It’s 1230am on midsummer’s eve, in a car park outside a railway station in Milngavie. A man stands half way up an embankment in a yellow jacket with a microphone, addressing the crowd before him. They hang on his every word; no-one makes a sound and you could cut the atmosphere with a knife.
Ian Beattie, Director of the West Highland Way Race is delivering the pre-race briefing to 183 runners, their crew, and dozens of marshalls and supporters. Once a year, always on the longest day, we come together in this anonymous station car park in the middle of the night to start what is regarded by many to be the greatest race in Scotland. Friends from far and wide gather here, united by a love of running, the route and the people who run on it.
Months and years of training have gone into this for every runner on the starting line, and it means everything to them. They have 35 hours to complete the 95 mile journey from Milngavie to Fort William, a remarkable tour de force of the beauty which Scotland has to offer. From the suburban car park out into a country park, to the top of Conic Hill and around the edge of Loch Lomond. Through the lush forests of Crianlarich down to the valley of Tyndrum, over the exposed Rannoch Moor and through the stark beauty of Glencoe. Up the Devil’s Staircase and down the crippling descent to Kinlochleven, before the final climb through the desolate Lairig Mor and the last stagger down to Fort William. The race finishes as it starts, in a car park; but the journey in between will change a person. He who commences this race is not the same man who completes it.
I returned to the race for the third time, this year as part of the sweep team with 5 other runners from Stonehaven. We would work in pairs and take turns to look after the slow and the vulnerable at the back of the race; each covering about 30 miles of the route in total over the 35 hours. Whilst not comparable to the running of the entire race, it was an ultra endurance test in its own right with us being mentally and physically stretched to the limit. Naturally, I couldn’t wait to get started.
Thursday night saw us raiding Asda and filling a shopping trolley full of supplies. When we spoke to the lady on the check out she casually asked where we were off to with all our supplies; “An adventure on the West Highland Way!” we replied. No further details required.
We savoured our last sleep on Thursday night, not knowing when our heads would rest on a pillow again. After work, we packed the car and picked up Scott before heading down to Milngavie to arrive at about 11pm.
Everything was completely familiar – the red Trossachs Search and Rescue Unit, the Kirky Krazies Ultramarathon Support Vehicle, the motorhomes in various states of repair, the support crews sitting on deckchairs outside their cars and some runners darting around excitedly greeting old friends. Others sat in their cars in darkness, focusing on the task ahead.
We made our way up to the Church Hall and checked in with Race Control. There we received our lovely blue West Highland Way Race ‘Crew’ jackets and pink 2013 WHW Race Buffs. After saying hello to plenty of people we headed back outside and met up with the rest of Team Sweep.
Left to right: Me, Kynon, Alex, Scott, Marc, Neil.
We filled in time being treated to some great friendly hospitality from Alan and Angela at the International Fire and Rescue Association van and learned about some of the work their charity does, whilst enjoying a coffee and a sandwich. It’s an impressive vehicle with a lot of history, including its first job being the incident control unit at the Lockerbie Air Disaster.
Kynon and Graeme were taking the first shift from Milngavie to Drymen, and were dressed and ready to go at midnight. I joked around with the other guys and caught up with friends whilst waiting for the race briefing at 1230. Ian addressed us with the usual warnings and regulations, but this year he included some words written by Fiona Rennie, great WHW Race stalwart, who is currently fighting her strongest battle yet against cancer and could not be on the starting line that night for the first time in nearly a decade. It stirred emotion in many and made the runners more determined than ever to conquer the race since she couldn’t.
As ever, the time flew by and it was time to assemble. We positioned ourselves some distance up the High Street and listened for the count down and the klaxon at 0100.
As expected, the rain began falling in sheets right before the horn went – after all it wouldn’t be the West Highland Way race without a bit of precipitation. After a few minutes silence we heard the horn, and they were off.
As quickly as they flew past us, they were gone. Kynon and Scott made their way up the High Street at the very back of the field and the adventure had begun.
