the latter half of the race. If you’re a fit road marathon runner, then you might need to do some hill walking to prepare your legs for the slog – walking for eight hours fatigues you in different ways than running for four hours does!

You’ll need to be mentally tough, too; do you know what 30 minute miles feels like when it’s 4am, you’re somewhere in the dark in the pouring rain, and you’ve been awake for 40 hours? It doesn’t feel good, but you’re not allowed to complain, ESPECIALLY within earshot of a runner. Your job is to provide support, not require it, so get ready to push through those mental barriers to do your job well.

with Marc and Scott

Take the right kit

You’ll need to be prepared for anything, especially in a race which lasts 35 hours and covers a variety of terrains in a climate which is notorious for change. Last year at the West Highland Way Race the temperature hit 25C, but this year saw a ‘feels like’ temperature of 1C and 40mph winds for much of the second half of the race. Oh, and it also rained solidly for the last 24 hours of the race, so there was that too. In June. Welcome to summer in the Highlands.

Also bear in mind that you will be covering your miles in two or maybe three shifts – if it rains as much as it did this year, that’s three entirely separate sets of kit. Waterproof jackets work well to a point, but even the best ones start to fail after being subject to hours of heavy precipitation, and there will be no way to dry anything until you’re home again on the Monday. Pack ALL your winter weather gear, and then go to your friend’s house to borrow theirs as well. Don’t forget to pack some binbags too – multiple sets of wet and sweaty kit in a car boot for a couple of days smells just as bad as you might imagine it does…

You’ll also need some peripheral equipment – a head torch, a spare head torch, spare batteries, spare batteries for your spare batteries, a midgy net, anti-midge spray, torch, first aid kit, and a backpack big enough for the emergency equipment we have to carry (bivvy bags, emergency shelter, radio, emergency flares). What are you going to eat? Are you sure you’re going to want to eat that at 4am in Kinlochleven? Preparing to be on a sweep team is a mammoth effort, but worth doing well for your own comfort and sanity.

west highland way race 2017

The runner always comes first

Sweeping a race, especially a huge challenge like the West Highland Way Race, is a very rewarding and enjoyable experience. But it’s not about you. Your number one priority at all times has to be the runners – from cheering them off on their way at 1am on Saturday morning, to coaxing the last one over the line 34 and a half hours later, your sole focus needs to be on their well-being and safety at all times.  It’s not an opportunity for a free race entry, it’s not about time on feet training, and it’s not about the opportunity to recce a route or just have a nice day out on the trails. As a member of the Race Team, you are there to do a job.

It’s about making sure the back of the field are moving quickly enough to meet the cut offs in the early stages. It’s about keeping the appropriate distance from them so you’ve got them in sight, but they don’t feel pressure about being last. It’s about making sure you leave no-one behind. It’s about providing stern encouragement to keep going when the first doubts start to come in at half way. It’s about staying close behind them climbing the Devil’s Staircase in the darkness in order to provide them extra light with your head torch.  It’s about making sure they’re eating enough in the latter stages when even their support runner is struggling to think straight. It’s about pushing them on relentlessly, yet kindly, in the last miles, when the tears are flowing and it hurts so much, but they still want it so badly. It’s about jogging into the Leisure Centre carpark a few steps behind and then subtly peeling off into the crowds to be invisible, so that nothing detracts from their moment of victory.

The final West Highland Way Race finisher of 2017. Photo by Christopher Burns.

Be flexible, and be ready for anything

There was that time one of our sweepers fell and twisted his ankle 12 miles in, and suddenly the careful mileage plan for everyone went in to the bin. Then there was that time when a car accident blocked the A82 and none of the support crews could get into Beinglas to fuel their runners. Or, what about that time someone got so angry at being timed out at Auchtertyre, that they threw a strop at the marshals and kept on running anyway? Or the one time that a runner was hallucinating so badly on Rannoch Moor that we had to carry them in to the next checkpoint, because he was so determined that the Mini Cooper blocking the path ahead was there to drive him home…

I have a lot of fond memories from my years as a West Highland Way Race sweeper, and I look forward to many more in future. It’s one of the most challenging things I’ve done outside of running the race myself, in fact, I’m sure I’ve been quoted as saying that I took a break from organising the sweep team in 2015 in order to run the race for a rest!

I firmly believe that everyone who runs ultramarathons needs to take a step off the trails to volunteer a few times a year. The satisfaction of giving back to your sport is huge, and the alternative perspective of seeing others execute their races is fascinating. It really builds the sense of community as well; ultramarathon communities are known for their family feel which keeps people coming back for more, and there’s nothing like volunteering at an event to whet your thirst to get back on a starting line yourself!

Have you ever swept a race before?
What’s your favourite way to give back to the running community?

