The West Highland Way Race
20th June 2015
28 hours 57 minutes 54 seconds
111th of 155 finishers (188 starters)
21st of 33 Females
7th of 9 F Seniors
Where do I even begin to start this report? I’ve had my laptop open for most of the afternoon whilst browsing the pictures and reports of the race which are beginning to emerge, whilst waiting for inspiration to come. Hours later and I’m still no further – do I start with a quote? Some inspirational song lyrics? Everything seems trite and facile really; there’s nothing that I can say that will sum it all up so briefly.
So let’s start in a car park in Milngavie four years ago. I was standing quietly in the dark, shoulder to shoulder with a crowd of around 300, listening to a man speak into a microphone. He was delivering the pre-race briefing for the West Highland Way Race, and I was back up crew for my friend Mike Raffan, who was running his first West Highland Way Race. If we fast forward four years, the tables have turned. I am running my first West Highland Way Race, and Mike is crewing for me. That night in 2011, a seed was sown. The intervening four years have seen me complete 11 ultras and 5 marathons in preparation, along with thousands of more miles in training. I had worked very, very, hard to reach the start of this race.
We arrived in Milngavie at 7pm and ate in the Beefeater restaurant for convenience. I was mostly calm, but still intimidated by the onerous challenge ahead. The weather forecast wasn’t great, and starting a race at 1am in the morning is never an easy thing to get your head around. Still, I went through the motions of preparation without really thinking about it too much; registration was quick and easy, and I was weighed, tagged, and chipped like I was off to market. A bag of pre-ordered race merchandise was collected and some excitable chit-chat and hugs were partaken in. I wanted to keep away from the excitement though, so we retreated to the van for me to rest and read as the final hours ticked away.
At 11:45 I began getting ready; taping and preparing my feet, getting dressed, applying sudocreme, midgey repellant, and tying my hair firmly back. Kynon prepared my Camelbak and I was ready to go as the briefing started. I skipped over the road and got about 5 minutes into the briefing before realising in horror that I’d forgotten my head torch! After retrieving it there was 20 more minutes of excited good luck wishes and hugs, before we were instructed to line up for the start. Thankfully we managed to get all of the Stonehaven Running Club entrants together for a ‘before’ picture.
Image by Monument Photos
Image by David Friel
With one minute to go I was surprised at how I felt. I thought I’d be full of butterflies, tingling with either excitement or fear, or disbelief that my turn to start the race was finally here. I wouldn’t say the start was a let down, but the way my brain was processing it (perhaps for self-protection?) was just that it was another run out of the station in Milngavie. No big deal. Done it loads. Oh there’s the hooter…Off we go…
Image by Monument Photos
Image by Chris Cowley
The weather at the start was perfect really; very light drizzle, no wind, vaguely warm, humid temperature. In the first few miles in the park I concentrated on not falling over mainly, whilst having a chat with Fiona Rennie, David Searil, and some others. The night was clear and quiet and the sky was a beautiful grey-blue up ahead, as we ran away from the fiery red lights of Glasgow behind us. I ate a gel and some cake, and excitedly passed off my litter to Kynon and Mike who were waiting at Beech Tree (7 miles). I remember the path being quite overgrown and feeling quite boxed in with some other runners in front and behind. I thought it was funny that I could be frustrated by a little thing like that in a race which is so long, that by the end, participants can be half an hour between each other at the finish.
In the miles on the road approaching Drymen, I began to feel a bit sick. I figured it was mainly due to the darkness and drizzle being caught in my headlight – basically I was giving myself carsickness. I reached Drymen (12 miles) in 2 hours and 17 minutes if I remember correctly; and was looking forward to a drink of powerade and a little tub of rice. The guys were waiting for me with the rice, but no juice. I was kind of frustrated as that was pretty much the first instruction on my race notes – I’d like a powerade at each check point – and Kynon knows how nuts I am about that stupid ‘Blue Juice’ when I run, but it didn’t really matter. Off I headed to Balmaha, with daylight fast approaching.