My first task was to change into my running gear as I was taking the second shift after Drymen with Alex. When everyone was ready we headed out in convoy to the first stop along the way – the Beech Tree Inn. The lads were keen for some bacon rolls, but I was still well fuelled from my earlier snacks. I stood under my umbrella and awaited the lead pack, who at 6 miles and about 45 minutes race time were expected soon.
Paul Giblin and his distinctive running style flew by in first place without breaking pace, followed by Robert Souter, Marco Consani and Mike Raffan closely after. After a three minute break the rest of the runners started dribbling through, but we weren’t hanging around and got quickly on the way to Drymen to rest before the crew change.
The dead-end road which the Way crosses at Drymen was already filled with cars, so we pulled in as close as we could. It was 03:00am when I slipped into the passenger seat and reclined it back as far as it would go to try and rest. My mind was going a mile a minute – the adrenaline from the race was surging through me and it was difficult to go into sleep mode, so I settled for just lying in the dark with my eyes closed. I gradually wound down and relaxed, but with the hubub of the race going on around me sleep was never going to happen. Every time a car roared past I got a fright from the noise and the lights shining into my car, but I kept my eyes closed tight and told myself to relax.
I heard a text message notification and sat up. It was 03:45am. I looked around me and all the cars were gone; what had been such a hive of activity was now eerily quiet in the hazy dawn light. The message was from Kynon; he reckoned they were about a mile out, but were walking with a likely DNF. I got out of the car and jumped about to try and wake up as I was very cold, whilst eating another half sandwich. I woke the boys up and we drove closer to the Way to await the arrival of the Crew, whilst speaking to the remaining runners’ support. He informed us that it was his Dad who was out there, but that his training had gone badly and he’d suffered from two chest infections this year so far. He didn’t look hopeful, but was diligently awaiting as instructed, clutching a Mullerice and a banana.
Kynon and Scott arrived in great spirits, but as soon as they took us aside they told us that they’d been walking behind the runner since mile 1.5. They let us know how he was feeling and what was going wrong, and then Neil spoke to the crew who was adamant that the runner was continuing regardless of how close he was going to get to the 6am cut-off at Balmaha.
At 0415am our runner left the checkpoint and headed off up the trail. Despite walking he was covering ground quickly enough and Alex and I followed about 20 feet behind, shooting the breeze on what had turned out to be a hazy, cloudy, but dry morning. Our runner got slower and slower and really struggled with the hills. We decided to get closer and see how he was doing, and he told us that he had last completed the race in 1997 but had had several DNFs since. He told the same story about his illnesses in the year so far and explained how his legs were giving him terrible bother.
He willed himself on, but I could see the frustration flicker across his face. I could tell that he was the kind of person that would rather DNF than DNS and would have started the race regardless of condition. Eventually he ground to a halt and we gently broached the subject of cut-off times. It was now 5:30am and we weren’t even on the approach to Conic Hill, and we had to be on the other side of it by 06:00am. It was agreed that he would pull out and that his support would come up from the road and meet him.
It was at this point that we were able to appreciate the priceless role that George Reid and Karen Donaghue were playing in the event. They were always ahead of the sweep crew by one check point and ready to come down the course at a minute’s notice to assist with a DNF to allow the sweepers to push on quickly to catch up with the next remaining runners. By this point there was such a gap that we called Neil and Mark who were ready and waiting to sweep stage 3, and told them to go as soon as the last runner came through as there was no way that we would be able to make up the time.
George and Karen looked after the runner and allowed us to finally stretch our legs with a run to Balmaha where they’d meet us. We merrily galloped through the last of the forest and down the track towards Conic, stopping only to take a couple of pictures.
The view was quite different from when I came through here during the Fling. The blue skies were well hidden and Conic Hill was cloaked in a thick cloud.
Here’s where George and Karen had been camping out with a flag until we called them.
A very misty descent back through the clouds led us down to Balmaha for 7am and in to the Oak Tree Inn which had opened especially for the occasion. Lots of race people and race crew were here, grabbing a cup of coffee, a bacon roll and some charge for their phones. I had some of my snacks, but kept off the coffee as I was hopeful for a snooze soon.