West Highland Way Race 2016 – Support Crew Race Report

West Highland Way Race 2016
The West Highland Way Race 2016
Support Crew Report

My 2016 has been…interesting so far, so in the end it was no surprise that the 2016 West Highland Way Race ended up being a bit of a strange one for me. I decided quite quickly after my own West Highland Way Race in 2015 that I didn’t want to come back for a second attempt in 2016, so I hoped that I would be able to support someone else to achieve their goals at the race this year instead. When the time came to put crews together, I agreed to support my friend Jemma in her first attempt to claim the goblet. As it happened, 2016 was not to be her West Highland Way Race year, so in May I found myself potentially missing the race for the first time in 5 years. It was around then that a Jury summons arrived in the mail for Kynon, messing up any potential plans for this most important of annual events even more. If selected, his presence would be required in Aberdeen High Court at 8:30am the morning after the race and of course the way the UK judicial system works, you call up the court the night before you are required to find out if the case is still scheduled to start on time. Hugely frustrating, but we wouldn’t even be certain if he would need to attend court until the very last minute. Everything was up in the air.

Enter Steve. Steve comes from Los Angeles and was heading over to Scotland for his second attempt at the West Highland Way Race, after DNFing with hypothermia at the same point in last year’s race which nearly ruined me. Steve needed a crew and put out a shout in the West Highland Way Race Family Facebook group, asking for some local assistance. I was more than happy to help and put myself in touch with him immediately to see if we could work something out.

It took quite an exchange of emails before the final plan was made, but the important thing was; at around 8pm on Friday the 17th June, Steve’s team assembled in Milngavie to start a big adventure. There was myself, Jemma, Patrick, and an Astra hatchback stuffed full of supplies, ready for the journey ahead.

West Highland Way Race 2016

In short, we had a (dreadful) meal at the Milngavie West Highland Gate Beefeater (they’ve changed the menu since last year and the service was a horror show) before heading to Tesco to stock up on food. Next was registration, then the usual dance of hellos, hugs and well-wishes before we put Steve to bed in the car to rest for a bit and joined Mike, Jeni, and Sharon (David Scott’s crew) to chill out and chat in the last hour before the off.

It was amazing to be back at the race, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t harbouring a few nerves. Whilst I have supported twice before, I’ve never been 100% in charge of a crew, and indeed, someone’s race. Jemma and Patrick were newbies to the race – which is no impediment if you’re smart, committed, and in possession of an enduring spirit – but in general everyone will do better if there’s someone in your crew who knows what they’re doing and can take the lead.

At 12.30am we got Steve to the start and joined the Midnight hubbub of activity. Alongside the crowd of around 500 people there was the usual confused amazement of those alighting from the last train back from Glasgow, and an assortment of local neds scooting around getting in everyone’s way. I caught up with the Stonehaven Running Club crew and wished them all well, and managed to get around most other friends to deliver hugs and well wishes. It brought a lot of memories back. It was hard to believe that I was one of the runners 365 days before, but it was not the time to dwell on those meandering thoughts.

After the briefing we said our final goodbyes and took up a good position on the High Street in Milngavie to shout and cheer our loudest for the runners. It was the most perfect night – about 15C, clear skies, and with a full moon hanging above the hills. If you’re going to pick a night to run though – this was it.

A ripple of cheers flowed up from down the street as the runners came towards us. Headlights dancing, eyes bright and faces stretched with smiles. They were doing it! It was actually happening! As my eyes brimmed with tears and I screamed and hollered for them, for a moment I was one of them again. Running up a Scottish high street on Midsummer’s eve into the darkness, and towards the hills.

But, this isn’t about me. This is about Steve who came to Scotland from California to avenge the demons he left behind on the Lhairig Mhor in 2015. Steve wasn’t sure how fast he was going to run, which made it challenging to work out how best we could crew for him. He declined any assistance until Balmaha at 19 miles which was very useful – it allowed us to drive straight there and attempt to get a little sleep. Together we had previously estimated his arrival at 5am, and alarms were set accordingly…imagine our surprise when the agreed ’10 minute warning’ phone call came at 4am!
This was a little miracle – we had agreed that Steve would call at the top of Conic Hill and my phone was placed on the dashboard in full signal, ready. Except it didn’t ring. I woke up about 4:05am and decided to check the time, only to see a message received from Steve only minutes before. Had my sixth sense not been on the ball that morning them we would have been in trouble, but some things you just can’t explain I guess.

Balmaha at 4am was oddly devoid of midges. No nets were needed and the air was calm and moist – it didn’t make sense at all, but we just got on with the job. For those who had been standing still it was cold, but the runners all came in dripping with sweat. Steve was running fine and with nothing to report, so we just refilled his pockets with gels and his Camelbak with TailWind and off he went. There was one thing which made crewing infinitely easier, which was Steve’s choice of nutrition. Coming from the school of ‘stick with what works’, with a side of ‘keep it simple’ he just eats gels – one GU every 30 minutes and that’s it. No really – that’s really it.