Image by Chris Cowley
I ran through the forests after Drymen with my SRC clubmates. This made the time pass quickly as we chatted about lots of things and celebrated turning off our head torches at around 3.45am. As the dawn chorus broke I thought it was birds flying around us, until I realised I was looking at bats! Big, fat beautiful bats giving us an escort over the misty moor. Conic hill was cloaked in mist and low cloud, so my dreams of a spectacular sunrise over the hills were dashed, but climbing up through the mist was a marvel in itself. It was remarkable how disorienting it was without the landmarks around you to judge your progress – you couldn’t see anything to the side or up ahead, so you had no idea how long there was to go.
I’ll admit I struggled a bit on Conic; the phrase ‘breathing out my arse’ comes to mind as I remember struggling to haul myself up it. I was worried that I might have tapered a little too hard and that my cardio fitness had suffered. I felt really sick at points on the hill and hoped that this wasn’t going to be the theme of the day. I had a gentle descent into Balmaha and enjoyed saying hello to John K who was netted up amongst a swarm of midgies cheering runners on half a mile from the check point. I was also excited to swipe my chip for the first time which would send out an update to everyone following me online back home!
Image by Chris Cowley
I reached Balmaha (20 miles) in 3 hours 59 minutes and was greeted by Kynon and Mike with a coffee, custard, and a buttery. “Have you got my juice?” I asked; “F&*$!” was Kynon’s reply!
Image by Chris Cowley
“Where is my JUICE!?”
This time I really did want the juice, so while I ate the custard he fetched the juice, and Mike talked away to me. I got a fresh layer of midgie repellant applied and my camelbak swapped over, before walking out of the car park with Mike as I finished my coffee. About a mile outside the check point as the drizzle got heavier, I realised that the guys hadn’t switched my rain jacket over from my previous camelbak. Oh dear; they were off for a sleep now and I had no phone signal. Oh well; skin is waterproof and the rain was warm.
The loch was like a mill pond in the early morning – everything was so calm.
My main goal for the race (other than the obvious finish) was to enjoy it; to be able to look back and remember enjoying my time running as much as possible. There were a lot of things I could have got despondent or annoyed over in the first half of the race but I figured that it just wasn’t worth it. I had a choice. I could wallow in the difficulties and dread the hours of miles to come, or just get on with it. It was almost a refusal of acknowledgement that things were bad at times, and for a while, they did get pretty bad.
On the way to Rowardennan I began to feel sicker and sicker. I didn’t want to eat but forced myself to, which in turn made me feel sicker. When you feel grotty, the way to make yourself better is not to chew up a jaffa cake until it is mush, then take a gulp of cherry orange flavour High 5 and swill it around in your mouth until you can force it down your throat, but that was pretty much my only option other than stopping running. I did quite a bit of walking, and made it to Rowardennan (27.5 miles) about 7am, which is 6 hours race time.
Image by Pauline Walker
Image by Pauline Walker
Image by Pauline Walker
Pauline, Sue and Christina were manning this checkpoint where I had a drop bag. I hadn’t wanted my crew to meet me here as I knew I’d be fine and they would need to sleep more than I needed them. I only spent about 5 minutes here; I had a seat, refilled my water and repacked my pockets with snacks which I would probably ignore. I took a little bottle of water and a bottle of milkshake in my hands and walked out of the checkpoint, to be quickly overtaken by Vikki running quite quickly! She was on a mission to get a big PB this year and the other SRC girls had sent her away out of the checkpoint once she was ready to leave instead of hanging around waiting for them.
I walked for quite some time after Rowardennan; every time I ran my stomach felt like a washing machine and I had a desire to throw up. Eventually I just gave in and retched up the contents of my stomach by the side of the trail in the hope of settling things down. I had one more puke a little later and stuck with drinking water and things began to settle down a little. I was still just focussing on one stage at a time – if I looked at the wider picture and realised I was puking my guts out 30 miles into a 95 mile race then that would do me no favours at all.
Instead I focused on enjoying the beautiful surroundings; the blossoming trees, the smell of wild garlic, and the fields of buttercups and bluebells. I’d never seen the West Highland Way look so splendid, even though the sun wasn’t out and the clouds were low. Everything was so GREEN! It was quite warm and humid, and the midgies were leaving me alone (or drowning in sweat on my legs). All digestional pyrotechnics aside, it was a perfect day for running.