We shipped out about 7:45 and drove to Beinglas Farm where we would meet Marc and Neil after their epic lochside stint, and Graeme and I would take over. As soon as we parked up I had my seat reclined back and curled up on my side hugging a cushion. I needed no rocking at all this time as I slept for two delicious hours until 10:30am.
I had this feast for breakfast. That’s a buttery, dipped in Ambrosia Devon Custard, with a side of sour cola belts and a can of Coke.
We spent the next 2 hours pottering about Beinglas, talking to the other marshals and cheering on runners. There was lots of race gossip to catch up on including the news that Paul Giblin was absolutely tearing up the course and was on track to obliterate the course record.
It was warm, but the weather was extremely changeable. Every 5 minutes it would change from being sunny to pouring rain. The midgies were out in force so Deet-based products were being slathered on all exposed skin. Just before 1pm we greeted Marc and Neil who had been out for 7 hours along the lochside. They came in with three runners plus George and Karen and everyone seemed to be in good spirits. This was now over 12 hours of race time and 40 miles of running.
Kynon and I left Beinglas together at about 1pm and began the journey to Auchtertyre. You will perhaps note our unusual choice of headwear – peaked caps are excellent for keeping midgie-nets off your face when you’re walking/running. The WHW isn’t really a place for fashion.
I remember how barren this part of the Way was in April when I ran the Fling. To see all of the trees in full bloom and beautiful greenery everywhere was a pleasure. It started to get really warm and we were able to lose a few of our layers and enjoy our trek in the sunshine.
The runner we were with was fine, but he was going quite slowly. After a few miles we spent some time talking with him about the various pros and cons of the race check points; it was obvious that he wasn’t going to make the cut off in time unless he picked up the pace but that didn’t seem to bother him too much.
After a while I ran on to check on the other runners who were ahead and left Kynon to hold court at the back. I passed a couple of ladies who were doing fine until I found a lady sitting on a stile. She said she was DNFing and had called her support, but she was fine and didn’t need my help. Since she didn’t have a definite plan I decided I would stay with her until she was absolutely sure who was coming to get her and when. It was just as well I did as due to multiple phone calls with mixed messages and dodgy phone signals cutting out, the support were looking for her in the wrong place.
After she was collected, the next challenge was to get me caught up with the race. Further mixed information had meant that Race Control had intended that I was to be taken to the next check point by the runner’s support, but that message hadn’t got through so I was happily awaiting collection by George, who was in turn oblivious to this. After 10 minutes I called again to find out what was happening, and in the end one of the Trossachs Search and Rescue cars came to get me. When they turned up however, they thought I was the DNFing runner! Eventually I was taken further up the course where I got back on the Way and started running back towards Kynon who was still with the same runner, now on pace to be about 30 minutes late for the Auchtertyre cut off. At 4pm we had called the next sweep team to tell them to leave on time and we’d see the last runner in.
He’d been warned, and warned and warned; but still, it wasn’t pretty and he was not a happy individual. We were glad to be objective and not part of the race management, and just headed towards the car and the rest of the sweep team to make the next plan.
We headed to the Bridge of Orchy hotel with Neil and Mark and settled in for some serious R n R. I had a complete change of clothes and a baby-wipe wash in the bathroom and then enjoyed a box of mashed potato, baked beans and quorn sausages that I had prepared the day before. Paired with some freshly deep fried onion rings, a pint of lemonade and a sofa and I was fully refreshed. It was about 6pm and my next stint wasn’t until midnight so I had some time to recover.
We were just finished our food when a call from George notified us that a runner had collapsed outside Bridge of Orchy and that he needed help to stretcher him off the hill. The lads all scampered off, eager to help, but I stayed put, figuring I wouldn’t be much use in amongst a crowd of much stronger humans and I would probably just get in the way.