West Highland Way Race 2016

After we saw Steve off, we drove up North for some more sleep after a hot drink and a breakfast roll at the Oak Tree Inn. Here’s where the insider knowledge comes in handy – there is a public car park half way between Balmaha and Beinglas where you can park and rest in peace until you need to meet your runner hours later at Beinglas. No slamming doors, no engines, no chat – just silence. We arrived before 6am and clocked up another chunk of rest, before arriving at Beinglas in glorious sunshine before 8am.

We really had no idea when Steve would arrive, but given his accelerated performance in the first 20 miles I didn’t want to take any risks. It became immediately obvious where all the Balmaha midges were hanging out when we reached the checkpoint area at Beinglas and were instantly swarmed with bugs. Jemma and I wrapped up to defend ourselves whilst we left Patrick to sleep in the car.

West Highland Way Race 2016

Steve came blasting through at about 9:20am looking and feeling well. He had really struggled over the Lochside section in 2015 so getting through that was a big mental hurdle for him. I was very pleased to see how ok he was and began preparing for him to reach the quicker end of his projected potential finish time.

By now it was really shaping up to be the most glorious day – clear skies and hot sun. Glorious if you are a Southern Californian perhaps, but all of our Scottish compatriots were having to seriously consider their options and ration their water in between check points. Not something we’re usually used to doing, but the West Highland Way Race has been well over-due a scorcher for several years. A race in June in Scotland, does not guarantee good weather; in case that was ever in doubt.

West Highland Way Race 2016

So we fast forward another 12 miles to Auchtertyre, and the half way point. We arrived around 10:30 and enjoyed catching up with the other crews with runners around Steve’s pace who were now becoming familiar. We basked in the sunshine and I got ready to run the first support segment, although it would be touch and go whether I would be able leave with him to due to race regulations. The revised criteria for 2016 state that runners may have a support runner after Auchertyre after 11:30am only – with Steve going at the speed he was he would be faced with waiting until 11:30, or pushing on for the next 10 miles to Bridge of Orchy alone.

However. Right on target I received a phone call from Steve, calmly reporting that he’d cracked his head off the sheep tunnel about 5 miles out from Auchtertyre and it ‘looks a lot worse than it is’. Right then. I had a quick chat with the medics to forewarn them and spoke to a runner who arrived who had been with him when he did it. When our warrior turned up, it was obvious he was right; it did look a bit drastic, but once the blood was wiped off it was just a soft tissue scrape. Steve passed the medical test despite having lost a chunk of weight, but we weren’t too worried as it was 11:31am and we were allowed to leave the checkpoint together.

West Highland Way Race 2016

Off we trotted and I got the chance to gauge how he was really doing. All in all he was fine and he even managed to cope with my dreadful chat which I was pumping out just to pass the time and keep him distracted. I soaked up the sunshine and couldn’t believe how lucky we were to be out there enjoying it.

West Highland Way Race 2016

It goes without saying that the weather was basically Scotland turned up to 11 and the run could not have been more beautiful. This section remains one of my favourite parts of the route.

West Highland Way Race 2016

West Highland Way Race 2016

West Highland Way Race 2016

At Bridge of Orchy, Jemma took over pacing duties. Everything was going perfectly so I have nothing else to report other than we refilled his fluids, took his litter, and gave him more gels, before kicking him out on his way. F1-standard ultrarunning at its finest.

Next stop: Glencoe. On the road this is a short journey so we arrived a good couple of hours before Steve would arrive and allowed us to enjoy the breath-taking beauty of Glencoe in perfect summer. There were parasailers circling high up above us, having launched themselves off the ski slopes, and if we weren’t surrounded by scorched heather there would have almost been an alpine feel to the day. I’ve never seen Glencoe look like that before; we arrived at 2pm and enjoyed an afternoon in the sun at one of Scotland’s ski resorts – when can you ever say that?

West Highland Way Race 2016

West Highland Way Race 2016

West Highland Way Race 2016

Steve arrived at 4:30pm and we sent him off with Patrick, who would then take him though to Lundavra. I then drove Patrick’s car along the road to Altnafeadh which blew my mind; despite my own car also being an Astra, it is ten years older than his and from an era when electronic handbrakes, clutches, and lights on the dashboard telling you what to do were not a thing. I can think of fewer times when I have been more anxious than when I was trying to negotiate Patrick’s car in and out of the hilly boulder field which passes for a road at Altnafeadh, with nothing but an electric handbrake for support. If this is the future of driving then I am not impressed at all.

Jemma and I then headed to Kinlochleven where we basked in the last of the evening sunlight. It was clear that barring disaster, Steve was going to really smash it. His vague goals or expectations had been, maybe around 24 hours, 21 on a really good day, but maybe 30 if things aren’t ok. Parking the car at Kinlochleven, we were expecting him around 8pm, with a potential 22 hour finish on the cards.