I reached Inversnaid (35 miles) at 9am which was completely on schedule, and drank another milkshake. I hadn’t eaten much since Rowardennan; Amanda had passed me two miles or so before the checkpoint telling me to eat my mini cheddars as they were doing me no good in my hand. Unfortunately they were still clutched half eaten in my paw, with the snacks in my pockets uneaten as well, when I reached the checkpoint. Sorry Amanda…
After taking some painkillers and some caffeine pills I made good time along the Lochside after Inversnaid, and my stomach seemed to sort itself out. I love this section and it’s always a joy to move in a different way and climb and scramble after 35 miles of running. I texted the crew to let them know I was on target for an 11am arrival at Beinglas and put in my food requests. I was really looking forward to seeing the guys again and eating some salty, real food. I had lots of things to choose from but specified samosas, sausages, hot borscht, peaches and ginger beer, along with a change of top.
I got into Beinglas (41 miles) around 11:05am and got tucked into my food whilst listening to the guys tell me about their day. Everyone was having a good time and I felt so much better after some solid food. I dibbed out of the checkpoint at 11:24am and set about the 10 miles over the rollercoaster hills to Auchtertyre.
Image by Chris Cowley
I made steady progress with a mix of walking and running, but my legs were starting to hurt. I remember thinking that they felt a bit like they did when I did the Fling for the first time, and it was hard to believe I had been in such fantastic pain-free shape at this years Fling only 8 weeks prior. I contemplated what I had really expected though and realised I hadn’t given it much thought – I had just assumed that the first 50-odd miles would breeze by as they did at the Fling, or that they would even feel easier as I wasn’t pushing as hard. I was very wrong; the tiredness of running overnight had a big effect and I could not have felt more different. It was hard going, but again I had a choice and I chose to enjoy myself. I stopped for a brief selfie at around the half way point. Half way!
I had been alone up until now from Inversnaid, but David Meldrum and I ran the last 2 miles in to Auchtertyre together and it was nice to have someone to chat to. He was looking and feeling very strong, and went on to have a fantastic race later on. I was looking forward to having Ali join me at Auchtertyre and to having a short sit down. My lower back had been tightening up and I knew if I sat down for two or three minutes it would release it. Actually getting Mike and Kynon to allow me to sit down would be a different challenge altogether; we had a chair with us but I had instructed them to not to let me sit down at all unless I needed to fix my feet…
Image by Pauline Walker
Image by Pauline Walker
Auchtertyre (51 miles, 2pm) was really busy and it was great to see so many friendly faces. I was weighed and had put on a kilo which I thought was odd – I had thrown up twice and also made like a bear twice, so putting ON weight was actually a mild concern. The guys wouldn’t let me sit down so I plonked myself down on the grass in protest whilst I ate some sausages and drank more borscht. It might seem an odd choice on a warm day but it’s very salty, savoury and comforting. Just before I left with Ali I wanted to apply more Sudocreme; one of the more amusing moments of the day was when I had turned my back to the guys to preserve my dignity whilst doing this and realised that I had turned to face Mike’s GoPro which was sitting on the fence post recording the checkpoint fun… Oh well; Mike now has some excellent ammunition if he ever needs to bribe me, but hopefully the usual clause of ‘What happens at WHWR stays at WHWR will apply’…!
Image by Carolyn Kiddell
Ali and I left Auchtertyre just after 2pm and began making our way to Tyndrum. Chatting really helped pass the time and before we knew it we were at ‘By The Way’ where the Fling finishes. I was just about to moan about wishing we were finishing when I recognised a figure up ahead – it was my Mum! She and Dad had promised to come down to cheer me on here after I told them how much it would mean to me. Despite having a lot of reluctance to get involved due to finding it very hard to see me put myself through some of the stuff I do voluntarily, they agreed to come down and see me here and then stay overnight in Fort William to come to the Goblet ceremony. It meant so much to me that they came and seeing them was such a boost; Dad took some great pictures which sum up how I felt for most of my race.