It had turned into a stunner of an evening and the sun was shining brightly. I realised that in my three years of crewing on the Way I had never seen the hills surrounding Bridge of Orchy as they’ve always been cloaked in thick cloud. Whilst we waited for the sweepers to re-appear I admired the beautiful landscape and was thankful to be out and about enjoying it.
Our next stop was Inveroran where Scott and Alex were ready to head out over Rannoch Moor. We parked both cars side by side with the windows down and sat and told silly jokes and told dirty tales. The tiredness was working in our favour; people’s humour was just getting silly, not dissolving and it felt like the group was really gelling.
The drive through Glencoe to the ski centre and the next check point is always breathtaking in it’s beauty. At the time of night the sun was pouring through gaps in the chunk clouds creating a beautiful effect on the hills. My phone camera couldn’t capture it, but a member of a support team called Jonathan Bellarby took this remarkable image looking down Glencoe at this time. The Way clings to the side of the Glen to the right and then goes up over the hills in the middle – over the fearsome Devil’s Staircase.
Picture by Jonathan Bellarby
Upon arrival at Glencoe we were able to catch up with our friends in the big red fire rescue truck and share another cup of coffee. People’s races were starting to get tough here, light was fading and the runners were facing their second night on the trail.
We set up in the ski cafe to charge phones and Garmins and settled down for a couple of hours. There was much amusement however, when a young deer came along to hang out!
He quite contentedly wandered around the support vehicles, cheekily asking for snacks and gently taking them from hands.
I passed the time looking at Facebook and marveling at the athletic performances which had been unleashed. Paul Giblin had destroyed the course record in 15hrs and 7 minutes, taking 35 minutes off Terry Conway’s record set the previous year. The people who we would be finishing the race with would take more than double that time to complete the course which is a hard thing to get your head around at times.
The toughest part of the weekend ended up not being anything to do with the running or walking, but in fact it was the hours of waiting around which provided the biggest challenge. The final runners and the sweepers arrived at Glencoe around 11pm, but it was closer to Midnight before we were able to leave with the last runner, who had spent the intervening time shut in his van vomiting.
The temperature had dropped considerably when darkness fell and there was a wicked wind screaming down the Glen that cut right through everything I had on. Memories of the near-hypothermic state I ended up in last year on the Saturday night reminded me that there probably was no such thing as wearing too much clothes. We would be moving very slowly for several hours; not quickly enough to keep our body temperatures up without a lot of extra help, so I re-dressed with extra layers. I believe the sum total was three long sleeve tops, a thick waterproof running jacket, my crew jacket and a waterproof/windproof anorak over the top. Running tights with compression knee-socks on over the top on my bottom half, and associated hats, buffs and gloves to keep the peripherals warm. I felt cosy, but not too hot.
I was covering the next section to Kinlochleven with Neil. We checked all of the parked vehicles for sleeping runners/crew until we were sure that we just had our final runner remaining. We spoke to his crew and I realised I actually knew the guy in question; unfortunately he was not feeling very well at all. His crew said he’d be on the move soon, but that he’d prefer if we weren’t breathing down his neck so could we keep our distance. At just before midnight we finally departed and headed into the darkness, head torches switched off as between the last glimmer of daylight and the moon they were not required.
Neil and I stayed about 100 meters behind the runner and his support runner and chatted about running stuff to pass the time. Despite the thick cloud it was still beautiful to walk through the Glen in the deepest part of the night; when else would you get the opportunity to do something like this? The runner’s crew met him at the Kingshouse Hotel and forced him to eat some more; despite his stomach troubles he seemed to be moving at a fair clip across the flat terrain.
The Kingshouse Hotel seemed quiet on the outside, but we passed around the back which had a door open into the bar where there were some smokers. It was such a strange juxtaposition – the silence and tranquility of Glencoe at 1am, and a bar stuffed to the gunnels with people having a rager. It was getting to the point in the race where real life seems weird and a distant memory; tiredness does strange things to the mind and to me at that time, partying and having some beer seemed very obscure.