I wasn’t due to run until Lundavra and had a raging craving for some hot food, so I went to the chip shop and enjoyed a portion of hot salty chips. It came as a little bit of a surprise when our support runner rang on time as expected, but letting us know that he didn’t want to run any further because he was tired. He also offered a suggestion that we might not bother going to Lundavra and just go straight to Fort William, for a sleep. The less said about that the better, but unsurprisingly I found myself saddling up to run another 14 miles with a belly recently stuffed full of fried food.

Before long I found myself back on the trail which I both love and hate the most. I have never managed to enjoy a crossing of the Lharig Mhor; it’s always at the end of something – a race, a support stint, a big back-to-back. I want to love the desolate beauty, but every step I take there is always full of wishes that I could traverse it more quickly.

West Highland Way Race 2016

I knew I needed to bring my strongest self for this section as I could see Steve start to flag in places. He still had a lot of fight in him but it was getting to the point where he was going to benefit from a secondary mind working on his behalf. I told him when to run, when to walk, and when to eat. I mostly ran a few steps ahead of him, setting the pace and willing him on behind me; pulling him on in the obscene cat and mouse chase which is ultramarathon pacing. We worked well together and didn’t need to say much; I gave him walking rests when he needed them but kept the relentless forward progress ongoing. All with a belly bursting full of chips.

My early concern in this section was the temperature. There was a cold wind rushing down the glen which chilled my sweaty, sunburned skin to the bone. I was concerned that Steve might not have enough clothes on and kept in contact by text message with Jemma, asking her to run back towards us from Lundavra when arrived, with a thicker jacket for Steve. My main concern, as was his, was getting him past the milepost of Lundavra and on to the final 7 miles. There is a reason why there are Wilderness Medics out on Lharig Mhor; it is a cruel and barren place where the weather can turn on a sixpence, ending the strongest of races without mercy.

Despite Steve’s physical strength he was beginning to give me clues that things were beginning to get tough. He constantly asked how far we were away until the next checkpoint and other than that, the chat had dried up. There was an unspoken knowledge that the time had come to dig in and work together to move onwards as efficiently as possible as a pair.

When Jemma came into view there was less than a mile to go to Lundavra. Knowing this seemed to fire up Steve into another gear and he shifted his position to be in front of us with us chasing behind. Chasing is the right word; when he reached Lundavra, he blasted right through and on up the hill at speed. I paused for a cup of red bull, thinking I’d be able to catch him up quickly, until I saw him rapidly disappearing into the distance as he RAN up the hill.

Jemma and I hastily chased after him and for the next few miles we had to work really hard to keep pace. Steve was pausing for no-one; even when I tripped over my own feet and ended up tumbling off the path and smashing my elbow on a rock with a yelp, he gave nothing more than a cursory glance behind him as he continued onwards without pause.
Just before the final ascent up towards the fire road, we took a walking break for one last gel as I talked Steve through the final couple of miles of the course and what he had left to cover. Moments after he summited the hill Steve took off again, and we began the quad-juddering descent into Fort William at a comfortable but swift pace.

Upon reaching Braveheart car park we took a final walking break to catch our breath before the final push. As a group we locked into a solid pace and covered the last mile towards the leisure centre in just over ten minutes. It doesn’t matter whether you are running, crewing, or sweeping, making that final turn into the car park is very special and my heart leapt when I was finally able to tell Steve “Go on – it’s all yours” as we peeled away from him to give him his moment of glory sprinting towards the finishing arch and the end of the race.

Everyone is happy when they finish a race, but Steve had to be one of the most ecstatic finishers I’ve ever seen. He seemed genuinely surprised and delighted to have achieved his goal – as if it were ever in doubt! Steve completed the race in 22hrs 39m 17s. He didn’t want to hang around at the finish line, so within half an hour we had checked into our hotel and Steve was getting ready to have some well earned rest. I was certainly tired, but having a runner that finishes well under 24 hours makes a massive difference, so Jemma and I spent some time reflecting on the weekend in our room before we went to sleep, drinking warm beer and eating cheese and chocolate.

The next morning, after checking on Steve and eating some breakfast, we went back to the finish line to cheer in the final finishers. It was as emotional as it always is, and seeing those final warriors come in to reach the finish after 33 or 34 hours is amazing. Cheering Norma (the oldest female finisher ever) and Adrian (achieving his 15th goblet!) reduced me to a blubbering wreck of happy tears.