We made our way to Brodie’s Store, and on the way I stopped for a quick chat about running skirts with two GB International ultra runners who I just happened to bump into…! Debs and Fionna were out running some of the route in reverse and were bouncing down the trail chatting to everyone.
Between the boost I got from my folks showing up, bumping into those superstars, and the amazing Irn Bru ice lolly which Kynon gave me from Brodie’s, at 54 miles I was feeling GOOD.
Pushing on out past Brodie’s and back into the wilderness, Ali and I soaked up the amazing huge scenery around us which made me feel like an ant. Every so often a car would hoot its horn from the A82 on the other side of the Glen and the runners would wave back; you could see right down the glen and little neon pairs were spaced out about every 800 metres.
On the approach to Bridge of Orchy my energy levels took a major dip. Tiredness was beginning to drag me down and my legs were heavy. My stomach felt a little upset again and I was too warm. I went from mainly running with a bit of walking each mile, to mainly walking with a bit of running. Ali and I picked out landmarks ahead to run to or start running from, and I willed Bridge Of Orchy station to appear on the horizon but it just didn’t get any closer. I literally felt like my batteries were running down and I was getting slower and slower….
Finally! Bridge of Orchy! I hobbled down the hill towards it and wobbled over the road feeling like a bag of smashed crabs. Suddenly a familiar figure came into focus again – it was Mum! What was she doing here? This isn’t good! I look and feel awful – they weren’t supposed to see this side of the race! (Kynon and I had agreed in advance that if I was in a bad way coming into Tyndrum that he would text my folks to let them know it wasn’t a good idea to come see me…) Quick! Put a smiley face on and stop hobbling!
‘Fake it ’til you make it’ are the words I believe I said to Ali here, and to a certain extent it worked. I took a little longer than planned at Bridge of Orchy (60 miles – dibbed in at 16.44pm) but I needed it.
Image by Carolyn Kiddell
Image by Carolyn Kiddell What is Ali saying to George…??
I had a seat, some painkillers and caffeine pills, a coffee, and I attempted to eat a Mullerrice and managed about half. As I sank into the chair my eyes dipped and I realised I was hitting my first real low of the race. I was so weary, I would have given anything to sit there for just a little while…
Kynon came over and had a quiet word, my eyes prickled a little and I closed them; “This is beginning to get quite hard” I whispered. I can’t remember what Kynon said but he gave me a kiss on my forehead and helped me up. Once again I had to make the right choice – this was hard enough to do without my head dragging me down with thoughts of how far I still had to go. On to my aching shoulders went the back pack, a goodbye hug with my Mum and Dad, and Ali and I went off up the hill towards Rannoch Moor, Glencoe, and the next 10 miles.
The following is textbook ultramarathon – I went from being at my lowest point in the race, to 20 minutes later being as perky and happy as I ever had been. The sun was out and it was a stunning, clear evening, and as we reached the top of Jelly Baby Hill, the sight of Mike ‘Krupicka’ Raffan confirmed that the weather was “TAPS AFF”.
Mike had driven to Glencoe and then ran back to meet Ali and I, and was waiting on top of JBH with Murdo the Magnificent (wearing a pair of the loudest trousers known to man) and Pete Duggan playing some beautiful tunes on a penny whistle. This was a real highlight of the race for me; I took my jelly baby and danced down the hill in the sunshine with my friends, the shadows which had cloaked me at Bridge of Orchy cast away.
In good company, Rannoch Moor passed quickly. An abiding memory is the tremendous flatulence which had plagued my backside since not long after Tyndrum; at times I felt like I was literally propelling myself along with the velocity of the hot air being dispelled from my system. Now I love a good fart joke at the best of times, but this was almost getting out of hand. It was clearly better out than in though, so I kept trumpeting along, each time worrying if a flock of seagulls would be following after.
Let me raise the tone a little now and share this beautiful picture which Ali took at about mile 70 on my way into Glencoe. The evening light and the low cloud was breathtaking and made the experience even more magical than usual, and this photograph captures the scale of the beautiful surroundings. Arriving into Glencoe (71 miles, 8pm) I was greeted by Kynon and a box of chips, which are pretty much my two favourite things on the planet. I took a seat and tucked in whilst drinking a cup of coffee, and heard that Vikki was still at the checkpoint having a sleep. I was surprised by this as I thought she’d be hours ahead by now.