The runners support met him once more at Altnafeadh, just before we began the ascent of the Devil’s Staircase. We let him get a little head start and then followed after, but we had caught up in moments. The incline was proving to be a real challenge for the runner and as expected, it was a very slow journey up. We followed in silence, stepping quietly behind and halting every few seconds when he did. Every so often the incline would almost cause the runner to over-balance and I put my hands out to attempt to catch him should he fall backwards. For over two hours we didn’t say a word, the runner and his support were silent and the only sound was four pairs of feet moving forwards slowly, inch by inch.
The tiredness was becoming almost disabling. In the darkness and moving so slowly, I felt myself falling asleep on my feet. Every time we paused, my eyes would slide shut and I’d almost drift off but then force myself awake before I fell over. It was a most unnerving feeling and before long it felt like I was having an out of body experience and I was aware of myself making my way up the hill but not particularly conscious of it. This year’s hallucinations were not as cool as last year’s peacocks and dogs, but I was convinced there were wrapped Christmas gifts by the side of the trail, and kept on seeing rubbish that wasn’t there.
We eventually reached the Wilderness Response Team tent which was being staffed by two cold and tired chaps who were very glad to see us so they could pack up and go home. They would have been on that hill since about 12pm the previous day, providing cheery smiles and care if required in one of the most remote parts of the course. By now it was getting light and the headtorches were turned off again. We were now closer to Kinlochleven and were witness to a spectacular cloud inversion which saw us looking down upon thick mists in the valleys below.
Once again we were met by George and Karen who were waiting about 2 miles out of Kinlochleven. We all sat down and had a rest and some food and assessed how the runner was doing; he looked completely out of it and was going to need some serious TLC at Kinlochleven if he was going to continue. It was 4am so he had enough time to get going, but he certainly couldn’t hang around as the checkpoint closed at 5. Karen and I decided to run down and speak to the support to keep them in the picture and get them ready to receive him for a fast turn around, whilst George and Neil got the runner going again and down the hill as soon as possible.
Karen and I took off and ran our fastest miles of the weekend downhill through the clouds and into the town. When I entered the leisure centre everyone looked up in hope of seeing the last runner, but instead they were treated to a sweaty zombie sweeper – my 6 layers of clothes were less of a good idea for 25 minutes of sprinting. Kynon and Julie came up and talked to me; but I don’t remember what they said. The rest of the sweep team had been here since about 1am and had all got a few hours sleep in the gym hall; passing out on one of those mattresses was all I could think of. I clocked an empty one and saw that the race Doctor was starting to pack up his stuff in the hall – sleepy logic dictated that if I managed to get on that mattress then he wouldn’t be able to move it. I stripped off five of my six layers, dumped them and my camelbak on a sofa and grabbed Kynon’s sleeping bag. I wondered briefly if I ought to ask permission but then realised I wasn’t capable of speech so just staggered towards the mattress and flumped on my side. I was asleep before I even had the chance to pull the sleeping bag over me.
An hour later and Kynon is desperately trying to wake me up without physically shaking me – he and Julie have been trying to figure out whose responsibility it is to remove the comatose sweepers from the hall so that they can close the check point. It was decided that Kynon had assumed those duties when he put a ring on my finger last year so he had bravely ventured into the gym hall where I was doing a very convincing impression of a chainsaw. I’m known for sleeping particularly deeply (example HERE) so it was always going to be quite a task to get me conscious again, especially on this occasion. I don’t really remember anything else from Kinlochleven other than seeing Neil completely passed out on a sofa and thinking it was good that he’d got some rest as well.
The final runner had left Kinlochleven with time to spare and had headed off with Marc and Alex. Neil, Scott, Kynon and I headed to the outskirts of Fort William to sleep some more before Neil would drive Scott and Kynon up to take the final shift from Lundavra to the finish. We managed a further power snooze of about an hour and a half before it was time to go; in the intervening time the runner that we had escorted over the Devil had unfortunately pulled out and a good friend, Minty, had collapsed just outside Lundavra and hit his head hard. The race takes no prisoners and it will eat you alive if you’re not tough enough. Minty kept going and went on to finish his first West Highland Way Race in 27hrs 26 minutes.