West Highland Way Race 2016

West Highland Way Race 2016

We then headed to the goblet ceremony and cheered all 159 finishers until our voices cracked and our hands hurt from clapping. I got the chance to catch up with most of my friends before we parted ways, but Steve had booked us an extra night in the hotel so I still had the after-party with lots of peole to look forward to later on that evening. We both went back to the hotel for lunch and then to rest for a little bit, but I ended up taking a little walk back down the course in the rain to see one last runner cover his last miles of the day…

Whilst the race was officially over, Keith was still out on the course. He had a legitimate excuse though, as he had started his run on Thursday evening in Fort William. Having ran 95 miles to the start in Milngavie, he turned around and came right back again, just because he could. After shooting the breeze with Lucy, Dod and Karen, a very tired looking figure came into sight as he entered Braveheart carpark. He stopped to say hello before his support runners chided him for not moving, so we quickly drove back to the Leisure Centre to be there when he finished.

In the pouring rain and devoid of any gantries or ceremony at all, the finish of this run looked quite different to the official race finish a couple of hours earlier, but the small group of supporters cheered like banshees when he inexplicably sprinted into the carpark after finding one last burst of energy. The amazing accomplishment was complete when Keith slapped his hands on the Leisure Centre doors in traditional ceremonial style, much to the surprise of the staff inside. A lady came out and disapprovingly wiped the doors clean of his hand prints – quickly erasing any lasting visual evidence of the 190 miles of hard work which had been clocked. A sobering reminder that not everyone ‘gets’ it.

Wrapped in an embrace of warm, happy running feelings, I went back for another nap before the party. I finally got to my bed at 4am after the after-after party and drinking champagne with a bunch of friends including esteemed guest, Hal Koerner, but that’s perhaps another story for another day.

West Highland Way Race 2016

West Highland Way Training Weekend

Last weekend I took my first trip back to the Southern half of the West Highland Way, since the West Highland Way Race in June 2015. The annual January training weekend was taking place once more at The Oak Tree Inn, and despite not running the race this year, to miss the annual January get-together was unthinkable.

 

After a hairy drive across Scotland going head-on into Storm Gertrude, we arrived at the Oak Tree around gin o’clock. Thankfully, despite passing one car accident and three over-turned lorries on the way, we achieved safe passage without incident. After a couple of drinks and a substantial meal to fuel the next day’s efforts, we retired to bed as the wind screamed through the trees around us creating ominous noises.

west highland way race training weekend

The next morning we awoke to a scattering of snow on the ground and continuing relentless wind. There was no two ways about it – the forecast was extremely poor…

balmaha weather

The wind was pushing off Loch Lomond from the West in huge gusts and creating big waves on the water. It seemed like the weather was changing every five minutes – when I sat down to breakfast the sun was shining, but by the time I’d ordered my coffee it was hammering down with hail.

Somewhat reluctantly I swallowed some cement and hardened myself up, and turned out for the start of the run at 9:50. There was a huge turnout, with many more people arriving on the morning than had stayed the night before. After a brief introduction from Ian we set off en masse at 10am, being battered from all sides by the wind.

west highland way craigie fort

I had given some consideration as to how far I wanted to run, but after the weather forecast veered into dangerous territory, I decided to call it on the day. I knew at a minimum I wanted to run to Rowardennan and back (around 16 miles) which would be a sensible distance for my first ‘long run’ of the year; if I was enjoying myself more then I would continue.

Ben Lomond west highland way

Ben Lomond in the snow

Either way my priority was to socialise and enjoy myself, which is why I was disappointed to find myself running alone for the first 8 miles. As usual – too fast to be slow and too slow to be fast. I am also a pig for sticking at exactly my own pace,  so unless someone else is running at exactly that on a group run, I rarely end up with close company on long runs.

Loch Lomond National Park Memorial Scuplture

Loch Lomond National Park Memorial Scuplture

The weather was very changeable, but careful dressing meant I was able to regulate my temperature well. On the sections away from the Lochside it was quite calm and snowy, but on the more exposed sections you really had to get your head down and shield your face from the hail. I’ve never seen the Loch look so rough as it did on Saturday!

Milarochy Bay west highland way

Milarochy Bay

I stopped at the war memorial at Rowardennan when I hit 8 miles and decided I would make my way back after a snack. As I wandered around eating some biscuits, I bumped into Fiona and Pauline who were heading back too, so I stuck with them on the return journey. It was the right decision to make as the intervals of sun became more and more infrequent and the wind and hail increasingly more violent! Violent is the right word; the pea-sized hail really stung your bare skin as it flew in sideways at speed. It got so bad it was fun – at least it wasn’t rain and we stayed mostly dry!

photo by Fiona

photo by Fiona

photo by Fiona

photo by Fiona

(link to video – click)

We made it back to base about three and a half hours after starting, just in time to get the last of the lunchtime soup at the Oak Tree. After defrosting and enjoying a couple of beers, I headed back for a lovely hot shower and a snooze before the evening’s festivities began.