Image by Kynon
The marshalls informed us that there was now a weather warning issued to the course, and everyone had to be carrying a full set of waterproofs. I was already set as I’d been carrying mine since Bridge of Orchy, much to my confusion when it was so hot. However, there was definitely weather coming, and they wanted us to be prepared. I left Glencoe with extra layers on top, and wearing waterproof trousers over my skirt to see how they felt without tights underneath, as I really didn’t want to take my shoes off to put tights on. I asked Kynon to meet us at the Kingshouse hotel about a mile down the road with my backpack – I really wanted a break from carrying it as my shoulders were killing me. I was glad to see him so soon as the trousers had me dripping in sweat inside and were making me colder than I would have been with them off, so they went back in the backpack and I carried on in my skirt.
Vikki had left Glencoe just after me but was making quicker progress, and passed me on the way to Altnafeadh. I saw them already a little way up the Devil when I arrived, but was greeted by both her support crew and mine, which was a lovely crowd of Stonehaven support. I was nervous about the Devil given how sick I had been whilst climbing hills earlier in the day, but it wasn’t going to climb itself so off I went.
Image by Claire Clark
It was hard, hard work. I don’t know what caused it, but it felt like I was very carsick – perhaps tiredness and a constantly moving horizon was messing up my inner ear, but I was having to stop after every couple of zig zags to lean on my knees and quell the urge to throw up. I just felt so rough, and the climb went on forever; not even a pause to turn around and look at the stunning view back down Glencoe and towards Buachaille Etive Mor could cheer me up. Seeing Vikki disappear into the distance was hard too; I had hoped we might be able to run together for a bit but we were just at totally different strengths at that point.
After reaching the summit after 45 minutes of climb, it took me a while to settle my stomach enough to start running again but gradually I came back to life. Mike went ahead and I followed his footsteps as he showed me the best route down. We needed head torches from about 11.00pm to see our feet clearly but the sky was still quite light. I passed Team Vikki on the descent as I had got my energy back just as she was having a dip, but that’s not to say I was feeling particularly brilliant. The going underfoot was ROUGH. After coming off the trail onto the fire road track, there was almost no difference underfoot. The track had obviously been ‘re-surfaced’ lately, and by re-surfaced I mean – someone had emptied tonnes of loose boulders and rocks onto the road and called it a job well done. I was so cross, I couldn’t get a rhythm going, every step was a liability, and the road was steeper than I had ever remembered.
Kinlochleven (AKA Bridgadoon) took its usual sweet time in appearing out of the night. I’ve come down that descent many times in the dark, but it’s never been this hard before (as in, I’ve never had 80 miles in my legs before…). It just took forever to get out of the woods; down, down, down, down, more down, down some more, down down. The total descent from the top of the Devil to Kinlochleven is 1,804 feet down to sea level in case you were wondering…
Mike tried to pull me into a run when we finally got onto the road at the bottom, but I just had absolutely nothing left in my legs at all. I remember telling him I’d never felt so gubbed on a run before; that this was brand new territory in terms of exhaustion and I was sorry to say it. Usually I can smack myself into some kind of shape and start moving, but every inch I moved hurt in some way and after carefully descending for the guts of an hour, my muscles felt like jelly now they were on the flat. I think I did manage to break out into a brief shuffle though, if only to get to the welcoming warmth of the checkpoint quicker where there were tea and biscuits waiting.
I staggered in to Kinlochleven (81 miles, 11:50pm) after Mike, and some people clapped and cheered, including Julie, Queen of Kinlochleven. I was pretty demotivated though and was only interested in getting to the toilet before I was weighed again, in the hope of preventing as little of a further recorded weight increase as possible. Still, when I stood on the scales I was up another kilogram to 70kg. For someone who had been running for 23 hours this was less than ideal, but the medical staff seemed happy enough. I staggered over to where Kynon and Ali were sitting and they took my pack off me and gave me tea and ginger biscuits as they prepared the new camelbak. I had asked just for gels and chews to be put in the pockets for the last section as real food was now definitely off the menu. Friends were talking to me but I wasn’t really listening; my mind was already focussed on how I was going to try to get myself back out of Kinlochleven – another 400ft straight up to the Lairig Mhor. After the traumatic climb up the Devil I was totally dreading it; my wells of positivity had run dry. I still had a choice in how to deal with the difficulties, but now it had narrowed down to ‘Put up, or shut up’. Before I got too comfortable I was pulled up, hugged, congratulated by George for managing two biscuits, then turned around and punted out the door into the night by my dear husband and friends after a total time of 15 minutes. 14 miles to go.