Neil left about 07:15 to drive the final sweepers up to Lundavra and I contemplated the race journey so far and made some blog notes. It is always the most amazing experience, but it is the most extreme test of mental endurance I face each year. One year soon I will take a break and run the race instead – I’m told so frequently that running the race is far less stressful than crewing!
With the final sweepers on the way with a trio of cheerful runners who were definitely going to finish, Marc, Scott, Neil and I departed to Morrisons at 08:00am to get a hot breakfast. The fact that we all stared blankly at the food menu in the supermarket for a good 5 minutes trying to figure out what we wanted and how to order is telling of the mental state we were in. After eating our plates of sausages, beans and eggs washed down with toast and coffee, we decided to wander around Ellis Brigham Mountain Sports to fill in some time. The race was expected to finish about 11am and we headed up to the finish about 10:30am and caught up with the race HQ and assorted others hanging around.
I watched a few runners come in and got that familiar feeling of the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end when I saw them greeted by their families who were simply bursting with pride. A few of the highly placed finishers and their families had come down to watch the last runners come in as well, which speaks volumes about the inclusive, ‘family’ feel of the event. Everyone looks out for one another, fast and slow, and the camaraderie between runners is incredible. I heard someone compare it to the camaraderie he had experienced in his time in the Armed forces which he hadn’t seen anywhere else in civilian life.
At 11:04 am, the last runner crossed the line with Scott. Kynon followed not long after, having stopped to help a support runner who had hurt her back. He crossed the line, shook Ian’s hand and declared the course to be clear – the race was done! After a quick change we all departed to the Nevis Centre hall for the prizegiving which was bursting at the seams with runners and their supporters. There had to be well over 500 people in that hall and the applause for everyone’s achievements was deafening.
Paul Giblin received a standing ovation for his record breaking run. I cheered extra loudly for Mike who continues to improve and this year came 6th in a time of 18hrs 18 mins. There were huge cheers for those who had completed their tenth race and the biggest cheer (and another standing ovation) went to Gareth Bryan-Jones who at the age of SEVENTY completed the race in 26 hours and 15 minutes.
I came away from the ceremony emotionally charged and inspired. Being a part of this race keeps me hungry for more and encourages me to push myself further every time I train, in the hope that one day soon I will also be able to earn my own crystal goblet. As ever, it’s not a young persons race and competitors under the age of 30 are rare – there were only 5 female finishers in the F Senior category which extends to the age of 39.
The rest of the day saw us checking into our accommodation and groaning in delight as we lay down on the soft beds. I had the best shower of my life and then enjoyed a couple of bottles of beer with my feet up whilst de-briefing with the rest of the gang. We headed to the after-party at 8pm and proceeded to drink the Ben Nevis bar dry until we got kicked out at 1am.
I lost count of the amount of people who asked me if I was running the race next year, including race directer Ian Beattie, who opened our conversation with “So I’ll be awarding you a goblet this time this year then, will I?”. To this I say: I don’t know, but I don’t think so. If it weren’t for the wedding and the honeymoon I might be thinking differently, but they fall at a time next year when training would need to be at its peak. As I said above, the race takes no prisoners; I am not going into this less than 100% prepared and I will not attempt to wing it – I have far too much respect for this race. At times I struggled in the Fling, so I know I can, and need to, get stronger.
Goals are good. Long term goals are even better, and from here I can see the next two years’ training shaping up very nicely. I will not be putting my name in the hat for the 2014 WHW Race ballot, but from now on every mile I run will be one mile closer to Milngavie Railway station in 2015. I will stand in the crowd on Midsummer’s night once more, but this time as a runner. I will listen to Ian give his briefing, before taking my place at the start and awaiting the horn and running up the High Street in to the darkness and the unknown adventure of the fabled 95 miles. It will be a long hard journey over the next two years to get there, but the goal has been set and the work starts now.