The next morning, Kynon and I blew the cobwebs away with an ascent and descent of Conic Hill. I’d love to share some photos, but the cloud was so thick and low that you couldn’t see a thing. Here’s one of my favourites from last year instead…

whw training 7

It was interesting to be back on the West Highland Way for the first time since the race. I had a few flashback memories along the way of things that I’d forgotten about from the race, and as ever, the trail didn’t fail to shine despite the changeable weather. I’d forgotten how beautiful some of the forest sections near Rowardennan are.

After a few weeks of speed training I was satisfied with my first ‘Long’ run in a while and am looking forward to increasing my mileage in preparation for the Sri Chinmoy 50k at the end of March. Next up – 18 miles on the road, tomorrow!

Have you trained through the nasty weather recently?
What’s your favourite part of the West Highland Way?

Devil O The Highlands Footrace 2015 – RACE REPORT

The Devil O’The Highlands Footrace
1st August 2015

Devil o the highlands footrace prize

10hrs 32m 24s
157th of 180 finishers (7 DNF)
43rd of 56 Females

 

So it turns out that, as expected, running a 43 mile trail race on the back of 6 weeks recovery and resting from the West Highland Way Race is challenging, but achievable. My plan for the Devil o’the Highlands this year was always just to achieve a finish, and thus complete the West Highland Way triple crown of the Highland Fling, the WHW Race, and the Devil within one year. When you think about it more carefully, it’s actually nothing like a year; the races all take place in a shade over 3 months. There were 29 contenders this year and I believe all but 2 completed the combined challenge, which while unofficial, has become an aspirational target for many SUMS competitors with only 117 runners with at least one completion under their belts.

So it was at 2:45am on Saturday morning that I found my alarm going off, waking me from peaceful sleep in my room in the Fort William Travelodge. Kynon and I were booked onto the shuttle bus which would take us directly to the start in Tyndrum, but it meant a ridiculously early start to the day. The night before I’d prepared everything so all we needed to do was step into our clothes, pick up our bags, and leave, which was a plan which worked well. I intended to try and sleep some more, or at least rest on the bus, and would eat when we arrived in Tyndrum at 5am. I just didn’t see the sense in hoovering breakfast any earlier, as I never normally eat in the middle of the night!

Devil o the highlands footrace 2015

I got a little snooze on the bus and arrived in Tyndum feeling a little more alive, but was still feeling pretty spaced out. The application of coffee and some breakfast brought me back to life, and after some trips to the loo and the race briefing, it was time to line up at the start. I’d spoken to a handful of other Triple Crown hopefuls that morning and we all shared the same feeling of disbelief that we were back in Tyndrum and about to get back on to the West Highland Way again. The WHW Race seemed so long ago, but also just as though it was last week… it was confusing and somewhat disorienting.

Devil o the highlands footrace 2015

With five minutes to go we all departed from the Green Welly Stop and made the short walk to the start. The rain had dried up just as we assembled and it looked like the skies were clearing – was the forecast for rain going to be wrong…? Other than being a bit damp, the morning was overcast and quite humid. I had selected lots of layers to wear as the temperature could fluctuate wildly throughout the day.

Devil o the highlands footrace 2015

At 6am, Kynon and I stood towards the back of the large crowd of 189 runners and re-affirmed our commitment to stick together throughout the race. Whilst we’ve never ran an ultra together, we had decided it would be the best way to enjoy ourselves; he was a little under-trained and I was still a little tired from WHW Race. The goal was to finish happy and healthy – time didn’t matter, especially as we both have the Berlin Marathon to train for between now and the end of September. There was no point in emptying ourselves at the Devil and needing to take even more precious time for recovery.

Devil o the highlands footrace 2015

Photo by Clark Hamilton

Photo by Clark Hamilton

Photo by Clark Hamilton

Deciding to take it easy really took the pressure off and it meant I had no pre-race nerves at all. It felt like I was off for a long training run rather than anything else, but the festivities of the start line set the scene for another great race. As the new RD, Johnny Fling has done a great job in re-branding the Devil this year and giving the event a much-needed boost. When the hooter went at 6am, we charged up the hill through a gauntlet of supporters and marshalls, until slowing to a walk as the hill got steeper.

Devil o the highlands footrace 2015

The field spread out quite quickly as the first 7 miles are very runnable. I had to pull over and fix one of my shoes in the first half mile and by the time I stood up it appeared were at the absolute back of the field. Ok, so this was new, but again; there was no pressure to move quickly. We trotted on, warming up the muscles nicely and passed one or two runners; I was trying not to be competitive and push on, but when I saw we were even behind the legendary Ray McC I wasn’t having that, and made sure we made swifter progress to Bridge of Orchy.