The climb wasn’t great, but it didn’t make me nearly as sick as the Devil. I took it very slowly with little steps, and held my head torch in my hard rather than on my head. Maybe this helped, but either way I made it to the top in half an hour, just as the rain started to fall. “The Weather” had arrived. My thermal fleece top is pretty shower-proof so I kept that on, but after 10 minutes the rain was getting so heavy that we needed to concede and put on the waterproofs. I opened my bag and couldn’t really focus on the contents, but I couldn’t see my rain jacket. Where was it? I checked all the pockets. No rain jacket. I stopped walking. “Mike. MIKE!“. He stopped and came back. “The guys haven’t put my jacket in my bag.” “What?” “The jacket. They didn’t switch it to this bag. They’ve put my phone and stuff in, but no jacket…I’ve got no waterproofs.” This, as the rain pelted down heavier by the minute, was pretty catastrophic, however because Mike is basically superman, he had a spare windshell in his bag. Not so much waterproof as wind and showerproof, but it was enough to keep any heat I could generate inside for a bit longer. The challenge was now generating the heat.
At some point in every ultra, something generally goes a bit sour. These are the bits we forget in order to continue doing the sport – no one wants to remember the bad bits, so we dwell on the happy times and the good memories. It is going to take me a very long time to forget how it felt to cross the Lhairig Mhor in torrential rain, soaked to the skin, with bare legs and only a windshell for protection, in miles 81 – 88 of the West Highland Way Race. It took us 3 hours to cover the 7 miles. Three hours. The path was a river, with more rivers crossing it, every step on the jagged rocks was daggers into my battered feet, and the gradual slope upwards was just enough to prevent me from running which would have kept me warm. My eyes were down, closely examining the rocky trail trying to pick out where to put my feet. All I saw for two hours, was an illuminated circle of pink, black and white rocks moving forward in front of me like I was walking on a rocky treadmill. Mike was still leading the way, but we crossed the Mor in silence; both of us refusing to acknowledge out loud how bad the situation was, because if we talked about it then it would be real.
I used every tactic I had to save my race; if I wasn’t smart then I could succumb to hypothermia, which generally is a bad thing, but to be pulled at 88 miles into a 95 mile race would be devastating. I pushed gels into my mouth – give the body something to do, digest the food, absorb the sugar. Count to 100, give the brain something to do, keep aware, sing songs in your head – do anything, but just think! Don’t switch off! I pumped my arms back and forward to generate some warmth and tried whenever I could to run, even for just literally a few steps at a time. We were covering the ground at a reasonable pace as we power-walked, but it still dragged on forever. Three hours.
Skipping back a moment, before it all got soggy, I had said to Mike on the way up out of Kinlochleven that I had two things to focus on and look forward to – the Wilderness Medics and their dogs half way along the Mhor, and the bonfire at Lundavra. Fiery beacons to light the way in the darkest final miles of the race. Eventually the torches of the Wilderness Medics appeared on the horizon; a landmark up ahead to focus on. Unfortunately when we arrived the torches and the tents were deserted, as the guys manning the outpost had had to remove an injured runner from the hill in their truck. I had been looking forward to a cup of Irn Bru and a hug from the dogs, but the place was deserted. It’s easy to forget that the guys aren’t really out there to give you sweeties, but to save your life. I hope that runner was ok in the end.