Devil o the highlands footrace 2015

Devil o the highlands footrace 2015

Photo by Colin Knox

Tyndrum – Bridge of Orchy – 1hr 17m – 182nd place

I was hoping to go straight through BoO as it was just a timing checkpoint with water, but Kynon felt a blister starting and wanted to stop and put a Compeed on. I had 7 minutes of avoiding midgies until we could get going again and start clawing back a couple of places, but the irony was that I could feel blisters gurning on my feet too. As we climbed up and over Jelly Baby Hill I tried to decide whether it was worth me stopping at the bottom to check them out or not. Having carefully Sudocreme’d my feet before carefully lacing the shoes and fastening my gaiters, I really didn’t want to sit down and haphazardly pull it all off. The hot-spots were exactly where my WHW race blisters were though, where I had already placed preventative compeeds – I was worried that they might have slipped, so I decided to investigate at Inveroran.

Devil o the highlands footrace 2015Devil o the highlands footrace 2015

Once sitting on a stone I was able to peel back my socks to see that blisters had already formed underneath my compeeds placed just under the ball of my feet, in exactly the same spots as the WHW blisters. The compeeds basically looked like pale fried eggs, with a blister popping in the middle of each. After 9 miles!! I despair. Since there was nothing to be done, I put my socks, shoes, and gaiters back into order and looked forward to 34 more miles of unnecessarily painful steps. Some days you can take every precaution, but then it just doesn’t work…

As we were chugging over Rannoch Moor I began to notice Kynon lagging behind a bit. It seemed like he was fading so I made him eat something and take some painkillers as various parts were hurting. The day before, when we had thought about how the race would go I hypothesised that I would have a crap first 20 miles until my body remembered what it was capable of, and then I would get stronger towards the end; Kynon however would have a great first 20 before crashing and struggling to keep the momentum. It turned out my guess was partially right, but the role reversal happened at about 14 miles instead. I was able to gently pull us along, making sure that Kynon was off the rockiest parts of the trail and eating something regularly. Up until now the weather had remained bright, but we had our first rain shower of the day as we headed towards Glencoe. It looked very changeable up ahead, and it looked as if the weather forecast would deliver exactly what it had promised.

Glencoe – 3hr 45m 28s – 178th place

Devil o the highlands footrace 2015

Photo by Debbie Martin-Consani

I had estimated an arrival at Glencoe of about 3hr 15m, so much as we were still making decent enough time the fact we were quite behind schedule was never far from my mind. As we walked up the hill to the drop bag point I realised I recognised the face beneath the hat who was calling my name and holding up my bag – it was no other than three-time winner and course record holder of the West Highland Way Race, Paul Giblin. A look around revealed that the check point was being staffed by no fewer than 4 current or former Team GB ultrarunners who were running the place like an F1 pitstop. As I was eating my custard, Paul helped me get the rest of my stuff packed whilst Lucy Colqhuon (Female WHW Race course record holder) refilled my water. Kynon was being helped by Debbie Martin-Consani (GUCR winner and course record holder, Lakeland 100 winner, Team GB 24hr runner) and Sharon Law (Team GB 24hr runner) and after only a brief pause we were on our way again, marvelling at how brilliant the sport we have chosen is. Where else would you find elite athletes working at the coal face alongside common-or-garden ultra runners? Does Mo Farah hand out water at a local 10k? Huge thanks to Glencoe Team for being out there and continuing to inspire us all.

Devil o the highlands footrace 2015

Devil o the highlands footrace 2015

Leaving Glencoe

Devil o the highlands footrace 2015

Devil o the highlands footrace 2015

Between Glencoe and the Devil’s Staircase the sun shone brightly which made for some stunning views. There was no escaping the fact that we were running towards The Weather though, as huge black clouds loomed ahead. Kynon had never actually covered the Staircase before and was excited to climb it, but I think the shine wore off for him about half way up. I always forget how steep it is, but I was glad to feel a hundred percent better than in my last ascent in June, after 75 miles, when I had to stop to dry-heave every 10 minutes.

Devil o the highlands footrace 2015

Just before the summit we felt the first drops of rain. Like every other change in the weather that day it was quick, and within seconds we were scrabbling for our waterproofs as we were enveloped in rain. This was serious rain though; big heavy raindrops being pushed towards us with a harsh wind which got stronger as we crested the hill. We could barely stand up against the wind as we approached Fiona and Pauline who were sitting at the top handing out sweets and taking pictures. After a battle with her brolly, Fiona managed one for us!

Devil o the highlands footrace 2015

Photo by Fiona Rennie

Devil o the highlands footrace 2015

Photo by Fiona Rennie

Looking ahead we could see that the rain really wasn’t going anywhere this time so we had to buckle up and just get soaked. It was falling out of the sky with such ferocity it was like tropical, monsoon-style rain. I checked in with Kynon behind me and he was ok and ready to go; “Great” I said, “Then let’s get the F*%K off this hill!”.