The Lundavra bonfire never did come into view, as the torrential rain had put it out. Dawn was creeping on the horizon and the velvet cloak of darkness was lifting, allowing for recognition of some landmarks around 3am. Unfortunately the legendary Lundavra all-night bonfire party which I’d been looking forward to had been completely rained out; the only people waiting were hiding in their cars, and the bonfire was a smouldering pile. The consolation prize was the amazing ultravan with its heating blasting hot air. Mike and I piled into the hot van without speaking and peeled off our soaking wet clothes and pulled on layer upon layer of dry ones. There was no choice – I was going to have to take my shoes off to get running tights on, and I nearly bit through my lip trying not to scream as the pain of pulling against blisters the size of cherries made me see stars with agony, but what was the choice? Do that, or not finish.
Kynon and Ali had been quiet in the front seats, and without saying anything much had assisted Mike and I in getting the things we needed ready for us to leave again. Someone had made a bit of an error back down the trail, but I really did not care. Yes, things were a little rougher than they should have been, but that’s why you train hard to fight easy. The more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in battle. I’ve spent months, and years, running in the shittest possible conditions in our winters to train my body and mind to deal with things when the chips are down. When it came to it on the battlefield, I was ready and I dealt with it. The only choice is to face your game and play it. I just wish I had been strong enough to run more in that section to make the time pass more quickly.
After half an hour in the van warming up, drying off and eating some food, Mike and I were ready to get going again and thankfully it was almost daylight. I had asked if Ali would come too just to bring a fresh mind to the collective, and he quickly suited up in his waterproofs and was ready to go. As I stepped out of the van, my right calf seized and stiffened, completely locked up and unwilling to straighten the leg as I stood. Super; because this wasn’t going to be hard enough. I limped on my way hoping that it would loosen off soon, if not, then I would hop, or crawl, or something. Relentless forward progress, I believe is the term.
In the end I ended up holding on to Ali’s arm as he helped me pull myself up the last sets of hills, and steadied me on the way down. The rain had lessened but everything in this section was still very muddy and slippy, which provided somewhat of a challenge for my Hoka Stinsons. They are great for the 80% of the rest of the West Highland Way which consists of rocks, but they are hopeless on mud and on one or two occasions I found myself slipping dangerously. I was quickly entered into the World Mud Dance Championships and my final performance was a 10ft long slide with a slip kick, turning into a solid flat footed landing in to the ditch with further one legged slide, until Mike caught my arm and managed to stop me from going further down the hill. I stood blinking in surprise and Ali asked how on earth I had managed that; did I ever mention in a past life I was a figure skater…?!
The slip n’ slide at least revealed some last scraps of humour which lightened the mood a little. The rain had mainly stopped and it was totally light as we emerged from the last of the woods into the fallen forest. We were mainly walking but I had been able to kick myself into a run every so often, usually for only about 30 seconds at a time. Either way we were making good progress, but not as good as Vikki who emerged from behind us with Chris and Kate in hot pursuit. She had nailed a Mars bar and was taking advantage of everything it had given her while she could, whilst I had almost nothing left to give. It was hard for me to push harder as knew either way I would still be will under 30 hours which was my main goal, and I was so deep in the hurt locker I didn’t think I could go any faster just for the sake of a few minutes.
There was one last climb. If you know the WHW you know the one; up to the fire road, one last sting in the tail. I staggered up, clinging on to Ali’s arm and stopping every so often to lean on my knees and come close to death until I caught my breath. There is a WHW post at the top of the climb and that’s when you know you’re done, and I clung to it like my life depended on it until I caught my breath. Maybe it did.
Mike pushed to run when we reached the descending road, but it took me a little while longer to prepare myself. Who ever thought that running downhill would be hard? You just let gravity do the work and move your legs in time. Perhaps that was the problem – my brain was having difficulty pairing leg instructions with, well, anything, and I just couldn’t make it happen. In the past few weeks after my training weekend on this section I had dreamed about powering down here in the final miles, but in the end I was trotting and stumbling my way behind Mike and Ali. “Guys! Come back! Guys! GUYYSS! I can’t keep-Wait. They’re doing this on purpose. Swines. Right, I’ll just run and catch them up. Bastards, they’re running too now – No, guys, I don’t want to run I just want to walk with you! Screw you I’m walking. Ok, now they’re walking too. This is never going to work. ‘Sake.” Stomp stomp stomp.