The path was very slippy but I enjoyed dancing down it; I figured the weather was so ridiculous I may as well have some fun and jump in the puddles. There were some miserable looking walkers who looked at me like they thought I was crazy, but I was having a lot more fun than they were. Within the hour my waterproof had given up the ghost so every inch of me was soaked through and I wished I had a visor or some kind of cap to keep the rain out of my eyes. I continued to lead, but Kynon really struggled coming down the fire road and we ended up walking most of it. We lost a lot of time here but he kept on fighting; I didn’t want to say it, but other than a stiff hip climbing up hills I was feeling fine…

Kinlochleven – 6hr 31m 55s – 163rd place

The biggest credit of the day has to go to the Kinlochleven marshalls who had nothing but a bus shelter to hide from the rain in and were out for just as long as we were, except they had to stand still. I had barely eaten anything since Glencoe as my jacket was over my rucksack due to the rain, so I tucked in hungrily from my drop bag, and put some more snacks in my pockets. As we left, Audrey McIntosh emerged from a car and joined us running out of town; I don’t think if I’d had the opportunity to get somewhere warm and dry I would have taken it, as I’m not sure I could have left! A tree had fallen and was blocking the road out of town, and a man with a chainsaw was tackling it. There was something very unnerving about passing him working away looking ever so slightly wild eyed, so maybe that’s what gave me the extra boost to scoot away up the hill out of Kinlochleven into Lairig Mhor. We made good time and by the time we reached the top the rain had ceased to a drizzle. Such relief! It was windy though so I kept my jacket on to stay warm, especially as Kynon had stiffened up and was keen to do a bit more walking than I.

Crossing Lairig Mhor was a lot more tolerable than last time, and by the time we were within a mile of Lundravra the sun was out! The sun was hot and quickly dried up the wet kit we had on and made this latter stage of the race a lot more enjoyable. There were more friendly faces at Lundavra who provided juice and water re-fills, and then it was time for the final push and one last attempt to try and claw back some places.

Lundravra – 8hr 45m – 158th place

There’s not really much to report from the last 7 miles; as I am writing this nearly two weeks after the event I am struggling to recall much other than really struggling to get up hills efficiently due to pain deep inside my hips. This, and general fatigue, made it easier to run at Kynon’s pace and we worked together setting mini-goals to pass the distance on the long downhill; such as run for 0.5 mile, then a 100 step walk, and repeat…

Now, much attention has been given to the new finish with it’s off-road final 1.5 miles, but I feel I need to add my tuppence. Previously in the Devil (or WHW Race) you would descend to the main road into Fort William and then the final mile would be flat. Now, one descends and then turns back up another trail which runs parallel to the road as it climbs up and up, and it is aptly named ‘Cow Hill’. It was a cruel finish, but a very apt end to a race named ‘The Devil O’the Highlands’ really.

Staggering down the other side was as painful for Kynon as it was for me to stagger up it, but we got there eventually and heard the sounds of the finish on the breeze. Running into the field hand in hand, there were lots of cheers and music, and a finish line mention for me on completion of my Triple Crown. It felt right to finish with Kynon; he’s held my hand both physically and metaphorically through much of this journey and has been a pillar of support. To complete the final miles with him was perfect.

CK_Finish1

Photo by Colin Knox

devil o the highlands race 2015

Photo by Clark Hamilton

devil o the highlands race 2015

Photo by Colin Knox

Finish – 10hr 32m 24s – 157th place

devil o the highlands race 2015

Photo by Clark Hamilton

I’d lost track of time as both of our Garmins had died, so I asked someone what time it was – 4.35pm they said, I did the sums and gasped! Ten and a half hours?! Surely not! Oops. Well that had been somewhat of a relaxed day out, but a finish is a finish; the weather certainly impacted us, but most importantly we saved ourselves for the last bit of training for the McKinnon Berlin Marathon show-down in 6 weeks time. There will be no hand-holding on that particular adventure, as I grapple to retain my title of fastest McKinnon Marathoner…!

West Highland Way Triple Crown

West Highland Way Triple Crown

So that’s it; the Triple Crown is  done. I thought I would feel a lot more emotional about it, but it’s just…over. I will definitely do the Devil next year to see how quickly I can complete it solo; I think I’d be close to 8.5 hours if I had fresh legs. Next up is the Speyside Way / Fare Challenge back-to-back challenge on the 22nd and 23rd of August. 50 miles of Trail Racing; earlier in the year this would have been a doddle, but again I’ll be taking it easy to preserve myself for Berlin. At the moment, losing some weight is of the greatest importance; I may not have peak speed for Berlin but at least I can do myself a favour by not carrying any extra ballast. I’ll try and keep some updates coming in other than race reports in the next few weeks, but I’m now deep in the writing of my MSc thesis so that is demanding a lot of my time…

‘Til next time!

~RWR

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