As the fire road went on for days, I saw the Glen Nevis campsite down to our right and kept my mind occupied by trying to spot my parents’ motorhome down below. There was no logical ability for me to be able to see it, but we did ruminate briefly on how amusing it would be to drop in and say hello. It was about 4:30am then, so no big deal really. Either way, this meant that the end was really nearly here. Kynon was parked at the finish and had made his way to Braveheart car park where he was now climbing back up the route to meet us. When he finally came into view he was a sight for sore eyes; he held my hand all the way down the rest of my trail and endured my constant questioning as to when the car park was coming. Finally it came and I knew it was a mile. Just a mile.
The first glance at my watch in about 12 hours showed that if I could cover the last mile in 15 minutes then I would bring it in under 29 hours. I couldn’t do anything about the hours of time lost so far, but I could stop the clock ticking over on to another hour if I didn’t just walk it in. The fact I could still run at 94 miles was not lost on me and I kicked myself in a roughly 20s run/20s walk along the last piece of road before we passed the 30 MPH sight (half a mile!) and reached the roundabout where the sign said 400m to go. Mike had run ahead to give his GoPro to someone to film the final moments and was waiting for us with about 50 meters to go before the Leisure Centre. “Come on lads; let’s bring it home” I said, as we rounded the corner, and the small crowd of people under the gantry started to cheer. We ran to the finish as a team, with me crossing the line and dibbing my chip for the final time at 28 hours 54 minutes and 57 seconds.
Image by Chris Cowley
Image by Chris Cowley
Image by Chris Cowley
Image by Carolyn Kiddell
Image by Carolyn Kiddell
What happened next? Hugs, lots and lots of hugs. And thanks. I symbolically placed my hands on the Leisure Centre doors before going in, and finally taking a seat to remove my shoes. I had been thinking about doing this for hours and it felt incredible to peel my socks off and set my feet free. I drank some tea and then went for a shower and had a lovely massage where I fell asleep face first on the table within seconds. Our van was parked outside the leisure centre, so with great luck all I had to do was hobble 30ft to the van and climb in (hahaha!) and pass out.
After sleeping for three hours, I woke up at 10am and turned on my phone. It sprung to life with a deluge of texts, facebook messages and twitter notifications and as I read through them all I was overwhelmed by the tremendous support which had been given to me, and big, fat, happy tears started tumbling down my cheeks. I almost couldn’t believe it was real.
I was able to see the last three finishers come in before we picked up my Mum and Dad and headed to the Goblet ceremony at 12. Mike advised me to take some food and drink as sitting in the hot hall for over an hour can sometimes be difficult.
Image by Monument Photos
One by one the names were called and cheers rung out for friends and loved ones. I made my way painfully down the stairs when my name was announced and shook John Kynaston’s hand when he gave me my goblet. A beautiful piece of crystal; the result of thousands of miles of hard work and dedication. I thought that I’d be a mess of tired and emotional tears, but as it happened I was quite calm.
The rest of the afternoon was filled with catch ups, beers, photos and napping, before an epic night in the pub to finish the weekend off. All six Stonehaven Running Club members made it to the finish; tired and victorious, but unscathed.
It has taken a few days to sink in properly – I’ve finally done it. I’ve completed the West Highland Way Race. After years of work, I’ve ran 95 miles to earn my place in a group of less than 1000 people who have completed this iconic race, and it was an incredible journey.
I think it was Kilian Jornet who said ‘A race is a lifetime which begins and ends in a day’. Worthy is the runner who is courageous enough to take on this particular lifetime, who dares to believe, who keeps the devotion through every stumble and fall, who fights fatigue on the hills to see the sun rise after a second night of running as they make their way to the finish. The West Highland Way Race is built upon legends, traditions, and family; valiant is the family who bands together, courageous in the face of challenge, humble at the foot of mountains, but strong in triumph together at the top.
A race is nothing without the people, and my finest hour, the achievement of all that I had worked towards, was made possible with the support of so many people – Kynon, Mike, Ali, my Mum and Dad, Stonehaven Running Club, and the whole West Highland Way Race family. Without us we’re nothing. Thank you.